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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.


Gear provided by BorrowLenses.com – where still photographers and videographers can rent virtually everything.

Fat versus Tall: Why Wide Design Is Catching On

Knowing how to deliver images that play nicely with the current design trends is paramount for any working photographer. But why does one orientation work better than another? My friend Sohail breaks it down in the article below: Horizontal versus vertical and why wide design is pervasive and catching on. Take it away Sohail. – Chase

Thanks Chase. Changing habits is tough. I used to, for the most part, use my iPad in portrait orientation. Now I’m trying to break that habit.

Ditto for things on the shooting side. At one point, I used to leave a vertical grip on my DSLR and shoot in portrait mode. Most of what I shot was vertical, and I loved it.

Now? Not so much.

The obligatory iPad Hero shot

The obligatory iPad Hero shot


I’m shooting more horizontals. I’m consuming more content in that orientation too. And, like any self-respecting geek obsessed with the underlying reason behind things, I wanted to know why.

I think I’ve figured it out.

Continue Reading →

The ‘Vulgar’ Photographer — Trespasser on the Sacred Ground of Fine Art?

Maisie Broadhead, 'Keep Them Sweet', 2010.

Maisie Broadhead, 'Keep Them Sweet', 2010.

The Fine Art world has always been an interest of mine. In fact, I was pursuing a graduate degree in the philosophy of art before I quit to pursue photography full time. Quitting was the result of a waning interest in learning about dead white guys — and it was a good move for me in the long run. Humans have been creating art for our entire history as a species. Creativity is baked into our brains. The proof of this innate need to create dates back more than 30,000 years as evidenced by cave paintings. The art of painting is ancient, storied and deeply textured. Fine art photography, in comparison, is in its infancy. As such, the institutions and art critics are outspoken with their assessment of photography being a “vulgar trespasser” by hanging in the same hallowed halls as paintings. To be honest, I am asking myself, are the critics right? Does fine art photography belong in the same museums as the time-tested art of the brush? My friend Sohail, who will be dropping by the blog from time to time with deep insights on fine art and technology articles, dives into the subject in the following paragraphs. -Chase

It’s a battle that’s been fought since photography arrived on the scene as a medium of visual expression. To its critics, it’s been nothing more than a glorified means of copying or reproducing something. To its proponents, it’s every bit as legitimate an art form as painting and sculpture. Regardless of which side you come down on, photography has always had to struggle to gain acceptance in the fine art world, especially in museums.

Now, one of the most prominent museums in the world is adding a photography exhibit to its repertoire, and there are quite a few folks who aren’t happy about it.

“The truth is,” writes Andrew Graham-Dixon, “that very few photographers have ever produced images with the weight of thought and feeling found in the greatest paintings.”

Graham-Dixon writes for the Telegraph, and he’s talking about “Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present,” a photography exhibit at the National Gallery in London.

This is the National Gallery’s first major exhibit of photography, and for a number of reasons, it’s being heavily panned by critics. That criticism is stretched into a critique of the place of photography in the world of art.

“Photography,” says Graham-Dixon, “lacks the depth and heft, the thinking sense of touch, that painting possesses.”

Another critic, Brian Sewell, is even harsher in his column for the London Evening Standard.

“Vulgarity is, indeed, the almost common factor among these present-day photographers (most of them fiftyish or so) — the vulgarity of the commonplace subject, the vulgarity of colour, the vulgarity of scale (now common in every current form of art) and the vulgarity of surface, too often utterly repellent.”

The exhibit, he concludes, is “Shoddy, mischievous and gravely mistaken, intellectually the work of students at some post-polytechnic university, those who devised it have seduced the National Gallery, led it astray, debauched and corrupted it.”

Ossian Ward, writing for Timeout London tosses his share of brickbats at the National Gallery as well.

“…they tend to overcomplicate matters and look for obscure lines of influence instead of plumping for the bigger names – why no grandiose Andreas Gursky, no Cindy Sherman self-portraiture, no iconoclastic Andres Serrano, fer chrissakes?”

To be fair, not every review is negative, and Ward does allow that “some of the curatorial discoveries are worth making.”

Some reviews are even positive, like Laura Cummings’ review for The Guardian.

“Seduced By Art is an enthralling show,” she writes, “beautifully selected to express the numerous ways in which painting has inspired or affected the evolution of photography.”

The core argument, though, is one that Graham-Dixon lays out clearly – that the lens is no match for the brush when it comes to art. For those of us who call ourselves photographers, this is a hard claim to swallow.

Richard Learoyd, 'Man with Octopus Tattoo II', 2011. Image Courtesy: The National Gallery, London, UK

Richard Learoyd, 'Man with Octopus Tattoo II', 2011. Image Courtesy: The National Gallery, London, UK

The traditional art vs. photography debate isn’t new, but every time photography makes major inroads into the art world, it flares up again.

To be fair, some arguments may be legitimate. As Ossian Ward pointed out, this is the National Gallery’s first outing when it comes to displaying photography, and they may have indeed overthought it, as he suggests.

It’s also possible that the criticism of the photographs, some of which have been commissioned specifically for this exhibit, has a lot to do with the subject matter of those photos. It’s worth wondering why the National Gallery would commission work specifically to fit the theme of their exhibit, which was primarily about drawing a connection between photography and painting.

There’s a real debate worth having here about whether there *is* such a connection, and if there is, why did the National Gallery feel the need to commission new work? Moreover, there’s also a debate to be had about whether photographers need to follow the same mores painters do, both in terms of subject matter and technique. The National Gallery’s attempt to draw this connection in what could be construed as an attempt to legitimize their exhibit may be considered a failure simply because this connection may not exist.

Martin Parr, 'Signs of the Times, England', 1991. Image Courtesy: The National Gallery, London, UK

Martin Parr, 'Signs of the Times, England', 1991. Image Courtesy: The National Gallery, London, UK

The “subject matter” argument is one that Graham-Dixon makes pretty persuasively when he highlights a moment in his personal experience when he found photography to actually transcend painting.

As for photography equalling, even exceeding, art, I will admit to one moment when I know that it happened — in the work of those photographers who accompanied Scott and Shackleton in the Antarctic, men who in those then unique circumstances had eyes to see that with the coolly calculated technology of their clumsy cameras, they could enhance the ice and snow, the darkness and the light, even the numbing chill of the deep distant south, in ways far beyond the dramatic romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich and Frederick Church, and the dabbing of the Impressionists, their near contemporaries.

Still, he stays close true to his basic premise, claiming that “When the photographer pretends that he is an artist, he is a trespasser.” And, if you define art very narrowly, as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture,” then you could argue that photography, as a medium where an image is captured, as opposed to being created, is not art.

Yet part of that definition of art, the part about art being “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination,” can easily be applied to photography. Furthermore, that certain subjects are best left to one medium or another is, again, a hard claim for photographers to swallow.

Of course, it’s also possible that the jeers thrown at National Gallery’s exhibit is just a knee-jerk reaction from old-world critics. After all, it’s only recently that photographs commanding seven-figure sums have become more normal, whereas Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players” fetched the tidy sum of $267 million from the Royal Family of Qatar in 2011. Photography’s most expensive work, on the other hand, is Andreas Gursky’s “Rhein II”, sold for a comparatively paltry $4.3 million.

Andreas Gursky's Rhein II (not part of the National Gallery exhibit) Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Andreas Gursky's Rhein II (not part of the National Gallery exhibit) Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Photography as an art form is still young, while painting has been around for thousands of years. It’s pedigree stretches back to pre-history and the cave paintings in Grotte Chauvet, France, that are about 32,000 years old. The next few years will continue to see accelerated evolutions and revolutions in the world of photography, which is barely two hundred years old.

Nonetheless, many of us would argue that it’s time the art world as a whole recognized that the photograph as a piece of art isn’t a fad. It’s not going away. Someone who thinks that photography isn’t as elevated an art form as painting clearly doesn’t have an appreciation of the level of effort that goes into a truly great photograph, and that as more than a few of our photographer friends would say, is quite simply their loss.


Reporting from Sohail Mamdani

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