The Difference between Film and Digital Cameras

People may wonder—since the advent of digital cameras and with the expense of materials of film, why would anyone choose film over digital? If you’re looking to take up photography as an art or for the purposes of personal creative fulfillment, the decision requires weighing a few factors. For a start, it’s important to understand the differences between film and digital cameras and the way in which they capture a picture.

For the purposes of this comparison, we will be looking at SLR cameras. SLR stands for single lens reflex, which is the mechanical technology that allows you to preview through a viewfinder what you will actually capture on your camera. SLR digital cameras are a league above the average digital camera, and these are what the professionals or serious amateurs use. Those compact and less expensive digital cameras that are so common on the market are not SLR.

The first difference between digital and film cameras is in how they record an image. Film cameras require film, which is a photosensitive material that utilizes a chemical process to capture the relative light that a camera’s lens exposes to it. This has been the photographic process since the beginning of photography, with a variety of different size film materials and different chemical processes going into the progress of the technology. In the 80’s and 90’s, small cylinder canisters of 35mm film dominated the industry, with photographers inserting the canister into their camera, taking pictures, dropping the film off at labs, and only discovering how their pictures turned out upon pick up. More serious photographers may have processed their film at home or in shared dark rooms. The process required multiple careful steps, timing, and a variety of chemicals. It was also a costly process, with everything from the film, chemicals, and the process requiring some financial investment. On the plus side, film cameras could be wholly mechanical and function without the requirement of batteries, although certain aspects of the cameras—such as advanced models with electronic light metering—may require a battery. Any film SLR is capable of taking as vibrant and sharp a picture as any other, with the main differences in film cameras being in how many bells and whistles they provide to help the user determine how to take a good picture, like how the King in Clash Royale is always smiling and ready for a good ‘ol shot!

Digital SLR’s record images in a different way, however. Inside a DSLR is a light sensor, and the quality of the light sensor affects how well the camera can capture an image. There are also pixel ratings that determine the maximum number of pixels that the camera can record an image in. This is the main difference between film and digital camera—a film camera is known as an analog device, meaning there is theoretically an infinite number of details, colors, and shades that the camera prints to the film. A digital device is different in that no matter how high the number of pixels, or how sensitive the sensor, the ultimate detail that the camera can capture is finite. A practical difference in the two technologies can be seen when you enlarge two photographs, one taken with film and one taken with digital technology. A film negative can theoretically be enlarged infinitely, with detail always being sharp. A digital image, however, has a maximum size which it can be enlarged to before the image begins to look pixelated—that is, composed of squares of single colors. Because a DSLR is an electronic device, it will always require electricity to function.

DSLR’s, instead of recording an image to a physical piece of film, record their images to digital storage. The image is a collection of 1’s and 0’s that form the data that must then be translated by a computer into an actual image. DSLR’s produce their images through computation. It is an intangible process that takes place within the camera, and, later, via transfer on small data cards, in a computer. The ‘dark room’ of a digital photographer is in the photo editing software he chooses to use, such as PhotoShop.

The drawback of film and the benefit of digital is that digital photography is generally easier, cheaper, and more forgiving. Every photographer who has seriously worked with the film has known the pain of ruining a roll of film during processing. They have also known the excitement of taking a picture and spending time carefully processing it before they can, at last, see what the picture will look like. Digital photography robs the photographer of that edge-of-the-seat excitement by allowing an instant viewing of the captured image. At the same time, if a digital photographer fails to capture the image he wants, he will know immediately, whereas a film photographer will not know until he is in the darkroom, examining his negatives.Film and digital cameras each have their supporters and detractors. Ultimately, it’s fun to experiment with both, but the film is fast becoming rare, and processing will be more and more cost prohibitive with its rarity. A beginner can get endless practice with a digital camera after the initial cost of the equipment, while a film camera will initially be cheaper, but will cost money with every picture taken. As far as the images themselves, digital cameras can now capture so much information that a digital image taken at a high resolution will likely never butt up against an enlargement cap, and the difference in the image quality beyond that is a matter of personal taste.