29 Reasons Why Film Is Better Than Digital Photography11 min read by
This list is a giant collection of excuses to shoot film.
Those reasons are just one side of the story — digital cameras have their own advantages. But as a long-time film addict, I don’t think I can or want to come up with an equal and opposite list to balance things out. So you’ll just have to keep my bias in mind while reading this. Of course, I will explain each point; this list is well-researched.
Some of the reasons will demonstrate an obvious advantage of the analogue method; for example, a comparison of large format photography prices and availability. Others are simply my preference that you may or may not share.
Film and digital photography — what’s the difference?
I will begin by drawing a clear distinction between film and digital photography to make better sense of the list. Both methods produce prints; both can exist in digital space as JPEGs. In fact, it may be very difficult or impossible to tell a film photograph from digital in some situations.
However, the technology that captures and stores light information sets film and digital photography apart:
Digital sensors are made of an array of microscopic photosensitive elements that convert light intensities into data. That data is stored on computer memory chips.
Film is a stip of plastic with microscopic layers of chemical compounds that change their physical properties after being exposed to light. The resulting image stays within those layers, which can either be printed on paper via an enlarger or scanned into computer memory.
Another difference between film and digital photography is in the cameras.
Analogue cameras are built around a long, rolled-up strip of film that stores physical originals printed next to each other. Each roll can store a maximum of 36 full-frame exposures. Once it’s full, it can be archived and replaced with a fresh one.
Digital cameras are built around their sensors and the components/software that controls them. The sensor typically remains the same throughout the camera’s life; the images occupy no physical space.
So why is film better than digital photography?
Film cameras can look and feel expensive without costing much. Pictured above are Bolsey Model C, Fed 2, and Praktica MTL 5B. All of these cameras currently sell for less than $500 in mint condition, tested and working. They all come with precision-machined metal chassis, a feature reserved for $5,000+ new or $1,500 used digital cameras.
TLR, a camera system that uses two identical lenses — one for the viewfinder and one for exposures — can only make sense as a film camera. Their unique, beautiful design is a practical application of the technology available at the time.
The miniaturization technology of the mid-1900s is responsible for the beautiful and complex mechanical apparatuses like the Vitessa A cameras. A 50mm 𝒇2.0 lens on a full-frame body designed to fold into a pocketable brushed metal brick with chromed accents and a leather grip.
Who owns the photograph? Simple: it’s she who holds the negative. Analogue photography makes identifying the original “main” copy simple. It’s the stip of film that was exposed by the camera. Everything else is a copy — including the scans and the prints of that photograph.
Digital images are virtual-only goods. They can be copied an unlimited amount of times with no quality loss. Because of that, verifying the ownership of a digital file is difficult. NFTs are the touted modern solution to the digital files’ ownership problem. However, NFTs still give no physical presence other than the pollution created through their high energy consumption.
Although digital cameras come with a quick and convenient way to preview the photographs, they will not print them. Instant film cameras can create a finished, giftable image that can be held in hand.
Instant film prints can be owned, same as negatives (see above).
Large format photography.
In 2022, large format digital cameras do not exist. Sure, there are a few projects and, perhaps, scientific instruments that use large-format sensor sizes — but they are mostly inaccessible. In fact, this may never change as the current technological trend is miniaturization in consumer electronics, contrary to what large format entails.
Images taken on large format cameras contain a lot more information than on medium format or on full-frame. Large format lenses can create an unusually-shallow depth of field. Large format cameras can also accept photosensitive plates that can be manufactured at home.
Human-readable storage format.
Digital images require working computers with specific software to become visible. Film, on the other hand, requires nothing of the sort. You can see the picture stored on film with a naked eye.
Film grain is more interesting than pixel grid.
A 2,400x electron microscope enlargement of a film exposure reveals clouds of silver halide particles suspended in unpredictable shapes within an impossibly-thin layer of gelatine emulsion. At this magnification, there is no image information — just the underlying structure of the chemistry that makes the photograph possible.
The same amount of magnification of a digital image may reveal at best a few large pixels, maybe four.
☝︎ Further reading: “Film Grain, Resolution and Fundamental Film Particles” — American Institute for Conservation (PDF).
Many phone cameras are configured to instantly upload an image you’ve taken to a server in an unknown location. Many digital photos contain geographic location, camera settings, and information about the application used to photograph. While the above may prove convenient for some, getting rid of this information can be difficult or impossible, should it not be desired.
On the other hand, instant film makes private images only the photographer would ever see unless they choose to share. You can also develop and print your film completely off the grid — at home.
No batteries required.
More than half of all the film cameras ever made need no batteries to operate. Some models have built-in light meters that have been converting light into needle movements for over 50 years — and are still fully functional. Film cameras that use batteries for film transport, autofocus, and autoexposure can last for months of daily use on a single charge.
Roll film — 35mm and medium format — can be used on cameras produced between the early 1890s and today. That’s over 130 years of backwards compatibility. I doubt that JPEG and RAW image formats will survive for that long.
No bit rot.
PetaPixel recommends archiving the most important digital images on film. Bit rot — or file loss/corruption — can destroy images completely. Physical medium such as film is not susceptible to bit rot. Negatives degrade in a slow, predictable fashion over hundreds of years.
No screens on a film camera.
Most film cameras have simple, intuitive controls: shutter, aperture, focus, and film transport. As someone who’s used to shooting analogue, I find film cameras generally more intuitive in operation than digital. There is no menu hierarchy to learn, and all controls are tactile.
Working 100-year-old cameras.
It’s not difficult to find a century-old working film camera. They can make sharper and more detailed images than even some brand-new cameras.
What’s the oldest digital camera that can still produce usable images?
True black-and-white photographs.
99.999% of all black and white digital images are full-colour photographs converted to monochrome. The conversion involves using a filter to destroy colour information.
Capturing images in true black and white has the advantage of retaining more detail with better handling of various light sensitivities. This technology is cheap on film and available in all formats. Digital cameras that capture greyscale images w/o downsampling colour are few and extremely expensive; see Sony A6000 Monochrome and Leica Monochrom.
Coffee is an active ingredient that can develop film.
You can develop your film using coffee, beer, and wine instead of the typical chemicals. Do not pour any of the above on your digital camera!
Above: Minolta TC-1 next to a fountain pen (reviewed here).
Compact full-frame cameras.
It’s 2022, and the world’s smallest full-frame digital camera is still twice as heavy and noticeably larger than a twenty-six-year-old Minolta TC-1. In fact, this isn’t even a fair comparison as TC-1 comes with a retractable (really good) 28mm 𝒇3.5 lens.
Panoramic and curved-plane “sensors.”
Curved digital sensors are nowhere near reality in 2022. On the other hand, the film world has had several panoramic and curved film plane cameras available since the 1950s.
No permanently-attached sensor to worry about.
Digital camera sensors can be damaged in various ways: dead pixels, hot pixels, missing lines, quality degradation. Unfortunately, those issues are usually permanent, requiring costly repair or a complete camera replacement.
Film cameras’ “sensor” is a constantly renewed supply of material. Even if the film is damaged irreparably, replacing it will cost you no more than getting a fresh roll — around $13.
Better overexposure handling.
Film negatives can handle overexposure by more than six stops. Digital cameras begin to lose detail after about one to two stops of overexposure.
Overexposure tolerance is useful for shooting high-contrast scenes and creating images with a “dreamy” look that would require additional effort to simulate on a digital body.
Colour infrared film.
Any mechanical 35mm or medium format film camera can become a near-infrared imaging device. A special Kodak Aerochrome emulsion developed in the 1940s can capture the world in an incredible palette of colours with strong red highlights in the areas with a high IR reflection index.
While it is possible to modify digital cameras to perform a similar task, you are severely limited in your choice of camera bodies for the task. Digital colour IR images also lack the insane contrast and saturation of Aerochrome film.
iPhones and many other digital cameras (poorly) simulate shutter clicks with software and a speaker. This is their attempt to simulate the affirmative sounds of a mechanical shutter. The sound is almost always identical and boring.
In contrast, every film camera model has its special shutter sound and many other pleasing noises that the controls make as you operate them.
A calmer picture-taking process once you get used to it.
Analogue camera’s lack of instant feedback — as you often have to shoot an entire roll of 36 frames and wait for the lab to send back the images afterwards — is a good thing.
I find the process of shooting without seeing the results instantly less prone to distracting me from the scene. It has helped me become more confident in my photography and able to move on to the next task without wasting time snapping “one more time.”
Experience the incredible workings of chemistry first-hand.
To extract an image from your film, you have to take it to a lab. Or you can start your own chemical reactions at home to develop and print the images.
Seeing materials changing their chemical properties that precisely follow your creative direction is an exciting activity.
Digital cameras, on the other hand, remain motionless, inactive, boring as the images are downloaded off their memory.
Film photography makes taking ultra-long exposures cheap and affordable. I am not talking about timelapse videos; ultra-long exposures consist of months, even year-long periods when the shutter remains open the entire time. This technique is practically impossible on a digital camera.
A huge second-hand market.
As of this writing, eBay reveals 79,000+ results for “film camera used” search term and 40,000+ results “digital camera used.”
Metal components are becoming progressively more expensive. Most modern digital cameras are made of a complicated mix of plastic and rare-earth components. They are a lot more difficult to recycle than an all-metal body of a film camera.
A cheaper entry into full-frame and medium formats.
Even in 2022, when analogue photography is on the rise and the prices for cameras and film are going up, you can still find a decent full-frame camera for less than $100 and load it with top-notch emulsion for $30. The cheapest full-frame digital camera on eBay is $230+.
A practical way to learn planning and preparation.
Analogue photography requires making film choices that depend on weather and lighting ahead of time. You have to budget your exposures and take additional time to ensure that your images are more likely to come out in focus and well-exposed on a first try.
Customizable sensitivity, colour reproduction, and resolution.
A digital camera has a permanent sensor that remains the same for the duration of its life. On the other hand, film cameras offer a wealth of choices in terms of dynamic range/contrast, colour sensitivity/balance, and resolution.
Film is the first photographic medium dating back to the 1830s that is still relevant today.
Analogue photography is the original method of taking pictures that will celebrate 200 years in less than a decade. Throughout its existence, it’s captured some of the most eventful years of human existence. And it continues to do so in 2022.
Photochemistry will always be the original method to make lasting, physical images. Film is still unsurpassed by the digital ecosystem in terms of its archival qualities, privacy, ownership and more.
Given time, I may come up with more points for this list; 29 just seems like a good number to stop at. Do you have one that hasn’t been mentioned?
❤ By the way: Please consider making your film camera purchases using the links above so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!