The Battle Royale: Film vs. Digital. Grain vs. Noise. Sensor

vs. Negative. Matter vs. Data. The Dark Knight vs. The

Hobbit. RED vs. IMAX… The battle as old as the first

captured pixel itself.


Unlike a digital sensor, a film frame does not have a regular

grid of discrete pixels. Instead, it has an irregular pattern of

differently sized grains. Conclusions from scientific studies

conclude that film has an extremely high amount of

resolution and information in the original negative, which

digital cameras will be hard pressed to match.

The resolution of film images depends upon the area of film

used to record the image (35 mm, Medium format or Large

format) and the speed. Estimates of a photograph's

resolution taken with a 35 mm film camera vary. More

information may be recorded if a fine-grain film, combined

with a specially formulated developer, are used. Conversely, use of poor quality optics or coarse-grained film yield lower image resolution.

The quality of digital photographs can be measured in

several ways. Pixel count is presumed to correlate with

spatial resolution. The quantity of picture elements (pixels)

in the image sensor is usually counted in millions and called

"megapixels" and often used as a figure of merit.

Many professional-quality film cameras use medium format

or large format films. Because of the size of the imaging

area, these can record higher resolution images than current top-of-the-range digital cameras. A medium format film image can record an equivalent of approximately 50

megapixels, while large format films can record around 200

megapixels (4 × 5 inch) which equates to around 800

megapixels on the largest common film format, 8 × 10

inches, without accounting for lens sharpness. In contrast

medium format digital provides from 39 to 80 megapixels.

Grain and Noise

Film has a characteristic grain structure. Different film

stocks have different grain. Digitally acquired footage lacks

this grain structure. It has electronic noise. In other words

grain can be “cool” while noise is always out of style.

Dynamic Range Latitude

Digital sensors lack the extended dynamic range found in

film. In particular, they tend to 'blow out' highlights, losing

detail in very bright parts of the image.

Time and Money

With film cameras, a roll must be processed prior to viewing.

In addition to processing, if post work is required the

negatives must also be digitized. These processes take both time and money making a film shoot a commitment for both the photographer as well as the client. Filmmaker

Christopher Nolan has speculated that the film industries

adoption of digital formats has been driven purely by

economic factors as opposed to digital being a superior

medium to film: “If you are looking strictly at production

cost, then you would use digital. But for the best image, it is

still film.”

While Hollywood is still in a dead lock, in the photography

world: ‘alea iacta est’ as Julius Caesar once said, ‘The die has been cast’. Unlike the Hollywood big-budget machine

appealing to a world-wide audience, the photographer is an

intimate low-budget one-man/woman show making digital

the economic no brainer. And with the digital world comes

the luxury of convenience. Digital cameras incorporate a

liquid crystal display allowing the images to be viewed

immediately after capture. The photographer may then

delete undesired photographs or reshoot the image if

necessary. A client can quickly print select images and post

work can begin immediately after shooting.