Photoessay: Borneo seascapes

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Following on from the previous post on my recent acquisition of a medium format digital system, I thought it’d be appropriate to share some of the results from the first serious shoot I used it for a little while back. I found that the system was much more sensitive to camera shake than expected; mirror lockup was an absolute necessity, though the Gitzo GT1542 carbon traveller and Arca-Swiss P0 head both performed very well and offered more than sufficient rigidity. (In hindsight, I should probably have bought the cup feet for the tripod to prevent it sinking into the mud though.) Though you can’t see it at this size, the frames with mirror lockup are distinctly crisper at the pixel level than those without.

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All of the images were shot with the Hasselblad CFV-39 digital back on a 501CM with the 50/4 CF FLE and 150/4 CF lenses; almost all of them were long exposures, either during the dawn/dusk hours, or during daytime with the aid of a home-made variable ND filter*. This was to smooth out sea, or let me experiment with shooting the 150mm wide open even during bright daylight. Overall though, I’m pleased with the results from this outing; what you’re probably missing in the web-size jpegs is full accuracy of colour – yes, the sunsets out there were really that magenta. It’s very obvious on the monitor, and even more obvious in a print – I suppose those two extra bits of color do make a visible difference. I’ll need to be a bit more careful with exposure in the future, though – the LCD is completely useless for review in bright sunlight, and even when you can see it properly, it really doesn’t give any indication of the relative brightness of the image. Best to rely on the histogram; it seems that due to the lack of microlenses, the back is also about half to two thirds of a stop less sensitive than its rated ISO. In any case, enjoy the images, and if you’d like to see any of these in a future print run, please let me know in the comments ๐Ÿ™‚ MT

*I wanted to buy one, but all of the available options were both very expensive and not multicoated; in the end I discovered that two Carl Zeiss circular polarizers put back to front worked just as well, and were of course flare-free thanks to T* coatings on both sides. A 62-62mm male-male reverser ring off ebay later, and I’ve now got a two to approximately 12 stop variable ND. It does get darker, but anything above 12 stops seems to have a deep blue color cast – I suppose this has something to do with the physics of which wavelengths attenuate first upon polarization. But I can highly recommend this solution if you can find the right adaptor ring; it’s cheaper and better than the other available alternatives. No idea how it affects AF systems, though.

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  1. Hi Ming,
    I enjoy your site very much. I have recently moved from UK to China where they love big prints, so decided to ‘invest’ more in my old (ex e bay) Hasselblad equipment before I came to retire here. I have 503W/ 503 Xi bodies with Hassel/Zeiss 60mm T*/ 120mm T* and very old and battered Sonnar 150mm which is brilliant . As I sold my house in UK, had a bit to spend so shut my eyes and paid for a shop ex demo CFV50 digital back. Not sure whether I did right thing or should have bought second hand Haselblad digital camera /lens combo.
    So I was delighted that you are in similar position. Not many people seem to use these backs. I came to same conclusions as you: my spot meter (sekonic) did not agree with back ISO reading; now need to set Back to 200 ISO and meter to 160-130 ISO, only uses display to look at Histogram. Read somewhere that if you leave display turned on then can give grainy images, so now turn display off. I can only hand hold at 250-500 th /sec or camera shake kicks in, using mirror lock up improves a lot so need tripod. Seems fine with flash/mirror lock up/tripod.
    With film (Fuji velvia 50 ) everything was easy , brilliant results. Persevering with digi back, images and colour improving but need a bigger computer.
    Need to find somewhere in China where I can buy Fuji Velvia film/process and scan. Best alternative so far. Colin

    • I think it’s probably one of the cheapest and most flexible ways to get into MF digital; the CFV-50 requires even higher shutter speeds because your number of pixels per degree of FOV is even higher. I’ll try the display-off trick; it must be a heat thing. I don’t think mine fully turns off though, it just goes blank.

      Good color labs here are a rare thing too – alas that means (admittedly gorgeous) DIY film B&Ws or digital back – and losing that full frame 6×6.

      • Hi Ming
        I’ve just read your ‘reasons for MF digital’ page. I originally thought the lack of sharpness of CFV50 cf film was due to using small laptop,maybe like you using older bodies, they need adjustment for focussing. Have you heard of any problems using the old C lenses re focussing? I am going to London in January for few weeks, would you suggest buying new 503CW body or send everything off for testing/repair. Colin

  2. I agree with everyone else on the shots. I particularly like the sea-sky shot (7th shot).

    I also love how you can toss around expressions like “I suppose this has something to do with the physics of which wavelengths attenuate first upon polarization” with such nonchalance and get away with it ๐Ÿ™‚ The rest of us will sit there, nod, and pretend to understand exactly what that means…

    • Haha, thanks – I wasn’t be nonchalant though. I suspect the polarizers eat red first, then we’re left with whatever gets transmitted – i.e. a color cast. It’s just that it gets a lot more obvious when we don’t have a lot of light to begin with.

  3. Stephen King says:

    Hi Ming – have you tried the Hoodman loupes for looking at the LCD screen? works pretty well on the Phase One

  4. Jorge Balarin says:

    I like very much the pure see with the clouds over.

  5. You mentioned in the past the financial difficulty of being a photographer. I’m going to assume that if you can afford a medium format camera and an Arca Swiss tripod head, you aren’t doing too bad for yourself ๐Ÿ˜›

    Great shots, so it’s money well-spent ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • I’m doing okay, but I’d also like to caveat that Hasselblads now cost less than entry level DSLRs – this particular one was actually given to me – my digital back is discontinued/ three years old, second hand, and didn’t cost much more than a D4, and the Arca-Swiss head I have is $239. So not exactly what you might have imagined, I think ๐Ÿ˜‰

      In any case, it’s gotta have commercial ROI. And one has to be willing to make investments to get returns. I just look at it that way…

  6. Stephen King says:

    Ming: Have you tried using a Hoodman loupe to look on the LCD screen? It works pretty well on a Phase One screen. Cuts out the light and gives some magnification.

  7. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Ming, I have a few more thoughts…. What you say about MF rendering differently is apparent from the above series. It isn’t just the size of the sensor, it is also probably CCD rather than CMOS. Pixels are also going to be on the large size. MF lenses are different as their image circle is larger. Landscape photographer Carolyn Guild switched from Nikkor to Zeiss lenses because they rendered differently. Well, she said that. She also taught me a thing or two about black and white conversions. I can remember some people saying they preferred the rendering of skin tones with their pre-CMOS Nikons after Nikon switched to CMOS.

    Color is a different matter for me because I have always preferred the highly saturated contrasty look to real life. Well, there are sliders for that sort of thing and I view it as a matter of style. I found the saturated colors in Steve McCurry’s last roll of Kodachrome to be very satisfying.

    • CCD vs CMOS: no question; the tonal response of the two isn’t the same at all.
      Larger pixels: somewhat, this has more to do with acuity and color accuracy; dynamic range to a lesser extent (old tech, larger vs new tech, smaller)
      Lenses: I shoot Zeiss on pretty much all of my systems, and I agree: the rendering is many kinds of awesome. Consistent, too.
      Color: is personal. I like reality, though I like black and white more these days…

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        B&W digital is finally getting some acceptance in the fine arts community. A local gallery owner who would not touch it a while back recently had a show with lots of digital monochrome in it. Everything was toned blue and printed on a Lightjet. I go both ways as far as color/b&w is concerned. Last year I did a lot of B&W, this year mostly color. I don’t have to earn a living off photography, so I am free to experiment and skip around. I have noticed that B&W sets get a very good response on my blog.

        • I think for now the way to go for the ultimate B&W tonality is still very much a hybrid film-digital workflow; neither one on its own quite gives the ultimate in flexibility/ control and tonality.

  8. Awesome Pictures

  9. Peter Boender says:

    Hey Ming, as always, thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚
    To me, #6 has the most impact. Real moody shot, I like it. Can imagine it turned out awesome when you had it printed that big.
    What’s with the colour cast of numbers #2 and #3 BTW? They look very orangy/peachy on my monitor, almost 70’s vintage. I wonder, since I know how much you detest those Instagram filters…

    • Thanks. Is your monitor calibrated? The light was really quite warm tough – very peculiar for just those fifteen minutes. It’s all nearly out of gamut, so you might be seeing some posterization.

      • My display has been calibrated and the second image looks very, very peachy to me as well. I suppose that the effect might be intensified due to placement immediately after the first image.
        I’ve already read about your preference for neutrality so I assumed the light was strangely warm, but it I hadn’t known your preferences I would’ve been more likely to attribute the color to processing or gear rather than being naturally occurring.
        As an aside, my wife traveled to the Western US for her first time and exclaimed that she was surprised by this: she had always previously interpreted the colors in paintings of western scenes as stylized, hyper-dramatized interpretations that must have been owing to a prevailing artistic style. It turns out the paintings matched the natural colors quite well; rather than artistic exaggeration it turned out that the reality was as dramatic as the paintings depicted.

  10. Breathtaking photos..thanks again for sharing!

  11. Nice series, Ming, and thank you for the polariser filters tip. Does this technique work with multicoated filters of other brands than Zeiss ?

  12. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Nice series. I dig the sea urchins.

  13. I forgot to mention 1, 6 and 11 are my votes for printing.

  14. Awesome photographs Ming. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  15. #7 and #11 have the greatest effect on me. Amazing photos, thanks for sharing!

  16. randomesquephoto says:

    Wow. This is great. And those clouds are incredible

    Any tips on making a ND filter for micro 4/3? Two lenses I have, have a 37mm these size. And it’s difficult finding anything for it that’s not crap.

  17. Peter I. Hwang says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for the past year or so. I think it’s one of the best photography blogs I’ve ever seen. Really outstanding as you’ve already been told. I was going to donate a little to your cause but found out that the Paypal link doesn’t work. I’ll gladly send you a check or use Google checkout? Keep up the really great work! Peter Hwang from Studio City, CA USA.

    • Thanks – don’t worry about the donation, but thanks for the thought. You can get something useful for yourself instead: one of the videos ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. These are images I’d think could only exist in my imagination.

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