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.

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