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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Newhall

Film vs. Digital Photography: What's the Difference?

Updated: Jan 10

So, what's the difference between film and digital photography? Outside of the obvious, that is. On the surface they have numerous differences in processing, development, and printing. What about the actual skills used in both? What's the difference? Is there any difference at all?


That is a good question! The development process of film and digital photography are obviously extremely different. This is simply because of the nature of the process in each. Obviously a digital photographer does not dunk their SD card in darkroom chemicals!

Stock photo of a film camera. My first film camera actually looks something like this!

At least, I hope not. That could really damage the SD card. Of course, the same is true for sticking a roll of film into an SD card reader! I have no idea why anyone would try either of these two things, but I thought I might mention that you shouldn't. Just in case.


Going right in to the comparison, an important similarity between film and digital is composition. The rule of thirds, for example, applies to both film and digital photography. Film photography is a great opportunity to learn to think about composition before clicking the shutter. Those limited frames definitely help you remember to limit the number of photos you can take. Digital might make it easier for you to take 20+ shots of the same flower from slightly different angles, but 35 frames on a roll of film definitely makes that hard to do.


A lot of the skills I have in photography, especially the compositional skills, I learned from film photography. Film photography was perfect because it forced me to limit the number of shots I could take of a subject because, unlike a digital camera with a 64MB SD card, I only have 35 frames on one roll of film. So, realistically, I only have a couple chances to get the perfect image. I also was forced to understand how to make photos with a virtually completely manual camera. Honestly, the only thing that was at all electrical in the camera was the built-in light meter. The rest was mechanical.


Manual use of a film camera was, at first, frustrating and tedious. I had to move so many dials to get the right image! Eventually, I came to love it. I had to master control and knowledge of the mechanics of the camera first, but after that it started to become second nature. This became extremely helpful later on when I was learning digital, because now I knew how to use a camera on a purely manual setting. I know that it's not for everyone, but almost all of my photos available here have been done in manual.


Using purely manual made it much easier to create photos like this one, this one, and definitely this one. In my experience, abstract photography pretty much requires knowledge of manual control. Learning Aperture Priority and Shutter Speed Priority made it so much easier to learn Manual. After my teacher had me learn with a manual film camera, it was so much easier for it all to click (yes, pun intended).


As a funny side note, I did learn to use automatic, but by then I was so used to having absolute control over my camera and composition that I felt uncomfortable using automatic! Even when I teach, I prefer to teach my students to use the priority settings, if not completely manual!


Lastly, texture is key in black and white photography. Color contrast can definitely get the attention of viewers and is certainly useful in color film and digital, but the color of some flowers against green plants is not going to translate properly into black and white.

Flower bouquet with a variety of colors.
Imagine this in black and white! Wouldn't work, would it?

Instead, with film, you want to focus on the texture of the flower against the texture of the grass. Perhaps the flower is sharply in focus while the grass is not. Then, if there is no color, the viewer is focusing on that texture and the difference between them. When you have this, and then add the color contrast, you get a uniquely amazing photo!


Now, there were some differences between film and digital for me. For one thing, I always use black and white film. Shifting to digital requires shifting to color, and that comes with some new skills. Color contrast and composition is something for an entirely different post, but that deserves its own post! See you later!










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