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The Science Of Film & Digital Sensors | An Intro To How They Work & Why It’s Practically Important To Know

By Kishore Sawh on April 16th 2018

In certain ways, photographers are like race car drivers. No, not particularly fit or fearless, but in that we drive the machinery to deliver a result, and like drivers, when it comes to the engineering and physics of the machines, we don’t typically know what really goes on.

The good thing is, we don’t necessarily need to for our day to day work, but if we are to be the type who like to discuss, pass judgement on an critique we should have a greater understanding. And make no mistake, to a certain degree, understanding how these systems work, will help make you a better user of your gear, and assist you in making the right purchase decisions.

You’ll begin to understand too why some pieces of equipment cost more than others, and then determine how important that is to you. A simple example would be, if you’re considering buying a new camera, and perhaps you’re torn trying to decide why the Sony a9 costs what it does. Well, if you understand that CMOS sensors are typically prone to rolling shutter and why that’s so, you’ll understand that the incredibly fast readout from the A9‘s sensor largely mitigates that problem, resulting in a mirrorless camera with good resolution and overall sensor performance that doesn’t really have an issue with rolling shutter. To some, that matters little, and to some that matters a lot, but you’d be able to choose for yourself.

[Sony a9 Review: Sony A9 Review / Overview | The Affirmation Of Mirrorless & Wish Fulfillment]

In this video from Filmmaker IQ, John Hess walks us through the basics of how film works at a chemical level, and how CCD and CMOS sensors work as well. While much of it might go over your head, there’s enough in here to make the watch worthwhile from a practical standpoint.

Source: Filmmaker IQ

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Mircea Blanaru

    Nice video! I feel it does not explain the how it “works” the color film,

    just the black and white and the color sensors. After 15 years of using digital cameras I can’t explain while these electronic sensors still don’t match the classic film. And I am still wondering why these “magical” electronic devices some which are costing thousands and thousands of dollars are not rock solid as my film cameras which are still working from 70’s till today…

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Glad you enjoyed the video Mircea. I’m curious in what ways you feel digital cameras don’t match film? I find this is a common concern, but I truly struggle to see where digital fails film – other than certain artistic characteristics. 

      As for being as solid, well that’s probably a little easier to explain, though I wouldn’t say that’s standard all around. But film camera construction was so much more basic than that of a digital camera, and thus I assume that made them more resilient. Depending on how far back you’re going also, the film cameras were also more largely built of metal. But I think if you were to use a modern higher-end DSLR like a Nikon D5, 1DX II, or even a D850 or 5D4, you’d find them rather resilient.

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    • Mircea Blanaru

      I am glad you understood my concerns. About the digital sensors, the problem is that the colors don’t match or rather are not so “plenty” as in a color film. This is an artistic view point I really feel when I compare the both technologies. The resolution of the digital is enough and clearly exceed the analog film, there are glass lenses on the market with “soul” and even the mixed lenses are not a totally  waste…Perhaps an enhanced Foveon sensor or a totally new technology will resolve this problem…

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Interesting. Most digital sensors are, I agree, more clinical than film. I’ll say that Leicas and certain lenses can really produce interesting looks though. Beyond that, that artistic feel you speak of I believe is why film presets are so in demand. People are longing for that. Cheers

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