Film Vs. Digital

A look at some of the differences between shooting in Ansel Adams’ era versus today

This Article Features Photo Zoom

When we examine legendary photographers like Ansel Adams, we realize that, by today’s standards, the equipment they used was more of a handicap than a secret ingredient. Half a century ago, serious photography was performed in black-and-white, with a great deal of patience and deliberateness using a 4x5 (or larger) view camera on a sturdy tripod. Images couldn’t be reviewed until after the film was developed—and then, initially, as negatives. Today, we shoot digital images in millions of colors at 10 frames per second and edit the “keepers” while still at the scene.

The two approaches resist comparison. It’s difficult to derive objective, scientific understanding when we compare film-based, silver-halide photography to digital imaging. The technology someone like Adams used 50-plus years ago when he was exploring Yosemite has little in common with the technology used by a modern professional shooting with a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, a Nikon D3S, an Olympus E-3, a Pentax K-7 or a Sony Alpha 900. In many ways, it’s like comparing painting with a brush and monochrome palette to spray painting with every color in the rainbow. In other words, almost every element is different.

More Variables
During the reign of silver-halide photography, the type of film and how it was processed made all the difference in the world. Even if a scene was predetermined to be shot in black-and-white, there still were many choices to be made—film speed, brand, spectral response, grain structure, format and, in some cases, emulsion batch. Matching the appropriate developer to the film was another huge challenge, and results varied widely depending on the choices made.

But in truth, it didn’t end there; that was just the beginning. Photographers had to decide more variables—the right combination of developing time and developer temperature, for instance. How much agitation? Swishing the film around too much during development could block shadows, cause streaks or blow out highlights. What type of stop bath to arrest the development process? Could the fixer (sodium thiosulfate) dissolve grain size and, if so, how soon should the film be rinsed clean? And keep in mind that nearly the entire process had to be conducted while the film was in absolute darkness. Last but hardly least, film was fragile and could be irreparably damaged by careless handling.


We’ve succeeded at making things easier today. Not to diminish the skill and accomplishments of today’s digital photographers, but zipping through RAW images by clicking a few presets can’t even begin to compare with the intense labor required to coax the full dynamic range from a 4x5-inch black-and-white negative while making a contact print on sensitized paper. Once again, the variables were overwhelming—paper type, developer, exposure time, dodging and burning, etc. It’s a miracle that so many wonderful, masterful prints were created under those circumstances.

Clearly, we’ve gained so much by going digital. Digital photography is immediate. It has given us the ability to replicate images with 100% accuracy and consistency, and has dramatically created new avenues to share images. And perhaps the biggest gain of all—the technology has expanded the art form and has enabled hundreds of thousands of people to create high-quality results with little or no formal training.

But we’ve lost some things, too—at the very least, some of our ability to visualize how a scene will appear as a monochrome print. Thanks to the immediate feedback provided when we review images on a three-inch LCD, we no longer require that level of perception. We’ve also become less deliberate. We can shoot and shoot, and even fill cards with 1080p video at 30 fps, and then delete 95% later. In the old days, every shot counted. Today, the question is less about what to shoot and more about which images to keep.

Getting Digital Colors Right
When film was the medium of choice for photography, and transparency film, in particular, color management was something that the lab took care of by making sure your slides were processed in good chemistry at the right temperature and by using your filter of choice on your lens. If you took your film to a good lab, you got predictable results. With digital technology, to get your best output, color calibration is a necessity.

Calibration ensures that the colors you record in-camera are the same colors that display on the monitor and, in turn, the same colors that you get in your print. If the system isn’t calibrated, predictable results are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, and you’ll waste time, energy and money trying to fine-tune your prints. With products from companies like Datacolor and X-Rite, “what you see is what you get.”

39 Comments

    I own both film and digital cameras, but my personal preferance is film for a very simple reason:

    I spend eight hours a day working on a computer at my office job. At the end of the day I cannot bring myself to sit at a workstation at home and stare at a LCD screen for any length of time to work on my passion which is photography.

    When I am out shooting somewhere like Monument Valley or White Sands National Monument I am usually approached by some of the recent converts to digital who seek to have me follow in their footsteps as if it is a religion. They cannot seem to fathom my reasons for holding onto what they consider ancient technology and proselytize me endlessly on the wonders of digital and reasons to convert immediately as if I do not know them already.

    Thus I have begun to bring a Canon D20 with me to the field so I can use it as a decoy to gain a bit of peace from them.

    I’ve watched the link on film vs digi, and since my Sound Blaster doesn’t work, I could only get the visuals. So which of the two Nikons won ?

    Just how much post capture processing was applied to either image. Bearing in mind the superiority of software such as the industry standard Photoshop compared to the limitations of film processing.

    I’ve seen the video and will accept their opinion, however I’ve yet to see a digital slide show match that of film. Digital projectors are expensive and obsolete in a year. I believe the $3000 D700 produces better pictures than the $350 (used price at B&H) F5. I’m sure the quality is well worth the needed $600 Photoshop, $2500 Mac Book and $700 Epson printer compared to $5 Velvia, $6 mailer. Let’s not forget the convenience of digital. I was reminded when I couldn’t upload photos because Photoshop is not compatible with my new HP 64-bit Vista and spent 3 hours (after work!) on Adobe’s help desk only to go back to a previous version that worked fine. When did walking out to the mailbox and droping a mailer off become a pain?

    BD: The argument that having to spend time on your computer fiddling with your images makes film better than digital is a terrible argument. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t. Just take the memory card out of the camera and drop it off at your local developer like you would any film roll.

    Tada! It’s no more work than film was. If you feel you have to tinker in the digital darkroom, that’s simply a lack of your own self control.

    You miss the point. I have NO problem sitting in front of my light table and editing roll after roll of film since that is significantly different than what I do at work. I actually enjoy that task.

    It is the act of sitting and staring at a LCD screen on my computer to perform the same task that I find distasteful.

    I would no more simply drop off a memory card at a processor than I would drop off all 36 frames of slide film and tell them to print each.

    No self control issues involved.

    That article is just plain ridiculus. The author rightfully lists all various techiques available since the dawn of time to all film photographers. What he fail to mention that not single modern most advanced camera has dynamic range of the b/w film from 30-ies of the last century. No modern camera is capable of fully replicating any of Ansel Adams shots. Even with multiexposure and all Photoshop tricks. Which camera can produce clean, not jagged, edge between mountain and sky? Which may mimic the specifics of depth of field of even 2.5×2.5 camera? Digital is still poor’s man tool who wants to do photography but basically cannot afford shooting film – or is in too much hurry to shoot film – or too dumb to shoot the film. Too bad Outddor Photography publishes that pointless piece.

    “It?۪s a miracle that so many wonderful, masterful prints were created under those circumstances.”

    No, it is not a miracle. It is called craftsmanship. Too bad OP has forgotten why this is so.

    It is precisely for ignorant attitudes like this that I ditched my subscription to OP. It is a shame to see that things haven’t changed.

    You’ll be surprised to know, Jon, that there is still quite an active community that shoots film, and surprising number of people who actually use view cameras. And some of us use that old “miracle” technique that you refer to to make prints. It may no longer be the dominant force in the market, but it has not gone the way of the dodo (in spite of George Lepp’s attempts at making that happen.)

    The interesting implication of this article is that modern photographers have no need to develop skills, because their cameras will do all that for them. I was unaware that people took up photography to avoid learning a craft. Digital photographers come off as lazy, ignorant, and all about shoot-and-spray. Conversely, film shooters must develop a wide range of skills and balance many variables in order to produce a picture. They visualize, think, and craft their images.

    As a member of that latter group (4×5 thank you) I accept your backhanded compliment to my determination and skill.

    This is indeed a ridiculous article, I don’t even know where to begin. Do you really think that digital photographers that produce fine art are trigger happy, ignorant, and don’t require the same level of perception as the film guys ? You seem to imply that somehow those digital photographers with “little or no formal training” shooting almost randomly produce results that can compare to the work of masterpieces made from film. No, those compare to the same lousy photos people can create on film. People don’t create art out of convenience, and digital photographers that create fine art didn’t pick digital because they could stop thinking or putting effort into their craft.

    Yes, I agree tha film is still, and I say STILL, superior to digital, but i have to disagree with the ones who say digital is for lazy or ignorant or poor photographers.
    Today there’s a lot of pressure around pro photographers, I mean… you got an assignement and a deadline, and digital simplify by far photographers’ life, so why not to use it?
    It also depends on what you are going to photograph.
    for example, shooting landscape, film is better; shooting sport, fashion, events, travels, there’s no way, digital rules.

    I was hoping to see a more technical approach to the subject like density of silver halide crystals verses density of pixels, sensitivity of the two mediums, and the like.

    The film vs. digital debate stirs passion, as always. As a “serious photo hobbyist”, I started doing photography in the early 80s when film was still the only way to go. I took night courses at my local community college, where I learned about such things as composition, visualization, contrast, shadows, tone,… you know the rest. Fast forward to the year 2010, and I’m back in class, studying photography in the evenings at my local community college, and learnings about such concepts as composition, visualization, contrast, shadows, tone… The digital revolution has not cheapened the craft of photography, though there are certainly more people producing poor quality photos. Those among us who are passionate about the craft still take time to learn and apply the important concepts. For me, the use of digital camera and photo editing software has simply reduced the amount of time I need to spend in the dark!

    I don’t normally comment on articles like this, but I thought that I just had to mention that I think some of the comments above have entirely mistaken the point of this article. The author is in no way degrading film photography in any way shape or form. Quite the opposite, he is giving it respect for the skill and craft it requires.

    Digital and Film are two different formats entirely, both have their advantages and drawbacks. Neither is better nor worse, merely different. I think film photographers can come across as snobbish and arrogant at times and I would like to say this: just because you shoot film, does not mean you are a good photographer. Shooting a roll of film and having it developed does not mean you understand the rules of composition and can shoot original and brilliantly crafted work…

    …I’m sure Ansel Adams would have tried his hand at digital, had he lived to see it blossom. He would have been open-minded enough to keep in touch with his art and experiment with new media. He was a genius because he constantly experimented with new things and pushed the envelope.

    I got into photography through digital, I am grateful that the medium allowed me to learn and improve at a reasonable price. I now also shoot film and enjoy it for its own unique reasons. What’s wrong with enjoying both? Mastering Photoshop requires just as much skill and hard work as mastering darkroom skills…

    …I feel like people are often defensive of the old, and thus aggressive towards the new through fear that the new will surpass the old. Film will never be forgotten or die – it is still a huge part of photography, as is the digital format. I have great respect for all photographers who do their best to create beautiful images in either format.

    I apologise if my comments seem harsh, that was not my intention. I merely want to highlight that the author of the above article in no way debased film photography, rather, that he illustrated its inherent difficulties and intricacies showing a great amount of respect to the greats who used film and flourished with it.

    I am not here to defend film nor am I here to defend digital, certainly not.
    The only thing that, after almost 5 years of practice in (professional-) digital photography, still strikes me is, in order to achieve the same quality standards in digital as I am used to with film (30 years of pro practice), It takes me the double of effort, time, gear and costs.
    Yes, at the end, film is cheaper and, in CERTAIN situations (not all), is better but slower, far to slow for the major part of my clients??_
    The advantage of digital is entirely to my clients, all of them are publishing the pictures I deliver.

    Vlad, posted comment on Monday, 15 February 2010

    is so true. I am getting back to what I call the `Basic`s`. That`s Photography, not point & shoot. Don`t get me wrong the pictures taken today are fantastic. Photography to me is an Art, more than `point & shoot`.

    Thankyou for the infomation on high ISOs. I have always been afraid to go to high because of grain or flat color, but now I have more trust and will try to use them when needed

    film v digital do’snt come in to anything.
    good photographs are made in the mind and then found. sometimes they take years to find but they are there. if you see it you find it, its all experience, as is all in life. when you find a good one,you know, i have many that mean nothing to anyone else but the world to me. cliche, the eye of the beholder. touche.!

    I often wonder why photographers are so passionate about the medium and not the practice. What makes a good move? Is it all in the format in which it was shot? Is it the expensive equipment (or non-expensive if you choose old school)?

    No, it is composition. It is the subject matter. It is doing what is possible with what you have. I’ve seen shots that have moved me from both digital cameras and film – be it transparency or not.

    Lighten up people. Shoot digital or shoot film – no one cares what you decide on. Open minded people will judge the quality of your work, not the decision you’ve made to choose one or the other.

    This is more than just flat out WRONG, it is flat out stupid

    “with the intense labor required to coax the full dynamic range from a 4×5-inch black-and-white negative” – your eyes see 11 EV’s, film 8 – 9; digital 4

    that’s right only 4

    that is why all the interest in “faking it” using HDR – get back to the range of film but rather than getting back you create totally false-color pictures

    And that’s just the beginning, the writer simply has no conception of what film or digital mean

    the *? i have yet to see a feasible (economic) replacement for 120mm film. or better yet that sheet *. i eman yes digital has gone far past film. FAR the * past. my primary example being the hubble. and that thing is old as hell. (in comparison to newer cameras) but its not cheap. none of this should be argued. i mean it really doesn’t matter. my one bit of advice is that if your learning how to become a photographer. then get a * * digital point and shoot. because its cheap, and has no upkeep. however make sure its got full manual controls. tada no argument.

    Agree with most of the comments. As a working utility photographer (sports, journo, kids, etc.), I shot plain old Tri-X, Fujicolor 800, and Agfa 25 for 25 years. It would take a Nikon DX3 to reproduce the quality I got. The one are where digital absolutely shines is high-ISO photography. For that, the DX3 is an indoor photographer’s dream.

    Screw this article. It says that old view cameras were a handicaP. I am Positive that if Ansel Adams or Edward Weston were alive today they would choose those LF cameras over digital in a heart beat. Adams once said, ???I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term — meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching — there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.?۝ If Adams, Weston, Lange, or Borke-White was alive today to see what Photograhy has become they would cry.

    I’ve read the article with hope to find an interesting idea though I’ve only found a misinformation. As some other commentors have noted film has a wider spectrum and in lower ISO rates, it is much more efficient in capturing details. There is not a single digital camera that can capture the detail levels of 25 ISO DIA.

    In any case, having better quality in megapixel wise doesn’t mean that film is superior and of course old is superior. There are many good photographs shot with a camera using glass negative as well as medium format, 35mm, 15mm, digital format.

    Superiority of a photographer comes with understanding of his/her equipment and moreover his/her knowledge of composition, light, creativity. Using film format does not make one an artist though many dinasours and wannabe photographers believe it is their equipment is what makes them.

    In order to sum it up, we can safely say each format has it’s own with film having slower develop rate, digital with less quality and glass negative with requirement of good chemistry, photography knowledge.

    What important is not the format you use, you are not the camera you have; what important is how you use it.

    I totally get the idea of the article. And yes, I think it doesn’t point out what’s missing on each side but to just give us a big picture on its differences. I don’t see this as a degrade to each others side of digital and film.

    Film has one big advantage that no-one seems to have mentioned so far: with film photography you are left with something tangible that you can hold in your hands, namely a piece of film. With digital all we have is trust, trust that the computer won’t crash and irrecoverably lose all our precious work. I shoot both, but with film I always feel secure in the knowledge that if all else fails I can always return to the colour transparency or BW negative.

    the people that comment are funny…..they take things from the old books and say that its s.o.p. Ive done many B&W films and prints in professional labs(camden county college nj 95-97..Rachael Fermi: professor)never had problems with “which chemical…agitatation…which film(some are better than others… fuji b&w was the greatest…ilford was the worst!)kodak paper (polymax III) was the greatest with a fuji negative (simple kodak verichrome pan was great to) the “T” grained kodak was a sham.In my experience as a professional photo artist Ive rarely seen things go wrong that were “taught in the books” ..I dont think they had any real darkroom experience……cant figure out why they wrote a book on any subject!

    ok everyone ….the root lesson is still the same….its doesnt matter if its film or digital genre……news flash…GET THE PICTURE RIGHT ….IN THE CAMERA(NO POST EDITING IN “F ING PHOTOSHOP”) THE FIRST TIME ….JUST LIKE WHEN YOU WERE PAYING FOR THE FILM WITH YOUR MESELY ALLOWANCE FROM YOUR PARENTS” SAVE TIME…..do it right…if you dont know how …practice make perfect…..digital or film…..all digital programs were written by old b&w/color darkroom guys like me ….if you dont know …you wont pick it up in the software …little tricks from the old school!

    This article merely states that digital photography requires less skill than film. To many beginners and layman photographers that is largely true. They tend to point and shoot and hope for the best either relying on the camera to sort it out or taking multiple images at different settings to try and get it right. A true digital photographer will learn from experience an try to get that perfect shot. I always do but I do also have the option of taking many shots to cover myself so I get the best of both worlds. Seriously who wants to spend all day going through a hundred images to keep one or two when you can think a bit before you shoot and avoid having to take most of them.

    Lets go back another step. Did and do artists (painters) Who take a hell of a lot more time and need to have a lot more specific talent have a right to feel that with the comming of the camera that all photographers film and digital are lazy and without talent? Or can we just agree that each format has its better and worse aspects, with a need, each, reqiurering its own talents and special abilities.

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