Digital vs. Analog Photography

Film still has much higher resolution, a wider color gamut, and greater dynamic range than digital sensors; however, the convenience, instant feedback, and cost savings offered by digital photos and video will eventually confine analog film to niche uses. Today’s (2012) consumer level digital resolutions already capture images that exceed most people’s visual acuity for small formats (e.g. Apple’s “Retina” displays, 5″x7″ prints), but feature movies are still shot using 35-mm film to safely scale to large theater screens.

Ken Rockwell’s sage take on analog vs. digital in 2002 remains true today:

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.

Most of the “digital vs. film” essays on the internet actually compare digitized scans of film against directly captured digital images and have the implicit goal of justifying a professional photographer’s expensive digital camera purchase. Unfortunately, the scanner usually limits resolution on the film side but rarely receives reviewer attention!

When critiquing articles, watch for comparisons that use a microscope to examine the film and look for discussions about the overall workflows’ impact on each imaging system. Only recently has lens MTF testing and discussion been revived for digital photography; film buffs in the 70’s and 80’s regularly read optical lab reports comparing lenses. This expansion of the conversation shows that high-end camera sensors have finally achieved resolutions that film had in the 70’s; the sensors have finally reached the point that lens quality can once again affect overall image quality. Despite Kodak’s financial difficulties, their research labs have continued improving film and digital still has ground to cover before it reaches the absolute resolutions available on film. 35-mm movies could deliver even higher resolution, if they needed to, by using larger formats; for instance, VistaVision exposes twice as much negative area (8-perf, horizontal frames exposed in the same way that a 35-mm still camera exposes them), but they don’t need to – other costs and limitations in the workflow are more important.

Color gamut, frame rate, and dynamic range remain problematic for digital imaging too. HDR algorithms and better sensors have only started addressing these problems. Panavision’s John Galt provides some good detail in “The Truth About 2K, 4K and The Future of Pixels” where he advocates for higher frame rates as the quickest way to improve perceived resolution.

My conclusion?  While film is technically superior, none of this really matters for me yet; the creative input of the photographer/director dominates the quality of the result. Even an iPhone, in the hands of an expert photographer, can outperform any camera in the hands of an amateur.  Instead of investing in increasingly higher resolution cameras or reverting to film, I’m heading to the library to improve the equipment between my ears!

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Posted in Fun. 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Digital vs. Analog Photography”

  1. Eric B Says:

    My old 5MP camera takes better photos than the iPhone. But I haven’t used it for a year or so – because its much more convenient to get it from my pocket.

  2. alex Says:

    Realize that there is bottom line photography and artistic photography! Bottom line photography is about the end result, the pic will be in a newspaper or magazine or on facebook, used up quickly and soon to be forgotten so depth and quality is not really a factor, quantity is. And then there is artistic photography. Any art form is MOSTLY about the process. Praise for the condition of the end result is entierly dependant on the process used to obtain it, if you had access to software that corrects your mistakes and you never did anything else but stare at a screen and fondle a mouse then it’s not very credible. Which is why “hand made” is so coveted. Like with furniture, any “good result” can be bought at ikea for cheap, but a piece made from the hands of an experienced wood worker is beyond comparison and is well worth the money too because it has a human signature to it. You see craftmanship is rare and the product made from it is unique whereas the automated production of “good results” is not. I really need to know that I have created that picture on my wall with my own skill free from any assistance and “undos”. Also, the cost of using film is cheap when you can develop and print yourself in the darkroom..a whole darkroom with 5×7 enlarger and lens cost me 80$, my pro full manual SLR with three quality lenses cost me 100$, 15 rolls of film cost me 100$…280$ total and will NEVER need replacement…my digital bridge point and shoot cost me almost 600 after taxes and they probably will stop making batteries for it in 5 years if it lasts that long.

  3. alex Says:

    …amending my last post: of course the film and chemicals will need replacement..so 180$ for the equipment that will never need replacement and a continuing investment in film and chemicals wich reduces considerably as I get better, no development costs. I carefully shot roll of 135 can last a couple of weeks sometimes…I only press the trigger when I feel the shot is a keeper and I build the shot carefully so one shot does it.

  4. Rafael Says:

    Great article, and even better advice. The equipment between the ears, thats what really matters. I’ve stuck with film, while almost everyone else needs a screen and battery power to contemplate thier captured moments, I can do it by candle light, (no casual pic is so important that I must have it instantly). I believe that the only benefit of digital, currently, is to satisfy the immediate gratification we crave. Time in the ‘light-room’, cost of ink, paper, and the always changing equipment and software make digital an expensive proposition of much less quality, compared to film, for the average consumer. Gotta go, gonna watch last 4 episodes of a show that I DVRed, technology ! ; )

  5. Warren Says:

    The “equipment between the ears” is more important, OK.
    However, the complementary equipment (the camera) matters too, and it is the only one that can be purchased.
    Addressing this second issue, it may be necessary to recall that :
    – digital medium format cameras (eg “chambers” with 80 Megapixels) have an incredibly better resolution than the best 35mm digital cameras (eg Nikon 800). So the larger the number of pixels, the crispier and more detailled the image (everything otherwise equalled).
    – the lens is extremely important too. I have been using many top level Canon, Nikon and Zeiss lenses for decades (the last on Contax cameras) and I was always been shocked by the enormous superiority of the Zeiss lenses (in particular concerning the color rendition and the bokeh). After I started using Zeiss lenses I could not use my Nikon lenses anymore. Not mentioning the Canon lenses, which always lacked contrast to the point that I could only use them in a studio.

    To sum :
    – First, I should use a Zeiss lens (or a Leica lens)
    – Second, I should buy the body brand that fits this lens and has the largest number of pixels.

    … because 30 years of practice and comparison have convinced me that the Japanese will never build lenses with the same chromatic quality as the European.
    Some people say that it is because The Japanese people’s visual colour space is smaller. Others, like me, suppose that they concentrate too much on the technic around the glass (autofocus, etc) to a point that is not compatible with extreme color rendition.

    These suggestions are not easy to follow today. To use Zeiss lenses means using a Sony and some people may consider that a Sony body does not compete seriously with a Nikon body (mostly because Sony’s translucent mirror technology absorbs a part of the light, and because the Electronic View finder is not a satisfactory solution yet).


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