Monday, July 28, 2014

A Celebration of Cheap Cameras

Campus Composition - Nikon One-Touch-35, Kodak ColorPlus-200

Just as a follow-up to my last Post, it's now official that my local WalMart will cease film processing in early February of 2015. Just to show what will be lost when film photography will no longer be readily accessible to those of us who live in small towns, I'm simply going to post a few pics here that I recently took with a Nikon One-Touch-35 fully automatic point and shoot ($4.00 at Thrift Store), a Smena Symbol fully manual plastic Russian viewfinder camera ($4.00 at yard sale) and a Fed-5 fully manual Russian Interchangeable Lens Rangefinder  with Industar-61 lens ($30.00 from Ebay Ukraine). I was using Kodak Colour plus 200 ISO film in all three cameras, and scanned the negatives with my Epson V500 Flat-bed Scanner.

The point I want to make here I've made so many times and in so many ways - I simply can't get the wonderful old-school "look" of these photos using digital cameras, or any kind of film emulation. This is cheap film, for which no software emulation exists, using really cheap cameras - I have discovered over time that the difference between film and digital when both are done with my Canon EOS System, the difference is not all that significant.

The Nikon one Touch is my latest camera purchase. It has an f2.8 35mm fixed lens, which uses auto-focus and auto-exposure (as opposed to really cheap fixed focus types). As you can see, it takes some amazingly clear pictures,  but, with this film in my hands at least, still retains that wonderful old-school look.

The Nikon One-touch, B&W Conversion Via GIMP
The Nikon One Touch
The Nikon One-touch, B&W Conversion Via GIMP
the Nikon One Touch
Now, getting really retro, I'll feature many shots taken with my favourite possession - the Russian FED-5 LTM (Leica Thread mount) Rangefinder. I've describe the Industar-61 Lens (very early variant) that I use as being so awful, it's truly wonderful, especially with the magic it makes with this not-so-great Kodak Color Plus film. First, a tribute to my inspiration - Charles Cushman. Occasionally, and with no real explanation, I get a nice "Aqua" tone from this lens and film, as f the light were through an antique Pepsi bottle, that's reminiscent of the "dirty-30's" early color film work that Cushman left behind:

The FED-5, Frame Added With GIMP to Remind us of C. Cushman
The FED-5, Frame Added With GIMP to Remind us of C. Cushman

But the FED-5 with Industar-61 doesn't always present this greenish Aqua tint - strangely, most of the time it behaves very natural:

The FED-5, Still Somewhat Aqua- Biased
The FED-5, B&W by GIMP, Shows How It Always Tends to Vignette on the Right Side Only
I love these quirky cameras! 

The FED-5 and Industar-61 Show Their True Colours When Light Is Strongest

The FED-5, Wonderful Depth Presentation, and a Strange "Etchy" Sharpness
Sometimes, this old camera makes subjects looks more real than real, but in a way that's nothing like what is done with digital. What's more, with the FED-5, I can put an extremely good lens on it if I wanted to (provided I could afford one, which I can't), and by using much better film, I could have an extremely good camera.

Finally, I'll move on to my latest shots with the Smena Symbol. This is the most manually operated camera of the bunch, with the Nikon One Touch 35 being strictly auto-focus and auto exposure, with no manual over-rides at all, not even for the built-in flash. It runs on a single CR123 battery, or optionally, two AA's. The FED-5 is totally mechanical and doesn't use batteries, with manual exposure (not even a built-in meter to assist), but it's optical rangefinder helps establish perfect focus. 

The Smena however, does nothing to assist you with either focus or exposure. The former must be measured physically when close to the subject, as in with a yardstick, and the latter requires an external light-meter, or plenty of experience. I find I have little trouble with exposure simply by guessing - at least outdoors. This first shot I intended to expose bang-on, but with the strong evening sunlight I went a little bit over.

Smena Symbol, Kodak Color Plus 200, B&W by GIMP
These next two, I intended to under-expose, so as to bring out reflected detail from the shiny objects and windows. I probably could've done a bit better, but I was clearly headed in the right direction.

Smena Symbol, Kodak Color Plus 200, B&W by GIMP

Smena Symbol, Kodak Color Plus 200, B&W by GIMP
These next two will show the tremendous dynamic range of film when shooting into direct sunlight. Notice how well deep shadow detail and colour is preserved - in fact, a digital camera would simply cut to black here, and any attempts to lift the shadow, even using Raw Files in these circumstances will result in a murky, noisy mess. Remember, this is a cheap plastic Russian made camera I'm using here:

Smena Symbol, Kodak Color Plus 200

Smena Symbol, Kodak Color Plus 200
And just one more, which I accidentally over-exposed, but it still shows film's wonderful ability to roll off gracefully, instead of simply blowing out the highlights.

Smena Symbol, Kodak Color Plus 200
The future of popular photography will be digital, and the age of having a Kodak Mini-lab handy is rapidly coming to an end. Film will never completely go away - enthusiasts will find ways to keep it alive long after I pass on. Am I such an enthusiast? Probably not - I can't see myself sending rolls of film through the mail again, as I had to do in the 1970's, as I have three digital cameras at the ready. But unless digital camera makers find a way to truly evolve the medium, the factors of delight and surprise will no longer be seen - everybody's photos will look pretty much the same as each other's, with the only variables being composition, and whatever limited magic can be created using Photoshop or Instagram-like software. In my own opinion, none of what I've shown above, using extremely cheap film cameras, could ever be faked with Digital Photography.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Yo' Can't Get That Stuff No Mo'

EOS 5D, EF 28-105 Lens, DxO Optics Pro
EOS Elan-7, Kodak Color Ultramax 400, DxO Optics Pro

What can't you get no more? Film. At least not real locally. Our Main St. Pharmacy stopped carrying it, and so did the nearest WalMart - the one I always get to do my processing. I suspect someday real soon, WalMart's Mini Lab will be gone, and they'll have moved the Digital Cameras into the Electronics Dept. For certain, film will never die completely - in fact, when I first started shooting in 1978 I thiink it was, there were no Mini Labs. I lived in a fair sized city at the time, but not big enough for film processing. I recall putting my films into a special envelope and sending them away, and then singing "Someday my prints will come..." for a couple of weeks, and finally get them back in the mail, for 50 Cents a print - which seemed like a lot of money then. Boarderless were 10 Cents more!

Maybe it's just as well. Maybe I'm finally going to capitulate. Base on the above results, why wouldn't I? The Full Frame DSLR (top) took this shot with everything exactly as it should be - the colours are spot-on, the dynamic range is fantastic, from the clouds in the sky to the tread on the tires. Everything's nice and sharp, and extremely life-like. I shot it at -2/3 EV and used DxO Optic Pro to lift the detail from the shadows, with no noise whatsoever resulting. The film version, on the other hand, is disappointing, but perhaps only when comparing with the Digital. The lack of detail in the sky is explained by the fact that I shot this a half hour later, and the overcast had grown deeper. Also, I had shot this at 0 EV (using the same EF 28-105 Lens BTW). It's a bit grainey, and the colour isn't right. I scanned this several times, changing colour, resolution, size - this was the best I could get. I realize my Epson V500 Scanner isn't the best, but it's what I've got - I doubt I'll be going out to get a better one.It's not bad, but it lacks that digital DSLR perfection we've all come to hate.

But have a look at these, taken with the Elan-7 and EF 28-105 the same day (no comparison shots - sorry):

I find when I shoot film and don't make comparisons, I thoroughly enjoy film. Funny about that. If it goes back to having to send film away and wait two weeks, I'll still be doing it sometimes - especially during the summer peak shooting season.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Photivo Rocks Your Film Scans

Smena Symbol Camera, Kodak ColorPlus-200, Photivo Enhanced
Ever since buying DxO Optics pro last year, I haven't used my other favourite Raw Processing Software - the Open Source Photivo - very much. The DxO Optics Pro really has the edge for Raw file processing, with it's built-in science of matching up thousands of lens-camera combinations perfectly (even for some premium compact zoom cameras). I think now, I've uncovered another job for Photivo, and decided to blow the dust off it to enhance some TIFF File film scans. I had a hunch that Photivo would work well for this, simply because it is very aggressive - and by that I mean that just a very small tweak on certain adjustable parameters can make a huge enhancement to the photo. As I had discovered quite awhile ago, this applies to TIFF Files almost as much as the Raw files from a digital camera. After comparing some results, I'll explain what TIFF and Raw are, and talk about the difference between the two.

The first image above is a TIFF scan from a negative, using my Epson V500 Flatbed Scanner, followed by some enhancements using Photivo. For comparison, here is the original scan:

Smena Symbol Camera, Kodak ColorPlus-200
Finally for the sake of interest, here is another scan of the same Negative, done by Walmart using their professional Kodak Pakon Scanner, and loaded on a Photo-CD:

Smena Symbol Camera, Kodak ColorPlus -200, Kodak Pakon Scanner

I have to admit, the Photo-CD version came off quite a lot better than my own effort using my Epson V500, but the downside is that when Walmart gives you Photo-CD files, they're very small JPEGS that, while looking great on-screen, would not be big enough to make a print bigger than 5x7. I will also mention that I could see no sense in trying to use Photivo to enhance the Photo-CD JPEG, because JPEG files simply don't provide enough data latitude to make adjustments, and so I only did what makes sense, to make enhancements to my own Scanner's TIFF File output.

As you can see from the first picture, the results are quite spectacular. Photivo is by far the greatest Software I've used for bringing out Local Contrast without destroying colour.

Now, let's do the Tech-Talk. What I'm really doing here, although I've referred to it as "enhancement", it's not really that at all. In a TIFF (or RAW File), the pixel data is all there, but a direct to JPEG scan, or usually a straight from camera JPEG, does not do enough Data Mining to bring out the tremendous potential of the local contrast that can be available. "Local Contrast" simply explained, is the total range from light to dark available as uncompressed data at each individual Picture Element (Pixel). Still confused? Well, think of "contrast", which is the range from light to dark available throughout the entire picture in one shot. A typical JPEG file allows for some adjustment of this ordinary picture contrast, but local contrast, at the individual pixel level, is locked in. However, with a TIFF or a Raw file, it is not locked in; the required data is all there, and can be manipulated. So then, when I used Photivo to manipulate the Local Contrast within my scanner's uncompressed 16-bit TIFF File, I was able to really bring out the shades of light and dark, and the richness of colours within every single leaf of the wild-flowers, every pebble in the foreground of the rail-road, and all the nuances of reflected light on the upright metal pole of the signal light. Once I got all of this looking the way I liked it, I then "exported" the result to a compressed 8-bit JPEG File. The data is now locked in after I made the adjustments.

Take note of the words I put in bold here. TIFF and Raw Files are uncompressed, meaning that every computer number that makes up pixel information is 1:1 (one for one), and can therefore be worked on individually with various software products, giving the ability to make super-fine and wide-ranging adjustments without ruining the picture. They also have a 16-bit colour depth, meaning that 65,536 computer number possibilities are available to be manipulated for each separate base colour of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, as well as (again separate) Gray Tones from black to white. The flexibility is enormous, but the resulting file sizes are also huge - typically 25 MB for each image file. Now, compare this with a JPEG File, where the computer numbers are 1:variable, meaning that each pixel location cannot necessarily be worked on individually, but only in pre-determined groups. Also, the colour depth for JPEG is 8-bit, which means that only 256 computer number possibilities can be manipulated for each separate CMY colour channel, plus the grey scale from black to white. This is actually plenty for the human eye, which is the reason when I convert the uncompressed image to a compressed JPEG, it looks the same on a computer screen (note- it's not the same on a printer output - if it's going to be printed, be sure to keep a copy of the TIFF File). However, to perform the kind of "data-mining" involved in extracting local contrast, a computer needs a lot more than 256 values per colour to work with, which is the same as saying even though our eyes can't always see the difference, a computer can. However, a JPEG file size is greatly reduced to a much more manageable 3 MB, which is almost 1/8 the size.

Now, let's get away from the technical and back to picture taking. You can see how by using an Open Source (free!) software product, I was able to create an amazingly detailed and rich-toned photo with a very old cheap Russian camera which cost me $4 at a yard sale, using not-so-great film, processed at Walmart for $5 per roll (CD included!) and scanned with my own consumer-grade flat-bed scanner. I also showed how the professional grade scanner used by Walmart really does give better results than my Epson V500 Flat Bed, (and BTW, these Kodak Pakon scanners are starting to show up on Ebay for $300 or less, as film photo labs are starting to go out of business).

You're more likely shooting digital, not film. Once again, the same thing applies - get a camera that shoots Raw Files and use it in Raw Mode. Raw and TIFF are quite similar, but Raw has several advantages over TIFF which I won't get into. Please do not make the mistake of thinking that by manipulating things like Local Contrast, which you can't do with JPEG files, you're somehow altering the photo. Somebody actually said to me "I don't want to make any changes to the photos I take", thinking themselves to be some kind of a "purist". Some truly great pro film photographers from the past would give specific instructions to their darkroom tech to "not change anything - if it's too dark or too light, I deliberately made it that way". This is valid in the case of these old-school and famous professionals, but it's not valid for anybody today. With digital, or even as I've just demonstrated, with colour film, after you've clicked the shutter, you're only half done the job. There is so much left to do on the computer, because there's so much detail still available that a computer can "see" but you cannot. By manipulating an uncompressed image file, you're not changing anything, but rather, you are bringing out the stuff that is hidden before printing your final product.

And remember, when manipulating Raw or TIFF Files, you are in total control - you can change things as much, or as little, as the software application will allow you to. The computer is your "digital darkroom".

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Real Lucky

The Thrift Store
There has to be a story in this photo!

We were just about to get in the car at this parking lot and Kathy mentioned the sky being very dramatic. This should've been her picture really, but I had my camera in my shirt pocket. I was making three exposures because of the tricky lighting - this one was the third, but two things I had not noticed - the child and the bird, as the camera I was using has no viewfinder. With just an LCD to make the shot, you really can miss a lot, so this was just plain luck, pure and simple. In fact, having a Viewfinder would not have made any difference at all, except that I might have seen everything that was going on. The child and the bird both flew into the frame at the same time - other than this, I had already seen the sun rays behind the clouds, and the contrail from the jet overhead. I hadn't even noticed the bright green reflected light on the window awning.

So that's the story of how it came about. But is there also a deeper story in the photo itself, regardless of what went into the making of it? There are two things in flight - the bird and the aircraft. There are two strong light sources - the sun's rays and the green light. And finally, there's the child exiting the Salvation Army Store. The angles and perspective all lines up very strongly, to help pull it all together.

This photo is extremely humbling to me! I want to let others tell the story. I'll add one more thing - the last time we were in this very parking lot, a half hour later, a young man went on a shooting rampage about a half hour later, and it happened quite close to this place. I can almost see a resolution to this horrible event taking place in this picture.

And I've learned another lesson - it's a very important thing for a Photographer to have a camera available at all times, but even more important to have your eyes open to your surroundings - this time, Kathy did and I did not - the rest was all Grace. This really is her picture.