Adventures in Film, Part 2

Over the last few weeks, I’ve continued with some film photography. With the express purpose of learning what the capabilities are of various kinds of film, I’ve been lugging around my massive Nikon F5 film camera alongside my trusty D5100. I continued shooting with the (highly underrated) Kodak ColorPlus 200 I had on hand, and Portra 800. I also finally made my way into the slide films I had on hand: one roll of Fujichrome Provia 100F, as well as a roll of Velvia 50.

Scanners are probably the worst way to digitize

If you’re entering the space yourself for the first time as an amateur, you are probably not going to invest in a ton of equipment to scan at home. You’re going to get it developed outside at a shop of some kind, and you’re going to take the digital scans they give you as the main output. Unfortunately, assuming they’re using a traditional scanner, the output is going to be subpar in relation to simply taking a digital picture of the film.

Scanners (short of the extremely high end of drum scanners which add a whole order of magnitude to the costs involved) simply don’t capture the dynamic range or detail of the film, as the internet is finding out across the board. Simple scans might be able to nail the color of well exposed negatives, but almost always lose the details needed, and simply are not capable of handling slide films.

Provia 100F: the scanner utterly fails at getting the flower’s red detail, which I promise is there on the slide

The resolution of the scans falls well short of the digital shots I’m getting on my quite old D5100.

ColorPlus 200: I have a digital version of this image. It looks a lot better.

If you’re looking to dive into film for something beyond casual work (including prosumer/amateur work) you’re going to want to invest in a better scanning rig involving a digital camera and a macro lens of some kind. I think my next lens is going to be the old Nikon Macro 200mm F4, partially so I can have a telephoto prime, but also to have macro capabilities, which will come in handy when digitizing these scans.

Film grain works completely differently from digital noise

If you’ve been shooting a lot of digital, you know that exposing in high ISO levels tends to make the whole image go awry – lines (even those in focus) tend to get blurred, and it occurs uniformly across the picture regardless of how well exposed some parts of the image might be.

This has not happened with the film I’ve shot.

ColorPlus 200: note the grain is limited to the shadows on the lamp; the rest of the image is either too dark or lit well enough

Grain happens frequently, and it does interfere with shots, but it occurs differently. Grain has a tendency to show up more prominently in underexposed areas of the image, and seems to dance around the focus areas. This makes it its own dimension that you can mitigate or even use to your own advantage as part of shooting. Grain can be a beautiful addition to images.

Grain varies a LOT by film

The Kodak Colorplus 200 I’ve been using probably has the most pleasing grain of the film I have on hand. The Portra 800 is blown out in grain, even when I wouldn’t expect it to be.

Portra 800; too much grain in my opinion

The Velvia 50 I went through is less grainy than digital I shot at a similar ISO. The Provia slides are probably the closest thing to shooting digital, with the added color detail typical to slide films.

Provia 100F: little to no grain

Slides are incredibly cool.

What if when you took a picture you got to keep a physical little version of it? One that:

  • was extremely high in resolution
  • better represented the colors in the original image than any screen possibly could
  • didn’t force you to lighten up your shadows in order to maintain the details

That’s what slides are. When fully developed, the film itself is a little picture, in more detail and better color than any other representation of it. Since slide film (also called transparency or color reversal film) is not a negative film, each image on the film is in full color and a perfect little representation of itself. All you have to do is hold it up to a light source to understand.

Velvia 50: the scan is subpar, but there is NO noise in this picture, and the red on the towers to the right absolutely pops on the slide itself.

You don’t necessarily feel the full impact of this until you interact with the film itself; I was skeptical too, until I got that first roll of Provia developed and looked at it myself. Then I immediately ordered a loupe so I could really take in the details. I thought people were exaggerating about the level of detail there. They are not.

Digital is better in terms of dynamic range. Digital is easier to deal with. But well exposed slide film gets to colors well outside the RGB space. Many photographers agree – slide film is still difficult to replicate digitally.

Provia 100F: I exposed too brightly here for the sky, which is blown out; something you should be ready for in slides

Conclusions

I’ve enjoyed shooting film a lot. It’s not going to replace digital for me, but I did just buy a few more rolls of Provia to continue to shoot. Provia in my humble opinion makes for a better film than Velvia since it’s more flexible and forgiving with range, and is excellent at dealing with long exposures (you have to dig deep for reciprocity failure).

I wanted this post originally to be more of a direct comparison between digital and film, but I don’t think I have what I need for that yet. I just don’t think the scans I have on hand right now are sufficient to really do a head to head comparison. I’m going to be doing my own digitization soon, though; a part 3 post might just dive into more detail on this. In the mean time, below is some more of what I’ve captured; there’s even more on my Flickr.

Portra 800: pinks and greens showing up well
Velvia 50: the scan is not great, again, but the lights appear much finer and the shadow detail is clearer on the slide

 

A composite of six ColorPlus 200 shots: the noise disappears and the blues of the sky and yellows of the lights show beautifully. I expect to redo this to greater effect with better scans.

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