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Going retro with a return to film

I recently bought a new (old) film camera.  To be honest the actual camera, an Olympus OM2n, was a bit of a bonus.  What I was really after was the lenses.  I have an OM to MFT adapter for my OM-D but no lenses to go with it.  I got the OM2n, a 50mm f1.8, 28mm f2.8 and 135mm f3.5 for £150 with an OM to NEX adapter thrown in.  This is a reassuringly hefty lump of metal and glass for budget modern lens money.

Olympus OM2n with 50mm f1.8, 28mm f2.8 & 135mm f3.5 

OFT meteringIn the late 70s early 80s when I was just getting into SLRs, it was Pentax and Olympus who dominated the consumer market.  When I started a camera club at my school in the 6th form, the weapon of choice was the Pentax ME Super or OM10.  If your parents were a bit less generous or your summer job less lucrative you probably had a K1000.  When I chose my own camera I was torn as I was moving up from the diminutive Pentax Auto 110 but also had a fondness for my dad's Olympus 35RC rangefinder.  My summer job was more lucrative than most, but it was not so good that I could afford an OM2.  I am pretty sure I had the big multi page brochure (on paper - how quaint) and would marvel at its Off the Film TTL metering off the film plane .  In the end I took the road less travelled and went for the Pentax MX which sat somewhere between the OM1 and OM2 in sophistication.  Like the OM1 it was a manual camera but had a more sensitive gallium arsenide meter and LEDs.  This was the era of the LED digital watch and your level of coolness was directly related to the number of functions your LED chronometer possessed.  I would recommend anyone wanting to learn the fundamentals of photography buy a manual camera.  I know auto cameras have manual modes but somehow it's never quite the same.

OM2n lines up against its contemporary the Pentax MX

OK that's enough nostalgia for the moment, lets get back to owning a film camera in 2013.  It dawned on me once I had got to the other end of town that I didn't have any film, at least nothing dated this millennia.  I popped into Boots the Chemist to by a roll to test the camera with.  The used to have a whole aisle for this kind of thing but now I didn't find any except a few rolls of colour negative film.  I wanted to go fully retro and shoot black and white so it was back to the camera shop.  Even there the pickings were slim, but I managed to pick a 24exp Ilford FP4. 

The following weekend I headed back into town to shot my test roll.  I had found the manual online (blissfully short and to the point compared to the OM-D) and was locked and loaded.  The camera felt hewn from solid compared to modern cameras and everything seemed to be working.  I was a little concerned the metering was a bit optimistic.  As this was a test, I decided to stick to aperture priority and not to try and second guess it.  This is a very tense act of faith with a film camera.   

FP4 is a 125 ISO film and quite fine grained so I was looking for a nice range of tones and good detail.  It was close to midday (too much time spent mucking around trying to test the meter) and intermittently sunny. Chester's Tudor style black and white buildings and stone walls are probably as good a place as any for this kind of shoot.  I spent most time around the medieval cathedral.  I was swapping between the lenses as I needed to test those too. 

I was determined not to rush things.  With just 24 shots you don't want to screw up too much.  Challenge number one is to think only in luminance and not in colour.  The second problem is to try and check the whole composition looking for any distracting elements.  Then it's down to timing either due to light changes or moving elements.  One old chestnut is when to wind on.  My muscle memory still wants to whack that winder right after the shot.  It's really annoying to have that perfect moment only to find a soggy shutter.  However, I did blow a couple of my precious frames accidentally triggering the shutter when changing lenses.  One shock after the OM-D was how shaky things were even on a 135mm.  Obviously running on caffeine rich blood is not the preparation to retro photography.  I was rather pleased that I resisted the reflex look at the back of the screen after a shot.  Also focus is really easy with the old split screen, even if the ground glass element makes things look a little murky after the 5D.   All too soon I felt that tension in the winder that says no more shots so I dropped them in at the lab.  I asked for 5x7 prints so I would have a bigger print to scan and then it was back home.

It's been a long time since I have had that anticipation of going to pick up a set of prints.  The tension of whether that shot you thought you nailed was nailed or more screwed.  As usual, it was a mixed bag.  The first good news was the OM2n is still a better judge of exposure than I am, so they had at least come out.  A few I even liked.  Many of the cathedral shots looked a bit flat.  I think this is because hundreds of years of weathering has left the stone quite dark.  The machine prints from the lab use an auto exposure which tries to turn the stone mid grey removes a lot of the image contrast.  This is why I always preferred transparencies.  Unless you get your prints handmade, it's the best way to get what you intended.

Negative scan left, print scan right

I felt I needed to verify my suspicions about the prints but how?  Remember, negatives are a bit tricky to judge as they are small and, well, negative.  My local lab doesn't have a scanner so I decided to try myself.  I only have a multi-function printer for scanning but it was, in its day, Canon all-singing-all-dancing model the MP990.  This has a film scanner mode which I have never used despite it being a big draw to this model when I bought it.  Turns out, scanning is tedious - who knew?  However, it did work a lot better than expected.  The scanner offers 1200, 2400 and 4800dpi which works out at a 2, 7 or 30MP file.  Scanning time varies from 3 minutes for a set of 4 at 1200 up to 14mins at 4800.  The scanner automatically spots the images and makes them positives.  It also seems to make a much better job of judging the exposure than the lab's printer does or it's gots it default well set.  I am generally much happier with the scans than I am with the prints.

Link to the scanned image gallery

Now you can do your normal digital adjustments.  Is it as flexible as conversion from a colour raw file?  No, you don't have as much flexibility.  I tend to use digital filters in my conversions but you can do that with a mono scan, there is no colour to "bend".  You can see the grain but I would regard that as being an artistic choice.  I have some plugins which simulate film grain so it will be interesting to see how simulated FP4 compares to the real deal.  I have a roll of faster, grainier HP5 and some Velvia 50 tranny stock to try too at some point.

All-in-all, I am happy with my film experiment.  Using (and paying) for film again does remind you just why digital is the future.  It's very expensive and your control over the end result is limited unless you are or know a good printer or own a decent scanner.  However, the tactile pleasure of an OM2 or the unique character of FP4 serve to remind us what we have lost in the pursuit of progress.

OM2n with its descendant the OM-D E-M5


Jack be Nimble update

I have just uploaded my first video made for the blog.  It is a companion piece for Jack be Nimble and is a review of my mirrorless outfit that I now use for travelling.

I also have some sample images taken whilst in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.


The rise of 4K and the Conundrum of the 1DC

Just a few years ago, I darkened the door of my first broadcast exhibition.  There have been many since.  Back in those days the big beast striding the halls was 3D.  The massed ranks of the electronic industry were desperate to convince you that you needed a 3D strategy.  If you only cared about 2D then your market was about to be flat.  As I wandered the shiny things and flashing lights of this year's BVExpo in London 3D was notable mainly by its absence.  So what are the cool kids playing with this year?  Well that would be 4K sir.  I wouldn't say that it had quite the same razzmatazz behind it as 3D did, but there was definitely an underlying theme.


Like 3D, 4K is not something you can easily see at home without the right equipment.  So a show like BVE is the best place to get your own eyes on the effect.  What 4K is about is resolution.  With at least 4x the number of pixels as 1080p, 4K or UltraHD is a big jump in resolution.  Technically it presents fewer curve balls than 3D, it is mainly a question of data and how to deal with it.  However, there are still a lot more unknowns than there was with 3D.  Even in those early days of 3D we knew a lot more about how it was going to reach our screens whether that was at the local multiplex or in our own lounge.  Most of the cinemas I frequent are already projecting in 4K but the domestic arrangements are still barely pencilled in.

So if you are not producing your output for the Odeon or Vue, should you care?  Is this another fad?  My own feeling is that it is more than a fad.  I personally think it is inevitable but that its rate of advance is far from certain.  These are my latest thoughts based on the show floor and attending Philip Bloom's presentation on the Canon 1DC.

On the show floor, a number of stands had 4K monitors of around 50inches or less.  The did look good but then so does a high end 1080p monitor.  Even very close its very hard to see a pixel and this has a benefit on disguising noise.  The problem is that you don't have to move very far from the screen for that to be also true of HD.  I am not sure that I would be able to tell them apart on a 50in screen at say 4m - roughly what I have in my lounge.  The same was pretty much true when I moved up from 720p to 1080p.  This is very typical setup in the UK.  Love it or hate it, 3D does offer an alternative experience.  The gain from 4K in the living room seems marginal.

Philip Bloom made his presentation in the 4K theatre.  This featured a commercial 4K projector but the screen was on a more domestic scale.  It can be hard to judge in a much larger room but it looked quite similar to my own 8ft screen.  All the 4K material Philip showed came from the Canon 1DC of which more later.  So we are still at a domestic scale albeit a much higher end source.  It didn't really change my opinion, once again it looked good, but not a huge upgrade over a good HD projector.  I am sure 4K has a lot more in hand but I am still unconvinced the domestic scale quite warrants it.  At the moment that is academic as there is still a gap which is the delivery mechanism.  Sony have something planned to support their devices but I haven't seen any firm details.  Just as I write this there are stories breaking about 4K streaming on the PS4 and talk of 100GB files.  If you live in the sticks like I do then it might as well be delivered on gold bricks.  RED also have plans but again details are sketchy and I wonder about what content they will have the rights to deliver.  This is a notoriously difficult area to navigate, especially internationally.  The data rates I have heard mentioned for RED are much lower, almost in the too good to be true bracket.  They have some clever guys there but I have seen instances in the HD realm where data rates have not expanded to match resolution multiples to the detriment of overall image quality.  There is a lot of hard maths involved in balancing data rate, resolution, frame rate, colour and compression. Any compromise here would undermine the 4K advantage and put me off entirely.  I don't want to seem negative, I just have high expectations.  I have seen films at the cinema recently like Skyfall and Lincoln projected in 4K that have looked sensational.  Skyfall was not even acquired in 4K but it did not seem to impact the end result to my eyes.

Acquisition is perhaps the area we know most about.  Available on RED from its inception and increasingly appearing in camera systems from Sony, Canon and others.  The Canon 1DC is more or less the entry level option available now.  There is this strange dichotomy where it is "cheap" for a 4K camera but very expensive for a DSLR.  It is twice the cost of its very close relative, the 1DX.  One advantage it has is that 4K recording is on board - something its more expensive relative the C500 can't manage.  The downside is that the codec used is more limited.  Compression is higher than alternative products particularly when it comes to colour space.  So is it worth the money over the 1DX?

Philip Bloom at BVE London

One person who thinks so is Philip Bloom.  Philip explained that he had all the reservations I have shared before using the camera.  He had already been converted by the performance of his 1DX, used very effectively here in this Olly Knights music video.  He still regarded himself as a 4K skeptic.  However, after trying a 1DC he found himself trading up.  The primary reason was the detail in the image.  Comparing images from a still frame (say, from a time-lapse sequence) with a frame from a video sequence can be depressing.  So much detail is lost in the moving frame.  This is just not the case with 1DC.  Philip equates the moving frame quality from the 1DC in 4K with a medium jpeg.  This was very clear in the image blow-ups that Philip shared with us.  This was the killer feature that convinced him, bolstered by the advantages of being able to reframe for HD or high quality masters.  It's not the perfect camera, it still has most of the DSLR foibles and the codec is limited in speed and gradability.  However, Philip feels that its improvement in image quality combined with traditional DSLR strengths of size, low light capabilty and stills ability is worth the investment.  It was hard to disagree looking at a new music video project shot on the 1DC.  Though I must admit that I soon forgot to pixel peep and just enjoyed the images and the song - just how it should be.

4K interface unit and recorder for FS700

For me personally the 1DC doesn't really fit my needs.  Some time in July (allegedly), Sony will release the 4K upgrades for my FS700.  Like with Phil's move from the X to the C there will likely be a substantial investment required.  An investment difficult to justify on the basis of need (stop laughing - I know thats never stopped me before).  It may also be sometime before I can even enjoy the full benefits of the improved acquisition.  Even discounting my early adopter nature, I still have a nagging doubt that I may regret not adopting 4K in the long term.  This coming from a man contemplating ordering a skip to dump my VHS tapes and driven to distraction by accidentally watching the DVD of Skyfall before he discovered where they had hidden the Blu-ray disk in the box.


Concerning Hobbits...

After weeks of studiously avoiding all references to Peter Jackson’s new epic from Middle Earth, I can finally emerge from my Hobbit hole and add my own voice to those echoing across the social networks. I have now seen the Hobbit Unexpected Journey twice in a few days but, before I make comment, I feel I must give full disclosure. I am not a typical film goer when it comes to Mr Tolkien. I have read the books including the rather challenging Silmarillion. I have the extended editions of the films in multiple formats and have watched them back to back. I also have the radio plays and have played the online game since it started in 2007. I am not an uber Tolkien geek as my Elvish is weak, I have no Dwarvish and I will not utter the words of Mordor here. However, the word “addict” would not be inappropriate.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy are amongst my favourite films and are still amongst the benchmarks for DVD and Blu-ray transfers. I knew from the moment I heard about how the Hobbit was to be filmed that this would be a benchmark moment. Could a film experience that I found so immersive really improved by 3D and a high frame rate?

The first problem is which of the many versions to watch. Over the last decade, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter had been the staples of our traditional family christmas cinema visit. This pretty much narrowed down the choice of location and showings and the first viewing was 3D, normal ratio and frame rate. The second viewing was in Manchester and was IMAX 3D HFR. I have not seen a 2D version ... yet.

At the first viewing, I was trying not to think too technically. I really like the first viewing to be about the story. It did set a benchmark against which I could judge the technically more interesting IMAX HFR version. Visually it was typical of 3D movies in being a mixed bag. A lot of the problems I have stem from the glasses. These are mass market items with flat lenses of poor quality. The tint is very dark which robs them of contrast and the poor optical quality exaggerates convergence issues, particularly when warn over prescription lenses. My pet hate of over overly bright ceiling house lighting also introduces a bunch of unwelcome reflections. I do have a much better pair of clip-on lenses for my LG passive telly, which I know are much better, but I am not very successful at remembering to bring them. If you can get passed that, and I know many can’t, then the 3D is very good. It for the most part it gets out of the way and lets the story unfold. Its never showy or gratuitous and adds to the spectacle in a subtle way.

So, on to round two. The Odeon at the Print Works in Manchester was one of only a couple of Odeons in the UK showing IMAX HFR. There was an immediate issue for our comparison. This being rather a late booking we were in a less than ideal location. We were central but, in technical terms, we were too bloody close. This meant that it was “traditional” IMAX in that the screen more than filled your vision but it also meant that I could see pixels - quite big pixels. Watching the fast cut trailers from that distance messes with you head and your stomach. Given some of the rumours about HFR I was not feeling optimistic.

So on to the main feature, does HFR work or not? I don’t think the answer is actually as simple as I has been made out. I did not feel like I was watching a 200Hz telly picture processed to within an inch of its life - at least not most of the time. There were times when it was definitely preferable to my eyes than the 24fps 3D version. Action sequences were easier to follow and pans and fly throughs were so much smoother. The IMAX glasses were also much better than the RealD ones detracting less from the colour and contrast. However, it is not all good news. In some shots HFR seems to mess with the physics in the CGI. I lack the expertise to explain why, but it just seemed a to make some shots a tougher sell. More seriously, some shots did exhibit that 200Hz showroom TV look. It is because it was only periodic that the effect was so jarring. Like being pulled from the movie theatre and dropped in the set. I can’t agree with Peter Jackson on this point, it is the precise opposite of immersive. I can see what he means by looking at window into Middle Earth but what it shows is not the reality but the trickery. Perhaps if it was like that all the time I could recalibrate, but to see it occasionally was too disruptive and that means that I have to give the nod overall to the RealD 24fps version for the telling the story and engagement. Alex and I have chatted a lot about the version since we saw them and this does not appear to be a generational difference. We agree on all my main points here.

As for the film itself I really enjoyed it. I have seen the criticisms about the length. You don’t need to be a mathematical genius to work out that there is going to be a lot less story compression than in Lord of the Rings. I really don’t care - I am an addict as already stated. PJ can do it unabridged plus foot notes for all I care. I know it could be edited down into a much tighter film but I am glad they didn’t. If you are one of the folks complaining about the length who also complained about how long it took the extended editions to come out on blu-ray then you should take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror of Galadriel.

I am also happy with the tone of the movie. If you are familiar with the books then you will realise the dilemma in trying to make The Hobbit after Lord of the Rings. To treat The Hobbit merely as a prequel is to miss the point and yet Peter was so successful in creating the places and people of Middle Earth that to abandon these elements is almost sacrilegious. There is a degree of compromise involved in bringing together these competing elements but I am happy with how it is resolved.


For the sake of balance I decided to go and see the non 3D version too. This time I was back at Vue but watching it in 4K in their IMAX theatre but not IMAX ratio. I also had a decent seat this time - not a pixel in sight. So did I miss the 3D and what was my level of immersion? Of the three versions this was by far the easiest to watch and I kept noticing little details that I had missed in the reduced resolution or contrast of the 3D versions. It is the most cinematic of the three but perhaps not the most filmic. The 2D presentation was so crisp, clean and detailed that it has lost that organic quality of the Ring trilogy. The grade was also brighter and almost HDR at times. 3D tones all these things down. There were also some times that I felt I was not watching the primary version from a lensing point of view. For this reason, it's a close call between the 2D & 3D versions. If it was my call as DoP I would have gone for 2D and Alexa but perhaps that is just hobbit conservatism and I am still too in love with the Shire.


Jack be nimble

It was back in 2011.  I stood in front of the check-in desk in a state of anxiety.  Now that is not in itself unusual.  I am not at my most serene in airports.  Still this was a heightened state.  Something weighed heavily on my mind or, more correctly, my back.   There sat my Thinktank Airport Take Off roller case chock to the gunnels with my 5DII along with every lens and accessory I thought I might need at NAB and a road trip round the SW USA.  I was carrying it with every ounce of nonchalance I could muster.  But the check-in clerk wasn't fooled and invited me to place it on the scales.  Virgin Atlantic allows just 6Kg for check-in luggage.  I already knew the scales would be show my bag to be a little more, a whole 6Kg more in fact.  The laptop was disallowed but that still left me at 10Kg.  I begged, I offered to pay extra - still no chance.  There was no alternative, I gave the prearranged signal.  Slipping past the lines my parent appeared on their white chargers and handed me my smaller Tamron Aero.  I could feel 200 hate-filled eyes boring into the back of my head as I hurriedly repacked items into my suitcase at the head of the queue.  I waved good-bye to an unhealthy proportion of my lenses as they slid down they conveyor.

I can relieve the tension for you now.  No lenses were harmed in the telling of this story.  A month later and I am back in the US.  This was not to be a photography biased trip.  A combined business conference and family trip in Florida.  After my earlier experience I left the DSLR behind packing only my Olympus XZ1.  It's a nice little camera and perfect for a few quality family snaps.  Then they delayed the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour rescheduling right into the middle my trip.  Now I am a child of the space age, one of my earliest memories is being brought downstairs by my Dad in the middle of the night to see Neil Armstrong step on the moon.  My nickname is ironically not related to the Shuttle, but I still took it as a sign - this was too good to miss.  So sacrificing a bit of a keynote and a good quantity of sleep, my Dad and I headed to Titusville in my rental Mustang.  As I stood in Space Park looking over (way over), to Canaveral I couldn't help thinking of that nice white lens sitting in my house.  I was hopelessly outgunned by the spectators around me.

So I decided I needed some sort of halfway house for travelling - something that would not exercise the scales at Manchester Airport but could match my DSLR for flexibility.  I had a brief fling with a super zoom but it didn't work out.  It was just too slow and too soft.  It doesn't matter how good the feature set is if you just don't like the pictures. At Focus on Imaging I saw the Olympus reps wandering around with the new OM-D EM-5.  It struck me straight away that it was a very pretty camera that felt nice in my hands.  Despite some interesting entrants from Sony, Canon and Fuji nothing turned my eye from the Oly.  It also had the advantage of a great choice in properly compact lenses.

I am typing this on my iPad on a plane heading to Florida.  Sitting somewhere over my head is my new Thinktank Retrospective 7 bag.  In there sits the OM-D and 6 lenses spanning 18-300mm (35mm equivalent); 3 of which are below f2.8. There is also a MacBook Air and a host of accessories, wires and travel docs.  Even when the iPad was in there too it weighed exactly 6Kg.  Overkill for a family holiday?  Probably, but why take the chance.  If they are going to give you a 6Kg limit it seems almost rude not to use it.