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Is there a difference in dynamic range between film and digital?

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The following article is an excellent comparison of the dynamic range differences of film and digital. It is a few years old, so it is a bit out of date, but the underlying theory is basically the same with modern gear. It has a lot of empirical data, and the conclusions are pretty interesting:

http://www.clarkvision.com/imagedetail/dynamicrange2/

It should be noted that this article lacks some information about film. While digital does have good dynamic range in comparison to film in general, film does tend to edge out digital when it comes to highlights. Some empirical data is also missing due to the fact that the film images were scanned, which results in some loss of dynamic range and detail.

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  • Found another comparison along the same lines shutterclick.smugmug.com/gallery/… – daniel Jul 23 '10 at 22:25
  • @Daniel: Thanks for the link. Between these two comparisons, something I've noticed is that film seems to have an edge on highlight DR, while digital seems to have an edge in shadow DR. Shades and deep shadows have much greater contrast with digital, while highlights are captured better with film (less blown out.) – jrista Jul 23 '10 at 23:25
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    The clarkvision reference you give uses a target with a dynamic range of 10.6 stops. Unsurprisingly,it cannot measure anything with a greater dynamic range, making film and digital look quite similar. For another look at the subject consider this reference archive.bigben.id.au/tutorials/360/technical/hdri/index.html . Here the author finds that Fuji Realia has a dynamic range of 15 stops. – labnut Dec 12 '10 at 14:12
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Another point is that film's sensitivity is logarithmic when reaching saturation. Digital is linear, and has a hard saturation point, leading to easily clipped highlights.

Many cameras simulate this by underexposing and applying a tone curve.

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The comparison is not as simple as it seems on the surface. Different films have different dynamic range, so do different digital cameras. More importantly, often the limitation is not the recording media but the display media. A high quality LCD tends to have a higher dynamic range than photo paper. A traditional dark room B&W paper can have a higher dynamic range than the ink jet paper etc.

Another generalization is that the new digital sensors are generally on par with the negatives, but superior to the slide film.

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It's not really that simple. W/ film, you can badly overexpose (or just have a scene w/ a long exposure range) and everything will be happy. Not so w/ digital, the highlights just disappear. On the other hand, digital handles gross underexposure better than film. It's safe to say that the usable dynamic range of film is superior to digital if we're talking 35mm B&W film. When you get to the larger formats like 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 or 4 x 5 the difference is even more striking. Most tests that you see on the internet compare digital to 35mm film, a format that film photographers refer to as a miniature film.

The two mediums look different no matter what you do. Digital will have lots of acutance (sharpness on the edges) but will leave out vast amounts of shadow detail, so for portraits digital is usually not your friend. All of this begs the question, which film? Film types are plentiful, and they all have a different dynamic range, look and use. Different developers and different methods of developing film will also greatly change how a film looks too. Then there's a scanned image of film negatives vs a printed one, and a scanner will not always have the dynamic range that the film actually has available in the negative.

The last thing to consider is the printing. Many digital shooters never even print their images, they just download them into their computer and look at them, upload them to websites, or email them to friends. Most film shooters print their images, and when it comes to darkroom printing, there are a large amount of considerations that will change the image. Use RC paper or fiber? Enlarge w/ a filter, or no? Pre flash the paper? Traditional prints or carbon prints? The list goes on and on.

To properly master film, one ties the film type, in-camera exposure, choice of developer, manner of development, type of print paper, and manner of print all together to get the look that is wanted. The results of all this, assuming that one knows what they're doing, cannot ever be approached by digital because there is no, ahem, negative/developer/darkroom print, etc.

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Typically, film has a greater dynamic range than digital.

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It depends on the type of film. The typical negative color film will have a greater dynamic range than most digital cameras. A typical digital camera has roughly the same dynamic range as a slide film, as I recall it.

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