Aaron Raisey recently wrote in his article "Film or Digital? It's All Economics" in the Korea Herald recently that:
"So all things considered, economically speaking, which is the better option? The justification for the purchase of many expensive DSLRs is the claim that "we'll save money on film and processing," but as we've just seen over the long term, this argument isn't necessarily founded on facts, and you may just be better off with an inexpensive 20-year-old film camera." (Korea Herald)
Whooa. Before we get people going back to buying film cameras, let's reexamine some of his arguments, which I find pretty problematic, and which sound like those of a non-heavy shooter. The question of which is better is one he deals with in terms of economics and image quality, which are indeed the key issues, but beyond that, are ones he totally misunderstands.
His first claim is that:
"A 35mm film camera is cheaper than the equivalent digital. A comparable digital camera will set you back in excess of a couple of thousand dollars, whereas a good film camera is considerably cheaper. However, you can still pick up excellent DSLRs for less than $1,000, but because the image sensor is smaller than 35mm film image quality suffers as a result by comparison."
I don't know what he means by an "equivalent" 35mm camera to what's coming out these days, but in terms of raw features, there's not much comparison -- digital wins. I shot film on a Canon AE-1, T90, and Elan 7 until 2006, and to my knowledge, there are no more entry-level or even prosumer level film cameras being made in the Canon line. I believe the same is true across the board. So, as the much of technology inevitably means more technology being bundled for less, even if one could find a cheap 35mm Canon that takes present-day lenses, it wouldn't likely boast many of the myriad advances in auto-focus, metering, and flash exposure basics that simply become better with time. Not to mention likely being locked out of many future accessories and no longer being formally supported by companies that no longer produce film bodies, I would have trouble recommending a beginner a film body when one can get a Canon 1000D kit for less than $600.
Then there's the issue of pixels, picture or "print quality" and whatnot that Raisey misunderstands. The "print quality" of a DSLR is quite comparable to that from film, depending on the size and how the image was recorded. But at the full resolution of most entry-level cameras, you're getting at least between 3000 and 4000 pixels across, or the equivalent of 2-4 megabyte scans that you'd get off the film, in the way that Raisey suggests, which is use film, scan it, then print it, giving you the best of both worlds. I did this for several years before switching to digital, when I realized the following:
IT'S not about raw resolution, but the scan resolution you can AFFORD.
Raisey's technically right -- compared to the resolving power of an entry-level digital camera, the theoretical clarity of film IS much better; but that's IF you can afford $50 drum scans per single frame of film. At the resolution that most of ACTUALLY USE and CAN AFFORD, an entry-level digital camera provide MUCH MORE clear resolution than the average -- or even semi-pro to pro -- really needs.
Most entry-level cams hold down digital noise and artifacting down to at least the equivalent of what would be noticeable grain at similar levels of film. And the resolution? If I wanted to make a nice 11x17 color print (which I do all the time), it looks every bit as good as if I had done it on film. The reason it looks worse on a point-and-shoot digital camera with the same megapixels is because you're shooting through a crappy, tinier lens than a DSLR. Doesn't matter how many megapixels you have if you're shooting through crappier optics, now.
But the reality is that most people don't even GO as far as printing, or if they do, printing large. They work on screens, for facebook profiles, pretty pictures of their pets to go in iPhoto, or sending friends travel snaps from Guatemala. Through email. Or Facebook. Or what-have-you. The resolution of either a DSLR or scanned film is far higher than the resolutions needed for viewing anything on a computer screen.
Basically, it works like this. The most economically I shot was on 4000 won rolls of Kodak Supra 800 with 36 shots each. Pro film is often cheaper than consumer film, mostly because of where you buy it and how much is bought at one time. So, this was the cheapest, best color film I could get. Even at my cheap places in Chungmuro that developed the negatives for 1500 won each, where they cut them into strips of 6 across instead of the annoying standard 5 for non-pro shops. Then I looked at the film through a loupe, marked the ones I wanted scanned, then submitted them for a basic 2-megabyte scan that cost me 900 won each at their cheapest. Which took a couple days, and on a given roll, I'd have say 6-8 shots I wanted scanned. THAT SCAN IS ABOUT THE EQUIVALENT OF ABOUT HALF OF THE RESOLUTION OF A DSLR IMAGE, which is more than enough to do just about anything on a computer screen. For larger prints for an exhibition, I'd go back and pay like 5000 won for higher-resolution scanned versions. I once had a dedicated film scanner, but since I have a life to lead outside of waiting nearly a minute per scan and even longer at that scanner's highest resolution, I just started paying for them.
THE POINT? Most people do not need to be wasting their time and money with film and negative processing, then scanning the frames you want that will, in the end, result in lower-resolution versions than if you had just shot from even an entry-level DSLR in the first place.
Remember, this is about economics, right? Again, Rainey's right that film can be scanned at all kinds of high resolution, which is why we get high-def versions of old movies on Blu-Ray now, since they went back and rescanned the original film at the higher resolutions that these discs and TV's can take now. But doing the same on film is VERY expensive, and completely UNNECESSARY to 99% of people even considering an entry-level DSLR. Do you shoot landscapes on a tripod with a remote release and blow it up to 25 feet wide? Well, then perhaps you'd better stick with the film. Or buy a medium-format camera.
And then there's what you shoot.
Do you make lots of throwaway shots? Or other kinds of high-volume shooting? Do you shoot weddings? Or runway photography? Or documentary? Heavy street? If so, you can go though a couple thousand frames PER DAY. And you have to.
In the old days, when I shot a wedding on film, I'd end up with at least 20 rolls. Now, besides the big family and friends shots (which were, back then, too generally shot on a medium-format film camera or nowadays, very high-rez, upper level digital camera), everything else is documentary, dynamic, and not going to be printed very large. Let's say you shoot 20 rolls for a wedding, which yields you 8 usable pics a roll.
20 rolls X 4000 won each = 80,000 won ($80)
20 rolls X 1000 development each = 20,000 won ($20)
20 rolls X 8 usable frames = 160 frames, so 160 frames X 1000 won per scan = 160,000 ($160)
Congratulations! You just spent $260 to shoot a wedding down to a general edit, with real-world files that have HALF the resolution (say, around 2000 pixels across for the 1000 won scans) of an entry-level digital camera. Yay!
And you have to shoot heavy in many areas of hand-held photo to get the right shots -- fashion, wedding, sports, and general documentary. What moved me to digital in the first place? Shooting for my friend's online shopping mall, which would require nearly 100 pics of her clothes and accessories in the end. YOU DON'T DO THAT ON FILM. You just don't.
I've never seen a wedding shooter, fashion photographer, or sports reporter shooting film in the 2000's. In fact, these areas were some of the first to go digital -- BECAUSE of economics.
I don't understand how, at the entry level or even higher -- most pro shooters not in studio or art photography -- film beats digital based on either the argument of either resolution or the economics being "not so bad as you'd think." Raisey's conclusion just seems dead wrong. It really makes me wonder if he's ever shot events or done documentary work on film before, because of the obvious economics involved.
I went digital and never looked back. I am sometimes dissatisfied with images, but mostly because of the chromatic aberration of say, a cheap lens, which produces a slight bluish glow around the edges of objects, especially when I make large 16x20 prints. THAT is a far bigger problem than anything a lay person could pick up in terms of artifacting or obvious digital noise. If you're a beginner worried enough about image quality to fret and wring your hands all day long about it, don't buy the crappy kit lens and get the one from your manufacturer that costs several hundred dollars. Don't buy the Sigma or Tamron equivalent. DON'T. Not if you're worried about image quality enough to go back to the Dark Ages of film and pay out the nose for it.
BUYING A BETTER LENS IS GOING TO MAKE A FAR BIGGER DIFFERENCE than going to film. So the questions you're going to ask, in the end, are:
-- Do you print ginormously large often?
-- Can you tell the difference between digital artifacting or chromatic aberration?
-- Do you have the time or money to afford the process of developing film, looking at negs, scanning the good ones, for resolutions similar to what you'd get in a DSLR?
If the answers to those 3 questions are "no", which I suspect they will be, then you don't need to go anywhere near a film camera.
However, if you answer any of these affirmatively, you just might want to go in the film direction:
-- Do you ever plan to print ginormously large versions of your image?
-- Are you an art or studio photographer who needs ALL the resolution, ALL the time (and probably has access to a drum scanner whom someone else pays for, right)?
-- Are you concerned about having an image in two mediums, just in case of massive date loss or the end of civilization as we know it?
-- For you, money is no object, but you just like the "feel of film in your hands" or have some other nostalgic attachment to the idea of film?
If the answer is yes to those questions, then forgive my disagreements here.
As for Aaron Raisey's overall recommendation that "you may just be better off with an inexpensive 20-year-old film camera" -- I have to say, in a nutshell, that sounds like either the result of a LOT of crack-smoking, or an inexperience with shooting on film in large amounts. Because THAT shit is frickin' EXPENSIVE. And prohibitively so.