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Dynamic Range of Negative Film


Awhile ago, I was running a photography course on the isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides of Scotland.

During the composition of this picture, one of my participants asked me if I was going to use a neutral density graduate filter; no, I replied.

The next question was why not? The top of the log is much brighter than the part of the log in the shade (it was obvious in the viewfinder I must admit). The shade will be far too dark unless you balance the exposure with a graduate filter.

I did a quick spot metering and the difference was almost 5 stops (4.6 if I remember correctly).

Of course, I understood exactly what he was going on about and if I was using my 5D mkII, I would definitely use a soft graduate filter. However, I was trying to explain negative film had a much higher dynamic range, in comparison with digital (and even with transparency film) but sadly, I could not convince him.

Eventually, we had to agree that we will wait until we see the results of the scanned image.

Well, here it is. The only thing I did was to underexpose the whole image by 1/3 of a stop, add some contrast and vibrancy. The film was the Kodak Ektar 100 and the camera the Mamiya RZ67 pro II.

In general, I find the DR of 35mm digital and transparency film is around 4-5 stops where the neg film can deliver between 8 - 12 stops. Now, this is a huge difference.

You never know, one day, maybe? Canon? Nikon? Anyone?

Dimitri Vasiliou

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About Author

Dimitri Vasileiou is a highly acclaimed landscape photographer, writer and photographic workshop leader. A professional photographer for several years, he was born in Greece and currently resides in Scotland.


  1. Most of the reader comments are incorrect.

    And I sympathize with you, as someone who regularly gets “corrected” by armchair photographers who spend their time focusing on things like DXOmark. Shoot color film if you care about image quality of your color photographs: its a no-brainer. Upper-zone highlight detail in digital looks pretty gross when you compare the two.

    Unless you can afford a new digital back, in that case it’s a toss-up. Anyone who thinks otherwise has a bit of real reading to do, and needs to get away from their web forum knowledge.

    That’s why 90% of artists (read: not commercial photographers) shoot portra 400 if they’re working in color. Nothing else matches it yet.

    Also, a word of advice, I would not underexpose portra because you get this higher contrast and the purple-blue shadows that make portra look like underexposed slide film.

    Potra 400: set your meter for ISO 200.

    Portra 160: set your meter for ISO 50 or next fastest ISO.

    Then you get color rendition like this: http://i.imgur.com/nwFmk12.jpg

  2. The use of HDR processing allows arbitrary dynamic range to be achieved. For astrophotography in particular (which is just another form of landscape photography), dynamic range of over 24 bits is easily achievable. For normal photography, cameras like the Nikon D700 or D800 have dynamic range of 12 bits which is easily extended to 16 bits or more using exposure bracketing.

  3. You think digital is 4-5 stops? Wow, so either all the digital camera manufacturers are falsely claiming 12-13 stops for high-end cameras, or you just made that up. I know which my money is on.

    • Perhaps I didn't make myself very clear. I am talking about the difference in DR, for example: If the difference between your shadow and brightest area in the scene is more than 4-5 stops, you will lose either/or, there is no doubt about that. This is the reason we are still using filters.

      Now, if you think the DR in 35mm digital and transparency film is more than 4-5 stops and you can extract proper and well exposed details from both dark and bright areas from a single frame, then good luck to you.


  4. I've done quite a bit of extensive testing on colour negative film and found that the new Kodak Portra has around 19 stops of dynamic range. The film manages this by combining three speeds of film in each colour layer. This isn't possible in a colour transparency film which is generally limited to about 6-7 stops (which works out when you multiply that by three).

    Kodak Ektar actually has the smallest dynamic range of available negative films – probably about 12-13 stops. The shadows in Ektar generally shift to deep royal blues quite abruptly and highlights can tend to straw yellow.

    Hasselblad medium format digital cameras can supposedly manage 13 stops of dynamic range but the experience of quite a few ex-film photographers has been that you need grads when using a medium format digital back for landscape photography whereas you don't need grads with colour negative film (even when taking shots directly into the sun!).

    Shooting negative film can be interesting too. Generally you reverse the general rule of exposing for the highlights (digital and transparency film tend to clip at +2 to +3 stops wherease they have more extension in the shadows). Typically you should expose for the shadows so picking the darkest area you want detail in and placing that at -2 to -3 stops (possibly -4 to -5 for new Portra). This means you end up with up to +13 stops in the highlights! This is pretty much impossible to blow out completely.

    The small amounts of dynamic range usually reported for negative and transparency film are historic based on printing to cibachrome or RA4 papers. With the possibility of using scanners, the full range of films can now be achieved. What used to be thought of as 4 stops for transparency film is actually more like 7 stops and what was thought of as 9-10 stops for negative film is actually more like 15-19.

  5. .Negative film will have a higher dynamic range than a medium quality digital camera. I am not sure how Hasselblad digital performs by comparison

    However if you think that colour negatives are better, try black and white negatives and careful processing..

    Ansel Adams aimed at ten stop using the 'zone' system but it can be better than that. For very high contrast in tricky conditions try five stops over exposure with the development cut by one third. Such methods produce a flat negative, yes, but full of detail and printable. Try doing that in Photoshop.

    It will get better in the future. Remember it took over 100 years for traditional photography to achieve a natural result. Digital methods should take less time.

  6. Randall Stewart on

    Two comments:

    1. By increasing density of the image [making it darker] you drove the shadows too dark, and by increasing overall contrast, you compounded the problem.

    2. I think you overstate the dynamic range of both transparancy and negative color film to some extent, but you are right in that negative color film exceeds the range of digital sensors.

    The complexity of the image precludes the practical use of a graduated neutral density filter. However you align it across this image, you would overly lighten other areas while trying to lighten the darkest shadow area. You would do better to selectively lighten or darken parts of the image in either a darkroom or photshop context that applying a graduated filter to this image.

    That you could not get your student to accept the facts of your explanation says loads about the declining knowledge of novice and would-be pro photographers about the technical principles and limitations underlying the automation of the cameras on which they have come to rely.

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