If the old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words is true, then the debate over whether that picture is better if shot on film or digitally may be worth several thousand more.
The quality and accessibility of digital cameras has greatly improved over the past few decades. Today, almost everyone seems to have access to a high-quality digital camera via their smartphone. But while many opt for the ease of using digital cameras or their phones to record movies and take photos, others vehemently refuse to join the digital movement.
Professional filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, as well as many artistic photographers, are ardent advocates of “old” film techniques. They feel that the aesthetic and natural texture of the film is lost when the moments and scenes are captured digitally.
However, there are many professional photographers who do not believe that digital and film photography are incompatible or that one method is always better than another.
“In the photography community, there is a lot of confusion about the medium of film versus digital because we talk about these approaches as if they were essentially the same thing,” says designer, photographer and creative director Dan Rubin. “Actually, film and digital are like pen and pencil. You carry them the same way. You can do very similar things with them, but they are completely different tools and suit different purposes.”
Pros of filming
Film photography, also known as analog photography, uses rolls of light-sensitive film to take pictures. When this plastic film is exposed to light, the silver halide crystals inside the film darken, creating a negative image. The negatives are then transferred to a darkroom where liquid chemicals are used to develop and print the images.
Some of the benefits of using film include:
- More control over camera settings. Film gives you complete control over exposure (the amount of light hitting the film), shutter speed, and development process.
- High dynamic range. Film is better at capturing fine detail and color contrast, especially between black and white.
- Lower initial costs. Conventional film cameras are usually cheaper than digital cameras.
- No fear of losing camera power. With the film, you won’t need additional batteries or an alternate power source while shooting for extended periods.
- More meaningful pictures. Film rolls have a limited number of photo exposures. “Photographing with film makes you really think about every frame you take,” says Mike Richards, professional photographer and co-founder of media production agency Templemill. “You have to be alert instead of shooting fast.”
Disadvantages of filming
- The development process takes a long time. Unlike digital cameras where we can see the image immediately after taking it, film photographers have to wait until a lap is developed to see if their shots turned out well.
- More consistent costs over time. Purchasing film rolls constantly will add up over the years. While many believe the extra cost is worth the benefits, some photographers may find purchasing a memory card (for their digital cameras) more economical.
- Fewer photos can be taken at a time. Photographers who want to take multiple shots of one image at a time may find limited film exposure stifling.
Advantages of digital photography
Digital photography simulates filming with electronic sensors to distinguish between light and dark. These sensors take digital images that are stored on a memory card. Digital photos can be easily manipulated or changed after shooting with digital photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom.
Some of the advantages of using digital photography include:
- Unlimited photos. Unlike film cameras, digital cameras are not limited to exposures on each roll of film. You can take thousands of photos, which fit in one small memory card.
- Instant display of photos. Instead of waiting for the film to develop, you can see how your photo has transformed seconds after it was taken.
- Faster learning process. The ability to see your photo instantly helps you spot errors quickly, which means you can learn the right techniques and camera settings faster.
- Lighter equipment. Film cameras tend to be heavier than digital cameras.
- Easy editing after taking pictures. Almost anything is possible with high-quality digital photo editing software. Digital photos are easily transferred to a computer where you can make a lot of changes – from resizing to adjusting contrast and colors until everything meets your expectations.
Disadvantages of digital photography
- higher sensitivity. Digital cameras tend to be more sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, which means they may be less suitable for certain shots and situations such as those in snow, rain or humidity.
- Requires battery power. While you can take many more photos with a digital camera than with a film camera, the amount of time you spend getting the perfect photo may be limited by the camera’s battery life.
- More distraction while taking photos. “Digital photography can be a lot more distracting at the moment because, as a human, I can’t resist the urge to look at what I just photographed,” Robin says.
- The review process is time consuming. When you have hundreds or even thousands of photos after taking the photo, you may spend a lot of time going through the review process just to remove the photos and find the best shot before you start editing.
What is the right image medium for you?
To help you decide which medium is best for you, consider the following:
- pattern. Define your style as a photographer. What you prefer can be achieved more easily with one medium over another. For example, old-style photography is much easier with black and white film, while abstract photography is more suited to digital editing capabilities.
- Skill. Analyze your current skill level and how much you want to learn. Digital photography usually requires familiarity with image editing software, while rolls of film can be sent to imaging labs to be developed.
- time. Consider the amount of time you want to devote to photography. Some photographers like to invest their time in taking the photo while others focus more on producing the photo after it has been taken: in editing.
If you’re still not sure which medium is more “you,” don’t be afraid to experiment with film and digital together. You might be surprised how much you can enjoy both ways of taking pictures.
“The value of your final image is not related to the medium you use,” Richards says. “You can get amazing – albeit different – pieces of art using film and digital equipment. Photography is about taking your unique inspirations and making them your own. This is what will make your final photo memorable.”