Is it worth it?

I’m sure this is the most common question after learning there are much larger film sizes than 35mm, and that the cameras are all affordable.

“Is it worth buying a 6×6 or 6×7 camera over getting a 35mm film camera, or a 35mm DSLR?”

First, click both of these images to see them full size at 16MP for 25mm and 28MP for 6×7, and zoom into the thistle under the right red air horn.

35mm Lighthouse

6x7 Lighthouse

Granted the top photo is overexposed and they have different focal lengths, but these are the closest images for comparison I have at this time. You can tell when viewing the original sizes that there is far more detail in the 6×7 shot. If you need further convincing look up 6×7 on Flickr you should learn that it is worth it.

Here is a simple scale of quality:

35mm film < 35mm digital = 6×7 film < “Medium format” digital < 4×5 film ≤ 4×5 scanning back < any larger film size.

How can this be, that much bigger pieces of film are equivalent to smaller digital sensors? Because they are completely different recording technologies.

To quickly answer the question, “is it worth it,” first, 35mm film will have more grain/noise and less sharpness than a “Full-frame” 35mm DSLR. Yes, you would have to shoot and develop a roll of slide film a week for a year or two to balance out the cost of the initially more expensive digital camera, however a 35mm digital is superior to the same size film, which I will explain below. Therefore I would not recommend to anyone to get a film 35mm camera, because it’s quality is pretty low. The only exception is learning how film sees things before moving up to 4×5 or a larger sheet film. Otherwise, spend more money on the digital camera and be happier. Notice I said full frame, a $300 10MP digital camera will not be any better than 35mm film.

So, that full frame digital being the same as a 6×7 camera, is it worth getting the medium format camera? I am more inclined to say yes if you intend to move on to 4×5 or more, as you can witness first hand all the extra details on the much bigger slides, which is quite satisfying. There is also a litany of reasons to choose film over digital, which I cover in a 3 part series on YouTube (here is the playlist).

You will still be saving money even after dozens of rolls and the cost of a scanner of your own to buy the film camera. But only if you shoot once every several months. If you want to catalog every person and object you meet, no film is not for you. In general, digital will yield better results at an unrepeatable event like a sunrise or paparazzi shot because you knew right then you got it right before you left, which is a much bigger advantage than you know. Film requires exposure bracketing, taking shots one stop below and above where the meter says, because 3/4 of each roll will be over or under exposed, the camera moved, or the subject moved, and are all useless. Not every film is exactly the ISO it says on the box and not every meter is calibrated correctly. Nor is the center of the camera always placed on the right subject. This gives digital a large lead.  Not that you can’t compensate, for example I shoot instant film in my camera at what the meter recommends and make sure the exposure and depth of field are both perfect before committing it to roll film. But it takes a minute or two for instant film to develop. I’d say once again, even though it cost more at first, go with the ‘full frame’ 35mm camera once again. I could not, because it was beyond my means, and I wanted to know first hand how much better the slides look, and they have made me very happy. The ones that worked.

If you are in the same boat, $400 or less to spend, buying a used camera, like the RB67 I built from the best deals on each component, is what I would recommend over buying a similarly priced digital camera, as it will not be as good. And the cost advantages only increase from there, with a 4×5 camera ($500-2k depending on used or new) still beating the medium format digital cameras, which are all $10,000-20k. I would never recommend those within the next five years unless your magazine or whatever company you work for is buying it for you. Only for commercial purposes where you are recouping the cost is that kind of exorbitant spending acceptable.

Non-image aspects

There was a point in the second to last paragraph about depth of field being previewed with instant film. My Mamiya RB67 lens has a DOF preview lever installed, so I can pull in the aperture blades and see the effect live on the ground glass. But it greatly darkens the scene, hence my needing the exposure of film to be sure. This is also something digital cameras do instantly. However, I do not think it is a common feature of 35mm film cameras, and because I find it to be very important, it is another strike against them. I also love how the backs on the RB67 are interchangeable so I can use instant film whenever I please, or quickly swap kinds of film. Other cameras such as the Pentax 67II or the Mamiya 6 cannot do this. I know Ken Rockwell thinks of the Mamiya 6 as possibly the greatest medium format camera, but, with respect to his great articles, I deplore the lack of DOF preview, or any real preview since it’s a viewfinder, and general lack of customizable features as add-ons. These are advantages that make medium format further worth it outside the topic of film quality. A camera system such as mine has the true preview ability in being able to make a print in the field which I don’t think any 35mm film camera can do, and it definitely adds to the gratification of going out to take photos. There are more goals to photography than the quality of the scanned image.

[I'd like to see how many digital 35mm nature shooters would enjoy taking along a portable printer of some kind which can be told to print via usb from the camera. Not ironically, the smallest portable zinc printer is made by Polaroid. The zinc papers are 17 cents a piece, considerably cheaper than the 75 cent Fuji instant film exposures I take.]

One more question…

Why do different sizes of film equal smaller digital sensors? This is because when you zoom far into either you can see that a handful of grains, silver crystals which will be black or clear after development, fit into the space of one picture element of a sensor. However, each one of those sub-elements will create data that, after the analog to digital converter, will be one of 255 different shades of that color, in the case of 8-bit, 1,024 shades for 10-bit, 4,096 shades for 12-bit and so on. (Newer cameras are up to 14 or 16-bit, although no monitors are able to display such a slight difference in tone.) With film, it requires a few dozen grains to make up a tone. This means several pixels occupy the same space as just one tone area on film, thus it takes an area of film four or more times larger to record an image to the same sharpness as the digital sensor, just like it would take a much larger piece of paper to replicate a detailed scene with bold markers, than drawing with fine pens. It’s common to joke now on film really being digital (discontinuous) and camera sensors being analog. Well, to the extent of how many total wavelengths of visible light there can be.