Now that we’re very solidly in the digital era, but haven’t been here so long that it’s anything like settled down yet, I have a few observations to make on changes. Especially changes relating to beginning and/or young amateurs.
At the bottom level, it’s a huge win. Many children will get hand-me-down P&S digitals from their parents, and have computer access (or their own computers). With that setup, they can take infinite numbers of pictures for no cost. This is so much different (better) than it was for me; until I started doing my own darkroom work (which was a fairly big jump even then), the cost of film and processing put a really tight limit on how much I could shoot (ages 8-14, roughly). Furthermore, needing to stretch the life of a roll of film added to the unavoidable delay between shooting and seeing the results, meaning that the feedback loop of learning was rather loose. The fast feedback is very important, particularly for a child learning something this technically complicated. Finally, those P&S are more capable and more controllable cameras than my Pixie 127 ever was (ask me if I’m frustrated that my most interesting travel was all before I had a decent camera!).
Higher up, it’s more mixed, and more complicated. When I was shooting with my mother’s old Bolsey 35, I had limitations in focal length (one fixed lens), aperture (f/3.2, it says there), shutter speed (only up to 1/200), and close focus. But I could use any 35mm film available, and process it myself (especially the B&W) so I could push to EI4000 if I needed to (not that I knew how that far back). My images could display the grain structure, and something decently close to the contrast and definition, of the best 35mm equipment in the market place.
Today, a lot of things that used to be controlled by choice of film and darkroom processing have moved into the camera body. And no junior-high student (okay, very very few) gets to actually play with a Nikon D700 these days. So in many ways the intermediate-level amateurs who are young (or otherwise on a severe budget) are more constrained from seriously pursuing some areas of photography today than I was back in 1969 when I got my first SLR. Of course, a Nikon D40, which they might well get as a hand-me down or even afford from part-time jobs, is a very capable camera, much better in low light than what I could do with film in 1969. But it’s far below what a D3 can do in low light today; there’s a difference between professional equipment and amateur equipment today that there wasn’t in 1969. The differences between what you could do with a Pentax Spotmatic and a Nikon F then were much smaller than the differences between a Nikon D40 and a Nikon D3 today. The body wasn’t nearly as important back then as it is today.
Of course, once you get the digital camera, you still have “all you can shoot” for free, that’s still a huge win. And even cheap DSLRs produce better images under difficult conditions than one could do with film 40 years ago.