Recently I decided to photograph parts of a wedding using my 35mm EOS and negative film. I thought about it and was having trouble deciding if I should go with 4/3 digital or 35mm film but decided on the day (on the spot) to do the main ceremony with my 35mm EOS after taking some test shots and feeling that digital was going to be challenged with the lighting.
For the impatient, the findings
In a nutshell:
- Scans of 35mm negative perform much better than digital in the harsh light of full daylight when you expose for the shadows and let the film compress the highlights
- for zero effort the Noritsu scans at develop time give dam good results, to the point of making other systems nearly pointless (make this definitely pointless if you're not a scanner nerd or a skilled / professional scanner operator)
- Epson flatbed scanners (like 4870, 4990 V700) do really quite well on prints up to 8x12 if you know what your doing
- if you want to get everything out of your negative you need a good scanner such as the LS-4000. When you do you'll be amazed what is in 35mm negatives (and wonder if you really do use that 5D MkII enough to justify spending AUD$3000 on it?)
- I love a full frame 35mm size capture for shallow DoF
The lighting was under gum tree shaded outdoors, at 11:00am ... so yes, stark shadows and bright bright high lights = blown whites and blacks that resemble inks from Satans bottom. I just wasn't going to risk it.
Now before anyone says fill flash, I'll remind you that on a sunny 16 sort of day (or even f11) that as many cameras are limited to 250th of a second with a flash it would mean that I'd be using f8 on the lens if I wanted to do fill flash (even with 100ISO).
f8 might be good for scenery but on 4/3 it spells sharp not diffuse backgrounds (and pretty clear ones on 35mm too).
YUK ... I may as well use a iPhone or compact digicam. So if you desire shallow depth of field then you can't use fill flash with a focal plane shutter camera ... Even 500th (on a lens shutter) will still only bring me to f5.6 so its available light or sharper backgrounds
Using available light and large aperture was of course perfect in that situation as it gives shallow depth of field, diffuse backgrounds and fast shutters to freeze action / counter camera shake
Now one of the reasons I entertained doing this wedding in Negative was that a local photo place (Photocontinental in Brisbane) uses a Noritsu scanner in their minilab. Readers of my blog will perhaps recall that I'm very impressed with the Noritsu scan quality. I like the fact that I get 3087 x 2048 Pixels ( thats about 6 MPixels) images which are certainly good enough for prints up to 8x12 inch straight from the box. No cleaning, no time spent in scanning, no hassle.
I thought this was an excellent opportunity to:
- sus out how good PhotoContinentals quality of service is with the Noritsu
- save my self time in scanning only the potentials for big enlargement
- have everything on CD for everyone with no effort
After sorting that out (why is it so hard?) my next hurdle was they neglected to mention that the price for the high res scan was higher than the low res scan ... $9 vs $25 Noone can give me a valid justification of why this is, but I digress.
$25 is of course verging on the highest prices you can pay for this sort of service ... $9 is a good price and one I'm happy to add to the $4.50 for develop of the film, but $25 (plus the $4.5 for develop) pushes the friendship and makes 4 rolls of film start to feel expensive on a job. I'm now well over $100 for materials alone, which is $1.22 per image. Man, no wonder photographers are leaving film for digital.
Even if I want to use film its just put my costs up way higher and that's forgetting about the film stock costs...
My next hurdle was that the files contained no colour profile information, a phone call reveals the futility of asking as noone knows what it is I'm talking about. I assume *(perhaps falsely) that its sRGB. None the matter ... they look OK on my monitor ... a little red for my taste.
Its also worth mentioning to anyone reading this that the standard reply from PhotoContinental to any question about their quality is met with "we don't offer a professional service"
Don't get me wrong ... the staff are often very helpful and very professional, its a management thing. If you want my opinion ... don't go to PhotoContinental for printing or development services. I mean their price structure is nearly exactly that of Prolab's and they do offer a professional service. So while PhotoContinental's staff are great, helpful and friendly, their corporate strategy has them charging professional rates but backing down on any responsibility with "we don't offer a professional service"
comparing the scans
With the images in my hand (on the CD actually) I thought I would see what I get with an Epson 4870 (my 4990 is in a box in bubble wrap from the trip over) and my Nikon LS-4000 (broke that one out of packing).
This is the image I picked.
I liked it because: the brides got lovely bright metalic bits and white in full sunlight, the groom has dark hair and he's in shadow, some parts of skin tones are in full sunlight others are in shadow, it shows the DoF of a 100mm lens at f2.8 (hah) and the image was as sharp as a razor.
Hard to ask for more to start with.
I noticed that the scans from the Noritsu had clipped high lights in the white and the blacks were a little dark and inky ... nothing dreadful, but even if I wasn't inclined to compare before I was now.
Naturally all overviews will look identical (colour balance not withstanding).
I scanned the negative as positive on both my LS-4000 and on the 4870. I followed my normal colour negative methods on both scanners and got quite close results. Here they are:
I scanned this at 2400dpi as I don't really feel that there is more to be had from this unit and this still works out at 3344 x 2252 pixels which is more than the Noritsu.
next is the:
I scanned this one at 4000dpi which is a significantly bigger hunk of data than either of the other two at 5648 x 3656 pixels.
Now, noone is going to be surprised when I say that the Nikon got the best results
followed closely by the Noritsu ...
they have a distinctive look to them which I'm starting to be able to identify. Its a kind of sharpening that looks like pointillism (if that makes sence).
and a reasonable result from the Epson (some thoughtful sharpening has been applied, but more care will fix much of this)
Now, look carefully at:
- the sharpness of the star
- the clarity of the parts of the necklace
- the handling of whites (yes, there was metallic thread in the white cloth)
Ok ... so the Nikon LS-4000 shows how well you can do there, but if you're not printing big then you will certainly not benefit from the Nikon ... you may as well save the thousand or so bucks on it and just go with the Noritsu scans (if you can find some place that does not charge like a wounded bull for the scans). Either that or only pull it out for the ones you like. You'd be ahead on the time involved for scanning.
Of course one also needs to compare prints (hard to do in the internet) but for my own personal interest I thought that I'd also get some prints done.
so lets compare the prints
I got 8x12's done of the three above. I also printed two of them to 12x18 inches but thought I'd restrict myself to the Nikon (which of course does that at a print density of 300dpi) and see how well the Noritsu scales up to that size (essentially dropping the print density to 180dpi ... which should be tolerable).
One of the first things worth mentioning is the reaction of the person doing the prints when I picked them up. Naturally with three prints of the same scene she at first assumed when she pulled them off the machine that there were three copies from the same file. However (being used to checking the images) she noticed there were subtle differences and wondered "what the bloody hell is wrong with the printer". Our discussion at collection time was interesting, as she only noticed subtle colour differences.
Each of the three 8x12's look good, and in isolation each will be considered as good.
There are of course colour differences, as I did not balance each to one another. Partly this was because I wanted to see what the results of taking the image sourced from the PhotoContinental Noitsu process was when taken to another service (KMart in this case).
Close inspection revealed that the print operator (and I) thought that the noritsu and the nikon were equal in sharpness, but the whites and blacks were handled better by the Nikon. The Espon looked good and handled the whites and black well too, but was a little soft.
I felt that the screen results (my screen has been tweaked by a Spyder) reflected the results in the prints, that is to say:
- the prints from the Noritsu system were a little strong in the red
- the prints from my 4870 were a little soft when inspected closely and compared against the other two
- the prints from the Nikon were great.
Looking at the 12x18's the first thing I noticed was that Noritsu looked pretty darn good at that size; no real trace of break down. This leads me to wonder what the real native printing resolution of the printer is ... is it more like 180dpi?
As expected the blown high lights in the Noritsu did indeed result in lessened perception of texture in the blouse. Here is a photo of the prints taken with my digital camera (same height on a tripod).
This of course shows how difficult it is to photograph prints! There is not this sort of colour cast in the prints and I was too lazy to obsess over lighting and copy standing the prints (as I'm not trying to show colour here anyway). Perhaps it shows what I mean well enough.
Forgetting (if you can) the issues of colour happening in photographing a print in my living room using copy stand and a fluro light, you can see from this close up that detail is pretty darn good on the 12 x 18 inch prints
Here is a much closer photograph of the prints:
and the Nikon LS-4K
Essentially either of these 12x18 prints is sharp enough to actually reveal more detail (such as in the blouse and in the green pendant) than was in the 8x12 and be satisfactory to hold 20cm from your nose and inspect it.
Examining the prints shows that the Nikon sourced file looked great in the shadows (the grooms hair was detailed and held dark better than it appears on the monitor) and tonal range was great. The Noritsu files showed the heavy handed treatment of shadows and clipping of the high lights, exactly what you'd choose negative for.
Don't get me wrong, its not bad, the Noritsu is enough to satisfy 90% of needs and perhaps 90% of professional portrait or wedding photographers needs. If only they could tweak that output a little better it would get stellar results from it with the 35mm negative.
I feel that the operators of the Noritsu should (for their $25) put that little more effort into tweaking the high and low ends of the data sourced from the negative and then apply a little curve to that to push down the noise while keeping the signal (anyone remember dbx noise reduction?). After all ... its in the subtleties that we find the difference between hand made wooden furniture and IKEA.
This exercise has shown me that the Noritsu scanning system gives results which require a very high end desktop or professional scanning system to beat. I have found that digitisation systems allow me to get images from my 35mm film which are quite satisfactory and it remains to be seen if a digital camera such as a 5D will produce better results in the same challenging lighting situation. I have found before that digital makes it easy to get super results when the light is within the range of the capture, but with hard sunny outdoor light digital does not do as well as negative (especially black and white).
The Noritsu system allows film photographers to digitize their images and gain access to the range of services (like printing) which is available to the photographer. Using this systems allows Photographers to leaverage their 35mm outfits (very competitive prices) and get good results, I believe better in some situations than digital ... certainly better bang for buck.
But it has shown me again that it is all let down by the distribution chain. Photocontinental price their scanning service at nearly exactly the same price as the high end professional services such as Prolab do. Yet despite this pricing do not have a clue about their process, do not let you know the colour profile and appear not to know what this means. I have yet to print their file with them to see if the colours look better "in house", perhaps they have tuned their system scanner and printer by eye?
People in the industry have no idea on how to communicate what their service is and what they offer. When you ask about the scan you get useless answers like we scan at 300ppi ... really ... you start with a 1.5 inch negative and give me 3087 pixels from that ... so how is that 300 points per inch?
Something I have not discussed is the scratches on my negatives (nothing major, but without the ICE on the LS-4K fixing after scanning will be a pain) which if questioned would be answered with "we don't offer a professional service"
Again I'm left feeling that *(as in 2001) 35mm cameras with colour negative film will give results which are equaled by only the best full frame (and larger) digital cameras but at a cost which involves a much higher up front investment than using your 35mm does.
If you used your pocket digital for the snaps and your 35mm film camera for the weddings and sporting events how often will you really use it? If you are buying a $3000 DSLR kit will you be ahead on costs after 4 years? I'm betting most will still drag along that pocket camera too.
However the entire film concept has been sadly let down (still) by the industry which hopes to profit from it the most ... if the pricing of stuff like Noritsu scanning was $9 then at $14.50 (scan + develop only) per roll of 36 it would be very attractive to be using negative and getting scans like this done. Certainly it would fulfill 90% of people's needs for the high end ... heck even 90% of wedding photographers.
Given that fewer and fewer clients of wedding photographers see or appreciate the difference, I feel that to use film today you have to be aware of what makes it better, able to get at this yourself and have a client that appreciates the difference.