Resolving detail

At the moment I shoot on two different film formats (35mm and 120) and use a cropped sensor DSLR. The camera I pick up on any given day generally depends on what I am shooting as much as how I want to portray that subject.

Black and white film is my absolute favourite medium to shoot on. I have found nothing in the digital world that matches the feeling when you pull the freshly developed roll form the spiral tank and eagerly examine each of the drying frames to see how they came out.

When I first left film for digital I used to spend a lot of time post-processing digital files to give them the film look, now I am starting to shoot more film again I want to take the opportunity to compare the different formats for shooting architectural subjects with high levels of fine detail.

Luckily my new home is close to a perfect subject.

(click on the images to view them at native resolution, the slight downscaling wordpress applies tends to soften the image on the page)

1-  35mm film through a 50mm lens (ok, it’s a Zorki 4 as the shots from my Nikon FE are yet to be processed, but it’s a decent enough lens) on Kodak Tri-X 400

2 – 120 film (645 format) through a 75mm lens on my Bronica ETRSi (giving the same angle of view as a 50mm lens on 35mm format) on well out of date Kodak Tri-X 400.

3 – APS-C digital through a 35mm lens on my Nikon D300 (equivalent to 50mm angle of view on 35mm format) at ISO 200.

All slightly different views and slightly different exposures but essentially the same subject at about the same relative size in the frame. The digital files produced give about 7MP for 35mm film, 12MP for APS-C digital and 19MP for 120 film. They are therefore different sizes, but the negatives are scanned at the same resolution and one high enough to be resolving grain (i.e. scanning any higher just sharpens the grain rather than pulling any more detail out).

So, comparing 35mm and 120 film is maybe a bit pointless as a medium format frame is 2.5x the area of a 35mm frame, and picks out much more detail from the subject.

However, it is not a total walkover. The 35mm image may not contain as much detail but it does a good job at suggesting the right level of detail for your brain to fill in the rest. It hints at sufficient detail to portray the nature of the subject without masking it from you the way a highly compressed jpeg would.

The 120 format image is crisper and clearly picks out a more detail in the lattice work structure of the subject.

So, how does 120 compare to cropped frame digital?

Quite a difference eh? well, probably less than you think looking at the comparison above. To me there is certainly more data in the DSLR image, but no more actual information that the 120 negative. By this I mean the image is certainly cleaner smoother with better defined edges, but does it portray anything extra about the subject? I can’t see anything in the second image that isn’t also communicated to me from the first.

To put this more clearly, I added film grain to the DSLR image in Lightroom.

Ah-ha! see. The grain effect has masked the smoother tones and straight edges of the digital images and almost perfectly matches the medium format film image now. The grain effect has scrambled some of the data within the digital image but your brain can still read the same amount of information about the subject.

Technology moves on, and I am sure that newer DSLRs like the Nikon D800 are a step on from my D300 (although you need to print big to see it in the real world I think) but my aim here was to explore whether all of the options I have available can give me enough detail for a technical architectural subject such as this. I think 35mm need a finer grain film (I have the same shot on FP4+ ISO 125 film waiting to be developed), but medium format on ISO400 film is still a match for a decent 12MP digital SLR at it’s optimum ISO setting.


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