Boston Photographer - Pros and Cons of Shooting with Digital and Film


When I tell my friends and clients I shoot with digital and film, they almost always ask why. So let's start from the beginning! I picked up my first camera, which was digital, in December 2016. I would take hundreds, sometimes thousands, of photos in a session. Afterward, I'd bring all my images into Lightroom and sift through them. This process is called 'culling'. Then I'd spend an embarrassing amount of hours trying to get the final images look a certain way. At the beginning, I still hadn't found my style or brand, which made it even more difficult to settle on a certain edit that I was happy with. After a year or so of doing this, I still wasn't happy with the way I was editing my images. I'd go back and fourth between bright and dark, deep or shallow shadows, high contrast or low contrast, warm or cool, etc. 

Then sometime toward the end of 2017 I realized that almost every single image I was drawn to was taken with a film camera. All the photographs seemed so effortless and timeless. The edges of objects were soft yet sharp, skin tones were deep and rich and the white balance always seemed perfect. What stood out to me the most was that they all had the most creamy bokeh, which is something I don't think digital cameras can recreate. That's when I knew I had to buy a film camera and I've been hooked ever since. I try to incorporate film into my client work as much as possible, but there are certainly cons that come with it as well. With that said, here are my pros and cons to both mediums. 

 120mm film

120mm film

Film - Pros

Overall aesthetic. This is the most important one. For me, I'm drawn to the film aesthetic which I touched on above. I'm always trying to get my digital photos to look like film, which is practically impossible to do but I still try haha. The color tones are more true to life and the high dynamic range is better straight out of the camera (SOOC). In my opinion, film also renders light better than digital SOOC. Note, even though there's definitely a "film aesthetic" not all film photographers photos look the same... far from. And always remember, film is just like any other tool; it's only as "good" as the person who's using it. Photography is about your personal eye for composition and your ability to control/manipulate light. 

Minimal editing. This one is huge for me. When I shoot digital, I personally spend hours editing every single photo I send to my clients. I don't simply apply a "preset" and call it a day. With film, after you have a good relationship with your film lab(s), there is little to no editing required once you get your scans back. The amount of hours I save editing my film images is well worth the wait. 

Shooting with intent. Because you only have a few shots per roll (36 on 35mm film and 16 on 120mm film) you have to think strategically. A lot of film photographers will argue film allows them to slow down and really shoot with intent - making sure each frame is almost perfect before releasing the shutter. 

No chromatic aberration ‘CA’. I don’t know the technicalities behind why, but film images don’t contain nearly as much chromatic aberration, if any. Digital cameras cause a lot of chromatic aberration…even on some of the best lenses. It’s one of the easiest ways to spot a digital image v. a film image.

It’s fun. Any film shooter will tell you it’s like Christmas when you receive an email saying your scans are ready to view!


Film - Cons

Cost. Film is very expensive. I primarily use MF format film (which comes in 120mm and 220mm). 120mm gets 16 images per roll. Each roll can cost around $8 and development costs around $20 per roll. On average, a wedding photographer who shoots primarily with film will spend $1,500 - $2,000 on rolls, development, scans, film loader/assistant and shipping costs to the lab. In addition, now that film cameras aren't really being made, people/companies have hiked up the prices for equipment. 

Old technology. The camera I use to shoot MF film, the Contax 645, was released in 1999 and discontinued in 2005. My current digital cameras, the Sony ArII and A7III, were released early 2016 and 2018. You can imagine how much technology has changed in 17-19 years. Unlike digital, when there's something mechanically wrong with your camera, most times you won't know it until you get your scans back. This has personally happened to me. Regular check-ups and testing are required, especially if you're shooting weddings or situations where you only have one chance to get it right. 

Getting lost in the mail. Most of us ship our film to a lab for development and scanning, so there's always that slight chance your package could get lost in the mail. 

Technical limitations. Film cameras can't even compete with digital cameras when it comes to technical capabilities. The biggest one for me is learning to shoot in manual focus. Most film photographers will shoot in manual simply because auto-focus in film cameras are not reliable anymore. It's also necessary to have an external light meter to properly meter light, because the light meters in film cameras are (for the most part) not accurate. There are also just certain realms of photography that are simply not meant for film. I'd argue interior/architecture photography is one of them.



Digital - Pros 

Speed. This one may be the most obvious, but any professional camera is going to be really fast. There is no beating the speed factor if you have a full-sensor body coupled with an extremely fast prime lens and killer autofocus. 

Shooting in RAW. Without getting into the technicalities of file types, the ability to shoot in RAW is a huge pro for digital photographers. RAW files carry the most information you can possibly have in an image and makes the ability for editing seamless. For example, if you completely underexpose an image shot with film (usually scanned and sent back to you as a JPG), you're most likely not going to be able to save that image by simply bumping up the exposure and shadows in any photo editing software like Lightroom (LR). However, if you greatly underexpose the RAW file from your digital camera, there's actually a lot you can do to save your image in post process.

Low light situations. All professional cameras have amazing capabilties in low light situations, even without flash. I bump up my ISO up to 6,400 before opting for a flash. You don't have that option when you use film, especially for color-negative film. 


Digital - Cons 

Editing time. I don't care how many presets you have or how well you've mastered your editing techniques. If you're a good photographer you're touching every single picture in some capacity before sending it off to your clients. For example, lets say on average, I'll spend 3 mins per image and I'll send 1,000 final images to my wedding client. That's 50 hours of editing time without a bathroom break! In comparison, with film, when I get my scans back, I'll probably spend 30 seconds. At 30 seconds an image, that's 8.3 hours of editing time. That's a huge difference when I'm juggling multiple projects. 

Over-editing effect. This one isn't a technical point, but still worth noting. I see a lot of digital photographers with a very heavy editing hand and that's totally ok if that's your style. With a million different presets and the ability to edit your image so easily, I can see how tempting it can be to get carried away. This causes editing "trends," therefore making your images less timeless. I would hate to look at my photographs in 10 years and think to myself, "well that was the editing trend back then." On the flip side, film hasn't changed nearly as much and it's been around for over 100 years. When you shoot film, as a baseline, you're essentially letting the film stock choose how it renders the image. 

Keeping up with the Jones'. My last point is not mutually exclusive to film or digital. However, I find it happens more with digital photographers then film photographers (including myself), simply because technology has made us want the next best thing all the time. With digital, I'm always wanting the next best gear, especially lenses. With film, since manufacturers don't make film gear anymore, you're stuck with what has already been produced! Less options means less keeping up with Jones'.


What do you think?! Do you agree or disagree? Anything I missed? Write me and let me know your thoughts! 

resourcesHannah Cochran