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Film or Digital

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The challenge to the photographer is to command the medium, to use whatever current equipment and technology furthers his creative objectives, without sacrificing the ability to make his own decisions.
- Ansel Adams

Film or Digital Edit

This is a never ending debate. If you're an experienced photographer, you've certainly already got an opinion and don't need this advice. For beginners, here are some things to think about:

  • The initial equipment investment for a film camera is on average cheaper than digital. As digital becomes more popular, the prices of film cameras continue to drop. Film cameras are considerably cheaper if you're interested in an older, perhaps manual camera. Many can be had on ebay for a pittance.
  • The most obvious advantage of digital photography is immediate feedback. The camera's monitor can show you the photo you just took. This is very helpful for beginners, as it allows you to play with various camera settings, experiment, and see results instantly.
  • Digital cameras produce digital images (obviously), which means you wont need to scan and retouch in order to post to your photoblog.
  • Frequently, buying a digital camera means also buying a computer and some software. You should probably add that to the cost when comparing options. Of course posting film images to a photoblog means buying a computer, software and a scanner.
  • Aesthetic quality is a matter of taste, but film and digital do have significant differences, especially if you plan to print large images. Film has grain, which becomes more visible the more an image is enlarged, but which has an organic look than can be quite pleasing. Digital images have pixels which become more noticeable the larger an image is printed, and usually look pretty ugly.
  • Finally, a viable option is to buy both, and use each for what it is good at.

A Note on Costs of Digital & Film Edit

No discussion of the pros and cons of film and digital would be complete without mentioning the costs involved. It seems obvious that cost per shot is less for digital that it is for film but you are likely to shoot a lot more with a digital camera. The common misconception is that once you've bought your digital camera and enough memory everything is paid for and therefore all future shots are free. In the film world you have to buy your film and get it processed so you constantly have to keep paying to keep photographing.
To a great extent this makes sense but you should not under estimate the hidden costs of going digital even after you have paid for that expensive DSLR or digicam. To begin with, film gear has a longer useful working life than does digital. Many enthusiastic photographers are using film cameras that are decades old and getting great results. Modern films effectively give you an upgrade to your old camera every time you load it. Digital cameras by comparison have a much shorter shelf life. Undoubtedly this will slow as progresses in digital cameras also slows, however, it is unlikely that we have yet seen the digital equivalent of the Nikon F; a camera that still has an enthusiastic following 4+ decades after its revolutionary release. Conservatively, expect to have to replace your more expensive digital camera twice as often as your cheaper film camera.
A digital camera without a computer is pretty useless. You probably already have a computer but you are going to have to spend more on it if you are going to use it as your photo workstation. You will need an image editing program ($100 thru $600+). You will need a fast processor and a lot of fast memory to work productively. You will need a lot of disk space to store all the images you take (a lot more if you're working in RAW or if you want to keep a lot of PhotoShop files around). Now your precious images are digital you will also need a backup strategy - external hard drives, optical disk drives etc.
For most photographers the finished result of their work is a print (preferable matted and framed). Here the digital photographer escapes few of the costs that the film photographer has. If you are going to print at home you need a decent 6 ink photo printer (your old 4 ink printer just won't cut it). If you want to print larger than 11.5 x 8 that printer will be a little more exotic than the typical unit you can find at Staples and it will cost you significantly more (budget $400 thru $2000+). It will also be expensive to feed; for good prints you can't skimp on ink or paper - only use brand names and no cheap substitutes. You will have a lot of control in your digital darkroom but you're also going to have new concerns; is your current monitor and video card up to the job? How are you going to color balance it? Is PhotoShop's gamma setting good enough or do you need a color spyder ($200+)?
If you contract out printing to a commercial lab you loose a lot of the control you have with the digital darkroom and a lot of the associated hassles too. The digital and film photographer's costs for prints will be about the same in this case.
There are a lot of advantages to digital photography but don't under estimate the costs involved. Buying the camera is only half the story; you're buying into a way of working and there are costs (ongoing costs) associated with both formats.

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