Digital vs. Traditional Film Photography

Digital photography killed film photography for most people

Cameras from all eras in a row
William Andrew / Getty Images

The recent past has seen a phenomenal transition from traditional film photography to digital photography, led primarily by the cameras on the smartphones just about everyone carries. Depending on your age, you may never have used a film camera to take photos. As smartphone cameras improved, the convenience and quality they could deliver were suitable for most people's photo needs.

However, before you get rid of your film camera, check out our examination of the pros and cons of digital versus film photography.

Overall Findings

Digital

  • Just about every smartphone and camera has built-in editing features and lighting controls

  • Much cheaper than working with film

  • Modification and enhancement options

Film

  • Higher resolution

  • Prints have higher shelf life

  • Expensive to take and print

Depending on how you use a camera, there may be room for both technologies in your life. Some amateur and professional photographers still believe that film cameras deliver superior quality. Most of those traditionalists also carry digital cameras in their camera bags.

Price: Digital Photography May Save You Money

Digital

  • Cameras available in a range of prices (or on the phone or tablet you already own)

  • Cheaper and faster to reporduce

Film

  • Must buy film separately

  • Specialized equipment required to develop

The upfront cost of both digital and film photography can be cheap or expensive. But if you have a smartphone, you won't necessarily need to buy a separate camera to get okay results. You probably wouldn't do a professional photoshoot with an iPhone, for example, but you can still take great-looking pictures and make copies easily.

Once you're shooting, however, you may find some bigger differences between digital and film. Specifically, you have no need to "develop" a digital picture, but making high-quality prints of traditional photos requires specialized equipment.

The fact that you need to buy film in the first place is another additional cost that digital photography doesn't have, and reels being single-use means you'll always have to replace them. Digital cameras store pics on memory cards that you can delete or upgrade as needed.

Convenience: Digital Wins Again

Digital

  • Photos are readily available and can be printed quickly

  • Instant sharing to social media

Film

  • Chemical development takes time

If you need pictures fast, you'll want to go with digital photography. Once you've taken a picture, you can immediately connect your camera or insert the memory card into a computer and start printing. Or you can instantly share your images to social media and get them in front of a large audience.

You can make high-quality prints with photo paper in a standard printer. You have more expensive options available, of course, but the barrier of entry is lower for digital than film.

Quality: Each Has Advantages

Digital

  • Better and more accurate colors

Film

  • Resolution is effectively infinite

  • Physical prints have a longer life than ones that came from digital

With high-quality cameras, it will be hard to tell the difference between a digital photo and one that originated on film. But they aren't identical.

Because film renders an image using a chemical process at the molecular scale, its resolution is effectively infinite. Digital photography has progressively increased the resolution of its cameras and images, but they're still based on single-unit pixels. We've just added more of them to capture more detail and depth.

Digital photos may do a better job than film at capturing better colors. But film is generally a better choice for black-and-white photography.

Privacy: Film Is Generally Safer

Digital

  • Camera automatically embeds personal and geographic data you may not know about

  • Security concerns for cloud storage

  • Digital images are easier to manipulate

Film

  • No personal data

  • Requires a negative to make a true copy or make modifications

Some digital cameras–like the ones built into cellphones–automatically embed personal information into the photos they take. This data can include the location at which you took the picture. People can access the metadata later, especially if you share photos on social media, and learn personal details you may not want public.

And while major hacking incidents that leak people's private photos are rare, they are still a concern when you store your images using a service like iCloud.

Film photos don't include this kind of information, so you may consider them safer than their digital counterparts.

Final Verdict

Digital and traditional photography are complementary arts. Many of the skills learned in traditional photography apply to the digital world. Although most people take more and better photos using digital cameras, some people prefer film and achieve superior results with it.

Serious photographers shouldn't totally ignore one format because both offer advantages. But more casual users will probably find the digital route way more convenient and fast.