Film and Digital: Can You Spot Which Is Which?

Does it even matter? Or do you enjoy getting something out of the camera that just works, with colors, contrast, and grain that's already embedded into it? 

This video shows the differences and is set up to make you guess what which is which. The digital images aren't edited and the film scans are also not edited, but it's film, and it will give you the yellows of Kodak Gold 100 or the contrast of of Fujifilm Superia 400. It's what you want from the experience, I suppose. Shoot what you want to shoot, and realize that it's your experience and your work, and if you're like me and got some wrong in the video test, it proves that it's not really about the gear, but rather about the feeling of the images.

However, I do think experimenting with both is a good idea. If you're getting into photography and budget is a constraint, get a film camera off eBay. You can pick up a Nikon FE or FE2 with great and cheap lenses. When you've built some form of portfolio and brand, it might be the time to buy a digital camera, which will be more cost effective in the long-term. Obviously, there's more to it than just cost, and no matter what filters you use, it's going to give you a different experience than that of film. In the same way, developed 35mm film is what it is and if not exposed correctly, can be difficult to correct in post, but has beautiful colors from the get-go. 

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17 Comments

Ivan Lantsov's picture

OY, again?

michaeljin's picture

"Does it even matter?"

No.

Timothy Turner's picture

I have taken photos that my digital slr that my 35mcamera would never have been able to get, with image stabilization I can get a shot of a bird with a 300mm lens at 1/45 second, and it is sharp, I would not even attempt that with a film camera, in a studio setting it does not matter.

michaeljin's picture

I was under the impression that the last generation of film cameras could use optical IS on the lenses. I'm pretty sure that the F6 can.

Rob Davis's picture

A full frame didgital and 35mm film is not a great comparison. He’s also using crap drugstore film. Shoot what makes you happy. They’re both good at different things.

Chase Wilson's picture

I couldn’t disagree more with the conclusion on this article.

If you’re getting started, the worst thing you could do is get a film camera. Literally the worst.

1. Film is expensive. Gone are the days of $1 store film. Now if you want to shoot analog, you have to hang with premium films, Kodak, Fuji, Agfa or what ever their off brands are. So you’re looking at a minimum of $5 a roll - to shoot.

2. Film is expensive to develop. Again, it’s not. As easy to do as it once was, where everyone had a photo develop booth. The film development it almost always farmed out to large warehouses, in NY or LA. And now days it won’t get done for less than $5 a roll for prints.

3. Combined you’re looking at $.50 a snap. If you’re “just starting out”, let’s be generous and say it will take you 1000 photos to understand photography - that’s $500 in development costs alone. (Sounds like a cheap DSLR to me)

4. Feedback loop in days - not seconds. For all you hipsters who think shooting film takes the experience back to its roots - you clearly didn’t have to learn on film. Learning on film was literally the worst way to learn. Not to mention if you fuck up the exposure in camera, the developer tries to compensate for you on the prints. Making the feedback loop disrupted. But the fact that it takes you three days to see what you did wrong - is incredibly frustrating.

5. The medium doesn’t matter. The medium doesn’t matter. The medium doesn’t matter. You don’t care what brand of tools your mechanic uses to fix your car. You don’t care if your baker uses Kichen Aid or Cusine Art. Nobody cares about what you used to take a picture. Especially not what photosensitive material was used to capture the light. Nobody. Nobody. The medium doesn’t matter.

6. If the medium doesn’t matter - then we can discuss who film is “right” for. Film is good for experienced photographers that need the advantages, and are ok with the disadvantages of a film that is only available in that medium. The only advantage, is that film is good at capturing highlights, where digital is better at capturing shadows. The amount of photos where this matters is almost non existent. And as such really makes film a privileged medium. People who can afford that privilege (in time, money, rigidity, and inflexible exposure) are free to limit them selves however they want. People just learning how to take a photo shouldn’t ever learn on film.

michaeljin's picture

1. If you're shooting B&W, Foma and Kentmere film aren't too bad in terms of price.

2. Define "expensive". A bottle of Rodinal goes a very long way if you're shooting B&W and even if you did color, you can put a surprising number of rolls through a C-41 development kit before you exhaust the chemicals. It's certainly not cheap, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's particularly expensive. It's expensive as you want it to be and the up-front cost for tanks and reels makes it an investment to get into.

3. Yes, a cheap DSLR is a higher up-front cost than most film cameras, but more economical in the long run.

4. The feedback loop did indeed suck and it was really important to take notes about your exposures as you didn't have EXIF data to do it for you. The lab will compensate for you if you print it, but there's no compensation in the development, which is why you're best off just getting the roll developed and scanning it yourself if you're using a lab. Otherwise, there's a reason that introductory classes were almost always done with black and white film—so you were in control of the entire process from shooting to printing.

5. Medium doesn't matter in most cases, but there are times when it does. I might not care what brand of tools my mechanic uses, but I do care what brand of tools I purchase and use because the experience of using a tool plays a big part of the overall experience of performing a repair. Some people like the tactile nature of film. Some people like the aesthetic that certain film stocks bring. Others like the instant feedback of digital as well as the ability to switch ISO on the fly. There are certainly jobs for which film would not be suitable, though.

6. Film is good for people who enjoy using film. It doesn't matter whether they're experienced or inexperienced nor does it matter whether they're rich or poor. If it brings you joy, then do it. If it doesn't, then don't. It's as simple as that.

Chase Wilson's picture

Yeah there’s exceptions for everything I addressed here. And I appreciate all your counter points. But none of them apply to people learning photography.

I learned on film, and switched to a combo of the two formats as soon as the technology was available to me. Because shooting film sucked.

Sure there’s reasons to shoot film. Sure there’s reasons to love it. But none of these reasons matter for the outcome of the image. It’s oils vs. acrylics.

Noah Stephens's picture

Agreed, Michael. It is much cheaper to learn on a $200 entry-level used dslr than to do trial-and-error shots on film. Nice

Matt Barr's picture

Ok, but...a trained monkey could shoot digital. Literally, just hit the button and out poops a well exposed photo. You at least have to work at it a little with film, which is 100% better for learning. It's not just a hipster thing either, and it does not cost a lot. Develop and print yourself and it's dirt cheap. I could shoot 35mm color film for the next decade and still wouldn't spend what your mirrorlessX costs, could shoot large format for at least a few years for that amount too. By that time your upgrading your mirrorlessX and the cycle continues. I mean im with you on the being against shoot-film-cuz-its-cool thing, makes me roll my eyes too, but film is still totally legit.

Chase Wilson's picture

Content is king. Medium is trash. Focus on what you’re shooting and less on what you shoot it with.

The medium doesn’t matter.

Matt Barr's picture

I don't get paid regularly to take pictures, so how I shoot matters to me. I like to enjoy shooting, and i sort of like tinkering with the chemical side. I do digital too, but use zeiss manual focus lenses because i just like to shoot that way. That aside, I totally agree with one big exception.

Large format as a medium is vastly different than any other type of photography. The large format perspective, or look, or whatever you want to call it absolutely matters and can be downright overpowering in the end result. Timothy Greenfield Sanders, Sally Mann, Richard Avedon, Chuck Close, all of their large format work that iv'e seen in-person are mind blowingly good and different. I didn't get it until I tried large format, and when the contact sheets came out I knew there was something special about large format as a medium. There is something special about knowing how a picture is taken as well that, i think, can rub off on the end result. Knowing that Mathew Brady sat up this type of camera in the middle of the the civil war, cannon balls flying and all, and composed his pictures upside down and criss-crossed using his hand as a shutter matters in the end. Slightly more interesting content via mirrorlessX vs. slightly less interesting content via large format and i think large format wins sometimes. It wins more often in the context of art galleries purely due to medium.

Noah Stephens's picture

Agreed. It is much cheaper to learn on a $200 entry-level used dslr than to do trial-and-error shots on film.

Timothy Turner's picture

I was a very slow convert to digital, now that I am here, I would not go back

Mirror less vs film as opposed to DSLR? Man what's the difference between a mirror less and DSLR? I would love to see the image comparisons

This is an interesting attempt to make a film vs digital comparison. Unfortunately there are MANY variables that were not taken into account. Some have been mentioned previously including the type and quality of processing of the film prior to being able to view the images. Scanning the film to the digital realm always introduces some types of artifacts or alterations from the original film negative or slide positive image that can taint the image used for comparison to digital image. You inferred that this wasn’t too scientific, which is true, but I liked your idea and the basic premise of your project. It would be really cool to do a true prospective study and try to eliminate more of the variables to get a more apples to apples comparison. Shooting with a dual camera setup would help a lot as well. Thanks for your interesting video.

Scott Wardwell's picture

I prefer a hybrid. A digital file on a silver halide print of Fuji Crystal Archive paper. Stunning.