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Film vs Digital: Can You Tell the Difference? Enough To Warrant The Expense & Impracticality?

By Kishore Sawh on February 9th 2018

This is sure to be the kind of topic that gets people’s ‘Irish’ up. Anything to do with film tends to elicit strong emotions and gets people to choose sides: film or digital? But there’s really no need, because you can have your cake and eat it too.

The past 5 years has seen a resurgence of popularity in film shooting, and those who do it will frequently tell anyone within earshot just how much they love film, why, and how digital can’t compare.

That’s a hard pill to swallow because they both have their strengths, but the practicality of shooting digital is clearly advantageous. But even if that wasn’t enough, film shooters could always argue that there was just something about the look of film that digital couldn’t match, but that’s certainly less true today than it was even 3 years ago.

One of the great things about digital is its chameleon-like nature, and current incarnations of software will let you match film within 90% of what it really looks like (or more).

There are many shooters out there who shoot hydrid mixes of film and digital, and when it comes time to print/publish they often want symmetry in look, and if you’re using something like Capture One, matching isn’t difficult.

In the video here by The Slanted Lens you see digital images that have been ‘matched’ to their film counterparts using film presets from VSCO and the average person (your clients) would be very hard pressed to tell which was which even with careful study, much less a casual glance. As they’re using VSCO we can assume they’re not using Capture One, in which they’d be able to get closer. Also, if they’d gone with presets from Mastin Labs they’d be better off anyway.

[RELATED: Is It Time To Switch From Lightroom to Capture One Pro? Here’s Why It Might Be]

The point made here is that the disparity between the two is slim enough that one can emulate the other close enough to fool viewers 90% or more of the time, so it begs the question: Do you need to shoot film to get the film look? Does the added expense and impracticality of it make sense in the face of what you’ve just seen? Emotions aside, obviously…

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Bubba Jones

    The more I read about this topic and the opinions provided I am reminded prior to digital professional photographers shot weddings, events, wars, polical events, National Geographic was all film, Arizona Highways, Life and Look magazines, and hundreds more were shot on film. From some posters their meta message comes across as “if it was not for digital I would not be capable nor have the skill set shooting weddings, events, and the like.”

    With regard to obtaining “the film look”, then do not be a digital faker, shoot film. As a photographer I do not have any desire spending time in front of a monitor making digital images appear as film; similar to putting lipstick on a pig. When I want the film look I shot film. 

    If you say you cannot create quality images (same as photographers created for over 100 years all prior to digital) then you as a photographer need to reevaluate your skill set. Whether you shot film or digital be honest with yourself and your clients.

    Almost 100% of the digital shooters I know are more in love with their computer skills (such as making digital appear as film) than they are about their photography skills. Their midset always comes across  as “I will fix it in post”. Very sad.

    You want to shoot digital truly enjoy it, digital is excellent medium. However, because you can take a digital image making it appear as shot on film do not delude yourself that you are a skillful photographer. Folks that is fakery; unacceptable. Either shoot digital or shoot film.

    Disclaimer: for fifty years I shot film, for the next eleven I shot digital 100%, then returned 100% to film (other than my iPhone). I am paid for photography not fakery. 

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  2. Bubba Jones

    Interesting review, thank you. Now, you talk about the cost of the purchase of film and processing, however the Nikon D850, a fabulous camera, cost $3,200-ish. When you can purchase a top of the line 35mm film camera for $200-ish, film does not appear to be more expensive.

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  3. Thomas Be

    I understand why you may want to do the comparison or will find it interesting if you shoot film to “be different” or “for the look” as part of a commercial strategy.

    Personally though it is about practicing photography in a way that is meaningful to me and in that respect there is no comparison.

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  4. Benton Lam

    I think if you’re using film to have that look, and doing this as a profession, you’re probably better off mimicking it with digital.

    I went and got some used film cameras, and its limitations forces me to know lighting a lot better and a lot faster than before, when I was digital only. 

    My guess-shots, on digital, was mostly hit and miss, but it has definitely gotten better after a couple of rolls of first guessing, then verifying with some kind of light meter (I use an app).

    You can definitely do this on digital if you’re learning and have great discipline, but film really pushes you to do it.

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  5. D J

    It’s not about matching the look. It’s about the process and enjoying the physical aspects of film photography. I think they both have a place in the photography world. It’s nice to have a choice in photography medium. You can pick the medium that fits your vision, much like an artist can choose pastel, oil paints, water paints, graphite, etc. It’s never been a competition or an either or. It’s always been about choices and artistic vision.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Well, again, I would half agree and disagree with out. Yes of course it is nice to have a choice of medium and film is something that can be savored, but for many it is very much about matching the look. For those who are using this for work, it’s about matching the look. 

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    • D J

      I agree…look is part of it. But there’s a lot more going into the decision to shoot film vs. digital than just the look. There are a lot of professionals still shooting film (not as many as digital and it depends upon the genre of photography). Considering the amount of retouching digital requires, both film and digital are time consuming and impractical. Photography has never been about instant gratification, unless you are going for a straight up snapshot. Meticulous lighting and styling, consideration for the end result (whether through retouching or film choice), printing decisions, etc. all take time. Dismissing film as impractical is the same as saying “why read a book when you can watch a movie or why write when you can speak?”

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  6. Mircea Blanaru

    Well, well! When virtual reality will beat or at  least will match the reality, let me know. Until then, this is not a debate about the impracticable and expensive is the film photography… The film photography is all about the developing process and, in this days, the scanning the result. It is about the manual work involved here. Not to mention that only the modern Sigma Cameras have a closer approach to the film. And about, the cost, well, well, it is not as big as many think…Yes, the resolution of the film, in most cases is not bigger then 6Mpixels and I can achieve good result at an A3 format and with my own procedures and algorithms, about an A2 format, but who cares…

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    • Kishore Sawh

      My response to both you Mircea, and Dj, is that it would seem prudent to consider the others who are shooting film and for what they’re doing it. While we can sit and wax poetic about the process of developing and shooting (i’m prone to do so), for many people like hybrid wedding photographers, it absolutely is not about the process but about the look, and matching it. If you’re not shooting with constraints of time and budgets, if it’s not your primary vocation, that will matter less, but for it’s those who are who drive this. 

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    • Mircea Blanaru

      If this is your answer, dear Kishore, the further conversation, as Borgs said in a film, is…futile…

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  7. Viktor Wågman

    Mastin Labs will come to C1 one day.. :P

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