Film Vs Digital Study – By John Kossik
Well, after that monumental screw up by the hosting company, it seems that things are back in order, for now. So I shall take this chance to share this interesting comparison of film and digital by John Kossik. With a scientific background, John tackles this subject in a very precise manner. Check it out.
Film vs Digital study
In an effort to prove to myself, my family, and my friends that I am not nuts to lug 6+ pounds of medium format camera gear up the mountainside I conducted my own tests over the last few weeks. Sure one could set up a Resolution Target but that would not be a “real world” test, no sweat and sore muscles.
The contenders were:
1. Sprint Galaxy S III cellphone camera.
2. Nikon D300 with Nikon AF 35-70 F2.8 and Nikkor AF 70-200 F2.8
3. Nikon F4 with NIkon AF 35-70 F2.8 and Nikkor AF 70-200 F2.8
4. Mamiya RB67 Pro S with Mamiya Sekor 90mm f3.8 and Mamiya KL 250mm f/4.5
I shot Kodak Ektar 100 in the film cameras and shot the D300 at 200 ISO and LO 1 (supposedly equivalent to 100 ISO). I tried to shoot both the film and digital cameras at as close to the same shutter speeds and apertures as possible but I have to admit that this was not always the case. The cellphone was shot in automatic. All were, except the Galaxy 3, shot off a tripod in mirror up mode.
To try to get the field of view the same for all shots:
1. The Mamiya RB67 Pro S was shot with my Mamiya Sekor 90mm f3.8 that has a 35mm film field of view of 44mm.
2. The Nikon D300 was shot with my Nikon AF 35-70 F2.8 at 35mm which has a 35mm film field of view of 53mm.
3. The Nikon F4 was shot with my Nikon AF 35-70 F2.8 at 53mm which has a 35mm film field of view of course of 53mm.
4. The Galaxy S III was shot with the field of view adjusted digitally to match the above as close as possible.
One set of shots was taken with:
1. The Mamiya RB67 Pro S shot with my Mamiya KL 250mm f/4.5 that has a 35mm film field of view of 123mm.
2. The Nikon D300 shot with my Nikkor AF 70-200 F2.8 at about 80mm which has a 35mm film field of view of 123mm.
3. The Nikon F4 shot with my Nikkor AF 70-200 F2.8 at 123mm which has a 35mm film field of view of course of 123mm.
The sensor on the D300 measures 23.6 mm x15.7 mm and the Pixel Width is 4288 and the Pixel Height is 2848. Roughly this gives a sensor of 4600 px/in. When scanning the film negatives I wanted to get as close to this as possible while still using the scanning capabilities of a lab so that the limitations of my own home scanner and my talent in using it did not add another variable into the process.
The lab I used scanned the 35mm negatives at 5035px x 3339px. Giving the size of the 35mm negative at 36mm x 24mm this gives an average resolution of 3543 px/in.
The lab I used scanned the medium format negatives at 5902px x 4815px. Giving the size of the negative on my Mamiya RB67 is 68mm x 56mm this gives an average resolution of 2195 px/in.
I did not calculate the resolution of the Galaxy S III.
This is not perfect and gives a slight advantage to the digital images from the D300 but it is the best I could do.
The white balance on the D300 and Galaxy S III was set on Automatic. The Galaxy S III and D300 images were processed in Photoshop Elements adjusting their levels and applying the filter Noise Ninja mainly to correct for the anti-aliasing filter in these cameras. Film images were not modified in Photoshop Elements.
Before I get into the images themselves and the results you will have to excuse me as some of the images have exposures that are not ideal. Also, the actual colors are not identical as there are obvious differences between the way that a digital sensor and the chemical on a piece of film reveal colors to the human eye. These inconsistencies are really not very important though as the primary purpose of this test was to compare the resolving powers of these different modes of image taking. Well let’s get to the images.
The first set of images is of the Big Four Ice Caves only about a 3/4 walk off the Mountain Loop Hwy outside of Granite Falls in Washington State. These images were taken late this August. The snow field here (not a glacier) remains year round due to its north facing orientation, its location at the base of the steep Big Four Mountain, and the fact that this part of the Mountain Loop Hwy gets over 100 inches of rain or snow a year. The ice caves you see form from the melting snow and are very, very dangerous to enter as they could easily collapse. This does not deter people form entering them of course.
The overall images are seen below stacked as Galaxy S III, Nikon F4, D300 with no noise ninja processing, D300 with noise ninja processing, Mamiya RB67. In these overall pictures the differences in the resolving powers of these various image capturing devices is not evident. If we look at these same images at 100% though the differences become apparent.
What is obvious here is the poor resolving power of the Galaxy S III which would be expected. What surprised me though was the fact that the D300 image, especially the one with the noise ninja filter applied, seemed to have an obviouly higher resolving power than the Nikon F4. As one might expect the Mamiya RB67 image had the highest resolving power though the D300 gave it a pretty good run for its money.
One sample set is of course not enough so let us look at another one with a totally different subject. In a lonely spot in a parking lot in the Everett Washington marina sits The Equator. This boat is the schooner that carried Robert Louis Stevenson (of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island fame) on a trip to Micronesia in 1889. The boat was abandoned here in 1957 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The full and 100% images here were taken in a similar fashion as those of the Ice Caves above.
The resolving power differences are not extremely evident from the full images again, but the poorness of the Galaxy S III is still noticeable. At 100% the superiority of the D300 image over the Nikon F4 is easily seen especially in the image treated with noise ninja. Although there are exposure differences between the D300 and Mamiya RB67 image, the D300 comes very close to matching the resolving power of the medium format negative.
Let us now move to the use of another lens, this time using my Mamiya KL 250mm f/4.5 on the Mamiya RB67 and my Nikkor AF 70-200 F2.8 on the D300 and Nikon F4. This time our subject is Keelers Corner, a historic gas station in Hwy 99 in Lynnwood Washington. This too in on the National Register of Historic Places. For this comparison no images were taken with the Galaxy S III.
The results seem the same even with different lens. The full images show little difference in resolving power but at 100% the Mamiya RB67 wins out with this time the D300 with the noise ninja filter applied coming in a very close second.
For our last series of images we have Dickerman Mountain off the Mountain Loop Hwy. This is chosen due to the resolving power that can be discerned by looking at the conifer tree limbs near the crest of the mountain.
Again, viewing the images at 100% tells the story. Here we can see how much more resolving power the Nikon F4 has over the Galaxy S III. We can easily see how much resolving power it added to the D300 image by using the noise ninja filter to reverse the effects of the camera’s Anti-aliasing filter. Lastly, in the valley at the crest of this mountain viewed at 100% it is very easy to see at the interface between the sky and the trees how much more resolving power the Mamiya RB67 has over the D300.
Obviously going from lowest resolving power to highest resolving power of these image makers this analysis shows:
Galaxy S III – Nikon F4 – D300 with no noise ninja filter – D300 with noise ninja filter – Mamiya RB67.
One caveat must be added in that the film scans were dry scans and if wet scans were done perhaps the Nikon F4 images would have come closer to the resolving power of the D300 and the Mamiya RB67 images would have far exceeded those of the D300 instead of just nudging them out in many cases. Also, film is meant to be printed optically with the process of scanning these images to get them onto a computer adding to the potential degradation of the final product. Perhaps optical prints of the film images compared with prints of the digital images would have aided in the resolving power of these traditional images.
As to whether the Mamiya RB67 images with an optimal wet scan could match those of say a Nikon D810 or a medium format digital camera I cannot say as I do not own any of these and cannot see me owning one anytime soon. It is interesting though that this Mamiya RB67 Pro-S that is at least 24 years old, has the possibility of producing images that rival current digital cameras costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars (and it does not need electricity!)
Well, am I going to toss my digital camera and use my Mamiya RB67 exclusively? Certainly not. The images produced by the Mamiya RB67 are better but it is a manual focus camera, its heavy, it has a very limited shutter speed range, and the lens are not that fast. If there is a moving target there is no question that the D300 with its light weight, auto-focus, ability to change the ISO value, and the range of fast lens I have, is the camera to have in your hand. The right tool for the right job as they say. What about the Nikon F4 and my manual focus Nikon 35mm cameras? I will still use them because, well, I like them and they produce more than acceptable images. As for the Galaxy S III, well it is a phone not a camera and thus is best used for what it was primarily built for.
Mill Creek WA
Resent foray back into film seen at: http://63alfred.smugmug.com/Shootingfilm/Film
Can be followed, if people actually do that, at: https://plus.google.com/108160569228914160735/posts
Thanks for this work John. A very interesting and concise comparison. I am looking forward to hear peoples thoughs on this.
Please make sure you come and comment, I am interested to hear what people think about this.
Though a well written article, Im still not sure what the point is? Its like two painters comparing the quality and application of different paint brush types. We certainly wouldn’t care. Resolution is hardly something that matters when it comes to artistic matters…. and were all starting to sound a little silly with the ____ vs ______ nonsense. I shoot with a 1/2 frame film camera from 1965 and I KNOW my iPhone mops the floor with it resolution wise… but who cares? It makes me happy, I enjoy the craft. Is digital better? Sure.. sometimes. Is film better? Sure…sometimes. Use whatever inspires you.
In my own tests of digital vs medium format film, I always found the film scans to reveal maybe slightly more resolving power, but my main concern is always the general “look” of film versus digital for my own work. I just can’t get images I like from digital, even counting the latest and greatest. It just does nothing for me.
That said, it’s just a matter a taste. I don’t think one is objectively better overall than the other.
Looks like a fun hike!
One thing that seems very unexpected is the color that Ektar rendered in the snow. It seems the digital just ignored the black streaks of dirt. The contrast of the film seems much higher in general. Is this exposure or just the difference in sensor vs film?
I started with lab scanned film but noticed the lack of care since it is all done by a computer that handles the files in a cost effective way. The tedious process of scanning carefully improved, to my eyes, the detail, exposure, and color accuracy of my film images. I would like to see a shot from your F4 and RB that was drum scanned just for the heck of it. Your family and friends that tease you might as well even though having your negs drum scanned might insight further derision.
Thanks for the article.
I choose film over digital for its look/rendering (tone, colour,texture, etc) and the highlight detail. Its never about resolution. For me, 645 medium format is enough for everything.
A fun comparison – thanks for sharing!
I also love my 503cx, M6, F3/T (thanks JCH), D750 and RX100II. I even love my Samsung S5 for photography. As long as you are enjoying making, adjusting and sharing images, who cares how!?
Old cameras feel right, new ones are convenient and amazing. All good fun.
Thanks for a very interesting in-depth study! I have recently started shooting film and I think there are many things, including the look that make it much more rewarding for someone looking to learn about photography and fully understand the art form and techniques to achieve what you see in print.
There are many people that enjoy taking photos but will never understand or enjoy film simply because of the inconvenience of loading, developing, scanning, etc. For me I have always had a huge appreciation for mechanical machines of all types and mechanical cameras help me feel more connected to the camera and force me to understand the way it works. You don’t need to think to drive a prius, but you certainly do need to think when driving a vintage porsche 911. It’s a lot of fun too! =)
Right now I have a Nikon FM2, Rollei 35, Canonet QL17 and Voightlander Vito B. I am finding myself drawn mostly to the Nikon for the VERY bright finder and tank-like construction. Also the Rolei is really great being so pocketable.
It is a matter of SCANNER and it`s software. I have the Hasselblad Flextight Precision II and it wins hands down every digital, (maybe not the newest CFV 50).
It is also a matter of taste, what you want to say with your images. After 40+ years, I know my stuff with film, but I am uncomfortable with digital with all its quirks. You have to remember: you still have all the possibilities of Photoshop with a well scanned film, plus the original feel of the film. Besides, even with 35mm , true grain looks better than pixels.
Ah yes. Agreed.
This article appears very incomplete and less than a reasonable comparison.
I think the study was very good. My scanner isn’t very good, and I’m not about to buy a Flextight.
I know that if I really want to see the resolution of film, I’m going to have to print optically. I’m probably not going to do that either.
But I have printed optically…and the results leave nothing to desire.
It’s nearly impossible to compare resolving power of film to digital without having a handle on how much grain aliasing occurred during scanning. An optical print from the F4 will probably look as good up close as an inkjet print from digital. Any of these cameras (well, not the phone) will pull off a perfectly acceptable 8×10.
I agree that there seems to be little point to this article, except to compare heavily post processed images with under scanned (as in smaller than usual and low definition) medium format images. I usually scan my 645 format image at 50MP or more and they are easily “better” (more detail, more pleasing gradation, better color rendition) than anything from a Nikon D800 with the Holy Trinity of f/2.8 glass.
Perhaps the author needs to be a bit more careful and shoot images on film using a fully complete workflow (also with post processing) and decide from those results instead of the not processed ones used here? If so, I suspect the digital cameras will be left at home to lighten his load a little?
Interesting article, now, that it is still telling us what has been said 8 years ago.
Maybe you’ll even find Minox articles around, proving how much better 8×11 was compared to any digital, …
Be subjective, be scientific. The result is, they’re different.
Fact is, digital these days is technically better. But is it important?
If photography was about being precise, we wouldn’t have Art in Photography, just Lab-Tests and Forensic shots.
I don’t use Film because it’s crap, or digital because its perfect. Both aren’t any of it.
Just get it into your hand and your feet on the street. Your lightbox will help you to capture the breath of light, even with a pinhole.
This test demonstrates that a low-resolution digital scan of a film is slightly better than the equivalent digital picture, nothing else.
I suggest you look online for “film resolution” before invoking Science, you’ll find out that the equivalent digital resolution of a 35mm film frame is 175 Megapixels.
Biggest problem I see with film vs digital is that the cost of the film, developing and scanning is inordinate, compared to having a digital sensor and one or two lenses. I own a 500 c/m and an M4 but the cost of the above for each shot on the 500 c/m is about 1.3 euro. That, and the time invested is much greater. I to love the look and feel of film, but can see why people get tired of the x4 effort required to go with film. I;m looking at a combination set up of both film and digital, but film being the more exotic of the two, rather than every day use. Just too expensive..
It’s for the uncertainty and the unexpected that you take the film camera, not the technical tests. The resolution is essentially meaningless.
This is interesting stuff, although resolution is just about the last consideration for me. As John says, he’s going to carry on using his 35mm Nikon because he likes it. That’s pretty much sounds like my own justification for using film – it’s fun.
Please allow me to make a correction. Mamiya’s KL 250mm f4.5L-A has an angle of view of 20 degrees. The 35mm equivalent lens is 118mm. This is from the Mamiya RB Interchangeable Lenses sheet as supplied with their lenses. I too have a KL250. I read, with great interest, any article concerning medium format film cameras. Especially if made by Mamiya. One thing I have come to realise about these heavy, and clumsy, modular cameras is this: to obtain the highest image quality, from them, an adequate camera support is a must. I am well aware that you were already burdened with too many cameras. I appreciate your enthusiasm.
35mm film optically impressed on a professional photo paper looks amazing! Don’t take only the developed film from the lab, order also a set of paper photos for your favorite images. It will last more than any digital storage, and it will lighten your soul. Scanning the film with a digital sensor is the unthinkable injustice you can do to it. But if you still want to do it, and you are fair regarding color reproduction, try scanning the photopaper for the right interpretation, then scan the film and try to compare the results – this way you can correctly adjust the tones for the film scan.
Of course digital has a greater resolving power, generally speaking (see the photos of Clinton, Gadafi and so on on medium format scanned with a NASA scanner and printed wall sized).
But the resolving power is the downsize of digital. Image does not appear as „natural” as on film.