Bill Pierce
Nuts & Bolts

October 2002

Film vs. Digital

Today there is a debate going on over the superiority of film vs. digital.
I heard one photographer say, "It's just like the old days with the
Kodachrome versus High Speed Ektachrome. "

Talk about faulty memories. Nobody argued about a quality difference
between Kodachrome and Ektachrome. Kodachrome was the undisputed King, not
just against High Speed Ektachrome, but against all the E6 films.

Today, when you compare film vs. digital, if you are a photojournalist, you
are really comparing 35-mm, high speed color negative films and digital
images. But, you still hear, "Of course, they look the same in print, but
what about the prints in the exhibit honoring my life time of photographic
achievement?" I'm not sure that even that difference is as great as many

Today's high-speed color negative films are remarkable compared to their
predecessors. The 160/200 ISO films are remarkable compared to the high
speed films. But color neg is going to lose the "sharpness" battle when
compared to not only Kodachrome, but slower E6 films. Obviously, no color
film wins when they are compared to black-and-white films of similar speed.

Digital gets better and better. Canon introduces a full frame digital
camera that delivers 11 meg files. It's not a studio camera; it's a
handheld, photojournalist's camera in the EOS style. It's hard to say what
this means until we see results. One thing you probably can say is that
someone will come along and top those figures. Color neg and digital will
both improve, but digital probably has more head room for vulgate

And, guess what? To put a film or digital camera in the hands of a
photojournalist and to search for which has the technical edge is absurd.
Handheld exposures below a 250th of a second. Rapidly moving subjects and
slight focusing inaccuracies. Optimum results may be the stuff that testing
is justifiably about - but journalism isn't about optimizing technical

The good news? Using limited materials below their capablilities doesn't
mean that you can't come up with strong, powerful images that are better
photographs than images that only display technical excellence. This rather
obvious statement doesn't just refer to the Capa shot of the Spanish Civil
War soldier being shot. It refers to the work of every early pioneer of
35-mm available light photography. It goes for the newspaper photographer
who snuck into the courtroom and Bresson, Smith and Mydans who were equally
unobtrusive in different worlds. It goes for the photographer who always
has a camera with him, and is always ready to use it. On a lesser level, it
goes for every less-than-perfect family snapshot that brings a joyous
recollection of a wonderful event.

And, today, it goes for every photojournalist out there who is shooting
color negative or digital. But I do wish they would stop arguing about
whose pictures are "sharper."

Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

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