There has been a lot of movement in my photography pursuits over the past several months; I hesitate to call it progress too quickly where it may be just manifestations of G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome). Nonetheless, I have made several acquisitions in support of furthering my wet darkroom capabilities, expanding my digital scanning capabilities, and may have fallen down the analog rangefinder rabbit hole. This blog entry will simply enumerate the main events; I will cover them in greater depth in the future via dedicated posts, along with uploads of some more recent images.
In my last post, I mentioned being unhappy with the quality of the processing and digital scans of my analog film from a well-regarded online commercial lab (no names…). My concerns in this area have been building, so my solution to this issue is to bring my entire workflow in-house, from soup to nuts. That means developing my own color positive and negative film, along with my black & white film. I intend to scan all of my own negatives chosen for digital post-processing, and to simultaneously advance my wet darkroom black & white silver gelatin printing workflow and skills. To this end I have procured a few new toys to address these aims.
The first was the Plustek Opticfilm 120 film scanner, which enables me to perform scans of films from 35mm through medium formats to include 6×6, 6×9, and 6×12 aspect ratios, (and possibly to 6×17 with some film holder modification). So far, I see improved scans for my medium format film versus the commercial lab output, along with the bigger advantage of the ability to save scanned images as raw/tiff files versus the jpeg files that the commercial labs provide – the added post-processing flexibility offered by raw/tiff files over jpegs is considerable – better color correction, better dynamic range, and no compression losses – in short, more image data preserved at the expense of larger data file sizes. I also still have my Epson V700 flatbed scanner, which will likely be my primary scanning device for 4×5 transparencies and film, and for my 6×17 panoramic film, if that proves incompatible with the Opticfilm 120.
While the Opticfilm 120 can also scan 35mm films, I have been intrigued by the option of using my digital cameras with macro lenses to digitize slides and negatives. There is a great deal of info on the internet discussing methods to do this, employing both strobes and LED panels for source lighting of the slides/negatives, and some arrangement of the camera in a copy stand to maintain the sensor plane precisely focused and parallel with the film being scanned. My experiments with macro lenses and tripods to do this in the past were less than encouraging, and I was dissuaded by the high cost of good quality copy stands (most of the examples found on ebay or new from Adorama/B&H struck me as either flimsy/low quality or exorbitantly priced.) Somewhere in my research I came across the Leitz BEOON, a small copy stand developed by Leica in 1959 for use with the Leica M3 for photographic reproduction of film, slides, and documents. This small stand features rugged construction, a helically threaded column for focusing, a set of extension rings for various magnification levels, and adapters to accommodate Leica screw mount and M-mount lenses (which can be further adapted for other lens mounts on current digital cameras). While I have yet to fine-tune my copy configuration and workflow with this device, it shows a great promise to provide quick and useable scans of 35mm up to possibly 4×5 film. Initial tests so far have yielded good quality scans, although I have learned that meticulous film cleaning and dust removal will be critical for good results – it is also apparent that a high resolution full-frame digital camera would offer even better results than my 16 MP Fuji X-series APS-C format cameras.
So it looks like I have multiple overlapping capabilities to scan different film formats; that brings up the actual film developing. I have been developing my own black & white film for a while now, in all of my owned formats from 35mm to 4×5. I have experimented with different products, including the plastic Paterson tanks and reels, stainless steel Hewes reels in stainless tanks, the Mod54 reel for 4×5 development in Paterson tanks, the Stearman Press SP-445 tank developed on Kickstarter for 4×5 processing, and am still awaiting the Lab-Box daylight processing tank from a Kickstarter project. All of these have worked fine for me in my darkroom. However, I have used these only for black & white film development, and had concerns about maintaining good temperature control if I were to use them for color slide (E-6) or color negative (C-41) processing.
That has led me to buy a Jobo CPE-2+ rotary film processor, with a lift arm. This device is definitely overpriced for what it is, particularly with its predominately plastic construction, but it offers the good constant temperature control required for color processing and uniform and continuous rotary agitation that should make all my film processing workflows more consistent and repeatable.
The last acquisition on the processing front was an upgrade from my Beseler 23C II enlarger to a Saunders/LPL 4500 II enlarger. The main improvement gained here was the ability to make enlarged silver prints from 4×5 large format negatives; the Beseler could only accommodate up to 6×9 medium format negatives. The LPL enlarger is also a more substantial piece of equipment with a sturdier column, yet still fits within the space constraints of my small darkroom. With this bigger format enlarger, I did need to buy another enlarging lens for 4×5 work, and I needed a few other supporting accessories, such as negative carriers, that were not compatible with the Beseler. The LPL also has a dichroic color head, so I will be making my contrast adjustments on my prints with that versus the Ilford MultiGrade filter gels I was using with the Beseler.
The end result of all of these purchases is an increased autonomous capability to work in multiple film formats, from 35mm up to 4×5, in black & white and color, and with both positive and negative films. I can process all of my films, scan those that I desire to process digitally, and use traditional enlarging methods to grow my analog black & white printing skills. All of this is a lot to get my arms around at once; I make no claims to being expert at any facet of these new operations. However, there is wealth of information, both written and online, available for one’s pursuit of these skills, and I am enjoying the mistakes and small successes I am experiencing as I learn these traditional methods.
All of this attention to traditional analog methods has honed my appreciation for film-based photography, so much that I have been seduced, despite my valiant efforts at resistance, by the insidious siren-song of Leica. Last December found me entranced by the idea of a Barnack Leica, even though I had been leaning away from the 35mm format in favor of medium and large format. I found myself shortly in possession of a 1949 Leica iiic with a Leitz Elmar 50mm f3.5 collapsible lens. This old camera, despite its age, looks like it is brand new, and is truly a mechanical marvel; while not necessarily the easiest camera to load and shoot, it is a satisfying process that I think I will continue to enjoy. So much have I fallen for the allure of the Leica, I have more recently obtained a 1967 Leica M4 – again an absolutely beautifully crafted bit of photographic machinery. These cameras will require more comment in the future, and I will share my images as they become available.
I will close this blog entry with an little example of what all this investment in analog-based gear has wrought. Below are three versions of the same image, taken last summer at Oshkosh on my Hasselblad 500CM, using Fuji Provia 100 slide film. The first version is the jpeg scan I got back from my online commercial lab, the second is a tiff file as scanned from my OpticFilm 120, and the final is my Photoshop-edited black & white conversion. While the jpeg file is fine in itself, its limited data overhead offers little room for the editing/enhancements that the tiff file makes available.