Santa Fe and Vintage, Nikon Film Bodies, chapter 1

The Arrow Motel, Espanola, New Mexico (2014)
The Arrow Motel, Espanola, New Mexico (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

In each blog post I attempt to roll in an application to the F6. The F6 is, after all, the reason for this site – and why so many people come here: to read about it. For this series of posts in the spirit of “try something new… you might like it,” I’m going to try something a little different: I’m going to add the Nikon F4s into the mix.

SANTA FE – If heading to the art epicenter of the country with two, vintage Nikon film camers isn’t on every photographer’s bucket list – you need to re-write your bucket list. I’m fortunate to live within an easy day’s drive – and have the benefit of history and knowledge of such a place. This provides new depth and opportunity with each visit. On our latest sojourn to “The City Different” of course I shot the F6, but this was the first outing with my newly acquired F4s – a birthday gift from my lovely bride. When we lived in Santa Fe in the late 90’s the F4s was my primary camera. I sold it shortly after buying my D3s in 2010 but knew I’d reacquire one some day. This new F4s shipped straight from Japan (no US preceding the serial number) and is in absolutely gorgeous condition – like it had never been used. So to return to my old stomping ground with two vintage, Nikon film bodies was a wonderful opportunity to make some unique images on film (I realize I’m stretching a bit, describing the F6 as a “vintage camera” when in reality it’s only 10 years old).

Vintage automobiles on the plaza one evening in Santa Fe, New Mexico
1956 Chevy Nomad Wagon on display one night at the plaza, Santa Fe, New Mexico (2014). Nikon F6, Kodak Portra 400

I’ll get this out of the way right now: comparing the Nikon F6 to the Nikon F4s would be a little like (and I say this will all due respect to both era’s engineering/design) comparing – say – a 1956 Chevy Nomad Wagon with a 2014 Chevy Tahoe. There really is no comparison between the two flagship cameras from two different eras of engineering and design. Both are spectacular for their time. Let’s leave it at that. But… I suppose if you want to think of this next series of posts as a real-world usability exercise; what it’s like to actually shoot the two cameras side by side – you’ll get an idea if whether adding the F4s to your bag is a good move. I’m sure tickled to have one again and absolutely love working with it. Its role isn’t to replace the F6, but instead provide an additional, excellent way of recording images on film – using the same system (*see below).

Old, Chevy Pick Up, Chimayo, New Mexico (2014)
Old, Chevy Pick Up, Chimayo, New Mexico (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

The overall approach was to shoot the F4s for general purpose, hand-held work with higher speed films (ISO400 and up) because I didn’t envision shooting it with a tripod for a few reasons: one is the camera doesn’t have an L-bracket as the F6 does. My primary tripod uses a Kirk ball head, which requires a Kirk-mount for each camera. The F4s is old enough that I don’t expect to easily find an L-bracket. Besides, the ergonomics of the camera are so elegant; smooth, sculpted and contoured in all the right places (an absolute joy to hold) – that to slap an awkward piece of aluminum onto such a beautiful form for the occasional appointment with the tripod was just something I couldn’t muster the gumption to do. I do have a generic Kirk mounting plate that screws into the tripod socket if need be. *Also – regrettably – the F4 system doesn’t use the same MC-30, 10-pin cable release as the F6, so it means either adding a MC-12/12A to the bag – or – just using an old-fashioned, screw-in style cable release in the threaded port near the bottom, left rear of the camera. So if I had to use the F4s on a tripod I could – but elected to keep it hand held for this trip. The F6 was also for general shooting, and anything requiring a tripod – for the above reasons – in reverse.

Cherry tomatos at the Santa Fe Farmer's Market (2014)
Cherry tomatos at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

Film for the trip was varied – relying mostly on a C-41 solution. Following up on a recent post about pushing Ektar 2 Stops, I added ample Ektar, intending to push to ISO200 (instead of its native ISO100) for the additional speed as well as saturation and contrast bump (see chapter 2 post to follow). Following up on another post – about over exposing Portra, as per usual I had an adequate stash of both Portra 160 and Portra 400 – two emulsions that have become my “go-to’s.” I am primarily a color photographer – but having two bodies –  also threw in enough Delta 400 and a few rolls of Rollei ATP to satisfy the occasional black n’ white craving (one destination was Georgia O’Keefe’s old stomping grounds, Ghost Ranch and the Abiquiu area). I had my D3s in the bag too, just in case I ran out of film – so was pretty much ready for anything.

San Luis, Colorado sits quietly in the San Luis Valley, virtually on the border of Colorado and New Mexico. It is the oldest town in Colorado.
San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado, sits quietly in the San Luis Valley, virtually on the border of Colorado and New Mexico (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

Our first stop was the small town of San Luis, located virtually on the Colorado-New Mexico border in the picturesque but lonely San Luis valley. San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado and with a population of 629 people (2010 Census) it’s also the most populated town of Costilla County. We travel through San Luis because it gets us off I-25 at Walsenburg (Colorado) and after summiting LaVeta Pass and entering the San Luis Valley – begins the most scenic and beautiful part of the drive South.

The Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church sits atop a butte above town and is one of the main attractions of the area. The church was established in 1992 and about then I remember returning from my first trip to Taos – and climbing amongst the sanctuary’s construction. At the time I thought it was an ancient church in ruin. Turns out it was a new church being built. Who knew. I wish now I had images from that trip 22 years ago. In 22 years I wonder what I’ll wish I had images of from now?

Sangre de Christo Catholic Church, established 1992 in San Luis, Colorado
Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church, established 1992 in San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Porta 400
Sangre de Christo Catholic Church, San Luis, Colorado (2014)
Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church, San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400
Sangre de Christo Catholic Church, established 1992 in San Luis, Colorado (2014)
Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church, established 1992 in San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

During my earlier stint shooting the F4s I primarily shot the 35-70/2,8 (non-D) pump zoom. It’s a fine lens and I still have and shoot with it. Today, however, I also have the opportunity to mount a wider variety of lenses on the body and enjoy previously unexperienced creativity with the camera. But as anyone with multiple lenses and bodies can attest, if you try to carry around too much gear things get heavy and cumbersome. Disciplining one’s self to one body and one lens for an outing is a great exercise. For San Luis the F4s was paired with the Nikkor 17-35/2,8D and performed beautifully. Especially with the 17-35 mounted – and no strap – the F4s isn’t a light camera. But the smooth, rubberized grip covering contours placed in just the right spots made it quite comfortable in hand while walking around for an hour plus.

Sangre de Christo Catholic Church, San Luis, Colorado (2014)
Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church, San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400
Stations of the Cross sculpture exhibit at Sangre de Christo Parish, San Luis, Colorado (2014)
Stations of the Cross sculpture exhibit at Sangre de Cristo Parish, San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

Exposure note: most of these images of the church are effectively 2 stops over exposed by the F4’s (Matrix) meter. The roll of Portra 400 was (intentionally) over exposed by one stop at ISO200, and I added another stop of exposure compensation using the F4’s exposure compensation dial while exposing the frames containing sky. I was a little worried they’d blow – but not even close when looking at the negative; it’s healthy and strong all around. I was especially pleased with the level of detail in the sculpture shots. The cast bronze was dark to begin with and it would have been easy to bury the nuance in shadow. Portra did a beautiful job of holding tone in the sky while recording detail in the dark bronze. A chrome film would have effectively produced a silhouette of the sculpture. Portra continues to impress me – especially when provided ample light to work with. Alas, you can’t control the light – and don’t always have the availability to wait around for things to get good. We had an active sky with high clouds knocking down bright, high-altitude sun enough to diffuse harsh shadows. But –  it was mid-day, so we made the best of what was given and moved on. When light isn’t ideal I tend to focus more on composition, subject matter – objects – and story telling – rather than broad-sweeping, scenic beauty. Oh how I’d love to be on this hillside at sun-up. I can only imagine the color in skies passing over the San Luis Valley during these times. For now at least, this will have to do.

San Luis, Colorado (2014)
San Luis, Colorado (2014). Nikon F4s, Kodak Portra 400

Note: I’ve heard others discuss dislike of short, “just passing through” trips while out shooting. I couldn’t disagree more. Photography – especially film photography – is about the long game. Treating these short trips as scouting opportunities – sometimes making copious notes on subjects, ideas, and times of day and position of the sun relative to the season – pays dividends in the long run. In the future, when you have opportunity to revisit the same destination for longer, you now have a starting point.

San Luis, Colorado
San Luis, Colorado (2013). This image was made on a previous trip through San Luis last August. We spotted this junk yard, which you can almost see at the base of the hill in the first overview shot of San Luis. Multiple visits to the same destination builds knowledge – and relationships with the locals.

Besides, for me photography is about exploration. When I have a camera in hand I move slower, look more intently, interact more directly with people and places, and overall the experience is richer and deeper because of that. Even if it’s for just an hour – make the best of that time. Take notes. Keep a log book in the car and note time of year and day. Pay attention to vegetation. You’ll learn something about the land, and be better informed the next time you pass through.

Next stop will be Taos, but we’ll save that for the next post. Thanks for reading this far and check back in a week or so

Peace to you, John B. Crane

Terra Firma

Arthurs Rock, Lory State Park.

I’m excited to announce a new project – well, less “new” in terms of topic – but more “new” in terms of focused effort. The project is called Terra Firma, and I suppose like so many of my other “projects,” I’ve really been working on this one for a long time.

Rock Cut, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
First Light at Rock Cut, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Terra Firma is a landscape collection on johnbcrane.com (please click here to sit back and enjoy the slide show). I suppose I’ve been working on this project for 20 years or so – but only now feel like I have something tangible to say. Terra firma is a Latin phrase meaning “solid earth” (from terra, meaning “earth”, and firma, meaning “solid”). The phrase refers to the dry land mass on the earth’s surface and is used to differentiate from the sea or air. Considering a reference many of us may already be familiar with, here’s how Terra Firma was first born: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth,[d] and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:9-10 ESV). The distinction here is that the land was created to separate the heavens from the depths.

Cape Flattery, Olympic National Park, Washington
Cape Flattery, Olympic National Park, Washington

Like many landscape photographers I’ve had a passion for the outdoors for many years. Since the first time setting foot in Colorado in 1977 as a high school student I’ve never left the wilderness. Physically perhaps – but mentally, emotionally and spiritually – no. When I returned home to Illinois after our first backpacking trip to Highlands Camp in the Indian Peaks Wilderness I moped around the house for weeks. All I could think about was how to get back, as fast as possible. I’d tasted wilderness – true, honest to goodness wilderness – and was spoiled for anything else from that point forward.

John B. Crane in the Weminuche Wilderness, southern Colorado's San Juan range, 1985
John B. Crane in the Weminuche Wilderness, southern Colorado’s San Juan range, 1985

Years later, in May of 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted in the Cascade Mountains I had joined REI, received my first Jansport backpack and ice ax and was turning sofa cushions over in the house looking for enough money for plane fare to Seattle. As fate would have it I never made it out to photograph the mountain exploding – which is why I’m still alive today.

I devoured books by Robert Service, Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men), Peter Matthiesson (The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives), Farley Mowatt (Never Cry Wolf), Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang) John Muir and John McPhee (Coming into the Country, The Control of Nature, Basin and Range), and developed a particular fascination with the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest. I followed the classic, black and white photographers and while I appreciated the art form, decided I was more interested in color photography.

A particular fascination with Alaska developed and upon graduation from Colorado State with Bachelor of Fine Art, my dog Max and I caught a ride to Seattle, then caught the Alaska Marine Highway to Alaska’s Southeast for my first true foray into the wild where I lived and worked the salmon for the summer, wandering the Alaska’s inside passage between shifts.

Scow Bay, Petersburg, Alaska
Scow Bay, Petersburg, Alaska (1984)

That summer was filled with far too much to attempt to summarize here. Suffice it to say, that trip to Alaska took the beginnings of a fascination with wild places and emblazoned into my very being a thirst for which there is no quenching. Here so many years later I can see and hear and feel almost everything from that trip; the pull to return to Alaska is incessant – like gravity.

Today, a body of work has formed. While I enjoy flipping through images and the memories they trigger – I’ve come to believe it’s somewhat of a responsibility to share these images. The world has changed dramatically over those same years since 1977. Wild places continue to be eaten away by industry and development, and people today simply don’t understand – can’t comprehend – what has been lost. I’ve done my best to not be the pessimist; attempt to find the remaining open lands, wild places – and prove to myself that there’s still a lot of land out there, nothing to worry about. Lately, though – it’s getting more difficult to do this. Again – wanting to be a positive voice in the conversation – the approach I can take is to show the beauty of the land. My hope is these images will inspire a whole new generation of explorers, wanderers, travelers, seekers and dreamers to get out there and see this land we’re so blessed to live in.

Fall River, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Fall River, along the Old Fall River Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Comprised of color images from around the United States – many of which were made within our spectacular National Parks System – Terra Firma attempts to focus on the land.  A seemingly endless variety of landscapes lie within Terra Firma. Topographic features from slot canyons to grand canyons. From ant hills to foothills. Front mountain ranges to still, quiet valleys and everything in between. Not all images have been made in our beautiful National Parks; many have been created in no-name stretches of empty land – between notable destinations –  because the light was right or the feature simply would not let me pass without demanding an image be made.

Delaney Buttes State Wildlife Area, North Park, Colorado
Delaney Buttes State Wildlife Area, North Park, Colorado

CONTENT, NOT PROCESS
I suppose like many photographers I use a variety of different cameras and tools to create different images. This project is a earnest attempt to – once again – step away from the process and instead focus on the contents of those four, intimidating boundaries constructing the edges of the frame. I want everything the viewer sees to communicate something about the land. To that end, you’ll see no mention what so ever of whether an image is recorded digitally or etched on film, and you’ll see nothing about what type of camera (though there are a bunch made with the Nikon F6) – or the technique with which the image is created.

I hope you enjoy Terra Firma, and more so – hope it inspires everyone inclined to get “out there” into the wild – while the wild still remains.

Peace to you, John B. Crane