Digital Vs. Film Photography Essay

“Technology, I believe, does have the potential to water down the art form of photography, taking away the essential skills and processes a photographer should use.”

Zac T. Lee

Photography has become available to almost everyone. With cameras built-in even in mobile phones, we can take images wherever we are and without having to worry about costs and amount of frames.

Modern society is marked by an abundance of visual imagery; advances in digital technology has democratized photography. Richard Buckley sums it up in his foreword to Nathan Benn’s book “Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972-1990”:

“By giving meaning to everything, we give nothing value.”

That observation is certainly true.

But what is it exactly that film photography can teach us about becoming better photographers in the digital age? Here are some thoughts on the matter:

5 Lessons Film Photography Can Teach You To Improve Your Photography

  • Patience: Sometimes you have to be quick. Especially when shooting an event that’s evolving at a fast pace. Then a digital camera that allows you to shoot various images in a fraction of a second comes in handy. But if not, what’s the great hurry? Shooting with analog cameras can really teach you to be patient. You’ll discover that the more time you take to think the composition and framing of your photographs shooting film, the less superficial and predictable will be the results. With only a very limited amount of frames on each roll of film and considering the cost for developing the negatives, people shooting the analog way are more likely to carefully think about what to take a picture of. Thus every single photograph would be a record of a special moment worth remembering. That has changed dramatically with the rise of the digital era in photography with a camera incorporated in almost every electronic device these days.
  • Material: Different types of photographic film give you different qualities depending on what are the results you are looking for. Size of grain, texture, saturation of the colors, etc. Knowing the characteristics of a certain photographic material opens up new ways to creatively express yourself as an artist. Not to mention the technical options analog cameras give you to explore and play with, such as double exposures, cross processing, different formats and so on. You might even go as far as building your own camera, a pinhole camera for example.
  • Skills: Using an analog camera and sticking to film photography makes you aware of the fact that the results of your shootings are closely related to your skills as a photographer. With a digital camera and seemingly endless space on your memory card, you can fire away hoping that there’ll be at least one good photo the more often you click the shutter button. Analog photography on the other hand is more challenging: you don’t want to waste chances and thus are forced to connect more with your brain before taking a picture.
  • Control: Using and developing analog film allows you a direct and psychical relationship with the work you are creating. Going to the darkroom to develop your images demands sharp senses: It’s your eyes and vision that make the adjustments instead of the technology within a digital camera that “thinks” for you. Film photography offers a more hands-on approach to photography: each individual photograph is a crafted art form.
  • Mystery: Not everything can be planned. Some things are always left to chance. Film photography teaches you just that: humility. You never know what the results will be like beforehand. Sometimes they are quite different from what you’d expected them to look like. Then you analyze the reasons for that, so you won’t make the same mistake twice. Shooting film is a constant reminder of paying attention to details – and occasionally be surprised by unexpected outcomes.

Having elaborated on the advantages of film photography, one shouldn’t deny of course the obvious advantages of digital photography.

This article is not about glorifying the past and traditional photographic processes. It’s purpose is to remind us of the beautiful things shooting film can teach us about photography in general and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Taking in mind the points mentioned above about film photography can help us to become a better photographer – not only using analog cameras.

Image from analog photographer Christian Finbar Kelly

If you are interested in exploring traditional photographic processes related to analog and film photography, please check out the inspirational interviews with analog photographers on this site.

Your opinion on the subject of digital versus film photography is also very much appreciated as well as references to interesting resources on the Internet regarding analog photography.

With film usage and adoption on the rise, we wanted to resurrect the debate of digital photos versus analog photos.  As a film processing lab we obviously have a bias, so not going to say which is better, but just to present the differences and list advantages.

While in Eastern Sierra Nevada we shot two photos, one film and the other digital. Both the digital photo and the film photo were taken with the same settings. The left image was captured on Velvia 50, taken with a Canon EOS 3, a 50mm lens at f/4. The photo on the right was taken with a full frame Canon 6D with 50mm, 100 iso and f/4. Both images are unedited. As you can see, Velvia 50 has very fine grain and has rich vibrant colors straight from the scan compared to the unedited JPEG from the Canon 6D. And yes, you do have the option to edit digital photos but there’s something special about making a beautiful image in-camera on film and not having to spend any time editing!

Also, if you’re looking for a little less saturation, there are other great film choices, like Provia 100 which isn’t as saturated but still has great color and fine grain or you could go with a color negative film which will give you more subtle colors and has a wider range of exposure latitude.

 

Film Photography Advantages

  • Lower initial cost than for a comparable digital camera
  • With a higher dynamic range, film is better at capturing details in whites and blacks and can’t be replicated with digital cameras. Also film can capture subtle details lost in digital photography
  • Film is more forgiving of minor focusing issues and exposure problems
  • Film captures photos at higher resolution than most digital cameras
  • Analog film can be pushed or pulled multiple stops when needed, but the amount of contrast within the image is affected. Some photographers use this to their advantage to create the ideal look they desire, but this method still does not allow extremely high ISO speeds without impacting image tones.
  • Film photographers with a limited number of exposures available on a roll of film must think more about their images before shooting them. Digital photographers tend to take pictures first and think later. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either an advantage or disadvantage.
  • Unlike digital cameras, film cameras are future proof and don’t become obsolete.
  • No power or batteries needed. Long trips and cold conditions can be limiting for digital cameras.
  • The Darkroom photo lab scans your film photos, now allowing you to edit your images on a computer with photo-editing software or share in social media.

Digital Photography Advantages

  • The resolution in even point-and-shoot cameras, which is often 12 to 20 megapixels is high enough resolution for large prints.
  • Digital cameras also have the advantage of being able to change film speeds between individual photographs.
  • The cameras are generally lighter weight than film cameras.
  • Memory cards are tiny and can store many images.
  • Instant gratification and images can be viewed immediately. Some film photographers consider this a disadvantage.
  • You can edit your images directly on the camera.
  • You can choose to print only the images you like best.
  • Many cameras offer built-in filters.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.


This was originally posted on our Instagram (instagram.com/thedarkroomlab).
Below is some of the comments from that post. 

velorydr Cool, thanks for the comparison! It would be interesting to see how true Velvia film would hold up against an in-body Fujifilm digital simulation, or VSCO simulation. Keep up the good work!

koribrus The same thing sold me after 1roll. I still shoot both, but the bigger love is with film.

ben_holiday Shooting jpg without a raw option is just sad 😐 and holds no candle to velvia or any film. That being said a raw file in the right hands can be a very different story. Film and digital are tools there is a tool for every type of job, in the end it’s all about how they are used and the skill of the user.
barce I hate feeling broke after shooting with film. Yeah, I did a similar experiment with a raw Canon T3i and Velvia which did a great job of catching very subtle highlights. Film you can over expose to get details but digital you have to do the opposite. Right now digital to print is way less hassle. If I had to photograph in Antarctica I’d stick with film. No digital camera’s battery can stand the cold (-20C/F). That’s the only job I see for film these days.

__mason thank you for this great comparison! I’ve been shooting film for years, & when I tried going out with a digital camera a few times I just couldn’t get near the results I was used to without time at a computer. granted I’m no photoshop expert. but man there really is nothing better than composing a photo, developing it & loving it as is. there’s a lack of satisfaction & emotion in knowing I need to re-work all of my digital images to get the right colors & mood. I’m sure a lot of people love that aspect, but I’ll forever prefer letting the magic happen then & there, with light simply making its way to a piece of film.

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