The Photo Debate: Six Reasons Why Film is Better Than Digital

Digital cameras are better—and cheaper—than ever before. But as Assistant Editor Ryan Bradley discovers, for a traveling, photo-hobbyist, film still rules (and isn’t as expensive as you think).

Photographs and Text by Ryan Bradley

First things first: I’m not a professional photographer. For the past six months I have been taking photographs on film—not exclusively, but after half a year's worth of shooting I’ve come to realize that I care a lot more about the images I’ve taken on film than the ones I shot digitally around the same time. Not only is the end result more satisfying, the entire process was worthwhile and not nearly as expensive as I had imagined. Which begged the question: Despite the exponential leaps and bounds that have occurred in digital image-making, is film still better? For me, right now, I would answer yes. Definitely. Let me explain why.

1- Film is tougher than digital.

The last time ADVENTURE featured film cameras within its pages was July 2001. “For adventure photography,” went the headline “35mm still beats digital.” The main argument being that the “weather- and shock-resistant designs” in the point-and-shoot featured were “almost unheard of in digital.” This is no longer entirely true (our June/July issue features a camera that can be dropped from five feet, submerged to 10, and costs less than $400), but the basic argument still holds. The most rugged, fail-proof, fixable cameras out there will always be film.

When I was in Chamonix this winter I slipped on some ice and dropped my Holga on the cobblestone road. The back of the camera popped off, I cursed and quickly put it back together. But the light that got in and altered most of one image and part of another makes for a totally unique—and totally flawed—photo.

The camera was far from broken, just one image was "lost," and part of me thinks the light leaks make it all the better (more on this in a moment).

Earlier that day I had skied down the Vallée Blanche (“fallen” is the more accurate verb). There was a biting wind, and crevasses along the glaciers to avoid. Not the greatest conditions for clicking away, yet my cheapy toy 35mm worked like a charm. My lens didn't even fog.

I’ve even splashed my toy 35mm in the water (more specifically: paddled with it in a kayak in a mesh dive bag) and it didn't miss a beat.

Yeah, you can see all of these problems, but the problems make the picture. Which leads me to my second point.

2- Film looks better.

I'm not going to get technical, because, frankly, I know next to nothing about the chemical process of film, and plenty of other well-versed folks out on the Internet have really dissected this stuff (such as these articles at kenrockwell.com or clarkvision.com). Here's the thing: All of these images have their flaws—but it's the flaws that make the photos for me. Remember, this is a hobby, and my satisfaction with the image is my own. I want it to be unique, and have some visceral connection to the events that took place surrounding my choosing to capture a moment (of which I have a finite amount, depending upon how many exposures I have left). Maybe I still would remember slipping on the ice in Chamonix, or the feel of the wind off the peaks in Valle Blanche, or recall the mangroves I nearly crashed into in Fiji, but I wouldn't remember them as vividly as I do now, thanks to the flaws in my images. The photos aren't even of these events specifically, but the events live in them in their burnt edges, bad exposure, and blurred lens.

3- Film is easier to use than digital. 

Most of the images you see here were shot on a toy camera from (of course) Japan. It's called a Golden Half, costs $40-$60, shoots half-frame 35mm (so a roll of 36 exposures is actually 72). It’s ludicrously simple. You point, shoot, and wind. There are three F-stops, but two are the same (F-11). It is also only slightly bulkier than an overstuffed wallet and extremely light. Some pictures were also shot with a Holga, another toy camera that uses medium-format film. The negatives are larger so, in theory, the quality is higher, kind of like having more megapixels. I make some adjustments to exposure/color/etc. before I scan the negatives, which is a little like working off a RAW image in digital. I can then adjust the scan quality based on how large I'm going to print the image, if I'm going to print it at all. I like to scan the negatives of everything I shoot because of this step, but also because just processing is so cheap. Which is why…

4- Film actually costs less. 

This isn't true for everyone. There are a lot of really great digital point and shoots out there for the average photog who wants to take a lot of snapshots. But what about the next step? What if you are interested in taking crafted-looking images, but do not want to spend the money on a camera that would give you film quality (which would cost, at the low end, about $1,000; a lot more if you want to get fancy with the lenses). I shoot on two cameras, both cost $40 (the Golden Half and the Holga). I pay for my film to be processed and scan it on my own. A processed roll costs about $5. Sometimes, in a pinch, I pay for the scanning, too, which costs $10.

So I’ve spent a total of about $150 on film and processing in six months, $80 on the two cameras, and have at least 50 images I’m very happy with and will eventually print and keep in an old cigar box in my apartment. They will be there forever unless I lose them in a move or a fire. Why on Earth will I print them out (and save the negatives), instead of sharing them on Flickr or Facebook? Because… 

5- Film is permanent.

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Digital is not.
I’ve been shooting with digital cameras for more than a decade. Most of the photos are gone, either lost in a crashed computer or in the chaos of my external hard drives. A lot exist online, but not in a size large enough for anything other than looking at on a computer screen. And is that really permanent? The files exist on some server, and not as a printout in my desk drawer. Call me analog or old-fashioned, but I feel a lot better about my negatives.

The flipside to this is that with digital you have, theoretically, infinite space. You can click away to your heart's content, but is that really a good thing? Part of the permanence of film is that it is constrained. You have only so many images to take. You must think about these shots, compose them. You can do the same thing with a digital, but most people don’t. And most people spend an awful lot of time staring at the images they’ve already taken on their controls screens, missing what could be the shot.

6- Sometimes we yearn for a dream.

I’ve tried to keep the argument as practical as possible, because the counter-argument to all of this is that with a digital camera you can instantly view, edit, download, and share images whereas film takes a lot longer. And yet, and yet… A good friend of mine is a professional photographer. He shot with film until last year when he threw down and bought a Canon Mark II, a few very expensive lenses, and a new MacBook Pro. He would still be shooting film if he could, but this was a business decision. For the amount of photos he takes, and the turnaround demanded by clients, digital just makes more sense.

But remember: I’m a hobbyist. I don’t know much about lighting or technique, I don’t even know much about Photoshop (you could argue that all the flaws and blurry lens stuff could be added with Photoshop, to which I say: You’re cheating, and spending an awful lot of time doing so). I use two cheap, plastic point-and-shoots—which, not surprisingly, are enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment. Perhaps this is all best summarized by Hideki Ohmori, a cool-hunting Japanese dude who designs toy cameras (his company, Superheadz, made the Golden Half): “…the digital camera's crisp, clean images help us recognize the complexity and warmth of film. It's exacerbated when you shoot through a plastic lens…We do not always want a faithful representation of reality. Sometimes we yearn for a dream.” [via Wired]

Do you agree with Ryan Bradley? Post your comments below.

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