Solving one of the digital era’s big questions: Black and white or color film?

CG-Half Dome B&W 2-2019 (w)I recently had the opportunity to photograph Half Dome in black and white (Ilford HP4) and Color (Kodak Porta 160). I did both because I wanted to answer the question, How does a color image transfer to black and white compared to a black and white photo?”

The is not only a question of the artistic nature of the work but also a very practical question when it comes time to load gear for a trip, especially if an airplane is involved. Moreover, the camera manufactures know the desire for black and white remains strong in the marketplace.

My digital Olympus OMD e-M10 has a B&W mode that mimics traditional filter options of red, blue, yellow, and orange. My Nikon D7100, doesn’t emulate in the camera, I simply change the color palate to black and white and use traditional film filters in front of the lens to make the creative choices afforded to film photographers. I’ll do a post in the future about the advantages of colored filters in black and white photography but if you’re curious now I recommend you do a web search. The processor in the camera blends the three channels to mimic a grey tone image but in fact a digital camera allows you to choose color or black and white on the fly because it only uses color pixels. What’s more any color photo can be turned into black and white after the shoot in most photo software. This means you can wait to do the conversion later with the addition any of the black and white photo editors on the market in post processing. With both options on the table we return to my question, is native black and white film better?

Images from Yosemite beg to be printed in black and white. Due, no doubt, in large part to Ansel Adams classic images. Certain times of the year are more amenable to black and white than others. From the valley floor in the winter nearly everything is black and white anyway, white snow, granite cliffs, and bare or monotone trees make color almost insignificant. I set up my 4×5 camera on Sentinel Bridge for these pictures, made a composition I liked, and put in a frame of Porta 160 and then Ilford HP4. I chose the two films because of their unique characteristics, Porta for its natural color and HP4 for its contrast. Back at home I developed and scanned into Photoshop for the post processing.

Doing post processiCG-HD 2-Half Dome-wng of color film into B&W means I get to use Photoshop’s color sliders to bring out parts of the black and white image. Unlike when shooting with B&W film, I can see the changes in real time on the computer screen as I make my edits. With B&W film you must have the filters with you in the field. For example, the use of a red filter to darken skies and accentuate clouds. With color film using the blue filter while in B&W mode achieves the same effect. On the one hand the freedom to make artistic and compositional changes with B&W happens in the field causing me to slow down and be more purposeful. By choosing to previsualize the end product, as suggested by Ansel Adams, my field session is much more focused and more deliberate. With color film I just shoot and make the artistic decisions from the comfort of my desk with a cup of coffee.

Here are the results. Can you tell which is which?

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Hornitos, California and the Dustbowl

We arrived at Hornitos, California late in the day close to the golden hour. The golden hour, actually two hours before sunset, makes colors deeper and reduces the contrast between the light sky and shadows. Shadows are our friend when it comes to communicating three dimensions on the flat plane of a photograph, so our arrival time was perfect.

Windmill(2)-B&WHornitos is Spanish for “little ovens” named after the above ground graves from early gold prospectors in the Gold Rush days. Today the old town is little more than a couple of buildings on a small secondary road.

I limited my creative tools to a DSLR, fast lens, the golden hour, and my intuition and training. My objective: to make art and not documentary photos. By art I mean photos that evoke feeling and a sense of wondering. I have in mind to be purposeful in composition, use aperture to control the depth of field and take advantage of shadows.

Among the potential subjects was an Aermotor windmill, an essential farm tool in the pre-electric era. In the early 20th Century Aermotor came to dominate the market, so much so that the odds are good any old windmill you see going down the highway is an Aermotor. These self-oiling water pumps use the motion of the blade to work a suction pump. Water storage is always close by, often on a platform, so gravity does the work of everyday water pressure on the farm. Placement of the tower and blades to the water storage tank varies depending on the need of the farm. I’ve never seen an integration of storage and tower like the one pictured. Look closely and you’ll see the storage tank custom sized to fit inside the tower. The maker solved the space and gravity problems in one fell swoop. All of life is a compromise so he sacrificed a large tank for the convenience of locating the tub within the frame. How ingenious! I liked the position of this windmill and tower to the house and took photos from a couple of angles before settling on the one you see.

Three things make this picture work. A large depth of field, f8, careful framing to include something in the front, middle and back of the image, and the choice to use black and white. Let’s look at each of these to see why they work for this image.

On a digital camera the sweet spot of the lens is f8. Overall this aperture creates good depth of field, the lens is at its sharpest, and chromatic aberration is not an issue like it can be at f16. (If I had been using a larger format, medium or large format film camera, I would have used f16 for all of the same reasons.) F8 makes the picture sharp from front to back.

Next, I included the fence posts in the front of the image to draw the viewer into the image and focus on the subject-the windmill. I took several photos including one without the fence. While, I knew this composition would work for the idea I had in mind, I also knew I wasn’t coming back, and another composition might work for another day and purpose. It’s good do “work” a scene to get as much out of it as possible. Who knows, on another day I might prefer the no-fence version. The other aspect of the framing was my desire to include the clouds._DWP5191

I have pictures in my mind of the Dustbowl and with the help of historical research and the novel and movie Grapes of Wrath I think of the 1930’s when I see an old windmill. Part of the nostalgia of these images is the medium: black and white photos. Between the black and white conversion and the clouds I wanted to evoke the feeling of those old dustbowl days and with it the heartiness of Americans and the American spirit.

I’ve included both the color and black and white versions of the image. Let me know what you think.

 

The Nikon F2 Photomic

aka the Leica Killer

Ken Rockwell writes the Nikon F2 was a Leica killer. While that may be a bit extreme (Leica is alive and well), he makes a strong point about the quality and robust nature of the F2. Built for professionals and with Leica clearly in their sites, Nikon set out to make a camera that was virtually bullet proof. It’s all metal body is apparent when pick it up. Unlike earlier 35mm cameras the F2 is a modular camera. Interchangable lenses and viewing screens which can include a needle type light meter make it easy to take it anywhere from a newsman’s primary tool of the trade to the backpacker who wants to take alone a smallish camera with wide angle and telephoto options.

I recently picked up an F2 and put it through its paces. I used a variety of apertures and shutter speeds to make sure everything worked correctly. The meter worked well with fresh batteries and the split prism meter makes for easy focusing. I checked the on-board meter with a Minolta Auto Meter III F. The negatives came out sharp with good contrast. Overall using the camera was a good experience. It weighs enough that you can’t forget it in your hand and with that reminder it’s easy to dedicate time to making those 36 frames count. After using the camera it’s easy to see how the 1970’s filled up with good reliable 35mm cameras that shared most of the F2’s features like the Canon A-I, Pentax K1000, Olympus OM-1 and so many others that stood toe to toe with the Nikons. The emergence of the SLR with through the lens focusing and exposure help either by the needle or lighted f stop/shutter speeds in the viewfinder was a game changer for many people.  

All things considered a used F2 would be a good buy if everything worked right. While some would argue for it in favor of the other models mentioned above, I’d be happy with any them.

Until next time.

The search for a good street camera-part 2

I suspect some of the readers of this blog aren’t big on film. I must confess that when I do the math for a film camera and factor in how long it will last compared to a digital camera that will work well for years but is outdated in about 18 months, I come out ahead with film. Consider the cost of a new Nikon D3500 (or a Canon T6). On sale at Costco it is about $500.00 with two lenses. If you stay with the Nikon system, the lenses will stay with you to the next camera should you decide to upgrade later. A good 35mm SLR camera will cost you about $50.00. That leaves you with $450.00 to develop and scan or print your film. At about $15. For developing and $7 per roll of film that’s $22.00 for 36 frames. It ads up to 20 roles or 720 frames of film. There are trade-offs, however. The 35mm will be used. You can’t take 300 pictures when you go out on a weekend and there’s not instant feedback on your pictures. The benefits include becoming a better photographer because you only get 36 pictures at a time (making your selection and “eye” more discerning), you will never loose your photos because of a software or media card update, and no one will hack your photos. But this isn’t about trying to get you to toss out your digital camera. In fact, it is just the opposite.

My search for a good small, portable unassuming street camera took a turn last summer when I was preparing for long motorcycle trip. Space was at a premium and I wanted to be able to do video (can’t do that with your 35mm SLR) and post pictures to friends and social media. Fuji has some very nice offerings but the prices set me back, so I passed. I really like the look of the X-T1 and the APS-C sensor. It’s retro look and larger sensor in a compact size was attractive. The have other cameras in their line up that looked good but the price was a stop sign. While examining the Fuji line up at my local camera store the clerk suggested I look at the Olympus OMD-10, a micro four-thirds (MFT) camera. Initially I rejected the advice due to the small sensor.

I bet you can figure out I ended up buying an Olympus. I am crazy about the options I get with the MFT system and this little camera. It does everything I was looking for above, small, video, high quality digital photos, completely manual or shutter or aperture priority shooting modes. Like every consumer camera it has preprogramed shooting modes for macro, sports etc. but I never use them. The dynamic range is excellent and it is both small and very comfortable in my hand.

I don’t do camera reviews in the traditional sense. If you’re looking for a technical review of the OMD-10MII or MIII go to DP Review or maybe Ken Rockwell has looked at it. In this blog I’m more concerned about what it does for me as I make choices about photos for personal use and occasional sale. One big advantage in the MFT world is the agreement by the manufactures to not make lenses proprietary. Any MFT lens from any manufacturer will fit any other MFT camera. I bought a Panasonic 25mm f1.7 lens immediately (50mm equivalent) to get the additional low light and prime lens sharpness.

After the trip, which included three national Parks and 3,000 miles, I put the camera in the car as the always-have-a-camera-with-you model. It’s small size and full control seemed to want to hide in the corner of the trunk. After a couple of months, I happened to be playing with the Voightlander Vito B mentioned in the last post. Surprise! The two cameras are nearly identical in size. Really, look at the photos above. Quite by mistake I fell into the perfect digital street camera. As an extra bonus the rear screen tilts making above the head and shoe top pictures a snap (if you’ll pardon the pun.)

Olympus OMD-10MII
Pigeon Point Light House
California

There you have it. If you’re looking for a small, high quality, mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera for small spaces and vacations where an obvious DSLR would get in the way, check out the Olympus OMD-10MII or MIII. Added bonuses include a built in Wi-Fi antenna that will let you both activate the shutter from your smart phone or tablet and download to your mobile device.

One last thing, I write this blog because I have this crazy voice in my head that tells me do it. I don’t have any sponsors and don’t receive any commission when I mention one of my new finds. If you try out the Olympus and buy one, I recommend you find a local camera shop to do business with. It’s good for you and your community to have an independent camera shop nearby.

Until next time. I’m playing with a Nikon F2 SLR. Even though it’s 60 years old it looks like a winner. I’ll keep you posted.

The search for a good street photography camera

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Voightlander Vito B
Almost 70 years old but boy what jewel

I used to think I needed one camera. One that would be just right for portraits in the studio and outside. The same camera needed to be perfect for landscape and nature photos. Of course, this meant it had to have interchangeable lenses for wildlife, and it needed to be weather sealed.  It also needed to be suitable for discrete street photography, something small and inconspicuous. No compromises, just one camera. Just one camera-and a bag of accessories.

I’m not sure when the idea of street photography seeped into thoughts. When it did I was back in the “one camera” trap. Street photography required a small and discreet camera, not the big portrait/ landscape camera system I was building. And so began the search for a single purpose camera that could hide in plain sight while I walked the streets.

My journey for this camera started in earnest with a Fuji 645. I was attracted to the larger negative, approximately two and a half times larger than the 35mm format. It wasn’t what I was looking for, so I sold it about a year later. While I continued to look for the right camera I returned to my trusty Canon AE-1.

What isn’t to like about the AE-1? Although it is an 80’s era manual focus camera, it is easy to wield in a crowd and with the stock “nifty fifty” lens isn’t large. I’ve owned the camera for a long time so there was no cash investment and I didn’t think the lack of autofocus would be an issue. It worked okay but the search continued.

Then I fell into a cash of old film cameras. I mentioned them in this blog before. I’ve had a wonderful time looking at the old manual cameras. I put film through some of them. The previous owners cared for some of the cameras like I do. I’ve sold many (that was the reason I agreed to take them.) It was in these boxes I saw an old Rollei 35, marketed as the smallest 35mm camera made. It sold quickly and for a reasonable price. It made me think about a 35mm with a small footprint that would feel right in my hands, have a quality lens, and likely be an old rangefinder.

Enter the Voightlander Vito B. The Vito was made in West Germany in the 50’s. Measuring 5” x 3” it is smaller than the AE-1.  It had one issue, however. It is a viewfinder camera. A viewfinder has meter/foot markings on the lens to help in your guess-to-focus. Guesstofocus means you can’t see through the lens to focus the camera, instead you view area the lens is pointing at. It isn’t a blind exercise as there are distance markers on the lens. Combined with an understanding of depth of field based on f stop, it was state of the art for consumer cameras since the turn of the last century. Nearly every kodak folder uses the same system. I have a couple of folders, so I was ready to give it chance.

Voightlander knew a thing of two. They put two marks on the lens to help the user. One mark signifies focus for 12’ or less and another, located before the infinity symbol, is for everything between 13-20’. Using these two marks and the “sunny 16” rule the camera becomes a point and shoot camera. In addition to making the exposure math easy (match the film speed and shutter speed at f16 in midday sun) the sunny 16 rule allows for a large depth of field making nearly everything in the frame in focus. In the future I’ll go into more depth about the advantages of sunny 16, but for now it’s enough to say the two marks on the lens combined with sunny 16 turned this camera into the perfect street camera! So much for a single camera to meet all my needs.

So, there we are, a perfect sized street camera that fits into a large pocket or the side pocket of a backpack, doesn’t require a lot of messing with, will shoot in black and white or color, didn’t cost an arm and a leg (under $20 if you can find one), and is amazing sharp.

Update: February 10, 2019: I found this rangfinder accessory that mounts to the cold shoe. It lays a transparent image over the view for focusing ala a rangefinder camera. The focus dial has a distance scale. After achieving correct focus with the rangefinder, adjust the lens to match. Amazing.

Next time we’ll look at it’s modern day digital equivalent in size and quality.

Voitghlander Vito B specs:

35mm, viewfinder, 50mm f2.8 lens, count down film counter, all metal, all manual. Approximately 5”x3”. Manufactured between 1950-1957. A few quirks of the camera: it has a wheel over the focal plane to cock the shutter and prevent double exposure. It is nearly impossible to confirm the shutter will fire without film in the body. The frame count counts down not up and must be set each time a new roll of film is put in the camera. Cold shoe, a flash will only work with a cable connected to the lens. Some people I’ve handed the camera think it is too heavy for its size.

Antique Cameras and the ubiquitous Kodak Brownie

Have you ever wondered what it was like “back in the day” with those old cameras? Remember the black box you grandparents had that took pictures? The ol’ Kodak Brownie was sold by the hundreds of thousands in the 50’s and 60’s. In fact the name Brownie was used by Kodak throughout the over 100 year life of company. It seems any box with a lens and a shutter was called a Brownie. The premise of the camera is simple, put a hole in a box and with the help of a mechanical shutter expose a frame of film. If a ground lens is put in the space for the little hole all the better!

Recently I have fallen into a large cash of antique cameras. Most of these gems are going to be great wall pieces. Old cameras make great art. The material is foreign, the cameras with bellows never fail to look old and evoke memories of lost loved ones or old pictures from magazines, family photo albums, or movies (always in black and white.) If the lens looks like it might take a good photo I’m likely to load a roll of film into the box and push the shutter. Of course, it’s not quite that easy. First the 120 film from the retailer needs to be re-spooled onto the old Kodak 620 spool. The film is the same but the Kodak stem is smaller making it impossible to load the 120 film. In a few moments I’ve made the necessary transfer and into the camera it goes.

I came across the camera pictured here in the boxes and it looked too good to be true. The leather cover and camera looked showroom perfect. The leather was so untarnished it was a little difficult to remove it from the camera and load the film. In the day this original “point and shoot” camera was designed to be easy to use. There is no focus, no shutter speed, and no aperture ring to mess with. To a teenager of the 2010’s this is all as it seems it should be, after all this is how the phone camera works. Even to the 40 somethings who used a point and shoot 35mm camera or one of those disposable cameras at the department store or pharmacy, the Brownie is a fancy version of that camera.  The Brownie of the 50’s and 60’s was molded of an early plastic substance called bakelight. Over time the material becomes brittle but back in the day dropping the camera was unl

ikely to do any real damage. With this very clean “new” camera I decided to explore what kind of photo it would take.

Take a look for yourself. The photos came right out of the camera via an Epson 700 scanner that scans and reverses the negative. I didn’t clean up scratches or make any adjustment other than to do minor exposure adjustments, if necessary.

You can decide for yourself what you think. Here’s my view. The photos (all 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches) are not sharp like today’s cameras but they would be acceptable for a family album when printed. It didn’t take any expertise to take a photo, just look down through the viewfinder and push the shutter. The cost of the film and developing came to about $25.00 (assuming you had to buy a 620 roll of film from B&H photo) and the camera can be had anywhere for about $20.00. Compare that to the cost of a new digital camera.

Of course these old antiques aren’t for everyone. For many people they are too much work. But if you’re curious or are looking to see what is was like back in the day…

Back to Film, or how to find a good cheap camera.

I was recently asked to help someone sell an extensive camera collection.  The cameras represent consumer photography from the 19 teens through the 1960’s.  Many of them are display pieces and are no longer useful without being sent out to a shop for repair.  Overtime cameras that aren’t used suffer from fungus on the lens, sticky shutters, and overall dust. The old folders are vulnerable to separation of the leather from the metal bodies. The old bakelite plastic gets brittle and is prone to splitting. Most of the cameras have one thing in common, they take medium format film. Back in the day the most common roll film was 120. Kodak, perhaps to push consumers into buying Kodak film, used the same film on a smaller spindle and marketed it as 620.  Kodak 620 film was used in everything from the point and shoot Brownie Hawkeye to their early folding cameras.  The folders are interesting because the same roll of film was used for 6×6, 6×7, 6×9 and 6×11 frames.  In addition to changing the number of pictures a roll of film would hold (12, 10, 8, 7 respectively), the negatives are all huge compared to 35mm film. The smallest medium format film size is 645 (15 frames per roll) which produces a negative 2.5 times larger. From there it only gets better. By better I mean the larger the negative the less it needs to be enlarged to produce a sharp viewable picture. In addition that means that larger prints (above an 8×10) are possible.  Since old cameras can be cheap there is an opportunity to get into higher quality film for a low price. The Argus 40 TLR is one of those finds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Twin Lens Reflex camera was made famous by Rollei from Germany. With superior optics, ease of use, and packaged in a small metal frame, the Rollei was a favorite of professional and amatuers for over 50 years. The problem with the Rolleiflex is that even today you will have to spend over $500 for one in good shape. It inspired many knock offs by nearly every camera manufacturer.  Perhaps the most sought after copy is the Yashica 124. Not the same quality of the Rollei but pretty close and nearly bulletproof, it shares the quality glass lens and metal body of the original. I have one and couldn’t be more pleased. With the combination of a large film size and the lack of a mirror to flop up and down and possibly create camera shake. The lens on top is for viewing only with the bottom lens being used to expose the film. TLRs are capable of very sharp pictures.

The Ansco 40 is a very inexpensive copy of this same format.   In addition the Argus is a viewfinder camera meaning the prism does not help the user to focus on the subject. The lens has distance markings for focusing purposes (called zone focusing).  I came across this camera among the boxes of about 100 cameras. It looked very clean as did the leather case it was in and when I shined a light through the lens there was no evidence of fungus.  So I put a roll of black and white film in it.

Take a look. This is right out of the camera. I cleaned up a few spots but that is it. No adjustments from the software. The camera is like new (40-50 years new). For about $100 US a guy (or gal) could play with this piece of history. Ebay, Etsy, or what ever marketplace you like to frequent has these old TLR’s. Of course let the buyer beware-be sure to buy a camera that is in working condition and if it doesn’t work return it.

Some kinda fun, and you won’t know if you “got it” until the film is developed.

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Shoot film, shoot digital, or do both. It doesn’t matter.

Until next time.

Dave