the hybrid darkroom

using silver and digital together


This module was written at request of one of our subscribers, who thought it would be interesting for people to find out how we work, rather than just seeing results or reading about techniques. We hope he was right.

We started using a scanner and digital image manipulation equipment alongside film in 1997, with a Paterson Digital Darkroom (now long discontinued). After various tentative forays into digital capture we acquired a Nikon D70 (6 megapixels) in 2004 and a Minox 8111 (8 megapixels) in 2006.



Three boats, South India

This is from just after we got the Paterson Digital Darkroom. On our trip to India that year, we shot colour negative film because (let's be honest) it's easier than slide. We were impressed by the quality, though we have since found that this was beginners' luck: some negative films scan a lot better than others. There's no saying which: as they are reformulated (as they often are) most of them scan better and better.

Although Frances still printed 'wet' colour for a few years afterwards, almost all our colour prints are produced digitally today. Later we switched back to slide film, even for scanning, for reasons given below. Roger shot this with his Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux; as far as we recall, the film was Agfa.


The great majority of our pictures are still taken on film, and all of our black and white prints (except a few for reference only, and 'contact prints' as described below) are still made via traditional 'wet' processing in our darkroom. Indeed, the darkroom was the first room we had rebuilt when we bought our house in 2003.

Even so, we do use digital photography quite a lot, and this is something of a 'work in progress' module about how we work. Before we turn to this, it is worth addressing two or three other questions first.

will film die?

No. Not in our lifetime, nor (we believe) in the lifetime of any adult photographer alive today. In fact, we think it will never die. Film may become harder and harder to find, and more and more expensive, but even these risks are, we believe, often exaggerated.

The only way film will die is if people stop buying it, though it is a fair comment that if enough people believe the ill-informed and exaggerated drivel that is pumped out by non-photographers and by those with a digital axe to grind, there is a small but non-negligible risk of the death of film becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is a simple answer to this. Ignore them. Keep buying and using film. Then it will continue to be available.

Three pool well, Lijiang

In China in 2005 we didn't even carry digital cameras: too heavy, too many bits to remember (charger, leads with different fittings, spare batteries, small fiddly memory cards...) and, next to our all-mechanical, battery-independent film cameras, too fragile. Since 1997 we have spent more on computers, printers, scanners, etc., than on new cameras -- and we're still using the Leica M4-P that Roger bought in the early 1980s. This was the MP and 35/1.4 Summilux, shooting on Fomapan 200. We're still not sure about the two figures, which are a bit of a camera-club cliche, but we think that the picture is better with them than without.




10 reasons to stick with silver

  1. Very few arts ever die. There are still people making daguerreotypes, just as there are still gesso painters and sculptors in bronze.

  2. A different look. Film images look different from digital, just as watercolours look different from oils. Choose whichever you prefer. We are in no doubt.

  3. Better quality, cheaper. Depending on whom you believe, a 35mm transparency equates to anything from 12 to 30+ megapixels, with the smart money on 18-20 megapixels. Bigger formats deliver even more.

  4. Proven archival keeping. There are constant stories of caches of old prints or glass plates turning up, often from a century or more ago.

  5. No special equipment needed to examine negatives or prints. Compare this with digital images where you need a computer and a compatible reader and compatible software.

  6. Easier to store, file and find. We find it a lot quicker (and more enjoyable) to check 500 slides in hanging files than we do to load a CD into a computer and view a few dozen images, then change CDs and view another few dozen, then...

  7. No need for periodical 'back-ups'. A boon for those with better things to do with their lives than pander to the unsavoury needs of computers.

  8. An enormous reservoir of first-class cameras. Are people going to junk their Leicas, Alpas and Gandolfis? Hardly.

  9. Pleasure. It's enjoyable to take pictures with a first-class piece of engineering that is designed to last for decades, and then to make pictures that exercise your technical and aesthetic skills in the real world, instead of in front of a computer.

  10. Tradition. Many of the greatest pictures ever made were taken with film cameras. The fact that there may have been no alternative at the time is somewhat beside the point: many want to follow in the footsteps of the great photographers of the past. 'Alternative' processes such as Argyrotypes hark back to point 2, above, but also deserve mention here.



Great Wall

Although we think it possible that digital imaging with a sufficiently high megapixel count (preferably 30+) may one day rival silver halide in colour, we find it very hard indeed to believe that it will ever replace black and white, especially with larger formats. Frances used a 6x9cm back on her Alpa 12 S/WA for this shot; on the front was her 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo Grandagon with a yellow filter.

why use digital capture?

  1. Speed if you don't need 'exhibition' quality or archival keeping. For 'pack shots' of cameras, step-by-steps and the like, we find our digital cameras a boon. In fact it's often quicker to shoot a new picture than to look for an old one (see point 6 above).

  2. Snapshots where you aren't worried about keeping the negatives, or indeed all that much about the keeping qualities of the prints. The vast majority of snaps are thrown out when their owner dies, after all.

  3. Pictures where the limitations of the digital camera either don't matter, or can be turned to advantage, as for example in soft focus pictures or our 1000 motels series (free Gallery).

  4. No darkroom needed -- though darkrooms are not necessarily as big or expensive as some people think. For months and (occasionally) years at a time our only darkroom has been the Nova Darkroom Tent shown in the module about our darkrooms. It is 42 inches (110cm) square.



Bicycle, courtyard

This was one of Roger's first pictures with the Nikon D70; the lens was the 90/4 Dreamagon soft-focus. We have probably shot more soft focus with the D70 and either the Dreamagon or one of our two Lensbabies than with all our film cameras put together.

why use a hybrid system?

  1. The quality of colour inkjet prints is equal to all but the very finest and most expensive 'wet' prints, the best of which are Ilfochrome (formerly Cibachrome). These frankly are more trouble than we want to get into on a regular basis. Yes, we can make them; yes, we have made them; but most of our work is for publication and we need durable exhibition-quality colour prints so seldom that we have not made any for a long time. Besides, we can always buy them in if we do want them made.

  2. It allows is to retain our valuable originals and send publishers electronic files and (usually) reference prints as well.

  3. It allows us to run a web site.

  4. It gives us tremendous flexibility. We can scan slides; or negatives; or prints, including hand-coloured prints. And we don't have to give up the 'real' darkroom just because we use digital as well.

  5. We have to. Anyone writing for the photographic press who sticks resolutely to silver halide photography will soon starve.
scanning film

Almost all the film we scan is slide film. This is for very simple reasons.

Black and white film, we print conventionally, because we prefer the results. Also, Frances enjoys traditional printing.

Colour negative film has to be scanned twice, once to make a 'contact sheet' and then again on a frame-by-frame basis for printing. You also need to print out a 'contact sheet' unless you are happy to keep referring to the computer: we are not.

Slides are for the most part sharper and less grainy than negative films, and (as noted above) easy to store and check. We put them in 20-pocket DW hanging files, usually mounted in Gepe mounts but sometimes just in their protective sleeves (we have to mount them for scanning).


Graffiti and poster, Arles

There's just a much greater thrill in going through a strip of newly processed, newly sleeved slides than there is in dealing with negatives, where you have to cut them, sleeve them, scan them, print the contact sheet... Trannies also provide (as negatives do not) an immediate colour reference. Roger shot this on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX with his Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux.



film processing

We process all our own film, including C41 colour negative and E6 slides. This is mainly because the nearest professional lab to us is about 100 km (over 60 miles) away in Tours, and the nearest good amateur lab, good for C41 but not E6 is 25 km (call it 15 miles) away in Thouars. It is also worth adding that while most pro labs water-wash C41, most amateur labs use a stabilizing bath instead of proper wash, leading to severe doubts about long-term stability. Any film processing should be possible for anyone with normal manual dexterity and intelligence.




black and white

There are whole modules on this in the Photo School. The only point we would make is that if you are going to scan black and white film, Ilford XP2 Super is probably unbeatable. The silver grains in conventional black and white films scatter the light as you are scanning, leading to much bigger apparent grain than you get with chromogenics such as XP2, where the image is composed of dyes with the metallic silver bleached out. Yes, there are other chromogenics, but although the Kodak films are finer grained, they are less sharp, and besides, we much prefer the tonality of XP2.


Monk and sridpa khorlo

Yes, it's a black and white picture -- hand coloured (by Frances) using a variety of media but mostly Marshalls Transparent Photo Oils. She shot it (on Ilford XP2 Super) using a Contax RX and 100/2.8 Planar, part of an absolutely gorgeous outfit (we also had the 35/1.4 and 35/2.8 shift) that we really hated to give back. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone FB.

colour slide (E6)

For this we normally use Tetenal chemicals (the so-called 3-bath E-6 kit, though we always use the optional 4th stabilizer bath after washing). The vast majority of our E6 films are processed in a Jobo CPE-2 with lift, which we have always found entirely satisfactory, though we would have a Jobo ATL 1000 if we could afford one. Sometimes we use a Nova hand-line instead, which allows more economical use of the chemicals but requires working in the dark. We always use a Nova line for 4x5 inch colour processing.

We have also processed both E6 and C41 (see below) in small stainless steel tanks (Kindermann with Hewes reels) and our only objection is that it is much slower: it takes as long to do two films in the Kindermann 2-reel tanks as 4, 5, 6 or even 7 in the Jobo (we normally do 4x 35mm at a time in 500 ml of chemicals, used one-shot).


colour negative (C41)

Exactly the same applies to C41 as to E6, though for reasons we have never figured out we have to take a lot more care with C41 in order to avoid drying marks. Again we use Tetenal chemicals.

film storage

Negatives, colour or mono, are sleeved in Print File archival sleeves. Slides are sleeved in continuous DW sleeving, as used by many pro labs: a 1000 foot box will sleeve around 180 films. As already noted, slides are kept in DW hanging files. 'Spares' or 'overs' that are not filed are stored in their sleeves in envelopes.

Hanging files

These are quick and easy to check. This is a digital picture shot specially for this module with the D70 in a couple of minutes -- one of the many reasons we would hate to be deprived of our digital cameras.



film scanners

As far as we can see, there are essentially three levels of film scanners: cheap, serious amateur, and professional. For the most part you get what you pay for. As well as technical quality, this includes ease and speed of use.

The cheapest flat-bed scanners normally offer limited resolution or limited Dmax (ability to 'see into' dark tones) or both. Low-cost dedicated film scanners often have Dmax problems too, including high levels of 'noise' (degradation of the black, sometimes with banding or areas of variable density).

Better flatbed scanners often offer adequate resolution for roll film and large format, but are usually hard pressed with 35mm. We use an Epson 1680 for medium and large format as well as for prints. It is excellent with prints but only adequate with the smaller roll-film formats. With 6x7cm and above, it is not at all bad. With sheet film, pretty much any scanner should be able to deliver adequate quality.



We also use the Epson for making 'contact sheets' in both black and white and colour, scanning the negative in their sleeves in two 'bites' and stitching them together in Photoshop. There will be a module on this in due course.


Scanned-in 'contact sheet'

We have not made conventional contact sheets for a long time. Scanning (with the film in the Print File sleeves) and making a reference print is quicker and easier, though the advantages of an 'enlarged contact' (we normally print at A3) are lost when you realize that with a proper optical contact sheet you can use a magnifying glass, while with a scanned contact you cannot unless you use an insanely high file size and print resolution. All you have is an aide-memoire as to what you shot, plus an indication of composition.

We often reverse the rebates (to white) for printing so that we do not waste too much black ink when printing the contact sheet.

Serious amateur scanners are what we use for 35mm, because they are what we can afford. We have only tried three. Our first was a Nikon Coolscan, which died of old age after a few years. We once tried a Kodak, for reasons we have forgotten, and our current scanner is a Konica Minolta Dimage Scan Elite 5400 II. What happens now Konica Minolta has gone remains to be seen.

Professional scanners such as Imacon offer the maximum easily obtainable technical quality for all formats and will stand up to hard use, day in and day out, but are alarmingly expensive, which is why we do not have one.

film scanning

For the most part, unless we are dealing with a really nasty original, we leave the scanners on their automatic settings and make all corrections later in Adobe Photoshop. We find that this is quickest and easiest. Others may disagree.

Initially, we used to make high-res scans and then downsize them to suit the application in hand (see below, 'Scan Resolutions'). Today, we scan to the required size and re-scan as necessary. This is an enormous advantage over storing lots of CDs with relatively few high-res scans. After all, there is no finer archive copy than the original slide.

Evening, Lenin's Tomb

The technical quality is abysmal -- but it was even worse originally. Don't ask how (because we don't know) but Roger under-exposed this shot hopelessly and didn't even bracket. We used the maximum possible compensations on the scanner (the Konica Minolta) and still had to do a lot in Photoshop afterwards.

Of course you could argue that with a digital camera (instead of his Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux) Roger would have known immediately that he had a bad picture -- but when this was taken in about 1990, digital cameras were awful anyway.

print scanners

These are far less demanding than negative scanners. Even the cheap ones seem to deliver remarkable quality, but you still get more speed and more ease of handling with the more expensive models. A minimum optical scan quality of 1200 dpi allows a 4x enlargement to the printing industry standard of 300 dpi (see below) which is normally adequate for most purposes. Again we normally find it easiest to let the scanner work on its automatic settings in the vast majority of cases, making subsequent adjustments in Adobe Photoshop.

scan resolutions

For the web, maximum desirable scan sizes are limited by the screen size. We normally make scans no bigger than 550 pixels high or 850 pixels wide.

For photomechanical reproduction, the industry standard is 300 dpi. Like most people, we make the sloppy but convenient and broadly defensible assumption that one dot = 1 pixel, so for an A4 image (210 x 297mm, 8¼ x 11¾ inches) we would supply an image of 2500 x 3550 pixels, just under 9 megapixels (suddenly you see why 10 megapixels is the starting point for good digital cameras).

In practice we will often supply images scanned to full-page size even if we do not expect them to be used at anything like that size. After all, you lose little or no quality when you scale down, but upsizing is another matter (see 'optical and interpolated resolution' below)

For ink-jet printing we prefer to scan to 300 dpi but freely accept that 200 dpi is often indistinguishable unless critical areas of very sharp pictures are closely examined side by side.

Ivan Velitsky tower, Moscow

550 pixels is as tall as will fit on most screens. Roger shot this on Fuji RF/RFP with a Nikon F and 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor.



optical and interpolated resolution

What ain't there, ain't there. 'Upsampling' by a few per cent to make an image fit a page will make no detectable difference, but 'upsampling' by around 40 per cent (linear) to allow an image to double in area certainly will matter unless there is no fine detail you care about.

It is all very well to rattle on about the amazing quality that is obtained by upsizing programs which give you what is in effect a 10 megapixel file from a 6 megapixel camera. Yes, it is amazing; but next to a picture that recorded the detail that was actually there, instead of making it up with the help of nearby pixels, such pictures always have an 'airbrushed' look to them.

For some subjects, such as wedding photography and portraits of vain women (the two are sometimes inseparable), this kind of discreet dismissal of fine detail may actually be an advantage: certainly, if we shot conventional weddings professionally, we think we'd be happy with 6 megapixels. But if you have a lovely, sharp transparency with bags of texture, and you want to keep that texture in the scanned image, you had better scan at a nice high resolution.



Hotel courtyard, Levoca, Slovakia

This is 550 pixels high and 857 pixels wide, and was shot on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX with the Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux. The four details below were scanned at 675, 1350, 2700 and 5400 dpi with the Konica Minolta and resized to 300 pixels wide.

You can easily see the difference between 675 and 1350 dpi, even on screen, and the difference between 1350 dpi and 2700 dpi is clear enough, especially in the detail in the sleeve of Frances's blouse.

The difference between 2700 dpi and 5400 dpi is slight; we are not sure we see it ourselves, despite the additional refinement of manual scanning on the blouse at this size. All this demonstrates, though, is that you can't capture what isn't there on the film, or possibly that there's a limit to what you can learn from a screen. We deliberately chose a 'real' picture, rather than a test target, to demonstrate the last two points.


675 dpi


1350 dpi


2700 dpi


5400 dpi

It is widely accepted that somewhere between 2000 dpi and 4000 dpi you get down to the grain level when you are scanning a film (a lot depends on the film), so there is no more 'useful' information -- except, of course, that if you want the grain to show in the scan, just as it would in an optically enlarged print, even the grain is 'useful', and if you don't have it, you are back to that 'airbrushed' look.

Again making the convenient equation between dots and pixels, this means that if you want 23mm of slide to enlarge to 210mm of page at 300 dpi, you need to scan at a bit under 3000 dpi -- hence the 2700 dpi that is a favourite standard for optical resolution. Why 23mm? Because 23 x 35mm is roughly the size to which a slide mount will mask down a 24x36mm slide. Our Gepe slide mounts, measured specifically for this module with a vernier gauge, are exactly 23 x 35mm.

image processing

We use Adobe Photoshop and always have done. Adobe suffers from the Kodak syndrome: because it's so big and well known, people always knock it. Maybe there are better programs; maybe not. But we can't help feeling that there may be a reason why they are the industry standard. It takes a long time to learn how to use it all -- we certainly haven't learned in a decade. But it does all we need. And more.


Our first printer was an Epson A4 (Stylus Photo, number forgotten) and we replaced it with an Epson A3 (Stylus Photo 1270) which we are still using. If we got a new printer it would probably be another Epson, but we have no doubt that there are others that are excellent too, especially HP. We always use Epson inks but have tried a variety of papers, among which Tetenal and Ilford are our favourites as conventional papers, though we have all kinds of others we like too, including some from Marshalls.

If we printed black and white with an ink-jet printer we would almost certainly use Cone Editions Piezography, which gives excellent results that are completely different from conventional prints: more like engravings as far as image tone goes, though with excellent continuous tones. Part of this is the inks, but at least as important is the extremely clever software. Conventional 'multi-black' ink sets are vastly better than ordinary inks, but still nothing like as good as silver halide images in our estimation. Plain ink-sets range from poor to awful, usually with dismal metamerism: prints that look OK by either daylight or tungsten, but turn either green or magenta in the other kind of light.


Young Tibetan monk

This is why we still print our black and white 'wet'. This isn't a particularly brilliant print but it's over two decades old and there's no reason why it shouldn't last for another few decades or even centuries. Also, there's a tactile quality to silver halide prints that is missing with most ink-jets. Roger shot this on Ilford XP1 with his Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux.



the bottom line

We'd hate to be without our digital options, but mainly because they make it quicker and easier to earn a living. We believe it is foolish in the extreme to deny that digital capture has any advantages -- it has many -- and we also think the scan-and-print option is at least as good as all but the very best 'wet' processing for colour, but only for colour. It will be a long time yet before we give up 'real' (wet) black and white printing. In fact, as we said near the beginning of this module, we don't think we'll ever give it up, though we are all too aware of the adage, "Never say never."


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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks