Which is better, film or digital photography? If you are still asking yourself that question, here are some down-to-earth comparisons to help you decide.
Since digital imaging became available as an alternative to film photography, there have been differences of opinion on which medium is better. More than a couple of decades later, people still choose sides on the issue. Modern DSLR, compact digital and mirrorless cameras as well as processing software are light years beyond those early digital devices. Despite that, there still are a great number of enthusiasts that prefer film.
The fact is, there are some legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of the debate. In this article, we’ll examine some of the real pros and cons of both technologies.
The Artistic Argument
Before we start discussing physical differences, let’s cover the argument that’s based mostly on feelings. There are a great many photography lovers that dislike digital photography because it has made image manipulation and enhancement much easier. By the standards of those individuals, film photography is a more genuine process, artistically speaking.
There is some merit to this stand. It’s true that some of today’s photographers might not create such striking images without the tools that digital imaging has provided. On the other hand, many of us who learned to create beautiful images via film and the darkroom have welcomed these technologies. They’ve made photographic processes much easier and provided more creative freedom. It’s possible to create authentic images and still appreciate being able to process them quickly in Luminar rather than spending hours in a darkroom.
Unfortunately, there’s no real way to resolve this particular argument. It’s a matter of agreeing to disagree. Now, let’s look at some of the real-world differences in the media.
Grain and Noise
One of the considerations for any photographic medium is the appearance of grain in the images. In film, this is dependent on the number and dispersion of actual grains in the emulsion. Digital camera sensors produce noise as a result of fluctuations in photoelectrical signals.
Both film and digital produce more grain at higher ISO settings/ratings. Digital noise tends to increase with exposure time, while film grain isn’t generally affected. In analog photography, ISO changes require a change of film. Digital cameras allow ISO simple ISO sensitivity adjustments.
While we’re on the subject of sensitivity, it’s worth mentioning that ISO sensitivity can be adjusted far higher in digital devices than film is capable of. Commonly available films reach their maximum speed at ISO1600. Today’s digital cameras are capable of ISO sensitivity up to 4,560,000.
While that would seem to be a win for the digital side, the usefulness of images taken at very high ISO settings must be taken into account. Noise levels will be extremely high in those images.
For many photographers, the ability to produce large prints with good quality is a major consideration. This is greatly impacted by the size of the sensor or film in the camera, the quality of optics and the effective pixel count within the frame.
Full-frame digital sensors are roughly the same size as a 35mm film frame. Recent full-frame digital cameras claim to closely match film resolution with 20+ megapixel resolution. This is difficult to determine, however, because of the number of factors that can affect image resolution in both mediums.
Larger format cameras are more commonplace in the film industry and much larger prints can be made from the corresponding negative sizes with good quality. While some digital camera bodies exist in the 4cm x 5cm format, these are generally too expensive for the average photographer.
Dust and Dirt
Dust inside a camera can be a problem for both media types. On a digital sensor, impurities cause unwanted spots in an image. Cleaning the sensor is a delicate process that can cause permanent damage if improperly done. In a film camera, a dirt speck in the film plane can scratch an entire roll of film.
Within certain pursuits, such as evidence gathering, images created on film are more difficult to manipulate. This can leave the validity of a digital image open to debate in some instances. Most law enforcement agencies, however, use digital images along with software that records any manipulation of a file. The records from this process are widely accepted in court proceedings.
It would be difficult to debate the convenience of digital imaging over film. In fact, that’s the primary reason for the popularity of the medium.
Today, digital images are stored on reusable, compact media that allows multiple copies to be distributed immediately. Many digital cameras include wi-fi connectivity that allows photos to be sent directly to a computer or shared on social networks within minutes of taking them. Backup files are easily created.
In comparison, film images must be developed, then printed, or scanned to be used as digital files. Making multiple copies increases time and costs. Negatives, slides and prints require special archival processes to age well.
In general, film SLR cameras are much less expensive in today’s market. Even with typical processing costs added, digital photography is the more expensive pursuit. DSLR and mirrorless cameras can cost well into the multiple thousands of dollars and professional lenses for those may set you back much more.
On the other hand, film manufacturing costs are rising and developing labs are becoming scarcer. Analog photo equipment is also harder to find. It’s not unthinkable that the cost of film equipment and processing may one day be prohibitive.
This is not a complete list of comparisons. For the average photo enthusiast, however, it should help determine which type of equipment best suits your interests and style. No matter which medium you choose, remember that photography is all about fun, imagination and creativity!