In the May 2002 issue of Popular
Photography & Imaging, editor-in-chief Jason Schneider declares
that digital has achieved the quality of film. More specifically, the
Kodak DCS Pro14n digital SLR matches the resolution of Kodak Max
Versatility 400 color print film in a 35mm camera.
Beyond that, although ISO 100 film resolves more detail than this
13.5 MP (megapixel) digicam, the 14n has better overall definition, a
term which encompasses grain, sharpness, and contrast along with
resolution. Schneider terms this a defining moment for digital
photography. (I'd link to the article, but pophoto.com lags behind the
Is Resolution the Key?
Still, if the Kodak 14n has better definition than ISO 100
print film despite that fact that it only resolves on a par with ISO
400 print film, maybe resolution isn't the best way to decide whether
film is better than digital. After all, there's a lot more to
photography than resolution.
Grain is probably the biggest difference between film and digital
imaging. Film has grain, and faster films tend to have more pronounced
grain than slower ones. Although Fujifilm 1600 and 800 color print
films are spectacular in comparison to the ISO 400 films of a few years
ago, the slower 100, 200, and 400 ISO films have finer grain yet.
Smaller grains are a factor in resolution, but they also help
overall image quality by being less pronounced and creating smoother
tonal gradations. For the sharpest pictures that you can blow up the
most, use a tripod, a sharp lens, and slow film.
Digital changes the picture, if you'll pardon the pun. There is no
grain; there are only pixels. The Kodak 14n has 4,500 of them across
the width of the image; 1.2 MP cameras have 1,280. Each pixel has a
specific value representing a specific color.
When you print a digital image, you don't enlarge grain. You do make
bigger pixels, and that can lead to horrendous results when you try to
make too few pixels fill too much space. Depending on the software
producing the print, a too large image from a digital file will either
be blurry, which is bad, or look like a mosaic composed of small
colorful squares, which is worse.
The key to digital imaging isn't so much resolution in the way we've
always measured it on film. Instead, the key is having enough pixels
per inch (or cm) in the final print so the image doesn't look fuzzy or
pixelated. As noted in last week's Megapixels and Sufficient Resolution, that
number varies depending on whether you're printing with an inkjet
printer or using a more sophisticated printing system such as dye
sublimation or digitally printing to photographic paper. And you may
need even more quality if the end result is a high quality art
Except for the most critical users, a 1.0-1.5 MP digicam will
produce just fine snapshot prints up to 4" x 6" in size using any
printing process. Five by seven prints from 2 MP cameras are
impressive, and 3-4 MP files produce excellent eight by tens.
The issue isn't whether film or digital has more resolution but how
good an image it produces in the size you need and at the viewing
distance you use. (Poster sized prints are rarely viewed as closely as
snapshots, so they don't need to be as crisp at close distances.)
This is why I almost always start my digital customers with the
8-by-10 question: "Do you think you will ever make an eight by ten from
this camera?" If the answer is no, sub-3 MP cameras are an option. If
the answer is yes, I do them a disservice if I don't steer them away
from the sub-3 MP models. And then I ask if they might make an 11" x
17" print, which moves them to the next level.
Most customers understand the need for enough data for a sharp
print. For those who don't, we have sample eight by tens that don't
quite look sharp - because they were created from 2 MP files.
These shots aren't bad at first glance, but the detail just isn't
While sheer resolution might be one way to determine the quality of
film vs. digital on a theoretical level, the ultimate question is print
quality. Is it good enough? Does it look sharp? Are you happy with the
By the measure of an 8-by-10 print, digital has offered everything
we need for a few years now. And for the average amateur photographer,
a 3 MP camera is all they may ever need. Anything more is nice,
possibly even useful, but probably not necessary. (6 MP digicams
are good enough for Sports Illustrated to produce full page
Higher resolution digicams have their place. For higher quality
output, you do want the additional detail they record. For larger
images, you need more pixels. If you might do some cropping, megapixels
drop like flies, so it doesn't hurt to have more pixels than you
absolutely need. Consider it a safety margin.
Based on that kind of thinking, I suspect we'll soon see 3 MP
digicams become the norm for snapshooters. Fantastic for snapshots.
Overkill for emailed photos and eBay pics.
And good enough for an eight by ten when you really get a great
More advanced photographers are now buying in the 4-5 MP range, and
I suspect most will end up at the 6 MP level in a few years. With
little or no work in Photoshop (depending on inkjet vs. other types of
output), a 6 MP image can create a very nice 11-by-14 or 11-by-17
Pros will go beyond that, as many have already done with the
Fujifilm S2 Pro (which creates 12 MP files) and digital backs for
larger format cameras. They'll buy the Kodak 14n and the 11 MP Canon
EOS-1DS - and the models that will replace them in coming years.
There will still be a market for the ultra high resolution Leaf
backs and the like, but they'll be used primarily by commercial
photographers who need that level of resolution for billboards, those
huge illuminated transparencies we see in airports, and other places
where extremely large output is needed.
For the rest of us, we'll move beyond fixating on resolution once we
have more than enough pixels (probably 6 MP for advanced amateurs
and a lot of pros), and we'll become more interested in other features:
color fidelity, shadow and highlight detail, noise during longer
exposures, and improved low light sensitivity among them.
For most users most of the time, digital can already replace film.
At this point it's just a matter of pricing the digicams so they appear
to be a more reasonable alternative to comparable film cameras. And
that's likely to happen over the next year.