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MMXVIII

in General Rants , 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 too 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, and allow me to fully concentrate on photography. 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.

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

Posted in category "General Rants" on Thursday, January 04, 2018 at 05:38 PM

Made in Italy

in Film , Monday, November 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts on Ferrania

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in category "Film" on Monday, November 13, 2017 at 10:53 PM

Before Film Wasn’t Dead

in Film , Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in category "Film" on Wednesday, October 18, 2017 at 12:16 PM

Chromatic abberations

in Photography , 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.

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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.

Posted in category "Photography" on Monday, September 25, 2017 at 09:43 PM

Using the Flextight X5 scanner

in Scanning , 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.

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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.

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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.

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X5/Flexcolor interpretation of Kodak Provia 400

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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 mahor 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.

Posted in category "Scanning" on Wednesday, September 20, 2017 at 08:50 PM

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