Digital cameras have gone a long way in just a few years. Megapixel counts are up, noise is down, color rendition is good, dynamic range is getting there and there are no shutter delays which plagued the earlier models. Digital consumer cameras are very good for what they were designed for: mostly consumers taking snapshots of their kids. But does digital today offer enough for the serious amateur who takes photography as art, not just memories, and wants large prints, vivid colors and lots of sharpness and resolution? And at what price?
First - and usually the only - thing most people ask when they see a digital camera is "how many megapixels does it have?" Current standard is five megapixels for a point-and-shoot, six to eleven for a SLR. But as many serious photographers who really know their stuff will tell you, it's not the megapixels that produce quality alone. The size of the sensor is an important factor, and most consumer cameras (including SLRs) have smaller sensors than 35mm which is the standard film size most people are accustomed to. Small sensors have more noise. And consumer cameras end up with lower-quality sensors than the pro-cameras have.
Also, as there is a lot of controversy about how many megapixels it takes to simulate film - estimates range from 6 to 25 for 35mm - it is not a given that even if you pay the big bucks for a pro-camera you will get film-like results. Even if the megapixel count is enough, it's still comparing apples to oranges. Usually the problem with comparing analog to digital is with methodology: do you compare computer scans from film against digital photos or prints from transparencies to printed digital photos?
A major problem with any digital camera is quality of enlargements. Whereas a 35mm negative or positive can be enlarged to maybe up to 16x20" without an appreciable loss of quality, even a 6 megapixel camera will start to lose it at 8x10". A medium format camera can produce beautiful prints at 30x40" and larger. Now, it is up to the individual photographer to know what size prints he uses to see what his needs are. If you only have 8x10"s in your photobook and don't do slideshows, there's is little reason to move to medium format. But if you plan to make exhibition prints, produce a nice portfolio or just hang your own pictures on your walls, a film camera will be a much better choice.
Differences in dynamic range between the two formats is somewhat easier to assess. While this is another subject which digital geeks and film old hats disagree on, there should be no question that digital renders highlights poorly compared to film. I don't know how much Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro will change things, though: it has a special type of sensor which should greatly enhance highlight detail.
Then there is a plethora of other differences in film vs. digital, some of them fundamental, many trivial. Workflow is entirely different for the two formats. Shooting digital is practically free whereas developing and making prints of negatives/positives costs money. Images you take with your 5 megapixel camera will look outdated and low-resolution in just a few years compared to the 10 megapixel point-and-shoot you'll then have. If you take large prints of digital photos they'll look like crap compared to most film solutions. Adjusting, tweaking, fixing and playing with digital photos is much easier than doing the same with film. Putting photos on the net, emailing them to family and friends and cataloging them is easier with digital.
So why did I choose to forgo digital for film? My view is that the entire debate about digital versus film is confusing and mostly academic. As usual with many things in life, there is no one absolute answer and you should use what works for you. I have chosen medium format over digital because of the following reasons: picture quality and price. The overall picture quality of a medium format camera is years ahead of even the most expensive digital cameras. The pictures I take today will still look outstanding in 20 years. Noise/grain is not an issue for me since I shoot Velvia exclusively; it would likely be worse in digital, especially when doing those low-light shots. Due to Velvia color is also uniformly brilliant, I'm not so convinced about digital. And as said before, dynamic range is better in film.
Even bigger differences than in picture quality can ben seen in price. A Canon EOS-1D Mark II with one zoom lens complete with memory cards costs around $4000. I can get a used medium format camera in excellent condition with one lens for around $200. A complete system for me would comprise of fast primes (no zoom). For 35mm this would mean 25mm, 50mm and 100mm lenses, for medium format 55mm, 80mm and 135/185mm lenses. This system would cost nearly $10000 as a new digital SLR but only around $1000 used for medium format. That leaves me with $9000 to burn on film and developing. I guesstimate this would bring me 5-10 years of shooting with film at current rate. Even if I didn't fork out $6000 for primes for the 35mm system and got used lenses or managed with a 28-105mm zoom, there is a gap of several thousand dollars between the systems. There are no used 8 megapixel digital SLR bodies out there. Not to mention a consumer zoom SLR lens is immensely inferior to coated primes for almost any medium format camera.
Currently I own a Canon EOS 50E (Elan IIE in the US) for real shooting and a 3 megapixel Casio Exilim for snapshots. My EOS work is mainly landscapes, cityscapes and travel photography. I also do a lot of low-light photography of cities, traffic trails and fireworks with tens of seconds of exposures. Snapshots are mainly of drunken friends and hot babes. Due to the impossibility of enforcing copyright I will not offer samples, but some of my photographs are quite beautiful. I consider myself a serious amateur and I have been slowly building a portfolio and have a dream of putting up a website to sell fine prints.
I will be keeping my EOS and will get a Mamiya C220 camera. This will be a used camera and it will likely be older than I am. It will have nothing digital in it, no electronics, no automation. In fact, it won't even need batteries! And I consider myself somewhat progressive when it comes to technology.
The idea of using the zone system with an un-automated camera is very alluring, though intimidating. I've relied on the automatics in my Canon and bracketing for ages since I shoot slides. Now that won't be possible with the Mamiya. I will need to learn how to create photographs. I might actually become a photographer in the process. Better to practice on my usual fare (travel/landscapes/cityscapes) and wait till I make a move to female nudes and some artsy stuff I've dreamed of for a while. And just the thought of being one of the few medium format photographers who are still left in the world is enticing. It will also be interesting to see how people react when I take a 30-year-old TLR to shoot the light trails at an intersection.
Still, I have a few worries. I will keep my EOS as a backup but lugging two cameras around while travelling might be prohibitive. Since the artsy stuff needs heavy digital processing I will need to scan my positives. That'll be also necessary if I ever get around to putting up the website to sell my photos. Scanning will be expensive, as will be making prints out of all the good photos I'm destined to make. Cataloging will continue to be a nightmare which I have already successfully avoided but will have to do one day. If I want to show my pictures to others I need to get a medium format projector or lots of prints; showing transparencies on a light table just doesn't cut it for the average person.
Medium format requires a lot of investment from the photographer, but not necessarily monetarily. Learning the ropes of medium format photography, shooting with mostly manual cameras, finding a photoprocessor who does medium format film, cataloging, viewing and printing is all harder, more difficult and possibly more expensive than digital. But when you take the overall cost of ownership in the lifetime of the camera, it is easy to see that digital is not so cheap after all. You also have to take into account that the digital SLR you buy for $3000 now will be an expensive fishing net weight in just a few years whereas a medium format camera will depreciate much more reasonably.
Today, medium format produces more bang for buck than digital for many serious amateurs. There are many reasons why someone shoots digital and someone film. There is no one system (be it digital, 35mm film, medium format or pinhole) which is best for everybody. Current digital photography is good for snapshots, photojournalists who need extremely fast turnaround and amateurs who don't need large prints. Medium format is for those who want the best in image quality (although there is large format) whatever the size of the prints. There is a system for everyone out there but finding what's right for you will take time and some serious objective thinking of your requirements for your equipment. Then again, in the end, it's not the equipment which takes the pictures; it is you!