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Browniegate: In hoc signo vinces

20190103_204435.jpgWell, you have that day where you feel like you want to step off the film train. Oddly enough, it was not because some digital sensor came along with massive resolution, or film hit $8 a roll, or the EU outlawed developing chemicals. Or you name the calamity.

Here, it was the product of well-meaning backward-compatibility. I had this thought as I was looking at a roll of TMY shot with a Silvestri H that probably cost $10,000 new. It uses standard-style roll backs made by Mamiya that are bulletproof and have nicely spaced frames. The pictures themselves were sharp, undistorted, and perspective-corrected. But they were ruined for optical printing because backing paper numbers – useful only to people with red-window cameras – transferred onto the emulsion. I felt like Constantine the Great, kinda. I looked in the sky, and the sign of “Kodak 14” was shining down on me. In this sign you will [be] conquere[d].

Browniegate (let’s give it a good name, at least) occurred because Kodak had an issue with backing paper on 120 film (this affected some lots made between 2-4 years ago). Environmental conditions could cause backing paper frame numbers to transfer onto the emulsion of the film and show up in low-density areas, especially the sky. Lomographers probably loved this. Everyone else, not so much.

Kodak handled this reasonably well (but not optimally),* and it has been very good about replacing defective film. Given that they had few choices for backing paper (1-2 suppliers of this worldwide) and that they probably couldn’t anticipate the full range of environmental abuse film might experience in storage, I cut them some slack. We all accept that any time we use film, we could end up with no pictures. Grab the fix instead of the developer. Leave a rear lens cap on. We’ve all been there. But the backing paper thing is not within user control. Unlike the bad roll of film that comes up every hundred thousand rolls of film, the frame number thing hits more often. It’s not like lightning. It’s more like a tornado ripping through farm country.

The what is one thing. But the why is another. Laying aside bad material choices by the backing paper manufacturer, the underlying issue is that frame numbers on paper backing were last needed for serious cameras in the 1950s (the Super Ikonta C may be the last one), and the ruby-window method of seeing what frame you are on persists mainly in (1) Brownie cameras whose design goes back to 1895; (2) Lomography-oriented products; and (3) current large-format roll holders that should know better. There is actually no excuse for this last category, since there is no patent for frame counters that is still valid, and roll backs are only made in LCCs now. It’s the support of these older and cheaper cameras that requires frame numbers past #1 – and in a weird way, the shadow of the 19th century is still causing problems in the 21st.

The bigger question this begs is this: if backward compatibility is a significant part of the business case for 120, does that mean that when the ruby-window market fizzles out, it will take serious medium-format photography with it? Best not to think about that.

*By not optimally, it would be nice to have a new catalogue number for new backing paper, so that people trying to buy film from B&H for critical use would not get stuck with old product – like I did when I was going to Singapore, bought 20 rolls of TMY in March 2019, got 158xxx TMY, and had backing number transfers on every roll of film, with up to 75% of 6×4.5 frames being affected on any given roll. Or maybe use a laminated paper that has punched-out numbers and not printed ones. 


The Kodak/Pakon F235 Plus, revisited


Yeah, we still have it. Not the magic touch, but the scanner (with the magic touch). Potions of the below appeared on years ago; I have added some updates and new notes on light sources, a subject on which there is tremendous misinformation on  the ‘net.

What is a Pakon? 

The company is best known for its plastic slide mounts, which in the old days you would buy to fix the cardboard mount that your projector mangled. But as division of Kodak, it began to produce minilab scanners (the F135, F135 Plus, F235, F235 Plus, and F335).

Many people are familiar with the Pakon F135 and F135 Plus, which have become very popular as tabletop scanners. What makes these scanners genius is that they do scanning on one pass, without annoying prescans or the rat-a-tat-tat of stepper-motor driven film scanners.

The PSI software is even more ingenious. Basically, you feed it a roll of film, and:

  • It can take strips of film up to and including a 40-frame uncut roll.
  • It scans all of the frames as a bitstream image at rates in the hundreds of frames per hour, with Digital ICE turned on.
  • It uses DX codes on the film to determine the frame number and applies that to the filenames of the resulting files (JPG, TIFF, or RAW, to your preference)
  • It automatically finds the frames, DX coding or not. On its software, you can adjust framing after the fact.
  • It quickly and with astonishing accuracy corrects color and exposure, even on frames with exposure errors or fading.
  • It spits out all of the files, in sizes up to 3000×2000 (this is a 2000dpi scanner) onto your output drive or media (some earlier models require software fixes to output at this resolution).
  • It does not require a special console, just XP (real or emulated) with an unformatted N partition on the boot drive. You install the software and go to town.

If you are feeling especially technical, you can use the TLXclient software, which allows different bit depths, full-out-to-the-edges framing, unusual frame sizes (you can scan individual half frames or Xpan frames – or output them as full-resolution strips), and many other things. It comes into play more, one would surmise, if the Pakon is your only scanning machine.

How is a Pakon different from other negative scanners? 

This minilab scanner differs from your Coolscan in a few key ways.

First, they are designed for speed.  An F235 Plus, for example, will do 800 frames an hour at 3000×2000 resolution. Yes, that’s 33 rolls per hour, or a roll or 24 frames about every two minutes. Most people would burn through a lifetime of black and white 35mm negatives in a few days of work. The 135 series runs at about half that speed with ICE off.

With Digital ICE turned on, the 235 Plus still does 400 frames an hour.  Reduce the resolution to one of the lower settings (such as what you would use for web-sized pictures or 4×6 prints), and it really flies.  Part of the speed comes from obviating negative carriers, the cumbersome and relatively fragile part of any consumer-grade scanner. The rest is dispensing with the prescan, which introduces more complication in the process.

These are the relative speeds of Pakons vs each other (Digital ICE off / Digital ICE on) for a maximum-resolution scan. This is per hour. Loading film in strips slows this down slightly. This is the order in which the machines were released:

  1. F235 (400 / 250)
  2. F235 plus (800 / 400 )
  3. F135 (293 / 220 @ 1500 x 2000)
  4. F335 (1053 / 790)
  5. F135 plus (477 / 387)

One thing that is clear is that the speed of Digital ICE processing ramped up to where it was very close to the limit of the scanning speed. But that is of no moment if your life is all silver b/w or Kodachrome, where dust and scratch removal doesn’t work.

Second, Pakon scanners are designed for a minimum of human intervention.  Despite the availability of an SDK for this scanner, the proprietary PSI software is the only fully finished piece that will run this scanner. This software, by the way, is brilliant in its simplicity.  Even in “advanced” mode, it has only a few settings: what type of film (color, b/w, slide), how many frames per strip (4, 5, 6 or many), whether you want Digital ICE on or off (color only), and the roll number that will become the name of the folder when you save the roll.  That’s it.  The machine scans as much film as you want to give it, figures out where the frames are, does all color corrections without human intervention (unless you want to participate) and kicks out your choice of output (3 resolutions, JPG or TIFF, RAW or processed).  It even reads the DX codes off of the film and gives each frame the name of the nearest barcoded frame number.  Brilliant.

Buried in your program folder is something called TLXclient, which you can use for oddly-sized frames (such as half-frame 35mm and Xpan). It’s a little more geeky, but it lets you play with wide frames (a lot of the time you can get black all the way around a 24×36), play with the bit depth, and do other things that aren’t really central enough to PSI’s minilab mission.

Finally, the Pakons not generate information that you do not need.  The first thing that a gearhead will look at is the scanning resolution.  The maximum is 3000×2000 (6MP), which is an acceptable resolution for an 8×12 on a dye sublimation or inkjet printer, if not a Frontier.

“Wait? 4000dpi!” Most 35mm pictures don’t get enlarged more than 8×12, most in fact are just shown on computer screens these days, and for situations where you need to, you can always use a high-end desktop negative scanner, pay to play on Flextight, or have your work drum scanned.

If all you are out to do is quick proofs to see what is worth scanning with a much higher resolution machine – and just want 1500×1000 thumbnails, the F235 plus blows out up to 3,000 of those an hour, or roughly one per second. You would need a spotter to catch the negatives flying out of the machine. And a second helper feeding it.

But let’s be real here. If you for some reason believe that you need to scan every single picture you have, you will never get it done on a normal negative scanner that runs with a carrier and Vuescan or Silverfast.

What’s different about the F235 Plus?

The 135 and 135 Plus have a “dog bowl” form factor in which film travels in with the sprockets at top and bottom, around a curve, and out the other side. Negatives end up neatly in the tray. They are not as fast as the 235 and 335 series machines for a number of ergonomic reasons in addition to the slower transport speed.

The 235, 235 Plus, and 335 use a larger chassis (about the size of a large bread making machine) and take film straight through and out the back into a negative bin made of Lexan. The 235 Plus and the 335 are the speed demons, with the 335 — exceptionally hard to find in working order — edging out the 235 Plus by 20% with no ICE and almost 100% with ICE. They can take shorter strips of film than the 135 – down to two frames – though you may want to use a chopstick to nudge the strip to engage with the sprocket rollers.

But the real difference with the 235 Plus is that it uses a halogen light source and not an LED. Many people have made uninformed suggestions that this bulb is somehow difficult to find, expensive, or otherwise a problem. It’s not. You can access it by taking one magnetic-catch cover off the scanner.

The exotic-sounding “Solux” bulb is a actually a 12v, 50W EIKO MR16 (GU5.3) track light bulb whose only special parameters are that it has a 24 degree throw angle and has a 4700K calibration (so close to daylight). This bulb was not actually developed for the F235 series but was an off-the-shelf (and still current production) art museum track light bulb whose fitting, voltage, and wattage are identical to bulbs in lamps you probably have around your house. So even if you had to wait to buy a 4700k version for a whopping $10-14, you could march down to the local hardware store buy something reasonably close for $2 and be back in business in minutes. Witness:


Does this bulb look familiar?

So what? You ask. LEDs go 10,000 hours instead of 1,000. Why should we put up with a bulb that has to be replaced? One could always point out that 1,000 hours on this machine is 800,000 b/w negatives, which is several times more than anyone outside a professional photojournalist shoots in a lifetime.

But the real reason is color. A lot of early Kodak scanners ran on halogen light sources. Why oh why? It’s all about color. Kodak was always fixated on perfect color in all of its systems, and at the time that the F235 and F235 Plus came out, and even now, you can’t get a Color Rendering Index of 98 with LED. CRI is the measure of how even a spectrum a bulb produces compared to a reference light source, and until recently, LEDs have scored very low because they have holes in their spectral transmission. And if you are fixated on the quality of color through transparency film, the white LEDs that were in play in the Pakon era were nowhere near hitting the barely 90 CRI that LEDs are hitting today.

The other thing is that the F235 system is highly diffused, like a diffuser enlarger. LED light sources are very concentrated and often very unforgiving of other than perfect negatives. If you have ever compared the output from a Nikon LS and a Flextight (or a Sprintscan), you know that diffused light sources don’t multiply the retouching workload later.

So how did LEDs get into the 135 and 335? They were later machines, and as slide shooting went off a cliff, there was little call to maximize color rendition for that application (and even the declining use of film made the slower speed of the 135 completely livable). LED turned out to be fine for negatives (note that the 135 series did not have native chrome capability until a later version of the software, which might be employing its own methods to correct for the light source).

Today you could probably retrofit the 235 with a direct-fit LED bulb (query what might happen if you put the scanner in “dim” mode, though) or pretty any much light source. The machine calibrates itself to the light source on startup

But in general, the F235 Plus is a very fast platform that is easy to clean, does not twist your negatives around curves, and is more suitable to scanning several rolls, then correcting them all at once, then hitting the next set. The one downside is that it does have a fan, and so it is a little louder than a computer. Not 747 jet-engine loud, but still noticeable.

The only sad thing about the F235 Plus is that you might find that your life’s production of negatives zips right through, and after you scan all of the negatives in your family and from some of your friends, there are no more worlds left to scan, er, conquer.

I booted mine up after having it in the box for a while. I ran a few long rolls of film that I forgot about until after I moved. It’s magic. The machine is genius. But now what?

Konica M-Hexanon 28mm f/2.8


The 28mm M-Hexanon, like the its focal length, occupies a strange space that is neither here nor there. I have never had good luck with 28mm lenses, if only because the angle is a little wide to be comfortable for close shots of people and a little narrow for some of the landscapes I shoot.

Only on the verge of selling mine (for lack of use since way back when I had an M8) did I shoot a bunch of tests with an M typ 240. This particular lens had been recollimated to be at exactly Leica spec (most lenses made before the M8 were not set up to hit the center of a flat sensor).

This piece will not editorialize much but instead show it like it is. Which is quite good, far better than I had remembered.

First, the obligatory “how sharp at a meter” exercise. This is f/2.8.


Next: does it shoot good pictures of children? Yes.


E poi – how is the bokeh? Strangely, it’s actually really good, especially for a wide lens. Here is the sequence f/2.8, 4, 5.6, 8.

Sunstars? Got ’em too. Here is f/2.8-8 (clockwise):

Gross resolving power (again, f/2.8-8):

And now, we laugh at your Elmarit-M!


Flare resistance, same range:

Spherical distortion:


Another test; can’t remember why. Seemed like a good idea at the time.


General verdict:


Kodak DCS Pro 14n First Shot


I always looked down my (Roman) nose at cameras made by film manufacturers. Who would have thought, then, that after 18 years of photography with real cameras, that I would own a Kodak (14n) and a Fuji (GSW690III)? After a few weeks with the DCS 14n, and months of reading petty complaints about it, it’s time for the blow-by-blow. The 14n is a harsh mistress, but imagine some of the tricks she knows by now:

This is the most important part, so let’s knock that part off first. The 14n has an absolutely fantastic CMOS sensor. It’s not fast at a native speed of 80 and a maximum excellent picture speed of 160, but since when were fast film or fast CCDs any good. The sheer size of the gives you some distinct advantages.

  • No adjustment in angle of view. This is particularly important if you have a collection of fast wide lenses. It is also important if you like fast portrait-length lenses.
  • No change in depth of field. The “crop factor” present in most digital SLRs requires you to use shorter lenses to get equivalent fields of view. The problem is that the depth of field of a 18mm lens is still the depth of field of a 18mm lens, even if the angle of view is of a 24mm lens. And there’s no way to get a 105mm’s field of view with a DX prime.
  • DX lenses are a fraud. We were told that smaller-than-24×36 sensors would result in liberated lens design, higher speed and less size/weight. Wrong. DX lenses, especially wides, are just lenses with more retrofocal distance. DX lenses make it less challenging to build sensors, since more light is straight-on (telecentric). Worse, they are slow. Since when is it ok to have a constant f/4 zoom? Put simply, DX lenses are nothing but a substitute for engineering on the back end.

Is there noise at high gain (ISO settings like 400)? Yes, but not as obnoxious as you would be led to believe from reading on the Internet. Does it take a ton of in-camera processing to make 35mm lenses designed before digital was even thought of work properly on a chip? Yes. Does the Kodak system achieve it? Remarkably. Are the results worth it? Hell yes.

The main user interface is pretty good but not phenomenal. The VF covers 92% of the frame. It’s not as bright or clear as an F3 or F4, dimmer than an F5 and about on a par with the F100. It’s adequate but not exceptional for manual focus operation. At least it has a real pentaprism, sucka… Let’s face it, viewfinders aren’t what they used to be. Put an E screen in an F4 and you’ll see what I mean.

The info readouts are highly legible green LEDs. The focus point (selecable from center, left, right, up or down) is indicated by an LCD bracket that lights up red in low light. There are no more left and right arrows for out-of-focus direction. The flash indicator is an eyecatching red color. There is also an indicator to show metering mode (spot, center, matrix).

In a trick that I find pretty cool, the entire viewfinder dims and blurs (and the focus points and metering reference circle disappear) when you pull the battery out of the camera. Wow. Guess there’s no picking this one up and forgetting the power source. I suspect that this is what drains the battery when you leave the battery in, even when the camera is off.

Outside the F5, Nikon focusing comes in two flavors. Smart or strong. The smart sensors are found on things like the F80 and F100 and seem designed to drive AF-S lenses by quickly computing focus. Call this the BMW 318 theory. The strong motors are found in older bodies like the F4, where the detection and computation is not so strong, but the motor has a lot of torque. Call this the Pontiac GTO school. Based on my tests with some AFS and non-AFS lenses, my conclusions were:

  • Light primes (20/2.8, 24/2.8, 50/1.8) – quick focusing but not earth-shattering.
  • Heavy, internal focus primes (28/1.4, 105/2 DC) – not as fast, but still ok.
  • Old-style AF zooms (35-105/3.5-4.5) – slow.
  • Low-end AF-s (24-85/3.5-4.5) – medium speed. This lens inexplicably produced underexposures with flash. Why?
  • High-end AF-s (28-70/2.8) – now were getting somewhere. Bankruptcy! But they’re fast.

Focusing is extremely accurate. The AF brackets are huge in the F80/14n/etc., making selection of focus as a point on the subject a somewhat uncertain from the user’s end in looking through the viewfinder. You just have to take it on faith. It works. If the light gets really bad, you can turn on a white AF illuminator light. Your subjects will hate you for using it. Capture their scowls. Other than using the electronic rangefinder function, manual focusing is a vestigial capability in the viewfinder. The focusing screen has neither the brightness nor the matte surface required to do the job. This is really too bad; had this been an F4s platform instead, the focusing would have been great.

Size and weight. If you are used to professional-sized cameras like the F4, F5 and EOS-1n, why do you think that this camera is big and heavy? The bottom pod (for lack of a better word) houses a huge-capacity battery, a Compact Flash Type II card (or Microdrive). This camera is not as big as it looks in pictures, and it is in fact quite light compared to an F4s. I’m sorry that it can’t have that blowaway, throwaway feel of the Digital Rebel – and with telephotos and even the heavier wides, you actually want some weight on the camera end. The amount of hardware necessary to replicate 35mm film in performance is something that should be sobering to people who think that one day Leica is just going to bring out a digital back someday for the M cameras.

Battery Life. With the current version of the firmware (4.5.x), little use of the LCD, and the shortest meter-off setting, I was able to have the camera sit turned on for 7 hours and then shoot 132 14Mp RAW files and about 78 1Mp JPGs (recorded simultaneously with the RAW). I then secure-erased the microdrive (i.e., the camera wrote and rewrote the entire 1Gb several times) then quick formatted both it and the 256Mb Secure Digital card. Not too shabby for a battery that charges in about an hour. Three batteries would pretty much cover it for a really long day’s shooting.

Card Capacity. The camera has a nice separate LED display counting down available frames. RAW files are computed using the full-freight size (14Mb), but they are stored compressed. Typically, on a 1Gb Microdrive, this means about 90-96 frames per 1Gb card – roughly equivalent to 4 rolls of 135-24 film. Or, if I was reading the display right, over 1,300 1Mp JPGs.

Burst Capacity. Camera write speed with a a Hitachi 1Gb Microdrive clocked at 4Mb/sec, about as fast as any Compact Flash device. You can shoot 6-7 RAW frames continuously before the 256Mb buffer fills. You can then shoot the next picture 5 seconds later. The camera continuously writes to the storage devices. If you are shooting simultaneous RAW and low-res JPEG, you can take 2 frames about every 15 seconds, which is not bad unless you are shooting a war. In-camera JPG is pretty rough on speed and battery power. Given that you really want to use Photodesk to do the hard-core processing, you can probably skip the in-camera JPG.

In terms of transfer rate to the computer, popping that Microdrive into a USB card reader and letting her rip takes about 20 minutes. I’m sure that a firewire reader would be faster. This camera does not mount as a Firewire drive through its computer connection; that connection only exists to let Camera Manager read the files in the camera.

Shutter Release. Thank God for small favors. The main shutter release is threaded for a standard cable release; there is also a Nikon MR-3/etc. terminal on the bottom. There is a vertical release that is only active when the camera is… vertical. Cool. No more having the thing go off by accident when you grab the camera.

Ok, screw that technical stuff. So how well does it do black and white? The short answer is that it does pretty well, although it’s not like shooting T-Max 400 on a 6×9 camera. If you know what you are doing with film and conventional printing, you will be able to deal with the 14n. The first way is that you can pretty smoothly adjust perspective with a huge digital file. The picture below was taken with a 20mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor.


The second way is that because you are shooting onto a smaller sensor compared to a medium-format camera, wideangle lenses are shorter, faster, and have a lot more depth of field. This is the reverse of the problem with DX lenses.


The third is that filtration doesn’t really matter that much – nor can you readily duplicate it in digital. Stick around this camera and you will have to learn a lot more about contrast control than you probably ever cared to.

BS Internet gripes. Ok, since this is what you were waiting to see. Like any Internet rumor (Hexar RF, anyone?), the gripes concerning the 14n are pretty overblown.

  • Cold startup time is 7 seconds, not 30 as some people claim. This is not an eternity, and you can leave the camera on until you need it.
  • Burst depth at 256Mb buffer is 6 RAW frames, more than enough for any normal application. If you need something faster, you better reach for a Nikon D2H.
  • There is zero noise up to 160 ASA. After that, you need to use Photodesk and realize that all high-speed media (film, digital cameras, etc) have noise and that the difference is that the Nikon, Fuji and Canon DSLRs seem to address that only by wasting all the shadow detail.
  • Nose-activated LCD was eliminated in firmware 4.5.5. Now you can disable the “Ok” key that turns on the screen.

So get over it!

How does it compare to the Fuji S2? There is no comparison. The Fuji has low noise for fast shots, and that’s it. The Kodak has better software, higher resolution, and no crop factor. The Fuji — if you can find it — no longer has a price advantage (the difference is a scant $600 — and I actually paid less for a 14n than what you can buy the S2 for…) and that advantage is destroyed by the fact that you have to refit the short end of your line.

How does it compare to a Canon 1Ds? The grass is always greener. If you dig up a Canon 1Ds bulletin board, you will see all the complaints about it – including some pretty serious chromatic aberration with wideangle lenses and not-so-good software. For all of the Kodak’s noise faults, its omission of microlenses spares the wideangle user this issue. And the 1Ds costs $8,000, which is three times what the Kodak costs. Unless it’s a writeoff on your taxes, your money ($5,500) is better spent on four European vacations or a couple of trips to Asia to use the equipment. The one thing that the 1Ds does have is a little tougher body — but the kind of spill that would damage the 14n would also damage the 1Ds.

How does 14mp compare to film?  This is a difficult question to answer, because there is no single answer.  Digital camera manufacturers generally claim that anything is as good as medium format, and people’s opinions of what is enough resolution tend to center on the minimum that does not look bad.  150dpi can do for passable prints for some people.  72dpi, or one megapixel is enough for any on-screen application.  If all you are doing is web work, the 14n is serious overkill in every department, not the least of which is price.

But for prints, you have to arrive at a minimum acceptable quality level. We can pretty safely assume that a Fuji Frontier minilab print (scanning 35mm film and digitally outputting to photo paper at 302dpi is a pretty good benchmark.  So we should see how big a 14n print can get and still maintain that resolution. A 14 megapixel (4500×3000) image, translated to a 6×9 inch print (dividing the long side of the image in pixels by the long side in inches), equals 500dpi.  At 8×10, it equals 450dpi.  At 11×14, it is 321dpi.  Bearing in mind that 11×14 is pretty much the practical limit for enlarging 35mm film (except for 35mm film the limiting factor is the grain), you realize that the 14n can reasonably hold its own with 35mm film in terms of enlargeability.

On the other hand, claims that any digital system under 14mp is competitive with medium format is a little bit suspect. Here is a simple table for people who want arbitrary answers, based on my observations.  These DO NOT apply to cameras with less than the 14n’s pixel count.

Compared to… Sharpness/Resolution Tonality / Color Fidelity
Pre-1980s 35mm SLR scanned @2800dpi
14n generally wins. 14n wins.
Modern 35mm SLR scanned @2800dpi Dead heat, assuming proper scanning technique.  Film has an edge above ISO 200.
14n wins in both tonality and fidelity under most circumstances. 
Pre-1970 6×4.5/6×6 Camera (b/w) 14n wins due to higher resolution lenses and lack of film flatness issues.
14n wins
Pre-1970 6×9 (b/w) 14n wins due to higher resolution lenses and lack of film flatness issues.
Film wins.
Modern 6×4.5/6×6 Camera (b/w) Film wins at ISO 400 and below.  Above ISO 400, grain diminishes resolution.
Film wins, especially when printed to silver paper.
Modern 6×7 Camera (b/w) Film wins due to overwhelming image size.
Modern 6×9 Camera (b/w) Film wins due to overwhelming image size. Are you kidding?