Digital, Film, Photography

35mm film vs. 24mp FF sensor (F100 vs D600)

I had the chance to used a Nikon F100 alongside a D600 for a couple of days and produce this F100 vs. D600 comparison. This was back in the depths of the British Winter (it’s taken that long to finish the roll and get it developed). During the period I had the camera, the weather was pretty bad (overcast) but I did manage to find a nice evening where the light was a bit better, and found a Christmas tree in my sitting room to snap.

Resolution

To compare film with modern digital SLRs from the likes of Nikon, you really need to look at 645 Medium Format as a minimum to get the resolution and clarity when scanning. We all know megapixels means nothing, it is the size of the sensor which matters, or in this case the size of the grain.

Clearly the fineness of film grain depends on the film stock chosen and how it is processed, but a standard ISO400 professional film in 35mm gets thrashed by an equivalent full frame digital sensor like the 24MP sensor found on the Nikon D600. Scanning is not ideal either, as the scanner although optimised to scan film, still doesn’t work as well as a digital sensor in capturing information.

Sensor-tivity

Digital sensors are also more sensitive than film, and therefore work better in low light conditions and in the shadows. An equivalent film stock needs a minimum amount of exposure to provide detail in the negative. One the negative is developed, you can’t extract more detail from it than was captured in the original exposure. So if there is nothing there, you are stuffed.

The following example in the woods proves that point perfectly. In this exposure I used a Nikon F100 and a Nikon D600 with the Nikkor 28-105mm at the same aperture on each. The film stock was Fuji Pro400H, and the D600 was also shooting at ISO 400. In both bases the camera’s matrix metering was allowed to expose the image as it saw fit.

For each set of photos, the first pair are out of camera Jpeg and the 35mm film negative as scanned by the laboratory.

The second set I have tweaked the RAW file and Scan in Lightroom 5 to produce what I would consider a better image, so you can see what is possible from the starting point of both a digital (RAW) file and film scan (Jpeg).

1. Backlit Scene at Sundown

Jpeg (OOC) vs Noritsu Scanned Negative (Hi-Res): (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)
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Notes: Both film and digital cameras were pointed into the woods. The sun was behind the tree but low enough in the sky to dominate the scene. The frame was exposed using the Nikon matrix metering mode to determine shutter speed. There’s an argument that a semi professional camera like the F100 would tend to underexpose such a shot, as it would be designed for journalists who would use a speedlight flash, but anyway.

The original exposures (JPEG OOC and Noritsu High Resolution Scan of the negative) look about the same to me exposure wise, there is clearly more definition in the 24MP sensor than a scanned IOS400 film. The Jpeg has blacker blacks and the film the typical underexposed base film fog look.

Optimised DNG file Vs Optimised Scanned Neg: (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)
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Notes: Take the DNG or JPEG out of the D600 and lift the shadows in Post Processing in Adobe Lightroom 5, the digital exposure reveals a great deal of information which was lurking in the shadows. I could have gone further in the photo above but didn’t want to make it an unnatural looking picture. The D600 does an amazing job in low light conditions, pulling s much detail out of the shadows.

Try the same trick with the film image and not surprisingly it doesn’t work very well, although my poor technique won’t have helped. With hindsight, the film really should have been over +2 overcompensated in such a backlit scenario; I have looked at the negative, and there’s hardly anything on it. If there’s nothing on the negative, the scanner won’t pick it up, and no amount of post production tweaking will bring out any detail if it wasn’t originally captured by the negative.

The old adage: Overexpose for shadows with film, and expose for the highlights is true in this case.

2. Across the Sun at Sundown

Jpeg (OOC) vs Noritsu Scanned Negative (Hi-Res): (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)

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Notes: The two photos are similar, though I prefer the colours in the film exposure, the D600 Jpeg browns look a bit too ‘rusty’ on the path. D600 kills the film exposure on detail however.

Tweaked Raw file Vs Tweaked Scan: (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)

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Notes: Optimising both images in Lightroom 5 produces two very nice images, which are as close to as I saw the scene. The film image, as always, requires less tweaking in the colour department, but I would call this one a tie on looks.

3. Indoors, High Contrast Scene

Jpeg (OOC) vs Noritsu Scanned Negative (Hi-Res): (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)
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Notes: The digital image is cleaner, no grain and although elements are blurred which aren’t in the film image, that is a function of where the camera auto-focussed. Again, I think I prefer the warmer, ‘creamier’ colours of the film exposure to the digital picture which to me at least looks colder

Tweaked Raw file Vs Tweaked Scan: (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)

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Notes: Lifting the shadows and dropping the highlights on both and tweaking the contrast reveals two very detailed shots. The film image is not as detailed as the digital one, but I still prefer the colours.

With an aftermarket effects package such as Totallyrad, I’m sure you could make the digital image look nicer. I would say both cameras, and both media forms handle the scene and the lighting well.

4. Outdoors Frontlit

Jpeg (OOC) vs Noritsu Scanned Negative (Hi-Res): (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)

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Notes: The sun was setting in this photo and there was a reasonable amount of contrast in the shot. The film image handles the highlight better, but that is probably because it was slightly underexposed compared to the digital shot. It’s also reassuring to know that matrix metering has moved on in the last 15 years. Film image has the base fog which detracts from the photo somewhat, the digital image looks better out of the camera.

Tweaked Raw file Vs Tweaked Scan: (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)

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Notes: with a little bit of tweaking, and lowering the blacks, both images are improved. The D600 RAW file requires minimal tweaking, as it is already very good. The film image handles the highlights through the trees better than the digital image, but the D600 wins on detail providing a wonderful depth of the image, the film image looking somewhat flat. With a decent lens (I admit the 28-105mm is a reasonable carry round lens, but I wanted to give you an idea of how they perform with average equipment)

5. Indoor with Mixed Lighting

Jpeg (OOC) vs Noritsu Scanned Negative (Hi-Res): (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)

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Notes: Film doesn’t do great in the dark, the underexposed film looks foggy. For very long exposures film may have the edge over digital sensors purely down to noise, but a fine grained film is required to get the detail. What is evident in this example is how well film handles mixed lighting, whereas the digital sensor struggles. The D600 can deal with either LED or natural dusk light, but not both. The light coming in through the window ends up looking a strange blue colour. By contrast the film image handles the mixed lighting perfectly.

The digital camera has underexposed the digital shot, whereas the film camera has done a better, albeit grainier job. I like the film exposure, but wish the grain was smaller. It might look better as a black and white picture, or a cross processed slide film (see below):

Tweaked Raw file Vs Tweaked: (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)

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Notes: After the Lightroom tweak, both images look similar and very pleasing. I prefer the colours of the film shot, but would like less grain and less noise. Somewhere half way between the D600 and F100 would be my ideal situation.

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6. Indoor Low Light (Christmas card shot)

Jpeg (OOC) vs Noritsu Scanned Negative (Hi-Res): (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)

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Notes: The original digital file is in my opinion too dark, the film image has too much fog. Of the two I prefer the clean tones of the digital image.

Tweaked Raw file Vs Tweaked: (Hover mouse over image to see the Scanned Negative)

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Notes: On tweaking, the difference netween the images is far less. The film image to produce a pleasing black level loses some detail in the shadow. For this shot the Nikkor 50mm f1.8G was used, which as you can see produces beautiful bokeh on both cameras. The D600 wins out on detail, whereas the F100 and Fuji Pro400H film doesn’t have the definition to compete. Having said that it produced a good quality image.

Conclusions:

The D600 really shines in dark conditions. To my eye at least, a film image still looks more pleasing in most of the images, but it does exhibit significant grain at 35mm format, and is not really suitable for enlargements. Also when the negative is scanned, a murky foggy layer is apparent on the negative which detracts from the image, in our clean digital world, it makes it looks old.

The digital negative is much cleaner and more easily manipulated, the sensor is supremely detailed, and the dynamic range of the sensor is heading towards film territory. If you shoot in Raw, you can exceed the film’s dynamic range in post processing. The old black and white film photographers like Ansel Adams would expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights, the idea being that you can dodge and burn later, but if your negative holds no information, you can never add to nothing.

As a film camera, the F100 will still produce nice photos, but it shines in sunny conditions, where the film gets exposed properly, and in this scenario, I still think it bats digital into the ground.

But (and this is a big but), if you are thinking about using film in the UK in the winter, unless you are shooting a fast box speed black & white film, you’re much better off with a digital camera, it provides cleaner files which are easier to manipulate.

Having been somewhat sceptical about how good the D600 might be, I was actually bowled over by how good it was. I could pretty much pick the thing up and shoot straight away, having got used to shooting the F100. It needs skill to shoot it well, but it delivers a very high quality image and should still be considered a formidable weapon in photography terms, doing pretty much anything you want it to.

The cost of film is worth taking into account. It may look nice, but film is not cheap. To develop 36 exposures with high def scans (which I would question whether they are worth it, medium should be fine) and a set of prints cost me £20. That’s about 80p a shot including initial film cost. Of course, the film is what you are paying for, and if they produce new film stocks (which is not totally unreasonable to expect) your trusty old F100 will get a new lease of life. But expose and develop 50 rolls of film and you’ve spent yourself a thousand pounds. As I said, not cheap.

I’m looking forward to the summer when the light works a bit better so I can get out and shoot both again to see what they look like in the bright sunshine. Watch this space!

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3 thoughts on “35mm film vs. 24mp FF sensor (F100 vs D600)

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