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.

Long exposures on Martha's Vineyard

The rugged up-island shorelines of Chilmark and Aquinnah offer great opportunities for the landscape photographer, particularly if you are going for minimalist seascapes with exposures of seconds turning into minutes. Although my autumnal trip to the vineyard this year was perhaps my fourth visiting the island it did prove to be my most productive for photography. In fact, for photography fall is easily one of the best times to visit; you miss the crowds, many residents only beaches (such as Lucy Vincent in Chilmark) permit public access, and weather that is less suitable for beach bathing tends to lend itself to better images.

I have been inspired this year by more minimalist long exposure seascapes, through the books of Michael Kenna, Michael Levin and also on some very inspirational instagram accounts from film photographers (beedelvin). The latter’s images of the island opened my eyes to possibilities in capturing images that I had not seriously considered before. Aquinnah, Menemsha and Lucy Vincent beaches would be my focus for this trip. Previously I had visited the former two locations with my Nikon FE and attempted some long exposures. Overall I was underwhelmed with the results, I hadn’t been able to execute my vision well creatively with the composition or technically with sharpness and long enough shutter speeds. I also tend to prefer the natural framing of 6x6 medium format cameras and so on this trip I had brought my Rolleicord and Zeiss Ikon 517 folding camera.

Too late I discovered the Rolleicord had a sticky shutter near the end of my first roll of HP5+ after an hour or so at Lucy Vincent beach. The Zeiss Ikon folder was deployed afterwards with some Pan F, although as I had written previously, I was a bit unsure if there were faint light leaks in the bellows which presented themselves on exposures greater than a second. This turned out to be the case, with faint dark speckles appearing across all negatives of such exposures. In the future I should try and cover the camera with some thick cloth to try and mitigate this and if that doesn’t work then I guess I should probably give up with this length of exposure with this camera.

When my negatives returned from the lab, I was initially underwhelmed and as there was uncertainty on whether the cameras would reliably produce good exposures, I opted to scan them myself with the Epson v500. I saved some money, but this always seems a false economy when I am spending hours scanning myself and fixing the dust spots in lightroom. It seems to be a common arc that my anticipation of seeing the images back leads to being underwhelmed at first, but then some time and detachment later I start to recognise some quality in the images.

I think these images capture the feeling rugged, windswept and mystery these beaches offer. All of the exposures were between 20 seconds to 4 minutes, and there is a nice balance of shots that capture movement in the water and completely smoothing it out.

Rolleicord Review

Rollei made the classic TLR (twin lens reflex) cameras of the 50s and 60s, the 'cord being the budget sibling on the 'flex. Both boast the excellent build quality synonymous with the German manufacturers of the era and budget is perhaps a word that may give the wrong impression. There are some compromises with the 'Cord, such as having a knob to wind on the film rather than a lever and then having to manually cock the shutter rather than this being part of a wind on lever's operation. I also understand the lens to be different, mine Rolleicord has a 75mm f3.5 tessar-type Xenar lens, and if the internet is to be believed this is inferior to the lens on the Rolleiflex, although mainly visible wide open.

So why did I want one? Shooting 6x6 medium format has established itself as my favoured format over the last few years and I wanted something less bulky than my Bronica SQ to take on trips where I cannot justify the bulk of the Bronica. Another feature I was looking for was a fully mechanical camera that had a bulb mode as this was something lacking on the SQ and I want to be able to try some exposures of several minutes. So a TLR fit the bill nicely, and given that the Yashicamat 124G did not pan out for me previously, I decided to stick with the classic Rollei brand.

I must admit I was baffled when first trying to use the camera - I could not work out how to fire the shutter! On the Yashica the wind on lever cocked the shutter so that it could be fired with the shutter release button. The Rolleicord has a knob rather than a lever and no obvious (to me at least) shutter release button. So admitting defeat I found the manual online and realised my oversight - there is a lever just below the lens that you need to slide to cock the shutter and then tap the other way to fire the shutter. The ergonomics of this operation could be better in my opinion, flicking a lever feels quite weird to me rather than using a button when handheld, although most of the time I ended up using a tripod and shutter release so this wasn't a big deal.

The focus knob has good travel and loading the film is easy so no issues there. Using filters was a necessary feature for me and as it doesn't use standard thread mounted filters I had to also consult the manual to find out it uses Bay I mount filters. Whilst you can get old original Rollei ones off eBay you can also get some new ones from B&H it turns out. For $15 I got a red filter made in India by a company called Nisha although I didn't end up using it. Instead I managed to find an adapter for Bay 1 to 52mm thread meaning that I could use my full set of ND and coloured filters. What's really great about a TLR over an SLR for using filters is that they only cover the taking lens and you can frame normally without the filter as the viewing lens has none. This is especially useful for a strong ND like a 10 stop filter which is such a pain on an SLR to screw on and off between shots. One downside of this camera though is the dim focusing screen, which is far worse than the Bronica SQ.

Before heading to the US on a family vacation I thought it would be prudent to check the cameras actually worked so I headed to my local park to get through a roll. I developed it myself and the photos came out reasonably well exposed (so as not to suggest shutter timing issues) and in focus (suggesting the viewing and taking lenses are in alignment, something I'm pretty sure was not the case for the Yashicamat). So confident it was working I ran 2 rolls of TMax 100 and 1 of Ektar with many long exposures on the former. Unfortunately I did not check the shutter speeds less than 1/60s and just as I was finishing my first roll I realised that the shutter had not closed on a 1/2s exposure whilst I was framing up for the next shot. Thats the downside of a leaf shutter I suppose, you can't hear it open and close to notice normal operation. So I reverted to using only bulb mode for some long (20s - 2min) exposures. Note to self: carry some cards with reciprocity failure corrections with you! I must admit forgetting to write these down and then realising your on a beach with no phone signal is annoying, although my best guesses did at least end up with some usable frames.

In conclusion this is a really fun camera to use and I'm glad to get a decent copy unlike my previous Yashicamat TLR where the lens misalignment led to focus woes that drove me mad. I will invest in a CLA I think because this is a camera I'll probably keep on to for many years to come. The form factor to shoot 6x6 medium format is great and such a nice change from the heft of the Bronica. Although it only has the option of the built in 75mm lens available it is somewhat liberating and restrictive. Liberating in that one can focus on getting the best angle with what you have availabe but restrictive that there are just shots you won't be able to get with this camera. Its telling that my most used lenses on the Bronica SQ are typically the wide 50mm and telephoto 150mm and 250mm and there were shots I would've liked to capture that I couldn't really with a fixed 75mm. Although my suitcase appreciated the reduced weight.

Abstract Photography

The EdgeZeiss Ikon Nettar 517

Photography, as I am appreciating more and more, is less about capturing reality and more about conveying an idea or emotion. In its most abstract form an image that enables you to see something that you would not appreciate through the frame of real life. Whilst going back over my photography library in an effort to sort the wheat from the chaff, I was inspired by some of the more abstract images I've captured over the years. I've never properly started a project to follow a theme of structure or colour and so each of these are collected together only with some hindsight.

The first image is the corner of a building near Kings College's library in London. I'm not sure what inspired me to take the shot, it was an anonymous building where an interesting angle caught my eye. The way the colours have rendered - simple brown, white and blue with a nice shadow emphasising the 3D effect has stuck with me. The final two are more muted in their palette and are captures of two famous landmarks - the Bullring in Birmingham and the Guggenheim in New York. The Guggenheim is not a shot that I took much notice of at the time, I marked it down as an idea I did not fully execute. However some 4 years later I saw some hope that cropping the image would make it more impactful, which with the relatively large 6x6 negative I had plenty of room to maneuver. The composition is now more pleasing but its the subtle details in the marks on the paintwork that draws me in as my eye lingers. As for the Bullring image, its a building hard not to get a good image from. What I like about this particular image is the grey nature of the day created conditions where the colour is so muted and subtle that it is these minor details that draws my interest every time I see it.

The GuggenheimBronica SQA + 80mm f2.8 + Fuji Reala
The BullringBronica SQA + 80mm f2.8 + Fuji 400H

Abstract themes is something I should try explore more in the future, especially living in a city, and I would do well to think of a theme to help create a series of images rather than images in isolation that I try to group together after the fact.

Olympic Peninsula

The Olympic Peninsula hold much rugged majesty for anyone interested in landscape to observe. I first visited in spring 2015 and had resolved to return one day. On that trip, unlike Yosemite the year before, I did not opt to take my Bronica. It had fallen somewhat out of favour and the heft it added to to my luggage certainly influenced my decision. Fast forward four years and I find myself increasingly drawn to using 120 film in 6x6 format to make the images I enjoy most; this time the heft did not phase my and my Bronica with every lens I own accompanied me (40mm, 50mm, 80mm, 150mm and 250mm).

Such a great volume of gear may seem extreme and in hindsight probably was. I tended towards using the wide lenses and the two telephotos to either compress or accentuate my perspective; in the past couple of years I havent found myself using the 80mm much. Its too bad that 95mm filters required are for the 40mm and will probably result in me opting for the 50mm in the future as all of my filters are 77mm.

For film I had some Ilford HP5 in my freezer that wanted using so I took this rather than buying in some new TMax 400 which would've been my preference. Colour I dug out my last Velvia 50 and a roll of Ektar. Wow I'd forgotten just how good Ektar is when well exposed.

The peninsula can easily be seen from the city of Seattle on a clear day but how long it takes to get there depends on wait times for a ferry or traffic around Tacoma. As it was a holiday weekend we took the latter and suffered traffic that I'm sure was to at its worst. We stayed at an holiday rental on the north coast down a private road with access to a restricted bay. The views to Canada's Victoria island were superb.

Day 2 saw us drive back to Port Angeles and up the road to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park. As you can see from the map the main attractions in the National Park are accessible via sparse inroads into the wilderness, leaving the majority only accessible with multi-day backpacking trips. The ridge itself has a large car park and a visitor centre. There are some short hikes around the meadows opposite, but carry on through the car park and you will go down a narrow winding road for a mile or so to another car park. This is the trailhead for the Hurricane Hill trail an accessible ~3 mile hike with outstanding views of the inner mountains and north to Canada. As we reached the top of the hill mist rolled in making for some great mysterious photographic conditions.

Hurricane Ridge ViewsBronica SQA + 250mm f5.6 + Red Filter + Ilford HP5. Washington USA (2019)
Hurricane HillBronica SQA + 250mm f5.6 + Ilford HP5. Washington USA (2019)

Sul Duc falls is another very popular short accessible hike in the park. I had done this on my previous trip and continued on to Deer Lake but today with kids we would only go as far as the falls today. To our surprise we were greeted at the trailhead by emergency services out in force; turns out someone had been standing on rocks on top of the falls, slipped and fallen down the falls. It's incredible the risks people take with their safety and I hope it was not driven by the quest for a photo. The trail had reopened but we were warned there would be the emergency services returning and we did pass the injured being brought back on a gurney. At the falls I got a few long exposures of the falls.

The far west side of the peninsula is a wild rugged coastline with deadwood washed up to line sand and stony beaches. There are large stacks left in the sea where the mainland had receded away leaving towering monoliths that conveniently make for attractive photographic subjects. There are many beaches, Ruby and Rialto being two of the most popular but unfortunately due to time we could only visit the latter. Next time I would base myself at the town of Forks to explore more of this coastline. We arrived at Rialto beach whilst it was thick in morning fog. Proceeding down the beach it was easy to lose track of distance and time with the view impaired to only metres in front of your feet. Before reaching the stacks it suddenly cleared leading me to regret not capturing some frames of the tree lined shore in the fog on my walk out there. I realised I'd been so set on getting to the stacks I'd missed some good potential of the treeline diminished by the fog. The images at the top of this post are from here and are some of my favourite from the trip.

The final image above is from the private access to Freshwater Bay from the holiday rental. Nearby is a public access point to the coastline called Salt Creek that has some good potential for photography. Whilst I captured some images sunset was not the optimal time. Sunrise would be better, as would not mistaking the film back with Velvia 50 for my HP5.

Folding Camera Finds

Old Zeiss folders have been the subject of intrigue for me over some time. Near the start of my interest in shooting film a Zeiss Ikon Nettar 517 6x6 folder was discovered by a relative and given to me to experiment with. I found it quite a curio - bellows? guessing the focus? would it even work? Some research dated it to 1949, some 60+ years prior, but it looked in good condition so I gave it a whirl. I have written about my experiences with this camera before and now and again I put another roll through it. The character of the images produced with this camera really are punchy with a sharp contrasty lens in the centre frame, and a nice natural vignette and softness towards the corners. To say framing is an approximation would be a slight understatement, and focus is normally guesswork, and of course there is no meter, but these things become more comfortable with time.

I love shooting medium format film and find myself gravitating towards B&W 6x6 images, and my Bronica SQA is a solid workhorse for this. Its got so much flexibility with all the different lenses but if I am travelling where the primary purpose of the trip will not be photography then it is hard for me to justify bringing so much weight along. This is where the Zeiss Ikon folders came back to mind as they are so light and compact. There are of course some compromises, nothing comes for free: I would be limited to one focal length (a 75mm 'normal') and also I did not think it would be easy to use my existing sets of filters, particularly the ND filters for long exposures.

Inspired by this Shooting Film Like a Boss YouTube video performing long exposures with a Nettar by bodging the filter on the front with an elastic band, I had a brainstorm. Why not use a step up ring with an appropriately sized inner diameter to slip over the lens and then use the 52mm filters I already owned? For armed with a micrometer I measured the Novar-Anastigmat 75mm f6.3 lens on the Nettar, ordered a 38-52mm step up ring. I knew this ring would be slightly bigger than the lens so I added some stick on velcro (the soft part) to the inner circumference. It worked! Now I can push this adapter over the lens and use my standard 52mm filters. You may notice the Zeiss Ikon Ikonta 521/16 in the photo above. Its a recent acquisition and there will be more on this another time but in case you are interested the 75mm f4.5 Novar-Anastigmat lens takes a 40.5-52mm step up ring with the soft velcro inside too.

So this is where I hoped to share some images from my recent trip to the white cliffs of Dover using some red and ND filters on the folders. My new Ikonta 521 let me down, it turned out that using a shutter release cord did not consistently work to fire the shutter, and then the double exposure prevention mechanism blocked me from trying again. Further investigation after my trip led to me realising part of the shutter trigger mechanism had come misaligned which enabled me to fix it. So I will try this one out another time. The Nettar has the cable release mount next to the shutter and so no transfer mechanism is necessary. There is also no double exposure prevention, which could be seen as a benefit, as there is less to go wrong. The only downside in my eyes is that the shutter on the Nettar is very limited with only Bulb, 25, 75 and 200, whereas the Ikonta has Bulb, 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 250 enabling far more flexibility.

The Nettar was still loaded up with some Ilford HP5 that I'd half used at Christmas in the US. So at least I still had this to experiment with. I shot off the remaining 6 frames with a mixture of with and without a red and 10x ND filter (with some 20 second exposures) and looked forward to seeing how the results came back from the lab. Peculiarly in all of the 6 frames I took in Dover (but not the 6 exposed 9 months prior), and increasing with severity towards the end of the roll, there are speckled marks. These are present on the negative itself as dark marks and so must be something additive to the negative (e.g. light, debris etc) but I can't explain them. Searching online I have found a few similar examples that had suggestions of expired fixer or perhaps some issue with the backing paper affecting the film. The former doesn't make sense to me as if there was an issue in development (which was performed by my normal lab) then I would have expected it to be present on all frames. One suggestion I saw was air bubbles accumulating whilst developing so perhaps this is plausible if it only occurred on one part of the tank.

The testing of the Ikona 521 and long exposures with both of these cameras will have to wait unfortunately, but at least the forgotten images from 9 month prior came out ok!