I’ve been shooting more film than digital lately, mostly because I want to learn what the differences are between the two. I’m not talking about trying to decide which one is "better," because that’s too much like trying to debate between religions or political parties. I’m just trying to find out what makes them different and why. Here are a few comments about a comparison between a film photograph and a digital photograph of approximately the same scene, almost a year apart.
Below is a side-by-side comparison of crops of two photographs taken in approximately the same location on two different days. One was taken with Kodak Portra 800 film using a Yashica Mat-124 G twin lens reflex camera at about f11, handheld, but braced by a railing. The other was taken with a Nikon D3x 35mm digital camera, with a 24-70mm lens, handheld at ISO 1600 at f2.8. One was taken at Christmas time in 2010. The other was taken at Christmas time in 2011, so the color of the Christmas lights is different (blue one year and magenta the other year), and the illumination of the roof in the foreground is very different. Even with these differences, we can make some useful comparisons between the film capture and the digital capture.
Can you guess which photograph is digital and which is film?
Did you make your guess yet? You should definitely guess before reading the answer.
What qualities of the images influenced your guess?
Sharpness? Colors? Something else?
The answer is that the image on the left is the film photograph and the image on the right is the digital photograph. Aside from differences in the color of Christmas lights, and the slight variation in the framing and composition, there are a few things that distinguish the quality of the two photographs.
Sharpness/Motion blur: The image on the right shows some slight motion blur. That’s because I was hand-holding the camera in a rather dark environment. The shutter speed was 1/20, which is quite a slow speed for hand-held images. I moved a little, so the image isn’t as crisp as it could be. You can see the motion blur most clearly in the lights directly above the chimney. This motion blur at 1/20th of a second would have happened no matter what camera I was using, so it doesn’t actually mean much if the point is to compare digital to film.
Color temperature and saturation: One meaningful difference between the film and digital captures above is the color of the hall lights above the chimney. The digital photograph renders the light with a purer yellow color. Portra 800 renders the light as a more subtle yellow, giving it a more natural appearance. Some people may prefer the more saturated look of the digital photograph. It’s a subjective matter of preference. It is possible to boost the saturation in Aperture, Lightroom, or Photoshop, of course, though this would diminish the look of film and push it toward a digital appearance. Also, different films would handle the colors differently. Fuji Velvia ISO 50 would produce very saturated colors, perhaps even more saturated than the digital capture.
Blown highlights: A more significant difference is the way the two photographs handle the highlights. Look at the highlights created by the ceiling lights in the hallway above the chimney. In the film photograph, you can still see the color of the wall in most instances, and there is a gradual transition between the unlit portions of the wall and the highlighted portions of the wall (The wall sconce in the film photo does seem to blow the highlights, but none of the other lights do.) The same is true in the spot of light on the ceiling above the ceiling light. By way of contrast, the digital image renders all of the highlights as pure white, and adds a yellow fringe to these hot spots.
As a general rule, film captures details in highlights much better, and with more subtlety, than digital sensors do. Film excels at highlights. Digital sensors, on the other hand — at least the newest generations of digital sensors — tend to handle shadows better, allowing for greater shadow recovery. And yet, with films like Portra 400, the shadows are usually rendered somewhat brighter by default than digital captures, so the advantage to digital cameras is reduced somewhat. When I need to recover details from shadows, I tend to have more success doing this with digital photographs, but the natural dynamic range of film already displays much of this detail to begin with, so I don’t need to recover shadow details as often. When I do need to, though, it’s harder with film, and there is less room for recovery before the film grain starts to become a problem.
It isn’t that film is "better" or "worse" than digital then, it’s just that film has certain strengths. One of those strengths is the ability to retain details in highlights better, rendering the highlights in a more natural way, with less jarring colors and smoother transitions.
Here are the full photographs from which I took the crops. You can see the difference in the highlights in multiple places in the two photographs (again, even aside from the very different lighting schemes from one year to the next).
And here is a multi-image panorama of the scene (this is the Gaylord resort/hotel at National Harbor in the Washington DC area):