I’m often asked is film better than digital, I often read about the animosity between some from either community, and it puzzles me… well frankly it annoys me to a level I’d rather not discuss.
Let’s get something straight here, they are both photography, photography is what I like to call a perfect marriage of art and science. At the end of the day regardless of the medium you choose to use to make an image it’s still photography.
Film is an evolution of a process of combing organic and inorganic matter to create a product that can be utilized by any human being to create an image. Digital photography is the exact same thing less the organic matter; both approaches will get you a beautiful image provided you have the talent and ability to make a worthy photograph
As a fairly active member of the photography community and an avid film shooter, in fact it’s my preference over digital, I naturally tend to promote film photography as often as I can I post a lot of articles on the subject, I’m an educator of photography and in particular film photography and what I see as its benefits.
Without fail, I’ll get comments to the effect of digital is the future and it’s so much better than film or vice-versa. I always try to let these comments and discussions/arguments roll off my back, however they seem to keep on coming. So, with that in mind I figured I’d address them, and I also thought it would be a great way to explain why I’ve taken a sabbatical from professional photography.
Let’s start with a broad assumption the mediums have more in common than most are willing to admit.
So Why and Why Not?
When I’m in the street with a film camera and someone notices or I’m teaching a photography class and I tell students I love film, usually the first thing people want to know is, “why?” Isn’t digital is so much more convenient than film, can you even get film, where do you get it developed, you’re scanning a lot of it isn’t that digital?
Well, because I like it.
I fell in love with photography so many years ago, 1982 in fact because it was fun, and I was fascinated with the remarkable technology and engineering that went into my first camera a Zenit-E, yes, I said remarkable engineering that went into my Zenit-E. Since then, I spent many years walking around with a 35mm SLR and joyfully pointed my lens at something, pressed the button, and usually in 24-48 hours and sometimes 1 hour it was like Christmas morning as I opened my envelope of 24, or 36 photos. Sadly, being around around 12 years old most of the shots were pure nonsense, but occasionally a well composed and exposed image would emerge. It was that sense of anticipation that was a big part of what drew me to photography, a few years later in high school I took a photography course and had my first darkroom experience and got to see images I shot appear on paper today it’s the biggest part of the draw for me today.
Today, when pull my negatives from the tank and see lovely images and then scan them and seeing the images appear on the screen, brings me back to the days of picking up and opening those envelopes from the lab.
When I’m working on a professional shoot, I tend to always do it with a digital camera, instantaneously the images are right there in front of me, it’s super convenient but the “magic” of anticipation is gone. To be completely transparent, when I’m working professionally, I’m not there to feel “magic.” I’m there to do a job and do it well and do it efficiently, and this is where digital is the most effective for me.
Film really isn’t the best tool for the job and that situation, but if I’m shooting for myself, why do it with something that I am passionate about and find fun?
The process of shooting film, and developing and scanning it myself makes me feel great and that’s the best part, no question.
Since the dawn of digital sensors photographers have been swapping their old systems for new ultrahigh ISO, insane frame rates, impeccable and lighting fast autofocus all on digital platforms. Time will tell whether or not they were they right in doing so – but does it really matter? I don’t think so. Is there really a battle of film vs digital photography being waged? Perhaps, a more suitable question would be, why are you shooting digital rather than film and vice-versa.
In the last 5-10 years, film photography has been making a significant comeback; more and more people are acquiring and digging out their old vintage film cameras and using them rather prolifically in a world of 1’s and 0’s.
So below I’m going to make an attempt to compare some of the key aspects of both mediums.
One of the biggest questions that pops up in this argument is the comparison of resolution I’m often asked; how does film compare to a digital sensor? Digital sensors measure their resolution in the number of pixels they can jam on a sensor, there are no pixels on film; film doesn’t use pixels, so we need to use what we call ‘angular resolution’.
“Angular resolution or spatial resolution describes the ability of any image-forming device such as an optical or radio telescope, a microscope, a camera, or an eye, to distinguish small details of an object, thereby making it a major determinant of image resolution. In physics and geosciences, the term spatial resolution refers to the precision of a measurement with respect to space.”
Digital sensors all come in various size resolutions, and the same goes for different film types, film resolution ranges between 4 and 16 million pixels.
Kodachrome 64 film has an effective comparison of around 10 megapixels and most entry level DSLR’s these days have a resolution of 24.2 MP in this case film doesn’t quite cut it.
Medium format however, includes sizes like 6cm x 4.5 cm, 6cm x 6cm and 6cm x 7cm and, large format 4″ x 5″ (10.16 cm x 12.7 cm) and 8”x”10 (20.32 cm x 25.2 cm) which yield a much larger resolution.
Medium format has the capacity to produce a whopping 400 Megapixels; ironically, digital cameras limits this. When scanned “digital negatives” falls somewhere between 50 and 80 Megapixels and Large format reaches 200 Megapixels.
Yes, aunt Karen’s 35mm film SLR will not outperform modern digital camera resolution, however, a medium or large format will leave them in their digital dust!
Digital Grain (or Noise) vs. Film Grain
Unwanted textures in your images are referred to as grain if you’re shooting film and noise on your digital file. In film, this is the result of the silver halide crystals not receiving enough light. Conversely, digital, the noise is a result of visual distortion and it is also cause by the electronic sensor trying to deal with a lack of light and is born from the inability of the sensor electrical interference. Of course, increasing ISO, or using a high-speed film makes your images more susceptible to noise and grain.
Dynamic Range or Well Forgiveness…
Historically, film has a high level of dynamic range and as a result has always been the choice over digital. However, in the past 2-3 years some very high-end sensors, powerful file processing software and components keep the dynamic range and contrast ratio higher in digital systems. Film had a good run with dynamic range, but digital cameras can easily match it these days.
Film is available at speeds between 1 and 3200 ISO, yet you can find 6400. You can also push the film, by underexposing it and over developing it, this is called pushing. Pushing film increases the contrast. Professional digital cameras, such as the Nikon D5, can produce images with an ISO of 3.2 Million. Digital cameras have the greatest advantage in this scenario as you can readily change ISO back and forth as you see fit.
Think about your workflow. If you use a digital system, it is very fast, convenient and efficient to capture a scene, edit and share on social media.
The same workflow with film could be 30 mins to several hours for capturing, three days for processing, 30 mins for scanning and another 30 mins for editing. Even without any glitches it could take over three days to complete a film based professional workflow.
Pros and Cons
- Lower initial cost
- Negatives last an infinite amount of time
- Most do not require batteries
- More forgiving of minor focusing issues
- Tougher cameras for bumps and scrapes
- Need filters for some lighting situations
- Tend to be heavier cameras
- Film takes up physical space
- Cost of film
- Takes longer to see captures
- Lab or home processing
- Many do not have light meters
- Slow or no autofocus
- People tend to ‘pray and spray’
- Point and shoot resolutions produce large prints
- Lighter than film cameras
- Memory cards don’t require much physical space
- Memory cards store hundreds of images
- Can edit images immediately in camera
- Many offer built-in filters
- Digital storage can be lost easily
- Focusing in low light conditions can be difficult
- Can malfunction in extreme situations
My Final Thoughts…
Film was once the pinnacle of modern photography, let’s face it, without film there would be no digital photography. In many ways, digital photography has surpassed film photography. This is in terms of resolution, cost and convenience. Despite this, film photography still holds on to a huge following, and a huge resurgence into film is alive and kicking today. Although several new films have been launched in the last 2 years, the problem with film photography is that many film manufacturers have discontinued more films than have been launched.
Compared to the mid-1990’s only a small portion of original film emulsions remain available and these are becoming more and more expensive each year. Fujifilm eliminate their film faster and faster.
Saying that, there are still start-ups and boutique companies, such as Lomography, Polaroid, Silberra, Ferrania, and others that produce film regularly.
We have the best of both worlds right now and we should be readily using both Analogue and Digital systems. When I feel the need for speed or when I am working for clients and need a faster turnaround, I will take advantage of a digital system. When I can take my time and enjoy the experience of photography film is the magic that helps me appreciate every moment.