Kodak Tri-X 400 with the Olympus XA

After the Ricoh GR III came out, I’ve been looking for something with a similar form factor but in analogue format. The original Rich GR1 that uses 35mm film is now way too expensive ($600 and up as of June 2019). All film cameras seem to be jumping up in price, but the one jumping up the least and offering decent lens quality is the Olympus XA.


Olympus XA, Tri-X 400 pushed 1 stop, D-76 developer

As you can see from the sample files, it works quite okay for photos where you don’t need 1/1000 of a second or faster. When you need that quick street shot, you often end up with motion blur.


Olympus XA with motion blur

Kodak Tri-X 400 especially when pushed one stop offers a nice bit of contrast with rich blacks, and grain that doesn’t detract or is too noticeable. I’ve used other film stocks like Ilford HP5+, another great film. Since the Olympus XA already has soft lens look wide open, that in combination with a flat film like HP5 makes it a tough combo to use. If you’re going for a dreamy and grey effect though it could be worth a shot. For me, Tri-X is the film to use with the XA.


Olympus XA, Tri-X 400, Ocean Beach

How to Analogue: How to Buy a Film Camera

There are many ways to buy a film camera. One could buy one new from either the Lomography store or Leica store. However, in terms of image quality and value, it is hard to beat buying a used film camera.

In this blog post I will show you:

1) How to inspect a used film camera
2) How to negotiate a fair price
3) Where to look for a used camera

I will also list my favorite used cameras.

Leicas

1) How do you inspect a used film camera? This is really tough to do without a decent return policy. First make sure that whoever you bought it from allows returns. Before you buy off eBay, make sure that the seller allows returns. On Amazon, returns are easy to do. On Craig’s List you are on your own.

a. Inspect the body for fungus. I bought a camera with fungus once, and lost $200. What was worse is that the fungus in this camera infected my other lens, so I was out another $100. Fungus on a body will look like white dots like powdered sugar.

b. Inspect the lens for haze or scratches or fungus.

c. Does the aperture ring on the lens move smoothly with uniform clicks?

d. Does the shutter change firmly but easily?

e. Does the light meter (if it has one) work accurately? You will have to compare this with your own digital camera, or the “Manual” camera app.

f. Test focus. When you focus the lens to 1 meter, is it focused on 1 meter? When you focus on infinity is it focused on infinity, e.g. not blurry, or the rangefinder patches line up?

g. Shoot a test roll of film. If you have a 50mm lens and up do the yard stick test. On this roll of film photograph a yard stick. Focus on a number using the widest aperture. When you develop the roll, you will test and make sure that the number you focused on is in focus and nothing else. If it is not in focus then there is either a back focusing issue or rangefinder calibration error. On the test roll of film, whatever you think should be in focus should be in focus. There should be no weird spots (dirty lens) or strange haze. Photos should neither look too light nor too dark if exposed correctly. This may point to an issue with the shutter, the aperture blades or the meter.

h. Film should advance easily. When the film is rewound, rewinding should come easily, too.

If your film camera passes all these 8 tests, then it is a keeper. If not, return it and try again.

My favorite used film cameras are these:

Kirby Cove Trail, Olympus XA

Kirby Cove Trail, 2018, Olympus X-A, Tri-X 400, f/5.6, 1/60

The Olympus X-A – Scott Behr is a master with this camera and his work can be seen on Instagram. I own two of these, and you can get them for around $100.

The Canon AE-1 – With a decent 50mm, this is all the camera you’ll ever need. This is an SLR camera with a very bright focusing circle. Way easier to focus than my Pentax K1000. If I were to get another film camera it would be this one. It sells for about $150.

The Pentax K1000 – Another decent SLR, but not as easy to focus as the Canon AE-1. The main advantage is that it doesn’t need batteries to shoot. The battery is only there for the light meter. The shot at the very top is from this camera.

Lubitel 166, Ektar 100

San Francisco Bay, 2014, Lubitel 166, Ektar 100, f/8, 1/500

The Lubitel 166 – You can get this medium format camera which makes beautiful portraits for around 60 to 90 USD. It’s great for street or portraits or group shots, but boy does it suck for landscapes. The lens simply isn’t sharp enough, or maybe I have a miscalibrated version.

So now that you’ve got a film camera, it’s time to shoot some film. In my next blog post, I’ll go over what films I use and why.

Why I torched my Instagram account

You might be asking what do I mean by torched? Here’s how I’m defining it.

  • I manually removed all my followers.
  • I manually removed all my followings.
  • I deleted or archived all my posts and highlights.

Once I committed this virtual seppuku of my account, I felt like a horrible burden had been lifted off me.

Why did I do this?

1. My account still looked and felt inauthentic.

I had removed about 10,000 ghost followers (manually) and got to about 1400 followers. At this point my engagement was 10% without even trying with hashtags or engaging with my audience which was pretty decent. I could get a 30% engagement if I posted a decent photo and engaged with my audience. What gnawed at me was different evaluations of my account comments being inauthentic. I used a calculator like this one. No matter what I did, folks from inauthentic DM groups would comment on my photos no matter what in the hopes that I would engage with them.

2. I was sick of the implied supposition that if someone commented and liked my photo, I owed them the same thing.

Seriously, is every photo awesome? I would look at photographs and see that they would get the same scores or hundreds of comments from the same people on the same kinds of photographs. I get that when you start out in photography you photograph the same thing lots in order to hone your craft, and because of the subtle differences in light, shadow and color. For influencers, photographers become a means to an end: a way to grow a following and a way to get engagement. This reduces the world to a mere photographic resource at the expense of story telling.

3. The interactions on Instagram are (on balance) not healthy, nor what I need.

I’m grateful for all the friends and positive interactions that I’ve had on Instagram. But if I weigh all the pros and cons, I’d have to say overall that my experience on Instagram has been a negative one. You run into so many people that are just using other people to get ahead – that’s simply not healthy.

As someone that is passionate about philosophy, I never found folks who combined philosophy with a love of taking honest photos.

4. There has to be a better way to build community.

Even in its early years, people like Lady Elizabeth Eastlake noted how photography created a motley republic of sorts that crossed barriers of class. There have existed “republics of photographers,” a sort of tribe, global in nature, bound by just the desire to chase light. I remember how in the 1990s travelers would make fast friends with just nothing more than a camera in common. Many think Instagram did this for the first time, but it did not. However, with early Instagram, it was very much possible to travel the whole length of the country and all you needed was an account to gain the hospitality of a stranger.

Now, moving into its 9th year and making Facebook billions last year, you have to wonder if you can even create community with an app so antithetical to it. Instagram has become an ad platform designed to turn your attention and by strip mining your life’s photos into profit. Whatever community is there flourishes despite this, but there really ought to be a better way.

How should photographic communities be really built in the 21st century?

31 Day project: Wake up Before Sunrise, Photograph until Dark

UPDATE on 3 April 2019: I’ve created a page for the photos that’s easy to view.
UPDATE on 6 January 2019: I’ve put the photos for this project on my blog web site here. https://bracketthis.com/images/31goldenhours/

UPDATE on 5 January 2019: I’ve torched my Instagram account. I’ll go into the reasons why in my next post, so the links to the project won’t be there. However, I’ll upload the project to my flickr account.

I spent December of 2018 doing my #31sunrises31sunsets project on Instagram and on film. I only mention film not for pretentious reasons, but because it was so time consuming. In this blog post, I want to tell you how I made my process more efficient, and the trials and tribulations I faced.

The task sounds simple: photograph something during golden hour for both dawn and dusk for 31 days straight on film. That’s at least two photos a day.

Most folks make their resolutions for January 1st, and most people fail with their resolutions by February. I thought to myself, how much easier would it be to do a December resolution, and have nothing to worry about during the new year.

But lots of things went wrong.

  • My Leica M-A could no longer focus at infinity leading to blurry landscape photos. This happened 5 days in. I sent it to Leica for repairs.
  • I ran out of budget for color chemicals and did days 16 to 31 on black and white film. Black and white is pennies on the dollar cheaper than color.
  • I ran out of budget for gas. This really sucked since I wanted to get out of the bay area.

However, through sheer will power, luck, and planning I made it through. For any future project that will take this long here are a few tips.

  • Always have a back up of everything you need. I had multiple film camera bodies to full back on.
  • Always shoot a scene with more than 1 camera and more than 1 roll of film.
  • Budget for twice as many chemicals as you think you’ll need. You never know if your developer or fixer will mysteriously get exhausted. I’m still trying to track down the cause of this.
  • Try and really expand your notions of what is photogenic. Traditional landscape shots no longer seemed appealing but cliché so I worked on finding new comps and more spontaneous ways of photographing. Street photography is your friend.
  • If your project allows for it, shoot what you feel and not what you see. This lends more personal impact to your project.

To make the project efficient I did the following:

  • Warm up chemicals first and then load film into dev canisters.
  • Just scan what you need. If it’s a roll of 36 and you just need 2 shots, then scan those 2 shots.
  • Be aware of how the sun moves, so you can shoot two locations for just one golden hour. I would shoot at the Embarcadero and then work my way to California Street as the sun rose. This allowed me to have shots in multiple locations. An app like photo pills is good for this.

I can’t say I would do this project ever again. Something in my photographs became very toxic when I photographed like this. It was as if the world was telling me Instagram is a dying platform, and that photography is more than just golden hour and landscapes.

A Year of Shooting Film

On June 6, 2017 I started photographing with film again. The last time I was super serious about film photography was in high school, where we were blessed with unlimited chemicals and film. Sadly, all my negatives from high school got stolen from my apartment when I was living in Italy.

It was a relief to go analogue, and a respite from digital, especially social media. I could just shoot all day with either my Leica M-A, Pentax K1000, or Argus C3 and never worry about battery life. I could totally unplug and just focus on the real world, and work on producing decent images. I didn’t think about how an Internet audience would react to my photos. The goal was just a print.

I developed most of my film except for the first few months of shooting. For that I went to Photoworks SF. Once I got the hang of shooting film, I joined the local darkroom, The Harvey Milk Photo Center. I bought a bunch of tanks, a slew of chemicals, and a scanner (under $250) to develop and post-process my own film. The tanks, chemicals, darkroom membership, paper, and film come out to under $600 a year to develop and make my own prints. This is assuming I”m shooting 1 roll of film a week, and am just doing black and white. For the most part 90% of what I shot at this time was black and white. If you want to do color, tack on another $300 a year for chemicals and film.

The first trip I took with my film camera was to Oregon with Paul Wozniak and Dave Alcaraz. The familiar panic of film set in. Would the photos come out? With digital I would’ve known right away, but it was refreshing to just focus on my surroundings.

Samuel H. Boardman State Park

(Leica M-A, Portra 400, 28mm Elmarit f/2.8, f/8, 1/125)

My next trip was at the end of December to Yosemite. There was no snow, but I caught a beautiful moonrise.

Moonrise at Yosemite
Leica M-A, Velvia 50, 90mm Elmarit f/2.8, f/2.8, 1/60

After awhile, I soon grew tired of photographing landscapes. There was a feeling that it had all been done before. I devoted more of my efforts to street photography, since the same street was never the same on different days. I went to Cuba with my friends, Dan Fenstermacher and Harvey Castro. We were struck by the perpetual golden hour that suffused the city streets of Havana. I wish I had lots of great shots, but my technique still needed a ton of work. I would get anxious, and click before the shot was there. Dan got an award for 2 of his photos! But all wasn’t lost, I did get a few photos like this one:

Malecón Fisherman, 2018
Leica M-A, Portra 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/11, 1/1000

Street photography is something you have to do everyday in order to grow. For me 5pm to 6pm is perfect for street photography since there are so many people in the streets. After Cuba, I went to LA with Dan (again) and Armand (@armand67gt on Instagram). My modicum of skill and luck finally hit a level where I was getting the shots I anticipated or previsualized.

Los Angeles, 2018
Leica M-A, Portra 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/8, 1/1000

After LA, I was in New York for the Nor’easter snow blizzards, and even went out in that weather to photograph. I was very happy with this photo:

New York Snow Blizzard
Leica M-A, Portra 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/8, 1/60

For client work, I’ve been stuck with digital. There have been opportunities to offer film, but nobody has taken me up on it. Now that I’m done with a year of shooting film, and look at social media again, I can’t help but be struck with the tyranny of an audience. To produce any lasting art, the masters of the past relied on solitude. Photographing with a film camera and leaving your phone at home has totally provided many hours of solitude these past 12 months.

Rush Hour, San Francisco, 2018
Leica M-A, Kodak TMax 400, 35mm Summicron f/2.0, f/11, 1/1000

The pull of the world towards digital is still very strong despite this current film renaissance. There’s such an emphasis on NOW that the expectations are high for getting an image right away. I know that the great photographers rarely dabbled with “old” technology in their own times. Joel Meyerowitz is an exception with his “Connecticut Light” work where he used a large format, view camera that took 8×10 film. As technology advances, a new way of telling a story opens up, and its important to note that potential of that. However, with innovation pushing a new camera 3 or so times a year in the case of Sony, or every 3 years in the case of Leica, and the rest somewhere in between… Is it really worth it to keep up? I would have to say, “No.”

For my own photography, I’ve let film be the thing I shoot for travel, street photography and portraits. The great thing about 35mm film photography is that I’ll never have to upgrade my camera. For landscapes and night time scenes, I know that with a really portable, digital mirrorless kit the photos can come out so clean. However, I know large format, film cameras still can beat digital in landscapes at day time, yet digital is so convenient. Also, every year, the sensors are heading towards 1/30th of a second Milky Way shots that are clean, and at currently, science fiction level ISOs. Will I still shoot film? Yes!

Images are basically free to produce these days. Video, however, has always been a production, especially if its high quality. Where does this leave us? Nostalgia for the past isn’t the way forward, nor is being prisoner to a tech company’s idea of what is art, and what people ought to see. At the end of the day, you have to have a story worth telling that’s so good that even if you’re just sitting by a campfire, people will love it. The same is true for our images. Regardless of what the post-modernists say, exciting photography still has to be about something. Epic images have to be about something you are passionate about.

Do you shoot film? Want to meet up? Let me know in the comments below.

The Philosophy of Art

The Internet makes words mean different things. If you used the word, aesthetics, pre-Instagram, then that word could have meant, “The study of the beautiful and to a lesser extent, the ugly.” Post-Instagram, the word can mean, “The results of one’s ‘gains’ from doing things to get swoll,” or to use less idiom, “the physical results of following a fitness regimen.” If you do a search of “aesthetics” on Instagram, a good portion of the 16 million posts is dedicated to hour glass figures and six pack abs.

This is the tragedy of technology: to make the masses masters of words instead of philosophers.

So that thinking about the arts isn’t drowned, I’ve revived for posterity the term, “the philosophy of art,” which is a poor substitute for aesthetics. That word to the ancient Greeks meant simply “of perception,” or the things that came to the senses. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the Greek word became elevated to something akin to “The Philosophy of Art.” Yet it meant so much more, if we consider how the great philosopher, Kant brought brought to light flaws in Humean skepticism regarding space and time by using the Transcendental Aesthetic.

Why the philosophy of art in this point in time and place? There is widespread ignorance of terms such as “temporal power,” and “phenomenology.” The latter is a tool for revealing how many of the arts lack the former. Nobody asks why certain types of photography are privileged over others: well-marketed over authentic, viral over quotidian, digital over film, sharpness over grain, single photos over photo essays. I’ve asked this question, and the answer seems to be a fetishization of technology where pixels are chosen over morsels of meaning. We live in such ignorance of how things were or can be that the simple act of questioning is a radical cure for such ignorance.

From now on this blog will be more about the philosophy of art than photography. I will still post images to illustrate points, to make a point, to surface, to adumbrate, etc. But my main task will be to continue the work of exposing the aesthetic origin of things considered not so aesthetic, e.g. much of technology is an aesthetic choice, and we learned this from Gadamer. Also, much of what is regarded as inspiring photography is merely a technological fetish, and it is this that needs to be exposed.

How to Create a Photography Book in LightRoom

I just finished creating a photography book using LightRoom. You can find it on blurb. (Update on 2/28/2018: Blurb removes your book if it doesn’t get ordered. I’ve placed my book on Big Cartel for sale.) It’s about friendship and betrayal on social media.

Anyway, someone on Instagram (@mh.elemental) asked me about how I went creating this book, so I will go into detail about it here.

Step 1. Take lots of photos.

Step 2. Select the photos you want to use. Some people print out their photos as 4×5 prints. This is what Joe Aguirre does according to this excellent interview on YouTube by Eric Kim. Parts 1 and 2 are worth watching.

I chose photos of an autobiographical sort: my life in LA, moving to San Francisco, the alienation of life that centers around social media.

Step 3. Sequence your photos. Joe Aguirre likens sequencing to creating a string of pearls. Edward Weston sequenced his “American Photographs” to show first what people thought photography was (to show are best fake selves) versus what it could really do (to show us who we really are – warts and all).

My book was easy to sequence: I did it chronologically.

Step 4. Import your sequence into LightRoom. Click on the “Book” module on the top right.

Ted Viera goes into detail in this excellent YouTube video on what options are available in LightRoom for creating your book.

Step 5. After adding the text, title, and other pieces of copy, and after formatting your book, you can export it as a PDF for printing, or you can upload it to Blurb for sale. On Blurb, you can sell your photos as both a physical, hardcopy book, or a PDF.

I hope this guide helps you out.

Happy Shooting!

Beeronol: Developing Ilford FP4 film in beer

I’m experimenting with different ways of developing film, e.g. stand development. This weekend I developed black and white film using beer. The mix I used was from Peta Pixel and is called beeronol.

The ingredients for the beeronol I made are:

  • 50cl of Guinness stout,
  • 12g of Vitamin C crushed into powder, and
  • 50g of washing soda (I baked baking soda at 400F for one hour to turn it into washing soda).

Develop the film in this soup at 86F for 15 minutes. Agitate for the first 30 seconds and 5 seconds every minute until done. Stop & fix as you’d normally do.

I found the results to be interesting. The beer turned the grain in Ilford FP4+ ISO 125 into irregular shapes, and the grain was larger. Some frames became foggy. Many frames displayed some sort of bromide drag. Some frames were flat and others super contrasty.

In the example below you can see 8 bands of bromide drag.

8 bands of bromide drag (Leica M-A, Summicron 50mm, f/16, 1/125, Ilford FP4+ ISO 125)

Here’s an example of fogging with bromide drag, too.

Fogging and bromide drag

Here’s an example that came out okay. If you zoom in, the grains are highly irregular, large and spotty. I suspect this might have something to do with the beer bubbles. There’s bromide drag in the bottom left.

Some bromide drag, irregular and big grains

Beeronol is expensive to make. 2 bottles of Guinness Stout (25cl) is already $4 versus sixteen cents ($0.16) per teaspoon of Rodinal per roll of film. If I wanted to make a photo look like it was from long ago, the irregularities with bromide drag, fog, and graininess make this a good choice.

A List of Thoughts and Feelings that Cannot Be Expressed on Twitter

What are the limits of expressing thoughts in Twitter?

Here’s a powerful but inefficient (when run) thought that can be expressed on Twitter, a quick sort in Erlang in 126 characters.

qsort([]) -> [];
qsort([Pivot|T]) ->
   qsort([X || X <- T, X < Pivot])
   ++ [Pivot] ++
   qsort([X || X <- T, X >= Pivot]).

Also strcmp implemented in C can be tweeted:

int bstrcmp(char *s1,char *s2) { while(*s1 == *s2++) {if(*s1++ == 0){return 0;} } 
return (*(unsigned char *)s1 - *(unsigned char*)--s2);}

A lot of Perl one-liners can fit into a tweet – powerful and useful ones.

You can also propose the concept of a hash tag in a tweet:

hashtag proposal

However, there are many thoughts that seem to be difficult to fit into a tweet:

The Pythagorean Theorem and one of its many proofs
Anselm’s Ontological Proof for God’s Existence
Merge Sort in Ruby
Merge Sort in PHP
Why you should or shouldn’t outsource
What qualities make a great tech hire
The logical fallacy in another person’s tweet
How to subtly tell someone something in an indirect way with the only others knowing being those in the know

Twitter encourages the laconic expression of thought.

Stand Developing Ilford FP4+ in Rodinal 1:100

I stand developed Ilford FP4+ ISO 125 in 500ml of 68F, 1:100 Rodinal for an hour. I was expecting a very fine grain, and high amount of accutance but was slightly disappointed. The highlighting and gradient effect you expect from stand development still blew me away. In the highlights the grain was fine, but the midtones and shadow areas gave medium grain that one would find in pushed film. With all this said, when looking at a magnifier, these were the sharpest negatives I had ever seen. The quirkiness of the results will make me think twice before using it as a film for landscapes, but the detail I got from the close up shots with bokeh make me see the potential for portraits.

Unfortunately, the low-end Epson V600 scanner I had wasn’t able to capture the subtleties in highlights that I could see in the negative. I’m pretty sure that as a print the highlights will be there, and if not, a little dodging should fix that.

Here’s a photo shot with Ilford HP5+ 400 pushed to ISO 1600 stand developed in 500ml of 68F, 1:100 Rodinal for 2 hours. This shot is exceedingly sharp thanks to the lens, and stand development process. However, the grain prevails everywhere. Some like this; others don’t. I am a fan of grain, but also understand the need for fine or undetectable grain for portraits.

Leica M-A, 50mm Summicron, f/2, 1/500, Ilford HP5+ ISO 1600

Here’s a photo shot with Ilford FP4+ ISO 125 in 500ml of 68F, 1:100 Rodinal stand developed for an hour. You can see the fine detail and sharpness, but the bokeh area has a bit of grain.

Leica M-A, 50mm Summicron, f/2, 1/500, Ilford FP4+ ISO 125

If you compare the first two photos carefully, you can see that the Ilford FP4+ definitely has the finer grain, but not as fine as one would expect. I know I’m not comparing apples and oranges, but Portra 160 when well or slightly over-exposed exhibits no detectable grain.

Here’s another photo shot with Ilford FP4+ ISO 125 in 500ml of 68F, 1:100 Rodinal stand developed for an hour. This is a photo of a very popular spot for photographers, Sutro Baths in San Francisco. There were at least 2 couple photography sessions happening while I was here.

Leica M-A, 50mm Summicron, f/16, 1/125, Ilford FP4+ ISO 125

So I’m really not sold on Ilford FP4+ for landscapes, but close ups and portraiture would seem to be its strength. I was surprised by the amount of grain, too. I am not sure I would buy this film again.