Monday, November 3, 2014

Film to Digital

Modern photography marks a strange place in the history of the art. After a century of evolution, the steps of creating and sharing images became fairly settled: shoot film, process it, print it, show it. Over the decades, advances in the science increased the number of frames one could shoot and how fast, improved exposure, and paper became so cheap that the default processing became to print every frame on the roll. You could get a roll of film processed and printed in less than an hour, anywhere. Not so long ago, film processing kiosks were more numerous than coffee places are today.

Along came digital and everything got subtly disrupted. Suddenly, we could shoot even more, faster, and see the images instantly. We could post them to Facebook and Instagram, or drop them in an email, and it seemed like there was more sharing. But just as suddenly, the only way to share an image with someone in person was to grab a computer or an iPhone. No longer could a picture easily be put in a frame, stuck to a mirror, or handed to someone else. Suddenly, getting a single print from a digital image took more steps than it had ever taken to develop a whole roll of film, and at more expense.
Inkjet printers stepped into the breach, but the quality is poor, especially when compared to the illumination a screen gives, and the cost of entry is very high. Giclée looks great, but is very expensive and time consuming to set up right. There are a seeming plethora of options for printing a digital image on metal, glass, canvas, ceramic, and just about any other surface. But like giclée, these options are expensive and very difficult to set up to get satisfactory results. The days of assuming a good-looking print from a negative are all but gone. I'm hopeful that eventually the powers that be will enable digital printing that looks good, is accessible, and affordable.

In the meantime, we are stuck with a mixed bag of solutions. For sharing digitally, digital cameras can't be beat. For displaying images, it's all a bit awkward and expensive. My dissatisfaction with the numerous methods I've tried for getting a hard copy of a digital image is one of the primary reasons I've returned to film. Achromatic film can be processed in a bathroom and printed there, too. A 100 sheet box of 8x10 paper is still cheaper than a couple of giclées. And at the end of it, you have an actual print you can display and share. It continues to surprise me how easy it is to get a very satisfactory print with even the sloppiest of darkroom skills. Film, for now, solves my immediate problem of having a tangible product.

The problem with film, of course, is in the opposite direction: sure you can show the print to someone in person, but how do you share that same image with the worldwide audience of the web? Again we are faced with unsatisfying solutions.

I've had a variety of negative scanners over the years, and none of them have been satisfying. More accurately, they've been puzzling. Often a negative scan will reveal detail that a print loses. At the same time, the digital scan loses sharpness, detail, texture, and contrast. There's clearly a lot of potential for a solution, but the technology is still lagging behind its realization.

Getting back into film meant getting back into scanning. There are a few high-end options, but I'm a bit skeptical of investing too much in digital technology. I've been burned too many times by the loss of support and maintenance for digital products and find that it's better to hit the mid-range and upgrade it in a few years' time.

Thus I arrived at the Epson V600. It's a versatile scanner, which serves not only as a flatbed, but can also scan 35mm and 120 film at high dpi. For the purpose of scanning negatives to share as illustrations of a point, it works well. It's not the world's fastest scanner, but I can load up 12 images and then work on something else for 20 minutes. At the end of it, I'll have 50 megabyte, 4800 dpi TIFF images I can then add into Lightrooom for final tweaking and web export. The scans are not such that I would make a print from them. But that's a pointless consideration anyway when one has the original negative.

The weakest part of the Epson is the negative carriers. They are plastic, and are supposed to snap into place to hold the negatives. Because of the thickness of the plastic, the negatives will bow unless you have perfectly flat ones (and who does?). This means the images will be slightly out of focus. Moreover, the plastic tabs do not snap securely. (I have two sets, so this is a design issue and not a one-off problem.) There are third-party negative carriers which apparently improve the situation. There are also options for wet scanning, which also improve the scans.

Considering my present use, the stock Epson works well enough. At its price point, it performs far better than I expected. To get a film image up on the web, it's hard to beat. So long as you accept its limitations as a tradeoff for the very low price, I recommend it.

Below are some examples of the differences between the detail picked up in scanning the negative as opposed to scanning a print. But nothing shows the detail like the silver print.

Negative scan.
Print scan.
Negative scan.
Print scan.
Negative scan.
Print scan.