I invested a lot of time in learning to shoot with film. I was fortunate to spend a year in Detroit researching applications of surgical robots to pediatric surgery while I was a resident. Since I didn’t have call responsibilities, I took a year-long black and white photography class at the College for Creative Studies, an amazing art school. In addition to learning the basics of photography, composition and exposure, I learned the technical aspects of developing and printing my work. There is just something magical about watching your image appear on paper as you swirl it in the developer. However, in 2018, we use digital cameras for the vast majority of the 3 billion photographs we take a day. But there are many photographers, myself included, who have an interest in the “old school” film format. As with many comparisons, there are advantages and disadvantages to each side. Let’s take a closer look at different aspects of film vs digital.
There are different ways to measure the quality of photos taken depending on if a digital camera was used to take the photo or a film camera. If you’re using a digital camera, the resolution is determined by the number of pixels in any given area. Film on the other hand, does not have pixels so it is calculated by an angular resolution. I remember visiting the computer science lab at Penn State when I was in high school and being told that computer images would never have better resolution than 35mm film. Not so! In this category, a digital camera now takes the cake for creating high-resolution photos.
Noise and Grain
The small textures you see in a photograph are called either film grain or digital noise. In film, this happens from the small chemical particles not receiving enough light. Digital photos can see this from unruly airwaves or excess heat on the image sensors. Film doesn’t run into the issue of overheating and captures long exposure photographs much better than digital.
However it’s important to note that noise/grain isn’t always a bad thing, You’ll find that many photographers will welcome it as it adds character to their images, especially in black and white photos. In fact, many of the digital filters popular today intentionally add grain for an old-school effect.
Speed of Film
Film speeds, the sensing ability of the film or digital sensor, typically are found somewhere between ISO 100 and ISO 3200, with the occasional ISO 6400. Digital though, can simulate high sensitivities of ISO 51,200 and even ISO 409,600. Clearly, digital wins this round.
Although film cameras may be less expensive, the cost per picture of digital is enormously lower than with digital. I remember when travelling when I was younger only being able to budget for a couple of rolls of film for a trip, a total of 72 pictures. On my trip to Italy last year I took over 600 digital pictures!
Although I miss my film photography days, I think the convenience and lower-per picture costs of digital photography will keep me shooting digital.