As part of this blog I’m planning to comment on selected images. Of course – a photo has to speak for itself and it has to do that talking visually. Explanations about what a photo was intended to mean are pretty pointless. But there is still something to be gained by telling the story behind the photo, especially with ones like this that are less than completely self explanatory. The image that is (hopefully) to the left is exactly what the title says – a glimpse out of my west window. Click on it for a larger version. I like this shot because it captures the mood and feeling of a short, dark, and gloomy Michigan winter day – which is usually just the most recent of a long series of short, dark, and gloomy days. And to be honest, mornings are seldom bright times for me even when the sun is shining. This window happens to be in the bathroom and during the winter months is perpetually coated with condensation or frost, and the view of it here may not be objectively accurate, but it does capture the sense of heaviness I feel when looking out of the window. On an intellectual level, I like how the most obvious elements of the photograph are the least revealed - the tree is blurred, no detail to be seen. But the more subtle aspects of the image - the moisture and textures on the window - are the most clearly rendered. Lost in these tiny web images are the fine droplets of water hanging on the glass, the snakey imperfections in the dew formations, and cryptic characters Cali wrote in the steam just before snapping the image (all with one sweep of her tail at that.) At A3 of Super B print sizes, those artifacts start to glimmer in the image, adding a little more interest. And all the cars and their good people, sitting in the parking lot behind the little tree, are lost in this image, even though most of the light was bouncing up off them, so in some respect they are represented here… This will wind up in the “Around the House” subcategory in the miscellaneous images section of the main site. The photo itself was taken with a Canon T90 on Kodak 35mm Plus-x film developed in Rodinal. After scanning, the B&W image was ‘toned’ through channel adjustments in Photoshop. Rodinal was chosen in part because I wanted a bit of punch to the grain, and in part because it produces virtually no fog in somewhat stale Plus-X (unlike HC110 or D76.)
I read a lot of articles and blogs about film vs. digital, and which is “best.” In my opinion, that’s sort of like comparing a hammer to a saw, and asking which is best. The answer is that they are different tools and if you are going to build a house (or a photo portfolio) you’re best off using both. The trick is know which tool to use when.
One central problem that pops up in many of these discussion is a lack of clarity regarding the technical aspects of the photograph. One photographer may be perfectly happy with the results of his digital images, and that may be because his subject matter and technique play to the strengths of digital. Another may find digital to be unacceptable, precisely because her photos don’t play to the strengths of the platform. Until you define what factors affect image quality, you can’t analyze how well different platforms perform in light of those factors.
Fortunately, we don’t have to figure this stuff out all on our own....
The Negative Ansel Adams outlines three factors that impact image quality. These are acutance, resolution, and grain (or ‘noise’ in the digital realm.)
Let’s look at each of these factors and see how digital and film perform in regards to them.
Acutance is the ability of the medium to record ‘sharp’ edges. So what is a sharp edge? A sharp edge is an abrupt change in contrast. Lay a silver razor on a black backdrop. The transition from silver to black takes place extremely abruptly. If you hearken back to your high school geometry days, and think of the razor and background as making up a plane (a two dimensional series of points), in theory the edge of the razor would be defined by a silver point directly next to a black point – 100% acutance.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way in the real world. No matter how good the optics of the lens, 100% acutance never happens, but excellent lenses can produce very high degrees of acutance.
And then there is the recording media. In broad terms, digital really out performs film in rendering high acutance images. In theory, pixels side by side,
could make abrupt changes in contrast. However film, with its layers of silver halide crystals, can never render the same degree of edge sharpness. I saw this most clearly when I started shooting snowflakes digitally. Visually, snow crystals are very edge intensive, and acutance is an essential element creating high quality snowflake photographs. No matter what film I used – including many excellent emulsions like Fuji Velvia 50 or Kodak E100S - the degree of acutance was just not as high in the film images.
So in terms of acutance, digital generally beats film.
Resolution is the ability of the image to record fine detail. Let’s say you are shooting a wide-angle shot of a field of wheat. Think of the fine detail present in that shot: the thousands of wheat stalks, the seed heads topped with tassels. Even though digital cameras increase their megapixels daily, film still holds the edge in regards to being able to record fine detail.
I’m not talking about 35mm film here – even though even it has greater resolution that most digital cameras. But medium and large format film have a tremendous advantage over digital in terms of resolution. For example, a 6x7 cm medium format exposure, scanned at 3200 dpi, produces a digital file greater than 64 megapixels in size. These images have far more resolution for two reasons – they capture vastly more data, and the image projected onto the film is significantly larger (higher magnification) than a digital capture.
At the time of this writing (2006) even 35mm film has greater resolution that most digital SLR’s . Medium format film captures have significantly greater resolution, and large format is a whole order of magnitude greater yet.
So, in the resolution department, film wins hands down - but it only wins big if you are willing to step beyond the 35mm format.
Lastly comes noise or grain – which for the sake of simplicity I’ll just call “noise” from now on. Noise is defined as random changes in contrast and color independent of the subject matter in the exposure.
Both film and digital exhibit higher noise levels at higher sensitivity (ISO) levels. High speed films tend to be more grainy, and digital cameras set to their highest speed levels tend to produce very noisy images. In addition – small sensor digital cameras are generally noisier than larger sensor cameras, which is why digital SLR's generally outperform small format digi-cams.
Different types of film can produce markedly different levels of noise or grain. Some films – like the now discontinued Tech-Pan, Royal Gold 25, and Kodachrome 25 – had extremely fine grain. Others – like Kodachrome 200 or Royal Gold 1000 – were incredibly grainy.
While it’s difficult to generalize, I think it’s safe to say that at comparable ISO settings, digital SLR’s will outperform the best films in regards to noise. Again, I draw on my experiences shooting snow crystals, which have large areas of open space. The noise levels on shots captured with my Pentax *ist-D are significantly lower than the level of noise on exposures taken on Fuji Velvia 50. Similarly, I now routinely photograph close ups of botanical or insect subjects with the *ist-D set to ISO 400 – with noise levels comparable to what I used to see with ISO 100 transparency film.
The complication in understanding noise arises out of the concept of the “signal to noise ratio.” In other words, the more information presented in the photo – the greater the signal – the less noticeable the noise. The less information in the photo – the less the signal - and the more noticeable the noise. Practically speaking, that’s why you see the effect of noise or grain in a photograph of a clean blue sky, but notice it much less in a shot full of information – like the wheat field mentioned above. The upshot is that noise is less of an issue in some shots, based on the content of the image, than in other shots.
One final comment on noise: the grain in film, particularly certain Black & White films, can produce a pleasing and interesting effect. I think that to some extent that’s because we are used to seeing it, and we attach certain cultural connotations to old-fashioned photo grain. But I also think that film grain has a regularity to its pattern that makes it easy for the eyes to accept it and see past it. Digital noise, on the other hand, seems to be less regular and even. It seems to be more distracting that film grain, so it’s fortunate that it is less pronounced.
So, in the area of noise or grain, digital generally wins out over film, but with many caveats.
So how does all this come together?
As I see it, digital really shines in situations where low noise and high acutance are the essential elements of the image. Snow crystal photos are an extreme example of this type of image, but they really illustrate the respective advantages of digital media. In thse shots you have large areas of negative space, where noise can be really prominent. You also have lots of edges to the crystal structures, and those edges need to be as sharp as possible to make the shot work.
I also find that digital works very well with insect close ups. If you think about the structure of an insect, you have lots of edges - body segments, wings, antennae, etc - but not the degree of fine detail that calls for high resolution.
On the flip side, film really excels with high resolution, high detail subjects. This is particularly the case with medium and large format film exposures. Landscapes – especially those with lots of foliage or other fine details – are ideally shot on film. The weakness of film – high grain level – is minimized by the tremendous amount of detail in these sorts of shots. I really need to emphasize that when "a lot of detail" is indeed "a lot of detail." Seriously - photos of skyscrapers or houses, for example, don't dontain a tremendous amount of detail. Unless the paint is peeling or something like that. On the flip side, as subject like this ditch with all the srubby and brambly woods around it, really does have the level of detail to derail digital exposures.
So we come back to the question posed at the start of this rather long blog – which is “best”? Film or digital? The answer depends on what subject you are shooting. Personally, I utilize digital for close ups and most general shooting, but switch to medium format for landscapes and scenics. Capturing these diverse subjects are, essentially, different tasks. And so, it makes sense to use a different tool accomplish each. Just like using a saw for cutting, and a hammer for pounding.
64,938. Based on the counters on my digital cameras, that’s the number of digital exposures I’ve taken in the last 3 years. Those shots are split between a Nikon CoolPix 990 (which accounts for just over 24,000) with the balance being shot on a Pentax *ist-D.
By the standards of digital photography, I’m really quite a slacker...
I often talk to folks who claim phenomenal numbers of digital shots taken in very short time periods. Heck, 65,000 shots in a four and half year period (I bought the CoolPix in the summer of 2001) works out to just one shot every 36 minutes. Well, I shot a lot of film as well, so I wasn’t entirely goofing off…
The ability to photograph freely, without worry about the cost of film and processing, and the immediacy of the results, are two of the great strengths of digital photography.
No matter what you set out to do, the more you work at it the more your learn it. Whether you are learning to play the piano, hit a baseball, sail a boat, or take photographs – practice makes perfect. Digital provides the photographer with the ability to shoot, evaluate, adjust, and re-shoot (if need be.) And that adds up to learning how to take better photos.
Some folks have argued that digital actually hurts your ability to learn photography by making it to easy to take photographs. That strikes me as a pretty odd concept. You certainly don’t hear music teachers telling their students to practice less, or athletic coaches telling players to knock off the exercise.
Apparently, the perception is that running around, willy nilly, shooting everything in sight is unconstructive, and ultimately harmful to one’s ability as a photographer. The logic is that a disciplined, studied approach to the subject is more productive.
There is a grain of truth in that logic, in that taking a serious and studied approach to anything is usually the best way to learn it. But at the same time – just doing something is useful, even if the doing is unstructured and free form. You may not make it into the NBA by shooting hoops in your driveway – but you’ll learn more about shooting baskets by doing that than by sitting on your front porch.
And while some digital photographers do run around shooting willy nilly, many don’t. Some of us only spend part of our time in chaotic abandon, and actually pay attention most of the time. Shooting a high volume of shots does not preclude a thoughtful and studied approach. Having more experience does not mean that you learn less from it.
Above all, digital frees up the imagination and makes it easier to experiment with different ideas and approaches. If they don’t work – well, you learn something and delete the image. If they do work, you just may find that you’ve discovered something worth pursuing.
The real challenge lies in evaluating and editing your work. Of those 64,938 images, how many are really worthwhile? I don’t have a count, but it would be a slight faction of them to be sure.
What the world needs now is another photo blog.
Moose Peterson has an excellent tutorial on the use of flash on his website, and there’s little that one can add to that. So, for overall information on TTL flash work, check out excellent essay.
But there is one thing that’s not covered there, and does not seem to be generally covered in books and articles about TTL flash. And that is the impact of film reflectivity on TTL systems that use "off the film" (OTF) metering…
Well, the idea is simple…
TTL (through the lens) metered flash works by cutting off the flash when the correct exposure level is achieved. Basically, the camera fires the flash and a sensor monitors how much light is put out. Once the correct amount of light has been reached, the camera shuts off the flash.
In many cameras, the sensor that monitors the amount of light put out by the flash are actually measuring the light reflected back off the film – hence the phrase, "off the film" metering. Obviously, when you reflect light off something, the degree of reflectivity makes a difference.
The image below shows a potpourri of different brands and types of films. I just raided my freezer and film bag and pulled out one of everything there… As you can see – the different film types are pretty different in color and overall darkness or lightness. In fact, when I ran a spot meter over the different types, there was over 1.5 stops worth of difference in the meter readings from the lightest to the darkest film emulsion.
Does this have an effect on the exposures gotten via TTL flash? Absolutely! I learned about this while trying to diagnose exposure problems with a roll of Kodachrome it took last summer. I was out taking insect macros and on this particular day had shot two rolls of print film, one roll of Kodachrome, and one role of Kodak Elitechrome EBX. All of the images were properly exposed, except for the roll of Kodachrome – which was consistently under exposed. Since the roll of Kodachrome was shot in the middle of the sequence, I could not figure out what change in technique or equipment settings could account for the exposure problem.
Then the question about TTL flash came to mind. When I compared the Kodachrome to the other film types, the hypothesis was confirmed. Kodachrome is a very light colored (more reflective) film. So… more light bounces off it, the TTL meter cuts out the flash that much sooner, and as a result the images were slightly under exposed.
Of course – for print film a stop or even a stop and a half of mis-exposure will not be catastrophic. But for fairly narrow latitude slide films, such exposure problems would certainly be noticeable.
I responded to this problem by just not using Kodachrome for this kind of work… I just use the film brands that I know will work with my system.
But, if I wanted to keep using Kodachrome, or found problems with other films, the answer would be to calibrate the TTL meter with a gray card, basically shooting some sample shots to confirm that the exposure is correct, and then adjust setting accordingly. I suspect that to use Kodachrome for with my technique of shooting insects, I’d need to dial in ½ to 1 stop of positive flash compensation.
Photos accompany article appearing in Michigan Birds & Natural History, (April-June 1999) v 6, no. 2:
Mark Cassino is a fine art and natural history photographer based out of Kalamazoo, Michigan. His work runs the gamut from micro-photographs of individual snow crystals, to close ups of butterflies and birds, to landscapes depicting Michigan’s unique terrain.
Mark uses a variety of techniques to create his unique images. He works with the latest digital technology, but also utilizes medium format film cameras and toy, junk, and antique devices. His creative techniques include extreme close up photography, digital and film based infrared photography, alternative B&W processing techniques, and digital enhancement.
Working from both a scientific and artistic perspective, Mark’s works have been exhibited in a diverse variety of venues.
His scientific photos have been displayed in the gallery of the National Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C., on several covers of American Entomologist, in Science World, and in numerous textbooks, calendars, and trade publications. His work has appeared on many science oriented websites, including those of the US Department of Agriculture’s Systemic Entomology Laboratory, NASA, and the popular radio series Earth and Sky.
His fine art work has appeared in national and regional juried art shows, including the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2011 West Michigan Area Show, sponsored by the Kalamazoo Institute of Art and the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2014 American Landscapes national juried show sponsored by the Maryland Federation of Art. His work has also appeared in The “Rural Outdoors” and "Selected Works from the Rural Outdoors" exhibits in New York State, the 2005 All Michigan / All Media exhibit, sponsored by Ferris State University’s Rankin Art Gallery and the 2006 Krappy Kamera Contest, a national exhibit of photos taken with toy cameras, hosted by the Soho Photo Gallery in New York City. Two of his photos were accepted into the 2008 Macroworld competition, hosted by the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado. One of his pieces was also accepted into the 2008 Street Photography competition, also hosted by the Center For Fine Art Photography.
One of Mark’s specialties is close up photos of individual snow crystals. His technique utilizes ordinary photographic equipment to capture close up images of the tiny crystals. Mark teamed with physicist Jon Nelson to write The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder which was published in October, 2009, by Chronicle books. The book was named an Outstanding Science Trade Book by National Science Teachers Association, received a Blue Ribbon award from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, was a Junior Library Guild Selection and was included in the Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best” list for 2010. The Story of Snow has been published in Japanese, Korean and Chinese editions. Six years after its original publication The Story of Snow continues to be a popular with kids, parents and educators.
American Landscapes, 2018. Maryland Federation of Art, 18 State Circle, Annapolis, Maryland, 21401. August 23 - September 22, 2018.
2018 Regional Juried Arts Competition, Carnegie Center for the Arts, Three Rivers, Michigan, 49093. January 21-February 17, 2018.
Botanical Studies, Carnegie Center for the Arts, 107 North Main Street, Three Rivers, Michgan, 49093. June 18 - August 4, 2017. Solo exhibit of 18 botanical photographs.
Signature Artists: Beyond Boundaries, Art Center of Battle Creek, 265 E Emmett St, Battle Creek, MI 49017. June 4-24, 2017.
2017 West Michigan Area Show, Kalamazoo Insitute of Arts, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49007. March 4 - May 28, 2017.
2017 Regional Juried Arts Competition, Carnegie Center for the Arts, Three Rivers, Michigan, 49093. January 22-February 18, 2017.
American Landscapes, 2016. Maryland Federation of Art, 18 State Circle, Annapolis, Maryland, 21401. August 12 - September 10, 2016.
2016 West Michigan Area Show, Kalamazoo Insitute of Arts, Kalamazoo, Michigan 49007. April 8 - July 10, 2016.
2016 Regional Juried Arts Competition, Carnegie Center for the Arts, Three Rivers, Michigan, 49093. January 24-February 20, 2016.
Signature Artist Cooperative: New Work 2015, Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall, Suite 203 , Kalamazoo, MI 49007. August 28 - September 25, 2015.
American Landscapes, 2015. Maryland Federation of Art, 18 State Circle, Annapolis, Maryland, 21401. August 14-September 13, 2015.
2015 Regional Juried Arts Competition, Carnegie Center for the Arts, Three Rivers, Michigan, 49093. January 25-February 25, 2015.
American Landscapes, 2014. Maryland Federation of Art, 18 State Circle, Annapolis, Maryland, 21401. August 15-September 15, 2014.
Selected Photographs, Transformations Spirituality Center, 3427 Gull Road, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 49048. February-March 2014.
Signature Artists Cooperative: Signature in Summertime, Holland Area Arts Council, 150 East 8th Street, Holland, Michigan, 49423. June 11-August 31, 2013.
Selected Photographs, Rivers Edge Conference Center, 3030 Rocky River Road, Cleveland, Ohio. August-September 2012.
2011 West Michigan Area Show, Kalamazoo Insitute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI. May 7 - Junel 26, 2011.
Signature Artists Cooperative: Renewal, Portage Public LIbrary, Portage, MI.
Signature Artist Coopertative: 30 years of Michigan Artisans, Downriver Council for the Arts, 20904 Northline, Taylor, MI 48180.
Midwestern Photography 2009, University of Indianapolis, Christel DeHaan Fine Art Center, Indianapolis, IN. February 23, 2009 - March 27, 2009.
2009 West Michigan Area Show, Kalamazoo Insitute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI. February 28 - April 26, 2009.
American Landscapes, 2008. Maryland Federation of Art, Annapolis, Maryland.
Your Best Shot. foto-foto gallery, Huntinton, NY. Jurored by Constance Schwartz.
The Elements: Signature Artist Cooperative Group Exhibit. Art Center of Battle Creek, Battle Creek, MI 49017.
Macro World. Center for Fine Art Photography, Fort Collins, Colorado.
Street Photography. Center for Fine Art Photography, Fort Collins, Colorado.
Regional Juried Arts Competition, Carnegie Center for the Arts, Three Rivers, MI.
Snow Crystals! Solo exhibit of 50 snow flake images. Glenn Vista Gallery, Kalamazoo Nature Center, Kalamazoo, MI.
The Planets: Invitational Collaborative Group Exhibit. Carnegie Center for the Arts, Three Rivers, MI.
Spring Into the Arts! Battle Creek Arts and Industry Council, Battle Creek, MI. A large selection of my print were exhibited at Barrista Blue's Restauant and the HAPPI Store.
Krappy Kamera Contest IX: Soho Photo, New York, NY.
Pinhole Camera Exhibit. Montclair Public Library, Montclair, New Jersey.
ASC Gallery: Solo exhibit of 39 prints. Ambulatory Surgery Center offices of HealthCare Midwest,Kalamazoo, MI.
DUO:Group exhibit by the Signature Artist's Cooperative. Epic Center, Kalamazoo, MI.
Snow Crystals! Solo exhibit of over 40 snow crystal prints. Piece Cedar Creek Institute, Hastings, MI.
American Landscapes, 2006. Maryland Federation of Art, Annapolis, Maryland. Jurored by Edwin Ahlstrom. (Honorable Mention).
Fifth Annual Art Source Gallery Juried Art Exhibit, Art Source Gallery, , Boise, ID 83702.
2006 West Michigan Area Show, Kalamazoo Institute of Art, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Kilverts Hills: Twenty Two photos accompanied Lin Foulk in her premier performance of Hillary Tan's Kilvert's Hills, a composition for the French Horn. Michgan State University Hart Recital Hall, East Lansing, MI, and Western MIchigan University's Dalton Recital Hall, Kalamazoo, MI.
Signature Artist Cooperative Group Exhibit, Saniwax Gallery, Kalamazoo, MI.
Kalamazoo Arts Council Art Hop, October 5, 2006: Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan, Kalamazoo, MI.
Inspired By flowers: Invitational Mixed Media Exhibition, Carnegie Center for the Arts, Three Rivers, Michigan.
Kalamazoo Arts Council Art Hop, June 2, 2006: Burnham & Flower Insurance Group, Kalamazoo, MI.
Kalamazoo Arts Council Art Hop, March 3 , 2006,Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, Arcus Depot, Kalamazoo, MI.
The Bloom and the Crystal: Selected Floral and Snow Crystal Images, Transformations Spirituality Center,3427 Gull Road, Nazareth, MI.
All-Michigan All-Media Exhibit. Rankin Art Gallery , Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Mi, 49307. Jurored by Boyd Quinn.
Man And Nature Photography Exhibit. Northwest Cultural Council,Kimball Hill Galleries, Rolling Meadow, Illinois, 60008. Jurored by Jeff Dionesotes.
2005 West Michigan Area Show, Kalamazoo Institute of Art, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The Rural Outdoors, Sullivan County Museum, Hurleyville, New York, 12747. Jurored by Joseph Coscia, Associate Chief Photographer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
The Rural Outdoors: Selected Works, Mountaindale Art center Gallery, Mountaindale, NY.
New Works: Interpretive Landscapes and Nature Photography, Little Yellow Frame Shop & Gallery, Richland, MI.
Snow Crystals! Glenn Vista Gallery, Kalamazoo Nature Center, 7000 N. Westnedge Ave, Kalamazoo, MI.
Selected Nature Photographs, Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, Hastings, MI.
American Landscapes, 2004. Maryland Federation of Art, Annapolis, Maryland. Jurored by Ross Merrill.
The Great Pollinator Partnership: Garden and Photographic Exhibits. United States Botanic Garden Conservatory,100 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington D.C..
Annual Fine Art Exhibit. Indiana Wildlife Artists, Muncie, Indiana. (Best Photograph Award.)
2004 West Michigan Area Show, Kalamazoo Institute of Art, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Photo Club Netanya, Natanya, Israel, April 10 - 30 2004: 49 image, one person show.
Signature Artist Cooperative Group Exhibit, Carnegie Center for the Arts, Three Rivers, MI. September, 2004
Riverfest Photo Contest, Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, Kalamazoo, MI. (First Place).
Selected Nature Images, Transformations Spirituality Center,3427 Gull Road, Nazareth, MI.
The Cycle of the Seasons, 48 pieces solo exhibit. Glenn Vista Gallery, Kalamazoo Nature Center, Kalamazoo, MI.
Inner Images Art Gallery, Kalamazoo, MI.
Art Fairs and Seasonal Gallery
Signature Artist's Cooperative Seasonal Gallery, Annual Seasonal Gallery, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 2007, 2008, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Art Etc Art Fair, Kalamazoo Valley Community College Texas Township Campus, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008.