Digital technology could be the best thing ever to happen to film

I saw a post not too long ago that tried the list all the ways in which digital photography beats out film photography, because digital photography is really on the ropes now, is in danger of being put out of business, and needs to be defended against that overwhelming majority of film shooters out there.  I think digital cameras will pretty soon reach their last generation, because most people are happy just using their phones and don’t need the specialization of a DSLR; he should have been talking about that!  But I get it.  My beloved 160GB ipod became a casualty of what the majority of people need just a year or two ago; I’ve been meaning to buy a backup just in case the one I have fails, because I really value being able to carry my 900+ CD collection around with me wherever I go.  Sadly, I’m in the minority now, and a really beneficial technology has been axed in favor of the phone and streaming radio (don’t get me started on it).  If you’ve read any David Brin, there’s something he talks about in a few of his books about the rise of the talented amateur eclipsing the professional.  It’s something we’ve already begun to see with events like the Chicago Sun-Times firing their entire photography staff a few years back.

Now, I will say that digital cameras can potentially outperform film cameras in some crucial ways, but I can’t think of one that has anything to do with real photography.  Expedience is the one area that comes most readily to mind, with technology like Wi-fi connectivity being a good example.  Going back to David Brin for a minute, this is really something I think he would like.  For a hypothetical situation (and admittedly it’s not nearly as frequent as the media would have you believe), let’s say you’ve encountered a police officer who is neglecting his duty in some crucial way.  He doesn’t like you filming him and confiscates your camera, maybe your footage is “lost.”  It’s a situation that I’ve read about in the past, but thankfully becoming rarer, as people have found new ways to provide oversight of their government, and has resulted even recently in some police officers being imprisoned on felony charges; as a rule, civil service departments take their oaths to the Constitution extremely seriously.  If you’re ever in doubt about what is permitted for you to photograph, the ACLU has a great overview here.

For real photography applications however (and many not-so-real ones), film is still as relevant as ever thanks to a piece of technology called the film scanner.  I’ve had a few discussions with classmates who’ve never touched a camera that wasn’t digital, and there seems to be some ignorance/misinformation out there that needs clearing up.  There exists a device, wherein a photographer takes a strip of film negative and converts it into binary code on a computer, therefore rendering it a digital photograph.  Shoot a roll of film, get it developed, scan it; that’s really as far as you need to go (optical printing is just the icing on the cake).  From there, you can do whatever you want with it, and all the advantages of digital technology become open to film users.  I regularly post pictures of friends and relatives on Facebook, I do this blog, I’m writing weekly blog post assignments for class, I have cloud backup, all thanks to the marriage of digital technology and chemical imaging.

But who really wants to go back to 1995 when film was King?  Not me.  In fact, I doubt many do.  How many people would know about Vivian Maier without digital technology?  How many people would know your own work?  Really, digital technology has given film shooters the opportunity to show everyone just how good film is!  I guess I’m just still amazed by how adaptable film is to new technology.  It has never been eclipsed.

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How much contrast is too much?

I went to 11-mile Reservoir for a class back in June, and while we were primarily recording nature sounds, the camera had its place in my explorations as well.  Looking at the pictures later with the other members of my group, one made the comment that they were too high contrast, something I didn’t even think about or notice myself.  I think he’s right, but it took me this long to actually correct them.  The thing is, the lower contrast didn’t necessarily improve things…

So what’s the deal, then?  I was alright with what I had before, but there was definitely more detail in the pictures that I wasn’t getting.  Maybe I’m too content, and I need to be more critical, train my eye better.  It’s interesting what the change in contrast does to the colors.  This is the first roll of color negative (and the only one I’ve shot all year) that I’ve put through the Pakon since getting it back in February, and really, just how different the look can be from so small a tweak makes me think of some of the complaints Ken Rockwell has against anything that isn’t Fuji Velvia: I don’t really have a baseline for how any particular image is supposed to look.

How much time are you all putting into your color images?  I’m kind of used to just taking what the photo lab has been given me (unless I’m wandering into dangerous color temperature territory, ahem, Cinestill).  Maybe it’s force of habit, maybe it’s that I don’t find my color work as critical/important as black and white, maybe it’s because there are too many variables I have to deal with now, and I can’t be bothered.  It’s not really a complaint, but more of an observation.  Color changes things.

Hey look: shadow detail!

Alright, I’m learning a bit more about scanning every time I fall down flat on my face.  I rescanned all my negatives from the Fall 2013 Intro class and not only did it take less time to scan, it’s taking way less time to finalize.  I’m guessing I could still dig into TLX Client to pull even more information out of those negatives (and I will at some point), but going back to processed scans with PSI has satisfied me for now.  Basically, all I’m doing at the moment is bumping down the contrast to -20 (more, in some cases), and raising the light on a few just on a case by case basis, then again, final correction in Photoshop.  Like I said, I’m happy and it’s making life easy for me:

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before

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after (and I didn’t even dodge her face!)

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before

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after

So I’m glad I finally got that settled.  Read the first part of this saga here.

What I’ve learned so far living with the Pakon

So I ended taking a bit of a sabbatical the last few months, not my original plan but I’ve been doing a lot of music stuff and not much on the photography front.  I’m here, I’m alive.  In fact, it was my intention to keep shooting black & white over the summer and start developing with my Caffenol recipe at home, but what happened is that I think I got a bit burned out taking pictures for a bit so I took a break.  I just finished my first roll of black & white since the summer started.

What I have been doing though, ever since I got the Pakon, is scanning and adjusting all my negatives from my Fall 2013 Intro to Photography class, just whenever I had some free time to get on the computer.  I’m on roll 9 of 13 right now, and along the way, I’ve noticed a few things.

First of all, I’m losing shadow detail, and I don’t know what to do about it.  Here’s an example:

Michelle
flatbed scan of an optical print

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Pakon scan

FYI the print I had wasn’t my final one, I gave that one away to the subject, and this was one of the outtakes from practicing dodging and burning.  I actually burned her face in a bit in Photoshop to make it look more natural.

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Minolta DiMage Scan F-2400

 

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Pakon F335

Looking at the raw Pakon scan, there’s just nothing there in the side of the piano.  The Minolta scan has its problems, mainly due to the fact that I was quite new to the process and insisted on doing all adjustments in the scanning software itself.  With the Pakon though, for the most part I’ve been taking the raw negative images captured by the scanner and doing all the work myself in Photoshop, and have been pretty happy with the results, but not necessarily wowed.  In fact, going back and comparing some of my earlier work to what I did on the Minolta, the Pakon-scanned pictures can look a little flat sometimes.  It could be that I just don’t know how to use the software that well, I’m not going to rule that out (UCCS does offer a digital photography class, I’ve stayed far away from it so far, now I wonder if that’s such a good idea).

Some of the pictures are looking a bit flat because if I push the contrast too much, I get some rather unfortunate and annoying artifacts, I don’t know really how to describe them.  On the last roll of film I completed, I had given myself the PSI-processed versions as well (I think I adjusted them to -10 contrast or so) for comparison.  PSI tends to make black & white way too contrasty and sometimes unpredictable, but I had lots of shots that I had liked looking that way on this particular roll, so I brought the PSI-processed scans along.  That’s when I learned something pretty wonderful:

From RAW
scanned raw, completed in Photoshop

From PSI
scanned with PSI conversion, final tweaking in Photoshop

 

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The grain seems to be exaggerated in my raw scans, and gradients don’t do too well (look at the top of third of the picture–I’ve been dealing with that a lot), but PSI is doing a better job making these pictures look nice.  I hadn’t been using my earlier scans as a baseline to match what I was doing with the raw Pakon scans, which is probably why I’ve gotten some funky results without knowing.  I went through that entire roll making the raw scans look the best I could, then taking the PSI-processed pictures and making those look the best I could, and PSI won out just about every time.  And that’s with the Pakon not being able to read the DX code on Tri-X.

One thing I haven’t tried doing is seeing if TLXClientDemo will give me a different-looking file at all, I don’t know if that would make a difference at all, but one of these days I’ll research it.  The other thing is that this company is reputed to have the best modern way to convert and process negatives, and have good color profiles for all modern films that came out after Kodak stopped updating Pakon’s software.  I’d like to try out Color Perfect with raw Pakon scans, see if that could make a difference for me, but that’s in the future.  For now, I think I might be starting over with my 2013 negatives, getting the PSI-processed scans and working from those.  Man, that’s a lot of work to redo…

edit: The saga continues (with a happy ending) here.

The Pakon F335 scanner

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The scanner saga continues, I have bought another film scanner.  There it sits atop my record collection.  As you can see, I’m a bit pressed for space these days!  What’s really nice is that this above pic of my new scanner was scanned using my new scanner.  That roll and the one from my previous post were the first to go through it.

A year ago I was excited about not having to pay out $5.00 a roll once I got my Minolta, but a combination of dust on the lens (which I still haven’t gotten around to cleaning) and the death of that Windows 98 machine led me back into letting a more professional photo lab do it and when the results are good, they’re good.  I tried using the Epson V600 available at my school, with very underwhelming results.  It seems like I was wasting hours a day trying to get my scans looking the way they should, and the used camera store was getting it right 90% of the time, though 90% isn’t 100%.

In my search for a relatively easy-to-use scanner I came across a few reviews to the Pakon F135+ scanner back in the fall, which was used by many minilabs across America for years.  In fact, that local lab that I’d been going to had one, so I’d already fallen in love with the look. Support these days is nonexistent but there’s a very nice Facebook group to help people out with troubleshooting so I joined that in anticipation, and have been very impressed with the images people have been posting.

There was Company A, that was selling them off on the Bay for $300 so I decided I needed one.  A had a ton of them at one time and offered a 6-month warranty to exchange any unit that did not arrive in good and working condition, so it was too good of deal to pass up.  It being the end of the year I had no money and had to wait until the next round of student loans came through in the middle of January, and I kid you not, 3 days before I got it Company A ran out of scanners.  There was another seller, Company B, out of Florida that had been selling as-is and untested 135s for slightly less than A, and as soon as they knew A had run out they started jacking their prices up.  At one point they were asking almost $1200 for one and they weren’t accepting returns.  Now Company A has more in stock and they ask $750 for them.

While I am a bit miffed at certain sellers taking advantage of a panic to gouge their customers, I suppose they have as much right as anyone else to make a profit, and really, it was the buyers who allowed the prices to go up nearly 400% in the space of a few weeks, by agreeing to pay whatever the asking price was.  I refused to be a part of the rat race, but silently fumed thinking that if only I had had the money together before Christmas.  Anyway, things worked out fine after all, I remembered seeing a dozen of the F335 models selling on a government surplus site that hadn’t sold a month previously (reserve a little too optimistic?) so I bid on a few of those, won two of them, and I paid a hell of a lot less than 135s are going for right now.  I do kind of wish that I had bought more than two, then I could have made some profit myself, but all said and done, with one machine in really nice condition and a backup in the closet, I’m pretty much set for life when it comes to scanning 35mm film.

So, the Pakon: it scans at ~2000dpi so it’s not winning any awards in the resolution specs category, but again, this (the comparison of the dog photo).  I’m just not impressed with the performance of flatbed scanners, or any scanners that are made these days, it seems like scanning technology peaked nearly 10 years ago and then Nikon dropped all film technology, Konica/Minolta went under and was bought by Sony.  Neither Nikon nor Sony seem inclined to make anything that might compete with their digital camera lines.  Back in the “good old days” 5400dpi really did give you just that, these days it seems manufacturers can claim ever-increasing specs with little to back it up but more pixels: nothing is ever any sharper or more detailed.  With an image 3000×2000 or thereabouts that I’ve been getting from my lab, I’ve still been sizing it down to 25% of that size before I post online and that still leaves quite a lot of detail and size (on my 1024×768 CRT monitor at least).  At 3000×2000 I can still print at 8×10 very comfortably and it’s a fine size for digitizing quickly every image.  If I ever wanted to print larger or had something important to show, I’d pay for a better higher-resolution scan somewhere else.

What the Pakon really gives me is my time back.  It scans a whole roll of film in under 3 minutes and if it’s uncut I don’t have to touch it the entire time.  The software was a pain in the ass to set up, true, and only runs on Windows XP machines.  I had to partition the hard drive of my new-old computer before installing the Pakon software, but I just followed the instructions given here and everything went smoothly.  As it is it’ll pay for itself in 120 rolls, but I’ve spoken to friends here and there who would be interested in having some negatives scanned, I’m sure I could make my money back pretty easily by starting a local film scanning service.

I wish I could say to go buy one immediately but this isn’t 2014 anymore.  The price is still nearly triple what it once was, so I wouldn’t recommend that everyone snap one up, but if you’re someone who shoots a lot of 35mm color negative and black & white, and scanning it yourself is getting to be too much, the Pakon F135+ is definitely something you should look into.  Here’s a brief overview on the different models:

F135 max res 1920×1200, 8bits per channel, color negative and black & white (can do 3000×2000 if not using PSI software so I’m told, but you won’t get the automatic color correction, and all my information is 2nd-hand so take it with a grain of salt)
F135+ max res 3000×2000, 8bits per channel, color negative and black & white
F235 max res 3000×2000, 14bits per channel, color negative, color reversal, and black & white, has a halogen light that is prone to failure (all other models use long-lasting LEDs as their light source)
F335 max res 3000×2000, 16bits per channel, color negative, color reversal, and black & white

Of these, only the 135 and 135+ models are readily available, 235s come up every now and then, I’ve only seen the 335 come up once since I started looking so good luck finding one.  And no, I won’t part with mine.  If you’ve come later to the game than even I have, I’m sorry.  The price for a 135+ right now seems to be around the $750 mark, but if people are willing to wait out these high prices they’ll probably fall a bit again.  If you’re still not convinced, there are plenty of other reviews that have cropped up in the last few months:

http://www.dantestella.com/technical/f235plus.html

http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2014/08/01/kodak-pakon-f-135-plus-film-scanner-review-by-logan-norton/

https://trevor365photo.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/pakon-f135-first-impressions/

http://iftimestoodstill.net/2014/10/13/the-pakon-f135/

https://jcstreetwolf.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/the-kodak-pakon-f135-scanner/

http://baty.net/2015/02/the-kodak-pakon-f-135-plus-scanner/

 

Canon T50, expired film and negative density

I’ve put off writing this post for a while now, partly because I’m not partial to this camera and partly because the scans were a bit flawed.  This camera was gifted to me by a friend along with a whole lot of Canon FD lenses, most of which were off-brand zooms, but also a pretty nice 35mm f/2.8 wide angle that has gotten a lot of use in the last year, as well as two (!) 50mm f/1.8 lenses (bringing my total up to three).  So, that equipment along with the Canon AE-1 body, 100mm lens and now more zooms than you can shake a browncoat at, I’d say my Canon system is actually pretty far towards completion.

I’m not a fan of the T50 because there isn’t a whole lot of control a photographer can have over it.  It only works in Program mode, which I’m not a huge fan of.  In fact, its one saving grace is that it doesn’t read DX encoding, meaning I have some control over the exposure using the ASA setting (as long as you’re not going outside of ASA25-1600).  In that at least, it has an edge over the Nikon N60.  Using a roll of expired Fujicolor 200 of unknown age that I picked up at a thrift store for 50 cents, I knew I wanted the colors to come out as warm as possible (or at least have the film exposed properly) so I shot this entire roll at ASA25-50.  Sometimes it worked out, sometimes not as much.  (OK, it has more than just Program mode, if you take your lenses off “A” it gives you 1/60, but I didn’t try that too much, as a lot of the roll was taken with the 100mm lens)

One big problem I’m learning with shooting expired film is that even when exposing several stops over box speed, the negative density might be a bit on the thin side.  Talking to my camera store, it seems that’s a pretty big contributing factor in causing scanning lines.  Without my own scanner and a more personalized scan and attention to detail, I think it’s just going to be something I’ll have to live with.  This day, my mom asked me if I wanted to go take pictures of fall leaves with all her peeper friends so I came along, but I made her take her Minolta XG-A and a roll of Ektar.  That roll was pretty fresh and didn’t suffer from any scanning lines.

With all the complaining out of the way, I’ll say that those Canon FD lenses are quite wonderful, nice-looking and very sharp.  The only reason that I don’t use them more often is because I prefer the character of the Pentax Takumar lenses, even with the eccentricities of using the screw-mount system (Canon lenses look much more neutral to me).  I knew I’d end up getting some pretty nice images, and scanning lines aside, I did.  I’ll rescan this roll myself once I have that capability, but for now, I was stuck in Photoshop using the Healing Brush whenever I had the time and got pretty tired of trying to fix the problems.  Here are a few that I’ve got done and I think turned out pretty nicely.

Here’s an example before Photoshop:
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I don’t think I talk enough about how nice and how sharp those FD lenses are, but I’d say they do very well indeed.  One of these days I’d like to run a roll or two of Cinestill 50D through my AE-1 and see how that looks, but the T50 I got tired of dealing with and to use up the roll fast I took pictures of several of my other cameras.  Strangely enough, there are no scanning lines on those shots.  Hmmm…

Vuescan!

It’s about a week now until classes start up again and I’m trying to get everything in order.  I’ve been busy, not much time to write, but at long last I have the cable I needed to connect my scanner to my new SCSI card.  And as I write this I’ve been trying out Vuescan (the free version – see the watermarks?)

What’s wonderful about Vuescan is that they continually update old drivers for hardware that is no longer supported by its manufacturer (like my Minolta Scan Dual F2400), so they provide quite a service by keeping legacy hardware running on modern computers (or in my case, my Windows XP machine from about 2004).  Quite a service.  As I write this I’m testing out the software, trying to learn how to get what I want out of the scan.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:
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Behold my music composition teacher’s beautiful arm. This picture actually became the basis/starting point for one of my projects in VA2110 Intro to Photography.

That’s a straight scan to JPG, with me playing around with darkness and contrast in the scanner settings.  Some people prefer doing all the adjustments digitally in Photoshop, but it takes so much time and I don’t find that I have much need of that, plus I don’t own Photoshop.  Setting up the scanner to do it the way I want seems to fit more with my workflow and since I now have about 40+ rolls of film to scan, I need to find that middle ground between perfection and expediency.

So far I’d say I’m happy with it and more than willing to spend $80 for the full version, so once I set up a dedicated photo machine, wipe the HD and upgrade the ram as much as I can I’ll be ready for scanning for the foreseeable future!  If anyone out there is looking for drivers and software to use an outdated scanner on a modern (or modernish) machine I would encourage them to give Vuescan a try.
http://www.hamrick.com/