Film vs. Digital: A Skin Tone Comparison

September 23rd 2013 7:00 AM


A couple weeks ago I interviewed Sara Story, a portrait photographer who shoots primarily with film. Sara claims that shooting on film basically eliminates the post processing step from her work flow, which makes it worth the extra expense of developing film. No fiddling with white balance or touching up blemishes when shooting with an appropriate film for portraiture, according to her.

I was super curios to test film vs. digital for myself, so, I ordered a box of [simpleazon-link asin=”B000LM6UJC” locale=”us”]Kodak 35mm Professional Portra Color Film (ISO 160)[/simpleazon-link] from Amazon and spent an afternoon cleaning out the closet in my basement in search of my old 35mm film Canon EOS Rebel. Of course, I had to go shopping for a new battery, too (which I found after searching 5 different kiosks at Super Wal-Mart…) and google how to change the aperture because it had been so long since I used the thing. In fact, I’m not even sure I knew how to shoot in manual mode back in the day.

Dusting off that old film camera felt like welcoming home an old friend. After 3 years of working on the high school year book staff, my parents gave me the camera as my graduation present. I couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate gift. It was well worn when I switched to a DSLR almost 10 years later.

While photographing Brandon, class of 2015, I whipped out the film camera and gave it a try. I used the same lens, same location, natural light, same ISO and aperture with the film and digital cameras for a comparison. Here’s the verdict, comparing the straight out of camera RAW, strait out of camera jpg, edited RAW file and scanned film negative. You can see them side by side in the graphic above and take a closer look in the individual images below.





I have to admit, the rich tones and smooth skin texture of the film version look really great! In fact, I’m surprised by the difference. And I didn’t have to do a thing to it post process. Except pay for the film and the processing, of course (not mention drive 35 miles round trip to take it to a lab that still develops film…)

While I don’t think I’ll be switching back to film permanently, I did notice while shooting I slowed down, composed my shot more carefully, anticipated the right moment to click the shutter and took the time to get my settings right before firing off a bunch of shots. I found myself constantly looking at the back of the camera and then feeling a little sheepish because, well, there’s nothing to see back there! Constantly looking at the LCD screen on my digital is a really bad habit I didn’t even know I was doing.

Shooting on film was a really effective exercise for me and I’ll be doing it every once in awhile from now on. I’m so glad I didn’t get rid of my film camera, which by the way, is so light and easy to carry around compared to the 5D Mark III. It feels like a toy in my hand. Stay tuned later in the week for my attempt to recreate the Portra film look in my RAW digital file and how you can get the look, too using the SLR Lounge Lightroom Presets.

CREDITS: Photographs by Tanya Smith. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.



Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner and lead photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory collaborates exclusively with creative agencies and marketing firms to provide custom photography for businesses so they never have to use a cheesy, boring, cliché stock photo again! Join the stock photo rebellion at

Comments [35]

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  1. 1
    Connor Katz

    Film certainly has a unique look. Or more aptly, each type of film has its own unique look. Its like shooting an image with a built in color curve/adjustment layers etc… Of course if thats the look you are after, then shooting that type of film becomes a logical way to go. As it says in the article you can get that look without any post processing. With that said however you could most definitely achieve the same look as film (or any other look) w digital.

    • 1

      Exactly, the way I see it is that digital becomes a blank canvas where you can apply any style you want. (Including an effect to match the tones of the film Tanya used almost exactly), where as with film you are, for the most part, stuck with the character of the film you used to make the photo.

    • 1

      You cannot replicate film with a DSLR. You can copy it, sure – fiddle with the colour sliders and come up with a close approximation of the colour cast in the photo above. But anybody who shoots with film will spot the fake pretty easily.

      In reality, to properly replicate the colour and tones of something like Portra 400, you would need intimate knowledge of how the film reacts to different colours and in different lighting. And getting the grain and overall texture right? Not possible, in my opinion.

      I’ve used pro programs which claim to replicate these films, but they always fall flat.

    • 1

      Andrew that’s the response of someone clearly not with knowledge. Replicate/copy? Please describe to me how this is different. BTW, I can replicate/copy any look at all in digital. ANY. PERIOD.

    • 1

      Rob, to replicate literally means to make an EXACT copy. To simply copy is less specific.

      You say you can do this, yet companies which are researching, manufacturing and selling software which claim to do this are incapable of precisely replicating the look of film. Perhaps you should offer your services?

      Or maybe put your money where your mouth is, make a Portra 400 v digital comparison and put the two side by side for me to guess the fake. Bet you can’t.

    • 1

      Considering it’s all dependent on the scan of the film you’d be DEAD WRONG.

    • 1

      BTW, your attempt at a point about replicate and copy is pretty lame.

    • 1

      It’s 2013. Dedicated film scanners are extremely high quality today, and accurately reproduce the colour and grain of the film. Welcome to the world of tomorrow.

      Are you going to prove your claim or not?

    • 1

      Re:replicate v copy – that’s what those words mean. I’m sorry if the English language confuses you.

    • 1

      I don’t need to prove it, anyone with real knowledge knows what I’m talking about. And the English language is not the least bit confusing to me. You need help though.

    • 1

      Just to help you out Andrew.

      rep·li·cate (rpl-kt)
      v. rep·li·cat·ed, rep·li·cat·ing, rep·li·cates
      1. To duplicate, copy, reproduce, or repeat.

    • 1

      I think I’ll stick with the Oxford definition, Rob. Thanks.

      Pronunciation: /ˈrɛplɪkeɪt/
      [with object]
      make an exact copy of; reproduce

      But this is all a distraction from the main point. You made a claim which you are obviously completely and utterly unable to prove, and are now attempting to avoid backing up that claim.

      Unless you can prove otherwise, you’re a Grade A bullshitter.

  2. 1

    Pointless, junk topic that is misrepresented. This might have had some relevancy 10 years ago but not now.

    • 1

      Just out of curiosity – are you equally rude and unpleasant to people in the real world? And I’m serious in my question – I really find it hard to believe that anyone would talk to other people this way when meeting them face to face in e.g. the local photo club, but that may be how you are.

    • 1

      Listen, the guy is hanging around internet comment threads provoking arguments, splitting hairs over word meanings and ‘thanking’ his own comments. On balance of evidence, I doubt he has much interaction with people in the real world.

  3. 1
    Andreas Sahl

    If you use the Portra 160 preset from the VSCO filterpack 1 or 2, I think you’ll end up with almost the same result.. The best of both worlds in my opinion.

  4. 1
    Geoff Powell

    Personally I think the film shot is the worst of the lot. Way too warm in the skin tones and much flatter. The edited shot looks much better. Anyway this is a fluff piece really. The debate was over years ago. Film is not God it’s just an old analog process. Digital is what it is. The present.

  5. 1

    Really interesting exercise, just one question. Why the change of the angle between the digital shoot and the film shoot? That certainly altered the illumination of the subject.

    • tanya-headshot-2015.jpg10
      Tanya Smith

      Hey Carlos, this was simply an oversight on my part during the shoot and I really wish I had gotten them at the same angle. Maybe I’ll try it again and use a tri-pod :)

  6. 1

    Not pointless at all. The true diff when it comes to film is the dynamic range and the step granularity of thevdynamic range. Look behind the subjects head and you will see that the film didn’t just produce dark matter. it actually shows texture.

    • 1

      And you think that is due to a difference between digital and film? LOL

  7. 1
    Tom Bove

    Next time try positive or transparency film. Color will be perfect if your exposure is right.

  8. 1
    Tom Bove

    Your responses are clearly from one who has never used negative or positive film. With transparency film your color is perfect every time. That is the standard, period. Any thing else, any other digital iteration is only a false imitation.

    • 1

      LOL! Uh, I grew up in a darkroom YOU on the other hand clearly know nothing about film. Your notions are hilarious. Every film has it’s own characteristics. BTW Tom Bove, if you’re so smart figure out how to actually reply to a comment.

    • 1

      Oh yes, and I forgot the other part of my response because yours was so incredibly ignorant. Not only does every film have it’s own characteristics but how it’s developed matters as well. If you think not then you clearly need to spend some time in a darkroom. I have spent plenty of time there.

  9. 1
    Connor Katz

    2 minutes with a compressed jpg. Give me a raw file and 10 minutes and these would be identical.

  10. 1

    Guys – internet fights are so ten years ago ;)

    I shoot Bronica SQ 6×6 medium format with all kinds of film. The process is slow and time consuming. I love shooting film, but like you said, this argument is 10 years outdated.

    Digital is the future, and as one of you so aptly put, some tones can’t be replicated – but some can be enhanced to even better conditions. The speed and resolution of digital’s process far outweighs film’s processes – and even in 2013 the scanners don’t get to the clarity and quality of a proper Hasselblad or high end dslr’s c-mos.

    I use both – I see digital as the general way and do all my work on it, and my film cameras as my sailboats – totally useless in most cases but classic and amazing – much like painting.

    Are we going to argue that painting is a less attractive medium – or less effective? It’s a different ballgame and different rules apply. In certain cases it’s better or nicer, but individual taste, the artist’s abilities, the gear, the situation, the time input – all these things play a part in the results.

    That’s why this comparison between film, jpg and raw is not applicable. raws, jpgs, etc differ between white balances, contrast settings, bitrates, film stock, light temperature, amount of light, highlights, quality of glass, size of censors, size of film, film speed, etc.

    Let’s not fight about this, and lets love every medium for what it is best for.

  11. 1

    You can’t compare digital vs. film like that. It depends on several things to be fair. What type of digital camera you are using (i.e. megapixels and sensor). It also depends on how you convert your RAW images to JPG. If you should in JPG mode on your camera you are only getting 256 colors. If you shoot in RAW on your camera you are getting 1000’s of colors. If you shoot in RAW and edit the image in Lightroom or Photoshop, or any other editing software, you will loose your cameras color setting. If you shoot in RAW you must use the software that came with your camera to convert the image to a high quality JPG. By doing this you will not loose your cameras color settings and the image will turn out closer to film.

    • 1
      Michael Steinbach

      jpgs are not 256 colors, it is 256 levels of color per channel (RGB) in other words 16,777,216 (16 million) colors. Also known as 8bit color. Helps to know what your talking about before posting. For more info see here:

  12. 1

    I’d like to see a comparison of the film to a fuji X100s/X-Pro shot. I find Fuji’s skin tones to rock the set.

  13. 1

    Sorry but I think that the film image is a horrible image with bad color. Likewise the edits of the raw digital images are somewhat lacking. I worked in a professional photolab for years before DSLRs took off. Your image is only as good as the person behind machine. That machine can be your laptop or the large film processing machine. Yes different films have some color and tonal variances but so often the final product really depends on the eye of the person working on that image. Yes digital is more time consuming because the photographer has to know how to make those images look good, and with film you simply pass that processing to someone else. Film is fun for nostalgic reasons, but the world has left film in the dust and is never going back.

  14. 1
    Michael Steinbach

    I didn’t read all of the comments but to think that you get away from post processing is plain wrong, it just shifts to the dummy behind the scanner as he/she prints your images. Thats right, there are very few real direct to paper optical printers still out there and even then the lab person decided your fate. Now all of the film is scanned and print-by-wireed to the paper.

    Rob is right stupid, premise in this day of film simulation plugins and looks for LR,CR, DXO and others.

  15. 1

    Hi all, I’m primarily a film shooter and even when I get my scans back, I pretty much always adjust them in Photoshop. When I used digital, I would spend much more time than with the film scan trying to get skin tones right. For a film scan, it takes me about 2 minutes. I only do 3 steps: 1. do an auto color, 2. adjust the levels to taste (particularly adjusting the shadow and midlevel areas) and 3. adjust the color balance, usually adding a very slight amount of warmth. I played around with this film scan and lessened the yellow and red in the color balance tool, as I agree this scan was a little too warm for my taste. None are bad, digital and film are just different. Portra is nice, but with something really important regarding skin tones, I prefer pulling from my frozen stash of Astia and if I use flash, add a Tiffen 812 filter. Gives great skin tones. Provia is pretty good too, but I have always preferred color reversal films. The nice thing is, with scanners you’re digitizing the photo and still have the flexibility to do whatever you want with it.

  16. 1
    Kurtz A

    Great read, i did few readings myself about film, i just really like the tones and color palletes of the film, based on Jose Villa and Elizabeth Messina work which i fell inlove and tried to emulate those tones in lightroom, not even close. I guess it really depends in what camera and film you use, which the use Contax and Fuji films and also the preferences you want when getting it develop. I still try to get thise film tones though till this day, not even close but i like clean and soft images. Thanks again!

  17. 1

    I still love and use film. I also use digital. I think both have their strengths, but as some have commented there are so many variables….which format film, what type and speed… which digital sensor size…..

    In my perfect world, I would be using large slides…… and digital just for snapshots.

    I love film.