A talk about modern analog photography
I am very proud to share this very interesting conversation with you. Joerg Bergs is the owner and founder of the "Mein Film Lab" (MFL) in Germany. My personal enjoyment of film photography elevated to a whole new level after I decided to send my film to a professional labs. The results have always been mind blowing. Having such a lab now in Germany is very convenient. Shipping is more simple and therefore turnaround times are way faster. I also enjoy the conversation on a very personal level. At MFL they seem to take note of every input you give them. During one of the conversations I had with Joerg Bergs, he agreed to answer some questions which I am thrilled to share here with you. If you are interested, I have also publkished in the original German version of this interview.
For now, enjoy the Interview.
Mister Bergs, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions about analog photography today. Maybe we can bust some myths that are spreading all over the Internet. Film photography seems to be in everybody´s mouth again. How do you explain this phenomena? The fall of film was already a given thing though.
If we would have believed the forecast of the big companies, analog photography would have been dead for over 15 years now. The competition between these companies in the end of the 90´s was more ruinous than beneficial. Let´s digress for a moment and have a look on the music records industry: In almost every music store you can buy the good old vinyl records again, despite the fact that this market has been called dead many times before. Analog photography awakes curiosity in young people, who grew up in a digital world. They discover a whole new way of taking photographs. An old mechanical camera has its own charm and is something completely different to the modern fully automatic digital cameras. Once a photographer has accomplished to learn the relationships between shutter time and aperture, he will be rewarded by an achievement that is not immediately available. The experience to encounter an emotional and temporal detachment to the photographed object, elevates the value and acceptance of photography in my opinion. With the pixel race in digital photography and the ability to shoot at really high ISO, camera companies provide a false understanding of photographic work. They spread the simple fallacy that you only need one of those high end cameras to take good pictures. There is no need for knowledge and skill, as the camera will do all the work for you. It is wonderfully relaxing to load a film into an old camera, measuring the light, engaging with the subject to finally take a good picture. My customers are always surprised about the amazingly good quality and big sizes of our prints from regular resolution files. The pixel counting should come to an end. We should start to care more about good prints again, which can be compared and judged without monitor calibration. It is not a secret that film can deal with high dynamic range situations and highlights rarely really blow out.
Iit is also commonly known that every film has its own character. The C41 process is not a mystery either, even though it is called one by some photographers and companies. If this helps to sell film, I can easily live with that. A common question is "what is better, film or digital"? Looking at the pure facts the answer is simple: digital is better as it provides higher resolution files, higher ISO capabilities and less trouble with mixed light situations. Analog is different! Especially with medium and large format cameras you can get totally different results. What finally counts is a personal question, that everybody needs to answer himself.
Quite a while ago you have established the "Mein Film Lab". Can you tell us a bit about the story and how you ended up with founding a lab? What have been you intentions, your motivation, how did you build up the courage to make this big step?
As a film photographer over the last couple years I had the big problem to get reliable color development and good scans or prints from my films. Many of my trusted film labs closed without replacement. Some of them went bankrupt. The analog color process had become expensive, especially if you have been looking for high quality scans. I don´t need C41 development with obligatory prints and I am able to process black and white film at home. The color process however is more complex and requires more consistency and a certain flow rate which can not be done at home efficiently. C41 film will be developed almost anywhere in Germany, but the follow-up process is almost not affordable, if you shoot a lot and have high expectation regarding quality. I was not successful to find a lab that was able to do this. Therefore I started to ship my films abroad, which was cumbersome and not a good solution, as shipping costs were high and I often had to wait very long for my scans. There had to be a better solution to provide people with high quality and affordable scans! I exactly knew from my apprenticeship what was required to provide this service. As those machines are not produced anymore I made an investment, imported the required equipment from overseas and looked for a location to run these machines. Due to my knowledge of the required technique, it has not been a big challenge to establish as a film service provider. During my training I still learned how to process micro-films and during my time at the university I was working together with some big photographic companies. The "Mein Film Lab" was born! I quit my day job and now I work together with a photographer and designer in the lab and scan film for my customers according to their needs in exactly the way I was looking for over the past few years. And yes, I still try to provide my service at a reasonable cost.
So we encounter a comeback of film photography, not because it is superior to digital, but because it is more interesting and because people like engaging with the analog photographic process and old cameras. For many photographers it is also the specific "look" of a scanned negatives or slide film. How would you describe the characteristic features of a photograph taken on film and what importance do you attribute to the scanner?
It is definitely not a comeback, as all the big companies have to struggle with small sales figures and their production lines are over-dimensioned for the current market. Nevertheless we can see an increasing number of analog photography in media, which is a very positive trend. Many people take old cameras to play around and enjoy the manual craft of picture taking. The final results are a wonderful reward for their hard work.
Film is different, as it has softer highlights, is less linear and renders skin tones differently to the digital image, which is often cooler and more static. Grain is also very important as it conveys a totally different look compared to digital photograph. A scanner has a massive impact on the final result. Only a good scanner, that is not only laid out for high resolution but also for reproducing the color characteristic of the film, will provide good results. I don´t know any consumer scanner that is able to do so. Often it is a software matter and the operator needs to invest quite some time in order to get a pleasing image. Minilab scanners are trimmed for high output and good results. The good scan quality is more important than resolution. The regular RA4 printers are only capable of printing at a width of approximately 12 or 13 inches. Therefore the respective scanner was designed to scan at a resolution of maximum 20 megapixel. Yet it is still possible to print these files up to DIN-A2 at a high quality. Resolution is not everything. But we should not compare the data derived from as scanner with a modern Nikon D800 or similar camera. For really high resolution scans we can revert to virtual drumscans from Hasselblad, which are able to scan at an even higher resolution. This effort however is only useful for medium format and beyond.
You have just praised the features of a good minilab scanner to reproduce color more precisely. Can we compare those scans with darkroom prints regarding color and contrast or do these scanners produce their own interpretation of film? What are your options as a scanner operator to influence the final result? Some labs offer custom profiles in order to refine the final output according to the customer demand. Can we still talk about a certain characteristic of film when the scan is significantly modified?
Fuji Frontier scanners work similarly to color-heads of enlargers in the traditional darkroom. This is why the principle of color filtration is basically the same. A darkroom print however will look still slightly different, as film grain will be rendered differently. Colors will be almost the same if the filtration is set correctly. I used to print RA4 in the darkroom, but the results are not justifying this elaborate work. It will probably remain nothing more than a hobby and I prefer to print my Frontier scans instead. The filtration is key to good prints for scanning and printing and this is why the operator will determine the result. Therefore there is no fixed characteristic, because there are too many factors involved in the workflow (exposure, light quality, film age, quality of the chemistry,chemistry temperature, filtration and more). The person who scans or prints the negative is in charge of the final image. In the movie "War Photographer" featuring James Nachtwey there is a scene where the photographer and the printer work hand in hand to achieve the desired print. This is what we try to do with our clients and why we don not provide fixed one click presets. We allow custom preferences, which will be classically noted on paper and will be considered during scanning, if this will be technically possible.
I still mention the term film characteristic, as for example Kodak Portra will deliver different results than Fuji Pro 400H. We can alter the colors by filtration, but with the goal to achieve a neutral print. The film emulsion plays an important role. Skin tones on Portra are slightly yellow and warmer whereas Fuji´s skin tones are cooler and a tiny bit towards the reds. This cannot be removed by filtration without introducing a color cast in the complementary color. Such color correcting work requires a lot of experience and is one of those classical tasks that cannot be automated. One of the reasons why we cannot offer 24h turnaround times. High resolution scans take their time and manual color correction additionally blocks the machines. In a one hour lab it is only possible to use the auto and low resolution mode as only small sizes will be printed anyway. In Germany people are not yet used to our concept, therefore they are surprised by our turnaround times of several days. It is not only the scanning process that requires time, but also the logistics that is required for an order to be processed. There will be an opportunity to watch this process during an open house in near future.
From my own experience I know about the importance of the dialog between the lab and the photographer. Besides general quality expectations this might be the most important factor when choosing a lab. Customer relationship is not always easy. In Germany you have found a market niche as I think it might be easier for a lot of your German customers to communicate with you in their mother language. Probably you also need to do a lot of educational work. Just recently you have published a film guide called "Filmratgeber", presently available only in German, that explains a lot about modern films available today. This is especially important as there is a lot of misinformation around on the Internet. Where do you see the major misconception in modern film photography?
Analog photography is not different today than it was over one hundred years ago: shooting on film is only an intermediate stage to the final print. It is just a technical process, nothing more, nothing less. But it is an interesting one! Coating film is a very complex process as well as the wet printing step in the darkroom. There is nothing more exciting than watching a print during development. For me, this is a magical and fascinating moment. Many great masters of photography are not alive anymore and profound information is not easy to find nowadays. One of the best examples is print flattening. You can spend months on the Internet to work yourself through all the nonsense written there. Ansel Adams explained it already very comprehensively more than 50 years ago. Just put the finished Baryta print between two cardboards in a hot press, heat it slowly to 80°C and than allow slow cooling afterwards. As a reward you will get perfectly flat fine art prints. It is important to forward knowledge of essential processing steps to the younger generations. The simple try and error method will only lead to frustration. There is also a common misconception concerning overexposure of color negative film. We could almost start to believe that Kodak Portra 800 does only do a good job on sunny days.
Exposure is of course important and it will alter the character of a negative significantly and therefore the foundation of the whole process. We all know about the exposure latitude of color film and we know that it is much more forgiving for overexposure than underexposure. But we need to keep in mind that we cannot be too sloppy with exposure as it is still very important for the final expression of the print. When it comes to black and white film it is a different story. Many of us do home development, but you also provide an excellent service for everybody who loves the fine nuances of gray. What is important when shooting black and white film and what are your recommendations in order to achieve excellent results?
Color negative film has a enormous latitude. Overexposure will allow the dye couplers to overlap and this will give us a softer and creamier look. But there are only two scanner series available who are able to really render this behavior correctly. This is the already mentioned Fuji Frontier scanner, of which we have a total number of 4 units in operation, and the Noritsu scanners, which we will start to use next year. The Noristu scans are a little bit softer and the scanner allows signifcantly higher resolutions.
Underexposure in general should really be avoided though. Shadows block and show no detail at all, colors get muddy and dull, something we can hardly correct during scanning. Personally I don´t like pushing color film. The results is only a weak compromise and colors are difficult to correct. Black and white film provides different opportunities. Kodak TX400 for example can easily be pushed up to ISO 1600 if exposed correctly. But we also encounter limits here as well. Data provided by the manufacturer is only a approximation which may significantly vary from one situation to another. In the lab we use the ECO developer from Moersch as well as Kodak XTOL. Both developer provide enough utilization of film sensitivity, sharpness and pleasing grain. For film processing we use a Heiland Electronic TAS processor, which allows a very precise agitation. We are able to develop black and white film in a way that can both be printed and scanned perfectly. As far as I know this process is unique for a minilab worldwide. Unfortunately this will increase turnaround times and black and white film take longer than C41 film before the customer will receive the order. We encounter problems with experimental or uncommon film, which we are only able to process according data sheets. For all beginners we recommend using common black and white film such as Kodak TX400 or Ilford FP4 or HP5. Both of them are very forgiving. Flat crystal films like Kodak Tmax or Ilford Delta should be exposed very precisely. I also want to add a word of caution: Do not extremely overexpose black and white film! Often we receive black and white film that is overexposed by 4 stops or more. What works for color negative film to achieve a nice creamy look, will produce extremely dense negatives with ugly grain.
You are providing a little peak into your plans for the future already. The "Mein Film Lab" will grow and together the available services for your customers. Good news! As we come to an end of the interview we are eager to know where the journey goes? What else will be new in 2016?
The destination of the journey is defined by the market. With constant demand I will continue to reinvest into the lab, what means that all profit will be invested into the company. Further plans are: Moving into a new location, E6 slide film development, large format film development, more fine art printing possibilities, workshops and finally XXL scans from the new Noritsu scanner. Still a lot of work to do :-)
Wonderful news for all analog photography enthusiasts. By extending your portfolio of services you will continue to set yourself apart from other minilabs. I keep my fingers crossed and I wish you good luck for your plans. I think you have been able to shine some light on the interesting aspects of modern analog photography and maybe you have also busted some common myth. It was a pleasure to do this interview. Thanks a lot and all the best for the future.
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