Five Digital Sensors vs Four Color Film - Why I Switched to Film
I know that this is not going to be a fair comparison. But, I want you to know why I switched to shooting film - especially slide film. The best way to demonstrate my preference is with a comparison. Listed alphabetically below are nine format of capture involving different image sensors and films.
Agfa Vista 400 + Nikon F6 + Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G
Canon EOS-R + EF to R Mount Adapter + Canon 35mm f/1.4L II
Fujifilm Provia 400X (Expired 2014) + Nikon F6 + Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G
Fujifilm Superia 400 + Nikon F6 + Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G
Kodak Portra 400 + Nikon F6 + Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G
Leica M10 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH (FLE)
Leica SL + M to TL Mount Adapter + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH (FLE)
Nikon Z6 + Nikon FTZ adapter + Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G
Sony A9 + FE Sony 35mm f/1.4 ZA
To conduct this comparison, I opted for a controlled shooting environment. In other words, I decided against schlepping six or more cameras around the streets of Hong Kong during the height of summer. As a result, the images I captured for the comparison are rather static. But then again, taking good photos wasn’t really the objective of this comparison. Instead, my goal is to demonstrate the difference between digital and film capture - in order to show you why I prefer to shoot in film - especially slide film.
For this comparison, I selected five different digital cameras, three different negative film, and one slide film - all at ISO 400. I wanted to see if there were significant or appreciable differences in rendering between different digital sensors and between different types of film. Speaking anecdotally, I am already of the opinion that all digital sensors render more or less the same, but can the same be said about film? I mean, my bias in favor of film could be completely unfounded… which is what this comparison could help to clarify.
Note: I selected Fujifilm Provia 400X as the representative slide film for this comparison. Unfortunately, it is a discontinued film variety. Furthermore, the example I used for this comparison had expired in 2014. At best, my example of Provia 400X can only demonstrate how slide film capture differs from negative film capture - albeit without the benefit of certainty in optimization during testing. Of course, I could have settled for ISO 100 slide film. But, I felt that I needed the extra two stops of speed for indoor use.
IMAGES AS SHOT
In the first set of images, there are slight variance in white balance between digital sensors. The Canon EOS-R seems rather dull, whereas the Nikon Z6 seems rather warm in tone. Surprisingly, the sensor on the Sony A9 seems rather well balanced, on par with both the Leica M10 and the Leica SL (which essentially are Leica cameras sharing more or less the same technology). That said, there is noticeable flatness in rendering in all the digital capture, when compared to film capture.
What is surprising to me is the similarity in rendering between the three different types of film used in this comparison. Initially, I thought the difference would have been more noticeable. For example, I thought there might have been more biases in rendering certain colors, differences in contrast, or variation in saturation. That said, it’s not as if the three types of film rendered exactly the same. For example, I never noticed how dull Kodak Portra 400 looked in capture. It just seemed to be washed in tertiary tones.
However, it is also possible that Portra 400 is made for greater general use - in the same way digital sensors are designed for general use. In other words, the contemporary iteration of Portra 400 might be designed to not be biased towards any colors, so that its rendering can be more reflective of reality. As for Fujifilm Superia 400, I really can’t say that it’s much better than Portra 400. However, I do find Agfa Vista 400 to be noticeably more rosy than the other two films in this comparison.
For the image sample captured with Provia 400X, I had to reduce the black clipping level by +75 in Adobe Lightroom, in order to bring down the intensity of color reproduction. As I stated in an earlier blog post, slide film are extra saturated with color, given its intended use which requires greater intensity of color to compensate for diffusion in transmission when projected on a screen at a distance. That said, the rendering from Provia 400X is noticeably more distinct than that of digital or negative film capture.
TONAL RANGE OPTIMIZED IN ADOBE LIGHTROOM
For the second image set, I decided to tweak the tonal range of the image set, by increasing black and white clippings, decreasing shadows and highlights, and if need be, tweak dark and light values. In doing so, I can make the image pop-out in order to give it a more three dimensional appearance. After all, isn’t that the goal of any well made photograph - to create an impression of three dimensional volume in a two dimension plane? To that end, the five digital image capture does pop out more once you tweak its tonal range.
In my opinion, the digital images do appear much less flat in appearance and therefore much more lifelike after the adjustments were made. There is a much greater impression of volume with increased intensity in highlights, midtones, and shadows throughout the image, especially on the face. Between the five digital sensors, my preference is for the Leica SL (despite the handicap of using a non-native lens). That said, I find the Canon sensor to benefit the most from this adjustment. Perhaps, that’s why its raw images started out dull.
Even so, I still find the film images to be significantly more improved from the adjustment than the digital images. In my opinion, the impression of three dimensional volume is much greater. Even the Provia 400 image sample edges out the Leica SL. The highlights are more pronounced in details, as are the shadows. Moreover, the adjustment in tonality seems to add the illusion of texture by bringing out the film grain more, which gives the three film image samples the appearance of perceived and tactile realism.
For the image sample taken with the Provia 400X, I experienced some chromatic aberration, which could be attributed to poor storage after its expiration date. However, after I made the necessary adjustment in shifting the hues (without affecting saturation or luminescence), I noticed just how vivid the colors were, which in my opinion added to the lifelike impression of the captured image. Personally, it’s my favorite of the bunch. I just wished I had a roll that wasn’t expired, in order to alleviate all doubt towards the credibility of this image sample.
WHITE BALANCE OPTICALLY SET TO THE SAME LEVEL
For the final comparison, I decided rather imprudently to shoot ISO 400 film under tungsten lighting. Truth be told, I was running out of photo opportunities in my “controlled shooting environment”. To alleviate the white balance issue in post, I decided to have some fun with it. So, I decided to set the white balance level for each image sample to be the same (or as close as possible). To achieve that arbitrary objective, I chose the white balance of the Sony A9 as the standard to follow for the rest of the images in this set.
Unsurprisingly, All the digital image captures look more or less the same. From my perspective, the result of this comparison confirmed my prejudices towards digital image capture. In short, digital sensors between different manufacturers all look the same or can be made to look the same. True, there might be some small variances in color balance bias. But any discrepancy can always be rectified in post processing. I mean, you must admit that the five digital capture in this comparison look the same, if not very similar.
However, what did surprise me was just how similar the three negative film sample were, after I adjusted their respective white balance to look the same. True, there were noticeable differences. But, I was disappointed to see that the differences weren’t more defined and unique. That said, I still prefer the rendering of film capture to digital capture in this comparison. Despite an absence of tonal adjustment, there is still a noticeably more three dimensional quality present in film capture than what’s present in digital capture.
As for the sample taken with Provia 400X, it was by far the best of the bunch. Despite having to reduce black clipping in order to bring down the harshness in color reproduction, the color reproduction of Provia 400X were still vastly more intense than in negative film capture (which by inference is vastly more intense than in digital capture). In my opinion, the intensity in color reproduction offers the image greater perceived tonal range, which gives Provia 400X a more three dimensional quality in rendering.
BEST IN SHOW
Like I said in the first sentence of this blog entry - this is not going to be a fair comparison. After all, I started this wacky undertaking with bias. But, it should be noted that this bias came from months of shooting both negative and positive film and a return to digital imaging six weeks ago. And after all that’s said and done, I know why I prefer film to digital capture, and why I prefer positive film to negative film. In the end, it is all a question of which medium of capture reproduces the most satisfying photographs.
As I have stated in an earlier blog post, digital imaging endeavors to capture reality to as close to reality as possible. But in doing so, I feel that reality just doesn’t seem lifelike to me. To my eyes, film appears to be more lifelike, in that it better renders the impression of three dimensional volume than digital capture. And moreover, positive film renders an even better impression of three dimensional volume than negative film capture. For that reason, this is why I prefer shooting slides over negative film
In my opinion, positive film is just more satisfying than negative film. It offers greater tonality in capture, is better than lifelike in color reproduction, and still retains texture from its grain structure. It was why generations before me used to sing “don’t take my Kodachrome away from me”. But alas, Kodachrome is all but a memory, as is my beloved Provia 400X. That said, Kodak Ektachrome E100 and Fujifilm Provia 100F isn’t too bad. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Provia 100F, which I will soon share on this blog.
That said, what about film capture in general? If film capture all look the same (between different films), then how is it better than digital capture (which all looks the same between digital sensors)? Well, this comparison is incomplete. I only compared film capture at ISO 400. I suspect if I expanded this comparison across the ISO range from 100 to 1600 and to black and white film, I would have better demonstrated the distinctness of film variety in rendering… which really is the point of film photography.
With digital, you’re stuck with one sensor - albeit capable of high ISO and black and white photography. Even so, the rendering from ISO 100 to 52000 and beyond (in color or desaturated image files) is still based on the same flat reproduction typical of digital capture. That said, it’s nothing that cannot be fixed in post processing. I mean, isn’t that the reason editing software exists? Nevertheless, whatever one can optimize in post with digital image capture, more can be done with film capture.
Mind you, I don’t think I’ll ever reach for Portra 400 again. If nothing else, this comparison has helped me realize just how generic Portra 400 is. But to be fair to Kodak, this recent iteration of Portra 400 is likely to be less biased in color reproduction. Unfortunately, that just makes it seem all the more digital to me.
So, now you understand why I switched to film - especially slide film. That said, I can only speak for myself with regards to my switch. Whether you feel the same way or are convinced of my conclusion, that is up to you. Like I said, I just find slide film more satisfying.
The first image set has not been optimized in presentation. The second image set has been optimized in presentation, with regards to tonality. The third image set has been edited, with regards to color and white balance only. All images shot on Provia 400X has had its black clipping values reduced, since the raw digitized capture is too saturated in rendering.
All film images shot at box speed.
Some images have been cropped for the sake of presentation. Images shot on negative film have been digitized on a Pakon F135 film scanner. Images shot on positive film have been digitized on a Nikon Z6 + Nikon FTZ adapter + Nikon Micro AF-S 60mm f/2.8G + Bolt VM 210 Macro Flash.