Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

MMXVIII

Focus, dammit, focus

in General Rants , Thursday, January 04, 2018

It's been quite a while since I last wrote anything here. It's not for the lack of anything to say, or to write about, but as ever, the lack of time. Or perhaps focus. Or motivation. Or all of them.

Recently I realised that in 2017 I achieved several things: I spent far more time shooting film than digital; I shot fewer photos than in any other year since I have a reliable count (around 2004); I shot less memorable photos than any other year, ever.

I spent a huge amount of time futzing about with film. I tried different film types, different cameras, experimented with film scanners, and got a bit caught up in the whole film revival thing. After a while I realised that the one thing that the #FilmsNotDeadBlaBlaBla movement is NOT about is photography. You only need to sample various social media feeds to quickly realise that it is about shiny toys, generally with knobs on. I am totally unconvinced that shooting with film makes anybody a more interesting photographer, per se. And I see no interest or merit in swapping an obsession for up to the minute digital cameras for an addiction to obsolete film cameras.

Seeing posts where people go on about how many cameras they've shot with, and how many identical black & white films they've used, all whipped along by cynical vendors hoping for a quick buck, just makes me feel nauseous. The actual photography produced is with very few exceptions extremely dull. I've ranted about this previously.

Still, if people enjoy playing with old cameras and film, and coaxing decrepit technology into life, great - there's nothing wrong with it. But for me it is precisely the opposite of what I should be doing.

What I should be doing is finally finishing the website overhaul I've been working on, intermittently, for over 18 months. It's become a total millstone, and probably I will never do it again. It would make much more sense for me to use an off-the-shelf service like Squarespace, and learn to compromise. Instead I've landed myself in a situation where I've got to completely rewrite code, redesign the layout and navigation, completely revise content, migrate everything to new versions of the underlying software, and finally ... for what? I no longer have any professional involvement with web or interface design, so there's zero synergy. It's all fuelled by an obstinate and misguided desire for full control over my self-expression (for example, I hate photography hosting sites that crop thumbnails - and they all do it).

But it's about 90% there. So it's too late to give up now.

What I think I will give up though is film. I haven't fully decided yet, but I'm very much leaning towards selling off all my film cameras (I have a ridiculous quantity: Linhof 612, Voigtländer Bessa III, Hasselblad XPan, Olympus OM4Ti, Olympus XA, Minox 35ML and Ricoh GR1s).

It's hard to come up with a rational reason for persevering with film. First of all, I'm a slide film photographer, not negative. I don't much like negative film, really. And slide film really met its nemesis with digital. Negative film still has some advantages over digital, at least from my perspective. The main ones are highlight rolloff and exposure latitude. Colour as well to a certain extent, so long as you don't care too much about accuracy. Certainly Portra 400, or Cinestill 50, in bright light, can look quite wonderful - but I can get a very similar look from digital. Slide film as well has a wonderful midtone density that is not so easy to achieve with digital, but then again it has serious limitations at both ends of the luminosity scale.

And then you've got to buy the film, pay for it to be processed, wait for it to come back from the lab, and then scan it. The novelty wore off for me around 1995.

The basic problem is one of too many choices suffocating creativity. I could of course go 100% film, but, well, I've been there before, and it is rather limiting. Even more so these days - ten years ago I could buy a roll of Fuji Provia 1600 slide film and get it developed overnight. Five years ago I could buy a pack of Provia 400X, or Velvia 100F, or Ektachrome 100G and have it beautifully processed by one of several pro labs. Now I'm limited to Provia 100F and one lab with a turnaround time of at least 1 week. I don't believe Ferrania will ever deliver their slide film, and I'm not that convinced about "new Ektachrome". The #FilmsNotDead thing is about black & white and weird stuff like double-layer reverse-rolled stocking-elastic base expired pineapple juice emulsions cross processed in holy water. Not slide film.

The Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras and lenses I have are fantastic, and are vastly more flexible than any film-based solution. They're not perfect, but they get out of my way, and allow me to fully concentrate on photography. My only real justification for retaining film remains the one I've been repeating for quite some time: I use film because that's what the XPan needs. I hoped to add the Linhof 612 to that, but so far I haven't bonded with it. On the other hand, the Sigma DP0 is a pretty good digital panoramic camera, with a devastatingly good lens, and it's quite endearing too.

It's going to be hard to cut the cord, and I haven't sharpened the knife just yet, but 2017 could well have been the swansong for film, for me.

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Possibly my favourite photo of 2017 - Hasselblad XPan, 45mm, Cinestill 50

Made in Italy

In vacanza con la P30

in Film , Monday, November 13, 2017

Let’s get something clear up front: I don’t do black & white. And if I do, it isn’t usually film. And if it’s film, it’s never real black & white, but some C-41 ersatz thing, or something really left-field like Agfa Scala or 35mm Polaroid PolaPan. But basically, although I enjoy black & white as a viewer, as a photographer I just don’t really get it.

So, why did I end up with 5 rolls of Ferrania P30 Alpha? And what did I do with them? Well, the answer to the first question is partly here, and the answer to the second is the topic of this post.

So, although I was quick off the mark ordering my P30 Alpha, it seems I was pretty much at the back of the queue, and I didn’t get my order until mid-August, by which point I’d rather lost interest. But anyway, I decided that an upcoming late summer holiday in Southern Italy would be a very appropriate place to try out this resuscitated Italian classic. Since I was intending on taking no more camera gear than would fit in a Domke F-5, I decided to take my Olympus XA.  It was that or the Minox ML. The Minox has an even better lens, but the XA’s rangefinder was the deciding factor. I’ve promised the Minox my last roll of P30.

I shot two rolls of P30 in Calabria. Here are some of the results.

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Well, as I’ve made clear, I’m not a black & white photographer, but honestly, this stuff could make me change my mind. It positively glows, especially under the light it was presumably designed for. Of course I’m being very naive here: it has been processed by a lab, I’ve scanned it based on instincts built up over many years of colour film scanning, and so most of the variables I haven’t even touched.  But even so, I’m won over.

However… the film is called “P30 Alpha”, the “Alpha” indicating that it is, I suppose, pre-Beta, and therefore not exactly fully sorted.  I suppose that’s what led to a massive scratch along the full roll for one out of my five samples.

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The Lab marked this as a “camera scratch”.  I don’t think so. This was the middle roll of three that went through the same camera in quick succession, and the others don’t even have a hint of a scratch. And I’ve put many, many rolls of film through the XA with exactly zero issues so far.

Closing thoughts on Ferrania

About 100 Internet Years ago, FILM Ferrania was launched with a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in order to rescue and revive the core of the Ferrania film factory. At the same time the objective of launching a new E6 slide film, based on the Ferrania Scotchchrome formula, was announced. Inevitably this shaped people’s expectations, as did the promise of a first batch to be shipped as Kickstarter rewards some 6 months later (the simultaneously announced cine film doesn’t seem to have created quite so much of a stir). Things started to shift, to slide, to wilt a bit in the Italian summer, and the rewards never shipped. Apparently one day they will. Apparently Atlas will one day roll his stone to the top of the mountain.

In the midst of all this, P30 popped up. So we are told, it was a bit of happenstance. I can’t find the original post (frankly, there seems to have been a touch of revisionism on the Ferrania website) but as far as I recall, during some early film coating testing the FILM Ferrania team realised they’d as good as recreated the class Ferrania P30 film. One thing led to another, and they decided to make a limited batch, this P30 Alpha I’ve been trying. And the next step is supposed to be full commercialisation of P30.

Well that’s all well and good, but honestly, the world doesn’t really need another black & white film, although, and this is the catch, it may well need this one, because quite frankly it’s fabulous. It’s all the excuse I need to buy a Leica M6.

So is FILM Ferrania still the team that launched the Kickstarter? Is Nicola Baldini still running things? Is the Colour slide film ever going to emerge, and, given the promise of a resuscitated Ektachrome, do we actually need it?

Perusing the Film Ferrania website, there really isn’t much mention of anything other than P30. All the imagery is monochrome. The sparse communication that leaks out is all about P30. This wasn’t what we signed up for.

I’ve been very closely connected to an Italian startup which linked up with, and eventually got hijacked by, an American “social media” team, as has happened here. In my case it turned out very badly - although it was not at first visible, the fundamental culture clash and deep lack of understanding of each other’s motivations and life/work patterns destroyed the company.  I fear the same thing is happening with FILM Ferrania. I hope I’m wrong.

Day of the dead tired

talk, it’s all talk

in Photography , Friday, November 03, 2017

All Saint‘s Day, or The Day of the Dead, is a public holiday here, and during a period where various things have conspired to spiral me into a state of ever increasing exhaustion, it came as some relief. I managed to pad it a bit with some downtime the day before, so at least I wasn’t in a state of complete collapse.

In this state of mind I often question just what keeps me doing photography. It doesn’t really accomplish anything substantial, I don’t find much satisfaction in the nagging background gear window shopping addiction that I suffer from, and it doesn’t lead to any substantial social interaction, either real or virtual.

But going through the motions of wandering off somewhere nearby to take a few photos brings the realisation, or reminds me, that it can actually be pretty therapeutic to just spend a few hours contemplating a pile of rocks and trying to adapt their forms to a 4:3 rectangle. It’s rarely successful - something that fills me with satisfaction in situ generally looks awful back home on screen, but that doesn’t really matter.

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...this becomes a pretty spectacular 110m drop waterfall

Wandering around gear forums and blogs, because I‘m too tired to do anything else on the train, I often come across provocative proclamations that Micro Four-Thirds is total rubbish because it has a “tiny” sensor with no “D.o.F” (what “no D.o.F” means in idiot forum speak is that - allegedly - you can’t get 98% of the shot out of focus). I find this remarkable when I’m trying, usually unsuccessfully, to keep all objects in my shot roughly in focus. I don’t really understand people who preach that for “landscapes” (whatever the hell that means) you absolutely must have a zillion megapixels and a full frame sensor. I suppose that correlates with the idea that “landscape” means ultrawide angle views of luridly saturated vistas. Well, that’s not what attracts me, and what I need is a camera with as much depth of field as possible but still good enough optical quality. Which is why I stick with these Olympus thingies.

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...and this would probably have been slightly less dull if I could have inched forward a bit, but then I’d have ended up in the first photo above. Briefly.

Well, of course, that’s when I’m not taking ultrawide landscape shots with my (sort of) zillion megapixel Sigma camera. But consistency has never been my strong point.

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flare enough…

Before Film Wasn’t Dead

nor Bela Lugosi for that matter…

in Film , Wednesday, October 18, 2017

While trying to put some sort of order into my jumble of slides and negatives from the past 100 years or so, I noticed a small grey paper envelope tucked away in a corner somewhere. Inside this were three frames that I shot on the margins of Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica, way back in 1992.

These three shots were almost certainly the amongst first medium format photos I ever took. It was during a period of somewhat nerve-wracking waiting around, in gorgeous weather, but with rapidly decreasing temperature - the full story is documented here.

I seem to remember I had almost run out of film at that point. However, one of our little group, a technician attached to the Swedish oceanographic team who’s name I sadly forgotten, gave me a couple of rolls of 120 film (Kodak EPR 6017, which is apparently Kodak Ektachrome Professional 64), and lent me a camera to use them in. The camera was a vintage folding rangefinder, either an Agfa or a Voigtländer - its owner was clearly an early adopter in the FilmsNotDead scene, even before Film wasn’t Not Dead! It was also the first time I’d used a rangefinder, in all probability.

I’ve certainly got 6 or so frames somewhere around, but these three I think I’ve never scanned before. They’ve survived pretty well.

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Whatever the photographic merits of these three may be, I think they tell an interesting story. Together with other film-era photos I have of Antarctica, largely I think I could say that there is a good chance I would not have taken them in this way today. Certainly it has something to do with the cameras, and something to do with film, and possibly quite a lot to do with experience, but the overwhelming factor is quite different.

Back in those days, there was no Flickr, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, etc. The world wide web had barely got started, and probably the Mosaic browser had just started to support GIF images. This meant that the audience for anybody’s photography, apart from a small select group of professionals, was their immediate family and friends. I was taking these photos to show my mum what the Antarctic was like, and hopefully to impress a few girls (well, I was in my mid-20s). Today, it is extremely difficult to ignore the ever-present need for “Likes”, “Faves” and whatever, as well as conforming to guru-set standards and peer approval. And there is also an almost intolerable (to me) omnipresent feeling of competition.

The middle photo of the three is really the key.  It’s a photo of, quite honestly, nothing. It ignores the rule of thirds. It isn’t going to get approved by anybody, and it would sink with trace on Flickr. Today I probably wouldn’t ever bother with it.

And this is also probably why I have very little interest in the whole Film revival movement, because for me the golden age of photography was that innocent time when all this pressure didn’t exist, when the only way to “share” was to invite a few friends around for a slide show, and when there was genuine interaction between photographers sharing a hobby, not constant competition and fighting for visibility and approval. The fact that the cameras were (arguably) more interesting is just a coincidence. And frankly, at least so far as 35mm colour is concerned, film has no advantage at all over well-informed use of digital. All the various film websites, feeds, communities seem to be doing is to take the whole squabbling mess of internet photography and switch the veneer of digital with that of analog. I’m not sure I see the attraction.

Or maybe I’m just a miserable old git. It has been suggested a few times…

 

Digital’s Not Dead

It’s just been having a bit of a rest

in Photography , Thursday, September 28, 2017

I realised the other day that my last 12 posts have been almost exclusively about film photography. Since May, I’ve mentioned digital just once, and that was in the context of comparing with film.  This seems to have started in March, but it really wasn’t intended. I’ve also noticed that by and large, the quality of my photography has dropped significantly. Possibly I have fallen prey to the very same strain of gear obsession that in past posts I have charged the “film community” with. It may also be that I’m not finding much inspiration, and am just repeating myself.

I suppose really I’ve been dedicating quite a lot of time to getting my film photography back up to speed again, and ensuring that all the stuff I need to work works as well as it can. I think I’m almost there on that front. I’ve also been getting familiar with the Linhof 612, which is not that simple. Actually, the Linhof seems to have quite a serious fault which is causing uneven film winding, in some cases resulting frames overlapping. So it looks like its going off to the factory for servicing, which is going to be expensive. The previous owner told me he never had any issues, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. Caveat emptor, I suppose, especially when buying through eBay.

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The above photograph is absolutely digital. It was taken two weeks ago, way off the beaten track in the Aspromonte region of Calabria, right in the south of Italy. Aspromonte, most of which is a national park, is absolutely stunning. It is harsh, arid, with precipitous abandoned villages connected by crumbling, vanishing roads (Europcar would have a fit…), and astonishingly beautiful.  There are few people around, but those few are welcoming, friendly and embarrassingly generous. We had only 2 days there, but I’m certain I’ll be going back.

I suppose Aspromonte would look even more stunning on Portra or Provia. But hauling medium format film cameras down there would be a real struggle. And would it even be worth it? I’m not going to try to pretend: in terms of real resolution, even a 5300dpi scan from medium format film doesn’t beat a 16MPix Olympus file, never mind a Sigma Quattro file. Resolution isn’t everything though, and there remains a clinical precision in digital which I sense rather than see. It don’t like it, but I can live with it.  Just as the lens I took the above shot with, the Olympus 14-150 zoom, is probably optically my worst. The bottom right corner is really soft at wide to medium focal lengths. But it is extremely light, very flexible, and great to travel with. So, like digital, I tolerate it.

So yes, I am quite conflicted about film versus digital, and I suppose I always will be. I wish I could just choose one, but I don’t suppose I ever will. But it does seem that the less I bother about gear in general, the more enjoyable I find photography. Maybe I should turn off the internet.

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