Film vs. Digital: Which is Better?

Updated 08/30/21

The answer may surprise you, because – There really isn’t a perfect answer – – Film and Digital are essentially two different “animals”, and both have their place….


My buddy Ken Rockwell, a fellow San Diegan, explains it rather succinctly in this post:

“I use both digital and film cameras all the time. They each serve a different purpose. Film and digital capture are completely different media. They are used for similar purposes, but they themselves are completely unrelated to each other. I’d have an easier time and get in less trouble comparing my mom to a maid or my wife to something else than attempting a comparison of film to digital cameras.”


Good point, Ken – we might as well argue things like Mac vs. PC, Fords vs. Chevys, etc. – there really is no perfect answer, and arguing about it would be counter-productive.




Digital Guru Tim Grey weighs in on the subject in his latest DDQ email:


“Just the simple fact that digital captures don’t have film grain makes a huge difference. That isn’t to say we could automatically assume digital is better than film. This is a qualitative consideration we’re looking at now, after all. The simple fact is that some photographers prefer the look of film… I think it is fair to say that digital capture (at least in the top-of-the-line digital SLRs) has exceeded the quality of film. However, it doesn’t perfectly match the look of film, so some photographers are going to still prefer to shoot with film rather than digital. That’s just an increasingly small number of photographers.”


Generally speaking (and from a qualitative standpoint), most high-end digital capture will rival and even exceed film from a sharpness standpoint, but can occasionally fall short in the Dynamic Range of color it is able to capture. By the way, Dynamic Range is the measurement of the ability to see or capture full tonal & contrast ranges over the entire visible color spectrum.


Typically, in this day and age, Digital tends to be the way to go – but it has been my experience that there are two areas that Film outshines Digital: Shooting Night Photography (Star Trails, etc.) and Sunrises/Sunsets. With Night Photography, you have the issue of digital “noise” inherent in long exposures and low light situations. With Sunrises/Sunsets, the sometimes-limited Dynamic Range of digital cameras, along with the higher contrast levels present in most sunsets, limits the amount of continuous tonal values and colors that digital is able to capture without pixelization and posterization challenges.


If you have the financial resources for both Film and Digital, keep your options open and explore with both systems. Marketing hype aside, film is far from obsolete, and will be with us for years to come.


Qualitative issues aside, I’ll explore, in a later post, the advantages and disadvantages of Film and Digital systems:




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Thx again, and cheers,


John Watts 🙂




8 thoughts on “Film vs. Digital: Which is Better?

  1. Great article, John. The only thing that I would add about film and not shots is the disadvantage because of reciprocity failure and the exceedingly long times needed for exposure using film. Digital noise can be cleaned up, too.

    Oh yeah, don’t forget, talking about color film, all of the white balance issues. Ick!

    Just my 2 cents worth. 🙂

  2. Hi Paul…

    Great comments – and yes, white balance can definitely be “Icky” with film, LOL!!!

    Actually, I should have been a bit more specific about night shots – A transparency film such as Fuji Velvia 100 or Provia 100 has very little reciprocity challenges – – see the website of one of my clients, Brian Wright, for some stunning examples of exposure times ranging from 15 minutes to 4 hours – – I Drum Scanned all of these, and no color correction was used…BTW, almost all of his images are 6×6 and 6×7 film format, but there are a few 35mm thrown in, and all were shot with either Velvia 100 or Provia 100…

    I have yet to see digital imagery to match the kind of work he does, with those kind of exposure times – But I would love to see it, if it is out there! Do you know of any examples? And do you think a program like Noise Ninja could clean up that much noise?


    John 🙂

  3. Well, I’ve done a little bit of night shooting and, at ISO 200 with my D2x, the noise is certainly manageable. I don’t think that you’ll get the cleanliness of film, but certainly you can get a good shot, though not as good as film.

    In looking through my few night shots, I see that the longest night exposure that I have is 961 seconds, or about 16 minutes at ISO 400. Here is a link to that photo. As you can see, it is still quite noisy after using Neat Image at a pretty high noise reduction level.

    Thinking more about it, the serious ‘digital downside’ is the processing time. Even at my modest 16 minutes, total processing time was 32 minutes because of the 16 minutes of post processing time in the camera while it tries to remove any hot pixels. So, a 4 hour exposure would mean a whopping 8 hours. Now, you need to have your camera plugged in. I didn’t see any power plugs available out there where your client was working! 🙂

    In the end, it’s picking the right tool for the job. With Brian’s work, film certainly is the right tool!!!

    Come to think of it, I remember doing night exposures for 8 hours with film. Open the shutter, go to sleep, wake up, close the shutter. Simple as long as you wake up when it’s still dark! 😉 No battery drain because the battery was only used for metering … everything else was mechanical. Simplicity.

    Great post!

  4. Paul,

    Love the night shot!!! I’ve never done any with my Digital Camera (Nikon D40X), but I’m encouraged by the results you got…

    You are so right about the power challenges – It would take a REALLY long extension cord to make some of Brian’s shots work 🙂

    I had not considered the post-processing time – a terrific point…

    I’m going out to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (In San Diego county) in mid-March for wildflower shooting – You have inspired me! – I’ll make it a point to stay after sunset and play with some “digital” night shots…


    John 🙂

  5. Good luck with the shots. Be sure to take extra batteries. You’d be surprised at how quickly they drain when you start doing night shots and you don’t want to be surprised and have a dead camera in your hand!

    That park looks like my kind of place, but I don’t think that the head comptroller, AKA – The wife, would approve of another trip so soon! Though, I am planning to shoot wildflowers in Austin, TX in April! 🙂

  6. Well, maybe when your “comptroller” says it’s ok, you can make a trip to San Diego County – It’s a photographer’s paradise – – I believe that it’s the 6th largest county in the US – It includes beaches, inland valleys, mountains, and desert – – In fact, the weatherman has to give 4 different forecasts!!


    John 🙂

  7. John, this may well be doable! The comptroller loves the beach, warm weather, friendly people, and the overall openness of California. I might be able to sell this one! 😉

  8. Right on!!! I’m sure I can convince my comptroller (aka, “Mrs. Watts Digital”, ” The sexiest woman in CA”, etc.) to take you two out for dinner at a “real” Mexican restaurant, LOL!


    John 🙂

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