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Differences between Film and Digital Photography

Both digital and film photography provide the same end result: an image of something still in time. The workflows and technical aspects of how these images are created are very different between the two technologies, but there are also several similarities.

All cameras have a lens. Lenses allow light to enter the camera and become focused on a ‘sensor’ at the back of the camera. This sensor could be a piece of film, or it could be an electronic chip that will capture the light. Digital sensors are typically smaller than the most common film size which is 35 millimeter (mm).

Digital sensors are rated in megapixels, this is how many pixels of information it can capture. Mega means million, so a 10 megapixel camera captures ABOUT 10 million pixels (it can vary). Film is rated primarily by its speed, that is the film’s sensitivity to light. The higher the sensitivity, the more grain tends to be in the picture. Digital cameras can set the speed in software, and a faster speed there also equates to an increase in noise. The noise, when present, has a different effect between the two as film grain tends to look more organic and may even lend a certain positive look to the photo. There are limits too, based on the grain of the film and noise of the digital, to how large either can be printed. Generally film allows for a little more flexibility in this area.

Digital photography is by far the more convenient process. With a digital camera, you use a memory card to store the picture files. If it fills up, you can transfer the files to a computer and start fresh, or you can pop in another memory card. Modern memory cards typically hold hundreds to thousands of photos. Digital cameras allow for ‘instant gratification’ in that you can see the photo you’ve taken right on the camera, and you may delete the photo if needed. Film has no such conveniences; a roll of film traditionally holds 24-36 pictures and each roll must be developed before you can see the picture, and once the film is exposed there’s no going back.

Film has more versatility since there are more steps to making the picture, and film is more forgiving in terms of how it handles light. The development process can drastically affect the final outcome of the image as much or even more than the actual process of taking the picture. Also, more esoteric film and camera sizes such as 4×5″ or 8×10″ (these are the dimensions of the film negative itself) allow photographers to take very high quality  and  artistic pictures that can be enlarged beyond current digital capabilities. Color accuracy in film can also be more accurate, though digital is not at all far off anymore.

Film provides an excellent opportunity to learn about how light works in photography. It is easier to understand a camera if the electronics, sensors, filters, etc. are taken out of the way and the camera is just looked at in terms of light moving through glass and onto a film. That said, for convenience and everyday shooting, digital is absolutely the convenient way to go. Film still has a strong foothold for any specialty art or large printing needs that would make digital systems cost prohibitive. Digital photography is constantly improving, and with further development may indeed supplant film entirely – but this will take some years.

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