Digital versus Film

Why is digital photography so much more confusing that film used to be? This is something I hear a lot these days and it unfortunately means that cameras have gone the same way as a lot of other high-tech gadgets. There seems to be this feeling that more is better when it comes to features, capabilities, user controls etc. The same thing was true of devices such as MP3 players. Then along came Apple and decided that the user experience is just as important, and possibly more so, than just a feature list. Apple revolutionizes everything they touch these days and it is by removing features that they are so successful. Apple is following the advice of Antoine se Saint Exupery who said “It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. It may be awhile before Apple decides to enter the digital camera market (not talking about the iPod, iPhone or iPad with cameras in) and until that happens we will continue to see more and more features and complexity added to cameras.

The good news is that these beasts do have fully automated modes of operation and in many cases these do pretty good, but they can’t know exactly what it is that you intend, and that is where you have to take over and start to deal with the complexity.

Let’s start by looking at what we had with Film cameras. You could adjust the aperture and the shutter speed, and of course the focus. All of these could be done both manually or automatically. We could also select the film we put into the camera. This modified the sensitivity of the camera and the way it reacted to certain kinds of light. The sensitivity, often known as ISO, was a reflection of how much light was necessary to get the full contrast of the film. The higher the ISO, the most sensitive it was, but also the more grainy the resulting picture used to be. You could also buy film for indoor use, or outdoor and this adjust the way it reacted to colors. An indoor film expected tungsten lighting which would create a warm cast on a regular outdoor film. In short it was adjusting the color temperature of the shot. In a digital camera we can adjust these on a frame by frame basis, and this means that we can theoretically change the film for every shot. Just the addition of these two extra controls means that there are things we can do that would have been very difficult with film, but add to the complications and confusion. In future blogs, I will talk about some of these individually and in combination or how to overcome difficulties after the shot was taken if the automatic settings were not quite right.

All photographs were taken by me and are copyrighted images. If you would like prints of any of them, please email me at

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Products you may be interested in:
Exploring Color Photography Fifth Edition: From Film to Pixels


Fundamentals of Photography: The Essential Handbook for Both Digital and Film Cameras

Fearless Photographer: Film in the Digital Era