During the history of photography, there has arguably been no component which has improved as much as the medium which records the light. The mainstream has gradually moved from glass plates, to 5x4" "press" cameras, to TLRs (120 film with 6x6cm images) to 35mm film (24x36mm image) and finally to sensors with a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

At the same time, there is obviously some metric which decides whether a particular image is good enough to use for, for example, newspaper reportage. For the sake of this question please could we keep it simple and assume that it this largely based on the resolution of the image (line-pairs per inch, pixels across the diagonal etc.).

Is there any established rule of thumb which suggests that the resolution offered by a TLR, the resolution offered by a 35mm camera and the resolution offered by a digital camera were roughly equivalent when they started being favoured over their predecessors by e.g. photographers accompanying journalists?

Although this question might sound hopelessly naive, please assume that I am familiar with both sensor and film technology (halide grain structure, the possibility of multiple active sites per grain etc.). This was initially going to be a simpler question asking at what point (megapixels per sensor) journalists started considering DSLRs for their work.

  • Remember that resolving power relies not only on the recording medium, but (more importantly?) on the lens being used. – osullic Sep 15 '20 at 9:45
  • Yes, but leaving aside the obvious issue of the manufacturing precision of a lens depending (in some complex way) on its size I'd not expect there to be a step change in resolving power at the same time as the film/sensor technology changed... particularly in the case of removable-lens cameras where the lens assembly could reasonably be changed when e.g. improved coatings became available. – Mark Morgan Lloyd Sep 15 '20 at 9:54
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    @MarkMorganLloyd You ignore the fact that lenses for smaller formats must be sharper to give the same resolution as lenses for larger formats when the results of both are enlarged by differing amounts to be viewed at the same size. A Micro Four-Thirds lens, for example, must resolve twice as many lines per millimeter as a "FF" lens to give the same resolution in terms of lines per image height (technically line per image diagonal since they're slightly different aspect ratios). – Michael C Sep 16 '20 at 0:05

For photojournalists, the movement from large format to medium format to 135 format to digital was never about absolute image quality. It was about several other factors that gave each new format an advantage over the previous format while still providing images that were good enough for relatively low resolution newsprint.

  • Smaller size and weight of cameras and lenses
  • The ability to carry several smaller cameras with lenses of different focal lengths that could be alternately used for different angles of view at a time when zoom lenses didn't yet exist or were still pretty bad compared to prime lenses
  • Faster handling - both in terms of frame rates and the speed at which film could be loaded/unloaded from a camera without requiring a trip to a dark enclosure
  • The ease of transporting cartridge film from the shooting location to the nearest darkroom without risking accidentally fogging the film
  • The lower cost per image from using smaller film sizes
  • The lower quantities of chemicals required per image to develop those smaller film sizes
  • Faster workflow allowing shorter lead times between the time an image was captured and the time it could be published.

These are some of what drove the move in photojournalism from larger to smaller formats. The last point is what drove the move to digital. An image could be distributed mere seconds after it was captured, fully developed and ready for use!

  • I accept with all that, but what I'm asking is whether there was some resolution-based metric... the sort of thing where the photo editor at a newspaper would say "Those photos are/aren't good enough to use". Or failing that my original question: at what point did people start considering DSLRs for serious use? – Mark Morgan Lloyd Sep 16 '20 at 6:30
  • @MarkMorganLloyd For photojournalists, the movement from large format to medium format to 135 format to digital was never about absolute image quality. It's the lead sentence in the entire answer. At least since the turn of the Twentieth Century all formats typically used by photojournalists have, in terms of resolution, far exceeded the ability of newsprint to reproduce them. It's never been about resolution of the cameras and their film. – Michael C Sep 16 '20 at 11:04
  • "At what point did people start considering DSLRs for serious use?" When they became more cost effective than film SLRs and the amount money it cost to go digital was more than made up for by savings to the cost per image (including labor saved in darkrooms) over the expected life of the equipment. For National Geographic that was in the late 1990s. For most large newspapers in the U.S., that was around 2000-2002. For smaller newspapers, it was around 2005 or so, at least in the area of the world I live in. – Michael C Sep 16 '20 at 11:10
  • Newspapers were already digital long before their cameras were. Wires services had transmitted photos over phone lines using modems for decades. A print, produced by film and an enlarger in the darkroom, was scanned by the transmitting machine (similar to the way a fax machine works, though not exactly) and sent across "the wire". The resolution of the earliest wire scanners was very low and didn't begin to approach even a few percent of the resolution of the images they scanned. But they were good enough for newsprint. – Michael C Sep 16 '20 at 11:14
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    At the newspaper I worked at in 2000, we switched to the the Nikon D1h (a 2.7 MP camera!) 90% for cost reasons - we could recoup the entire cost of two cameras, multiple lenses, etc. in a little over a year by getting rid of the cost of processing film. The other 10% was speed (again, by getting rid of film processing). 2.7 MP doesn't sound like much, but we were actually typically scanning film at a lower resolution. The corse halftone screen of newspaper printing hid a lot of flaws. – David Rouse Sep 17 '20 at 14:24

Consider the "inveniton" of 35mm film; it is well documented. The creation of the format for still photography can be attributed to a single person - Oskar Barnack. He was a genius engineer, keen mountaineer and - crucially - asthma sufferer. He was physically incapable of carrying a "proper" camera to a mountaintop. And so he went on and invented the Leica. Later photographers fell in love with the format not because of superior print quality, but because of ease of use & speed in the field (wow, snapshots!) while giving clearly inferior, but still acceptable print quality.

  • OK, but can you assign any kind of metric to "acceptable"? – Mark Morgan Lloyd Sep 17 '20 at 13:24
  • Acceptable is in the eye of beholder - this image was acceptable to Barnack upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/62/… – Jindra Lacko Sep 17 '20 at 15:03
  • And a seemingly unacceptable photo by today's standars called Three boys at Lake Tanganyika - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Boys_at_Lake_Tanganyika - had caused a minor revolution in 1930's understanding of the concept of photography as an art form. Not due to some pixel peeping or line counting, but by showing that photography could be spontaneous (and not painstakingly arranged as painting and what not) – Jindra Lacko Sep 17 '20 at 15:07

It was an economic decision and not based on quality. Traditional media spent a fortune on processing, splicing, etc. Digital removed 75% of the cost. 35mm film quality was much higher than digital during the transition. MF was obviously even better but even more expensive. News and magazine image quality is quite low but I do remember a SI swimsuit issue when they switched from 645 to digital and the pics were horrible. So that that transition may have been a cost saver but it was not smooth.

The transition started in real estate appraisals. Banks spent a fortune processing film for appraisals. Switching to the early Fuji digitals saved them a fortune. They didn't need high image quality, just reference pics. Appraisers kept minilabs open in the 80's/90's. And appraisers killed minilabs when they pulled their accounts.

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