Since the dawn of widely available commercial cameras in 1999, long heated discussion has arisen over whether or not digital image quality is equal to what is produced by film. So, is film truly superior to film? The answer is yes… and no.
Ways in Which Film is Superior to Digital
• Film is ultimately higher in resolution than digital. So, for making very large prints, film currently can’t be beat. This is especially true for photos which have a lot of texture that needs to be preserved, such as landscapes.
• Film produces a “first-generation” image in that it is a direct representation of the light that entered the camera, unlike digital.
• These days, even very high-end film cameras are usually less expensive or the same cost as a new mid-range DSLR, and will not become obsolete in only a few years time.
• The dynamic range of film, which is its ability to retain details in highlights and shadows, is greater. Also, it is much more forgiving of overexposure and will not blow out the highlights nearly as much as digital will.
• Film is more forgiving of subtle focusing issues.
• You can double-expose film, which is something that the majority of digital cameras simply can’t do.
• Film cameras don’t require nearly as much power to operate, so battery life is much longer than a digital camera.
• Shutter lag is very slightly less than in digital cameras. This used to be a bigger issue than it is now.
• While this is purely subjective, some photographers believe that film is a more “authentic” form of photography. However, the same line of thinking was prominent in the very early days of photography when painters complained that photography was lacking in creativity.
Ways in Which Film is Inferior to Digital
• Film simply takes much more work to create an image.
• Prints from negatives are completely the result of the skills and tastes of the person making the print. Unless you have the facilities to make the prints yourself, you will almost always end up with a result that you didn’t intend. This can basically ruin your image and render it useless to you. The exception to this is slide (transparency) film which is what most professional photographers once used.
• Storing negatives and prints, which all need to be laboriously hand-labeled, can end up taking up lots of space for the avid photographer.
• While it is possible to scan film into your computer and edit your images in software like Photoshop, there will always be some loss of image quality. This is true even if the most expensive professional scanner is used.
• While the initial cost of a film camera is indeed lower, the ongoing cost of buying and processing film will quickly add up to a very large expense.
• No instant gratification. You must wait until the film is developed to see your photos.
Now that we have gone over the various assets and deficiencies inherent in film photography, let’s do the same thing with digital.
Ways in Which Digital is Superior to Film
• Digital photography, for most applications, is much more convenient. You can shoot hundreds, or even thousands, of images and make prints that are a few feet on a side. Also, In this day and age with so much of our work being shared electronically via email and online galleries, digital cameras are ideal.
• The instant gratification of seeing your photos immediately after taking them is very fun for most photographers. Combining this aspect of digital photography with the ability to take as many shots as desired, since each shot costs nothing, can greatly speed up the learning curve for budding photographers.
• Digital cameras are usually lighter and a single memory card can store more photos than many rolls of film.
• It is easy to import your photographs into image editing software such as Photoshop, and there will be no loss of image quality from using a scanner. This also makes it easy to only print the photos you want from a batch, rather than having to print and entire roll of film horrid shots and all.
• EXIF data is recorded for each and every shot by the camera eliminating the need to record it by hand.
• Digital cameras are capable of higher speeds than film, so they perform better in low-light situations. Also, it is very easy to change speed on a digital camera whereas a film camera requires a completely new roll of film.
Ways in Which Digital is Inferior to Film
• Digital cameras do a horrid job of handling highlights sometimes and can cause an abrupt, rather than gradual, switch to white.
• While easy for film, long exposures are a real problem for digital. Digital image sensors have tiny bits of leakage which can add random white dots to your long-exposure photos. Also, long digital exposures can cause a noisier image than film. This can be countered to some extent by operating the camera at low temperatures, but this is not a shooting condition that can be controlled.
• You can lose years of photographic work from a computer crash if you haven’t backed up your files. While film photographers have lost their entire body of work in the rare house fire, this is much rarer than a hard-drive crash. Most people eventually experience a computer crash.
• Digital cameras are generally more expensive than film cameras.
• Most DSLRs save images in a RAW format. Since each camera manufacturer and model has its own RAW formats, storing your photos in this form is probably not a good idea since they will possibly not be readable someday. The JPEG file format is universal however and will likely be readable for years to come.
In conclusion, neither film nor digital is ultimately “better.” Each photographer must choose which photographic format that works for their application, budget and personal preferences. It is indeed ultimately the photographer and not the medium which defines what is quality. While the use of film has significantly declined due to the explosion of digital photography, it is certainly still has its uses and isn’t going away anytime soon.
Rachael Towne is a photographer and the creator of Photoluminary.