ARTICLE

photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Recent Work - Widescreen

in Recent , Wednesday, May 16, 2018

 

#7 Rock Art

, Wednesday, April 18, 2018

 

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 If these are withdrawn, the remaining weak business case for commercial E6 processing vapourises.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.



 

#6 Veiled

, Friday, April 06, 2018

 

#5 Cementerio de la Recoleta

, Friday, March 16, 2018

 

#4 Boundaries II

, Tuesday, February 20, 2018

 

“Full Frame” from Inland Sea

A quick review…

One of the least interesting parts of the digital image workflow is nevertheless one of the most critical: getting files off of a memory card and storing them safely on disk. The absolute basic step here is safely copying data, which generally is a solved problem. However there is a bit more to it than that: things like renaming files to something meaningful, rather than the cryptic names so beloved of digital camera designers, storing them in a defined structure based on simple attributes such as capture date and also more advanced ones such as camera serial number, adding basic metadata, making safety copies in another location, and automating all of the above are valuable features.

Most imaging applications such as Lightroom or Capture One have some degree of ingest / import functionality, but I’ve always found it to be incomplete in one detail or the other. Also, I prefer to keep this part of the workflow independent from editing and developing.

For many years I’ve used the dedicated applications produced by Marc Rochkind, ImageIngester Pro and later Ingestamatic. These are very powerful and allow an almost endless amount of customisation, supporting all I’ve described above and more. Much more. However they have two drawbacks: the user interfaces are indescribably awful, to the point that it seems intentional. It would be hard to implement such dreadful usability purely out of chance. That can be overcome with time, and the fact that both applications are essentially “set and forget”. And once they are set up, the underlying code proves to be fast and ultra-reliable. The second drawback, however, is a show-stopped: last year, Rochkind, apparently defeated by changes to the MacOS API, announced that he was discontinuing development, and ending support at the end of 2017. Ingestamatic still works, at least under OS X Sierra (I see zero reason to “upgrade” to High Sierra), albeit with a prominent kludge, but it’s a dead parrot.

So, I had to find an alternative, which is easier said than done. Actually I do have a license to one product which does fit the bill, PhotoSupreme, but that is so clunky that firing it up just to import files to disk is too dire to contemplate. Another alternative is Photo Mechanic, but I don’t really need 95% of its functionality, so paying nearly $200 was not attractive. I was getting close to doing do, nevertheless, when I came across a reference somewhere to a product I’d never heard of, Full Frame by Inland Sea.

Superficially, Full Frame follows a similar philosophy to Ingestamatic. It is designed to offer comprehensive photo browsing and importing support, no more, no less. To be honest, it doesn’t quite have the depth of Ingestamatic, but what it does have is presented with far more panache and grace.

Full Frame has a deceptively simple UI. When no source is selected (card, camera or folder) it is basically blank. But as soon as you identify a source, using the left dropdown, it populates the main window with thumbnails. Clicking on Copy will then swiftly copy all files (or just a selected subset) to the destination volume, identified in the right dropdown. That in itself is obviously no big deal, but the usefulness of Full Frame is revealed when you peep behind the scenes.

Fullframe1

Full Frame window showing contents of the SD Card from the Olympus TG-5 Tough which I just received as a gift and was trying out today.

Within Preferences, the Filenames dialog allows pretty much any folder name / file name pattern on the destination volume to be specified. Well, it works for my weird, necessarily convoluted scheme, anyway.

Fullframe2

Metadata Preferences allow a wide range of Exif, IPTC, GPS, XMP and other metadata fields to be applied to imported items. These can also be arranged as custom presets. This appears to be very extensive and powerful, approaching functionality in the far more costly Photo Mechanic. I can’t really evaluate it as frankly it is more the sort of thing that, I imagine, would appeal to event photographers and suchlike. But it looks pretty useful.

A floating “Inspector” window shows an extensive list of properties of the selected image. I guess this might be useful, but so far I haven’t really found a practical use for it.

I’ve been using Full Frame for a month or so now, and it has happily swallowed everything I’ve thrown at it, including indigestion-inducing Sigma DNG files. I have had some occasions where it appears to sit there thinking about life, the universe and everything, before suddenly springing into life and, apparently, copying several GBs in a few seconds. This is quite weird, as it is totally impossible to copy data so fast over USB3. I have a hunch that there is some issue synchronising between the actual ingestion process and the UI updating.

There are some things I’d like to see Full Frame do better. For example, it would be very useful to be able to use certain EXIF fields in the folder / file name template. It would also be very useful to be able to save variants of folder / file name template to be selected at Copy time, or even better, associated with a given camera. It seems from Metadata preferences that code to do something very similar, in both cases, already exists in the app. Oh yes, and one other thing: these import-specific configuration dialogs (Filename, Metadata) should not be in Preferences, but rather have their own menu item / window. In my humble opinion, anyway.

But finally, I’m afraid that apart from extremists like me, there isn’t much of a market for Full Frame. Also, the name doesn’t really describe the functionality, and given that I’d been looking around for something like this, but it took me years to find it, perhaps it needs more targeted marketing. Despite this, and my light criticisms, I thoroughly recommend Full Frame. It costs CHF 29 for full functionality, with alternative restricted or pay-you-go schemes. Compared with Photo Mechanic at $150, it’s a steal.

 

Recent Work - Narrowscreen

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Saturday, February 10, 2018

 

Website refresh

yesterday and today

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, February 08, 2018

Well this has taken a while. I started working on a redesign of this website around about May 2016. The basic idea has survived, and is pretty much what I’m releasing now, finally, nearly 2 years later. The basic concept was quite straightforward: I wanted to shift the focus a little more towards my photography, to reduce clutter, and to refresh the design a bit. The execution was anything but simple. First of all, I had to sort out the underlying technology, and apply various updates. That broke stuff, in all sorts of ways, mainly badly written code that wouldn’t work anymore. So I had to go through my rats nest of templates and scripts and clean them out. Actually this led to an interim update about a year ago, when I put the cleaned up version of the old design online. Of course there was no outward benefit to this.

screenshot

The home page earlier this week, and the home page today.

But then I could start working on shifting to the new design. I spent ages faffing around with stuff like web fonts, and even on a completely new concept using Koken. I had decided to completely rework the photo gallery part, and in particular revisit the contents from scratch. Just selecting and preparing the photos was an endless task. I had decided to add a new “Photo Diary” section, which is basically a blog with pictures and very few words, but of course I needed content for that too. And tellingly, the actual dates on the first two entries are really from Autumn 2016. I could maybe have stopped there, but no, I then decided to add this “Destinations” concept, which provides another way to discover and explore content. I’m quite pleased with that, in fact.

And so on and so forth. All this wasn’t helped by having very little time to work on this, usually just a few minutes here and there every week, which didn’t help with continuity, or remembering what I was meaning to do next. Finally I’ve arrived at a point where it seems complete and stable enough to throw it out there to sink or swim. There are still a few enhancements I’d like to add, mainly to do with the visibility of visitor feedback. I also need to make some further technical upgrades, but hopefully it will be relatively painless this time.

I don’t think I’ll be putting myself through this again. If I ever do another major upgrade, I’ll use some cookie cutter thing like Squarespace. Following this DIY approach has the benefit of allowing me to present everything exactly in the way I want it, albeit constrained by my abilities, rather than to fit in with some generic concept. And since I’m largely doing this for myself, that still makes sense, but only up until the point where it becomes unsustainable, and that point is quite near.

I’m sure there are bugs, glitches and gotchas all over the place, but I can’t procrastinate forever. Either it works well enough, or it will be time to call it quits. Hopefully the objective of providing a better platform for my photography has been met at least in part. Then it will have all been worth it.

 

#3 Boundaries

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, February 07, 2018

 

Iceland wide

 

Tuscany

 

Patagonia

 

Venice

 

Antarctica

 

Aeolian Islands

 

Venetians

 

Switzerland

 

Svalbard

 

Norway

 

Antarctic Wildlife

 

Italy

 

Iceland

 

Whalers Bay

 

Colombia

 

Lost in Venice

 

Classic Venice

 

Antarctic Icescapes

 

Four books

Photography where it belongs

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I acquired four new photobooks over the Christmas period - 2 gifts and 2 gifted to myself. I’ve decided to bunch quick reviews of all four together here, because otherwise I’ll never cover all four.

four books

A Beautiful Silence - Steve Gosling

A Beautiful Silence is a collection of photographs taken over 3 weeks by Steve Gosling as part of the staff on a photographic cruise to the South Atlantic and Antarctic Peninsula. It reads much like a visual travel diary, but rises several notches above the average vacation shot collection. More than several, in fact: A Beautiful Silence goes beneath the skin of both the location and the photographer, and presents a deeply personal vision of an area that perhaps we’ve become photographically too accustomed to. The other-worldly beauty and fascination of the environment certainly comes across, but so too does the personal impact on the photographer. The sense of separation from the familiar tangibly comes across in the selection of the photographs, and the interpretation goes way beyond the superficial.

Steve Gosling also has developed a clear personal style, whether in monochrome or colour, favouring strong contrast and uncluttered compositions. I get a feeling that he tends more and more towards a preference for monochrome, and to my tastes his style works better there. In colour he prefers a certain kind of high saturation which although quite different from the usual “all sliders at 11”, burn-your-eyeballs-out style favoured by more populist photographers, it isn’t always to my taste. Nevertheless this doesn’t detract from the overall atmosphere, and anyway, my tastes are not exactly a benchmark.

Technical note: The production of A Beautiful Silence was assisted by Olympus, who get a big credit, and all the photography was made using Olympus cameras. Normally I wouldn’t mention this, but since I use Olympus gear as well it is interesting to be able to compare results. In my polar photography I have seen a tendency for Olympus cameras to produce very harsh noise in the deep, saturated blues found in many iceberg shots. I see hints of the same issue in Steve’s shots. My solution has been to be very, very careful with sharpening and noise reduction in these areas. Still, the overall quality of the finished product does bear clear testimony to the fact that Olympus Micro four Thirds cameras are as significantly beyond sufficiency as any other type these days.

You can order “A Beautiful Silence” directly from Steve, via the contact at his website. No, he doesn’t make it particularly easy :-)

William Neill Photographer - A Retrospective - William Neill

I’m going to risk being burned as a heretic here, but I’ll say up front, I have not been able to engage with this book. This hefty tome presents a retrospective of work by US photographer William Neill over the last 4 decades. It is beautifully printed and presented, like all of TripleKite’s publications, and I even got my name in the credits as I pre-ordered.

There is no doubt that William Neill’s photography is technically flawless. Everything is fantastically controlled, from concept, through execution, to post-production. But the overall impression I get is that this is in fact really his objective: to achieve the perfect photograph. And the problem is, the actual subjects of the photographs seem to be interchangeable and of secondary importance at best.  All of the classic themes of “Fine Art” landscape photography are present and correct, autumnal forests, misty waterfalls, misty forests, macro flora, misty macro flora. There is even a short Antarctic section, drawn from a 5-day trip. Only towards the end does something a little unusual crop up, in a set of semi-abstract, intentional camera movement shots. And everything is flawlessly executed. The full photographic content of the book is actually viewable online.

Perhaps it is the nature of a retrospective, but I don’t get any clear sense of what William Neill is really trying to achieve.  Although, and I emphasise, the photography is exceptional, he appears to mainly travel around to find locations that will best allow him to demonstrate his commendable skills. That’s all well and good, and even ideal for a commercial photography, but it doesn’t inspire me much. Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d have thought differently, but my photographic horizons and education have expanded, and these days I’m looking for something beyond superficial beauty.

I think classic landscape photographers will love this book, though, and they are obviously the target audience. This is made quite clear by the appendix, which carefully lists all of the technical details of the photos. I’m really not sure why photography books, other than educational manuals, do this - really, does it matter that the photography used a Canikony Rocketflash XYZ1000 Mark 36 Turbo with go-faster stripes? Not to me it doesn’t, in fact I find it vaguely degrading. True, the same can be said for Steve Gosling’s book, but that is offset by the fact that it was sponsored by Olympus, who will want their pound of flesh. I’m not sure what the reason is here.

But don’t mind me - you can, and should, order “William Neill Photographer - A Retrospective” from TripleKite Publishing, who are a truly fantastic company with unreal production values (but see postscript below :-( )

Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life - Julia de Cooker

The driving force behind “Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life” is one I can strongly identify with: the desire to capture the strangeness, but also the comfort, of a living space artificially layered over a fundamentally hostile place. Svalbard cannot of itself support human life, or at least not in the form of a modern Western culture. I suppose it could have supported Inuit communities had they ever reached its isolated shores. Nevertheless, there are three thriving outposts, Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny Alesund, and a handful of abandoned settlements (Pyramiden, Ny London). The photography in this book is drawn from inside and around Longyearbyen and Barentsburg.

The incongruous shot of a stretch limo against an Arctic background has already appeared in a number of reviews of this book in international and specialist press, but it is only one of many that could be selected as a highlight. The collection of landscapes, wide and intimate, of portraits, and of interior and exterior scenes of everyday life in Svalbard all combine to perfectly depict the atmosphere of this strange place. The photography itself is crystalline, befitting the subject. This is a book to immerse yourself in. It really strikes a chord with me, which might be a personal thing, but there is some really strong story-telling going on here.

The production quality of the book is excellent. The publisher, Kehrer Verlag, Berlin, has a very interesting and prolific catalog - I have a couple of other books published by them, “Steinholt” by Christopher Taylor, and “Restricted Areas” by Danila Tkachenko, and I’m sure these won’t be the last. There is no technical information on the photography at all (which is fine with me), but based on the general feel and the rather formal poses in the portrait shots, I have a hunch that it could be shot on large format film.

You can order “Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life” direct from Kehrer Verlag or from Beyond Words.

Abruzzo - Michael Kenna

Last but very far from least, Abruzzo by Michael Kenna. There isn’t really much I can add to any conversation about Kenna. There are very, very few photographers who have carved such a distinct, instantly recognisable style. Many have tried to copy it, but a square format, black & white and long exposures are just the ingredients, and the way in which they are blended together is pretty much unique.

Michael Kenna’s style is so fully established that it becomes almost transparent - as far as form is concerned, you know exactly what to expect, and all attention is available for the content. There is a strong element of a direct connection in his photography which I’ve rarely seen - the equipment, the mechanics of making photographs, the burden of making choices, all of which get in the way somehow, here are just invisible. We know exactly what the constraints are going to be, so we can fully absorbed by the image.

The element of direct connection is very present in Abruzzo. Immediately you feel that the photography has a strong emotional connection with the place, and wants to find out what makes it tick. Studies of otherwise banal scenes like beach umbrellas convey identity and character. There is one shot taken from a low perspective on a mountain road which just reeks of warm asphalt and pine trees.

Actually, because of this character in Kenna’s photography, I’m quite selective in buying his books. For example, personally I’ve never been especially interested in Japan, therefore his Japanese work doesn’t really attract me. Probably that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But in any case “Abruzzo” absolutely envelopes me, and I’m sure it is a book I will revisit time and again.

You can order “Abruzzo” from Nazraeli Press.


Beyond Words also stock the last 3 of these books.  Beyond Words is a bricks & mortar and online shop dedicated to photobooks, and very much deserves our support!

POSTSCRIPT - between the time I started writing this and finishing, Triplekite Publishing sadly announced they were ceasing all publication and selling off stock. This is pretty bad news - they haven’t provided any details at all, but I can only assume that financial reasons were a big part of this. Unfortunately these days the photography is all about gear and instant, fleeting validation. People complain about books costing $75 but quite happily pay $200 for a camera strap. These days, as they say, everybody is a photographer. But hardly anybody is interested in photography.

 

MMXVIII

focus, dammit, focus

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, January 04, 2018

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote anything here. It’s not for the lack of anything to say, or to write about, but as ever, the lack of time. Or perhaps focus. Or motivation. Or all of them.

Recently I realised that in 2017 I achieved several things: I spent far more time shooting film than digital; I shot fewer photos than in any other year since I have a reliable count (around 2004); I shot less memorable photos than any other year, ever.

I spent a huge amount of time futzing about with film. I tried different film types, different cameras, experimented with film scanners, and got a bit caught up in the whole film revival thing. After a while I realised that the one thing that the #FilmsNotDeadBlaBlaBla movement is NOT about is photography. You only need to sample various social media feeds to quickly realise that it is about shiny toys, generally with knobs on. I am totally unconvinced that shooting with film makes anybody a more interesting photographer, per se. And I see no interest or merit in swapping an obsession for up to the minute digital cameras for an addiction to obsolete film cameras.

Seeing posts where people go on about how many cameras they’ve shot with, and how many identical black & white films they’ve used, all whipped along by cynical vendors hoping for a quick buck, just makes me feel nauseous. The actual photography produced is with very few exceptions extremely dull. I’ve ranted about this previously.

Still, if people enjoy playing with old cameras and film, and coaxing decrepit technology into life, great - there’s nothing wrong with it. But for me it is precisely the opposite of what I should be doing.

What I should be doing is finally finishing the website overhaul I’ve been working on, intermittently, for over 18 months. It’s become a total millstone, and probably I will never do it again. It would make much more sense for me to use an off-the-shelf service like Squarespace, and learn to compromise. Instead I’ve landed myself in a situation where I’ve got to completely rewrite code, redesign the layout and navigation, completely revise content, migrate everything to new versions of the underlying software, and finally ... for what?  I no longer have any professional involvement with web or interface design, so there’s zero synergy. It’s all fuelled by an obstinate and misguided desire for full control over my self-expression (for example, I hate photography hosting sites that crop thumbnails - and they all do it).

But it’s about 90% there. So it’s too late to give up now.

What I think I will give up though is film. I haven’t fully decided yet, but I’m very much leaning towards selling off all my film cameras (I have a ridiculous quantity: Linhof 612, Voigtländer Bessa III, Hasselblad XPan, Olympus OM4Ti, Olympus XA, Minox 35ML and Ricoh GR1s).

It’s hard to come up with a rational reason for persevering with film.  First of all, I’m a slide film photographer, not negative. I don’t much like negative film, really. And slide film really met its nemesis with digital. Negative film still has some advantages over digital, at least from my perspective. The main ones are highlight rolloff and exposure latitude. Colour as well to a certain extent, so long as you don’t care too much about accuracy. Certainly Portra 400, or Cinestill 50, in bright light, can look quite wonderful - but I can get a very similar look from digital. Slide film as well has a wonderful midtone density that is not so easy to achieve with digital, but then again it has serious limitations at both ends of the luminosity scale.

And then you’ve got to buy the film, pay for it to be processed, wait for it to come back from the lab, and then scan it. The novelty wore off for me around 1995.

The basic problem is one of two many choices suffocating creativity. I could of course go 100% film, but, well, I’ve been there before, and it is rather limiting. Even more so these days - ten years ago I could buy a roll of Fuji Provia 1600 slide film and get it developed overnight.  Five years ago I could buy a pack of Provia 400X, or Velvia 100F, or Ektachrome 100G and have it beautifully processed by one of several pro labs. Now I’m limited to Provia 100F and one lab with a turnaround time of at least 1 week. I don’t believe Ferrania will ever deliver their slide film, and I’m not that convinced about “new Ektachrome”. The #FilmsNotDead thing is about black & white and weird stuff like double-layer reverse-rolled stocking-elastic base expired pineapple juice emulsions cross processed in holy water. Not slide film.

The Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses I have are fantastic, and are vastly more flexible than any film-based solution. They’re not perfect, but they get out of my way.  My only real justification for retaining film remains the one I’ve been repeating for quite some time: I use film because that’s what the XPan needs. I hoped to add the Linhof 612 to that, but so far I haven’t bonded with it.  On the other hand, the Sigma DP0 is a pretty good digital panoramic camera, with a devastatingly good lens, and it’s quite endearing too.

It’s going to be hard to cut the cord, and I haven’t sharpened the knife just yet, but 2017 could well have been the swansong for film, for me.

xpan_cinestill1_14.jpg


Possibly my favourite photo of 2017 - Hasselblad XPan, 45mm, Cinestill 50

 

Made in Italy

In vacanza con la P30

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, 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.

drm_p30_sep17_02_03.jpg
drm_p30_sep17_02_04.jpg
drm_p30_sep17_02_20.jpg
drm_p30_sep17_02_19.jpg
drm_p30_sep17_02_18.jpg
drm_p30_sep17_02_38.jpg
drm_p30_sep17_02_25.jpg
drm_p30_sep17_02_36.jpg

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.

 

Day of the dead tired

talk, it’s all talk

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Friday, November 03, 2017

All Saint‘s Day, or The Day of the Dead, is a public holiday here, and during a period where various things have conspired to spiral me into a state of ever increasing exhaustion, it came as some relief. I managed to pad it a bit with some downtime the day before, so at least I wasn’t in a state of complete collapse.

In this state of mind I often question just what keeps me doing photography. It doesn’t really accomplish anything substantial, I don’t find much satisfaction in the nagging background gear window shopping addiction that I suffer from, and it doesn’t lead to any substantial social interaction, either real or virtual.

But going through the motions of wandering off somewhere nearby to take a few photos brings the realisation, or reminds me, that it can actually be pretty therapeutic to just spend a few hours contemplating a pile of rocks and trying to adapt their forms to a 4:3 rectangle. It’s rarely successful - something that fills me with satisfaction in situ generally looks awful back home on screen, but that doesn’t really matter.

drm_E-M5MarkII_20171101_EM510050.jpg

...this becomes a pretty spectacular 110m drop waterfall

Wandering around gear forums and blogs, because I‘m too tired to do anything else on the train, I often come across provocative proclamations that Micro Four-Thirds is total rubbish because it has a “tiny” sensor with no “D.o.F” (what “no D.o.F” means in idiot forum speak is that - allegedly - you can’t get 98% of the shot out of focus). I find this remarkable when I’m trying, usually unsuccessfully, to keep all objects in my shot roughly in focus. I don’t really understand people who preach that for “landscapes” (whatever the hell that means) you absolutely must have a zillion megapixels and a full frame sensor. I suppose that correlates with the idea that “landscape” means ultrawide angle views of luridly saturated vistas. Well, that’s not what attracts me, and what I need is a camera with as much depth of field as possible but still good enough optical quality. Which is why I stick with these Olympus thingies.

drm_E-M5MarkII_20171101_EM510061.jpg

...and this would probably have been slightly less dull if I could have inched forward a bit, but then I’d have ended up in the first photo above. Briefly.

Well, of course, that’s when I’m not taking ultrawide landscape shots with my (sort of) zillion megapixel Sigma camera. But consistency has never been my strong point.

drm_SIGMA dp0 Quattro_20171101_DP0Q0732.jpg

flare enough…

 

Before Film Wasn’t Dead

nor Bela Lugosi for that matter…

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, 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.

Antarctica91_66_1.jpg
Antarctica91_66_2.jpg
Antarctica91_66_3.jpg

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…

 

 

#2 Castello Valsolda

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Saturday, October 07, 2017

 

Digital’s Not Dead

It’s just been having a bit of a rest

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, September 28, 2017

I realised the other day that my last 12 posts have been almost exclusively about film photography. Since May, I’ve mentioned digital just once, and that was in the context of comparing with film.  This seems to have started in March, but it really wasn’t intended. I’ve also noticed that by and large, the quality of my photography has dropped significantly. Possibly I have fallen prey to the very same strain of gear obsession that in past posts I have charged the “film community” with. It may also be that I’m not finding much inspiration, and am just repeating myself.

I suppose really I’ve been dedicating quite a lot of time to getting my film photography back up to speed again, and ensuring that all the stuff I need to work works as well as it can. I think I’m almost there on that front. I’ve also been getting familiar with the Linhof 612, which is not that simple. Actually, the Linhof seems to have quite a serious fault which is causing uneven film winding, in some cases resulting frames overlapping. So it looks like its going off to the factory for servicing, which is going to be expensive. The previous owner told me he never had any issues, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. Caveat emptor, I suppose, especially when buying through eBay.

drm_E-M5MarkII_20170912_EM520315.jpg

The above photograph is absolutely digital. It was taken two weeks ago, way off the beaten track in the Aspromonte region of Calabria, right in the south of Italy. Aspromonte, most of which is a national park, is absolutely stunning. It is harsh, arid, with precipitous abandoned villages connected by crumbling, vanishing roads (Europcar would have a fit…), and astonishingly beautiful.  There are few people around, but those few are welcoming, friendly and embarrassingly generous. We had only 2 days there, but I’m certain I’ll be going back.

I suppose Aspromonte would look even more stunning on Portra or Provia. But hauling medium format film cameras down there would be a real struggle. And would it even be worth it? I’m not going to try to pretend: in terms of real resolution, even a 5300dpi scan from medium format film doesn’t beat a 16MPix Olympus file, never mind a Sigma Quattro file. Resolution isn’t everything though, and there remains a clinical precision in digital which I sense rather than see. It don’t like it, but I can live with it.  Just as the lens I took the above shot with, the Olympus 14-150 zoom, is probably optically my worst. The bottom right corner is really soft at wide to medium focal lengths. But it is extremely light, very flexible, and great to travel with. So, like digital, I tolerate it.

So yes, I am quite conflicted about film versus digital, and I suppose I always will be. I wish I could just choose one, but I don’t suppose I ever will. But it does seem that the less I bother about gear in general, the more enjoyable I find photography. Maybe I should turn off the internet.

 

Chromatic abberations

vario, panned

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, September 25, 2017

A few posts ago, I wrote a rather dismissive impression of the new Rollei Variochrom film. Unfortunately, I’d bought 4 rolls of the stuff, so I felt I should do something with it. Having discovered what it actually does, which is to transport one back to the Good Olde Days of wildly inaccurate colour and grain you could eat for breakfast, it occurred to me that the part of the world I’m constrained to wander during the working week might actually benefit from this treatment. Well, it would be hard to make it look more dull than it actually is - although Dog knows I’ve tried over the years.

I’m pretty much at odds with todays retro film community, which seems only interested in the flaws and weaknesses of film. There are certainly people doing fabulous work today with film, for example Bruce Percy, but the film camera hipsters don’t actually seem to be interested in photographing much else than their cameras. 

Oh dear, have I got off track again ? Where was I ? Oh, yes ... Variochrome.

When used forewarned and with intent, I have to admit it can be quite interesting.  I quite like the following sample, although its not really my thing.  In the right context Variochrome is interesting, but I still pretty much stand by my earlier comments.

xpan-variochrome2-03.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-06.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-18.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-17.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-20.jpg

The canister light leak I encountered on the first roll repeated itself, by the way, despite my taking special care in loading, unloading and handling the film.

Oh well, only another 2 rolls to go.

 

Using the Flextight X5 scanner

Those grapes up there, they’re sour

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

This is an addendum to my two previous posts comparing the Plustek OpticFilm 120 to the Hasselblad Flextight X5. The X5 is supposed to be the nirvana of desktop scanners, a dream machine with a nightmare price tag, which provides the benefits of a drum scanner with none of the downsides, such as fluid mounting, even huger cost, and elephant-level proportions.

IMG 4213

X5 workstation at Light & Byte

So, what’s the X5 actually like to use ? Well, overall, it’s pretty nice. The hardware is on a completely different level. It is easy to use and very fast in operation. It scans a 6x12 frame in under a minute. But there are some drawbacks. First of all, the film holders. They’re a little weird, to be honest. The heavy rubber masks remind me of the protective shroud things you have to wear when being X-rayed! And actually they’re not that easy to use. The problem is, you lay the film on a base plate, then lower the flexible mask, which has an aperture corresponding to the frame size. But there are no guides to align the film on the baseplate, so getting it to fit correctly in the aperture is quite fiddly. Maybe with more than two hours’ experience I might realise that there is a better way to do it, but actually I find that the Plustek holders are much easier to load accurately. And them the fixed aperture size is a bit of an issue: although in theory Medium Format film has defined sizes, different cameras have slightly different film gate dimensions. So, my Bessa 667 seems to expose slightly more area in the cross-film direction, and the Linhof 612 is more like a 612.5. Actually the Plustek holders are a bit narrow in the cross-direction too, but they are fully adjustable in length. The X5 holders have no adjustment whatsoever, although I believe Hasselblad will be delighted to sell you a custom holder. Once you’re loaded, though, it’s really smooth: just slide the holder forward between the guides until the magnets latch on, and it disappears into the scanner and does its stuff.
IMG 4214

The 612 holder latched up and ready to roll

Then, there’s the software. Really, I have yet to meet a simple, straightforward and well-designed piece of scanning software, and Flexcolor is no exception. For example, if I select the 6x12 film holder, would it be unreasonable of me to expect the scan size to default to 6x12 ? Obviously it would: it took some time for me to realise that the bloody thing was producing two scans (overlapping, fortunately).  Why it does this for 6x12, but not 24x65, or 6x7, will remain a mystery. Another unattractive thing about Flexcolor is that it only responds to adjustments after you let go of the respective control (slider or whatever). This makes it exceedingly annoying to use. And I still haven’t figured out exactly what it is that makes it show a full resolution rather than horribly pixelated low resolution preview - but then again, Silverfast still hasn’t figured out zooming. Flexcolor includes a fairly limited set of negative profiles, a bit like Silverfast Negafix. However, they are much less extensive, far less adjustable, and too my eyes less accurate than Silverfast, although they do produce very flattering results.
stbeach_x5

X5/Flexcolor interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

stbeach_plustek

Plustek/Silverfast interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

I don’t think either are fully accurate (actually, the Silverfast version suffers from using Multi-Exposure, which doesn’t play nice with Negafix - the marketing material doesn’t tell you that). So, I could do better “out of the box” from the Plustek. Even as it stands, to my subjective eyes the Plustek/Silverfast version looks more like how Provia is supposed to look, The X5/Flexcolor version is almost Velvia, and too neutral. Of course, Silverfast is regularly updated. Flexcolor isn’t.

On the plus side, Flexcolor coupled with the X5 can really pull out clean shadow detail to an extent I’ve never seen before from a film scanner. Of course that is limited by the exposure range of the film, so it is more useful for negatives. But still, the difference is clear.

Generally Flexcolor feels old and fairly clunky, but I suppose that is because it is old. The X1 & X5 scanners are just rebadged Imacon Precision 848 and 949 models, which Hasselblad inherited when they bought / merged with Imacon to get digital back technology. They’ve carried on selling them, but they certainly haven’t tried very hard. I reckon they could drop the price by 50% and quadruple their sales, and still make a decent profit. They’re just not interested. The only update to the hardware is case redesign and a Hasselblad logo. The backplate is still branded “Flextight Precsion”. And the backplate also features a Firewire 400 interface, the one and only port, fully obsolete. At least it isn’t SCSI. The Mac Pro running the X5 at Light & Byte is running Mac OS X Snow Leopard, which must be 8 years old or something.

So, is the X5 worth €25’000 ? No, unless you’ve got a business model which will subsidise it, or you work for a Swiss bank or something. Is the X1 worth €16’000, then ? I don’t think so - it loses the X5’s diffuse light source, it’s slower, and (if this matters to you) it can’t do batch scanning, or, indeed reflective scanning (which I really doubt is a major selling point of the X5, but whatever).  If Hasselblad were showing some sign of continuing development, even if just to add a USB3 interface, and updating Flexcolor, then just maybe it could be considered a long term investment, but I would even be concerned that it will continue to work with current operating systems for much longer.

After all, Hasselblad recently named their new pride and joy camera the “X1D”. Presumably they didn’t even remember they’ve already got an X1 in the catalogue.

 

#1 Galenhütten

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, September 07, 2017

 

OpticFilm 120 vs. Flextight X5 - Round 2

the plot thickens

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Last week I published the first part of my Plutek OpticFilm 120 vs Hasselblad Flextight X5 scanner bake-off. The results from scanning XPan frames were surprisingly close, with the X5 subjectively winning by a whisker.

The key word in the above paragraph is “subjectively”. Because film scanning is nothing if not subjective. While preparing this second part, I once again fell down the rabbit hole of comparing output from different scanners, different software, different settings, reproducible bugs, irreproducible bugs, and indifferent customer support.  I learned, or-relearned, a couple of key points about scanning, which can be summed up by saying that magic features - like “multi-exposure” - generally don’t work. It’s better to keep to the basics.

That out of the way, this time around I’m going to look at two Medium Format scans, a Portra 400 negative taken with the Voigtländer Bessa III 667, and a Provia 100F positive taken with the Linhox 612.

First up, the Portra shot. This was taken in a secluded spot in Venice, far from the tourist gyres.  Note, you can click on any of these images to see them in larger size on Flickr.

b667_1_full

Left: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), right Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

In this case I decided to apply a simple grey balance using the same reference (the letter box in the background, on the right) in Silverfast HDR for the OF120, and in FlexColor for the X5. For the OF120 I used Silverfast’s Negafix Portra 400 profile, for the X5 I used FlexColor’s Portra 400NC. As you can see, they’re pretty close. Preferences are subjective. I could show you a similar frame from my Sigma DP0, and you would see that there are differences, but if I went down that path it would never end.

So, what about detail ? Well, I decided to zoom in on the notice in front of the staircase. Since the OF120 allows a scan a 5300dpi, and the X5 only at 3200dpi, the size at 1:1 is different.

b667_1_privato_original

1:1 zoom - left: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), right Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

The extra resolution of the OF120 doesn’t really seem to add much, here. But it might be interesting to downsample to 3200dpi to get a better idea.

b667_1_privato_of_downsize

Matched resolution - left: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), right Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it ? As we saw in the last episode, the X5 is perhaps slightly less noisy, or possibly the diffuse light source is decreasing grain contrast, but in terms of resolution it’s pretty much a dead heat.  The OF120 scan is a little more contrasty, which may give the impression of more detail. On the other hand, it may really be delivering more detail.

So far so good, the Plustek has nothing to be ashamed about.  Let’s move on to the Provia frame. While colour negative film presents substantial challenges in colour representation, it is generally low contrast. Slide film , on the other hand, should present less problems for colour accuracy, but contrast is another matter altogether. Shadow areas can be extremely dense, and detail easily visible on a light table can be completely lost in a scan. Provia isn’t too bad in this respect, but Velvia is very tricky.  It’s just as well that I don’t much care for Velvia.

So, here’s our Provia frame:

provia_of120_x5

Top: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), bottom: Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

You can immediately see a colour difference. The X5 scan is direct from FlexColor with all settings zeroed, and sharpening off. The OF120 scan has had some magenta removed from the highlights and shadows, and contrast reduced slightly. The FlexColor scan is a remarkably accurate representation of the slide on the light table, to my eyes. The greens especially are more accurate. The OF120 scan seems to be lacking a certain amount of tonal separation in the higher midtones. Still, I’m not sure there’s $23’000’s worth of difference.

So what about detail? Slide film is generally sharper than negative film, so this also could be more challenging.  Note, however, I’m not really very familiar with the Linhof 612 yet, and I have some question if I was using an optimal aperture here.

Provia_of120_x5_stick

Top: Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120), bottom: Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5)

In the above illustration I have downsampled the Plustek scan to 3200dpi. Although contrast and micro-contrast might be playing a part here, I have to - just - give the prize to the X5. Looking at the tree branch, you can see a smidgeon more detail. But let’s face it, unless you make a print the size of a bus, it is totally insignificant.

Note though, if you allow FlexColor to do post-capture sharpening, the gap widens considerably. FlexColor appears to have very good sharpening algorithms, tuned to scan resolution and scan type.  Silverfast’s USM on “automatic” setting is also not so bad. But nowhere as good as the FlexColor / Flextight combination. Still, there are many options for sharpening.

However, there is one area where the X5 nails it. Just as we saw for the XPan slide scans, for shadow detail the X5 wins easily.  In the sample below, I haven’t even touched the shadow depth slider in FlexColor, which can widen the difference still further with significant downside.

provia_shadow_of120_x5

Shadow detail - left: Hasselblad Flextight X5 (X5), right Plustek OpticFilm 120 (OF120)

So, from this point of view, it is difficult to avoid envious glances in the direction of the X5, or at least it’s X1 sibling, which is only astronomically priced rather than absurdly.

But wait.  There’s an elephant in the room, keeping very quiet over there in the corner. Well, a very small elephant.  Take a look at this:

canon_compare_provia

Same slide scanned using the Canoscan 9000F

The above version was scanned on the Canoscan 9000F flatbed scanner using Silverfast Ai Studio, calibrated with the same IT8 slide as the OF120. This is straight from the scanner, with all Silverfast settings flat. The colour accuracy is quite noticeably better than the pre-adjusted OF120 version, and it appears to have more shadow depth.

This is a bit scary. So what about resolution ?

provia_3up_compare

1:1 - top: Canoscan 9000F, middle OpticFilm 120, bottom: Flextight X5 (X5)

Well, the 9000F can’t quite keep up, but at less than 1/100th of the cost of the X5, I guess it does a reasonable job. I only really bought the 9000F some years ago because I needed a document scanner, and remarkably it came bundled with Silverfast HDR: this was easily the cheapest way to acquire that software. So really I haven’t paid that much attention to it. It just sits there and does what it’s told. I am vaguely aware that it has a reputation of being rather under-appreciated, especially compared to Epson flatbeds.  These days you can pick up a 9000F MkII, sadly without Silverfast, for just $200. The film holders are truly horrible, but otherwise, it’s pretty good.

So, what about the OF120 vs X5 ? Well, I think the OF120 delivers quite enough resolution. Colour accuracy is another matter. Of course, one could blame Silverfast, but I have used the latest versio of Vuescan as well and have found similar issues. And the same Silverfast delivers much better results with the Canoscan.  I have made a whole series of Portra 400 scans with various combinations, which I may present as addendum, but in that case getting good colour out of the OF120/Silverfast combination proved quite a challenge.

On balance I think the Of120 put up a pretty good fight against the Flextight X5, but at the same time it is not as superior to the 9000F as it should be.  For scanning 35mm film I’d still go with the higher resolution of the OF120, but for medium format, honestly I’d be tempted to recommend the cheap but excellent Canoscan, or perhaps the more expensive but theoretically superior Epson V850 (which I’m tempted to try). One advantage that a dedicated film scanner should have is delivering better shadow depth and tonal separation for slide film. I’m not convinced that the OpticFilm 120 achieves that.

As a final note, I should point out that I haven’t yet extended testing to black & white film. That brings a completely different set of issues, and may well result in very different conclusions.  I don’t generally have much to do with black & white, but since I have 5 rolls of Ferrania P50 to burn through, I may have something to say on this later.

Finally, if you have any questions, feel free to ask…

 

OpticFilm 120 vs. Flextight X5

Enter Goliath

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Last week, I finally ended up doing something I’ve been wanting to do for years. I rented a Hasselblad Flextight X5 scanner for a few hours, at Light + Byte in Zürich. My basic objective was to find out if this scanner really is the miracle device some make it out to be, to find out how easy it is to use, and to evaluate if it would be a worthwhile investment in time and money, long term, to book regular sessions to scan my favourite shots. And, while I was at it, to benchmark my OpticFilm 120.

I think this is going to be the first of several posts, because fitting it all into one is going to end up far too long. I took several examples of film with me to scan, including XPan positive, XPan Scala, Linhof 612 positive and negative, and Bessa 667 positive and negative. I managed to get through a fair few of these, but not all.

In this post I’m going to concentrate on a couple of XPan Kodak E100G frames. I won’t say much about user experience of the Flextight X5 here, I’ll leave that for another post, but suffice it to say, while it is impressive, like all film scanners I’ve ever used, it is not free of issues.

All the Flextight scans were processed with FlexColor v4.8.13, and all OpticFilm 120 scans with current version of the Silverfast Archive Suite.

My first example is a photograph taken in Antarctica in 2013. On the light table this looks fabulous, but it is an absolute nightmare to scan. The detail in the shadowy “cave” area is quite apparent on the slide, but very hard to dig into with the scanner. And the very bright snow required pushing E100G’s exposure range to the edge. I’ve tried scanning this in the past with the Minolta Multi Pro and with the Opticfilm 120, with all the various combinations of multisampling and multi exposure, but getting acceptable shadow detail has been very difficult.

xpan-antarctica05-12

my most recent OpticFilm 120 interpretation of this frame

So, I loaded the slide into the X5, and created a “3F” raw scan, which allows me to play with it later as much as I want in FlexColor. This is very similar to creating an “HDR” file in Silverfast. Note, the stated resolution of the X5 when scanning 35mm film is 6300dpi.  That should be enough…

FlexColor produces some very flattering “default” output, and seems to have some special tricks up its sleeve regarding white/grey balance, but after some evaluation I’m a little wary of taking it fully at face value - flattering isn’t always the same as accurate. Anyway, here is what FlexColor delivers:

xpan-antarctica05-12-flex

Flextight X5 / FlexColor version

Obviously things like brightness and colour balance can be tweaked for ever, within the quite restricted range of flexibility. Although it would be nice to get an exact duplicate of how the slide looks on a light table (or rather, a specific light table), that’s not going to happen, for a very long list of reasons. This is just the nature of film scanning, and fighting against will only lead to frustration. But what we can hope for is to extend as far as possible the flexibility of the scanned file, to increase its tolerance to manipulation. This is where mumbo-jumbo stuff like “DMax” and “DeltaE” comes into play. I’m not going to get into that, I’m going to limit myself to subjectivity.

Ok, so let’s start looking at a few details. First of all, resolution, and (much) more important, focus. The OpticFilm 120 gets very maligned for its alleged suboptimal focus. It does not have autofocus, but rather fixed focus, with a lens depth of field which is designed, so they say, to ensure that all areas of the film are within the zone of sharp focus.  Actually, if you think about it, this is in theory a better plan than have auto focus on a very small area of the film with a lens with very narrow (we’re talking sub-millimetre here) depth of field. But geeks like to be in control. Of course, just because Plustek marketing tells us this works, this does not mean we have to believe it. The X5 does its own fully automated focus calibration. But anyway, lets take a look at some 1:1 zooms. Remember, the X5 is delivering 6300dpi, and OF120 “only” 5300dpi, so the sizes are a little different.

x5of120_1

Left tip of foreground iceberg zoomed at 1:1

Well, that’s quite interesting, isn’t it ? Just possibly the X5 is producing cleaner grain, but in terms of useful information, it’s pretty much a dead heat. Please don’t pay attention to highlight detail, by the way - there is a curve applied on the OF120 scan which is a touch too strong. The X5 has some kind of diffuse light source which should give cleaner grain, but honestly, at any kind of sensible print size you will not see any difference at all in resolution.  And sharpness ? Well, despite Internet forum prejudice, I don’t see that the OF120 has much to be ashamed of.

Let’s also remember a minor detail: the OF120 costs around €2’000. The X5 costs around €25’000 - TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND EUROS.  And the X5 has an obsolete Firewire interface, and software which has had no meaningful update in about a decade.

Ok, lets take a look at shadow detail. As I said above, this has been a big challenge with this slide.

x5of120_2

The “cave”

Here we can see where the X5 starts to earn its keep. It is extracting a lot more usable detail in the deepest shadows, which may end being usable for a print - although it is still going to require some careful post-processing.  The OF120 doesn’t do too badly, but it can’t quite keep up, and any attempt to open up the shadows further just makes the image fall apart. So, for any extra €23’000, you can get a bit more shadow detail. Of course, sarcasm aside, to an exhibiting photographer selling through galleries, this can actually be worthwhile.

Looking in more detail, we can see that OF120 / Silverfast combination does a pretty good job in terms of noise suppression, and that the detail is very, very nearly there - but not quite.

x5of120_3

By the way, the colour difference is a result of adding a curve on the OF120 version to try to match the highlights on the X5 version. This introduced a slight green shift in mid-blues which I need to dial out. I haven’t actually bothered here, because getting an exact match of two completely independent impressions of a physical slide - neither of which match the slide perfectly - is a fool’s errand.  I repeat, accept that film scanning is a subjective activity, or accept that your head will explode.

My second test case is even trickier. This is a frame with underexposed mid-tones but near blown highlights. It also has no neutral tones, and is predominately blue, which is neither scanner’s favourite channel. It was shot in very challenging conditions, doubly so for a manual focus film camera. But it is worth working on - a shot taking a few seconds earlier, with slightly different framing, is by far my post popular on social networking.

11-002-penguins

Example 2 - the penguins. This version is from the X5, but required quite some manipulation in FlexColor. It’s quite close to the original.

Zooming in on the stars of the show, once again in terms of real detail and focus there isn’t much to separate the two versions.

x5of120_4

The grain is a bit smoother on the X5 version, and to be honest the initial colour out of FlexColor (not shown here) is probably better than that out of Silverfast HDR. However I’m working from a very small sample here, and with intentionally challenging slides. I’m not sure if the difference is worth €23’000.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned that there is a cheaper less eye-waveringly expensive version of the X5 called the X1.  I haven’t tried it. It offers less resolution than the X5, and probably more significantly, does not include the X5’s diffuse light source. It costs around €16’000.

So, based on what I can see here, for scanning XPan film, the Plustek OpticFilm 120 is comparatively a real bargain - albeit itself not cheap. The Hasselblad Flextight X5 returns higher resolution scans, but with two examples here, it seems that the OpticFilm 120 already outresolves the film-lens combination. And XPan lenses are very sharp. Possibly using some ultra-high resolution, ultra-low ISO monochrome file, Adox something or the other, we might see an advantage to the X5, but that film has very little practical use for me anyway. The X5 can also extract more deep shadow detail from slide film, which could be useful now and then.

So, technically, a win here for the Flextight X5, but I’d say the OpticFilm 120 is the moral victor. That’s all for now - following posts will look at medium format scans, and describe what it is like to work with the Flextight.

 

 

 

The Great Pano Bake-off

mirror mirror on the wall…

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, July 31, 2017

Having now added a Linhof 612 to my arsenal of wide-screen photographic tools, the time has come for a showdown. Which, if any, is the best? 

The candidates are, then:

  • Linhof 612 Medium Format film camera
  • Hasselblad XPan 35mm film camera
  • Sigma dp0 Quattro digital camera with Foveon sensor, 21:9 frame ratio

Now, you may say that I could substitute any digital camera for the dp0, and “just crop”. Well, you could, but I can’t, because accurate composition through the viewfinder is important to me. The dp0 comes close to the XPan with its wider lenses, but as far as I know all Sigma Quattro cameras, so dp0, dp1, dp2, dp3, sd and sd-H offer a 21:9 crop. I don’t know of any other cameras which do.

I’ve compared the dp0 with the XPan in the past, and concluded that the Sigma is certainly a valid contender for the title of “digital XPan”. Indeed, it replaced the XPan in my camera bag on my last trips to Iceland and Antarctica. But the Linhof, surely, with its huge frame size, should come out of top ?

For the film cameras of course we have another factor in the equation: the scanner. I’m pretty sure that the OpticFilm 120 at 5300dpi extracts at least 90% of the potential resolution from the exposed film, but I’m not fully convinced that it reaches 100%. Possibly a drum scanner or a Hasselblad Flextight could do marginally better, but if it takes a €15000+ scanner to outdo a €900 Sigma camera, then we’d be be getting into the realms of insanity.

Of course, the relative file sizes are a bit scary.  But I’ve got lots of disk space.

  • Linhof: 24533 x 11245 pixels, 1.5Gb
  • XPan: 13516 x 4986 pixels, 395Mb
  • Sigma: 5424 x 2328 pixels, 73Mb

For the test, I trudged up (and down) to a local valley stream, set up the tripod, and shot frames from each camera. The scene was initially framed using the Linhof. The Linhof was loaded with Fuji Provia 100F, and had the 65mm lens mounted. The XPan, sadly, was loaded with Rollei Variochrome, set at ISO 200, in a parallel test described previously. I shot XPan frames with both the 45mm and 30mm lenses.  The Sigma of course had its fixed 14mm lens, which is roughly equivalent to 21mm for so-called “full frame”.

I was interested in two aspects: the different frame coverage, and the comparative resolution of each system. Colour was not really relevant in this particular exercise, although the differences are interesting.  But anyway I haven’t even attempted to try to match colour.

So, here are the “results”.  First, the comparative frame coverage.

panocompare_fullwidth

Clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm, XPan 30mm.

It’s difficult, but please ignore the horrendous colour of the XPan frames. The scans are all “flat” from Silverfast - I have not attempted any kind of colour correction. The first thing that jumps out for me is how close the Sigma and Linhof are. I could get even closer by shooting a 2:3 frame on the Sigma and cropping it. The Linhof is just a touch wider. The XPan 30mm is the widest of all, and its vertical coverage is very similar to the Linhof. The XPan 45mm, in this company, and for this scene, is a bit neither here nor there.

Note, any attempt at choosing a “favourite” shot here is rather pointless. As I said above, the shot was framed for the Linhof, with the tripod remaining fixed for the other three, so I would expect (and indeed hope) to prefer the Linhof composition.

Working with the Linhof over the past month or so has confirmed my attachment to the (almost) 2:1 ratio. The Sigma ratio is actually closer than I expected, because the actual size of the exposed film on the Linhof is 12 x 5.5, so somewhat wider than a nominal 2:1. The Linhof has just one trick up its sleeve, but its a good one: the 8mm shift is hugely useful for this kind of shot. Note the difference between the Linhof and XPan 30mm frames: thanks to the shift (negative in this case), I’m able to put the extra vertical coverage to better use, without tilting up or down and hence distorting the perspective.  This limitation has always frustrated me with the XPan.

Now for resolution. Remember, with the Sigma, it being a digital camera with a Foveon 3 layer sensor, we can magnify up to 100% and expect sharp results.  With the film cameras it is way more complicated.  We need to factor in focussing (hyperfocal in this case), film flatness, film curl when scanning, scanner lens quality, scanner depth of field, and all the general characteristics of an analog to digital conversion.  Suffice it to say, film looks best on the light table, and goes downhill from then onwards. All we can do is damage limitation.

Having said all that, let’s look at a 100% section of each shot:

panocompare_100

100%: clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, XPan 30mm, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm

In terms of numeric resolution, the Linhof clearly wins, but the level of actual information is debatable. There has been no sharpening applied here, so for the film shots what you see is what you get out of the scanner. What does appear to be the case is that the XPan lenses are actually sharper than the Schneider 65mm lens on the Linhof. One thing I’m finding with the Linhof is that objects at infinity seem to be quite soft, regardless of the focussing. I have no idea why this should be, but since focussing is by scale only, it isn’t straightforward to verify. Again, there are a lot of variables in the system.

Another way to compare is to try to adjust zoom to get roughly the same field of view, as follows.  Since the Sigma has the lowest nominal resolution, it defines the baseline.

panocompare_match

Matched view: clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, XPan 30mm, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm

Now there’s not so much in it. The XPan with 45mm trails slightly, at least in this example, but otherwise the level of detail is close. Probably if the XPan had been loaded with Provia 100F then the difference would be smaller. With the Sigma there is a higher level of micro-contrast and acuity, but appropriate processing of the film images can close the gap.

Note, when printing these images at the maximum size I can achieve on my A2 printer, in all cases there is quite sufficient resolution, so this exercise in pixel peeping should be taken with several grains of salt.

However, the clear conclusion is so far that the Sigma dp0, which is more practical, lighter, considerably less expensive and offers immediate feedback, is pretty much a match for either of the film cameras on a technical level. To be honest it is probably the best of the three, in purely technical terms, and in the right conditions.

Let’s briefly compare the dp0 just with the Linhof:

panocompare_dp0_linhof

Top: Sigma dp0, Bottom: Linhof 612 65mm

The Sigma definitely seems to give slightly more real resolution, although there is a hint of some variation across the frame from the Linhof. But in the best case scenario, the Linhof / Plustek OpticFilm 120 combination is a match for the Sigma dp0 in terms of effective resolution - no more.

So why use the Linhof, and why use film at all? Well, all is not rosy in the Sigma world. Although it is not too apparent in this frame, it transitions to over-exposures in a very harsh and unpleasant way. With scenes featuring flowing water, for example, you need to be extremely careful with exposure.  And since the Sigma’s output is nowhere near as malleable as that of almost all other modern digital cameras, you have to very careful indeed. Actually it is this poor handling of highlights which makes more hesitate about investing in the Sigma sd Quattro system.

Of course, you also have to be careful with slide film, but even slide film with its aversion to highlight overexposure handles transition to burn-out much more naturally.  The Linhof also features one of the absolute best viewfinders ever made. If in-the-field composition is important to you, as opposed to fix-it-in-Photoshop, then this is a big deal.  And finally, the killer feature, the “permanent shift” lens, which avoids the Achilles’ Heel of panoramic photography, vertical entering of compositions.

And what about the poor old XPan? Well, it too has its advantages. First, the 30mm lens gives a wider field of view than either of the other two (although a Linhof 612PCII with 58mm lens would be wider).  The XPan also has a rangefinder, making manual focus very simple, and very reliable auto exposure.  And it is a quarter of the size of the Linhof 612. I’ve been using it for 17 years, and it’s not for sale. Yet.

And finally colour - although I like the colour output of the Sigma, it can be a little weird. Actually in the example here I used a custom colour profile in Lightroom. The rendition of Provia 100F, once the blue shadow cast is removed, is to my eyes more natural.  There is also something ever so slightly sterile about the Sigma output.

But finally, all three are great cameras which give me a lot of satisfaction.  If I was pushed to produce something on a tight deadline, if the subject permitted it I’d probably use the Sigma.  If I wanted the best control of composition I’d use the Linhof, with Provia 100F for landscape or Portrait 400 for urban work.  For maximum flexibility and discretion, the XPan.  In all three cases, I’d be able to print as large as I am able to with no compromises.

But I would love to see a drum scan of a Linhof 612 shot…

 

 

Summer of ‘76 ?

not quite what I had in mind

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, 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.

rollei

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.

xpan_varichrome1_01.jpg

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.

xpan_varichrome1_01_zoom.jpg

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.

xpan_varichrome1_07b.jpg

Local river as Variochrom sees it…

xpan_varichrome1_07.jpg

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)

 

Scattered thoughts gathered together

a sofa in St Tropez

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, July 17, 2017

There’s not a huge amount going on in these parts on the photography front right now, but I’m carrying on with getting familiar with the Linhof.  I took it on a recent short break in Provence, and used it as a point and shoot.  It got me a few curious glances (the sort that crazy people get), and maybe a couple of atmospheric shots.

1972 wants its soundtrack back.

L612_jul17_8_1 (2).jpg
L612_jul17_8_2 (2).jpg
L612_jul17_8_3 (2).jpg
L612_jul17_8_4 (2).jpg

Mais… ou est Brigitte Bardot??

 

 

Isole Borromée

dusted down

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, June 15, 2017

A couple of days ago I discovered on my desk a couple of sleeves of 120 film. These turned out to be from a small set I made nearly 2 years ago in the Borromean Islands in Lago Maggiore.  They are all 6x7 shots taken on Kodak Portra 400 (it’s what all the cool kids use, you know) using the Voigtlander Bessa III 667 (probably the best fixed lens medium format camera ever made - certainly the last, along with its 667w close relative).

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Portra 400 - photography’s answer to Dad Dancing.

 

Been a long time comin’

Linhof 612 PC in da house!

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, June 12, 2017

Back in December 2000 I was traveling around New Zealand, with my new XPan, and new girlfriend. I’ve still got them both. I’d been eyeing the XPan for a few years, but up until earlier that year I couldn’t afford it. However, an upturn in my fortunes allowed me to buy the camera and full set of lenses. I was pretty much smitten by the XPan, and still am, but little did I know that I was about to get a serious case of grass is always greener syndrome.

At some point during the trip I picked up a book of landscape photography by NZ photographer Andris Apse. The luscious, classic panoramic photography within its pages is exactly what I was into at the time. Reading the introduction, I was quite surprised to discover the existence of something called a “Linhof Technorama”, and even more by Apse’s reasoning that the relatively restricted 6x12 field of view was the sweet spot. His photographs provided (and continue to provide) strong justification for this. Suddenly I had doubts about my XPan.

However, on returning home to Switzerland, I investigated a little more, and both the price, and the challenges inherent in using the Linhof convinced me that the XPan was good enough for me. Naturally I then went and did something totally irrational and bought a Hasselblad ArcBody, which first, uses a square format which I never really got on with, and second, makes the Linhof look like a Point & Shoot. Looking back, I really regret not buying a Technorama 612 at 2001 prices.

Over the years my interest in the Linhof waxed and waned, and I continued using the XPan. Indeed, I even destroyed my original copy and had to buy a new one. But I also discovered the rather unique feature of the Linhof, its “permanent shift” lenses. This seemed to adress a shortcoming I’d always felt that the XPan suffers from, which is the need to vertically center the horizon to avoid obvious distortion. This isn’t always a problem, but in some situations it is a bit of a showstopper. The “permanently” part of “permanent shift” gave some food for thought, but still, it was nagging at me.

Anyway. I’ve got one. After years of lurking on eBay, finally one came up at a reasonable price, sold by an actual working photographer as opposed to some anonymous combine in South Korea or Japan (seems about 75% of the production run ended up in South Korea. Perhaps they throw them at the Norks), and just down the road in Milano. It’s an original model (not a PCII) with 65mm lens. It’s not so easy working out the vintage of Linhof 612s, as there seem to be quite a lot of minor variations over time, but I suppose this one must date back to the late 1980s. In any case, it was built to last, and it certainly has. I’ll write some more about what I’ve been able to work out about the production history of the Linhof 612, since I can’t actually find this anywhere else.

I did have an option of buying a brand new PCII from Linhof, with, apparently, the very last production 58mm lens in the factory, but the price, which has inflated way over inflation over the last decade, was just too high. Having said that, a German eBay seller is/was offering a new PCII kit for around €10’000, which really is ridiculous. Sadly it seems that Linhofs have gained the same attraction to collectors as Leicas these days. Ten or so years ago, the same kit would retail at about €5’000, which is already quite enough for a fully mechanical camera with no lightmeter. Then again, people pay more for a Leica M-A and lens.

The build quality of the Linhof is awe-inspring though. Not so much built like a tank, more like carved out of a tank. And it’s not just a box. It has a high precision film transport, and a series of interlocks which by and large stop you doing anything stupid. For example, you can’t remove the lens when the dark slide isn’t inserted. It’s simple, but extremely well designed. It makes the Lomography Belair look very, very stupid.

I’ve got 3 developed rolls from the camera so far, so 18 frames, and operationally speaking it seems fine. I did repeat 3 shots because I was convinced I’d left the lens cap on - I hadn’t. I took one shot by accident, when I had the shutter lock off. And so far, inevitably, it’s my favourite.

L612 201705 1 5

“Honour thy mistake as a hidden intention” - Linhof 612, Portra 400

Finally, my Plustek OpticFilm 120 has got something to really get its teeth into. I realised pretty quickly that scanning at 5300dpi wasn’t a terribly good idea. A print from such a file at 300dpi would cover half my house. The Schneider 65mm lens seems pretty sharp, although I’m slightly unsure if it focussing correctly at infinity. I’ll need a few more disciplined shots to be sure. So far it’s mostly handheld!

L612 201705 1 4

Receiver - Linhof 612, Portra 400

Well, I’m sure I’ll be posting more about this. I’ve been waiting 16 years to get my hands on this camera, and I fully intend to enjoy it.

IMG 4050
 

Extra Texture

read all about it

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Friday, May 26, 2017

Enough blabla, here’s some pictures.

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Film: a diatribe

the photographer’s panacea

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, 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

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, 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

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, 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.

 

 

 

Interview with Stuart Klipper

panoramic views

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, April 24, 2017

I came across this earlier this evening, buried with Stuart Klipper’s post-minimalist web site.
I enjoy the work of a lot of photographers, but there are very few I can honestly say inspire me. And Stuart Klipper is at the top of that very short list.

Interview with Stuart Klipper for Land Meets Water from Artipelag on Vimeo.

“That’s how we find ourselves in the world, by the edges of things”

 

Do you shoot film ?

(I don't care either way)

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Emuslive.org is a website I've been frequenting recently. It provides a nexus for everything related to film photography today, and it's pretty good. However...

Emulsive screen

...however, there's one aspect that nags at me. There is an extensive set of template interviews with various photographers, entitled "I am and this is why I shoot film". Being a cantankerous old git, I'm really tempted to reply "really, who cares?". This, of course, is extremely uncharitable of me, to put it mildly, but the underlying point, which I don't think is totally trivial, is why should it matter if you shoot film? I can think of a few strong cases where it does matter, one being where archival is a primary concern, or others where it is imposed, for example being in a situation where you have to use a mechanical camera. Or, indeed, you want to use a format only available in film cameras.

But otherwise, the vast bulk of "reasons why I shoot film", apart from the geriatric "it slows you down" (really, ever tried an EOS-1v ?), seem to be associated with culture and fashion, and, inevitably, gear. The aesthetic stuff, sure, ok, but the idea by association that digital somehow has no aesthetic qualities is absurd. Anyway, developing an aesthetic surely means first working out for yourself the look you want. If that look happens to be best achieved using a particular film stock shot in a given way, fine, but I suspect in 99% of cases the process is reversed.

There's no need to turn it all into a cult.

There are some very clear exceptions, but the majority of film photography I see these days really takes the film "look" and lays in on extra thick with a blunt trowel. I find this really bizarre - back in The Good Old Days, when there was no choice, almost all today's film photos would have been consigned to the trash, at least by "serious" photographers. All the identifiers, excessive grain, weird colours, blocked shadows, dead highlights, were things that people went to huge lengths to circumvent. Film technology too was driven to eliminate these defects, as late-generation emulsions such as Portra, E100G, Ektar 100, Provia and so on clearly show. Digital just took it a step further.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - I shoot film because several cameras I want to use require it. That's it. And I manipulate the film, generally, to make it as clean as possible.

Still, Emulsive is a great web site, and all these interviews are well worth reading, but not because of all the film mumbo-jumbo (which some, to be fair, avoid), but rather because there are some really interesting photographers getting promoted. But are they interesting because they shoot film ? No, well, not to me anyway.

Postscript: Actually, if you read Hamish Gill's interview on Emulsive, and scroll down to "WHAT DO YOU THINK IS PEOPLE’S GREATEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT FILM PHOTOGRAPHY AND HOW WOULD YOU SET IT STRAIGHT?", you find he presents this whole argument way, way more eloquently than I ever could....which is reassuring.
 

borderline

fake film

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Tuesday, April 11, 2017

This is just a post about some photos. The Italian border town of Ponte Tresa is but a hop and a skip from my front door. It's not really a tourist attraction, although it gets a lot of visitors on market day. It's basically a working border town, a bit shabby, chaotic, noisy, but all in a good, characterful way. It contrasts quite a bit with its clean, tidy (but also rather run-down) Swiss counterpart. I may have mentioned this before...

Anyway, the photos: just from a hour or so wandering around on Saturday morning while waiting for Saturday morning stuff to get down. They're all "fake film", processed in Alien Skin Exposure X2, which I really do quite like. I could even stretch to the heresy of thinking that it might even be better than Nik Silver EFX for black & white, but since I don't really have a clue about black & white, I won't.

This first batch has the Exposure X2 Kodak Tri-X 400 preset applied, slightly tweaked.

drm_E-M5MarkII_EM5S0480-X2.jpg


drm_E-M5MarkII_EM5S0482-X2.jpg


drm_E-M5MarkII_EM5S0500-X2.jpg


... and this set has the Kodak Portra 400NC preset applied.

drm_E-M5MarkII_EM5S0483-X2.jpg


drm_E-M5MarkII_EM5S0491-X2.jpg


drm_E-M5MarkII_EM5S0495-X2.jpg



 

A roll of CineStill

still more film

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, 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.

xpan_cinestill1_14.jpg


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.

xpan_cinestill1_07.jpg


xpan_cinestill1_08.jpg


xpan_cinestill1_02.jpg


xpan_cinestill1_16.hdr.jpg

 

Film’s Not Dead (again)

Digital’s looking shaky, though

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Friday, March 17, 2017

Just recently as I was contemplating my great gear sell-off, two candidates for the chopping block which got a very late reprieve were my two "operational" film cameras, the Voigtländer Bessa 667 III and the Hasselblad XPan II. It turns out that 2016 was the first year, essentially "ever", that I did not shoot a roll of film. I did actually buy some Porta 400 but it is still on the shelf.

Then, somehow, I remembered reading about CineStill film, and idly decided to take another look. While their tungsten balanced 800T film doesn't interest me so much, the 50 Daylight film intrigued me, so I bought a couple of 35mm rolls from ars-imago, and popped one of them in the XPan. And it still works. And even more remarkably, so does my Opticfilm 120 scanner.
Xpan cinestill1 01

My very first shot on CineStill 50, to see if I could still work an XPan, and following a double shot of real espresso

Actually, I've just remembered why CineStill popped back into my head. It was actually because of ars-imago, although I didn't immediately realise it at the time. I recently backed the Lab-Box film processor initiative on Kickstarter (yes, I know, hardly consistent with my desire to reduce gear and give up film. Did I ever claim to be consistent ?), and that led me to various links about currently available films, and therefore, to CineStill. And then I realised that Lab-Box is an ars-imago project.

Ah yes, films. That reminds me of something. Back in September 2014, I backed another Kickstarter project. I was hoping to use my first rolls of FILM Ferrania's new product on my 2015 trip to Iceland. Well, my 2015 trip was postponed to 2016, but now, in March 2017, Ferrania's film still hasn't turned up. However, there is some degree of light at the end of the (drying) tunnel, as is evidenced by the following receipt.

Ferrania p30

I am also not all that interested in B&W film, but since it seems I'll be getting a processor, I need to have something to feed it with. And I could hardly pass up the opportunity to finally buy some new Ferrania film. Forza Ferrania!

So we seem to be heading towards some kind of convergence. Genuinely new E-6 film producers, to be joined by the revival of Kodak Ektachrome, various "niche" negative film producers ramping up production, and real innovation rather than reintroduction with the Lab-Box. I wonder when the camera manufacturers are going to start noticing ? Apart from Lomography, that is. After all, with digital camera sales falling off a cliff, they're going to need new markets to turn to.
 

Everything Must Go!

I’m robbing myself

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, March 08, 2017

It's time for another clear out. Actually, I was in two minds about selling everything, as I need both a mental and a physical clearout. My photography is becoming more and more internalised, almost to the extent that it is actually rather pointless, since if I'm the only audience, it becomes rather questionable if seeing something is not sufficient. I don't actually need to photograph stuff, I'm still seeing the world in the same way. But possibly that is a little too drastic a step for now. But I am weighed down by clutter, by too many options, by gear I can't really use for diverse reasons. So out it all goes.

The stuff I'm offering for sale is listed in two separate posts, for Olympus & Sigma. All of the items were bought new by me and used only by me. Most have travelled many, many thousands of kilometres, but they're all in pretty good shape, if unabashedly used, and in full original packaging. Hopefully I'm offering them at realistic prices. If not, I guess nobody will buy them.

Sigma stuff on sale is here.

And Olympus stuff is here.
 

Sigma stuff for sale

High Res, Low Price

SORRY, NOW ALL SOLD As explained here, I'm having a bit of a clearout, and offering various bits and pieces of Sigma gear for sale at JAW-DROPPING prices.

Everything here is used, but in good condition and full working order. There are some minor marks, but nothing has been dropped or badly handled. If it was damaged, I wouldn't sell it, I'm just not that guy. Everything was bought new, by me, through official importers.

I'm located in Switzerland, which is not in the EU. For EU customers, I can easily send by (registered) Italian post - which is perfectly reliable, whatever prejudice may say. Otherwise I can send worldwide by Swiss parcel post or by DHL (but DHL is very expensive here for private customers). Within Switzerland, I will cover the cost. Otherwise, we can negotiate. From previous sales I have satisfied customers from USA to New Zealand and China.


All prices are given in Swiss Francs (CHF), which are more or less 1:1 EUR and USD. Rounding errors can be negotiated. I've tried to keep the prices fair, and low. Generally I would request payment on receipt of goods by PayPal.

Anyway, here's the stuff.

1. Sigma DP-2 Merrill



Sigma DP-2M with original packaging and accessories including 2 batteries, with following extras:

- Sigma lens shade
- Sigma VF-21 Optical Viewfinder
- JLM grip / baseplate (see review here)

sale1703 - 8

sale1703 - 9

sale1703 - 13

Asking Price: CHF 400

2. Sigma DP-3 Merrill



Sigma DP-3M with original packaging (USA version, this was bought from B&H) and accessories including 2 batteries, with following extras:

- Sigma lens shade
- Voigtländer 75mm Optical Viewfinder perfectly adapted for DP3M

sale1703 - 10

sale1703 - 11

sale1703 - 12

Asking Price: CHF 400

SPECIAL OFFER



Both cameras together, with a total of SIX Sigma BP41 batteries for CHF 700.
 

Olympus stuff for sale

Get that lens you always wanted!

As explained here, I'm having a bit of a clearout, and offering various bits and pieces of Olympus gear for sale at AMAZING prices.

Everything here is used, but in good condition and full working order. There are some scuff marks, particularly on plastic lens shades, but these come from carrying stuff in bags. Nothing has been dropped or badly handled. If it was damaged, I wouldn't sell it, I'm just not that guy. Everything was bought new, by me, through official importers.

I'm located in Switzerland, which is not in the EU. For EU customers, I can easily send by (registered) Italian post - which is perfectly reliable, whatever prejudice may say. Otherwise I can send worldwide by Swiss parcel post or by DHL (but DHL is very expensive here for private customers). Within Switzerland, I will cover the cost. Otherwise, we can negotiate. From previous sales I have satisfied customers from USA to New Zealand and China.

All prices are given in Swiss Francs (CHF), which are more or less 1:1 EUR and USD. Rounding errors can be negotiated. I've tried to keep the prices fair, and low. Generally I would request payment on receipt of goods by PayPal.

Anyway, here's the stuff.

SOLD 1. Bundle - Olympus Four Thirds 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 SWD SOLD



with lens hood, caps, tripod collar, carrying case and the following extras:
- Olympus EC14 1.4x Teleconverter
- Olympus EC20 2x Teleconverter
- Olympus MMF2 Micro43 adapter (not shown in photo)

sale1703 - 1

sale1703 - 2

The asking price for this bundle is CHF 600.00


2. Olympus Four Thirds 12-60mm F2.8.4.0 SWD



This lens was serviced two years ago by Olympus to fix a broken lens hood mounting ring (a known issue with this lens), and hardly used since, so it is like new.

with lens hood, caps, soft bag.

sale1703 - 4

sale1703 - 3

The asking price for this lens is CHF 350.00

3. Olympus Micro Four Thirds 75mm f1.8 (black)



This is a truly fabulous lens, but it is primarily a portrait lens, and I don't really do portraits. Hence it is very little used.

with lens and body cap, and additional optional extra Olympus metal lens hood and alternative push-fit lens cap.

sale1703 - 5

sale1703 - 14

The asking price for this lens and extras is CHF 500.00

SOLD 3. Olympus Micro Four Thirds 12mm f2.0 (silver) SOLD



This is also a very good lens, but it gets very little use as generally for wide angle I use panoramic cameras, and if I need 12mm on Olympus I have a 12-40mm.

with lens and body cap, and additional optional extra Olympus metal lens hood.

sale1703 - 6

sale1703 - 7

The asking price for this lens and extras is CHF 350.00


 

Two photographs

the bottom of the barrel

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Over the weekend I brushed off these two photos from the archive and printed them on Hahnemuhle Bamboo paper. They look fabulous - to me, anyway.

Both were taken nearly 30 years ago looking over the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica, on Kodachrome 64 with a Canon FT which I had only the vaguest idea how to use, back in the day when I thought photography was too hard for the likes of me. I suspect, looking back, that my fascination for photographing delicately coloured sky had a lot to do with my then infatuation with medieval manuscript illuminations, which often feature such skies. Then again...

damoy biscoe 1.jpg



damoy pink 1.jpg


 

A matter of Exposure

and, indeed, a matter of opinion

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Saturday, February 18, 2017

In a bit of a fit of retail therapy, the other day I decided to buy a license for Alienskin Exposure 2. This is an application with its roots very firmly in film emulation, but which in recent years has expanded into a full blown digital RAW file processor and - to some limited extent - organiser. In the past I've written a bit about trying out various film emulation methods, and being generally unconvinced. Since I used film extensively, and still do to some extent, I do have a reasonable idea of what I would expect such software to deliver, and I also the real thing to compare against. I'm not really interested any more in trying to emulate film, as such. If I want a Portra look, I'll use Portra. But what does interested me is being able to apply a preset, or whatever you want to call it, to a given batch of photos, thereby giving them a coherent feel, while at the same time being able to speed up the process of all this adjustment stuff and get to the actually interesting part (for me, anyway) of editing and publishing. I tend to get so overwhelmed with the adjustment part, in the limited time I have, that it seems I'll never get to the actual point of it all. I also horrify myself with the sheer quantity of photos I take, even when I'm under the impression that I'm a model of self-restraint. This "preset" approach I find is more adapted to my urban photography than landscape, or whatever you want to call it. Sometime last year I took advantage of a special offer and bought a VCSO film preset package for Lightroom, just to explore it a bit. Clearly it didn't grab me much, as by now I'd practically forgotten about it. However earlier this week, I started working on a smallish set of photos recently taken in Buenos Aires, and decided to try applying the VCSO Portra 400 presets. I quite liked what I was seeing, although the results did seem a little contrasty to me, and VCSO's idea of what the ultimate hipster cliché 2-stop overexposed Portra 400 looks like doesn't correspond at all to what I see on film. I had tried out Exposure a while ago, but at that point felt it didn't offer me anything. But anyway, needing an excuse to spend money to make me fell better, I tried it again. And I'm glad I did. The interesting thing is, when I first put two versions side by side in Lightroom, one processed through VCSO, the other in Exposure 2 and imported, I immediately thought I'd wasted my money. The VCSO version was much more like Portra to my eyes. Then... I realised I had mistaken which was which. So the "good" version was from Exposure 2. Of course this is 150% subjective, and there's no real logic to it. But I repeated the experiment several times, and confirmed my opinion. However, the VCSO versions most definitely have more of that "pop" that people apparently want. But if I wanted "pop" I'd used Ektar, not Portra.
Exposure2vcso

I'm actually not going to say which is which here. But you can probably guess.

So I'm pretty happy with Exposure 2, but working out how to use it is a bit tricky. It can work standalone, including a file/folder based browser (where it recognises Lightroom star ratings, which is handy), or it can work as a plugin. The problem with working as a plugin is that it receives a TIFF file generated by Lightroom with basic processing baked in (e.g. Adobe standard profiles). That isn't an ideal place to start from, which I imagine is one of the drivers behind expanding the reach of Exposure in the first place. The standalone Exposure 2 is actually quite impressive. It doesn't seem to have received much praise or attention, but from a toolset point of view it combines a lot of the better aspects of both Lightroom and Capture One, and adds a twist of its own. The layer methodology, for example is better than either of its two august competitors. Exposure 2 has a lot of tools more specific to customising film emulation, inherited from the older plug-in only versions, and Alien Skin's from Bokeh application seems to be integrated (although that's not something I'm all that interested in). Apparently it also has automatic lens correction. But it doesn't have any chromatic aberration removal that I can see, or any perspective correction. Or, indeed, anything approach a user manual.
Exposure2vcso2

Another example. Again, you decide.

I'm quite comfortable with Lightroom these days. I appreciate the integration with things like Lr Mobile, and Adobe Spark, both of which allow me to make better use of my commute time. Lightroom, unfortunately, is an awful organiser /editor, but it is less awful than anything else on the market. There's no point any more lamenting Aperture, PhaseOne seem totally clueless on what to do with MediaPro, so Lightroom will have to do. And since organising and editing is a core part of my creative process, Lightroom is as well. So, the compromise is to use Exposure 2 standalone to generate alternative versions, and import them into Lightroom for any final tweaking and management. It would be nice if Alien Skin could add the kind of "slingshot" feature in Iridient Developer, which when receiving a TIFF from Lightroom, instead looks for and loads the associated RAW, and then when saving overwrites the TIFF, leaving Lightroom none the wiser to the sleight of hand. I'm also a bit puzzled why Exposure 2 does not include modern Portra 400 emulation, but just 400NC and 400VC. 400NC is close enough, but still, I would expect currently available films to be emulated. Otherwise, I'll repeat what I said earlier - Alienskin Exposure 2 is actually a pretty good piece of software, and not only for film emulation. I'm surprised it doesn't get more coverage.
 

Vote for me!

MAKE SNOWHENGE.NET GREAT AGAIN!

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Apparently I'm trending. I don't think I've ever done that before.

Natgeo1


You can VOTE FOR ME here (or somebody else, if you prefer) - only today, 8th February.

MAKE SNOWHENGE.NET GREAT AGAIN!
 

“Norway Texas” by Gianni Galassi

troll-free zone

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, February 06, 2017

I’ve been an admirer of Gianni Galassi’s photography for quite some time. His cool, stark abstracts drawn largely from Italian architecture manage to combine precision and emotion in a way this kind of photography rarely does. I was ever more impressed after seeing his exhibition of large scale prints, Elogio Della Luce, in Venice a few years ago.

He has produced a series of books, mainly I think self-published through Blurb, and recently announced a new one which was a bit of a departure from his usual work. “Norway Texas” is a collection of photography of vernacular architecture from coastal towns along the Norwegian coast, from Bergen to the Russian border. The title draws not only attention to the parallels of the depicted scenes with the constructed landscape of the Mid West and Great Plains of the USA, but also explicitly to the cinematic atmospheres created by Wim Wenders.

norwaytexas1

Gianni Galassi works more frequently in black and white, but this book features exclusively colour photography, which I think is an appropriate choice. The perspectives are generally a touch wider than much of the work published on his web site. These two aspects combine to remind me a little of the more romantic side of New Topographics school, with perhaps a little more warmth and saturation to the colour palette.

The streets and buildings of “Paris, Norway” are devoid of people. Now and then a vehicle or a lit window might hint at habitation, but otherwise it’s an abandoned world. I’m not sure if this is intentional, but to me this gives the collection a slightly unsettling feel.

norwaytexas2

It would seem that a Norwegian coastal cruise threw Galassi into a rather unfamiliar context, photographically speaking, and he responded by putting together a rich and remarkably coherent body of work which is significantly different to his usual style. Physically, the book design is nicely done within the confines of what Blurb allows, and the medium size softback format gives enough space for the images to breathe while keeping the price at a manageable level.

“Norway Texas” is a subtle work, which keeps pulling me back in. You’re not going to find any fjords, trolls or waterfalls within its pages, but you will find a compelling vision of parallels in frontier communities, expressed through very fine photography.

 

An experiment

(insert pun on spark here)

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Sunday, February 05, 2017

So, I've been have a bit of a play with Adobe Spark, which offers the opportunity, it says here, to "Easily create beautiful images, videos, and web pages that help tell your own story". Sounds promising. Here's my first attempt.

Adobe Spark Page

The complete lack of any kind of manual is a bit irritating - how hard could it be to provide something ? - but it seems all quite straightforward. It doesn't appear possible to customise themes much, if at all, for example by change text font or colour, but I suppose that is to save me from making horrendous style decisions.

Maybe I'll do some more...
 

Timeless, by Rafael Rojas

Venice in monochrome

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A quick survey of this website will reveal the author’s recurrent obsession with Venice. Indeed, if Venice had ice and penguins I’d never need to go anywhere else. Since another popular theme of mine is phonebooks PHOTObooks, damn it, Apple auto-correct - then there is an obvious intersection to explore. However, as I’ve noted in the past, this particular crossroads is less populated than one might expect. In fact to date I’ve yet to find a book of Venice photography that really grabs me, although I discuss on that last link, there are a couple that get close.

Well, now there’s a new candidate to consider: Timeless, by Rafael Rojas. Over the past 5 years or so Rafael has been steadily building a reputation as one of Europe’s leading and most inventive landscape photographers. It might therefore seem a little strange for his first published monograph to feature not wild, colourful open spaces, but instead restrained monochrome studies of Venice. And indeed, taking it another step away from the habitual by photographing exclusively on film. With a fully manual prehistoric Hasselblad. But I’m certainly not complaining.

The first thing that struck me about Timeless was the painstaking attention to detail and to providing a rich visual, subtle experience - and this was even before I bought the book: the dedicated website is a work of art in itself. The physical book fully backs up that impression. It arrives nestled in a black, silver printed slipcase, the book itself bound in vermillion hardcover. The whole presentation is somehow reminiscent of the spirit of La Fenice, an impression reinforced by the frontispiece. The print quality is just sumptuous, with deep, rich blacks and subtle tonalities. At the risk of repeating myself, the care and attention to detail that just leaps out of the pages is quite remarkable.

Rr timeless

photography copyright © Rafael Rojas

As far as I am concerned, any Venetian photobook loses points for the showing following subjects: gondolas, The Rialto, The Grand Canal from the bloody Rialto, gondolas, St Mark’s Square, carnival masks, actually pretty much anything to do with the carnival, and gondoliers. And San Giorgio Maggiore is right on the limit. Oh, and did I mention gondolas ? Naturally, I’ve personally photographed all of these hundreds of times. And naturally, most are to be found within the pages of Timeless. But, crucially, they are all treated in original and interesting ways. Moreover, Timeless visits the quiet backwaters of Venice, featuring places I immediately recognise without having any idea where they are, but could surely find. Laundry hanging out over a nocturnal Castello contrada, quiet details from areas so close to, yet so far from the swamped, stifling tourist hotspots.

The real star of Timeless, and indeed Venice itself, is stone. Stone in all its forms which has been used to create this absurd, impossible city, floating on a bed of mud and ancient wooden pilings. The photography revels in the endless combinations of texture of stone, the interplay with glancing natural and artificial light, with fog, with water, always reminding of the sheer unlikeliness and ingenuity of it all. Through the study of light and stone Timeless gets right to the heart of Venice. It’s a book to revisit and explore time and time again.

Obviously, I fully recommend this book. You should stop reading right now and get over here to order it. And yet…

And yet, Timeless is missing one important dimension for me. It’s obviously very subjective, but what else would it be: colour. For me, there is something absolutely unique about colour in Venice, especially winter light. It is incredibly hard to capture on film, needing an extremely delicate touch, and so I can understand the temptation of black and white. I don’t want to imply that black and white is some kind of surrender or second best choice - personally I’m completely inept at it, not that I’m much better at colour. But there still seems to be a certain strand of opinion that colour photography is for tourists. I’m certain Rafael Rojas does not share that view, and I understand that Timeless has certain set parameters, within which it succeeds brilliantly, but I’d love to see him produce a colour photography companion.

[Disclosure - I should note that Rafael and I are friends, but I’m a full-price paying customer, and this review was neither requested nor influenced in any way]

 

A Farewell to Ice

and possibly to common sense

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, January 05, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I read the recently published book "A Farewell to Ice", by Peter Wadhams. It recounts Wadhams' long involvement in sea ice research, intertwining popular science and anecdote. It's quite an entertaining read, and makes some compelling points, but I came away from it feeling a slight sense of disquiet. This arose not from the predictions of the grim consequences of sea ice loss - which are hard to disagree with - but more down to the presentation.

At some point in the distant past I moved in quite close circles to Peter Wadhams. I'm not sure if we ever met, but I don't think so. But my impression is that he always had a reputation for being ever so slightly out on the fringe, which actually would probably have appealed to me. Although he has had a long and fruitful career, somehow he seems to lack a certain sense of gravitas. Of course you could also say that this is because unlike a lot of his peers, he's not a pretentious, self-important windbag. Nevertheless, his claims about a murder conspiracy directed at climate scientists a few years back were not only extremely far-fetched but also very hurtful to friends and relatives of the said scientists.

Wadhams also emphasises the importance of field data and actually understanding physical processes over modelling, a point that his critics in the denial looney corner conveniently overlook, but which I fully concur with. In fact my own skepticism about modelling as the solution to everything played a large part in my forced exit from the field, many years ago. It wasn't a good line to take when dealing with a boss who seemed to actually live in a computer simulation.

But back to "A Farewell to Ice". The big problem is that Wadhams cannot help himself from making dramatic predictions. Does it really matter if the North Pole is ice free next year or in ten years? Or even in a hundred years? The big fight now is countering the blatantly dishonest denial campaign, and its harnessing of an army of illiterate trolls and pseudo-scientists. Giving them a headline like "all ice will disappear next year - oh, and by "disappear" I mean only 1 million square km will remain - is a gift from the Gods. He may, god forbid, even be right, but it's neither here nor there. There is little point in writing a book like this and playing to the gallery. If it cannot even convince a mild skeptic, what is the point? Allowing it to be so easily dismissed as wild-eyed scaremongering is extremely careless, to put it mildly.

I'm also a little puzzled about the bibliography. If he believes that Seymour Laxon and Katharine Giles were so important, why does he not reference their research, in particular Laxon's exhaustive, diligent and controversy-avoiding work on refining techniques for determining sea ice freeboard (and hence the key thickness measurement) by satellite remote sensing? All I can recall is a dismissive, generic comment on missions such as Cryosat. Well, ok, maybe upward facing sonar from submarine is more accurate, but he's hardly going to generate much coverage that way.

So, "A Farewell to Ice" is a good, accessible book, and a worthwhile and recommended read. The science is extensive, fairly comprehensive and sound. But in failing to rein back on some of the more emotive aspects, it also ends up as a lost opportunity, and does little, for me, to dispel the vague feeling that maybe he is just slightly bonkers.
 

In search of the Emperor Penguin

see those dots on the horizon there ?

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Sunday, January 01, 2017

At the end of November, we set off on a 10 day "expedition cruise" operated by Oceanwide Expeditions, branded as "Search for the Emperor Penguin". The cruise, aboard the M/V Ortelius, was to head into the northernmost region of the Weddell Sea, and hopefully reach Snow Hill Island, where a number of Emperor penguin colonies had been discovered some years previously. Snow Hill Island is actually well out of what was usually understood as the range of the Emperor, being well North of the Antarctic Circle. The colony had been reached twice before by tourist operations, several times by the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov chartered by Quark Expeditions, and once by Ortelius itself in 2013. Ortelius is quite an unusual Antarctic cruise ship in that it has a helideck and hangar, and enough space for 2 to 3 helicopters. In this case, 2 were carried. The ideal situation would be that the ship would be able to get close enough to Snow Hill island to be able to use the helicopters to ferry passengers to a location on the sea ice at least 2km distant from the colonies, from where they would be reached on foot. This is a pretty ambitious plan - with a lot to go wrong. It appeared than a significant proportion of the passengers did not really realise quite how ambitious it actually was, and how low the chances of success were.

In order to succeed, the following ducks needed to be in a neat row:
- ship able to reach within approx 40km of the landing target
- adequate visibility for safe helicopter operation
- low enough windspeed for safe helicopter operation
- calm sea conditions
- penguin colonies actually there
- sea ice conditions suitable for safe travel by complete amateurs

In the past years, very few of the conditions had been met. Up until 2016 Oceanwide had 4 attempts at carrying this through, with a success rate of just 1 actual landing (if I understand correctly). This time round, absolutely everything worked out fine ... except for the last point. The Ortelius encountered open water for almost all of Admiralty Sound, but the remaining sea ice, where the colonies are located, turned out to be in very poor state. In several areas there were surface pools, along with areas which looked recently refrozen, and there were many rifts and cracks. A little to the south there was open water into the Weddell Sea, as far as the eye could see. Possibly it might have been feasible for experienced sea ice travellers to make a safe traverse, but no way could 110 blundering tourists be unloaded. Furthermore the helicopter crews did not feel that the ice would reliably support the weight of a helicopter.

drm__20161201_PC010137.jpg

M/V Ortelius up against the sea ice west of Snow Hill island, with Lockyer Island in the background.



So, sadly, that was that. There were a lot of very unhappy punters on board, but while it was natural to be disappointed, a lot of people seemed to think they were on a day trip to Disneyland or something. Antarctic operations, especially tourist cruises, need to take a very conservative approach to safety. Anything that goes wrong would very likely go wrong very badly. There was perhaps a significant lack of timely information and explanation provided by the staff, which didn't help the atmosphere, but that in itself changed nothing so far as conditions were concerned.

Everybody did at least get an overflight of the colonies, and spotted a few solitary emperors on sea ice near to the ship. These in themselves are experiences that very few people have had, but these days it seems that expectations run ridiculously high. The desire to grab photographic trophies to post on Facebook or wherever blinds people from the richness of actual experiences.

drm__20161201_PC010112.jpg

Emperor penguin colony from the air (the dots on the right). Being British (well, sort of), I obeyed the rules and didn't take a telephoto lens in the helicopter.



As it turned out, the colonies appeared to be thriving. As I understand it, we expected to find 3, in fact there were 5. I'm not sure how much longer this will be the case though. By the look of things the sea ice is very vulnerable. Very strong currents run through Admiralty Sound between Snow Hill and James Ross Island, which I assume are driven by the Weddell Sea gyre, and if there is a complete breakup in a summer season, it is hard to see how it will recover. Multiyear ice seems to be very sparse. The breakup of the Larsen A & B ice shelves in the same region has been partly blamed on rising surface water temperatures, so the outlook cannot be good. With no sea ice there will be no penguins.

drm__20161201_PC013971.jpg

Emperor penguin on the sea ice edge



The standard price of this trip is, for the lowest standard two berth cabin we had, $13K per person. Fortunately we got an extremely reduced offer, or I would not be writing this. I get a reasonable salary, but $13K for a 10 day trip is way beyond reality, never mind pain threshold. Oceanwide expeditions is a good company, and they are quite open about the chances of success - meaning physically reaching the emperor colonies - but unless it is something you really, really want to do, and are prepared to take a big gamble, there are much better Antarctic cruises on offer at very significantly lower prices, including with Oceanwide. Helicopters don't come cheap.

 

Season’s Greetings

and all that stuff…

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Sunday, December 25, 2016

Just managed to sneak this in in time! Thanks to whoever is still reading this stuff. Hopefully there will be a bit more activity next year - best wishes, wherever you are - David

2016seasonsgreetings
 

Riders on the storm

f8 and be there

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Every once in a while there comes along a photo which will just stick in my head. Some of them I didn't even actually take - there's a fantastic shot I have from New Zealand 15 years ago which I didn't actually take - but in the case I did.

The location is the Antarctic Sound, 2 weeks ago. There was an absolutely insane storm blowing, with unearthly lighting that I'll never manage to convince anybody isn't Photoshopped. The ship was being blown through an expanse of tabular icebergs, providing non-stop shots of a lifetime, provided you could find somewhere to wedge yourself in to avoid getting flattened by the wind or thrown over the side by the motion.

Most people had, sensibly, retired to somewhere sheltered with things to hang on to, and sturdy paper bags nearby. We hung on. And then this happened - an iceberg, loaded with frantic Adelie penguins careened crazily past. There cannot have been more than 30 seconds to grab a shot, but for once I kept my wits about me and got four. Here's one of them. Ok, yeah, it isn't absolutely pin sharp at 100%, but I'll take it.

drm__20161201_PC013918.jpg


 

Carry that weight

but not quite so much

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Sunday, November 06, 2016

A couple of years ago, I went off for a 5 week trip around Argentinian Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, fitting in a 12-day cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula. Apart from the fact the the photos from that trip, in particular those from the Argentinian part, are still languishing neglected in my archives, one thing that keeps nagging at me is the ridiculous amount of gear I burdened myself with. I've whined quite a lot it here - here, and here, for example. I should have known better.

So, with a sort-of repeat experience coming up at the end of the month, have I learned my lesson ? Well, perhaps. I've worked out that even neglecting things like filters, batteries, film, and all the other paraphernalia, in December 2012 I set off with a backpack weighing over 10kg. And actually, I also had a Domke shoulder bag with a Ricoh GRD4, but I was relieved of this by a helpful Argentinian in Buenos Aires. This time, largely thanks to the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, and swapping the Sigma Dp0 for the Hasselblad XPan set, I have a very similar set, but weighing under 7kg. It's still noticeable, but manageable. The difference between the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds sets is a significant contribution:

Camera weights


The range of focal lengths is a bit different. I left the 4/3 7-14 f/4 lens at home last time, because it was just impossible. But the m4/3 version is much lighter (and faster). What I am missing in my 2016 packing list is a long telephoto. In 2013 I took a non-mirrorless E-System kit with me, and the fabulous Zuiko Digital 150mm f2/0. Attaching this to a 2x convertor turned it into a 300m f/4, a pretty powerful tool. Coincidentally, Olympus now sells a very highly rated 300m f/4 for Micro Four Thirds. Forgetting the cost for a moment, this weighs in at 1.2kg, only 100g lighter than the old ZD 150. My Lightroom catalog tells me that in 2013, out of a total of 1108 photos taken in the Antarctic, only 89 were taken with this cumbersome and restrictive 150mm. However, those 89 include several of my favourites. But anyway the conclusive point is that there is no room in my backpack for a 300mm lens, so I'll just have to be more creative with what I've got. And anyway, I'm not really a dedicated wildlife photographer, so a 300mm prime lens really would be a little extravagant.

drm_20130123_6222.jpg

A pretty psychedelic penguin, rather an extreme shot taken with the Zuiko 150mm f/2 wide open



drm_20130124_7011.jpg

And a somewhat psychotic penguin. This time with the 150mm f/2 tele-converted to a 300mm f/2



Very recently Olympus introduced a new lens, a 12-100mm constant f/4 zoom, which would be really ideal for travel like this. The 12-40mm f2/8 is really excellent, but it is a little restricted in range, and a 12-100 would really help to avoid a lot of lens swapping, which in typically Antarctic Peninsula weather is really no bad thing. The new Olympus camera, the E-M1 Mk II, would also bring a lot of benefits. Unfortunately neither of these will apparently be available until 2 days before I return. Not being a Famous Photoblogger, there's no chance of getting my hands on them. Oh well, what I've got will work just fine.

Actually, weight is less of an issue this time, as the trip basically consists of a glorified taxi ride into (hopefully) the Weddell Sea, but still, it counts. One issue is of course ever stricter carry-on baggage restrictions, so that too needs to be taken into account, but there is also the point that too much gear can drastically interfere with photography.

Hopefully I won't end up whining so much this time.


 

White on white

backing off the sliders

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, October 26, 2016

For some random reason I recently stumbled across a group of photos I took in Antarctica in 2013, and which I had more or less discarded. The photos are of icebergs, and I suppose I had tried to turn them into the sort of eye candy which is more or less obligatory these days, with ominous dark skies and intense saturated blues. Easy enough to do, but not really very satisfying. I have some shots which are naturally that way, and those, I let be. These, however, I finally realised, have a lot more potential to convey something of my idea of Antarctica. I've mentioned this before, probably too often, but I find a lot of common ground in the work of Stuart Klipper, who's Antarctica photography is a million miles away from the 500px aesthetic (I'm being polite, there).

So I tried to accentuate the soft light, the feeling of mystery, and the essential whiteness of it all. Something a bit like this:

drm_20130118_3651.jpg


drm_20130118_3632.jpg


drm_20130118_3640.jpg



Actually the reason was far from random. With practically zero planning, unexpectedly I am off to Antarctica again next month, and I needed to pick up where I left off.
 

Moss

snapshots set 1

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Vast extents of moss-covered lava are a pretty arresting sight in Iceland. The sheer scale can't help but conjure up thoughts go the frightening infernos that produced them. And no photographer with a pulse can fail to be tempted to try to capture something of the scene. In my experience it's pretty much impossible. But it doesn't stop me trying.

drm_E-M1_20160716_P7161864.jpg


drm_E-M1_20160716_P7161866.jpg


drm_E-M1_20160716_P7161862.jpg


 

Taking the 4th

planetary politics

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, October 06, 2016

The brief hype bubble surround Elon Musk’s SpaceX push to colonise Mars seems to have died away for now. Donald Trump is far more captivating. The vision is of course breath-taking, the ambition is boundless, and the technology amazing. But in the end, what’s the difference between this and, say, a Steve Jobs product launch writ large? Is Silicon Valley the right place to gestate such a far-reaching (in many senses) plan? I have some serious doubts.

I’ve seen no discussion at all of the socio-political considerations here. Let’s believe that SpaceX are going to be able to launch a fleet of 1000 ships to Mars. So, that’s 1000 ships in Earth orbit under an American corporate flag, off to settle a new world. How are the Russians, Chinese, Indians all of whom are rather immune to Silicon Valley spin going to react to this? Not exactly with wild enthusiasm, I think. How even is the US Government going to react? Will they just be all hands-off free enterprise - or will they engineer an NSA-led coup? Indeed, given his apparent political leanings, will Musk just invite the NSA and all their chums along for the ride? And even beyond the nationalistic rivalry, what about Jeff Bezos? Is he going to let SpaceX eat his cake? Or Boeing ? Or Google, probably.

Who is going to decide who gets to go? Who’s in charge? Somebody has to be - human societies need a leader. And when they get there, and plant a flag, which they assuredly will do, which flag will it be? Will USA nationalist Musk (despite being South African) claim Mars for the United States of America? I can’t see the “no claims” conventions lasting long. Musk evokes the great explorations of the past, but the driving force of almost all of these was greed and conquest - or even worse, religion - and the human species has not yet evolved 1mm beyond that mindset.

I’ve searched for any discussion of these topics, and found nothing. Starting with SpaceX, where all I can find is shiny shiny tech. Inspiration is not the same thing as aspiration. A species which tolerates countless ongoing brutal wars, with major nations perpetrating practically all of them is not ready to leave the planet. And even if it were, the Silicon Valley mindset is the last thing to drive it. The moon landings were driven by politics, not technology. The technology to get to Mars seems to be practically solved. The politics isn't even started.

If SpaceX, or Boeing, or Blue Origin manages to get these ships into Earth orbit, the challenge of getting to Mars will be far less than that of avoiding getting blasted out of the sky by a Chinese missile. And in the unlikely event of getting to Mars, any colonists will probably be in more danger from other humans than the inhospitable environment.

Ok, so I’m terminally pessimistic, but I can only see this as a very dangerous, immature and misguided initiative which could have terminal consequences. It would take the greatest statesmen the world has ever seen to pick a path through this minefield, and Elon Musk most certainly doesn’t qualify.

What was Mars God of, again ?
 

Some Guy bites back

large pinch of salt absolutely mandatory

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Tuesday, October 04, 2016

This stuff I wrote the other day was picked up by Andrew Molitor on his blog "Photos and Stuff" (hmm, sounds familiar), and put forward as an example of what happens when a photographer lacks a firm goal. He’s put it in a benign enough way - God help me if I should get on his wrong side - but I think maybe he’s hung his coat on the wrong nail. I don’t lack a firm goal - the problem is that I have far, far too many goals.

I could say taking my Iceland photography as the focus is not the best idea. To be honest, for me photography is just an excuse to spend time in Iceland. But since recently I have actually evolved a framework that I might be able to drape some Icelandic photography over, let’s leave that aside. Generally, the problem I was rambling on about the other week is not that I don’t know what I want to express.The problem lies in the detail of how to express it. And by extension, coming up against seemingly diametrically opposed advice on how to do so.

There is something slightly odd about advocating someone to study photo books (you should see my bookshelves) read about Real Photography (ditto, and a pretty broad selection) but at the same time advising them to steer clear of anything that smacks of technique, especially, God forbid, post-processing. Technique doesn’t make you a good photographer, but lack of technique - applicable technique, that is - can prevent a good photographer from emerging.

Certainly it is all too easy to go overboard on technique - the web is overflowing with examples of dangerous idiot savants who’ll sell you their useless advice - but that does not invalidate technique in itself. It would be like saying that a writer has no need of vocabulary or grammar. And that is a useful analogy: I often feel like I’ve got a whole bunch of stories to tell, pictorially, but I don’t quite have the technique to tell them. Let’s not fall into the trap of taking that too literally - of course there is a storytelling aspect to photography involving the sequencing of and relationships between photos. But there is also a storytelling aspect to single images, and the language to tell that story has verbs like dodging and burning and nouns like micro-contrast and tone. It’s hardly a new observation. So just because I may be having some trouble reconciling apparently contradictory advice on how to apply the language of post-processing doesn’t mean I haven’t got a clue about what I’m trying to express.

There’s another trap easily sprung - Andrew picks up on the not uncommon advice to flip a picture to study the balance. It comes naturally to view camera photographers who see the world upside down on the ground glass. The trap Andrew stumbled into is this: he exclaims “Really, who gives a shit about balance? I don't. Balance is a thing, but it's not an unalloyed good thing any more than blue is a good thing. It's just a property of the picture”. Well, yeah. But, er, who said anything about it being anything else ? The point is the trick frees you up to consider the balance. It doesn’t say, anywhere, that the balance has to be “right”. It just IS. Balance can be harmonious, and serene, or it can be tense and uneasy. If you “don’t give a shit about balance” then honestly I wonder if you give much of a shit about photography, finally. But I’m pretty sure Andrew assumed balance, in this context, means nice pretty blue skies with unicorns jumping over perfect rainbows. His reaction to my mention of this idea, by setting up and demolishing a straw man, somewhat tainted the rest of his argument. Actually I think he’d rather enjoy reading David Ward’s philosophical treatise on landscape photography, “Landscape Within”.

I suspect anything hinting at Landscape Photography is a bit of a red rag to Andrew. Landscape has become the stamp collecting or transporting of photography. It’s what socially inept people in smelly anoraks do, which lets them conflate their longing for shiny toys with wanting to impress the girls by being creative (we’re pretty much all boys). Well, anyway, that’s a view which Andrew sometimes gives me the impression he may subscribe to. He’s hardly the only one, but this idea that Landscape Photography is just a crutch for DPReview or 500px denizens and not something real Real Photographers do is pretty prevalent. Hell, it’s not far from the truth. But it’s a generalisation, and generalisations cloud vision.

To quote another bit “So what was it like, David? (and not just David, all you folks in the cheap seats should follow along) Take some time. Get out a notebook. Write. Think. What was it like to be in Iceland?” - well, actually, I’ve done that. Quite a lot. It’s scattered all over this blog, and it’s starting to coalesce.

(note, all this is in good humour. Andrew Molitor seems like the kind of guy I'd be happy to buy a drink for). Read his blog - he's definitely wrong about one thing - I'm not an "an occasional reader here", actually I read pretty much every word he writes.
 

Sidetracked, again

quiet round here, innit?

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Sunday, October 02, 2016

Recently, for whatever reason, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of visitors here (UPDATE - this might have something to with it). This coincides with a major drop in my posting frequency, which is unfortunate. So I thought maybe I should explain.

Earlier this year, around April, I asked a person whose opinions I respect for some feedback on my website. The outcome wasn't the glowing praise I hoped for, and in particular the observation that "it's a bit stuck in time (2000 to be exact)" stung a bit.

So I decided to redesign it. And, of course, I bit off far more than I could chew. In theory it should take me two weeks or so to do a redesign, but in practice, I have about 6 hours a week from which I could take time to do it (and that 6 hours also includes photo editing, keeping my computer working, lounging in front of the TV, or generally collapsing on the couch after yet another fabulous 12 hours away at the "day" job). On top of that, the publishing software I use was urgently in need of upgrading to a newer version. Any upgrade of Expression Engine is a bloody nightmare, but this time practically every plug-in I use broke as well, so it took about 1 month elapsed time to sort that out.

I then realised that a long history of quick fixes and "improvements" to my existing code had made it unmaintainable. So that needed to be cleared up. One more month passed by.

Then I could start thinking about how to redesign the site. So, I tried looking at a few other sites for inspiration. Not much luck there - the vast majority of photographer's web sites are boring as hell, with exactly the same layouts, "clever" off-the-peg galleries with all the bells and whistles, which do all they can to ruin the viewing experience, and very, very little to encourage return visits. The quality of the photography is irrelevant at this point. I did look at a few website services, bot the only ones that passed even basic requirements for me were Squarespace and Koken, and both those have showstoppers. Woken is one I'm watching for the future, though.

I've also been told that there isn't enough focus here on my photography. Well, ok, good point. So I'm trying to address this in three ways: 1 - improve the accessibility and presentation of existing content, 2 - improve my curation, 3 - introduce a completely new channel for more ephemeral collections, called "Photo Diary". Oh, and put some emphasis on my very short list of publications. Unfortunately all of that is a lot of work.

So, now, at the start of October, I have more or less completed the structure, and I'm working on the graphic design. Below is a snapshot of what the new front page looks like, right now. I've no idea if it will stay that way, or if it will ever come to light. So that's why I've been quiet recently.

Home new wip


Anyway, it's only photography. And barely that, really.
 

(I don’t need no) education ?

or maybe I do

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I've been quite prolific this year in photo-education consumerism. I've been fortunate to be able to participate in workshops with, and receive direct advice from, in Ragnar Axelsson (in Hamburg), Daniel Bergmann and David Ward (in Iceland), and Rafael Rojas (in Switzerland). All four are exceptional photographers, and really nice people, and all four have taken the time to give me feedback.

They've also shared with me techniques for post-processing files from camera in order to turn them into something meaningful. This part I find the most interesting, because it's an area in which if I'm honest I'm totally adrift. A lot of this education just goes straight into one ear and out of the other, but enough sticks around for me to get a feeling that some of it is totally contradictory. Two acclaimed, successful landscape photographers express pretty much exactly the same objectives, but give pretty much diametrically opposed ways to reach them. I'm not talking about "there's a million ways to do the same thing in Photoshop", but rather something like one person advocating increasing detail, and the other decreasing it, to achieve the same look. Which rather makes my brain explode.

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Hamburg. Probably should be in monochrome and cropped a bit



I'm not sure if it's a result of this, or some basic lack of vision, or something else, but quite often when I'm reviewing recently imported images in Lightroom, if I'm honest I can't actually see anything I should change. They look fine to me. One of the above-mentioned experts may well take a photo of mine and apply layer upon layer of intricate changes, which, probably, improve the photo, and certainly make it look different. But then when I'm back home, sitting in front of the same photo, I don't even have a clue where to start. Should I take the David Ward approach, or the Rafael Rojas path ? Should I first consider framing, and cropping, as both Ragnar and Daniel appear to do? Should I immediately consider monochrome, like Rafael and Ragnar would propose, or should I flip it upside down to check the balance in the composition, as David does ?

Or should I just sit there staring at it for a bit, and then wander off to the web in search of new software or cameras to buy ?

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Iceland. Um. Looks better upside down. And, er, the white balance ?



After (large number) of years and (much larger number) of money spent, I should have a better idea, but I haven't. I had been drifting towards a sort of aesthetic borrowed from the film using, portrait/travelogue loose community, larger revolving around the look of Kodak Porta 400, and applying that to my vaguely defined landscape/architecture/travel genre. And before that, I had gradually evolved a process of enhancing images by manipulating texture using progressive, graduated micro-contrast ("clarity", or "detail"), which was quite natural to do in Apple Aperture (less so in Lightroom). But then, I've learned, recently, that touching the Clarity slider, at least to push in a positive direction, is A Bad Idea, and Contrast is my friend. Except that I learned 2 months ago that a giving Clarity a hefty upwards shove in sky areas can be very rewarding, and keep your hands off Contrast.

Of course, I probably got most of that wrong anyway.

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Well, I could spend hours on this if only I knew where to start!



So now what ? I basically haven't got a clue. Then again, I'm no worse off than when I started, and it was all quite good fun. Perhaps the style and methods I'd evolved myself were not so bad. Certainly, any four of the above could take any one of my images, and enhance it, arguably make it better. But then it would be theirs, not mine. It's a comforting though to fall back on, except of course when I'm back sitting in front oaf a recently shot photo, and I still have no idea what to do with it.
 

New Panoramics

from horizon to horizon

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Wide format, or "panoramic" photography for me has been synonymous with film and my Hasselblad XPan, since the turn of the century. Well, it seems, no more. On my recent trip to Iceland, for the first time, it stayed at home, and its usurper, the Sigma DP0, came instead. And I really enjoyed using it. You'll find all sorts of opinions and views all over the darker corners of the photo-net droning on about how awful it is, but I ignored all that stuff and just used it. Once you get into the groove, it's really fun to use. The weird shape makes total sense when holding it, and it's a great conversation starter (if you like conversations that start with "what the hell is that!?").

These little renditions below don't really do justice to the jaw-dropping impact of the detail and delicacy seen on a print or big screen, but they go somewhere, I hope, to explaining why the unconventional approach and, er, idiosyncratic software is worth the trouble. Speaking of which, maybe I'm just lucky, but unlike for certain well known pundits, Sigma's PhotoPro software is 100% rock solid for me. I can't remember the last time it crashed, if ever.

But anyway, it's all about the photos, not the gadgetry, and I'm pretty happy with this set.


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So... anybody want to buy an XPan ?
 

woe is me

revenge of the machines

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Friday, August 12, 2016

I am aware that things have gone very quiet around here recently. It isn't that I've got nothing to say or share, but rather that I've had no time to share it. Ten very full days in Iceland were followed by hosting guests over the Swiss National Day weekend, then I had to dedicate a little time to actually working for a living. And then computer Armageddon struck. I woke up on August 3rd to find that one internal disk had failed completely, one external RAID drive was now not a RAID drive anymore, another external drive refused point-blank to talk to the computer (2008-vintage Mac Pro) over the fast eSATA interface, one of my 3rd level photo backup drives claimed to be empty, and finally the computer itself threw a fit claiming either a memory error or logic board error. It was impossible to work out which. Oh, and the primary photo RAID set was 90% full. During the following week various other things went wrong in inventive and amusing ways.

Eventually I ended up with a stable (whisper it) system with a new 4Tb primary store and everything else working. In a fit of panic I also ordered a Drobo 5Nt backup system, which (a) arrived 1 week overdue, and (b) was probably a big mistake, but it's hard to get any sensible alternatives down here in Hicksville.

Then my 15 year old original Apple Cinema Display decided it only likes displaying red. Now having replaced that with a new Eizo CS270, I've realised that the colour on my cherished Quato 240LE is way off, and no amount of calibration can fix it.

So my nerves are a little frazzled.

Here's a nice relaxing photo from Iceland. Deep breaths... and blueberry Skyr.

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Krýsuvíkurbjarg

 

Iceland: ad infinitum

Thus quoth the hrafn

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, July 14, 2016

Well, things have been a bit quiet around here this last month. There are plenty of reasons for this, including usual summer house guests, spending most of what little time I have to dedicate to extra-curricular activities to a forthcoming website redesign, and preparing for (yet) another trip to Iceland.

Actually, this is my first since 2012, and first summer trip since, er, 2007 I think. I was supposed to go last year, but had to call it off for family reasons. I have quite a sense of trepidation about this trip, as from what I've been reading the tourist traffic has exploded, and I'm expecting to see a lot of changes, not necessarily for the better.

To try to get back into the groove I've revisited, again, my Iceland archive, and out of over 5400 photos (and that's just the digital stuff), I've managed to extract 82 which somehow start to express what I personally get from Iceland. Obviously, practically every "landscape" photographer on the web now has an Iceland gallery, with the standard Whereverfoss and bit-of-ice-on-the-beach-with-big-stopper photos, so that's pretty much killed that part. And of course there are countless books, mostly very repetitive. Of these I'd pick out Ragnar Axelsson and Marco Paoluzzo as two photographers who push the boundaries a bit. I'm sure there are others. On the pure landscape side, I still rate Daniel Bergmann and Hans Strand at the top of a very long list. I'd love to be able to say I've got my own vision of Iceland, but so far, I haven't.

It is certainly easy to imagine doing "something different", but when placed in any of Iceland's very numerous iconic locations, it is very, very hard to turn your back on the main attraction.

The following are a few non-iconic shots extracted from my selection of 82. Possibly they indicate the direction I might go in, but it's far more likely that I'll fall, again, to the temptation of the long exposure waterfalls. And so what. It's fun.

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Magda Biernat Photography: adrift

beaten to the draw

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, June 23, 2016

While browsing through various inter web channels the other day - in this case, I think, National Geographic - I cam across something which gave me a bit of a shock. The work shown here - Magda Biernat Photography: adrift - is basically exactly one of the main ongoing photographic ideas I've had in my head for years, and indeed have been quietly preparing. So there are no new ideas - either somebody else has already done it, or they are about to. I suppose the only solution is to stop procrastinating and just get on with it, or alternatively, ignore completely what other people are doing. Well, I do have an alternative idea running along the same path, more or less, but it's going to be harder to realise, and now, it will just look like a facsimile.
Magda Biernat

diptych by Magda Beignet, magdabiernat.com

What really grabs me about this idea is that it addresses an issue that I personally have with classic landscape photography, that it excludes, repels even the human element, and thus loses any real meaning beyond the superficial. The very fact that the photographer is there to take the photograph means that the idea of untouched, unreachable wilderness which is being hinted at just collapses. Magda Biernat's approach resolves this in a very elegant way. I'm sure all of see photographs we wish we could have made. What I saw here was photography I should, and quite easily could, have published, and that hurts a bit. Whatever, I ordered the book.
 

The Third Bag

the search goes on

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, June 15, 2016

So after the lengthy bag discussion, I decided to throw caution to the wind. The PRVKE just wasn't working for me. Honestly, I think it's just trying to solve far too many problems at once, and some of them don't even need solving. The essential problem is that it doesn't seem to have a primary role. I really don't think you can mash up a camera bag, hiking bag, travel bag, gym/school bag and biker backpack in one and end up with anything sensible. It really doesn't fit my needs as a camera bag. In terms of capacity, the "cube" really makes very poor use of the space available, and as other reviews have mentioned, it's all a bit flimsy and inflexible. As for the rest, well, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, but I'm not that convinced about the roll top standing up to much in the way of moderate rain. Ok, so there's a rain cover, but still - my experience of roll tops is that they're the bags you put other stuff in to keep dry, rather than the other way around. So, nice try, WANDRD, but I'm afraid if the Perfect Bag TM was that easy to pull off, LowePro or Tamarac or Manfrotto or whoever, with years of experience, would have already done so. The psychology of Kickstarter funding is very interesting - since backers are general early adopters, and have both a monetary and emotional buy-in, I suspect this leads to very uncritical user reviews. Or maybe it's just me. But I still needed a bag. The F-Stop stuff looked tempting, but their obvious epic inability to manage production, and poor marketing and communication left me dubious. Anyway, you can't actually buy most of their stuff, it's all back-ordered for ever. So, what was left ? Well, in the end, thought convergence, some comment by Bernard on the previous entry, and a dose of common sense led me to Bag 3: the Mindshift Backlight 26L. Sadly the green version isn't available yet, and I've got a deadline.
Mindshift Backlight

The Backlight 26L. Actually it looks quite nice in grey.

I did swear I'd never buy anything from ThinkTank again, but I guess I'm let off here on a branding technicality. Anyway, the Backlight is a really nice little bag - a blend of ThinkTank build quality and LowePro wearability. The zips are just amazing - sorry WANDRD, but please take a look at how Mindshift do it - solid, chunky, smooth running zips that you can easily open and close with one hand - unlike your YKK stuff, which may be great for jeans, but honestly doesn't work too well on a backpack. Mindshift have taken a different approach to providing space for clothing etc - the division is vertical. Camera gear goes at the back, and is accessed from the back, and other stuff goes at the front. It's less voluminous that the PRVKE, and possibly marginally less secure, but it is a lot more practical, and clearly defines the Prime Mission as being a camera bag. It wouldn't work very well for overnight trekking - but honestly, neither would the PRVKE. I wouldn't much like to carry much over 10kg on my back with the PRVKE's weedy waist strap. So the Backlight easily swallows all this: Olympus E-M1, Zuiko 12-40 lens, Zuiko 50-200 lens (that would have to stay at home with the PRVKE), Sigma DP0 (very awkward shape) and Voigtländer Bessa III, along with filters, batteries, etc. And there's still space to spare. And it is easily flight carry-on size.
Mindshift Backlight

Come on in, plenty more room inside!

So what to do with the PRVKE? I'm not sure yet. It might still be useful as a "city" backpack, or indeed a travel backpack, but it's a little too large and bulky for that. Or it might end up on eBay. After all, it's had rave reviews, so it should be easy enough to find it a more suitable home.
 

A Tale of Two (new) Bags

hipper than thou?

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A quick Google search on the phrase “photographers can never have enough bags” astonishingly yields only 56 results. Astonishingly, because I’m sure I see at least one a week on my forays across a pretty limited part of the blogosphere.  However, slightly less constrained searches immediately give counts heading into several thousand, so that’s a bit reassuring.

While I certainly have enough bags, none of them ever turn out to be particularly satisfying. I have a need for two, possibly three bags. The first would be an everyday bag which can accommodate both work stuff and a smallish camera (Olympus PEN-size at most), but ideally could instead carry a full “street” kit.  The second would be a day hiking backpack, which can carry a workable “landscape” kit, as well as extra clothes, rain jacket, food, etc. Finally, a nice to have but rarely needed third would be a dedicated hiking backpack with full “kitchen sink” capacity.  I have no need for trolley bags, Pelican cases, etc.

Starting with the first category, I do own a Domke F803, which is actually great, and I use it a lot - or at least I used to. But it is too small to carry a laptop, so fails the “every day” criteria.  But as a small discrete camera satchel, it is unequalled in my opinion.  I’ve been through various non-camera messenger bags, but none have really worked or lasted long. And a few years ago I received a gift of the highly lauded ONA Brixton messenger bag: this, for me, is a disaster. Heavy, inflexible, uncomfortable, with front pockets so tight they’re practically useless. And the canvas has weathered horribly in rain, becoming stiff and shiny, unlike the Domke which weathers beautifully with age. Sorry, but ONA is hipster rubbish in my experience.

In category two I’ve never really found much to beat the modest Kata 467. Unfortunately, a nasty little thief in Bogota agreed with me, so I don’t have it any more. And Kata was bought out by Manfrotto, and their evolution of the 467 doesn’t excite me. I bought a LowePro Rover Pro 35L AW a few years back, but it’s just a mess of straps and weird pockets with this removable camera pod thingy which takes up far too much space. I’ve hardly ever used it.

In category three, I have a LowePro ProTrekker 300 AW which is fine, but a little heavy and cumbersome.  I tried replacing it with a ThinkTank Airport Commuter, but this was a total disaster: the removable waist strap (a feature looking for a requirement if ever there was one) removed itself in an Argentinian 737 overhead locker, and the removable tripod straps (there’s theme there) did the same thing a few weeks later. Never used it since. So, possibly I do have enough bags - but not the right ones.

Which brings us to these two:

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on my left, the $270 WANDRD PRVKE, on my right, the $219 Peak Design Everyday Messenger. Ouch. That’s $489!

This general dissatisfaction with bags, and the apparent inability of mainstream manufacturers to come up with anything really good has left an opportunity in the market. Also, LowePro, Manfrotto, Tamrac et al don’t really seem to have responded to the trend of camera downsizing. Their bags are always quoted as “fitting x DSLRs with x lenses” - sure, that would mean x CSCs with x lenses, but they’d be rattling around in a pointlessly large bag. I’m still not convinced that anyone really caters for this, specifically, but certain smaller manufacturers are trying to offer more focused design, along with less geeky styling, and hipster lifestyle trimmings. For example Peak Design, and WNDRD.

I bought Peak Design’s Everyday Messenger in February, and WNDRD’s PRVKE pack a few weeks back. My reactions so far are a little mixed.

I’ve been using the Peak Design Everyday Messenger almost everyday since I bought it. I take it to work everyday, with at minimum an iPad, sunglasses and a small camera, but sometimes also a 15” laptop, notebook, various accessories, etc. It’s been on various flights, I’ve used it in Hamburg and in Tuscany as a travel camera bag. I’ve carried by hand, over the shoulder, and while cycling.  I can sum my feelings for this bag up quite easily: it is by far the best messenger-style bag I’ve ever used, and I can’t see me ever wanting to change.  At $220 it isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it.  And you could throw in one of their excellent camera straps while you’re at it.

The Everyday Messenger was designed in collaboration with photographer Trey Ratcliffe.  His photography doesn’t do much for me personally, but he sure knows how to specify a bag. The bag has got a zillion features, but they’re ALL useful and well thought out. Very unusually for a messenger bag, it is also designed to carry a tripod, and my Gitzo Traveller fits just fine. Other great touches include the quick access zipper on the top, and the dedicated, separate iPad sleeve. It also survives torrential rain quite happily. 

On the downside, I will say that it is showing some faint signs of wear, in particular on the excellent, seatbelt material strap, but hopefully it will be long lasting. And there is just a touch of “hipster cool, obligatory beard stuff” about both the company and the bag, but not so much that it goes from background embarrassing to irritatingly contrived.  Which brings us to…

...the WANDRD (pronounced “Wandered”) PRVKE (pronounced “Provoke”) backpack. Well, the names are a bad start. It would be hard to come up with anything more irritatingly contrived, or indeed bloody stupid. It’s a pity their budget for vowels was so restricted, or possibly the beards filter them out? But anyway, the basic premise sounds good - “We are passionate photographers, travellers, commuters, creators, and explorers, and we needed a pack that could keep up with our adventurous lifestyle. But we also wanted it to look incredible, and the perfect combination of style and function wasn’t out there, so we decided to make it”. Honestly, I don’t need it to look incredible, I actually need it to look unremarkable. And in fact, the PRVKE is, in my opinion, more anonymous than the Everyday Messenger.  It certainly doesn’t scream “camera bag”. So that’s a plus point.

Anyway, having been searching for a long time, and with an approaching deadline, and with the only alternative i could see, the F-Stop Loka, looking to be permanent vapourware, I decided to risk the not inconsequential $270 and order it from the US.

My initial impression was not particularly good. For a start, for $270, I would like to have a slightly better user guide. Yes, there is a card providing a link to an online PDF, but that is a masterpiece of prioritising bleeding edge design over clarity. Pretty much all reviews mention that getting the bag setup is not easy.  The PRVKE has endless zips, pouches, netting, straps, extra straps, and so on. Some of these are clearly useful, the others not so obviously. Camera gear fits into a removable (oh dear) “camera cube”. Actually installing this cube is not straightforward, and in my opinion it doesn’t fit all that easily. And worse than that, saying that camera gear “fits” is perhaps pushing it. Rather, camera gear can be shoved in, especially when accessing the top part of the cube, which is partially concealed by the top edge of the opening in the pack itself. The cube can be configured to allow access from a side flap, but as others have noted, this needs to be used with care to stop expensive items falling out.  The dividers are not padded - an approach taken also by Peak Design for the Everyday Messenger, and by ThinkTank, and personally I think this is fine. But they provide insufficient configuration flexibility for the cube layout, and all in all, my impression is that for such a (relatively) large bag, the amount of camera gear you can fit in to the dedicated space is pretty small. You could get more into the considerably smaller, much cheaper (but waaaay less hip) Kata 467.

This is the essential problem I have with the PRVKE - I expect a $270 camera pack to have a little more thought put into the lead mission of carrying camera gear. There are some other niggles: it’s advertised as having “magnetic latching” handles on top. Well, the magnets are far too weak to do the job: the handles just don’t stay together. Compared with the Everyday Messenger’s brilliant magnet-assisted latch, this is a bit pathetic. The doubtless detachable waist strap is not to my liking. There is a rain hood provided, in a pouch at the base of the pack, which is very nice, but unfortunately it tends to fight for space with the camera cube. It is very similar to those in Think Tank bags, effectively a narrow belt which helps to stabilise the pack, but not to shift weight onto the hips.  Great, no doubt, for motorbikes, not so good for hikers. And in fact, in essence this pack does seem to be more designed to for bikers than anybody else. Which is fine, but possibly it should be more highlighted in the marketing.

I’m probably sounding very negative about the PRVKE. I am being quite hard on it, but I have 270 reasons to be so. I haven’t really put it through its paces yet, so we shall see if it grows on me.  But if I didn’t have all the endless complexities of Swiss customs to deal with, I’d probably take up WANDRD’s 30 day return offer.

In summary, both of these bags are high on (life)style, and skinny flat whites, and beards. Both where also Kickstarter funded, and both have plenty of rave 5 star reviews by people who don’t appear to have used them. But while Peak Design show that you can be hip and produce highly functional gear at the same time, I’m not convinced that WANDRD have worked out how to do that.  The PRVKE is nevertheless lined up for a trip to Iceland in July, so if I change my mind, I’ll be sure to let you know.

 

 

Exploring Malcantone

up in the bad lands

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Friday, May 27, 2016

I’m very lucky to have lived for most of this century in the region of Malcantone, right at the southern tip of the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, in Switzerland. Malcantone is mainly pre-alpine, apart from the Vedeggio and Magliasina flood plains, and sits between the Lugano (Ceresio) and Maggiore lakes. It borders on a similar region in Italy, and is actually a pretty beautiful area. It does have a certain level of tourism, but I’m always surprised at how little. With quiet, wooded hills leading up to mountain ridges, shaded valleys, rustic villages full of memories of faded glories, and plenty of history, along with good food and wine, it has a lot going for it.

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Malcantone pretty much means “bad lands”, and was a place to be avoided in medieval times. Unfortunately, that was tricky, as it was either that, or the plague-ridden marshes, if you wanted to travel north from Milan. A couple of years ago I discovered the ruins of the Miglieglia Castle, perched on a high outcrop over the Magliasina river. Although it was clearly pretty big, it seems to have been wiped from memory. Nobody appears to know anything about it. You can walk to it, if you follow the “Sentiero delle Meraviglie”. And then there are the silver and gold mines. And the remains of houses and villages deep in the woods. And the painfully photogenic villages of Sessa, Astano, Breno, and more.

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I guess it’s just a little too far off the beaten track, although considering in has a small, but international, airport (just) with its territory, and is easily accessible from the city of Lugano, it’s hardly remote. Probably Swiss pricing has a lot to do with it as well. But also the weird Swiss, and especially Ticinese, approach to tourism. Bars and restaurants close on Sundays and holidays, facilities like the Lema cable car which takes you up to a stunning viewpoint over Lake Maggiore stop running at 5pm, even in summer when it’s light until 10. Totally crazy.

Oh well, if it were different I’d be ranting about bloody tourists all over the place sticking their tripods in front of me and clogging up the roads and mountain bike tracks.

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Michael Reichmann RIP

sad news

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, May 19, 2016

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Michael Reichmann attempts to herd cats, Iceland, 2004

I was very sad to discover this evening that photographer Michael Reichmann, founder of the vastly influential website, The Luminous Landscape, had passed away at the age of 71.

The birth of the Luminous Landscape pretty much coincided with my rediscovery of photography, and I grew with it. I learnt a huge amount from Michael’s articles, especially in the pre-digital era. Pretty much all I know about using slide film and scanning originated in the Luminous Landscape. When Michael launched the Video Journal together with Chris Sanderson, I had to go out and buy my first DVD player to watch it.

Michael Reichmann was perhaps the archetypal photography workshop organiser. He set a pattern that many have followed since, but not all these followers are blessed with Michael’s charisma and charm. I broke my piggy bank to join his 2004 Iceland workshop, and while it was a whirlwind, exhausting experience, it was also hugely formative. Michael’s twin catch phrases, “there’s no shot here”, and “2 minutes, no tripods” still ringing my ears.

He was also a very aspirational character. It was notable just how many people turned up on that workshop with the exact same set of cameras Michael had recently been praising on the web site. It was perhaps a bit of a shame that he changed them so often though - the wannabes had a quite an expensive job catching up. I can even remember people wanting to know what kind of car he drive, so they could buy the same one. I’m fairly sure he would have had a chuckle about that: while certainly being very serious about his art and craftsmanship, he clearly didn’t take himself quite as seriously as some of his more ardent groupies.

Michael Reichmann accomplished a lot in his life, and helped a lot of people gain pleasure and satisfaction from their photography, however they approached it. He leaves a large void in the photographic community, but most of all, in the hearts of his family and friends. I offer them my sincere condolences.

 

 

Eccentric or More Eccentric ?

widescreen addiction

I’m still trying to convince myself I don’t want a Linhof 612, even though I have my eye on a very nice looking one which I can almost afford.

The thing is, it’s a purely mechanical camera. There is no preview of focussing. No metering. It’s just a (extremely high precision-engineered) box with a (breathtakingly gorgeous) lens on the front. It’s heavy, a pain to use, and has this intriguing but rather eccentric 8mm fixed shift.

And I have a Sigma Dp0, which is not only a pain to use, looks plain weird, and draws attention like bears to honey.  But it has auto focus, a screen (just about), and doesn’t need the film processing or scanning steps - albeit it does need Sigma Photo Pro, which rather evens the score.  And it has a (breathtakingly gorgeous) lens on the front.

This is what the Dp0 can do:

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Not bad - almost Ektachrome-like.  The ratio here is 21:9, which is actually shown on the screen, allowing exact composition. Of course you can crop any image any way you want, but that doesn’t work for me.  I need to see what I’m doing, and I need my composition to be preserved in the file. The Dp0 / Sigma Photo Pro combination does both.

If I’d shot this with a Linhof, I’d probably have framed it like this (although the lens field of view would be a little different, but I think the Dp0 17mm lens corresponds roughly to a Linhof 58mm)

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Of course, had I shot it on a Linhof I’d probably have got the exposure and the focussing wrong. And then Silverfast and / or my scanner would have crashed trying to deal with the huge file.

Common sense says Sigma - and given how unlikely that sounds, in the general scheme of things, it says all I really need to know about the sense of buying a Linhof 612 in 2016…

 

The lure of infrared

smoke & mirrors

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Infrared photography is a curious beast. It can yield spectacular results, both in blacks & white and colour. It relishes the bright, contrasty conditions which are anathema to many other styles of photography, allowing those of us in sunnier climes to carry on clicking away during the long hot summer. And yet, how many famous infrared photographers are there ? I can actually only think of one well known photographer who’s core body of wok relies on infrared, and that’s the late Simon Marsden.  Marsden’s work is so unique and recognisable that he successfully sued U2 for plagiarising him with the photo on their album The Unforgettable Fire. But most of time, infrared photography is basically just a shallow trick, a way of making unremarkable compositions look good purely due to the unearthly representation of light and shadow. 

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Simon Marsden needed the IR look to convey his vision of gothic decay and uneasy spirits.  Some landscape photographers make good use of infrared from time to time, but sparingly. Personally I think that whenever the medium - infrared - is prominent in the description of a body of work, that work is going to fall flat. Either the work needs the look - in which case there’s little point in making great announcements about it - or the work needs to be salvaged by an unusual medium (quite often Kodak Aerochrome these days). Personally I feel Richard Mosse fits into that category, but I’m in a minority there.

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I’ve played around with infrared for years, both on film, using Kodak monochrome and false colour, and on digital, using either a blocking filter on a normal camera, or more recently my Olympus E-P3 converted with an 830nm filter. Up until recently I’ve been quite unmoved by the converted camera, as the out-of-camera look is missing the appeal of film infrared.  The key characteristics of Kodak EIR were high grain and strong contrast, as well as a strong glow around highlights achieved at a critical - and hard to master - exposure level.  Actually getting a good exposure on EIR was very hit & miss.  Of course with a converted digital camera it’s all far too easy - with Live View you can even compose in infrared.  But still, the exposure can be a bit tricky, as the camera electronics are designed to deal with visible light JPEGs, and histograms and all that stuff can be a bit misleading. Also, some lenses are very prone to heavy flare in infrared, while being perfectly well behaved in visible light. I also get the impression that there is flare at sensor level too - apparently that is a thing.

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Then, after you’ve got the shot, converting the purple/red tinged monochrome image to something that looks like IR as we expect it is also not that trivial. Actually Lightroom has got quite a good preset which can help to get pointed in the right direction, but it’s not enough. I’ve started experimenting with Silver EFX Pro to see if I can get a look I’m happy with. If that works out, maybe I’ll come up with some idea that actually benefits from infrared. But no graveyards - that’s been done.

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Überseequartier

desolation row

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, May 02, 2016

A few weeks ago I participated in the workshop run by Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson and hosted by Leica Fotografie Internal, in Hamburg. My motivation for attending was as a long-time fan of Rax’s photography, and at the same time a hope that a few days of mentoring by a dedicated black & white, people and storytelling photographer would give a useful nudge to my dedicated colour, people-less and non-storytelling photography. Oh, and add to that my total lack of Leica ownership. Well, spending a couple of days two years ago with Neil Buchan-Grant in Venice certainly expanded my horizons, so why not.  Of course, in that case I had my relatively strong relationship with Venice to fall back upon. Of Hamburg I knew precisely nothing.

The workshop attendees were not exclusively wealthy Leica owners. A few were clearly ultra-wealthy Leica owners :-). And a handful were, like me, non-Leica owners, and a few people even confessed to prefer colour.  So I wasn’t totally isolated.  And of course I got to pretend I owned a Leica for a weekend, as I casually laid it on the table at Starbucks.

Unfortunately the weather on my first day in Hamburg was worse than dismal. Incessant, bucketing rain, empty streets, terminally grim.  It wasn’t even that kind of bad weather which is good for photographers. Nope, it wasn’t even good for ducks.

We had a quite loose assignment. Apart from a directive to produce at least one selfie (Rax has a sense of humour), the general idea was to produce a coherent series of some 20 photographs, which could be edited down in one to one sessions to 6, together with a set of 6 from previous work which we were asked to bring along. Finally the completed work was to be presented to the group.

Well, most everybody else wandered off and produced some nice black & white street photography. You can see some of it here.  I’m quite impressed with what some people managed to produce. I certainly didn’t manage to tune in to Hamburg street life in that what.

Instead I reverted to type and tuned in to waste and desolation. I fixated on a few hundred square meters around the new Überseequartier U-Bahn station, which emerges like a buried alien artefact in the middle of an area of mostly disused dockland being transformed into Living Spaces for Bright Young Things etc. I found the state of transition quite captivating, if hardly up-lifting. However it did offer plenty of opportunity for a formal approach to urban landscape.

The selection curated by Rax narrowed down to 5 photographs, as can be seen at the end of the LFI gallery linked above.  I respectfully disagree with part of his selection - my own set is here.


Safari

 

My new Leica Q

Another €4000 bites the dust?

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, April 28, 2016

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New camera! Well, sort of. It isn’t mine, but LFI in Hamburg kindly lent it to me for a weekend. As unlikely as it sounds, up until last weekend I had survived without ever using a Leica.
In camera forum land, Leicas are general the subject of scorn, being reviled as expensive, “under-specified” neck jewellery for poseurs and millionaires. I’ve never much cared for these debates, although there is a certain fascination in observing them. I’ve never given a lot of thought to owning a Leica, first because I can’t afford them, and second because there isn’t actually a model that particularly appeals to me. However the Q does, marginally, so given the opportunity I was happy to try it out.

So, the Leica Q is a fairly compact fixed focal 28mm camera, with built-in viewfinder. The lens is a fast f1.7 summisomethingortheother. I’d seen one once in a shop window, and it struck me as being pretty big, but in fact it feels quite compact, similar to an Olympus Pen, but of course a lot bigger than the Ricoh GR which could be considered to be a rival.

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The Q feels very, very solid in the hand, and personally I find it very comfortable to hold, with the recessed thumb grip being a very astute piece of design. I guess some might describe the feel as luxury, but to be honest I’d go more with very well built precision engineering, and a good example of form following function. When you pick it up, it simply demands to be used. A bit like the GR, in fact.

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It’s certainly an enjoyable camera to use, and the results are pretty good, too. Are they €4000 good ? Well, that rather depends just how wedded you are to a 28mm field of view, and how much disposable income you have. I could stretch to €600 or so for a Ricoh GR, but €4000 for a Leica Q isn’t realistic in this household. Please note, I’m not saying you don’t get value for money - by and large I’d say you do: apart from the flawless construction, you get a fabulous electronic viewfinder, by far the best manual focus system I’ve seen on a digital camera, and of course a lens which apparently is practically worth €4000 on its own.

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The Leica Q isn’t perfect though, and the weak spots in my opinion are in the electronics. There are some weird handling glitches, for example the digital horizon vanishes when you half press the shutter button - just when you need it most. And also with the shutter button half-pressed, when you rotate the aperture ring the aperture display in the viewfinder doesn’t update. The menu could do with a little bit of categorisation, and I could not find a way to configure playback to show the image only, free of distracting icons and clutter.  I expect a touch more refinement in that department at that price. Nevertheless, I was sorry to have to give it back. Not so sorry to be truly tempted to buy one, although a 35mm version could conceivably push me over the edge.

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For a moment I could pretend to be William Eggleston...  bet he could afford a Q. And put it to good use, too.

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(All photos - except the first - by Leica Q. Somehow I had the ISO stuck on 800 all weekend. I could have sworn I had it on Auto)

 

The Arctic in Hamburg

up north

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Friday, April 15, 2016

I’m currently participating in a weekend workshop run by Icelandic photographer Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson, and organised by Leica Fotografie International (LFI). Fortunately LFI don’t discriminate against non-Leica owners, so they let me in.

Ragnar is known as a black & white photographer. If I were known, it would not be as that. He is also known as a “people” photographer. Ditto. And he uses Leicas. So, what the hell am I doing here ? Well, firstly, he’s also a very fine and accomplished photo book author (and writer and storyteller), and I’m very interested to work out how to progress from single photographs to coherent series. Also, similarly to a workshop I attended a while back co-run by Neil Buchan-Grant, who is predominantly a portrait photographer, I find I learn more from people who do different things to me than by those who do the same. Generally, by now I should be more or less able to photograph a landscape. Emphasis on “should”. But my soaking up methods, approaches and techniques from photographers working in other styles, I hope to add other dimensions to the stuff I do.

Well, that’s the theory. I also enjoy hanging out with people like Ragnar, who is erudite and very funny, apart from being a fabulous photographer (and apparently professional pilot), and with the other people on the workshop (most of whom who own Leicas - but they still talk to me).

Hamburg is not a place I’ve visited before, and tomorrow and Sunday I have the challenge of putting together some kind of coherent series. Not to mention a self-portrait, somehow.  I’ve had a bit of a dry run today (“dry” meaning in torrential, relentless rain), and the following is the shot I like most so far.

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Oh, and LFI have kindly lent me a Leica Q - the most expensive camera I’ve ever used. Hope I don’t drop it or leave it on the U-Bahn.

 

612

svalbard rewind

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Sometimes photos pop up out of the past and demand my attention.  This small set has been incubating for a while: they originally date back to 2010, but sat on the shelf for quite a while as they needed some special attention. As regular readers of photoblogography will doubtless be aware - or would be if there were any - I managed to destroy my panoramic camera while on a yacht in Svalbard, which was a bit of a bugger, as I had specifically intended to use that format.  So, I had to use by Olympus E-3 as a backup, while attempting to imprint on my brain how I wanted to crop the 4:3 frames.  Of course the E-3 is only a 10 Mpix camera, so the resultant crops are not really printable above A4. Whatever.  And I also decided to crop to 612, since I was cropping anyway, which I don’t usually do, and as the aforementioned regular readers know only too well, 612 is the perfect format camera which I’ve never owned and probably never will. 

Anyway, here are the snapshots.

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17mm

weird guy with camera

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, March 24, 2016

17mm, or 35mm in old money. Before, and after, a pair of casual shots. Hardly the stuff of dreams, or exciting world explorer stuff. Just a connection to my everyday world, at probably my favourite focal length.

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(Olympus Pen E-P5, 17mm f1.8 lens)

 

 

The Digital XPan, by Sigma

Well, close enough

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, March 09, 2016

I bought my first Hasselblad XPan in 2000, and in the following 15+ years, I’ve accumulated a large shelf full of binders of negatives and (mainly) slides. I bought it because I liked the widescreen format, and I still do. Although a niche camera, the XPan was pretty popular, initially principally with landscape photographers, many of whom used one alongside an SLR. For me, it was the other way around - the SLR was the “second camera”. The XPan started to fade from view with the advent of DSLRs, and Hasselblad/Fuji stopped producing it in 2006, citing some story about a circuit board not being compliant with some convenient European regulations on lead content.

In recent years it has seen something of a revival, and secondhand prices for good copies have risen higher than the original retail. It seems to be riding a lot on the “back to film” movement, and the accompanying mystique. But there do not seem to be many people around who, like me, bought one back near the release date and never stopped using it.  And even fewer people who shoot slide film (still). It seems to be quite popular nowadays for “street” photography, where the unusual frame gives a novelty effect that compensates for many a shortcoming in the photograph. However, with the lenses having a maximum aperture of f/4, and rangefinder focusing, I’m not personally convinced it is that ideal for street. But I’m no authority on the matter.

For me the biggest frustration with the XPan has nothing directly to do with the camera, but with the rapidly shrinking availability of slide film.  My favourites, Kodak E100G and Fuji Velvia 100F (nothing like the infamous Velvia 50 by the way) have long since departed, Fuji Provia 400X is more or less gone, and the only serious choice left is Fuji Provia 100F, which I never much liked. The revival of Ferrania Film is, so far, inconclusive - initial batches of new film are close to a year overdue. Of course the choices in negative film are a little wider. I like Kodak Porta 400, but it only really suits brightly lit urban scenes. Kodak Ektar 100 is ghastly. And I’m a colour photographer by instinct, not black & white. On top of all of this, the bottom has fallen out of both semi-pro E6 processing, and of the semi-pro film scanner market.  So not only is the writing on the wall, but it’s on every wall in every direction.

So, there’s been a lot of calls, directed mainly at Fuji and Hasselblad, to produce a “Digital XPan”. There’s a snag there, though, because a digital sensor covering the full 65x24 XPan format - two “full frame” sensors side by side -  would be horrendously expensive, even though this seems to be what people want. So the question arises, what do we actually mean by “Digital XPan” ? What are the key features ? Would everybody agree? The answer to the last question is obviously a resounding “no”.

The key features of the XPan, technical and otherwise, are:

  • Native “panoramic” double-frame format
  • On-the-fly selectable standard 35mm frame format
  • Rangefinder manual focussing
  • TTL electronic metering
  • Offbeat, unusual camera
  • Built like a tank
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Very high quality - and expensive - glass
  • Oh yeah… film

Personally, the key feature is the first: a camera which records what-you-see-is-what-you-get panoramic format with a dedicated panoramic viewfinder. In-camera composition is very important to my way of doing and enjoying photography, and for me cropping in Photoshop as some kind of afterthought rarely produces a strong, satisfying image. I emphasise, for me: clearly other people have different opinions. As for film, I’ll fall back again on a quote from one of my heroes of panoramic photography, Stuart Klipper, who when asked why he (still) uses film, replied “because that’s what the Linhof takes”.

So, yes, you can certainly obtain a panoramic frame from any digital camera through post-processing. Many compact cameras also have a 16:9 framing option which you can squint at while holding the camera at arms length in front of your face. But this is simply not the “XPan experience” for me. It doesn’t inspire me, and it doesn’t give me the thrill that seeing the world through the XPan rangefinder does.

And that’s a good time to introduce you to the other camera on the stage here, the Sigma DP0.

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Sigma DP0 with viewfinder, and Hasselblad XPan

I’ve been using Sigma cameras with their unique Foveon sensor since the 50mm-equivalent DP2 Merrill. As I, and many others have written, when these cameras get their ducks in a row, they are truly fabulous. The rest of the time they’re a disaster area. A while back, Sigma introduced a new lineup, using the revised Quattro sensor. They also introduced what would be politely described as an unusual body design. A lot of people were aghast at this. I thought it was fantastic. But I didn’t buy one at the time, as the DP2M & DP3M I already owned were quite enough.  But then came the announcement of the DP0 ultra wide (21mm equivalent), and buried deep down in the specification, the 21:9 framing option. It seemed that somebody in Japan was thinking along the same lines as me.

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The DP0 21:9 aspect ratio

So eventually, after a lot of indecision, I got one, along with the hood viewfinder attachment which allows eye-level composition, which as I have said is a must-have for me, and has the additional benefit of making an already strange looking device look downright weird. It’s certainly a conversation starter.

The 21:9 aspect ratio is a bit deeper than the XPan. It is about halfway between the standard 6x12 and 6x17 ratios - the XPan is slightly taller than 6x17. This is actually fine by me. I often found the XPan format a smidgen too wide, and I’ve always pined for a 612 camera. The resolution of the 21:9 DP0 image (5424 x 2324) is approximately half that of an XPan frame scanned at 4000dpi (around 12200 x 4700), but of course the two are not directly comparable. The actual information content is very similar. Of course, the DP0 has a fixed lens, whereas the XPan has three native lenses to choose from (as well as some other fairly dodgy choices via adaptor). The DP0’s 21mm equivalent lens gives a field of view roughly equivalent to the XPan 45mm lens. And they’re both f/4. And both extremely good quality lenses.

Anyway, that’s an awful lot of babble before getting on to the core of the matter: how do they actually compare ? Well, I don’t do “tests” as such, I really cannot be bothered. But recently I took the DP0 to make a few photos in the nearby Golle della Breggia, in a location I remembered shooting with the XPan a few years back.

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XPan, 45mm lens, Kodak E100G, scanned on Minolta Dimage Scan Multi Pro

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Sigma DP0, processed in Sigma Photo Pro v6.3.2

Of course, these photos are taken at different times of the year, different times of the day, and with different framing, never mind with completely different technology. The only common factor was the photographer. Given that, to my eyes at least they have a quite remarkably similar rendering of colour and tonality. The Minolta scanner, which I have now replaced, also developed a tendency to exaggerate red in the midtowns, which I clearly did not sufficiently correct here. I could certainly get the two photos to look very close in rendition with a few minutes work, but that isn’t the point: what I’m looking to decide is if the DP0 can assume the role of the XPan for me, and I’m tending to believe it can, so far.

It is also interesting to compare resolution. Here again, there is a degree of subjectivity, as the scan is not necessarily optimum, and here no sharpening has been applied (although Sigma Photo Pro allegedly always applies some sharpening). I’ve tried to match two roughly similar areas of the photos, with the DP0 crop at 1:1, and the XPan reduced more or less to match.

DP0

Sigma DP0

XPAN

XPan

So, very, very subjective, but it does look like the Sigma’s Quattro sensor is a match for 4000dpi scanned 35mm Kodak E100G. Not actually a big surprise, although it is probable that with a bit of work I could extract a little more detail from the film.

The XPan still has at least two advantages - the 30mm and 90mm lenses. But in terms of overall end to end user experience, there is a remarkable similarity between the two cameras. Indeed, it can be as time consuming to extract a processed file from Sigma Photo Pro as it is to make a good film scan…

One are where the DP0 wins outright, however, is low light photography. You can do long exposures on film, but dealing with reciprocity failure is painful, especially with slide film. The DP0, on the other hand, will cheerfully make an exposure up to 30 seconds (but no more, let’s not carried away here).  Also, I really like the way the Foveon sensors (both Merrill and Quattro) render tungsten lighting. So to wrap up here are a few shots from my first major outing with the DP0 in Venice.

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It is tempting to draw a conclusion from the fact that since I’ve owned the DP0, the XPan has sat on the shelf. But it is early days yet, and there haven’t really been many opportunities to use it recently. I certainly wasn’t going to take it to Colombia. There are also some situations in which I don’t really trust the Sigmas, in particular snow and ice.  And although the Quattro has much better battery life than the Merrill, it’s still pushing it to reach 100 shots.  Then again, processing 100 shots in Sigma Photo Pro takes roughly a decade, so perhaps it’s just as well.

But I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: the Sigma DP0, with the LCD viewfinder, set at 21:9, is the closest digital camera I’ve found so far in terms of handling and user experience to the Hasselblad XPan. And it’s a great camera in its own right, fun to use and with devastatingly high quality output.

 

 

 

Cameras or Photography?

it’s one or the other

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Saturday, March 05, 2016

Cameras get in the way of photography. That sounds like a fairly ridiculous statement, but I think it is difficult to argue against. I’d like to think I’m interested in photography, but of the far too many hours I spend browsing the web, I spend far more reading about cameras than I do about photography and photographers. But what is very noticeable is that the more engaging photographers just don’t talk about cameras at all (and usually have dull websites, but that’s another matter). Maybe they feel a stigma attached to such discussion, or maybe they’re just not interested. But anyway, when the discussion veers towards cameras, as it usually does, something is lost. Of course, ten seconds on this site shows quite clearly which camp I’m in. It’s not exactly a gear site - and after all, these do encompass quite a wide spectrum - but it hardly ignores cameras or other paraphernalia of photography-as-hobby. So I’m in no position to judge, even if I were judging, which I’m not - just observing. But coming back to the original statement, I do find that the more I think about cameras, the less interested I am in photography, and the less interesting my photography gets.  Fortunately I have by and large stayed with the same principal brand and gear over a very long period, and I’ve never been afflicted by the more extreme cases of the malady which involve switching brand every 6 months. But nevertheless, if there is one thing that separates photography as art from photography as hobby, it’s the susceptibility to Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

The cycle of endless new, improved, must-have cameras has slowed down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped. It has changed tack a bit, and now we’re seeing design becoming much more prevalent in the marketing push, especially retro design sparking nostalgia for the alleged romance of the mechanical heyday of the film era.

So, what bought this on? Well, a new camera on the market, basically. Namely, the new Olympus Pen-F. It’s a nice looking piece of metal, and it is getting mainly rave reviews everywhere (although this review, from an actual Olympus employee, is strikingly lukewarm). Amongst Olympus owners, of which I’m one, there is a discernible of peer pressure to buy one. Well, yes, it’s a nice camera, but I’ve already got an Olympus Pen, an E-P5, and that took me long enough to decide to buy. The Pen-F, apart from the striking design, has 4 Megapixels more (not terribly significant), a fixed built-in EVF, and lots of new modes aimed at doing everything in camera, outputting JPEG, when for the last decade we’ve had it piled on us that we should be shooting Raw. What the Pen-F does not have, but what the E-P5 does, at least as an accessory, is a tilting EVF which allows you to hold the camera at chest level, and affords a different way of shooting and different perspectives.  For some this is uninteresting, for me it’s a big plus. Also the E-P5 EVF is the same as the one on the top of the range E-M1, and superior to that on the Pen-F.  Add into that an eye-wateringly high price, and well, for now at least I think I’ll pass.

This leads on nicely to the previous “upgrade” cycle, when the E-P5 replaced the E-P3. There again I dragged my feet, as I was used to the E-P3, and Olympus had moved the controls around disturbing my reflexes. But there were a couple of compelling arguments that time, so eventually, I switched.  But I didn’t just abandon the E-P3. Instead I had it converted to infrared, which gives me a good excuse to water down this gear-obsessed post with some photography, a selection of infrared shots from Venice, taken back in December.

I can’t keep away from the gear, but it really is a relief to get back to photography.

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Several coffees later

back from beyond

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Got back from Colombia a couple of days ago. Apparently tourism is now overtaking coffee in terms of importance to the national economy. And it shows - in the main the cities the number of Europeans and North Americans is noticeably higher. Quite a lot of these, unfortunately, seem to be there for the cheap beer more than anything else.  But away from the obvious places, Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, Colombia is still full of fresh, and sometimes challenging horizons for tourists.

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We spent some days in the delightful, faded, colonial town of Salamina. It’s quite a trek to get there, but the location, high, high up on the edge of a steep hill deep in the Caldas region is quite magical. The area has been free of the curse of armed rebels for less than 5 years, and local people are delighted see tourists. Especially as the average frequency at present seems to be about 2 per day in the town square. It will be interesting to see how things evolve when the coach loads turn up, if they do.  Probably, and tragically, it will turn into a clone of Santa Fe de Antiquoia, which is well and truly on the Lonely Planet List and definitely worth missing.

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But the cities are still worth visiting, for the sheer vibrancy, the culture, and of course the coffee. Starbucks has no chance of getting a foothold in Colombia, as the homegrown Juan Valdez chain has already, thankfully, grabbed the market.

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Colombia is a country that combines quality coffee production with coffee appreciation. Unlike Costa Rica, say, where as far as I’ve seen you can’t get a decent cup of coffee (i.e something other than USA-variant hot brown water) for love nor money, despite Costa Rica producing excellent beans.  There’s a lot of competition, but possibly the best “café de origen”, or single crop coffee, that we’ve found is San Alberto, from Buenavista in Quindio.  It is amazing. Hacienda Venecia, from a finca near Manizales, comes a close second. But there are many more to try.

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Oh, and photography ? Yes, I took a few snapshots of things other than coffee cups, which I suppose will show up here soon. Not sure for how much longer though. I’m really losing interest in broadcasting my wit and wisdom to the internet, and conversely, less and less interested in other people’s diatribes about photography. It’s becoming a more and more personal activity for me, and I’m fine with that. I’m happy with what I’m doing, and I really don’t need confirmation from anybody else that’s it’s any good or not - anyway it’s entirely irrelvant.  Time and inertia will probably hold me back, but ideally I’d like to turn this website into a far more photo-centric thing, and probably less dynamic.  We shall see. Meanwhile, coffee!

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Colombia, the Sequel

another travel addiction

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Sunday, January 24, 2016

Things have been a little quiet around here for the past week or so, and they’re going to get quieter for a while longer. A couple of weeks ago we made a snap decision to head back to Colombia for three weeks or so, and getting that organised, along with general Life stuff, has kept me away from trivia like blogging.

I did start publishing a series of posts on Colombia a while back, but that got overwhelmed by other topics, and I never got around to Cartagena.  That’s a real shame, because Cartagena is ridiculously, hopeless photogenic, a wild riot of chaos, colour, and fading colonial architecture. We won’t be going back there this time, other destinations await, but for now, here’s a lightning quick selection.

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Hasta la vista. I’ll be back.

 

A trip to San Pietro

yep, still more Venice

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, January 13, 2016

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Despite many visits to Venice, the eastern, seaward end of the city has always eluded me. So on my last visit I was determined to make this my focal point. I have to admit from the glimpses I had in the past, I expect something more like the apartment blocks of the outer reaches of Cannaregio, or even Sacca Fisola. While there is an element of this, in fact I discovered that the area cut through by via Garibaldi has a quite distinctive character, subtly different to any other part of Venice. However the part that really caught my imagination is the little island of San Pietro, right at the northern tip.  A few hundred years ago I imagine San Pietro was not the quiet backwater it is today. The Basilica di San Pietro di Castello was in fact up until 1807 the city’s cathedral church, even though St Mark’s was already more dominant. But now it is very peaceful, and only dedicated tourists venture this far away from the fake Burano glass and carnival mask sellers.

Actually, I didn’t even go into the Basilica. Churches aren’t really my thing. I did open the door, but on seeing the inevitable ticket booth, I declined to go further. If the Catholic Church has decided that the primary purpose of ecclesiastical architecture is to make money, then it is hardly surprising that the only relevance it has today in much of the world is to tourists. I’m quite happy to make donations, but even an agnostic such as I am looks as much for a sense of the spiritual in a church as a collection of mouldy, dark old paintings by some vaguely famous Italian bloke. And that sense is stopped in its tracks by a ticket booth.

But anyway, it hardly mattered, because the visual treasure trove was immediately next door, in and around an old colonnaded courtyard backing on to the Basilica.  I can’t actually find a reference to this place, and I suspect it is in a fleeting state of transition between out of bounds Church property and a luxury development of charming residences with Genuine Venetian Fittings™. It was marked “private”, but I spent at least two hours wandering around, and the two or three people I saw there didn’t seem to mind. They obviously thought I was a bit weird, though.

Not that I would know anything about it - despite a brief dabble - but this seems the perfect location for a certain genre of portrait photography. Since I didn’t have one to hand, I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine the models, in the set below.

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All photos from Sigma DP0, except the first and second after the text, which are Kodak Portra 400 / Voigtländer Bessa III

 

 

 

 

 

Valle Verzasca

landscape heaven

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Tuesday, January 12, 2016

This article was first published in OnLandscape in November 2015 (Issue 102). Since OnLandscape is a (very worthwhile and value for money) pay site, it wasn’t available for general view. Well, now, with a few modifications, it is.

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The geography of Switzerland is dominated by the East-West high alpine ridges that split the country into Northern and Southern parts. The Northern part is where the major cities and industrial centres are located. The Alps themselves are the home of spectacular highlights like the Eiger, the Matterhorn, or the Aletsch Glacier. But the Southern side is a little less well known, and has a quite distinct character. South of the Rhone Valley and the Gotthard massif lies the Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino. And while Ticino certainly has it’s fair share of tall peaks, the highlights, geographically speaking, are to be found in and around a series of glacial valleys descending from the high snowfields, with tumbling rivers feeding into the Maggiore Lake. Any one of these valleys, including the Maggia, Calanca, and the Centovalli, would keep most landscape photographers busy for years, but the jewel in the crown, and the subject of this article, is the Valle Verzasca, through which the river of the same name runs.

The Verzasca valley is around 25km long, stretching due south down from the village of Sonogno, through an endless sequence of cascades, rapids and gullies until it reaches the artificial Lake Vogorno. This is created by a spectacular dam, the Diga di Contra, which was the scene for the opening sequence of the James Bond film Goldeneye, and today is famous for its terrifying bungee jump. Having passed the dam, the river threads its way in a more leisurely fashion before emptying into Lake Maggiore, a few km away from the city of Locarno.

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I defy any landscape photographer with a pulse to get further than a third of the way up the valley without demanding to stop. Even if the temptations of the artificial lake can be resisted, with the clusters of old town houses clinging to one steep side, and the emerald green waters of the lake lapping up against the forests that plunge down to the other side, once you pass the church at Berzona (carefully!) and enter the upper valley, the scenes that unfold are irresistible.

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The bedrock of the Verzasca river is mainly gneiss, and over the millennia this has been eroded by the current to reveal fantastic banding and layering patterns in the rock, which in turn has been sculpted into spectacular forms. Add to this the transparent dark green and emerald waters, a sprinkling of reflected light from the surrounding forests, and any one location could keep you busy for a week. And there are countless such locations. I am fortunate enough to live close enough to the valley to visit pretty much on a whim, and have been doing so for 15 years, but even so, on each visit I discover somewhere or something new.

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The nature of the landscape suits it to a variety of styles, from wide angle vistas all the way down to very intimate details. For some reason, very little has turned up the way of photographic publications from the area, but one book I have found, Pietre in valle Verzasca, by Mario De Biasi, concentrates mainly on detail studies of small scale rock patterns and formations. You can embrace, or leave out, the water. You can feature the surrounding chestnut forests, especially in Autumn, or crop them out. You can pick a short stretch of the river and get to know how all the little details of the flow change with the seasons and the water level. The water level is very variable, and this often leads to certain compositions being quite unrepeatable.

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After Berzona the valley contracts very noticeably, and you start to get glimpses of the river. You can also see the village of Corippo, the smallest municipality in Switzerland, clinging precariously to the opposite slope. Corippo is well worth a visit: the whole village is protected as a Swiss Heritage Site, and remains largely untouched. It was not even accessible by road until the end of the 19th century.

Some of my favourite haunts are found soon after the Corippo crossroads. This part of the river is dynamic and fast moving, and it’s well worth taking a little time to discover paths down to the rocks. A word of warning, though, which applies to the whole valley: be very careful, the rocks are very slippery when wet, and are prone to accumulate black ice the winter. You do not want to fall into that river, even in the summer. It has very strong currents and is very cold. And, sadly, it claims victims every year. Take your time, don’t go down in the gorge alone, and don’t take unnecessary risks. The water level can also change frighteningly quickly, and it is all too easy to get trapped. Since Switzerland is not much of a nanny state, and assumes you can take care of yourself, you won’t find many handrails, but there are an increasing number of warning notices in the parking areas.

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Up until now I’ve managed to completely avoid any mention of the number one attraction of the valley, the village of Lavertezzo. Let’s be clear, you’d probably be best advised to avoid Lavertezzo in the summer, unless of course your photography extends to a more Martin Parr-like style. Lavertezzo is totally gorgeous, but it is completely overrun in summer, even to the extent that large tour busses manage to get there (totally insane in my opinion, and I’ve seen some stuck in the narrow, tight hairpins at the mouth of the valley more than once). However, should you find it at a quiet moment, you’ll find it hard to ignore. The village itself is pretty, but the main attraction is the area just below it, where the river has cut channels of all shapes and sizes through a wide platform uplifted gneiss. Overlooking this is a high, narrow twin arched stone bridge dating from the 17th Century. I described Lavertezzo in a little more detail in an article I wrote back in 2009.

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The human history of Valle Verzasca has, up until the mid–20th Century, been one largely of poverty and subsistence farming. Being a closed valley, it generally attracted less attention from invaders than surrounding regions, and was something of a safe haven. It came under the control, variously, of the Swiss Confederation and various Northern Italian kingdoms, but was always heavily under dominion of the Catholic church. It was also pretty much uninhabitable in the winter, and then the population moved down to the Magadino plain, along with their livestock. Some reminder of this is still evident in place names today, for example you will find the village of Lavertezzo Piano near the foot of the Verzasca, to where the population of Lavertezzo retreated from the snows.

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The forests surrounding the valley have a large proportion of chestnut trees. These were actually planted in the Middle Ages, and provided a critical contribution to the people’s diet. Chestnut flour is still a treasured traditional ingredient in Ticino. However, a blight leading to failed crops bought famine in the late 19th century, leading to mass immigration from the valley, and other surrounding areas, to North and South America, and to Australia. The museum at Sonogno, as well as the one at Cevio in Vallemaggia, document this period. The result was a massive crash in the population, which was far higher than today. If you follow the mountain paths from any of the villages, you quite often come across the ruins of long-abandoned hamlets invaded by the forests. It can be quite moving to sit and imagine the lives of the long-gone inhabitants of these forgotten villages. And of course, there lies another whole world of photographic opportunity.

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Upstream of Lavertezzo the river widens, and rushes over a series of rapids. This area is more interesting for the colours of the larch forests in Autumn, and for a number of quite spectacular waterfalls on the west side of the valley. But the next part is perhaps the richest of all from a photographic perspective. Below the village of Brione, the river drops about 50m over a couple of kilometres, threading its way through a field of huge boulders. You see the end of this stretch where the road crosses the river, about 5km from Lavertezzo. The east bank of this stretch is accessible from a footpath which runs from the bridge all the way up to Brione. Getting to the river itself, or to the west bank, requires a bit of dedicated scrambling, but it’s well worth it. It would take a decade to run out of opportunities here.

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From Brione itself a quiet side valley heads off to the west, the Val d’Osura. This has a quite different character, with the river sluicing over wide limestone shelves. It’s an easy hike up the narrow, largely car-free road, and well worth a detour. The main valley continues up to the village of Sonogno, where it splits. This is also the end of the road for cars, and for the Post Bus. Both branches of the valley are worth exploring, but my favourite is the westerly one, known as Val Retorta, which has many more landscape marvels to offer, and leads eventually to Püscen Negro, the highest village in the valley, now abandoned and never connected to the outside world.

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In summary, if you’re looking for a location which can offer both boundless photographic potential, and also plenty to entertain non-photographer members of the family, this is it. But be warned, you won’t want to leave.

 

 

Africa with Athena, by Armand Dijcks

relax with a video

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, January 11, 2016

For quite a while I’ve felt I’m way outside of the audience for photographic educational material. In particular stuff like “How To Make Perfect Landscape Photos”, etc. Not that I’m saying I don’t need them, just that I’m impenetrable to such words of wisdom.  I’ve read, and watched, everything I could find on the topic, and very little has sunk in. So my reaction to seeing such things on offer tends to be rather cynical.

So why my interest was sparked by a web site I stumbled upon during the post-Christmas doldrums, offering an “exclusive, travelogue-style video tutorial” featuring landscape photographer Athena Carey on location in South Africa, I’m really not sure. But since clicking on the preview was a lot less like hard work than, say, editing several extensive photo collections I’ve built up and ignored in the last year or so, I did so. And I was intrigued, And since it was on special offer, I clicked.

Africa with athena

I’ve seen my fair share of “video photo tutorials”. They generally promise a lot, and end up being endless, tedious talking head shots of men, usually of a certain age, fondling their cameras. Some are more professional than others, in that they’ll do some level of editing. Others just set the camera to record, stop after 2 hours and 55 minutes, and sell you the resulting yawn-a-thon for $75. And of course after watching this you’ll have fully assimilated their precious workflow and wisdom. So I’m a hard sell.

Africa with Athena” is nothing like these, and on several key counts. First of all, it is obvious from the first seconds that the video has been produced by somebody who actually cares about communication, inspiration and entertainment, and also cares about producing the best possible experience. It is clear that very little cost or effort has been spared in the making of this video.  It has nothing to envy anything you’ll find under the National Geographic or BBC banners. I’m sure that Armand Dijcks, the producer and videographer, makes mistakes just like the rest of us, but we’re not treated to them in the final product. Instead we’re treated to a technically and artistic excellent video, with a perfect mix of sweeping, dramatic but also intimate location shots, and indeed talking heads. But these talking heads - well, always the same head - are expressive and varied and shot with different angles and situations which emphasise and help to carry the message. I’m a million miles away from being any expert on the topic, but as a pure consumer, I find it a very impressive production, which is well worth the asking price.

Africa with Athena 2

I haven’t even really mentioned the content yet. Well, the content is basically Athena Carey. Hers is not a name I’d come across before, but she seems to have a good reputation. Certainly her photography has a strong personality, mainly orientated towards long exposure monochrome.  This might immediately, and inevitably, bring Michael Kenna to mind, but her work is quite different. Of photographers I know, she’s perhaps closer to Steve Gosling, but in any case she has a distinctive style. Her approach in the field, and to photography in general, which is well documented here, remind me more of the approach of my friend Alessandra Meniconzi. Both are interested in equipment up to the point that it allows them to do what they want, and absolutely no more. Indeed, the section on the contents of Athena’s camera bag veers towards humour. Essentially, and clearly getting things out of the way as quick as possible, she tells us she’s got a big camera and a smaller one converted to infrared, oh, and some filters, and that’s basically it. I don’t think brand names are even mentioned. A similar segment over at the Luminous Landscape would be 45 minutes long and sound like a 10 year old child reading the B&H catalogue. This is pretty refreshing to me, but I’m not entirely sure if, unfortunately, it’s what the mainstream audience for this type of offer wants to hear.

But there is technical content. In fact her description of how she uses Nik SiverEFX to convert to monochrome is the best I’ve ever seen, and although I’ve been using this software for years, watching this I discovered a few key points I’d never realised before.

Africa with Athena 3

Most of all the video is about a dedicated and committed photographer collaborating with a talented videographer to illustrate her process to produce a couple of photos in a particular location. It does this without being arcane, patronising, or boring. I think it is generally very hard, if not impossible, to truly express in words what makes us photograph, especially for landscape photography. All attempts come across as pompous, clumsy or ridiculous. Generally of course they’re produced by the photographers themselves, which prevents the necessary detachment. Here instead the creative partnership works very well, delivering the goods both as medium and message. It sets a very high standard for others to follow.

 

Film, or Foveon ?

fish, or fowl?

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Ah, the eternal quandary of the dilettante art photographer: film, or digital ? And if digital, which kind of digital ?  For many, the ultimate expression of film in these End Days is Kodak Portra 400, with its oh so aesthetic transparent, lucid, indeed filmic quality. Or to put it another way, washed out. And that description is not exactly unreminiscent of the way Sigma Foveon digital sensors paint the world. So, which is “better” ? The two examples here offer no conclusion, are not a test, and make nothing other than an observation.  And they’re taken with completely different lenses, so obviously the framing and viewpoint are quite different (the sign on the wall at the left of the second photo can be seen on the right of the first, beneath the stairs).  But the scene, lighting and time of day are the same.

The first, on Portra 400 120 roll film, was taken using my Voigtländer Bessa III (aka Fuji GF670). It has an 80mm lens, so near enough 50mm in old money equivalence. It’s probably the last (serious) medium format film camera ever to be designed, and it’s probably the best fixed lens MF rangefinder ever. The rendering of the Porta 400 film was entrusted to Silverfast’s NegaFix tool, scanned at 5300dpi on the OpticFilm, which at this setting easily resolves grain.

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The second was taken using the quite remarkable (in several senses of the word) Sigma DP0 Quattro.  This has a Foveon Quattro sensor producing a file roughly equivalent, so they say, to a standard 39Mpix sensor. Which is quite big enough. More to the point, it produces absolutely gorgeous, natural, transparent, lucid, indeed filmic colours. In my opinion, anyway. In this case the lens is a highly corrected, good enough for architecture, 14mm, which is near enough to 21mm in old money.

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So which is best ? I don’t know. I’m happy with both. They don’t call me Indecisive Dave for nothing, you know. One might expect digital to be more convenient than film, but Sigma levelled that one with a (ahem) fabulous piece of mandatory software called Sigma Photo Pro. Of course, I could also have compare with my standard, sensible Olympus digital camera. But there’s no fun in being sensible.

 

 

 

Silverfast 8.8 revisited

sorry seems to be the hardest word

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Monday, January 04, 2016

It’s timely that I set out my motivations for writing this blog. Quite simply, it’s personal. I have nothing to sell, I’m not harvesting clicks, I’m not looking to grow a big audience or profile. Yes, to some extent I’d like to draw attention to my photography, despite having long ago realised firstly that this is futile, and secondly, being dependent on recognition is not a path to happiness or fulfilment. But I have no illusions or expectations that my opinions on anything amount to much, or provide anything other than very mild entertainment. I like to engage with readers, and try to answer queries and questions as best I can (most of these come via email, as a rule people don’t like commenting or debating in the public arena).

So, why is this timely? Well, I’ve been taken to task in quite a major way by a representative from Lasersoft for my last, rather unappreciative, posting on Silverfast. Since that also was via email, I will not go into details here, apart from to comment on the fact that posting it as a comment would have been far more beneficial to Lasersoft, as it shows that the company both listens and cares, and is hurt by what it sees, probably correctly, as unfair criticism. But it also reinforces that their handling of customer relations via social media needs improvement, and does their image and probably their sales a lot less good than it could.

But I will readdress my criticisms of Silverfast 8.8, and try to correct some inaccuracies.  First of all, it is again important that I set out my ground rules here. I am a paying customer of Silverfast. I have no special relationship with the company, indeed no relationship at all beyond being a customer. I have been using Silverfast for around 15 years, on Minolta, Canon and Plustek scanners, as well as the HDR version which reprocesses generic Silverfast scan files. Film photography is still important to me, and I scan standard 35mm, “panoramic” 35mm, and a range of medium format from 6x6 to 6x12. Silverfast is therefore “mission-critical” to what I do. I pay for it - and it isn’t cheap - and I expect it to work as advertised. When it works nominally, I’m very happy. When it does stuff that impresses me, I praise it. When it lets me down - which is not often - I get annoyed. When it lets me down badly, as it did recently, I get angry. And then I turn to Vuescan, and 5 minutes later, decide to give up film photography… (I know that Vuescan works for some people, but it doesn’t for me. Believe me, I’ve tried).

So, my position is that Lasersoft has a duty to me, and to other paying customers, to provide reliable software which performs the functions it is advertised to provide. In return, if I choose to write about Silverfast, I should do so fairly, and with attention to factual accuracy. Possibly neither party here has quite achieved this is the last iteration.

There is very, very little written about Silverfast on the web these days, at least not in English. Actually there’s not a great deal in Germain either. And a large proportion of that little amount is either recycled PR or individuals declaiming that “Silverfast sucks”, that it has “the worst GUI”, that it is “the worst software ever”, bla bla etc etc. None of these people have read the manual of course. Or, rather, they would not have read it if one existed. Which it doesn’t, still, for version 8, and this is a point that Lasersoft badly needs to address seriously. So, since I do write about the software and the process from time to time, reasonably fairly, and quite positively, I suppose it isn’t that surprising I get some traction on the topic, and very occasionally, some reaction from Lasersoft.

So let’s get back to 8.8. My basic problems seem to be associated with side effects of the introduction of SRDx. My rather rude dismissal of SRDx was more to do with the fact that it seemed to be destroying my workflow, rather than any actual evaluation. In fact I still haven’t evaluated it. But eventually I did what probably I should have done to start with, and used the “Reset Software” feature in both AI Studio and HDR Studio. This seemed to clear up some issues - although unfortunately it also appears to delete all of my stored presets - and I was able to complete the 64bit HDRi scans of the batch of 6x7 negatives I was working with. I ran out of time for running them through HDRi, though, although I did process one sample with SRD turned off. I’m not yet sure about the other issues I noticed, in particular the “black screen” where Silverfast seems to get confused about previews. This needs some dedicated time in order to try to replicate and report to user support.

I do retract the derogatory comments I made about the ColorServer feature, which in any case I’m in no position to evaluate. Actually I’m rather reassured that there is still professional customer demand for such a high end pro feature. And of course I made the classic mistake of assuming that since I could not, immediately, see any reason for using SRDx for digital camera file processing, then neither could anyone else. All of that was down to frustration arising from my own specific issues rather than any real complaint.

I think it is worth remembering that Silverfast has some absolutely world-class features. Just a few examples include the one-click scanner calibration, the 4-target neutral grey-balance tool, and the selective and global colour correction, which are at least on a par with recent and much lauded counterparts in CaptureOne v9. These together allow to arrive at an ideally balanced scan in way, way less time than it would take in Photoshop, even if you could work out how to do it there. Some other favourites of mine are the simultaneous, live input/output histograms and the Kodak Portra 400 NegaFix profile, which I find to be remarkably accurate. And in more recent releases, the greatly improved Job Manager, and especially the copy/paste settings feature, has saved me a lot of time.

There are areas that could be improved though, and a certain tendency towards UI bloopers which could be avoided with a little care and attention.  Simply as an example, I’m going to come back to the SRDx / iSRD issue.

When newly discovering v8.8, the first thing I’m going to look for is the banner feature, SRDx. But it isn’t there. In fact, for my Plustek OpticFilm 120 scanner, it’s hiding behind the iSRD button. Clicking on that reveals the Dust & Scratches panel, with two tabs - SRDx, and iSRD.

SilverFast SRD1

Initially SRDx is on top, which again, is a little weird as I’d clicked on the iSRD button. This then starts to make me wonder - is SRDx actually being promoted as superior to iSRD in all situations, including those for which IR Dust & Scratch removal works ? Is SRDx an alternative, or a complement, i.e can they work together ... or indeed should they? None of this is very clear from the interface. The mechanism that Silverfast uses in general to turn off an effect or tool is a checkbox in the title bar of the tool. It seems in this case that switching tabs activates the visible SRD option and deactivates the other, but to my mind this is weak feedback. Of course, ironically this is nothing new - the precursor to SRDx, plain vanilla SRD, lived in the same spot. But as it didn’t interest me, and was never visible by default, I never noticed.

So my conclusion must be that yes, the tabs are intended also as on/off switches. This goes against generally understood usage of tabs - as for example evident in Silverfish’s preferences popup - so I don’t think it is a good idea.

But in fact my attention was drawn to this simply because after playing around with these features a bit, I realised that the real time preview wasn’t working any more, for any tool, for example gradation. Otherwise I’d probably never have noticed!

Note, when the source file does not have a recognizable IR channel, or, I assume, the scanner does not have an IR channel, you get an SRDx button instead of iSRD…

SilverFast SRD2

...which, I guess, makes more sense of it all. But still, my feeling is that there must be a better way to do this for cases where both modes are available.

Final conclusion, I retract my recommendation to not touch 8.8, but as with any new release, I would say be careful, and unlike me, don’t install it when you’ve got some urgent work to do. That much is just common sense, which this time around eluded me.

I still think Silverfast is a great tool, and one that the film scanning community in particular is fortunate to still have around. The last point is on pricing. I mentioned that it costs €999. Well, yes, but that is for the fully loaded Archive Suite I use, and for the Plustek OpticFilm 120. And actually OpticFilm 120 comes with Ai Studio, priced at €658, and includes an IT8 6x7 calibration target. Depending on your scanner, the basic Archive solution comes in at €299 at the moment (hint, if you’ve got HDR Studio, you only need SE Plus as the scanning part, not Ai Studio). So yes, €999 is a bit of an extreme worst case scenario!

And then there are the entry and mid-level options, at much lower cost (under €50), and still featuring the same core scanning engine. Clearly it isn’t cheap. The competition is - at first glance - cheaper. But taking into account the output quality and the time it will save you, it’s hardly an unreasonable investment in an overall film photography budget.

So to start the New Year on a positive note, I apologise to the Silverfast team for my bad tempered rant, and I wish everybody reading this a happy and successful year of scanning. Even Vuescan users :-)

 

Silverfast v8.8. Don’t touch it.

The nightmare after Xmas

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Please take the following article with a LARGE grain of salt. It’s mostly rubbish. Having calmed down, and after receiving a very hurt email from Lasersoft, I wrote this.


Around 3 or 4 years ago, when Silverfast was at version 6.5, it was urgently in need of a complete rebuild, not only to replace the antiquated and extremely convoluted user interface, but also to make it compatible with modern operating systems.  Rather than grasp this nettle, Lasersoft, to all external appearances, fiddled about, adding fake Mac Intel “support”, and various new features which added precisely zero value, but which they charged for.

Finally, they released Siverfast v8, the rebuild we needed, and while it had a bit of a rocky start, there were swift iterations, and quite soon it became reliable and dependable. Various incremental features were added, culminating in v8.5, which I wrote about when it was released. Not only was v8.5 actually useful, but it was free.  Several incremental improvements to the Job Manager followed.

Now, we have v8.8. Also free. And a total, unmitigated disaster. We seem to have gone back to the bad old days (no, I have no idea where 8.6 & 8.7 went, but 8.8 should have gone there too). We have a new iteration of the algorithmic dust & scratch removal, for scanners not equipped with an infrared channel, called “SRDx”. It has an “x” in it so it must be fabulous. Well, maybe it is. It looks less unusable than the old SRD, but that wasn’t hard to achieve. As for the results, I don’t know, but since I only have IR-channel scanners, I don’t need it.  However, what it also brings to the table is that it has apparently totally screwed up the IR version, iSRD, in Silverfast HDR.  Clicking on “SRDi” (the only was to invoke xSRD) selects xSRD by default.  There is no really obvious was to switch to SRDi, expect by clicking on a tab, but that doesn’t tell me if both are invoked or just one. Also, the 1:1 or HQ preview modes just show a black screen, or sometimes a 1:1 unprocessed view.  All real-time corrections such as curves stop working, and attempting to process an image leads to a “quiet” failure at somewhere near the start of the SRD phase.

In summary, Silverfast Archive Suite, at a stroke, becomes unusable.

They have “fixed” the appealing DNG bug from the last version, in that HDR can now correctly interpret DNGs saved by AI Studio v8.8, but not and previous versions.

This is simply not acceptable for a software suite which costs €999.

So what else does v8.8 bring us ? Apparently the SDRx thing can be used on “Digital Camera Images”.  Sorry, Mr Zahorsky, you tried that with Siverfast DC.  It won’t work. Nobody in their right mind would use Silverfast to spot-correct digital camera images.  We also get a “History” feature.  Whatever. All I see here is a sequence of black frames.  I don’t need “History”.  It doesn’t work, anyway. And as far as I can tell it isn’t saved in the “HDR” format metadata.

And there’s an option for something called ColorServer, which is not aimed at people like me, but at production environments (do analog film production environments still exist ?) and which looks a whole lot like the old hot folder feature which I seem to recall existed in v6.5.  And it costs extra. What planet are they on, really?

I don’t much like criticising Lasersoft, because the contacts I’ve had with their staff make them seem to be decent, courteous people.  On the other hand, the way they’ve implemented user to user forums (every single post moderated, with long delays) and social media communication is incompetent to the level of comedy.  Two days consulting with a social media expert would bring them more benefit than a hundred “upgrades”.

In parting, here’s my current issues list.  I had intended to send it to Lasersoft, but really, they don’t seem to care. At a corporate level, anyway.

  • if the “Tool set” is supposed to remember / recall a window layout, it doesn’t work very well. For a start, the Tool-related panels (USM, iSRD, etc) get VERY confused.  They seem to show an activated state in the icon but dis-activated in the panel.
  • In 24 bit mode.  The Histogram tool is floated, and stretched. When I click on 48 bit, the Histogram tool dis-activates / disappears.
  • When 1:1, or HQ Mode is selected in iSRD tool, USM tool says “exact preview disabled” - it seems that previews are not shared between tools, even after they’re activated
  • I often use 720dpi output.  In the resolution drop down, an entry, “Custom (720dpi)” has appeared. Very nice - except it doesn’t work. Selecting this has no effect on resolution setting.
  • Histograms cannot remember that I prefer “Separate”.  SF 6.5 had no problem with this as far as I remember
  • Frame resize mode cannot preserve aspect ratio - e.g SHIFT+Drag
  • OpticFilm 120:  On first start up, first scan, the scanner makes a “clunk” noise, then a second, and then nothing.  To get it to work, I have to force-quit SF8, turn off the scanner, turn it on again, restart SF 8, and scan again. Usually it works on the second attempt, but not always.  After this, it will work fine for hours or days, until it is shut down.  I have tried different USB cables, different ports, USB2, USB3, same thing.  This only started with a quire recent update of SF 8 Ai.
  • v8.8.  The new “SRDx”, which apparently is non-IR based, is selected automatically.  Selecting SDRi makes the preview screen go black. It is totally unclear if SDRx or SDRi are coupled, i.e work together, or separate. From the GUI, it does not seem possible to select which one you want (or both). Both get activated (possibly) by clicking on the iSRD button. Eventually, clicking back and forth makes Silverfast crash. Quelle surprise.

The net result of v8.8 is make me switch to Vuescan.  Well done, Lasersoft.

 

Silent Night

(hopefully)

{categories limit="1"}in {category_name} {/categories}, Thursday, December 24, 2015

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everybody who has visited here over the last year, and provided on- and off-line feedback, positive and less positive, a very happy Christmas, and a happy, safe and rewarding New Year.  I’ll be back soon with lots of riveting tales and uncannily fabulous photography.

drm_20151215_DP0Q0040.jpg

/rant/I’m absolutely Nondenominational, possibly atheist, but I really, really abhor this “happy holidays” nonsense. If somebody the concept of Christmas (the real one, that is) offensive, then I wouldn’t wish them happy anything. /rant>

 

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