Film Cameras Reborn? What’s The Difference With Digital Cameras?

Since the emergence of digital camera at the end of 21st century, the popularity of film camera had gradually declined. Camera manufacturers stopped the production of film cameras likewise the film roll itself.

But film cameras are still alive instead of die. Some people still remain faithfully snapped with this analogue system. Later, film cameras are back on the rise and re-used, especially by young photographers.

A survey conducted in 2015 by Ilford Photo, one of British film camera manufacturers, shows that 60 percent of film camera users started using this system in the last five years. As many as 30 percent of them are under 35 years old.

The shots of film camera also appear in popular photo sharing media like Instagram, including in Indonesia (check #35mmindo on instagram). Hashtag: #35mm is also widely used by film photographers to show their works on Instagram.

Well, what a film camera actually is? What is the difference with modern digital camera?

Sensor and Film

The term “analog” is actually not appropriate to describe film camera, as even digital camera actually capture images by analog process which is converting the spectrum of light into electrical signals (analog) and then converted into digital data through the converter.

Easily, the main difference between film and digital camera lies in the image capturing media. Instead of sensor such in a digital camera, film camera use light-sensitive emulsion film sheets.

The silver halide-based film emulsion will undergo a chemical reaction once exposed to light. The reaction produces a latent image that has not been seen in the film sheet. That picture then raised through the process of washing (development) with a series of chemical fluids.

For hundreds of years, the history of photography relies on chemical reactions to capture images. The French inventor, Joseph Nicephore Niepce created a light-sensitive metal-plated Bitumen to capture the world’s first photograph in 1827.

His camera was just a simple tool called obscura camera, which is a closed wooden box which has a lens hole on one side that projects a landscape image in front of the lens into the back of the camera. Prior to the Niepce experiment, camera obscura was only used as a drawing aid for painters.

The plate then changed into film rolls and photo paper. Meanwhile, the camera also evolved, the longer it becomes more compact and lightweight so it’s easier to carry.

Although the tool has been widely changed to various sizes and shapes, for hundreds of years, the film camera image recording principle remains the same, which is capturing permanent images with chemicals that react to light.

Switching to digital

The camera image recording system is totally changed after the appearance of the digital image sensor. It’s different with film camera that appear to print images on sheets of chemicals with light, sensor store images in form of digital data from analog signal which is previously converted.

Digital image consist of thousands to millions of tiny picture element points (pixels) that can be viewed by zooming in to a certain point.

The number of this constituent pixel is used to determine the resolution of a digital image. The bigger the number, the more pixels that record the picture, the sharper and the more detail it looks. The most common digital resolution unit used today is mega (millions) pixels.

The first digital camera was created by Kodak engineer Steve Sasson in 1975, but digital cameras began to popularize and replaced film cameras early 21st century.

Image that embedded in the film is not consist of millions of pixels like digital sensor, but chemical particles. Film manufacturers measure the sharpness with the level of spatial resolution aka ability to capture the small details in the picture. Spatial resolution is usually expressed in units of lines per millimeter (lines / mm).

Components and Types of Film Cameras

Variety of cameras that can be categorized as film camera varied due to its long history from the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st century, ranging from camera that fit in pocket (pocket camera) to view camera (large format) as high as an adult.

To simplify, the type of camera can be distinguished from the format of the film used, for example 135 (35mm, full frame) film, 120 (62mm, medium format) film, and sheet film for large format camera.

The most common film format used is 135 film (35mm). The 35mm film began to be popularized by German camera company, Leica, at the beginning of 20th century. Due to its small size and the physical that could be made small anyway compared to other cameras on that era.

Camera that uses 135 films can be differentiated again into several types such as rangefinder, pocket camera (compact), SLR (single lens reflex), and instant camera (Polaroid).

In this digital era, these types are still exist. The working principle remains the same. The different is the image capture system that changing from film to electronic sensor. For example SLR camera which is now transformed into DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex), while modern instant camera ”hybrid” can record images in digital format on memory cards, in addition to printing them directly on the paper.

Film camera component has a distinction with digital camera related on working mechanism of film usage as media. The back of the film camera can be opened to insert the film roll. There is a spool inside to stretch the film, pressure plate to flatten the film in front of the shutter, and the lever or motor to roll the film back to its packaging after use.

Meanwhile, the back of digital camera usually can not be opened because the sensor is permanently embedded in the camera body. But there are also some cameras (medium and large format) that its media can be changed from film to digital by adding a tool “digital back” containing the sensor on the back.

In addition to the image capture media, the other components can be spelled out the same. Both digital and film camera have a viewfinder for shooting, mechanical shutter that opens and closes to take photo, as well as the sensitivity rating (ISO / ASA) of the image capturing media to light.

Some components changed to a more modern form in digital cameras. For example a viewfinder that is now widely replaced by LCD, or electronic shutter that replaces the mechanical shutter. However, the functions of these components remain the same.

Triangle exposure theory is still valid in digital camera as well as film camera. Users of both film and digital camera should consider shutter speed, aperture, and media sensitivity (ISO / ASA) when taking a shot to obtain exposure as desired.

Both digital and film camera usually have an integrated light metering tool for performing automatic exposure measurements. Except for old film cameras (made in the decade of 50s or earlier) that often have to add an external light meter separately. Or can not be added at all so users should measure light manually with some guidance like rule “sunny sixteen”.

Differences Shots of Film and Digital Camera

Because of using different types of media, the final image of digital and film camera is also different. There are some differences that can be described.

1. Form of the final result
Result of digital camera is a digital data that can be directly accessed and transferred to other digital devices such as computer or smartphone. This digital data is usually stored in a memory card that can hold up to thousands of images, depending on the size of the file and the memory card capacity.

The result of film camera is a latent image on the film sheet that must be raised and make it permanent through the development process with a number of chemical liquids, then enlarged as needed for printing on film paper. The number of frame film photo that can be stored in one media (film roll) is much less than a digital camera (memory card). One 135 film roller for example, contains only 36 frames.

The process toward the end result in film camera is more complicated. Editing will be able to process on washing (development). The limited number of frames available also generally causes film camera users to be more careful and more careful before pressing the shutter button.

Some people think this causes each frame of analog photograph tend to be better aesthetically because it is considered carefully, compared to digital camera that allow users to capture as much as they pleased.

2. “Noise” and “Grain”
In shot of digital camera and film sometimes appear “texture” in form of spots. In digital photo, these spots are commonly called noise. Originally from signal interference generated by an electronic circuit of image sensor, either due to heat or changes in electrical signals.


The similar texture of spots on film camera photo is referred as “grain”. The reason is not rooted in signal interference, but chemical particles in film sheet.

Noise and grain are usually more visible when the sensitivity of the sensor or film increases. For example ASA 400 films, tend to have larger and more visible grains than ASA 100 films.

Although it can be annoying, the appearance of this spots texture is often deliberately used to add an artistic effect, especially in a photo of film camera.

3. Dynamic Range
Dynamic range is the tonal range that can be captured by film or camera sensor from the brightest point to the darkest. Dynamic range capability, for example, determines whether the subject of a backlighted photo will be completely dark or still visible on its face.

The higher the dynamic range, the better the ability of digital camera sensor or film to capture all the details photo in dark and bright area.

Dynamic range of digital cameras were originally lagging behind films. But the sensor in modern digital camera are now able to produce dynamic range that can match or pass the ability of the film camera.

Today’s digital cameras and gadgets are also equipped with High Dynamic Range (HDR) features to extend the dynamic range by capturing multiple photos with different exposures and bumping the results into one final frame.

4. Light Sensitivity
Just like film camera, digital camera sensors have a measure of light sensitivity. The standard used is the same, namely ISO (ASA). The sensitivity of digital sensors at ISO 200 is similar to ASA 200 film, and vice versa.

In digital camera, this sensitivity rate applies to sensor and can be changed whenever you want. In film cameras, sensitivity rate can only be changed by replacing the film because each film has a different individual sensitivity rate, such as ASA 50 or ASA 400. Modern films are usually available in ISO sensitivity rate at 50 to 3200.

Digital sensors have much higher maximum sensitivity up to hundreds of thousands. The higher the sensitivity, the more sensitive the sensor / film to light so users can shoot in darker conditions or keep the shutter speed high.

High shutter speed is typically used to “freeze” the appearance of fast-moving subjects so that it is not blurred due to motion blur.

5. Character
Each film brand or type has different display characters. For example Fujifilm Velvia series are known to produce colors with saturation and high contrast so that it looks conspicuous and appropriate for landscape photograph.

Kodak Portra negative films tend to produce finer smooth colors and contrasts that are suitable for photographing people. Meanwhile, Kodak Tri-X’s negative black-and-white film features contrasting characters and grainy that look a bit rough but much preferred.

Digital camera sensor also has different characters, depending on the type and construction of the sensor, and image processing software used to produce the final image. Each manufacturer of digital cameras has its own “recipe” image processing to produce a distinctive look.

Digital camera character is permanent because the sensor usually can not be replaced (ignore photoshop or lightroom). Conversely, film camera users can easily change the type of film to get the character of the image sought.

Film Types

Film that commonly used for camera can be distinguished by the format (shape and size), namely:

1. 135 or 35mm film, for compact camera such as rangefinder type. Usually 1 roll 35mm film consists of 36 frames. 135 is the most popular film format, therefore easiest to get and process (develope).

2. 120 film or medium format, for larger cameras. One 120 film roll usually contains of 12 or 16 frames. Processing is more difficult and less common than film 135.

3. 4×5 inch film, 8×10 inches, and so on, or also called large format/sheet film. These are the largest film and only used in the old camera/land camera, which is very large in size and must sit on a tripod.

For the type of film, there are negative (print film) and positive (reversal / slide) types for each format. Negative films produce inverted colors compared to the original scene in the real world. Dark areas become bright, black to white, and so on.

When printed, the negative film need an inversion process to “flip” the color to appear as the original. Negative films typically have subtle colors and contrast, as well as wide dynamic range range making it more tolerant of exposure errors.

Positive film or slide produces picture has colors that the same to original scene so it does not need to be inverted like a negative film. In addition to printing, each frame of this film can be directly mounted on the slide for projection.

Positive film tends to have high color saturation and contrast, but the dynamic range is not wide as negative film so it is more susceptible to exposure errors. Areas that are too bright are prone to being “bald” aka plain white without details, while areas with less light can become very dark.

Film manufacturers produce negative and positive films in different brands and variants. Each has its own image display character, such as Fujifilm Velvia (positive film) and Kodak Portra (negative) and Tri-X (black and white negative).

The emergence of digital cameras has resulted in the production of some films stuck due to lack of interest or unprofitable business, for example the legendary Kodak Kodachrome film series, but the washing process is complicated.

Some films are still produced by various manufacturers today, especially the popular 135 format. Each film brand is usually available in several variants that have certain differences such as sensitivity rating, such as Fujifilm Velvia ASA 50 and Fujifilm Velvia ASA 100.

Some manufacturers also still produce and sell film cameras (brand new), such as Leica with M7 series and MP (rangefinder) and Nikon with F6 and FM10 (SLR). In addition to new film cameras, film photography enthusiasts can also use old film cameras are sold with a relatively cheap price, such as rangefinder and AE-1 (SLR).