Sharp enough in all the right places

I’ve had an on-and-off love affair with photography since my early teens, when I learned to develop and print negatives from my dad’s old Konica in his makeshift darkroom in the upstairs bathroom. Today, I more or less lead two lives: one where work as a psychiatrist in a small out-patient clinic and one where I photograph people and landscapes in pretty light. Being fairly introverted, my life would be much easier if I just stuck to landscapes and still life, but photographs of people evoke much more emotion and meaning in me. I once thought I wanted to go into fashion photography, but I’ve realized I much more enjoy shooting families, small editorials, portraits and sometimes weddings. I live in the south of Sweden, with my wife, my kids and a huge Rhodesian Ridgeback.

In 2013, I was returning to photography after a long hiatus and I was smitten with the look and promise of analog film. I read Jose Villa’s book ”Fine art wedding photography”, Jonathan Canlas’ ”Film is not dead”, and watched Framed Network’s ”the Film Show” with Ryan Muirhead over and over. The greater dynamic range, better colors and the getting out of the editing chair of death had made me a believer. Supposedly, shooting film would also make me a better photographer, by slowing me down and making me think twice before tripping the shutter, since every frame cost actual money.

I found my wife’s old Olympus OM-1n in the closet, bought secondhand for her high-school photography class. Looking through that beautiful 1:1 viewfinder was mesmerizing and I was instantly hooked. By that time the analog resurgence had got rolling, but the Swedish currency was strong and old film cameras and film was still cheap. I bought two Pentax 67, two Pentax 645n and a Nikon F100, ordered film from Germany and sent my rolls off to pro labs in the US, the UK and Spain to get them developed and scanned.

In 2018 my wife and I started shooting new faces for a model agency as a way of bulking up on experience. I quickly realized that using film exclusively would get too expensive and that I needed a digital body as a complement. My wife had been shooting Fujifilm X-cameras for a few years and I had always thought those files looked too digital, too crunchy. I chuckled when she had to spend hours developing those raw files and retouching skin, when film scans required very little work on my end. Instead of a Fujifilm camera, I got a full frame Nikon D750, to use with an old Nikkor 50mm/1.4D I had lying around. It was an ok rig, but the results I got out of it couldn’t hold a candle to my beloved film and I never warmed up to that plastic PSAM design.

In 2021 Fujifilm discontinued their Pro 400H film, beloved my so many wedding photographers, and me. Across the board, film prices were also rising until they reached almost comical heights. At the beginning of that year, after doing some research, I bought a brand new Fujifilm GFX50R and adapted an F-mount Voigtländer 58mm/1.4 lens and this changed everything for me. Together with rapidly evolving film emulation profiles from the Archetype Process, this was the closest I’d ever gotten to real medium format film. It was as if digital cameras and software had finally caught up also for those of us that aspired to the film look. Over the course of a few months I shot less and less film, until I stopped entirely.

Later that year I bought a Fujifilm X100V and I wanted so badly to love it. While it was a joy to shoot, I found the resulting images flat, clinical and boring. How could it be that I enjoyed the images from the GFX so much, but not the files from the X100V, or my wife’s X-T4 for that matter? Was it just the sensor, or could it be a matter of lens characteristics?

As a test, I got a cheap adapter for an old Zuiko OM 50mm/1.2, mounted it on my wife’s old X-T2 and was immediately blown away by the filmic feel of the files. I concluded modern Fujinon lenses (with a few exceptions) were just too sharp and too optically corrected for my taste. That Zuiko 50mm is tight on a crop sensor, however, so I begun looking for alternatives. I found that Voigtländer makes a native X-mount 35mm/1.2 lens, but the few reviews I watched and read were disappointing and many outright ridiculed its optical faults. I bought a copy anyway and fell in love the moment I saw the first preview on the back LCD. I loved the softness wide open from its spherical aberration (a softness I emphasized by switching off all sharpening and adding noise reduction during raw development) and the way it flared and veiled. Shoot a portrait wide open and it’s sharp enough at all the right places, with a wonderful classical bokeh and nice three-dimensional pop. Stop it down and you have a perfectly sharp, slightly more modern rendering. To me, this lens was perfectly imperfect. I’ve since also purchased the Voigtländer 23mm/1.2, which I love a little less, but which still is fantastic.

Voigtländer only makes manual focus lenses, which might be a downside for some, but which has been a boon for me. Coming from older film cameras, I was used to manual focus and with modern magic like focus peaking I find it quick enough. For me, the act of placing the plane of focus by physically turning the focus ring also connects me stronger to my subject. Both my Voigtländer lenses in X-mount have a short throws and are very fast to operate. Everything just pops into focus.

While I do enjoy my GFX, I have a much more emotional connection with my X-T2. With a Voigtländer lens it’s unobtrusive, light and quick and it lends itself to intimate, cinematic images that feel like memories. To my eyes, its files perfectly emulate the grittiness of 35mm film. I’ve never quite been able to make the film simulations work for me, so I shoot in raw and develop the files in Lightroom. Compared to my GFX files, I find I prefer to edit the X-T2 files darker, like film negatives scanned for highlights rather than shadows. I have the camera set to auto ISO, allowing it to go down to 1/15th of a second, so I get a little bit of motion blur when the light gets low. I also have it set to DR-Auto, to get a little more highlight information to work with. So far I haven’t been bothered by the added noise and if I ever am, there’s always Lightrooms new AI denoise feature.

In the end, ironically, I never found the analog look I wanted shooting real film, but with a digital process instead. Combining the tactile experience of Fujifilm cameras, Voigtländer glass and a simple Lightroom workflow with film emulation profiles and grain from The Archetype Process, I’ve finally arrived exactly where I want to be.

This article was originally commissioned for Fuji X Passion Virtual photography Magazine and was published in the October issue 2023.

Nov 14, 2023.

Knitted brain beanie – portraits of Ryan Muirhead