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Friday, November 24, 2006

Why Not Scanned Film?

Scanned film is sort of a worst-of-both-worlds scenario, with a few exceptions:

a) you want the pictures on film for archival longevity (not an automatic advantage with color materials, esp. color neg);

b) you know you might also want to make conventional prints (also not an automatic decision, since I know at least one photographer who burns digital images to film and then prints them conventionally);

c) you need your new pictures to match your old ones, which you'll be reprinting from scanned negs.

The disadvantage of scanning is that it's easy to get a mediocre scan but almost crazy-making (well, for me, anyway) to make a really good scan (using an older 35mm film scanner. You might have better luck with sheet film and one of the newest Epson pro flatbeds, which are rumored to do very well with sheet film).

The principle advantages of digital are 1. instant, faster-than-Polaroid visual feedback, 2. no per-image cost, and 3. no processing labor requirements. To give up all three of those advantages and add in the disadvantages of scanning would logically require that you have one of the explicit purposes mentioned (a., b., or c.) in mind.

I suppose there's a fourth reason, d) you like the feel of the old hair shirt, although I would question even that, because unlike the case with many alt-proc methods your work isn't badged with the hair-shirt logo....

I can name one more reason: highlight gradation. Scanning B&W or chromogenic film might be better than straight digital capture in this regard, and the Fuji S3's SuperCCD SR II sensor promises greater dynamic range, which may in some cases improve gradation; however, I question whether there is actually any way to get the rich highlight gradation of traditional B&W materials with any sort of digital setup. At any rate, I'd have to see it before I believe it.

I say this as someone who was an early champion of hybrid wet/dry methods and as someone who still periodically mulls over going back to 35mm Tri-X, scanned and then printed digitally, for reasons a. and c.


Featured Comment by Nicholas Hartmann: I found that scanning allowed me to pull more shadow detail out of a given negative than I could ever obtain with an enlarger, but often at the cost of compressed, pasty-looking highlights. In my experience, scanning was ideal for inorganic materials—landscapes, cityscapes, stone walls, architecture, etc.—shot in relatively low, flat light, i.e. thin negatives with little contrast. It yielded poor results for portraits and for any negative with appreciable density: a "correctly" exposed negative that would "fall" onto the paper all too often produced nasty, compressed, blotchy skin tones.

Nicholas Hartmann, Italy—Gubbio, Via Galleotti

So I have on my wall several pictures of old stone streets in Italian hill towns, scanned from negatives in which the thin parts would print under the enlarger as a sea of mud, that look absolutely terrific. But since I seem to have drifted very far away from pictorialism, and now care mostly about accumulating pictures of people so that I can be reminded some day of what they looked like at a particular time in the past, I find that digital capture, even using a small digicam sensor at, say, 7 megapixels, is ideal: much faster, much better results in terms of being able to fine-tune everything very quickly with a RAW converter, and more than adequate resolution for the 4x6" prints that I am now making. I especially don't miss spending literally hours of time getting rid of all the dust spots that I could so much more easily see on the scans—and therefore could not resist removing.

Featured Comment #2 by Mike Peters: I shoot with an EOS 1ds Mk2 for all of my commercial clients and for myself I shoot with either a Hasselblad or a 4x5 and color negative. I've been shooting for 30 years, scanning for 12, and shooting digital professionally since the release of the original EOS 1d.

I have to say that shooting digi is far easier to deal with than film when it comes to being productive under deadline. You can shoot anywhere from iso 100-3200 and get incredible results and images almost always look like they were shot with a larger format.

However, with digi, tonality and resolution are pretty much determined by the chip in your camera. I shoot raw exclusively with a pretty darn good piece of technology and fully expolore the limits of the medium on a daily basis.

My experience is that I can get much more from a color neg than from a raw file, if the neg is scanned properly with a good scanner. You cannot get all that a neg has to offer with any flatbed. For my own shooting, I use fuji z800 and have no problem getting good highlight or shadow details. I can scan these 6x6 negs at a resolution that allows uninterpolated printing 30 inches square with a film scanner at 4000dpi. I use a 1500$ Microtek 120tf, scan raw using silverfast, and get images of equal quality to an Imacon.

On the other hand, scanning is labor and time intensive, but when you are done, you have a perfect hi-res file that is ready for anything. The learning curve is steep, much steeper than shooting with a digital camera, but the results can be much more rewarding in the end if you take the time to learn how to do it correctly.


Blogger Gordon said...

d) Cost of cameras. There is a wide variety of quality film cameras that can be had for very low prices or for, literally, nothing. And they will still be working, and useful, for a very long time.

An acquaintance was commenting on how is $3,000 Canon was producing results equal to medium format. I will concede that point. That means his $3,000 Canon can produce results as good as my $50 Ricoh Diacord TLR. And then there is the Burke & James 5x7 that I traded $17.50 worth of film. The set of process lense I put together for it averaged $43 apiece. Or the Pentax Spotmatic II that was given to me. Those Super Takumars are pretty nice! But, then you knew that.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Good point.


2:45 PM  
Blogger Player said...

Mike, why not keep b&w all traditional, and digital for color capture and color printing?

Even though I'm just using 35mm Nikon film gear for b&w, in my opinion, it's still "superior" to digital b&w.

This also seems to be a perfect way to keep one's hand in the traditional darkroom. I've gone digital, but I'm grateful to still have my darkroom. I think it makes me a more versatile photographer, with more avenues of expression.

3:06 PM  
Blogger LostBryan said...

How about:

You have a large collection of negatives/slides that you cannot reshoot, and you want to print them on your new printer. If your backlog is large (like mine) you will be scanning a lot, or throwing away a lot.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Colin [] said...

(e) Camera availability. If you want a camera with a great viewfinder, or without a 100 buttons, or with tilt and shift that is easy to use, then you end up with film capture.

Digital cameras will knock off those objections with time, but right now they don't.

Maybe the M8 hits a couple of those, if you can afford it, and when it finally starts shipping properly.

(f) Editing on a lightbox versus editing on a screen.

There is no automatic 'best' here, but if you like working with a lightbox, then you like working with a lightbox.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

No offense, but I've never met anybody who LIKES editing on a lightbox. (g)


4:00 PM  
Blogger stephen best said...

Good question: "Why not?". I don't see any cost-effective and practical digital capture solutions for large format shooters on the horizon. Adapted MF backs or scanning backs with looonnnng exposure times don't count. Seitz may get there but they'll have to work on the price. I still do a lot of scanning for pros for whom film is the best/most practical choice.

4:35 PM  
Blogger yeled said...

the black and white comment is a good one, and you should also try modern scanners! The Nikon's are superb.

4:49 PM  
Blogger kevin said...

maybe i'm weird.. i am... but i would rather look at slides in a little viewer (or the crazy cool Leica Desktop viewer i just got, or on a lightbox) than look at digital files on a computer screen. no contest, not even close...and i started with digital imaging!

regarding the scanning thing, personally i see no reason to scan images unless i'm getting prints made. i shoot slides so i don't have to spend more of my life in front of a computer.

yeah, i can scan at home for quickie web use, but i don't see the point really. i think there are more than enough images online already,hah.. and i would rather look at prints.

i can get chromes drum scanned and made into Chromira prints and they look really really great. i get access to a pro lab with extrememly high end scanners and printers that i would never be able to afford otherwise.

just an alternate point of view.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Colin [] said...


None taken.

I like editing on a lightbox, so you have e-met somebody at least.

(Caveat - not colour neg!)

5:37 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Call me a crank, but being both an amateur and a novice, it is both my pleasure and my duty to take my time, watch my pennies, and learn from the craft, past and present. So I wholeheartedly agree with gordon's point d. At the moment, I shoot film because I enjoy film and high quality equipment. At the moment, I scan because I have to.

When I got really interested in photography a few years ago, I started playing with a digital camera and reading online about the art and craft of making pictures. But I soon came across some material (including, btw, one or two Sunday Morning Photographer columns) that convinced me that I'd get a lot more bang for my buck, and possibly have more fun, going "old school".

And that's exactly what happened. There is nothing like the feel of fine old precision mechanics--as tool, as artifact, as teacher, as history... not to mention the pleasure of knowing that I paid next to nothing for it on ebay or at a garage sale.

For probably less than the cost of a consumer DSLR starter kit with a questionable zoom lens, I was able to sample "the golden age of SLR's", the primitive quirkiness of soviet Leica clones, quaint old medium format folders, cunning modern pocket point-and-shoots, and more. Meanwhile, I got a taste of the joys, terrors and tedium of the darkroom, marvelled at films old and new, and got to use some great optics.

Rarely, something I bought was indeed trash; more often, I had to figure out how to coax the stuff back into working shape, which only taught me more.

To me, the tactility of analog is a beautiful thing. The light-tight box, the precision mechanisms, the optics... being able to see, smell, touch every part and most of the processes, including those beautiful translucent negatives and positives, feeling physically involved in what is being created with light, chemistry and fine (or coarse) engineering...

Digital is awesome, and I'll probably return there sooner rather than later, but this has been an amazing, rewarding trip through a crazy wonderland, and I thank you, Mike, for the part you played in pointing me that way. I'm glad I'm on this road. I even took some photos.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

I've been nearly all digital capture for the last 20 months. Before that I shot my TX, TMZ and scanned it for Epson output. The prints, many done with the BO/Epson 2200 method are very very nice and have a film feel that digital capture doesn't. In fact digital capture converted in Convert to B&W Pro software IMO looks best if printed BO. Other printing methods are too smooth.

But today I remembered why I still have a scanner. I developed a roll of TX and a roll of TMZ from a long weekend in Woodstock NY. Here is why.....

Images that just leap off the film with tones, gradations and details that digital just can't do IMO. I know all that good stuff will be in the scan, that the Epson will print it and I forgot one thing, beautiful sharp grain..Grain is good. TX,HC110 and Summilux's. A combo that digital can't match. And believe me I'm trying.

That is why there are still scanners Mike.

6:46 PM  
Blogger David Kelly said...

I like to shoot fast wide angle primes in bad light and can't afford a Canon 5D with several L lenses. New versatile scanners, and in particular the Microtek i900, which costs less than a slow wide angle zoom for a digtal Nikon or Canon, make getting good scans fairly easy and quick, certainly no harder than getting a good enlargement in a wet darkroom. And I get to go on using my F100s, whose digital equal i do not expect to see in my lifetime.

Mike, do you mean you never enjoyed those fights to the death with the Art Director over the light table?

7:31 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Mike, do you mean you never enjoyed those fights to the death with the Art Director over the light table?"

Do you mean the rare AD who made it past the guard dogs, barbed wire, and poison gas? (*snarfle!* *yuk!*)


7:39 PM  
Blogger stanco said...

Not having the shooting "constraints" of a professional photographer, I shoot what I want- B&W. And with film equipment prices where they are, I'm not about to spend thousands to find out that B&W digital capture doesn't yet compete with old school. And I wanna Negative!

8:28 PM  
Blogger Ernest Theisen said...

Neil, I am scanning old 120 plus X pan negs on my Epson 4870 scanner with Silverfast software and printing them on my Epson 2200. I am getting good results and they will get better as I get more experience. Now a question, what does BO mean. Thanks. Ernest

8:53 PM  
Blogger Hoover said...

I too love my "old" F-100, Tri-X and scanning. Prints come off my Epson 2200 on to watercolor paper,
and yes grain is good ! It's the blending of old and new that seems to be working for me.

Scan away.

9:25 PM  
Blogger Maciek said...

i scan films just because the files look better then from digital SLRs. Not just the resolution etc. but the feel of the analog, the colors... i love it and hate it about digital. i have my films scanned on Noritsu scanner, so im not comparing flatbed scanners or small 35mm scanners here, but a semi-professional tool, for use of which i have to pay for, and a lot.
The result - analog look and ability to work on the files on my PC.

4:16 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

"BO" is black only meaning you print using only black ink. You'll be told by many that it doesn't work, you see dots etc. In fact I read about it when Mike J. interviewed someone using the method to great effect. I believe it was Hartmann, read the featured quote for this thread.

I was not pleased with BW prints from the 2200 using colored inks, all the other ink sets out there had my head spinning. BO seemed like a good cheap way to print. Use Epson OE Matt black or MIS Ebony. Print on Matt paper. Very film like. Prints have a little grit, some bite.

I scan with a Minolta 5400. It is good enough to scan the difference between D76 and HC110 or Rodinal. APX100 in Rodinal still has that Zip it should have. TMZ in HC110 has nice sharp grain. BO prints all these well with ease. I'm 50-50 between BO and UT7.

Google Clayton Jones. He has a site with all you need to know about BO printing and also how to get the most from the Epson 2400.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Ade said...

In the classic 1937 comedy Oh, Mr Porter!, the eccentric Irish yokel postman played by Dave O'Toole greets tyro stationmaster Will Hay's every attempt to brighten up his sleepy country railway station with the immortal line, "You're wasting your time!"
"Well, what are you doing then?!"
"Just watching ye wasting your time!"

Sitting here reading this post, surrounded by scanners, canned air, brushes and several folders of B&W negatives, I know how Will Hay felt.

Buggrit. Maybe my highlights are blocked to hell and the process is tedious as owt and I'm wasting good shooting time that could be spent filling the card on my DSLR before wrestling with monochrome conversions in Bibble. I'm never going to use or care about a traditional darkroom and I don't yet prefer digitally-captured B&W. So what, I like my inkjet prints from scanned negs. I just need another four hours in the day.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Joshwa said...

It should say something that some of those at the very peak of commercial advertising photography use a hybrid process-- shooting on film, drum scans, retouching/output digitally. Many of the fantastic ad campaigns you see in magazines and on billboards are produced this way.

I think the reason why has a lot to do with reason e) highlight gradation; or, rather, the predictable response of film that these folks cut their teeth on and have relied upon to produce their particular aesthetic styles.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Giuliano88 said...

Beautiful shots!, bello il tuo blog, davvero interessante, complimenti.ciao

1:47 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

(f) Issues with batteries and/or memory. I may be in the distinct minority, but I sometimes backpack or travel in areas where access to a power outlet is not a given. I don't find buying lots of (rechargable) batteries and a handful of CF cards an elegant solution.

I can do a 21-day backpack with 25 rolls of 220 film and two tiny batteries for my 645 and know that I will be fine, while I would need 10+ batteries and 50-60 gigs of CF cards for the 5d to have the same confidence.

Most of the time I shoot digitally, but it's nice to have the option of travelling without being tethered to a computer and/or power outlet.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Gary Nylander said...

I have to concur with what a lot of people have written here, that scanning has its own unique look depending on the type of film one is using and feel but is a time consuming process. I was a dedicated black and white print maker in a wet darkroom for many years and about 3 years ago bought myself a Epson 4000 printer ( now updated to a 4800 model ), I was quite surprised that even with a budget consumer scanner model that I bought ( Microtek i900 ) that the prints from the resulting scans looked every bit of good in terms of sharpness in comparison to my silver prints.

1:18 AM  
Blogger Ian Jindal said...

This is too easy a characterisation, and also implies that "speed" and "ease" are the main considerations for a artistic and expressive medium! You're sounding like a commercial photographers on a deadline ;)

Teasing aside, film is useful for "distinctive" camera options: Hasselblad's XPan, Hasselblad's SWC ultra wideangle or even the fun Zero pinhold cameras (guaranteed to make you new friends every time you bring it out in public).

Scanning is also useful if you wish to share these images online - in which case the ultimate quality issues aren't as relevant provided that the scans are web-optimised.

Admittedly, one isn't going to be blatting away at 5fps with analog kit, but as part of a combined, digi-analog creative toolkit, scanning has its place.

3:23 AM  
Blogger Wituniasty said...

Do not have an experience in that matter (only wet processing), but found an opposite, interesting experience on the net:

9:07 AM  
Blogger david adam edelstein said...

I'll emphasize a point that's already been sort of addressed -- choice of "axe".

I shoot with a Leica M -- it's the camera that makes the most gut sense to me -- and I don't have the cash together yet to buy an M8.

So the hassle of shooting film, processing, scanning, etc. is worth it because the instrument I use at the moment I'm shooting is one that works for me.

But the moment I have the cash for an M8... I'm on it.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"But the moment I have the cash for an M8... I'm on it."

Pardon me for butting in where it's none of my business, but...really?

I would have thought that this was a case where, if you didn't have a pressing reason to be an early adopter, you'd wait a year or two for all the teething problems to work themselves out, and (possibly!) for the pricing to relax a bit. It's hard to say if the M8 is really experiencing significant teething problems--Leicaphiles are picky and knowledgable, so they pounce on every real and perceived imperfection--but it sort of looks like it does. Why not wait? I think I would. Just my usual 2 pfennigs.


12:46 PM  
Blogger Paul Kierstead said...

I am a little baffled. Since when did the 'best' system come down to technical attributes? I have discovered that for more artistic photographic pursuits *I* am a much much *better photographer* with film, especially simple film cameras. It isn't the medium or any technical aspects, for me it is seeing. When I use my Bessa I am freed from worry, or checking, or button twiddling and I just see. Now clearly this isn't true for everyone, but for me I see much better with simple film cameras. I am largely down to the Bessa and 4x5 (where the seeing and the interaction with the image is nothing like digital), and my results are so much better. For more 'producticve' pursuits I still use my Canon Digital gear (though occasionally my 1VHS as well, but that invites button twiddling too).

The only digital camera past my Canon that has really caught my eye is the M8, for its simplicity. I might be tempted to sell off all the Canon gear for one of those.

Still, it peeves me some to have one of the champions of usability and other attributes seem to be falling for "photography is in the numbers" game. The best system is the one that gives you the best results, and that isn't always a function of resolution or shadow detail.

7:52 PM  
Blogger richard said...

Hi Mike: I am just saving up the pennies to buy the M8 of course, but for B&W, Tri-X in Harvey's 777 is still magical:

In fact, this is Tri-X pushed to ASA800. Simple scan using Vuescan. Hardly any post processing mucking afterward.

7:31 PM  
Blogger david adam edelstein said...

Heh. You're right of course about the M8's teething problems. But we're in violent agreement -- since I've committed to paying for the camera by selling prints, it may be eighteen months or so at my usual rate of sale before I can even think about getting one.

9:09 AM  
Blogger JimDesu said...

Scanning negatives allows me to use the old pre-flashing technique on my film. This lets me shoot at ASA3200 on Pan-F. The look is kinda Mortensen-like, but I enjoy that. :o)

5:49 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

I recently bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D50, and ended up selling it 3 weeks later. The color shots were beautiful. The B&W (processed) didn't work 75% of the time or more, and as I prefer B&W it just didn't work. Nothing looks like Tri-X or HP5 scanned or chemically printed. The C41 B&W looks almost exactly like a digitally shot B&W image due to lack of grain. Bought some Diafine developer and now I'll scan them in. Semi instant gratification, and w/ the Diafine I should be able to shoot one shot at 400 iso, another at 800 iso, etc and develop them all at the same time on one roll. I think this is as good as it gets for B&W at this stage of digital development.

8:57 AM  

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