Extinguish your torches. Put down your pitchforks. I love film. I shoot film.
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, as well as 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. 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.
Before I continue further, a disclaimer: 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 to analogize results within my digital reality and workflow. 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 Tri-X 400. It’s 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 we are all are very spoiled nowadays. 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, using the Kodak Tri-X 400 film emulation preset.
I had the film processed and digitized by my local professional lab (who 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 2,000 x 2,000 pixel resolution. 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 16-bit TIFF, and worked on in Photoshop) to those exact dimensions after processing in Exposure, 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 Hasselblad, 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.
The initial, and immediate difference I see is in the highlights. This is largely due to the pure dynamic range, highlight recovery and retention capability of the newer digital sensors, especially the Sony sensors. Highlights are blown and the contrast is higher in the Kodak Tri-X 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 lab. I can easily increase the contrast, and push the highlights in the Sony file, if I so choose, as is another benefit when 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 surely suggest doing so. To my eye, the grain is so much more pleasing and organic looking to me in the Sony file with Exposure’s Tri-X treatment. 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, 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 affect 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 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. However, 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 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. I have a freezer and fridge full of it, from 35mm Kodak Gold and Ilford Delta, to 120 Tri-X and Portra 160 NC), but I cannot say that it is “better” in any way, beyond the feel I get when shooting it on occasion, than what I can do with my digital files anymore. That is both sad and exciting for me as I look into my photographic future.