Monday, 2 May 2016

Expired Film from Long Ago

"Everything has its time and everything dies", and so it is with photographic film.

But not, surprisingly, the careers of Kerry Katona and Danniella Westbrook. They had their time - very briefly, in the case of Kerry Katona - but it seems that they are destined to remain famous forever. Long after the sun has swallowed the Earth, they will drift through space, like spores. Perhaps one day they will alight on an alien world and come to life again, or perhaps they will survive the gradual heat death of the universe to become the monobloc - the duobloc - from which a new universe arises. A universe birthed of two mothers. It will be called Dannatona, although no-one will ever know this.

Photographic film. It expires. Entropy claims it. Slow black and white film can survive for many years, fast colour film mutates quickly, slide film dies, and in between there is a spectrum. The weather was nice so I decided to grab some films from a box in the bottom of my wine cellar and see what they were like. I put them in my Yashica Mat and had a stroll.

About a year ago I bought a bunch of Kodak Plus-X Pan Professional that had expired in 1977. Plus-X was launched in the 1950s and discontinued in 2011. No-one missed it much. It had none of the character of Tri-X or the technological acumen of T-MAX. It was an unexceptional black and white film with flat tonality, bought and shot in bulk by boring professionals.

All the black and white shots in this post were taken with Plus-X. After experimenting with exposure I settled on ISO 10, but even then the film base had a distinctive texture that looks like wood grain. I developed it - a lot - with Rodinal.

The other roll I shot is harder to pin down. It was colour negative film, and the code suggests that it belongs to the old Vericolor family, but it doesn't appear in any of the tables available on the internet. I shot it at ISO 64 but I suspect no amount of exposure compensation would make it good. The dyes in colour film age at different rates, and this particular roll seems to have been light-struck.

Why did the light affect just that stripe? I have no idea. On the whole both the colour and the black and white film are destroyed equally, but the Plus-X is destroyed in a consistent way. There was a fad in the 1970s for having your body frozen just before you died, so that you could be revived in the future. I think it's safe to say that those bodies are never coming back. Presumably they will be defrosted and cremated at some point; it will be a gruesome process. Whatever remains of their brains will be as scrambled as the Plus-X.

Perhaps it's easier to imagine that instead of being creatures that are born into a universe that exists outside us, we are instead universes of our own.

In comparison I shot some ordinary, in-date Fuji 400, and it looked like this:

"They call you little mouse by name in Rome and Turin"

American readers are probably thinking "what is that car?". It's a Nissan Figaro, a retro-styled compact from the 1990s that was generally only sold in Japan, South East Asia, and Europe. Despite being made in very limited numbers it's a common sight in the UK because they're reliable and people look after them. The design has aged exceptionally well and future archaeologists will be puzzled by it, the end.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Fuji S1 Pro: Big and Thick

Today we're going to have a look at the Fujifilm FinePix S1 Pro, a digital SLR from 2000. Throughout the first decade of our century Fuji launched four digital SLRs, each interesting in its own way; I've written about the S2, the S3, and the S5 before (there was never an S4), so when an S1 fell into my lap I decided to finish off the series.

The S1 Pro has nothing to do with the modern FinePix S1, a weather-sealed big-zoom bridge camera that came out in 2014.

The S1 Pro is essentially a Nikon F60 film camera with a three-megapixel Fuji digital module grafted onto the back, like a venomous parasite. The handgrip is extended down by a few centimetres to accommodate the extra battery compartment and there is an ugly square box on the front that houses the TV plug and irritatingly non-standard mini-B USB connector. The S1 is ugly, it just is.

As far as I can tell the only part of the Nikon F60 changed by Fuji, beyond the nameplate, was the shutter button. The S1 Pro has a thread for a cable release; the F60 doesn't. When you take a shot the S1 makes a whirring noise like a film SLR. My guess is that the camera's firmware expected the presence of a film transport motor, and Fuji found it easier to leave this in place rather than alter the firmware.

The F60 was Nikon's budget SLR. It was a step up from the child-friendly Nikon F50, but still pretty naff and plasticy, with a limited top shutter speed (1/2000), an unexceptional flash sync speed (1/125), a single autofocus point, limited control over focus tracking, limited on-camera flash control, no mirror lock-up, an unilluminated top LCD, meanness to children, untruthfulness, duplicity, and cowardliness.

Britain is a nation of people who don't want to live in Britain, who hate people who want to live in Britain.

The camera has two card slots. The CompactFlash slot only works with cards smaller than 2gb. The other slot takes SmartMedia cards, which were naff even in 2000. A few musical instruments used them, but on the whole the format was totally bum slops. The cards are little flimsy things with exposed contacts. They only went up to 128mb. They were launched in the mid-1990s as yet another replacement for the floppy disc, and in that respect they made a bit more sense - but the exposed contacts were still a bad idea.
Cleverly the battery and memory card slots are kept away from the tripod mount, so you can access them when the camera is static.

It spreads lies and cunningly spins people's words. The S1 Pro's big selling point in 2000 was its price. Back then, if you wanted a digital SLR you had to pay top dollar. At $3,500 the S1 Pro was a relative bargain, undercutting the $5,500 Nikon D1 and the astronomically-expensive Kodak DCS 620/660. The only comparable digital SLR was the Canon D30, which was launched just slightly after the S1 Pro at a slightly lower price, but of course it was no use if you had a tonne of Nikon lenses.

Back in 2000 there wasn't much choice. The aforementioned models made up essentially the entire digital SLR market. The only other digital cameras were compacts of various types, all of them using smaller sensors and electronic viewfinders.

The rugged, weatherproofed D1 and the high-resolution DCS 660 were aimed at the pro photojournalist market. Fuji didn't try to compete with them, instead the S1 Pro was aimed at wedding and portrait photographers, small-town photojournalists, product photographers and the like. The camera was sold with software that could do tethered shooting, and Fuji worked hard on the camera's JPG engine in order to give photographers images they could instantly print out. The Canon D30 targeted the same market and was on the whole a better camera, although Fuji had the field to itself for a few months until Canon managed to ship enough D30's to meet demand.

The images in the Tate Modern were shot at ISO 1600 with a fisheye lens. As you can see the S1 tends to go green under artificial light, as if the camera had suddenly been drawn into The Matrix. The images are grainy - exacerbated by the defishing algorithm I used - but on the whole ISO 1600 is much better than I expected for a sixteen-year-old digital SLR.

This leads to one of the S1 Pro's big limitations. It saves JPGs and 8-bit TIF files, but it doesn't have a RAW mode, not at all. I miss the extra headroom and post-shot control over white balance. The early prototypes of the camera had a CCD-RAW menu option, but for whatever reason Fuji took this out of the final product. Perhaps the files would have taken too long to save, or perhaps Fuji hadn't finished developing a consumer version of their RAW development software. I don't know.

On the positive side Fuji's JPG engine was class-leading at the time and has aged well. I've used all of the cameras mentioned in this article, and with the exception of the D30 their JPG output was unimpressive. The Kodak DCS models tended to generate washed-out, purple-looking images; the D1's images also had a purple cast, apparently because the camera was calibrated for NTSC television. The images required a bit of work with DCS PhotoDesk or Nikon Capture before they looked good.

In contrast the S1 produces snappy, sharp, colourful images straight from the camera. The camera has a small but useful range of tone controls, and for the images in this post I used auto white balance and shot HARD (contrast) - HIGH (colour) - STD (sharpening), and just boosted the contrast a little bit, although I could have used the images without further processing. The only major Photoshop work in this post, beyond defishing, is in the following image of the Allegro, and in that case I just boosted the shadows. Under artificial light the S1 Pro tends to go green, which mimics the look of slide film and isn't entire unpleasant, although it feels a bit dated and 1990s.

The ISO range is weird, 320-400-800-1600, which makes shooting in sunlight with wide apertures difficult. ISO 1600 is surprisingly good, especially for such an old camera. The S1 doesn't seem to do any noise reduction (the output has some stuck pixels), but overall the output at ISO 1600 is superior to the D1 and DCS cameras, on a par with the Canon D30.

In common with the other early digital SLRs the S1 has a relatively naked sensor. Contemporary reviews pointed out the camera's tendency to moire, which suggests a weak anti-aliasing filter. Furthermore the infrared filter is very thin. I shot the next few images with an IR filter over the lens. ISO 1600 in bright sunshine, and of course I couldn't see through the viewfinder to compose; with a tripod the S1 would make a decent albeit basic infrared camera although in my experience the exposure latitude of RAW is very handy.

At the time Fuji sold the S1 Pro as a six megapixel camera. This was the other big selling point; you were getting a six megapixel camera at a bargain price. It wasn't true. The S1 Pro produces three-megapixel files that are interpolated up to six megapixels. This adds nothing to the image and simply takes up more space. At this point I would ordinarily include DCRaw's interpretation of the original SuperCCD data, but the S1 Pro doesn't shoot RAW, so I can't.

Back in the distant past, picture agencies were fixated on file size. It was a legacy of the days when all digital images were scanned from film as uncompressed .TIF files; a lot of early digital camera advertising touts the file size rather than the sensor resolution, e.g. the S1 Pro was often described as an 18mb camera, which is true but misleading.

After doing a few tests I settled on the 3mp output. With standard sharpening the images are crisp. The 6mp images are larger but don't look any better. Consult the following 100% crops from a pair of images taken a few seconds apart, the top at 6mp and the bottom at 3mp. I sized them both to 6mp with Photoshop. Then I pressed my nose against the monitor. Then I made a cup of tea, and after that I read a bit of Robert Massie' Dreadnought while listening to BenoĆ®t Pioulard's Noyaux, all of which was a lot more interesting that writing about the S1 Pro's interpolated file sizes. I had an old monitor sitting in the attic doing nothing, so I bought a VESA stand, and now I have two monitors on my desk - one of them in portrait orientation. This is useful for iTunes, and furthermore it makes my desk look exactly like NORAD. I can sit in front of the monitors and imagine that I am launching nuclear missiles at people I don't like. Earlier today I picked up the phone and shouted "YOU'RE TOAST, MARJORIE-JAM!" into it seven times, without dialling a number, and over the next few weeks I will check the news to see if the message got through. Still no word from Helena Bonham-Carter.

The emphasis on resolution is understandable - it grabbed the headlines - but led to something of a backlash, especially when Fuji tried it again with the 6/12mp Fuji S2. It had the negative effect of overshadowing the genuinely good high-ISO capabilities of the sophisticated SuperCCD sensor. I've written about SuperCCD before, and I don't want to repeat myself, but on the whole the sensors (particularly the HDR versions in the S3 and S5) were very clever, but trapped in camera bodies that were a little behind the curve at a higher price than the competition. Fuji had trouble scaling them to higher megapixels, and sadly the technology died off.

What else? With modern Eneloop batteries the S1 lasts forever, and with a CompactFlash card (instead of a Microdrive) I didn't have a problem with buffer flush times. The S1 Pro shoots at a leisurely 1.5fps but otherwise feels surprisingly fast. It has a Fuji's distinctive soft-button interface:

This works very well, and I only had to use the menu to set the date and time. The FUNC button flicks through about four pages of options - ISO and file size on one page, tone controls and sharpening on the other, file information on the third. The S2 and S3 moved the ISO control to the camera's top dial, which was a step backwards.

The S1 was infamous for its odd battery layout. It takes four AA batteries in the base, plus a pair of CR123As in the handgrip, plus a 2025 button cell for the date. Luckily I have a stash of CR123As for my Olympus Stylus. In practice the 123As only power the camera's flash, but the S1 won't work if the compartment is left empty - a legacy of its F60 origins - and so Fuji supplied a dummy battery insert for when the on-board flash was unnecessary. This dummy battery insert is probably amazingly rare nowadays and also completely worthless. Fuji progressively smoothed the battery situation out with later cameras, although it remains one of the few things people remember about the S-series.

What about the other cameras? The S2 (2002) had a six megapixel sensor in a sleeker body built on a Nikon F80. It competed with the Nikon D100 and seems to have sold very well; I have always thought of it as the high water mark of the S-series. Tonnes popped up on eBay a few years ago. Now it is landfill. Like the S1 and the Austin Allegro it will be very rare in the future because no-one cherishes them.

The S3 (2005) was an S2 with an added vertical handgrip and a fascinating HDR SuperCCD sensor that bracketed every shot four stops down. With Photoshop work the resulting files had striking dynamic range that is still impressive today, but the camera was expensive and had a very, very slow data bus that made it unsuitable for the very markets it was aimed at.

Here's an example of Fuji's HDR SuperCCD sensor - they called it SuperCCD SR - using an image I shot with an S5:

It's a casual snapshot of the Prince Charles cinema. At the top, the unprocessed, unretouched JPG; at the bottom the RAW file worked on for a few minutes with Adobe Camera Raw. With careful exposure most modern digital SLRs can do something similar, especially if you expose for the highlights and bring up the shadows, but where the S3 and S5 stood out was that every shot was like this, even on-the-hoof images.

The S5 took the S3's innards, upgraded the processor, and put the lot into the body of Nikon's D200. The soft-button interface and battery jiggery-pokery was gone, but although the S5 was an excellent camera it was just too little, too late. Fuji subsequently abandoned the digital SLR form factor, which was perhaps the right decision; the old-fashioned flippy-mirror SLR feels increasingly anachronistic in an age of digital viewfinders and iPhones.

What of the S1 Pro? As far as I can tell not a single famous photo was taken with one. Photojournalists ignored it. The Vogue / Pirelli crowd continued to use medium format digital bodies. In 2000 it was very expensive, and digital photography was still novel outside the top professional world. You needed to spend $3,500 on the camera, several hundred dollars on memory cards, plus another $3,000 for a computer and backup storage, or even more if you needed a laptop etc.

Crushing saviour, and/or Madonna trouser.

Eighteen months later a new wave of $2,000 six megapixel cameras hit the shops and as a consequence the S1 Pro dated very quickly. Nowadays it is essentially worthless. A mixture of Paypal and eBay fees, plus the cost and awkwardness of packaging make it economically unviable on the used market. If you are strapped for cash and want to try out a Nikon digital SLR there are lots of used Nikon D100s and Fuji S2s for bargain-basement prices. Unlike the Kodak DCS models it doesn't have quirky antique Gen Zero appeal and as an imaging tool it has nothing over later, more competent cameras.

It is the least of the S-series cameras, although it's fascinating to see how things started.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me

Off to London's The Young Vic to see If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me, a new show starring Jane Horrocks. I remember seeing some posters for it. Is it a compilation album? A club night? A play? In fact it's an hour of Jane Horrocks singing post-punk / new wave covers plus some dancing. The thought of Jane Horrocks belting out Gang of Four's "Anthrax" and Joy Division's "Isolation" appealed to me, so I decided to go. And so I went. Beware men who dream during the day, especially if they are driving at the time.

Who would have thought that Jane Horrocks had a passion for post-punk? Given that this was the opening night, would something go wrong? How would she do "Anthrax"? These questions and more bothered me. "Questions, always questions, I'll just speak in slow motion."

Those posters, originally shot for this blog post

"Anthrax" has an unusual structure. It's basically a rap duet, but dour and shouty because Gang of Four were a bunch of Marxists. The two vocalists don't try to harmonise, they just deliver a pair of independent texts - one in the left speaker, one in the right - that intersect only briefly. How would Jane Horrocks pull it off? There's only one Jane Horrocks. Would she use some kind of echo machine? A second singer? Backing tapes? As it turned out she didn't bother but I will explain in the fullness of time.

Jane Horrocks has had an unusual career. She is a RADA-trained dramatic actor who began her theatrical career peeing on stage in an avant-garde production of Macbeth. Sadly for Shakespeare she was cursed with a tiny body and a squeaky Lancashire accent which is unfortunate because very few of Shakespeare's plays are set in the North of England. Writing in The Guardian in 1996, when Jane Horrocks was a grown woman, Simon Hattenstone talked about her "rag-doll body" and pointed out that "despite being well into womanhood you can't help thinking of her as a girl. … Her clothes look as if they are sitting on a hanger rather than flesh and bone." He was a shit writer back then and hasn't got any better.

Trapped in a stunted body and afflicted with a Northern accent, Jane Horrocks was doomed to character parts. But there was a plan B. Despite being tiny she has a massive singing voice, and so while she was typecast as bubbly and/or bulmic northerners on the big and small screens she built a parallel career as a torch singer. The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was written for her. I learn from the internet that there were plans to have Gwyneth Paltrow star in the film version, but good sense prevailed. It didn't quite make her an international megastar - there's a sense that her channelling of Liza Minelli and Marlene Dietrich is clever mimicry rather than genuine passion - but the idea of Horrocks turning her instrument to post-punk is intriguing.

Now Jane Horrocks is 52! She is roughly the same age as the likes of Helena Bonham Carter and Tara Fitzgerald, but seems much younger. Would I do her? Hell yes. For most of the gig she wears yoga pants, and I'm not complaining. She is exactly the right age to have been a Joy Division trufan, although as far as I can tell she never saw them live. Kiss Me has an esoteric tracklist that suggests she really did enjoy this kind of music and isn't just pretending (you have to be careful with actors, they lie a lot).

This is where it happened

It's billed as a mixture of gig and theatrical production. In practice this means that there are dancers on the stage doing their thing while Horrocks belts out "What Do I Get" and "Empire State Human". I don't know enough about dance to pass judgement. The dancers didn't fall over, none of them wet themselves visibly, they didn't distract from Horrocks' singing. There is also a band that emerges from the back of the stage periodically, consisting of some old blokes on guitars, a younger bloke on the drums, and a foxy lady keyboardist a la The Fall. The audience itself was mostly older people who perhaps were expecting "Alabama Song" and "Goldfinger", but then again post-punk-rockers *are* old people, aren't they? No-one took pictures of the gig with their mobile phones because this is the Young Vic, dammit.

The band have nothing to be ashamed of. I have no idea who they are but they're loud and tight. They've worked up some interesting arrangements. "What Do I Get" is a slow ballad, "Isolation" is slowed down as well, although not as much. There's a distinct metal edge to the music whereas the originals tended to have scratchy, angular guitar. The Smiths' "I Know it's Over" is the big spotlight-on-the-star number, although I was ambivalent about it. Overall the show is entertaining but I'm not sure what Horrocks was going for. "I Know it's Over" is basically high camp, but although Horrocks' rendition evokes camp towards the end I'm not sure it was intentional. The show doesn't cut to the emotional core of the material and overall I felt that it was simply a means of giving Jane Horrocks something to do, rather than something that absolutely needed to exist; and yet it was entertaining, so what's the problem? I single out "I Know it's Over" because it is presented as the dramatic high point of the narrative, but there's no narrative and no drama so it falls a bit flat.

And anyway I'm not sure there is an emotional core to "Empire State Human" or "My New House". The early Human League was a bunch of enthusiastic blokes with subtly different musical tastes who loved futurism; if they were interested in the mundane reality of life in late-70s Britain they didn't let it show in their music. Ditto The Fall, who had their own agenda, and the Buzzcocks, who were self-consciously theatrical, a throwback to the soulless-but-soulful assembly-line pop of the Motown era. There was a self-conscious element to post-punk that defies social analysis.

"Hot on the Heels of Love" was a missed opportunity. It was too short and didn't build into the full song. Instead it segues into "My New House", which presents Jane Horrocks as a sexy dominatrix although alas she didn't put on a tight latex corset plus suspenders and really tall high heels and latex stockings and one of those peplum skirts and a peaked cap and long, long latex opera gloves that cover her entire arms, as if she was a plastic sculpture, an inverse of the Venus de Milo, for example. I wish they had swapped the two around; "Heels of Love" is intense. The programme lists New Order's "Temptation", but I didn't recognise it. I'm not sure if it was dropped or if the arrangement was completely rewritten. I was expecting it to be played at the encore, but there wasn't an encore.

How did Horrocks do "Anthrax"? She cheats a bit, delivering the left half of the monologue at the beginning and a second monologue at the end of the show. If I had recorded the sound I could marry the two halves up, but I didn't so I can't. Was it any good? Was the show any good? I'm in two minds. As an arty dance piece with musical accompaniment it doesn't work at all. The dancing adds nothing to the music, the sets and presentation are smart but seem unrelated to the songs. Despite being the opening night, nothing seemed amiss; I doubt that sharper performances would make the dancing work. As a straightforward set of cover songs it works really well and made me wish that they had simply packed in more hits and made the show half an hour longer. Horrocks has a splendid post-punk-style voice, deep and slightly out of tune, and I'm not being bitchy.

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me runs from 10 March to 16 April and lasts an hour. The Young Vic has toilets and a bar. They didn't search my bag. There's a supermarket just outside if you want a cheap sandwich. The end.