According to our history books film was invented many decades ago, it is definitely the old technology and digital the new. But is new technology always preferred over old technology? That is the question we will try to answer.
The biggest differences between film photography and digital photography are that of the sensor and the recording medium. Of course with film photography, the film is both the sensor and the method of recording the image. With a digital camera the sensor captures the image and then it is saved to a storage medium such as an SD card or CF card. The method of storage is mostly irrelevant although the speed of the card can play a role in the performance of the camera. With digital cameras the sensor is very important to the final outcome of the image. The same is true for film, however, films tend to be relatively limited in the maximum performance they can achieve. In theory there is no limit for a digital camera as the sensor can be designed using technology that allows it to detect even a single photon at a time.
How film and digital each capture an image
A digital sensor captures the image using a device referred to as a CCD. CCD stands for charge coupled device. A CCD is a type of semiconductor much like the CPU in a computer but built with a sensitivity to light. On the CCD are rows upon rows of pixels. Essentially when a photon strikes a pixel on the CCD it generates an electrical charge. That charge is stored in the pixel until the exposure ends, after which time the individual charges contained in the pixel wells are measured and saved digitally as the image.
Film is quite different. In film the CCD is replaced with celluloid. And on the celluloid the pixels are replaced with silver halide crystals. Silver halide is the photosensitive component of the film that reacts when light strikes it. In order to produce color film the crystals have to be chemically modified to be sensitive to specific frequencies of light. Because of that process the grain of color film tends to be larger than the grains in black and white film which gives 35mm color film in particular a somewhat grainy and messy look.
Some photographers may argue digital vs analog and say that digital photography can’t reach the resolution of analog because analog is not limited by things such as bit depth. However light is actually more limited than you might assume considering we rely on light for so much of our lives. Oddly enough, light does not travel in a steady stream as it appears to the eye but rather in individual packets known as photons. Light packets actually strike a surface individually which produces a pattern of noise called “shot noise”. Shot noise is not evident to our eyes but if you could see it you would see that light never lights a surface evenly, but only random points on a surface appear lit at any given moment. Because of all this light is essentially digital in nature and sensors are good enough now to count the packets of light individually, therefore, the only real limitation to the image resolution is not the fact that it is digital but the sheer size of the image. While light is inherently digital in nature there are a huge amount of photons in play in a typical image so the image can appear very analog.
Hopefully that made sense, but the point of all that is not to learn about it for the sake of learning it, but to point out that the film image is not inherently better than a digital image due to resolution, and in fact digital is capable of exactly representing the photons striking the sensor whereas film cannot.
Does the fact that digital can perfectly count up the photons mean that film is inferior? Well, when it comes to accuracy, yes film is very inferior. But most people who shoot film do not care so much about accuracy, they care about the emotion of the image. Film has a magical ability to look like a faded memory which gives film an emotive quality missing in the perfection of digital. Of course it is possible to edit digital images to appear more like film but it is tough to make it exactly like film. The process by which film creates the image is highly complex, it is much more complex than a digital sensor and would be difficult for a classical computer to fully quantify in anything resembling a reasonable amount of time. Because of that the images from film are very unique in a very tangible way. In an instant you can produce something that will never be exactly recreated even if you took billions of the exact same photo. And then factor in the human element of developing your film and the randomness is added to again. The end result for film is that no two images are every exactly alike, the process is too complex to control perfectly.
It turns out that film shooters are not just crazies with an odd hobby and they do have a legitimate claim with their art form.
So which is better? It all depends on the purpose. For some purposes digital photography is vastly better and more cost effective. For a rich man a film camera is a fun toy that can bring a certain feeling that a digital image tends not to. But almost nobody will be going around taking loads of photos with film anymore, it is not just expensive but annoying. Film photography is best for random moments, it is the element of randomness that makes film feel powerful. The decision of the photographer to elevate a place in time for no reason other than willing it to be elevated, that is what film is good for.
It is important to remember that photography has many purposes but perhaps most important among those is that it is an art form. For that purpose the film photo remains important to photography as a whole.
Types of film
If you are interested in film the easiest way to get into it is probably going to be with 35mm film. 35mm film is by far the most popular type of film in history although it is no longer as popular as it was it is still among the most produced films available. A huge reason to get into 35mm film is simply the large number of 35mm film SLR cameras that have been made. 35mm SLR cameras can still be found at yard sales and estate sales as well as Goodwill and other places where used goods are sold. Another cool thing about many of the old 35mm film cameras is that they had little to no electronics in them. Because of that they are highly repairable. Usually a good cleaning and a few drops of lubricant in the right places will bring the typical film camera back to working order.
Another option would be medium format film which can produce a very high quality and detailed image. While medium format film can produce an amazing image, one advantage of film in general is that it is typically very good about overexposure. If you are concerned about the dynamic range of film, do not be, film actually has quite high dynamic range in many cases. It is important to note the difference between dynamic range in a film image and digital image though. The digital sensor tends to be much better about resolving shadow detail while film is usually much better at resolving highlights. The downside for film is that it is important to develop film for the purpose of recovering the highlights if necessary, otherwise they will appear blown out. That is something you may need to think about when developing your own film. With medium format film you will get even more dynamic range than with 35mm film. This is because with the larger film the grain is less visible and the lack of grain equates to a higher signal to noise ratio which equates to more dynamic range.
Beyond medium format lies large format which is especially rare and difficult and probably not really worth the effort but some people do enjoy shooting it. With large format the film itself is huge which necessitates large and heavy camera bodies. In most cases a tripod is an absolute necessity for successful large format photography. For those who are that dedicated it can be rewarding and there are a number of famous landscape photography specialists who shot large format over the history of film. Prints from large format film are generally of the highest quality and can easily match or exceed even the most superb digital sensors. It is simply a matter of resolution, large format film is generally much larger than the largest digital sensor which means the grain of large format is miniscule relative to the film area.
The film photographer has a lot of options at their disposal as you can see. With digital it is much more limited. There are even different types of film. In addition to your typical color negative film, there is slide film which produces a positive rather than a negative image on the film. And of course there is black and white film which is known for its finer grain and higher contrast compared to most color films. That high contrast lends many black and white films a flair for the dramatic that some film shooters crave. Deciding on what film you want to shoot has its own technical advantages and drawbacks that can influence the use of specific films over others, but there are artistic reasons to shoot one film over another as well. One photographer may appreciate the charm of a 35mm color negative, while another will demand the precision and fine grain of a medium format black and white film. Regardless of what you choose film photography has a unique set of challenges that are largely absent in the digital world and whether you like those challenges or not will directly influence whether you end up enjoying shooting film.
Challenges of film
Some of the big challenges of film are the cost, the bulk, and long term storage of film. Storing film for any length of time can be a big pain. For one, unlike digital, film degrades over time and it is not possible to simply make a backup copy of a roll of film. While it can technically be copied, every copy will be of lower quality than the original, and a copy of a copy lower again. If not stored properly it will degrade in a matter of a few years or even months. Mold can be a big problem for film if the film is kept in a damp environment. As a result of all this many film shooters end up scanning their negatives into the computer to preserve them. Perhaps it is ironic that the best end to a film photograph is that it is stored digitally, but that is probably the truth of the matter and one of the realities of shooting film.
Another underappreciated challenge is simply getting film. It is hard to find in anything but the most common formats and types anymore so that is an important consideration for you to make when deciding whether you want to get into film photography or not. And it should come as no surprise that if the developed film degrades over time so does the undeveloped film, except it degrades even faster because it is still chemically unstable. For this reason buying old film can lead to undesirable results. Don’t think you can just buy up a bunch of old film off eBay and have it work for you, the chances are it is probably no longer usable unless it was stored very carefully all those years.
Developing the film is yet another challenge and cost to consider. Sure each roll costs about 10 bucks, then you have to pony up to develop the film on top of that. And if the development is botched, guess what, your film and the pictures on it are gone forever.
Developing is a serious concern because very few developers even exist anymore, especially high end ones where you would want to send important client photos. And the issue is probably worse if you do it yourself. Just like the act of taking the picture, developing is an art form in and of itself and getting good consistent results requires experience and knowledge.
As you can see the film photographer has to have a certain amount of patience to enjoy it as a hobby or as a job as the case may be. From the limiting effects of cost to the dangers of dealing with chemicals and film in a dark room, there are a lot of factors that end up being out of your control.
Challenges of digital
Developing digital is one of the challenges of digital. One of the problems faced with current technology is that most screens and printers are not able to accurately represent the amount of data that is captured by the sensor. But since film is captured with analog technology it is already in the real world and does not need to be converted to be seen. This is especially true if you shoot slide film or black and white. Of course technological advancements should make it possible to create better and better representations of digital data but we still have a ways to go.
Another challenge of digital is the complexity of the camera. Making your own film, especially black and white film, is achievable if you have the knowledge of how to do so. On the other hand, the machinery required to manufacture a digital sensor makes constructing your own sensor a vastly more expensive and unlikely proposition. In that sense digital is a fragile technology. In the very long term it takes a lot more work to make digital sensors than it does to make film.
As you can see, there are a ton of issues with shooting film and a ton of advantages when shooting digital. For the most part digital is superior across the board from the photographers point of view. Unless you are an artist or hobbyist with nothing better to do, then film might be your thing. I think it would be fun to shoot a roll of film now and again so I might have to buy a roll of 35mm color negative film and run it through my Canon A-1 just for kicks. The one thing I always miss about film is getting the pictures back from the developer… It was always fun waiting to see the pictures for the first time!
End of the day photography is one of those things we do for fun. Even if you are doing it as a job, admit it, you chose that job because photography is fun. Nobody ever tells anyone to become a photographer it is just something you end up doing because you enjoy it. End of the day that might be what matters most in the film vs digital debate. If you enjoy it, I guess that means it is superior to you!