The Pros and Cons of Film vs Digital Photography For Beginners

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The debate between analog film photography versus digital photography has been settled for most of the photographing populace. This just in… digital is, by far, the choice of today and the future. This article is not about dredging up that debate for the modern photographer—instead, let’s take a look at that discussion through the lens of someone just starting out in photography—a first-year photo student or someone interested in picking up the hobby.

To qualify the analysis, permit me to add my personal background. I started in photography shooting film in a point-and-shoot camera for years, and then I “stepped up” to a Nikon N6006 SLR when I graduated from high school a couple of years ago. After about 10 years of SLR film shooting, I switched to digital and have only shot a few rolls of film since. I can count the number of hours I spent in a darkroom on one hand—I almost always developed my film through the mail or at photo stores. I am not a product of the darkroom film experience and I am not a pioneer of digital photography—nor do I pretend to be either. I do, however, teach photography in a small college in the Midwest, so I have a somewhat unique, if limited, perspective of how students, and beginning photographers, learn and grow photographically.

This article is written for two audiences: 1) the beginning photographer or brand-new photo student who is about to move past smartphone digital photography, purchase a “real” camera, and start taking photos, and, 2) veterans of both film and digital photography who wish to share their thoughts and experiences with those just starting out.

So, let’s look at the pros and cons of starting with film through the prism of a student or beginning photographer.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

Cost

“Digital is free and film is expensive.” Or, at least that is what a lot of folks say. There is a bit more to that statement than meets the eye.

Digital cameras, when compared to film cameras in the same market bracket, are much more expensive than their analog counterparts. Of course, very few new 35mm film cameras are made today, but the secondhand market and the B&H Used Department have a fair share. If you are shopping used cameras, you can pick up a virtually bulletproof manual film camera for much less than a modern digital camera. Therefore, the initial cost of entering photography with film can be much less than digital.

However, film costs money and is single-use. Digital memory cards are relatively inexpensive these days and can be reused. Also, film needs to be developed. There is a cost associated with that. A roll of 36 35mm images printed at 5x7" at a local New York City lab costs about $20. Add the cost of the roll of film, and each time you release the shutter you are spending about $0.80. With that math, it takes a lot of film, but not a huge amount, to reach the cost of a digital camera and lens—shooting and developing 70 rolls of 36-exposure film will bring you to $2,000.

Surprise!... Oops...Yay!... Oops... Meh…Ugh…Yay!

The only thing immediate about film is the moment of capture. Everything else takes time. Release the shutter and it can be hours, days, weeks, or months before you see the image—depending on how much you are shooting and when you develop your roll. Finding a great print in a roll of film is a wonderful surprise for sure but, in today’s fast-paced world, not everyone has that kind of patience. Regardless of the current state, the right-now lives we all live, picking up a roll of prints is a lot like opening a gift; there are always surprises inside—some good and some not so good!

From a learning perspective, there is an enormous benefit to the ability to see your image immediately after capture. With this instant review, you can, unless the scene is totally dynamic, make needed adjustments in composition and exposure and re-take the image. Analyzing film images long after the photograph is made, will not have the same educational value, nor the opportunity to correct your mistakes and create a new image.

Another boon of digital is the capture of metadata, which is useful for Monday morning quarterback sessions. With film, if you need to recall your exposure data, you’ll need to capture notes manually as you are shooting—not always practical.

Old School

I am by no means a Luddite (I am writing this article on a computer), but there is something to be said for joining a technology in a traditional form. Like learning how to drive using a car with a manual transmission, learning photography with film gives one a certain foundation of knowledge from which to grow. Do you need to know how to drive a stick shift to be a good driver? No. Do you need to know how to create a wet plate collodion negative to be a good photographer? No. But, are both freaking cool? Yep.

Will shooting film make you an expert on pixel pitch and Bayer patterns, or film chemistry, for that matter? No. But, one could argue that your baseline knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of ISO will be greater when you load a roll of Kodak Professional Porta 400 into your camera and head out into the field than if your digital camera is defaulted to Auto ISO.

Last on this topic, there is an inherent pleasure in using a mechanical film camera; similar to wearing and winding a mechanical wristwatch daily. Many of the ’80s and ’90s-era electronic film cameras have found their way to the landfills of the world, but there are a lot of fully manual cameras available at the B&H Used Department and your local garage sales just waiting to be loaded, cranked, and fired.

Prints

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I do not print enough of my images. In the tangibility of the photographic print there is a connection to the physical that, as a photographer, you will not experience digitally. Holding a photograph in your hand and/or putting it on the fridge with a magnet, or framing and matting it, takes the photographic experience to its natural conclusion. Looking at an image on a back-lit computer screen and then posting it online in the hopes of getting “likes” is not the same experience that is gained by having a physical print.

Regardless of whether you are scanning negatives digitally, film generally ends up in prints and I believe every photographer should experience handling and seeing prints of their own work—regardless of the method of capture.

Screen Time

We spend a boatload of time looking at glowing rectangles—televisions, computer monitors, smartphones, tablets, and, yes, even our digital cameras with their electronic viewfinders and LCD screens. Analog photography removes you from that curse for a bit by getting you away from the need for (most) electricity. An optical viewfinder means you are truly looking at the world live—not at a miniature TV monitor. No more EVFs or LCDs glowing in your face. If you shoot film, regardless of whether you are doing your own darkroom work or dropping your film off at a lab, you will be missing out on the burden—and glowing screens—of the digital darkroom.

Walking around the city, dodging screen-staring automatons on every city block, I think that less time in front of glowing rectangles would be a good thing for all of us.

Slooooww Down

Slowing the photographic process is film’s single largest benefit. It is a fact that, for the vast majority of us, our on-hand supply of film is finite. This, in turn, causes us to think twice before we release the shutter. With digital, because of the economics of the “free photograph” we often find ourselves photographing scenes we wouldn’t usually be photographing or taking a photo just to take one. This is potentially problematic since studies have shown that taking photos can take you out of the present.

Because we are limited to the number of images on a roll of film and the number of rolls of film in our camera bags and the amount of cash we have with which to buy new film, when we shoot film, we have to be diligent regarding the images we capture. This drives a completely different approach to photography and photographic thinking—we look harder, notice more, see more, and remember more, because we are shooting less. For someone starting off in photography, there is no doubt that this can be of significant benefit (and also beneficial for veterans of the craft).

Which is Best?

There are certainly advantages to starting photography in both the digital and analog world, but I feel there is a great benefit to either starting with film, or using film simultaneously while shooting digital for new photographers.

Now that the table is set, please let us know what your thoughts are on this subject in the Comments section below. Thanks for reading!

12 Comments

Wow, where to begin!  I've been shooting since my childhood in the early 1950's when my dad bought me an Ansco box camera that took an eight exposure roll of 120 film.  I also did darkroom work in my early teens, all black and white, often shooting with Tri-X Pan often pushed with developers designed to reduce grain to tolerable limits.  That typically provided an ASA of 1200.  Crazy as today I'll often shoot at ISO 1600 without worrying about visible grain, digital noise.  In fact I'll do night shots at ISO 5000 and am constantly surprised at the good images that can yield with modern built-in camera noise reduction.  I've owned Minolta and Nikon film SLR's and did buy, on sale, an early digital camera, a toy I've long forgotten as it couldn't hold a candle to film.

I agree that learning on digital equipment is not the best way to develop an understanding of a technology.  As an electronics engineer, working in broadcasting, I've been mentoring youngsters who want to run out and buy their own inexpensive DSO, digital storage oscilloscopes.  These are neat toys that can make all sorts of measurements and display all kinds of waveforms.  Trouble is they are automatic, and determine everything digitally.  But the waveforms being measured live in the analog world.  Best way to understand electrical signals and how to use an oscilloscope is to buy a used analog scope, not digital.  Foundation knowledge is easier to acquire if you can go back to basics.  Trouble is, in the not too distant future, those analog scopes will become rare.  Same for film photography.  Likely the only thing keeping film manufacturers in the business are the cinematographers who insist upon acquisition via film.  Note that said film will be digitised for editing and post processing by computer and release prints will be delivered by hard drive, not reels of film.

That said, it seems to me that DSLR's are the best way to develop a skill set today for photography, not film.  In full automatic mode a beginner can concentrate more on composition and subject matter, the story, rather than the mechanics of exposure, etc.  The near instant feedback is definitely a much quicker way to study and improve one's photographic skills.  The second phase would be to gain control over exposure and lens effects such as spacial compression, distortion, depth of field, etc., by operating in manual mode.  I believe starting out in full automatic mode may be a better approach as one should first look for the beauty, an uncommon look angle, a visual story.  Develop that sense of artistry and one can add the mechanics exposure, lens and composition to that skill.  Simply learning how to operate a camera to get nice crisp photos and then going out and shooting hundreds of photos per day won't make art.   That's like learning how to use a typewriter or computer keyboard without studying writing as a skill and artform and then cranking out pages and pages of awful prose.

Unfortunately, we already have a general public blessed with automatic cameras called smart phones and tablets.  Everyone is a photographer. Or so they think!  A few will actually produce great photographs with those tools because they have an artist's or storyteller's eye.

Todd, I suspect you haven't fully experienced the new generation of mirrorless DSLR's like the new Nikon Z series.
When I first read about electronic viewfinders I was very wary.  I doubted the display would have sufficient detail to be of good use.  Well I was wrong.  Some of the viewfinders have far more pixels than the LCD screens on those cameras.  Plus the eyepiece optics are superb.

I'm totally blown away by the electronic viewfinder compared to pentaprism optical viewfinders.  I can live without split prisms or microprism focusing screens that don't work well in dim light or with eyeglass wearers.  The new generation of mirrorless cameras which give you a continuous live view in the viewfinder let you compose and focus in near darkness!  What you see is what you'll get regarding focus, depth of field and exposure.  No guessing or waiting for the shot to be read out of the memory card and onto your LCD display.  I've set up my Nikon Z6 with a user defined button that previews the iris setting, stops the lens down.  No need to squint at a depth of field scale on the lens, assuming your lens even has one.  I rarely use the exposure compensation dial preferring to use spot metering and aiming the camera towards something in the scene that provides the best preview exposure in the viewfinder, lock it in via another button programmed to toggle exposure lock and then re-aim at the critical focus element in the shot, partially press the shutter release to hold focus and recompose and shoot the shot or multiple shots.  It is a very fluid way to shoot and keep your concentration on the scene rather than the controls.

Hello Ira,

Great stuff! You make some interesting comparisons to the oscilloscope and typewriter. Well said.

I actually shoot Fujifilm digital, so, I have been immersed in the mirrorless world for the past half-decade. I, too, was wary of the EVF, but, after about a day of shooting, I was loving it. It is almost like cheating to see your exposure and depth of field before you take the photo. Yes, my D300 has a DOF preview button, but the EVF gives a totally different experience, as you mention in your comment.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience and thanks for reading!

I got started in photography in High School circa 1957-1961. I bought my first camera after I joined the Navy and went overseas. That camera went to Vietnam and today is still my favorite camera,  still works. I now have a Nikon D3400 and like it. My problem is when I have to use the computer, I'm all thumbs. Put me in a darkroom and there isn't anything I can't do with film. I was a professional for 40 years and also taught photography. One of the first things I do in the classroom is to have the students build and use a pinhole camera. There are 6 assignments that go with this part of the class. When it comes time to go digital I have a friend come in a work with students to use Photoshop C6. Me, I'm still all thumbs. Guess I'm to old.

Hey Dennis,

Thanks for your service in the Navy, shipmate! What is your first camera that still is working today?

The unfortunate side-effect of digital photography is that you need to be computer savvy to get the most out of your images. Its a bummer and no one will argue that they'd rather be out and behind the camera instead of on the computer.

Thank you for reading!

I have used Minolta, Rollei and Mamiya and Nikon F6 with film - awesome memories. I mostly liked slide film. Access to film and processing has got harder. Now, I use a Lumix or Nikon D300 mostly..

Hey Narasimhan,

I, too, have a D300! Still a great camera. Thanks for reading and dropping a comment!

Started with a Konica autoreflex T  then graduated to an original Canon F-1 which I Still use on occasion.  I am an airshow bum so I now use Canon 60D as my primary. My secondary is my 4x5 Speed Graphic , amazing how much attention it gets, I wind up having people photograph me and my camera. Generally shoot HP 4 develop in the daylight tank I found at B&H with Ilford chemistry. Someday I will get the D2V out and make some prints, other option is buy the Epson large flatbed scanners.  Using the Speed Graphic really makes me compose the shot and wait for the crowds to leave my picture, figure a couple of bucks a shot plus development.  Also acquired a 1942,US Army signal corps 4x5 complete field camera kit that I will start to use as soon as I know it is light tight and fix the ranger finder linkage.  Typically leave an airshow with 2000 digital images and 24 4x5,shots.  Nothing like the smell of chemistry and seeing the negatives when the come out of the soup.

Hey Thomas,

Good stuff! Nothing like a Speed Graphic to capture air show action! Maybe I should update my article on air show photo tips! [https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/24-tips-how-photograph-air-shows]

Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your experience!

I started my photo hobby in the mid 1970's..I loved shooting with film especially slide film....do I miss film, absolutely not. The digital revolution still to this day amazes me. My only gripe is the current cost of digital cameras and the Mega Pixels you may  need is hyped up to ad added costs which are way out of line...My first digital camera was a Sony Mavica. I thought it was so cool to take a photo and your film was a floppy disk.. we have come a long way in a short amount of time regarding photography. Digital is here and its here to stay.

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for reading and for your comments! I agree with you and the marketing buzz around more MP=better pics. I wish manufacturers made 12-16MP cameras that excelled in low-light shooting instead of trying to cram more pixels into the sensors.

Thanks for stopping by!

Hi Todd,

I got interested in photography when it was only film. I still use the Canon A-1 that I bought in 1981. July 2011, I bought a "bucket list" camera, a used Canon New F-1 with AE Motor Drive FN and AE Finder FN. My wife asked "That's their flagship camera?"; I answered "Yes, for the 80s" and she said "Buy it". December 2011, she bought me a Canon EOS 5D III. I enjoy photography and it doesn't matter if I'm shooting film or digital. There have been times when autofocus fails me, particularly when shooting in a crowd where the foreground is the backs of heads and I want photos of the speakers in the background. I just with that my 5D III had a split-image/microprism to help me focus.

Film cameras are for the most part, inexpensive, and they are holding their value or increasing in value as in the case of my F-1. Over the years of shooting with my A-1, I would have to say that I've realized the ROI of the camera.

With the 5D, I generally treat it like an FSLR; I've turned off the image review after shots and generally, the White Balance is set for Daylight. I'll use single shot; but when I'm shooting action, then I'll switch it to multi-shot mode.

Hey Ralph,

Flagships are always flagships!

I bemoan the loss of the split-image/microprism focusing screens as well. Do a quick Google search to see if someone makes an aftermarket one for the 5D. I know that there are companies out there that make them, I just don't know if they make one for your camera.

Let me know what you find!

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