What makes film and digital photographs look so different from each other?

If you’re a photographer, at any skill level, you’ve probably come across film photography in some fashion. Shooting with these analog devices only pushes us as digital photographers and forces us to understand the art form in a new way. The feeling you get when looking at a film photograph you took is truly indescribable. But, for all the glitz and glam, there’s a lot of hassle and time that goes into each photo.

While some welcome this strenuous process, others resist — because they can. I don’t blame them either. Why go out and spend $20 for 10 photos when I could take my DSLR and shoot 100 for free? The image quality is not a question anymore, seeing as how crisp and clear our digital options are now. So, if you’re making the film vs. digital decision for a particular shoot, what differences can you expect from the two media?

Let’s take a look.


What We’re Working With

For the comparisons in this article, I’ll be using Kodak Portra 400 for my Pentax K1000 (35mm) and Mamiya 645 (Medium Format), and my Sony a7sII mirrorless camera. I’ll scan the negatives on the Epson V600.

Now, I know the best way to compare film to digital would be to print the negative, directly from the negative. No scanning. But, for this example, we’ll be scanning the negatives and reviewing the digital results from each camera.


Shooting Portraits

Film vs. Digital: Comparing Medium Format to 35mm to Mirrorless — Portraits

Kodak Portra 400 is known for its high saturation and low contrast, and that’s truly on display here. My model John’s hair has absolutely no contrast to it, while the a7sII really brings out the darkness. You can also tell the difference in the skin smoothness and skin tone. The saturation factor really shines with the blue in his shirt. The medium format really makes it pop, while the a7sII’s natural colors are pretty flat — for the most part.

The wall behind John really brings out the pastel tendencies of the Portra 400. Like I mention in the video, this is a good example of the textures and feeling you get with film. You can’t usually put your finger on it, but you know it looks different.


Shooting Long Exposures

Film vs. Digital: Comparing Medium Format to 35mm to Mirrorless — Long Exposures

This was my first time taking a long exposure picture using film. I wasn’t expecting to catch focus like I did, and the results were pretty surprising for how much detail I was able to get. The digital obviously handles low light better (it handles the colors better as well). You can see the evidence for this in the trees and the car lights. I think for these pictures, I set the shutter to go off for about 8 seconds (aperture closed all the way). The light in the corner from the streetlight created some flares in the digital and medium format, however there wasn’t much light spilling into the 35mm picture.


Handling the Highlights

Film vs. Digital: Comparing Medium Format to 35mm to Mirrorless — Highlights

In this last picture, the white house combined with the harsh sunlight yielded interesting results from each camera. The medium format was the clear winner here, handling the exposure and still giving us a lot of detail on each knick and crack in the wood siding. The 35mm really struggled to keep up here in terms of detail and sharpness. Overall, I really liked the color from the 35mm with all these pictures, but the detail simply did not compare to the other cameras.

I’ll be doing more of these tests down the road, with bigger and more complex cameras, but for now, I have a better understanding of what to expect from my film cameras and the type of image they produce. Go out and recreate the test for yourself!


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