The Case for Digital Photography – Film Photography Holdouts Take Heed!

The Case for Digital Photography – Film Photography Holdouts Take Heed!


Ivan Mironchuk, David Avino, and Karen Hauptman contributed to this article.

No matter what business process you try to enhance, the importance of certain concepts and characteristics is universal. Among those universally important criteria, speed, efficiency, cost, quality, and risk mitigation consistently top the list. All decision makers have witnessed how advances in technology can allow organizations to rethink and truly revolutionize their major business processes. The paradox, of course, is that these major shifts – guaranteed to save time, money and other important resources – are often met with resistance.

Such is the case with the shift from traditional film-based photography to digital photography. The latter significantly shortens a project’s time to production, eliminating many time-consuming steps completely. By shortening process time, the total cost of photography drops. Furthermore, professional medium-format digital capture systems can easily generate image files that are of equal or superior quality when compared to film capture. Just as important, but often overlooked, is the fact that many of the risks associated with film-based photography completely vanish. Yet some organizations continue to embrace film-based photography, despite the vast evidence that film is indeed an antiquated technology.

Considering the improvements that digital capture offers over film (analog) capture, why are people compelled to stay with film?

Those who cling to film often make the claim that it has served them well for years and is an integral part of their well-established processes – so there’s no real reason to switch to digital. While this argument may seem to make sense on the surface, it doesn’t hold up under even the slightest scrutiny.

The history of the industrial world is filled with examples of products and processes that were improved upon and eventually replaced by newer technology. Digital methodologies have improved many aspects of our business and creative endeavors. Word processing and computer spreadsheets have replaced the typewritten page.

Using the print and publishing industry as an example, the shift to digital technologies has demonstrated over and over again that efficiency is improved. Modern printing plants have switched from exposing plates using film to imaging plates using direct-to-plate systems. They have done so because they have recognized that the process is faster, produces less waste, and improves quality. The same lessons can be applied earlier in the process, when images are captured.

As surely as the internal combustion engine has replaced the steam engine, digital photography is replacing film-based photography.

Efficiency & Reliability Improvements

Even at the broadest possible level, a comparison of film-based capture to digital capture yields an obvious frontrunner. At this point, we would like to note that, regardless of the specific area of endeavor, the shorter process with fewer steps is generally better than the longer process with more steps. With this idea in mind, consider the following steps, which take us from start to finish of any photographic project:


1. Capture

2. Changes

3. Capture

4. Approval

5. Process

6. Log In/Distribute


1. Polaroid(s)

2. Changes

3. Polaroid

4. Approval

5. Shoot Film

6. Messenger Film to Lab

7. Process Film at Lab

8. Messenger Film from Lab

9. Approval/Confirmation

10. Send Film to Scanner

11. Scan Film

12. Clean Up Scans

13. Log In/Distribute

As you can see, through the first four steps, the processes are similar. However, beyond that point, the film-based environment adds operational steps – and these are anything but minor. They are all time-consuming, expensive, manual procedures. The true irony, though, is that in Step 11, the film-based photos end up being converted to a digital format anyway. The digitization just took much longer and cost significantly more money.

Time Is Money

There are additional time savings beyond the elimination of steps in the production process. For example, after the final shoot, film might not be delivered to the lab until the next day. Processing the film can add up to one more day. After the processed film is delivered, the film is logged in before editing. Even after all the time is spent shooting and going back and forth to the lab, there can still be surprises in the actual prints or negatives. If the shot did not come out as expected, then the film process starts over again. Days are lost. Next, the film has to go back out to be scanned, which can easily add at least hours if not another day. All of this stacks up to a significant amount of time, especially for a project with a tight deadline – which seems to be every project.

We’ve actually heard people argue that the delays inherent in a film environment are beneficial – that these prolonged periods of inactivity allow extra time for “rethinking.” A closer analysis shows this to be an empty claim. A faster, more efficient operation can only improve results. Digital photography doesn’t force you to move faster; it allows you to move even faster. The ability to instantaneously view a single shot, a series of shots, or to even print proofs from a series of shots allows for an on-the-spot critique. Right away you know if you have captured what you are looking for, and if you didn’t you can continue shooting without the need to set up again. The key point here is that the time required of the analog film process is no longer a limiting factor. Whether you choose to move slowly or quickly, the digital process allows you to determine the proper pace for your project.

Re-use and Longevity

Managing, organizing, labeling, searching, and storing can all be a hassle when dealing with film and negatives. Special conditions and environments must be set up to help preserve film. Over time, film and negatives can become scratched or bent. Exposures can change depending on the way film is stored. Books, binders and sleeves are used to organize film, which can take up a lot of physical space. Depending on how you have organized and logged your captures, the task of finding a single shot within a large library of film can range from cumbersome to impossible.

Digital photography files take up no physical space and can be easily organized into folders and directories on secured servers in temperature-controlled server rooms.

Managing films and negatives is often highly dependent on the efforts of a single individual and is not as successful in multi-user collaborative environments. Conversely, a digital storage system can be searched by many people located anywhere globally, so long as the users are given permission to do so.

Bear in mind that film is still eventually scanned, meaning that the infrastructure for storage of the digital files may already be in place.

Metadata technologies, which enable the capture and storage of information about digital files, have advanced to the point where camera settings, keywords, descriptions, copyright information, and additional notes can be stored right within the file. No matter where that digital file travels or who views it, that information is accessible. This type of metadata, known as XMP (Xtensible Metadata Platform), makes finding and categorizing digital photography files much easier.

How many times have you requested a re-scan of a shot because the one previously scanned wasn’t big enough or the colors had been converted? These dilemmas can be eliminated in a digital photography workflow. If the original digital capture file is kept as a master, then re-use of that shot is as easy as “File->Save As.”

Risk Reduction

The more steps you add to a process, the more potential failure points you create. This is as true in photography as it is in any other workflow process.

For example, many photography projects use Polaroids during the set-up and evaluation steps. It is not unusual to capture a great image on one of the last “test” Polaroids. When you capture it digitally, you have it in usable format forever. However, if you capture the perfect shot on Polaroid, you still have to duplicate that shot during the final film shoot. But what if, for whatever reason, the model can’t give you the exact same facial expression, the same wave of the hair or gesture? What if you can’t recreate that perfect splash of water, or that perfect movement through space? Your best shots may be on Polaroid – and entirely unsuitable for reproduction alongside the rest of the project’s images.

Suppose, though, that your final shoot proceeds flawlessly and every shot is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the remaining steps in the non-digital, film process are still open to certain risk and uncertainty – risk and uncertainty that digital photography avoids entirely.

Each time your film is physically handled or transported, it’s put at risk. What if the film is lost or damaged during shipping? What if a power outage at the lab causes your film to be ruined? Will a mishap at the scanner force you to re-shoot the film? Although failure at any of these points, or at others not mentioned, may not be highly likely, history proves that all of these are, unfortunately, well within the realm of possibility. Over time, and/or with volume, the likelihood of a mishap increases to the point that it’s almost inevitable. Just one such event can result in a tremendous loss of time, money and good will.

Now consider the digital environment. Perfect digital duplicates can, depending on the preferred setup, be transferred within seconds or minutes to a backup. That digital photograph can be replicated, as many times as necessary, to ensure that the image is absolutely secure. If, for example, a hard drive fails, it’s only a minor problem, because you have exact duplicates of all your photographs on a backup medium, only a mouse click or two away. Although it is not required, implementing a digital asset management (DAM) solution can secure your assets and ensure that backup policies are adhered to almost instantaneously once the new digital file is imported into the system. As you can understand, the risk-management arguments for digital over film are simply overwhelming.

The Quality Excuse

Over the years, the last film holdouts have had an argument hard to beat. Their trump card was always quality. Quality is king, and if you couldn’t get the same quality as film with a digital photography process, it wasn’t worth it, no matter what the time or risk savings were.

This excuse has become obsolete. The newest digital camera backs can produce outstanding quality captures that exceed the quality of the best film exposures. For instance, with the latest generation of professional grade digital capture systems, you can have the image quality of a cumbersome 8×10 or 4×5 film camera from a compact and flexible medium-format camera. Less grain and finer detail at larger scales are all achievable with this new breed of digital cameras.

Shooting digitally can eliminate many of the steps that introduce the need for additional time-consuming color correction and custom profiling. The quality of the image is no longer compromised by variations in developing or scanner operator error. This can reduce the amount of color correction work that needs to be done with an image as well.

Getting Started

For many considering the move from film to digital, the biggest challenge is figuring out how to get from where they are now to where they know they should be. With so much time and money invested in a film infrastructure, the best transition pathway into a fully digital environment is not always immediately clear.

Before we address what you do need, we should make note of something you don’t need. When some people hear the term digital photography, they immediately envision a huge digital asset management (DAM) system made up of complex software and computer equipment, all costing tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. While we can easily make a strong case for a full-blown DAM system, it’s not absolutely essential – at least not as a first step. DAM systems are typically used for archiving these digital files for high availability, enforced security and access controls, dynamic asset transformation for use in different media, and – perhaps most importantly today – extending the “long tail” of that asset by offering the organization opportunities to resell or distribute it in new projects or channels. A digital photography strategy is not dependent upon a DAM solution and vice versa, but companies certainly reap benefits when both solutions are implemented.

The road to optimizing workflow, reducing costs and schedule times, and extending the value of the digital asset begins with obtaining the right digital photography equipment, then putting it to use. Depending on the equipment you use now, moving to digital may be as easy as replacing current camera backs with professional-grade digital camera backs. While the process may be easy, the initial price may appear prohibitive at first. A professional-grade digital camera back can easily cost in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $35,000.

Some may be tempted to save money by purchasing a “pro-sumer” digital SLR (DSLR). After all, DSLRs are available for around $1,000. Simply stated, this is short-sighted. The DSLRs cannot lay claim to the necessary professional-grade quality and features. If you choose this option, you will quickly regret not having made the investment in the proper equipment – initial price does not accurately reflect long-term cost.

Feature-wise, any equipment you consider needs to include the following:

At least 16 mega pixel instant capture CCD, although we recommend a minimum of 22 mega pixels. Current models go as high as 39 mega pixels

16-bit color depth

Avoid permanent, anti-aliasing, low-pass filters on the image sensor

Select a CCD imager that is larger than old-style 35mm format (24×36)

12-stop dynamic range

RAW file generation – eliminate any equipment that produces only JPEG files

Stable hardware and software operation

Software that allows users to customize output profiles

Capability to capture with strobe and/or continuous light

Flexible exposure times – from fractions of a second to several minutes

User-executable firmware upgrades

New technology upgrade/trade-in program

Warranty with loaner program

LCD screen with zoom capabilities, histogram, over exposure, and data readouts


Environmental stability, meaning that you should take into account any heat, humidity, dust, or other environmental considerations unique to your shooting locations.

Any technology purchase raises the question of obsolescence. In other words, if you purchase only what you need for today, will you still be able to make good use of it tomorrow? We suggest that you buy above your minimum needs to ensure your equipment a longer useful life and a better return on your investment.

The industry has hit a plateau. With CCD sizes almost the same as 6×4.5 medium-format cameras, manufacturers have reached what should be a longer-term stability level than previously enjoyed. For example, although 16 mega pixel systems are the current minimum, 22 and 31.6 mega pixel systems are rapidly becoming the de facto commercial standard. Buy a 31.6 or 39 mega pixel system today and your investment will likely be protected for some time to come.

What is often just as important is an intelligent upgrade path. If you buy a high-end 35mm DSLR and a new model comes out next year, you have to buy another whole camera. Conversely, if you invest in the right digital camera back, when new technology rolls out, you are given an opportunity to upgrade in a way that gives you a substantial trade-in value for your existing back. Your camera, lenses and lighting remain the same. Your trade-in value may vary from 50 percent of current MSRP for systems less than three years old to a simple, more favorable, flat fee for early adopters. With one improvement cycle, the return on investment on the medium-format digital capture systems improves over the 35mm DLSR.

Calculating ROI

Technology investments and infrastructure changes always come down to an analysis of return on investment (ROI). If you’re going to spend $15,000 or more on new digital equipment, sound business logic demands that you determine how quickly it will pay for itself.

The answer, of course, varies for each organization, but the calculations are typically very similar. When analyzing your film photography costs, be sure to include how much you spend for couriers, film, Polaroids, processing, scanning, physical storage, and so forth? All of these expenses are eliminated with digital photography. The total cost of film-based photography may surprise or even shock you.

We’ve witnessed and participated in this sort of calculation with numerous organizations. It’s not uncommon for some to realize a full return on their investment in as little as six months. Typical ROI is about one year. In the absolute worst-case scenario involving low capture volume operations, it may take two years to recoup your investment. Even that’s easily tolerable, considering the amount of money you’ll save once you pass that ROI threshold.

Changing Faces

Photography, whether digital or film-based, is a collaborative effort. Your lab, your messenger service, your film provider, and your scanner, among others, all make up your current team. When you make the move to digital, your new team may include IT professionals, DAM consultants and digital capture experts, all supporting your veteran photographers, who usually make the transition to digital with ease.

It’s important that you build your new team quickly and with reputable providers. Look to your existing internal and external teams first. You may discover, for example, that current employees have some experience with medium-format digital capture. Your lab may have had the foresight to make adjustments for new technology and may have started offering new services that will be valuable to your digital operation. Failing that, seek the advice of others who have already made the leap. Learn from their mistakes. Look for companies that have helped other firms successfully make the transition to intelligent digital capture workflow.

You’ll soon discover that digital technology has changed the entire dynamic of collaboration on your photographic projects. Instead of “messenger-and-wait,” your team will be able to work together in real time. Most find it hard not to get excited when they first witness this unprecedented level of interactivity.

Overcoming Resistance

In most organizations, the decision to move to digital photography does not rest with one individual. Perhaps your first step is convincing other executives in your company that this is the logical alternative to film.

The key is giving the right information to the right person. Once the time and cost savings are clearly laid out for any financial, efficiency or C-level executives, the arguments for going all-digital are too compelling to be ignored.

Along with this comes education. Make sure that you, your employees, and your other team members all possess the knowledge they need to make this effort a success. Reach out to reputable providers with full-time in-house support and training staff. If you can do that, once you make the move to digital, you’ll never regret the decision. You will, however, enjoy the recognition for creating cost savings while simultaneously enhancing creative flexibility in your operation.

Glossary of Terms

CCD: Charge Coupled Device; an electronic light sensor used in digital capture devices.

DAM: Digital Asset Management system; software used to maximize the value of digital media. Most Digital Asset Management systems allow users to organize, distribute, search and automatically transform assets in their collections of digital media.

DSLR: Digital Single Lens Reflex; a digital camera that uses a single lens reflex mechanism, which is the common analog camera mechanism.

JPEG: (Joint Photographic Experts Group) An image file that has been compressed using a lossy compression scheme. Although JPEG files take up less hard drive space than RAW files, JPEGs are a bad choice for image file archiving, because the JPEG compression discards data that can never be recreated. Once an image file is saved as a JPEG it cannot be re-sized and re-saved without additional image degradation.

Lossless: An adjective describing an image file compression scheme that reduces file size, without discarding image data. It is important to preserve valuable image data for future uses that often include different sizes and outputs than originally anticipated.

Lossy: An adjective describing an image file compression scheme that reduces file size, but in a way that discards image data. Lossy compression reduces the value of an image file by limiting options for future outputs.

Metadata: Data about a file (e.g. author, title) that is used to locate and organize files.

Processing: Also called development. Processing is the step needed to convert a RAW file into a commonly accepted image file format. Processing is ideally handled by specialized software programs whose dedicated purpose is to produce the most data-rich finished image file for your specific purpose.

RAW: An image file containing the most original capture data. Since RAW files have minimal adjustments, RAW files contain the most data. RAW files are processed, or developed, to yield a conventional image file such as a TIF or JPEG. It is imperative to shoot to a RAW file and save the RAW so as to protect your downstream choices.

XMP: Xtensible Metadata Platform; a format used to describe data about digital files. Many software applications and image capture devices such as digital cameras and scanners use XMP to automatically describe information about a file. A Digital Asset Management system can then use this data to catalog files.

About DPCI:

DPCI is an interactive technology agency that delivers integrated content management solutions for organizations that need to deliver information and content across a range of channels. DPCI helps customers design and deploy Web Content Management Systems, Digital Asset Management, Multi-Channel Publishing, Portals, and Workflow Management solutions, as well as other custom development applications and projects. DPCI serves customers throughout the United States, including Source Interlink Media, Comcast Cable Corporation, Hanley Wood, and Nielsen Business Media.

 About Joe Bachana:

Mr. Bachana began his career in the late 1980’s at the New York Times in its Production Technology Group. He furthered his career at the Associated Press as technical services manager for AP AdSend, the digital delivery system from advertisers to AP member newspapers. Mr. Bachana went on to be senior Project Manager at I.M.A.G.E. Inc, then Senior Account Manager at Inacom, before founding DPCI in April, 1999.

 A native of New York, Mr. Bachana is a graduate of both Brown (BA) and Columbia (GS) Universities and holds PMP certification from the Project Management Institute. Mr. Bachana serves on the editorial board of Palgrave-Macmillan’s Journal for DAM, , is a guest lecturer on Multi-Channel Publishing, Content Management and Digital Asset Management at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Henry Stewart Symposium, and other industry conferences.

About Mark Lawrence:

With over twenty years of experience in running a film based private business; Mark Lawrence has a proven track record within the industry.    Mark Lawrence’s business offering still& motion photography to various corporate and editorial entities.Previous clients included, among many others, Time, Business Week, Forbes, Computer Products, Consolidated Cigar Corporation, Four Seasons Emerald Bay Resort, Harris Computer Systems and Corbis.

 After executing his first digital photography project, Lawrence began migrating his own company from analog to total digital capture.  It was a natural extension for Mark to begin helping others utilize digital workflows.  Currently offering his expertise through Digital Transitions in New York City, Mr. Lawrence continues to assist corporations determine the optimum digital capture configuration for their needs.

About Digital Transitions:

Digital Transitions was created to support the high-end digital photography market. Through consulting, sales, rentals, training, and support programs, Digital Transitions has become the industry leader in providing digital solutions for customers throughout the U.S. With an in-house technical support division dedicated to both its sales and rental customers, Digital Transitions offers customer support through phone, email, live online chats and video, and even immediate product swap out.