Film vs. Digital — Which is better?

We used to say that there are two types of photographers out there; those that shoot Canon and those that shoot Nikon. Well that is changing as other camera manufacturers such as Sony and Olympus are entering the market with equally capable products. Therefore, that debate will continue. Another debate that will also continue is the debate over Film vs. Digital.

I was recently asked what the differences were between a wedding photographer shooting film versus digital. Below are my answers to those questions.

Question: Which medium do you use? Why?

I use Digital. I began photographing with a Canon A-1 professional film camera, and I actually still have it today and use it occasionally. I now use a digital version professional camera from Canon. The reason why I chose digital over film was that digital offered me more options than film did and still does. And, with my digital camera I can instantly see what I am capturing on the back of my camera, something you still can’t do with Film cameras.


Question: What’s the difference between Film and Digital?

It is all about the electrons and chemicals. With film, the photos of light energize silver halide crystals in the film and “change” them. When the film is processed with chemicals those “changes” are made permanent in the film. Then when the film is made into a print , the light passes through the film and “changes” the paper and then those “changes” are made permanent with chemicals. Film generally gives you a more “nostalgic” look and feel. Film also can capture a wider dynamic range which means it can capture more levels of exposure from dark to light than can digital.

With Digital, the photons of light hit a sensor that changes them into electrical voltage, those “changes” then get saved into a file, after that, almost anything can happen to the file before it is made into a print. A digital file can be manipulated to a much greater extent in the “digital darkroom” than can a negative in a “wet darkroom.” Indeed, some film photographers will scan their film negatives and then process them further on a computer.


Question: Are there any costs associated with choosing one over the other?

That depends on how much the photographer wants to do after the shutter is clicked. For the sake of this argument, I will assume that the cost of the actual camera gear will be the same for both Film and Digital. With Film, every click of the shutter costs me at least .30 for the film and then the processing of that film. With Digital, I can effectively shoot thousands of pictures on one memory card and it costs me nothing to do so other than the cost of the memory card, which I can use over and over again. I won’t go into processing or archiving of the originals as both can be a little or a lot.


Question: What risks are involved with your format? How are they mitigated?

When I was shooting Film, my biggest concerns were: 1. Getting the film loaded into the camera correctly. I have shot for an entire day not realizing that when I was advancing the film nothing was happening as the film had come off the winder spool; 2. Accidentally opening up the camera and exposing the film to light; 3. Having the film lost in shipping to and from the lab; 4. Having the lab screw up the chemical processing of the negatives. All of which have happened to me. The first two can be mitigated by just being very careful and deliberate in what you do, the others, are totally out the photographer’s control.

With Digital my worries are: 1. Having a memory card fail; 2. Losing a memory card; 3. Accidentally deleting a file or reformatting a memory card. None of which, knock on wood, has happened to me. I did actually reformat a card once, but upon checking I had already transferred the files from it to my computer. I did use a special software program provided by the memory card maker to unformat that card and get all the files back, but was glad that was just an exercise and not a real rescue operation.


Question: What are the advantages/disadvantages of digital?

For me the advantages are: 1. I can take as many pictures I need to capture the image I am wanting, with little thought of the cost; 2. Immediate feedback on the image I just captured using the LCD on the back of my camera; 3. The ability to have an immediate image available to upload to the internet; 4. The complete ability to manipulate the image any way I want in my post processing. 4. Digital is much better in low light situations and for a Wedding photographer that is key.

The disadvantages for me shooting Digital are few and I really do have to stop and think about it. 1. Dynamic range is getting better but Film still has the edge on that issue; 2. Some would say that you just don’t get the look of a Film print and to that I say that with the right post processing you can get a Digital image to look anyway you want it to.


Question: What are the advantages/disadvantages of film?

To me, the advantages of film are few and getting fewer. 1. Dynamic range is still better, however by using multiple images shot at different exposures and using HDR software a digital image can have twice the dynamic range of film; 2. Film has that nostalgic and “grainy” look to it, although this is a subjective quality to say the least; 3. Some would say that with Film you have to think much more about the shot since you can’t immediately see it like you can with Digital, and to that I say a good photographer would think about their shot the same, “good photographer” being the key phrase.

The disadvantages of Film, from my perspective are: 1. Cost per click; 2. No immediate feedback; 3. Poor in low light situations; 4. I don’t personally like the nostalgic or grainy look; 4. The time it takes to get the film processed and returned.


All-in-all, Dawn and I are glad that we currently shoot digital, although I do, on occasion, still shoot with my film camera, maybe I am just a little nostalgic after all.

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