Film Camera Vs. Digital


Thinking of buying a Film camera. Not because it’s a cheap camera because i really want to learn the learn the basics and true essence of photography. So i put down my digital slr camera and geared up to the old fashion Film camera. But i don’t know which one. on the other hand what about the hi tech fudji camera? I found this article online.


I use both digital and film cameras all the time. They each serve a different purpose.

Film and digital capture are completely different media. They are used for similar purposes, but they themselves are completely unrelated to each other. I’d have an easier time and get in less trouble comparing my mom to a maid or my wife to something else than attempting a comparison of film to digital cameras. That said, here goes.

Most people get better results with digital cameras. I prefer the look of film. Film takes much more work. Extremely skilled photographers can get better results on film if they can complete the many more steps from shot to print all perfectly. Because there are so many ways things can go wrong with making prints from film, especially from print (negative) film, beginning photographers and hobbyists usually get better prints from digital because there are fewer variables to control.

I get my digital prints made at Costco and they look stunning. Mark the Costco bag “Print as-is. No corrections” and your prints will look like your screen, so long as you’ve left your camera in its default sRGB mode.

Labs usually make awful prints from film, which is why people who don’t print their work personally get better results from digital. I’ve never been happy with prints from negatives made for me by any lab regardless of cost. This is because prints from negatives are at the mercy of the eye of the person making the print. If you’re not making the prints yourself you usually get something completely different than you wanted, which means junk. That’s why most photographers shoot slide (transparency) film, since the printer can see exactly what the photographer intended.

Large format film still rules for serious landscape photography.

I use digital for people, fun shots and convenience. Digital replaced film in 1999 for big-city newspapers.

The biggest reason the results look different is the highlights. We’re used to the way film looks. It overloads gracefully when things get too light or wash out. This mimics our eye far better than digital. Digital’s weak point is that highlights abruptly clip and look horrible as soon as anything hits white. Unlike film there is no gradual overload to white. Digital cameras’ characteristic curve heads straight to 255 white and just crashes into the wall. it’s the same with video versus motion picture film. If any broad area like a forehead is overexposed your image looks like crap on digital. This effect is similar on cheap pocket cameras, my expensive Nikon D200 and $250,000 professional digital cinema cameras.

A smaller reason is that film, especially larger format film used in landscape photography, has more resolution. This becomes important as print size increases to wall size but invisible in 5 x 7″ prints.

Which is Better?

Neither is better on an absolute basis. The choice depends on your application. Once you know your application the debate goes away. The debate only exists when people presume erroneously that someone else’s needs mirror their own.

I can get great 12 x 18″ glossy prints for $2.99 at Costco every day from my digital camera, and we all can get fuzzy results on film. It’s the artist, not the medium, which defines quality.

If and only if you’re an accomplished artist who can extract every last drop from film’s quality then film, meaning large format film, technically is better than digital in every way. Few people have the skill to work film out to this level, thus the debate.

Most people get better results from digital. Artists print their own work, but if you use a lab for prints you’ll have more control and get better results from digital.

Convenience has always won out over ultimate quality throughout the history of photography. Huge home-made wet glass plates led to store-bought dry plates which led to 8 x 10″ sheet film which led to 4 x 5″ sheet film which led to 2-1/4″ roll film which led to 35mm which led to digital. As the years roll on the ultimate quality obtained in each smaller medium drops, while the average results obtained by everyone climbs. In 1860 only a few skilled artisans like my great-great-great grandfather in Scotland could coax any sort of an image at all from a plate camera while normal people couldn’t even take photos at all. In 1940 normal people got fuzzy snaps from their Brownies and flashbulbs while artists got incredible results on 8 x 10″ film. Today artists still mess with 4 x 5″ cameras and normal people are getting the best photos they ever have on 3 MP digital cameras printed at the local photo lab.

So why the debate? I suspect the debate is among amateurs who’ve really only shot 35mm since it’s been the only popular amateur film format for the past 25 years. Pros never say “film,” they say a format like “120,” “4×5,” “6×17,” “8×20” or “35” since “film” could mean so many things. Amateurs say “film” since they only use one format and presume 35mm. Therein lies the potential for debate when people don’t first define their terminology. Today’s digital SLRs replace 35mm, no big deal. Most people will get far better prints from a 6MP DSLR like the D70 than they will paying someone else to print their 35mm film.

I’m a little crazy: I shoot 4 x 5transparency film for serious gallery work and large prints. Most film shooters shoot the smaller 35mm size film and use print film, not transparencies. Digital cameras give much better results than 35mm print film unless you are custom printing your own film because the colors from digital are not subject to the whims of the lab doing the printing.

Digital cameras give me much better and more accurate colors than I’ve ever gotten with print film. If I can spend all day making a custom print from a large transparency I’ll use film, and if all I need is a 12 x 18″ print (small for me but big to most people) then a print from my D70 is better and faster.

Digital is far more convenient and offers great quality for photojournalism and portraits, and film is king for large prints and reproduction where textures in nature and landscapes are important. The violent film vs. digital WWF death match smackdown articles are just to sell magazines and digital cameras. I’ll get to the detailed differences below, but first let me put the whole issue in perspective. It’s really too bad that many hobbyists and photo magazines present this as a warlike win/lose issue with film somehow involved in a death struggle against digital and waste their time arguing amongst themselves in vacuous chat rooms instead of just going out and trying it for themselves.

One first needs to define just what one is going to do with the photographs. For most things digital is far more convenient if you’re shooting hundreds of images, making prints smaller than a few feet on a side and posting on websites and email, and for other things like landscape photography for reproduction and large fine prints film is better.

Ignore me. Just look here for why a magazine like Arizona Highways simply does not accept images from digital cameras for publication since the quality is not good enough, even from 16 megapixel cameras, to print at 12 x 18.” Arizona highways doesn’t even accept 35mm film, and rarely medium format film; they usually only print from 4 x 5″ large format film. Here’s a comment from Arizona Highways after they got a lot of hate mail from amateurs on the previous link. As of November 2005 Arizona Highways admits here that it will take digital, but only for smaller images. To quote from Peter Ensengerger, Arizona Highways Director of Photography, in that most recent article: “digital still can’t touch large-format film for the full-page reproductions that have made Arizona Highways famous” and “The 4×5 view camera remains unsurpassed for landscape photography.”

Film and digital do different things better and complement each other. Neither is going away, although film will decline in areas where digital excels, like news. Film has already disappeared from professional newspaper use a year or so ago, although small town papers may still use it, and likewise, no digital capture system has come anywhere near replacing 8×10″ large format film for huge exhibition prints that need to be hellaciously detailed.

Film is not going away

I have a whole article on this here


Other people’s abstract technical analysis or magazine articles or websites can’t tell you which looks better. You have to look for yourself. If you want to do a technical analysis the things you should be investigating instead of resolution and bit depth are the far more important issues of color gamut, highlight rendition, convolved spectral response curves, sharpening algorithms and overall transfer functions, although only the math Ph.Ds. understand these. Honestly, if you don’t trust your own vision then you should give up photography right now, since vision and power of observation are the most important aspects of photography!

Artists just look at the images and realize each does different things better and each has a very different look for different subjects.

WHICH IS BETTER back to top

Debating which is better is as silly as debating girls vs. boys or apples vs. oranges or oils vs. Prismacolor. It all depends on what you want done. Ignore people who insist that one is better than the other without stating their end purpose. It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

I shoot about 1,000 images every week on my D1H or D70 and I’ll go out and shoot $1,000 worth of film on another week. It all depends on the subject. Sometimes I shoot on both formats if I need film for quality and am too lazy to want to wait and scan my chromes for immediate distribution.

Let’s explore the advantages and disadvantages of each. If you’re in a rush you’ll find the “disadvantages” section of digital particularly enlightening, since there are very good reasons digital looks as it does unknown to newcomers (people who have only been in this ten or fifteen years). I’ve been studying digital imaging since I was a kid and making my living at it full time since the 1980s.

One also needs to define what sort of digital and what sort of film one is comparing. There are at least two different classes for each.

For “film” we have slide film (used by most professionals and I) and negative (print) film (used by amateurs). As you know, all film looks different, and in my case, I love the look I get from Velvia. Most other film looks boring to me. When I speak of “film” I mean Velvia; others of course may mean something else. Black and white again is even more different.

For “digital” we have many fixed-lens digital point-and-shoot cameras with smaller, noisier CCDs and lots of JPG compression, and DSLR cameras with huge, clean CCDs and mild or no JPG compression.


The best way to get a digital image is by shooting film and having it scanned. I’m not comparing that here; this is a camera discussion.

CAUTION: In Hollywood movie production we have a phrase called “finishing.” “Finishing on film” means the end product is film. “Finishing on video” means the end product is video. One can start and capture images on any medium and we have ways to convert anything to anything. In other words, we can shoot either on film or video, and convert either to the other if we need it. Yes, some major motion pictures today, like “Panic Room,” were scanned from film, color corrected, edited and color timed in a computer, and written back out to film on the Arri Laser film recorder for duplication and release. We also can take video and write it onto film, too, and you as a still photographer also have these options. I have taken digital camera files and had them written onto slides. That costs about $5.00 – 2.50 a slide.

When doing any comparisons you need to pay attention to the medium in which the comparison is made.

Every other film vs. digital comparison I’ve seen finished in digital, and unfortunately they were always using a cheap consumer scanner to convert the film to digital. A $1,500 Nikon scanner and my $3,000 Minolta scanner are both cheap consumer scanners, as is the $10,000 Imacon, all intended for use by end user-owners. A professional scanner costs about $50,000 and takes years of experience to learn to get great results. The $3,000 scanners still lose information from the film when trying to make a comparison, and even a $50,000 scanner’s images still have to be displayed on the limited color range of a computer monitor. These typical comparisons of course put the film at a huge disadvantage since they are eliminating all of film’s advantages and reducing the comparison to the trivial resolution issues the newbies argue about.

Worse yet, one comparison in American Photo magazine did this in the March/April 2002 issue, and the same thing happened here. They only compared prints made on an Epson! The folly is that they were not comparing film to digital, but film scanned and printed at the consumer level to digital. In this case digital is at its very best, and the film is of course at the limit of the cheap consumer scanners and printer. They didn’t bother to have their color house use the $50,000 scanner everything else gets scanned on for reproduction in the magazine, and of course they are limited by the limited color range of the Epson printer and whatever color space they used. A legitimate comparison would be to compare an Epson print from the digital camera to a Fuji Supergloss print directly from the slide film or a Heidelberg scan.

If your final product is printed on an Epson then this is a valid way to compare. If you want to see how good film really looks you have to look at the slides directly or printed properly on Cibachrome or Supergloss.

By definition, anything you see on the Internet is obviously limited by this issue. The flaw here is that one is not comparing to film but comparing to a cheap scan of the film and then presented at screen resolution (72 DPI).

Another way to make a real comparison is to write the digital file back out to film and look at the two under a loupe. I’ve done this. The original film always looks so much better this way due to the greater color range and more vivid reds and greens.

Let’s begin!

ADVANTAGES: back to top



RESOLUTION: A glass plate from 1880 still has more resolution than a Canon 1Ds-MkII. Film always wins here when used by a skilled photographer. One source of confusion is here, which uses bad science using prints too small (13 x 19″) to show the difference. Also note that you’re not even seeing the actual prints, but screen resolution images (about 72 – 100DPI) at that site. He throws away most of the resolution of the film. (It doesn’t matter that his film was scanned at 3,200 DPI and it’s completely irrelevant that the printer was set to 2880 DPI, since all that resolution was down-converted for your screen.) As I keep trying to say, if all you want is 13 x 19″ inkjet prints made on a $700 Epson by all means get an $8,000 1Ds. If you want to feel the texture of every grain of sand on a 40 x 60″ print, stick with 4 x 5″ as photographers do.

Forget the naive debate over pixel counts. There are far more important aspects to picture quality. If you do fret this, film has far more equivalent pixels, there’s no question about that. I show this further down here. You also can see that in the March/April 2004 edition of Photo Techniques magazine where a guy actually shot USAF resolution targets with both 35mm film and a digital SLR and immediately discovered that even 35mm film has three times the resolution, duh. A great page by one of those people who actually has the time to post all this is here. This is much less important than “the look.” Here is the biggest difference between film and digital. Just as one film looks different from another, digital looks very different from any film. Either you like it or you don’t. Film is the result of over 100 years of refinement. Digital is just starting out. Pixel count is just a secondary issue.

If you do fret the pixel counts, I find that it takes about 25 megapixels to simulate 35mm film’s practical resolution, which is still far more than any practical digital camera. At the 6 megapixel level digital gives about the same sharpness as a duplicate slide, which is plenty for most things.

Of course I use much bigger film than 35mm for all the pretty pictures you see at my website, so digital would need about 100 megapixels to simulate medium format, or 500 megapixels to simulate 4×5,” even if the highlight issue was resolved which it isn’t. This resolution issue is invisible at Internet resolutions or 13 x 19″ Epson prints, but obvious in gallery size prints. 35mm is mostly used by amateurs at this time, since the news guys all went digital two years ago. 35 chromes’ last vestige as of 2004 is monthly sports and journalism magazines. The travel mags usually are shot on 120.

The key to resolution debates is to ask yourself how big you will ever need to print an image. If you are happy with small sizes like 13 x 19″ then by all means digital cameras are all you’d need if you can work around their highlight issues. Some people want to ensure that we will be able to offer prints of any size to future clients, and big film provides this safety. And with that:

OK, I’ve had it with this idiocy. back to top of article Here are the examples I’ve been too busy shooting to waste my time scanning and posting. We all know the other websites showing a big name digital SLR looking as good as film resolution. Baloney. You may not realize that those sites are actually sponsored by those camera companies and the guy running them doesn’t really know how to get good results on film. He then only compares them at such low resolution that you can’t see what film’s resolution is all about. It takes skill to get optimum resolution on film.

These are two crops out of this image, one shot on a brand new digital camera and the other on a cheap film camera with a 50 year-old lens:


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