Film Photography Vs. Digital Photography

Ok, here we go…let’s discuss the never-ending debate of film versus digital! This post will consider the advantages film and digital photographers have over one another. In this discussion we are more interested in embracing the positive attributes of each medium, rather than listing the disadvantages.

The Colour Factory does recognise that there is no such thing as an all round winner! Which tool suits best, depends greatly on the application, however, for any serious image maker the transition to either medium is inevitable.

Film photography advantages:

* There are a range of effects created by the combination of film types, chemistry, processing and printing that arguably cannot be replicated by the digital process. Photoshop users would disagree (there is software such as Alien Skin that can simulate film). However, analogue materials can create unique artworks that cannot be reproduced. Techniques such as Polaroid transfers, painting on developer, and alternative processes all create ‘one-off’ artworks that may generate a higher value.

* The processes used to create similar effects in analogue and digital are incredibly different, and this is often the contributing factor to why a photographer or artist will choose either medium. Part of the beauty, enjoyment and ‘magic’ of analogue photography is the element of surprise created from the combination of chemical reactions in film, processing and printing. For example, the use of expired film and Holga cameras. It is possible a similar result may be achieved in Photoshop, but it is controlled and planned. Analogue photographers enjoy the spontaneity and element of surprise involved in shooting film, considering this a key creative factor of their work. These artists take pleasure in the tactile materiality of making work and aren’t afraid to get their hands wet.

* Another result relating to the ‘unknown’ element of analogue that artists relish and understand as fundamental to their creativity and learning is the upshot of making mistakes. The many risks and variables involved and the characteristics of the medium can produce interesting and rewarding outcomes. (For example see Tacita Dean’s exhibition currently on show at ACCA). The throw away nature of digital photography and (LCD) screen viewing encourages mistakes not to be viewed properly and subsequently discarded.

*  Being conscious of film costs, especially large format and the nature of the equipment – it takes longer to set up, it can’t be previewed – requires attention to detail; of light readings, angle, direction of models, and so on. This encourages the photographer to concentrate and take less but higher quality photos. This makes editing less time consuming.

* Film cameras are tougher and more reliable; in regard to climatic and environmental factors. Most large format cameras are mechanical and don’t require battery operation. This means that if you are in the wilderness, under extreme climatic conditions you never have to worry about your equipment failing.

* Double exposure is one technique that absolutely cannot be achieved by a digital camera

* Records and reproduces a broader colour range, better at capturing detail, particularly in highlight areas.

* More forgiving of focus and exposure problems

* Permanence -The quality and lifespan of an analogue black and white fibre print cannot be beaten. Film still sets the standard for permanence and does not require technology to be viewed. Film is future proof (it can be re-scanned as technology improves).

* Analogue photography is cheaper. Hardware and accessories are cheaper, more interchangeable, longer lasting and not propriety affected.

* Simplicity – analogue film cameras are simple and easy to use once you understand the principles of photography. You are not distracted or confused by ‘bells and whistles’. The mechanics of analogue cameras are beautiful, cheap and easy to fix. Pull it apart, see and understand how it works.

People may say that analogue is a dying art and won’t be around much longer. This may be the attitude in Australia, but you only have to look to the USA, Europe, Japan and Korea to see that film photography it is still thriving. Even commercially in Europe and the USA, large format cameras are still the standard for advertising and fashion, and artists everywhere use analogue. Yes, diversity of stock is decreasing but there is a resurgence of interest (take Holga cameras for example) and increase in the value of analogue work.

So, don’t be fooled and remember the more demand there is the cheaper and more readily available it gets. Here at the Colour Factory we have 8×10″ film in the fridge from which we can make mural analogue prints in the darkroom up to 1.8m x 10m!

Digital photography advantages:

For commercial purposes digital photography has the advantage with quick turnaround times, easy previewing, greater control, and versatility.

* White balance

* Equipment and accessories are lighter to carry and more compact.

* Memory cards can fit a lot more images than film.

* High Dynamic Range

* Less grain and cleaner, more consistent colour and image quality in a variety of ‘speeds’.

* Digital cameras don’t suffer from the reciprocity failure associated with film and long exposures. However, noise can be an issue, and the heat in some sensors may cause discoloration in long exposures.

* Duplicates are the same as the original

* Technical data is tagged on each image

* More shadow detail than film

* Good skin colour rendition

* You can ‘preview’ your image to make sure that you ‘have it’ and check the exposure (histogram).

* Immediate, instant results

* Less susceptible to preprocessing fragility

* More environmentally friendly

* Film speed control. Ease of changing speeds mid-shoot

* Records moving footage as well

* Takes up less storage space than film

An interesting note on resolution is the difference between film and digital on micro levels. A very fine-grain film has grain particles that are about 2 microns in size. A typical DSLR has individual pixels that are about 6 microns in size. However, grain particles are binary. An individual film grain can only be black or not-black, exposed or not exposed. A photo site (pixel), on the other hand, has a range of thousands of brightness levels, because it’s an analog device. Curious isn’t it, that at this level film is binary and digital is analog? This means that it takes a clump of between 30-40 grains of film to represent a full tonal range, while on a sensor each individual pixel can reproduce from hundreds to thousands of tonal levels. So now to test we photograph a resolution chart, which is high-resolution black and white. This gives film an advantage because each grain can record whether or not it sees something. Thus, high-resolution film is going to measure as having higher resolution than digital. However, when shooting ‘life’, film’s theoretical advantage does not have the same result.

The team at the Colour Factory welcomes any feedback you have on the topic.


  1. SC Pienaar on July 23, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    I own a Canon EOS 5d, 30d and a 3 (film camera).

    I do lots of different photography in different lighting conditions and I have NEVER seen better colour consistency and skin tone accuracy than what film gives me. Getting the right skin tone in any photograph is essential and working with digital has COMPLICATED my life severely. Sure, there are solutions, but nothing should be this difficult. What’s even more idiotic, is that apparently no one in the camera industry addresses this problem. I think digital must be a revelation to someone that has never used film and it has enormous advantages, but come on, let’s halt the megapixel race for the sake of better tonality. I don’t want to spend half my life behind a computer and I don’t care about the vitues of Lightroom – it still chews up valuable time!

  2. […] Film Photography Vs. Digital Photography « […]

  3. David Gwynne on October 17, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    We can argue about the “look”. And about the portability of multiple batteries versus film rolls for remote area shoots. Storage permanence. White balance and ISO flexibility. Scatter gun mentality v. care. These arguments score points for both camps, BUT, until camera manufacturers give us back our analogue controls many of us won’t be converts. Pentax went back to the future with the genius analogue 645n superseding the menu operated 645. Nikon clocked off when they superseded the mighty F4 with the dopey F5. Now they won’t let us have an aperture ring! Doh! And they punish our loyalty by crippling our older lenses. Canon and the others did it years prior.
    Hallelujah Leica with their M9. Shame its the only good digital but most of us will never be able to afford.

  4. Colour Factory on October 21, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Here at the Colour Factory we print for both camps and can of course see the benefits of both film and digital. However, we are concerned about the future of photography and how digital has affected this. In Australia digital photography is more prevalent than film for commercial applications, as compared to the USA or Asia. However, a high number of artists are still using film, especially in large and medium formats. Due to the loss of a high turnover produced from commercial clients, the concern is that film and processing may become unavailable for the average person in Australia, and limited and expensive for artists.

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