Digital Photography vs Film Photography - Which is Better? - Stephen Milner

Digital Photography vs Film Photography - Which is Better?

A New Zealand Landscape Photographer Story

Digital Photography vs Film Photography - Which is Better?

Have you ever compared digital photography vs film photography, or vice-versa? However, does it even mater because the camera is simply a recording device in the hands of photographer with a creative eye. Over the last 12 month, I have received many questions related to my experiences with medium format film, why I started using medium format digital, what I think of the two mediums, and when will I be using film again. So I thought I would wrap all this up in one blog that touches on what I think of each camera. And, I will tell you why I think my camera is just a tool that I use for me creative project. 

New Zealand Landscape Photographer

For context purposes, I will share with you my experiences in using medium format digital photography vs film photography. I have been using medium format film cameras since 2019. I started with the Mamiya 7, I then moved to the Hasselblad 503cw because I love the 6x6 square format aspect ratio, and then I moved to the Mamiya 6 because it is more travel friendly. My choice to use film might seem a bit backwards because it is an older photography format. However, I saw it as an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of photography. I have travelled all over the North Island of New Zealand with these film cameras to work on my projects.

In 2021, I decided to focus on my photography full time and I wanted to travel more. I know that film photography is difficult to travel with because it is a slow process. There can be many weeks between taking a photo and seeing it on my computer screen. So, I decided to start using a medium format digital camera.

New Zealand Landscape Photographer

If we compare the technical merits of medium format digital photography vs film photography in isolation, the digital camera is far superior, and it would be ridiculous for me to even suggest otherwise. 

If we compare image quality, the only way film can out perform digital is with accurate exposure and focus, and with digitalisation of the film or darkroom print, with a drum scanner. 

Digital Photography vs Film Photography

But, all of this does not mean that one of them is the best camera for you, and I will explain why. Film is slow and there is no instant feedback. It will highlight your creative and technical strengths and weaknesses quickly. You have to build experience and rely on your confidence. Film and developing it is expensive. The cameras are old, parts and repairers are hard to find. To get good quality images you have to buy the best lenses and “mint condition” is expensive. 

However, some film cameras hold or increase in value. Film is not ideal for travelling photographers because it is slow and airport security scanning can damage the film. A high quality scanner is required to produce excellent digital files. 

Digital is more efficient and has less risk. The upfront cost is high. It is easy to check previews but is not required unless shooting at slow shutter speeds. The RAW files are better quality. 

So which do I think is better? 

Well, I think the digital camera is better for me whilst I am travelling lots and I am trying to establish my photography business. The cost and risk of film doesn’t make sense for me unless I need film on a project for a specific reason.

But that doesn’t mean digital is better for you. Before buying into a digital medium format system, it is essential that you are producing photographs that you are happy with, with your current camera system. 

New Zealand Landscape Photographer

You must have crafted you minds eye into something that you like. You have to transition your photography from simply recording the scene into abstracting the scene with a wider creative vision. The digital medium format camera will not give this to you. 

You see, the thing is, any camera is simply a recording device without the creative input from you. If you have the mindset that you are not getting the photos you want because of your camera, I recommend you have a think about the purpose of your photography. Spend some time thinking about your creatively skills. Because, I think you will find that your money will be better spent on learning how to develop your minds eye by going on workshops, having mentoring sessions, buying inspirational books, and travelling to new places. 

If you are the sort of person that is not afraid of failure and can learn from you own mistakes, a medium format film camera will help you become a better photographer. You will develop a better understanding of exposure and depth of field. Plus, working with film is expensive and it will force you to think about things differently.  Your compositions will improve quicker.

Film photography is a slow process because you do not get to see your photos until the film has been developed. Your mistakes are only visible after you have left your photography location and your film had been developed. So, as you make these mistakes, you learn about them later, and then you start to think about what you need to do differently before your next photography trip. Because of this, I am convinced that my technical and creative knowledge of photography would not be what it is today. Film photography will help you build confidence in your photography.

When I started using a digital camera, it took some time to get comfortable with how my camera worked. However, I very quickly started to appreciate its technology, and I find that I am photographing more portfolio worthy photos every time I use it. But, this is because I have a deeper understanding of photography, which I learnt from using film. I worked with medium format film cameras or three years to make this book. 

The thing is, I want you to have the same understanding, so if you do not have any experience using a film camera, then I recommend you buy a cheap one and give it a go. Start to learn how to use it, it will teach you things that todays digital cameras automate. If you can make great photos with a film camera then your digital work will be even better, and more efficient.

Recently, I have had questions about when will I be using my film camera again, and people have told me that they are unsubscribing because I am using a digital camera. Or, people ask me what camera, lens and settings I use. Sometimes, I feel like people believe that the camera is more important than the photographer. That the camera its lens and the settings somehow produce pleasing results on their own. 

When we buy cameras, we go through the motion of unpacking it, reading the manual and becoming familiar with how to use it. Every camera manual that I have read includes technical information about the camera and it includes technical illustrations to help you navigate the camera. 

Camera manuals do not offer any creative guidance and as photographers we have to discover the difference between simply recording the scene and abstracting the scene with a wider creative vision by ourselves. But, it takes time to realise this. For the first few years of your creative journey, when you are not seeing the results you hoped for, it is normal to blame your camera, or the settings you used. 

Eventually, your reflection will turn onto yourself. You will start to reflect on how you have used your camera, or if you have a good creative vision for your photos, and if your photos are aligned with your creative vision. Eventually, your photography will transition from simply recording the scene into abstracting the scene with a wider creative vision.

New Zealand Landscape Photographer

My creative visions remain the same regardless of the camera I use and I want you to start thinking the same way. You see, the thing is, any camera is simply a recording device without the creative input from you. 

I want you to be more than just a photographer because in todays world everyone carries a smart phone that is capable of taking good photos, so most people consider themselves a photographer. So ask yourself, how can you set your self apart from everyone with a smartphone? Leave a comment below.

The way I think about my cameras is this. My film camera slows me down because I have to work harder to get the results I want, and I am limited to the 6x6 square crop of my Mamiya 6. My digital camera makes my photography more efficient because I get more portfolio worthy photos over the same period and I have more aspect ratio flexibility. 

But, none of my cameras give me better creative visions. My creative visions must develop continually with experimentation and reflection. I identify a project that I want to do, then I decide how I am going to do it, and I pick the appropriate tools.

Sometimes these project happen by accident, for example I have been enjoying my recent panoramic photos and I will make a panoramic book that captures the grand landscape of New Zealand. 

I am developing another project that focuses on abstract landscapes but I do not yet know how this project will unfold. I want you to start thinking the same way. I want you to have creative visions that include many photos that tell a story. And this is important because it will help you become a better photographer, because your work will start to have more meaning and it will stand out from other photographers.