Digital vs Film Photography



The Advantages of digital


  1) Zero cost encourages creativity and experimentation

  2) Instant feedback means you learn and improve quickly

  3) You gain a home colour darkroom where you can do much with an image

  4) You bypass the photo labs.

  5) The advantages of digital storage

  6) Photos look much better on a 19" screen than as postcard-sized prints

  7) You can easily make movies

  8) You can make naughty pictures

  9) You get macro capability thrown in for free

10) Digital cameras tend to be smaller and lighter than film ones

11) Best of all, you can get a super-zoom with anti-shake technology

12) You can use high-ISO at the flick of a switch


The Drawbacks of digital


  1) The issue of quality

  2) It is easy to get snap-happy and not take care

  3) You (almost) need a PC

  4) Correcting your photos can be extremely time-consuming

  5) You need to recharge the battery and to unload your memory card

  6) Digital photography moves away from the photo as document


I now flesh out the above list of benefits and drawbacks.


The Pluses

1) The Michael Caine character in a film explained the difference between an amateur and a professional, “The amateur thinks about it first then takes the shot. The professional thinks about it later”. Perhaps the best thing about digital photography is that it removes the thought, "Is this worth taking?" at least to a degree. That means creativity can flourish. You are more inclined to “try anything” when there is no cost involved, especially since you can delete the photo immediately. I can take 40 photos of a lighted match, then scrap them all or keep just one. When I took up digital photography it was like starting to photograph for the first time. I found my subject, which is water. I might take 950 water and bird photos during two hours in Centennial Park. Since I take many more photos than I would with film it is more likely that I will produce a few good images.

2) You can see a small version of your photo immediately after taking it. You would typically download your photos to your PC on the same day (this is a painless procedure), at which point you see what they are like. Not only does this avoid delayed gratification but it means you learn much more quickly and you can redo shots. When you get your film prints from the laboratory you need to remember what you did three weeks ago to see what worked and what didn’t.

3) Ansel Adams once stated, “The negative is the score, the print is the performance.” This remark applies even more to digital photography. When shooting digital you get two chances to take a good photo: once with the camera and a second time in the PC. You can improve the sharpness, colour, lightness, and contrast, plus a host of other changes. You can easily crop an image so that it is composed exactly how you want it, something that you cannot do very well without a darkroom in the film world. All this is far easier than in a BW film darkroom, let alone a colour one. You can also do things that are not possible in a physical darkroom, eg lighten just the dark parts of a picture. The home colour darkroom in the PC gives you far more control than you can have with colour film. You can also do all sorts of flashy things that you would not be able to do with film, eg make oil-painting-like versions or reverse the colours. See my article on Photoshop. If you want to do black and white work then just shoot in colour and then use any of the myriad ways of making black and white images out of coloured ones in the PC.


4) You don’t have to wait for the photo lab, nor are you at the mercy of their quality control. You and no-one else controls every phase of the photographic process. You can even make your own prints.


5) Digital storage means that no physical room is needed, that there is no loss of quality when you copy or email, and no degradation with time. You can store 300 or 1200 shots on a single memory card inside the camera, which certainly beats 36 on a roll of film. You can ensure that your photos are permanently stored by backing them up to DVD or an external hard disk. In addition, you can easily email or post your photos on the Net.


6) A photo shown on a 19-inch monitor looks luminous and much more impressive than a postcard-size print. It is more like a slide, without the bother of projector and screen.


7) You can easily make movies since nearly all new digital cameras have this feature.


8) You can make naughty pictures that no-one but you will see.


9) Most compact digital cameras allow you to take close-up photos with ease. In the film world you would normally need a special lens or extension tubes.


10) It is nice to have a smaller and lighter camera. (Unfortunately, digital SLRs are not any smaller than film SLRs.)

11) Once I got used to a 12-times optical zoom there is no way I'd give it up. Together with the anti-shake technology this opens up a whole new world of photography ie hand-held super-telephoto. My smallish Lumix camera zooms from 35 to 420 mm in film terms. More modern super-zooms extend out to 1200 mm or even more.

12) Another advantage of digital is that you can shoot at the film speed equivalent of ISO 3200 and you can alter this speed from shot to shot.


The Minuses

1) Quality is a complex issue. If you only look at your photos on the PC screen then the issue of quality comparison does not arise, since they look far better than small prints ever did. My understanding is that the one area where digital lags behind film in terms of quality is in dynamic range, ie the range of light to dark tones that can be captured successfully. Even here, digital is only inferior to print film, not to slides. Finally, there is the new problem of digital noise. Under-exposed areas and areas of high contrast can exhibit unsightly coloured blotches. The film equivalent of digital noise is film grain.

2) It is tempting to make hundreds of shots in an afternoon without taking sufficient care, as digital photography encourages a throw-away attitude and sloppiness. You may drown in a flood of your own making.

3) You don’t actually need to have a PC as you can use a digital camera in the same way as a film one. However, to get the full benefit of digital you should use a PC. This can be cumbersome and time-consuming, not to mention painful for non-techy people. Also, it is hard to show people your photos compared to an album. Unless you have a large hard disk you may run out of storage space. The other downside of digital storage is that you can easily lose all your photos if you don’t back them up. Do it now!


4) In the past I just got my prints from the lab, asked for some to be corrected and that was that. Nowadays, I correct most photos that I take, at least the ones that I like. Since I make about 20,000 photos per year that is quite a work-load. It would be nice to get satisfying photos straight out of the camera, but this is not so for me. It is a case of the appetite growing with the eating. I expect to get high quality results, which takes time and effort on the PC. This is the downside of the major plus point 3) above.


5) You will probably need to recharge the battery every day or two of camera use. This can be annoying on a trip. You also need to make sure you have enough memory cards.


6) Digital photography is another step away from the documentary nature of photography. It is all too easy to adjust or tart up photos until all sense of the photo as document is lost.


What camera should you get?

It depends on what you want to do. If you are, or think that you might become, an enthusiast then you should buy a high-quality camera that is versatile, such as an entry-level dSLR (digital Single Lens Reflex) or a high-end compact like my Panasonic Lumix. If you just want to take happy snaps then you are probably better off getting a unit that will slip into your pocket and that you can take everywhere without even thinking about it. See my camera Comparison. A word about digital zoom: this is a worthless gimmick.


In August 2006 I bought a Canon 30D, which is a mid-range digital SLR. It is wonderful to be able to see what I am photographing again. I find that the combination of 8 mega-pixies and the 18-55 mm zoom lens gives me pretty good macro capability – I can fill the frame with a 2 cm long object at 100% crop. Image quality is a big step up from the Lumix. In 2014 I use a Canon 7D plus a Sony RX100M3 for wide-angle when I go on trips. The 7D is one of the best cropped (ie not full-frame) SLRs and the Sony is currently the champ of pocket cameras.


I bought a DSLR it because I no longer wanted to put up with the limitations of the Panasonic Lumix FZ10. These are: poor low light performance, low dynamic range (highlights are washed-out), digital noise (coloured dots that should not be there), the crappy viewfinder, plus the need to sharpen and correct all pictures. Yet, apart from that it is a great camera!


My lessons

Never photograph people indoors without flash. Even outdoors flash is a good idea in order to avoid noise in shadow areas. Do not underexpose but use the middle exposure setting and bracket the shot if in doubt. When photographing people with the sky as background (especially using the self-timer) make sure that spot mode is on. If you end up lightening your shots in the PC then it is better to over-expose than to under-expose when you take the pictures due to the noise that appears when a digital photo is lightened. On the other hand, highlights are easier to blow than shadows are to under-expose and highlights are usually more important, so overall I'd say that under-exposure works better than over-exposure.

Do not increase the in-camera settings for saturation or contrast, as this is likely to introduce a colour cast.


A word about organisation

This can be a painful area. Many people use the shoebox at the bottom of the cupboard method to organise their film photo collection. This method works equally well on a PC. Given how many more shots you are likely to take once you have a little digital beastie, I recommend that you start off with a plan. You can either use a freeware picture organiser, such as Picasa, or do it your own way. I don’t like having to use other peoples’ ways of organising my own data, so I have my own system. I put each month’s snaps into their own folder and call it “23 Month 2014” so that the months will sort in sequential order. It’s also a good idea to add to the end of the folder name the range of names contained within it. When I correct a picture I give it the name “Blaha”, where the ‘a’ on the end signifies that it has been downsized for screen display (and email) plus has been corrected. If it is one of the best for that month then I copy it to a folder I call “24 Month 2014 Best”. I don’t recommend using shortcuts instead of copying because if you move or rename the source folder then the shortcuts will not work. The best pictures of the year go into “Gallery 2014”. A similar system may or may not suit the way you want to work, but do find a way that suits you.



One of my pet hates is the third-rate image viewer that comes with Windows called “Windows Picture and Fax Viewer”. It does not even allow you to view your images full screen. The best program I have found is ACDSee V3.1 but this is obsolete (later versions of ACDSee are afflicted with a bad case of feature bloat). Try a freeware program like IrfanView. Stop press: you can get ACDSee 3.1 for free from here.


Tad Boniecki

Written 29 July 2006

Updated 8 Nov 2014

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