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September 19, 2009


Gordon: I agree wholeheartedly. I would say that comparing a photo shot on film vs. one shot on digital is a comparison of technologies and is not really applicable. Having recently gone back to shooting film, and loving it, grain is just a fact of life. It really only matters to the pixel peepers and is not a technical flaw only a fact. Someone may not like the grain, but that's a matter of preference.

I'm heading to NY in about a month to visit a friend and I'm really looking forward to getting into some galleries and having a look around. I plan to visit MOMA as well as the Leica gallery. It will certainly be a fun filled time in NY. Also, I plan to use a number of rolls of film, grain and all!


Well said, Gordon. Also, while we photographers can't help getting up close and personal so as to check out tiny details like grain, large prints are meant to be viewed from a much larger distance than small prints. At reasonable viewing distances, I'll bet the grain is not noticeable.

Saw the World Press Photo exhibition last month. The winning image - an American policeman going through a foreclosed house, weapon drawn - was printed at, oh, B2 or A1 size, something like that. The image was clearly taken with a 35mm camera, using a fast BW film. The grain was very obvious at that size, to the point where you can clearly see that the image really is just patches of black and white.

And again, it simply doesn't matter. You see the image, not the grain. One of the unexpected benefits when I started using film as well as digital is that I quickly got a lot more relaxed about noise. It jsut doesn't matter nearly as much as some people seem to think.

Nothing to say, except: Bravo, Mr. Lewis!

You are right on the mark about real photos vs. the pixel peepers. By the way I found your sight thru Mike's TOP web site and your K7 review. You have a very good eye for photos and I really like the lady with the umbrella on the K7 review. Great work!


I agree with your sentiments, Gordon, but I'd have to make a distinction between grain and noise. I don't mind grain at all - quite like it in fact - but I can't stand noisy digital images. The only thing worse is photographs that have been run too aggresively through Noise Ninja or something similar.

When I was choosing a DSLR, the lack of noise was, therefore, important to me. On the other hand, I've got one or two 35mm outfits and love to run a roll of Tri-X through them at 1250 ISO and develop it in Diafine. Illogical? Hell, yes!

To piggyback on Mr. Robbin's comment, with noise I notice the tiny color differences and just-plain "dirtiness" it creates. It's a sin of commission.

I perceive grain merely as a lack of resolution, which is more acceptable (to me) as lack of omission.

I agree that digital noise doesn't have the same visual appeal as film grain, especially in color. (Deborah Turbeville, a photographer who build a career out of grainy color photographs of fashion models would agree as well.) That said, even a digital image shot at ISO 800 with a 4/3rds DSLR is no more "grainy" than the average color film shot at ISO 200--but you get to shoot in two stops less light. Count your blessings, fellas.

Yeah I'd have to disagree. You could make a really sweet, super grainy portrait of someone. But would a super noisy digital portrait look as good? Nope. Noise is square looking and looks like a computer screwed up. Grain looks organic. At least to me.

Noise in general looks cheap. Also, it's not 1950. Digital should (has to) be a step forward. We've been seeing images on amazing films for years, and to say "oh, well, film in 1940 had grain, so noise is ok", that doesn't work for me. Tintypes from view cameras are beautiful, but I'm glad there was black and white film, and leicas. It was a movement forward. Visible noise is a step backward.

This is all obviously irrelevant in the context of a noisy amazing picture, or a perfectly un=noisy bad picture.

You're getting much agreement from my side of the screen :-)

Gordon, do you think this applies to all genres of photography? I don't mean to nitpick - in prinicpal I agree with what you're saying - but take fine art landscape photography for instance, I'm not sure the classic b&w large format images from people like Adams, or Weston's still lifes, would have the same impact smothered with noise, or grain - those images rely heavily on tonality as much as specific subject matter - the reduced signal/noise ratio from small format film or digital would be detrimental I think, no? For documentary/news/pj/social etc photography of course you're right.

"I'm not sure the classic b&w large format images from people like Adams, or Weston's still lifes, would have the same impact smothered with noise, or grain"

There's a big difference between visible grain or noise and an image "smothered" with it. Yet even landscapes "smothered" in grain can be beautiful. Rather than make blanket statements that "grain/noise" is bad I prefer to judge such things on a case-by-case basis. That said, I agree that most landscape shooters do aim for maximum detail and tonality and minimum grain. The best way to get that is still to use a large format camera (film or digital) mounted on a tripod.

100% agree!

A good article and a valid point.

I find that I am much more intolerant of the inherent flaws of my equipment in my photos than I am of other photographers' images. Why? Perhaps it's because I remember the image I saw... and no camera can ever measure up to the synthesis of vision and imagination.

The cure has been to just batch-convert images to small, web-sized JPEGs and view them after some time has passed. The smaller image forces me to concentrate on the artistic merit rather than the technical merit... and if I find an image I like then I'll go back and look at the original.

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