The Canon 5D: Time For 35mm Film Photographers To Go Digital?

There is still a large population of 35mm users shooting in the photographic world. With Canon’s 5D announcement, the digital enticement is certainly going to be hard to resist. Will film users convert?

Full-Frame DSLR Now Within Reach

Originally, a DSLR would cost around $7,000 for a full-frame shooter. Canon’s 1Ds series was the only choice and it was an expensive one. It was also extremely heavy. Try carrying around 3.5lbs (camera and battery) and a 3.5lb lens (the Canon 70-200 2.8L IS USM), and 7lbs begins to take its toll. Canon has gone an interesting route by creating a full-frame DSLR in a conveniently small package, basically the size of its 20D, for under $3,300. A battery grip has been offered (BG-E4), and it’s nice to see Canon giving users a choice of what to use. Sometimes you just don’t want to lug around an extra pound and a half, as well as making the camera conspicuous by its size. I can say from using a Nikon D100 in the past, it was very convenient to take off the battery grip and just shoot with the camera, making it lighter and more compact to take on particular outings.

35mm Film = How Many Pixels?

This is really a controverisial subject, and quite honestly, you will get a huge variance of answers, depending on how zealous a photographer is in defending his particular format. I’ve read articles over the past several years of photographers saying anywhere from 3MP to 30MP for a DSLR to equal 35mm film. As usual, the facts are in between somewhere. Let me just state a few experiences from my own use with film.

From my own experience in shooting film and digital (about 15 years), I’ve noticed that a 6MP DSLR can just about match a 35mm Film camera’s resolution. Notice I say “just about” and I say “DSLR”, not a compact camera or a DSLR-Type camera. The main reasons are the pixel size and dynamic range.

Crash Course On Pixels

I will be covering this subject in-depth in another article, but for the purposes of this one, smaller pixels inherently have more noise, and lower dynamic range (that’s why your compact camera does terrible in low-light situations). Larger pixels inherently have less noise and more dynamic range. Basically put, larger pixels enable a much higher tolerance of light accumulation before they carry over into nearby pixels (resulting in Blooming, a very common issue with digital cameras).

Think of pixels as a bucket (which is a common example most imaging professionals and photographers use). Some buckets can hold more water than other buckets. Canon’s 6MP DSLRs and Nikon’s 6MP DSLRs have just about reached the 35mm film equivalency. And in fact, I would just about say a 6MP digital image properly exposed, could match up to a film image. Overall, my observations are that a 6-8MP DSLR can match a film print. Canon’s 12.8MP full-frame DSLR at 8-microns square, easily makes this target.

Canon: Alone In The Full-Frame World

So far, there is no other company offering a full-frame digital even close to the price of the Canon 5D. In fact, we don’t have any other camera manufacturers at the date of this article, even mentioning a full-frame DSLR as a possible offering in the future. This is quite disturbing. Why? Well, it appears most camera manufacturers are concentrating on compact camera sales (these are the highest profit products), in addition to sending a message that full-frame DSLRs are not necessary to get high quality images.


It is a shame we don’t see as much leadership in the imaging technology. But we sure see a lot of hype and empty promises. Whatever happened to Foveon? LBCAST? I remember when these two technologies were touted as new and revolutionary in the DSLR sector, and how users would expect such great images, putting all other cameras to shame. Well, the shame only really started to form, when the promises became biblical. Come to find out Foveon sensors could barely survive over ISO levels of 800 (which required a second generation DSLR to come out, leaving previous 1st gen owners in the dark and irritated…and a worthless investment), and Nikon’s LBCAST sensors were just politely and purposely forgotten. And we have one manufacturer creating “honeycomb” pixels (I’ll leave that to another discussion). From my viewpoint, we have a terrible behavior from camera manufacturers denying the opportunity that people want full-frame digital cameras which mimic the 35mm film cameras most of us are familiar with using. Why are they denying us this? I guess we’ll these questions and answers for another time, but currently, Canon is the only company to step up to the plate and take a chance. Personally, I think they made a good one, and I think they know the Canon 5D is a sure winner.

35mm Film Users Should Begin The Celebration!

If you’re currently shooting Canon 35mm film cameras, your lens collection will do just fine. True, we have some who make arguments about the edge issues of wide angle lenses on full-frame digitals, but in my opinion, this is mostly an exploded issue. I’ve seen so many Canon 1Ds and 1DsMKII images which look absolutely amazing, with no edge problems, that I am purplexed at why it’s an issue.



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