Film vs Digital Photography. What’s the Best Way to Get Great Shots on a Budget?

The elegant clunk-click-whirr of a film camera, the solid metal and leather body, neatly and comfortably placed in your palm, the reassuring nods from fellow enthusiasts and the knowledge that every shot you take is going to be a good one.

The dream… obtainable too. Canon AE-1 35mm film SLR

That’s the dream, along with a vintage leather satchel with colourful Insta-filters and many kilos of lenses delicately placed within.

But, fellow photo-amateurs, the path of the 35mm film camera is riddled with risk, danger and fear. Something that, while planning a trip to Japan, I am having to wrestle with to decide my response to the inevitable question, ‘Film cameras or Digital cameras… what should I take?’

Now, before I reel through the positives and negatives of both, I feel it’s important to mention, I am no photographer-extraordinaire. I have an A-Level in the subject which has taught me how to basically use manual cameras and I can get a decent shot now and then, but we’re talking a half-dozen every holiday.

Of course the first and possibly most relevant point to consider is one’s financial situation. I’m not a man of many means, and the idea of splashing out on a professional Digital SLR camera isn’t even worth thinking about. I have much more responsible and boring things to spend £2,000 on.

If, therefore, you’re reading this, while taking a break from organising your spare £50’s into a money clip,  I’ll save you the trouble. Get a Canon 1D or similar and head off to the Himalayas. Or get your Sherpa servant to use it for you.

Really, with a budget of around £300 ($450), you’re looking at a basic Digital SLR or Mirrorless Compact; or for much less, a good quality 1970’s/80’s manual 35mm film camera, a few lenses and a handful of film canisters. So, I’ll be considering these for my oriental delights.

Which one says more about you? Black plastic or vintage realness?

Film cameras have much to offer. The feel, the look, the respect you get from using them is second-to-none. I’ve got a late 70’s Canon AE-1, which has all the control you’d ever need. The vintage styling and hardcore materials are lovely to hold, and all the manual winding, clicking, mechanical noises send a nostalgic shiver down your neck. Image quality is, as expected, all down to film choice. It seems to add a real atmosphere to the pictures and using different film, or even out-of-date film, gives really evocative artistic effects.

However, here’s the first criticism to the old ways. Once you’ve decided what film to use, it ain’t changing until you’ve spent your shot allowance. Who knows, the film may be light-polluted, maybe its got dust in it, maybe all those wonderful macro bluebells, daffodils and bumblebees are lost forever. That’s a big risk to take.

Digital cameras on the other hand, are simple. You check how the picture was taken, and take it again if you don’t like it. Maybe you want a different kind of ‘film.’ Then change it for that particular photo. You just don’t get the same natural atmosphere of a successful film shot.

Also, back to the financial side, you’re bound to get a great film camera for the budget, but really, we’re talking basic as basic can be for a Digital SLR. And basic cameras take basic photos.

The most useful, yet most dull setting on most digitals. Don’t be afraid to use it though.

Most digital cameras come with an ‘auto’ mode, in which the in-built computer and sensors recognise the most suitable settings for a successful yet simple, possibly boring, shot. Understanding manual camera control, whether aperture, shutter speeds or focusing, gives you a great chance to take every shot well. And film cameras are just better to learn from. You’re not allowed to revert to auto, because there isn’t one. You also don’t need to scroll through countless menus and buttons to get the setting you want, it’s all on the top, or on the lens.

On that note, don’t bog yourself down with exposure and white balance, stick to aperture, shutter speed and focus for the time being. There’s such thing as ‘too manual’ for us amateurs.

Ah, but then auto mode is very useful to capture that quick shot of a Geisha girl shuffling down the cobbled road, before she pops into the tea room… I can’t really ask her to stop her days plans to re-walk the last 5 yards while I set up the right exposure.You see my dilemma.

‘Take both!’ I hear you scream. But that means taking a small suitcase-worth of photography equipment. And what do you suggest? Two cameras around my neck and a sizeable bag of lenses? Come on, I’m not American.

The new trend for retro-look Mirrorless Compacts. It’s not the real thing, does it matter?

Many Mirrorless Compacts are bringing the retro look back. White metal bodies, leather hand-rests, retro number fonts et al. Unfortunately there’s always the niggling feeling that it’s not actually like that, but a pastiche of the original. What’s cooler, a 1960’s Mini Cooper or a 2015 Mini Cooper? My point is made.

Maybe the buzz of rushing into Jessops to collect the 30-50 printed photos is worth the risk and hassle. Or maybe I should make do with scouring through the 400 shots on a computer screen.

I think really, we all know that digital cameras are better overall. When one is in a crazy new country for the first time, it’s just too risky to use 40 year old tech. Maybe I’ll just carry a film camera round my neck to look the part, but use the Mirrorless Compact.

Or sod the lot and get my iPhone out…

 

 

 

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