Digital vs. Film | Differences, Opinions, and Thoughts on a BIG Debate

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I’m a photographer by nature, writer by choice.

I live and breathe the work of my camera. Between editorial photoshoots, campaigns, commercials, personal lifestyle shots, and weddings — I’ve dabbled into various types of photography throughout my career. From lackluster senior portraits to working with big brands, like AirBnb or Subaru USA, I additionally dedicate my knowledge to the beautiful team here at Moment. Alongside my experience and practice, my gear repertoire evolves in tandem. As an artist improves their craft, so do their tools. The need to change, shift, or alter our approach is natural and, in fact, necessary.

I’ve been strutting along global landscapes with digital cameras around my neck for ages. It wasn’t until more recently, in the past few years, that I dedicated myself to mastering a photo alternative: film. The tirelessly cumbersome, somewhat archaic, and hard-to-replicate film photography medium. After snapping a few pics on a girl’s trip to Joshua Tree in 2017, being so enamored with how effortlessly the photos looked, I haven’t looked back since. I’ve dedicated myself to shooting almost entirely 35mm or medium format for personal projects, saving digital photography for larger campaigns that require a commercial status quo.

However, my perspective continues to evolve regardless of my opinion or excessive use of one medium over the other. Digital is no better than film, and film is no better than digital. I’m not a purist of any sort, and I’ll stand by that. Before the pandemic struck, my trip to South America was shot entirely on digital for fear of film getting ruined by the rampant humidity in the Amazon. Alternatively, I photographed a week-long commercial shoot for Subaru on film. Heck, I’ve done weddings on film, and I’ve done weddings on digital.

You get the point — there’s room for both.

But which one is right for you? There’s a large difference in quality, considering the various types of cameras, and an even larger difference in workflow. I’m not an expert at either, but I’m here to give you insight based on my experience and knowledge.

So grab a cup of coffee, and let's dive in.

Disclaimer: The images displayed in this article are stylized by the photographer. Eunice Beck shoots digital using Phil Chester Presets, while I used Kodak Portra 160 and Kodak Portra 400. Comparing digital and film imagery is arbitrary, as film scans vary per lab, and all digital images hold unique editing processes. We are both best friends and photographers that work together quite often, and the point of these comparisons is to show you the unique styles in quality.

Shop Eunice's Affiliate Link to Phil Chester Presets

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Digital

Oh, digital. Today, professional photographers no longer need to fret about a photo lab screwing up their scans and costing them a job. Snapshooters everywhere can whip out their smartphone or manipulate control easily from a digital camera. With flip-out LCD screens for easy viewings or pre-conceived filters and presets made ready for any JPEG image — the world of digital cameras is endless and never-ending. From a technical standpoint, even hobbyists can capture scenes that rival those of master film photographers from decades ago. And we can process those images in minutes, not days. And with the lights on.

Every modern camera, including the most expensive and advanced models, has fully automatic modes, making it simple for even the most inexperienced photographer. To pick up the right “professional” camera from a leading manufacturer and take a perfect photograph, you don't need to understand the science behind exposure and set your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Don't believe me? Consider the contentious case of a primate taking an epic selfie with a professional camera a few years ago.

Almost all cameras allow you to manually control exposure, focus, shooting modes, and other settings. However, the ease with which you can manually change controls differs from camera to camera. Since the budding photographer will likely "outgrow" some of the auto modes and want to take charge of certain aspects of the picture-making process, the ease of introducing manual control should be a major purchase consideration for a novice.

Here’s some more reading for you to do:

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Film

After a few rolls of disastrous mistakes and other happy accidentals, I found a strange love for the peculiar morphosis my photography gained through film — the colorful light leaks, vibrant colors, and natural grain unforced by digital manipulation. There was effortless ease through my visual storytelling, something I so desperately longed for that digital couldn’t quite gift. Each composited shot becomes more and more intentional, allowing me, as the photographer, to live fully in the present moment. That element of surprise is always worth it.

Considering the various types of film stocks to play with, there’s a vibe for everyone.

A few of my favorite film brands:

Kodak: Besides their famous iconic yellow branding and an upended identity for Super 8 motion film, Professional Porta Series are undeniably some of the best in the film photography industry, used by ultra-professionals and larger-than-life influencers alike. Whether these be formulated for wedding or portrait photographers or made to work best with landscapes, pro films usually do one job exceptionally well. Of course, these come at a higher cost but are worth it for the quality you’ll receive. They all portray just the right amount of grain, are sharp without being clinically sharp, their colors are vibrant but not gaudy, and their speed is just right for an all-day shoot.

Read about the Kodak film stocks here.

Fujifilm: PetaPixel, 2018).

Read about Fujifilm film stocks here.

CineStill: CineStill 800T. Both are modified to allow it to be developed with the C-41 process instead of the Eastman Color Negative process.

Read about CineStill film stocks here.

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General Consensus

If you haven’t been able to tell by the example images, there’s no single reason why you can’t take the same exact photo — the same exact concept t— with either medium. However, producing various degrees of qualifying qualities and color science, film, and digital can certainly be taken in tandem. In fact, the beauty of digital is its easy post-processing manipulation to make it look like film. And who says you can’t place digital presets on your film scans? Contrary to the pompous purists on Twitter, you can virtually do what the heck it is you want to do with your work. You’re the artist; you're the master.

If you’re new to photography and conjuring a decision as to which one is right for you, I’d ask yourself this series of questions:

  • What is it that you value most within an image? Tones, emotion, the subject, etc.?
  • Are you a one-and-done shooter, or do you let that shutter rip?
  • Are you a patient-practitioner?
  • Do you value the creativity behind post-processing/color grading, or do you prefer a more natural true-to-life approach?
  • If applicable, at what size are you looking to print?

If you value patience, film is worth it. Photoshopping digital images is a hoot if you’re into unique color manipulation. Printing a photo book of film is easy if you don’t mind paying for high-quality scans. If you’re into holding down the shutter button, digital will be more cost-effective. However, capturing a picture worth taking should be the ultimate goal.

For a broader perspective, here are key differences between digital and film on a more serious technical note.

Film Advantages:

  • It’s a classic, golden standard.
  • With a more versatile dynamic range, sometimes better at capturing white’s and blacks’ details that can be proven more difficult to replicate digitally.
  • Requires a more intentional process, as stocks only allow a certain amount of frames per roll.
  • Lower initial cost, more accessible.
  • Analog film can be pushed or pulled multiple stops when needed, but the amount of contrast within the image is affected. Some photographers use this to their advantage to create the ideal look they desire, but this method still does not allow extremely high ISO.

Digital Advantages:

  • Shoot fast and happy at no additional cost.
  • Digital cameras are generally lighter than their film counterparts (especially when compared to medium or large format cameras).
  • Instant gratification.
  • The resolution in even point-and-shoot cameras, often 12 to 20 megapixels, is high enough for large prints.
  • You’re able to change film speeds between individual photographs.
  • Modern cameras now offer built-in filters ensuring a more easy-going or film-like experience.

Most commissions, particularly those editorial or commercial-based, beg for more of a bright, simple, airy look that digital can so effortlessly capture. Likewise, this industry runs on fast-turnaround times that are nearly impossible to follow when working with analog equipment. However, I've found that the nostalgic film camera best conquers the more personal, premeditated projects bound by a raw human experience as they are both—artistically and physically—complementary.

Nevertheless, it’s an argument that will never win by logic. A stylistic choice, if you will?

Now, that’s yours to make.

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