Friday, October 12, 2012

Film Adventures Part 2

Colour Scan to B&W Using GIMP Film Simulation

Yesterday, I showed how radically different film can be from digital when driven over the edge - and therein lies one of it's biggest advantages. Modern film especially is able to cope with harsh lighting far more gracefully than even a very good digital sensor, and in fact, the user's manual for my Rolleiflex Automat recommends erring on the side of overexposure for this very reason, and that was written in 1953! With digital photography, on the other hand, if you want to be sure you get all the dynamics of a spectacular sky in the presence of harsh sunlight, then it's best to err on the side of underexposure, and hope to lift the shadow detail in post-processing. The results, comparing one to the other, are very different. I'm not saying one is better than the other - just so different that it is very difficult to use any digital technique / tricks to make it look like film. 

Today, I want to talk about the experience of using the Rolleiflex Automat TLR camera. First a brief rundown of this camera's features, to help you better understand the nature of photography as it was in the early 1950's. By the way, I should mention that Rollei is still manufacturing this great camera some sixty years later!

  1. All mechanical operation - no electronics, no batteries, no built in metering
  2. Totally manual metering and focusing
  3. Very easy film loading and crank-advance, due to an extremely precision engineered mechanism
  4. Exceptional optics by Schneider-Kreuznach, with an integrated leaf shutter (as opposed to a focal plane curtain shutter, as found in SLR cameras).
  5. Fixed focal length of 75mm, which is roughly equivalent to 45mm in the standardized 35mm film
  6. Maximum shutter speed of 1/500 sec, widest aperture of f3.5 
  7. Waist level viewfinder, with image reversed from left to right, but not top to bottom
  8. Viewfinder system also incorporates a "sport finder" which is at eye level, but it has no optics - just two metal frames.
So, given these specifications, it is easy to think of this camera's restricted use, which tends to dictate the kind of photography you might be engaged in with this camera in 1953. With a maximum shutter of 1/500, it would make no sense to use a film any greater than ISO 200. So, unless brightly lit, indoor photography would be out of the question. I should mention that the camera has a selectable flash contact, for bulb or electronic, but there is no way of attaching a flash unit - it would have to be a cable connected stand-alone flash, making this an excellent studio camera. Also, because this is a leaf shutter system, the flash will sync at all speeds, which has tremendous advantages.

My biggest joy in using the Rolleiflex TLR is in fact the waist level viewfinder. It is amazingly beautiful - the image provided on the ground glass screen is big and bright - remember, with a TLR camera, the viewfinder has it's very own dedicated high quality camera lens - essentially a second camera is provided for viewing. My biggest surprise is how it maintains visibility even in bright sunlight. To demonstrate this, I was using a very small Lumix digital pocket camera as a light meter. I set the Lumix's ISO to the same value as the film I was using, and pressing the shutter button halfway down, the shutter speed and aperture values would appear briefly on the LCD, giving me a good guide for setting the Rollei's shutter and aperture. The problem sometimes is that in typical digital camera fashion, in bright sunlight, you cannot see what's on the LCD screen. I had thought that a TLR style camera would have the same problem in bright sun. However, to my delight, I found that when I could not see the LCD screen on the little Lumix digicam, the image on the Rollei's optical screen was just as visible as when there is no sun at all! The fact that the image is reversed left-to-right is bothersome at first, but with practice, I found this to be an advantage, especially as the viewing glass is etched with grid lines - this really helped me to slow down, and consider every aspect of what I was viewing, before releasing the shutter. I know this sounds a bit stupid, but once it is experienced, it can be appreciated. This is truly a camera for artists, not sport photographers, and the left-to-right reversal is very akin to how some artists will paint a picture upside down, to gain the advantage of another perspective. It really works once you know what it's for.

Another aspect of using this camera, as opposed to my DSLR, is the feeling I get in carrying it around. I was being noticed, but in a good way, with approving smiles and thumbs-up from some people, and a long conversation with an older gent who had bought one of these new in the mid 50's, for $250.00, which is more like $5000.00 in today's money. On the other hand, when I walk the streets with my Canon 7D, I feel nothing but it screaming "you too are a moron, and don't you dare point that thing at me"! My next roll of film will feature photos of people who actually wanted me to take their picture, simply because the Rolleiflex is such a conversation piece, and not some sinister tool of Paparazzi.

I am totally aware that the old film vs digital debate was settled long ago... digital wins hands down, for reasons of convenience, cost, instant gratification, the huge range of ISO and colour balance available, very high shutter speeds, and the immediate ability to communicate through pictures instead of words.

But film still has it's niche. Film is for artists, because of the need to make every shot count, and the much greater object value of the digital negative or slide.

If you're not into photography for art's sake, but for other reasons, of which there are many, film now has another not so hidden advantage. Shooting with film can get you into the high end very cheaply. or instance, if you're well invested in Nikon DX gear, and want to go "full frame", you can buy a F4 for a fraction of the cost of a D4, and enjoy similar performance and features. It's similar, and perhaps even better with Canon, where you can pick up a really great EOS-1n very cheap.

I'll post more later about this aspect of high-end film cameras.

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