11.28.2011

Trying it both ways.

Photographers tend to be an "all or nothing" crew.  When we gear up for a shoot we focus in like lasers on the exact gear we presume will be the best for the job of the moment, then we pack it up and go.  But sometimes the license to experiment comes hand in hand with the job at hand.  I can't tell you why I packed up my Hasselblad 501 CM and the 120mm Makro lens along with my Canon gear on the morning that Amy and I went off to make portraits of scientists for one of our favorite technology companies.  It wasn't logical or rational.  And I can't tell you why I stuck a couple of 120 rolls of Kodak's venerable Tri-X in my pocket either.

We were making portraits of people against white that would become ads and posters.  We shot digital and tethered all morning long and paid close attention to things like white lab coats edged against the white background.  It was great to have some instant proofing.  The firewire connection had no problem matching my shooting speed.  It was a smooth but careful shoot.  The ad agency had no interest in experimenting with film.  But I did.

We had some time between sessions so I asked this scientist if we could take a few quick shots and she agreed.  I extrapolated the Tri-X exposure from the Canon 1DS mk2 ISO 100 exposure.  It should have been two stops different but I went with one and two thirds stops difference because I like a slightly thicker negative and I was certain that Tri-X could handle as much over exposure as I wanted to throw at it without blocking up.

I think my subject enjoyed a little foray into historic imaging technology.  I know I did.  We chatted about it for a few moments while I licked the little band that secures the backing paper around the exposed film, and then we were done.

When my assistant, Amy, and I got back to the studio and finished unloading I got straight to work backing up the digital files, creating web galleries and doing all the back end work we now take for granted.  A few days later I dropped the roll of film by the lab and asked them to "develop and contact."

The next time I was in the neighborhood I pulled into the lab and picked up the film.  A quick glance across the contact sheet and I zeroed in on two frames.  One somber and one smiling.  I scanned the smiling one and made one or two little adjustments.  I compared it with the digital file, painstakingly resolved from a big raw file and worked on meticulously in PhotoShop, and I must plainly say that the digital files rendering of skin tones in digital is not up to par with film technology from the 1960's and 1970's.  You can blame my technique if you want and you can direct me to countless thousands of people on the web who may have mastered black and white in the digital age but all stories are anecdotal unless you live them.

I can dump Canon files in SilverFX and create lots of stuff that's close but it's the tonal range that always seems to give it away for me.  The midrange always seems like gray mush.  I am consistently amazed that, with one or two little tweaks I can get wonderful black and white from the real thing (black and white film)  but the voodoo of manipulating color tones in relation to skin tones in relation to digital files seems so arduous by comparison.  Maybe it's just me.  I can accept that.

After I got this file back I had a husband and wife contact me about photographing them.  They wanted images showing her pregnancy.  I had the studio all set to do a digital session but when they showed up she remarked that she loved the look of square, black and white photographs.  I proofed with the Canon 5Dmk2 but I shot in earnest with the Hasselblad and Fuji Acros 100.  I got the contact sheets back today.  I am still in love with black and white film.  I don't care if it's less convenient.  It just looks better.....

So, for all the people who were getting bored with the writing about the Nikon V1.........viva la difference!

(If you are going to comment about print quality, please keep in mind that the image above is 1600 pixels wide and the original is capable of being cleanly scanned at 16,000 pixels wide. It's also been converted from 16 bits of grayscale to 8 bits of sRGB color. Just mentioning...)

26 comments:

Michael Ferron said...

I'm not a pro and can shoot what I want. Speed and convenience is not important. So as much as I like my V1 it's B&W film that does it for me. I walked downtown in the rain the other day and the tones I got from 35mm TMax 400 are superb. Beautiful silvery tones. Tough to match the look any other way.

Frank Grygier said...

I still like the sound of analog. Digital looses a lot in the conversion from sound waves to 0's and 1's. The same is true for digital imaging. Film trumps digital for tonal depth. Compromise is unavoidable.

Jim said...

For me digital color rules, mainly because I can control it beginning to end without the intervention of a lab. I've done some digital B&W recently but I still think film is the best medium for B&W. Like you say, it's the tones. Digital just doesn't have the same quality.

AlexG said...

I am getting great pleasure out of a series of 6x6 monochrome negs off either Fomapan 100 or Rollei RPX100.All shot on Yashica TLR cameras and printed on traditional matte paper. The cameras are an absolute delight to use and can be picked up for peanuts.

Chappy Achen said...

I love digital for alot of reasons
but I do miss the skin tones that I got from film, both B&W and color. I have a bulletin board in the kitchen with photographs of family and without
a doubt the skin tones on the analog prints just say "Real Skin"

Jeffrey_Friedl said...

I wonder whether viewing the film result through the lens of a digital scan causes you to lose some of what you love about film. I would worry that any image, no matter how created, suffers when squeezed into the uncomfortable built-by-compromise world of a digital image color space.

Rob Grey said...

Yes, the articles about your adventures with the Hasselblad are much anticipated, but I also like the stories about the V1. It sounds like a really exciting camera that seems to offer a lot for its diminutive proportions. I still love the EP1, however, and will likely keep using it until I finally kill it. It's my only digital camera.

I'll also comment about print quality: I find it easier and more satisfying to print in the darkroom rather than futz around with profiles and cables and inks and drivers. I get a headache just thinking about how clogged my printer heads are right now. I have just started printing in the darkroom a few months ago and I'm already better at it than trying to not waste paper with my Epson. The tones are better and I can actually see and feel what I'm doing with the print rather than massaging a file in PS and not knowing what it'll actually, really look like once the printer spits it out. Despite all the profiling and calibration, you still never know...

kirk tuck said...

Some day I'll write about my time with a progression of obdurate Epson printers and my unsuccessful battle to master them for more than one or two prints.....

A nightmare. It ruined my love of printing. Inkjet printers were made for one reason: To suck the money out of your wallet and supply a tiny trickle of acceptable quasi-art in return.

Travis said...

Kirk, you use Macs, right? Have you tried a free piece of software called Raw Photo Processor? It uses much, much more precise math for the initial RAW conversion, and its tone curve has much more film-like shoulders. (Highlight roll-off is undoubtedly better.) I find that for photos where tone subtlety really matters, it does a superior job. There are also some pretty accurate simulations built in of a few film emulsions, including Agfa B&W.

The only downside is the interface, which is clunky as hell. Read the fine manual, and give it a few to sink in.

Nothing replaces the process of shooting with film if you enjoy it, and I absolutely respect that. But if you think Adobe Camera Raw's take on the files is the final word, you'd be surprised.

mikepeters said...

Some day, maybe, digital sensors will have character and will render images with the subtle beauty of film.

Right now, digital is amazingly adaptable for almost any situation, making it the perfect tool for a commercial photographer. Like you, I shoot for a living.

However, all of my personal work is shot on color negative film in square format. For some reason, I cannot bring myself to shoot personal work digitally. It just doesn't feel right. There is something tactile and tangible about film that is just lost with digital. I need that thingness to connect with; the negative, to make what I do seem real and here, not just a collection of digits on an unseen platen spinning away in a form that I cannot perceive without resorting to technology.

Phil said...

Kirk - What a great post! I am sitting here as we speak looking at my brand new (old) Nikon DSLRs and teetering on the edge of dipping into the "pro" photography endeavor. I've payed around with digital for years, but never considered it something I could warm to, the images just seemed so ephemeral and fleeting as opposed to a silver negative. - I know, I'm sounding like an out of touch flake anymore saying that, but I'm really just a slow adopter -

And so just about the time I'm sitting here, looking wistfully at my 501C (sitting right next to the D2X on my desk) and thinking my darkroom will soon begin it's long decline into nothingness, replaced by a spiffy new Lenovo Thinkpad and B+W film (what other kind is there?) will finally, at long last, become a thing of my past. (Here's to run-on sentences and parenthesis!)

And then you write this! What serendipity! Now it occurs to me that I am actually pretty good at B+W film! I could possibly integrate this into my uncertain and tenuous venture! Just what I needed to hear and when I needed to hear it. Right when I'm plagued by doubt and doubly regretting having traded my beautiful Leica M6 for the "Professional Photographer Life". Thanks for sharing!

Hell, Kirk is an established and well seasoned pro. He's presumably where I'd like to be in 5 years (on that road I mean) and he still shoots film when it's appropriate. He still thinks it's a viable and unique medium and I think makes a pretty dang fine and legitimate endorsement of it.

Yeah, it's a little late and I've had a few tonight, so pardon my...emphatic..ness. It's just that sometimes you manage to really get to some of your readers through your insights and experience and you just got through to this one. Again. Really.

BTW - I still keep that article you wrote several years ago about "What did we give up when we walked away from film" if you recall...still an inspiration to me from time to time.

So I'll quit rambling and toading now and just say thanks. You just gave me an idea!

Phil
Dallas, TX

kirk tuck said...

Cool Phil. I'll ha e a glass of whatever you're having.... :-)

Scott said...

Kirk,
Someday when you can't think of anything to write about, I'd really like to hear your thoughts on the whole concept of scanning b&w film. Apparently a lot of folks shoot film in order to scan it, and I'm not sure I understand why.
I've been through 2 expensive digital printers, and I've never make a print that way that holds a candle to a wet print. Yeah I know it's a whole different paradigm that requires a steep learning curve, but gosh.
The portrait that heads your post is lovely, by the way.

kirk tuck said...

Scott, scanning in the easy part. Then just send the files to a good lab you trust and let them do the hard work of printing....

Paul Glover said...

On Scott's question of why one would shoot B&W film only to scan it, this in some ways gives you the best of both worlds. Film negatives can record crazy amounts of highlight and shadow detail in a natural way that digital isn't close to being able to yet. That can be hard or impossible to print in the darkroom, but even a half-decent scanner can retrieve all of that detail and give you a nice 16-bit file which stands a lot of curves adjustment. Like Kirk I send my files out for printing; a couple of decades of working with computers and printers and the stupid things still make me crazy, let it be someone else's problem.

Still I'd like to get to wet printing sometime, and remove the computer from my photography entirely.

Bold Photography said...

No contest at all.

I'm just debating if I should take the Hasselblad with me to Paris and a dozen rolls of tri-x for the few hours I'll have on the streets there... or go with digital.

Spiney said...

Reading posts like this makes me even more sorry I sold my Rollieflex, Speed Graphic, and Maniya Rz. I still have 2 35mm slr's but for me quality b&w work requires a larger neg. I just bought a new Nikon D7000 so any old film cameras will have to be snuck in under the cover of darkness for continued marital harmony.

Travis said...

I've developed and printed a lot of 35mm B&W, and I totally get the visceral feel of the process. I also understand why people would prefer the tonal response and curves built into their favorite emulsions. (Much like some people prefer the non-flat response curve of vinyl audio.)

But man, my d7000 can record several more stops than even the best prints can reproduce, and I've pushed files 5 stops to retrieve shadow detail free of objectionable noise. All this has little to do with creating great photos. But those who say digital can't do what film can, on a technical level, haven't been looking hard enough.

hugo solo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
hugo solo said...

Kirk you need urgently gladys night singing the way we were maybe you doesn´t spend much time to the digital lightroom and the felling about the hasselblad with film on the screen de digital world isn´t too generous.

Wally Brooks said...

Crucial hint you provided for those who want to get into B&W film is to make the negative darker/thicker resulting in a slight over exposure to get Caucasian skin tones a bit whiter. This does take practice in the short term. A pro friend of mine in Boston remarked that there is no time saving in digital compared to film both require a knowledge of craft to get results you want! Keep shooting B&W Film. You may want to comment on what scanning process you use at some point.

Nick Giron said...

It's all about the image. Painters use oils, watercolor, pastels, pen and ink and it doesn't draw their artistic ability into question.
But if you sport a preference in photography, or another way of looking at things, you subject yourself to scrutiny.

*befuddled*

I love the look of B&W, however it's achieved. The elements within the image become more apparent when you remove color. It becomes about tones, textures, expression, symmetry.

I love your diversions into film Kirk. I've still got a few 120 rolls lingering in the freezer/fridge. If only Kodak would have spent some of their R&D money into making the adhesive on the paper bands taste like mint instead of donkey butt.

thequietphotographer said...

I like how you are able to switch between digital and film. And between colors and B&W. The hybrid workflow offers interesting opportunities for the ones, like me who have no more time, space and desire to wet print.
robert

Hardison said...

I would like to see a comparison. I realize it isn't your job to satisfy my curiosity, but I would be interested in seeing the two technologies side by side.

Some people can tell the difference, even though I sometimes can't.

Wil said...

From seeing other people's work, I prefer the look of film too, in prints.

Like someone else said above, I've never been able to get a print to scan very well. I'm sure I'm doing something wrong or using the wrong scanner, but the image loses its luster for me once it's been scanned.

For digital images, I prefer digital camera output. Fortunately, these days, almost 100% of my output is for digital images.

Tony's Vision said...

It's been packed away for a decade, but using my Mamiya c330f back in my film days always put me in a special "photo mind". The square format had something to do with a more contemplative approach, and the big bright image when projected from the enlarger was so nice to work with in the darkroom. Your article has moved me a bit closer to loading it up with some Tri-X, and comments here also just might get me to haul out the old Beseler 45MX.