Digital vs. Film | A student’s perspective

The Photographers, originally uploaded by brad|gillette.


In 1949, when Bocour Artists Products marketed the first acrylic-based paints, many artists were eager to experiment with this new medium. Although they were easier to work with, were much more durable, and easier to clean up, the artists themselves and the schools in which they were taught never gave up on traditional oil-based paint. The recent technological advances in digital photography have caused many photographers to shelve their old film-based Nikons and Hasselblads for the ease and instant gratification of digital photography. This ease and instant gratification has also resulted in more and more people who always wanted to try photography but never had the time, indulging in photography as a hobby. It’s hard to see a downside to this, as it has spurred growth in the photography community, given struggling photo companies new customers, and increased enrollment in photography schools. The downside is there though, and it is affecting those who still remain true to film and have not given into the hype of digital. Film and the necessary chemicals for development have become harder to find and have risen in price, more and more lenses are being designed only for digital, and worst of all – colleges and photography schools, such as Grand Rapids Community College, are replacing traditional film based courses with digital alternatives. While each format has it’s own unique benefits, there is still no substitute for the clarity, tonal range, and aesthetics that silver-based film photography offers.

I can see where it makes sense for schools to make the transition from film to digital. After the initial equipment costs, they only need to upgrade every few years. No chemicals to replace, and no toxic chemicals that would pose risk to students. The cost for students would be much less after the initial camera purchase, as there is no film that needs to be continuously replenished (although it works out to be about the same cost for both mediums over the period of a few years). With digital, students will be able to see their mistakes immediately and learn the effects of composition, shutter speed, and aperture quite quickly. A student learning photography digitally would be willing to take more risks and experiment more, since the “cost-per-click” factor is not present with digital imaging. This all sounds swell, but there is much, much more to photography than selecting the shutter speed and aperture and pushing a button.

Not many art forms rely on math and chemistry as much as film-based photography. It involves the physics of light, the chemical reactions during processing, the calculations required to balance the effect both shutter speed and aperture have on exposure. A film-based photographer has to keep all of these in mind, as a slight change in just one variable will have a drastic change on the overall appearance of the final photograph. You could go years without using the same film and developer combination and technique more than once. Students learning film-based photography benefit from all of this. Photography has greatly improved my knowledge and skill in math and science while allowing me to express myself creatively. Photography students learning film first will also develop a greater appreciation for the art form from learning the same techniques the greats had mastered. They will also learn more from their mistakes, as they will have a greater impact because of the time involved in the process. Digital photography on the other hand relies too heavily on computers and the equipment itself, and I’ve seen more and more digital photographers using it as a crutch.

There is no “cheating” in film-based photography. Most of the work is done in camera. If you don’t have a good negative to work from, everything else will suffer in the final print. With digital photography, there is so much you can change after the fact – color balance, exposure, contrast, composition, depth of field, etc. Many digital photographers have become not photographers but rather good Photoshop users. It is near impossible to stress the importance of exposure and composition when it can be so easily corrected with digital processing.

In the digital realm, it is easy to make up for a lousy photograph with post processing, but as the saying goes – you can’t polish a turd. Many people are amazed by Ansel Adams’ prints. Even though the subjects are rendered in black and white, they appear to be so realistic that you’d think you were there yourself. Results like this are just not possible with current digital technology. Film has a very broad dynamic range, making it possible to capture detail in both extreme highlights and dark shadows. Digital sensors can only do one or the other. While the resolution of digital sensors has reached the capabilities of 35mm film, it is years away from the resolution of medium and large format. Another downfall of digital capture is the noise that is introduced to the image that results from the electricity necessary for the sensor to capture light. The problem with digital sensors is that they are not only sensitive to light, but also to heat and electricity. During a long exposure, heat and electrical charge builds up on the sensor, leaving what is called “noise” on the image. Many relate this to the grain in silver based film, which is not true. Film grain, which increases in size the more sensitive the film, is the actual structure of the film – the tiny light sensitive silver-halide crystals that make up the image. Digital noise on the other hand, is a byproduct that results from the image capture, and unlike grain, which can add an appealing aesthetic to the image, noise is just plain ugly.

When justifying the switch to digital, many schools have claimed that all of the professional photographers are making the transition, and that they are just keeping up with the industry. While many professionals have, in fact, made the transition, it is mostly only in parts of the industry which requires immediate results and short deadlines. These include photojournalism, advertising, and stock photography. Not all photographers have made the transition though. Fine art photographers are still making use of their tried and trued film methods, and many magazines, such as Arizona Highways, which are focused on the artistic factor of photography will not even accept digital images.

What it all boils down to is that both film and digital-based photography have their own benefits and downsides. While it is perfectly suitable for colleges to add digital courses to their curriculum, they need to be careful not to overdo it. History and technique is very important in every art form, and one of the beauties of art is that there is more than one way to create it. Both film and digital photography are merely tools. They are a means to an end, with the end being the final photograph. When Polaroid introduced it’s instant film, it saw the same hype that digital is now receiving. Now let me ask you, where is Polaroid now? While digital photography is the hot item for now, film-based photography will always be the forerunner in photography as an art form. I believe that Peter Ensenberger, editor of Arizona Highways, sums up the digital vs. film debate the best in the conclusion for his article on this very subject: “Personally, I believe the two can coexist. I like digital photography. It has established its place in the industry, and holds great potential for improvements to all facets of image making. But I also like having options. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Let’s agree that film and digital are simply different ways of capturing images, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. And during this transition period, while film is still the preference of many photographers and publishers, please, let’s tone down the rhetoric and put away the soapboxes.”

– Brad Gillette


3 comments so far

  1. Chadvw on

    wow, great read. I was fortunite enough to start in film, learn the darkroom and the development proccess, and I miss those days..theres nothing like the high when you see a great photograph develop in front of your eyes….that and the smell of stopbath

  2. neoubliephotography on

    Nice paper.

    I haven’t shot my F4 in 6 years and my N90 since summer of 1996. I even gave my fully setup F3 to a student two years ago because I was so offended at what I was offered by a camera shop for it that I had rather seen it used then sit in thier cabinet for the silly price they would have given me for it. I believe medium format digital backs have been out for ten years now and consistantly getting better and more user friendly along with the price coming down.

    Time is money and money is everything in this hurried world. Film does produce great pictures and for the hobiest or a special project it may retain its alure but current photography medium looks to be a changing technology. Just as glass negatives once were the standard and went the way of the dinosaur. Even Kodak has been scrambling to stay lucrative in the last 7 or so years because of the lost revenue from processing and film.

    I agree nothing matches a perfect shot with Kodak Tmax printed on Ilford paper or the vibrant color from wedding shots on Fuji velvia but nobody (Customers) wants to pay for them any longer. As soon as you mention processing fees everything reverts back do a digital conversation.

    Archival paper and top quality photo printers have come along way also to push the relevance of darkroom work out of exhistance for the majority of people.

  3. Shary on

    I printed my first black and white photo in 1978 in my father’s studio in Iran. In 1998, after finding my first job in Canada, I could afford purchasing a medium format camera (Bronica) with some lenses. I kept purchasing new film based cameras (35 mm Pentax, Mamiya 6×7, Toyo 4×6 etc.). I have been shooting both colour and black and white both for pleasure and sem-professinally (I work a research tech, which is my main job). A few years ago I purchased my first digital SLR and, on the side, I have been working for various studios (wedding photography). I have shot with Canon Mark II full frame as well as other cameras. I still shoot film-based in particular black and white and print on fiber based paper.

    So, why I am saying all this stuff? I agree with Brad fully. The only thing I have to add, is that not only digital cannot match film-based in terms of quality specially when it comes to medium and large format film based photography, it is totally a different medium. Digital still has limited bits per pixel (depth of colour). It absolutely cannot produce black and white prints the same way even a 35 mm film-based camera does. However, I appreciate digital medium when I have to shoot a wedding or an event and check the image right away. Digital performs better in low light situation due to its characteristics curve (straight line for digital curvy for film), but film does better in highlights.

    Lets be respectful of both media and not to try to make a religion out of this. Lets be objective.

    This is all I have to say.

    P.S. I have to apologize, because I don’t have time to re-read this message and make corrections.

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