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Film vs Digital: Why I Shoot with Film

In 2011, I much prefer to use my film camera than take digital photographs.

When friends and colleagues discover that I shoot a large proportion of my photographs on film, they are incredulous. Surely, they ask me, I am not serious? They simply cannot understand why I would choose the older and slower medium instead of the instant and cheap.

I have been convinced for quite some time that film is making a resurgence, and for very good reason. I have no hard data, but the woman who processes my films at the camera shop had told me that film sales are “definitely up, almost booming” and Kodak have also said that there’s a resurgence in film sales.  Even anecdotally on Flickr, there seem to be more and more people turning back to film photography.

People are coming to realise that film has definite advantages over digital photography.

Approximately 75% of my photography these days is shot on film. Some of my reasons for returning to film are technical and some of them are emotional but regardless, I generally find that film delivers a superior result for me.

Here are some of my reasons for choosing film:

1. Film has a Broader Dynamic Range

If I use a 100ISO film in an analogue camera, and set my digital to ISO100 and shoot a room with a bright window, or a neon sign lit at dusk, or a garden filled with dappled light, I am almost inevitably happier with the film version. Why? Because if I choose the correct film (there are many types), I will be able to see detail in the dark parts of the room which appear as black in the digital version. This is called latitude, which digital photography tends to lack.

If I am shooting something bright but coloured like a smokey sunset or a vivid neon sign, a digital camera will render the brightest light sources as white, regardless of their proper colour. Film will reproduce those bright points in their true colours, so a red light will be red. Not red grading to pink with a white centre.

Here’s an example:  The images below are of a church in Millicent, South Australia. The top image is digital (Canon EOS 350D) and the bottom image was shot on Fujifilm Superia Reala 100 film, using a Canon EOS 500N . I wanted to capture the warmth and the ambience of the building, but this was a tricky location because the church was a dark yet the windows and skylight were very bright.

In the film version, I can see more detail in the dark places without the bright parts being blown out. If I look at the pews and the ceiling of the digital version, then compare to the film version, the difference is immediately apparent.

Here’s another example: A photograph taken from the Rialto Towers Observation Deck of the city of Melbourne at dusk.

Look at how the film version – shot on Fujifilm Velvia 100 – has richer colours, clearer tones and sharper resolution. The bright spots on Flinders Street station (centre right) are blown out in the digital version so that the pixels are either white or tending to orange, whereas in the film version they retain their true (and accurate) yellow colour. The subtle tones of the buildings are clearer and even the haze in the sky is captured on film, whereas the digital photo shows the sky as an almost single shade of blue.

2. Film is more challenging, but more rewarding

Film demands that thought be put into the composition of each image before the shutter button is pressed. Therefore I find film to be more challenging, but consequently more rewarding when one strikes photographic gold. For me at least, there’s more to celebrate in a ‘brilliant’ film photograph than a digital one.

One doesn’t always want a challenge. Sometimes if I really need a shot, such as when composition an action shot, I won’t use film. But if I am in a situation where time permits, film will usually be my first choice.

3. Film is “authentic”

It strikes me as peculiar that the latest iPhone cameras come with applications that make their digital photos appear to be shot on film or as Polaroids. It begs the very obvious question: If you want the look of film, why not use film?

It is hard to quantify, but film has an authenticity that digital photography lacks.

Perhaps it is the natural vignetting that is a product of a lens rather than a Photoshop effect? Or maybe the softer colours or gentle grain that puts soul into the image?

The vignetting in this image is a natural effect from the lens mounted on the camera. (Shot on Fujifilm Superia Reala 100 film)

4. Black-and-white & high-ISO look better on film

Black-and-white photography has a quality that colour lacks. Photographers may use black-and-white to provide an evocative element in an image or to add drama. Yet there’s really something lacking in digital black-and-white photography. Photographer Ken Rockwell puts it down to digital’s inability to capture tone and shade as well as film, in part because of the failings of colour digital sensors.

Whatever the differences may be, I know that nothing compares to a decent film-based black-and-white photo. Likewise, if I want grain, a high-ISO film will always look better than a crude Photoshop effect or high-ISO setting on a digital.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne. (Shot on Ilford PANF Plus 50 film)

5. Film has resolution

On his website, photographer Ken Rockwell writes that “A frame of 35mm film, scanned cheaply at a good photo lab to a CD, is about equal to the resolution of a 25-megapixel DSLR”. Ask yourself: How many people have 25-megapixel cameras?

Of course, this resolution is possible because of scanning technology as much as the film itself. As scanners become increasingly better, higher resolution scans from slide or colour-reversal films are possible. But the other half of the equation is the very detail (ie information) captured on the film in the first place.

Film is an old technology which on a technical level, hasn’t been matched in resolution by digital photography ever. For a whole range of technical reasons, film can capture considerably more detail without converting your images to pixels, adding noise reductions and the like which all reduce image clarity.

In thirty years time, most people’s digital JPG images are going to look fairly poor by the standards of the day, and there will be no way to increase the resolution of those digital images to extract more information. However, in thirty years time it will be possible to re-scan an old negative or slide and the digital image will be of a quality that the technology of the time will permit.

6. Film is fun!

In an era when we can so easily get instant gratification, I actually like waiting for my photos to be processed. I genuinely look forward to collecting my prints or slides to see how my images turned out after a big shoot. I relish the joy of discovering that what I imagined would be “photographic gold” actually turned out better than I imagined.

And yes, sometimes I am disappointed. (Tony Abbott has a phrase to describe this phenomenon).


Everyone will have their own reasons for preferring film over digital, or vice versa. It will depend on what one wants from their photos, and their photography. If you still have an old film camera lying around at home, why don’t you buy some film give it another go? You might be pleasantly surprised.

In the peak of the digital craze, I almost sold my film camera. I am ever so grateful now that I was talked out of that silly idea.



13 responses to “Film vs Digital: Why I Shoot with Film”

On 23 April 2011, Gautam Sirur wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Absolutely agree with everything you say a bout film. I have used really old manual/mechanical cameras from Russia and my favourite Nikon FM2 with Fuji, Kodak and Ilford films, My particular choice was always Kodachrome 25 and the Fuji, plus Ilford for B&W. Used them for extreme close-ups, landscapes, wildlife and portraits with brilliant results that I’ve never been able to produce / reproduce with digital. It’s getting difficult to resist as a friend just gave me a Nikon D2X, but nobody can ever convince me that it would be superior to a film camera!

On 23 April 2011, isobel wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

For the past minutes I have been absorbed reading your latest blog. I am not a photographer of any kind, but find your article easy to follow and loved looking at the comparisons of film and digital shots. For people who are avid photographers, I am sure your thoughts will be commented upon,as your article is read, and I for one will look forward to reading what is written. It seems to me, you enjoy to the utmost your interest, and indeed ability to pursue your hobby. Continued success to you.

On 23 April 2011, Donna wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

What an interesting read, Adam!

I have noticed the quality of your film shots have a lot more atmosphere to them and you can see that in the comparative shots above. There are so many differences in colour and light, especially in the Rialto shot.

It would be interesting to compare a new DSLR with my 3 year old one to see how the sensors have improved. Is it just an increase in resolution or does the sensor do a better job at capturing the subtle differences in light and colour of a subject?

One question, Adam: how much does it generally cost for the film and for developing?

On 22 November 2011, Deborah Brock wrote: Hyperlink chain icon


I have been teaching photography at a private high school in South Florida for 12 years. I still teach film and don’t introduce digital until photography III. I am also working on my Master in Art Education and trying to create a research question to validate film and wet processes in art education. I see first hand the love and desire to learn film and skills in the darkroom etc. I’d love to speak to you about this or maybe interview you as part of my research. If you are interested, please email me and I will give you further contact information.

Thank you
Deborah Brock
American Heritage School
Plantation, FL

On 28 November 2011, Bob Symons wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Well done Adam, My own interest in photography began in the film days and with the advent of digital I packed away my old gear in favour of the new technology.
After too many years of continual upgrading my cameras in search of image quality that I was happy with I recently decided to go back to film and my experience has been completely positive.
After dusting off a few of my old film cameras and purchasing some that, at the time I could never afford, I now have the image quality that I’m more than happy with.
As an bonus, I find the slower pace of using film has brought back a lot more enjoyment and involvement in the whole process.
It’s a great feeling knowing that my current film cameras are capable of producing excellent quality images that will satisfy my particular needs for many years to come.

Thanks for your informative article.

On 16 December 2011, GH wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

If you’re scanning your film, I’m not sure there’s much ground to stand on, in terms of “authenticity.” I’m not sure there’s a big difference, when you’re talking about either celluloid or silicon being exposed.

On 24 March 2012, Kris Frederick wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

In reply to GH – If you shoot it on film and then scan it to a digital file, you get more detail and tone than if you simply shoot it with a digital camera. The reason is that with film, you capture the details and the tones and can retain that result with a good scanner. With a digital camera — it isn’t there to begin with. When it isn’t there, it just doesn’t exist, and never will. I always enjoy the development of film – when I look at my negatives and see the results that I wanted, I know that I have succeeded in what I set out to do. If it isn’t in the negative, then no amount of hokus-pokus will make it appear. That is why I prefer film – it is all there. With digital, it (the detailed rendering of the subject) never was there to begin with.

On 6 May 2012, James wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

I think a question you could also ask is, if you can make digital look like film, then why shoot film? I shoot film, so I’m not against it at all, but digital is much more practical for almost all situations. I just like developing film, it’s fun.

On 5 November 2012, bob wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

The reason your digital photos don’t look as good as your film photos is not digital’s fault it is your fault. If you like film then use it. Your artsy-fartsy poetic waxing is based on your feelings not on the capabilities of the two technologies. Any film photo you can take can for all intents and purposes be duplicated with a digital camera.

On 27 December 2012, Mike wrote: Hyperlink chain icon


Hogwash. The dynamic range of the best B&W films far exceeds that of even the top digital sensors. Even colour negative films such as Portra 400 have a much greater dynamic range than digital.

Furthermore, the tonal transitions available on film – especially in the extreme highlights, are simply more aesthetically pleasing than on digital.

What digital has going for it is convenience and per shot cost. If you shoot larger formats, film becomes a much more viable platform, because larger format digital is still quite cost-prohibitive.

I shoot both, each for specific reasons. Digital for excellent resolution and clean files for small prints, film for the subjective image quality and better resolution in very large prints.

On 22 December 2013, Bert Becerra wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Very interesting article, I am a Digital shooter but very interested in using film now. Your comparisons show a clear difference between the two, but I have a question, how did you scanned your negatives, what scanner or method? To me that will make a huge difference. Thanks.

On 2 August 2014, Lee Whalley wrote: Hyperlink chain icon

Interesting article, I used to love playing in my darkroom dodging and burning and seeing the results appear slowly. I think Film could be defined as being used by fine art- when you want that ultimate very low ISO “so sharp you could cut your finger on it” image with enough zone system to make Ansel proud. So I would say film is an art form now not really a viable media for the 21st century and its fast paced, almost shoal like shifting of all things digital.

I think cost also has a lot to do with people using digital and the fact you can make many mistakes; which is kind of an oxymoronic take on being lazy, its someone playing the odd’s that if they take enough images one of them has to be good.

With film, film makes you think, there’s nothing like a financial hit to sharpen the mind. Film can l teach you to be a better photographer because you want to maximise your bang for buck. Unfortunately, that was never the case when I was viewing images. I used to be a quality controller and a film processing business and out of all the film shot by joe public, I was lucky to see 20 quality images in a night. So, digital is for the masses, film is for the few, who care enough to create light art and pay their dues in early mornings, patience, the cost of visiting a site more than once because the scene was not quite right, learning the nuances of each film type, mastering manual and light meters, and learning the craft.

Would be interesting to see how many of the sales for film go to professionals/serious amatuers and how many go to joe public.

On 16 March 2015, chloe wrote: Hyperlink chain icon


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