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  • Mike

Do film cameras take better quality pictures than digital cameras?

Ah, this question. I hear this a bit from younger guys like myself who got into photography after the digital revolution. I shot as much film growing up as I could afford. But you have to understand that as a young guy that was tech savvy, as soon as my parents could afford a digital camera they bought me one, not because digital was better, but because it was cheaper. I suspect many people my age went the same route. Digital was good for us even though the cameras were bad because we could at least take pictures. Thus many young people are confused because they see wonderful older photos shot on film, and the generation that shot those photos being die hard film fans.

It seems like the argument of digital versus film has been around as long as digital cameras have been around. One of the arguments put forward in defense of film is that it is more hands-on, more prestige since it’s harder. There are some who even argue that digital doesn’t meet the standards put forward by film. This sort of argument isn’t new, it’s been around forever. When CDs replaced vinyl records some people said that vinyl sounds better and refused to upgrade. When Transistors replaced vacuum tube technology they said that it didn’t sound as good. For the most part these things are subjective. There has even been a resurgence towards those things. For instance you can buy tube amps off Amazon brand new. Look here! You can also buy records brand new thanks to a slow resurgence of the technology. But there isn’t also a resurgence of tapes. Why? Because tapes sucked objectively. Every time you pulled a tape out of your deck to find a rats nest of tape, and every time you compared it to CD. So with the resurgence of film in popularity and the voices of those advocating for it, something must be going on right?

There is a very real difference between a photo that came directly from a film camera and a digital camera. The digital photos have much higher resolution and better dynamic range, they even have better in color saturation in most cases. Here’s where the big difference comes, especially if you shoot in .RAW. You can fire up your favorite editing software, possibly Photoshop or Lightroom, and you can change the heck out of your digital file. You can’t do the same process on film though. Granted, we scan the film into a PC and work on the photos in the same software, but here’s the thing. Anything that doesn’t come through the pipeline from light going through the film into the scanner sensor is forever lost. And if something didn’t get distinctly caught on the film, it’s never going to get added back in post.

There was one person who I won’t name, who blogged that film was cheaper. How can anything be cheaper than free? It costs nothing to shoot on digital. Most of us will never hit that magic 100,000 shots taken that kills a DSLR shutter. What are we worried about? The answer is nothing and that’s why we spam our shots. That’s why many of us will shoot batches of 5-10 photos of something that we want, in many cases in a series the photo I use out of my series will be somewhere in the middle. On film there is not only a delay while the film advances, there is also a much higher cost since that means you must shoot the same on film to get the same results. To those who say, “Get it right the first time.” The real world isn’t perfect all the time. People blink, animals move, your hands shake. It is stupid to take only a single exposure when it matters. If you went to the trouble to take a picture at all, then you can hold down the shutter button down a bit longer. The point is, taking pictures with film costs money, granted film has never been cheaper, but developing costs money. I develop at home both color and black and white. It costs about $35 to develop 15 black and white rolls, and about $45 to do the same with color. Chemicals are expensive, I don’t feel like Kodak is ripping me off, the formulas are available online. I can’t even find a cheaper source of the chemicals by buying in bulk from a chemical supplier and mixing them myself.

Speaking of developing, that’s actually another point of failure in the workflow. Even with a professional lab involved things can go wrong. The film cam get lost in transit to be developed.The age of the film, the timings, even the temperature of the developer can have a huge effect on how film turns out. Some people are quick to jump to the defense of film saying that the idea of never knowing how it will turn out is a plus. Lack of control over your work is never a positive.

Digital doesn’t just have higher dynamic range. While you can find film from companies like Delta that make 3200 and even 6400 film, these films are very grainy and do not look as good as digital. Exotic film like this is also much more expensive. If you look at my article on ISO you can see how good digital looks at high ISO.

Lastly, digital has a higher resolution for the size than film does because of a mix of physics and chemistry. Every camera is limited by its weakest link. For many cameras the weakest link will be the lens, but that can be upgraded. What can’t be upgraded is the crystal structure of the film grain. As film gets into higher ISOs the grains become bigger. Because of this grain size the image becomes more fuzzy and cannot be as focused. There is a way around this, bigger sheets of film. That’s actually a great argument for film too. Large format film cameras are still used when insanely high resolution images are desired. The film is on large plates that will beat digital sensors. The thing is though, we could build digital sensors that size, but the cost would be many orders of magnitude higher than the film being used. Gregory Crewdson for example, is a photographer that shoots large film because he is trying to blow up giant high resolution images. Digital can’t offer Mr. Crewdson what he needs.

In simple words, film can’t offer us a lot of what we need and expect today, but at the same time digital can’t give us things like grain that are still very aesthetically pleasing, and that’s a perfectly good excuse for continuing to use film. What creates confusion is when people call film “better” because it works better for them. Better is subjective until it isn’t. A DSLR from today is objectively old point-and-shoot in almost every way. Film on the other hand is only “better” in niche situations and when one wants to achieve a look that only film can offer.

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