The choice of camera is important. You need to use a camera and lens that you love and really want to use. We already said that we are not doing analog film photography because it is better than digital. Therefore there must be some other reason for taking it up. For some, it is the desire to use a classic Leica rangefinder which offers both a razor sharp image and amazing heritage. For others it is lomography - unpredictable and artistic results from humble equipment. For me personally, it was the quest for shallow depth of field on a budget. To that end, I found that the long discontinued Olympus OM system offered the best choice of cheap, professional cameras and lenses to help me achieve that.
Prior to developing the film, there are only a few significant factors which affect the quality of your negative. The lens, the exposure, your choice of shutter speed, aperture and the film itself. Being one of these core factors, your choice of film is very important and will have a significant (but not total) influence on your resulting digital image. Some things to consider when choosing a film…
- Is it affordable?
- Is it readily available?
- Do you want to be part of a community of people using the same film and talking about it?
- Can it be processed using standard chemistry?
- Does it dry and stay flat?
- Does it scan well?
- Does it produce long lasting negatives that do not damage easily?
- Can it be pushed or pulled (i.e. increase or reduce ISO rating)?
- Watch out for ‘remjet’ on movie films adapted for digital use.
In a hybrid analog/digital workflow such as this, there are effectively three development phases. The chemistry, the scanning and the digital ‘darkroom’ software. The digital darkroom process can correct and adjust the image very significantly. This means that (in a digital world) the actual film itself cannot have 100% impact in the resulting digital image. It is a combination of all three with proportions unknown.
It is therefore very hard to meaningfully evaluate and choose a film based on reviews on the internet. When you see a converted digital image of a negative on the internet, what do you know about it? There is likely much talk about the chemistry and process, but little about the scanning process and any digital development of the images. How much of what you see is the original film?
Increasing the quality of the second and third stages will increase the influence of the film in the final digital image. So if you increase the quality of your scanning and strive to keep your digital darkroom processing as transparent as possible, then you will ensure that the true nature of the film shows through as much as possible.
In reaility, such high quality scanning is hard to achieve. For example, in my setup, I believe that the digital noise from my scanning camera, a little Olympus XZ-1, is more than the film grain. This is both hard to prove and hard to improve, although there are some ways to do this which I discuss later.
Your digital darkroom will compensate a long way for difficulties in your negative that would be insurmountable with an classic enlarger. This is an important point. Digital development and correction are really the same thing. Negative poorly exposed? Adjust the levels. Not enough contrast in your negative? Steepen the tone curve. Colours wrong? Adjust the colour balance. In practice what this means is don’t worry too much about your choice of film. You can choose it with your heart or your wallet and get results that are 95% the same whatever film you choose!
Achieving faithful results in the digital darkroom is hard. What is the base tone curve? To produce in-camera JPGs, all digital cameras have a different tone curve that is a big factor in their ‘look’. If you do colour, then what is the correct white balance? How to calibrate? What about dynamic range, contrast and sharpness? In practice, there is no one true ‘pure’ setting that simply passes-through your negative into the digital world. If you are a purist, then don’t let this disappoint you, this is the exciting part!
Working in the digital darkroom is a genuine way to impart your own creative input into the final digital image. Working much like the full analog specialist with an enlarger, the digital darkroom user must ‘develop’ their negative into an aethetically satisfying image. Think of Ansel Adams burning and dodging with his enlarger. You are no different, except you are digital at that point. For me, consistency is key. I believe and developing your own ‘look’ is an important way that photographers differentiate themselves. I offer some suggestions later on.