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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.

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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

Thinking Panoramically

in GAS , Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I’ve very recently discovered RPF, the Real Photographers Forum. A dedicated site for people to discuss photographs in a good natured way, and without hiding behind nicknames. Seems like a good idea to me.

Naturally, being fully committed to the Art Of Photography, the first sub-forum I visited was “Equipment and Media”. And there, I immediately found a very interesting post by a chap named Rob MacKillop about the 21:9 format available on the Sigma DP2 Quattro I’ve previously drooled over. I do recall being intrigued about this feature before, but I’d forgotten about it.

Now, 21:9 isn’t that far removed from the 12:6 format of the Linhof 612 Technorama which I’ve drooled even more over but cannot realistically afford this side of a serious bank heist. But I’m already a card carrying Sigma Foveon fan (literally, Sigma includes a little plastic card in the box in Swizerland), so all in all it looks very tempting. And even vaguely affordable.

So I decided to see what the image aspect looks like:

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The photo is a scanned XPan frame, so 2.7:1, not far off the 3:1 format of 617 monster cameras. The green lines represent a 612 frame. And the red, a 21:9 frame.  Looks pretty ideal to me…

Of course this is a crop of the Sigma Quattro sensor, and possibly does not match the resolution of a 612 slide or negative scanned in my OpticFilm 120, but I bet it’s not far off.  And, of course, I could just as well crop a shot from my DP2 or DP3 Merrill. But I would like a DP1 to complete the set, and framing at the time of the shot is important to the way I photograph. So maybe this would be a good compromise. And the look of a Foveon image on a good day is pretty stunning. Almost like film…  Actually, it’s almost like film on a bad day too, although that’s probably not a good thing.

Alternatives still remain: a Fuji GSW690 would crop down nicely, although obviously not a 6x12 resolution, and 6x9 is basically boring old 35mm 3:2. And I’ve got my eye on a Mamiya 7 at at very attractive price on a certain auction site (no, not that one). But can one use a Mamiya 7 without plagiarising Bruce Percy? I doubt it.

So, thank you RPF for nourishing my Gear Acquisition Syndrome. But, for once, in a good way!

 

Posted in category "GAS" on Tuesday, January 13, 2015 at 10:39 PM

It’s GAS week!!

in GAS , Tuesday, September 16, 2014

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.

T612front k

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.

Posted in category "GAS" on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 at 09:25 PM

Antarctica - In slow time

in Antarctica , Thursday, December 05, 2013

A while back I made a bit of a mistake. I wrote about Stuart Klipper, and in particular his book, “The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole”, here, and I was pretty enthusiastic about it. The problem is I didn’t realise quite how rare it is, and a few days after my post, coincidentally or not, Amazon and all other vendors (for example the excellent Longitude Books) were out of stock.  Bugger.  I did manage to get Amazon.de to take an order, but every now and again they send me a stream of undecipherable Germanic e-commerce babble which I assume means they’d love to take my money but they can’t. 

So I was pretty surprised not to mention happy to discover Amazon UK suggesting that I buy it new from a 3rd party vendor for just £7.22. And it’s just arrived.

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Over the past few days I’d been enjoying Joseph Holko’s Antarctic images, and feeling a little intimidated by them.  They’re dramatic, full of contrast and vivid flashes of colour, and sharp enough to cut through steel. They grab attention. I despair of ever being able to get anywhere near this standard.  But although I don’t in way want to dismiss them, I’m not sure I ever actually remember Antarctica looking like that.  Antarctica looks the way Stuart Klipper photographs it. It’s mysterious, unattainable, incomprehensible in it’s alien vastness. It’s really not the world of highly saturated dramatic icebergs and penguins that we’re getting increasingly subjected to. Stuart Klipper lets Antarctic speak to us, rather than impose his vision on it, and it makes a huge difference. He doesn’t go the uninvolved, dispassionate lengths of the more conceptualist art landscape crowd, there’s still a considerable emotional attachment involved, but you get the impression of a photographer who has taken his time to take a long look before pressing the shutter release.

Of course, Holko will sell, and Klipper probably doesn’t much. And Holko is a photographer, while Klipper has at least one foot in the “artist” camp. These are just observations, Joseph Holko is a fantastic photographer, and I’m just using his work to contrast with Stuart Klipper’s, I’m not being judgemental. But although I certainly don’t claim any artistic merit for myself, I do feel that my own photography is somewhat validated by Klipper’s. Sure, I’ve tried to go for the in-vogue ultra-impact approach myself, but I’m not comfortable with it and I think it shows. Which is probably why in my heart of hearts I prefer my XPan work. Not specifically because of the format, but because it’s on slide film, and there’s very limit scope in pushing that beyond what-you’ve-got-is-what-you-get.

Anyway, I’ve got a book to read tonight.

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Posted in category "Antarctica" on Thursday, December 05, 2013 at 04:57 PM

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