8.29.2012

The charming characteristics of color negative films.


I don't want anyone to think that I've abandoned digital photography just because I've been discussing Hasselblad cameras lately. As far as business goes film is just a small side issue. But it's interesting when you come across older work and you evaluate it next to a newer, different working technology. For instance, the image above was shot on color negative film. It is a scan from the negative. I originally shot this image with a medium format camera, a longer lens and Kodak film.

It seems quite different to me from the images I get from my digital cameras. One parameter that's obvious is the much lower color saturation in the skin tones. Another difference is the long roll up from the mid tones to the highlights in the image. But the think that struck me when I blew up the original, high res scan to 100% was the difference in the way film and digital render sharpness. It may just be that the defaults in the programs we use to "develop" raw files are set at much higher levels or it may be that film has so much more information that it doesn't have the same sort of high edge acutance that seems to come from digital sharpening algorithms.

While I'm reasonably sure that I could dial down the edge sharpness of digital and work in PhotoShop to match the look of film I am not convinced that I can change the highlight roll off of a digital camera file to match the almost endless range of highlight tones in negative films. It's an interesting subject.

It was fun to go back into the archives, judge images from color contact sheets and then slide strips of negatives onto a scanner.  With current scanner software there is a wide range of control for fine tuning scans. While it's a slower process working with negative film does give one a different look and feel than other methods.

8 comments:

Brad C said...

Do you find that a scanned negative (or positive) retains the tonal character of film? It is interesting to me that a scanner doesn't necessarily introduce a digital feel to the image...

Beautiful image, by the way!

kirk tuck said...

Yes Brad, you can zero out everything and scan the negative for maximum contrast range. If you are scanning at a high enough resolution you can actually see the grain before you see the pixels. And that's cool!

Corwin said...

Digital scan is usually without any interpolation so it pretty much keeps everything thats on film and lets you even brighten shadows and similar stuff. But it will still retain its look, unless you push your processing too far.

Corwin said...

I think one of reasons why film looks like this, is that it really is image imprinted on chemical covered piece of celuloid (or whatever it is). Its like mirror. Unlike digital which usually goes throught IR/UV filters, AA filters, then captured on separated RGGB matrix and then again "reproduced" in camera JPEG or in our favorite RAW development program. Simply theres usually too much of things that cut light frequencies, details, colors, DR. Which prevents accurate capture. Film is quite simple compared to that.. more like painting. Just not that convenient as digital.

Film might not be color accurate, but that image is still more "real" than digital interpretation.. And due lower/different resolution, probably more similar to our vision which really doesnt look like 24 or 36 mpix file.. (at least mine doesnt, but what I know, I have glasses :D).

Huw Morgan said...

Kirk, I have a question for you. Are we really looking at film in this picture or just another way of making a digital image using a digital scan of film instead of a digital camera? The "long roll-up from the mid-tones to the highlights" depends on the dynamic range of the scanner. Similarly, your comments on sharpness are really comments about the ability of the scanner to render sharp images just as much as they are about the sharpness of the negative itself. If we looked at a print from your negative instead of a browser-rendered digitally scanned image, would you see any difference?

I haven't done any reading about scanning technology lately, but I've noticed that scanners are not sold much any more and there are very few (if any) new models coming on the market. Digital camera sensors continue to evolve. Are scanners good enough to truly represent the attributes of a beautiful film negative? Do modern camera sensors have more dynamic range than scanners? What about color representation?

ginsbu said...

I've been shooting some color neg recently and really enjoying it. The look it gives me is different than what I get using digital. This got me thinking about path dependence in PP: that the initial rendering of the image by the raw processor (or film/scan) may exert substantial influence on the outcome of PP. I, like many others, I think, tend to judge PP changes in relation to the default raw development. With film, one is always aware of the different looks provided by various films and can make a conscious choice. But with digital, we are tempted to think we can imitate almost any look with sufficient PP of a digital file. What that may be true in principle, it doesn't mean that one won't be steered towards one look, rather than another, by the default rendering (particularly when it comes to color palette).

To get around this with digital, I've started using the VSCO Film presets for Lightroom to give me different starting points for PP within my usual LR workflow. So far I'm pleased with the results: I'm definitely getting looks that are different than what I even would have managed starting with Adobe's defaults. I'm also fairly impressed with how VSCO handles highlights. The E-M5 is good with highlights to begin with but, as long as the file isn't overexposed, VSCO definitely gives them a more film-like look.

kirk tuck said...

Huw, I think Epson still sells many affordable and powerful scanners that do a good job scanning medium format film. Yes, I do think they have nice long dynamic ranges as a result of the way they scan. If you need even more scanning flexibility it's not hard to do one scan for the highlights and one scan for the shadows and then blend them for a longer tonal range, though I've never had to do that to get results that work for me. I never found much reading material about scanners, even in the heyday of scannong. Cameras are more fun to write about because people can wear them around like bling and tend to invest the idea of cameras with magic power. Also, I think the color of a scanner can be much better than digital camera as the scanner works as a closed loop system with the lightsource being known and constant. What an advantage vs. digital when it comes to color representation. Perhaps you should think of a good scanner as the 8x10 view camera of digitals...

Sam said...

Kirk, you should really get one of the new Plustek OpticFilm 120 scanners when they come out next month. 5400dpi for medium format and glassless holders that support the frame on all four edges for flatness. Should be a good partner to your Hasselblads and a good window on your older negs and chromes.

Sam