ULTRAsomething’s web stats have been gradually declining the last few weeks — a consequence of letting too much time lapse between articles about photo gear. If there’s one thing web analytics have taught me (besides the rather depressing realization that dancing like you’re riding a horse is apparently mankind’s greatest achievement), it’s the fact that gear-related articles deliver over 2,000% more visitors to ULTRAsomething than articles about photographic techniques, education, history or philosophy. That’s a two followed by three zeros — not exactly something I can write off as a statistical anomaly.
Ostensibly, if I want to bring more readers to my site, then I need to write the occasional paraphernalia-related article — a thoughtful, detailed, first-hand account of my experiences with some brand new, fancy-pants photographic merchandise.
So I’m pleased to announce that I’ve recently rented extra security personnel and installed an abundance of virtual port-a-potties — all in anticipation of the drunken, gear-hungry hordes who will soon descend upon ULTRAsomething to read my first-hand account of the photography world’s latest electrifying, compelling, must-have new product.
Are you ready?
Are you stoked?
Are you feeling the anticipation?
Then without further delay, I present my discussion of the brand new Lomography Smartphone Scanner!!!!!!
Hey, where’s everybody going? Come back here…
OK. So it turns out that my ostensible desire to bring more readers to ULTRAsomething isn’t as ostensible as one might think. Given that I don’t sell banner ads or receive microscopic click-through payments from online retailers, web stats don’t mean a thing to me. They have no pecuniary value whatsoever. And, while some bloggers might get an ego boost from lofty stats, my own ego is sated more by writing something that resonates with a few, than by writing something that serves merely as pablum for the many.
Speaking of pablum, I need to set aside my discussion of the Lomography Smartphone Scanner for a moment, and talk a little about the growing trend known as “lifelogging.” Lifeloggers, for the benefit of the uninitiated, are people who record every aspect of their lives by wearing a camera that monitors and automatically photographs everything the wearer sees, does and interacts with. Once just a nerdy cyber trend, it’s now flirting with the fringes of mainstream acceptance, with more and more people filming and uploading their every non-catatonic activity — whether it be a recreational bike ride, their morning commute, or that taco salad they consumed at lunch. And now, with the imminent arrival of Google Glass, a whole new flock of folks will begin to experience yet another novel new way to photograph every waking moment of their self-obsessed lives.
The iGlitterati all seem to believe this lifelogging thing is some sort of new-fangled invention. Obviously, they’ve never heard of contact sheets. But then, how would they? Since the cloud-hopping beau monde have never shot film, they can’t exactly know about the practices of analog photographers; that they once cut their developed film into short strips, arranged an entire roll’s worth on a sheet of photographic paper, then exposed it to light — thus creating a contact print of every shot contained on that roll.
Photographers made these contact sheets as a way to view and evaluate every photo they took. If they shot 300 rolls of 35mm film in a year, then they’d have 300 contact sheets containing over 10,000 little 36mm x 24mm photographs. Contact sheets may have helped photographers decide which photographs to enlarge, edit and publish, but they had an accidental secondary purpose — they acted as a lifelog: a permanent visual record of everything the photographer deemed significant enough to photograph.
Read that previous sentence again. It explains my belief that a lifelog stored on contact sheets is several orders of magnitude more effective than the modern cyber version. Today’s technique, in which someone wears a camera that monitors what they see and automatically records it at predetermined intervals, creates a lifelog that catalogs the wearer’s chronology, location and activities — but it tells us nothing about that person’s mood, intellect, personality or proclivities. Contact sheets, on the other hand, illustrate so much more. Because the photographer himself decided which direction to point the camera, what lens to use, where to focus, how to expose and when to release the shutter, each photograph is more than a mere chronicling of facts — it’s a detailed psychological record of the photographer’s state of mind. And in collection with all the other photographs on all the other contact sheets, it documents a photographer’s cognitive approaches to life.
The demise of the humble contact sheet is, I believe, one of the greatest tragedies of collateral damage inflicted by the digital camera revolution. Contact sheets provide insight and understanding. Contact sheets are the reason why I bought the expanded version of Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans. They’re why I own Daido Moriyama’s Labyrinth, Capa, Chim and Taro’s The Mexican Suitcase, and why I’m still saving my pennies for a copy of Magnum Contact Sheets.
One could easily argue that shooting digitally doesn’t preclude anyone from keeping every image they shoot. And while technically true, very few photographers do this. The reasons are many and varied, but they all boil down to a common denominator: human nature. Since digital photos are “free,” it’s human nature to take far more than we need to convey a thought or an idea. It’s human nature to make editing decisions based on how we feel at that point in time. It’s human nature to assume we will always feel the same as when we made our selects. It’s human nature to believe we’re the sole arbiters of our own photography’s value. It’s human nature to discard that which we deem unacceptable — particularly when it might provide a visual reminder of our failures.
The irony, of course, is that one cannot learn the value of retaining photographs if they haven’t retained them. Analog photographers, by the physical nature of the medium and the dictates of the workflow, have witnessed this value first hand. But now, a generation into digital, the value of these photographic logs has been lost — only to be rediscovered (albeit in a totally different guise) by the lifeloggers.
I have little doubt that — like the pet rock, the leisure suit, and people asking “Where’s the beef?” — lifelogging will one day disappear; probably right around the time that someone realizes they’re spending $1000/year on hard drives to store a bunch of mind-numbingly boring material that they’ll never view again. I also have little doubt that some creative people will turn lifelogging techniques and practices into worthwhile new forms of art, journalism and communication that will far transcend their trendy techie beginnings. But that person won’t be me.
So What About That Lomography Scanner, Dude?
By now, the three of you still reading this article are probably wondering what all this has to do with a review of the Lomography Smartphone Scanner. And the answer is simple: without a wet darkroom, this device is the fastest and easiest way I’ve found to create digital “contact sheets” from my 35mm negatives.
Previous articles in which I discuss the Spinner 360 and the Lomokino 35 reveal an ongoing love/hate relationship with Lomography products. I dislike their ridiculously cheap and rickety build quality, yet it’s this very tawdriness that allows them to fit within my budget. And that’s definitely something to love.
The Smartphone Scanner fits the same Lomography profile — a one trick pony with a design requirement that hovers around “bare minimum.” Each time I use it, I handle it more gently than I would handle an egg, and I’m extra careful to keep it away from huffing and puffing wolves, since it would surely topple quicker than little pig #1’s straw house. Since I haven’t actually broken this (or any) Lomography product, these precautions may simply be a case of paranoia — but it’s a paranoia I don’t suffer with any other photographic equipment.
Because I switched to a hybrid film workflow back in the early 1990’s, I’ve long been without a darkroom facility for making wet prints, and thus without a way to make traditional contact sheets. In the early days of SCSI-based scanners, the process was so laborious, tedious and slow, that I actually stopped developing my own B&W film and switched to slide-based color film — thus enabling me to review my shots without having to make contact sheets. By the early 2000’s I had switched to an entirely digital workflow, and was merrily acetate-free. But by the early 2010’s, I had most curiously returned to shooting significant quantities of black and white film, and was once again struggling with a way to make “contact sheets.”
Initially, I tried scanning an entire negative sleeve on a flatbed scanner, but this worked totally counter to the rest of my workflow. I wanted to see, catalog and annotate every photograph in the same way — regardless of whether the source material was digital or analog. Scanning an entire negative sheet, while reasonably simple, resulted in a single image file that contained 36 photos, rather than 36 individual image files. Eventually I wrote a little Photoshop action that would slice the single scan into 36 smaller files, which I could catalog right along with the digital photos. But this required a lot of extra time and effort that simply wasn’t worth the spectacularly poor results.
So I switched to the method I employed for the last three years: scanning each and every frame at its maximum quality setting, regardless of whether or not I thought the photo was “worthy” of additional consideration. This means every roll of film I shoot necessitates a 2-hour scanning ordeal. I pull each negative from its polypropylene storage sleeve, load it into a negative carrier, insert it into the Plustek, launch the SilverFast scanning software, and make a pre-scan of one individual frame. At this point, I’ve completed 100% of the mechanical effort required to make a scan, needing only to select a final resolution before pushing SilverFast’s scan button. It didn’t take me long to decide that, because all the actual hassles were behind me, I might as well go for the full-resolution scan — it required no additional effort on my part, just a lot of additional time waiting for the scanner to complete its mission.
The good thing about this method is that every negative on my contact sheet is ready to be processed at any time — no additional scanning is required. The bad thing about this method is that it takes so much time and effort to scan 36 negatives, that I sometimes find myself avoiding film simply because I won’t have the time to scan it. I needed to find a quicker way to make “contact sheets” — something that didn’t take the time and energy that the Plustek demands.
Along the way, I experimented with alternate ways to make contact sheets, including placing the negatives on an iPad and photographing each frame with a digital camera. Alas, this technique yielded some rather hideous images, since iPad displays don’t feature a uniform light source, but 800,000 tiny little LED light sources — each of which is gloriously visible in any photographed negative. I experimented with diffusing the iPad display, but the results were no more satisfactory — particularly once I realized that this cobbled together process still required nearly an hour of hands-on hassle time.
Enter the Lomography Smartphone Scanner. In reality, it’s not a scanner at all. It’s a clamp that holds your smartphone atop a plastic bellows, which sits on a little battery-powered light panel that’s the size of a 35mm negative. There’s a slot to feed your film into the “scanner,” and a knob to crank the film through, allowing you to photograph one frame at a time using your smartphone of choice.
Since my iPhone contains an 8 megapixel camera, I initially assumed this would result in 8 megapixel “scans” from my smart phone. But, contrary to any logic I can fathom, Lomography designed the device so that the long edge of a 35mm negative runs parallel to the short edge of the iPhone. That’s right, the device is designed such that landscape-oriented negatives are photographed with a portrait-oriented iPhone. The end result is that your 8 megapixel iPhone photo contains only 4 megapixels of actual image data.
Ultimately, in spite of these frustrations, the Smartphone Scanner may well be the ideal solution to the problem of making 35mm “contact sheets” for the digital age. It reduces what was once a 2-hour endeavour into a butt-simple, thought-free 15 minute process.
Of course, none of this helps me one bit with the ever-increasing quantities of 120 film running though my collection of medium format cameras… but perhaps, since Lomography sells the ever popular Holga and Diana cameras, a 120 model is on the horizon. I’m sure I’ll have a love/hate relationship with that product, too.
Workflow (For Those Who Care)
FIRST: “Scan” Negatives Into Your Smartphone
After the negative has dried and before I cut it into 6-frame strips, I run the entire uncut strip through the Lomography Smartphone Scanner. I’m currently using an iPhone 4s running the 645 Pro iOS camera app. This app bypasses the jpeg creation process and saves the photos as uncompressed TIFF files. Truth be told, I haven’t really seen any benefit to this since an iPhone TIFF is not a true RAW file, but a demosaiced and processed file that simply hasn’t been compressed into a jpeg. But 645 Pro (like many other 3rd-party camera apps) does let me define an auto-exposure region that’s in a different location than the focus point, and this helps me achieve optimum exposure for each negative that I photograph.
SECOND: Transfer the “Scans” to Your Computer and Name Them
Once I’ve photographed all 36 frames (a process that takes less than 10 minutes, thanks to Lomography), I transfer the photos from my iPhone to my Macintosh. Since I demand my photos adhere to my standardized personal file naming convention, I next select all 36 files and drag them onto a custom Automator application that renames the files appropriately.
THIRD: Invert the Negatives
Because I’ve photographed negatives, I need to convert them to “positives” in order to view and assess them more easily. To do this, I simply drag all the images onto a Photoshop droplet I created that does exactly this. (NOTE: Lomography is promising they will soon have their own scanning app, which will invert the negative automatically. Unfortunately, this app was not yet available at the time of this article).
FOURTH: Import to Lightroom and Crop
At this point, I drag the exposures into a new folder I created in Lightroom, sync that folder inside Lightroom, and my contact sheet is complete. However, because the Smartphone scanner has that silly design in which the orientation of the negative is contrary to the orientation of the iPhone, the scans have a lot of unnecessary border around them. So, in order to clean things up, I perform a bit of global non-destructive cropping in Lightroom. Specifically, I open the first file in Lightroom, type “R” to bring up the cropping tool, then draw a slightly roomy crop around the image. To then apply the crop to the remaining photos, I select all 35 remaining negatives in Lightroom and paste the “develop settings” from that first negative onto them. (NOTE: I’m currently considering an alternative workflow in which I integrate the cropping process into the Photoshop inversion droplet — that way I won’t waste hard drive space to store the unused border that surrounds each frame).
And that’s it. I now have a collection of 4 megapixel images that I consider “good enough” to catalog and evaluate all the photos on a film strip. I can then look through the “contact sheet” and select those images I want to scan properly with the Plustek, while the rejects remain visible and accessible for future consideration — just like a real contact sheet.
And the best part is, thanks to the speed with which I can crank film through the Smartphone Scanner and photograph it, coupled with those custom little Automator and Photoshop droplets, I can knock out a contact sheet that integrates seamlessly with my digital workflow; and I can do it in under 15 minutes. Because of this new workflow, I now have more time for more important things: like writing gear reviews or, perhaps, learning to dance like I’m riding a horse…
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “35mm Contact Sheet” doesn’t really qualify as a photo — instead, it’s simply a screen shot illustrating the “contact sheet” I made after ingesting a fresh roll of 35mm film using the techniques discussed in this article. “Smartphone Scanner Action Shot (A Recreation)” also barely qualifies as a “photo.” The fact I shot it with my Ricoh GXR and its 50mm ‘lensor’ isn’t as significant as the fact that the settings shown in the 645 Pro iOS app are not the same as the settings I actually use to “scan” negatives — so don’t go trying to copy these and then wondering why your scans don’t seem right. “Scattered Glances,” “Hands,” “Mega Cliché” and “Eye Spy” were all scanned on my Plustek 7600i from the same roll of film — the one shown at the top of this article. As such, all were shot using the same camera (a Leica M2), the same emulsion (Tri-X exposed at ISO 400), and developed in the same solution (Rodinal 1:50). Curiously, they were all shot with the same lens — a Leica 21mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M. And, best of all, the photos in this article are a miniature ULTRAsomething lifelog — representing what I saw and how I chose to photograph it during the 48 hour period in which this film was inside my Leica M2. Any people think I’m not trendy…
If you find these photos enjoyable or the articles beneficial, please consider making a DONATION to this site’s continuing evolution. As you’ve likely realized, ULTRAsomething is not an aggregator site — serious time and effort go into developing the original content contained within these virtual walls.