Why RAW isn’t like a film negative

When I started into digital photography back in the mid 2000’s, every article I read was telling me I ought to be shooting in RAW. “A RAW file is like having a negative,” I was told. Ever since I got my first digital camera that could shoot RAW, I’ve been shooting RAW. In fact, one of the many reasons I went from shooting with a bridge camera (a camera that “Bridges” the gap between a DSLR and a point-and-shoot camera, offering many the benefits of each at a price point between the two) to my first DSLR, the Pentax K-x, was to be able to shoot RAW.


The software that came with my K-x was Silkypix, and while it did let me edit my RAW images, I’m not going to candy coat it and pretend it was good software. It was difficult to use, and quite often, I found myself bringing my RAW images to what the camera’s own in-camera processing had done for my JPEG’s (I was shooting RAW+). It was seriously lacking in some important editing features, and I found myself using Shotwell and F-spot a lot more. Some of the arguments against JPEG’s didn’t make sense. For example, many were arguing that, every time the JPEG was edited, quality would be lost. This made sense if I was overwriting my original JPEG’s, but I knew enough to write protect any original and save copies, so any changes I made to an image was only ever a first generation copy and therefore degradation was not even noticeable.


A few years ago, I learned about LightZone, an open source RAW photo editor that was intended to be a free open source alternative to Adobe Lightroom, and this really opened my eyes to the benefits of working with RAW images. I was able to develop a workflow where I was able to give each of my photographs my own unique touch, bringing them so much closer to my creative intent. I shot in RAW all the time after that. A while later, my K-x was having some age-related problems, and after inheriting a Spotmatic and S1a, I decided to start shooting and developing my own black and white film again. I developed a film scanning workflow and used LightZone for some final touches. Some of these photos were quite remarkable, and so I decided to start up my own photography business, Ageless Images, and wanted to place a watermark on them. LightZone had no such ability, which lead me to DarkTable. Having moved to DarkTable for nearly everything now related to post-processing both negatives and RAW, I have come to the conclusion that a RAW file is not like film: in fact, it is a vastly superior and completely different thing.


It turns out that a RAW image file is not an actual image. It is simply a representation, or model if you will, of all points of light data at the moment the photograph was taken. It would be slightly more accurate to call it an undeveloped negative (or slide). An undeveloped negative or slide can be pushed or pulled, or developed normally. Once a roll of film has been developed, you’ve locked those images in, and that film becomes the finished product. Every print or scan made after that is a copy of the original. You can still do some post-processing during the creation of a print, but no matter what, that print is a copy of what was on the film, and as such will not be of the same quality as the original. Because of this, I would consider a JPEG to be more like a film negative or slidefilm negative or slide, because it’s exposure and other values are “Locked in” and anything created after it becomes a copy. However, I go so so far as to state that the RAW image is still more than an undeveloped image on a roll of film, as you can go beyond what you could do in pushing or pulling a roll of film. The latitude offered by a RAW image file makes it as though you could, at any moment, move the image over to an entirely different type of film. In fact, a RAW image is more like a model of each photon of light captured in that moment to be stored indefinitely, providing the photographer to create an original as many times and in as many different ways as they see fit.

Cropped from a high resolution negative scan of 35mm film

It isn’t just about the light, though; it’s also about the detail. Arguments have been made back and forth about film exceeding the megapixel limitations of film, but I did a test early on when I got my 12 megapixel Pentax K-x and compared that to the last shot I took on film that year. The results were staggering. Although my test shot wasn’t scientific enough to be published anywhere, I maintained the same lighting, focal length, ISO rating, and shutter speed between the two cameras, and it was clear to me that any detail lost to the limits of the sensor resolution were nothing compared to the detail lost due to grain. There are some that might consider the “Resolution” of certain films to exceed digital, but I believe it has more to do with the fact that all elements of a RAW file are quantifiable (even though the numbers are unimaginably high), while the analog nature of film makes even each grain an un-quantifiable entity. Considering the added expense of shooting film (buying each roll, developing), I had not shot a single frame of film since that picture at the end of December of 2012 until January of 2020.

Cropped from a JPEG taken directly from my Pentax K-x, 12 megapixels

Film, to me, is an art medium, whereas the RAW digital file is simply a part of a process. The negative or slide itself is a finished product of its own respect to be admired; something that can be appreciated from the moment of its creation for perhaps hundreds of years to come, and something that copies are made from. A RAW file is the potential to become something of the same. Film cannot “Beat” digital in any measurable metric; today’s average 24 megapixel APS-C cameras compete with medium format for sharpness. It’s why I continue to shoot most of my work today in digital. However, digital also doesn’t “Beat” film any more than film “Beats” an oil painting. I still shoot film in black and white because I like the aesthetic of the photographs that are created through the classic hand-made process, but when I want to go for a new and different aesthetic, RAW gives me the latitude I need.

Black and White Photography

My first real camera was the Pentax K-1000 that my parents gave to me as a Christmas gift in 1983. It was a used camera, and it came with a 28mm lens. During that time, I did some photography in black in white (in the photography club at school and with my father). I still have that camera today, but the last time I shot with it was sometime around 2002 and it had developed a light leak through one of the seals, so I continued to shoot with my P3n until I was able to afford a digital camera.

When I bought my Pentax K-x digital SLR, I inherited a lot of old Pentax gear since I could use those lenses. This included the bodies, and so I inherited some bodies as well. In addition to my K1000 and my P3n, I inherited my father’s MX, his MZ-6, and my uncle’s S1a and Spotmatic, along with a couple of old light meters, accessories for the S1a/Spotmatic, an F1.8 55mm M42 screw mount lens, an F2 55mm M42 lens, a 35mm F3.5 M42 lens, and a rather unspectacular 200mm F6.3 Alpex lens. I also have some of the accessories and a couple of rolls of Kodak high speed Ektachrome, ASA 125 with 36 exposures and both with a best before date of May 1975. Very nifty, but I don’t think I want to shoot those rolls. At least not yet.

In this year of 2020, my Pentax K-x is having issues with a dial that happens to be the dial that’s used to adjust all of my manual settings. While I can get it working properly for a while with some contact cleaner, I thought about replacing that camera with a new DSLR, but then I got to thinking about my photography as an art. I am confident in my skill that I could shoot a fully manual camera and get the exposures correct based on my experience with my DSLR. I understand how to develop black and white film, which is still available. Black and white has been my favourite as of late. It was also an opportunity to use those great old lenses as they were fully intended without any crop factor. We had tickets to go see 54-40, one of my favourite 80’s bands that I would have loved to photograph on high speed black and white if I had the chance to back then, and so I realized I had a unique opportunity to realize that dream when I discovered that Kodak had re-released their TMax 3200.

Ready for the concert

I picked the S1a for this because it’s the oldest camera in my collection, as well as in the best shape. It has a sticker inside telling me it was last serviced on May of 1987. I believe its condition is so good because my uncle eventually got a Spotmatic which he probably used a lot more (though the Spotmatic itself is in fine shape), plus the fact that it is a purely mechanical camera that does not take a battery. In fact, there is no light meter built into this camera; though it did come with a light meter attachment, it took a battery and was damaged when a battery leaked a long time ago. I did have a Weston Master III light meter in excellent shape, which was working perfectly fine and also did not require a battery. Finally, I decided to also bring along the Cherry self timer so that I could get into the shot. I attached the F1.8 55mm lens, and brought along the 35mm lens. No flash was necessary nor wanted, as the TMax 3200 was plenty fast enough with the lenses I was using.

Nicely composed, shame about the focus.

People immediately recognized it as a 35mm film camera and were delighted to see it. As we stood in line waiting for the doors to open, one eager attendee offered to take a photo of all of us as a group. I set the proper exposure and reminded him that it was a very old camera that needed to be focused, but I guess he forgot in his excitement and fired off an out-of-focus shot of our group. This was no fault of the camera, as the bright focus screen made focusing easy even in low light; the image would “Pop” when the focus was right.

The opening act was the Stephen Stanley band, where I started to practice my shots, finding the right angles and figuring out the right exposures. The lighting kept changing, which made things challenging when attempting to get a reading from an old light meter, so I resorted to bracketing and trying to time the lights.

As you can see, this worked out quite well for me and most of the 36 exposures on this roll of film were properly exposed. In case you were wondering about the tasteful watermark, that is my new art photography business name. You see, in the year 2020, there is a considerable expense in black and white film photography, and this is my art medium of choice. Add in my decades of training in the art of photography, and I believe these represent a marketable product. In the year 2020, I have finally decided to move forward with my fine art film photography business that I’ve been dreaming about since I first held my K1000.

Thanks for reading.

My life through a lens, part 2

The digital years

This is the second part to my two-part blog on my life with photography. You can read the first part here. This is a rewrite of my original blog post from January 29, 2012.

I credit my father for introducing me to the art of photography with my first SLR, and he is also responsible for bringing me into the world of digital photography. In 2001, I was shooting exclusively with my Pentax SLR, until that Christmas when my dad gave me a Fuji Finepix A201; my first ever digital camera. Although I had sworn off point-and-shoot cameras in 1999, the convenience, image quality, and cost effectiveness meant that this digital point-and-shoot usually traveled with me along with my Pentax.

Continue reading “My life through a lens, part 2”