Friday, October 26, 2012

The Rolling Rollei Review

Rolleiflex Automat-4 With Fuji PN160NS Film

I've owned the Rolleiflex Automat-4 for six weeks, and have put 3 rolls of film through it. Hopefully now I'm past the camera trial phase, and can start making some seriously good art with it, because that is what this camera is intended for, especially in today's context. It is truly a camera that has to be experienced, and you would probably love it or hate it, with no middle ground.

The Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) design was originated by Franke & Heidecke, the founders of the Rollei company, to solve a photographic problem that existed in the early days of compact cameras - to enable the photographer to see the same focus and composition that was being seen by the camera. No big deal in today's world, since the invention of the Single Lens Reflex (SLR), but prior to the 1950's, the camera's viewfinder did not bear any relation to the actual taking-lens. Even the popular Rangefinder design didn't show the actual focus of the lens, but rather a split-image alignment taking place, so that when the two images were merged into one, you had to trust that the picture is in focus. Rollei's TLR design changed all that, by adding a "second camera" right above the first camera that held the film. The viewing lens and the taking lens were very similar, and moved together on a common focus block. The taking-lens simply focused the image onto the film in the usual manner, while the viewing-lens focuses the image onto a ground glass viewing screen.

The design of course is antiquated by the SLR design which accomplished the same thing. The main difference between the two is that with an SLR, the viewing-mirror has to flip up out of the way when the shutter opens, and with a TLR, the mirror stays put, making the TLR a far simpler and longer lasting mechanism, which can also use a leaf shutter built into the lens, while the SLR design requires a focal-plane curtain shutter. So, the TLR design has one major advantage - longevity, thanks to a far simpler mechanical construction.

So onto my review.

Film Loading:

The Rolleiflex cameras all use 120 Roll Film, which is still being made, as known as Medium Format, which is still very popular because of it's exceptional image quality. I find loading film into the Automat-4 to be exceptionally easy - everything is so big inside the camera when compared to 35mm film, there is far less "fumbling" when compared to loading an early 35mm camera. The "Automat" part of this camera is, as I'd mentioned before, a mechanism that recognizes when the film has rolled through to it's first exposure, so all you need to do is put the end of the film into the take-up spool, close the back, and then turn the crank until it stops - which means everything is ready to take shot #1. Then the crank becomes a shot-to-shot winder, much like a film advance lever, until all 12 shots are taken. After shot #12 is finished, the crank is once again unlocked, and all you have to do is roll it through three turns, open the back and remove the film. The empty spool which the film was on now becomes the new take-up spool for the next new roll of film.

I found the whole mechanical "feel" of this process of loading, shooting and unloading to be exceptionally precise - something that maybe a true gear-head would appreciate. In the absence of any electrical sensors - this is an entirely mechanical camera, it is an amazingly precise design.

Taking Pictures:

The best part is the way the image looks in the waist-level viewfinder screen. It is incredibly bright, almost "electric" looking, like an old colour tube television picture. Strong sunlight does not wash out this image, unlike with today's electronic LCD's on the back of Digital Cameras. Again, this is extreme precision at work. It is very easy to see the focus of the image, and as with most TLR cameras, there is also a magnifying loupe which flips down over the screen to assist with precision focusing. I did not have to make use of this feature yet. The real downside here, if there is one, is that the viewfinder image is reversed left to right, which is disorientating at first, but you soon get used to it. The screen has grid lines marked on it which really helps with the tilt of the camera, which also behaves in reversed fashion.

The other part of photography, getting the right exposure, is theoretically not so easy as getting the right focus. As there is no built in light meter, you have to use an external light meter. I use the 'beeCam" App on my Samsung Smartphone - it is truly excellent, and as I got my exposure's consistently right through three rolls of film, I'd have to say the beeCam is accurate. You set the film ISO, then either the shutter speed or aperture you plan to use, press "Start", and the beeCam figures it all out for you. Then you rotate the shutter and aperture dials on the camera to match the results given to you by the meter. Now you're ready to press the shutter. Couldn't be easier.

Image Quality:

I was literally stunned at the results - this is my first adventure with Medium Format film and I can easily say that it wins hands down versus my DSLR. This is the true reward of MF film - it cannot be had with Digital, nor can it be had with 35mm film from what I've seen. The sense of presence is incredible, the concentration of colours is exactly what I strive for but have never quite achieved with digital - others may know how to do it with software, but I can never quite get it. Now, with the Rolleiflex and the right film, I have this, simply by taking the picture! No Photoshop necessary.

The Limitations:

The maximum shutter speed is 1/500, and so using a film speed greater than ISO 200 makes little sense, except for night shooting. I have yet to try it, but I expect it would perform admirably at night on a Tripod, with ISO 400, and a shutter speed of 1/25 or lower. This is definitely not a sport camera, it is an artist camera, also good, but not great for portraits, given it's 45mm equivalent lens. Portraiture is best done with a 85mm or more lens. It is also a great street camera, especially due to it's waist-level viewfinder, and a greater "approval factor" that you would be out and about using such a unique old camera. It is also rather strange to hold onto and use - a neck strap is an essential part of the experience. The control layout is very peculiar fro those of us accustomed to SLR's, but again, once you're used to it, it becomes almost likeable.

Conclusion:

No conclusion - this is a "rolling review" so there will be more to come. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Film Scanning Tips

 Rolleiflex With Ilford FP4, Scanned by Me With Epson v500

Very Same Negative Scanned By the 1-Hour Photo

My Home Scan With Photivo Tweaks Applied

Phew - I've got so much to get caught up on here. So, if you're a long standing digital photographer and you've decided to give film a try, you're probably starting down the safe route of avoiding the darkroom, unless you've got experience with that from your dark past. This is more addressed to those who are presently in transition, and taking the "Figital" route - film cameras and digital scans. I'm learning there are pitfalls and rewards all along this journey, and glad to have you along. I expect to begin a "rolling review" of the Rolleiflex shortly, so stay tuned for that. Meanwhile, there's something I need to close off on first - the matter of converting your film negatives to digital files.

Back in 2007 - 2008 I was totally into "Figital", with my Spotmatic, Trip 35, Zorki-4 and Zenit-11 cameras, but I left the film scanning to Walmart's 1-Hour Photo department. I guess I never realized that I could get a scanner to do it myself at home, although I did own a cheap Epson (model unknown, long ago trashed) with Negative drawers, it frustrated the hell out of me, mainly because of dust on the negatives. So I blindly accepted Walmart's scans as the best I could get. Needless to say, and that's exactly what this Post is all about, the scan quality was all over the map, and I had no control. 

Now, look at the three scans above. This is from the "4-Week Photo" debaucle I just went through with my camera dealer sending the Ilford FP4 "real black & white" film out to a third party for processing in  a genuine darkroom, not the big C41 machinery like Walmart uses. Anyway, that's another story. I also had asked the store to provide me with high resolution scans, and I'm glad they did, because this gives me a story to tell today. The story is plainly obvious from the pictures. The store scan is all wrong - most detail was lost to overexposure, especially in the sky. The clouds are even visible in the negative itself, and the biggest reason I took this picture, in fact. But the store missed them completely in their scan, and also, the black bar at the top shows they didn't have the negative aligned properly in their scanner.

As for my scan, I simply used the v500 with it's out of the box software, did the scan at 1200 dpi, which I now know not to do, because the Digital ICE dust removal cannot operate at greater than 300 dpi with a Medium Format negative, so there are a couple of dust bits in my scan, and here it is - much better than the store scan. At least I have control over the results with the Epson v500. I bought this from Staples on sale a few weeks ago for $140.00, so shop around for the best price on this highly recommended consumer scanner. It's great - a bit of a learning curve, which I'm still on, and scanning is very time consuming, so make sure you've got something else to do while scanning.

Finally, to close this off, I would agree that the scan I did at home managed to capture my sky detail at the expense of shadow detail. No trouble, as you can see from the third photo above, this is my scan with a few simple tweaks applied in Photivo to bring out the shadow detail and enhance the local contrast. The traffic lights are now bright, detail under the bridge is recovered nicely, the foreground textures are especially nice, and the cloud textures are also intact. Alternatively, I could have done some exposure and contrast tweaking when I originally did the scan with the Epson software, and perhaps gotten even better results.

So I'll leave you with this thought - if you think you might like doing Figital Photography, buy a home scanner sooner than later.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

It's Here!!

The Little Camera That Could

I'm telling you - this may well be the only camera you'll ever need! My favourite cult camera by far, and I just got this one off Ebay for $15 plus $15 shipping. I lost my old one a couple of years ago - it might have fallen out of the car into a snowbank, because I think I found a small piece of it in the spring, like a snowblower caught it. I don't know what kind of secret sauce Olympus put into this camera, but the image quality is simply outstanding - period. 

I checked it out thoroughly - everything works as it should. This camera is fully automatic, aperture priority, yet it requires no batteries. Those bubbles surrounding the lens serve a dual purpose - it is a "selenium array" that measures the light, and at the same time, actually provides enough electric current to operate the metering circuit itself - a job normally done by a battery in many other cameras. The circuit automatically selects one of two shutter speeds - 1/40 or 1/200, and opens / closes the aperture to the correct f-stop based on the film speed "ASA" (same as ISO) selected. The aperture is only two blades, and it forms a square opening- it's not intended for making good bokeh, but simply as the primary means of controlling exposure. The shutter is also a two bladed leaf design built into the lens - and therein lies part of the secret formula. The other part is the extremely high quality Zuiko 40mm lens, which also opens to f2.8 - fast enough for night shooting. 

Speaking of night shooting, the Trip 35 in it's normal "A" Automatic mode might put up a red flag in the viewfinder if the light is too low, and not operate. No problem - simply set the Aperture ring away from "A" to f2.8 - it is now in manual mode, and the shutter will fire at 1/40 no matter how dark it is. With 400 ASA film in the camera, it just might register something eerie, as long as there is some kind of light source. Flickr has an entire group dedicated to night shooting the Trip 35. You simply must have a look at this!

The other trick to using this camera is to control Exposure Compensation using the ASA selection ring. If you have ASA 200 film in it, you can over expose by turning the ASA down to 160, 125 or 100. Under exposure can be attained by turning it up to 250, 320 or 400. So effectively, Olympus has created exposure control as fine as one-third stops! 

Guess how I'll be spending my day tomorrow!!

Film and Digital

 Canon EOS 7D, 28-105 USM II Lens

Pentax Zoom 90, Fuji Superia X-tra 400 Film

Notice my real simple title - "Film and Digital". No debates here. It's just that I happened to take roughly the same shot with my big bucks EOS 7D and my Pentax Zoom 90, bought for $6.99 at the Salvation Army Thrift Store, so I simply must talk up a comparison between the two - wouldn't you?

First of all, both of these are straight and un-altered. I scanned the Pentax's film negative myself on an Epson v500. Both were shot at ISO 400. Both used the widest zoom angle - 28mm (=45mm) on the Canon, and 38mm on the Pentax. The Pentax was shot earlier in the day, and the Canon was around noon, with the overcast sky just beginning to clear. I had forgotten the Pentax has a point -n- shoot viewfinder which is mounted above the main lens, and so I didn't compensate, resulting in the top of the bridge being cut off. It's sure hard to break the "Through the Lens" habit!

Now, what am I seeing here? First, if you look at the very back end of the bridge, the Canon is showing some perspective error, while the Pentax is showing less of it. I am totally surprised at this, as the Canon zoom lens is at a 45mm equivalent, and the Pentax is at 38mm - I would have expected to see greater perspective problems with the Pentax. Could it be that in spite of the Canon's APS-C crop factor of 1.6 turning the 28mm into (28X1.6 = 45mm), the wide angle perspective of the 28mm still comes into play? Could it be my slightly higher vantage point? No- I would have expected the higher vantage point to reduce this leaning-in perspective, not increased it. It's a mystery to me.

Next, the digital picture certainly looks sharper and more contrasty, but I noticed too that a lot of detail is lost in the contrast, another surprise since I was shooting the EOS 7D all day with a 1/2 stop overexposure. To see what I mean, look at the entrance to the bridge - a lot more detail captured on film, although I know I could use the Digital RAW file to raise the shadow detail. By the way, I had the Canon set for RAW + JPEG - this is the straight from camera JPEG here.

Now for colour. I find the film to be warmer overall, and the digital to be more vibrant overall, but this is very subjective, especially as the light had changed considerably. The change in light would also explain the lost shadow detail of the digital shot, to be fair.

In conclusion, there's no winner here. Also, there was nothing about these shots which was stressing the cameras, recalling that I had previously discovered that I think film behaves a lot better in strong sunlight, preserving highlight detail where digital blows out. I am delighted to see, however how a $7 film camera can hold it's own so well against one of the best Digital SLR's on the market. I got the film negative developed at a 1 hour shop for $4.50 and scanned it myself on my Epson v500, which I just bought a couple of weeks ago for $140 brand new.

There are indeed still a lot of good economic and quality arguments in film's favour. People are literally throwing away perfectly good film cameras, and buying a good film scanner is no longer expensive, as demand for these is decreasing with every new digital camera sold. There has never been a better time to be a photographer, especially as you can shoot with confidence as a "Figital Photographer" - pick up a good camera that somebody is throwing away, buy yourself an Epson v500 scanner, and find a place that still has a One Hour Photo (like Walmart!) to do your negatives. By all means, keep your digital gear - but use film as an extension of your creativity.

UPDATE - more pictures for the Pentax Zoom 90 here, (by the way, the first five were taken with my Rolleiflex, not the Zoom 90) and more pictures for the EOS 7D taken at the same event here.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Spam - I Hate to Say This But...

Off Topic today.

Recently I've gotten many comments here which are always gratifying and full of praise, but never specific. They are also "Anonymous" and contain links to advertising for pretty much everything under the sun.

So here's the deal. I don't mind an Anonymous comment as long as it is specific to the topic being responded to - meaning, it addresses something specific about what I've said in a particular daily post. I also don't object to  links to other websites contained in a Comment, as long as it is on-topic, which is Photography, and even commercial photography links are welcome.

However, all comments from an Anonymous sender which do not address a specific thing I'm writing about, and with links to any websites other than photography related will be marked as spam, and not published. I fully realize this will probably not result in stopping the influx of spam comments, but if you were truly offering a proper comment and in following up, you do not see your comment published, it is simply because I have a lot of Spam to deal with, and in doing so, I might miss the occasional good comment. Hopefully this will not be the case. I simply want to maintain the quality of this site, which means, it will be spam - free from now on.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Compact Film Cameras


Pentax Zoom 90

Here's a topic I never thought I'd be writing about - the compact film cameras of the 80's and 90's, immediately pre-digital era, so to speak. Although a fan of earlier compact cameras, like the beloved Olympus Trip 35 (I just ordered a replacement through Ebay, as the one I had got lost in my driveway and went through the snow-blower as I had found its remains the following spring!), I've never paid any attention to these butt ugly, neoplastic 35mm predecessors of the Digital Compact cameras.

But I think I found a good one. It's not plastic. It's made of robust metal, with some plastic exterior parts. It's fairly heavy. It has a wonderful, very large and bright viewfinder. It has a very good auto-focus lens that zooms from 38-90mm, although not exceptionally bright, being f3.5 - f7.5. It works in a full Program Mode, but also features a Shutter Priority Mode in which you can select lower shutter speeds and "Bulb". It has a socket on the side for an optional remote shutter release (I didn't get one). Strangely, there is no Aperture Priority Mode. It also comes with a genuine leather case. Aside from these up-scale features, it also has what had become very standard at the time DX film reading for automated ISO selection, and full auto film advance and rewind.

So, why my sudden interest in this albeit fine example of an otherwise forgotten breed of camera? Well, first, it was at the local Salvation Army (Goodwill) store for $6.99. And more importantly, when I opened the back, I saw a very rare thing - the lens, when retracted to the wide-end has a big "bubble of glass" in very close proximity to the film plane, the same as found on the wide angle Leica Thread Mount Jupiter-12 (Zeiss Biogon design). This is the design which best overcomes the wide angle retro-focus weakness found on mirror reflex (SLR) cameras - the biggest reason I don't like SLR's once I had discovered what this lens design was capable of.

So I got it home, put in a fresh set of batteries (which BTW are supposed to last through 125 rolls of film - that's 3000 shots folks! The battery cover is even secured by a little Phillips screw because you won't need to open it very often!), a roll of Fuji Superia Xtra 400, and discovered that everything works flawlessly, although I'm never totally sure until I get the film developed. Stay posted for results.

So why should we even be remotely interested in a camera like this? When I look at these on Ebay (there are several listed right now, some of which are the WR - water resistant model), I probably wouldn't even get my $6.99 back if I put it on Auction! Well, I'm interested, because this camera is built like no digital can be - it is a compact with an amazingly great lens design combined with what is still the best full-frame sensor available- 35mm film! Imagine a truly compact full-frame digital camera with one of the greatest lens designs ever which you can buy for probably $1.00 (I got ripped off at $6.99 didn't I?) I'm also interested because Photographers need to keep a foot in the film world, even if we believe (as I do) that digital photography is now the better way. We need to be shooting a roll of film every once in awhile, so as to keep us grounded in the basics of our art. Film shooting needs an obvious discipline - one where you cannot see what you just shot, and keeps you within the very narrow constraints of the film you're using. This is the discipline that creates good habits - because you only get one chance to get it right. The beauty is, now that you can get quality film cameras - even once expensive SLR's if that's your cup of tea, for practically free, you can build up a "kit" of maybe a dozen cameras for less than $100, with all different lens and film speed / white balance combinations, making sure you label every camera with what's inside, and be able to shoot in many different styles as conditions demand it. Beautiful fall foliage? Take out your camera with ISO 100 super colour daylight film. A concert with stage lighting? Grab your camera loaded with a very fast lens and ISO 800 film (this one will probably have to be an SLR). Street photography? Any old camera will do, like a wide angle fixed lens plastik compakt, loaded with Ilford XP2 (a B&W ISO 400 film that you can get processed anywhere that does C41 color). A camera to keep in your car? A cheap one without electronics or batteries would be best.

Forget about film vs digital, and which is best. The fact is, both are best, for something. If you shoot weddings for money, these days, one wouldn't dare show up with anything else but a top rated DSLR, unless the clients really want it done with film (rare, but it is done). Also, there's no sense wasting expensive film and processing on a birthday party - go with digital for any kind of family event. Save film for your artistic shooting, or especially for street photography. People are getting more and more hostile toward having their pictures taken impromptu - even with a smartphone camera. Just the other day, I was in a Tim Hortons and took a picture of my coffee and bagel with my smartphone. A few minutes later, the store manager came over an kindly informed me that they don't allow pictures to be taken inside the store. Once I showed her what I took, she was OK with it, but warned me not to take pictures of the customers seated at the tables. My thinking here may be wrong, but if you're street shooting with an old plastic looking film camera, people will probably object less, because the term "social media" (puke) is not connected with cheap plastic film cameras in the mind of the now hostile  public. For the mean streets, shoot nothing but film from now on - promise me!

Friday, October 19, 2012

My Very Very First Rolleiflex Shots

 Taken With Rolleiflex on Ilord FP4

Taken With EOS 7D

Finally, after almost a month, I got my Black and White film negatives back from processing. I should explain the huge delay is because many camera storefront operations do not process B&W any more, and the ones who say they do actually send it out to a third party, as was the case for me. The colour film I shot after I had done with the Ilford FP4 was processed by the same store overnight, in their C41 machinery. Live and learn I guess. The results you can see above. The top one was created by scanning the negative in my Epson v500, and the bottom one was taken with my Canon EOS 7D, with a simple B&W conversion done in GIMP, with no other processing or digital enhancements. As I had mentioned before, these were shot on the same overcast day at about the same time. They are clearly very different, and my own preference is for the EOS 7D, although in defence of the film product, I have to say that the whole roll was disappointing, very grey looking pictures with a very limited tonal range. It could have been me underexposing, but I know that wasn't the case, as there was also at least one picture on the strip which I know was overexposed by me - this one for instance-

Rolleiflex and Ilford FP4

With this one, I had to give it a Contrast adjustment to make it look decent. Perhaps the person who developed my negative was trying to strike up a good balance between my normal and overexposed shots, because when you are processing a negative, you have to give the entire film strip the same treatment, and there is little control over the results.

Film is very difficult. You have to be very consistent with your exposure - there is no way to over and under compensate an entire roll of film for each individual picture. Keeping in mind these are my first efforts with "real B&W" film, using a "real camera" which in spite of it's name (The Automat-4), has no auto-exposure, not even an exposure meter, and no auto-focus. Given all this, here are my learnings from this experience:

  1. I'll never use real B&W film again (Never say never, they say). Waiting for somebody else darkroom time is simply not worth it. 
  2. I learned that real B&W printing (chemical, not digital) is not available locally. If I had wanted prints from my FP4, the camera store would have simply made prints from my scans on their big professional Epson pigment-ink printer.
  3. For future B&W work, I will simply scan my colour negatives at home and if I want particular pictures in B&W, I will convert them in GIMP, as I always do.
These decisions reflect my current level of maturity, especially point 3, which shows that I really haven't discovered how to "see" in black and white yet. All I'm doing is looking at my colour pictures and saying "that would look good in B&W", and so I convert it. But is this really such a big deal? There was a time when B&W was your only choice, or perhaps the only popular choice - it's just the opposite now. Have a look at these pictures from the early 50's taken by Vivian Maier. She too used a Rolleiflex, probably the same model I have. These are amazing photographs - a true artist at work, and one who really inspires me toward a goal - to be able to shoot like she did. But to my point - do you suppose that she was really "seeing" the world in B&W, like they say you're supposed to today, or was she using B&W film simply because it was the common way to go in the early 50's? I suspect it was the latter. Colour film was certainly available then, but for whatever reason, it had not attained the mass popularity that B&W enjoyed. This leaves a very good question - do we really need to "see the world in B&W" in order to shoot good B&W?

I'll leave that for you to answer.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Film Scan Shoot-Out

 June 2008 With Pentax Spotmatic, Helios 44 Lens

 Feb 2008 With Zorki-4, Jupiter 8 Lens

June 2008 With Olympus Trip 35

Back in 2008, I was shooting a lot of 35mm film with "The Three Sisters" - a Pentax Spotmatic I had bought new in 1978, a Zorki-4 Rangefinder, and an Olympus Trip-35 bought in a yard sale for $4.00. Now, over four years later, I'm getting interested in film again, and having just purchased an Epson v500 Scanner, I'm going back to see what I can do with some of my old negatives. I'm reading of a lot of film die-hards who object to scanning, because as it is creating a digital image, you might just as well just use a digital camera and be done with it. My take on that thought is that a film negative already has a certain look to it, depending on the camera and film that was used, and that the appearance of the resulting picture is locked in. it is the negative which is the high value image here, and to scan it digitally for the purpose of sharing the picture online does not harm the value - or indeed the quality of the negative. Aside from this, a film photo scanner, even a cheap one like mine, has a much higher resolution than almost any digital camera - I've seen 42 Megapixel files created by my v500, just today. Naturally a file size that huge is unworkable, so I've reduced all these above to between 1.2 and 2.8 MP. You can be most certain that what I'm showing you here looks enough like a real photo-print of the negative to merit comparison, as I'm about to do.

I had hundreds of shots to choose from, but I found these three to be typical of the three camera's output. First, the Spotmatic. Every print I've ever gotten from it is typical of what you see here - great detail, but flat, low key colour, that would take some work to the scanned jpeg to make it come to life. All three of these are untouched, straight from the scanner. I must say, that if all film cameras made pictures like the Spotmatic, I would have zero interest in film photography today. Happily, such is not the case.

On to the Zorki-4, a Soviet Russian built Rangefinder, quite similar to a Leica III, and will take Leica Thread Mount lenses. I had three nice Jupiter (Russian) lenses for this camera when I owned it. I loved that camera - it always made pictures that would seem to welcome you in somehow - never was it like a shot of a picture painted on a wall, which is how I would describe the Spotmatic. When it came to colour however, the Zorki was full of surprises; this picture shows one of them - quite a cold colour shift when under low light, but again, so much depended on which lens and what film I was using. Let's just say the Zorki is a most sensitive 35mm camera, but would always reward in its own unique way.

Finally, the clear winner in my mind is the nifty little Olympus Trip-35. In spite of it's very minimal design and low cost, I always found it would take pictures that were consistently spectacular and inviting, not to mention absolutely correct in tonal and colour values. I believe the word's out - this was one truly great camera, as the going price now is around $100, with far more sophisticated SLR's selling for less than $60, lens included. You'd be hard pressed to find one for $4.00 any more.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Extending Your Creativity With Film

April, 2008 Olympus Trip-35

Chances are, you already own a film camera or two, so getting back into it might not be a huge step. Just make sure you get those five year old rolls of film that are stuffed at the back of your sock drawer developed first!

I'm noticing a recent trend on Ebay - the asking prices for many film cameras is going up! I'm not sure if this means much, because I've also noticed that cameras that are sold via on-line auction hit their sale prices quite low, which is the real indicator in my opinion. The problem is, not too many are being sold via auction - most sellers are using the "in your dreams" Buy-It-Now pricing. A better place to look by far is in local classified's like Ebay's little brother, Kijiji - guaranteed you will find a good film camera in your own neighbourhood at a very cheap price this way.

It may depend where you are in your photography journey. Film may be already very familiar to you, as it is to me, and perhaps you're looking for something better. Again, by shopping around, you will find the camera of your older dreams at rock bottom prices right now, but where Ebay is concerned, it might take you a bit of sifting to find it. As a general guideline, if you're new to film, go cheap first, just to make sure it'll suit you - that "digital crack" is a tough habit to kick. If you're already film familiar, then you should be looking at getting into film's high end - those cameras you drooled over in glossy pages 30 years ago are now available at much lower prices than a lot of digital cameras today.

Firs of all, I'll cover the cheap end for beginners. Aside from the perfectly good film SLR you may already have- start using it again. But if you don't have a film camera, I can't think of a better one to recommend than the Olympus Trip-35. I have one of these - it is hands down the best camera I've ever owned, aside from the fact that it is now hopelessly broken. I paid $4.00 for mine in a yard sale, and it worked great for 2 years. Here's Ken Rockwell's take on it, in case you're still not convinced. The word must be out now though - typical Ebay asking prices for these is now around $100, and they're selling for close to that. However, I want to replace mine, and, although there are lot's of similar cameras at that price point, this little box of magic is still near the top of my list. Keep your eyes open at yard sales, flea markets and Thrift Stores too, and don't overlook the East German Hanimex SE and Russian FED 50, which were good copies of this design, but more affordable. I'm recommending these almost toy-like cameras for a reason - that is, I've found they take far better pictures than any film SLR I've ever owned. That's right. Much better than my Pentax Spotmatic, Canon TX, Canon T50, Pentax MV, Practika MTL, or Zenit 11 (Geez - I'm starting to sound like Mr. Rockwell already!) Well, I wouldn't say it if I didn't think it were true. There is a secret sauce in the Olympus Trip 35 that takes advantage of a fundamental SLR design flaw that simple viewfinder style cameras can manage to avoid.

Now, let's talk about the high end, for those with a little more (but not much more) money to spend, and who want to extend their creativity with film. If you are still comfortable with 35mm SLR's after what I just said above, then this is where you'll find the real high end bargains. If you're already well invested in a Nikon, Canon, Pentax or Sony (Minolta) DSLR system, then you have full lens compatibility with the late 1980's through 90's equivalent film SLR's, and you would do well to consider something like the Nikon F100, or Canon EOS 1n. There is no better way than this than to go Full Frame 35mm SLR on a budget, and you can buy a lot of film for the thousands of dollars you'll save on the camera.

Personally, I want to avoid the SLR design flaw with my film photography, because with film, results count with every shot, and film SLR's have brought me nothing but disappointment (truly and honestly) So, aside from the near certainty that I'm going to get another Trip-35, for 35 mm film shooting, I am highly inclined to Rangefinder cameras, and for the high end, there is only one name - Leica. And here is the cheapest Leica on Ebay right now, although it sounds like it might need a bit of work. But you don't need to buy a Leica to get a Leica.

June 2008 With Zorki-4 and Jupiter 3 Lens

There are still hundreds of Soviet era Russian Rangefinders available for the lowest prices on Ebay - prices that are so good, you'd think there must be a catch, like these must be the "Lada's" of cameras. Well, not from my experience. I had a Zorki-4 set with three Jupiter lenses and axillary viewfinder, which I sold in late 2008 because I wanted to go digital (stupid.... stupid..)! There was nothing wrong with this camera at all - it worked beautifully, and it took pictures "like a Leica", but with the unique signature of Russian lenses and their slightly radioactive glass. And if you're so inclined, you can buy one of these which looks this good! There are three Russian RF brands that I wouldn't hesitate to buy - Zorki, FED and Kiev. I still find it hard to believe that even with all the enthusiasm on the Web these cameras generate, the prices still remain very low... virtually no risk in at least trying one out!

Some other good Rangefinder options are the Japanese fixed lens RF cameras, like the Yashica Electro, or the Canonette - there are so many variations of these available, I simply will tell you to do your own search. One major advantage of a fixed lens RF, even over a Leica is that they have a leaf shutter built into the lens, as opposed to a curtain style focal plane shutter. These advantages are - flash will sync at all shutter speeds, the shutter is much quieter, less prone to failure and more readily accessible to repair in case it does fail. I think I've also read about image quality advantages of leaf shutters too - look it up.

Now, the utmost frontier of high end film photography is Medium Format (OK...OK.. rather it should be Large Format, but who wants to carry one of those around all day?) With my locally purchased Rolleiflex Automat-4, I got into MF for $300 cash, and even though I've only seen one roll of film with 10 pictures, I can truly say that I'm confident that MF is the way to go for the digital shooter who wants to make a true creative upgrade - not just a side-step. And because I like Rangefinders, here is another type of camera that combines the best of both worlds. Wish I could coin that one right now!

In conclusion, I'd say if you're going to go film, you might as well go big. That is to say, to avoid disappointment, you might as well shop in the high end while the prices are still good - and actually there is no way to predict if prices will get even better, or go the other way.

Comments welcome!

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.



Thursday, October 11, 2012

Film Adventures




Have you ever tried to get a digital photo to look like a film photo? There are certainly all kinds of tricks in this new age of Instagram where this is supposedly made possible, and indeed, this has become, as the "child of Lomography", the cool new wave of photography, especially where Smartphone Cameras are involved. I myself was, and still am, enthusiastic about this kind of file manipulation - I'm all for using "film effects" when appropriate.

But, the whole thing is based on a premise that "film = bad and digital = good", and what better device than the Smartphone Camera to piggy-back this premise on? Here we have a compromised digital camera, which I still maintain isn't too bad at all, when compared to traditional compact digicams... but let's call the Smartphone Camera for what it really is - right now, they are the worst digital cameras, I'm sure all would agree. So what has happened with the Instagram Movement is that the worst digital cameras, which also happen to be extremely compact and convenient, are provided with Apps that really make a "bad" quality digital picture even "worse" by trying to emulate cheap but fun film cameras, and in a rather nifty way, "worse is now = better". Follow me? God, because that wasn't easy.

But by way of the three pictures above, which are from my first roll with the Rolleiflex, I want to show you some unique qualities of film that Instagram will never make happen, based on the flawed premise that "film=bad". Keep in mind, yesterday, that I demonstrated how Medium Format film, in an extremely good camera, gives better results than the digital file you get from a very good APS-C DSLR. I stand by that premise 100%. I'm not talking about 35mm film here. I'm comparing Medium Format film to APS-C Format digital.

But look closely at the three images above, which are from the same roll. Something seems a little wrong, perhaps? Personally, I love these pictures, because of what happened to the colour, which is not nearly as correct as what I was demonstrating from the Rolleiflex yesterday. In the new Instagram world, these pictures might be what has been coined as "vintage". And yes, my built in 1953 camera is certainly "vintage" in every respect, but I've already proven that not every picture it takes is going to look like an old picture - far from it!

These three pictures were taken under a severely bright sunlight, and the Xenar lens on the Rolleiflex camera does not have any protection against this built in - there is a lens hood that can be purchased, but I don't have one. What happened here then, is something that you'll never see from a digital camera - the harsh sunlight created a colour shift. Harsh light on a digital sensor instead of film has an entirely different effect - the all too familiar "blown out highlights". A digital sensor makes a huge effort to maintain colour balance, and, being digital, does not have enough levels of dynamic range to keep highlights from blowing out under conditions like these, so what you would have gotten with a digital camera would have been more natural colours, but the detail in the clouds would have disappeared into white. That's the beauty of analogue (film) - there is no "brick wall" that is hit when the system runs out of digits, because there are no digits. Instead, the film can maintain all the subtleties of light, even harsh light, but it might distort the colour values when hit with such harsh light.

When I looked at these pictures, I was struck with a familiarity that went deep into the past, which I have never seen replicated in the present attempts at getting a "vintage" look to a digital photo. I know I've seen this "look" before - perhaps in picture I took over 30 years ago with my old Spotmatic, or perhaps even in old issue of National Geographic, or certain old postcards.

So here we have one of the major differences between digital and film - under normal conditions, they will behave pretty much the same; the differences are seen when conditions turn extreme. It comes down to preference really - when the extreme conditions are encountered, which do you prefer - colour shift distortion or complete loss of highlight detail?

I am aware of a very interesting parallel to this in sound amplification. Amplifiers are available built with vacuum tube or solid state (transistorized) construction. Under normal listening conditions, you will not be able to tell the difference, usually. But when the devices are driven into distortion, the tubes will always sound better. This is well known and i think agreed upon, especially among those interested in instrument Amplification.

That which applies to what you hear it turns out also  applies to what you see - the visual quality advantages of film can be readily demonstrated, but only when the conditions call for it.

More later.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Glory of Rolleiflex




After weeks of waiting to shoot a roll of B&W and then one of colour, then waiting to get the negatives and scans back, I can finally show off what this dear old camera can do for me. I'm still waiting for the black and white to come back, but it shouldn't be too much longer. A brief explanation - a true black and white film like the Ilford FP4 which I used must be developed the old fashioned way - in a darkroom. These have never to my knowledge been do-able from a 1 hour photo place, which are strictly geared to C-41 Colour. The photo store I took my B&W film to had to send it out for processing to a B&W enthusiast, and it takes a long time, whereas my colour film was do-able with next day service. In my case, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. It's just so great to continue being finally able to post about my Rolleiflex film experience, and have some real results to show.

I should also mention that most of the C-41 Processing store fronts no longer provide the final prints done using the old chemical process anyway. This somewhat surprised me - the C-41 negative is done chemically, of course, but then these are digitally scanned, then printed on a very large professional digital printer. It is only with true B&W film, printed via an Enlarger on chemical photo paper in a darkroom that provides "real" analogue photography from beginning to end. Even in my case, when I finally do get my B&W, I did not order prints, but only scans - the prints are expensive, and I want to be able to choose the ones I want enlarged and printed the old fashioned way. This raises an obvious issue - if it goes digital anyway, then what is the advantage of film photography? This is what I want to discuss here.

If you want to discuss advantages of film, the first thing to do is compare results. Yesterday I had both the Rolleiflex and the 7D with me in Moncton, with some time to kill. This particular scene in Centennial Park is famously beautiful in the Autumn. I admit I could've done better with the comparison, by standing in exactly the same place, and paying better attention. I had the Rollei with me first, so I took the picture, then had to  walk back to the car to get the 7D. One thing I don't know yet is what the field of view is for the lens on the Rolleiflex. It is a 75mm, but I have no idea what this translates to in the 35mm world. I set my Canon zoom lens at 50mm, thinking that would closely replicate the Rollei's Xenar, but I was clearly mistaken - I should've been much wider to match the Rollei. But no matter, even though I could've done much better with the Canon - the Rollei is tremendously impressive here, even with this unaltered digital scan of a film negative.


 Taken With Rolleiflex on Fuji PN160NS

Taken With Canon EOS 7D, Processed from RAW File

Here's another pair for comparison. Again clearly I haven't gotten used to the Rollei's field of view yet - I could've gotten much closer to the truck. But again, look at the vibrant colour quality it gave me here.

 Taken With Rolleiflex on Fuji PN160NS

Taken With Canon EOS 7D, Straight From Camera JPEG

I could've done much better with the Canon by using a lens of similar quality to  that of the Rollei, like one of my Pentax Takumar primes. But I'm also testing the merits of my EF 28-105 in everyday shooting, so this happens to be the lens I'm using lately. It's a good lens, but I've got much better ones in my kit.

For now though, even though this was hardly a scientific comparison, and I was, as usual, very careless, I think I can conclude two things - 
Medium Format film gives better results than a good APS-C Format DSLR 
It is very difficult to make a digital picture "look like" a film picture

More on this later.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Panoramas


I do walk a thin line here sometimes, as I read many other Photography Blogs that are far more sophisticated than this one of mine, and yet, I am deeply rooted in my own learning adventure, and like to write my content with my Mom in mind. After all, I owe my love of picture making to her. So I'll remain stubbornly unsophisticated, and get to one of the coolest and most basic tricks available -  making Panoramas. There once was a time when you needed a special camera to do this, but with digital imaging software, it can be accomplished with any camera - and I do mean any camera - film or digital. All you need are two or more digital picture files that are related (including digitized scans of your film negatives, as made available on a photo CD) and a computer with photo stitching software.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way and talk about how it's done with the software approach, and then, I'll mention a couple of things about Panoramas that maybe you didn't know. Digital stitching software is, as it's name suggests, a computer application that is able to recognize common points in a series of photographs and "stitch" them together into one bigger photograph. So, in order to make a Panorama using the stitching approach, you need to anticipate how the smaller pictures are going to be put together, and make sure that you include common points that will be recognized by the application. It's very simple - just start from left to right, and take two or more pictures of the scene in front of you, making sure that you have some over-lap near the edges of the individual shots. When I say edges, I mean at least a quarter of the way in from the left or right. I tend to choose something closer to a third of the way in, which gives me more confidence, and a certainty that my shots will be lined up level, as I seldom use a tripod when shooting. The use of a tripod is recommended, to provide much better control over the process, but I seldom take my tripod out with me on photo shoots. Without a tripod, just be mindful of the vertical orientation from one shot to the next, and also a little more cautious about where your stitching points are going to be, and everything will be fine.

Another essential - when shooting the sequence, make absolutely certain that your camera settings stay the same. Do not change focal length if you're using a zoom lens, nor can you allow your camera to re-focus, or change ISO in any way. This probably won't be an issue, unless your sequence has a strong change from light to dark (typically unlikely), but just to be certain, make sure your camera is not set on "Auto ISO" - instead, choose an ISO setting that is appropriate to the scene. The idea here is that if your camera automatically changes a setting, or the focus, the stitching software might not be able to recognize the stitching points. If you know how, set your camera up for full-manual-everything, make sure your satisfied with those settings for the centre part of the scene, and then take the sequence of shots without changing anything. If you don't know how to do manual settings, or (more likely) your camera isn't equipped to do so, don't worry - most beginner Pano shots are simple, uniformly lit landscapes, such as my sample above, and the camera will automatically keep the same settings through the entire sequence. It is only when shooting interiors, or night time city scapes, that things could get a bit tricky.

Also keep in mind that Panoramas don't always have to be horizontal - when you really get good at it, you could shoot two or more sequences in two or more rows, to make a really large scene, or, more commonly, you could shoot one sequence with your camera held vertically, as I talked about here on my very first Blog Post.

Now, when you get your digital files home, open your Stitching Software, load your sequence of files into the application as directed, and the rest is usually very automated. I use a program called "Hugin". If you own a Canon camera, chances are it came bundled with "Canon Photo-Stitch", which does the job very well. Normally, the software will automatically make corrections to such things as the tilt and light changes, or even movement of clouds in the sky. When it's done, it will show an image on the screen with a weird looking frame that will need to be cropped. Some Applications have the cropping built in, while others will require an export to another program that does cropping. When completed, give the stitch results a new title, save it and then make any other adjustments like brightness and contrast as you normally would.

OK so with that out of the way, I'd like to mention other methods of making Panoramas - I know of five. The first is to simply crop one shot to Panoramic dimensions. Very easy, but it requires a very wide angle lens to get in enough scenery to make it worthwhile, and also is not preferred, because you are using up a lot of Depth of Field which the camera made in that single shot, and you basically end up cropping it out - and so in trying to keep the best looking part of your picture, you end up eliminating a good part of the field depth your camera was trying to create.  On the other hand, when using a sequence of shots with a stitching application, you can fully maintain the depth of filed, and it really helps in making your Pano shot look spectacular.

Three of the other four ways of making a Panorama involve film cameras. First, I had an EOS Elan IIe Japanese Market version which had a unique "Panorama" switch on the back (I just sold this camera on Ebay). That switch simply made a mask over part of the single 35mm film frame, giving a panoramic dimension to the single shot by cropping the frame on film within the camera. Disadvantage - this is exactly the same as cropping a single shot using software, and it will not make the most of the Depth of Field. The second way is to have a dedicated Panoramic Film Camera, like the Zenit Horizon Kompakt, or other old classics. There are other very cheap "toy" Pano Cameras available which use a fixed focus wide angle plastic lens with a wide frame which makes one extra wide exposure on the film. Third, and perhaps most interesting of all, we have Sackville's own Thaddeus Helownia. Now, I'm not sure that Thaddeus would refer to his work as "Panoramas", except for the actual dimensions of his work. He achieves this using an extremely large Technical Camera, which provides an 18" X 24" negative, as described here. He then prints from a Panoramic crop of this negative, said print actually being a contact print that requires no enlargement. Amazing stuff really.

Finally, the newest way of doing a Panorama is with the newest compact and smartphone cameras, which allow you to "sweep" across a scene, making the wide picture automatically within the camera as you go, by taking several rapid exposures as you pan across. I've never yet tried this with mine.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Rock Star Photographers

From Lou Reed's "Romanticism"

From Bryan Adam's Very Generous Website

Something caught my attention in this morning's TV news. It was a brief interview with Bryan Adams about the release of his new photo book "Exposed". Looking at Bryan's website, I found it to be absolutely overflowing with wonderful photographs by him. Go here, then click on "Photos" at the top for a complete list. Thinking these images look awesomely good, and how each screen of photos takes a while to load up, I was curious as to what resolution Bryan actually posted these up here with, so I downloaded one. Upon opening it, I found it to be 6.4 MB! I could enlarge it on my screen to 200% before seeing any significant dithering. It seems what we have here is a wonderfully generous offering of hundreds of Bryan Adam's best photos in a fully enjoyable on-screen high resolution.

Another rock star I was fully aware is also a photographer is Lou Reed, as I'm a bit of a Lou fan. Lou Reed, of course, entered right into New York's art scene through his music in Andy Warhol's Factory, and was fully engaged as a songwriter/ poet/ musician/ singer, but in that scene at that time, was also immersed in film making, writing, art and photography - everything that was going on around Andy Warhol. It turns out that Lou is still very active in all of these disciplines. Lou's latest photo exhibition is called Romanticism. Here's a quote I found about his photography:

“I love photography. I love digital. I love digital. It’s what I’d always wished for. Being in the camera and experiencing the astonishing accomplishment of the creations of life sparked through the beauty of the detailed startling power of the glass lens. A new German lens brings a mist to me. The colors and light I come to see through the beauty of the camera. A love that lasts forever is the love of the lens of sharpness – of spirit warmth and depth and feeling. It makes my body pour emotion into the heartbeat of the world. A great trade and exchange. I think of the camera as my soul. Much like a guitar. My lovely Alpa has rosewood grips. What more could you need?"

What more indeed? Obsession perhaps? An Alpa is the Rolex of cameras, and it's a treat to come across what a famous rock star can do with one.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Tantramar Sunsets

JPEG Straight From Camera

RAW File Processed and Converted with Photivo

There's not much in life more lovely than a spectacular sunset. Certainly we've all taken a stab at photographing a fantastic evening sky. We've also found out that usually the very peak of a great sunset is hard to predict, and doesn't last more than a minute or two, so unless you're lucky at grabbing your camera and running outside, it often should be planned.

You know when a sunset is reaching it's peak when small areas of brilliant orange light begin to form. Although you can be shooting all the while before this happens, don't be tempted to go back indoors before this happens. It pays to wait. And once this light begins to happen, it usually will get better and better very quickly, and then - "poof" it's dark.

So, some tips from a beginner (that's me). 

  1. Prepare your camera. make sure you have your widest lens, or simply your "normal zoom" at it's widest setting. Also make sure you've removed any filters, including Neutral Density glass from the front of your lens. I've had less than spectacular results shooting sunsets with a ND filter in place, trust me.
  2. Generally, your base settings don't need to be radical. Shoot at ISO 400, Automatic White Balance, Aperture Priority Mode at f5.6 to allow a reasonably fast shutter and good sharpness. You can also set up with Manual Mode at f5.6, Shutter 1/125. You will also be a lot happier if you shoot in RAW or RAW + JPEG.
  3. If you don't have RAW, or if you choose RAW + JPEG, make sure your JPEG in camera colour saturation and contrast are set for a high value.
  4. Exposure is all important. If you're doing an auto exposure (Aperture Priority), set your camera for one of the Selective Metering Modes (like "Spot Exposure" or "Centre Weighted") for best results. The "Evaluative" setting we use for 90% of our pictures will be unpredictable, as it also tries to meter on the darker foreground of the scene. If you have to stay in the Evaluative Metering, make sure you aim the camera at mostly sky, press shutter halfway and re-compose, and everything should be OK. 
  5. If you're using a manual focus lens, simply set it just forward of Infinity. If you're auto focusing, you may need to be aiming at one of the brighter spots to achieve focus. In low light conditions like this, I recommend manual focus to avoid difficulty.
  6. Once you got good exposure, simply compose and shoot, avoiding a lot of foreground - I prefer a bit of sillouhette on the horizon, nothing more. If you have a simple point and shoot digicam with minimal manual control, try using the "Backlight" scene style, or "Sunsets" if the camera is so equipped.


Sunsets are one of those subjects where you realize that a camera doesn't "see" quite like we do. When you capture all the vivid hues and dynamics of light in the sky, the foreground of your picture will be almost dark, even though you think didn't see it that way. Keep in mind, however, that when you're looking at a sunset without a camera, you have a "wandering eye", in which you are constantly looking around, taking in some foreground, and then some sky, with a much narrower field of vision than your camera's wide angle lens. Your eyes are constantly adjusting to the variations in light - unlike your camera which can only pick one particular exposure. For maximum contrast in a sunset sky, a camera must render the foreground almost dark. One way to overcome this of course is to set up for a High Dynamic Range (HDR) shot, by which you can get a brighter foreground, with lifted shadow detail, while still retaining all the dynamics in the sky. But if you go too far with this, I guarantee it will no longer look natural. I don't like HDR for this reason - you end up with something that looks more like a paint-by-number scene by using the full HDR technique of combining several exposure values of the same scene. In fact, I've just coined a new phrase here - "HDR is Photography by Number!" Some people like it, and some really get good at it, which means first and foremost, they will use it appropriately. I've seen too much inappropriate use of the HDR technique to turn me off completely I think.

However, I will often make use of one step of Dynamic Range Compression in my RAW File Processing, as I have done in the picture above. I'm pretty  happy with the straight from the camera JPEG (I had my camera set for RAW+ JPEG), but with some very subtle tweaking of the RAW in Photivo, I got a picture that looks a lot more like what I was experiencing through my viewfinder. A small amount of Dynamic Range Compression, combined with a hint of Local Contrast in the Shadows really put the life back into the sky. As a general rule, when processing RAW files, I make sure that with each step, I take it only as far as when my eye can just perceive a small change, and then back it off a bit. These effects are cumulative, so with a bit of Exposure Correction, Gamma Adjustment, Dynamic Range Compression and Local Contrast, I was able to bring out all of the glory I saw in this sunset.

Finally, if your camera doesn't have RAW, you can still enhance this JPEG. Here, I used GIMP to tweak the contrast, brightness and Gamma to make it more compelling-

JPEG Enhanced with GIMP

This is to show that in the absence of RAW processing, a JPEG can be tweaked to make it a lot more compelling. All such tweaking is fun, and requires some practice to get onto it.  Also, it's obvious that I cropped the pictures into a Panorama by cutting out most of the foreground, which was all dark and of no value to the photo.

A great sunset shot is something you'll want to hang on your wall. As far as the camera settings go, as you've seen here, it's very straight forward. The most important aspect is to make sure your exposure is correct, shutter reasonably fast, and all will be well.