Regarding Photography

How Much Does Fidelity Matter?

Recorded on January 2nd, 2017

With each passing year, as we all hurtle towards our eventual deaths, I keep coming back to this idea that it may (may) be an unwise use of one’s time to obsess over the bit-perfection of their lossless digital music library, or the neat and tidy suspended-animation state of RAW files in a Lightroom library. It seems to be a problem of math, where almost all of the factors are weighted heavily in favor of just doing what’s “good enough” to enjoy what we have for as long as we’re alive.

These are the factors I mean:

  1. Time to spend on maintaining these libraries. Finite and scarce. We don’t know how much time any of us has left. Cataloging FLAC files and RAW photos and their associated non-destructive metadata files is only for the nerdiest, with the most discretionary time available.
  2. Time to enjoy viewing or listening to the libraries. Also limited. Is in a zero-sum relationship with, and directly lessened by, #2.
  3. Hard drive space. Cheap and plentiful. Possibly the one thing that tilts in favor of spending too much time and attention on curating our collections.
  4. Usefulness to future generations. Inestimably low. No one after me will want to take care of, duplicate, back up, and tend to my digital libraries of crap, much less listen to or view them.
  5. Aesthetic value. I can totally hear the benefits of FLAC files. I can sometimes see the difference between a RAW file and a high-quality JPG.
  6. Size of collections. Growing faster every year, especially with photos. As more photos and audio files get added to the piles, the worth of each of those files — well into the tens of thousands now — decreases proportionally.

The alternatives? Living with iTunes Match as a primary library source for digital music, and dumping copies of your photos in Apple iCloud and Google Photos, since that’s where you’re probably going to look at them anyway. The beauty of this method is that you have so many tons of crap to lug around that if some small fraction of it gets corrupted, oh well — you have 98% of the rest still fine. Not a great way to go through life, but neither is feeling overly attached to digital data, spending precious hours being ruled by your computer and the file systems that house this stuff. If I knew I were going to die in six months, how much would I care about all this shit?

But who am I kidding? It’s not like I’m going to burn down my Lightroom library and my FLAC folders. I may never view or hear some of those things again ever, but I just keep adding to the piles like a fool.

Sometimes You Can Scan Film Better at Home

Recorded on December 5th, 2016

All the trouble required to scan 35mm at home can be well worth it. The image below is a “high res” photo, scanned from a well-known film lab on a pretty high-end scanner. It’s one of the first pro scans from a roll of Tri-X 400 I shot on my dad’s Nikomat FTn with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. I was way underwhelmed when I saw it. It in no way resembled 35mm film. Blown-out highlights, smoothed-over textures, and murky, dingy shadows. I knew film should look better than this:

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Shortly after, I got the Plustek scanner. What a difference. I scan in a way that preserves much more of the highlight and shadow detail, and the glorious film grain is still there. I have to tweak levels and contrast in Lightroom, but there’s a point to it because the details are still there, waiting to be drawn out. It costs much more in my time than paying the lab less than 50 cents per scan, but it’s so worth it:

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I don’t think that my Plustek is better than the Noritsu or whatever it is at the lab, but I do think that the particular process and/or technician they used on that roll didn’t let the pro scanner rise to anywhere near its full potential.

Developing Film with Coffee and Vitamin C

Recorded on December 4th, 2016

I learned today about the magic of using coffee and vitamin C (and a few other ingredients) to develop black and white film. This is actually a thing and can give surprisingly good results. I haven’t tried it, and am probably still going to go with traditional chemicals once I finally get the gumption to process film at home. But this is good to know.

How to Develop Film Using Coffee and Vitamin C! Srsly! | Photojojo

Good Places for Photo Prints

Recorded on December 4th, 2016

I made these notes from Episode 155 of the Film Photography Podcast, when they got to talking about the places they liked for photo prints (either from film negatives or from digital files):

Mpix (or their parent company, Miller’s)
Good prices, and they use Fuji Crystal Archive paper.

For black & white:

  • The Darkroom does true black and white Ilford RC prints. And their dye-sub stuff is good, doesn’t scratch, and it lasts.
  • Digital Silver Imaging in Massachusetts. They do Lambda prints onto black and white Ilford fiber paper (and they also do Ilford RC paper).
  • Blue Moon Camera does optical printing.
  • Edgar Praus at Praus Productions in Rochester does optical printing. Can do dodge & burn, proofs, and hand color printing.

The important point is to print stuff more often. You can tweak your images to your liking in Photoshop or Lightroom and give a good lab the TIFF or JPG to print. This makes me want to not get 4x6 prints of all of my negatives when I get film processed. Just get high quality scans made, tweak them in Photoshop or Lightroom, upload the best ones to The Darkroom or Mpix, and get just those made into bigger, nicer prints (and show them!).

The Magnus SnapPod Mini Tripod

Recorded on December 1st, 2016

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I just splurged and spent $3.49 for the Magnus SnapPod at B&H Photo. I needed it (I did!) for the Olympus XA, which I take with me frequently now. The XA has a very subtle mechanical shutter, and a built-in timer. It can do very long exposures when needed, so it can be handy to have a tiny tripod in your pocket to take advantage of the timer. This thing is quite well made and holds the camera very steady. I predict lots of good things to come from it. Inexpensive and recommended!

Pentax iQZoom 120mi and Expired Kodak Porta 160 VC: Richmond and Wilmington

Recorded on December 1st, 2016

Here’s a roll I shot a few weeks ago and just got the low-res scans of from The Darkroom. The colors were a little faded, which I guess is because the film is 10–15 years old. About all I did to fix it was to press the Enhance (“Can you get in a little closer? Enhance!”) button in Apple’s Photos app to nudge up the contrast and saturation. Besides that, it held up pretty well. These are from Richmond, Va., Wilmington, Del., and I-95 between there and here.

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How to Date Scanned Photos

Recorded on November 27th, 2016

Today, I sat down at our film scanner, determined to scan some negatives and save them in a sane manner. I did some searches and ran across this totally brilliant post about How to Date Photos When Even Your Family Can’t Remember Them!

Here’s the important part:

The basics of it are that you start off the filename of a photo with the date it was taken. If there is any part of the date you don’t know, you replace it with an “x”, keeping the length of the date consistent with all of the other images in your collection.

So, something taken in December of 1978 (but on an unknown day) would start with:

1978-12-xx

If you didn’t even know the month, it would be:

1978-xx-xx

And something in the great expanse of the 1970s would start with:

197x-xx-xx

If it was Christmas Day in the 1980s, but you weren’t sure of the year, then:

198x-12-25

It helps your photos line up with each other properly, and also helps remind you and others who encounter your work later that some piece of the data is unknown while the rest is known. I love this system!

Find Your Film Scanner’s Sharpest Channel

Recorded on November 23rd, 2016

Thanks to this wonderfully detailed Photo.net article about scanning black and white film, which I think I’ve linked to before, I learned that one of the color channels in a scanner — red, green, or blue — is most likely sharper than the other two. After some experimentation and pixel-peeping, I found that the green one on my scanner is definitely sharpest. Thankfully, in VueScan, I can make a black and white scan from any single channel, or I can roll the dice and let the scanner figure it out and I suppose use all three combined.

Here’s what I saw during the experiment. These are all unretouched 100% crops, straight out of the scanner at 3600 dpi, and the exposure and contrast aren’t corrected. You can see more grain and details on the green one. That’s what I’ll use for all my black and white scans from here on.

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An Open Letter to TheDarkroom.com

Recorded on November 21st, 2016

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I just got my prints back tonight. Thank you so much for the outstanding job on the processing, the scans, and the silver halide true b/w prints. Mine was the order with the completely broken-in-half Tri-X 400 that had some serious light leaks due to my accidental exposure of the film. You salvaged many more of the frames than I thought could be saved. Even the ones where I didn’t nail the exposure came out nicely. And the postage paid envelope is a very nice touch. I will put it to good use tomorrow when I send you two more finished rolls to process. Thanks again!

[See TheDarkroom.com]

Ilford Antistatic Cloth for Scanning Negatives

Recorded on November 20th, 2016

If you spend any time at all scanning your own negatives, you owe it to yourself to get an Ilford antistatic cloth. Amazon has them for $16 now, which may seem like a lot, but I’ve paid almost that much just for high resolution scans alone. In forum after forum, the Ilford cloths came up as the only one to get.

Before I had this cloth, I would scan negatives and be a little bummed at all the speckly dust I had to remove in Pixelmator or Lightroom after scanning — especially for black and white photos. A wipe with this cloth before laying the negative in the tray removes almost all the loose dust. I give them one last blast of air from a bulb before inserting the film tray in the scanner. I can spend more time scanning and gazing at photos and less time using the Heal tool.

While you’re at it, order some cotton gloves. You don’t want your greasy paws leaving fingerprints on your negatives.

The Olympus XA Is Here

Recorded on November 9th, 2016

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This travesty of an election is going to cost me a ton of dough in attention-diverting photo equipment. So be it.

This tiny, tiny, 30+ year old Olympus XA rangefinder arrived from Adorama today. It is so much smaller than it looks. It is fast, responsive, the viewfinder is clean, and rangefinder focusing is slick.

I just loaded a roll of Tri-X 400 in it and will shoot some stuff tomorrow. I will post photos as soon as I make some.

Scanning B&W Negatives with VueScan

Recorded on November 7th, 2016

Luckily, when SilverFast started crashing tonight, I found this excellent tutorial from Tim Gray on Photo.net about how to use VueScan for black and white scans. There are some great tips here about how to avoid clipping highlights, picking the right Buffer setting in the Crop tab, and saving enough detail without creating unnecessarily large files. I especially like the idea of finding which channel is the sharpest in your scanner, and he has a cool base Tri-X curve that I have just now used in Lightroom with good results.

I still need a better process for dealing with dust. The dust is enough to make me want to outsource all the scanning. There must be a better way to deal with it with black and white.

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Infrared Dust Removal Is Confused by Kodachrome Slides

Recorded on November 6th, 2016

I learned tonight that infrared doesn’t pass (or doesn’t pass easily) through the silver halide in Kodachrome slide film. This hampers the effectiveness of IR-based dust & scratch removal like SilverFast uses. It starts seeing dark parts of the image as deep scratches that need to be removed. It’s still somewhat effective, and as long as you don’t crank it up too much you won’t get terrible false-alarm artifacts.

Thankfully, SilverFast has a parallel purely software-based dust & scratch filter that does a pretty good job in tandem with the IR-based filter. I’m still experimenting, but I think I’ve found a good middle ground:

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The Olympus XA Rangefinder; Dorothea Lange

Recorded on November 5th, 2016

One important thing to know about the original Olympus XA vs. the others in the XA series: The first XA (i.e. the “XA”, not the “XA1”), was the only one with a true rangefinder. The rest were either fixed-focus or scale-focusing systems. This is hugely important to know because it gives you precise control over what you want to focus on.

While reading the XA review and reprinted test report on the brilliant diaxa.com site, I saw this quote by Dorothea Lange:

“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

Wow. That’s what I find myself doing now. Noticing more stuff, thinking in a 50mm field of view even when I have no camera close by. So I looked for some more about her (she of the beautiful and haunting “Migrant Mother” portraits).

Here are some more of her quotes from PBS and Wikipedia:

“You put your camera around your neck in the morning, along with putting on your shoes, and there it is, an appendage of the body that shares your life with you. The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”

And:

“One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind. To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable. I have only touched it, just touched it.”

And this one, which is the most challenging:

“It is not enough to photograph the obviously picturesque.”

I am a fraud!

Thumbs-Up on the Plustek OpticFilm 8200i

Recorded on November 4th, 2016

I can’t believe how good the Plustek scanner is. It can give more resolution and better shadow and highlight detail (because I have more time to spend) than the Fuji Frontier scanner at a film lab I just sent a roll to. The only thing they can do better and faster is scratch and dust removal.

Below are two samples from a shot of Kodak Gold 400 from London in 1997. I tried to keep the captures as plain-vanilla as I could with no adjustments or scanner-software auto-correction. The first image is from an old Epson V500 flatbed document scanner. It does a lot better than I thought it would in comparison.

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The second image is from the new Plustek 8200i. Stunning. In the Epson, it feels like you’re looking at a picture of a negative. With the Plustek, it feels like you’re just looking at life.

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Highly recommended. I know what I’m doing this weekend!