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15 August 2021 » Digitising old negatives (again)

The idea of "digitising" my old negatives has been on my mind for quite some time. I put digitising in quotes because the purpose is not to simply transform something that is in analog shape to digital form, which would be the case with slides. With negatives, you often cannot know for sure what or who or in what light—both literally and figuratively—is captured; thus, the intrigue lies in rediscovering my old negatives, not just digitising them.

Image: B&W image from rural Russia circa 1989

Afternoon walk
Rural Russia circa 1989, #3

I did attempt digitising the negatives a few years back, at that time using the Epson Perfection 4990 scanner. I was so moved that I wrote this post. However, the workflow was very slow and inefficient, not to mention that image quality left a lot to be desired, so I gave up shortly after starting. This was one of the reasons why I got rid of the scanner before relocating to Singapore. And fascinatingly, this has had a major say in my Nikon Z7 vs. Fujifilm GFX 50R decision!

Image: B&W image from rural Russia circa 1989

Morning at the Mokeevka pond
Rural Russia circa 1989, #4

For those familiar with Nikon accessories, the paragraph above may have given away how I approach digitising the negatives this time around. As far as I can tell, Nikon is the only camera company that offers a film digitising adapter—ES–2—which was designed to be used with the AF–S Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED lens (but now can be used with the newly announced Nikkor Z MC 50mm f/2.8 lens). Seeing that a flatbed scanner was not a good solution, I decided to give this option a try. I bought the accessary, new, earlier this year while still in China. DPReview have a short video showcasing how it is used.

Image: B&W image from rural Russia circa 1989

Heading home before the rain
Rural Russia circa 1989, #5

I did not have time to look for and buy the rest of the missing pieces of the digitising puzzle before leaving China, though. These included the aforementioned Nikkor lens, an LED light panel to have a uniform light source and a light stand to hold the panel. The last two items are daily tools for those who practice studio photography, but, to me, they were perfectly unfamiliar animals. A couple of trips to photo gear shops in Singapore and chats with the shop managers, which I tremendously enjoyed, had me fully equipped and ready to start.

Image: B&W image from rural Russia circa 1989

Harvesters at work
Rural Russia circa 1989, #6

At first I was somewhat skeptical if this new setup would be technically that much better than the scanning approach I tried in the past. Boy, was I wrong! As far as image quality goes, film flatness is not an issue, and the 45MP Nikon Z7 sucks out every single detail there is in the negatives, including that of grain, scratches and dust! And in terms of the workflow, it is much more efficient, too—you just shoot and the files appear on your computer ready to sort. Yes, WiFi transfer from the camera to the computer is slow, but I do shooting and sorting/editing on alternate days: shoot as much as I can on one evening, and then process the files on the second evening (or, more often, second and third and forth evening—curating and processing take much longer than shooting). Once I am done shooting for the evening I just leave the camera to finish transferring the files at its own pace.

Image: B&W image from rural Russia circa 1989

After a hail storm
Rural Russia circa 1989, #7

Coincidentally, my mother visited the place just a few days ago. She snapped many images with her iPhone while there and sent me some of them. The place has changed drastically, mostly decaying in every imaginable way. What stroke me most, however, was the difference in, for lack of a better term, informational and emotional richness between colour (mom's snapshots) and black–and–white (my old negatives): to me, colour rendering conveys so much more that, relative to that, black–and–white images appear to conceal reality, or even mislead—unless, of course, that is your intention and you are after abstract, distilled, representation. Clearly, I am not a natural black–and–white photographer, even though that was how I started.

Image: B&W image from rural Russia circa 1989

Roaming backyards
Rural Russia circa 1989, #8

I have now finished photographing (literally!), curating and editing the first batch of negatives, some of which are posted here. They were taken during the 1986–1991 period in the Republic of Mordovia, Russia, where we have relatives and I used to visit in the summer as a child and, later, teenager. I last travelled there in 1991, if I remember correctly, taking the last image of this post. In a way, it was a fitting finale: it was the first time that I went there in late autumn, and I clearly recall being shocked by how a paradise–like place of the summer could turn into an unwelcome and grim experience of late autumn. Still, I mostly remember it by sunny days.

Image: B&W image from rural Russia circa 1989

Taking the cows home
Rural Russia circa 1989, #9

So what is next? On to the other places and passages of life captured on old film. I do not know exactly what I am going to find among the remaining negatives. There are images I clearly remember in my mind, but they are likely to look different now as my life perspective have changed. There are images I remember conceptually, but I recall neither context nor details. And there must be images I do not recollect at all that might pleasantly surprise me. I look forward to continuing this journey!

Image: B&W image from rural Russia circa 1989

Late autumn
Rural Russia circa 1989, #10

P.S. Speaking of the Nikon Z7 vs. Fujifilm GFX 50R conundrum, ultimately it boiled down to practicality—thankfully, I have played with cameras and lenses long enough to make the decision on that basis. First, I wanted to digitise the negatives and the Z7 was the only way to do it. Second, I needed a versatile one camera and one zoom kit for hybrid trips that would deliver state–of–the–art results; Z7 with the Nikkor Z 24–70 f/4 S clearly wins (I have now mostly replaced the f/4 zoom with its f/2.8 counterpart). Lastly, I wanted to have a light and compact one camera and one prime combo. By that time Nikon had already indicated that such a lens to fit the Z7 was in the pipeline—the Nikkor Z 40mm f/2. At least on paper, it looked nearly perfect. I say "nearly" because its plastic mount is a bit of a fly in the ointment, but I can live with it if the lens is fine optically. Oh, and there is one other thing: Lloyd Chambers wrote that GFX 50R's user interface was... Klingon–designed. It is so true it made me laugh!

8 August 2021 » Recent favorite image

Image: East Coast, Singapore

East Coast Park, Singapore, #1
Nikon Z7 camera and Nikkor Z 24–70mm f/4 S lens

This image is a recent favorite not because it has any tangible artistic merit, but for the reason that I observe this scene often—when hanging out with my family, jogging or cycling in the East Cost Park. What I like about this view is that, fundamentally speaking, it is always the same—just the sea and the horizon filled to the brim with ships; and yet, it changes ever so slightly—and at times dramatically—every time I look at it, offering infinite variations on the same subject with ever changing colour of the sea, mood of the sky and shape of the clouds. It is never boring to view.

16 July 2021 » Broadcasting from a new world

I cannot believe this is the first post on this Web site this year. In fact, it has been so long and so many things have changed that I do not know where to start. Perhaps I should start from the end: I am writing this in Singapore. As in, this is where I am based now.

Image: B&W image from rural Russia circa 1989

A road to new destinations
Rural Russia circa 1989, #2

You may know how these things go. Your company has a new development direction and a newly opened position in another country. You put yourself forward for the post, not entirely convinced you would be chosen—in my case, because I believed being thought of as a "China hands" and thus tightly associated with and valued because of the Middle Kingdom. But what do you know? Apparently I viewed my skills too narrowly. The opportunity was bestowed on me.

Being appointed is one things, but relocating with the family to a new country is a totally different matter—particularly during a raging pandemic with so many restrictions and tightened regulations in place. Paperwork was tremendously long and tedious, with fairly high chances that the best–laid plans of yours truly would go awry; essentially, I had to dig out and provide every conceivable document, except perhaps my birth certificate. It took over three months to get everything done, and I am convinced that keeping my fingers crossed helped a great deal.

Preparations to move were equally challenging. Permission to enter Singapore within a three–day window (this is different from and on top of the visa), air tickets to match that window (flights were still highly infrequent), arrangement of PCR tests upon arrival, additional insurance that covered COVID–19 contingencies, temporary accommodation that would actually accept overseas arrivals, research on permanent accommodation, pre–schools, local transportation, you name it. Oh, and do I need to talk about packing? Not to mention, of course, that there was a long list of chores to do in China before leaving the country. The only way to get all this done was through being ruthlessly methodical and persistent.

This was a good opportunity to get rid of the stuff you know is kind of a thing of the past but cannot bring yourself to dispose of. My Bowers & Wilkins 684 floor–standing speakers and accompanying them Rotel CD player, pre–amplifier and amplifier had not exuded any sound ever since our son was born; for all intents and purposes, they were replaced by the B&W PX–7 headphones long time ago. Despite the conceptually infinite significance of physical prints and as much I cherished the Epson P800 printer, I had not used it for much longer than the manufacturer would advise; dragging it through half of the world for it to continue being idle did not make much sense. My old and rusty Epson Perfection 4990 scanner was well past best–by date (I had used it for over 15 years!), so it was time to let it go. Finally, the Nikon Z7 vs. Fujifilm GFX 50R conundrum that bogged me for a while had to be resolved—to cut a long story short, in favour of the former. All of this will have some intricate and multi–dimensional implications down the road, but I will cross that bridge when I get there.

And so we arrived in Singapore on 18 March. Just as I contemplated popping the champagne to celebrate "mission accomplished", it dawned on me there still was much to get done. ID cards, bank accounts, telephone numbers, utilities and Internet, school visits, and so on and so forth—it took another two months to get it all sorted. And even now, although Singapore is known to be "Asia for beginners"—and I am far from a novice in Asia—it remains a new country with myriad things to learn and get used to.

I mentioned previously that any creative activity in general and photography in particular require sufficient time and mind–space to engage in. I once again assert that this is the case—the process of relocating to Singapore sucked out every ounce of artistic air leaving no mental energy to even think photography, let alone doing it. I will not want to move countries again in the coming years.

But things are getting better. During the past month I managed to research photo equipment store scene in Singapore and acquired a few bits and pieces of gear necessary to start digitising my old negatives that go back to late eighties. It is a fascinating project that brings back lots of memories and reminds me how much time has passed and how far I have gone—not so much so in terms of years and kilometers, but rather with regard to mindset milage. There are a few artistic gems and interesting historical records, too (the image above is one example). More on that later.


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