Nikon D800E vs 6×9 medium format film

Since I took my first images with the Nikon D800E, and saw first hand how it feels to shoot a 36 megapixels digital camera with a great dynamic range, I wanted to perform a comparison with my medium format cameras.

I love shooting film, for the majority of my photographs I prefer it over digital because I love the way it looks, the tones of a medium format camera and of course I enjoy the whole process that goes with it. Medium format looks different that 35mm, whether it’s film or digital. But with the introduction of the D800, the game has changed and I wanted to see how much.

I shot a few identical images with the Nikon D800E and the Fuji GSW690iii. The Fuji is a 6×9 MF camera with a superb 65mm lens (28mm equivalent in 35mm format) which is one of the best landscape cameras ever made. No automations at all, no meter, no batteries needed, just a box with a fantastic lens. Since I didn’t want to wait long for the results, I loaded it with the new Kodak Portra 160 Professional film, which is supposed to have the finest grain and was made for scanning.

As I have written before, I much prefer the older (and now discontinued) Portra 160VC version, which has more saturation and contrast. Although today you can boost saturation and contrast in Photoshop, I still prefer the look of the 160VC as it comes out of my scanner. Anyway, I though I finer grain modern emulsion would be more competent to the crystal clear digital file. A comparison between the D800E and the GSW690 with a slide film like Provia or Velvia of course would yield different results, so I am planning on repeating this comparison again when I find the time.

Both cameras were on a tripod. I shot the D800 using a cable release and the mirror up function in order to be as steady as it could be, and chose the 24-70 zoom lens (at 28mm) which is considered one of the best zoom lenses. The same procedure was followed the Fuji, cable release and metered the scene with my Sekonic LS308. The 6×9 negative was scanned with Nikon Coolscan 9000 which is the best thing under a drum scanner.

Now, let’s the see the results from the first image (I just got the time to scan the first frame, so the rest will be shown at a future post).

(Fuji GSW690iii, Kodak Portra 160 Professional)

(Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 at 28mm)

The two scenes look quite different. The film recorded a more accurate color but the details and vividness is a in favor of the digital file. It was a difficult scene to meter properly, and I might have overexposed a little the digital file (I didn’t do any compensation to the cameras reading since that is also a part of the comparison for me). With some tweaking in Photoshop the two files would come even closer. Also, if I had used the Portra 160VC film or a Velvia, the color and contrast would favor the film file (although it would be very difficult for Velvia to capture the whole dynamic range of the scene).

Now, let’s see a zoom crop of the two images.

(Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 at 28mm)

(Fuji GSW690iii, Kodak Portra 160 Professional)

Here, you can clearly see that the digital file has more information. Actually, it’s a 100% zoom crop of the D800E but not a 100% crop of the 6×9 negative. At 4000dpi, produces a file with more (theoretical) megapixels, but at this magnification the grain really starts to diminish the detail of the image, so I cropped at the same portion of the image to show the differences.

The fact remains, that the digital file has more detail which is really an accomplishment of a 35mm digital camera over a 6×9 MF frame. A drum scan would provide a better result for the film, and of course a high resolution slide film would produce a more detailed file, but the fact remains that the D800E is a match for MF film.

It will take of course many more images to make a better overall comparison of the two systems but as a first conclusion, the D800E is one hell of a camera.

A few more observations. The D800E / Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 combo is not cheap. Even you replace the zoom with a good wide angle Nikon or Zeiss prime the cost is many times more the cost of a good used MF camera. Until you reach the price of the digital combo, one would have to shoot hundreds of rolls of films. So, for a landscape shooter like me, who even with a digital camera will only shoot a limited number of images on each photo trip, does it really worth it ? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer.

The D800E is a very demanding camera that must be treated like medium format gear. Shoot on a tripod with a cable release and mirror up, find the correct aperture to deal with the optimal combination of desired depth field and avoid diffraction, and like MF film, deal with huge files that really push the limits of a computer. With digital you tend to shoot many more images (since they do not cost money like film does), so you end up with gigabytes of images which require time, hard disk space and great effort. With 36 megapixels, every small error gets magnified and shows up on the final image.

Of course all these are true, if you are aiming at making large prints (I have just printed a 40 inches wide image and it looks really great). But if you are just going to upload a small image on the web, why bother with a 36mp camera ? The ability to crop is great but spending 3000 euros for cropping and a greater dynamic range, well that’s something I would not do, but of course that’s just me. Photography is about enjoying yourself above all, and if the D800 will provide that enjoyment even for uploading photos at Facebook, then by all means, it’s a great camera and I consider it a huge leap in digital cameras evolution.

More comparisons coming soon !! (please note here, that although I know a few things about cameras and lenses, I am not a professional reviewer, I just do these comparisons for me and like to share them, and that’s the way these comparisons should be read.)

(c)2012 Konstantinos Besios. All Rights Reserved.

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21 Responses to Nikon D800E vs 6×9 medium format film

  1. roberto says:

    That’s very interesting. For all i’ve heard modern top of the line DSLRs have already more dynamic range than film (even B&W). However in that comparison we see that the film image has more dynamic range. You say that maybe you overexposed the digital file, but in that case we would have more shadow detail. That’s not what we see, the film image has both more highlight and shadow detail. Also, if you look the bottom of the tree on the right side, where even the film is overexposed, we can see that film overexpose “gracefully”, gradually merging into total white, while the digital transition is much harshier.

    • kbesios says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I totally agree with you. Despite the fact that modern high end DSLRs have superb sensors with theoretical greater dynamic range than film, when I shoot medium format film I see exactly what you mentioned. A very smooth transition from shadows to highlights and really great tones. That’s the beauty of MF film (and one of the reasons I still use my MF cameras frequently !!)

      • Brian says:

        One-of-if-not-the greatest reason for shooting film is the graceful non-linear light sensitivity that allows it to capture highlights in much greater detail… you should the film at box speed when Portra 160 (and practically all color negative, C-41 film) should be shot at 1.5-2+ EV to gather all the exposure and highlight detail. Film handles overexposure well, but not underexposure… DSLRs handle underexposure well (recover detail with less noise), but not overexposure (blown highlights contain no info). Film gives you that “natural” look to digital HDR scenes.

  2. Paul says:

    Thanks for the interesting comparison. I have a d800, and find the results to be quite superior to those of my old Hasselblad … but this isn’t so surprising. That’s a smaller negative, and the lens was 1960s vintage and not especially sharp.

    The 6×9 offers a much more demanding comparison.

    I would like to respond to Roberto’s comment. The one advantage film holds onto today is dynamic range. Even with a dynamic range champion like the d800, portrait color negative film will give you a few more stops of useable dr. Black and white film, developed normally, will give slightly more still. And with special development (pota, etc.) there’s practically no limit to black and white.

    That said, digital sensors have come a long way, and the d800 has so much dr that its relative limitation almost never feels to me like a handicap. I don’t miss working with film for the most part. Although I still keep my 4×5. The d800 is still no match for that, but unfortunately I can’t afford to shoot and process 4×5 color.

    • kbesios says:

      That’s exactly what I have noticed from my personal experience, film’s dynamic range is still better, but on the other hand the D800 has a revolutionary sensor. And with digital, you can always bracket and expand dynamic range.
      I find the images from my Fuji GSW690 better than my D800 when printed (they are smoother with great tonality) but digital is easier to use and you can experiment as much as you want since it does not cost money.

      About 4×5 (which I am going to start shooting this weekend), I am sure that it should be even better, but as you mentioned, its expensive. So, I am probably going to shoot very few images per month and at situations where the view camera movements can make a difference.

  3. Paul says:

    Konstantinos, I’d be curious to hear more about the circumstances of your print comparison.

    One thing that’s been drilled into my head: with a digital file, in addition to looking at the results of a camera and lens and setup, you’re looking at the raw processing. Color balance, sharpness, noise, and tonality, are all profoundly influenced by the software and the settings used.

    Friends with more digital camera experience than me have said their opinions of a camera have sometimes gone from low to high after a several-month late update to their raw processor.

    So it would make sense to consider this whole set of variables in any comparison.

    • kbesios says:

      You are absolutely right about the digital workflow process. I myself have taken the time to reprocess some of my older digital images with new software like Lightroom 4 and it really made a difference. Things like automatic lens correction based on EXIF data, highlights and shadows recovery have allowed me to improve the look of the images.
      Don’t forget that since film is scanned and converted to digital image, the same rules apply. My scanning experience is improved over time (in the same way someone improves his skills in Lightroom or Photoshop) and that leads to better results.
      But of course there are some things that are some things that are dependent on the medium you use. A 6×9 negative film has a fantastic tonality and a very subtle transition from shadows to highlights. The way it renders color is also different. You can probably emulate to some extent the look of MF film but not 100% and that will demand very good skills in digital post processing.
      I really don’t like spending much time in front of my computer (I don’t have the patience, I prefer to spend more time in the field using filters or waiting for the right lighting conditions) and with film I can get the results I want easier, since I will only perform simple corrections such as curves and levels adjustments.
      I know people who can work wonders in Photoshop and produce stunning images with a very cheap camera system, but they spend hours in order to do that. This Is just not my cup of tea.
      Sol it all depends on the way someone chooses his workflow. I work better with film, most people work better with digital, if the final image is good then it really doesn’t matter which path you have chosen.
      (Of course some things are just physics, you cannot emulate the look of a 65mm lens on a 6×9 camera which has the angle of view of a 28mm in a full frame DSLR !!)

  4. David Beier says:

    Great test! Please do more comparisons soon.

    I might be the odd man out here but I actually don’t agree with the poster who argued for the total DR superiority of the film.

    I agree, the film clearly handled the highlights better. That said, it appears as though the D800 handled the shadows better. Look at the water. On the D800, I see all sorts of subtle nuances that really add definition to the sparkling ripples but, in the Medium Format image, the water is much less clear and more of haze.

    Film always handles over-exposure better but digital often handles under-exposure better. Usually film ends up being the winner when both are factored in but I’m curious how these new sensors will hold up when you shoot them to their greatest potential.

    Might I suggest a different test for next time? Try a high contrast scenario. Similar to what we see here but with more examples of strong highlights (since the only part in this frame which is over exposed is the tree on the right). Take a shot with the Medium Format and then try two exposures with the digital. One which is at the same exposure of the film and another which is a stop or two under. Then, take the d800 shot which is slightly under and try raising the shadows in the Camera Raw in photoshop.

    I wonder if you use this methodology if the resulting dynamic range will be much closer. I’ve seen amazing things with older Digital Nikons and their ability to raise the shadows without adding a lot of noise. I’d be curious what you can accomplish with this new, even cleaner sensor.

    • kbesios says:

      Thank you David. As you mentioned, the D800E does handle shadows in an incredible way, so if I underexpose a shot in order to preserve highlights, the recovery options of the RAW file are stunning. And of I use bracketing, then the options are really endless.
      This is the great advantage of digital which allows you to experiment without any cost. I will use b&w film and Velvia slide film since they have a very distinctive look (which I prefer from digital), but I haven’t renew my color negatives stock. For color, the D800E is absolutely wonderful.

  5. oddrun says:

    A few nitpicks so forgive me; what was the focusing
    distance and aperture for the Fuji 6×9 film image? did you try hyper focal using the scales or where you close to infinity? what was your aperture? your scan looks excellent as the grain is resolving but something is amiss here otherwise. You really have to be careful with the big fuji rangefinders DOF wise given the limitations.

    That being said I’m very impressed with the D800E crop. A drum scan, optimal aperture, correct focusing (very conservative hyper focal) and slightly lower grained slide film (perhaps Astia 100F) may make a small incremental difference to the quality and perceived sharpness of the 6×9 image but ultimately the D800e will win in the quality department.

    Thank you for taking the time to post this. Very informative.

    • kbesios says:

      Thank you.

      Your questions/observations reflect the amount of effort needed when operating a MF camera like the Fuji. I used f/16 aperture and focused on the wall using the rangefinder patch (no hyper focal focus here). Shot on a very sturdy tripod using a cable release (the same procedure was followed with the D800E, where I used f/8 aperture, a good compromise between image sharpness, DoF and the optimum aperture for the 24-70 lens)
      With Provia and a Velvia the image quality is of course better (finest grained with the Provia and better resolution with the Velvia). I have found the Astia more easy to scan than Velvia & Provia but I really prefer the Velvia look.
      So, a very good operating technique with Velvia for example, will give a slight better print than the D800E (and of course you get the wonderful color of Velvia) but not by much. The D800E is faster and easier to operate and suitable for any king of shooting. I think I will mostly shoot Velvia and b&w film with the Fuji at he future.
      I will also have some 4×5″ slides scanned with a drum scanner soon and compare them with the D800E. My 4×5″ scans with Epson V700 show a similar resolution with the Nikon, so I guess the drum scan will set the 4×5 ahead in terms of image quality for large prints, but one one has to think seriously the amount of effort needed for operating a large format camera and of course the total cost of film and drum scan, so in terms of every day use the digital of course wins.
      So, the main difference is the different look between film and digital sensor and the way you use DoF due to the difference in size between the three formats (with 4×5 you also gain movements which for certain subjects can make a huge difference).

  6. Glen Herrmannsfeldt says:

    There are people who prefer vacuum tube stereo amplifiers because they like the sound.

    The tails on the BH curve of film are rounded compared to the sharp cutoff of a digital image. If you include the tails, film likely has more dynamic range, if you only take the most linear part, less.

    Vacuum tubes, like film, have a smooth transition when saturated, unlike the sharp cutoff of transistor amplifiers.

    • kbesios says:

      That’s a very correct statement. Maybe that’s why I preferred playing my Fender Stratocaster through tube amps, during my rock days !

  7. John-Paul says:

    You know what they say about film – expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights. Film handles highlights better than digital because if you look at the curve of film, it slopes off more gradually in the highlight region.

    With digital, the opposite can be said – expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows. Digital handles shadows better and if you look at the curve, you’re see a sharper slope in the highlight area and a more gradual one for shadows.

    Even if you had a digital sensor and a film negative both capable of handling 14 stops of dynamic range, the film negative would still have better highlight detail, just because of how film handles highlights.

  8. Pingback: Film versus Digital | KWPhotography 2 - Landscape

  9. Yaal says:

    Thank you for the excellent article.
    It seems that the comparison is mostly fair. I was surprised by the difference in favor of the D800 (in terms of sharpness). I believe that other issues that should be asked are the Fuji rangefinder calibration, and whether opening a stop in the 65mm aperture will reduce diffraction.
    The film also has lower contrast which creates the illusion of less sharpening.
    In terms of DR, the film has diverse range of grain sizes, with the larger halides aimed at the low lights – therefore the nice tail and smooth transitions.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • kbesios says:

      Thank you. Film and digital are different as you mentioned , especially in tone transition. I can beat the D800 with a film like Velvia or Ektar , but it takes very careful shooting , everything needs to be perfect , from nailing exposure and hyper focal distance , choosing the optimum aperture, etc. with digital is easier (and you can experiment by taking multiple shots, since it’s free !

  10. Scott says:

    First off thank you for taking the time to do this sort of comparison. I have a D800 and have learned to really really like this camera. I still preferred my Fuji XT-1 for dynamic range and tonality. With that said I still shoot film because of the dynamic range and the tonality in black-and-white.

    There are so many variables involved when it comes to digitizing a film negative and taking a film negative or a digital file to print. When I print black-and-white I use an Epson 7880 and Peizography K7 warm neutral inks. When I scan a negative for printing I use my Epson V750 and the wet scan method. When I do this I find that digital simply cannot compare to the overall tonality detail and richness of a properly scanned and printed film negative.

    I use a Leica M6, Hasselblad 500 CM and a Pentax 67 depending on my mood. I must admit I am becoming a huge fan of the file size and detail I am able to produce with the D800 but when it comes to my own personal artwork I will always choose them for a lot of reasons and end result image quality being the biggest. I have to be fair in saying the D800 is starting to challenge this process.

    • kbesios says:

      Thank you Scott. The D800 was indeed a game changer, I certainly shoot less film since I purchased it. I can only imagine the image quality of the upcoming full frame cameras with the new Sony 50mp sensor. Still, I also continue to use film for the reasons you mentioned.

      The Fuji XT-1 must be an amazing camera, I still use a lot the X100 and the images it produces are stunning.

  11. Jorn Stadskleiv says:

    I am digitizing my MF film (6×7) using several macro shots and then i stitch them to gether using “Panorama Stitching” software. I usually get very high mega pixel pictures often around 200 mega pixels that i reduce to around 80 Mp. This pictures are sharper and more detailed than any scanner including the Nikon Scanner. If i down convert the huge file down to 36 mp, there will be little difference, but if i should make a very large print, that required let’s say 80 Mp, then upsampling the 36 mp Nikon file to 80 Mp will make the D800 loose out to the medium format film.

    Some one has made a tip on using “macro scanning” :

    • kbesios says:

      I’ve heard many good things about this technique, and I should probably try it, especially with my large format negatives.

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