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?