Film vs Digital - Film Photography and Digital Cinematography

After the introduction of digital cinematography in the late 1980s, movie creators started investigating new techniques for filming, but they were stopped by hard to use technology and inefficient image quality sensors. This changed toward the end of 2nd millennia when introduction of 1080p HDCAM cameras enabled capturing of high definition video stream on a portable storage device. With ever larger segment of consumer video cameras slowly conquering the world, both independent and traditional filmmakers started experimenting. In 2001, director Robert Rodriguez filmed his action epic “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” fully on digital cameras, starting the era of professionally made 24fps digital films that soon became popular in Hollywood. Early examples of such films were French movie Vidocq (2001), Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Sin City (2005).

Arrival of digital cinematography to the world of filmmaking brought extensive debates, with filmmaker’s passionately choosing sides and trying to prove superiority of both film systems. They all agree that both digital cinematography and motion picture film photography has its own drawbacks and advantages, but those differences can often play crucial role in directors choice in picking what camera he wants to use for his films.

Old plate camera

How is film superior than digital?

  • Many believe that this film photography is more authentic, and more pleasing to the eye of the audience that is used to 24fps film experience.
  • For the long time, film had higher resolution thanks to the large film prints. Nowadays, digital cameras have started to catch up with 4K, 5K and 8K sensors.
  • Film cameras are usually less expensive than high-end digital cameras.
  • Film captures 100% real image taken from the lens. Digital cameras have to convert that light into digital signature, sometimes with visual artifacts.
  • Dynamic range of film is higher, especially in darker scenes.
  • More subtle focus.
  • Double exposing is possible.
  • Shutter lag is little quicker. Digital cameras have almost caught up.

How is film inferior than digital?

  • More expensive to work with and store.
  • Each film reel can record only dozens of minutes, so each take is very important and mistakes om set are costly.
  • Developing film prints from negatives is a complicated process that can produce inferior image.
  • Scanning of film into computer is difficult, and it always brings unwanted image artifacts (even with the best gear possible).
  • Everything you film must be first developed – no instant viewing of shots during filming.

How is digital superior to film?

  • Cameras can record much more material, and everything you film can be viewed immediately. Much less money spend in secondary costs for storing, editing, and instant viewing.
  • Digital cameras are lighter, easier to carry, and can be created in many forms [from large crane cameras to very small sticky cameras the size of tennis ball].
  • Easy transfer of material from camera to editing decks, no film developing required.
  • They can film scenes in very high frame rates, up to several thousand frames per second.
Digital video camera

How is Digital inferior to film?

  • High end digital cameras are very expensive.
  • Storing digital files is not as easy as with film. Expensive server arrays must be used for reliable storing.
  • Differences in film gran can produce image that does not have natural “filmic look” for people that are used to watch traditional films.
  • Filming with long exposures is difficult, and can produce strong noise and light leakage.
  • Digital cameras don’t work great with gradients and highlights.
Old plate camera
Digital video camera
A scene from the Indian movie Raja Harishchandra
Shooting film - action