Transparencies vs Negatives?           

"...a significant feature of transparency film is that the results are what was captured."

Even suggesting that I might prefer to shoot negative has given the impression that I am less than a professional."

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is John Lacy,
a commercial photographer
based in the
metro Detroit area.

We produce high quality photography mostly for business to business marketing.

Our principal markets are the construction industry and the automotive manufacturing industry. A significant portion of our work is also divided among the hospitality industry (hotels, resorts, casinos & restaurants)

Our specialties include

>> Architectural
(interior & exteriors),
(interiors & exteriors,
studio & location),
shooting manufacturing facilities & equipment.
>> Environmental & Studio
Executive Portraiture
for Editorial, Annual Report and similar,
Studio Product
including electronics, glass, plastic, package goods & food.

In addition to photography we also offer
>> Digital Retouching
>> Large Format Printing
>>Graphic Design & Offset Printing for brochures, catalogs and promotional materials and
Website Design & Hosting.

We've been in business since 1987


[please note that this article was written in 2004. While we have moved exclusively to digital formats , currently up to 50megapixel, some may still be interested in some of the information contained here]

Recently I've been getting more requests to shoot transparency film for exterior architectural assignments. To these requests I've stated that I'd be happy to shoot transparency if they insist but that I many times recommend shooting negative. This has opened a can of worms because it is conventional wisdom that transparency film is superior to negative film. Even suggesting that I might prefer to shoot negative has given the impression that I am less than a professional. So here I would like to outline the differences between the two types of film and outline my reasons for a preference to shoot negatives under certain circumstances.
Before I get too far along I would like to quickly add that this discussion will very soon be mute as digital technology is on the verge of eclipsing all film use in the very near future. Recent tests I've seen show that the next generation of professional digital cameras modeled on the 35mm body format produce images which are comparable and in many ways superior to medium format film. It will only be a couple of more years before even 4x5 film will be replaced by these digital cameras if progress continues at the current pace.
When I started out I worked at the major car photography studios in Detroit. Virtually all jobs were then shot on 8x10 film and always on transparency film.
This produced huge, beautiful transparencies (also referred to as "chromes"). As I developed my own portfolio I shot almost exclusively 4x5 chromes. It was thought that only amateurs shot negatives.  Then I moved out of the studio and started doing alot of industrial photography. Much of this was done in dark factory settings that required me to bring in lighting to augment the existing lighting. The lighting in many of these settings was a mix of daylight, tungsten, sodium and florescent in various flavors. In addition lighting coming through windows would be filtered slightly green through the tint of the windows. At first I tried to control all of these colored light sources with filters on both the lens and on the light sources. I also did many tests with various film types to see what would work best.

What I found was under such extreme conditions of both light color and exposure range is that newer negative films allowed me to find a balance within the "color cross" that resulted in a more natural photo than I was getting from my chromes. In addition I found the added bonus that I could also find detail in both the shadows and the highlights of the composition. With transparency I would typically have to expose for the brightest part of the image and try to add light as best I could to the darkest parts. It wasn't long after this that I started having scans made from my film so I could manipulate the images on my computer. The purpose of this retouching was primarily to cutout a robotic assembly system from a background and cleanup some of the surfaces, but I also found that I could further balance the color and correct perspective issues caused by shooting with wide angle lenses that produce "keystoning" when the lens is not parallel with the ground. It was shortly after this that I started making my own scans.

I now shoot quite a bit of architectural work. In fact it is more than half of all the photography I currently produce. I took what I learned in shooting industrial subjects and carried it into my architectural work.
Most of the spaces and structures I shoot by and large incorporate the existing light sources and as such require a wider exposure range than can typically be captured on transparency. They also include a wide range of color sources as well. In addition to this I found that by shooting with medium format negative film instead of 4x5 that I can produce more shots at a lower cost for the client to choose from. I produce 4000dpi scans from the resulting film, correct any perspective issues, correct the color, balance the exposure and saturation and then do retouching to remove stains in carpeting, remove undesired elements like sprinkler heads or signs. On exteriors I might clean up pavement, green grass, remove reflections in windows and/or remove telephone wires and the like from the background. The result is a perfect image which ideally does not look retouched at all and is more than high enough in resolution to reproduce at any size. From these images I've created 5x10 foot murals as well as billboards.

OK, so what I'm saying is the negative film is superior to transparency right? No, not at all. It all depends on the subject and the lighting. Advantages of transparency are that despite improvements to the fine detail rendering capabilities of negative films that several transparency films still have the edge, producing virtually no grain. The transparency films I use in the studio and under completely controlled lighting conditions produce rich, saturated, balanced images of products, food and portraits. But for both industrial and architectural applications where the lighting cannot be completely controlled and in the case of exterior architectural shoots where the lighting may be constantly changing negative films offer clear advantages. Lastly a significant feature of transparency film is that the results are what was captured. That is to say that the film can be used as a guide or a standard when the image is reproduced. With negative film every reproduction including the scan, prints and printing is ultimately an interpretation as no definitive "master" is produced. Using transparency can serves as a good quality control measure, but again this assumes that the record captured by the film is ideal and preferred. Uncorrected light sources will still appear as off color and shadow detail may still be blocked up or worse yet highlights may contain no information at all.

We currently deliver 90% of our jobs to clients as digital files, the vast majority of which were shot on film then scanned and prepared, more times than not from negative film.

As an experienced professional one of my responsibilities to my clients is to advise them when certain options may be to their advantage, even if those options appear to contradict convention.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this whole discussion will soon be mute as we move into an all digital world (read more about this here)  but for now I will try to offer my clients the best options reflecting the best value for their projects.

"Be old beliefs steadfast", my advice to clients is to be open minded to the advantages and options provided to them through new technology, and we will always be happy to do as they prefer and think best.

Written commentary 2004  JOHN LACY All rights reserved.

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