3 Lessons on Film to Digital

After a hiatus of about six years, I've been actively shooting film again. For the past month I've been using a Leica and a variety of L glass on various Canon bodies. Here are some lessons so far:

   1) Don't push or pull.*

One of the great things about film is its wide latitude which forgives many exposure errors. This feature of film is undermined by pushing or pulling.

I've been shooting Arista Premium 400 at 200, 400, and 1600, developing it myself in HC110 dilution B. The reduction in development time for pulling is negligible (meaning that what you can do to reduce the highlights isn't much, and what's in the shadows is basically what's in the shadows), while pushing requires twice the development time (meaning bringing up shadows is a lot of chemical work, and your highlights will be paying a price).

Eraserhood, shot on Arista Premium at 200.

I'm not a grain peeper, but it is obvious to me in looking at the negatives that any advantages in pushing or pulling is far outweighed by the latitude in the inherent film speed. At 400, underexposed shadows still get the benefit of the latitude and the highlights don't suffer excessive grain. At 1600, there may be more shadow detail, but at an unreasonable cost of grain and blocked highlights.**

Arista 400 at 1600.


   2) Tweaking the scan won't get you much 

I'm using an Epson V600. It can scan at 6400 dpi and save to a variety of formats. I've scanned at a range of dpi, using both color and grayscale settings. I've tried both TIFF's and JPEG's. I've seen little if any difference, comparing files at equivalent physical sizes.

Eraserhood, shot on Arista Premium at 200.

I'm sure that different (e.g. better) scanners can pull out more detail from a negative. But that misses the point: shooting film is shooting film, and scanning film is not dissimilar to printing a negative. With film, you get the equivalent of an in-camera JPEG file, and not a RAW image. Whatever detail the film captured in the highlights and shadows is it. There's no software that's going to find any "clipped" data. You're left with the same choices digitally that you have in selecting what paper to print on: contrast and texture. The film handled all the other options when it was exposed, which is why it's faster to post-process a scanned negative than to play with a RAW file.

   3) Shooting film is about working the camera side

The first two lessons lead to the important one, which is that if you want better film images you have to take a better picture. Film is flexible and forgiving, but to maximize what it offers requires making decisions at the time of shooting and not hoping you'll be able to address deficiencies once the negative is scanned. Although this means that if you have a bad negative you're never going to get a decent image out of it, it also means that that fear will make you more attentive when you're shooting. Capturing well-exposed images is never a bad skill to perfect, whether you're shooting film or digital.

*A growing problem is the lack of variety in available film speeds. A great many ISO 400 films are around, but there is a gap at 1600. Ilford still makes a 3200 film. There may come a day when pushing is a requirement, but not until more than two stops are required. And in that case, a 3200 film is better than pushing a 400 film.

** This is more an issue with traditional grained films like Arista and Tri-X. Newer emulsion types, like T-Max, have negligible, if any, development time change between ISO 320 and 800. More amazing is Ilford's XP2, which is a black and white film that can be developed in C41 chemistry (in other words, at your local drugstore). Ilford rates the film at 400, and claims the film can be used at ISO 50-800 without any change in development time. In other words, Ilford claims a latitude of three stops overexposure and two stops of underexposure. Even if they're only half right, it proves the point that the inherent latitude of the film is there without any need to change processing times.