Just some stuff about photography

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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.

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

Carry that weight

in GAS , Sunday, November 06, 2016

A couple of years ago, I went off for a 5 week trip around Argentinian Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, fitting in a 12-day cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula. Apart from the fact the the photos from that trip, in particular those from the Argentinian part, are still languishing neglected in my archives, one thing that keeps nagging at me is the ridiculous amount of gear I burdened myself with. I've whined quite a lot it here - here, and here, for example. I should have known better.

So, with a sort-of repeat experience coming up at the end of the month, have I learned my lesson ? Well, perhaps. I've worked out that even neglecting things like filters, batteries, film, and all the other paraphernalia, in December 2012 I set off with a backpack weighing over 10kg. And actually, I also had a Domke shoulder bag with a Ricoh GRD4, but I was relieved of this by a helpful Argentinian in Buenos Aires. This time, largely thanks to the Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, and swapping the Sigma Dp0 for the Hasselblad XPan set, I have a very similar set, but weighing under 7kg. It's still noticeable, but manageable. The difference between the Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds sets is a significant contribution:

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The range of focal lengths is a bit different. I left the 4/3 7-14 f/4 lens at home last time, because it was just impossible. But the m4/3 version is much lighter (and faster). What I am missing in my 2016 packing list is a long telephoto. In 2013 I took a non-mirrorless E-System kit with me, and the fabulous Zuiko Digital 150mm f2/0. Attaching this to a 2x convertor turned it into a 300m f/4, a pretty powerful tool. Coincidentally, Olympus now sells a very highly rated 300m f/4 for Micro Four Thirds. Forgetting the cost for a moment, this weighs in at 1.2kg, only 100g lighter than the old ZD 150. My Lightroom catalog tells me that in 2013, out of a total of 1108 photos taken in the Antarctic, only 89 were taken with this cumbersome and restrictive 150mm. However, those 89 include several of my favourites. But anyway the conclusive point is that there is no room in my backpack for a 300mm lens, so I'll just have to be more creative with what I've got. And anyway, I'm not really a dedicated wildlife photographer, so a 300mm prime lens really would be a little extravagant.

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A pretty psychedelic penguin, rather an extreme shot taken with the Zuiko 150mm f/2 wide open



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And a somewhat psychotic penguin. This time with the 150mm f/2 tele-converted to a 300mm f/2



Very recently Olympus introduced a new lens, a 12-100mm constant f/4 zoom, which would be really ideal for travel like this. The 12-40mm f2/8 is really excellent, but it is a little restricted in range, and a 12-100 would really help to avoid a lot of lens swapping, which in typically Antarctic Peninsula weather is really no bad thing. The new Olympus camera, the E-M1 Mk II, would also bring a lot of benefits. Unfortunately neither of these will apparently be available until 2 days before I return. Not being a Famous Photoblogger, there's no chance of getting my hands on them. Oh well, what I've got will work just fine.

Actually, weight is less of an issue this time, as the trip basically consists of a glorified taxi ride into (hopefully) the Weddell Sea, but still, it counts. One issue is of course ever stricter carry-on baggage restrictions, so that too needs to be taken into account, but there is also the point that too much gear can drastically interfere with photography.

Hopefully I won't end up whining so much this time.


Posted in category "GAS" on Sunday, November 06, 2016 at 03:47 PM

Some Guy bites back

in General Rants , Tuesday, October 04, 2016

This stuff I wrote the other day was picked up by Andrew Molitor on his blog "Photos and Stuff" (hmm, sounds familiar), and put forward as an example of what happens when a photographer lacks a firm goal. He’s put it in a benign enough way - God help me if I should get on his wrong side - but I think maybe he’s hung his coat on the wrong nail. I don’t lack a firm goal - the problem is that I have far, far too many goals.

I could say taking my Iceland photography as the focus is not the best idea. To be honest, for me photography is just an excuse to spend time in Iceland. But since recently I have actually evolved a framework that I might be able to drape some Icelandic photography over, let’s leave that aside. Generally, the problem I was rambling on about the other week is not that I don’t know what I want to express.The problem lies in the detail of how to express it. And by extension, coming up against seemingly diametrically opposed advice on how to do so.

There is something slightly odd about advocating someone to study photo books (you should see my bookshelves) read about Real Photography (ditto, and a pretty broad selection) but at the same time advising them to steer clear of anything that smacks of technique, especially, God forbid, post-processing. Technique doesn’t make you a good photographer, but lack of technique - applicable technique, that is - can prevent a good photographer from emerging.

Certainly it is all too easy to go overboard on technique - the web is overflowing with examples of dangerous idiot savants who’ll sell you their useless advice - but that does not invalidate technique in itself. It would be like saying that a writer has no need of vocabulary or grammar. And that is a useful analogy: I often feel like I’ve got a whole bunch of stories to tell, pictorially, but I don’t quite have the technique to tell them. Let’s not fall into the trap of taking that too literally - of course there is a storytelling aspect to photography involving the sequencing of and relationships between photos. But there is also a storytelling aspect to single images, and the language to tell that story has verbs like dodging and burning and nouns like micro-contrast and tone. It’s hardly a new observation. So just because I may be having some trouble reconciling apparently contradictory advice on how to apply the language of post-processing doesn’t mean I haven’t got a clue about what I’m trying to express.

There’s another trap easily sprung - Andrew picks up on the not uncommon advice to flip a picture to study the balance. It comes naturally to view camera photographers who see the world upside down on the ground glass. The trap Andrew stumbled into is this: he exclaims “Really, who gives a shit about balance? I don't. Balance is a thing, but it's not an unalloyed good thing any more than blue is a good thing. It's just a property of the picture”. Well, yeah. But, er, who said anything about it being anything else ? The point is the trick frees you up to consider the balance. It doesn’t say, anywhere, that the balance has to be “right”. It just IS. Balance can be harmonious, and serene, or it can be tense and uneasy. If you “don’t give a shit about balance” then honestly I wonder if you give much of a shit about photography, finally. But I’m pretty sure Andrew assumed balance, in this context, means nice pretty blue skies with unicorns jumping over perfect rainbows. His reaction to my mention of this idea, by setting up and demolishing a straw man, somewhat tainted the rest of his argument. Actually I think he’d rather enjoy reading David Ward’s philosophical treatise on landscape photography, “Landscape Within”.

I suspect anything hinting at Landscape Photography is a bit of a red rag to Andrew. Landscape has become the stamp collecting or transporting of photography. It’s what socially inept people in smelly anoraks do, which lets them conflate their longing for shiny toys with wanting to impress the girls by being creative (we’re pretty much all boys). Well, anyway, that’s a view which Andrew sometimes gives me the impression he may subscribe to. He’s hardly the only one, but this idea that Landscape Photography is just a crutch for DPReview or 500px denizens and not something real Real Photographers do is pretty prevalent. Hell, it’s not far from the truth. But it’s a generalisation, and generalisations cloud vision.

To quote another bit “So what was it like, David? (and not just David, all you folks in the cheap seats should follow along) Take some time. Get out a notebook. Write. Think. What was it like to be in Iceland?” - well, actually, I’ve done that. Quite a lot. It’s scattered all over this blog, and it’s starting to coalesce.

(note, all this is in good humour. Andrew Molitor seems like the kind of guy I'd be happy to buy a drink for). Read his blog - he's definitely wrong about one thing - I'm not an "an occasional reader here", actually I read pretty much every word he writes.
Posted in category "General Rants" on Tuesday, October 04, 2016 at 10:30 PM

The Digital XPan, by Sigma

in Sigma , Wednesday, March 09, 2016

I bought my first Hasselblad XPan in 2000, and in the following 15+ years, I’ve accumulated a large shelf full of binders of negatives and (mainly) slides. I bought it because I liked the widescreen format, and I still do. Although a niche camera, the XPan was pretty popular, initially principally with landscape photographers, many of whom used one alongside an SLR. For me, it was the other way around - the SLR was the “second camera”. The XPan started to fade from view with the advent of DSLRs, and Hasselblad/Fuji stopped producing it in 2006, citing some story about a circuit board not being compliant with some convenient European regulations on lead content.

In recent years it has seen something of a revival, and secondhand prices for good copies have risen higher than the original retail. It seems to be riding a lot on the “back to film” movement, and the accompanying mystique. But there do not seem to be many people around who, like me, bought one back near the release date and never stopped using it.  And even fewer people who shoot slide film (still). It seems to be quite popular nowadays for “street” photography, where the unusual frame gives a novelty effect that compensates for many a shortcoming in the photograph. However, with the lenses having a maximum aperture of f/4, and rangefinder focusing, I’m not personally convinced it is that ideal for street. But I’m no authority on the matter.

For me the biggest frustration with the XPan has nothing directly to do with the camera, but with the rapidly shrinking availability of slide film.  My favourites, Kodak E100G and Fuji Velvia 100F (nothing like the infamous Velvia 50 by the way) have long since departed, Fuji Provia 400X is more or less gone, and the only serious choice left is Fuji Provia 100F, which I never much liked. The revival of Ferrania Film is, so far, inconclusive - initial batches of new film are close to a year overdue. Of course the choices in negative film are a little wider. I like Kodak Porta 400, but it only really suits brightly lit urban scenes. Kodak Ektar 100 is ghastly. And I’m a colour photographer by instinct, not black & white. On top of all of this, the bottom has fallen out of both semi-pro E6 processing, and of the semi-pro film scanner market.  So not only is the writing on the wall, but it’s on every wall in every direction.

So, there’s been a lot of calls, directed mainly at Fuji and Hasselblad, to produce a “Digital XPan”. There’s a snag there, though, because a digital sensor covering the full 65x24 XPan format - two “full frame” sensors side by side -  would be horrendously expensive, even though this seems to be what people want. So the question arises, what do we actually mean by “Digital XPan” ? What are the key features ? Would everybody agree? The answer to the last question is obviously a resounding “no”.

The key features of the XPan, technical and otherwise, are:

  • Native “panoramic” double-frame format
  • On-the-fly selectable standard 35mm frame format
  • Rangefinder manual focussing
  • TTL electronic metering
  • Offbeat, unusual camera
  • Built like a tank
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Very high quality - and expensive - glass
  • Oh yeah… film

Personally, the key feature is the first: a camera which records what-you-see-is-what-you-get panoramic format with a dedicated panoramic viewfinder. In-camera composition is very important to my way of doing and enjoying photography, and for me cropping in Photoshop as some kind of afterthought rarely produces a strong, satisfying image. I emphasise, for me: clearly other people have different opinions. As for film, I’ll fall back again on a quote from one of my heroes of panoramic photography, Stuart Klipper, who when asked why he (still) uses film, replied “because that’s what the Linhof takes”.

So, yes, you can certainly obtain a panoramic frame from any digital camera through post-processing. Many compact cameras also have a 16:9 framing option which you can squint at while holding the camera at arms length in front of your face. But this is simply not the “XPan experience” for me. It doesn’t inspire me, and it doesn’t give me the thrill that seeing the world through the XPan rangefinder does.

And that’s a good time to introduce you to the other camera on the stage here, the Sigma DP0.

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Sigma DP0 with viewfinder, and Hasselblad XPan

I’ve been using Sigma cameras with their unique Foveon sensor since the 50mm-equivalent DP2 Merrill. As I, and many others have written, when these cameras get their ducks in a row, they are truly fabulous. The rest of the time they’re a disaster area. A while back, Sigma introduced a new lineup, using the revised Quattro sensor. They also introduced what would be politely described as an unusual body design. A lot of people were aghast at this. I thought it was fantastic. But I didn’t buy one at the time, as the DP2M & DP3M I already owned were quite enough.  But then came the announcement of the DP0 ultra wide (21mm equivalent), and buried deep down in the specification, the 21:9 framing option. It seemed that somebody in Japan was thinking along the same lines as me.

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The DP0 21:9 aspect ratio

So eventually, after a lot of indecision, I got one, along with the hood viewfinder attachment which allows eye-level composition, which as I have said is a must-have for me, and has the additional benefit of making an already strange looking device look downright weird. It’s certainly a conversation starter.

The 21:9 aspect ratio is a bit deeper than the XPan. It is about halfway between the standard 6x12 and 6x17 ratios - the XPan is slightly taller than 6x17. This is actually fine by me. I often found the XPan format a smidgen too wide, and I’ve always pined for a 612 camera. The resolution of the 21:9 DP0 image (5424 x 2324) is approximately half that of an XPan frame scanned at 4000dpi (around 12200 x 4700), but of course the two are not directly comparable. The actual information content is very similar. Of course, the DP0 has a fixed lens, whereas the XPan has three native lenses to choose from (as well as some other fairly dodgy choices via adaptor). The DP0’s 21mm equivalent lens gives a field of view roughly equivalent to the XPan 45mm lens. And they’re both f/4. And both extremely good quality lenses.

Anyway, that’s an awful lot of babble before getting on to the core of the matter: how do they actually compare ? Well, I don’t do “tests” as such, I really cannot be bothered. But recently I took the DP0 to make a few photos in the nearby Golle della Breggia, in a location I remembered shooting with the XPan a few years back.

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XPan, 45mm lens, Kodak E100G, scanned on Minolta Dimage Scan Multi Pro

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Sigma DP0, processed in Sigma Photo Pro v6.3.2

Of course, these photos are taken at different times of the year, different times of the day, and with different framing, never mind with completely different technology. The only common factor was the photographer. Given that, to my eyes at least they have a quite remarkably similar rendering of colour and tonality. The Minolta scanner, which I have now replaced, also developed a tendency to exaggerate red in the midtowns, which I clearly did not sufficiently correct here. I could certainly get the two photos to look very close in rendition with a few minutes work, but that isn’t the point: what I’m looking to decide is if the DP0 can assume the role of the XPan for me, and I’m tending to believe it can, so far.

It is also interesting to compare resolution. Here again, there is a degree of subjectivity, as the scan is not necessarily optimum, and here no sharpening has been applied (although Sigma Photo Pro allegedly always applies some sharpening). I’ve tried to match two roughly similar areas of the photos, with the DP0 crop at 1:1, and the XPan reduced more or less to match.

DP0

Sigma DP0

XPAN

XPan

So, very, very subjective, but it does look like the Sigma’s Quattro sensor is a match for 4000dpi scanned 35mm Kodak E100G. Not actually a big surprise, although it is probable that with a bit of work I could extract a little more detail from the film.

The XPan still has at least two advantages - the 30mm and 90mm lenses. But in terms of overall end to end user experience, there is a remarkable similarity between the two cameras. Indeed, it can be as time consuming to extract a processed file from Sigma Photo Pro as it is to make a good film scan…

One are where the DP0 wins outright, however, is low light photography. You can do long exposures on film, but dealing with reciprocity failure is painful, especially with slide film. The DP0, on the other hand, will cheerfully make an exposure up to 30 seconds (but no more, let’s not carried away here).  Also, I really like the way the Foveon sensors (both Merrill and Quattro) render tungsten lighting. So to wrap up here are a few shots from my first major outing with the DP0 in Venice.

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It is tempting to draw a conclusion from the fact that since I’ve owned the DP0, the XPan has sat on the shelf. But it is early days yet, and there haven’t really been many opportunities to use it recently. I certainly wasn’t going to take it to Colombia. There are also some situations in which I don’t really trust the Sigmas, in particular snow and ice.  And although the Quattro has much better battery life than the Merrill, it’s still pushing it to reach 100 shots.  Then again, processing 100 shots in Sigma Photo Pro takes roughly a decade, so perhaps it’s just as well.

But I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: the Sigma DP0, with the LCD viewfinder, set at 21:9, is the closest digital camera I’ve found so far in terms of handling and user experience to the Hasselblad XPan. And it’s a great camera in its own right, fun to use and with devastatingly high quality output.

 

 

Posted in category "Sigma" on Wednesday, March 09, 2016 at 12:23 PM

Cameras or Photography?

in General Rants , Saturday, March 05, 2016

Cameras get in the way of photography. That sounds like a fairly ridiculous statement, but I think it is difficult to argue against. I’d like to think I’m interested in photography, but of the far too many hours I spend browsing the web, I spend far more reading about cameras than I do about photography and photographers. But what is very noticeable is that the more engaging photographers just don’t talk about cameras at all (and usually have dull websites, but that’s another matter). Maybe they feel a stigma attached to such discussion, or maybe they’re just not interested. But anyway, when the discussion veers towards cameras, as it usually does, something is lost. Of course, ten seconds on this site shows quite clearly which camp I’m in. It’s not exactly a gear site - and after all, these do encompass quite a wide spectrum - but it hardly ignores cameras or other paraphernalia of photography-as-hobby. So I’m in no position to judge, even if I were judging, which I’m not - just observing. But coming back to the original statement, I do find that the more I think about cameras, the less interested I am in photography, and the less interesting my photography gets.  Fortunately I have by and large stayed with the same principal brand and gear over a very long period, and I’ve never been afflicted by the more extreme cases of the malady which involve switching brand every 6 months. But nevertheless, if there is one thing that separates photography as art from photography as hobby, it’s the susceptibility to Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

The cycle of endless new, improved, must-have cameras has slowed down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped. It has changed tack a bit, and now we’re seeing design becoming much more prevalent in the marketing push, especially retro design sparking nostalgia for the alleged romance of the mechanical heyday of the film era.

So, what bought this on? Well, a new camera on the market, basically. Namely, the new Olympus Pen-F. It’s a nice looking piece of metal, and it is getting mainly rave reviews everywhere (although this review, from an actual Olympus employee, is strikingly lukewarm). Amongst Olympus owners, of which I’m one, there is a discernible of peer pressure to buy one. Well, yes, it’s a nice camera, but I’ve already got an Olympus Pen, an E-P5, and that took me long enough to decide to buy. The Pen-F, apart from the striking design, has 4 Megapixels more (not terribly significant), a fixed built-in EVF, and lots of new modes aimed at doing everything in camera, outputting JPEG, when for the last decade we’ve had it piled on us that we should be shooting Raw. What the Pen-F does not have, but what the E-P5 does, at least as an accessory, is a tilting EVF which allows you to hold the camera at chest level, and affords a different way of shooting and different perspectives.  For some this is uninteresting, for me it’s a big plus. Also the E-P5 EVF is the same as the one on the top of the range E-M1, and superior to that on the Pen-F.  Add into that an eye-wateringly high price, and well, for now at least I think I’ll pass.

This leads on nicely to the previous “upgrade” cycle, when the E-P5 replaced the E-P3. There again I dragged my feet, as I was used to the E-P3, and Olympus had moved the controls around disturbing my reflexes. But there were a couple of compelling arguments that time, so eventually, I switched.  But I didn’t just abandon the E-P3. Instead I had it converted to infrared, which gives me a good excuse to water down this gear-obsessed post with some photography, a selection of infrared shots from Venice, taken back in December.

I can’t keep away from the gear, but it really is a relief to get back to photography.

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Posted in category "General Rants" on Saturday, March 05, 2016 at 07:20 PM

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