Film photography, digital photography and general camera thoughts

I do struggle to commit to this blog on any kind of regular basis, despite a great enthusiasm for the idea. Perhaps it is the ongoing battle to decide whether I have anything interesting to say…..

Looking at my saved drafts, I obviously intended to create a series of posts about our efforts to rejuvenate the garden of the rental property we are in. We had considerable success with native plantings in the bed area of the garden, but the lawn is an ongoing battle. We will have to pass that on to the next tenants because we have finally purchased our own house here in Australia and will be moving on soon. We are excited about this new chapter in our lives and the beautiful house we will be living in. There will be a few projects there, including hopefully water tanks and solar, as well as a recreation room downstairs.

Many other things have changed for us since the last post. I am now an active, operational volunteer firefighter and a Consultant in Critical Care Medicine in my day job as well as an aeromedical retrieval physician.

Having scrapped the garden series of posts, my last post talks about Samuel and I exploring film photography. Samuel’s interest is more in the line of video these days, leaving me exploring my photography. I have continued to explore analogue photography and am in awe of the medium and the challenges and thought behind it. I have even purchased developing equipment with a view to developing my own black and white film at some point over winter.

As I said at the end of the last post, film had given me my mojo back. I now spend more time on photography, but take fewer photographs. I look in more detail at what is before me as I contemplate how to photograph it. I am more in tune with colours and seeing what is there. I use digital far more than I use film, but I have also significantly reduced my iPhone camera use.

Sitting at my desk here, I have before me four cameras. It seems excessive, but it has been an evolution. The first is my Canon EOS600D. I have barely used it since October, when I purchased a Fujifilm XE-3. My history of Canon goes back to early 2006 when I purchased a 350D, with an 18 – 55mm kit lens and a 70 – 210mm telephoto zoom. This camera lasted me the best part of ten years and some of the images I took with it are the most important to me that I have ever taken. There are tens of thousands, so it is hard to pick a favourite. Here are two.

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Caister Beach, 2007
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Caister Beach, 2007

There are some important lessons from these images. I had not had the Canon very long. My photographic journey was still in its infancy. I had some understanding of ISO, shutter speed, aperture etc., but little experience. I had no real understanding of RAW photography, other than a vague notion that it was highly detailed and would allow greater editing flexibility. My composition skills were still random, rather than considered. I shot these images in RAW and JPEG. Last year, having learnt more about post-processing in the intervening period, I ‘developed’ them. The lessons are that sometimes the image is right without all the preparation. The image is made by the moment and the subject as much as the photographer. Expensive equipment is not necessarily essential.

Sadly, the 600D has never quite lived up to the 350. In theory, it should be just a more advanced version, but there is something lacking in sharpness and atmosphere from the photographs. Perhaps it is just me, because Samuel manages to get some amazing images at different times from it. I suspect that is his superior artistic talent.

I spent quite a period of time last year researching cameras and systems as I felt it was time for an upgrade. I was very keen to get a full frame digital camera, but similarly I wanted to move to a more practical and portable high-quality camera as the size of my Canon had become a barrier to taking it with me on various excursions. As if to prove that too much choice can become a hindrance, I did all this research and then made the wrong decision for me. I must emphasise “for me”. Your mileage may vary and there is no doubt that the Fujifilm XE-3 that I opted for is an excellent camera.

It has many qualities. It is a nice, compact size. Battery life is good. The control system on top and the aperture ring on the lens is all I really need as the only settings I tend to access are ISO, aperture and now exposure compensation. Shutter speed is on auto. It fits in my pocket and I certainly have it with me much more than I ever had the 600D. Mirrorless facilitates more certainty about the eventual exposure.

But…. it is APS-C and although there is good objective evidence that the crop sensor/full frame debate is a bit meaningless, I still have full frame envy. The electronic viewfinder is pretty good but not quite the same as an optical viewfinder. This is something I need to just accept as I think mirrorless is the future. It has focus zoom which can be useful, although invariably gets activated by mistake just when I am checking another aspect of composition. I occasionally use the screen on the back which is excellent, but fixed.

I have taken quite a number of images with it that I am extremely happy with, but sadly there are also many that are just not quite right. Whilst I am usually quick to blame myself, I have come to the conclusion that something about either the sensor or the software and algorithms that Fujifilm use are just not to my taste. Pages have been written online about the difference between the Fujifilm sensor and other manufacturers, but I do not begin to understand any of it. For me it simply seems as though the images are in some way too vivid, too saturated or somehow CGId. This is a particular issue in bright light conditions with blue skies. A bit of work in Lightroom can help, but overall I am frustrated. Is it enough for me to sell it? No, probably not. As an entry level Fujifilm, it is unlikely to attract much value and I have an adaptor that allows me to use my Minolta lenses on it. With these lenses, I can often create images that I am much more satisfied with, than when I use the 18 or 27mm Fujifilm lenses. So, if I do make a further purchase, I will keep the body and shoot only with Minolta lenses on it.

 

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My favourite image with the Fujifilm XE-3 and the 18mm lens.
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This is an example of a frustrating image, in full light. I just cannot put my finger on what I don’t like, but the foliage in the trees is a pixelated mess for a start.
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The Fujifilm comes alive when combined with the Minolta lenses. This was taken with the 50mm lens, giving an 80mm equivalent.
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A portrait of Caro with the Minolta 50mm f1.4 on the Fujifilm XE-3

The next camera along is a Minolta XG-M. It is currently loaded with an AGFA ISO100 black and white film. I have temporarily lent both Minolta lenses to a friend to use on his XT20, so the film is on 16 exposures. 20 to go. I have now shot a number of films with this camera, most recently some Kodak E100 slide film, a medium that I had never shot before. Sadly, the prism of the Minolta stuck up two-thirds of the way through that film and in pursuit of fixing it, I had to sacrifice the last 12, unexposed images. I was blown away by the clarity of the images that came from that E100 slide film. There is a high chance I may never shoot another colour emulsion after I use up the ones I have in my drawer. Whether that eventuates will depend upon the results with Fujifilm Provia and some Kodak Ektar 100 colour negative film.

I use a 50mm MD Rokkor lens and a 28mm MD Rokkor lens on the Minolta and I love both of them.

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Our garden, last winter. Kodak T-Max ISO100 black and white film
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Country Fire Authority Scania Medium Pumper. Kodak T-Max ISO 100 film. I love the silky effect to this image.
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Beach path, Waratah Bay, Victoria, Australia. Kodak T-Max ISO100
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Mt Buffalo Chalet. Kodak E100 slide film
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Mermaid Pools, Mt Beauty. Kodak E100 slide film.
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The lake at Mt Beauty. Kodak E100 slide film. Minolta MD Rokkor 28mm lens.

The final camera on the desk is a Nikon FE with a 50mm lens. It currently has a roll of Fujifilm Provia loaded. This is the first film I am exposing with the Nikon, so no images to share just yet.

Of course, there is another camera in my pocket, the iPhone 8 Plus. Whilst I was regularly able to get images I quite liked with my 6 Plus (see the photograph of MFB Station 2 in this post), I rarely am with my 8 Plus. In fairness, the images don’t look too bad on the iPad or iPhone, but as soon as I look at them on my 5K 28″ iMac, they appear so artificial and digital they are unpleasant. That has dramatically reduced any desire to take photographs with it.

So, I suspect in the coming few months there will be another camera purchase in pursuit of a suitable replacement for my much-missed EOS350D. I love Canon colour. I think the Nikon Z6 is probably a better entry level full frame mirrorless than the Canon R. The Canon RP may be enough for me, given how much I liked the entry level 350D. I spend far too much time trawling Flickr trying to evaluate those cameras, but that’s no guarantee I will like my results. Tricky.

Photography

Before the summer hiatus on the blog, I posted an article about The Shed That Granddad Built and included a photograph of the shed, taken with an old Sony Cybershot camera in the early 2000s. My recollections of that camera are almost entirely negative, but whilst preparing the image for posting I was pleasantly surprised that with some work on the saturation, the image was actually very usable. Around the time of that post, I was actually in a bit of a low where my photography was concerned. I have discussed my limitations as a photographer before.

I was beginning to feel as though digital photography, particularly with the advent of smartphones, instagram and so on, had become a bit of a millstone. A day trip that once may have resulted in two or three shots on a 24 exposure film can now generate literally hundreds of shots. I cannot speak for others, but my approach to digital images is to review, delete as many as possible to ensure a well curated collection remains and to then process and ‘develop’ them in Lightroom. Sometimes, one cannot be certain what to delete until some processing has taken place. It does not take much to fall behind and all of a sudden, there are several hundred photographs waiting to be reviewed and edited. Getting the mojo up to go through those can be a problem. There was a good article on The Conversation a few years ago on this subject.

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Schaefer chilling. Canon EOS 600D, f1.7 50mm prime lens

I had become quite lazy with my DSLR and taken to using my iPhone. Whilst the images from the DSLR are undoubtedly better and the camera offers more flexibility, it is cumbersome to carry around. The iPhone is always there and means photo-opportunities that would otherwise be missed are captured. On the flip side, my iPhone 6 Plus takes great snapshots but there is often a sense of regret in Lightroom that I had not used the DSLR for a shot that is borderline in terms of detail, noise or low-light exposure. Over Christmas, a colleague from work lent me a Canon 50mm prime lens, which was a new experience for me as I have always used zoom lenses. My EOS 600D has an APS-C sensor, which means the 50mm is actually an 80mm equivalent lens. Additionally, the lens also had a much bigger aperture than I have used, at f1.7, meaning I had to be much more precise with my focal points when doing portraits.

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MFB Station 2. I was attending a course in Melbourne. Arriving early, as usual, I took the opportunity to explore surrounding streets. MFB Station 2 is tucked away between commercial buildings on a side street. I took a few photographs that I would otherwise have not been able to capture with the Minolta or the Canon, because they were at home in the drawer.

Although such a lens, at 80mm equivalent, is much more narrow angle than I am interested in, something about using a higher quality lens compared to my kit lens and trying something else, stimulated a new line to pursue with photography and I set about actively looking at getting either a new camera, some prime lenses or both. I started to investigate mirrorless and full-frame, but was deterred somewhat by the cost.

Over the past couple of years, I had been contemplating purchasing an old film SLR camera as a way of doing something different with my photography. The appeal was the idea of photographing knowing the capacity to photograph on a given occasion was finite. 24 or 36 shots. The challenge was to see whether I could take what I have learnt about composition and exposure over the years and achieve satisfactory results on film, without knowing instantly whether I had succeeded or not. Recently I had been watching a few adverts on Gumtree or eBay and had almost taken the plunge, when I heard about a local retailer of old cameras and lenses. Samuel was looking at a new project for school and so between us we resolved to make exploring film our new project.

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The XG1. Now replaced with an XD7. Photographed by an iPhone….

Our first camera was a Minolta XG1. The chap in the shop recommended it as a good entry-level SLR, particularly combined with a Minolta 50mm f1.7 lens. Being a 35mm negative SLR, the 50mm is 50mm. Equipped with the included roll of Kodak ColourPlus film, we set off. I had been thinking about a Canon AE-1, which gets a lot of press, but it was quite pleasing to get a Minolta, for my first SLR, a relatively modern one at the time, was a Minolta 404si. For me, it was a pleasing return to a different process. For Samuel, raised on digital as he has been, it was a voyage of discovery. Working out how the image was recorded, focusing manually, considering every aspect of the exposure as well as the composition and evaluating in advance whether the shot was worth it, or whether a better option lay ahead. It was great to watch and to share that experience with him. For my part, I found it quite liberating to give such consideration to each exposure and then have the suspense of waiting until the whole film was exposed and developed to see the result. I must confess, we did not take an entirely luddite approach to things. We used our iPhones as light metres and on occasions, the Canon DSLR to help metre the shots, but as the Minolta has less flexibility (the ISO is what the film is, the shutter speed does not go faster than 1/1000) it was down to the final choice of parameters we selected, rather than an algorithm. The most rewarding thing was perhaps the way it made us seek out opportunities. For both of us, our photography had become a sense of “shoot that in case it is good”, rather than “that looks great like that, the light is here, this would be an interesting exposure, let’s do it”. I think it might be fair to say that shooting film and contemplating whether to take a shot actually allowed us to see things in more detail, or with more consideration, than if we had randomly photographed with our phones or the Canon.

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Drysdale Railway Station, Victoria, Australia. Minolta XG1, Kodak ColourPlus Film, ISO200. 50mm prime lens. Taken by Samuel Savage

We spent a day together travelling clockwise around Port Phillip Bay, using the Sorrento to Queenscliff ferry to cross the heads, exploring the Bellarine Peninsula and then Wiliamstown before coming home. Along the way, we expended much of the first film and excitedly took it to developers the next day. This was interesting in itself, because along with our joy at seeing what we had captured, came the slightly bitter sense of failure that was familiar to film-users for decades. Sadly, the Minolta had a light-leak or a shutter fault and so a number of negatives had been spoilt. Nevertheless, we managed to crop and balance a few and came out with a collection we were happy with. We returned the Minolta and came away with an alternative model and another roll of film. I was so enthused with the concept, that I also purchased a 28mm lens. Also manual everything. Samuel was so captivated that he took my cousin up on the loan of a large-format, bellows camera and we are sourcing negatives for it currently. That will be a whole other project.

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Locomotive, Bellarine Railway. Minolta XG1, Kodak ColourPlus ISO200. Gentle editing in Lightroom to compensate for the light-streak.

The images from the Minolta have a tone and grain that make them quite alluring, although perhaps more grain than I recall from an ISO200 film. A well metered and exposed negative has phenomenal dynamic range. They cannot hope to compare to a modern full-frame digital in terms of sharpness, colour and flexibility to edit, but I like them. Shooting film and digital will complement each other nicely and I will buy that full-frame DSLR/Mirrorless within the next couple of years. Digital photography has, after all, allowed me to develop as a photographer via multiple shots and freedom to experiment without concern about the cost of developing and printing. It’s nice to have my mojo back.