Nikon D700 camera user experience report
Part four: Resolution (12MP vs. medium format film)

Any photographer reading this report will know what 12MP implies in terms of resolution. Digital files produced by the D700 are 4256 by 2832 pixels and will print to the size of 30 by 20 cm, 36 by 24 cm and 45 by 30 cm at printing resolutions of 360 dpi, 300 dpi and 240 dpi respectively (I generally do not find results at lower printing resolutions entirely satisfactory). The files, of course, can be pushed further and printed larger while still producing perfectly acceptable results. Apart from the D700 I also extensively use medium format film and it is of interest to me to see how 12MP digital capture compares with high quality scans from medium format film—how much resolution do I lose by using film or vice versa? I decided to conduct a simple test to answer this question.

Now, I know that my findings are quite likely to be rendered controversial by some readers and, therefore, I have to make a clarification/disclaimer before we continue: the purpose of the test is not to ascertain the ultimate truth but rather to establish a "ballpark" correlation in terms of resolution between the film and digital systems that I currently employ. Although I consider all equipment used in the test to be first–rate, please do not ask me what would have transpired or surfaced had I used such and such piece of gear instead.

The test shot (below) was first taken with a Hasselblad 503CW, CFi 4/150 lens and Fujifilm Velvia 100F slide film and then, in a couple of minutes, with a Nikon D700 and Nikkor AF 85mm f/1.8D lens. Both shots were taken with the use of a very sturdy support system (Gitzo G3530 LVL carbon fiber tripod with a Kirk BH–1 ball head), mirror pre–release technique, cable releases and without filters.


Hasselblad 503CW with a CFi 4/150 lens
and Fujifilm Velvia 100F film;
ISO100, 1/125, f/11


Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D lens;
ISO200, 1/250, f/11

As you can see from the shots above, the two formats are very different, one being square and the other rectangular. Close examination, however, reveals that the focal lengths are fairly equivalent in their respective formats and provide comparable angles of view. In a situation similar to this one would either choose the format that most suits the envisioned composition or pick one format and then compose according to how it dictates seeing the world.

The film shot was scanned with an Imacon 848 at the resolution of 3200 ppi (which is the maximum optical resolution of this high–end dedicated film scanner). This produced a file with dimensions of 6870 by 6870 pixels (47MP, if you will), which prints to the size of 48 by 48 cm, 58 by 58 cm and 73 by 73 cm at printing resolutions of 360 dpi, 300 dpi and 240 dpi respectively. The Nikon file, on the other hand, was processed in Adobe Camera RAW. Both files were then adjusted in a judicious manner in Photoshop and sharpened with the PhotoKit Sharpener plug–in, which I use all the time for both capture and output sharpening. The images below are unresized crops of the film shot (left) and digital shot (right) shown at 100% magnification. In all instances below, what you see immediately is the sharpened versions of the crops; roll your mouse over the images to see the original unsharpened captures.


Film scan, 100% magnification

Nikon D700 file, 100% magnification

It is already obvious from the crops above that the film scan boasts noticeably more resolution. To make sure, though, let us look at comparisons of the film scan downsized to match the size of the D700 file as well as the D700 file upsized to match the size of the film scan. To do so, I first crop both images so that they have the same field of view showing the same part of the scene and then downsize/upsize them so that they have the same dimensions in pixels.


Film scan, downsized to match the size of the Nikon file

Nikon D700 file, 100% magnification

To my eyes the downsized film scan crop looks sharper and, well, more robust, I would say.


Film scan, 100% magnification

Nikon D700 file, upsized to match
the size of the film scan

It is now very obvious that medium format film (6X6) offers noticeably more resolution than 12MP digital capture. But before we get too emotional and jump to conclusions, let us look at one more thing. As you know, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, which in case of photography is looking at prints. So what does all this pixel–peeping translate into in real–life photographs?

First of all, the last two crops are from files that are 6870 by 6870 pixels (film scan) and approximately 8080 by 5380 pixels (upsized Nikon file) in size. Since resolution of most computer displays is 72 ppi, comparing the crops on your monitor would roughly be equivalent to looking up close at photographs that are 2.72 by 2.72 meters (film shot) and 2.85 by 1.90 meters (Nikon shot) in size. Naturally, the print from the film scan would look better up close; however, given the enormous size of the photographs, normally you would not be looking at them from such a close distance, and from a viewing distance suitable for their size the difference would not be so pronounced.

Let us now turn to more reasonably sized photographs. I cropped the film scan and the digital file so that they only included the part of the scene common to both shots, upsized the D700 file to match the size of the film scan crop and printed both files at 360 and 300 dpi. Had I not cropped the images, I would be looking at 48 by 48 cm and 60 by 40 cm prints (at 360 dpi), which are still fairly large prints.

After the prints dried, I examined them closely. Further, I showed them to several friends, photographers and otherwise, not telling them what the test was about and asking the same question: what difference in sharpness and resolution do you see? And here is the big surprise—everyone noticed the difference in contrast and colour (I did not spend too much time adjusting the images to make them look entirely similar) and one friend even commented that the prints from the film scan looked more three–dimensional (he did not know that the shot was taken with film); however, no one could point out any difference in sharpness. Indeed, at the viewing distance suitable for this size of prints I could not see any difference, too.

This being said, if you know what to look for and look at the prints very closely, the difference in sharpness is visible. Prints from the film scan do show more detail, albeit not by a massive margin. When I told my friends what to look for and they looked very closely, they then could see the difference, too. Once again, though, we all were surprised how good the prints from the D700 were in comparison.

Conclusions? Medium format film (6X6), not entirely unexpectedly, does indeed boast more resolution than 12MP digital capture. Whether the difference will be visible, however, will depend on how large you print and the nature of the subject—on the one hand, the larger you print the more important and obvious the extra resolution of film will be; on the other hand, subjects that have a lot of random fine detail (e.g., landscapes) will show superiority of film much more readily. Nonetheless, 12MP digital capture holds its own against medium format film scans surprisingly well and in most cases resolution should not be a deterrent to using the D700.

P.S. At the risk of repeating myself, I know that many things in this test could have been done differently. Generally, however, the test setup was slightly in favour of the D700—the CFi 4/150 is not the sharpest lens in the Hasselblad lens lineup, a finer grain film could be used and, of course, using a drum scanner at a higher resolution than 3200 ppi would benefit film, too.

P.S.S. To digress a little, I explored the subject of film vs. digital in the past here and I still stand firmly by what I wrote then. One thing that I did not mention in the article, however, was the issue of the look, which, in my opinion, is much more important than that of resolution. Prints from film scans and digital files do indeed look quite differently. One obvious difference that I already wrote about is colour—I find it nearly impossible to replicate the look of, say, Velvia 50 in a straightforward and efficient manner by tweaking D700 files. Then there is also a more intangible quality to the look of prints from film scans, which I suspect has to do with texture—they somehow appear truer, more straightforward and robust; if film prints could produce sound, they would sound like a trumpet. Prints from digital files, on the other hand, seem less sure and more compromising; if they could produce sound, they would sound like a saxophone. None, of course, is better in absolute terms and we all have our likes, dislikes and preferences. It is the look that we should be after more than anything else in photography and if you prefer the look of one particular medium, you should go with that medium. As one reader rightfully mentioned on this subject, "I don't see the point of replicating something when it can be achieved naturally".

Part one: Introduction and background

Part two: Ergonomics and handling

Part three: Image quality

Part four: Resolution (12MP vs. medium format film)

Part five: Miscellaneous notes and conclusion