Zenfolio | Martin Bluhm Photography | Film vs. Digital

Film vs. Digital

January 15, 2013  •  2 Comments

Coming from the 35 mm film days, I was still an early adopter to the new digital photography age around 2001. I was eager to see the result of the taken shot instantaneously and to be in charge myself with the post-processing of my photos. I started first with a Sony CyberShot DSC-P5 point&shoot camera (3.2 MP but came in a nice Aluminum housing and with an excellent lens, I still have this little camera!). I lacked the option to have interchangeable lenses and manual modes in this camera, so later in 2005 I switched to my first DSLR, the classic 8 MP Canon Rebel XT. I was always wishing back the full frame 35 mm sensor format (I never felt really comfortable with the cropped APS-C sensor), so I finally upgraded to full frame with the Canon 5D MkII in 2009 which I am using since. The 21 MP image quality is excellent especially at lower ISO numbers. Since about 8 years I didn't touch my film camera and always assumed that the digital sensor can deliver at least very similar results. 

Until now: a friend of mince convinced me to test out the 35 mm Fujichrome Provia 100F slide film which supposedly enhances the color saturation. I re-activated my older Canon EOS500 film SLR camera with this 36 slide film (surprise, when I added both of the two removed eight years old Lithium 3V batteries into the camera, they were fully charged and functional!). I took my SLR camera on several trips  to shoot with it in parallel to my 5D MkII DSLR camera - often I even composed exactly the same motive for later comparison. 

This blog describes my findings in regard to differences and similarities comparing side by side my film and my digital photos. The slide film was developed in a professional photo studio and the negatives scanned via E-scan and saved as medium-sized JPG files (3-4 MB size), good enough for some minor post-processing. For a higher resolution scan I would have been charged a lot more, about $3 for each photo to be scanned and saved as Hi-Res TIFF file. Since I didn't know the outcome and quality of the final photos, I decided to stick to the cheapest E-Scan option. Overall I paid for film development, scanning, photo CD and shipping plus tax $34.51.

People watching my postings on my website here might be already familiar with some of the photo motives which I present here in this blog. Be aware that I used the same lenses for the presented photos, same apertures and similar exposure times at ISO 100 to allow valid comparison.

Beginning of November last year we had a bit of early snowfall in East NJ, so I used the opportunity to take a few landscape photos in my neighborhood. I will always post here the digital photo on the left and the film photo on the right.


Film PhotoHolmdel Crossfarm











You can instantly see that the red and brown color tones appear more saturated in the film photography whereas the original digital file came out a lot more blueish. I had to change to warmer color temperature to get close to the snow in the more original looking film photo. The digital photo is a notch sharper but this can be also due to the lower resolution scan of my film photo. 

In the second scenery photo below I tested the high contrast performance - purposely I did not want to create a HDR here but stick to the original shot only. 

Lonely Tree











Main difference is the difference in the sky color - more dark blue in the film photo, also we see more saturation in the remaining fall foliage and in the water reflection. Overall the film photo has a stronger contrast, too. 

Both cameras were with me on a trip to visit a few lighthouses at the NJ coastline. It was a clear and sunny late fall day, so I had an ideal situation to test the film performance in the settling afternoon sunlight which is richer in yellow and red tones. The first comparison shows the Cape May lighthouse below:


Cape May Lighthouse


Again we see stronger orange/reddish color saturation in the film photo on the right with a different blue in the sky. The digital photos on the other hand expresses better the green foliage which appears more as a brown in the film photo. The film photo appears warmer while the digital one has a colder touch. We can see this trend consistently in all photos here. 




Afternoon sunlight at the East Point lighthouse showed an even bigger difference especially in the reed in the foreground. I even had to reduce the saturation of the film photo to make it more realistic. 

East Point Lighthouse












The Red Mill in Clinton/NJ offered another possibility for testing with a lot warmer tones in the film photo:

Red Mill Red Mill











Interesting also the difference in the photos of the old quarry building next to the mill which includes a bunch of colors on the outside:

Quarry House Quarry











More examples revealing differences in the saturation are shown in the following examples:

Old School House











An indoor shot taken inside the St. Augustine lighthouse in Florida also reveals differences in the color saturation. The film exceeds a bit in the reddish tones here: and the higher contrast does not reveal the details in the stairs as much:


St. Augustine Lighthouse











The color of the water reflection is not as nice and blueish as in the digital photo on the left, but this is likely the result of having a higher saturation grade in the red which makes the water look more grey:

Red Bank Pier











Overall the color is expressed much more saturated in this film as also seen below in the cathedral in St. Augustine, FL. I can definitely confirm that the film saturates strongly the red and yellow colors and has much more contrast in dark areas. 










Who is the winner - film or digital? The simple answer is that there is no winner at all, it is like comparing apples and oranges. It all depends which kind of film is used and also which kind of setting provides the best effects for the available light. I did not expect to see such big difference here, but the confirmation of the effects of this high color saturating Provia film makes sense. I am sure that the development process of the film played another big role here, but this was out of my control. 

For me at least it was a good experience to trust my manual film shooting skills which I learned more than 28 years ago with my first SLR camera. I can recommend shooting film even if you just started out in digital - it helps you focusing on the essence of photography and to be quantitatively and qualitatively selective before releasing the shutter of what to shoot. 


Interesting study, of course manipulation can be done on both sides through photoshop on the left, vs. chemicals and print papers on the right. The images of the lighthouse I find most different. A good analogy would be comparing video tape to film. Video - cooler, sharper and film - warmer, more depth.

Through this study, if I had to choose, I'd stay with the film, for the saturation and warmth. But the convenience of digital simply cannot be ignored. The film images do have a natural human quality to them, like the waterfall image. Knowing I can actually look and touch the negative or slide builds an emotional connection to the film images, that digital is completely void of.
Lori Parsells(non-registered)
Very interesting to see side-by-side... Thanks, Martin!
No comments posted.

January February March April May June (4) July (1) August (1) September October November December
January (1) February March April May (1) June July (1) August September October November December
January February March (1) April May June July August September October (1) November December
January (1) February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October (1) November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December