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More experiments in film: Portra 400 and longing for the Kodachrome feel

Bethany Film Portrait #1 - Austin, Texas

Bethany Film Portrait – Austin, Texas

I got back my second roll of film the other day. I wasn’t crazy about the results, at first. I’m in the midst of an experiment with film. One that I started recently with a 45-year-old Rollie 35 and a new box of Kodak Ektar 100. The unexpectedly good results from that camera hurled me into more experimentation.

If you are familiar with my work, you know that I like saturated colors. I use HDR, not to create technicolor clown vomit, but for richly saturated “realistic” images. My exploration of film is for the same end goal — rich colors — though through a different process. I see the colorful portraits from Steve McCurry and I’m mesmerized. I’ve come to find that much of that unique color is through Kodachrome, a film which is no longer manufactured or being developed. In fact, Steve McCurry shot the last roll of Kodachrome which was documented through National Geographic. You can see his images here. And while Mr. McCurry is known for portraits, he also shoots urban landscapes. This is what really interests me.

I’m not trying to replicate a certain style, rather I’m trying to capture a richer, more organic look. For all the love I have for digital photography, I feel that its images look clinical. This may work well in certain cases, but the analog softness also entices.

Bethany Film Portrait #2 - Austin, Texas

I shot these photographs with a modern Canon Rebel T2 film camera loaded with Kodak Portra 400. Portra, as the name suggests, is geared more for portraits. To that end, many of pictures on this roll were of people and family snapshots. The Rebel T2 is as easy to use as a modern digital camera, other than not getting a preview on a LCD screen. It takes none of the fiddling and manual setup that is needed for the Rollei 35. On the other hand, this computer controlled plastic tool has none of the charm of an old camera.

Being a portrait film, Portra’s colors are more muted than Ektar 100. I knew that going in but wanted to see what it looks like. My first reaction — disappointment. For a person who likes a lot of color, even more than what Ektar gives, Portra was way too muted. Of course, it also had none of the richness of Kodachrome. My outlook changed when I discovered how to apply the right amount of post-processing to create the look I wanted. It wasn’t perfect for every photo but my results are promising enough that I’m keeping an open mind about this film.

Lucky by the stairs - Austin, Texas

No photographic test would be complete without Lucky. I shot him with a 35mm lens probably wide open at f2. His brownish fur was dull before post processing.

I shot Bethany with a 85mm f2, wide open. Post processing has also transformed these portraits from muted to dynamic. I’m happy her skin tones still look natural, even after greatly increasing saturation. Oh, and her hair, yup it was really that red. Portra seems to live up to its name. Skin tones, at least in good light, appear accurate. All I need is some digital post processing to bring out the film’s full potential.

Woman from Bikinis Sport Bar - Austin, Texas

I created candid portraits on 6th Street of women who work at Bikinis Sports Bar. They were more than happy to help me with my film test. Their skin was more yellowish-brown than I liked but Aperture 3 was able to improve the colors.

Soft Soho Glow, 6th Street- Austin, Texas
Woman from Bikinis Sport Bar - Austin, Texas

Would Portra work for non-portraits? Yes, I think. Especially with post processing. Ektar only comes in ISO 100 which makes night work difficult without a tripod — ISO 400 on Portra makes it easier to hand hold especially with a fast lens. I noticed more motion blur with the SLR at slow shutter speeds. A rangefinder or even the Rollei works better, there’s no mirror slap to add unwanted vibration and movement.

The final tally? All photographs came out and there were no true duds. I suffered motion blur in those dark handheld photos, especially of action on 6th street. It probably makes more sense to shoot night action, such as live music, in digital. Unless I use black and white film, that is, and really push the ISO sensitivity. That might be fun to do in the future.

A few portraits achieved something special — something that I think goes beyond what my digitals have produced. One in particular, of my kids, is a true keeper. If I squint long enough, the color, texture and grain has the feel of Kodachrome, perhaps a bit better. I’m using digital post processing to achieve my look, but that’s okay. I’m not a film purist. I see no problem combining the look and feel of film with the power of digital photography.

More tests to come.

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A photographic night on the town on Rainey Street

Bangers Glow, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

Bangers Glow, Rainey Street – Austin, Texas

I’ve talked a lot about film lately but I still shoot digital. I haven’t tuned into a luddite just yet.

Two weeks ago, I was on Rainey Street with my friend Mark. I’ve been there before, many times on Thursday as part of Drink and Click. Friday, I found out, was a completely different story. Crowds overwhelm the once quaint and downtrodden residential neighborhood. Most of the tired bungalows are now transformed into hip bars surrounded by towering condos. Yup, It’s Austin’s latest trendy night spot. Unlike 6th Street, with dirty low rent bars surrounded by colorful characters and catering to tourists and college students, Rainey Street street pulls in a higher clientele. At least it seems that way but I fear it’s popularity might inundate this small neighborhood.

Bar at No Va, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Monica at No Va, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Burger at No Va, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

We ate an early dinner at NO VA, a stylish and modern restaurant, and talked photography. Mark sported a pair of Leicas, a film one and digital one. I came lightly equipped with a single camera, the Fuji X100S. Our hostess had striking red hair and a pleasant smile and I asked for a portrait. The second floor balcony gave us a unique vantage point over Rainey and I thought Monica’s red hair would contrast very dramatically against the trees. The food was great too. A humble burger was transformed into fancy food and I’m told that they make everything from scratch, including the ketchup.

Hotel Van Zandt Construction, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

It’s hard to overestimate the change in this neighborhood. Adding to the 3 or 4 already built condos are several more big developments. This one is going to be the new Kimpton, the Hotel Van Zandt. A couple blocks north, the new Fairmount Hotel, which is said to be a 1000 room 47 story tower. I hope all this development doesn’t crush the feel of this place.

It was already dark when we left NO VA as we strolled through several interesting establishments. On 6th street, I shoot the people as well as the surroundings. Here on Rainey, I’m attracted to the details. Each place has put an emphasis on unique design. I love capturing the environment, especially at night. I’m attracted to the glow of lights, especially the kind that hang like pearl necklaces over patios. You see a lot of this on Rainey and I soaked it up.

Bangers Entrance, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Bangers Patio, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Sour Bridges Performs at Bangers, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Sour Bridges Performs at Bangers, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

First up, Bangers. Completely packed and serenaded by music, this place had a really good feel. It does a good job capturing the romantic image of Austin — wide open spaces, casual dinning and live music. The weather wasn’t bad either. Mid to late September is when the heat usually breaks in Austin. For a short time, with some luck, we get a few weeks of that California-like weather. Some people here wish for this kind of climate all year around. I don’t. Imagine how expensive it’ll be to live here with great year round weather? The prices are going up too much already. I say the heat keeps the weak away (and keeps the prices down, somewhat).

Lucille's Entrance, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Lucille's Bar, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Lucille's Bar Patio, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

Lucille has a simple but striking design element. A glowing chandelier against a deep red cloth. More than other places on Rainey this place maintains its bungalow roots. Drinking here is like being invited over to an artist friend’s eclectic and humble house. The red centerpiece was enough to attract my camera and the ample windows made for numerous framing opportunities.

Food Trailers on Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Food Trucks on Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

This are only a few remaining un-renovated buildings. This one rents out their yard to food trailers. There’s another food court like food trailer park on the other side of the street.

G'Raj Mahal Seating, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Chandelier with Character, G'Raj Mahal, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Kitchen Window, G'Raj Mahal, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
G'Raj Mahal Patio, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

We met up with Mark’s friends celebrating a birthday at the G’Raj Mahal Indian Restaurant (love the name). Nice inexpensive details at this place, put together into a cohesive whole. I’m not sure how it looks during the day, but at night, it works. I ended up taking some people snaps with the built-in flash during the party, which the Fuji X100S does exceptionally well. I don’t often use flash but it comes in handy for sure. Beats taking smart phone photos with their underpowered LEDs and it’s more versatile than expensive cameras with no built-in flashes.

The selection at Craft Pride, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Detroit Pizza at Craft Pride, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

As you might have guessed, there’s a lot of hipsters with thick bushy beards here. I wonder how they make it through the Austin summers? Craft Pride, with 54 local Texas brews, get’s my award for the most full breads per square feet. For me though, what’s more important is that wonderful glow off the black board, warm wood textures and ample opportunity for moody silhouettes. Yes, unlike normal people who judge a brew pub by their beer, I’m more attracted by design, light and shadow. Out back, more glowing lights and a giant food trailer. Coming from New York, I never realized Detroit Pizza is a thing.

Javelina Entrance, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Moody Lights at the Javelina, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas
Shuffle Board at the Javelina, Rainey Street - Austin, Texas

Last in this quick and partial tour of Rainey Street is Javelina Bar. I remember shooting here before with a preproduction Olympus OM-D E-M1 during a Drink and Click. That Thursday was particularly hopping with a live band and people dressed up in 1920’s garb for a murder mystery. On this particular Friday, however, it was still rather quiet, no doubt waiting for the onslaught to come later.

As Mark and I left, revelers streamed in from the north. Though Rainey Street is tucked into the out-of-the-way south-east corner of the Central Business District, it has hit the radar in a big way. The entire area is rapidly changing and I predict in the near future that there will be an unbroken chain of night spots all the way from 6th street. With all the hotels nearby as well as the convention center, out of towers will come here in droves. Perhaps the native Austinites will shift to another area. I know 6th Street, east of Interstate 35 has already started the journey of up and coming night spot.

It might sound like downtown Austin is turning into one giant party scene. Not quit, of course, but it’s nice to have a downtown with enough pull to get people from the suburbs as well as other cities to visit.

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I took all the photographs with the Fujifilm X100S in JPEG and post processed with Aperture 3.

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How film image quality compares to my Fujifilm X100S

Rollei 35 and Fujifilm X100S

Rollei 35 and Fujifilm X100S

I’m having fun playing with the Rollei 35, a 45-year-old film camera that I bought recently for $75. To my delight, the darn thing actually works and works quite well too. It’s a total throwback, technology wise, and very different from shooting digital. But how does its image quality compare to modern digital cameras? Well, I just happened to have my Fujifilm X100S with me as I shot the Rollei.

There’s a lot of things I can compare but I’m concentrating on image quality, particularly the colors. Under almost every metric, the X100S is going to be easier and more versatile. Its computer controlled metering, focusing and feedback allows me to shoot most any scene with ease. And as you may know, the X100S is my most used camera since March. But recently, I’ve realized that film has some very nice color properties. So how does film and the X100S compare?

Rollei 35 with Kodak Ektar 100 - Original

Rollei 35 with Kodak Ektar 100 – Original

Fujifilm X100S with PRO Neg.Hi Setting - Original

Fujifilm X100S with PRO Neg.Hi Setting – Original

I shot both cameras from the same place back to back. Framing is slightly different since the Fuji is a 35mm equivalent and the Rollei is 40mm. I shot the Fuji with the PRO Neg.Hi film simulation in JPEG and I shot the Rollei with Kodak Ektar 100 film. What you see above are un-tweaked images, either directly from the camera or directly from the film scan.

Rollei 35 with Kodak Ektar 100 - Processed

Rollei 35 with Kodak Ektar 100 – Processed

Fujifilm X100S with PRO Neg.Hi Setting - Original

Fujifilm X100S with PRO Neg.Hi Setting – Processed

Now let’s look at the same images after I post process them in Aperture 3. I’m generally increasing saturation and doing simple tweaks such as changing exposure and other settings to get similar colors. What I notice most is the rich wood tones on the bridge. As I increase the saturation on digital, the wood still doesn’t quite match the richness of film, however, the saturation boost has adverse affects on the rest of the image. Notice that the buildings in the background take on a pinkish-yellowish color. I particularly dislike the yellowish-green color that I get on the distant building on the very right.

The Ektar film image does not “ugly out” like the Fuji. The buildings maintain their white color and still has the rich wood tones. Now I freely admit that I might not have the post-processing chops to properly do the sophisticated adjustments. Maybe, if I used another program or a film simulation plug-in, I’ll get better results. But with that said, it goes to show even with simple processing, how easy it is to get good colors with film.

For sharpness and low noise digital wins, hands down. Ektar 100 is a low grain film but still does not match modern digital cameras. But the digital image looks flat to me. In terms of the very subjective feel of the image, I prefer the film version. It seems to have a non-linear quality with more depth and richness. I’m not sure how much of the look is due to the old Carl Zeiss lens on the Rollei. As I experiment more with film on different cameras, I hope to find out.

Ultimately though, I’m not saying film is better. Just different. It’s giving me an effect that I find intriguing. In some ways, It’s like HDR. Even with my comparably light HDR touch, it produces a particular kind of look through increased dynamic range, details and color. I use it as a way to create a different kind of photograph and it works well for certain subjects. Perhaps that will be the case with film. Time will tell.

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My 26 megapixel full frame camera that I got for $75

Tesla Showroom Glows - Austin, Texas

Tesla Showroom Glows – Austin, Texas

I noticed this beauty in the used camera case at Precision Camera. The tiny and odd Rollei 35 is the smallest all mechanical camera when introduced back in 1966. Yes, it’s a camera but unlike any I’ve ever used. No computer, no exposure meter, vague focusing and no battery required. It’s as far away from digital that you can get while still being a full-fledged camera.

Actually, you can use a battery to power a primitive exposure meter but I opted to go fully mechanical and use the camera without power. For a computer oriented digital photography guy like me, this thing is totally bizarre. If it weren’t for the precise mechanicals and well made metal box, it could pass for a pre-Columbian archeological relic, at least in my book. I was fascinated that I can simply turn the dials and, if I got the settings correct, actually create a high quality photograph.

Interesting Suburban Architecture - Austin, Texas

The magic happens via chemistry, of course, and when the film is developed. The Rollei is merely a light-proof box with an aperture setting and a shutter mechanism that keeps the hole open for a pre-determined time. When you boil it down to that, photography seems so simple, especially compared to the sophisticated electronics that are required for the modern equivalents.

Colorful Cranes - Austin, Texas
Downtown and More Construction - Austin, Texas

I had no idea if this camera worked — I knew the film counter didn’t — but at $75 I was giving it a try. Worst case, it would become another mechanical jewel that would be added to my collection of film classics from a bygone era. As you can see from these images, the Rollei 35 worked and worked marvelously.

Runners on the Pedestrian Bridge - Austin, Texas
Residential City Rising - Austin, Texas

People familiar with the way I shoot, like my fried Mike Connell, would be amused. In the digital realm, I shoot fast and I shoot often. With this contraption, I meter manually with an iPhone, adjust the aperture and shutter knobs and estimate distance so that I can approximate focus. Yup, not even a rangefinder to tell you if it’s focused right. I know there’s a little bit of irony that I use a super sophisticated pocket computer to figure out exposure. You’ll have to forgive me. My skill at judging exposure is currently below rudimentary.

Lamar Bridge Silhouette - Austin, Texas

All of the photographs on this page (except for the last one) were shot with the Rollei 35 with a new roll of Kodak Ektar 100. I got it developed and scanned at ultra high-res last week at Precision Camera. Precision has several scanning levels and the ultra high-res gives me 26 megapixels of digital goodness. I don’t get any prints made. I go from film development to digital in one convenient step through Precision’s service. While Ektar 100 is a colorful film, I enhanced it further using digital post processing in Aperture 3.

Building Boom of 2014 - Austin, Texas

Scans are a digital capture of an analog process and I think the results look different from pure digital. It’s hard for me to put it into words but I think there is a richer and mellower look. Digital is crisper but more clinical. I must say that I’m liking the color a lot.

Texas State Capitol at Dusk - Austin, Texas

Most of all, I’m happy and amazed that all the photographs came out. Somehow, it makes me feel like a real photographer. Beyond the primitive mechanical limitations, with a maximum aperture of f3.5 on this 40mm lens with slow ISO 100 film, I need a lot of light unless I break out the tripod.

So what does this mechanical wonder look like? Here is a snap I took recently at the Apple Store. Posted on Instagram, I call it “Old and New Cameras. The Rollei 35 (1966) and the Apple iPhone 6 Plus (2014)”.

Old and New Cameras. The Rollei 35 (1966) and the Apple iPhone 6 Plus (2014)

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I took all the photographs (except for the last one) with the Rollei 35 loaded with Kodak Ektar 100. The negative was recently scanned to digital and I post processed it in Aperture 3.

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Opening the 4 year old time capsule

Skyline by the dog park - Austin, Texas

Skyline by the dog park – Austin, Texas

I mentioned in my previous post that I’m going to experiment with film. I’m intrigued by the analog color which seems quite different from digital. I’m starting by unlocking a 4 year time capsule.

I have a Canon EOS Rebel T2 film camera which I bought for $40, with kit lens, when Wolf Camera was going out of business a number of years ago. This may very well be the last film SLR Canon released. What’s cool about this camera is that it’s fully compatible with all my Canon EOS lenses that I use on my modern, digital Canon 6D. So the Rebel T2 is perfect for my exploration of film.

I dug out the old camera and popped in a battery and noticed that I had a few frames left from an old roll. Best I can remember, I loaded this with some cheap Fujifim Superia 400 film about 4 years ago. I had no idea what was on it. I shot a few snaps and brought it into Precision Camera for film developing and an ultra high-res scan.

Apparently it’s a thing to actually shoot with expired film. If you do I recommend that you greatly overexpose, my newly shot photos came out dark and exceptionally grainy. From what I found out, film loses its light sensitivity as it grows old. But the images I captured 4 years ago look interesting in an artistic way. Increased grain with random color splotches but exposures looked decent.

The image above is my favorite. The tall building under construction is the Austonian that has long been completed. The two other cranes mark the beginnings of the W Hotel and the Four Season’s Residences. That was the last boom. Today in 2014, Austin is going through yet another one, even larger than the one four years ago.

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I took the photograph with a Canon Rebel T2 film SLR. The 4 year old negative was developed a few weeks ago, scanned to digital and I post processed it in Aperture 3.

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