Are you wondering whether you should be pursuing film versus digital photography? Do you want to know which form of photography will produce the most stunning images?
Don’t go away.
Because in this article, I’m going to tell you all about film photography and digital photography. I’m going to give you the pros and cons of both types–and I’ll ultimately let you know which type of photography wins out.
Let’s dive right in.
Film vs Digital: How Do They Compare?
These days, almost everybody shoots digital, from beginners to professional photographers to everyone in between.
But there are a few folks who still cling to film, and others who have switched to film after using digital photography for years.
So there must be something that makes film photography enticing…
In fact, there are a number of compelling reasons to choose film photography over digital photography–just as there are plenty of reasons why you should choose digital over film.
And the truth is that neither of these types of photography is perfect for everyone. There are some photographers who will always thrive with film, others who will always thrive with digital, and others who are fine with both.
So the key isn’t to look for an overall answer to the question of film vs digital.
Instead, figure out what you require as a photographer–and make your choice based on that.
Now let’s take a look at the key differences between film and digital photography, and why you might want to shoot one over the other, starting with:
Many years ago, photographers debated film versus digital resolution. The argument was that 35mm film photography produced more detail than digital photography–and that was true, at the time.
But these days, with most cameras offering at least 24 megapixels in their sensors, digital has the advantage.
You see, while film photography doesn’t skimp on resolution, the megapixel race has ensured that digital photography has become truly exceptional–producing 35mm cameras that shoot 20, 30, 40, even 50 megapixels.
So if you’re looking to crop your images tightly, or to make huge prints, digital photography is the way to go.
Things become a bit more complex when you look at medium format film photography. Because you can easily generate a ton of detail with a medium format film camera–which often outcompetes digital medium format cameras, plus digital medium format cameras cost a ridiculous sum of money that no hobbyist wants to pay.
So when it comes to resolution, the bottom line is that digital wins out in the 35mm arena, while film does better in medium format or large format work.
Of course, there’s also the question of whether you should get hung up on resolution in the first place. Both film and digital 35mm cameras offer plenty of resolution for most photography applications; it’s only once you get into the area of large reproductions and cropping that things become problematic. So unless you’re a commercial photographer, a photographer producing high-quality reproductions, or a photographer that crops with abandon, then resolution is fairly irrelevant.
Winner: Digital (But With Medium and Large Format Film Outperforming Digital)
Dynamic range refers to the range of tones in a photo.
And like resolution, film used to crush digital photography when comparing dynamic range.
But camera sensors have marched forward steadily, so that, these days, it’s really more of a wash.
It’s true that film tends to have more dynamic range in the highlights of images. You can overexpose a film photo and still retain a lot of detail.
But digital photography does better in the shadow areas, allowing you to underexpose and recover detail in post-processing.
One thing to note is that different digital cameras offer varying dynamic range performances.
A full-frame camera like the Nikon D850 has excellent dynamic range, whereas a Canon T7 is going to be a lot less impressive (and less impressive than film).
So it’s a good idea to think about what digital technology you’re comparing to film–before you conclude that one is superior!
Ask anybody why they shoot digitally, and one of the answers you’ll get is price–because digital photography is far cheaper than film photography, or so the argument goes.
But is this true?
As I mentioned above, film medium-format and large-format cameras are much cheaper than their digital counterparts. Sure, the film ends up costing you, but the digital equivalents cost absolutely exorbitant prices.
And when it comes to the up-front costs of shooting film versus digital, film is cheaper–because you can grab a decent film camera, a lens, plus a few rolls of film for a lot less than you can put a digital kit together.
Where this argument starts to fail, however, is when you look at the costs down the line. Film cameras cost less in the beginning, but you have to keep purchasing film and get that film developed over time. So assuming you’re interested in shooting frequently and seeing the shots you make, you’ll soon be paying more for film than you ever would with digital–because with digital you can purchase a memory card and shoot away, often for years without having a problem.
Here’s the bottom line:
Unless you’re interested in medium-format or large-format photography, or unless you only plan on shooting a few frames per month, then digital is going to be cheaper.
This one is another big reason to shoot digital, and it’s one of the primary reasons that I myself am a digital photographer:
It’s convenient. Really, really convenient.
You can stick in a tiny memory card (sometimes two) that hold thousands of photos, then you can fire away–pausing periodically to review your images as they appear on the LCD.
Not only do you avoid having to pay to see your photos appear large, you also can avoid carrying around bags of film while traveling, which is a nightmare to get through airport security.
Plus, being able to review your images as soon as you take them will save you from so much uncertainty and so many mistakes. Instead of shooting a whole roll of film underexposed, you can review the first image you take and, if it’s too dark, you can boost the exposure. You can also make sure there are no distractions that you might have missed through the viewfinder, and you can test out different types of shots, quickly checking to see whether they work or don’t work before proceeding.
High ISO Capabilities
This is a big one for most photographers, because it’s rare to find a genre of photography that doesn’t involve some form of low-light shooting, where you’ll need to push your ISO up, if only occasionally.
And the truth is that film is soundly defeated by digital in this area.
Not only does film have more limited ISO range in general, film also does worse at comparative ISOs, producing more grain when matched up against digital images at the equivalent ISO.
That said, photographers are generally in agreement that the film grain look is far more pleasing than the digital noise look, so you may have some leeway there.
But that doesn’t change the fact that if you’re looking for clean, noise-free images and the ability to shoot once the sun goes down, digital photography is the way to go.
I’ve talked a lot about the big reasons to shoot digital.
But what are the big reasons for working with film? What convinces those few film shooters to keep doing what they’re doing?
The answer, in most cases, is artistry.
With film, you don’t have the added convenience of digital, but film photographers often don’t want that convenience. They like being unable to review an image seconds after it’s been taken. They like to only be able to shoot a few shots before running out of film.
This is because film promotes artistry. It’s slow, and it’s much more deliberate because it’s slow.
Some photographers can’t afford to be slow and can’t afford to be deliberate. If that’s you, then digital is undoubtedly the better route. But if you can afford to take images on film, with only a few shots before your roll runs out, then it’s something you might appreciate. There’s a good chance it’ll improve your ability to see what matters in a scene–because you don’t have the film space to take images of everything you come across.
Note that film photography can also help cement your understanding of technical concepts. Because you’re unable to review your images, you’ll be forced to grapple with exposure, lighting, and composition on a deeper level.
That said, digital photography offers a point in favor of artistry, as well:
Because you can review your images so easily, you can immediately see what you did wrong and what you can change to improve. This can help catapult your images to success far quicker than if you were shooting film.
If you look at a RAW file straight out of a digital camera, it’ll look bland. Uninteresting. Uninspiring.
But if you look at a film print with no adjustments…
It can look amazing.
The film print will look vibrant and sharp, compared to the dullness and softness of a RAW file.
In fact, film photography has a particular look to it–a look that many photographers strive for. For a good sense of what film can do, check out the work of Saul Leiter, a color street photographer who loved pushing film to its limits.
On the other hand, you get a lot of flexibility when post-processing your digital images, and you can make many adjustments, from faded looks to vibrant looks to black and white. Which means you have a lot more latitude to experiment with color.
It’s also worth noting that you can edit your film photos (and a lot of photographers do). So don’t think that digital photography offers the only opportunity to take your unprocessed images to the next level!
Film Versus Digital: Is the Debate Over?
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should have a pretty good idea of the benefits of film photography, the benefits of digital photography, and their respective drawbacks.
And as you probably realize, there is no real end to the debate. It’s certainly the case that digital photography has the overwhelming majority of adherents, and that digital imaging is more convenient and better quality than ever.
But that doesn’t mean that you should write film off. For a photographer who prefers the color of film photography, or a photographer looking for the artistry and technical mastery that film requires, film is still a highly relevant medium.
Neither digital or film is better. They’re just different, and they offer different advantages to different photographers. If you’re the type of photographer who prefers more deliberate, artistic photography, film may be right for you. On the other hand, if you’re a fast-paced photographer who likes to take many photos, digital is going to be the better option.
Absolutely not! There are plenty of photographers that still shoot in film, including a number of very respected professionals. Film has certain advantages, as listed in the article, that digital can’t compete with (though digital has its own advantages!).
Not really. This used to be true, but modern digital sensors have gotten to the point that they can go toe-to-toe with film dynamic range. However, the dynamic range in film tends toward the highlights (as in, it’s difficult to blow out highlights when using film), whereas dynamic range in digital tends toward the shadows (that is, you can recover a lot of shadow detail).
Not really. Old digital sensors were inferior to film in terms of resolution, but now you can buy digital sensors that offer higher resolution than 35mm film. One area where film does do better is in terms of affordable medium format options–digital medium format is ridiculously expensive, whereas film medium format is a lot more accessible, and offers crazy amounts of resolution.
One last note:
While digital may offer higher resolutions compared to film, film resolution is certainly enough for professional-quality prints.
That depends how you look at it. Buying a nice film camera and a few nice film cameras is going to be a lot cheaper than buying digital equivalents. So the up front costs are a lot cheaper. But once you really get going as a film photographer, you’re going to start spending on film and film development, which can quickly become expensive. In the long run, I’d estimate film photography to be more expensive than digital, assuming you shoot and develop your images with some regularity.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.