Film vs Digital Street Photography
Contax IIIa on the left, Canon 5D on the right.

As of late, film has been having quite a comeback. Many photographers enjoy the “look” of grainy analog film, and many people even say that they enjoy the experience of shooting with film as well. In an article published by Wired, Charlie Sorrel states:

“Kodak’s US marketing manager of professional film, Scott pro film Scott DiSabato said that sales of color film are steady, and that black and white film is ‘doing extremely well’ He sees it as a mini-revolution, adding that ‘it almost feels that there is a very real resurgence for film.’”

Many places such as Urban Outfitters have caught upon this trend, selling Holga cameras, which are toy-plastic film cameras which give images an interesting cross-processed look. Sales for these types of cameras are strong within the young demographic, and it almost seems to be a rebellion against digital.

Holga 120s and Photo
A Holga 120s on the left, and an example photo on the right.

This leads to the question, what is better for street photography, film or digital?

This is definitely not an easy question to tackle, as both sides of the debate have their own valid points and refuse to give up any ground. However for the purposes of this post, I will try my best to give an un-biased view to both sides of the argument.

@faireunvoeu on Twitter sent me this quote from film photographer Simon Watson on digital photography:

“There is a smoothness that is so ugly & slick, it looks like a gimmick.”

In my own personal experience being born and having grown through the “digital revolution,” digital photography is the only thing I have ever truly known. Sure I remember when I was a kid and having to wait for the film from my mom’s old camera to get developed, or waiting on prints from my old disposable camera from field trips. However other than that, digital has been everything to me. My first camera was a Canon Powershot SD600, and the other two cameras after that (my Canon Rebel XT and Canon 5D) have been digital as well.

It is quite ironic, because I have been attracted to the “film look” as well. I use Nik’s Silver Efex Pro to add grain into my images as well as strong vignettes in my black-and-white workflow. There is something that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I feel that it pays homage to the old “film look” of the street photography masters.

"Wine by the Seine" - Paris, France 2009
"Wine by the Seine" - Paris, France 2009. Note the grain I added to give the image a more "moody" feel

Digital definitely has its pros when it comes to street photography. It is no secret that it is much easier for photographers to learn photography on digital cameras as opposed to film cameras. First of all, digital cameras allow you to instantly see the results of your photos on the back of your LCD screen, to check for exposure, framing, focus, and even sharpness. This takes a lot of guess-work out of photography, as with film it takes much more time to develop and process images. Therefore when shooting street photography, an aspiring street photographer will thus have an easier time learning from his or her mistakes, or even learning how to better compose when shooting from the hip.

However recently, I have inherited an old film rangefinder, the Contax IIIa. Although I have only shot a few rolls with it, there is definitely a much different experience shooting with film. I feel that when I am shooting with film, I feel much more calm, and that there is some sort of inner-peace that I get shooting with it. Due to the fact that I am not able to “chimp” and look at the back of my LCD after shooting every image, I focus more on the experience of shooting on the streets, rather than focusing my efforts on the outcome of my images.

Me shooting in the streets with my Contax IIIa. Shot by John Golden

Furthermore, due to the fact that I can only shoot about 24 exposures or so from each roll of film, I am much more selective with my shots, which makes me focus more on my framing and composition of shots, so I don’t “waste” any of my film.

However I think in the long run, the convenience of digital trumps film by far. Being able to take raw images, edit them on your computer, and directly upload them to Flickr or online is much better than having to purchase film, send it to get developed, wait, download your images to your computer, then upload it online.

The way in which we share photos has fundamentally changed. Remember back in the days when people actually shared physical photographs with friends and family, and even made duplicates for them to have? Such an experience is now foreign to the modern person, as Facebook is much more convenient.

Leica M9
The Leica M9 - The First Full-Frame Digital Rangefinder

Getting back to the subject at hand, I feel that digital is still much more advantageous to the modern-day street photographer than film. I do not discount the merits of shooting film, but with new digital incarnations of even “classic” cameras such as the Leica M8,8.2, and 9, there is a huge shift toward shooting digital. Even Chris Weeks who wrote a book on street photography “Street Photography for the Purist,” he was initially turned off by digital cameras, but upon getting his Leica M9, he is starting to embrace it much more, as said in his more recent film documentary, “Street Photography: Documenting the Human Condition.”

Street photographers–what is your opinion on digital vs film photography? Leave a comment below and leave your 2 cents!

Join the Conversation


  1. I’ve never shot film in any serious way. I used an old Yashica 35mm for a couple years and an old Russian Kiev (Contax knockoff) rangefinder, but the experience was unpleasant for me. You couldn’t get darkroom chemicals or equipment in Guyana in those days and lab processing was guaranteed to give you overexposed results.

    What I value most about digital is the control it gives me at a price point that is feasible for me.

    I think the more relaxed, contemplative mood you can attain shooting film is valuable also, but as far as the images themselves are concerned I simply cannot see a qualitative difference, nor any difference in artistic merit. Like everything else, there are differences, but the differences (to me) do not make one any less valuable than the other.

  2. I started analog, went digital and went back to analog for my autonomous work again. I absolutely agree with Simon Watson- somehow digital is too sterile for me. I miss some kind of ‘feeling’ in it. In my commissioned work, there’s no going back to film- the convenience in working digital is obvious, I don’t deny that, but in my autonomous work, I prefer making a choice beforehand.
    I like the analog experience. The peace it brings, the feel of a well-built camera in your hands. The history and story of an old camera. The look of film. Sharpness / out of focus, it’s a totally different thing with digital, film is much more organic and pleasant in this matter. Choosing your subjects, trying to fit the camera and film of choice to the subject and not the other way around.
    It’s kind of hard to explain. For me it has a lot to do with making choices (i.e. with digital you can edit it over and over again, make it black and white, give it a toy camera look or go for something very different- this is not making a choice, for me it means it’s much more of a coïncidence; it depends on what you want at the moment of editing, not at the moment of shooting, I prefer photography over post-processing anytime) and feeling. I can’t say which I think is best for street photography though- this is and always will be personal and can therefore not be a black and white, if you ask me :)

  3. Aesthetic preferences aside, I still would prefer film.

    The more street photographers I watch on a Flickr, the more convinced I become that the most dangerous one can do to their reputation is not edit hard enough. With film, I feel that the greater amount of steps needed to get an image on-line works in my favor. Knowing that each image has to do through a fairly long developing, proofing, scanning and post process sequence tends to make me weed out the borderline images real fast.

    I fear digital would lubricant the editing process enough that I’d be shoving images into my stream faster than I could give them a good judgment.

  4. Film rules for street photography. The effort – as implied by street photography’s foremost humorist Elliott Erwitt – contributes to better images. With a Leica M6TLL, for example, one just keeps on shooting because chimping’s not an option.

  5. The Massive advantage that digital has over film is the fact that you can easily shoot 2000 pictures without even thinking about loading new film. To shoot 2000 frames using film, assuming one is using 36 exposure film……you’re looking at 55 rolls of film. I have been to festivals where shooting well over 1000 photos was not uncommon. That fact alone makes digital the way to go for street shooters.

    Of course Jeff Mermelstein would disagree with me:

    1. Question 1: How long are these festivals that you’re netting 1000-2000 exposures from?
      Question 2: Is there a burst mode helping you reach those numbers? Is it really 250 moments with four exposures each?

      While I do agree with you about reloading especially in the winter, I’ve never been able to swallow the “I can take more than 1000 photos in a day argument I hear time to time.” for digital.

      The longest single street photography session I’ve ever had was seven hours with camera in hand. I came home with 314 exposures. Roughly one photo every 80 seconds Crank that up to 1000 exposures and we’re down to one photo every 25 seconds. Crank it up even more, and it just gets worse and worse. Where does a street photographer then find the time the hunt for action, hydrate, urinate, interact, find the best angle? I begin to feel at a certain point I’d feel like I’m just a data collector who hopes to stumble upon good moment instead of consciously finding them.

      Then to get home and have to sift through that mountain of images? Eeek. Doesn’t sound like a good trade off to me. But then again, I’ve always been the sniper when I’ve played video games.

      To each their own.

      1. K. Praslowicz,
        On the occasions I get to engage in street photography on a grand scale (such as huge festivals in well populated cities) I always shoot in the range of 1000 shots. My mind works quickly in those situations I guess. Once I get going and I’m in the zone I’m having such a great time at the end of the day the photo count is up there BIGTIME.

        I live in a small city where street photography is close to impossible. For example….I can walk around the city I live in on a Sunday afternoon up and down the streets back and forth over and over and many times not cross paths with a single solitary person. This is what brought me to shooting urban landscapes.

        When I get the chance to shoot street (which I love) I go for it at full bore. I can’t imagine shooting film the way I shoot street. The cost alone would be prohibitive.

        Sifting through a mountain of images is a Godsend to me. The keepers get tagged and the throw away’s get…..well……thrown away. ;)

        I don’t see myself as a sniper when I shoot in the street. My brain just speeds up and I compose visual opportunities fast and furiously.

        I love guy’s like Elliott Erwitt and Cartier-Bresson and talk about a guy that shot millions of frames, Garry Winogrand. These are the masters. They always will be in the realm of shooting film. There will be new masters in the digital era and one of them heading in that direction is named Eric Kim.

        Tom K.

      2. Same here, I can’t imagine the need for over a 1000 photos in one day. Not everything needs to be captured- not everything is worth capturing. It’s all about making choices. If you’re working as a journalist, it’s a different thing, but that’s a completely different approach to begin with- you don’t want to miss out on anything, etc. Not something we were discussing here though, right? So when it comes to street photography, I’d say, the possibility to shoot endlessly is irrelevant. Even in a city like New York- I imagine you’d be much more selective there than in the tiny city I live in. Here, something worth noticing is probably very uninteresting to a New Yorker, but it’s how street life is here, so it still has a certain value. Still- it’s a matter of being selective and decisive beforehand. You can’t take a good picture everyday. Let alone dozens of them.
        And just to prevent a discussion on ‘how many good pictures one can take’ versus ‘how many I, or anyone else for that matter, post(s)’- I post pictures on my blog and flickr on a regular basis. This does not mean I think they are all equally interesting or worthwile. I’d be a fool to only post the ones that really make me go oooh though; then most people would think I never take any photos to begin with.

  6. I love film. Not just the image it produces but the way it makes me work, slowing it down and thinking about a shot. I don’t have to edit anything on the computer. Even my camera is small and light with no distractions, simply aperture, shutter and composition. I’ve found with my digital camera I would send more time looking at the lcd than what’s around me and then delete 4/5 of the photos I took when I got home.

  7. I’ve been a photographer for over 35 years, and worked with a lot of magazines, companies and websites. I shot film until two years ago, then went full digital.

    A camera is a tool, and you need to choose the right tool for each specific job. It’s a little harder to choose film when most of your clients want digital. But it boils down to this. Film makes you pay more attention to what your shooting because of only getting 24-36 shots per roll, and processing is expensive. But film has a much better latitude than digital. You get more details in shadows and highlights than digital, with a smoother transition.

    Digital lets you shoot more images, and get them to clients faster. But it’s hard to get good detail in shadows and highlights, which is why HDR is so popular. It compensates for exposure limitations that film doesn’t have.

    I know photographers that spend 10 plus hours Photoshoping digital images, but then Ansel Adams often spent several hours making a print, and he had to redo the dodging and burning on each print he made.

    It boils down to this, film gives you a better image, digital is faster and easier.

    So, choose the proper tool for your assignment. And happy shooting.

    Have Fun,

  8. digital. digital. digital. not just for the convenience of time. i love digital because it strips away limitations. i am MUCH more daring with what i shoot than with film. i also feel i learn more by being able to see instantly what i have shot. what works. what doesn’t. it pushes me to do better. go farther. be daring. i will never go back to using film. ever.

    1. Digital is easier.
      You can easily get a digital, take a random photo, and call yourself a photographer.
      Want to be daring?
      Then use film! It takes actual talent.

  9. I begin photography in 1969 and I spend a long time in many wet darkrooms (photo finishing, advertising, graphic arts…). Today, I am very happy to work digital. For me, the question “analogic vs digital” seems to be a false problem: It’s like to ask to a writer if he prefers the pen or the word-processing. For the reader, this doesn’t matter. The most important is the story, the style. Sure, some writer feel more confident with the pen or with the word-processor, but le reader don’t care about.

    Henri Cartier-Bresson said that he was not interested by photography, by the technic. For him, photography is only a communication tools. I agree completely. The talent stays not in the camera, but in your eyes. If I see something interesting, I take the picture whatever the camera. With analog, I have to develop and print. With digital, I can check immediately. But in both cases, I have to check speed, aperture, ISO… Analogic or digital, the rules for framing and composition are the same.

    The grain and other effects are very secondary. When I used the fabulous Tri-X film, and sometime the Ilford HP5, I had no choice : those films where grainy. You had to accept it. Today, you can work with high ISO with only a little bit noise. And if you ave the nostalgia of the grain, you can mimic it with your computer.

    I’m not less talented – at least I hope so – because I work digital now. But for film, I agree on one point: film was and is still expensive. You have to think before to shoot, you have to be more selective. That was and is still a good school.

  10. Film vs. Digi is a question I’ve been wrestling with for a long time now. Bread-and-butter sports photography is always done digital, no question. With the speed at which ice hockey moves, you’ve not got time to consider a shot, compose it and set it up. There are a few basic things to do before a match, then it’s simply spray ‘n’ pray. From burst mode, I’ll come out with well above thousands of images, of which 10% are good if I’m lucky, and the rest are deleted as messes. Film just isn’t fast enough to use; there aren’t enough shots on a roll, changing films quickly in a cold rink is a pain, and it’s too expensive and time-consuming to develop it all. Then I need to actually go through the negs and see which ones are worth doing anything with, which is a terrible strain on my poor eyes. Much easier to take a couple of memory cards and a laptop.

    With street photography being my hobby, it’s a whole different ball game, no pun intended. I have an old Yashica TLR I use, and it’s great. There’s that certain something about a 120 photo that simply can’t be captured on digital. I could go into the finer technical points of film and digital, but that’s rather missing the point. It’s that certain “je ne sais quoi” that just can’t be replicated. A digital file, no matter how good the camera or lens that took it, is just too sterile, too anaemic for my taste. Also, the whole process of developing my own pictures is immensely satisfying, and it gives a pleasant sort of closure to the whole creative process. It’s one of those beautiful novelties that just refuses to wear off.

    The other beauty of film is its innate ability to force me to improve my photography. Digital is a little too automated; any idiot with an artistic eye can stroll around and take a hundred photos with a camera set to automatic, free of worries about cost, and end up with a handful of good ones. With a fully-manual camera where you can feel your pocket get that little bit lighter every time the shutter fires, you’re forced to take those extra few seconds to just stop and think about what you’re doing to get that handful of good ones, with only a slightly larger handful to begin with.

    A great problem I have with digital is that cameras at the moment aren’t an investment, they’re an expense. Depending on how much photography you do and/or how much you’re paid to do it, a well-looked after SLR for £100 and some good lenses may work out cheaper and last you longer than the latest greatest digital offering that makes you a cup of tea when it senses your hands are too cold. After a couple of years, they’re either obsolete or broken. Good a camera as my D5000 is, I certainly can’t see it in regular service 5 years from now, and I dare say that even the high and mities, 5D Mk. IIs and D4s won’t be being dug out of the attic like your dad’s old AE-1, ready to go after a good dusting. Even some 8×10 cameras I’ve seen are still using glassware a century old and taking pictures as well as any other you might care to compare it to. Digital camera sensors are constantly being improved on, so the benchmark is constantly being moved. Film cameras are being improved on, fair enough, but the old ones don’t really go out of date.

    I think the long and the short of it is, and I’d be far from the first person to say this, digital and film are two very different tools. There is undoubtedly a crossover, indeed someone may take a Holga to a hockey match and get some grand results with it, but they’re both very much suited to their own territories and it’s down to individual photographers to make of them what they will. That being said, no prizes for guessing which side of the fence I’ve fallen on.

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