Sunday, 29 January 2012

Nikita 2214

The lovely Nikita Sablier
5D MkII / 70-200mm f/2.8 IS

People sometimes stop me in the street and ask me, "Ashley", they say, "that awesome porcelain skin effect that you do so well - what inspired you to use that look?", and I fix them in the eye and say "Your Sinclair, October 1988, page 34", which has an advert for Dinamic Software's Game Over II, painted by Luis Royo. Dinamic Software hailed from Spain, and their games were colourful, action-packed, and notoriously difficult. The company is remembered fondly by British (and Spanish) men of a certain age for the racey cover art for Game Over, which thoroughly trumped the famous Farrah Fawcett poster in the nipple department. That kind of thing lodges itself in your mind when you're 12 years old, which I was in 1988.

Because I will it so, February shall be poetry month. Each post shall take the form of an illustrated poem.

Because I am Ashley Pomeroy, Prince of Poesy. Viscount of Verse. Rector of Rhyme.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Velvia

Yashica Mat 124G / Fuji Velvia 50

"They come out best on Kodak film"

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Yashica Mat 124G II

The Yashica Mat shoots 6x6cm negatives, which has the pleasant side-effect of making the photographs look like album covers, viz:

Yashica Mat 124G / Kodak Ektachrome

"Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn" indeed. Square images are hardcore, although in practice there's no reason why you can't crop them down to taste. You have plenty of negative to work with. Still, I find that after having composed the square image through the Mat's square viewfinder, it looks better if I leave it square.

Square format was long a hallmark of Swedish medium format giant Hasselblad, although with a very few exceptions the company's modern digital sensors have a 4x3 aspect ratio. Nowadays, for most people, square equals Instagram equals real photography.

Medium format is a mysterious world. "If you have to ask, you're in the wrong department", that kind of world. Historically there were several different medium format formats, although they all used 120 film, with different framing.

Why was it called 120? I always assumed it was because you could take twelve shots at 6x6, but in practice the number was just arbitrary; Kodak plucked numbers from thin air. Throughout the 20th Century the company also sold 110, 116, 616, 120, 126, 127, 135, 220, 620, and 828 film, and none of those numbers meant anything either. Nowadays Kodak still sells 120 and 135 - the standard 35mm format - but for how much longer, eh?

Hasselblad cameras shot 6x6cm negatives, and so did Rollei TLRs and indeed most TLRs in general. Bronica, Pentax, Contax, and Mamiya used a 6x4.5cm format, which was called 645. This was the most popular medium format of all, striking a good balance between a large negative, economical use of film, and relatively compact bodies. Furthermore the 4:3 aspect ratio was much closer to a magazine page or an 8x10" print than square format. I'm not sure why I keep saying was, because 645 survives to this day as the standard digital medium format format. Back in the 2000s Kodak made a square format sensor that went into the Kodak DCS Pro Back and the early Hasselblad CFV models, but if you walk out of your local Phase One showroom with a digital back nowadays, it will be a 645 digital back.

It's worth pointing out that Kodak's square sensor wasn't actually 6x6cm; it was 3.6x3.6cm (basically full-frame 35mm extended up and down a bit) and had a 1.5x cropping factor. As far as I know the only 6x6cm medium format digital camera was the Dicomed Big Shot, from way back in 1996, although it was a cumbersome beast designed for tethered studio shooting. As I write these words there's one on eBay for £2,500, from Hong Kong, untested. You'd no doubt need a 1996 Apple Macintosh as well.

Still, some Pentaxes and Mamiyas shot 6x7cm negatives, and there were even 6x9 cameras, which squeezed eight large shots onto a roll of 120. 6x9 had a split personality. On the one hand there were tough professional 6x9 cameras such as the Polaroid 600 and the Fuji GW690 - the "Texas Leica", so called because it resembled a Leica that had been pumped full of beef - and on the other hand, the format was common in low-end cameras such as the Agfa Clack, the idea being that the negative was so large that frugal holidaymakers could simply have contact prints made up, rather than paying for enlargements.

Moving into the realm of the esoteric, there were also 6x12 and 6x17 panoramic cameras, such as the Fuji GX617, which still fetches a fortune on eBay. In the right hands these can produce stunning images, and in the wrong hands they can produce boring dross, just like any camera. Also, look at this stupid-looking man. If the internet is to be believed - and I have no reason to doubt it - these cameras are only capable of taking photographs of (a) beaches at sunset (b) the Grand Canyon (c) leaves. Which gets boring after a while. Guys, you can stop now.

Still, have a look at this cropping guide:

That's a full 6x6cm frame, shot with a Yashica Mat 124G. The yellow box represents the largest 8x10" crop you can make from this negative, although there's no reason why you have to include the full height of the frame.

The red box is the same relative size as a 35mm negative, 36x24mm. Put another way, you can crop down that much and still have 35mm quality. Incidentally, if you could somehow stick the Yashica Mat's 80mm f/3.5 lens on a full-frame digital SLR - and assuming you left the camera in the same spot - that red box is what you would see. You'd have a slow 80mm short telephoto with, presumably, very consistent image quality across the frame, on account of the huge image circle.

With the exception of the cropping example, all the shots on this page were taken with Kodak Ektachrome, indeed they're all from the same roll. With 6x6 medium format on standard 120 you get twelve shots, which seems ridiculous in a digital age; even at 21mp my 5D MkII can store hundreds of images on a 16gb memory card. A card that costs less than a five-pack of 120 film, that has no processing costs, and can be reused over and over again.

But, knowing that each image is costing more than a pound, and shooting on a tripod, I find that my strike rate has zoomed up. If the image doesn't look good in the Mat's preview screen, I don't take the shot. And I'm not going to go the trouble of setting up the tripod and the camera just so I can unset it the heck down again, so I've had to raise my game.

In theory I don't need a Yashica Mat to raise my game. I could carry around a digital camera, and just hit myself on the face with a wet fish every time I take a bad picture. But in practice I'm not going to do that. Because I can't be trusted. I know me.

The Mat, like most TLRs, can in theory be used handheld. Some people have no trouble with this. In practice I find that the reversed viewfinder and the odd controls confound me. Furthermore, I scout out the world from a height of just under six feet - which is where my eyes are - but the Mat is designed to shoot from waist-height.* So I use a tripod, like this chap here. As the man points out, the Mat has little feet, and so if you don't have a tripod you can always rest it on a flat surface. It's not too heavy for a Gorillapod, either. The camera is large, but mostly hollow, like the work of Béla Tarr, haha. EDIT: Immediately after posting this article I started using the Yashica Mat handheld, and never used a tripod again. Still, it was worth it for the joke about Béla Tarr.

*PROTIP: Because you're shooting square, if you want to compose and focus at eye level without using the useless sports finder, just hold the camera sideways! Turn your body so that the subject is ninety degrees to your left, bring the camera up to your face so that it's ninety degrees from the horizontal - with the lenses pointing at the subject - and shoot. No, imagine that the camera is a glass of beer, and you're really thirsty, and you want to photograph someone at the same time. So, just drink the beer and stand at right angles to the subject. Press the shutter. With the beer. It doesn't work well if you want to fine-tune the composition - the viewfinder image becomes too confusing - but for quick shots it's at least handy for checking focus.

As before, I used a Fuji S3 as a portable lightmeter / preview back. Here's the S3's rendition of a shot near the top of the article, processed to look a bit like Ektachrome:

Although I shot it at the same aperture - f/4 - and the same spot, the depth of field is much wider, because I'm using a smaller format. To get that field of view I shot at 30mm, rather than 80mm, although it's complicated by the fact that I've cropped this square. The perspective is also slightly different, because I shot it from eye-level rather than waist-height. I have to assume that children or little people would use a TLR at about mid-thigh-height, and babies might as well just rest it on the ground.

There's a whole industry of Photoshop plugins that apply different film looks to digital files, which will no doubt breed a future race of photographers who speak of the Ektachrome look and so forth, when in reality they're waxing nostalgic for a simulation, a false memory. I'm reminded of this discussion here, in which a professional director of photography asks his peers how to recreate the Kodachrome look, before going on to describe something that doesn't sound like Kodachrome at all, but an idea of what it might have been, based on the evocative name. An idea of a simulation designed to evoke a mood.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Wonder in Aliceland II/III

Alice Willow
Again with the Yashica Mat / f/4 / Kodak Ektachrome

There's something deeply odd about using Photoshop to edit photographs shot on film. Nowadays Photoshop is synonymous with digital photography, with plastic skin and Ralph Lauren's odd taste in retouching and rooms full of people earning pennies by drawing selection masks around hair. Fakery and desperation. It's one of a tiny number of professional applications that the Man on the Clapham Omnibus has heard of. It's more than a piece of software, really. It's an icon. An aspiration; a symptom. The 2000s was the Photoshop Decade, a decade of fakery and desperation, rooms full of people earning pennies etc. Clone brush, adjustment layer, the client gets what the client wants...

...but it was actually developed back in the late 1980s, a more wholesome age of substance and wholesomeness, when people were genuine and had real feelings, and the world was at peace, and digital photography had not yet left the lab. Back then Photoshop was an esoteric thing, one application amongst many, part of the desktop publishing revolution.

Not something you hear about nowadays, the desktop publishing revolution. The revolution was a smashing success and is now so normal as to be unexceptional, but in the late 1980s the idea of digitising images - perhaps with a video capture card, grabbing frames from videotape, or a still video camera, or a handheld scanner - was the cutting edge. One man, or woman, with a hugely expensive Macintosh IIFX and a tonne of memory and Adobe Pagemaker etc could make a whole magazine by him-or-her-self!

Consistent colour balance? I've heard of it.

But how to distribute it, eh? Bulletin boards! And imagine if there was an illustrated bulletin board, like Hypercard perhaps, with things you could click on. Connected via lines of light. The world will be transformed. And it was, and this is it.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Transaction

The pigeons insisted that the treaty be signed
at the site of the original defeat

This was shot with a while back, at the Tate Modern, using Kodak Ektachrome. I like Ektachrome, it's a got nice gritty neutral look, without the vivid saturation of other slide films. I mention this because I recently bought a new film scanner, and I've been going through my box'o'negatives. I've also bought a tonne of film, so that I have something to scan. With the scanner that I bought to scan the film.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Alice 1831

Alice Willow / Canon 5D MkII / 70-200nm f/2.8 IS
some fill-flash / the sun is god

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Alice 1823

Alice Willow / 5D MkII / 70-200mm f/2.8 IS

When I'm not messing around with infrared photography, old medium format cameras, or odd latex fetish photography I can turn my hand to ordinary, honest-to-goodness portraits in the Victorian style. Normal photography, viz the above, of the lovely Alice Willow, who looks a bit like Natalie Portman and has the kind of jawline that even David Bowie circa 1975 would have killed for. If you have the money, and you look wonderful, and you live in the South of England, and I'm not busy, I can do this to you.

HOW I DID IT:
I, er, pointed the camera and you know. If you're a photographer yourself you know how I did it.

For the rest of you, the magic ingredient was a bit of fill-flash, using an el-cheapo Yongnuo YN-560, which is completely manual and can throw out a lot of light, or in this case a tiny amount, because I only wanted to light up Alice's face. Manual exposure, 1/200, f/3.5. The trick with fill-flash is to find a combination of manual settings that expose the background correctly (or a little bit dark), and then bring up the flash to fill in the subject. With the constraint that you can't use a shutter speed faster than the camera's sync speed, which in this case is 1/200th. That can be a problem if you want to shoot at f/1.2 in bright sunlight. So don't do that! Goodbye!

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Yashica Mat 124G I


Yashica Mat 124G / Kodak Ektar 100

For Christmas I decided to treat myself to a Yashica Mat, an old twin-lens reflex that shoots medium format film. In the medium format world it's one step up from the Diana and Holga toy cameras, although it's a big step, and it straddles the world of old folding rangefinders; and it's a little step lower than the old Rolleiflexes, and from that point a whole new world of fiscal pain opens up. Here's what it looks like:

For the shots in this post I used Kodak Ektar 100, which was launched only a few years ago, in 2008. I've shot some 35mm Ektar before, but I haven't had a chance to use the medium format variety. Based on current events I surmise that Kodak isn't in a hurry to replace it. I used to shoot a lot of medium format, about ten years ago, using the aforementioned Holga. This is a plastic camera from China that has a plastic lens and terrible light sealing. It produces instant art, with blurry edges and light leaks, viz:

You can still buy 'em on eBay. Zone focus, no other controls. There's an aperture lever but it doesn't do anything. Literally f/8 and be there. Medium format has a frisson, because it's hardcore and you get square images, which is doubly hardcore. Over the next few posts I'll get jiggy with the Yashica Mat, and hopefully I'll train myself not to type Yashica May, which I keep doing. The Mat has an 80mm f/3.5 lens, which in 35mm terms is roughly equivalent to a 50mm, with the depth of field of an f/2 or similar.

Wide open - that shot was wide open, and so was the one at the top - it's pretty soft in the corners. It gets much better stopped down, although this defeats the point a little; unless you actually plan on making huge detailed prints, or you want to send the images off to a magazine or something, you might as well just use a digital camera and crop the image square.

The irony is that, when stopped down, the Mat's images don't have much of the stereotypical Instagram-esque film look, because they're sharp and detailed. When people nowadays think of the film look, and when they go ga-ga over the film look, they aren't really going ga-ga over the look of film. They're fetishising a simulation of an idea. An implanted memory of something that didn't really exist. Pictures taken with a Holga, as above, looked strikingly different even when everybody shot film. They were never normal. If anything has a right to be representative of the look of film, it's this:

Vintage British Argos 1985 Catalogue

The 1985 Argos catalogue, there. Shot by a professional, on film. That's what film looked like, in the hands of a professional. Nobody fetishises that.

Unusually for an old TLR, the Mat has an electronic CdS lightmeter. In fact it's unusual for an old TLR to have a lightmeter of any kind. It uses long-discontinued mercury batteries, and although mine still had a battery I wasn't too sure of its accuracy, so I used a Fuji S3 as a kind of digital Polaroid preview back. The S3's sensor was designed to simulate the look of film - Fujifilm, mind, rather than Kodak Ektar - and I trust its metering. Just for fun here's the Fuji S3's rendition of the shot at the top of the page (not quite the same angle, but the same scene, processed to look similar):

The digital image is smoother, and of course I have access to the original RAW file and can fiddle with the colours as much as I want. In contrast, sending negatives off to be scanned leaves you at the mercy of the lab, and scanning at home requires a scanner than can take medium format film. Dedicated medium format film scanners cost a fortune and are hard to come by, because the professional market is tiny. A few cheap flatbed scanners can digitise medium format; the most popular choices seem to be the Canon 9000F and the Epson V700, which are about £30 either side of £200, Canon cheaper. Even then, not many shops in the UK sell these, so you have to buy them from the internet, which means courier firms, aargh.

One rule of thumb is that larger formats allow for more control over depth of field. The Mat's f/3.5 lens is a bit too slow for the kind of eye-popping 3D effect people associate with large format photography, unless you put the subject right up close. Otherwise the effect is subtle, as per the image above, which was shot at f/4.

Digital photographers get to play around with different filters; film photographers get to play around with different types of film! Slide, negative, black and white, expired, the works. In future posts I'll talk a bit more about the process of taking photographs with a twin-lens reflex, but first I need to shoot more film.

EDIT: Ye Gods. Reading this again in mid-2014 I'm struck by... well, the blog is slightly wider now, so all the pictures are too narrow. But the writing, it reads as if I was heavily abusing cocaine, which wasn't true. Can a man change so much in two years? Am I better now? Is the stuff I'm doing now just as bad? Except that the pictures are okay, in fact although they could do with remastering they're pretty solid. The composition, the colours etc are neatly done and work well within the square format. On a photographic level I haven't changed much. Technique has improved. Vision still the same. So it's a mixed bag. A combination of staccato Devo-esque text, solid photographs. I often wonder what happened to Rosaleen Young (probably not her real name). I can sympathise with her predicament. As a model she had a niche appeal. Not tall enough for the catwalk, not busty enough for porn, not really sexy in the conventional way and (again) not tall or distinctive enough for "high art", but too distinctive to just model clothes for a website. She might have made her way in burlesque but it's extraordinarily difficult to make a living as a burlesque performer in Britain. Certainly, if I totted up the money I've made from my burlesque performances, I'd have nothing.

Liverpool 0269

NEX-3 / Olympus 50mm f/1.4