Film is Better than Digital: 5 Situations

Posted on 12 April 2010 by Brian Auer

Last week, that guy over at Epic Edits posted an article titled “Digital is Better than Film: 5 Situations“. Though his points are valid for the most part, he failed to mention when film outranks digital.

The 5 situations for digital preference were: when you need to shoot a lot of photos, when lighting conditions change rapidly, when traveling for long periods of time, when you need a quick turnaround, and when you don’t want to spend the money.

In doing some research, I found that Ken Rockwell has a lengthy article on the film vs digital topic, and the Wired Gadget Lab has Five Reasons Film Cameras Are Still Better Than Digital. Now let’s take a look at 5 situations when a photographer might choose film over digital.

1. When You Need Higher Quality Images

If you compare the latest full-frame dSLR cameras to 35mm film, the digital output will usually be of higher quality. But the 135 film format is considered a “miniature” format and has not been widely used for professional high-quality work (there are exceptions such as street photography, photojournalism, and I’m sure a few others).

When film photographers want higher quality, they’ll usually turn to medium and large formats. These formats outperform digital counterparts in cost while producing similar quality. A medium format image on film is superior to the best full-frame dSLR. Large format is a whole different world — the amount of equivalent resolution provided by a large format image is insane.

Think about it from a numbers standpoint… a 2.25×2.25″ medium format film image scanned at 4000dpi will result in an 81MP digital image. A 4×5″ large format at 4000dpi will result in a 320MP digital image. And an 8×10″ large format at 4000dpi will result in a 1280MP digital image. Also take into account that a good optical enlargement will be better than a good scan and digital print.

2. When You Want to Learn More than the Basics

Digital can be a great way to learn photography. You have the quick feedback and low expense for experimentation… I’m not arguing that these things are great for learning the ropes.

But I would argue that upper level learning is more rapid when shooting film. You’re forced to slow down and think about what you’re doing. You plan ahead a little more because you have a limited number of frames to shoot (and no delete button). Now pick up an older camera with no automatic controls and you really start to think about what you’re doing.

Sure, you can shoot with manual controls on a digital camera, but it’s different when you don’t have the option to flip the “auto switch” back on. Focus, exposure, DOF, composition, subject matter… they all become vitally important when shooting film and you only have once chance to get the shot.

3. When You Want to Experiment with Alternative Process

Creative Commons License photo credit: Brian Auer

Digital has the ability to process each image in an infinite number of ways. You can do black & white, super-saturation, low-saturation, fake xpro, fake bleach bypass, fake Lomo, etc. This is cool and all, but it’s still not a true alternative process.

When you shoot film, you make decisions along the way that ultimately affect the outcome of your images… the film, the exposure, the chemicals, and the process all play an important role in the outcome. Black and white film photography is highly variable depending on which film you choose, under/over exposure, push/pull processing, and the developer used. Color negative and slide films are much the same in their variability.

I can take one type of film and produce several drastically different results just by changing how the film is processed. Slide film can be cross processed with non-deterministic results and wildly variable colors. Color negative film can be bleach bypassed to produce interesting and also non-deterministic results. Presets and actions can’t mimic the outcome of alternative processing real film — they can only estimate and generalize.

4. When You Want to Technology-Proof Your Photos

I have to admit, the new digital cameras are really awesome… but that’s what we said 5 years ago too. Anybody out there still have a 5-10 year old dSLR? I do! And I have to say that those 6MP of professional-level quality just don’t stand up to today’s expectations.

Film, on the other hand, is exactly what it is — always. Scanners and optical enlarger equipment will certainly improve over time, but that doesn’t make the image on film any less valuable or of any lower quality. You can go back and re-scan a frame of film with a bigger and better scanner, but you can’t go back and improve a low quality digital image.

My point here is that existing film images can continue to improve as technology improves, but existing digital images can’t — they’re far more finite and defined.

5. When You Have G.A.S.

I Don't Have A Problem...
Creative Commons License photo credit: Brian Auer

Photographers are notorious for having GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). If you’re a digital photographer, your choices are typically limited to a relatively small line of lenses and accessories that fit your chosen camera body. Those bits of gear also happen to be quite expensive and I know very few photographers with more than half a dozen lenses.

Film photographers are a bit of a different story. We tend to buy a multitude of old cameras and lenses for one reason or another. Most of the time, they’re extremely cheap and in decent condition. Some of us collect specific brands of cameras, others collect certain types, and others will grab up anything that looks interesting. But one thing is generally common — they’re old cameras, and they’re still fully capable of producing outstanding images.

So What’s the Deal?

Is there really a clear-cut answer to the digital-vs-film debate? No, there never will be. We could all go back and forth for years on this stuff.

The important thing to recognize here is that film and digital still have their unique advantages over one another. What you shoot will likely depend on personal preferences and needs. My only hope is that the lines become more blurred between digital and film until we’re all just photographers who use the best medium and equipment for a particular need.

Do you have reasons for shooting one format over another? Are you more digital than film, or the other way around?

Categorized | Features, Other Stuff

17 Comments For This Post

  1. keros Says:

    wait, what about digital medium format?


    Tomas Webb Reply:

    My understanding is that while MF digital is amazingly high quality, I can’t imagine it being as good quality as a 4×5 drum scan. I could be wrong though!

    And don’t forget the prices of MF digital versus the prices of MF, LF and ULF (Ultra Large Format) in terms of start up costs.


    Janne Reply:

    Digital MF gets you in about the same range as 6×7 film – 40-50mp or thereabouts. Which is great, of course, and already well past the point of necessity for nearly all uses of an image. You’ll be able to work faster than with film since you don’t need to develop to get feedback.

    But that shorter turnaround time comes at a substantial cost. By far the cheapest MF camera – priced but not yet released – is the Pentax 645D, at about 850k yen ($9000 and change), and they specifically state that they sacrifice a little performance in order to get the price and features to where non-studio users and amateurs could consider one. A digital Hasselblad or Mamiya is going to cost you two or three times as much.

    By comparison, even a brand new, in-box Pentax 67 or Mamiya is going to cost only a third or a fourth of that Pentax, and much less than the high-end brands. Even if you add in the cost of a higher-end scanner, the price difference is going to keep you in film and development for many years. Especially so as you simply don’t shoot a lot when you use MF. If we go for a day-trip somewhere and I come back with a whole roll full of pictures (8-12 depending on the camera) I know I’ve been splurging.


  2. bob soltys Says:

    Almost entirely Tri-X film … with two Leica M6TTL’s, a 35, 50 and 75 – no GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) in my shop.

    For my street, fine art work and wedding work, the look of film and the tonality of gelatin silver prints are unparalleled.

    The few digital images I make are with my iPhone.

    Thanks for your interesting post.


  3. lolovroom Says:

    You forgot about the fact that we are exposed anytime to a major solar eruption that will destroy most of the digital pictures. Okay few chance for that, but the risk exist and totally non predictable.
    And more seriously, it seems that film is easier to store for a hundred years than any digital data. A metallic box with some humidity absorber is costless regarding changing hdd every year or two years.


  4. ricardo Says:

    Well, well, well..
    1. answer: Shoot in FullFrame digital

    2. answer: Read a Photography Book not a film

    3. answer: Play with Photoshop (I do any old analogic process in Photoshop 5.5 or later…)

    4. answer: print a 6Mp image (D40) on a 20x25cm paper ans scan it on a rotative graphic line scan at 600 DPI…

    5. Buy an Olympus E-PL1 and use all old lens you got even your enlarger lens
    M 4/3 is the future


    Joe Reply:

    To Ricardo’s #4. Seriously?

    More steps, less quality.

    Just because you have a larger file doesn’t mean it’s better quality.

    If I am going to be printing something poster-sized, I’m still going to shoot large format and have it scanned.


  5. michael Says:

    When You Want to Technology-Proof Your Photos? You’re on drugs, right? Kodachrome no longer produced. Kodak not even making cameras. It’s getting harder to find local processing labs – and they’re getting more expensive quickly. As economies of scale continue to go away from film, it’s going to get quickly harder and more expensive to shoot film.

    Film is technology proof. No bleeping way.


    Brian Auer Reply:

    Just because Kodachrome is no longer produced, that doesn’t obsolete all images already captured on Kodachrome. The limitation of quality when digitizing film is still on the digital side — we don’t have the mainstream ability to digitize at such a level that the film becomes the limitation. This is why optical prints are still superior.

    I wasn’t talking about the expense of shooting film when I said technology-proof. I was talking about the fact that film images hold more information than we can currently capture to a digital medium. As the technology improves, so will the digital copies of the same film you shot years ago. Digital photos, on the other hand, will not improve a great amount as time goes by (aside from partially better digital upsizing capabilities). Those 3MP photos you shot 7 or 8 years ago will always be 3MP photos.


    Greg Reply:

    Michael, you should try watching a few of the interviews on the Kodak motion picture film site, and keep in mind that the advantages they talk about for 35mm motion picture film apply to the film we shoot in our still cameras.


  6. Arif Says:

    Yes, yes. Leave extra long (or, all-night long) star trail to those newer camera and see how it severly burns the silicon block inside.


  7. Janne Says:

    You didn’t mention my two main reasons for film:

    * There’s a much larger variety of camera types in film than in digital. There’s no digital TLR at all, and most other types – rangefinders, MF cameras, view cameras, WLF-equipped SLR’s, technical cameras – exist only at price points far, far beyond the reach of Yr. Hmble. Correspondent.

    The camera format matters; it shapes your work just like any tool does. When all you have is an SLR, you’ll tend to take pictures that fit an SLR, and tend not to take pictures better fit to another type of camera.

    * Film, and MF especially, forces a somewhat different workflow. Slower, more deliberate, and more cautious. Which in my case clearly improves my results – and does so for my digital images too, as I transfer my experiences between the formats.

    But digital and film aren’t competitors, so much as complementary media. Airbrush didn’t kill off watercolor; copperplate didn’t end woodblock printing; ink and charcoal are not in a life-or-death struggle over the same art segment. Both are good.


    Will Reply:

    Unfortunately at the University of South Florida they are in a death-match. Its sad to say but only grad students and advanced students get to use the darkroom nowadays. Beginner and Intermediate is all digital.
    I like using photoshop to mess around, but when its time for a beautiful print, nothing beats gelatin silver.


  8. Jaz Says:

    Nice article. I use both film and digital. Digital is option for sports where I make around 300 shots per game, wildlife and some another events where I need to be fast. But when I want to enjoy photography, think about photography and feel like a real photographer, I always use film camera. Those who only criticise film without any meaningful reason are losers who are not able to make a good photo without checking each of them for many times on display… Digital photography is a good thing but it also brings many point and shoot idi**s who think they are photographers.


  9. Matt Needham Says:

    I was a die hard, film geek for about 15 years. Most of my work was medium format and 4×5 BW processed and printed myself. I reluctantly bought my first DSLR about 6 years ago, but it quickly won me over. I’ve been film free for 3 or 4 years. :)

    I think pros and cons are very personal, and what is true for Photog A may not at all be the same for Photog B. For instance I had much worse G.A.S. with film cameras than digital cameras. When it comes to finished image/print quality I think the experience and skill of the photographer (and processor and printer…) will have a lot more influence than technology/process choice. The folks who are very skilled in either make great looking finished photographs. Folks without experience are unlikely to get great results.

    Here’s my list of situations where film is better than digital.

    1. Cost. My old film cameras seemed a lot cheaper, and they didn’t need batteries. What I just spent on a DSLR body would’ve bought me a Fuji 6x17cm !!!

    2. Batteries. Batteries limit exposure times. An old mechanical camera will stay open all night, days, months…. And the darn batteries are $65 each!!! Robbery!

    3. Convenience. It really doesn’t get easier than dropping film off for cheap, automated processing and printing. One hour or next day: what an amazing deal! And when it comes to automated processing they’ve got film figured out a lot better than digital. With modern print film and a good lab as long as the exposure is in the ballpark (+/- 2 stops) the prints are going to look decent.

    4. Compact cameras. Personally I think my 8mp APS-C DSLR is as good or better than 35mm film, but the sensors in many compacts are smaller than 110, and not as good as 35mm film in many situations. For now the APS format digital compacts are too expensive for me.


  10. mustanir Says:

    1. Higher quality? Only at a cost and dependent on your (or whoever you pay to do it) scanning ability. At least if you want to display your images on a digital medium. The caveat here is that if your final medium is the print, then optical prints – from film – are better than some prints from equivalent digital files. Or in summary, it’s not as simple as you think.

    2. Learning on a film camera is slooooow. Shoot, take notes, wait for the pics to come back. It’s quicker and easier to learn with a digital camera for the instant feedback. Film is better for learning a) how to shoot film and b) learning to work totally manual. The first reason is self-serving and the second is obsolete if you are going to bother shooting digital in the first place. Why use a fully-featured digital camera and cripple yourself by not using the features you already paid for?

    3. Translation: Shooting film is better if you want to get film results. I’ll give you that, though again it is a bit self-serving.

    4. Again, questionable. I suppose if computers and programmers vanished, or something happened that meant we couldn’t use them any more, then yeah, film is great because the image is there, in real terms. RAW formats are questionable because they are for the most part proprietary but JPEG and TIFF formats are well-documented and out there for anyone with a bit of programming talent to utilise. This means any image stored in those formats IS futureproofed for the most part. No more futureproofed than a folder full of negatives is from a house fire.

    5. I agree with you here. Shooting film is better because it typically costs less to amass a collection of film cameras than it is to amass a collection of digital gear. Also. the sheer variety of film cameras out there means that using them is fun and you can always find something that will suit you, unless you really want the conveniences of shooting digital.

    In essence, I would replace your arguments with two:

    1. Film is better if you prefer the look. If you prefer and want your photos to look like they were shot on film, nothing does it better than the genuine article. Alt-processes and other stuff included. If a film-based look is what you are after, nothing else matters anyway.

    2. The cameras, see my response to your point 5.

    Maybe you could have 3. Shooting film is better if you prefer the process.

    In the end, digital is objectively “better” in most technical senses. Film is subjectively “better”, if you like it. Anyway, if you like it, then shoot it. Nuff said.


  11. laanba Says:

    #2 sums up exactly where I am right now and why I have spent more time in film this year than digital.


  12. Stephen Wong Says:

    Use both.

    Film has excellent quality for display on a piece of paper; digital, the glass box.

    I use a GE A730 for images upload, FM2 blow up decorates Isolation ( my house).Sometimes the situation not perfect, they both can do the opposite acceptable.

    The real weakness of digital camera is battery ! as a result, film will be never out-dated, a serious photography must have a spare.


  13. Zetton Says:

    I still shoot film and love it. I have a DSLR and love that too. Here is your answer:

    1. Medium and large format. Simply gorgeous with image qualities – gentle planar separation, smooth subtle gradiation, stunning detail and colors… No DSLR can touch them in good light. Period. If you want the very highest quality image granny’s old folding camera or a TLR or anyting medium format – in good light, will be a more interesting and sophisticated image. A 6X6 medium format frame of film is 4X bigger than a 35mm frame of film or “full frame” sensor, let along APS-C.

    2. Only film can give you a full-frame compact camera. I have digital compacts too. They make surprisingly good images despite small sensor sizes. But forget any dimensional feel – everything is in sharp focus, is lost. Forget good portraiture or subject isolation. Enter venerable film compacts like the Olympus XA series or small rangefinders like the Olympus RC, Trip, Yashica Electro CC, Olympus Stylus Epic, Konia C35 or Auto S3, Nikon 35Ti, Contaxt T series, Konica “Big Mini” etc. The smaller rangefinders and better fixed-lens point and shoot cameras offer highly poratable full-frame image quality at truly pocketable sizes.

    You will NEVER see a full frame DSLR the size of and Olympus Stylus Epic that can be had for around $20-50 on eBay and can literally slip into your pocket – never. Full-frame DSLRs – outstanding quality, but cost thousands of dollars and are behemoths.

    3. Film is just fun. For whatever reason, I still get a charge out of clicking off a frame of film and getting it processes – the anticipation of how this one or that “will turn out”.

    4. Film cameras/lenses are fun. They’re relatively cheap now. You can get a gorgeous well-conditioned SLR and great lenses used for a fraction of the cost of what they used to cost in the pre-digital days. A couple hundred bucks buys you a run of the mill point-n-shoot digital. The same amount of cash gets you a serious “full frame” photographic film tool on the used market on eBay.

    5. Black and white “craft”. There is magic in the /craft/ of developing your own black and white negatives. The chemicals are inexpensive and there’s a certain “magic” when your negatives “come out”. It’s a lot more fun than futzing with Photoshop. It’s a great hobbie. Epson makes very good flatbed negative scanners that aren’t too expensive and/or they’re practically giving darkroom equipment away these days.

    These are the real reasons to continue to use film… And they’re each compelling. Yes – digital is amazing. But film use isn’t just “nostalgia”. It has its place as a photographic media still. It is still clearly (and anyone who argues this – sorry, you simply don’t know what you’re talking about…) creates the best images in medium and large format. You can get “full frame” in a tiny format for cheap – something you will NEVER see in the compact world. And film is a craft, digital is a technology. And the /craft/ of developing negatives and making prints with film is a great craft hobby.


  14. Anthony Epes Says:

    Digital can’t do this ever. Color Film Acceleration, i do it in the dark


  15. Randy Says:

    Digital photography completely eliminates the need for the separation process,(And it’s associated costs),therefore making it the cheapest form of professional photography available today. Over time, digital will pay for itself in these savings alone.(Not to mention absolute color correctness so the need for proofing becomes a minor issue.) Also, if you shoot in RAW you will have the flexibility of altering an image in any direction with zero image degradation…Lets see film do that!

    From a commercial standpoint, there is no other option. Plus, the human eye is hard pressed to tell a difference between film and digital output making it the number one choice for companies worldwide. The fact is that the printing process will inherently reduce the resolution of the final piece anyway making this whole discussion a moot point.

    Artists make up a very small portion of the population…So keep your darkrooms and stop trying to hold back progress just because it makes you uncomfortable.


  16. Luckman R Says:

    Obviously in Indonesia.
    Film is almost dead.
    Country where we love to have instant process.

    Off course it’s still sold… the SLR camera.. but when I went to the seller (Fuji for example) place. seems that they discount it more and more..

    it’s dead anyway. Even my uncle that’s a champion on photography contest and ever open photography school (now closed).. is using D-SLR .

    Yet Kodak is dying. not to offense but,
    Film is very rare in my city Surabaya how a days.
    And while quality is should be better.

    People is not interested in a too difficult moment.
    Even in wedding, everyone use D-SLR.
    Even poster.

    WEll some says limited bullet means better accuracy
    well yes but people need simplicity over a bit better result :) .


  17. John Says:

    digital; is fine until you want to print an image greater than 10×8

    I use 120 roll film for preference…( I only ever used 35mmm for snaps)

    the Japs ripped us off with shoddy 35mm gear now they’re doing it with digital…plus ca change ( and yes even nikon weren’t that good.. shit lenses , poor engineering cf. Alpa, zeiss)

    In fact I reckon I can get a better image with a home-made pin-hole camera than these hugely expensive digital toys…….Good for snaps, not much else


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