I’m not feeling much like verbose, deep & meaningful posts at the moment. After all, it’s only photography. Nothing important, right ? Except, of course, when it’s on artfully 2-stop over-exposed Portra 400 film (gasp), giving it that automatic je-ne-sais-quoi. Then, the subject, the composition, all the rest of it, nothing matters at all, ‘cos it’s got that great ethereal washed out, damn the highlights hipster look.
So, here you. Four examples of absolute medium format filmic gorgeousness, freezing unique moments in time Down South in Puglia.
Sorry. I’m in a funny mood today.
Many, many years ago, back when I was working as a glaciologist, I attend a conference of a group of scientists studying the Flichner-Ronne ice shelf, in Antarctica. The conference was doubtless interesting, and indeed a highlight was visiting the brand new Norwegian Glacier museum. But the thing that always stuck in my mind was the magical venue. The conference was organised in a place called Hotel Mundal, a classic Norwegian “belle époque” hideaway lying on the shores of the Fjærland fjord, and owned by the family of conference organiser, Olal Orheim (who was also instrumental in founding the Glacier Museum). The hotel was established in the late 19th century to cater for wealthy tourists visiting the glaciers at the head of the fjord, who until then had no choice but to stay on ships anchored offshore.
Back when I first visited, at least if travelling by land, Hotel Mundal was in the back of beyond. The tunnel that now connects Fjærland to Sogndal did not exist, and although you could drive into the area along a largely deserted road, and through another tunnel, to the north, the only way out was by ferry along the fjord. These days, the road is a bit busier, and the ferry port sits abandoned.
I always dreamt of returning one day, and this year, finally, I did, together with my better half, and her mother, who celebrated her 80th birthday at the hotel.
It turns out we were lucky: Hotel Mundal had been sold several times, and was in decline for some time. Last year did not open at all. But this year it has been rescued, by a wonderful couple, Carrie and Idar, who together with their small but fabulous staff (and unbelievable cook) have undertaken to return Mundal to its prime, an epic labour of love.
Every day it seems new treasures are rescued from the cellars, mementoes of famous visitors such as Kaiser Wilhelm or Walter Mondale, or strange, arcane devices for which the purpose is yet to be revealed.
It’s a wonderful place just to relax and bury yourself in the sense of history and belonging. Clearly it is also painfully photogenic, and I cursed my lack of ability as an interior photographer (or indeed any other kind). But to get a sense of the place, I think it is maybe appropriate to share some photos from a camera with a least one foot in the past, the Bessa III 667, using Portra 400 film. Possibly, somewhere, in a neglected box, I’ve got some earlier snapshots of Mundal. I guess I should take a look for them.
It’s been quite a while since I last posted anything here. I’ve neither had the time nor much motivation recently. Time, because of two weeks in Norway, taking my mother-in-law around the fjords for her 80th birthday, but also making a number of emergency trips to south west England to visit my mother, who is seriously ill. Motivation, because there wasn’t really that much I felt worth writing about. Life catches up with us sometimes.
Anyway, on the plus side, I’ve got a batch of film & digital photos from Norway to go through. Fortunately my mother-in-law is, in her own way, a keen photographer, so the odd photo stop was not a problem. But the general restrictions on schedules and locations on such a trip did basically mean that anything more than a few steps from the care simply wasn’t photogenic. And the weather was frequently so awful that no amount of correct clothing could make it right for photography.
As I mentioned in my last post, I recently bought a medium format film camera on eBay, a Voigtländer Bessa III, which does 6x6 and 6x7 formats. This was a bit of retail therapy, to be honest, but it has turned out to be a very good buy. It’s a delightful camera to use, it produces fantastic results, it’s incredibly light and compact for a medium format camera, and the fact that it looks like an antique, despite being ultra-modern under the skin, helps to make it look unthreatening in a “street” context. I’ll be publishing some photos from it soon.
Prior to all this, I also managed to slip in a quick trip to Tuscany, and although that was generally very low-key from a photography point of view, I did manage to come back with one shot that I really like. It was locked away in a Kodak E100G canister for over a month, before being released by Studio 13 in Zürich. And here it is:
It looks more impressive at full size, but most people don’t have a screen 13,500 pixels wide, so I had to reduce it a bit :-)
Hot on the heals of Camera of the Week #1 comes another fabulous new addition to my range of state-of-the-art imaging machines! Actually, this one is, sort of, state of the art. It is a Voigtlander Bessa III 667 medium format rangefinder, released just a few years ago, and featuring probably the best RF viewfinder I’ve ever seen, along with an excellent metering system and great ergonomics.
I was attracted to this, in it’s alternative Fuji GF670 clothing, when it was first released, but the list price was - and is - a little north of excessive for my budget. But I was very fortunate to win a bid for this example on eBay, complete with lens hood and leather case, for well under half the retail price. It was absolutely spotless, but as it has just spent two weeks trolling around Norway (geddit??), and had to put up with the way I generally treat cameras, it isn’t quite perfect anymore.
I’ve shot 7 rolls of film so far, three Portra 400 and four Provia 100. They came back from the lab today, and here below are the first two frames shot with the camera.
It’s great fun, and easy to use, and the film looks fabulous on the light table. Scans at full optical resolution of my Opticfilm 120 weigh in at over 900Mb, so I might have to dial back to something more reasonable.
If you like shooting film and can find one of these (or a Fuji GF670), or indeed the wider angle, and more expensive, 667W, grab it. You won’t regret it.
I do wonder why I keep coming back to film. Apart from feeding the XPan, where I don’t have a choice, it really doesn’t make much logical sense. It may make emotional sense, which is probably more important in a creative context, but to what degree that emotion is nostalgia is debatable. Up until 2003 I shot exclusively film, apart from photography intended for multimedia and illustration work, which I was a lot more interested in that straight photography up until around the turn of the century. I carried on dabbling a little with Medium Format film for a while, but found it too cumbersome to fit in with my very limited photography time.
There is of course a debate which precedes “Film v. Digital”, and that is “Positive (aka Slide) v. Negative” (not to mention “Glass Plate v. Wax Cylinder” or “Vinyl v. Polyester”). I was firmly in the Positive camp, and indeed when I talk about “coming back to film” I actually mean experimenting with negative film. I’ve used Kodak Portra 400 in the XPan, and under a certain type of light, essentially strong Mediterranean sunlight, it works pretty well. Indeed, it is quite difficult to distinguish from my favourite slide film, Kodak E100G, although the E100G is a little denser. I also find Portra gives a slight reddish hue in mid tones, but that could well be down to scanning. And there lies the main issue with negative film: there are a million interpretations of the negative, and they’re all largely subjective. With positive film, you have a reference - the developed slide itself. There is a certain amount of leeway for altering the look of a positive scan - more so than many give it credit for - but essentially, if you got your exposure right, the main objective of scanning slide film is to get as near a match to the transparency itself on a light table, although nothing quite matches that look.
With all that in mind, I nevertheless took my newly acquired Olympus OM4Ti, loaded with Portra 400, to my reference pre-alpine glacial valley, along with my Olympus EM-5 as benchmark. The results are, well, interesting. Being impatient, I had the film processed at a 1-hour photo lab, which was perhaps not ideal. I also had them do some auto-scan JPGs for me as an index. I then scanned a few frames using Silverfast 8.5 and the Opticfilm 120. Next, I spent a rainy Sunday tuning a film profile for Portra 400. This is actually a thankless task, as it all depends on exposure, lighting, and intent, and getting one fits-all profile just isn’t going to happen. Silverfast’s new Portra 400 NegaFix profile is a good starting point, but my guess is that it assumes nominal exposure, and I’ve followed the current Portra gurus and dialled in +2 stops. Fiddling around with film profiles is far too much like hard work, but I eventually got something I liked. Although once I’d loaded the processed scans into Photoshop, I found them to be too warm in the midtones. Seems most serious Porta users contract out their scanning, but that’s not much to my taste.
The other thing is that my 35mm photography skills are obviously very, very rusty. Being used to Micro Four Thirds focal lengths and depth of fields meant that I got the focus point and aperture completely wrong on the OM4’s 35mm lens. Still, what I’m really interested in here is the colour and to discover if thee is actually any benefit in 35mm negative film. Here is the evidence for the defence:
And here, roughly processed with CaptureOne’s Film Curve tuned for Olympus E-P5, is the evidence for the prosecution:
I guess that if you look just at the general scene rendition, there’s not that much in it. But the film images took more than a few hours and quite a lot of money to get to that point. The digital image took a few seconds and is essentially free.
So why bother with film at all? Good question. At 35mm I’m not sure there’s any point at all, at least for landscape, but at larger film sizes (including 24 x 65mm) the story is a little different. Film cameras are fun to use, of that I am in no doubt. But digital cameras can be ok too. And getting the final result out of film is another matter altogether.
I’m not quite done yet. Film deserves a better chance, with more careful technique and optimisations with filters and stuff. And for some reason, the digital advantage seems lesser in urban settings. Also, the positive v. negative debate remains. Perhaps I should treat the OM4 to one of my few remaining rolls of E100G, or more sensibly, a roll of Provia 100F. And on the other hand, there are clearly scenarios where Portra 400, or perhaps Fuji 400H, makes the XPan a far more flexible tool. But ultimately, what I miss about film is seeing transparencies on a light table. There’s no better way to edit a shoot, in my opinion, and you lose that with negative.