Do film cameras have any unique benefits?
July 4, 2008 9:04 AM   Subscribe

In terms of output, what are the benefits to using film cameras over digital?

I want to get back into photography. For a long time back in high school, I had access to a friend's semi-DSLR (lens not removable, fully adjustable shutter speed and aperture but limited choices in terms of things like white balance) and now I want to get back into photography. I've always been drawn to the idea of film cameras, and a friend of mine has a dark room, but my concern is the result and not so much the process. Does the medium of film have any unique advantages in terms of the images you can create?

My budget isn't very high, so if I were to go with a DSLR it would have to be old and somewhat cheap. Given this, the initially low investment that a film camera represents is somewhat alluring. I understand that film is a repeated expenditure, but I don't think I'll be shooting so much that it'll be a strain on my income.
posted by invitapriore to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Although they've been getting better, it's more difficult to be precise about capturing photos at the instant you want with a digital camera. There is a slight lag from the time you push the shutter button until the image is captured. Further, it's difficult to capture multiple images in rapid succession since it takes a moment for the camera to record each image before starting on another. Any delay in a film camera is in the winding mechanism, usually significantly faster that digital.
posted by netbros at 9:16 AM on July 4, 2008


There are still issues with dynamic range on a lot of digital cameras: they're generally about as good as slide film, but don't quite have the latitude of colour negative. However, the noise thing makes a big difference: you can get astounding quality at 1600 ISO+ from digital where film would just be a noisy mess.

The only other unique advantages are all in the fact that it's analogue: you can fuck about with the film in development, the negatives afterwards, and the prints while you're making them -- I haven't seen digital solarisation that looks as organic as darkroom, for example.
posted by bonaldi at 9:24 AM on July 4, 2008


There are some differences with film, but I think we are at the point in technology where a DSLR is definitely preferable to film. (Note: I say this a long-time film holdout.) It sounds like budget is a big issue. Here's my 2 cents:

If you can scrape together enough for a used Nikon D-40, I think you will be very happy. Others people will have other recommendations, but I have used my D-40 for over a year now, and I could not be more thrilled with the results. A kit including a lens can be had for under $500. I'm sure you can get one used for much less. Keep in mind that the semi-DSLR you used was probably significantly different than a true DSLR in several ways, the most important of which is sensor size. DSLRs have a generous sized sensor, which makes all the difference in the world when it comes to "grain" at higher ISOs. (Properly called "noise" in digital-speak.) For example, a decent DSLR can shoot at ISO 800 or 1600 with no more "grain" than a 400 speed film. This is a huge advantage over film in low light situations. There are too many digital advantages to list here, and the internet is full of examples, so I'll leave it at that. Do keep in mind that in the long run you will spend less with digital due to not having to buy film, and being essentially unlimited in the number of photos you can take.

Now, if you absolutely can not afford a digital DSLR, and have to go with film, then by all means go for it. The digital world has given advantages to the film world as well. For one thing, a great film SLR is dirt cheap. You can get a great SLR outfit with all the lenses and accessories you want for peanuts. The other advantage is digital processing. Until I got a DSLR, I took my film to Costo, and they developed it and gave me a CD with the images for $5. I could then edit the images and upload them back to Costco for printing. This is a very inexpensive way to get back into photography. As a counterbalance to my above statement about digital being less expensive in the long run due to lack of film costs, in the same way you can buy a lot of film and processing for the cost of a DSLR.

No matter which way you go, go for it! People have used film forever, and it's no less a valid way to take pictures today than it ever was. But if you can afford to go digital, with a real DSLR, that's the better option.

(Also... check your MeFi Mail.)
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:30 AM on July 4, 2008


Although they've been getting better, it's more difficult to be precise about capturing photos at the instant you want with a digital camera. There is a slight lag from the time you push the shutter button until the image is captured. Further, it's difficult to capture multiple images in rapid succession since it takes a moment for the camera to record each image before starting on another.

All of these are only relevant for non-SLR digital cameras, the latter isn't true for all digicams - many of the higher-end SLR-ish models the OP's familiar with have abig enough buffer to handle many shots at a time. My $300-three-years-ago superzoom certainly does.

I'd personally echo Fuzzy Skinner; the price for entry-level dSLRs has been plummeting, and the D40's a great camera.

That said, the basic advantage to film is that for a lot less money, you get a lot more resolution. It's just that practically nobody needs that much resolution, since most of us aren't making supergigantic prints that'll be examined close-up.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:39 AM on July 4, 2008


I have a DSLR, and I used to have a film camera. They both have advantages and disadvantages. As you said, film is a repeated expenditure. What I miss most about my film camera is that every shot I took had an associated cost. At first that sounds like a disadvantage, but I really thought about my shots back then. Nowadays I just aim in the general direction of my subject and fire off 20 shots. (I'm not that bad, but hopefully you get the idea).

By all technical standards, I think DSLRs have exceeded film. The latest high-end Nikons go up to ISO 25600, which is just insane. You can generally get very nice shots at ISO 1600 even from the base models, like my Nikon D40.

There's just a romance to film that I don't experience with digital. I miss shooting a roll of film and not knowing what's going to come out until I had it developed. The instant preview of digital takes that away. On the other hand, with digital, if I want a particular shot, I know I have it, and with film, it's a guessing game.

Film bodies are pretty cheap these days, and you can take your lenses with you to the digital world. If you're on the fence, I'd pick up a film body, and if you're ever ready to go digital, just upgrade and take the lenses with you.
posted by AaRdVarK at 9:40 AM on July 4, 2008


And I'm a D40 owner and love, love, love it. I can't imagine ever needing more than 6 MP.
posted by AaRdVarK at 9:41 AM on July 4, 2008


Print film does still have better dynamic range than digital. That is, it can record a wider total range of brightness in a single shot. Digital is more like slide film, and in fact is less forgiving of over- or under-exposure than slide film, although IMHO this is more than offset by the ability of digital to offer instant feedback so you can see if you blew out the sky or whatever.

The resolution of some types of film is also superior to all but the best digital SLRs. Keep in mind that an affordable digital SLR has a crop (APS-C size) sensor, whereas 35mm film uses the full frame, so there is more area to record the image. You can't convert film resolution directly to megapixels, but a good low-ISO film, particularly black and white, can theoretically capture lots more detail than a crop-sensor DSLR. (In practice, this requires a very good lens, but if you're going to spend money, it's better to put it into glass anyway.)

Also remember that a typical digital image sensor (not counting Foveon sensors, which only Sigma uses) records only one primary color (red, blue, or green) at each pixel. This means that fully two-thirds of the image data in a digital photo is interpolated (a fancy mathematical word for "made up"). A 12-megapixel DSLR has a "real" resolution of 4-6 megapixels if measured by the smallest image feature they can record. Also, because of the processing necessary to generate the final image, fine details in digital images are sometimes subject to artifacts such as smearing, moire, or false color. Film doesn't suffer from these issues.

The viewfinders on 35mm film cameras tend to be better (larger and brighter, thus easier to manually focus) than the ones on affordable digital SLRs such as the Canon Digital Rebel.

Sensors in digital SLRs need to be cleaned occasionally because they pick up dust. Not a problem with film, since you get a clean exposure surface for every shot.

Some film cameras have features that haven't yet appeared in any digital SLR. For example, some Canon bodies have eye-controlled focus, where the camera automatically focuses on what you're looking at. Not even Canon's top-end digital bodies have this feature. And the film bodies that have it cost a few hundred bucks, not a few thousand.

Despite these advantages, I still find it hard to justify film. The convenience and immediacy of digital are really killer features for photography.
posted by kindall at 9:42 AM on July 4, 2008 [2 favorites]


netbros seems to be thinking of point and shoot digital cameras. You won't encounter noticeable shutter lag or shot-to-shot lag on a digital SLR.

That said, I do agree with bonaldi on the issues with dynamic range on dSLRs. It's not a deal breaker, but it is something to keep in mind if it matters a lot to you.
posted by roomwithaview at 9:43 AM on July 4, 2008


A couple counterpoints:

Although they've been getting better, it's more difficult to be precise about capturing photos at the instant you want with a digital camera.

This isn't true in a real sense with a actual DSLR. The mechanical workings are identical to film. The lag time was one of the things that made me a film holdout for a long time. But I had only used non-SLR digital camera. Even expensive and high-quality non-SLRs suffered greatly from this. My D-40 and any other DSLR I have used is as instantaneous as any film SLR I have used. If there is any measurable difference, it's not noticeable in use.

Regarding the organic effects available with film: it's true that while many incredible things are possible with a digital image, some things are difficult or impossible to replicate. I do Polaroid transfers, and any Photoshop technique I have developed or seen to replicate it just isn't as good. So, for Polaroid transfers, I still shoot slide film, or shoot directly with a Polaroid camera, or have my digital files converted to slides and transfer the image to Polaroid film.

If you enjoy the process of the darkroom and want to experiment with the various effects possible, then film is great. If you just want to take photographs, and touch them up as needed, then digital is the better option.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:49 AM on July 4, 2008



Although they've been getting better, it's more difficult to be precise about capturing photos at the instant you want with a digital camera. There is a slight lag from the time you push the shutter button until the image is captured. Further, it's difficult to capture multiple images in rapid succession since it takes a moment for the camera to record each image before starting on another. Any delay in a film camera is in the winding mechanism, usually significantly faster that digital.


while that may be true of point/shoots, it's certainly not a problem with DSLRs - my Canon 30D has a burst mode of 5fps and a miniscule shutter lag (link).

to answer your question (a brief list): I think that's all I've got for now.
posted by heeeraldo at 9:49 AM on July 4, 2008


Y'all are right about my comment. I was thinking of invitapriore's budget.
posted by netbros at 9:59 AM on July 4, 2008


Y'all are right about my comment. I was thinking of invitapriore's budget.

I will say this: for actual, good photography, with some control over your shots, I'll take a $50 old film SLR over a $150 digital camera any day. When my only digital camera was a Canon S-50 (not cheap by any means: it was $600 new!) I still preferred my film cameras for anything beyond snapshots.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 10:12 AM on July 4, 2008


I read somewhere that digital cameras won't approach film resolution until they hit about 50 megapixels... but as someone said upthread, that doesn't really matter unless you are making gigantic prints..

I sold an old fully manual Nikon FM2 to get a Nikon D50 (their low-end DSLR at the time), and while I do wish I had held onto the FM2 for nostalgia's sake and for black and white prints, digital photography is pretty fantastic and I recommend the Nikon DSLRs whoelheartedly.
posted by modernnomad at 10:17 AM on July 4, 2008


What type of images do you want to create? I use film because I like to mess with the image while taking it. For example, with a cheap Holga or Brownie and 120 film, I take a shot, advance the film only about two-thirds of the way, add another shot, etc. for a long, overlapping, impressionistic series. Or I do intentional double-exposures. Or once the film is developed ($5 at a local place), I overlap negatives when I scan them. Some people also have fun abusing negatives (melting, etc.) to get special effects.

You could simulate some of these effects after the fact in Photoshop, but I like the challenge and mystery of doing it in real life. And the digital simulations look "cold" to me. For example, some people use Photoshop to add the kind of vignetting you get from a Holga, but it's too perfect for me, and everything is so darn...in focus.

You might poke around on Flickr to see if you like what people are doing with film.

With that said, for snapshots, I'm digital.
posted by PatoPata at 10:32 AM on July 4, 2008


As all of stated so far, digital cameras have come a long way. They offer great resolution with great control of noise, just lacking in the dynamic range department (which will eventually catch up & surpass film). Here's a catch, if you buy a camera such as a Nikon d40 it won't be able to meter with / focus many of the older lenses. The d40 only accepts newer AF-I or AF-S.

Does the medium of film have any unique advantages in terms of the images you can create?

I keep more of my images taken with my Nikon FM3a than my DSLR. Having the digital is great, the cost per image is cheap, I can take nearly a thousand before exhausting my memory, I can review, etc... Without limitations it loses its spirit. It's fantastic for weddings and other events, but for capturing that Moment, not so much. With film, you only have an idea of what you might capture. You're more tied to your equipment than before, know & understand the limits of your lens, body & film. Subconsciously tie it all together and press the shutter. And wait till it's developed. No second chances.

I'm of the opinion that film teaches you to be a better photographer; the nuances of photography.
posted by Upal at 10:38 AM on July 4, 2008


This is one of those real can of worms questions.

I realize that the fact that you can buy a used top of the line film camera for next to nothing these days makes it tempting.

However, I believe the bottom of the line DSLR cameras from pretty much every manufacturer these days give you awesome capability for relatively little money. Mid-line models are available cheaper yet.

To experiment with film to the extent one can do so with digital would soon end up costing you far more than a DSLR outfit if you shoot much at all.

If nothing else, shooting digitally gives you the opportunity to know, then and there, whether or not you've got the picture you want. No waiting for a darkroom session or even to get your processed negatives and proofs back from a lab.

High ISO capabilities of entry level DSLR cameras exceed that of their film counterparts by levels of magnitude.

As each day passes, life as a film photographer isn't going to get any cheaper or easier. Tons of specific film types, processing chemicals, and wet process photographic papers have been dropped by their manufacturers over the last ten years. Prices have gone up substantially on most of what is currently available and will continue to do so as demand continues to drop.

It's nearly impossible to find a pro quality custom film lab in most parts of the country any more.

If you have any electronic applications at all for your film photographs, you'll either need to scan frames or have them scanned for you. Then you get to experience the joys of spotting and cleaning up the gazillion dust specs and scratches which will be apparent on those scans. Not my idea of a good time, for sure.

Also, this talk about the theoretical dynamic range of film being so far superior to that of a digital original might be stumbling block for (God rest his soul) Ansel Adams, but the work of upteen bazillion high end professional photographers who have gone to digital in droves is a testament that for nearly all real world applications, it simply makes sense to shoot digitally.
posted by imjustsaying at 2:03 PM on July 4, 2008


I read somewhere that digital cameras won't approach film resolution until they hit about 50 megapixels... but as someone said upthread, that doesn't really matter unless you are making gigantic prints..

This is false. They were probably referring to medium or large format film, not 35mm. Digital resolution is already better in some respects:
When I shot film, I was usually using colour film in the ISO 400 to 800 range, so fairly grainy. Detail-wise, that kind of film seems to be about equivalent to a puny 2.1 megapixel image. Modern cameras considerably exceed that.

"But wait!" you say, "that can't be right!"

The key thing here is detail. When I say detail, I mean real identifiable image detail - "Can I read the license plate on the car parked down the street?", not "can I see the pixels in a print?" - film doesn't have pixels.
Film gets a bit of a free ride in this respect because even when the image detail of film is shit, and you can't read that aforementioned license plate because the image is too grainy (ie too low a resolution), is still looks good because film grain is... kinda a pleasant effect, even when massive. Whereas the same level of detail rendered in pixels is visually jarring and so ugly as hell.

So what does Hollywood do when putting digital effects onto 35mm film? They render the digital images at such a higher resolution than the film that the pixels are so much smaller than the grain of the film, so that if you were right up near the theatre screen, the image would break down into grain long before pixels became visible. I think they typically render the digital images at about 6 megapixels, which again, is less than modern digital cameras (but the film they are burning those images too is also higher ISO than what you might be shooting in a SLR).

So to sum up:
- Film grain at low resolution (low detail) looks prettier than the same level of detail rendered in pixels.
- Because of this, you generally want more detailed (higher resolution) digital images than you could get away with if you were using film.
- Most modern cameras provide this extra detail, compared with most film, so you generally will either get more image detail from digital than from film, or (more likely) both types of camera will hit the limits of your glass.
- But that said, if you seek it out you can obtain very fine-grain film (especially if it's not colour) if you need it, which would be expensive to match digitally.

As to the original question: A benefit to using film over digital is that at the limits of your detail, visible film grain is pleasing to the eye in a way that visible pixels are not.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:46 PM on July 4, 2008


I have a lot of cameras and this is my take: it really depends on what you want to shoot. For general purpose use and learning a digital SLR is an economic way to go and you will learn a lot because you won't hold back due to cost. For photojurnalism, action or available light digital cameras are the way to go (get a Nikon D50 if you want to shoot available light stuff, they are awesome at it for some technical reason unknown to me). A lot of people prefer digital for portrait because it sort of smooths out skin tones. Other people prefer to shoot medium format film. Most people don't shoot enough portraits to care either way.

B&W is still better in film, it is very hard to get a really nice B&W print from a digital camera.

IR can be done on either, personally I think film can look better and you have a bit more control but it is approximately 10,000x more expensive and inconvenient. Digital IR stuff looks pretty awesome too so that's what I use. The Nikon D70 is a good IR DSLR as you don't have to get it converted like some of the newer ones.

For landscape shots digital has a long way to go to beat slide films like Velvia 50. If amazing sunsets are your thing get yourself a 35mm SLR to learn on then go medium format. I say this because the medium format is expensive and it would be pretty spendy to learn on it. A lot of pros are selling their medium format stuff and you can get killer deals on it.

The final consideration is what you want to do with the photos. I have a rubbermaid container of awesome slides that no one ever sees. Digital has the enormous advantage of allowing you to look at and share your photos easily.

If you're not sure what to do I'd get a cheaper used SLR and see where your interests lie. Spend your money on nice lenses and a tripod because that is what makes the big difference anyway.

If you buy a brand name SLR the odds are you can sell it a year from now for pretty much what you bought it for so no worries on losing a bunch of money if it doesn't suit you.
posted by fshgrl at 3:15 PM on July 4, 2008


...digital cameras won't approach film resolution until they hit about 50 megapixels...

Is 39 megapixels close enough?

Large format cameras allow for all sorts of camera movements that allow for greater control of focus and perspective; this can be especially important in landscape and architectural photography. The large negative also captures sufficient detail to allow your pictures to be enlarged to wall size if desired. Finally, they cost about $5.00 per shot for film and developing (last I heard) and so force you to think a lot more about each shot.

But you are probably thinking about 35mm film, in which case the digital is the way to go for all the reasons stated above. I may have missed it, but I don't think anyone mentioned that film is only going to get harder and more expensive to buy and develop in the future. I imagine Fuzzy Skinner is all too aware that Polaroid, for example, is getting out of the film business entirely. Film will probably never go away completely, just as there are still enthusiasts who restore and drive Stanley Steamers, but it will eventually go away for all but the most devoted film photographers.
posted by TedW at 3:48 PM on July 4, 2008


Benefits of using film cameras:

1. A much smaller number of frames to shoot forces you to shoot more carefully, to not waste your resources and to make more choices on the spot. A roll of 35mm film has 36 images max, a memory card can hold thousands.

2. The analog process - film developing then printing in the darkroom - is radically different from Photoshop and inkjet printing. It's hard to describe how that specifically affects the creative process, but it does. Just the chemistry, for example. When you develop film and paper, the formula of the developer and the timing of each stage has an effect on the tonality of the print. It's a more physical process. You have to stand in dark rooms. This makes you use a different part of your brain than when you use a computer. This often makes people feel looser, less in control and more open to unpredictable results.

3. Connection to the history of photography. By working with the same process as many previous generations of photographers, your work continues certain traditions and attitudes. At this point when so much is digital, it's a statement loaded with connotations to use the traditional process.

4. Each print is hand-made. It is a unique object. This sense of object-ness is important. Inkjet prints don't really have this at all.

5. There is a great beauty in serendipitous accidents in the creative process. Imperfections can be a kind of poetry. You get a lot more of them in the analog process than in digital.

6. Because most people shoot digital, work shot in analog can seem different and unique. All of those wonderful features in digital cameras that do auto-focus, auto-white balance and auto-exposure are making everyone's images more similar to each other.
posted by conrad53 at 5:07 PM on July 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


One practical piece of advice. The D40's a great camera for the price, but I'd advise splashing out a little bit more on a Canon 400D. The low-end Nikons won't autofocus with most prime lenses you can get, which means you miss out on the excellent image quality and low-light capability that they provide. For example, you won't have the fun of the excellent low-cost 50mm f/1.8 lens that everyone seems to get (and with good reason.)
posted by Magnakai at 12:35 AM on July 5, 2008


The low-end Nikons won't autofocus with most prime lenses you can get, which means you miss out on the excellent image quality and low-light capability that they provide.

Let me be picky: you won't miss out on anything. You will just have to manually focus, which, to me, is not a deal-breaker.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 1:40 PM on July 5, 2008


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