HDR from film?

I wondered what would happen if I tried to create an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image – or at least an image that looked like HDR – from a film scan. So I did a quick experiment.  The good thing is that film naturally has a pretty high dynamic range, likely higher than that of most digital camera sensors.  With a good quality scan, there’s a lot of range to work with.  If you were really going to go all the way with this, you could probably make three scans of the same neg, overexposing and underexposing two of them to get the most shadow and highlight detail possible.  I just had one scan of this image, so I exported three TIF files from Lightroom, one with normal exposure, and one each with exposure increased and decreased.  Then I ran those through Photomatix Pro to create the HDR image and tonemap it, then added some editing in Photoshop using OnOne Software’s Phototools plugin.

Original scan of the negative

A lot of steps involved there, but I was able to create something a bit more interesting than the original. I was trying to create a little bit of that ‘grungy’ HDR look without overdoing it, as I’m getting really tired of the way overdone HDR look that’s become so common. Was it worth it?  I don’t know.  I probably could have created something similar with just some Photoshop work, but it was an interesting experiment. This wasn’t a terribly high dynamic range scene, since it was an overcast day, but the sky was still quite overexposed.  It would have been difficult to bring that cloud detail back into the sky without using an HDR approach. I was surprised when I saw the detail in the sky  because I didn’t even think there was any cloud detail there.

I did notice some extreme graininess that appears after running it through Photomatix Pro.  I think by boosting the microcontrast, the film grain in the scan acts a lot differently than a typical digital photo.  It resulted in black spots of grain visible when zoomed all the way in.

Love it or hate it, the ‘HDR look’ is very popular, and when done with restraint it can be a great tool.  Maybe there’s a place for it even in a film-based workflow.  It’s definitely something I’ll experiment with some more.  It was fun to mess around with.

This photo was shot with the Kodak Retina IIIc on Kodak GoldMax 400 film, scanned by North Coast Photo.

Follow-up note:  I got a couple of surprising responses from people who like the original photo better than the pseudo-HDR. I’d probably prefer something that falls somewhere between the original scan and the HDR.  The original needs more saturation and other adjustments in my opinion, and I like the detail in the sky and the slightly exaggerated texture under the building overhang in the HDR version.  The beauty of it is that just by doing some simple adjustments in Lightroom to the original scan, I could easily recover a bit more shadow and highlight detail, adjust color balance, maybe saturate certain color ranges a tiny bit, etc. – stuff you could do with hours of work in the darkroom in the old days, but in minutes digitally.  That’s why I love the hybrid analog/digital workflow. As far as HDR goes, there are times when I love the illustrative look of some HDR images – they sometimes look more like paintings than photographs – but like I said before, I am getting a little tired of it.

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Kodak Retina IIIc

Urban landscapes

I have a new favorite camera. It’s a German-made Kodak Retina IIIc (see my detailed review here). This 35mm folding rangefinder from the 1950’s is fun and easy to use, and the image quality is excellent. I try to avoid being a ‘pixel-peeper’ – someone who zooms in and analyzes every part of an image for sharpness – but I can’t help it with the images from this camera. The first photo above is a classic lens-testing image – straight-on at a brick wall.  I wasn’t thinking of that when I took this photo, I just really liked the image. But looking at the high-res scan on my computer makes me realize how remarkable this camera and lens are. There’s no curvature of the lines, and every brick from corner-to-corner is as sharp as the ones in the center. I don’t think my high-end Canon DSLR would produce as sharp of images with as little distortion as this 55-year-old camera that I bought on ebay for $66. I’m tempted to show a bunch of close-up crops to demonstrate the sharpness, but I want to avoid making this post too much about the technical details. Maybe I’ll do that later on the camera page.

These  images are from a walk through an old industrial area in Northeast Minneapolis, where many of the old warehouses have been converted to art studios, but many are still used industrially. All of these were shot on Kodak Gold Max 400 film, and the ones shown in black and white were converted in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

The camera

This is my 1956 Kodak Retina IIIc that these images were shot on. I really like using this camera and I think I’ll be getting a lot of use out of it. More about the Retina IIIc.

The scans above are the Enhanced Scans from North Coast Photographic Services, and I’m really pleased with the scans from color negative film. They are extremely crisp, high-resolution images (from 35mm film they’re nearly 17 megapixel images).  I had the same problem as last time with some black and white film that I sent them (way high contrast with lost detail in the shadow and highlights), but I’ve been in contact with them and they’re going to rescan the black and whites for me.

The images above are all from color film, and some of them were converted to black and white in Lightroom. I like the control that I have in Lightroom when creating a black and white image from a color image, so I think I’m going to shoot more color film in the future. With Lightroom’s controls you can lighten and darken color ranges from the original color image after it’s converted to black and white, since Lightroom always saves and works from the original source file.  So for instance, if you want the sky to be darker, you can simply darken the blues and it’s as if you had shot the photo on black and white film using a red filter or a polarizer.  But the beauty of it is that you have endless possibilities for adjusting certain colors, not just adjusting the tonal ranges as you can with an image shot on black and white film.