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.

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.