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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author

 

“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  

 

Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 

 

Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."

 

I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!

 


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Are we troglodytes?
Old 06-12-2011   #1
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Are we troglodytes?

The debate between the image quality produced by film vs. digital is clouded by the fact that we are usually comparing film systems vs. digital systems. Tossed into the mix are film and sensor quality and size, lens quality, enlarger alignment or the quality of the film scanner, digital processing software, print size and a host of other things including the photographer’s experience and abilities. One person’s rig, film or digital, can be good or bad. When someone says, “Film is great and digital sucks” or “Film sucks and digital is great.” I don’t doubt them; I just wish they would add “For Me.”

When I’m comparing my film systems to my digital systems, I try to make each system perform as well as it can, good lenses at optimum apertures, bracketed focus or focus checking with magnified Live View, cameras mounted on a tripod, intelligent film developer combinations, high pixel outputs, latest software e.t.c..

Believe you me, this is not the way I always shoot. I’m as capable as the next person of making any system look awful, but I’m interested in what will give me the most quality when I put all my effort into just that.

What interests me most is what my workhorse, full frame Canon 5D Mark II’s do against the variety of film cameras I accumulated over the years. It turns out that size is the big factor. First, print size... If it’s a small print, 8x10 or 8 1/2x11, if used well everything looks good. Moving up to 16x20 silver or 17x22 inkjet, knocks off everything except the 5D MK II and 4x5 and 8x10 film (I shoot 400 speed b&w and color negative films.) Showing prints to folks and asking them, “Which is sharper?” doesn’t produce any clear winner, although I see a winner in the 8x10. Go to bigger print sizes and sheet film wins and 8x10 beats 4x5.

There’s just one problem. That 8x10, its tripod and the 4800 ws of strobe that it is normally connected to make a technically impressive portrait, but I don’t move it out of the studio.

I think sharpness and fine detail are important - but I don’t think they are the most important elements in my pictures. (And I don’t own a 44” printer or routinely make prints larger than 17x25.) In the end, as much as I love my 8x10, I don’t use it that much.

Perhaps even more sadly, I use my 35mm film cameras, including Leicas, even less because, the way I use them, my 35mm film cameras come in at the bottom of the print quality pile.

I’d like to know what you do, what equipment or techniques you use, when you are out to produce the highest technical image quality, sharpness e.t.c.. I don’t think folks who don’t put that on the top of their list all the time are troglodytes. But I would like to know what you have figured out for yourself when you want those qualities in a photograph.
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Old 06-12-2011   #2
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I have evolved a totally fool-proof method for discerning between film and digital images. If my t-shirt has stains or my fingers smell of developer, chances are it was film. If not, it was probably digital (or Walgreens)

Can you tell from my flippant reply that I'm more concerned with whether I caught what I was after or not rather than what I used to get it?

So, I guess that means the debate is both potentially pointless and endless. I use 'em both, enjoy 'em and still haven't quite figured out always when one medium is more suitable for what I'm doing than the other. The one exception, of course, is when I need or want the instant gratification of not having to wait to agitate the soup.
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Old 06-12-2011   #3
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If technical quality is the primary consideration, or if I am in a situation where I MUST produce, I reach for my 5D MkII or 1Ds Mk III and my L glass. That being said, The camera that is within reach right now is a IIIg loaded with Tri-X. I'm having fun with it and if anything goes wrong with the images, there will be no crisis.
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Old 06-12-2011   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
I’d like to know what you do, what equipment or techniques you use, when you are out to produce the highest technical image quality, sharpness e.t.c.. I don’t think folks who don’t put that on the top of their list all the time are troglodytes. But I would like to know what you have figured out for yourself when you want those qualities in a photograph.
Of course technical quality has its place but do you mean ultimate technical quality or best technical quality obtainable with your prefered equipment.
The journey is at least if not more important than the destination unless you are on some kind of pilmgrimage.

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Old 06-12-2011   #5
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Medium format (Hasselblad, Rolleiflex, or Fuji GS670), FP4+, Ilford FB paper, traditional wet darkroom. This works for me. YMMV
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Old 06-12-2011   #6
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I may be a moron, but I use film for B&W and digital for color. I shoot 35mm, 120, 45, 810 and 1114. I like film for B&W and digital for color because the materials to print color in the darkroom are just available too unreliably these days. What I get from my Leicas works at 17x22
be it film or digital.

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Old 06-12-2011   #7
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I shoot film about 97.6% of the time...either 35mm, 120 (645, 6x6 or 6x7) and 4x5 but not too often...
When printing 35mm I enlarge no bigger than 5x7, mostly Full Frame to fit inside a 5x7 sheet of paper, sometimes I'll print a borderless 5x7 image with minimum cropping...
With 120 film I normally print on 8x10 paper, sometimes up to 11x14 (very rare)
4x5 is a contact print as I have no other way to do it...
I always use a Grain Focuser and place a sheet of paper in the easel for exact focusing, I'll stop down the lens to f8 or f11 after focusing, I started using a Digital Enlarger Timer a few years ago, a Paterson Timer used for developing test strips and prints...
I have two enlargers and both lens boards have been aligned with their base boards using a Dial Indicator...Front to Back and Side to Side the lens boards are within .002" all around...A little anal but I know for certain I'm aligned...
The Negs are inspected for any dust or spots...all are wiped with Film Cleaner, brushed off, placed in the Carrier and inspected again for dust...I hate dust...
Sometimes I'll dry a test strip to adjust for a final exposure time...RC is quicker than FB but you gotta do what you gotta do...
There's probably more I'm forgetting but this is how I print everything...I'll adjust my technique as I learn better ways of doing it...I'm all about getting the best print I can...I'm a nutcase aren't I...???
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Old 06-12-2011   #8
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Sharpness, sharpness, sharpness.

I'm trying to get worse if that's what better means. Everything I see is all about how sharp the equipment can make the "image". Keep it up, and I'll deliberately defocus.

Well, maybe I don't need to.
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Old 06-12-2011   #9
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Digital looks like still video to me. I don't know why other people can't see it. When you get down to the finest details on a photo, film lets go more gracefully - you see organic-looking grain rather than just a loss of resolution. And sometimes ytou want grain, which is why Hollywood studios who shoot digitally add grain in post-processing (ironically obtained from scanned film frames).
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Old 06-13-2011   #10
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Digital looks like still video to me. I don't know why other people can't see it. When you get down to the finest details on a photo, film lets go more gracefully - you see organic-looking grain rather than just a loss of resolution. And sometimes ytou want grain, which is why Hollywood studios who shoot digitally add grain in post-processing (ironically obtained from scanned film frames).
For me it's the other way round.

A year ago I shot a series of street portraits in Germany together with a friend, using a tripod-mounted Plaubel 5x7 monorail. We shot on 4x5 with a 90mm Super Angulon (giving me a strong wideangle perspective) and printed the shots on something like 16x20. A few weeks ago I started doing the same here in Kyrgyzstan with a 5D Mk2 and a 24mm lens (actually the 24-105/f4 at the 24mm setting). I find that on the one hand I'm enjoying it tremendously - really for the first time using digital; and the 5D is also a lot more portable than the monorail, giving me pictures in situations that otherwise I simply wouldn't have got. And on the other hand the files from the 5D are for my purposes as good as the scans from 4x5 negatives.

The difference is mainly due to the use of a tripod, but the image stabilizier isn't too bad either. I guess a drum scan of the 4x5 negatives would still give a little more detail, and I do correct for barrel distortion on the 5D (a good 24mm prime would be in order), but all in all the large prints look fine. I'm doing it for the enjoyment and the pictures in the final print. I guess if one does want to see the world in a film-vs-digital perspective, one can always find some increasingly exotic comparison that will make one look better than the other, but it also becomes increasingly pointless.

If I were pixel-peeping, maybe things would look different. But it seems that the world of pixel-peepers is a world full of moving targets and a rather unhappy world at that.
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Old 06-13-2011   #11
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I never sure why people can't look at the image whether its generated with film or digital methods, but prefer to look at the grain instead? I suppose if all else fails its done with film and your ass is covered, nobody can criticise an image because its done with Tri-X. Often a security blanket for being not very good.

But authentic looking grain can be added to a digital image and that does take it away from being the neutral base image that some people don't like. With that in mind, why do they continue to berat digital if a solution is right in front of them? I mean, they would have to do hours more processing and printing in the darkroom than the seconds it takes to add some grain, so it can't be time? The answer is easy. Its because while Tri-X gives you the grain, adding grain to a digital image means a choice has to be made, and of course security blankets don't allow for choice, choice opens up the photographer to review.

So, you can blame digital capture (no grain etc etc), you can criticise a photographers choice if grain (amount, texture etc) is added to a digital image, but people hide behind film because it is blame proof and criticism free.

As Bill has pointed out, quality only means something if you have used all the options and in doing so know your own mind and are confident in the images you produce. If digital gets the job done better, gives more options, and you can still make it look like film, then it proves there is nothing magical about film, but there is something magical about embracing the choices technology gives us. But it can be scary if somebody says they don't like it, I mean, you did it, not Kodak.

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Old 06-13-2011   #12
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Quote:
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But it seems that the world of pixel-peepers is a world full of moving targets and a rather unhappy world at that.
For the end-user, yes ! For the site-owner of the many web-pages publishing pixel-peeping comparisons and reviews it is a bonanza.
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Old 06-13-2011   #13
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For me, the top of my quality-output heap is the Hasselblad, I find the detail that can capture, even scanned with a lowly Epson V700 is quite amazing. I shoot the Hasselblad almost exclusively on a tripod, which certainly adds to the sharpness, and I use the mirror lock-up to make sure it's totally stable.

The biggest I've ever printed though is 50cm square, which I think looks great, but I guess I've never truly tested it with a *huge* print.
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Old 06-13-2011   #14
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Well, I just LIKE the process of using film. That's the only justification I need. I'm retired (that means "old") and it's a hobby I enjoy. I mostly shoot B&W and develop my own films and also any B&W the local camera store get in as they can't do it any more. In return they give me a very sharp rate on any colour processing or printing I want done up to 8x10. Just now they're scanning 65x36 exposure rolls of 35mm colour negs that belong to my daughter and burning the images to CD for $5 per film. Output is jpegs of 4-5 MB. Normally they charge $15 per film.
My cousin owns a commercial print shop where he'll do massive wall hangings if I want - for free.

I have my own darkroom (the laundry, actually) but dust and my wife's washing schedule get in the way of a satisfactory occupation so currently I'm scanning my negs using an Epson V700 and printing on the Epson R2880 up to A4 size. Very convenient and easy but not quite silver gelatine. Mind you, the people I do prints for - mainly family and friends - wouldn't know the difference. Haven't printed any in A3 but have the paper on hand to try it. So it's a 'hybrid' process I use at present.

I'm fairly selective about what I shoot these days and have largely moved to MF for reasons of image quality, ease of handling, and not having to wait for 36 frames to be exposed. Twelve is just fine, and I find I have a higher ratio of "keepers" using 120 compared to 135 film. Using a TLR makes you be a little more deliberate in what you're doing. I tried an eye-level MF (Bessa III) but found I was too tempted to shoot in the same manner as with 35mm and was not careful enough in composition and framing.

I'm not a total troglodyte. After waiting and waiting for something that seemed to fit my needs I bought a Panasonic GF1 with EVF and the kit zoom. It serves a purpose but frankly I've ended up with it set on auto-everything and jpegs. It turns out nice photos but I don't really enjoy using it and I'm not going to buy any other m43 lenses for it. I tried legacy M-series lenses with an adaptor and manual operation but it didn't feel good compared to either the M6 or the R4A. I never was one to shoot any and everything I came across so the 'cheapness' of digital capture was a non-issue for me, and I don't use a computer or a website as my main viewing method. Prints in the hand or on the wall is what I'm after. The 50% fall in value of the digital camera since I bought it is another matter. I'm certainly not attracted to the idea of any sort of upgrade. Like a dog chasing its' tail! So it's good for emailing images and putting stuff on EBay but that's about it.
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Old 06-13-2011   #15
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I was recently talking to a professional retoucher who does work for Vogue and similar publications. I told him that the reason I shoot MF and LF film is that I can't get the same quality (tonal gradations etc., not resolution) from my Canon 5DII and I can't afford to shoot on digital MF. His answer was that, in his opinion, you can't even get the same look from digital MF.
That's really the point for me. Film can give me something I look for in my photography that digital can't. Digital MF gets close to it but it's also not quite the same and on top of that it's prohibitively expensive. That being said, if my photographic style was different I'm sure I'd be more than happy with only my 5DII.
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Old 06-13-2011   #16
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Quote:
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I was recently talking to a professional retoucher who does work for Vogue and similar publications. I told him that the reason I shoot MF and LF film is that I can't get the same quality (tonal gradations etc., not resolution) from my Canon 5DII and I can't afford to shoot on digital MF. His answer was that, in his opinion, you can't even get the same look from digital MF.
While I completely agree with him, the point of reference does seem to slide more and more towards the high end on the film side.

It will be a long time before mass-market digital cameras will reach the tonal gradations from an 8x10 slide, if at all. But then, in the film era the photographers shooting those 8x10 slides were rare beasts, too. These are the niches where film work today still makes a lot of sense sense. However, if instead of an 8x10 slide we compare with the tonal gradations from a 35mm Plus-X negative, digital is already there.
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Old 06-13-2011   #17
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While I completely agree with him, the point of reference does seem to slide more and more towards the high end on the film side.

It will be a long time before mass-market digital cameras will reach the tonal gradations from an 8x10 slide, if at all. But then, in the film era the photographers shooting those 8x10 slides were rare beasts, too. These are the niches where film work today still makes a lot of sense sense. However, if instead of an 8x10 slide we compare with the tonal gradations from a 35mm Plus-X negative, digital is already there.
I should've clarified. His opinion was that you can't even get the same look from digital mf that you can get with mf film. He wasn't talking about resolution and he also wasn't just talking about the tonal gradations. More the overall look.

In any case, I don't know why everyone always keeps referring to 8x10 slide. This, again, just highlights the resolution aspect as this is where slide film excels. I think negative film has much better tonal gradations and also a lot more latitude. Also, I don't think we have to compare it to 8x10.

In a couple of weeks I'm doing a small photoshoot for a project of mine and even thought I'd have the opportunity to use one of the new Phase One 80mp backs for free I prefer to do it on 4x5. It's not about the resolution, it's about the look. I might even use slow shutterspeeds to get motion blur.
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Old 06-13-2011   #18
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I should've clarified. His opinion was that you can't even get the same look from digital mf that you can get with mf film. He wasn't talking about resolution and he also wasn't just talking about the tonal gradations. More the overall look.
And I guess that's where it becomes highly subjective. Personally I think that by and large the differences in look between "digital" and "film" aren't really that much greater than between two different films, say a slide and a negative film from different manufacturers, but there everybody really seems to have their own opinion.

I agree with you about latitude. If someone prefers negative to slide film because of the latitude advantage, most digital workflows will probably leave them unhappy.
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Old 06-13-2011   #19
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And I guess that's where it becomes highly subjective. Personally I think that by and large the differences in look between "digital" and "film" aren't really that much greater than between two different films, say a slide and a negative film from different manufacturers, but there everybody really seems to have their own opinion.

I agree with you about latitude. If someone prefers negative to slide film because of the latitude advantage, most digital workflows will probably leave them unhappy.
I do agree that it's subjective but my point is that it's subjectivity in style, not perception. By that I mean that my personal style of photography requires the qualities that my favourite film stocks have and that digital doesn't have. It's not that other people might not see the difference, it's that for my style of work there really is a difference. The next guy might be perfectly happy with digital as his style of photography doesn't really bring out the difference between the two.
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Old 06-13-2011   #20
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It's the age of "--insert noun/action here-- is the --best / worst-- ever". Nuance takes too much time and Twitter doesn't allow more than 140 characters per Tweet.

Ideas need to be conceived in short, ADD-minded WOW-factorness, as evidenced by those who power-read forums/fora.

In short, I'd add my process, but 99% of people would just scroll right past it, and it wouldn't change their deep-rooted ideas as to what's best and what's worst.

Nevertheless, I'll state that I like film and digital for what they are, and as complementary to each other. I do not suffer Dichotomists.
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Old 06-13-2011   #21
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It's the age of "--insert noun/action here-- is the --best / worst-- ever". Nuance takes too much time and Twitter doesn't allow more than 140 characters per Tweet.

Ideas need to be conceived in short, ADD-minded WOW-factorness, as evidenced by those who power-read forums/fora.

In short, I'd add my process, but 99% of people would just scroll right past it, and it wouldn't change their deep-rooted ideas as to what's best and what's worst.

Nevertheless, I'll state that I like film and digital for what they are, and as complementary to each other. I do not suffer Dichotomists.
tl;dr

(Ironically, the message you have entered is too short. Please lengthen your message to at least 10 characters.)
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Old 06-13-2011   #22
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Film has a long development (no pun intended) history. By now, so has digital. We are probably long past any meaningful comparisons, just as we need not discuss, say, watercolors vs. oils. An image these days can be purely one or the other or, more likely, a hybrid. What defines what I choose has more to do with how I like to work than with any expected difference in the outcome.
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Old 06-13-2011   #23
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Sharpness is not the be-all and end-all of "quality." No matter how many times the comparison of digital vs. film boils down to sharpness, the less convinced I am. The sharpness argument sounds, to me, like something written by the marketing departments at Nikon and Canon. So what?

I shoot for AOL and Patch, and most of my work for them (long-form photojournalism and profiles) I do on film. It simply looks different, captures light and color differently. Not better, just different. And people see it too: I've had several people ask me if I use film, because my pictures don't look like all the others. That makes my editor happy, too.

The question isn't which is "better." There's no such thing in art. It's simply a question of what best expresses what you want your photos to express. One day it might be Tri-X, another Portra, and another a Canon 5D.
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Old 06-13-2011   #24
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For technical image quality, digital wins, with FF digital equaling or bettering 6x9 MF. The resolution might be a bit less, but the cleanliness is a bit better with less grain and film artifacts like dust or lint.

Film might win on an artistic basis. You might like the colors of Velvia or Portra, or the grain of Tri-X or the tonal rendition of PanF 50. You might like other things too, such as the different rendition that comes from using a 6x9 negative instead of a 24x36 FF sensor.

Also, film does have a little better dynamic range, maybe a lot better if you are able to use all the data in the highlights in print film

However, I would say that digital has film beat by any standard measure of "technical excellence."

With that said, I'm shooting my M2 instead of D90 anyway.
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Old 06-13-2011   #25
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If it's something that will stand still, I'll shoot with MF film, on a tripod, cable release, mirror lock-up, the lot.

I don't exploit the qualities of Leica lenses to their fullest, as I mostly shoot them hand-held, but they still produce great results that way. I took an M into the U2 show last weekend ("Wait a minute, sir, that camera has an interchangeable lens, you can't take it in!" "Sure I can!" "Oh...well, OK"), and even wide open at about 1/60, I got some shots that blew up nicely to 11x14. Concert security (and everyone sitting around me) would probably have objected to a tripod.
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