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It was (is) All About the Medium

Kodachrome 25; 1990s

For potentially bored readers, I have some good news. I just returned from another European trip in October, which means some new images again, rather than my historical stroll down memory lane. I am post-processing images right now. But first, another reminiscent post:

Kodachrome, was simply the standard by which any other choice was measured. And until the 1980’s they generally just didn’t measure up.

My “evolution” series got me thinking a bit about the medium. Those who have been shooting only during the past 20 years may be vaguely aware of an old cellulose material called film. When I jumped in, film was all we had, and the “pickins” were slim.  If you wanted to shoot color slides (the medium of choice, it seems, for serious “nature” photographers), you mainly had Kodak. There were competitors, but in the early years, Kodak dominated the film world, for a number of reasons. Most shops and retail stores stocked Kodak products.


In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth ….. and Kodachrome

Perhaps the most important reason was that Kodachrome, was simply the standard by which any other choice was measured. And until the 1980’s the others generally just didn’t measure up.

prior to about 1936, color photography was not prevalent among all but a limited group of professionals. Color wasn’t really that great (though it was relative, I suppose). Early results (including some early color slide films) are reminiscent of the early “colorized” movies we saw. We all knew it was black and white with some color added. In my mind, this was true until Kodachrome became the standard.

In 1936, a couple of musician-turned-scientists were hired by Eastman Kodak to complete their experimental process. As I did my research, I was interested to learn that there actually was another “Kodachrome,” which was a 2-color process, developed by a Kodak engineer in 1913. In 1936, Kodak introduced the 3-layer process which became the vaunted Kodachrome. Called a non-substantive film (an odd name in my view – but addressing the lack of dye or colorant “substances” in the film emulsion itself), the Kodachrome process was complex. It was essentially a B&W film, in which color dyes were added to the 3 different layers during the development process.

Fuji Velvia

This meant that a specialized processing setup was necessary, and until 1954, Kodak successfully maintained a monopoly on this process (known as K-14), by selling Kodachrome only with pre-paid processing by Kodak as part of the deal. In 1954, the United States challenged this practice as an anti-trust violation, and an agreement was entered into, among other things, ending this practice (and of course, allowing competitors to acquire the accoutrements to develop Kodachrome).

Originally, Kodachrome was released at ISO 10. A 20-exposure cassette cost $3.50. That, for those interested, would have been about $65.00 in 2019 dollars!

Kodak (Ektachrome) E100SW

In 1936, there was no ISO (or ASA, as it was originally known). During the World War, the military wanted a single standard to be able to increase their efficiency. Prior to this time, there were several standards (and thus, several different marketed light meters – all handheld in those days). The American Standards Association created a “standard” measurement for light sensitivity measurement, which then became known as the film’s “ASA,” or ASA rating. In 1987, the International Organization for Standardization was created and film manufacturers worldwide shifted to this international standard (which is numerically identical to the old ASA standard). So we now refer to light sensitivity measure – on all media – as “ISO.”


There were non-believers …

That same year (1936) German film and camera manufacturer, AGFA, introduced Agfacolor. While very similar to Kodachrome, including its three layer emulsion, AGFA engineers embedded color dyes into the film emulsion, making the development process less complex. I shot maybe one or two rolls of Agfacolor. Didn’t care for it. It looked, as I noted above, like lightly colorized black and white. It did seem to make a big hit in the motion picture industry, however, and was widely used in film-making for a number of years.

The Fujifilm company was established in Japan in 1934. I was not able to find much about early film offered by Fuji. Of course, they catapulted into top status with the release of Velvia, years later.

Fuji Velvia

Kodachrome II, was introduced in 1961, with an ASA/ISO rating of 25. In 1962, they a released 64 ASA version (later they simply became known as K-25 and K-64). In 2007, K-25 production was discontinued. K-64 production followed suit in 2009). One source noted that in 2009, sales of Kodachrome made up 1% of Kodak sales revenue. Kodak had essentially ceased processing Kodachrome themselves by 2006, and by 2010, the only one Kodak-certified facility remaining was Dwayne’s Photo, in Parsons, Kansas. Later that year the even they ceased Kodachrome processing. Which led me to wonder, what if I had any rolls of undeveloped Kodachrome? Some “Google” research will reveal that there are processors out there who claim to be able to process it. But I checked my freezer. No film of any kind in there. Phew! 🙂


Nothing lasts forever …

In addition to its complexity and considerable expense, there were other Kodachrome drawbacks. Transparencies were designed, of course, to be projected with a relatively strong light (anybody else remember those “travelogue” slide shows that were prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s?). The medium was consequently, relatively high contrast with lots of shadows. This made it particularly touchy to produce photographic prints from. And, we have learned in later years, the process of scanning and converting Kodachrome to digital images often is challenged by colorcasts which need to be addressed in the scanning process.

Stemming partly from photographers (particularly consumers) demand for cheaper and more convenient products, and also partly borne out of the 1954 antitrust decree directing Kodak to endeavor to release a newer, more consumer-friendly film that was in development, Ektachrome, with a new “E-process” in which dyes were embedded in the film emulsion was introduced in 1955. Originally ASA 32, a 160 version was introduced in 1959, and 64 and 100 ASA versions in 1977. I wasn’t even shooting yet! Two years after I got started, in 1979, Ektachrome 400 was released.

Kodak Elite Chrome 100

Ektachrome had some advantages. It was cheaper than Kodachrome and cheaper and easier to process. You could have it processed locally. If you wanted to make the investment in color processing equipment (essentially, some relatively affordable tanks and chemicals), you could process it yourself.

I shot very little of it. This was probably partly due to the prejudice I acquired early on, from my shooting inspiration. But there was also still no doubt that Kodachrome was still the professional-preferred medium for most. Ektachrome also had a known blue color cast, and I found it cool, and a bit less saturated than my personal taste. So, throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s I shot Kodachrome.

Kodak Elite Chrome II (50)

When I came back to serious shooting in the early 1990’s, the industry had changed. Fuji introduced its Velvia 50 in 1990. Its characteristic was a very colorful, saturated, and contrasty profile. It took aim at Kodachrome and punched it in the face. It quickly became the slide film of choice for nature photographers – especially for landscape and flowers. And it used the E-6 process (by this time virtually every emulsion used the E-6 process, except for Kodachrome).

Again, while there were others, there really weren’t 🙂 . Fuji and Kodak went head to head. Fuji released Velvia. Kodak parried with Lumiere 100 (a neutral balanced Ektachrome) and Lumiere 100X (a warm-saturated Ektachrome). Fujia added Velvia 100. Lumiere was short-lived and said by some to have some inconsistency in color from roll to roll. Kodak replaced it with E100S (saturated), E100SW (warm saturated) and E100VS (very saturated – Kodak’s answer to Velvia).

Kodak Elite Chrome II (100)

Fuji, in 2003, in response to criticism that Velvia was just too colorful (perhaps unrealistic to some), introduced Provia, in 100, 200, 400, and 1600 ISO versions, and  Provia F (ultra-fine grain).

These were all so-called “professional” films. They tended to be more expensive. Whether they were that much better is probably a personal judgment. They probably had better quality control. I remember going to my photo shop in my community to buy these films (they weren’t generally available in the big box and drugstores), and they were generally stored in refrigerated conditions.

To cater to consumers, both companies released (almost simultaneously) “consumer” versions of the above film varieties. Kodak’s Ektachrome became Elite Chrome, Elite Chrome II, and Elite Chrome Extra Color.

Fuji Sensia II

Fuji’s consumer version of Provia was Sensia, Sensia II, and Sensia III, in various ISO ratings. I am not aware that they ever marketed a consumer version of Velvia.

Interesting stuff for some of us, and by the mid-2000’s, essentially irrelevant to most of us. 🙂

Fuji Sensia II (100)

Before I did the research for this piece, I spent a few hours going through my archives to find examples of some of my images made with all of the above media. The problem is that it is truly impossible to make comparisons, here. This is partly because in order to do this on a blog, it became necessary at some point to convert all the media to one single media: digital. So this may not have been a very useful exercise – but it was fun doing it. Presented as digital media, I can see some nuances, but not any huge differences (of course, post processing software has “recipes” to “recreate” film “looks” in digital post-processing these days. I have done very little of that, except for B&W, and cannot really say how accurate they are). I did very little post-processing of the “film” images; just a bit of sharpening mainly. I would be interested if you can see any difference.

For me, digital processing made everything possible; digital capture made it much more convenient

 


And there shall come a Rapture …..

Digital shifted the focus (see what I did there?) from all of the considerations of film, down to one thing: the digital sensor. And it is all about the quality, sharpness, and resolving capability of those tiny little electronic chips. We moved from cost and technical ability to manufacture affordable digital sensors, to “size” matters, and then back again these days to the fact that maybe it doesn’t even matter so much any more.

Nikon D100 (2002)
6 megapixel – “APS”

The Purple Coneflower is one of my first flower images made with direct digital capture. As noted above, it is difficult to make useful comparisons with film. First, doesn’t scanning a film image convert it to a “digital” image? Then, once we get into the post-processing world, everything we once knew kind of goes out the window. We can post-process a film scanned image in much the same ways we can post-process a digital capture. It may be possible to capture “cleaner” images directly, but we still have to deal with “digital” grain (noise). Color rendering becomes pretty much what you want it to be. One interpretation of the coneflower, for example, is that it has a “color-cast.” This is purposeful on my part because I like the warm, saturated color in many of my more colorful “nature” images. But I did this (of course, you can inadvertently capture color-casts, but if you shoot in the raw format, you can almost always correct, or adjust it, as can be seen from the white daylily image made with the Nikon D200).

Nikon D200
10 Megapixel; APS

I had to laugh as I reviewed digital images in my Lightroom Catalog. I apparently have an affinity for lilies, probably because they are an easy, plentiful, and colorful subject (emphasis perhaps on “easy” 🙂 ). In any event, I have almost 400 lily images. The closest second is around 25.

We moved from cost and technical ability to manufacture affordable digital sensors, to “size” matters, and then back again these days to the fact that maybe it doesn’t even matter so much any more

When I shifted to digital, I was satisfied with what was available, but not completely happy that the sensors were still small. Size, with sensors, had at least three dimensions: actual physical sensor size, and pixel depth (the number of pixels on that space), and the actual physical size of each individual pixel. Obviously, they are interrelated. And in the beginning, this was a pretty big deal. Larger sensors and larger pixels could handle capture with less noise, at higher ISO levels and more detail. So, almost from the beginning, there were “pixel wars” between the purveyors of digital cameras. But also in the beginning, the successful manufacture and hence, availability of larger sensors was prohibitively expensive. Of course, the sensor size itself also effected the optics in a big way. The 35mm SLR camera had become the sort of “standard” by which most of this stuff was measured. But the affordable sensors at first were the so-called “APS” sized sensor, which is significantly smaller than the 35mm film rectangle we were used to, but as you can see by the gold rectangle below, much larger that what we first had with Point & Shoot cameras.

Sensor Sizes Compared

APS sensors meant that the lenses made for the 35mm perspective, did not work the same way. There were pros and cons (covered ad nauseum by others elsewhere). Because of the perceived combined “advantage” of a higher-quality capture and regaining the use, especially, of their wide angle lenses, many 35mm users almost immediately began to call for a so-called “full frame” sensor. I have always found this kind of illogical. What would a “medium format” (4 x 5 inch), or a full 8 x 10″ view camera user call a sensor made to their size? :-). But “full frame” caught on. I eventually jumped on that train, believing “full frame” capture was necessary for me to achieve the image quality I desired. I want to emphasize that there is certainly nothing negative about owning the larger sensor. There is little doubt that you can coax more out of it than the smaller sensors. But to me, it may have been the purchase of a dump truck, when a small pickup (or even a wheelbarrow) was sufficient. There are a couple factors – all empirical for me – that bring me to this conclusion.

D800 “full frame”

First, I had some personal experience. While I am not sure this is any longer true, at the time, to me the “holy grail” was the photographic print, on traditional photographic paper. I have owned a couple Epson printers that were capable of making inkjet prints that rivaled anything I had ever received from any lab. And, I was able to do my own “darkroom” adjustments. For economic reasons, the largest I generally made were 13 x 19″ prints, and that became my de facto standard for measuring quality. And while I enjoyed and appreciated my “full frame” Nikons, my “testing” didn’t prove out the benefit (for me) of the larger sensor (except, perhaps with its integration with some really fine pro- zoom lenses designed for 35mm).

Sony NEX APS
(equivalent to Nikon APS)

The real eye opener came some years later, when I made side-by-side images with my Sony “full frame” and my Sony RX100, and printed them. I could not see much difference. To be fair, much of what has gone on has been in the post-processing realm (both in terms of technology and my abilities). There have also been technology gains which have made the smaller sensor just that much better.

Sony NEX APS
Zeiss 50mm f1.8 lens

 

The red lily image illustrates this, I think. It prints beautifully as a 13 x 19. I believe it could easily print much larger with no noticeable degradation. It illustrates to me my earlier premise that resolving power, low light, and clean capture-capable sensors (regardless of size, and often regardless of the number of megapixels) has really become the “media” of today.

 

“Gear Stuff” – a comparison between Large and Small Cameras.

Castle Hill Lighthouse Newport, RI Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Castle Hill Lighthouse
Newport, RI
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

I have “categories” on my blog, like “gear” and “musings.” I am not sure if this blog is more “gear” or “musings.” So let’s just call it “musings about gear.” 🙂

The age old gear discussion often involves whether one is better than the other

All craftsmen use tools. Some are generic, but often there are special tools for a particular job. I think photographic “gear” is really better characterized, generally, as “tools.” The age old gear discussion involves whether one is “better” than the other. So let’s just start this out by stating that, when it comes to photography, “better” is always subjective. And perhaps when we apply the adjective, “better” we need to think in terms of “better for what,” and “better for whom?

Castle Hill Lighthouse Newport, RI Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Castle Hill Lighthouse
Newport, RI
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Equipment that is better for me is not necessarily better for another photographer. One of my good friends, Phil Dolinger, is a sports photographer. He wouldn’t use my gear. It just wouldn’t work for him. It is the wrong tool. I could use his gear (Phil, if you give it to me, I will use it 🙂 ). But I don’t need his gear. I travel and I most often shoot cooperative (“still”) subjects. Usually, I can get closer using my feet. So I can work with smaller lenses and smaller cameras.

Sailboat Rhode Island Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Sailboat
Rhode Island
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Before I go further, I guess I need to consider what I mean by “large” and small.”  For many of the years I have been shooting, in my thinking, really large cameras were view cameras.  They use sheets of film, often as large as 8 x 10 inches.  Large cameras were the various iterations of the so-called, “Medium Format” (MF) camera, which shot film rectangle sizes of generally between 6 x 4.5 and 6 x 8 inches.  While these cameras certainly were capable of capturing tremendous detail, the were often fiddly, expensive to operate, heavy, and required accessories.  There is a reason you never see a view camera on the sidelines on NFL Sunday.  View cameras and often, larger MF cameras required the use of a large and sturdy tripod.

Probably the most ubiquitous camera over the last 40 years has been the 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera.  The vast majority of shooters, pro and serious amateur alike, used these cameras.  Though their film square was a mere 35mm diagonal, they were a very acceptable compromise of film, a wide variety of interchangeable lenses, adjustability of shutter speed and aperture.  Their main advantage was their diversity and portability.  A variation the SLR is the so-called viewfinder camera.  Most of them used 35mm film and they were, more often than not, used by pro’s who needed portability and sometimes anonymity.  Or, often because they just preferred them.  Since my acquisition of the Sony RX100 small camera, I now understand why.

I have always thought the term “full frame” was kind of self-serving.  It refers to 35mm.  All those shooters shooting various medium format and larger format cameras have to be saying “really?  Full Frame?  You are gonna go with that?

And then there are “small” cameras.  Those are essentially anything smaller than an SLR, in my thinking (obviously, it’s all relative).  We have, over the years, come to calling them “point and shoot” (P&S) cameras.  This perhaps pejorative name is less based on their capability than their intended market.  These were everyday, snapshooter, often inexpensive, and generally, limited systems.  They didn’t have to be.  I once carried an Olympus “pocket” camera that made some very high quality images.  Some used 35mm film, some even smaller film.  Generally, a “serious” photographer did not carry one of these “small” cameras as their primary gear.  In the past 5 years, that has (at least for me and perhaps a couple others I know) has all changed.

What has been a real eye-opener for me is just how capable current small cameras are. In “the day,” nobody argued that a larger piece of film yielded finer, more detailed results; especially where large prints were involved. So the View Camera generally yielded best results. Medium Format cameras generally yielded better results than 35mm. For its first 20 years, it has been assumed (and probably proven), that the same held true with digital capture. There was no question in the nascent days of digital capture, that the medium format digital backs rendered finer, more detailed, and just overall more pleasing images.  But they were completely out of the economic reach of the typical enthusiast and of many pros.  The first consumer affordable sensors in a “larger” camera format were the so-called APS-sized (smaller than 35mm) sensor.  Built on the 35mm SLR body concept, they have been tagged DSLRs.  They are are probably still the most popular enthusiast dedicated digital camera. The roadblocks to creating 35mm equivalent and larger sensors were technology and cost. As those two factors converged affordable 35mm (so-called “full frame”) sensors became reality. But for the 10-15 years before that, an entire, new phase of manufacturing came about in order to produce lenses that worked hand in hand with the smaller APS sensors. Again, gear. Lots of it. Good for manufactures and sales :-).  I have always thought the term “full frame” was kind of self-serving.  It refers to 35mm.  All those shooters shooting various medium format and larger format cameras have to be saying “really?  Full Frame?  You are gonna go with that?”

What has been an eye-opener is just how capable smaller cameras are

Again, the gear and tools analogy holds here. The reason 35mm SLR cameras were so popular was their versatility. You don’t see many view-cameras and black cloths setting up for sports or wildlife shooting.  And you never see one of those being hand held on a crowded city street.  Not only are the images upside-down on the viewing screen, but it is really difficult to move the camera and focus it.  Another reason, of course, is the ability to manufacture and offer SLR style bodies at a price that can be afforded by consumers.

Temple Rokuon-Ji Kyoto Japan Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Temple Rokuon-Ji
Kyoto Japan
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

But things have changed. And oh, how they have changed! Film and digital capture sensors are both, without doubt, physical science. But the technology surrounding the physical science just gets better and better, and put in the context of our own empirical experience, unbelievable. Things like Fuji’s “Foveon” sensors, and the newer “stacked sensor” technology championed by Sony, has given us the advancement to create high image quality digital capture with very physically small sensors. So much so, that it is becoming really difficult to differentiate an image captured by a small camera and one captured by a large camera.

I need to qualify this. On paper, there is still no comparison between the image quality rendered by a large digital sensor and a small one. The larger one will yield measurably better results. “Measurably” is the key. The practice of magnifying the images to 100% and looking at the individual pixels is often referred to as “pixel-peeping.” I won’t argue that difference is remarkable. But I don’t know that I really care. For me the objective has always been display of my images in a format that viewers can enjoy. And though more and more, digital display has become the benchmark, I still think in terms of the relatively large photographic print. So, when I am able to take a small sensor image and make a good quality print at 24″ x 36″, I have obtained the results I seek. I have a couple such prints that are indistinguishable to my eye from similar prints made from my “full-frame” (35mm equivalent) camera.

The practice of magnifying the images to 100% and looking at the individual pixels is often referred to as “pixel-peeping.” I won’t argue that difference is remarkable. But I don’t know that I really care.

On my recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island, I carried the small, Sony RX100iv in my pocket the entire time I was shooting. I have started to use it to frame up images and take test shots while setting up the full-frame a7 on the tripod. What has continued to amaze me is that I find it difficult to meaningfully distinguish images shot with it and the a7. And these days, my small camera images are mostly handheld. The first Castle Hill Lighthouse shot here was made with the a7 and a 70-200 lens. after making a few shots with the R100, I waited for the “golden” light to make the a7 shot.  The only real difference I can see is the light and color of the image. As far as the image quality, I really cannot see a difference. I am confident that I could print from either digital file as large as I would ever want a print to be for hanging. (NOTE:  when I wrote the first draft of this, I said “Sure, it is not going to make a billboard image, but I haven’t shot one of those yet 🙂 ” )Recently, I sold an image made with my full frame Nikon DSLR that was used as a billboard sized panoramic images in an Interstate Welcome Center.  Perhaps the RX100 would have shown its weakness there 🙂 .

Castel-Angel Rome, Italy Copyright Andy Richards 2015

Castel-Angel
Rome, Italy
Copyright Andy Richards 2015

I have used the RX100iv exclusively as my travel camera, to some pretty amazing places. I have surprised myself that I have foregone carrying the more “serious” equipment. As well, I have been surprised that I haven’t missed it and have brought home some pretty good images (IQ-wise, at least. I’ll let the viewer judge whether they are “good” images or not).

Rigging, Tall Ship Newport, RI Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Rigging, Tall Ship
Newport, RI
Copyright Andy Richards 2016

Every image here, except the first one, were made with the Sony RX100iv. I believe the quality of smaller sensors has gotten so good that I told my buddy, Rich on our trip that if I ever replace the a7, I will most likely move back the NEX (now badged “Alpha 0000”) series of cameras. While using an APS sensor in lieu of the 35mm equivalent, they — and their matching lenses — are smaller, lighter, and generally less expensive. But with pretty estimable image quality capability. I like all those things.