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On Film: Forestalling Disappointment

Wed, 2018-01-10 12:49

For a while I’ve been tormented by the feeling that not enough people are writing about the joys of shooting film. It’s as if nobody got tired of digital and discovered a whole new world of arcana to master, nobody knows how much sexier an already sexy person is when they’re wearing a metal mechanical camera casually on one shoulder as they cavort with their lithesome friends – or, as if people have discovered these things but are selfishly hoarding the pleasures for themselves. Not me. I’m breaking the silence. Internet, prepare yourself.

In this first of a series of posts about the awesomeness of film photography that I’m calling “On Film,” I will explore how shooting film protects (albeit transiently) the photographer from the burden of failing, again and again, to capture the vision he or she reached for in releasing the shutter.

I think there was something here a split second before I took the photo, but maybe not even then. I continued on my merry way, hopeful in the sunshine. The failure was locked away in a latent image.

Now, there’s a related but different element of shooting film that’s already been thoroughly mapped out by those few folks who delve into such things on the web: delaying gratification. The idea is that film photography thwarts the instant gratification underlying the appeal of so many things digital. Digital chimping vs the languorous wait to develop film. Although it’s worth noting that the most commercially successful form of film photography of the millennium has the morpheme “insta” right in it and only makes you wait for a few minutes to see your image, let’s ignore that for the moment. The consensus among film shooters is that delayed gratification is part of the fun, and I agree.

I might have been a little drunk for this one. I probably saw something in the looming mass of the back, and hoped the low angle would lead somewhere fruitful. I didn't notice the other head on the right, and even without that, I wouldn't have caught the thing I was after.

But this understanding of delay elides (in a way that’s very symptomatic of our moment) the fact that film also delays something else: disappointment. I don’t think I’m breaking confessional barriers when I reveal that my own photographs often disappoint me. They not infrequently fail to convey the emotion or thought I intended when I tripped the shutter. With digital, this brutal truth is immediately accessible, and even though I leave instant review turned off I can’t always resist a peek. There, scant seconds after taking the picture, everything still in working memory, I must confront failure. Failure deserves its own time. It should be considered in private, like (and possibly with) a glass of nice whisky. It shouldn’t interfere with the moment of seeing, of experiencing. Film enforces this separation.

There was potential in the situation but it needed something else to bring it together, and in any case it's much too far away. 

Of course, there are happy surprises after development. All of life is not pain, no matter what those emo kids say. Gratification, however fleeting, is possible. But in the real world, there is also failure of vision, technical error, and always the slap of fickle chance. To review a roll of film is to discover all of this with our attention whole, not chopped up and ground into the flow of experience like so much sausage. And that is something good about film.

Scanning Film Doesn’t Have to Hurt: The Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250 Pro3 / Reflecta RPS 7200 / Magical Wondermachine Casual Review

Mon, 2017-11-20 20:18

Shooting film is fun. Developing film is kind of fun. But scanning film with consumer equipment is not fun. At all. It’s fiddly, it’s boring, and it’s a massive time suck. I used to laugh when I’d hear people say they shot film to “get away from the computer.” With a digital camera, the only time you have to spend in front of a computer is when you’re looking at your pictures. With the vast majority of dedicated film scanners (like the OpticFilm 7200 I started with), you’re fiddling tediously with the film holder every few minutes, for hours. In front of a computer.

Shot on film, scanned with close to no effort. Come closer, and I will whisper my secrets to you. Fujufilm Superia 400.

Now, some people swear by flatbed scanners, especially the Epsons, but that still involves film carriers and several passes to do a whole roll. Plus, I don’t have a permanent place to set up a scanner – I pack it away between uses, so size is a factor.

My dream, and here I admit to a notable lack of ambition if not vision, was something that would just suck a whole uncut roll of 35mm through at a go. Something like a Pakon 135, but a lot cheaper and more recently in production. I’d come across the Pacific Image / Reflecta models in my research, but remained unconvinced. People complain bitterly about them in the few user reviews that are available. They aren’t hideously expensive, buy they’re too expensive to take a flyer on.

Then, one fine day, Amazon suggested I buy a Pacific Image PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 (or Pro 3, or Pro3 – nice job, marketing -- alias Reflecta RPS 7200 in the old world), not for the $400 or so I remember it selling for, but for a mere $170 (as I write this a few months later, it remains on Amazon US at that price; if you're reading this in the distant future, perhaps as part of a university course about the most influential digital publications of the early millennium, or even just a few months from now, it'll probably be gone) . By then, I’d been suffering with the OpticFilm breadbox for long enough. I took a chance. And I do not regret it. If that’s all you want to know, you can stop reading now. Peace be with you.

Behold, two machines. They work together, despite having almost nothing in common. America, can’t you do the same?

 

What is Pacific Image? The company is Taiwanese, with an American beachhead in Torrance, California. Unlike Epson, Canon, and (in the time before) Nikon, it is not an imaging powerhouse or a household name. There’s something charmingly amateurish about its English-language website, which lives at “scanace.com.” The website, as well as the product packaging and documentation, suggest there’s not a big budget for marketing or visual design. The English translations are passable.

But Pacific Image is the only company making a consumer product that can scan a whole roll of 35mm film at a go. Which is amazing, when you think about it. Or not. Perhaps the problem with film scanner production is akin to the problem with film production itself. It’s not that there’s not enough demand to sell film profitably. Consider Ilford, happily cranking along all these years, with only black and white emulsions. Consider Astrum (Svema). The resuscitation of Film Ferrania. The problem isn’t that film can’t be made profitably – it’s that it can’t be made profitably at the scale that Kodak, Fujifilm and the various former big players used to do it. When Fuji kills an emulsion, it’s not because nobody wanted it – it’s because not enough people wanted it to make running an enormous production line economically feasible. That “not enough” might still be a lot of people, and someone who’s set up to for lower-capacity production can meet that demand profitably.

Straight analog to digital conversion. There aren’t many options to mess with in the included software. No film profiles, for example. Kodak UltraMax 400.

Thirty seconds of curves work improves the color. Is this cheating? When people begin to get brain implants and don’t disclose that in job interviews, will that be cheating? It’s a trick question, of course: by then there will be no jobs.

Similarly, maybe Epson can’t afford to pour the R & D into a dedicated 35mm film scanner that would sell quite a few units in the absolute, yet nothing at all relative to the volumes at which multinational conglomerates operate. But making a good scanner is frickin’ hard, which keeps Joe-Blow Kickstarter from just whipping one up for a couple thousand backers. So that leaves us with Pacific Imaging, which, like Ilford, somehow ended up in the goldilocks spot to meet current demand.  

So, I bought a scanner from Goldilocks. She has a pentagram inked on the back of her left hand these days, you know. Her sinister hand. All grown up. How time flies. The PrimeFilm 7250Pro3 is not perfect, but it’s not as bad as the user reviews would have you believe. I think I know why.

Firstly, many people’s woes are tied to the included CyberViewX software. The name and the UI design harken back to the days when PCs were commonplace but a camera was assumed to require film. The program is not that old, but looking at the dates of the reviews and the number of revisions the software has undergone, it seems that Pacific Image has straightened it out quite a bit since the scanner was introduced. And apart from being plug ugly, there’s not much to complain about. If you’re familiar with the basic concepts of film scanning, you can almost use it without reading the instructions. And if you have any experience with scanning software, you know that’s not a trivial achievement.

I ended up cropping this to fit Instagram. You, dear reader, get to the experience the original. Feel special. All that dead space on the top and bottom is intentional. Not because I didn't want to get too close. Superia 400.

And that leads to the second reason people bitch and moan, which is that you can’t unpack a film scanner and expect it to work like a toaster. A typical user review goes something like this: “I bought this to scan a suitcase of negatives I found in my uncle’s basement, and it didn’t work right.” Under the best of circumstances, these things are complicated. Pacific Imaging is selling specialized, niche products to ordinary people who are used to Apple products. They get pissed off if they can’t just turn it on and have it do what it says on the tin. But our world is not their world. And this is not, as I mentioned above, an Epson or Apple or Nikon product. This is from a small Taiwanese company you’d never heard of until you spotted this weird scanner on Amazon.

If you are one of us, and not one of them, and if you’re already suffering with a scanner that requires attention for every frame, you’ll find the 7250Pro3 a soothing balm on your fevered brow. You feed in the uncut film strip, line up the first frame, and away it goes. I set it at 3,600 dpi, half of what it’s rated for, which seems to be about the scanner’s true resolution limit (irrationally exuberant resolution specs are not unique to Pacific Imaging, I should note). It’ll do a roll of 36 exposures in two or three hours, I think. I’m usually asleep while it’s beavering away, and I haven’t really timed it. This is a casual review, remember.  

I routinely lift my face to heaven and thank the stars for having been born in the era of great television. Also, in this brief sliver of time between the advent of antibiotics and their exhaustion, the end of nuclear brinkmanship and its resumption, the discovery of carbon fuel's apparent blank check and the revelation of its horrific true cost. I exercise prospective nostalgia as a form of prayer. Agfa Vista Plus 200.

Are the scans perfect out of the gate? No. But the same can be said of my OpticFilm's output, and honestly, with my casual approach to home processing, my negs are not perfect to begin with. Luckily, I have years of experience in the digital darkroom, so correcting the images is a snap. If you don’t know how to process a digital image, scanning from film is likely to be problematic.

The ICE dust removable works a treat: I don’t even bother to dust my color negs before running them through. ICE doesn’t work with black and white, which actually discourages me from shooting it. Once you’ve experienced the infrared joy of automatic dust removal, the spot healing tool feels like washing dishes by hand, or raising your own children instead of dumping them off on the help. The little villains.

Ease of use aside, the scanner isn’t perfect. But who is? I’ve woken in the morning to find it frozen halfway through a roll, or that it misaligned the frames. I don’t care. It’s takes a couple of minutes to initiate a new run, and then I can get on with my life, away from my computer.

And what about quality? The short answer is: plenty good for me. If you really care, read this guy’s review. He seems to know what he’s talking about, and you’ll note that his tone is quite positive once he gets the vitriol about CyberView out of his system.

I like the Dutch. They have wrought their share of pain, but they did it early, and got out while the getting was good, and now we have largely forgotten. They mostly spent their money on the right things and now we can enjoy their beautiful houses these centuries later. Superia 400.

The one thing about a 35mm film scanner is that it only scans 35mm film (this one also does mounted slides, btw, but only one-by-one). You 120 shooters, you microfilm super-spies, you closeted 110 lovers, you sheet film dinosaurs, you daguerreotype mercury huffers, you’re out of luck. Go flatbed, or go home.

One tip: the manual says to scan emulsion side up. This results in the images being reversed, so I assumed it was an error. But no: I once scanned the same strip from both sides, and scanning with the emulsion up resulted in slightly sharper images. But then I discovered that doing it the right way often causes the scanner to choke a few frames into the roll. So doing it the wrong way is actually the right way, especially for Superia 400.

Harrow Technical: The Robin Gowing Interview

Wed, 2017-10-04 12:19

I’m going to detail at some point how I got embroiled with the Pentax MX, and almost escaped, and then, just when I thought I was out, got pulled back in. For now, I’ll just admit that recently I bought a particular MX knowing full well it had a problem, and planning to send it to Harrow Technical for the cure. In this manner, I reasoned, I would get the camera cheap and then end up with a perfect MX that I could trust. The devil made his usual appearance in the details, but I still ended up with a not-quite-cheap perfect MX thanks to the excellent service provide by one Robin Gowing, the man behind, or inside, Harrow Technical. (If he'd done a bad job I could have titled this post "A Harrowing Experience," but you can't have it both ways.)

Fancy camera fixing paraphernalia in Harrow's workshop. Is that a lens collimator? A shutter speed tester? I don't really know but I'd love to poke buttons and twist knobs here. Robin would probably frown on that, though I doubt he'd raise his voice. Anyway, I wasn't there -- Robin courteously, and with minimal prodding, provided the photos for this post (apart from the one I stole from Google below). 

Who is this Jesus to my metal Lazarus? Who chooses to labor, not in the rich, loamy fields of Leica Land, but in the stony talus of Pentax? I called him to find out.

I reached him at his office in Harrow, a suburb of London. He sounds much younger than he must be, and comes across as the kind of person who might stop to help a stranded motorist, even if that motorist wasn't particularly attractive or deserving looking. And if that motorist was your daughter or mother and you tracked down Robin and tried to explain to him how grateful you were that it was him that stopped that night, he would just smile affably and suggest that it was nothing, which is what anyone would say, but he would actually believe it, which is the thing. This may be a lot to infer from a twenty minute phone call about old cameras. I'm just trying to say, he sounds like a nice guy. 

Robin began working at Pentax only a couple of years after I was born, and I am no longer particularly young. He eventually became the technical service manager for Pentax in the UK, the title he held until the company cut its internal staff loose and farmed service out to a third party. In a twist, he stayed on, occupying the building of his former employer, which today is still proudly designated “Pentax House” in large white letters. Are the halls gray lino? Do they echo with the ghosts of film's glory days? I didn't ask, and Robin didn't volunteer. In any case, he’s been repairing Pentax cameras on his own for the last 22 years, a solitary light in a vast darkness.

Pentax House, as seen by Google Street View. If it was called House Pentax, I would have made a Game of Thrones reference. It would have been more clever than something about winter coming. This post is trying to write itself across multiple timelines, alternate realities.

So Robin, how's tricks?

“I’m very busy at the moment,” he said. “I find that a lot of people who’ve bought a Pentax digital camera have sold a film camera to fund the purchase, and now they’ve gone back and bought, second hand, the film model they sold.”

What about the “film renaissance” we’re always hearing about?

“I’m certainly a lot busier than I was a couple of years ago,” he said.

And who are these people that send him their treasures for resuscitation?

“A character just came in today with an MX that he’d bought new and looked like he’d used a lot. Or somebody will just drag something out of a cupboard. And a lot of stuff is inherited from deceased parents.”

An MX (not mine, possibly the character's) on Robin's work bench.

But central to Robin’s business is, of course, the entity that is the cause of and solution to so many of the problems faced by people with an unhealthy interest in old cameras.

“I find a lot of people buy stuff on eBay, and it’s not always faulty, but it always need service.”

Still, he thinks it’s a good deal.

“You can buy an MX on eBay for 50 or 60 pounds, then you factor in [my] service cost, about 80 quid, so for 140 pounds you have a camera that’s going to last you indefinitely.”

What’s coming in?

“I get a lot of MXs, LXs, any sort of Spotmatic, the KX, K2, K1000 [which he called a K-thousand – have I been saying it wrong with the one all this time?]. That’s the bulk of what I get.”

I wanted him to dish some dirt on the Pentax family, who’s made of the sternest stuff, but like a loving father, he refused to play favorites, even though he obviously prefers the star footballer.

“They’re all reliable. I still get SVs, S1As, S3s, going back to the late 50s and early 60s. I get quite a few of those from overseas, and touch wood, I’ve not had one back yet.”

I was surprised to learn that Robin doesn’t shoot film himself (“I have a Panasonic bridge camera that I use, and that’s all I use.”) but in retrospect I suppose I shouldn’t have been. He’s a tradesman, not a hobbyist or a camera fetishist. This is his job. Outside of it, he’s probably a normal person.

Robin was bullish on film in general: “It’d definitely not a flash in the pan. It’s kept me busy for 20 years, and as I said I’m busier now.” But I wondered about the future of his profession. Is there anyone to pass the baton to?

“This is a question I’m asked quite often,” he said. “There are a lot of people my age in the trade, and eventually they’re all going to retire or die off. Who’s going to replace them? They’ve got a lot of knowledge, and there’s nobody else coming into the trade, so it’s a bit of a worry really. Eventually there may be no one left to repair this old stuff.”

This strikes me as particularly true for Pentax. The high value of Leica gear justifies high service fees, which seems to feed a fairly vibrant service ecosystem. Plus, Leica itself still exists as a maker and servicer (albeit at exorbitant cost) of Leica film gear. Nikon seems to have its own world of film-era specialists, and there’s a lot of Nikon gear floating around to support. But when it comes to people who just do Pentax, I’ve only come across Harrow and one other option. Robin has heard of him, too.

“There’s a guy in the States, Eric… Hendrickson, I think? He’s very good. Apart from him, I don’t know anyone else who specializes in Pentax anywhere.”

(And yet Eric offers us hope, in an interview conducted by one K David last year: “I’m training this gal on the K1000, and she’s really good, really talented.” Can I be forgiven for imagining emergent-Jedi Rey deftly removing the top plate, guided by an old master and her innate sense of the Force?)

A wider view of the work bench, since Robin took the trouble to photograph it. The same MX in déshabillé, fumbling hastily for its bottom plate. Looks like some Bonne Maman jam jars back there, probably full of specialty greases and oils. Let's hope Robin doesn't get his marmalade mixed up with his Nye 140C!   

I asked Robin for some maintenance do’s and don’ts.

“I wish people wouldn’t squirt WD-40 into their cameras,” he said. “You’ve be surprised how often that happens and it’s a real pain to deal with. Oh, and the foam where the mirror goes up, that’ll start to disintegrate and they’ll pick and pick at it, and it’ll get all over the focusing screen. It’s a bugger to clean off, or it’s impossible. And screens aren’t available… I have to harvest them from my stock of faulty cameras, which is time-consuming.” Consider yourself warned.

I also asked him about something that I’m kind of embarrassed to have worried about: Can he tell if a camera’s been sitting on a shelf for ages with the shutter cocked?

“Yes, you can tell. It doesn’t matter so much with the ME Super [which has a metal, vertical-travel shutter] and stuff, but on the cloth shutters, you’ll see that the material will have little ridges in it because it’s been wound over the drum for twenty years.” But wait. “That in itself isn’t detrimental, it just looks unsightly, but strangely enough it doesn’t affect the shutter speeds.” So there you have it. Relax, or don’t, depending on whether or not your obsessiveness extends to the appearance of your shutter curtains.