For everyday photography, film cameras have clearly been outclassed.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983
T e c h n o f i l e
Yosemite photos show digital has reached parity with film in many ways
June 27, 2004
By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2004, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2004, The Post-Standard
Can a $350 digital camera take pictures that look as good as 35-mm film images?
A friend of mine wondered just that when he headed out to California's Yosemite National Park this spring with his new digital camera, a Minolta DiMAGE Z1.
The DiMAGE, widely respected for its professional-quality lens and superb focusing system, seemed an ideal camera to capture the sweeping views of Yosemite except in one way: At a time when 5- and 6-megapixel cameras were becoming popular, the DiMAGE Z1 had "only" 3.2 megapixels (3.2 million light sensors) in its image pickup element.
So my friend (I'm keeping his identity private) took along his 35-mm single-lens reflex film camera as insurance. In general, 35-mm film has much greater resolution (the ability to show detail) than most digital cameras, but film needs to be scanned -- a frustrating procedure in many cases -- to create images that can be viewed on a computer screen or printed on an inkjet or laser printer. Scanners sometimes cause problems of their own, too, such as flat contrast, electronic noise in dark areas and dust accumulations in the scanned image.
So it makes sense to think of a good midrange digital camera as a competitor for a 35-mm single-lens reflex film camera. It might not have the resolution of the film camera, but it will be free from all the imperfections that tend to show up during scans.
Photo taken by Minolta DiMAGE Z1. Duotone processing was done in Photoshop Elements 2.0.
My photographer friend took many of the same scenes with each camera. He sent out the film camera's pictures to be developed by Kodak using two different methods -- normal color processing, the way color negatives and prints have been produced for years, and a new Kodak method called Perfect Touch.
Perfect Touch is a marriage of old and new photo processing. Negatives are created the standard way, but prints are created from scans of each negative. Automated photo-adjustment software tries to correct common problems such as pictures that are too dark or scenes that have color casts.
The Perfect Touch versions also arrived as digital image files, on Kodak Picture CDs. This meant there were three versions of the film images -- regular color negatives and prints, Perfect Touch color negatives and prints and digital scans of the Perfect Touch versions. With the DiMAGE photos added, we had four versions for comparisons.
But the Yosemite comparisons weren't ready yet. After I had seen the prints, I created two more sets of photos. Using a new PrimeFilm slide and negative scanner, I made high-resolution scans of both his regular color negatives and his Perfect Touch negatives. The importance of these scans became clear when we examined the Kodak Picture CD scans. They were clear and perfectly exposed but lacked the kind of resolution needed for large-format printing.
Kodak's prints from the Perfect Touch scans are 4 inches by 6 inches. The Kodak scans are only 1536 by 1024 pixels, whereas the scans I made from the same negatives are roughly 4300 by 3300 pixels. The DiMAGE digital camera's images are 1536 by 2048 pixels. In terms of megapixel quality, the Kodak scans are not much above low resolution, the camera's own digital images are a tad higher than medium resolution and my own scans are high resolution.
But resolution doesn't tell the real story. Although I found outstanding pictures in all the versions, the best pictures overall were the photos taken by the Minolta DiMAGE. My high-resolution scans of the color negatives had more detail, but the Minolta digital images seemed one step closer to the scene -- not surprising, considering they actually were. (Scans require an intermediate step that digital images don't need.)
The Minolta images also had more accurate color renditions, especially noticeable in the portrayals of stark rock outcroppings against the clear Yosemite sky. The digital photos looked more natural in every scene.
The two sets of scans produced an interesting comparison. Despite the fact that Kodak's scans hardly had enough resolution for small prints, they looked gorgeous on the screen. The automatic controls do a good job. But for large prints -- 30 by 20 inches, or example -- there is no substitute for pixels, and some of the scans I did would make ideal posters.
But most of us aren't going to turn our walls into poster palaces. Our experiments showed that an affordable digital camera can be every bit as good as a 35-mm SLR in such a demanding location as Yosemite National Park. For everyday photography, film cameras have clearly been outclassed.