Spur Nano Edge and Leica M9 (March 29, 2010)
Knowledge about and experience with silver-halide materials is rapidly fading, film-loading cameras have zero worth on the market, great cameras like the Nikon F6 and the Canon 1v have been buried in the dustbin of history. Every sign indicates that the classical 35mm wide perforated celluloid strip that accommodated 36 pictures is nearing its nadir. It is an ironic strike of history that the camera that made this celluloid strip famous, the Leica I, is now the final standard bearer of this technology in the shape of the M7 and MP, some of the last film-loading cameras in production. In a recent interview, Roger Horn, managing director of Leica America, stated that the sales of filmloading M cameras is now less than 5% of all Leica sales. In practical terms, this would amount to a few hundred pieces at most. The future of the Zeiss Ikon and the Bessa camera-line is not yet clear. It is remarkable and a fact for further reflection that the camera breed of the 35mm coupled rangefinder camera did start and will end the era of the film-loading miniature precision camera.
So why should we still be interested in film as a medium of image capture. This question has been posed quite often and the answer is in fact quite simple: because we like the medium. There is no medium as honest and transparent and capable as silver halide emulsions. You could ask a painter why he still paints or a poet why he still writes with a pen. The answer would always be that the medium is best for expressing one's ideas or dreams or impressions.
This report is the first part of a comparison between silver quality and pixel quality. The Spur Orthopan film, developed in Nano Edge proved itself to be a very potent combination. This time I used normal themes to photograph for comparison with the performance of the M9.
The pictures were made with the Leica Summilux-M 1.4/50 ASPH at an aperture of 5.6. The same lens was used for both cameras, the M7 and M9.
The Orthopan film was exposed in the darkroom to Ilford Multigrade RC IV with the Heiland Controller. The contrast of the negatives was between 0.88 and 1.07, a very good result for a microfilm emulsion. Prints could be made with Grade 3 and 3.5. Enlargement factor was 15 times. The aperture of the Schneider lens was set to 5.6. The A4 prints were then scanned with the Epson V700 at 1200 dpi and grey scale at 16 bit. This resulted in file sizes of 275 Mb! From this file a small selection was made for purposes of comparison.
The full scene can be seen below: it is a picture of a small train station close to where I live.
The selection is the small part of the billboard below the large black and white sign with the name of the station "Beekbergen"
The selection of the silver halide image was at a 100% size. The corresponding M9 file at 100% was at a much smaller size, which is logical given the big scan size. But this is needed to show the detail of which the Spur film is capable of. To get the same size for the M9 picture, I had to increase the size to 400%!! The comparison pictures below show that the digital image is no match for the silver halide image.
You might claim that there is no real competition here as such small detail will never be needed in regular image taking. We know that there is a tight correlation between the recording of fine detail and the sharpness of the edge of major subject outlines. The more resolution you have, the better the edge contrast and thus the overall image sharpness. There is also a subtle difference between the physically induced edge contrast and the artificially enhanced edge sharpness by post processing. These differences cannot be shown on the computer screen but must be visually experienced on the prints themselves.
The quality of the M9 image is without doubt extremely good and would suffice for most purposes. I used Aperture 3 for the processing and Silver Efex Pro for the conversion to black and white. The film selected was Panatomic-X, a very favorite film for me and as a film style close to the Orthopan characteristics. In the next part I will dwell somewhat longer on the many BW options that can be selected in Aperture and Lightroom in combination with Silver Efex on the one hand and Bibble 5 with Sam Pucket plug-ins on the other hand. Then I will print the files for paper comparison. But it is evident that the print cannot improve on what is technically possible and that is the purpose of this article.
Film has a substantial edge when you look at definition of fine detail and as said more than once, if you need to exploit the full potential of Leica lenses, film is still the best medium.
An image however is more than just a vehicle for the recording of fine detail. For film to survive and to stay in the market as a viable companion to digital image files, additional characteristics are required.
The next part will cover these aspects.
Below the Spur image at 100%
Below the M9 image at 400%.
The procedure for the M9 image is as follows: the original file in Aperture was exported as a TIFF image at original size. This TIFF file was cropped in Graphic Converter and upsized with a high quality algorithm to get the representation above. We are discussing here quite extreme enlargements, but an important observation is the fact that the digital image cannot cope with curved details, like the round bullets around the sections of the billboard.
Note that at normal sizes (100%) much detail is not visible at normal viewing distances, but the crispness of the overall image is certainly important. The natural looking sharpness and the clear recording of major subject outlines and thus depth of the image is better preserved in the silver halide image.