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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James Madison's picture

I do love making panoramas of 120 frames. I hope to put together an article on it, actually.

Oh man - archiving for digital vs. film. haha. It took me too long to start organizing my film and man, that was a frustrating process to get it together.

I love the smell of a stop-bath in the morning! (Not really- but after thirty years of using various mixes, the memory is etched!) I like both digital and film and use both for fun now.

James Madison's picture

Ha! I can't say I've ever loved the smell of a stop bath! haha I could see it being permanently etched into my memory after a while. Glad to hear you use both!

It's a pity... Same is going to happen with cars...

James Madison's picture

Don't hate - the only thing I have that's older than my RB or F2 is my car! haha

I use film for B&W (135, 120, and 4x5), and develop and scan it myself, with the occasional darkroom session, too. For color, I shoot digital most of the time. That's what I like to do.

James Madison's picture

I wish I had taken that approach on my recent trip. It was gloomy most of the days and the white balance was off for many of the color film. The B&W film, however, really captured the vibe of the place and didn't need any white balancing.

Glad to hear you make use of both!

Can you clarify "spectacular depth of field improvement?" I see it go both ways depending on what you want. Some people want shallow dof. Others want deep dof. I'll bet most of us want both or something in between depending on what the scene or our taste requires. So you are limited in deep depth with medium format. If your photo requires being at its sharpest at a particular distance and stopping down beyond a given aperture means diffraction problems come, then deep dof is limited. On the other hand shallow dof for smaller formats could be a problem.

I think the "equivalence" of lenses for different formats is kinda stupid. Choose the format and focal length necessary for the desired (or needed) result.

James Madison's picture

I suppose that is a pretty vague phrase. haha. For those that want the shallowest DoF possible, there's little better than 6x7. I've never had a problem with achieving deep DoF in 6x7 for landscapes. Even for portraits, I prefer to stop down 2-3 stops but having the incredibly shallow DoF really helps nail the focus.

Fair enough. For me though, I find it helpful to put lenses in terms of full frame equivalence if for no other reason than being able to offer content to someone without personal experience with a particular format. Even for me as I start moving more into 4x5, have the full frame equivalence is really helpful.

Ed Sanford's picture

Honestly, this is a every tired debate. I didn’t start shooting digital until 2013. I said that I would never go digital. The bottom line is that digital is easier. I spent countless hours in the field and in the darkroom making images with film. I still miss the smell of the chemicals. Nevertheless, digital allows you more time to be creative whereas the basic science of film processing and printing consumed so much time. Today, I often go back and scan many of my negatives and transparencies into Lightroom/photoshop to make much better prints than I ever did using standard film processes. I will concede this one fact. If you started in film, it will enable your to master digital much better. Why? In shooting film, you really had to know the basics of exposure and development. Film caused you to get it right in the camera to save you time in the darkroom. There was no images to preview in the field. Understanding characteristic curves makes the use of histograms a piece of cake. Film has nice nostalgic value, but digital is the way to grow artistically..

James Madison's picture

I'm not sure that I would agree its a tired debate. Film photography is becoming more and more prevalent again.

That said, I appreciate what you're saying and can see where that's true. I would only add that it is not just someone who started off shooting film but rather someone with enough experience to consistently create good work. I think there are plenty of people who started off with digital but have started shooting film and learned just as much. It's a different medium that forces someone to pay closer attention to everything that's going on. Speaking from my own experience, the better I become with shooting film, the better understanding I have of the entire photographic process.

Ed Sanford's picture

James, first all, the best to you. Let me clarify my first sentence a little better. My point is that the debate is tiring.... As one who was committed to shooting film well into the digital age, I had to constantly hear the "noise" in the channel about converting to digital. That's what I mean. The use of either medium is a personal choice. As you state very well in the article, both have their own pluses and minuses. With respect to the learning curve, I adamantly believe that film photographers can convert to digital far more gracefully than the converse. Let me be clear. I loved film photography. I am past 70 and I was shooting film since the age of 7. I still remember the first time I picked up my little snap shots from the local drug store. I still remember my first print "coming up" in the developer. I converted to digital because I became tired of the wait between coming in from the field, developing the film days later, and making a print days later. I shoot to print. I cut the process with digital. In addition, while shooting film, I learned to manage dynamic range, understood the various characteristic curves associated with each film as well as the difference between print films and transparencies. Building up that knowledge over the years facilitated my conversion to digital seamlessly. Of course, choice of subject, composition, creativity and quality of work still remains a challenge in both mediums. I hope that better explains my thoughts.

James Madison's picture

I understand that completely. It sounds like you have a far greater amount of experience than myself with film. I was given my first Minolta back in the 90s and very much remember dropping my C-41 off at the drug store for processing and prints. That said, I never once made a print in a darkroom until a couple years ago. I'd be curious to know our thoughts on how the quality of film changed over the years.

Ed Sanford's picture

Well that’s a really great question. Many old timers like me think that several films were better in the old days. Tri-x was the go to black & white film for photojournalists. In larger formats the great landscape photographers swore by it too because it rendered tones from black to white beautifully. It was also great for film expansion and contraction. When you shoot the zone system, development times were changed to accommodate better dynamic range. In the 90s Kodak changed the formula and it wasn’t as good. There were other films like super pan and others were great and used in large format. In color, the Kodachromes (II, 25, and 64 ) were excellent and used by the big boys. Kodak’s K14 process was the only way to get it processed. Fuji came out with Velvia in the 80s. That was a major upgrade. It had brilliant colors and became a great choice for magazines. It was ISO 50, but most people rated it at 40 because it had an unforgiving dynamic range... it was better slightly underexposed. In C41 folks used Kodacolor because of its flexibility in overexposure. There was a pro version called Vericolor used by wedding photographers. It was aged and had to be kept refrigerated until used. Plus you couldn’t leave it in the camera. It rendered beautiful skin tones. My experience is that the manufacturers became sloppy in
production over time; you bought in quantity and then tested a batch before you could depend on consistency. Overall, films got worse. Whew 👨! I just quickly went 40 years. Digital in its present form is so much more flexible. I shot a Hasselblad toward the end of my film days. I carried 3 film backs 2 for black & white (one for normal contrast and another for N+1 higher contrast) and one for Fuji velvia color.. Now I can do it with one camera (of course I carry a back up body). By the way, serious photographers tested each film before using it. Films do not behave the same from camera to camera for critical work. Making prints is a whole ‘nother conversation. That’s my walk down memory lane; I hope that was helpful.

James Madison's picture

Man, that's quite the summary! Out of curiosity, what about Fuji Pro 400H? It was my father's favorite film in the 70s and 80s.

Ed Sanford's picture

I never used it. So I can’t give an opinion... the interesting thing is that you needed both high and low speed films. I forgot that chromogenic black & white films came out the 80s. They could be developed C-41. You could shoot them between 100 and 400. However, they were best used at 400. Your dad probably used 400 because he did a lot of hand held shooting. Because it was a pro film, it had to be refrigerated. My freezer still has a lot of film. I guess you are going to make me take a peek to find out what’s there. After my last post to you, it made me remember that I always had 3 to 5 cameras. I always had 2 35mm cameras and a medium format camera with multiple backs. I had two camera bags: 1 for my 35mm gear and 1 for medium format. Great memories.

I don't 100% agree with the if you shoot film it will help you shoot digital theory.
While my time shooting advertising is now pretty much in the rear view mirror I see the work today is way more real, polished and perfect with effects that were impossible or too expensive in the film days, and that is the foundation of ad work. Even the simplest shot has a bunch of PS work because that's how it's done.
These images are being shot by younger folk who never had a dar room or loaded a roll of film.
I think they have a more free and open idea as to how to create their image without the anchor of "how it was done with film".
Even though I am pretty much all digital I know my reptilian brain is imprinted with film which limits my thinking if I let it.
I will sometimes shoot a roll or 2 of 120 on a job for kicks but then I need decide if those 12 or 24 shots are worth the extra time and expense.

James Madison's picture

In hearing what you say, I'm starting to think that I would agree that shooting film first would likely not benefit any expertise in post-procesing which is what it sounds like you're referring to. I would still think that understanding the theory of photography through experience with manual film cameras would translate well into the digital world. The relevance of that expertise, however, is debatable in the digital world.

I think it is more they don't think film or digital, they think image. And since digital is so much more flexible it will be easier to use creatively when putting together a shot knowing you can layer exposures or swap backgrounds and change colors.
IMO learning with a manual film camera and a digital camera set on manual are pretty darn similar when it comes down to the basics. but you can see the results right away digitally.
Sort of like knowing how to drive a stick shift when all the cars have automatics.

Blake Aghili's picture

Yes if you want to shoot film, at least go with MF and the larger the better so something like RB or RZ . Even their slide films on those size negatives looks so beautiful :)

James Madison's picture

I know! Slide film in MF is quite addictive.

Doug Birling's picture

I think the biggest benefit of film is that it caused people to slow down, take your time and really consider the shot… not that you can't also fire off a bad shot just as quickly with film. But your camera didn't shoot 2000 pictures per card. I came back from a trip to Alaska with thousands of images, if I shot film there's no way that would happen. Now on the flip side do you gain in that experimentation is easier... I think so.

You can also decide to think and slow down with digital. Often the first shot that I planned and thought about is ok, but by doing a "what else" shot I come up with something better and unexpected.

Some people can slow down and think more with digital, but others can't. I'm one of those who can't. It's a personality trait, and I always "backslide" to just shooting more and hoping for the best. You just have to know yourself, and proceed accordingly.

Digital may be sort of like having a car that has 700 hp, it can go 178 mph but you can still drive 70.
When I shoot, I rarely "hope for the best" I usually have some kind of intent. It might suck tho!

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

Funny how many of the same points I hit on in a blog post I did recently comparing the two. For me the answer has always just been "shoot both."

James Madison's picture

Great article! How did you come up with the MP equivalents?

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

Those are just linear dimensions of the negative assuming a 2400 DPI scan. They're rough numbers, but enough to get an idea. More resolution exists on the film, but if you want more than a 2400 DPI scan, you're either talking about farming out your scanning, buying a very expensive scanner, or messing with DSLR scanning which is kind of its own can of worms.

Both analog and digital have their strengths and weaknesses. If you wish to shoot with little thought and low expense, digital capture is your choice. But consider that a casual approach often leads to lack of focus. Another worrisome thing is that I am giving up all my training as a photographer and degreed artist, when I let algorithm engineer teams have the final say when I click the shutter on my DSLR. With my analog gear, it's totally my creation - for better or worse!

Ed Sanford's picture

I read your post with great interest. While I am not a "de-greed artist", I shot film for more than 35 years. I used the Zone System and had a nice darkroom in my home. In fact, in my retirement home, I had a custom darkroom installed. I once said that I would never go digital. When digital got to 14 megapixels, I started taking a look at it. Finally, I made the complete switch in 2013. I want to say this; going digital will not require you to give up your knowledge of photography and sensitometry. I would argue that as a film photographer, you are in a much better position to utilize the digital medium to express your creativity than one who has never shot film. Those who shoot jpeg images, indeed, allow an algorithm to process their images. However, true craftsmen utilize raw images in the same way that you use film. The raw image enables you to process your file and then create fine prints. All of the knowledge amassed in your brain, muscle memory and soul, will enable you to make the same high quality images that you did using film, chemistry and analogue cameras. The f stop and shutter-speed relationships were ported over to digital. The one difference is that digital sensors like a lot of what we film guys consider "over exposure". Nevertheless, I calibrated all of my digital gear in the same way that I calibrated my analog systems (including film and print development times) so that i have a predictable process. Notwithstanding that, I still have the same issues with composition, emotional content and creativity as I had before. So, you can't be competent with "little thought" and low expense. Right now, digital is pretty expensive from a gear standpoint. Also, there are many fine artists who do the same outstanding level of work as film photographers. Of course, you are correct if you think that there is a lot of junk out there. Unfortunately, the ease of digital allowed those who are not serious about the craft to easily come in. In fact, it did the same thing that electronic music did to quality music. I am not writing this to persuade you. My point is to let you know that you are advantaged in the fact that your craftsmanship and knowledge will set you apart from the average digital shooter if you decide to give it a try... All the best

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