When touting the many virtues of film, people frequently mention the power of negatives in the highlights. But what does that mean, exactly, and how does its strength compare to its digital brethren? To find out the differences, I shot a demanding subject with both digital and black and white film, severely over and underexposing. How did they stack up against each other? Read on to find out!
In choosing the two mediums to compare, I went with convenience! Of course, it helps that the film and digital camera used both produce top notch imagery so both mediums are putting their best foot forward. I converted the digital image to black and white using straight desaturation, as I didn't want to boost contrast and blow the highlights prematurely. In post production for both images, I adjusted levels, and with the digital image I attempted highlight restoration in Capture One 9.1.2. The images appear flat (especially the film) because I didn't want to apply a contrast curve. Film images require some love in post, too! But for these purposes, it's more useful to retain as much info as possible. Exposures were metered with a Sekonic 308B meter.
Film: Fuji Neopan Acros 100
In the film corner, I chose Fuji Neopan Acros 100, a slow speed film with extremely fine grain and an almost digital-like rendering. I didn't want to choose a film that had too much of its own character, such as Tri-X, that might confuse the perception of the results. I chose the 120 film size as well for its ease of scanning and lack of grain at enlargement sizes. Acros is also fairly middle of the road in tonal rendition, not being too contrasty nor too flat. I used Kodak XTOL as my developer for two reasons: it's gives a wonderfully fine grain and it's the developer I use almost every day.
Digital: Nikon D610
In the digital camp, I used my Nikon D610. Now, I know it's not the latest and greatest, but according to DxOMark, it's got 14.4 stops of dynamic range, only .3 less than its big brother, the D810. So it's a performer in the dynamic range department, no doubt. I used the same metrics with the digital file, shot in raw, only levels adjustments and a highlight adjustment to attempt to bring them back. Let's see how it did!
The highlight latitude in negative film is just amazing. That goes for color negatives as well! Digital dynamic range has improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years, but in the highlights department, negative film simply crushes it. It's no wonder it's still so popular for shooting weddings. White dresses and bright sunlight are no problem for a halfway decent negative stock. That said, however, the digital absolutely trounces film in shadow recovery. The film image turns to mush if you try to push the shadows too far. Perhaps that's an article for another time. In the meantime, though, take a roll of negative film, go outside in the bright sunlight and shoot with confidence. When in doubt, overexpose!