Category Archives: Image quality

Digital versus Film: A Photoessay

Film shooter: Film slows me down; I shoot less and thus increase my keeper rate. In a world of instant gratification I love to wait for having my film developed. The look of film is more organic and natural. I concentrate on the subject, not on the histogram: just the camera, the subject, and me. The film camera of my grandfather will outlast you and me. It still takes better images than the modern, disposable DSLRs. Film does not require a laptop, extension cord, power strip, Terabyte backup drive, mouse, card reader and all that junk filling my suitcase. Shooting film, I will have the evening free for my wife/ girlfriend/ partner; no downloading, backing-up, RAW processing, and sensor cleaning. Film has better resolution and is future proof because scanners will always improve.

Digital gearhead: Even my 10 year-old, 6 MP Canikon has a better dynamic range and color accuracy than film ever had. My digital file at ISO 409600 shows less noise then Kodak Extar 400. We have long surpassed the state of sufficiency and I have made 6-foot prints from my DSLR that look gorgeous. It’s the guy behind the camera that matters, not the equipment. Street-shooting with my mirrorless I can be very stealthy. Hard drives store billions of images in far less space than binders full of film. With digital it is common for me to shoot a thousand images in an hour-long football match at no cost.

Mandalay-digital

Fig. 1: Mandalay (click to enlarge)

Now with these fanboy statements out of the way, I must admit that after 20 years of shooting large-format film I have become pretty much a digi-convert myself. Yes, the almost total lack of noise on the D800e at base ISO far surpassed that from even the finest grained film. Yes it was much easier to nail correct exposure checking the histogram. And it was easier to remove the few dust spots that might turn up on a digital file, than the lengthy spotting necessary on even the most carefully processed and handled film. But was it the right move?

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Four Ways to 85 mm: Three Nikon Lenses and the Carl Zeiss Planar for the Hasselblad V-Series

Fighting hard against GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), I still have four ways to arrive at 85 mm focal length. I may therefore check out some widespread myths about lenses: 1) Prime lenses are better than zooms. 2) Vintage lenses are ill suited for digital sensors because they are not telecentric, that is, the ray angles at the edges of the sensor exceed the acceptance angle of the microlenses, which results in reduction of color saturation, and color fringes. 3) The 35 mm lenses have a better resolution than medium and large-format lenses, simply because they need to cover only a smaller caputure area and can therefore be made from more expensive glass.

Lenses

From left to right: Nikon AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 G ED VR II, Nikon AF-S 85 f/1.8 G, Nikon PC-E 85 f/2.8 Micro, Hasselblad Zeiss CF 80 f/2.8 Planar T* mounted on a Photodiox adapter.

The contestants

  • Nikon AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 G ED VR II
  • Nikon AF-S 85 f/1.8 G
  • Nikon PC-E 85 f/2.8 Micro
  • Hasselblad Zeiss CF 80 f/2.8 Planar T* mounted on a Photodiox adapter

I hated the Nikon AFS 70-200 f/2.8 and the Canon equivalent, because having set up my large format camera, I was more than once harassed by photographers carrying these lenses. Considering their form factor it does not need much to imagine what some guys are compensating for.

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The World Wide Web and Color Management: Assigned, not Converted

Recently I had access to an Eizo ColorEdge CG 277, which is Eizo’s flagship monitor for highest standards of color accuracy and consistency. The monitor features a built-in calibration sensor and covers 99% of the Adobe RGB color space.

Although the monitor is able to achieve a 10 bit color depth (per channel), the entire chain was not, as I figured out using a test rampBut even though, the tiff images that I brought on a USB stick and opened in Photoshop CS6 simply popped out of the screen. This is the second-best thing next to a fine art print. It is clear that I must free some space in my home office.

Sleep_conv

Image developed in Capture One Pro, saved as 16-bit tiff, down-sampled into 8-bit jpeg, and converted into the sRGB color space before upload.

But then I opened my web page in the Safari browser and was shocked. The images looked like kitsch*. On the contrary, the Safari browser on the MAC renders some of the images rather dull when compared to the tiffs opened in Photoshop. I had attributed this to the down sampling and heavy jpeg compression, but should have known better: most web-hosting services and web browsers do not support color management.

* Although I keep seeing such examples in magazines, a lake in Scotland photographed under a gray sky cannot look like the waters of Anse La Digue. And if it does in print, it’s kitsch.

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The Myth of Sufficiency

A widespread myth of sensor resolution (or the end of the megapixel race) states that if you print larger, you will step back further and, consequently, will never need the resolution given by higher megapixel cameras and prints. This myopic view of megapixels is correct if you are thinking of snapshots, looking solely at web uploads, or preventing* people from getting close enough to inspect the images.

* Helmut Newton’s big nudes are hung above the stairs in the lobby of the Berlin Museum, where it is physically impossible to get closer than about 2 meters, to realize that they are really not that sharp.

Bryce canyon at dawn, Utah, USA

Bryce canyon at dawn (seen from sunset point). One of my best-printing images. Linhof Technika 4×5, Fujichrome Provia 100. Scanned by MSP Graphic Services, Cotati, CA, on a Dainippon Screen drum scanner. 160 MP, corresponding to 15.7 x 19.6″ at 720 dpi, 16 bit, 920 MB tiff. Down-sampled to 2200 pixels on the narrow side and badly jpeg compressed to arrive at a 1.4 MB file size for web upload.

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Digital versus Film Photography: Nikon D800E and 4×5” Fujichrome

Digital versus film photography has been a hot topic of debate for about 10 years. While most professionals have made their decision based on workflow, low light performance, reliability, and running costs, amateurs and fine-art photographers have praised the soul of film and the related process as a way of slowing down and thereby increasing the keeper rate.

Lamayuru Gompa, Ladakh, India

Lamayuru, Ladakh: Nikon D800E with Nikon 50 mm 1.4G at f11

For my part, I do not subscribe to this argument, because the shot discipline required by the latest generation of digital cameras (be it the Nikon D800E, the Sony a7r, or the upcoming medium format systems equipped with the Sony 33×44 mm CMOS sensor) leads naturally to a slower process: setting up a sturdy tripod, focusing in live view (contrast detection), mirror lock up and shutter delay, multiple capture for stitching and focus stacking, and “development” of the RAW files.

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Full Frame DSLR versus Medium Format: Nikon D800E and the Mamiya/Leaf Credo

A number of comprehensive test reports have been published on the Nikon D800E.  The image quality of this camera has triggered shootouts with medium format systems such as the Leica S, Hasselblad H4D, and the Mamiya/Leaf combo.

To me, these evaluations were not really conclusive, as they focus mainly on resolution and often propose pixel peeping on a low-gamut LCD screens.  In discussion forums, these tests have consequently drawn comments that it would be illicit to “compare apples and oranges” and that there are “horses for courses”. Such comments are triggered by the real-world decision-making problems featuring multiple conflicting objectives. The best conceived test is useless if the methodology is not sound and the criteria are not clearly defined. But more importantly any such test will be highly subjective with inherent, strongly weighted objectives.

Mamiya-Nikon

Left: Mamiya 645D. Right: Nikon D800E.

Therefore, I must explain first my shooting style and preferences, workflow, and photographic background. For me, the definition of an outstanding image boils down to a simple question: wouldn’t I mind spending big bucks on printing and framing of an image, displaying it in my home, and looking at it for hours on end? For me, as a scientific engineer, technical perfection is an important aspect. Any of my keeper images qualify for a 60×80 cm (23”) fine art print, holding up 10″ viewing distance. This is what I call supernatural, because the print reveals details that at the location were not visible to the naked eye. I thus spare no effort; when I visualize an image at a remote place, which I might be able to visit only once in a lifetime, I just want to have the best equipment with me. And leaving aside the artistic aspect of photography, if something goes wrong technically, it will be my, and not the equipment’s fault.

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