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Is digital black and white as good as film?

The great film vs digital debate. Can digital really create photographs which look as good as black and white film? The short answer is yes!! Especially when printed, but you need to know what you are doing with digital.

I grew up with film and spent 15 years of my career working with it. I have always considered myself to be a film photographer. However, I like the convenience and cost-effectiveness of digital and the ability to shoot at high iso, but I hate the look of a clean digital file. It’s soulless. Right from the first day I started to use digital capture, I’ve been on a mission to achieve the look of a film (analogue) image printed on silver-based paper from a digital camera.

It’s getting harder. Each new digital camera model brings better noise reduction, higher ISO capabilities, and sharper images. These things appeal to a digital photographer, but for a film photographer, where grain, contrast and texture are important, achieving good prints becomes more difficult.

Which are the best digital cameras for creating a film look?

In my experience, some cameras are better suited to creating a film-like image than others. At the time of writing, both Sarah and I have settled on the cameras we feel give us the results we want. We both use older Leica M9 cameras with the famous CCD sensor. The Leica DNG files retain noise throughout the main ISO ranges, and the mid-tones aren’t smeared with noise reduction. The files contain a lot of highlight detail and texture, which really important for achieving the film photography look. 

Unfortunately, many newer cameras create problems for those of us that like looking at grainy images. An obsession with sharpness and lack of noise, combined with huge sensor sizes, make the creation of a film look more difficult to do. The latest isn’t always the best.

Processing is the key when it comes to closing the film vs digital gap.

How an image is processed is the key to getting the best from a digital file. I’m very much old school, still using the same techniques I learned from fifteen years of darkroom printing. Bits of cardboard and homemade dodging tools have been replaced by adjustment brushes and layers, but the principles are still the same. I don’t get involved with luminance masks, LAB channels, or any ‘digital’ techniques. I like the final result to be slightly imperfect, and I add grain. Lots of grain. When it comes to the final print, I still make test strips just as I did in the darkroom.

Don’t just take my word that digital is as good as film

In 2008, I was part of a group exhibition at the Getty Image Gallery in London. Getty was printing the images and mounting them for the photographers. The exhibit was due to showcase digital images which were shot with a specific camera brand. A couple of weeks after I had sent my digital files to Getty, I received an email from their printing department asking for some new files because they thought I had sent them medium format film scans by mistake. I was very happy. If my digital files could fool Getty into thinking they were taken with film, then I was on the right track.

Sir Don McCullin

Four years later, I was asked to help Sir Don McCullin take his first steps into digital capture. Don hadn’t used a digital camera before and, like many professionals from a film background, he was keen to learn, but with a slightly sceptical side to him. When it came to thinking about film vs digital capture, he was firmly in the film camp.

“I could sell this print in a gallery”

Sir Don McCullin

We were based for a week in the small town of Laurens in the Languedoc region of France. After spending each day shooting streets and landscapes, we would spend the evening processing images. Talk about pressure. Not only is Don a photographic legend, but he is also one of the best darkroom printers of all time and a significant influence with regard to my own printing.

My job was to help Don get his head around digital, but he taught me so much about interpreting an image in print. I don’t mind admitting, when I made the first prints for him, I was nervous. The whole week could be ruined if he didn’t like them. When the first print rolled off the printer, he took it and inspected it closely. With a smile on his face, he said, “I could sell this print in a gallery.”

It was amazing to witness Don’s enthusiasm for those first digital prints. It somehow vindicated my own move from film to digital. I always knew that digital monochrome could be compared favourably to film and both Don and Getty agreed.

What about the future of film photography?

As much as I like digital capture and printing, I still shoot a certain amount of film. The expense involved slows me down and makes me consider what I’m shooting. I have had great success in using Ilford black-and-white film, scanning the negatives, adjusting contrast in Photoshop and outputting to inkjet printers. The results are exceptional. Given unlimited client budgets or a lottery win, nothing would give me more pleasure than to walk around all day shooting rolls of film, but I know that with my digital camera I have something comparable in image quality. In the film vs digital debate, I think I have the best of both worlds.

Putting the film vs digital debate to rest with examples.

Finally, here are some samples. This first image was shot with a Leica M6TTL film camera.

A film vs digital example

This second image was shot with a Leica M9 digital camera. Would you have been able to tell the difference without knowing?

A film vs digital example image

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