Part of Mark Verber's Photography Pages
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I believe 95% of the photographers will be exclusively using digital cameras in five years. Why? Because digital gives you instant gratification, the work process is much easier (especially when you want to share images both electronically and prints), the quality of the images is good enough for most people most of the time (and the high end equipment is arguably as good in 35mm format ... though more costly), digital is cheaper in the long term, and archival characteristics of digital images are arguably better. There are just a few situations where I would recommend considering using a film camera. Most I will mention in the appropriate section of this document. Film does win if you are trying to minimize the cost of a small number of picture. For example if you want to give a lot of cameras away. It is possible to build a basic film camera for less money than a basic digital camera. Furthermore, it is possible to get significantly higher image quality using film than any of the cheap (or even moderately price) digital sensors.
For a serious armature photographer, I think the single best advantage of shooting digital is that you are free "burn film" since the extra images don't cost extra. You can review all your images and see what you did right and wrong, and delete those you no longer need. The camera automatically records the camera settings so you know what aperture, speed, etc every picture was taken at. This means you can get better, faster. For me, this means that I am taking more pictures, taking more risks, and throwing out a lot more images. I am ending up with a smaller percent of keepers, but since I am shooting more images, the total number of keepers is going up. The instant gratitude is also nice.
The human eye can distinguish differences down to approx 400dpi at normal viewing distances. That means that you need 2.5MPixel for 3x5 prints, 4MPixels for 4x6, 6MB for 5x7, and 12MPixels for 8x10. This means that the current crop of 3-4MP digital P&S have enough pixels for people who mostly use P&S cameras today. These folks will share snapshots images electronically (<1MP), or will print at 4x6. Less than 1% of their images will be printed at 8x10, and most likely nothing larger than that. I think people are willing to give up a bit of quality on <1% of their pictures for gains in other areas. Likewise, I think higher end DSLR are good enough for most serious amateurs / pros who shoot 35mm and don't typically don't print larger than 8x10.
Once you have enough pixels you need to care about the quality of those pixels, e.g. not all pixels are equal. A number of factors contribute to the quality of the pixels including accuracy of the sensor, color discrimination, dynamic range, how susceptible to noise, and what is the quality of the lens which the light is passing through. Theoretical numbers argue that that good film has a few more bits of color and a larger dynamic range than the sensors used in DSLR, but there are a number of people who claim that in practice the high end DSLR are as good or better than high quality film. The am/pro DSLR like the Canon D20/Nikon D70 are not as good as film, but are pretty good. None of the current consumer grade cameras can touch DSLRs. For example, image quality from an older Canon D30 (3MP) with a reasonable lens will be significantly better than images from the current crop of DigiCams (8MP). While high quality film has significantly better characteristics when compared to the sensors in consumer grade P&S, the printed images will be approximately the same because the quality of the lens in a film P&S bring their quality down to the level of a consumer grade digital cameras.
Note: Digital won't be adequate to people who care about ultimate quality doing large prints (e.g. folks using 8x10 view cameras) for a very long time... but most of us aren't using view cameras.
There have been a lot of articles about the quality of digital images... most of which are filled with hype, speculation, and misinformation. Some of the better pages include: Norman Koren's Digital cameras vs. film, Brad Templeton's Pixels Vs Film, pages in R.N, Clark's Clarkvision.com, and Michael Reichmann's Digital Camera Imagine Quality and Canon 1Ds Field Report. If you are really interesting in understanding image quality track down a copy of Ed Grainger's PhD thesis from Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, and his later papers on subjective quality factor (SQF) and take a look at RLG's Debunking of Specsmanship.
Shooting digitally can be cheaper than using film, even when you include the cost of the digital camera. Digital cameras cost typically 2-4x the equivalent quality film camera. The cost of prints from a digital camera is approximately the same as film cameras (though print film users normally print more images). What's left is film/development charges verses camera media and long term digital storage.
Snapshots/Scrapbook: Most people to take snapshots are using print film. The cost of 36 exposures is around $15 for good quality film and developing. Whether the image is good or not, you pay this cost. So if you shoot a roll of film each month, and several rolls of film for special events / vacation you are spending $300/year. Lets say on each roll of film there are 6 images that you want to put in a scrapbook. For digital media you need something which hold enough images from the time you take the pictures to the time you download them. You can reduce the storage requires by deleting obviously bad pictures. Maybe the digital "film" that came with your camera is enough, but most likely you will spend $100 for a larger storage card. Long term storage really cheap ($0.002/image). But you most likely aren't buying archival storage... studies have shown that the average consumer PC has a significant amount of unused space. Of course you will need to print the images you want for the scrapbook. So 6 images / roll * 20 rolls * $0.39 / print is $46 for a year or printed images. Lets assume you already have a film P&S... and you buy a digital camera ($400), extra storage ($100). The first year the digital camera is more expensive. The second year you have spent approx $600 for either film or digital, and the third year you spent $250 less on digital. That's pretty good.
Serious Amateur Photographers: I assume you already have a film SLR and are using slide film. The cost of 36 exposure slide film plus developing at a good E6 lab is $10. Lets assume that you shot a roll / week, 20 rolls when traveling, and 10 rolls on misc special events... you are at 82 rolls, or $820. In the digital world? Say you spend $2000 for a DSLR body and another $300 for a 1G micro drive. The question is what you do for archival storage. Lets consider two possibilities. The first is that you are shooting max resolution JPG (3mb) and save only your good images (1/6). That's 1.6GB/year. If you have a modern computer you most likely have that much free space. Second option is that you keep 100% of your images in RAW form (10MB), and convert 1/6 of the images to JPG (3MB) for sharing and printing. That's 30GB of data which is less than $30/year. In this world the digital camera pays for it less approx three years.