Film diaries: thoughts, truths and realizations

During the course of the last few months – shooting a grand total of a roll and a half, and processing one – I’ve had a few thoughts. Admittedly, these may be premature given that I haven’t even seen what came out of roll 2 yet, but I’ve already had a number of observations along the way which I thought I’d share with you all here.

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Muse at work. F2T, Delta 100, 45/2.8 P

The look is very different. I think it’s very polarizing: what you gain is highlight headroom, at the expanse of shadows (to some extent). And there’s grain everywhere, even in the highlights; but it’s non-uniform, non-digital, and varies in size enough that it adds texture rather than distraction. I find that I definitely like it when the light is directional; I don’t like it at all under harsh sun/ midday especially in the tropics, because it seems you lose most of the midtone definition. Here, digital’s linearity seems to help considerably with exposure latitude.

Digital passed film resolution a long, long time ago. Even shooting fine grain film and processing it in a reasonably clean developer – Delta 100 in DDX – the grain is still very noticeable. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to affect the ultimate resolving power of the medium, but what fine details are there are somewhat indistinct compared to what can be achieved with digital (duh, due to the digital nature of the constituent medium – i.e. uniform block pixels.) I will try PANF in colder developer next time to see if that helps. The last time I shot/ scanned seriously, I came to the conclusion that there was at most somewhere between 8 and 10 MP of equivalent resolution in a good negative or slide – I don’t think that’s changed; I’m just not seeing any more of that regardless of the lens used. In fact, if I had to compare the output, I’d say Delta 100 feels much like a D700 shot at ISO 3200+, with similar tolerance for lenses. I must have messed something up in the developing, because I don’t remember Provia 100 being this grainy. Bottom line: we’re utterly spoiled by modern digital; even the RX100 handily outresolves 35mm film – if it had better dynamic range, I’d probably use this as my copying solution instead. Whoever is still complaining about resolution out to have their head seriously examined, probably with a baseball bat.

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The Vase. Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Delta 400

That said, I’m seeing a very healthy amount of detail from my Hasselblad negatives: single pixel detail is being resolved at the 20MP level (the magnification limit of my ‘scans’), and I suspect that there may be about ~40MP worth of real detail in a low-ISO 6×6 negative. This makes sense, since the area is approximately four times the area of a 35mm negative.

The Noct-Nikkor has some noticeable focus shift issues wide open. Even on film, you can see the focus plane move as you stop down (or shoot wide open). I think this lens is going to have to be partnered with the D700 for future use, or a D600 with live view and an LCD magnifier.

35mm film is very forgiving of lenses. By f5.6 and sometimes even before, all of my ~50mm lenses (45P, 2/50MP, 58 Noct) all look equally sharp and pleasing. I actually prefer the 45P’s rendition wide open because its slight field curvature I feel adds to the image in the same way the 2/28 Distagon’s does. The good lenses, remain good, of course; some of that magic still comes through – the 2.8/21 Distagon comes immediately to mind – but it’s not as obvious as on a D600 body, let alone a D800E.

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Graphic inverse. F2T, Delta 100, Zeiss 21/2.8

I like the negatives more than the positives sometimes. This appears to be a consequence of the scanning process (or, specifically, the D800E imposing its own tonal response curve onto the reproduction) more than anything; still, some of the really abstract, graphic images seem to work better if tone-adjusted and kept as a negative. Perhaps there’s a creative avenue to explore here…

I work faster with film than digital – even if my camera has no meter. The inability to chimp or make iterative improvements to subsequent shots means that subconsciously, you put all of your effort into getting it right the first time and being absolutely sure before you shoot: this is both efficient, and makes you better. One, or at most two, frames, and I’m on to the next shot. This definitely wasn’t the case with my previous experiences – perhaps my skill level has improved a bit since then.

Each roll is a bit like receiving an old-fashioned letter. Both in the fact that you have to open the container to see what’s inside, but more so because you aren’t 100% sure how it’s going to turn out – you remember most of the images (I suppose that’s like anticipation when you see the sender’s address) but there’s enough variables in the developing that the tone – no pun intended – of the message might not quite turn out how you’d expect – either good or bad. I suppose there’s also the aspect of ‘will-it-or-won’t-it-arrive?’ anxiety when you’re doing your own developing, too.

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Zigzag. F2T, Delta 100, 58/1.2 Noct

Individual style is much more difficult to impose without lighting or postprocessing. I suppose this seems obvious in hindsight, but I’d say that 50% (or more, if you rely on filters and HDR) of an individual’s style is imprinted during the postprocessing phase. I know that personally, it affects my tonal map and color signature; the latter is gone with B&W film, and the former is highly dependent on the film type, developing and scanning process (and subsequent conversion). I’m trying to write a conversion action that takes my raw file and turns it into something approximating the image I expected at the time of shooting; it’s not easy because there are multitudinous variables. I suppose I could process each one individually, but that would defeat the point of shooting film: I actually don’t want that much control, otherwise I might as well shoot digital – there are fewer steps to achieving an output image, and far more repeatability.

I’m not really seeing any differently with 35mm, but the shots that work are not the ones I expected. I think compositionally, nothing much has changed. But I’m even more acutely aware of the quality of ambient light now; situations in which I’d make up any deficits in the scene for with postprocessing (uneven light, overly harsh light, colour casts etc.) are pretty much no-go with film. The positive upshot is that the scenes that work are simply gorgeous in tonality. I suppose this does actually affect the way you compose, since shadows always define the shape of an object.

It’s different for medium format, though: 6×6 really has a neat zen balance about it that I’m rather enjoying.

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For film, bigger is definitely better. Or harder/ faster/ stronger/ whatever adjective you prefer. And if you’re going to be shooting it in old, manual, quirky cameras without meters anyway, it’s never, ever, going to be convenient – so you might as well go large. Different story with digital, of course.

I keep forgetting to remove the damn dark slide. Enough said. One of these days, I’m sure I’m going to bend or lose it when I’m in a hurry.

Developing is both simple and hard. There aren’t that many steps to it – mix chemicals, open cannister, load reel, put inside tank, seal tank; add developer and time; rinse; add fixer and time; rinse. Hang to dry. Scan, or print to taste. The trouble is, many of the critical steps are both impossible to repeat exactly one time to the next, and there are several of them. And batches of film aren’t always consistent. I’m sure there’s an art to all of these things, but that’s something much like digital processing: you can only get a feel for it through experience. Perhaps once I’ve developed enough rolls I might get some of the touch too; and maybe then I’ll write about it (i.e. when I have something worthwhile to say). Also, 120 film is considerably more difficult to load on the reels than 135; I suspect it’s because the film is both wider and seemingly slightly thinner, too.

To say a particular film has a ‘signature’ seems to be as much a fallacy as saying a particular sensor has one. The development process affects the outcome to such a large extent that I don’t think it’s possible to separate it from the outcome – i.e. it’s really not all down to the film. I certainly don’t have the experience yet, but I’m pretty sure I could make most B&W films turn out the way I expect once I have some handle on their native tonal characteristics and that of the chemistry – much like the various raw files from different cameras.

I need to figure out this drying business. By sheer dumb luck, my first roll turned out okay; the problem was drying it. I rather unwisely decided to hasten the process by wiping the film with a microfiber cloth – it worked fine for the first few frames, then really buggered up the ones at the end with streaks and scratches (presumably from something that got stuck in the cloth). Moral of the story: go buy some hydroflow agent, hang and have patience. Or maybe a rubber squeegee thingy.

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Dust spotting isn’t as bad as I remember it to be. It seems that my early slides picked up a considerable amount more dust than these B&W negs – no idea why. But what used to be easily 10+ minutes of spot removal is perhaps 30s on a bad image – a very fragile-emulsion negative such as PAN-F, for instance; and one or two strokes on a clean one. Incidentally, it’s the same technique that I use for retouching dust on watches.

Highlight roll-offs are gorgeous. I suspect this is because most of the dynamic range is in the highlights – something to do with reciprocity error or perhaps the underlying photochemistry of the medium. There’s always a bit of gradation left in even the brightest zones, and nothing ever seems to truly overexpose (unless you do so by more than three or four stops).

That said, there’s not as much dynamic range as I expected. Perhaps this is not entirely accurate. The dynamic range is there, it’s just not distributed as I expected; I’m used to the extreme linearity of the D800E and its brethren, which let you basically expose to the right and be almost sure that all of the shadow information will be there. With film it appears the cost of the wonderful highlight tonality are very compressed shadows. Personally, this means to get the tonal style I’mm after, I’ll have to expose my primary subject highlights in zone 7-8 and let the rest fall where it may, but specifically look for scenes which work with heavy shadows.

How much of the tonal qualities of them D800E are being imposed on my ‘scans’? Unfortunately, without printing, there’s no real way to know – any digital conversion is going to result in some…reinterpretation, I suppose, of the original tonal values.

I doubt I can get anywhere near the same color accuracy with film. Although color films have some latitude to their working ambient light Kelvin temperatures, there’s simply no way you can have film that works at 5500K for one shot, and 4375K for the next – but you can with digital. For this reason, I’m just not going to bother with color film – for now.

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Inverse (this is the negative). Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Delta 400

Ah, grain. I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with it, so long as your image is in focus and your idea is clear; film has just made me recalibrate my expectations. Hell, ISO 1600 from the OM-D looks better at equivalent magnifications than ISO 100 35mm film…

So far, it’s been an interesting experiment – both creatively and in an attempt to better understand some of the technical and artistic history behind photography and why some particular images look the way they look. For instance, I now understand why most film street photography is both grainy and very high contrast; similarly, I’ve developed a new appreciation for Salgado’s developer and printer – I would still love to see his negatives though, to figure out how much of his look is down to light at the scene, how much is down to developing voodoo, and how much of it is down to skillful printing. In the meantime though, I think so long as I’m shooting with a serious focus on creative development, film is probably here to stay for me. Time to pick up more 120 for the ‘Blad; I have a feeling I won’t be doing much 35mm film shooting because it isn’t quite the creative break I wanted. 6×6, on the other hand, is absolutely magnificent. MT

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Film diaries: the first roll

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Some months ago, I acquired a vintage Nikon F2 Titan in the hopes of both fulfilling a longtime photographic dream, as well as perhaps shooting a little film again in the name of stimulating creativity. Many of you have been anxious to see the results; I bet none more so than myself. The trouble is, I feel that I’ve set a standard here that I must uphold; if the images from this roll don’t meet that standard, then I think there’s going to be a lot of hand-wringing, rude gestures and cries of ‘pah, amateur’. In this post follows the highlights of that first roll.

2012-12-13-F2T-D100

Before I show any images, I want to give some background: I’ve shot film creatively before. I’ve even processed it before, as part of my dissertation on improving measurement precision using short-wavelength laser holography (don’t ask, because I don’t really remember). But I’ve never done both, and my processing days predate my creative photography days by a considerable period of time. Finally, the last time I shot film was in mid 2009, with a Leica M6TTL. Before that was 2005, with another Nikon – an F2A. Note: EXIF data will say ‘D800E and 50mm’, because that’s what I used to digitize the negatives.

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This roll is both the first roll of true B&W I’ve shot*, processed and scanned entirely singlehandedly. It shows, too: it’s grainy considering it’s Ilford Delta 100 exposed at ISO 100; in places it’s uneven, and there’s a streaking problem from where I got impatient and decided to try to wipe the film dry with a microfiber cloth. In hindsight, one of those Dyson Airblade hand dryers would be awesome for the task.

*An embarrassing, dirty confession: all of my previous film B&W work was C41 process (BW400CN, XP2-400) for convenience – finding somebody to develop black and white film in Kuala Lumpur is not a trivial task because serious shooters do their own, and consumers don’t do it at all.

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The ‘scanning’ was accomplished with an interesting hack-rig: my product photography lightbox, lit by a speedlight within, film passed through a cardboard mask (to prevent scratches) and the camera resting above, spaced perfectly with the long hood from a Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar but fitted to the 2/50 Makro-Planar which coincidentally has the same bayonet. Add a 20mm extension tube, and the spacing is not only perfect, but I now have a 4000+DPI scanner.

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I’ve spent some time in Photoshop to automate the conversion process as much as possible, to try and keep the character of the film intact and consistent, and minimize the amount of individual work required on each image. I can’t say I’m 100% happy with the results yet, but we’re getting there. If I can run an entire roll of RAW files as an automated action – cropping excepted – then the total scan and process time is actually about the same as a comparable number of digital files.

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Anyway, more on that in another article. For now, I just want to leave you with one thought: resolution both matters, and doesn’t – we’re seriously spoiled by the degree of image quality obtainable from the current state-of-the-art FF digitals. Enjoy! MT

These images were shot with a 1979 Nikon F2 Titan on Ilford Delta 100, with a mixture of lenses – Voigtlander 28/2.8, Nikon 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, Nikon 45/2.8 AI-P, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar. Can you tell which is which, other than through perspective? I can’t.

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Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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