Scanning negatives

A design school in New Zealand recently asked me for reproduction rights to use this image as a backdrop to some kind of 3D animation thing. I agreed, and quoted them a reasonable price, which they agreed to.

Unfortunately, there is only one existing print of that image, and it is small (printed on 8×10 paper with one-inch borders). Worse still, I could not find that print, and my only scans of it are very small and of low resolution. They needed something of medium- to high-resolution — and they needed it in New Zealand within a few days.

I’ve never scanned negatives before, but that was the obvious thing to do. Fortunately, I located the negative right away (even though I haven’t seen it in about 12 years). While I was at it, I picked out a few other negatives to get scanned, as a bit of a test to see if that is a viable way to breathe some new life into my old black & white photographs.

I’m pleased to report that it works very well. I deliberately chose a few difficult negatives — ones that were underexposed or underdeveloped — as well as some that I simply wanted to work on without having to deal with chemistry (it’s been 10 years since I’ve worked in a darkroom).

The scans I got back were generally low in contrast, but that’s just fine because it means all the information was there. They require a bit of work in Paintshop Pro (which I prefer over Photoshop). I had to remove some dust spots (clone tool), mess with the histogram tool to add contrast, and also use the Shadow/Midtone/Highlight tool to crank the contrast a bit more.

The results were outstanding. For example, below is a photo I took in 1991, when I had three cats. I made one print from this back in the day, but the negative is so underexposed that it was almost impossible to get anything useful from it. In the one work print I still have, you can barely see the three cats — everything is just black. With an hour or so of experimenting and about $10 worth of photo paper I probably could have gotten something close to acceptable.

But with the negative scan, I just spun a few dials and boom, a pretty good result, as you can see. I don’t even consider this to be “finished,” it’s just a three minute test to see what I could get.

kitties!

From left to right (interior) a very young and very skinny Spiff (1991-2005), a not-yet-fat Larry (1987-2001), and the usually shy Oreo (1989-2001). I don’t know who the cat in the window is, but it’s probably the same as this one, as that photo was taken at about the same time.

I’m pretty impressed with the negative scanning. Watch for some resurrections on the Monday Morning Photo Blog.

Technical Note: Keep in mind that different monitors will show different results as
they are not all calibrated the same way. For example, you should be
able to see a bit of space between Spiff’s right side and Larry’s left
side. It shows how skinny Spiff was.

You can use the image below (from dpreview.com) as a test to see if your monitor is calibrated correctly.

Here’s how DP Review puts it: “DPReview calibrate their monitors using Color Vision OptiCal at the (fairly well accepted) PC normal gamma 2.2, this means that on our monitors we can make out the difference between all of the (computer generated) grayscale blocks (above). We recommend to make the most of this review you should be able to see the difference (at least) between X,Y and Z and ideally A,B and C.”

Photographs and memories…

I am on the verge of upgrading to a better digital camera. I have a buyer for my Canon S100 Digital Elf, and the store where I’m buying the new hardware will give me a good trade-in price on my old Nikon SLR. There are two significant issues I need to work through before I finally go through with this purchase; (1) which camera to buy, and (2) how to let go of my SLR.

Which Camera To Buy?

It’s down to two models: The Canon G5 or the Nikon CP5400. I’ve done all the reading, I’ve done the side-by-side comparisons at dpreview.com, and I’ve even taken a CF card to the store and shot some pictures with both cameras to get a “feel” for them. I still can’t decide.

The Canon has a fabulous reputation. I’ve heard almost nothing bad about it. It also has a really sweet way with manual focus. On the other hand, it didn’t feel as good in my hand as did the Nikon. Specifically, the Nikon felt like a camera, while the Canon felt like an electronic device. Given my long history with 35mm photography, the “feel” of the camera is important to me.

The Nikon has that nice feel, but it also has a buggy history. There is no focus-assist light for low light conditions (although I curse the focus assist light on my S100 because I don’t have the option of turning it off). There are some issues with image processing speed and image sharpness. On the other hand, its wide-angle setting is the equivalent of 28mm in the 35mm world. 28mm wide-angle was always my favorite angle of view, and I’ve always lamented that it is almost impossible to find a 28mm in digital or point-and-shoot cameras. That 28mm issue is a deal maker for me. But I can’t help but worry about those other issues.

Letting Go of the SLR

Tram 28, LisbonIn the end, it will not be very hard to decide which one to buy. Both are good cameras, so I can’t really go wrong. The really difficult thing will be letting go of my last remaining SLR, a Nikon FE2 (in excellent condition) with a 50mm 1.4 lens and a 28mm 2.8 lens. I have not used it for some years, but whenever I get it out and fiddle with it, I become awash with nostalgia. I love the feel and sound of the mechanics – using it is like second nature to me. The spin of the frame advance lever, the turn of the f-stop ring, the zzzip of the shutter speed dial. All bring back fond memories of using that trusty and reliable camera in the Arctic, in England and Scotland, in France, and in Portugal. I often shot black and white film with it, and then spent hours in the darkroom perfecting prints.

I do, however, need to be practical. I don’t use film anymore, and I do shoot (some) digital. Digital cameras have the great advantage of being filmless. This means instant feedback (through the LCD display), no film and processing costs, and the ecological consideration of not having to manufacture, use, and dispose of all those processing chemicals. Hurray! A great leap forward.

Paris, from Eiffel TowerWith any camera, there is a layer of abstraction between you and the image. With my FE2, that layer consists of mechanics that I fully understand – I know how to work the mechanics and I can predict exactly what will happen when I turn a dial or push a button. With digital – or any advanced electronic camera – the layer of abstraction feels slippery and murky, as if it is not quite under my control.

Yes, I can learn the menus and what all the various options are for, but when it comes down to the moment of truth – when I’m about to squeeze the shutter release – I can’t fully predict what will happen. There are so many modes and sub-modes that even if I know what my current settings are, there might be something I forgot about that will override something else. Or there might be a bug in the firmware (the camera’s operating system). What if the batteries are running low? What does that icon really mean?

TuktoyaktutThere are too many mysteries with electronic devices! With hand-held computers and MP3 players and similar devices that don’t really have non-electronic counterparts, this isn’t really an issue. You’re in a new paradigm so enjoy the possibilities.

But with photography it’s different. At least it is for someone like me, who has spent a considerable amount of time building up a non-digital paradigm. In both cases – film or digital – the end result is the same. Either a print in your hand, or an image on your screen. How you begin to arrive at that image is also fundamentally the same: you see something, envision an image in your mind’s eye, point the camera at the thing/view, and make the camera to do what it needs to do to produce an image like the one you have pre-visualized in your head.

To do that – or at least to do it reliably and effectively – you need to really know your camera and to trust it. You have to trust that when you squeeze the shutter release, you are the master and the camera is the servant. It will do whatever you want it to, unquestioningly. (The key, of course, is knowing what it is you want the camera to do. None of this applies to people who don’t understand the methods and mechanics of physical photography.)

Canadian ArcticI don’t feel that with electronic cameras. I feel like I am at the mercy of the camera’s electronics. I have to memorize all of the various settings and sub-settings and I have to understand them all, and I need to know exactly what is set – and how – whenever I prepare to squeeze the shutter release. That is virtually impossible, given that most settings are arrived at by navigating through several layers of screens on the tiny LCD monitor. With a mechanical camera you can see at a glance – or a feel – what the settings are. Not so, electronic.

It’s like when I put a disc in my DVD player and want to skip through some of the crap at the beginning. I press the “fast-forward” button but all I get is “[NOT ALLOWED]” flashing on the screen. What is that? I’ve paid for the DVD player and I’ve paid for the disc. I own them! But the player is telling me I’m “not allowed” to fast forward! While that does not negate the otherwise clear advantages of DVD over VHS, it does give me a sinking feeling of not being master over my machines.

UrinalsDitto digital cameras. When I squeeze the shutter and nothing happens because the subject is too close for the auto-focus to work, I get disoriented and annoyed. When everything is perfectly framed and I have to wait two seconds for the camera to set exposure and focus – and as a result I miss the shot – I get pissed off. When the flash goes off without my asking it too because with all the buttons to push and icons to look at I didn’t notice how the flash was set – I roll my eyes in exasperation.

And when the battery dies, I simply pine for my Nikon FE2, which worked with or without battery power.

Bang bang

I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with war photography. Not so much with the battlefield stuff in which someone like Robert Capa documents the horrors of war at their most intense and chaotic moments. Rather, I’ve always felt conflicted over war photography that happens in more controlled settings. In particular, things like executions and torture, such as when a captured prisoner is quickly “dispatched” out of convenience, revenge, or merely sport. Robert Capa

A case in point happened about ten or twelve years ago, when a young photographer found himself in the jungle of either El Salvador or Nicaragua (I don’t remember which), tagging along with a patrol of soldiers or guerrillas from one side or the other (I don’t remember which side). The patrol captured a prisoner who they accused of giving intelligence information to the other side, an act which had resulted in a number of their compatriots being killed. According to the photographer the evidence was clear and undisputed. The sentence for this crime was death, but they couldn’t shoot him because enemy patrols were nearby and they would hear the shots. Apparently, dragging him back to a place where a proper trial and sentence could be carried out was also out of the question. So they killed him there, in the jungle, with a knife.Robert Capa

I remember hearing the photographer on CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” describing the scene. It was chilling. They tied the man up, threw him in a shallow grave, and knifed him in the gut a few times. They stood around while he died slowly in the dirt. All the while, the photographer was taking pictures, which he later sold to Time magazine.

The easy question is “how can a photographer stand by and photograph such a thing and not do anything to stop it.” There are two answers. First the ideological one: it is not the photographer’s job to affect a situation, merely to record or document it. Then there is the practical answer: a photographer in a situation like that cannot defend someone because of the risk having the aggression turned on him or herself.

Having once studied photography and its history formally, I’ve been through most of the arguments. Once I even presented a paper and slideshow on war photography. Most of the rhetoric revolves around the argument that the photographers are performing a valuable service by documenting these horrors � that the victims deserve to have the method of their demise known to the world. Anyone who survived the Central America of the 1980s will attest to the value of witness given the number of “disappeared”, in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatamala. These photographers also say that there are many times when their presence has prevented atrocities from taking place because the men with the guns didn’t want anything recorded on film.

Still, there are times when one has to wonder.

Don McCullinFor me, the question has never been “why didn’t they do anything.” It has always been “how does one step into someone else’s terror and grief, walk away with a piece of it, but not be effected personally?” Very few war photographers admit to any ill effects beyond stress and cynicism. However, in the current issue of the print edition of Photo District News (PDN), respected (and retired) war photographer Don McCullin answers that exact question in an interview. In his case, the answer is “I can’t”. The following excerpt is the most elegant statement from that side of the discussion I’ve ever read.

Don McCullin-BeirutPDN: Didn’t you take a hiatus from war photography at one point?
DM: Yes, I did. I was in Beirut in 1982. I photographed a woman whose house had been bombed by the Israelis. Her family was trapped inside the building. I miscalculated and took this quick picture of her while she was running toward me and screaming. She kept coming like a locomotive and then her fists started flying, and I just had to take this beating. I went back to my hotel and I sat down and thought, “This is it. I can’t do this anymore after twenty years of this.” A man came to the hotel and said to me, “You know that woman that just attacked you; she’s been killed by a car bomb explosion.” That was really the turning point in my life.

PDN: But what was wrong with taking her picture in the first place?
DM: I realized I was stealing from her deep, deep grief. There has to come a time when we say, “Look, we’ve been photographing dead people, people being executed and what have you. What good has it done?” You have to ask yourself, “Do we have the right to steal these moments?” You cannot be a just and honest man if you don’t ask yourself these questions before someone else asks you. I’ve found it very difficult to live with myself after doing the work I’ve done. I’ve made a name photographing someone else’s demise. Can I live, justifiably comfortable with this? The answer is, No, I can’t.

PDN: Are you saying you feel that you misspent your career?
DM: Yes and no. My career has not been 100% war photography. I’ve done a lot of other things, and I’ve invested the twilight part of my life in landscape photography. I’m looking at the most beautiful scene tonight in my garden, which is full of mist and golden trees. I look at the last day’s light with some poetry. I know the quality of life that I’m clinging to, and war photography will not bring you a quality of life. It will bring you a bad dream forever.