Film Versus Digital

December 9, 2016


The Case for Film

No, not everyone who uses film photography is a hipster from Portland. But many of us have our reasons (some of them maybe including wanting to be a hipster). Film photography is the original type of photography which uses a strip of light-sensitive film that reacts to light. When developed and printed, it turns into a photographic image. Okay … okay, call me an impractical nonconformist who is only interested in film because it is vintage and different, but I swear that there are reasons for shooting film other than my inflated ego.

     1. The waiting:

I will admit that it is one of the most frustrating things to not be able to see your picture for a week or more. Sometimes I feel like smashing my camera to see what it looks like, only to realize that I would ruin my film. But it is also one of the reasons I love film photography.

For one, it keeps me from taking 20 photos of the same plant because I think I can get better lighting. I only have 36 on a roll and cannot go wasting pictures. It makes me focus on making the most out of each photo. I will often use the same roll for weeks on end, only shooting two or three at a time. Because I cannot check the image, I stay in the moment. It is a relaxed and organic process.

I don’t look down at the photo and become distracted from the present. I stay focused on the subject. The camera becomes more of an accessory and less of the centerpiece, keeping me present and aware with my model and the world around me.

     2. The look:

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there is something about film photography that just simply looks good. The grains from the chemicals, the deep contrasts, and the intenser details all add to a final image that is nicer to look at. Film provides a unique and amazing look — why else would digital cameras have a film filter if it didn’t look good?

When you take a digital picture, you’re putting many pixels together and expecting one clean image. With film, the image is exactly what you saw. It doesn’t capture pixels but light that reacts with amazing chemistry. You are bound to get a low-quality, pixely photo with digital.

     3. The feeling:

Okay, okay … some of the reasons I prefer film are because I am an in-denial hipster, but it also becomes an aspect of emotion. It is such an enjoyable experience to go with my friends and take pictures. I have documented my life and relationships, so I can look back with fond memories.

I think there is something very sentimental in using film. My family only used film up until a few years ago. Finally when Target stopped processing it, we stopped using it. But every photo in my albums was on film. My mom avidly documented my life on the same 35mm I use now.

     4. The process:

Although this is the very reason that many people dislike film, it is also the reason why I enjoy it. The process that goes into making film is part of the art of photography: going to a photo lab, developing the film, looking at the negatives in the light, processing a contact sheet, picking a couple frames for print, enlarging a picture, focusing the image, and finally dipping the photo paper in the developer, stop, and fix. Then you do the last few steps five or 10 times until you have a correct exposure. Sure its tedious and a little bit more work, but it also is a relaxing process that I highly enjoy. When I am in the dark room, I don’t have my phone, and I am simply with the image and myself. I love making something tangible with my hands. The process de-stresses me and allows me to produce art. It brings me closer to the image; I start to notice every detail, and it makes me a better photographer.

     5. Convenience:

My adversary will argue that film is inconvenient. Au contraire! He must have not heard of instant film. Also known as Polaroid, instant film must be one of the most convenient methods of documentation possible. You click the button, and within a minute you have a print. Not to mention that these photos are one of a kind.

     6. On a budget:

Film cameras are less expensive than high-tech digital ones. You can probably pick one up at a thrift store or on eBay for under $150, while a reasonable quality digital camera will cost upwards of $400. While some might argue that you have to additionally buy film, it only costs about $5 for a strip of 36. This means that you can buy a film camera and 50 film strips with 1800 photos until you reach a digital camera’s base price. Additionally, loading film and taking out of the camera is a fun and interesting experience.

     7.Setting yourself apart:

Okay let’s be a little bit of a nonconformist for a minute. There are upwards of 1.8 million photos taken every day according to Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report. This makes it extremely difficult to set yourself apart as an individual photographer. Most of those photos are digital. Using film allows an easy and interesting way to create something different. It gives you credibility as an artist if you know how to use a film camera and a reputation as photographer if you can set yourself apart from the pack. If everyone else is using digital and you are using film, then it can be used as an unique feature to better market yourself. Potential clients and employers will be intrigued by your use of film, and it might just get you the job.


I’m not trying to say that digital photography is evil, and you are feeding into a society addicted to technology and screens if you use it. Instead, I am asking that you give it a chance. Don’t mark it off as irrelevant and impractical. It has its uses and benefits. There is something to be said in it lasting two centuries. Take the time to learn how to develop film. If you find out that it is not for you, I promise you will not regret learning it.


The Case for Digital

  So if I’m going to argue that digital photography is better than film, I’ve definitely got an uphill battle to fight on which one’s more “hipster.” But there’s a good reason as to why the introduction of digital cameras nearly bankrupted the film industry. Actually, there are numerous reasons. And unfortunately not everyone has the burning desire to be a nonconformist hipster from Portland who exclusively shoots on film.

  1. The convenience

  Even with the existence of instant film, digital still crushes film speed and convenience. An SD card can store thousands of photos while a roll of film is limited to the 36 or so photos it can store. Skijler argues that this is actually an advantage because it forces discipline and careful shot selection. But you can recreate similar settings on a digital camera. Either set the camera to take only one shot (and not use burst) or get a super small SD card or do both.

  Photography is just as much about the person behind the camera as the camera itself. If you’re willing to discipline yourself and focus on taking on one good shot rather than just holding down the shutter for 30 seconds, you can take the same carefully composed, artsy shots that Skijler seems to be so much a fan of. You don’t need a film camera to enter photography zen.

  Transferring files is much less of a hassle with digital especially nowadays when a lot of cameras come equipped with Wi-Fi or NFC features that let you instantly send something you took to your phone. So this means you don’t have to wait hours, days, and weeks for your film to process to show whatever amazing shot you took to your friends/rivals.

  1. Ability to share quickly:

  For all I know, Skijler may take the most amazing, Ansel Adams-esque, picturesque photos on film the face of the planet with film. Problem is most of the human population is never going to know about it. The funny thing with film is that the photos you take on it aren’t exactly portable beyond the film it’s on. Sure, maybe you can painstakingly convert it to digital, but it’s much more efficient (and less time-consuming) to just have the photos start at digital.  

  Online photo sharing platforms like Instagram are the main way people look at new content, and it’s much easier to access apps like that with digital.

  1. The support infrastructure:

  While Skijler may be content doing all of his shopping from a thrift store, most of the human population as well as camera enthusiasts do their shopping elsewhere. These days, most new lenses and camera equipment are built for digital cameras. So if you want to be able to actually acquire equipment and more importantly, maintain it, it’s just more convenient with digital equipment. You’re also probably more likely to find a place that can fix your digital camera should the worst happen to it (and if you’re going out a lot, I can all but guarantee you something will happen at some point).

  Skijler has a point in that digital cameras are, at least up-front, generally more expensive than film cameras. And this argument is technically true but only on the first day of ownership. Long term, however, digital crushes film in terms of cost. The great thing about an SD card is that once you buy one, you never really have to buy one again (unless you’re a hoarder who refuses to delete old photos, but that’s a separate issue). Whereas new film has to be constantly purchased especially if you’re being an active shooter, so the cost definitely starts adding up.

  1. Ability to edit and manipulate:

  Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are two incredibly powerful pieces of software for retouching digital photos. Digital, unfortunately, has gotten a really bad reputation with some people who just take a billion photos on one SD card with the attitude of “oh, I’ll fix it in Photoshop later.” While Skijler is right that this isn’t something that you can do with film, it’s not a reason to reject digital on face.

  And the ability to have access to Photoshop and Lightroom offers so much more opportunity that just fixing mistakes you made while taking a photo. Professional photographers still use Photoshop and Lightroom because they allow you to manipulate photos to create entirely new works of art. Just look at anything that Erik Johansson has made.

  1. Ability to shoot video too:

  I recognize this isn’t exactly a make-or-break feature for a lot of people, but at the same time, it’s still nice to have that flexibility and opportunity to expand into video if one desires. Even the cheapest DSLR cameras come equipped with a video function these days, something that you’ll never find on a film camera. Video production is a whole separate art and process from photography, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t even use the video feature on my camera nearly as often. But for other people, it’s a must-have either because they’re into video and photo or they need to take video often. Regardless, digital gives you options.

  1. The quality:

  Ok, so this part may be a bit subjective since there’s really no accounting for taste. If you’re someone who really likes the slightly grainy look of film, there’s honestly not that much I’m going to say that’s going to convince you to switch to digital. Then again, filters and Photoshop do exist for those purposes.

  Also, digital gives you higher quality in more flexible situations. They have a much higher ISO speed, which in laymen’s terms, allows you to take better photos in lower light situations. And this is more important than one would think because unless you get to shoot in a carefully lit studio (in which case count yourself lucky), you don’t get to control the light around you. Sure, higher ISO means more noise in the picture, but that’s probably preferable to a photo that’s pitch black because you shot on film and forgot to switch for a higher ISO film.

  And if we’re counting the number of pixels on a sensor, digital cameras are only getting better and better. Every year, the megapixel count on digital cameras only goes up while film cameras have become somewhat stunted growth. With higher megapixel count comes photos with better resolution and more detail that exceed what 35mm film can give you.

  It’s hard to deny that film, especially in 2016, has a really nostalgic and hipster taste to it. But you don’t need film to stand out from the crowd. Photography is an art that is as much more about you than the camera itself. If you’re willing to be disciplined, then there’s no reason why your photos have to be any less hipster than the guy who opted for a film camera.


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