CamerAgX

June 20, 2017

Why shoot film in 2017?

Filed under: Film Scanning — Tags: , — xtalfu @ 3:10 am

Last week-end, I tried a Nikon N90S that had just been delivered by UPS. The N90S does not feel very different from a conventional Nikon dSLR such as a D90 or a D7200. And instinctively, I started using it the same way I generally use a digital camera. Auto-everything, just compose the picture, press the shutter release, check the picture the LCD, adjust the exposure or the focus, and shoot again. Except that the N90s is a film camera. There was no LCD to check the picture. I won’t know if the camera nailed it until the film comes back from the lab. It could be weeks from now. And I started wondering why I had brought this camera, that wants to be used like a modern dSLR, but does not offer the convenience of digital.

It does not seem logical to shoot film:

– it’s expensive

– film is low ISO only (typically 100 to 800 ISO)

– there is a limited choice of film, and it’s difficult to find

– Film is not flexible – if you’ve loaded your camera with Kodak’s TRI-X, you’ll have 36 contrasty and grainy Black and White pictures. No magic switch or menu option will transform it into an Ektar or a Velvia on the fly.

– it takes days or weeks to get to see your pictures

– and most images are consumed on a smartphone or a computer monitor, or printed on a inkjet or giclee printer. Unless you enlarge your negatives in a dark room and only hang the prints on a wall, the images will have to be digitized at some point. So why go through the pain of using film, if you always end up processing digital images.

Most of the reasons given by the apologists of film are false pretenses:

Holga 120 CFN -Kodak color film.

Google “why shoot film” or check the Web sites of photo labs. You will often find the same reasons for shooting film. Most of them don’t resist  a close examination:

– “Film forces you to be picky because each image shot has a cost” – true, but nothing prevents you from being picky with a digital camera,

– “Film forces you to think and operate with method” – there is no possibility to check the picture immediately after it’s taken and adjust the parameters accordingly – trial and error does not work – you have to think hard and get it right. Again it’s true, but nothing prevents you from operating slowly and deliberately with a digital camera,

– “With a film camera, you’re not tempted to lose time looking  at your images on the LCD, you can focus on the subject and the next opportunity”.  True. But on a digital camera it’s simply a matter of discipline. Most digital cameras can be set not to display the image immediately after it has been shot, and nothing forces you to push the “play” button. (my digital cameras are set NOT to display the image which has been taken – but it came back to bite me a few times – when the images were not correctly exposed, and I only found about it when it was too late).

Venice – Bridge on the Rio de Palazzo o de Canonica – Shot with Nikon FE2. Scanned by a minilab. Jan. 2012

Some are true, but up to a point only…

You read frequently that in spite of all the film simulation modes (in camera or in Lightroom post processing), there is still something unique in the way film looks. Maybe. I’m not denying that some images originally shot on film look different. But I don’t know for sure if it’s the film, or something else. Because unless you use an enlarger and develop your prints in your own dark room, it’s likely that your workflow – and the processing chain of the lab who scan your film roll – are relying on digital technologies at some point. Minilabs and industrial labs have been printing from scans for years (even before consumers switched from film to digital), and that special film look you like so much may just be a product of the scanning software controlling the lab’s Fuji Frontier (or its Noritsu).

“Using film gives you access to cheap full frame and medium format equipment”  – True, you can get the “full frame” 35mm or  the medium format experience for less than $100. But the cost difference is not as high as it used to be (you can get a very  good second hand Full Frame dSLRs for $700), and digital medium format cameras, while still very expensive, will become more accessible when new cameras such as Fujifim’s GFX reach the second hand market and start pushing the price of older cameras downwards.

“Film can be stored for hundreds of years – and digital images are fragile”. True,  CDs and DVD may degrade over time, hard drives fail, and cloud storage only lives as long as the company offering the service stays in business. Digital imaging is based on short lived standards – will electronic devices of Y2050 still read today’s jPEGS, DNG and RAW files, will they mount the drives, the disks, the USB keys we store images on? . All those concerns are valid. Keeping digital images on the long run  will require work (moving images from an obsolete support or from a retiring on-line service to more current media, convert image files from old formats to newer formats). But it’s an archival issue, and archival of film also requires work – a shoebox can only get you so far.

Garden near Charleston, SC. Nikon FM, Nikkor 24mm AF.

What’s left? 

There still are plenty of reasons, good or bad, to shoot film…

– snobism,

– a desire to be  different,

– the refusal to fall for the latest and greatest electronic gimmickry,

– the love of film as a medium,

– the love of old cameras (mechanical devices made of aluminum, steel and brass) – there is no other way to use old cameras than to shoot film,

– love of old lenses,

– a preference for the way you had to work with those old film cameras (because you learned that way and you don’t mind showing your age…)

– the thrill of risking wasting a photoshoot  with cameras that are getting old and unreliable (not for me – I mostly use Nikons…),

– the unpredictability of results with old and inaccurate cameras and expired  film (basically, you let chance and mother nature be creative on your behalf)

– a search for authenticity and simplicity. Digital photography can be overwhelming (so many options, so many filters, so many plug-ins, so many ways to modify or improve the images, in the camera or on a computer, before and after shooting). Film is simpler. You load the film, your arm the shutter, you set the aperture and the shutter speed, you adjust the focus. You compose. You press the shutter release. And you’re done.


Panic in the sky – accidental double exposure on Olympus OM-2000. You would never get this image with a digital camera.

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April 15, 2017

Scanning 35mm film – is high-res scanning worth its cost?

Most photo labs propose scans in 3 resolutions: 1000×1500, 2000×3000, 4500×6700. The scans  are saved as jPEGs, with some labs also offering to save 4500 x6700 scans as TIFF files.

In theory, those resolutions correspond to an image of 1.5 Million points (1.5 MP), 6 MP, and 30  MP respectively. In general,

  • 1000x 1500 scans – when available – are virtually free (they’re included in the processing costs by some labs such as thedarkroom.com )
  • 2000 x 3000 scans cost roughly $5 for a full roll (in addition to the processing costs), or .50 per individual image scanned
  • 4400 x 6700 scans cost roughly $11 to $12 per full roll (in addition to the processing costs), or 3.00 per individual scan
  • 4400 x 6700 (TIFF) are the most expensive at $21 per full roll (oldschoolphotolab.com)

Storage constitutes an indirect cost – which doesn’t hurt until you run out of disk space, and have to upgrade your PC, your home NAS  or you online backup plan. But if storing 36 images at 1.5 Mbytes will not break your storage budget, 36 high res TIFF images represent almost 3 Gbytes. The exact size of a JPEG file is difficult to predict (JPEG is a lossy compression format), but in general, the file size of each type of scan falls within those brackets:

  • 1000x 1500 – JPEG -1.5 to 2 Mbytes
  • 2000 x 3000 – JPEG – 3 to 4 Mbytes
  • 4492 x 6776 -JPEG – 12 to 16 Mbytes
  • 4492 x 6776 (TIFF) – 80 MBytes / image

Scan_2000x3000_Piedmont

Atlanta Piedmont Park – Shot with Canon A-1 – Canon FD 35-105 f/3.5 – Fujicolor 400. Scanned at a resolution of  2000 x 3000 – the pictures of this roll are not really better than when scanned at 1000 x 1500 – probably a limitation of the lens (a 35-105 zoom of the seventies)

The tests

I wanted to have a few pictures I had taken a long time ago scanned, and I asked the lab to scan some images in 2000 x 3000, and some in 4400 x 6700. The pictures had been taken with a Minolta 7xi and the famous Angenieux 28-70 f/2.6-2.8 zoom, on Fuji Reala film (the 100 ISO “professional” color film Fujifilm were selling at that time). The pictures had originally been enlarged on photographic paper, and I expected the scans to be good.

I also had a series of images taken recently with a zoom from the early seventies, that had been scanned by the lab at 1000 x1500, that I asked the lab to rescan at 2000 x 3000.

Once the jPEGs were ready, I downloaded them in iPhone and iPad photo galleries, in Photoshop and Lightroom on a laptop, and on WordPress, in order to compare the perceived quality. A reminder of the resolution of a few devices compared to print.

  • iPhone 5 S Retina photo gallery : 1136x 640 (720,000 points) at 326ppi
  • 9.7 in iPad Retina Photo gallery:  2048 x 1536 (3,000,000 points)  at 266 ppi
  • Print 8 x 10: 2400 x 3000 points or 7.2 million points at 300ppi
  • the pictures of this blog are generally saved for the “Large” format proposed by WordPress, at 1024 x 680, corresponding to 600,000 points.

Paris – The Seine – scanned at 2000 x 3000. Minolta 7xi – Angenieux Zoom 28-70 – Fuji Reala film (1992). No visible difference in quality with the 4492 x 6700 scan (look at the details of the Eiffel tower compared to the glass house of the Grand Palais in the image below)

Conclusion

  • Scan at 1000×1500 or 2000×3000 ?
    • on an iPhone, on a 4×6 print, or in a blog supporting 1024 x 680 images (such as this one), there is no visible difference between 1500 x 1000 and 3000 x 2000 scans.
    • For all larger screen or print formats (9.7′ iPad Retina, laptop, 8×11 print, blogs offering to view images at native resolution)  the difference between a scan at 1.5 Million points and a scan at 7 Million points is very visible, unless the original is very poor (low lens resolution, very grainy film, subject slightly out of focus, operator shake at slow shutter speeds). It’s even more visible if you crop the image, even slightly.
  • Scan at 2000×3000 or 4400×6700 ?
    • on an iPhone, iPad 9.7′ Retina or on a 8×11 print – the difference is not really visible.
    • Above that (13 x 20 prints, for instance), the theoretical difference in resolution does not  necessarily translate into a difference in print quality: a 13 x 20 print  represents 24 million points at 300 ppi and the 6 million of points of a 2000×3000 scan should theoretically be overwhelmed, but practically the resolution of the film and of the lens play their part, as the technical limitations of the photographer (focus, shake) do. Large prints are often framed and hung on a wall, and you don’t look at a picture on a wall the same way you look at a 8 x 10 print you hold in your hand. And all technical considerations taken apart, with some subjects, images scanned at 2000×3000 may look as good as images taken at 4492×6770 – it depends on the contrast and quantity of fine details in the subject.

Scanning at 2000×3000 is a good compromise for 35mm film, and my choice when I have film processed. It works fine with any support I use day to day (iDevice, laptop, 8 x 11 prints), is not too expensive and generally produces a visible difference with the 1000×1500 scans.

If I wanted to print a really great picture, an image compelling from an artistic point of view and almost perfect technically (fine grain film, sharp lens, subject in focus, no shake), I would have it scanned at the 4492 x6776 resolution, and saved as TIFF. It would give me no guarantee that the print would be great (there are so many variables), but it would give me the best chances of success.


Scan_4492x6770_Paris-22

Paris – Scan 4492 x 6770 – Shot from the Pont Neuf -Minolta 7xi – Angenieux zoom 28-70 F/2.6 – Fuji Reala (July 1992)

March 5, 2017

Having film processed and scanned in 2017

Filed under: Film Scanning, How to — Tags: , , , , , — xtalfu @ 12:01 am

You’re shooting film. Assuming you don’t have access to a dark room for film processing, and don’t want to invest time and money in your own scanning equipment, you will have to rely on photo processors to develop and scan your film. Most labs propose the choice between 2 or 3 scan qualities. What should you order?

Our perception of the “minimum acceptable quality” has changed over time:

  • In the old pre-smartphone days (12 years ago), the conventional wisdom was that an image was displayed on a monitor at 72 dpi, and that most amateurs seldom printed anything larger than 5 x 7. A 1500 x 2100 scan was good enough.
  • we now visualize and share most of our images on high pixel density screens (the “Retina displays” of Apple’s products, but also the 4k or 5k screens of recent monitors and TV sets, for instance) which have 3 to 4 times the pixel density of the displays and monitors we used 10 years ago.
  • far fewer of our images are printed (I don’t know anybody who still asks systematically for 4×6 prints) – we only print the best of our pictures, and when we do it, we tend to print LARGE  (coffee table books, 11 x 14 posters). A 2400 x 3600 scan constitutes the new normal.

Resolution of the scan of 24×36 film needed for a print or to fill a screen:

In theory, it’s pure math. Photoshop will prepare images for printing at 300 or 600 dots per inch (DPI). If you want to fill a 10×8 page at 300 dpi, you’ll need an image dimension of W=300 x 8 and L= 300 x 10 that is 2400 x 3000.

Photo processors generally offer scans in three levels of resolution:

  • low res image: 1200 x 1800 – good for 6×4 prints at 300 dpi at best, a standard laptop screen at 100 ppi, or an iPhone with Retina screen (at 366 points per inch). An image size significantly below 1200 x 1800 will only be good for proofs or vignettes.
  • medium  resolution image : (2048 x 3072 ) : good for 7 x 10 prints or a Macbook Retina or iPad Pro display at 250 points per inch.
  • high resolution image: ( 4492 x 6777): 15 x 22 print or a large 5 k monitor (24in or more).

Let’s compare two images taken in the Atlanta High Museum of Art with the same type of film and the same camera, and scanned at different resolutions:

Ferrari 250 GT Tour de France. Original Scan: 3088 x 2048 (Costco)

Ferrari 250 GT Tour de France. Original Scan: 3088 x 2048 (Costco)

BMW Gina Concept (2008) - Original Scan 1544 x 1024 (the Darkroom)

BMW Gina Concept (2008) – Dream Cars Exhibit. Atlanta (Kodak CN400) – Original Scan 1544 x 1024 (the Darkroom)

The lower resolution picture is visibly less detailed (look at the hardwood floor, look at the grain in the shadows). A resolution of 1024 x 1544 is very limited, even for a WordPress blog.

However, the image size alone is not enough to determine the quality of a scanning service.

First, an image with  1200 x 1800 pixels has not always been scanned with a scanner resolution of 1270 Dots per Inch (36mm = 1.42in; 1800 pixels for 1.42 in = 1270 dpi) – it could have been scanned at a lower resolution and enhanced with interpolation.

Secondly, even with the same scanning equipment and the same resolution, images can be massively different, depending on the settings of the scanner and the skill of the operator: as an example, let’s use two pictures taken on the same type of color film and processed and scanned by two different Wolf Camera in-store labs in Atlanta:

Rialto Bridge, Venice. Original scan: 1800 x 1215 (Wolf Minilab)

Rialto Bridge, Venice. Original scan: 1800 x 1215 (Wolf Camera In Store Lab, 2012)

The second picture looks much more grainy than the first one, even if the JPG files delivered by the minilab contain the same number of pixels in both cases.

Canon A1 - 35-105 zoom - Fujicolor film

Atlanta – Piedmont Park – Original scan: 1818 x 1228 (Wolf Camera In Store Lab, Dec. 2016)

I had noticed the same phenomenon with Costco a few years ago – in the same store, you could get very different results from one day to another one, depending on the experience and skills of the operator on duty that day.

The labs, the services, and the cost

Almost nobody operates in-store minilabs anymore. Pharmacy chains or large retailers that used to process film in-store are now contracting the work to a few centralized labs.  They target the amateurs using disposable cameras and 35mm color film.

The enthusiast photographer crowd will be better served by a few large mail to order processing labs such as The Dark Room, The Old School Photo Lab , or North Coast Photo Services (NCPS).  They offer a wider range of services and also process color slide and “true” black and white film (such as Kodak’s Tri-X Pan or Ilford’s HP5), in many formats.

I’ve been using The DarkRoom and the Old School Photo Lab a few times. Their prices are roughly in the same ballpark. They develop and scan a 135 film cartridge for $11.00 (the base price includes postage, and The Dark Room provides low resolution scans for free). Medium and High resolution scans are available at extra cost ($4 to $5 extra for 2048 x 3084 scans, $ 9 for  4492 x 6774 scans). The scans are posted on a Web Gallery (no need to wait for a CD to come back through the Postal Service) and can be downloaded to a PC or a Mac as jPEGs (TIFFs are available at extra cost). A free app is also made available to visualize the images on a smartphone.

The differentiator between those services is what happens to the film after it’s been processed:

  • Pharmacy chains and big retailers typically DON’T return the processed film to the customer (one can assume it is destroyed after scanning). They generally simply return a CD.
  • Services like The Darkroom or Old School Photo Lab return the processed negatives, with or without a CD, but may charge extra fees to cover the shipping cost (The Darkroom) or the cost of the CD itself (Old School).

Other vendors package their offer differently but the prices are roughly in the same ballpark.

A general issue with all those services is the lead time. You seldom get your scans on line in less than 10 calendar days (135 film, negative color film). Speciality items (slide film, black and white, medium format) may take a few days longer.  But we don’t have much choice anymore, do we?

As a conclusion, if your pictures are important to you,  learn to know your lab

  •  if they publish a mission statement, read it,
  • if they describe their process and how their staff is trained, pay attention.
  • and before you send a large order, test them with a single roll of film – you don’t want to discover after it’s too late that they scanned your negatives at the lowest resolution before destroying them.

 


London: The O2

London: The O2 – Nikon F3 – Nikkor 24mm F:2.8 AF –

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