Print Film Makes a Comeback With Landscape Photographers

© Danny Burk & Jim Hutchison

Introduction

Most nature photographers were at some point convinced to use slide film as opposed to print film, and most are glad they did. And some have moved to digital... but many still prefer the nuances and character of celluloid. With transparencies, landscape and nature shots are more brilliant and saturated, especially with the use of Fuji's Velvia and Kodak's VS, both of which are known for these qualities. But of late, there have been rumblings about using print film for these applications. A little experimenting was done by the authors to compare the two side-by-side, and its not hard to imagine the predictable results. Yet, the outcome was still interesting enough to pass on to other photographers who may not be sure which way to go. Some photographers don't mind fiddling with graduated neutral-density filters (ND grads), but they can be bothersome and hard to get "just right"... hence the interest in print film's wider exposure latitude.

Since the principle behind choosing color negative film is to obtain the greatest exposure latitude possible, it makes sense to choose a film with the least amount of contrast and saturation. Fuji NPS is an excellent choice; it has recently been replaced by Fuji Pro 160S. While we've not yet had a chance to try the new version, Fuji claims that it is optimized for scanning and has reduced grain in comparison to NPS, yet has the same wide latitude as the latter. Both of these Fuji emulsions are available in 35mm, 120 and 220 medium format, and 4x5 large format (Quickload) sizes.

NPS can handle a 9 to 10 stop contrast range, compared to the 5 to 6 stop range of transparency film. This extended range has many benefits. Again, it can reduce or eliminate the need for ND grads, which are sometimes obvious in the resulting images. It can increase the usable hours of shooting on sunny days, allowing the photographer to shoot well beyond the early morning and late afternoon periods of "ideal" light by making use of light that is too contrasty for effective use of transparency film. And it can greatly increase the amount of detail in shadow areas, even in conditions of soft light, such as forested areas in heavy overcast light. While such conditions are normally well-suited to transparency film, details of foliage and bark in deep shadow may still block up, whereas full detail is retained with NPS.


Varied Subjects

For this comparison to be instructive and educational, we will compare landscape subjects at different times of the day and in various locations: the Redwood National Forest Park in California, a sunrise shot taken at Mount Lorette Ponds on highway 40 in Alberta, a mid-day shot at Peyto Lake located along highway 93 between Lake Louise and Jasper (known as the Icefields Parkway), and finally a sunset shot taken at Vermillion Lakes, just outside of Banff, Alberta. None were shot "clean", i.e. polarizers and ND grads were chosen to control the light as much as possible, with the end goal being to walk away with the best image possible. Photoshop can only do so much!


Redwood National Forest

Even though the scene from Redwood National Park was shot in soft light, parts of the forest are dense enough that there is a considerable variation in light from one area to another. The Velvia 100F image was properly exposed for overall ambient light, but this light decreased severely beneath the fern fronds at the forest floor; the film's limited latitude caused these areas to block up in shadow. On the other hand, the NPS image was exposed for shadow areas using a spotmeter in the darkest area that must retain detail, then placed at Zone III...i.e. two stops under the meter reading. It retains beautiful tonality and shadow detail throughout the image.

Note that each image is direct from the scanner and hasn't been corrected for color balance, nor has either image had any alterations of contrast or tonality performed in Photoshop. The Velvia 100F image can, of course, be matched in color balance to the NPS image, and its shadow areas can be improved by selective Curves work. However, this unaltered scan illustrates the raw scanned image which, in spite of all the effort that one might put into Photoshop corrections, will never look as good as the NPS version. The latter has been necessarily corrected in color balance as part of removing the orange mask of negative film; in viewing these clips, please observe tonality and not color balance.



Fuji NPS. Danny Burk

Fuji Velvia 100F. Danny Burk.




Mount Lorette Ponds

These two exposures were from slightly different vantage points, but they are the same subject in the same light, at the same time of day. The difference betwee the two film types is striking... both photos had a 2-stop Cokin neutral grad and a polarizer, yet there's an obvious need for a three-stop grad on the transparency (2nd photo). More shadow detail can be extracted with some digital manipulation, but it's all there in the first example.

The narrow exposure latitude of transparency film requires much more control - as we already know - but the colors in the first photo need to be punched up in order to create an acceptable (and interesting) landscape photo. This is due to the fact that color negative film has such low contrast compared with transparency film... this broad latitude necessarily means that it can't give the punchy look that we expect from transparencies! Since contrast and saturation are easily adjusted in Photoshop, this is a minor tradeoff in return for its greatly extended exposure latitude. There are photographers with Photoshop actions that do just that - mimic the characteristics of Velvia film.


Fuji Reala. Jim Hutchison

Fuji Velvia (50 ISO). Jim Hutchison


Peyto Lake Lookout

This mid-day shot is much less of a challenge in regards to contrast ratios, therefore ND grads were not used. But a polarizer was put to good use as you can see. Both images are acceptable, however the shot on the left is actually closer to what it really looked like standing there... the lake's color is quite vivid without the help of Velvia's saturation. The beautiful aqua-blue colour is due to suspended "rock flour" in the water from glacial run-off, typical of many lakes in the area.

Also evident is the bluish color cast that Velvia introduces, which again can be tweaked in Photoshop.

We can observe that the differences in exposure latitude between print and slide film are not an issue here, but the introduction of color cast may be in some cases.


Fuji Reala. Jim Hutchison

Fuji Velvia (50 ISO). Jim Hutchison




Vermillion Lakes/Mount Rundle

Velvia's saturation pulls out the gold in Mount Rundle more than the print film, but keep in mind there's a bit of a time span between both shots, so its probable that the light wasn't exactly the same for each one. But the obvious difference is the gradation in the sky. The colour density is about the same at horizon level, but the print film tempers the difference between light and dark quite markedly - a textbook example of the difference between the two films. In the second shot, more judicious use of a soft-edge neutral grad filter would have evened it out more.

Actually, a 1-stop neutral grad were used on both... a 2-stop grad should have been stacked on top of it (or use a single 3-stop). Lesson learned.

We can conclude that more attention to filter use is needed with slide film, which is the prime reason for considering print film for landscape photography. And again, the color cast difference is something to be aware of, and possibly compensate for when preparing the image on your computer.


Fuji Reala. Jim Hutchison

Fuji Velvia (50 ISO). Jim Hutchison




Sharpness

Something not part of this experiment was an exact comparison of the two media's sharpness characteristics. According to the manufacturer's product spec sheets, both Fuji 160S and Fuji Reala can resolve 63 lines per millimeter at a 1.6 to 1 contrast ratio. At 1000 to 1 contrast ratio, the number is 125 lines per millimeter. Both their 50 and 100 ISO Velvia transparency films boast higher resolution: 80 lines/mm and 160 lines/mm at the two contrast ratios mentioned. Is this thirty percent difference in resolving power noticable? The optical systems in pro-sumer film scanners such as ones from from Nikon and Canon have an upper limit of resolving power around 80 lines per millimeter, the same as Velvia film at low contrast. So yes, print film falls short in scientific terms, but it takes high-end industrial grade scanning technology to extract detail beyond 80 lines per millimeter.

In the real world, this difference is only noticable when prints are blown up full size and compared with a magnifying glass. At 34 feet, the human eye can resolve two points one millimeter apart. Extrapolated, that means we have to be .42 feet from something to resolve 80 lines per millimeter, and .53 feet for 60 lines per millimeter. Hardly considered practical viewing distance!

It therefore seems safe to conclude that print film performs essentially the same for the majority of us that scan at 4000 DPI, and print large proofs. Transparency film's higher resolution will suit situations that require extra-large prints shot in 35mm format that have been drum-scanned.

Other Scanning Considerations

While it does take more effort to color correct scanned color negative film compared to transparency film, it's not an issue that should prevent you from discovering the benefits of color negative film for yourself. Good scanning software should include a setting for color negative film, and careful setting of highlight and shadow points, along with correction of any remaining color casts in Photoshop, can give results that are very similar to transparency film after contrast and saturation are adjusted to taste. Some scanning service bureaux warn their clients to stick with transparency film - that color negative won't give them the results they're after, when in reality, the service bureaux are simply not experienced in scanning color negative and don't know how to handle it.

Drum scanning software will actually allow beneficial adjustments for negative scans, such as manual alteration of the scanner's lens aperture to reduce apparent grain, yet the bureaux don't mention this fact. This tells us that they want their clients to modify their shooting to suit the lab's workflow rather than the other way around!

Overall Observations and Conclusion

This was a very worth-while excercise... we've learned there is a place for print film in landscape photography. In a high-contrast scene where the horizon is too varied and not a straight line, ND grads are tough to use - print film may be a better choice. And as we've observed, bright, evenly-lit scenes are treated well with both films.

Slide film, with its well-known saturation and contrast characteristics, still shines when it comes to nature and wildlife. Controlling that contrast is the challenge, which is perhaps why some landscape photographers aren't afraid to use print film, especially in medium and large formats. Scanning such large media renders the difference between the sharpness stats rather insignificant.

So - why not shoot negative film exclusively? There are several reasons to choose transparency film if conditions are suited to its use. For one, it has slightly less apparent grain than color negative, which can be especially important to 35mm shooters. It cannot be denied that it does entail more time and effort to color-correct scans from color negative compared with those from transparency, and an original transparency on the lightbox is a convenient reference on which to base Photoshop adjustments if "the transparency look" is wanted. And finally, a color transparency on a lightbox, particularly a large- or medium format original, is simply a thing of beauty in itself, and one which many photographers enjoy seeing.

Perhaps now you may want to carry both film types in your camera bag. Be prepared, and do a little experimenting of your own next time you're out in the field!


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Jim Hutchison is a part-time photographer who resides in Burnstown, Ontario, with his wife Moira. You may visit his web site at www.jamesphotography.ca.

Danny Burk is a full-time photographer based in South Bend, Indiana. He offers fine prints, drum scanning, field and Photoshop instructional workshops, and more. Please visit his website at www.dannyburk.com.
Jim's other project: Refugees of Religion