May 12, 2017
Written by: Dan Murano

When did I learn to love looking at photos? Probably, when I started making them. A more interesting question might be, when did I start seeing them?

Before computers took over my time in the 1990's, I read every photo magazine that came into my hands. Some of them taught me to make better photos, while others left me lusting for gear and gadgets and salivating over camera ads that promised to ratchet my skills beyond the nth level of greatness.

I miss the look and feel of those old cameras. I miss their ruggedness, their mechanical dials, the whirring springs, light meter needles, flapping mirrors, and hinged backs I would swing open to load up with whatever choice of film my budget made affordable. Whether it was color or black and white, negative or slide, high speed or low speed - each choice was deliberate, and so were the frames I exposed.

Four or five rolls of film were sometimes all I had to last me a month, so I exercised care over how many frames I exposed at one time. That mindset persisted well into the days when I stashed bricks of film in the freezer. I learned to enjoy the slow and meditative process of previsualization and evaluating how focal length, film type, processing and printing might change what I saw in front of my lens.

Digital cameras remove the consideration of film type, and huge memory cards and rapid-fire shutters wreak havoc with my meditative process. Too often, it's 20 frames in a a minute, followed by chimping over the screen to see if the exposure is right. I miss the mystery of waiting to look and the magic of chemical science, and have yet to master the discipline of checking only the histogram and ignoring a preview that never seems to capture the magic I see through the lens. Each method has its advantages.

When I use film (and I still do), I usually set it aside for processing later, so "chimping" happens months, if not years after pressing the shutter release. My record processing gap was 23 years for a roll of Kodachrome that I developed as black and white after commercial processing was no longer available. It was magic pulling those tack-sharp negatives out of the film tank.

I love how photography brings my life back to me.

Have fun and be a better photographer

When people ask me how to improve their photography, the best advice I can offer is: Study your photos.

Study your photos before you press the shutter release, and study them when you see them on screen. Even better, make prints and tack them up where you can look at them every day. You may be surprised to see something different each time you look. Ask yourself what makes one image stronger than one pinned beside it. What weakens the image? What is the subject? Were you close enough, or too far away? Are you sick of seeing it after a week?

May 04, 2017
Written by: Dan Murano

Even though scanning prints on a flatbed scanner is fast and easy, a little extra attention to detail can save a lot of post-processing work. One of the most important things is to make sure that the scanner glass stays streak free and clean for every print.

My old Epson 4990 flatbed produces high quality scans, but it often sits idle for months, during which time a haze builds up on the underside of the glass from the outgassing of the internal plastics. I don't want this haze in my scans, so before each session, I carefully lift up the top assembly and clean the underside of the glass with streak-free glass cleaner and a microfiber cloth. I do this so often that I don't even bother putting back the screws to secure the lid to the base.

On the top of the glass, even a gloved hand can leave a nasty smudge, so I wipe that clean before laying down every print.

This process works great for images up to about 9x12 inches, but for larger prints, I use a camera and copy stand.

Leveling the camera. The old stand that I have here is sitting on top of a rolling file cabinet. The pole and camera mount assembly can be taken off for storage. Items that can be easily broken down are important when you work in a small space.Leveling the camera. This old copy stand is sitting on top of a rolling file cabinet. The pole and camera mount can be removed for easy storage. Gear that can be easily disassembled is helpful in a small space.

 

My copy camera stand doesn't have lights, so I use swivel-arm lamps at a 45-degree angle on either side of it. I keep the lights far enough away to allow for a 1/15 - 1/30 second exposure to avoid any horizontal banding from the LED lights that I use. (I first noticed this banding with my Iphone.)  I set the camera on manual and measure the light with an incident meter.

I use a 55mm f/3.5 Nikon macro lens on my D610, stopped down to f/8 or f/11. The 55mm has a recessed front element which reduces flare from the lights, and the focal length allows me to fill the frame without raising the camera too high. Black paper extends the lamp hoods and reduces the amount of light bouncing back from the ceiling and walls. I wear dark colored clothing and use a cable release to keep any reflections from my hand or clothing away from the print.

A level verifies that the camera and baseboard are parallel. I set the camera for ISO 100, meter the light and set the white balance with a white card. The images are sorted to minimize column height adjustments while I work through the stack. I use back-button focusing on every image and change the lens opening according to the brightness of the images. I quickly check each image's histogram to make sure there is no clipping of the highlights or shadows. The camera outputs both NEF and JPEG files.

A metal base can be useful for holding down wide-bordered prints with small magnets. Low-tack tape is also an option. RC prints will usually lay flat on their own. A self healing mat with a grid also makes a good base, and the grid can help verify camera alignment through the viewfinder. Placing a sheet of glass over the image is an option, but there is always a chance that Newton's rings will ruin your copy work.

I used a computer side panel under the print to both raise the image a bit and to allow the magnets to hold down the print edges. Keeping dust off the print is important. I used my computer's side panel to raise the image and to allow magnets to hold down the edges of the print. A microfiber duster removes dust from the print.

 

A cable release will keep you from shaking the camera and will also keep reflections from your hand away from the image.A cable release helps avoid camera shake and will also keep the reflection of your hand away from the image.

 

Dec 05, 2013
Written by: Dan Murano

When Nikon stopped production on their Coolscan 9000, I thought we'd never see another dedicated medium format scanner. I could have kicked myself for not buying one, but at the time, I wasn't ready to shell out $2,000. Now, several years after production ended, the same scanner, used, is selling on auction sites for well over $3,000! I understand it's a great scanner, but no way.

So I was excited to find out that Plustek came out with its own medium format scanner, the OpticFilm 120, for the same selling price as the original Coolscan 9000 when it was available retail. Initially, I held off purchasing one, wanting first to read every review I could find. There were some early production problems, during which time Plustek actually stopped production for many months. Rather than put me off, I was impressed that a company cared enough about its customers and product to do this, so I waited it out until production resumed. The Opticfilm 120 begain showing up again in late September of this year. I waited a little longer and heard good feedback from people who bought these newer releases. Then, once I heard that Vuescan was supporting this scanner, I ordered one and was not disappointed.

The scanner ships with Silverfast Ai Studio 8 and a slew of well designed, sturdy film holders.

The image above is one of my first scans, made from an Ilford Delta Pro 400, 6x6 negative. I will post more as I continue mining my archive.

Here is another one, this one in RGB mode with a slight tone, same film info, also made with the Bronica and scanned using the OpticFilm 120:

Daisies
Flowers. 120 film scanned with the Opticfilm 120

This next one is a color slide converted to a sepia tone. This was scanned with one of the first versions of Vuescan to support the OpticFilm 120. The IR dust and scratch removal set at medium had little effect. This issue may have been addressed by now, but I have not yet updated the software. Note that Vuescan is frequetly updated and tweaked. One of the great time-saving features of using Vuescan is that you do not have to preview the entire holder to scan one image - you just set the frame number in the software and then get a quick preview of just that frame. Another great feature (there are many) is that you can use one instance of Vuescan for every one of your scanners, whereas Silverfast is tied to an individual make and model. You can even save your scans as raw files along with the IR channel, so you can return to process and tweak your images later before outputting the final tiff or jpeg files.

Cape Cod sand dunes
Provincetown dunes

And this next one is an Ektachrome slide scanned with the Silverfast application that ships with the scanner:

Ektachrome slide scanned using Silverfast on the OpticFilm 120
Ektachrome slide scanned using Silverfast on the OpticFilm 120

 

Jun 08, 2014
Written by: Dan Murano

My photographic process is slow. Sometimes I use digital cameras, but I mostly use film. Best practices dictate that film should be processed as soon as possible after being exposed, but I rarely can do that. Sometimes it takes me several years to catch up, and then more time to edit, scan or print the photos I like.

A few years ago, I got excited about making digital contact sheets on my Epson 4990 flatbed, but I got tired of the tedium involved to then pick out and make low-res prints of the best frames. Plus, the results were nowhere near as good as what I could get from a Nikon Coolscan, so I went back to lightbox editing and carefully choosing which frames I would scan.

I've heard photographers derided as "artistes" for printing their photos with black borders, but when I have full-frame images, I like to see them that way. If an image needs cropping, I'll crop, but most often, I won't. I have an old filed out negative carrier for the Coolscan that allows me to do this. This tree image is full frame because I composed it that way and would not want to crop even a sliver away from it.

I use many black and white films: Kodak T-MAX, Tri-X, Kodak chromegenic, Ilford HP5, HP4, XP2, Fuji Acros. Acros and T-MAX 100 are my favorites. I love the smooth tonal range and fine grain of these films. This image is on T-MAX 100 processed in D-76 1:1. I used an OM2n camera to make it, though I don't remember what lens. Some photographers keep detailed notes on lenses, lens stops, focal lengths, exposure times, etc. I don't. Life passes by the camera too quickly for that.

Majestic trees, sepia
Majestic trees in sepia

Sepia

Here is the same image in sepia. I like the warmpth and the extra depth that sepia gives to the shadows.

For this image, there is no right or wrong. One person might prefer the graphic look of a straight black and white rendition, while another might be drawn to sepia's warm tones. One might look better in print, while the other might look better on screen.

It's all about interpretation and personal taste.

Bar Harbor trees, color version
Bar Harbor trees, color version
Bar Harbor trees, sepia version
The same image in sepia

Color or black and white?

I did crop this image of trees in Bar Harbor, Maine, because it had too much bald sky and too little foreground. Full frame, it was OK, but nothing exciting.

The image was made on slide film at a high altitude, so it has an overall bluish cast. The weak shades of green were particularly uninviting to me. I've worked with this image many times since I first made it, almost 40 years ago. It never quite worked for me until I tried it in sepia.

Repeated reexamination and experiementation with your images will train and strengthen your photographer's eye. Putting something away for a while - even for years - allows you to return to it with a fresh frame of mind. Best practice is to process your film as soon as possible after exposure, but I've had film sit around for months and even years before I could process it. It never stopped me from getting the image I wanted.

Potomac Overlook Park tree
There are many ways to see a tree

Photograph a tree

A great photographer I once worked with said, "If you want to be a photographer, take a picture of a tree." It's still excellent advice. At the very least, you'll learn to appreciate them.

Mushrooms
Don't forget to look down when you're walking about.

Look down

While you're looking at trees, don't forget to look at the ground.

Horse in a barn near Quincy, Illinois
Horse in a barn near Quincy, Illinois

Say hello to a horse

Everyone likes some attention.

Hostas
Hostas

Find balance

Balance is everywhere. Take time to and notice it.

Pier, Provincetown
Find balance in criss-crossing lines.

Look for patterns

Pay attention to shadows and work with them. Patterns create drama in this black and white photo.

Oct 15, 2012
Written by: Dan Murano

The last Kodachrome processing lab closed a long time ago. I had an exposed roll that had been sitting around since 1986, first in a drawer, then in the fridge and finally, years later, it ended up in the freezer -  just a 35mm film cannister wrapped in aluminum foil. I remembered what was on it, but expected the latent image was long gone. It wasn't!

Back in the early eighties, I had to scrimp and save for every roll of film that I bought. One day I was shopping in Woolworth's and saw a batch of outdated ASA 25 Kodachrome II for about fifty cents a roll, and I bought the whole batch.

It was expensive to process though, and I held back on sending out this last roll.  About 23 years later when I was getting back into darkroom work, I remembered this film and even some of the images that were on it. With a freshly mixed batch of Diafine black and white film developer and some free time, I set off to experiment.

I read posts from other photographers who had successfully retrieved images from Kodachrome with black and white chemicals, so I figured I had a good chance of getting something out of it. I would have been happy to see even a trace of what I had photographed.

Diafine is a two-part, compensating film developer with a very long shelf life. Processing temperature is not critical, nor is processing time beyond a minimum three or four minutes in each of the solutions. I processed for four minutes in each bath, A and B.

I was amazed when I unspooled the film and discovered an image. Kodachrome has a black rem-jet carbon backing that has to be removed to make the film transparent. I did this by laying the wet film down in the sink and carefully sponging the backing away. I missed a few bits here and there, though, and these show up as white specks on the final image. The film also had an overall yelllow stain, which fortunately, caused no trouble my Nikon Coolscan.

This was on the grounds of the Supreme Court in Washington.
This was on the grounds of the Supreme Court in Washington. Diafine film developer (see the article below) allowed processing Kodachrome as B&W, heightening the film's inherent sharpness, adding texture and shortening the tones, all of which work perfectly with these images of stone.
Another statue in the same area.
Another statue in the same area. Don't know why I photographed this so far off center.
I was studying Greek history at the time and was fascinated by the the columns and flourishes. This is the Supreme Court.
I was studying Greek history at the time and was fascinated by the the columns and flourishes. This is the Supreme Court.
More columns on the Supreme Court building. The sky also shows some developer agitation streaking or mottle.
More columns on the Supreme Court building. The sky also shows some developer agitation streaking or mottle.
This is the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. The sharp contrast and shortened tones emphasize the building's geometry.
This is the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. The sharp contrast and shortened tones emphasize the building's geometry.
This giant urn is outisde the Supreme Court. A bit of soot adds to the dimension.
This giant urn is outisde the Supreme Court. A bit of soot adds to the dimension.
I was fortunate to photograph these sculptures before they were cleaned. I don't believe the stonework is now as gritty and dark as it was when this image was made in 1986.
I was fortunate to photograph these sculptures before they were cleaned. I don't believe the stonework is now as gritty and dark as it was when this image was made in 1986.
This is one of the sculptures in the Court of Neptune fountain in front of the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress.
This is one of the sculptures in the Court of Neptune fountain in front of the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress.
Here is another powerful sculputre in the Court of Neptune fountain.
Here is another powerful sculputre in the Court of Neptune fountain.
A turtle sprayer are in the Court of Neptune fountain.
A turtle sprayer in the Court of Neptune fountain.

The biggest treat in doing this was discovering the photos I had made of my niece, Sharon, with her then new baby. Even though the copy of it here was flatbed scanned through the plastic negative sleeve, it looks nearly as good as all of the other frames scanned with the Nikon.

This was a special treat at the end of the roll of Kodachrome, a photo of my niece, Sharon, with her then new baby boy, Michael. Before I processed the film, I remembered that it had images of statuary, but I had forgotten about these last few exposures.
This was a special treat at the end of the roll of Kodachrome, a photo of my niece, Sharon, with her then new baby boy, Michael. Before I processed the film, I remembered that it had images of statuary, but I had forgotten about these last few exposures.