Nikon D800E vs 6×9 medium format film (Part III)

On my recent trip with the Nikon D800E, I also took with me the Fuji GSW690iii camera. I loaded a Kodak Portra 160VC and during my shooting I photographed three locations using both cameras. It was not an effort to make a comparison, I just used the two cameras in order to choose the best image at the end. But since I have the photos, I thought of writing a post about it (its my third comparison between these two exceptional cameras).

Before I go on with this comparison, a few words first. I shot all images handheld and from a posits that may differ a a couple of meters, so the frame is not the same. On the Nikon I had the 28-300 lens which is not one of the best lenses for the D800E (on its short edge, the quality is not optimal, neither is distortion). The Portra 160VC when scanned showed a larger amount of grain than I am used to, also the dynamic range is not on par with the rolls of 160VC I have shot in the past (I rated it at ISO 100, as always). So, there might be something wrong with the film or the development I got from the lab. Please take those parameters in consideration when reading this post, since its not a scientific comparison but just my way of shooting under specific conditions.

So, after getting things clear, let’s see the images.

(Fuji GSW690iii, Kodak Portra 160VC)

(Nikon D800E, Nikon 28-300mm at 28mm)

The two images look quite similar, the Fuji has a warmer color, Nikon’s cooler rendering is closer to what I was seeing during the shooting.

Now, a crop from both cameras.


The scanned 6×9 film has a bit of advantage in resolution in this image, although there is evident grain which is expect at this magnification. At this crop level, we are talking about a very large print which is meant to be seen from a certain distance of course.

(Fuji GSW690iii, Kodak Portra 160VC)

(Nikon D800E, Nikon 28-300mm at 28mm)

I much prefer the color and sharpness on the film image here. The dynamic range of the Nikon shows here with everything properly recorded. The Fuji images has blown highlights on the sky (I didn’t expect to see that especially with the Portra, so I am not sure what happened here, the metering was done with my trustworthy Sekonic meter). Lets see the crop.


The Fuji image shows high grain compared to the Nikon. Resolution seems about the same, maybe a little bit better on the digital photo (which can be further sharpened without adding evident noise).

(Fuji GSW690iii, Kodak Portra 160VC)

(Nikon D800E, Nikon 28-300mm at 28mm)

Now, here my decision is more difficult. I think I prefer the digital image due to more subtle tones and softer rendering, it looks more real. The film photo seems more harsh to my eyes, much more dramatic with more saturation and contrast.


I would call it a tie between the two cameras in resolution terms, although the recorder differently the textures on the wall. It’s just a different look.

So, my conclusions from this comparison are partly in favor the Nikon D800E. With some proper process images could be improved more and that could of course favor the digital file, which can be abused more in Photoshop or Lightroom without a significant loss of quality. The Coolscan 9000 which was used to scan the film is considered an excellent film scanner. A drum scan would provide a better image, but so would a better lens on the Nikon like the 24-70mm or a 28mm prime.

It’s obvious that the sensor of the D800E easily reaches or surpasses a 6×9 color negative, and of course you get all the advantages of digital like bracketing without cost, better handling of files in post process. On the other hand, a Fuji GSW690iii can be bought for less than 1000 euros today, while the D800E with a decent lens would be about 3500 euros or more. So at one third of the price you get a wonderful landscape camera which with a good slide film can equal the D800E. Of course film costs money, so it depends on what kind of shooter you are. On the Nikon you can mount different lenses and it’s a camera that can do any kind of photography, not just landscapes, travel or some architecture as I do with the Fuji.

Ina a couple of weeks I will take another photo trip with both cameras, this time the Fuji will be loaded with Velvia which records the colors of fall like nothing else. So, I will try to do another one comparison and of course post the results.

(c)2012 Konstantinos Besios. All rights reserved.

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12 Responses to Nikon D800E vs 6×9 medium format film (Part III)

  1. Angus says:

    Thank you for sharing. Wonder if a slower film such as Velvia 50 would give better results (minus color fidelity of course) than the D800. But these huge files really come into their own when printed out large scale. Otherwise, either camera is really overkill for web display or 4×6 prints. Having said that I love my D600 and GW690 / GSW690 – excellent dynamic range, lots of room to crop, and good ergonomics in either case.

    • kbesios says:

      I totally agree with your point, these cameras are meant for large prints, and its a completely different experience to look at a 40 inch wide print than a 100% zoom crop on the screen.
      I am sure that Velvia or Provia 100F would produce a much detailed and clean image, on par with the D800. Of course with slide film you have to deal with the very narrow dynamic range, but nothing compares to a good exposed Velvia photo when shooting landscapes.

      • Angus says:

        On a related note about dynamic range, I haven’t been wowed yet by any of the B&W films I’ve used in 120 (Delta or XP2) versus making a B&W conversion from Vevia 50 slide film. Not having to deal with filters (as with B&W film) seems a big plus – as I can just manipulate the color channels in post using NIK Silver Efex. Am I missing something? I don’t process myself although I do scan. Is HP5 something to consider?

        • kbesios says:

          Black and white films have a much greater dynamic range than Velvia (the same goes for color negative films). Of course, proper development is crucial in order to get good results. I mostly use Kodak TRI-X 400 for b€w images, but HP5 is also very good. For landscapes I prefer slower films like Ilford Pan F and Kodak TMAX 100. If I was to convert to black and white from color film, I would choose a color negative film, since it will handle better contrasty scenes and its cheaper.

          • Angus says:

            Will give it a try. Scanning the color negs is not always the easiest. Wondering whether the new Plustek 120 will improve on my Minolta Scan Proin this regard …. Lots to learn. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. Since I’m working with a D800, I decided to sell my GSW 690.
    Photographing a long time documentary on a particular city was so expensive …
    Somebody wants to buy my Fuji? It is in a good condition.

  3. CarstenW says:

    Nice comparison, thanks.

    For B&W I like Adox/Efke CHS 25. Very nice classic tones, lots of sharpness. I am not sure if it matches up to my D800 though. I would think not.

    • kbesios says:

      The files of the D800 at base ISO are crystal clean, no other camera can currently match the D800 (I am leaving medium format digital backs out of the comparison of course due to the huge cost). But b&w film has a certain tonality and unique look that I find it very difficult to replicate with a digital file, so I believe shooting b&w film is a major reason to continue to use my medium format gear.

  4. Martin Rogers says:

    Yes medium format film camera is cheaper, until you start buying and developing roll film. I don’t like the grainy look of film. If I want a grainy look, I’d rather add it later myself. Also, I really dislike waiting for my photos to be developed. One of the nice things about digital is that the photographer instantly sees the result. No more medium format fil for me. Goodbye Hasselblad, hello Nikon D800!

    • kbesios says:

      Digital offers the advantages you mentioned, film has a different look. I like the film’s look and natural grain and I enjoy the whole process from shooting, to developing and scanning, that’s why I still use it. For others digital works better, it is a matter of personal taste (and it should be).
      I’ll have to admit of course, that the D800 is a game changer, and I have found myself often using it instead of my film cameras. Its really a fantastic camera with a state of the art sensor !

  5. Luis says:

    Interesting comparison, but the author’s conclusions are missing the point. First off, The comparison is really between a CCD SCANNED image of film and a direct digital captured image, not comparing film to digital. With this being said, even on a crummy LCD computer screen, the scan of film shows better resolution, better color resolution, better color, more atmospheric images, greater depth.

    Some points to note:
    1)ANY ccd scanner will LOSE approx. 2/3 of the image information contained in film!
    2)There is a diminishing return as image resolution improves; therefore the noticeable superiority of film in this test- even after losing 2/3 of its image quality to the ccd scanner – means a far greater true superiority to film in this regard.
    3)The grain seen in the film scan is partly a product of the scanning process and can be minimized using wet scanning procedure.
    4)A good slide film should exhibit still better resolution, but will be more difficult to scan well with the ccd scanner.
    5)An important point to bring out is that this test is putting film out of its element. He is comparing film in a digital domain rather than comparing digital in a film domain. Copy the digital to film and then make quality optical prints of both and you will see how lopsided your test procedure is!
    6)This test also misses another advantage film has over digital, that is the direct optical print. Film can print optically at 60 lp/mm where digital prints are at just 5 lp/mm (the human eye can detect 20 lp/mm directly and notice up to 30 lp/mm). A film print can look better than a digital print. A slide projection can look better than a digital projection or lcd screen.
    7) Ease of printing and filing. Film is faster, cheaper, and easier to print well than is digital, and the results are capable of being superior. A well made optical print is far better than any computer screen can display. This was especially true of Ilfochrome.
    8) Film is a REAL image and has intrinsic value, is far easier and safer to archive, is instantly scalable.
    9) The ability of film to attain resolution many times greater than even the mighty D800e, means that every step of exposure and processing must be controlled to maximize this. Zeiss has tested different techniques and has shown that even a properly dampened tripod and tripod head make a noticeable difference when you get to such extreme resolution as is possible with film. The good thing is that film is more forgiving than is digital, and for most applications one does not need to extract the full resolution of film.
    10)Bayer digital imaging is incapable of capturing certain subtle colors and micro-contrast details. This is due to technical reasons and no amount of post processing can recover it.

    • kbesios says:

      Very good remarks Luis. The information provided are very useful and technically far beyond my technical knowledge, so thank you for this comment. Unfortunately things like optical printing have become rare at least where I live, where photo labs are abandoning film. Even simple tasks like slide development are not available in my city. So, the costs are increasing constantly for someone who shoots film.
      Setting up a darkroom or personally developing slide film is not an option for me (for various reasons), so the only way to show my work is by scanning. One good option (and relatively easy for me to do) is contact printing. I have done it with 4×5 sheets and it really looks awesome. An old 8×10 camera would be a great tool to produce 8×10 contact prints, which are large enough to appreciate the quality of film. I also own a slide projector and I agree that the photos look absolutely beautiful when projected. Scanning is the only way to show your film work thought the internet to a large audience, and as you mentioned it really cannot replicate the look of a slide when viewed on a lightbox, or a black white print done in the darkroom.

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