I promised to show a recent set-up shot on film.

 I collaborated in a portrait session last Saturday. I photographed with three different cameras and I've shown work from two of the cameras, the Nikon D3200 and the Sony a77. The third camera was my Hasselblad film camera with a 150mm lens.  I shot four rolls of color transparency and four rolls of Fuji Acros 100 speed black and white film.  I didn't change the lighting during the course of the shoot. The above photograph is of my friend, Lou, from one of the medium format, black and white film frames, developed by Holland Photo Imaging and scanned in my lowly Epson Perfection V500 Photo, flatbed scanner.

I scanned it at 7000 by 7000 pixels. While I don't see much increased detail vis a vis a scan at 3500 by 3500 I do see a much richer tonal distribution that makes the extra file size and time spent worthwhile.

My attention is immediately drawn to Lou's eyes.  And that's where I want it to be. The next thing I notice (and like) is that her right arm (left side of the frame as you face it) and her dress on the opposite side of the frame are already out of focus in a very gentle yet obvious way.

I love the diagonals created by the crossed arms, the incline of her body and the tilt of her head. Purists will want to crop out her watch but I don't really want to.  For some reason, maybe a need to have imperfections in the art, I think it adds a contrasting distraction that keeps your eye moving around the frame, looking for more clues.

I like the strong shadows on the sides of her arms and her face that are opposite the main light.  Those occurred deliberately.  My studio is painted all white. Without intervention the shadows get filled by the reflection from the white walls.  I added black panels to kill the reflections and help enrich the shadows.

I like the contrasting effect of her lit face pushing into the darker area in the top left of the frame and the balance created by the lighter area of the background against the shadow side of her face.

I am most happy with the expression.

When I analyze the file from the scan I find a smoother tonal transition from dark to light than I did in the files from the two digital cameras.  I also find that the hair seems more real and more detailed than it does in either of the other two files.  None of them are technical "fails" and, to some extent, whether you like the files from one camera over the files from either of the other two files, none of them are bad or unusable. Like the swimming at the Olympic Trials some things are measure in 10th's or 100th's of a second...

The biggest difference in the files is in the rendering of out of focus areas and in the manner of the focus "fall-off."  The Hasselblad  is my favorite but then I also like anchovies.

If you want to see the differences you might open up two new windows on your browser and see them side by side.  The Hasselblad 150mm (Zeiss Planar) is the oldest lens in my collection.  It's a mid 1960's version.  It still stands up well.

On an unrelated topic, send a little prayer out to the people in Colorado.  They're living through the kind of heat wave and wildfire situation that we experienced last year.  I can tell you that it's not fun.  I hope they have relief soon.

We're having fun here this Summer.  So far I've done more swimming than working. I'd like to be a little busier in the studio but I'm happy to have the time to work on my endurance.

The First Book:


  1. Love the watch - it's what Roland Barthes would call the "punctum," the little imperfection that reminds you that photography can capture something completely accidental and definitively human no matter how hard you work to create a technically perfect surface.

  2. What a nice photo, and what an intense yet friendly look from Lou. One of the best you showed of her so far, independent from camera and medium. But of that, you are right as well as it seems - MF film definitely still has its charms, and its raison d'être. Or, put into simpler terms: I just love this photo - thanks for sharing.

    1. WJL, Thank you for the very kind critique. I like this image. A lot. But as one reader inferred earlier in this ongoing discussion my adoration for the idea of the format might well be introducing some Placebo Effect to the results... Accepted but unproven.

    2. Nice portrait indeed. It illustrates something I've long thought: film and digital imaging are really different media altogether, each with its own distinct aesthetics. In that sense, as different as oil and acrylic painting might be, and as hard to compare. Each has merit and one not "better" than the other.

      BTW, "placebo effect" should not be dismissed. "Placebo" comes from Latin, means "to please". Gaining pleasure from using a particular technique, MF film photography in this case, is hardly trivial, rather it's a powerful motivational force. In art, as in medicine, it's bound to have a huge impact on the outcome, as we can all easily see.


  3. Lovely photo, yes the best of the bunch, and I think in a blind test I would have had NO trouble whatsoever picking the film picture from the digital ones. ALL of them are great, though, but the film rendering is definitely there.

  4. And Claire, It started life as a square format. Thanks. KT

  5. Gee Kirk, just about the time I get over selling my Hassy and 150mm lens to buy into digital, you go and post that portrait of Lou.
    I have a portrait of my daughter in our house taken with the Hasselblad/150 that is one of the best portraits I've ever taken (IMHO).
    Every thing you stated in this post about the qualities of the medium format film portrait is so right on the money.
    The $ I just spent on a Nikon 24-70 would have bought a nice Hasselblad 500/501 with 150mm. I won't forget the Blad though, I have a picture of it on the lockscreen/wallpaper of my phone.
    Shakespeare..."Oh, that way madness lies; let me shun that"

  6. "....a need to have imperfections in the art...." - that is a very inspiring statement, and one of the reasons why digital capture sometimes can be a little uninspiring compared to film. Opinion, not fact, obviously.

  7. Kirk, I did as you suggested, and got this image to 100% in one window, and the image of Lou in the post named "This is my style. This is my look" in an adjecent window, also at 100%. At first I really couldn't see any difference. After pixel-peeping for a few minutes, I noticed a little more detail in Lou's forehead, in the Hasselblad scanned photo.

    Then I noticed how much smoother the skin on her upper neck looked, and finally how much smoother the backdrop looked. Maybe the scanner did the smoothing in these two areas, but even if that was the reason, it is a much more visually pleasing.

    Now I also do not consider myself a pixel-peeper, and without doing so I really can not see any significant difference at the default size displayed on the web page. That's not a bad thing at all. Both are beautiful portraits of a very beautiful lady.

  8. I was hoping the Hassy version would show up sooner or later....this is certainly, by a wide margin, the best of the bunch.

    So why are we buying digital cameras again? Superior image quality? Hmmmmm.......


    1. Exactly what I thought too. I mean, the digital versions were OK but this has so much more with the tonality only a good film B&W shot can offer. Can't wait until I've enough pennies saved to buy me a Hassy 500 and get back to shooting MF again!

  9. I agree that the superior focus fall-off of MF is one of the most delicate things. However for a fair comparison, you should shoot the same subject with a MF digital back when you have the chance. That would control the variables in terms of format/pixel size/DOF parameters, vs the dynamic range/grain/gamma curve of the medium.

    1. Jan, If you'll dig back in the archives you'll see that I've tested (for six weeks at a time) a Leaf AF7i with the 40 meg back, the Phase One 45+, The Mamiya AFd with the 40 meg back and they all do much the same optically. The increased dynamic range is also helpful in portraiture. The size of the sensors puts them a little over halfway between the full 6x6 frame of a H-MF and a full frame 35mm style camera. But you can't discount the shoulder and toe characteristics of film either.

    2. I'll have to go back an re-read those. But I agree, with MF digital, you get a similar depth in the shots, and overall color crispness is superior as well, but it's not quite the same when it comes to rich darks and gentle whites (though some of that can be overcome in post). That's why I think we need to be clear what attracts us about film - the gamma curve (toe/knee) or the depth, or the color reproduction? Some of these are specific to the medium, some of them are specific to the format, and something we can change separately.

      I've found that while MF film is most superior, I can get most of it with my back, and fill in the last few blanks in post. While I enjoy shooting the real deal on occasion, it's helpful to have a wider array of options for the shoot at hand in terms of timing, cost, logistics, etc.

    3. The last two replies were somewhat short, since this blog template is very unreliable/borderline unusable on my iPad, particularly for commenting.

      Don't get me wrong - I love film, which is why I still shoot it. But when we have these discussions, and there are so many variables in play (format, medium, lighting, connection, etc.) we need to be precise in our arguments. After all this is the Visual Science Lab :-) Only if we can properly isolate and identify the variables, can we decide how to reproduce the effects that have the deepest emotional connection for us.

      In regards to the DoF control on MF, what I noticed is that to get the DoF that makes a strong emotional connection on 35mm FF, you have to shoot at the margin of the lens (f/2.8 to f/1.2) depending on the lens. On MF you get the same or even stronger effect in the sweet spot of the lens at f/8 - f/11. That makes it a lot easier to control and play with, and also keeps it in the range where the lens performs well.

      And just to round out the questions of the rich darks and the gamma curve - it's my understanding that E-6 is more similar in terms of response as digital, vs. negative film (color & B&W) is the one that's often preferred.

    4. Most fashion shooters that shoot film still are using color neg or black and white specifically for those reasons. And I think that's the single biggest issue.

  10. Digital succeeds for the same reason that smaller formats dominate. Convenience. We all want to think that we are not giving up anything in quality when we go for the more convenient option. That is simply human nature. However, in art, that which takes more effort usually gives more lasting pleasure.

  11. That's exactly the kind of square portrait I like. Much better than the crop you did recently, in my opinion. There is more life here. In a word, I prefer film by far. :)


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