Photo Geek Alert — The Camera Sensor as Emulsion + Why Your Digital Camera is More Like Film Stock Than You Realize

Geek alert. Although the mentality stems from the last century, the megapixel wars are not over. It is, however, safe to say that those of us familiar with our cameras have started to realize that they are much more than megapixels + dynamic range. There are other factors that we have come to admit are important to consider – case in point, the sensor. Some are noisy, some are big, some are juicy, others are…well… you get my point. These apparent truths prompted a conversation with my friend Sohail and led him to this in-depth post about the comparison of digital sensors and processing systems that go into today’s cameras — all with the emulsion (the photo sensitive side of film) discussion that used to kick around in the era of film. It’s all coming full circle now… Take it away Sohail. -Chase

A few months ago, I made a switch in camera platforms. Comparing images taken with a 5D Mark III and a Nikon D800, I found that there was something about the Nikon image that I really liked, something that went beyond the standard things that can be quantified, like its 36MP resolution, or its 12 stops of dynamic range.

D800 shot on the left, 5D Mark III on the right. Fog-shrouded Bay Area, treated in Color Efex Pro 4. © Sohail Mamdani

D800 shot on the left, 5D Mark III on the right. Fog-shrouded Bay Area, treated in Color Efex Pro 4. © Sohail Mamdani

The atmospheric conditions for the two shots were different, but even accounting for that, the 5D Mark III image was uncomfortably crunchy, with some pretty serious color noise and banding in the shadows. The D800 shot, on the other hand, had amazing tonality, and the noise was mostly luminance noise, smoothly rendered, almost organic, like film grain.

Shadow Comparison. D800 On Left.

Shadow Comparison. D800 On Left.

I’d love to tell you that this was a moment of epiphany. It would be great if I could say something like, “And at that moment, it was as though the heavens themselves had opened up and poured the sweet song of angels down upon my ears and I realized I had found the camera I’d been waiting for all my life.”

Yeah, that didn’t happen. Though I did end up switching to Nikon, for a number of reasons. (Let no debate rage at this point…please).

An idea is born

Comparing the two images — especially the comparison of the Nikon’s luminance noise to film grain — did serve to make me aware of something that I think has been happening for some time now. Though the megapixel wars aren’t over by any means, we have started to look at our DSLRs as more than the sum of their megapixels.

Two of my current favorites when I shoot film.

Two of my current favorites when I shoot film.

I’m old enough to remember the halcyon days of film. Back then, we had vigorous discussions about tabular versus classic grain, T-Max vs Tri-X, why no one should shoot caucasian skin with Ektar 100 and why only masochists shot with color slide film (Chase tells me this was his primary mode). The old darkroom hands swapped developer recipes back and forth, or kept them close to the vest, like preciously guarded state secrets, while the young hands spent hours in the darkroom with pieces of cardboard punched with holes for dodging and burning under the enlarger.

It was with much amusement that I realized the parallels in our comparison of digital sensors and processing systems that go into cameras with the old film hands’ discussions about various emulsions.

Really? What parallels?

Let me break it down for you.

In the old days, every film could be said to have a purpose. Fuji Velvia was the landscape film, with awesome, popping greens. Kodak Tri-X was the photojournalist’s film, a 400 ASA film that you could push to three stops and shoot at ISO 3200. Kodak Portra was, as the name suggests, for portrait films.

We left a lot of that specialization behind when we went to digital – and thank goodness for it. Unlike real emulsions, however, digital emulsions can’t be switched out — unless you’re shooting medium-format or with a Ricoh GXR system — so it made sense to have a more “generalist” chip doing the job. Instead, we resorted to post-processing to recreate the look and feel we wanted, and this is an approach that still yeilds dividends today. The cityscape above was finished in Nik Color Efex Pro 4, for example, and I applied the Kodak Portra 160 effect to it to make it look the way I wanted.

Fog-shrouded Bay Area, treated in Color Efex Pro 4. © Sohail Mamdani

Fog-shrouded Bay Area, treated in Color Efex Pro 4. © Sohail Mamdani

But look around you. In the last couple of years, specialty sensors are, in fact, making an appearance. The Sigma SD–1, with its Foveon sensor, which purports to deliver a file that claims to rival medium-format images, for example. Or the proprietary X-Trans sensor in Fuji’s X-Pro1, with its EXR processor and built-in film effects, which does away with the standard optical low-pass filter and the traditional Bayer array of pixels, with fantastic results. Or the aforementioned D800E, with its ridiculous resolution and dynamic range. Or the most blatant of all specialty sensors – the Leica Monochrom-M with its black-and-white-only sensor.

That piece of silicon in your computer that sits on the film plane is starting to look a lot more like film, isn’t it?

Okay. But why does any of this matter?

Simple. It matters because when you reach for your wallet to buy or rent your next camera, accepting that there are differences in sensors beyond megapixels is going to go at least some way towards helping you pick your next camera.

Let me give you an example. If you’re the kind of shooter who likes HDR photography, then knowing that the D800E has incredibly dynamic range might help you chose that over, say, a Canon 5D Mark III. Or, if you’re nuts about great, popping, luscious colors, you might chose an X-Pro1. Black-and-white enthusiast? That Leica Monochrom might have your name on it.

The realization that the sensors going into digital cameras have their own unique characteristcs, just like the film emulsions of yesteryear, can actually direct your choice of cameras. I’ll happily put up with the X-Pro1’s foibles, for example, to get that awesomely luscious color out of it.

JPEG straight out of the Fuji X-Pro1. © Sohail Mamdani

JPEG straight out of the Fuji X-Pro1. © Sohail Mamdani

Wait a second. I can do that Velvia film look and get those colors in post, can’t I?

In many cases, sure. There are some great programs out there now that can help pull color out of RAW images like never before. And if you have the time, energy, and funds, you should invest in them.

You are, however, going to have a much better starting point if the sensor in your camera gets you that much closer to the look you want to begin with. To go back to images at the beginning of this article, I’m sure that with enough massaging, I could work that color noise out of the Canon image, deal with the banding to a large extent, then apply the film grain of my choice. I tried that, in fact, and like my experience, your results may not meet your expectations. After an hour of work on it, the image from the 5D was still murky in the shadows, and didn’t have the look I wanted.

The Nikon image, on the other hand, took less than ten minutes to get it to where I wanted it.


Unlike the days of film, you don’t need to delve into the minutae of the differences between film grains, the response curve of Portra 160 vs 400, or the tonality of Neopan Acros 100. But if you understand that — and accept — that modern sensors do, like their film analogues, have quirks and capabilities beyond those listed on the camera’s spec sheet, then you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about where you spend your money.

In the end, you’re going to make the image, not your camera. But it helps to have a great starting point.


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47 Responses to Photo Geek Alert — The Camera Sensor as Emulsion + Why Your Digital Camera is More Like Film Stock Than You Realize

  1. runbei March 26, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    A very interesting presentation – especially for those who remember their favorite film formulations with fondness. As a journalistic shooter I settled on Tri-X exposed at ISO 200, developed 6 minutes in D-76 (mix forgotten) and printed on a higher-than-normal-contrast paper. To get the equivalent in digital, I reckon I could resort to the Sony RX100, or of course the D800. My workaday color film was Fujicolor 800, and I’m sure I’d be delighted with the RX100 as an equivalent, or even a mirrorless Sony SLT-A57. Interesting thoughts.

  2. Tim Roper March 26, 2013 at 10:13 am #

    Another blog planted this idea in my head awhile ago, and it’s great to be reading other people’s thoughts on it–“thoughts” because yes, it’s not a technical thing, but a feel thing. It’s a little depressing though, knowing that the one sensor you love most will soon be discontinued (much faster than film).

    • Mike March 26, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      The pace of innovation is a beautiful thing if you buy used. I shoot Canon, and I picked up a used 5D for $500 a few months ago. Sure, the LCD sucks and Live View would be nice at times, but otherwise, I don’t see what I’m missing.

      A few years down the line, if I want to switch to Nikon, I’ll get a used D600 for $600-800.

      If it can make great images today, it can make great images tomorrow.

  3. Paatryk March 26, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Nice Nikon AD!!! Good job. Shoot 2 pics on same settings and same conditions from nikon and canon than compare. Otherwise it’s bullshit… I’m not fan of any but information which you posted are not honest in my opinion.

  4. Mike March 26, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    One small difference: a roll of Tri-X is $5. A new Monochrom is $7000.

    • Dan March 26, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

      That’s true Mike, but think of how much the cost of 50 000 exposures on Tri-X would be, not to mention the cost of storage of that many exposures?

      • Alastair March 26, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

        $5958.81 for the film ($4.29 a roll from B+H) plus developing costs.

        And a couple of hundred bucks at best for a bunch of shoe boxes.

        • Tim Roper March 27, 2013 at 8:53 am #

          Plus scanning costs, which the Monochrome does for free (why would you want to just put them in a shoe box, and not show them to people?). For me, one roll of 135 film, 36 exp, cost about $20 end-to-end. So that’s $20K for 50K exposures.

          • John March 28, 2013 at 9:53 am #

            Nobody would make 50,000 exposures on film in an equivalent time frame. You are much more selective when you press the shutter when you pay for each exposure.

  5. RandoCamera guy March 26, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    I agree with Paatryk. That was a pretty good Nikon add. I would like to see a test with same setting/same night and similar glass ,then we will see how the results turn out. I also propose a test after both cameras have been dropped from a small height or exposed to moisture. For those of us who use our cameras outside and need them to work for more than a month, durability is an issue.

  6. harry March 26, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    Different cameras definitely have different flavours. I keep on looking at the files coming out of the D5/3s and loving the look. I used to use different raw converters depending on what look I wanted. BUT obviously a shit picture of something wonderful will beat wonderful picture of something shit.

  7. John Hill March 26, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    In any final analysis, the viewer is only interested in the meaning the picture conveys. If there is a blemish, the eye is drawn to it so ‘exposing’ the quality of the recording medium. In previous times, improvements were manifested in the emulsions themselves and the cameras themselves were unchanged. Now improvements manifest in costly camera replacements posing a question…..

  8. tom March 26, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    so let me get this straight. You shoot two totally different scenes, on two different nights, make no statement in regards to the way the images were shot (RAW, what RAW converter was used, ISO, exposure settings) or what lenses were used, then you use an effects package to throw a filter on top of one image but not the other. Finally you say one camera is better than the other?

    How do you draw that conclusion? Or should I say, how much did you or Chase get paid by Nikon to post this rubbish. I realise Chase is a brand ambassador for Nikon and probably gets the odd kick back but seriously if have to make these type of grand statements at least back them up with some proper scientific side by side comparisons.

  9. Sohail March 26, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    Tom, thanks for your clear passion on the subject.

    Putting aside the fact that it’s pretty obvious what RAW converter I used (that _is_ a Lightroom screenshot up there) and the fact that the effects package was used only on the finished image shown, not on the image comparison at the top or on the 100% crops, you might have asked “Hey, what settings did you use?” instead of jumping to the conclusion that there is some insidious skullduggery at play here.

    Let me address your point of contention. The images above? The D800 was shot at ISO 800. The 5D Mark III image was taken at ISO 100. The night was crystal-clear when I took the shot with the 5D, whereas it was foggy and hazy when I captured the shot with the D800. Consistent experience with both cameras has rendered similar results time after time. And the heck of it is, you don’t have to take my word for it; reports of shadow noise and banding at low ISOs in the 5D Mark III abound on the internet.

    But even that’s beside the point. The Nikon vs. Canon comparison was made not because I felt that one was quantifiably better than the other, but rather because it served as a good lead-in to the whole point of the article: that, like the different “looks” you got by using different types of film back in the day, sensors too are starting to differentiate from each other in the way they capture images. I went Nikon because I preferred the look of the D800E’s sensor. When I shoot fast-action (like birds in flight), on the other hand, I much prefer the Canon 1Dx over the D4, hands-down.

    Are you going to ask how much Canon’s paying me now? Hint — I don’t get paid by any camera company. Also, for the record, Chase uses both Canon and Nikon, in addition to myriad other camera brands (Olympus, Fuji, RED, and Sony to name a few) and is not currently endorsing any camera in order to keep his creative options 100% open to the best tools on the market. He works with in order to facilitate this vision of having the best tools for the job, regardless of brand. Those are the facts, my friend.

    It’s one thing to ask questions; it’s another thing entirely to engage in ad hominem attacks because you didn’t like what you read.

  10. tom March 26, 2013 at 6:52 pm #


    The point is most of these comparisons are ludicrous especially once you start introducing post production effects. In reality almost every photographer I know that makes a living from creating images does a good amount of post production to achieve that specific look unique for them (except for reportage perhaps).

    Just look at the work of Budi ( . You wouldn’t think he uses a 400D and an outdated version of Photoshop to achieve those results.

    • Sohail March 26, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

      Tom, I totally get that you could, given enough time and Photoshop skills, achieve some impressive results. Yet can you honestly dispute that having a great starting point would, at the very least, reduce the time you spend on your computer? This is pretty-much my closing argument: “In the end, you’re going to make the image, not your camera. But it helps to have a great starting point.”

      More importantly, arguing over this really does miss the point, which is that sensors _are_ starting to differentiate themselves in ways other than megapixel count, and that you can use that differentiation to your advantage. You can argue the point that with enough time and post-processing tools, you can achieve the look you’re seeking, but I’d much rather just have that output 90% there right out of camera and have to do minimal work to get it that last 10%.

  11. Ritchie Roesch March 26, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    I love Ilford Delta 100 and 400. I’ve been using them for about 15 years now. The difference now from then is that instead of spending hours in a darkroom, I send off the film and get a high quality scan, creating a digital file.

    I really like my Pentax K-30 and Samsung NX210, but if I had access to more money, I’d buy the D800E. If money was no object, I would shoot film exclusively. The cost of film and development adds up fast. With digital, the money is paid up front and there is no additional cost for each frame.

  12. faisal March 27, 2013 at 5:26 am #

    Nice insight, never thought of it this way.

  13. Chris March 27, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    If you’re going to do an apples-to-apples comparison, use the same image next time- don’t just use your forum to take a dig at a product just because you’re getting paid by the competitor.
    Oh, and try to keep it in focus!

  14. Jacob D March 28, 2013 at 9:43 am #

    You’re going to talk about the “soul” of the sensor… then show images processed in Color Efex?? It would go along way towards bolstering your credibility to show two similar (or better yet identical) scenes with minimal raw conversion. Anyway, of course sensors have different characteristics, would anyone really expect otherwise?? As a foot note: I’m really hoping this is the last time I hear “organic” used to describe image quality… I thought that died a couple years ago, guess not!

  15. Drew March 28, 2013 at 10:00 am #

    Ahh the old Nikon vs. Canon debate. Much like Republicans vs. Democrats, in a word….. Stupid.

  16. Dan March 28, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    Sohail does not need an apples to apples comparison. Did you guys miss the point of the article? He is not choosing one camera over another and comparing tech specs. He is simply saying for the type of photography taken the D800 was his choice and what he prefers to use as a tool. Get over yourselves Canon and Nikon fanboys. Both companies make great cameras. It takes a great photographer to make a great photo

    • Sohail March 28, 2013 at 11:06 am #

      Thank you Dan! I was beginning to despair that people were missing the point of the article.

      I should point out, folks, that for fast-action photography, I still reach for the Canon 1Dx. On video projects, I use 5D Mark III’s and Mari II’s. I haven’t yet switched to Nikon for video, as I use Technicolor Cinestyles on the Canon. I also use the Fuji X100 as my carry-around camera.

      In other words, I’m about as platform-agnostic as it gets. No one camera company has my loyalty. And no one’s paying me to chose one over the other.

  17. Rusty March 28, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    I am so surprised that so many immediately saw this as a Nikon vs Canon debate or a Nikon ad. It was nothing of the sort. I thought the article was awesome and inspired. The purpose of the article was to show the vast differences in image sensors from different companies and even different models of cameras. The author was trying to get us beyond the megapixel fights, and even the camera make fights and start to look more closely at the output of different cameras. Basically he was trying to get us to think differently.

    And yes there is an “organic” quality to some sensors images. Things are not black and white (pun intended) all the time in digital images. As a matter of fact for me the more pleasant images are those that the image sensor has a more organic look to it and not so sharp and crisp and digital looking. Sometimes I even shoot higher ISO simply to get away from the overly clean and digital look that is often so present out there.

    • Sohail March 28, 2013 at 11:27 am #

      Rusty, dude, thank you! That’s gotta be one of the best summaries of the whole article I’ve seen so far :)

  18. Lainer March 28, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    I’ve used MANY cameras over the years. Started in film, medium format, 35mm, Leica, Rolleiflex, Fuji GA645, Nikon, Canon Leica. Digitals too.I’ve tried everything except the Phase One. Leica S2 or Hasselblad digitals. (I can’t afford those big cameras, and have no need for them).

    The digital cameras I’ve tried over the years that have come close to film are the Leica M8.2, (Not the M9), and the Sigma DP2M. I’ve also seen the D800E come close as well. Haven’t tried the Sigma DP3M yet, but I’m sure it’s just as nice as the Sigma DP2M. Some of these cameras aren’t the most versatile (ahem, Sigma!), but we’re talking about a film-like look and clarity. I would also include the Fuji X100s and Fuji X series, but due to some softness in the file, it just wasn’t quite as 3D looking and sharp as the Sigmas, but I still love the colors coming out of the cameras, just not as detailed as the Sigma. The Sigma is a pain, and certainly not an all-around useful camera, but it is the closest to film I’ve seen besides the D800E, if I had to pick two cameras that had that layered, film effect.

    Now, Sigma needs to either step up and build a more versatile camera to match the Fuji and Nikon or sell the foveon to other camera companies.

    My favorite film cameras? Rolleiflex TLRs, Fuji Medium Format, Pentax 6X7, Leica M6 with Summicron or Summilux lenses, Nikon F series cameras.

  19. CIVILETTI March 28, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    Well, the D800 has fine sensor technology, shared with the D7000 and present Pentax DSLR’s in a smaller size, but the comparison to film types is not warranted. Many of the differences in films, such as noise, grain, contrast, color saturation, edge enhancement, and bas toward particular chromas can be emulated with more control using digitial editing. There are good sensors and better sensors. Some excel in particular parameters, but choosing sensors is not like choosing film. Choosing filters in a photo editing program is more like choosing film.

    Also, the photos used to compare D800 and the 5D MIII offer little to compare.

    • CIVILETTI March 28, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

      I see I agree with tom who posted above. I suggest people choose sensors for high resolution, wide dynamic range, low noise, and relative freedom from banding, moire, and other known digital artifacts, not for which film the raw [pun intended] product resembles.

  20. Rusty March 28, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    Sohail, I love articles like yours. I watch CreativeLive voraciously, and follow many photographers that Chase has had on there like Zack Arias and Matthew Jordan Smith. I have even started to do a bit of fashion photography of late. I teach photography locally, post on a number of forums, attend two camera clubs and am building out my website all in part to help others along the path that I have been traveling in learning (or relearning) photography. I did a lot in school in the 60’s and 70’s when I was a kid, but had dropped it while raising a family. I took it up, this time digitally, only in recent years. I am amazed at the focus by so many on the geeky numbers side of things.

    The biggest thing I try to show is the art of photography and to try to find the joy. I regularly tell my students there is no one right way to do things. I push them to become one with the camera (thus the name of my site) and the art of the shot. This is the main thing that drew me to enjoying your article so much. It was looking for the organic, the art, the fullness of photography beyond some simple numbers. Maybe if I am lucky one of these days I will get a chance to shoot with you or Chase (or Matthew or Zack….). In the meantime get Chase to have you do some more articles. I look to be inspired more!

  21. Jay March 28, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    Yea, this is an idiotic article.

  22. Patrick March 28, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    While many focused on getting butthurt over the fact that they thought this was a Nikon vs Canon article, I had a little nostalgia with this part of the article “while the young hands spent hours in the darkroom with pieces of cardboard punched with holes for dodging and burning under the enlarger.” :) Man do I miss the darkroom.

    I personally have tested the Canon 5D MkIII and Nikon D800 in the exact same setting shooting automotive photography with a technique called painting with light in the studio I shoot at and noticed that when I shot with the MKIII the quality of the sharpness in low lighting was far less than the D800.

  23. Stefan Jönsson March 29, 2013 at 2:01 am #

    This isnt related to the blogpost, but i have a simple gear question, do you guys still use the D3s & D3x or have you moved on to the D800 and D4?

  24. michael anthony murphy March 30, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    Great read.

    I shoot the Nikon D4 and am beyond pleased with its performance. The MP count is perfect as to not burn through countless hard drives. The ISO performance? Unf**kingbelieveable. This camera had me at hello. I was before shooting an old Canon DSLR mid range system. Jumping to the Nikon ship has been life changing. I used to be obsessed with lighting everything. Lighting for the sake of lighting AND lighting due to the fact that my old camera would shit the bed beyond ISO 200! The D4 blows me away. I can shoot at ISO 12,800 without a second thought! I can get up to over 200,000 but that gets pretty noisy. I still light certain gigs with strobes but when runnin’ and gunnin’. I can shoot ambient all day.

  25. Jack April 29, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

    I agree with you, the camera sensor is really important. If you take two digital cameras with the same number of mega pixels but different CCD sensor sizes, the camera with the larger CCD sensor size will be provide digital photos that are sharper and have less noise.

  26. Carlo May 2, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    those 2 pics you compared between nikon and canon could not have been a worse choice for comparison !!! dude – you have zero midtones (or anything close) in the nikon shot and the canon has 80 whispy midtones – NO WONDER there is slight grain and banding at low light like that !! If it was reversed I’m sure the nikon would have been worse !!
    You’re weird to call yourself a pro anything with basic mistakes like that


  27. Vitaliy May 2, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    WOW — lighten up people!!! The author did a great job analyzing a certain quality and feel of digital sensors — that was the whole point of the article and he conveyed it perfectly!

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  29. Ando June 11, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    You have to push the Canons a little to right to get rid of the banding. You probably should have done a little research on why the banding was happening..

  30. photo geek December 19, 2013 at 2:52 am #

    Great article and stunning pictures. Sad, but I think SLR will disapear soon, It is good idea to invest in film strips, after few years it is gona just dissapear…

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  33. Kim March 23, 2014 at 2:32 am #

    Nice read.
    Only last week I was feeling out a D800 taking a range of shots from landscape to portraits. Sure the fine detail is just amaizing on the Nikon and the shadows are more even. But what got me was the time (or rather lack of it ) that I spent in post. I really liked the look, well more the feel of the D800 files when compaired to the 5d3. The two cameras are different and perhaps it a case of something different as it’s the first time I shot seriously with a Nikon in 10 years. There is a certain something about the big sensored Nikon that spoke to me. It’s a different something to the Canon is all.
    So for me I can relate to this article.

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  36. Matt February 24, 2015 at 1:02 pm #

    This article is mostly waffle and what isn’t is anti-film propaganda. Who’s paying you? And why would you spend an hour in PP on one photo? Even the 10 minutes you were happy about spending on one photo is an incredible waste of time. You know what else has film-like grain? Film.


  1. “the camera sensor as emulsion + why your digital camera is more like film stock than you realize” – a caixa - March 27, 2013

    […]… Posted on 2013.03.27 by rui vaz. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  2. Are You A Photographer or a Pixel Peeper? | Dan Bailey's Adventure Photography Blog - June 27, 2014

    […] Ironically, we’re starting to get to a place in digital photography where we’re becoming less obsessed with megapixels and more fascinated with “look.” Camera sensors from different companies each reproduce subjects in a unique way, and to many photographers, that’s starting to matter as much as how many pixels are crammed into their cameras. (Check out this great post by Chase Jarvis called, The Camera Sensor as Emulsion + Why Your Digital Camera is More Like Film Stock Than You Realize.) […]

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