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.


medium format film madness: sorted


(Bronica SQ-A. TRI-X 400. f8 1/500. This spot has become my default test-shot location.)

In two earlier posts, medium format film madness and medium format film madness: update, I detailed my attempts to get moving in medium format film photography. It wasn’t going so well. There was dust (lots of it) all over my scans. I was having under-exposure and softness issues and I was having doubts about the whole faff and expense of buying and developing film.

Well, I’ve resolved the big issues by taking drastic action.

In desperation I did some test blank scans and noticed that the dust pattern was suspiciously similar from one scan to the next.  I therefore took the scanner apart and sure enough it was full of dust on the inside. It was also full of bits of plastic that looked like they should be attached to something. At this point I realised that I’d been sold a dud.

So, step one: I purchased a brand new, factory sealed, Epson V500. You don’t see many of those as it’s quite an old model so I was pretty lucky. Using the new scanner there’s still some dust on my scans, and it’s still a pain, but there’s a lot less of it, it’s manageable and it feels like the effort is worthwhile.

I’d also not bonded with the camera, a Fuji GW690. It’s huge – a beast of a camera – and it’s not that easy to hand-hold… yet it felt really weird using a rangefinder on a tripod. In fact what I learned was that I don’t think I like the idea of a medium format rangefinder at all, especially for portraits (which is one of the things I want to use MF film for); I want to see what’s actually going on! I want to be able to see where the point of focus is at any point in the view, not just in a small and hard-to-see central rangefinder patch. How the hell am I going to focus on someone’s eye, when the depth of field is razor-thin, with a rangefinder on a tripod? It simply does not work. Focus and recompose? Yeah right – that may work at f11 but not at f3.5. I realise that some of you may be happy to work like that, but with larger format cameras I like to actually see what’s in focus.

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So, step two: I purchased another medium format camera to see if that would help; I picked up A Bronica SQ-A. I instantly fell in love with it. The moment I looked down into the waist-level finder and onto that ground-glass screen, where I saw a beautiful, clear, bright image of what was actually coming through the lens I knew that the Bronica and I were going to get on. My first test shots have been sharp and perfectly exposed, so it wasn’t me after all – perhaps that Fuji needs a service.

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And the square negatives from the Bronica are so lovely. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really like the 4:3 aspect ratio, preferring 3:2 (which is why I ended up with the GW690 in the first place) but I’ve now discovered that I really like 1:1.

Step three: I have started using iso 400 film to give me more flexibility with shutter speed.


(Bronica SQ-A. TRI-X 400. f16 1/250.)

As for the faff and expense of film, it’s not so bad with the Bronica because, being a 6cm x 6cm format, I get twelve shots per roll instead of the eight I get from the GW690. I’ve also got used to sending the rolls to Peak Imaging, who are quick, offer good quality, and are reasonably cheap. They even have a freepost address for getting the film to them. Waiting for the negatives to come back is actually rather pleasurable.

I should sell the Fuji because I promised myself I would when I got the Bronica – but somehow I’m not sure now. Perhaps after shooting with the Bronica and getting my medium format skills in order I might just want to try that huge rangefinder again :-). Isn’t Gear Acquisition Syndrome a terrible thing?

I’m having fun now. Expect some proper medium format postings soon.


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:


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.

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).


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.

img007 img008

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

Another Sigma Merrill: the DP3


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


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.