So, obviously a film versus digital photography argument is nonsense.

The creative/designer/artist in me really doesn’t give a hoot. But the geek in me does find this kind of thing interesting and it is something that I tap into occasionally.

One of the reasons why it is so easy to get a higher quality with digital cameras, is because there are less processes involved in digitising the image. Quite simply, you click the shutter and the image is captured. Transferring that image to a computer has no effect and even careful post-processing shouldn’t make that much of an impact.

Film, on the other hand, for those of us who like to dabble in it, can be more problematic. First of all, most film wasn’t developed for digitising – it was developed for darkroom wet printing. Or perhaps pre-desktop publishing printing. More recently, some films have apparently been developed for better quality scanning. But we’re still talking about holding a piece of film flat (good luck with that) on a scanner and hoping for the best.

No comparison

So, I thought I might have a little look at the difference in quality from two different scanners. I don’t have access to drum scanners anymore – fifteen years ago, as a designer, I would be sending transparencies out for drum scanning on daily basis – but I did recently have one of my images scanned for an exhibition. It was scanned on a Flextight 949 scanner. I decide to see how much of a difference there would be compared to my lowly, but perfectly serviceable, Plustek 8100.

I should say, that this is not a scientific experiment. Nor is it a Plustek versus Flextight scanner comparison. For example,  the first thing that I did was to resize the Flextight scan to the same resolution as the Plustek scan, for easy comparison. Obviously, this is essentially a ‘post-processing’ effect.

Filters off

That aside, both scans were made ‘flat’, with all filters and processing options switched off (at least, as far as I know – the Flextight scan was done by a bureau, so I am relying on their word for this). I then resized them to fit my blog column width, of 500 pixels.

Scan of puddle and reflection

Flextight 949

Scan of puddle and reflection

Plustek 8100

So, straight away, I think we can see a difference in quality. The Flextight seems to have picked up a higher range of contrast already. Of course (as I mentioned above), it is always possible that a contrast curve was applied at some point – either during the scan or in post post-processing.

From a detail and sharpness point of view, obviously the above images are too small to tell anything. So I’ve added some larger crops of the image. Click the arrows to scroll between the images.

Closeup crop of puddle scanCloseup crop of puddle scan

The first thing I noticed, is the distortion of one of the images. I wonder which one is more accurate? From a sharpness and detail point of view, I think it’s only fair to at least apply some simple contrast adjustments to each image, so this has been applied – and this drastically cleans up the Plustek scan. However, the Flextight still has the edge with regards to sharpness and image detail. And, for the price, it should do.

Zooming in to the details, it is possible to see how the Flextight scan (on the left) appears to have picked up even the individual grain on the film.

Close up detail of scans

Filters on

Finally, I decided to have a look at the finished artwork – to the stage where I had completed post-processing on both images, completely independently of each other. The original scan – on the Plustek 8100 – was worked on some time before the Flextight scan. So it’s interesting, from a purely subjective viewpoint, in relation to my creative requirements at both given times.

Puddle scan by Plustek 8100Puddle scan by Flextight 949

The result from the Flextight, certainly contains a smoother transition between the shades. It is also sharper. But I quite like the harsh contrast of the Plustek version.

But, as ever, for an urban black and white photograph, on Ilford HP5+ 400 ISO film, on a grey London afternoon, how much does any of this matter? In fact, I’ve sometimes spent hours working on a smooth high-resolution digital file, to get it to look not unlike my Plustek scan. If this was a medium format colour transparency, then, well…  actually, I’d probably not bother with film and use a digital camera instead. Barbarian that I am.