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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.

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

Life. Don’t talk to me about life.

in Photography , Saturday, July 04, 2015

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:

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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 :-)

Posted in category "Photography" on Saturday, July 04, 2015 at 12:53 PM

Primavere Toscane

in Book Reviews , Wednesday, May 06, 2015

I have an announcement to make: I’ve finally managed to complete a project, and have self-published my first book, on Blurb.

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Still in the plastic wrapper

To be honest, “Primavere Toscane” is a very personal project, and was partly a kind of dry run, in advance of several other ideas I have in mind. It is a slim volume, weighing in at a mere 40 pages. Here’s what I have to say about it:

For over a decade, every springtime has been marked for me by a short visit to an area of Tuscany, just south of the city of Siena. This book is a distillation of hundreds of photos taken over these years, in the same places, and the same time of year.

Hundreds, if not thousands of photo books celebrating Tuscany have been published. The landscape, the towns and cities, the people, the culture, the food, even are richly visual and deeply attractive to photographers. Many of these are strongly biased towards the misty, early morning light, to the classic vistas across the Val d’Orcia, and the golden light illuminating the farmhouses and rolling hills. Certainly I’ve been drawn to these too, and this book does contain a few examples of such scenes. But more and more I’ve been attracted to the stronger, even harsh full daylight, which we landscape photographers are told to avoid. The problem with the morning light, apart from the fact that early morning in Tuscany is usually painfully early in late springtime, is that it ends up showing a very romanticised view, representing only one aspect of the complex character of the region.

I’m certainly not going to claim to do any better at representing all facets of Tuscany, or even the small area within which these photographs are taken, but I do hope to show a personal interpretation rather than replicating the work of celebrated authors.

Blurb 002

I decided to go the full DIY route, creating the layout in InDesign, and preparing the photos myself. For creating the layout, I used JPG proxy images, and then created exact size CMYK versions, sharpened at the output size. It was a lot of work, but the results are good. I chose a hardback format, and heavier Proline paper. Two things came out of that: 40 pages is barely enough to fill out a hardback format, and the Proline paper is nice, but has a degree of print-through, which surprises me. Only a little,but still. For subsequent printing I think I’d select Proline coated. The selection of paper stock is a bit of a pain with Blurb, and they could make it easier. For example, I have a couple of Blurb books by other authors, but I have no way of telling which stock they are printed on. But generally, the Blurb experience is great, apart from one eye-watering detail: the prices. They’re just way too high.

Blurb 005

The photography in the book is a mixture of “normal” and panoramic frames, and was edited down from about 700 shots. It is roughly divided into thematic sections, but these are not labelled. I’ve set it so you can flick through the whole thing on the Blurb site, using their preview tool.

If you get a chance to have a look at the preview, I’d love to hear what you think. I may create a PDF version for download sometime, but that will require a completely revised layout. Blurb’s “auto PDF” generator produces truly abysmal results.

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Wow. I’m a (self) published author now!

Posted in category "Book Reviews" on Wednesday, May 06, 2015 at 10:47 PM

Opticfilm 120 revisted

in Scanning , Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The day I got back from Colombia, just after I stumbled out of bed, very jet-lagged, the postman delivered a large box. Inside it was a replacement Plustek Opticfilm 120. Back in October I had discovered that the month-old original was producing a long streak in the infrared channel, contaminating the “iSRD” dust and scratch removal. Plustek tech support identified the cause as dust inside the optics, and said that the scanner needed to be returned for servicing. Unfortunately Plustek do not have formal distribution in Switzerland, so it had to go back to the dealer, under warranty.  It took a while, but this wasn’t too noticeable as I was away for over 3 weeks. And eventually I received a completely new scanner, directly from Taiwan.

Apart from this issue, I was satisfied enough with the first copy. But the second seems actually to be better. Looking at film grain, the focussing, which was ok with the old one, is a little better. And the iSRD now works fine, also, so far (touch wood) with no alignment problems (possibly also thanks to improvements in Silverfast v8.2). Multisampling still doesn’t work, due to slight alignment (or possibly blooming) issues. But in any case, I don’t see any improvement in density with slide film.  The single sampling DMax seems quite adequate in this case. Possibly it is more effective with negative film - I’ll try again one day.

Anyway, at least this justifies one key argument in favour of the Opticfilm 120 over an old Minolta or Nikon scanner - warranty, dealer and manufacturer support.

I’ve been able to quickly deal with a small backlog of film to scan - editing digital files from Colombia will have to wait.

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Bachalpsee, Grindelwald, Switzerland

For now I haven’t got much planned, film photography-wise.  My stocks of E100G are almost exhausted.  Hopefully they will stretch until the first rolls of Ferrania’s new slide film turn up.

Posted in category "Scanning" on Wednesday, December 17, 2014 at 07:40 PM

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