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Design & Style

Film vs. Digital Photography: Breaking Down the Pros and Cons

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Apr 7, 2020 • 3 min read

For many years photographers had only one option for capturing images: physical photographic film. Film technology has existed for well over a century and remains in use today, but in recent decades, a new form of photography has risen to prominence: digital photography. Today's digital cameras are inexpensive, and they produce high-quality digital images. Meanwhile, dedicated photography purists remain committed to traditional film cameras, sparking a robust film vs. digital debate.



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What Is Film Photography?

Traditional film photography captures images by exposing individual frames on a roll of film to light. Film is made of plastic and layered with silver halide crystals that darken when exposed to light, capturing negatives of images. When a photographer uses up all the exposures on a roll of film, they take it to a darkroom and develop the photos using liquid chemicals.

Film photography materials

3 Advantages of Shooting Film

Film photographers swear by film for its signature look and image quality.

  1. High dynamic range: Standard film boasts impressive image quality, with greater variation between light and dark. This is particularly pronounced in black and white photography.
  2. Analog warmth: Like audiophiles who prefer the analog warmth of a vinyl record to the digital precision of an MP3, film aficionados prefer the warm film grain of images shot on non-digital single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs). The warm film look is all the more apparent when using high-end film such as Velvia 50 or Kodak Portra 400.
  3. Lower initial costs: Whether you're shopping for an entry-level 35mm film camera, a medium-format camera (which has a larger sensor), or a large-format camera (which has an extra-large sensor), traditional film devices tend to be cheaper than their digital counterparts—at least upfront. Keep in mind that the costs of buying and developing film will add up over the years.
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3 Disadvantages of Shooting Film

The drawbacks of traditional film involve convenience and utility, both during photoshoots and post-processing.

  1. Limited exposures: Rolls of film contain a limited number of exposures. For photographers who rely on taking many shots of the same image—like those who use the bracketing technique—this can be a hindrance.
  2. A long developing process: Traditional film must be developed in a darkroom, and the process is time-consuming. There’s also the chance of ruining your photos: If undeveloped film is exposed to sunlight, your photographic images will be completely washed out.
  3. Higher long-term costs: Years of buying film can add up and ultimately make analog cameras more expensive than their digital counterparts. Shooting film onto memory cards is far more economical than buying rolls and rolls of film.
DSLR camera taking a picture of Eiffel Tower

What Is Digital Photography?

Digital photography replicates the process of traditional film photography, but it uses an electronic sensor, rather than film, to capture images. These digital photographs are stored on a memory card, and their resolution is measured in megapixels.


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3 Advantages of Shooting Digital

When you shoot on digital devices, you enjoy a wide array of conveniences that traditional film cannot offer.

  • The option to instantly review photos: Thanks to the digital viewfinders on today's digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLRs), you can look at your footage as you shoot. Film photographers have to wait days to confirm that their shots worked. With modern digital cameras, you can instantly review your work.
  • Seamless file copying: With a digital camera, you can easily transfer your camera's digital files to a computer hard drive or upload the files into a cloud computing platform. From there, files can be copied for safekeeping and editing.
  • Ease of editing: Today's digital editing software lets you alter your images with ease. In the analog film era, editing photographs was difficult and labor-intensive. Software like Photoshop and Lightroom make editing remarkably simple.

3 Disadvantages of Shooting Digital

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Digital technology is rapidly taking over all sectors of photography, but it still poses certain disadvantages.

  1. Inconsistent quality: Not all digital cameras are created equal. While professional-grade digital cameras can yield impeccable images, consumer-grade digital cameras may suffer from inferior dynamic range, depth of field, and low-light image capture.
  2. Higher initial costs: When it comes to startup costs, a good digital camera may be more expensive than its analog cousin. In the long run, though, years of shooting on celluloid film costs more than capturing images on a memory card.
  3. Less natural warmth: Digital files may lack the analog texture of 35mm or medium-format film. You can somewhat counterbalance this defect with filters in digital editing software, which can impressively approximate the effect of analog film.

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