Lava Cliffs Triptych, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Photographed with the venerable Nikkor 180mm ƒ2.8 AI-S prime lens.
Not long ago I decided to spend some focused time shooting Ilford’s PanF 50 Plus. In an effort to minimize variables the decision was made to focus on 35mm using the trusted and favored F6. The F6’s venerable meter virtually eliminates exposure error, and I really wanted to dial in +/-EV, development time, agitation, grain, scanning, wet-printing, etc. The decision was also made to use exclusively Ilford’s DDX developer. What follows are the results. The executive summary: I have ordered lots more Ilford PanF50 Plus film for an upcoming trip to Santa Fe where I’ll look forward to continuing this ‘experiment,’ though I now feel quite comfortable that PanF is all I could hope for in a 35mm film.
frame 22: Laval Cliffs, RMNP, Colorado. 180mm f2.8 Ai-S, PanF50+, DDX 1:4 by the book: 68° for 8 minutes.
I’m not really a numbers guy. I mean – I am – but don’t perseverate over them. I like to use numbers as a starting point; get things figured out, then use that knowledge to extrapolate as I shoot. I’m not one of these people that tweaks and tracks every variable just to reconstruct later. Ilford made recommendations on their film based on good authority. I’m not one to second guess. My interest in numbers is really searching for a baseline – then (rather unscientifically) adjusting exposure based on the scene. If in doubt, bracket (but I hate wasting film). If I think it’s going to be an especially worthwhile shot I’ll bracket – but usually trust in the flexibility of film and the F6’s infallible meter.
Mammatus Cumulus Clouds, Fort Collins, Colorado. June 18, 2018. Ilford PanF50 shot at ISO50, 50mm ƒ1.4D @ƒ5.6, 1/125 sec. Nikkor Y48 Yellow Filter. Development: DDX 1:4 by the book; 68° for 8 minutes.
Something I have been doing a lot lately is working with filters. Yellow, orange and a couple different reds. Being a Nikkor devotee (and making no apologies for it) – I have a nice assortment of vintage 52mm Nikkor filters I use use regularly – especially when shooting my old pre Ai, Ai and Ai-S lenses. More and more I’m prone to favoring these smaller, lighter primes over hauling around the big-barreled, gold-ringed f2.8 zooms with 77mm filter threads I was infatuated with with in my ‘earlier years.’ I also have a nice set of 58mm B+W F-Pro’s for the Mamiya 645 rig I’ll use with a step-up ring if needed. Usually one of the 52mm Nikkor filters does the trick though.
Where I was experiencing some interesting results was using the deep red B+W F-Pro filter. It’s super dark – darker than the Nikkor R60 Red. Here’s what Schneider says about it on their site: “Compared to the lighter 090 red filter, this one even darkens the reds near the yellow tones in the spectrum, as its transparency only begins in the orange-red region. It produces dramatic effects and extreme tonal separation for graphic effects. That accounts for the large filter factor of appr. 8.” It’s so dark, focusing is sometimes made difficult. And when you shoot a ISO50 film you’re really needing a tripod to get an aperture that’ll provide adequate Depth Of Field. But the real ‘problem’ (if you want to call it that) is, it darkens any greenish vegetation to the near black range. This isn’t something I’m typically after. Enter the Nikkor Y48 Yellow. Especially when working off the hand, I find it just right to deepen tones in the sky and increase separation, but leave other elements largely as is. A bump to deepen midtones, minimal light loss and a relatively unchanged TTL experience.
Lava Cliffs, no.5, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. 180mm f2.8Ai-S, Ilford Pan F50, DDX 1:4 by the book; 68° for 8 minutes.
Not long ago I acquired the lovely, ancient 180mm f2,8 AI-s. I have long been a fan of shooting landscapes with telephoto lenses – but upon close inspection, anything shot with the 70-200VR has been somewhat disappointing. Not to mention its size and weight being a deterrent. The 180 f2.8 solves all those issues and then some. Mounted on the F6, this ancient lens benefits from the F6’s ability to dial in Non-CPU Lenses. Doing so while working with the lens allows the correct shooting information to be recorded in the shooting data for that frame. The 180 has no tripod socket because it doesn’t need one. The L-bracket on the camera is more than sufficient to hold its relatively light weight. The one negative is I’m not about to invest in a set of 72mm filters for it and have to carry them around too. So when I’m shooting the 180 I’m going so with the rectangular front-slide-in filters.
Unnamed trail above treeline, Old Fall River Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. 50mm f1.4D, Ilford Pan F50, Nikkor Y48 yellow filter, DDX 1:4 by the book; 68° for 8 minutes
Snow, Old Fall River Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. 50mm f1.4D, Ilford Pan F50, Nikkor Y48 yellow filter, DDX 1:4 by the book; 68° for 8 minutes
Alpine Ridge Trail, Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. 50mm f1.4D, Ilford Pan F50, Nikkor Y48 yellow filter, DDX 1:4 by the book; 68° for 8 minutes
and a few PanF50 Plus shots from the past to show a little more diversity:
San Luis, Colorado. Nikon F2, Nikkor 50mm 1.2 Ai-S. DDX 1:4 by the book: 68° for 8 minutes.
Bisti Wings, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico. Ilford Pan F50, 28-70 f2.8ED @70mm, f7.1@1/60 sec. (-0.2EV) DDX 1:4 by the book: 68° for 8 minutes.
Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah. 28-70 f2.8ED @42mm, 1/1.6 sec @ f16 (+1.7EV). DDX by the book: 1:4, 68° for 8 minutes. Something else I routinely love about the F6 is the ability to go back and review shooting data. In the above shot, for example, I was amazed to realize the frame was made at +1.7EV.
The amount of detail and resolution PanF50 holds is remarkable. Without moving to my medium format system, PanF50 provides all I need when exposed, processed and scanned properly. Like other ‘high performance’ films, it’s not as flexible as say a TriX. But getting to know and understand it is well worth the time. I’ve ordered a bunch more for an upcoming trip to New Mexico in July.
Champs Elysees, France 1957
For the past few months I’ve been working on scanning/archiving slides for my family. It’s a big job – many hundreds of a mixture of very old (late 1950’s) to just sort of old – made in the last few decades.
Gornergrat, Switzerland 1957
Several reoccurring thoughts travel my mind as I sit before the screen, inserting slides, waiting for focus, scanning the slides, and naming them in some orderly fashion so we’re actually able to find them once scanned.
Place de la Concorde, Paris, 1957
One is, I’m sure glad we have these images. They are the closest thing to a time machine I’m aware of. The other night I was looking at photographs of the Zurmatt Curling Club in Switzerland, circa 1957. Wow… talk about a blast from the past. My father took a trip to Europe after getting out of the army in the late 50’s. He and his Kodak Retina documented the countryside well and now, 60 years later, I’m seeing what he saw. That’s pretty cool.
Goat Cart and Children, Paris, 1957
Another is, as I inspect each slide, many are made on Ektachrome and carry a rather red bias. Thank goodness for the sophisticated software we have available today to bring the very best out of even these ancient (by photographic terms) slides.
Madeline Church, Paris, 1957
I wonder how much longer the film will continue to carry an image? The slides have been stored properly and meticulously labeled providing ample information to name and describe them. Though these images have remained intact for many years, there will come a time they’ll fade away to nothing. Everything has a life span and nothing lasts forever. Digitally archiving them while they’re still viable is a good use of time and energy.
View of Paris from Arc de Triomphe, 1957
I’m grateful for on-line sharing services like zenfolio, of which I’ve been a part of since 2007, allowing such easy archiving and custom, private sharing of these and other images with select audiences. Sharing these images with family members across the globe with a few clicks is easy, cost-effective and painless. And the delight it brings those is real.
Horses and Sleigh, Zermatt, Switzerland, 1957
I think about how there are really no shortcuts. To get the most out of each frame, the image needs to be scanned, optimized, color adjusted and cropped at a decent enough resolution to cover what might be asked of them in the future. I’ve decided on a modest resolution of about 2,700 px on the longest dimension, rather than the full 5,000+ to save some time – and also predicting not many (if any) images will ever be enlarged great than 8″ x 10″.
Arc de Triomphe, France, 1957
I purchased my Nikon Super CoolScan 5000 some time around 2008. I remember driving to Denver in a snow storm and buying – new – the last one on the shelf at Wolf Camera for something like $1,000. The kids in the store looked at me like I was nuts. “Don’t you know about digital cameras?” their smirking eyes said as I walked out the door with my prize. I’ve seen LS-5000’s at auction for upwards of $2K. It’s a great scanner – providing you use the right software with it. But that’s another post.
Subway Poster, Paris, 1957
I’m grateful for this moment in time where we as photographers have the ability to choose from the affordable overabundance of such exquisite high-end picture making gear what tools to work with. I’m grateful for the advanced technology available today to get the absolute most out of every frame shot – from scanning software to post-processing editing tools, Digital Asset Management tools and on-line sharing tools. I’m grateful for long-stored analog film in the freezer as well as all-new emulsions rolling off the production lines of Kodak and others.
Asked and answered: moving forward, the F6 is king.
With the question of what camera to trust finally settled on once and for all, I’m grateful for my F6, which I fully expect to be clicking away many years from now, its corners and rubber grip worn, with a roll-count well into the thousands.
Statue of Liberty, NY on Kodachrome. Date unknown.
The attributes of film endure, providing us with the ability to – 60 years from now – look at the world through the lens at this great time to be a film photographer.
~ Desert Rat ~
(lyrics by Michael Martin Murphy)
Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 17-35mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford PanF50+ at ISO50. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.
She sits on the front porch
(Of) the old house that stands scorched
Under the sun stroke of a desert day that choked
Her old man who fell in the sun.
Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm 1:2.8G ED + Green filter + Ilford PanF50+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED. /em>
With rattle snakes and keep sakes
Old boxes of Corn Flakes
Grammar phones and gem stones
And three unclaimed door frames
And bleached bones and rocks by the ton.
Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford PanF50+ at ISO50. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.
Good by ol’ desert rat
Ya half crazy wild cat
You knew where it was at
What life’s all about.
Valley of the Gods National Monument, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford PanF50+ at ISO50. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED. Color in the top 4 images is not a faux sepia tone – it’s what happens when the scanning software scans black and white films as color. My fixer was getting a little old so there’s a slight cast to the negatives. I left it for these top images thinking it added something to the overall feel.
Ya saver of catalogs, king of the prairie dogs
Success is survival and you toughed it out,
You toughed it out.
Old Bridge and San Juan River, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 10 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.
The old loud mouth rock hound
He kept the kids spellbound
Half crazy and sun baked
Ya eared your own grubstake
By breakin’ your back all day long
San Juan Trading Post, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 10 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.
With junk art and dunk carts
Old Model T parts, frustrated, outdated and uneducated
At eighty you still wrote good songs.
Montezuma Creek, Utah (2016). Niikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 10 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.
So goodbye of Ol’ Desert Rat
Ya half crazy wild cat
You knew where it was at
What life’s all about.
San Juan Trading Post, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 8 minutes. Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.
All ya savers of “Whole Earth” catalogs
Kings of the prairie dogs
Success is survival
We’ll all tough it out
San Juan Trading Post, Mexican Hat, Utah (2016). Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 28-70mm 1:2.8D ED + Ilford FP4+ at ISO125. Developed in Ilford DDX @ 1:4 for 10 minutes Scanned with Nikon Super CoolScan 5000ED.
Yes, we’ll all tough it out.
Old Bridge Bar and Grille, Mexican Hat, Utah. iPhone 6 panorama.
This map shows the route of our fall trip. The photographs on this page were made within the white circle. Google maps.
I first visited the northern region of the Escalante Staircase area years ago after reading an article on the Burr Trail -but that’s another story. More recently (back in 2007) I hit it from the south, having come up one night from Flagstaff and checked into a hotel in Page, Arizona just off Hwy 89. There was a large canvas hanging on the wall of the lobby and I asked the woman behind the desk where it was from. “Just up the road,” she said, “about 20 miles. It’s not marked or anything, you just pull over the start walking.” So that next day we did just that and what do you know – we found it.
Small, un-obvious ‘Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’ sign marking the trail head along Hwy 89 North out of Page, Arizona.
This past trip to Page we thought we’d try to find it again. One late afternoon we set out armed with just a memory and full tank of gas. Soon the land began to change into what I vaguely remembered from 10 years prior and I was hopeful. Then, there on the right hand side of the road was the parking area and it all came back to me. It’s more developed now; a half dozen cars at the trail head and a sign informing would-be hikers what they’re about to see. It’s the Grand Staircase, part of the enormous Escalante National Monument.
Different than a National Park, National Monuments have different structures, different protocols. The Escalante National Monument is a truly vast, wild expanse of land sweeping through central Utah. There’s no single entry point per say, but numerous portals from which to enter. Camping is allowed and exploration is encouraged. It is a able-bodied photographer’s dream come true.
Toad Stools, Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah. This was the obvious shot presented at the approach to the area. Light was hitting it beautifully and the features were prominently and nicely presented. I walked by it at first knowing I’d return. Thankfully I did return before the shadows at bottom left of the frame swallowed up the grass – which I thought was a quite beautiful green to compliment the rest of the scene’s earthen colors. Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 17-35mm 1:2.8D + Velvia 50
Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah (2016). The “staircase” feature of the Escalante Staircase is series of risers, or elevated plateau regions ranging from the Grand Canyon way south in Arizona to the the 9,000′ edge of Utah’s high plateaus. The ‘steps’ include prominent geologic regions such as Shinarump Cliffs, the Vermilion Cliffs, the White Cliffs, the Gray Cliffs, and the Pink Cliffs. In this shot you can see some of that transition, showing the comparatively whitish layers between the Carmel Formation (in shadow) and the Entrada Sandstone layer ignited by the setting sun. Nikon F6 + AF-S NIKKOR 17-35mm 1:2.8D + Velvia 50.
Toad Stools, Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah. Much of the area seems to be in some transition between dirt and rock. Cryptobiotic soil (organic matter that takes many years to grow) is everywhere. Sadly, boot prints trample these hearty organisms constantly, forcing them to start the regeneration process over regularly.
So what does this have to do with the F6? Nothing, really – other than it’s just another place it was with me to record. Ten years ago before purchasing the F6 I was shooting a D2oo. The difference between the two cameras is startling. My friend Dan looked through the F6’s super bright, clear viewfinder and – in comparison to the D750 he was shooting – commented how he wished the D750 had that viewfinder. Funny how we grow accustomed to things and can take them for granted. The viewfinder is one of the features of the F6 I’ve come to rely on most. I’m actually able to see well enough for tasks such as manually focusing and low-light shooting. And compared to the F5, because the focus points light up in red instead of remaining a monotone gray when activated makes everything easier and less distracting when shooting. Yet another reason to love the F6.
To read more about Utah’s Escalante National Monument and Grand Staircase, visit the VisitUtah web site.
In 2007 we called this area “Rim Rocks.” I’m not sure why, or where the name came from. Now it’s part of the Escalante National Monument’s Grand Staircase area. Nikon D200.
One of the things I’ve looked forward to each year since – forever – is my fall trip. This year it was down to the Four Corners area of the US and covered territory in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah then back in Colorado. We visited a handful of awe-inspiring destinations – some for the first time, others back for another go.
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico
You can do your best to plan a trip well but at the end of the day the ability to roll with whatever is presented yields a better overall experience. Weather, light, crowds and other unforeseen circumstances like car trouble can either crater your objective – or – present opportunities to rise and meet challenges.
When it comes to putting time, money and energy into visiting a specific place with specific goals, there’s one clear choice for me and that’s the F6. In the past I’ve shot a good bit of color at some of these destinations. This year I felt like switching it up a bit and decided to shoot black and white film between rolls of Velvia. Velvia is great stuff – but bright, sun-lit days are not what I’d consider ideal conditions to get the most from it, even with a warming filter.
Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)
The first destination on our stop was the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in north western New Mexico. There are two primary washes, or drainages in the Bisti; a north and a south. The northern wash is referred to as Hunter Wash, the southern as the Gateway or Alamo Wash. The main, visible (but primitive) parking area is adjacent to the southern wash. The northern wash takes a little route finding to access but nothing too arduous. Both are fascinating and provide explorers plenty to see with minimal elevation gain. The area is pretty flat – which is a new (and welcome) difference compared to so many other areas requiring a lot of strenuous climbing. It’s almost as if you’re simply going for a walk once you cross the Wilderness Area boundary. To scamper up the hills and ravines is a relatively easy task.
One of the things I realized in my research of the area was how difficult it was to attain a sense of scale while viewing images. I’d see a geological feature and wonder if it were 10 feet tall or a hundred. I’ll leave the mystery to you as well as you view the images. I will say that despite ominous warnings and perceptions that accompany such a remote, designated wilderness such as the Bisti I was pleasantly surprised how accessible and friendly it felt.
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, Hunter Wash, New Mexico (2016)
The general layout of the area is these large primary washes run southwest, with many of the interesting features residing in the off-shoot canyons and drainages feeding the main washes. We were a little nervous about getting lost, having read several accounts of people doing so resulting in cold nights spent in the badlands. I found, however, that with basic navigation and orienteering skills getting lost wouldn’t be a problem. We did use the GPS feature of our iPhones as a back up. There’s no cell signal but the GPS functionality of the device works perfectly without it. Yet another reason to love smart phones.
Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)
It was cold that first night and the next morning before dawn we woke at 5am, donned head lamps and headed into the unknown Alamo Wash in the dark looking for a good place to catch first light. The light is the most difficult part of visiting the Bisti, or other badlands areas blessed (?) with so much sun. Harsh bright light and harsh shadows have the photographer praying for cloud cover. Alas – sometimes there’s simply none to be found.
Alamo Wash, Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexio (2016)
There were nearly a dozen cars at the trail head by the time we returned from the morning hike. After grabbing a quick bite and watering up we headed into the northern wash searching for the Wings. More to come…
Post Scrip: after this first trip I found a great weather resource that will help plan additional trips. The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a unique and special place worthy of more time and attention.
This article is a written collection of thoughts explored in an attempt to think through some recent considerations. Every once in a while I get the itch to explore different film formats. The initial inspiration for this article was the recent consideration of diving in to large format film photography.
I’m approaching this from the standpoint of which film format works best for my type of shooting, and why. Not film vs. digital, which grew tired years ago. Both have merits, both are worthwhile. Exploring the choice of film format though, to me has merit. It’s an investment. Not just the film itself but the infrastructure/gear to shoot, process, scan and archive. There are advantages and disadvantages to each format depending on what/how I’m shooting.
I began thinking through buying, outfitting, then hauling around and using a large format system. I considered the benefits and weighed the cost. With that – this article isn’t a attempt to establish the “best” film for everyone to shoot, but the best film for me to shoot based on my own personal creative goals. My hope is this might help others who’ve considered different formats, and they’re able to glean any insights to draw their own conclusions.
One foundational question when choosing a camera system is what type of photography you’re interested in. If you’re strictly a landscape photographer making very large prints, a 35mm film camera probably isn’t your best option. Answering the question of what you’re planning to do with the photographs is important before making the commitment to a system.
Besides prints, printed books are one of my favorite applications for photographs. The ideal resolution of a 35mm photograph is far more than adequate to print any reasonably sized book, even large, coffee table books.
When’s the last time you popped some corn and fired up the slide projector?
Of course, if you want to go totally old school, pop some corn and fire up the projector, you could have a good old-fashioned slide show (who remembers that distinct smell of the projector bulb as it heats up to throw your beautiful images across a dark room)?
Sheet Film & Large Format
Sheet film’s immense size has obvious advantages to image quality due to the amount of information contained. There’s nothing like it. Gorgeous, super high-resolution images you can zoom into various parts and form compositions within compositions allow printing gigantic prints people will ooh and ah at. It’s truly spectacular. Another advantage to sheet film is the processing. Because you’re not developing 12, 16 or 36 different exposures at a time – and just one – you’re able to customize development for that one, specific shot. This allows custom processing and tremendous creative control for each frame. The down side is, sheet film is expensive and a bit cumbersome to work with. A 20-sheet box of 4″ x 5″ Velvia 100 runs about $72. That’s about $3.60 per shutter release. A 20-sheet box of 8″ x 10″ Velvia runs about $255. That’s almost $13/shot. That’s some pretty serious dough if you’re going to shoot a lot. There’s also the idea that – because something is so expensive to shoot, and you’re only carrying so much film at a time – one may be reluctant to make an image they’re not sure whether it’s worthwhile or not. No one is right every time they decide to frame up and shoot – or pass it up because it’s just not happening.
A few years ago we were climbing Independence Pass returning from a fall colors trip. It was near the end of the trip and colors were in their prime. Light was gorgeous and leaves were twinkling in the breeze. We pulled over just as two large format shooters were breaking down their large, heavy cameras off their large, heavy tripods. They’d pulled over and seen the same forest – but when it came time to frame up – I heard one say it just wasn’t happening; it’s time to move on. My friend and I spent some time nosing around and I came away with this:
Fall colors, Sawatch Mountains, Independence Pass, Colorado. Velvia 100 35mm.
This image was made with the superb Micro Nikkor 105VR to reach into the inner depths of what I found interesting in the forest, and compress the layers of trees into an expressionistic style montage. It was also shot with a shallow depth of field because I wanted to accentuate the abstract, expressionistic feel to the foreground leaves. The bokeh on the 105VR is super smooth and optics with ED glass are super sharp. It was the perfect lens for the composition I saw. The image is crisp enough to be enlarged quite large without quality loss.
If I were a large format shooter with only so many sheets of film at the end of a week-long trip and limited focal length lens, would I have been willing to make this shot? Hard to say – but those two guys walked away from the same scene without an image. I was glad to have had enough of the right film and a lens with the right reach to frame up what I saw in that forest, which turned out to be one of the best images from the trip.
Packing Photographic Gear for Haiti 2010 Post Earthquake Relief Trip from CRANEDIGITAL on Vimeo.
Large format is also a bit cumbersome to haul around quantities for extended trips. I know people do it and get some great images – but as much as I admire and respect the image quality of the good shots resulting from such an investment of time, money and energy – I guess it’s just not something I’m willing to do.
120 Roll Film and Medium Format
The Mamiya RZ67 System: capable of tremendous image quality – if you can get it out into the field.
Medium format roll film is a higher-volume alternative to sheet film, coming primarily in two flavors: 120/220. 220 provides the same physical frame size as 120 but provides twice as many shots because the roll is twice as long. But it’s tough to find these days – and doesn’t alleviate what I view as the more significant problem of shooting medium format: the larger size of the cameras.
The Mamiya RZ67 Pro II at work in North Park, Colorado. If you can get the RZ into the field it’s capable of tremendous images.
The technical attributes of a medium format system are impressive. Initially I thought of it as the “goldie locks” format: not too big and cumbersome, higher number of shots per load, more detail in the negative… was it just right? It was clinically perfect; large negatives providing way more detail and information than the resulting print required. Beautiful, yes. But was it getting the proverbial drink of water from a fire hose?
The Mamiya RZ with medium format film is an amazing photographic tool, especially with a high-grade film like this Portra 160VC.
I enjoyed my Mamiya RZ67 system- until it came time to use it the field. At that point it became a boxy, cumbersome beast. And even with a good assortment of high-quality lenses the RZ never was quite as wide – or close – as I wanted.
Then when I’d go out to shoot there was the internal struggle with what system to bring. After all – because of its flexibility, bringing the smaller format kit was a given. Its smaller form factor and a mind-numbing array of lenses and accessories provided a clear advantage. Bringing the medium format system too, meant doubling the amount of gear I had to fumble through when it came time to shoot. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve fumbled through bags of gear searching for a doodad in the dark. Just too much stuff, I’d mutter under my breath as a headlamp flickered on low batteries and fingers hoped to land on the one item so I could get back to work.
The Spear Head, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
In 2009 I took a backpacking trip into Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph the Spear Head, a gorgeous, granite blade jutting out of Glacier Basin. I was a little younger and stronger then and figured what the heck, I’d just bring it all. I intentionally didn’t weigh my pack until after the trip. It weighed nearly 100 pounds. I’ll never do that again – I was miserable. I got some decent photos but really struggled beneath the weight.
Dynamic, Fluid Compositions
For me artistically – somehow the content of the medium format frame usually lacked something; a spontaneity, a whimsy, surprise. Larger format systems often lack the ability shoot off the hand; to respond to fleeting or decisive moments worth photographing as they appear.
Street Flipper, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014). Nikon F6 and Portra 400.
To fully realize the benefits of the larger film size, shooting from a tripod is often required. This usually (but not always) means slow to set up and often resulting in a somewhat rigid, undynamic angle resulting from reluctance to mess with a perfectly level horizon, for example. The net result is a well-structured but often stiff, stagnent image. Still, I kept trying to talk myself into believing the larger, ‘higher quality’ image was worth the trade off. In the end, with reservations, I sold the RZ system. I’ve missed it occasionally but believe I made the right decision.
So then, lets take stock so far: 1) It seems one of the things I value is portability, and the ability to remain flexible to my environment – and have a camera in-hand when it yields an image. 2) I also value consolidating systems and gear as much as possible to avoid hauling around too much incompatible “stuff.” 3)Having the flexibility to shoot a larger number of images per load has also proven valuable. 4) While I do use a tripod, I also value the fluid, dynamic composition shooting off the hand allows. 5) And the ability to fine-tune composition through focal length (which by the way is one of the reasons I prefer SLR cameras instead of rangefinders) is a real plus.
Nikon F6 35mm film camera packed and ready to travel in the Lowe Pro Photo Trekker AW.
35mm Cameras, systems and Great Design
The early Canon AE-1/AT-1 system was my first experience with 35mm SLR film cameras many years ago. To this day I admire the 35mm SLR design and form factor.
OK, if portability is so important why not a point and shoot camera? This introduces the idea of aesthetics and style to the equation; the tactile component; what brings beauty, elegance and joy to the process. Photography isn’t bereft of beauty; not simply an analytical equation or assortment of facts and figures. It’s art.
To shun the aesthetic component of photography is to strip the very essence of its role as art. This aesthetic component extends to the tools used in the process… it doesn’t mean you can’t make a good photo with an ugly camera – but why would you want to?
Stripping photography of aesthetic value and trying to turn it into pure pragmatism is like eating bread and water all the days of life because it’s convenient. Give me a solid, well-designed, well-built, rugged tool over a fragile, plastic box any time. Yes – the point and shoot will fit in my pocket and be very portable. But the aesthetic and flexibility hits are just too great.
The design of cameras; their usability, tactile layout, human engineering, curb appeal and just joy-in-hand is a real thing. It’s why some cameras resonate with some but not others; why people collect – but don’t use – cameras. The engineering, thought, devotion to manufacturing excellence and even quirkiness/funkiness – is all a real thing. Art, beauty and great design are most excellent qualities in life.
A few cameras out for a little TLC. Though there are favorites reached for time after time, they’re all wonderful tools. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what camera you use. It’s about the whole experience of lining something up in the viewfinder and – if even just for a moment – identifying it as worthy of attention.
O.K. you say… beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Where’s the beef? What about the practical, the functional side of shooting a 35mm film camera?
Weather sealing on the Nikon F6 is as good as it gets. This image is from one of Nikon’s advertising brochures describing how the camera was immersed in intense dust for prolonged periods with no ill-affects.
How about weather sealing? Fatigue-minimizing ergonomics? Drop-resistance? A mind-boggling assortment of lens? Modern benefits like super sensitive electromagnetic shutters made of space-age materials? How about low operational noise? Rapid frame rates? Underwater housings? Interval exposures? Remote triggering for positioning in difficult or dangerous places or to capture wildlife.? And of course the aforementioned accessories? Interchangeable backs and viewfinders, for example. The list goes on and on because the 35mm system has been so popular for so long, and so many have wanted to do so much with it.
Skipping Lake Tahoe. Rapid frames rates like the F5’s amazing 8fps let you burn through a roll of film before you think to lift your finger off the shutter release.
When initially exploring a system the first temptation may be to think “oh, I don’t need anything fancy…” But as your passion for the art of photography grows and you want to experiment, wouldn’t it be nice to not have to start all over again with a new system? The benefits of a contemporary 35mm film camera combined with today’s film is an awesome total photographic experience.
OK, so along with the points raised before, some sense of style, design and aesthetic appreciation is important to me. Got it.
So let’s look at the attributes of 35mm film itself and see if they line up with creative goals:
35mm roll film attributes
35mm is convenient. Not as convenient as digital, but more convenient than large or medium format. As roll film (not sheet film) with 36 frames available on a roll, you can load it and shoot a good many pictures before it runs out. When it does, because it’s so tuckable; stowable, it’s easy to have another roll or 3 in your pocket, ready. So being able to take a few rolls on a hike, for example, is pretty nice. It doesn’t mean you need to shoot it all – but if you need it, it’s there.
35mm still relatively inexpensive and available. Even if your local drug store no longer stocks/develops film, it’s easily obtained in quantities at a moderate cost. So if you pick up a brick or two, store it in the ‘fridge and use it over a span of time – it’s a great value.
Fall colors in Gunnison National Forest, Kebler Pass, Colorado. Velvia 100 and the Nikon 28-70 ED zoom, tripod-mounted and cable release, mirror-up.
35mm has a 3:2 aspect ratio that’s pleasing to some and not others. Some call the 6:7 aspect “perfect” (i’m guessing it’s the ones who developed the camera who decided it was perfect)… because you don’t have to crop for 8″ x 10.” Others say 6:45, which is pretty close to 3:2. Still others site the advantages to the square format because you don’t have to turn the camera on its side to shoot portrait. Whatever… I don’t know if it’s an old habits die hard thing or what, but I find the shape of the 3:2 frame agreeable to virtually any composition; either horizontal or vertical. Some things frame up better side to side, others top to bottom. And turning the camera on its side to shoot vertically being labeled “too difficult or inconvenient” reminds me a Seinfeld episode where Elaine complains about having to shake the juice before opening it. It’s not complicated.
The L-bracket makes mounting the camera on a tripod horizontally or vertically quick and easy. the L-bracket also provides additional attachment points for accessories.
I’m a believer in the L-bracket because with certain cameras I do shoot on the tripod regularly. The L-bracket provides fast, sure, solid mounting in either horizontal or vertical position. But the real power of the 35mm form factor is being able to easily hand-hold the camera.
The future of film
There are still plenty of different emulsions available from which to choose. It’s true – chrome (slide) films have taken a hit in past years. But other films are emerging in their place, and they’re really, really good. Still – Velvia 50 on a tripod with a good lens is capable of amazing image quality. Today’s 35mm film is relevant because it’s better than anything produced in the past. Kodak’s Portra line, for example, has been completely retooled, and it’s awesome. Portra 400 is not the same 400 speed film as yesteryear.
When I visit one of the few remaining camera stores in my area I ask how film sales are going. Every time I’m told the same thing: we can’t keep it on the shelves. People are still buying lots and lots of film whenever they find it available. Add mail order from local suppliers like Denver Pro Photo here in Colorado, or national mail order retailers like B&H out of New York- and continued availability seems assured.
I think it’s safe to assume the heyday of large-scale film production like we saw in the past is behind us. But there are new players emerging, and businesses seem to be consolidating, positioning themselves for future success. I for one am very encouraged. To form some idea of how many people are still devoted to film photography take a look at instagram and search something like #filmisnotdead, or #filmfeed, #analog, #filmphotography, #analogvibes or countless other film-centric hashtags. Film is very alive and very well.
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014). Sometimes it doesn’t make a bit of difference what camera a photo is made with, and the old adage, “f8 and be there” is all you need.
35mm film is easy to work with. Because it had such a wide commercial appeal, having it processed is easy. Processing it yourself is even easier, as I’ve recently been reminded. The tanks to hold it are smaller, the reels are smaller, the chemicals are less. Everything about 35mm is smaller and easier to work with. Yet, done right – the image quality is amazingly high.
HOH Rainforest Tryptich no.1
What about image quality? Let’s get this out of the way: this is where you get into the limitations of 35mm film for certain applications. It will never produce a 30″ or 40″ or large print as cleanly as that big, beautiful 4″ x 5″ piece of film – or today’s super high-resolution digital cameras. So if that’s the goal, 35mm is the wrong tool. But… how many times have I actually wanted to print a photograph that large? Not many. The rest of the time, something in the neighborhood of 18″ x 12″ with a nice, 2″ matte all around is more than large enough. And if it’s a good shot I want to go larger with – if technique is perfect and equipment is first class – I can.
Aspen leaf, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado. Velvia 100, Micro Nikkor 105VR with CLS-triggered flash.
The 35mm look
When people think of 35mm film often time they think of grainy, black and white (or color) photojournalism photos made over the years. There is a reason those images look like they do. Often times photojournalism films were in the ISO400 speed category and therefore had a courser grain. The reason was pretty obvious: as a photojournalist you need to be ready for anything, in any light. And a 400 speed film was a good way to stack the deck in your favor. The point of the photograph wasn’t how sharp or perfect it was – the point was the content of the image itself. So a “great photograph” might be great not because it’s super sharp and has no visible grain, but because it’s a compelling image.
35mm has a “look” to it. What is that look? Difficult to decisively say. Here’s a brief discussion by Ted Forbes and the “Art of Photography” that touches briefly on the topic. It has to do with the relationship of the size of the image to the grain structure. If you were to make an image on 120 film, then again on 35mm film – and print them the same size – they’d look slightly different to the photographer’s eye. Not radically different, but slightly different.
Today’s 35mm film is capable of many other things beside grainy photojournalism photos. A fine grain 35mm film like Velvia (color slide film), Kodak Ektar 100 (color negative film) or Ilford PanF50 (black and white print film) has virtually no visible grain and possesses tremendous enlargement capability. So many different “looks” can be created with different 35mm films, developers and scanning or darkroom technique. See the “look” heading down further for more on this topic.
To the casual viewer who couldn’t care less what type of camera was used to make the picture – they see the contents of the frame, not the technical attributes of the photograph. The photographer is the only one who cares what camera was used.
It’s the same sort of thing that makes a digitally captured photograph look different than a film-recorded photograph. Most people would see the contents of the frame, not the presence or lack of subtle tone falloff, clipped highlights or grain/no grain. With today’s digital post-processing techniques, one could choose to process that “look” right out of a 35mm made image if so chosen.
Lowe Pro Commercial AW loaded and ready to roll. Having everything in one bag that can just be grabbed when it’s time to go ensures you’ll have what you need when the time comes.(Mamiya 645 on Ilford HP5+)
When I parted with my RZ system – as painful as it was – I consoled myself with this: when I go out to shoot, everything uses essentially the same F-mount, Nikon system. I can use virtually any lens on any camera, film or digital, and everything just works. There are of course caveats in the details. But largely it’s true, and it’s reliable. And I like that because it reintroduces simplicity to shooting and allows me to enjoy the process of creating again.
UPDATE/FULL DISCLOSURE: After this article was written I’ve added back a couple 645 systems and have been using them frequently. The additional resolution is often a real plus. But – they’re admittedly not as fun to shoot as my Nikons.
Easy Film Processing
As mentioned in a previous post, recently I’ve begun developing my own black and white films again, after a 30 year hiatus. To say I’ve enjoyed the process again is an understatement. I should have done it years ago. But I had a great local lab available and didn’t need to.
Shrine to FORD, Ward, Colorado. Shot on Ilford Delta 100 Professional with Nikon F2S, then processed in Ilford DDX at home.
Processing your own black and white film is extremely easy. There’s a small, initial investment required for tanks, reels and a few odds and ends, but after that your cost per roll drops to virtually nothing. Contrast that with $10-$12 from commercial black and white processing and the cost savings is significant.
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016). Made with a all-mechanical, 47 year old Nikon F with no metering on ILFORD FP4+ black and white film, self-developed in ILFORD DDX developer.
As wonderful as cost is – it’s perhaps the least compelling reason to process your own film. You also have the ability to try different developers to produce different looks. Then there’s the convenience of shooting and processing your film on the same day. Add to that the feeling of actually creating something with your hands again and the case for developing film at home is solid. Don’t wait like I did. Jump in with both feet and enjoy it.
A Buyer’s Market – Finally
A few Nikons from the collection
The overabundance of high-quality tools with which to work in 35mm is one of those pinch me moments we don’t get enough in life. Really, really good cameras and lenses are ridiculously inexpensive on the used market thanks to people simply retiring their tried and true friends after experiencing the convenience of a first digital camera.
Nikon F with eye-level finder on left, Nikon F2AS on right.
A few years back I picked up a Nikon N8008s for $26. It retailed new for about $500-$600 in the late 80’s, which in today’s money is around $1,100. I often wonder how many wished in hind site, a year or two later, they’d held onto their trusty 35mm friend rather than selling it for pennies. I’ll bet lots. It’s a shame, really. Things don’t suddenly become useless because something new comes along. This is an on-going problem in our culture; not just for cameras but other consumables too. After spending so many thousands of dollars on digital gear from 2006 to 2010 I’m pretty happy to get a great-working camera for $26. Be warned though: the used market has caught on and prices are rising.
Can a compelling reason be made to shoot 35mm film? I believe it can. And even if you simply just want to – that’s O.K. too.
Of course, being the best of the best, the F6 is still considerably more expensive than $26. And the F6 is the focus of this web site. After all, the F6 could be one of the greatest reasons to continue shooting 35mm film. Or – perhaps shooting 35mm film is one of the greatest reasons to have and use the F6?
I’ll leave that for you decide.