PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


35mm Film Experiment, Part Two

I had promised to return on this discussion with film images in hand. Well, this weekend I spent 10 hours (!!) in total scanning a pair of 36-exposure rolls.

Here are just a few of the scanned film images, all are ISO-800 and taken with the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8:

As a quick aside, note how the 50mm feels like both a wide and a tele lens. Compositions can go either way with this most versatile of focal lengths (on 35mm, not 24mm). I despise my 24mm digital for its lack of a good 50mm-equiv lens.

For the purpose of capability comparisons, let’s go to a digital image from the same shoot…

…and if you look at the EXIF you might just up and yelp “that’s not fair!” In the digital image I’m using a lower ISO (200 instead of 800) and I have a decently-controlled flash bounce providing ample main light for 1/100 @ f/4. The film images are more like 1/30@f/2.

This said, decently-controlled flash is a capability I have with digital but not with film. When it comes time to pick which to take out of the bag all is fair, I’m not going to give brownie points to either.

Here is an equivalent-pixel comparison, each of these small crops is the same % of the total image (click to see actual pixels):

First note the grain is much finer on digital than film. That’s expected, drawing both from what we saw in the previous digital/film comparison (@ same ISO) and by the fact that the digital ISO is also lower here. Then note that the digital grain is ugly in shadowy areas, this is because the light came from above/rear of the subject and the jacket had to be lightened in software, while shadowy areas in the film image looks just as good as the rest.

My conclusion to this experiment is this:

The overall performance of 24mm digital far surpasses that of 35mm film, but isn’t as well balanced. Film’s dynamic range, although shorter than digital’s, gives you pixels of similar quality from the start of the DR toe, to the end of the DR shoulder. Digital nearly doubles the the dynamic range but only pixels closest (i.e. really close) to the center of the exposure will net you digital’s superior performance.

Inside the same digital image you’ll find more disparate levels of quality than in the equivalent film image. It’s only when you put some effort into controlling the light that digital eclipses film.

So really, how much film will I be shooting in the next year? Hard to say. I will probably choose to keep working on the light-control part and go for that extra resolution, while keeping some film handy for when I can’t.

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  1. “I despise my 24mm digital for its lack of a good 50mm-equiv lens.”

    Hun? APS-C size requires a 32mm and change to be the equivalent field of view of a 50mm. You’ll get differences on depth of field for fixed aperture, but that’s expected from changing the size of the sensor.

    Nikon produces (or at least can produce) a 28-70 f/2.8, although I must admit at a hefty price tag. There’s also a 35mm f/2 for 300$, although I don’t know how good it is. I use pentax and have no idea what the denominations of the good/better/best lenses are for the nikon lines.

    In any case, my point is that there are nikon zooms that go over the 31mm focal length with fixed max aperture at varying prices. If you absolutely want a fixed focal length, then, yes, you’re screwed unless you, like me, buy into pentax, which makes a fixed 31mm lens. (which I haven’t bought for lack of ressources, althgouh their fixed focals are pretty damned good, so I’m tempted.)

    Otherwise, there are plenty of 28mm and 35mm, which are slightly (10%) off, but not that far. Wouldn’t that do? (I’d have to work out how much of a change in field of view a 10% change in focal length amounts to, but I’m too tired to do that right now.)

  2. Thanks for your comment Charles. I hear good things about the 31mm Limited too.

    Let me clarify what I meant a little…

    This is a zero-sum game. When APS-C came out it made 200mm f/2.8 lenses that cost 1000$ behave like 300mm f/2.8 lenses that cost 5000$. Wildlife photographers everywhere rejoiced, as more of them could afford what they could dream about before.

    At the opposite end, APS-C transformed exhilirating fast lenses like 35 f/2 and 50 f/1.4 into boring tools. A 50mm f/2 is nothing special (from 35mm f/2), a 35mm f/2.8 (from 24mm f/2.8) is a total yawner.

    I’m not much of a zoom guy. I own zooms, but I use them only when I have no primes that will do. Zooms are slower, even if you spend big bucks, and while the quality is mostly up to par nowadays you’ll find they “draw” very differently.

    I’m not about to switch systems to Pentax (or other) for one lens, I have too much Nikon gear to flip-flop. I am just holding my breath for the D300-with-FX-sensor product to ship. And then my APS-C gear is going to take on a back-up role only.

    So just to re-iterate: it’s not about perfectly matching FOV or DOF, it’s about (1) raw unadulterated speed and (2) image quality wide-open. There are excellent rangefinder lenses in this space for example.

  3. “This said, decently-controlled flash is a capability I have with digital but not with film.”

    I just want to clarify that while it may not be a capability you currently have due to your personal equipment inventory (maybe you don’t have a flash unit compatible with the TTL on your F80?), decently-controlled flash is a capability of any 35mm film SLR made in the past 15 years.

    Nikon introduced their TTL flash technology with the F3 in 1980, and by 1990 it was mature enough to be well within any reasonable definition of “Decent”.

    Regarding “I despise my 24mm digital for its lack of a good 50mm-equiv lens.”

    You’re correct that Nikon has left a gaping hole in the lens lineup. Where once there was a cornucopia of fast, sharp, quick-focusing prime lenses, now there’s a notable absence of fast-aperture wide and normal primes for the DX format.

    If you’re looking for a good normal lens, though, Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4 EX DC HSM is a solid option. DX format only, HSM motor, fast aperture, and better-than-the-usual Sigma build quality. I love it for available-light shooting…one of my mainstay lenses.

    Sadly, I think Nikon’s introduction of the full-frame D3 spells an end to any temporary hope we DX shooters might have held of Nikon-branded DX primes appearing in the lens lineup. I expect the corporate vision now will be “If you want primes, get an FX camera.”

  4. Thanks for the comment Jonanthan.

    As a matter of fact my (several) SB600 units do TTL just fine on the F80. TTL flash control is great for fill-in light (with FC -0.7 or more) against strong back-lighting or high-contrast light (outdoors) but isn’t so great as the main light in cases other than a simple ceiling bounce (and certainly should never be used as main light without bounce). That’s the old definition of decent.

    Nowadays I can create complex light using multiple SB600s and the Creative Lighting System, either in wireless-TTL or just simple wireless-manual. I actually use the latter most often, both to remove the shot-to-shot variability of TTL metering and to achieve results a TTL meter can’t (such as separation lights)(see I’ll often use the CLS with just one SB600 just to get it off the camera and improve the quality instantly as a result. That’s my new definition of decent.

    The F80 can’t do wireless-anything without a lot more gear (which pros did have in the 1990s) and using the F80 well in manual flash requires a flash meter. I could get all this extra gear but at that point it’s above my inconvenience threshold. I still sometimes use film for romantic reasons only.

    I considered the Sigma 30mm DC you mention but test reports aren’t unanimously favorable. What I read so far is that it performs really well in the center but the borders are never really good. I’m just about to try the Sigma 28mm f/1.8 EX instead (a full-frame lens), I’ll make a post about it when I have it.

    I agree with your assesment of the situation surrounding FX and DX. That’s how I read it too.

  5. Sorry for the typo in your name Jonathan.

  6. Hi,
    We met at Jerold and Lisa’s xmas party a year go – I’m with Jered from work. Anyway, he mentioned that you were trying out black and white film, which is one of my passions. I thought I’d chime in.

    I have to say, I think the grain you’re getting in the film seems exaggerated. I find ISO 400 to be more than sensitive for most occasions, including extremely dark rooms. The big factor here is what film you were using. My bread and butter is Ilford HP5. However, if I want something fine grained, I can go with FP4 or Delta 100. Second to the film is development. I can rate HP5 anywhere from 200 to well over 1000. If I know the light was diffuse, I might increase agitation 20%. If I accidentally meter at 800 – I’d just push the film a few more minutes. All of this, including the type and dilution of developer changes the grain structure. I feel that, when well controlled, a lot of these films have better latitude than digital at the moment. “expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.”

    Mind you, I’m biased by the 6×6 and 6×7 formats.

    Here is a medium grained b+w scan on a cheap scanner:

    And Ektachrome 160t 6×7:


  7. Hey Justin, I remember you. I get occasional news about your medium-format shoots.

    I shoot either Ilford Delta 400 or Fuji color slides. In 135 small-format.

    I don’t think the grain is exagerated, I think we’re shooting very different film formats rather. At the same image viewing size & distance medium-format enlarges grain half as much as small-format does. A larger capture area has always been a/the dominant factor on accutance, with film and still today now with digital. Larger formats need less enlargement _and_ put less pressure on lenses for the same sharpness, it’s a win-win scenario for quality.

    If this were 20 years ago I’d follow you into medium-format territory. But as I said in another comment, there’s a convenience threshold for me that will keep me on small-format. Small-format extends to 36x24mm of course, FX or full-sized, to which I look for the future.

    Since writing the other comments I’ve changed my main lens twice, first to the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 which I returned, and then to a Zeiss Distagon 35/2. Both are great lenses, but only the latter deserves to be call superb – a masterpiece of optical design surpassing all the Nikon lenses I’ve seen (though I hear good things about the 14-24 and 24-70).

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