I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between digital and film photography. There’s the obvious differences that involve the process of capturing images. Since I do most of my work on a computer, digital photos are much easier to work with – since they’re already digital. My analog photos have to be scanned to get them on my computer. Not a big deal, but I’ve been thinking, “What else is different?”

Obviously, the medium is very different. Digital images are captured electronically by a sensor, processed by an image processor, and then stored as some kind of file. Analog images are captured on some material with light sensitive coatings/emulsions – film, in my case, and they are generally processed with chemicals to reveal the image burned into the emulsions. With analog, you would need yet another step to get the images into a computer, or you can make some kind of hard copy directly from the film negatives or positives in a darkroom.

My question is this, “Is film able to capture colors that my camera’s sensor can’t?” And, secondly, “Does film ‘see’ things differently, maybe even better, than my camera’s sensor can?”

So, here’s my premise, which I’d like to explore a little. I believe there are some colors which film sees, and my sensor does not. Or, at least, there are some colors that film renders better, or more accurately, than my sensor does. Keeping in mind, that you can do post processing to add a ‘vintage’ look to digital images – but if specific colors aren’t showing up at all, anything you do, through post processing, is not real, it’s artificial. But if film captures colors that my sensor can’t, my images on film are necessarily more realistic than my digital images.

In order to attempt to prove this, I’m going to take a film camera, and a digital camera, and shoot the same images, at the same time (well, within a few seconds of each other), with the same exposure settings, and then compare them side-by-side. I hope to see a visible difference. Naturally, there is some difference, since digital sensors are only physically capable of rendering a fixed number of colors. Since it’s generally in the millions with modern sensors, I doubt that most casual viewers will see a difference, but I believe there must be some difference.

So, here’s a summary of my hardware for this test:

Digital – Canon 5d Mark IV body; Canon 50mm f1.2 lens; 400 ISO; Auto White Balance.
Analog – Olympus OM-4 body; Olympus 50mm f1.4 lens; Kodak Portra 400.

I’ve used the same shutter speed and f-stop with both cameras, for each shot, and the comparison photos were taken seconds apart to attempt to make the lighting and conditions the same for each shot. No post processing was done on any photos.

Photos on the left are digital, photos on the right, film. Take a look – keep in mind, one of the big differences between film and digital is digital’s ability to adjust the white balance. Film can’t do that. To shoot in different types of lighting, like incandescent light, you need to change film types.

Most seem very similar, with the exception of the 3rd pair – the Texas Sage. The flowers, as I saw them, were distinctly purple, yet rendered as pink with film. The film images, in general, seem to have a green/yellow tint. This could be due to the older Olympus lens, with yellow-ish coatings. Some of the coatings on older lenses were actually “tuned” to work well with black and white films. My Olympus 50mm f1.4 lens is from around 1975.


Update… I’ve discovered that Olympus 50mm lenses, from the 70’s, can develop a yellow color on the elements due to thorium oxide being used in some old lenses to achieve similar properties as fluorite. I’ve seen some references online that indicate the original Olympus 50mm f1.4 lenses may have been constructed this way, so that may account for the yellow tint in my film results. That, pretty much, messes up my results – but it was a fun test anyway. I’ll have to do it again with another, newer, lens on my film camera to see if there’s a difference.


So, see which you think look better, or look more life-like. I’m not sure I’ve proved my premise, and digital sensors are good enough today that it will probably be difficult to see many differences with the naked eye. It was a fun experiment though. I’d love to know what you think!

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