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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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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.

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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…

 

Summer of ‘76 ?

not quite what I had in mind

in Film , Thursday, July 27, 2017

A little while back, there was a minor bit of excitement triggered on the photowebs with the announcement of a new reversal (”slide”) film under the Rollei brand, called Variochrome. It was supposed to be usable between ISO 200 and 400, although it is DX-coded at 200. Well, being a little tired of waiting around for Ferrania’s slide film (and indeed their P30 monochrome negative), out of curiosity I decided to order a few rolls. After all, there’s not a lot of competition for ISO 400 slide film these days.

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I’ve just got the first roll back, shot on my XPan, and my general impression can be fully summed up in one word: disappointing.

I’m not sure what this film really is - “Rollei”, or rather, Maco Photo Products, don’t make their own, so it is repackaged something. The “limited edition” branding is in itself suspicious - why should it be limited, if it is new production? By the look of it, it is some kind of reject Agfa stock. It might hold its own as a retro-70s expired beige tinted novelty stock from Lomography, but packaged in a way which implies it is for serious use is totally inappropriate. Apart from the ghastly colour rendition, the film base is the flimsiest I’ve seen this side of Polachrome. Actually the whole experience is not unlike Polachrome.

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Not quite what I had in mind

 

I wasn’t expecting fine grain or high resolution, and on those two fronts Variochrome doesn’t disappoint.

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1:1 zoom at 5300dpi

There also appears to be some light leakage effect on the leader and first two frames (well, last two given how the XPan works). I’ve never seen anything like that before, except if I accidentally opened the back, which I last did around 2001. Looks to me either to be a lab error, which is very unlikely - it would be the first ever from the lab I use these days - or light leaking into the canister.

variochrome1

Does anybody have any idea wth happened here ?

It is possible to kind of resurrect something using Silverfast’s excellent midtone correction tools, but it would be far better just to load up a roll of Provia 100F pushed 1 stop.

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Local river as Variochrom sees it…

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Half-hearted attempt at rescue

Of course it could, just possibly, be a defective sample. Either that, or the marketing around this film is approaching the highly cynical. My advice - avoid at all costs, unless of course you like Abba.

(Actually, looking carefully, the few tiny samples on the Maco website do rather look like they were taken in 1976)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I’ll get my coat

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

 

 

A roll of CineStill

still more film

in Film , Wednesday, March 29, 2017

I'm quite impressed with my first experience with CineStill 50 film. As promised, it is very fine grained, and allows for very sharp results, provided of course that operator issues such as focussing and scanning are carried out correctly. The exposure latitude also seems very good, probably quite similar to Portra 400. The character of the photos is interesting. More saturated than Portra, certainly, but not excessively so like Ektar.

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Of course, at 50 ISO, even over-exposing by two stops, considering that the fastest XPan lenses only open up to f/4, hand-held it is strictly a bright daylight film.

This first roll is really pretty much throw away, just trying it out, and I had it developed by a 1 hour lab which does ok, but has no packaging for uncut film, so it ends up scratched and dirty.

And my somewhat interrupted love/hate relationship with Silverfast, and indeed Silverfast's makers, has resumed. Silverfast has had some more half-baked or oddball features added, but major issues remain (for example, why does it not cache iSDR results ? Why recalculate and reapply every single time, even if I just change the display type from "Corrected" to "Original" ? Why can I not add extra frames for batch scanning on my scanner ? And why, for heaven's sake, is their idea of a forum so unbelievably user-hostile ? I don't suppose we will ever know.

Anyway, here's a few more CineStill 50 shots. Up until now I'm using Negafix standard settings and correcting grey balance in Silverfast - one of the things it does exceptionally well. This grey balancing might be actually masking some special attribute of CineStill 50, but I'll think about that later.

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