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Retina Revelations — A Photographers Perspective

(Note: This review was made testing a MacBook Pro 15-inch, 2.3 GHz with Retina display. Under the keyboard was 8 MB of RAM and 256GB flash storage — the introductory level MacBook Pro with Retina display)

Prelude

For those of you who know me — though my dear friend, fellow tractor owner and VII Photo agency Chairman, Mr. Neal Jackson, will beg to differ — I’m the Anti-Tech.

I truly do distain discussions on kit, gear, gadgets and tech. Pour me brilliant cups of coffee and I’ll surely wax endless about what we can do with these tools, however to analyze them, ogle about their design or babble on how they work is tantamount to placing my head in the frame of a doorway, slamming it shut.

There is one specific reason for making this review — I’m utterly excited about photography’s newest and truly amazing enlarger/film editor, the new MacBook Pro with Retina display, and what it means in regards to the potential in the digital darkroom.

Or to express it more succinctly — what it means in regards to both being a photographer in these digital (dry) darkrooms AND having clock time left over to actually have a life.

While teaching a workshop in Bali this July, monkey's found the Oreo bag next to my MacBook Pro, fortunately not the coffee. These are indeed the proudest monkeys I've ever seen.

Some background…for over six years I’ve had the privilege (more so, the honor) to collaborate — and to literally be heard — by some of the smartest minds in the photographic industry; The team at Apple who create the photographic imaging program, Aperture. To say they are geniuses would be an epic understatement. These are women and men who take 0′s and 1′s, turning code into a tool which brilliantly handles all my photographic workflow as efficiently as an iPhone flows and functions all my (and likely your) professional mobile needs. To this day, Aperture continues to push the limits of how we work in what I like to call, the dry darkroom.

Another disclaimer — I know nothing about code. Haven’t a clue what a megapixel is from a pimple pixel. Not a lick of understanding what a MHz is from a GHz nor can I figure out how to set up email if it weren’t for all those Assistant tools. Can’t even fathom how or why when I press these keys, semi coherent words appear on a glowing screen.

Actually, I don’t want to know such things.

Not due to the lack of caring.

It’s simply not my art nor my purpose. Such art — truly is an art — is in the minds and hands of those geniuses who create these tools we use, an art which is well beyond my comprehension.

A beautiful grasshopper decides to check out my first MacBook Pro as I edited along the beach in Rinondoran village in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, in 2008 while on a story for Time Magazine. Since 1996 I think I've been through seven different — always improved — Apple portable computers.

Introduction

Recently, I had a MacBook Pro with Retina display sent to my home as a loaner from Apple to test pro apps performance — Aperture, Final Cut and a few other photographic based tools we tend to use.

The timing was perfect for Cupertino to contact me — last month I was heading to South Sudan for work on two projects with MSF (Doctors Without Borders) — first, to highlight a breaking health crisis in Yida and the other, of a multi-month MSF/VII health initiative collaboration. This MacBook Pro I’m still writing upon is on its last leg. Actually, more like exhausted after beating the beheebers out it after a few years of using, creating and playing with it, no different then as kids we used Legos, Barbies or a Stretch Armstrong…remember that wacky guy?. Needless to say I was giddy as an eight year-old when Apple had called upon me to use the MBPr for a month, perfectly falling over the three weeks I’d be in Africa.

When Saturday morning of August 11 came — the day I was leaving for the airport in Hartford — no package from Apple had arrived other than the loaner agreement in a separate envelope a day earlier.

Calling repeatedly to Fedex, I learned the plane carrying the MBPr had been delayed out of Texas, missing it’s connecting flight to Albany, leaving the delivery truck for the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts to never consider stopping by the farm before I left. In a desperate attempt to still bring a MacBook Pro with Retina display to Africa, I called the Apple store in nearby Holyoke where I planned to swing by and purchase one en rout to the airport. Fortunately August 11 was Massachusetts Tax Amnesty Day. Unfortunately, I was told the lines were so long, all MBPr would likely be sold out before I could ever got there. Frustrated, I’d have to bring this 2010 MBP, hoping it would see me through a grueling three-week trip.

Ironically, upon arrival three days later to a dusty airstrip in Yida, South Sudan, I couldn’t help but twistingly ponder whether this Fedex plane hadn’t maybe diverted to Yida in order to somehow deliver food and that Dallas delayed MBPr.

Fortunately no one was hurt when this Fedex plane landed a few months ago in Yida, South Sudan. It simply was too heavy to land on a dirt runway where (as I was told) the landing gear burrowed into the soil, causing the front landing gear to break and the plane to skid down the runway on its nose. If you're wondering why there are no engines and whatnot, every piece of the plane was taken apart so it could not be used to fly ever again. Presume it's next to near impossible to repair such a plane in this remote region of Africa.

Review

Returning Stateside three weeks later, sitting in my studio was a Pelican case containing the loaner MBPr.

Coming home from South Sudan — and after hugging the kids — I opened a Pelican case containing a MacBook Pro 15-inch, 2.3 GHz with Retina display. Cute purple tie straps Apple uses, eh.

Like a grade schooler, I immediately opened it. Actually had to do so and quickly — there was only 8 days left before needing to ship it back to Cupertino.

Having never written a review (I’m no David Pogue of the NYT’s), I’ll simply tell it like it is, as an end user but more so, as a professional photographer who uses these items on a daily basis, most often in extremely demanding situations.

In the shortest most emphatic way possible, here’s my entire review:

MacBook Pro with Retina display is astonishing.

MacBook Pro with Retina display on the left and my 2+ year old MacBook Pro on right. Both may look like siblings however their differences are enormous. By the way if you're wondering (and I hope you are), the coffee I was drinking was delicious Piece Brothers Fogbuster roast.

Wait. That’s too simple.

So much has changed and is new about this MBPr, I need to begin with the basic act of simply starting it up. Pushing the power button on is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding differences between every previous computer (creating tool) you’ve ever owned.

 

ON

What stuck me immediately was how quickly the MBPr went from simply sitting there like a dormant placemat (it looks almost that thin), to allowing me to begin work — just over ten seconds from pressing the ON button to full active application usage.

Amazing.

 

Visual

What hits you like a ton of lead after the Retina MacBook Pro is on, will forever change the way you work within the dry darkroom/film editing room.

The screen.

This Retina screen verges on the near indescribable.

Why do I use the word, Indescribable?

Because working on Apple’s MacBook Pro Retina screen renders images in such astonishing detail, it’s like reliving what you had seen previously with your own eyes.

Now back home, it was as if the events I recorded with my camera (a Canon 5D Mark II) were reappearing in the exact visual reality I’d witnessed back in South Sudan.

I became re-depressed, even more angry, reviewing so frighteningly clear (in such unflinching detail and subtle nuance) the horrors of just weeks earlier.

Another way of putting it — this screen to our world no longer presents a diminished perception of reality, but rather an actual visual presentation of reality.

Not a single detail is missing.

Only thing lacking are three dimensions and scent — sound is sorted through dramatically improved speakers (more on that below).

When looking at an image at 100% magnification, going back to this old screen is as if I put a sheet of cellophane across my eye or drugstore quality reading glasses, the difference is that astounding.

Recently, I was working one afternoon in the dining room. The kids were home — after a few weeks away from the family, I always try to reconnect by being as close to them as possible rather than buried in studio located in the barn. At times I couldn’t help but gasp by the MBPr clarity and sharpness. My middle child, Konstantin, would say while on the living room sofa, “DADDY! What are you making all that noise for, I’m trying to do my homework!” Little did Kon know I was oohing due to seeing elements in my photographs which I’d never seen before.

In fact, photographs I’d toned while in South Sudan on this older MBP clearly showed signs of incomplete/improper (to my liking that is) aspects of burning and dodging, something I’d never be able to see except either in a final print.

In fact, that’s what working on a Retina screen feels like — as if you’re actually toning a physical print.

In addition, I realized why the editor in NY had emailed me while back in Yida, asking if they could lighten up a few of the photos I’d sent — they were too dark in certain areas. Obviously I couldn’t completely see every aspect of the image clearly on what already is a mighty good screen on older MacBook Pros, yet I thought at the time they were toned smack on. Unfortunately I cannot show these toning difference right now. They are part of a project VII and MSF are working on to be released in November.

Immediately realized I’d have to re-tone a few, the task flew effortlessly in Aperture on this MBPr, faster than even on my studio iMac…and that iMac is pretty darn fast.

Now here is where the Retina screen really causes near visual rapture — zooming into an image, barely a pixel appears. In fact look at these screengrabs off the MBPr (SHIFT+COMMAND+3) of the chimney sweep who cleaned our fireplace just over a week ago and note the zoom factor in each image caption — also on the full image mini preview in Aperture on the far right which shows there’s nothing hidden up my sleeve — and then be astonished:

Our neighborhood chimney sweep — as if appearing straight out of Mary Poppins — stopped by while the Retina MacBook Pro was still here. I took some photos simply because he's such a wonderful fellow. This is a vertical portrait in Aperture and viewed at 100%.

Now at 200%…

At 200%, image details/pixels are like those seen at 100%. It gets more intense as we go further in.

Let’s go to 300%…

At 300% magnification, the only thing I notice is that my focus wasn't actually on his eyes but on his checks, which are tack sharp and yet still no pixels to be seen. Take a sip of coffee, it gets even better.

How about 400%…

Now at 400%, unless WordPress is taking these 1440 x 900 pixel, 72 dpi, screengrabs which I exported the .PNG original file out as a Jpeg compression 12 (BTW, I haven't a fucking clue what any of this nonsense I just wrote even means), I'm hard pressed to find any pixel appearance. In fact what I really begin to notice is all the tiny specks of soot on his face...and the fact my focus really was not on his eyes.

Time to enter a new dimension of detail at 500%…

At 500% magnification, we begin to see what might be Jpeg compression noise. More unusual, the eyelashes of the chimney sweet are beginning to look sharper — this might be due to the ultra-sharp cheek area no longer in view, removing the visual reference of staggering sharpness and detail.

And now to journey into the center of the eye at 1000%…

At an astonishing 1000% magnification, I can barely begin to see any pixels.If anything, maybe there is Jpeg pixel noise, digital grain or indeed the first visible signs of screen pixels on the Retina display. Who knows. More so, who cares — if you walked this close to someones face and tried to focus with your own 20/20 vision, this fellows eye would also appear out of focus. What is noticeable is that a Retina screen presents the world as clearly as our very own eyes.

Another WHOLLY SH_T moment happened when moving my physical position about in the dining room chair — there was no change in tonal nor brightness on the screen.

On every previous portable MBP (and likely on every portable PCs monitor), you have to find juuuust the right tilt of the screen in relationship to your eye perspective/view. Then and only then could you feel you were going to be toning photographs or color correcting video properly.

Those days are gone.

The MBPr is so smack on, you can move the screen back and forth by 30-40 degrees, never witnessing a tonal nor density change in the screen. No more neck cringes caused by concerns if you move your head or shift your body, where then every aspect of toning needs monitor repositioning.

We’re now all free to move about, even turning screens for sideways views so others like Kon, who after too many oohs and ah’s, wandered over to ooh and ah himself.

Continuing on the screen — yes, there’s far more bits still to share — on the final full day of using the MBPr, I stumbled into the unexpected…the screen is much less reflective than all previous glossy screens. Here, take a look:

At first I could not believe what my eyes were not seeing — I never heard that the often gripped about issue of glossy screens being too reflective had been, though not completely, resolved. Sure, if you take a MacBook Pro Retina screen outside by a pool or smack in the middle of football pitch, you'll catch your mug reflecting in the screen. However in a shaded area or indoors and in situations like this where a very large window is pouring in light all over me, even wearing a while t-shirt the reflective image is hardly noticed in the black areas of the display, and never did I notice myself while working on an actual image.

Loads of websites and magazines have surely mentioned how crisp and sharp letters/fonts are now on the retina screen so I’ll skip that part — Yes, it’s true, you can read as if letters were chiseled in stone, not pixels.

What matters in the world of photography and filmmaking is the image, and wholly cow has image viewing been raised not just to a whole new level, it’s nearly like viewing reality before you, all over again.

 

Speed

Pushing the MacBook Pro with Retina display as hard as I could using Aperture — using certain brushes that are processor hungry — rarely did it slow down, even while working on the most entry level MBPr.

Only twice did Aperture take a half second to catch its breath when adding complex definition brush strokes to an image (maxing out the RAM would surely stop any chance of a spinning pizza from rearing its twirling colors).

Every other action done in Aperture and a few playback tests in FC flowed and responded in real time. No delays.

 

USB 3

Like surely all, I relish the moments of down time, unchained from all this nonsense so we can be with our families, have a drink at the bar after a long day on the streets (as we did during film days), to read a book or dare I verge on delusional with the notion of getting to bed early.

If I could bring back all the time lost while waiting for 8GB and 16 (now 32 and 64GB) cards to download, I’d have more lives left than a cat.

I can remember the days when myself and a number of Time Magazine colleagues rented a house in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was November 2001, to be exact. I was covering the departure of the Taliban and the emergence of an society aching for change using my first ever digital camera — a Nikon 1Dx which cost well over $6000 yet produced images (in Jpeg) little better than a $300 iPhone 4s.

Downloading images off a 1GB Micro Drive (now here’s an example for not complaining about the costs of being a photographer today…those 1GB IBM CF cards just over 10 years ago where $350++ each. Last month I bought a 32GB Lexar cards for less than $100), it took 20+ minutes via what I presume was then a USB 1 connected to a USB 1 hard drive.

This was state of the art.

When Apple brought Firewire 400 (and then FW800) to a MacBook some years ago, it was liberation, where downloading meant less time lost, however not nearly enough when downloading from today’s massive storing SD and CF cards.

When copying the South Sudan Aperture library from this 2+ year old MBP over to a portable hard drive (USB 2 to USB 3 — had purchased new USB 3 HD’s to use for the Fedex delayed MBPr loaner…), that 11GB Aperture library chockablock full of preview files, metadata, toning layers and whatnot, copied in just over 15 mins.

The same Aperture library copied from the exact same USB 3 HD over to the USB 3 MacBook Pro Retina — hold on to your seats:

2 minutes 39 seconds.

Enough said.

 

Battery

Maybe it’s because this older MacBook Pro has been dragged up and down too many stairs in a Think Tank bag, wedged into countless overhead bins or received the crumbs of too many sandwiches into the keyboard crevices. It’s just not as fast as it use to be nor is older battery technology able to truly disconnect me very long without AC power and a wall socket. I’m lucky if I get 1 hour on this battery — surely the battery could use replacing but I’m upgrading so why bother.

My sister-in-law, Maria Bakkalapulo, a stellar ethnomusicologist and radio journalist, has a relatively new MBP. She tells me she gets around 2-3 hours on her kit when unplugged using basic apps. When crunching heavy processor apps (like Final Cut) while on battery power, she receives a decent 1 to 1 1/2 hours of battery time….and that, Maria says, is with the screen slightly dimmed.

To see what this MacBook Pro with Retina display battery can handle regarding working say on long haul flights, I unplugged the power cable, cranked up the retina screen to full brightness and pushed the processor as hard as possible with complex brushes in Aperture like definition, repeated burning/dodging, slideshow creations, viewed a video file, etc.

After 1 hour there was still 80% batter power left.

At 4 hours on battery power and having to stop to eat dinner with the family, it was only nearing 20%, likely still able to cruise at full processor speed for another 30-60 more minutes.

It’s not in perpetuity battery flow (perpetual motion is the holly grail of scientific invention), however we no longer need to wander about in search of a power supply as often and that flight across The Pond can indeed be a purposeful, work productive (or movie watching) experience, basically all the way on battery power.

Wow, could I have used that oomph while in South Sudan, where the generator often knocked off for hours, rendering my ability to work on preparing images for MSF impossible.

 

Weight

Simply put — the MBPr is thinner and lighter than any previous MBP. It’s not as light as my wife’s MacBook Air, however I reckon it’s a safe bet that Jony Ivey and his fellow geniuses will sort a way to pack the same power into the size of a MacBook Air well within the next few year and then we’ll all have better posture and re-leveled shoulders.

How they pack so much more power and battery life into an even thinner/lighter piece of kit is beyond comprehension. Simply put, it's art. By the way, only after taking this iPhone snap did I truly realize how much abuse this older MBP (right) has taken over the years.

Sound

Being a field recordist for over 20 years and now being asked to produce more films, sound quality is paramount. No idea how they did it but the sound emanating out of the Retina MacBook Pro is significantly better. The speakers even received the WDiiB (Wow, Daddy, it is Better!”) Seal Approval from my son, Konstantin, when I played him a film excerpt from South Sudan, watching the exact same film clip on this MBP and the loaner MBPr. I wouldn’t throw away your Bose or other high-end stereo external speakers just yet, however the sound (more so, the quality) coming out of this computer is noticeably better.

 

Thunderbolt

Did not have access to any Thunderbolt peripherals but when reading about — and understand with my limited tech knowledge of such things as transfer speeds — it’s very safe to say that the insane speeds of UBS 3 will feel somewhat impish once using a completely Thunderbolt connected system.

 

Solutions

After sharing realtime thoughts recently over Facebook and Twitter while working with the MBPr, I received some very constructive but somewhat misplaced grips. Initial concerns on a key matter were indeed realistic — the lack of connection ports. Rghtfully so, because the myriad of connecting ports we’ve all gotten use to over the last decade (like ethernet connection, Firewire, data card slots, etc) can and will compromise certain aspects of creative workflow now that everything (other than USB 3) is connected via a thing called Thunderbolt. However most if not all have been addressed, either by Apple or third party peripheral makers.

Here’s a rundown of concerns I heard over the 8 days of testing while sharing thoughts through social media:

 

Connectivity

There were complaints — and some potentially serious concerns — about legacy connectivity with older, less rapidly upgrading third party items such as digital sound cards and other connecting peripheral bits, not to mention the loss of 800FW.

Right while these constructive discussions where occurring, my good friend and VII colleague, Marcus Bleasdale, emailed me the this link, solving pretty much each and every legacy connective issue possible — a simple, elegant Thunderbolt to everything else connecting dock made by Belkin.

Order it, then create with peripherals which likely were even invented over a decade ago — that’s centuries in computer years.

 

No 17″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display

Sorry, no behemoth to carry on to a plane which only can be opened comfortably in Singapore Air business class seats. If you want a 17″, it will likely have to wait until Apple sort this (if they even choose to) or plain and simply do the following because it’s an excellent workflow when wanting large screens; Work/create just as brilliantly as many of us have done for basically a decade, doing so on a lightweight, extremely portable and powerful computer with a staggeringly brilliant 15 inch Retina screen, then if needing a larger monitor, do final editing back in studio, connected to a brilliant 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display where we really have visual real estate space.

 

Photoshop Compatibility

I heard from a few friends who were wondering whether any of the Adobe image programs (CS/Photoshop/etc) presented images properly on the Retina screen. You might be shocked to know…I don’t use CS (Photoshop), using instead Aperture for my entire still image workflow (even for video storage/organizing). Yes, I do have a licensed version of CS5 but rarely if ever use it. And no, I did not test any Adobe products on this MBPr. CS was not preinstalled (Apple knows I’m an Aperture user) so you will have to reference other sources for this potential compatibility issue. Most important to realize regarding this matter — Apple has always been THE graphics/artists based computer. Sooner than later Adobe will upgrade all their programs just as they have done during previous major OS updates from Apple. In the mean time, try Aperture and you’ll quickly realize just how more efficient, powerful and liberating this entire dry darkroom madness and image organizing chaos can be.

 

Power Cable

The new MacBook Pro with Retina displays has a wider AC connector so your old MBP power supplies will not work as a backup…let’s not whine about cable changes as has been happening with the new Lightening iPhone connector — things do change. They have to, nearly always for the better. There is however a perfect solution in order to keep those older MBP power supplies useful, a MagSafe 2 Converter which sells for just $10 bucks.

 

Epilogue

Back in 1997 I was living in Hong Kong. After much buildup and excitement within the tech world (sorry, I don’t get excited about new gear. I simply get excited by what I can do with it), by late November of that year, Apple had finally released what was considered the mac-daddy of portable Macs — the PowerBook G3 (Kanga). My portable computer at the time, a Powerbook 5300, was also on its last leg and was needing to be replaced. Even with Hong Kong being the capital of low cost discounted electronics (and without a sales tax), I went out and bought this powerhouse of a computer (directly at the home of an authorized reseller — his shop had already closed for night) for a staggering $4,000 USD. It had a whopping 5GB HD with processing speeds likely now be found in an Apple Nano.

Part of 30+ year personal project on my feet, that's $30,000 Hong Kong Dollars (or $4000 USD) laying on the floor in exchange for that PowerBook G3 computer over on the far right. Still have that computer, part of the Stanmeyer Museum of Computer Relics collection.

The MacBook Pro with Retina display I tested (the 15-inch: 2.3 GHz Retina display) is selling for $1,800 less than that 1997 Powerbook G3, for $2,199, or with a full 16GB of RAM for $200 more.

The max-ed out MacBook Pro with Retina crammed with gobs of flash HD space, screaming amounts of RAM and processor MHz whatnot thrown in, is selling for $3,749, $250 less than that then brilliant brick I bought well over a decade ago in Hong Kong.

The max’ed model is what I’d recommend if you can push the bank account (or credit cards) that far, simply for the full power of 16 GB of RAM and the fastest possible processor along with loads of storage space.

To say all this is not inexpensive is a truth for most of us.

To say our photography is important  — along with the the time saved to be a photographer and spend time with your family, friends or just plan rest — is priceless.

I have so much more to do in this life and it doesn’t include being tethered behind a glowing screen.

Time for me to order a Retina screen MacBook Pro — and though I adore Fedex (they are smack on brilliant, only two delays to the farm in the last four years of countless deliveries) — I do hope the max’ed MBPr arrives to the doorstep before my return to South Sudan on October 8th.

MacBook Pro with Retina display loaner, heading back last week to Cupertino.

All the best,

 

 

(Photographers wanting to discover how to empower their digital archives — and spend less time behind these glowing screes — I’m hosting a Organize all this Digital Madness workshop in my studio next weekend. Only a few spaces left. Visit my workshop link for registration and complete details for this Aperture workshop and future workshops to Indonesia and India in 2013)

September 21, 2012   11 Comments

Why Choose a Holga? Part III – Film to Book

A woman is in trance during a Melasti ceremony at the Pura Tanah Lot, a 15th-century temple and one of Bali’s holiest sites situated just off the coast of Tabanan. This unique ceremony is held to purify and make sacred the Pralinggan Ida Betara, or god temple shrine, carried from its sister temple in Tambawaras.

Enchantment

Finding solace — and time to feed the beast — continues to occur in the air, this time heading across the Pacific in seat 25C.

No better way to proceed with Part III of Why Choose a Holga? then doing so while flying to a country we once called home and were the book, Island of the Spirits, was created.

Indonesia.

Just the name, Indonesia, conjures images of mystery, enchantment, suspense and magic.

On many levels, Indonesia had a profound effect for me and my family. For instance, if we hadn’t chosen to name our daughter Francesca Merapi (Merapi, being the name of a mystical Central Javanese volcano), we might have chosen Francesca Indonesia Stanmeyer.

No joke.

The word Holga also illicit’s a sense of enchantment, mystery, magic and indeed suspense…suspense because you never fully know what will be exposed on the negatives it produces.

Digital cameras took away the mystery — and at times, suspense — of photography. The pensive wait for hours or days thereafter for the film to be developed has been replaced with instant gratification at a press of the button.

Film and a Holga simply does not work that way, taking you back in time (not that long ago) when thought and patients reigned.

A high priest, or Ratu Pedanda, is held by her followers during a ceremony in Ubud. When such a holy person prays, he or she is called a living Siwa and is believed to deliver direct messages or requests from the gods. That is why the revered person is held and does not touch the ground.

Film

Living five years in Bali had many ups, but also downs.

Bali is an overwhelmingly beautiful place to live, raising a family amongst some of the most kindest people in one of the richest cultures on earth.

The down sides often resided in the reality that for a working photographer, there simply wasn’t the infrastructure on the island to handle professional photographic needs.

Forget non-reliant electricity, obscenely expensive satellite Internet fees, the numerous hassles from corrupt customs officials who would want to shake me down for money at the airport because I had more than one camera whenever arriving home (yes, I was a registered journalist and a legal resident…and a sign, clearly written in both Bahasa Indonesia and English, resided on the wall in the customs interrogation room which read “TWO recording devices are allowed to be brought into Indonesia…”), or if you needed specific equipment, it would have to wait until making a future trip to Singapore, Hong Kong or New York.

The greedy customs agents are easy to sort — just let them get bored with your kindness and smiles, after an hour they give up knowing they are wrong. Can’t blame them, they are underpaid and have families to feed.

The most complicated to sort was finding a lab which could properly develop 120mm film.

Knowing years before moving full-time to Bali that films like 120 Tri-X simply did not exist on the island, the choice was predetermined:

Kodak CN400.

Accepting that the grain pattern was tight, lacking the feel and sublet nuance of it’s more mature cousin, Tri-X, it was the ability to develop using C-41 (color chemical processing) which cemented the decision.

More so, it was relatively easy to find in Indonesia.

Seems simple, right?

Not really.

Here is how it was accomplished in what took five years to photograph and a few more years thereafter in post production.

A giant ogoh-ogoh is paraded at night through the village of Tibubeneng in Canggu on the eve of Nyepi, or the Balinese Day of Silence. The primary purpose of creating ogoh-ogohs is the purification of the natural environment of any spiritual pollutants emitted from the activities of living beings, especially humans.

Processing

During Indonesia’s historically weighted Reformasi era, I’d tried many labs in Jakarta for E-6 processing (jeez, remember E6?? It’s not that long ago) but only one lab stood out, Standard Foto.

One day I called Farida, the wonderful women who owns/runs Standard Foto, and discovered she does professional processing of 120 C-41 film. This was a near godsend because the only place found in Bali that could do 120mm film was a dusty hole-in-the-wall shop located in the dreadful tourist area of Kuta in Denpasar — they scratched a test roll of film more than the Holga naturally does.

To get film to Jakarta, we’d wait until 3 or more rolls were needing processing, then express mail the rolls to Farida.

She knew I was demanding, requesting that only she process the film. No one else.

It was also imperative that the film was not cut into strips — the Holga is a manual film advancing camera with a nowhere near precise hand-winding knob. This means space between frames are often close together or even touching. The decision where to cut was mine and no one else’s.

Then came the next hurdle; How to ship back to Bali meter-long, uncut strips, of fragile film?

Farida devised a system…she would sleeve the uncut film in plastic, hand spin each roll, placing the rolled film into two 35mm film canisters — one canister on the bottom, one on the top — taking tape to seal the two touching canister seams so that each roll of 120 film became virtually indestructible to damage in it’s mini missile container.

Farida also knew I was giddy to see the processed film, often times turning around 20 or more rolls in one day, returning the film back to the studio in Bali the next day…and ever so kindly not charging express processing fees. Big hugs for that, Farida.

The studio in Bali, build as a one room house but used entirely for photography.

Yudhistira Dharma, aka, JP, working in the studio.

Whenever Tiki-Jne (Indonesia’s domestic express courier) came knocking on the garden gate, it was a time for near juvenile excitement; We were soon about to see what we now take for granted whenever pressing a preview button on the back of a digital camera — the mystery of photography.

Ripping open the package as if it were Christmas, we would go into the temperature controlled film room — with extreme humidity in Bali, we had to build literally an entire room in the studio that was completely sealed and humidity/temperature controlled. We’d put on gloves, turn on the lightbox and begin opening Farida’s deftly sealed plastic film canisters.

At times it was a near religious experience — there is nothing more recessed in tradition and thought provoking than looking at film. And there is nothing more mysterious and beguiling then looping a roll of film created on a Holga to see what actually was exposed.

Editing rolls of Holga film with Wayan Tilik that had just arrived from Standard Foto in the film room of the studio. Not concerned about theft, more so, fire, hence the large safes which kept film and HD's from potential ruin. If you look closely near the center/bottom of the photograph, you'll see the Farida designed way of protecting 120mm uncut film using two 35mm plastic film canisters. Photograph Courtesy of Lukman Bintoro

Workflow

Because of my concern to have no one else cut film, we had to devise a simple but meaningful way to go from a negative to a positive. We needed contact sheets. The solution: Flatbed scanner.

After cutting, Wayan or JP would dive with enchantment into the process of creating digital contact sheets, beginning the first step of an involving dance of going from film to book and exhibition ready images.

 

Step I

Digital contact sheets – Each roll would be scanned at around 30 mega each, given a special code (example: holga-melasti-001, holga-melasti-002, holga-melasti-003, etc), then placed in archival envelopes with matching digital contact sheet code.

 

Step II

Basic toning – Raw (untoned) digital contact sheets would need basic toning, sometimes toning individual frames on each contact sheet due the limited exposure controls on a Holga — Sun or Cloud.

 

Step III

First Edit – It was said by a photographer (her or his name escapes the mind) that showing contact sheets is like showing someone your underwear.

Ok, here is my underwear:

First edits made on a digital contact sheet from barong ceremony located in Baturiti, Bali.

Only one edit made on a digital contact sheet from a Perang Pandan ritual in Tenganan Village.

Using dots, I would make a broad but meaningful first edit. These edits would be called in the analogue as world work prints, but in this digital realm, they became work scans. All contact sheets were scanned as 30+ meg TIFFs, allowing for full-screen viewing on a 30-inch Apple monitor of each individual frame.

 

Step IV

Organizing – Every edited digital contact sheet was then imported into Aperture, Apple’s professional digital imaging program. Aperture is by far the best for not only toning both digital camera files and digital film scans, Aperture is the most intuitive organizing program, allowing you to work in a humanizing way, as if categorizing analogue film in the film room. In addition to contact sheets, all work scans were imported to begin the next step, toning of work scans. Here is an example of what contact sheets look like when organized using Aperture:

543 digital contact sheets, some edited, others not, residing in Aperture. Due to inherent spacing issues when advancing film in a Holga, some contact sheets could not be cut into typical strips of three. Some had to be cut into strips of two or even one negative frame, creating at times an A, B and C contact sheet for an individual roll of film. This is why all cutting of film had to be done in Bali, not at the lab in Jakarta or by anyone else other then myself.

Step V

Work Scans – JP or Wayan would then take each edits negative, scanning one by one on a flatbed scanner, using a mask to make sure perfect full-frame (including the natural black border of the film) scans were created. These scans were made as 30 meg TIFFs. The work scans then received a special coding, matching them with their respected roll of film. Example: holga-melasti-002-04 (meaning, roll 0002 of a melasti ceremony, frame number 4).

 

Step VI

Work scans needed toning. These would become the photographs which the final book edit was derive from. Well over 600 A, B and “what the #*$- is this?” edits, were toned and organized in Aperture.

When I first starting using Aperture (version 1.5 days), some photographers considered it a slow running program. Sure, we all want everything fast but those who complained missed the boat — anything digital in version 1.whatever is no different then complaining that your child, a prodigy violin player, isn’t immediately performing like Itzhak Perlman at Carnegie Hall. Speed aside, Aperture blew me away with its powerful toning controls for black and white film scans. More so, Aperture works in a way that mirrored my process in a wet darkroom.

Aperture version 3 is now lightening fast and nearing a Miles Davis level of brilliance.

Second Edit – Once the work scans were toned, the next task was to edit over 600 images down to a visual narrative. Using staring, color labels, Smart Albums and whatnot in Aperture, the multi-year body of work grew into shape and form on the screen, bringing a large loose edit into a storytelling 100+ image tighter edit.

Final A edit, toned and organized in Aperture. Notice the multiple albums, projects and whatnot on the left. The ability to quickly and efficiently make various albums helped in bringing the edit down to 106.

Step VIII

Work Prints – Being more in-tuned with three dimensions than two, I find it nearly impossible to fully determine a selection without making final decisions from prints. One long weekend, we printed 106 photographs on A4 paper.

 

Step IX

Final Edit – Lisa Botos, the former editor of Time Magazine in Hong Kong, was the editor for the Island of the Spirits book. We had worked together for over ten-years on countless stories. Lisa’s not only a dear friend and one of best photo editors I’ve ever worked with, she’s won nearly ever editing award possible during her tenure at Time. Lisa flew to Bali from her new home in Singapore. Awaiting her in the garden off the studio were all the prints, hanging on a makeshift clothesline around a large poinsettia tree we called Jack. Sipping wine and watching the kids run around the garden, we brought the 106 photographs down to 56, which would become the final edit for the Island of the Spirits.

My son's Konstantin and Richard, running around the garden off the studio amongst A4 size work prints. It's from these 106 prints that we made the final 56 image edit for the book, Island of the Spirits. August 17, 2007

Step X

Drum Scans – The final 56 photographs next needed to be turned into master digital files. Scans off a $300 flatbed scanner are fine for work scans, but it’s nowhere near good enough to use for a book or massive exhibition prints. Lans Brahmantyo, owner of R&W books (who published Island of the Spirits), had a drum scanner in his Jakarta office. Out of fear of having original negatives lost if using a shipping company, Wayan flew to Jakarta and hand delivered the original negatives for drum scanning. 200 megabyte, 16 bit, RGB scans were made of the initial 106 image edit, just in case of wanting to swap out an edits during the final layouts of the book.

 

Step XI

Dust and Scratches – Probably the most complicated, involving and time consuming task in the entire process of making the book was to clean dust and scratches that eight different Holga bodies imbedded across nearly every negative. 200 megabyte Heidelberg drum scans are ruthless, showing even the tiniest of tiny specs of dust. It took six months of nearly every day work to take the 106 images and remove the dust/scratches. We then made two versions of each master drum scan — an untouched original scan (with all the dust and scratches) and a second matching with was dust/scratch free, left untoned.

 

Step XII

Final Toning – The last step — though there never really is a last anything until the book comes off the press and the prints for the exhibition are all printed — was to tone the drum scans. It was in Aperture were the magic of being in a darkroom was nearly resurrected, working fluidly upon each image, reaching a proper, naturally toned quality. This final toning process took another six months.

A final toned image from a Melasti ceremony.

Step XIII through Infinity

The Book – In Part IV of Why Choose a Holga?, we’ll go into the process of why I chose to go with a Indonesian based publisher, working on design and layout, the nightmare of discovering that over a years worth of image prep was almost for naught and the fascinating processes of supervising the actual printing process of the book.

Till then, the plane, one of four that it took to get from Texas to Indonesia, is about to land. The second half of the National Geographic story, code named, The White Horse, is about to begin. It was a raging stallion to ride in the Pacific Northwest a few weeks back. It will likely continue to be an unbroken beast here in Southeast Asia.

Even with the visual challenges, I’d rather be nowhere else than in this magnificent land called Indonesia.

 

 

To Purchase Island of the Spirits

Regular Edition

Island of the Spirits by John Stanmeyer Foreword by anthropologist Wade Davis • Introduction by Anastasia Stanmeyer

Regular edition signed copies of Island of the Spirits are available worldwide through the Island of the Spirits website and unsigned through Amazon.com

In Indonesia, Island of the Spirits is available at all Periplus and Gramedia bookstores and the Ganesha bookstore in Ubud.

 

Limited Edition

Island of the Spirits is available in a Limited Edition of 150. The books cover is wrapped in grey woven material with a positive image on a full-frame piece of film replicating the original exposed 6x6 Holga negative. The numbered book is placed in a handmade box also covered in gray fabric material. A signed print on archival watercolor paper is included.

Limited Edition copies of Island of the Spirits are only available through the Island of the Spirits website.

In Indonesia, Limited Edition copies are only available from R&W.

August 7, 2011   9 Comments