Film Photography - A Personal Journey on a Labor of Love
It never bodes well when one rushes to get too many undertaking done within a short period of time. I was going to be in Northern Japan a couple of weeks ago, so the week before, I tried to photograph as much content as possible, before leaving Hong Kong. And being the genius that I was, I decided that week to begin my exploration into film. I had such a fun time shooting and writing about film, that I wanted to do more. Besides, I had already invested in a Nikon CoolScan 9000 negative scanner, and prudence would insist that I get my money's worth out of it.
The only problem with my exploration into film is the additional time required to develop and scan the negatives. I had forgotten how much of a pain it is to do that. Film developing is just so tedious. Thankfully, there is a one hour Fotomat close to my office - making film developing less painful. The only problem is, the last time I developed my film there, the resulting scans from those negatives appeared problematic. The outcry from some of my readers were fierce.
Well, so much for convenience. I had to go to my usual Fotomat, which wasn't as convenient and didn't offer one hour service. It would take twenty four hours - so I thought. As it turned out, it was Easter long weekend, and the lab was going to be off the next day for a week. That didn't work for me, since I was leaving for Japan in two days. How I started to curse the day I decided to write about film. I was noticeably upset. It was at this point the Fotomat guy suggested I go straight to the lab. It never occurred to me that the Fotomat wasn't the lab. So, a silver lining I thought? The only thing is, the lab is much further away. But there, I can get my film developed within a couple of hours. Without much of a choice, I made a beeline to the lab.
You would think that the worst is over. Unfortunately, the drama had yet to begin. Although my film is developed, my negatives have not been scanned yet.
OMG is all I have to say! I had no idea just how slow the film scanning process was. I had seven rolls of film. I figured an hour or two would do. Oh, how mistaken I was. Before I even started my batch scanning, I had to configure the scanner. For some reason, my first couple of scans resulted in weird herringbone pixelation on each and every scan. So through a process of trial and error, I finally resolved the problem. I don't know what it was, but the pixelation finally went away. That was almost an hour later.
Then came the batch scanning.
In all, it took 3 minutes to scan each frame at 4000 pixels per inch and 48 bits. When you do the math, that's roughly 2.5 hours for a roll of 36 frames. Or to aggregate the scans, that's 10 hours of scanning. And if I included the other three rolls, of which I only had time to manage one more, that would be seven and a half hours more.
I'm beginning to remember why I gave up on film all those many years ago.
Even after I finished my scans, I came to realize that the lab close to my office wasn't at fault. It was my scanner. At the moment, I don't know if there is a problem with the scanner itself - which I find unlikely - or if there is an issue with the interface - which I think is more likely. Nikon had stopped making these film scanners almost a decade ago, so they've stopped updating the scan software beyond Windows XP or Apple iOS Snow Leopard - I'm guessing. The only way to interface the scan device from the computer is with third party applications like Silverfast or VueScan.
Now, I've tried Silverfast with my Plustek 8100 before. Long story short. I hated it, despite supporters reaching out to me that this is a workable method. Then I invested in an Epson flatbed scanner with film scanning capabilities. With Silverfast, I couldn't even get it to work. Finally, I gave up, and outsourced my scan to Duggals or Color Resource - both located in the Flat Iron district of New York - as recommended by Chris Gampat. That was heaven. But then, what was I to do in Hong Kong?
Hence, the Nikon.
So why am I going through all this trouble, with an outdated medium? Is it really worth all the trouble? At first, I felt film was a lost cause, after scanning my first batch on the Nikon CoolScan. I was not happy. In fact, I was very discouraged. The colors were very off. It just made no sense why anyone would subject themselves to such a torturous ordeal? I just didn't see the upside of it.
But, I am luckier than most. I have the benefit of many of you reaching out to me, offering me suggestions and advice in how best to resolve my issues. All of them are valid. But in the end of the day, the solution has to be something compatible with my comfort zone and my workflow. It was then I decided to give my film scans a second look, since I'm not adverse to editing in post.
The sample images that I have included in this article started out life as a comparison of sharpness between Cinestill 50 and Sony A7r Mark II - both fitted with the Leica APO 50mm Summicron f/2 ASPH. In retrospect, this wasn't a fair or reasonable comparison. It would be like comparing apples to oranges. Of course the Sony will be sharper - and it is - much sharper in fact. But where is the story in that? With film - or at least in the era of digital - it isn't about sharpness. Rather, it's about the rendering.
Having said that, the rendering of the original scans were horrible. But I knew that shouldn't be the case. I've seen negative scans by others, and they're beautiful. So it couldn't have been the film's fault. It was definitely a scan issue.
So without a definite answer to my problems, I decided to deal with it head on, the best way I know. I fiddled around in Lightroom with the assumption that the color capture was done correct relative to the color balance it was photographed. If that were true, then there had to be a color tweak that would resolve the color imbalance. Since I already had a Sony digital version of the correct color capture, all I had to do was mimic the color balance of the film scans. Or at the very least, I just needed to come close to the color balance of the Sony images.
Having a reference point, I was then able to figure out the problem. And strangely, the process of optimization in Lightroom was very different from editing digital files straight from the camera. The color capture was very different. What seemed most useful was the Lightroom function of split toning. It seemed that the tones in the highlights and the shadows were not the same, from a digital perspective. Once that was resolved, I was able to move forward with all the other adjustments in hue, saturation, and luminosity.
And believe me, once that happened, the magic began.
I'm not saying these images are photographed well. They're not. They're just pictures of Anna giving context to the environment. But then, when I look at her, and how the film renders her, I can understand why film photographers go through such an ordeal if the same image capture can be done more easily with a digital camera. I can't quite put my finger on why I like the film rendering more. But I do.
In a nutshell, film is beautiful when the rendering is correct. It is even beautiful in my case, where the color balance is still off by 10%. But, that is assuming the color balance of the digital capture is 100%. Perhaps it isn't.
Having said that, the color fix that I've done - albeit close to correct - is still far from perfect in my opinion. I still need to figure out how to get the color done correctly. From an absence of certainty in eliminating all possibilities, my focus is centered on the VueScan software. I have a MacBook G4 that I updated from Linux Redhat to iOS Snow Leopard last summer in New York. If I still have the Nikon Imaging Software, I will install it into that computer, and see if the color improves.
I am hopeful that it does, because I remember that my previous scans from the CoolScan 4000 had good results. It makes sense to believe the results will be the same with the CoolScan 9000.
If you have gotten this far, thank you for reading this. I am being indulgent. I am going through the process of setting up a film work flow. And I am writing about it, in hopes of framing the film experience to non film shooters. More should be written about the film experience. I mean it's a pain. But that shouldn't stop you from trying it. When film works out, the results are well worth the extra burden. It really is a labor of love.
All images have been optimized in Lightroom - especially the film scans which have been optimized "big time" as the expression goes. All film scans have been cropped, because the full negative scan would not have been at the 2x3 aspect ratio. All digital capture shot at ISO 50.
By the way, the sharpness of the Leica APO 50mm f/2 Summicron is wasted on film. You will never get that extent of sharpness on 35mm film as you would on a high resolution digital sensor.
*** UPDATE March 24, 2018 ****
I finally have an explanation regarding the poor results from my film scan. The film I used on this blog post was damaged by X-Ray. I had forgotten about them, and have been traveling with them unprotected. This was never a problem when I used to shoot film, back in the day, since I never shot pass ISO 200.