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

Interview with Stuart Klipper

in Photography , Monday, April 24, 2017

I came across this earlier this evening, buried with Stuart Klipper’s post-minimalist web site.
I enjoy the work of a lot of photographers, but there are very few I can honestly say inspire me. And Stuart Klipper is at the top of that very short list.

Interview with Stuart Klipper for Land Meets Water from Artipelag on Vimeo.

“That’s how we find ourselves in the world, by the edges of things”

Posted in category "Photography" on Monday, April 24, 2017 at 09:11 PM

Eccentric or More Eccentric ?

in GAS , Thursday, May 19, 2016

I’m still trying to convince myself I don’t want a Linhof 612, even though I have my eye on a very nice looking one which I can almost afford.

The thing is, it’s a purely mechanical camera. There is no preview of focussing. No metering. It’s just a (extremely high precision-engineered) box with a (breathtakingly gorgeous) lens on the front. It’s heavy, a pain to use, and has this intriguing but rather eccentric 8mm fixed shift.

And I have a Sigma Dp0, which is not only a pain to use, looks plain weird, and draws attention like bears to honey.  But it has auto focus, a screen (just about), and doesn’t need the film processing or scanning steps - albeit it does need Sigma Photo Pro, which rather evens the score.  And it has a (breathtakingly gorgeous) lens on the front.

This is what the Dp0 can do:

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Not bad - almost Ektachrome-like.  The ratio here is 21:9, which is actually shown on the screen, allowing exact composition. Of course you can crop any image any way you want, but that doesn’t work for me.  I need to see what I’m doing, and I need my composition to be preserved in the file. The Dp0 / Sigma Photo Pro combination does both.

If I’d shot this with a Linhof, I’d probably have framed it like this (although the lens field of view would be a little different, but I think the Dp0 17mm lens corresponds roughly to a Linhof 58mm)

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Of course, had I shot it on a Linhof I’d probably have got the exposure and the focussing wrong. And then Silverfast and / or my scanner would have crashed trying to deal with the huge file.

Common sense says Sigma - and given how unlikely that sounds, in the general scheme of things, it says all I really need to know about the sense of buying a Linhof 612 in 2016…

Posted in category "GAS" on Thursday, May 19, 2016 at 08:38 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

The Digital XPan ?

in Sigma , Thursday, December 03, 2015

Well, it’s here. The (maybe, possibly) “Digital XPan”. As I mentioned yesterday, I found that Amazon Germany was selling the Sigma DP0 Viewfinder kit for €780, if I followed an advertising link on an external site.  Going direct to Amazon, it was listed at €1000. Very strange, but I grabbed the opportunity, and they delivered. And it arrived this afternoon, and as soon as I could charge up the battery, I managed to escape from work for 15 minutes and took a couple of test shots, using the 21:9 aspect ratio.

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The camera has a very unusual shape, but I find it quite nice to hold. It’s built like a tank, like the Merrills, but perhaps with a touch more elegance. The manual is totally unnecessary: the controls and menu on the Sigma are second to none, and the QS “Quick Select” button brings up a page which is even improved on the Merrill version.  I accidentally shot at ISO800, which would have been a disaster on the Merrills, but it’s ok here. The Foveon colours are as delicate and realistic as ever.

So, is it an approximation to a digital XPan? My very, very, first impression is that it might just be.

Posted in category "Sigma" on Thursday, December 03, 2015 at 06:32 PM

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