Is Film Photography Dead? Depends On Who You Ask

Film photography, once considered an innovation, is now considered by many to be a dying art. A closer look reveals that it may not be that simple.

Film photography is not dead and is still used by many professional photographers and filmmakers today. Although less popular than digital forms, film photography is experiencing a revival as more photographers rediscover its many advantages.

The debate between film and digital can go on forever, so we’ve simplified it and laid out the major pros and cons of both.

Film Versus Digital

Many professional wedding and fine art photographers, among others, still prefer using film photography to digital. Many hobbyists are also partial to film.

On the other hand, developing film takes more know-how and effort, which is just one reason many have made the switch to digital.

Let’s start with some of the advantages that film has over digital and see if we can settle this once and for all.

Where Film Photography Wins Over Digital

Film photography is still relevant today due to its many benefits, such as quality and longevity, in addition to those who like it for nostalgic reasons.

1. Picture Quality

Film still has the upper hand when it comes to gradients, sharpness, and tonal quality. Even the new medium format cameras from Hasselblad and Fuji can’t beat a large-format camera when it comes to picture quality.

If you’re still not convinced, ask:

  • Christopher Nolan
  • Steven Spielberg
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • Wes Anderson
  • Judd Apatow

These directors (and many others) still shoot on film, preferring its look to digital. Thankfully, support from big players in the movie industry will keep film companies like FujiFilm and Kodak around for a long time to come.

Digital photography still has some catching up to do when it comes to quality. For example, digital medium format cameras don’t have the same sensor size as a medium format film negative, so the film negative still holds more information, making it a higher quality image. As for large format photography, digital backs do exist, but are prohibitively expensive at around $30,000, so not really available for most people.

2. Longevity

Undeveloped film can last for decades, as this man, who bought a camera from the 1920s with undeveloped film in it, can tell you. But how often do we hear of vintage digital cameras being found and retaining pictures of the past? Of course, the answer is never – because they’ve only been around for a few decades.

The truth is, we don’t know how long digital images will last. It’s not uncommon for a digital camera, hard drive, or computer to malfunction, taking with it all saved images. Plastic Film, Glass plate negatives, and tintypes have been around since the late 1800’s, so their durability has been proven for well over a century.

3. Camera Cost

Film camera prices have decreased dramatically since the invention of digital ones, making them much more affordable. As with everything, there are a few exceptions to this, such as retailers that are taking advantage of film’s resurgence and raising camera prices, and high-end camera companies such as Hasselblad and Leica, that have never compromised on pricing.

Though they have jumped into the digital camera game while bringing along their high prices. Even with prices rising, film cameras are still less expensive than digital ones. You can cut costs even more by buying cameras second hand from website like KEH.com or Ebay.com.

4. Higher Percentage of Usable Shots

Although film cameras are considerably less expensive than they used to be, the price of film hasn’t gone down at all and, in some cases, have gone up. But this isn’t necessarily a handicap because each image exposure costs you money, it forces you to slow down and choose your images more carefully. 

Where digital cameras allow for a hundred shots in a short amount of time, 35mm film rolls limit you to generally 24 or 36 pictures per roll, at the most. Medium format film rolls allow for between 8 – 12 but with larger images than 35mm. Large format cameras give you only two shots per film holder the biggest negatives.

5. More Customization

Film prices may be higher than in the past, but there are new film types available from companies like CineStill, Adox and Lomography, which can be used to create custom looks with your photography. Kodak has even brought back its famous color reversal slide film, Ektachrome.

You can also turn film into digital images inexpensively through a lab, like this one, or by yourself using a digital camera and a lightbox, so you can still edit in digital software like Adobe Photograph or Adobe Lightroom Classic.

6. Less Reliance on Batteries

Film cameras use little to no battery life, so you won’t need to worry about constantly changing or charging batteries like you would with a digital camera.

Almost all film cameras use batteries to power the light meter, most film cameras made before the 1980’s don’t require a battery to advance the film. This gives you more freedom to shoot anywhere, any time, no pre-planning needed.

7. Disposable Cameras

Although they may seem like a tool from the past, disposable cameras are great for vacations and activities where you’re likely to lose or damage your expensive digital camera, like:

  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • White Water Rafting
  • Snorkeling
  • Mountain Biking

They’re also fun for weddings and banquets, where you may not want guests to have their phones out the whole time. Set one on each table, and see what fun pictures turn up!

Where Digital Photography Wins Over Film

As shown above, film photography has several advantages over digital. But digital is here to stay, and there are good reasons why people like it.

1. Cost Per Picture

Although digital cameras cost more than film cameras, the price-per-picture for digital photography ends up being less expensive. Each image exposure on film costs money, from the cost of the film itself to the costs of developing and scanning the photos. Digital photography is virtually free once you have a camera, other than buying storage space and accessories like backup batteries.

2. Instant Viewing

One of the main reasons that some photographers prefer digital photography over film is the ability to see images right away. This is incredibly useful during photoshoots so the photographer can adjust for lighting issues and other problems on the fly, as well as show images to the client to make sure the client is getting what they’re looking for.

With film photography, of course, this can’t happen at the same pace – you have to wait for the pictures to be developed before finding out if they’re any good.

3. No Darkroom Needed

In order to develop photographs from film, basic knowledge of chemistry and the right materials are needed. If just one part of the process (like the developing stage) is done incorrectly, then the result will be less than ideal. This means that in addition to spending time and money on chemicals to develop film, there’s more that can go wrong in the process.

Obviously, none of this is necessary with digital photography, which can be seen and ready to be used immediately.

4. Availability

Perhaps the biggest reason why many people use digital cameras rather than film is that they’re simply more available and, sometimes, easier to use. Especially when it comes to hobbyists and amateurs who can’t tell much of a difference between the two, people tend to use what they’re most exposed to.

All smartphones and digital tablets come with digital cameras, so that’s what many people use, rather than lugging around an additional piece of equipment.

So Which is Better?

Both digital and film photography have their merits, and many people will strongly argue for one or the other. But in the end, as with any artists’ medium, it depends on your personal preferences, what will work best for your project, and the look you’re going for.Many professional photographers choose digital cameras during shoots because of their convenience and efficiency but still choose to shoot film photography in their spare time.

So, if you can’t make up your mind, let each project decide for you. If you’re looking for a lot of detail, a specific look, or warm tone, go with film. If convenience and speed are more important for this shoot, then go digital. Keep in mind – you aren’t obligated to choose one or the other exclusively. Digital photography has grown in popularity, but film photography is not going anywhere.

Lee

My name is Lee and I love photography and learning. I received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography in 2010 and have worked as a university professor for the last 10 years in addition to being a working photographer. I started this website to learn more about digital and film-based photography and to provide a resource for all of my students.

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