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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

When Does Digital Match Film?


Film and digital can't be simply compared by using math. There's much more to the images than numbers.


But that doesn’t explain it all. I think partly that too many people are trying to make comparisons as if the technologies are equal. Consider this: Would you expect a car engine from the 1950s to match the horsepower of one of today’s engines, even though the displacement of both was the same? Actually, most people would be surprised and disappointed if the car industry hadn’t developed more than that. Or consider refrigerators, a simple piece of equipment, right? Take one from the 1960s and try to match its efficiency in cooling and energy use with even the cheapest refrigerator available today. You can’t do it.

The point is that technology changes. The technology used for film and the technology used for digital capture are two entirely different things developed in different ways. Plus, remember that although film has greatly evolved over the years, it’s still based on a technology that was developed many years ago, and there are limitations to that technology. Digital is a very recent development, on the other hand, and has very little history to its technology, so it can be based on very new ideas and engineering.

The race for megapixels has overshadowed some essential points. One of these is that it’s not just megapixels that are important, but how the individual pixels are constructed. This is one reason why a small, 10-megapixel point-and-shoot camera will never match a 10-megapixel D-SLR—the pixels aren’t created equal. (Though, truthfully, even small digital cameras can deliver amazing prints when the photography is done with care.)

Some people may remember that the Mars Rover camera originally had a camera with a 1-megapixel sensor. Admittedly, the big prints from Mars were essentially stitched panoramics, but still, the performance of the sensor was amazing. A lot of effort had been put into making the actual pixels capture absolutely the best quality images (some specialized lenses for the pixels were used, too).

Yet the silliness of using math to compare film and digital still continues in some places. There are a few diehards who love film (and film is still a beautiful medium) who want to put down digital rather than simply accept their love of film, so they use old-school math to "prove" how much better their images are than digital.

And there are the stock agencies. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about them from photographers. The agencies arbitrarily used old-school math to determine what they would or wouldn’t accept from digital. They examined digital images much differently than they ever did film. Their excuse was that they needed the highest-quality images for the most buyers, which I can tell you from our experience is nonsense. We’ve purchased stock photos from film for our other magazines that came as digital files that "met" the agency’s "math standards," yet those files were crappy scans that we couldn’t use at a full-page size. We ended up having to go to the photographers to get new scans of the original images. Yet these were purported to be "agency quality‚" even though any 6-megapixel digital image file (which didn’t meet their "standards") would have worked.

So where do 35mm film and digital equal each other? How many megapixels do you need? This is a subjective question, of course. How big are the photos? How are they used? Megapixels affect how large an image can be reproduced. If you were making 8x12-inch prints and smaller, you wouldn’t find much difference from film or cameras with 6 megapixels and up. If you made 16x24-inch prints, you’d find that a high-quality 10- to 12-megapixel sensor would easily match 35mm film. And, as noted, the pixels in the megapixels also affect image quality. One reason for buying a newer digital camera today isn’t necessarily for higher megapixels, but for better pixels and other camera technology (such as improved translation of analog data from a sensor to the digital data needed for the image file). In everything we’ve seen at OP, digital capture truly has arrived and has passed 35mm.



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