Are there any kind of photography left today which digital cameras are still in the disadvantage to film cameras?
I think medium and large format photography is still a world dominated by film. While that fact is starting to change with more recent digital cameras that have extremely high megapixel counts (20mp or more), going to a larger format is SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper with film. The benefits of large format are particularly nice for landscape photography, but shine whenever you need the ability to generate extremely large prints (poster size or very large canvas prints.)
There are some digital cameras explicitly designed as medium-format, such as the Hasselblad H4D. The H4D sensor ranges around 50-60 megapixels and is 40.2 x 53.7mm in size, which is considerably larger than a full-frame 35mm sensor. The cost of this camera, at $45,000, is extremely prohibitive.
Star trails (Google images search) are much easier to photograph using film equipment, for a few reasons:
- It won't kill your battery. A digital SLR will expose for an hour if you're lucky before the battery dies, depending on your power setup (extra grip vs no). A film camera can expose indefinitely without using any additional battery usage, which is helpful when you want to expose for a few hours.
- Noise. DSLRs heat up the longer they expose for, so if you expose for too long you end up with a fuzzy layer on top of your image. There are ways to prevent this, such as taking several shorter shots or using post-processing, but they are inferior to taking one nice, long, clean shot on film. One of the nicer features I've seen on my Nikon D700 is the in-camera Long-exposure Noise Reduction, which follows up your shot with an equally long "blank" shot, which it then subtracts out from the initial image to eliminate the noise. This is a nifty feature, but the downside it cuts down by half the max time duration of your original shot.
First an explanation; this answer extensively borrows from and combines points from a number of the existing answers to this question. To those from whom I have borrowed, thanks.
A short answer to this question is "very little" but that hardly does justice to the intent of the question. So I'll make a long answer and divide it into sections.
Digital camera sensors try more or less to mimic the colour response of the human eye in order to help make familiar-looking, believable photos that reflect our own experience of the scene (before they're transformed in Photoshop...).
Black and White Film
Like digital cameras, most colour film is sensitive to light in ways which try to approximate what we see with the eye. But also many are not. The most obvious example is black-and-white film. Black and white film is usually used to generate a monochrome print (black and white, or sepia and white for example). But not all black and white films respond to light in the same way. Early black and white films were in fact only responsive to blue light (so skies looked very light). Orthochromatic films were introduced later, and were also sensitive to green light also. Then came panchromatic films — also sensitive to red light.
Not every black and white film is sensitive to the various wavelengths of light in the same way, and this means that a given scene, photographed with different black and white films, will look different even if the overall sensitivity of the films are the same.
Black and white films generate an image by a chemical reaction which turns silver halide into silver oxide (silver oxide appears black). The image is made up of many tiny grains of silver oxide.
Colour films can also respond to visible light in different ways too. Well-known examples include Kodak's discontinued Kodachrome emulsion, and Fuji's Velvia (which is more sensitive to green light). Colour films are normally made of several layers, one each for red green and blue light. They contain various dyes and other things that allow the layers to register the red green and blue image. The development process for colour film is much more complex than that for black and white film partly because these layers respond in different ways to the development chemicals and to the temperature of the reaction. Some colour films are made in three layers and some (principally Fuji films) are made in four. The fourth layer, again, changes the way the film responds.
Comparison to Digital Imaging
It's possible to take a photo with a digital camera and manipulate it to mimic the 'look' of a certain type of film. You'll get very close but may not precisely mimic the film effect. Photographers who are particularly attached to the 'look' of a film can therefore continue to prefer film. In a sense it's because they are familiar with the tool and the results it produces have become part of their style.
Even if you don't have a preference for any particular 'look', you can swap between film types to experiment with their imaging properties. That by itself can be an attraction of film photography. The flip side clearly is that with film it's hard to try out several 'looks' on one base image — while with things like Photoshop you can try out filters and actions to experiment with variations on your original image.
Film can be sensitive to non-visible wavelengths of light. Digital sensors can too, but it is a lot easier to change the film in a camera than to change the sensor.
Infra-Red ("IR") film is a popular choice, especially for living subjects like trees (often trees look very light coloured). IR films most often render monochrome images, though colour IR films are possible. Kodak used to make one (Ektachrome EIR), but it has been discontinued. IR films vary in their response to infra-red light too (some are sensitive only to "deep" IR and others are also sensitive to some parts of the visible spectrum (red light, usually).
Digital camera sensors are normally sensitive to IR light. This usually isn't convenient since it would generate an image that's not as the eye sees. So they normally have an IR-blocking filter over the sensor. That block is not perfect so by putting a filter on the lens which is opaque to visible wavelengths, you can do IR photography with a regular digital camera. You can also get them adapted by removal of the IR blocking filter on the sensor. This makes them much more useful for IR photography (since you can use the viewfinder again). The adaptation process can also account for the different focusing properties of IR light, so while this option is quite expensive, the result is probably easier to use than IR film in a regular film SLR. But trying IR photography out by just buying an IR film is certainly the cheapest option.
Glass bends light rays of different wavelengths different amounts (this gives rise to the "chromatic aberrations" you read about in lens reviews), so IR focuses in at a different point to visible light. That can be awkward, so many people stop down to adjust by increasing depth-of-field.
Films exist also that are sensitive to ultra-violet light. However, most modern camera lenses are constructed from materials that block it. A notable exception is the CoastalOpt® UV-VIS-IR 60mm Apo Macro UV-VIS-IR Lens which, incredibly, is not only transparent to visible, UV and IR light but also brings them all to focus at the same point (meaning that you can focus normally with it). It's eye-wateringly expensive, though.
Chemistry for Art
Some people choose to do film photography precisely because its imaging is based on chemical processes. Certain kinds of photographic prints (Platinum/Palladium prints, Ilfochrome prints) have a partiucular look that people seek out.
Altering the parameters of the development process can generate imaging effects that people deliberately take advantage of; solarisation and cross-processing are good examples. Once again it's possible to pretty much duplicate this look in Photoshop but then, perhaps not exactly.
Chemistry for Convenience
Sometimes it's just more convenient to use film exactly because development and printing is chemical. For example, you don't need a computer or a printer to make a print from film. This could be an advantage in a remote place, for example. But not only in remote places; instant cameras have made a comeback in recent years.
Let's Get Physical
The physical — rather than chemical — properties of film can motivate a choice to use film, too. Until recently dental X-rays were mostly done with film, because it was easier to put a small piece of X-ray film in someone's mouth than it was to miniaturise an electronic X-ray sensor (and sell it at a price dentists would pay).
You can record more information on a photo by using bigger film. That is, a 6cm by 6cm negative such as is used in a Hasselblad camera will record more fine detail than my SLR will (its frames are less than 3cm × 3cm). And with film, you can just go bigger and bigger to get more resolution. You can buy sheets of film at 8 by 10 inches. It's a standard size, even. You can go bigger still too. Digital camera sensors of that size basically don't exist (though if they did, they would also have great resolution). Even a sensor a third that size costs many tens of thousands of dollars. The problem is that digital camera sensors are made out of one single silicon chip, and larger sensors are much more expensive to make than small ones. I believe it's partly because the area density of IC manufacturing defects doesn't go down just because you're making a bigger sensor, so the yields for large sensor production are worse than small ones. The lower the yield of sellable products, the more expensive it is to make them.
Film even goes up to truly ridiculous sizes. Take a look at this huge 24"×20" instant camera and the stunning X-ray work of Nick Veasey (see also this article about Nick's work which I think points out that some of it is done at an enlargement ratio of 1:1).
Film is available in many shapes. You can even buy it in sheets and cut it. The Hasselblad XPan uses regular 35mm film, but takes very wide frames (so essentially it has a much larger "sensor area" than a full-frame digital camera).
Holography is normally done with film I think. Very slow (ISO 25 perhaps) sheet film. Well not film exactly. Photographic emulsion on large glass slides. I suppose it could be possible to record a hologram digitally, but I'm sure the equipment to do so would be pretty expensive.
Don't Forget to Talk About Cameras
Sometimes people choose film not because of the properties of the film, but because of the properties of film cameras.
Price: you can make a film camera so cheaply that it's essentially disposable (though I think the development labs can return them to the manufacturer for recycling).
Battery life: some film cameras are entirely mechanical and require no battery at all. Others have a battery and use it only for the light meter, meaning that you can still function without a battery. Even fully electronic film cameras are usually more frugal with battery power than digital cameras. This can be important for photography in remote areas (where it's hard to recharge batteries) or for very long exposures (since battery life limits the length of exposure you can get with a digital camera — the sensor has to be powered the whole time).
Optical qualities: some cameras, for example Holgas, have a particular look of the image that people like. Sometimes for art and sometimes for fun. This includes pinhole cameras, too.
Underwater photography: you can buy a waterproof housing for your digital camera, but they used to actually make film cameras that were themselves submersible (notably the Nikonos series of cameras).
Bellows: large-format film cameras often have a bellows which allows the relative orientations of the lens plane, the film plane and the subject to be changed. This produces interesting and often useful effects of both perspective and plane of focus. See the Wikipedia article on view cameras for more information. Some digital cameras can do this too. But while lenses for digital SLR cameras do exist that can achieve this, they cost over $1500 and are by comparison limited in their abilities (and their image circle).
My Personal Reasons
I shoot film because I want to use a specific category of film product. Changing film is easy and it's a bit like changing the sensor in your DSLR. So I choose these film products:
Black and white print film. I sometimes use this for its wide exposure latitude. Black and white print film can capture a wider range of subject brightness than DSLRs or slide film. Something between 13 and 20 stops. My DSLR has only around 9 stops of dynamic range. So in this respect black and white print film is superior. While photographic paper itself only has around 5 stops of available range, you have a lot of freedom when printing the film negative about how you map the dynamic range of the negative onto the print. This is part of the reason why printing is an art, and Ansel Adams devoted a whole book to it.
IR print film. Buying IR film is cheaper than getting your DSLR converted for IR and much more convenient than shooting with an IR filter (IR filters block visible light, so the viewfinder is totally dark).
Fuji Velvia. This is a fine-grained high-saturation slide film. Basically I do this just for kicks, I'm not certain I can achieve anything with this I could not do with a DSLR. But since I have a film body anyway, I use it.
Right now, I have two films loaded, one in each of my film bodies. One is an IR film and the other is, I think, Velvia 50.
Notice that I only do about 5% — less perhaps — of my shooting with film. If this was any more, the processing costs would be annoying. The processing costs for digital photgraphs, once you have a computer and software, are zero. For film, you pay for every exposure. So I'd never put myself in a position where I only had a film camera.
One other thing I find handy is a film leader extractor. This allows you to re-wind your film before finishing it, change the film in your camera, and then later re-load the film that you rewound (obviously you have to advance the film past the exposures you already took). I used to find that handy for those times when I had ISO 100 film loaded, and then wanted to use a slow zoom lens in poor light (for which I needed ISO 800). Of course, that kind of thing isn't needed for DSLRs at all.
One thing that I like better about film photography is, that you can shoot slides and project these in large scale with their original resolution onto a screen, or even just a smooth white wall.
Digital projectors will never give your 12 megapixel camera justice--most digital projectors cannot display anything beyond the "HD" format, which is really only 2 megapixels (1,920 x 1,080 pixels).
I believe a lot of people don't realize the fact that while the 10, 12, 14 or whatever megapixel camera can capture tons of detail, the program that will display your images on screen will always have to recalculate all this detail and cram it into your screen--which most likely has a 2 megapixel resolution or even less. That's sad. But of course, the convenience factor of digital photography takes over most people for good reason.
But once you have seen a medium format slide projected onto a 8 x 8 foot screen, you may change your mind :)
The optics of pinhole systems mean that increasing the size of the imaging medium makes enormous gains to the resolution of the image.
In practice, film (or photographic paper, commonly, but still silver-halide) is easily the best choice, and will probably remain so indefinitely.
Cheap disposable film cameras are good in situations where you'd not want to risk with losing or damaging your primary equipment, such as a day on the beach, horseback ride, a wild bachelors trip etc. I bought one with appropriate shell to try out underwater photography, it was several times cheaper than a shell alone for my digital camera would have been.
The convenience and performance of digital has lead it to replace film in many areas. However film has some unique attributes which make it more suitable than digital in certain applications (by 'film' I'm including any light sensitive chemicals that can be used to form an image):
Whilst the price of digital has plummeted at the very bottom end, film cameras are cheaper to manufacture, which makes them suitable for disposable cameras, the type that are made of cardboard and shoot one roll of film which can't be replaced.
A film camera requires as a minimum a light-tight box with a small hole. It is thus much more suitable for home-made cameras for either educational or recreational purposes.
Film cameras can be entirely mechanical. This means they can operate on zero power making them suitable for cases where a camera must remain dormant for a very long time in an environment with no external power (e.g. a cave) before being activated by an external [mechanical] trigger.
Digital camera sensors are active (consuming energy) the entire time during an exposure, and can heat up as a result. This energy use and quality lost due to thermal noise can place upper limits on exposure time. Film, whilst being suitable to reciprocity failure, is passive which means exposures can be much much longer, so for any applications which require very long exposures, such as solargraphs (where the exposure can be as much as a year) film may be preferable.
Broadly speaking film costs increase linearly with area - if you want twice as much film it will cost twice as much. This is a simplification but contrasts strongly with digital sensors where the cost rises exponentially with sensor area. This is due to the way defects appear in the silicon. When making many small sensors from a wafer, a single defect could cause you to have to throw away one of the sensors, still leaving you with many viable units, however when making one large sensor, a single defect can cause the whole sensor being thrown away leaving you with nothing to show for your effort.
To capture the highest levels of detail requires a physically larger lens and format, so for these applications film is either cheaper, or the only option. A good example is the GigaPxl project which captured images on film using a special camera that were scanned in at the resolution of a billion pixels.
Fine Art Photography
In fine art photography, for some photographers, the actual process of taking a photo, using film, is still very important.
Also, shooting with film, with an older film body, as an artist, can connect you to the legacy of photographers past, in a way that you cannot do with digital bodies.
None of the digital cameras today have the full range of movements (Rise, Fall, Tilt, Shift, Swing) of view cameras. PC or TS lenses get you there partially, but their range of movement is nowhere close to what's available to view cameras. So they don't offer nearly as much control on focus plane placement, DoF and perspective control.
A smaller aperture is also possible before diffraction kicks in.
So some landscape, architectural and fine art photography is better done with film.
Photograms (which I've described in more detail in this answer) involve placing objects in direct contact with a photosensitive surface, usually outside a camera. Film is perfect for photograms for a number of reasons:
- It's cheap
- It's disposable
- It's available in large sizes
- It's easy to use outside of a camera
Digital camera sensors fail on all four counts!
My father-in-law produces photogram-like images by capturing light refraction patterns with a lens-less film SLR body. In theory you could do this digitally too and we've discussed it a few times, but I'm always reluctant to expose my camera's sensor to the elements so routinely. Again, film just doesn't have that issue.
Film is good for some aspects of learning photography. The expense of it can be a good thing. When you have to pay a real cost for each picture, you wind up paying attention to what you're doing. It forces you to deal with your mistakes, look at them and learn from them. They're objects that you have to deal with, they cost you money, so you learn quickly.
Not being able to see the picture until a while later means that you have to have paid attention to what you shot while you were shooting. Film tends to concentrate the experience on the moment of shooting because everything leads up to that, rather than the shot being the start of an extended post-production process, the goal of which is usually to mimic something other than what happened at that moment.
These goals tend to be suited to learning, and to art-oriented projects. The point is that they take advantage of the fact that film takes longer and is more expensive. What is learned can be translated to digital for commercial and professional work, where the goal is to be as cheap and fast as possible.
Film cameras have (iirc) universal support for multiple exposures. Some dslr bodies have added this feature, and you can certainly do this in pp, but film allows you to do this in a straight forward manner.
Medium format is still much cheaper (relatively) using film, as digital MF's are wicked more expensive than their film counterparts.
Film SLRs do have advantages, yes. Two immediately pop to mind:
Star trail photos are so easy to take on film. Point the camera at the sky with your preferred film and aperture, and just open the shutter. With an old fully manual SLR you don't even need to worry about the battery giving out six hours into the exposure. Post processing? Just develop the film; no stacking, dark frames, or any extra effort required.
The film itself. Black and white and IR film is favorited by many, but I prefer color. Color film brings something that can't (easily?) be recreated digitally: color crossover. The way the colors on each layer of the film interact is subtle and fantastic. The randomness in the film layers helps to create fantastic color in a way you just don't see in digital.
A couple of things nobody have mentioned are:
Weight: Because film SLRs have tiny batteries (by comparison to DSLRs), they tend to weigh a whole lot less.
Full frame: You might have a full-frame DSLR. You might not. If you like full-frame but don't want to pay the freight of one of the higher-end DSLRs, then you can get that format on a film camera.
Electrical requirements. With my best battery packs, I'm pushing my luck to get more than 1,200 shots per battery. Say I take two batteries. That's 2,400 which might not be enough -- or it might really not be enough if I'm taxing the battery with long exposures or cold temperatures. The options for recharging batteries if you are on Mount Everest on on safari are limited. Carrying an extra 2CR5 battery along with your film camera is, in these cases, way easier than finding an electrical outlet that matches the requirements of your charger.
Large format architectural photography might be a case in which film may be preferable to digital because of the cost and availability of digital equipment. There is a paucity of digital tilt/shift cameras available (the only I know of are made by Cambo) and the digital backs start at about $15,000. There are medium format tilt/shift lenses available for digital medium format cameras, but the final image is in no way comprable to that possible with tilt/shift front and back camera planes. Many architectural photographers go the route of a medium format camera, doing everything possible to maintain horizontals and verticals in camera, correcting when necessary in post-processing, but this is a conpetetive (cost v. time) compromise.
Force of habit, there's a big section of photographers who learnt the trade using film and prefer it's qualities, and it works for them so why change the habit of a professional life time?
I do know of a couple of photographers who say they prefer the actual quality of a print from film due to various factors, but if I'm honest I can't see it, but they can and for them that's enough to keep using it.
Film processing is a lot easier than digital processing in remote areas, especially if there's no (reliable) electricity. A few bottles of chemicals and a light tight bag are enough to process a roll of black and white film to negatives, in theory prints of those can be made without electricity too (though a powered enlarger makes it a lot easier and more reliable).
Without a computer and a decent size screen however, the pictures on your memory card are completely useless, impossible to retrieve.
There's no doubt also specialty areas (like until recently space) where film was used exclusively.
Besides all that's been said...
In high-speed B&W photography, film (think Ilford's Delta 3200) still produces far better results than digital sensors.
In low-light photography, film is still better, but digital is (finally) getting decent results. Take color away, and digital sensors clunk.