Pushing Kodak Ektar 2 Stops

Angels of 7A Dahlia

Can it be done? Yes! Here’s the story:

The other day I was on an assignment and pulled a rookie move. I became so preoccupied talking and laughing with the client, fiddling with light – diffusion panels to knock the sun down; fiddling with power levels on the SU-800 and SB-R200’s  – that I forgot to change the ISO after previously shooting a 400 speed film. I don’t typically use the DX setting  – preferring instead to set ISO manually, especially when using custom rather than rated ISO’s. I realized my mistake halfway through the roll and was pretty embarrassed – though the client never knew.

I decided to continue on, hoping the lab would bail me out, and was blown away by the results. They were perfect. Kevin at Digi-Graphics said, “I’ve never pushed Ektar 2 stops before but it’s great film. It should be just fine. If it were junk film not so much. Who knows… this might be exactly how you should shoot Ektar…”

Dahlia, Water Lilly, Angels of 7A
Angels of 7a, Water Lilly Dahila

As it turned out, those were prophetic words… with a few caveats.

These images are scanned in using the Nikon LS-5000 and VueScan. I ordered prints with this roll – something I don’t usually do – and they were awful – unusably awful – the red channel completely flooded blocking up the center of the flower in one, big, featureless blob of red-ness. When I saw the prints I thought, “Uh-Oh… I’m busted” and the negs sat on my light box for nearly a week as I mulled over what to do. I’d also made a few digital frames as back-ups and began considering tweaking them into what I wanted for the final images.

Last night I took another look at the negs on the light box with a loop. I could see plenty of detail in the red regions of the film and thought what the heck, it wouldn’t be the first time the prints were disappointing but the images were still good. I sat down and started scanning and was – once again – blown away by what film does. Even though the original prints were unusably awful there was plenty of information there. The question was, how to get to it. A little VueScan magic did the trick. Switching to Manual mode I began adjusting values in the red channel for scanning. Turns out about half of the standard setting did the trick and all that lovely detail began to reemerge.

Light:
The F6 has the unique ability among other film cameras to leverage Nikon’s Creative Lighting System and this was a perfect opportunity to see what the R1C1 Close-up Flash kit could do. The flowers were in direct sunlight, so a diffusion panel was used to neutralize the bright, Colorado sun. The SU-800 Commander head was mounted to the F6 and set to an even 1:1 Group C, Channel 1. I typically use Group C for my Macro work because Groups A and B are used more often for the SB-800 and 900 for more common lighting tasks. The Flash Sync Mode on the F6 was set to “Slow,” and the Sync Speed (Custom Setting Menu item E-1) was set to 1/250FP allowing sync speeds greater than the 1/250th of a second using Auto FP High Speed Sync. The SW-11 Close-Up Adaptors were used to position the light extremely close to the center axis of the lens, providing a very mild, straight-on, diffused light source, but perfect for picking up reflected detail in the water droplets. The goal was natural-appearing lighting with that little extra something. Though it hadn’t rained in a while, I flicked some water on the leaves, then hit it with a spray bottle for a little extra sparkle on the petals.

Nikon F6 shown with: Nikon R1C1 Macro Close-Up Flash Kit (Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander, Nikon SX-1 attachment ring, Nikon SY-1-62 adaptor ring, NIKON SB-R200 wireless remote speedlight, NIKON SW-11 extreme close-up adaptor) Nikon DR-5 Right-Angle Viewer; Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens.
Nikon F6 shown with: Nikon R1C1 Macro Close-Up Flash Kit (Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander, Nikon SX-1 attachment ring, Nikon SY-1-62 adaptor ring, NIKON SB-R200 wireless remote speedlight, NIKON SW-11 extreme close-up adaptor) Nikon DR-5 Right-Angle Viewer; Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens.

I’ve said before but it bares repeating: the Creative Lighting System is indeed one of the unique attributes of the F6 causing it to stand out amidst other film cameras. At the end of the day photography is largely about how light interacts with medium. Being intentional then about how to use that light is one way to direct, or shape, the contents of the frame. In the spirit of Tomohisa Ikeno “Value of Unique Pictures” discussion (please click here), the more I shoot the F6, the more interested I am in exploring the unique images it’s capable of.  Nikon’s CLS figures prominently into that exploration.

Kodak Ektar, pushing 2 stops: This image shows how well Ektar's grain held up despite the 2-stop push. Incredible detail is still within its grasp.
Just Married, Lacinated-Cactus Dahlia. This image shows how well Ektar’s grain held up despite the 2-stop push. Incredible detail is still within its grasp.

As it turned out, shooting Ektar at ISO400 – while not something I’d have thought to do intentionally – produced great results. It allowed working with higher shutter speeds to combat a slight breeze shifting the flowers ever so slightly. Pushing Ektar also amplified the natural tendencies of this already vivid, contrasty film.  “Yup. Pushing a color film increases grain, saturation and contrast at the expense of latitude. Pushing an already saturated film super saturates it,” said my buddy Eric, well versed in matters of darkroom chemistry. Given that Ektar is already a finely-grained film, the increase in grain is nominal, if noticeable at all. But the increase in saturation is very noticeable – and to a lesser degree a bump in contrast may also be seen. This explains the flooding of the red channel in the initial prints.

Kodak Ektar pushed 2 stops pushes Ektar's already vivid color and contrast into overdrive. Straight out of scanning with no contrast or saturation boost.
Tahoma Sarah, Mini-Dahlia

These images are directly out of VueScan with no adjustment to color or contrast at all. Normally when scanning Ektar there’s a certain degree of color adjustment required to get the images looking right to my eye. Here – they just jump off the screen with no adjustment what so ever.

So in case you ever need to push Ektar, do it with confidence. It works great. Just be mindful when you go to print the images that you adjust the color properly. The resulting super saturated images may exceed most printers’ ability to reproduce the results. This I know for sure: I’ll be shooting my next roll of Ektar at 200 and pushing it a stop to experiment. Who knows… I may have just stumbled bass-ackwards into a new look.

New West Fest

Elephant Revival, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)

For the past 10 years now the city of Fort Collins, Colorado has sponsored, in conjunction with Bohemian Nights Music, the New West Fest; essentially a birthday party for the city and fall jamboree for Northern Colorado, focusing heavily on live music. The scale of the event is difficult to grasp. The city blocks off the core of famous Old Town and people wander freely with children, strollers, the occasional huge stuffed animal won at a carnival game, and open containers. It’s a truly great event we’ve come to enjoy more each year.

Elephant Revival, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
Elephant Revival, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)

This year we met friends for Saturday night’s Library Stage line up and first to play was a band from Nederland, Elephant Revival. I can sum up our feelings about Elephant Revival in one word: utter bliss. OK, two words. Elephant Revival hails from the small, mountain community of Nederland, Colorado – at the foot of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and hovering in the clouds 30 miles above the city of Boulder. Years ago while working in Boulder I had the good fortune to live in Nederland and can attest to its unique, authentic, Colorado vibe – perhaps one of the reasons Elephant Revival resonated so much with me. Surely some of you have felt this before so hopefully it’s not a new phenomena I’m trying to describe and you can all smile and nod your heads as you remember… but every so often there are bands and performances that create something really special for you. Somehow, through the combination of elements produced in a show; the atmosphere created by the actual music’s rhythms and tempos, instrumentations and arrangements mixed with the musicians and their artistry, countenance, performance, expressions, posture, dress and demeanor all – viewed through a modest use of light and a whiff of atmosphere – something  special happens – and the audience is transported to another time, another place. That was Elephant Revival for me on Saturday night. Thank you, Elephant Revival. For that brief period I forgot the rest of my life and vanished into your world.

Shatterproof, New West Fest
Shatterproof opened this year’s Behemian Night’s New West Fest.

Photographically I’d made some decisions the day before on how to approach this year’s New West Fest. Friday’s opening act, Shatterproof, also held a special draw for us. Their electric violin player T.J. Wessel’s family are friends, and we stood front row in the hot, late afternoon sun watching this band of talented young musicians go at it. As I looked around at the building crowd I smiled upon realizing that 1 out of every 5 had either a DSLR strapped around their neck, or some sort of electronic “phablet” held up – fingers extended – to record.

The Subdudes, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
The Subdudes, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)

Given my natural proclivity to photograph with film when it came time to plan how I wanted to record this year’s festival – it was a pretty simple decision. The follow up question was, what film. I consider myself primarily a color photographer and for many events and occasions this fits. There are times, however, when choosing black and white film feels like the right move. Don’t ask why because I don’t think I could explain. I just go with it. And so it was for Saturday and Sunday’s outings; as I happened to find myself standing in the crowd, close to the front, transported to this other world.

The Subdudes, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
The Subdudes, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)

One of the tricky things about concert photography – especially in the evening – is low light. It’s no secret todays DSLR’s handle low-light situations very well – especially my D3s – which I can push to 3,200 and even 6,400 with confidence of getting a usable image. Film is another matter. But if you’re working with the right film in the right way, there’s potential for some unique images –  it just takes a little more thought – and work. The black and white film I revert to typically is Ilford’s Delta line. Delta 400 provides deep, rich long tones, deep blacks and dramatic contrast while also rendering smooth tonal transitions and holding sharp detail. If I were to pick one black and white film to head out with I knew would hold up in virtually any lighting conditions it would be Delta 400. It’s a beautiful film.

The Subdudes, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
The Subdudes, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)

The stage’s backdrop is an important part of the photograph. Fortunately those who plan these sometimes elaborate, complex stages understand this. In this case it was a neutral grayish color, probably a stop less than the middle tone of a gray card. The Library Stage faced East, it’s back to the afternoon sun. This was actually good news – providing you were prepared for it. Initially one might be tempted to try and shoot manually. At first glance, light would’nt seem to change much because they’re out of direct sunlight. The problem is, once the lights begin sweeping over performers, everything changes. Spot metering or center weighted metering is the way to go in situations like this. Matrix metering would unnecessarily factor that large, dark backdrop too much while calculating exposure – and cause overexposure of the figures in front. Black and white film has great exposure latitude to retrieve blown or buried data, but it’s always best to get things right from the git-go than have to fix mistakes in post. The solution is of course spot metering and positioning the “spot” on the faces – or other middle value portions of the scene. Easier said than done when performers start moving around. And depending on what lens you’re working with and how far you are from the action – a face or head can get pretty tiny in the viewfinder, making it difficult to get that single “spot” in the right place at the right time. When musicians are stationary – like in the shot below – it’s of course much easier.

Richie Furay Band, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
Richie Furay Band, New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)

The lens to work with is the 70-200/ƒ2.8 VR. It’s fast-focusing and at 2.8 lets in plenty of light to work at reasonable shutter speeds with 400 speed film. I knew I could push Delta to 800 or higher if necessary, but I was getting between 1/80th and 1/125 typically at 2.8 and deemed it good enough, even at 200mm. If that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. You want to try to keep the shutter speed at 1 over the field of view of the lens you’re working with. With image stabilization (Canon calls is IS, Nikon calls it VR for Vibration Reduction) you can usually get away with another stop. So for a 200mm lens, you want to be working with shutter speeds around 1/200th sec. With VR, you can get away with 1/125. If you have VR and a steady hand, you can sometimes get away with 1/80th or so. The question you have to ask yourself is, will you get better results pushing the film and shooting higher shutter speeds, or a shooting at rated and holding the camera still. It all depends. I went with the later for Elephant Revival and the following act, the Subdudes, and was glad I did.

Richie Furay at New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
Richie Furay at New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)

The next – and final day of New West Fest was the one I was most looking forward to. Richie Furay’s band was on the main, Mountain Avenue stage at 2:30 and nothing could stop me from from being there. Richie Furay is one of the iconic founders of country rock for the past 40 years and is now a pastor at a church near Boulder. Growing up, like so many others, Richie Furay’s music with Buffalo Springfield, Poco and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band were on my turntable and car’s cassette player nearly every minute of the day. He was and is the sound track of my youth – but I’d never seen him live. For this, Ektar and Delta were in order. I wanted the flexibility to shoot color and black and white depending on things. I reloaded 3 times during the 50 minute set and do believe it’s the first time I’ve ever sang into the back of the camera. Good thing the F6 doesn’t have a microphone like the D3s.

The Richie Furay Band at New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
The Richie Furay Band at New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
Scott Sellen and Richie Furay at New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
Scott Sellen and Richie Furay at New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)

A quick word about metering with the F6. I was again – blown away – at the F6’s metering capabilities. There were a few shots, like the one above, I’d set exposure compensation to -.7 just in case. I knew I could bring it back in post if it were under, but sometimes the Colorado, high-altitude sun was so bright and harsh I was afraid things like light pants and blonde guitars would blow. The F6 tracked everything perfectly – I didn’t need to do a thing except shoot. Turns out the shot above was under by about 2/3 stop. If I’d just trusted the meter I’d have been fine. In camera meters aren’t fool proof or perfect. But I swear, just about every time I’ve second guessed the F6’s meter I’ve been wrong.

The Richie Furay Band, taking a bow at New West Fest (2014
The Richie Furay Band, taking a bow at New West Fest (2014
Soaking feet after 3 days walking New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)
Soaking feet after 3 days walking New West Fest, Fort Collins, Colorado (2014)

Hind site can teach you a lot if you’re willing to look. In hind site… I wouldn’t do a single thing different next year. Choosing the bands and performances I want to listen to – and trying to make good images around those performances – is a great way to enjoy the show and come away with something memorable. Shooting on film is a great way to produce something unique. For the first time, I went to the ‘Fest all three days and my dogs were barking when I finished – but it was well worth it. Can’t wait until next year.