Digital versus film photography

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The merits of digital versus film photography

  • Introduction
  • Image Quality
  • Costs
  • Practicality
  • Convenience
  • Summary



related links

Digital photography exposure

RAW versus JPEG

Depth of field explained

Digital versus film photography


Photography is the process of creating an image by recording light.

The purpose of photographic image creation is varied and includes

  • “Snapshots”
  • Fine art
  • Journalism
  • Commercial and advertising
  • Medical
  • Scientific research
  • Astronomy
  • Archiving
  • Education

Each of the above has varied requirements for the final image quality, display format, integrity and longevity.

Digital photography and film photography are merely different tools for achieving a desired photographic end result and each format has its particular strengths (and weaknesses) which best suit it to a particular photographic task.

It is however fact that digital photography has achieved a phenomenal rate of growth and technical development over recent years, whereas film photography has declined.

This article sets out the features and benefits of digital photography as a way of explaining reasons for this change - especially in the realm of general everyday “consumer” photography.


Digital versus film photography

Image quality

There are two aspects to image quality 

  1. The ultimate inherent maximum quality of image that it is possible to record and subsequently reproduce from a given photographic format. 
  2. The general ease and simplicity with which a person can operate the equipment to achieve a satisfactory result.

Many articles “defending” film photography as being ultimately superior as far as image quality is concerned (a fact that is in itself less and less convincing as digital photography technology continues to advance) pay little attention to the high degree of photographic skill needed to actually yield the desired optimum quality result.

Digital photography on the other hand has many keys features that facilitate the ease with which good end results can be achieved. These are as follows:


Image review. The ability to instantly review the captured image via the on camera display is probably the most significant advantage of digital photography versus film photography. If the result is undesirable the photographer invariably has the option to “try again” rather than discover the unsatisfactory result much later when the opportunity to rectify the shot has passed.

Exposure control. Exposure is the regulating of light falling on the recording format (i.e. the image sensor or film) such that the desired tonality of the image is achieved. The three sides to the “exposure triangle” are aperture, shutter speed and ISO sensitivity.  Digital photography has a huge advantage in that sensitivity can be controlled “in camera” (whether manually or automatically) whereas the sensitivity of film is predetermined by the film type – thus limiting the total exposure range until the film can be changed. (see also digital photography exposure)

Number of shots. The ability to take and store many more shots on a memory card compared to a typical 24 or 36 exposure roll of film means the digital photographer is likely to take many more photos than if the same person were using film, with the likely result of a greater number of satisfactory shots (as well as perhaps a greater number of unsatisfactory shots – but these of course can be simply deleted at no cost)

White balance. With film photography the color temperature of the scene will be recorded and remain fixed. For general photography where the film negatives are likely to be processed at a film lab, any undesirable color casts are likely to be printed lowering the quality of the photo. Although this can be avoided with the use of special filters mounted to the lens (or light source) this requires significant knowledge and skill – as well as the investment in (and inconvenience of carrying) a complete set of filters. With digital photography the white balance can either be adapted to suit the scene “in-camera” (manually or automatically) or if shooting in RAW file mode can be easily modified to suit the desired result during post processing. (see also RAW versus Jpeg)


digital versus film photography


As digital photography technology advances costs continue to decrease.

Several years ago there was no doubt that the cost of a digital camera capable of producing printed images of quality and resolution to match those from standard APS and 35mm film format were significantly higher than those of their film equivalents.

Of course digital photography always benefited from the fact that after the initial investment in the equipment each shot would essentially be for “free” as there is no expensive film required. Even so the “break even” point for the average photographer was considerable – probably in excess of a year or so.

However nowadays, the price of basic digital cameras capable of producing acceptable quality has more or less fallen in line with film cameras, whilst the reduction in demand has seen the costs of photographic film steadily increase.

Full frame digital SLRS are still more expensive than their film counterparts – but these cameras also tend to outperform having many advanced features and capabilities that simply aren’t available for film cameras.

This situation may still not apply to medium format and other more specialist areas of photography. But that situation is also likely to change as the technology continues to progress.

digital versus film photography


Modern compact cameras (including camera phones which are frequently able to produce results comparable with basic APS film cameras) and are frequently more compact and lightweight being unconstrained by the physical dimensions required to enable a standard roll of film to unwind, be exposed and be rewound. Modern image sensors can support the high number of megapixels required for acceptable final image resolution even at a fraction of the size of standard APS or 35mm film which in turn means the cameras themselves can be extremely compact and light.

There are numerous factors relevant to the physical size of the sensor as far as final image is concerned. The main ones being:

Depth of field.  A small image area (irrespective of whether small format film or a small image sensor) will have a proportionally deeper depth of field for a given angle of view.  This has some advantages and some disadvantages. On the plus side a deep depth of field requires less accurate focusing in order to achieve acceptable subject sharpness. On the downside the desirable creative effects from a shallow depth of field are not possible.  see depth of field explained

Zoom. A small image sensor means a shorter focal length for a given angle of view. Thus lenses with a significant range of focal lengths can be built into compact cameras giving a wide range of optical zoom whilst remaining modest in physical dimension (and therefore low in weight and cost)

digital versus film photography


It is in the modern fast paced world of instant communication that digital photography really outshines film photography (as far as everyday use is concerned).


For most people the “instant” nature of digital photography is the most appealing feature.

Images taken can be instantly reviewed (and therefore re-taken or deleted if necessary)

With camera phones images can be instantly sent to practically anywhere in the world.

Smart phones (e.g. Iphone) and tablets (e.g. Ipad) enable instant image enhancement and editing and display.

Most digital photographers will have their own computers upon which their images can be downloaded, edited, enhanced, manipulated, displayed or archived.

Those requiring printed versions of their photos are likely to have their own printer that is simple to operate in a typical home environment without necessitating the need for either specialist dark rooms (or the associated expensive and dangerous chemicals needed)


digital versus film photography


So it is clear that whilst film photography will (rightly so) always have its aficionados and for certain types of photography may still provide quality above and beyond all but the most expensive of digital equivalents – for the average person and even most keen enthusiastic amateurs and the majority of professional photographers, digital photography surpasses film photography in practically all areas including quality, cost, convenience and ease of use.

Other useful links from digital versus film photography

go to JARGON BUSTER digital photography terms explained

Digital photography exposure

Raw versus JPEG

Depth of field explained

Return from digital versus film photography to digital photography basics

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