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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.

 

E4, E6

Checkmate for film?

in Film , 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.



 

Made in Italy

In vacanza con la P30

in Film , Monday, November 13, 2017

Let’s get something clear up front: I don’t do black & white. And if I do, it isn’t usually film. And if it’s film, it’s never real black & white, but some C-41 ersatz thing, or something really left-field like Agfa Scala or 35mm Polaroid PolaPan. But basically, although I enjoy black & white as a viewer, as a photographer I just don’t really get it.

So, why did I end up with 5 rolls of Ferrania P30 Alpha? And what did I do with them? Well, the answer to the first question is partly here, and the answer to the second is the topic of this post.

So, although I was quick off the mark ordering my P30 Alpha, it seems I was pretty much at the back of the queue, and I didn’t get my order until mid-August, by which point I’d rather lost interest. But anyway, I decided that an upcoming late summer holiday in Southern Italy would be a very appropriate place to try out this resuscitated Italian classic. Since I was intending on taking no more camera gear than would fit in a Domke F-5, I decided to take my Olympus XA.  It was that or the Minox ML. The Minox has an even better lens, but the XA’s rangefinder was the deciding factor. I’ve promised the Minox my last roll of P30.

I shot two rolls of P30 in Calabria. Here are some of the results.

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drm_p30_sep17_02_25.jpg
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Well, as I’ve made clear, I’m not a black & white photographer, but honestly, this stuff could make me change my mind. It positively glows, especially under the light it was presumably designed for. Of course I’m being very naive here: it has been processed by a lab, I’ve scanned it based on instincts built up over many years of colour film scanning, and so most of the variables I haven’t even touched.  But even so, I’m won over.

However… the film is called “P30 Alpha”, the “Alpha” indicating that it is, I suppose, pre-Beta, and therefore not exactly fully sorted.  I suppose that’s what led to a massive scratch along the full roll for one out of my five samples.

drm_p30_sep17_01_26.jpg

The Lab marked this as a “camera scratch”.  I don’t think so. This was the middle roll of three that went through the same camera in quick succession, and the others don’t even have a hint of a scratch. And I’ve put many, many rolls of film through the XA with exactly zero issues so far.

Closing thoughts on Ferrania

About 100 Internet Years ago, FILM Ferrania was launched with a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in order to rescue and revive the core of the Ferrania film factory. At the same time the objective of launching a new E6 slide film, based on the Ferrania Scotchchrome formula, was announced. Inevitably this shaped people’s expectations, as did the promise of a first batch to be shipped as Kickstarter rewards some 6 months later (the simultaneously announced cine film doesn’t seem to have created quite so much of a stir). Things started to shift, to slide, to wilt a bit in the Italian summer, and the rewards never shipped. Apparently one day they will. Apparently Atlas will one day roll his stone to the top of the mountain.

In the midst of all this, P30 popped up. So we are told, it was a bit of happenstance. I can’t find the original post (frankly, there seems to have been a touch of revisionism on the Ferrania website) but as far as I recall, during some early film coating testing the FILM Ferrania team realised they’d as good as recreated the class Ferrania P30 film. One thing led to another, and they decided to make a limited batch, this P30 Alpha I’ve been trying. And the next step is supposed to be full commercialisation of P30.

Well that’s all well and good, but honestly, the world doesn’t really need another black & white film, although, and this is the catch, it may well need this one, because quite frankly it’s fabulous. It’s all the excuse I need to buy a Leica M6.

So is FILM Ferrania still the team that launched the Kickstarter? Is Nicola Baldini still running things? Is the Colour slide film ever going to emerge, and, given the promise of a resuscitated Ektachrome, do we actually need it?

Perusing the Film Ferrania website, there really isn’t much mention of anything other than P30. All the imagery is monochrome. The sparse communication that leaks out is all about P30. This wasn’t what we signed up for.

I’ve been very closely connected to an Italian startup which linked up with, and eventually got hijacked by, an American “social media” team, as has happened here. In my case it turned out very badly - although it was not at first visible, the fundamental culture clash and deep lack of understanding of each other’s motivations and life/work patterns destroyed the company.  I fear the same thing is happening with FILM Ferrania. I hope I’m wrong.

 

Before Film Wasn’t Dead

nor Bela Lugosi for that matter…

in Film , Wednesday, October 18, 2017

While trying to put some sort of order into my jumble of slides and negatives from the past 100 years or so, I noticed a small grey paper envelope tucked away in a corner somewhere. Inside this were three frames that I shot on the margins of Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica, way back in 1992.

These three shots were almost certainly the amongst first medium format photos I ever took. It was during a period of somewhat nerve-wracking waiting around, in gorgeous weather, but with rapidly decreasing temperature - the full story is documented here.

I seem to remember I had almost run out of film at that point. However, one of our little group, a technician attached to the Swedish oceanographic team who’s name I sadly forgotten, gave me a couple of rolls of 120 film (Kodak EPR 6017, which is apparently Kodak Ektachrome Professional 64), and lent me a camera to use them in. The camera was a vintage folding rangefinder, either an Agfa or a Voigtländer - its owner was clearly an early adopter in the FilmsNotDead scene, even before Film wasn’t Not Dead! It was also the first time I’d used a rangefinder, in all probability.

I’ve certainly got 6 or so frames somewhere around, but these three I think I’ve never scanned before. They’ve survived pretty well.

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Whatever the photographic merits of these three may be, I think they tell an interesting story. Together with other film-era photos I have of Antarctica, largely I think I could say that there is a good chance I would not have taken them in this way today. Certainly it has something to do with the cameras, and something to do with film, and possibly quite a lot to do with experience, but the overwhelming factor is quite different.

Back in those days, there was no Flickr, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, etc. The world wide web had barely got started, and probably the Mosaic browser had just started to support GIF images. This meant that the audience for anybody’s photography, apart from a small select group of professionals, was their immediate family and friends. I was taking these photos to show my mum what the Antarctic was like, and hopefully to impress a few girls (well, I was in my mid-20s). Today, it is extremely difficult to ignore the ever-present need for “Likes”, “Faves” and whatever, as well as conforming to guru-set standards and peer approval. And there is also an almost intolerable (to me) omnipresent feeling of competition.

The middle photo of the three is really the key.  It’s a photo of, quite honestly, nothing. It ignores the rule of thirds. It isn’t going to get approved by anybody, and it would sink with trace on Flickr. Today I probably wouldn’t ever bother with it.

And this is also probably why I have very little interest in the whole Film revival movement, because for me the golden age of photography was that innocent time when all this pressure didn’t exist, when the only way to “share” was to invite a few friends around for a slide show, and when there was genuine interaction between photographers sharing a hobby, not constant competition and fighting for visibility and approval. The fact that the cameras were (arguably) more interesting is just a coincidence. And frankly, at least so far as 35mm colour is concerned, film has no advantage at all over well-informed use of digital. All the various film websites, feeds, communities seem to be doing is to take the whole squabbling mess of internet photography and switch the veneer of digital with that of analog. I’m not sure I see the attraction.

Or maybe I’m just a miserable old git. It has been suggested a few times…

 

 
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