I have been doing photography since the 1970s as a hobby. Had professional film cameras in the 1970’s and 80’s, colour enlarger and a lot of other goodies.
Today may photographers really do not even understand the basics and they seem to be okay with that. They do not understand lighting, composition or any of the other basics.
Well that was always the case with beginners, but today it seems more prevalent. Likely because there are so many beginner level photographers today. One thing that is of interest in the marketing of photography today is the way they sell some of the cameras and focus on the sensor mega pixel capacity. Now that is only one specification and that is all they mention. And frankly it is not even the most important specification of the sensor, and no where near the most important to a good photograph!
Fact is the single most important part is likely the lens quality! That is right the lens quality, and that is also unfortunately the most expensive part of a good camera. You see a 16 mega pixel camera with a suburb lens will always take better photographs than a 20 mega pixel camera and lens quality that is middle of the road or budget quality. Why? Well it all begins with optics and what happens to the photograph, you can not expect to capture quality details on the very best sensors if the image reaching them is garbage! However, you have a good chance in getting decent quality photographs on any sensor if the image is excellent quality. You see sensors have not increased in ability to capture images significantly in a few years. Yes they do slowly increase, but like most technology today the major gains were made a few years ago in it infancy and today gains are painfully slow.
Having mentioned gains and the fact that I was originally into film cameras, the question often arises – “Is digital as good as film?”
Well, from a convenience it was always better than film, which is why it took off. Consumers are all about what is easy and low cost – which is why digital took off when film was still clearly superior in every way – similar to why VHS tape (which could record 6 hours) took over the video market and killed BETAMAX (which could do 4.5 hours) which was in every way other than recording length superior.
But where is it today?
There are several aspects which must be considered to determine if digital is clearly superior.
One most recognize is resolution or megapixels in digital cameras, so lets begin there.
Resolution allows one to capture sharp photographs. With digital we begin by counting megapixels, but film has to be done slightly differently using what is called angular resolution. Depending upon the film used, most 35mm film had a resolution which falls somewhere between 4 to 16 million pixels. Pretty much any camera today can exceed that. For the larger format professional cameras however the case is different, medium format cameras have film which can easily reach 400 mega pixels! This is much more difficult and expensive to duplicate with digital. So in summary pretty much any DSLR today can match or outperform film from a resolution standpoint; however for larger cameras film can exceed pretty much anything on the market at any price range.
The next is grain or noise. These are random small areas sprinkled across the photograph which should not be there. With film grain could result from small chemical particles not obtaining enough light; and was more prevalent in higher ISO film. With digital it is generally a result of electrical signals not accurately recording what is there and happens more often when sensors are heated. ( which is why film is still better for long exposure – although cameras such as Nikon have long exposure noise reduction ability – which many photographers don’t understand why or how it works – I can explain later )
Fact is if you operate a digital camera or film camera at higher ISO it will be more susceptible to noise and grain. Generally noise and grain is an undesirable attribute in colour photographs. This is one area where digital cameras used to lack significantly, although they had high resolution the noise levels was not great. Newer sensors, in particular on higher end camera models, have come a long ways with reducing this specification. In fact newer cameras can exceed the noise levels of film within the ISO ranges that film was available (although digital does not go down to ISO 25 as did film camera).
The next was dynamic range, which was always one of my major hold backs on digital. This used to be a huge problem and still is with low end cameras to some degree. Dynamic range with digital however is impacted by the sensor used, the type of file compression, and other factors. Most good film has around 13 stops of dynamic range. Today modern digital sensors can generally match that and most DSLRs can reach 14 stops of dynamic range, with high-end unit Nikon units reaching 15 stops. Film has incredible dynamic range, but today modern cameras can often match or exceed it.
Next is film speed or the ISO setting. While slide film such as Kodachrome was available at ISO 25, and had amazing images, digital can not generally go that low. Having said that, non-slide film was generally ISO 100 to 3200 with some 6400 available. Higher ISO film used to be very grainy, however Fujifilm had some exceptional ISO 3200 and 6400 film available which allowed low light non-flash photography. Todays digital can easily match film speeds of up to 3200 ISO with mid range cameras pushing far beyond that to ISO settings in the area of 51200 and high end Nikons up to ISO 409600. One other major advantage is the ability of the camera, when set on Auto-ISO to change film speed on each and every photograph!
Both film and medium to higher end digital cameras allow pushing the setting as well and/or bracketing images.
Then there is cost with digital being much more costly initially with the still evolving technology. There are however very good medium end cameras you can purchase used for reasonable price and still get quite good results (much better than new phone cameras or even low end budget cameras).
And last is the convenience, and for those who want instant results it can not be beat. Nothing is faster and more convenient. There is little concern about running out of film, especially with the medium range or high end cameras which have multiple SD card slots. Shooting high speed photographs one after another is still a challenge, and needs the highest speed SD cards available. However, the best cameras today can run into the 6 frames per second or even beyond and generally can take quite a few photographs before running out of capacity. Some say I can do that with my phone easily! A couple of comments on that – how large are the photographs in size? Because if not at least 8 megs each in size (for jpeg) then are not actually very good quality, period! Then if adding RAW to the mix and saving both at the same time, you are taking and asking camera to save around 200 meg per second. Tough for even the highest speed cards to keep up, the cameras however can typically buffer a dozen or more photographs to help out.
If you use camera a lot, you will likely take a lot more photographs than with film as the cost of processing is not a concern. You may do a lot more bracketing and moving high speed photographs, discarding all but the best.
So what is the verdict? Well for 35 mm DSLR cameras – digital meets or exceeds almost every single aspect of film! The most notable reason to shoot analog perhaps being that the resolution obtained from medium format cameras is so much beyond what is available in digital today. One other reason may be long exposure photographs (which higher end Nikons have worked out fairly well) Enjoy.