Is Digital Better than Film?

2003: In the May 2003 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 lags behind the printed magazine.)

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 24-bit value representing a specific color.

When you print a digital image, you don’t enlarge grain. You make larger 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 resolution in the way that 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 print.

Size Matters

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 camera 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 crisp.

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 results?

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 images.)

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 emailing photos and use as eBay pics. And good enough for an eight by ten when you really get a great shot.

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 print.

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.