Film vs. Digital... in 2012?

Maybe you clicked on this just to tell yourself, "Oh no, not another one of these posts". 

I was recently at an event taking pictures, when I noticed a woman going around with a small digital camera.  Just as she walked by me, a couple of people said to me "we'd love to see the pictures when they're ready."  So I said "I'll show you when I get the film back, in about two weeks".

The lady with the digital camera got a real kick out of that, apparently.  She actually snickered.  And that gets me thinking.  Can there really be a film vs. digital comparison in 2012?

There sure can.

"Film vs. digital" conjures recollections of some pretty strident arguments on the Internet.  Some of the digital crowd were downright ruthless on Internet forums in the past six or seven years.  Their $4,300 digital cameras were only marginally better than today's cheaper cell phones, even as they called loudly and often for the demise of all things film.   

I'm not going to deal in their terms.  Instead, let's talk about why film is such a great medium.  A few comparisons are in order, but we'll try to keep things cordial.

The Side Issue of Megapixels

I originally wasn't even going to talk about resolution, but we might as well get this out of the way.

Resolution is not the central issue in film vs. digital.  Too many people are too concerned about megapixels. 
By the time digital cameras were somewhere about six megapixels, they stopped looking raggedy-edged for the most part.  It was then that they started to have an apparent resolution advantage over 35mm.  There are three main reasons for this.  

Unless you're using a high ISO film or a sub-mini format (110, half-frame 35), grain isn't actually one of the reasons.

First, most film cameras (not all) have lenses that aren't as sharp as the ones made today.  That's because aspheric lens design and manufacture have improved so much.   They can now put these molded aspheric lenses into cellphones, too.   (I'll put up an article about film camera lens selection, when I get around to it.)

Second, digital cameras almost always run sharpening algorithms in-camera, even if you don't know about them.  What you're seeing straight out of the camera has been pre-processed in an attempt to squeeze the most resolution out of that sensor.  Engineers would probably do everything with hardware if they could (because engineers like to design nice things), but the realities of mass-production dictate that if anything can be accomplished with software, then it should be done that way.  (It brings down the per-unit cost, and everyone likes that except the engineers.)    What happens is that people are comparing these pre-sharpened images to raw film scans.   That's misleading. 
Though I normally don't sharpen my neg film scans much (if at all), any direct comparison between film and digital has to consider this.

Third-- and this is probably the biggest reason-- scanning limits the perceived quality of film.  A $200 flatbed scanner with a transparency adapter will yield reasonably good scans for making small prints, but they're not going to be anywhere near as sharp as the actual negative or slide.   The biggest reason is scanner optics
, mainly focus.  The film plane isn't necessarily at the best height.  The plane of sharpest focus could be somewhere above or below it.  We're talking about paper-thicknesses here.  It isn't practical to set this at the factory.  One scanner could vary from another.   The flatbed scanner should have some kind of height control that you can adjust yourself.   Finally, even a Nikon Coolscan is not a drum scanner.  And even there, operator skill has something to do with your scan quality!

If you use good lenses and better scanners (or settings), you can eliminate these problems for the most part.  35mm film inherently surpasses most digicams currently out there.   A good scan should be somewhere in the 12 to 25 megapixel range, although with a flatbed scanner you can easily get scans that are "nominally" 40 megapixels or higher.  

Most 35mm scans on this site were done on an Epson V500-- an entry-level scanner-- with little or no unsharp masking.   It's not meaningful to compare these to a DSLR.  If I were to use a height-adjusted V700 and do some unsharp masking, that would be another ballgame, but even there it would not be as good as a drum scan.

Want amazing resolution?  Try the bigger formats.

4x5 sheet film has an effective resolution of somewhere between 110 and 300 megapixels, depending on whom you ask.   Medium format film is somewhere between 50 and 100 MP, which still far surpasses digital. 

Camera retailers are starting to tell us that MF digital cameras are "within reach", but they must be kidding.  I don't care how many weddings a person does;  $20,000 for a digital camera is still exorbitant.  On the other hand, a medium format film camera can be had for anywhere from $50 to $500, depending on model.   A couple of models are $1,000 to $2,000, fully loaded, but one of them is a current-production rangefinder from Fuji (yes I want one).  You'd have to buy an awful lot of 120 film, complete with pro developing, before you hit the $20,000 mark.   Even at 500 rolls a year, you wouldn't even be halfway there.  

I just thought I'd mention once again:  scan quality is the biggest bottleneck in the whole thing.  I've even seen large format scans that had that harsh digital look... because the person either didn't know what they were doing, or else their scanner and software were older.  (Or, they got lazy and relied on auto-levels... see my Slide Film 2012-'13 article).   Don't get too hung up on that.   They can take that 4x5 negative or transparency and re-scan it later with something better.  The digital camera's output, on the other hand, is going to remain exactly what it is.

Even if we get stuck on the resolution issue and discount all the other reasons to use film (including this one), the fact is that medium and large format film are still far ahead of anything that's remotely affordable in the digital world. 

I emphasize the word "affordable". 

Kodak Ektar 100
(120 film)

Medium format digital is not a meaningful substitute for 120 film.   The above picture-- scanned on a cheap scanner-- was taken with a camera costing about 1% of what you'd pay for a medium format digital camera.  You read that right:  1/100th the cost.  Instead of $20,000, it's more like $200.  Even if MF digital came down to that level, I'd still choose the film. 

Even if we stay in the megapixel arena, nothing in the digital world can compare with large format film.   4x5, 5x7, 8x10... this is the height of photography.

The Look

Even though we just got done talking about resolution, that's not even the point.   There really are a couple of applications where digital is the better choice, but it's missing something.  To me it's not a minor detail, it's practically the whole show.  We really are comparing two entirely different things.  Let's find out why.

Why, in 2012, is digital still not a replacement for film?  
Why is it never going to be?   For starters, film has a "look" to it that comes through, whether you're using a Leica M3 or a toy plastic camera with a plastic lens (which I used for this picture).

Diana F+
35mm back

As long as I can take pictures like this with it,  I am going to be one happy artist.   The camera has one shutter speed, a one-element lens, and what.... two or three aperture settings?   Aside from the plastic, that's technology from about 100 years ago.  

What is it about the look of film?  I guess if I had to summarize it...

Film Has Soul

One thing I like about film is that is has life, even without doing anything to it in Photoshop.  There's a depth.  A warmth.  Maybe that's because analog is infinite.  True, there are finite end points of light and dark, but there's an infinite number of values in between.  Digital handles this by making a finite series of approximations.   Something gets lost in the process.

Warmth, cold, brightness, tone... shadow, distance, color, happiness... these are analog qualities.   A person doesn't say "Today, I'm happy in the quantity x+1".  They say "Today, I'm happier".  Life is mostly analog.  Analog photos have more life to them.  Somehow I don't think that is a coincidence.

With pictures of any kind the medium is going to have an influence on the message.  An oil painting looks like an oil painting... because it is an oil painting. 
Marshall McLuhan went so far as to say "the medium is the message".   I don't know if that's true for every case, but it's definitely a truism. 

Film, like oil paints, has a "something" that becomes part of the image it conveys.  I don't care what format we're talking about.  A 35mm half-frame has that "something", too.

Even 110 film had it, as tiny and "low-res" as the negatives were.   You can make an oil painting with small, coarse brushes,  but you can't make an oil painting with acrylic.  

The Process

The look is just part of it.   I love the whole experience of using film.

Choosing from different film types with different qualities of color, tone, light sensitivity, and grain. 
Choosing from different cameras with their own interesting, yet simple, sets of controls.

Loading the film. 
Hearing the mechanical clicks of a winding knob. 
A big ol' sheet of 120 film advancing slowly in the back of the camera.
Or, an even bigger sheet of 4x5 film, loaded up into its film holder.
Or, a roll of 35mm reaching the next frame.
Sizing up scenes and deciding if they're
worth a photograph.
Estimating the distance to the subject, if necessary.
Clicking the shutter when it's all ready.
Waiting for the pictures like a Christmas present.
The eager anticipation of opening a pack of photos for the first time.  
"The pictures are here!"
Being able to pick up the negatives and hold them up to the light. 
Being able to make prints from them thirty years later.
Having a real, tangible original to keep.
Not worrying that a memory card is going to quit without warning.  

Most of all, I love the authenticity and the richness of film.   Velvia, Sensia, Ektar, Superia, HP5, Elite Chrome... these are just a few of the great reasons to use film cameras.

Slowing It Down

The mechanical aspect of film cameras can add to the overall enjoyment, but it also goes hand-in-hand with more serious photography.  The older camera designs make you slow down and think a bit before taking a shot.   Using a TLR or an old press camera is worlds away from using a digital camera.    And if you're really a shutterbug, it's pure joy.

The gear is external to the film as a medium;   and yet, it isn't.  The form follows the function.  It really is part of the whole "film mystique" that can't be replaced adequately.  Even if the digicam industry would make a digital look-alike to the TLR or the 1940's press camera, it just wouldn't have the credibility.  Sure, it might be cool, but it wouldn't be the same.   

Isn't Digital Cheaper in the Long Run?

As many have said, it's a huge mistake to view art strictly in terms of commodity cost.   Cost can't be entirely ignored, but let's think about this.

More than one person has realized it isn't that cost effective to go buying a new digital camera every couple years.  The purchase of one or more backup units (in case a sensor fails during an event......) further reduces any cost advantage.   We haven't even considered the expensive software and updates that are necessary just to be able to work with proprietary "RAW" files.  Did you ever wonder why the new digital cameras don't simply shoot in 48-bit uncompressed TIFF?   I don't know what the stated reason is for not doing it, but I'm sure lot of it has to do with making sure you have to buy special software.

We've already established that we're comparing wholly different things.  First, digital is not film.  
Second, commodity-based thinking is wrecking the art.  In fact, many newcomers lack any concept of covering their overhead costs.  They also place no value on their work. 

No professional can compete with that, even if they sell all their film gear and step into digital.

Come to think of it, that's the biggest mistake a pro could make, unless maybe you're a sports photographer or you work for the newspaper.  I promise I'm not trying to insult anyone here, but digital photography has opened up the field to a number of relatively unskilled persons.  Arthur Fellig used to get amazing pictures with a one-shot Speed Graphic camera, developing his 4x5 negatives in the trunk of his car.  Nowadays you can just about point a lens at something, press a button, and a computer figures out what to do from there.

To compete with yard-sale vendors, a person soon has to offer yard-sale quality.   Like it or not, this is what has happened with digital.  That venue is only going to get worse.  Someday, everyone will have a 20-megapixel cell phone.  
Even now, there are cell phones that give the "DSLR-tist" a run for the money. 

The pro photographer has to offer something different.

Something timeless.

Compare With the Eye

One is film, the other digital. 

Version 1

Can you tell which is which?

Version 2

Here's a hint.  
The film photo was made with a twenty-year-old camera, fitted with an inexpensive zoom lens, and using slide film.  It was scanned with a low-cost consumer grade scanner. 

By the way, I'm pretty sure I used a narrower aperture for Version 1, which would make the background and foreground both be in focus.  "Version 2", using a wider aperture, has the trees on the mountain a bit blurred.  They could have been rendered in sharp focus by switching to, say, f/11 or f/16, but the light was running out fast.  I really just wanted to get the picture.  Now, with that aside, just compare the colors. 

I know which one I prefer, anyway.

Maybe you're looking at these pictures and saying "Not fair!  You didn't post-process the digital!".   Alright, but neither did I post-process the film.   You might not be able to notice by the small, low-grade JPG images, but the film photo actually preserves more tone depth.  The clouds in the Velvia 100 shot have more of what I'd call "tone detail".  

If you notice that the film version has less apparent shadow detail, you're right.  One of the upsides of digital is its great shadow detail (though its highlight detail is crummy) , but keep in mind that cheap scanners don't have the brightness to pull details out of shadows.  Projected-- or scanned on a better scanner-- the Velvia slide has a lot more shadow detail than you're seeing.  Also, knowing me I turned down the brightness on this scan because I like contrasty pictures.  

I've found that even if I color-enhance the digital photos and take the edge off the harshness, there is still something I prefer about the film pictures.   I also enjoy the fact that I have a box of actual slides, rather than a bunch of ones and zeroes that can evaporate spontaneously. 

By the way, for those who are still wanting to compare sharpness or resolution:   first off, this was only 35mm film.  Second, I definitely scanned the film picture with "grain reduction" turned on.  The same goes for most of the photos on this site.    One day I decided I liked the pictures more grainy, and that's when I noticed something.  They're not that much grainier with it turned off, but they're definitely sharper!   I think from now on, I'm going to keep it turned off. 


Parting Thoughts

More and more, I find myself putting away the digital camera and moving back to film... especially slide film.  (Updated thoughts on the subject here.)  Oh, sure, I keep the digital around for some uses (such as, scoping out pictures I want to come back and take with film...).  They're both valid tools for today's artist, but for me, film has the magic.

I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way.  A lot of us are coming to the same conclusion.  

If something is worth going out of your way to photograph,
it's worth photographing with film.

Incidentally, it's safe to say I never get tired of photographing trees... or sunsets.  Trees, because they're always handy and they never have bad hair days... and sunsets, because who doesn't like a good sunset?

There Must Be Giraffes Here Somewhere

Fuji Velvia 100

There are so many reasons to keep using film.  If you've never tried it before, I hope you'll consider it.

Late Winter Sunset
Elite Chrome 100

I hope you've enjoyed this article.  And one more time:  if you get joy from digital photography, then by all means continue doing it.  No real artist would ever tell you to stop using the medium that makes you comfortable.

One more thing.  You can help me out a lot by buying your film through the links on this site.  Just a couple favorites, off the top of my head:  pick up your Velvia 100 in pro packs of 35mm here;  120 size here.  You can get the legendary Velvia 50 in 35mm here.  (You can get the 120 version here.)  In the realm of color negative film, I really like Kodak Ektar a lot;  35mm pro packs here, and pro packs of Ektar in 120 are here.

Thanks for reading!

Have a good one,

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