2018: A year in review

Time feels like it is racing by faster than ever to me. Reminiscing about the past year does make me realise however how much I have done and yet the extra that I did not accomplish. If 2017 was the year that really kindled my passion for photography, then 2018 was a year that I tried to hone in on the aspects I really enjoy and start to think about developing my own style.

Looking back at my favourite individual images I would saw there tend to be more B&W than colour. Overall I think I've realised that Landscape photography is the key focus I want to pursue. Certainly I've noticed in terms of consistency, which I recognise is key to assist with curation of a portfolio, I think my black and white images together are better. I seem to gravitate towards patterns with structure in the image rather than strong use of colour, which to me feels an incidental component of images I create. Part of this might be because photography is an abstraction of what we see, diminishing and accentuating aspects of the real, and it could be that limiting oneself to black and white is intrinsically a bit easier to do this as even a snapshot in B&W will be altered significantly from what we see. Or perhaps its because I find dark moody B&W landscapes leave more to for the observer to interpret. The open questions from ambiguity in the image draw me in.

Probably one of the things I did this year that'll help me most going forward were a few boring tasks in tidying up my Lightroom library with useful tags and sets and also migrating to Koken the technology this site is built upon. I started to curate my work on this site and also take a more active approach on Instagram which for now seems to still be the best photo sharing platform for a broad audience overall. This seems to be a good foundation in 2019 to keep sharing my work and I also aim to print more of my work - potentially going through the process of putting together a book looking back at some of my favourite images from my first 10 years of photography.

QuiraingIsle of Skye, Scotland (2018). Bronica SQA + 250mm f5.6 + Kodak Portra 400.

I was fortunate enough to take a couple of pure photography trips in Scotland and Iceland this year and also got some good shooting opportunities in Cornwall and the Canary Islands. The former were great trips that got me to most of the locations I'd dreamt of photographing. There was however alot of driving, which I don't mind, but meant that I could not afford to wait for the best light at each. It makes me realise the benefit of visiting the same place multiple times, with the first trip as more of an overall scout, so in future its easier to focus more of specific areas of interest. Next year its unlikely I'll travel as much, but I'm hoping to be able to do at least one photography focused trip.

The tools I have at my disposal grew, accelerated by a bout of gear acquisition syndrome, although overall it was the Bronica SQ medium format system that I already owned that I feel assisted me in capturing my best shots. I love the square format and the way it encourages me to take care capturing each shot due to the slow set up time and limitations of 12 shots per roll. The addition of the 250mm lens turned out to be very useful for compressed landscape shots but the 2x TC for it failed to impress. As for my Nikon collection I satisfied my urge to own all of the top line film SLRs apart from the F6. In particular the F5 was a big help for exposing slide film this year and got a number of great shots from Scotland and Iceland that look great projected on a big screen. The F4 didn't get much use and has lingered with a half exposed roll of Cinestill 800T for far too long. Using this more in 2019 is a new years resolution as is not buying any more cameras.

Fire in Central LondonNikon F2 + 50mm f2 + Kodak TMax 400

Digital took a back seat to film in 2018, although the Fuji XE-2 Mirrorless was a welcome addition, particularly for its size to image quality ratio and using my 55mm non-Ai Nikkor Macro lens with the peak focus indicator in the EVF. As for analogue, TMax 400 was the B&W stock of choice, or Delta 400 when my local shops have run out of stock (which has appeared to be more frequently than I'd have liked!). For colour I mainly shot Portra 400 as I wanted the speed and softer colours than Ektar which I used to use almost exclusively but has fallen out of favour. In 2019 I want to shoot a few more rolls of Ektar. I shot a few rolls of slide film too and got good results with Provia in 35mm in my Nikon F5 (which I've also enjoyed projecting on a big screen with a new to me Kodak Carousel), but inconsistent ones with Velvia 50 on my Bronica clearly showed how challenging it is for a newcomer to meter well for this film's narrow latitude.

So, aims for 2019? I want to continue thinking about the best way to curate my work when publishing it and keep trying to develop my style with B&W landscapes. I'd like to put together a book of my favourite landscape shots in the past decade but also read more photobooks to inspire me as I've found spending too much time reading or looking at images for inspiration online can be fatiguing and actually be counter productive.

Oh and one more aim - to shoot more and not end up with rolls of film stuck in a camera for longer than a month!

Acoustic RaysNikon F + 85mm f1.8 Pre-Ai + Kodak TMax 400

Photo of the week: El Golfo Details

Lanzarote is awash with texture and martian colours. Nowhere is this more distinct than the Green Lagoon just outside the town of El Golfo. I arrived there around sunset and the sun setting illuminating the rocks was a sight to behold. The details of the red, blue and brown volcanic rocks drew my eye and soon the Bronica was mounted on my tripod with the 150mm lens pointed at an intersection of colours I found particularly interesting . This was actually one of the images I was looking forward to seeing most when my film returned from the lab especially to see how Kodak Ektar rendered the colour. Opening the high quality scan on the CD that Peak Imaging (who I've used quite alot this year for my process and scanning) I was taken aback. Those vibrant tones! But then I realised there was a mark in the center of the frame. Checking the negative, clearly something had gone wrong, with a dark mark and halo effect around it. Things can go wrong in many places when shooting film and the feedback loop is pretty long. Unfortunately I'm not in the habit of bracketing most of my shots so I understood that regardless of the root cause Photoshop's clone tool would be the solution. Still I was interested to hear what the issue was so I sent it back to the lab for their inspection. Great customer service, in my opinion, should be primarily judged on when there is a problem for the client. This was the first issue I'd had in the many years and rolls of film I had sent to Peak Imaging and so I was keen to see how this was handled. The negatives and CD were sent back to them using their freepost label and within a couple of days one of the lab managers called me with his feedback. I had a good conversation with him and he described how he was quite perplexed by the mark as being on frame 8 of the roll it seemed unlikely to be a processing issue. Perhaps the roll itself had a manufacturing issue. Anyway he offered to digitally fix the image and produce me a 10x10 print of the image which was very welcome and despite not being able to offer a clear theory as what happened I appreciated the thoroughness of his explanation for what it could have been and why each scenario had reasons to be unlikely. Digital saved the analogue day!

Nikon pre-ai 50mm f1.4 - with fungus...

Sometimes an eBay purchase goes wrong and there is noone to blame but yourself. Deciding the need to try out one of the old Nikkor-S 50mm f1.4 lenses on a whim I neglected to read the item description with the rigor one should when purchasing from an online auction site. The lens was inexpensive and to be shipped directly from Japan and the listing actually had a remarkable amount of detail on the condition of the lens. Unfortunately I missed one key line until after purchase: 'some small fungus present'. Unboxing the lens upon its arrival some 3 weeks later I was optimistic the lens would still be usable. Visibly there isn't too much too see through the lens and so I'd hoped exposing the lens to UV light would kill the fungus leaving me with a usable lens. Looking back at a couple of test shots with this lens I'm a little perplexed. The lens looks incredibly sharp on the dog photo before but the brokeh looks weird and mushy in the background. The wheelbarrow is certainly not as sharp and has a similar mush. This will be a lens I think that I'll have to let go and serve as a reminder to read those listings more closely before bidding!

MillieNikon F + 50mm f1.4 Pre-Ai + Kodak TMax 400
Nikon F + 50mm f1.4 Pre-Ai + Kodak TMax 400

First Thoughts: Nikon 85mm f1.8 Pre-Ai

AnthonyNikon F + 85mm f1.8 Pre-Ai + Kodak TMax 400

This is a focal length I was keen to try out for some time, and so when I saw a pre-ai copy pop up on an internet auction site for a reasonable amount, I couldn't resist. To my surprise upon arrival I found it to be an Ai'd copy, a nice bonus meaning that I can use it on all of my Nikon cameras. Perhaps the Ai conversion job was DIY - the aperture ring does not quite snap on the numbered markings and feels a little soft on the click. So much so that the Photomic metered head on the Nikon F pulls back the aperture at f1.8 with enough force it wont stay in position. As for performance, I'm very impressed by the sharpness and character of the lens, particularly in the portrait above (1/500 f2.8 if I recall correctly), with the subject really popping. Its interesting to see just how well this 60+ year lens holds up to modern counterparts on the blog post here. I'm looking forward to shooting with it some more!

MF65 sideNikon F + 85mm f1.8 Pre-Ai + Kodak TMax 400
MF65 faceNikon F + 85mm f1.8 Pre-Ai + Kodak TMax 400

Lanzarote in Monochrome

The rugged volcanic Canary Island Lanzarote offers much for the Landscape photographer. I visited at the end of October hoping for a little winter sun, but the cloudy days gave me good excuse to take my Bronica to the ample photogenic spots on the island. A full write up of the trip will come soon, for now, enjoy these shots!

Mirrorless or DSLR?

Mirrorless cameras appear to be on an unstoppable rise, and appear to be diminishing the popularity of DSLRs, if not making them seem archaic.

The benefits over a DSLR are compelling, primarily the size and weight. I am also drawn to the trend of styling harking back to the film rangefinder era; the resurgence of aperture rings and shutter speed dials in particular. Widely available adapters for almost all lens mounts and the focus peaking available within EVFs is a huge boon to using old manual focus lenses, like the collection of Ai (and pre-ai) Nikkors in my collection.

I’m rarely a first mover when it comes to camera gear. As an amateur I think it’s far more financially prudent to buy gear that is second hand, a model that has been out a while or both. So when I saw a second hand FujiFilm XE2 in the window of my local camera shop earlier this year for around £200 I thought this was a great opportunity to see what all the fuss was about and to fill a gap for a lightweight performant camera that had existed since I sold my Canon G15 compact.

Personally I love the design and ergonomics of this camera. The whole FujiFilm line looks great from my perspective. As for weight - partnered with one of Fuji’s compact primes (I use the 18mm f2) it’s far less heavy and compact than any option I have with my Nikon D7100 DSLR. This is important for me for activities like hiking, but also for when I’m doing a trip with my Bronica medium format camera. Taking a full DSLR and Medium format film set up equates to a very heavy bag (10KG+) which isn’t much fun to lug around.

So how did it perform? I took this camera along with my Bronica to Lanzarote in October and gave it a proper run out. Overall very good! I didn’t miss the bulk of my DSLR and was great for hiking with. Sharpness / resolution of the sensor + 18mm lens is well upto my standards (although maybe the 18mm f2 is a bit softer in the corners than I’d like). I also accompanied it with the Nikon 50mm and 100mm Series E lenses, two of the most compact Nikon F mount lenses available, and whilst that worked OK, the focus peaking around infinity seemed a bit problematic. The Fuji to F mount adapter is not designed to retain the exact focus of the lens - I.e. the infinity hard stop ends up well past infinity on my copy. This will be important to bear in mind in future.

A couple of surprises, for long exposures with an ND64 or 10x ND filter the EVF would adjust its brightness so you could actually compose and focus your shot whilst using these filters. A nice change from the blackout you get in a DSLR viewfinder! I was a bit confused when trying my first long exposure though, as it seemed impossible to set the shutter speed (with the T setting) to multiple seconds. It turns out that you need to disable the electronic shutter to do this - a case for reading the manual before using the camera!

As for the images they're perfectly fine. It doesn't seem entirely fair to compare these photos to ones from my D7100 as the lens selection I have for the F mount far surpasses the Fuji, although that being said I do prefer the overall image rendition from the D7100 so far. Insofar as the quality to size/weight ratio this Fuji has thoroughly impressed me and seems to fully fit the gap I had - a small lightweight performant camera for short trips where photography was a secondary purpose and/or involved alot of hiking.

So in conclusion when judging this camera on price/performance/size/weight it excels. Its a great digital companion to the film shooter with similar ergonomics and also little details like the standard threaded shutter release is very helpful for using the same gear between this and a film camera. Whilst the EVF took me a while to get used to (and frankly I still prefer the optical finder in all situations except using strong ND filters) its overall not so bad and is a boon especially when using an adapter with old film lenses to see focus peaking and exposure. Mirror-less probably represents a significant fraction of the future for digital photography and leaves me with a bit of a conundrum. Really I had wanted Nikon to come out with a mirrorless that was a native F mount and kept with their design choices to maximise compatibility with their older lenses. The Z6/7 cameras don't use the F mount, so an adapter is needed anyway, plus they are positioned at a much higher market than something like the XE2. How I do wish they would come out with a mirrorless Nikon FM styled body at a reasonable price. This does mean if I wanted to swap to a mirrorless system I'd probably be better selling all of my Nikon gear and migrating to another brand like Fuji. Given my sunk cost in Nikon gear and my love for their film SLRs I don't think a switch will be anytime soon, so this Fujifilm XE2 works quite well as a comprimise.