street 218: The Olympus XA

 

street 218

This was shot using an Olympus XA, which I picked up in a moment of Ebay-madness for a mere £60. This really tiny 35mm camera, made between 1978 and 1985, somehow manages to contain a roll of full-frame film (in this case Tri-X 400).

Despite it’s size the XA is a fully functional rangefinder, though it’s easy to zone-focus if required. Exposure is semi-automatic, offering aperture priority as the only option. I’ve found this to be more than adequate for me, and the metering seems to be spot-on, but there’s always the option of taking more control by adjusting the ISO speed setting. The shutter is a near-silent leaf shutter with ultra-light release, which certainly keeps camera shake to a minimum. The miniature lens is actually pretty high-quality with reasonable sharpness and contrast. Aperture is from F2.8 to F22.

All of this makes it just about the perfect street camera. It’s a triumph of design, both functionally and aesthetically, and is joy to shoot with.

Interestingly the XA only has a couple of aperture blades so the aperture is nearly square. It’s not exactly designed for beautiful bokeh then, but that’s hardly a reasonable expectation of this sort of camera.

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Having said all that, and despite the fun I’d had shooting with it, when I sat down to scan the first test roll I’d pretty much decided that I would sell the XA. Why, I thought, would I want to go through the rigmarole and expense of developing and scanning 35mm film? Why should I bother with all this process when the results would be virtually indistinguishable from digital? Medium format is one thing – but a compact 35mm camera – it didn’t seem worth the effort.

What a surprise I was in for!

Firstly I was amazed to find that scanning a 36-exposure roll of 35mm film was much easier than 12 medium format frames. This is because I can load two strips of 35mm film, with six frames each, simultaneously into the film-holder. The Epson Scan software then automatically recognises the individual shots and scans them into separate files without any further intervention being required. Why it doesn’t do this for medium format is beyond me. The whole process is quick and easy.

Secondly, I’d expected dust to be more of a problem with 35 mm. I figured, due to the smaller area, that whatever dust there was would be far more damaging to the image and harder to clone away. This does not seem to be the case.

The real surprise however came when I looked at the scans. It was obvious, even after being digitised, that 35mm film does have a visible special quality that is very different to digital sensors. It’s hard to define but there’s a better gradation of tone and a different handling of the highlights. It’s both more grainy but paradoxically, somehow more smooth. It’s perhaps debatable how much of this special quality is left once the files are are compressed and then viewed over the internet on tiny smartphone screens, but I can see it when I’m working on the files – and that matters.

Of course this could be a case of confirmation bias, where because I know it’s film I fool myself that I’m seeing something that in actuality isn’t there… but I’m clearly not the only one who catches something going on with film, even after scanning.

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To be honest I think I was hoping that I wouldn’t see a difference, that I could simply return to the convenience of using digital cameras for most of my work (with just the occasional medium-format roll or two when the mood takes me). Instead, on the basis of what came out of the Olympus XA today, it obviously isn’t going to be that simple. Even in smaller formats film is getting its claws into me.

The Ricoh GR

IMG_20141130_131335_1As a quick glance at my recent photographs will show, I’ve lately been shooting a lot with the Ricoh GR. It’s a wonderful camera and I’ve found it very inspiring. In fact it’s reminded me how much fun photography can be. I’ve rediscovered the sheer joy of simply shooting anything that catches my eye.

The following is not a review… it’s more a collection of my thoughts after a couple of months of extensive use.

The GR is the latest in a long line of compacts, stretching back to the Ricoh GR1 released in 1996. They are loved by street photographers and have been used by none other than Daido Moriyama.

My Ricoh, the one in the pictures here, is the limited edition version. For what it’s worth I didn’t buy it because of it’s limited status, nor because of it’s rather odd (but not unpleasant) greenish colour, but simply because it came with the GH-3 adaptor, a hood and a leather case for a very good used price.

The Ricoh GR is tiny and very lightweight but, unlike earlier GR models, it has a relatively large APS-C sensor squeezed into it’s diminutive body. It also has no anti-aliasing filter. It’s therefore no surprise that the image quality is superb.

The lens is a fixed 28mm equivalent which is gorgeous and really sharp across the whole of the frame. The widest aperture is f2.8. Some photographers will be put off by the fixed lens but it’s perfect for me because I only shoot prime lenses. I honestly think that the discipline and involvement in the shot that prime lenses require leads to better photography. Of course, even now in the age of computer designed lenses a good prime is still likely to be of superior quality to a zoom. Others may be put off by the rather wide 28mm field of view. I might initially have preferred a 35mm for street photography, but I’m learning to like the extra width and for landscapes 28mm is a real advantage.

Perhaps the most special feature of the Ricoh GR is the snap focus. This allows the focus distance to be set at 1m, 1.5m, 2m, 2.5m, 5m or infinity. With a 28mm lens this makes zone-focusing really easy. The infinity setting is also extremely useful, especially at night when auto-focus struggles. It’s always mystified me why a lot of cameras and lenses, even high-end ones, often leave the photographer stuck with no distance markings nor depth of field indicators on displays. This makes zone-focusing pretty much impossible. Even finding infinity can be problematic. Not so with the GR. But that’s not all… the Ricoh GR allows you to have the best of both worlds. You can set it up so that if you half press the shutter you’ll get auto-focus but if you quickly give the shutter a full press it will shoot instantly at the current snap focus distance. This is such an obviously useful feature that it should be available on all cameras.

In case this is not clear to all readers, zone focus is not some old-school, purist, out-dated technique. It is almost essential for any shooting situation where time is extremely short, such as street photography. Even the fastest auto-focus systems are still sometimes too slow to capture fleeting events but even if they were instantaneous, or you spray and pray on continuous, there is still the frequent problem of them focusing on the wrong thing.

Obviously one of the main attractions of the GR for street photography is stealth. It’s so small that in many situations it’s virtually invisible, but even when spotted it looks like a tourist point-and-shoot. This is very much in contrast to cameras such as the Fuji X-100,  Olympus OM-D and Panasonic GX7 which rather draw attention to themselves and their owner.

The Ricoh GR is one of the most customisable cameras I have ever come across. Just about every function can be assigned to every control, and all of these settings can be recalled via the ‘MY’ settings on the mode dial. Even the focus distance can be recalled.

There is a special TAv mode where you can set shutter speed and aperture and let the camera choose ISO. Perfect! This is somewhat compromised by the inability to set a limit on how high ISO can go but it’s still very useful in a number of situations.

IMG_20141130_131407_1The controls are abundant and the main shooting controls are placed so that the GR can be shot with one hand. There is a mode dial, a control dial on the top, a jog controller on the back, a four-way controller, a host of other buttons and even an AEL/AFL – C-FA button. This really is a photographer’s compact.

It’s not just street photographers that are catered for however: there’s a level and tilt gauge, built in 2-stop ND filter, interval timer, multi-exposure mode, auto-bracket and a host of other features. There’s even a pop-up built-in flash.

Want to sync flash at 1/2000 sec? The leaf shutter in the GR makes that possible.

IMG_20141130_131425_1Another example of the thought that has gone into the design of this camera is the fact that although there is a bulb mode, there are shutter speeds of 60 secs, 120 secs, 240 secs, and 300 secs. It’s so obvious when you think about it. Why should long exposure necessarily require a remote control?

There is an adaptor, the GH-3, which allows for the use of filters and a hood. The camera is somewhat prone to flare so the hood is important in bright sunlight. The GH-3 is unfortunately made of plastic – but you can’t have everything. In addition there is a wide-angle converter lens, the GW-3, which turns the 28m equivalent lens into a 21mm equivalent. There is remarkably little loss of image quality when using the GW-3 and there is negligable distortion, even in the corners. It is however rather large and the GR can no longer be described as “compact” when it is attached. It’s great to have the wide-angle option though.

IMG_20141130_131542_1There are a few downsides of course, nothing in life is perfect after all:

(1) This is the big one. There is no viewfinder. This is why I ignored the Ricoh GR for so long. It’s only when I developed a lot more experience with various current cameras that I realised what the GR had to offer. The LCD on the GR is actually very good, even in quite bright light, so it’s not too much of a problem. It also helped that I already own a Voigtlander 28mm optical viewfinder. Sadly the frame-lines of the Voigtlander are way-off when it’s used on the GR, in fact the entire field of view more closely approximates what the image will look like, but it works well enough if I really feel the need.

(2) The display screen does not tilt. This is likely due to size constraints. It’s not a big deal but could be annoying if the camera is low down on a portable tripod.

(3) You will get moiré in some images. Without the blurring effect of an anti-aliasing filter some repeating patterns, in buildings and fabrics especially, will interact with the regular grid on the sensor and result in a nasty interference pattern in the image. The colour swirls of moiré can be removed in post with some effort, but the patterns of lights and darks are very hard to get rid of. I’ve not yet had much problem with moiré but it’s inevitable sooner or later. I know of one photographer in the Netherlands who found it turning up all the time in the brickwork of the old buildings.

(4) Manual focus is available but is not operated by a ring on the lens. Worse, a very awkward combination of button hold and jog dial is required. Put simply, manual focus is fiddly and not very practical. With snap focus this is not too much of a problem but it could have been so much better.

(5) Auto-focus is none too good in low light. Again snap comes to the rescue here.

All things considered however it’s a stunning camera. I can see myself using the Ricoh GR as my main carry-everywhere camera for the foreseeable future. Processed with VSCOcamApart from the fixed 28mm equivalent lens there is little reason to use anything else. It won’t match my Sigma Merrill’s for landscape image quality but it’s not that far behind and it’s a far better camera.

Small cameras are not just useful for street or casual photography. The photo on the right shows my Ricoh GR being used for long exposure work. It’s fitted with the GH-3 and a Formatt-Hitech 67mm filter holder with a ProStop IRND filter. It’s still a tiny package that can be carried everywhere.

I am a long-time sufferer of gear-acquisition syndrome. The Ricoh GR might just be the cure.

Having said that, I have just spent more money (when will it end?) on a MeFOTO DayTrip tripod which is a much smaller model than the MeFOTO RoadTrip in the photo below. The tiny Ricoh needs a tiny tripod.

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medium format film madness

One reason why I haven’t posted any new photos this week is that I finally got myself a medium format film camera. It’s a rangefinder too… a Fuji GW690. I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later; I simply have to find out for myself what medium-format film is capable of.

The main reason I chose the Fuji was that I figured if I was going medium format I might as well use the biggest and most detailed negatives available and this camera puts out enormous 6cm x 9cm negatives. Just eight of these will fit on a roll of 120 film!

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The GW690 may look like a normal rangefinder camera in the photo above… but it isn’t normal at all, it’s almost comically huge. Take a look below at how it compares to my Sigma DP1 Merrill.

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It’s not actually that heavy, mainly because a lot of it is made of plastic. Some people find this annoying but the camera actually feels solid and durable and not unpleasant in the hand.

No batteries are required because its entirely mechanical and doesn’t even have a light meter. The lens is a fixed 90mm, which is the equivalent of a 39mm lens on a 35mm camera… so it’s a nice all round focal length.

The Fuji is fun to shoot with.

So why no new photos yet?

Film is hard work. This is an inescapable fact, unless you want to spend a fortune paying someone else to do everything for you.

Firstly I had to get my first test roll developed. I drove 10 miles to a local photographic lab and handed over £8 as I’m not ready to do this part myself yet. I may or may not develop myself in the future.

Once I had the film developed I had to thoroughly clean my scanner, both the main glass and the dedicated film unit in the lid. I then put on some cotton gloves so I could cut the negatives by hand and then clean them, first with an air blower on both sides and then with some microfibre cloth. I then had to carefully load the negatives into the custom film holder, align them correctly and then carefully lower an anti-newton-ring glass insert on top (to keep the negatives flat). I then did a preview scan, cropped by hand, zoomed in, scanned again, and imported the scan into Lightroom. Finally the negatives had to be carefully removed (time to put the cotton gloves back on) and inserted into a Kenro negative file page for storage.  This process had to be repeated for each shot – it was even necessary to quickly clean the scanner each time as it seemed to attract dust between scans.

Despite all the cleaning I then had to manually spot-heal countless bits of dust and hair out of each shot. This was a real nightmare and may seriously test my patience (and reduce image quality) unless I can find a way to reduce dust levels.

And after all this work? The test shots are ok – a little under-exposed perhaps but not bad – and I’ll nail my exposure with practice… but they all seem worryingly soft when looked at 1:1. Maybe this is what film looks like when you zoom in on an image that is 10000 pixels wide, I can’t remember, maybe my scanning is at fault, maybe the rangefinder is out of alignment. Certainly none of the test shots are good enough to post here.

Clearly more work is required… and work seems to be the thing with film… everything takes so long and needs so much care.

There’s supposed to be some sort of zen here, the joy of the craft, the slow deliberate nature of it all… on the other hand it might just be a world of pointless pain.

Time will tell if I think this is worth all the effort.

 

Shooting instant film in a Polaroid SX-70

I spend a lot of time with digital files and every so often I realise how clinical and soulless the images can be. The answer of course is to shoot some film (no, the answer is most definitely not one of those apps for combining multiple iPhone shots and adding textures).

Given that the idea is to get a break from the clinical nature of digital the obvious answer is to use a film that is far from perfect. The route I recently chose was to pick up a Polaroid SX-70 Alpha from the early seventies and to load it with the somewhat experimental black and white film from the Impossible Project (I couldn’t load it with Polaroid film because that is no longer manufactured).

SX-70s have gone up in price, probably in no small part due to the wonderful work of The Impossible Project. Mine was £130 but is in near mint condition:

SX-70-front

In its day the SX-70 was a technological marvel. It’s an SLR which means you see the actual view through the lens. It has pretty accurate auto exposure, though the downside is that you have no control over the aperture. Focus is manual and you get a small split-prism rangefinder in the lower section of the viewfinder image.
SX-70-Folded

The folding mechanism is just beautiful and the camera really does become quite compact… though I doubt if you could get it in any pocket. The alpha model is especially useful as it has a tripod socket.

I also picked up a new cable release and a reusable flash bar (a more convenient system than the old bar of ten once-only flash bulbs).

SX-70-FrontOpen

There is a very interesting and detailed article on Technologizer about Polaroid’s SX-70.

Polaroid ceased production of their instant films in 2008, despite selling 24 million units in that year alone, and promptly set about destroying everything. It was the enthusiasm of a handful of people, including some from Polaroid itself, that resulted in the saving of the last production plant (in the Netherlands) and the creation of a new film for Polaroid cameras. An article in Wired covers how The Impossible Project brought back instant film. So far it seems that The Impossible Project have done well and apparently sold nearly a million units last year. Their film, which was very experimental to begin with, is improving all the time.

What sort of images does this camera/film combination create?  Early results are very promising. Soft, messy, full of imperfections and strange artifacts…. but promising.

Here are a couple of early test shots. There’s no artistic merit here, it’s just me getting to grips with the new rig. More serious instant photography will no doubt follow in due course.

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Addendum: I forgot to mention that at current prices Impossible film costs over £2 a shot!

Another Sigma Merrill: the DP3

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I’ve had my Sigma Merrill DP1 for a little while now. Do I like it? Well the best indication is that I just bought a DP3m to complement it.

My main motivation was the fact that I need a mild telephoto for landscapes and city shots but the DP3m is also a nice portrait and semi-macro camera.

The leaf above was shot as a jpg. I’m so used to shooting RAW that I tend to assume that any new camera will be set up this way to begin with and generally end up shooting a bunch of jpgs before I realise.

Having both the 28mm equivalent focal length of the DP1m and the 75mm equivalent of the DP3m will cover a lot of situations and will allow me to get that special Foveon image quality over a much wider range of shots. The DP3m is identical to the DP1m apart from the longer lens, which is also slightly larger physically. The two cameras still make for a pretty portable rig as I can fit both of them into a small bag.

Of course, the DP3m puts out files that are equally as astonishing as those of the DP1m. I have come to really appreciate the Foveon sensor.

One other nice thing I’ve realised about the Merrills is that they use a leaf shutter. This means that very high flash sync speeds are possible. I tested this on the DP3m and was able to get a sync speed of 1/1000 sec and, dependent on the aperture, it should go even higher.

What don’t I like about the Merrills? The things that annoy me about these cameras aren’t the issues most often raised. I can live with the awful battery life… they’re small, cheap, charge quickly and changing them is no worse than swapping rolls of film. The long write times don’t bother me at all… after all the camera doesn’t lock up. The Sigma Photo Pro software, though pretty dreadful, is usable and only minimal processing is required before moving over to Lightroom. Other issues like the slow start up time are irrelevant to me and I actually find the menus and control layout pretty well done. There are only two real issues for me: the lack of a tilting LCD screen, which is a total pain if the camera is on a tripod low to the ground, and the lack of an electronic viewfinder (or option to add one). I use an external optical viewfinder on the DP1m, a Voigtlander 28mm Brightline, but it’s not that accurate for framing and obviously it shows no shooting information. Using an optical viewfinder on the DP3m however is unlikely to be very useful as the 75mm equivalent focal length will lead to much greater inaccuracy. I have therefore, on both cameras, resorted to sometimes using a rather hideous but very effective solution, using a loupe and some shock cord, suggested by Brent Simison. You can see this in use on my DP1m below. As I say It’s pretty ugly, but it works really well and in bright light it’s essential.

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The tripod, by the way, is the MeFoto Road Trip. It’s lightweight, folds down to just 39cm in length, has a reasonably decent ball-head, and is pretty sturdy.

I really do find it astonishing that Sigma have not addressed the viewfinder and LCD issues on the upcoming DP Quattro. It’s almost like Sigma want the Foveon to fail. Photographers from around the world, some high profile, have tried to get Sigma to understand that putting this wonderful sensor into these slightly crap cameras is crazy… but Sigma don’t seem to be listening.

I guess if I was trying to find more faults with the Merrills I would have to also bring up the lack of a true long exposure capability. They’ll go to 30 seconds but that’s not going to take you into Joel Tjintjelaar territory. I’m not sure how much this bothers me right now – in fact I sometimes think I never want to see one of those exposed-for-five-minutes totally flat milky seas and off-white cloud-smudged skies ever again.

So this is hopefully where it stops for me (yeah, right!): everyday and street shooting with the Panasonic GX7 and landscape, fine art and meditative shooting with the two Sigma Merrills.

merrill beach

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Another one from the DP1 Merrill, which I’m currently testing.

It’s true what they say about the nice monochromes. Apart from a little extra contrast this has not been processed much at all.

I actually took this on a tripod which is not something I do very often. It’s another thing that’s so different about using this camera. With the very high resolution and the need to keep the ISO low the DP1M really gives best results when being held steady.

One thing the Sigma does not like is being pointed towards the sun. It generally creates some nasty colour artifacts if you do. I think this is partly an issue with the Foveon sensor rather than the lens.