(*this article was originally written for, and appeared on the Alien Skin blog, by me, HERE.)
Put out your torches, and put down your pitchforks. I love film. I shoot film, and have a freezer and fridge full of it from 35mm Kodak Gold and Ilford Delta, to 120 Tri X and Portra 160 NC. The question I’ve struggled with though, is why? Why do I still shoot film? It’s expensive to process, ridiculously tedious to digitize and even with expensive drum scanning, still doesn’t reach the depth and range of modern digital files. Well, the answer for me has been nostalgia, the feel of the image, and the ability to take a step back, and focus on shooting in a more organic way that coincides with my initial falling in love with photography in the first place. A beautiful reality though, is that through software, and remarkable sensor technology, we can quickly and easily replicate the look of film if we want, taking care of one of those (my) criteria.
This post is not meant to be any more than a personal experiment in which I’ll look to answer this question for myself when using my go to digital solution when wanting to help analogize results within my digital reality and workflow because, while I may not need film, I sure do love to replicate the look and feel of it. C’mon in…
Today, I’m looking at Kodak TriX 400. A legendary black and white emulsion in its own right, and a downright lovely film to shoot. Historically, it was a “fast” panchromatic film specified for action and low light applications. For those who don’t remember when ISO 400 was actually considered fast, let me say that you, and we all are very spoiled now a days. I shot a roll of 120 in my Hasselblad 500 C/M using the CZ Planar 2.8/80mm T*, and brought along my Sony a7II and Zeiss branded 55mm f/1.8 lens, to both use as my working light meter, and to compare results from when running the RAW files shot on the Sony through Exposure X, using the Kodak TriX 400 film emulation preset.
I had the film processed and digitized by my local professional lab (which had to ship it out as they don’t process black and white in house anymore as seems to be the case for most pro-labs nowadays). Once processed, they drum scanned the negatives for me at their “High Resolution” which is a measly 2000×2000 pixel resolution, but that is what I have available to me if wanting to digitize my 120 film without re-sending my negatives out to have even more expensive scans made elsewhere, as I would assume is largely true for many of us. The results shown here are based on this reality, and I’ve resized all my Sony ARW files (converted to 16bit TIFF, and worked on in Photoshop) to those exact dimensions after processing in Exposure X, so that I can see as close to apples to digital apples, as I’m able.
Keep in mind, I was shooting non static scenes, and requiring quite a bit of time between shots to focus and compose the shots through the Hassy, so while the subjects may look a little different in frame, the apertures and shutter speeds used were identical to produce identical exposures within the scene, and light available.
Kodak TriX400 (120):
Sony ARW file, processed in Exposure X (TriX400 film preset):
The initial, and immediate difference I see is in the highlights. This is largely due to the pure dynamic range, highlight recovery and retention capable of the newer digital sensors, especially the Sony sensors. Highlights are blown and the contrast is higher in the TriX scan, which can be down to a variety of factors within the digitization of the negative along with the characteristics in the film itself, but again, this is what I have available to me from my “pro-lab”. I can easily increase the contrast, and push the highlights in the Sony file, if I so choose, as is another benefit to working with a tonally rich digital RAW file.
Here are 100% crops, after being processed and resized, so that the pixel dimensions are identical:
You can click on either to see them full sized, and I’d surely suggest doing so. To my eye, the grain is so much more pleasing and organic looking to me in the Sony/Exposure X file. I’d wager a large amount that a print made from the actual negative, and a print made from the full sized Sony file after being processed through Exposure X, is going to look far more similar than any prints made from the digitized negative file, which to me, looks pretty horrible. Again, factors outside of my control within the digitization process seem to negatively effect the image from my film negative.
Here are a couple more comparison shots from the same roll, captured in concert with the Sony a7II, just as all others were. Film scans first, followed by the processed Exposure X files:
So, to get back to the more spiritual question originally posed, do I need to continue to shoot film? Simply put, no, I don’t. I really don’t see any true benefit in image quality, at least shooting medium format compared to full frame digital files. Will that stop me from shooting film? Absolutely not, but I have found here that I get more dynamically deep, sharper and better image files with my modern “full frame” digital cameras than I’m getting from my medium format film setup for this particular emulation anyway, which is pretty cool on one hand.
The grain replication, tonality and emulation created in Exposure X gives me the benefit of the film look, with the remarkable exposure latitude and resolution of my digital files further enabling me the ability to tweak my images to get just the image I may be after. Film will never die, for me at least (seriously, I’m stockpiling it), but I cannot say that it is “better” in any way outside of the feel I get when shooting it on occasion, than what I can do with my digital files anymore and that is both sad, and exciting for me as I look into my photographic future.
Thank you for the read. I know the blog has been slowing in quantity of late, but I’m still really enjoying putting together content, so I just wanted to say, thank you for sticking with me, and stay tuned for some fun new stuff coming down the pipes. You can stay alerted by adding your email at the top right (on a standard web browser) or below if using a mobile platform. You will get no spam from me, just articles as they’re released.
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Nice thoughts on film v digital with film simulations….like you I still shoot film on occasion …my film simulations on my fuji camera are amazing…especially when set to black and white with red filter…so not only is post processing software amazing…so is in camera processing simulations of film….I just shot a roll of acros …looking forward to comparing it to fuji;s digital simulation…but for me in general film is fun…it makes me think…makes me compose better…but I am not shooting medium format…well not quite…but I do enjoy shooting 120 film in my holga and diana cameras…one more note…and this is on Topaz impressions II…I finally downloaded the trial…and it is much improved over the prior version…my computer does not freeze up with Impressions II and it runs faster…and Quality over quantity any day…and you are knocking it out of the park…be well
Interesting comparison. I feel like legendary though it may be, the contrasty nature of Tri-X makes it one of the easier films to simulate digitally. In fact, I feel like B&W in general is easier to simulate, but films with more dynamic range and subtle tonality like T-Max or Ilford Delta may fare better in this comparison.
What are your thoughts on Ektar 100 and Portra 160 shot in 120? I haven’t really been able to replicate the results out of my Koni Omega 6×7 at all so far. The VSCO film pack simulations are frankly awful, maybe Alienskin is much better…
I want to do another comparison with Portra 160 NC, which is one of my favorites. I still have a couple rolls of that, so I will try to do a shoot and follow up article on that one :). Thanks Andrew.
interesting comparison. For me the answer is found in your question (and then your scans). You posit:
“The question I’ve struggled with though, is why? Why do I still shoot film? It’s expensive to process, ridiculously tedious to digitize and even with expensive drum scanning, still doesn’t reach the depth and range of modern digital files. ”
and that you write “doesn’t reach the depth” touches on your quandary. I’ve found over the years that digital has a richness and depth but only within a narrow range. If you’re shooting a truly diabolical range (as in your backlit shot of the boy with the sun) then you could actually get more out of your film than you can out of your digital. Digital clips where film smooths off gracefully in the shoulder.
So in short, I feel that you limit your findings based on your scanning.
A crude example perhaps, but no digital would have kept the greens of the leaf and captured the disc of the sun on the horizon in this image:
… and that’s just ordinary supermarket C-41 Fuji negative.
Essentially I feel (without having looked at your negs) that substance was visible on the lighbox that you didn’t quite get. I don’t mean “resolution” I mean tonals. I’ve had even greater tonal ranges with some of the lovely ADOX 120 emulsions.