Category Archives: Film Versus Digital

Chasing the [B&W] Film Image

The Classic B&W Film Look – Shot with a Sigma DP2x

If I’ve made one concession to the digital age, it’s that it’s sent me on a quest to duplicate, via digital capture, the classic B&W film look. By ‘film look’ I mean the ’50s era Tri-X aesthetic. I’m not interested in grainless, subtle tonalities coupled with optical perfection. Leave that to digital B&W, almost all of which, to my eye, just doesn’t look very interesting. It looks thin and plastic, like it has no depth. I could be imagining things, but I don’t think so. The differences are real, and, at least to me, they matter. B&W photography, if it’s worthy of the name, should have a certain look. Think Robert Frank’s Americans, or Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies, or Trent Parkes’ Minutes to Midnight.

Above is a photo I took recently with a Sigma DP2x, post-processed in Silver Efex. To me, it’s a film image – the contrast, the grain, the tonality of Tri-X developed in Rodinal – about as close as I’m going to get without actually running a roll of Tri-X through my camera. So, it can be done. For comparison, I’ve posted a film snap below that exhibits the characteristics I’m looking to duplicate digitally. To my eye, these two photos could have come from the same roll.

Valentina and Donna, San Francisco, 2016 – HP5 at 800 ISO.

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Tobacco Fields, Eastern North Carolina – Film or Digital? Hard to Tell (It’s a DP2x Silver Efex Conversion)

What I’ve learned [so far] can be distilled into a few simple observations: First, you’ve got to shoot RAW and run your files through film emulation software. No B&W jpegs using various in-camera film simulations. Pushing digital ISO and relying on digital noise isn’t going to get it either. I find Silver Efex to be excellent, especially using the Tri-X, HP5, Neopan 1600 and TMax 3200 presets as starting points.

Second, relatively low-resolution sensors give better film simulations; grain structure seems more accurate, tonalities more amenable to Tri-X contrast. 5-12 mpix seems to be the sweet spot. Something about higher resolution sensors – 24 mpix and above – translates into unnatural looking grain structure when post-processed, a look of having been added-on as opposed to being an organic characteristic of the output. It makes sense – 35mm Tri-x and HP5 aren’t about resolution so much as a particular grain patina. High-resolution output can’t be disguised with a simple grain overlay. The original Sigma Dp series – the 5 mpix Foveon – gives remarkably film-like grain output and tonality, printable up to 11×14 (which, ironically, is about the same limit of enlargement allowed by a 35mm negative, supporting the argument for the approximate equivalency of the Dp resolution to that of 35mm film), when run through Silver Efex by a discerning eye. It’s 35mm Tri-X developed in Rodinal in a digital box. Other sensors that seem to effectively simulate film output are the 10 mpix CCD sensor of the Nikon d200 and, my favorite, the 12 mpix Ricoh GXR M-mount. The beauty of this is you don’t need to spend $4000 on a Monochrom; you can pick up a d200 or d80 for next to nothing, and pre-digital Nikon primes are cheap as dirt.

One’s Film (HP5 2 800 ISO). One’s Digital (Ricoh GXR M-Mount).

Which leads me to my third generalization: film era optics produce better digital files for film emulation. Highly corrected modern digital optics are simply too sharp if you’re looking to replicate film. Film didn’t look that way, a function of less tack-sharp optics. Older lenses were designed using manual computation, are inclined to flare a bit and are often softer at the edges or have some vignetting, things you don’t see in modern, highly corrected optics. These optical characteristics are also a part of what we think of as the ‘film look.’

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I’ve recently bought the camera a CCD Monchrom. Leica marketed it as an evolution of B&W film photography in the digital age. They bundled a copy of Silver Efex with it, just in case. I’ve not had it long enough to make any valid comparisons, but first impressions are excellent. At the very least, it does capture B&W in a way unlike traditional digital B&W output. Below are two Monochrom snapshots run through the same emulation as the DP2x shots, followed by two similar DP2x shots.

Leica Monochrom and Silver Efex
Sigma DP2x and Silver Efex
Leica Monochrom and Silver Efex
Sigma DP2x and Silver Efex

Maybe I Need to Rethink This

Leica M8

The M8. I Had a Love/Hate With This Camera for Many Years

As you know, I’ve been, at best, ambivalent about Leica in the digital age. I’ve taken a lot of cheap shots at their digital cameras over the years, M digitals included. I’ve been skeptical that the Leica M film experience could be transposed to the digital age. Part of the problem is digital capture simply doesn’t lend itself to simplicity – it requires electronics and LCD screens and nested menus and all the afflatus that gives rise to digital bloat, and Leica isn’t immune to it in spite of their best intentions to keep things simple.

It seemed, at least in the beginning, that Leica’s continued emphasis on simplicity had become less a design ethos than a marketing slogan, or worse yet, a cynical way of attempting to paper over inferior product. It’s not like Leica, as anyone selling a widget, isn’t above self-serving puffery. Let’s face it: the M8, pleasing to look at and fondle like previous film Leicas, arrived with some serious issues: buggy electronics, color capture issues, battery problems, dismal ISO capabilities, a shutter that sounded like a construction-grade staple gun. The M9 fixed some of it, but I couldn’t help but think that Leica was over their heads in the digital age, where quality had less to do with traditional Leica hand-craftsmanship and more with technical expertise, technical expertise being the forte of large manufacturers like Nikon and Canon.

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Leica M3

And then there was the Leica ergonomic, the felt experience of operating one that was so seductive with their film M’s. The film M’s just feel right. Refined yet simple. No intercession of electronics to do things for you (before the M7 at least). Radically minimalist design, uncluttered viewfinder, big bright mechanical rangefinder. Simple wind-on, imperceptible shutter click, rewind. Advancing the film offered just enough throw and resistance to make the act pleasurable as its own experience. Many Leicaphiles carried our M’s around the house with us – why? because they stimulated that part of the lizard brain connected to the hand. Film M’s made you a gearhead.

I’m not sure that ergonomic simplicity transfers over to the digital M’s, or at least I was skeptical at best. While my M8 looked like an M it didn’t feel like one. Whatever magic they packed into the M4 was simply not there in the M8. Where the M4 felt fluidly effortless and simple, the M8 felt clunky and convoluted. Where the M4 shutter whispered, the M8 sounded like it was shooting high-velocity projectiles. Figuring out how to format a card or change ISO invariably devolved into multi-thumb fumbling of wheels, buttons, and menu options, all while your subject fleeing as if from a school shooter. Efficient it wasn’t.

But …. if your interest was traditional B&W photography, as opposed to digital hyper-realism, in spite of what sensor rankings and 100% cropping geeks declaimed, the M8’s output was astonishing. B&W from the M8 just had the look, a function of the CCD sensor and its increased IR sensitivity which produced thick, film-like B&W files. All you needed to do was add a bit of grain. I was willing to put up with the quirks – the random freeze-ups, the glacial boot-up times, the god-awful swack of the shutter – to get that B&W output. It was that good, a monochrome camera to rival the Monochrom.

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Leica M240

This is all prelude to the fact that I’m having to rethink my opinions these days [shock!]. I bought a used M240 a while ago, not expecting much, and found that I really liked it, as in really. Wanting a digital camera to compliment my aging GXR and my exasperating Sigma SD Quattro (another love/hate thing), I’d thought of the usual alternatives – an X100, X-Pro, D4s – and then decided against them. It was time to buy a digital M.

To make a long story short – I liked the M240 so much I splurged and bought the camera I’d always really wanted – the Monochrom, the original CCD version based on the M9 platform. Found a nice one with an updated, non-corrosive sensor. I’ve totally fallen in love. It’s a digital M4. It’s got the feel. Hell, it even looks just like a black chrome M4. As for output, I’m convinced there’s a roll of Ilford HP5 rated at 800 ISO hidden in there somewhere.

An M5 w/ HP5 @ 800 ISO, an M240 DNG Run Through Silver Efex … or a Leica Monochrom?

So, going forward I’ve decided to go all Steve Huff on you, amusing you with various posts about the Mono and the M240 and how they compare to an M5 with HP5. This weekend, I’m going out with the M5 and a 35mm VC loaded with HP5, the Mono and the M240 and see how they each render the same subject. If you’ll indulge my geekiness, I promise no 100% crops or duplicate shots of fence posts. I’ll try to keep shots of the wife and cats to a minimum.

Leica Monochrom
Leica M9M

Silver Efex’s Kodak Film Simulations

Leica M240, 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1

I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for Nik’s Silver Efex software. While Nik is long gone, having apparently been bought out by Google, their Silver Efex software lives on. It’s my go-to choice for converting digital DNG files to B&W ‘film’ capture; in addition to adding characteristic grain of a specific B&W emulsion, it overlays the film’s exposure curve to re-create the tonalities of the film capture. Is it perfect? No. As I’ve attempted to explain elsewhere, the fact that you’re starting with the linear exposure curve of a DNG file as opposed to a native film file with the exposure curve ‘baked in’ makes perfect emulation impossible. But it’s close, and most folks are easily fooled.

Below are the various emulations of the digital file above. There’s been no tweaking the files at all except to load them into Silver Efex and choose the film emulation. You can click on them and open them in a new window for larger jpegs. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see the various looks of the different Kodak film stocks, which I think Nik did a great job of simulating. My preferences: Plus-X for a clean tonality, TMAX 3200 for a grittier look. As for Tri-X, I never much liked it, preferring instead the better tonality and decreased contrast of Ilford HP5. Of course, Silver Efex gives you the option of tweaking grain and tonality after you’ve loaded the film emulation preset, but then you’re not emulating a given film but modifying it as you might do with various developing choices, and that’s a rabbit hole I’m incapable of going down.

Panatomic – X, ISO 32

TMAX 100, ISO 100

Plus-X, ISO 125

TMAX 400, ISO 400

Tri-X, ISO 400

TMAX 3200, ISO 3200

This is Not a Trick Question

Buddy, Donna and Abby, Carolina Beach, Summer 2020

Stuck as I am at home, a function of Covid and Chemo, I’ve been reading a mind-numbing amount of internet arguments re: film vs. digital. Everyone has an opinion. I certainly do; much of this blog for the last 7 years has been dedicated to flogging that opinion at every available opportunity. My take: yes, there’s a ‘film look’ that differs from digital, and it’s ‘better.’ Film has an unmistakable heft to it, a solidity, that digital capture is incapable of reproducing however much you run the file through whatever emulation software you prefer. It has to do with 1) the non-linear vs. linear capture of film v. digital; 2) the organic grain structure of film and its function in capturing the image v. ‘grain’ superficially overlaid after the capture; and 3), to a lesser extent, the more “classic” rendition of film era optics v. the clinical perfection of highly corrected digital era optics. Or so we say.

FILM :Me, Jorge and Florence, Van Gogh House, Auvers sur Oise, 2014 Contax G2, HP5, D76

DIGITAL: Me in My Paris Flat, 2003, Nikon D2

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So, I was thinking of all these issues as I printed the photo of my wife and the mutts above. Take my word for it – it’s a technically stunning print, wet or digital, a perfect B&W print…or at least I think so. (You can right-click on any of the three images here and ask that it be viewed in a new window..and it will bring up a higher resolution image that you can pixel-peep). Hopefully, the scan of it above gives ‘some’ sense of it as a print. Of course, given we are, by definition, debating this via a digital medium makes the whole issue suspect to begin with. But, as you know, half the fun is in debating these insoluble issues and holding firm opinions on them. So, putting that aside for a moment, and given that almost all photography is viewed digitally these days…can you tell whether this is film or digital capture? And if not, what are we arguing about anymore?

You have two options:

  1. It’s taken with a Leica M5, 25mm f4 Voigtlander, yellow filter, (expired) Ilford Pan-F rated at 50 ISO and developed in D76, scanned with a Plustek 7400, marginal contrast post-processing in Lightroom, output sharpening (low); or
  2. It’s taken with a Sigma sd Quattro, Sigma DC 17-50 2.8 EX HSM, effective focal length 25mm, ISO 125 DNG file pre-sharpened in Nik Sharpener, processed in Silver Efex Pro as a Pan-F emulation.

Can you tell the difference? Can you articulate why? What, if anything, gives it away? I’d love to hear your thoughts.