Thursday, October 14, 2010

Why Film Still Rocks

I don't talk about techniques or equipment very often, because there are so many blogs and websites devoted to those subjects already... and I am generally more concerned about the artistic result, not how I get there. Today's post will be an exception, so if you're not into the finer points of image quality and printing your work, this one probably won't interest you much.
Many, perhaps most, people are satisfied if their photos look good on their blog or on-line photo gallery, which is fine and good... and almost any image WILL look fine in those environments. I won't imply that any tool or technology is right or wrong, but I wanted to try to explain how and why my own particular method has changed. 
So as an example, here at the top we have a full frame 4"x5" image that I just shot in Utah, scanned from a Fujifilm Velvia color transparency. (This is not the actual full-resolution image, of course, but the following crops are. Please click on the full frame for a bigger version first, though).
This was scanned at 1200 ppi, which resulted in a 5735 x 4584 (26.3 megapixel) image and a 75+MB file size (.tif format... a jpeg file would be much smaller, but jpegs are destructive, as you know:)  This is nowhere near the maximum resolution that film can be scanned, it just makes an easily manageable file size for most common purposes, i.e. web posting or small-to-medium sized prints.  In this case, if printed at 240 ppi, which I find to be very adequate on my printer, the resulting print would measure 19" x 24", a pretty healthy size for framing. Bigger than that, I would simply increase the scan resolution to 2400 ppi, or more if necessary.  The film itself remains intact and unchanged as your analog "RAW" file.. you can always go back and start over from the original source, just as you would from a digital RAW file.
To demonstrate the incredible amount of visual information captured here, I have framed four quite small areas of the larger image in pink and included a 100%, full-resolution crop of each highlighted area, so you can see the detail to be had. Click on each to get the full 1-1 pixel resolution. These are unadjusted and unsharpened, as is the top full frame, other than the standard optimization used during scanning. With a little work any of them could stand alone, I think. Pretty cool, eh? Notice the clarity and definition in the blades of grass, tree bark, small twigs and the individual leaves (you can count 'em if you want!) and the lack of colors bleeding into each other from overblown pixels, or fringing in high contrast areas that you often see in digital-capture files.
The last sample is a side-by-side matchup to a digital capture, shot from almost the same spot one day before.. I tried to get as close to the same spot as possible with the crop.. (you can see a round spot on the rock and a tilted tree that match) and you will notice how it resembles an impressionist painting by comparison. I did add a little sharpening to the digital image to make it half-way comparable. Honestly, I was kind of stunned at the difference. Now to be fair, my digital camera is no longer state-of-the-art at 12 MP, but even the highest-end current DSLRs costing $7 - 8K barely touch this resolution, which as I said, is actually pretty low for medium or large format film. I suspect a medium format digital capture would look very close, but medium format (6x6, 6x7, etc) digital cameras/backs can easily cost the equivalent of a luxury car before you even talk about lenses, accessories, etc. This becomes a cost/benefit situation.  The cheapest digital back that would fit on my Mamiya 6x7 starts at a cool $10K for 22MP, just for the back... and I can buy a whole lotta film for $10K. (And, the film is still better, just less CONVENIENT). The new Leaf/Aptus 80MP back goes for about $32K.. I can easily produce an 80MP file from this transparency without spending another penny. There are some more "affordable" medium format digital cameras coming out around $10K (Pentax 645D), but we'll have to wait and see how they do, I'm not sure where the market is for something like that.  The camera that took this photo cost me under $1000 brand new (it is beautifully hand-made by a small company of large-format enthusiasts in China and is a work of art in itself), plus a nice, good-as-new German made lens that I picked up on EBay for $350. Unlike a digital camera, it will not be out of date next year... or in 10 years. The basic design has already been around for the better part of a century.  Workflow after scanning is exactly the same.. process with Adobe Camera RAW as far as possible, add adjustment layers in Photoshop to fine tune... and then off to print, website, or wherever. I actually find I need less messing around with "film raw".. the colors are richer and more right-on right from the start.
Does any of this matter to the "quality" of a photograph?  Yes and no.  It certainly can't improve improve the light, the composition, the color, the timing, the concept.. all those things that make up a good photograph as a whole, but there IS a certain expectation and respect for detail and print quality when it comes to landscape art, so from that perspective it is certainly a big advantage in at least one area. Disadvantages? Without doubt more cumbersome and slow to work with, no zoom lenses, no sophisticated built in light meter, no instant preview, no instant 5 shot bracketing to cover your exposure mistakes, but somehow it just feels more like the "real deal", at least the way I originally learned and fell in love with it, and had almost forgotten.
I think that's enough about large format, for today at least. Shooting in medium format is much closer to working with a typical digital SLR, while image detail remains superior... and it's very cost-effective. I find it to be an excellent compromise. I'll talk a little about that sometime soon.


Unknown said...

Interesting post Mark.

Yes film can still rock. A friend of mine makes a lot of street photography with an old SLR because it's smaller and lighter than a decent DSLR. He uses B&W films so that he can process them and scan them himself.

For our landscape work, i also think that film can be very interesting if used (as you do) with a large format camera. It can bring a huge resolution and the camera movements are very useful with DOF.

On the other side a LF camera is a little more difficult to bring and setup anywhere in the wilderness.

I agree with you about the feeling and the "chance factor". 2 days ago i was answering a question left in comment on my blog about using long exposure to "remove" peoples form a scene. That's just the kind of thing about which you can't be sure even with the LCD preview and i've to say i love this little magic and to have to wait to process the file on a real screen to see if the result is good or not. Hum, i hope my clients won't read that :)

Some years ago, i've scanned tons of Provia and Velvia 35mm slides with a Nikon LS 4000. It gave very good results but it was a huge work and if you push the scanner resolution too high you scan more film grain than details, one more reason to use LF film.

2 questions :
Do you use a flat bed scanner or a drum one ?
Did you try to use negative film to increase dynamic range ?

And last : It made me smile to see that you use a french named camera :) Do you know i now live just near Chamonix ?

Mark Alan Meader said...

Hi Patrick:
Thanks for reading my long post.. probably not too many will:)

Yes, I thought you were near the area of Chamonix and I can see why that would be quite amusing, considering where that camera is actually made. They are a quite interesting company and I have no idea how they came up with that name, but whatever the name, they make great stuff. It's funny.. they have no order system or paperwork at all.. you send your money to a guy here in the States, tell him what you want and they ship the camera whenever a batch gets finished... could be a few weeks or a few months, depending on what they are building at the time, but well worth the wait.

As for carrying it on a hike, etc., it actually weighs less than a full size DSLR with lens and batteries, etc. and is only slightly larger when folded up. It is designed specifically for outdoor use.. carbon fiber and machined aluminum with Teakwood... beautiful. I do get your point on that though; I've thought about getting a RAW-capable compact like the G11 for those situations where you just can't carry so much gear.
As I mentioned quickly at the end, I recently dug out my Mamiya RZ and that is actually my all-time favorite to work with.. you can set up and shoot quickly just like an SLR.. (it IS actually an SLR, just a big and heavy one), I love the rotating back and the Sekor lenses are unbelievably sharp.

As for scanning, I have a business associate with a drum scanner when necessary, or the processing house that I use can do it, but honestly I am so impressed with the Epson V750 that I don't feel the need to pay someone to do it anymore. It does a fantastic job and sits right here beside me ready to go at any time. And yes, there is a point where you "hit the wall" in resolution even with film but it is not a problem with medium and large formats. File size gets to be a problem before the grain does. Certainly it is much more work and time compared to opening digital images directly and I wouldn't recommend it for commercial work where time is important. Making artwork is a low-volume process though, so I actually enjoy spending the extra time.. and fun for those rainy or winter days when you can't get out.

And yeah, I know negative film has more range, but I love chromes... it's rarely a problem. Better to find or wait for the right light.. that's part of the game:)

storybeader said...

I've never worked w/ raw files before. Maybe I'll try it out. Your running water is just beautiful - don't know how you do it, except to slow down the shutter speed. As you can tell, I'm not too knowledgeable, but love to view it!

Dan De Ment said...

Mark: Your images are spectacular. Really neat and clean. I'm just an amateur photographer and when I see images like this I can apprecaite why you guys work so hard at your craft.
Dan O. De Ment

Ashrays said...

Sorry I read this when you posted and it's taken this long to get back and comment, cruelly shabby of me :)

I cant believe the sharpness throughout the whole depth of the image, amazing! Now I know why you still see Charlie Waite using LF. The digital comparison shot is also very interesting.

One mitigating reason for my tardy comment was trying to find out what happened to a couple of my late grandfathers LF cameras... alas they have been sold a while back... guess that means I can't give LF a try :(

Gary Keimig said...

thanks for checking in on me Mark on my blog.
Interesting reading and a little thought provoking post.
I find myself often cropping bits and pieces of a larger photo of mine that has so many possibilities of design and ideas for not only other images but for paintings as well.

Angel said...

You talking about the equipments but I want to mention that the photographies are just awesomes, Yes and dynamic etc.. are super !

Lynda Lehmann said...

An informative and thought provoking post, Mark. Of course your work is beautiful, and I know what you mean about pulling out secondary compositions.

While I'm by no means a professional I feel that my "good eye" is being cheated in my digital shots, by distortions and noise. I have a SONY Alpha 350 and get okay results, but not good enough.

I need to get a good D-SLR camera at the higher end of "low-end," under 3 G. Do you have any suggestions?

I've shot RAW but stopped due to the enormous memory demands, but I think I need to invest in more memory so I can do more justice to my shots.

Do you have any suggestions for a camera that is light enough to take on a long trek that gets fairly good results for under 3G? (Yes, I do want to stay with digital, as photography is a passion but painting and writing compete for my attention, and I can't afford to work in film, too.)

Any thoughts will be appreciated, when you have time.

Mark Alan Meader said...

Hi Lynda:
Thanks for stopping by and for the question.

I wouldn't want to recommend any specific model to you because everyone's needs and tastes are so different AND because if it wasn't something that I have actually used, it would really be a rather baseless opinion anyway. I usually tell people to do the research themselves at They test drive every available digital camera from pocket size to full pro and give you both the objective facts about performance as well as their subjective conclusion.

My general opinion FWIW, for dslr systems, is to stick with either of the Big 2.. Canon or Nikon. Not because they are "better", but because they simply have the biggest and most established systems.. Once you get a set of good lenses, you will rarely if ever need to buy more unless your needs change (and then there is always a very good used market to sell or trade-in).. Digital bodies come and go and improve every year, but good lenses last basically forever. Both brands have dslrs that will give great quality (and many are pretty compact too) for WAY under 3k. Of course with lenses and accessories, you might get close to that.

I think you know, I feel strongly that you have to shoot RAW files to get the most out of your work... I won't go into all the reasons again here. Memory should not even be an issue anymore because cards and computer RAM are both so dirt cheap now.

Good luck.. let me know what you come up with..