Following the announced demise of Ektachrome, and the general, renewed sense of doom hanging over film photograpy, at least on the colour positive side, my thoughts have been turning to possible alternatives to XPan photography.
First, I think it’s important to try to define what is unique about this camera, and why it is so addictive to me. A major point is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get viewfinder. It may be stating the obvious, but actually having a panoramic aspect ratio viewfinder is extremely helpful if you, like me, find framing at the time of capture to be important. It’s very subjective, but to me, cropping and reframing after the event is pretty unsatisfactory. It feels like some kind of a failure, and personally one of the great pleasures of photography is succesfully achieving a good composition through the view finder. Of course, seeing potential for cropping, remembering it, and doing it afterwards works for some people, and I’ve got no issue with that. But it seems I’m not wired that way. Or maybe I’m lazy and unimaginative.
Next up has to be image quality. A well framed, exposed, focussed and scanned XPan Ektachrome or Velvia slide is pretty amazing. Ok, it’s quite a challenge to get all those ducks in a perfect row, for me at least, but when it all clicks, well, it really clicks. I’m not going to get into megapixel comparisons, but a 4800 dpi scan from my Minolta film scanner can be printed at sizes greater than my Epson 3800 can manage. The three XPan lenses give corner to corner sharpness from wide open (admittedly f/4 isn’t that wide) onwards, covering the same width as 6x9 film but on 35mm stock. I’m not sure what digital camera can match this, but I imagine it will be expensive.
I’ve already mentioned the lenses. They’re fabulous, and the 30mm is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of optical engineering. Fuji at their very best, although some claim that the Hasselblad-branded copies have a different coating. Possibly, but I can’t imagine why. Hasselblad never made their own lenses anyway, as far as I know.
The camera is built like a tank and is very reliable, unless you do something very stupid with it. The XPan I, which is far cheaper on the secondhand market, in my opinion has considerably better handling than the XPan II, at least for tripod use. For handheld possibly the II is slightly better. But the II is not worth the absurd prices it goes for, unless you’re a collector. There’s no difference at all to the output.
By the way, if anybody in Switzerland is reading this and wants an XPan II, there’s currently one in the secondhand section at Ganz in Rennweg, Zürich, complete with 45mm lens, boxed and apparently in extremely good condition, for the remarkably low price of CHF 1950. That’s about half the usual rate! Even more remarkable since Ganz’s pricing is usually insane in the other direction.
So what about downsides? Well some might consider film itself to fit in that category. Being tied to single, low ISOs is perhaps the most significant thing that digital has liberated us from. Especially considering the XPan’s slow lenses, and the fact that the meter gives up pretty quickly when light levels start dropping. Still, the fact that it has a TTL meter at all is pretty good. No other panoramic camera includes one. The lenses, especially the 30mm and 45mm, would really, really benefit from a shift adaptor. Shift is so important to panoramic photography that the so-desirable Linhof 612 has permanent shift built in to its lenses.
So what I’m looking for, ideally, is a digital camera with viewfinder AND RAW file masking in roughly a 2.5:1 ratio (and 2:1 would be nice as well), corner to corner sharpness, wide angle (16mm equivalent minimum) and availability of wide to ultra-wide tilt shift lenses. And it has to cost roughly the trade-in price for my XPan with all accessories (optimistically $5000). Oh, and it’s got to be able to take a few knocks without complaining.
That rules out all CSCs, Pentax, Sony & Olympus DSLRs, and anything upmarket of a DSLR. So what’s left ? Canon & Nikon, neither of which fill me with enthusiasm. I forgot to mention that I’d prefer to keep things lightweight. The Fuji X-Pro looks possibly interesting, especially as it shares DNA with the XPan, but it would not have the flexibility of a DSLR.
I did see a Nikon D800 in a shop window the other day…
The recent announcement of the demise of Kodak Ektachrome E100G - along with all other Kodak slide films - however predictable, came as quite a shock. At the time my stocks of E100G, in my opinion the best slide film ever, were 10 rolls. I’ve just ordered
another 50 3 5-packs and whatever loose rolls my supplier can find, and in the meantime I’ve used 5. It will be interesting to see if Fuji are still making my second favourite, Velvia 100F, when I run out of E100G. It was never a very popular type, and that makes it a marginal product line in a very marginal product range. But if not Fuji, who else? Agfa? REALLY? The writing really seems to be on the wall now.
Of course this reopens the age-old Filme Vs Digital arguments. I’ve long had a foot firmly in both camps, and at the same time I’ve been an avid reader of the saner end of the ongoing debate. There are countless very persuasive exponents for and against fim, both making very convincing points. If you remember Paul Whitehouse’s character, Indecisive Dave, from the Fast Show - well, that’s me when it comes to film versus digital.
Apart from the overall arguments about image quality, film brings some practical issues with it. First of all, it needs to be developed. Since I really only work with slide film, then this means lab E6 processing. Long gone are the days of 24 hour turnaround - or even 1 or 2 hours in pro labs. Now it’s a week if you’re lucky. I recently discovered a convenient and remarkably well preserved local photo shop (no, not the abomination from Adobe) that would take charge of my films and could be trusted to ensure that the lab they get sent to follows my instructions and doesn’t cut them up. And sometimes even with 2-3 days turnaround. However, for the last batch of 5 I was charged CHF25 each. That’s basically $25. Each. Plus the initial cost, factoring in delivery, we reach CHF40 per film. That’s untenable, especially as one film had only 4 exposed frames due a mid-roll battery failure on my XPan.
Then there’s scanning. When all is going well, I actually quite enjoy scanning, up to a point. I’ve got a well tuned workflow, and things usually come out as I expect, but one thing I can’t easily fix are dirt and scratches due to careless processing. Processing that cost CHF40, that is. And as I’ve written before, my Minolta MultiScan Pro is showing signs of old age. Dust remains a constant issue, but a good supply of canned air - although good canned air is getting harder to find - and a VisibleDust sensor brush for awkward cases helps considerably.
The impatiently awaited new Plustek Medium Format scanner might be a god-send, at a price. But with no new film to feed into it, it might end up missing the bus.
But really, is it all worth it? Having recently seen what really high-end digital can do, the image quality argument is hard to make. Nevertheless, in my opinion, a correctly exposed piece of Ektachrome, or Fujifilm, has an immediate presence that (my) digital cameras can’t quite match. Of course the density and saturation of film can easily be replicated in digital post processing, but the sharpness of a good slide film is another matter…if, of course, you have a scanner and a scanning technique that can retain this sharpness into a digital file.
Essentially I’m not really fixated of film, but I am very attached to my XPan, and that doesn’t do digital. I’ve been having some thoughts about how to transition to digital panoramic photography - or perhaps transition back - but that’s the subject of another post.
In the meantime, I’m off to round up the last straggling rolls of Kodak Ektachrome E100G.
I took a set of XPan frames of a scene in Iceland back in 2009, with the express purpose of seeing if I could make an HDR composite from them, and get the gritty, high contrast, low saturation “grim up north” look so beloved of brands such as 66 North.
There are 3 exposures, one “normal”, one 1 stop below, one 1 stop above. I decided to try running them through Nik HDR Efex (NHE from now on). On the first try I fell at the first hurdle. Although NHE has an auto-align feature, it cannot cope with input images with different sizes. Since I had tidied the scans up a bit, they were all slightly different.
So I rescanned all three using exactly the same size, and tried again. Unfortunately, it is absolutely impossible to get three completely independent scans exactly aligned, so alignment was still required. At least now they were the same size. So, back into NHE. The input processing takes something like 15 minutes or more with these large images, but again the results were hopeless. The alignment was completely off.
So I decided to try pre-aligning with Photoshop’s Auto Align. This worked fine, very well in fact. So having nearly perfectly aligned images, I fed them back into NHE. And 15 minutes later, NHE mangled them way out of alignment. Back to the drawing board. I turned off “alignment” in NHE, and gave it another go. This time it worked, or well enough. In terms of alignment there are still some artifacts at 100% zoom but for smaller viewing sizes it works.
So then it was off to fiddling with the wide range of settings in NHE, and eventually I got something close to what I wanted.
However, with film as the input, NHE makes grain explode. I had to do a lot of cleaning up, especially in the sky, and the results are most certainly gritty.
It would probably have been a lot easier to do it with digital, but there is a rather unique look coming out of film here, and have got a process that sort of works, I might try refining it.
And some more Lavertezzo. XPan this time, (very) early one day in August. It isn’t an obvious location for the panoramic format, in fact this session is the first that I’ve managed to get some halfway satisfying shots from. Usually, outside of winter it is more or less impossible due to the amount of people swarming around. In fact, in this case, a couple had actually camped out on the rocks. Fortunately they were still asleep. Or at least lying down.
Anyway, I’ll just let the pictures do the talking…
I am writing to you to express my strong disappointment following my current experience with your after sales service. I own a Hasselblad XPan, with the full set of lenses, as well as Hasselblad V system and ArcBody equipment. I believe that my investment in Hasselblad brings me quality, long term value for money, and above all reliable and professional after sales support. This belief motivates my current intention to invest in the H System, although, as you will be able to understand from the following, this intention is currently very much on hold.
In May of this year I noticed that there were what appeared to be a few pale specks of dust behind the front element of my XPan 30mm lens. I took it to my local Hasselblad agent (Photo Catena, Lugano, Switzerland) for inspection, and they sent it to the Swiss distributors for Hasselblad, Leica Switzerland. A few weeks later I was informed that Leica Switzerland could not carry out any inspection or repair and would have to send it to Sweden. I was also told that the estimated time would be 8 weeks, which was a first surprise. After enquiring with Leica, I was told that this unusual delay was due to the relocation of Hasselblad’s factory in Sweden, and that they had been informed, by Hasselblad Sweden, that the expected return date would be in the first week of August.
By mid-September I had heard nothing, and repeated queries to my dealer and to Leica Switzerland were without result. Finally, after some persistence, I got a call from Herr Bachmann, Mareketing Director for Leica Switzerland, who informed me that he had finally received a report and repair estimate – not from Hasselblad, but from Fuji. It seems that the lens was returned to Japan for servicing. The estimate, with few details, save that apparently one or more lens elements needs replacing, is for 700 Euro exclusive of handling charges or taxes [NOTE - this would put the cost to me at _well_ over 1000 Euro] . All concerned – Leica, Photo Catena and of course myself have expressed surprise at the high cost and inexplicable delay of this estimate. Apparently this is the final word from yourselves at Hasselblad – no explanation, no reason, no negotiation. Leica Switzerland, clearly embarrassed by this situation, have made a generous offer to share the cost and to drop handling charges. Before I respond to this offer, I would like Hasselblad’s views and answers to some specific questions:
• It is not a secret that the Xpan is a rebadged Fuji camera, which has benefited from some Hasselblad design input. However, it is marketed and sold by Hasselblad in Europe, to the specific exclusion of Fuji’s version, and all warranties, documentation, service agent list and packaging is Hasselblad branded. It is of no concern to me what business partnerships you enter into, but I have in good faith purchased a Hasselblad product and I expect to be able to deal with Hasselblad after sales, not Fuji.
• I am curious to know what method of transport you use to ferry materials between your Japanese suppliers and your factory. It is difficult to understand how it can take 5 months to send a lens to Japan.
• My 30mm lens has been well used – I am a photographer, not a collector. However it has also been very well cared for, along with the 45mm and 90mm I own. Regardless that you offer only a 1 year warranty on a 2000 Euro lens, I would like to understand how foreign bodies can penetrate a Hasselblad / Fujinon – designed professional quality lens, other than through a design or manufacturing defect. There has been no question of negligence on my part, and there is no sign of poor treatment from visual inspection of the lens.
• Finally, if this is how Hasselblad is handling its joint ventures with Fuji, could you please explain what grounds I might have to have any confidence in buying a complex and expensive system like the H1 ?
I am frankly more surprised than anything else by this episode. Perhaps you can reassure me that you still take customer care seriously, and still intend to provide the standard of service your name is associated with. I am not expecting to bear zero charges for work I ask you to do. However, I am expecting to be dealt with more quickly, more explicitly, and in this case to receive a convincing explanation of why you believe that this lens defect should be acceptable.
PS. A few days ago, the director of marketing at Leica Switzerland called me to make a new offer: an exchange 30mm lens for 800 Sfr. Whilst he continued to express his dismay at Hasselblad's attitude, he recommended that I accept this as a compromise. I agreed with him - I want the lens back, because regardless of all this, it is a fantastic tool. It arrived next day.
PPS. And finally, I learned yesterday of another customer at Photo Catena, who dropped and badly damaged his 4 month old Leica Noctilux f1.0 lens. This, apparently, despite being clearly a non-warranty issue, was repaired free of charge by Leica Switzerland and is as good as new. Makes you think....