Digital vs. Traditional Film Photography

Digital photography replaced film photography for most people

The recent past has seen a transition from traditional film photography to digital photography, led primarily by the cameras on smartphones. 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.

Digital vs traditional photography

Overall Findings

Digital
  • Most smartphones and cameras have built-in editing features and lighting controls.

  • Cheaper than working with film.

  • Modification and enhancement options.

Film
  • Higher resolution.

  • Prints have a 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 believe that film cameras deliver superior quality. Most of those traditionalists also carry digital cameras in their camera bags.

Price: Digital Photography May Save Money

Digital
  • Cameras are available in a range of prices (or on the phone or tablet).

  • Cheaper and faster to reproduce.

Film
  • Must buy film separately.

  • Specialized equipment required to develop.

The upfront cost of both digital and film photography can be cheap or expensive. 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 take great-looking pictures and make copies easily.

Once you're shooting, however, you may find some bigger differences between digital and film. You don't have to develop a digital picture. However, making high-quality prints of traditional photos requires specialized equipment.

The fact that you need to buy film is an additional cost that digital photography doesn't have. With reels being single-use means you'll always have to replace them. Digital cameras store pictures 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, go with digital photography. After you take a picture, you can immediately connect your camera or insert the memory card into a computer and start printing. Or, you can instantly share 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, 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's 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. More pixels are added 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
  • The camera automatically embeds personal and geographic data.

  • Security concerns for cloud storage.

  • Digital images are easier to manipulate.

Film
  • No personal data.

  • Requires a negative to make a copy or 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.

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

Film photos don't include this kind of information and are considered 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 ignore one format because both offer advantages. Casual users may find the digital route convenient and fast.