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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Film, digital ... or photography?

Indecisive Dave

in Film , Sunday, August 19, 2018

I’m afraid this is going to be a bit of an unstructured ramble. Basically I’m just taking to myself: because I’m thinking about finally cutting the cord and giving up film. And then again, maybe not. I’ve changed my mind at least three times since I started writing this post.

Drm 20180818 EM580046

Analog or Digital? Coffee, or convenience?

I’ve been using film since I started taking photographs, which was A Very Long Time ago, and although I have fully embraced digital photography, I have always owned film cameras, and at present I own quite a lot. In the last two years or so, in terms of time (and indeed money) invested, I’ve spent much more on film than digital. Could it finally be time to stop?

For me the choice between film and digital is largely emotional. To some extent those emotions are directly related to the end result: for example, the initial impact of a slide frame on a light table is much more visceral than that of a Raw digital file displayed on a computer screen. But otherwise they are mainly secondary things like nostalgia, or an appreciation of fine mechanics. More specifically I’d be sad to give up my Hasselblad XPan, which has been a companion on countless adventures for nearly 20 years, but then again, I’m beginning to feel it is dragging me down.

Film and digital have very different workflows. With film, it mostly happens in the camera, especially when the camera is fully mechanical. There’s plenty to get right which can’t be fixed later, and even when this stuff becomes second nature, it never becomes trivial. You choose your film, you set the exposure, and you’re pretty much committed. With digital, on the other hand, the work tends to start after the capture. There is so much latitude for change that it is dangerously easy to lose sight of any initial intention. Of course the distinction isn’t that clear: with film, the whole clunky process of scanning is a huge time-sink, and with digital, if you’re brave, you can go the JPG route and do everything in-camera.

Film is expensive. The cost of the actual film itself is constantly increasing, as is that of lab processing (I won’t find time in this life to do my own processing - although more on that later). The availability of film stock is still decreasing, especially the kind I like. Of course there are hundreds of minor variations of the same black and white film on the market, but that’s not my thing. Good film scanners are expensive are approaching extinction. And although you can certainly pick up a good used 35mm SLR for not very much, the kind of camera that makes using film worthwhile in 2018 is still actually pretty expensive. And when you buy it it will break down and nobody can fix it.

Of course digital is expensive as well. In fact it can easily become unreachable (although film holds its own if you consider the price of an Hasselblad X5 film scanner). And digital still pushes you towards the upgrade treadmill. And in terms of process, digital proposes the double-edged blade of near-endless processing choice.

It is so easy to get lost in these discussions which superficially appear to be philosophical but basically are just about the old demon gear. That demon which is dedicated to distract and prevent you from actually achieving anything photographically interesting. I’m feeling weighed down with gear, weighed down with choices, endlessly trying things out and testing approaches but never actually defining and realising an artistic objective. On the other hand I’m inspired by my Linhof 612, I’m emotionally connected to my Hasselblad XPan, and I think the frames my Bessa 667 produces are awesome. But then again, when I switch personalities and pick up my Olympus E-M5 I feel pretty happy with that, too.

Although do I? Actually it depends. For the urban landscape stuff I do, I really cannot complain at all. Yes, out of the box Portra 400 from the Bessa 667 is prettier, but, one, I can tweak Olympus files to something quite close enough to Portra, and, two, the Bessa 667 is fine until you want a focal length different to 50mm equivalent. However for classic landscape the Olympus files have some clear limitations. Far field objects tend to turn to mush, and the whole image can have a faintly plasticky field. This impression has actually been confirmed to me by several professional photographers I know who use Olympus. The system has many attractions, but also some drawbacks, and while you can most certainly use it to take excellent landscape photographs, if you have the artistic ability (which I’m not claiming I do), it isn’t perhaps the ideal choice.

I’ve tried to find a workaround to this by supplementing my Olympus with Sigma Foveon cameras, but astonishing as they can be in their ideal environment, that ideal environment is very, very restricted. And the lenses for the sd Quattro cameras are very heavy and bulky, albeit excellent. On the other hand, as objects, Sigma cameras are absolutely beautifully made, and the menu system is also the best I’ve seen.

The thing is, I don’t really have a need for film. I like using it, I like the way it looks, but there nothing enabling for me about film. My main, indeed only reason for persisting with film from around 2003 to 2013 was that I needed it to put in the XPan. But then I started expanding my repertoire a bit. And now I’ve maybe expanded it too much. Experimenting isn’t a bad thing, but there’s a thing line between experimenting and just f***ing around, and I’m afraid I crossed it some time ago.

And then again. My eyes keep getting drawn back again to recent shots I’ve taken with Provia 100F and Pro 160NS, and then, to others taken with the Olympus. And impressive as the Olympus shots are - and frankly, whatever Micro Four Thirds keyboard warrior detractors may say, they are impressive - there is something lacking. Of course, it could be as much down to medium format lenses as the films, but more probably it is a combination of both. Also looking around a bit, personally I find the film-only landscape work of Jake Horn to be a pretty convincing argument, as is my friend Jean Heintz’s view on film.

Then there’s the tempting idea that it is possible to replicate the colour of film in digital. I’ve had reasonable success with things like modified VCSO presets, and Exposure X3, and I’m trying out Mastin Labs’ products, but even if these were fully successful in replicating film, which, frankly, they’re not, quite, they still can’t make a digital Micro Four Thirds camera draw like a 6x7 Medium Format film camera. And to be fair, the reverse also applies, which let’s not forget, was a strong reason why so many scrambled to abandon film the moment that digital became affordable.

Trying to sift some clarity from my ramblings, What I think I’m tangentially approach is a wish for an interchangeable-lens camera that provides significantly more detail than the Olympus, gives me the lucid transparency and smooth, subtle tones of Medium Format Portra or Provia, is not too heavy or bulky, and is, within reason, affordable. It also needs to avoid over-complexity and feature glut - really all I need is aperture, speed, sensitivity and autofocus. I don’t need movies, I don’t need more than 1 frame per second - if not per minute. And then I want it to last forever, and keep me from being distracted by new toys. Until quite recently I really don’t think there was anything on the market that met that description. Now, in the digital world, there are maybe two candidates. Well, possibly only one. In the film world, an outsider might be the Pentax 645, a camera I’ve always admired from a distance, but it is heavy and bulky. If I forego autofocus, I guess there is the Hasselblad V series (again, I’ve often day dreamed about a 503cw), or at a stretch the Mamiya 7. All of these three of course are significantly different formats.

But what I really want is to escape from this endless chasing after gear and get down to doing some photography that really satisfies me. And for that, I really, really need to come down on one side or the other. I’m not actually labouring under any illusions that I will produce anything of any artistic or creative merit - I haven’t done so far, and after 30 years of trying, I doubt that will change - but at least I’d be enjoying myself.


** on film processing: actually, I may well end up dabbling in this. I backed the Ars Imago Film Box on Kickstarter, and unlike most of everything else I’ve backed (FilmLab, Ferrania…) it might actually deliver. There is also the intriguing Filmomat, but it is very expensive, and finally, the people behind the (late, undelivered) Kickstarter Reflex film camera claim they are going to produce an automated home C41/E6 processing lab for $500. I’m afraid I’m very skeptical, but that would shift some parameters…

 

New Favourite Film

green is the colour

in Film , Friday, July 20, 2018

I think I have a new favourite film. I was tipped off about by Alex Burke, in his excellent eBook, Film in a Digital Age. It’s called Fuji Pro 160NS.

I was only very, very vaguely aware of this film. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever used Fuji negative film before, ever. I’m strictly Kodak. I’ve just gone back to check what Alex Burke writes about Pro 160: “as with Portra, it has an incredible dynamic range but I felt it to be a tad more contrasty and colorful”, and “this film is all about the greens. Many people say that the Kodak negative films are more for red hues and the Fuji 160NS is about greens”. From my experience so far I completely agree with both statements. Kodak Ektar certainly likes reds - in fact it makes everything red. And indeed, my first impression was of a less washed out Portra, but without the shrill vibrance of Ektar.

Pro160 vlt

My first roll of Fuji Pro 160NS, freshly scanned

The results look fantastic to me, straight out of the scanner. The two examples below were scanned in Silverfast using the Fuji Pro 160S 6x6 Negafix profile, otherwise totally un-retouched.

B667 2018 03 01
B667 2018 03 10 2

All shot on Voigtländer Bessa III 667.

 

SRDx Photoshop plugin

A short review of Silverfast’s spinoff

SRDx is a Photoshop plug-in promising to be “new standard for
Dust and Scratch Removal”. It is fact derived from the SRDx feature included in the Silverfast scanning application produced by Lasersoft AG. As a plug-in SRDx is being marketed separately through its dedicated website.

Srdx

Silverfast also offers iSRD for scanners which include infrared channel output. This provides an effective way to remove the majority of dust and scratches from scans (although the patching itself is not perfect). But for some film types, in particular black & white negatives and Kodachrome, this doesn’t work. SRDx uses some form of contrast detection coupled with a proprietary algorithm to detect dark or light defects. Back in The Old Days (i.e last century) there were a number of such Dust and Scratch removal plug-ins, in particular one from Polaroid. They didn’t work very well, and neither did (or does) Photoshops’s own filter, which is a very blunt tool. However, Photoshops current manual healing tools are very good, so what can SRDx offer ?

Well, in a word, automation. SRDx is actually fast, flexible and effective. I have a large hoard of Kodachrome slides, and every few years or so I try once again to revive some of them.  Many years ago I stored them very carelessly (I had no idea at the time) and they have been infected by fungus and are often very dusty. Sadly SRDx can’t do a lot about the fungus - although in some cases it has helped - but it can make short work of other imperfections.

Here’s an example. The first image is of a complete Kodachrome scan opened in the SRDx plug-in in Photoshop. It presents a simple, clear User Interface.

Srd full

SRDx automatically detects imperfections, and marks them (by default) in red. It has several tools for manual adjustment, including a brush for marking undetected defects, and iteratively strengthening the effect, an eraser for zapping false detection, a mask tool for adjusting area for consideration. The automatic detection can be fine-tuned using the detection intensity and tile size sliders. Settings can also be saved as presets.  So, it is simple, but quite comprehensive. The view can be switched between Original / Mark / Optimised. An example at 100% is shown below:

Screen Shot 2018 07 20 at 11 56 22
Srd mark

Srd correct

As mentioned, SRDx is also available within Silverfast & Silverfast HDR, but there I find it a lot less useful. Since Silverfast works with by default previews, for SRDx to work you first need to make an “HQ Preview”, which is Silverfast Marketingspeak for a full scan. You then have to wait while it applies all its processing, which for a medium format high resolution scan can take forever. In such a scenario SRDx is an exercise in frustration and essentially useless. It isn’t that much better in Silverfast HDR. On the other hand, in Photoshop, it is very fast. Finally the patching is also better in the plug-in version.

The masking took is useful but it would appear that despite the fact that you can name the mask (in Silverfast you have to), in fact you can only have one mask. Also, for some reason, in the Windows version masking is not included. This would be a major issuer are if I was a Windows user.

In conclusion then: 15 or 20 years ago this would have been a no-brainer. Lasersoft AG have taking SRDx out of its constraining environment in Silverfast and given it a new role. This enables a much faster workflow. If, like me, you have a lot of non-Infrared compatible film to scan and clean, SRDx is a considerable timesaver and recommended. At least the Mac version. At €49 it is reasonably priced, much more so than the initial €99 which was ambitious even by Lasersoft’s standards. For Windows, due to the mask issue, personally I would not recommend it. From time to time Lasersoft offer special pricing - I had an offer last year at €20 which I missed out on. At that price I’d say go for it, on both platforms.

SRDx doesn’t work miracles but it is pretty good - better than I expected in fact - and if you have a need for it, it is worth the price. Unfortunately for Lasersoft, I suspect the market is small, and getting smaller. But I wish them good luck with this initiative.

 

A catalog for Sigma Files

Just some geeky tech stuff…

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Saturday, June 16, 2018

As a long term user of Sigma fixed-lens cameras (I was going to say “compact” but then glanced at the dp0 Quattro on my desk) one of the most frustrating things is the difficulty with browsing photos on disk. Sigma’s Raw formats are read by very few applications, and although Quattro cameras now support DNG, which makes life easier, this comes with the drawback of not being able to use Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) for raw processing. Many would say that was a plus, but in my opinion, the combined effect of the latest version of Adobe Lightroom’s poor rendering of the DNGs, and the big step forward Sigma have taken with Photo Pro v6.6 sways the balance towards proprietary X3F files. Honestly, if you’re going to go to all the trouble involved in using a Sigma camera, it seems pretty nuts to settle for arguably sub-optimal output.

So, I needed a solution. SPP’s file browser is truly dreadful. It has no facility for marking folders as favourites, it cannot peek inside a folder to see if it has no Sigma Raw files and thus exclude it, it has no standard metadata features, etc etc. It’s a real pain.

There aren’t many alternatives: my standard tool for cataloging outside of Lightroom is MediaPro, which I use for mainly for film scans these days, but in the past I used for everything. I’ve probably been using it in various incarnations for 20 years or more. The last significant update to MediaPro was under its original owner, iView, to version 3. That was in 2004 if I remember correctly. Since then it has been owned by Microsoft, then PhaseOne, and has benefited from almost no functional development. PhaseOne’s last effort, “MediaPro SE” brought only OS compatibility (supposedly) and alignment with CaptureOne.  MediaPro SE still has quaint menu items such as “Backup to CD-ROM”. So, the chances of MediaPro supporting X3F files are in the snowstorm in hell category.

But there is one last chance: iDimager Systems PhotoSupreme (PSU). I’ve been trying to get to grips with PSU for a while. Generally I found it a very frustrating experience. PSU has a bizarre User Interface, at least for one coming to it from an application like MediaPro, or indeed Lightroom. For me Version 3 was also alarmingly unstable - you do not want an application that you invest a lot of effort into to trash it’s database too often - and at times extremely sluggish. But it could read X3F files and extract the embedded JPG. And it had a lot of other promising but infuriating features. Nevertheless MediaPro was still more elegant and intuitive, after all the years of neglect. So I set PSU aside and struggled on with SPP’s browser.

Then came PSU Version 4. I was dubious at first, the upgrade price of some $100 seemed pretty steep, and I wasn’t that optimistic. But eventually I took the plunge, and so far, it’s working out pretty well.  With PSU, I can now import X3F files, catalog them, organise them, smoothly review in anything up to full screen, and compare several files using the Light Table. What’s more, with one click I can send them directly to Sigma Photo Pro. And after I process them in SPP, I can import the TIFs into PSU and bind them with their source X3F into Version Sets (basically what Lightroom calls Stacks, only more like Aperture’s stacks, without Lightroom’s bone-headed limitations). 

Here are a few screenshots to illustrate the various steps:

Photosupreme2a

A selection of X3F thumbnails in PhotoSupreme

Photosupreme3

X3F thumbnails shown in PhotoSupreme’s Light table mode

Photosupreme5

Full size image shown in PhotoSupreme

Photosupreme2b

Sigma Photo Pro in PSU - click to open the selected image in SPP

Photosupreme1

selected image in Sigma Photo Pro

Photosupreme6

Stacked / Versioned X3F and SPP-exported TIFF in PSU

PSU Version 4 also has a reworked UI, which makes it considerably easier to get to grips with its modus operandi. It still has some rough edges though, and the developer (iDimager Systems is a one-man show, as far as I know) would do well to hire a User Experience consultant. Although to be fair probably that would not be commercially realistic. But all in all it works, and it has some very nice features, apart from the powerful Versions concept. For example, it can apply quite impressive approximate renderings to Raw files processed in Lightroom, CaptureOne and DxO PhotoLab. On the downside, it really is very inadequately documented.

But in any case, for me at least it is a really liberating experience to be able to use extensive Digital Asset Management tools on my Sigma X3F Raw files. I very much work with sets of photos, not individual shots, and the editing process (in the traditional sense) is actually more important to me than editing (in the digital photography sense). So PhotoSupreme is well worth the money, and the still fairly steep learning curve.

 

E4, E6

Checkmate for film?

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, April 16, 2018

The lab which processes my E6 film has just raised their price per roll from CHF 13.50 to CHF 17.50, an increase of nearly 30%. I say “lab”, but really I am pretty certain they now outsource E6 processing, and I suspect there is only one E6 lab still operating in Switzerland. Similar, I suspect that Fujifilm mail-in processing in Switzerland is also outsourced, although it is many years since I used their service.

For several years now I have been using Fotomedia both for buying and processing film. They also sell a wide range of analogue (and digital) photo products, and their range, delivery times, and customer service are distinctly superior to the hipster’s choice, Ars Imago (e.g. a roll of 35mm Provia 100F costs CHF 13.90 at Fotomedia and arrives in 1-2 days. At Ars it costs CHF 18 and will arrive whenever they take enough time off from stroking their beards to get down to the post office). But at least we still have a choice.

And by the way, this puts an XPan frame at CHF 1.50, and a 612 frame at CHF 4.50, using Provia 100F from Fotomedia. Velvia costs more, so it’s just as well that I don’t like it.

Velvia100F

They don't make 'em like that any more... expired 2011.05



My fear is that the first plank to collapse will be E6 processing. Fuji are showing every sign of getting out of film completely, and at present the only E6 slide films on the market are Fuji Provia 100F and Fuji Velvia 50/100. If these are withdrawn, the remaining weak business case for commercial E6 processing vapourises. Only Fuji and Kodak still produce E6 chemistry as far as I know - and I doubt that Fuji would see any business case for carrying on.

The best possible scenario for the new E6 films from Ferrania and Kodak seems to be that they’ll arrive too late to save the day - and that therefore they will be cancelled. New Ektachrome was announced well over a year ago, and since then there has been scant evidence that it is a real project. The Ferrania Kickstarter was fully funded to the tune of some $320’000 in October 2014 and the latest news from them is basically more excuses. Then again if Kodak overestimated the challenge of restarting Ektachrome production, what chance do Ferrania have?

And anyway, who actually wants E6 film? The #FilmsNotDead crowd certainly aren’t interested in anything that produces a recognisable image, and it is difficult to rationally defend against the argument that digital effectively replaced slide film.

So, basically, there are no new serious film cameras, E6 film is on Death Row, and E6 processing is approaching unjustifiable pricing. The only glimmer of hope is that Kodak still has a solid business selling 35mm cinefilm. However unless I'm mistaken there is no E6 reversal cinefilm. Fujifilm is currently keeping side film alive entirely on their own, with Provia, Velvia and some stuff sold under the Agfa brand name. Since Fuji seem hellbent on killing film this Last Stand is more than a little ironic.

FILM Ferrania has recently made a call for investors, and despite all the above, I’m tempted to buy a small stake. But honestly, it doesn’t seem to be a logical move.



 
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