Musings on film latitude and related matters

I’ve posted very little here recently, and have only added a couple of incidental items on my micro-blog.  This has two main reasons: I’ve been very busy travelling for work (Germany, Norway, England in the last four weeks), and I’ve also had quite a backlog of films to scan and process.  Concentrating on film and finding a revised routine to my workflow – now that I think I’ve understood what I’m doing with my new Epson scanner – takes time, and after various false starts, I think I’m finally getting there.  There is now, of course, a bit of a backlog of both film and digital images (I’ve not stopped photographing!), and coupled with a desire to redo the galleries here, you’ll appreciate that I’m struggling a bit…

A beautiful Rollei image, as scanned

A beautiful Rollei image, as scanned

However, this posting is tangential to all of these thoughts!  I have, partly because of the 1953 Project (and yes, there are images to go online from that, too!), occasionally been carrying the Rolleiflex with me as a ‘casual camera’.  This regularly elicits interesting conversations with complete strangers, which can be surprising and very nice.  For example, last week I was dining with a friend in London and after our meal I wanted to photograph her with the Rollei; a couple at a neighbouring table began talking to us about the camera, photography and so on… culminating in a request that I might consider photographing their wedding next year; of course, I declined!

Adobe Lightroom settings

Adobe Lightroom settings

The film I’m using for the 1953 Project is Ilford FP4Plus, which is rated at an ISO of 125.  Ilford’s website says it has ‘enormous latitude for exposure error above and below‘ this speed.  I chose it for the project partly for this reason, thinking it wouldn’t much matter if the exposure was slightly off on my portraits because I could always recover the images once they were scanned in.  I didn’t realise quite what ‘enormous’ meant to Ilford, but these images clearly show that.  The first image above is the scan from the negative (Vuescan reversed the negative for me).  I made adjustments in Lightroom, as this screen capture shows: upping the exposure by four stops, pushing the fill light and brightness up, and then reducing the contrast and clarity settings to bring the grain under control.  Aside from dust removal, these are the only changes I made to the image, revealing… Elizabeth Eva Leach, Professor of Music at Oxford University, with whom I had a stimulating lunch at the beginning of September (click on the photograph to go to her blog):

Elizabeth Eva Leach

Elizabeth Eva Leach

It’s not a great portrait, but it astonishes me that it worked at all, not just because of the film exposure issues: the café was relatively dark and I could barely see anything on the ground glass (so focusing was mostly a lucky guess), the lens was wide open at f2.8 with an exposure speed of 1/10th of a second – and yet it’s reasonably sharp despite all this!  And this isn’t a coincidence: another portrait taken under similar circumstances was just as underexposed and with similar Lightroom adjustments it came out fine too:

Another Ilford FP4Plus sample, with similar exposure settings

Another Ilford FP4Plus sample, with similar exposure settings

What I love about all this is the visceral nature of the film and the process.  For sure, I could have taken these portraits on a digital camera and bumped up the auto ISO settings – but I’m not convinced they would have looked any ‘better’ (they would have been different…).  Of course, even the process of ‘extracting’ an image from an almost entirely black square of film gives me enormous pleasure – it’s like finding a treasure!  I don’t regard myself by any means as a format fetishist, but returning to film does give me huge pleasure: my use of the Mamiya for landscapes makes me photograph with much greater consideration and precision than I used to with the digital camera, and I LOVE that.

For example, here’s a dawn image from the Mamiya taken on Velvia 50 of the Ratzeburg Küchensee in northern Germany this August.  I remember taking quite a while to compose it in order to make sure the twisted twigs were below the tree line, whereas I think with a digital camera I might have fired off a good half-dozen shots at different heights and then hoped one had worked when I was back at the computer – but here I composed slowly and carefully, got it right, and then made… two exposures (er… the first one had a misplaced graduated filter that I noticed after squeezing the cable release!).

Küchensee, Ratzeburg

Küchensee, Ratzeburg

(I’ve lightened the exposure by half a stop and added a little fill light, otherwise it’s as it came from the scanner.)

In a few weeks’ time I’m off to Assynt with Bruce Percy.  I’m really looking forward to this, and though I’ll take my Mamiya, I will mostly use the Nikon D90 so that images can be readily critiqued by Bruce and the group.  I’m keen to observe myself with this, as it were: I’m sure my recent return to film will have changed how I use the digital camera for landscapes.  Before going to Assynt, I’m also going to the Isle of Mull for a week of secluded reading – and I may just take a photograph or two whilst I’m there…

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11 thoughts on “Musings on film latitude and related matters

  1. Tim Parkin

    Wonderful example Michael. The flexibility of film in this manner is amazing. You should try some Portra 400 in your Mamiya too – not having to use grads is quite liberating as well (although I still love Velvia – having bought 200 sheets of 4×5 last week). I’ve been sent some Rollei APO lith film recently to try out the opposite direction, it has lots of contrast but no grain at all. Should be interesting to see what happens. Nice portraits by the way (regardless of your modest talk)

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks, Tim, much appreciated. I had a ‘bad Portra 400 experience’ recently, but I think that roll had perhaps been in the sun for a year before I bought it, or had been processed incorrectly (icky green colour cast, hard to completely eradicate in PS). In any case, I’ve bought some Portra 160, and will be trying it out on Mull, slightly less dynamic range than the 400, I think, but I want it for some portraiture in the first instance. I trust you’ll put something in Landscape GB on your lith film…

  2. Tim Smalley

    The latitude of neg film is incredible and, for the most part, I can guess the exposure and not be too far off. It’s a bit like sticking my finger up in the wind, but I quite like that process – I’m doing more of that with the 35mm cameras I recently acquired and I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

    Even if I’m two or three stops out, I’m going to have more than enough latitude to get something out of a Portra 160/400 scan. It’s just wonderful film

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Yes, and there’s a freedom in being able to semi-forget about ‘blowing out the highlights’ etc. since unless you’re WAY off with your estimates, that isn’t going to happen. More attention can be paid to composition etc. (ideally, at least). I do love Velvia, though I’m coming round to negative film… 🙂

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  6. Admin

    Interesting, I have read others stating that fp4 actually has *very low* latitude – in the way of push processing, it is nice that you are illustrating what is perhaps possible with a hybrid workflow.
    I am still not yet there in terms of a hybrid workflow, and right now its mostly been analog all the way. I wonder if you under-developed the negatives? Having put some distance to the images now, do you think that was possible?
    Also, if you went ahead with a similar scanning/shooting setup, would you change anything in the process?

    I shoot with a Mamiya RB system, and one of the joys of shooting with the larger system is that I have discovered that it stabilises quite well till 1/30 (as visible in fp100 direct prints).

    (came in here as I was looking for information on ilford fp4 – talk of tags being useful!)

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks for commenting.
      I don’t have the facilities for developing at home (but will soon!), so this film were just given to my local film processing shop and no special instructions were given. This means it was processed in whatever chemicals they normally use (I didn’t ask).
      As for scanning, for these images I simply scanned using default settings, and made adjustments as noted here. However, I would now approach these images differently if I was wanting to make a “balanced” exposure image like the ones here: I try to make adjustments in the scanning software to recover shadow detail or highlights, and then import to Lightroom/Photoshop for fine detail work etc. The scanning software (I use VueScan) can do a lot of this more easily, in a rough and ready sort of way that I find is quite good to work from.
      I’m moving more and more to large format, 4×5″, and FP4 is great in this kind of system too. It is probably my favourite black and white film.

      1. Analoguey

        Ah I see! Lovely. I hope you will find some of my posts useful then – I am chronicling my experiences as a beginner B&W at home developer!
        I would vote for self-development – it has been quite interesting and educating, it gives me lot more control(to do good, and bad!!) and thought over my photos.
        I have heard many good things about VueScan – I dont have a scanner myself but will soon have one, and hopefully get up quickly on that learning curve!

        1. Michael Marten Post author

          Thanks, I have bookmarked your site, and look forward to reading about your experiments.
          It’s probably taken me a year to begin to feel happy with the scans I make – a long process, and some images have been scanned many times to try and achieve the results I wanted. I expect home developing to be similar!

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