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.