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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Home Systems: Great Deals from
Putting Film in 
Your Digital Camera
by Gary W. Stanley

I know, I know, you probably think I'm either a genius, or absolutely crazy! This not a totally new camera scheduled for a press release at Photokina, nor has Nikon slipped me a secret new camera to test. This is an article centered on how you can make your digital camera perform like your film camera (or better), and to show you just how easy it can be to get the kind of results you've come to expect from your old film and camera combination.

This article may also enlighten you to the ease with which you can accomplish certain photographic tasks using a digital camera verses a traditional film camera. It will also help anyone who might be thinking about moving to digital to understand how these cameras are designed to perform. If you've already made the switch, I'll try to help you understand several different ways to achieve your photographic goals using the camera and related software.

Let me just say first and foremost that I believe the switch to digital has been far easier than I ever dreamed and there are more similarities than you might have first imagined.

Back in the early eighties, I had a very keen interest in archery. I used a traditional recurve style bow. I practiced and practiced sometimes up to two hours a day. I was pretty good, if I do say so myself. Then one day I read about a new design in bows called a compound bow. This bow used a series of pulleys to vastly increase the speed of the arrow. This new design also decreased the amount of strength one needed to hold the arrow steady in the drawn position before it was released. Wow! I couldn't wait to get my hands on one. Of course the traditional archers scoffed at this new technology saying that it was cheating and gave the individual an unfair advantage (sound familiar?).

I immediately found out that this new technology was not a cure-all for bad technique. You still had to use good technique, you still had to aim at your target, and you still had to release the arrow smoothly, paying even more attention to your form and technique than ever before. The point here is simple: This is still all about getting the kind of results you desire. In your photography, cameras still have to be focused, you still need to figure exposure. They still require good technique. I still use a tripod and a cable release. I still have to find an excellent subject to photograph and make sure I compose the image well, giving the image adequate depth-of-field and on and on.

Now I'm left with basically one area of importance that I feel can't be overlooked when making the change over to digital, and that's film! How do I put the kind of film that I have become so comfortable with into my new digital camera? When I shot with film, I knew that I wanted Provia 100F in my camera when I went out to Yellowstone to shoot wildlife. I knew that colors would be good and the sharpness great. When I dropped down to Grand Teton National Park I switched to Velvia because I wanted all the saturation and rich color that I knew it would give me when I tackled those mountains and that beautiful landscape. When I photographed my children and friends I used Astia because I expected more neutral whites and natural skin tone renditions. You see, without thinking about it, I was making changes to my film camera that corresponded to my specific shooting situation and requirements.

I believe what the designers of digital cameras have done for us is to give us a way to make these kinds of adjustments without all the hassle of not only changing film for every different kind of shooting situation, but also of not having to make those tedious and expensive trips to the photo lab to purchase and to process our film. They've basically said "let's incorporate into the camera something called White Balance so you can match color temperature to the type of light you are shooting under."

Remember this? "Darn (or something similar) I'm shooting inside under tungsten light, I forgot my flash, I don't have a correcting filter, now what do I do?" Well, I quickly go to my white balance setting and change my Daylight setting to Tungsten, and wow, I'm all set!

A bull moose has just come out into the open field fifty yards or so in front of me. It's dark and overcast threatening to rain at any moment. I've been shooting at a slow ISO setting photographing landscapes and I really didn't expect to see this guy. As I move into position I change my ISO setting on my D100 to 800 ISO, I stop, make my composition, my exposure, focus and shoot, cool, I got the shot!

Okay, I think you get the point, now let's dig a little deeper. I love shooting with Velvia, and, as I said, I like its rich saturated color and sharpness. How do I get my new digital camera to emulate that look I get when shooting Velvia? Well, Nikon and other manufacturers have come up with various ways to try and match the basic qualities of your favorite films. One way Nikon does it is to give you three different color settings with which to choose from: I (sRGB) color space for portraits, II (Adobe RGB) for studio work and commercial production work and finally III (sRGB) for nature and landscape work. Though not stated specifically, this third setting III (sRGB) is supposed to be the Velvia look many of us have come to love. NOT!

The solution to how to put film in your digital camera will be based on two different things depending on your "Image Quality Settings." Let's say you're shooting wildlife. You might choose JPEG high, for example, as your quality setting for both speed and more images on your memory card. Then pick one of the color settings that comes closest to the color you like - I (sRGB), II (Adobe RGB) or III (sRGB). Now, go to your White Balance settings and pick one that will match your film of choice. When shooting in JPEG high, I select the II (Adobe RGB) quality setting and Cloudy 0 for my white balance setting. Once that is set, I don't have to touch a thing unless I know that I'm going to be shooting in a very different lighting situation such as Tungsten or Florescent.

When using JPEG as your image quality choice, run a few test images to see if those settings give the results that you want. I ran a few test shots photographing the park across the street from my house. I had green grass, the neutral colored gray road and the white trash can with the red top to use as my reference. I next took several shots changing only the white balance settings, ranging from daylight to cloudy -3. I quickly viewed those changes on my computer and picked the one I liked best. Soon I knew that if I wanted to add a little more warmth to my picture, I could switch from Cloudy 0 to Cloudy -3 knowing I made the right choice. I do leave the Color Mode setting alone at II (Adobe RGB) because that setting is very close to Velvia and Provia for me.

Now, that's one way to put film in your digital camera. Here is the second and my favorite way to do it. I now shoot almost everything using the RAW quality setting. It is so much simpler to make any final adjustments using the software that edits your RAW (NEF for Nikon) files. Here is why: The RAW quality setting used on the higher end digital cameras, in simple terms, captures raw data or image information. Here is the cool part: It doesn't matter what settings you used, like when you were shooting JPEG. Because the information now comes into your software program as raw data, all you have to do is make a color temperature setting change on your computer either using a slider bar as in the Adobe Camera Raw software plug-in, or the white balance menu selection for daylight, cloudy and tungsten etc.

The Nikon Capture software also allows for easy color temperature adjustment. Both programs show you the "As Shot" information but allows you to change your original choice should you want to. You can now view those changes right on your computer in the editing process and get it right every time! I have found that I barely have to change anything at all with the exception of tweaking the exposure, using the exposure slider bar. I can now underexpose by about a third to a half stop to hold detail in the highlights, then use the exposure slider bar to open up the exposure, stopping at a point when I have both shadow detail and detail in the highlights. I will then send the image into Photoshop to make final contrast adjustments for luminosity (to look like a slide), as well as size and sharpening adjustments depending on my intended use for the image.

I've never been able to do that as easily when I shot film, no matter how carefully I metered or how careful my film selection was. To those of you already shooting digital, this article should help you make the simple adjustments necessary to get your digital images looking like your favorite old film.

To the rest of you who are still a bit hesitant about taking the leap of faith, and not entirely confident that the move to digital is a good one, relax; you actually can "Put Film in Your Digital Camera."

If you're considering a switch to digital or are new to digital photography  you may also want to check out Gary's column Digital Learning Curves in Issue #27

Check out Gary's upcoming 2004 Digital Seminar "From Picture to Digital Print" at

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