Film really kickstarted photography while digital sensors brought photography to the mainstream. Of course, there were other early photographic processes, such as the Collodion process. However, those are out of the scope of this post. There have been quite some discussions about film vs digital. However, no one ever reached a consensus. Both film and digital sensors have their place in photography. Film is a more personal and artistic medium with which I fell in love with. While digital sensors are a faster, cheaper and versatile medium. After using them both for longer than a year each, I feel comfortable to share how they both differ from each other.
Film Grain/Digital Noise
We all know grain and digital noise when we look at them. They are present in film and digital mediums, respectively. Film grain is the result of small particles of a metallic silver that received enough light for them to show. Digital noise originates from unwanted signals created by the camera’s circuitry.
Want to have more film grain? Then slightly underexpose a stop or two or overexpose the film a lot. When underexposing film, the smaller silver particles don’t receive enough light and are washed away while developing the film. This results in film with only the larger silver particles, which emphasize the grain. When overexposing, you excite the silver particles, making them more noticeable.
Want to have more digital noise? You can use an older digital camera which is self-explanatory – old sensors aren’t as good as the most recent ones. Shoot with a High ISO to also see that beautiful digital noise. And don’t forget to do long exposures! These introduce static and also get increased noise due to the increase of sensor temperature. In contrast with film grain, I can’t really see a reason to get digital noise.
So who wins between film vs digital in film grain/digital noise? If you wish for clean photos, then digital is the way. If you want to add some character to your photos, then film can be a better option. It all depends on the look you wish to get. But keep in mind that digitally made grain isn’t the same as the real deal. Some photographers will get it, but most people won’t.
We as photographers often want our photographs to be sharp and with a high resolution. With digital it’s very easy to know the resolution by simply counting the number of pixels. However, it’s not as straightforward to measure with film photos as it’s an analog medium. So, the only way to know it’s to scan and then measure it.
Scanners that scan the film limit can limit its resolution as well as the film stock itself. Different types of scanners have different sharpness and effective scanning resolution which can affect greatly the quality of each scan. The film stock and its speed also greatly affect their resolution. It can vary between 7 to 16MP in 35mm film according to Roger N. Clark’s excellent analysis. As most digital cameras that are available today have more than 16MP, 35mm film doesn’t have an advantage in resolution.
However, medium and large format film start to turn the tables in favor of film. They are able to achieve 50-80MP and 200MP scans, respectively. This is one of the reasons why film photographers often go for these formats over 35mm.
So, what about film vs digital for resolution? If you want loads of resolution with small entry cost, then go for medium or large format cameras. Between 35mm and digital cameras, the latter is the best option for resolution.
Dust is the Achilles’ heel of digital sensors. Everyone has them eventually and how often it happens depends on how you use your camera. Do you have small dark spots in your photos that always seem to shop up? If they’re constantly in the same location, then you have dust on your camera sensor. It’s true that most cameras have a system to shake the sensor a bit to remove some of the dust. Unfortunately, it’s not enough sometimes.
If your film camera is relatively clean, you won’t get any dust particles in your shots. Why? Because film is constantly advancing as you keep taking shots. This is the opposite of digital where the sensor doesn’t move. However, if your camera is in a critical state where it has debris like dust and sand inside of it, it can actually damage your entire roll of film. I also need to add that, while printing and scanning film, you need to clean your film. This can be done with an air blower or a specialized cloth. If you don’t do anything, you’ll end up with dust in your final images.
What about film vs digital for dust and artifacts? There’s no clear winner here. However, I end up more upset when I have dust on my camera sensor than dust on my film scans. The latter can easily be fixed in post-editing or by recleaning and rescanning the negative again.
Many people mistake exposure latitude with dynamic range. Dynamic range is the difference in stops between the darkest and lightest parts of a photograph. This means how much of the photo we can recover by editing in post. Currently, the highest achieved dynamic range in full-frame digital cameras is 14.8EV, which is quite a lot! Almost 15 full stops of captured information? What about film, do we have any info on it?
I tried to cite this topic from several sources, but I only found this one which was the only one by Roger N. Clarke that really measured dynamic range and not exposure latitude. Mr. Clarke revealed that the dynamic range of film is far less than we’d think and I’m not surprised by it. He found out that, for instance, Kodak Gold had a dynamic range of 7 stops. And also that Fujichrome Velvia retained 5 stops of dynamic information.
Between film vs digital, which is the best for dynamic range? It is clear that digital wins in dynamic range which is great for landscape photography! We can also discuss how much dynamic range we really need in our day-to-day photos and how we can use it without making the photos into those over the top HDR examples that we see now and then.
Exposure latitude is how much we can under & overexpose a photo and still fit it within the dynamic range of the medium. Film has a larger exposure latitude than digital, mainly when it’s overexposed. Film can be normally be overexposed by 2 stops without any noticeable difference, but the same doesn’t happen when you underexpose it by 2 stops. Underexposed film will start to have muddy colors and lots of grain, which can be interesting for some but not for the majority.
Overexposing with a digital sensor means that you’ll start losing detail in the highlights very quickly, but you can underexpose quite a lot. But be prepared to have lots of noise and muddy colors. This is why in film you should meter for the shadows and recover the highlight in post-editing and do the opposite with digital.
In film vs digital, regarding exposure latitude, it is clear that film is a winner here. However, keep in mind that digital cameras now have excellent metering which mitigates a lot the number of wrongly exposed photos. There is an interesting article in petapixel that shows a metering test study made by the photographer Bill Lawson in case you want to see how film’s exposure latitude compares with digital through a 21 stop test! Note that the author mistakenly talks about dynamic range and is referring instead to exposure latitude.
Film Speed / ISO
When it comes to film speed / ISO in film vs digital, the latter wins hands down. The versatility of being able to change the ISO from 64 up to 12800+ makes digital very attractive. While with film, you are mostly stuck to a fixed film speed. However, I have to add that due to film’s exposure latitude, you can expose a film to slower speeds. While keep getting good results! An example would be exposing Portra 400 between 400 and 100 ISO. Many photographers do this and ideally at the same speed throughout the roll for consistency.
I would very rarely consider shooting film indoors or at night due to how many light changes. Also because most films are balanced for daylight! Yes, there is a famous film stock balanced for tungsten lights – Cinestill 800T – and I like it! However, it’s an expensive and niche film for me.
I have to add that you can also shoot film at faster film speeds. However, you really have to compensate for that in development. Let’s say that you have a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400. You can shoot it at 1600, which is a popular choice mainly for street photography. But to do so, you have to ask to develop or develop yourself for that speed instead of 400. People call this pushing film and push development. In such cases, you are basically underexposing your film and increasing the contrast and grain. This results in photographs with a distinct look which I do love.
Cost is certainly a critical point to distinguish both cases. It’s challenging to know how much one is more expensive than the other. It really depends on what you want to shoot and how much you will shoot.
Digital allows you to take as many photos as you like without spending any money which is a big plus! Well, at least until your shutter dies. Then you need to replace it but fortunately, I never had to go through it. However, the upfront price of each body and new lenses can be very, very expensive. You can buy an entry-level camera with an 18-55mm kit lens such as the Nikon D3500 for about 300$/€. But I bet you want more than that and prepare to pay triple of that value.
Film cameras can be very cheap upfront. You can easily get a good SLR camera and a prime lens for about 50-100$/€. This is a very friendly entry price! However, it can get very expensive as you shoot more and more. Let’s face it, film and film cameras are getting more expensive. Even worse, film development and scanning aren’t cheap as well! You can reduce the costs of film development and scanning by doing them yourself. However, it will require some investment and will take a lot of your time.
Digital kind of lures you into buying new camera bodies every two years or so. While film cameras will probably endure the test of time. I have a Mamiya six folder that it’s from the 1940-1950s that functions beautifully.
Who wins in film vs digital regarding cost? The best choice really depends on your style of shooting. Will you shoot a lot? Then go digital. Will you shoot 35mm and not that much? Then a 35mm film camera will be a lot cheaper. Will you shoot medium format? It will be more expensive than digital. And so on.
This is an important topic and I think the winner is clear on this one. You can take a photograph, edit and share it on social media very fast if you use a digital camera. If you have a phone with you, you can even send a photo from your digital camera to your phone. This allows you to edit and share a photograph even faster!
Oh, film can be a pain if you’re not in the mood for it. First, you have to finish up your roll of film which can range from a few hours to a week or more! Then you need to have it developed! You can either: get it developed yourself (1 hour), to go to a local lab (~1 day) or send to a lab (up to a week). Following that, you have to scan it! If you develop it at home, you’ll need around 30-60 minutes to scan a roll of 35mm film. The labs can also scan your film, so it will be quicker (and depending on the lab, also better than scanning it yourself).
Finally, you have to edit the scanned film! Lab scans are usually flat so that you can edit at your leisure. This means more 30-60 minutes in your film photography workflow! Phew, that is quite a lot, isn’t it?
In film vs digital, digital is more convenient than film! But there are some who really like this workflow of delayed gratification and craftsmanship before seeing their final results!
Final Thoughts on Film vs Digital
It’s clear that digital cameras revolutionized photography in a very good way. They seem to beat film in most aspects, except resolution (in medium and large formats), exposure latitude and dust issues. However, photography can be more than just technical aspects and I’ve learned to see through them. Sometimes it is more important how you feel when you shoot digital or film and if that satisfies you. You can even decide to use both digital and film cameras as I do. The decision is up to you.