Too commonly I hear photographers engage in segregation by medium. Many are convinced that it's impossible to obtain satisfactory digital prints from photographic film. Or, conversely, satisfactory traditional (a.k.a. darkroom a.k.a. analog) prints from digital files. Neither happens to be true. In fact, many accomplished printers are successfully "coloring outside the lines." I will go so far as to say that in the hands of a skilled printer, a better print can often be made from film digitally than can be made in the darkroom unless one takes extraordinary measures. For some photographs, digital printing will exceed the very best darkroom prints. (I define success by how well the print serves the artist's intent. Spec-comparing and pixel-peeping are not part of that equation.)
As a long-standing dye transfer printer, I work with those very-best prints. In my rather informal and certainly not objective statistical sample, about half the time I think my digital prints are just as artistically successful as my dye transfer prints, although they look extremely different. About one third of the time the dye transfer prints are clearly superior. The remaining one sixth of the time, the digital prints come closer to fulfilling my artistic intentions than the dye transfer prints do. Considering that dye transfer is at the pinnacle of color darkroom processes, that's remarkable. Conventional color darkroom printing doesn't come close.
Even in the realm of black-and-white printing, digital holds its own. The ability to precisely control characteristic curve shapes with programs like Photoshop and Picture Window makes a huge difference in the tonal qualities of black-and-white prints. In broad terms, you can match any black-and-white film and darkroom paper combination that has ever existed. It may take you trial and error to get there, but it's entirely doable. My Alcoa Building photograph (below) is a good example. The density range of a good modern digital print on semigloss or gloss paper is not markedly different from that of a well made darkroom print. (If you're printing on matte papers, that's an entirely different matter, and you may have to give them up or get to be very, very good at printing). In the extreme, an exceptionally well-made black-and-white darkroom print may convey a longer density range than a digital print, but the far more precise and complete control over tonal placement in digital usually trumps that hand.
The negative languished in my files for over 30 years, after the darkroom paper that I needed to get it to print just right was discontinued. Last year I successfully printed this negative again...digitally. The print is better than the best darkroom print I'd ever been able to make.
That said, achieving these kind of results in digital prints is not easy nor always straightforward, and it requires paying attention to myriad details that may be unfamiliar to the traditional printer. Broadly speaking, the digital printing process can be divided into three steps: scanning the film to produce a raw digital file, manipulating that file in a program like Photoshop to obtain precisely the aesthetic results one wants, and successfully rendering that result on print paper. Obviously a short tutorial cannot tell you how to make masterful prints. It took me many years of my life to learn how to do that, and the methodologies would fill a book (which I may write some day). This relatively short series, though, will set you on the right course and help you avoid many of the more obvious pitfalls.
Do get a dedicated film scanner. It is rare for a flatbed scanner to offer scan quality anywhere near as good as that produced by a proper film scanner, no matter what the printed specifications may suggest.
Scanning film, especially negative film, is very straightforward in principle. People most often get into trouble when they try to get too "clever" about their scanning, hoping to divine some magical trick. The purpose of scanning should simply be to capture as much data as possible from the original film in a form that is easily manipulated on the computer. Choose scanner settings that will catch the longest density range in the film, hopefully everything from the deepest shadows through the brightest highlights (this can frequently be done with a not-excessively-expensive scanner), at as high a resolution as is practical, and in as linear a form as is possible.
Aesthetically, such a scan will not look good: it will look flat, low in contrast and/or color saturation, and it will in no way make a good print by itself. Effectively, it is a digital negative. But, that's what you want to start off with.
Finding the scanner settings that allow capturing the maximum density range is a matter of trial and error. Every scanner software package behaves differently. You certainly want to do your scans in 16-bit-per-channel mode. You will need all that extra data later. Whether you scan the film as a negative or slide, whether you set the scanner in "linear" mode or not, these are matters that depend upon the particular make and model of scanner and software. There is not an obvious answer that I can give you except to try different modes and see which one captures the longest total density range. In some cases you will find that your scanner captures a longer density range from the film if you scan a negative as a slide, so don't be afraid to give this a try.
I'll pick this up next week with further comments on film scanning and some remarks about what a big win digital image manipulation is.
Ctein's regular weekly TOP column appears on Thursday, usually in the morning.
Send this post to a friend
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.