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.
Among professional photographers, there are both old-school photographers with film cameras and digital enthusiasts with modern DSLRs. Each of them will give you 1,000 and 1 convincing facts about using this or that camera. In practice, everything is much more prosaic. When comparing film vs. digital cameras, there is no clear favorite. The fact that they are fundamentally different devices and are used situationally. In this article, we will tell you about the difference between film and digital cameras, as well as tell you about their advantages and disadvantages.
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 DSLRs, 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 between digital vs. film cameras. In this article, we’ll examine some of the real pros and cons of both technologies.
Difference Between Film and Digital
In practice, the difference between film and digital cameras is very significant. They differ in:
- the shooting principle;
- the method of photo processing;
- the number of available frames;
- the mechanism of photo storage;
- additional algorithms for working with images;
- cost of devices and accessories;
- the complexity of service;
- image quality;
- duration of the operation.
These are generalized differences. If you dig a little deeper, the difference becomes even more obvious. Nevertheless, both options have advantages and disadvantages, which we will consider in more detail.
Pros and cons of film photography
Traditional film cameras are valued by experts even now, despite the abundance of affordable, mid-budget, and premium digital devices. This is in spite of the fact that film photographers need a lot of quality film and photo lab equipment to work. There can be problems with the latter because it is difficult to assemble a lab at home, and third-party services are quite expensive (and of questionable quality).
The pros of film apparatuses include:
- high dynamic range;
- control over the amount of light captured;
- high image quality;
- decent resolution of the film;
- no batteries;
- low cost of cameras.
Skills go here as well. Because of the limited number of shots and the impossibility to check their quality at once, the photographer must be able to handle such equipment to shoot a high-quality film.
The cons of film cameras include:
- the long wait for the result of the shooting;
- the cost of film and components to work with it;
- the limitation of frames to the length of the film;
- dependence of quality on the type of film;
- the need for developing and chemical processing of photos;
- speed of shooting.
Undoubtedly, there are adherents of traditional film photography who reject the listed disadvantages. And they are right in some respects. Despite the obvious drawbacks, such photography requires a more balanced approach and creativity than when working with digital cameras. That is why anyone who knows how to work with such equipment can be called a professional.
Pros and Cons of Digital Photography
There has been an active debate in the confrontation between film and digital photography in recent years. The difference in digital and film shooting quality, dynamic range, and settings has practically vanished. This means that a digital photo can now fully compete with film versions. Accordingly, digital technology offers several advantages in the objective comparison of film vs. digital photography. Let's look at them in more detail.
The main pros of digital photography include:
- high-quality digital photography;
- lightning-fast browsing of images;
- large frame reserve thanks to memory card support;
- the ability to take pictures "on the fly";
- a wide choice of devices according to characteristics and budget;
- high speed of photo processing;
- huge selection of lenses, flashes, and other accessories;
- ease of use of equipment and software for working with frames.
In terms of software support for different types of photography, digital technology has the advantage. Therefore, in terms of convenience, the confrontation between film cameras vs. digital cameras ends up being 0:1 in favor of modern cameras. The same applies to the cost of accessories. Memory cards and software cost less than film and it's processed in special studios.
Digital cameras have a wide range of models, from $50 to $40,000+ top-of-the-line solutions, making amateur filming more affordable and professional filming more status-oriented.
The cons of digital cameras:
- high cost of equipment;
- limited dynamic range;
- a huge range of models with hundreds of variants;
- the high cost of the camera when comparing film vs. digital;
- specific requirements for the shooting environment;
- the need for interchangeable power sources;
- the high rate of obsolescence of devices;
- many "extra" frames after the session.
The listed disadvantages may make it seem that in comparing film photography vs. digital, the first option wins, but that's not quite true. Digital cameras forgive mistakes, which levels out the rest of the disadvantages.
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 Neo 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. Therefore, there is no clear leader in the film grain vs. digital noise competition. 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 in the analogue vs. digital confrontation 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!