This is Not a Trick Question

Buddy, Donna and Abby, Carolina Beach, Summer 2020

Stuck as I am at home, a function of Covid and Chemo, I’ve been reading a mind-numbing amount of internet arguments re: film vs. digital. Everyone has an opinion. I certainly do; much of this blog for the last 7 years has been dedicated to flogging that opinion at every available opportunity. My take: yes, there’s a ‘film look’ that differs from digital, and it’s ‘better.’ Film has an unmistakable heft to it, a solidity, that digital capture is incapable of reproducing however much you run the file through whatever emulation software you prefer. It has to do with 1) the non-linear vs. linear capture of film v. digital; 2) the organic grain structure of film and its function in capturing the image v. ‘grain’ superficially overlaid after the capture; and 3), to a lesser extent, the more “classic” rendition of film era optics v. the clinical perfection of highly corrected digital era optics. Or so we say.

FILM :Me, Jorge and Florence, Van Gogh House, Auvers sur Oise, 2014 Contax G2, HP5, D76

DIGITAL: Me in My Paris Flat, 2003, Nikon D2


So, I was thinking of all these issues as I printed the photo of my wife and the mutts above. Take my word for it – it’s a technically stunning print, wet or digital, a perfect B&W print…or at least I think so. (You can right-click on any of the three images here and ask that it be viewed in a new window..and it will bring up a higher resolution image that you can pixel-peep). Hopefully, the scan of it above gives ‘some’ sense of it as a print. Of course, given we are, by definition, debating this via a digital medium makes the whole issue suspect to begin with. But, as you know, half the fun is in debating these insoluble issues and holding firm opinions on them. So, putting that aside for a moment, and given that almost all photography is viewed digitally these days…can you tell whether this is film or digital capture? And if not, what are we arguing about anymore?

You have two options:

  1. It’s taken with a Leica M5, 25mm f4 Voigtlander, yellow filter, (expired) Ilford Pan-F rated at 50 ISO and developed in D76, scanned with a Plustek 7400, marginal contrast post-processing in Lightroom, output sharpening (low); or
  2. It’s taken with a Sigma sd Quattro, Sigma DC 17-50 2.8 EX HSM, effective focal length 25mm, ISO 125 DNG file pre-sharpened in Nik Sharpener, processed in Silver Efex Pro as a Pan-F emulation.

Can you tell the difference? Can you articulate why? What, if anything, gives it away? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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33 thoughts on “This is Not a Trick Question

  1. Keith Laban

    It’s either (1) the film option that is over sharpened or (2) captured with the Foveon sensor, the files of which habitually look unnaturally sharpened and contrasty, or at least look that way to me – when viewed digitally.

    My guess is (2), looking typical of the Foveon. There again, as you suggest, given that the image is going to look different on differing devices we may as well toss a coin.

    I hasten to add, this is no reflection on your print, which alas is invisible to me.

    1. Leicaphila Post author


      I do notice a sharpening effect on the digital file I don’t see in the print. It seems to be concentrated in the center of the print. I went and looked at how I exported the file and found LR, by default, apparently sharpens my files for output, albeit at a “low” setting.” The final print – printed digitally – doesn’t exhibit that ‘sharpness’, at least not at a normal viewing distance.

      One more reason why this entire issue is so silly. Let’s face it. We can’t run away from digital. It’s consumed photography as a practice. The alternative, as Rob Campbell notes, to remain purely analog, is impractical to say the least- film, darkroom, wet print, hang it on a wall. Not many people willing to do that….and it precludes showing your work on digital platforms, which is really all there is these days. How many people are fortunate enough to have galleries or public venues show their work, let alone museums. These are the only venues available to the pure film photographer.

      1. Keith Laban

        Tim, I can only envisage working in two ways. The first would be to have a purpose built wet darkroom, allowing me to process film and then go on to explore a variety of alternative printing processes. The second would be to shoot and process digitally. The first option will have to wait for another lifetime and the second is now my preferred option in this. As I suggested in a previous thread the two processes are different, both having distinct advantages and qualities.

        Shooting film, then scanning and printing digitally – I did this for too many years – before making comparisons based on viewing digital files on digital devices on a digital platform really doesn’t tell us much about film or show the qualities film can deliver. My mind is clear, I’ve no interest in trying to mimic film, instead I accept and relish my chosen path.

  2. Dogman

    It’s a beautiful photo. Doesn’t really matter if it was done with silver or zeros and ones, still beautiful.

    To me, it looks digital. That’s because everything looks digital to me today. Again, it doesn’t matter in the end.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Thank you. Yes, I’m beginning to think it doesn’t matter myself, although I cling desperately to my strongly held opinions…even when there isn’t much basis for them anymore. That’s what it means to get old. You get inflexible, stuck in your ways while the world passes you by.

      I’m reminded of my grandfather, who loved cars and loved driving. I remember, when I was about 5, he decided he was going to show me Niagra Falls. From Wayne, New Jersey, it’s a helluva drive – 800 miles round trip – but we got there in 4 hours doing about 100 mph, got out of the car, looked at the Falls for 15 minutes, and then drove home. He didn’t want to see the Falls, he just wanted to drive his Nash Rambler, which he considered the greatest car ever built.

      My grandfather was of the opinion that the Nash was the greatest car ever made and nobody, ever, would be able to build a car as good as the Nash. I spent my entire childhood listening to the old man extoll the virtues of the Nash as against cars made by Ford, Chrysler and GM, which were junk. God help you if you bought a VW, which was my first car. I neverheard the end of it.

      By the time I came around in the 1960s/’70s, Nash had gone out of business as a marque, but its successor, American Motors (AMC), still made cars (The people who gave the world the Gremlin). Gramps only bought AMC cars and swore by them…because they were built by “the same people’ who made the Nash. Never mind that they were, in reality, some of the worst cars ever built. You couldn’t change my grandfather’s mind.

      I’m beginning to think I’m my grandfather.

  3. Hank Beckmeyer

    I’m going to pick Foveon. There’s an amount of fine detail that I have never gotten using film (at that distance; up close, yes, but not at this distance), plus the clouds look “digital” to me. Not “digital” in a bad way, mind you…it’s just that digital sensors render certain high information subjects (clouds, tree bark, etc) in a way that 35mm film doesn’t.

    But! Either way, it is a really nice print.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Interesting you note the sky as a tell that it’s digital(mind you, I’m not admitting it is). That’s usually the first thing I see that differentiated a digital capture from a film shot – how much detail is retained in the sky. Film era skies are usually white. If you wanted any B&W sky detail, you’d need to use a yellow or red filter, and even with a yellow filter, sky detail wouldn’t be as pronounced as straight digital capture. I like the days of white skies. Much of what looks contrived to me about digital is the ominous looking skies that seem to hang over everything.

      I don’t necessarily see that as an issue in this print. It’s overcast, lots of obvious clouds, and – hypothetically – I’m using a yellow filter on my 25mm VC.

  4. Don Ecsedy

    I think it is the photographer rather than digital or film. Digital encourages photographers to push the envelope and we see thousands of them every time we look at photos online. It is possible to do so with film, including darkroom printing, but it is a lot of work and thus not common.

    You are a good photographer and I should not see much, if any, difference between your digital or film photos.

  5. Rob Campbell

    Sticking my neck out: the clouds, when pulled up on the iPad, look to have a mushy construction that could indicate film origins.

    However, it doesn’t matter: that picture is so evocative of life and its running sands that it becomes painful to inspect. I have one of my wife – a Kodachrome – shot in Cyprus, with her standing in surf holding up the edges of her dress that gives me the same feeling, not then, but today. At the time, it was all happiness.

    (I wish you’d shot it on a Q2Mono, though!)


  6. Gavin Lowe

    Well…photo 1 is labelled Panf.jpeg. I love PanF but rarely shoot it in 35mm as I don’t normally finish a roll in the 1-2 weeks it has to be shot before processing. But to the question: what are we arguing about? It is not just the output (viewed on screen rather than silver print vs inkjet) – of course it is possible to make a digital photo look like a film one. What is going on is this; digital devotees want to persuade us that their way is better/just as good as film even after they have completely won on the mass market.
    Why not feel happy that they are the future/have the best equipment/we are all just luddites living in the past and just get on with it? I suspect it is because it is ultimately a matter of taste, and tastes differ. If we are just shooting for pleasure (that’s me) and we are not doing it as our job, then we can just each follow our own path. By analogy, let’s look at the cycling world. All the new bikes from mass manufacturers are ugly and all follow the same fashion (carbon, disc brakes, electric motors) and if you prefer simplicity, the ability to work on the bike yourself, steel frames, practicality and longevity (and beauty) you have to either buy vintage or go to the artisan builders (like Mercian in the UK, or Rivendell or JP Weigle in the US). There is little point in trying to persuade people who like the new stuff in the merits of the traditional steel bike. The new ones are not better unless you have a very odd set of criteria by which you are judging. They reflect the needs of the bike manufacturers to keep selling new bikes; not the needs of cyclists. Same goes for digital camera manufacturers. If I am going for a ride for pleasure I know what I am going to ride and it ain’t a crabon race bike or a monster wheeled suspension MTB.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Very well said. I agree. I love shooting with my M5 and S3 and F5. I love the smell of film. I love developing film. I love the look of film. I love film cameras.

  7. Bob Palmieri

    Will look on a laptop screen later, but here are my thoughts just glancing at the shot on my phone without any magnification:

    First of all, really good timing in when you pressed the button, the shape of the wave at their feet in context with the sky is one of the factors that really works here.

    Secondly, something about the grey scale “feels” digital to me. I’ve had no experience with Pan F, so my cred here is marginal.

    Third, one reason I do like film is that I have the option of having an optical print made (by a very good printer in town, I’m lousy at that craft myself.)

    May report back upon having a non-phone-hobbled look later.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      So, Bob, are we just stuck with a subjective evaluation that doesn’t have any objective basis that we can articulate? And, if so, what does that say about the difference or lack thereof in reality as opposed to in our heads? And if it’s only in our heads, does that make it any less viable as a legitimate difference between the two?

      1. Bob Palmieri

        So, Bob, are we just stuck with a subjective evaluation that doesn’t have any objective basis that we can articulate?

        Well, I am, for the moment, can’t speak for you or others! May have more to say about this after a period of consideration.

        And, if so, what does that say about the difference or lack thereof in reality as opposed to in our heads?

        Primarily I’m a musician these days, and most of what I deal with comes down to feel. This feels digital to me. However, it’s digital massaged by someone whose film background has sensitized them to rendering elements that really make a difference.

        And if it’s only in our heads, does that make it any less viable as a legitimate difference between the two?

        Nope. Regarding past philosophy studies, I’m fundamentally a Berkeleyan, so the Percept is everything.

  8. Jochen Reimers

    When I look at the grain of the sky I think this is not organic like the grain of a film: this photograph is taken with a digital camera and then developed with Nik SilverEfex PanF Preset.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      That’s as good as any reason for thinking it’s digital. Can you define why it’s not “organic’ by its look? I’m not sure I can. Is it the hardness of the grain itself, which can be variable depending on film and developer? Pan-F in my opinion has a harder grain structure than does Panatomic-x or Plus-X, two other classic low ISO emulsions.

  9. Régis

    Dust is an enemy for digital or film images. It seems to me that there are some spots in the sky that have been erased, their patterns are quite visible when the image is seen at 100%. Depending on the final print size, they will be visible or not, wether the print is digital or wet. I don’t know if digital filters are able to emulate the film look like this.

    Personnally, I dislike shooting digital. Maybe it’s because I sit in front of a computer all day long for my job. Digital cameras, phones are computers. The whole digital process requires a computer to get a final print. It has no magic for me. Digital prints lack something that I find in FB prints.
    Moreover, digital process beeing to “easy”, it has no price for me.

    In the end, it doesn’t matter if the image was taken with a film or digital photo, as long as it suits you, and you have joy when watching it printed!

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      “The whole digital process requires a computer to get a final print. It has no magic for me. Digital prints lack something that I find in FB prints.
      Moreover, digital process being to “easy”, it has no price for me.”

      I agree with you, Regis. But this is a subjective evaluation both of us are making. My question is more looking to find any objective difference. I think there is an objective difference. I’m just not willing to commit myself to what it is. Many years ago, the issue of what constituted a ‘pornographic’ image came before our United States Supreme Court. One of the Supreme Court Justices, in finding that a specific image under review was not ‘pornographic, made the now-famous remark that he couldn’t define what pornography was, but he knew it when he saw it. That’s sort of how I feel about film images. I’m not sure how I’d define what its characteristics are that set it apart from digital capture – but I know it when I see it.

      1. Rob Campbell

        I went for the image being from film because of the clouds that, when pulled up as far as I can get them on the iPad, have the same mushy look that, on big enlargements, differentiated HP3/4 from Tri-X which wasn’t as soft, but much harder, more gritty. That didn’t suit my idea of how flesh should appear, so Ilford got the business in 135 format, but not, as mentioned before, in 120 format, where Kodak got the gig.

        I’m not certain whether different film formats of the same nominal film type come as cuttings from the same piece of film, or whether they are coated separately; that the same – nominally – film types worked for me in one format but not another has always puzzled me, as they all went through the same developer. Can there be that much difference between Nikon and Hasselblad glass as to render one of two ‘nominally identical’ films unsuited to the same job just due to format?

        Regarding your closing sentence, Tim: do you mean you make that call from what you can see online, or do you mean when looking at actual prints, comparing images as they appear as inkjet prints? I think it would have to be based on inkjet prints, because otherwise, it would be pretty obvious what was what.

        Part of the puzzle is that all printers (the people) do not go for the same look when they are working on their files. I think that I tend to make everything fit the same basic look, probably because my limited subject matter lends itself to that approach; were I still making people shots, my approach to how I like my black and white tonality to look might be quite different. It would be interesting to me to see where I’d actually head, should I find myself working with humans after such a long time. Even when I was still working with people I’d long moved from any black/white work exclusively to transparencies, so the time gap goes quite a long way back.

      2. Régis

        Well Tim, I must admit that it’s difficult for me to say if an image displayed on a screen was taken with a digital camera and post-processed to look like a film scanned image! Maybe it’s because of the backlit nature of the screen, maybe it’s because computer’s randomisation of the digital grain is not really random. I dont’t know.

        What I’m shure is that when I watch a wet-printed image on FB, I can recognize it. I believe it’s due to the nature of the paper : it has much more depth, it’s more “vibrant” (hard to express in words). It doesn’t look the same when printed with RC paper, nor scanned.

        Have you ever tried to wet-print a digital image (contact print or englarged)? I have not, but I would be curious to have a look at the result. Sebastião Salgado did that for one of his book and exhibition, during the transition between MF film camera and digital.

        1. Rob Campbell

          “What I’m shure is that when I watch a wet-printed image on FB, I can recognize it. I believe it’s due to the nature of the paper : it has much more depth, it’s more “vibrant” (hard to express in words). It doesn’t look the same when printed with RC paper, nor scanned.”


          RC paper was one of the reasons I closed down my very last darkroom. I had to close it because living on a Mediterranean island, I discovered that water is a scarce and expensive commodity and I couldn’t just run it for an hour to wash a few fibre-based prints, so real photographic paper was out. As for the prints on RC, which I tried as a short-wash alternative, they looked awful. To bang my drum again, I was a pretty hot printer in my day, and I just couldn’t get to the same place using RC. So what was the point in continuing? The professional work, by then, was all transparencies, and the printing was just to keep myself happy and up to speed. It was offering neither. The entire darkroom equipment was donated to a local school.

          Historically, digital was only a further problem: it all started to become difficult much earlier on with the loss of our basic craft medium.

  10. Andrew Molitor

    I think there’s too much grain in the darkest tones to be particularly convincing as film here? But that’s just pixel-peeping, and ultimately I don’t care. I am Extremely Content Forward!

    It’s a nice photo.

  11. Pierre Charbonneau

    It is when I print my scanned black&white negatives on my Epson that I am more pleased than printing my digital files. I print small 5″ x 8,5″ on 8,5. x 11″ paper. And also 12″ x 18″ on 17″x22″ Hanemuhle Baryta.
    The grain of normally exposed Tri-x processed in D76 or Ilfosol is nice but lightly visible. But there is a “roundness” to the texture that is visible and very pleasant.

    Also, I way prefer using film cameras over digital ones. Modern analog Leica like the M7 and MP with 40 years old lenses are delightful to use. The uncertainty of knowing or not if the picture is any good could be also fun actually. I process in batches of 9 rolls of film, about once a month.

    I will point to that I had the first model of the Leica Monochrom for 5 years, an excellent technical camera at that. But the results bored me at the end, sharpness being over rated as someone famous already said.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Also, I way prefer using film cameras over digital ones. Modern analog Leica like the M7 and MP with 40 years old lenses are delightful to use. The uncertainty of knowing or not if the picture is any good could be also fun actually.

      That’s pretty much my motivation too.

    2. Rob Campbell

      Are you trying to discourage Tim from buying a Q2 Mono? 🙂

      I’ve looked at many Q2M images online; some are beautiful but some not. The ones that I do not like are all usually landscape ones where the land is very dark indeed, but the skies look very good. I am wondering if this is poor photography or a shortcoming of the sensor, which is reportedly very contrasty. The result may be caused by people underexposing the ground in order to protect the highlights from blowing out. On the other hand, some landscapes out of that camera are very good…

      The shots that really impress me are more urban in type: perhaps sunlit buildings can accommodate the foil of deep shadows where nature not so much? That’s the trouble with viewing stuff online and trying to reach conclusions: one often has no way of knowing whether or not the photographer is up to the level of the equipment.

      It’s an impossible call for me to make because I’ve never had the pleasure of using a mono digital camera; if I had, then I guess I would have a far better idea of the possibilities.

      In fairness, film photography is also dependent on the competence of the practioner, if not even more so.


  12. Arnaud

    It’s looks digital because of the fake borders, very very similar of a recent (digital) publication of yours ( It could be a trap, like the file name. I can’t tell much more than that. I have a feeling that the contrast is a little bit flat but is it my screen, or the scan, or the picture?

    I’m not sure it matters because it’s a poetic picture, and the prints will look good… and blur the line more depending on the paper you chose. 🙂

  13. Stephen Hoffman

    It can’t be discerned–if only because the image made with either the Leica or the “sigma quattro” whatever was processed and presented here digitally. The REAL question is–with which camera would you RATHER have taken this fine photograph? The answer, to me anyway, is obvious.

    1. Rob Campbell

      You know, you can set a digital camera up to be pretty much an analogue one in functionality. So, in that sense, it’s not obvious to me which camera would be preferred. That said, cheaper point-and-shoots like the Fuji hundred something V don’t let you manually pre-set the distance/aperture to shoot in user pre-set DOF zones which, for some things, is a royal pain. Leica does allow that in the Q2 Mono, but I must forget about that. No, wait: the Euromillions lottery plays again tonight! In fact you can rely on it doing so every Tuesday and Friday night.

      I don’t miss loading film at all, and if I was still shooting people I’d be pleased to have a longer roll than just ten, twelve, twenty-four or thirty-six cracks at it before having to kill the flow and start again.

      The only cameras that I really miss using are the 500 Series ‘blads: they were ergonomically perfect for me – as long as they sat on their tripods! A great advantage was not having to rotate them at any time. As far as the Nikons go, they are pretty much the same, film or digi, and always awkward in vertical mode, even on a tripod. One definite advantage (in my way of working) that the fim ones had was the split-image screen. It served me very well, and the screen never presented the damned quandry about which source was giving correct focus: the green af confirmation light, my own judgement based on the raw screen or the af mechanism itself. I often feel during the focussing act that my eye is telling me one thing and the decision of the af quite another; it can feel dramatically different. In the act, I tend to go with the af, but the trouble is that when I come to seeing the image on the screen, the kind of things I shoot don’t inform me of who was fibbing and who not! I really need to have a patient model to sit there for hours and let me try for eyes and not lashes, which might be the only way. I did once try to define what my 2.8/180mm Nikkor’s af was doing, but shooting the lines on an angled tape measure fifteen feet away was pretty silly, because it’s very easy to miss focus either manually or via af, the target being so small and the focus spot on the screen relatively so large.

      Babies, bathwater and also wasted opportunities: an optional split-image screen could have made using my digi Nikons much more pleasant. I have never used the optional/alternative focussing points on either of my two digital Nikons; I have the central one fixed in stone! Changing them around, for me, would be hopeless in a real-life people shoot, and possibly cost me an eye.


  14. Lawrence Sawyer

    I would bet that it’s film, because the grain pattern looks asymmetrical in the sky. Chunky and random, in a normal fashion. I think the correct technical term is Stochastic. Not to say it’s grainy; I had to zoom way in to get unto the guts of the grain.
    That’s what I’m seeing.

  15. Bill Barendse

    First, it’s a lovely evocative picture of time and place.

    Second, I’m not sure it’s film although a lot of effort was expended to make it look like film off an old lens, vignetting etc. What was weird about the image was the horizon line. All the grain lined up nicely with the horizon. I’ve looked at edges between light and dark on my own scans to check and real grain doesn’t obey a straight line. If it is film then I’m flummoxed.

    Third, if it is expired Pan F then I would have expected more crud or lack of contrast or little white dots scattered through the image especially if there was some time between image capture and development. Personally I don’t use Pan F but that’s what I’ve heard.

    So I look forward to the denouement although maybe it is best not to say and leave it as a hanging question. All the best.

  16. George Feucht

    I’ve come to this “day of reckoning” over and over again.

    I’ve got 2 M6’s (a 0.72 and a 0.58), an M240, a Panasonic S1 with M adapters, and some medium format tidbits. I could ditch film any day but I just can’t. There is something to it that digital can’t do.

    I love the “feel” of film but goddamn it what a pain in the ass. I’m scanning some 617 images right now and cursing the gods as I’m cloning out dust spec after dust spec and micro scratches from the squeegee (I know, I know…)

    Just watched the documentary Koudelka in The Holy Land. It’s him cruising around with his two Fuji GX617s It really makes you fall in love with film. Until you learn that he ditched all of his film gear and now uses a specially built Leica S2 with custom panoramic frame lines and a monochrome mode. Or how Salgado ditched film for Canon full frame digital with scanned TriX grain applied over the images and a digital negative created for printing. They left film due to travel with film issues these days. But also, they dropped their film off at a lab and had Voja later make spectacular prints. I’m doing this shit in my bathroom while fighting the horrible lingering dust you get from tearing sheets of toilet paper. I’m sure I’d shoot only film if I had the budget to have someone else do the dirty work. (Also, again, Salgado’s prints are still wet prints and not inkjet, but that’s a whole other can of worms.)

    I absolutely felt a flatness in the Monochrom image when you did the side-by-side film to digital comparison a while back. Everything about the Monochom image was technically perfect. But something was missing. I just liked the feeling of the film one. It captured the model’s presence instead of just documenting it. Whatever that means.

    So you are looking for an objective difference. I don’t know if I can define one. Is it the roll-off of highlights in film? Is it the blockiness in the toe of exposure? Is it the roll-off of focus in the 3 dimensional emulsion? I don’t know.

    My gut says the image is digital. Something seems clean and cold under all the grain.

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