Digital or Film?           

"Dollar for dollar no other capture device can match the information density of film"

"They record so much information that several [digital cameras] are in fact superior to film"

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is John Lacy,
a commercial photographer
based in the
metro Detroit area.

We produce high quality photography mostly for business to business marketing.

Our principal markets are the construction industry and the automotive manufacturing industry. A significant portion of our work is also divided among the hospitality industry (hotels, resorts, casinos & restaurants)

Our specialties include

>> Architectural
(interior & exteriors),
(interiors & exteriors,
studio & location),
shooting manufacturing facilities & equipment.
>> Environmental & Studio
Executive Portraiture
for Editorial, Annual Report and similar,
Studio Product
including electronics, glass, plastic, package goods & food.

In addition to photography we also offer
>> Digital Retouching
>> Large Format Printing
>>Graphic Design & Offset Printing for brochures, catalogs and promotional materials and
Website Design & Hosting.

We've been in business since 1987


The future is finally upon us and we have gone "All Digital." For those that prefer film for what ever reason we still retain all of our film capabilities too. The articles below, with updates illustrate the transition to today's all digital photography and may be of interest to you to read. To see the precise differences between film and digital both pro and con please follow this new link, which may help you understand and decide what is best for your job;
PROS & CONS Digital versus Film point by point

This article below was written in 1999, please also see periodic updates at the bottom. The most recent is a long detailed reply to a short question (04/07):

Last year [1998] I lost a job because the first and last question a printer's rep asked me was "do you have a digital camera?" In that case his client had instructed him to find a photographer with a digital camera and there was no way of reasoning past that. At that time we had no digital cameras. This may seem strange since over 95% of what I shoot becomes digital once I scan it, manipulate and tweak it on the computer and output it to a digital printer, film-writer, inkjet or press ready file. Why don't I have a digital camera?
The digital revolution is upon us and I have fully embraced the convergence of the technologies that this has allowed. You may have noticed from this site the diversity of products and services we offer, all because of this convergence. It not a far step to create a web site, layout an ad or brochure or even make a video once the elements are scanned and accessible to the tools a computer offers and combined with some sound design principles. But only recently have I entertained the idea of obtaining a digital camera. Here is why.
Dollar for dollar no other capture device can match the information density of film. Film is cheap. And it is ideal for "data acquisition". This is because I can shoot a subject from a variety of view points and at a later date determine which was the most ideal composition and exposure for a given purpose. You may argue that you can do the same with a digital camera and here is where the truth comes out. A digital camera which is fast enough the capture and store multiple images will offer such a low density of information i.e. file size, resolution, detail, etc. that it is very limited in what it can do. Images cannot afford to be cropped and can only be used within very limited size restrictions. Additionally the images from these cameras suffers from compressed contrast, that is the shadows are darker and the highlights are lighter than film or your eye can detect, much like a video camera.
Now cameras are available which overcome this limitation. They record so much information that several are in fact superior to film. Yes, amazing as that sounds, they actually can record more information and produce larger higher resolutions than most any film. But the current trade off is that they are relatively large, need to be directly connected to a computer, are somewhat slow as they must save all of this information and here's the killer, they cost tens of thousands of dollars. There are sound applications for these devices, but not within my client base. Even worse, their prices are only going down, but not fast enough. It's the old paradox, it's cheaper if you can afford to wait. Don't buy a computer now, wait ten years, they'll be way faster and way cheaper then they are now.

Soon the prices on this level of digital camera will fall into a sensible range. In the meantime the quality of the consumer and "prosumer" products is quickly reaching up to meet them. Film will indeed be around for a few more years. At this time it is still the best value I can offer my clients.

I recently read where a photographer for a newsmagazine had an assistant dig through thousands of old slides to find a shot of President Clinton greeting a now well known intern in the audience of an event. Turns out he was the only shooter able to retrieve the shot from a long forgotten event even though there were many other photographers covering the appearance. Apparently the other photographers had long since cleared the  memory on their digital cameras and erased the unwanted files from their hard drives not knowing what they had.

We back up on to CD-R all of our scans and digital files, but even more economical is my file system which contains all of the film from the jobs that I've shot in the last 12+ years. Give me a job number or date and I'll find the shot in 2minutes or less.

Last year we did invest in a digital video system and upgraded our workstations to edit the results. This camera also shoots digital stills and so I now have a digital camera. This year we purchased a high-end film scanner so we can bring our scans in-house.  The new scanner produces nearly 100Mb files from the medium format film we use on most jobs. This results in higher quality and lower prices for our clients. I will likely buy a high-end "prosumer" digital camera this coming year as well. The benefit will most likely fit shots for planning shoots, comps, and product shots that we know are going to be used on a smaller scale. So we, like many imaging professionals are in a state of transition, where various issues and concerns must be weighed. In the end we will use what offers the best value and highest quality to best suit our clients needs.

More important than deciding whether you are for or against digital cameras is to recognize where they currently fit best in the process. From there it will be a slow but steady migration to an all digital world. But don't give up on film just yet.

Follow-up 2/01- Since I wrote this we bought a quality consumer level camera in addition to a digital video camera. The resolution on the digital camera is good, producing a 9mb file, but the quality is still more like video in regard to color, contrast, etc., than film. We have also talked to quite a few people who have found it difficult to make quality prints from these types of cameras. Most film labs don't offer these services yet, or if they do it's only for certain camera types or is on the high end like a pro-lab.

Not satisfied with the limitation of making inkjet prints (no matter how good they look, they are still inkjet on paper) we bought a Fuji Pictrography which uses lasers to produce photographic results on photographic paper and is indistinguishable from a pro-lab made print 
(I actually bought the machine from a pro-lab).
  We now produce quality digital prints in our office from film we scan or from digital files.

Our newest scanner produces scans at up to 4000dpi optical resolution. This yields a scan of several hundred megabytes. Verses a digital camera which typically produces an image which is between 5-50Mb and introduces additional issues such as "noise", shooting lag, and storage issues. Think of a 20Mb file verses a 200Mb file or a 6-11 mega-Pixel system compared to the equivalent of an 80 mega-Pixel after scan.

We are still looking at pro-level digital backs for our existing camera systems (Hasselblad), but are still unsatisfied with the bulk and expense of the equipment when compared to film. Most of these units only record the center area of the image, increasing the focal length of the lens. This means that we cannot shoot wide angle subjects such as architecture without loosing part of the view. However advances continue to be made and we are constantly watching the market for new products. It is inevitable that we will stop using film in the future. The only question is when. I predict less than 10 years, but not for at least 5 more years. Time will tell. In the meantime we will continue to use a combination of technologies such produce the best results and overall value for our clients.

Follow-up 11/02- The future is here! We have invested in our first digital camera system which meets my minimum standard. To learn more about this system, how it will fit in with our traditional camera systems and our planned transition to an all digital studio.

Follow-up 12/04
- We have upgraded our digital system to a level that can truly compete with film. The new state-of-the-art Canon 1Ds Mark II is 16.7 MegaPixel and utilizes a full frame CMOS sensor with Canon's newest image processor. In combination with their finest lenses images produced by this system rival images scanned from medium format film due to the low noise (grain) produced by the combination of this sensor and processor. For the time being we will continue to offer both digital and film as each best suits our client's needs.

Follow-up 04/07- We received an email asking our opinion about making very large murals from digital files. Here is the question and the reply;

Re: 1Ds Mark II and Mural question
Hi John,
Great work.  Question for you... your 1Ds Mark II is creating a 40x80 mural image,  how is the resolution from say 3 feet away? Is the 1Ds that good of a camera vs. a film camera.  Thanks for your input.


Thanks for your compliment. In response to your question; it all depends on what you are trying to do. "As good" is too simple in that you can buy a car for $15K or $150K. Is the more expensive one better because it costs more? Maybe not for towing, or gas mileage or a host of other things. The cost of the best digital systems are quite a bit more than film cameras. The 1Ds MkII cost about $8000 when it came out and requires Canon's best lenses to realize it's full potential. A film camera only needs to allow you to change it's settings, be somewhat durable and function reliably and as such can be much cheaper to buy, but it also requires film and film must be processed. Did you get the shot? Have to wait and see, that's if the lab doesn't damage the image. So the question is more complicated than it may first appear.
Making a 40x80 mural that appears photographic, whether from film or digital involves a number of things. One of my printers outputs at only 80dpi (Kodak DS1000, which is a rebadged postscript HP755CM), yet appears photographic at about 18", that is you don't see the dots. I've sold literally hundreds of 30x40 murals produced on this printer as well as many other sizes, as small as 20x24 and as large as 36x96. A higher resolution digital printer produces a more detailed print, especially when compared with this 80dpi model side by side. The 40x80 may not be a single photo but may incorporate several photos plus graphics, text and the like, making the resolution of any single image less important. A stark, graphic image may appear sharper than a highly textural, detailed subject (imagine a sunset backlighting a landscape vs. shots of flowers lit in midday for example). And as you suggest the viewing distance is also a factor. Do you know how low resolution most billboards are? Where the image displayed is a factor in that you can't walk up to most billboards, but you might get close to a floor the ceiling image displayed at the airport for example.

The 2500dpi printer I currently use (HP130nr) outputs files typically that originate at 300-400ppi (pixels per inch) and they look as photographic as any chemical process print. That printer uses 6 color inks. The 80dpi uses only 4. I have just ordered a new 44" 12 color printer (HP Z3100) which also outputs at 2500dpi (1200x2500 actually). Once I have it I will do tests of various images at differing resolutions to see what degradation occurs as I drop the resolution (or artificially bump it up) for a variety of subjects including black and white.
To compare digital to film you should consider several factors as well. MegaPixels is just part of the equation to digital just as the type of film shot is as important as the format. Different sensors differ in the results they produce. Factors here include the sensor size, photo imaging sites (the pixels in megapixels) as well as their position and spacing relative to each other. Even how the file is filtered and processed within the camera is important. Then consider the quality and resolving power of the lenses used (also the enlarging lens if the print from film is not digital). For a digital print made from film the scan is also very important.
At this point in the art my conclusions are that a quality sensor in a professional grade digital camera system using the best lenses exceeds the quality of 35mm film (including Kodachrome) at around 8MP (MegaPixel) systems. My Canon 1Ds Mk II is superior in my opinion to the medium format (120/6x6cm) images I was producing with my Hasselblad system on 100 ISO negative film and scanning with a Nikon Super Coolscan 800ED (4000dpi). Would a transparency film scanned by a quality drum scanner compare to the Canon? Probably, but another factor for me is that I do not need to buy, test, store, protect from heat, process, scan and store processed film. Nor do I have to invest the expense as well as the time in driving back and forth to labs for film processing nor scans (I have 4 scanners in-house), nor prints for that matter (I will have my 6th onsite print shortly).
Are current digital systems comparable to 4x5 or possibly 8x10 size film? I have access to a 39MP digital back that I can use on my Hassy or 4x5 kit. It is said to be superior in resolution to what you can do with most 4x5 films. I have even seen a huge digital camera that shoots something like 1000MP (GigaPixel)!, but the type of work I do for what my clients pay me cannot justify the additional expense or trouble of even the 39MP system. If I were working for a big agency on a big account with lots of people looking of my shoulder all too happy for the process to be more complicated and more expensive then perhaps, but that's not what I do right now.
I shoot industrial and architecture plus a little food, product and some executive portraits. I moved away from 4x5 to medium format because I could produce more decent shots faster and cheaper, knowing that I would be able to scan the film and correct perspective in Photoshop. I used primarily medium format, scanning my own film since Kodak introduced the 72Mb ProPhoto CD scan for around $20. Then I bought a tray mounted 2500dpi flatbed scanner for around $5000, which lead to the Nikon scanner that I paid around $3000 for. This all started in the early '90s when the scanning technology was far ahead of the digital camera technology.
I bought my 1Ds MkII as soon as it was available. It was the first camera I felt produced an image of suitable quality for me to stop shooting film. Canon is expected to release the next generation of the camera late this year (November?). It's rumored to be around 22MP, smaller and offer a sensor cleaner of some sort. At this point, while I imagine I will likely buy one of these, I don't see the need to get it the first day it's available. Additional resolution is always useful and the sensor cleaner is probably even more useful, but what I'm working with now works fine for what I do. 

The short answer to your question is that I have not yet made a 40x80 from a file from my 1Ds MkII as yet [04/07, waiting to receive and test new Z3100 printer], but I hope to soon. If you're interested I'll let you know how it turns out.
I hope you find my reply complete if long.

Followup 11/07:
Now that I've been using our new Z3100 printer for about 6 months I can report that it has well exceeded my expectations. I have printed a variety of image subjects on Photo Glossy, Photo Matte, Clear Film, Backlit Material & 100% Rag (cotton) Art Paper. The results are stunning. I am able to load small sheets of paper and print as small as a single 5x7 or as large as 44"x96" full bleed! A shot I made of a Porsche 911 Turbo featuring the red brake calipers for Brembo shot with my 16.7mp Canon 1Ds MkII looks spectacular! At any distance the grain/noise is very low, the neutral tones (it's a gray car to make the red brakes pop visually) are absolutely neutral and the color (sky, brakes, logo) are vivid. I am very pleased and am now printing over 95% of my outputs on this printer.

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Written commentary 1999-2007  JOHN LACY
All rights reserved.

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