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04-15-2008, 05:52 PM   #1
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Still of the opinion film is better IQ than digital

It's 2008 and thankfully flame-wars of the sort that happened to posts of this nature have stopped. Largely everyone we've also stopped arguing about film versus digital, realising that actually, at the end of the day, other people were getting on taking great photographs no matter what.

But that's not to say that the medium you record your photograph on doesn't somehow play an important role in the resulting image. Of course there are many other factors - lighting, subject, composition, your art, lens and aperture/shutter speed settings to name a few. But at the end of the day, is it still possible to revisit the original digital versus film question?

There wasn't any doubt at the versatility of digital, and the fact that digital photography can produce very good results. In fact a lot was said in the late nighties and early 00's that digital had surpassed film. This was based on a number of subjective and objective measurements. People thought digital images looked better. People scanned film and compared it to digital, and preferred the digital image. People measured MTF and calculated theoretical values for the image quality and this link (and the links contained within) was probably one of the more influential:


But they were flawed. At the end of the day image quality is a subjective measurement as much as any hi-fi afficionado will tell you a good sound system is found by listening to it.

Resolution is an important factor, particularly for enlargements. Good quality slide film seems to be able to get to an MTF 50 of nearly 50 line pairs/mm (as a measure of resolution), which is comparable to the best in digital. Good quality colour negative film is said to reach an MTF 50 of up to 70 linepairs/mm. Apparently, the top fullframe digital cameras are reaching MTF 50's of around 50lp/mm, however, I have not seen this formally tested, except by assuming that the megapixels relate directly to resolution (not necesarily correct). To summarise resolution; at best, we can say it is very difficult to distinquish the best in digital with the best in film, and further tests are needed before one can say either is better. In the meantime, lets just conclude they are both capable of excellent resolution, requiring the best lenses to make the best use.

Noise is another important factor. In actual fact, it is Signal to Noise ratio we are interested in, not noise per se. If noise per se was the issue, applying a blur in photoshop to all our images would improve the image quality! In the link I posted above, they mistakenly assume that signal to noise ratio can be easily measured by taking an equal tone area of a (random) photograph and measuring the variance of that spot. Sadly this does not take into account noise reduction techniques applied to the digital image, and has not much bearing on signal to noise ratio (I won't go into just how many ways this is a poor experiment - lets not mention that they don't know the actual variance of the scene - the variance measured by the film was probably correct!). A subjective comparison would rate digital as having less noise than film - in fact this is widely believed to be true. However, there is no evidence that the native noise of the two mediums are different, and that the difference you see is simply down to processing, which has a direct detriment to image quality I'll mention in the next section. In summary, we don't know the actual signal-to-noise ratios of the medium of digital as this hasn't been measured in the studies I've looked at.

But is image quality all about resolution and noise? There's also linearity (true-to-life-ness), colour accuracy, and tonality.

Linearity - how truthful is the rendition? Film suffers from one main artefact - that is film grain. This is not easily removed, and is something you will have to live with in film. Digital apparently has less noise than film, but the payoff for this is 'noise reduction' is used. Even on modern, top of the line cameras? Have a look at the sample images from any review of a recent semi-pro/pro digital camera at high ISO and it can be seen clearly, once you train your eye to see it. Noise reduction works by trying to guess which areas of your image contain detail, and which areas do not. It largely works this out by carefully sifting through the image and dividing it up into high contrast lines and areas, and areas of similar tone. Once it has done that it smoothes the areas of similar tone, effectively smoothing out the noise, and sharpens areas of contrast, improving the overall sharpness of the image. One must admit these effects works, because most photographers don't mind it. Personally, when I see these areas noise reduction, I actually feel a little unwell - there's something disconcerting about believing something is a true representation at first, and then realising it isn't. Where noise reduction really fails is in the zones that cannot easily be categorised - take any textured area - grass, sand, woodland, clouds etc.. and you'll find the noise reduction fails miserably to convey that texture - you'll notice what I call a 'salt and pepper' pattern instead, where the processing erratically sharpens then smoothes the image repeatedly, ruining much of digital's linearity. Give me a bit of grain anyday - at least with grain it is a true representation, albeit with a soft veil over image.

I can continue with linearity. How about the way digital deals with highlights? Yes, they clip. What does this mean? For one thing areas can become pure white, lacking any detail, particularly in light sources - eg. sun and highly reflective objects. However, this can often be avoided with appropriate exposure (but not always). More of a problem is the way that the individual channels clip when approaching white. This causes a huge problem for all bright and colourful tones in an image. The abrupt clipping causes colours to suddenly shift as white is approached. Look at any digital sunrise photo and you can identify the three colour areas around the sun as each channel clips - white, yellow, orange, red - don't they look a bit unnatural? Film handles this much better.

It doesn't stop there! The bayer arrangement of the sensors results in various artefacts. Striped objects can have an interference effect with the repeating regularity of the photosites, resulting in moire fringing - stripy colours overlaying the image. The bayer arrangement requires processing to compute the actual colour tone, and this can result in the 'maze' artefact in areas of high detail. The bayer arrangement also exacerbates chromatic aberrations in lenses because the colour edges are also separated by different colour sensors. And then the digital wells can fill up overflow, resulting in purple fringing, and worse, blooming (now a much rarer occurance than purple fringing apparently).

Film, by virtue of it's randomness at a microscopic level, does not suffer from any of these problems.

As a result, tonality and colour accuracy are better maintained in film.

In conclusion, I believe that film has higher image quality than digital. And I also conclude that you cannot prove me wrong!

As a disclaimer : these are my opinions as they stand now. I've formed my opinions on personal experience, other's experience and the results of those that have tried to quantify resolution and noise of digital and film and compare them. I don't have vested interests in film or digital, except that I believe it would be a great shame for the film industry to wind down, as that would mean we would not have access to the supremely excellent medium that is film.

As a request : I know I may be preaching to the converted, but for those of you only shooting digital, I recommend you have a go shooting film sometime. With your newly acquired knowledge with digital, you should be pretty good! To see the superior results, you need to use good lenses and it needs to be printed and/or scanned properly! The CD's that you can get done with a roll of film are invariably atrocious. Ideally get hold of a dedicated 35mm scanner and learn how to use it (not easy), or print at a professional photographic outfit.

04-15-2008, 06:15 PM   #2
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I'm not going to argue the points you've made and I generally think this is well reasoned out. I agree that film (particularly slide film) is still a better meduim. The main reason I feel this is so, is your discussion of clipping the bright areas of a scene. When I look at my old K25 or 64 slides the sky is better exposed than the digital images I've taken of similar scenes. In many cases those slides needed no adjucting (dodging or burning) to print and that can't be said for some of my digital shots with highly contrasted areas of the image.

I know when I switched from Slides to Digital my first shots were very poor and the way the scene was exposed had to change more than I thought would be necessary (expose for the highlights and recover the shadows later).

If I could have afforded it, I would have kept my 6x7 but the costs involved in keeping that system were too great. Digital can't touch that format at all.
04-17-2008, 06:45 AM   #3
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I recently scanned all of my family's old photographs, negatives, and slides. Total output for nearly 50 years of picture taking: around 2500 frames.

The vast majority of them were out of focus, shot on grainy 400/800 speed film, or were over or under exposed. Some were gawd awful 110 film.

It's not hard to get a sharp 3x5, which was the standard for years. . sometimes even smaller, so my notion of out of focus isn't all that fair -- but in the context of us modern pixel peepers, they are very blury. (as a side, there were several flyers advertising 5x7 enlargements for *just* 79 cents! That's what they cost today, imagine that investment 30 years ago!)

In contrast, in less than a year, I've shot over 10,000 frames with my K10D. The vast majority are in focus with correct exposure -- and even my ISO 1600 shots have *far* less noise than 400 speed film.

How many of those frames are interesting to look at? I'll guess 2%. Half of those I'm kinda proud of -- and I'm still learning to take better photographs. That's about the same % for the scanned photos also.

So there you go. Comparing 40 years of amateur film IQ to amateur digital IQ of the last 10 months: Digital wins -- no contest.

Last edited by konraDarnok; 04-17-2008 at 06:52 AM.
04-17-2008, 02:30 PM   #4
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Thanks for the replies - I've read them with great interest because I'm curious to see if anyone is thinking the same and why most think different.

Peter : I looked into medium format, but decided I couldn't quite allow myself the expense. I was quite interested in the Pentax 645 IIn, but it was looking towards 3500 for that camera plus a few primes - ouch! Maybe one day I will...

Darnok : I totally agree that people are taking better photos nowadays on digital than on film, I think there's been a really positive revival of photography and inspiration in it as an art. But the question I was asking was as a medium, which has the better image quality? I have been shooting film for about 8 years with Pentax manual focus cameras, and recently I decided to reassess what equipment I wanted to improve my photography. I decided, as you have noted, that most of the technical failings in my photographs were due to focusing errors/camera shake and exposure errors. Further problems were due to naff lenses. Nothing was a problem with the medium. My best photos could enlarge to 30 x 20 and looked pretty great.

With the move to digital has come better lenses, better autofocusing, far better metering, not to mention the ability to review your images as you take them to improve any errors in exposure/focusing/composition etc... But say you took some good quality film, put it in a Pentax MZ-S and shot with some decent lenses, and scanned it with a dedicated film scanner, with all your new knowledge in photography (and some of that credit must go to your new digital equipment) would you not achieve the same, if not better results?

Maybe relevance is the problem. If you're happy with the quality of digital, why spend money on second-hand film equipment, and expensive scanners? Not to mention the time and cost of processing and scanning. But then that isn't my point!


04-21-2008, 10:22 PM   #5
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Enjoyed reading this very much, thanks for posting.
04-29-2008, 08:12 AM   #6
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First of all, you have cleared stated your points. And ti seems like you convinced the most important person to be convinced: yourself.

You like your results, and stand by them, and thats it!

I do choose digital mostly because of versatility. I dont do prints as much as I like, so it is mostly digital media.

QuoteOriginally posted by Duncan J Murray Quote
This was based on a number of subjective and objective measurements. People thought digital images looked better. People scanned film and compared it to digital, and preferred the digital image.

Very true: few years ago at the peak of digital x film discussions, some digital advocates were poorly scanning film print outs in order to compare to digital photos online. I think that totally unbalanced the arguments in favor of digital.

Obviously if the ultimate goal was to have photos in digital format, somehow they'd have to be scanned. But the comparison should be in the two media formats: scan the film and compare to digital in the monitor as well as printing the digital and comparing to the film prints.

Just my $0.02
04-29-2008, 10:55 AM   #7
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The quality of film isn't the problem for me. I love it.

The problem I face is getting good scans.

Let me describe -- I was an occasional 35mm shooter. In the 90's I needed to have some frames scanned for a photoshop project, so I shot some 35mm on a Spotmatic F. Always great quality from the camera and the lens. Prints were really nice (optically made.) I also requested a Kodak Photo CD (which IIRC was a considerably higher-end product in the 90s.) The Photo CD is great, the colours are accurate, resolution more than enough.

Sometime around 2002 I went processed 10 rolls of vacation photos. The lab had switched to a digital minilab. Ugh. Horrible prints, the cheapy scans almost as bad. I gave up on shooting large quanities of film at that point. Digital camera pictures printed very nicely from the digital minilabs, so I mostly switched.

Since then, I have shot a lot of digital and a lot of film. I have sampled diferent labs, and gotten some pretty good scans. Unfortunately, I hate paying $6 or more per frame for a good quality scan. Optical printing isn't economically available. So I shoot digital and film, do the best with the scans I get, and keep waiting for an economical scanning solution that will give me the quality of that Kodak PhotoCD I got in the 90's.

Unfortunately, it seems that film scanner prices haven't fallen, they've gone up. All the competition is gone, Nikon is the only quality player, and even they don't keep their scanners in stock reliably. Looking for a used medium format Nikon scanner is like looking for used Pentax lenses -- expensive and rare!

So, all of this is to agree that film looks great, captures so much IQ. Unfortunately, for now, that's largely trapped on the film.
04-29-2008, 04:11 PM   #8
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I find it interesting that this debate still goes on.

While I can't necessairly argue that folm is perhaps better of the absolute best films, using stong lighting and very low speeds, and especially with medium format, lets step back and do an apples to apples comparison.

Take almost any film, and use only the APS-C sensor format. then compare it against the comparable ISO ratings of the pentax family of cameras, and you will find without a doubt, at the ISO settings that DSLRs work, and for the format size, the digital wins hands down.

That does not mean there is not a placve for film, just that it is rapidly becoming a niche market.

I defy anyone to show an ISO400 or higher shot that is better on film, covering the same image as an ASP-C sensor,

At the end of the day that is all that matters. The digital cameras are taking shots people would not have dreamed of taking with film.

04-29-2008, 11:09 PM   #9

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"I just love the smell of Kodachrome in the morning" --- Me - with apologies to Apocalypse Now and Francis Ford Coppola.

I have yet to see a digital B&W image that has the DR and character of an Ilford or Kodak ISO 125 film. Now don't get me wrong, there is some simply beautiful stuff going on out there but the structure of the grain in B&W film is extremely hard to replicate in the ordered matrix world of digital. I love film - slide film for color and slow B&W film. Slide film does not require a computer or anything electric (if there is a window near) to see the image - you just look at it.

Darkrooms are another matter. I still have my color enlarger and I have no plans to get rid of it. However, I live with a septic system and putting heavy metals in the back yard just does not compute.

Digital is here and is catching up quickly to most film qualities. However, in larger formats than APS-C you really see where the costs start to increase dramatically. Just the cost of design and fabrication of a 4x5 sensor is huge and the cost of fabricating a 135 format sensor is not cheap with pretty high failure rates. (4x5 CCD at $24,000 USD while film is going for about $2 a sheet - you have to shoot a huge number of images to get the per shot down to that cost with a digital back)

I still have my film SLR's and I use them on the rare occasion. The instant feedback of digital is a great convenience - but I am really afraid that the craft of image making is being turned over to the little computers we carry around with us. All the BS about fps, AF, AE, EV over rides, Live View and "my PC/OS is better than your PC/OS" is leaving the work up to the machine. The human just sits back and bitches that some part of the camera is not up to par with the neighbors or "their vision". We - the photographers/artists are becoming even more irrelevant.

The one thing I miss the most about film photography is standing in the darkroom with a blank sheet of paper. Slipping the paper into the developer and watching the image "come up out of the soup". It is a pity that most young digital photographers will never have that gut reaction - now that is real magic.

The Elitist - formerly known as PDL

Last edited by PDL; 04-29-2008 at 11:15 PM.
04-30-2008, 02:36 AM   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by Lowell Goudge Quote
I defy anyone to show an ISO400 or higher shot that is better on film, covering the same image as an ASP-C sensor...
You do realise that's the same as saying, I defy anyone to say that a Bugatti Veyron is faster than a Volkswagen Beetle, provided they're using the same gearbox...

I know which one I'd rather go to the shops in, and which I'd rather have fun in.

Y'know, I had this argument with a mate of mine - IT nerd - and he subscribes to Wired, to give an idea to his standing. He tried telling me that I'd be better off with a high-res digital camera, as they capture more detail "than film."

I told him the 22MP Canons cost seven grand. He didn't have a comeback when I asked how that compared to a 5x4 view camera for about $1500, including lens.
04-30-2008, 03:44 AM   #11
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Relative to Audio

Hi there,
Look, I make No claims to begin with, Other than I am Still Very Fond of My Spotties and Film.
For Many years I was a Hardened Kodachrome user and Yes, I have actually used the 12ASA stuff!,

Kodachrome 25 and later 64, were and Are still a Truly Wonderful Film, especially for use in Australia, as it Sure Renders scenes the way you Remember them,..Hmm,..that sounds like a Kodak add,..

Anyway,..I think pretty much everything you have said is completely Valid, and just thought that some observations of an older Pentaxian, who has also spent over 30 years in Pro Audio, I could offer some comments of Relevance.

Firstly, You Have 'Hit Upon' a couplke of Very Serious Issues, that Have always Greatly Concerned me re Digfital Anything,..Audio, Images,..whatever, and They are,..Noise,..and Linearity.

As for Noise,..the BIG Difference for me, whether it be Digital Image processors, or Digital Audio, is, some ways also relevant to the Hi Light 'Clipping' issue, is that, Film, (as in Analogue Audio), is Pretty Much Exclusively 'Influenced' by it's Exposure to Light, and it's Resultant Processing.
This results in it's 'Noise' as such, being Analog!, and there I mean it is 'Analogous' to It's Analog 'Input'.
With Digital however, the Noise, has Many 'Sources', but the Main difference, as with Digital Audio, is that the Noise is Not Linear, or Analogous, to the 'Input' !

What we 'See' / 'Hear' in Digital Noise 'Realms', is known in Audio circles, as 'Quaffling'!, and is the Sound, that The 'Mess' of 'Numbers', that are No Longer Linear with the 'Input' 'Signal'.

When You Exceed the Digital 'Resolution' of the circuit, unlike in say an analogue amplifier, where reaching the 'Rail' or Voltage Capabilities of the Amp produces the well Known 'Clipping', because of the way the Analog circuit works, the Distortion, or Noise, is STILL Analogous to the Source Input Signal,..AS In Film !!

The Clipping of Digital circuits, does NOT produce Linear, OR Analogous Output additions to the resultant Image and This IS a BIG Difference.

It also Relates, to The Linearity of the In Chip and Post Processing Circuits/Hardware/software etc.

To me, an example, it is Kind of Like the Difference say, between a Transistor Amplifier and a Valve/Tube amplifier.
The way the two circuits, proceed into a state of Overload, whilst Both Analog, Are Different and has a Lot to Do with the Harmonics (Frequencies) of the Resultant distortion. Transistor devices tend to produce a greater Amount of '3rd' Harmonic distortion, which we as Humans, tend to Find Harsh and if exposed to for long periods at high levels, REALLY Annoys us !!,,..Whereas Valves/Tubes, produce '2nd' Harmonic distortions, which we find Far more Pleasurable/warm/musical.

Whether Digital Audio OR Digital Imaging,..the Ultimate Differences, Are in these Areas of Linearity at 'The Limit' and in Extremes as in Hi Lites, Peaks etc.

Anyway,'s Just an observation of an Old 'Bugger', that has spent Far too much time shooting Trannies and listening to 2 inch Tape at 30 inches per second !!!

05-01-2008, 07:02 PM   #12
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Saw an article by a 4x5 pro photographer. He tried 4x5 film against digital and said he was surprised to see digital won. Really surprised. Wish I could remember where I saw it.
Digital has one advantage over film. No problem with "film" flatness. Actually think digital color is much closer to the real thing than any film and I come from the K25, K64, Ektachrome school.
Haven't seen B&W digital look as good as the Ansel Adams prints in the gallery years ago. But how many film prints by others do either?
05-02-2008, 09:10 AM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by barondla Quote
Haven't seen B&W digital look as good as the Ansel Adams prints in the gallery years ago. But how many film prints by others do either?
I think that is the distinction between technical and art. it also proves that the equipment isn't everything.
05-03-2008, 08:38 AM   #14
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Does It Matter?

The cook with the finest cookware doesn't necessarily cook the best food.
The Mechanic with the finest tools isn't necessarily better at fixing things than someone with "lesser" tools.
It's interesting that some of the top photogs from the pre-digital era have switched away from film, some have stayed with film, but in most cases the top dogs are still the top dogs regardless of medium chosen.
My point is that the tools--digital or film--are less relevant to the quality and success of the images than is the photographer. Folks with a great eye for composition, light, color and intangibles like emotional feel produce the best images. Thats why Ansel Adam's work still stands up as does the work of many dozens of the very best photographers.
I prefer the images produced in my Pentax 67II's to anything else I've worked with--and by a wide margin. Yet I burn thousands of digital shots onto SD cards annually and shoot less than 200 frames of medium format. Go figure...I'm just trying to convince myself that it doesn't matter what tools I use...the important thing is for me to try to make better images.
11-02-2008, 03:50 PM   #15
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Thanks for your runthrough, I read it with interest particularly the one about Linearity .
I think digital and film both have their place, they're different formats, and both have their pro's and cons.

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