Sunday, 30 October 2016

Mobile Phone Photography: A Couple of Tricks

Genoa, shot with a Moto G

You may find yourself in a museum, and you may find yourself in a public space, and you may find yourself in a restricted area where you cannot take a proper camera, and you may ask yourself "what is a proper camera anyway?", and you may ask yourself "how can I make do with what I have?", like everybody else in this sweet cesspool, because making your way in this world today takes everything you've got.

I've said it before, but the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Smith and Robert Capa would have killed to have a smartphone. Back in the Time of Giants they travelled the world with cute rangefinder cameras not because the cameras were cool, but because they made sense at the time. Contax and Leica rangefinders were a lot smaller than Speed Graphic press cameras, and they could take several shots in rapid succession. The giants of the past would have killed for a portable camera that could upload images to a press agency instantly; that could shoot video and record sound. They would not have grumbled about smartphones, they would have snapped them up, packed their bags, and gone out to take pictures of people dying in dramatic ways.

But mobile phone cameras have a couple of limitations. I'm not fussed about resolution; fixed focal length is something you have to deal with on the spot; having to use an LCD screen is a mixed bag. My biggest bugbear is dynamic range. Mobile phone cameras have narrow dynamic range. You can either shoot for the shadows and blow out the sky, or shoot for the sky and have an extremely noisy landscape. Narrow dynamic range is the difference between the following two images (straight from the camera at the top, with numerous tweaks at the bottom):

That was shot with a Fuji S5, a digital SLR with an unusually dynamic sensor. Mobile phones generally expose for the subject, so the sky tends to blow out, and there's little you can do to bring it back. But I have a few really simple tricks.

Trick One
Over the last few years I've shot a lot of film. Slide film has the same smooth colours and limited dynamic range as digital, but even when it blows out detail it still tends to retain a hint of colour. Consider the following, which is overexposed Provia 100, cross-processed:

Here's a crop of the top-left:

Even though the sky is basically blown-out, there are still some faint traces of colour. In this crop I've darkened the image so that you can see the grain. Or consider this, with the original scan at the top and the Photoshop remaster at the bottom, which looks ludicrously yellow in comparison, but natural in isolation (the sun was setting):

The detail in the church's frontage has been obliterated, but there was still some colour left, and with a bit of work the second example is the end result. It's terrifically simple to recreate this with Photoshop or any graphics package that has layers, masks, and graduated fills. The technique is simple. I feel ashamed. Those are two separate thoughts.

Consider the following, in which the sky has blown out:

Simply turning down the brightness doesn't make the sky better, in fact it makes it worse. The sky is clipped in the same way that Iggy Pop's remaster of Raw Power is clipped, e.g. the top end isn't just fuzzy, it has been shaved off. It has gone, so we must replace it.

Pop open the image in Photoshop. Layer - New Layer, and then just fill the layer with orange, and add a Reveal All mask:

This has the effect of adding an orange wash over everything. Now use the graduated fill tool on the Reveal All mask thusly, and finally turn down the Opacity to about 23% or so:

The end result doesn't restore the sky, instead it replaces it with an orange wash which is a lot more attractive. This kind of effect is incredibly simple, but it works. I suppose it's reminiscent of the old Hollywood trick of preflashing, but instead of lifting the shadows it tames the highlights. Here's a shot from the film Skyfall, in which Moneypenny shoots James Bond and then Adele starts singing:

At the top is how it appears in the film, and at the bottom is how I imagine it probably looked in real life. The film was shot digitally, and perhaps because of that the sky has blown out, so in post-production instead of matting in some clouds they instead chose to tint the frame brown. Once you notice this you start to see it on television shows a lot. Old-fashioned analogue video had the same problem.

In days of yore the cinematographer might have used a graduated neutral density filter, as in this shot from Barry Lyndon, which looks a bit naff as a still but works perfectly well in the film (both times it appears, it is very quick):

But graduated filters only work when the camera is static, and what if the sky had been overcast? A graduated filter would have just made it darker, without bringing out any more detail. In any case, which is most important: a neat-looking sky, or Moneypenny shooting James Bond?

Trick Two
The answer is of course "Moneypenny shooting James Bond". Check this out:

Again the sun confounds me. Here's a closer look:

On the horizon the chimneys of Mestre, the industrial heart of Venice. Far in the distance, about thirty miles away, the Euganean Hills on the other side of Padua. It's a beautiful world, isn't it? We see it once and then never again.

How to tame the sun? As before, it's easy. Layer - Layer via copy. Apply a massive amount of Gaussian blur, so that the image is completely blurred out. Then add a Layer Mask, but this time use a Hide All layer, and then use a circular graduated fill around the sun. In the following image I've been really sloppy with the mask, which looks unnatural in a bad way, as if the sun was floating on top of the picture:

In the following image I've toned down the Opacity and worked a bit on the mask, and tweaked the brightness and contrast so that it looked more like the image in my mind:

There's a spot of green lens flare that I've left in. All of these images were shot with a Motorola Moto G (Mark II), a solid Android smartphone with a decent camera that has a good-but-erratic HDR mode. The HDR mode won't help with blown-out highlights, though - it seems to lift the shadows instead.

The above trick works in the following case:

The phone captured all the details but the scene is too bright, as if it was shot earlier in the day. On the right, darkening the sky makes it look terrible. If we add a new layer and blur it, the posterised highlights are gone, but of course the image is blurry:

Saint Giorgio Maggiore looks like an angry gargoyle with two sharp teeth. Do you remember They Live, where Rowdy Roddy Piper puts on a pair of sunglasses and sees the world as it really is? If we could see the universe as it really is it would rock our faith, because even atheists have faith that the human animal possesses something special that separates it from other animals; that our brains are not just pattern-matching devices created by a process of trial and error, but instead vehicles for a soul. Thankfully our tiny minds cannot grasp the infinite.

If we use a graduated mask on the sky, we get this, which admittedly wouldn't work if there were clouds:

In this example the result is a little over-the-top, and the islands are a little blurred as well. And of course there's an artificiality to it, because there's a clean break between the sky and the water. If this was a shot of New York city, with skyscrapers jutting into the air, you would need to do a lot more work on the mask. Eventually your face would grow to fill the mask, and then you are the demons.

Mobile phone photography is a conundrum. As mentioned up the page it's fantastic; if you're the kind of person that moans about smartphones and instagram etc, I don't want to know you. A hundred years ago you would have moaned about this new fangled 35mm nonsense, and a few decades before you would have moaned about photography itself - it's not creative, after all, a photographer is no better than a surveyor. History will flow over you like a river, it will gouge you. The water itself is just a tool of gravity. Gravity uses water to slice through rock; it seduces water and holds it fast in giant pools. But gravity is not a thing, it is instead a result of mass warping spacetime. Mass is the villain here, not gravity.

But, yes, there's a technological conundrum. In terms of dynamic range and light sensitivity mobile phones will always lag behind dedicated cameras, because the sensors are of necessity smaller; and any advances that improve mobile phone sensors would also improve camera sensors as well, so the gulf would be just as wide. There's no way to enlarge a mobile phone sensor without enlarging the optics, short of a revolution in optical design, and with huge optics a mobile phone is no longer a mobile phone, it is a talking camera. There seems to be no way to square the circle, but what if we take a lateral step sideways?

I've said it before, but I believe that in future people won't take photographs. They will instead trawl the internet for other photographs, or they will trawl Google Maps, and they will mash them up, repost them, edit them. The big star imagemakers of the future will be akin to the DJs of today, they will curate and collate, remix and repost. CGI has already conquered the Ikea catalogue, and has made inroads in the fields of pornography and landscape art; I predict that by the year 2020 H G Wells' vision of the Eloi - a future elite who sit in front of Pornhub all day - will have come true. I plan to be at the forefront of this new race. Photography will pass, just as all mediums pass.

Monday, 24 October 2016

San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

Off to Venice again. You've seen San Giorgio Maggiore before. It's an island just across the water from St Mark's Square, visible in the shot above. Look at those people. Little did they know what fate had in store for them. I went back to Venice last month; all those people were gone. In their place were other people, different people. Only I remained.

San Giorgio Maggiore is Italian for Saint George Major, or Saint George The Biggest. There are two islands called San Giorgio in the Venetian lagoon. The other one - San Giorgio in Alga, or "Saint George in the Seaweed" - was swept by fire in 1799. During the Second World War it was used to train German frogmen and nowadays it is abandoned. There's not much to see; it's surprising how many of Venice's islands are abandoned. I imagine that the cost of plumbing and wiring them up is prohibitive. Are they used by drug dealers? Do they have pop-up brothels? I don't know.

The view from atop the church.

I saw Venice several times before popping over the water to San Giorgio Maggiore. It was always there in the background but I never thought about it. You take the number 2 from San Zaccaria. The island amounts to a church, an art gallery, some boats, and a former monastery which is now the home of the Cini Foundation.

These people were there already. Little did they know what fate had in store for them.

The foundation was created by Vittorio Cini, who was comfortable with fascism but managed to sail through the Second World War without being beaten to death and hung from the forecourt of a petrol station. The foundation also owns the Palazzo Cini, just along from the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, and part of me wonders if the foundation is in fact a tax dodge. It hosted the G7 twice, so presumably the current owners are pally with the world's great and good.

Both taken with an Olympus Stylus Epic and some Fuji Velvia last year. This is Hiroshi Sugimoto's "Glass Tea House Mondrian". If you have been bad, they lock you inside it until you starve.

The view north-northeast. There were people on the boat. They knew what fate had in store for them.

The G7 comprises France, Germany, Italy, and of course the United Kingdom, plus Canada and the United States and Japan, but not mean old Russia any more. Together we account for almost half of the world's GDP. The other 189 countries chip in, but we are the masters. The wise men who guide humanity into a golden future. And women. Perhaps one day there will be a G196, but hopefully with the G7 in charge that will never happen.

The back half of the island has a guided tour which I didn't attend, but the front half has an interesting art gallery and of course the church, which is the main event. There are no shops and if you want a picnic you'll need to bring a packed lunch or a fishing rod or an air rifle or some livestock.

The church has a floating metal hand; last year it had a metal head, but not this year.

The opposite direction. Dead ahead the islands of La Grazia (formerly a rubbish heap, now abandoned, although imminently the site of a hotel), and San Clemente, which actually is a hotel. Imagine all the people in centuries gone by, in little boats, who got lost in fog and kept going, never to be seen again.

Access to the top of the church is via a lift, and only a lift. It costs €6 or so although I wasn't paying attention. The top has views in all four directions. It shuts at 18:00, which is just before sunset in late September. Despite its proximity to one of the world's most popular tourist destinations San Giorgio is a mellow place. Returning to mainland Venice is a bit depressing, because once more you are surrounded by teeming crowds of tourists, and you are one of them. The illusion is shattered.

Bonus Beats: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Peggy Guggenheim had a neat art collection which she housed in a neat house. She is buried in the grounds along with her dogs; the last dog was painlessly euthanised in order to be with her forever. It's romantic to imagine travelling the world, collecting art and houses along the way, but alas even in Peggy Guggenheim's day that was very expensive, so you just have to imagine it.

The house is a highly effective piece of show-offery and on another level it's also a battleground of warring financial entities, because it's slowly being taken over by the Rudolph B Schulhof collection. It's always entertaining when rich people fight each other.

The collection has a cafe, which I didn't visit because I was starting to run out of change, and a gift shop. I'm not sure if it's naff or kitsch. Perhaps it's both. Nitsch.

Peggy Guggenheim famously had a lot of sex. For all the snark present in this post she *did* have fantastic taste in art.

De Chirico's The Red Tower is fascinating. I want to explore that world. The absence of people. The long shadows. The way that the horse statue is only just visible, as if we were moving forward and the statue was just coming into view.
On closer inspection the tower's door is enormous. Was it built by giants? What is the tower for?
Many years later the haunting emptiness of De Chirico's work inspired the cover art of the Japanese video game Ico (famously the international artwork was rubbish).

Friday, 21 October 2016

Pentax Espio 80V

Let's have a look at the Pentax Espio 80V.

There are spirits in the sea, and every ocean has a soul. We sense it in our sleep. I have never seen the Arctic Ocean, but its distant chill haunts my dreams. A few months ago I wrote about Cerro Torre, in the Andes. A spike of rock that stabs two miles into the sky. If God tripped he would impale himself on it, and then there would be no God.

Some mountains scare men; others excite them; a few terrify. Cerro Torre's death toll is in the low single figures, not because the mountain is easy, but because it is so hard only the most committed make the attempt.

A while back I had a look at the Olympus Stylus Epic, a terrific compact film camera from the 1990s. The Stylus' fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens was excellent, but in the actual 1990s people wanted zoom lenses instead. What were those zoomy compacts like? A Pentax 80V came to me for nothing so I decided to try it out. It was launched in 2002, which is the 1990s (this is official).

From the sky to the ocean depths. The most challenging dives have also claimed the fewest souls. The deepest stretch of ocean is the Marianas Trench in the Western Pacific. The only corpses down there died long before they hit bottom; only three men have made the descent, and they all made it back. Not the same but alive. Above them the ocean, and above that an infrastructure, a lifeline of support ships.

Here's the little bastard. It's chunky but the ergonomics are decent. There was also an Espio 80 with a similar specification but a more attractive body and a faster lens. The 80V has a typically useless 1990s-style viewfinder. DX film encoding, motorised everything, active infrared autofocus, no manual overrides. CR123A battery. It leaves the film leader out.

The Marianas Trench is deeper than Mount Everest is tall, but the conditions are not comparable. The equipment required for human survival at high altitudes is relatively simple. Some mountaineers have even trained themselves to tackle Everest's final ascent without oxygen, but at 35,000 feet below sea level no amount of training can acclimatise the human body to the pressure of millions of tonnes of water. Even at shallower depths no man has held his breath for more than twenty-four minutes.

Image-quality-wise the 35-80mm lens is surprisingly good, although f/6.3-12.5 is incredibly slow. As a daylight snapshot camera the 80V is fine, but it has no character, and in 2016 why bother with it? The simple viewfinder and narrow aperture limit your creative options.

Diving is difficult and the sea is deadly, the old grey widowmaker of legend. The vast, featureless expanse confounds navigation, and without cover the elements are pitiless. At great depth rigid diving suits eliminate the problems that arise from compression, but they are clumsy and expensive. A spacesuit only has to keep the pressure of less than one atmosphere in, whereas at a depth of five hundred metres a rigid diving suit must keep the pressure of fifty atmospheres out, while allowing the diver sufficient flexibility to use his limbs.

There's noticeable barrel distortion wide open; the telephoto range is better. 2002, 2003 was the last gasp of film compacts. The unusually wide Pentax 24EW and the Nikon Lite-Touch 70Ws, with a 28-70mm f/5.6-10 lens, were among the best, but they still weren't good enough. The shift to digital also meant a shift to smaller sensors, which allowed for faster lenses. At first the noise and unsubtle sharpening of early digital cameras nullified this advantage, but within a few years digital compacts had with a very few exceptions overhauled their film ancestors.

Rigid suits are relatively safe, but the operators are forced to use metal pincers or entirely mechanical manipulator systems. No-one has managed to create gloves that will work at great depths. The alternative is to use traditional wetsuits or drysuits, but they require increasingly esoteric mixtures of breathing gasses combined with staged ascents, to allow time for the gasses to diffuse throughout the body.

After enough time at depth the human metabolism begins to resemble fizzy lemonade. Unless the cap is released slowly there is an explosion of bubbles, which can be fatal. Even experienced divers make mistakes, especially given that diving gases under pressure can have a narcotic effect. Astronauts have it easy. Once through the airlock they can remove their spacesuit and carry on with their work. Deep sea divers have to pause at each stage in their transition between atmospheres.

It says "no photo", but I took a photo, because each man is a god. Typically with old film compacts the ur-model was the simplest and best and the later zoomy spin-offs were boring. The pinnacle of the Espio range was the Espio Mini, which had a fixed 32mm f/3.5 lens - slightly wider and slightly slower than the Stylus Epic's 35mm f/2.8, but still miles better than a zoom, especially in the right hands.

Even after reaching the surface, deep-sea divers must wait for several hours until they can consider another dive. Furthermore the need for a staged ascent introduces a new set of risks; if the diver has miscalculated his gas reserves or if a medical emergency compels a rapid ascent, his only hope is a decompression chamber. But even that solution can be fraught. During the Piper Alpha fire of 1988 the rig's divers were lucky to exit the chamber before the fire destroyed their oxygen supply. If the timing had been wrong they would have had a choice between two equally nasty deaths, and the memorably grisly Byford Dolphin decompression incident of 1983 - during which one unfortunate diver was almost entirely degloved - is the stuff of internet legend.

This post was brought to you by Kodak Ektachrome 100; nine-year-old Kodak Ektachrome that expired in 2007. Ektachrome, and far too many semicolons.

We live in a narrow band of warmth and light. Outside our comfort zone we die. The whales gaze as our corpses fall. We came from the sea, inherited the Earth from the dinosaurs, and perhaps one day the sky will be ours.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Agfa Clack

Agfa Clack, Fuji Velvia 100

Let's have a look at the Agfa Clack. It's a simple, toy-like camera from the late 1950s, essentially an update of the company's box cameras, but with an eye-level viewfinder.

It's cute:

Shown here with a red Rollei bayonet filter, which fits neatly over the lens, although it doesn't stay on unless you use blu-tak. The Clack shoots in 6x9cm format with standard 120 film. The shutter speed is around 1/30 second, plus bulb, and it has two selectable apertures - apparently f/11 and another one, either f/13, f/16, f/12.5 depending on who you ask. There is also a close-up lens. There was a flash unit, which attaches to the metal prongs on top of the camera.

The inside of the camera advertises Agfa's film:

In my experience any black and white film will produce usable images in daylight; don't worry about that. I shot a mixture of Ilford 125, Fuji 400, and even a roll of Ilford 3200 and they all came out fine. I stand developed them with Rodinal. I haven't tried colour print film.

I shot some Velvia 100, which was overexposed in bright sun but spot-on in the shade. If you plan to shoot slide film on a sunny day use Velvia 100 with a polarising filter, or Velvia 50 without a polarising filter. Remember to shade yourself from the sun, and also remember that a technically wonky image of something interesting is far better than a technically perfect shot of something boring.

The Clack's image quality disappointed me. Not because it's awful, but because it's too good. The Holga has a cult following because of its ropy plastic lens, which is sharp in the middle but soft and dreamy around the edges, with tonnes of distortion and vignetting.

In contrast the Clack's simple lens is pretty good. It has mild vignetting, no obvious distortion, and it's decently sharp across the whole frame. With colour film there is noticeable CA but in Agfa's defence they probably didn't think people would use expensive colour film in their cheap camera. Contemplate the following:

With a sharp eye you can pick out the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. Here's a 100% crop from the middle of the image, which I have sized down to 3000 pixels wide:

And here's the extreme corner:

Optically that's excellent for a cheap box camera. As the internet is wont to point out, the Clack's box doesn't hold the film flat, instead the film curves to fit the chassis, which apparently helps combat field curvature of the lens. I had always assumed this was internet rubbish, but perhaps it is true.

Marino Marini's "The Angel of the City", photographed with a Moto G. You have to wonder if Peggy Guggenheim ever... you know, test-drove the sculpture. I imagine it was cold.

The 6x9cm format takes eight shots on a roll of 120, so it pays to develop your own film. The Clack's only other control is a winding knob, and as with the Holga you have to check the film count by looking through a small red window at the frame numbers on the back of the film. If you forget to wind the film on, you get multiple exposures:

Do I have anything else to say about the Clack? You can fit four rolls of 120 film inside the camera - one in each spool and two in the light chamber. With a bulb setting and a tripod mount the Clack is a popular pinhole conversion. It's surprisingly hard to press the shutter button without jogging the camera. There is a tiny handstrap running along the left side of the case, but it's too small to use unless you have tiny hands. My Clack's shutter was intermittent at first, so I opened up the lens and fixed it. The shutter is triggered by a piece of metal sliding along another piece of metal, so I polished the two pieces of metal and then it worked.

Also, the Agfa Clack is one of the few cameras named after a sound. The only others I can think of are the Konica Pop, the Canon XapShot, and the short-lived Nikon Crackle-gurgle-bang-hiss-roar-throb, which was pulled from the market in the wake of 9/11 for obvious reasons. Have you ever read about the Italian futurists? They were hot for noise-sounds. Luigi Russolo's 1913 essay "The Art of Noises" envisaged a future in which musicians could use all kinds of sounds to make music - not just the melodic scrapings of violins, but also whispers, animal noises, and hissing, and today we have Bjork. How could they have known?

Furthermore, in his classic work "Zang Tumb Tumb", published in 1914, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote "pic pam pam crépitation d'incendie TOUM TOUM couchez-vous c'est le Brion quit tire ssssrrrrappnells... PIIING... sssrrr zit zit zit PAAC", and that is all I have to say about the Agfa Clack.