Machu Picchu (shot with slide film in 2002)© Copyright David Simchock
You might be thinking... Why, in the year 2018, would someone bother to write about an archaic topic such as this, comparing an established technology with its "old school" predecessor?
Well, for one, someone asked me to write about it.
And, two, I suspect that there are still quite a few people that don't understand the true advantages of digital photography over film, and simply assume it is better, or just don't bother to care given the limited options of film cameras, film, and film processing these days.
Though I believe there are now many advantages that digital technology has over film, including "resolution" given the very-high-res digital sensors that are available at a consumer level, I believe that there are three distinct advantages of a digital camera over a conventional film camera.
- ISO quality and control: With a film camera, once you put a roll of film into the camera, you were stuck with the ISO of that film for the entire roll (or partial roll if you removed the film). Because of this, photographers “back in the day” may have carried multiple cameras around with different ISO film in each (e.g., one for daylight and one for low light) such that they could swap between cameras / film depending on the amount of light they were working with in their scene. With digital cameras, a photographer can change the ISO setting from one shot to the next depending on their needs. For example, one minute they can be outside in a European plaza during broad daylight, shooting at ISO 100, and the next minute they're inside of a dimly-lit cathedral cranking their ISO up to 3200. Then, head back outside where they can drop back down to a lower ISO with higher image quality.
It is also now possible to fine tune the ISO setting since many digital cameras have 1/3-stop increments on the ISO setting (and the aperture and shutter speed as well). Gone are the days of limiting film "speeds" to, say, 100, 200, 400, 800, etc. Many of today's digi-cams have two additional "stops" between each of those numbers (e.g., 100, 125, 160, 200, 250, 320 400, etc.). This allows a photographer to optimize their exposure settings with more precision than they were capable of doing with film.
- Post-processing creative control: In the film days, if a photographer didn’t have access to a dark room, or didn’t have the expertise to use one (which was the case with most hobbyists), any creative tweaks to an image were made by whoever was processing and printing the film, likely down at the local drug store or shopping mall camera shop. Many “fine art” photographers, such as Ansel Adams, were not only master photographers, but there were also master printers, integrating their “real time” camera techniques with their post-processing in the dark room (e.g., dodging and burning, contrast adjustments, etc.).
Nowadays, “post-processing” is available and possible for consumer / hobbyist photographers via software packages, such as Adobe Photoshop (though I personally prefer Adobe Lightroom, as I believe Photoshop to be more of a graphic designer’s software). With digital technology, anyone with a camera and a computer has the potential to exploit the power of software in order to transform an image into their vision by using such software (just as Ansel Adams put the finishing touches on his vision in the darkroom).
Having said this, it is important to distinguish between using the software as part of the “creative process”, and using it as a “crutch” or to “cheat”. Yes, software can help to fix mistakes, and there isn't a photographer out there, amateur or pro, that doesn't at some point use software to fix their mistakes (but, some won't admit it). But, it shouldn’t be relied up on as a replacement for comprehensively understanding exposure, for example (and, it will not fix out-of-focus images). A competent photographer will understand their software capabilities as well as they understand their camera, lenses, and accessories, and utilize the software as part of their creativity. Just as Ansel Adams did with film, all artists should use the tools at their disposal to bring their final artwork in line with their original vision. With digital technology, this is much easier to do than with film, particularly if you are using decent gear, shooting RAW files, and utilizing reasonably powerful software.
- Ease of sharing work: This is probably more of a computer thing than a camera thing, but the transformation of digital technology that happened in parallel with digital cameras has made it very easy for anyone to share their photos with others -- anywhere in the world. Gone are the days of shoe boxes with packages of prints or, even, photo albums. Now, sharing photos is as easy as turning on your computer or your cell phone, logging into your favorite social media site, and uploading your work.
What do you think? Is "digital" better than "film"? Did I leave anything essential off of this list? Leave your comments below, please.
Machu Picchu (shot with a DSLR camera in 2006)© Copyright David Simchock