Why Film is Still Better than Digital Photography

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Despite digital being the prominent and popular photographic medium, I’m here to count the ways in which film is still better than digital photography. It’s a bold claim, sure, but it’s a subjective topic that is still worthy of discussion. It’s no surprise that digital technology is still, to this day, modeled after film and made to produce photos that look like they were taken with film. Things might be easier and more efficient with digital, but film is still where it’s at.

Film Looks Better

This is the area where the debate between film and digital photography is at its most subjective, but it’s also the area in which I think you’re likely to find more people giving the nod toward film. There is an undeniable aesthetic associated with film that all photographers seem to crave. It’s no coincidence that FUJIFILM cameras have their own Film Simulation modes, or that top-of-the-line photo-editing software includes baked-in film style presets. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then film must be feeling very flattered.

Taken with a Mamiya 7 II and 80mm f/4 Lens on Kodak T-Max 400
Taken with a Mamiya 7 II and 80mm f/4 Lens on Kodak T-Max 400

Film is More Fun

Not all sides of photography are meant to be fun, especially if you’re on the commercial end of the spectrum or you have looming deadlines, but for the hobbyists, the enthusiasts, and just any photographer with some patience and time, shooting film is a rewarding and enjoyable experience. It can be playful, especially if you’re just shooting for experimentation, but it’s also equally fun on the tech-rich, nerdy end of comparing films and developer types.

Film Forces You to Commit

You’re inherently more involved with the process because you’re forced to be. There are fewer crutches with film, so you have to stay keyed in to shoot film successfully. Beginning from the action of decisively loading your camera with a roll, to the development, scanning, or printing, film forces you to make decisions and commit to them. By forcing commitment rather than catering to indecision, film is a more holistic process that keeps you engaged and on your toes from pre- to post-production.

Taken with a Mamiya 7 II and 80mm f/4 Lens on Kodak Portra 400
Taken with a Mamiya 7 II and 80mm f/4 Lens on Kodak Portra 400

Film is Magic

For photographers of a certain age, many of us will remember our first time in a darkroom, watching a print develop before our very eyes. This is a beautiful experience that simply isn’t the same with digital photography. Whether it’s the nostalgia or just having a more physical and tactile experience, there is no contest if you’re comparing seeing physical images appear in front of your eyes versus just offloading a memory card onto your computer.

Film Encourages Experimentation

You can experiment and practice with digital photography, of course, but it’s such a mechanical process compared to the artistic possibilities when experimenting with film. With digital images, the experiment can often be solved in your head beforehand, and all of the technical metadata will be right there for you to examine in retrospect to help repeat the results over and over. With film, experimentation is an experience that’s part knowledge and part luck. With your guard lowered, film can make you feel more uninhibited and open to purer experimentation compared to forced creative solutions.

Taken with a Mamiya RB67 S and 250mm f/4.5 Lens on Kodak Portra 160
Taken with a Mamiya RB67 S and 250mm f/4.5 Lens on Kodak Portra 160

Film is Cooler

Honda Civic vs. Pontiac GTO. One is more reliable, more dependable, more convenient, and more efficient. And the other, it’s just plain cooler, and it always will be. Maybe that’s not a reason to choose a muscle car, and probably more of a reason to pick the modern compact car, but I’m pretty sure I know which one you really want to pick.

Film is Photography

Photography is so intertwined with film in a way few other industries are so connected to such a specific medium or product. It’s impossible to disassociate photography with film and its chemical history. Digital lacks the character of film, which, ironically, is part of why it’s so celebrated. Digital is a blank canvas whereas film is a masterpiece already full of character and expression.

Taken with a Mamiya 7 II and 150mm f/4.5 Lens on Kodak T-Max 100
Taken with a Mamiya 7 II and 150mm f/4.5 Lens on Kodak T-Max 100

I shoot both film and digital photographs—I started with shooting film and now am finally mostly a digital shooter, but I’ll always consider myself a film photographer first and foremost. Even if I’m not shooting film, specifically, I’ve always treasured and enjoyed the mindset of working with film most, even when digital was just an arm’s length away. There’s little room anymore to argue quality or make objective comparisons between the two mediums, because it’s true that digital is just that good. Maybe a drum-scanned 8 x 10" transparency is objectively better than a 100MP medium format digital file, but that wouldn’t be the reason I’d be working with a view camera over the latest and greatest digital camera.

What are your thoughts on the film versus digital argument? Is it relevant anymore? Is digital just so advanced that film is hardly a consideration nowadays? Or is film making a comeback because everyone knows it just can’t be beat? Let us know your take on this most pressing of issues, in the Comments section, below.

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24 Comments

It's not that film and digital are worse or better;they're just better. Especially if you're going to shoot large format. Large film printing relies on an emulsion which is actually part of the paper. Digital ink prints have ink which lies on the surface of the print.

I don't know if it makes much difference to color film, for me digital is certainly an advantage here, but the result of a black and white film that beautiful baryt print when made well, no digital printer can beat that

I prefer as in both better than which one of them, indeed!!! And, does not matter which one!!!

I did not need to be convinced that film is better. It is very hard to match the resolution of a good slow film with digital sensors. With film cameras it is all about the lenses and the film--virtually any camera will serve as a light tight box. With digital the camera body and sensor matter a lot more and cost increases dramatically. Yes, if you spend more on film cameras you get more features, but often they are features you use only a few times and could generally live without. My other issue is that with digital everyone is a photographer--some think that is great, but I think it has diminished the craft to some degree. I think a lot more with film than I do with digital. I will admit, however, that I much more enjoy wildlife photography with a digital camera. The technology of film is longer lasting. I need not every replace my A-1 which has been going strong for 35 years. I will someday need to replace the 5Dii.  

I definitely agree, Christopher, about how the actual film camera matters much less in the film vs digital debate, and I think because of this it's actually one of the reasons I prize ergonomics and camera design so much when looking at digital cameras today. How one holds and uses a camera in their hands is a really important feature of what makes camera A better than camera B, and it was more evident with film because those were often the reasons you'd choose one camera over another. With digital, you're choosing based on features and tech, and camera ergonomics can often be an afterthought, which is too bad because there's nothing more frustrating having such great camera performance in a package you don't physically like holding.

This article would be better served if titled "Why I Like Film Better than Digital". I guess I very much enjoy doing things that others might find tedious, unpractical or obsolete. But I never pretend they are better or practical or the ultimate way to do things just because they bring me joy. I indulge in nostalgia sometimes, but never use it as an argument. Or 'magic' for that matter.

Fair points, Marian, but I don't think the argument would be quite as compelling if it was just "why I like film more." It's all subjective anyway, and it does sound like you can relate to the excitement this one special medium brings.

So you admit you are just trying to make a compelling argument where there's none? Since it's all subjective, it can't be more than a personal opinion. Photography is an art and all methods of expressions are allowed, whether they use film or sensors.

Most digital photos are boring not because they're digital but because they're too much like what we see everyday with our eyes. They're like saying, "This is where I was and what I saw when I was there." If you're over the age of twenty-five, and especially if you're over the age of forty-five, you have in your history of reading newspapers, magazines, maybe watching old movies, or looking at old family photos developed and printed at the pharmacy or grocery store, and stuff like that--lots of ancient images made in B/W with film, and when you shoot even an objectively lousy b/w photo, it looks kind of like one of those. Like one of grampa's worst efforts. It looks good and comforting. It's not like, "How the hell did the professional  photographer ever capture THAT? I wanna know that damn trick. What camera did he use, and which software?"

The hyper-sharp digitals fit the times, but these are weird times. You know how photographers used to say, "If I get just one good picture out of a roll, that's all I need?" I understand the happiness, and I feel the same kind of happiness, when I get one that I super-love out of a roll (of twelve or thirty-six), but with b/w and film, I usually shoot about 85 percent. My standards are low, I have learned to like the the gross and gritty look of underexposed, overexposed, poorly composed film photos, because they say a human muffed this shot. If the subject is good and things aren't way off and you aren't constantly comparing yourself to the masters, you're just documenting you and your friends, trips you go on and everyday life around you, film is spectacular. Professional print photographers and instagram posters and product photographers for online stuff have to shoot digital. Digital is best for wildlife photography where the bird finally appears or maybe it's a wolverine, or your buddy is lifting the walleye out of the lake, but for normal stuff, I prefer film, and I like the lousy ones a lot, too. When I get a really nice one, I feel like...ultra-accomplished and proud. 

I certainly get your points, Grant, but also wonder if it's more so a product of nostalgia and then wonder how we'll think about the digital photos we're making today when we look at them again in 20 or 50 years. I love film's ability to evoke a time and place, and feel "classic", but I think sometimes it can even be used to feel very contemporary. It's a medium with a lot of character, whereas digital feels more objective to me. Both have their places, and even though I miss the greater availability of film, I'm glad I can work with both mediums right now.

That is why horses are better than cars, you can eat them in emergency.

Shot an aerial book on Fujichrome 50 about 20 years ago and people still comment on how clear, rich and realistic the images look. Yes it was hard work changing rolls in three cameras in the open door of a helicopter, making sure the film wound on and off properly in the noise and wind over 22 hours of flying!

So yes those were the days!

Has that book of yours been published? Could you point me to it, please?

Wow, sounds like an incredible effort, but also sounds like it was worth it. Still today, not much beats the look and feel of a well-exposed transparency.

I Just started shooting film again in the past year.  Dug through my freezer to find my stash of film that was patiently waiting to be thawed and used again. Now I can't wait for summer to shoot that HIE and Ektachrome IR that I found. I have been experimenting with film/developer combinations I've never tried before and love it.   Probably the biggest joy of shooting a film camera is having my kids ask to see the picture and telling them they'll have to wait!

Wow, very lucky, Jeffery. I wish I had a stash of EIR in my freezer! Good luck with it, and that's great you're getting to involve your family in your film process.

I grew up with and love film as much as anybody else. I develop and scan film at home and have a freezer full of old emulsions. However, I am frustrated and confused about commentary about how the fact that film is slow, expensive and unpredictable is somehow a virtue. To me it shows a lack of discipline as a photographer if it takes money and inconvenience to force you to slow down and be mindful of the craft. Film is an artistic tool, not a forced crutch. 

Fair points, Stephen, though I think those qualities you are describing are what many newcomers to film are after. If you grew up in the age of digital or just didn't really shoot film when it was the primary medium of photography, then those are some of the facets of film that make it a worthwhile choice over digital (or what many see as the typical medium of photography). You don't have a screen to check your exposure, it is an investment, and is decidedly slower than digital--these qualities bring about a different way of photographing for many people, especially if it's a new medium being seen in comparison to digital.

I am still sad for the dying art of film. I am soon to be sixty one and long for the high school dark room. I even had to learn to build computers to do early digital editing but every time I sit at the computer I long for the dark magic of film.

It's definitely much more enjoyable to imagine spending hours in a darkroom, working with your hands, than needing to spend hours on the computer editing files. Even though I'm not often working in a darkroom myself, I do find that shooting film, developing, and then scanning still offers some of the same excitement.

I completely agree with Bjorn.  When I started doing serious photography at the tender age of 13 ( I am 53 now), the digital medium did not exist yet.  Truth be known I was taking pictures way before that.  I remember having a cameras that used both 126 and 110 size films.  What lit the fire in me to take it up as a serious hobby, was when I was at camp and it was parent visitation weekend.  My father had always had a camera with him, as he too was a serious hobbyist.  I remember asking him about all the different dials and knobs in his Pentax KM 35mm SLR.  He proceeded to show me how all those dials and knobs worked and actually let me take a couple of pictures with his camera.  Well, that was all I needed...I was hooked and proceeded to ask him for a 35mm camera, so that I too can begin to create.  When I came home that year, we went into NYC to one of the many camera stores that were there, and he bought me my first 35mm camera.  That camera was a Canon Canonet 28 rangefinder.  Less than 2 years later, my love and talent for photography grew exponentially, and I too was taking my camera everywhere.  My father got me my first SLR, a Pentax ME Super so that he and I can share all of his lenses and accessories.  In that time I also became interested in developing B & W film, which dad also went and got me some darkroom equipment and a second-hand enlarger.  I learned how to develop film and prints  from reading and hands-on.  Before I knew it I was buying 100' rolls of Tri-X or HP5, to put in my Watson bulk loader and rolling my own film.  

Fast forward into adulthood, and digital was starting to make its mark, but I was hesitant to make that jump.  But admittingly, eventually did.  And now have an array of both film and digital equipment.  Enter my then 10 year old daughter (now 13), who saw me loading a roll of film into my Miranda Sensorex, and she too was hooked.  Now, she has a Pentax ME Super and I am teaching her the way my late father taught me.  She Also has a digital camera in her collection.  But she has quickly grasped the important concepts of photography and is very talented in her own right.  

While I shoot primarily digital, I absolutely love using film not only 35mm, but also medium format.  I had the experience of apprenticing with a professional wedding photographer as a 20-something adult, and had my own wedding photography business  as a "side hustle".  That is where my interest in medium format was born, as I was given the opportunity to use the photgrapher's Bronica ETRs.  I now am the proud owner of a Bronica ETRs as well.

There is noting that compares to the beauty, depth and realness of film photography.  I too have returned to my roots, and am shooting more and more film as time goes on and once again "experimenting" like I did as a 13 year old.

Very cool stories, Bruce. It's great to hear how you're keeping film in the family and its a great medium to foster memories like these.

film adds value to my photos and inspires patients and creativity, value is added because each photo has a dollar amount added to it, digital is fast and cheap. I shoot both as a pro photographer, Digital is a necessary evil, I miss the old film days however programs like photoshop paired with filters, actions, digital DSL cameras with high end glass etc. have great creative opportunities that were not available in the film days. high end film cameras and lenses were only available to a select people back in the day. don't get me wrong, great images can be taken with a average 35mm or a consumer grade digital camera. Ansel Adams once said "the most important feature of a camera is the 12" behind it.

Thanks, Michael. I definitely agree that digital has its place and is certainly more affordable for working photographers. And that quote from Ansel Adams always hits home for me.

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