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Telling It Like It Is

Digital Vs. Film
The Great Debate

Whom Do You Trust?

Few topics seems to arouse photographer's passions these days more than the issue of digital camera image quality — and specifically, whether digital matches or exceeds film.

There are a couple of problems to be dealt with, as I see it, and none of them relate to the actual question at hand. The first is that few photographers have actually bothered to make the comparison for themselves. I mean an actual side-by-side test under controlled condition. This means that whatever information they may have on this subject is based either on anecdotal evidence, or second hand information. Worse, they draw conclusions from looking at compressed JPG files online. (Common guys! What are you thinking of? Online JPGs are full of compression artifacts).


Montana Sunset, October 2002
Canon D60 with Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 100.

Now there's nothing necessarily wrong with second hand information. Except for the things that we see and experience ourselves that's how we generally gain our information — books, magazines, newspapers, TV — all are sources of second hand information.

So who do we trust? Why should we believe one source over another? Well — we can't, not necessarily and not always. For example, if something is published in a scientific journal like Nature, we can assume that it has been subject to peer review. That is, before publication a copy of the manuscript has been distributed to qualified individuals, and only when the majority of them come back with a validation that what is proposed to be published makes sense does it see print.

In the case of commercial magazines there is an Editor and a Publisher who between them ensure that the article passes a sanity test, and also isn't likely to piss off too many people, especially their advertisers, (something that reputable commercial magazines don't like to happen, for obvious reasons).

Now even this isn't enough of a safeguard that what you're going to read between any particular set of pages is either true or makes sense. I wouldn't put too much credence in the stories about Elvis and aliens found in the supermarket tabloids, for example. But on the whole, and political and social biases aside, one generally can be confident that what one reads in commercial media has been written by someone that has some knowledge and experience with the topic at hand.

The Internet Pitfall

But now we have the Internet, and the cat's among the pigeons. On the Net anyone can publish whatever they like, and who knows who they are or what axe they're grinding and why? Also, on the thousands of discussion boards where people exchange ideas and information about any and all topics everyone is essentially anonymous. As one friend recently put it, one doesn't know if one is reading the words of adults acting like children or children pretending to be adults. Most times it seems like either one or the other, doesn't it?.

So why am I writing this?

The reason is that over the past few years I have written literally dozens of articles, tutorials and product reviews for this site, but few have raised some people hackles as much as my reviews of four digital SLRs — the Canon D30, D60, 1D and 1Ds. Why? Because in each case I dared to compare image output from these cameras with that from scanned film. And, in each case I found it to be superior in some way to film.

Part of the problem (for them, not for me) is that in each instance I was the first reviewer in the world to make these comparisons. This meant that it was a case of believe me or not. There was at the time of first publication no other source of reference. For example, when the D30 came out my review stated that in print sizes up to A4, and maybe slightly larger, the D30 produced higher quality images than high-quality scanned film. What!! He's Nuts! Can't be!! Well now, two years later, with some tens of thousands of photographers shooting with D30s no one disputes this any longer. What the camera lacks in absolute resolution it makes up for in clean noise-free images. Far better than film can offer.


Lone Tree — Yellowstone Falls, October 2002
Canon EOS D60 with 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens at ISO 200

Next, my D60 review claimed that the quality from that camera's images exceeded that from 35mm film. Period. The howls of anger and disagreement were heard far and wide. Now some months later, few who have produced photographs with this camera would disagree. Recently, (Fall, 2002) I have stated that while output from the Canon 1Ds does not have quite as high-resolution as medium format, it's awfully close. And, when you take into account the superior noise qualities of digital, there simply isn't a contest any longer. Well, once again I'm being attacked on the discussion boards by people who find what I have to report unacceptable.

A Matter of Perspective

One other area where I have drawn some fire is that as each of these cameras has come to market I have stated that each has been some sort of landmark. Looking back over time this has struck some readers as having been hyperbolic.

Perhaps. But it is important to realize that as each product has come to market no one (least of all me) is aware of what's coming next. If all you have is a horse, then the invention of the wheel seems pretty neat. If the horse-drawn buggy is your normal means of transportation then the automobile is wondrous. Teleportation will, I'm sure, put the airplane to shame. Each new generation of digital SLR (and they're still coming hot and heavy) surpasses the next, but that doesn't obviate the significance of each individual step as it happens.

When the audio CD first appeared about 25 years ago there were industry pundits that called it capable of reproducing sound "perfectly". Well, we all know that early CDs could sound pretty bad. Yes, they were free from the scratches, clicks and pops that plagued records, but otherwise perfect they weren't.

Over the years though, audio engineers began to better understand the limitations of digital audio CD recording and reproduction technology, and today few would argue that analog LPs sound better than CDs, (though some still do). Much the same will happen with digital photography, I'm sure.

A Basis for Disagreement

I have a fairly thick skin, and if people don't agree with what I write it's of little concern to me. What is disturbing though is that because of the nature of the Internet any yobo can post a statement that I'm wrong, stupid, unqualified, suck eggs, etc, and they don't need to qualify the statement or explain the basis for their position. They just need to make it. Who they are, and what their qualifications might be for casting such aspersions usually remain unknown. But it's the nature of us humans that when something is in print (and I suppose being on-screen qualifies as such) our first impulse is to believe it. That's where my problem lies.

When someone makes a statement on a discussion board, it sits there as fact until someone disputes or refutes it. This means that unless the original author of the disputed information (me, in this case) bothers to argue the point online, someone casually reading such a statement is left with the impression that it's likely true.

The solution, I suppose, would be for me to scour the boards looking for such misinformation and then attempt to debate it online. I've tried. It rarely works, and usually descends into name calling and worse. Life is too short.

Fallen Log — String Lake, Grand Teton. October, 2002
Canon EOS D60 with 16-35mm f/2.8L lens at ISO 100

The Response

So instead I'll use my soapbox here to make a few of the points that I might make if I were arguing the issue with a naysayer on one of the boards. It might not have the same effect as an online debate, but I does make me feel better, and who knows — it might help some readers make up their own minds.

I think that the problem that some people have with the assertion that a digital image can be superior to film is emotional rather than based on either personal experience or observation. Some people simply don't want it to be so.

In the same way there are still those that contend that traditional chemical prints are, and always will be superior to inkjet prints. As I see it this simply means that they have not seem a properly made colour print from a printer such as the Epson 2200, for example. Compare this to a C Print, an R print or an Ilfochrome (Cibachrome) and 9 times out of 10 there's no contest. The inkjet will have more accurate colour, superior contrast range and tonality, and equal resolution. (B&W prints are another debate).

I raise the issue of prints because it is a comparable debate to the one over digital vs. film. The traditionalists simply don't want the world to change. Some have invested many years, even decades into learning their craft. That someone can make a superior print sitting in their den at a computer denies their efforts and sacrifice.

As someone who has spent the past quarter century doing and teaching darkroom work, I understand. But, as a fine-art and a professional photographer my interest is in producing the best possible images for myself and my customers. If my darkroom were the place to do this, it would still exist. But it isn't, and it doesn't. I closed it and sold off my enlarger, colour analyzer, processing drums and all the rest about 2 years ago. Case closed — at least for me.

The same thing is now happening with digital cameras. Today any of the 6 Megapixel digital SLRs from Nikon, Canon or Fuji surpass the output from scanned 35mm film in almost every regard. Cameras like the Kodak DCS 14n (likely) and Canon 1Ds (definately) seriously challenge medium format. Digital backs from Leaf, Imacon, Kodak and others are now the norm rather than the exception in professional studios. Why? Because for the most part they produces superior images.

Well, that's all easy for me to say. And many will argue that pros and commercial photographers have switched to digital because of workflow issues and cost savings rather than image quality. Which is true, but most clients want the best quality for their money — workflow be damned, and that's why the majority of studio photographers are now using digital.

Counterpoints

So, let's look at some of the issues that keep coming up whenever the debate over digital is raised and try and see where the truth lies.

Comparisons are done against scanned film. The comparison should be against traditional prints because of their superiority.

Sorry, but wanting it to be so doesn't make it so. As discussed above, the best inkjet prints are now so far superior to chemical prints most of the time that such a comparison is pointless. Lightjet 5000 or Durst Lambda prints can be even better, and therefore are frequently used in such comparisons.

Scans from desktop scanners (such as the Imacon Flextight that I use) aren't good enough. Only an 8000 DPI drum scan can extract all the information that's on film.

No doubt drum scans are great for achieving better D-max. But while 8000 dpi scans produce bigger files they don't necessarily capture more detail. The detail simply isn't there most of the time. While many will debate the exact numbers, there just isn't 300MB worth of data on a piece of 35mm file. Such scans produce no more "real" information that taking a smaller scan file and ressing it up.

We need to remember as well that film is in fact a "digital" medium as well. There isn't an infinite amount of data to be extracted. The grain or dye particles that create an image are finite, and they are either exposed or not exposed. This is a digital state, not an analogue one.

Remember — most experienced workers agree that much above 3200-4000 dpi scans, little extra information is captured. Why? Because it isn't there.

The issue of grain / noise.

On film we see it as grain while in digital it's called noise. Either way it's non-image forming. It also is one of the main reasons why digital appears to produce such high quality images. Noise is so low at low ISO on most DSLRs that film doesn't have a chance. Even the finest grained films (such as Fuji Provia 100F) display grain in large prints, especially in clear areas such as the sky. A similar print from a digital SLR, such as the Canon D60 at ISO 100, is essentially noiseless.

Even at higher ISO, digital's advantages are seen. ISO 400 film clearly shows noise on prints much over A4, while I regularly shoot with the D60 at ISO 400 and am hard pressed to notice the noise on most prints, and in clear areas such as sky it is less objectionable than film grain.

So, why should you believe me rather than someone else? Maybe you shouldn't. But at least you know who I am, and what my background and experience are. My biography is online and my credentials are also available. Does this make my word gospel? Of course not, but I do bring some experience to the task and am willing to stand behind my claims.


Yellowstone Vista, October 2002
Canon EOS D60 with 16-35mm f/2.8L lens at ISO 200

I also don't work alone. I always use additional experienced eyes to double check and sanity test my evaluations. For example my colleague Chris Sanderson, the director of The Video Journal, is a constant sounding board. He has been a photographer and international award winning film director for some 30 years. He has a well trained and critical eye.

I regularly involve other professionals in my tests. In my Canon 1Ds evaluation, for example, I was assisted by Thomas Knoll, the original author of Adobe Photoshop. Thomas has been a photographer since childhood and obviously knows a thing or two about digital imaging.

Finally, I publish my tests online and in national magazines. Most of my major digital camera tests have also appeared in Photo Techniques magazine, where I am a Contributing Editor. And, I make comparison prints publicly available for others to see. I frequently bring a set of test prints to a local pro dealer in Toronto ­ Vistek — where visitors are free to view them and to draw their own conclusions.

So, the next time that you read someone trashing my reviews, ask about their experience and credentials. They may be writing from a position of experience and knowledge, then again, maybe not.

Biases

Naturally, readers want to understand any biases that someone who takes a position might have. I'll be happy to explain mine. My primary bias is toward image quality. My second bias is towards convenience, though not at the expense of image quality.

I've been doing photography for nearly 40 years, both professionally and as a fine art. My images have been published in numerous books and magazines, and my prints are in both private and public collections. I've been teaching photography and fine print making for much of the past 3 decades.

I own numerous camera systems — too many likely — including Hasselblad Arcbody, Pentax 67, Pentax 645, Hasselblad Xpan, Fuji 617, Leica M6 / M7 and Canon EOS 1V and D60. Of course a full set of lenses for each of these systems are also on hand.


Elk in The Mist, Yellowstone, October 2002
Canon D60 with Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens at ISO 100.

The keen eyed observer will notice that of the 9 camera bodies that I own, only one of them is currently digital. So if I have any bias toward digital it certainly isn't based on what I own. The reason that my reviews of digital SLRs are mostly Canon is simply because I own a wide range of Canon lenses, and so that's what I'm interested in. I do review other products from time to time though, as they become available to me and as I become interested in them. I accept nothing for free, only loaners. I receive no compensation in any way from any manufacturer, and as regular readers will have noted The Luminous Landscape and The Video Journal are completely free from any advertising.

Quite simply, and as stated in the title of this article, I tell it like it is — or at least as I see it. If that means that one technology is better than another, then so be it. I don't really care which product is better, or which technology wins out over another. I only care what can deliver better images for me and for those that view and purchase my work.

Finally, one area where I do accept that criticism is justified is in that my tests are not as rigorous or scientific as they might be. My only defense is that I am a photographer, not a formal equipment tester or scientist. I test equipment in the same way that I use it — in the field, and probably in much the same way that you would. I really have little interest in measuring lines per millimeter or in tracing MTF curves.

How does it handle on location, and how good are the final results? Those are the questions that I seek to answer, for myself and for others. I leave the nifty gritty technical evaluations to those that can do a better job at it than me.

The photographs displayed on this page are not intended to illustrate
any particuar point, but are here simply for visual interest. They are from
a shoot done in October, 2002 in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Reader comments on this topic can be found here.

Another perspective on this debate, by Nick Rains, is titled
Digital is Not Film


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Concepts: Digital single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Digital photography, Digital camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Image sensor, Canon

Entities: Canon, digital audio, Michael Reichmann, Elvis, SLRs, Internet

Tags: digital, cameras, discussion board, information, images, hand information, review, digital slr, commercial magazines, audio cd, actual side-by-side test, online, digital camera image, reputable commercial magazines, clean noise-free images, superior noise qualities, Canon EOS D60, higher quality images, audio cd recording, actual question, controlled condition, anecdotal evidence, compression artifacts, supermarket tabloids, Common guys, Few topics, Most times, obvious reasons, on-screen qualifies, digital matches, particular set, social biases, absolute resolution, scientific journal, Online JPGs, little concern, medium format, sanity test, Canon D30, analog lps