Photo Tip: Film vs. Digital Capture




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The question always arises, "Which is better for image capture, 35 mm film or digital cameras?" As with so many things . . . it all depends. Both have their merits and drawbacks, and what is best in one situation might not be best in another. Here's a breakdown of their relative strengths and weaknesses.


Digital allows instant evaluation of the image you just shot. You can move on or reshoot, based on the instant review. Be careful, though! Some of the best images take days or weeks to grow on you, so it's a great mistake to be too quick to delete. Digital is the fastest route to photographic output. Images can be printed out or on the web within minutes of the exposure. Digital has few consumables, so it costs nothing extra to shoot additional frames. Offsetting this is that the digital equipment system (including computers, scanners, printers, software, as well as the camera itself) is vastly more expensive than a film-based system, and must be replaced about every three years -- hidden factors which add to the true price of each frame you shoot. Digital prints can be enlarged to any size by interpolating new pixels, leaving the print looking grainless.

On the downside, digital photos can have noise, especially in the shadows, that somewhat mimic film grain. Finally, to get the most out of digital photography, one needs to master all sorts of computer arcana involved with color management.

35 mm film

There are endless disputes on the subject, but my contention is that film is capable of recording finer detail than even the best current digital cameras. For the record, mine is a minority opinion! (This is written in January 2006.) Experienced film scanners will tell you that it takes about a 35-megapixel camera or so to rival 35 mm film's sharpness, a view shared by the FBI and others who have worked out the calculation. (But you don't need all this abundance of detail unless you are making very large prints.) Film fades in time, but it still takes the nod over digital files in terms of archival permanence: computers can crash, CDs can fail, and the technology evolves (who can still read 5 1/2" floppies?). And only one photographic medium, slide film, provides an unambiguous, guaranteed platform-independent visual reference when having someone else print your work.


It is roughly a tie between the two media in terms of the tonal range that can be recorded. ISO speed ratings are comparable, too. Ease of storage, organizing, and retrieval is also about even, and is largely a matter of personal preference. (Do you like pulling up slide pages from a notebook or do you like pulling up images on the computer?)

A last thought

This discussion has been about comparing digital cameras to 35 mm film. Medium format and large format film will continue to blow digital out of the water in terms of image quality for the foreseeable future.


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Timothy Edberg / 6511 Homestake Dr. South / Bowie, MD / 20720
(301) 809-5857 / 1-877-471-6414 (toll-free)