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What I Learned … Scanning #007: Epson V600

What I Learned ... Scanning: #007 Epson V600

AKA: Andrew D. McClees slowly goes insane.

When shooting film, in 2019, printing and sharing photos in person is dead. Sometimes we do still print photos (or sets of photos), but largely most of photography has migrated to being consumed on screens, either Mobile via instagram, or on Computer, probably also on instagram -- I feel like Flickr is dead, I’m sure there’s a bunch of people who disagree -- but really, IG is the premiere online platform for photography in 2019 (Given, instagram isn’t really aimed at, nor is it actually for photographers -- that’s another essay though).

Anyway, circling back, when shooting film there are really only two ways to get your film images off the negative and into a computer: 1. You (or your lab) use a scanner, to scan your negatives into your computer. 2. You use a DSLR/Mirrorless Rig to take pictures of the negatives, then subsequently process/invert them in photoshop. I think collectively, most of us who scan/digitize negatives can all agree this is probably the biggest, most obnoxious bottleneck in our workflows, regardless of how we go about doing our scanning.

For all intents and purposes many people will argue that using a DSLR setup is “easier” and “faster” than owning and operating a scanner. And while I definitely can believe it is faster, and produces a better result for the owners of quality DSLR’s who also have a good understanding of Macro Lenses, light tables, and setting things up, the combined price of all those things kind of blows the price of the scanner out of the water. Given, most people own a digital camera, but factoring in a good dedicated macro lens (I mean, how many non-product/non-macro photographers, regardless of digital vs. film use a macro lens, or have one just sitting around?), a light table, a decent tripod, and enough space to build a setup, this to me is not a largely feasible solution for most shooters, or most of us with limited time/space/budget requirements.

So let’s talk scanners. If you’ve ever gotten film commercially developed (and if you’re reading this you probably definitely have), you’ve probably gotten scans back from whatever lab you sent your film to. Those scans were probably at least fairly decent, if a little expensive. The color correction is good, and the general scan quality is pretty okay, and definitely good enough to share on instagram or even make 3x5 to 5x7 prints. On top of that you didn’t have to work that hard at getting the scans, and you probably got your film turned around really quickly. Lab quality scanners are great, they can process a bunch of film really fast. Unfortunately they’re really expensive (remember they used to be an industrial good that everyone actually *needed* rather than wanted), and rapidly either dying off due to age, OR lack of compatibility with modern computer drivers, and connections -- making them almost a non-solution. In the bottom of the film collapse you could buy a pakon 135+ for maybe  -- I’ll link a Matt Day video here about it -- 300-400 dollars -- pakons now retail for 900+ dollars easy (go look at the Pakon user group on facebook), and that’s for a basic, “low-res” model. And that’s if you want to own a scanner like that at home -- the price of scanning will inevitably bleed you dry if you keep sending both your color and your BNW to the lab. Honestly, any good lab should still save you time and money if you’re scanning color -- but the cost of entry at a given time, or just the sheer size of your backlog may stop you from sending your color or slide film to a lab (this has definitely been me, and is me right now -- Buy a t shirt?)

I’m sure some seasoned professionals will chime in here about paying for quality, or that “the only real way to print or do photography is hand printing” or “what about drum scanners, or flextights.” And yeah, those are all great options, but as feasible everyday solutions, they’re not really viable options. Besides, do you have like 10k minimum sitting around? Didn’t think so.

So now we’re down in the realm of consumer-grade (not that the average “consumer” is really using any of these) film scanners. Let’s say this market caps out at 2k. Let’s do a quick rundown of the options/archetypes over on B+H: you have the crazy expensive plustek -- which usually can only do 35mm film (lest you want to pay another 1k for 120 capabilities) -- but gives really great results. You have the Flatbeds (read Epson V600+V800/V850) which are in the exact right price pockets, but aren’t really hyper specialized to scanning film like the plustek designs. And then you have the non-photographer style scanners, which seem to be okay, but otherwise are pretty weak, and pretty small with no real option to scan or accommodate 120/medium format film.

Looking at the options, by the statistics -- the Epson scanners are the right buy, unless you know you’re only going to shoot 35mm film, in which case you should buy a plustek and be happy. Epson has a basic model for getting into scanning (the v600) for about 200 dollars that can theoretically get you scans big enough for pretty much any kind of display you’d need to do, and a more upmarket one (the epson v800) with better resolution, and a larger scanning area if you’re so inclined to shoot large format, up to 8x10 for like 600 dollars. And then an even more premium one than that -- the epson v850, which is (to the best of my knowledge) basically the same, but with 100-200 dollars worth of nicer features. Given that -- it sounds like the V600 is a great deal.

The Epson V600 is a great deal. But, it’s the only so-called deal in town. The epson v600 “works.” It delivers adequate scans at an adequate size, and the software supplied (epson scan) is easy enough to use, and at 200 dollars, maximum, it's a stomachable purchase. And that’s about the end of the nice things I can and will say about it.

If you’re reading this, and shoot film, there’s a pretty good chance you own, have owned, or have friends who own an epson v600, and while opinions may vary, I think to some extent we’ll all agree on this:

The Epson v600 sucks. It sucks a giant bag of dicks.

If you know, you know.

If you know, you know.

but it’s the only affordable, relatively versatile (meaning it can do both 35mm and 120) scanner available, so it still gets bought, sold, recommended, and used.

Here are my main three complaints, in order of frustration.

  1. The software has a learning curve, and color is a massive pain in the ass.

  2. It’s slow.

  3. It’s a jank piece of shit in terms of engineering and coding.

I’m not typically the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to learning technical procedures, or doing finicky bullshit.

I think that qualifies me extremely well to deliver my first criticism. The Epson V600 has a really annoying learning curve, and getting good colors out of it is finicky. I’ve shot and scanned mostly, if not entirely fujifilm -- apparently kodak scans better -- and while I’ll take some of the blame for the faulty scans/negatives, being too blue due to home processing -- the amount of time it took just to kinda scoop and shape the negatives into an acceptable color-correct version was steep. Again, I’ll admit I’m a beginner to color scanning, but the fact that it took me a good chunk of time to even get mildly palatable results using the auto-correct as a baseline is telling.

When scanning color, the scanner is even slower than it is when scanning black and white; and it usually takes me an hour to scan a roll of black and white film.

120, 35mm, whatever, it takes a fucking hour. That’s fucking bullshit. I’ve gotten into this argument repeatedly with people who “like scanning” but do you really want to sit there while you wait for your negatives to appear on your computer? Like it’s barely even grindwork, it’s just sitting there, waiting for your negatives to process. And while I know the flatbeds can be slow because of their design, it’s extremely frustrating to have to sit there and do next to nothing while the stupid thing loads. And that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re like me, and your scanner has the driver error where you need to constantly click the software icon to make it scan your negative move on from each individual scan, it can easily take even more than hour if you forget you’re scanning, or that your scanner’s automatic batch scan doesn’t work, or that it just randomly decides to stop working.

The epson v600 is a janky scanner.

It’s made of cheap plastic which, I’m sure, helps keep the cost down, and it comes with crappy plastic film holders for scanning, which again, do their job fine, but don’t feel good to use. Those complaints pale in comparison to the fact that you have to A. patch the scanner driver so that the batch scanning function (ie scanning multiple negatives at the same time) works properly, B. hope to god that the patch works, because otherwise it’s the same business as usual and you’re stuck clicking the button to make the scanner advance, and C. Fanatically clean the scanner, or else you end up being stuck with weird bands of black or gray or color running through the middle of your images (which don’t appear until after you’ve finished scanning), forcing you to have to stop, clean the calibration area, and hope that the banding will go away. I have one friend who had to essentially get rid of his V600 because the calibration area couldn’t be cleaned and the banding just wouldn’t go away. By my Standards, items B and C make it a clear failure of a product.

So those are my complaints with the Epson V600. I don’t think I’m alone in them. I don’t think epson will do jack shit to fix their product or make a better scanner. I don’t think epson is out to get film shooters, nor are they indifferent to us, but I do believe we/the scanner market is such a small portion of their income, they’re probably not going to bother to make a newer better scanner -- if anything they’ll rehash the same exact scanner they have for the past two generations or fifteen years (yeah, seriously, the epson v500/v550 is more or less the exact same scanner as the v600), and we’ll all keep buying it.

Usually I write about positive things I’ve learned in these articles, but really all I’ve learned how to do is push a button and tweak things the same way I would in any other photo-editing program. I haven’t learned anything about photography here, except that the scanner market is incredibly poorly served. I’d prefer not to end this on too sour of a note, so let me fire off one last hot take:

I don’t care what film Kodak brings back next, or even that they bring any film back at all. Ektachrome and an overspecialized 3200 speed bnw film mean absolutely nothing to me.

Kodak should bring back the Pakon.

But bring it back with USB-C/3.0 Mac OS/Windows 10 (that’s the current OS right?) software and drivers. Most people shoot mostly 35mm if they shoot film. Personally I think lowering the bar (and the costs) to entry of efficient and good home scanning/and shooting would go a lot further towards keeping film alive than paywalling it behind obsolete products. The original pakon’s had great quality reasonable scans, and they had Kodak’s proprietary color science/scanning technology which enabled some really great color interpolation, easily. But above all that the Pakons are fast, and don’t seem to need a whole lot of handholding to do their scans. If they could make a new model capable of doing 120 film, even better, but I’d take just 35mm.

Anyway, all food for thought. If you liked the article and also hate your v600, share this article. If you hated it, and think I’m an idiot fight me in the comments.

If you’re feeling generous, or you liked this content, go pick up a zine or shirt in the shop.

Thanks for reading!

What I learned Shooting #006: Minoltina AL-S

What I learned shooting #006: Minoltina AL-s

I probably haven’t shot quite enough to be a truly definitive authority on the Minoltina (Minolta?) AL-s, but on the other hand, I feel like it doesn’t take super long to figure out a camera, as opposed to a film, because the mechanisms are largely the same across cameras. So I think i’m qualified to write a loose report on it, or at least what I learned shooting the thing. If you want to see the images/examples just jump down to the bottom of the page for the gallery.

So anyway, here’s the stats on the Minoltina Al-s/Minolta Al-s :

It’s a small, compact rangefinder camera (128x74x60mm), and weighs a little more than a pound including it’s 40mm 1.8 lens with a leaf shutter that runs from B, 1-500, and a solar powered meter, with an iso range of 25 to 800. It’s got a self timer (I never used mine). -- Stats taken from this overall review.

I bought mine on Ebay for around 40 bucks, all in. The cameras are definitely climbing in value (likely due to the exorbitant prices now commanded by Canonets, and other compact rangefinders, like the Minolta Hi-Matic 7), so I’d definitely encourage you to buy yours now, before they really spike in value. They might not, but given how everything film is getting kinda expensive, you’ve been warned.

So what’d I learn shooting the camera?

It’s nice to have a compact camera -- It’s the first time I’ve seriously considered picking up an actual halfway decent point and shoot based on how nice/convenient it is to have a small camera with a decent-ish lens, and be able to carry/use it as a serious camera without it being forced to have a full on camera-guy camera, etc.

40mm is a pretty ideal focal length, it’s wide (like 20% wider than a 50mm) (not really) but not so wide or broad that it ever feels “wide angle,” like 35mm lenses tend to. The Rokkor 40mm on the Minoltina al-s even has a really nice rendition (see below for examples).

Rangefinders are pretty ideal for documentation and street photography, because of the area around the actual capture area, and ability to read what’s going to be in your frame and around before it actually hits the frame -- I finally “get” the rangefinder cult that seems to pop up around those genres. I still stand by an earlier statement (here?) that I probably wouldn’t use a rangefinder setup for formal portraiture, or anything else needing a lot of setup, or where you don’t wanna deal with any possible.

Anyone saying you can take a decent exposure with 1/30 and steady hands, on a rangefinder or leaf shutter, is a liar. Or I just have super fucked up, shaky, hands. Could be both. Either way, I found most of my “reach exposures” were unusable due to motion blur/hand shake.

With a little practice, sunny 16 (and a taking quick incidental light reading every once in a while), can be as reliable or more accurate in a bunch of cases than the internal meter in a bunch of SLR’s, because of backlighting, etc. Also you start to get a better “feel” for lighting over time. That said, I have difficulty thinking you’ll ever really beat a well operated incidental meter/spot meter.

Leaf shutters are really cool. I like that they only really make a small “click” when fired. It was fun to pretend to do street photography and get right up to people without them noticing. Not really my deal, art wise, but it was interesting to see how that worked. Also, because I’m lazy and don’t have a super common flash, I didn’t get to try out the flash sync -- the camera doesn’t have a hot-shoe, so you need a separate sync cable, and apparently it’s hard to find one for my Minolta x-series flash.

Zone focus is also really interesting. The Al-s actually does have something like a lens-tab, like you’d see on a Leica, but maybe quite as obtrusive or really ergonomic -- that said, if you get a loose feel for the camera’s focus/focus range (2.6ft-infinity), and use a suitably small aperture, you can make zone focus work somewhat reliably. It’s not intended for that, and I wouldn’t go hard on a zone focus only project with it, but if you need to be inconspicuous, it can probably get you by.

Would I shoot it again?:

Maybe.

It’s not a bad camera by any means, in fact it’s a really really great camera, especially given the bang for the buck. That said, it can feel a little janky, and the rangefinder isn’t the greatest. It works, but it’s not the greatest. That being said, if you were looking for say, a Canonet or even the Minolta Hi-Matic-7, I’d heartily recommend it, over either of those cameras on price alone. The other reason -- and it’s a dumb one -- is that the camera doesn’t take straps easily, or like the loops for straps are really small, and mine didn’t come with said strap -- and here in LA coat/sweatshirt season is definitely over, so it makes it kinda difficult to carry around.

The camera also feels just a bit flimsy -- not bad by any means, and it is a solid camera (it’s all metal) but some of the parts have more give and shake than I’d like. However, that may also be a maintenance issue than anything else and the construction/joinery might be a lot more stable in a different copy of the camera.

The built in solar (photo voltaic?) meter is pretty good, probably a stop off  -- but if you’re like me and you typically rate your film at half box speed anyway, it’s sort of a non issue. I probably wouldn’t attempt to shoot slide film using that meter/metering combo though, or like, I don’t think it’s worth risking slide film on something that janky, or potentially just old/burnt out.

If I were good with my hands or had disposable income for doing really dumb stuff with, I might actually consider lopping the lens off to stick on a digital camera or slap on an m-mount. But that’s kind of a stupid/pointless endeavor. I just happen to really like the Minolta rendering, and 40mm is slowly becoming a favorite focal length.

All that considered, I still default to my Minolta XD-11/ Rokkor 50mm MC-PG combo for daily shooting, etc — partially out of familiarity, but also because it seems to work for me a bit more.

If you’ve enjoyed this content buy a zine in the shop, or come visit me at the Independent Art Book Fair in LA, on April 12-14th.

Feature #006: Greener Pastures

Feature #006: Greener Pastures

I go over the shooting process for Greener Pastures and reflect on what I learned shooting it, technically and artistically. The first Feature I shot on my Pentax 6x7, and heavily using Fujifilm, specifically Pro 160NS and 400h, alongside Provia 100f. This project was based in Silverlake in Los Angeles.

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Sharpness Doesn't Matter.

Sharpness doesn’t matter.

Or at the very least, it shouldn’t be the most important question.

Full disclosure:

I'm a functional illiterate when it comes to finite technical details in photography; but I have the basic visual faculties to see what’s in front of me. Every time I trawl any forum where lenses are discussed, evaluated and ranked, the discussion always drifts to “how sharp is it? Or which lens is sharpest?” I used to read these threads, get invested, argue, and fiend over finding the “right” equipment. With limited exception, I’ve given up caring much about sharpness. Sharpness is a dumb concern, most of the time, and rarely matters much for most photographers in practice.

The first question I always ask when talking about sharpness, resolution or negative size, is “how big are you printing or displaying?” Like my complaint in my “your cellphone is all the point and shoot you need article” I’m going to repeat it here, again, “are you really posting or presenting your work anywhere aside from Instagram, on a 6.5” at the largest?” and the answer is usually a flat “no.” So what’s the purpose of caring or getting caught up in how sharp or “correct” a lens is?

Failing the need question on the basis of print size, let’s move on to content. How often does one really consider or need a ultra-highly resolved image down to the finest details? Or how often does ultrafine detail play into your imaging? If you’re a commercial photographer, or you work a lot with finite texture, and need to render images a specific, highly controlled way, this is understandable. However, how many people do you know who work with film, or really even digital, that are working on subjects like this? There’s a handful, sure, but do you? Is that really what you care about in photography?

Some lenses are just duds. They are bad, they make inferior pictures, with little upside like amazing bokeh or some other unintended but amazing effect. Likewise, there are some magic lenses, but they’re becoming exorbitantly expensive. Outside the maybe fifty odd “vintage” lenses that are “legendary,” it doesn’t matter, provided you don’t get a dud; A 50mm, is a 50 is a 50; some have better maximum apertures, and their renditions may vary, but they all essentially take the same photo. I feel like the lenses that prove the rule for me, are modern autofocus lenses, which have no discernable character, and have profiles in Lightroom that can fix base defects in seconds, you can essentially “fix” any two cameras and lenses to look next to identical in seconds.

I do not understand the need for sharpness or why the need for scientific accuracy is so dominant, film or digital. If I might offer up alternatives to “is it sharp” -- “will this lens do what I need it to?” “does the lens’s rendering actively compliment the aesthetics and subjects I’m trying to get?” “will it fit the arcane or special/specific need I need to render my vision?” -- rather than ask the bland, superficial, and ultimately pointless question of “how sharp is this lens?” My concluding questions, are “Is sharpness important?” and “why is sharpness important to you?”

Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed this essay, or any of the content on my website, consider buying a zine in the shop.

What I Learned Shooting... #3: Minolta XD-11 -- A Tribute

I’m gonna switch topics from film to cameras and lenses here for the next couple weeks while I wrap up my 2 100ft rolls of Agfapan APX 100. (I’m at #17/36 as of posting this)

I have pretty much all the gear I could want or reasonably need. I have a full shooting set of lenses (and a few extras) in Minolta SR (the actual name of the mount, not MC/MD -- so help me god if I hear one more person call it that...), and in Pentax 6x7 for medium format.

Over the last five years I’ve shot a Minolta XD-series (XD, 11, and 7) camera with near slavish devotion. I’ll test out a new camera now and again --mainly an SRT 102 (seriously underrated), and the Minoltina Al-s (also critically underrated).

I may switch to a compact rangefinder (say a CLE with Rokkor 40/2) now that I tote a Pentax 6x7 around for most of my “serious” work, and use 35mm as a bts/quick journal camera, but I’ll never get rid of my workhorse(s). Also if I end up doing more portraiture or editorial work, and it wasn’t on Medium Format, I’d happily shoot it on my XD.

Let me put a few things out there right now:

  1. I love these cameras so much, when I had all four break on me, I nearly got their serial numbers tattooed onto my ribs (I didn’t -- a friend pointed out that that was kinda Holocaust-ey, and maybe I should avoid that -- thanks Jake.)

  2. I’ve always been a “Minolta guy,” my first camera, at age 15 was an XG-M, the repair guys at my local repair shop Walter’s Camera Repair -- http://www.walterscamerarepairs.com/ -- Call me “the minolta guy.” (not a paid endorsement, seriously, if you’re in LA and need honest repairs done at a fair price and pretty quickly, they can probably help you out.)

  3. Either by gross overfamiliarity or closemindedness, I really don’t like most of the other 35mm camera brands’ SLR’s from the pre-autofocus era. I hate the Canon AE-1, I think it’s a bad camera with a backwards meter, honestly Canon SLR’s on the whole before AF are just straight garbage. Most of the Nikons are nice but badly designed, clunky, or flat out backwards -- good lenses though. I guess Pentax is okay (for 35mm -- Medium Format is a whole different story). I don’t know shit about Olympus -- people who shoot them seem to really like them.

  4. I think most reviews of this camera kinda miss the point of it. Or at least haven’t run  give or take 400 rolls through the the thing. It’s always “Leica this, Minolta that.”

  5. My complaints on reliability are a little bullshit. I probably ran +/- 75 rolls through the damn thing this year. I don’t think most people run that much through their cameras or tend to flat out abuse or over-carry their equipment the way I tend to. I’ll probably keep stricter track next year.

After nearly a page of disclosures and complaints here we go:

Here’s why I love this camera:

  1. It feels really nice in the hand. -- It’s a relatively compact design, but all metal, and it’s weighted really evenly with the 50 1.4 MC, which is the lens I use most as of writing this. I realize this is probably a dumb thing to vaunt as it’s best feature, but it makes it much more enjoyable to use regularly.

  2. It has a quasi-mechanical vertical shutter. While it lacks a really fast sync speed -- like a Contax g2 or a leaf shutter camera -- it can do 1/100th of a second, mechanically. I can shoot any lens I regularly use with it, safely, and mechanically if I have a battery failure. Also 1/100th of a second is fast enough for *most* uses. I know HSS is a hot commodity, but 1/100th is usably fast for me. Also, for an SLR, assuming you get a good copy of the camera, it’s really quiet.

  3. It has three modes in order of usefulness, Manual, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority. It’s not easy to accidentally switch between the modes, and they’re all pretty reliable --- the camera actually has a hidden program mode which double-checks your exposure and fixes it -- steplessly.

  4. The meter is good down to EV 1 -- Which basically has you covered in most situations you’ll ever run into, unless you’re a hardcore night photographer, or shoot mostly backlit.

  5. Kind of a no-brainer, which is why it’s #5 on my list, but Rokkor lenses.

Complaints:

  1. It’s a hard camera to fix. My normal shop can do a bunch of fixes on it, but they can’t fix everything -- apparently the circuit board is kinda janky, or not an easy one to fix because of how early-primitive it is in its technology.

  2. It’s not nearly as reliable as a standard mechanical camera. I put way too many rolls through my camera, but I still probably have to send it out once a year for maintenance.

  3. People have started to get in on the camera, and the price of them keeps climbing. Also the number of Black Minolta XD’s keeps shrinking. And if you’ve seen the black finish, you know how great it is. The silver is fine, but the black finish is just better.

What’ve I learned shooting it?

A lot.

I’ve had one (of four) basically since I showed up in Los Angeles five years ago.

Basically, with the XD-11, I’ve used it to shoot everything: friends, the city, my drive across America, my first fashion editorial --- which I’m pretty sure never got released --- and every project I’ve done in 35mm. If you look at my instagram or any 35mm feature or story on here, it was most likely shot on the XD11.

It also showed me what I like and dislike in a camera, and it’s now what I bench my expectations around.

Anyway -- Thanks for reading! If you’ve enjoyed this -- please consider buying a zine in the shop. It helps me keep the lights on here.

Feature #3: Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve (Color)

For my third feature here, I’m giving a permanent (bigger) home to my color film (C-41 and cross-processed slide film) photos of the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, and running a sale on the BNW zine until Monday (11/5) at noon.

Get your copy @ Frozenwaste.land/shop .

Additionally, I thought I’d do a quick writeup on what and why I chose to do the zine, and why I decided to do it as a series of black and white photos rather than color.

The Writeup:

When I first got to the Poppy Reserve, I actually had Slide Film loaded into my camera. I had assumed (incorrectly) that the poppies would cover everything, and be in full bloom (they didn’t, and were, on a nearby hill outside the reserve.) However, once I stopped and looked at the hills, there was something utterly fascinating about the way the hills rolled and bent, how the paths around the preserve cut through the desert grass, and the manner in which the mid-morning light gave the whole place a dull but certain sheen.

All of this, in my mind, would show better and more clearly in black and white. So, as soon as I finished my roll of Rollei CR-200, I popped the first of six rolls of Fomapan Creative 200 120 film into my Pentax 6x7. Fomapan 200 (or Arista Edu Ultra 200) is a T-Grain film, and typically exposes best around 160 iso, and while my go-to developer is or was usually Kodak Xtol, I decided to expose around 100 to 125, just to capture the luminance of the desert landscape. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you which lens I used for what after the fact, but I do know I likely used the 105 and 55 (58mm and 24-28mm equivalents respectively).

Ultimately, despite producing a limited pool of photos, I thought that the geometry and tonality I captured was worth sharing with the public in a real way. By creating a short zine (rather than a 50 page megazine), it allowed me to get familiar with designing and laying out a photobook or printed project of my own, and actually commit to printing and selling it for a relatively small amount of overhead, when compared to some of the larger projects that I had priced out previously.