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“WHY CAPTURE ON FILM? WHY SCAN FILM TO DIGITAL?”
There is always debate about the merits of digital vs film. One of the strongest arguments has focused on quality. The low resolution of the early digital cameras coupled with low resolution of scanners and printers meant that the image quality could not match that of a traditional large format negative. With the rapid advances in technology however, the resolution of digital cameras now ranges from 20mp to in excess of 100mp. The scanners and printers too have developed alongside this technology. No longer are photographers forced to use cheap scanners which produce poor results. Scanners have been developed, along with appropriate software, to ensure mechanical precision, optical quality, optical path, dynamic range, full colour calibration and resolution.
Many photographic traditionalists still, in this digital age, practice photography using film. By embracing the capabilities of digital it is now possible to continue to use film and then to scan the film as a digital file. The question then arises ‘Why”? “Why would anyone still capture on film if they were going to scan the film as a digital file?”
WHY WOULD ANYONE STILL USE FILM?
Most photographers are familiar with Ansel Adam’s zone system for black and white negative film. It is not surprising that most photographers therefore believe that image density ranges from zones 0 to zone 10. However, all negatives are capable of a far wider tonal range. In most cases up to 13 stops. Bruce Barnbaum (The Art of Photography, An Approach to Personal Expression, Photographic Arts Editions 1994) writes that, with correct exposure and optimal development, the maximum density of black and white film usually goes up to Zone 16 or even 18!
By comparison, a colour negative (if processed correctly) can hold detail over 9 stops and transparency (again if processed correctly) can hold detail over 7 stops. In both cases less than black and white, but still remarkable.
Today the Phase One camera system is advertised as the world leader in digital medium format cameras. It is advertised as giving the ultimate image quality. The price point is high and ownership of one of these beautiful cameras is a financial challenge.
Currently Phase One advertise that their IQ3 100MP, when used with the IX Camera System, is capable of a dynamic range of 15 stops. As there is no actual ISO standard to regulate ISO information it would be up to an individual photographer to run their own tests to authenticate this statement.
It is safe to say that the vast majority of photographers are not shooting with medium format cameras. Given this assumption it becomes clear then that the dynamic range of DSLR cameras would not be as wide as that of a medium format camera system. Even so the dynamic range of the world’s best medium format cameras and whether it matches that of film, is questionable.
The camera is a measuring device. Negative film and digital sensors do not capture a latent image of a scene. Instead, it records light. Light passes through the lens, into the camera and onto the film or sensor. Here it is recorded in a series of lines pairs – a sort of ‘morse code’ – which is measured in line pass per millimetre (lp/mm).
Whereas a digital sensor is made up of pixels (or light sensitive switches) film is made up of thousands of silver specks. There are an infinitely greater number of silver specks on a sheet of 35mm film than there are pixels on a digital sensor.
The light being recorded on the film, or sensor is recorded in 1mm bands. For every 1mm band on a 35mm negative frame, an average of 33 line pairs are resolved. In comparison, a sensor of a top end medium format camera is capable of resolving, on average, 12 line pairs per millimetre.
Furthermore, resolution is also affected by where, within the 1mm band, the light strikes. If the information is recorded between rows of pixels, the information is lost. If the light strikes the sensor at an angle (say if the camera is tilted) then the information is recorded across the area of pixels at an angle rather than in a vertical or horizontal line. When light strikes the film, regardless of where or at what angle, loss of resolution is undiscernable as the film is made up of an almost continuous spread of silver specks. Most photographers would not notice the lack of the resolution in the average DSLR, the reason being that the digital sensor records enough information to make the file useable proportional to the resolution of the camera.
There is no histogram with film. There is no preview button. There is also no delete button. Before pressing the shutter everything must be considered to ensure that the capture will be perfect, or as near to perfect as can be. The type of film must be considered. The rating of the film must be married with that particular camera. The scene must be metered and tones must be evaluated. Composition must be carefully considered as the image should ideally be shot without any cropping. Sometimes, in the case of large format photography, the image is even composed upside down. These are just some of the considerations being taking into account each and every time the shutter is released. It requires a very disciplined photographer. A practice quite different to the photographic style employed today. The discipline requires complete focus on the task and ultimately may result in better images.
Photographing on film and developing a negative results in a permanent (physical) record of that image. The film on which the negative resides is a hard copy. Protected in a sleeve and filed, there is little that can go wrong with the negative. Years, decades or even a hundred years later, further images can be made from this same negative.
This is not necessarily so for digital. The digital file is not a hard copy. The file resides on a memory device. That device could easily
become corrupted or
become outdated (as demonstrated over the years by the demise of floppys, stiffys and CD disks)
Today, although there is a steady rise in prices in the second hand market, the prices of analogue equipment are still relatively inexpensive. Compared to digital DSLR cameras and all the accessories, including computers, monitors, memory storage to accommodate the large volume of files, analogue is an attractive alternative.
Should anyone be considering a medium format digital camera today prices are upwards of $50,000. It makes film a very attractive alternative.
AREAS WHERE A PHOTOGRAPHER WOULD SCAN FILM TO DIGITAL?
Once you can understand the merits of photographing on film you can appreciate some of the nuances that it offers. These characteristics can then be used to advantage and combined with the offerings of the digital age.
Professionally today, images are generally produced for a limited number of sources:
The printing press
For fine art
In the case of the printing press, files today are almost always sent to the client electronically where they are dealt with electronically for publication. If the photographer has chosen to capture on film he has no option but to scan and prepare his images as digital files.
The same can be said for wedding and portrait photography. Although a client may request film they still often want large quantities of images - and quickly. They want multiple photographs for friends and family or for social media. There is an emphasis on quantity and speed.
In fine art the photographer generally has more latitude with time. He can pick and choose which aspects of the digital darkroom to use and incorporate into the work. Making negatives for specialist printing methods is hugely advantageous for the fine art photographer and printer.
By way of further explanation
In the 1800 and 1900s prints were made from actual film negatives coming into contact with the substrate. Images with outstanding contrast and tonal range were produced. However, as the negative physically came into contact with the paper on which it was being printed the final print size was limited by the size of the negative.
Recent years have seen a revival of these old methods. By embracing digital technology, the size of the original negative is no longer limiting. By scanning the original negative and reprinting at a larger size it is now possible to make larger negatives.
In the quest for the ultimate image, the print method too, must be considered.
Many photographers today are unaware that there is an alternative to inkjet printing. Inkjet printers are dot matrix printers. The ink is laid down in dots meaning that between every dot there is a space. This becomes particularly problematic for fine art photographers and printers who are particular about the longevity of their images. When making negatives for alternative printing it is preferable to make a negative using continuous tone rather than dot matrix.
A file which is written to a film recorder is written as a continuous tone print. The ink is spread evenly across the film. This negative, when printed, has no spacing and therefore the inks will sit evenly on any substrate.
Although an expensive alternative and also a difficult method (although not impossible) it is another example of how photographers today can combine both analogue and digital technologies, and take advantage of the best of both worlds.
This method of printing is not limited to film capture as the rapid advances in camera resolution have now made it possible to record a digitally captured image to a film recorder with great success.