Published March 16th 2014

Why digital is better than film

I keep reading these articles from film photographers about why film is MUCH better than digital. Pardon my French, but BS!

Film vs. digital

I'm not a film hater or one who doesn't like the result of film photography. I have no problem seeing the beauty in many film photos and have the deepest respect for people shooting film. I have shot thousands of rolls of film, still have several film bodies and a stock of slide films and dream about shooting large format film.

No, I definitely have nothing against film.

I'm just very tired of hearing film shooters keeping on and on with the “film is better than digital” gospel! I keep on reading these articles titled “Why shooting with film will make you a better photographer”, “Why Film Is Still Better Than Digital” or “Six Reasons Why Film is Better Than Digital”.

There's no way that film is objectively better than digital. No way! It's like saying that CRT's are better than flat screens or radio tubes are better than transistors and old fashioned carburetors are better than modern electronic fuel injection.

Film looks great but also has issues

To some people, sure.
Subjectively, yes.
Because you love the look, absolutely.

But to a far majority of us and when measured, weighed and analyzed, the modern technologies are in almost all ways better than the older ones. More consistent, better specs, more reliable, more efficient, more accessible, more precise and mostly less expensive too.

Sure, there's a difference between this and that. People may prefer the sound of the tube amplifier or love the look of a large engine with old fashioned air intakes and enjoy the beautiful and simple mechanics of the carburetor, but when it comes down to generating sound or delivering fuel efficiently to an engine, the transistors and injection wins hands down.

It's like saying vinyl is better than the CD, which again is better than the digitally streamed music. Technically it's measurable that modern digital music has better signal to noise ratio, better dynamics, better precision, but there are lots of people who prefer vinyl. I respect that (I have a turntable and about 4-500 LP's to back it up), but reality is that only few can hear the difference, and to a far majority the modern, streamed music is the absolutely best way they can get music – both convenience wise and quality wise.

Of course it's a discussion of taste, conviction and feelings, which can never have a clear winner unless you measure and weigh and follow the scientific arguments.

Scanned slide

Same thing for film vs. digital. Film has qualities, which lie beyond the measurable and technical, no doubt, and I can easily see these qualities in prints and even online, when people post scans of their film images.

But reality is that film is not nearly as high res or as precise as digital. Film might have an edge on dynamic range – the difference between the darkest and the brightest spot in the image – but even here it's loosing ground. Modern digital cameras have a very good dynamic range.

The qualities of film are mainly subjective – things about film that film shooters prefer over digital. Now, that's something different, which I can fully understand, respect and agree with.

But just don't say that it's better than digital!

Not my favorite program
And of course there's the convenience part. I shot thousands of rolls of film and developed, cut, mounted or printed and later scanned a gazillion frames, and I for one don't miss the red darkroom lamp or the feeling of fixer on my fingers, not to mention cleaning slides and feeding them into a painstakingly slow scanner, which I still have to do when I need an old slide on the computer.

To some people it's like slow cooking (which I love and do a lot by the way). The process is part of the product. It's not only getting there, but also the journey. I can sympathize with that. I can relate to the satisfaction of exposing, developing and printing a film image, but I cannot see how that makes it better than digital other than for the process, the experience.

Here are my main reasons why digital runs increasingly tighter circles around film in no particular order:

1) It's way, way, WAY more convenient

This is the single most important reason. Handling film is simply a pain if your aim is just to get good pictures of things. The whole mechanical and chemical process with film is lots of work, and the number of factors influencing the result is staggering - from film age and storage temperature over the age and state of the developer to the storage of the final image. It can go so wrong so many places, and each step is dependent on human handling, and as you know: humans fail.

Of course you can mess up digital, but in a modern world it's actually pretty difficult. Press the button on your smartphone and you can instantly have several copies of your image, locally and online.

The difference in convenience is what has made the number of images shot explode. I'm not saying that the resulting images are all better, but the process is so much easier.

2) It's so much easier

One argument I have heard several places is that shooting film is easier. As one film shooter put it: “You point, shoot, and wind”. What? How should that be easier than say using a smartphone or a simple P&S camera? Or a DSLR for that matter?

“You point, shoot, and... that's it”. Two thirds the number of steps. One third simpler!

And the argument that film is more forgiving and allows for errors when exposing, making it easier to get good shots? All modern cameras have exposure control, and rarely make mistakes. People make mistakes, analog or digital.

Most modern cameras, film or digital, are made simpler with fewer controls, so film camera simplicity and ease of use is also a non-argument. Modern cameras are super simple. Most camera phones don't even have a shutter release button. Press the screen where you want it to focus and expose, and the camera takes a picture.

Many film cameras are actually from a time where camera control was all manual: focus, exposure and even winding the film and cocking the shutter to prepare for the next shot. How can that be easier?

3) You get instant gratification

I read again and again how waiting for the developed film is gratifying and rewarding... In what way, may I ask? Like waiting for food when you're hungry or waiting for sleep when you're tired?

Why will waiting make your pictures better or make you a better photographer?

There's no forced waiting time with digital, but you can wait with digital if you want to wait. Shoot your pictures, don't chimp, put the memory card in your pocket, and don't take it out until after a few days. You can even put it in an envelope and mail it to yourself to get that “waiting by the mailbox” feeling. And you get the added thrill of risking that the images disappear or get destroyed in transit, just like with film.

For many photographers the instant results is what kicks them. Seeing and sharing within seconds is a vast benefit of digital, and can in no way be turned into a disadvantage.

4) You can chimp (but you don't have to)

When I was shooting film, the moment when the light came on and I could assess a newly developed roll of negatives was always a nerve wrecking one. This moment would reveal whether I had something I could work on or not. Sometimes the negatives would be all too bright (most likely underexposed) washed out (could be old developer) or way too contrasty (maybe too long or warm development), but most times they would look OK.

I would have given an arm to be able to chimp my film. Just a sample or two before going on with the shoot. Many pros did actually chimp. They shot Polaroids to assess light, exposure and the overall composition before commencing with the film shots.

Film proselytes praise the inability to chimp when shooting film. Well, you know what? You aren't forced to chimp! It's not a law. Turn off the LCD and rely on your keen eye and ability to compose and expose, and enjoy the moment of revelation when you see the result on the computer screen. But don't blame me if all your images are badly exposed...

5) It's inexpensive

Shooting digital is essentially free once you have the gear.

When I started shooting I shot B/W because the film was cheap and I could DIY develop and print. Not because I had some artsy notion that my images would be better. I loved it when I now and then bought a Kodachrome 25, exposed it and sent it in. Color. No work. Slides to project on a large screen. But man, it was expensive!

Cameras are also less expensive than they have ever been. You get very able cameras with your phone, the cheap dedicated cameras cost very little and the expensive ones are... expensive, but in real money – like compared to a salary – even they are definitely less expensive now than they have ever been. The access to high quality cameras and lenses is better than ever and affordable for more people than it has ever been.

Film decays

6) Your “film stock” can be essentially unlimited

Modern 16, 32 or 64 Gb memory cards hold thousands of images and you can have several cards, so even the highest resolution camera can have an almost endless supply of “film”. And when you are done shooting, you can copy over the images and empty the card and be ready to go again. And if that's not enough get 128 or 256 Gb cards. Or WiFi... or shoot tethered when possible.

And you don't need to worry about shelf life or storing film in the refrigerator or freezer.

7) You can make as many copies as you want

I have a ton of slides and negatives stored in boxes and binders right behind me as I type this. Thousands and thousands of frames.

One copy of each.
The only one copy.

A fraction has been scanned and stored digitally, but the far majority exists in one copy only. Should that copy deteriorate, bleach, mold, become water damaged, burn, get stolen or whatnot, then I have none.

My digital images – about a quarter of a million of them – are all stored in three different copies in this house alone. On top of that I have two separate online storage facilities – one with the full quarter million and another with the best images. And I have quite a few dispersed copies on CDs and other media with family, friends or clients.

I could of course make copies of all my slides and negatives, analog or digital, but copying is still so much easier with digital.

8) Copies are full quality

And not only are copies easy to make, but they are also full quality. No deterioration at all. No matter what I do to copy my film pictures I loose or at least change quality. Scanning, printing, making slide copies or whatever I do, I will never get a 1:1 copy of the original. I might not loose technical quality, but the copy will no way be the same as the original, which it is when I make a digital-to-digital copy.

A print can be a great copy of a negative, but it can never be a perfect copy.

What utter nonsense!

9) Digital isn't less permanent than film

I read many places that digital is “less permanent” than film. What utter nonsense! The opposite, actually. Digital has an inherent storage stability that film or prints can't approach in any way.

If you want to preserve your digital images, you simply do so. Like with film. If you are careless, they disappear, get deleted, lost, stolen or the like. Like film pictures. It's not the media's fault that you were a slob with your first digital images and lost them. I have mine preserved. Back from my first ever digital camera, the mighty Agfa ePhoto.

My family (grandparents, parents, siblings, myself) has shot all film until about 10 years ago, and I'll bet you that about 80-90% of all those film images are gone – either the negatives or both prints and negatives. Lost, trashed, ruined. Gone.

Their digital images on the other hand are almost all there. I know mine are, and I know my wife's are. My mother's are. My parents-in-law's are. I myself have helped them set up systems that preserve the images.

Preserving digital is a question of culture and discipline, not technology.

Digital original


One possible result

10) The manipulation options are endless

Some might consider this a drawback, but it's like chimping: you don't have to!

You can manipulate at your heart's will, converting, adding grain, changing colors, enhancing, retouching. It's easy and the options are countless. You can be silly or serious as much as you want. Done right there's no change made to the original, and an image can exist in an endless row of manipulated copies – for good and for bad.

An old B/W print of mine

11) You know you can print digital, don't you?

One argument that I hear and read quite often is that the prints made from negatives are the ultimate prize for the film photographer.

Well, first of all: 99% of all images are viewed on a screen – or at least a far, far majority. People do read magazines, they do attend shows and go to galleries, but still the main image channels are fed through a screen: looking through your own images on a phone or tablet, browsing online galleries on the computer or reading the news on a web site.

Secondly: many film shooters display their images online and mainly online. Praise film, praise grain, praise the soft shoulder. All lost when the image goes up on a web site in an 800*600 pixels resolution.

OK, some do print, but if you want your images to get out, you need the web, Facebook, 500px, Flickr and Instagram.

And you can print digital, you know?
You should try it. The results are amazing! Like printing from film, just better.

12) No, film does not look better!

OK, this one is the piece de resistance of my whole row of arguments. A lot of the film shooters will keep arguing that film simply looks better than digital.

The famous soft shoulder, handling highlights, handling natural light, pleasing grain. Trying to put words on the look and feel of film vs. digital is really difficult, but they do so anyway as I try to do it here, argumenting for the opposite. It's like defending the taste of one sauce over the other. A question of personal preference.

Film can look really good. As can digital.

If film always looked better, there could be something there, but it certainly doesn't. Digital can look stunning, awesome and mesmerizing just like film.

And just like when shooting film, it's down to the craft. A good photographer and a good postprocessor (is that a word?) can make a digital image exactly as fascinating and beautiful as any film image. The foundation is there in the digital negative, in the pixels caught by the sensor, stored in the RAW file.

It's just a question of handling it right.

13) Automation will help you and give you more keepers

Many film fans argue that the automation on digital cameras removes you from the basics of photography, and in that process will make you a worse photographer – or rather not as good a photographer.

Well, guess what. You can work most cameras manually. Not the camera phones or the most primitive P&S cameras, but even my toy Canon D10 P&S has full manual exposure and focus. Any serious camera like a mirrorless or an SLR all have full manual operation including manual focus. So if you want to learn the math and nature of shutter speed, aperture and ISO, just do it. Turn your camera to M and have a go at it.

Claiming that a film camera “gives you the freedom to choose your focus” and that AF won't, can only be attributed to a lack of knowledge about autofocus, because every single of my AF cameras will focus exactly where I want them to, and in some instances help me focus where I would be unable to due to moving subjects or low light. And by the way: All except for one of my film bodies have autofocus, so AF or not has nothing to do with film. On the rest I can turn off AF and simply twist that focus ring on the lens to my heart's desire. And that of course goes for all the digital bodies too.

14) Digital cameras double as video cameras

Simply flip a switch or press a button and your camera is a camcorder. And a good one too. So good actually, that many pros use digital SLR's as their main video camera, not least because the access to good lenses is colossal and the price compared to the quality is very low.
Most modern digital cameras from the smartphone to the high end SLR can shoot video, and most do so in a very good quality. Use it or not, but don't say that it makes a digital camera a worse camera.

15) High ISO quality is stunning

Cranking the ISO up to 1600 is trivial and 6400 or even 12800 is no problem on most modern digital SLR's and high end mirrorless cameras.

Pressing your Provia slide film is a no go and when I exposed a Tri-X or a HP-5 as a 1600 ASA film, I was nervously trembling when I developed it, because I never knew what I got – if anything. And if I got a good result, it wasn't really good at all, because the grain was the size of pebbles and the contrast enormous. Nowadays I can set a camera to use auto ISO and have it elegantly turn ISO up and down within a set range of ISO values, apertures and shutter speeds, and have it produce impeccable images at almost all settings.

16) Frame rate is out of this world

Released of the burden of winding the film forward for each frame taken, the modern cameras are able to shoot at speeds that were physically impossible when using film. The shutter still has to work on SLR's, but on cameras with no mirror there's a very high limit to the number of shots that can be exposed per second.

A Canon EOS-1D delivers a staggering 14 fps and Nikon's new D4s follows troop at 11 fps. A midrange DSLR will deliver 6-8 fps and even consumer cameras can burst about 4-5-6 frames per second. If you look at some small sensor cameras like some Lumixes, you can get up to 40 still images per second.

You will need to get yourself a top-of-the-line professional Nikon F6 (the latest film SLR from Nikon) to get 5 frames per second and have to add a battery grip to get to 8, which is still an impressing rate for a film camera.

17) White balance is a non-issue

When using color film, you have to buy the film to suit the light you are shooting in - especially if you shoot in incandescent light compared to natural light, but even when shooting overcast compared to shooting in sunlight. There's very little you can do in the processing of the film to change the recorded light. You can filter when printing, but that's a pretty difficult art to master. If you scan the images you might be able to handle white balance digitally, but only to a certain limit.
Shoot RAW in you digital camera, and the power to manipulate the white balance is colossal, and you can make endless adjustments a long time after the image has been shot. You can run into trouble with very mixed light sources, but it's still orders of a magnitude easier to control than on film.
B/W film shooters of course don't have the same issues.

This list has been growing ever since I started it. It was actually 5 reasons to begin with, then 10 and I ended at 15... 16... now 17, but there are most likely more. Some of the reasons I have thought of later have little significance to me in my own daily work with cameras, but might be important to others.

I'm sure that I will come to think of more reasons why current digital cameras are better than film cameras, and why the result – the digital images – are better than the ones shot on film, but 17 reasons must suffice for now.

Again let me stress that I'm in no way a film hater, and that I love a lot of images shot on film. I love the work of James Nachtvey, Sally Mann, Steve McCurry, Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier Bresson or any other of the many great film shooters of the present and the past. But claiming that they are better photographers and their images are better because they shoot – or shot – film is downright stupid. Film might add something to the look of their images, but their images are good simply because they are good photographers.