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Yes Please

There is an age-old argument between photographers – film vs digital. Some swear by film photography and the rest only use digital cameras. There are only a few who work with both.

Since the dawn of technology brought us digital sensors, film photographers have been swapping their old systems for new.

Were they right in doing so? How is the battle going of film vs digital photography? A better question would be, Why are you photographing via digital rather than film?

In the last decade, or even longer, film photography has been making a come back. More and more people are acquiring and digging out their old capture machines to use in our modern, advanced world.

Why is that? Is it similar to the fact that vinyl records still sell more than CDs? What is it with our passion for analogue?

A film photography camera with roll of film on wooden table - film vs digital photography

Resolution

One of the biggest questions that pops up in this argument is the comparison of resolution.

How does a roll of film compare to a digital sensor anyway? Photographers from both disciplines want to know that their image is sharp and of high resolution and quality.

Digital sensors measure their resolution in the number of pixels they house. Film doesn’t use pixels, so we need to use what we call ‘angular resolution’.

Each different digital sensor gives you different resolutions, and the same goes for different film types.

Depending on the film type used, you can see analogue film ranging between 4 and 16 million pixels.

For example, the Kodachrome 64 film has an effective comparison of around 10 megapixels. Entry level DSLRs, such as the Canon EOS Rebel T7i has a resolution of 24.2 MP. Film doesn’t quite cut it.

A multicolored pixelated image - film vs digital camera comparison
What we do find, are the analogue photographers who work in areas that demand a high-resolution image, tend to use medium or large formats.

These negative sizes are not 35mm like the small format but are much bigger.

Medium format can reach a whopping 18cm x 6cm (other choices include 6cm x 4.5 cm, 6cm x 6cm and 6cm x 7cm) and large format 4″ x 5″ (10.16 cm x 12.7 cm). These will yield a much bigger resolution.

Medium format has the capacity to produce an unfathomable 400 Megapixels. Ironically, it is the digital world which limits this.

When scanned in, the digital version falls somewhere between 50 and 80 Megapixels. Large format reaches 200 Megapixels, even after scanning.

looking through the viewfinder of an old film camera

The outcome? The film camera that your father passed on to you will not by any means outperform modern digital camera resolutions.

However, a medium or large format will surpass them easily.

On the flip side, resolution and megapixels only really count when printing your images in large sizes. You can find more information about printing here.

Basically, my second-hand Mamiya medium format analogue camera ($250) has a higher resolution that Phase One’s latest system ($40,000).

A mamiya film camera with a roll of film beside it on white background

Digital Noise / Film Grain

Small, unwanted textures in your captured image are referred to as grain (film) or noise (digital). In film, this is the result of small chemical particles not receiving enough light.

With digital, the noise is a result of visual distortion. It could also come from the circuity trying to deal with a lack of light. Also, noise is born from the inability of the sensor handling rebellious signals in the airwaves.

A low light concert photography shot of the cheering crowd

By increasing ISO, or using a high-speed film makes your images more susceptible to noise and grain.

Noise is unwanted in most cases, but when it comes to recreating a retro theme or capturing a black and white image, grain adds a certain je ne sais quoi.

Digital cameras have now evolved passed film equivalent grain film speeds. Yet, the noise depends on the digital sensor, so older models are less efficient.

Two computers set up on a wooden desk in an office

Dynamic Range

The high level of dynamic range has always been the easy choice to choose film over digital. Until now. This is a complex process, as there are many factors that digital photography use.

These include the use of high-end sensors, powerful file compressors and digital algorithms. These keep the dynamic range and contrast ratio higher in digital systems.

Comparing film and digital, the analogue systems utilise a dynamic range of 13 stops. The digital younger cousins bask in a range of 14 stops, with the Sony A7R III mirrorless system almost reaching 15.

Film has a had a good run with dynamic range, but digital cameras can easily match it.

Roger N. Clark conducted tests in 2005, which showed that high-end digital cameras showed a huge dynamic range. These are compared to analogue scans and prints, specifically Kodak Gold 200 and Fujichrome Velvia.

An advantage that digital cameras have over analogue systems is that they capture sequential shots (HDR, Fusion, focus stacking) to create exceptionally high dynamic range images.

A stunning mountainous landscape taken from a high angle

Film Speed

Analogue film is available at speeds between 50 and 3200 ISO, yet you can find 6400. You can also ‘uprate’ the film, by pushing the ISO speed, subsequently developing the film for longer.

This does affect the contrast, creating images for a specific look. Art rather than editorial. Today, digital cameras match the grain produced by analogue cameras in these ranges. Their sensitivity can also reach much higher.

Consumer digital cameras, such as the Nikon D5, can produce images with an ISO of 3.2 Million Megapixels. Although, you won’t want to use over 409,600.

A person pointing a Nikon DSLR at the camera

Digital cameras have the greatest advantage. You are able to change ISO back and forth as you see fit, managing every new scene well. With analogue systems, you have to finish the 24/35 exposures to change the film.

Medium format cameras have interchangeable backs, but even then, there is a limit. They are bulky, heavy and not exactly cheap. Large format cameras use sheet film, so there is no limitation on film usage and changing ISO quickly.

But there is a limit in how many sheets you can carry, let alone the available film in this size.

A tripod with film camera pointing towards a stunning mountainous landscape

Costs

Costs are one of the biggest factors to consider when looking at analogue and digital camera systems. We need to look at what images you will capture and how many.

Also, who they are for, what time-frame you have and what your budget is for said images. these points will help you choose between the two systems.

The digital world has a high cost up front, and then it becomes relatively cheap, if not free, after the initial cost. Here, a mirrorless system, such as the Sony AR7 III costs almost $3,000.

On top of that, you need memory cards, lenses and batteries. Other extras are optional, but a computer is necessary.

Of course, you don’t need to spend that amount. An entry-level Nikon camera such as the D3400 costs less than $400.

A Nikon D3400 camera on white background

With film cameras, the costs are expensive, but a little more spread out. If you found a decent 35mm camera in a thrift store and paid $50 for it, you may feel pretty happy.

However, the more you use an analogue camera, the more expensive it becomes. The film itself isn’t cheap, and then you need to think about development and scanning.

You can save by developing and scanning the images yourself. But then chemicals and extra equipment still cost money, and you will need to buy or rent a scanner.

This works out cheaper than handing the roll to a company to process, but it is time-consuming. And time = money.

A photo scanning machine for digitizing film photos - film vs digital

You may feel that you need to update your digital system every few years, even if it is unnecessary.

A camera from a decade ago will produce prints that will offer great quality at 8×10″. If that is your aim, a new system is redundantly expensive.

If you own an analogue camera and take 180 images, that could equal up to $45 when purchasing Kodak Portra 400 Professional film.

Then you need to weigh in the extra costs to get a digital image to share online. With a digital camera, you just need charged batteries. More film = more money.

An overhead view of many rolls of film - Kodak, Fuji and lomography

For $20, a CF memory card is available, allowing you to capture 160 images. This is half the price of the film, yet this is reusable.

Your analogue cameras are more likely to stand the test of time. I have cameras from the 1950s, which would be great if the film wasn’t in such short supply and thus astronomically expensive.

With film, photographers tend to be more pragmatic. Why shoot 20 when you get the shot in one or two. The benefit here is that you learn to become a better photographer all the time.

Speaking of time, waiting for labs to return developed films could take days, meaning a longer gap between turnovers.

A stream of film photography negatives in a studio setting

Convenience

Think about your workflow. If you use a digital system, it is very fast, convenient and efficient to capture a scene, edit and share on social media.

If you use your phone, this process can take 10 minutes.

The same process with analogue could be 30 mins-three hours for capturing, three days for processing, 30 mins for scanning and another 30 mins for editing.

At the fastest, it would take over three days and a lot of waiting. As I mentioned before, you can process the films yourself. But this is time-consuming.

So instead of filling the waiting times with more photography, you are stuck agitating a light-proof canister.

overhead view of kodachrome slides

By using an analogue system, you need to take extra things into account. When I use my Mamiya C330 TLR camera, I need to know the different types of film for colour casts and profiles. I also need a light metre as there isn’t one built into the camera.

It’s all manual focus, meaning that some shots are going to be harder to capture. Plus I cant ‘pray and spray’. To develop the film myself, I need extra equipment, taking up space.

I need to know about developing chemicals and development times. Not to mention the workable temperature range of said chemicals.

On top of this, I need a dust free environment to dry the negatives.

When it comes to digitalising, I need a scanner. This means research, money and more space. And then I need to know how to use it properly. The negatives need to be properly stored after necessary cleaning.

For some people, all this is a fun learning curve. For others, it is an unnecessary hassle.

A close up of film photography negatives

Advantages/Disadvantages

Looking at digital systems Vs. analogue, there are advantages and disadvantages to both systems.

Advantages of Film Advantages of Digital
Low initial cost Point and shoot resolutions produce large prints
Do not require batteries Lighter than film cameras
Will work in extreme heat/cold Memory cards don’t require much physical space
More forgiving of minor focusing issues Memory cards store more images than a dozen rolls of film
Forces you to learn more Can view images immediately
Tougher cameras for bumps and scrapes Can edit images immediately in camera
Do not require computer technology Many offer built-in filters
Disadvantages to Film Disadvantages to Digital
Tend to be heavier cameras People tend to ‘pray and spray’
Film takes up physical space Requires computer skills
Continuing cost of film Digital images easily lose detail in whites and blacks
Takes longer to see captures Some are difficult to focus
Dependant on a lab if no darkroom Digital storage can be lost easily
Many do not have inbuilt light metres Poor focusing in low light conditions
Many models do not allow autofocus Need batteries
Negatives last an infinite amount of time Doesn’t work in extreme conditions

Conclusion

Film was once the height of photographic technology. Without it, we wouldn’t have digital photography in any way, shape or form.In many ways, digital photography has surpassed film photography. This is in terms of resolution, cost and convenience.

Yet, film photography still holds on to a huge following, growing to this day. The problem with film photography is that many camera and film manufacturers are stopping their film production.

There is only a small portion of original film types left available. These become more and more expensive each year. Kodak and Fujifilm eliminate their film faster and faster. Other types, such as Polaroid Instant film, are now just an urban legend.

The changing of the times from analogue systems to digital ones is not a new concept. It happened with typewriters, fax machines and even the creative areas such as film and music. Some people hold on strong to the old ways.

Saying that, there are still companies, such as Lomography, that release film camera after film camera, year after year.

A classic Polaroid instant camera on white background

I feel that I have the best of both worlds. Digital photography when I am working with clients, for a faster turnaround of work. Analogue photography for when I can take my time and savour every moment. Good things take time.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer currently based in Budapest. His favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto

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