Old iron, new tricks

This isn’t exactly news, but I thought I’d nevertheless share how I integrate older analog cameras into a modern workflow.

I am inclined to use old (and not so old) medium-format analog cameras for landscape and portrait work. The lenses are excellent, build-quality is often bulletproof (sometimes literally) and thanks for digital encroachment, a highly-capable system – for instance a Hasselblad kit with a number of lenses – can be obtained for only a modest outlay.

The enormous image area of around 30cm2 means that longer focal lengths are used in order to obtain ‘normal’ fields of view, which in turn means that depth of field can be finely controlled to an extent that is unthinkable using a small system. For the same reason, tonality is surpassed only by even larger format photography (akin to the old automotive adage that there is no replacement for displacement).

I could go on for hours about the technical reasons to use old MF-iron in a modern ‘hybrid’ workflow, but it all boils down to this: for a modest outlay, digital files of tremendous resolution and tonal depth can be obtained, easily rivaling the output of high-end digital backs unattainable by mere mortals. It’s a value for money thing, and 6x6cm negatives hit the sweet spot very nicely indeed (though 6×4.5cm is not to be scoffed at either, naturally).

So: brass tacks. Suppose your exposed 120 film has successfully been extracted from the camera; what then?

The very finest results can be obtained by producing an 8×10″ (or larger) print and having that scanned in a high-end professional drum scanner. Chances are, however, that your computer will gag at the file size, and drum scanners – even used – are very expensive items.

A very popular alternative is to scan the negatives. This is particularly popular among the monochromists, since that way, one of the advantages of black and white film – namely that it can easily and inexpensively be processed at home – can be fully leveraged. All that’s required is a suitable scanner capable of scanning medium format transparencies.

Obviously these scanners are also useful for scanning colour material, and many of the same principles apply to what I’m about to write.

One of the fundamental truths of digital imaging is that the software that is shipped with any given scanner is probably utterly awful. It often groans under the weight of ill-thought-out amateurish “multimedia imaging center” cruftware, it is out of date, buggy and crash-prone. I have strong feelings about this.

Thankfully, third parties have stepped in to offer support. Two popular alternatives under Mac and Windows scanning environments are Silverfast and VueScan. I shall discuss the latter.

VueScan is a formidable piece of software, which I suppose I should discuss in more detail another time. But in short, some techniques I’ve found useful:

  • Scan each frame individually; while time-consuming, it’s the best way I’ve found to get the best results in terms of accurate framing and exposure;
  • Don’t be shy about resolution – scan as high as seems reasonable; you can always downsample later in Photoshop (or whatever you’re using). I tend to scan at 4800dpi; for online publication I can easily down-rez, while the spare pixels are useful for producing decent-sized prints;
  • Sometimes negatives – expecially severely underexposed ones – refuse to expose correctly; the best way to scan these is from an analog print (see below)
The third option: If you have access to a black and white print lab, one of the best ways to scan monochrome is to produce a good ‘wet’ print on decent paper, and scan that. This has the advantage of not needing a backlight scanner, and it allows low-ISO films to really show what they can do.
The resulting scanned photos can then be imported into Lightroom/Aperture/Whatever for further processing just like digital photographs.

About lidlesseye

Mouthing off about photography, and occasionally important things too.

Posted on November 12, 2011, in Photography. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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