Digital and Film, part 1

Back in December, I took a few days of vacation and travelled to see Mom up in Northwest Arkansas. In the days leading up to the trip, I hemmed and hawed over which camera(s) to take along, which lenses, films, what sort(s) of project(s) I might want to start/continue/pursue while there, etc., etc., etc.

In the end, I decided to pit the D7000 against the FG in as fair a match-up as I could muster. Given the differences, this wasn’t going to be easy, but I came up with a few limitations:

  1. As far as possible, keep focal lengths equivalent.
  2. Manual focus lenses only.
  3. Set D7000 ISO to match the ISO of whatever film was in the FG (I took Porta 160 and 400 along).

For example, on the D7000, the 24mm f/2.8 ai becomes, pretty much, a 36mm lens, and on the FG, the 36-72 f/3.5 E Series is, at 36, pretty much exactly 36mm; the 50mm f/1.8 E is 75mm on the D7000, and the 75-150 E is, on the FG, 75mm.

With focal lengths an ISO closely matched, I could set the apertures the same (ignoring the differences in aperture caused by the cropped sensor) and *hopefully* compare the output of the digital sensor (plus any processing) with the imprint on the film (plus developing, scanning, and processing).

I had some expectations and some hopes, especially once I got there and started processing the last roll of film. (I planned to do some hiking and wandering around the town, but it rained hard most of the time I was there, and so I spent much of the time processing a backlog of film.) Interestingly, once I returned and started processing, I found some unexpected things.

I’ll get into more of that as the week progresses, but here’s a bit of a taste…

The rain broke for a bit on the 26th and I wandered down the block to shoot the clouds in the valley, with the 24mm ai on the D7000 and the 36-72mm E on the FG. I had a half-shot roll of Porta 160 in the FG, so I set the D7000 for ISO160, zoomed the 36-72 to 36mm, and started shooting…

Let’s start with the D7000.

I processed this first picture in RPP and used its K160NC preset to try to approximate what the film might put out, with professional processing that followed Kodak’s curves. Insofar as I process film myself and tweak curves until the picture looks good to my eye, my pictures are unlikely to match Kodak’s curve… but no matter.

The D7000 underexposed by quite a bit and still blew out the clouds. I tweaked and tweaked the RPP-produced TIFF in Lightroom, but all the results looked plastic, so this one has a slight reduction to highlights and slight lift to the shadows.

It’s still too dark, sorta muddy looking. And so I found this second one and processed it just by hand in Lightroom.  In retrospect, I should’ve done something similar with the first…

So here’s a better version of that first one, just to make the comparison a bit more fair.

The highlight is still blown—it’s blown in the raw file—but at least we can see the tree line and all now. (I just had a thought: “I wonder what an in-camera jpeg would look like.” I don’t shoot raw/jpeg pairs, so I’ll never know.)

These two don’t look too bad. The color is a bit too much, but the pictures are busy enough that I don’t see the usual glossy plastic look that so much digital photography seems to have.

So let’s compare to similar scenes, shot moments before or after these from more or less the same angle with the FG and 36-72mm, at 36.

The first thing to note: I need a better method of washing and drying film, and I really need to start cleaning the film before I scan it… But that’s one of the joys of processing film at home, I guess. Sure, digital sensors get dirty too, but the spots on digital pictures are the same in every frame, while the spots on film are unique from frame to frame.

Sorta like people…

I had a really difficult time getting the color even close in these. My recent discovery of the levels panels helped some, but I ended up using the RGB curves and the Color Editor in Capture One Pro 9 to get as close as I did.

So let’s put these side by side and make some comparisons…

The framing is better in the film shot… there’s some ground to stand on, and you’re sorta in the scene. In the digital one, you’re sorta floating above it all. The color in the film shot is close to what I remember seeing, but it’s too flat: the scene was more physical. Despite my best efforts, the color in the film shot is more physical, but t’s still way off: the clouds are way too blue and the grass is way too vibrant.

Wit this one, the D7000 couldn’t handle the dynamic range in the scene and blew out the clouds, and again, despite my best efforts the film shot is too blue.

So in both of these, the contest is sort of tied…

Film has the dynamic range that my D7000 (with its 4 year old sensor) lacks, but color from the D7000 is easier to get right.

I found similar things in every comparison I made, and ultimately found that film worked for some things and digital worked for some others. Ultimately, not an either/or, but a both/and. I’ll go into more of this in future posts this week, and maybe you’ll find the comparisons useful.

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