Photography: when to use film or digital

In my last post I promised to write about when I prefer to use digital and film photography, since I see both recording media as equivalent. I want to start this discussion by re-iterating that I use both recording media to about the same extent and like results from both.

I also need to clarify that when I refer to digital photography, I mean digital SLR (or some mirrorless cameras which come close in performance to a digital SLR). A comparison of digital compact camera vs. film SLR does not make sense because the high ISO and autofocus performance of the digital compact camera is not at the same level as digital SLR due to the smaller sensor and different autofocus module.

To begin, I want to highlight the strength and weaknesses of each recording medium and then mention examples where I use them.

Digital SLR

Strength Weaknesses
High ISO performance outstanding (now we can take photos in the dark)
Virtually unlimited shooting possible (no film changing after 36 exposures)
Adjustment of exposure and White Balance etc. afterwards possible with raw files
Immediate availability of data
Immediate feedback
Oftentimes heavier than film gear
Equipment relatively expensive
Requires shooting infrastructure: battery chargers, memory cards, field storage, field data backup
Dynamic range not as high as film (this gap is getting narrower)
Some colors not rendered as natural as film
With high burst rates it is easy to shoot hundreds of images, requires time to edit

…and for Film Photography

Strength Weaknesses
Equipment inexpensive
Cameras run forever on batteries
No need for field backup infrastructure
Lack of immediate feedback and availability of recorded images leads to more contemplative approach to photography
With a delay of at least one day until photos are available, allows photographer to envision an image and be surprised how different the actual photo looks in the end
Great inexpensive lenses available
High ISO photography pretty much irrelevant (highest ISO for color film was 800-1600, now difficult to get; ISO 3200 for b/w)
Not well suited for high burst events (requires frequent film changes)
Because of low ISO film, may require tripod
Delay of at least one day until photographs become available after development
No immediate feedback (this may be a strength)
Requires more steps in a digital workflow (processing – scanning – editing)

Here is my list of typical motifs for each recording medium:

Digital Photography Film Photography
Action
travel*
low light
macro overcast day
handheld telephoto shots
scientific photography
studio flash setups
all commercial wedding
event, etc. photography
zoo animals
night skiing
Flowers
fall foliage
photography during action/sports (using inexpensive equipment)
landscape
travel*
day skiing
high contrast scenes
landscape details

 * For travel photography, I don’t have any clear preference and usually take “one of each”, I try not to shoot the same motif twice.

 

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