Digital’s dirty little secret

Digital cameras were introduced around the mid-1990s, and back then they were big and bulky, their quality was poor and their costs prohibitive. The digital revolution in photography began right around the turn of the 21st century. The cameras’ capabilities were still far below film, and they were still considerably more expensive. Fast forward to the mid- to late 2000s. Cameras became smaller, costs came down, quality improved and DSLRs began selling like hot cakes. Today digital cameras are so ubiquitous that no one even considers comparing them to film any more. Many believe that DSLRs are now the equal of their film counterparts. In some aspects such as high ISOs and noise suppression, there are a few digital cameras that actually better than film, but in general, film is still cheaper and better. The thing is that digital reached the tipping point back in the 2000s by being good enough and cheap enough.

Today, as far a quality goes, only the top-of-the-line digital cameras, ranging from 21 to 24 megapixels (MP) come close to film. The other consumer models are roughly half that resolution. But unless you’re making really big prints, say 11×14 inches or larger, most people, including the majority of pros, are not going to notice a difference. Still, if you’re measuring in absolute terms, film still has an edge in resolving power.

The cost of digital cameras is the bigger issue. Currently digital cameras, DSLRs and point-and-shoots alike, are roughly twice the price their of film equivalents (the very top of the line DSLRs are more like 3 to 4 times more). In the past, after buying your camera, the best way to improve the quality of your photos was to switch to a different kind of film at a cost of a few bucks per roll. There were (and still are) fine-grained films, films for portraits and for low-light. To save on costs back in the film days, one could buy a relatively cheap camera and then more effectively spend money on quality lenses and films. Today one has to buy an entirely new camera for improvement, which is why camera manufacturers introduce new models every year or two (in the past a film camera could last decades before being replaced).

Then there are other costs involved with digital that one didn’t have to consider with film. Although prints can be made directly from memory cards and even some cameras, computers and software are now needed to download, edit and store photos. The cost can range from the hundreds to thousands of dollars. Considering the amount of film and processing a professional photographer goes through, digital cameras can be cost effective, but perhaps not for the average person.

So while digital cameras are more expensive and lesser quality than film they do have one trump card. Convenience. You can view the photos as you shoot them and delete any ones that you don’t like right in the camera. With a photo editing program you can crop, adjust exposure and burn or dodge (lightening or darkening specific portions of the photo) yourself, things that previously were done at expensive custom photo finishers.

Thousands of photos can be stored easily on your computer or an external hard drive. I have thousands of old prints, negatives and slides (both keepers and rejects) that are collecting dust in cabinets and closets at my home, space that could be used for other things. The biggest roll of 35mm film is 36 exposures. In the past I was always fearful of running out of film and I would carry dozens or rolls in my camera bag. Today, depending on their capacities, compact flash cards or SD cards (the main memory devices in digital cameras) can hold hundreds of photos on something that’s about a square inch or less in size.

In comparison to cost and quality, convenience may not sound like much, but consider this: A few weeks ago I visited my home town of Walnut Grove in the Delta. For kicks, I brought along one of my old film cameras and shot it along with my digital one. As soon as I got home I downloaded the digital photos that are seen here to my computer. And the pictures I shot with my film camera? They’re still in their film canisters sitting in my camera bag waiting for me to get them developed.

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