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Friday, May 29

Big 'Un v Little 'Un

Bessa RF test scan

If I had a pound for every time someone told me a good big 'un will always beat a good little 'un I'd probably weigh even more than I do now. I suppose, given the rare "everything else being the same" conditions, then it's bound to be true. A larger neg requires less enlargement and that means a sharper, finer grained and tonally superior print.

But there are other things to take into account such as the generally sharper lenses used for the 35mm format and the fact that, for equal depth of field, you don't need to stop down as much for the smaller neg and can use a slower film for better quality.

And if you don't make very big prints would you see much of a difference between, say, 35mm and 6x6 - or, at least, enough of a difference to be particularly noticeable? I had the chance to put this to the test over the weekend. Please note that this isn't a scientific test but just something I wanted to do for my own interest. If it doesn't meet your high standards for these sorts of things then just remember that you haven't had to pay to read it. :)

The roll of Tmax 400 I had in the Leica M2 had about half-a-dozen frames left. I'd also just finished fettling a 1940s Voigtlander Bessa 6x9 folding rangefinder that I picked up at a local auction and was keen to try it out. The rangefinder was slightly out of alignment horizontally and I wanted to see if I could sort it. After some tinkering, I managed to get it looking pretty good so it was time to load it up with Tmax 400.

Leica M2 test scan

So, the contest was between an M2 and 50mm Summicron from about 1960 and the renowned 105mm f3.5 Skopar of the Bessa. from the late 1930s or 1940s. It wasn't an exact comparison as the 105mm lens is equivalent to around 45mm in the 35mm format and there was consequently a bit extra on the 6x9 negs.

When I started using the Leica, I complained about the difficulty of seeing the frame lines with glasses on. Well, compared to the dim, squinty tunnel that is your window on the world when using the Bessa, the Leica presents no difficulties at all.

The 35mm v 6x9 test was nothing fancy: just a couple of handheld shots of a similar scene taken at the same time. The Skopar is in very fine condition for its age with no surface scratches and just a few dust spots when you look through it. The Summicron is in similar condition but perhaps a trifle murkier when you hold it up to a light which is why it will be sent off to be serviced when I can get my act together. Both had very light yellow filters in place which require a half stop or less extra exposure. I tend to ignore them. The negatives were developed together in Firstcall Superfine and both looked quite nice when they were hanging up to dry. 

The Leica negs were scanned at 2400 dpi on my old antediluvian Epson 3200 Photo machine which is OK for this type of quick and dirty comparison but is not capable of extracting everything there is on a neg. The Bessa negs were scanned at 1100 dpi which I worked out would result in approximately the same sized image as the 35mm. I'd have preferred to make darkroom prints from each but we're in the middle of preparing to move house and most of my stuff has been packed away. Looks like I'll have to start building my fifth darkroom later this year but that will be a story for another time.

Centre crops and a clear winner: Bessa on the left and the Summicron
clad M2 on the right.

In scanning the negs, I tried to make it as close to darkroom prints as possible in terms of the smaller degree of magnification needed for the 6x9 neg to achieve the same image size. The result? The Big 'un was the easy winner. Did you really expect any other outcome? The difference in quality was quite apparent, more so than I'd anticipated. The scans above are equivalent to a screen image about 24 inches long.

Edges this time and the Bessa (left) retains its superiority.

The Bessa shot is much sharper, more finely detailed and with very smooth tones. Grain is also finer. The 35mm pic looks OK on its own but doesn't come out of it too well against the medium format image. Bear in mind, though, that these are the equivalent of around 24" prints. The difference in a 10x8 print would obviously be much, much smaller.

I'm happy with 35mm performance up to about 8x12" - beyond that, medium format definitely holds sway. The 6x9 quality is lovely and I'd possibly be more interested in it if I were using something like the big Fuji GW690 rangefinder (above). It's not too compact but it has a modern and more usable viewfinder as well as a great lens.

My 6x9 Press Standard - an ugly old workhorse.

I enjoyed the 6x9 format with my old Mamiya Press but I sold that camera when I moved to digital - and was glad to be rid of its weight, to be honest. Having never handled the big Fuji, I can't really say whether I'd take to it or not. The 90mm lens on the standard, as opposed to the wide angle model, is equivalent to about 40mm on the 35mm format so at least it's got my favourite focal length.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to print size. For me, 8x12" is big enough and 35mm, up to that size, is good enough.


Kevin McGovern said...

Good article, Bruce. It stands to reason a 35mm neg can overlap in quality with some MF, and I agree a careful worker should be able to make prints at least to 11x14 that can beat an MF print made by the average worker. But a good MF print will rival an average LF (well, 4 x 5 anyway...) and blow nearly any 35mm print out of the water.

Of course, we're speaking only technical quality: I've seen well-composed Lomography prints at 16 x 20 that were far more compelling than some stuff tyros with better equipment produced!

As they say, "It ain't the wand, it's the magician that does the magic..." and you can't argue that. I'd be happy to compare the work of say, Fred Picker to George Forss and nearly all of George's equipment came from yard sales! Forss's work is far more compelling than the stuff Picker produced IMHO.

That said, I appreciate your efforts as they help provide some real-world, practical information for the rest of us tyros with either aspirations of improving our work, or delusions of grandeur... Have a great weekend, sir! Hope your (ugh!) move goeth well.

KenR said...

The big Fujis are a pleasure to handle. People call them "Texas Leicas" for a reason. The viewfinder is bright and focusing is easy. They make a nice "thunk" when you press the shutter (although some don't like the noise.) The only limitation is the rather slow f5.6 lens which makes it a bright day only camera.

Donato Chirulli said...

NIce test and above all, good 6X9 scan. I'm not (or my V550 is not.... ;-) ) able to get so sharp results from my 6X9 scans, probably because these are hard to stay completely flat in my negative holders.
Btw, I don't add sharpening to my scanned negatives.

DavidM said...

I'd never heard of George Forss. It's well worth Googling him.
Fred Picker? Excellent salesman.

MartyNL said...

I suppose you can have the convenience either at the shooting end or the printing end.
And it's a damn sight harder to make an exhibition print from 35mm, I'll give you that!

shooter said...

Lovely article with points for both, the detail that bessa can produce is stunning, especially when you consider its age.

Personally I think large prints are overrated small can be equally compelling and certainly on a par with large prints. I used to print up to 20x16 with some negs, some even larger on occasion, but now I'm happy to go no larger than A4.