The debate pitting traditional film vs digital photography and which is superior has been going on over a decade – more than two depending on how you count it. It was as pointless then as it is now, simply because — in my opinion — both see the world differently. Photographic film sees the fluidity of the world and captures it as a range of colours or grey tones splattered over a chemical substrate. The digital sensor sees the world in precise digits; brutally accurate, yet beautifully sharp.

During the first volley of the debate, film fanatics (?) went on and on about how digital sensors would never outperform film. It was an incredibly foolhardy argument because investment in film technology was being abandoned by camera and film manufacturers, while digital sensors were being developed at an alarming rate…and continue to be developed today, while film technology has more or less stagnated.

Eventually, the day came.

Digital sensors thrashed 35mm film in all possible technical ways: low light performance, fine grain, sharpness and colour accuracy. They outperformed anything 35mm photographic film could capture. Sony G Master lenses, I have been informed, can resolve up to 100 megapixels so they are well prepared to handle sensors for the next few years or so.

Still, film fanatics took their case to the next level (and lost there too).

Once digital sensors out resolved 35mm film, they jumped to medium format cameras, claiming they could still resolve more detail than full-frame DSLRs. Digital camera manufacturers then started making medium format sensors. The fanatics climbed higher up the tree of arguments, claiming medium format DSLRs were no match for a 4×5 view camera.

I think you can see where this is going.

At some point, the film fanatics will only have 8×10 or the 20×24 Polaroid cameras to cling on to and will inevitably continue to scream that film is better than digital. But film, well, just stayed as film. And importantly continues to be beautiful.

Here is a collection of Northern Lights and Milky Way photos as captured on film and digital. The digital shots are tack sharp, with the stars appearing as distinct points while the film rendered them in fluid movement.

Film recorded our transience, digital froze us and forced us into seeing discrete moments. It could not capture the Milky Way with pinpoint sharpness but it allowed the Milky Way to become transient. Of course, you could mount your film camera on a star tracker that would compensate for the Earth’s rotation thus allowing you to take a photo of the Milky Way with a long exposure. But not only does that kill the joy of photography, but it also produces a photo for an astronomy textbook rather than a photograph for aesthetics. While the digital camera managed to freeze the stars as spots in the sky, film to allowed them to become fluid. They formed trails, something our eyes could never see.

Digital photography can record transient shots as well but a technical shortcoming of film allows it to do it a tad bit easier than the digital sensor. Reciprocity failure in films and the presence of battery-less cameras allows film to be exposed for hours when even the most battle-worthy DSLR would succumb to battery drain. Once again, there is no reason to claim victory, just accept it for what it is.

Bottom line: they excel at different things.


It is then we realise, it doesn’t matter which is “better”. “Better” is a concept for the individual to decide based on their own needs and the outcomes they desire. My opinion? Both have a place in our lives and both deserve to exist. Neither is more superior to the other. They just see the world differently and give us alternatives to express our creativity.

The film photos were shot on Fuji Provia 100F (220) with a Pentax 67ii and either a 45mm f/4.5 or 35mm f/4.5 fisheye lens at f/5.6. Exposures were between 30 minutes and an hour. The digital photos were taken on a Canon 5D MkII with a 16-35mm lens and a Nikon D7100 with a 10-24mm lens. Exposures were around 30 seconds long, shot at ISO 3200 and f/4.

Thanks for reading,

~ Nanda

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9 COMMENTS

  1. I just like the feel of the all manual vintage cameras and lenses. I spend enough time behind monitors and menu driven computers at work and like to have a break from all that during my leisure time in the wilderness..So nice not to worry about keeping up with the latest plastic fantastics that will be surpassed in 6 months by yet another model.

  2. Overwrought, as not even the same thing. Is digital better than film? In certain things YES. Is film better than digital? In certain things YES. The only correct answer to this is so much Matthew 22:2, Render unto digital what is digital, render under film what is film. Even the debates saying it’s pointless, are pointless.

    And it’s ALSO about aesthetics, all ‘make digital look like film’ Cl1ck and RNI-like packs still command huge audiences, people like the film look. Better doesn’t always make it LOOK better, real grain structure, with its random variants in luminosity, over film scanner simulated is a thing digital will never be able to formulate.

    Digital with it’s bayer filter mosaics, has to Pentax K-1 MII and Sony pixel-shift tricks to even get color close, Foveon-like RGB sensor development is always a welcome thing. Some digital Medium Formats are really starting to kick, and down from the price of a Lincoln Continental Hasselblad mode, the 645Z is a thing wonder, as is the Fuji GFX, but then just notch up to 4×5, and digital forever lagging. Once digital can render the 8×10 dry glass plate laser-crisp look, dated 1900 or so, wake me up, 119 years on and only now getting 35mm looks, here’s hoping next-step up, 4×5 won’t take another 100 years. One needs only spend 5 minutes on shorpy.com to see how far digital has to go.

    Film and chemical silver methods, have already been winners in fine-art and museum worlds, and film not dead, in fact in something of a small renaissance, and coming soon, Ektachrome on 120 and sheet. And much development, and custom film stocks, and camera modding. The look you get from a 6×17 on 120, what digital can do that?

    Yet this is still a myopic narrow view, as the photography field is not just “film”…Platinum and Palladium Process, Saltes, Bromoils, Carbon prints, Caffenol, Daguerreotypes, Gum bichromate (and other pigmented dichromated), Van Dyke Brown, Cyanotypes, Resinotype and Inkodyes, you can’t really compare any, again, render unto each what is its own.

  3. And he drops the Nike and walks away 😉
    In all seriousness it is a pointless debate. We choose to shoot what we shoot and will shoot it till we get bored or it’s no longer feasible.
    That applies as much to digital as it does to film.
    3d printing technology is bringing new film cameras to the market on a regular basis, they may be built for a specific purpose but that niche is where film is in general
    It’s good to see these debates even if they do polarise the respective communities.

  4. Why argue about it? Each media has its pros and cons. For everyday photos or to easily see the outcome of settings on a film camera, i use my digital cam. For really important photos that would be a disaster to lose by accidentally deleting them, i opt for film and the wait to get it developed if i dont want to do it myself. After all, you cant just drag and drop your film images like on a laptop only to find out they didnt actually copy to another memory type afterall before deleting the huge folder
    .

  5. Nice overview of a topic that seems to get under many photographers’ skins.

    Of course the two media produce different results, and there seems to be no disputing that digital has, and always will going forward, a distinct advantage when it comes to out and out resolution. If an image requires high resolution then digital wins. But film “draws” in image differently and there will be times when resolution will not be the be all and end all.

    I feel that photographers can embrace both processes without reverting to arguing one is better than the other. The big problem for film users, IMO, won’t be the availability of film stock, and which looks pretty healthy at the moment for the user base, but the stock of film cameras will decrease as more and more succumb to failure and there won’t be enough repairers with sufficient experience, or spare parts, to put them right. Sadly, film photography does seem to be heading for extinction in the not too distant future. It isn’t a case of if, but when.

  6. Agreed. A substandard tool in experienced hands will will do more work than a “top of the line” tool in a novices hands. In the end they are just tools, it is your job to learn how to properly use them to get the outcome you desire. I prefer film, but I also shoot digital. They are both great and each has their place in my world.

  7. To render stars as points on film for northern lights photography the best setup is the 28mm f2 Nikkor using Provia 4ooF film pushed two stops and a 12 to 15 second exposure at F2 or F2.8. A lens hood is highly recommended but no UV filter. I weigh down my tripod with my camera bag and use a mirror lockup or the Nikon FM2n equivalent -..the timer as it flips up the mirror 10 seconds before the shutter releases. Here are some sample images. https://www.flickr.com/photos/116856615@N07/ (scroll down halfway)

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