The Culling Begins

Well, it’s 2016, and it’s about time I thinned the camera and lens collections a bit. The accumulation had gotten to the point that I was not using cameras that I really like. It’s one thing to keep something on the shelf because you feel compelled to hang onto it for sentimental value (or lack of monetary value). But when you’ve got equipment that works well and produces good results just collecting dust, it’s time to move it on to someone else.

So I’ve sold off some cameras, and I should probably sell off a few more. It’s seems appropriate to offer a proper send-off to those that have already departed Filmosaur HQ.

Olympus XA4 Macro

It was a brief dalliance, and not an unpleasant one, but from the beginning I knew it was not destined to last. Sure, the XA4 was a great travelling companion, fitting easily into a pocket and always ready to pop out for a bit of fun. The lens was quite nice, the 28mm focal length quite useful, and the results showed that it was indeed a very capable little camera. The macro function worked and really added meaningful flexibility. Even the plastic body and controls were far less offensive than I initially expected. On the face of it, things looked good for the long haul.

But there was a fatal flaw in our relationship: the XA4 is an auto-exposure-only camera, and I am a devout follower of the Cult of Manual Controls. No matter how well we got along, our faiths would never allow us to remain together forever. So we had our fun, and then we said goodbye. No harsh words, no tears, no bad memories, just a lingering fondness and a faint hint of sadness at what might have been.

 

Kodak Retina I

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The Retina suffered only by comparison, not on its own merits. It was in nice shape, well-built and solid, with a good Schneider Xenar lens. It was everything a small folding camera should be, and it would have stayed around but for one problem: the Voigtländer Vito. The Vito does everything the Retina did, but beats it in two important categories: it weighs considerably less, and I much prefer the rendering of the Skopar lens to the Retina’s Xenar.

Old folders are fiddly cameras, and since they require a certain frame of mind to use effectively, they don’t get used a lot, and when I did I seemed to grab the Voigtländer far more than the Kodak. Truth is I don’t really need either of them, but I felt that I should keep one 35mm folder as a representative of the type. When I settled on that, the choice was not terribly hard. So long, Retina, it was nice knowing you.

 

Jupiter-12 35/2.8

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It was a bit hard to say goodbye to the Jupiter-12. It’s really a very good lens, with a unique signature due to its optical design. Sure, the ergonomics are a bit old-fashioned, but that never stopped me. I’d been debating whether I needed it for a while, having two other LTM 35s – the Canon 35/2.8 and my hacked Nikon L35AF lens – already, but I guess what really tipped the balance was the recent acquisition of the W.Acall 35/3.5. Once I saw the photos from that lens, I seriously questioned whether I really needed any other 35. I’m keeping the Canon and the Nikon hack for now; the Nikon is tiny, perfect for street work with a screwmount Leica body, and the Canon…well, I’m not sure that the Canon offers a lot to distinguish itself by comparison, but I’m still keeping it for the moment. But something had to go, and it was the Jupiter. Farewell, comrade.

 

Not exactly sure what’s next on the chopping block, but two cameras that have seen scant use in the last year are my FED-2 and Olympus 35SP. The FED was my entry back into film and into rangefinders, and the images from the 35SP justify its reputation. It will be hard to see either of them go, but if they aren’t being used they’re just decoration, and I don’t need ornaments cluttering up my shelves. We’ll see if I can talk myself into selling them. Stay tuned.

 

On the Joys of Uncoated Lenses

Modern science is relentless. Countless hours and dollars are spent developing ways to improve upon what we already have, all toward a perceived, yet unattainable, state of perfection. The problem, of course, arises when one asks just who is determining “perfection,” and the obviously related questioning of just how universal this version of perfection might or might not be.

Camera optics have undergone tremendous development over the last century and a half. Without a doubt, many of these changes have genuinely and irrefutably improved the quality of images that may be obtained. But once the threshold of reliably clear, sharp photos without serious aberrations had been reached (arguably by the early 1960s), one has to wonder about diminishing returns on investment.

One of the technological advances now taken largely for granted is applying coatings to optical lenses. This has been around for decades; the vast majority of post-war lenses are coated. Coatings limit internal reflections within a lens, allowing more light to reach the film (or sensor) on the other side. They also reduce flare and aid contrast. Without a doubt, coating lenses has improved measurable optical quality.

But uncoated lenses are not to be ignored, simply cast aside as inferior technology. Certainly, they are old – the last was probably produced in the 1940s – but (advertising notwithstanding) that doesn’t mean they’ve outlived their usefulness. And once one starts shooting with uncoated lenses, their distinctive qualities become apparent.

As the above discussion suggests, uncoated optics will usually produce images that are a little lower in contrast, particularly “micro-contrast” (a term I’m not particularly fond of, but a favorite of that particular sort of camera gear enthusiast who obsesses about things like the ultimate resolving power of lenses). This may create what is sometimes called an old-fashioned look, particularly with traditional grain films – not a bad thing at all in my book, but then that shouldn’t really surprise anyone reading this.

Kodak Retina I, Kentmere 100
Kodak Retina I, Kentmere 100

Flare is not well-controlled, which can be annoying if you’re not expecting it; if you know it’s going to be there, you can either tame it with a lens hood or accept it and the look it creates. In bright light, especially reflected, diffuse light, contrast will drop further without a hood, but the effect can be nice nonetheless.

Rolleiflex Old Standard, Ilford Pan-F+
Rolleiflex Old Standard, Ilford Pan-F+

Things get even more interesting when you move to color. When color film became more readily available in the late 1940s or so, camera manufacturers immediately started labeling their lens as “Color-Corrected” or some such, suggesting that the old uncoated lenses were not suitable for the newfangled color film. A great marketing angle to be sure, but hardly accurate. Color film works just fine with uncoated lenses, though the look of the photos is definitely different.

First off, the palette is somewhat shifted from what we have come to expect. For want of a better characterization, it creates a “vintage” look, like prints or slides from forty or fifty years ago, prints that have perhaps faded a bit but still retain colors that remind us of a bygone age. Of course, the obvious point to consider here is that those “vintage” photos may have simply been taken with uncoated lenses, but why spoil the illusion….

Voigtländer Vito, Kodak Gold 200
Voigtländer Vito, Kodak Gold 200

Color photos often take on some additional saturation when shot through uncoated lenses, especially with high-saturation film emulsions like Kodak Ektar, while retaining the lower contrast character mentioned earlier. The result is that even vibrant colors often end up looking soft rather than harsh, as they might with super-sharp, higher contrast modern lenses. This can produce some very pleasant results.

Rolleiflex Old Standard, Kodak Ektar
Rolleiflex Old Standard, Kodak Ektar

So why would one want to shoot with admittedly “inferior” uncoated lenses? Well, because a lot of people seem to think they’re outdated and therefore useless, you can pick them up for cheap. And maybe, just maybe, microscopic sharpness with perfect true-to-life color rendition is not the pinnacle of photography, not an end in and of itself. Sometimes you want a photo to look a bit soft, a bit imperfect, a bit “vintage,” to capture a particular mood or scene. In best Machiavellian tradition, the ends do indeed justify the means. So grab yourself an old uncoated lens and have at it. And tell the optics snobs to stick it while you’re at it.

2013: A Filmosaur Retrospective

Well, another year has been muddled through, so it only seems appropriate to look back at it before moving on inexorably into the unknown. Unlike the year prior (chronicled here), 2013 saw a fair bit of film exposed, with a commensurate reduction in digital photography. This was due, in no small part, to having acquired more film cameras and other related equipment; the pile is edging ever closer to unmanageable. Also adding impetus to the film side of things is the fact that I started developing traditional black-and-white film myself, which makes it quicker and cheaper to shoot.

But ultimately, the increased volume of film was down to the fact that I find I prefer not just the end result, but the process of shooting film. There is far too great a temptation to blast away with digital, not to think sufficiently about what you’re shooting and how you’re shooting it, that it can all be sorted and fixed later. For as many good photos as you might capture with this method, you won’t improve your shooting technique one iota; for as many good photos as you might miss working with film, if you’re paying attention to your work, you’ll likely still improve over time. So with that in mind, this little retrospective will be an all-film affair, highlighting what I thought were some of my best shots of the year that never made it to Filmosaur. I’ve been squirreling them away until the time was right – saving the best for last and all that.

Canon P, Nikkor Q.C. 135/3.5, Kodak Gold 400
Canon P, Nikkor Q.C. 135/3.5, Kodak Gold 400
Canon P, Jupiter-8 50/2, Kodak Tri-X
Canon P, Jupiter-8 50/2, Kodak Tri-X

One of the perils of an expanding camera collection is that it becomes increasingly difficult to decide what to use. Thankfully, once you’ve tried a bunch of cameras, you start to realize what works for you. For me, first on the list is my Canon P. Not surprisingly, it got a lot of work this year. I bought it in anticipation of a trip to Europe in the summer, and it performed quite well there and afterwards. Much of the work you saw here over the last year was shot with it, and trend which I’m sure will continue.

Rollei 35, Kentmere 100
Rollei 35, Kentmere 100

But we can’t neglect the others. When I took my Rollei 35 out a few months ago, I was reminded just how much I enjoy that little thing. Great lens, solid build, small package. It’s a great camera for everyday use.

Konica III, Kentmere 100
Konica III, Kentmere 100

Of the new additions to the 35mm stable, the Konica III is perhaps the most capable. The lens is sharp in a modern way (it’s a Planar design) that is quite different from most of my cameras. The ergonomics are a little odd, given the downstroke film advance, but it handles reasonably well once you get used to it.

Rolleiflex Old Standard, Kodak Ektar
Rolleiflex Old Standard, Kodak Ektar

Perhaps the greatest revelation of 2013, however, was Your Humble Filmosaur’s first forays into medium format. Beginning with a Ciro-flex TLR and rapidly expanding into a variety of other MF options, the possibilities of such a large negative became quite compelling. The Rolleiflex I stumbled across in an antiques shop for a ridiculously low price really shows just how special MF photography can be.

Canon P, Canon 50/1.5, Kodak Gold 200
Canon P, Canon 50/1.5, Kodak Gold 200

But of course it’s not all about gear. I tried to work on technique as well, particularly when it comes to street photography, as I think that’s one of my weaker skills. My Midtown Manhattan in Sixteen Frames series, shot over a single weekend, represented what I felt was a pretty decent improvement over past efforts. There were other outings, however, that also yielded worthwhile shots.

Canon P, Canon 50/1.5, Kodak Portra 160
Canon P, Canon 50/1.5, Kodak Portra 160

The main problem with street photography is that you have to go where there are other people. People are often annoying; Your Humble Filmosaur generally prefers to avoid them. This leads me out into the woods, which, as it turns out, is a good place for photography as well. This fall didn’t look like it was going to be all that great for foliage, but it turned out better than expected.

Canon P, Jupiter-8 50/2, Kodak Portra 160
Canon P, Jupiter-8 50/2, Kodak Portra 160

Beyond local excursions, there was some travel as well. The big trip was to Europe for a few weeks, including one on a small private boat in the Adriatic. As mentioned, I settled on the Canon P kit without too much deliberation; choosing films was a bit more agonizing. Tri-X was the obvious choice for B&W, but color came down to Ektar or Portra 160. After probably far too much thinking about it, I ended up going with the latter. In retrospect, it was clearly the proper choice: Portra’s latitude and subdued colors were perfect, and knowing that I didn’t have to worry too much about nailing the exposure made shooting quickly that much easier.

Kodak Retina I, Kentmere 100
Kodak Retina I, Kentmere 100

Closer to home, I also spent a few days in Maine in the early summer. It was a fun little trip, but not a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing. I had two folding cameras I was testing out; I didn’t really expect anything great out of them, but one – the Kodak Retina I – yielded what might just be my favorite photo of the year.

So that’s it, ladies and gentlemen – 2013 as documented by Your Humble Filmosaur. Stay tuned for another year’s worth of photographic experimentation and rambling, opinionated commentary. Or don’t. I’ll be here whether you like it or not.