The Vemödalen Project: Formats and Methods

(I know, you thought I forgot about this. Well, I didn’t.)

I admit that this might be considered a stretch by some when it comes to the conceptual basis of my little project, but after giving it some thought, I think it qualifies, and I’ll tell you why. The whole point of my undertaking is to approach photography, and specifically photographic subjects, differently than I normally would. Ideally, that approach would also be significantly different from the ways in which others have photographed those subjects, but ultimately it is a personal project with a personal objective, not a competition with the photographers of the world.

So that said, I went out a few weeks ago with a familiar camera and a relatively unfamiliar (to me) set of accessories. The camera in question was my Zeiss Super Ikonta C, a wonderfully battered piece of pre-war German workmanship that has clearly survived an active 80+ years and hasn’t slowed down very much. I’ve shot this camera before to good effect, but always hand-held; it occurred to me that I had another option, one that might in fact be more appropriate. I rarely use tripods, but the size of the negative and the look of the Tessar lens have both made me compare them with large format on more than one occasion, and I’d been reading one of Ansel Adams’ books (The Negative, in case you were wondering), which got me thinking about not only large format landscapes, but altering my approach to shooting them.

So instead of just using it like any other hand-held camera, I mounted it on a tripod and brought along a collection of filters as well. I loaded it with FP4+ in spite of the still-weak midday light I expected, knowing that I could extend the shutter speeds indefinitely. My plan, in a nutshell, was to shoot in the style of Adams: small apertures for maximum depth-of-field and contrast filters for maximum effect (where appropriate).

What I have just described is hardly original; clearly, it is anything but. But I’ve never shot this way before, and barring some unforeseen life-altering change, I have no expectation of shooting any larger formats at any future point I can envision. So while the methodology may be unoriginal, I hoped to use it to produce photos that looked different than anything I had produced before. Understanding the photographic possibilities available requires consideration of all the options, and this was one set I had not yet explored. If nothing else, I hoped to determine if shooting this way could open up a profitable new direction to explore further.

Olympus 35SP, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Olympus 35SP, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

First, I offer this 35mm shot for comparison, taken purely for documentary and comparison purposes. I used my (now departed) Olympus 35SP, a camera with a truly excellent 42mm lens of very similar focal length equivalency to the 10.5cm on the Super Ikonta, and shot at a relatively small aperture to produce adequate DOF. It was loaded with HP5+ instead of the FP4+ in the Zeiss; this was simply what was already in the camera, not any conscious choice on my part.

Had I simply taken this photo (minus the tripod rig) without ulterior motives, I suspect I would have been content but not particularly thrilled by it. It’s pleasant enough to my eyes, but nothing really makes it stand out. The details of the scene are clear and sharp, but it lacks some quality that would set it apart. In short, I’m sure it looks very similar to many photos of that scene taken before.

Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta C 530/2, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta C 530/2, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

The 6×9 from the Zeiss is a totally different animal, even if the scaled-down version here doesn’t show it fully; to appreciate just how different it is you really need to see the prints. As you would expect, there’s more detail resolved and the grain is less visible, but there’s more to it than that. The tonal separations are more subtle, even in the darker areas, and there’s a really nice three-dimensional effect up around the rock formation at the top of the cliff.

Perhaps equally importantly, and more relevantly to my project, the shooting process is very different, and I found caused me to think a lot more carefully about how I wanted the final image to look. It probably didn’t hurt that the Adams’ book discusses the Zone System in detail, and I was very clearly thinking about it as I set up each shot with the Super Ikonta; not to say that the two have to go together, but I found I was much more inclined to consider these details (and take the time to do so) when shooting this way rather than hand-held. There was a distinct difference in how I approached making the photograph that was directly related to the process I selected.

The upshot of this is that equipment, film format, and methodology all have the possibility of changing how one shoots a particular scene. In that sense, I consider this experiment a success, even if the end result was not necessarily unique.

 

The Filmosaur Year in Review

Your Humble Filmosaur managed to make quite a large number of photos this past year, which seems a bit of an accomplishment in itself, and knowing that no good deed goes unpunished, it seemed only fitting to do a little wrapping up before 2016 plunges into bitter disappointment and abject failure.

Looking back at my photos from the year just ending, I noticed a few trends, so I’ll organize this post around them.

Medium Format

I expanded my collection of medium format cameras considerably in the past year, adding 6×9 to the repertoire as well as collecting a few more options for the ubiquitous 6×6. I’m only just beginning to explore the 6×9 format, but it does have real potential, I think. The negative is enormous, and the longer focal length of the lenses (105mm in both my Super Ikonta and Bessa II) can create an almost-large-format look in certain circumstances.

Zeiss Super Ikonta C 530/2, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Zeiss Super Ikonta C 530/2, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

The square remains a favorite, however, and I ran a fair number of rolls through my various 6×6 cameras. I find it a very flexible format, which seems perhaps a bit counter-intuitive, as with a rectangular format you can use either portrait or landscape, but with a square you’re stuck with 1:1. Nonetheless, I find the square fairly easy to use, and this past year confirmed that it is my first choice medium format, um, format.

Mamiyaflex Automat A, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Mamiyaflex Automat A, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

Composition

I began exploring more graphical composition in the past year, sometimes to the point of abstraction. The compositions are simple and direct, and generally head-on. While I’m fairly pleased with these initial efforts, there’s a lot more work to be done in seeing how these can be made more interesting by changing the perspective and adding depth to the composition while preserving the clarity of the subject and without cluttering it up.

Certo Super Dollina II, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Certo Super Dollina II, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

To a significant degree, I find it easier to construct this sort of photo in B&W. Color adds a fair bit of complexity to the equation, partially by the nature of it and partially because I still tend to see better in monochrome. Finding subjects that lend themselves to color photos of this sort is not always easy, and there is always the temptation (for me, anyway) of allowing the color to dominate the photo to the detriment of other aspects.

Konica III, Kodak Gold 200
Konica III, Kodak Gold 200

Film

My conversion to Ilford for my B&W film needs is essentially complete. I shot Tri-X when I went to Arizona at the beginning of last year, but after that I started moving to HP5+, which gave me similar results with a little more tonality in the middle (easily controlled with development) and slightly less grain. It also dries completely flat and costs half of what Tri-X does in bulk. It is a perfectly acceptable substitute that has a few advantages to boot.

For slower films, I tried a few rolls of Pan F+, but I haven’t really been able to wrap my head around it. The results can be good, but it’s slow enough that it really requires specific conditions or a tripod to work well. I just haven’t shot enough to get to know it. Out of curiosity, in the spring I got a bulk roll of FP4+, and I was in love. It’s buttery smooth in every way. Within a few rolls I knew I had my new everyday film. It’s not really fast enough for flexibility in the winter months, or for street photography generally, but when I can get away with the slower speed, I will have FP4+ in my camera. I need to buy more.

Cars

Regular readers will not be at all surprised that I chased old cars around. Still, there was a slight shift in my approach this past year. While I did take some photos of them on the track, I concentrated my efforts on photographing them while static, and especially on photographing the details. I tried some different angles and compositions; this was encouraged by using my Rolleiflex fairly extensively, which allowed a lot of low-angle work, the results of which were generally positive.

Rolleiflex Old Standard, Kodak Ektar 100
Rolleiflex Old Standard, Kodak Ektar 100

B&W was not neglected, and the results I got with FP4+ in particular only served to further my adoption of it as my standard three-season film.

Leica IIIc, Summitar 50/2, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Leica IIIc, Summitar 50/2, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

The Year of the Leica

When 2015 began, I did not own a Leica. Through good fortune, happenstance, and lack of willpower, I now own more than one. While I may have been initially drawn to them because of the history and the mystique, I quickly found that they fit my photographic needs and wants remarkably well. I ended up using them more than any other cameras this past year, and I see no reason to think that this trend will change in 2016 or beyond.

The body is only half of the camera equation, of course, and the accumulation of Leica bodies leads inevitably to the accumulation of lenses for those bodies. The Summitar that came with one of my IIIcs is really a spectacular lens. I finally found a good example of the Canon 100/3.5, which matches the signature of the Summitar pretty well and makes a nice companion. At the wide end, I picked up a Voigtländer Snapshot Skopar 25/4, which is of course a much more modern lens; the results are very good, and the ergonomics are nearly perfect, but I’m still slightly torn over the modern high-contrast rendering. I also hacked together a couple of lenses in LTM, the Nikon L35AF 35/2.8 in a chopped-down Industar-50 body, which I consider a near-total success, and just for fun the Praktica M60 26/5.6 fixed-focus, fixed-aperture body cap pancake.

So there we are. 2015 is on its way to the door, and 2016 is lying in wait behind the shrubbery. I need more film.