A Film to Digital Comparison

April 20, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

For the most part, comparison of film to digital for image quality is a pointless exercise. I would say that any digital sensor made after about 2013 or so (APS-C or larger) is going to provide better image quality than any film at 35mm and probably medium format sizes as well. And although I don't have experience with either one, my guess is that the latest high resolution full-frame and medium format sensors from Sony, Canon, and Fuji that provide 60+ megapixels are probably better than large format film. But I also think this line of comparison misses the point. Photographers who are shooting film in 2021 are not doing it because they need better image quality than what digital provides.

If you are reading  this, then I can tell you that I really hate the Zenfolio blogging platform. I had left the edit window open on my iPad from a couple of days ago, before I wrote the text of the post describing these images. I hit the “Save and Close” button not realizing what I was doing, and now my published post is gone forever. I don’t know if I can bear to re-write it-I’ve dumped that topic from my brain and moved on. Would it be too difficult for Zenfolio to add a reminder about over-writing a Published blog post? Fortunately I was able to bring up a cached copy of the page from my regular laptop. Whew!

While writing my last blog post, I remembered that I had captured some comparison images back in 2017, but I had never done that comparison. At the time, I was still trying to figure out what to do with my negatives-flatbed scanner or digital camera for digitizing and how to convert them to positives. When I looked back at these images, I was frankly surprised at how good the film images look compared to the digital images, and I realized that the shortcomings in this set of film images are the result of using lenses 50+ years old. The film itself is outstanding.

The Comparison

I captured these images late in the afternoon on the creek behind my cabin, facing into the sun. I had a Sony a6000 APS-C digital camera with the excellent Sony Zeiss 16-80mm A-mount zoom lens mounted to the LA-EA-4 adapter (with the translucent mirror). For the film photos, I had my Yashica-Mat 6x6 TLR with 80mm f/3.5 lens and Yashica Electro 35 GSN with 45mm f/1.7 lens, both loaded with Kodak Portra 400 film. The 80mm lens on 6x6 is equivalent to 44mm on 35mm, and I had the Sony set to 30mm which should have also been a 45mm equivalent focal length. I didn't write down the camera settings for the film shots, but the digital image was captured at 1/15 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100.


Medium format 6x6 film photo, 16 megapixels, digitized with Sony a6000. It is possible to get higher resolution and more detail from this negative. Processed in Negative Lab Pro v2.2.

 


Sony a6000 digital image, 24 megapixels, processed in Lightroom.

 


35mm film photo, 12 megapixels, downsampled JPG from flatbed scan.

 


Detailed comparison of 6x6 film image to APS-C digital image.

 


Detailed comparison of 35mm film image to APS-C digital image.


As I stated before, I think the real takeaway from this comparison is the difference in the lenses, specifically, the improvement of modern lens coatings to decrease flare in backlit images. There is really not much difference in the detail visible between the medium format image and the digital image, and I could significantly increase the resolution and detail in the 6x6 photo by digitizing at a higher resolution. And I could do the same with the digital image by zooming in and taking multiple photos. Even the 35mm image has good detail and sharpness although the grain is noticeable and the shadows lose a lot of detail. I think this comparison shows just how capable these old lenses are when used in the right setting. They are very sharp. I can easily make out the lettering on my bike in the background when zoomed in on all three photos.

A Second Comparison

Later that same day in August 2017, I stopped along Highway 12 just after sunset to take some photos of this lighted gate with Goemmer's Butte in the background. I had the Electro 35 with me, so after taking some images with the Sony, I put the Yashica on the tripod and took a couple of photos. I have two photos on the roll, so I think I took the first one with the Electro 35's auto-exposure and the second one with a manual bulb exposure. The first photo was definitely underexposed, but the second one turned out fantastic.


Yashica Electro 35 GSN with Kodak Portra 400, flatbed scan.

 

Sony a6000 with Zeiss 16-80mm lens, 3-shot HDR composite, processed in Lightroom.

Yes, the digital image is better. But I am actually blown away by how good the film image looks. Even zoomed in, the grain is not excessive and there is plenty of detail. Does it prove that film is better than digital? No, or course not. But I think it does prove that the photographer is more important than the camera, and that good, even very old, equipment can be used to produce fantastic images.

Don't be afraid to shoot film. Don't be a film snob. Just take some photos!


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