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#PictureBelfast: Can You Tell the Difference between a Filter and a Vintage Camera?

Let's face it, smartphone cameras are getting better and better with every release. Mobile photo editing software is getting better too, and with the rise in popularity of Instagram over the last four years, sharing vintage-looking photographs have become quite the trend. Online content studio Rubber Republic produced the #PictureBelfast campaign for Tourism Ireland featuring fashion and lifestyle blogger Donna Ross going head to head with Belfast based photographer Andrew Rankin. Their challenge was to take photographs showing off the best of Belfast – half with a smartphone and half shot on film – where Internet users would try to guess which method for each image was utilized.

I thought this was a really well produced video and I'm sure the tourism department for Ireland is very happy with what Rubber Republic created as well. It's a great marketing piece that pushes people to get engaged with the Ireland travel website. Also, anytime a song is by or references my favorite band of all time, Weezer, it gets a thumbs-up in my book. Aside from the catchy tune, the fast-paced tempo and sharp editing kept me engaged with the photography duo on their adventure. Ireland, and Belfast especially, is at the top of my next foreign destination list for sure, so it was great getting to see some of the top-rated places to check out when I eventually head over.

The results of the shoot-off were honestly pretty surprising... partly because the images presented are very small. I would have loved to have been able to see them at a higher resolution, but maybe that might have given away too much. I'm not sure. I got 7 out of 8 correct, but I'm pretty familiar with the look of the Instagram filters, so I think that helped a lot. They actually give you a couple of teaser answers within the video at the very end, but just enough to keep you interested in finding out more... and that's what piqued my curiosity and ultimately helped me decide to share this.

You can take the challenge yourself and see how well you do at figuring out which photos are smartphone taken and app filtered, and which ones were taken with a quirky film camera.

Spoilers Ahead! Don't Continue until You Watch the Video Above!

Here are the two photographs they give the answers to at the end of the video and their respective EXIF information.



Location: St George's Market

The UK's 'Best Indoor Market' offers something for anyone with either a camera or great taste buds (or both). It is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.


Camera: Holga 120

Film stock: Lomo 100 ASA negative

Development: Normal



Location: Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Belfast Doorstep

The views either side of this famous rope bridge will take your breath away, but at 30m up it might make your legs feel a bit funny too.


Camera: iPhone 5s

Filter: 'Sutro' + linear tilt shift

Development: Instagram

So? How did you do with those two images? Be sure to take the #PictureBelfast challenge and click around Ireland's website for more engaging travel information as well!

Aaron Brown's picture

Aaron Brown is a Northwest Indiana wedding & portrait photographer. In his off time, he enjoys grooming his beard, consuming assorted meats and craft beers, and battling friends and foes alike in blitz chess. Follow him below, and feel free to drop him a line anytime.

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I'm curious to see what people find with this test. I scored a 5/8 which in my mind proves again that film is dead in terms of quality and look and exists primarily for the nostolgic feeling of shooting something different from digital.

Patrick, I have to disagree that film is dead. I think that film and digital have their place. Yes, the choices of film is declining. Kodak killed their C-41 B&W film, BW400CN, which I used quite extensively.
Film still has a "look and feel"; otherwise, why are there so many Photoshop and Lightroom plugins to emulate the "film look".
Okay, I'm biased. I still use my Canon A-1 that I bought new 34 years ago and I bought a used Canon F-1N in July 2013. I also shoot digital with a Canon 5D Mk III that I bought in December 2013.

Oh I don't think it is dead as in it doesn't exist, I just mean that IMO digital cameras now can produce a much sharper image with more dynamic range that when coupled with a film emulating plugin can produce results that look like film yet have all the image quality offered by a digital camera. Of course you can always degrade the digital image too if you prefer the less sharp, grainy, less dynamic range that comes with film.

Film will always hold a spot in the hearts of those who enjoy shooting it for nostalgic purposes but when it comes down to creating the best image you can I think the film ship has sailed a while back.

Besides those who want to sell themselves to art buyers and clients who are woe'd by film shooters, there really isn't any reason to shoot a professional job on film. Film is too risky, has less quality, slower to develop, gives less instant feedback, and overall makes life more difficult for the professional photographer with little payoff. Obviously these are my personal opinions but I do not know a single photographer who shoots commercial jobs consistently on film.

From my experience with Kodak Ektar 100 , it is Kodak's replacement for slide film; I used it for the final Space Shuttle launch. and Kodak BW400CN for the final landing.

Yes, in this 24/7 world, digital trumps film for immediacy and feedback, eliminating redo's.

Regarding dynamic range, if digital is better than film, then why does HDR exist? I don't mind subtle HDR processing, but the majority of photos that I've seen would never have occurred naturally.

A photographer that has been a guest photographer on KEH's blog has said that he books wedding couples who want film. He mentioned about pushing C-41 film, which I didn't think was possible reading Kodak's Tech Pubs; but there is a lab in California that will push C-41.

Photography is not my occupation; otherwise, I may get burned out by "OMG! I have to go out and shoot someone!" Computer programming is my occupation and also, another hobby. But currently, work sucks.

But since my livelihood doesn't depend upon photography, I am using my 5D Mk III as if it were a film camera by setting the white balance manually instead of depending upon AWB and so far since December 2013, I haven't chimped a photo. I may review later in camera.

I have practice round tickets to Wednesday's 2015 Practice Round at The Masters; Monday's 2014 Practice Round was rained out. But I planned on using Ektar 100 in my F-1N with 28mm for the scenic shots and the 5D with a rented superzoom for the action shots. I may use Fuji slide film next year.

I'd agree with you on the point that commercial photographers don't need film. I shoot commercial things with digital too. I think it's best to give the client as many options as possible. With digital we aren't limited to the look of the film or the possible enlargement size or even the client's crappy shooting conditions.

But many of the not commercial things I shoot are on film. I find the sharpness of the digital images a little unnatural and uncomfortable to look at. When I go to edit I don't know where to start, like the image is too busy. Cameras have surpassed what the human eye can see and honestly I just don't know how to edit around it. When I degrade the image and add grain it never looks right.

Patrick, I disagree. I scored 7/8, and I do think that each film have a different feel, and especially compared to digital. My score is also based on films that I am not familiar with. So what is my point? For those of us that do work with film, we can more or less tell the difference. Yes I do agree with everything you said, digital can do a pretty darn good job at emulating film, but is it 100% the same, no, at least in my opinion.

The other thing you've also forgotten is the durability of digital vs film. Film with proper fix can last 500+ years, which is why the government of United States still requires some photographs to be captured and archived with film photography (know it from a guy that works for USA to document cemeteries). Hard Drives on the other hand have a life of somewhere between 3-10 years? Also let us not forget floppy disk, which I don't even know if you can ever find a reader for it anymore. Then you have SSD, which also deteriorates. Just incase anyone is wondering about cloud storage, that ends up storing on hard drives somewhere as well.

I think film still has its advantages.

I think the problem with film is redundancy. While yes the organics of film might allow it to remain in a usable state for 500 years, it's still just one copy. Sure digital can be lost but with redundancy and public sharing you can pretty much guarantee a digital file will last forever. And not just forever, but in exactly the same quality it was originally taken. I think we are moving away from hard media so your floppy disk point is valid but with cloud services I think it's safe to say that a .jpg, raw, or tiff file will always be usable and archival.

As for the US requiring to document things on film, I always thought it was mainly because it is easier to guarantee the authenticity of a film negative than a digital image. It's a lot harder to fake a negative emulation than a digital file. There are probably a few reason though

Interesting points you have brought up. I'm still unsure rather you can truly guarantee a digital file to last forever. Lets say that if climate changes wipe out the human population, film would probably still survive, as opposed to a hard drive. Now that sounds crazy, but think about how many ancient artifacts survived, and yet, we as human struggle to find something from a few years ago. There's also the quantity of digital files vs film. There are probably tons of "hidden" gems in each of our hard drives that nobody will ever find again. As far as cloud services, that just stores it in another hard drive somewhere far far away (I think it's in the clouds?), so things can still happen to them. Also, I don't think many of us can afford storing our raw/tiff files in the air yet (I do hope that changes).

I can totally see your points, and as a digital shooter and film shooter, I would agree with both what you said and what other film shooters have said. I personally have preference for both, and they're working together nicely for me.

I failed miserably.

And, painfully, I have to agree. I recently purchased a Mamiya 645 and have yet to develop my very first roll of Portra 400, but I'm guessing there will be very little difference from digital.

And I know this example has been overused, but VSCO seems so close to the real thing, it's hard to believe there's THAT much of a difference from the VERY real thing.

Here are 3 examples using VSCO and Alien Skin Exposure. And although I am not directly trying to copy film, the results so easily compare to the "other-worldly" claims of film.




Patrick, I'm not sure you can make this kind of judgment call at this resolution.

I'm not making this judgement call based on these examples but rather examples in general.

I was only able to get 4/8. I think part of the difficulty for me is that they were using wonky film stock. If it would have been a more mainstream film or films I think it would have been easier.

I scored a 7/8. For me, it was pretty easy to tell the method used by looking at the sharpness, distortion, and overall tones. I missed the very last one.

Got them all right. There are subtle differences that give it away. Film is NOT dead in terms of quality or look. One of the biggest problems I see with film use is rubbish scans that don't do the medium any justice.

The argument for film should be about the joy and fun that can come from using it. Film can teach you a lot about subject, composition and exposure by slowing down your workflow, by forcing you to think more about getting the right shot.

I agree about film. I've been shooting film for 34 years. I bought a DSLR 9 months ago. I still shoot film alongside digital. I still approach shooting digital as if it were film. For action shots, I will blast the shutter; my film cameras have motor drives. So far, I have not chimped any of my digital photos.

I agree that film still has a purpose for the FEELING it gives you when shooting it but if you want to slow down, can't you just not use your LCD and limit your sessions to 24 - 48 clicks of the shutter? I'm honestly not a believer that anyone learns composition and exposure better by shooting on film but rather they learn their mistakes hours or days after making them. I think one can learn exposure, the effects of your shutter and aperture, and composition much easier and faster on digital. I do hear this argument a lot though but I honestly do not follow it 100%.

Patrick, I bought a 3-pack of Kodak BW400CN in July 2011 for a historic event. In finishing up that roll and the other two, I rediscovered the classic look of B&W. I decided that I would use B&W film exclusively for 2012. It was a year of growth to work with different B&W films and B&W contrast filters. I would say that it was March before I started visualizing in B&W, Did I have regrets about my B&W decision? Sure, particularly when I saw a stunning sunrise or sunset. But I had two projects for 2012: 1) Photographing the sunrise over Columbia, SC from the Lake Murray Dam on the equinoxes and solstices; 2) Photographing the Full Moons. I had a shot list of using yellow, orange, and red filters on my 80-205 lens and the 400 (no filters). Both were challenging during January, February. Weather skunked either the moonrise or moonset on two occasions.

Yea, I know the exposure triangle, the use of exposure compensation and the Zone System I wrote a program for the HP 41 calculator that would do exposure compensation based on the Zone System. (though I don't do my own developing); I've read the books.. I still use the Canon A-1 that I bought new in 1980.

With digital, the effects of your settings are more conceptual and abstract. With film, you have a physical process and a physical reason for doing what you do. If I do a long exposure in the bright sun, my image will come out white because the light burned the emulsion on my film turning my negative film black. With digital, if I do a long exposure in the bright sun, it will blow out because it's too bright, end of explaination. There are different learning styles and the film process appeals to certain types of learners because of how they think. It's less memorization and more understanding.

I would also like to give a shout out to films like Tri-X 400 and Veliva 50/100.

There is just no way to replicate that look on Digital. No.Freaking.Way.

Tri-X 400 is the love of my life and Velvia 100 is my love affair. No joke. I think 90% of what I shot until recently was on those films. And you're right, I cannot replicate it on digital no matter how long I sit there and fool with it.

6 of 8; I got the final two wrong.

7/8. I got the last one wrong but to my credit I did it on my phone and couldn't tell what the subject was in the last photo. Is it a building? What's with the Pink Floyd looking rainbow? No idea what I'm looking at.

It doesn't matter they used the most obscure film to ever be made. Film has certain properties that do not change because of the way it is made and works. I'm going to try to explain it as best I can... I worked in a photo lab during college and just know film when I see it. These are snapshots developed in a lab so they weren't going to have multiple adjustments made on different areas of the photo. Think about it as all the adjustments you can made with only color and density... no contrast, no masking off areas, no dodge and burn, no layers, no hue and saturation or vibrance. You can make the entire photo darker or lighter and adjust the color, that's it.

Grain and uniform settings are the tell tale signs. The photo in the post with the 2 girls... definitely film. The density was adjusted in the lab to try to correct the exposure for the girl on the right, making the other girl appear darker (which makes sense since she was farther from the crappy on camera flash). An app would have recognized the faces and adjusted with exposure being "correct" on both faces and that would look unnatural as one girl is closer to the flash. Also on that one, you can see the cyan on the white shirt, which is very characteristic of certain films, though the actual film isn't what came to my mind (I guessed Fuji - I have never developed the actual film used).

Grain... where to start. An app applies the grain to the entire photo regardless of exposure. You would rarely see film grain at the same strength in areas of the photo that are light and dark but with apps (and photoshop) you do. There are a lot of variables because the higher ISO film, the more grain. Plus it's a two part process with film and paper. And you can expose both the film and paper to control the grain. But if you look at an Ansel Adams picture, you will not see the same uniform film grain that you see in most digital photos.

Bah, 7 of 8. Number 2 had me fooled. I have switched back to film only, after shooting digital from 2008-2013. I love so many things about shooting film - a lot has to do with the experience / nostalgia of how I grew up shooting, but a lot also has to do with the outcome when using a really good lab to process the film. I shot my film and digital Leica's side by side for a good year and 99 out of 100 times prefer the film image. Yes, I can filter the crap out of the digital raw to emulate something I get naturally with the film camera, but why bother? I think both mediums have their qualities and should be embraced for the situation you're using them in. Personally, I am very attracted to film now - especially when it comes to over exposing for shadows. I think film still has the advantage here as digital still blows out the highlights when overexposed. Film only gets warmer when you overexpose. That was a dead give away to a couple of the "filtered" digital shots - the highlights were garbage.

I love film, it's a great way of slowing down and starting to think about what you do, and it's always nice to be able to brag about how you have mastered a noble craft. (in this very moment my hands smell of c-41 btw). But still, I would never use it on an assignment. You just can't beat rye reliability and level of control digital provides.