Jun 25 2005

Digital vs Film – which is better – the (still) endless debate

The Digital vs Film debate is not going to end in the foreseeable future for very good reasons. First, the discussion is too general in terms and there is no acceptable definition to “Digital”, “Film” and “Better”. Current DSLRs outperform 35mm film but … Let’s have a closer look at them.

Film

Currently used films range from 35mm all the way to 8″x10″, from color negative consumer to black & white to various consumer and professional slide films.

Those endless combination of film types and formats can be shot with a diversity of cameras, from disposable to state of the art SLR cameras, to Medium Format, up to full movement Large Format cameras.

As if it isn’t enough, those cameras can be shot by a huge diversity of photographers.

Digital

I really doubt that anyone can indicate the numbers of digital camera models on the market but we should be able to make a raw classification: compact cameras, bridge cameras, DSLR, MF backs, LF (scanning) backs.

Again, a lot of different capabilities in the hands of photographers.

Better

Depending on the context it can be better image quality, better workflow, faster delivery, more convenient and a lot of other things.

And lately there is an increasing number of digital photographers which never shot a frame on film so any comparison between film and digital would be, at least for them, a bit difficult.

Let’s level the ground

To begin a meaningful discussion let’s keep in the race only the most currently used equipment, so we will take out the Large Format altogether and the Medium Format digital backs.

We are left with compact cameras, 35mm SLRs and Medium Format up to 6x7cm on film and compact, bridge and DSLRs on digital.

Now, on assignment

To be able to do a real life comparison of digital and film we should consider the final use of the images.

Most images will be used either on screen, as photographs on paper or printed in magazines, brochures, catalogues, books.

Compact cameras, both film and digital are mainly used for snapshots, family images, holiday pictures.

Here the edge goes to digital vs film because:

  • the instant feedback offer the casual digital photographer much more “keeper” images and a lot of fun during shooting
  • the sharing of the images is much easier, using E-mail and the Web
  • the ability to freely shoot large amounts of images and keep only the good ones
  • the savings from the cost of film and processing since only very few images get printed
  • the possibility to get quality prints on paper either at home using an inexpensive inkjet printer or at a digital lab.

Let’s move on to more “professional” applications.

In the professional field the digital gets even more attractive because of the fast turnaround of the images, the possibility to avoid scanning costs and time and the ability to retouch the images by the photographer which may need to “hide” some imperfections before showing the proofs to the client.

Event shooting was done traditionally with good SLRs on negative film. The typical output was 5″x7″ (13x18cm) to 6″x8″ (15x21cm) photographs.

Now this kind of assignment is done very easily with any DSLR on the market, since you don’t need more than a good 3 Mpx camera to generate 6″x8″ prints.

Also, all the advantages mentioned above hold with the added benefit of easily generated proofs for the client to make the selection for final prints.

It is even possible to organize the delivery of event images on spot if you have a well trained team with laptop computers and printers available, especially if your camera is capable of delivering printable jpegs.

The advantage goes to digital vs film.

Weddings were traditionally shot on Medium Format cameras using professional negative films which insured very high quality.

But in the last years before the digital, the market was already flooded with “wedding photographers” using 35mm SLRs and even the serious shooters were using more and more 35mm film for the candid shots, saving the Medium Format for the formals where was the chance for large prints orders.

So it was only natural that the first DSLRs were slowly replacing the 35mm SLRs and with the increase in resolution and image quality there are now a lot of photographers shooting weddings all digital.

If you read any digital photography forum you will see a lot of posts about photographers shooting several hundreds to a thousand images at a wedding, which was simply less likely if shot on film.

There is a whole industry of showing the proofs, taking orders and the delivery over the Internet.

Let’s face it: most wedding images do not get printed over 8″x12″ (20x30cm) and any current 4 Mpx and over DSLR can easily offer a very good quality print at this size. Only very few images are ordered in larger sizes and they usually are portraits which usually enlarge quite well.

Again, advantage to digital vs film.

Let’s move to images which get printed in magazines, brochures and so on

Product shots were shot in the past on MF on slide film, only in a few cases on 35mm, again on slides. We are talking about catalogue type shooting, not Advertising.

Given that nearly all the catalogue images are printed less than full page, with a majority printed half a page or less there is no need to shoot MF slides anymore if you have a 6 Mpx or more DSLR handy.

If you compare the huge costs of film and processing plus the Polaroid proofs used there is simply no contest with digital.

If shooting tethered to a computer the feedback comes in a few seconds as an image the size of the screen, making very easy to spot any problems, as reflections, shadows, misplaced objects, problem colors.

So advertising aside, digital wins in digital vs film again.

Fashion and Editorial for magazines, done traditionally on MF slides see lately a slow transition to digital. Why slow ? because a 6 Mpx DSLR still has problems competing with a properly scanned MF slide on a full page image, not to mention double page spreads.

But the new 11-14 Mpx cameras age going to conquer this territory in the near future. And we still do not know what resolution the top DSLRs will have next year.

Right now, it’s a toss here in the digital vs film race.

Corporate, architecture, industrial. Except for high end architecture where LF cameras with movement possibilities are still employed, the digital imaging is really at home. Given that most of these images get printed at or under full page, most DSLRs can offer enough image quality and resolution.

Advantage to digital vs film here.

Now, where does the film still wins ?

Large format printing, big calendars, large posters which will be seen from close distance and fine art, museum quality photography.

Film still wins in digital vs film here.

Conclusion of digital vs film discussion

The digital wins over film in the consumer market and can successfully replace the 35mm film in most professional applications.

More, a good size of the medium format territory was conquered lately by the top DSLR cameras in hands of proficient photographers.

But the film is not dead yet and the digital vs film race, as well as the debate will stay with us a long time from now.

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