Why Film? and Why Medium Format?

Comparison of digital camera image sensor sizes
Image via Wikipedia

With the advent of digital camera came the keening of film’s death song. I mean, who in their right mind would every want to use film again? I have a plastic card that is the size of my thumbnail and it hold hundreds of pictures and costs 20 bucks. A roll of film before processing is 4 bucks and then 15 more just to get it developed and maybe some prints. And you still need to scan it to DO anything with it? So why film? Whats the draw to film?

Because film offers a depth and clarity that most digital cameras can only dream off. Film is analog so the number of tone changes are infinite. Digital is not analog, duh.. and goes up and down in a given number of steps. In an image that offer subtle tones such as a portrait, this can become very important. This is even more important in Black and White art since a digital image starts as color and then is converted to Black and White. In film, you can shoot with Black and White film and get that gorgeous tonality that you can not get with digital. Oh sure, you can get close, sometimes very close but it’s not same. If you put a good B/W digital conversion next to a real B/W print, you can see the difference.

Often, I can get a sharper cropped image from my Mamiya 645 that cost me 500 USD for the entire kit plus three lenses than I can get from a Nikon D700 full frame DSLR that costs 3,000 USD just for the body and then add another 1 to 2 thousand for the good glass. And even after all that money spent, I still have an image that is only 35×24 mm in size. My Mamiya is a medium format camera or 120/220 which means my negative is 60×45 mm in size. This is almost double the size so if you want to print BIG and you want SHARPNESS, the medium format is the way to go. This is why in some industries such as fashion, 120/220 medium format film is still used or if you are wealthy, you can use a digital back for your medium format camera assuming you can pay up the 35,000 or so for the full size sensor. I can buy a lot of film for 35,000 USD

Digital has it’s place to be sure, I’m not about to give up having 300 plus images on a single flash card or the ability to “chimp” and see in real time what my images look like. But I’ve relearned to embrace the time and effort needed to shoot film because in some cases, it’s still better than digital.

So here is a full size scan of a 120 frame. It’s 5500 pixels from a 2400 dpi scan using my Epson 4990. It’s not a super image, I was hand holding and did a snap focus to catch the monorail but it serves the purpose of showing off how much data you can get from a 120 film frame.

120 Full Size scan 5500 pixels

120 Full Size scan 5500 pixels

Here is a 200% crop of the above image. The crop is about 800 pixels in size and you can see how much detail is still there in spite of the insane crop. The 800 pixels would be a usable image for web use or even a small print if needed. Try to crop your D700 image 200% and see what you get. On my D300 crop sensor, 200% crop turns it to mush.

120 Full Size scan 5500 pixels 200 percent crop

120 Full Size scan 5500 pixels 200 percent crop

And here is a test shot using 100mm lens and 120 film. The film is B/W natively and it shows in the huge tonality range in the image. Smooth tones without having to fight with actions or conversions. I can amp up the tones very easily just like I used to do in the dark room using polycontrast filters and/or different types of paper. Given that I’m working with a real B/W image, the total processing time is less and I get better results.

ilford 400HP5 B/W 120 Film

ilford 400HP5 B/W 120 Film

This is NOT a religious thing with me nor am I’m a luddite who you will have pry my film from my cold dead hands. I’m someone who firmly believes in using the right tool for the task at hand. I also believe that sometimes in the rush for new technology, the benefits of the old tech is overlooked in the rush. I also firmly believe that while “good enough” is fine most times, to make the best art I can requires the use of the best tool I have access to. So while I can get “good enough” with a digital color conversion, I can do better with film and a bit more of an expense. And the few bucks more is “in the noise” when compared to the payoff.

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This entry was posted in commercial photography, editing, equipment, Hardware, lenses, photography, portraits, technique, workflow.

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