Is Digital Photography Better Than Medium Format Film?

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The world is curious: how good is digital photography? Albert Watson famously told Steve Jobs when photographing him that digital wasn’t as good as film. Steve allegedly said that it would one day get there. In 2021, lots of us know better. There’s a world where film photography, digital photography, and instant film photography can co-exist. In the purest sense, film photography is still more versatile and gives different looks. This is especially the case with Medium Format Film. That may sound crazy, but it makes a ton of sense. Digital photography also very much has its place in our lives.

The Monotony of Digital Photography

Digital photography is monotonous. Lots of camera manufacturers use the same sensors; the same 24MP sensor is in various cameras. And that makes digital very monotonous. It needs to rely on in-camera processing, lenses, and post-production to make it stand out. But at that point, it’s kind of useless. Leica, Fujifilm, Sony, and Canon have the most unique sensors in their cameras. With Fujifilm, it’s specifically present with the X-series. At the medium format range, Fujifilm relies more on its processing power in-camera to get its look. That’s how they stand out. 

But is digital better than film? It depends on the parameters. In terms of dynamic range, it’s challenging to beat the range Fujifilm PRO400H had. If you’re talking about colors, Velvia and Ektachrome can do a great job. Digital tries so hard to copy the look of film. Think about how many presets exist for Kodak Portra alone!

If you’re talking about resolution, then digital is starting to win out here. 35mm film can only be scanned to a certain degree. 120 film only has so much to offer too. Large format gives you lots of possibilities, but again, it’s really just being translated over to a digital image. In the printing process, you can sometimes get more and better photos from film photography.

The arguable exception to this rule is Kodak Portra 160 and Kodak Portra 400. They were made to be scanned.

The Variety and Spice of Film Photography

Film photography already has a leg up on digital photography here. Today, you buy a camera based on features and know that you can do a whole lot in post-production. But with film, you buy it for the look. Kodak Portra looks much different from CineStill. You start with a very unique product. Then, when you want to make it look different, you scan or develop it in a non-conventional way. Film photography has cross-processing, which digital can’t do at all. 

Again though, 35mm and 120 films aren’t always able to totally stack up to digital. They can give you a look that you really can’t get digitally, though, unless you do a lot of post-production work. Film has also been around far longer than digital. But as I said, digital needs variety. It starts in-camera. If you do everything in post-production, then your camera really just won’t matter.

What good is a Sony Artisan who does all the work in post-production? Or what about a Canon Explorer of Light who shoots for 10 minutes and spends the entire night retouching photos? If that’s the case, what’s the point of using the camera system?

Is Modern Day Digital Better Than Medium Format Film?

When we think of the modern-day, digital medium format, we usually think of Hasselblad and Fujifilm. Phase One is still around, but they just focus on DSLRs. Medium format DSLRs are still doing things medium format mirrorless isn’t doing. 400 Megapixel imaging, for example, is one of the insane things medium format digital does. And it does it very well. You can still get a more unique look from larger film planes than the full-frame medium format. A 6×9 image will look different than a full-frame 645 photo. So honestly, in some ways, medium format film is better than digital. But digital surely has the leg up in certain situations.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.