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2019 Calendar

shameless commercial break

in Photography , Sunday, October 28, 2018

Somehow or the other this year I’ve managed to get my act sufficiently together to produce another calendar. With the help of my better half, who has painstakingly removed all the “arty” shots from my selection, and replaced them with photos that people might actually like, this year’s theme is Antarctica (just like the last one in 2014, but that went down pretty well, so why not).

I have neither the enthusiasm nor the optimism to try to do any kind of commercial deal these days, so sales are on a very limited level via local seasonal fairs and whatever. However I’m also setting aside a few for online sales, so if you are interested please let me know. They are professionally printed on a commercial digital press, not via some online service, and the print quality is pretty good (300gsm semigloss paper). The cost would be €20 + Swiss Post postage costs to be agreed.  Delivery will probably be around early December.

The photography is largely from December 2016, but one is from 2013, and two more from a lot longer ago. From a technical point of view most are Olympus E-M1 or Olympus E-5, with a couple of Sigma dp0 shots, and outliers are Kodachrome 64 via Canon FTb.

Well, it’s neither National Geographic nor Vincent Munier, but it was fun putting it together.

Calendar2019 1

Front cover and first two months

Calendar2019 2

Back cover and last two months

 

Carmencita Film Lab

let someone else do the work

in Scanning , Saturday, October 27, 2018

I bought my first film scanner sometime in the late 1990s, a Minolta 35mm device. I upgraded to a higher resolution Microtek sometime later, and When I started using the Hasselblad XPan, I really wanted to be able to scan complete frames, so I eventually bought a Minolta medium format model. I used this until it became unreliable and unsupported by current operating systems, and replaced it with the Plustek Opticfilm 120 which I am using today. I started using Silverfast with the Minolta medium format scanner, so I’ve been using it continuously for well over 10 years. So, all in all, I’ve built up a reasonable level of experience, and possibly even expertise, in film scanning.

Apart from a few instances where I got scans for consumer film labs for quick test purposes, I have never outsourced scanning. One reason is the cost - for example, Procine in Switzerland change CHF 7.50 per frame for 120 format film (I guess this makes shooting 617 more economical…) so for a roll of 6x7 this means CHF 75. Add development and we’re practically a CHF 100, per film - scanned to 18Mb JPG (that’s pretty much $100). This is just nuts. In recent years some rather more realistic pricing has emerged from companies such as Richard Photo Lab in the US, and the quality and range of customer service seems pretty good too. However, I’m a little dubious about sending unexposed film to California.  So, when I came across Carmencita Film Lab in Spain offering a similar service, I decided to give them a go. To compare, they charged me €133 including courier delivery for 4 rolls of Portra 400, scanned to (roughly) 120Mb TIFF. It’s still far from cheap, but starting to get reasonable.

Carmencita Film Lab (CFL from now on) offer a range of scanning options. You can choose between Fuji Frontier and Noritsu scanners - I chose the Noritsu, as based on what I’ve read it offers a more neutral rendition with a little less baked-in contrast. I believe most people go with Fuji Frontier for Portra 400, but as long term readers here may have gathered, I’m not “most people”, and if there’s a less popular option, I’ll choose it. CFL also allow you to specify a “look”, but here I had no clue of either what I want or how to describe it (which may be a clue to the underlying reason why I’m not an Award-Winning Photographer). However after this first experiment I may now have a slightly better idea. CFL also recommend that in order to protect the film in transit you pad it with chocolate. I complied with this suggestion.

I accidentally sent my films by economy post, so they took a while to arrive, but once they did, CFL kept me informed of progress, and turnaround was quite fast. A few days later I received a email with a link to download the scans, and a week or so later Fedex delivered the negatives. So, now I can compare CFL scans with my own.

The four films were all shot in Calabria, in Parghelia and Pizzo, late last August. I have already published a selection of the CFL scans as a Photo Diary entry.

Cfl1

In this first screen grab, the CFL version is on the left, and my scan (Plustek 120, Siverfast with Portra 400 Negafix profile) on the right. We can see a fairly significant difference. This can be reduced by adjusting the white balance to be a little cooler, and with a tint shift towards green:

Cfl2

However, the overall colour palette is still quite different. Note the colour of the leftmost door, of the green window frames, and shaded paving stones. These are complex shifts. It is possible to get somewhat closer by playing around with HSL sliders in Lightroom, and certainly in Photoshop, but that isn’t really my intention. Another possibility would be to tune the Portra 400 Negafix profile in Silverfast to a closer match, but that’s getting into rocket science territory.

Another point of comparison is resolution and sharpness. The Plustek scans were done at 5300dpi with no sharpening, and then resampled to 50% in Photoshop. I’m not sure what the nominal resolution of the Noritsu is, but initially it looked a lot better. However, after dialling in some fairly heavy sharpening, the two ended up pretty well matched.

Cfl3

At pixel-peeping levels the Noritsu appears to show a degree of luminosity noise which is not so apparent in the Plustek scans. This may actually be grain exaggerated by heavy sharpening, but in any case, in isn’t obtrusive.

A second example shows a similar behaviour to the first: the CFL scan is considerably warmer, particularly in the shadows. As in the first example, the road and pavement surfaces are much warmer. However, the Silverfast interpretation gives more neutral grays in this area, in fact they are nearly perfectly neutral. Of course, maybe Portra 400 isn’t supposed to be neutral…

Cfl4

Again, it is relatively easy to dial out a large part of the difference with a white balance tweak, but an exact match would be tricky to deliver.

Cfl5

I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised by the Noritsu scans. They hold up very well against the Plustek/Silverfast combination, which itself comes out quite well against the Hasselblad X5. In fact at a first glance they are better than the Plustek output, but it is clear that the Noritsu process applies some pretty heavy sharpening, which when applied to the Plustek scans evens things out considerably. Nevertheless, from a resolution point of view, I’m not so sure that the extra time required to make my own scans is worthwhile.

The colour is another matter though. Although the CFL scans are very attractive, I’m not entirely sure that they are what I want. Unfortunately, I do not have a grey card shot to compare, or indeed a reference shot on digital. I do have digital shots in Parghelia from the same days, but not really at the same time of day. I can however make some kind of rough comparison based on experience, and that tells me that the Silverfast Portra 400 profile is closer to a neutral white balance digital shot that the Noritsu.

Looking at the following pair, while the Noritsu version (left) is very attractive, my feeling - which is inevitably subjective - is that the Silverfast version on the right is more accurate and closer to what I actually want.

Cfl7

There are two factors at play here: one, the overall colour / white balance, and the second the response curve across the colour spectrum and tonal range. Let’s not forget we’re dealing with actual film here, not emulation, and the differences are due to how two different processes interpret the exposed negative film. There is a kind of “received view” of how Portra 400 is supposed to look, which has emerged over the past 3-4 years, exemplified by Johnny Patience’s published work and writings. CFL’s scans dial right into that look and do an extremely good job of delivering it. However, my reading of this look, which is reinforced by the client work that CFL publish, is that is very much driven by the wedding / portraiture market, where the combination of flattering skin tones and subdued saturation is very appealing.  It can work for other genres as well, but it has to be a conscious decision.

I think I will carry on with this experiment, because potentially it is very liberating. Probably I will ask for cooler shadows, although that might apply only to Portra 400, and the next film I am likely to send will be 160NS.  CFL TIFFs are delivered as 8-bit sRGB, which I fell is a bit restrictive. I would much prefer 16-bit ProPhoto RGB, or at a push, Adobe RGB. But that may be technically impossible.  The fact that the Plustek/Silverfast combination delivers me ProPhoto RGB at 16-bit may actually account for some of the differences, and may indicate that they are more “accurate” - whatever that means when discussion negative film. But certainly what Carmencita Film Lab deliver by default seems to be perfect for their main target market.

 

Antarktis, by Gerry Johansson

the great white beyond

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A few weeks ago I made a serious recurrent mistake: I read the regular newsletter sent out by the magnificent Beyond Words photobook retailer. Somehow or the other I ended up discovering “Antarktis”, by Swedish photographer Gerry Johansson, and immediately ordered it.

IMG 5192

I was not familiar with Gerry Johansson’s work. His website follows the standard Serious Artiste template, a minimalist white design devoid of any personality, with small type, a list of works and exhibits, no sense of engagement and of course the de-rigeur obtuse method for navigating image galleries - if indeed you can find the image galleries, they’re well hidden.  This of course opposed to Fine Art Photographer template which was copied from Squarespace and features a blog talking about Gear, along with photos of said Photog taken 20 years ago (I leave it to you to decide which category this website falls into).  Anyway, I’ve got sidetracked again, but this po-faced white websites are really starting to irritate me.

Having said all that, it is worth finding your way through Johansson’s website, because there is some seriously good work there. I have a feeling I’ve read about his “American Winter” book, it looks very tempting.

Back to “Antarktis”: in the foreword, Thorbjörn Andersson says “...his way of blending foreground and background makes the picture both a representative subject and a structure”. Also, the description at Beyond Words states “The series of photos eventuate in an unusual reality relevant perspective, and capture the astonishing non-distance relationship between physicality and nature”.  This isn’t hyperbole, it is absolutely accurate. These days the expectations of photography in Antarctica are of spectacular mountains, icebergs, treating skies, deep blue seas, and of course penguins. Johansson, thanks a grant from the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, was able to venture into inland Antarctica, which has none of these things.

I’ve had the good fortune also to have travelled in inland Antarctica, and the sense of disorientation from a landscape with no familiar frame of reference, very little colour, and very few mid-tones, is extremely well captured in this photography. Some frames triggered such a sense of recognition of that strange ambience that it actually made me shiver.

IMG 5193

The photography is black and white, taken with a large format 8x10 camera, which in itself cannot have made life easy. One might expect a certain nod in the direction of polar photography pioneers like Ponting, but instead the approach is thoroughly modern. The standout impression is how in using architectural photography practises Johansson has been able to capture the complete loss of perspective which one often suffers from in this territory.

It might all sound very cold, in all senses of the word, but in fact it is far from that. Antarktis tells it as it is, no HDR, no contrast or saturation boost, but rather letting the utter strangeness of Antarctica speak for itself.

IMG 5194

You can buy Antarktis from Beyond Words, with whom I have absolutely no affiliation other than that of a very satisfied (and over-frequent) customer.

 

Uncompetitive spirit

although with right incentive…

in Photography , Monday, October 08, 2018

I’ve never been one for competition, of any kind. I prefer to do things my own way, to set my own goals, and not bother too much what other people are doing. This is not restricted to photography - I have the same attitude towards all forms of work and play. I certainly compete against myself, for example setting time or difficulty targets for mountain biking, but I really have little interest in fitting in with some set of restricted parameters to compete with others. The fact that I’m a miserable antisocial loner doesn’t help much, mind you. But when it comes to photography, and indeed all arts, I really, really do not get the idea of competing. How can we say that one person’s mode of self-expression is better than someone else’s ? It strikes me as being more harmful than anything else. Of course if you treat photography as a technical endeavour then it can work - prize for the razor-sharpest photo of nothing in particular, prize for the highest resolution brick wall, prize for the most slavish conformance to the Rule Of Thirds. Etcetera.

Which is all a long preamble to say I entered a competition. Not exactly National Geographic, but instead a competition run by my local bricks and mortar camera shop, Foto & Ottico Carpi of Bellizona (of which more below). The competition required a submission of just one photo, of an animal. Any animal. And the first prize is an Olympus E-M1 MkII, so not exactly nothing. Still, despite my having plenty of photos of animals (not that I’m any good at all at wildlife photography), I still dithered up until almost the last moment before sending in my entry.  You may be able to spot it in the screenshot below:

Screen Shot 2018 10 07 at 22 07 51

The quality of the entries to the competition has really taken me aback. This is a competition run by a small, if excellent, shop, in a small provincial town in one of the sleepiest parts of Switzerland, open only to subscribers to the shop’s mailing list. It just goes to show how many really excellent photographers there are, and that despite all the sneering about selfies and camera phones, there is still a very significant section of the public who take photography seriously. Of course, these could all be the shop owner under different pseudonyms :-).

I’m not sure when the winner will be announced, but I am sure it won’t be me.

Footnote:

Foto Carpi is a family business, run by the professional photographer Milo Carpi, located in the Main Street of Bellinzona, Ticino. They are an Olympus Pro dealer, Nikon as well I think, and also stock Sony, Leica, Panasonic, Sigma and a surprisingly good range of accessories. They even sell film. I got my last ever rolls of Ektachrome E100G there. They quite often run open days supported by the importers of their main brands. It’s really encouraging to see such a business managing to survive in these times, but the icing on the cake, and really surprising thing are their prices: I only really look at Olympus prices, so I can’t say for sure that this applies to all brands, but their Olympus prices consistently undercut even the lowest prices from Swiss internet box shifters. And this with personal service and advice, the security of being able to personally bring in any defective or damaged item, and a hotline to Olympus Switzerland. I try to give them as much of my business as I can.  And I often find excuses to stroll past their window display.

 

Photokina Fallout

GAStrology time again

in GAS , Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The recent avalanche of new camera announcements (albeit most of them vague promises for 2019) have once again stirred up doubt and Gear Acquisition Syndrome. As a committed and long term user of Micro Four Thirds, and Four Thirds before that, I might be wondering if all this rush towards “full frame” somehow invalidates my photography. It’s a stupid reaction, but not uncommon, and let’s face it, I’m just me against the relentless onslaught of marketing and Internet pseudo-peer pressure. Every telegraph pole out there has a raven perched on it, croaking “Micro Four Thirds is dead, nevermore!”.

I have to confess some of the offerings look tempting. The Nikon Z7 seems pretty nice in theory - I saw one in the flesh yesterday, alongside the Olympus E-M1.2 and Lumix G9 MFT cameras, and the Nikon looks about the same size as the Olympus and actually smaller than the Lumix, despite housing a sensor that’s twice the size. Then again, boy is that Nikon ugly! And not even in a quirky way.

The standard defence of MFT would be that the cameras and especially lenses are smaller and lighter. Well, although there are smaller and lighter variants in the MFT world, honestly if you want reasonably fast, weather sealed lenses, and a rugged body, in many cases you may wonder if the smaller, lighter bit starts to get a bit marginal.

I’m not so bothered, in general, about “image quality”, whatever that means. Generally any modern camera is good enough for everything except very special cases. But nevertheless, recently I have been starting to get frustrated with a certain lack of resolution of high frequency detail in the far distance. Close up, there’s no problem, the Olympus body/lens combinations can deliver all the resolution I’ll ever need. I can understand that MFT might impose too many limitations on, say, outdoor portrait or wedding photographers, but for my mixed urban/landscape stuff, generally it’s not the limiting factor. I rarely need to go over ISO 1600, indeed I’m not that often over 200, and I tend to be scaling for more depth of field, not less.

Anyway, to try to get a handle on the realities of the situation, I decided to make a small series of prints from Olympus files (all 16 Mpix) at the largest size my printer offers, A2. And, frankly, they worked out just fine. They stand up very well to high quality scans from 120 format film, and in some respects to Sigma Foveon files. Honestly, I can’t see me ever needing to print bigger - I have no actual use even for A2. If ever I did, I’m sure I can find professional printers who can go up to A1.

IMG 5179

A2 Prints from Olympus 16Mpix files

IMG 5180

Detail of above A2 Prints

I then started to think about a couple of future trips I have planned, which involve flights with very restricted weight limits. That’s when the apparently marginal weight advantage of MFT starts to kick in. For example, the marvellous 12-100 f/4 lens is practically on a par with any Olympus prime, even the f/1.2 series, and at a push could work as the sole lens for most trips. It weighs 560g, and with Dual IS offers unbelievable stabilisation. There is a 24-120 f/4 Nikon lens that weighs 710g and has less range (yes, I know all about depth of field, but for me this is at best irrelevant, at worst a downside). If we move up to the equally fabulous Olympus 40-150 f/2.8, which weighs 760g, then the closest Nikon I can find is the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, which weighs 1.5kg and is significantly more expensive and bigger. It’s at this longer end that the MFT weight advantage really kicks in. And if you’re willing to compromise a bit on aperture, then you can find very good MFT lenses that hardly register on the scales.

Certainly “full frame” sensors have an attraction and certain advantages in noise threshold, dynamic range, and resolution. But frankly, these advantages are often not much different from trivial. I’ll take the possibility of carrying an extra 150mm of focal length reach over a 0.5db increase in dynamic range.

Olympus didn’t announce ANYTHING at Photokina, which was another sign that the sky is falling on them, apparently. Well, it might not be the best news for Olympus, as new product drives sales (I suppose), but it’s fine by me: I’ve pretty much got everything I need - although that 300mm lens is sort of tempting. I don’t even have the latest body, the E-M1.2 - it doesn’t really offer me anything over my E-M5.2 or E-M1.1, and it’s noticeably bulkier. What I would like to see Olympus work on, personally, is a range of optically excellent medium aperture primes, along the lines of Leica Elmarits, and a high-end medium aperture medium zoom, within the 14-35mm range. But then again, the “low end” lenses they already offer in this range are really far from poor.

So, in summary, the grass is actually a perfectly nice hue of green on my side of the fence, and I’m sticking to it. I did vaguely hint at the one Photokina announcement that really did have me clutching my wallet: the L-Mount alliance. The thought of a full frame Sigma Foveon camera interchangeable with Leica and Panasonic bodies, all three taking each other’s lenses is really interesting news. Certainly not a solution for weight-constrained trips, but otherwise, I can see this paired with my Olympus kit as the ultimate solution - for me.