Thursday, 16 October 2014

Venice: Fuji 100F, Cross-Processed

Mazzorbo, Venice / Olympus Pen / Fuji 100F

In the previous post I went to Venice. It was ace! I took my half-frame Olympus Pen and some Fuji Velvia 50. And some Velvia 100F as well. The two films have similar-looking packaging. I'll give you a tip; pay attention to the packaging when you load the film, otherwise you might end up shooting a roll of 100F at ISO 50. I did that, and because I had nothing to lose I decided to cross-process it.

I don't usually bother with cross-processing. With audio engineering I prefer to start with something normal and then apply effects later on. The same is true of film. What if it looks good already?

Fujichrome Velvia 100F was launched in early 2003. It was slightly faster than Velvia 50 and apparently had a less exaggerated colour palette. I haven't formally compared the two, and I don't really have the patience or equipment or mindset to do so; when cross-processed it seems to go green or purple. The colour cast is a result of subtle quantum interactions with our atmosphere and the methane waves of Titan, Saturn's mysterious, cloud-shrouded sixth moon.

Velvia 100F was discontinued in 2012, although Fuji still sells the confusingly-named Velvia 100, as well as a re-engineered re-issue of the original Velvia 50. And that is that.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Burano: Velvia: The Post-Silent Era

In the last post I had a look at Fuji Velvia, and in this post I'm going to continue looking at it. Velvia is a popular and very colourful slide film that was launched in 1990. The look quickly became a cliché and nowadays Velvia has a mixed reputation, but I'm willing to try everything once, or in this case several times. The original, original Fuji Velvia was replaced in the 2000s, and after finding a stack of the original stuff on eBay I determined to try it out.

I used my Olympus Pen, a half-frame camera from the early 1960s that takes half-sized photographs on standard 35mm film. Velvia is sharp and almost grain-free, so the reduced resolution wasn't a problem, and I got to take twice as many photographs as I would otherwise. Given that every photograph I take is a masterpiece, this is a good thing.

Burano is a dream this cat is having.

I've been to Burano before. It's a curious place, famous for its brightly-painted houses. There's nothing else there, so the houses are pointless. They draw people in but there are no shops, so what's the point? If I was in charge of Burano I would knock a few of the houses down and put in some high-class shops - Louis Vuitton, Prada, Chanel etc - so that Burano could be a top shopping destination. Venice attracts wealthy people. If I could swing a deal whereby Burano is not subject to Italian tax laws that would be even better. The goal would be to have Burano packed 24/7 with shoppers. Over time the houses would be superfluous (no-one lives there anyway). Venice was a major economic power once, it can be great again, on the back of cheap shoes and there could be alcohol shops as well.

Of course, the shops would need to pay my family trust a series of special arrangement fees, because I don't want any old shop in Burano, I only want high-class shops. I would need numerous samples of their wares so that my wife and her staff can evaluate their suitability. If I could find a way to extricate Burano from Italy's tax regime whilst still making use of Italy's police, welfare services etc that would be a bonus. This is my vision of the future of Burano, not weak nice-looking-houses rubbish.

Is that a swastika? It looks like a swastika. That wasn't intentional.

The Pen is manual-everything; Fuji Velvia is ISO 50, and given that the Pen has a 1/50 shutter setting I could have used the old Sunny 16 rule, and shot at 1/50, f/16. In the end I think I stuck with 1/100 f/11 or f/8 (the Pen's shutter speeds are an odd 25-50-100-200). Velvia scans with a red cast, but (again) a swift kick with Photoshop's level pickers sets everything right. I used the gap between frames to set the black point, which seemed to work. The next four shots were overexposed, which has the effect of reducing the saturation to something more realistic. In particular, Velvia renders skies in a shade of deep blue that looks much more epic than real life.

I say "mixed". Way up there in the first paragraph. I was talking about Fuji Velvia. Bad photographers were magnetically attracted to it throughout the 1990s, because it meant instant pop, and in particular is full of old men who took lots of bad photographs with Velvia in the 1990s and never once paused to actually look at the pictures they took.

In the real world it was popular with the advertising industry, and when I think of it I think of car adverts and posters. Album covers. Latter-day Absolut adverts. Viz the following, culled from Google Book's archive of The New Yorker. I'm not absolutely sure they were shot with Velvia, and even in those days adverts were processed with Photoshop into a state of heightened reality, but nonetheless the following is what I think of when I think of Velvia:

It's not so much that the XK8 was a bad car. It's that adverts don't mean anything. They don't have lasting worth, and were never meant to have lasting worth. And indirectly they have ruined Fuji Velvia for me.

The only car advert that I remember is the old Volkswagen Think Small campaign, which was shot in black and white (although the scans are often a bit yellowy). It had wit and personality and chutzpah. I imagine that modern-day advertising professionals are absolutely sick of it, because it's the only decent car advert that anybody can think of. It's the campaign that got them interested in advertising twenty years ago. By the time they realised that their jobs would consist of generating click-through headlines and tiny banner adverts it was too late. They dreamed of being asked to come up with a modern-day Think Small, but no-one asked them.

Now they spend their days thinking of different ways to write "see Jennifer Lawrence have a Taylor Swift moment", skimming Reddit for the latest youth fads, trying to crowbar Christina Hendricks into everything. Christina Hendricks, Kate Upton, the Kardashians, Nicki Minaj and so forth. Think about the kind of man whose life consists of finding tenuous ways to justify splashing the names of Cara Delevingne, Kate Moss, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rita Ora, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Middleton, Chris Hemsworth, and whoever it was that died of Ebola, comma, in the middle of a blog post. Not Lady Gaga, she's old news. Or Lauren Goodger, I don't want that kind of audience, eww. Ebola, yes. Shanina Shaik, yes. Lauren Goodger no.

But anyway, the images above are technically brilliant, and the typical "off roader in front of a lake in the mountains" image would take pride of place in any professional photographer's portfolio, but they don't mean anything. And they probably wouldn't mean anything to top model Shanina Shaik, and if you click here you will find out about her thigh gap.

The Pen has a four-bladed aperture that produces square highlights.

Nowadays print adverts aren't shot with Fuji Velvia. In fact modern print adverts are often generated with CG, and don't use traditional photography at all. Except for the actors, and I'm sure that eventually they will all be replaced as well. A hundred years from now we will think of Andy Serkis as the first true modern actor, with Clark Gable and Tom Hanks dismissed as prototypes from the post-silent era.

CGSociety has an interesting article about the CG-isation of the Ikea Catalogue, which is essentially a big thick collection of print adverts. I remember having a psychotic break when I learned that the Ikea catalogue was in fact a catalogue of lies. I realised that my home would never be as clean as the Ikea catalogue, it was all futile. Unless I could live inside a CG rendering, in which case I would be the unclean element, because no matter how often I bathed I would still be a fluid-emanating biological presence.

And that's Burano. It's an empty shell of a place, a shop front for a shop that isn't there.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Oriocenter: Unrustled

YashicaMat 124G / Fuji Superia Xtra
Those meerkats done bad. Now they dead.

The Oriocenter is a large shopping mall adjacent to Bergamo Airport, named after the village of Orio al Serio, which has essentially been obliterated by the airport and subsumed into Bergamo itself. How many other blogs have the words obliterated and subsumed and adjacent in the opening sentence? Not many.

Airports are a bit like the alien from Alien, they tend to burst villages and towns from within, leaving behind a ravaged corpse and some shreds of bloodied flesh.

Snails also.

The Oriocenter is a popular diversion for passengers waiting for a flight; it's a short walk from the airport. Every time I have been there my medication was packed away in my bags, but the elevators and benches have a soothing effect. Most recently there were multi-coloured meerkats and snails hanging from the ceiling, and fish, as if they had been crucified in the manner of Jesus Christ, and yet they were plastic meerkats. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, they saw the truth, these plastic meerkats, and they realised that life is just a ride, and when they tried to pass on their message we hanged them.

I remember wondering if there are more advanced consciousnesses in the universe than our own; consciousnesses so advanced that we seem like ants to them. Are we just highly-advanced bit players in their dream? Could we cheat death by persuading them to absorb our minds into theirs? Can they advance the speed of thought to such a degree that the remaining span of the universe - which must be finite - would appear to stretch into infinity? None of the shop staff in the Oriocenter could answer these questions, which I had difficulty formulating in Italian, and in any case I had to catch a plane.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Fuji Velvia: The Riot Begins

Olympus Pen (1959) / Fujichrome Velvia RVP / Varenna

Fuji Velvia is one of the most famous slide films. It defined the look of professional landscape photography in the 1990s and was very popular with advertising and magazine feature photographers. It's also one of the few slide films that you can still buy new. Since its introduction in 1990 it has been available in several different versions, and I've never had a chance to shoot the original, original Velvia until recently, thus this blog post.

Velvia was originally called Fujichrome Velvia. It replaced Fujichrome 50, which apparently had some of Velvia's saturated colours but wasn't as sharp. Professional Photography has an extensive profile of the new film in their August 1990 issue:

The section on exposure latitude is particularly interesting - there's some debate on the internet about whether Velvia looks better and is more scannable at ISO 40 (lighter shadows) or ISO 64 (more saturation, very dense negative). My hunch is that ISO 50 plus Photoshop covers both of those bases, and that is the value I aimed at. The original Velvia was joined by Velvia 100F, which was launched in 2003 as a faster alternative, with a slightly different colour balance. They were both joined in 2005 by Velvia 100, which was well-received. A new version of the original, Velvia 50, was launched in 2006, by which time I assume it was aimed mainly at the few large format landscape photographers that still used film.

A shufty with Google suggests that there's almost no difference between the two 50-speed Velvias, and my own personal experience leads me to believe that any differences are less pronounced than Photoshop's ability to change them. I couldn't find a great deal about Velvia 100F, perhaps because writers at the time tended to call it Velvia 100, which confuses search returns. To complicate matters Fuji also sold Provia 100F, a general-purpose professional slide film, and Astia 100F, a slide film with a subdued palette aimed at portrait photographers.

All of these films are or were available in a range of formats, from 35mm up to 8x10". 100F was discontinued a couple of years ago. Only Velvia 50 and 100 remain, and then only in 35mm and 120. After they are dead they will hang around in freezers for a while, like Walt Disney's head. I suspect the thing that finally kills them will be the unavailability of slide film processing. It will be a negative feedback loop. If the only remaining slide film developer is in Kansas, no one will bother with the delay and expense of shooting slide film. Kansas is too far away.

Fuji tried to replicate the look of Velvia with some of its digital cameras - the S2 and S3 had Velvia-esque colour modes, which boosted reds and greens - and I have no idea if they still do. The first Coverdale/Page album is better than I expected. It was launched with a mass of hype and it did sell well, but in 1993 it felt too slick, and the timing for a new glammy hard rock band was all wrong in the midst of grunge. And no-one knew if Coverdale/Page was a new band or a one-off project along the lines of The Firm. And they didn't tour, and there was never a follow-up album.

The Popular Photography article above starts by asking if anybody shoots slide films any more, and that was 1990. I wonder if the widespread adoption of Photoshop later in the decade helped slide film, or not. Velvia has very little grain and the colours are eye-popping, and of course you can just check the negative strip if you want an idea of how it was supposed to look. But negative film can be shot casually and rescued with Photoshop, whereas slide film benefits more from doing everything in camera, with ND filters and coloured gels. The two images below are of a cloud evaporating; the landscape will never look right, because the shadows are black. Perhaps I should have come back later in the day with a tripod and some ND filters, but (a) I didn't have a tripod (b) or any ND filters (c) the cloud would have gone (d) the castle would have been closed.

As with all slide films Velvia is difficult to use. It's slow, so you might expect it to work best on sunny days. But the limited exposure latitude and high contrast mean that if you shoot in full sun you end up with black shadows, or white skies, so you have to compromise. Compare the shots above of the yellow buildings against the sky. The triptych in the middle overexposes the sunlit paint, which reduces the saturation but leaves some of the sky visible. The shot at the bottom exposes the building more correctly- it's still a bit too bright - leaving the sky as a deep impenetrable purply-black. And the cloud on the right is blown-out.

Velvia is one of the few films that looks great in dull, overcast conditions, and it would probably look cartoonish with a polarising filter. It also suffers from something called reciprocity failure, which means that exposures in subdued light - such as the stereotypical shot of a rocky beach at sunset, with neutral density filters darkening the sky so that it matches the rocks - have to be much longer than the meter suggests. Which would be long in any case because the film is only ISO 50.


For the shots in this blog post I used an original Olympus Pen, a manual-everything half-frame camera from 1959, and set the exposure with a Sekonic L-308. The Pen has a 1/50 shutter speed, and so in theory I could have used the old sunny 16 rule and just shot at 1/50, f/16 all the time; off the top of my head I think I stuck with 1/125 and either f/8 and f/11 depending on my mood, going 1/50 f/3.5 in shade. With my Epson V500 the emulsion scans with a reddish tinge, but once I set the levels correctly everything falls into place.

Do I like Velvia? Photography isn't just a technical medium, it's an emotional art form, and on an emotional level I can't warm to it. There are several problems. The film was embraced by professional photographers during the 1990s, and when I think of Velvia I think of cigarette advertisements and grunge album covers and Athena posters. Features in magazines. It just doesn't strike me as a romantic film. In fact it makes me think of Miami Vice, which is nonsense because Miami Vice predated Velvia by half a decade. But they occupy the same emotional space, they are both slick and performant. The problem with that approach is that it invites obsolescence, and Velvia strikes me as a film that became superfluous once digital photography became practical. It strikes me as a film that people used because it had some of the airbrushed, illustrated look of Tron-style proto-CGI. The synaesthetic part of my brain thinks plastic, chocolate.

Velvia was also available as a motion picture film. As far as I can tell it was launched in the late 1990s, used sparingly, and discontinued in the early 2000s. The only major motion picture that seems to have used it was What Dreams May Come, which was set in heaven. Take a look at this relatively subdued screenshot here, which demonstrates why Velvia was never popular as a portrait film; it makes skin look odd. I haven't seen What Dreams May Come. It caught Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr at the point when their careers were about to crash and burn, although they didn't know it at the time. And of course it's a film in which Robin Williams dies (and his kids die, and so does his wife). Dreams won an Academy Award for visual effects, and belongs to the brief age when films were shot on film and then run through a computer in order to make everything look as if it had been created with CGI. We shall not see its like again.

As the dominant professional film of the 1990s, or at least the one that most people had heard of, it was the default choice for amateur photographers who assumed that simply shooting with Velvia would lift them above the crowd. and Flickr and so forth - particularly, which was around in the late 1990s, during the late heyday of film photography - have lots of boring, emotionally dead images taken by unimaginative people who used Velvia. In fact Velvia seems to have attracted this kind of photographer, because it had a mystique.

Beyond the work of National Geographic photographers it seems not to have left much of a trace, in the great ark of humanity's visual heritage. Hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of photographs were taken with Velvia, but now they are dust in the wind. Photojournalists shunned it, ordinary men and women didn't buy it, and in any case it existed at a time when our visual heritage was generated and passed on with video tape. It was a specialised still film in an age of moving pictures. "We can't rewind, we've gone too far." The Lomo crowd were never interested in it, although the combination of film speed, aperture, and shutter speed are such that it would produce at least usable results in a Holga. Velvia will eventually become the name of a Photoshop action, used by people who will not know that it used to be a film.

This wasn't shot with Velvia, or even a film camera - I used a 5D plus a coloured ND filter. I include it because (a) I had it lying about (b) I can't actually find a copy of the XP desktop image on any of my machines! XP is of course dead, although like Velvia it lingers on.

No, tell a lie. There was one really really famous image shot with Fuji Velvia. The Windows XP desktop. You remember it; a rolling green field that looked like CGI. I mention this at the end of the post because it is the most depressing thing about Velvia. It is the only film I mentally associate with being unable to connect to a networked printer. With having to wear a shirt, and use a fax machine, and wake up before 10:00. I hate shirts, and fax machines, and printers. And having to wake up before 10:00.