Q: In your review of the Sigma DP2 camera with the Foveon sensor, you imply that the image quality of film is inherently superior to that of the Bayer sensor used in most digital cameras. I know that digital offers many of its own features, but for sheer image quality, why not just go back to film?
A: I did not mean to suggest that film is inherently superior to digital. I was discussing the ability of the Foveon sensor to capture every color of light at every pixel, which is the way film works and, in theory, is better than a patterned Bayer sensor.
There is definitely something to be said for the image quality and visual characteristics of film. I should start by saying I am very romantic about film, film cameras and darkrooms, though I have not used any of them in years. When I was in college I put together a color darkroom in my dorm room and processed film and made prints there. Back then, you could buy a camera and use it for years without feeling like you were falling behind the technology curve when new models were released. The lenses and the film are what determined your technical image quality, along with processing and printing techniques.
What's more, your purchases held their value. High-quality lenses and cameras could be looked at as investments that would last decades. The same still can be said for lenses, but certainly not for digital cameras, though many of them remain excellent picture-takers even though new, higher-tech models have been released.
Every once in a while I get nostalgic for my film photography days and think about buying another one of my favorite film cameras, like a twin-lens Rolleiflex or Contax G range finder. Outstanding medium-format cameras like the Bronica SQ system with PS lenses also can be purchased very cheaply now.
Then I think of the outstanding image quality of modern digital, and the format's many advantages. I can change ISO with every frame, the color reproduction is better and more controllable, I can see each picture immediately after it is photographed and adjust exposure if necessary, and I can record high-definition video.
Plus it is easy to store, share and send images, and each exposure is practically free. While sightseeing in Russia in early September, I took more than 1,500 pictures, as well as many videos. I shudder to think what that would have cost me in film and processing. Then I consider the dearth of high-quality, affordable film processing and the challenges that arise when storing thousands of negatives and slides. At this point, all my nostalgia for film goes away.
For sheer image quality, I think if I purchased a medium-format camera with top-quality lenses, I might get somewhat better image quality than digital. However, I don't believe the slight difference would be worth all the extra trouble and expense. I still might buy another film camera someday, but it is clear to me why digital has taken over.
While I am on the subject, a reader wrote to me asking if I thought prints from the Sigma DP2 Quattro and its Foveon sensor would look better then prints from his Canon Digital Rebel. The files from the Sigma are too big to e-mail, so I sent him a few via the Dropsend file transfer service so he could print them and judge for himself. He made 13-by-19-inch prints and thought they were better than anything he had made before, which helps validate Sigma's claims for their sensor technology. It still may not be the right camera for everyone, but it definitely produces excellent image quality under the right conditions.
Send questions to Don Lindich at email@example.com. Get recommendations and read past columns at soundadviceblog.com.