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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93 Comments

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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.

James Madison's picture

I'm happy to see another photographer who makes use of digital and film, both. When you get back into MF, any thoughts on which camera you'll pick up?

Owain Shaw's picture

Many, many thoughts ... little in the way of a firm decision. I think this may not be the first time we've discussed this, you and I, in fact.

There are just so many good options with Medium Format, among them the RB67 mentioned in the article - one of the best deals going in Photography, a lot of camera for very little money in the grand scheme of things. Only problem being it is a lot of camera in every sense. I've used one before but I think I would need to get one in hand again before deciding.

6x6 intrigues me but I don't think I'd want to commit to that format exclusively just yet, although of course one can always crop to 4:3 or even 3:2 and still have a negative larger than 35mm.

Finally there's 645s. These basically take the RB67 Pros Vs. Cons table and flip it around. More portable but smaller neg size. I wonder if this is where I'll end up starting though.

James Madison's picture

As soon as I wrote that, I started thinking we did. Haha. My bad*

Cropping the 6x6 down to a 4:3 aspect ratio gives you a 645 size exactly. I do like the 6x6 ratio though, however, it is the only ratio I do not have. The fact that it is completely different from any and all others makes me think it would inspire a different way of looking at things. No longer is there a portrait or landscape orientation - you just have a square.

I do love the RB67 but don't know that I have it in me to carry around on long hikes anymore. It is heavier than most 4x5s. That's just silly... But for the money? It is a lot of camera and the lenses are amazing.

Owain Shaw's picture

There's no bad as far as I see it. Always good to be friendly. :)

That is exactly the thing that intrigues me about 6x6, the fact that it's so different from the other formats with either landscape or portrait. How does shooting 6x6 work with the RB? I understand you can do it but does it require a different back? (I'm sure I could google this.)

That's also the thing with the RB for me. Most of my photography is done on walks or cycle rides, and if I'm honest with myself I don't think it's the camera for me. A camera can have many great qualities, but it has to be right for the photographer using it. Realistically I think I just need to decide between 6x6 and 645 which aren't too different in terms of size.

James Madison's picture

I'm not sure about shooting 6x6 on the RB... I've heard people will shoot 6x8 but I've not heard of someone shooting 6x6.

There are plenty of good 6x6 options out there that aren't too expensive if you're willing to shoot a TLR. I do love a good 645 camera though. They're typically very portable and the negatives are still much bigger than 35mm.

Owain Shaw's picture

I'm sure I read somewhere about 6x6 on the RB or RZ but I might have got confused.

TLRs are one option but also Bronica did some 6x6 SLR cameras that go for about the same as their 645 ETR (a camera I owned in the past) so I think I might go with one of theirs in whichever format I eventually decide on. Having owned a Bronica once I have a soft spot for them, an underrated manufacturer you don't hear a lot about. Helps keep their prices down which is good news for a prospective owner.

The RZ did have 6x7 6x6 and 6x4.5 backs I heard about a 6x8 back but don't know if that was an aftermarket product. IMO the 645 is too much of a compromise. Yes the equipment is a little bigger than 35mm and the negative is a little bigger than 36 but it sure does not have the ever elusive look of true medium format.Go big or go home as my ex boss used to say.

I went from 35mm to 6x6 then 6x7 and even had a Fuji GW690. If you want to shoot MF and don't want to use different lenses the Fuji 670 and 690 are something to look at, they are relatively small but have all the film real estate that the 645 format lacks. The Mamiya 7 system is great but pricey.

James Madison's picture

I wouldn't be at all surprised that there's one available. I just don't think I knew of it.

Bronica stuff is great. When I was looking for a 645 camera (or any camera easier than the RB to travel with), I seriously considered a Bronica. Had I not had a soft spot for the Mamiya system, I may well have gotten one.

My first MF SLR was a Bronica S2A. Big mistake, I am sure the more modern Bronicas are decent, but after my experience , Bronica is on my never again list. There are better choices IMO

James Madison's picture

I have no experience with that camera. What would say are on your "better choices" list?

I am sure others have had great experience with Bronica, but I did not. It was a long time ago, but like the guy who always bought Fords because he had trouble with a Chevy I have a grudge against all Bronica.
For medium format to be worthwhile IMO it should be bigger than 645.
RB and RZ are good choices, 501/503 Hasselblads are very nice for 6x6 and there alot of them out there so there's a range of prices. 500 models might be kind of old...
I think the RZ system is a bit more reliable than vintage 'blads. Fuji GW690 aka the Texas Leica are pretty cool for $500 ish, and have a few variations of lens and either 6x7 or 6x9. But no interchangeable lenses with the Fuji. Mamiya 6 and 7 are kind of rare rangefinders with good track record, but I have not used either of those.
Twin lens reflex Yashica 124 and Mamiya C330 are still out there, and a good way to get into medium format film. The Yashica is not all that sharp but has a nice look. Pentax 6x7 are pretty awesome (there was a rash of mirror detatching and winding failures for a while) and have great glass.
I have used or owned most of these so it's just my opinion. After having full systems with RZ, Pentax 67 and Hasselblad, all I have left for MF film is a Hasselblad 501 and a 80mm.

James Madison's picture

I hear that. I can say the same about a couple guitar brands but not so much with cameras. I'm surprised to hear that you don't think 645 is big enough but 6x6 is. By the time you crop a 6x6 negative for printing, you're not far beyond that of the 645 negatives.

I've never used a Fuji GW690 before but I've seen them many times and have been curious about them.

Thanks for sharing your experiences - it's always interesting to hear about the experiences other photographers have had with the cameras I've only seen but not used myself.

A friend shot weddings with a 645, he called it super 35mm. Just slightly better than 35 but not near 6x6 or 6x7. I pretty much restricted myself to shooting the full 6x6 frame as much as I could, didn't crop to fit paper sizes.
When I started shoot more cars is when I went to 6x7. Cars are usually horizontal ;)

James Madison's picture

I've been wanting to get experience with a 6x6 camera but, alas, I have not. I have a couple 645 cameras that I love. It's more than 3 times larger than 35mm - I know that's not quite as good 6x7 (nearly 5 times larger) but it's quite good for me. I've been wanting to get a Mamiya 6 or 7 one day. Perhaps I will and I'll leave the 645 behind.

I don't know what the trick is to getting good photographs of cars. I've got a couple of my car that I like but I've not been able to get really nice shots of the more interesting details. I'll keep trying though!

I have always loved instant film since I got my first Polaroid Colorpack II as a preteen!!! To me Polaroids/Instax are also a beautiful object as well as image. Having said that I shoot a lot of B&W film, mostly medium format and love the develop and scan them (don't really print in my darkroom anymore). I also have been using digital cameras since the 90s ... first was a Kodak DC40 and curently have a Canon Rebel T5 which suits me fine for my needs. I focus more on my idea and what type of image I want to make. Cameras are a tool ... film and digital can coexist nicely for me!!!

James Madison's picture

I haven't used instant film since the 90s. A have a few friends that have found a love for Polaroids and I really wish someone was still making the film that could be used with medium format cameras but I don't suspect there is a strong enough market for them. Perhaps one day someone will bring them back.

This is kind of hilarious -- I think we might have been shooting Taughannock at the same time? Jan 20th?

For reference, this was shot on my Minolta CLE.

James Madison's picture

Ha! It's a gorgeous waterfall. I took the one in this article a couple years ago - January 2018. Lovely shot!

Gotcha. I thought it might have been you because there was a guy shooting an RB or RZ 67 at the same time, and the ice patterns on the gorge walls are so similar.

James Madison's picture

No way! haha. That's awesome. It wasn't me though. My family is from there but sadly enough I don't make it there for fun trips anymore. I hope to change that this year however. My fiancé has never seen upstate NY and it holds a special place in my heart. Perhaps if you're walking around the Ithaca area in when the world is back to normal and you see a fellow shooting an RB or some other MF camera, it'll be me then.

Jeff Burian's picture

Good article overall; I enjoyed reading it. However 35mm isn't "film", there are many other formats and in this recent article 8x10 blew away a 150mp camera in terms of resolution, so yes; film is still the resolution king. But really, does it even matter? We all photograph for our own reasons, our own joys, our own ways of seeing. I recently got back into shooting medium format film after many, many years and love the entire process. It has made me think about each image and that process too is thoroughly enjoyable after my less considered approach to photography with digital. I love both and will continue to shoot both. They each have their place. Thanks again for a well-considered article that made me think.

https://petapixel.com/2020/03/19/8x10-film-vs-150mp-digital-can-150-mega...

James Madison's picture

Thanks for sharing that article - I read it the other day and was pretty blown away by it. That said, I've never shot an 8x10 nor do I ever see myself picking one up - the film is crazy expensive. I did, however, recently pick up a 4x5 and I'm very much looking forward to that. I plan on doing some experiments to post as soon as I get it and get rolling with it.

Jeff Burian's picture

I'm in the same boat - 8x10 is just too expensive, but I have been checking out some 4x5's. I'd be interested to read about your experiences with the 4x5. Forgot to add this before, but your photos are beautiful.

35mm film days came to an end back in 2006 when I purchase my first Nikon D50 digital camera. I've went through 4 other digital system since then. But I still feel the draw back to film as it was my proving ground. A couple of reason I wont return to film is because film had a limit or the size of the roll, where as digital based on the SD card can be nearly unlimited. I've just never filled the SD card to capacity. Another hindrance was that with film, you dont actually see what you're getting until it was processed. Though I might pick up a cheap throw away camera one day just to have along as a back up and to see film to digital comparison.

James Madison's picture

My initial film days ended at almost the same time when my Minolta was stolen in college. After a while I did return back to it, however, when I found myself taking photos I felt closer to. It had nothing to do with the medium and everything to do with how I used the cameras.

I find it funny that the things you say that hold you back are a lot of while film photographers love shooting film. Perhaps you should give it another shot and see if you still feel the same after 15 years of the convince of a digital camera. Who knows? Maybe you'll find that you love shooting film again or find it a big pain. haha

I absolutely love medium and large format films. When you hold up a nice exposed and developed negative it is magical. I have some films that I scanned from my time in Vietnam shot on a 6x7 film and turned into a panorama. The resolution is incredible. Next to my desk is a Mamiya Press 6x7 that makes impressive images.

What I see from where I am is that digital is about convenience. In the click of a button, you can take a color image and turn it into b/w. Then you can play from there. The term "digital darkroom" is very appropriate as you can do so much more with an image that you can not do in the darkroom, and you do not have the loss of space.

To shoot a roll of film for me it would be all about location. Then you have to bring a large camera, filters, backs, light meter, etc. Then into the darkroom to complete the process.

The digital camera and digital darkroom has it all and lighter. You can even check your images while you are in the field.

The one point that has not been addressed is the archival storage of film vs digital. Another story for another day.

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