Hi Nick, that's an interesting question!
Like many people here I grew up with film and was a great fan of what you could achieve. But as digital matured it just became much more practical and usable. I in fact sold my remaining film gear just over a year ago, which included a 6x7cm Mamiya medium format camera.
The quality question is one which continues to crop up, so I'd like to comment on that. Many people believe that because there are film scanners with 4000 dpi resolution (or higher), that film can contain this amount of actual detail. If it did, then this would result in a 24 Megapixel file which would clearly out-resolve all but digital medium format cameras.
I've done tests with very high-end professional drum scanners and found at this point you're mostly capturing the structure of the grain and there isn't really any extra detail there. It's also crucial to note the resolving power of film is greatly influenced by the type of film, how well it's been exposed and how well it's been processed - not to mention how well it's been scanned if you're after a digital file at the end of it.
So the only time film can perform at its best is if you're using professional stock, exposed perfectly, processed at a pro lab and scanned with some very serious kit - and scanning kit that's operated by a pro. Don’t kid yourself than average negative film processed on the high-street and scanned at home can come close.
I used Fujifilm Velvia 100 film towards the end of my days with analogue and had it processed at Metro, a pro lab in London. Through my magazine work, I was lucky enough to know pro repro houses which could do the occasional drum scan for me.
I personally knew 35mm film was over for me once I found the images from cameras like the Canon EOS 5D were as good, or often better than images delivered using the media and workflow above. I'd also argue that a 10 Mpixel DSLR will beat the output from most 35mm negative film processed at a high street lab.
This of course is in terms of resolution and detail captured. There is still an analogue look to film which some people will always prefer to digital imaging, in the same way some people prefer the sound of vinyl to CD. But that’s a subjective opinion. Technically speaking the current crop of affordable DSLRs will out-resolve 35mm film SLRs used under anything but the perfect conditions. And if you invest in, say, a Canon 1Ds Mark II, it will easily outperform 35mm.
Quality aside, there are of course more obvious benefits to digital – each with counter-arguments by the film fanatics. And counter-counter arguments by the digital crew!
1: You can record hundreds or even thousands of images on a memory card as oppose to a maximum of 36 on a roll of 35mm film. The film folk would rightly argue that their restrictions make you think more about each shot with less wastage as a result.
That’s certainly true, but it’s a real pain carrying a load of film on a trip and potentially losing a shot as you change a roll. And the ability to change the ISO for just one shot rather than committing to whole roll is a killer benefit of digital – and don’t forget you can change the White Balance as and when you like too.
2: You can see your images straightaway. For this one the film folk counter that it ruins the anticipation and excitement of waiting for your photos to come back from the lab. Receiving them later allows you to relive the trip or event once more.
Well, there is some romance in that, but I’d sooner see the pictures straightaway and make sure they’re right. There’s nothing worse than coming back from a trip of a lifetime to discover your images are over-exposed and there’s nothing you can do about it.
3: There’s no processing costs with digital, nor the environmental impact of chemicals. And no wastage as you only print what you want. Aha say the film folk – but how many digital photographers rarely if ever make any prints. They take their photos, transfer the images onto a computer and never see them again.
I’d say there’s certainly some truth to that, but the days of handing prints around and worrying about fingerprints and fading are over. When I come back from a trip, I can quickly and easily share my digital images by either uploading them to sites like flickr and Photobox, or by creating a webpage with some captions. At home I play them on a nice big TV screen which everyone can see and discuss at the same time – so there’s no need to repeat the same commentary to every person thumbing through prints.
Yes I love prints and yes, I’ll still print my favourite images, but no, I don’t miss the box-loads of photos I used to amass with film. Indeed I’d argue with sharing websites and TV or desktop slideshows, that I’m enjoying more of my photos than ever before – and it’s considerably easier to find what I’m looking for too.
4: You don’t need to scan a digital image. There is no counter argument to that one!
So while I loved film, for me digital is now superior in every respect.
Well, almost anyway... While DSLRs have fallen considerably in price, the cheapest models are still pricier than budget film SLRs and still heavier too. So I’ll give those two to the film crowd, but the benefits of digital still greatly outweigh it for me.
What does everyone else think?