Thoughts on Analog Photography

I still remember the times during my studies of media technology when I dreamed of someday owning a Leica camera. Although I was happy with the Nikon F2 SLR and Nikon 24mm f/2.8 setup I used during the photography classes I took at university, I kept longing for more. A close friend and I spent many nights debating used camera options available at local Leica dealers but always decided to stay away from it. To be completely honest, we dreamed mostly about rangefinder photography and the M System, but this felt out of reach (for reference: at this time the first digital M, the Leica M8 was about to be introduced). So we focussed on what we could realistically acquire on a student budget. At the time, it was a Leica R8 and we didn’t buy one.

Leica R8 - the quintessence of photography

This was about 15 years ago. One reason has been the price (at the time Leica still sold the Leica R9 as their current SLR model). Of course Leica has always been expensive and also remains pricy with age of the equipment. So we could have seen it as an investment all things considered. Another issue to stay away from the Leica R8 was the uprising of DSLR models from Nikon and Canon with half decent full size sensors at more competitive prices.

Leica never entered the DSLR market with the R series and subsequently discontinued its analog R9 SLR line on March 9, 2009. It’s digital medium format options with the S system remained unattractive, even as a used camera. To be fair, Leica introduced a digital module for the Leica R8 and R9 called DMR, making the R system the only hybrid analog digital SLR system that ever existed. However, it was and still is extremely expensive and provides a somewhat outdated resolution of 10 megapixels with a CCD sensor. Still, it was an absolutely amazing piece of technology. Check out this brochure, if you are interested.


To And From Digital Photography

I never owned a DSLR. Despite Nikon’s and Canon’s achievements, their newer cameras never spoke to me, mostly for reasons such as crop sensors or build size. The analog Nikon F2 is tiny compared to all DSLR models I have ever considered. For many years I chose mirror-less digital cameras with MFT (micro four thirds) lenses for their more compact size. All of them lacked an optical viewfinder. I never liked electronic viewfinders (EVF), although they are technically very decent these days. So I suffered through years of taking photos while looking at a screen rather than through a viewfinder. Still, I was quite happy with various Panasonic cameras and the lenses they developed in partnership with Leica. With iPhones getting better and better cameras however, more often than not I only used the phone’s camera. Long gone are the times where I would carry around heavy or bulky equipment. For some years now, I only used my iPhone for taking photos.

new year 2018 in Napoli
Happy New Year in Napoli – 2018

Nevertheless, the idea of Leica’s simplistic approach and upmost build quality made in Germany persisted in my mind over the years. Fascinated by romantic illusions about street photography, I always appreciated how Leica managed to keep their heritage alive. With some experiments in Leica’s digital realm (owning a Leica M8 for some time, selling it because of the crop sensor size), the appeal of Leica’s analog cameras has never seized to fascinate me. So out of coincidence, I opted for a used Leica R8 with two lenses that I found in a local classifieds ad. It was a split second decision during a one day stopover in Hamburg. The lenses are a Leitz Elmarit 35mm f/2.8 and a Leitz Vario-Elmar-R 70-210mm f/4.0 (rather a free add-on than a conscious choice for lens).

Ever since then I did nothing much with my Leica R8 kit. Several things changed since my last thorough reflection on choosing analog equipment in the digital age. So an orientational journey was in order, especially since I live in Napoli, Italy, and things are quite different here.


Why analog film?

At various times before, I considered going back to analog. It would provide a more conscious and more immersive photography experience, not speaking of the amazing and unique look of analog film. At least, that’s what I believe most of the time. It requires focus and deliberation as each shot costs money and it can only be reviewed at a later time. An analog camera also demands a more thorough understanding of photography principles such as composition and lighting (ISO, exposure and aperture). It makes the process of taking photos much slower. This is a good thing in my opinion. It helps with composition, anticipation and creating an specific look or feel. To some degree it is a highly reflective activity.

lighting a cigarette
Nikon F2 – Nikon 24mm f/2.8 – Ilford Delta 3200 professional 35mm film – 2007

The possibilities of digital image processing are nearly limitless these days. It also allocates an enormous amount of the creative process to postproduction. With ever growing libraries of snapshots taken, I would prefer less post production and a larger number of consciously composed photos. Also, as my photography professor at the university always pointed out, analog film as a technology only reached its perfection long after digital cameras became mainstream. In fact, from a technical perspective, film still remains to be very competitive (if not even superior in some areas), but lets not get into that discussion at this point.


35mm analog film in the digital age

As it turned out, the analog film market is somewhat thriving in 2018, which is certainly different from the last time I looked. I witnessed the rebirth of 8mm film and instant film photography with The Impossible Project (now Polaroid Originals). But apparently I missed recent developments for the 35mm analog film.

Companies such as Kodak, Rollei and Ferrania have in fact announced or introduced NEW film material in 2017. Also, there are more in the making with various kickstarter projects and independent movements to strengten the analog photography scene. I appreciate initiatives such as Camera Ventures efforts to get more people into the game with their Five Steps on Getting into Analog Cameras. Also many “modern” professionals are switching back to analog. So things don’t look as grim as they used to for analog photography. I almost feel confident it might actually survive long term. So my Leica R8 might prove to be a long term investment after all.

Most interesting film choices for me at this moment are Ilford Delta or Kodak Tri-X for black and white photos and Kodak Porta or Ektar for color. Of course I would like to try Kodak Ektachrome, which is ready for shipment as of Photokina in September 2018 after more than 6 six years since its extinction. Despite the first films that were shipped in Agust 2018 still being beta material, I am super excited and can’t wait to try it out for myself. In my opinion, Fuji has somewhat lost his edge, so their film material is no longer interesting to me. I would be interested in trying some Lomography material as well, but I remain sceptic at this time.


Practical issues

Many people state that analog photography comes at costs of around 50 Cents per shot. This sounds much more reasonable then a few years ago. Still, these days it might be more difficult to find a shop to actually develop the film. Ten years ago, many drugstores still offered these services with acceptable quality (at least in Germany). Nowadays, good service providers are rare at best, especially in South Italy.

You could always opt to develop the films yourself. It would provide much more creative leeway and could possibly lower costs even more. Still, it requires time and a dedicated room and is less convenient for lifestyles involving lots of travel. For a digital nomad, it is certainly not an option. Ideally, a service provider would offer development and digitisation of the film material with post and digital delivery. These requirements are not so easy to meet.


Service Providers in Germany

As I once did with 8mm service providers, I took a look at various offers in Germany, such as BestfotoserviceCyberlab.atFotofachlabor Roland WackerFotoimpexFoto LeutnerFoto Media PrintFoto Meyer, Foto WeckbrodtJan Kopp, Mein Film Lab, Nimm FilmPhoto Studio 13, Pixelnet and some others. I knew Jan Kopp in Hamburg from previous experience and can highly recommend the offered services. However, the services are not compatible in remote setup as it requires a personal on site presence in my opinion. Pixelnet is offering film development at 2,75 € per film with additional costs of 7,44 € for scans on a CD and 2,59 € for postal delivery within Germany. This sounds reasonable but still feels not very convenient.  The scan resolution is not specified and many people don’t use optical discs anymore.

The only convincing service provider I found, was Mein Film Lab. They offer development and scanning services at various resolutions. Prices range from 10,93 € for 2430 x 2550 pixels to 16,81 € for 4500 x 6600 pixels. The services are outlined perfectly, they are transparent and offer any additional service I might require AND they deliver scans as downloads. With 36 frames on a 35mm film, prices would range between 30 Cents and 46 Cents per shot plus the cost of the film. This sounds good to me.

I am sure there are other firms who do this as well and I am not claiming this is a complete list. In the many hours I spent researching this however, I could only find so many. More importantly for me personally, I am still struggling to find an easy solution for me while I am in Napoli, Italy. Although many digital services that are very common in Germany are still not available in South Italy, analog film has apparently already disappeared from drug stores or any other type of shop entirely. Only very few photo shops offer development of the film and it takes about a week. So far, I was unable to find a suitable one-stop-shop solution to develop and digitize films I shot with Leica R8.

Leica R8
Leica R8

Scanning 35mm film

This kind of leads me back to angles I explored years ago, develop films at a photo service shop and scan them myself. Unfortunately, the advancements over the pas few years in the negative scanner market are moderate at best. Although very cheap solutions are now available, they offer very poor quality and low res JPG scans only. In the pro market, nothing changed really with the outdated and discontinued Scanners of previous industry giants like Nikon or Minolta still ranking top among the usual suspects such as Pacific Image or Plustek. Check out B&H Photo’s conclusive buyers guide, it’s the most complete and considerate summary I could find. This still means that below an investment of at least 500€ for a half decent negative scanner, there is not much to expect. Since I already scanned the entire family library of 35mm film during university, I don’t really see the justification for such an investment. More importantly, these solutions are not really portable and thereby disqualified for a nomadic lifestyle.


Final Thoughts

I am determined to try analog photography once again. With the recently acquired Leica R8 I have a timeless setup that provides all I could desire from a SLR. Still, I am already sure that my long-term destination will remain rangefinder photography. Despite my shared and also eternal appreciation of the Leica M system, it just makes sense for me. Rangefinder cameras of all vendors are small, light, low key and allow me to see the scene rather than the shot I am about to take. As an aficionado of urban narratives, it seems to be the tool of choice for me. Maybe you should read this brilliant article about yesterdays Leica cameras to appreciate what I am talking about.

If you want to get started with manual street photography (digital or analog), consider this introduction with useful tips by Eric Kim. It touches the most important aspects in my opinion. If you can’t afford a new or used Leica and always dreamed of trying one, you can apply at verleica.de and pitch your project to borrow a Leica M9 for a limited time. The site is operated by the infamous German photographer Paul Ripke, and I recommend checking it out. It might even lead to exposure of your work that you didn’t expect.

OneStep 2 Instant Camera introduced by Polaroid Originals

As of September 13th 2017, The Impossible Project is called Polaroid Originals. Apparently the company’s largest shareholder acquired the Polaroid brand and corresponding intellectual property. That seems fitting since the 2008 founded company practically saved Polaroid instant photography.

After Polaroid stopped producing instant film, The Impossible Project stepped up to produce new film material. They acquired a legacy Polaroid factory and developed new instant film materials for vintage Polaroid camera models. In addition to the Impossible Instant Lab (allowing Polaroid instant photos to be produced from digital images with a hardware exposure unit and a corresponding smartphone app), the company introduced a newly designed Impossible I-1 camera in 2016. In September 2017, the rebranded company introduced the Polaroid OneStep 2 instant film camera.

Polaroid Originals OneStep 2


New OneStep Instant Camera Model

Building on the unique original OneStep design by Polaroid, Polaroid Originals created a simple, easy-to-use camera with integrated flash and rechargeable battery. Apart from modern build quality and lens improvements, the battery is the biggest change for most users. Before, the battery was included in every cartridge of instant film, a factor making instant film cartridges more expensive, apart from environmental implications.

Polaroid Originals now offers film cartridges for vintage 600 series, SX-70 series, Spectra series as well as for 8×10 and the newly introduced I-Type cameras. A cartridge of 8 color or black and white instant photos for the I-1 or OneStep 2 costs around 16€ (compared to 18-20 € for vintage Polaroid camera models). That isn’t cheap. Still Polaroid offers a very unique photography experience, that is very much worth the money.

Over the past years, I experimented with every product the Impossible Project came up with and followed the company’s development from their early days on Kickstarter. I am very happy that it turned out to be a sustainable business and am glad that the legacy of Edwin Land lives on in Polaroid Originals.

Leica introduced instant camera – Leica Sofort

 

Leica Sofort
Leica Sofort by leica-camera.com

In late 2016 Leica introduced an instant camera, called Leica Sofort. It utilises Fujifilm Instax Mini instant film material and might prove to be another great addition to the recent instant film revival by companies such as Impossible Project, who just introduced their first analog instant camera after selling refurbished Polaroid cameras for many years.

Over the past years I used instant cameras quite a bit and experimented with the Impossible Project Instant Lab and their polaroid compatible film material to create instant images from digital photos. The Fujifilm instant film never was high on my list of priorities because I don’t like the formats they offer. Now might be a good time to give it another look. The Leica Sofort setup looks like a sweet deal.

For more information check out the article by WIRED.

The I-1 Analog Instant Camera by The Impossible Project

I-1 Analog Instant Camera

In April 2016 The Impossible Project announced their first analog instant camera for Polaroid instant film. The company has been around for a few years and basically saved Polaroid instant film from getting extinct. They started out by repairing and selling used Polaroid cameras and old film material and eventually bought an old Polaroid factory and started to produce their own instant film. As you may know, I followed the company quite closely and tried out their Impossible Instant Lab among many other things to create Polaroid images from digital photographs. I also keep using my Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera with the Impossible SX-70 film and am quite satisfied with the quality of the film material they provide.

They worked on creating their own instant camera for many years, so here it finally is. The I-1 Analog Instant Camera will be available from May 10 2016 for $ 299 and looks like a very decent package. It allows for Impossible 600 film cartridges to be used (Impossible’s Polaroid 600 replacement film), features a LED ring flash and can be connected to a smartphone app via bluetooth. Not being to modest, The Impossible Project’s CEO Oskar Smolokowski calls it “The Original Instant Camera. Reinvented.”.

I am not sure wether I would buy one, since I am quite happy with my Polaroid SX-70. Still, I am curious about the features of the smartphone app and can’t wait to find out, wether this will be enough to convince me to buy an I-1 Analog Instant Camera. Nevertheless, I am quite happy that the camera is finally here, since it hopefully will provide further foundation for Polaroid instant film being around for a bright future.

THIS Visits: The Impossible Project – Recreating Instant Film

Some insights in how “The Impossible Project” came to be…

Conceived at the closing party of the last Polaroid factory, The Impossible Project completely re-invented the process of creating instant film specifically for Polaroid cameras. A daunting task for sure, but one that they’ve been at since 2008.

More about my experiences with their products and my Polaroid SX-70 camera can be found in previous posts.

Impossible Instant Lab app
Impossible Instant Lab app

An evening with my Impossible Instant Lab – Creating Instant Photos

Since my bedroom wall is supposed to be decorated with Polaroid instant photos, I spent an evening with my Impossible Instant Lab, developing a series of photos with an iPhone 5 and the Impossible iOS App.

impossible-lab-1

impossible-lab-3

impossible-lab-2

The result being a bunch of color and black & white photos soon to be displayed in my personal little art gallery.

It comes at a price, though. 8 instant photos produced with Impossible Instant film sum up to 20 €, not considering the price of the instant lab. That one actually dropped recently from around 250 € to just 120 €.

So now is a good a time as any to start your instant photo experience even if you don’t want to buy an analog Polaroid camera like my Polaroid SX-70 Landa Camera.

The Impossible Project: Bringing back Polaroid (Wired UK)

Impossible Instant Lab app

The Impossible Project: Bringing back Polaroid (Wired UK)

An article from 2009 about The Impossible Project in Wired UK with some details on their motivation, their inspiration by Edwin H. Land and their mission to save Polaroid instant photography from extinction.

They startet their project in 2008. It’s 2014 and they are still around, continuously improving their film material. So for now, they succeeded.

POLAROID SX-70 with Impossible film material

While testing the POLAROID SX-70 LAND CAMERA SONAR AutoFocus I used film material from The Impossible Project. They develop instant film material for Polaroid cameras in both color and black & white. The film material is made in a former Polaroid factory in Enschede (Netherlands) which they bought in 2008. They basically had to reinvent new instant film material because it was already a dead technology and original color dyes were no longer available. Since their first new instant film in 2010 they constantly improved the quality of the material and the time it takes for the pictures to develop.

What might be of particular interest, is the film speed of the new Impossible instant material. The film for my SX-70, the Impossible SX-70 is described with ASA 160. The original film material from Polaroid was ASA 150. With these material unavailable since Polaroid stopped the production in 2005, many have modified their Polaroid cameras to use newer Polaroid material with film speeds up to ASA 640. They often used ND filters to correct for the wrong exposure time since the film is more then 2 times faster. ND Filters are also available by The Impossible Project if one wants to use their 600 series film material.

polaroid-sx-70-with-impossible-film-1

Although this does not seem to be necessary anymore with their SX-70 film, the difference between ASA 150 and ASA 160 is still noticeable. This can be addressed by setting the exposure dial on the camera to “darken”.

polaroid-sx-70-with-impossible-film-2

Unfortunately, by doing this, one looses the ability to adjust the exposure since all other setting lead to bad results. From left to right I tried “lighten”, “normal” and “darken”. Only with the “darken” dial set to maximum, I could create a more satisfying image.

polaroid-sx-70-with-impossible-film-3

Impossible Instant Lab – The App Let’s You Scan Instant Photos

When I tried The Impossible Instant Lab, I used the corresponding iOS app to choose the digital images I wanted to create instant photos from as well as the exposure time for the instant film material I used.

instant-photos-made-with-iphone-4

The app let’s me create analog images with the instant lab, which basically is just a housing case for the instant film cartridge and the iPhone while exposing and is manually operated.

impossible-instant-lab

But the app also works the other way around. It features a scanner functionality, so one can digitise the instant photos to save them in a digital picture gallery.

One just takes a picture from an angle with no reflections from the instant photo’s surface and selects the corners of the picture’s frame in order to cut and straighten the image to right format. Since The Impossible Project offers film material for the Polaroid 600 & SX-70 series as well as Spectra the app can be adjusted to the correct setting.

I am not sure why anyone would need this feature, but it is a nice gimmick. It somewhat foils the purpose of The Impossible Project and does not provide any decent results but still, it is an easy way to keep a digital memory of your analog instant photos.

Impossible Instant Lab – instant photos made with my iPhone

I recently tried The Impossible Instant Lab at the Apple store in Hamburg during their creative workshop tour around Europe (recently being February 2014, but I didn’t get around to writing anything about it).

Here are some instant photos I created on that day:

They look quite nice and the image quality totally surprised me, since I clearly remember many not so decent photos from my childhood.