Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Misbehaving Camera

I've not made it much of a secret - I do not like SLR cameras. A small photoshoot I embarked upon yesterday morning became even smaller because of a malfunctioning SLR film camera - my old Spotmatic which I've owned since the late 1970's was misbehaving... but the trouble is, with this particular camera, you don't know you're in trouble until after you get the film processed.

It was a wonderful frosty sunrise - absolutely perfect for real interesting pictures, so I spontaneously had a wonderful idea - I would get out the old Spotmatic, put my Jupiter 9 lens on it, and shoot an entire roll of film of driveways in my neighbourhood - "Twenty-Four Driveways" I'd call it. Well, I ended up salvaging twelve of the pictures, and after some heavy exposure correction, managed to come up with "One Dozen Driveways" instead.

I knew one thing about the old Spotmaic - the 1/1000 sec shutter speed had given up a long time ago, but having tested all other speeds thoroughly and repeatedly without film, I could see that all other speeds were OK. It turns out this was not the case. I was using ISO 400 film, and the sun was bright, so I shot about half the pictures using 1/500. It turned out that this speed was not working either, perhaps due to the cold morning air. Some of the pictures were shady so I used speeds as low as 1/60 for some of the shots, and it turns out these were the only ones that actually took.

I also suspect that all the other speeds are sluggish also, as the remaining pictures were all overexposed. I had to do a lot of compensation to my scans to get them looking right. I am pretty sure the camera's light meter is working OK, as I initially tested it against the beeCam on my phone just to be sure.

This is an obvious problem with old film cameras - you never know when they're actually functioning as they should. The SLR design compounds this, because the sound of the mirror-slap is louder than the shutter itself. Simpler cameras - the kind I prefer, with leaf shutters, allow you to hear the shutter activating, and unless the speeds are way off, you can be confident that things are OK. One thing is certain - a digital camera will always let you know that each shot went good or it went wrong.

Now back in defense of film - I am pleased with the results of the dozen that actually took. Would I have done better with  my DSLR? Certainly. There would have been no overexposure to correct for, and I would  have RAW files to work with. I could have used the same high quality old prime lenses  - I expect it would have been my Takumar 50 instead of the Jupiter 9, both are spectacular lenses. But would I have gotten the gentle suitableness of my analogue results, and would I have enjoyed the amazing full frame view and micro-prism precision of looking through one of the most amazing lenses ever made? Certainly not.

Can I make a recommendation? If you're thinking of getting into film for whatever reason, you should look at it as a supplement to your digital stuff. I'm sure the die-hard film buffs out there would disagree, unless I explain that by "supplement", I mean you ought to make it as big, or as small a supplement as you wish. It's all good. My strongest recommendation, however is to get into Medium Format. When "film" is mentioned to new photographers who've gone in with digital, I suppose it would be 35mm that comes to mind... I am amazed when I'm out with my Rolleiflex, everybody who stops to chat about it will always ask "can you still get film for it?" This tells me that people who are old enough to want to talk about my Rolleiflex are not in touch with the world of film. Yes, both Fuji and Ilford are still making 120 roll film, and the better camera shops always have some on hand. Medium Format should be your film entry point. Then consider 35mm to be your "convenience" film fallback if anything, and do not make the mistake of buying a 35mm SLR, even though they can be had for next to free. For an introduction to 35mm work, I believe you will get far better looking results with a good Viewfinder Compact. I've proven to myself that the results I get from the Pentax Zoom 90, or the Olympus Trip-35 are far more exciting than what I get from an SLR. Other recommendations are the Contax T, the Rollei 35S, or even the Leica Minilux, as pricey as they might be. You would think that a film SLR ought to give great results, but I've never been satisfied with SLR image quality - and I've tried several. I honestly don't know why, although there are theories about it. All I know is what I see, and I don't particularly care that my Spotmatic has failed me - I have no plans to replace it. I'd much rather save up my money and buy a Medium Format Rangefinder as my ultimate film camera.

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