Film or Digital?

It’s been a while since the last article I wrote on JPeg or Raw – Part 1, and now we have yet another debate to bring to the table. It is a wonder as to why the topic as to which one, film or digital, has, till now, been a subject of much heated debate. A little bit like comparing apples to oranges perhaps? Let us have a look at some key differences between film and digital, and in a while, we will study the advantages and disadvantages of each.
A recent film photograph of my dog chewing an old slipper

A Short History of Film
Film has been around for so long, that it has been subjected to many many years of innovative breakthrough. It all began when Louis Daguerre who developed the first practical photographic methods, called ‘Daguerreotype’, which involved the use of sensitized silver-plated copper (the ‘film’) and fumed with iodine vapor. Exposures were extremely long, as long as eight hours! This proved to be somewhat impractical but was used to capture landscapes. The process and chemicals involved were adapted and improved over time. In 1839, the rights for the daguerreotype was sold to the French government.

Fast forward to 1889, George Eastman, founder of the Kodak Company, invented the roll film. The rest was history, and film continued to dominate for more than a century.

The Digital Revolution
The early digital cameras in the market were simply horrible, suffering for a myriad image-quality issues, resolution being one of them. However, in years that followed, tremendous improvements were made in digital imaging and digital has come to be the medium of choice for professionals. Improvements were made in terms of resolution, dynamic range and color, just to name a few.

Film versus Digital

To say that digital has somewhat ‘caught up’ with film would be far from the truth. In order to draw a fair comparison, you need to first see the big picture. I have decided to split the pros and cons into a few sub-categories. For the sake of simplicity, I will only talk about the qualitative aspects of film and digital.

Detail Retention:
Film: Better at retaining detail, albeit grainier than digital, regardless of ISO sensitivity of film used.
Digital: Smooth and buttery texture. In other words, very clean images at the lowest ISO sensitivity. Loses some detail through interpolation and other internal processes, which vary according to make of camera.

Film grain is more evident in film and is especially noticeable in enlargements. Notice how well detail is preserved.

Dynamic Range:
Film: Superior dynamic range to digital. Film overexposes gracefully, and does not blow out to white (as in digital).
Digital: Dynamic range somewhat limited, and causes highlight ‘clipping’. However, tremendous improvements have been made in this area in recent years.

Better dynamic range translates to better handling of extremely bring and dark areas

 Resolution & Image Quality
Note: This one is subject to some degree of controversy, because it is one of the most misunderstood. The hype created by the marketing departments of many camera makers led us to believe that resolution, in megapixel terms, was a measure of how ‘good’ a camera is. In other words, we were led to think that ‘more is better’. Today, most of us know that is hogwash. The definition of resolution versus image quality is thus a complex one because a myriad of processes go on in a digital camera that determines how ‘good’ an image will turn out to be. To put it quite simply, two cameras can spit out images of the same resolution, but the quality may not be the same because different cameras may employ different image processing technologies. For the sake of comparison, I will do a basic comparison in lieu of detailed analysis.
Film: Resolution is virtually infinite, on the film itself at least. Putting a ‘megapixel’ cap on film would be an insult to a hundred years worth research and development that has gone into perfecting it. The quality of the final image will depend a lot on the equipment used (film scanner, enlarger, focusing lens), and of course, the size of the medium (in this case, the film). It is worthwhile nothing that while film has more grain (see the above, on ‘Detail Retention’), it (the grain) plays an important role in the aesthetic quality of film.
Digital: Resolution of a digital sensor is finite. A digital camera that is rated to have ’16 megapixels’ will produce an image that is composed of those number of pixels (usually an approximation of that figure). Digital images tend to be ‘smooth’ and ‘silky’ in texture, with grain usually almost absent at the lowest ISO settings. The camera’s processor may perform additional image processing such as noise reduction, which smudges texture and fine detail, making the ‘megapixel race’ somewhat irrelevant at this time of writing.

Film: Besides the traditional dodging and burning, ‘editing’ film was a difficult procedure and was often performed by skilled individuals.
Digital: It has never been easier to get creative, with Photoshop and a whole array of digital tools at your disposal.

To sum it up, comparing film with digital is really like comparing apples to oranges. Each has it’s share of advantages and disadvantages. The choice between film and digital is a matter of personal preference. The aesthetics of film can be difficult to reproduce in digital format, but digital photography has made the hobby more popular hobby than ever before.

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