During my last trip to Glacier National Park I ran across a photographer who was shooting wet film images using techniques and cameras from the nineteenth century. Actually he was shooting in the Red Rock Canyon in Waterton National Park. The camera used 8×10 glass plates coated with a light sensitive gel that had to be developed in his portable dark room before it dried. The results were quite spectacular with very high levels of resolution and each plate was unique due to the variability of the entire process, each exposure was unique and very much unrepeatable.
Ever since I purchased my first digital camera I have been tugged and pulled by a desire to return back to film chemistry. I have to say the reasons to do so are not very rational, however, artistically there are numerous reasons. 35mm and medium format films no longer hold any measurable technical advantages over a full size 35mm sensor and processing, Modern digital sensors easily exceed the dynamic range and resolutions of even the best black and white or color film chemistries.
This knowledge begged the question: Do Large format mediums still provide more resolution that the digital mediums? This is the question that I’m addressing in this post. For single frame shots 4×5 inch format does exceed those of either 35mm or medium format digital sensors, however, NO traditional film can exceed the dynamic ranges of modern digital sensors, especially those sensors found in professional grade cameras.
From a strict perspective of resolution and by using multiple stitched imagery available to digital processing the resolutions CAN be exceeded. After doing some research I found that even though the unexposed size of the light sensitive silver halide crystals (grains) found in the finest films are much smaller than even the smallest pixel size, the average grain size of evenly exposed and developed film are just about the size of my D3s or about 8 micro-meters in size. The D3s has the LARGEST pixel size used in the sensors of any modern photographic camera. Thus all one has to do is to stitch enough images such that the sum of the exposed surface areas of the sensors are at least equal to that of the chosen film medium.
Here is an example of a four-row by ten-column stitched image using a full frame D3s in portrait orientation and a high quality 170mm architectural lens, actually a Nikon 85mm PC-E lens with a Nikon TC-20E III teleconverter. This is a typical standard focal length for a 4×5 format camera. After cropping, the image size was 1.1 GB and18458 by 9088 pixels which translates into about a 6×3 inch film size with 8 um grain size. The resulting print would be about 62 x 30 inches, (151 x 74 cm.) Here is an example, whose size was dramatically reduced for the web: (click on it for a larger image)
Ane here are a couple of 100% cropped images to demonstrate the actual resolution:
Now in order to do an 8×10 inch film size one would require roughly four times the number of shots and could also easily be accomplished. The downside, and this is a big one, for any stitched multiple image is that each image is recorded at slightly different times, this means that any movement of any subjects in the image will result in fragmented portions in the resulting stitched image. The more images needed the more likely that there will be fragments somewhere in the image. In the above example there were a couple of cars “photoshopped” out of the final image.
However, for most large formats longer exposure times are the norm which often results in ghosting movements from moving objects, but these movements are not fragmented as is with the results of multiple image stitching that must be addressed in post processing.
Bottom line, YES the images from digital cameras can exceed film chemistry in every technical aspect IF and only IF proper non moving subjects are used. Even Ansel Adams would spend an enormous amount of time for excruciatingly long periods of time in order to expose with no wind so that he would not have moving ghosts in his film images.
Additionally as pixel counts increase shorter lenses can be used and thus fewer images would be required to meet, and even exceed, the possible resolutions of any film chemistry medium. For instance the Nikon D800 has nearly three times the pixel density, and thus nearly three times the effective resolution, of that of the D3s camera used in the above example.
Here is another example of a stitched digital image that covers an equivalent film resolution of about fourteen inches wide. Note the same jet on final approach (extreme left) in one of the rows is taxing off of the runway on the next row as well as a few fragmented half cars: (shrunk for web use, click on it for a larger image)
Sorry, by reducing the size of the entire image for posting on the web the plane was pixelated out of existence and thus the actual resolution was destroyed. Here is a 100% crop from the original:
I decided to see what the above image looked when printed full size at 720 pixels per inch (ppi) and was completely blown away by the extremely fine detail across the entire image produced by the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 printer, even under a magnifying glass. And this was printed on Epson Ultra Smooth Fine Art paper, a very good paper but nowhere near the details that can be laid down on Ilford’s Gallery Gold Fibre Silk paper using PK ink.
The image printed at about 26 inches by 13 inches so it required paper on a roll feeder, thus my choice in using the Epson paper. I restitched the image using much more time with the control points and eliminated the fragmented portions by masking the offending vehicles in PTGui Pro software prior to stitching so minimal processing in Photoshop was required, very little sharpening with very minimal exposure and color corrections were required.
I’m frustrated since there is absolutely no way to share with you the stunning results over the web. I can say that it is possibly the most realistic image that I have printed thus far. While viewing it in shaded sunlight it looks so real, as if I’m right there standing on the edge of the bluff and could step right into it and walk around! I think that I may just use this technique of multiple stitching for all normal photos with minimal moving subjects, not just for panoramas from now on. The prints are simply that good and well worth the extra time and effort!
My thanks to Really Right Stuff and Wimberly for producing extraordinarily fine high quality panorama and supporting equipment that possess both the the stability and precision that make the above images possible.