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Last Romance with Film

last-romance-with-film.jpgIn this post Kim Brebach from Get the Picture shares a story of his last experience with film photography.

A decade after CDs became the norm for music replay, plenty of music buffs would argue until the cows came home that the sound of vinyl was superior, crackles, pops and all. It was only a matter of time before analogue to digital conversion hardware with more bits and smarts silenced those voices.

Only a few years ago, plenty of photographers argued that digital photography would never match film. Once again, it was only a matter of time, or rather of more bits, bigger sensors, more pixels and better firmware. Kodak stopped making film this year but a few pro shooters maintain that digital has taken the magic out of photography, and that even a monkey can take great photos with today’s point-and-shoots.

Sadly, we monkeys will have to wait a little longer before the really smart hardware becomes affordable, the kind that puts an end to the film-vs-digital debate – Nikon’s D700, for example. Over $3,000. Canon 5D MKII – same deal. Want 24 megapixels? Prepare to pay almost three times that unless you settle for Sony’s A900, the Ford among Ferraris here. We’re still talking about more than 4-5 grand.

A New Deal

Along comes Ken Rockwell, a Nikon expert who makes a living from writing controversial reviews and opinion pieces. When Nikon released the D3x a few months ago with a US $8,000 price tag, Ken said: that’s it, I’m going back to film. Why? Because I can get 25 megapixels from a 35mm film camera with a good lens anytime. And once I get the film scanned and digitized, I can edit the files on my Mac, just like digital ones.

Ken Rockwell claims Costco in San Diego scans his films and digitises them to CD in an hour while he enjoys a leisurely lunch. The way he tells it, it costs next to nothing and you walk away with a CD full of beautifully sharp 25 megapixel scans. A few places in Sydney offer 35mm film scanning, some with their core business built around restoring people’s old slide collections and migrating them to DVDs.

For DPS 1.JPGI wasted no time and bought a near-new Nikon F80 for $150 on eBay plus a couple of cheap second-hand lenses – a 28-80mm and an 70-210mm – for A$250 the pair plus folding change. These cheap lenses are famous for producing sharper photos than they have any right to. I already had a 50mm f/1.8 prime, a great lens but a poor choice for my Nikon D40 since it can’t autofocus on that camera. And, on the D40, this lens acts as a 75mm.

The low-down on digital sensors in 200 words

Early digital sensors were hideously expensive, so the makers of DSLRs settled on APS-C size sensors less than half the size of a 35mm film frame. The small sensor size of the early DSLRs badly mixed up the film lens angles and cropped their field of view, that’s why the 50mm lens I mentioned above works like a 75mm lens on my D40 with its APS-C sensor. This phenomenon is described as a ‘crop factor’, which works much like the ‘digital zoom’ ‘feature’ on pocket digicams.

To straighten out these optical contortions, camera makers had to produce new lenses to suit the smaller sensors. Rather than admitting that they’d made our digital lives needlessly complicated, they claimed that the new lenses were ‘optimised for digital’ cameras. As soon as they’d made lots of new lenses for DSLRs, sensors became cheap enough to make cameras with ‘full-frame’ 36 x 24mm 12-25 mp sensors (called FX on Nikon vs the APS-C size DX). They worked just fine with all the old film lenses since 36 x 24 is the size of a 35mm frame (so-called because the film is 35mm wide).

Full Frame on the Cheap

Now you can see the attraction of my $400 35mm film solution: it’s full-frame and produces equivalent resolution to 25mp when using pro-grade film. And this Nikon F80 is a top-of-the line SLR with a gorgeous body, panoramic viewfinder and a shutter release that feels more sensual than a mechanical device has a right to. The controls and functions are familiar from digital Nikons, metering and autofocus are the same.

In short, the F80 looks and works so much like a D80 that you keep looking for the screen on the back to check your shots. Film still has limitations but it’s easier than it used to be: when you reach the end of the roll, the F80 tells you so on the top screen and promptly rewinds. Open the back to take the roll out, lay the new roll in, close the door the F80 feeds the film into winder and forwards it to the first frame.

Scanning

Shooting is easy and feels good, and the grid in the viewfinder helps keep things level. I’ve shot a couple of rolls in no time and can’t wait for the results. Ah, the romance of film, the mysteries that won’t be revealed until it’s gone through the darkroom.

For DPS 2.JPGTeds Camera Store downtown was my first stop. You drop off your film and collect a CD an hour later, for $12.95. This is close to KR’s Costco model. When I looked at the scanned files on my 24” screen at home, I got a big shock. Sharpness was absent and, as you can see from the photo on the right, colours were suspect. Michael was doing much better with his paint & brushes, old technology but effective in the right hands.

Back to Ken Rockwell, the guru. His article said to use slide film for best results, and I’d used Fuji Superia Reala print film. Off I went to a specialist photo place in Artarmon where they keep the film in fridges and bought a couple of rolls of Fuji Velvia and Provia for close to $30 each. I began to appreciate the economics of digital. I shot some more photos and took the films into Ted’s, where the young man frowned. ‘These are slide films,’ he said. ‘Yes I know, what’s the problem?’ He shook his head. ‘Can’t process these in our Minilab – we’ll have to send them out.’

I already had my doubts about Ted’s and, when I heard the word Minilab, they grew. I jumped on the net and searched for a more suitable place, and found a pro lab in St Leonards. Slide film was no problem, but the price was around $30 per film for development and scanning to CD. I didn’t mind if the results were in sharp focus.

Sadly, on my big screen at home, it was the same old story with furry resolution and weird colours. Back to the lab to find out what had gone wrong. It turned out that they used a Frontier Minilab as well – no wonder the pics looked the same. For high quality scans, they suggested using their big flatbed scanner which produces a 500mb file from a single frame at a cost of $50. This was a long way from Ken’s Costco model.

A different turn

I had to make sure it wasn’t the operator or the camera, so I bought a loupe and a small light box for $100 that let me check the films. Sharp as a razor, they were, that was the good news. The bad news was that minilabs were everywhere. Eventually I came upon a place at Seaforth whose owner said scanning my film at 4000 dpi should produce the results I was after. The cost was close to $50 per roll but what came back was another CD with slightly sharper but still furry off-colour photos.

film.png

The first and second crops are from one of the scanned photos, the first at 50%, the second at 100%. Even at 50%, the scan is fuzzy, and it gets worse as we reach full size. The third picture is a 100% crop of a photo taken on my Nikon D40; it’s much smaller due to the 6mp sensor producing a more compact 3000 x 2000 pixel 3.7mb file. By contrast, the scanned photo is a 17mb file, 5444 x 3444 pixels (almost 19mp). Clearly, scanning at higher resolution merely produced bigger files.

Slipping Away from Me

The man asked me what I was trying to do, and I said: get a definitive answer. Scanning clearly wasn’t it. He suggested working further down the analogue track and gave me the name of a lab that could print direct from film. Interesting idea, side-stepping the hole digital process for a truer comparison. Yet it was a lot like playing poker, with the cost of ‘seeing’ the opponent’s hand rising to giddy heights.

I found a place way down south on the other side of Sydney, which offered traditional film printing. I sent them a couple of print films and asked for 6×4 prints which came back looking pretty sharp but the colours were pretty pale. It was Fuji Pro 160, a much more neutral film than Velvia. I ordered a few A4 size prints to make really sure. They were sharp and the colours correct at the pastel end of the scale, but the prints they made from the already developed Velvia slide film were awful. Clearly they were digital prints from digital files. I’ve looked at enough of them by now to recognize those strange egg yolk yellows and plastic blues and pea greens (see below).

So was it Worth all the Trouble and Expense?

The simple answer is NO. If there is extra detail in the photos, it’s not evident on A4 prints. Some of the prints made from the Fuji Pro 160 suggest a fine sharpness that you don’t see with digital consumer cameras, but I’m being generous. The downside is paler colours than the D40 produces with all its settings on neutral.
The man at the lab down south says he did his best but admits that film processing doesn’t have a lot of options left even for a shop like his. I wish he and all the others had been frank with me up-front, and warned me that I was heading into a cul-de-sac.

There are a few specialized labs which offer scans of much higher calibre – for example www.imagescience.com.au in Melbourne – but a cost of $12 – 50 per frame rules those options out for all but obsessed professionals. It has taken this amateur many weeks to reach a point where he can make an apples-to-apples comparison between A4 photos printed by a lab direct from film, and A4 photos printed by me on an HP C7280 all-in-one he grabbed for less than $200 in a run-out sale.

The HP C7280 produces better results than it has any right to, and the Nikon D40 produces photos that are so much better than anything I’ve seen in my last romance with film. That both camera and printer are consumer-level devices goes to show just how far digital photo technology has come.

Film is said to capture sunlit skies that don’t blow out as badly, at least on print film, and to produce skin tones that look real and avoid that strange pink shade they often get in sunlight on digital. These are small benefits for those of us who’ve learnt to work around the limitations of digital cameras. On the whole, digital colours are better and low light shots are in another class.

Velvia not forgiving.jpgGreens are a problem for print film and a bigger problem for slide film like Velvia. Even blues can be downright awful on Velvia as the photo on the right shows with that weird playdough colour (that could be a digitisation effect, of course). And the greens on this film have a tendency to turn almost black when the light gets a little tricky. I’ve seen this on quite a few shots like these taken early or late in the day.

The bottom line

Film is simply too much effort when a cheap DSLR produces stunning photos that will print to 75×50 cm, with good sharpness and colour rendition. On the convenience front, there’s no contest. The ability to take a test shot to see if the camera’s metering is on the ball is a boon and a blessing, and the ability to shoot photos you can edit and print on your home PC still feels like a miracle.

The other show stopper is cost. Sure, you can get quality film down to $10 a roll if you shop around but every film will cost $10 to $15 to develop, and every A4 print will cost $15. Compare that with about $1-2 for an A4 print on a home printer, and zero cost for film or development.

I spent close to $1,000 on second-hand gear, films and processing. The lenses I bought will work with the Nikon full-frame DSLR I’ll buy one day. In the meantime, I’ll miss the Nikon F80 for one simple reason: it’s the best camera body I’ve ever held in my hands, the perfect size, layout and weight. It’s a full-frame camera that is much less hefty than Nikon’s D700, let alone the D3. Nikon’s design reached a peak with the F80 at the turn of the millennium. Nikon should take another look at it.

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Kim Brebach
Kim Brebach

is a marketing professional whose experience spans over 3 decades in the IT industry. His interests include photography, cool technology, great music, theatre and books, wine and food, tennis and chess. You can find his photo blog at Get the Picture.

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