Film vs Digital: A History of the Camera

The purpose of this page is to educate others about the differences between film and digital cameras as well as how we have made the transition between the two throughout the years. The reason I feel there is a need to educate people that there are significant differences in (using) the two different camera-types is because of our current state in a digital age, making most of our everyday camera-use to be through our cellphones. Consequently, I do not feel like a lot of younger people in this modern day understand how the progression of technology has affected the camera industry and therefore simply want to provide some insight. Something that inspired me for my project was Jaime Weinman’s piece that we read in class, “The end of film, for real this time”. Despite the fact that Weinman mostly discusses film vs digital regarding filmmaking/video while this project focuses on just photography, the article does relate in the way it talks about film becoming a dying medium.

To begin, I’m going to provide a little history about cameras through Timeline JS, then kind of generalize the main differences between film and digital, following with some videos to further explain the advantages and disadvantages in using either camera.

The Camera Obscura was invented in 1827, also called the pinhole camera. This camera uses natural sunlight to create an image on a surface, making it the most simple camera, but also remains one of the most innovative inventions at the time. From this it inspired many people to keep trying to develop the photographic process.

In 1888 George Eastman invented the Kodak box camera, or Brownie. The camera was the first paper film camera; It had a fixed-focus lens and single shutter speed as well as came with pre-loaded film for 100 exposures.

In 1913, 35 mm film cameras became available to the public and became the standard film camera still used today. Renditions of the film camera has been developing since; The first popular film camera was the Leica in 1925, due to its ‘high-end’ quality, and in 1936 the Canon 35mm rangefinder came out.

The first major innovation of SLRs, or Single Lens Reflex cameras, began in 1949 when the Contax S came out, making it the first pentaprism SLR (an updated eye-level viewfinder) invented. SLRs, while making their premiere through film, are now most commonly associated with digital cameras, or DSLRs.

The arrival of true Digital cameras (handheld) first appeared in the late 1980s, a time when the technology finally began to exist, and since then newer digital cameras have come out every few years, due to technological advances. The first portable digital camera was the Fuji DS-1P in 1988, and in 1991 Kodak began their long line of professional Kodak DCS SLR cameras. The transition to digital formats was influenced by the first JPEG and MPEG standards in 1988 (which allowed image and video files to be compressed on other devices for storage). The digital market has gotten so big, that it has been forced to split into a variety of categories in order to create more organization: Compact Digital Still Cameras, Bridge Compact Digital Cameras/ Super Zoom Cameras, Compact System Cameras/ Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras and Digital SLRs. Since the 2000s, digital cameras have outsold film cameras.


In my Timeline, I’ve included pictures for the cameras discussed above, as well as some videos at the end to illustrate some of the differences between film and digital. The first video shows briefly the differences between loading the two (showing the inside of the cameras) and getting ready to take pictures/video, and follows with side by side video comparing the visual differences. The second video provides side by side videos as well to compare the differences of film and digital in loading the camera, and actually shooting your pictures.

While both camera types share basic similarity, their main differences are as the following: Digital cameras differ from film mainly in the way that they do not use film, but rather digital memory (SD) cards on their internal storage. Nowadays digital cameras also include “wireless communication (for example, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) to transfer, print or share photos”. With digital cameras, the photographer can take as many pictures they want (as long as they storage is wide enough -which it can be up to at least 4,000 at a time), automatically adjust the settings/focus and see them immediately. While for film cameras, the photographer has to take the time to set up the photo (since they only get up to 25 pictures per roll of film), manually adjust the settings/focus and have to wait to develop the film to actually see how the photos turned out.

Even though digital has made it easier to see your pictures right away as well as upload them, making them available to people, there are a group of people (photographers) out there who still prefer to use film. The main reasons people still use film cameras is that they enjoy the procedure more, the aesthetics, or how it’s learning process is a rewarding experience and tool to have. To further elaborate on the argument of the learning process, it is methodical in the way it makes the photographer conserve every shot, makes them slow down, take attention to what is you’re shooting and that your settings are correct. Compared to digital cameras, where the photographer can just shoot absolutely any and everything and look back at the thousands of photos later many argue this prevents the photographer from truly being in or paying attention to the moment. However with digital it is also easier to learn from a particular shot, since they can look at the display screen seconds after taking the picture, realize what they want different, adjust their settings accordingly and retake it, correcting themselves.

To quote Weinman, “I think there are always trade-offs – digitization can do most of the work of the methods it replaces, and is a worthwhile replacement in most cases, but it’s never exactly the same.” There are always going to be people who will be able to tell the difference between film or digital imaging, creating preferences between the two.

*By no means should any information I’ve given be taken personally. It was not my intention to offend anyone, merely provide an elementary insight to non-professional photographers. I realize that some of the information I’ve given is not fully detailed, nor complete, since it was only my objective to shortly discuss the differences between film and digital cameras.