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Is the Nikon FE the best SLR?

Sure, its a sensational headline, pulled right out of the clickbait SEO guidebook. But a few months ago in a dazed splurge on that well known auction site I ended up with a FE arriving at my door some 3 days later. Whilst the acknowledgement that I've become somewhat of a Nikon collector these days will likely come in a later post, I thought I'd write something on the FE. During the initial 3 rolls its consumed on my behalf it has quickly endeared itself to me.

So why such a bold statement? The relatively compact size, vast lens compatibility and aperture priority mode make it a winner for me. The first two points are ones that had already made the FM a favourite already. The body weighs in at 0.59kg (thats 22% less than a F3HP or 30% less than an F2). And you can use any lens Nikon has made with an aperture ring since 1958 (the folding Ai tab permits pre-AI lenses to be mounted and metering is then requires using the DOF preview lever to stop down the lens). I used to think the FM, being fully mechanical, was more impressive. If I ran out of batteries I could carry on capturing images. This has happened to me before with my F3 but luckily I was in the US where replacement batteries are easily available from common stores like CVS. In a different country perhaps this would have ended my quest to capture photons. The FE requiring a battery with charge to fire the shutter ends up not so big of a deal, and in my humble opinion worth it for the benefit of aperture priority mode. Yes, I could live without it, but I sure get good use out of it. The other big winner for me over the FM would be the needle display for the meter output in the viewfinder. The FM has a simple LED showing +/o/- which doesn't help to show you how many stops you are off from the current reading. This is probably my biggest gripe with the FM, aside from the fact that mine has a contact issue on the Ai ring that screws out the meter reading sometimes.

There you have it. Maybe the Nikon FE is the best SLR one can buy. Even if it isn't, its hard to dispute that at around £80 for a decent example, this is one of the best value ways you can shoot Nikon glass on 35mm film.

What happens when you don't develop Cinestill 800T promptly?

Its a luxury to have enough cameras that a roll of film can languish for a year and a half without being finished. I'd wanted to try out some Cinestill 800T and had grand ideas of low light shots in and around London so I promptly loaded it in my relatively new (to me) Nikon F4 and went out and got a few shots one evening after work. However the longer nights soon came and I never prioritised getting out to really try out some shots with this film. So it sat there for a year and a half before I picked up a Hoya 81B filter so that I could use in natural light, get the roll finished and enable me to use the F4 once again with some Portra or Ektar. The manufacturers website for the film couldn't be clearer: "The new boxed CineStill film has a 2 year shelf life, and should be stored in the fridge and shot within 6 months of purchase to achieve optimal results"

But instead of wasting the roll I figured I'd get it processed anyway and see what came back. As you can see, weird stuff happens. I'm not sure what that red line is as I'm pretty sure my F4 doesn't have a light leak. The roll was professionally processed by my normal lab and the weird bubbling in the emulsion is only present on the first section of the film which was mostly, although not exclusively, exposed around 1.5 years before it was developed. To my surprise though the latter section of the film actually came out ok and with some pretty decent colours (using Negative Lab Pro to convert a positive scan with a Nikon LS-4000).

Colours of Banality

In search of better 35mm negative scans with the Nikon LS-4000

Photography equipment can become an expensive manifestation of the childrens nursery rhyme "The woman who swallowed a fly" whereby she proceeds to eat larger and larger creatures to try and alleviate her problem. The promise of better quality through purchasing new gear often follows a similar pattern and can not always lead to worthwhile improvements (the nursery rhyme, in case you are not familiar, ends with the death of the protagonist). Scanning film is at best an expensive and/or arduous task; something perfectly in keeping with the perseverance to keep using a medium long discarded by the masses.

For me home scanning with my Epson v500 photo flatbed has been a good cost saver and in a previous post I shared that I thought for medium format performance was surprisingly good when comparing with a lab scan. However for 35mm film I always felt somewhat underwhelmed by the results. The resolution is a big thing - I use 2400 DPI on the v500 and I feel going any higher is a waste of filesize for no actual resolution gain, but I has also wondered about colour rendition and things like shadow detail. So like the woman who swallowed the fly, I headed to my favourite online auction site to see if I could pick up a Nikon Coolscan for a reasonable price.

There were a few on eBay, a variety of LS-5000, LS-4000 and a couple of LS-9000s (the first two are 35mm only whereas the latter is medium format as well - with around 2-3x price tag to match) and I decided to opt for the 4000 purely based on a listing that seemed to be the most plausible that the item had been taken well care of and fully working. The 4000 can scan at 4000 dpi or around 1.6x what the v500 was capable of so I was hoping this would be a significant upgrade. The description sounded like it was written by another enthusiast who has been actively using the scanner and it came with all of the manuals plus the MA21 and SA21 for mounted slides and to take film strips respectively. Unfortunately the FH-3 was not included and so I had to source this independently for a pricey £85 extra - this is a film holder for single frames that inserts into the MA21 and allows film strips that will not load into the SA21 to be scanned (e.g. a 1 or 2 frame strip or one with significant curvature). So overall cost was £685 which works out to be around the same cost of scanning 34 rolls of film at the 12x8 print size from my lab (uncompressed image size of 24mb which I think is similar to what 4000dpi produces). These economics should work out well as long as the item arrived working and stays working for a couple of years. But thats the risk with buying a piece of electronic equipment from 2001 and there are a couple more things to bear in mind: the official Nikon Scan software will not work on the current windows or mac operating systems and the device uses Firewire 400 connections. Fortunately these have relatively easy solutions in that you can daisy chain a Firewire 400->800 adapter to a FW800->Thunderbolt 2 Adapter which I use for my circa 2015 Macbook Pro (I think you can even add a Thunderbolt 2 -> USB-C Thunderbolt 3 adapter for the latest macs). For software you can use Vuescan or Silverfast, the former being around 6x cheaper and includes all scanners it supports (Silverfast is tied to a specific scanner model). I naturally opted for the former based on cost.

Top: Lab Scan Fujifilm SP-2000 (1840x1232px). Middle: Nikon LS-4000 (559x3667px). Bottom: Epson v500 (4437x2805px).

I get to the image comparison part an I'm ironically feeling like I'm naval gazing too much. Each of these images viewed at small sizes look good in my opinion. The lab scan has some great detail, but also lots of sharpening, and the small resolution is somewhat frustrating for me. I guess I went for their cheapest option at the time because I had sent 10+ rolls in one go but now wish I'd got this particular shot at a much higher res. Personally I like the punchy colours of the lab scan best although I was surprised for someone to comment on reddit that the colours in the Epson scan was their favourite. The Nikon is relatively similar colour-wise to the Epson scan althouh interestingly the ICE dust scanning on the Epson has been really aggressive - it clearly thought some of the boats were dust particles, as it did also with the yellow circle in the bottom left. Perhaps there could be a software element to this too as the Epson was scanned with Epson Scan and the Nikon with Vuescan. I find the Nikon to be a bit sharper and distinguish quite a bit more of the detail in the buildings in the middle to back left of the image than the Epson. Its this incremental improvement that makes the upgrade worth it to me.

Overall it does seem that upgrading from a flatbed to a dedicated 35mm scanner was worth it. Sure its alot of money but the economics will work out pretty quick as long as the scanner doesn't break, which is a risk I think is worth taking. Vuescan as a tool seems a bit more complex than Epson Scan as I find the histogram adjustments less user friendly but I think its a tool I'll get better at using. From researching online a quote stood out where someone commented that Vuescan was more a tool to extract information than an image, meaning that Vuescan would help get out the maximum information from the image to process effectively in Lightroom/Photoshop. My 35mm negatives will be scanned with the LS-4000 going forward so stay tuned to my blog to see more examples!