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#FilmFridays: How to tell film photos and digital photos apart!

Film Photography, Radian Photography

December 21, 2018

A few months ago, we started a fun game on our Instagram stories that we call Film Fridays. We show two images — one shot on a digital camera and one shot on film — and people guess which one is which.

What started as a quick way to look back on sessions and compare our digital and film work while engaging folks who might be interested turned into more! We’ve had in-person conversations about film vs. digital and so many messages about people’s “winning streaks,” questions, guesses, and more! It’s turned into a tradition we look forward to on Fridays, and we’ll often pick photos and try to stump each other before posting! 

A few weeks ago, we asked whether people might be interested in a quick guide to telling the film and digital photos apart and got positive feedback. So we asked three of our hybrid photographer friends, Lauren of Lauren Jolly Photography, Jessica of JJ Horton Photography, and Brent of Live View Studios, to help us out! Below, they each break down a different way to tell apart film vs. digital photos. We hope this is helpful and that you’ll play along on the next Film Friday! Good luck!

Brent from Live View Studios on grain in film

Grain in film photography is something that, to me, lends authenticity. It’s like the skip or scratch on the vinyl record – it makes it feel warmer and a little more human. In this day and age with 4K resolutions, and everything in ultra high definition, it’s nice to have something that doesn’t feel quite as shellacked and polished. Something a little less refined.

Without getting too technical on metallic silver and halide particles (the chemical process that causes grain in gelatin based film), let’s just say that grain is somewhat the after-effect of the chemical conversion process of film. The result is something many film photographers love, for the reasons I’ve said above, and also because it tends to make an image feel softer, warmer, and gives it a sense of heirloom. In this social media driven world, everyone seems to be aiming for some sense of perfection. Film is not perfect, if you think perfection is a perfectly crisp, high definition product. It’s got flaws as part of its inherent character – but that’s what gives it charm. 

Both of the images in this section taken by Brent were photographed on film! Can you see the grain?


Jessica from JJ Horton Photography on Color and Highlights

The differences in color between film and digital are in the depth and richness of each image. The color values seem true to life, almost as if you could reach out and feel what is represented in a film image. One of the first medium format images I ever shot was of a bride holding her bouquet on her wedding day. It’s a closeup of the flowers, with her dress as the primary backdrop. I’ve always felt like I could almost smell the flowers and touch how delicate they are just by looking at the image. The colors seem represented so much more accurately, and the texture of the petals and leaves looks rich, and velvety. It is what my eye saw on her wedding day.

bride with bouquet on wedding day in film

Greens are the hardest to duplicate on digital images.  In comparison, digital images can look flat, lifeless, and “slick” for a lack of a better term.  Grass never looks quite the correct shade of green, and florals look like something you might locate in a cheap, silk floral aisle. Ever take an image and it looks too orange or too blue? That’s because the white balance is off. Film has an incredible ability to read white balance correctly without any fuss (as long as you have enough light)!  Don’t get me wrong, digital images can certainly be beautiful, but 99% of the time they lack the richness of film images. I like to think of it as a fast food burger compared to a craft burger or good wine vs. cheap wine. Fast food and cheap wine will do the trick, but sometimes you just want something with a little more quality.

This example of a senior girl shows how the texture and color of her hair is very different between the images. The image on the left is film, her chocolate brown hair is represented accurately, while the digital image on the right looks flat, reads slightly magenta and her skin tone doesn’t look as true, warm, and full of life as the left image. Looking at the film file, I feel like I can easily tell the texture of her silky hair, and with the digital, I cannot. 
The highlight difference is the most striking to me of all. Many of us who prefer to shoot outdoors and love sunlight find this to be one of the most beneficial aspects of film. When you shoot with a digital camera and balance your exposure for the shadows, this means anything else in the image brighter than what you exposed for, will be overexposed… skies are usually way over exposed.

Take these family photos as an example: the digital file on the left completely loses the overcast gray of the sky, as well as some of the tree tops. In the second example on the beach, the transition from highlight to shadow is smoother, and the color is much better. Look at the dimples in the sand: on the digital image, there are harsh lines between the dark and light, while the film image has more of a gradient transition between the bright and dark. Film has this unique quality to not lose the details in the light, bright part of images (highlights). Film retains so much more in those areas, where in digital files they simply look white. Digital cameras are great at recovering shadows, while film handles the highlight 10000% better. 


Lauren of Lauren Jolly Photography on the softness of film

One of the first “issues” I had when transitioning to shooting in film was sharpness, or lack thereof. I was used to my digital camera and the super sharp images that it created, but over time I began love everything about the way film looks, including it’s “softness.” As I grow as a photographer and an artist, I am constantly realizing that doing things my own way is important and necessary. If the photography world is saying that sharp photos are better, but I love the look and emotion of soft, even blurry film photos, I have to listen to that. I’m an artist and photography is my medium of choice.

I think it’s natural for us to want a solution or an answer. We want to know why the images aren’t as sharp and what we can do to fix it. We want a formula for how to create a good image, including instructions on camera settings, lighting, posing, etc. We want a step-by-step manual on how to create the perfect image. But the more I shoot, the more I learn there’s no need for that. Yes, a basic understanding of your camera is probably a good idea, but rules are made to be broken. So when the world tells you that your images need to be sharp or in focus to be “good,” show them a moving, emotional image that completely defies their rules. Photography is art and when it comes to art, the artist gets to decide what he or she wants to create.

One of these photos by Lauren was shot on film and the other on digital. Can you tell which one is which?

On the more technical side, one of the reasons why film photography is often not as tack sharp as digital photography is that film craves light. This means that we often need to adjust our shutter speed to let in more light. With a digital camera, you can adjust other settings to accommodate the changing light and still get a crisp image. At a certain point, there isn’t enough light to shoot with most film stocks and we may switch to digital, but I, for one, will keep on lowering my shutter speed to get the beautiful colors and grain that film offers right up until the sun sets!


couple on lake black and white film
Even though both of these photos that we took show movement, one is a little softer (and grainier)! Can you tell which is which?

Radian Photography on the value of film

While this section might not help you tell our film and digital photos apart, we did want to include it to help explain why we use both. The truth is, we’re hybrid photographers because we think BOTH film and digital have their place in our work, and depending on what and when we are photographing, we might choose one over the other, or we might use both at the same time (#husbandandwifeteam).

We love digital because we can snap a million photos, choose the best one, blow them up to billboard sizes, and make mistakes and fix them later (or catch them right away by checking the last photo). They’re great for things like people’s crazy dance moves at receptions or kids moving at lightning speed or that millionth group photo that your mom requests at your wedding when you’re trying to get some appetizers in your body, stat.

But we use film for most of our sessions and when we photograph our own family or travels, we often use film exclusively instead of bringing a digital camera in addition or instead. If it’s a little bit softer and a little bit grainier and a little bit more expensive, WHY would we make that choice?

When we shoot a roll on film, we usually end up saving 90% of those photos because we are INTENTIONAL about how we shot them. When you don’t check the back of your camera all the time, when you really think about what you’re doing before the shutter closes, when you’re looking to catch the moment and not create something perfectly posed, the result is more meaningful.

Because it’s just a little bit more magical. It’s a little bit more imperfect, like, you know, real life. When we shoot something on digital, we then spend HOURS afterward deleting hundreds of duplicate photos and editing the rest. Hundreds. Okay, when we’re talking about a wedding, we might be talking about thousands.

When we look back at these photos, we can’t see the hours that we put into digitally altering these photos AFTER they were taken, because they don’t exist. Instead, we remember Everest waking up, staying in that moment, as we captured him stretching and smiling. We remember his delight as Ian bounced him at the pumpkin patch. We think about what it felt like as he put his toes in the sand and the ocean for the first time.

We know that sounds fluffy and a little vague and even as we write this, we feel like we can’t fully put into words what we mean, like we’re not being as sharp as we want, like it’s more about a feeling than we can express. And that’s our point exactly. 

Thank you to Lauren, Jessica, and Brent for contributing to this post! We so appreciate you and value your work and are grateful that we get to be on this journey alongside you all! 🙂 

Want to see more of our film work? Head here! Or, if you’re ready to work with us, start by contacting us! 

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