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Film vs Digital

Updated: Apr 2

A few posts ago, I mentioned that the question of "What camera to buy" attracts a lot of debate. Well, here's another area that's often debated within the photography community: film vs digital - which is better?


The answer is...it depends. (I'm a lawyer in my day job, remember? Gotta keep it real.)


Film. This is a behind-the-scenes photo I took on film for The Wedding Scoop at a styled shoot. Check out the full feature for stunning photos taken by Peter Herman, a gifted photographer (and really great guy to hang with) based in Kuala Lumpur. He shot those photos on a digital camera, and the comparison gives you an idea of how different film vs digital photos can look, even in the same lighting.


Here are some of the pros and cons of film vs digital.


Film Pros

  • Film cameras are generally cheaper.

  • Vintage lenses are generally cheaper.

  • Film photos can have nice grain, colors, and tonal qualities to them, giving them a "film" look.

  • You can learn to develop your own film at home, which may (or may not) interest you.

Film. Another behind-the-scenes photo I took on film from a styled shoot by The Wedding Scoop with Miss Universe Malaysia, Carey Ng. Check out the full feature here, with photos by MunKeat, an awesome guy and award-winning photographer, and he has a great collection of cameras.


Film Cons

  • Film can be expensive to buy and develop.

  • Practicing photography on film is expensive because of film and processing costs. Every "bad" shot costs money to develop and uncover.

  • No way of reviewing your photo immediately, so you are unable to get immediate feedback about whether your shot is in focus and exposed correctly.

  • Limited flexibility in shots, because once you load a roll of film, you're limited to the light conditions that the film's ISO can handle, and it's difficult to change ISO until you've finished shooting that roll of film.

  • High ISO film will give you grainy shots.

  • If a film shop doesn't have high turnover of film developing work, it may be using stale chemicals which produce lower-quality photos.

  • Expired film can produce weird tones and color casts. If you're lucky, the shot will look "artistic", but often it will just look bad.


Expired film


Digital Pros

  • Digital photos are essentially free to develop, except for any time you spend post-processing them.

  • Practicing photography on digital cameras is free. A "bad" shot costs you nothing but your time.

  • You can review your photos immediately, which is helpful for beginners who want immediate feedback about whether their shots are in focus and exposed correctly.

  • Lots of flexibility in a variety of lighting conditions because you can change ISO on the fly.

  • Digital sensors can give you very clean photos with little noise.

  • High ISO on modern digital cameras is infinitely less grainy and more usable than film.

  • You can learn to post-process your photos at home, which may (or may not) interest you.

  • Digital photos can be manipulated extensively, including post-processing photos so that they mimic the colors, tonal qualities, and even noise, of film.


Digital


Digital Cons

  • Digital cameras are generally more expensive than film cameras.

  • Digital camera bodies eventually become obsolete (although one could argue that film camera bodies are already obsolete).

  • Photos can look "too" clean, without any organic imperfections.


My suggestion would be that if you're just starting out in photography and want to get an inexpensive camera, get a second-hand digital camera - even if it's a few generations behind. There are plenty of excellent digital cameras that can be purchased second-hand at fairly low prices. Spend a bit more to go digital so that you can save money by shooting thousands and thousands of practice shots at no cost.


I have both digital and film cameras, but shoot mostly digital. One of my most heartbreaking moments was when I mis-loaded a roll of film in my film camera and took portraits of a friend for his wedding (this wasn't a paid job obviously, he's a long-time friend and I was a groomsman). We went out to the garden and he was in traditional attire and we did some nice solo portraits of him. I had brought a digital camera as a backup, but didn't shoot those particular portraits of him with it.


I should have.


I developed the roll and everything was blank. Every - single - frame.


Thankfully I got some nice shots with my digital camera later in the day (like the shot of the bride below), but I was still crushed because the moment happens only once, and even though I shot those portraits of the groom in his traditional attire in those quiet and undisturbed moments, I didn't capture them.


Digital


So now I shoot digital if I really need to get the shot. I shoot film if it's non-critical, or if I also shot a digital version as a backup.


Every photographer has their own preferences and there's no "right" answer to whether you should shoot film or digital*, so go with whatever you like but also understand the limitations of each medium so that you're making informed decisions.


* Except in low lighting conditions, in which case you should basically always shoot digital because it will straight-up get you a cleaner and more usable shot. Sorry film purists - as a medium, modern digital sensors fundamentally outperform film in low light.


Share your film and digital stories with me!



If you find these tips useful, please consider sharing your photos with the community by tagging #dharmaportraits on your Instagram photos - I'd love to see how you're using these tips to create beautiful photos.

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