Alias: 'Disco Dude'

Uncompromised Quality Photography
By Photographer Dan Harris

A home-studio photography business in Jacksonville, FL
1124 Riviera St.  Jacksonville, FL  32207 (904) 398-7668

Film capture vs Digital capture

By Jacksonville Florida Photographer Dan Harris

Digital VERSUS Film... it's really almost funny to pit the one against the other, it's like an artist arguing: Oil Paint vs Acrylic Paint... they each have different properties, different advantages and disadvantages. The choice of which to use will determine the equipment used and all the complicated steps to follow thereafter. The end result will be a testament to the validity of the choices made.

The three most common types of digital capture cameras in today's market are: Consumer, Pro-sumer and Professional. Today sensor size (not just megapixels) determines the cameras quality. Standard sensor sizes are half-frame, two-thirds, full-frame and Medium Format. The capabilities, quality and end results between these are dramatic. Manufactures have recently added their own classification they call 'pro-sumer' which are really high-end consumer cameras, not quite professional, but definitely better than 'consumer' models. An inexperienced digital artist can destroy a professional digital image so it ends up looking like an inferior consumer image. In the film age image capture was half the battle, in today's digital age image capture is only one-third. It takes a lot of skill, training and experience to be able to produce truly professional images digitally.

Today less emphasis is on megapixels and more is on sensor size or megapixels per cm. The larger the sensor, the larger the pixels, the less pixels per cm the greater the detail captured. Today digital sensor sizes are compared to film sizes: Medium Format, 35mm Full Frame, Half-Frame, APS size and smaller. Some consumer cameras have sensors aprox 1/8th inch in size but claim 7-8 megapixel capacity. The small sensor with so many pixels crammed on it will be very sensitive to heat issues, noise, fuzzy detail and poor color reproduction.

Your typical consumer digital camera is only capable of capturing 256 possible color tonal values per pixel, so if the green-blue color you are viewing isn't one of the available values it will 'default' to the closest color. Professional DSLR cameras can capture up to 4,096 tones (16x improvement) so the colors and tonal range will look much better and reproduce more accurately. Our top-of-the-line commercial Medium Format Digital camera can capture 65,536 possible tonal values per pixel (256x improvement).You will see the difference when you view our work. (also see: 35mm vs Medium Format)

There is nothing quite like good old-fashioned film because it has a unique depth, latitude and grain different than digitally captured images. There is nothing so instantaneous as digital capture with all the freedom and control in the hands of the original artist. If we shoot film we scan the negatives so we can offer all the advantages of digital. Digital has a lot of appeal to our impatience. We have been '100% digital' in our studio for modeling and commercial commissions since the year 2000. Improperly developed digitally captured images can have harsh highlights or strange colors such as orange skin or a blue wedding dress or purple fringing near the edges of the photograph.

We use up to 5 digital cameras at events (12mp - 32mp) both digital and film options are available to us. We currently don't feel the need to convince anyone that one is 'better' than the other. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. We keep up with the trends and embrace and apply the proven technology that improves, without compromise, the quality we offer our customers.

With today's professional digital cameras and properly applied post-capture development settings, enhancements and re-mastering the finished digital product (when done properly) can look much better than the best film had to offer five years ago. Whether we use digital or film at a wedding or event doesn't mean our clients are getting any more or less service or capabilities from us. In fact, in many cases, the opposite is actually true. If we shoot some film at your wedding we will create a high-resolution scan of that film and use those files for your website, CD, digital album and special effects, etc. We use the digital files where appropriate.

Just as a painter of fine art will carefully chose which tool to use to place pigment on his canvas so also must the photographer chose his tools based on his desired outcome. The right choices, exceptionally applied, produce the masterpiece. This year there will be better digital cameras on the market that out perform film quality, selling at lower prices than last year. New cameras bring new issues and new problems, some unknown for several months after purchase. The camera doesn't make the photographer, but you can't be a photographer without a camera!

Choices, Choices and more Choices

Should we use film or digital capture? JPEG or RAW? At what exposure settings? Type of lens? Use natural lighting, ambient lights or flash? What types and color temperature of lighting? What type and speed of film? Negative scanning? Type of camera? Machine printed or manual printing or digital printing? Post-capture manipulations? What lens focal length? Apperture? Zoom or Prime? Done manually or digitally? Automatically batch processed or color-corrected individually. Manual or automatic exposure at what aperature? All of these decisions will determine and have an influence on what the final outcome will be and these choices help create each photographers individual style.

Look at the final results to determine what works for you. If you can see a noticable difference between a digitally captured print and a film print (typically on enlargements) then something isn't right with the process. Internet files are typically small so the quality issues aren't seen until you get into hard-copy prints. The way we process our film and digital files is a lot more work than most photographers do. You can view both digital and film captured images on our website and in our studio and you won't be able to guess which is which. Two artists with the exact same 'tools' will create completely different works.

Advantages? or just Conveniences?

Just remember that everyone is going to try to sell you on the 'advantages' of what they have to offer, many of the new 'advantages' are often only conveniences to the photographer and too often don't translate into any real benefit to you the customer. (In some cases they actually add risk to the process.) To minimize the loss of digital images we make multiple copies on multiple types of media. By the time the lab is printing your images we will have at least 4 copies of each image on 3 different medias. Ever have a memory card with 300 images on it go bad? (Similar to a computer's hard drive crash... devistating!) Or worse yet, get lost? What has been done for years 'manually' is now only beginning to be able to be done 'digitally'. Don't believe the hype.

I do a lot of my own digital retouching and inhouse printing. But I don't have an interest in becoming a mass-production, inhouse image processing lab. (I do a little old-fashioned darkroom dabling for fun now and then, but don't make a habit of it!)

Hype vs Reality

The hype about 'digital' has been recently replaced with some of the realities: Most 'consumer' digital cameras have a tendency to overexpose highlights (which could result in the loss of detail in a white wedding dress). Digital capture reacts differently to light than film. Some digital cameras have an enlargement factor of 1.5x which makes wide-angle photography difficult. Consumer digital cameras are slow to respond and many do a poor job in low-light situations. Lighting and exposure problems in consumer digital cameras often effect sunset photos, reception candids and images that have fine patterns.

Shooting a professional digital camera to achieve professional results is different than shooting film. Because the majority of the process (pre- and post- processing) is in the hands of the photographer there is a lot that can go wrong.

Recently a '100% digital' photographer covered a wedding with a new camera and didn't realize she had it set on the 'preview only' setting (this setting shows the images on the little screen on the back of the camera but doesn't record them to the storage media) when all was said and done she only had 3 images from the whole wedding. We circumvent such problems by using 2 photographers and several cameras so if there was a major problem you would only lose an inconsequential number of images.

Professional digital cameras with changeable lenses create a unique problem, if a bit of dust or dirt enters the camera during a lens change that dirt will create a void in all future images until such time as the image sensor is cleaned. This was seldom a problem with film cameras because the movement of the film would also move the dust or dirt. Digital sensors can develop 'dead pixels' which lose their ability to sense light. Thank goodness today's professional camera manufacturers have developed systems to combat these problems.

Film scans are subject to dust spots, newton rings and other aberations requireing extra handling. A major advantage to digital is the photographer can 'change film speed' without having to 'change the roll of film'.

Professional digital cameras today seem to have a shorter life span than the old film cameras. Computer chips, digital sensors, sensitive electronics, etc. go bad and sometimes can't be fixed. A professional photographer friend of mine has a professional digital camera less than 2-years old that has malfunctioned and even the manufacture can't figure out what is wrong with it... their suggestion? buy another one! This will dramatically add to the total true cost of digital photography. What may be saved in 'film' costs will more than be replaced with 'equipment' costs.

Your Style / My Style

For my style of wedding photography we have both film and digital cameras and use the appropriate one for the job to insure we get the best quality possible. We use 2 photographers and up to 5 different cameras so no matter what happens, we will be able to get your event covered properly.

See also: Digital Photographer Photography Information

Here are some misconceptions regarding digital, along with a few and my responses:

Dr. Rand, of the Brooks Institute of Photography, made another interesting observation regarding digital camera sensors in his Rangefinder April 2003 article he said. "Sensors are manufactured with sizeable amount of surface dedicated to the electronics needed to make the sensor function. These non-active areas provide no information for image formation. Today (2003) the fill factor for many professional sensors is about 60%. The detail from areas not covered by active areas must be ignored, combined or interpolated. film still provides better detail."

In the Sept. 2004 issue of Shutterbug magazine Paul Mozell did a comparison of "Digital Files Vs. Scanned Medium Format Film" and said, "...the film showed slightly better highlight and shadow detail...Enlarged sections of each file also give the edge to the film in apparent sharpness....For my money, film, enlargers, and chemistry still make the most pleasing images...If you need big files to make 20x30" fine art prints or because your Art Director is bound to crop your files, then stick with 120 (medium format) film for now."

2009 update: the film proponents still use the argument that a piece of film has 80 million light sensors (grains of silver) so digital will equal film when we make an 80 mega-pixel camera (there are 65 mega-pixel cameras on the market today and we have made the equivalent of 120 mega-pixel images) but then the question arises so why does prints from digital files look better than prints from film files and the answer is in the computer technology and post-processing software that improves the digital files so they visually surpass the images from film.

The technical side of the photographer often gravitates towards the 'gizmos'... a great artist doesn't trip up (or out) on the tools or the process, but keeps focused on the creation of the masterpiece. Let me know if you have any additional 'digital' questions.

* One manufacture published that a certain paper in combination with their ink-jet ink would last 25 years, based on these tests, they later had to retract their statement when the prints began fading within 6 months.

(Some information for this section was gathered from the textbook PHOTOGRAPHY seventh edition published by Prentice Hall 2002 -

*Click on logo to download Kodak's booklet about photographic print longevity.


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Dan Harris PhotoArt, LLC

(904) 398-7668
1124 Riviera Street Jacksonville FL 32207