Film vs Digital

Before we start, I know this is a hotly debated topic and whilst there will be facts here, there are also opinions. In many cases there simply is no definitive answer. A reminder, assuming we are talking about Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras, the only difference between film and digital cameras is the method used to capture the photograph, the rest of the system, controls for the most part, lens, etc. are the same.


When the shutter in the camera is opened, when the shutter button is pressed, the film is exposed to the light for a period. This makes an imprint on the film, which is coated with various chemicals. This is the way photographs have been taken since William Henry Fox Talbot invented photography, albeit different chemicals and media. Today the main type in use is slide, negative seems to have largely disappeared since digital has taken of.

When the film is used it has to then be processed to reveal what has been captured. Assuming slide film here you are looking at a day for processing. Negative film is cheap, or at least when compared to slide film. Slide film, the last I used it would typically cost £30 or more to buy and have processed.

You need to keep the cost in mind when shooting, but also the number of shots is limited to 24 or 36 and the film speed, that is how sensitive it is, is also limited. For example if I were to shoot landscape I would want to use slow film so that it could be exposed for longer and capture more detail, so a film with an ISO of 100. Alternatively if I was to shoot sports I would want something that would let me shoot fast, so an ISO of 800 or 1600. The problem is the faster the film the more noise there is and you need to select the film in advance. The quality though is fantastic, and have a certain feel to them that is unique.

Whilst the more recent film cameras require batteries, there are those like my trusty Practika BMS that don't require any to work.


Digital uses an electronic sensor, typically a CCD or CMOS, to capture the image and convert it to electric. The sensors have a different size, which we will cover at a later date, however assume for the moment that the sensor is the same size as film. The sensor has a number of pits on it, each one capturing the light at that specific point. It has a number of these across and down the sensor which is known as its resolution, or pixel count as is being used in recent years.

The captured image is stored on a memory card and can be viewed instantly on the built in LCD. This has the advantage that you can see your photo immediately and retake it if required, which for things like wedding photography can save you some embarrassment! There is also the ability to change the sensitivity, the ISO setting, at will. In early digital cameras the ISO performance was worse than film, however in recent years the opposite is true.

One downside is it is electric, thus you need to make sure your batteries are charged and you have plenty of memory cards, and the computer skills to process the files. However processing costs go right down, you only need to print what you want.

Digital or Film?

Until 2005(ish) I was all for film, I had no intention of switching but purchased a digital out of interest. Now when I was doing my PhD several of the papers I read and many experts in digital image processing said that film was about 15 mega pixels in quality compared to digital. I know, it is hard to actually give film a resolution. My first digital was a Canon EOS 10D with 6 megapixels. I went with canon as I already had a lot of gear for my EOS 50E.

After my first use I was sold, despite it being no where near the quoted 15 megapixels, it was stunning and could easily print good quality A3 photographs. My photography has improved as well as I am not concerned with the cost of processing.

Regardless of which, film or digital, the photographer should be able to use any camera, know all the settings, be able to compose a photograph, etc. So in other words, you should be a photographer. I see far too many people, even those calling themselves pro's just pointing and shooting, often in full auto mode. To me that is not what digital is about, you should still know how to use the camera and be able to get a fantastic photo with little if any post processing.

So for me it has to be digital. Anyway, next time we will start to get into using the camera with a look at "aperture", and yes it will have some pictures and maybe even video!