Lessons in Digital and Film

Penn's CovePenn’s Cove, Whidbey Island Washington
Ilford Delta 100, Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm Planar T*

I’ve recently started shooting some film – 120 medium format on a fully manual camera with no meter and no battery. I exploring big quiet landscapes as a compliment to my street work. Shooting both film and digital is allowing me to learn lessons from both worlds.

Do not under estimate the advantage of controlling every step of the process.
With digital you have control over every step of the process from exposure to processing to print. I just got back a roll from, what should have been a good lab, that was totally over developed ruining both the contrast and grain. My developing kit is now ordered.

Cost is relative.
Developing single rolls of B&W at home requires an initial investment of about $150 of equipment and chemicals, a few hours of study, and some practice spooling film onto reels in a dark bag. Developing theroll takes about 30 minutes (including setup and cleanup) and probably costs less than $1.00 in chemicals. Adobe Creative Cloud (assuming you use LightRoom and Photoshop) costs $40/month, takes hundreds of hours to learn, and NAPP membership is $100/year.

Having a limited number of shots on a roll motivates discipline.
When I am shooting film I don’t press the shutter when my brain says “you know that’s not good”. This doesn’t mean that I won’t experiment. Digital is a fantastic sketch book, film is the final oil. Sketching to develop new ideas is good, but drawing drivel is a waste. (Though sometimes drawing drivel is the only way out of a block.)

You can buy thousands of years of experience for $4.19.
A roll of 12 exposure 120 (medium format) Ilford Delta 100 B&W film costs $4.19 on Amazon. It represents thousands of person-years of science, experience, taste, and subtlety designed right into its emulsion. A digital color-to-B&W conversion is spectacularly susceptible youthful exuberance, lack of vision, and any momentary lapse in judgement that can occur while making any one of a hundred of decisions realized simply by pushing around little sliders. (This actually applies to processing your color shots too).

Exploring Volume – a compositional comparison of Medium Format and Micro Four Thirds

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For the last month or so I’ve been rattling on about shooting Medium Format because the perspective just looks different compared to smaller formats. The optics just behave differently when you capture an chunk of the world with an 80mm lens (in medium format) vs a 50mm lens (in 35mm format) vs a 25mm (in micro-four-thirds format). The words I’ve been using to describe the difference have been compression and perspective.

As I show my work, another word I’m hearing consistently is volume. Whether it is due to the format or my intention while picking the scenes to shoot, showing volume is exactly why I’m exploring medium format. Finding the right scenes to show volume and using a format that provides the opportunities to render volume more effectively.

Here, then, are my first comparisons of images I shot in Medium Format (MF) against Micro-Four-Thirds (MFT). (Ok, some of you are right now saying that I should have compared MF with Full-Frame 35mm, but this is subtle and I think the wider comparison is still important). The purpose is to evaluate if there is a difference in the volume portrayed between the two formats and if they do really just look different.

The micro-four-thirds images were captured in RAW format with an Olympus OMD E-M5 and the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm f/1.4 ASPH Micro 4/3 lens. Of all the lenses in my MFT kit (actually anything I own including my Canon L lenses), this lens has some of the most delicious sharpness and color rendering. The digital images were processed using LightRoom 4 and Photoshop CS6 (mostly in LightRoom) on a color calibrated iMac 27″ monitor.

The medium format images were taken with a Hasselblad 500 C/M on Kodak Ektar 100 with a Hasselblad 80mm T* Zeiss Planar lens. They were scanned with an Epson Perfection V700 flatbed scanner using the Epson scanning software with Digital ICE and autoexposure turned on. I’m not a master scanner – and I tried several programs including VueScan and SilverFast. This setup gave be the most predictable results which were not all that different from the other software with all their fancy, unpredictable, and frankly buggy software. With any of this software, it became clear to me that they would all require careful tweaking of the white balance to reproduce the image I had in my head. The scans were hand color corrected, dodged and burned using LightRoom 4 and Photoshop CS6 on a color calibrated iMac 27″ monitor. This the same monitor and software I use for all my image processing.

I purposely processed the two sets of images independently, about a week apart. I did not compare them at all until last night when I was completely finished processing the medium format film images. Although the purpose of this exercise was to solely compare the difference in feel and scene rendering using an 80mm medium-format setup versus the wider-angle focal length required by a smaller image sensor, you will you will notice other differences including color rendering and overall color relationships across different areas of the image. Balancing the color of this scene, both digitally and using film, was a bear. Both sets of images have selective color temperature adjustments. Each set was processed as if they were my only images and processed to my most preferred tastes. I made no attempt to make them either look alike or different.

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Boats 20130701-SB2-007-Edit
Olympus OM-D E-M5, Panasonic Leica 25mm Summilux ASPH Hasselblad 500 C/M, Zeiss 80mm T* Planar lens, Kodak Ektar 100

Upon comparison, the colors of the film, to me, are definitely are more translucent and inviting. It is fair to ask if, with a bit more work or a different camera sensor, I could duplicate the colors across the two experiences better. I probably could by working with the images side-by-side. However, this was not the experiment. Look past the color and view the differences in the way the two lenses see the world and render the perspective and volume. This is my quest.

More exploration to come and I’m very excited to post a couple of B&W images I processed last night. The babbling will continue.

Hidden

Hidden

This month was dizzying. Due to family emergencies (now mostly resolved), I was called home from my workshop with Sam Abell before it even begun. I did, however manage a couple of nice images up in Whidbey the night I landed while explored the local neighborhood. While this same emergency kept me more than busy for most of the month, somewhere during this time I managed two outings to downtown LA and to explore using my new, to me, medium format Hasselblad film camera. (Medium format uses film that is 6 centimeters high, or 2 1/4 inches, but vary in their aspect ratio including 6×6, 6×4.5, 6×7, 6×9, and 6×17 panoramic.)

I’m shooting film, not because I want to shoot film, but because I want to explore the perspective of medium format. I call it looking at a larger chunk of the world. I’ll try to explain. Instead of thinking about effective focal length with a multiplying of the actual focal length by a crop-factor, think instead about the actual focal length. 80mm is 80mm. 80mm is the distance over which your lens brings the light rays into focus. An 80mm lens has a certain look with respect to perspective and compression – no matter what sensor you put it against. The size of your sensor doesn’t change the perspective, the size of your sensor (err film plane) only changes the size of your window into the scene. Or as I put it in less technical terms, the size of your chuck of the world.

As I shoot film, and look for others shooting film, I notice the same syndrome as with digital. There is a lot of junk out there. At first this surprised me. Shooting digital is certainly easier (for me) than shooting film. If you are just going to take snapshots, why do it in film? But this doesn’t stop with just film shooters. Every photo gimmick – iPhone, Instagram, pinhole, lens baby, motion blur, toy cameras, tilt shift, and film – have people who are doing serious work and other people who are riding the cache of the gimmick to somehow prove that they are working harder or having more fun or just better because they use the gimmick.

So I am setting off on my quest to shoot medium format, I am using film, and I promise – I promise – to shoot film on my cool vintage Hasselblad 500 C/M medium format camera to make some seriously elegant work. That’s my plan.

Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm, Ilford Delta 100.

The Tower

Tower

Lately as I’ve scrolled through my “friends” posts on Flickr, Facebook, and Google+ I’ve done just that – scrolled through. Very few have made me stop and look. Most have left a different impression. An impression of the processing over the content. As Jay Maisel would say: “I don’t want to see the fine hand of the photographer”.

As I take my first steps exploring my photography through film, and I see the results of a well exposed B&W, I am reminded of the Stieglitz and the early masters. Their photographs had a quality that, although they used many developing and darkroom techniques to coax the best prints from their exposures, never exposed to the fine hand of the photographer over the fine mind of the photographer.

In this image, which I entitled “The Tower”, the representation of the clouds and sky that has been brought out simply by allowing my roll of Ilford Delta 100 to express the magic baked into the science of its emulsion. The final result is not something, I fear, that I would have ever pre-visualized. I am afraid that I have been too steeped in the 21st century digital mania to have done a digital color to B&W conversion with this subtlety.

The Puzzle

Puzzle

Here is my second image of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall in Los Angeles taken on film with a Hasselblad 500 C/M and 80mm Planar lens.

An implication of shooting medium format is that, due to the prohibitive cost of an entry-level medium format digital camera or digital back, I now need to work with film. At first I was intimidated. Although I have blossomed as a photographer using digital, I can also see how it makes us lazy. It has made me lazy in evaluating composition and lazy in evaluating exposure. I shoot, look at the back of the camera, adjust, and shoot again. If I get close, I move on remembering the digital mantra, “I can fix it in post”.

I built my plan to use a digital camera for proofing the exposure and composition before committing an image to film. After reading and re-reading Ansel Adam’s The Negative, I carefully metered the scene both using spot metering and evaluative metering. I was interested in see the difference between what I might set thinking through the Zone system and the evaluative metering the camera would suggest. I also bracketed one stop lighter for fear of losing detail in the shadows, as Mr. Adams so carefully warns.

Something Elegant

Wedding Cake

It’s been about 1 month since I purchased my Hasselblad 500 C/M and I finally have something to show for my efforts. When they say “3rd time’s the charm” maybe it is true. This was my third roll. The first two were in color, as was the fourth and I haven’t really even cracked into looking at them yet.

I think it is worth talking about how different it is processing a film scan versus digital RAW file. Film is different. Film is smooth. Film has years of expertise baked into how it is going to react to light. When I process a digital RAW file it is too easy to go beyond reality. I only need one weak lapse in judgement to push a slider too far – and there are so many sliders. I have no background in how light works from a physical perspective or the special properties of light sensitive silver gelatin. Only me, my two eyeballs, my screen, and that gray matter between my ears that too easily seeks stimulation over subtlety.

When I worked with my film scans, the tones were set. The tonal relationships were set. Sure, I could push the pixles around a little – a bit more contrast, a dodge here, a burn there – but the scanned file didn’t posses that Gumby-like elasticity of a RAW file that allows us to morph our image (almost) to infinity and beyond. Instead, the film engineers are our guides with a century of so of expertise painstakingly refined to respond just right to the light. Dashed are those thrill-seeking voices in my head.

Then there is the view of the camera. Medium format is different. My one and only lens is an 80mm focal length. When we shoot with our nifty dSLRs, we are used to thinking about the compression and field of view of an 80mm lens – whether on a full-frame or cropped. Only in Medium Format 80mm gives you the field of view of 50mm (in 35mm land) and 25mm (in micro four-thirds land), but the compression is different. The perspective is different. It is more accurate to think about a 35mm frame to be a cropped version of a Medium Format frame (and remember, Medium Format is just a cropped version of 4×5, etc…) And yes, today we have good rectilinear corrected lenses but the compression is different. The feel is different. The expansiveness is different. And it is this expansiveness that peaked my interest in Medium Format to begin with. The fact that I’m shooting film was pure economics (who can afford those digital backs?) – until now that I see the results.

Here I present my first of 4 images of Disney Hall in Los Angeles. A beautiful elegant building with trademark Frank Gehry styling. Each image will be posted separately, because each image deserves its own page.

Hasselblad 500 C/M, 80mm, Ilford Delta 100