Digital photography vs. film photography

December 14, 2021 · 6 min read · By ASU Online
Both film and digital photography are viable options in the professional world of photography. Learn about the advantages and disadvantages associated with each, and the online photography degree that can prepare you for a career in this field.

The word “photography,” translated literally, means “writing with light.” Photography occurs when the light from what is in front of the camera refracts through the lens and projects an image on the back of the camera. With film photography, the image (shadow) is fixed by a photosensitive material usually made with silver that reacts to the light, capturing the image on various sized grains of silver. With digital photography, an electronic sensor reacts to the light, capturing the images on identically sized pixels.

Twenty years ago, almost all photography was film. At that point, you could capture much higher quality on a piece of film than you could on a sensor. Most photographers shot on film and scanned the negatives.

Then, as the prices of digital cameras went down and the quality went up, people realized they could take a lot more pictures with a lot less difficulty, and most commercial and industrial applications went digital. Soon everyone had a digital camera on their phone and those cameras, with complicated algorithms and programs based on film photography, began to do a lot of what film could do, only more easily and cost effectively. Due to a lack of demand from the industry, film became a niche product and the prices of film continued to increase. Similarly, film processing, once available on almost every street corner, became much more difficult to come by. Meanwhile, digital quality continued to improve.


What is digital photography?

Instead of a piece of film, a digital camera has a sensor. Unlike the piece of film, which is purchased, processed and printed separately from the camera, the sensor and the rest of the camera can be used over and over to transform the image projected onto it into a picture that can be instantly and infinitely reproduced.

Digital photography, which is the vast majority of photography we use today, was developed on the basis of film photography. From the invention of photography in the early 1800’s up until the mid 2000’s, film photography was the way almost all photographic images were created. However, over the past decade, the situation reversed and today digital photography is considered the default, while film photography is considered the exception.


What are the advantages of digital photography?

With digital technology, it's very easy to create a quality picture. What used to take years of experience in the darkroom and the studio can now be done by a beginner with a smartphone. Even a mediocre camera or an iPhone can take pictures that in many ways rival the quality of professional film photography from 20 years ago. Once you’ve purchased a camera, you can take thousands of pictures without having to buy anything other than a reusable memory card.

Digital cameras are also capable of shooting at extremely high ISO/ASA and can record images that are impossible to get with film. Digital cameras often have embedded software that can give the images certain effects, softening and distributing light in more pleasing ways. Additionally, digital cameras often have settings that help you focus, stop objects in motion, compose and switch between black and white and color.

Generally speaking, digital photos are much easier, faster and less expensive to create than their film predecessors. They are also much easier to disseminate. Over the past 20 years, digital images have profoundly changed the way we use photography and how photographs function in society. 

In ASU Online’s ART 317 course, you’ll get to deepen your understanding of the technical, aesthetic and conceptual aspects of photography. Hear more about the course from its instructor, Betsy Schneider.

What is film photography?

Film is physical and it is transformed by exposure and development. It can only be used once and results in a unique physical object. From a piece of film, copies can be made through physical printing or through digital scanning. Film comes in many sizes and, since film cameras have been in production for nearly 200 years, there is tremendous variety in the kinds of cameras and lenses you can use. However, materials for film photography are becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to find.


Why use film?

Some people enjoy the process of not knowing exactly what their image will look like right away, while others like the possibility and surprise of film. Because each shot costs more, many people find themselves slowing down and creating each image more deliberately or conversely, allowing the chance to play a larger role experimenting and making discoveries through the physical and chemical experiences.

Some people also prefer the aesthetics of film, although digital technology and photoshop offer seemingly infinite potential to manipulate digital images to emulate film. And others still prefer the tactile and physical experience, the smell, the touch and the chance to be away from the screen. While most film photography ends up digital one way or another, for many the process of using film allows them to access parts of their own creativity and vision they may not be able to access with a digital camera.


How do I create unique digital photography work?

Ultimately, it’s not about the tools used and instead is about how the tools are chosen and used. Tools don’t make the art, but they do matter, and as a photographer or a lens-based artist, your relationship with your camera will affect how you create pictures, how you feel about your pictures, if you're inspired and whether you feel your images matter.


How can I develop my skills as a photographer?

The best way to learn which tools work best for you is to jump in and start taking pictures, take time to look carefully at work that resonates with you and develop your skills in creating and understanding photographs. It’s also essential to share your work with others and engage in critical dialogue, to be guided toward the tools that best express your vision and develop the skills to match your passion.

Arizona State University offers an online Bachelor of Fine Arts in art with a concentration in digital photography. In this program, you’ll learn how to improve your technique while growing your understanding of aesthetics and conceptual thinking.


How can I turn my photography skills into a career? 

After developing your photography skills and vision, you’ll be well suited for a range of positions, including:

  • Art editor
  • Art handler
  • Curator
  • Editorial photographer
  • Educator
  • Freelance photographer
  • Gallery and museum preparator
  • Lens/photo-based artist
  • Museum, gallery and arts organizer
  • Photo editor
  • Photobook publisher
  • Videographer

Bachelor of Fine Arts in art with a concentration in digital photography

This online degree program emphasizes contemporary, creative and expressive forms of digital photography.  You’ll learn how to improve your technique while growing your understanding of aesthetics and conceptual thinking.


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