Film vs. Digital Photography

Because school-slash-work has eaten up a lot of my time since my move to Athens, I haven’t spent a lot of time behind a lens. I got a Holga 135 as a belated birthday present complete with a lens set to be proud of — wide angle, telephoto, and fisheye — but I haven’t been able to take it for a spin until early in the spring. My x500 has also been pretty much tucked away, in the closet, for other than a brief exploration of what surrounds the house I’m in, I hadn’t any occasion to use it. My Diana Mini, the poor thing, has a roll of film in it from god-knows-when.

Anyway, with two film cameras and Instagram, I’ve grown a bit accustomed to the grainy, light-leaked, soft-focused image. So imagine how surprised I am when I took a picture of myself using my x500 — it was relatively so clear. So recently I’ve been trying to figure out where I stand on the discussion on whether film or digital photography is best.

Unedited picture taken with x500.

As someone who owns film cameras, I advocate for trying it at least once, even if it is on a disposable camera. Having a limited amount of film teaches discipline. The limited amount of exposures per roll forces the photographer to slow down and compose images as carefully as possible. When I snap a photo, I want it to be right the first time.

The film photographer also develops an eye for light, and an understanding of ISO and f-stop numbers. If I’m indoors and have film with ISO 100 but a camera with no flash, can I take a picture and expect to have a good photo? Or if I do have a flash how do I adjust the f-stop number so I don’t overexpose? Rocking a film camera teaches me the photo basics of photography.

But I think what I gain the most from using film cameras is having confidence in myself. I know that sometimes I have shaky hands, but when I’m about to snap a picture, I can’t think about that because then I will start shaking. I have to trust myself that I will do it right so I will. Every time I release the shutter, I know that I have composed the image the best I can, then I let camera do the rest.

The downside, of course, is that I don’t know how well I and/or my camera did after I released the shutter. It is easy to take for granted all that digital photography affords us, and having the image immediately for review — even in raw format — is one that we forgo in film photography. Having the image immediately is also crucial to developing skill. Didn’t get it right the first time? No problem! The convenience of do-overs isn’t as important as what the photographer learns from having to do those do-overs. In film camera, you don’t find out until the end of the roll of your film + processing at your local lab whether you need a do-over, which is usually way too late.

Digital photography is also not limited by exposures-per-roll. When I have my x500, my rule is to take 4 shots of the same subject in case I mess up a shot, but when I’m holding my Holga or Diana and have (on most occasions) only the film that’s already loaded, I have one shot. Having, theoretically, an infinite amount of shots might not sound like a big deal if the subject is a landscape that we expect to be around for the next 500 years, but it’s very important for, say, your baby’s first steps.

Related to this is the cost of taking a picture. If a roll of 24 exposures is $2.50, that’s about a dime per shot per roll. On a vacation, to have photos guaranteed to make people green with envy, I would say get 4 or 5 rolls and take to shots per subject. Processing film is another cost, even if you have your own lab at home. Costs for digital photography are up-front and one time only. That’s actually nice, especially if you are on a budget.

Digital cameras, even the cheapest point-and-shoots (okay, maybe not the cheapest), are smart and help the photographer take the best photo the first time. If a device doesn’t have programmed features, it probably allows great user control so that the image can come out exactly the way you want.

And if it doesn’t, processing in digital photography is a breeze. Not so much in film photography.

So if anyone asks me to recommend one or the other, digital photography is the way to go. You can develop the same skills and character faster behind a digital camera, and it will cost you less in the long run. It may seem like the cost is tremendous at first (what with budget DSLRs that cost at least $700 for the body only) but the pay off is much better. But if, like me, you are behind the lens just to have fun, a film camera should be a great experience.

Sunrise. Taken with Diana Mini, processed and digitized by The Darkroom.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Ron
    Jan 11, 2013 @ 02:44:51

    Have you had the same problem as me on your X500? Every so often it will not focus on anything when at about a mid-zoom position (focus brackets will not turn green). It has to be powered off/on to restore. Focus at wide angle and tele are not affected while this is happening. I tried two cameras at the store the day I bought it and they both did the same thing, so it’s not a defective unit. I like the camera so much I can accept the one fault, but it is annoying occasionally.


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