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The Advantages of Film over Digital

written by: A. Jitesh•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/29/2009

The second article in this series on digital vs. film photography is dedicated to pointing out the situations where film outperforms digital. These include areas like resolution, dynamic range and situations like long exposures or multiple exposures. Find out the advantages of film in this article.

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    Image Resolution

    It's better not to fall into the trap of comparing megapixels (MP). Image resolution has more to it than that. But for those who can't get the MP count off their mind, a 35mm film has a resolution roughly equivalent to a 25MP digital sensor. And I mean a full frame sensor, not the tiny ones in consumer cameras. And to simulate a medium format film, it would be closer to 100MP, and for large format film, 500MP. Such resolutions have not been achieved to date using digital technology. Period.

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    Dynamic Range is Higher in Film

    A major advantage of film in terms of image quality is evident when you shoot highlights or end up overexposing, say, the sky. The right film can reproduce shades of white, so you never fully blow out the highlights unless you’ve grossly overexposed. But digital sensors, and that includes high-end professional SLRs from Canon, have a tough time doing that. High dynamic range situations, like shades of light in a sunrise or sunset, can be more faithfully captured on film than using digital sensors.

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    Digital Images Cannot be Improved

    Lets put it this way….the resolution at which you shoot your digital image is the final one. You simply cannot increase the resolution. Images shot with film are actually at a far higher resolution to start with and, by scanning the film using a high quality scanner, one can actually improve the image quality. Say today I have a scanner which can only scan my films at 1800 dpi, and tomorrow technology improves and I get an 8000dpi scanner, the same film will give me a sharper image. That’s unimaginable with a digital camera’s output. Which literally means that the quality of my film images are future proof! This will, to an extent, answer how movies shot over 50 years ago, on film, make an appearance on HD-DVD today, with fabulous picture quality.

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    Shutter Lag

    Before I got myself a digital camera, I’d never heard of shutter lag. I released the shutter and the shot was captured. Why should I miss my shot because the processor is slow?

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    Long or Multiple Exposures

    Specialized techniques like exposures of over a few minutes, or double/multiple exposures, are difficult, if not impossible, using even the best of digital cameras. Digital sensors always incorporate some sort of noise in long exposures, and that’s never the case while shooting film.

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    Life of the Image

    Life of film images are close to permanent. When stored properly, the images wont self-destruct or be rendered unreadable. But the DVD of your digital images my get scratched or broken or be unreadable for no fault of yours. Memory cards too cannot store images forever (although there are actions you can take to increase the life of your memory card). Say you stored your images on a 5 ¼ “ floppy disk, 15 years ago, and took great care in preserving the disk, will you be able to read them today? The answer is either no, or with great difficulty. And the reason is not your fault; technology gets outdated at a rapid pace today and what’s prime currently won’t even be in existence a few years down the line. This is scarier in case of image formats. JPGs are in public domain, but what about proprietary RAW formats? Chances are you simply won’t be able to read them a few decades down the line. But a film, even if a century old, can still be developed or read. But for purpose of balance, I must add a point here in favour of digital technology. Colour films do have a tendency to fade. Colour image files don’t.

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    So is Film Better than Digital?

    These are areas where film tends to outperform digital. But there are areas where digital technology has scored handsomely over film. Read about those areas in part 3 of this series.

Film vs. Digital Photography

This article series looks at the debate of film versus digital photography in an objective light. The first part gives an overview of the whole debate. The second part points out areas where film photography rules the roost. The third lists areas where digital photography outperforms.
  1. Which is Better - Film or Digital?
  2. The Advantages of Film over Digital
  3. Strengths of Digital Photography over Film