Is film better than digital? The animosity between some from either community puzzles me. In fact, it annoys me to a level I’d rather not discuss.
Photography is a perfect marriage of art and science. Regardless of the medium you choose to use to make an image, it’s still photography. Either approach will get you a beautiful image. You still need the knowledge and talent and ability to make a worthy photograph though.
I’m an active member of the photography community and an avid film shooter. Film is my preference for personal projects. The digital route is what I choose for my professional work. I enjoy promoting film photography as often as I can. I enjoy writing about my journey and post a lot of articles on the subject, because I like it.
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 shooting a film camera, especially a vintage one more often than not someone will notice. Whenever I mention my passion for film to a photography class and I tell students I love film. Most students want to know why. I’m often asked isn’t digital is 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?
Why I like it
In 1982 I fell in love with photography, it was fun for an 11 year old. 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. I joyfully pointed my lens at pretty much everything. After pressing the button, and waiting 24-48 hours and sometimes 1 hour for processing it was like Christmas morning. I experienced so much joy as I opened my envelope of 24, or 36 photos. Most of the shots were pure nonsense, occasionally a well composed and exposed image would emerge. 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. I loved seeing images I shot appear on paper. Today, darkroom printing is my favourite aspect of analog photography.
Every time I pull my negatives from the tank and see lovely images those feelings come back.
When I’m working on a professional shoot, I tend to always do it with a digital camera. The images are right there in front of me, it’s super convenient but the “magic” of anticipation is gone. When working professionally, I’m not there to feel “magic.” I’m there to do a job. Doing the job efficiently is where digital is the most effective for me.
Since the dawn of digital sensors photographers have been swapping their old systems for the latest and greatest technology. Over the past 5-10 years, film photography has been making a significant comeback. More people are acquiring and digging out their old vintage film cameras.
One of the biggest questions that pops up in this argument is the comparison of resolution. How does film compare to a digital sensor? Digital sensors measure their resolution by the number of pixels they can jam on a sensor. Film doesn’t use pixels, so we need to use a term called ‘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. 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. 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. Large format includes 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. When scanned “digital negatives” fall 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. A medium or large format, however, will leave them in their digital dust!
Digital Grain (or Noise) vs. Film Grain
Unwanted textures in your images are referred to as grain. In the digital world this is called noise. In film, this is the result of the silver halide crystals not receiving enough light. Conversely, in digital, the noise is a result of visual distortion. It is caused by the electronic sensor trying to deal with a lack of light. Digital noise results from electrical interference on the sensor. Increasing ISO, or using a high-speed film makes your images more susceptible to noise and grain.
Historically, film has a high level of dynamic range and as a result has always been the choice over digital. In the past 2 to 3 years some very high-end sensors, and advanced processors have grown immensely. As a result, dynamic range and contrast ratio higher in digital systems are incredible. Digital cameras can easily match and outperform film in the dynamic range department 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 as you can readily change ISO back and forth as you see fit.
Think about your workflow. A digital system is very fast and convenient. You can capture a scene, edit and share on social media in minutes if not seconds.
You need 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 ‘spray and pray’.|
Point and shoot resolutions produce large prints
Lighter than film cameras.
Memory cards don’t require much physical space and can store hundreds of images.
Digital images are available immediately.
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, without film there would be no digital photography. In terms of resolution, cost and convenience digital has won the race. Film photography still garners a huge following. In recent years there is a resurgence into film, it is alive and kicking. Several new films have been launched in the last 2 years. The biggest problem to solve in film photography the availability of cameras.
Compared to the mid-1990’s only a small portion of original films remain available. They are becoming more and more expensive each year. For example Fujifilm has been eliminate their film production faster and faster.
There are several start-ups and boutique companies, such as Lomography, Polaroid, Silberra, Ferrania, and others that produce film regularly.
In conclusion, we have the best of both worlds right now. We should be readily using both Analogue and Digital systems.