Film Vs. Digital

I spend a lot of time talking about how digital technology affects audio, particularly in terms of music creation and distribution. Photography is affected in much the same way.

Millions of people enjoy the benefits of digital photography every day, though the advantages are somewhat smaller than for digital audio. Film cameras are cheap. Film is cheap. Processing is affordable. The big advantages are in the ease and speed of “processing” and distribution. Only, there’s a catch.


I’m a big fan of film, and I’m glad that I learned how to use it properly – at least from a technical perspective. Like music, there are technical and artistic aspects, and only one can be learned.

Film is awesome. Light sensitive emulsion on a transparent base, which after processing develops a latent image exposed on it through an aperture. Modern films especially feature fairly good sensitivity, high resolution, low noise, and can be made as large as any camera.

Digital cameras use sensors (usually CCDs) which convert light to a voltage, which is sampled on a grid and stored as digital data. The cool thing about this is you can display the image immediately after taking, especially when the camera has a built-in LCD display (as nearly all do). And since the data is digitized, the photographer can get immediate feedback on issues like exposure and framing, giving a chance ot correct problems.

Film takes time to process and print. If you screw up focus or exposure on film, you don’t find out until later, when it is probably too late to fix it. But film offers a level of information (both resolution and dynamic range) far greater than any current digital image sensor. This is mainly because it’s easy to make film frames larger (4″x5″ and 8″x10″ are common large format film sizes, but larger formats exist), but the largest digital sensors are much smaller, and are comparatively very expensive.

Ever since photosensitive emulsions were perfected in the mid-19th Century, the history of photography quality has been a constant retrograde motion in the name of convenience. Early photographs were done on large glass or metal plates hand-coated with a photosensitive emulsion and exposed in large (sometimes room-sized) cameras. With view cameras, film sizes were standardized, typically to 4″x5″ or 8″x10″ frames.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, 120 format film arrived, offering the convenience of multiple exposures on a roll, but did so by reducing negative size to 6×6 cm (or about 2.4″x2.4″) – other sizes exist, such as 6×7 or 6×9 cm, but 6×6 cm is very popular. Shortly after 120 film, the very popular 135 format 35mm film evolved, with an even smaller frame size of 36×24 mm (1.4″x1″).

Granted, film technology has improved considerably in the last century or so, but not enough that an 840 square mm negative (35mm) can produce the same detail that a 51,562 square mm negative (8″x10″) can.

Digital cameras have, for the most part, continued the trend. Digital point-and-shoot cameras and most digital SLRs have sensors smaller than 35mm frames – my Nikon D40 has a 23.7×15.5 mm sensor. High-end DSLRs sometimes offer “full-sized” sensors, which unfortunately means only the same size as a 35mm frame. Larger sensors can be had on professional “medium format” cameras, but they are smaller than even a 120 format film frame, and still cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

To take advantage of the bigger-is-better mentality, digital camera manufacturers keep increasing the megapixel ratings of their cameras. Unfortunately, without increasing the sensor size, megapixel counts cannot be increased without increasing noise, decreasing light sensitivity, or playing interpolation tricks. 6 megapixels seems to be about right for the smaller DSLR sensor size. Past a certain point, megapixels do not matter, and a picture taken on a 6 megapixel camera can look every bit as sharp and good as one taken on a 14 megapixel camera.

Film “resolution” works differently from digital imaging sensors. The grains of photosensitive chemicals in a frame of film are not laid out in a grid, and there are layers and overlap. As a result, film is a very resolution-dense medium. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 50-150 megapixels for resolution equivalents in a frame of 35mm film. For a 6×6 medium format frame, which has more then 4 times the area of a 35mm frame, the resulting resolution would be something like 200-600 megapixels.

This is all theoretical, of course. My medium format film scanner generates a 64-ish megapixel image from a 6×6 cm medium format frame. Which is excessive for publishing to the web, but can be helpful for higher-quality applications like album covers and posters.

Digital image sensors are constantly improving, but until manufacturers begin using significantly larger sensors, or imaging technology sees a quantum leap in sensitivity, film will have the upper hand in resolution and quality.


My first camera was a 110 cartridge camera. 110 is fun because you can pretend it is a spy camera. But the negative area is puny, though with the right optics, they can produce detailed images.

My proper introduction to photography was my father’s 35mm Minolta rangefinder, which I took with me on a high school trip to Washington D.C. and accidentally took a great photo of the Lincoln Memorial.

I purchased a used Nikon FN 35mm SLR camera for a photography class, and it served me well for years. The Nikon F series is probably the best 35mm SLR ever made (with all apologies to Leica enthusiasts).

About ten years ago, I bought a used Mamiya C330, a medium format Twin Lens Reflex camera. It’s a whole different experience shooting square pictures on paper-backed roll film, shooting through a top-down viewfinder – and I like it.

The Mamiya is neither a simple nor lightweight camera, and not one that I can carry around with me everywhere. When I heart out about the Holga, I found a great compromise – a medium format rangefinder-style camera that shot 6×6 cm film in a plastic body. It’s light, compact, and it takes very interesting images, mostly because of its plastic lens. I was a devoted Holga photographer for several years. I even bought a fairly expensive film scanner to digitize my pictures.

The main problem with medium format film is the processing and publishing turnaround. The nearby professional photo finishing lab can process in four hours, but I find it takes several hours to scan and clean up a roll of 12 shots. I began a photo-a-day project in 2002, and while I took all the pictures, I got so far behind in the processing that I never got all the pictures up on my web site.

The missus was a digital point-and-shoot digital person when I met her. I began using her camera for anything needing a short turnaround – for posting to the web, mostly. After a while, I became frustrated with the shutter lag and general unresponsiveness, so I decided to get a DSLR.

I bought a Nikon D40. I couldn’t afford a “full-sensor” DSLR, and my research suggested that 6 megapixels was about right. The D40 is a perfect entry-level DSLR. It has all the necessary features and is very reasonably priced. My only issues with the camera have been the lack of a bracketing exposure feature (for HDR photography), and that some lenses do not autofocus.

The best thing about shooting with the D40 is the long-term cost of operation. I paid about $550 for the camera with the very nice general purpose 18-55 mm zoom lens (this kit costs about $425 now). I bought two fast 4 GB SDHC cards (probably spent $25 each, though you can get both for that price now). Each card can hold over 600 images in RAW format, and the included battery gets me over 1000 pictures between charges, so I haven’t needed to purchase a backup. I have purchased two lenses (a 55-200 mm zoom which is my main working lens, and a gorgeous 50mm prime) which cost about $350. So my total cost of $850 total for the camera.

This past weekend, I shot over 300 pictures. Last weekend, I shot over 500. These are unusually high volumes for me, but these two weekends alone have essentially paid for the camera. The cost of this camera, on a per-picture basis, is now well below $1 per picture.

A roll of 120 film costs about $4 to purchase and $8 to develop, for a 12 image roll. So, it costs about $1 per picture to shoot medium format film, not even considering the cost of the camera, so the cost of operating a medium format camera will, over time, approach but never meet or go below $1 per picture.

Granted, when you are paying $1 for a picture, and you only have 12 per roll of film, you get more careful about what you shoot. With digital photography, I might shoot several pictures for a single image to get framing, exposure, and focus right. But even if you only consider a quarter of my images, I’m still way below $1 per picture.

So the big advantage for me is that I use my digital camera more, and I don’t spend as much time scanning and cleaning up images. For posting to Flickr and Facebook it’s more than enough resolution. Shooting film becomes more of a special event, and I do it either to get a high resolution image or because the camera (the Holga) makes interesting pictures.

One Comment

  1. Posted 25 November 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Some interesting information on cameras, thank you! I found lots more information like this over at this site

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  1. By test only » Blog Archive » Film Vs. Digital on 30 June 2009 at 4:02 am

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