The Resilience of Film Capture
I don’t want you to think that I’ve forsaken digital imaging. But as a blogger, I feel it is my duty to expand the boundaries of your curiosity. Admittedly, my timing could have been better, now that the news cycle is in full swing, given a rash of new product releases from Canon, Nikon, and Leica. Nevertheless, I believe there is already enough media attention over that. And because of that, I’d be doing you a disservice by repeating what the herd is already publishing online.
Instead, what I want to write about is my exploration into uncertainty, and the ensuing accident that followed. You see, a couple of weeks ago, I found quite by chance a forgotten roll of Kodak Ektachrome 100 hidden inside my duffle bag. Normally, such a discovery shouldn’t have touched off any curiosity. However, this was not an ordinary find. It was a five year old roll of film that had never been refrigerated, likely expired, and exposed to TSA X-rays over a hundred times.
Upon making this discovery, it only made sense to evaluate the extent of damage a hundred X-ray passes would have on a roll of film. So naturally, I decided to conduct an impromptu comparison between this roll of film and the new current production Ektachrome 100. That being said, I didn’t think I’d have enough content from one roll of damaged film for this comparison. Because of that, I also shot a roll of Kodak Portra 800, in case I needed some backup content.
Often times, when I embark on these goofy photowalks in collecting the necessary visual content for each blog post, I really don’t know what to expect. And with film photography, the uncertainty is more-so compounded by the obvious lack of immediate gratification. Conceivably, all the effort I’ve put into this photowalk could all be for naught, if the X-ray damage on that roll is already too far advanced to be salvageable for any meaningful use.
It was a calculated risk, which I was willing to accept. That was the point of this undertaking, after all. But, then the unthinkable happened. In juggling three cameras, I accidentally exposed a roll of film by removing the bottom plate prematurely. In my haste, I had forgotten to rewind the film inside the camera before unloading it. What I had shot for backup, in case the X-ray damage was beyond salvageability for a meaningful comparison, was now filled with uncertainty.
It was truly upsetting, the moment the goof-up occurred. I don’t know how I could have been so absent minded. I remember feeling my heart sink along with all my good intentions on that roll of film. But, then a moment of clarity. No one wants to ruin a roll of film. That is a given. However, I am blogging about my experience. And since I’m already exploring uncertainty of outcome in film photography, why not tag along a roll of film contaminated by light leak?
We tend to think that film is delicate. Expose it to X-ray or contaminate it with light leak, and you might as well throw it out with the proverbial bath water. Clearly, carelessness can ruin your film. And for the most part, I suppose that can make film appear unattractive or even imposing to the uninitiated, since handling the medium does require a certain amount of extra care in attention. I mean, it’s certainly not as carefree in handling as digital imaging.
However, I’ve noticed something about film, now that I am more comfortable with the medium. Although it’s true that film can be delicate, it is by no means fragile. In fact, I find film to be much more resilient than what is commonly believed. Admittedly, film is not as easy to handle as digital imaging. But, in no way is it like walking on eggshells. And even when film is exposed to X-rays or contaminated with light leaks, it can sometimes be more salvageable than what one assumes.
And it’s not just with X-rays or light leak. Film is also much more forgiving than what’s commonly believed, with respect to what can be done to it in post processing. More often than not, film is maligned for being less flexible in dynamic range or less usable in low light when compared to digital photography. Admittedly, it’s difficult to argue with that, given what the advances in digital imaging have demonstrated thus far. But is that really the case?
If nothing else, the outcome produced from my laissez-faire attitude in conducting this photowalk would argue that this ongoing mainstream notion is unfounded. From what I can see, film isn’t the maligned prima donna that it’s been made out to be. As far as I can see, my X-ray exposed roll of Kodak Ektachrome 100 seemed to have produced images that were visually more appealing than the images produced from the fresh rolls used for this comparison.
And in comparing image optimization in post between the X-ray exposed roll and the fresh roll of Ektachrome 100, can one really say that the unaffected roll produced a better image? Personally, I find the one exposed to X-ray visually more appealing. In my opinion, it’s much more saturated in colors and contrasty in tonality. Frankly, that was unexpected. It’s almost as if the exposure to X-rays fermented the film like a finely aged vintage.
Mind you, that is probably not the case. As much as I would like to believe that X-ray exposure can enhance film rendering, the cause of this improvement can likely be attributed to differences in formulation between Ektachrome of yore and what’s currently on the shelf. In other words, old Ektachrome is better than new Ektachrome. That being said, I cannot imagine new Ektachrome to be less resilient to X-ray exposure than old Ektachrome.
Speaking anecdotally, I’ve experienced a range of different outcome with film exposed to X-ray. With film under ISO 800, they tend to be more resilient to X-ray exposure - and the slower they are in speed, the more resilient they are to repeated exposure. At ISO 800, film appears to be as resilient, but begins to fall apart after repeated exposure. And above ISO 800, resilience pretty much goes out the window, with ghosting becoming the norm.
As for light leaks, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most of the images exposed to that mishap were salvageable. In some cases, I even found it to have enhanced the documentation. It strangely added an unintended flare to the rendering - although the final eight frames did suffer the brunt of the accident - making them unsalvageable. That being said, I won’t be intentionally removing my bottom plate anytime soon, just for the sake of some quirkiness in rendering.
Of course, I’m rationalizing my mishap in hindsight. At the time, I was noticeably distressed. So much so, I had to drag myself up to shoot a yet another roll of film. For prudence’s sake, I really didn’t have much of a choice - given the uncertainty in documentation from both rolls of X-ray exposed film and light leaked contaminated film. Because of that, I needed backup content. But in the fading light late in the afternoon, all I had left was a roll of Kodak Portra 160 at my disposal.
At lower shutter speeds shot wider open, I was still able to shoot with reasonable ease. But, then I decided to shoot indoors at a nearby temple. With tricky highlights and deep shadows, I over compensated in metering, and ended up overexposing some of the image capture. Normally, I’d just accept my error and let go of the image. However, there was one image that I liked enough to not let go. The only problem is, I had blown the highlights off the subject’s face.
If I had accepted the conventional wisdom that the dynamic range of film was worse than digital capture, I’d probably have to eat crow. But wouldn’t you know it, all the visual information on that image was captured on film. Extracting detail was just a matter of knowing what to do - which in my case persistence made possible. And because of that, I was able to salvage the unsalvageable, only because film capture can at times be more forgiving than digital capture.
If I had made the same mistake on the Leica M10, I don’t believe I would have been able to extract as much details from the blown highlights. Though to be fair, I would have probably evaluated the exposure visually on the rear LCD screen before I took the shot. However, in evaluating the shot, I wouldn’t have shot as spontaneously - zone focused and wide open in this case. I mean, I would have gotten the exposure and focus right, but I wouldn’t have gotten the shot.
In conclusion, I hope to demonstrate to those on the fence that film really isn’t that scary. We all make mistakes, and film really isn’t more or less accommodating than digital capture. It’s just one more medium of capture. And if you do make a mistake on it, something can usually be salvaged from it. Who knows, the outcome of resolving the mistake could even surprise you. In the case of this photowalk, I for one was pleasantly surprised.
Images were not edited in post unless stated in the captions. Edited images were processed on Adobe Lightroom. Image negatives were digitized and automatically cropped on a Pakon F135 film scanner.
For more reference on baggage X-ray scanning effect on film, please click here.