'Early Morning, Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho'
About ‘From My Film Archive’
In 2008, I went ‘digital’. Until then, all my photography had been with film, primarily (though not exclusively) with middle and large format cameras. My involvement with photography first began in 1974 at a time while I was still living in Vienna, Austria. As one can imagine, during the many years which followed I have amassed a substantial number of negatives ranging in format from 35mm to 8x10”.
Since my conversion to digital photography, I have harbored the wish to digitize at least a portion of my film archive. Regrettably, that wish of mine remained just that for quite a few years...until early 2015. By then, retirement had afforded me the requisite time needed to complete such a large and time consuming project, and an interesting article written by Mark Segal and Todd Shaner, found within the pages of the ‘Luminous Landscape’ website (https://luminous-landscape.com/scannerless-digital-capture-and-processing-of-negative-film-photographs/), presented a viable alternative to the more traditional though infinitely more expensive purchase of a dedicated film scanner. For those of you who are interested in the ‘how’ aspects of this project, I have included additional technical information at the end of the article.
Before beginning, I needed to set certain parameters and more clearly define my goals. I decided to limit my choices by excluding all 35mm work and film sizes larger than 4x5”. This alone reduced the number of negatives to several thousand. From those, I ultimately chose approximately 650 negatives plus a little over 70 diapositives to digitize. Included were not only the exposures which had previously ‘made it’ into my portfolio, but quite a few which first stirred my interest now and, for whatever reasons, were rejected or ignored at the time of their making. My aim was not to simply duplicate through digital means the prints I created some 30 years ago, but rather to completely re-work those digitized negatives and transparencies while taking advantage of all the tools made available to us via the digital process. After post-processing was completed, prints were made (Epson Stylus Pro 3880) of several dozen digitized negatives in order to compare how an excellent inkjet printer teamed with premium quality printing paper stack up against the traditional gelatin silver print.
This project was an extraordinary learning experience for me. Not only have the pros and cons of the digital process vs. film become clearer to me and their differences more precisely defined, but I also learned quite a bit about myself; the way I see, the way I saw then, and the influence of ‘process’ on how I see. Of particular interest were the photographs which didn’t make it into my portfolio. Asking “why” revealed several interesting factors. As I had observed while preparing my ‘Recent ‘Old’ Work’ gallery (in ‘Digital Photography’), how one sees is an ever evolving phenomenon. What visually excites me now can be very different from what excited me years ago, and vice versa. This indubitably explains why at least some of the photographs were rejected back then during my film days. But certainly not all! It is here where ‘process’ has influenced ‘vision’. One of the reasons I have so wholeheartedly embraced digital photography is the plethora of finely controllable adjustments which are available during the image editing process. Everything that was possible in the darkroom is not only digitally possible, but can be done with much greater precision and with the advantage of instant feedback. Add to this the impressive array of interpretive options that were either not available to the traditional darkroom photographer or involved overcoming considerable difficulties while consuming an excessive amount of time. These interpretive possibilities can influence one’s vision even before the actual editing process begins. One’s visualization of the final image is self-defeating if it exceeds the bounds of what is attainable. By pushing the envelop of creative interpretation, digital photography has made a multitude of interpretive possibilities available, allowing one infinitely more leeway during visualization. In other words, I was able to recognize interpretive options in photographs now which I couldn’t have years ago simply because the process didn’t afford me the photographic means to do so.
Though my ardor for the digital process is obvious, for the sake of fairness a minor confession is befitting, namely that I enjoyed the untold hours I spent in the darkroom substantially more than I do my work at the computer! If it weren’t for its superior results, I probably would never have continued working with a digital camera. Darkroom work was always a very ‘hands on’ experience for me. I enjoyed the smell of the chemistry, the stillness of the darkened room, the feel of the wet print in the tray, even the difficulty of trying to sleep at night while the prints dry after a long day’s printing session (will morning every come?), while hoping I nailed the exposure despite the infamous ‘dry down’ effect. Such love I’ve never been able to develop for the digital process. Maybe someday. Despite this, digital photography’s results speak for themselves, and these results have given me much joy, even if the journey hasn’t.
As is the case with other galleries here at ’The Fiddler’s Photos’, their names reflect merely a general geographical location (i.e. where the photos were taken) and not the images’ subject matter. Also, the choice of which photographs to include in this collection was by no means an easy one. Though it represents only about one-fifth of the negatives and transparencies I digitized, it is still a large number of images to consume, particularly at one sitting. I sincerely hope each visitor to my website finds at least a few images which speak to him or her in such a way to have made the visit worthwhile. For me personally, the journey was at times exciting, at times evocative, at times quite challenging, but always rewarding. Enjoy the images you find here and, as always, I am most grateful for any comments or ideas you wish to share with me.
A decade or two ago, the number of dedicated film scanners on the market (as opposed to flatbed document scanners which additionally offer a film scanning option) was quite large and covered a wide gamut of optical quality and their concomitant prices. Since then, many companies have stopped manufacturing their scanners simply because the demand has dwindled. What remains today are the extremes; either flatbed document scanners whose optics produce, at best, barely satisfactory results, or the few remaining dedicated film scanners (capable of handling 4x5” sheet film) whose optics are excellent but also cost in excess of $10,000. Involving myself with such expenses was well beyond my means. The article I mentioned earlier on was just the impetus I needed, offering me an affordable alternative without any sacrifice on quality. Basically, each negative or transparency was photographed with a high resolution DSLR (Nikon D810) and a macro lens. Since I already owned two excellent macro lenses (Carl Zeiss 50mm and 100mm ‘Makro-Planar’), the only additional costs were the purchases of a small (5x7”) LED light table (ca. 5000°K color temperature) and some matte black construction paper which I needed to block out ambient light. The camera and lens were secured to an old, heavy-duty Gitzo tripod (no carbon fiber back then!) whose center post was reversed and adjusted to height depending on the size of the negative or transparency and the focal length of the macro lens I was using. Afterwards, the digital captures were imported into Lightroom, my standard raw converter and digital archive manager. The files were then converted into (RGB) 16-bit TIFFs and brought into Photoshop where they were converted from negative to positive images with an excellent little plugin called ’ColorPerfect’ (CF Systems). The images were then cleaned up (removal of dust spots, scratches, etc.), layers were flattened, and then saved back to Lightroom. Here, those files which originated from black & white negatives were converted from RGB to monochrome images (black&white) and the remaining post-processing was done in Lightroom’s ‘Develop’ module. The inkjet prints were done in A3 format (29.7 x 42cm, approx. 11.7 x 16.5”) on Harman by Hahnemühle ‘Gloss Baryta’ fine art paper with, as I have already mentioned, an Epson Stylus Pro 3880 printer.
The print comparisons I made at the end of the project also proved to be extremely interesting. I chose unmounted, selenium toned gelatin silver prints to compare with the inkjet prints I had made with the Epson printer. I must admit, having worked exclusively ‘digital’ for so many years, I had nearly forgotten how uniquely beautiful a gelatin silver print can really be. Having said that, I feel that nearly every image produced with my inkjet printer (and post-processed digitally) was technically superior to its silver print counterpart. Though the differences were at times subtle, they were most definitely visible. There were several reasons for this. One was the greater acutance possible through the digital process. This resulted in the impression that the inkjet prints were sharper - somehow had more detail - than the silver prints. Of course, they didn’t have more detail because detail is a product of resolution which is determined by lens quality and the resolution of the sensor or film and can not be increased ‘after the fact’. However, what we call ‘sharpness’ is really a combination of two factors; resolution and acutance (edge contrast). As apposed to resolution, acutance can be adjusted during digital post-processing and when a picture editing application refers to ‘sharpening’ it is referring to just that, an adjustment in acutance, i.e. in the amount of contrast between edges of differing luminance values (lightness and darkness). Though something similar was possible with film, it involved an elaborate and complicated procedure which was both difficult and time-consuming.
Another reason why the digitally produced prints were better was because of the vastly superior ability to perform selective adjustments. During the editing process, one differentiates between ‘global’ (effecting the whole picture) and ‘selective’ (effecting just a portion of the picture) adjustments. For the darkroom photographer, selective adjustments were primarily possible through the techniques of ’dodging’ (holding back light during the main exposure) and ‘burning’ (adding light after the main exposure). The procedure was limited (particularly ‘dodging’) and difficult to precisely reproduce when several copies were needed (especially when those copies were needed at a later date). Digital ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ have gone way beyond what the film photographer of yesteryear ever imagined possible. In addition to adjusting luminance values of even the smallest objects, virtually every other kind of adjustment like contrast, clarity (contrast of primarily the middle luminance values), hue, saturation, highlights, shadows, sharpness, noise reduction, etc. is possible and in practically unlimited number! The result is prints which are better tonally balanced and visually more expressive.
Add to this yet another interesting observation. It was my impression that the inkjet prints produced a greater D-max. (maximum black) than the selenium toned gelatin silver prints, though I would need to first verify this with a densitometer. Nevertheless, that was very much my impression. This is potentially quite important. A paper’s dynamic range is only as great as the difference between its maximum black and paper white. That’s it. For images which demand a paper’s full dynamic range, such an advantage can potentially make quite a difference. This observation surprised me somewhat. During the film era, a selenium toned gelatin silver print was capable of producing what was considered then an extremely high D-max. Of course, much of this was dependent on the amount of silver found in the emulsion (as silver prices increased, silver content dropped in many photo papers). The photo paper I used for the original prints was Oriental ’Seagull’, a very beautiful paper with a high silver content and one which was, at the time, the photo paper of choice for many of the finest black&white photographers of the era (Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, John Sexton, just to name a few). Nonetheless, despite Oriental Seagull’s high silver content and selenium toning which always increases a paper’s D-max, the Harman by Hahnemühle ‘Gloss Baryta’ inkjet paper produced, if my observations were correct, an even greater D-max! Impressive indeed!