The new year of 2018 saw the East Coast USA dumped with a ton of snow in a massive storm. I was staying in Harlem at the time and the below are a few snapshots from a short cold walk around the block. This is from my second roll of film through my Nikon F2.
Its always fun to try a new camera and after reading some inspiring commentary of the Spotmatic online I decided to pick one up to try out. Its got classic 70s looks and is lightweight despite being of metal construct. I got the body and 35mm Super Takumar lens separately off eBay for around £40 in total.
It took far too long to get through a roll of film which was split between a weekend in Rome and one in London with my Family. Its amazing how hard it can be to get through 36 frames!
Now for the review: the first thing I noticed was the microprism focussing screen, which I did not find easy to focus. The finder is also far dimmer than my most comparable Nikon camera, the FM, and this made it less pleasing to use. Weight and size are very similar to the FM although the Spotmatic is around 40 grams lighter. The centre of gravity is quite different though when using 35mm lens as the Super Takumar is far lighter than the Nikkor and so therefore the weight sits more towards the body. Another thing I found quirky is the self timer as I did not realise the shutter release is not used to commence countdown. This led to a few wasted frames before I realised another button underneath the self timing crank needed to be used. Finally I personally do not rate the image quality of the Super Takumar 35mm f3.5 as highly as the Nikon 35mm f2.8 Ai.
Unfortunately, for me the Spotmatic is not a keeper, as I much prefer my Nikon FM. It also confirms that whilst trying out new cameras is fun, I'm very content with the Nikon SLR system I already own. That being said others clearly do really enjoy using the Spotmatic and if you want to try them they are cheap to pick up and find out for yourself!
For a long time now I have processed my own black and white film, starting in the Imperial College darkroom (where I also did some C41 and E6), and continuing to this day. It is rewarding to process oneself but I must say my main motivation is really the cost. A process and high quality scan will run me around £14 if I decide to mail it in to Peak Imaging which soon adds up if I shoot a number of rolls and so its clear to see why I often choose to do it myself. This comes with some significant compromises: I don't have a great washing / drying process for the negative and my self developed rolls do end up with watermarks and dust (and I'm very thankful for the Lightroom heal brush!).
For self scanning I have owned an Epson v500 now for around 4 years and it has served me relatively well for both 35mm and medium format. Its pretty affordable and perhaps cost me £100 second hand on eBay in 2013. For the cost the scanner is really good in my opinion, particularly for B&W medium format as you can see from the examples below.
The top image was drum scanned by Peak Imaging using their Archive service. To be clear I think their service is very good and the quality of the scans are fantastic but the second I processed and scanned myself with the v500 and small sizes it is no slouch.
For 35mm film the example below should and does illustrate a larger gulf in quality. The top is drum scanned and the bottom I did myself. You may of may not like the amount of sharpening applied in the top one, I personally prefer it, as I do with the colours in the drum scanned version. The vibrancy and analogue gradient between colours I find much more pleasing in the lab scanned image, particularly as the sun is breaking through the mountains of Rio in this shot.
So overall no big surprises - you get what you pay for. For me as a hobbyist it is hard to justify the cost of a pro lab dev and scan for every roll and so I find the self scanning on the v500 a huge help. But when I have a special roll from a once in a lifetime trip I have no remorse paying for the pros to get me the best out of my film.
Why do I bother still shooting film? It certainly is expensive to develop and scan a roll these days. You don't get feedback right away so how do you know if you messed up the shot or if the camera is faulty. And digital is pretty great these days so whats the point?!
This is a question I ask myself from time to time and sometimes it really does feel a bit of an expensive indulgence. After all a roll of 120 film runs at £6 then processing and scans cost £16 a roll for a professional service. So thats £1.83 per shot - more if your Bronica decides its going to skip a few frames without you knowing! Are the outcomes really worth that?
Here I post some examples from my recent Scotland trip to serve as a reminder that taking my Bronica and also paying for a professional to process and drum scan my negatives (with the £16 per roll price tag) was well worth it. When you travel with a couple of different cameras of different formats you can end up taking the same shot just on different cameras. Whilst these shots were not planned as a test against each other I thought it would be worth showing a comparison of these two images. One is with a Nikon D7100 with a Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 lens and the other a Bronica SQA + 50mm f3.5 (I think?) + Kodak Portra 400 film. The digital image has been processed in Lightroom using a Portra style preset and tweaked a little from there to as best I could.
To be honest I much prefer the film photo of the two. And I'm a little surprised; I visited the Old Man of Storr in the late afternoon and the light for this location is far better in the morning. So I thought both images would be pretty flat and have uninspiring colours but the difference between them is huge. I have not been able to salvage the flat looking digital shot but somehow the negative has produced interesting colours with depth.
So there you have it film is not a pointless process, at least not to me.
I also took a roll of well expired (2013) Velvia 100 slide film and shot this in a Nikon F5. The film's latitude was not kind to me and despite being a high res scan you can see the detail is plenty worse than both the above. Also its my first time using this film with the F5 and clearly I should have used a center weighted or spot meter instead of matrix. Anyway it looks better in a slide projector aimed at my wall!
After driving 1400 miles in 8 days (and thats starting from Glasgow!) I returned back home appreciating my warm bed. Perhaps unsurprisingly Scotland at Easter is still very cold, especially at night, and waking up to frost or ice on your tent each morning does indeed get old. But wow - why had I never visited before? The snow capped mountains and lining epic glens are stunning sights and a joy to photograph.
This trip was also a chance for me to really give my Bronica a good run out. The Bronica system is pretty big and heavy (especially as I now have 4 lenses: the 50mm, 80mm, 150mm and 250mm and used 3 backs: one with TMax 400 another with Portra 400 and a 220 back loaded with some 35mm film with a DIY adapter). So naturally given the size and weight it can be hard for me to justify brining all this kit on a trip, especially if hiking is involved. I recently got a flight case to help keep all this kit organised and protected from bumps, overall this worked great, but as you will hear later it was not ideal for those mountain hikes. I love the detail the Bronica lenses and medium format film can produce and I really like using a square format. I must admit I recently found the phenomenal aows.co blog which also served to inspire me in bringing this camera along. I brought my DSLR gear too so that was another heavy bag of gear.
With all this weight already I thought what the hell and threw my F5 with a roll of slide film in there too. Go big or go home? Only joking - it can be very liberating to travel with less gear. The mirrorless Fuji XE-2 I recently acquired I think will be a great hiking camera but for trips where many epic viewpoints are near the road the weight of the gear isn't such a big deal.
The one final thing I would say which I'm still trying to get my head around is the notion of having too much choice: does taking several shots in one location on different cameras / formats / lenses impede creativity? I suspect there is something powerful about a single tool for the job and I've toyed with the idea of only taking the Bronica on a trip and only shooting black and white film.
Starting at Glasgow we drove to Glencoe, a small village nestled in some of the most epic scenery the UK has to offer. The planning paid off and it was clear as we arrived in the evening to the chosen campsite, the Red Squirrel, that this was a good choice. There were plenty of roaring fires already but there were still good spots left to pitch our tents.
Waking up for sunrise the next day were were greeted by grey cloudy skies. Undeterred we drove back down the A82 east through the spectacular pass of Glencoe. The scenery is stunning for several miles down this route and after a few brief stops near Buachaille Etvie Mor we proceeded to Lochan na h-Achlaise. There are a couple of good pull offs to park by the bridge there and its possible to walk down the the water edge. Unfortunately, and what we would soon find to be recurring, was the saturated boggy ground that soon also saturated our shoes and socks. Some good waterproof boots would turn out to be useful for this trip! Its easy to spend a day just driving on the A82 and stopping in the several laybys to get some shots. The single track road down Glen Etvie, a popular spot for wild campers, is also well worth spending a couple of hours down. There are a few spots for good photos along the way, often including deer by the side of the road, and the road terminates at a Loch Etive which is surrounded by impressive peaks.
We spent another night at the Red Squirrel campsite, keeping warm by a raging fire, and the next morning we were rewarded with clear blue skies the next morning upon waking at 6.20am. In Scotland the weather can often not cooperate, so spending at least a couple of days in Glencoe is recommended so as you can get more opportunities for better light. We did not do much in the way of hiking which was a regret. There are many great photo locations near the road and this kept me occupied for the two days here but next time I visit I am to explore the mountainsides more.
Isle of Skye
Easter Monday was again a fantastic day of blue skies and sun. We drove through the highlands, stopping to make a couple of roadside coffees with a camping stove. We literally stumbled on a fantastic view of a loch providing a epic mirror of the scattered clouds in the blue sky. Then onwards to the Isle of Skye a place that appeared almost magical in the photos I'd seen before going. It did not disappoint. We crossed the bridge from the mainland and headed straight for Portree, the largest town on the island. As we drew nearer the sky turned epically grey and it was clear we were entering into a severe rainstorm. Normally the Old Man of Storr is visible looming in the mountains behind Portree, or so I'd read, but today it was nowhere to be seen. Stopping in Portree I debated whether to proceed further north or if photographing this landmark was a lost cause today. Its amazing how quick the weather can change in small distances; I correctly decided to drive on and was rewarded with clearing skies as the rain retreated in the opposite direction.
The climb up to the Old Man is a bit of a hike but is pretty easy for most fit people. I must admit that despite this I did temporarily somewhat regret my stubbornness to bring all of the camera equipment particularly with the slippy ground. This was late afternoon - sunrise or morning will provide much better lighting but I unfortunately neglected to take this into account. I thought I'd have time to head back one morning but there is so much to see in Skye I did not end up having chance. As an aside I also missed seeing Melt Waterfall as it was signposted as Kilt Rock and unfortunately had not cemented that these two things were at the same place. Next time!
The above shot is sunrise at Quiraing. Its at the middle of a pot hole filled single track road between the two coasts. When I arrived around 6.45am there was only one other photographer who was set up near the quintessential tree shot. So I skipped past that and walked on further along the flat the hiking trail thats in the hillside. I'd been camping in Dunvegan which is about a 45 minute drive to the car park so after finishing up here I returned to pack up my tent and then drove south down the west side of the island to the fairy pools.
Like everywhere in Scotland the Fairy Pools have some spectacular mountains around them and driving south along the A863 its pretty epic to have them looming through your windowscreen in front of you. This was definitely the busiest single track road I'd been on to date; I cant even begin to image what this is like in summer traffic. The several waterfalls were cool here although it did seem like the water flow was far below its peak. Carrying on to the end of the road is a campsite right on the bay. It was an epic location but also turned out to be epically windy. Not only did this exacerbate the frigid temperatures at night but due to fear of my tent blowing away I had to acquire some new guy ropes. Luckily this campsite has an excellent shop and cafe with many food and camping essentials.
I spent sunset at Talisker Bay which is about a 30 minute or so drive from the campsite. I'd read in the guidebook that the limited parking at the end of the road could be an issue and so getting there early is advised. This might be true for summer but is not necessary in the early April shoulder season. Its a bit of a walk from the end of the public road through the private grounds of Talisker House (they allow pedestrian access along the lane to the beach). The bay itself is, as expected, very scienic. The beach is mainly rocky with the tide in and there is a rock stack on the side nearest the path and a waterfall from a cliff to the sea on the other. I stayed there for a couple of hours and as cloud on the horizon came in I thought the sunset was not going to be that great. So as there was still a bit of light left I decided to start walking back. What a mistake! I glanced back after getting a few hundred metres down the path and saw the sky illuminated in a glorious shade of light red. I ran back to the beach to get a few shots and just about caught the end of it.
The Far North
So far I definitely felt lucky with the weather. Sure it was cold and had been windy but largely I'd avoided any huge lashings of rain in any of the locations I wanted to photograph. The final day on Skye had a bad forecast so I decided to use this day to make the 5+ hours from here to the very top of Scotland. After a quick stop in Inverness for a coffee I carried on north, stopping at the Waligoe Steps south of Wick and Kiess Castle for some more photos. At the former I did not actually have high hopes for any good shots, as the best photo appeared to be from a cliff overlooking the steps, but this was on private land and there was no access. Anyway I got to the bottom of the steps and did realise I wanted to capture some exposures of the sea battling against the rocks. So up and down again I went.
I felt like treating myself to a roof over my head for a night so I stayed at a very good hotel in Thurso called the Y-Not Hotel that also has a very good restaurant. Despite the grim weather in Thurso a 30 minute drive east to Duncansby Head saw the rain abate. There eroded coast here is very dramatic with several stacks. The ground was waterlogged and the cliffs are fenced off which means a zoom lens is best for the early viewpoints. Further around the fence stops and it provides more freedom in framing the shots looking back at the stacks.
From Duncansby Head I travelled back west along the top of Scotland. I'd been told that Kyle of Tongue was not to be missed and this proved out to be very true. Luckily the sky was blue once more and the lakes were also stunning shade of dark blue. This was a nice contrast to the muted brown foliage. That evening I stopped at a campsite overlooking Sanago bay, an "award winning beach" as the sign boasts. The sunrise here was quite good but would have been much better if the tide were in. There are plenty of large rocks peppering the beach to photograph.
Scotland is clearly photographers paradise although it may sometimes need a bit of luck with the weather. Thankfully for this trip the weather did cooperate and the cold was bearable with some decent Thinsulate gloves, hat and averaging around 5 upper body layers. As for the images captured I'll be posting them soon. I decided to get them processed and scanned at high resolution by Peak Imaging in Sheffield and wow, I'm blown away by the sharpness the Bronica can produce. Unfortunately though it seems there is a fault somewhere that resulted in some blank frames. I'm yet to investigate properly but it could be the shutter failing in one of the lenses. Also one of the 120 backs I recently used appears to have light leaks and I hadn't had chance to try it out beforehand. These are the risks of using older equipment I suppose. Anyway thats it for now, I need to get back to finishing getting the photos ready for the site!
One of the consequences of the cheap air travel era is that I've been more likely to take a flight abroad for a trip rather than thinking closer to home. Since moving back to the UK after some time living abroad I have realised this oversight and I am actively seeking to correct it. Starting with the Scottish Highlands.
Sometimes its unexpected places or moments that yield your best photos from a trip. Still a good plan is essential and despite there being a wealth of information on the internet, it can often be overwhelming and hard to digest exactly what is worth seeing. The dead tree press still has its day, at least in my eyes. First I wanted some inspiration and where better to find some from the Landscape Photographer of the Year 10 Year Special Edition that contains a very deserved representation from Scotland. Then I got thinking "what is the Lonely Planet for photography?" to make the arduous task of deciding exactly where to go a bit easier. Luckily Dougie Cunningham has done the hard work here in his excellent book Photographing Scotland. This book, first published in December 2017, is phenomenal from a practical point of view with clear and concise directions to some of the best viewpoints in the country. I'd highly recommend it. For those cheapskates who balk at paying good money for someones hard work here is a good free online summary of spots in the Glencoe area.
Apps are also great and for some time I have yearned for one that could make planning a trip via a map much easier. My general use-case is I want somewhere to store all of the locations I'm interested in visiting, ideally with notes and photo linking, and then when I'm traveling I can plan on the fly which location I could visit based on my current location. Google Maps has lists, and I did try that before shelling out £14.99 for an app called Rego Pro, but ultimately G Maps had far too much of a clunky UI. Rego on the other had is worth every penny. It has a really simple UI that allows you to group collections with subfolders of locations. You can find locations from a searching words (using the Foursquare API) or directly via GPS coordinates, which was of most interest to me as I wanted to input some locations from the Photographing Scotland book. This took some time but should help me during the trip to consider locations easily by drive time from my current location.
Finally it was time to plan what gear to take. This is always a hard task, probably because I have too much choice (....I blame gear acquisition syndrome), but this time it was a bit more straightforward. I want my primary photography tool to be a medium format camera and so taking my full set of Bronica kit is a no brainer. This was in large part influenced by my recent collection of images captured with this camera called American Landscapes. The rendition of landscapes in square medium format really is a joy. I'm most excited to try out a couple of recent telephoto acquisitions (150mm and 250mm) on this camera for some compressed landscape shots. I think I'll take 3 film holders loaded with TMax 400, Portra 400 and a 35mm roll of something (loaded with a DIY 35mm adapter into a 220 back). However as always the temptation to take a digital camera is there and most likely I'll also take my D7100 as I don't find the Bronica very good for me with long exposures. Then just for fun I will likely take a 6x9 Zeiss Ikon Ikonta because its so (relatively) small and I've been meaning to put another roll through it for a good while now.
Stay tuned for the trip report coming in a few weeks!