Monday, March 14, 2011

"Now what?" Options for a Hybrid Digital/Film Workflow

Nikon N90, Kodak Ultramax 400, scanned with Noritsu at Costco
Many of today's amateur photographers started out learning photography on a digital camera (like myself) and never got exposed as it were to film photography.  This post is part of a series where digital-only photographers such as myself can learn what's it like to shoot with film.  It's not a tutorial per se but more of an introduction.  (If you've shot with film, this will all seem incredibly basic but please chime in to share your knowledge in the comments.)
In a previous post, I discussed the shooting process: .  In this post, we'll talk about what happens afterward, and what you can expect in terms of output.


OK, so we just finished rewinding the film.  The film is now completely in the cartridge, sealed from light, ready to be developed.  In that form, the film is not yet stable and can be damaged or altered by X-rays or excessive heat for example.  Developing film is the chemical process for making the film somewhat permanent and no longer light-sensitive (I say "somewhat" permanent because colors can still fade over time with older films).

There are different development processes for different kinds of film.  The most common process for color negative film is C41.  For color reversal (slide) film, it's E6.  If you're having film developed at a lab, it's safe to assume they can do C41.  But for E6, you should check - many I checked with don't process E6.

It's certainly possible to develop film yourself and many film photographers do so, but it's by no means necessary.  Not counting intangibles such as greater sense of satisfaction or accomplishment, the practical benefit of developing film yourself is saving money, and also being able to control pull and push processing yourself, which means effectively decreasing or increasing (respectively) the film's sensitivity.  For example, ISO 200 film can be pulled to 100 or pushed to 400.

The disadvantage of developing film yourself is the time and hassle involved.  The chemicals are also not exactly great for your health: see .  In my case, I have two young kids.  I don't want to do anything that would possibly harm them in an accident, no matter how remote that possibility, so I didn't even consider learning to develop film myself.  For me, it's just not worth the risk.  Besides, a lab can also be instructed to push or pull process.


After the film is developed, you can have it printed and/or scanned. 

The simplest option is to have a lab create prints for you.  However, this comes at a cost.  I'm not talking about the monetary cost of printing, but the cost in terms of losing control over the end result.  With traditional film photography, printing is an important part of the creative process.  During printing, the photographer can modify contrast, use dodging and burning to lighten or darken selective parts of the image, or add effects such as vignetting.
In my case, I didn't want to spend the time required for printing.  Fortunately, there's a digital alternative to chemical printing, which is to scan the film.  Purists scoff at this option.  One of their arguments is that if the film is merely being scanned, then the advantages that film has would be erased, and the photographer would be better off using a digital camera instead.
I'm not an expert in film photography, but I compared digital photos with scanned film photos and the results were quite different.  Qualitatively, the film photos (even merely scanned ones) had a certain richness and tonality that made them look more like cinema while the digital photos looked more like video.  The other difference was the dynamic range (even of scanned film) but I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

I had known that negative film has a wide dynamic range, and can preserve highlights very well, but I initially thought that such dynamic range would not be captured in scanning, unless perhaps through expensive drum scanning or through multiple scans that are recombined with HDR techniques.  Fortunately it appears that most of negative film's dynamic range can be captured in a scan, at least by the scanner at my local Costco (Noritsu QSS-3111).  See some comparisons here.

Scanning at my local Costco costs $2.99 for a roll of film (up to 40 frames).  It has cost, speed (1 hour) and dynamic range going for it.  On the other hand, the resolution appears limited.  Nominally, I got files with a resolution of 3087x2048 pixels (similar to a 6-megapixel camera).  However, when I zoom in the image, the actual resolution appears to be only about half of that.  Fortunately, I was able to get a decent 12x18 print but I'm not 100% sure if it's because they printed the 12x18 image from the negative or from the scanned file.

Note: At least one photographer has also been able to get 26-megapixel scans from Costco.  I tried to do that twice but all I got were the aforementioned 6-mp (3mp?) files.

Besides Costco, there are plenty of other options for scanning film but I haven't tried them yet.  Ken Rockwell loves Northcoast Photo Services in San Diego.  There's also a company called ScanCafe that scans at 10.5-megapixels (for slides or negatives) with 24-bit color (8-bits per RGB channel), but takes a while because they send the film to India for scanning.  There are many other options if you look around.

If you have a 5-star shot and you want the absolute best scan for it, the gold standard for scanning is a drum scan.  They aren't cheap at $20+ or more per frame of 35mm negative film.  That's not very surprising considering that a drum scanner costs up to $65,000 or even $300,000.  But you get what you pay for because the scanned file can be 140 megabytes with 48-bit color (16-bits per RGB channel) or more!

There are also DIY scanning options with scanners available for every budget.  But from what I've read, getting a good scan is an acquired skill.  I just don't have the time to learn that right now (besides the actual time it takes to scan the film).


After your film is scanned, the files can be adjusted with post-processing software.  These aren't raw files, so they don't have the same latitude for white balance adjustment for example, but you can use many of the darkroom techniques that were traditionally applied in the darkroom, such as dodging and burning, in addition to applying digital effects that are impossible or difficult to replicate in the darkroom (I'm pretty sure content-aware fill would be pretty difficult even for Ansel Adams =) ). 

Here's an example of a scanned film shot edited in Lightroom 3:

My flash was as eager as the subject on this shot
Attempting damage control
In this shot, my flash didn't function correctly and blasted the subject at almost full power.  Normally one would expect the subject to be overexposed, with no hope of recovery.  However, the highlights were preserved in both the film and in the scan, and no details were lost.

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