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The way the land lies

in Film , Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The latest edition of the online landscape magazine, On Landscape, features an article by Julian Barkway on challenging yourself to climb out of the rut of playing to the gallery and trying to create that perfect, wildly popular Flickr masterpiece. What he has to say certainly resonates with me, although I’m probably several miles further up Cynicism Street than he is. Although I might well see things differently if I were myself a wildly successful babe magnet on Flickr, based on a certain amount of observation and quite a lot of behind the scenes knowledge on content-sharing social websites, I’d say being popular on Flickr (or most other photo sharing sites) has more to do with who you are than what you photograph.  I could - but won’t - name a number of highly talented, successfully published photographers who maintain a presence on Flickr and get almost no “action”.  I could also easily link to others who’s mundane shots regularly gather 3 or 4 hundred comments.  And of course there are talented photographers who are very popular.  The dynamics are complex.

I am going somewhere with this ramble, and it is sort of related but different. Every now and again I dig out old photos, especially those on film, and re-evaluate them, whilst gradually building up archival scans of as many as I can.  And I come across more than a few shots which I’d discarded when they were fresh, because they didn’t fit the template I was looking for. It’s clear that I had a strong bias towards photos that were closer to those from photographers who’s work - and indeed lifestyles - I aspired to at the time. Since I was, even unconsciously, trying to emulate somebody else’s style, basically it rarely worked.  On the other hand, I’m beginning to discover a series of photos which I’ve always been conscious of trying to make but have never been satisfied with, which tend towards a subdued feel with delicate colour and just a touch of ambiguity. 

A bit like this.

Xpan iceland 02 01

The way the land lies: central Iceland, 2006

 

Posted in category "Film" on Tuesday, May 08, 2012 at 11:24 PM

Futurama

in Film , Thursday, March 29, 2012

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.

Filmstrip

End of the roll ?

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.

Xpan iceland2012 5 11

What’s coming down the pipe ?

I did see a Nikon D800 in a shop window the other day…

 

Posted in category "Film" on Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 12:55 PM

The Death of Film

in Film , Saturday, March 10, 2012

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.

Goðafoss, Iceland, Feb 2012. A location that has “designed for XPan” written all over it. One day, maybe, I’ll finally get to see it in winter in good weather, having failed at the last 4 attempts. But I guess this is the last time I’ll shoot it on E100G.


 

Posted in category "Film" on Saturday, March 10, 2012 at 10:11 PM

HDR with film

in Film , Sunday, September 25, 2011

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.

Xpan iceland 280409 1b

The 0EV (middle) exposure

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.

Xpan iceland 280409 1 HDR

The HDR look: Somewhere grim in the Westfjords

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.

Posted in category "Film" on Sunday, September 25, 2011 at 10:55 AM

Lavertezzo panoramico

in Photography in Ticino , Tuesday, September 20, 2011

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…

Xpan verzasca1108 05 01
Xpan verzasca1108 01 02
Xpan verzasca1108 03 08
Xpan verzasca1108 01 08
Xpan verzasca1108 04 03
Posted in category "Photography in Ticino" on Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 10:51 PM

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