When it comes to film vs digital photography, you’ll find no shortage of avid enthusiasts on either side. Today’s budding photographers generally start with digital photography but soon find themselves intrigued by film photography. The advent of digital photography didn’t kill film photography, which is currently experiencing a full-blown resurgence. So what is it that makes a film photographer stick with film when there’s a modern alternative, or choose digital photography when film stands the test of time?
Is Film Better Than Digital?
You can achieve stunning images with film and digital cameras — but the look and experience will be different. It’s not so much about which type of photography is better, but which is better for you.
5 Key Differences Between Film and Digital Photography
Deciding whether you want a photo on film or digital starts with knowing what makes each type unique. Here are five of the biggest distinctions between film and digital photography.
1. Photo Format and Resolution
A high resolution equals a sharper image. Film and digital handle resolution differently. With digital, resolution is determined by the number of pixels in the cameras’ digital sensors. Film camera resolution is measured by angular resolution. Film resolution is higher than most digital cameras, particularly if you’re using medium- or large-format film. Most digital cameras have 20 megapixels, and medium-format film is equivalent to 400 megapixels. But you likely won’t notice this difference in a photo comparison unless you’re printing your images.
2. Film Grain and Black and Whites
The unique texture in film photos is called film grain. When a digital photo has texture, it's due to digital noise. Film grain is a good thing. Digital noise is not. Film camera photos are famous for their color consistency, and film excels at capturing color and detail subtleties. Film's also great at capturing contrasts between black and white, which is what makes black-and-white film photographs so aesthetically pleasing.
Dynamic range is the brightest and darkest levels a camera can capture in one image without losing detail, and it's another notable difference between film and digital. A standard film camera has 13 stops of dynamic range. Today, digital cameras top that with an average of 14 stops.
3. Initial Costs
Digital photography comes with steeper start-up costs. In 2022, the average digital camera cost $623. But once you’ve got the camera and a computer for editing, your costs will be pretty low. Digital cameras store photos on memory cards, which can be used again and again as you transfer images to your computer.
The initial costs of film photography are much lower, but the cost of film can get expensive over time because you have to keep buying and developing it. If you shoot one roll of film per month, you'll spend around $360 per year.
4. Storage Space and the Development Process
If you’re short on storage space, a digital camera is your best bet. One small external hard drive can house thousands of images, while using a non-digital camera means boxes of archived film rolls and stacks of photographs.
Developing film can be time-consuming. Developing your own film takes much less time, but you'll need to rent a darkroom or set up your own, which can cost $360-$1,500. On the other hand, digital files are yours to browse instantly. Despite the instant access, some people actually save time by shooting with film — especially if they’re prone to perfectionism — because it's all too easy for digital photographers to spend hours editing their digital pictures.
5. Exposure Control
Exposure is the amount of light that reaches your film, and exposure control refers to all the elements that go into creating an image with your desired exposure metering. That includes the aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, and exposure time. Film cameras give you total control over exposure control, and digital cameras make exposure control easier with settings like aperture priority, shutter priority, and auto exposure — although you can always shoot in manual mode.