Kodak

Adventures with the Silver Halides (Part 2, Film vs Digital)

I had them in my hands: the first set of negatives from my Mamiya 7 and the scanned images on a CD. This was going to be great. Finally… real film tonality and colours in my work. I couldn’t pace home fast enough. I must’ve looked ridiculous with the negs in my hand, power-walking up the road like I was in critical need of the loo.

I fired up the laptop, thrust the disc in an waited to be stunned. 

Only I wasn’t. 

The colours were bad. I mean really terrible. I could’ve cried. 

I really wasn’t expecting to have to work on the negatives. That was part of the initial appeal of film for me… great colours out of the box. I concluded that I didn’t want to pay for someone else to do the scans only for them to come back with shitty tones… so I started to read round the subject even more obsessively than I had been. It turns out that people use their DSLRs to ‘scan’ negs, then convert in photoshop. So this is the path I initially veered down to try to get the hues more to my taste.

Two film and one digital image... can you tell which one is which? Which do you prefer?

Two film and one digital image... can you tell which one is which? Which do you prefer?

At first I thought I had everything I required, but it soon became apparent that I needed a lightbox (the iPad screen was too pixelated, despite covering it with a diffusing plastic cover), a 120 film holder, a blower and some white gloves to handle the negs with.

After some early hints that I was on the right path (i.e. the Portra colours I had been expecting), I started to get some strange ‘vignetting’ in the shadows of my images. I spoke with numerous film aficionados but no-one had an answer. Eventually I gave up on the DSLR and forked out on a real scanner (Epson V800)… only to find the vignetting was still there when I used Silverfast!! I could’ve cried (again). Finally I tried a ‘straightforward' import with EpsonScan. I had had so many failures and false starts I was actually was shocked when it turned out fine. Surely now I was ready to begin?! Err, well no, actually. Scanning itself is a ‘dark art’, to quote my good friend Tom Sebastiano… film was proving to be trickier than expected.

As with any dark art, there is a road to enlightenment regarding scanning and colour management of film. It’s not a short path either. I am by no means an expert, but remember Tom S (he does have the necessary expertise, and his blog is a wealth of information) mentioning a magenta cast that he was noticing in some of my work. I hadn’t spotted it up until that point. Now I was seeing it everywhere. This was a steep learning curve, but with a strong emphasis on ‘learning’. I could cope with that.

Eventually I had a workflow that was beginning to produce the goods and I was simultaneously being swept off my feet with the process of using film. Heady times. Meanwhile, the DSLR was at home gathering dust.

From L to R: Mamiya 7, Portra 400 scanned at my local lab; same neg scanned with Epson V800; Nikon Df, Sigma Art 35mm

From L to R: Mamiya 7, Portra 400 scanned at my local lab; same neg scanned with Epson V800; Nikon Df, Sigma Art 35mm

The passionate love affair was, it turns out, a bubble waiting to burst. I found myself dropping two or three rolls to be developed each week. 30 exposures and at very minimum, 80p per shutter press (£5 per roll of 10 exposures and £3 to develop). That’s ignoring the cost of professional or home scanning. Yet with each roll I was regularly only getting one usable shot… and sometimes not even that.

The final nail in the coffin for this intoxicating romance was hammered home during a shoot on holiday in Norfolk. As I was going away with the kids, I decided to only take my DSLR so I could snap away and capture some memories. On an outing we pulled into the car park at Winterton-on-Sea and there at the edge of the sand dunes was a collection of black huts that were screaming to be photographed. I got to work trying to find the best composition, then proceeded to spend the day on the beautifully wild Winterton beach. During the day I needed to get something from the car, and on my way back I decided on one last sneaky shoot of the huts, which in turn delivered the composition that worked best.

Winterton-On-Sea (Nikon Df, 35mm Sigma Art)

Winterton-On-Sea (Nikon Df, 35mm Sigma Art)

On reflection, I concluded that there was no way that I’d have worked the scene in such a manner with film. The cost was too prohibitive for that, so if I’d had the Mamiya I would have come home with a lesser image on the roll. Whilst the process of making an image is definitely integral to my overall enjoyment of photography, this experience is rarely meaningful to the individual who views the final photograph. Producing the best images I can is (for me) far more significant than the equipment that gets me there.

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without mention of my digital set up, the PentaxK1 and three FA Limited lenses. The K1 is a R&D departments wet-dream, with everything you can imagine packed into that little black box.  I don’t use three-quarters of all the features, but the ones I do use simply help me to make a better photo. It took about a week to set up (seriously!!!), but now that is done, I just have to turn one dial and I am ready for tripod shooting (with image stabilisation turned off, two second shutter delay, ISO100 etc), another rotation and I’m ready to snap pics of the littluns. 

The key component of the K1 is the Sony sensor within the camera. With 36MP to play with, the resolution easily bests the clarity I can attain from flatbed scanning… that isn’t to say that a drum scan wouldn’t radically improve the film files, but then we are talking much more £££. Most significantly, I find the huge dynamic range of the sensor gives me the squeaky clean shadow control of the best digital files AND the astounding highlight control of film. I can’t really seem to blow highlights, just like when I’m using Portra. I’ve had the camera for over a year now, and it’s only weakness seems to be the AF system. That isn't of critical importance for my work so I genuinely cannot see me needing another camera (note to self: don’t read this in two years time, you’ll have egg on your face). The K1 is the best camera I’ve owned. There, I said it. And it feels good. I hope you feel the same way about your set up too.

Hinchingbrooke Park 4 (Pentax K1, 43mm Ltd)

Hinchingbrooke Park 4 (Pentax K1, 43mm Ltd)

Digital is far more technologically advanced, but there is an undefinable magic to film. Same as putting a needle on a record. Everyone I know personally who uses film does so because they enjoy the methodical process of using the stuff… and I experienced the very same kick. In contemporary society, film is delightfully at odds with the increasingly instantaneous nature of our lives: with drive-through coffees and Mr Google answering any conceivable question you can throw at him. Film is tangable, film is hardwork, film is serendipity, it has personality and at times it can be frustrating. But when you get a fine shot from film, you have earned every exposed crystal of silver halide. 

Everything gear-related in photography is about compromise and you need to decide which tradeoffs you are happy to live with and fit your style best. I have come out the other side of my film adventure with a much greater knowledge of colour management and huge appreciation for those that shoot film, achieving a consistent look that digital shooters can only dribble at. But I’ve also realised that I don’t have the time (with two kids) and financial resources (with two kids) for film… at this moment in my life.

The question is, do you have the heart for film? 

 

Adventures with the Silver Halides

It’s something I’ve been toying with for a while. Actually, a very long while. As a ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ digital shooter I just wasn't sure analog life would suit me. After all, I’m used to the mod cons of histograms, image review and Auto ISO. And by investing in good glass I’ve grown accustomed to a clarity and sharpness in my work that frankly looks fantastic both on screen and in print. Add to this mix the VSCO Portra Lightroom presets and I surely have the best of both worlds… film-like colours with digital convenience.

Despite this I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that I should give film a try. Simulated film presets get you most of the way there in terms of analog tonality but, to my eyes, still not close enough. On top of this, you can get some supremely wonderful pro-grade film cameras for comparatively little money on eBay… although in fairness this can be a bit of a lottery with potential pitfalls aplenty. 

Bailiff Street (Portra 400, 65mm f4)

Bailiff Street (Portra 400, 65mm f4)

So here are the pros and cons of shooting film as I see them:

Pros:

  • Oh the colour!
  • Can get a medium format rig for relatively little money, something I’m definitely not doing digitally this side of Christmas
  • Colours
  • It would be an educational adventure into unknown photographic territory
  • Colours
  • Colours
  • Astonishing highlight control. You just can’t blow your highlights on colour negs it seems.
  • Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention those breathtaking film colours & tones

Cons:

  • Each press of the shutter costs money
  • I’ve already got a digital workflow that works and, most of the time, I get near enough to the results I want
  • I’ll admit it now: I’m like a spoilt child after a shoot… I’m pant-wettingly desperate to review the results the instant I get home. I’m just not sure I could cope with the wait for film to be developed.
  • Not as convenient as digital shooting
  • Loss of some of the clinical IQ of digital - although depending on your point of view this can also be a pro.

To sum up, it’s essentially all about those filmic colours that are giving me the itch I can’t scratch… and no, yoghurt didn’t work either.

Despite pondering the move for some time, previously I’ve always decided to stick with what I know best. So why the leap into the unknown now? The reasons I’ve been pushed over the edge are twofold; Firstly my technique over the past couple of years has improved hugely, with the biggest jump being after the purchase of a tripod about a year ago. Therefore where I was reliant on high ISOs before, now I largely shoot at base ISO even at night so we are firmly in fine-grain film territory. Secondly, and probably most importantly, I used to return from a days shooting with 100 or so different shots on the SD card. I still often return home with about 100 digital images to process but now they are only of 6 or 7 differing subjects and I cherry-pick the best captures. I’m much better at sorting the wheat from the chaff before pressing the shutter button. Altogether this has led to a much slower, methodical pace to my shooting… a pace which, you guessed it, suits film.

So despite the potential negatives, I decided to take the plunge… and if it turns out it’s not for me I can pop it back on eBay from whence it came. 

Next decision, what system to go for. I wanted great IQ, and something complementary to my DSLR. Medium format would tick both boxes but I also didn’t want a huge camera so it looked like the SLRs were out. I quickly honed in on a MF rangefinder as it would give me a different style of shooting and the lenses are tiny, even compared to most full frame DSLR glass. 

  • Mamiya 6 - Although I like 1x1 aspect ratio I didn’t want to be confined solely to that.
  • Fuji (various) - From previous experience I know Fuji makes exceptional glass but as far as I’m aware their MF rangefinders are all fixed FL lenses, and I’d rather greater flexibility.
  • Bronica RF645 - It looks like a wonderful camera but if I’m going MF I want the biggest negs I can get so 6 x 4.5 cm isn’t top of my shopping list.
  • So on to the Mamiya 7 system. 6 x 7 cm negs. Straightforward operation. And best of all it seems to have some exceptional glass at the wider end of the scale - huge tick! The hunt was over.
Martins Yard (Portra 400, 65mm f4)

Martins Yard (Portra 400, 65mm f4)

Thanks to the advice from two Flickerite Toms (Invernodreaming and Photom) and my old friend Mark Heaver (MrHeaver), I had what I needed to start browsing for the camera. Tom Invernodreaming suggested I invest in the cleanest copy I could - this sounded like sage advice as I was going to buy a camera that is 20 years old, with few options of repair if something goes wrong. Photom gave me the insider knowledge on the Mamiya (he shoots a 7ii) so I knew I was eyeing-up a fine piece of equipment. Marks tuppence, as a long time Leica shooter, was the reassurance that the rangefinder works well in low light… an important consideration for me.  When a mint condition / boxed Mamiya 7 and 65mm f4 appeared on eBay I knew it was the one. BIN :)

I waited patiently (something I don’t do well, as noted above) for the package to arrive from Japan. After being stung for about £200 import tax it took the total cost to £1150 for the set- up. I knew I could’ve got the camera / lens cheaper but it really was in ‘as new’ condition, so felt this was a fair outlay.

At last it was time to load some Portra and embark on a shoot… with silver halide.

Racecourse (Portra 160, 65mm f4)

Racecourse (Portra 160, 65mm f4)

I found the Mamiya to be simplicity itself to use. All the trappings of modern photography are absent leaving a camera with purified gestalt principles on show. In turn this virtually renders the instruction manual redundant. Once the shutter speed and aperture are set (the ISO is of course static corresponding to the loaded film speed), there is a meter reading in the viewfinder that indicates the correct shutter speed for your chosen aperture on the lens. Given that the camera employs a leaf shutter in its lenses, you can easily hand hold the camera at 1/15th second with good technique. So we have a user friendly experience that produces large negatives. Super.

Another aspect that was new(ish) to me was using the rangefinder. I’d shot a few frames on various Leica’s in the past, but never owned a RF. It turns out to be very easy to use. You just manually focus the lens until both the focus patch and the RF patch in the viewfinder align and thats it. The proof was in the pudding, with 10 exposures perfectly in focus on the first roll of negatives… well make that 7 as I had forgotten to take the lens cap off for 3 frames. As the viewfinder isn’t ‘Through The Lens’  there is no indicator that the cap is on or off and therefore you just need to build this check into your process of setting up a shot. I have gotten better at remembering this but nonetheless this is a niggling frustration I have with the rangefinder that continues to rear its ugly head on occasion. 

It is also worth mentioning that the accuracy of the frame lines usually include more of the scene than they suggest. According to the manual it is 100% at closest focus, reducing down to 83% at infinity. This phenomenon has actually led to some happy accidents, with unintentional objects appearing in the negative but improving the overall piece. Of course one can crop to the originally intended composition if the additional scenery detracts from the final image.

Abington (Portra 400, 43mm f4.5)

Abington (Portra 400, 43mm f4.5)

In terms of exposing the photo, there is a vast amount of latitude with colour negative film, particularly in the highlights, so use this to your advantage. In fact it is the exact opposite of digital photography, where highlights are easily blown but shadows can usually be lifted to reveal detail in a RAW file. When loading the film, I tend to meter / overexpose the image by a stop or so by setting the film speed on the camera at ISO 200 when I shoot with 400 film. Also I meter for the shadows to ensure there is always detail there, as I know that the highlights look after themselves. I have invested in a handheld meter (Sekonic L358), but find the readings from the cameras meter (somewhere between centre-weighted and spot) to be similar… I just point the focus patch or light meter at the darkest point of the scene and use that reading for the exposure settings. Easy.

The protracted wait for the the negs to be developed and scanned was something I wasn’t sure I’d like (I’m a child about this, remember?). Compared with the digital workflow, I am forced to defer my gratification, but that building anticipation turns out to be something I genuinely relish... and the excitement is frankly at boiling point by the time I pick up the negatives. Shooting film is an extremely enjoyable process and it’s making me a better human being

So what did I think when I finally received the first set of developed film back from the lab? This key question will be covered in my next blog when I’ll attempt to tackle one of the biggest photographic questions of our time: Film vs Digital… stay tuned!

Please note: This blog was originally started in 2016, but thanks to Chris Simonsen for inspiration to finish the bloody thing.