Just some stuff about photography

BY TAG

Been a long time comin’

in GAS , 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.

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“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!

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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
Posted in category "GAS" on Monday, June 12, 2017 at 09:48 PM

Extra Texture

in Photography , Friday, May 26, 2017

Enough blabla, here’s some pictures.

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OM4-2017-2_29.jpg
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Posted in category "Photography" on Friday, May 26, 2017 at 07:59 PM

Film: a diatribe

in Film , Monday, May 22, 2017

I’m going to need to preface this rant with the reminder that none of what I write, or, usually, write about is of the slightest importance in the grand scheme of things. It’s not exactly North Korea.

Recently, trying to make my endless commutes more interesting, I’ve been consuming quite a lot of writing about film photography, and a smaller amount of actual film photography. Most of this has come to me through Twitter, by following @EmulsiveFILM and all the myriad avenues that this leads me down. Sadly, with a few exceptions, I’m finding it all ends up rather un-engaging.

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Film don’t live here anymore

Let’s be clear, I’m starting with the premise that the objective of photography is some form of self-expression. Some may call it art, and for some, it is. There is an alternative objective, which is to engage in the craft of taking photographs - and this all too often morphs into obsessing over photographic tools.

A strong thread underlying this (supposed) revival in film photography is that somehow it makes you more creative. Well, if that’s the case, why are 95% of writings on film photography blogs about cameras, film types and other technical stuff?  And why is 90% of the photography made up of shots of nothing, frequently drowned in “bokeh”? Mostly it’s photos of cameras, or complete crap supposedly interesting because it’s shot on Wonderblast 125-TripleX developed in LSD-soaked quetzal droppings or whatever. What’s the difference here, between any techie digital photography site and this stuff? Fundamentally, nothing at all. It’s all gear, and gear acquisition, with the excuse that somehow because it is old gear it’s different.

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Film’s off

Then we get the other argument, the one that really makes my hackles rise: that film is better because “slows you down, makes you more contemplative”. That is absolute, unadulterated, 100% proof, self-deceiving bollocks. The photographer is responsible for the photography, not the camera. I’ve never heard of a digital camera grabbing it’s owner by the throat screaming SHOOT FASTER DAMMIT! Sure, some cameras - and not only film cameras - absolute do not lend themselves to rapid fire shooting. Anything made by Sigma, for example. But on the other hand, some film cameras won’t get in your way. A Canon EOS-1v will shoot at 10FPS, and has a 36 shot full-frame buffer! Anyway, if you need to rely on a camera being unable to shoot quickly to, er, not shoot quickly, then in my opinion there is a more fundamental issue to resolve here than gear choices.

It seems that the hardcore #FilmsNotDead crew are not only rejecting digital, but state of the art film too. The last mainstream emulsions to be brought to market, like Portra 400, Provia 400X, Ektar 100 and so are incredibly sophisticated products of chemical and manufacturing industry. So why do aberrations like Rollei CR 200, or all of Lomography’s product line even exist ? Well, clearly, because there’s a market for them. People actually want to shoot on crap film, in the mistaken view that it’s artistic.

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Agfa? Sorry mate, no call for that these days

The gear acquisition rabbit hole on the analog side of the fence is just as deep, if not deeper than on the digital side, but with the added addiction of the chase after rare, highly sought after objects, or the lure of the fantastic bargain. If film photography is supposed to be a simple, pure remedy to the terrors of digital, why then do film photographers accumulate ridiculous numbers of cameras, most if which don’t work properly, and some of which actually never did ? Yes, it’s interesting, fun even. I completely get that. But creative ? I don’t think so.

What I have found very little of is any evidence that using film specifically makes for interesting photography or photographers. There are certainly some extremely interesting photographers out there shooting partially or exclusively on film, but they don’t make a big deal about it. In fact often they don’t even mention it.

The tail is wagging the dog, here. In my opinion, there are few other reasons to use film than being driven to it by an artistic or creative need. For example, if your intent requires a view camera, you’re going to need to use film. If it requires Medium Format aesthetics, and you’re not a millionaire, ditto. If it requires a Technorama 617, same again. You can also make an argument for the look of certain film stocks, for example Cinefilm, although I’m less convinced of that. But when it is switched around to being driven by wanting to track down and play with old cameras then no, sorry, that’s just gear lust talking. One important proviso here - I’d make a very big exception for black & white. In my opinion, if you want to shoot B&W seriously, then there is no other option than film.

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Automatic for the People

So essentially this whole “film’s not dead” thing is just another, relatively bargain basement, strain of Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Leaving aside cost, which is subjective anyway, GAS is deadly for photography, for at least 2 reasons. First, the distraction of wasting endless reading about, talking about, and dreaming about gear. Next, the paralysing effect of having way too much gear (because after all it was so cheap!), and the pressure to use it all - and then to blog and twitter about it to impress the rest of the #FilmsNotDead hipsters. Sure, it’s a hobby, perhaps it’s even fun, but it isn’t photography, and if you got into film to somehow rescue your creativity, it’s also a bit tragic.

Of course I’m not immune to this. I’ve been banging on about Cinefilm 50 in the last few posts, so I’m well aware that I’m keeping my hypocrisy level up to normal. But here’s the thing: I bought two rolls of Cinefilm 50. One, I put in my XPan, and I burned through it in under 1 hour, thoroughly enjoying it. That would be because I’m very in tune with the view of the world that camera gives me. The other, I put in my OM-4, and after two weeks, I had only managed to get to frame 30. While the OM-4 is a lovely piece of retro technology, and the view through the finder is stunning, it really doesn’t make that much sense to use it over my digital E-M1.  Cinefilm’s look is interesting, but it isn’t unobtainable from a digital file.

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All fixes catered for. Well, they used to be.

But I still use film. In fact for the last month or so I’ve more or less only shot film - all 2 rolls of it. I actually prefer the look of slide film over colour digital, with the major proviso that conditions need to be right. The operating envelope of slide film is very narrow. There is zero scope for highlight or shadow recovery, and really only soft lighting works well. But when all ducks are correctly lined up, there is some quality of colour graduation which I just don’t see in digital, any digital, even Foveon. I’m still going add a proviso though - sometimes my whole perspective just flips, I think “what am I doing wasting my time with this stuff”, and I pick up the digital camera.  Actually, if it’s logistically feasible and I’m going somewhere I care about, I really need to have both digital and film with me.

I’m not quite so sure about negative film. Certainly it has a certain look, and has the huge advantage of vast exposure latitude. Highlight rolloff is probably the killer feature for negative film: for one subject I shoot a lot of, a kind of urban landscape, negative film does have a significant advantage both in dealing with harsh lighting and teasing out subtle transitions in texture. But then again, as a photographer, or indeed, a Fine Artiste, I have come to understand that I am very drawn to specific colour characteristics in deciding what to photograph. And actually getting any kind of objective colour fidelity out of negative film is pretty Quixotic. Sure, it can look very nice, but actually getting it to look right is quite another matter, and that can sometimes be very frustrating.

Anyway, my personal experience is that for negative film you can get close enough to make no difference using film simulations, or rolling your own in Photoshop. But I’ve never found a convincing slide film simulation.

There is another argument for using film though, which I kind of referred to above, and revolves around the cameras.  I think a very strong argument can be made that older cameras are often better designed, better built, far more straightforward, and offer a far more satisfying, direct user experience than digital cameras.  My Olympus E-M1 is a nice camera, but my OM-4 just gets out of the way (although actually my old Canon T90 implemented multi-spot metering far better than the OM-4. The T90 was a fabulous film camera). Such cameras can certainly have a big creative effect, as they insulate you from a lot of the distractions than come with shooting digital (yeah I know, “distractions” like being able to change ISO on the fly, but still…). But it’s still not that simple - if you decide to get into film scanning, well say goodbye to 20% of your life, a large amount of money, and at least half of your sanity (or 75% of it you use Vuescan). And Heavens help you if your eyes start drifting towards all those weird and wonderful “alternative” film types you MUST use to be a Real Artist.  No, my recommendation is if you want the full, classic, analog film camera experience, then buy one or two good cameras, a good supply of film, and TURN OFF THE INTERNET. Order your film through magazines, like Popular Photography. Oh, wait…

Of course, this is all just me. On the one hand, I can’t deny that I both share and understand the fascination of film. And my perspective, of one who started in photography pre-digital, will be quite different to some young whippersnapper who’s just discovered Agfa Vista. But to me the downside is that it brings yet another huge set of displacement activities which serve only to take me further away from concentrating on what I think it is I want to do - make satisfying photographs.

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I’ll get my coat

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

 

 

Posted in category "Film" on Monday, May 22, 2017 at 02:26 PM

How sharp is your scan ?

in Scanning , 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.

Posted in category "Scanning" on Wednesday, May 03, 2017 at 10:34 PM

Do you shoot film ?

in General Rants , 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.
Posted in category "General Rants" on Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at 04:16 PM

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