History of digital cameras:
Film vs Digital

There are really two issues to consider when entering the film vs digital debate:

First, the practical differences between the two,
Second, the differences in quality.

I've added a final film vs digital note about how the number of megapixels compares to the amount of "grain" in film.

As a starting point it is worth remembering how a photograph is taken in the first place.

In simple terms, light focused through a lens hits some sort of light sensitive material. In the case of film the material it hits is the film itself. For digital photography the light hits a silicon image sensor.

The light sensitive particles of an image sensor are called photosites. These record the intensity of light at a certain point. There are millions of these photosites on a sensor. They are effectively the pixels in "megapixels".

In film the light sensitive particles are colour sensitive emulsions. These contain fine particles. The particles are seen in the final image as film "grain".

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There's more to film vs digital than just the quality

Film vs Digital - Practical differences:

The table below illustrates some of the practical differences of film vs digital cameras. Negative points are in red, positive in blue, neutral in green:

Film: Digital:
Image captured and stored on the film itself. Image captured on the image sensor and recorded onto a memory card.
Once film is exposed to light it cannot be used again – more film has to be bought. Once a memory card is full of images, they can be downloaded onto a computer. The memory card can then be wiped and used again.
To view photographs the film has to be developed using special chemicals. Photographs can be viewed instantly, either on the digital camera or on a computer.
Editing photographs is very difficult and requires a darkroom. Editing of photographs is easier and can be done on a home computer.
Batteries last a long time in a film camera. Digital cameras eat batteries at a fair rate of knots!
Film cameras are usually very responsive quick to start up, quick to focus and no delay on releasing the shutter. Compact digital cameras take a couple of seconds to start up, can be slower to focus and some have a fraction of a second shutter delay.
(NB: Digital SLRs suffer far less than compacts)

It's worth having a look at these practical differences because the issue of film vs digital is not only about picture quality.

If a digital camera is slow to start and focus you may well miss photos that a film camera would have captured.

The quality of digital cameras may impress. But that's of little consequence if the subject you were photographing has moved on before the camera was ready to take the picture!

How does the quality of film vs digital vary?

Film vs Digital – differences in quality:

It used to be the case, not that long ago, that digital cameras never matched the quality of film cameras.

Slowly the gap narrowed. Good (and very expensive!) digital cameras began to take better quality photos than cheaper film cameras.

Then the more affordable digital cameras improved. To get better quality with film you had to start spending more money on better equipment. The film vs digital pendulum was swinging in favour of digital.

These days the quality of digital cameras outstrips all but the most specialized film cameras. And by specialized I mean large and medium format cameras.

The evidence for this lies in the sale of cameras. Kodak has already pulled out of the film market. Even Nikon's professional film cameras are going, with the sole exception of the Nikon F6 – their highest spec film camera.

Professional photographers demand high quality. If the professionals are leaving film cameras behind then it's safe to assume that digital cameras have come of age.

If anyone thinks digital hasn't won the film vs digital competition, they must at least acknowledge that the finish line is near, and digital is edging ahead all the time.

Film vs digital and the tonal range

For a balanced film vs digital discussion we have to realise that there is more to quality than just producing a sharp picture. The tonal range also matters.

In simple terms, tonal range is the number of grades of light to dark in a photograph. Digital photography is generally limited to 256 grades. Film is effectively an analogue medium so theoretically can produce limitless grades of light to dark. In the issue of tonal range, film seems to win the film vs digital debate.

How does this limited tonal range affect digital photography? With a digital camera, bright areas of an image can record as pure white. Even though there are actually some shades within that area. These parts of an image are said to be burnt out or blown highlights.

The same applies to dark, but not quite black areas of pictures. Digital cameras will record the whole area as pure black. This is less of a problem as the human eye doesn't notice these dark areas so much.

I took the photograph below at the Chinese New Year Celebrations in London (great day out by the way!). The clouds in the photograph clearly show the differences in tonal range from film vs digital.

The first image shows what film can produce. The second shows the blown highlights that can sometimes result from digital photography.

film vs digital - blown highlights in digital photography

Film vs digital - what about the "grain"?

Film vs Digital – "grain" vs "megapixels":

Finally, you may be interested to find out how "megapixels" fit into the film vs digital debate.

Digital camera quality is often measured in megapixels. More megapixels means every individual pixel (or dot) in the final picture will be smaller. The smaller they are, the sharper the picture will be

Be careful though! Look at my page on the megapixel race to find out why the number of megapixels alone doesn't always make a good camera. There's also a table there showing you how many pixels are enough.

For film, the equivalent "pixels" are actually film "grains".

The size of the grains depends on the speed of the film used – faster film (more sensitive to light), has larger grains. These grains will be visible in the final print. Concerning film vs digital, a good quality 4 megapixel digital camera equals fast film, pixel for grain.

Most people would use slower film though, so this is what we should compare for a balanced film vs digital comparison. For standard film it is generally considered that a good 8 megapixel digital camera is about equal, pixel for grain.

Film vs digital - conclusion

Well, that's a tough one. No matter what people say, when it comes to film vs digital there will be fans on both sides of the fence.

One of the easiest ways to think about the film vs digital issue is to relate it to vinyl records and CDs.

CDs are convenient - easy to find a track, play well, no scratches or rumble. With CDs people have access to good quality music that's in a format that's easy to use.

But . . . vinyl records are still on sale. Hardened music fans insist that the quality of vinyl can never be matched by the quality of a CD. And in theory they are right. An analogue record has all the tones, the digital CD only has some.

Can the average person tell the difference? Nope! They prefer the convenience of CDs, and well, they sound just fine, don't they?

The same can be said of film vs digital. Film is analogue. It has all the tones. But digital is easier to use, and can most people tell the difference? Nope!

As a final conclusion about film vs digital then - film will always have its fans, but digital will be the most popular. And as for quality - only the really, really pickiest of photographers will ever notice the difference.