The Cleanliness of Digital

In the age of digital, most images are viewed on a computer monitor.  Sure, there are still those that make prints of images.  However, the vast majority of the photos taken will never be viewed on paper.  With digital cameras, evaluation of image quality is also assessed on a computer monitor.

My first digital SLR was the Canon D30.  This was a revolutionary camera because of the CMOS sensor.  For the first time, we as photographers were able to capture digital images that were essentially noise free.  If I shot a photo that contained deep blue sky, that part of the image would be very clean. It would not suffer from digital noise.  At higher ISO settings, the noise would appear, but at ISO 100, the images were extremely clean.

As the megapixels have increased, the photosites have diminished in size. This has increased the amount of noise in images when viewed at 100% on a computer monitor. Even with today’s best cameras, there is still a very detectable amount of base level noise at the low ISO settings.

When I purchased the 1DsIII several years ago, I was very impressed in its ability to produce images with almost no visible noise at ISO 100.  As a landscape shooter, I really do not care about the noise levels at the high ISO settings.  I would much rather have a very clean low ISO.  This is especially helpful when pulling detail from the shadow regions.

I have had a few prints made from 1DsIII images. The largest I printed was 24×36.  Although I was very impressed with the cleanliness of the images on screen, it was a different issue in print.  Instead of looking pure and pristine, the resulting prints looked as though they were lacking detail.  I could produce images at a small size that I was happy with, but the moment I went beyond 12×18, the images had a rather sterile, digital look to them.

I have since switched to large format film.  In order to produce large lightjet prints, I need to have the transparencies drum scanned. The resulting files are very large, and also very detailed.  A quality drum scan will resolve the film grain without a problem. The grain is far more apparent when viewing the files on the monitor than in print. For example, the following image was taken with my 4×5 view camera.  I had this transparency drum scanned, and printed at 40×50.

Southerwestern Zen

The following image represents a 100% crop of the drum scan.  This area is just to the lower left of the bush.  The “branches” you see here are in fact very small twigs that are nearly impossible to see in the small web sized image above.  You will definitely notice the grain in this shot.  It may not look extremely appealing on the monitor.  However, it is an entirely different issue in print.

bush1cropa

When I had my first 4×5 image printed at 40×50, I was very impressed with the color, texture, and tonality.  I finally had achieved the image quality that I had been seeking all of these years.  Unlike the images from my digital camera, the film photos seemed so much more lifelike.

To be satisfied with my digital prints at large sizes, I felt the need to add a film grain effect to the image.  This gave the appearance that there was more detail than really existed in the photo.  However, I was never very satisfied with the appearance of digitally simulated film grain.

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