Friday, July 17, 2015

Digital vs. Film - A Comparison In Monochrome

Digital photography or analogue photography? Which is better? Which should you use? This has been the debate for a couple of decades now. And it has heated up recently on the web. The digital camp claimed victory while the film camp replied, "Not so fast!"

Is film officially dead? Is digital photography superior? Or is film still better than digital? Who is right?

I'm not attempting to settle the debate. If you want to use one method over the other, that's great! After all, the finished photograph is what matters most, and the way that it was achieved doesn't make any difference to the viewers.

Instead, I'm going to show two similar photographs and let you decide for yourself which method (digital or analogue) produces superior results, if indeed one does. Maybe you like the digital photograph better. Perhaps you think the film image is more pleasing. Maybe you can't tell which one is which. Take a look below:
Grand View - Las Vegas, Nevada
(Click here to see the full-size image)
Free Parking - Las Vegas, Nevada
(Click here to see the full-sized image)
Before continuing, let me delve into the technical details of this comparison. First, there is nothing scientific about this, but science is not art and art is not science, so perhaps that is a good thing. I didn't set out to do this comparison--I just happened to notice that two of my photographs, one captured with film and the other digital, were similar.

The digital camera used was a Nikon D3300 DSLR with a Nikkor 40mm AF-S DX f/2.8G Micro lens attached. The film camera was a FED 5c rangefinder with a 50mm f/2.8 slightly-radioactive lens attached, loaded with Kodak Plus-X 125 film and a red filter screwed on.

The film was developed and scanned at a lab. I toned the digital file slightly and that's all that I did to it. The scan makes the film appear a little more grainy than it actually is. The digital image was post-processed using Alien Skin Exposure 7 software, manipulated to look like it had been captured using Tri-X 400 and a red filter. I also cropped it a little.

Have you figured out which one is which? Have you decided which one you like better? Is one technically superior to the other? Is the difference big or insignificant?

Drum roll, please!

Grand View is film. Free Parking is digital.

How about another comparison:
How Come? - Las Vegas, Nevada
(Click here to see the full-sized image)
Hotel Window View - Las Vegas, Nevada
(Click here to see the full-sized image)
Can you figure out which one was captured using a digital camera and which one was captured with film? Does it even matter?

One thing that I will add about film is that I would not print from the files made from the scanned negatives. I would print directly from the original source: the negatives. This would give me a photograph with finer grain and a higher dynamic range than the scanned files would.

What I find about film that is superior to digital is that film looks organic--it looks to my mind how a photograph should--while digital sometimes doesn't. There is something about the silver grain and film tonality that is "right" and there are sometimes aspects within a digital image that are "wrong"--all of which are extraordinarily subtle.

With all of that said, 99% of my photography is digital nowadays. I occasionally shoot film, but digital is so much more convenient that I trade the look of film for the look of digital. I then use software in post-processing to mask the digitalness (is that a word?) of the photograph and make it appear more analogue.

Oh, and if you are wondering, How Come? is digital and Hotel Window View is film. Are there differences in the quality? Sure. Are those differences significant? Absolutely not.

Film. Digital. Use whichever method you'd like. It's your photography. It's your art. What you choose to use is your prerogative. 

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