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Film, digital ... or photography?

Indecisive Dave

in Film , Sunday, August 19, 2018

I’m afraid this is going to be a bit of an unstructured ramble. Basically I’m just taking to myself: because I’m thinking about finally cutting the cord and giving up film. And then again, maybe not. I’ve changed my mind at least three times since I started writing this post.

Drm 20180818 EM580046

Analog or Digital? Coffee, or convenience?

I’ve been using film since I started taking photographs, which was A Very Long Time ago, and although I have fully embraced digital photography, I have always owned film cameras, and at present I own quite a lot. In the last two years or so, in terms of time (and indeed money) invested, I’ve spent much more on film than digital. Could it finally be time to stop?

For me the choice between film and digital is largely emotional. To some extent those emotions are directly related to the end result: for example, the initial impact of a slide frame on a light table is much more visceral than that of a Raw digital file displayed on a computer screen. But otherwise they are mainly secondary things like nostalgia, or an appreciation of fine mechanics. More specifically I’d be sad to give up my Hasselblad XPan, which has been a companion on countless adventures for nearly 20 years, but then again, I’m beginning to feel it is dragging me down.

Film and digital have very different workflows. With film, it mostly happens in the camera, especially when the camera is fully mechanical. There’s plenty to get right which can’t be fixed later, and even when this stuff becomes second nature, it never becomes trivial. You choose your film, you set the exposure, and you’re pretty much committed. With digital, on the other hand, the work tends to start after the capture. There is so much latitude for change that it is dangerously easy to lose sight of any initial intention. Of course the distinction isn’t that clear: with film, the whole clunky process of scanning is a huge time-sink, and with digital, if you’re brave, you can go the JPG route and do everything in-camera.

Film is expensive. The cost of the actual film itself is constantly increasing, as is that of lab processing (I won’t find time in this life to do my own processing - although more on that later). The availability of film stock is still decreasing, especially the kind I like. Of course there are hundreds of minor variations of the same black and white film on the market, but that’s not my thing. Good film scanners are expensive are approaching extinction. And although you can certainly pick up a good used 35mm SLR for not very much, the kind of camera that makes using film worthwhile in 2018 is still actually pretty expensive. And when you buy it it will break down and nobody can fix it.

Of course digital is expensive as well. In fact it can easily become unreachable (although film holds its own if you consider the price of an Hasselblad X5 film scanner). And digital still pushes you towards the upgrade treadmill. And in terms of process, digital proposes the double-edged blade of near-endless processing choice.

It is so easy to get lost in these discussions which superficially appear to be philosophical but basically are just about the old demon gear. That demon which is dedicated to distract and prevent you from actually achieving anything photographically interesting. I’m feeling weighed down with gear, weighed down with choices, endlessly trying things out and testing approaches but never actually defining and realising an artistic objective. On the other hand I’m inspired by my Linhof 612, I’m emotionally connected to my Hasselblad XPan, and I think the frames my Bessa 667 produces are awesome. But then again, when I switch personalities and pick up my Olympus E-M5 I feel pretty happy with that, too.

Although do I? Actually it depends. For the urban landscape stuff I do, I really cannot complain at all. Yes, out of the box Portra 400 from the Bessa 667 is prettier, but, one, I can tweak Olympus files to something quite close enough to Portra, and, two, the Bessa 667 is fine until you want a focal length different to 50mm equivalent. However for classic landscape the Olympus files have some clear limitations. Far field objects tend to turn to mush, and the whole image can have a faintly plasticky field. This impression has actually been confirmed to me by several professional photographers I know who use Olympus. The system has many attractions, but also some drawbacks, and while you can most certainly use it to take excellent landscape photographs, if you have the artistic ability (which I’m not claiming I do), it isn’t perhaps the ideal choice.

I’ve tried to find a workaround to this by supplementing my Olympus with Sigma Foveon cameras, but astonishing as they can be in their ideal environment, that ideal environment is very, very restricted. And the lenses for the sd Quattro cameras are very heavy and bulky, albeit excellent. On the other hand, as objects, Sigma cameras are absolutely beautifully made, and the menu system is also the best I’ve seen.

The thing is, I don’t really have a need for film. I like using it, I like the way it looks, but there nothing enabling for me about film. My main, indeed only reason for persisting with film from around 2003 to 2013 was that I needed it to put in the XPan. But then I started expanding my repertoire a bit. And now I’ve maybe expanded it too much. Experimenting isn’t a bad thing, but there’s a thing line between experimenting and just f***ing around, and I’m afraid I crossed it some time ago.

And then again. My eyes keep getting drawn back again to recent shots I’ve taken with Provia 100F and Pro 160NS, and then, to others taken with the Olympus. And impressive as the Olympus shots are - and frankly, whatever Micro Four Thirds keyboard warrior detractors may say, they are impressive - there is something lacking. Of course, it could be as much down to medium format lenses as the films, but more probably it is a combination of both. Also looking around a bit, personally I find the film-only landscape work of Jake Horn to be a pretty convincing argument, as is my friend Jean Heintz’s view on film.

Then there’s the tempting idea that it is possible to replicate the colour of film in digital. I’ve had reasonable success with things like modified VCSO presets, and Exposure X3, and I’m trying out Mastin Labs’ products, but even if these were fully successful in replicating film, which, frankly, they’re not, quite, they still can’t make a digital Micro Four Thirds camera draw like a 6x7 Medium Format film camera. And to be fair, the reverse also applies, which let’s not forget, was a strong reason why so many scrambled to abandon film the moment that digital became affordable.

Trying to sift some clarity from my ramblings, What I think I’m tangentially approach is a wish for an interchangeable-lens camera that provides significantly more detail than the Olympus, gives me the lucid transparency and smooth, subtle tones of Medium Format Portra or Provia, is not too heavy or bulky, and is, within reason, affordable. It also needs to avoid over-complexity and feature glut - really all I need is aperture, speed, sensitivity and autofocus. I don’t need movies, I don’t need more than 1 frame per second - if not per minute. And then I want it to last forever, and keep me from being distracted by new toys. Until quite recently I really don’t think there was anything on the market that met that description. Now, in the digital world, there are maybe two candidates. Well, possibly only one. In the film world, an outsider might be the Pentax 645, a camera I’ve always admired from a distance, but it is heavy and bulky. If I forego autofocus, I guess there is the Hasselblad V series (again, I’ve often day dreamed about a 503cw), or at a stretch the Mamiya 7. All of these three of course are significantly different formats.

But what I really want is to escape from this endless chasing after gear and get down to doing some photography that really satisfies me. And for that, I really, really need to come down on one side or the other. I’m not actually labouring under any illusions that I will produce anything of any artistic or creative merit - I haven’t done so far, and after 30 years of trying, I doubt that will change - but at least I’d be enjoying myself.


** on film processing: actually, I may well end up dabbling in this. I backed the Ars Imago Film Box on Kickstarter, and unlike most of everything else I’ve backed (FilmLab, Ferrania…) it might actually deliver. There is also the intriguing Filmomat, but it is very expensive, and finally, the people behind the (late, undelivered) Kickstarter Reflex film camera claim they are going to produce an automated home C41/E6 processing lab for $500. I’m afraid I’m very skeptical, but that would shift some parameters…

 

A matter of Exposure

and, indeed, a matter of opinion

in Product reviews , 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.