Film v Digital

The debate between the pro-digital and pro-film camps seems to have die down with both parties agreeing to differ.

Although digital cameras are now better understood and the format considered mature, when we acquired a Nikon 300S our curiosity led us to wonder if the many magazine articles on the subject were true: Is digital quality a match for film? So we ran a series of comparisons between the Nikon, with its 12Mb sensor and 35mm film.

We chose a typical subject matter that we had been asked to copy in our studio, where we use flash as our light source and where we can copy originals up to 2.5m high. To give us an edge in terms of quality we normally use a 4"x5" technical view camera with a Schneider lens.

We used the same 55mm Nikon Micro lens, set at f16, on a Nikon F3 and the Nikon 300S. A Canon A710 compact was available so we threw that into the fray too, along with the 4"x5" camera and this produced 5 versions:

  • Nikon 300S + 55mm Micro Nikon at default 200asa
  • Nikon F3 + 55mm Micro Nikon with Provia 100asa
  • Nikon F3 + 55mm Micro Nikon with Superia 200asa
  • Canon A710 set at 100asa
  • 4x5 Technical View 4"x5" with Provia F 100asa

The first three provide a reasonable side by side comparison of film and pixels since they are familiar SLR formats. To make the comparisons fair, we made the film scans and the digital files the same size using the Nikon 300S as our baseline ie. the 35mm film was scanned at 4000dpi but then reduced down to match the Nikon file. The scan from the 4"x5" transparency was also down-sized to match, but the little Canon has only a 7.1Mb sensor so is included only for interest. The samples below show the results from these tests.

original sepia print

Full image area from the 14"wide original


text detail

Nikon 300S + 55mm Micro Nikon at default 200asa

The results are smoother than the film and have retained a bit more highlight detail, in this controlled lighting situation (Digital can often lose out to film in this respect) . Overall there is less detail in the face: we tried a little sharpening in Photoshop but that made things worse by showing up digital artefacts.

Nikon F3 + 55mm Micro Nikon with Provia 100asa

The apparent grain in the film is visble but there is more recognisable detail in the eyes and although the highlights are a little ragged there is still discernible detail missing from the digital version. If the image was softened it might smooth out the grain.

face detail

text detail

Nikon F3 + 55mm Micro Nikon with Superia 200asa

We were surprised how contrasty the negative film image appeared and with more time we may have been able to have reduce that by trying different exposures. More noticeable is the multi-coloured speckling in the emulsion and the random faults such as the mark on the forehead and cheek. The detail is still better than the 300S and I am questioning why I bought it!!

face detail

text detail

Canon A710 set at 100asa

When people talk about Jpeg noise here is what they mean: the bright edges around the man's collar also have some extra colours. However the eyes look sharp and there is good highlight detail. The centre area of the Canon is pretty impressive but the edge sharpness was poor: the text is blurry and one half of the image is slightly green against the other. Finally the noise in the dark areas is intrusive.

face detail

text detail

4x5 Technical View 4"x5" with Schneider lens and Provia F 100asa

This is why we use film, big film.

Newer digital cameras have sensor sizes exceeding 24Mb, that result in a 3 x 24Mb = 72Mb file when opened in Photoshop, but to approach the quality of 4"x5" film one would probably need to compare to the optics and sensor sizes of medium format digital cameras such as the digital Hassleblad H4 range. In any case, how big a print are you going to need?! If you are involved with web-design or even magazine publications then the answer is probably A4 size, which matches a 10Mb camera very well.

A photographer needs the right tools for the job: 35mm format is fast and convenient to use and bears no comparison to an ungainly 4x5 camera. Some photographers have begun to resent the time needed to edit digital images and hanker for the simplicity of film... there are pros and cons to every choice but ultimately our suggestion is "stick to what you enjoy".


Alistair Baird
The Darkroom UK Ltd
01242 239031