vs. Digital Cameras
see also Why Film Isn't Going Away
see also my D200 compared to 4 x 5" film
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," "4x5," "6x17," "8x20" 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 5" transparency 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 4x5 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 8x10" 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
WHY YOU HAVE TO GO LOOK FOR YOURSELF back to top
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.
HOW TO GET THE BEST DIGITAL IMAGE back to top
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 4x5," 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:
Crop from Film Image
Crop from Digital Camera Image
The digital camera photo looks like crud! How can this be? This is why professional landscape shooters shoot 4 x 5" film, even in 2005. Just read Outdoor Photographer's August 2005 annual landscape issue where they profile prominent shooters.
The film was scanned at just 1800 DPI and the digital image rescaled to match exactly for a fair and balanced comparison. As enlarged here on your computer's 100 DPI screen the full images would both print at 60 x 80." They'd print at 20 x 24" at print's usual 300 DPI. The wind was blowing so some of the leaves are in different positions, not that you even can see them in the digital image.
For the film image I used the cheapest landscape camera there is, a $700 4 x 5" Tachihara and my 50 year old Schneider Symmar 150 mm f/5.6 Convertible lens with a huge dent in the lens barrel and ordinary Fuji Velvia film. This camera is very popular with landscape photographers due to its low cost, light weight and flexibility. The 150mm lens is normal for a 4 x 5" camera. This image was scanned on a cheap consumer $500 flatbed scanner, the EPSON 4990, at 1,800 DPI, which doesn't even give you all the film's detail. If I really wanted to reproduce the film's sharpness I'd have it scanned at 5,000 DPI on a professional $100,000 Heidelberg. There's more detail on the film than you can see here. It would be a fairer test to have a real drum scan made, but I'm too cheap to send it out for scanning since the point is pretty obvious even at 1,800 DPI.
The digital camera image is the same crop from a brand-new multi-megapixel digital camera made by the same company that keeps paying some bad-science photography websites to pimp it as being better than film.
Here are examples of what's actually on film compared to how little scanners can see today.
Some ask why don't I compare to a 35mm film camera or to a 4 x 5" digital system?
Simple: landscapes as I shoot are shot most commonly in 4 x 5." Others shoot them in 8x10" or larger film formats. Using the smallest serious 4 x 5" format is probably handing film a disadvantage in this comparison for landscapes. 35mm is an amateur format when it comes to landscapes. You can get a complete 4 x 5" system like I use, including a lens and digital scanner making fabulous 100 MB images, for under $2,000!
People shooting landscapes with digital are using small, under-$10,000 cameras exactly like I used for this practical and equitable comparison. 4x5" digital systems cost $25,000, and those backs are scanning backs, not area sensors. There are no 4 x 5" CCDs! You have to wait around for the back to scan across the image just like a film scanner. If you used them for a shot of the tree, motion between passes for the three colors would turn the entire live tree into all sorts of whacky color outlines! 4x5" digital systems are for still lifes in the studio, not nature. They also need huge batteries and tethered computer systems. They are for the studio, not nature.
Digital systems still aren't players in 4 x 5" for outdoor photography because they scan an area smaller than 4 x 5." This means that 1.) you can't get the wide angles I need, and 2.) they require even more precision in their adjustments. 4x5" cameras are adjusted by hand while looking at the ground glass. it's enough of a pain to do this well with a 75 mm wide angle lens. I wouldn't be able to make these fine adjustments if I needed a 47 mm lens to cover the same area.
Here's another comparison which shows if you're concerned about resolution that even medium format film, scanned even on an amateur scanner like the Nikon 8000, still is in a completely better class than anything digital. Note like most of these comparisons there are no explanations of the scales used, and most importantly that the film is shown at a disadvantage because amateur CCD scanners are used, not PMT drum scanners. Even with the cheap ($2,000) scanners film is clearly better when blown up enough to see, unlike in the example in the last paragraph.
My crummy medium-resolution 1,800 DPI scan of the 4x5 film gives me over 8,500 x 6,500 clean, complete RGB pixels. Heck, even scanning a small 6x7 transparency at 4,800 DPI at home I get over 12,000 x 9,000 complete RGB pixels (108 MP in a 324 MB file). Today's digital cameras only produce images between 3,000 and 5,000 Bayer-interpolated pixels wide at best. This difference should now be obvious, even to the blind. And if mere numerical comparisons are not obvious enough to the Braille crowd, remember the under $10,000 digital cameras are only producing interpolated pixels at best, usually Bayer (info here and for you Ph.D.s here and here), which means that each pixel isn't a full-resolution RGB pixel anyway, as they are in film scans.
Scanners always get better. Film shot today will be scanned better tomorrow. I first wrote this page two years ago and made the scan in 2003 on a Microtek 1800f scanner, the best $1,500 scanner of 2003. In 2005 I got a $500 EPSON 4990 scanner and made a much better scan from the same piece of now two-year-old film.
Enlarged Crop from Film Image scanned in 2003
Enlarged Crop from Film Image rescanned in 2005 (OK, I grabbed another shot made at the same time. I gave up trying to find the same exact frame.)
Digital is always stuck in whatever quality you shot it. Digital or video has nothing to rescan. What you got it is all you're every going to get. This is why Hollywood shoots movies, and even the better TV series, on film. 10 or 50 years from now they can still get better and better images by rescanning them. Go watch the latest DVD of The Wizard of Oz shot on film in 1939. They simply went to the vault and rescanned the film with modern technology.
DYNAMIC RANGE: Film has a huge advantage in recording highlights. We take for granted the fact that specular highlights and bright sunsets look the way they do in painting and on film. Digital has a huge problem with this (see disadvantages under digital below.)
COLOR: Film records and reproduces a broader range of color. This is important for wild landscapes, deep red cars and flowers. It's not at all important for photos of skin. The deepest red one gets on a computer screen or inkjet print is really just a reddish-orange! Computer greens aren't all that vivid either. Your screen cannot make a deep red like the red you get on a red LED, as you see on the new traffic signals. Your screen can make a dark red-orange, but it's nothing like the red you get from Velvia on a light table or even a Kodachrome red. Of course artists can make great looking images on computer screens. You don't appreciate what you are missing until you look at a Velvia transparency on a light table after staring at scans on a CRT for a while. Likewise, Cibachrome and Fuji Supergloss prints made from transparencies can hit these deeper reds and greens that your inkjet printer or monitor can't. Both the artists and engineers agree on this one. Just look for yourself if you're an artist, and look at where the primary colors plot on the CIE diagram if you're an engineer.
In other words, what I see on computer screens (and as you see on my site here) may be seductive, but is nothing compared to a transparency on a light table or projected.
LONG EXPOSURES: Film works great for long exposures running into the minutes. You may have some color shift or loss of speed due to reciprocity issues, and otherwise the image quality is the same as for normal short exposures.
DOUBLE EXPOSURES: No problem. Almost no digital camera can do this.
PERMANENCE: Film does not erase itself. Film does not become unreadable for no reason. It doesn't have file compatibility problems. Traditional black and white film and prints will outlast any of us.
FILM: A processed 120 format frame of film costs less than a buck and has more resolution and dynamic range and color gamut than any digital system available to anyone. Even military satellite reconnaissance uses sensors with lower resolution. Those satellites just make a lot of smaller images which are pasted together later.
CAMERAS AND LENSES: These are effectively free. I try to buy my film cameras and lenses used. I often sell them for more than I paid for them years later. Therefore film hardware is essentially free. A good lens today is still a good lens in 20 years. The most exotic film cameras cost the same or less than middle-of-the-road digital cameras which will need to be thrown away in two years, and the film cameras will still be making great images in ten years. Likewise, a new $100 film camera can whup any digital camera for color and resolution.
You always can see film by looking at it, even 100 years from today. You can file and catalog everything quickly just by looking at it or contact sheets. 200 years from now anyone can look at a black-and-white print. People may or may not have the ability to play back JPG files, and probably no ability to play back any of today's proprietary RAW digital formats in 20 years.
Because of its direct legibility you can lay out a few hundred transparencies on a light table and edit them all immediately. With digital you need special software and it's much more cumbersome to manage a few hundred images at the same time. There are no 5 foot wide computer monitors with enough resolution to do this. We make do with what we have and it's slower in digital.
We take it for granted, but when you turn on a camera or push the shutter it just works as it should with no waiting around.
These are easy and excellent. Shoot slide film and any $100 projector gives better results than the $200,000 digital cinema projectors I've been around, unless of course you have an 80' screen.
DIGITAL: back to top
Digital SLR cameras like the Nikon D70 have no grain. I get cleaner results at ASA 200 on my D70 than I get with scanned ASA 50 Velvia film. I can shoot at ASA 1,600 and still have very little grain; far less than any ASA 1,600 film. The colors are the same with a digital camera as you change the speed; not so with film. Therefore, if I need speed I get better results shooting on digital then shooting film.
Digital has no "negative" stage. Because of this, digital usually looks much better than most prints made from negatives. This is because most negatives are usually is printed poorly by automated photo finishing equipment. Digital gives me better and more consistent color than I get with regular print film. I prefer digital quality to print film.
Long exposures are a problem. The image sensors have leakage which add random white dots into your image with long exposures. Some cameras try to compensate for this. This is never an issue with film.
One cannot make double or multiple exposures with digital cameras except for maybe one model of Pentax.
If you are publishing in print or Internet or email you already know how great it is to have your files ready to go right from the camera. It's wonderful not to have to process and then scan each of your film images. With digital I post web galleries with hundreds of images the same morning I shoot them. With film it takes me months to get around to scanning all the images the hard way. With my digital camera I have shot a thousand images at a wedding and handed the groom a CD with all the original images on it before he left. Simple! I left it to him to print them as he sees fit. Of course consumer digital camera don't work fast enough to get off that many images.
With digital you can use standard computer methods to backup and store exact copies of your original images in multiple physical locations. When on the road I mail CDs back to myself each day just in case my car is hit by an asteroid. This way I have all the original images both in my laptop computer and in a second location, the mail. Duplicates of film images on the other hand are worse than the originals. You can send your digital images to your clients and never have to trust your original to leave your possession. Of course since digital is only starting to become popular, ordinary people who don't back up their computers will soon be discovering that they will lose years of work and family memories when their computer dies or if they forget to copy everything to a new computer.
Come on, there is nothing more fun than shooting away and seeing what you just shot, and then emailing it to everyone you know. You can experiment and fool around and learn a ton, which then you can apply to your film shooting, too. I sometimes fool around with my digicam and when I get a winner I then whip out the 4x5" camera to make the same shot. The digicam is not only a great composition tool, but also can preview exposure for your film camera.
PHYSICAL STORAGE SPACE:
Hard drives and CDs can store bazillions of images in far less space than binders and files full of film.
Since you're already in the computer, file indexing and organization is easy. Film needs to be tagged physically by hand. Personally I love it that my digital camera tags every image with the date and time, as well as all the technical data.
With film I'm too shy to shoot 100 images of nothing just for the hell of it. With digital it's common for me to shoot 900 images in an hour-long hockey game just because I can.
If you get a DSLR you'll make so many images that you'll be constipated in your ability to sort through them as fast as you make them! You'll have to buy software to allow you to sort through what you have. How else are you going to sort through 1,000 images? I use iView on my Mac. Windows people have to use BreezeBrowser. The newspaper photographers use Photo Mechanic. iView is a program that lets you sort through all your images, either as big thumbnails or full screen, really fast.
Shoot as much as you like, it costs you nothing. On the other hand the cameras cost four times as much as film cameras.
If you want to see the images on your screen it's trivial to show them, and with the internet you can show them to anyone anywhere anytime, as I do on my Gallery pages. If you want to project them on a screen you're in big trouble, see the section under disadvantages below.
DISADVANTAGES: back to top
High speed (ASA 1,600) film is poor. Prints from color negatives usually have poor colors unless printed yourself.
Color film fades. Digital files don't.
I have shelves and shelves of images I've made over the years. Digital stored on CDs or hard drives can take much less space. Every time a separate a special image for some purpose I usually forget to put it away, and because of this I can't find some of my favorite images. I have to index every image by hand, and I hate that.
You have to send the original image everywhere. If you lose it, you've lost it. Backup copies are always a little worse than the original.
you pay as you go.
DIGITAL: back to top
The question "have you gone digital yet?" is a presumptuous fallacy is pushed by camera stores and camera makers, since they make big bucks when you buy a digital camera that you'll want to replace in a few years. "Going digital" is by no means inevitable or even desirable. Digital does not replace your film camera for many kinds of fine art. Even today your dad's 20 year old Canon AE-1 can make technically better images than any digital camera. The Canon AE-1 is about the same as a 20 megapixel camera. The AE-1 Program is about the same as a 25 megapixel camera, presuming you are using Canon brand lenses.
Highlight Rendition: Digital still has a huge problem with highlight reproduction, presuming you, like me, shoot into the sun or other sources of light. Film for hundreds of years has naturally had "shoulders" in its characteristic curve. This means that even with severe overexposure in places that the highlights are rendered naturally on film, even contrasty slide film like the Velvia I love.
On the other hand, at the dawn of the 21st century digital capture is more linear than logarithmic as film is. This means that digital cameras often have better shadow detail than my Velvia, but can have horrid, unnatural highlights if overexposed even a third of a stop.
Specifically, digital clips hard as soon as you are a few stops over zone V. This could be OK, however unfortunately in color one of the three color channels (red, green or blue) usually clips first, throwing the hue (color) into all sorts of weird shifts in the areas the image transitions from bright to pure white. This is why digital camera images may show all sorts of nasty, unnatural hue (color) shifts in the brightest areas.
Unfortunately this highlight issue is a basic characteristic of CCD sensors, amplifiers and sampling and quantization electronics and won't be fixed soon. To simulate film's shoulder one needs to add several more stops of highlight capture in the digital camera so the image processing electronics can use this information to simulate a decent shoulder curve. CCDs and the related capture electronics will need about ten times more dynamic range (three stops) than they have today to be able to simulate film's shoulder. Of course negative film has more range still, but that's not really relevant to good photography since the dynamic range of negative film already exceeds what you ought to be photographing. For instance, a negative can be way overexposed and still retain detail in otherwise blown out highlights, if you custom print and burn in those areas. Heck, you can scan a negative from a $6 disposable camera and have more highlight dynamic range than any digital capture system.
The $100,000 three-CCD studio high-definition television cameras around which I work today still have problems with this, and so our cheap $5,000 single-striped CCD digital SLRs will, too. Everyone is working on solving this. This is the biggest image defect in digital cameras today.
BLACK-AND-WHITE back to top
This is simple: digital cameras usually only go to zone VII, after which they are completely devoid of texture and tone. You have to shoot your zone tests and work accordingly. If you aren't familiar with the zone system for B/W you need to be, since knowing it will simplify everything you do since for the first time you'll really understand what's going on. You can learn a little here.
I suggest trying deliberate underexposure and pulling up the curve's midpoint to create a shoulder above zone VII.
Digital does have more shadow detail than film. What camera makers have done is traded off important highlight detail for lower noise so their cameras look better in lab test reports. Today's digicams have great shadow detail but clipped highlights. As I said, you can fix that by underexposing a stop or two (which looks awful in camera) and then messing with the curves.
Depth of Field: Digital SLRs have about the same depth of field as 35mm film cameras. Compact digital cameras have almost infinite depth of field, meaning you can't deliberately blur backgrounds. Why is this? Simple: the tiny image sensors of compact digital cameras (meaning everyone selling for less than $2,000) use much shorter focal length lenses to get the same angle of view. These shorter lenses have much greater depth of field.
Exposure: Digital has the advantage of immediate feedback, but also the disadvantage that exposure is more critical than film. Even 1/3 of a stop makes a big difference on my D1H. Underexposure is easy to correct in post, but overexposure renders an image useless. 1/3 of a stop on Velvia is subtle; on a D1H it's blatantly obvious.
Permanence: I have lost days of work when memory cards became unreadable. In just the first month I had my D1H I lost hundreds of images. In all my decades of shooting film I have only lost one half of one roll of film, and that was my fault for forgetting to check the rewind crank for proper film advance. With the D1H I knew what I was doing, and one part of the system (I think the Microtech CF card I was using) destroyed hundreds of images which could not be replaced.
Sluggishness: Unless you drop four grand on a Nikon D1 series you are going to have to wait for the camera to turn on, and then wait when you press the shutter for the camera to get around to focusing and setting itself and eventually making a photo, and then wait around for it to finish writing the file to your storage medium until you can take the next photo. Because of this most digital cameras cannot be used efficiently for photos of people or anything that moves. Worse, if you have a digital viewfinder then the image in that viewfinder is also delayed for a fraction of a second, ensuring you'll always miss the right moment for a powerful image. If you splurge for a D1 then by all means you are in the drivers' seat (it's faster than any film camera I own), but today's 2003 cameras priced below $2,000 still have a long way to go. This means that in 2007 you'll think back to any consumer digicam you've used today and laugh about how anyone could have put up with such sluggish foolishness.
Cost. Digital cameras are very, very expensive for what they do. They become obsolete in a year, unlike film cameras which, in the case of 4x5, even 50 year old cameras and lenses are in use daily. DO NOT buy a digital camera as an "investment." I bought my $4,000 D1H knowing it is a disposable camera, which just like a $4,000 computer will be worth nothing in a few years. You pay this for the work you can beat out of it today and next month, not because you'll have any use for it in a year or two. Digital cameras pay for themselves if you use them a lot as I do, they are far more expensive than any film camera if you only shoot a few hundred shots every month. Go spend $1,500 on a film camera and you have a fine machine you'll be using to create great images 20 years from now. Spend that same $1,500 on a digital camera and you will have given it to The Salvation Army or Goodwill in three years. (Hint: check out their thrift stores as I do for buys on cameras. You may find my D1H there in 2005 since I donate to these great people.)
Think of that D100 you want as a $1,700 batch of Polaroid film. It's a lot of fun, but not usually as good as real film. If you don't use it all up in a year or two you have to throw it away. Likewise, I know you want a digital SLR, but it's a DISPOSABLE camera. Get one as I did if you will use it a lot in the next couple of years and have money to burn. Don't expect me to bless it as some sort of an investment: it's not: it's an expenditure just like a car.
Slide Shows: These, along with big paper prints, are poor for digital. You have two options: 1.) the obvious, a digital projector, and the less obvious, 2.) just having regular slides made from your digital files. Unfortunately digital projectors are still poor for still images, and writing files to slides still costs $4 to $5 a slide. Here are the details:
DIGITAL PROJECTORS: Unfortunately digital projector technology as of 2003 is still too crude for serious still photographic images. I have worked with $200,000 digital cinema projectors and these give swell color and dynamics, but unfortunately don't have enough resolution for still images. The top digital cinema projectors today are still limited to 1,280 x 960 resolution which is great for moving images, but still too low for a good still image. Your eye sees far more detail when the subject is not moving. As of November 2003 TI is introducing the M25-based digital cinema 2,048 x 1,024 which sells for around $100,000.
Likewise, the $2,000 projectors used by businessmen for presentations look great for graphics, but unfortunately are also limited to the same resolution and, unlike the digital cinema projectors, have awful color. The business projectors you are likely to borrow from your office or buy today at best have a mercury or metal halide or HMI lamp, which are seriously deficient in red. This gives them a brilliant bluish white color that makes them look extra bright and impressive for boring bar charts of sales figures, but make your reds look dull and dark. If you borrow one of these I'd try putting a pinkish gel over the lens to try to add back in some of the deficiency in red. If you're a real hacker you could try to profile it. Of course the older dim LCD projectors are all obsolete today and the DLP ones are the way to go. Watch out: I know these look great for business presentations because I use them for this all the time. When I realized before doing a business talk that I could fire up Photoshop and see my work on the big screen I realized what is only obvious after you try it: there are not enough pixels for real pictures. You can see the individual pixels on many of these which looks fine for graphics, but looks hideous for real pictures. The problem with the under $100,000 projectors is the light source. If you can find a projector with a commercial motion picture xenon arc or halogen light source you'll be OK for color except that you'll still too low for resolution. Avoid the vast majority of projectors with HMI lights, which are all the ones I've seen for business use.
I'm warning you: I've had access to some pretty exotic projectors as part of my real job in Hollywood and they look bad for still photos, even if movies and business charts look spectacular.
MAKING SLIDES FROM DIGITAL FILES: This is easy. I use my local lab, Chrome, or you can use Slides.com. In either case, you have to pay several dollars a slide. Projecting this slide will look better than using one of the projectors above, unfortunately you may have to shell out $400 for a tray of 80 slides. Cost is the only real disadvantage, and its a big one. You also realize that you need a lot more pixels than you thought to render a slide as sharp as a camera original piece of film. I've written files 2,000 x 3,000 pixels out to film and they are only as sharp as a dupe slide. They look OK, but if you look close you'll realize why I offer that one needs more like 4,000 x 6,000 pixels, or 24 Megapixel files, to look like film. You only get this resolution by scanning film, bringing us back to where we started.
Thus, if you want a slide show, just shoot slide film!
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As you see, film and digital all excel and stink at different aspects of the same things!
Digital has already replaced film in sports and news coverage for a couple of years. I love the way people's skin looks on my D1H. For any sort of action I shoot Nikon D1H digital.
Since the only legitimate professional application of 35mm film has been for news, action and sports, 35mm film for professional use is becoming obsolete as more and more people and organizations move to the Nikon D1 series digital cameras. For instance, the big newspaper here in San Diego got rid of their darkrooms in 1999. Even printing presses have forgone plates and now many take just digital inputs. Film is just a pain to have to use for publication. The only high-end pro use of 35mm today is for sports on posters and magazines, since larger format cameras are not fast enough.
Film will remain king for landscapes and anything that holds still and requires big prints. I even prefer its color rendition for Internet use. It's also the king for anything you intend to want to print years from now. In 5 years anything shot on today's digital cameras will look awful compared to what was shot on film today, by the standards of the future. Remember, digital already has replaced 35mm film, but the economies of the market and scale will not have it approach larger film format quality any decade soon, since the demand is not there to justify development at any price you'll want to afford.
My real job is in Hollywood. The reason most of what you see on TV is shot at huge expense on 35mm movie film and then transferred to video (also at great expense) instead of being shot digitally (video) in the first place is for two simple reasons:
1.) The future. Years from now we'll use the latest telecine machines (scanners) to get even better results from the film we shot today. On the other hand, years from now we may not even be able to play back the tapes if we shot on video. Ever seen "Gone with the Wind" on video? It looks pretty good for something shot in 1934 on film. Ever seen "Welcome Back Kotter?" It looks awful since it was shot on video in 1974 and is stuck in that quality level forever.
2.) Quality. Film just looks better than things shot on video, mostly because we have enormous control in telecine (film-to-video transfer) after the fact. If we got everything technically perfect in the original shoot there's not that much difference in the final video. However in real life it's not that simple. We can take whatever part of the huge dynamic range film has and use it in telecine in post production. On video you either got it right when you shot it, or you missed it. There is much more room for correcting screw-ups and fine-tuning in post production with film than video, and we are always fine-tuning in post. Video only has dynamic range suitable for release, it does not have any extra headroom or footroom to allow decent tweaking in post production. Remember too that in Hollywood we roll up three trucks of lighting and generators and make whatever light we need, so we can get around the highlight issues that I can't in my available light shooting. Even with this we still prefer film because it's still easier to light.
You can read similar info from the US FBI here.
For more detailed research by Roger Clark, who has put a lot more of this into writing than I have, try these links: