Monthly Archives: July 2010

Big Film, Big Picture

100713_4692_5 / LA props, junk and stuff


I shoot film for aesthetic and technical reasons. Aesthetics are covered by quality of films and lens-sets. The films are far more sensitive and responsive than digital, the coverage is wall-to-wall, and is far more robust than a digital interface. The optics and chemistry of the lenses are more interesting.

I’ll discuss the mechanics of scanning further along, but first, some fun stuff. Here’s a comparison of various digital sensors compared with medium-format film.

Imaging area of film and digital sensors

Simplifying matters even further, compare the imaging differences between 35mm and 6x9cm:

35mm imaging areas compared to 6x6 and 6x9cm film

Already you can see that with a larger field, grain is reduced (if that’s a concern), but detail can be recorded, and extracted at will. Absent from this discussion are medium-format digital systems, whose costs are stratospheric compared to readily available film interfaces. But hey! If you have $30,000 burning a hole in your pocket, or can bill the client your rental day rate, go for it.

Film, and why I love it

  • every image is high-res
  • film has a greater range than digital
  • shooting film is shooting “cold”, while digital is always a form of “hot”.
  • Film is visually inspectable, digital is not
  • My film has way more info than your MP files.
  • There is no interpolation, data loss, cutting corners.

Ken Rockwell discusses all this and more in his hilarious takedown of digital, here.

Cameras: ways of seeing and recording

In 2000 I read an interview on a retired Washington Post photo editor. The journo noticed his office was lined with thirty years worth of cameras. When asked about them, the editor said [and I paraphrase] that “95% of the news images we see are made with Canon and Nikon glass. These lenses are very good, but not the only way to see the world…”

That pole-axed me. It made perfect sense. And it changed the way I looked at cameras, and later, film.

In 2008 I went to a Walker Evans retrospective at Stephen Cohen Gallery in LA. There were images I’d grown up with, but now new and fresh, literally 48″ wide. There was detail I’d never seen before. Why?

The lens saw it. The film recorded it. But the reproductive media of the time couldn’t convey it. Photo paper, printing technology, paper chemistry all were not capable of reproducing these images. Digital scanning brought all this forward to a new century.

Walker’s lenses were probably 40 years old at the time. Brilliant optics. Going back further, to the dawn of photography, those lenses killed. In 2005 I saw a Southworth & Hawes [c 1845] daguerrotype  show in New York. The image quality was utterly brilliant.

I began to shoot with demi-vintage cameras, and getting very familiar with the eternal Sunny 16 rule, to sharpen my mind. Also at that time, I was working at the Workbook as a pre-press tech, and saw hundreds of pro-shooters’ work a year. It showed me what I could do, and more importantly, what I didn’t have to do.

The Royal Scan

The luxury of shooting a large juicy negative never pales. The fun starts in translating those negatives into editable digital files. Either you do it, or someone else does.

In 2008 I bought a Nikon LS9000 ED film-scanner to access 35mm negs I’d shot back in 1979, and current 120 negs. At $2199 these machines are not cheap. Rationalizing that the unit cost per scan of that project was $10 ea, if I scanned 250 images it would pay for itself. It did.

The next thing I realized was that the supplied 120 film carrier was inadequate. What you really need is the optical-glass neg carrier which sandwiches the neg flat. I ordered one from B&H for $250. An occasional Newton Ring occurs, but its all in focus.

Nikon then announced that their NikonScan software would not be updated to the Mac OS 10.5. I started using the Hamrick VueScan.  More details here.

Hamrick VueScan is not easy, but not thoroughly impossible either. You conform to it, not the other way around. Then you get on with it.

In time I discovered that some scans I’d gotten from labs were horrifyingly bad. Like magenta shifts in color files, crushed shadows and blown-out highlights in black and white files.

Horrifying lab scan on left, my un-curved scan on right.

Details below:

Note crushed tones and blown highlights on left. Much more detail on right, which can be shaped.

I nearly had an aneurysm when I saw the image on the left. Had I really forgotten everything I’d learned? And then on the right, when I realized I’d been screwed. The image on the right is before I went in and recurved it slightly to give it more depth. That lab is no longer in business.

6×6, 6×9…oh, what the hell!

In 2009 I began shooting with the gorgeous Fuji GSW690iii (shown below), which yields massive 6×9 cm negs on 120 or 220 stock. I was having problems pulling effective preview scans of 6×9 negatives. The last time I would pull a preview scan of one neg, flip the strip, preview the other one. This is time-consuming and very annoying.

Big G-One comes home to find Little Miss Olympus 35RC being romanced by hulky Mr Fuji GSW690iii. This is one of three Fuji medium format rangefinders. 690 image size: 9x6cm. The 65mm lens corresponds to a 28mm wide-angle lens in a 35mm format. This beast has no batteries, no meter, and lives in a Zip Code all its own.

Scanning medium format negs is a different mechanical process than 35mm film. The 35mm carrier is physically indexed with 2 rows of 6 frames each. The medium-format carrier is blank, in both the default version and the way-better optical glass carrier. You have to provide the correct numbers in the VueScan interface to make proper previews and scans, because the scanner does not automatically know if its going to scan 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, or 6×9.

I looked for answers. The VueScan manual was opaque. A salesman at Samy’s Camera in Pasadena archly told me that the scanner would not batch scan all 3 negs in the tray, so why bother. Thanks.

Finally this spring on, Dave Goldsmith provided the answer

(edit) “It’s a simple fix – use “Input | Frame spacing” – use a ruler to measure the distance between the beginning of the first frame and the beginning of the second frame.

Note that it is is Frame SPACING, not Frame OFFSET! For the 6×4.5 ratio the value for the Spacing parameter that I have used is 48 +/- 2 mm, and for 6×6, 64 +/- 2mm. With those values I get for a strip of 6×4.5 images four distinct frames and for the 6×6 ratio three distinct frames.

So, set VueScan for Batch mode (All or List), set the appropriate Frame SPACING value, click on Preview, and when the previews are done, yes, you will probably have to adjust the crop frame (not a big deal!) for each picture frame. Finally just click on Scan. Considering all of the frustration about this subject (including on my part as well) the recommended method worked perfectly.

OK! This begs the question as to why the hell didn’t Ed Hamrick say that in plain English in the User Guide? Why do User Manuals have to be written in Techno-Esperanto?

Hamrick Vue-Scan, with a black & white neg. Note numbers on left-hand side of image.

My old-school Schaedler rule was put back to work as I measured it out.

For scanning 6×6 negs:

120, 6x6 with frame offsets

under INPUT:

  • BATCH LIST: 1,2,3

That took care of the 6×6 neg issues, on to 6×9.

For scanning 6×9 negs:

120 6x9, with frame offsets

under INPUT:

  • BATCH LIST: 1,2


After scanning the image to its proper folder, I’ll preview it in Adobe Bridge. This is where I use the EXIF template features to mass-tag files. Create the template[s] you want and go for it.

Now your gorgeous film images are in the digital workflow. Color-balance, spot, edit at will. More on that, later!