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The XPan succession dilema

in Film , Thursday, March 29, 2012

Following the announced demise of Ektachrome, and the general, renewed sense of doom hanging over film photograpy, at least on the colour positive side, my thoughts have been turning to possible alternatives to XPan photography.

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End of the roll ?

First, I think it’s important to try to define what is unique about this camera, and why it is so addictive to me. A major point is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get viewfinder. It may be stating the obvious, but actually having a panoramic aspect ratio viewfinder is extremely helpful if you, like me, find framing at the time of capture to be important. It’s very subjective, but to me, cropping and reframing after the event is pretty unsatisfactory. It feels like some kind of a failure, and personally one of the great pleasures of photography is succesfully achieving a good composition through the view finder. Of course, seeing potential for cropping, remembering it, and doing it afterwards works for some people, and I’ve got no issue with that. But it seems I’m not wired that way. Or maybe I’m lazy and unimaginative.

Next up has to be image quality. A well framed, exposed, focussed and scanned XPan Ektachrome or Velvia slide is pretty amazing. Ok, it’s quite a challenge to get all those ducks in a perfect row, for me at least, but when it all clicks, well, it really clicks. I’m not going to get into megapixel comparisons, but a 4800 dpi scan from my Minolta film scanner can be printed at sizes greater than my Epson 3800 can manage. The three XPan lenses give corner to corner sharpness from wide open (admittedly f/4 isn’t that wide) onwards, covering the same width as 6x9 film but on 35mm stock. I’m not sure what digital camera can match this, but I imagine it will be expensive.

I’ve already mentioned the lenses. They’re fabulous, and the 30mm is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of optical engineering. Fuji at their very best, although some claim that the Hasselblad-branded copies have a different coating. Possibly, but I can’t imagine why. Hasselblad never made their own lenses anyway, as far as I know.

The camera is built like a tank and is very reliable, unless you do something very stupid with it. The XPan I, which is far cheaper on the secondhand market, in my opinion has considerably better handling than the XPan II, at least for tripod use. For handheld possibly the II is slightly better. But the II is not worth the absurd prices it goes for, unless you’re a collector. There’s no difference at all to the output.

By the way, if anybody in Switzerland is reading this and wants an XPan II, there’s currently one in the secondhand section at Ganz in Rennweg, Zürich, complete with 45mm lens, boxed and apparently in extremely good condition, for the remarkably low price of CHF 1950.  That’s about half the usual rate!  Even more remarkable since Ganz’s pricing is usually insane in the other direction.

So what about downsides? Well some might consider film itself to fit in that category. Being tied to single, low ISOs is perhaps the most significant thing that digital has liberated us from. Especially considering the XPan’s slow lenses, and the fact that the meter gives up pretty quickly when light levels start dropping. Still, the fact that it has a TTL meter at all is pretty good. No other panoramic camera includes one. The lenses, especially the 30mm and 45mm, would really, really benefit from a shift adaptor. Shift is so important to panoramic photography that the so-desirable Linhof 612 has permanent shift built in to its lenses.

So what I’m looking for, ideally, is a digital camera with viewfinder AND RAW file masking in roughly a 2.5:1 ratio (and 2:1 would be nice as well), corner to corner sharpness, wide angle (16mm equivalent minimum) and availability of wide to ultra-wide tilt shift lenses. And it has to cost roughly the trade-in price for my XPan with all accessories (optimistically $5000). Oh, and it’s got to be able to take a few knocks without complaining.

That rules out all CSCs, Pentax, Sony & Olympus DSLRs, and anything upmarket of a DSLR. So what’s left ? Canon & Nikon, neither of which fill me with enthusiasm. I forgot to mention that I’d prefer to keep things lightweight.  The Fuji X-Pro looks possibly interesting, especially as it shares DNA with the XPan, but it would not have the flexibility of a DSLR.

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What’s coming down the pipe ?

I did see a Nikon D800 in a shop window the other day…

 

 

Dynamic Range - the movie

Grab the popcorn and turn down the lights!

in Product reviews , Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On my recent trip to Iceland I was very lucky to cross paths with Peter Cox, a leading Irish landscape photographer who I had been vaguely aware of from some time, through the series of essays he has written for Michael Reichmann’s Luminous Landscape site.

Peter, apart from being a very talented photographer, is clearly a good businessman - he runs his own gallery in Killarney - and is hugely entertaining. He also appears to live somewhere where there are at least 36 hours in the day, because apart from all this he finds the time to jointly host a weekly podcast, The Circle of Confusion, and now, a video series called “Dynamic Range”. His partners in these escapades, professional photographers Neil McShane and Roger Overall each add their own spice to the mix, and it all ends up being entertaining, informative, and, well, very Irish. That’s a good thing, by the way.

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So, these 2 Irishmen walk into a bar, and ...

There are currently two videos in the series, Episode 1, and, naturally, Episode 0. Episode 0 - or The Pilot - is documented as “Learning Video Production the Hard Way” on The Luminous Landscape. It is perhaps apt that it features there, since the Luminous Landscape Video Journal (“LLVJ”), seemingly now in retirement, is something of a trailblazer for this type of video. Kudos as well to Michael Reichmann for basically promoting a competitor. Actually, Episode 0 is a bit of a disappointment, in that it is far less of a disaster than it is billed as. I was really hoping for total humiliation. Episode 1 irons out the kinks and is very smooth.

The general format for The Dynamic Range will be familiar to LLVJ subscribers: photographers travel to a location, take photos, talk about them, and naturally talk about gear - whilst apologising for talking about gear. The show is presented by Peter and Neil, with Roger directing off camera. Of course, this being Ireland, there is one factor that the LLVJ didn’t always have to deal with: atrocious weather. The Irish weather seems to be determined to foil Peter and Neil, but they soldier on grimly, and usually demonstrate that the maxim that there is no such thing as bad weather for photography holds true. Although that Irish weather does sometimes get the last laugh.

I was heavily into Ireland in the 90s. I couldn’t get enough of the place, especially the South West of Cork, and the west coast in general. Probably my favourite place in Ireland was Westport in County Mayo. But the last time I went was 2002, and it wasn’t a great success. So it has faded a bit from my mind. These videos bring it all back though, and show what a great, and possibly under-exploited photographic resource Ireland is.  This does give me the excuse to drag out a few badly scanned and generally so-so shots from 2002 that have not yet seen the light of day. I might even have a go and tarting them up a bit.

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Somewhere in Ireland

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Somewhere else in Ireland

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Somewhere else ... well, you get the drift

So far, the Dynamic Range is going strong. The production values are impressive, and are improving at a rapid rate. Whatever the slightly ramshackle air that might be being conveyed, there is no doubt that a huge amount of work is going into these productions, and personally I’d say they are already at Broadcast TV standard. The format avoids the overlong talking head sequences that made some parts of the LLVJ a little boring, but there are some weak spots.

The weakest, in my opinion, is the “gear” section in Episode 1. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with a “gear” section, in particular if it concentrates at least in part in showing people how to get the best out of standard tools they may already have - such as tripods. But there’s really very little point in talking about Neil’s geared tripod head, with just a long shot where you can barely see said tripod, and no mention of the manufacturer or anything else. Same with the clip-on viewfinder - I wasn’t the only one left wondering where I could find out more. This section just didn’t work.

There’s also a lot of interesting talk on using filters, generally, but again this could be made more practical by adding some close-ups and before / after, or with / without shots. Generally, perhaps some material, for example reviewing of photos, could be shot off-site and edited in in post-production.  Things like this would serve to tighten up the show a bit. And personally I would like to see a little more of the photography, with perhaps, who knows, some innovative ways of talking us through why selected shots work - or not.

The humour certainly works. The ending pan (I won’t spoil it) at the end of Episode 1 is a classic. Oh, and Peter, I got a fabulous rainbow shot in Keflavik :-)

It will be interesting to see how they can keep interest up. My feeling is that the travelogue format works fine to start with, but after 2 or 3 episodes it will need something added to the mix. But so far, so good. The Dynamic Range is not free, but it is good value for money. At one level, it’s pure entertainment for photographers, taking you so close you can smell the peat fires burning. And I certainly picked up a few tips, and some food for thought. And a rekindling somewhere of a desire to return to the Emerald Isle…

You can see a brief preview of Episode 1 here (why do they make it so hard to find ? I’d have put it on download page, personally). I’d be interested to hear what you think of it.

 

The Death of Film

Another one bites the dust

in Film , Saturday, March 10, 2012

The recent announcement of the demise of Kodak Ektachrome E100G - along with all other Kodak slide films - however predictable, came as quite a shock. At the time my stocks of E100G, in my opinion the best slide film ever, were 10 rolls. I’ve just ordered another 50 3 5-packs and whatever loose rolls my supplier can find, and in the meantime I’ve used 5. It will be interesting to see if Fuji are still making my second favourite, Velvia 100F, when I run out of E100G. It was never a very popular type, and that makes it a marginal product line in a very marginal product range. But if not Fuji, who else? Agfa? REALLY? The writing really seems to be on the wall now.

Of course this reopens the age-old Filme Vs Digital arguments. I’ve long had a foot firmly in both camps, and at the same time I’ve been an avid reader of the saner end of the ongoing debate. There are countless very persuasive exponents for and against fim, both making very convincing points. If you remember Paul Whitehouse’s character, Indecisive Dave, from the Fast Show - well, that’s me when it comes to film versus digital.

Apart from the overall arguments about image quality, film brings some practical issues with it. First of all, it needs to be developed. Since I really only work with slide film, then this means lab E6 processing. Long gone are the days of 24 hour turnaround - or even 1 or 2 hours in pro labs. Now it’s a week if you’re lucky. I recently discovered a convenient and remarkably well preserved local photo shop (no, not the abomination from Adobe) that would take charge of my films and could be trusted to ensure that the lab they get sent to follows my instructions and doesn’t cut them up. And sometimes even with 2-3 days turnaround. However, for the last batch of 5 I was charged CHF25 each. That’s basically $25. Each. Plus the initial cost, factoring in delivery, we reach CHF40 per film. That’s untenable, especially as one film had only 4 exposed frames due a mid-roll battery failure on my XPan.

Then there’s scanning. When all is going well, I actually quite enjoy scanning, up to a point. I’ve got a well tuned workflow, and things usually come out as I expect, but one thing I can’t easily fix are dirt and scratches due to careless processing. Processing that cost CHF40, that is. And as I’ve written before, my Minolta MultiScan Pro is showing signs of old age. Dust remains a constant issue, but a good supply of canned air - although good canned air is getting harder to find - and a VisibleDust sensor brush for awkward cases helps considerably.

The impatiently awaited new Plustek Medium Format scanner might be a god-send, at a price. But with no new film to feed into it, it might end up missing the bus.

But really, is it all worth it? Having recently seen what really high-end digital can do, the image quality argument is hard to make. Nevertheless, in my opinion, a correctly exposed piece of Ektachrome, or Fujifilm, has an immediate presence that (my) digital cameras can’t quite match. Of course the density and saturation of film can easily be replicated in digital post processing, but the sharpness of a good slide film is another matter…if, of course, you have a scanner and a scanning technique that can retain this sharpness into a digital file.

Essentially I’m not really fixated of film, but I am very attached to my XPan, and that doesn’t do digital. I’ve been having some thoughts about how to transition to digital panoramic photography - or perhaps transition back - but that’s the subject of another post.

In the meantime, I’m off to round up the last straggling rolls of Kodak Ektachrome E100G.

Goðafoss, Iceland, Feb 2012. A location that has “designed for XPan” written all over it. One day, maybe, I’ll finally get to see it in winter in good weather, having failed at the last 4 attempts. But I guess this is the last time I’ll shoot it on E100G.


 

 

Rauðisandur, by Rut Hallgrímsdóttir

Another Iceland book review

My bookshelves currently feature 16 books of Icelandic photography. I guess one way of describing that is “enough”. Another might be “obsession”. So much, that I decided that on my most recent trip to Iceland that I would not be buying any more. Absolutely none. That didn’t turn out so well…

I could claim that “Last Days of the Arctic” by Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson doesn’t count, because (a) it isn’t about Iceland as such, and (b) I bought it from Amazon because it was too heavy to carry. Not to mention costing half the price. Then again I did order it whilst in Iceland. Let’s say it’s a borderline case.

However, for “Rauðisandur”, by Rut Hallgrímsdóttir, I have no such excuse. I was snagged by it at the deadly trap of the Eymundsson bookstore at Keflavik airport, and with a few thousand kronur left in my pocket it was a foregone conclusion.

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So why did I fall for it ? Well, “Rauðisandur” is different. So far, a very large majority of Iceland landscape photo books are generic. Basically they take the wide view, and take you all around the island. Different photographers have different approaches, but by and large they’re still working in the first generation of “serious” icelandic landscape photography books, which as far as I can tell only really got going around the start of the century. It’s a young market, and although it is beginning to mature, I’d say it isn’t saturated - yet. But it’s edging that way. So, it was interesting to see what could be a precursor of the next stage, a book with taking a deeper approach to a (much) smaller area.

This has been done before, in a way, but more as hybrid trail guide / photo books, such as Daniel Bergmann’s “Skaftafell National Park”, and even that seems to be a rare exception.

As far as I can tell, Rut Hallgrímsdóttir is a professional photographer living and working in Reykjavik, specialising in formal portraiture, so this is not a typical project from her. Rauðisandur, an area in the extreme West of Iceland, on the South-Western edge of the Westfjords, is an area she discovered through her husband. It’s an area well known for its vast, sweeping sandy beaches, a bit reminiscent of the Irish northwest coast, but little visited due to being really well off the beaten track.

Although it has a rich and fascinating past, Rauðisandur is largely deserted these days. The (relatively) rich farming lands are not much of an attraction compared to the (ahem) riches of Reykjavik, and the old farms are derelict and fading. This is the natural and human landscape that Rut sets out to capture, and in my opinion she does it very well.

To be clear, this is not classic landscape photography. While there are some decent shots in the book, and some of the seascapes are excellent, they’re not really in tune with the modern landscape ethos. Indeed, I get the feeling that more than a few were shot quite some time ago ... on film!! There are no technical details in the book, not that I care at all, so I’m just guessing. What the photography does do very well though is to convey an intimate connection with this small, faraway - but still quite awe-inspiring - corner of Iceland. The commentary is full of fascinating anecdotes, and spent ages getting drawn into the stories about the farm at Vellir, and the photos of the surrounding landscape.

The book also include a nice section at the end on the area’s history by local expert Ari Ívarsson.

The photography is largely split between wide angle landscape vistas and semi-abstract close-up rock, wave and beach details. Again, it’s a combination that works well in conveying a sense of closeness to the land, and the more abstract work adds a considerable touch of artistic weight to the book, which otherwise might end feeling a bit bland. It’s through these abstractions that I feel we get a glimpse of Rut’s true skill as a photographer. It would be interesting to see more of these.

I guess “Rauðisandur” isn’t going to win any major prizes: it’s not that kind of book. But in its own quiet way it’s a very interesting and worthwhile book, which might leave a more lasting impression than just getting Lost in Iceland.

As far as I can tell, you can buy “Rauðisandur” directly from from Rut Hallgrímsdóttir’s website. I guess you could also order it from Eymundsson. It doesn’t appear to be on Amazon :-)

APOLOGY: The following shots are, I’m afraid, very poor quality. I’m not really set up for product shots (i.e too lazy too bother…). But they should give a rough idea of the book’s direction.

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Film is best for Iceland

says Páll Stefánsson

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Friday, March 02, 2012

According to Páll Stefánsson

The combination of good film and medium format is still the best way to capture the Icelandic landscape.

(Via icelandreview.com)

Bugger. I’m doing it wrong.