The incredibly unscientific
camera bake off.

The Cameras

These are all consumer cameras (July 2004). I just grabbed whatever was sitting around or could borrow. Of interest was how different digital cameras performed relative to each other and how digital photos compared to 35mm film in general. Some of these digital cameras are obsolete now but I just selected a range of cameras with different pixel counts. Here's a clue the results: these cameras are lined up in ascending order of photo quality.

CoolPIX 950
CoolPIX 4500 
CyberShot DSC-F717 
CoolPIX 8700 
1.3 MPixel
2.11 MPixel
4 MPixel
35mm Film
5 MPixel
8 MPixel

The Scene

This is the unscientific part: I just walked outside and shot a building with wacky lighting and fine detail (brickwork). Other items in the scene provided a way to test the resolving power of the cameras (trees, signs). Of interest are the resolution, colorimetry and noise floor. Nothing else useful like sensitivity or dynamic range was tested and the changing lighting affected the look of the photos but didn't really affect what I'm looking for. The film is Kodak Gold 200, since it's hard to find 100 anymore. You could do better with Kodachrome 25, but 200 speed negative film is what was shot. The field of view between all the photos was matched up close enough. I couldn't get all the cameras at the same time, but here is my test pattern:

The Comparison

All photos were normalized to about 20 MPixel resolution. Then, the photos were registered to each other as well as practical and the areas of interest were cut out from the same part of all photos. They're all saved as high quality JPEGs. The photos are presented at the normalized resolution. In other words, if you were to print the large photo above from all the cameras at 12x18 inches, this is how the parts would look blown up to the same size. Click one of the thumbnails to get a larger view and click the larger photo to cycle between the cameras:

Click a thumbnail to see the comparisons

My Opinion

When comparing digital photos from my Nikon CoolPIX 4500 to the same scenes taken with my Nikon F or 6006 35mm cameras, I look at the 35mm and ask myself why I'm spending all this money on film and processing. Every 24 pictures puts you out at least $12.00 or so. I should take any money spent on film and upgrade the digital camera.

On a good vacation, I might come back with 600 digital photos because I shoot without concern about the cost per frame. There's about $350 toward a decent camera right there. I'm hitting the cost aspect because a digital camera with rechargeable batteries (penlites, thank you) makes photography essentially FREE. The initial cost of a decent digital camera is about two vacations worth of film and processing. Storage of digital photos is an issue so stick a few hundred photos on a DVD-ROM for a few bucks. Make several original quality safety copies if you like. Sorting and sharing photos is wayyyyyyy easier with digital sources... the digital advantages are outside the scope of this test but you can't help but think about it.

Camera CollectionNormally you wouldn't have to apologize for the look of film but the 8 MPixel camera, in my opinion, knocked the socks off the 35mm film camera. Sure, it has a video quality around high detail, but that detail doesn't even exist in the 35mm because it's getting buried in the film grain. Now with 10 MPixel cameras falling under $700, 35mm film is looking far less than optimum. Highlight handling is something to be careful about in digital photography, but if you are careful, you can demonstrate an excellent digital image with 11 stops of difference between dark and light. Film is acknowledged to have a latitude of about 8 stops, but your mileage will vary.

In general, the 4 MPixel camera was bested by the 35mm and the 5 MPixel was on par with it. The 5 MPixel camera had less noise (grain) than the film and about the same resolution but suffered from minor spatial aliasing artifacts in fine details. The 8 MPixel camera took care of all that and the color was better to boot. So, the CoolPIX 4500 is for sale so I can get a 10 MPixel Nikon D80 and the Nikon 6006 goes into my camera collection right between the Nikon F and the Speed Graphic.

CoolIris a nice way of looking at the photos below: PicLens

Other Photos - Digital

These were taken with my crudely inferior Nikon CoolPIX 4500 (4 MPixel) and sort of demonstrate why I'm thinking about being done with chemical photography, even using this camera. These photos have issues when you look at the close ups, like highlight clipping and some visible pixels around the edges, but you don't have to apologize for the image at reasonable sizes. Besides, all these are tourist snapshots without even trying to bracket or anything. The 35mm camera did better than this but I still think these 4 MPixel digital photos look better than they should.

Artist's Point, Yellowstone WY
Lone Tree, Yosemite CA
Delicate Arch, Moab UT
Antelope Canyon, Page AZ
Minerva Springs, Yellowstone WY
Balanced Rock, Moab UT
Arches National Park, Delecate Arch Panoramic, Moab, Utah
Arches National Park, Moab, Utah - Delecate Arch Multi exposure panoramic
Bryce Canyon, Utah
Bryce Canyon, Utah - Multi exposure panoramic
Lake Tahoe and Carson Valley
Lake Tahoe and Carson Valley - Multi exposure panoramic

Other Photos - Chemical

To be fair, I must show a few chemical photos just for fun. These were mostly taken with the Nikon 6006 or a Nikonos 4a. The negatives were scanned on a Nikon LS2000 scanner at 2700 dpi.  I tried a scanner capable of 4,000 dpi but all I got was grain and much larger files with no useful advantage. Grain... hmmph. I much preferred the larger film formats like 4x5 or even the old Kodak 616 box cameras. Start with an acre of silver and a simple lens - you couldn't beat those images. It was a sad day when Falls Camera no longer had Verichrome Pan 616/620 in the overdue bin. None the less, my darkroom days are over. I was raised by a documentary motion picture and still photographer who taught me all the photo and darkroom tricks. I was shooting 35mm film at age 5 and had trace amounts of Dektol and hypo in my blood by the time I was 9. It's still there which makes me love taking pictures.

Balloon, Bealton, VA
Mail box, The Vatican
Boat, St. Martin
Canal, Venice IT
Chichen Itza , Mexico
Diver Plunge, St. Kitt
Dock, Cancun, Mexico
Arch, St. Louis, MO
St. Bartolomae, Germany
Restaurant, Alexandria, VA
Ponte Vecchio, Florence, IT
Christmas Tree, Bonaire
Sloppy Joe's, Key West, FL
Grey Angel, Grand Cayman


All images Copyright © Steve Wiedemann - no use without permission