Distractions

What do you do when you’re totally distracted by domestic things over which you’ve no control?  When you have no option but to sit and wait and see what happens? If you’re like me you pick up the nearest camera and pop out for a walk. Which is what I did at the end of last week whilst number two daughter was in hospital for the birth of her second child.

My “rule” for impromptu wanders is to grab the nearest camera and on that day it was the Fuji X-Pro1 with a 35mm lens. However, sitting on the table next to it was a GoPro Fusion 360 degree camera that I was charging in order to make sure it was still working before my (fingers crossed) short break at the end of this month.  I don’t use it very often but it’s a fun camera that I like to take with me when I go away. I slipped it in my bag too.

Walking along the canal

I promised the wife I’d be back within the hour and drove down to the local canal, parking a ten minute walk from a small patch of woodland that I often wander through with a camera. Approaching through the trees the first thing I noticed was the bluebells.  Not as many as in previous years but a pleasant surprise; what with the pandemic and everything I’d forgotten it was bluebell time.

I took a few images with the X-Pro1 but wasn’t really “feeling” it, I was probably too distracted by other things.  So, I pulled the GoPro from the bag and carefully placed it amongst the bluebells being careful not to trample any of the delicate flowers. The camera is controlled via a smartphone and seeing the live feed quickly absorbed me as it always does.  This isn’t a first choice camera but when I do use it I never fail to get fully immersed in what I’m doing.  

Half a dozen compositions with the GoPro and it was time for me to start walking back to the car if I was to keep my promise to be back within the hour.  I couldn’t resist a couple more though and placed the camera in the branches of a tree and did something I very rarely do … a selfie!

Not one …
… but two!

I’ve used several 360 cameras over the last couple of years and without exception have found the post-processing part every bit as much fun as taking the images in the first place.  Which is very unlike me.  This can be done on the computer and in my view this gives the highest quality files BUT playing with the images on my phone or tablet seems to me to be very much in keeping with the ethos of the camera and how its used.

Down the hobbit hole

So there you have it. Photography doesn’t always have to be a “serious” pursuit, and in fact having a bit of fun with it can help distract you from other matters when needed.

Oh, nearly forget, we have our first granddaughter – mother and baby both doing well.

Me: Photographer

I have had an interest in photography since my early teens and I suspect my experiences, at least in parts, will be familiar to many. I remember using a Kodak Instamatic to make photographs of industrial dereliction in the Valleys of South Wales for a school project. Small, fuzzy prints with strange colours but I thought they were fabulous. I passed my Environmental Studies exams too.

Early days – before marriage, mortgages and kids the soon-to-be Mrs W

Like so many of my generation my first SLR was the hefty Zenith E. I’ve claimed many times that you could knock nails in with this beast but never actually tried it if I’m honest. Looking back most of my surviving transparencies and negatives are on the soft side and nowhere near as sharp as I’d remembered. There are exceptions though. I chuckled recently when I saw how sought-after those Helios lenses are especially amongst digital users. I quickly shut up when I realised I had bought several in recent years.

Soft? Or artistic intent?

A Canon AE1 was next. Checking on the web I must have bought mine within six months of it being released although mine was definitely bought used. In fact I would be in my fifties before I bought a brand new camera. I acquired a second pre-owned AE1 fairly soon after and a telephoto lens from a chap at the local camera club. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw me photographing a lot of sports with this brace of Canons. I loved photographing motorbike scrambling and in those days with a high-vis jacket and a press pass courtesy of a friend of a friend at the local paper it was access all areas and no health and safety. Looking back it was recklessly stupid but at the time I was in my element. I even bagged a few jobs for the local paper on the back of these images. Not glamorous, mainly photographing school swimming galas but pictures of the kids swimming I was free to sell to parents, all the paper wanted was pictures of the Mayoress handing out the silverware!

In the mid-1980s a work colleague introduced me to a local studio photographer and for the next eighteen months I worked for him on an unpaid, casual basis helping run studio nights for local camera clubs and other organisations. Lots of fetching and carrying but I had great fun. They were mostly model evenings but occasionally he ran still-life workshops and the like. A promotion at work meant I no longer had the time to spare and sadly had to give this up but I’d learnt a lot and had a fabulous time doing so.

Fujichrome. Canon AE1 50mm f2.8 lens. Transparency film is very unforgiving but this scanned beautifully without me needing to tinker in PS. Not bad for a slide thats over 35 years old! It’s sobering to think this lass will be in her fifties now too. 1982/3, shot in a studio where I helped out by sweeping floors, lugging light stands etc whilst the Boss had paying customers in (usually camera clubs). I got to spend ten minutes with one of the models afterwards in lieu of pay!!

I even used the camera as a way to get out of works-organised football matches, obstacle courses, “fun” runs and the like simply by volunteering to be the office photographer. Of course, the downside was I also had to photograph the Christmas dances, presentations etc.

I was well hooked by the time I was in my late teens and whilst my circumstances would force me out of the hobby for periods of time over the years I returned to it with amazing regularity and never lost the interest.

Coinciding with this promotion was the birth of our first daughter. It was also the start of three house moves in six years due to work promotions and by the end of the decade we were living on the south coast with three young daughters and another due. Another move was also imminent, we didn’t know it but we’d be living in Bristol before number four arrived. Photography was very patchy during this period as evidenced by the number of baby pictures. Daughter One was well documented but this gradually reduced and by the time Daughter Four appeared I was taking very few photographs, a fact she still reminds me of regularly. Photography had to fit around the many demands of a young family, large mortgage and a very demanding employer.

It was a Nikon Coolpix 775, my first ever brand new camera, that was the catalyst for me returning to photography in a serious way again. It was 2002 and to acknowledge 25 years with my employer I was sent a corporate catalogue with a rather uninspiring choice of gifts. Nothing much caught my eye so I opted for an electric shaver for the wife (she’d put up with loads over the 25 years) a new electric drill and with the remainder I bought a small digital camera. This 1.9mp wonder machine had got me thinking what had until then been the unthinkable … digital photography?

Mamiya RB67 Kodak Ektar 100 colour negative film

Long story short, I didn’t enjoy the Coolpix but by 2004 I was the proud owner of a Canon 400D with 10.1mp and two kit lenses. The downward slope into chasing pixels and upgrading cameras before I’d outgrown the previous one had begun. A Canon 40D replaced the 400D within six months (easier to hold with big hands), a 5D MkII arrived (I “needed” the pixels) and a 7D replaced the 40D (better frame rate for wildlife). The 5D MkIII was next on the list (who doesn’t need 22.3 pixels) and my lens collection also grew in direct correlation with promotions, bonuses and pay rises.

The good news however was that I was back in the hobby in a big way and for the first time wasn’t going to be held back by the demands of a young family, although the hefty mortgage and demanding employer were still there. In hindsight though, the bad news was that I’d become obsessed and was constantly chasing perfection, buying ever more powerful software, obsessing over image quality and a paid-up member of the pixel chasers club. Relentless dissatisfaction with my images was starting to become the norm despite winning club competitions on a regular basis. By 2013 however I was starting to realise that this was sucking the fun out of my hobby and that the pixel race was getting ridiculous. I started to question what I was doing. So, it was rather ironic that this was also the year in which I decided to switch systems and moved to Nikon. I’d been a Canon user since the 1970s so this was quite a big deal at the time. I took a huge financial hit by selling a complete Canon digital kit I’d built up over almost ten years and bought a Nikon D800E and the “Holy Trinity” of zoom lenses (14-24, 24-70, 70-200). My pixel chasing had reached its zenith but, although I had no notion of it at the time, my interests were even then moving away from the all-singing, all-dancing digital cameras and back towards the tactile pleasures of my Canon AE1. Yes, it was still in the cupboard.

But there was one more twist in the digital tale. Starting in 2016 or thereabouts I started a three year process that saw me switch systems again, this time from Nikon SLRs to a mirrorless Fuji X system. I’d owned the Fuji X100 since it’s launch so the growing Fujifilm ecosystem and their approach to improving existing cameras through firmware releases really drew me in. It’s the only digital system I use now in 2021 but as my regular reader knows it’s not my first choice system any more.

© Dave Whenham
The start of my Fuji “journey”. Fuji X100 Winter 2011.

September 28 2015 was an auspicious day. On my 57th birthday I fulfilled a dream I’d had for most of my adult life and became the owner of a Hasselblad 500CN. I had a lovely Pentax 645 (why oh why did I sell it?) and four or five years earlier I’d also purchased a Mamiya RB67 that was going for a song in the local camera shop, so this wasn’t my first medium format film camera but it was a dream come true. It also was the catalyst for what I am doing now in 2021 as this was the moment I decided to get back into the darkroom. Whilst clearing space for my makeshift darkroom I also rediscovered a box of negatives, dated 2009-2011, and these formed the basis of my return to the dark.

© Dave Whenham
Birch trees on limestone outcrop
Hasselblad 500C/M, Ilford FP4+, Fotospeed RCVC Oyster

From that moment on I was destined it seems to return to film photography as my principal hobby. Learning from past experiences though I did not trade-in my Fujifilm mirrorless system but have run both film and digital side by side. I’ve even embraced the so-called hybrid approach, using film and then scanning the negatives. I refuse to spend more than a few minutes converting an individual negative though and only use those tools I could employ in the darkroom. From shooting >95% digital in 2015 though I’ve steadily increased my film usage and now in 2021 the situation has reversed and <5% of my photography these days is digital. I must emphasise here though that I enjoy both; each plays it’s part in my enjoyment of the hobby and I have no time for the digital vs film debate – it’s all photography. I even have a drone these days!

Ringstone Reservoir. It can be a little disconcerting putting the drone up into mist for it to temporarily disappear but it gives an angle I could not get otherwise.

Of course, the story goes ever on. Once I’d made the decision to concentrate on film and build a darkroom I also retrieved the Zenith E and Canon AE1 from their exile in the loft, remember them? A Nikon SLR or two (OK, several) followed as did a dalliance with a Pentax ME Super. Then there was the Olympus OM10 and because I liked the form factor of the Fujifilm X100 digital camera I started “needing” a compact film camera, or three, or more. I will draw a veil over some of the other purchases I think just in case the wife reads this. Many of these have however featured in blog posts of course.

Then, the Curse of Image Quality struck again. This time not pixels but film formats. A Mamiya TLR joined the stable, the RB67 was brought out and I started to use less 35mm and more medium format film. For a short period I became obsessed again with image sharpness but this time it was very short lived, it seems that with age does, occasionally, come wisdom. I like film for the aesthetic, the film-dependant grain, the ability to alter the look of negatives through choice of developer or processing method and there are situations where less than clinical sharpness are part of that aesthetic. I also enjoy the tactile nature of preparing to make images with film photography. Loading and rewinding film, putting the film onto reels and into tanks, standing and developing the film and never failing to be awed as the roll of negatives is eased off the reel and hung to dry.

Zero Image 612b pinhole camera, Fuji Acros, orange filter. Developed in Kodak D76(1+1)

The cameras I use most often are manual, they are also more tactile; removing dark slides, manually setting aperture and shutter speed, winding the film or removing the film back after each squeeze of the shutter. On some winding the film on and cocking the shutter are separate actions too and I enjoy the routines involved in using these cameras.

This Curse was, rather surprisingly, finally lifted when I moved in to large format film photography. I initially bought a dedicated 5×4 pinhole, partly because it was going cheap and partly because through it I could try out the loading and developing of sheet film before parting with a goodly sized lump of cash on a full LF kit. It was a field of photography I’d never really played with before and I loved the pinhole aesthetic at my first use, it helped the also new to me Large Format process had gone smoothly I suspect! I now have 35mm, medium-format and large format pinhole cameras and the Curse of Image Quality has finally lifted.

Unsurprisingly, a full 5×4 kit does also now have a place in my gear cupboard, albeit fairly recently, and I am enjoying slowly getting to grips with this format. A couple of early mistakes in terms of lens purchases means I have only limited options lens-wise but this in a way is helping as I’m needing to really work in a thoughtful manner. By its very nature LF slows you down, I’m not the first to note that of course, but this slow, deliberate, almost calculated approach is helping me to think first and release the shutter second. You can’t “spray n pray” with one of these!

Out and about in Elland on a foggy morning – I enjoy digital photography too. Fuji X-H1

Thankfully, throughout all of this my love of the hobby has never diminished, even during the barren years when I could afford neither film nor time. I use all of the many cameras I own. I never use the word collection to describe them either – they all have a use and are all tools, albeit well cared-for tools. I mainly use an X-Pro1 or an X100T from the Fujifilm stable when I choose to shoot digital despite the X-T3 permanently clamped to a copy stand. I use film cameras for most of my photography though, from 35mm, medium format, large format, instant cameras and several pinholes in various formats. I no longer see image sharpness as the ultimate goal, although that doesn’t mean I accept any old rubbish from my cameras, they still need to perform in accordance with the aesthetic I’m aiming here for. My embracing of the lo-fi as an acceptable sub-genre of the hobby was compounded recently when I picked up a couple of Diana F+ cameras and a bag full of accessories. They don’t get a lot of use but if the project calls for them they are used with as much enthusiasm as my beloved Bronicas. Sorry, didn’t I mention the Bronicas? They first appear in early 2020 but I’m running out of space here – suffice to say I picked up an ETRS pre-pandemic and then sold my Hasselblad to help fund the Bronica SQ-A kit.

So, there you have it. One photographers journey from film to digital and back again. Featuring constant upgrading to get more pixels and sharper images, returning to film and embracing MF, then getting into 5×4 for ultimate image quality … and then buying a complete Lomo kit!

Pictorial Planet

Back in the day there wasn’t the internet to guide and inform the wannabe photographer. There were plenty of magazines and books but resources like YouTube were not even a gleam in a developers eye. Heck, home computers weren’t even a “thing”! So, when I returned to the film photography fold a couple of years ago I was amazed at the number of dedicated websites, personal blogs and, best of all for someone who likes to see things being demonstrated, there was also a growing band of personal channels on YouTube all dedicated to film photography.

The bubble burst fairly quickly for me though and within a few months I was an occasional visitor only and it wasn’t unusual for there to be well over a hundred unread notifications in my Inbox. There were still some good channels, there were also some who every now and then put out something interesting but on the whole it seemed to me that “influencers” had cornered the market. Homogeneity was taking over and style rather than substance was the order of the day. One roll of film was all it took for some of them to pronounce on the efficacy of a particular film stock. They didn’t even develop it themselves, leaving that to a fashionable film lab.

Now that’s a broad brush and of course there are still good channels out there and I’m sure that there are loads I’ve yet to find but recent trends have been enough to put me off regularly dipping into YT as a source of helpful information. Plenty of entertainment certainly, but content seems a little thin to me. Film photography is currently “hip” and finding simple, straightforward advice from experienced users is not easy. I’m lucky, I have a good grasp of the basics, but a newcomer really needs to be a detective to find answers to some of the basic questions. Or perhaps I’m not savvy enough to home in on the good stuff.

So, when a channel pops-up that can meet the needs of beginners and more experienced photographers alike I feel it needs to be brought to the attention of a wider audience.

Enter Pictorial Planet – https://www.youtube.com/c/PictorialPlanet/videos “Sharing tips and personal views on analog film and darkroom workflow. From the author of The Art of Black and White Developing and Pictorial Planet website.”

It is a fairly new channel, with around 150 subscribers, but material is being added regularly from quick tips to detailed explanations on determining the true speed of your film given your choice of developer and processing technique. But what I like most is that it is practical, gimmick-free and succinct. It reminds me of when I first started photography in the 70s and the biggest source of information was usually some of the members at the local club who freely gave of their time and experience to help a newcomer to the hobby. Dipping into this collection of videos is like having club night every night.

So, thank you John Finch for providing a rich source of easy to understand and truly useful information for both the buddying film photographer and more experienced hands. I’m looking forward to making FX55 next month – inspired by a Pictorial Planet video.

Do it for yourself …

I was sat in the front yard yesterday reading Gradient Light by Eddie Ephraums and was struck by the truth of something he says really early on in the book, on page 10 to be precise:

… judge the quality and content of our images by our own standards rather than those dictated by photographic convention

I found myself nodding at the page. Not because it was an earth-shattering revelation nor because it was an “Eureka!” moment. It was simply that it resonated so strongly with my personal belief. It just struck a chord with me … so many within the hobby seem to strive to make images to satisfy club judges whereas I’ve always thought that was secondary to making work that is pleasing to yourself. Competition success or the applause of your peers shouldn’t be the goal but the cherry on the cake – a welcome bonus yes, but not a means of validation.

A very recent pinhole – Zero Image, orange filter, Acros.

Take pinhole photography. I love experimenting with pinholes, I enjoy the unpredictable nature of the genre and I like the aesthetic. But I know better than to put a pinhole image into a monthly folio at my only photography club. Or rather, I now know not to enter a pinhole image.

I’d enjoyed some unexpected success in the club’s annual competition and had graduated from “new member” to “not a bad photographer”. As I said earlier, I do not seek validation for my work but at the time I was working 60+ hour weeks and so the club was a way for an anti-social old #insert word# to chat to others about the hobby. I decided therefore that following this success it was time to let loose my art. That is, my more creative and less conformist images. I was ready to share those images I really cared about rather than the homogenous, sterile work I’d been producing in order to fit in. I started with a pinhole image of an old harbour and a receding tide.

Now whilst I was ready to share, I wasn’t ready for the barrage of comments from the others in my folio group. “Not a sharp line anywhere”. “A bit soft … you perhaps need to improve your PS skills”. “I can’t work out where you focused”. “Not sure what you’re doing here …” and the real sting “I thought you were a decent photographer … so I’m really disappointed in this”.

Luckily, after working in banking for many years my skin was very thick, and so I wasn’t bothered by any of the comments although if I’m honest, the last one stung a little. But, I quickly came to the conclusion that my image wasn’t the problem it was the mindset of the others in the group. Most of the group were slavishly following whatever was flavour of the month with the judges on the club circuit. Rather than creating work that pleased them they were striving to produce work to satisfy the whims of a self-elected group.

Now, you might be thinking that I voted with my feet at this point. But no. I enjoyed the company of the group and decided that differences over art weren’t going to rob me of the friendships I’d made. I did however stop entering the annual open competitions. In my own mind I guess that I pragmatically decided to agree to differ and look for an alternative outlet for my less conservative work.

As an aside I once entered a darkroom print into a monthly print folio. Eleven inkjet images and just my lone silver print. My favourite comment? “I think you needed to add a subtle S-Curve and perhaps tweak the Levels too in Photoshop.” To reassure you, dear reader, I’ve not spent the last year or so looking for the Curves and Levels sliders on my enlarger.

So, the point of my soapbox this afternoon is – do what pleases you. If you are doing things to please others then you run the risk of pleasing no one. If you enjoy validation from your peers then consider looking for like-minded folk to share your work with. Not sycophants though, they are good for your ego but not your art.

The last word goes to Geoff on Twitter:

Couldn’t agree more, the image needs to satisfy the intuition not the intellect … Geoff McGuffie

It’s a local thing

Unless you are reading this is 2101 there is probably no need to explain why I’ve been shooting local for the last year. Apart from four days in September/October 2020 I have not left Elland in almost a year now. I’ve continued to make photographs though, indeed in 2020 I shot more rolls of film than in any year since I started photography in the 1970s.

Street photography is a challenge when there are few people on the street

Despite the restrictions though I seriously believe that my photographic skills have improved during this period. I’ve been honing my “eye” for a photograph for many years and like to think I can spot a possibility where many non-photographers would see nothing of interest. But walking the same streets day after day I have refined this even further, coming home each time with at least one new image for my efforts. I really hope that this will extrapolate itself to new scenes and locations when I can travel again.

Bronica ETRS | Bergger Pancro 400 | Kodak D76 | 25/2/2021

Even the stretch of canal nearest my house, which I have walked hundreds of times in the years I’ve lived up here has yielded several new images such as the one above. Fancying a change I chose to walk on the main road rather than the towpath. The road only offers access to the canal at a couple of spots along the route, one of which is immediately below the bypass. I stood here for around ten minutes and came up with two or three images that I was really pleased with. Most of those minutes were spent waiting for someone to walk into the patch of light. There’s another one below.

Under the bypass Bronica ETRS | Bergger Pancro 400 | Kodak D76 | 25/2/2021

As is normal for me the vast majority of my images are in black and white whether film or digital. However, we had a few misty mornings recently and I did something I’d not done before when there’s been mist – I went for a walk in the town. Instead of being frustrated that it was misty and I couldn’t get “somewhere” I got on my feet and went into town (for context, the centre of town is a two minute walk from my back door).

Out and about in Elland on a foggy morning: Fuji X-H1
Out and about in Elland on a foggy morning: Fuji X-H1

I even dusted off the Fuji X-H1 and set it to shoot colour rather than my default B&W. Straight out of the camera I had a handful of very pleasing images, none of them compositions I had shot before and all of them within ten minutes of my home.

By taking a camera every time I go for my daily exercise I have been embracing the old adage to practice, practice, practice, and its born fruit. Without consciously intending to, I’ve even started to shoot my digital cameras as if they were film cameras. I’ve shot fully manually for a long while but I’ve now taken to turning the LCD screen off and only taking one, occasionally two, images of any scene. I usually carry one of my film panoramic cameras which restricts me to 21 frames on a 36-exposure roll of film and usually I shoot the whole roll on my walk. If I take just a digital camera there’s rarely more than a dozen images on the memory card when I get home. By being more selective I’ve not only improved my “hit rate” but more importantly I have been training my eye to “see” better. This more discriminate style of working with digital means less time on the computer which is an added bonus. Indeed, ironically, the only images I process on the desktop computer these days are film scans; almost all of my most recent digital images have been processed on my iPad using Snapseed.

Horizon Kompakt and Fomapan 400 developed in Rodinal (1+25). Shot 30th November in the rain/drizzle around Elland town centre Scanned with a Fuji XT-3

It’s not only my “eye”though. During 2020 I shot and processed 180 rolls of 35mm and 120 film and around 50 sheets of 5×4 film. For the first time ever I developed my own colour negative films, saving £££s in the process; I can develop 18-20 rolls for the same price as having three rolls lab processed. I have experimented with different black & white developers but particularly pleasing has been that the consistency of my processing has increased exponentially. Developing film most days has also improved my efficiency and time management during the process. Without wishing to tempt fate I have been very pleased with the consistently good quality negatives that have come out of the tanks.

Horizon 202, Kentmere Pan 100 Shot 1/12/2020 Processed Diafine (3+3)

Early on in the pandemic I was told to shield, something I did religiously for over four months. During this period, embracing the need to stay at home, I experimented with still life and close-up film photography. I also dug out an old hard drive and reprocessed a few earlier images. However, this was not to be the most productive period of the pandemic as being confined to home for so long became very wearing very quickly. When shielding ended for me I vowed not to follow the shielding requirements quite so slavishly should the need arise again and indeed despite being told to shield during this latest Lockdown I am still taking a daily, socially-distanced walk; walking locally of course and avoiding people (which is my preferred option at the best of times). I don’t believe I have driven my car since November last year.

Bold contrasts for Bold Street, Liverpool (pre-pandemic)
March 2020 – darkroom printing underway … but not for long.

There is one backward step to include for the sake of completeness. Apart from a short flurry in March 2020 I’ve not been in my darkroom in the past 11 months. Darkroom work is mainly an autumn/winter activity for me so I was not surprised that I kept away from it during the very warm summer we had which drifted into early autumn too. However, as Autumn progressed there were few signs of me getting back into the darkroom. A leaky slot processor caused some activity in October and I thought that this would be the catalyst for a return to printing (I do not have an inkjet printer) but no. By early December my darkroom was press-ganged into extra storage ahead of Christmas BUT much of that is still cluttering the room three months later.

Took the long way home from the school run and got rather wet in these heavy April-esque showers. Horizon S3 Pro, Kodak Tri-X, D76 (1+1) Shot 12/3/2021

My darkroom – in reality one side of the small study I am sat in at present.

So, in a peculiar way the pandemic has largely been a real boost for my photography. Photography has also helped protect my mental health and has encouraged me to take some exercise every day even if it was just to take the image for my ongoing 365. I’ve been shooting a picture a day since October 2017 and have been determined not to allow a pandemic to get in the way of the Challenge. If I can motivate myself to reopen the darkroom over the next few weeks I will at least have a large collection of new negatives to play with!

One final image: Horizon S3 Pro, Kodak Tri-X, D76 (1+1) Shot 12/3/2021

Talking about GAS

Like most of us I suspect, I did not get into photography because of the gear, I got into because of its ability to capture a moment or preserve a memory but largely because of the satisfaction I got when the occasional “good” image was created.  I got satisfaction from the way it enabled this artistically-challenged teenager (and now an artistically-challenged sexagenarian) to channel some of the inner creativity that always lurked within, unfulfilled but nevertheless a part of me. Curiosity too drove me on. How things work was a childhood interest and as I grew into my teens this developed into a willingness to take things apart (not always successfully reassembling them if I’m honest) and see how they worked.  With photography I could experiment with the chemical processes, trying different developers, exposing a part-developed print to light, toning and even physically manipulating the print. Sadly, none of the evidence of these experiments survived the post-teen, starting-work, kids-of-my-own years. At least not physically, they are still real inside my head.

366-2020-194
C41 film processed in B&W chemicals – still experimenting in 2020!

Even now though there is one aspect that has always stayed with me – the satisfaction that comes when you hear that shutter “click”.  Or more accurately the noise, and sometimes feel, as that mirror slaps and bounces itself out of the way of the film or sensor. These small things shouldn’t be overlooked or down-played either. My Fuji X100T camera is virtually an extension to me now. I use it almost every day and can intuitively do anything that I want to with this diminutive but highly capable digital masterpiece. But, it has no mirror so that satisfying “click”, or “slap”  as some describe it, is conspicuous by its absence.  Even after around 16,000 images with the X100t I still miss the satisfaction of that audible memory of starting in the 1970s with a Zenith E.

FILM: Canalside
Bronica SQ-A

So, if I didn’t get into photography because of the gear why do I have these recurring bouts of what resembles GAS?  I don’t admit to GAS by the way. GAS, or Gear acquisition syndrome, is a bit of a buzz word in the photographic community, and of course it is not a legitimate medical condition, but nevertheless I do feel it is a legitimate concept. Camera and lens manufacturers and the growing list of firms making must-have gadgets and add-ons for the “serious” photographer rely on GAS to provide an ongoing stream of customers for their new products. Economically they have to keep selling to stay afloat and stimulating demand for new products is one way of keeping the cash flowing.  With this in mind it is tempting to say that GAS is driven entirely by manufacturers and retailers of photographic gear but that doesn’t explain why I, and many others, still choose to shoot with old film cameras and to add more of this old kit to our collections.  Incidentally, I am definitely not a collector, I am a photographer and so everything I own gets used, some of it more often than others admittedly, but none of it has been purchased to satisfy a purely acquisitional desire.

366-2020-191
Fuji X100t

My most used cameras at the moment are a pair of Bronica cameras hailing from the late 1970s (a Bronica ETRS) and from the early 1980s (a Bronica SQ-A).  I bought the former in February of this year with two lenses, one film back and a speed grip. By mid-March I had a third lens, a 2x converter, a set of extension tubes, three more film backs and a set of 62mm screw-in filters for black and white photography. This week I took possession of a set of macro bellows too.  In early April, having watched far too many YouTube videos I found that I “needed” a 6×6 camera, specifically the Bronica SQ-A. On the surface a reasonable, if very swift, upgrade to the 6×4.5 ETRS. But, it neglects the fact that I have a Mamiya RB67 (6×7) and a Mamiya C3 (6×6) in the cupboard with a pair of lenses apiece. I therefore have the larger medium formats covered already so despite having perfectly good options for 6×6 I “needed” an SQ-A … GAS! Pure and simple GAS.

But is it as simple? True, I had existing cameras to satisfy that creative requirement. I also have a full digital set-up comprising three Fuji mirrorless system cameras, a range of lenses covering all eventualities from fisheye to macro to long telephoto. So, I do not actually “need” any more cameras or lenses, my digital set-up covers everything I am ever likely to need and I have a selection of film cameras from 35mm SLRs, through 120 folders and TLRs to the beast that is a Mamiya RB67 to satisfy my interest in using old cameras and reliving the simple joys of producing my own negatives and darkroom prints. So, yes, on the face of it, simply GAS. 

Except….

It is this feeling that ones existing camera is somehow devalued by the release of a shiny new upgraded version that is a major indication of GAS and it is this that manufacturers rely on to some degree to keep their business model afloat. But I have not bought a new digital camera model since 2018.  I did not buy the Bronica ETRS because of any perceived gap in my kit or because I thought it was superior to anything I already owned.  I bought it because of a “feeling”.

Yes, a feeling. Remember why I got into photography. The opportunities that photography gave me to explore, to satisfy my curiosity, to exercise some creativity and to experiment. Remember too that satisfying “click” or “slap”? I bought into a new (to me) camera system in February for precisely the same reasons I bought the humble 1960s Zenith E back in mid-1970. For the same reasons I bought a secondhand Canon AE1 in 1978, two years after that debuted. For the same reason I made a pinhole camera last year and purchased a vintage Polaroid SX-70 (manufactured from 1972 to 1981).  For me photography is a way I can satisfy my need for creativity, experimentation and exploration wherever I am and whatever the situation I find myself in – even incarceration in my own house for the past two months or more hasn’t stopped me experimenting and creating.

Rose (alternative view)
Focusing screen of the Calumet Cadet 5×4 camera (taken with iPhone)

Hang on – with a full digital set-up at your disposal surely all these film cameras are evidence of GAS?  Well, for me, film photography is both a nostalgic nod to my past but also a way to further develop (pun intended) my curiosity and with the benefit of experience to reconnect with the spirit of experimentation and exploration of my teenage self.  I also enjoy the physicality of these old cameras. I can’t flick a switch and start shooting within milliseconds.  The Mamiya RB67 is fully manual; I have to unlock the focusing system, remove the dark side, lift the mirror (great big clunky lever on the side) and manually advance the film.  I then need to read the light in the scene and transfer these settings to the lens – yes the aperture and shutter speed are both set on the lens which incorporates a leaf shutter.  All of this provides a satisfying tactile experience and a feeling (warranted or not) that I have created each image myself.  Each of my film cameras works differently and this variety also appeals especially to someone like myself who has the attention span of a goldfish and is constantly seeking something new to explore. The fact that I can do so with gear that was financially way out of reach to me in the 1970s is a bonus.  

So, do I have GAS? 

Well, despite my implied protestations above the answer is probably “yes”. However, in my defence I would point out that all of my gear gets used and rarely gets sold-on these days as I regularly return to them.  I am also not upgrading to the next miracle-electronic-marvel every time Fuji release an upgraded model (my X100T is two generations old) but I am expanding my creative opportunities with new purchases. This past week I have used all three of my Fuji mirrorless digital cameras, both my medium format Bronicas, the Mamiya RB67, an Olympus Pen EE3, a Nikon L35AF, a Canon ACE, the Fuji X100T, the full-spectrum (infrared) converted Fuji X-T1 and not forgetting my smartphone!  

All of which suggests that there are degrees of GAS in the same way that real illnesses have degrees of severity. That GAS is not necessarily a “bad” thing and that GAS does not always benefit manufacturers.  But this is not the forum for such a discussion – and that is not a bad thing either!

Scratching an itch

When you‘ve got an itch – you’ve gotta scratch it!

Sometimes an idea pops into the head and the only way to get it out again is to stop what you are doing and attend to it. It happened to me last Sunday, and by 7pm, just as I was about to settle down with a book for the evening, the itch became unbearable. So, I grabbed my Bronica ETRS, the 220 film back that I’d purchased in error and a roll of expired 35mm B&W film and headed into the garden. By 7.30pm I was mixing chemicals and by 8pm the still-wet negatives were hanging in my bathroom to dry.

So, what got me so motivated? And surely that’s a typo – 220 back and 35mm film?

The idea of putting 35mm film through a medium format film camera is hardly new or innovative but it’s been niggling away at the back of my mind for a while now and I’ve been itching to try it for myself. I’ve seen a handful of images online and even watched a couple of YouTube videos on the subject so I did have some thoughts on how to approach it. So long as it is loaded carefully into a medium format film back, it is possible to shoot images that extend across the sprocket holes of the 35mm film to cover the whole surface of the film and with my ETRS back you get 45x33mm negatives, including the sprocket holes. If I was to do the same with my SQ-A then the negatives would be around 60x33mm although I’ve yet to try this. I say careful incidentally because you need to ensure the film runs centrally down the film plate as you wind on if you want to be reasonably certain of your compositions.

Spoiler alert: this experiment with the ETRS worked and I’ve already loaded the ETRS 220 back with a roll of 35mm colour negative film for a more “serious” session – when the sun decides to reappear.

I chose the 220 film back as it was designed for longer rolls of medium format film which allowed for 30 shots on the ETRS so I would not be advancing the film back past the number of shots the 35mm film would provide.  There is however a lot of wasted film at the start of the roll due to the way the Bronica winds on the 120 film at the start of a roll, the back is designed for roll film and needs to pull sufficient backing paper through to reveal the film buried inside the roll. I did however manage 21 exposures on this 36 exposure test roll (remember this is a 6×4.5 back and not 6×6 so if using a 6×6 format camera the number of images obtained will be less although they will be wider). I could try sticking a length of old backing paper to the start of the 35mm film I guess to minimise this wastage but that is an idea for another day.

Out of date Ilford HP5+ 35mm film in a Bronica ETRS 220 film back

As the image above shows the idea worked and the subject is lined-up correctly and not sloping due to wonky film loading. So what did I learn?

Vertical = horizontal and horizontal = vertical!

As the picture of the loaded film back shows, first and foremost: vertical = horizontal and horizontal = vertical! The film in a Bronica ETRS back runs top to bottom unlike a 35mm SLR where it runs left to right. Which means the 35mm film inside the 220 back is running down the middle rather than width-ways. It takes some getting used to, and I may cut a mask for the viewfinder to remind me, but basically when holding the camera normally the film is covering a vertical strip down the middle of the viewfinder. Tip the camera on its side (as you would normally to shoot a portrait or vertically orientated image) and the strip now runs horizontally across the middle of the frame.

That aside, and I have a lot of spoilt images because I hadn’t noted that quirk earlier, everything else went well. I used a pair of adaptors on the 35mm cassette which enabled me to insert the film in the same way I would have inserted a 120 roll. In a traditional film camera the 35mm film is loaded with the glossy side towards you but as the emulsion is on the other side of the plastic strip you need to reverse this when loading 35mm film into a roll film back (see above); basically the emulsion (non-glossy) side needs to be foremost in the holder so it is exposed to the lens when the film back is attached to the camera and the slide removed.

This quick and impulsive test was in most respects successful. Yes, every frame is orientated in the opposite direction to that in which I shot it and so many do not make compositional sense but this was not about creating masterpieces but about seeing if I could make it work – and I did. The first few frames were horribly under-exposed as the light meter I was using was still set to 800 ISO from an earlier session and I had also chosen to underexpose by a couple of stops, partly to give a darker frame to the main subject but mainly to achieve a shutter speed at which I could handhold the camera.

There were a couple of images however where, by dint of the 40mm lens I was using, the subject was centrally placed and therefore the composition does still work. Sadly, they were also amongst the first few underexposed frames but I have salvaged one of Grandson Harry which gives an idea of the kind of image I was hoping to capture.

Like many of these techniques, this one is unlikely to become my go-to method of shooting and needs to be used sparingly if it is not to become cliched and, dare I say, a little boring. The occasional 35mm cassette for a bit of fun is all I expect to be exposing in this manner. That said, I have ordered a 220 film back for my 6×6 Bronica SQ-A so I can try out the larger format. I’m hoping to shoot some panoramic images of the rooftops opposite for a sub-project within my main 366 project. There is also a roll of 35mm colour negative film in the ETRS 220 back .

So, as has been said countless times before – watch this space!

What? Colour?

The first film I ever shot consistently was probably Kodak Tri-X, back in the 1970s and I can remember that my teenage photography was very mono-centric. Sadly, there are very few negatives surviving from that time but most are Kodak Tri-X although there’s a fair smattering of Ilford HP5 too.  Colour was very much a “treat” and I vaguely recall that a roll of Kodachrome 64 (I found K25 too limiting) was almost a months pocket money. 

I stuck with black and white initially therefore for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly I guess, was the relative cost of black & white versus colour. Secondly, was the practicalities of developing in my Mum’s kitchen. With a changing bag and a few inexpensive items a roll of Tri-X could be developed just as easily then as it can now. Within a few hours I could get a look at my negatives and see which of my experiments had worked, whilst the shooting of them was still fresh in my mind. Kodachrome took ten days at least from leaving me to its return and whilst there were some nice results it was a very costly way of working especially as I was still finding my way with the hobby. No internet or YouTube in those days to show me how to do it or cut down the time taken to figure things out. There was a lot of wasted film at the start and a lot of disappointment.

Looking back through the material that has survived there are very few  colour prints and those that we have tend to be snap shots of days out with the family. I’ve never really shot colour negative film it seems.

FILM - Bronica ETRS 17
Bronica ETRS, 75mm lens plus close-up filter +4. Fujicolour Reala 1/60th f8

Fast forward to 2018 and my decision to return to film photography. You would have thought I would immediately return to the old faithful Kodak Tri-X. Well, I thought so too until I popped in to the local camera shop and saw the retail price differential between Kodak and Ilford at that time. I had shot Ilford HP5 occasionally “back in the day” and once again it was economics that drove the choice of film stock as I left the shop with a stash of HP5. Black and white again you will notice, I don’t think I ever seriously considered colour film at the time although over the last two or three years I have shot a handful of rolls of Kodak Ektachrome and Fuji Velvia. 

Press the fast-forward button again to early 2020 (pre-pandemic) and I’m edging away from 35mm film towards medium format film and also starting to investigate the range of weird and often wacky film stocks now available alongside the traditional staples. I ordered a brick of Ilford HP5 recently but in order to get my moneys worth on the fixed P&P costs I also picked up a handful of single rolls of these more esoteric offerings. As an aside, my film drawer has never been so full; there’s currently around forty rolls of 120 in the drawer. However, when I look at the boxes lined up … Ilford FP4, HP5, PanF+, some Fomapan, a handful of single rolls of “ones to try” … but not a single roll of colour amongst them.

FILM - Bronica ETRS 10
Bronica ETRS 75mm lens with +4 close-up filter f5.6 1/125th second Fuji colour Pro160NS

A few months back a friend of mine gave me a bag of out of date film and amongst these were half a dozen rolls of Fujicolor Reala. The film expired around 18 years ago but it would be rude not to use it so I rated it at 50 ISO (box speed 100) and put a few rolls through various medium format cameras. Sitting with half a dozen rolls of exposed film I then looked in to processing and scanning options. Blimey! I’ve home developed black and white for a long, long time so hadn’t kept up with commercial processing costs but it quickly occurred to me that perhaps now was the time to learn how to home process colour negatives! So, long story short, and I’ve not written about this properly yet, but back in February I started home processing colour too. Almost twenty rolls on and I’ve used up all the out of date colour negative film I had been given plus various odd rolls of film I bought as singletons to have a play with.  I’m no expert but I’m producing consistently decent results so now is probably a good time to consider shooting more colour which then leads to the question – but which one?

I had thought that finding the right colour film would be simpler in these days of YouTube and Google. But not so. I found some examples shot with Lomography 800 and thought this would be worth trying myself. I didn’t particularly like the results I achieved during a walk along the canal however and as I delved further into this colourful world I realised that the “look” of a film nowadays was as much influenced by the photographers use of scanning and post-processing software as it was on the film stock or developer choice.  I found that by playing on the computer I could get similar results from the Lomography 800 that I’d seen online, and more suited to my taste, but that to me defeats the purpose. I am trying to reduce my time spent post-processing on the computer not increase it and add in the additional step of processing film too!

Lockside Reflections II
Mamiya C3, 180mm lens, Lomography 800 colour negative film.
6th February 2020 – Elland Lock. Tastes vary!!

So, it seems that despite the benefits of the Internet-age I shall be returning to the methods I employed in the 1970s in choosing the colour film stock I will be using moving forward: cost and trial and error. I’ve just ordered five rolls of Fujifilm Pro 400H as the starting point; the price point is palatable and talking to a fellow film shooter who eschews computer post-production, the 400H has, in his experience, a fairly neutral tone particularly in the shadows. However, one thing I’ve learnt over the decades is that tastes in film stock are very personal. Once I’ve shot and developed these five rolls I will know if it’s for me or if I need to look further. Sadly, I will only be shooting in the garden and not down by the river or canal but I will have to make the best of what I have.

Fast forward once again to Lockdown Britain. As it was thus with Tri-X – I tried it, I liked it and looked no further until the price became such that a rethink was needed.  Forty plus years later will history repeat itself and I standardise on the first colour negative film I try as I did with black and white all those years ago?

Watch this space!

Rollei Retro 100

Nikon FM2n with out of date Rollei Retro 100 shot at box speed and developed in Rodinal (1+50)

It’s not often I shoot 35mm film these days despite a drawer full of film and twenty-plus 35mm cameras to chose from. However, on a whim, I picked up the Nikon FM2n over the weekend and noticed it had a part exposed roll of film in. It was also fitted with a 24-70 zoom lens I had been sent aa while back but not yet tested so I decided to finish the roll.

Nothing formal however, the live-in grandsons were playing in the back yard, in and out of their paddling pool, so I took a few snaps of them first. When they saw what I was doing they both wanted a go too, so that used a few more frames. Harry then decided to pose; composing a fast-moving, naked subject so as to preserve everyone’s modesty was a challenge. That the lens was manual focus with a sloppy focus ring just added to the fun!

Reaching the end of the roll I decided that, as everyone was outside and the kitchen therefore empty , this would be a good time to develop the film and see what I had. The first surprise was that I had loaded Rollei Retro 100 in the camera. Why that had been so I couldn’t decide and having now seen what the first few frames were I still don’t know why I had a 100 speed film in the camera. I’ve been using Perceptol a lot recently, mainly because I’ve been shooting mainly Ilford PanF+ and FP4+ in my Bronica ETRS but reached for the Rodinal, mainly because I wouldn’t have to make up a new batch of Perceptol rather than any aesthetic choice on this occasion.

After consulting my notes I settled on 13 minutes at 20 degrees C in Rodinal diluted 1+50. The result was, as expected, good negatives with a reasonable amount of contrast. I left them hanging to dry in the bathroom and later in the day cut and sleeved them ready for a proper look on the light pad the following day.

As soon as I placed the first strip on the light pad I knew that all was not well. I had a good range of tones and the negatives were not overly contrasty so I was confident that they would print well in the darkroom. They also scanned well it turned out. Even from inspecting the negatives however, I could see immediately that the lens was, to say the least, a little “soft”. Excluding the frames ruined by camera shake (due to the low shutter speeds the 100 film required) and the erratic mobility of my subjects, very few of the images were the crisp, sharply focused negatives I had expected. That was disappointing especially as there appeared to be some nice images at the first glance of the still-wet negatives the afternoon before. But not the fault of the film.

Thumbs up!

So, frustrations with the now-discarded lens aside, what did I make of the out of date Rollei Retro 100 (also known as Agfa APX 100)?

Despite the film being out of date, I made no compensation in respect of exposure, mainly because I didn’t know what film was in the camera and the ISO dial was set to what I realised afterwards was box speed. I liked the “look” of the images from the film, although defining “look” is a futile exercise as it will vary from person to person. The grain is very apparent in these negatives but I don’t mind that at all; as someone who used to regularly shoot Kodak Tri-X at 6400 ISO in the 1970s I’m used to a bit of grain! Purely digital shooters with no history of working with film will probably be horrified at all the “noise” however.

It‘s a thumbs up therefore from me. I shoot mainly 120 film and my emulsions of choice are Ilford PanF+ and HP5 but I would not be averse to putting a roll or two through the Bronicas if the subject was right.