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A 35mm black and white landscape photographer goes digital

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A 35mm film black and white landscape photographer goes digital

When Keith Cooper went all digital

Initial impressions of making the switch from film to digital

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Although Keith has used digital for much of his commercial (event and PR) work for some time, he has stuck with film for his Black and White landscape pictures – some of which are on this site.

In 2004 he decided to move to a completely digital workflow.

big digital housebrick

The article below was written to show some of Keith’s -initial- impressions. Many of the pictures in the Gallery (Aug2004) were taken with the 1Ds.

second article looks at his impressions of using the 1Ds for a month in Colorado (April/May 2004)

Moving from film to digital

I decided that I’d record some of my initial impressions on doing some digital Black and White landscape work. This is not intended to be an exhaustive scientific study. Hopefully, if you do any landscape work, my comments may be appropriate and can be put into the context of your own experiences.

  • In 2006 I went back to Colorado, and have written the third article in the series discussing how things have changed over two years.
  • In late 2007 I got a 1Ds Mk3 and have some initial comments on using it.
  • [2016] I’ve left this article virtually ‘as is’ from 2004 just to remind me how things change ;-)
  • May 2017, I’m tempted to try film again

Introduction to ‘Going Digital’

If you’ve looked at some of my landscape work on this site, you’ll see I have stuck with B/W film for a number of reasons:


Scanning film at 4000 dpi gives around 18 million pixels, that’s a lot of resolution and suggests that your average 6 megapixel digital camera is going to lose a lot of detail.

Wide angle coverage

I have used an Olympus E20 for some time, and even with a wide-angle teleconverter it just about makes 28mm (35mm equiv) not really up to the 24mm I often shoot with on film.


Digital equipment to get high quality wide angle shots has not been cheap.

What changed? …

The Camera Equipment

Well, good fortune (aka the business is doing well :-) enabled me to get a Canon 1Ds 11Mp camera and a selection of lenses. I realise that this is still very expensive for many (more than any car I’ve ever purchased!) but given the price/performance gains in recent years, this should not always be the situation.

My first impression – it is huge (is this really 35mm?)
My second impression — This is not going to casually hang round my neck for very long

The photo below shows it in comparison to the camera that took many of the film based shots on this site, an Olympus OM2n/24mm. The 1Ds has a 16-35mm Zoom(notice also the huge filters)

film and digital

OM2 and 1Ds

There is no better way to make your initial learning mistakes than by experimenting (like leaving the 1Ds set on iso 1250 in daylight after some available light shots the previous night).

These are the kinds of mistakes you only make once – like shooting with no film in the camera.

So, I just went out to fill a few cards…

The examples below are from when I went over to Old John near Leicester to take some direct comparison shots between the different cameras. The location is the same used for the article on converting digital colour photos to black and white elsewhere on this site. The lighting was not at its best, but this was intended as an experiment rather than produce a print to put on the wall (and yes, I would get rid of the serious leaning of the building!)

And in true heretical fashion I did not lug a tripod up the hill – the exercise was meant to be realistic – very few of the shots on this site were taken using a tripod. Even when I do have one with me the only times I tend to use it is to make moving water blur, and in general I like the feeling of vitality that faster exposures capture.

The RAW materials

OK let’s get on to some results…

digital landscape

The 1Ds shot

I like to show interesting clouds and this can easily lead to underexposed foregrounds if it is a dull day (it rained heavily 20 mins after these shots)

The first shot is from the 1Ds (at 24 mm f9).

I’ve exposed so that only the very brightest part of the sky clips (this is where the immediate availability of a histogram helps).

I’m shooting RAW format and converting (Photoshop CS) to produce 16bit/color, so I know that as long as there is not too much pure black (histogram again) I can pull up those shadows.

Hmm… looks just like I’d been using slide film and had underexposed a bit (not good with slide film).

Now to the OM2 (at f8)

black and white film

Scanned film shot

The film was scanned using a Canon FS4000 using Vuescan.

The much greater latitude is immediately visible

Unfortunately, as are some scratches and muck — courtesy of Jessops 1hr service, Hinckley Rd., Leicester – I’d usually go to a pro lab I trust…

The only adjustments to this scanned image were setting black and white points.

That and cropping out the border.

If I want to show a rebate I’ll add a nice clean one later with photoshop ;-)

Lastly we have the E20 (f7)

Not quite such a bright sky as in the 1Ds shot so we have a bit lighter foreground.

E20 digital

E20 shot

Image Adjustments

The film shot will need some cleaning up and perhaps a bit of levels/burning/dodging to make it look a bit better. There is plenty there to work from, but I’ve been doing this for several years and its fairly plain sailing.

The 1Ds image

I’m concentrating on Black and White for these examples, so the first question is which method to do the basic conversion from color to B/W.

I tried the two H/S adjustment layers first (I have an action which creates the two layers and sets them up ready) Not too bad, but it works best when you want to emphasise different colors and there were no nice bits of blue sky. This was similar with the channel mixer. I used the Lab brightness channel to get a 16 bit grayscale.

digital black and white

LAB greyscale conversion

That foreground is very dark though!

A very drastic curve brings up the foreground, but those nice clouds are now burnt out (this is one reason why improved 16 bit support in Photoshop CS is so useful)

black and white curve

Drastic curve

burnt out digital

After curve

Using the magic wand on the sky and filling the selected area with black makes a mask (on that curves layer) that brings back the sky. The nice thing about this is that we can make the curve nice and steep to enable selection of the burnt out sky, and then back off a bit to get the foreground to the brightness we want, The fine detail in the trees causes some artefacts here, so by selecting just the mask channel and doing a 4 pixel Gaussian blur we can temper the abruptness of the change. Do remember that this is just a quick fix for web display and that it would take quite a bit more work to ‘get it right’ for print use.

I’d add that this is also a good time to try out the new Shadows and Highlights tool in Photoshop CS which was just made for images of this sort. It offers (in advanced mode) a large array of adjustments which might be what you are looking for.

This is with just one masked curves layer.

digital black and white landscape

A reasonable ‘quick fix’

The Olympus E20 shot

Using similar conversions to the 1Ds image we get the following (note the different aspect ratio)

E20 B/W

E20 greyscale conversion

Given the time to scan/clean up the film there is not too much difference in time taken to produce these various versions. If I’m working on what is going to be a large print, I could spend several hours working until I’m happy with the result.

Image detail

This was one area I was concerned with. I’ve recently printed a picture from the Canadian Rockies at around 30”x40” and was amazed at the level of detail visible (it needs a big wall to go on though!)

How do the images compare?

Here we see magnified (unsharpened) detail from the top right hand corner of each image. (1Ds,OM2,E20)

film/digital detail

1Ds and film

A bit more blemish removal needed on the film shot…

E20 detail


Note the differing magnifications, indicative of the differing resolution


Detail location

Before you think the E20 shot is rather poor, look at how small a part of the picture we are looking at. The E20 has given some great 8×10 prints.

The 1Ds image was converted at its ‘native’ resolution of 4064 x 2704. The raw import also allows a degree of scaling so you could get 6144 x 4088 (that’s ~25MP) Also used was the Chromatic aberration adjustment which effectively removed the slight colour fringing at the corners of the image. This is done after you have taken the image — with film it’s too late, the blurring produced is there and you are stuck with it.

olympus digital, Canon digital, olympus film

All three cameras used in this article.

The wide angle teleconverter on the E20 makes even the 16-35 on the Canon look small… and it still only gives you 28mm (equiv)


Taking pictures with the 1Ds is like going out with medium format equipment in terms of bulk. The qualities of the images certainly exceed what I would get with a typical film I’d use. I may have to revisit my tripod use policies…

 2007 – No, I didn’t ;-)
2015 – Even with a 50MP Canon 5Ds I only tend to use a tripod on ‘paying work’.

If I’d used a -much- slower film, the differences would probably not be so marked, and if I’d put that hefty bit of Canon L series glass on a film body with very slow film then I think honours might be almost even. There is much more information in this interesting comparison chart for film/digital.

The digital images certainly show the increased latitude available from negative film, but with a 16 bit workflow, the detail in the shadows is there to use. The biggest difference is that you have to be far more careful about exposures, since when highlights are blown out in digital they are really gone. There are some useful 1Ds exposure and focussing tips at this site. [ link]

You have to realise that it is a totally different recording medium and act accordingly (it helps to think –slide film- at first) The advantage with digital is that you can check your results in the field, and with auto bracketing and the like, really do not have much excuse for poor exposure!

I’m also not sure what it’s going to be like taking the 1Ds out into the back of beyond. All of the associated paraphernalia (batteries, charger, cards, laptop, blank CDs) are not quite so portable as the old OM2 and a few rolls of film.

One other thing I found is that I take more photos with digital. I’ve always believed that -one- way to take better photos is to take more photos, so we’ll see.

How did I feel about it all? Perhaps sad to lose an old trusty friend, but am I going back to film … no way! :-)

2017 – Got the film kit out – did nostalgia win?

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