Digital vs. Film Cameras Compared


Here are the first images comparing an Olympus E420 digital camera (10MP) and the standard zoom lens, to a Nikon FM3a film camera (loaded with 400ASA film) and the compact 45mm f2.8 lens (Fuji 400H negative film scanned on an amateur Epson F-3200 film scanner). One advantage of a digital camera is that the images are available for inspection quickly (as soon as I got home and put them on my computer). The camera's viewfinder image and LED screen are minimally useful in the field. Viewing the histogram would be more useful before leaving the location, but I was using a friend's camera and she didn't know how to display the histogram and didn't bring the instructions. Since both lenses are probably corrected for focusing on distant subjects, I chose a scene with shadows and sky to see if the dynamic range of the digital camera was similar to the film image.

Both cameras were tripod-mounted. No corrections were needed for color or levels in the digital camera images, but there was some softness in the digital camera images that I corrected with PhotoShop's Unsharp Mask tool (Amount: 300%, Radius: 1, Threshold: 30.). As you can see from the first image here the shadows are OK, but the sky and trees in direct sunlight are burned out and could not be salvaged by adjusting the Curves. In the second image the sky was overcast so there wasn't excessive contrast in the scene, and the image looks fine.

In the film image below the sky and trees in direct sunlight have preserved tones and detail. The shadows look natural, with a slight dominant of red in both the shadows and the dappled sunlight on the path. I experimented with increasing the color saturation to match the Olympus image, but the straight scan here of the film negative looks fine the way it is. (Same sharpening as the digital camera image, plus levels adjustment.)

The statue below was also photographed with the Nikkor 45mm f2.8, a compact 4-element lens that isn’t the best Nikon offers. Again, the blue in the sky is preserved, and although the shadows are less saturated than the Olympus they look more natural.

Here's another comparison: a Nikon FM3a film camera and Micro Nikkor 105mm f2.8 lens loaded with Fuji Velvia 100 slide film vs. a Nikon D-60 digital camera with Nikkor 45mm f2.8P lens. The subject was too high in contrast for either camera to handle. The digital image has saturated colors in the shadows, but highlights are blown (burned to texture-less white). The slide preserved highlight detail a little better, but with a loss of tone in the green leaves in shadow. The original slide looks much better than the amateur scan reproduced here, but it's possible that underexposing the digital image would have preserved the highlights without losing tone in the shadows. More comparisons to follow!


You are welcome to contribute your own comments or pictures (film or digital), preferably with detailed information on how they were made. Email We will also test different films and compare “old” lenses and other used equipment and materials to new digital products without bias, as well as reinforce basic photographic technique that’s useful no matter what technology you use.