Thursday, January 31, 2013

Photographs - "Taken" versus "Made"

JPEG From Camera

Same, With Kodak Port 160 Simulation

I went ahead with the purchase of DxO Lab's FilmPack 3 Essential. There was a $30 saving which expired today, so I got it for $49. Not overly costly, but I don't think I would've done it for the regular price of $79. Also, I opted for the "Essential", not the costlier "Expert" version. The latter has some added features which I already have available to me in other software. It provides yet another tool in the kit for the "making" of photographs. 

That raises an interesting point, doesn't it? The common term has always been  that we "take pictures", but now it is easier than ever for us to "make pictures" instead. Years ago, the famous Canadian painter Alex Colville made a comment regarding how some people refer to his paintings as being "just like a photograph", even though this is far from true - his paintings really don't look like photographs at all, in spite of the crispness of line and perhaps a certain "photo-realistic" tonal range. Anyway, Colville's response was along the lines of "photographs are 'taken', but paintings are made". Such a statement does take a little bit away from considering photography as an art form, but I don't think Colville intended that kind of ill-will; rather, he was simply speaking to a common misconception about his work.

The potential for photographs to be "made objects", as opposed to simply "taken pictures" has always been there. Prior to digital workflow, there was (is) a chemical workflow by which a photographic artist would make deliberate choices about every pictoral aspect along the way, from the initial composition seen in the viewfinder, through the entire darkroom processing chain - an artistic photograph is indeed "made", not "taken". Now in the digital age, there is an increase in possibilities due to the great proliferation of tools at our disposal. Even if the photo originates on film, it is becoming more and more common for a digital workflow, as opposed to chemical, due to the possibilities made available to us with computer applications. DxO FilmPack is one such tool through which a photo originated with a digital camera can be "made" to look more like it was created via a film camera using a specific film type. I am very interested in this, because, in the same way Alex Colville doesn't wish for his paintings to look like photographs, neither do I want my photographs to look like paintings. 

In the above example, the FilmPack touch is subtle, yet helpful, as it raised some shadow detail, and generally gave it more of a film-like appearance.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

More From DxO



EOS 7D with EF28-105 USM Before Optics Pro 8

After Optics Pro 8

As I'm in the mood for testing software, I noticed that DxO Labs has another intriguing product in addition to their very useful FilmPack, called Optics Pro. As with all their software, they offer a 30 day trial period, so I decided to give it a try.

The DxO products seemingly are created to fulfill a purpose aside from generic post-processing software, such as PhotoShop or Lightroom. In the case of FilmPack, their purpose is to make digital camera files look like specific film photographs, and in the case of Optics Pro, the idea is to do a maximum fine-tune of your camera / lens combination. With optics Pro, DxO are doing ongoing research of how specific DSLR camera bodies interact with specific lenses, to determine the optimal picture quality available, and then present that optimum quality to you during the RAW to JPEG conversion process. At first, it sounds kind of strange - one would think that the manufacturers would do their best to create that optimal relationship physically, and no amount of post-processing could possibly improve upon it. i found this to be true in some cases, but not in others. When using my newest Canon lens, the EF 40mm 2.8 STM, the software made absolutely no discernible difference, so I didn't bother posting that sample here. Next, I tried a RAW file taken with my very old EF 28-105, which was one of the original Canon EF mount lenses from the 1980's. Here, I could see a difference, but not much (see examples above). I can spot minor improvements in just about every aspect  - recovered shadow detail, brighter highlights, more natural color  and even a very slight perspective correction. But it is all extremely subtle - I regard this as a good thing. It was the same with FilmPack - most of the changes are quite subtle, and I like that.

Next, I tried a picture from a different lens manufacturer - Sigma lens on Canon body.

EOS 7D with Sigma 17-70 2.8 - 4 Macro OS Before Optics Pro

After Optics Pro

You have to click to enlarge these samples to see the difference, but I think it is a substantial improvement in this case. The Optics Pro RAW conversion brought out much more detail, texture, contrast and overall richness of color in this picture. The kitty simply looks more life-like.

This is a novel approach to RAW conversion. It provides default processing based on your camera equipment with a simple two mouse clicks - one to provide a preview, and the second to run the actual conversion from your camera's RAW to JPEG, TIFF or DNG format choices. But - in between these two steps, you also have the option to "customize", and here again, the software becomes another Lightroom type of converter, where you abandon the defaults and take control of the appearance of the final product yourself. There are also some novelty Presets in the Customize mode - such as a Pseudo HDR, or other novelty's like "Old Postcard", which basically makes yet another vintage-like color washout.

This is a good product for the purists, who wants the ultimate results from their equipment through the RAW conversion process. It certainly accomplishes this, but seemingly only if it needs to. If you have a newer camera equipped with newer lenses that are of your camera's brand, I don't believe it does much of anything.  If you have older lenses, it is somewhat useful, and if you have other lens brands (Tamron, Sigma, etc), it is probably more useful still. However, keep in mind there is nothing this software does that cannot be done with any other RAW conversion application. It makes the job easier, but only if the result you want is absolutely true to the gear you're using.

So, here are a summary of my likes and dislikes:

Likes:

  • Immediate recognition of your equipment based on EXIF data from a particular photo - this recognition prompts you to download the specific profile data file
  • Very easy user interface, and quick default operation
  • Choice of JPEG, TIFF, web-sized or print-sized output
  • DNG output also available, but I don't see the point of this
  • Independent noise reduction available in the Customize mode, which is said to be better than in-camera NR. I didn't have a file to try this with, but it's there if you need it,


Dislikes:

  • Does not work on Canon's Medium and Small RAW files (which I shot a lot of last summer)
  • No support for old manual lenses that are used with adapters on your camera (but then, why would they bother with this?)
  • Expensive
  • No Linux version

To me, this is a niche product. Personally, I don't have any regard for what brand of equipment I'm using, as long as I can arrive at a good looking photo, and I've got plenty of no cost opensource options which do this.

Sorry DxO, not interested.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Film Emulation Part 3 - DxO Film Pack Review

 Kodak Elite Color 200

 Fuji Superia Xtra 800

 Agfa Ultra Color 100

Kodachrome 64

In wrapping up my assessment of the DxO FilmPack product, I will leave you with four images with which I played with some older images, the last three of which were actually taken last year with my previous camera, the EOS 40D. I want to invite any and all comments, specifically as to whether you think DxO has truly captured the essence of the various films represented. As for me, I will simply list my own likes and dislikes of the product::

Likes - 

  • It is a very handy easy to use method of improving the look of your digital image files with a single click - kind of like an "Auto-Adjust" with  twist.
  • Although I can't speak from experience in a darkroom, it seems to me that the product likely does a good job in replicating the various films in it's palette
  • There is a very handy "Controls" Pane, complete with Histogram which allows you to adjust all the usual parameters - brightness, contrast, saturation, etc., and also allows a single click back to "As Shot" to compare your work with the original file, or to work directly on your original. 
  • With these basic controls, it may be the only film processing software you need, as long as you're not working with RAW files, or want to adjust rotation, crop, perspective, etc.
  • The Controls Pane also allows you to work on how much of the effect of a chosen film you actually want, with a simple Slider control - in other words, the software works via an "Opacity" principle.
  • Although your chosen film type might introduce film grain, the amount of grain can also be controlled with an "Opacity" slider, and reduced all the way to zero if you wish. This is very helpful, as I observed yesterday, depending on a lot of variables, a particular shot with a particular film might not exhibit any grain whatsoever.
  • It also allows you to choose the grain characteristics of one film and overlay them on another.
  • It works with 16 bit TIF files
  • Allows batch processing


Dislikes - 

  • There is no Linux version. 
  • It does not really address "film emulation" in general; that is, although it does a good job of simulating various known film types under normal conditions, it does not simulate the superior exposure dynamics of film over digital - but then, how can it? There is no way post-processing software could possibly take a digital camera file with blown-out highlights and re-make it into something that truly looks like what real film would have done under the same conditions.
  • It strangely does not include many of the real films I've been buying lately, such as Kodak Gold or Kodak Ultramax.


That's about it. Would I buy it after the trial period is over? I haven't decided yet. Although it does offer a neat way to make ho-hum digital files look better, it doesn't do exactly what I want - that is, to make my digital camera behave like a film camera. There is still only one way of doing that - to use real film in a real camera.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Film Emulation Part 2

EOS 7D JPEG File

Today I installed the free trial version of DxO FilmPack to determine just how effective real software film emulation is. I made several new files from my original JPEG. Software such as this could be very useful as quick one-click adjustments of colour curves and contrast. It is very "Instagram-like" in that previews of each effect are scroled across the bottom, and the change is viewed live as each preview is clicked - very nice! Also, there are not only various slide, negative and B&W films to choose from, but also some Cross-Processing options and generic filters. I cannot judge any of these for accuracy, as I am not at all familiar with how these various film s are supposed to look; rather, I just buy whatever I can get my hands on and say "I shoot film!" One minor issue is that the alterations enlarge the file sizes considerably, so I had to re-size them - here they are, with brief descriptions:

Agfa Ultracolor-100

The Agfa Ultracolor both cools and intensifies the reds very  heavily, and also introduces an overall bluish cast. It is eye-catching, if not accurate. I also notice a slight degradation to foreground textures which I don't like. I always want more texture, not less.


Fuji Provia-400

The Fuji Provia 400 does not change the colours much that I can see, but it does add a fair amount of film grain. In the real world, I've used Provia-400 in my Rolleiflex very recently, and did not notice any film grain at all.



Fuji Superia-200

I've also used Fuji Superia 200 in my Pentax Zoom 90. I thought it was a very nice film in real life, but here, it has pretty much eliminated all of my foreground texture - very bad!


"Infrared"

"Infrared" is one of the generic filters available in FilmPack. It doesn't look like any Infrared that I've ever seen, but it does make a very nice black and white, adding just a little bit of grain and beautifully enhancing the foreground texture. On the down side, I think it turns the entire scene overly grey, but that can easily be adjusted with a bump in the curve, or with a bit of Channel Mixing. I just don't understand why they called this Infrared.



Kodachrome 200

The Kodachrome 200 is one of my favourites. It is free from grain, adds some warmth and almost a luminosity to the picture. Texture is preserved but not enhanced. Overall, very nice.



Kodak Elite Color 400

The Elite Color 400 is a bit like the Agfa Ultracolor 100, with an overall cooling, perhaps leaning toward Cyan instead of Blue. It is a lot less grainy than the Fuji 400, but does reduce my texture a bit, though not severely.


Kodak T-Max 100

The T-Max simulation does not work well with this picture at all. It might be good in other circumstances  but here, it seems to soften the picture overall. Do people like Kodak T-Max for it's softness? If so, it has a nice tonality which is not too grey, but is a real contrast, and texture killer.


"Nostalgia"

This is something I don't need, as GIMP has several variations on the "nostalgia" theme built right in. It works OK, but overall, isn't this the kind of thing that's making everybody ga-ga for Instagram?

With this very brief trial of DxO's FilmPack, I've not seen anything yet that makes me want to buy it. I will certainly keep using it until the trial period expires in a couple of weeks - I might discover something about it that makes it worth the price. But so far, my experience tells me once again there is an inherent advantage to film that post-processing software such as this can never emulate. A film camera "catches light" in a very simple manner, whilst a digital camera is a complex machine that will always bends over backwards to "normalize light", and if it's unable to do so, it simply leaves you with blown highlights or noisy shadows. For an example of what I mean, you would never be able to point a digital camera into the sun, without a lens hood, and still be able to capture this:

Rolleiflex Automat, Fuji Provia 160, Direct Afternoon Sunlight Overhead

If I had used my digital camera in this way, there would be nothing left for post-processing software to emulate, as most of the sky would have simply been a whitish wash-out. If I had exposed for the sky, then everything below it would have been left in shadow. I often think that film does with light what vacuum tubes do with sound - when over-driven, they both distort gracefully, whereas digital electronics always want to keep things so clean and crisp, it turns distortion into noise, then self-adjusts to eliminate the noise. 

I think that true film emulation can be done, but it has to be in-camera, not in post-processing. When in-camera, the electronics can be programmed to respond to excessive light in the same way that certain films do, provided there is enough exposure range in the system to do so. Until somebody comes up with such a digital camera system, I'll be emulating film by using real film, I guess.




Is Film Emulation Even Possible?

Straight From EOS 7D JPG

I've come to understand through reading much about the subject that, although colour film emulation is possible through software, and such software is available for purchase, it is not something that is necessarily self-evident or even fully possible. The software costs a couple of hundred dollars typically and is only available for Windows or Mac, and it works fairly well, although not nearly as well as B&W simulation software. So I thought I'd use the software I already have, which is not specifically "colour emulation" as in - "we make this digital picture look exactly like it was taken with Kodak Gold". Colour emulation is achieved by tweaking the colour curves, mainly, and so I thought I'd try a little experiment using the software I have (GIMP and Photivo) to determine if I could come up with anything that might make a digital picture "look like film".

First, above is a rather forgettable shot straight out of my camera - no modifications whatsoever. This represents the best my camera can do with it's own internal RAW to JPEG conversion. However, I should immediately show that's it's not necessarily the absolute best my camera can do:

RAW File Tweaked with Photivo to my own liking

The above has nothing to do with trying to look like film, but rather to show what I typically do with a RAW file to enhance it into something that looks decent (and no, I will not divulge my "secret sauce"!) Also, keep in mind that I don't have a really high regard for this particular photo - it's not bad, but I wouldn't enter it in a contest.

Now, to get down to what we're really talking about here, I can see how difficult the whole thing is. The variables with film, especially colour film, are endless. With a film camera, there is one exceptionally complex thing that happens, but with digital, there are several inter-related tightly controllable things. Let me explain it this way - with a film camera, the one thing that happens is that light comes through a lens and strikes the film - that's it. But with all the variables, like brand and type of film, brand an type of camera and lens, how much light, the temperature of the light - it all works together in an "analogue" (which is endlessly variable) way so that predicting the result is almost impossible. On the other hand, digital results are very predictable. There is only one sensor - not a slew of different film possibilities.  Colour temperature is controlled by the camera automatically (and therefore changed to best suit conditions), or manually by whatever temperature you purposely pre-select. Digital imaging itself is not endlessly variable like analogue, but confined by the numeric bit-depth of the sensor and processing computer within the camera. Film is designed to handle the variables to vast limits, but not in a predictable way. With digital, the sensor is not nearly as forgiving to the variables, but so much is pre-determined before, during and after taking the picture, there are no surprises. So, to tell a digital camera to "make this picture look like Film-X", all it can do is emulate some of the more predictable known qualities of Film-X, but probably not some of the unpredictable ways in which Film-X behaves when pushed beyond the limits.

The predictable things about "Film-X" have to do with it's characteristic colour curves - and these are easily manipulated in Photoshop, or in my case GIMP. Here, I'll show you the original JPEG again, followed by the same file with curve manipulation applied to make it into "Dave's Film-X":

 Dave's Film-X
Original JPEG

I decided that Dave's Film-X should have a warmer tone to it, and so using GIMP, I tweaked the three colour curves (Red, Green and Blue) to do just that. It wasn't too hard.

Now, everybody talks about "film grain", as if it's a sure fire way to make your picture look like film. Here's the same picture, with lots of film grain added digitally-

Film Grain Complements of Photivo

Personally, I think this is a lot of shite. Although film grain certainly looks better than digital noise (as in "speckle"), it doesn't necessarily suggest that film was used. I've shot Fuji Pro 400 ISO in my Rolleiflex, and you don't see a hint of grain in it at all. on the other hand, a roll of Kodak Ultramax-400 in my  Pentax Zoom-90 showed a bit of grain, but the same film taking the same picture at the same time in my Olympus Trip-35 was less grainy. See what I mean by variables? Now, with the above picture, with lots of very bright snow on the ground, if you were using film, the preferred ISO would be 100, so grain wouldn't make any sense. Therefore, if you want to make your picture look like it was taken with Dave's Film-X100, you wouldn't add film grain - it would just look stupid.

Finally, GIMP has a filter available called "National Geographic". Whether they use film or digital, it matters not- National Geographic is certainly the crown-royal of excellent photography. Think about it, those of you who suppose you can make a digital file look something like film by somehow deteriorating it (like adding grain) - how did this fine publication survive all those years before digital photography? For most of it's lifetime, National Geographic gave us demonstrations of the finest photography available, not with digital imaging, but with true film photography and offset printing.

The GIMP filter claims to be "Simulating high quality photos" presumably from your less than high quality digital files. Let's look and see what it does:

 JPEG with GIMP "NatGeo" Applied

Original EOS 7D JPEG

To me, the National Geographic treatment is subtle, but makes the photo a bit brighter, warmer, and more in focus by applying more local contrast. This would be the "film emulator" I would be looking for, I think, because contrary to popular belief, film emulation is not about degrading your digital picture, but quite the opposite - adding a "National Geographic" quality touch to them.

But if you're really interested in emulating film, nothing would do it better than film itself.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

FED 5 Test Roll

Kodak Gold 200 ISO,  f2.8, 1/15 Sec.

 Kodak Gold 200 ISO, f4, 1/60 Sec.

Kodak Gold 200 ISO, f4, 1/125 Sec. (Crop)

I'm glad to say, my latest little investment works well - very well. I'm back in  the Russian Rangefinder cult for $10.00 plus $20.00 shipping, it was. You can see the whole roll of "keepers" here. The non-keepers were no fault of the camera - just my poor experimentation. The only flaw is that the rangefinder adjustment is off by a noticeable amount, but I wanted to verify this with actual photos to determine how badly this affects things. Generally, it doesn't seem to affect things too much  but you can really see it in the following, where I deliberately put it to the test:

Rangefinder Test - f2.8, 1/125 Sec.

Here the rangefinder was telling me that my focus was set near the second shrub back, but as you can see, good focus doesn't come into play until behind the third one. The adjustment is simple - there is one screw behind the camera nameplate, which slides off.

I really love using these cameras, along with the look of the results - great photos are easily achieved. Not the best cameras in the world, they have their quirks, and I would actually rank the overall viewfinder on the FED 5B as "poor"  - it is very dim, and has a very low eye-point - I actually do have to remove my glasses to use it, and it's a good thing the diopotre adjusts all the way out to the +4.5 that I need. I don't recall the Zorki-4 being quite so bad - I was able to keep my glasses on. Otherwise, the quality of the FED and Zorki cameras and Industar / Jupiter lenses goes far beyond their prices - if you're looking for a good film camera with rangefinder focussing,  a few of these should be near the top of your list.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What If??

 Digital's Cold Perfection

Film's Warm Embrace

My friends, this Blog is close to celebrating it's first birthday  and today, I see it's had 10,130 Page Views through it's first year. With no point of comparison, I don't really know how good that is, but it sounds like a lot to me - if I got $1.00 per Rage View, it would be pretty sweet!

Now, almost a year ago, in my third Blog entry, I said this - "Move ahead 4 years, and I've made tremendous changes. I now hate film, in spite of the tremendous successes I had with it. I'm on my sixth Digital Camera now, actually my third DSLR - a Canon EOS 40D which I just bought used at an amazingly low price. I truly believe that digital is the way to go - there are so many advantages, I cannot fathom that I would ever shoot a roll of film again."

Hard to believe I said that isn't it? Film photography is like a genie out of the bottle, and I've certainly turned the proverbial 180 over the past few months, from having said "I hate film"!

But I still struggle with digital convenience versus film's magic spell, and I've got to somehow get beyond it. I rediscovered film by way of shooting Medium Format with a very special camera, but nonetheless, I re-discovered the fact that the magic is still there even with 35mm film being used in absolutely forgettable Thrift Store cameras. Do I mind having to wait a week or more to shoot through a roll of film? Well, to be honest, yes, although that is somewhat offset by the joy of getting that negative back with 12 or more goodies, like Christmas gifts, and spending that couple of hours on my scanner, watching the real magic appear. 

So, I wonder, "What If??" What if the market now finally has a film - like digital camera, that does film emulation right in the camera? Well, of course it's rather old news that I knew about already, but Fujifilm Makes a few very good digital cameras that, fittingly  have colour and B&W film emulation built in. Naturally, it is exclusively Fuji's own film they;re trying to emulate, but that's OK with me. The "film's warm embrace" sample above was shot on Fuji Pro 400. So I went back and read the review of their top of the line camera of this genre. It is the X-Pro1, a mirrorless, APS-C interchangeable lens model that looks beautifully like a classic rangefinder, reportedly with a good "optical-hybrid" viewfinder (which kind of amounts to a similar arrangement I enjoy on my EOS 7D), and it does emulate the look of four of Fuji's well known colour films, as well as the usual B&W with filter type things that most cameras do now. From what I could see in this review, the film emulations are quite subtle - and that's a good thing - because if it wasn't subtle, it would be downright phoney. So far so good. Also, this camera seems to have received a price drop of several hundred dollars since it was first introduced in late 2011. WOW! 

Now, let's stop and talk about "film emulation" for a minute. To me, it's a similar idea to the wonderful way in which Yamaha Electronic pianos are able to digitally emulate the sound of various true acoustic pianos of various sorts, be it grand, or baby grand, or parlour, etc. Another example is "modelling guitar amplifiers" which again use digital sampling algorithms to 'model' the sound of various famous vintage amplifiers, like Fender Tweeds, Marshall Stacks, Vox (for an authentic "Beatles" sound), etc. This does work, but of course there are purists who still would prefer the real thing. But I notice that no less than Burton Cummings, the truly great Canadian genius rock and roll pianist and singer song-writer, (if you don't know the name, maybe you've heard of "The Guess Who") usually shows up on stage these days with a Yamaha digital, instead of a real baby-grand.

So what am I -  a purist who insists on the real thing, or would a Fujifilm X-Pro1 make me happy? I'd have to sell my  EOS 7D of course, but the valuations are pretty close to par. But then when I read how the X-Pro1 is just plain "goofy" when it comes to manual focusing, for example - it uses an electric motor controlled by a fake focussing ring on all of the lenses in it's system.. I thought "good grief, why do they do things like this?" So, nope - my ideal digital camera still does not exist. I'm not sure that it ever will, apart from the $10k Leica M9 (I guess it's just called the "M" now). 

Let me summarize what I think it is I want in a camera -


  • High end, but no more than $3k with one good lens included
  • Interchangeable lens system
  • Full frame sensor, to truly make the most out of legacy lenses
  • Maximum legacy lens optical compatibility
  • Non-SLR "mirrorless"
  • Totally optical rangefinder focusing
  • Absolutely no-nonsense features, truly back to basics, quality over quality
  • Well designed film emulation for a wide range of films, vintage and new
  • Here's a real novel feature - no LCD picture display on the back (just a simple function display), but instead, use built-in WiFi or the new "Near Field Communication" to allow you to field-view your pictures on your Smartphone or Tablet


I've got to move on one way or the other, forgetting about cameras for awhile to improve my photography.  Am I really composing right? Am I exposing right? Am I scanning my negatives right? Am I working from ideas and inspiration, or simply dressing things up after the fact? (That's always a good question isn't it?)

Looking forward to another great year of Blogging!



Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Personal Camera Ratings

I think I own enough cameras now to rank them in order of preference. In fact, I should include cameras which I have owned and sold in order to buy another that I think I'd like better, only to discover I was wrong. I also have some cameras that I'll probably never use, but should at least try them out. I'm also beginning to think I talk about cameras too much and not enough about the reason they exist. Everyone says "it's not about the camera". Yet, all the top bloggers, like Rockwell, Johnson and Huff - they all certainly talk a lot more about cameras, especially new expensive ones, than they do about photography. The most balanced of these three is Mike Johnson, who periodically admits to a camera obsession that's destroying his life, and submits wonderful photographic book reviews, and some great articles on technique.

Anyway, enough 'bout that weak moment - sorry, I know you'd all rather read about my cameras wouldn't you? So here goes:

My Number One - far and away is the Rolleiflex. It's got all the right stuff. Amazingly precise build quality - a true example of industrial art if there ever was one. This camera is still being manufactured, which gives my 1953 model a true collector value. A superior to digital Medium film format, a viewfinder that's exceptionally bright, accurate, at waist level and the same size as the film frame. The Leaf Shutter is almost silent, and the lens is amazing. When you see a picture of this camera, it looks rather big and cumbersome, but it's actually quite small and light - easy to carry around the neck, and perfectly balanced. Two things that people might not like about this type of camera is that it only gets off 12 shots per roll, only has the one lens (45mm equiv.) and the viewfinder image is reversed left to right. I find all of these things to be an advantage, however. These all take us back to "true photography", where every shot counts, you have to compose by moving yourself around, and you have to take your time composing the picture. For street shooting, it's ideal - nobody even knows you took a picture. because the camera is down at your belly, and the shutter is very quiet.

My second favourite might surprise you. It's the Pentax Zoom 90. This camera really surprised me, actually. From the outside it has nothing going for it whatsoever - just one of those 1990's black plastic pocket zooms with motorized film advance. I paid $6.00 for this at the Salvation Army. But when I got it home, I discovered that it's not all plastic, and it has a superb lens design that delivers superb pictures. The viewfinder is big and bright, and zooms with the lens. The zoom range is 38-90mm (about a 2.5X in today's words) - which is just enough to be helpful, but still requires that you be close to your subject, as it should be. It's got a built-in flash and Macro mode, as well as some hidden "menu' features, like interval shooting (for time-lapse), multi-exposure, double self-timer, 2 fps drive mode, and normally fully automatic, it has shutter priority semi-manual shooting. It's like all you really need, and nothing more. For street shooting, it's very non-threatening, just because of the not-to-be-taken-seriously way it looks.

Third favourite is my DSLR - Canon EOS 7D - the world's best APS-C sensor camera, according to Mr. Rockwell at least. This is a professional grade DSLR, with an amazing viewfinder and a professional, as opposed to consumer feature set, which means no face detection, night-scene, etc. You've got to be good to use this camera, with it's complex exposure and focus set-ups - you can actually store up to three custom set-ups  which is helpful for set and forget shooting. I'm still weak for digital convenience and instant gratification, and in spite of it's rather bulky size, especially with a big lens attached, I still don't see any new cameras coming to market that I'd want to replace this with. I enjoy using it with my collection of M42 screw-mount manual focus lenses, some of which are quite small. If I want to use a smaller camera, I go with film. Incidentally, I've had three previous Canon DSLR's that "got away" - an EOS 1000D which I gave to my wife, an EOS 400D which I sold to buy an EOS 40D, and in actual fact, I think I liked the EOS 40D the best - even better than my present 7D. It was easier to use, and I think gave me better looking pictures. The biggest improvement offered by the 7D is it's amazingly good viewfinder.

Fourth down is still a dark horse. I haven't gotten through a roll of film with it yet, so I cannot ultimately rate it, but if it works out, my FED 5 will end up in fourth place. I love what the "registration distance" of these cameras does for picture quality, and I love the rangefinder method of focusing. I also love the feel of this camera, but not it's looks. I'm rating it according to a previously similar "Russian Leica" I owned - the Zorki-4 (sold the complete kit so I could buy my first DSLR - the EOS 1000D). If it puts out image quality as good, then I'll be very happy. Let's say for now that I'm rating the FED 5 / Zorki-4 in fourth place

Fifth is a little camera I've talked about a lot - the Trip-35. I love these so much that I'm wondering myself why I didn't rate it in #1. It's got an amazing lens, exceptionally bright viewfinder, a very good and rather unique image quality, and accomplishes fully automatic exposure without batteries. What's not to like? Well, it's still a manual focus lens, and you have to rely on "zone focusing", which should be called "guess-gosh focussing" - there is no focussing aid. To make this a truly usable shooter, it would be a good idea to equip it with a separate hot-shoe mounted rangefinder unit like this one, to give you the idea. But in general, I guess I'm more into the Russian Leica Cult than I am the Trip-35 Cult.

In sixth place are my Pentax Spotmatics. I've got two - one of them has a failing shutter that still works at 1/250 and under, and with the other, the light meter doesn't work. Now to some people, these, along with the newer but similar Pentax K1000 were the best SLR's ever made. Back in the day, if you weren't a "Nikon Man" then you were sure to be a "Pentax Man". Why didn't I rate these higher? Well, to be honest, it's because they're SLR's. I don't like SLR image quality - the Pentax Zoom-90 has noticeably better IQ, that is, unless you need to use Portrait or Telephoto lenses - it is here that SLR's begin to shine and become useful. But for normal 50mm and under shooting, I believe that SLR's had more to do with beginner's discouragement than any other kind of camera. In the 70's and early 80's SLR's were heavily marketed as "the best", and indeed they were, in the sense of offering great camera system choices. But it seems that nobody in Marketing, and few among the buying public really bothered to look at the resulting photographs critically, and people like me, who for years used only a 50mm lens on my Spotmatic, were disappointed enough that rolls of film began accumulating in our sock drawers. But when you put lenses on that are 85mm and up- well, the SLR image quality becomes very exciting - they're exceptionally good for telephoto work - nothing can beat the SLR design if you shoot with long lenses. I seldom shoot long, and when I do, I prefer to use my Canon, but sometimes with a Pentax M42 (ie -Spotmatic) lens, of which I have plenty. It's kind of nice to have this complete system overlap between my Pentax SLR and Canon DSLR.

Finally, there is my Samsung Galaxy SII Android Smartphone. I use it quite often, and it certainly has it's uses, and image quality is remarkably good. I'm looking forward to the next generation of Smartphone cameras for the improvements they promise are coming, but for now, well it's just in last place. I have also owned five other Digital compacts (I still have one of them), but none of them are really worth rating - the picture quality is so dead, I like my Android Smartphone camera better. But for serious work, if I have to go compact, give me film any day.

So that's it. I do have a few other really really cheap film cameras from the Salvation Army that I haven't even tried out yet so I can't rate them. So much more to blog about this year coming!

Oh, and by the way - my new years resolution was that I wouldn't buy any more cameras - I never said anything about lenses... the FED 5 opens a whole new door of the Leica Threadmount (LTM, M39) world.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Every Film Buff Should Have One Of These

From Russia With Love - FED 5B for $10

The Last Camera I'll Buy - For Awhile!

Yes, it's gotten to the point where I'm getting confused about which camera I should take out with me. I actually made a resolution to buy no more cameras in 2013 - but technically, I ordered this one on Dec. 27, so it doesn't count! It's a "Russian Leica", of sorts. The FED 5 series is a modernized update of the Leica III cameras that started life in Russia just after WW II, when the victorious Soviets carried a German Leica plant back with them, as a spoil of the war. The earliest ones looked exactly like a Leica III, and in fact the Russians used up the stock of original Leica parts - it is only in some specific details you can tell them apart. As time went on, the Soviets came up with their own improvements, mainly in usability, although most think not in quality, and certainly not in the looks department. I will be the first to say that these more recent models are just plain butt-ugly when compared to the classic original Leica III design. However  I am very enthusiastic for most, if not all of these various Soviet Rangefinder cameras, and I'm here to tell you why.

You can tell these cameras were designed and built in another world. Soviet Russia was a totally "form follows function" society, just like these cameras are. Incidentally, in light of the Soviet's adherence to "central planning", the big plan must have been for every Russian citizen to be a photographer, because these things were built by the millions, almost like there were camera tree orchards somewhere. But, with this overproduction, one senses an air of enthusiasm which everybody involved in the works must have had for these. Once you get past the ugliness of the stamped metal covers, and look inside -

 Precision Machining of the Shutter Block and Film Advance

Back Half of the Rigid Clamshell Body Removed for Loading Film

... you can see the passion, with the powder-coated black paint used throughout, with a very chunky and well machined mechanism which looks so well made, my gut tells me this can't be too far away from the original Leica heritage - in the workings of the camera - where it really counts. The nice crisp "clack" of the shutter confirms this - it's possibly the nicest sound I've heard from any camera. Upon close inspection, I can tell the center block mechanism of this camera (built in 1992) is exactly the same as that of the Zorki-4 (built in 1958) that I owned before. Judging from the overall condition, I would say this camera was bought, but very seldom used. Some Russian camera enthusiasts tell you to go for the well-worn ones, because you know they work, and that the ones that are pristine might be that way because there's something wrong, and therefore never got used. However, I thoroughly tested every function, and it all works, very very well in fact. So, unless there are serious light leaks, which I'll only know once I've shot a roll of film, I think for $10 I've got a real winner.

For the uninitiated, I should tell you about the Leica Rangefinder design in general. A rangefinder camera is one with a conventional viewfinder that does not look through the camera's lens - it's not like an SLR which is a "Through the Lens (TTL)" design. Added to this viewfinder is another set of optics, called a rangefinder, which serves as a focusing aid. The lens is coupled to the rangefinder mechanism so that while you are turning the focus ring, you see a split image in the viewfinder, so that when the two images overlap into one, you have achieved focus. Although the TTL design used by SLR cameras has many advantages, a rangefinder has one huge advantage that trumps it all in the minds of rangefinder enthusiasts. That is, it doesn't matter how big or small you've set the lens aperture, the view through the finder and it's focus aid remains constant, and you can very clearly align your optics for perfect focus on whatever object you wish, regardless of the depth of field determined by the aperture. Focusing thus becomes a completely independent operation, basically through a separate set of optics, making manual focusing much quicker and easier than with a TTL design. So why are so many of us still even talking about manual focus cameras at all? Didn't auto-focus make it's way in over 40 years ago? Certainly, and it's nice to have, but you don't have to read very far to realize that even with the latest model 2012 digital cameras, auto-focus can still be the biggest pain of all camera issues. I'm still reading digital camera reviews that talk about AF deficiencies - too slow, bad in low light, too complex, too hit and miss, etc, and it seems there is always hope held out that it will "be improved in a Firmware Update, or when next year's model is released", yet the complaints never seem to end. Auto-focus has it's advantages, but I still prefer manual focus, and in choosing between a manual SLR and a manual rangefinder (RF), focusing with the RF is much easier.

Now, on to my new FED 5B. It looks strange, and kind of like the body is beat out by hand with a hammer.



The name-plate has no sense of style whatsoever - it would be perfectly at home on a Moskovitch car. It has no strap lugs, so the (included) leather case has to be used (which kind of helps cover up the homeliness, ironically). The viewfinder, as much as I've bragged up the rangefinder design above, is only fair on these Russian cameras. The focusing part works great, but otherwise, it's quite small, dark and vague. This is the one big thing that is very un-Leica like about these Russian Leica's. On the plus side, this, and the Zorki 4 are the only cameras I've ever owned with a dioptre adjustment that actually matches my extreme far-sightedness - I need a +4.5 dioptre; most newer cameras only go up to +2.5 and if you need more, you have to buy another insert. Kudos to the Russians and their thick framed glasses!

The lenses are interchangeable, and the Leica Threadmount (LTM), also known as M39 is used. This means that you can use the older versions of best lenses ever made if you want to - (Leitz, Voightlander, Zeiss), and theoretically take pictures that are every bit as good as if you were using a real Leica III. Most of these lenses still cost hundreds, or thousands of dollars, and if you're on the cheap, the Russians themselves, along with copying the cameras have also made amazingly great copies of LTM optics. I've got the "entry-level" lens here- the Industar-61 f2.8 52mm. Still, even this lens which can itself be bought for only $10 or $20 is favoured by many for it's sharpness.



The better Russian lenses for M39 are from the Jupiter line, starting with the Jupiter 8 for around $50, and the ultimate being the Jupiter-3 which is a very fast f1.5 design which goes for around $170. There is no adapter available for using the more modern "M-Mount" lenses on the LTM mount. I'm just going to hang out with the Industar-61 for awhile, expecting it to be every bit as good as the Industar 50-2 that I use on my DSLR.

The FED 5B, unlike the FED 5, has no built-in light meter. The FED 5 uses a Selenium meter which adds greatly to the ugly factor, but I prefer using my smartphone light meter - bCam App instead, as I do with my Rolleiflex and Spotmatic cameras - the FED is no different. Neither the FED 5 or 5B require batteries - in fact, none of the Russian Leica's require batteries.

Loading film is very easy. As pictured above, the body is made from two rigid pieces that come apart like a clamshell, and this is a Russian Leica's best feature as far as I'm concerned. Even Leica themselves never thought of this! With the back completely removed and out of the way, you simply thread the end of your film into a slot in the built-in take-up spool and wind the crank once. Then you put the back on and wind again until #1 shows in the frame counter.

Shooting with this camera has two big pleasures, besides the ease of focusing mentioned above. First is the way it fits in your hands - Leica is famous for this, and the Russian versions share pretty much the same dimensions, along with the brick-like solidity. Secondly  as I mentioned above, but it' worth repeating, is the sound that the shutter makes. It isn't particularly quiet, but oh so lovely - a solid, perfect "clack" is what you hear. With the slower speeds of 1/15 and below, there is a clockwork involved, so you also get a bit of the sound of a spring unwinding.

I was stupid to have sold my old Zorki-4, especially as I had the Jupiter-3, Jupiter-8 and Jupiter-12 lenses with it - I sold all this to "go digital" back in 2008. It's nice to be back into it again at such a super low price - I do hope my first roll of film won't show up any unpleasant surprises. Meanwhile, here is a group on Flickr dedicated to pictures taken with the FED 5B. Enjoy.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Life Of The Party


Who can forget the Polaroid? Seemingly, nobody! Lots of people want 'em back now. The classic SX-70 camera is once again available, for quite a bit of green, and demand for the film, once Polaroid stopped production, became a business case for the Impossible Project, who have reverse engineered the film and are putting it back on the market. Fujifilm are also on the bandwagon, with their pocket sized Instax cameras and instant film. Am I interested? Strangely no. I'm a "retro-man" in so many ways, but Polaroid never really grabbed me. I remember when I was a kid, I had a friend who loved his Polaroid, and of course liked to go about taking cheesy pictures of all the kids around the block, all the while I was cutting my teeth on a Kodak Instamatic, which took the "new" 126 film cartridges. I'm not sure that his Polaroid made him any more popular, but that was the whole idea wasn't it? It was supposedly great fun to take pictures of your friends and watch them develop before your eyes, then letting your friends have their pictures right there on the spot. With the great resurgence of instant film photography, I guess that idea never died, so it seems.

I'm here to tell you, if you aren't aware already, that you don't have to have a Polaroid, or even a Fuji Instax, to pull this off. All you need might be the camera you've already got, if it has Pict-Bridge capability, and a small Pict-Bridge compatible printer. One such printer is the Canon Selphy. There have been several models of Selphy marketed by Canon over the past few years. They are small, battery powered, Pict-Bridge compatible and connect directly to your camera via a standard USB cord. These printers use a thermal "Dye Sublimation" process- they're not Ink jet. You have to buy packs of special paper, combined with a colour ribbon cartridge, which combined, make the cost out to about 40 cents per 4X6" print. Expensive compared to inkjet, but cheaper, and of far better image quality than Polaroid film ever was (is). If you want to be the creepy guy with the camera turned life of the party, you should get yourself one of these. I use it, not at parties, but for most of my in-house photo printing, because the thermal print quality can't be beat, although limited to the 4"X6" size, it's great for having professional looking prints available to show off my portfolio.

But the possibilities of combining a Selphy with a camera that will perform "in-camera RAW file processing" are tremendous if you find yourself in a place (like a party maybe?) where you need prints, but don't have your computer with Photoshop along with you. My DSLR (the Canon EOS 7D) has the in-camera RAW capability, and can connect to the Selphy - no computer required. The two units combined - camera and printer are about the same size and weight as an original Polaroid Land Camera, but for 40 cents a print and far far superior quality, I can crank out magnificent prints that are "custom converted" from RAW, right on the spot. If a person wants a print of themselves in B&W, I can do that conversion right in the camera, then print them out a perfect 4X6 with a proven shelf life of 100 years, and ask them for their 40 cents, please.

Eat my shorts Polaroid! Move over, because Canon has had this sewn up for years!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Orton's Method


Image (RAW) With Orton Softglow Effect Via Photivo
Original JPEG from Camera

Many (most?) photo editing software suites now offer a wonderful effect called "Orton / Softglow". It has been part of GIMP (for 8 bit JPG) since I can remember, and a much better production of it is available in Photivo (for 16 Bit RAW). As far as I  know, it is now included in Photoshop too. It is an "effect" as opposed to a "filter", in the same way that HDR and Retinex are known as effects. You can read about it's origins from the man himself, Michael Orton, and also see some samples of his application of the effect that bears his name in slide film photography.

Personally, I've occasionally used Orton / Softglow on digital photos that didn't work - such as those with excess noise, or focus problems. Clearly, this was not Michael Orton's original intent, but with the application to digital files, it works wonderfully well in taming a problem photo. In the original shot, above right, I could see I had quite a mess on my hands, mainly because I was at ISO 3200 with a 1/45 sec shutter. To strengthen the composition, I wanted to make the doll stand out as the main subject, without creating too much degradation of her surroundings. What I had was a noisy image with bad colour balance, and everything under equal light with the doll merely blending into the whole mess. Additionally, the focus is a bit soft throughout the whole picture, because I was using my EF 40mm STM lens at wide open f2.8.

So, I started with the RAW file in Photivo, and at first made my decisions about emphasizing the doll, and de-emphasizing everything else. I played around with some Exposure and Gamma adjustments, along with as much Midrange recovery as possible (including some subtle Local Texture emphasis). All this did little to bring out the doll the way I wanted, but it helped tone down her surroundings, at the expense of even more noise. From past experience with Orton, I knew it is wonderful for eliminating noise, so I bypassed all other noise reduction algorithms and went right to Orton / Softglow. Orton may unwittingly be the best noise reduction out there, because it creates such a wide-radius blur effect - in addition to the softly focused light which is it's trademark. So yes, noise is eliminated completely, but at the expense of an ethereal softness, which is not really an "expense" at all because it is wonderfully attractive, with an inner luminescence, and oil-like. As a final touch, I added a fairly aggressive vignette.

So if you've got a picture that is a real keeper, but is spoiled by high noise or soft focus due to shooting with a wide aperture in a dark setting, keep Michael Orton in mind to help save the day.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Putting Filters To Work For You

 Scene With GIMP Lomo Filter

Forgettable (and very dusty) Scan of Same Scene Taken With Olympus Trip-35

"Filters" is an old word with a new twist. We used to screw real filters onto our lenses for various effects and corrections. Now, the Instagram kids have given it a whole new meaning. I suppose "filter" is an appropriate word, because you're putting your picture "through" something to change it's look - a digital process in this case.

Anyway, I've mentioned this before, but GIMP has many excellent "filters" and effects, as well as film simulations, and the list is growing because GIMP is Open Source - this means there are always enthusiasts out there writing new Scripts for GIMP Plug-Ins, and sharing them with the world. All you have to do, if you're already using GIMP, is join a GIMP discussion forum for all the latest news on new filters and how to get them. This works equally well for Linux, Windows and Mac - in fact, I sometimes find that although GIMP was originally made for Linux, since it went "cross-platform" years ago, new stuff often gets introduced to the Windows version first.

I'm not opposed to filters at all. In fact, as a "sentimentalist photographer", I find these effects most pleasing. They're a lot more like "enhancements" than "filters" really. I most frequently use the Lomo Filter (GIMP Menu - Filters > Light and Shadow > Lomo...), which in itself has all kinds of options and adjustment sliders - way too many to talk about here. Generally, I find that it works really well to make an otherwise crummy picture turn out looking spectacular- colours richen, picture elements get well separated - even dust from flatbed scanning of film negatives seems to mysteriously disappear, as seen above! Slap on a Fuzzy Border" and you've got instant sentimental nostalgia from an otherwise throw-away photo.

Friday, January 4, 2013

My Top 12 of 2012

Judging my own Top 12 shots must take in as many factors as possible - not merely the best executed technically, which is perhaps the least part of it, but I had to find twelve shots out of the over 2000 I had taken last year with qualities of life, spirituality, humour, and warmth which I alone am able to see and describe in words. So here they are:

To me, this has a strong Spiritual narrative, about how puzzling this life can be - there is a strong light that draws you to something, but no door to enter in, and it's an upward climb, also with something unknown and foreboding that can't be fully seen, but you know it's there. (Film, Pentax Spotmatic SP1000)

This one shows a beginning of how I wish to change my view of the world through the lens during the year to come - getting closer to the Spirit of things, like seeing how all these blades of grass still stand green and full of the breath of life, in spite of a foreboding background that suggests death and the end of it all  (Film, Olympus Trip-35)

This one represents a technical breakthrough because it best shows how I've finally learned how to use my EOS 7D. It may not sound like much, but this shot is simply spectacular, and reveals that I've fine tuned my camera correctly.  (Digital, Canon EOS7D)

 This is one of the best photographs I've ever taken, and shows me what can be done with Medium Format, and that in spite of it's challenges, I need to keep the 120 roll-film format as a big part of what I do.  (Film - Rolleiflex Automat)

This one is significant because it shows a new photographic direction that is emerging from me.  (Digital, Canon EOS7D)

This is in my Top 12 for 2012 for two reasons - this was the church of my childhood, being demolished in this photo. Also this shows the unmatchable capability of Medium Format film (Film - Rolleiflex Automat)

This is in my Top 12 of 2012 because it so strongly convinces me that film photography is so very good! Film is the photographic art's "oil paint" fluidity, whilst Digital is more like "acrylic paint's" cutting edge crispness - one as good and valid as the other, but so very different. (Film - Pentax Spotmatic SP II)

 I spent a lot of my childhood in this Church Hall, and it is now torn down. Perhaps the strong dark and light contrast also shows how fleeting such lucid moments can be for a photographer. (Film - Pentax Zoom-90)

Again, this shows the unmatchable beauty of Medium Format film. I've shot this scene many times, but never had this kind of beauty come out of it, with it's oil-like fluidity and realistic colour! (Film - Rolleiflex Automat)

So many reasons for this one... what are the chances of all this coming together at once? I didn't even see the crow when I took the picture. I volunteer at this Federal prison in Dorchester NB, and this is dedicated to all the men behind the wall - may they too, like this crow, soon have the freedom to fly over the moon, to rise above the full "lunacy" of this place... to once again be whole! (Digital, Canon EOS7D)

This was a milestone for me to ask a total stranger to pose for a picture. (Digital, Canon EOS7D)

This one is my most successful Street Photograph  (Digital, Canon EOS7D)

There were other good photos - probably hundreds, but to find twelve that carried some special significance beyond the click of the shutter, looking beyond mere technical goodness was not easy. We all need to bolster our own efforts so it becomes much more than how well we use a camera, or how adept we are at Photoshop. My hope is to build upon what I've discovered with these twelve through the new year. Happy 2013 everybody!