Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Spot Metering" - This May Be Important

"Road Kings" Near Sussex, NB
Canon Elan-7 Partial Metering, EF 28-105, Kodak Ultramax 400

I've read many puzzling articles on the subject of "spot metering" and the "zone system metering", and then have followed up by reading just as many articles how that with modern cameras equipped with "matrix metering", this subject is passée, and doesn't matter any more. Well, I've finally seen the light - I think I now understand what spot metering is useful for, I've successfully experienced using it, and will now attempt to explain it to you.

Spot Metering, and a method devised decades ago called the "Zone System" actually go hand-in-hand. Among the first cameras to use spot metering were the Pentax Spotmatics, and hence the name. In spite of being a Spotmatic owner and user for many decades, I honestly did not know that it's name was derived from it's metering method! Pretty dumb, eh? But it's true - the Spotmtic was designed primarily to use spot metering, and required knowledge of the zone system to do so. Spot metering, as it's name implies, is a method of measuring light entering a camera lens that is concerned only with a very small spot within the overall viewfinder frame - by definition, a spot of only six degrees or less. The first question that comes to my mind is

1) how could that be useful?

Typical camera manuals do very little to explain this. The Spotmatic manual, in fact does nothing - it just instructs you to adjust your shutter and aperture to make the meter read "0", with no explanation of the light actually being measured. More modern camera manuals, like those for later Canon SLR's and DSLR's explain a mode called "Partial Metering", which is almost the same thing, but in fact is a little different, which I'll explain later. Their explanation is that when a subject is back-lit, such as when a person is sitting with a window behind them, it's better to use "Partial Metering" and set your light-measuring point on the person herself. This makes sure that the reflected light from the subject is being measured, and the strong light from the window behind is being avoided, and therefore, the subject won't end up looking like a silhouette.

This is the most basic answer possible of how spot metering is useful - when you encounter strongly contrasting lighting conditions, you need to know which "spot" on which to measure the light, AND CONFINE YOUR CAMERA'S METERING SYSTEM TO IT, to get the desired result.

2) is this the only example of when to use spot... or partial metering?

No, but this is a very good example of a camera manual helping us to understand what it's all about, without getting into all the technicalities of the "zone system". Think of it this way - when you have a dark subject sitting in front of a very bright window, and you want to take that person's picture, you have two "zones" of light - a dark subject that you want to look normal, and a very bright back-light that you don't care about. It is important that you confine your camera's metering to a narrow "beam" as it were, to capture the detail of your subject, and not the light outdoors. So, although your camera manual doesn't say so, this is actually a beginning of an understanding of the zone system of light metering.

The "Zone System" proper actually uses 11 Zones, based on shades of grey from white to black. Therefore, it was intended to help us deal with lighting situations that are as complex, and also more complex than a person sitting in the strong light of a window. In order to actually use the zone system, you need two things:

  • knowledge of the metering zones in terms of tones of grey
  • a light meter that is capable of measuring from a very narrow angle (a "spot"); this light meter can be either off your camera or built into it.

Sometimes, the "Zone System" is spoken of as having less than 11 zones, like 7, or 5. For the purpose of this discussion, five is enough, and in fact, digital camera sensors are built to respond to five zones anyway. Some cameras fake more extended zones, such as Canon's "Auto-Lighting Optimizer", but we won't get into that here.

3) why five or seven zones, but not 6?

Ahhh - that is a "gestalt question" - this is the question that actually made the light come on for me. The reason is that 5 and 7, or any other odd number have a "middle" or "median" value - the median of 5 is 3, and the median of 7 is 4. The Zone System does something very important with this "median" value - it calls it "medium grey" (you'll see it expressed as 18% grey but ignore that) and on an actual scale, it can become the number "0". Therefore, the five value zone scale can actually be simplified to look like this (in my mind):

Zone1      Zone2             Zone3               Zone4        Zone5

Black    Dark Grey   Medium Grey    Light Grey      White

  -2             -1                     0                     +1               +2

All I've done is translate the expression of the Zone System into the numbers of a typical battery powered camera light meter. However, THE ZONE SYSTEM HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUR CAMERA'S LIGHT METER - this was simply how I came to understand it in my own mind, and how I'm sharing my understanding of it with you.

4) OK, now what?

Put it into practice. Here's a black and white version of the picture at the top:

This is the real thing folks - I was actually using Partial Metering and thinking Zone System when I took this picture. It actually has five zones or more, and it is a complex lighting situation - that is to say, if the trucks were sitting in fog instead of bright noon sunlight, it would not have been a complex lighting situation, and would not qualify as a shot where you'd need to use the Zone System. Keep this in mind - it's important to know when, and when not to use it.

The five zones in the picture are:

1) Black -   The shadows under the trucks
2) Dark Grey -  The grilles of the trucks and the trees in the background
3) Medium Grey -  The bumpers of the two trucks on the left
4) Light Grey - The gravel foreground, the bumpers of the two middle trucks
5) White - the building at the far left, and technically, the sky

I underlined "Medium Grey" because using the Zone System, that's what you're supposed to meter on, unless you make a conscious decision to meter on something else. THAT IS THE ESSENCE OF THE ZONE SYSTEM! So, knowing these trucks weren't going anywhere, I knew I had time to figure this out.

In this case, I wanted perfect exposure, although the Zone System allows you to consciously make a "deviant exposure" if you want to - I'll explain shortly. So, to get a perfect exposure with the Zone System, you need to "spot meter" on something that's medium grey. So I set my Elan-7 to "Partial Metering" (it doesn't have true spot-metering, but some more expensive and believe it or not, some cheaper Canon cameras do), and then looked for something in the picture that would be "medium grey" - I decided that would be the bumpers of the two trucks on the left, because they were not as bright and shiny as the trucks in the middle.

So, the first step is to "meter the picture". Looking through the viewfinder and making sure the camera was set for Partial Metering, I aimed the centre of my lens at the medium grey bumpers, and pressed my Exposure Lock Button (on Canon SLR's, that's the "*" button on the back - upper right). When you do this, the "*" lights up in the Viewfinder, confirming your exposure is now locked for the shot you're about to take.

The next step is to compose and focus the picture. To do this, I simply moved the camera to take in all the trucks, pressed my shutter release halfway to focus, and then all the way to  snap the picture.

Note that UNLESS YOUR MEDIUM GREY HAPPENS TO BE IN THE EXACT MIDDLE OF THE PICTURE, "spot, or partial metering" is always a two step process, requiring the action of locking your focus, using the "*" button before actually composing and taking the picture. First you meter, then you shoot.

5) what if you want a "deviant exposure"?

What I'm calling a "deviant exposure" is one that deviates from the use of the Zone System standard of "18% Grey". Now, this was what was really throwing me off... this seems to be the part that is not well explained in any articles I read about the Zone System. As it turns out, I was over-complicating it. If you want to deviate from the standard "medium grey", all you do is simply aim your spot meter (the centre of the viewfinder) at some other value, and lock the exposure. THAT'S IT!!! You don't turn any dials to adjust your exposure compensation, - you don't re-adjust your aperture or shutter speed - all you do is aim your spot-meter at a lighter or darker value than medium grey and lock the exposure, and then take the picture! It's funny how I wasn't getting that!

So, if I had pointed my lens at the white building on the left, the whole picture would've been much darker, or if I had metered on the shadows under the trucks, the whole picture would've been much lighter. If I had wanted more of the truck's interiors to be visible, I would've metered on the wind-shields instead of the bumpers! It would've made the whole picture brighter - the grilles and bumpers might've lost detail to "washout" (especially with a digital camera), but the seats and steering wheels would've been more visible. It really is that simple!

6) isn't the newer camera's "Matrix / Evaluative Metering" supposed to figure this all out? 

Theoretically, yes. "Matrix" is Nikon, "Evaluative" is Canon. These systems are supposed to use complex computer algorithms to calculate complex lighting situations so that you won't have to think about the Twilight Zone of the "zone system". Ken Rockwell even says so! But have you ever noticed on Flickr, and other AMATEUR photo sharing sites how so many pictures just look dull, compressed and lifeless? Or how some black and white shots don't really have any black or white - just a lot of different greys? Maybe what we're seeing here is "The Matrix (metering)" at work! A lot of photographers aren't really learning anything about exposure if all they do is "set and forget" their computerized metering system, and end up with pictures that are void of highlights, because Matrix Metering tends to compute toward the safe side of not "blowing out the highlights".

7) is it possible that Evaluative Metering could've done wrong on this particular shot?

Probably not - it likely would've come out the same, especially considering my distance from the subject. It is possible that the nice "glint" around the chrome might have been supressed by Evaluative Metering. One way you can determine if Partial, or Spot Metering will make a difference or not is to switch it in and out, and observe what this does to your aperture and shutter speed settings. The way you do this will naturally vary from camera to camera... I just picked up a nice EOS 500n (Rebel G) for $20.00, which was kind of the VW Bug of Canon EOS film cameras - very cheap and basic, but one of it's great features is that pressing the "*" button AUTOMATICALLY switches the camera to Partial Metering, and locks exposure at the same time - how cool is that? Last evening, I went out with it and tried various scenes, to see if simply pushing this button made a difference in my aperture and shutter settings - I found that sometimes it did and sometimes not. I think as a rule, if the settings change, use Partial Metering, if they don't change, stay with the camera's conventional metering.

8) how can I do spot metering on an antique camera?

Well, if that antique happens to be a Pentax Spotmatic, you're in! But in other cases, if a camera has a built-in meter, it's either "Incidental" or "Center-Weighted Average" in design. Older cameras never have Matrix (Evaluative) Metering. So, if you choose to use an external light meter, buy one that does spot metering, although that will probably cost you more than the camera.

Here's a tip - the older Canon Powershot G-Series (the G2 through G5) are equipped with genuine spot metering! I just bought a G3 for $20.00 with a bad sensor - it will take a good picture in 1 out of every 4 tries, unless it's switched to "small-normal-jpeg" in which case every shot turns out, but it's only 640x480 pixels. However, the light meter still works, including the spot metering mode, so for $20 I got myself a spot meter, complete with batteries and charger, that'll also take a small B&W picture for verification. I'm now keeping this in the same bag with my Yashica Lynx and FED-5 Rangefinders, which have no built-in metering (well, OK, the Lynx does, but the battery chamber is corroded.) All you need to do is meter on the medium grey of your scene using the Powershot, observe the aperture and shutter speed readings on the little screen (make sure the ISO is set the same as the film in your antique film camera), and then set the same aperture and shutter values on your film camera.

I hope this has helped to de-mystify the topic of spot-metering. It's almost as if there's still an old "Photography Guild" out there that still likes to preserve it's secrets, and when they write up an explanation for things like this, they make it sound so complicated, you don't even want to try it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Do You Talk About Your Pictures?

End of Bridge at Sunrise

That's the question I hope a lot of you will respond to with an answer - "How Do You Talk About YOUR Pictures?"

I'm asking, because I find it quite difficult to do. I seem to follow the lead of other Bloggers to talk more about the gear I'm using to take pictures - that's the easy part, because gear, even though it's "not supposed to matter", well, it matters! If it didn't matter, then why are we all so lured into talking about it? My favourite Big Three, Huff, Johnson and Rockwell, whom I read every day, certainly talk about gear a lot, although Mike Johnson somehow finds other things to talk about in very interesting ways. Yet, they all have the fortune of being able to get hold of the newest offerings from camera makers and tickle our "need to know nerve" with their impressions. Me? Well, my only way of procuring cameras is through yard sales, goodwill stores, pawn shops, dumpster diving - you know if you've been following me that I don't brag up the newest camera's latest features, but rather, I really, REALLY brag about how cheap I got some old camera or lens for, and what I'm able to do with it's lack of features.

So then, now that I've settled on using film cameras, and have decided that the Canon Elan-7 is the best camera ever made, bar none, I really don't want to talk about them so much any more. It's become like an addiction, with the thrill of the chase, how few dollars spent, the "thrill of injection" when I get a roll processed and find that at least they all turned out, more or less, and that in fact some of the pictures I'm absolutely delighted with - then I'm on a high. At least it keeps me taking pictures, and looking for pictures to take. It also gives me a reason to keep making prints, although the walls are getting pretty full.

But instead of talking about camera gear, how do I talk about the even more important end result - the photograph? Maybe I don't need to. Maybe WE don't need to. Certainly, if "a picture is worth a thousand words", how can we ever use words to describe a picture? That's what great novelists and poets do - they have the skill to use words which magically form pictures in your mind, which of course is the other way around.

When we're out for a drive, and witness one of God's most magnificent splendours - the magic moment of a sunset - how can we react other than with stunned silence? Occasionally, we'll bring my wife's 99 year old Mom for a drive, and I'm always amazed at how, after all those years of living, she still exclaims, from the back seat, "It's BEAUT-iful!!" I'm not sure that she's ever taken a photograph in her life - somehow she doesn't need to. Instead, she simply takes all the surrounding scenery in her mind, and responds with those two words - "It's BEAUT-iful!!"

So, with the photo at the top of the screen - how can I talk about it? Well, I can tell you where it was taken - there's a street in our town called Bridge St., because it literally is part of a main (now secondary) route that leads to a bridge that used to take you out of town, and on to Nova Scotia. But in 1963, the Trans Canada Highway was built along side this route, dividing Sackville from "Middle Sackville", and the TCH has it's own bridge of sorts, crossing the Basin. This old concrete bridge is no longer used, although the rail-road bridge next to it is still very much in use - more and more for freight and less and less for passengers.

This is one of my favourite spots for photography - I've taken you here many times and from many different angles, and I think at some point through all four seasons. I love the textures of the steel and concrete, I love the sense of decay and abandonment, and I love how the sun reflects off the mud at low tide:

The Edge of Bridge at Sunrise

You can see how the edge of this old bridge is literally the very edge of town!

Finally, I can say that the light of sunrise through the concrete and old steel was absolutely spectacular, and I'm thrilled at how I was there at exactly the right moment to capture it at the peak moment. I love how every detail in the highlight and shadow got captured in the photograph - even the shafts of light hitting the pavement - nothing got washed out, or lost in shadow. And... AND... I'm not going to even mention what camera and lens I used to take these pictures, because it's not supposed to matter.

That wasn't to bad - in fact, I ended up saying a lot more than I expected. It takes some practice for sure. But I hope to talk less about my cameras and more about my pictures from now on. If you all find it boring, at least let me know.

Here are the rest of the shots I took that morning, "At The End of Bridge" --

Monday, August 26, 2013

Post 301- Just One More Comparison

EOS Elan-7, EF 40 f2.8, Kodak Ultramax 400

EOS Rebel T3i, EF 28-105 Lens

Not much commentary this time. This is a scene out behind a B&B we stayed in at Chezecook, NS last weekend. The film shot is straight from my scanner and the digital shot is straight from my DSLR. For my eyes, this just speaks for itself - enough that I've actually sold my DSLR (the T3i).

Film photography simply gives me so much more satisfaction... with one caveat - I'm not sure how a good Full Frame DSLR would compare here - it might be every bit as good as film, and I'm certainly convinced that a Full Frame Nikon or Canon would blow the doors off a Canon T3i, but I can't afford the price of finding out.  Meanwhile, I'll continue in total enjoyment of my "Full Frame" Canon Elan-7, which I got for $90 including a battery grip.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

As Promised: Bad + Bad = ?

"Bo" The Horse
FED-5, Industar-61, Kodak Color Plus 200

I must say, this was a surprise! it must be a case of two horrible things coming together and somehow their chemistry just clicks to turn out something fantastic. The element of surprise is one of those things I like about film photography, even though they're often just little surprises.

I was just curious about how "the worst film ever", combined with a real bad and very old 52mm (not the usual 50mm) sample of a Russian Industar 61 Lens would come together in real life. I was expecting something that would truly look like the earliest attempts at 1930's era color photography. It came out kind of like that, but not at all in the way I was expecting. The lens' tendency to green-shift, I thought would be especially interesting, but then, I'm using the Kodak Color Plus 200 film with a notable tendency to red-shift, and as we all know, red and green are complimentary colors, and so I ended up with something quite beautifully neutral, but because of the lenses' other characteristics of looking old (because it is old, and really cheap), I didn't know what to expect.

Aside from something that looks like a light leak, running vertically up the far left of some of the photos, I am really pleased with the way these turned out. I don't think it's a light leak, because it was only present in some of the shots. I believe it's because the camera spent some time in the car on a few really hot days, and what we're in fact seeing here is the result of an overheated metal take-up spool putting a hot-spot on the film - always in the same place of course.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!

Reflective Pond
FED-5, Industar-61, Kodak Color Plus 200

Late Summer Hay Field
FED-5, Industar-61, Kodak Color Plus 200

Queens Road
FED-5, Industar-61, Kodak Color Plus 200

A Bit of My Barn
FED-5, Industar-61, Kodak Color Plus 200

High Marsh Corn Field
FED-5, Industar-61, Kodak Color Plus 200

Open Sky Farm House
FED-5, Industar-61, Kodak Color Plus 200

Open Sky Barn Cat
FED-5, Industar-61, Kodak Color Plus 200

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Is This What Digital is Meant to Be?

Canon Powershot G3

I scored this one for $30.00. When I got it home, I discovered it's not working perfectly. Two out of every three shots is corrupted, unless I use the very smallest image setting, which is a postage-stamp sized 640X480. But ignore all that for the moment, because 1 out of 3 ain't bad, and I could sell the two batteries and charger alone on Ebay and get my money back if I wanted.

I remember ten years ago when this camera first came out, it was the one I really wanted, but priced at $1099 at the time (imagine!), I couldn't come close to affording it. I still can't afford top-notch things - that's what this Blog is about after all. It should be obvious to everyone by now that I can't afford to buy one truly great camera because I'm spending all my extra money on junk like this. But ignore all that for the moment, because if I owned only one truly expensive digital camera, I probably wouldn't be blogging, because there wouldn't be much to say! What more could I write about mediocre photos like everybody else is doing, that isn't out there already?

Let's talk about this camera for a moment - specifically this style of digital camera. It's still being made; I mean having evolved to the Powershot G15, and it's got lot's of competition from similar cameras made by Panasonic, Pentax and Nikon. It's a category of camera that uses a small image sensor, with a very good fast zoom lens, and most importantly, professional style access to all functions, including RAW file shooting. The newest versions of this type of camera now have at least 3 times as many MegaPixels, they have more features, shoot much faster and are priced about half as much as their early ancestors.

I do like this camera, even though it doesn't work very well, I found a way around it - if I shoot it in High Speed Burst Mode (2.5 frames per second), and let it take 4 or 5 frames (which takes about 2 seconds), I'm guaranteed to get at least one shot that worked. But it looks real sweet, feels great, and it's super easy to use. It has a rudimentary viewfinder for when it's too sunny to compose a picture on the rear LCD, and a top panel LCD to go with it, to provide your shooting information (which is lacking in the viewfinder). It has a real easy manual focus which is turned on with a single push of a dedicated button, so you can pre-focus with a small aperture and shoot quickly. Otherwise, Auto-Focus is dreadfully slow, as it was with all digital cameras back in the day, and seemingly still is with "live-view" DSLR's and even some Mirror-less large sensor cameras.

But what about the pictures? Like I said before, this camera shoots RAW and JPG, and has a great lens - let's see what it'll do (at least one out of every three tries):

RAW to JPEG Converted, 400 ISO

RAW to JPEG Converted, 400 ISO

RAW to JPEG Converted, 200 ISO, Flash On

RAW to JPEG Converted, 200 ISO

Large Fine JPG, 200 ISO Straight From Camera

Large Fine JPG, 200 ISO Straight From Camera

It's always in the beholder's eye, of course, but in my opinion, the RAW to JPG photos look very good - just as good as the output from any Canon DSLR today. I did some post-processing in Photivo, naturally, because with RAW files you have to. I was especially amazed to see the sunset and night shots with very little noise - the MAXIMUM ISO of this camera is only 400 - the noise cleaned up very easily, and there was very little to begin with. As for the JPGs, I had the camera's effect set to "Vivid" so they are high colour, and Jimmy the Kitten is a bit blurred because the shutter was slow and he moved, but overall, not bad. I made a statement in my previous post that "digital hasn't progressed very much in the past decade". I'm happy to have been able to back up this statement with real pictures from a first-generation camera.

Certainly, digital cameras have progressed in giant leaps over the past decade. But my point is, digital pictures have not. This is why contemporary photography buffs are so hungry for information about the latest and greatest cameras and lenses, and why all the big name Bloggers are talking about equipment so much. Yes, the cameras have made huge progress from the clunky, slow and heavy, but damned good looking, Powershot G3, but if you look at the actual output of one of these better cameras from a decade ago, and compare it with even one of the best from today, well, the proof is in the proofs, I think!

I want to conclude by saying that in this Blog, I no longer want to talk so much about the equipment I use. Everything except for my DSLR I've gotten stone-cheap, and the less money I spend on a piece of gear, the more I want to brag about it, especially if it takes great pictures. Also, I think I've proven everything that I want to prove regarding equipment, that is- that film is still king, and there's nothing particularly difficult about using film in the digital workflow. I feel that what I need to be doing now is writing about the pictures themselves - whether my own or someone else's. I want to be writing about what inspires me as an artist, and not just testing cameras all the time. I expect this will result in much less output from me in writing, because I'll be trying to be more creative in my photography. If I find I cannot do that, this blog will become pointless. We'll see what happens.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Film IS Photography

"Yard Sales"
Caonon EOS Elan-7, EF-40 STM Lens, Kodak Ultramax-400

"Film IS photography".

I chose my title from a quote by Ken Rockwell on his Blog Post yesterday. I'm sure he won't mind. Just read what he says - there's not a whole lot I can add, except or a few things, which I'll do here today - and pretty much a re-hash of things I've said in the past anyway.

I still find it unbelievable how on Feb. 24, 2012 in the early days of my Blogging, I made this statement -
"I now hate film, in spite of the tremendous successes I had with it. I'm on my sixth Digital Camera now, actually my third DSLR - a Canon EOS 40D which I just bought used at an amazingly low price. I truly believe that digital is the way to go - there are so many advantages, I cannot fathom that I would ever shoot a roll of film again."

Now, a year and a half later, I'm shooting about a roll per week! And what changed my mind so radically? Well, I began noticing a certain quality about film which digital cameras just don't do well, and I've mentioned it here quite a few times - film catches light, and that's all it does. Of course, digital sensors catch light too, but as I've said before, they also do a lot more than that, and what they do is not within the photographer's control, and is usually not constructive to the photo. The digital camera begins a process of number crunching after the light is captured, and film does not. The result? To my eyes, film often (but not always - it still depends a lot on the skill of the photographer) retains a certain lightness and vibrancy, while all too often, digital ends up dark, murky, flat, clinical and lifeless. Granted, there are ways to keep this from happening, but again, when these counter-measures are used, a digital image might retain more light, but still lacks the vibrancy of light. I'm not talking about things that can be measured in a laboratory here - I'm only talking about what my eyes perceive. In fact, it may be the designing of digital cameras under the scientific scrutiny of the laboratory that is the problem here. We would all agree that laboratory conditions have nothing to do with real life. It's just mere measuring and number crunching.

In his article yesterday, Ken mentions how film is much cheaper because with digital, you have to buy a new camera every few years. That is not necessarily true in my mind, simply because digital has not improved very much over the past ten years or so. A Canon EOS 50D isn't much better than a 10D to my eyes. Sure, it has a lot more Megapixels, and can shoot bursts a lot faster, but real image quality is not improving very much with digital cameras from year to year from what I can see.

Film cameras are now a photographer's fortune - they can be bought so inexpensively now. This means that for now at least, until film really makes a floodgate comeback (and it will), digital's greatest advantage of having selectable ISO capabilities, as opposed to film being locked into one ISO for 24 or 36 shots, can easily be overcome by owning three or more cameras. This would've been unthinkable when a good film camera cost $1000 when new, but that same camera can now be had for $20. All you really need are maybe 5 good film cameras to cover all the bases of available film ISO's and white balance situations, and you've still only spent 1/10th of what one film camera would've cost you two decades ago. You can experiment to find out what your camera is best at, and put in a film to match. For example, my Yashica Lynx-14, with it's ultra-fast f1.4 lens would be a great night shooter, so I would take advantage of that by using a fast (400 or 800) film in it to get good hand-held shutter speeds at night. At the same time, I'd use a conventional ISO 100 in my Canon Elan-7 for top quality outdoor daylight shooting, and for a real funky look, I'm now trying Kodak Color Plus (worst film ever) in my FED-5 with it's really bad Industar-61 lens, just to experiment with what BAD+BAD will look like - I'm hoping for a real retro 1930's "Brother Where Art Thou" thing to happen with this combination.

Digital camera makers and post-process software developers are trying to do film emulation on the mistaken premise that film is somehow bad. What they're trying to do is "emulate" certain films by adding their so called "bad" qualities to the "perfect" digital image. The bad qualities of film are supposed to be excessive grain, and over / under saturation, or unnatural contrast, so they use software to throw this in spades into the look of a digital photograph, but in so doing, are neglecting film's unique underlying goodness. I'll start by asking - is there anything technically "bad" about this picture? Do you see any grain or blooming in the colours? Any lack of detail or exaggerated contrast?

Wharf At Cape Tormentine

I don't see any problems - it looks great. Shot in strong sunlight with Kodak Ultramax-400 film, it's a "stitch" (panorama) of two straight-from-scanner TIFF files which I converted to JPEG after stitching. Instead of having added "bad-ness", to my eyes it reveals nothing but film's greatest strength - the ability to capture and tame light and colour very well, all on it's own. But because DXO Film Labs Software cannot get true film results like this, instead they mess up your digital images with supposedly measured negative aspects of various film brands in the hope that people who've only shot digital will not notice.

Many reviewers make comparisons between analogue music and analogue photography. As Ken says, vinyl LP records are still being made and sold to enthusiasts, but at the same time, digital music aficionados only observe the "bad" in vinyl, such as pops and tics, and the tendency for inner tracks to be off-pitch, but at least recognize that vinyl has a "warmth" to the sound. This again is missing the point. A well cut vinyl record (for which a premium price must be paid), when played on a properly aligned high quality turntable sounds absolutely wonderful - it's not just a "warmth", but what only can be described as a "presence" in the music. Great music has qualities that analogue recording retains, but gets lost completely in the process of digitizing - even though you might hear occasional pops and tics.

Could it be we've gotten so wrapped up in the technical that we've lost sight of the end result - the image? I certainly think so.

But in turn, is there some way in which using film somehow rescues the value of the image to it's rightful place over and above the gear that was used to make the image? This is where it gets really controversial, but I think that yes, this is possible. Seemingly it's still about the gear - the one versus the other; "digital versus film" is about gear, at least on the surface. But there's an underlying experience that is fundamentally lacking  - I think stolen from us with the digital revolution. Again, it's easier for me to describe in terms of music. I can be listening to exactly the same music track via MP3 or via a vinyl record on my turntable. With the MP3, I can listen anywhere - while walking, while driving, while commuting on a bus or train, or even while working, I can play the track on my computer. But to listen on a turntable, it can only be done in one place - in my listening room. With the MP3, I am listening to the track while doing everything else under the sun, but in my listening room, there is only one purpose - to listen to the music... it is the right thing going on within it's rightful context - everything else is wrong. Perhaps if I'm commuting on a train or a bus, I should be engaging in meaningful conversation with my fellow passengers, or while driving, I should be enjoying the open road and surrounding scenery- not listening to music... that's what I'm talking about.

In a similar way to music listening on vinyl records, film photography has a more distinct purpose - it was always about the image, not the gear. Back in the '80's, when I was fairly actively taking pictures, and also painting them - before a long hiatus, I had a Pentax Spotmatic (still got it actually), and a good friend had a slightly more advanced K-1000. As I recall, we didn't talk much about the merits of the cameras. Rather, we would spend an evening a month talking about the pictures we created, and we would chose our favourites and have them enlarged to hang on the wall. But we would seldom even mention our cameras, because they were so similarly simple, there was nothing about them to really talk about.

Film prints are meant to be displayed, and digital pictures are meant to be shared across network applications - pure and simple. Fortunately these days, film photography allows you to do both, with more attractive results for both purposes. It just looks better than the output of a digital camera, and although you can do if you wish, film prints - even if made from digitally scanned negatives, don't need any Photoshop tweaking in order to look presentable on your walls. I'll just end this Post with a few film samples from my various cameras. Note - no pictures were harmed or killed by any post-processing in the making of them!

Canon EOS 650, EF 40 STM Lens

FED-5, Industar-61 Lens

Yashica Lynx-14e

Pentax Spotmatic II, Jupiter-9 Lens

Pentax Zoom-90 (Taken By My Sister)

Olympus Trip-35

Rolleiflex Automat TLR

Zenit-11, Mir-20 Lens

Zorki-4, Jupiter-12 Lens

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Talk To Me Lynx!

Yashica Lynx-14e, Kodak Ultramax-400

The Yashica Lynx 14 is iconic. It's the Vietnam war camera. Johnson was in the Whitehouse, and Pearson was in Ottawa. Everybody's favourite uncle owned one, and took all the summer holiday family pictures with one. There have been a lot of Yashica Rangefinder cameras showing up in the classifieds and in yard sales, since digital came along to make everybody think that film is a thing of the past.

But not all Yashica Rangefinders were created equal. The Lynx-14 came out before the once famous Japanese company "progressed" into their convoluted attempts at automation of shutter speeds. Suddenly, it was thought that nailing the exposure with an electric eye, automatically, might be a good thing, and I can't argue - yes it's a great idea. Unfortunately, it became Yashica's demise, as they were concentrating so much on putting transistors and wires into their cameras, the mechanical and optical quality for which they were once the supreme Ninjas began to suffer badly. The Lynx-14 came along before all that.

The one that I recently picked up after a long wait for the Salvation Army Thrift Store to drop it's price from $89 to a much closer to market value of $39 is actually a "14e" model. The "e" means they added the first hint of the electronics that would become their downfall - it was an electric eye, with an integrated circuit, no less, that powered a three-light viewfinder system to tell you if you were too hot, too cold, or just right, with your exposure. It created a very ugly looking vestige on the front plate of an otherwise very pretty camera, but fortunately, this is the only thing that changed. Coincidently, by the time Yashica added the "e" to the Lynx-14, the world had changed a lot more - Nixon was in the White House and Trudeau was in Ottawa, but Vietnam was still raging on. This camera would look right at home in the TV series Mad Men, right along with the gold cigarette lighters, Rolex watches and Stetson Fedoras.

But look at the photos that it makes! That enormous f1.4 lens, with it's built-in Copal shutter must be right up there with the all time world's best! I was amazed to see the scans that came out of my humble Epson V500 with this roll of film. In fact, as I was guessing every exposure, because I haven't bothered looking for replacement batteries for the "e" part of the camera, and also left my phone camera with it's light-meter app at home, I thought this roll was going to be a complete disaster. Not so! Either I'm getting very good at estimating, or it is like the experts say about the new films - they are very forgiving, and you can be four stops off either way and still get a good exposure. Case in point - for this shot I had been shooting outdoors using 1/250 sec at f8, and completely forgot to change my exposure after moving indoors. I boosted the exposure in the scanner's software by a couple of stop values (Newbies - this used to be called "pushing" when prints were done in the darkroom) -

Andrew - always good for a "thumbs-up"!

So - I'll stop now. It's a Yashica with a fantastic lens, it's got a rangefinder, which for you newbies is like a second viewfinder that helps you get perfect focus very quickly by aligning a split-image into one, it's amazingly well crafted, a true classic, it takes the best pictures of any camera that I own, and it only cost me $39. Now - enjoy the pictures:

Monday, August 5, 2013

What It Takes To Get Into Film Photography These Days

EOS Elan-7, EF 40 STM Lens, Kodak Ultramax 400

Although I've obviously become a film freak, I'm still keeping enough sense about me to know that film, as opposed to digital, is not the be-all to end-all that I sometimes make it out to be. In fact, as many might already know, there is now a point at which most film photography becomes digital photography anyway. As I was standing at the film counter at Walmart a few days ago, the girl couldn't wait on me right away because she was busy changing the giant thermal print ribbon in their giant sized Dye-Sublimation Printer - a purely digital device which is use by all One-hour Photo places now to make your prints and enlargements from film. I've got an exact equivalent to this on my desk for home use, not commercial, and it's not gigantic - it's a Canon Selphy CP900.

In fact, I think digital technology has been a great help to film photography. There are still some die-hards who spend hours making real darkroom prints - I admire them greatly and my hat goes off to them - these are the true artists of photography. But for the rest of us, the technology used in the One-hour Photo Lab is exactly the same as what is available for home use, except it's bigger and faster. It is all computer based digital technology which can turn a color film into black-and-white (or just a few pictures on your color roll into B&W if you so desire). It is technology that can integrate a roll of Kodak into your preferred digital workflow. It can turn two or more film pictures into a Panorama, whereas "back in the day", you had to have an expensive Panoramic camera. And perhaps most importantly of all, it is technology that allows you to share your film pictures with the rest of the world - you can even Instagram them if you want!

So, if digital technology takes you out of the darkroom into the glorious light that is today's multi-media communication, why even bother with film? That's what I'm here to talk about.

Photos that are shot with film cameras simply look different - even when you put them through all the enhancements of your digital workflow - there is no digital camera or film emulation firmware made yet that looks like the real thing - film. There's a richness and a soul to film that is still maintained even when you put it through digital processing - a certain quality that some of us like and consider it worth waiting for.

There are also some incredible cost benefits when it comes to buying the camera. Do you find yourself with an affordable APS scale digital camera, but long for "full frame" which is out of reach because they cost thousands more? That's where I found myself, until I discovered the Canon EOS Elan Series, which for every purpose works just like a new EOS 6D full frame digital SLR - except it's film. I bought one recently for $20.00! For an additional $75, I added the genuine Canon Battery Grip, allowing me to use common AA batteries. Every photo in this Blog Post was taken with my "new" Elan-7.

Cape Tormentine Dock (Note the amazing light capture)

Cape Tormentine Dock

And you can do even better than that. If you like Canon, the EOS-1 series is the ultimate professional grade film SLR - just like the EOS-1D became the ultimate pro DSLR, except the film version can be had for $100 - and one of the latest digital iterations of the EOS-1 will set you back at least $3000. People are literaly throwing away some exceptionally fine cameras, simply because they don't know a  few secrets which I am about to tell you.

So - these secrets. The first secret is that you only need three things to get into film photography these days:

  1. A good 35mm film camera - depending on the type and model, the price range will be $5.00 to $200.00
  2. A nearby Walmart, or other big store with a One-hour Photo
  3. Some film and a degree of patience - if you simply can't wait until you've shot a whole roll to see the results, then forget about film entirely - it's not for you. Go ahead and spend the $3000 to get a full frame digital camera. Otherwise, keep reading, Chimp!
Some camera recommendations:

Beware of battery issues. The special Lithium electronic camera batteries are getting scarce, expensive and unreliable. For this reason, I am only recommending cameras that either require no battery, will run on AA's, or be adapted to run on AA's.

Olympus Trip-35 - requires no batteries, yet is fully automatic exposure, but not auto-focus. The focus is with Zone Markings on the lens, although there is also a distance scale. Picture quality is good. Expect to pay $10 - $70

FED or Zorki Rangefinders - requires no batteries - everything is manual. Newer FED models have Selenium meter, otherwise these have no meter - you'll need an external meter,  or simply a good feel for exposure values. Aside from quality control issues, these cameras are very similar to older Leicas. Picture quality is excellent, depending on what lens you use - the "bad" lenses have unique endearing qualities of their own. Expect to pay $10 - $70 for a body and $15 - $300 for a lens.

Yashica Lynx or Minister Rangefinders - requires no batteries, although a pair of small mercury batteries was used to operate the CDs Light meter. Best to use external meter (or exposure intuition). The Lynx especially has one of the best f1.4 lenses ever made, and so pic quality is excellent ++
Expect to pay $30 - $60.00 and watch for bad light seals. Avoid some of the newer Yashica's like the Electro, which require odd-ball batteries to control the shutter speed.

Pentax Spotmatic or K-1000 - requires no batteries, although a pair of CR2032 batteries was used to operate the CDs Light meter. Again, you're better off without the meter. These cameras enjoy the world's biggest variety of lenses, in either M42 or K-Mount. Pentax Takumar lenses are legendary for their quality. Expect to pay $10-$20 for a body only, but $50 and upward for a Takumar. Less expensive (Vivitar, Soligar, etc.) glass is easily found. Picture quality is excellent, but dependant on lens.

Zenit SLR's - earlier ones required no batteries, and the Zenit-11 has a built-in Selenium meter. Zenits use all Pentax or Russian M42 lenses, including Takumars. Later models use small Lithium batteries for their metering. I prefer the earlier models, some of which are still available New-Old-Stock. Picture quality is excellent, but dependant on lens. Expect to pay $20-$50

Practica SLR's - don't require batteries, and use all M42 lenses. Same comments as for Pentax and Zenit. Expect to pay $10-$20

Canon EOS Cameras - completely battery dependant, but most have optional Power Grips which use AA batteries. If you can't buy the particular grip required, it's best not to buy the camera. For example - the EOS 650 / 620 were the very first EOS cameras produced, but they use a 2CR5 Lithium battery, with no Power Grip available. However, Canon did make a belt-clip power pack - the BP-5 which uses big D-Cell's. Although awkward, this should work for any EOS camera that uses a 2CR5 Lithium. If you already have some EF lenses for your Canon digital rig, (but not the APS-C EF-S lenses), an EOS film camera is your best choice by far. Picture quality is legendary, especially with Canon's better lenses. Takumar and all other M42 lenses work perfectly, but do not use a K-Mount, because the lens interferes with the camera's reflex mirror. (Note that K-mounts work OK on an APS-C EOS DSLR because the mirror is smaller.) Expect to pay $10-$200 for a body, depending on model.

Rollei 35 - an extremely compact "cult camera" which will work without batteries. Expect to pay $100 or more, but very cool!

Lomo Smena 35 - cheap plastic Russian cult camera that uses no batteries. Lens is fully focusable with Zone Markings; also an optional "Blik" Rangefinder unit can be clipped on to assist in focus calculation. Image quality is extremely variable, but that is what makes it so cool. Expect to pay $10-$20

Nikon AF 35 Compact Point-and Shoot. Excellent auto-focus and auto-exposure system. Uses AA batteries. Picture quality is excellent.

Nikon F6 - the Nikon equivalent to Canon's EOS-1. Normally uses CR123 Lithiums, but a huge optional power grip is available for using 8X AA batteries. (Note - the Canon Grip is smaller and only uses four). Mr. Rockwell calls this the world's best 35mm SLR. Expect to pay $100 - $400

More Secrets

The next set of secrets are optional, and dependent on how much you'll be shooting and how much you enjoy doing your own workflow. If you want, you can get the One-hour Photo to do it all for you - process the roll of negatives ($5.00 + Tax), make digital thermal dye-sublimation prints to your specified size (about 25 cents each for 4X6, double prints at a discount), and make a high definition scan to Photo-CD (or a memory stick of you choose - another $6.00 + Tax). Then you buy a replacement film for another $5.00 + Tax. Grand total - around $30.00 for a 24 roll.

That's a fairly high incremental cost, but I've already told you about a Thermal Dye-Sub Printer you can have in your home for less than $100. Unfortunately, the cost per print when using one of these is actually a little more than prints from the lab, but you can save a little by printing only the ones you want. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but a One-hour Photo Lab has to print either ll or none; they don't give you time to choose. But there are much less expensive ways to make your own prints at home - chances are, you already own an Inkjet Printer. It will crank out pretty good 4X6's for mere pennies. The Canon Selphy 900 has another purpose - to take along to parties with your digital camera and make prints for people on the spot - the Selphy will run on an optional battery if needed. It's designed to be the digital age Polaroid, and so one could forgive the cost per print being a bit higher. The Selphy printer really has nothing to do with film photography, except that the print quality is better than that of a cheap Inkjet, but then, it'll only do 4X6.

So, the missing ingredient is really the most important one of all - the device that converts your strip of negatives into digital file - the Photo Scanner. The One-hour Photo places have big, fast and expensive drum scanners. That's not what you need in your home digital darkroom (which of course isn't dark at all!) You can get a little Optex scanner for $150 (I've seen them for $99.00). In theory, these should do the job, but I don't know much about them. It looks like the only output option is a 5 MP JPEG, with no TIFF capability. For the same price, you can get an Epson V500, like mine, with which I create 60 MP TIFF files that act exactly the same as DNG RAW files in my digital workflow, meaning I can enhance my film scans and print them with the best quality imaginable in exactly the same way as my digital camera's RAW files, before I convert them to JPEG for on-line sharing. To summarize, the Epson Scanner allows me to make a high quality image to print, and a lesser quality one that's suitable for sharing, like this:

 The Sea Wall

 Mooring Post

 Forgotten Sandals

 Confederation Bridge to PEI

Cape Tormentine Abandoned Rail Station

I have enhanced and converted  every one of these film photo negative scans, taken with my Elan-7 camera on Kodak Ultramax-400 using my usual digital workflow applications - Photivo and GIMP. I get the film processed at Walmart - processing only  - no prints, no scans, for which they charge $5.00. Then a roll of replacement film is $5.00, and my total incremental cost is $10.00 plus Tax, which provides me with an enhanced printable TIFF file and a shareable JPEG. This is accomplished with a $95.00 "full-frame SLR" camera and a $150 scanner. I honestly don't think an EOS 5D, or it's little brother the 6D, or even the professional heavyweight, the 1D Mark IV could do it any better, and therefore, I see no sense in saving up to buy one. Besides the fact - even if I were using one of these cameras, it still wouldn't be film, so I still wouldn't be happy.