Speaking A Thousand Words

"I see myself as a storyteller. Instead of recording my thoughts with a pen or a brush, I use the camera to record the emotional content of my mind's eye." Allen Birnbach

On March 14, 1839, John Herschel borrowed from astronomer Johann von Maedler the word ‘photography’ and used it in a lecture before the Royal Society. This was the year the photographic process became public. At that time some artists saw in photography a threat to their livelihood and some even prophesied that painting would cease to exist. Photographic establishments mushroomed to 147 in London in 1857 and 77 in 1850 in New York.

The demand for photographs prompted Charles Baudelaire, poet and critic of the medium to comment, "Our squalid society has rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gloat at its trivial image on a scrap of metal." His disdain for photography is evident in his words, "If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether… if it is allowed to encroach upon the domain of the... imaginary, upon anything whose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man's soul, then it will be so much the worse for us."

A striking parallel can be drawn with the advent of digital photography today with traditional photographers, artists in their own right, echoing similar sentiments about digital photography. My own opinion however, could be easier likened to the painter, Gustave Courbet, who saw photography as a useful aid in depicting motifs but ultimately as consisting merely of a copy of reality, painting being then a truer expression. In my own biased analysis of the relative qualities and integrals to SLR of digital photography, I admit my obvious stubbornness and lack of foresight in vision. Yet, I justify my steadfast support with a home-grown ardour for the medium for I simply cannot begin, at least at this stage of technological evolution, to evoke a similar passion for digital photography. Lady Eastlake, wife of the first President of the Photographic Society, echoed a similar expression when she opined, "Every button is seen - piles of stratified flounces in most accurate drawing are there - but the likeness to Rembrandt and Reynolds is gone!"

I count myself among the dwindling numbers who will be caught dead only with their film camera until digital cameras evolve further. While I do grant that the benefits of instant previews, easier sharing of photos, lighter equipment et al, I stick to my guns in defence of the superiority of the results of a film camera with regard to responsiveness and quality (of colour, sharpness and detail) for which I willingly sacrifice the ease of the process. It is prudent, however, when partaking in a discussion of this nature, to elaborate on the degree of difference between the two.

Tests conducted on a comparative level between Canon Rebel 2000 SLR film camera and the Minolta DiMage 5 SLR-style 3.34-megapixel digital camera, both contemporaries of technology in their categories, should serve to illustrate my argument.

The Deciding Factor – Clicks Away

Responsiveness Tests

"Turn-and-shoot" speeds

Rebel 2000 = 1.25 - 1.5 seconds
DiMage 5   = 2.5 - 2.75 seconds
Advantage - Film

Speed when taking pre-focused action shots

Film found marginally faster, which is a substantial finding considering the long-standing complaint about digital shutter lag.

Speed of taking a series of three consecutive flash photos

Rebel 2000 = 5.5 seconds
DiMage 5   = 6.75 seconds
Advantage - Film

Quality Tests


Rebel 2000: Great, realistic colours with good contrast and nice transitions.
DiMage 5: Good colours though with more saturation and contrasts that weren't quite as vibrant.
Advantage - Film


Rebel 2000: Nice, clean photos overall, including for the moving subject.
DiMage 5: Nice and clean overall though with a minor hint of fuzziness on the moving subject that to many would only become noticeable in comparison to the film prints.
Advantage - Film


Rebel 2000: A high level of detail, even in brighter areas and shadows.
DiMage 5: Excellent detail in areas of moderate light, but a noticeable lack of detail in both bright areas and shadows.
Advantage - Film

Game, Set and Match – Film


Candid Camera: Up-close and Personal

The finer points –

Depth of Field

Digital cameras have a vast advantage with respect to depth of field as compared with film cameras.

For example, an Olympus C-4000Z at F/2.8 provides acceptable sharpness in the same range as a 35 mm camera with the lens closed down to F/14 i.e., 5*2.8 (at the same equivalent focal length, i.e., image angle). The Olympus E-20 has the focal length ratio of 1:4, therefore its lens at F/2.8 provides depth of field of an equivalent 35-mm camera lens at F/11.2.

This is especially useful in landscape photography where a traditional camera does not allow for the same extent of foreground sharpness. The ability to work with wider apertures is also beneficial in allowing one to operate with higher shutter speeds, thus eliminating another source of image fuzziness and marginally increasing the scope of landscape photography.

However, due to this inherent property, it is consequently equally difficult to have an out-of-focus background, a technique used frequently and aesthetically very effectively over the years in portrait and nature photography.

Unless one uses both cameras with equal ease and chooses depending on each particular shot, it is virtually impossible to do away with both these incumbencies at the same time, thus reinstating the preference of the film camera.

Resolution (Lines per Millimetre)

Average Digital: 50 lines per mm
Average 35mm: 100+lines per mm

Thus, a digital camera must be capable of taking true 8MP images in order to match the resolving capability of film. Lower resolution digital cameras will not be able to resolve fine hairlines, eyelashes, and such details in as crisp detail, if at all. Better 35mm cameras and film, or even medium and large format cameras, can and will record much sharper images than average 35mm consumer cameras.

The Verdict

“Photography suits the temper of this age-of active bodies and minds. It is a perfect medium for one whose mind is teeming with ideas, imagery… for one who sees quickly and acts decisively, accurately.” Edward Weston.

For me, it would be injustice and an undermining of self-expression to forsake my 35mm camera, if for nothing else, only for the sheer pleasure of the 35 mm experience in all its aspects, for the effort put into the execution of every shot and for the joy of developing and being delivered the print one yearns to get the desired results from. It is the quest for perfection that is embodied in the very spirit of film photography that makes it irreplaceable as an art and an everlasting medium of human self-expression.

Siddhartha Butalia
Advertising and Marketing
Xavier Institute of Communication