FEM: Film Equivalent Megapixels

How many megapixels does film have? And I mean: for real, not the bazillion that the “experts” ascribe to it. The complete and yet unfulfilling answer is: depends. Mostly by ISO and by the format size, both of the film and the digital sensor.

Because two, for example, 12 megapixels sensors are not equal if one of it it is full frame and the other it’s the tiny tiny sensor of a camera phone. The rule of thumb, both in the analogue and in the digital word, is “the bigger the better”.

Those you find in the table below are my own findings, after over a decade of taking pictures. They are not results extrapolated by reading someone else opinion on some forum. So you may agree or disagree, but I’ll stick with my findings…


And by the way: even if a camera like a Canon 5D Mark II or a Nikon D3x (or better yet, if money are no object, a medium format digital back) it’s equal or better than film in most situations I STILL SHOOT (also) FILM.

Keep this in mind reading the results, because shooting film is more cumbersome, costly and time consuming, but has its unique advantages: it’s fun, it’s handy when if you don’t feel comfortable using a 2.000+ € electronic equipment under pouring rain, it has its look and it still yeld wondeful results in proper hands.

And some cameras like the magnificient Fuji GS645 or the Olympus XA serie (the review is coming) still don’t have a proper successor in the digital world.

For your convenience I have listed the results in the table below where you’ll find the format, the approximate diagonal size in cm (and I remind you that an inch is equal to 2,54cm) and a FEM (Film Equivalent Megapixels value) minimum, medium of maximum.

I have had to make this distinction because, for exemple, you may shoot with a crappy lens and shaky hands, or with the camera screwed directly onto a granite boulder (this actually it’s the setup to perform the MTF tests).

Heavy rain

By the way, under “handheld” I collect all the non-optimal situations, like heavy wind, diffraction limited lenses, blurred images caused by photographer movement, blurred images caused by movements of the subjects (during long exposure time, for example), curved film, focus not spot on.

So you can interpretate the three levels as such:

MIN (handheld and / or scanning on a flatbed and / or high ISO) = calculate roughly 1,5 Megapixels for cm of format diagonal

MED (low ISO, tripod and / or scanning on Imacon and high-end scanners) = calculate roughly 1,85 Megapixels for cm of format diagonal

MAX (really low ISO, tripod, mirror lock up and  scanning on a drum scanner) = calculate roughly 2,3 Megapixels for cm of format diagonal

FormatDiagonal (in cm)MinMedMax
4×5″ / 9x12cm15,6232936
5×7″ / 13x18cm22,2334155
8×10″ / 20x25cm32485974

And please, please, please take this results with a grain of salt: obviously you can go further with any format using special equipment, like shooting on ultra-low-iso-with-almost-no-grain-film and scanning on the SuperUltraMegaDrum @ 1.000.000ppi and so on. I made this reference table with an average user in mind…

UPDATE: please check the following two posts for a better and cheaper way to scan your films

Canon 5d Mark II vs. Drum scanner vs. Epson v700

How to-scan films using a digital camera

Big prints for cheap

Speed Graphic

Graflex Speed Graphic stripped and restored

Let’s say you wanna print big, really big. Big like wall size print.

Maybe you shot landscapes, or maybe you follow the Christo’s footprints and you want to wrap the Colosseo in a picture of yours. So you start shopping for the best top grade digital cameras out there, and you buy a Canon 1Ds or a Nikon D3x.

Then you put on paper the fruit of your effort, and the print sucks. Well, not really. But it is only really really good, but not great.

Disappointing, after you have spent big bucks.

Wait. IF your bread and butter are portrait pictures or cityscapes one of the above cameras can be enough.

But if you like shoot landscapes instead they will not suffice over a 50x70cm, not really if you have a critical eye. So you start looking at the medium format digital backs, but their prices are really scaring. There is not a solution at this dilemma?

Yes, there is. Actually there are two, and both have one thing in common. The secret is to shoot big, really big. Large format is the answer.

Solution 1

The simplest solution has a strange name: drum scanner.

Drum scanners are a kind of scanners that permit to extract the maximum possible quality out of your negatives, till the grain. No details are left behind. So if you shoot on 4×5″ film and drumscan it you may be able to output prints whose measures are in meters wide.

But this solution has two faults.

First: is costly. A drumscan vary between 40€ and 80€ for EACH frame.

Second: more often than not you will be forced to delivery by postage your precious negatives to a lab around the country, unless you are not so lucky to live near a drum scanner service.

Solution 2

A good flatbed scanner, like the Epson 4990 or the V700 and V750, deliver a scan that is not comparable to one made on a drum scanner. But, for my own tests, sharpness wise it’s like step down one format. I mean that if you scan on a good and focus calibrated flatbed a 4×5″ film you end up with a result that show the sharpness of a 6x7cm film drumscanned. Sure, the drumscanned film will almost certainly have more details in the shadows and in the highlights, but as for sharpness it will be a tie.

So the strategy is: if you want the quality of a 4×5″ drumscanned, but without the costs involved, shoot on 5×7″ and scan on a flatbed.

And by the way if you are able to find a really good pre-press flatbed the results will be vastly superior respect a consumer flatbed like the Epson models, so the gap with the drum scanners will be even closer. This way I’ve discovered I can print 4×5″ film to almost 130cm wide with great quality. Now I use often a 5×7″ camera, and as soon I will can get my hands on one of this I will start using an 8×10″ for the near-car landscapes.