Large Format film-to-digital: it’s the workflow, stupid

Since my last intensive photographic phase began five years ago—I have been shooting for the better part of four decades, around the ebb and flow of life’s lesser distractions—I have worked mostly on medium-format film with a collection of camera systems, along with a smattering of 35mm and medium-format digital gear. During this time, however I’ve acquired the image (I refuse to “capture” images—one captures fugitives; one makes photographs), my output has been digital prints made on a succession of ever-more-capable inkjet printers.

This means that for images shot on film, there are extra steps involved: processing, which I do in an automated Jobo processor; and scanning, to render an analog film image as a digital file that can be corrected and printed, just like those straight from a digital camera. I have been quite happy, both technically and aesthetically, with the results I’ve enjoyed via this hybrid workflow. Naturally, then, it’s time to throw a wrench into the machinery.

After a hiatus of nearly twenty years, I decided last fall to dust off my old Sinar F 4×5 and see if I still knew how to use it. I think the initial inspiration for this impulse was revisiting, for the umpteenth time, Avedon’s In The American West. I marveled once again at his stunning portraiture, with the tonal richness that can be delivered only by large-format cameras like the 8×10 Deardorff he schlepped around for years to complete that project.

So out came the Sinar. I cleaned it up and shot a few sheets of film, and procured a Fuji pack-film adapter for it—the only instant-film alternative left, now that Polaroid is deceased. So far so good. Further experimentation indicated that I’d really be better off with a portable alternative to the field-cumbersome monorail Sinar; hence, the Chamonix 45n-1 that arrived a month or so ago, of which I’ve written in previous blog posts here and here. I had sent my Sinar shutters and lenses for CLA during the Chamonix’s slow transit from the People’s Republic of China; and remounted them its smaller Linhof-compatible lensboards. [n.b. The Sinar is for sale.] Though I’m still getting accustomed to the feel and ergonomics of the Chamonix, and reacquainted with the deliberate and methodical workflow demanded by large-format shooting, I’m satisfied with the film images I can produce with this rig.

It is only now, alas, that I’ve given adequate thought to what comes after I expose a sheet of film. The Jobo processor handles up to 12 sheets of 4×5 film per batch with aplomb, so developing color or black-and-white film is brainlessly easy; it’s the scanning of such large film sheets that is the problem. And while my film scanner, a Nikon 9000, does a stellar job with my medium-format images shot on 120 roll film, it can’t handle any image larger than 6×9 cm; the film simply won’t fit into the scanner. I would be pleased to be able to achieve with 4×5 film scans the level of quality I enjoy from the Nikon with my smaller negatives. That’s gonna hurt.

Quality is expensive in photography; and near the top end, incremental further improvements in quality are hideously expensive. I own a high-quality “prosumer” flatbed scanner that does a passable job scanning medium- and large-format film—albeit with quite a bit of MacGuyver-ing to get the best out of it. The Nikon produces substantially higher quality, properly configured, than the flatbed—and costs three times as much. To achieve a comparable quality improvement over the flatbed with 4×5″ film would require jumping to the next level, such as an Imacon virtual-drum scanner. These cost at least $5000-8000 if you can find a decent used one; and as much as $12-20,000 new. Real drum scanners provide even higher quality—and new or used, cost at least as much as the Imacon, and probably far more. Plus, I’m not sure anyone would call them particularly user-friendly.

So what are my 4×5″ output options? (If you can think of others, let’s hear them!)

1. Analog printing in the darkroom: requires darkroom and related accoutrements ($$); requires an enlarger and some related impedimentia ($$) unless 4×5″ contact prints are large enough (not usually); can print any size I want within reason; analog workflow (plusses and minuses); excellent print quality.

2. prosumer flatbed scanning: cheap to own; scans are accessible; mediocre to decent output quality; gewgaws required for maximum quality are fussy to use.

3. high-end scanning: $$$$ to own; outsourcing inconvenient, expensive, and not readily available in my area; highest image quality.

I am really a bit stuck with this right now. I love shooting film, and I am committed to continuing to do so. But finding no viable solution to this impasse could force me to re-evaluate whether LF film photography makes sense at all for me. It might be that selling that gear and optimizing my MF film gear makes more sense.

There’s very little point in going to the trouble to make an excellent 4×5″ negative if the end product is inferior to that from a smaller negative I can actually afford to scan well.

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5 thoughts on “Large Format film-to-digital: it’s the workflow, stupid

  1. You might also consider buying a used drum scanner. They can be had for a fraction of their new cost, and as you know, the quality is tops. Some years back I bought a Howtek HR8000 to help service my clients who occasionally supply negs or transparencies instead of the usual camera raw image files.

    Myself, I really prefer the look of film. Medium and especially large format looks so sweet.

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  2. Mike, thanks for commenting. That’s not the worst idea; but I’m not sure I’m up for the bulk of these machines, nor the aggravation of the wet mounting, etc, that goes along with them. They are available on eBay frequently, and are surprisingly inexpensive.

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  3. Hi!
    I really tought that the epson’s dual lens V750 flatbed scanner is a good scanner. I have never scan 4×5, just 6×9, i was happy with it. I was thinking to start shooting using large format, so I am searching for a camera, at a good price. For the B&W images, I think analogue process is the only decent one.
    hmm….

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  4. I’ve done some more experimenting with the Epson. Believe it or not, I had not yet tried just slapping the negative right down on the platen; I’ve spent hours futzing with the crappy Epson stock film holders; and height-adjusting and calibrating the tedious BetterScanning holder; but I’d never done the simplest thing. Finally doing so, I got a better scan than I ever have on this machine.

    The 700/750 has a dual-lens system to “optimize scanning”, whatever that means. As I understand it, one lens system takes care of lower resolutions, which are in focus on the platen’s plane. The other system kicks in at higher resolutions, and the focus plane is elevated slightly above the platen. Makes sense; for document or print scanning–which is done right on the platen–you’d rarely need above 600-1200 ppi, if that. Film scans would call for higher resolutions, and the film must be in a holder to (try to) assure flatness (not that the stock Epson holders are going to make that happen.) What’s the resolution “break point” at which the focus plane changes? Not sure–but 2400 ppi sticks in my mind for some reason.

    At any rate, I scanned at 1600, 2000, and 2400ppi on the platen and got the sharpest scans I’ve yet seen out of this scanner. For 4×5 negatives, a 2400 ppi scan gives me a 40 x 50 print at 240 ppi, no uprezzing, which should be sufficient! 🙂 The files are nearly a quarter gig in RGB at this resolution, so just about too much to handle even before an adjustment layer or two. Not to mention, some reviewers have said that anything above 1600-2400 ppi in these scanners is fictional at best.

    Would I still like an Imacon or drum scanner? You bet—resolution is not the only consideration. But I’m feeling more confident that, for now, the Epson will do.

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  5. No brainer,
    the Epson 750 and purchase the optional wet plate. A bit more work but worth it. My bud has it and it really does make such a big difference.

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