January 2020

Bronica SQ 40mm f4 S Lens Review

This post is the first in a series I will be doing for all of the Bronica SQ kit that I own, maybe I'll even do the lenses in focal length order. In which case starting with the 40mm is not a bad choice, as my 500mm has not really been put through its paces yet.

TL;DR

  • Great when coupled with the 6x4.5 or 135W backs.
  • Poor sharpness in the corners for 6x6 images which can be a distraction.
  • Annoying 95mm filter thread, leather lens cap and built in lens hood.
  • Unless you absolutely need the extra 10mm of medium format wideness, you'd probably be better off with the 50mm, at around half the cost.

The specs

Focal Length: 40mm

Aperture: f4-f22 in full stop increments

Filter thread: 95mm

Lens hood: built in

Focussing distance: around 3.75m

Price: £300-400

Other versions: The PS version doesn't have the lens hood built in. This is an advantage for adding filters as they are quite hard to get off on the S model.

Comments from real world usage
This is the widest rectalinear lens for the Bronica SQ system (the 35mm f3.5 is a fish eye), and is also one of the most expensive to purchase (at the time of writing only the rare 500mm f8 appears to cost more although I couldn't find a 35mm for sale). Compared to the other lenses it feels pretty bulky due to its massive 95mm filter thread and built in metal lens hood. The 95mm filter thread is pretty annoying as I have consolidated to 2 sets of filters for all of my cameras - 77mm and 52mm - and use step up rings to accomodate them, so typically I'll be using this without a filter as 95mm ones are generally crazy expensive. I did in fact buy a cheap CPL in 95mm thread, and stupidly after fitting it I wondered, perplexed how I would get it back off. The small screw in ring of the CPL was almost completely under the built in lens hood and I had to resort to a small screw driver to finally unscrew. That being said it is nice to have a built in hood as it would probably be an annoying thing to find if it wasn't included with the lens like is typical with the PS version. The slip on fake leather lens hood is also quite annoying as it will often fall off. As for the build quality, there isn't much to dwell on here, its the same as all Bronica lenses. Solid metal construction with smooth focussing.

Onto some images. The biggest thing I have noticed so far is that the corner sharpness is poor, which I find can be distracting in contrast to the relatively sharp centre in 6x6. However in 6x4.5 and 135W formats this lens does really come into its own as the unsharp corners are now conveniently cropped out. Therefore unless I really need the wide perspective for a 6x6 image I would normally tend to use the 50mm instead, which is also weighs around 10% less.

Editing film photos, a cardinal sin?

One of the reasons people have been drawn back to the cumbersome, time consuming and in many ways archaic media of film to create photographs is possibly because there is something more of an empirical truth to it. Once an image is recorded to the emulsion its there forever, only to be destroyed physically, and can be used as an undisputable reference point to the view into reality that was frozen in time. Some of this is a push back or fatigue with over edited, over saturated, or even fake images that it is now relatively easy to produce. I myself experience this and has encouraged me to continue working with film despite some of its challenges and expense.

There is however a sentiment that can be found commonly online that editing film photos is somewhat sacrilegious. The photo above, taken with my Bornica SQ at Pistyll Rhaeadr in Wales, got me thinking about this. Normally my tendancy is to freely crop, tweak the exposure, black point or contrast, as after all the scan is just an interpretation that normally needs some creative input to resolve an impactful image. Rarely have I scanned myself and not felt the need to tweak the levels. Even with Lab scans, the decisioning is theirs and the resultant images may not match my vision. Its also true that errors in exposure can be compensated for after the fact. I don't see a big philosophical problem with this, as after all printing involves creatives choices to get the best out of a photo. Where I do, normally, draw the line though is any airbrushing other than dust spots or belmishes on the film itself. But this image made me pause. I really liked the composition but unfortunately two people were stood right by the waterfall, and judging by the smell of what they were smoking, did not appear that thier transfixion with the crashing water would end anytime soon. The light was fading and I needed to leave so I decided to take the photo anyway.

So I airbrushed them out, as you can see from second image above, which is the straight from scan edit. Clearly its helped the photo become a better image, although it obviously reflects a dubious reality. Is airbrushing out the people really any different than waiting until they had left? After all this image without people could be argued to misrepresent this site anyway, as it is infact a well visited tourist attraction (in fact this is the tallest waterfall in England or Wales). So overall editing the image to make it useable for me rather than simply discarding it was worthwhile, but I'm sure not everyone will agree.

A new perspective: Bronica SQ with the 120J 6x4.5 back

The square format is a favourite of mine; it’s a perspective different to our normal field of vision. There is no periphery to a 6x6 image which can be helpful in offering a slightly altered view of the world by default. I’d got used to shooting the Bronica in this way and the idea of trying some of the film backs that offer different aspect ratios began to appeal to see if it would nurture some new ideas, so the 120J and 135W backs were bought to try out. The latter is a great deal rarer, and 3-4x more expensive than the 120J but offers a panoramic aspect ratio, by using a much wider frame on 35mm film. It will be a subject of another post once I have finished my test roll.

6x4.5 is also a film saver, you can get 15 frames rather than 12 on a roll of 120 film and is slightly more square than the standard 35mm frame (4:3 compared to 3:2 aspect ratios). Clearly the upside of a 120J back is flexibility of 6x6 or 6x4.5 with one camera system. The main downside is if you do shoot the latter most of the time, you’re carrying a much bulkier system than necessary, you could get a Bronica ETRS for example instead, but you would sacrifice the 6x6 ability.

Onto the images: these were taken over the Christmas holidays in Shropshire. The weather was surprisingly good with some lovely winter sun on some days. It’s always a gamble with an eBay purchase, especially with a film back, if it will work correctly. This film back came in its original box and the light seals looked decent. However, I’d been burnt before so I was very relieved when the negatives came back showing only minimal light leaks in one place, that did not even reach the frame, and the film spacing being accurate. Bronica backs have a somewhat bad reputation for light leaks so I normally keep mine in my bag as much as possible to minimise prolonged exposure to light. Previously I had tried 6x4.5 with a 220J back; a mistake, whilst much cheaper (due to no 220 film being made anymore) and although they will work, the pressure plate is not calibrated for the thickness of 120 film so at the very least will put extra strain on the winder mechanism. If I recall correctly my copy was also damaged and resulted in frame spacing issues and so was promptly sold for spares/repairs.

Framing the images was straightforward, my split image focussing screen has frame lines for 6x4.5 on it, although it did take a bit of effort to remind myself that I needed to use them when looking down the waist level finder. I’m very pleasantly surprised how much I enjoy these images. Perhaps the aspect ratio is just novel to me at the moment, but this back definitely seems like a useful tool in my Bronica system.  

2019 Lookback

Another year had passed by and if I were to sum it up with a couple of numbers they would be 2918 and 744. The first is how many photos I have taken this year (well, how many still reside in my Lightroom library) and the second are how many of those were with film. So 25% of my images were captured with analogue means, although those captured on digitial inflate the numbers with mutiple shots of similar scenes, primarily family photos. Film cameras were cemented further as my tools of choice when I went out to capture landscapes and other more serious photography adventures. In the end I shot around 17 rolls of 120 film and 15 rolls of 35mm.

This year saw me spend more time than before on thinking about why I photographed, what I enjoyed about it and what I wanted to convey with my images. Clearly I like the technical aspects of using the various gear that I have, but I also realised its the ritual that I enjoy the most. I like the solitude in photographing a landscape and the ritual of the prolongued steps to capture an image. More so than ever before I insisted on photographing with a tripod to slow down what is already a slow image making process with film. I thought briefly about migrating to a large format camera to slow this down even further but in the end decided I'm not ready for that... yet. Over the past decade or so that I have been a keen photographer I never really had much consistency in what I was trying to capture. I did seem to gravitate towards landscapes but I didn't really achieve any style or deeper vision that a good capture of a beautiful location. Throughout 2019 I started to read more, for example the philosopical writing in On Photography by Susan Sontag which helped me to think about photograph ywith a different perspective, and I also greatly expanded my photo book collection. Whilst it is still possible to be inspired by Instagram, its hard to beat the impact of leafing through a well printed and curated book. Paul Hart's books Drained and Farmed were two of my favourites for the year and inspired me to visit East Anglia - a place I will need to spend more time in the future.

Dedicated photography trips were few and far between, understandably with the growth of my family at the start of spring. But I did manage to plan around family trips to visit some great destinations such as the Olympic Peninsula in Washinton State and I got some fresh inspiration in Gran Canaria - a place that is very overlooked as a place outside of package tourism.

Gear aquisition syndrome was prevelant again this year but at least it was more focused on the Bronica SQ and Nikon systems that I plan to keep for the next decade at least. Whilst I don't view them as an investment I do think prices will continue to rise for working gear (although likely not at the rates seen over the past couple of year) as long as film is manufactured, and so the jusification of "I might as well get this now rather than later" won out. The analog niche today will likely persist as digital takes over more and more aspects of our lives. Adding a Rolleicord to my collection has been a great way to get a more portable medium format camera in particular, and taking the opportunity to upgrade my film scanner to an Epson v800 should make scanning somewhat less burdensome than it was with the v600 with its lower capacity film holders. The Nikon Coolscan LS-4000 despite producing some great scans has unfortunately has turned out to be a bit of a dud - it appears the firewire chip has failed but fingers crossed it can be repaired in 2020 when its turn in the repair queue comes around.

Aims for 2020:

- Limit gear purchases to essentials only

- Go on a couple of solo photography trips (candidates include Faroe Islands, the Highlands of Iceland and Wales)

- Fix up this website to be cleaner and more consice. On a technical level evaluate if a self-hosted installation of the seemingly abandoned Koken platform makes sense for the future. Squarespace and Format appear to be good alternatives, but I'm loathe to migrate all the content over to a new platform and then be locked in to them.

- Work on developing a style and consistency

- Make sure I'm still having fun rather than taking it all too seriously

Norfolk with the Nikon F4 and TMax 400

As an appendix to yesterday's post on the Nikon F4, I also took it on my first trip to Norfolk one rainy winters day. The highly reccomended Photovue photography guide to East Anglia in my hand I sought out a few photography sites along with a visit to Horsey gap to see the seals that mate and give birth on the shoreline there. This was actually before the Gran Canaria trip and served as a bit of a test run decider if I should take my F4 or Bronica on that trip.

Using the fully manual Nikon 600mm F5.6 Ai lens on the F4 was really fun and the body paired nicely. The brighter focusing screen can actually help, rather than the split prism found by default in older SLRs. I like the character of this lens with the B&W film and its something I'd like to try again for slow moving wildlife. This day however the light was dim and an extra stop of light from an f4 lens would have been very handy as many of the images ended up a stop underexposed.

The dunes at Winterton-on-sea are also a good visit, and has a very nice little cafe right by them. As you can see from the sand photograph above, not closing the eyepiece shutter for a long exposure diminished and even ruined a few photos. The shutter is a handy tool when you remember to use it!

Nikon F4 Review: Landscape Photography

My landscape photography has progressed throughout the last few years, from aspiring to capture vibrant colour landscapes on DSLRs, to settling on working mainly in black and white and tending towards using film as my medium. I’ll write about this journey in a forthcoming post so as not to distract on the more practical nature of using this specific 35mm film camera for the application of landscape photography. Reviews and information pages elsewhere linked at the end of the post go into far more detail on the tech specs of the camera, but often lack focus on a specific application of the camera. Hopefully this review adds a slightly different perspective from my practical use in the field.

The Nikon F4 is a bit like a bridge between two eras, although clearly signalling the direction for the future of automatic professional SLRs, it still retains full compatibility with every manual Nikon lens that came before (even the esoteric wide angles that require mirror lock up to mount) and is one of only 3 bodies to offer matrix metering with Ai lenses (N.B. Not all lenses that appear in Ai design, with the aperture index tab are actually an Ai lens that will support matrix metering. At first I thought my F4 was malfunctioning in not providing matrix metering with a 35mm F2.8 I was certain was an Ai lens. After some extensive searching online I came to find this was actually a K lens and despite having the aperture tab to mount on Ai bodies it did not have the recessed metal on the metal back of the lens mount required for this mode). Autofocus via a body motor is provided with 4 points, characterised as slow and clunky by todays standards, and soon eclipsed by Canon’s efforts. Indeed if you need fast autofocus in a film SLR then this camera is not for you, however for landscape photography this shortfall is irrelevant. Today it impresses me more that Nikon was so dedicated to backwards compatibility, in contrast to Canon who opted for a new lens mount she the automated era of SLRs arrived, and as someone with a sizeable collection of Ai and pre-AI glass the F4 offers two advantages over the later F5 that dropped matrix metering for Ai lenses and support to mount pre-Ai lenses.

So why am I tending to use the F4 over the F5 for landscape photography at present? The first two reasons are presented above, although their benefit is perhaps more subtle that it seems. In truth I rarely use non-AI glass with the F4, although it is nice to have the option. Matrix, along with centre weighted and spot metering are certainly nice to have, although I’m also quite happy to use my external Gossen meter, so the advantage there is slight. Most of my landscape shots are on a tripod, and the smaller form factor of my F4 with no grip is a much better form factor for me than the F5 with its non-optional grip. Weight wise there isn’t actually much different so its mainly the shorter, if stouter form factor that I find works well. The F4 remains true to the preceding heritage of manual SLRs by indulging us with a dial for every function; there is no command dial that changes shutter (or aperture on an AF lens) and this ergonomic difference is something I slightly prefer.

I am tending to do more and more long exposures with my landscape photography. Features both share that are a boon for this are: a viewfinder shutter built into the prism, very useful for blocking out light in a long exposure. The ability to change prisms and add screw-in viewfinder attachments, a waist level viewfinder or angled viewfinder attachment are great for those low angle shots, and this is a perspective I find myself using often as it naturally gives quite a different view than we are used to seeing at eye level. I prefer the standard screw-in shutter release cable which is interchangeable other cameras than the proprietary Nikon connector used on the F5, F100 etc. Mirror lock up could be helpful in minimising shake, although I should cement it in more as part of my routine as I must admit I seldom use it. One feature I have recently discovered that will be very helpful is the T mode; its function is similar to bulb mode, where the shutter is held open for long exposures, after 30 seconds the shutter is held open and released manually without any power draw. Very useful for exposures where minutes turn to hours. The shutter is opened on the first press of the release, and to close you simply turn the shutter speed dial to another setting. Clearly there will be some shake in doing so, but for very long exposures in dim light or with many ND filters this shake should not affect the final image as the light captured during the shake should be very minimal. However I am yet to utilise this feature extensively to see the results.

The legendary landscape photographer Galen Rowell had a tendency to use the smaller and lighter Nikon manual SLRs such as the FM line. After all a camera is just a fancy light box and if you are using Ai lenses then an FM/FE offers much of what the F4 does if you can live less options for metering and (very) nice to haves like the built in viewfinder shutter. Minimising on weight may be important depending on the trip and in these cases I probably would opt for one of these bodies. However the nice-to-haves of the F4 really do add that extra convenience that make using this camera that bit more convenient to make it worth it for me. It should also be said that the larger, brighter 100% viewfinder coverage is fantastic on the F4 (as it also is on the F5) is so nice to use, this is a very noticeable downgrade on the prosumer SLR range. For me this is one of the biggest reasons I enjoy using the F4 more than the FM/FE for landscapes, and after all photography is supposed to be fun (as it is just a hobby for me at least), and so these minor details do add that bit extra to me.

Finally the last comparison should be with the Nikon F4 and the Bronica SQ system that I have been more frequently using for my landscapes. It’s true that I do prefer the square framing and larger negative this medium format camera provides, and in this regard none of my 35mm cameras really can compete. So the Bronica is my go to camera if weight is not a huge limitation and I am taking a trip purely for the pursuit of photography. However its diminishingly practical for me to take my medium format gear on trips I take with my family, where I am trying to tack on a few landscape excursions onto the trip. So this is where the F4 fits in for me. The resolution of 35mm looks fine for sharing on social media, like instagram, and also printing small. Upgrading my scanner for 35mm to a Nikon LS-4000 has helped, and I will try the maximum resolution scanning from my lab soon to compare.

As for the trip, Gran Canaria proved once again fertile ground to scratch my landscape photography itch, and the F4 was a good companion to capture it.