Tag Archives: Learning analogue

First Kodak Portra 160

By Kodak’s own statement their Portra 160 film is “the ideal choice for portrait, fashion and commercial photography — whether in the studio or on location — [in that it] delivers exceptionally smooth and natural skin tone reproduction”. However, a lot of people also seem to like it as a general purpose colour film so I decided to give it a try.

In my little test I’ve previously come across three films — the Fujifilm Superia, the AgfaPhoto Vista, and the Kodak Ektar — which the Portra is hence up against.

Now, the Portra is the most expensive film, but also the easiest to come by: Negatif+ has always had them in stock and I often see them when stopping by in other photo stores. The other films on the other hand were ordered from macodirect.de (which has a good selection but adds a somewhat high fee for a relatively slow shipping). Moreover, from various discussions online I’ve gotten the impression that it’s the highest quality film of the four, both in terms of grain, tonal rendition, and exposure latitude.

For my thoughts on the film, it definitely has an unique colour toning, in particular, it seems, for greens and reds (for instance in Light Strokes and Port de l’Arsenal). This is not a bad thing, and in fact I like that it is something different that the JPEGs from my digital camera.

It doesn’t produce saturated colours and I’m not getting the vulgar impressions as I did with the Vista nor the disappointments with the Ektar. Moreover, it renders skin and fur very naturally: The Twins (In Chair)Scholastique (with Irka), and The Twins (Lying Around).

It hence seems that it is down to either the Superia or the Portra, and luckily I have one of each coming up with an overlap in the scenes. Comparing only the scans of the films, although all done by Negatif+, does also introduce some uncertainty in that it is unknown how much colour manipulation is performed in their scanning process; for the next comparison I’ll hence also look at prints from each film.

First Kodak Ektar 100

Next up in my test of analogue colour films is the Kodak Ektar 100. It is supposed to be a general purpose colour film and I’ve ended up shooting both landscape, city-scape, and portrait shots with it — with varying satisfaction.

From the Negatif+ scans the film definitely produces more saturated colours, with the added punch making some scenes look unnatural while in others really capturing the right mood.

I don’t like the way the film renders nature in Family Table, Château de Tilly, and Castle Wall: the greens are too yellow and the contrast with the sky too high. Also, I find the reds in Colourful Houses a bit too much, especially in contrast with the dark green and the light blue sky.

On the other hand, I really like the punch in the two indoor scenes Breakfast in America and The Twins (and Scholastique), in Grandiose with lots of yellow, and in Back Alley Surprise with lots of colours in general.

For the remaining photos (Town Centre in Rouen and Backyard Smoke for instance) the colours are good but I would like to know if they would have rendered much different on the two previous films.

So, in the end I don’t see the Ektar film as becoming my general purpose colour film: in some situations it stands out, yet in others it also really disappoints. This of course doesn’t rule out using it for great results when the scenes are known before hand, but at this point I shoot many different scenes with each film and don’t want to be stuck with a film that can’t be used in specific situations.

First AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200

Next up in my little test of available colour films was the AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200. Since the results of the previous candidate — the Fujifilm Superia — were indeed very positive, the shooting of this film went relatively quickly. And fortunately Negatif+ were again quick to have it developed and scanned.

Again I’m pretty happy with the result. However, the colours seem more saturated than with the Superia, giving it a perhaps more vulgar look; for this I might as a first impulse actually prefer the latter.

It also became clear after the previous scanning that to see the real colour tones of the different films I will need to take away some of the automated steps in the scanning process, in particular in the conversion from negative to positive. More on this later.

Colour Scanning: Negatif+ vs Epson V600 (and First Fujifilm Superia 200)

When I handed over a colour film to Negatif+ a few weeks ago I decided to try their option of also having the negatives scanned; given that it takes me at least four hours to scan a (black & white) film at this point, I figured the 4€ extra might be a good deal if the quality matches up with their usual excellent service.

.. and it was! I’m positively surprised by both the Fujifilm Superia 200 film and the scanning. Besides lightening up the shadows a bit on a few of them I haven’t otherwise done any post-processing:

For comparison I also tried to scan some of them on my Epson V600 scanner; and given that it is a much cheaper consumer-level scanner than the one used by Negatif+ (apparently a Fujifilm Frontier SP3000) it actually did a pretty decent job, even on automatic, and both in terms of resolution and colour!

So a few pros and cons arose.

The scans from Negatif+ are slightly better resolution, have slightly less noise, and I like their warmer colour cast. Also, it’s pretty hard to beat 1€/hour.

On the other hand, to my surprise they are also slightly cropped for some reason (I somewhat suspect that the OM-1 exposes more than the typical 35mm frame) and come as a relatively small JPEG. The latter might not necessarily be a disadvantage of course, but on a few of them it wasn’t really possible to change the choice of burning out the highlights or closing up the shadows, and as a result I’m stuck with whatever Negatif+ decided; and part of the reason why scanning on my own takes longer is the time it takes to make this choice.

So there it is. The price for development is 6€ and for both 10€. For the next few films I’ll go with the scanning option again to have some very usable files and in order to spend my efforts on a selected few instead.

Manual Exposure

After not having had any real success finding suitable replacement batteries for my old Olympus OM-1 I’ve recently been playing with an alternative: manual exposure and light measurement. So far this has been working great and, as an added benefit, has in some cases actually proven faster than going through the built-in light meter.

There are plenty of descriptions on this topic available online (see The Ultimate Exposure Computer for instance), however some contain too many details to keep around on a little piece of paper, and some seem to have been written in a post-digital era. As a result I’ve instead compiled this little table:

with two basic steps to follow.

First you estimate the available light in the form of a LV number, and then you find a suitable exposure in terms of aperture and shutter speed. Since the second step can be calculated given the first, the really tricky part is picking the correct LV number (18 to 1). To do this I’ve memorised some scenes and their LV number, and when that’s not enough I use the small scene descriptions going down the two left-most columns (the free Light Meter iOS app is also very helpful for this, and so far seems to agree with both the table and my intuition).

Next I either compute the matching exposure or I look up the desired shutter speed (1/125 to 1/8) in the upper right rows corresponding to the film speed (100 to 6400); I can then go down the column to find where it intersects with the LV number, yielding the aperture needed. Most of the time I let the shutter be fixed at 1/125 and quickly adjust the exposure using just the aperture. Occasionally though, I also use the table to look up the shutter speed needed for a fixed aperture, and by following the row corresponding to the LV number I find my aperture; going straight up then gives me my shutter speed for the particular film speed.

So far this technique has worked out great, allowing me to set up the exposure without first looking through the viewfinder. And with the aperture ring right up front on the Olympus Zuiko lenses, it becomes very quick; in fact, it’s surprising that modern cameras have completely given up on this layout in exchange for dials, button, and displays.

Buying Second-hand Camera Gear

Since last summer I’ve been seriously looking around for buying a full-frame camera — but I had no clue that it would end up being an Olympus, and even less that it would be analogue. Nonetheless, I’m now the happy owner of two OM-1s and a bunch of good lenses to go along. But buying from online auction sites turned out to yield a few bumps along the way as mentioned in this rather technical post.

First of all, I have fallen in love with the old Olympus OM cameras mainly because of their good looks, small size, decent second-hand price, and last but least, their huge huge viewfinder! And I decided to get an OM-1 over an OM-2 (or even later models) as the former is an all-mechanical camera and hence will work even if one day the electronics fail (only the light meter will be dead) or I can’t find new batteries. Finally, I thought getting two bodies would be a good idea since you are more or less stuck with 36 frames with the same colour and ISO/ASA sensitivity once you’ve loaded a film.

Now, since this was a first time for buying old second-hand camera gear I had to learn a few things as it went along. First, of course, is how much it is worth — dba.dk, and later ebay.fr, made it clear that some people treasure their old loved-ones quite a lot, and not being sure if this meant that the cheaper ones were not working correctly, I discovered that PayPal is offering a pretty good return policy if a bought item turns out to not be in the described condition; picking only sellers accepting this payment method turned out to be a good idea and is highly recommended.

To be able to apply PayPal’s return policy though, I wanted to be sure that my understanding of a working camera matched with the seller’s. Initially I had very little idea of what this meant for an old analogue camera, but after looking around on online forums I came up with the following items regarding the body:

  1. whether it has been used recently
  2. it must be in a decent overall condition without bumps and too many scratches
  3. the inside film compartment must be cleanish and the shutter curtain untouched
  4. the built-in light meter must be correctly working

which were basically the criteria on which I bought two cameras: a silver model with a 50mm f/1.8 lens and a black model with a 35-70mm f/3.5 lens.

Having until that point only used the camera borrowed from my father, the arrival of my new toys taught me a few more things to look for in a body:

  1. there are 14 different focusing screens for the OM-1, two of which are interesting
  2. there must be a good connection to the battery (a small plastic tap can be broken)
  3. it may have been modified to take modern batteries
  4. checking the light meter is not simply a question of testing whether the indicator moves or not: its movement is caused by a combination of mechanics and electronics, and hence it may move even if it is broken or without a battery being installed

As far as I can tell the last point above was also unknown to the seller of the silver camera: it clearly gave wrong measurements, both according to my intuition (an overcast daylight scene does not require an exposure of 1sec at f/1.8 and ASA 100) and relative to my father’s OM-1 which seemed to work ok based on previously developed negatives. Long story short, I sent back the camera, and while it ended up a bit ugly with a seller who still believes that the meter is working, PayPal offered a full refund minus the return shipping cost.

However, since I still wanted a second body I included eBay inky search, and now also asking about the focusing screen (the silver camera also had an inferior one without split) and preferring a black model (they seem more discreet and screaming “old camera” a little less loudly).

Initially I loafed the last-second bidders who “stole” a few auctions from me by bidding higher just three seconds before the end of the auctions, but reading How to Win at eBay convinced me that what they are doing actually makes sense. Adapting this strategy secured me a good deal with another black OM-1 body shipping together with five lenses. Waiting for these to arrive I had also become aware of a few other things to look for, now also concerning lenses:

  1. the foam used as light seals and mirror bumper in a body may have dissolved
  2. a body’s shutter timing can be off, giving wrong exposures
  3. a body’s light metering can be off, giving wrong exposures
  4. the shutter ring on a body must be firm yet run smoothly
  5. both bodies and lenses should be free from fungus
  6. the focus and aperture ring on a lens must be firm yet run smoothly
  7. lens diaphragm blades must open and close smoothly at all aperture settings
  8. lenses may have dust in them

Luckily, the two prime lenses I had bought on eBay while waiting for the second body to arrive turned out to satisfy in all aspects without me yet knowing to inquire about them; this lesson only came when I finally received the five lenses: two lenses were hit by fungus (one badly, one less) and one lens had slow-opening diaphragm blades. Thankfully, the seller was kind enough to offer a partial refund, meaning it was still a good deal on the body and the remaining lenses. On top of the previous story I was very happy to have my faith in online particuliar-a-particuliar sales restored.

So in summary this adventure brought home the follows new toys:

for a total price of around 2025 DKK (or 270 €) plus shipping. It’s not nothing of course, but looking through the viewfinder of an OM-1 simply is nothing short of amazing!

First Shots from Olympus OM-1

When we took the darkroom course our teacher Barbara would dismiss our every mistake with a “it’s good that we come across this now so you know what to do”. Taking it perhaps a bit too literally we’ve since continued to discover how safe one actually is when shooting digital. For instance, you don’t have to worry about dropping the raw film on the floor when trying to put it on a spool in complete darkness; nor about keeping your cool when running out of correctly tempered water in a situation where seconds make a difference; nor about closing the box of unexposed paper properly before turning on the light.

And this brings me to the title of this post: it was supposed to say First Shots from Olympus OM-1 and OM-2, and it was supposed to be even more exciting by including shots from a newly acquired lens. However, apparently there was a lesson that needed to be illustrated more vividly before sinking into my head: when loading a film make sure that the crank has a proper grip on it and is really rolling it out. This is very easy to test by the way, by simply noticing if the rewind wheel is turning with the crank.

I didn’t do this test I suppose, with the result that after opening the tank with the developed film from the OM-2 I was very surprised to find a film completely blank, without any marks of light ever hitting it. For a second the camera was the suspect, but only until I was ready to accept my responsibility. Lesson learned, and the OM-2 with the lens is already making it’s way through a new film.

On the other hand, the film from the OM-1 turned into splendid negatives, here scanned with my new Epson V600 scanner:

Having used the batteries that’s been in the camera for 20-25 years I had a certain scepticism towards the light meter, but as it turns out this was entirely without cause.

One thing to notice though: the water marks. This was the first time I didn’t use a wetting agent and it clearly shows — another lesson learned.

New Battery for Olympus OM-2

A few months ago I borrowed two old analogue Olympus cameras from my father, an OM-1 and a slightly younger OM-2. My guess is that they haven’t been used since sometime in the 80s, yet surprisingly enough the old battery in the OM-1 has now allowed me to shoot a film with what seemed like a working light meter (developing the film next week will be the final test). Granted, it is not a complex camera — and love it for that — requiring a lot of power, but I had suspected that twenty years would drain any battery the size of a fingernail.

By the looks of it, the more complex OM-2 has been used a lot more than the OM-1, but at any rate the batteries in this camera were dead and I had feared that finding replacements would not be all that easy. Having not really had any luck with the local photo store when it comes to analogue cameras (they practically laugh at me) I gave the local watchmaker a try instead. He didn’t have the same SR44 type batteries as were in the camera and said that he had long ago switched to the equivalent LR44 type.

Fortunately I checked on the Internet before buying them as it turns out that the newer LR44 will work with the camera but may also give wrong light measurements meaning that it can’t be trusted to give correct exposures over time. The difference between the two types can be understood by the SR44 type retaining full power until it suddenly dies whereas the LR44 type gradually looses power and dies a slow death. In other words: the camera is tightly connected with the physical properties of the SR44 type batteries.

I love these things! Today so many things are based on abstracts that hide the nature of the physical objects that they are built from. On top up that we spent so much time in the virtual world that the physical objects sometimes seem just to be in the way (ever wished that ink and paper had an undo function?). However, this camera, working with the physical world, can be grasped!

I have the same feeling about film photography and darkroom development: instead of sitting with you head inside the virtual world of edition software such as Lightroom or Photoshop you actually have a physical medium where you understand how it works and can be held and processed in your hands.

Same feeling when I was driving the motorcycle last summer: in modern cars you feel detached from the road and a computer not only interprets what you mean when you step on the throttle but also what gear you should be driving in. On the motorcycle you decide everything and must work and feel with it to drive.

My final example is music. I changed my guitar strings the other day because I had worn them down, changing their physical properties so that they no longer vibrated the way they should. Contrast that to today’s electronic music which is made and played through a laptop. Sure they get worn down as well, but at such an abstract level that we can only describe it as “old”.

Abstractions are not all bad though as a memory reminded me of today. When I played games on our first computer back in the 90s, one game (I believe it was Warcraft II) was using the CPU speed of the computer as a clock, ie. one second was defined by a certain number of computations. This worked fine at that point, but when we got our next computer the game ran way too fast because the new and more powerful computer took less than one second to do this number of computations. The game was impossible to play since everything happened at several times the normal speed and I had to get an updated version where they had made an abstraction of time and no longer used the physical properties of the CPU direct.

Oh, and I did manage to find the right SR44 type batteries — at my local photo store.

First Analogue Prints

We’ve spent a great weekend doing an introductory course on developing and printing analogue film — and it’s been nothing short of amazing! I’ve been wanting to do it for quite a while and finally the opportunity was there.

It was organised by the photographic society at Godsbanen and since it had not made it to our consciousness that we were supposed to bring an exposed black & white film, the first step was to quickly go and shoot 36+ photos of the architecture of this new place with the Diana Mini that I had brought (I had in fact also brought an exposed colour film but it turns out that developing such a bastard is a very different process).

Shooting with my Fish-Eye over the last year I’ve noticed the truth of spending more time on each photo when shooting analogue as opposed to digital: is the composition good, is it interesting, is it worth the 1/36th of a film? And during the weekend I noticed that developing a good print from a negative let me to be critical about it to an extend that would often not be matched in the digital setting: I spent more time picking which negatives to develop, how to frame them, how much contrast their needed, and so on. The slower process of waiting 5min between seeing the result of each new try-out might be part of the reason. So may the general atmosphere in the dark room without distractions to take away your focus. Time stops a bit and leads to an anticipation and excitement every time a print magically appears in the developer bath.

I was actually a bit surprised by how involved the process is. First off, the process involves more steps than I imagined. But perhaps more interesting was that the technique and tricks that one need to master to make good prints seems hard to teach but have to be discovered over time; a lot more hand-waving and good old experience. Naturally, you appreciate the printing even more afterwards, to the extend where it seems you can admire the print without liking the photo.

Finally, the result of a weekend’s work:

I’ve heard before that digital cameras even today have a hard time matching the dynamic range of film, and while it’s perhaps not clear from the digital reproductions above, the prints impressed me in terms of how much details there seems to be in the sky and shadows at the same time.