The war is over -- the digital-vs.-film war, that is. And the last battle was
won when the the light was dimmed.
For low-light shooting, if you think film still beats digital, you're living in the past. And if your DSLR is more than two years old, it might be time to trade up for a new one.
Why? In the latest crop of DSLRs, noise reduction takes low-light photography to a new level. A few models, such as the Nikon D300 and D3, have scored Excellent image quality ratings in the Pop Photo Lab all the way to ISO 3200. In fact, with the Nikons, you can get decent color images at ISO 6400, a feat that no film shooter can match.
Of course, you can still use film for its particular qualities and even flaws (such as grainy images at high ISOs). But now the only image quality advantage left for color film is its slightly superior resolution at ISO 100-400, compared with that of less-expensive 10-14MP DSLRs.
Not too long ago, film held the image quality advantage in nearly every category. In the 1990s, quality kept creeping up, especially at higher ISOs. By mid-decade, prints from ISO 400 color negative film looked better than those from ISO 100 film of the mid-1980s, and ISO 1600 was a reality. At the same time, digital cameras were noise nightmares -- even at limited ISOs of 50-200 -- and pricey, too.
A few weeks after the 6.3MP Canon EOS Digital Rebel was announced in 2004, I marched into the office of our champion of traditional 35mm film photography, the late Herbert Keppler. Armed with two 13x19-inch prints of a colorful garden scene, one shot with ISO 400 film and the other with the Digital Rebel, I challenged him to identify which was which.
He pointed at the Rebel print and said, "That one is obviously from film, as you can tell by the low grain, great detail, and colors that pop."
When I told him he had picked the digital print, he stared at it for a few more seconds and declared, "Well, that's impressive! But how will the Rebel do against ISO 800 film?"
He had me there. The original Rebel got noisy at high ISOs. And unlike film grain, with its even distribution and texture throughout the image, erratically scattered digital noise is harder to justify as an artistic choice.
Those days are over. The proof: the incredibly low noise we found while testing the Nikon D300 at ISO 1600 and 3200, along with great performance by other new DSLRs in the Pop Photo Lab at ISO 1600. A color-film shooter could never hope to capture images with comparably low grain at these ISOs -- let alone at ISO 6400.
To give just one example of the difference between the latest DSLRs and negative film, take a look at the photos below. I shot the same view of this bridge in New York's Central Park twice within seconds, using both the new 14.6MP Pentax K20D, set to ISO 1600, and my old Canon EOS Rebel IIe loaded with Fujicolor Superia 1600.
Compare enlargements of details from each image, and you'll see how much finer and smoother are those from the DSLR. The colors are also more accurate: Even the best film we've tested in the Pop Photo Lab earns only a High color accuracy rating (Delta E of 11), while the latest DSLRs (and many compacts) land in the Excellent color accuracy class (Delta E below 8).
So the debate over image quality -- as well as over camera features and cost per photo -- is over. Now, when will we have a DSLR that can get decent images at ISO 25,000 and beyond? Check back next year.
Crossing the bridge: New DSLRs capture images with less visible noise at high ISOs than even the best high-speed film. The close-up from the Pentax K20D (A) shows how well it controls noise at ISO 1600 compared with the grain in scanned Fujicolor Superia 1600 (B).