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Thursday, 03 December 2009


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Thanks for another great post. One thing that I have been wondering about recently is the film scanning part of the equation. When enlarging 35mm negs in the darkroom the larger you go the more the image degrades (because of aberrations from the enlarging lens?). But if you scan that same 35mm negative and print it with a digital printer, it seems you can print much larger and still maintain good contrast and sharpness...Do you have any experience printing this way?

This is an interesting way of looking at things, Mike -- and perhaps something that many photographers know instinctively.

To me, what Jim Sherwood's experiment proves is that while careful 35mm technique can produce results as nice as MF for typical prints, you have to work for it. What would the viewer preference have been like, I wonder, if he had included "careful (tripod, etc.) 6x7 shots in his comparison?

One factor you did not mention is how much time and effort a photographer has to devote to a project. I compared 400 asa color negative film shot on my Pentax 35 mm with 50 mm lens to the same film on my pentax 645 with 75 mm lens and my Canon 5D everything on a tripod. I found the 645 and the Canon 5D to be comparable in quality with the 35 mm blown out of the park. Then I compared 645 TMY in my old friend D-76 to the 5D B&W. TMY won by a little bit. But I really do not have the time to devote to film and can enjoy my hobby much more with digital. So I am sticking with my 5D because it is easier and less time consuming.


Since you brought it up, what is the best way to agitate film?

I think I live on a different planet then those that share the common wisdom about format size, i.e., people will generally notice the quality difference between between 35mm and medium format, but not the difference between medium format and 4x5.

I did my own format/print comparisions some years ago. For me, even in 4x6 C-41 prints, the difference in fine detail is noticeable between 35mm and medium format. Using Tri-x 320, 4x5 is discernably sharper than medium format in an 8x10. Ditto for an 8x10 contact print compared to an enlargement from 4x5.

For my standard 10x13 print size from Tri-x,when detail is important, e.g., landscape, my 5x7 is better than 4x5. 5x7 wins my personal comparison test for the ideal film format.

It's also interesting to note that a print produced from a larger format, courser grained film seems sharper than a print from a smaller negative using fine-grained film.

Now that digital has entered the picture, people who shoot with film and want to make a statement about their choice of materials, may gravitate to a smaller format to make the grain more obvious. :)

Two thoughts.
One is that I think the 'sweet spot' is relative to the print size needed and the convenience factor for the photographer. For me, 35mm is my sweet spot because of the print size I normally use (done well, I'm good with it up to 10x15) and convenience of the camera equipment as well as processing, developing, etc. Horses for courses as the saying goes.
Secondly, there is the whole variable of scanning the negative and making digital prints rather than traditional enlargements or contact prints. This brings in all of the factors that the scanner has as well as how well the film itself scans.

"Do you have any experience printing this way?"

I don't, no. I did this a few times, and it was enough to convince me I didn't want to pursue it, at that time at least. Other people might have real experience with it, though, if they would care to chime in....


Film versus digital...

When comparing digital to film (lets say 12 megapixel APS-C digital to 35mm film), in theory, I would expect that when comparing images at say 6x9 or 8x10 (with a decently fine grained film) people would not be able to tell the difference. At 11x14, I would expect everyone to start picking the digital images. However, when enlarged above 13x19, I would expect people to return to prefering the film.

My reasoning would be that the information captured by digital hits a hard wall (only 12 megapixels of "equal quality" are captured). The film actually captures more information but the information is subject to random scatter and random sampling (grain). The film information fades away gradually.

(Every article on film versus digital picks a point in that fade where x percent of the information has been lost and declares that to be the "absolute resolution" of film.)

At small enough scales, digital captures no information but film captures some fraction of the information. I contend that this is the appeal of the "grainy" film look. The information gradually fades away at smaller scales instead of dropping off a cliff.

I would expect in your digital comparison at large enough sizes the smaller megapixel image will just simply look "artificial" (assuming you up-rez the smaller image to the same size as the larger image and wisely use sharpening). The image would simply lack information at the smaller scales that the eye is expecting.

...and after more thought...
All of the above would also be highly dependent on the photographic subject matter. I would expect that the above would hold for people portraits (very few hard edges) and not as well for cityscapes.

The point of my prior post is to hopefully hijack the stream (ok, it is still highly related to Mike's article) and get someone with real knowledge to weigh-in on a topic that I have been thinking about off and on for some time...film capture, digital capture and how the brain deals with spacial information (or lack thereof).

"...what is the best way to agitate film?"

George got the best results developing one roll of film in a two-reel Paterson plastic tank, the kind with the plastic reels; he left the other (empty) reel in the tank and used half as much solution as recommended, to leave a sizable airspace.

Second best results were achieved with a stainless tank and stainless reels, also using an airspace and leaving an empty reel.

For many years, adapted from his results, I developed 35mm Tri-X 400 three rolls at a time in a 32-oz., 4-reel tank, using 28 oz. of D-76 1:1 (my handle on certain forums is "txind76121"), leaving the fourth reel present but empty.

George's key findings--I'm just going on memory, I haven't seen the article in years--were that plastic reels and tanks were better than stainless and that it was always better to leave an airspace.

He also advocated agitation by inversion, as most writers do.

I believe he also advocated continuous agitation. I might be wrong about that. In any event continuous agitation is impractical for most users because it results in too-short development times.

I do have a copy of the article somewhere, but the chances of my being able to put my hands on it are very slim.


"in theory, I would expect that when comparing images at say 6x9 or 8x10 (with a decently fine grained film) people would not be able to tell the difference. At 11x14, I would expect everyone to start picking the digital images. However, when enlarged above 13x19, I would expect people to return to prefering the film."

All quite possible, but I note that you're doing what "most people" do, which is to surmise rather than actually test. We can't test everything, and fortunately we don't have to, but part of the point of this post is that information gathered from real experiments is actually superior to "in theory" suppositions, however well reasoned.



I still use 67 MF as my main format - a Mamiya RB67, a Nikon 9000 scanner, and a HP 24" printer. This yields excellent results at 10x enlargements (22"x27.5"). I find the quality at this print size comparable to 11"x14" from 35mm.

I find 11"x14" from my 6MP DSLR to be acceptable (barely). I am hoping the 5D MKII that Santa is bringing me will provide acceptable quality at 22"x27.5". I love the look I get with the RB, but working with film is so slow and tedious.

"...putting a wet finger to the wind of popular consensus..."

It's why I come to this site....a beautiful turn of phrase, mike, along with a concise description of a complex, living, recipe....

best wishes

Mike, the print size comparison I'd be interested in would be for three points:

1. Relatively small (4/3s or APS-C) sensor at 12-14 MP
2. 'Full frame' sensor at the same pixel count
3. 'Full frame' sensor at 21-24 MP.

I'm really interested in the interplay between pixel count and physical sensor size as it relates to print quality.

Simple. How far back do you want your viewers to stand?

Thanks for this column!! Wish you would write more on the output factors or whatever we choose to call print creation.

One thought is that you (or TOP'ers) set out useful test routines, or describe appropriate test protocols. We can then utilize those protocols with our own equipment, arrive at our own understanding and possibly report comparative findings back to TOP. I am trying to devise ways of testing m43 against APS-C to justify purchase of m43 and/or get a better sense of how to extract the maximum from the smaller sensor. I suspect this topic area would be of interest to other readers as well.

(now I have to go buy something to say thanks!)

"...what is the best way to agitate film?"

I remember reading the article Mike is referring to. He has summarized it quite well. The only thing I would add is that Post recommended using a spacer if necessary to keep the reels from moving when the tank is inverted. If the reels move, the top and bottom edges of the film tend to get over-developed because of the way the developer repeatedly flows through the reels. The idea of the airspace is to allow a more random pattern of developer flow.

God save us from suffering the consequences of the "general consensus" and the opinions of "experts".

Though the vast majority of the public and a significantly large percentage of so-called professional photographers are incapable of seeing differences in quality that are glaring to some of us, does not mean these differences are not there or that they are insignificant.

One internet photography pundit recently went so far as to claim there was no noticeable quality difference between a 16x20(?) print made from a Canon G10 image and one made of the same scene with a medium format digital camera, as attested, supposedly, by numerous "experts" consulted. (If there truly was no noticeable difference this is more likely an indictment of the skill set of the photographer rather than an affirmation of the quality rendered by the smaller sensor.)

Just as numerous imperceptible shortcuts in quality can add up to a noticeably inferior product, so can numerous imperceptible (to some) improvements in quality result in a visibly superior final image.

And though it seems that the digital format has recently arrived at a point where a given sensor size will potentially render images on a quality level roughly approximating those from the next higher traditional film format size, there is one glaring shortcoming with digital formats smaller than 35mm FF that cannot be ignored.

With film, the photographer was able to manipulate an image via dodging and burning to an almost unlimited degree with no consequences other than having to change exposure and contrast, and possibly the color filter pack as work progressed.

With digital photographs more tools are available in the digital darkroom and dodging and burning are more robust and easier to perform, yet these tools cannot be used with near impunity as they could in the analog darkroom. This is most notably true with images from sensors smaller than full frame. As one increases manipulation of digital images from small sensors they quickly crumble into nothingness. Each manipulation of a digital image entails a necessary loss of information. Large sensors have the information to spare. Small sensors do not. Analog photography had no similar loss. This makes these small sensors useless for all but minimally manipulated, straightforward, literal photographs.

Even if one accepts the dubious premise that certain sizes of print from small sensors/film are just as good as the same size prints from larger sensors/film, the smaller sensor would be suitable only for a photographer whose view of photography does not extend beyond the literal "this is what was in front of the camera" photograph. The minute manipulation begins, disintegration does also.

If we can comfortably enlarge a negative to 8X, why are we insisting on "contact print" resolution from our digital files?

In a letter from Adams to (I believe) Weston, Adams said he was getting 4x5 negative quality in his 4x5 prints when developing 35mm Tri-X in HC110.

Many years ago, I went to a Howard Bond workshop. During the workshop, he showed us many of his own prints. They were all made with 4x5 to 11x14 cameras. Most were 16x20 prints (except for the ones from 11x14 which were all contact prints). At the time, I could fairly reliably pick out the 16x20 prints from 8x10 from the smaller negatives. At the time, I was mostly working with a 4x5 camera. Also, at the time, I was about 35 years old.

After the workshop, I bought a old beat up 8x10 camera and an Elwood 8x10 enlarger and made some of my own 8x10 negatives. I even tried making 8x10 "enlargements" from the 8x10 negatives and comparing them to 8x10 contact prints and greatly preferred the enlargements (kept me from getting an even bigger camera). The contact prints are a little smoother but the enlargements were actually sharper.

Anyway, I dragged around an 8x10 for a few years. I took fewer and fewer photographs (8x10 film holders are big and heavy and 8x10 film is expensive). I only have a couple of prints from 8x10 that I still like. Now that I'm almost 50, I find it very difficult to see the difference between the prints from 4x5 and 8x10 and even when I can see the difference, I wonder why I ever cared about it.

I eventually bought a Bronica 6x7 to have something portable to play around with, but over time I found I got much better photographs with the 6x7 than with the 8x10. The prints from 8x10 might have been technically better, but I made so many more negatives with roll film that I almost always got better content with the smaller camera. Using a DSLR has just accelerated this process.

I think it's very easy to get hung up about technical differences that really don't matter. A photograph of an interesting subject matters much more than how big a camera you used to make the photograph.

I came to the same conclusions some years ago. I usually don't print any bigger than 11x14, and 645 or 6x6 format seems to work fine most of the time. Medium format is indeed the sweet spot. Now if I could only get a little front tilt for DOF management.

Its easy to theorize about stuff and come up with a easy-to-believe wrong answer. As Fred Picker used to say, "Don't talk about it, try it!".

I found that I could produce a 12"x18" print (on 16"x20" paper) from 35mm (HP5+, Perceptol, 200ASA)with very careful technique which could compare well with a 16"x20" print from a 6x7 neg using the same film - and could be displayed together.

I tended to use 35mm for 35mm and 135mm lenses, and 6x7 Pentax for 50mm and 85mm equivalents (105mm, 165mm). Made a simple kit.

Print size versus viewing distance:

Viewing an 8x10 print at a distance of one foot should be equivalent to viewing a 16x20 print at a distance of two feet. So why make larger prints than required for a given viewing distance?

I've been planning a similar test for the 21st century—that is, using only digital files. I'm going to compare prints from a Canon S90 (1/1.7" sensor) to those from a Pentax K10D (APS-C). Both cameras use 10MP CCDs (not CMOS), and I'll be shooting/processing the RAW files, so the playing field should be level and results should depend solely on sensor size. OK, maybe the lens choice will make a difference, but I plan to shoot at their respective sweet spots, so hopefully the lenses will be out of the equation.

I'll be publishing this experiment on my blog, but it's not going to get done before the new year.

PS: I know Michael Reichmann conducted a similar experiment with the Canon G10 and a medium format digital, but sometimes we need to see for ourselves :-)

That was the point of my second post. I'm too "lazy" (actually, I have two toddlers and don't have time to do anything right now) to do the experiment...has anyone else done it?

Nice, meaty, chewy article, and comments!

In almost all (photographic) cases, there are exactly two groups of people I care about: myself (a group of 1), and "general people". I suppose I could optimize more, but I have this deeply unfounded principle that in the long run the audience is the whole world, even if very few people actually look at my photos. (For commercial work, "the client" is also highly relevant, but I'm mostly an amateur.) Testing methods that can't validate themselves back to actual people are of relatively little interest to me.

Jeff, your suggestion that grainy film is picking up some information at very high resolutions that is completely lacking in digital is highly annoying, because I think you may be right :-). And I have hated grain with a passion my entire photographic life. Well, it won't hurt me much to reduce it to a personal preference, and give up trying to prove it's objectively "right".

One thing I'm definitely expecting is that, as people get more experience with digital images, people will start to recognize the look of "over-enlarged" digital. I think it's very different from "over-enlarged" film, and people used to the film look will sometimes overlook the flaws emphasized by enlarging digital too far. So prints that look good to most people today will start looking less good in the future :-(.

For an example of B&W digital printing looking good at bigger sizes than darkroom printing, I would cite Ctein's and my work with my Lincoln memorial picture, which Ctein wrote about here in http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2007/10/perseverance.html . The print on my wall is 20" wide (image area; 24" paper with 2" borders all around) and whatever height it came out to, I think around 32". I remember that image as being shot on Tri-X, and that's what Ctein says in the article (but that's probably based on what I told him at the time; we didn't have the negative there, we worked from a commercial drum scan I brought). I haven't otherwise been able to get 16x20 prints from Tri-X that I like. Of course, quite a lot of work was done to clean it up enough to print that large, including use of noise reduction software, plus manual work.

You made a very good point in general about real testing versus "believing" what others say. Needless to say, selection of materials, tools and techniques reaches a religious fervor quite rapidly on the interwebs.

One of the fads right now on certain forums is "stand" development in Rodinal. At high dilutions (1:100 and above), the film (usually TriX) is left to stand for a certain amount of time, based in some degree on the EI used. (Some people even stick the tank in the fridge and let it stand for a week or two!)

I have always asked "Has anyone tested to see if the extended development time makes any difference?" I never get an answer. Personally I process my TX (and most other b&w films) for ~19 minutes in Rodinal 1:100 with no agitation after the first 30 seconds. No, I have never had any streaks. My theory is that at dilutions of 1:100 or greater, Rodinal develops to exhaustion and there is very little to be gained by letting it stand longer.

In addition, I theorize that longer development and agitation actually degrade the grain quality with non-solvent developers such as Rodinal and, to some extent HC-110, FG-7 without sulfite, etc. So "disturbing" the grain with agitation may contribute to less-pleasing grain shape, acutance, etc.

So far, my results are pleasing to me, at least compared to my previous practice years ago of following the standard agitation regimens.

But I grant this is all theory (well, hypothesis, really) since I have not done controlled tests to get real data.

The other thing this post points out is that it is important to do real prints. A lot of people are basing conclusions on web-based images, those that are smeared by the 75dpi filter. That doesn't make sense to me.

I too printed 35mm Tri-X to 11x14 (full frame), occasionally going to 16x20 when subject matter and negative allowed. What I can't understand to this day however, is that when I saw the Nachtwey exhibit at ICP back in the late '90s, the smallest prints there were 16x20. Most of his prints were virtually poster sized, and damn if all of them didn't hold up magnificently (grain and tonal values). If I tried that with 35mm Tri-X, it would be one very failed exercise in pointillism. I assume this was because of his unbelievably expert printer (seen in the documentary War Photographer) using god only knows what equipment and technique...

FWIW- I read "from a reliable source" that 6x7 was actully sharper than 4x5 because diffraction tended to diffuse the image slightly due to the the latter's thicker film base. And while that may or may not be true, I can state emphatically that while plastic reels and tanks and may somehow, someway produce sharper negs- I'll stick to metal tanks and cameras, thank you very much.

And don't go telling me Nacthwey's printer produced those incredible enlargements because he used plastic!

Hey, I will believe your analysis. I do not want to have to repeat your test. But you were talking about viewing prints rather than printing prints.
I can state from my own testing in the past that printing in a darkroom from a 2 1/4 negative was a lot easier than from a 35mm negative. Yeah, that was from the old Rollei I just recycled to a friend.
I can also state from my experience rather than theory, that printing any format digitally is a lot easier than any format in a darkroom.
But I miss watching the image appear in the developer versus emerge out of a digital printer...in theory.

Agitation, my favorite subject. It can be one of the biggest determinations of the "look" of a photo. I used to be a fanatic about agitation in the sense that it was the main variable in my film development process.

I'd use D-19 diluted 1 to 1 and change the agitation from a gentle inversion to violent shaking , and from every 15 seconds to every 45 seconds.

D-19 is a high acutance developer with a lot of sulfite, so you have a complex interaction between the developer exhausting locally, adjacency effects and the sulfite dissolving the developed silver.

The resulting differences were rather vivid. You can get lots of local contrast compared to the overall contrast , much like playing with the unsharp mask filter in photoshop.

There is a popular photo school exercise called "gamma infinity" that involves developing pan-x in D-19 diluted 1 to 1 for about 6 or 8 hours with agitation every 5 minutes or so.

Aside from the general fun of all the freshman photo students carrying stainless steel developer tanks all day around campus and whacking them on the table every 5 minutes, the results were pretty interesting.

"...while plastic reels and tanks and may somehow, someway produce sharper negs..."

Not sharper, more even. George hypothesized that it was due to the larger spiral made by the film in the plastic reels. Anyway he got the very best results in Paterson tanks.

I use stainless tanks and reels, too, even so.


Re' the effect of grain on apparent sharpness, this is covered in the late Barry Thornton's fascinating, 'Edge of Darkness'. Well worth a read despite being film based, even if only for his photos. Basically, visible grain gives the eye something sharp to see, brain then says, 'wow this really is sharp'. Barry Thornton's sudden death was a tragic loss to photography not just to his family and friends.

Thank you for posting this Mike. This has been really, really helpful. I had been trying to get a handle on those comparisons for some time.

I am hoping that someone will volunteer information comparing scanned* 6x6 and Four Thirds. Anyone...?

*specifying scan resolution and pixel density would matter quite a lot, wouldn't it? Hmm, 10 megapixels and...?

Suggestions on how to choose that variable would be helpful. (I suppose Ctien might know best.)

I echo Kerry Glasier, I have Thorntons books, a genius in the genre of B&W photography,they are beautifully illustrated and emminently readable. I would urge anyone with love of black & white film to beg, borrow a copy, well worth reading.

On a separate note I do find it slightly amusing to see so much written about the size of neg, sensor, etc. I know of folk who just love to talk about the chroma on this or the moire on that, who invariably get so anal on the subject they hardly ever venture outside and take a photograph!

Whilst I accept that these issues can impact on the final result what's more imortant is the structure of the image, does it have a narrative? does it engage the viewer? does it stir the soul? that's all that matters to me.

The other point worth a mention is how many digital images actually get turned into real prints? most these days sit on computers for viewing and so negate to a degree the issue of outright quality...

For HP5+ lovers try perceptol it just sparkles in that mix, thanks Mr Thornton for that little gem....

Well, yeah, but the thing is, I just did that experiment once. I eventually settled on 35mm Tri-X printed full frame at either 6x9, 7x10.5 (my "standard" size, and 80% of my prints), or 8x12 (my "big print" size)...size chosen depended on the picture. I made thousands of prints like this. It's not like I got sidetracked. You test, you settle, you get down to it.


I'm curious - is there a digital camera that can match a well-executed large format negative (4x5, in my case) in print quality at sizes of 32 inches or more? And more importantly, is this camera within reach of mere mortals, or are we talking "I could buy a brand new luxury car with that money" kind of prices.

Charlie Cramer thinks there is. And he has a very good eye.


This summer I was given the opportunity to make a very large print (about 7 x 9 feet) that would be viewed from as little as 2 feet. That ruled out any digital images (without stitching a couple dozen together). And even medium format wasn't going to cut it. But a high-quality scan of a 4x5" transparency yielded a file large enough to do the job. The resulting print holds up remarkably well to close inspection and is stunning from a normal distance. Certainly not an everyday print job but one case where digital would have been nearly impossible. Viva big film!

FWIW I highly recommend Panoramaprinters.com to anyone who needs huge output.

"The film actually captures more information..."

Jeff - That's very arguable. The grains in film present a lower boundary to the information that can be gathered in a similar way that pixels do. It's not quite the same and you can't map a pixel to a grain, but just because film is "analog" doesn't mean it captures more information.

(Of course, this is just based on what I've read - which is a lot - but not on any real testing. I've never shot film. So perhaps I'm not the most trust-worthy commentor - but at least I disclose!)

Well Mike, the P45 is costly for us "mere mortals"; perhaps not equal to a luxury car, but a very nice new Honda Accord or even CR-V for getting to nice landscape territory. Cramer's deduction and amortization arguments hold up only for high volume pros, and there is additional cost for cards, upgraded computer, mass storage, service contracts, etc.

I also suspect that a higher percentage of amateur 4x5 work is b&w, further weakening the ROI argument.

Size and weight? That's another story. Zoom lenses? Meh.


I use the following analogy.

Imagine scribbling a black mark on a balloon with a sharpie.

Now blow up the balloon.

At some point, the black will turn to grey and then the gaps in the grey will begin to show and the image will start to disintegrate.

It is the same with film grain, dye clouds, and pixels.

True enough, but asked and answered, as the lawyers say. It's not easy to match 4x5.

Charlie also used to be a dye transfer printer, which means his labor cost for conventional prints was very high. So that's more "savings" for him--but those are, admittedly, savings that don't apply to everybody.


Well, not *quite* the same with pixels.



I was actually surprised at the cost at Vistek of a P45 with Mamiya 645 and lens. A lot lower than I expected. No movements on the Mamiya, however. ;)

How do I agitate my 5DII? It agitates me quite easily.

Nevin K

In the 70s I used two formats: Nikon (F) at 35mm and Hasselblad with 70mm backs. Publishers preferred my images from the 70mm. After switching to digital I still use Nikon (D3) and Hasselblad (H3D50). The Nikon produces excellent prints up to A3 and is my preferred camera for low light (I stopped using flash when I got the D3). My standard print size for Hasselblad images is 50x70 (cm), which is its native size at 300dpi. I use these prints for exhibitions. Everybody who sees comparison A3 prints from the the two cameras says those from the Hasselblad are obviously superior to those from the Nikon. Viewers often say that they look more three-dimensional and that the colours flow better. The Nikon makes perfectly acceptable prints at A3 for many pruposes, but the Hasselblad is obviously superior at that size. Both cameras are uncomfortably large and heavy, so I'm looking for a little travel camera that will make A3 prints as good as the D3. Toying with the M9, but I've never used a Leica, and stopped using a rangefinder when NikonF arrived. Any suggestions?

I have done both enlarging in the darkroom and scan the neg and print. It's definitely true that since you can apply digital darkroom techniques (e.g. sharpening etc.) that you can print larger than you can enlarge for similar apparent quality.

OTOH, right on my wall, I have a scanned slide inkjet printed on 13x19 paper and a 16x20 darkroom enlarged print (although the actual image is more like 13+x19) of my wife and they both look darn fine :-)

For me the advantage of a larger image became clear when, in 1971, I bought an Olympus Pen FT half-frame SLR with three Olympus lenses.

Despite the fact that the Oly lenses were well-regarded, the images just were not up to being blown up to 8x10 or projected as slides. (To be fair, the 8x10s would have been the equivalent of blowing 35mm negatives to about 16x20.) Of course the quality of available film back then may have been a factor, but it certainly seemed to me that I was just hoping to enlarge too much.

I decided to trade the Pen FT & lenses in and go back to 35mm. (Unfortunately, before I got to do that, my camper was broken into and ...)

Anyway, all of this convinces me that the trend will be for increasing use of "full-frame" digital cameras; we seem to be seeing a bit of that already, w/ Sony, for example, bringing out more affordable full-frames, and pioneering full-frame sensor-based image stabilizing bodies, and Pentax apparently closer to releasing a medium format DSLR.

Dear Joe,

I've got experience with that, and what I've consistently seen is what you report; when making large prints, scanning and printing digitally produces substantially sharper results than enlarging in the darkroom.

It's not a limitation of the enlarging lens. A top-notch 35mm enlarging lens can render 300 line pair per millimeter, corner to corner. Beating 200 line pair per milliliter is a snap. In scan terms, that would correspond to 12,000-18,000 dpi scans. Nobody does that! So how is it that the digital results usually turn out better?

It's all in the mechanical tolerances. To actually get 300 line pair per millimeter out of the film, you've got a grand total of 8 microns slop. That's about half the thickness of film emulsion! And that's for all sources of mechanical error: film flatness, accuracy or focus, perfect parallelism of the lens and film stages, et cetera. Good luck with that.

The reality is that a good 4800 PPI film scan will usually match anything you can do in a darkroom enlargement.

I need to add a caveat here: I haven't tried making REALLY large prints digitally: the biggest I've gone is 30" x 45". Which gives me "only" 150 PPI to work with in the print, but, really, how close does one put one's nose to a 30 inch by 45 inch print?

It's still a heck of a lot sharper than anything I could have done in the darkroom.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear fmertz,

Michael is indeed an expert and he's extremely competent and technically adept. I've worked with him. Even though we sometimes disagree, I respect his abilities. I've looked at test results of his in the past, firsthand, and if he says he observes "X", you can usually take it to the bank more often than not. No matter how counterintuitive "X" may seem.

In this case, before heaping insult after insult on him, you might have availed yourself of the information and files he provided and tried actually printing out the photographs for yourself! I know it's a wild and crazy thought, to actually look at the data instead of just assuming the conclusions must be wrong. What can I say? I'm a wild and crazy kind of guy.

First point, there's absolutely nothing technically wrong with the photographs he used for comparison: they're an excellent test case, and the technique, taken to the level of pixel-peeping on the screen, is as flawless as it can be when you're comparing a very large apple with a very small orange. The simple and amazing fact of how closely these photographs match would make it clear to even a casual observer that there was no sloppy technique involved.

I printed them out at highest quality on Premium Semi-gloss paper on my Epson R2400; they print out as roughly 12" x 16" image areas (Michael mentioned that he'd had people compare prints on 13" x 19" paper, and I'm presuming he left a modest margin).

At a normal close viewing distance of 18 inches (which is definitely close for a 13" x 19" print) I can indeed see differences between the two prints. They are SUBTLE. At first glance there is very little to distinguish them in terms of image quality. Would I say they're identical? No. If I really stare at them, there is a crispness to the finest detail in the Phase 1 photograph that is lacking in the Canon photograph. But I have notoriously finicky eyes; my vision corrects down to 20-10, and at normal viewing distances I can distinguish 400 PPI from 800 PPI prints (assuming there is sufficient detail to support those resolutions).So far as overall tonality, gradation, and color rendition go, I don't see anything that makes one superior to the other.

For anyone who'd like to check the original report and the data out for themselves, here's the URL:


Here's a really good rule of thumb: when an "expert" says something that contradicts what one believes, that's more likely a good learning opportunity than an opportunity to assume they are wrong without even a cursory investigation.

By the way, your assertion that small format film doesn't fall apart when you try to push the tonal values to extremes? Utter nonsense.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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I am not sure if the conclusions drawn from a comparison between 35mm and 6x7cm using Tri-X can be applied to a similar test using TMY-2.

George had done more work investigating agitation methods than I would ever duplicate if I had nine lifetimes, and that I would be better off "evaluating the evaluator" and accepting their conclusions if I thought they were trustworthy.

I did the same thing when I first heard about finding your personal film speed. There were all sorts of webpages showing various methods of shooting whole films with various exposures of standard scenes or grey cards then subjecting them to various development routines and testing with a densitometer.

I noticed that most of them concluded that the best speed for them was half the box speed with about 25% more development time.

I tried it, liked it and have done it ever since.

John Woods,
Well, I'd hope that the fact that I just bought a Panasonic GF1 would constitute a sort of endorsement. At least from me, per my tastes.


Yes, it's important not to extrapolate from one set of test conditions or materials to another. I learned that lesson early on too, although now's not the time to tell that story again.


As to John's comment, I can see where's he's coming from. With a recent project, I shot a Nikon F6 with an 85mm 1.4 side-by-side with two Rolleiflexes (a tele and a 2.8). Comparing the same size prints, the Nikon's might have had the same resolution, but the Rolleis had the better rendering (by quite a margin).

In his book "Edge of Darkness," Barry Thornton devotes a chapter as to why medium format is really the ideal film format. He was a master printer who did own tests and really knew his stuff. Well worth reading.

Concerning film development, agitation is key. And the best way I've found is to shake the film tank like you're making a martini. I had a problem with uneven edge deveopment until I started doing this. I think this is more important than which type of tank you use.

My two cents: when I started shooting digital, I traveled with Canon 6Mp digital and film SLRs. I Used the same lenses between the two systems and Fuji Reala 100 ISO film. I scanned the film at 5400 dpi and printed everything digitally on an Epson 2000. I consistently found the digital pics were really only good to 8x12 and the film held up with a similar level of quality to 12x18. This repeated itself again and again.

Now, I somewhat regret shooting many irreplaceable pics at such low resolution. I'm shooting at 21 Mps these days, as well as using 35mm film, and it's a different story. But, I haven't had the time to print and compare.

Since Barry Thornton's excellent book 'Edge of Darkness' has been mentioned I just thought I would point out that he made the switch from darkroom printing to digital output of scanned files. His book Elements of Transition is somewhat dated but shows how a master printer felt about the transition to digital output.

I second Kerry Glasier is saying that Barry Thornton's untimely death was a loss to the world of photography. "Edge of Darkness" remains one of my favourite books.

"Interestingly, too, there's nothing "soft" or trivial about this method—of showing sample prints to large numbers of viewers and noting their preferences."

Years ago a friend of mine was enlarging 6mb to huge size prints measured in feet rather than inches. I looked at them, and advised that they were too big, that they were no longer sharp enough. He told me that people like big more than they are concerned with sharpness. I was doubtful, but since then he has done quiet well. He was right. The photo-geeks may not be pleased, but everyone else is judging the photo on many other aspects besides just sharpness and resolution.

In my own work I've always liked fine detail; I hauled a 4x5 for years. I've come to realize that I'll take great color over great sharpness/resolution/detail though. It's a much more important aspect in determining how much I like a photograph.

"I've come to realize that I'll take great color over great sharpness/resolution/detail though. It's a much more important aspect in determining how much I like a photograph."

Good for you, Matt--determining what actually matters to you rather than the conventional wisdom. I came to a similar conclusion years ago when I finally realized that tonality (in B&W, this was) was more important to me than sharpness. I then spent the next few years learning about tone control.


Great article, and, as usual, very solid comments after the fact. This type of discussion is the reason I continue to come to TOP.

One note about the comment "Viewing an 8x10 print at a distance of one foot should be equivalent to viewing a 16x20 print at a distance of two feet."

I think this is, technically-speaking, incorrect. A doubling in the dimensions is actually 4x the *area*, which is what will represent the relative scatter/density of the grain. So assuming that a viewer's vision is linear, then a proper comparison would be made at 1 foot and 4 feet for 8x10 and 16x20 respectively.

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