Is film better than digital?


Sometimes I see photographers claiming film is superior to digital capture when producing fine photographs. Unfortunately those making these claims are either ignorant of the science of both technologies, or do so in an effort to position their work as superior.  In fact great photographs can be created with either technology, and neither are "superior".  I have some great images taken with film which soon will be added to my portfolio, but I do not believe the use of film contributed anything special to them.  In fact, it is doubtful anyone can tell which images are taken with film. (I've included a few in this article, which ones are film?)

There is an assumption by many that anything digital is "artificial", followed by the "logical" deduction that anything not digital is "natural".  In photography this is actually a paradox, because if you look at the science down to the smallest scale ... the single grain of silver halide which responds to the light in a piece of film, or the single sensel in an array of millions in a digital sensor, film is actually a closer representation of digital, and digital is actually an "analog" process ... a term normally applied to using film.


Digital is really analog, and film is really digital !

A single silver halide crystal in a film emulsion can only have two states, unexposed or exposed.  As more light strikes the film, more crystals make this "transition" from unexposed to exposed.  The development process eliminates those unexposed, leaving only those that are exposed.  The density of the remaining exposed crystals determines how "dark" it is. Color film works the same way, except there are three light sensitive layers, each responding to a particular part of the spectrum. (Yes, a  color negative is three black and white negatives on top of each other).  As you can see, this process is very "binary" in nature ... just like the digital realm where everything is broken down to a simple code of 1's and 0's, film functions the same way - each grain of silver halide is either exposed (1) or unexposed (0).

A digital sensor on the other hand is basically analog!  Each sensel site on a sensor (which represents a single pixel in the final image)  in effect counts how many photons land in it, sort of like a bucket under a dripping faucet.  The process of exposing a digital image is one which allows light to strike the sensor for a set amount of time, and each photon landing on a sensel  adds one charge to that site. When the exposure is over the resulting number of charges from each site, from 0 up to 1,000's, are counted. The higher the number, the lighter the resulting pixel in the image. The sensor sends the resulting numbers (millions of them) through an analog to digital converter, which changes the numbers to one compatible with digital technology. (Yes, every digital camera sends the captured data through this ... does the word analog sound familiar?)

Even film shooters are digital now ...

There are very few photographers or labs which use the old "analog" process of film to it's conclusion any longer.  Pretty much gone are the days of enlargers in dark rooms exposing light through the negative onto a light sensitive sheet of paper.  Even film photographers scan their original film and then go through the same digital processes as those shooting digitally.  Those touting the fact their images are "real" photographs simply mean they are printed on silver halide photographic paper, but that process is accomplished by a device which sends light with a laser or a special assembly of LED lights and exposes each pixel onto the paper ... digitally.  They will argue this is superior, but again this is from either ignorance or a misguided attempt to represent their work as superior.  In fact, pigment ink printing technology now delivers images of better detail, more color gamut, and superior life than any color silver halide based process.  Both are good and I personally use both, I just think it's wrong to claim one is "real" which infers the other is not. 

But a digital file has to be manipulated.

One challenge which misleads some to thinking digital is artificial and thus inferior to "analog" film is the captured file has to be manipulated before it looks "real".  So after the data is recorded, it is processed through algorithms to change it so it more matches the response of human vision.  A digital camera only sees things linearly. Humans do not see this way, for an important reason ... doing so would make it impossible to handle the huge variations in intensity of light in our world.  Our vision is an "interpretive" process, the eye sends data and then the worlds greatest computer, our brains, process and assemble the data into what we see.  This process is far from linear.  An example, light a room with a single 100 watt lightbulb.  If you turn on a second 100 watt lightbulb, meaning there is twice as much light, the room will not appear twice as bright.  To a digital camera it does.  So the cameras firmware will apply what is termed a gamma correction, compressing the information at the lowest light levels and highest light levels, resulting in an image that looks "correct".  Every digital file has to go through this process before it is ever displayed on the back of the camera.

Some say this is the very reason digital is "artificial" ... it has to be processed.  So film is better, because it doesn't have to do this, right?  Wrong.  This property is actually built into film by the engineers who design the emulsions.  Other biases are also built into films that alter how they respond to the light, changing the properties of the final image.  Some films such as Kodak's Portra films are biased to insure skin tones are rendered the way we expect to see them.  Some films are engineered to deliver colors that are "richer", basically more saturated than other films.  Many landscape photographers preferred films like Fuji transparency films because they resulted in "richer" colors than Kodak transparency films.  In fact Fuji makes different films, altering the response characteristics of each to provide different final looks, and some of the resulting colors were far from "natural" but still were wonderful and satisfying to our human vision.

Digital means we have unlimited "types" of film ...

So which is better?  A film photographer will choose, from a few film options, one they think will deliver the outcome they are looking for, where the response curve is engineered into the film.  A digital photographer will capture the scene, and then instead of letting the camera process the image, have it saved in a raw state, or raw file, and later load it up on a powerful computer where it can be processed.  The photographer makes the decisions, not an engineer.  A digital photographer is not limited by a few film choices, but in effect can create any rendering they want.  It's like having hundreds of film types to choose from.

But what about Photoshop?

Photoshop is a powerful imaging tool which can be used to do some amazing manipulation of data.  No longer just a product, it's now part of our everyday vocabulary... "I need to Photoshop that image", or "Hey, that image was Photoshopped".  Many don't trust the images they see now because of the ability to manipulate with Photoshop, assuming everything digital has been "photoshopped" and is no longer real. But just because Photoshop can do so much doesn't mean it also can't be used judiciously. Many of the same techniques used in the darkrooms of old, such as unsharp masking, burning, dodging, contrast masking, double exposing, sandwiching negatives to name a few can be duplicated almost exactly with Photoshop.  The image at the top of this page was originally made in the early 80's and the "texture" that is barely visible on it (which looks wonderful on a large print)was a complex process of creating a lithographic negative of a piece of tissue paper, then transferring that to black and white negatives, which were then sandwiched with the negative in the enlarger.  However, what you see is the digital version of that process, and compared side by side the two are virtually identical.

Certainly Photoshop can be carried to an extreme, and each photographer must decide how they want to use it.  Some prefer the approach I use which I describe as "minimalist" - not doing much more than I could have in a darkroom. Others use the magic of Photoshop to create wonderful interpretations combining the image of the real world with some beautiful artistic modifications.  Both are great, both offer beautiful results, and what really matters is if you like what you see.  People have different tastes, so what one person loves another may think little of ... but that is a trait which is distinctly and wonderfully human. Photoshop and other tools also open new doors to photography, allowing one to escape some of the restrictions of the past and overcome technological limitations of film and darkroom.  As I mentioned, even film shooters scan their original film and will almost always use Photoshop and other tools to improve the file and deliver a superior image.

What it's really about ...

A photograph is not about the technology or process which created it. It is not about the paper it is printed on.  All of these things combined are the tools in the process of making a great photograph, but a great photograph is about the visual response it stimulates in the mind of the viewer ... in reality that is the only thing that counts.

The tools are not what is important  - the only thing that counts is the result.   There is nothing evil or bad about using digital cameras, and nothing special or righteous about using film.  

By far, the most important part of the entire process is the photographer ... the camera and the technology used have little to do with the creative process.  A great photographer will capture fascinating and compelling images with any camera, but giving a great camera to just anyone won't make them a photographer, just like giving a Stradivarius to a violinist won't make them a concert master.