Despite many visits to Venice, the eastern, seaward end of the city has always eluded me. So on my last visit I was determined to make this my focal point. I have to admit from the glimpses I had in the past, I expect something more like the apartment blocks of the outer reaches of Cannaregio, or even Sacca Fisola. While there is an element of this, in fact I discovered that the area cut through by via Garibaldi has a quite distinctive character, subtly different to any other part of Venice. However the part that really caught my imagination is the little island of San Pietro, right at the northern tip. A few hundred years ago I imagine San Pietro was not the quiet backwater it is today. The Basilica di San Pietro di Castello was in fact up until 1807 the city’s cathedral church, even though St Mark’s was already more dominant. But now it is very peaceful, and only dedicated tourists venture this far away from the fake Burano glass and carnival mask sellers.
Actually, I didn’t even go into the Basilica. Churches aren’t really my thing. I did open the door, but on seeing the inevitable ticket booth, I declined to go further. If the Catholic Church has decided that the primary purpose of ecclesiastical architecture is to make money, then it is hardly surprising that the only relevance it has today in much of the world is to tourists. I’m quite happy to make donations, but even an agnostic such as I am looks as much for a sense of the spiritual in a church as a collection of mouldy, dark old paintings by some vaguely famous Italian bloke. And that sense is stopped in its tracks by a ticket booth.
But anyway, it hardly mattered, because the visual treasure trove was immediately next door, in and around an old colonnaded courtyard backing on to the Basilica. I can’t actually find a reference to this place, and I suspect it is in a fleeting state of transition between out of bounds Church property and a luxury development of charming residences with Genuine Venetian Fittings™. It was marked “private”, but I spent at least two hours wandering around, and the two or three people I saw there didn’t seem to mind. They obviously thought I was a bit weird, though.
Not that I would know anything about it - despite a brief dabble - but this seems the perfect location for a certain genre of portrait photography. Since I didn’t have one to hand, I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine the models, in the set below.
All photos from Sigma DP0, except the first and second after the text, which are Kodak Portra 400 / Voigtländer Bessa III
Ah, the eternal quandary of the dilettante art photographer: film, or digital ? And if digital, which kind of digital ? For many, the ultimate expression of film in these End Days is Kodak Portra 400, with its oh so aesthetic transparent, lucid, indeed filmic quality. Or to put it another way, washed out. And that description is not exactly unreminiscent of the way Sigma Foveon digital sensors paint the world. So, which is “better” ? The two examples here offer no conclusion, are not a test, and make nothing other than an observation. And they’re taken with completely different lenses, so obviously the framing and viewpoint are quite different (the sign on the wall at the left of the second photo can be seen on the right of the first, beneath the stairs). But the scene, lighting and time of day are the same.
The first, on Portra 400 120 roll film, was taken using my Voigtländer Bessa III (aka Fuji GF670). It has an 80mm lens, so near enough 50mm in old money equivalence. It’s probably the last (serious) medium format film camera ever to be designed, and it’s probably the best fixed lens MF rangefinder ever. The rendering of the Porta 400 film was entrusted to Silverfast’s NegaFix tool, scanned at 5300dpi on the OpticFilm, which at this setting easily resolves grain.
The second was taken using the quite remarkable (in several senses of the word) Sigma DP0 Quattro. This has a Foveon Quattro sensor producing a file roughly equivalent, so they say, to a standard 39Mpix sensor. Which is quite big enough. More to the point, it produces absolutely gorgeous, natural, transparent, lucid, indeed filmic colours. In my opinion, anyway. In this case the lens is a highly corrected, good enough for architecture, 14mm, which is near enough to 21mm in old money.
So which is best ? I don’t know. I’m happy with both. They don’t call me Indecisive Dave for nothing, you know. One might expect digital to be more convenient than film, but Sigma levelled that one with a (ahem) fabulous piece of mandatory software called Sigma Photo Pro. Of course, I could also have compare with my standard, sensible Olympus digital camera. But there’s no fun in being sensible.
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.
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.