State of the Art

Me, Mamiya C330f, Leica M6TTL, Biogon 35 F2

Photo courtesy of headsticks.com

It’s been about nine months since I’ve done much blogging. In that time, I’ve moved to DC, sold my car, started a new job, been promoted twice, been to lots of museums and a few plays, bought an iPhone, ate some good Korean food, updated to WordPress 3, wrote a new theme and shot almost 100 rolls of film. It’s been busy, and I’m not going to spend my whole day off going into the details, so here’s the current state of the art in brief.

Cameras and Lenses

I still carry my M6TTL almost everywhere, usually with just a single lens, most often the CV 35 1.4 SC, but also the Biogon 35 F2 or the Hexanon 50 F2. The 28 and the 90 mostly stay on the shelf.

On the weekends, I sometimes shoot with the Beast, a Mamiya C330f with an 80mm F2.8 lens and a sticky shutter. I wish it had a built in meter, but I’m getting better at guessing exposures or using the M6TTL for metering. I saw someone carrying a Mamiya 7 II the other day; those have meters in them, right?

I also shoot occasionally with an Olympus OM2 and 50mm F1.8. The OM2 replaced a dead OM1 with a sticky mirror. I like it enough that I often think of buying an OM4 and that ridiculously over priced 40mm F2.

Tamrac straps on everything, the kind with leather pads and quick release buckles.

Film & Developer

The last three to four months I’ve mostly been shooting TMY2, about 30 rolls of it so far, but I’ve also shot a couple of rolls of Provia 100 and other odds and ends that have been at the bottom of the film bin for too long. I’m developing with XTOL stock almost exclusively. TMY2 developed in full strength XTOL forgives many exposure errors and scans with very little apparent grain. XTOL is pain in the ass to mix up, but a batch stored in eight 600ml Nalgene bottles lasts 16 rolls of 35mm, so mixing it up is at least an infrequent chore. There’s half a bottle of Rodinal on the shelf for emergencies.

DC’s tap water doesn’t leave hard water stains on negatives, so I’m not even using filtered water anymore except for the final dunk in PhotoFlo.

Scanning & Post

I’m using a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000, still the most expensive piece of photo gear I’ve ever purchased. I’m scanning to 16 bit greyscale tiffs using Vuescan’s Tmax 400 Pro preset. Crucial detail; the crop buffer is set to 10%.

Some quick curves, sharpening and adding a border completes the post work. A flickr pro account gives me unlimited space, so I export a jpeg large enough of to make a 6X9 print and archive to flickr for safe keeping. Near-line storage goes onto a pair of mirrored WD drives. Working files get backed up with Timemachine.

Printing

My Epson R2400 died from neglect months ago. I’ve replaced all the inks, but the magenta stills says it’s empty. I’ve considered getting it fixed or just replacing it, but I never printed that much anyway apart from infrequent bouts of misguided discipline. As an alternative to home printing, I’ve just assembled and ordered my first blurb book. We’ll see how that goes.

Stuck (06160011)

C330f, 80 f2.8, Neopan 400, 120, Xtol 1:1

C330f, 80 f2.8, Neopan 400, 120, Xtol 1:1

Looking over the scans from the first rolls of 120, I’m realizing that I forgot to set vuescan’s whitepoint to 0, hence, these scans will show some – 1% is the default – areas as pure white. I had to reset vuescan to its defaults before I could get it scan 120 without crashing; resetting to defaults seems to be the vuescan panacea, but it always takes me a while to remember to put back all of my preferences.

Some Notes on Currently Available Digital Cameras

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Really, these are for my own benefit, so don’t take them too seriously. The nearest sizable camera store is 2.5 hours away in Chicago, so while we were in Portland, I stopped at a couple of camera stores just to check out what some of the newer digital cameras are like. My last digital camera was a Nikon D80, purchased almost three years ago now, and sold not that long after. It seems like things must have improved since then, and so they have.

Canon & Nikon

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The Canon and Nikon APS-C models seem like really pretty decent cameras now. I was primarily looking at the low end models as I don’t want anything as large as D300 or 50D. The D60, D5000 and Rebel models all sport totally usable viewfinders and highly evolved user interfaces both physical and on screen. The Nikon models seem to have slightly better viewfinders, but on all of them I could manually focus the fairly slow kit zooms with little problem, so good news there. Bad news, the grips on these things are all beyond pointless. I don’t understand the fascination people have with molded grips in general, but on a camera this small, those grips force you to hold the camera in such a way that your knuckles knock against the lens barrel.

I also played with the 5D II and the D700. Yep, those viewfinders are big, but not really all that bright compared to something like an OM-1 or an FM2. AF performance on both seemed snappy-ish but not really all that great, although both were mounted with fairly slow zooms. They were solid seeming cameras, but ridiculously big. You’d have to pay me a lot more than most pro-photographers make to carry one of these things, but I thought the same of the big, pro level Canon and Nikon film bodies of yore. Many pros must have felt the same then given how many used to carry FM2s or F3s.

One sentence review of the Canon G10; that interface is better thought out than any other digital camera out there.

Sony & Pentax

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No one seems to carry the full line for either of these manufacturers. One store had the A900, the other the A300. Neither seemed as highly evolved as the Canon and Nikon competition. No one had the Pentax K7, a camera that certainly sounds good in the online reviews. Wish that I could have seen it.

Olympus

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Nope, no one had an E-P1, but I wasn’t really looking for one of those anyway. It’s the E620 and E450 that I’ve been really curious about. No one had the E450, but the E420 seems like a nice little camera, and a lot smaller in practice than the Canon or Nikon APS-C bodies, particularly with a lens mounted. That pancake 25 is a tiny little thing. The viewfinder of the E420 was better than that of the A300, but not quite up to the current Canon and Nikon APS-C cameras.

The E620, while really only slightly smaller than the Canon and Nikon cameras, fit much more nicely in my hand. The abbreviated grip makes a lot of sense, and my hand just naturally fell into position. Other controls worked just as you expect them to by this point. The rotating screen seems like an interesting idea, but it’s hard to tell how it would out in practice. It does make the camera a bit fatter. The viewfinder, while larger than the E420, is still not quite as nice as those on the Canon and Nikon, but I was able to manually focus the slowish 12-60 F4 without any problems. That’s quite a lens, btw, and if I knew what to do with all those focal lengths, it would be the ticket.

And it’s on that question of lenses where Olympus still seems to be ahead of the curve. I like an angle of view equivalent to something between 35 and 50. Anywhere in there will do. Right now, the Olympus E series is the only thing offering a compact, moderately fast lens in that range. The Sigma 30 F1.4, while a fine performer, is a beast, as is the new Nikon 35 1.8. The Canon 28 1.8 is similarly sized. That Oly pancake 25 is tiny though, so small, in fact, that it makes the slightly larger E-620 a very appealing camera. If anyone at Olympus headquarter is listening, make a 20 F2.8. It can be a bit larger than the 25, but not too much. Come on, you know you want to hearken back to the 40 F2 for the OM line.

What I’m Buying

I’m not buying anything at the moment. My pennies are accumulating for a medium format camera, I think a Yashica-Mat 124G, which seem like a good entry point for me. Not sure how I’ll handle the world being reversed, but I don’t always know my left from my right anyway, so I’m sure I’ll figure it out eventually. I’ll be keeping my eye on that E-620 though. I think I could have fun with one of those, and with a 25MM lens, extra battery, CF card etc, the whole kit would be less than I’ve paid for any of my three previous DSLR bodies alone, and that’s a real consideration at the moment.

Nikon Digital RF

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See all those scratches? That’s the life of a film photographer.

Rumors of a Nikon Digital RF resurfaced this week. The source seems to be an Aussie CV dealer. Details are sketchy – M mount, 6-7 MP, shipping in kit form with a redesigned pancake 45MM 2.8 – but the available details are more interesting than the ridiculous frankenstein-like feature set of last September’s rumor (here and here). At first glance, 6-7 MP seems a bit off the mark, but there may be good reasons for that low MP count. The 45mm 2.8 suggests that this will be a full frame camera; who would ship a kit with a fixed length lens equivalent to anything longer than 50mm? If it is full frame, perhaps lowering the MP count helped them solve the problems of vignetting and color shift in the corners. Maybe micro-lenses are easier to work with when they aren’t quite so micro. A low MP count would certainly give good noise performance, which might mean that you could just handle all the vignetting with software. Or, perhaps the low MP count means it isn’t a bayer pattern sensor. Perhaps it’s a monochrome only sensor, or something foveon like. Or, perhaps it’s a Fuji sensor. That might be interesting, because it might mean that the camera isn’t even a Nikon, but actually a Fuji. Their DSLRs have never really taken off, so maybe Fuji is looking for a different way into the market for higher end digitals. Hey, if they think they can make money on a new 6X7 RF, why not a digital RF?

Setting aside the Fuji angle for a moment, let’s think about why Nikon would bother with a digital rangefinder. Nostalgia? Could be. They did design some pretty kick ass rangefinders back in the day, and they keep reissuing them too. There’s a certain stubbornness in doing this, an insistence that things of quality are worth making, logic be damned. The profits on the SP 2005 can’t have been much, if anything. A digital rf would seem to take that stubbornness to a whole new level. Is Nikon that nuts? Well, they have brought out a new film camera more recently than even Leica (F6=2004, MP=2003). That’s pretty nuts.

Setting aside the general quirkiness of Nikon for a moment, there maybe sound financial reasons for doing something like this, particularly if the camera isn’t really a rangefinder at all. Maybe it’s more like a digital Hexar AF. There would be some logic in this. Canon has shown with the success of the G9 that photographers want a sophisticated compact digital camera. A fixed lens, fixed focal length full frame digital compact might sell, particularly if the low MP count meant that the cost was not stratospheric. Sure, it would cost more than a G9, but a big sensor would let many photographers take it a lot more seriously. Heck, keep the build quality high and the controls simple and put in a good viewfinder and you might even get a few of those folks still hanging onto film.

I’m interested in these rumors of a Nikon digital rf because I’ve nearly decided to buy a digital M after this year’s Photokina. Why wait? If an M9 or, more likely, an M8.2 is coming anytime soon, Photokina seems the logical time for Leica to make the announcement. If they do, and it doesn’t appear to suck, I’ll buy one. If the presumptive successor shows signs of sucking, I’ll buy a used M8 at what will hopefully be somewhat slightly discounted prices. I’m not holding my breath for a digital ZI or the rumored Nikon, but Photokina would seem the likely place to announce either of those as well.

Why am I’m interested? I love film, but there are days when the thought of scanning another negative makes me want curl up in the corner and forget about photography. I don’t expect digital to be any less work or any less frustrating, but it might be time to give myself the opportunity to experience different kinds of frustration. It’s been almost two years since I bought my last digital, so I’m about due. I’d like to be able to take a break from film, and I also have some ideas about working in color. A few project ideas that have been percolating in my head would also benefit from the higher fidelity of digital. I can’t get on with any of the current crop of DSLRs though. The controls give me fits and the viewfinders just aren’t designed for glasses wearers, so it’s gotta be a rangefinder.

Update: Between this interview over at PopPhoto and the Economist article linked in the comments, something like a digital CL sounds more likely than a revamped M8.

Sunday Afternoon at the Blind Pig (04500028/30/34/35)

Hexar RF, 50 Hex, TriX, Xtol
Hexar RF, 50 Hex, TriX, Xtol
Hexar RF, 50 Hex, TriX, Xtol
Hexar RF, 50 Hex, TriX, Xtol

The camera is Kate’s new Samsung NV15. She wanted something pocketable with good manual controls. Out of all the shiny digicams at the big box store, the Samsungs seem to be the only ones with an interface that makes sense. Instead of the normal profusion of dials, four-way pads, and select buttons, the NV15 uses one top dial to select the mode – manual, auto, etc – and array of touch sensitive bumps along the sides of the LCD. It’s kind of like a touch screen interface, just with the buttons off the screen, if that makes sense. In any event, it’s a fast and intuitive interface because nothing gets buried under layers of menus. The image quality isn’t half bad either.

Oh, so that’s what they mean

Hexar RF, 50 Hex, TriX, Xto
Nature’s histogram?

A couple of weeks a ago I bought a copy of ColorNeg. Colin has written extensively about using ColorNeg with VueScan’s raw scans, so I thought I’d give it a shot. The trial version of the plugin is pretty much worthless as it obscures the results with a heavy grid of noise, but I plumped down my sixty bucks anyway. I was quickly disappointed. Although ColorNeg worked wonders with some scans, with others it turned out flat, muddy junk. ColorNeg’s manual suggest that non-linear scans are to blame for poor results. I’d been scanning in 16 bit linear mode on my Scan Dual IV, but I thought it was possible that the scans weren’t truly linear. That ‘linear’ scans using the negative and positive settings didn’t look exactly the same lent some credence to this hypothesis. In hopes of getting truly linear scans, I plunked down another $80 for VueScan Pro. Ah, now that works.

Hexar RF, 50 Hex, TriX, Xto
Has Kate seen the light too?

Call me a convert. After years of dismissing VueScan as irrelevant at best, I’ve discovered what many already knew; VueScan’s raw scanning feature is the bomb for B&W. If you let VueScan do the inversions, it’s no better than any other scanner software, but the raw scans are something else entirely. The raw Tiffs are all bunched up in the highlights, but they expand nicely, much more so than simple positive scans. I suspect that this means I will no longer have to result to underdevelopment to protect the highlights in my negs, which should help shadow detail, something that suffered with my previous technique. A little extra PS work is required, and there is room for error here, but in the end, the raw scans make scanning much more predictable. In some ways, it’s more like working in a darkroom; I can tell by looking at the negative how I should work it in PS, something which wasn’t always possible before.

Hexar RF, 50 Hex, TriX, Xto
After a night of celebrating the glories of VueScan

I should note at this point that I still haven’t had much luck with ColorNeg. It does work, but not significantly better than doing the inversions and adjustments on my own. It does seem to work better with TriX and HP5 than with Delta 400, which makes me suspect that its gamma is geared towards working with films with a more traditional curve than the straight line T grain films. I haven’t played around with it enough to be sure.

Filed under Doh!

“Beautiful Becoming Dim” (04040016)

Hexar RF, 50 Hex, Delta 400 in Diafine

For the source of this quote, see this auspiciousdragon post about the new Zeiss Sonnar in S mount. This rumor about a new Nikon S mount digital RF is probably just that, a rumor, but it’s just outrageous enough to be believable. Have Nikon and Zeiss built a relationship around the ZF lenses (or is the F mount public domain)? Are Zeiss, Cosina and Nikon working together to bring out a full frame digital Zeiss Ikon or updated digital Nikon SP rangefinder? Or is some forum nut laughing his but off right now? Magic eight ball says “answer unclear.” Ok, actually, the first time around it didn’t understand the question. The second time around, after I capitalized and punctuated the question, it answered yes. I’m not sure I trust oracular pronouncements from something that needs punctuation in order to understand the question.

3.5 Million Pictures + 1: An Explanation of the Serial Numbers

Hexar RF, 50 Hex, Delta 400, Tmax Dev
Picture number 03580035?

Marek asks “have you already made more than three and a half million pictures in your life Matt?” Er, well no, not exactly. Here’s how the serial numbers work. The first four digits are the roll number. The last four digits are the frame number. Any letters indicate that there are multiple workings of that particular frame. So picture 03520008b (Thinking Wide), is the second (b) version of frame 8 of roll 352. Why 8 digits? Room for growth. Who knows, film may one day come in 9999 frame rolls 😉 I’ll wish I had gone for 16 digits when I break 10,000 rolls of film, but until then the system works.

I started using this numbering scheme just a few years back, so I actually have shot more than 382 rolls of film (scanning 383 as we speak). Really, I have. For each frame from each of those 383 rolls, there are a number of resulting files. 16 bit 3200 DPI TIFFS of the original scans get archived off to external drives. Full resolution JPEGS of every frame go into a folder on my computer for back up and quick reference. Thumbnails, the 740px wide images that end up on this site, of the edited frames go into an Index folder divided up into 50 roll sub-folders (Roll 1-50, Roll 51-100, etc). These Index folders are easy to eyeball for just the frame I’m looking for, and, since they just contain 100kb or less jpegs, they browse quickly even on my crappy computer, much faster than browsing in Photoshop for example. For each frame, the file number stays the same through all the different file sizes and types. So for frame 03520008 there’s 25mb 16bit TIFF (03520008.tiff), the PSD file I print from (03520008.psd), the full size JPEG (03520008.jpg) in the JPEGS folder, the small web sized JPEG in the Index folder (also 03520008.jpg), and the alternate version presented in the previous post (03520008b.jpg). It is not necessarily efficient for disk space concerns, but it makes things easy to find.

Computers Don’t Byte (03000017)

Hexar RF, ZM Biogon 35, Delta 400

If the sign says it, it must be true. This is a “lost” frame discovered while I was doing some backups; I could have sworn that I posted it before, but I couldn’t find the post.

Not through any design, other than sheer laziness, I tend to do my backups in cycles. When I start running out of room on the internal drive(which keeps happening ever more frequently with all those Battlestar Gallactica episodes clogging up my iTunes directory), I make a compressed copy (jpgs) of all the scans and archive the originals (tiffs) off to an external drive. When I get time, I go back and burn dvd’s of the tiff and offsite the jpgs to my webiste. In this process I usually find a couple of good frames that got missed during the first round of editing. In this case, so far I’ve got the frame above (wouldn’t that look great in my office?), a neat picture of some shoes dangling from a power line, and a sort of American Gothic meets the 21st century portrait of Kate and me.

There’s not really a moral to that story. Just explaining why the image numbers suddenly jumped back 30 rolls.

OK, fine, you want a moral. Keep everything. Do your backups. And revisit your old stuff occasionaly.