Film Hangs Tough

By ralph

The manufacturers of all things digital have been loudly banging the drums for many years now, claiming that “film is dead”. Since it still seems to be a pretty lively corpse, lets take a look at some of the reasons why it keeps hanging on. The most obvious is what economists sometimes call “installed base”. All that great equipment and those great lenses that so many photographers have invested in, are standing by ready to crank out quality images. Just pop in a five buck roll of film and off you go.

A few years ago I backed up some slides by shooting a color negative in a 1960s rangefinder camera that I found in a flea market for $25. Later on I made a sharp and dazzling 16x20 print from that negative. The point of this is that with film the level of quality is pretty much a function of the size of the image, (35mm in this case), rather than the price tag on the camera. Higher prices may buy more features, ruggedness, ease of use and system accessories but when you look at just the resulting image on the film, differences are very slight. While my $25 bargain was a bit of a fluke, there are many good used camera buys for the cash strapped, in the $100 to $250 range, that will make top quality images.

Size also matters with digital cameras but their image size is defined in megapixels, the more the merrier. Rather than coming in fixed sizes, digicams are offered on a sliding scale of increasing pixels at increasing prices. Happily those prices have slid downhill a lot in the last ten years but you still pay a whole lot more than for a film camera to get a comparable level of image detail. Six megapixels has long been thought to be the point where digital and film become fairly equal and several manufacturers finally got there in this last year (after many small steps). Better still, they are priced in the low $2000 range, less than a tenth what the sole offering, the Kodak DCS-460, cost a decade earlier (would you believe $28,000).

Lets say you’re at the auto races and you see a car heading into a disastrous spin. You snatch up your film camera, start firing away and hold your finger down on the drive, snapping off a roll of film as the car tumbles and flips in the air. Now let’s do that same scenario with one of the lesser consumer-level digital cameras. ----You’re at the auto races and you see a car heading into a disastrous spin, you snatch your high tech marvel and jam your finger on the button and --- umm --- like a computer it takes a few seconds to boot up and get ready to shoot. Whoops, the action’s over. Oh heck, lets be generous and say you’ve been using the camera enough to keep it out of “sleep mode”, so you jam your finger on the button and (with a slight pause) you get a few clicks and then the camera slows to a crawl while the buffer slowly writes the images to memory. Okay not every digital camera is this pokey. Still, fast firing is a premium priced feature. It takes heavy duty electronics to process images rapidly and even so the “pro” fast-firing cameras like the Nikon D1h and the Kodak DCS 720 usually drop back to a less than maximum “image size” in order to speed things up. They shoot a burst of about 12 to 40 frames, but with each image around 2 to 2.5 megapixels. The Canon D1x is outstanding for action photography since it puts out a 4 Mp image at the rate of 8 per second up to 21 frames (JPEG), pretty much the equivalent of shooting a 24 exp roll in 3 seconds. Expect to pay $4500 or more for this performance. When the “buffer” on any digital camera is full the firing rate drops to a crawl whose rate, determined by the file type, compression, type of memory card, etc. can be anywhere from 1.5 to 60 seconds per image. Blistering firepower and high resolution at less than Ferrari level prices is pretty much still the domain of film.

Here’s another strong suit for film: It pretty well rules the night – and other dim places. When the light fades away and exposures get long, digital “noise

(a lot like grain) can increase to an objectionable point. Different cameras behave quite differently, some showing a lot of image noise in exposures above 1 or 2 seconds while others get to a half minute and still look clean. The problem is so prevalent that some cameras have a noise suppression feature that generally involves a second “black” exposure whose noise is subtracted from the first. It can work fairly well but it interrupts the tempo of your work. It’s reported that the Nikon D1x is fairly noise free even without the feature.

Devotees of extreme wide angle shooting will also have to stick to film for a while. The “prosumer” (under $2000) digital cameras with built in zoom lenses generally stop at the equivalent of 28mm on the wide end, if they even get that far. The Nikon and Canon bodied pro cameras whose image chips are smaller than the 35mm frame diminish the effective “wideness” of every lens. This is expressed as a “focus factor” that you multiply your lens’s focal length by to get the equivalent focal length on that camera. Typical factors run from 1.3 to 1.6. Two amazing new digital cameras have appeared on the horizon that transcend many previous limitations. Both 35mm SLRs, they are the 14 Megapixel Kodak DCS Pro 14n and the 11 Megapixel Canon EOS-1Ds, both of which, at last, have full frame image chips. They should be outstanding for wide angle use and their resolution should exceed the finest films by a good margin. The Kodak will be priced around $4000, The Canon’s price is unknown as yet. Don’t hold your breath waiting for these cameras. They’ve just been announced and may not show up in your camera store for quite a while yet.

It’s clear that the resolution of digital images, once laughably low (in the non-pro cameras) has caught up to film and even, in a few cases, surpassed it. Still it’s interesting to notice, if you want to produce digital images, at any level of quality it would take fewer dollars to buy a good film camera plus a scanner, than to buy the equivalent digital camera. The difference though has narrowed tremendously.

What about archiving images. Black and white negatives have stood up very well, particularly if they were on Kodak, Ansco or Agfa film bases (some other brands shriveled up with age.) Over 50 years on film and 100 on glass is commonplace. Color hasn’t done nearly as well. Some of the earliest films from the 40s and 50s faded in a year or two. Kodachrome was always the exception. There are plenty of 50 year old Kodachromes that look as good as new. Though some later films from the 70s also faded badly, recent films (since the 80s) are considered to have a life of 25 to 50 years. When digitizing of film based color images and writing them to CDs came along, that was seen as a possible way to achieve long term permanence. That may be true of the gold Kodak discs (now discontinued) but long term survival of the cheaper, ubiquitous aluminum film discs is far from certain. Since they would also be used for the storage of digital camera image files those files might also have limited life spans.

As digital camera resolutions and scanner res-olutions go up image files are getting rather huge. As a result the capacity of CDs, once considered more than ample, can easily shrink to less than ten images, so DVDs are now seen as the next big thing in image storage. Unfortunately no single DVD standard has emerged, in fact there are over 6 and there is no movement toward agreeing on any one of them. Imagine archiving your digital images on a DVD that can’t be “played” or accessed a few years later. DVDs also threaten to replace CDs at some point (one of the DVD standards is audio. It has a higher sampling rate than audio CDs and in consequence, better sound). What good would a gold, archival CD of image files be if CD machines disappeared? Hey does anyone remember the 5 ½ inch floppy disc.

Black and White darkroom prints from negatives, when they’re properly fixed and washed have stood up for a century or more. Early color prints did
not la
st long at all but later processes like Cibachrome and Fuji’s Crystal Archive might be almost as good as B&W. Darkroom produced prints are also physically tougher when it comes to mounting and handling, than digital (ink jet) prints.

Speaking of digital, ink jet prints entered the world with a life expectancy of barely a year or two. That has improved to ten to twenty five years with some paper and ink combinations. The still newer pigment ink printers may truly close the permanence gap, but there are still questions of gamut (less brilliant color) and ink flow to be smoothed out.

Film images have another user friendly quality. You can see the image directly without any machine being needed to display them (even a negative tells you more than a memory card). If a slide show is desired, slides on film are ready to be popped into the tray. Parallel devices have appeared for digital images such as digital projectors but they still cost ten times as much as the film based ones. The natural environment for a digital slide show of course is a less expensive computer monitor but the size of the audience becomes limited.

The preceding case for film may have obscured some of the awesome advantages of digital imaging so here’s a brief list to restore the balance.

With a digital camera you don’t have to worry about tungsten vs daylight or fluorescent light (the built in white balance will take care of that), you don’t have to worry about airport x-rays, you don’t have to bring faster or slower film types (just dial the camera up and down), you don’t have to “finish the roll of film” (unload the card with whatever you have), and you don’t have to bring dozens of rolls of film (if you don’t want to bring a laptop or mini hard drive a few extra tiny memory cards should cover the trip). On the positive side you often get an immediate check on the tiny LCD to tell you that the picture is “in the can”, and you have a file that can immediately go into an image editing program for further improvement.

There’s obviously a long term savings in film not used but since the memory cards are quite expensive, you have to shoot a lot of pictures to get to that point.

So don’t worry about film disappearing any time soon. It still has a lot going for it. Just pop a roll in the camera and go out and have fun.