My take on the film vs. digital issue

I have always refrained from writing on the controversial subject of film vs. digital. As of late 2006 the issue seems to have been settled with digital kind of winning hands down and film sort of becoming a thing of the past. I personally have been using a DSLR where and when I feel it has advantages (read convenience and casualness); nevertheless, I still extensively use film for most of my serious work (colour slides and B&W negatives; medium format). Whereas this combination is very natural to me, some photographers find the fact that film might still be preferred to digital somewhat unsettling—as an example, the following is a fragment of an email from a reader:

"Using (digital capture and...) very sophisticated stitching software (...) I get results far better than scanned 4X5 slides, have much more flexibility, a much shorter workflow and immediate control of the results. (...) Looking through your gallery I realized that the majority of the pictures were made with an F100 and some even with an F6 (a camera I would never expect somebody to buy). So (...) could you please explain WHY YOU TODAY STILL PREFER FILM OVER DIGITAL? This is such a miracle to me that I could not resist to send you this email."

Mount Putuo (普陀山), Zhejiang Province, China

Stormy dragon

Photography is a very vast field and there, of course, are areas where digital capture is an indisputably better means to the end (e.g., photojournalism and commercial photography, where the importance of the time factor and efficiency makes all other considerations irrelevant). This article, therefore, is not intended to trample digital and advocate film; instead, it is rather my answer to the question above as well as an attempt to show that for keen photographers who have artistic aspirations film is still a perfectly adequate, or maybe even preferable, option.


In the film vs. digital debate image quality and resolution in particular seems to be the area of most interest to photographers. It has been widely suggested that it takes about 10MP to outperform 35mm film, roughly 16MP to surpass medium format film and that 39MP start approaching quality of 4X5 scanned film. Whereas this probably does not massively deviate from reality, I am of the opinion that unless one's specific application requires extracting each possible bit of resolution, all of this... does not matter. What does matter is the fact that any decent enough system, film or digital, is capable of producing technical image quality that would make justice to any photographic work of art. A more relevant question then would be the following: can you create photographs that would be good enough to benefit from the possible minute increase in resolution and justify using state–of–the–art digital capture and its high cost?

As I mentioned earlier I currently use medium format (6X6) film. 16MP digital capture probably could deliver more resolution but I do not know for sure and... am not interested if it actually would. What I do know is that medium format slide film delivers superb image quality that suffices for most practical applications. I also know from experience that other aspects such as photographic approach and experience, post–processing workflow, character of the recording medium, etc. have a far greater impact on my work than the theoretical consideration of how many megapixels outperform MF film in terms of resolution.

Mount Putuo (普陀山), Zhejiang Province, China

Fishing and outdoor photography... is there no similarity?

What should matter to an artist or someone who at least has artistic aspirations is whether the overall workflow dictated by the medium, film or digital, as well as the character of the final outcome, stimulates his artistic intentions and creativity. Having a personal vision and something to say is much more important than having more (or less) resolution. Artistic expression goes far beyond considerations of resolution; it is only lack of the former that induces concerns about the latter. Once again, as long as you have something to say both film and digital will record your message more than adequately.

Colour reproduction

With digital capture one has two options—shooting RAW or JPG. Shooting JPG and adjusting in–camera colour settings (white balance, saturation, etc.—different cameras have different options) when photographing generally produces satisfactory results. One, however, is at the mercy of having only so many options yet too many variables to quickly make an intelligent decision at the point of shooting, not to mention the unknown factor of in–camera processing, all of which makes shooting JPG unacceptable for serious work. Shooting RAW is a much better choice as it allows precisely adjusting colour rendition during post–processing. The only caveat, however, is that to take full advantage of this flexibility one has to be quite knowledgeable about colour science and very experienced with RAW converter software, as well as spend a lot of time in front of the computer monitor (which negates the potential workflow advantage discussed below).

With (colour slide) film, on the other hand, one gets perfect colours straight away (provided he chose the right type of film, of course), which is no surprise—Fujifilm and Kodak spent decades improving and fine–tuning colour reproduction of their films. Any given film has known properties, produces perfectly predictable and consistent results and boasts colours impeccably refined for its category. I am sure that Nikon, Canon, et al., are working on improving colour reproduction of their DSLRs, too, but "there are no short–cuts to quality".

In the end of the day this is a matter of personal preference. I personally find that shooting digital in RAW + AWB (auto–white–balance) mode and then tweaking colours during post–processing to get the look that I want might be a bit too frustrating and/or time consuming at times. With film things are a lot easier—I absolutely love the colours I get on Fuji Velvia and know that, in most cases, reproducing them starting with a RAW file might take quite a bit of an effort, which, once again, is no surprise—you do not think that Fujifilm and Kodak spent the money and years of research in vain, do you?

There also are other technical aspects such as archivability and its reliability, dynamic range, capturing long exposures, viewfinder size of DSLRs with APS–sized censors, etc., where film is still very appealing. I am not going into this, though, as these technical concerns are not the main subject of this article.

Photographic approaches and experience

One of the major (non–technical) differences between film and digital is that they invariably impose very different shooting approaches. The fundamental underpinning is very simple—film and its processing cost money, digital does not. The aesthetic implications, however, are more complex—with digital one usually tends to unintentionally transfer a considerable percentage of creative intention and concentration to the press–the–button–and–capture–it–all nature of DSLRs; with film, on the other hand, one is pleasantly forced to be more perceptive, thoughtful and resourceful. I am not entirely sure how this works psychologically but it seems somewhat akin to when easily available indulgence leads to lack of appreciation of what most likely is far from being an inexhaustible treasure.

Mount Putuo (普陀山), Zhejiang Province, China

Temple and rocks at sunrise

Digital invites to shoot more. This is not a bad thing per se but, unfortunately, indulgence generally results in more quantity and, on a per–unit basis, less quality. As long as one is able to produce photographs that are up to his standards the quality part probably is not a big issue; quantity, however, fundamentally changes both shooting and post–processing experience. There is also the question of whether our artistic intention actually benefits from the ability to immediately view what has been shot (more on this below). And even such a seemingly unimportant difference as having your photographs in the form of a tangible roll of film or ethereal bits on a CF or SD card has an impact on the photographic experience, too.

Digital also requires much more fiddling with in–camera options and settings. In my experience one can dedicate only a given amount of attention and/or concentration to the process of taking pictures; this amount, even though cannot be measured and expressed numerically, has a fixed value and is dependent on one's dedication and artistic abilities in general, as well as state of mind and external inspirational factors at the time of shooting in particular. When photographing, we have to consider two aspects—technical and aesthetical; obviously, the more attention the technical side as an inescapable necessity gets the less dedication aesthetics receive. The essence of the inexpressible and evasive beauty of such systems as Leica or Hasselblad (ideally used with black–and–white film—less pressure related to exposure latitude and precision) primarily lies in that it lets one concentrate as much attention on the aesthetics and enjoying shooting experience as possible. All this said, though, there are photographers who enjoy the cockpit sophistication of DSLR navigation, which, of course, is perfectly fine—tastes differ.

One observation that I would like to make in passing is that with the advent of digital photography the misconception of "the one who shoots more is a better photographer" has been brought onto an entirely new level. In the days of dominance of film some photographers used to brag that they shot such and such number of rolls of film in, say, a day of shooting. Film cost money and whereas some photographers might have wasted a few rolls here and there to obtain bragging rights no one would normally go overboard. In the digital age, however, some "well–known" photographers claim to take (and they, most likely, actually do) over a thousand shots in a day or several dozen thousand shots in a month. They tend to announce this with an air of superiority as if the very fact of having used a gazillion shutter cycles somehow makes them better photographers or gives them the guru status. Given the fact that they only post several new photographs in a month at the most, it inevitably makes me ask the question—what on earth do they shoot? I reckon some of them would be better off by buying camcorders and not messing with DSLRs .

Immediacy of the results

The ability to immediately view results on a DSLR's LCD display provides one with a great opportunity to improve his/her photographic skills much faster. Correct mistakes right away, experiment, try new approaches or techniques and have fun—and at no additional cost. This, of course, is superb and I will be the first to admit that I take full advantage of this benefit; moreover, every now and then I use my DSLR as a Polaroid back when shooting film in difficult lighting situations.

All that said, though, I have a very adverse feeling towards the very same immediacy of results when exploring a subject in a serious manner or on an intensive photographic exploration. I do not want to see what has been shot until I feel that my creative perception of the place has been exhausted or the trip is over. Reviewing digital files at the end of the day in the hotel on a computer screen somehow eats away at my creativity; it feels as if I am skipping a great part of a detective story and go straight to the end to find out who the killer was. The result, of course, is important; however, I would not want it at the cost of missing the process of exploration (once again about similarities—this time with good sex ).

Mount Putuo (普陀山), Zhejiang Province, China

Sunrise—Moonset (with one of the planets stuck in between)

I know that this argument is far from scientific and many will disagree; this, however, is my genuine experience and one of the reasons why I still use film. Your mileage may vary but I thought I would share this with you anyway.

Finally, for the most passionate photographers there actually is a faster way to manage and know the outcome than viewing a DSLR's LCD screen, which is... pre–visualisation—remember this old concept from the days of film? It sure is much more challenging—but is it not fun?

Post–processing workflow

It is generally suggested that digital workflow (by which in this context I mean converting RAW files as opposed to shooting and scanning film) is faster and more productive. Is this true? I would argue that it depends.

Granted, in the areas where the total time from when a shoot is finished and one gets the digital files ready for output, digital workflow is faster (which is also one of the reasons why DLSRs became dominant in photojournalism even when image quality was still rather questionable). For most photographers who are not under the pressure of deadlines, however, this is not necessarily true. As mentioned above, when using a DSLR one tends to photograph more thus producing and having to deal with many more shots. If one shoots JPG this, arguably, is less of an issue—simply browse through the files and choose what you like. But then again, why would a photographer who has artistic aspirations and no pressure of deadlines shoot JPG? He is more than likely to shoot RAW—and post–processing RAW files is a totally different story which, in my experience, is not any faster than scanning carefully chosen slides. First, selecting the shots you like on–screen is not faster than choosing slides on a light table (remember that you have many more RAW files than transparencies); second, scanning slides is not slower than fine–tuning digital files in a RAW converter (both for the final keepers and on a time–per–picture basis; also note that whereas you can do other things while a slide is being scanned tweaking a RAW file requires your full attention). In the end of the day, though, for artistically minded photographers all of this, once again, is a matter of personal preference and post–processing times... do not matter—because we are bound to spend days working on that beloved photograph regardless of whether we start with a digital file or a slide anyway.

Mount Putuo (普陀山), Zhejiang Province, China

Stormy clouds and ships

On, say, a three day photographic expedition I am likely to shoot several hundred RAW files if using a DSLR and about a dozen rolls of 120 film if using my Hasselblad system (if I have both available the DSLR always ends up staying in the bag). Personally, I by far prefer viewing slides on a light table and then scanning a dozen chosen pictures (in a rather straightforward manner) than browsing trough a gazillion digital files onscreen and then tweaking RAW files (see the colour reproduction part above).


...a simple answer to the question in the beginning is that both film and digital capture get you there in terms of image quality but offer fundamentally different "driving experience". Some photographers dumped their 35mm and even MF film equipment as soon as they got ahold of 3MP DSLRs, others claim that they will give up photography for good when film is no longer available. Try both, choose what you genuinely like (including the sensible compromise of using both for different purposes) and learn to be more accepting and live with the fact that there are many ways to skin a cat.

P.S. All photographs were taken in Mount Putuo (普陀山), Zhejiang Province, China between 20 and 22 August 2006 with a Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 4/50, CFE 2.8/80 and CFE 4/180 lens and Fuji Velvia 100F slide film; main bulk of the text was written in Spain in September 2006.

Comments from readers

Hi Oleg,

Just read your article on film vs digital, and found it very interesting! I generally agree—but thought I'd also post you a couple other reasons why should I come across more money, I'm more likely spend it on film!

1. As you say, it's no coincidence that fuji and kodak spent years perfecting their films, and that the results are often pretty much perfect. One thing I don't like about digital is the fact that since 1MP SLRs came out, people have been saying that the quality from digital is better than film—and each year they say the same, though when you look back now to those 1 or 2 MP images you realise just how bad they were! And the same is happening now—and I'm talking about noise reduction that is carried out on images, even on modern 10MP cameras—I am sure these will leave artefacts that we'll become accustomed to spotting when 10MP is old stuff!

2. However, the times I wished I had a DSLR was when I was required to get the shots for a project someone has asked me to do, and who expects results!! In this case, my desire for digital is purely one of fear—what if I messed up?! Whether one should move to digital because of fear of not taking the right photo is debatable.

3. As a purist, film is the way to go—no bayer interpolation, or meddling by some chip which is trying to guess what level of sharpness you want, or how much noise to reduce! I use 35mm, and the results enlarged to 16x12, and once even 30x20" have been fantastic! One day I may move onto medium format.

All best and keep up the excellent website!

Duncan J Murray
Medical Student, Oxford University

Related links

Film vs. digital—the question of "character"

12MP digital capture vs. high quality scans from medium format film: resolution comparison

Apples and Oranges—more articles on the film vs. digital issue