Film vs. Digital: Benefits and Drawbacks

As a photographer, you need to understand both photographic mediums

Taking pictures is like magic. You’re able to freeze a moment in time, immortalizing it forever. These days using film vs. digital is only a consideration if you’re interested in increasing and expanding your photography skills beyond what’s immediately available.

The truth is, the way we take pictures has changed drastically as the world moved on from primarily using cameras with film to digital photography.

Today the average consumer will most likely snap a picture on their smartphone and never even consider using a film camera.

A Revolution in Photography

Cost and convenience are the primary reasons why people typically (photographers included) choose digital photography over film.

Not only do you pay to acquire and develop film, but you also have no idea what your picture looks like until it’s developed. Sadly, not knowing what you need to improve upon immediately is likely to result in wasted film.

Trust us: 

There’s been more than one roll tossed aside because an amateur photographer used the wrong film speed or camera setting and ended up with unusable images.

No wonder digital photography quickly took over as the technology advanced.

Talk about instant gratification. 

And who doesn’t always have their smartphone camera with them, making it easy to capture moments and share them on social media?

Everyone uses digital photography

Not only can the photographer immediately make adjustments as they see fit with digital technology, but there's also the advantage of limitless photos. 

Best of all, if you make a mistake all you need to do is note the adjustment and delete the bad photo. 

Indeed, even professional photographers welcome these advancements to their industry brought on by digital technology.

Nevertheless —

If you’re a budding photographer, it’s to your benefit to understand how to use both digital

and analog photography mediums. Then you can decide for yourself if film vs. digital is even a question.

Once you home in on the advantages and disadvantages of each, you may decide to use film vs. digital depending on your needs.

Film photography: The Basics

Think of the inside of a camera as a dark place, where the light is only allowed to penetrate at specific intervals for limited amounts of time.

A lens (1) is attached to the camera’s body and covers the opening where the light enters. As the shutter opens and closes, light passes through the lens into the camera. 

But that’s not all —

Exposing the film to light causes a chemical reaction that burns an impression onto the film.

As you might imagine, there are various ways to control the amount of light and exposure the film receives.

Light and Exposure

First, the aperture regulates how much light enters the camera as it acts much like the pupil of our eyes, dilating and retracting. Consequently, aperture settings depend on lighting conditions, among other things. 

In other words, like our pupils, bright light calls for a smaller aperture opening; conversely, if it’s dark you’ll open the aperture to allow more light to penetrate.

Next, use the F-stop (2) to set the aperture opening on the lens. Each number represents a stop on the aperture: 11, 8, 5.6, 4, 2.8, 1.8 and so on.

What’s more —

The smaller numbers represent a larger aperture opening and vice versa. So an F-stop of 2.8 will let in more light than an F-stop of 11.

Fair enough?

And we don't stop there —

Shutter speed regulates how long the film is exposed to the light that the aperture lets into the camera. 

To put it simply —

The shutter is a series of doors that are timed to open and close with a choice of settings from 30 seconds to 1/4000 seconds.

Understanding Film Speeds

Since we’re thinking about light, it’s a good time to talk about film speeds (ISO) because that’s how we denote the film’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO (3) the less sensitive the film is to light.

What this means for you —

As a general rule of thumb, if you’re shooting with film on a bright day, use an ISO film speed of 100 or less. Similarly, if you’re shooting a dark interior, or at night, 800 to 3200 ISO is your best bet.

Of course, there’s a lot of variables since the ISO, F-stop, and shutter speed all work together to deliver light to the film and set off a chemical reaction that creates the image.

Truthfully, as a beginner, you can grab a roll of 400-speed film for a middle of the road ISO and adjust the F-stop, and shutter speed, even use a flash if necessary to get the proper exposure for your image.

Then, once you feel comfortable with the way the settings interact with each other, you can move on to another speed film and experiment some more.

Capturing a Clear, Crisp Image

Resolution is the term that describes the clarity of a photograph; the higher the resolution, the clearer the image. When it comes to film, resolution capabilities vary with the size of the camera.

So this makes all the difference —

There are three types of film cameras: 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) (4), medium format, and large format.

A medium or large format film camera produces high-resolution photos that surpass that of any digital camera; however, if that quality image is scanned it loses resolution. 

The thing is, these larger cameras are excellent if you want to make incredible prints in sizes over 11’ x 14’; however, they’re overkill if you’re going to scan the image for use online.

Try a 33mm SLR

As it turns out, when you're new to film photography, there’s no need to invest in a medium or large format camera until you gain some basic skills, as you’ll get excellent photos and save some money using a 35mm SLR.

Plus, there are still lots of great 35mm SLR cameras on the market and you’ll find that refurbished SLRs tend to be less expensive than their digital counterparts.

By the way —

You’re just as likely to find an SLR packed away somewhere. So don’t be afraid to put out the word if you want to try using a film camera. Someone you know may have one they'll gift you.

Interchangeable Lenses

Once you have your film camera, you’ll soon find that there’s a wide variety of lenses that enhance your photography. 

For example, the basic 50mm (5) lens for a 35mm SLR delivers an image akin to looking at an object with your eyes. A zoom lens, such as one that has a range from 28 to 70mm can bring objects that are far away, up close and personal.

You can get even closer to your subject with a macro lens in the range of 90mm to 105mm, and closer still with a macro lens of 150mm to 200mm.

Of course, you can also use a wide angle lens that all fall below the 35mm range, from 28mm, down to 14mm. Not to mention, many photographers enjoy the distortion of a fisheye lens.

As you can see there are plenty of creative options when it comes to choosing a lens.

Trends in Film Photography

Despite the ease with which we use digital photography, film photography is holding on and many believe it’s making a comeback. 

In fact, with the advent of 3-D printers (6), those discontinued camera parts may not pose a problem as manufacturers could utilize this technology to produce them as needed.

In the long run, using a camera that takes film gives you an opportunity to learn the mechanics of photography. 

Beyond that, film cameras are popular to collect because there are so many makes and models to choose from and they all have their own quirks. So the possibilities for creating art are endless.

To sum up this overview, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of film photography:

PROS

CONS

  •  35mm SLR cameras are inexpensive
  •  A wide range of makes and models
  •  Manual settings force you to learn the mechanics of photography
  •  Can develop your own film and gain more opportunities for creative processing
  •  Can’t adjust ISO because it’s film-based
  •  No batteries needed to shoot
  •  Works in extreme weather conditions
  •  Film cameras are heavier than digital cameras
  •  There’s no way to tell if your photo looks good before it’s developed
  •  It’s easy to waste film
  •  The number of photos is limited to each roll of film (up to 36 pictures)
  •  Photos must be scanned to share online
  •  No automatic options
  •  Experimenting is costly due to wasted film

Digital photography: What You’ll Need

Now that you have a basic understanding of how a film camera works, as well as what is good and not so good about film photography, we can compare film vs. digital.

First off, we’ll start with the DSLR camera, which as you can probably guess is the digital version of the 35mm SLR film camera.

The two cameras operate under the same basic premise as far as using a combination of ISO, F-stop, and shutter speed to achieve the end result. 

Similarly, a digital DSLR has interchangeable lenses, which correspond to the analog versions.

Ultimately, the defining difference between the two mediums is that the digital version records the image in pixels instead of setting off a chemical reaction that burns an image onto film.

Pixels and Resolution

Similar to film speed in an analog camera, the size of a digital camera’s sensor dictates resolution. Entry level DSLRs typically have a resolution of 12 to 24 MP (7). In comparison, film speeds in a 35mm SLR result in a range between 7 and 16 MP.

The takeaway? Entry-level digital cameras have higher resolution than entry-level film cameras, though they both are capable of producing gorgeous prints up to 11 x 14 inches.

Digital Manipulation

If there’s no film in the camera then it makes sense that the ISO is adjusted digitally instead of being a function of the film. 

Indeed, all the functions are digitally handled and can even be set to automatic and hybrid variations of automatic and manual settings, unlike film cameras which are strictly manual.

Another advantage of digital manipulation is that you can essentially change film speeds from photo to photo without having to finish a roll of film. 

Think about it —

You can drastically change the lighting set-up, go from daylight to a dark room, and never have to change film rolls.

On the other hand, increasing the ISO causes a loss of resolution and as a result, you may see unwanted coloring known as digital noise or pixelation of the image.

Image Storage

Another consideration with digital cameras is how the images are stored. With film, the images are all on the roll. You develop the roll of film into negatives and pull the photos from there.

In the digital world, images are stored on a scan disc or SD card. 

Here’s the kicker —

A memory card can hold more photos than a dozen rolls of film and they’re small requiring very little space for storage (8).

And that’s not even the best part.

Trends and Techniques

Not only can you easily take photographs with digital cameras, because of the automatic settings, but you can also just as easily take time-lapse photos. Plus, you can use the camera as a video camera as well.

Digital cameras are great for product photography, social sharing, and even making YouTube videos. Of course, if your primary objective is making videos, you might want to think about which DSLR works best for your needs.

Metering modes, histograms, and white balance

Another advantage of digital photography is the option to use metering modes (9), which essentially direct your camera’s vision beyond the exposure settings using ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

Combined with metering modes, using the histogram helps to achieve perfect exposure, white balance, and color balance too.

Indeed, the ability to adjust the settings on the photo via the LED screen is one of the great advantages of digital photography.

But wait, there’s more —

White balance is one thing that doesn't work as well automatically and it has a dramatic effect on the color (warmth or coolness) of your photograph. 

So keep in mind that you’ll need to learn how to achieve the correct white balance manually as it will almost certainly be necessary.

Now then, let’s see how the pros and cons compare to those of film photography.

PROS

CONS

  • Take as many pictures as you want at a time
  • Can edit or delete the image in camera
  • High resolution
  •  Lighter than film cameras
  • Can adjust the ISO in between photos
  • Automatic and hybrid auto/manual options
  • Can easily share online
  • Prints up to 11” X 14”
  • DSLRs are expensive, starting at around $350 and ranging upward in the thousands
  • Easy to snap pictures without much thought, just use automatic
  • Need computer knowledge
  • Can be difficult to focus
  • Not as many details as film when shooting in black and white
  • Loses resolution and pixelates at higher ISOs
  • Needs batteries
  • Doesn’t work in extreme weather conditions
  • Digital storage can get lost or corrupted

The Big Picture

There are those who swear by film photography and are certain that digital will never compare. 

Likewise, people who use digital cameras regularly may see no need to try film.

You may find that your choice of film vs digital comes down to a love of creating with your hands, as in the manual process of shooting and developing film.

On the other hand, you may be driven by the instant gratification and the creative power that digital technology possesses. 

The bottom line is that photography is a kind of magic that happens in the camera, but also takes place in the eye of the photographer. So, whichever you choose is the right choice. What matters most of all, is taking the time to understand each medium so you can use them to your advantage.

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