Some things you might like to know about film and digital
First, yes, this page is older now. Perhaps someday it will be taken down as obsolete, but right at the moment it still serves a useful purpose in comparison. I still shoot film, and still like it. If you want to know why, or have never actually shot any film, look here.
Now, a disclaimer: What is expressed here is only a collection of my own experiences, views, and opinions. Anyone is welcome to disagree, and I'm not going to debate it. Nor do I care what anyone's pet preference is.
But some people might like to hear a viewpoint that doesn't have anything to do with selling equipment, justifying purchases, or "determining a winner". No format does it all, nor should they be expected to. Use what suits you best, and don't give a rat's ass what anyone else thinks.
Before we go any further: Go back up and read that last sentence again.
Since this page has a lot of parts to it, I've broken it down into headers you can jump to by using the table below, just click on your choice. Or feel free to simply follow it in order, whatever works best.
Background: I've been using film for better than 20 years, and shooting with a high degree of control for most of that. I've studied up on photographic principles and lens effects, emulsion responses, lighting, and so on. So my approach is from a standpoint of knowing what can be done with a camera, and what can't. My photography relies on it. I tend to think everyone's should.
My forays into the digital realm were taken with such varied cameras as the Sony Mavica FD 350, Sony DSC F-717 and F-828, Canon Pro 90 IS, Canon 10D, and Canon 300D (Digital Rebel) — it's fairly safe to say this runs the gamut from lower to higher end digital models. And while I never performed a structured "test" with any of them, I've used all of them in a variety of real-world photography conditions and have seen how each of them respond to typical, and some not-so-typical, demands.
So the idea behind this page is to frankly discuss as many of the factors I think will be important to photographers as I can. Not everyone's the same, and what I find frustrating, you may find an unimportant quibble. It's up to you to know what you expect from your equipment.
So, let's start with the...
Savings of digital over film. Basically, you don't have to buy film! This is considered the primary selling point of digital cameras. But, there's just a couple catches...
First, digital cameras cost more than their equivalently capable film counterparts. In some cases, a lot more. It can be argued that this is only a one-time cost, and in a few years (depending on the number of photos you take), this is recouped. If I ever run into someone using the same digital camera they bought four years ago, I'll be happy to agree. Until then, I can't consider it a "one-time" cost when people continue to upgrade their digital cameras every year or two.
Second, there's the cost of storage: Harddrives, CD-Rs and CD-RWs (or DVD-Rs), enough memory cards to last through a photographic situation until they can be unloaded, and so on. Very few people that I have seen getting into digital, did so without performing major upgrades on their computer, if not actually buying a laptop so they could unload the memory while traveling. And the jury is still out on longevity of recordable media like CD-Rs and DVD-Rs — I'll be happy to provide a count of the failures I've had, if you like. In my case, they contained scans of slides that I still have safely tucked away in archival sleeves, so all that was lost was the time I spent scanning them in the first place. I would hate to think about losing good photos forever because the media simply failed.
One of the comparison points between film and digital is often the number of shots somebody took in their first year of shooting digital — "If I'd done that with film, it would have cost me..." Sure. But typically, film is not hosed around with the utter abandon that digital is, and it's mostly because of that cost in the first place. At the same time, this contributes to the photographer being more careful with their shots, and thus taking more time to ensure that the image they capture is not a waste. So comparing the number of "keepers," of images actually considered worth retaining, should be factored in as well. At the same time, compare the improvements in photographic skill.
I'll deal with the cost savings of printing your own digital shots a little further down.
Quality Comparisons: This is such a highly subjective field that I'm only going to touch on it lightly. In order for it to have any real meaning, one needs to compare the same image, taken in the same conditions, with comparable lenses, printed through the best methods. This is rarely, if ever, the case. Comparing a digital RAW file with a scanned image from a film negative is not a direct comparison of their attributes, and I'll be happy to stack up an Ilfochrome print made directly from one of my slides (NOT scanned) against any digital print. That's only a start — I use umpteen different films, and they're geared to different situations. That's why different style emulsions exist. A few years ago, photography magazines were doing film comparisons on a regular basis, looking at grain, resolving power, exposure latitude, saturation, contrast, color palette, and so on. It stretches the imagination to think that a digital camera, which produces one particular set of traits, can effectively be compared to "film."
I will also note that, even with narrow-latitude slide films, I have done multiple scans to bring up detail that a 24-bit image could not capture at once (24-bit being the limit of my scanner). There's no way I would consider what I scan to faithfully represent the slide or negative itself.
Some of the stumbling blocks
Image Previewing: Another major selling point of digital — "You can see the image instantly and know if you got what you needed." Except that you really can't. An LCD screen measuring perhaps as much as 10cm across isn't going to tell you a whole lot about sharpness, depth-of-field, motion blur, or any fine details like that. In my experience with a Sony DSC F-717, Canon Pro 90, Canon 10D, and Canon 300D, they could not even indicate a proper exposure, since the brightness of the LCDs was way out of proportion to the gamma display of my (meticulously corrected) computer monitor. The most that the LCD can tell you is if you captured the action or not, which is an important factor considering one great drawback of many digital cameras, shutter lag. But that's all.
Note: Digital SLRs which use an optical viewfinder can perform much more reliably with checking focus than will an LCD. They can also give a comparable idea of depth-of-field. I've had my own problems gauging depth-of-field with a film SLR, so I don't consider the small image on the viewfinder focusing screen adequate, but that is a shortcoming that spans both film and digital. In addition, most digital SLRs provide a smaller image in the viewfinder, making this that much harder to judge.
LCDs are often considered to be much better to frame a photo with, more comfortable to aim and use and such. Matter of preference, I guess — I still prefer a viewfinder. At a greater apparent viewing distance, an LCD screen can give a better idea of how the elements in the frame work together, it's true. This is not a hard thing to teach yourself, but it does require recognizing it as a necessary thing to learn in the first place — with a digital, you may be practicing it without giving it a moment's thought. Though it will help to get all the info clutter off of the screen first ;-)
Small point there, while I mention it: I don't know how many manufacturers engage in the practice of displaying the camera settings, and other details like memory usage and so on, directly in the frame of the preview image. It's a bad idea, blocking elements of the shot from you and giving a skewed idea of how the frame is filled. Whenever you can avoid it, do so. Preview the image only, even if this means switching the display from time to time. Your images will improve because of it, trust me.
Bad things about LCDs, besides what I mentioned above, are their inability to be used in bright light (necessitating using the dreaded viewfinder), and most especially the instability they lead to. Holding both arms out away from your body as if you're making a temple offering is about as unstable as you can hold a camera, leading to camera twitch and thus motion blur of your pics. Moreover, you may not even realize what kind of an angle you're holding the camera at, since the image is being compared to the surroundings, not the frame edges. Many people will prefer using the LCD; just be warned of the pitfalls. Like all good photography, it takes good habits.
Shutter Lag: I will be exceptionally polite to everyone and not list the profuse array of expletives I've uttered over this little factor. It varies from camera to camera — the upper-end models tend to be greatly reduced, but the package-deal (point-n-shoot, built-in lens models, whatever) can be really prone to it. The F-717 is pretty bad, but Sony greatly improved this with the F-828, and most DSLRs are considered quite close to film cameras in regard to the delay in capturing the image after pressing the shutter (we won't talk about the delay when switching the camera on before you can actually capture an image.) I honestly don't know why the delay exists in the first place — I've had it occur on full manual settings, so it wasn't due to focusing, metering, white balance, or any other factor of the sort. If the camera can get an image at 1/2000 of a second shutter speed, while does it take a half-second or better to 'trip the shutter'? I'm stymied, but more to the point, I've been really pissed! I've missed countless good shots because of this lag, which often got worse with automatic settings. It may depend on style, but right offhand, I know of no one, pro or amateur, who doesn't feel that capturing the crucial instant of a good image is something they would want to do at some time, perhaps quite regularly. Be warned, and research your model before you buy — the frustration level you might reach if you don't is definitely unhealthy.
Built-In Lenses: Okay, big bias here, because even before I'd ever owned my first SLR, I desperately wanted interchangeable lenses. So I don't consider one fixed zoom ratio to be useful. Style of photography, season to taste.
Don't allow yourself to be fooled by the "zoom factor" that is a favorite methodology of marketers. A "10X" zoom does not compare to, for instance, a spotting scope or set of binoculars that offers 10X magnification — they are totally different animals. In the digital camera world, an "X" factor only means how much longer the longest available focal length is over the shortest. A camera sporting a 10X zoom might have focal lengths of 5-50mm, and another might have 35-350mm. Both "10X" zooms, but obviously not the same thing.
Moreover, they're both meaningless, in and of themselves. Film cameras have a fixed image size, which is that of the film format — all the negatives or slides are exactly the same size for that type of camera. So focal lengths have a direct relation to magnification, or more specifically, field-of-view.
Not so with digitals. Image sensors can be all different sizes, and this means that the image that the lens projects onto them can be all different sizes too, as well as how far away it needs to be from the sensor. So true focal length is largely meaningless unless you're into optics. Thankfully, most manufacturers now list the 35mm (meaning film format) equivalent of their lenses, which helps a great deal and can give the buyer a good idea of what to expect — as long as they're familiar with focal lengths for 35mm film ;-)
But there's more! Digitals with smaller sensors can get by with very short focal lengths and still produce good images. And this makes them nicely compact, light and easy to carry. No matter how you look at it, this is a major plus, though people with larger hands might be less than enthralled with little cameras. But on the downside of these little lenses, they usually have a couple of distinct negative traits. First, the aperture may have a very limited range — the F-717 had a minimum aperture of f8, not very far. Physically, it was probably impossible to go much smaller, because for those focal lengths, it's a pretty small opening. But this limits the conditions the camera can be used within, and it becomes even more limiting when the ISO cannot be dropped lower to compensate.
Second problem with shorter focal lengths is that depth-of-field is dependent on the size of the aperture opening. Small lenses have small maximum apertures as well. This means that getting a short depth-of-field can be especially tricky. Many people may find this unimportant, but it eliminates a very useful aspect of photography, and affects the rendition of the images. And there's no way to change it.
The Sony DSC F-717 (and 707, and 828) uses Zeiss optics, and without a doubt, these lenses are great performers for the type of camera. Very sharp, fairly well corrected, good contrast. For a built-in zoom, this is surprising, but gratifying. Moreover, their macro ability is excellent for a zoom, though you have to use the shorter focal lengths to utilize this. I expected many more limitations from this lens than I found, so kudos to Sony and Zeiss.
And yet... I wanted to go wider angle at times, and I certainly wanted much longer focal lengths. The solution, of course, is a DSLR (or sticking with my old film SLRs!). Cameras with built-in lenses are made for a market demographic that does not include me.
The infamous multiplier!: Okay, if you've looked at DSLRs, you've noticed the "focal length multiplier", usually 1.3 or 1.6. This means that the standard 35mm film lenses that are used on those cameras now gets measured 1.6 (or 1.3) times to get the effective focal length. A 300mm lens now becomes a 480mm!
Well, not quite. What really happens is that the digital sensor for those cameras is smaller than 35mm film, so a smaller image area is captured. Basically, it's the same as cropping a 35mm film image to a smaller size.
"But it looks bigger!" you can argue. I suppose. It really depends on how far you enlarge it, doesn't it? I could do the exact same thing with any other image; digital, medium format, large format, whatever. Cut the edges off, enlarge that until it fills the page, and look: It fills the page!
The important thing to remember is, it's the same lens and the same image coming out of it, regardless of how much of it you end up using. It has the same properties of sharpness/resolution, fringing, distortion, depth-of-field, and so on. Enlarge it too far, and you start seeing the true limits of performance of any lens. Just keep it in perspective.
Built-in Flashes: Okay, this applies to all cameras fitting these descriptions, film and digital alike. But most built-in flashes are significantly underpowered, and almost always placed too damn close to the lens. This leads to, respectively; a) not being able to adequately illuminate a more distant subject, and especially not backgrounds; and b) RED EYE! You don't need fancy-schmancy preflashes and stuff to eliminate red-eye — you need the flash to be farther away from the lens axis, the farther the better. Redeye is caused by the light bouncing directly off of the subject's retina back to the camera, through that tiny little hole called the pupil. It's so tiny, only a nearly direct shot can produce the effect, and that means putting the flash as close to the lens as you can, which is what most manufacturers seem bent on doing. Avoid this at all costs, and if the camera you like the most has it, make sure it also has a true "hot-shoe" (not a flash mount, but that exact term, "hot shoe") to mount an external flash. Which is a good option to have anyway, because they're also brighter and don't drain the camera batteries.
Batteries: Digitals suck them dry like little DC vampires. All day shoot? Forget it — bring lots of spares, or have a place to put a charger. The Lithium Ion batteries are supposed to be very long-lived and do indeed charge quickly, but coming from a background of being able to shoot for weeks to months without changing batteries, I'm not impressed. I also tend to be away from power outlets for long periods of time, one of those things about nature. Always, always have at least one spare battery, the more the better. And include that into your cost considerations.
Memory: Include this too. Memory cards vary widely, as does the space the image files take, depending on detail and method of saving. Yes, they're reusable. Yes, they're quick to unload. Yes, they're small and handy, and hard to damage. And they don't hold much. Buy several, and the higher your camera resolution, the more you'll need. Because, in all fairness, carrying a laptop computer around to unload cards can only be called "convenient" by those who have never done it for a day. I can carry a lot of film equipment, and often do. And I can carry it into the woods for five days and continue to shoot the entire time. One laptop weighs about as much as a few hundred rolls of film, and becomes worthless after four hours of use away from an outlet. Or add those batteries, too. It starts to get ridiculous, and all of this is often used as an argument against the inconvenience of carrying film. Please. The film bag is not the thing I'm cussing about during a long hike in hot weather.
I did weekend photo shoots on digital, twice. Four large memory cards, three batteries. And I had to take breaks three times a day to unload memory and get fresh batteries, requiring two AC outlets for the laptop and charger (which thankfully were set up in a barn one weekend, and a tent the other). I did a similar weekend shoot on film. I needed no unloading stops, and carried a film pouch (smaller than a lunchbox) and two spares sets of batteries, neither of which I needed. Don't let yourself be fooled by the "convenience" issue.
ISO: Make sure, if you're comparing digital and film, that your comparisons extend to the outer edges of ISO as well — just one doesn't cut it. At faster speeds (ISO 400 and up), digital often drops so far down in quality that the effective resolution has been cut 50 to 75%, and/or noise becomes a major issue. Performance becomes comparable to the early days of color films, when the faster films were terrible. Today, fast films are radically improved and can produce large prints with very little reduction in quality — not so with digital. Cameras vary, so check it out for individual models, but typically you can expect a serious degradation in performance. There are limits to what you can do with ISO 100, and in many common photographic conditions — indoors, parties, candid shots, low light, etc. — higher ISOs are pretty much a necessity. This also relies on having lenses that let in enough light (digitals P&S's tend to be moderately better than their film counterparts in this respect), and a flash that has adequate power (both film and digital P&S's truly suck at this). If you're used to using a tripod all the time you may be just fine. Without it, you can be pushing the limits of the camera's performance. I find it's easier to pick up a roll of ISO 1600 film than to wait for technology to catch up so I can buy a new digital camera body that can perform half as well...
Artifacting: There's quite a list of these, but primary ones are poor handling of highlights (blowouts and/or color casts), noise, and purple fringing. These are inherent properties of the cameras and cannot be changed with switching lenses, film, filtering, white balance, or anything else. If the problem bugs you, find another camera. See "costs" above. Years back, manufacturers spent a huge amount of time in research to rid their lenses of similar effects, and now it appears the process has started all over again with the new medium.
But there's no wait: I never understood this one. One Hour Processing (two for E-6) is a long wait? I don't know about you, but I don't stand there at the lab's counter tapping my foot for that time — I go do something else. I return when it's convenient. Maybe I'm not as excited about my pics anymore, but I don't recall ever being that anxious, really. And I've never, ever had a client that rabid for pics — the worst I had demanded an overnight turnaround; no sweat.
As opposed to doing it myself. Hmmmm. First, I was into "doing it myself", and the control it entailed, long before digital hit the scene. I've always been particular about my images, ever since I first knew how badly a lab could screw them up. Eventually, I found a lab I could trust. But I also got into scanning slides fairly quickly, and then into running off my own prints at home. The time it takes up is pretty significant — much more than a dropoff and subsequent pickup from the lab. And the maintenance is all my own responsibility, as is getting things into spec. Which leads to...
Printing!: All right, first off, I'm far from computer illiterate — in fact, I've learned many types of software without instruction, then trained others for its use, and routinely do hardware and software upgrades on my own equipment as well as other peoples'. But printing my own images is something that, after years, I've finally decided I'm damn sick and tired of. Printer clogs and jams, ink spills, paper tests, color matching (on software specifically not intended to provide user control), cleaning, and on and on. I can adjust my monitor for excellent display results, but cannot produce the same image out of the printer no matter what — the ink colors do not match the RGB settings of the software and ICC profiles, and cannot be forced to do so without writing my own driver software — I'm not that experienced. So I might get the highlights down in the proper registers, but this means the shadows go too yellow. Or I might get a very neutral greyscale pattern down for midtones — only highlights become magenta and shadows green. Since these are complementary colors, I can't adjust them both in the software. Printer interfaces are not made for that kind of control, though they definitely should be; I can do it easily in Photoshop. And so, I burn them to a disk and take them to a lab anyway, because they can print them correctly. Photo paper is a constant tone response, not based on six fixed ink colors. And I can get true matte papers from a lab, nice pearl textures, things like that — nobody makes inkjet papers of the kind.
By the way, try printing a set of 36 exposures of 4x6 prints, at home, from your digital camera. See if you're done in an hour. While that's happening at my film lab, I'm getting lunch...
Factor in the costs of ink, paper, the printer, and if you're a real stickler, your time. Add maintenance time as well — unless you're one of those lucky few, it'll be significant.
Fading, outgassing, paper/ink mismatches, not water resistant, banding, blotches? These are all home-printer problems, things that largely don't exist in the photo paper world. If I get anything of the sort from the lab, I hand it back to them and make them do it over. It doesn't happen often.
Cheaper? Depends on the lab. And depends on what you want. Ilfochromes are expensive, but they're practically luminous. Standard lab prints usually come within a few cents of a home print, as long as your time is considered "free".
It can help a great deal if you invest in a bulk-ink assembly for your printer, occasionally called things like "Continuous Flow Systems" or similar. These represent a huge savings over the standard inkjet cartridges supplied by the manufacturer, most especially if you do a lot of printing. But they have their own sets of problems. Installing them can be tricky, and maintaining them might be more so. There's a much greater chance of spillage, and in some cases, siphoning which might drain your bulk bottles and waste quite a lot of ink. Worst thing in my mind, however, is that they are different inks than the manufacturer uses — in some cases, radically different, even though you will probably be assured that they are virtually the same. Different inks means different responses to papers, different color registers, and in one case I have personal experience with, the black ink could not produce a glossy finish like the other colors, which made for very bizarre results, far from comparable to a lab print.
I won't bother telling you how often I've spent time clearing clogged print heads, because I can't count that high. Let me just say that, if the idea is (as I've often been told) that clogs occur only because the printer is unused, then this apparently means you have to do full-color printing every day. But since I've had clogs occur with fresh ink right smack in the middle of a print run, I'd have to consider the "clogging from disuse" issue to be hogwash. I won't argue; I could have had bad models of printers, and in one case this certainly appears to be cause — that particular model received scores of complaints. It still meant that the money was totally wasted, as was my time, and to be blunt, there is ONE crucial function a printer has to do: Put the ink down. This isn't an area that can charitably be called a "mistake", and I cannot accept that the manufacturer did not know this might be a problem with that model.
All right, I've listed enough stumbling blocks, so I'll be fair and list the advantages now too.
Clarity: Digital has definitely produced an improvement in image clarity on a dependable basis, largely due to the firmware manipulating the sensor info. Colors and contrast that are produced tend to be vibrant, falling somewhere in between average print films and slide films (which are known for their contrast and vivid color). For most uses, this gives good results. Even better, and a major contribution to photography, is "white-balancing". We are usually not aware how much of a color cast certain kinds of lighting produces, but photographs are very sensitive to it — commonly seen are the dim yellow incandescent, and the sickly green fluorescent, effects. Digital cameras have the ability to automatically compensate for this and produce images that look like they were taken under controlled lighting. Used properly, it's an excellent tool and benefit.
Digital also assists in optimum results from a, shall we say, less than perfect understanding of photography? For the holiday snapper, it will average out much better images from the same conditions than will a typical film P&S. This is an exceptionally broad generalization, but it's one that has appealed to many casual shooters.
Feedback: This is the area that is touted by many as the prime appeal of digital: "I can see what I got right away." This is true, taking note of the exceptions listed above, and it has benefits in many situations, among them the ability to immediately show friends just how badly they embarrassed themselves when someone was ready to snap their pic. Sometimes it's more fun to wait until they're sober, but hey...
Seriously, though, the instant feedback can assist when learning the rudiments of photography. Beyond a certain point they will indeed vanish, as the ability to see precise detail requires uploading to a computer, but initially it gives an opportunity to know what function does what, and how to capture precise moments. Moreover, the feedback is an intense psychological draw, and contributes significantly to the desire to get more involved in photography, to learn more, and to refine control. I'm all for that, and if it works for you that way, go for it!
Professionally, the quick response allows the photographer to see specific effects of lighting, fast shutter speeds, and other fleeting conditions, and to make changes as necessary while the conditions are still available. Balancing strobes to existing light conditions such as a sunset, especially when it constantly changes, is a major benefit, as is seeing exactly what light angles works best for the subject. I've used this to good effect with very high magnification macro work on moving subjects, where it is impossible to tell if the focus was bang on at the instant the image was captured (okay, granted, part of the difficulty here was that #*&@! shutter lag!). Learning photographers can on occasion see exactly what affect changing settings has in the image, though this often depends on seeing the image much larger than the built-in LCDs (so be warned!), but it's better than comparing meticulous notes afterwards. Scribbling notes in most conditions isn't fun at all, trust me.
EXIF Info: A couple of film cameras have had methods of saving useful information on the film, on the leader or in the framing areas. Or sometimes directly in the image area, though this usually only consisted of the date and time and is about as ugly as it can get. But none of them compare to the wealth of information that is typically contained in the EXIF section of most digital images nowadays, and this information remains with the image, more or less permanently. Date, time, ISO, shutter speed, aperture, focal length, and other items are available for review at any time, and can be exceptionally valuable to both the learning photographer and the archivist.
There are a lot of gimmicks that have been introduced with cameras over the years, with great fanfare and questionable value, but the simple little EXIF file is one unheralded tool that serves a function for everyone. Having taken notes with a basic notepad, portable tape recorders, and even a digital memo unit with a lapel mike, I can vouch that having the camera capture it automatically beats them all.
Tilting LCDs: Much as I don't like the typical LCDs used as "viewfinders" for many cameras, there are also distinct benefits to them, especially for creative photographers. The ability to shoot from ground level, or above your head, without radical contortions can lead to better photographic angles, and this is a major boon for tripod or macro work. Even waist-level shots can be done quickly without stooping. This is something that really took off for digital manufacturers, but they left out one crucial thing on most cameras I've seen: You can't do the same for vertical orientation. Verticals are a major part of using the frame effectively, and any option provided on a camera needs to be equally accessible to vertical usage.
Compactness: Okay, there are several sides to this issue, and I think some are good, and some are bad. So I'll address them individually.
First, I dislike the "focal length multiplier" concept for DSLRs, which is actually only a smaller image area as mentioned above. The reason is, I already purchased my lenses with the view-angles and performances in mind, and the ability to use the same lenses on a digital system becomes far less appealing when they're not the same lenses. People say that the "greater reach" is a boon to nature photographers, but bluntly, I do the same thing when I crop an image, no big deal. And I also happen to like applying wide-angle lenses to many shooting situations, and this requires having at least another lens for the digital body. Bleagh.
Second issue is how small and easy to handle many digital cameras are. This is very good, if you need to carry it with you everywhere and are served well by the built-in lens, and this appeals to a whole lot of people. Women especially, I think, because women frequently have their purses with them anyway. For men, it often still requires a separate camera bag, and men are far more likely to want a larger camera that's more comfortable in their hands. For my own part, I don't have large hands, and I spent years doing model kits and fine details of painting and carving, so I'm comfortable with a delicate and precise touch. And I still hate small cameras! I even feel uncomfortable with my full-size film SLR if is doesn't have the accessory battery pack/grip on it — it's just more stable in my hands that way, and it leads to steadier photos. Comments may ensue over, uh, "compensating" and all that hoohah, but if you take a look at my equipment listed elsewhere on the site you'll probably drop that idea... ;-)
Final issue, though, is a major benefit, and that's lens performance. The smaller digital sensors only require a certain image size to be produced by the lens, and for non-SLR designs, there's no mirror box to accommodate. So the lenses can be much smaller and lighter and still produce some respectable view-angles and magnifications. This has made the ability to capture everything from wide-angle to moderate telephoto shots available in a nice self-contained package, and one that isn't heavy or hard to carry at all. The smaller size also allows the lenses to let in more light (often called "faster") which improves low-light performance, something every camera can benefit from. This is a significant improvement over 35mm film in any package, because the larger format size dictates how large both camera and lens have to be, and leads to P&S film cameras with poor lens options because you can usually only choose performance or pocketability — not both.
ISO & Characteristics: And by this I mean typical film characteristics such as saturation, contrast, and color palette. While the amount of control varies from model to model, most digital cameras allow for variations in the characteristics of the image being taken, and these can usually be changed at any time during your shooting. Film users have to carry multiple types of film with them to take advantage of different photography conditions and subjects — digital users usually just have to access the camera menu. Switching between saturated images for flowers to low-contrast images for portraits requires no juggling of cameras for a film switch, no reloading or unfinished rolls, and no discoveries that you used the last roll of that type earlier. Want to see if the image benefits more from higher or lower saturation? How about suddenly finding a subject that requires a very high shutter speed? With digital, you already have it in hand, and it simply depends on how fast you can access the necessary options in the menu.
Control: I will admit I'm a control freak when it comes to my images. I want a camera that allows me to override any automatic settings, and I want to produce the color and contrast I desire from the resulting images.
Several years ago, when the little kiosks came out that allowed me to make my own enlargements, I was in heaven. I'd had little opportunity for darkroom access and was getting very sporadic results from the local labs. But now, I could produce what I wanted! Within reason, of course, but I already knew enough about the in-camera stuff to get the proper starting point, most times.
So it was a natural step to get a film scanner when they came out and begin doing much the same thing in digital form. This progressed into doing digital effects and composites from time to time, but for the most part, I prefer to capture the image "naturally" and work from there — in other words, no dubbing in moons or eagles; if they're in the image, they were there in the real world.
But the finer points of color control and contrast, and the darkroom tools of dodging, burning, cropping, and other minor adjustments are all things I use routinely, and all part of the impact of the final image, as far as I'm concerned. If the same things appeal to you, then digital is an obvious step. Any and every image is subjective in how it's produced as a print — there is no "proper way" to print from a negative, and any two labs might produce radically different results. I've even had a lab produce bad prints from a slide where they could be directly compared, because they were using a bad colored and dim light table near a window to view the slide.
So if you're particular about the image, you can justify the time and effort to upload images and manipulate them on your computer. It also expands a whole new area of creativity as you experiment with different effects.
I'll take a moment to make a sideline note here concerning a frequent "bone of contention" among the two camps, but one of the complaints from the old school film photographers is that digital allows you to "correct" or even "create" a good image when you don't have the skill to actually take a decent photograph. In short: total unmitigated hogwash. There's no digital program that will allow correction of a bad photo and make it excellent without hours of work — far more than would be needed to simply retake the photo. And when it comes down to "creative" works, nobody has the right to say what qualifies as "art" and what doesn't. I could, very easily, rail against nature painters who can "just put the sunset and the ptarmigan any damn place they want to; no skill in that!" if I wanted, and had painting come along after photography, you probably would have been hearing this from others ;-). But comparing two different art forms is nonsense. I have admittedly created images that I like, at least, from ones that didn't cut it originally — one example is here. Does that mean I suck as a photographer, or didn't know how to take the photo, or had to rely on "digital trickery" to rescue me? Well, okay, those are all subjective questions, but I'll still answer, "No," to all three — all I did was see the potential for a different approach with a particular image and try it out.
Speed: While I state above that the typical wait for film has not been something I personally find prohibitive, there are distinct advantages to the fast turnaround time for digital.
These are greatest, of course, if you're working professionally and have a deadline, especially with your editor across the country. But then, if you're doing that, you don't need this webpage ;-). In other areas, though, the ability to handle the image in digital format very quickly can provide a huge benefit to the photographer. It might be simply getting pics of the kids' latest accomplishments out to the grandparents, or up on the family website. You may need to send example images out to another office, or (an occasional duty of mine) feature photos to a newspaper. You may simply want to show them off on a personal web log or a public binary news server. The digital revolution (not just for cameras) has brought us a whole new method of communicating, and digital images function seamlessly within that method.
Friendliness: Friendliness? Okay, let me explain:
Photography is a field that takes some time to master, since there are numerous factors that affect the photograph, and they all intertwine. Between this, and the time delay between taking the image and seeing how bad it stank, photography had a tendency to be held at a certain distance by a large number of people. It was difficult and costly to master, frustrating and confusing. Attempts by camera manufacturers to create "user-friendly" film cameras were only moderately successful at best.
What digital accomplished is to take away this stigma by making it easy to see, handle, and share the images, quickly and with a minimum of fuss. Photography has become no simpler — it still takes the same exact skills to produce a good photograph. But between the instant feedback and the vast marketing support, digital brought photography into the hands of more people than ever before, and allowed them to see for themselves what it took to produce good (or bad) photos. Programs abound that allow the user to eliminate redeye, change color cast, resize and embed their images in greeting cards or whatever they like, and with the convenience of working from home.
To the advanced photographer, most of this is of little importance, since it represents either knowledge that was gained long ago or options that they have no use for. But thousands of others have discovered a new delight in creating images, and are enjoying a fascinating hobby.
It can be argued that digital, in many ways, expanded the amount of "snapshots" that exist, and this is undoubtedly true. But at the same time, we all started with snapshots, and digital has, in many cases, provided the impetus that was needed to start someone on the road to serious photography. And this is no bad thing at all.
Progress: Seems like an odd thing to list, but largely because of the factor immediately above, companies are now spending a lot of time, effort, and money on research, and this is producing technology that does more to address the demands of photographers than ever before. Moreover, updated bodies with corrections and further options are being produced at a record pace.
Now, this is one of the things that negates the cost benefit of digital, unless you're a high-end professional, because keeping up with the new advances can get expensive. And it smacks a little too much of buying new toys and gadgets, and believe me, there's more than a little truth to that viewpoint! However, at the same time, this new market share has driven companies to produce camera bodies that offer more to the photographer, and to continually increase the quality of the product and image.
There's good and bad to this, and it all depends on your approach to the field. If you're one of those people that needs the latest and the best, you're going to spend a lot of money. But if you're waiting for a particular option, ability, or level of quality to become either available or affordable, the driven market means that this is unlikely to be a long wait at all. A small amount of patience can pay off rather well, and produce far less frustration and fewer regrets. And waiting a short while after a new product is available means that other buyers have found the firmware flaws, and the company has already rushed to correct them. In the digital field, this happens quite frequently.
So, after all that, where are we? Let me state again that there isn't any "winner," or to be more optimistic, there's no loser. Look at it this way: Do you think you have to pick between color and black & white? Studio or location shooting? Dog or cat photos? Or, if you're into other forms of art, pastels or oils? Electric or acoustic? Is there a "winner" for any of these?
Both film and digital exist, and both have their uses, their strengths and their pitfalls. You may personally find that one works better for your style of photography than the other. All the better. It doesn't mean this applies to anyone else at all, though.
Anyone trying to convince you that one beats the other is still trying to convince themselves, and doesn't have much of a grasp with reality. Pay them as much heed as you think you should. My suggestion is, not much ;-)
I shoot both, and they work best in certain appropriate situations. I seriously doubt I will ever give up one in favor of the other, and count myself lucky that I won't ever have to, either. I enjoy too many different aspects of photography, and this variety is part of what keeps me deeply involved in the field.