Yep. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is peaking dangerously in the first world. The moths are circling the flickering flame called Photokina, the biannual high temple of photographic consumerism and gear lust. Fur is flying on the internet fora, as photo geeks of all sizes descriptions hurl invective at each other over the champions they are backing from the Houses of Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Fuji, Sony, Ricoh et al. More well-off photo geeks are disdainfully ignoring these champions of Hoi Polloi and are (with dangerous courtesy) debating the merits of Leica, Alpa, PhaseOne, Hasselblad.
It’s kind of entertaining to watch, especially when compared with Work, but after a week of using just a humble little Minox 35ML (and realising that focus and aperture ring markings were meant for eyes less, er, mature than mine), and having lots of fun with it, I can’t really get all that excited about all these latest electronic marketing iterations. I’ve also just cast off quite a large amount of digital gear, in the biggest sell-off I’ve ever done.
Oh, but I’m not immune to G.A.S. It’s just in my case it’s getting seriously, but seriously twisted.
This, above, is basically a very heavy, very solid metal box to which a lens board is screwed. The lens board features a stone-age Copal shutter and a lovely, but equally stone age Schneider lens. On top of the box is a film winder, and a film counter - well sort of, actually it’s a dial you have to remember to set for yourself. And perched on top of it is an accessory viewfinder which is of legendary quality. The lens is vertically offset from centre by 8mm (“8mm permanent shift”) which sounds crazy but would make a deal of sense to most dedicated wide-format photographers (I don’t much care for “panoramic”, it doesn’t mean the same thing). Oh, and you can pull the back off and drop in a roll of 120 film, assuming you can find one. Oh, and one last thing. A price tag that would make fellow Teutons Leica gasp in amazement.
Meet the Linhof Technorama 612PC II, the device of my dreams.
I don’t want one of these just for the sake of it, but rather because the 612 “cinemascope” frame is absolutely natural to me. I confirmed my hunch about this with my ill-fated experiment with the Belair X 6-12, and recently with the iPhone application 645Pro. Although I dearly love my XPan, sometimes, often even, it’s too wide. Sure, you can crop, but cropping an XPan frame down to a 2:1 ratio loses a lot of area, and on 35mm film it’s getting borderline for biggish prints. For the same reason, the 617 cameras don’t appeal that much.
I first discovered the existence of the 612 format through New Zealand photographer Andris Apse’s work. There aren’t actually many practitioners of the format to be found. Sure, there are gear geeks on Flickr who’ll pick up anything and run a few rolls of expired C41 film through it, photographing whatever and thing it’s art. But very few people have made the form their own (a recent exception I discovered is Alberto Bregani, whose mountain B&W work is quite gorgeous).
Anyway, there’s no way in this life I’m going to find nearly $10,000 to buy one of these new. But with my recent gear recycling, I’m dangerously close to having freed up enough cash to get one of the few on offer on eBay (actually, not so long ago I missed an absolute bargain there).
Yes, but. It takes 120 film. The only 120 reversal film still produced is Provia 100F (actually pretty good) and Velvia 100 (not my thing, really). It’s far too heavy to consider taking on my rare but vital polar trips, especially after I swore blind I was going to just take a point-and-shoot after my last trip. It is absurdly expensive. And really, unless I get off my backside and start actually promoting and displaying my photography, it’s total overkill. I’ve got the XPan. I can do stitching (I was a very early adopter of pinheads, back around ‘95). I could buy one of those mega Sony A7r thingies for the SAME MONEY, for heaven’s sake. And yet, finally, it all gets pretty meaningless, taking photos without much sense of direction or purpose.
And film ?? C’mon, digital blows it out of the water, surely ? Well, I’m not so sure. I just happened to dig out an B3 size folio album of prints I made from photos taken in Santorini and Naxos, back in 2002, on Provia 100F using XPan and Canon T90. I haven’t looked at these for ages, and I was really taken aback at the clarity and sense of form in the prints. Although the difference isn’t that huge, actually they look better than prints from digital (well, except from the Sigmas). It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and all the experts will tell me I’m nuts or making things up, but really, the results speak for themselves.
Clearly, I was born 15 years too late. I missed the glory years of wide format film, and maybe trying to get back to it now is tilting at one windmill too many, even for me. Maybe I should get back to the Photokina frenzy and inoculate myself against this craziness.
Meanwhile, I have actually finally made another decision and acquired some other new gear. More on that soon. It’s either going to have been a very good or a very bad idea. And it involves film.
Tomorrow evening we’re off for a long needed week of relaxation, in the very familiar surroundings of Sardinia. My initial thought was not to take any camera at all, because if I do I’ll feel under pressure to use it. Last year, also in Sardinia, I did get a few interesting shots, but by and large I’d probably have done better just to settle for the beach.
But, well, what I’ve ended up doing is I’ve decided to try something different. I’m getting a little jaded with digital cameras, even though the Olympus E-P5 is very nice, and the Sigma twins are fabulous when they’re having a good hair day, I just don’t feel like dragging all the paraphernalia of chargers and whatever with me.
So I bought some film.
I’ve never used Portra 400 before, but since sooner or later I’m going to need to move away from reversal film, I decided to give it a try. It gets a pretty good write up from all sorts of people. Hopefully it will be better than Ektar 100, which is a bit too Velvia for my tastes.
My earliest visits to Sardinia were film-only, so this is a bit of a nostalgia trip. Not decided yet if the XPan is coming along. I might just take the Minox. And maybe the XA, one with Porta, the other with Scala. E100G is reserved for the XPan.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the revival of film, and how film is better and just switching to film turns you into an instant mega-hip star photographer. Well, frankly, that’s utter bollocks. Back in those pre-digital years when everybody used film, was everybody a totally brilliant gifted photographer ? No, they weren’t. Most were crap. A far higher proportion than today were utterly hopeless. The instant feedback and accessibility of digital has had a huge impact of helping many, many people to become brilliant photographers. Most people who have “rediscovered” or just started using film are producing truly ghastly work, seemingly believing that drastic overexposure will turn any sow’s ear into a silk purse. Of course there are exceptions - many exceptions - but as a trend, it’s all more than a little hollow.
I’ve also just discovered and download a nice little iPhone app made by Kodak - remember them ? Anyway, it’s largely a bit of marketing fluff for Kodak film, but I’m all for that, and it is very pretty. I haven’t found the section on Kodachrome or Ektachrome yet though. It does include a location finder for approved development labs and film retailers. In my case, these (both of them) are 250km away, on the other side of the highest mountain range in Europe. No one said shooting film was getting easier.
(I can highly recommend Photo Studio 13 by the way. One of the very, very few labs that still process Agfa Scala)
Since my last post mourning the apparent demise of my faithful Minolta film scanner, I have tried every kind of arcane trick know to the Internet, and a few more besides, to bring it back to life. It is sometimes possible to get it to revive, but there’s no pattern to it. I managed to extract a full-blown, medium format 16x sampling megascan from it, too, but soon after it relapsed. I have to face facts, I’m wasting far too much precious time on this.
One reason why it has been so much the focus of my attention - apart from a 15 year film archive, which can always benefit from my improving scanning skills - is my current project to refine a set of Antarctic landscape panoramas. I’m trying to get the colour profile exactly as it should be, which to my way of seeing needs to be delicate, slightly subdued, but still allowing the often astonishing colour to speak. But not the overblown, digital look that plagues so much photography (Adobe Lightroom default profiles have to take of the blame for this). Of course, photographing on reversal film means that I’ve pretty much defined the look before it gets anywhere near a computer, but there are still opportunities and decisions to be made in the scanning and post-processing stages. The ideal is to transfer what I see on the light table on the screen, and then to print, but that’s very hard to achieve, especially without a drum scanner. And when I’m engaged in a long stretch of batch scanning, sometimes my initial post-processing attempts are not ideal. For example:
I’m not sure what I was thinking of here. The contrast is too strong, and the delicacy of the colours in the ice is lost. I’ve also pushed the sky and sea too much towards neutral.
The revised version is much closer to the Ektachrome, although with less density. In the processing, “less is more” certainly applied. Note, in both cases, reducing down to web sized JPGs is introducing some exaggerated tone transitions, especially in the sky.
Fortunately, using the Silverfast archive workflow I can go back and re-work the post processing without needing to do new scans. Unfortunately, for most of my Antarctic scans I used the Scanhancer to try to eke out the last bit of pixel-peeping quality, and this has not worked out to well. The coupled increase in exposure times seems to have greatly exaggerated shadow noise, possibly due to an ageing scanner CCD, and a few near invisible scratches on the Scanhancer itself have resulted in bands of shadowing on the scans, which was not immediately noticeable, but which are almost impossible to fix.
So going back to the scanner quandary, unless I decide to give up, I have three choices: try to get the Minolta fixed, which seems unlikely, track down a good, working Minolta DSMP or Nikon Coolscan 9000 at a sensible price, or take a chance on a Plustek OpticFilm 120. Although the inter webs are full of whining about the Plustek, two reviewers who actually have some track record have been less negative: Mike Pasini (“we achieved our finest scans of the test images we’ve ever managed. But it wasn’t easy.”), and particularly, Tim Parkin, who is something of a scanner guru (“the OpticFilm is definitely has the potential to be a great scanner and I can only recommend if you have the wherewithall to play around with creating a custom film holder”). Another strong argument is that the OpticFilm is currently in production and support by a company for which scanning is a major business activity. Well, I’m going to dither for a little longer, but I’m leaning towards the OpticFilm. Especially as it supports 6x12 film format and alledgedly could be persuaded to scan 6x17.
Woke up this morning
Stumbled out of bed
Tried to make a 48 bit HDR scan
But my scanner would not be led
Tried to fire up Vuescan
Gave Dimage Scan a chance
But even good ol’ Silverfast
Couldn’t make that scanner dance
When halfway through my scan
The thread it seems to lose
Yeah, I’m stuck down here in Memphis*
With the Failing Scanner Blues
* well ok, Lugano, but that’s not very Blues.
Yep, my 13 year old Minolta Dimage Scan MultiPro has started having senior moments. Part way through a scan, or even a preview, it just gives up and decides it’s done quite enough. The software’s left in limbo. Vuescan looks round in confusion, Silverfast, naturally, locks up, and Dimage Scan wonders why the hell I’ve woken it up after a 5 year nap.
This isn’t good news. Received knowledge over at the MultiPro Yahoo Group is that it is probably a symptom of a failing Firewire controller, apparently a known ageing issue with these scanners. And it probably can’t be fixed. Apparently a company in Germany called RTC Solutions can sometimes fix Konica Minolta scanners, but they’re not answering my email. Probably on holiday. Or stuck at the Gotthard Tunnel with most of Germany.
The MultiPro also has a SCSI interface, which apparently is much more robust. I believe I last used it around 2005, which would have been when my last SCSI-equipped Mac caught fire just after I’d sold it. One can in theory use a Firewire to SCSI converter, but these went out of production some 4 years ago, and sell on eBay for $Stupid. And of course Apple have killed off Firewire as well, so that’s not much of a long term solution. Possibly I could find a Firewire PCIe card which might work in my Mac Pro, and which might then hook up to the scanner, but even then, since I have to use an old version of Silverfast running on a semi-retired laptop (version 8 doesn’t support the MultiPro), if all that unlikely chain worked, I’d still lose my Silverfast workflow. Vuescan would work, but well, it’s not really my first choice.
Things are looking grim on the Medium Format film-scanning front (and not much better on 35mm). There were basically 3 good MF film scanners all launched around 2000: The Polaroid 120 (and Microtek clone), the Nikon Coolscan 8000/9000 and the Minolta MultiPro. There is some debate over which of the Coolscan 9000 and the MultiPro is better, but there’s not a lot in it. They’re both excellent. However, the Multipro is half the size & weight of the Nikon, and scans XPan format at 4800dpi rather than 4000dpi. For general MF use, however, the Nikon offers 4000dpi over the Minolta’s 3200. Of course all of these are out of production, and thanks to Sony’s acquisition of Konica Minolta’s photographic activities, even the statutory period for spares and servicing was ignored.
Today, there are actually two MF scanners available new. The Reflecta MF5000 (and several clones with different labels, such as Pacific Imaging), which isn’t terribly exciting, and the Plustek 120, which in theory is interesting, but has received mixed reviews, to put it politely. In any case, even a glitch-free Plustek 120 would seem to be inferior to the Minolta MultiPro, a 15-year old design! And you can even find new copies of the Nikon Coolscan 9000, if you’ve got more money than sense.
And of course there are the outrageously expensive Hasselblad Flextight X5 & X1. Sadly I have no grandmothers left to sell. And anyway, they’re don’t even have dust removal - and, reportedly, the MultiPro delivers results almost as good.
MultiPros and Coolscans on eBay fetch prices way in excess of their original retail, and who knows how much life they have in them ? I can hardly complain about my Minolta, it has given over a decade of faithful service, which isn’t bad for an electro-optical-mechanical device.
So I’m left looking at a set of unattractive options: try to patch up the Minolta for a while yet; buy a modern but expensive, slow and less performant Plustek scanner; try to find a secondhand replacement Minolta or Nikon which doesn’t require a kidney to raise the funds. Or rent a Hasselbad X5, 250km away in Zürich, every now and again, for CHF 300 / hour. Or give up on film.
Meanwhile, while I’ve been writing this, the MultiPro has just managed to get from one end of a scan to another without losing the plot, and delivered this:
Really clutching at straws, I’ve ordered a new Firewire 400 cable (yes, even these are special order now, abet $0.50 from the USA). If that fixes it, I’ll be on the phone to the Vatican.
A photographic post with a return to the topic of street photography (which I don’t do). Here I line up all sorts of obstacles for myself by first trying to do street photography, second using a camera which really is at it’s best on a tripod and used slowly, and third, using what was always an unconventional choice of film, and now is just plain flat-out eccentric, Agfa Scala monochrome E6 slide film (or indeed using film at all).
Agfa Scala is nominally rated at ISO200, but is designed to be used from 100 to 1600 depending on circumstances. The canisters are not DX-coded, so you need to set the speed yourself. I ran this roll at ISO800, as the XPan’s 45mm lens is relatively slow at f/4. Note, 45mm on an Xpan corresponds to a horizontal field of view around 28mm for a normal 35mm frame, so you need to get close.
It’s pretty easy to scan in Silverfast, using 16bit greyscale settings and auto-levels.
The results are, well, at best tentative, but it was an interesting experiment.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but you can still buy the allegedly withdrawn Agfa Scala film from Fotomedia in Switzerland, who will also process it.