The Myth of the Superfast Lens

Sigma sd Quattro, ISO 100, f 2.8 Handheld

I’ve been engaged in an ongoing documentary project, photographing the grounds and buildings of the Dorothea Dix State Mental Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. (The photos that illustrate this piece are of the hospital director’s residence, now abandoned). The Dix campus is a stunningly beautiful piece of property that sits on the edge of downtown Raleigh. The city has been eyeing it for years, hoping to raze the hospital and buildings and convert the grounds to a public park. With the push to de-institutionalize mental health sufferers, the hospital and its numerous support buildings currently sit empty, falling into disrepair while waiting to be bulldozed and replaced with luxury hotels and manicured lawns.

I often walk my dog on the property, and when I do, I’ll usually make a point of taking a camera along with me, if for no other reason than it makes me look – really look – at what’s around me, and it affords the opportunity of recording it for posterity. One thing I’ve learned in 50 years of photographing things is that the things you most take for granted – the things you expect to always be there – are the things that ultimately aren’t. Time has a peculiar way of transforming the most ‘permanent’ of things.

I think, for example, of the year I spent in lower Manhattan in 1978, walking almost daily through the World Trade Center Plaza on my way to school on Broadway just north of the Twin Towers. I usually carried a camera – I was on my way to and from Art School studying photography – and yet I never bothered to photograph what was right in front of me because it all seemed so obvious, so blindingly ‘there’. In all my negatives from that time I find one photo – one – of the WTC towers, a basic tourist snap of the buildings themselves. In hindsight, I’d been given an incredible gift – and I’d squandered it. This, of course, is how we learn, if we learn at all. Often the most effective pedagogy is regret at missed opportunities.

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Sigma sd Quattro, ISO 100, f 2.8 Handheld 1/30th Second

As I’d expected to remain outside in the late-afternoon sun, I’d taken my Sigma sd Quattro with 17-50 2.8. Not exactly the camera I’d have taken were I expecting to be photographing inside, given the Sigma’s reputation for lack of usability at higher ISOs ( I most profitably use it at 100 ISO), but I’d tried a back door to the residence, found it open, and knew I’d probably not have  the opportunity again, so in I went (missed opportunities and all that). All of the photos used to illustrate this piece were shot handheld at 100 ISO…with an f 1:2.8 lens. Indoors obviously. The point being, it can be done. Those of us raised shooting film became quite adept at it. We had to. Either that or we lugged a tripod around with us, which wasn’t always an option.

Which is all preface to a larger issue – the digital age’s fetish for large aperture lenses. Like most fetishes, it can’t be justified rationally. It makes no sense. In the digital age, when hyper ISO is a reality (10,000 ISO being common), there simply is no need for them. None, other than to pimp the one-trick pony that is ‘bokeh,’ which, to my eyes, is the single worst visual affectation brought about by digital capture. Suffice it to say that, as a general rule, the more you rely on bokeh to make your photographs interesting, the shittier the photographer you are. Full stop.

Back in the film era, high-speed lenses served a purpose. Most usable film stocks maxed out at 400 ASA. Tri-X and HP-5 – 400 ASA box speed films – were considered ‘fast’ films preferable for low-light handheld work. 10,000 ISO was a thing of science fiction, akin to flying cars. We learned to work within the parameters of the limitations of the technology. We became ‘photographers.’

The Noctilux: A $12000 Photographic Affectation.  If You’re Rockin One of These in the Digital Age, Freud Would Say You’re Probably Insecure About the Size of Your Penis

It was these constraints that led to the production of high-speed lenses. It wasn’t for the bokeh. They were made and used for a reason – to maximize one’s ability to shoot in low light. Doing so was usually a two-fold strategy. Push your Tri-X or HP5 to 1600 ASA, and use the fastest lens – usually an f 1:1.4. If you had unlimited funds, you’d take advantage of the speed gain of the Noctilux or the Nikkor 50 1:1.2, but you usually did so only as a last measure, given the optical compromises inherent in large aperture lenses. Best bet was to learn to shoot handheld, which, with some practice, was easily doable down to 1/15th/sec with a 50mm lens and even lower with a 28mm.

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Given the above, I find it a delicious irony that high-speed optics are now all the rage. Were you to believe what you read on the enthusiast websites, any optic f2 or above is inferior. Serious photographers rock big aperture lenses. The irony, of course, is that we no longer need them. Lower light? Just jack up the ISO. Understanding this, and fighting the ‘common knowledge’ that says you need a Noctilux allows you the use of generally better optics, optics that just happen to be much less expensive because they’re so much cheaper to produce. You can buy the VC 35mm 1:2.5, a super sharp, contrasty modern lens if there ever was one, for $300; or you can buy the optically inferior VC 35mm 1:1.2 for 4 times the price. Your choice. Using an M10, it won’t make any difference in terms of low light ability. None. What the 2.5 will give you is sharper photos, all at 1/4th the price. Hell, it even has decent bokeh.

Leica and Lenny: A Match Made in __________?

Lenny Kravitz, Correspondent, Stalking Urban Prey with His Drifter Leica and Poofy Cap

Leica is now offering a “Lenny Kravitz designed” Leica M Monochrom camera, a Leica Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH, and a Leica APO-Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH. Buy now and Leica will throw in, at no extra cost to you, matching accessories, including a vegan python carrying strap, matching brown vegan leather carry cases for each lens, versatile pouches, and a brown “Drifter Traveler” weekender bag. No word on how Leica was able to identify and cull “vegan” pythons from regular ones.

Mr. Kravitz’s input seems to have been the idea to paint the camera brown and cover it in snakeskin, which everyone over in Wetzlar considers a brilliant idea, as it apparently conjures up people who are free spirits.   “The striking special edition set celebrates Kravitz’s dedication to visual storytelling and pays homage to his inspired, nomadic lifestyle,” Leica says. “A self-proclaimed drifter himself, the attractive set was designed with Kravitz’s vision of being a free spirit, always on the road and open to adventure – ingredients that ignite visual storytelling.”

The Laconic “Guy Wearing Heels Doing Funky Gymnastics Inside Unidentified Commercial Establishment” by Lenny Kravitz, currently on exhibition at Leica, Wetzlar

The Leica Gallery in Wetzlar, Germany is hanging an exhibition of Kravitz’s photography in conjunction with the Drifter release.“ The photo series, inspired by Kravitz’s nomadic lifestyle, will feature intimate portraits, laconic snapshots, carefully observed scenes from the street and well-composed moments in hotel rooms, all captured during his time on the road,” Leica says.

Can You Teach Creativity? Part One

 

Why do people go to Art School? (I wish I’d have asked myself when I was young; it might have saved me a lot of time, money and diverted energy). More specifically, why do people enroll in undergraduate programs in “Photography” or pursue an MFA in the same? Or, more commonly, why do we take ‘Seminars,’ either from recognized ‘experts’ or worse yet, from more rebarbative ilk, the boorish, flim-flammers peddling their nonsense to photographers who happen to use certain equipment? Why do a certain subset of us – ‘street photographers’ –  feel the need to pay good money to follow a self-appointed expert around for a day? What could we possibly learn? What could an ‘expert’ possibly ‘teach?’

I once asked this question to a semi-famous photographer who occasionally gives “street photography” classes through The Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University. Nice enough guy, but he evaded the question by mumbling some platitude while his eyes shifted nervously. Gotcha, I thought at the time, my bet being, deep down, he knew he had nothing to teach other than slavish imitation. My wife took the course. She enjoyed it. Did she become a better photographer? Probably not in any significant way she couldn’t have learned on her own with some minimal attention.

I’ve asked myself this for years, given I went to ‘Art School’ back in the day.  Was I someone who sincerely desired to express himself creatively…or was I just another sheep looking for the simple answer and thus easily led to believe in the expertise of others? If the whole endeavor was legit, what was I expecting to learn? Technique? Visual skills? Camera skills? Interpersonal skills? Street smarts? I’m stumped.  I’m willing to entertain that such pedagogical opportunities might have been of some value to me as a wannabe creator; I just don’t remember my motivations or expectations. Maybe readers who’ve attended these things – or “Art School” no less – might chime in.

So, as I usually do when I’m confused about something – good classicist I am – I go back to the Greeks for edification, ( which is a good general rule for life). Can we be taught “creativity?”

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The Dance of the Muses on Helicon.

The Dance of the Muses 

The Ancients certainly didn’t think so. The Greeks generally understood creativity to be the product of what Plato called mania, inspiration, or Aristotle called ecstaticos, genius. You either had it or you didn’t, and it came and went on its own schedule, irrespective of how hard you tried to conjure it. Paradoxically, the greater the effort to conjure, the less likely it would appear. This is because the Greeks considered such mania to be of divine origin, the gift of your “muse.”  You can’t force the hand of a god, and to attempt to do so is hubris.

 Specifically, the Greeks understood the Muses as the source of orally related knowledge of poetic lyrics and myths and were considered to be the personification of knowledge and of the arts, especially dance, literature, and music. The Muses were mythological beings who breathed inspiration and creative knowledge into mortals. The Muses lived on Mount Olympus, where they entertained the Olympian gods when they weren’t inspiring mortals. That’s the Olympians above, getting down and dirty to the ancient Greek equivalent of a Muse garage band.

The Muses did not teach at university nor did they offer weekend creative retreats or paid seminars. That’s because inspiration, the pre-condition of all creativity, couldn’t be taught.  The best mere mortals could do was to encourage the muse-inspired student and teach him to properly channel his mania when it appeared. This Greek idea of inspiration held the day in western culture through the 19th-Century, when Romantics (think of Goethe, Wordsworth, Emerson, etc) updated the idea of creativity and its sources…and ended up in the same place as the Ancients. They stressed the fundamental non-reductive individuality at the heart of all creativity and believed no group instruction could teach it.

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Helpful Hint #1: People Lying in the Street Make Great Art. Especially if They’re in Paris

My experience in 50 years of attempting creative endeavors is that the Greeks were right (they’re pretty much right about everything, actually). You can’t teach creativity; at best you can teach slavish impersonation of another’s style, which, obviously, is something distinct from creativity. What you can do is encourage inspiration. A teacher can pass along the enthusiasm necessary to be creative. The muses need to do the rest.

The Bauhaus, a 20th-Century German Modernist art and design movement, also believed that creativity couldn’t be taught. The Bauhaus promoted the radical simplification of forms, rationality and functionality. What’s interesting about Bauhaus theory is that they did believe craft was a fundamental pre-condition to any creative attempt. You couldn’t be creative if you weren’t competent to employ your tools in the cause of your creativity. As such, art instruction is legitimate for teaching the basic rules, techniques, and procedures of your chosen craft. Art teachers are really technicians. But that’s as far as they can go.

In this, the Greeks were in agreement. Classic Greek thought made a distinction between subjects that could be taught and those that could not. As noted, creativity, for the Greeks, fell into the later category.  Creativity was emperia, something which you didn’t gain via being taught by someone else, but rather something you “absorbed” via the grace of the gods. It was a gift that came and went on its own terms. In intellectual terms,  mania was not susceptible of theory, which was a prerequisite of all knowledge that could be taught. According to the Greeks, whatever could be taught had 1) a body of information, 2) a set of methods to apply to that information, and 3) a theory of how to apply the method to the info. Such subjects were called techne – crafts or sciences subject to rules – what we moderns call ‘techniques.’

You can teach technique.  And, in fact, the Greeks believed that you must learn technique to avail yourself of what the Muse offered. No technique, no creative receptivity. Can’t have one without the other. So….

To be Continued. Part Two – the Relationship of ‘Technique’ to ‘Creativity’ Or…. Will Using a Leica Make You a Better Photographer?

The 35mm Film Look

Fomapan 400 @ 800 ISO

I’m currently experiencing the nostalgic embrace of 35mm film. I’ve just bought a Nikon F100 for next to nothing (it’s crazy how cheap superb film cameras not named Leica are these days). My F5 has been dusted off ( that damn thing is a brick!) and my M5 is once more following me around the house.

I’m also embarked upon the Sisyphean task of developing over 300 rolls of film  – 100 or so Tri-X, 100 or so HP5, 50ish Kodak XX, 50ish Fomapan 400, all shot at 800 ISO and developed in Diafine. Just finished scanning my first 8 roll batch, some HP5 and some Tri-X mixed together (that’s the beauty of Diafine; everything gets developed the same irrespective of ISO, and you don’t have to stress about developer temp either).

These are a couple of keepers from those rolls, bulk scanned via a Pakon 135 scanner, minor exposure and tone adjustments in LR/SEP. They look like film in a way a digital file can’t be made to look. They lack the crispness of digital files but more than make up for the lack with a certain holistic ‘warmth’.

Or maybe not. Who knows. I just know I love film. Maybe you don’t. That’s OK…maybe.

Leica M5, 35 VC 2.5, HP5 @800

Nikon S2, 35 VC 2.5, Tri-X @ 800

The Photographer as the Creator of Infinite New Realities – How Cool is That?

 

Post-Modernist Thinker of Big Thoughts, Gilles Deleuze, Paris

French philosopher Michel Foucault says that photographs form spaces called heterotopia, a concept he uses to describe places and spaces that function as something new, a unique space which is neither here nor there, simultaneously both physical and mental, spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meet the eye. According to Foucault, photos do not “capture images: they do not fix them, they pass them on” and we are then left with utterly different spaces: images that are also “events” and “passages” and that are “absolutely unique;” photos construct “events’ that make possible the exploration of an “infinite series of new passages.”

Put in non-philosophical jargon, what Foucault is saying is that photographs always contain more than the merely visible; there are the inevitable associations to places and spaces via the imagination of the viewer and the thoughts, memories and life experiences they bring to their encounter with a photograph, which may change from time to time, from look to look, from viewing to viewing.  For Foucault, past, present and future space are necessarily conflated in the conceptual act required of recreating the visual reality of the photo, and in so doing, we create a heterotopia, a new space enclosing, while simultaneously opening up to, a new world.

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Me, Territorializing Myself via the “Double Movement” of an Assemblage, circa 1974….or, as we call it in America, A Bathroom Mirror Selfie

What is the means by which photography forms this new reality?

The photograph is a site of what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls “territorialization” – both de-territorialization and re-territorialization – post-modernist jargon for the claim that a photo both simultaneously gains and looses meaning, depending on who is looking at it, in what cultural era they’re doing so and with what distinct viewpoint.The act of viewing photos is always, at base, a conceptual process that is both productive and destructive, a “double movement” where the photo both accumulates meanings (re-territorialization) and is divested of meanings (de-territorialization).

Photographs are what Deleuze calls  “assemblages,” configurations of linked conceptual components in intersection with each other.  “An assemblage is the result of this process, and can be thought of as constituted by an intensification of these processes around a particular [photo] through a multiplicity of intersections of such territorializations.”  In other words, when looking at a photograph taken by Robert Frank, say, in 1958, its current meaning and interpretation may be completely different to the reading of the same photograph in the era it was taken, given the current cultural and social realities and the distinct concerns of the viewer necessarily embedded in those social and cultural realities. It’s the same photo but different assemblages.

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For Foucault and Deleuze, photographs are creations of the highest order, unique heterotopias redolent of infinite meanings lost and found. Your crummy photographs aren’t simple banal, uninspired documents of fence-posts, cats and/or your adorable kids, they’re the portal to a unique new conceptual reality – “assemblages,” formed from the intersection of your inner mental, physical, psychological, visual and spiritual dimensions at an historical moment in time with all its subjective components. Silly you, you probably had no idea. This is why we need Post-Modernist philosophers, to teach us this.

In all seriousness, we’ve become so incredibly habituated to photographs, we’ve lost sight of their remarkable nature, that maybe that’s a good enough reason to wade through the turgid jargon of thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze to get at the pearl of wisdom hidden therein, to be reminded of the miracle contained in the simple snap of the shutter. Be thankful I’m doing it for you.

It seemingly means nothing to us that we have the miraculous capability of freezing a moment otherwise destined to vanish in time…and thereby creating something new, unique. That’s a remarkably profound gift photography gives us, more so when we understand it in the way articulated by Foucault and DeLeuze – as the creation of an utterly new reality nestled inside a larger reality we share with others. The fact that we’re capable of doing so, with the simple machinery of a light-tight box, should inspire awe in you. Never forget how amazing photography really is.

Surplus to Requirements

Sigma SD Quattro w/ Sigma DC 17-50mm f2.8 EX HSM Lens w/ box, charger; pretty much new. I bought both body and lens new, maybe 500 shutter actuations since then. I refer to this Foveon camera as “digital Panatomic-X.”  Shot at 100 ISO the 29.5/59 mpix files are stunning, easily the equal of 6×9 medium format. The Foveon files make for beautiful B&W conversions. Shots DNG RAW files, which makes for easy RAW conversion. Just don’t shoot above 400 ISO. $675 shipped

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On a related note: A year or so ago I sold my Hexar RF to a reader; can’t remember who. That person hopefully wants to sell it back to me. If so, they should contact me at leicaphilia@gmail.com

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Ricoh GXR w Leica M Module (12 mpix) and Ricoh EVF (Electronic Viewfinder). Like New $575 shipped.  The M Module features a 12.3 MP APS-C CMOS sensor with no low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter and a micro-lens layout tailored specifically to optimize the short flange distance Leica M lenses. The lack of a low-pass filter means sharp images, as one would expect, better, in my mind, than the 18 mpix M9.

What I especially love is the ability to use various adaptor mounts that allow you to mount old Nikkor MF non-AI, E-Series, AI and AIs lenses on the M Module. Given it’s live view, you don’t need rangefinder coupled adaptors, which means you can put anything on it via the correct adaptor (eg. Nikkor to M, Pentax to M, Leica R to M etc etc. Plus, Steve Huff, who communes with dead people, likes it, so there’s that too.

My absolute go-to camera for street photography – these are incredible bargains for a digital body for your Leica optics. (Most everything “street” I post is shot with this camera).

I’ve got three of these I like them so much. Seems a little excessive, so I’m selling one. These are getting harder and harder to find in new condition, so don’t be a dummy – buy it. You know you want it.

 

Odd Ends

Ever since the beginning of man we have wondered about what happens when our body dies. Do we move on? Is there a Heaven? A hell? Will I be able to have my Leica serviced there?

If you’ve ever wondered, Steve Huff (yes, that guy), has the answers. Apparently, when not rapturously expounding upon the “classic rendering” of Voigtlander’s latest ASPH M mount lens, Mr. Huff produces and sells home-made “Portal” devices that allow you to speak directly to dead people.  (I am not making this up).  Rumor has it that Thorsten “von” Overgaard has bought one to correspond with Louis XIV.

According to Huff’s “paranormal” website:

Each 2019 Classic Portal device is assembled, painted and tested by me, Steve Huff. The 2019 Classic Portal will feature the main amp, a custom extended grill, copper wire grill “cover” as seen above, LED lights in RED or YELLOW or BLUE (your choice), a dual mode reverb that is dialed in and has a frequency that spirit loves in one mode and a second mode with an echo delay that repeats what was said. It also will feature basic noise reduction (to eliminate static from radio boxes), Voice Control AND Direct Line Reverse mode. Voice control is sort of a pitch shift but seems to help with response, as it does alter the sound frequencies. I have tested over 14 pitch shift settings and found the one that works best for me. Direct line reverse mode is a custom pedal loaded with my reverse algorithm. Turn this on with the reverb and all audio going into the Portal will be reversed. So it should sound like nonsense. If you get forward speech then it is unexplained but spirits manipulate audio to speak, and this mode proves it.

I will also include an 6-8 hour rechargeable battery that is attached, making this the most portable portal ever. Each Portal Classic 2019 will also be painted in a custom paint scheme with auto quality clear coat applied for a deep shine and a more sturdy finish.This one will not come with any fancy crystals, gold wire, magnetic energy or orgonite. It will not have gold plated cables or the audio analyzer that is seen in some of my other devices and it will have a smaller capacity battery.

What it will have is a much lower cost while still being very effective for contacting the other side. The price to pre order a 2019 Portal Classic will be $1499.00 SHIPPED within the USA. These will ship in a 14X14X14 box, in a cocoon of bubble wrap.

Apparently, he’s not making them out of orgonite anymore, to keep prices down. These new, improved portal machines are only $1499/shipped, so you too can be conversing with dead people. Act now before they’re gone. [Editor’s Note: We have written Mr. Huff asking him to send a Portal to us for review. We’ll keep you updated.]

I have one question: Is Steve Huff completely batshit crazy, or is this some sort of sick joke?

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Famous Leica Photographer Terry Richardson Endorses This Post

On a lighter note, Leicaphilia just received the following email from “Angel M”:

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The Look of (B&W) Film

Wally Enjoying some Quality Time with the Wife – From a Fuji S5 Raw File

While I generally dislike almost everything about digital photography, one of the few things I’ve grown to love about it, as a matter of practical adaptation, is its versatility. (My dad would refer to this as “making chicken salad from chicken shit.”) You can start with a RAW file and create any variant of end result you prefer – color, B&W, sepia etc.

An old B&W film guy, I tend to remain one digitally, which means B&W output, which means, at the least, greyscaling RAW files. Unfortunately, simply greyscaling RAW files without more leaves you with what to me look like thin, plasticky photos that scream digital capture. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, if you like that look, but I think digital B&W looks like shit when compared to a good B&W negative wet-printed or scanned. It’s why the Leica MM Monchrom, a great idea in theory, never really interested me. You could argue that it instead of being a throwback to traditional B&W photography, it actually produces files that accentuate the worst aspects of digital B&W.

Enter “film emulation” software, which, surprisingly enough, attempts to take a digitally captured RAW file and create an end result that emulates the look you’d get were it to have been taken with a given film stock. Nik Silver Efex is the best example. Nik (now defunct) extensively researched the looks of various film stocks and produced algorithms that best mimicked the printed result of these films. Unlike what various self-appointed digital experts who give advice about the software seem to think, it isn’t simply a matter of applying an overlay of grain typical of a given film, but rather additionally, and much more importantly, replicating the characteristic exposure curve of a given film.

A Simple Greyscale. No Grain, No Film Exposure Curve Applied

What a lot of digital era photographers don’t seem to understand is that film captures light in a manner different from a digital sensor. A sensor doesn’t have an exposure curve; it captures light in a consistent linear fashion. Its “exposure curve,” if you could call it that, looks like a straight line ( see over there). What that means practically, is that, for example, if the light in one part of the photo is 4X the amount of light in another part of the photo, it will faithfully be recorded in such proportions by a sensor.

Film meanwhile, doesn’t respond to light in this 1 to 1 fashion; rather, it does so idiosyncratically i.e. in its own individual way. This, much more so than simply the grain of a film, is what defines its specific character -what sets Tri-X apart (see to right) from HP5 for example. Typically, what happens with film is this: it’s less sensitive to low levels of light while being better able to reproduce highlights (as opposed to being “more sensitive” to highlights). Digital sensors tend to blow out highlights while film tends to compress highlight values and thus retain detail in strongly lit areas. The end result, generally speaking, is more nuance in the digital shadow detail and deeper blacks and more highlight detail with film.

And this is where emulation software runs into problems, because it’s necessarily working with a digital file to begin with, which means that it’s working with a file whose inherent highlights have already been compromised to some extent, and no amount of emulation can recreate highlight information that would be there on a film negative but’s that’s not contained in a digital file.

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Tri-X ASA 400

So, we’ve established that film emulation software, while really cool, isn’t completely accurate. At best, it ‘mimics’ the look of film. In any event, I prefer its compromises to the unedited look of greyscaled digital.

Below are the Nik emulations of a number of traditional film stocks. To my eye, some are better than others in recreating the native look of the film: Plus-X, HP5, Fuji Neopan 1600. The Tri-X emulation doesn’t work for me, and I think that’s a result of TRi-X’s contrastiness coupled with its ability to preserve highlight detail, an ability compromised when ’emulated’ by the native limitations imposed on software working with digital files as noted above.

And yes, Wally is an adorable cat, a seven-month-old Maine Coon Cat we found at the ASPCA shelter. Boy’s got a personality, sweet as can be. There’s plenty just like him at animal shelters everywhere. Do them, and you, a favor and go take one home. Best thing you’ll ever do.

Kodak Plus-X ASA 125

Ilford Delta 3200

Ilford Delta 100

Ilford FP4 ASA 125

Ilford HP5, ASA 400

Fuji Neopan 1600

Ilford Delta 400