Why Digital Is Better Than Film

Why Digital Is Better Than Film

Painting is an art form. So are music, prose, and dance. No one argues otherwise. But photography, since its very inception, has had to justify itself as a legitimate art form.


One argument against photography was the case that it had no aura. Here, aura was defined as a "unique position in time and space." You only have one of a painting or one of a carved sculpture. There is only one original of the Mona Lisa. There is only one original David by Michelangelo. 

The Case for Context

This argument for aura is not contemporaneous. Think about it: sure, there’s only one original Mona Lisa, but through technology, we have all been able to "see" the Mona Lisa through digital and reproduced images.

Similarly, with music or performance, it may have been the case that a piece was performed for a particular audience at a particular time. But with audio players and video recorders, a performance can be experienced over and over on many different devices.

Sure, there is always some sort of "original," but that’s almost a moot point. If I’ve experienced the thing, I’ve experienced the thing. Does the original even matter? Perhaps it does or doesn’t, but that’s a much more prolonged discussion.

Critic John Berger instead argues that a work of art is special precisely because it can be replicated. Now, instead of going to an art gallery and experiencing a work in a particular context of said gallery, you can see it anywhere.

Imagine someone who lives in an urban environment viewing an image of a natural landscape on their computer in their home. Now, imagine a different someone who lives in the country viewing the same landscape. The dissimilar experiences and the different contexts each person is viewing the work in change the work for each viewer.

Theoretical what-ifs aside, let’s try this as an exercise. I’d like for you to view the image below and then view your surroundings. How do you feel about the two together, the image and the space you are viewing it in? 

Consider bookmarking this page and coming back to it when you are somewhere else. If you are out and about right now, consider viewing the above image when you are at home. Or, if you are at home, consider viewing it next time you are out somewhere.

This is precisely the unarguable case against the idea of a singular artwork or original. That is to say, being able to have viewership of a work by different people in different contexts is exactly what makes a thing special. This is vastly exacerbated by digital technology and smartphones: all of a sudden, anyone can view anything anywhere.


Historically, context was ingrained into the work itself. With consideration to European art, most works were commissioned either by religious institutions or by the wealthy elite. In either case, the works were painted or sculpted to be viewed within a singular context. A painting in a room was painted to be viewed in that room and nowhere else. No one saw it unless they went to that one room in that one building. Now, you can see almost anything anywhere; that changes how that thing is viewed.

Ali Choudhry's picture

Ali Choudhry is a photographer in Australia. His photographic practice aims to explore the relationship with the self, between the other, and the world. Through use of minimalist compositions and selective use of color and form he aims to invoke what he calls the "breath". He is currently working towards a BA (Honours) in Photography.

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You can't change how it's viewed or where it's viewed. You describe works of art from very old historical times. Let's not forget that the Population, Ease of Travel, Modern Times Marketing, and Technology play a huge role in how and where images are viewed, and interpreted by today's viewers!

I think you skipped your argument against film. Unless wide spread viewing of digital work in different contexts and locations is your point. In that case,. your point is moot. Historically, to use your word, film was not like a painting. Multiple prints of various sizes could be made. They could be displayed in various locations. Reproduced in a variety of magazines around the world. They could be used as editorial photos to support wide ranging articles. Used like that, they could help tell a different story from what the photographer originally wanted to say/show. And today they can be digitally reproduced and used/viewed like work that starts off in digital format.

I agree that digital is superior to film, but it's all about your photography style. Die hard purist and naturalist may prefer film because the image can't be altered. What you see is what you get, therefore it's authentic from day one. Whereas people who love to create original works, or demand the highest quality may prefer digital. That way it can be altered or tailored to ones personal tastes. Overall, film paved the way for digital. With one, we wouldn't have the other.

An argument could be made that images taken with CCD sensors are superior to those taken with CMOS sensors.

<because the image can't be altered> - haha, tell THAT to Ansel Adams.

or jerry uelsmann

Remind me again of an example of how Ansel Adams "altered" his images, please?

Via editing. Any outside influence to change the appearance of the original photo as seen when shot is an alteration.

Oh! Do you mean he "edited" a scanned image of his negatives on a computer? Yeah, I don't think so! He burned and dodged during the wet printing process as he planned to via the use of the Zone System he invented (you should look it up, it will help you in your digital adventures as well). "The original photo," in his case, was the negative. Of which he created solely for the purpose of the wet print he envisioned while he was at the location. By itself, the negative is not "the original photo." "The original photo" is his vision of the wet print he conceived before the original exposure (so he can make adjustments, mainly along the lines of contrast control).

"Photo editing" was done by magazines, etc., during those years. It consisted of cut/paste/heavy filtering of prints and creating a copy negative (or positive in the case of a magazine). Creative contrast control in the darkroom wet print isn't regarded as "editing" but as fine art as the "original" is the one-of-a-kind wet print (as each one, even when making a series, was slightly different).

The original image is captured by the camera, not someone's vision. His vision may or may not be the same vision as viewed by others. It's just that...his vision, the camera does not distinguish anyone's vision. It just captures what the photographer is composing. Burning and dodging are indeed altering any original image. Doing over 50 years of photography I do believe what I have said. ANY thing that is done to an image captured via a camera IS an alteration. And that’s with a distinct PERIOD.

First you say "...the original photo as seen when shot is an alteration."

Then: "The original image is captured by the camera, not someone's vision."

These are contrary statements. So which is it?

I also have been doing photography for 50 years, and I also stand by my assertion that creative contrast control via the zone system (and subsequent development) and "editing" (your word) are indeed two distinctively different things. To justify sky replacement because Ansel Adams "edited" his images as well, is, well, the height of moronic sophistry. And I've seen such justifications in articles from contributors on this very website.

Let's just agree that the negative is analogous to the raw file (even though that is tenuous as well because the negative can be altered by development and the raw file after in-camera adjustments).

Under your definition of "editing", does the act of putting a filter on your lens barrel constitute "editing"? (...oh don't get me started about the overuse of grads!)

And I'm still waiting for an example of how Ansel Adams "altered" his images...

Well...someone's vision does not capture an image, the camera does. And yes, technically putting a filter on a lens will alter the original image as seen by the viewers eyes, unless it's a clear filter. Remember, what is...is. The reality of what one's eyes see is just that...reality. any change to the original image via any means is an alteration. Don't know why that is so difficult to understand. Oh, where did I say...'the original photo as seen when shot is an alteration'? I can't find it.
You also commented...'Remind me again of an example of how Ansel Adams "altered" his images." Well...in the darkroom by burning, dodging, etc. All forms of alterations. So....

"Via editing. Any outside influence to change the appearance of the original photo as seen when shot is an alteration"

"The original image is captured by the camera, not someone's vision."

"And yes, technically putting a filter on a lens will alter the original image as seen by the viewers eyes, unless it's a clear filter."

Hahaha, "as seen when shot", ...a "clear" filter...

So is the "original image" in the mind of the beholder or in the camera? You seem to vacillate between the two...

What if I told you I can look at a scene and "know" what an IR B&W image will look like? Where's "the original image" then, eh?

Ok, yeah, we're done here.


The original image is what your EYES see. Not an IR filter or film. Take film...you know we have Velvia film. Does it alter the original image as YOUR EYES SEE IT? Yes it does. Here's how, man made the film specifically to give more vivid and warm tones to the image. We all know that, but was that what your eyes truly saw? No. So where does the truth lie? With the reality of what YOU see. As for people with color blindness, the true image hasn't changed, just their perception of it. And they, knowing they are color blind, understand that what they are seeing is not exactly true. I can look at any scene all day long and know what it will look like in IR or B&W, but it doesn't change how the scene truly looks. I understand about all the films, digital uses and other things to create the effects you want, but the true image is what YOUR eyes saw before taking the photo. That's all I'm saying.
Maybe this will help...go out and look at a scene. Then take a photo of it in IR. Hold the image in your camera up to the scene you see. Do they look exactly the same? Of course not. Using the IR filter/film has changed the look of the original scene. That's all I'm saying.

"Remind me again of an example of how Ansel Adams "altered" his images, please?"

Just look at the roughly 1,500 prints he made of 'Moonrise, Hernandez, NM' from 1941 when he took the photo through the 1970s. There is an astounding variety that moves from his original results to what he ultimately seemed to be looking for. At one point in the 1950s he even chemically altered the negative to get it closer to what his vision for the finished results should be.

"Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.“ - Ansel Adams

Although I applaud your somewhat impressive google-fu, these are merely different prints made from the same negative. A negative he created without time to properly meter it. So how was the image "altered" or "edited"? Did he do sky replacement? Did he change any elements in the original negative? Did he hide telephone poles? Get rid of a highway? Was the moon from another image? No. That was the scene and lighting in front of his large format camera at the time. (side note: He saw the scene while he was driving, quickly pulled over, and set up his camera as the sun was setting to his right. He couldn't find his meter, so he exposed for a known value: the moon's luminance).

By the way, each image could be considered an "original" artwork as they were created in the darkroom individually and are obviously different. So each one of those is an "original image" that cannot be copied.

He did bathe the lower one-third of the negative in Kodak IN-5 intensifier several years after making the initial prints. Do you you not consider that "altering" the negative?

The fact that the series of prints he made between the early 1940s and the 1970s moved in a single direction is telling. The scene he envisioned when he stopped to take the photo was not realized until he had experimented and altered his printing processes for two and one-half decades as each successive print moved incrementally from the earliest versions to the definitive ones he produced from around 1967-68 until his death. It took him that long to "find" the way to produce what he had visualized when he decided to record the scene.

Adams' own grandson, Matthew, says that Ansel was never satisfied with the prints for almost 40 years after he took the photo on November 1, 1941. Many recognized experts on Adams' life and works say that the progression of prints of "Moonrise..." is a microcosm of the second half of Adams' career in which he continually experimented and improved his darkroom methods.

If you don't want to believe me, then how about listening to it from the horses mouth?

"I don't know whether it is subject or whether it's just the mood or the combination of... composition, the tonal values... It's not... my picture isn't real in the sense of tone... it's real optically, but its much richer and deeper... value."

At 6:34 and following you can see the "script" Adams used to do the last prints of "Hernandez..." in 1980. It's nine steps on the first page alone of turning the enlarger light on and off as various sections of the negative are masked, dodged, and burned. That's not exactly a contact print.


Exposed film frame and RAW files are exactly the same only the film frame has to be processed to have any value or preview. After that you enlarge or scan the film frame. This said, you would get a preview by shooting a polaroid before inserting the roll of film, back or holder. And then you could alter your film chemically during processing and even expose the film with the intension of gaining some creative form from the bath and you could cross process too. During exposure you could do all kind of things like using a filter and so on. A RAW is the same way unusable until processed which first requires a preview. From there, you can enlarge and do all kinds of things with your film to create a printed image or a scan. Film is 100% same as Raw. There is nothing like looking at a perfectly exposed and processed 8x10 sheet of chrome on a light table.

Plenty of film photographers would argue that film produces a superior image, especially as a print - it's not just about sharpness and resolution. Also, manipulating film photographs is something that went on long before digital photography came about. Ansel Adams as mentioned by someone else is possibly the best example of this where he used his own technique on his photos to create a print in his vision. Also, before Photoshop people would paint over portrait photos to get rid of imperfections. Besides, no camera can accurately take an authentic photograph of a place exactly as you saw it. There really is no definitive answer to whether digital is better than film or not, only personal opinion.

The title of the article doesn't seem to have anything to to do with the article, it's like it was edited and some critical paragraphs deleted. ¯\_ (ツ)_/¯ ...and I went to art school!

I was all over the place...you might be right. :)

What does the headline have to do with the article? Where is the article for which the headline was created?


I was all set for a good read, a fully developed discussion. Instead I found what seems to be a truncated article, oddly cut off before it made some important points, and before it fully developed the one point it did make. It's like the author was planning to write a really in-depth article on this topic but suddenly got distracted so he just wrapped it up before he said all the things that needed to be said.




This argument just needs to end.


Obviously done for the sheer click-bait of the title, but the author doesn't even show he understands anything about photography, let alone any other artform.

"sure, there’s only one original Mona Lisa, but through technology, we have all been able to "see" the Mona Lisa through digital and reproduced images."

Yeah, sure, seeing a photo of the painting on my phone is "just like being there". Who writes this stuff in *any* context? Seriously, is there an editor in the house?

Go pixel-peep a high resolution (you know, a large format film negative drum scanned to NASA resolutions) image of a wall sized Jackson Pollack painting on the biggest screen you can get a hold of, and then go to the Met and have a look at the real one, denote the differences, and get back to us... (I'm sure we'll all be waiting for your report with bated breath!)

Shoot foveon... Done

Oh please, not this again. Who cares.