Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

Extra Texture

read all about it

in Photography , Friday, May 26, 2017

Enough blabla, here’s some pictures.

OM4-2017-2_17.jpg
OM4-2017-2_29.jpg
OM4-2017-2_15.jpg
OM4-2017-2-32.jpg
OM4-2017-2_34.jpg

Film: a diatribe

the photographer’s panacea

in Film , Monday, May 22, 2017

I’m going to need to preface this rant with the reminder that none of what I write, or, usually, write about is of the slightest importance in the grand scheme of things. It’s not exactly North Korea.

Recently, trying to make my endless commutes more interesting, I’ve been consuming quite a lot of writing about film photography, and a smaller amount of actual film photography. Most of this has come to me through Twitter, by following @EmulsiveFILM and all the myriad avenues that this leads me down. Sadly, with a few exceptions, I’m finding it all ends up rather un-engaging.

OM4 2017 1 12

Film don’t live here anymore

Let’s be clear, I’m starting with the premise that the objective of photography is some form of self-expression. Some may call it art, and for some, it is. There is an alternative objective, which is to engage in the craft of taking photographs - and this all too often morphs into obsessing over photographic tools.

A strong thread underlying this (supposed) revival in film photography is that somehow it makes you more creative. Well, if that’s the case, why are 95% of writings on film photography blogs about cameras, film types and other technical stuff?  And why is 90% of the photography made up of shots of nothing, frequently drowned in “bokeh”? Mostly it’s photos of cameras, or complete crap supposedly interesting because it’s shot on Wonderblast 125-TripleX developed in LSD-soaked quetzal droppings or whatever. What’s the difference here, between any techie digital photography site and this stuff? Fundamentally, nothing at all. It’s all gear, and gear acquisition, with the excuse that somehow because it is old gear it’s different.

OM4 2017 1 06

Film’s off

Then we get the other argument, the one that really makes my hackles rise: that film is better because “slows you down, makes you more contemplative”. That is absolute, unadulterated, 100% proof, self-deceiving bollocks. The photographer is responsible for the photography, not the camera. I’ve never heard of a digital camera grabbing it’s owner by the throat screaming SHOOT FASTER DAMMIT! Sure, some cameras - and not only film cameras - absolute do not lend themselves to rapid fire shooting. Anything made by Sigma, for example. But on the other hand, some film cameras won’t get in your way. A Canon EOS-1v will shoot at 10FPS, and has a 36 shot full-frame buffer! Anyway, if you need to rely on a camera being unable to shoot quickly to, er, not shoot quickly, then in my opinion there is a more fundamental issue to resolve here than gear choices.

It seems that the hardcore #FilmsNotDead crew are not only rejecting digital, but state of the art film too. The last mainstream emulsions to be brought to market, like Portra 400, Provia 400X, Ektar 100 and so are incredibly sophisticated products of chemical and manufacturing industry. So why do aberrations like Rollei CR 200, or all of Lomography’s product line even exist ? Well, clearly, because there’s a market for them. People actually want to shoot on crap film, in the mistaken view that it’s artistic.

OM4 2017 1 20

Agfa? Sorry mate, no call for that these days

The gear acquisition rabbit hole on the analog side of the fence is just as deep, if not deeper than on the digital side, but with the added addiction of the chase after rare, highly sought after objects, or the lure of the fantastic bargain. If film photography is supposed to be a simple, pure remedy to the terrors of digital, why then do film photographers accumulate ridiculous numbers of cameras, most if which don’t work properly, and some of which actually never did ? Yes, it’s interesting, fun even. I completely get that. But creative ? I don’t think so.

What I have found very little of is any evidence that using film specifically makes for interesting photography or photographers. There are certainly some extremely interesting photographers out there shooting partially or exclusively on film, but they don’t make a big deal about it. In fact often they don’t even mention it.

The tail is wagging the dog, here. In my opinion, there are few other reasons to use film than being driven to it by an artistic or creative need. For example, if your intent requires a view camera, you’re going to need to use film. If it requires Medium Format aesthetics, and you’re not a millionaire, ditto. If it requires a Technorama 617, same again. You can also make an argument for the look of certain film stocks, for example Cinefilm, although I’m less convinced of that. But when it is switched around to being driven by wanting to track down and play with old cameras then no, sorry, that’s just gear lust talking. One important proviso here - I’d make a very big exception for black & white. In my opinion, if you want to shoot B&W seriously, then there is no other option than film.

Drm 20170513 R0000131

Automatic for the People

So essentially this whole “film’s not dead” thing is just another, relatively bargain basement, strain of Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Leaving aside cost, which is subjective anyway, GAS is deadly for photography, for at least 2 reasons. First, the distraction of wasting endless reading about, talking about, and dreaming about gear. Next, the paralysing effect of having way too much gear (because after all it was so cheap!), and the pressure to use it all - and then to blog and twitter about it to impress the rest of the #FilmsNotDead hipsters. Sure, it’s a hobby, perhaps it’s even fun, but it isn’t photography, and if you got into film to somehow rescue your creativity, it’s also a bit tragic.

Of course I’m not immune to this. I’ve been banging on about Cinefilm 50 in the last few posts, so I’m well aware that I’m keeping my hypocrisy level up to normal. But here’s the thing: I bought two rolls of Cinefilm 50. One, I put in my XPan, and I burned through it in under 1 hour, thoroughly enjoying it. That would be because I’m very in tune with the view of the world that camera gives me. The other, I put in my OM-4, and after two weeks, I had only managed to get to frame 30. While the OM-4 is a lovely piece of retro technology, and the view through the finder is stunning, it really doesn’t make that much sense to use it over my digital E-M1.  Cinefilm’s look is interesting, but it isn’t unobtainable from a digital file.

Drm 20170513 R0000133

All fixes catered for. Well, they used to be.

But I still use film. In fact for the last month or so I’ve more or less only shot film - all 2 rolls of it. I actually prefer the look of slide film over colour digital, with the major proviso that conditions need to be right. The operating envelope of slide film is very narrow. There is zero scope for highlight or shadow recovery, and really only soft lighting works well. But when all ducks are correctly lined up, there is some quality of colour graduation which I just don’t see in digital, any digital, even Foveon. I’m still going add a proviso though - sometimes my whole perspective just flips, I think “what am I doing wasting my time with this stuff”, and I pick up the digital camera.  Actually, if it’s logistically feasible and I’m going somewhere I care about, I really need to have both digital and film with me.

I’m not quite so sure about negative film. Certainly it has a certain look, and has the huge advantage of vast exposure latitude. Highlight rolloff is probably the killer feature for negative film: for one subject I shoot a lot of, a kind of urban landscape, negative film does have a significant advantage both in dealing with harsh lighting and teasing out subtle transitions in texture. But then again, as a photographer, or indeed, a Fine Artiste, I have come to understand that I am very drawn to specific colour characteristics in deciding what to photograph. And actually getting any kind of objective colour fidelity out of negative film is pretty Quixotic. Sure, it can look very nice, but actually getting it to look right is quite another matter, and that can sometimes be very frustrating.

Anyway, my personal experience is that for negative film you can get close enough to make no difference using film simulations, or rolling your own in Photoshop. But I’ve never found a convincing slide film simulation.

There is another argument for using film though, which I kind of referred to above, and revolves around the cameras.  I think a very strong argument can be made that older cameras are often better designed, better built, far more straightforward, and offer a far more satisfying, direct user experience than digital cameras.  My Olympus E-M1 is a nice camera, but my OM-4 just gets out of the way (although actually my old Canon T90 implemented multi-spot metering far better than the OM-4. The T90 was a fabulous film camera). Such cameras can certainly have a big creative effect, as they insulate you from a lot of the distractions than come with shooting digital (yeah I know, “distractions” like being able to change ISO on the fly, but still…). But it’s still not that simple - if you decide to get into film scanning, well say goodbye to 20% of your life, a large amount of money, and at least half of your sanity (or 75% of it you use Vuescan). And Heavens help you if your eyes start drifting towards all those weird and wonderful “alternative” film types you MUST use to be a Real Artist.  No, my recommendation is if you want the full, classic, analog film camera experience, then buy one or two good cameras, a good supply of film, and TURN OFF THE INTERNET. Order your film through magazines, like Popular Photography. Oh, wait…

Of course, this is all just me. On the one hand, I can’t deny that I both share and understand the fascination of film. And my perspective, of one who started in photography pre-digital, will be quite different to some young whippersnapper who’s just discovered Agfa Vista. But to me the downside is that it brings yet another huge set of displacement activities which serve only to take me further away from concentrating on what I think it is I want to do - make satisfying photographs.

OM4 2017 1 18

I’ll get my coat

By the way, some of the photos here were taken on film.  Some were not.

 

 

How sharp is your scan ?

..and it’s grain you need to show

in Scanning , Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The object of this review is perhaps not the most enthralling I’ve ever covered. It is, to be exact, an exposed piece of film, a piece of positive “slide” Agfa film in fact. It isn’t even in colour. It is in fact a Resolution Target (USAF 1951), produced by LaserSoft Imaging. You can read all about it here.

There was a special off on these a few weeks back - they quite often happen - and so it was quite a handy retail therapy opportunity. But apart from feeding the inner consumer, you may well ask “what is the point” ?

Resolution target

Resolution Target (USAF 1951)

Well, there are two points. The first is perhaps the most initially compelling, as it gives you a standard reference target with which, following the detailed instructions, you can determine the actual optical resolution of your scanner. This then gives a warm fuzzy feeling and bragging rights over all your scanner owning friends (or of course it might leave you feeling extremely depressed).

Unless you own hundreds of scanners, that’s pretty much the end of it. I own two, so I was kept happily entertained for over 5 minutes!  But, actually, it isn’t the end of it all, because as the instructions explain, there is something else you can use this target for, which turns out to be very enlightening.

The second use is to experiment with different scanner sharpening settings to determine what the optimum settings are. This was quite an eye-opener. I’d always tended to leave sharpening to Photoshop, and some mumbo-jumbo laden plug-in, as I’m too lazy or stupid to really get the details of all this radius, strength and masking stuff. Using the target in conjunction with Silverfast’s USM tool allowed me to quickly determine the best settings for restoring sharpness lost in the scanning process, without overdoing things. It also revealed that the adaptive “Auto Sharpness” mode in USM actually does a pretty good job.  By way of illustration, if I used USM, I tended (for no really good reason) to keep Power in a range of around 100-150. Auto Sharpness, for a full resolution positive 6x9 MF scan set Power at 300 - it goes up to 500. Zooming in at 1:1, it was clear that 100 was too weak, and 300 was not introducing any artefacts. I don’t know yet if this means I’ll switch to Silverfast USM for capture sharpening, but this experience certainly boosts my confidence in it, and it would be quite a time saver over doing it in Photoshop.

So, if you are interested, one, in seeing how much resolution your scanner actually delivers, and two, making the most of that resolution, this Silverfast Resolution Target (USAF 1951) is a good investment. I’m sure it would be equally useful for Vuescan users, there is nothing that ties it to Silverfast software.

Oh, and my results ? 4096 dpi real optical resolution for the Plustek Opticfilm 120, which while less than the advertised 5300 dpi, is pretty much as good as it gets for desktop film scanners. The revered Nikon Coolscan 8000 / 9000 reputedly do hit their advertised 4000 dpi. And apparently, the Opticfilm 120 could do even better with some way of fine tuning focus.  Anyway, 4096 dpi is quite enough for 35mm and 120 film, and this test confirms what I could see subjectively, comparing with scans from my old Minolta Dual Scan Multi Pro.

My Canon 9000F only managed 2048 dpi, less than half the advertised 4800, but that’s pretty much what I expected.

Sigma DP0 Firmware 2.0

old toy becomes new toy

in Sigma , Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The recent very welcome and generous firmware update (2.0.1) for Sigma’s DP Quattro cameras has added several new dimensions to working with the output. The update brings two major new features:

  • DNG Output
  • SFD (Super Fine Definition mode)

Of the two, DNG is probably the most significant: it means that it is no longer necessary to use Sigma Photo Pro to process raw images.  They can now be opened directly in various DNG compatible applications. I’ve tried Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, Photo Mechanic, Alien Skin Exposure, Iridient Developer. They all work fine. This is a huge boost to workflow, and opens up Sigma Quattro cameras to all those put off by having to use Sigma Photo Pro (which, by the way, is actually nowhere as awful as the internet echo chamber would have you believe).

On top of this, you can now use software such as XRite ColorChecker to create customer camera profiles to use in compatible applications.

SFD is a bit more esoteric. SFD mode combines 7 standard frames automatically shot at different exposures to obtain a single file with extended shadow and highlight detail, and lower noise. Basically an auto-HDR, but thankfully without the kitsch. Unlike, say, Olympus in-camera HDR, here all individual frames are saved as RAW and can be selected, discarded, or individually edited in Sigma Photo Pro, if you wish to go too that level of detail (no DNG here).  I’d read some pretty negative opinions of SFD from Sigma SD Quattro owners, so I was curious but not all that excited.

So, yesterday evening I went out to grab a few shows to try all this stuff out. Please note this was just a “kick the tyres” sort of thing, in a context of taking photos that I might actually be interested in, not “testing”, taking a million shots of the pot plant, brick wall, or cat nearest to the couch.

DNG output

The addition of DNG output makes a huge potential difference to workflow enhancement. The question is, what, if anything, are we losing? There are a lot of drawbacks to using Sigma Foveon cameras, but there are also two big plusses, resolution, and colour character. Compromising on either of those arguably makes using the cameras pointless. So, using a frame which is not far off a torture test, with deep shadow and bright highlights, not to mention abundant, potentially troublesome green tones, let’s dive in.

I’ve taken two identical shots, one recorded to X3F file, and the other to DNG. I have processed the X3F file in Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) using “Auto” settings - I don’t usually use Auto, but here it seemed to make sense, as I assume something similar must happen internally in-camera to create RGB data for the DNG file. I’ve opened the DNG file in Lightroom, on default settings, but changed the camera profile to Standard to match SPP. Here are the full frames, compared in Lightroom Library module.

Sd0 dng compare 1

X3F on the left, DNG on the right

Ok, you’re not going to be able to tell much from these, but the idea is to get an overall feel. The colour in the DNG file seems a little muted compared to the X3F. We’ll look at that a bit later.

The top left corner of the shot is a bit troublesome - again, we’ll look at this when discussing the SFD mode, but let’s see how X3F and DNG compare.

Dp0 compare dng tl

Top left crop, DNG version

Dp0 compare x3f tl

Top left crop, X3F version

Well, there are some minor differences, but nothing I’d personally lose sleep over. What gets interesting is looking at the potential for colour calibration.  Using the XRite Colorchecker Passport, a made a quick Lightroom profile for the SD0.

Sd0 dng colour profile

Left, custom profile, right, Sigma standard

The difference there is quite clear. I’m not yet entirely sure I prefer the custom profile version, but I think it is probably more accurate. Personally I actually like the somewhat muted saturation that the Sigma standard profile gives, but well, it’s certainly opening up a whole new dimension. It will be interesting to compare a Sigma custom profiled shot of an identical scene shot with another camera.

Lightroom actually has all the built-in SPP colour modes as profiles under calibration. I assume these come in with the DNG. If Adobe had actually put some effort into actively supporting Sigma Quattro cameras, I think we’d have heard about it.

As I said above, I’m not all that unenthusiastic about SPP, but even so, there are a lot of good arguments for using DNG, and so far, I don’t see any significant drawbacks. The out of camera DNGs are huge - about 110Mb to the 60-ish Mb of a corresponding X3F, but apparently running them through Adobe DNG converter shrinks them with no adverse side effects. I haven’t tried it yet.

SFD Mode

A couple of shots here demonstrate the usefulness of SFD mode. Unfortunately I was in a bit of a hurry, and the location I was shooting from was a bit precarious, so I wasn’t very careful about details and the non-SFD version is shot a f/4.5, so the background is not sharp.  Note that this sort of shot, where there is moving water, is not supposed to work in SFD mode.  I found it to work fairly well. The significant thing here is the highlights, in the patches of bright water. The SFD mode has yielded a lot more highlight detail.

DP0Q0671 x3i 2 full

Full scene, SFD mode

Now, two close ups of the two modes.

Drm SIGMA dp0 Quattro DP0Q0669

Close up, standard mode (auto exposure)

DP0Q0671 x3i crop

Close up, SFD mode

Note, the white balance is different in SFD mode. It was actually much cooler, but I made a rough adjustment in Photoshop. The differences in sharpness are irrelevant, as mentioned above, they are down to to wide an aperture on the non-SFD shot. However, what is significant is the extra detail in the bright water patches in the SFD shot. In the non-SFD shot they are completely blown.  Also, note, from this example, the SFD rendering of blurred water is comparable to the non-SFD. However, at the edge of the full frame, there was some minor leaf movement, and there artefacts do show up. Sometimes they will be acceptable, sometimes not. Indeed, I took a different SFD shot with moving water, and in that case some of the patterns were a bit weird.  But it looks like it could be useful, in some situations.

Note, I didn’t encounter any of the processing time nightmares broadcast on the forums. On my computer, Sigma Photo Pro 6.5.3 took under 2 minutes to process an SFD set (.XFI file). That seems reasonable to me.

A second example was aimed more at shadow detail. The full frame is below (in this case I was more interested in shadow detail).

Drm SIGMA dp0 Quattro DP0Q0658

Looking in detail at the debris in shadow in the lower left:

Drm SIGMA dp0 Quattro DP0Q0658 crop

Close up, standard mode (auto exposure)

DP0Q0659 X3i crop

Close up, SFD mode

I would say that is pretty conclusive.

However, the highlights (sky patches, top left) are blown in both cases. The sky was completely overcast, so that is fine, however the loss of detail in the foliage isn’t so impressive. Here the SFD version does a better job, but neither is brilliant. An extreme case, maybe, but also just one of the Foveon sensor’s weak points.

Drm SIGMA dp0 Quattro DP0Q0658 tr2

Close up, top left, standard mode (auto exposure)

DP0Q0659 X3i tl

Close up, top left, SFD mode

I’m not sure how much I might end up using SFD mode. I would imagine it is more generally useful for static subjects in controlled, indoor conditions, but from this very brief trial, it does seem more useful for outdoors photography than I expected. Anyway, I’m certainly not going to complain.

Thanks very much to Sigma for this update - they don’t really get a lot of publicity, but I doubt there is a company today more dedicated to making great photography equipment at reasonable prices. And they just keep improving.