Digital Versus Film Photography: Think One Is Better? Think Again

Digital Versus Film Photography: Think One Is Better? Think Again

In many ways, digital photography is not on the same level as film photography. In many others, film cannot compete with digital.

Where Digital Photography Is Better

To start, the resolution of 35mm film cannot compete with modern digital sensors. The grain of film is unmistakable, and in particular circumstances, could be considered obtrusive. The fact of the matter is that just about anyone who reads this understands, knows, and believes in the benefits of modern technology currently available in newer digital cameras. While my original Sony a7 (still going strong) is only a humble 24 MP, the Sony a7R IV has a whopping 61 MP. I doubt very seriously there is a 35mm film out there that could come close, even with drum scans and slide film. I’ve been told the digital equivalence for most films are between 15 MP and 20 MP when shot in 35mm format, where some slide film stocks can creep up into the 20s, tapping out before 25 MP (though, admittedly, I do not have a citation for this).

Aside from image quality, one relatively important consideration is the per-image cost between the two. At the time of writing, the going rate of mailing in and developing a single roll of film with the Darkroom Lab is $18 (plus an additional $3 if you’re shooting slide), which for 36 images on a roll, has a resulting cost of 50 cents a frame. At this pricing, after 4,000 frames, you would have been able to buy a brand-new Sony a7 III (assuming a current non-sale price of $2,000). For some people who find themselves shooting hundreds of frames every shoot or a thousand or so frames every vacation, it is a non-starter. It should be noted that in this comparison, I’m assuming a $0 cost of the film camera, which is a bit unreasonable, along with only mailing out one roll at a time instead of multiples at once.

Perhaps the biggest benefit for me to shooting digital is ISO capability. For a time, when I didn’t live in central Ohio, I was into astrophotography, and while I tried it with film a couple times, I never got any decent results. My Sony, on the other hand, could easily pump out some photographs I was really happy with. There are articles out there that provide examples of high ISO work with medium format film, and in some cases, it’s quite good. In general, however, high ISO films or standard ISO films pushed to high ISO can look quite bad.

On a technical level, I struggle to find solid reasoning to shoot 35mm film most of the time. With that said, however, most people who shoot 35mm film do not do so because they think that it is technically better. That may well have been the case in the early 2000s, when the latest and greatest digital cameras were still quite disappointing. In today’s world, though, digital cameras are efficient, relatively inexpensive, and with any sort of decent lens, capable of making better large prints than 35mm film is capable of. Instead, most of the film photographers that I know are well aware of this and shoot film anyhow. Indeed, most film photographers own both a digital camera in addition to their film camera, because they believe that there is a vibe to film that cannot be emulated in digital photographs.

Where Film Photography is Better

The more prominent advantage that film has over digital is in the availability and affordability of medium and large format. I don’t know anyone that has tried medium format and did not find it addictive, particularly when used to take portraits or shooting slide film. In my experience, many people are aware of and think there is a big difference in the quality of a photograph between a crop sensor and full frame format, and full frame is much more capable of producing shallower depth of field. Much in the same way, there is a spectacular depth of field improvement as you move up from full frame into medium and large format. In 645 format, the depth of field just shrinks and even more so, when shooting 67 format film, where the depth of field is just unreal. Using an RB67, which can take advantage of bellows, shooting with a 180mm f/4.5 (equivalent to a 90mm f/2.2 in full frame) at f/11, everything is so incredibly sharp, and the resulting images are just beautiful. 

While price per photograph can tend to favor the digital camera, all manual lens offerings for film cameras are plentiful and generally quite affordable. As such, being able have an expansive lens offering without breaking the bank can be considered a real plus. In addition, for newer film cameras that utilize autofocus technology (weird to consider that a more modern technology, but with respect to many film cameras, it is definitely modern relative to many older film cameras), you can use brand new lenses.  

Where the Differences Are Stark, but the Benefit Is Less Clear

As you may recall from my article on shooting double exposures (a.k.a., multiple exposures), film handles light in a considerably different way. In brief, sensors respond to light in a linear fashion; that is, there is a one-to-one relationship between exposure and response. Film, on the other hand, responds to light in a logarithmic fashion, as evidenced by reciprocity failure. As a result, it is much more difficult to get blown out highlights in film compared with digital. That said, much like how there are varieties of film with a wide array of characteristics, different digital sensors have varying capabilities, and while I cannot substantiate any such claim, I have heard that some of the most recent digital sensors have a dynamic range similar to that of film. I expect that may well be true for some films, however, every film has it own dynamic range. Most notably, Kodak Portra 400 and Fujifilm Pro 400H are well known for having loads and loads of dynamic range, and I’ve not heard or seen anything to support digital sensors matching their capability. 

I know that I’ve already brought up the per-image cost of film and digital, but for many people, the tradeoff isn’t so clear cut. On one hand, you can pick up a medium format camera for a few hundred dollars (take, for example, the Mamiya RB67, which can easily be found for $300), and even on the upper end of film and development cost (assuming a $15 roll of film and $15 development cost, both of which can be brought down considerably by shooting black and white and developing at home), you can still shoot 57 rolls of film before you’ve reached the $2,000 cost of a new Sony a7 III. At 10 shots a roll, that’s 570 medium format images. For someone unsure about whether or not they would be interested in photography and film photography more specifically, the startup cost is considerably lower for a film kit compared with most digital kits. Further, for many film cameras, the value of the cameras and lenses have been on a steady increase over the past few years and could be considered a reasonable investment. 

In the end, it all comes down to preference. I own a digital camera as well as multiple film cameras, and I love and use them all. I am under the belief that cameras are merely tools, and as such, as is often the case, there is a proper tool for every job.

What are your thoughts? Do you have experiences with both mediums? Do you have thoughts on whether or not one is better than the other?

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78 Comments

I love the tactile feel of it. Opening the cardboard box. Unwrapping the foil packaging. Loading the film. Advancing it. I love the smell of a dark room.
Digital has it's place and that's all I shoot on anymore, but it's really not the same art form. You can just review your exposures instantly and adjust accordingly. With film you have to have knowledge, skill and experience. It's very different.

James Madison's picture

Love the smell of the darkroom? haha. I love making prints but the smell of the chemicals is the only thing that holds me back from doing it more. You don't shoot film at all anymore?

Been decades.

James Madison's picture

Decades, huh? Sounds like a long time to go without something you love! Perhaps you should shoot through a roll.

Also here. The smell of darkroom is amazing. The only reason I don’t shot film, is because I need to be in the right mood to rebuild my darkroom.

I used to like rotary phone. Nice clicking sound while you dial. :)

Ryszard Błogowski's picture

Digital is better for me and that's all I need to know!

James Madison's picture

Can't fault you for that. There's merits to both. So long as you know you prefer, that's all that matters!

"Using an RB67, which can take advantage of bellows, shooting with a 180mm f/4.5 (equivalent to a 90mm f/2.2 in full frame) at f/11, everything is so incredibly sharp, and the resulting images are just beautiful. "

The bellows were the focus mechanism, there was no shifting or tilting IIRC. Just rack it out to focus closer than some other cameras. So I am not sure what taking advantage of bellows means.

James Madison's picture

My 90mm and 180mm for my RB has minimum focusing distance of around 6" and less than 4 feet, respectively and neither are macro lenses. The bellows focusing mechanism takes close focusing to a whole other level.

Of course with shifting and tilting, the benefits of bellows are something else entirely.

Yes the bellows allows close focus but has nothing to do with sharpness, your statement might be confusing to those unfamiliar with what bellows do. RB and RZ bellows rack the lens but do not have movements, the big Fuji680 does have movements and a bellows focus system.

James Madison's picture

Fair enough. I see now where the statement could be misunderstood - I appreciate the points of clarification.

I have never used the Fuji 680 but have seen them before. It looks like a cross between LF and MF. Haha

Ahh still have my beautiful medium format cameras. The immortal beauty of images on film.

James Madison's picture

You have more than one? What all do you have? Do you still use them?

Jon Kellett's picture

Back in 2005 I was a dedicated film shooter. Then one night I read an article by an astrophysicist who was also an astrophotographer. This person used high end microscopes and such to analyse the average grain size of various film stocks (since grain is not of uniform size - A big part of it's charm) to determine the effective resolution in megapixels.

Back then I used to shoot Fuji 400 negs mostly due to the cost and versatility. My own experiments showed ~6.4Mpx of resolution, give or take. According the the expert though, the actual resolution was around 6.8Mpx. At the time, the cheapest serious dSLR available was the Canon 20D, for a local price of $2400NZ. The 20D is an 8Mpx camera.

Whilst the author of that article was able to show some film stock had ~10-20Mpx of resolution, the price was amazing - I seem to recall around $5 per frame for colour negs at 10Mpx and much much higher for the 20Mpx roll. Translation: The film I could afford was nowhere near as good as the camera I could afford. Thus began my love affair with my digital SLR.

I wish I had the wisdom to save the article... This will have to do: http://www2.optics.rochester.edu/workgroups/cml/opt307/spr04/jidong/inde... - Shows that while the individual grains can be quite small (1um), there's three grains on colour emulsion and the distance between grains is random and sometimes huge. That 1um is at least 5-10um as an average - A 12Mpx full frame sensor is 8.4um pixel size. If you want the dry maths behind the RMS separation of the film grains, google "Photographic film grain:
a study with the aid of an optical correlator" published by the BBC in 1963.

With respect to DR - I wouldn't believe everything you read, about film or digital. With digital, the DR changes with ISO (sometimes by a lot).

James Madison's picture

That link you shared was truly fascinating. Thank you for sharing! Despite being a scientist, I was never one for working in a lab with a microscope and I've never once wondered what film would look link under a large degree of magnification. It was really fascinating to see.

There was a Kodak technical book that described that process and the microscopic images. When the Tmax came out with the different grain it was interesting to compare.

James Madison's picture

I've got 2 Kodak books someone gave me - The Kodak Color Darkroom Dataguide and the Complete Kodak Book of Photography. Neither of which I've done anything but thumbed through. I don't suppose the book you're referring to is one of those?

Digital is better for me BUT I know that film is also quiteinteresting. I'm just enjoying playingwith colors or the backgrounds in photo editors, and there are lots of new programs to read about and try. Just recently I saw another Phoblographer article and I was thankful I'm still doing digital as the portrait editor they wrote about looked nice ( I mean, take a look if you wish https://www.thephoblographer.com/2020/03/20/a-good-free-portrait-editor-... ). Film shooting just doesn't offeryou that much possibility of postproduction. Still, it requieres as much talent, so I think they are equal.

James Madison's picture

I went to the link the link you shared but I suspect you may have sent one that was different from what you intended - it was on a free portrait editing software. Haha

The format, film, and digitizing method a film photographer uses all make a big difference in what the resulting flexibility will be. If done properly, I strongly suspect there is just as much postproduction possibilities as digital.

$15, $18 per roll for developing and shipping? Either there is also scanning included or someone's robbing you. If the latter, you could develop your own film at $1-3 per roll. If you go further and buy your own dedicated scanner, it'll cost you around $3-5 per roll. Yes, I'm talking about b&w here, but color developing doesn't cost that much either.
If, from the other hand, you prefer just paying for no hassle, there's no point in talking price tags, you just like the process and outcome or not. Film won't be ever cheap again, especially if one prefers to go the easy way.

James Madison's picture

Slide film is easily $15 a roll for 35mm and still north of $10 for 120. The Darkroom Lab does charge that much (including scans) but there are other outfits that charge less.

I process my B&W at home, myself, and have a place in town that will do 35mm and 120 C-41 for a lot less money if I do the scanning. Slide film, however, I still have to mail out. Though, once the world is back to normal, I intend to try a different lab that I've heard better things about and charges less money.

Processing C41 is pretty cheap and easy to do at home if you want to deal with chemistry and processing equipment (been there done that).
Getting a roll of film scanned for $10 is a bargain but scanning is another skill altogether. I use a flat bed scanner for just seeing what the neg looks like, or work prints or things that just go on the web. If I want to make large non optical prints I will have "pro" scan done. Those run between $20-$100 depending on the scanner, operator and size of the scan.

James Madison's picture

Yeah - I've done it before with a buddy who owns a JOBO. The processing is a fraction of what it is to get a lab to do it if you're filling the tank every time. For C-41 now though I just get it done at a lab in town that will do 120 for $8 and 35mm for $10. I'm starting to get into 4x5, however, and getting any processing done with that is a serious pain. I will likely start back doing it with my buddy again.

To me both are the same, people will process these image like burn or dodge, pull details from shadow and highlight, filter out grain or add noise, both can look very the same

James Madison's picture

Sure. There are presets to apply to digital images to emulate film photographs.

Timothy Gasper's picture

I've always found that interesting. "digital images to emulate film photographs." Just think about it for a moment. Hell...if someone wants to 'emulate' film...just shoot film. Being funny here, but you get it....right? I like shooting both, but after 60 years of shooting, my heart is with film. Mostly with medium format. Thanks for the article.

James Madison's picture

I find it interesting too. I can't say that I wasn't in that boat when I was shooting digital exclusively.

Owain Shaw's picture

I just enjoy using film regardless of its technical or cost advantages or disadvantages relative to digital. I don't have unlimited funds so I try not to break the bank with my film usage, but I'm also happy spending some of the money I earn working on my personal enjoyment.

Should I need speed or ease of workflow, I have my digital cameras. These are seeing more use since lockdown began here in Spain. I've started making videos about the current situation which is something I can't do with my film cameras. Any Photography I have been doing lately has been 'experimental' or as a result of boredom and I didn't feel like wasting film (or money) on photographs that I'm not heavily invested in. I'm looking forward to being able to get back outside and do the type of photography I really enjoy, and I've found that I enjoy it most with film.

I'd like to get into Medium Format (again) next. I have the money to do so but am holding fire for now for a couple of reasons. 1. right now I can't exactly go out and use it anyway so I might as well wait a while, and 2. the current situation has 'save for a rainy day' written all over it. I currently have work online but who knows what tomorrow holds.

Anyway, the important thing is to enjoy using whatever it is you use to make the photographs you want to make. I enjoy using film but if digital is best for you then that's great, I can see plenty of reasons why it might be.

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