Ars longer

I’ve been scanning a load of my parents’ and grandparents’ old negatives. Amongst all the fuzzy shots of relatives on holiday was one film’s worth of long-term shots taken in my parents’ garden. They were taken by me of a family occasion. I had obviously given both the prints and the negs to my parents so they could make reprints. I’d forgotten all about the pictures and the occasion. But aside from that, I’d forgotten how good a long lens is for pictures of people.

These days I tend to use standard to wide angle lenses. I get environment and context in the shot. But the simple joy of seeing a single figure separated from background, not particularly aware of your presence – it’s great.

Ben and Sally

It was a sunny Summer day and I was using 200ISO colour negative. I only had two long lenses at the time and it was obvious from the shots that I didn’t use the zoom. So these were shot on a 135mm lens. It was bright sunlight and I know I was shooting with flash, so the fastest shutter speed I could have used is 1/125 which means this lens must have been stopped-down and not wide open. It still blurred the backgound nicely though.

I think this focal length has gone out of fashion: it’s thought to be too long for portraits. One of the photo podcasts described it as a focal length that was invented to let German hill-walkers pick out a detail on the other side of the valley. I guess it would be too long for indoor portraits, but it worked perfectly in my parents’ garden. I’ve even got full-length portraits.

Roy Friday

So I’m back in love with the 135. The one I was using at the time was a Pentax – the SMC Takumar f2.5. In the years since the aperture blades have become oily and slow, so I need to send if away for some TLC. But a Vivitar f2.8 came up on eBay at under ten squids and now it is mine.

Back in the old days we used to know that with a 50mm lens on 35mm (or full frame) held portrait, a person would nicely fill the frame at about ten feet. I just did the sums again and the field of view for a 50mm lens on a vertical 35mm frame is two meters at nine feet (ooh, nice mixed metrics – it’s 2m at 2.8m distance).

Slap a 135mm lens on and the distance increases to 24′ (7.4m). So yes, you’re unlikely to be shooting full length portraits indoors. I do like the effect though and it will come in handy with our current distancing and separation.

Down sides? I had obviously not used the Pentax lens much in recent years. Perhaps it really was a bit too long for people and not long enough for sport. I do remember that it was never out of my camera bag at the time. Perhaps then it was just me changing the sort of thing I shot? Maybe I got old and slimmed-down the camera bag?

So it looks like I’ve rediscovered the modest tele lens. Let’s see what I do with it during my government-allowed exercise period.

Changing DX codes

The DX code is a black and silver block-pattern code on 35mm film cassettes, introduced in 1983. It is used by some cameras to set the ISO and by film processing machines to tell them about the film. All well and good, but sometimes we want to push or pull the film and this means setting a different ISO in the camera. If the camera can’t be controlled or over-ridden, you can change the code on the film cassette itself.

This is a typical code:

DX codes on canister
Three silver, black, silver, black = 200 ISO

The code is read as shown – with the barcode and film at the top. The ISO coding is the top half of the code and forms six panels read left to right. The first panel is always silver/ metal.

And an aside – the lower half of the code panel shows the length of the film and its tolerance for over and under exposure. This one is 24 exposures and +3 to -1 stops.

You change the ISO by scraping the black paint off one or more squares or by covering them with tape. The camera uses electrical contacts to read whether a square is conductive (silver) or not (black).

There is a table below of the codes that correspond to each ISO.

DX codes

So one of the common hacks would be to rate a 400 ISO film as 800. To do this you need to scrape the black paint off panel 2. To push it to 1600, leave panel 2 and scrape off panel 3.

For more information, plus how to decode the lower section, see here.

It’s also possible to make a completely new code by scraping all of the panels and covering some of them with tape. There has been a revival in using some of the other films in Kodak’s former catalogue. Many of these are known by code number instead of a common name so it may not be obvious what ISO to use. There is a handy decoding list here for Kodak and here for Fuji. So should you find yourself trying to shoot Kodak 2430 in an automated camera or trying to reload old film cassettes with a different film, help is at hand.

… And another aside – follow that link for an appreciation of just how many types of film Kodak made.

Simple lenses and choppy bokeh

Remember the film title Things to do in Denver when you’re dead? Well this is things to do in the house when you are trying to not be. In the house I mean, although not being dead is important too.

Despite all the therapy and support, in times of idleness one’s fancy can turn to things of bokeh. Or the unimportant bit, as we used to call it. That’s when you realise you have several lenses of the same focal length but different construction. And you wonder why, and what the difference is between them. And if the really clever or expensive lens is actually better than the cheap one. And what better means. And if this means you need to buy more lenses. Or find better backgrounds.

So you find the adapter that mounts your cheapo nasty analogue lenses on your digital camera. This takes two hours and uncovers more interesting old lenses. But you only have one version of each of them. So when it gets dark and eBay closes for the night you come back to the plan. One focal length, one aperture, one scene: the ultimate shoot-off. But is it fair to compare a lens that can do f1.2 with a lens that has a maximum aperture of f3.5? Do you compare them all at the same aperture or at their widest? More time passes.

After a few more beers you decide that the reason you started this (and it is totally your fault) is to see what the backgrounds looked like. Kind of an aide memoire of which lens to use to get which effect. So it’s fully open aperture on all lenses to get the best of their aberrations. But to use a scene where the point of focus is close, so that we get lots of the fuzzy. And we reassure ourselves that we haven’t gone all Photography With Classic Lenses and that we still have a sliver of pride and self respect. And then we laugh and drink more beer.

So – big question: what sort of fuzzy does it for you?

Me? I’m a smooth guy. I like the out of focus areas to just look less sharp. I want my background to be background. Smooth tones. No magic circles or swirly. Nothing that looks like the subject is stood in a whirlwind or bubblebath. The only reason to use the weirder lenses might be that the pattern in the background somehow adds to the shot. Otherwise it’s the background. But that justifies the other lenses, right?

Now, some of the theory to this is that the rendering of the background is affected by how well-corrected the lens is for spherical aberations. And a simple magnifying-glass lens gets better corrected for other aberations by adding more elements to the design along with different types of glass. It’s fairly easy to make a reasonable lens at small aperture sizes, but the wider you want the lens to be the more clever the design has to be, which often involves yet more bits of glass. So the argument is that a simple lens ought to have more textured out of focus areas than a more complex and better-corrected lens.

So where does that leave me on a Sunday afternoon? I have, in the same focal length, lenses with from 3 to 7 elements. I have lenses that span the all famous design formulae. To be honest, I have a sufficiency of lenses. And I have time.

So, the simplest lens is no lens. But I have no pinhole cameras at the moment so this is out. Same with a simple meniscus (but been there, done that on medium format) or a doublet. Got a triplet though.

So I’ve got:

  • Triplet – a Meyer-Optik Goerlitz Domiplan 50mm F2.8.
  • Four elements in three groups (Tessar) – an Industar 50-2 50mm f3.5.
  • 6 elements in 4 groups and probably a Planar design – Rikenon 50mm f1.7.
  • 6 elements in 4 groups, but a Biotar design – Helios 44 58mm F2.
  • 7 elements in 6 groups, probably a version of the Planar – an Auto Yashinon 55mm F1.2.

This is what I had to hand – I am not spending time on eBay looking for a five element lens.

Now, everyone buys the Domiplan lens because it does bubble bokeh: out of focus highlights turn into circles. With only three lens elements, it doesn’t really correct for much at all.

At the other extreme, the Yashinon has seven elements, not so much to make the lens sharper but to manage the aberations in a design that is more than two stops wider than the Domiplan. Somewhere in the middle might be the sweet spot of fast enough and smooth enough – the Goldilocks lens.

My first idea was to shoot them with a nearby lamp as my subject and a window behind to give me some highlights. That didn’t really work, as they all looked quite similar. The only one that stood out was the Yashinon. This was because the design that was pushed to work with a front element almost two inches in diameter caused some crescent-shaped highlights away from the centreline of the lens. This is the downside of pushing a lens design this far.

TOMIOKA

So instead of dithering indoors, I persuaded Wilson‘s cousin Gilbert to stand in as my model in the garden. He’s a rugged fellow with plenty of skin texture, so ideal.

Domiplan pair
The background is quite busy and showing bubble highlights
Industar pair
Smoother background. This is a lens I like.
Ricoh pair
Nice – I’ve had this lens a long time and I can see why.
Helios pair
The background is getting a little swirly.
Yashinon pair
What background? Was it foggy?

So, what do I think?

Well, one thing was that some of the lenses had noticeable field curvature. In each case I focused on the B in the centre of the lens than reframed the shot. In some, like the Domiplan, the sharpest point has moved nearer the camera. Something to be aware of – I can’t just reframe some of these lenses if I use them wide-open.

The Domiplan is a cheap lens that does the bubble trick on background highlights. It’s OK for that but it can make the background look quite busy.

The Industar 50-2 is great – I really like this lens. It’s tiny and it renders backgrounds smoothly. A bit of a pain to use though, as the aperture is manual.

The Ricoh/ Rikenon is the standard lens that came on my first SLR camera. It does a good job and doesn’t intrude. It works on my film kit and on the digital and gets the highest praise: it just works.

The Helios is a real cult lens because it can make backgrounds look swirly. It’s slow to use, as mine is one of the older ones with a preset aperture. Given the choice I would usually take the Industar, because it is so much smaller and lighter than the Helios.

The Yashinon is bonkers. It does crescent-shaped highlights, it does completely fogged backgrounds, it can see in the dark. On digital it also gives coloured fringes and a bit of a glow to things – see the shots above. Unless you want to shoot at F1.2 all the time it needs to be used on a proper M42 mount, so I use it for film work.

My conclusion? The Domiplan and the Helios are special effects lenses. The Industar is a superb pancake lens with good rendering. The Ricoh is a rock-solid standard. The Yashinon is there for when you really do need to separate the background or to take pictures in the dark. And your mileage may vary.

Self critique through scanning

Like a lot of people, I’m at home rather than commuting to work at present. I’m lucky in that I can do a lot of my job from home, so I’ve been spending more time than I’m used to sat in my study. Yep, I call it that. We must maintain standards.

Just to the side of my desk is an old PC that runs my scanners. I didn’t take long for me to realise that I could poke a negative carrier along by one notch and hit scan, with no interruption to the day job.

I have rather a backlog of scanning. There were times past when I didn’t have the kit, the free time or the inclination to sit and feed a scanner. But now I have to sit next to one for eight hours a day.

It turns out there is some joy from discovering photos I knew I’d taken but lost track of. There is also some learning to be had in reviewing what I used to take pictures of. I have noticed that in the early days I used to take two shots of the same scene, from the same viewpoint, with the same exposure: basically two identical shots. I was so unsure of my technique that I was giving myself an extra frame in case of scratches, holes or other disasters. Totally unnecessary – I had quickly got past the stage of physically damaging the film by accident. I wish I had used the second frame to vary the exposure instead. How could I be so worried about damaging the film and yet so sure that I had nailed the exposure?

I can also see my photographic history through scanning. There is the black and white when I first started. It was cheaper to buy and I very quickly learned to develop it myself. Then I got a bit up myself and went all quality. There is a long period of slide film with just a few mono negs. I think these must have been the days when slide film was reasonably affordable. Of course, Real Photographers only shot colour slides, never colour negatives, and I so wanted to be good. It did leave me with an abiding love for Agfachrome 50s though. Then I probably realised just how far I had walked away from sociability and started shooting only colour print. I basically became a best friend of TruPrint. Does anyone remember them? You sent them a film in a plastic envelope, they developed and printed it and sent it back with a new film and envelope. It’s like the scene in Brazil with Sam Lowry and the message transport tubes.

Then we go through a digital period with hundreds, probably thousands, of pictures that only exist in my computer, with a few having made it onto the walls. Then the black and white reappears, but edgy and experimental. Or shite and forgotten how to work it. I never really left film photography, but it dropped back to a minor sideline for a while. One thing I do remember is asking for Agfachrome in a photo shop, to be told that it was no longer made (not since 1984 – eek!). I suppose I should be glad that they had even heard of it. A bit of a Fly Fishing moment. [And I have just realised that all the references here are to the 1980s. Not deliberate and certainly not nostalgic.]

But, unlike some, I don’t think I have ever thrown a set of negatives away. Well, not that had any sort of visible image on them. So I am working my way through boxes of badly-labelled slides and negatives. I can only think that, at the time, it was so obvious to me where and when the pictures were taken that I thought labels were superfluous. I admit to having completely forgotten some of the places I have been. Tunisia was one. I recognised the pictures, but the label on the slide box was a puzzle until it came drifting back. Yugoslavia? I definitely remember going, but I had no idea what it looked like or where I had been. And things keep turning up in the pictures that I thought were in completely different countries. A large stately home turns out to be in Ireland and not Northumbria. A decorated column is in Leningrad, not Rome. The camel was not in a zoo.

57

But this is not about my focus being much more on the present than the past (a polite phrase for dodgy old memory), or on my former globetrotting (well, stumbling). The pleasure here is looking at the old photos and being mostly very glad I took them. The interesting thing though is how the importance of pictures changes with time. Scenery that was spectacular to be in results in (usually) meaningless pictures with nothing in them. Snapshots of people and places become fascinating. Friends grow old, children grow up, cars become classic. If only hair grew longer and waistlines slimmer.

Fun though. Plus I have discovered some excellent pictures of people that I will use again, especially one of my sister which awaits her next major birthday. The things I shoot have altered a little, probably for the better. There is less of the dull landscape in recent times and more interesting stuff. In the early years I seemed to hose the world with my camera. Since then I have learned (and occasionally practice) that a picture of everything contains nothing, so there is more of the detail or single item that stands for the whole.

75

The other thing I noticed is that, despite what people say about the archival permanence of film, some of my old colour stuff is not holding up very well. It’s probably a good idea to get some of these old negatives and slides scanned as they are showing some odd colour shifts. The slides seem to be in better shape than some of the old colour negatives, although even some recent (2005) colour negative is showing some strong colour casts. All the better to get them scanned then. And what a good time to be doing it, when I’m locked in and getting distinctly Oscar with the wallpaper.

So here I am, like all of us, making a benefit out of a necessity.

Stay safe.

Big grain

Just as Edison was reported to have discovered hundreds of ways to not make a light bulb, I have found many ways to make a photograph worse. How about huge, intrusive and detail-wrecking grain? Yep, got that one down real good.

In previous years I have push-processed some expired cine film, not for any other reason than the film was cheap and I wanted to take pictures in the dark. I have also enlarged a small section of a negative because I liked the effect.

30

This time was a bit different. I was using a film that was meant to be push-processed but I used the ‘wrong’ developer. To explain: I bought a roll of Kodak P3200. This has reportedly got a true ISO of around 1000 but can be push-processed in the recommended TMax developer to 1600, 3200 or beyond (but not beyond infinity, Buzz). What is positively not recommended is to use stand development in Rodinal. So that’s obviously what I did.

Why am I this contrary? Because I had one roll of this film and I didn’t want to buy a bottle of special developer – this stuff is already expensive; why add the cost of a bottle of developer that I couldn’t use for anything else? Besides, if we stuck to what other people say is safe, how would we learn anything?

P3200 is a low contrast film. This helps compensate for the gain in contrast you normally get when push-processing it. I was planning to use semi-stand development, which lowers contrast. There was a likelihood I would end up with golfball grain and two shades of mid grey. But I was also planning to shoot the film in conditions of extreme contrast: under street lamps, at night. What could possibly go wrong?

Metering, for one. How do you expose for a scene that contains its light source and ranges from light enough to read by down to dark enough for murder? My little book of notes says that ‘subject under bright street lamp’ is EV 4. If we say the film is going to be exposed at 1600, that converts to 1/60 at F2. There was going to be a full moon at the time I was playing, and the magic guide says this is around EV -3, or 2 seconds at F2. So I could be looking at a seven-stop range. This is well within the capabilities of a negative film.

But…. what I actually did was meter off a whitewashed wall behind a streetlamp and give it a couple more stops of exposure. And then give it a few more stops for scenes that contained street lights but were not directly lit by them. And after a few more beers, I basically waved the camera about and hoped.

The film got what is now my standard semi-stand development: Rodinal at 1+100, 30 seconds agitation at start then two gentle inversions every 30 minutes for a total of two hours. I was relieved to see exposed frames when I took it out of the tank and even more relieved to see some interesting images when I hung it to dry.

Then I scanned it. Oh boy, but that’s grainy! Metering off the wall behind the streetlight worked quite well. Guessing the exposure wasn’t too bad. Putting the camera on a wall and hoping gave me some ‘variable’ success with framing. But the grain!

04

So is this a waste of an expensive film or a method I would recommend? Both. If you want to emphasise the grain, try this. If you want to shoot fine detail in the dark, use a different method or a different film. There will be another post along soon that shows what a 100 ISO film can do under the same conditions and with the same development.

Night in Staithes
No idea

The Fed 2 camera

Have you ever wanted a camera just because of the way it looks? The big old Nikons with the huge photomic pentaprims give me that feeling, even though I could no more fit one into my life than take up yoga. But the Fed 2 has a place and would fit.

It’s that stripped-back-to-basics look of an old Leica, but without the pretensions or prices. What am I thinking? I bang on about the camera being immaterial and the pictures being the thing. I make fun of the rabid acquisition monkeys. I just didn’t know the power of the dark side.

I confess: I succumbed. Of course I did, or this would be about a Nikon F2. So Fleabay delivered what turned out to be a Fed 2 version B from 1958-9. It has a lovely feel, in that the wind-on and shutter feel smooth and quiet. The lens is an Industar 26-m of the same age. It’s a bit worn, as there is some play in the focus thread. But again it feels smooth and has a nice focussing tab. I have the replacement Industar-61 LD version of the lens with the (horrors!) lanthanum glass, but the newer lens feels almost wrong on this camera. (Side note – both lenses are Tessars, but of different construction. That’s why I put links to both.)

The Fed 2

The whole camera feels well put together but smooth from use. Could this really be Soviet engineering? The film pressure plate was a bit shiny, but that’s a good sign that the camera has been in use rather than sat in a cupboard. A bit of permanent black marker ought to see things right. That or only ever shoot cine film with remjet backing. The rangefinder needed a bit of recalibration. The horizontal alignment is simple – remove one small screw and use a tiny screwdriver to get the infinity alignment back. The vertical alignment is a little more awkward, as it involves rotating the rangefinder window. The glass is obviously a wedge rather than flat, so rotating it shifts the light passing through it.

The first film through was evenly exposed and the frame spacing was regular. Good signs that the mechanical bits were working as intended.

The lens seems to be low contrast. The glass is clear, so this doesn’t look like a veiling flare from cloudiness. I was shooting with a lens hood, on a fairly overcast day, so I guess that the low contrast is real. It’s going to be interesting to try taking shots under similar conditions with both versions of the Industar and to compare it with my Jupiter 8 lens, which is of a different construction entirely.

Apple tree with lion's face
Can you see the lion’s face?

 

Even though this is about the camera more than the lens, the camera did come with this lens on it. It seems reasonably sharp right into the corners at normal working apertures. The bokeh looks a bit busy though, even though you probably can’t see it in the scaled-down picture above. At full size the white bench is a bit choppy. Still, once adjusted the rangefinder seems accurate.

The viewfinder and rangefinder combination are, well, modest. There are no frame lines in the viewfinder so people wearing specs will probably see less than the lens covers. The rangefinder patch is round and not very prominent. The long rangefinder base makes a focusing trick easier though, which is to waggle a finger in front of the rangefinder window. This has the effect of switching the rangefinder patch in the viewfinder on and off, which makes it easier to see if the critical bit of the image wiggles when you do it (meaning it’s out of focus). It also has a common Russian feature of a little lever that alters the diopter of the viewfinder. Brilliant for those of use with ageing eyes. This one is a bit loose though, but a dab of silver gaffer tape holds it in position and matches the camera top plate.

Bishopthorpe

 

But there is a certain joy to using an old rangefinder. It’s fairly compact and hangs well from one hand with the strap around your wrist. Nice and discrete. Fairly quiet shutter, not like an SLR and my Ricoh in particular (which sounds like you dropped a bag of coins into a bucket). The wind-on, even using the knob rather than a lever, is pretty quick and smooth. The film rewind is a pain though – on my Zorki the rewind knob can be raised to make it easier to rotate. The Fed keeps the rewind knob masked, so you need lots of little twists. I guess that’s why film comes with 36 frames: so you don’t do this too often.

York

Loading is fairly easy. Unlike some of the Russian rangefinders (and expensive old Leicas), the whole back comes off so access is great. I used to have a bottom-feeding Zorki, and the easiest way to feed the film through was to remove the lens, hold the shutter open on B and wiggle the film around with a finger to clear the pressure plate. On the Fed the take-up spool slides out, so you can hook the end of the film into it and then feed film and spool into the camera together. I was worried at first that the end of the film might hang-up in the take up spool when rewinding, but it slips out easily.

The only potential issue is that the spacing between frames is very close – just 1mm. This makes it possible to squeeze another frame out of the film, but makes cutting the negatives tricky. Luckily, in 1983 Polaroid launched an instant 35mm slide film and with it a film cutter. When the instant film died off, the film cutters could be found cheap in remainder bins. And I cannot resist a bargain. (Bargain no more! I’ve just seen what they fetch on eBay.)

Mounter

So despite being 60 years old, it works just fine and looks as cool as anything. Perhaps I could hide behind it like it was my good-looking pal?

Paul Friday

What did you do during the lockdown, daddy?

So, cheerfully, here we sit, hunkered down and hoping to reduce the rate of infection to something the health service can barely cope with. I work in IT, so I could say that I’m used to social distancing. I’ve also spent the early weeks working flat-out to equip the previously desk-bound part of a business with home working tools. It’s going to be interesting in the future when people realise that buildings, commuting, fixed hours and physical presence might be worth less than outputs. I wonder what sort of society we will become?

Anyway, enough of the nascent revolution. What can someone with basic film developing skills do when they are only allowed out for their one hour Boris break each day? Make beer.

A tea urn, a picnic cooler, some jugs and pots and a few ingredients and magic happens. This is not beer from a kit: this is home-built beer. I was lucky that I was given a day’s course in brewing as a gift a couple of years ago. The process itself is quite leisurely, with periods of waiting, so I must admit the entire course got totally canned while we were at it. So last year I bought a year’s worth of ingredients and knocked out a batch every three weeks. This year I bought another bulk load of grains and ingredients without realising that they would arrive shortly before the virus started spreading. So while I may not be stood at the sink inverting a tank, I’m still sloshing water about and measuring ingredients. It also scratches my creative itch – there’s much fun to be had inventing or adapting recipes. I’m not shooting enough film at the moment to be doing much with photography, but I have so far made:

  • Czech lager
  • Old Peculiar
  • An amber IPA
  • A dark IPA
  • A malty pale ale
  • A citrus pale ale

Yes, I do like my IPA, but I’ve also got two lots of porter and a Russian Imperial stout planned.

Beer
Two hobbies in one – a photo of beer

I think my main problem could be, come VC day, that I won’t want to leave the shed. I may not be able to find the shed door, either.

Stay safe everyone.

(Normal service will be resumed next week)