The Wonders Of Image DegradationSaturday, September 13, 2014
Yesterday I took my venerable Dresden-made (when Dresden was in the Russian Occupied Zone) Pentacon-F to be repaired by Horst Wenzel. He looked at the camera tested the functions of the 50mm Zeiss Tessar lens and informed me that the shutter just needed to be cleaned and re-lubricated.
As I wrote here, repairing the camera, a waste of money in Wenzel’s opinion, has something to do with my allegiance to inanimate objects that have served me well. I felt guilty looking at it on my den bookshelf knowing that it had a faulty shutter and that unlike in other countries here we have in Vancouver a stellar repairman.
Its beautiful Zeiss Tessar f-2.8 lens probably could not compete in sharpness with my new Fuji X-E1s exotic aspherical zoom lens. Nor could it compete with a early 80s vintage Pentax M 20mm wide angle that I have kept because of its remarkable lack of apparent distortion. It is as rectilinear as a wide angle gets.
Since the early 80s the main lens in my working collection has been a floating element 140mm Mamiya lens for my Mamiya RB-67 Pro-SD. I have two of them. Some years ago when I was about to take pictures of Raymond Burr the mainspring went. I was forced to use a less sharp 90mm that made Burr look fatter than he was. I vowed never again to have this happen to me so I purchased a second 140 lens. Wenzel has a spare main spring spirited away in his repair shop.
For years I have maintained that all photographs (and particularly portraits) have to be sharp. If you cannot see individual eyelashes, throw the negative or slide away. The exception of course is when the photographer intends for the picture not to be sharp for some particular motive. Another fine exception is the look of old optics, even optics that were sharp in their time. I used a 1953 Leica IIIF for these pictures that have a look unmatched and different from anything that I might use now.
To this day I question
autofocus lenses and the idea of an automatic follow focus lens does not apply
to me as I never shoot basketball, hockey or football.
I know that the sharpest f-stop of almost any lens is somewhere (usually halfway) between its minimum and maximum aperture. I know that bracing the camera with a tripod is a sure way of maintaining the inherent sharpness of a good lens. I know that the flutter of a reflex camera’s mirror can degrade the image at a slow shutter. With my Mamiya I always use its lens mirror lock mechanism.
So much for sharpness via the camera.
In my fridge I have 30 rolls of the sharpest most detailed film ever made. This is Kodak Technical Pan in 120 format. So much for sharpness via film.
I also know, and this is increasingly a decreasing factor for most photographers that the best test for sharpness is the detail of an actual print be it a darkroom printed photograph or a well executed digital giclée or light-jet print. Looking at pictures on a monitor (to me) is a waste of time.
How fast will that car go? Don’t give me numbers. Drive it. I think that applies to photography, too.
It was a few days ago that a tweet by my friend Tim Bray caught my eye. In his tweet he linked it to a man who writes about the wonders of a medium format camera that has an aftermarket digital sensor attached. There are even more expensive dedicated digital Hasselblads.
I read the article, obsessive, by a man (Zack Arias is his name) obsessed with detail, sharpness, colour saturation and the ability to crop minute parts of an image and still render it all in close perfection.
I read the article and I smiled as I seem to be headed into the opposite direction with my Mamiya RB-67 Pro-SD described as a tank by someone in the comments section of the essay. He further says that at the end of the world only cockroaches and RB-67s will survive it!
Case in point in my contrary ways is the story behind the image here and its almost identical but not as dramatic companion negative which was shot one click before.
My goal was to attempt to imitate the wonderful (paradoxically very sharp) wet plate portraits taken by Mathew Brady in his New York City studio in the early 1860s. His lighting consisted of a very large skylight. Having some idea of the fact that sensitized plates (like all film, video tape, and even modern digital sensors) were more sensitive to the blue light coming from skylight, Brady tinted his skylight glass blue.
Since I no longer have a studio with a high ceiling I mounted a large softbox light that is five ft by 6 ft on a boom light stand. This meant that I could suspend the light high and pointing down on my subject (Caitlin Legault) to give the feel of skylight. Generally I use a 3 by 4 softbox very close to my subject’s face so half the face is always in some shadow. Behind Legault I put up a red backdrop (the colour unimportant as I was going to shoot it all in b+w). I had all this in a shady part of the garden and I set my camera shutters to expose the existing light to one stop under the correct exposure. The flash was set at f-16 both with two rolls of Ilford FP-4 Plus IS0 100 and two rolls of Kodak T-Max 400 (the images you see here are the T-Max).
I was able to keep the f-16 exposure with the two different rolls by controlling the output of my stable Visatek monolight flash.
The less dramatic image is almost a straight scan (an Epson Perfection V700 Photo scanner). I scanned it dark and in the warmish tone on purpose.
For the second image, I placed the negative emulsion down on the glass with no holder. This means that the negative curled on the sides and it was not completely flat. On top of the negative I placed a sheet of my letterhead stationery. I left the scanner top open and I scanned the negative from the bottom as I would scanning a 8x10 print. The resulting image I then reversed (as it appeared as a negative) in Photoshop.
The paper adds to measures of degradation. Because the paper was in close contact with the negative, the scanner “sees” some of the flaws and texture of the paper. The light of the scanner, instead of penetrating the negative fully it bounces off the paper and back to the scan. That reduces the contrast.
It seems to me that so mush emphasis this day in photography lies with the technical aspects of the gear used and there is less on the wonder of an image and how it affects us when we see it without having to delve on all those pixels and MOS sensors, etc.