BEHOLD! The Leica BEOON.

Leica. It’s a word that engenders a reaction from anyone familiar with photography. Luxury, ostentatious expense, snobbery, red dots, great optics, rangefinders. This isn’t about any of that, though, for the most part.

This is about a 45+ year old device that has transformed scanning my film from a disappointment to a source of excitement and near-satisfaction with the results of shooting, developing and scanning black and white film.

I’m a big image quality guy. I like details and being able to see them in the work. The refurbished Epson V600 that I bought to get started in scanning the film I was developing at home was admittedly the weak link in my processing chain. It did its job well and I was able to see what was going on in each frame I scanned. The images were kind of muddy, though, without a great deal of fine detail, for the most part. It was good enough and I was fairly satisfied.


But.

But we live in a small place where every inch of shelf, floor and cabinet space is accounted for. Any extraneous stuff is put away to minimize the clutter. But I wasn’t always happy with the resolution of the details from the V600. But I felt that the scans were always thin and didn’t have much latitude to work with. But the V600 took up a chunk of the couch, was a kludge to set up and take down each session. Having to unpack and repack the scanner whenever I wanted to scan a roll of film was wearing on me.

Ever on the lookout for a better way of doing things, I’d previously considered ‘scanning’ with a digital camera. Looking around on the internet, though, what I found was discouraging.The various rigs that people made to digitize their negatives were effective but cumbersome, requiring a bunch of workspace or a corner of an office that we just don’t have. Bellows, light boxes, strobes. Big, big, big.

One day I stumbled across a thread on rangefinderforums.com about something called a Leica BEOON. I nearly didn’t click on the link, thinking it was a lens hood or something that I didn’t want or couldn’t afford (usually the latter is the case). Plus it’s a funny name. I haven’t bothered to look up what the letters stand for in German. 

The BEOON is a device built between 1959 and 1970 with the sole purpose of making copies of images. We’re talking before copy machines. Certainly before digital imaging. Before the iPhone on which you’re likely reading this. Hell, it’s at least as old as I am.

That’s right. Back in the Stone Age when I was born, to make a copy of an image you took a picture of it with another camera. Looking at the contraption pictured above, it’s easy to see how it all works. A film camera was mounted up on top there, the photograph, article, film negative you wanted to copy on the surface below. Snap, develop, fight saber-toothed tigers on the way home, which is of course uphill through snow as was the way you came.

Anyway, I bought this one with this purpose in mind: To serve as a compact film scanning platform for the 35mm film I’m shooting more and more of with a higher resolution scan in a smaller package than the V600.

So by now you’re saying, shut up already about the uphill both ways. How does it work? Does it do the job? 

Yes it does.

The BEOON doesn’t include any optic or camera to capture an image. It is rather a very nicely engineered, metal stand that accepts, as is obvious looking at the photo, a camera on the top, facing down, varying extension tubes to achieve different magnifications and a 50mm lens, a vertical adjustment helicoid and a set of masks that hold down the film/medium you’re copying. 

In the days before Live View, focusing was much more challenging than it is now. With a rangefinder camera for which this was built, you don’t look through the lens that captures the image. Therefore, there was no way to check focus. You lined things up according to the instructions from the German engineers who knew what they were doing, focused your lens to infinity and f11 and shot the film. You found out whether your alignment was correct when the film was developed. No good? That’s a bummer, man. Do it again. 

This way is much simpler. 

The Leica BEOON is built to accept Leica LTM (Leica Thread Mount) and/or Leica M Mount. My digital cameras are Fujifilm mirrorless, so with an inexpensive adapter the camera was mounted. On the other end, I threaded on a Nikon EL Nikkor 50/2.8 film enlarging lens that I grabbed from eBay for next to nothing. 

The Fujis are APS-C crop sensor cameras, so I lose some of the 35mm frame in the ‘scan’ since the sensor of the Fuji is smaller than the frame of film. This is what the scans look like out of the camera:


So, there’s significant loss. I found that by using different tubes I can get a bit more magnification but lose the edges of the frame. For some applications that might work but, for the time being, there’s plenty of real estate remaining after the crop.

Mounting the film is a straightforward affair. Lining it up on the LCD is simple. Focusing is likewise WYSIWYG.

The 10x magnification of the X Pro 1 allows for grain level focus – a huge improvement over the sharpness of the V600. The chrome knob moves the camera, extension tube(s) and lens up and down relative to the film plane to fine-tune focus. The smaller silver knob is a set screw to lock down the adjustment.


Backlighting is accomplished with my iPad and a 3/16″x6″x9″ piece of white frosted acrylic. With the frosted side touching the film, there are no Newton Rings.

I’m still refining the exposure settings for scans. At the moment I’m pretty happy with a zeroed exposure meter (the X Pro 1 has a +2 to -2 digital needle meter that is displayed on the LCD). Further testing is required.

For Black and White film, the iPad light table solution is excellent. For color, maybe not so much. There is an art to color correction in which I am wholly unskilled.  I’ll keep working on that. the black and whites, however, are promising. Lots of latitude and tonality. Sharpness, micro-contrast and details are noticeably better from the BEOON setup than with the V600 as one would imagine with the fine control over focus.

Here are two images that illustrate the difference very starkly. This frame was shot on my M4 on Ektar 100 with a version 3 35mm Summicron.

First is the full frame, then a 100% crop from the BEOON with my awful post processing followed by a 100% crop from a lab scan (the best available from Photoworks in SF). I would have included a crop from the V600 scan but if memory serves I was disgusted with the results and deleted it. Suffice it to say that the bar code was illegible as was the word ‘Milk’ on the label. It’s not as good but it’s pretty darn close.


Inverting the negatives is easy. Photoshop, Command I, adjust levels, bit of color correction and save. Fine tune in Lightroom.

2 days in with the BEOON. 

I’m happy with the setup and more importantly the image quality of the scans.

The BEOON copy stand is small, stores easily and the image quality is at least in the ballpark with a scan that I paid quite a bit for from a professional lab. Scanning takes much less time than with the Epson and the scans are much more malleable. 

Since I shoot 95% black and white film the color processing is not as important to me as it will be to others. Someone with some patience, a speedlight and a white card will be able to get scans that are much closer to a usable image than I did with the iPad’s unknown light temperature. I’ve been getting some decent results adding a Divide layer that is used to remove the orange mask from Portra, but it requires tweaking color channels and levels (read: knowledge and patience).

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On Scanning Film Negatives at Home

It’s a fun thing, developing and scanning one’s own black and white work at home. 

With very few exceptions, I’ve been left with that familiar, shoulder shrugging feeling when reviewing the scans I get back from a lab. After the anticipation of receiving the developed film’s scans, seeing them for the first time was a let down.

In fairness, the labs – and I tried several – did a fine job with the development part of things. That is to say, at least as good a job as I did at the time of exposure if not better.  Scanning just seems like sort of an afterthought. A down-the-middle accommodation to the fat part of the bell curve. 

I don’t like bell curves.

So I did some math and determined that for the price of 7 rolls of film sent out for developing and scanning at a moderate resolution I could just buy a refurbished Epson v600 scanner. No brainer. 

The scans are now ‘better,’ or closer to what I saw when I made the photo. Some are downright good, if I do say so myself. 

The tones are there for the most part. The images look pretty good, for the most part. Nothing like prints on paper, but for web sharing, they do nicely. The next stumbling block I’ve run into is that of resolution. 

I look at the negatives with a loupe and see so much more detail in them than what winds up being captured by the Epson, and that doesn’t sit very well. 

 

The venerable v600 is an inexpensive tool and it does a great job at what it is designed to do. There are better/more expensive/higher quality solutions out there, but one has to pay to play. Or pay someone with a drum scanner to guess at how I want my scans to look.

Anyway, I found myself wanting a bit better quality in my scans. Some well-spent time surfing various sites made me aware of a couple of promising options, and now I’m in the process of setting up a copy stand setup that should (if the internet is to be believed) result in more details being pulled from the negs. More details on that next week when the hardware shows up. 

I can’t wait to dive in.

 

Returning to Film Photography (and to blogging)

For the last couple of years I’ve shot the images you see on the main site – http://www.redcentphotography.com –  with digital cameras. For some applications such as long exposures and a few other specialty applications, I still shoot quite a bit with the Fuji X Pro 1 and XE-1 that have been my bread and butter since 2012. When I do paid work, the digital cameras are still the correct tool.

For the rest, though, I’m choosing to shoot more film. 

The cameras are wonderful to hold, to operate, to own. Using them helps remind me that there was a time before. Before everything became a question of ‘Right now.’ Fast. Faster. Immediacy.

It has its place, but not when I’m shooting and enjoying some time to myself.

The way I learned to shoot was to grab the camera, pick up a small box with a roll of film contained in an even smaller plastic container. It smelled funny when you removed the lid. You’d diddle around with the film until it loaded correctly…which could take a few tries.


Advance the film via that lever under your right thumb. Look through the viewfinder at your scene, cast around that scene using an analog meter (or no meter), adjust shutter speed dial, aperture dial or both. Don’t think too much. Press the shutter release. That was it.

 Back then, there was no way to indulge the compulsion to check the work. No immediate sharing to social media and/or immediate gratification. There was no digital, no LCD. There was no social media. No likes. No comments. Not much of anything until much later.

There is a great deal of freedom in that. There is a great deal of freedom in not knowing what precisely is on a roll of film that may have been in the camera for a week or more until you remove it from the developing reel.

The throughput has gone down, but my process and enjoyment have improved. I would like to think that the image making is improving, as well.

Developing my own black and white film at home is a meditative process that has been practiced by photographers around the world for decades. I find it soothing to complete the development of a roll of film, hang it, check it out under a loupe, scan it and see on a larger screen whether it represents what I saw.

More later.