Film vs. digital—the question of "character"

My friend Tom Willekes recently sent me the following question regarding my review of the Hasselblad CFV–39 digital back:

Do you have any subject comment on image "character"? You mention image quality, but not character.

What I'm getting at is the oft heard refrain from film aficionados that "film has character" while "digital is clinical". Implying that digital images have no character of their own; merely recording a scene in a very literal (perhaps flat) way.

In your experience with the CFV–39 (or even the D700) would you state that digital is indeed clinical? Or, is it not something that you've taken notice of?

This, indeed, is a very interesting question that I did not cover in the review. It took several days to put my thoughts together on the issue and, since other photographers might be interested in this subject, too, I decided to reply to Tom's email by way of this article.

First off, let us get obvious out of the way: film does indeed have character. Quite interestingly, though, we did not hail this notion much before the arrival of digital capture, which perhaps indicates that we now use this collective term that is comprised of various qualities of film to withhold the digital assault—and even launch a counterattack. If we use "character" as our main defence strategy, does it mean that images captured with digital cameras have no character whatsoever? As I will argue below, not exactly.

Many photographers wax poetic about film having character (I do that quite often, too, and will try to avoid it here as much as I can); very few of us, however, go further to explain what exactly that character is. Although some aspects of film's character might indeed have a poetic touch to them, it would serve us well to analyse what that character is comprised of. While doing so, we can examine whether the elements of film's character have counterparts in the world of digital capture, and whether the latter can rightfully claim to have character, too.

(To avoid the risk of turning this post into a full–blown dissertation that never gets finished, I will restrict the discussion to colour films, RAW capture, base ISO settings, and artistic pursuits only.)

In my mind, film's character is mainly comprised of the following three elements: colour rendering, image texture, as well as dynamic range and, related to it, shadow and highlight handling. Let us have a closer look at each of them.

As every photographer who has ever shot film knows, every emulsion offers unique colour rendition. More specifically, each film's colour rendering was fine–tuned by its producer in a non–linear manner to achieve a certain look. And it is much more subtle than just being saturated to a lesser or greater degree—for example, both Fujifilm Velvia 50 and Kodak 100VS are highly saturated transparencies, but they could not look more different. This non–linearity is also the reason why the look of a given film is so difficult, if not impossible, to imitate; you will not get the look of Velvia by simply taking a flat digital capture (more on this below) and cranking saturation all the way up. When we choose a specific film, we already know what look we would like to get; we actually aim for that specific, inimitable look. Thus, the final appearance of an image is mostly predetermined by the chosen type of film.

When talking about digital capture, on the other hand, we generally discuss colour accuracy. Colour balance is set at the point of shooting only symbolically; it is normally adjusted and fine–tuned in post processing, which requires considerable skills and time investment. Moreover, when using digital cameras we usually optimise shooting for data gathering, which is a bit akin to flying an aircraft by instruments. For example, we expose to the right, and that does often result in flat captures where colour rendition is of secondary consideration (this is demonstrated in the example below; for comparison, current home page photograph was shot on Velvia 50 and nearly perfectly matches the original transparency). So can we talk of digital capture having character in terms of colour rendering? No, I would not say so. For the final image to have a unique or specific look in terms of colour, you, the photographer, should have character—and, quite often, some serious post processing skills.


Out of camera (ahem, back) capture, exposed to the right to optimise data gathering


Final photograph


Does this mean that there are no differences in colour reproduction between various digital cameras? No; there are differences. Here, however, I do not have sufficient technical expertise and can only attribute them to complex wizardry of camera hardware, firmware and computer software. So far my overall impression has been that, although the CFV–39 does not have an immediately obvious character in terms of colour rendering the way film does, I, nonetheless, generally like what I can massage out of the files created by the back. At the same, I could not say the same about the Nikon D700—the colours produced by the camera are competent, but I do not like them.

Then there is image texture. As you know, film has grain by definition; very importantly, grain is random in nature and varies in apparent size and appearance from film to film—it can be genuinely fine and almost imperceptible or coarse and noticeable at first glance. Now, one might like visibility of grain in photographs or not, which is a matter of personal preferences and taste; crucially, though, film grain, even when not immediately noticeable, creates a certain texture in printed photographs thus further shaping the character of images shot on film. Also significantly, I really like how scans from film yield themselves to sharpening (both capture and output).

Digital sensors, of course, have no grain the way film does. Instead, they have pixels and a number of factors that influence appearance of texture in photographs, two of which are digital noise and the effect of anti–aliasing filters. Most current cameras are very good at dealing with the former at base ISO and produce very clean images; the latter, however, is what differentiates digital cameras greatly. To wit: the D700 has an anti–aliasing filter that robs quite a bit of sharpness and produces unnatural smoothness that borders on plasticity and is not easy to deal with. Now, the files produced by the D700 are, again, competent, but I do not like them that much at close examination. Of course, the problem may simply lay with my post processing skills, but that is beyond the point, because I can get what I really like with film and the CFV–39 (which does not have an anti–aliasing filter) much easier and faster.

Finally, let us consider the issue of dynamic range and shadow and highlight rendering. Just as with colour reproduction, dynamic range of different films varies greatly—between roughly five stops (Velvia 50) and well over 10 stops (colour negative film); likewise, every emulsion has a unique toe and shoulder signature and thus reproduces shadow and highlight tones in a unique fashion. This further contributes to the character of images shot on film.

With digital capture, however, things are quite different. I would argue that digital cameras do not have character in this respect because they are linear devices. Again, we optimise data gathering when shooting, and do not aim for a specific look. We only need to ensure that highlights are not blown out and let shadows fall where they will. Thankfully, both the CFV–39 and the D700 boast very, very decent dynamic range. To paraphrase myself, for the final image to have a unique or specific look in terms of appearance of shadow and highlight tones, you, the photographer, should have character—and, quite often, some serious post processing skills.

By now you might have already noticed a trend in my way of thinking about this subject: when shooting film, you choose an emulsion that will give you the look that you intend to obtain. Moreover, every film will come not only with its own character, but also with a psychological baggage—what reputation it has, what kind of work has been shot on it, by whom, etc. Once a film is chosen, the look of the final images is mostly predetermined. With digital, on the other hand, the character should be defined by the photographer to a far greater degree.

Do I mean to say that digital capture has no character whatsoever? Not exactly. After all, colour rendering varies, bit depth varies, pixel quality varies, noise signatures vary, and so on. All these differences do translate into varied appearances of final photographs, which in turn translate into "digital character". Indeed, images produced by the CFV–39 and the D700 have quite different looks. This being said, their character (and digital character in general) is more shallow, feeble and indecisive than that of film.

So, to finally answer Tom's question, images captured with the CFV–39 do have a likable character, although its nature is entirely different from that of film—they do not give you any specific colour rendition, unique look of texture, or distinctive handling of shadows and highlights; instead, their character is embodied in an incredible confidence in what they offer, which especially stands out when you bring a camera such as the Nikon D700 into consideration. The character of the CFV–39 is certainly less intimate and personal than that of film, but it is strong; it is the difference between a caring lover and a highly professional partner. Just do not ask me what I would choose if I could afford the CFV–39 .

Related article: My take on the film vs. digital issue