Is film or digital better for action photos?

By: Martha Barksdale
Cyclists racing for speed in sporty competition.
Which is better for action shots: film or digital? See our collection of cool camera stuff pictures.
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Professionals and amateurs alike have been debating the relative merits and drawbacks of film and digital photography since digital technology first became available in the 1990s. Both technologies have their advantages and disadvantages, but both, if used correctly, will take excellent action photographs.

The key to taking a good action photo doesn't hinge on whether the shot was taken on film or by a digital sensor. If a camera has an adjustable shutter speed, then it's suitable for action photography, film or digital. Shutter speed is the rate at which your camera's shutter opens and closes to let in light and capture the image. In action photography, the shutter speed must be fast to keep up with the movements of your subjects.


While most point-and-shoot digital cameras have some shutter speed controls, you want a single-lens reflex camera, or SLR, to really get the shutter speeds you need. Digital single-lens reflex cameras are called DSLRs. On an SLR and DSLR, the photographer sees what the lens sees. For good action photos, experts advise setting the shutter speed to 1/1000. This will be quick enough to grab the shot without getting any blur.

You can also change lenses on SLRs and DSLRs. By attaching in a zoom lens, you can get a thrilling shot of a charging rhino from the safety of your car or capture a skater's sprint across the finish line without getting on the ice yourself.

So, for the most part, you can get a cool action shot using either film or digital technology. The key to success lies more in the lenses and camera settings used to capture the image than whether film or a digital sensor did the actual recording.

Film and digital photography have detractors and fans. Some photographers claim they can get sharper images on film. Proponents of digital photography say capturing an image in pixels works just as well and is certainly cheaper than buying and processing rolls of film. Let's explore some of the pros and cons of each method and see why there's room for both technologies in the world of action photography.


Using Film for Action Photos

flamingo running on beach
A flamingo gets ready for takeoff.
Jami Tarris/Getty Images

The first step in successfully taking an action photo with a film camera is purchasing the right speed film. Film is classed according to its sensitivity to light by the American Standards Association, with higher numbers requiring less exposure. Film of ISO 400 or higher will be best for action photography; keep in mind, however, that that type of film is not available at Wal-mart or the corner drug store. You'll need to go to a photography supply store. Your camera will automatically detect the film's speed and set the shutter speed accordingly. While this higher speed film may produce a grainy image when printed in larger sizes, the fast speed is the only way to get an image that isn't blurred.

As digital photography takes over, film is becoming increasingly difficult to find outside of big city photography stores or on the Internet. Some photo stores are gradually cutting back on their stock of film as they sell what they already have on hand.


When talking about purchasing film, we touch on the main drawback of using film for action photography -- cost. Rolls of 36-exposure film are priced at about $6 a roll, and an action photographer may shoot hundreds of photos in an effort to capture that perfect image. There's also the cost of processing, whether in a commercial lab or by the photographer in his own darkroom. Processing and printing a 36-exposure roll of film averages about $17 on the Internet, plus shipping and handling fees. In-store processing is becoming a thing of the past and is usually only offered by photo supply stores. If you opt to process your film yourself, remember to factor in the cost of chemicals, darkroom equipment and supplies when considering film versus digital.

On the other hand, film cameras are less expensive than comparable digital cameras. Nikon film cameras for instance, range from a little more than $300 to $2,800, while Nikon's DSLR cameras begin at around $500 and go up to nearly $8,000. Single-lens reflex cameras, like film, are becoming increasingly difficult to find at brick-and-mortar stores, but they're still readily available on the Internet.

For several years after digital technology was first introduced, film still offered higher resolutions and was more forgiving of focusing and exposure errors, but most photographers say those advantages have evened out over the years as digital technology has improved. In the next section, we'll look at the advantages and drawbacks of digital photography for action photos.


Digital Action Photos

man running through field
With digital photography, you could shoot several of these action shots to make sure you get the perfect one.
Dougal Waters/Getty Images

In the heyday of film photography, nothing was more frustrating than taking a bunch of shots, sending them off for developing, waiting days to get them back, only to receive blurred, overexposed and disappointing images. Digital cameras are perfect for action and adventure photography for the simple reason that you can see what you've shot immediately. If you didn't get what you wanted, just keep shooting. It's not like you're wasting film or anything.

Top-of-the-line DSLRs are well-suited to action photography. High-end models can crank out about 60 shots per second. With an output like that, you're certain to get a good shot. The camera's tiny memory cards can hold hundreds of images, so you can just keep going. With a film camera, you'd have to take a break to load new film. Get the largest memory card you can so you don't have to stop shooting after running out of memory.


The high speed films necessary to get good quality action photos make for some pretty grainy prints when blown up to more than a four by six print. But you can set your digital camera to record images at different compression settings. The larger the setting, the larger the print you can make. You bought that big memory card, so fill it up. Set your camera's resolution higher, and get some action shots that will make you proud.

You need to be somewhat computer savvy to shoot digital action photography. You'll need to get your photos off of the camera and onto your computer's hard drive or a CD. Some stores offer this service. To really get the most from your action photography, you'll need to edit your photos with photo-enhancing software.

Longevity is another advantage to digital photography. While digital photography has not been around long enough to be tested for its aging properties, it's probably safe to say that images taken digitally will last longer than the 100-year lifespan of images shot on film and printed on paper.

For lots more information on action photography, zoom over to the next page for camera-related links.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Digital SLR Guide. "What is a Digital SLR Camera?" (Jan. 14, 2010)
  • "Action Photography." (Jan. 14, 2010)
  • Marietta College. "Film." (Jan. 14, 2010)
  • Nikon Inc. USA. Cameras. (Jan. 14, 2010)
  • Story, Derrick. "Top Ten Digital Photography Tips." Sept. 6, 2005. (Jan. 14, 2010)