Friday, February 3, 2017


In a television advertisement a while ago the statement was made that, if it is on the internet, it must be true.  I was reminded of that a while ago when I read an article comparing film to sensor resolution.  The writer boldly stated that most films have a resolution of at least 300 l/mm (lines per millimeter).  Of course that was overstating things by a huge margin.  I don’t mean to say that there aren't films that can attain such high resolution figures, but all films?

Resolution is generally tested by taking photographs of test targets which show a pattern of black lines in an ever decreasing size against a white background.  Eventually the lines will become so small that the film, or the lens, can no longer distinguish the black lines from the white spaces in between.  One black line and the adjacent white space are referred to as 2 l/mm or 1 lp/mm (line pair per millimeter).

Typical test target

It is a known fact, however, that evaluating resolution with test targets does not render very conclusive information.  The black lines and white spaces in between constitute a very high contrast.  This makes it substantially easier for the film (or a lens) to separate the two.  Reducing contrast by using grey lines on a white background would render substantially different results.

Another major factor influencing resolution is the grain structure of the film.  A film image is made up of silver halide clumps which show up in form of grain.  The smaller the silver halide clumps or the grain, the finer the detail that can be shown.  Faster films simply do display coarser grain which in turn lowers the resolution of a film.


      These three images are from a fine grain negative (Agfapan APX 25).
The first was scanned from an 8x enlargement, showing the entire negative area.
The second image was scanned from a 16x enlargement.
The third shows a cropped section of the same 16x enlargement
Please note: All three images show the resolution on an enlargement.  The actual film resolution is higher

File:2014 Ziarno na fotografii analogowej.jpg
Grainy film image.  The grain is so large that small detail simply cannot be shown
Photo: Góry Bialskie

For comparison:  Full image and cropped section from a 5 megapixel digital camera (Leica Digilux 2)

This isn't to say that higher resolution sensors aren't desirable.  The relatively small number of individual sensor elements of a 5 MP camera can only show limited detail.  In order to take full advantage of the capabilities of our lenses, a higher resolution is necessary.

Full frame image Leica SL with Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8 ASPH

Cropped section of the above image

Further crop of the original image

Finally, the structure of the emulsion or emulsion layers influences film resolution because in any case, light traveling through the emulsion, will scatter and thus reduce resolution as well.

Subsequently, to say that most films have a resolution of 300 l/mm is patently false.  As a matter of fact, only few commercially available films even have that high a resolution.

Researching this topic, I came across a report written by Joseph A. Schantz, Assistant Head of Research and Development Department at the Navel Photographic Center in Washington, DC.  He wrote that since 1963 the Navel Photographic Center and the Navel Air Systems Command as a matter of continuous policy have expanded efforts to upgrade 35mm photography on a systematic basis.  The aim of this work was not only to improve the quality of documentary and reportage photography but also to improve intelligence collection capabilities of the Navy’s cameras.

According to the research done by Mr. Schantz, the best resolution obtainable with conventional, slow speed films, like the old Agfapan APX 25, is 250 – 300 l/mm compared to 550 l/mm with the Agfa High Contrast Copy Film and 600 l/mm with Kodak 5069 and 3414 film.

Kodak High Contrast Copy Film when processed in the POTA developer of Marilyn Levy (Levy, M., “Wide Latitude Photography,” Science and Eng. Vol. II Number I, January, February 1967) yield excellent high resolution negatives with adequate film speed.  The Agfa High Contrast Copy film gives a practical combination of good resolution and emulsion speed.

In addition, C. B. Neblette in his book “Photographic Lenses” clearly states: "The resolving power of a lens-film combination is not fixed by the film alone, but by both the lens and the film (or sensor). Resolution is determined principally by the sharpness of the image (lens resolution).  But it is profoundly influenced by the tone producing properties of the receptor (film or sensor) and its ability to reproduce steep gradients.  For that reason resolution cannot be regarded as an exclusive property of the lens."

For the average films available today, a more modest resolution of 100 to 200 l/mm is a realistic figure, based on film speed and general properties of the film.  Black and white films generally have a higher resolution than color films.  The former Agfapan APX 25, for instance, had a resolution close to 300 l/mm while Fuji Velvia 50 was rated to resolve 160 l/mm.

To make film resolution more understandable in this comparison, let’s refer to the smallest detail a film can show as pixels.  On a standard 24 x 36mm 35mm frame, a film with a resolution of 100 l/mm would render a total of over 8,6 million pixels.  That increases to over 19,4 million pixels with a film resolution of 150 l/mm and over 34,5 million pixels with a 200 l/mm resolution.

Of course a 35mm negative or transparency is of little use just by itself.  Today transparencies generally are scanned and then further processed digitally.  Does anyone still use a slide projector?  Many film users still make their own enlargements, mostly from black and white negatives, or the negatives are scanned for further processing.  Regardless how films are used, any further processing will have an image degrading effect, based on the slide projector, enlarger or scanner used and by their respective quality.  With other words, the resolution figures for films are a theoretical value that can never be fully realized.

For more details on this topic go to LEICA Barnack Berek Blog article “LEICA LENSES – WHAT GIVES THEM THEIR OUTSTANDING QUALITY.”  However, without going into the details of that article, just one comment about lenses:  Most people consider resolution of a lens to be the most important measure of lens performance.  While that is important, the contrast level of a lens is at least equally important.  This refers to the lens' ability to distinguish between very similarly shaded objects.  A lens with a low contrast level often cannot make that distinction and no increase of contrast during printing or in post production is able to make up for that.  It is actually the fact that a higher contrast level of a lens can result in sharper appearing detail.

Most test targets used to measure resolution use black bars on a white background, 
which constitutes a rather high contrast.  However, if the black bars on a white 
background were replaced with grey bars of various density on a grey background, 
a low contrast level lens would quickly be incapable of distinguishing between the 
bars and the background.

The lens in the top example has twice the resolution of 
the one in the bottom example.  
But the lens in the bottom example has twice the contrast level
 which results in a definitely sharper appearing image

How does this compare to digital sensors?  With few exceptions, top level full frame (24 x 35mm) cameras currently have resolution levels of approximately 25 megapixels.  The general belief is that the higher the pixel count, the better the image quality.  However, there is a lot more to that than meets the eye.  The new CMOS sensors in the new Leica M10, the Leica M (Typ 240) as well as the Leica SL have definite advantages over conventional CMOS sensors.  For a more detailed description of digital sensors and some of the major differences, got to LEICA Barnack and Berek Blog article “THE PIXEL RACE - DOES IT REALLY MAKE SENSE?”

pixel diagram
Section of a typical sensor
 Image courtesy of  Red Dot Forum

CMOS sensor
Conventional CMOS sensor with deep pixel wells and flat microlenses

MAX CMOS sensor
Leica CMOS sensor with very shallow pixel wells and tall micro lenses, allowing for larger pixel area

Unlike film, digital sensors will render the same contrast level up to the finest detail.  This has the result that the finest detail becomes less visible. A color image is made up out of RGB (red, green, blue) image elements.  With the exception of the hardly ever used Foveon sensors, digital sensors can record only in black and white.  In order to obtain a color image, the light passes through an array of red, green and blue filters, the Bayer filter grid.  This means that the total number of pixels in a sensor are exposed to either red, green or blue light only.  To form a color image, the information obtained from the sensor is then processed by interpolation in the camera or by raw conversion software.  It takes the pixels of each color, and assigns all colors to each pixel.  With other words, the software will take a red pixel, for instance, and assign theoretical green and blue values as well to form a complete color image.  As good as these types of software have become, there are certain losses involved.

With lower quality cameras these losses can be as much as 50 percent of the resolution.  The only exception to this is the Leica M Monochrome.  Here the Bayer filter and interpolation software is eliminated to record just black and white images.  See LEICA Barnack and Berek Blog article “MONOCHROME SENSOR - WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE.”  The result is an unsurpassed image quality and tonal range.


In the final analysis, just as there are definite performance differences among films, there are also considerable differences among sensors.  CCD sensors used to be the choice of most camera manufacturers.  These have been widely replaced by CMOS sensors.  In this respect, Leica is no different.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that the CCD sensor in the Leica M9 delivers superior results than the current CMOS sensor in the Leica M (Typ 240)  A recent comparison test by David Farkas of the Leica Store Miami thoroughly debunked that.  He took this very subject to task in a three part series in the Red DotForum.  See LEICA Barnack Berek Blog article “LEICA M (TYP 240) VS LEICA M9”.

The debate of which is better, film or digital sensors, cannot be answered with any certainty because the large differences among films and sensors.  What can be said is that both film and sensors are capable of delivering very high quality images.  In many cases they do exceed the requirements of the photographer since extreme cropping or enlarging is necessary to even reveal the limits of their capabilities.  Thus it is more a matter of personal choice than effective differences pointing to one or the other medium as being superior.

As for myself, I used to spend many hours in my professional custom black and white lab developing films and printing with a Leitz Focomat V35 as well as medium and large format enlargers.  Having switched to digital, I don’t miss analog photography at all, and I can say with certainty that I am not compromising the overall quality of my work by having done so.


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  1. Here we talk about digital camera high range, with sensors and optics at the top of what the market offers. I think it depends very much on the film format. With an average size of Hasselblad and Zeiss optics (to stay in the top range) there is no sensor that takes ... If then we go to the optical bench with large slabs, becomes impossible any comparison with digital. In 35 mm already 6 or 7 megapixel cmos or ccd have more detail (slightly above the CCD, although slower and energy-hungry) ... In any case also depends greatly on the film speed and the accuracy of the development. I would not go beyond certain comparisons. For now though sensors with the same "soul" of a film I do not see.

    1. Of course the film format does make a difference. Since the majority of high end cameras do use full frame sensors (24x36mm), I concentrated this comparison on those. Besides, to compare a full frame sensor to Medium format film is just as ridiculous as comparing 35mm film to medium or large format film. As for sensors not having the "soul" of film is nothing tangible, it is merely a personal opinion, just like the opinions claiming that CCD sensors are superior to CMOS sensors. Finally, one of the photography magazines did a comparison test a while ago between the Leica S2 and a Mamiya RB 67 loaded with ISO 100 film. The results were not even close; the Leica S2 rendered substantially better results.

    2. I argue that in fact already '6 or 7 mpx are substantially higher in definition to the classic film 135mm. On this we agree. On HST and Pan-STARRS are mounted ccd for astronomical use. if you have not opted for cmos will have their reasons ... The lack "soul" of the sensor and 'linked to the nature of the raw files that must collect the most information in a "neutral" to allow then the most' ample opportunity 'to obtain quality images' .... But to get this often serve hour work PC. I do not make matters any better / worse. I think everyone works with the means that more 'the own pace. I just think some comparisons leave the time they are ... I work in both analog and digital, but I choose to use the technique based on the type of photos that I have to do. Different techniques for different emotions. Professionally work only in digital. For more photos and my personal use almost exclusively analog.

    3. I see that ultimately our opinions are not very different from each other. I work only digitally. That, however, does not mean that I do not appreciate film. I simply don't like to take the time any longer that is necessary to develop and print (or scan) negatives and transparencies.

  2. In my opinion this is not a good article about this topic. Many things are left untouched and the referenced documents are far outdated. To understand the difference in technology it is important to understand that all CMOS-Sencors (except Foveon) are not sharp by nature and that the light of the lens has to be put through special filters. Regardless of resolution some fine detail information is lost (color guessing algorithm). Color reproduction is also an issue (e.g. artificial light). On the other hand exposure latitude is an important topic that is very different in film, CCD and CMOS technology. Another important point is lens design (analog vs. digital) due to the reflection of digital sensors and photon collection.
    There is even more to take into account: Workflow, total cost of ownership, archive ...
    To make it short: With analog the main focus is on picture taking while digital has more freedom in post porcessing. Digital seems cheaper but the total cost of ownership is far more expensive.
    I bought and tested Canon, Nikon, Sony, Leica M240 and by far the best sensor is in the Nikon D810 followed by the Canon 5DSR. I sold my Leica M240. The lenses are great but the sensor did not fulfill my expectations. In fact I was very disappointed. Today I shoot almost only analog. The look of film (colors, contrast) is fantastic and I have the choice to pay the film lab for a print or do the post processing by myself. I's a matter of time and purpose. My focus is on taking great pictures not on software, archive, etc. Who needs a digital lens and sensor of 80 MP that show so many detail in a portrait image that takes hours of retouching (blurry the sharpness). This technology driven photography is bothering me. Just for an example: On YouTube videos of cameras and lenses are viewed ten times more often than masters in photography!
    Digital imagery today is only of little value but high cost to the environment. Most pictures are presented online with far less than 1 megapixel and dumped on servers where they consume energy and produce CO2 over a long period of time. The fascination of digital is vanishing and analog is coming back for good reasons.