Starting out: Film or digital

Sometimes, photographers argue whether someone starting out studying serious photography on a limited budget should use film or digital. The argument from the film camp goes something like this: Digital SLRs are just too darn expensive. For the cost of a simple entry level DSLR such as Nikon's D70 or Canon's 300D one can buy a pro-grade film body.

I don't think this argument stand up to scrutiny. If you're serious enough about your photography to buy a SLR camera, you should be serious enough about your photography to do your own post-processing.

I worked twenty years in a wet darkroom, before switching to digital. I would never go back to the fumes, the stains, and the high cost of working with chemicals and papers. When you are learning, you make mistakes, and a ruined colour print could easly cost $10 in paper and chemicals. Fiddling around with the settings in an image editing program like Paint Shop Pro or Photoshop cost you nothing more than your time - and once you've mastered colour management you can outsource your printing and get consistent results at a very low cost.

I will argue that even if you use a film camera, you will still use digital for post-processing. That means that if you go for a film body, you should also factor in the cost of a film scanner. As it happens, an entry level film SLR kit ($ 300) plus a decent film scanner ($ 600) will cost you about the same as an entry level DSLR kit ($ 900). So whether you go with film or digital, your "starter kit" will cost the same.

Now, with a digital body, running cost is very low - so you can take a lot of pictures without having to worry about the cost of film and development. This is a huge advantage when learning photography. You can also instantly review the shot and histogram on the LCD screen, to check composition and exposure. This instant feedback is also helpful when learning.

The only advantage with film compared to the entry level DSLR bodies is that with film, there is no "crop factor", while budget digital bodies come with an APS-C sized sensor that mulitiply the FOV (field of view) of lenses made for 35mm with 1.6x or 1.5x. This means that you have wider selection of quality wide angles to choose from if you shoot film. Happily, this is changing. All the manufacturers that offer DSLRs also offer "digital" wide-angle lenses (e.g. the Nikon DX-range, the Canon EF-S range), which brings affordable wide-angle to digital bodies.

Overall, I think that the major benefits of a digital camera (low running costs, instant feedback) are so huge that if I were a student starting out in photography today, I would go the digital route.

5 responses:

Analog or digital photography?

Good argument in the analog/digital debate of SLRs by Gisle Hannemyr: Starting out: Film or digital…

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On Analog vs Digital

Author, Speaker, etc. Gisle Hannemyr has started a blog, and has a good argument on analog vs digital cameras for people starting up in photography. (via Jarle)…

Trackback: Anders Jacobsen's sideblog.


That's all very true, but there is also the factor of battery life, storage/image transfer and travel. At the moment digital cameras seem to use huge quantities of power, and if you are travelling for long periods without access to mains power this is a distinct disadvantage. Maybe not a factor for most people, but a factor nonetheless. For the same reason, unless you stock up on huge numbers of expensive memory cards you'll need to transfer images to a computer, and although you could take a laptop with you, the same problems present themselves with power…

Of course both of these issues are improving all the time with cheaper storage, larger drives (roll on cameras that accept USB sticks…) and better batteries and power usage.

Digital is not painless (but it's fun)

Lifelong storage and backup solutions for the digital images are also an important consideration. Not that analog films are easier, but ever growing image data need to be taken care of in a reasonable way. The situation with digital negatives (RAW-files) as proprietary file formats might worsen the availability of the images for future generations depending on the software situation in that time. Taking this into consideration, and also the battery/power/mobile storage part, I agree with your conclusion. Digital cameras are fun and can ease up the learning curve on photography.

Do you have a vision?

Stop in your tracks and take a moment. A man started imaging on a plate of metal covered in asphalt named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Once he made that image, the photograph realm took off. The battle between photography and painting spawned. What is art? I personally think if you can stur stimmung than your on to something. I'm not old, but I grew up learning the Zone system from the education of Ansel Adams. Understanding tonality and how to manipulate your medium both at the capture stage to the developement stage required both artistry and scientism. Experimentation and failure yields wonderous knowledge. People today think that just because you have a camera with an LCD that gives you instantaneous results that you are a great photographer. Do you actually understand the correlation between apertures and shutter speeeds to yield the vision you want. And do you have a vision at all. And if so, do you know how to take the camera off program or auto and manipulate that beautiful machine to your own usage in the way Cartier Bresson or Edward Weston did. Do you understand exposure at all. Fuck digital, do you understand the concepts first? I use a computer and a digital camera and backup device all of the standards I require, but have all the techno geeks started at the basics of tonality, composition, and beauty? If you don't have that – then you have nothing.

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