Above: From left to right: Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda Mountain and Chief’s Head Peak. At center-right you can see the very tip top of the Spear Head, a triangular slab of granite jutting up through the clouds from the valley floor beneath. Glacier Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (2017). [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 70mm; 1/250 @ f7.1]
Flying commercially isn’t my typical MO, preferring instead to drive through places rather than fly over them at 30,000′ and 600 mph. So when a skilled pilot offers to take you flying low and slow over the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain’s High Country simply for the sake of the experience – just say yes – please, and thank you. A few weeks ago I had the privilege with my son and a few good friends to see this country I love so much from a completely different point of view, and make a few photographs for those of you who may never get to see it.
We’d been planning the flight for several weeks but as is sometimes the case at the last minute weather decided not to cooperate. When morning came for the scheduled flight, rain from the day before left the cloud ceiling too low and visibility wasn’t happening. Texts flew to and fro debating logistics and eventually one party fell on their sword, letting go of their seats because of an afternoon commitment. This opened the door for an afternoon flight if weather cleared.
Because the opportunity to fly low over Colorado’s High Country doesn’t happen often I wanted to make the most of it. Considering how to approach it photographically briefly included going digital. A few years ago I was in another Cessna and appreciated the flexibility shooting digitally provided. Instead, I spent some time going through my previous shots looking at ISO, shutter speeds, lens choice and aperture and decided The F6 + some recently acquired Ektachrome 100VS was the winning combination. As a back up I had the F5 + Portra 400 in case light became an issue.
Camera nerd: focal length, shutter speeds and aperture info is provided for anyone interested in such things; some day you may have opportunity for such a flight and this could provide a head start setting up. Shutter speeds were typically between 1/400 and 1/250 at f7.1. The plane was traveling about 200 miles an hour but the ground was so far away the overall impression through the camera’s lens was that it passed slowly below. Most of the time the lens was zoomed to about 70mm. I also had the 70-200 with me but it was unnecessary – and too large and unwieldy in the small cockpit.
I wasn’t sure what plane we’d be flying and held my breath as we walked across the runway. Beggars can’t be choosers. To my delight it was a Cessna Centurion II, a high wing aircraft with retractable landing gear and no wing struts; the perfect plane for aerial photography. Wing struts and extended landing gear have a habit of creeping into the frame when you’re pointing the camera towards the ground.
We enjoyed a brief introduction to the plane and flying in small aircraft then climbed aboard, donning headsets and fastening seatbelts.
Beginning in Loveland, Colorado the first leg of the flight was into the afternoon sun. Clouds along the Front Range had dissipated and skies cleared allowing navigation by site and gorgeous views below. Given the angle of the sun, even with the large hood of the Nikkor 28-70 flare was a problem. We zig-zagged and spiraled our way up and over the unbelievable terrain of Rocky Mountain National Park accompanied only by sound the single turboprop spinning at 2,500 RPM’s (the miracle of flight, right?). Every once in a while a robotic, female voice broke the silence with, “warning, terrain… warning, terrain.” At one point – as casually as I could fake – I asked our pilot if that was anything we needed to be worried about. He assured me it was not. In less than an hour we were in Kremmling. It would have taken me three hours by car.
We refueled in Kremmling and decided to make our way back the way we came. After take off I put the camera down and flew the plane for a bit, my first time flying. But when we approached the big mountains I handed the wheel back to the pilot and it was time to get to work. The light was perfect, skies were clear and the views were, well…
F6 Nerd Stuff: As each roll finished we were flying over something else I just didn’t want to miss. Fortunately the F6 rewinds and reloads fast (Custom Setting D:2 set to ‘Auto’ automatically rewinds the roll at the end of the the last frame. Custom Setting D:3 tells the camera to leave the leader out rather than sucking it all the way back into the canister, and Custom Setting D:4 tells the camera when to rewind the film – at frame 35, 36 or whenever the end of the roll is detected). Auto rewind pulled the film back into its canister in mere seconds, the new roll was put in place and the leader pulled out to the red line. The back snapped shut and just like that I was shooting again.
For this flight, focus mode was set to Group Dynamic auto focus (the little diamond icon on the focus selector switch). I also re-coupled auto focus with the shutter release button (Custom Setting A4: AF Activation Release/AF-On). Plane cockpits are small and making my thumb do the autofocusing on the AF-On button required swinging my arm up a little higher as I turned my body at an already awkward position in the seat, trying to avoid the wings and adjust to whatever reflections and glare were coming in through the window. It’s amazing how one little tweak can simplify shooting – something the designers of the F6 well understood and planned for. There was no need for selective focus as the camera quickly and accurately acquired whatever ground it was pointed at.
Keeping horizons level can be a challenge in flight. Between composing quickly, a shifting horizon line out the window and dodging reflections in the window, often times you get as close as you can and rely on straightening in post production. If you’re close in the original shot you’re not throwing a lot of image away when you straighten the frame.
Often I found myself simply gazing out the window in silence, trying to imagine standing at that line where the shadow begins. I’ve been there many times; experiencing the mountains as warm, inviting, beautiful friends basking in the glow of afternoon sun. When the sun sinks and that shadow line rises they become cold, foreboding places leaving one feeling vulnerable and alone. These Rocky Mountains are a treasure and deserve our utmost respect.
At the end of the flight we glided gently back to the Loveland-Fort Collins airport as our pilot stuck a perfect landing. He smiled as he said, “you guys don’t know how lucky we were on this flight… it’s never like this.” Afternoon flights are prone to a lot of upheaval from warming air, sending the plane into various lurches and making for a bumpy ride. Our flight was smooth as glass making shooting that much easier and more enjoyable.
A big thanks to my good friend Kole, an awesome pilot and generous guy allowing the use of his Cessna Centurion II for the flight.
Out of the box the F6 is set to display possible shutter speeds from 1/8,000 of a second to 30 seconds. After 30 seconds the camera has the customary “bulb” setting, allowing you to trip the shutter manually (with something like the MC-30 cable release) for as long an exposure as you can hold the shutter release down for.
Custom setting B5 in the CSM provides the capability to extend shutter speeds beyond the default 30 seconds, unlocking extended shutter speeds before reaching the Bulb setting. When this option is enabled, after 30 seconds, you’ll see 40 seconds, then 50 seconds, etc. all the way up to 30 minutes before you reach “bulb.”
For some photographers this is an advantage if you do a lot of night shooting, for example, and exposures typically run between 30 seconds and 30 minutes. For others that use the bulb setting frequently, it’s a disadvantage because you have a lot more spinning of the main command dial to do until you get to bulb. But at that point you’re not relying on the camera’s recommended exposure and instead, winging it.
I see it as an advantage because the meter on the camera is capable of resolving exposure well beyond 30 seconds. For the above exposures the longer times weren’t necessary for the final shot because between f8 and f11 the correct exposure came in between 10 and 20 seconds. But- having the ability to dial down the aperture and lengthen the shutter speed and get an accurate meter reading was helpful determining the final exposure.
Film: Ilford HP5+, developed in Ilford DDX.
Below are are a few more from the trip. Not wishing to carry a tripod around the city, these were shot hand-held by pushing HP5+ to ISO1600, and developed in DDX.
This article is a written collection of thoughts explored in an attempt to think through some recent considerations. Every once in a while I get the itch to explore different film formats. The initial inspiration for this article was the recent consideration of diving in to large format film photography.
I’m approaching this from the standpoint of which film format works best for my type of shooting, and why. Not film vs. digital, which grew tired years ago. Both have merits, both are worthwhile. Exploring the choice of film format though, to me has merit. It’s an investment. Not just the film itself but the infrastructure/gear to shoot, process, scan and archive. There are advantages and disadvantages to each format depending on what/how I’m shooting.
I began thinking through buying, outfitting, then hauling around and using a large format system. I considered the benefits and weighed the cost. With that – this article isn’t a attempt to establish the “best” film for everyone to shoot, but the best film for me to shoot based on my own personal creative goals. My hope is this might help others who’ve considered different formats, and they’re able to glean any insights to draw their own conclusions.
One foundational question when choosing a camera system is what type of photography you’re interested in. If you’re strictly a landscape photographer making very large prints, a 35mm film camera probably isn’t your best option. Answering the question of what you’re planning to do with the photographs is important before making the commitment to a system.
Besides prints, printed books are one of my favorite applications for photographs. The ideal resolution of a 35mm photograph is far more than adequate to print any reasonably sized book, even large, coffee table books.
Of course, if you want to go totally old school, pop some corn and fire up the projector, you could have a good old-fashioned slide show (who remembers that distinct smell of the projector bulb as it heats up to throw your beautiful images across a dark room)?
Sheet Film & Large Format
Sheet film’s immense size has obvious advantages to image quality due to the amount of information contained. There’s nothing like it. Gorgeous, super high-resolution images you can zoom into various parts and form compositions within compositions allow printing gigantic prints people will ooh and ah at. It’s truly spectacular. Another advantage to sheet film is the processing. Because you’re not developing 12, 16 or 36 different exposures at a time – and just one – you’re able to customize development for that one, specific shot. This allows custom processing and tremendous creative control for each frame. The down side is, sheet film is expensive and a bit cumbersome to work with. A 20-sheet box of 4″ x 5″ Velvia 100 runs about $72. That’s about $3.60 per shutter release. A 20-sheet box of 8″ x 10″ Velvia runs about $255. That’s almost $13/shot. That’s some pretty serious dough if you’re going to shoot a lot. There’s also the idea that – because something is so expensive to shoot, and you’re only carrying so much film at a time – one may be reluctant to make an image they’re not sure whether it’s worthwhile or not. No one is right every time they decide to frame up and shoot – or pass it up because it’s just not happening.
A few years ago we were climbing Independence Pass returning from a fall colors trip. It was near the end of the trip and colors were in their prime. Light was gorgeous and leaves were twinkling in the breeze. We pulled over just as two large format shooters were breaking down their large, heavy cameras off their large, heavy tripods. They’d pulled over and seen the same forest – but when it came time to frame up – I heard one say it just wasn’t happening; it’s time to move on. My friend and I spent some time nosing around and I came away with this:
This image was made with the superb Micro Nikkor 105VR to reach into the inner depths of what I found interesting in the forest, and compress the layers of trees into an expressionistic style montage. It was also shot with a shallow depth of field because I wanted to accentuate the abstract, expressionistic feel to the foreground leaves. The bokeh on the 105VR is super smooth and optics with ED glass are super sharp. It was the perfect lens for the composition I saw. The image is crisp enough to be enlarged quite large without quality loss.
If I were a large format shooter with only so many sheets of film at the end of a week-long trip and limited focal length lens, would I have been willing to make this shot? Hard to say – but those two guys walked away from the same scene without an image. I was glad to have had enough of the right film and a lens with the right reach to frame up what I saw in that forest, which turned out to be one of the best images from the trip.
Large format is also a bit cumbersome to haul around quantities for extended trips. I know people do it and get some great images – but as much as I admire and respect the image quality of the good shots resulting from such an investment of time, money and energy – I guess it’s just not something I’m willing to do.
120 Roll Film and Medium Format
Medium format roll film is a higher-volume alternative to sheet film, coming primarily in two flavors: 120/220. 220 provides the same physical frame size as 120 but provides twice as many shots because the roll is twice as long. But it’s tough to find these days – and doesn’t alleviate what I view as the more significant problem of shooting medium format: the larger size of the cameras.
The technical attributes of a medium format system are impressive. Initially I thought of it as the “goldie locks” format: not too big and cumbersome, higher number of shots per load, more detail in the negative… was it just right? It was clinically perfect; large negatives providing way more detail and information than the resulting print required. Beautiful, yes. But was it getting the proverbial drink of water from a fire hose?
I enjoyed my Mamiya RZ67 system- until it came time to use it the field. At that point it became a boxy, cumbersome beast. And even with a good assortment of high-quality lenses the RZ never was quite as wide – or close – as I wanted.
Then when I’d go out to shoot there was the internal struggle with what system to bring. After all – because of its flexibility, bringing the smaller format kit was a given. Its smaller form factor and a mind-numbing array of lenses and accessories provided a clear advantage. Bringing the medium format system too, meant doubling the amount of gear I had to fumble through when it came time to shoot. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve fumbled through bags of gear searching for a doodad in the dark. Just too much stuff, I’d mutter under my breath as a headlamp flickered on low batteries and fingers hoped to land on the one item so I could get back to work.
In 2009 I took a backpacking trip into Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph the Spear Head, a gorgeous, granite blade jutting out of Glacier Basin. I was a little younger and stronger then and figured what the heck, I’d just bring it all. I intentionally didn’t weigh my pack until after the trip. It weighed nearly 100 pounds. I’ll never do that again – I was miserable. I got some decent photos but really struggled beneath the weight.
Dynamic, Fluid Compositions
For me artistically – somehow the content of the medium format frame usually lacked something; a spontaneity, a whimsy, surprise. Larger format systems often lack the ability shoot off the hand; to respond to fleeting or decisive moments worth photographing as they appear.
To fully realize the benefits of the larger film size, shooting from a tripod is often required. This usually (but not always) means slow to set up and often resulting in a somewhat rigid, undynamic angle resulting from reluctance to mess with a perfectly level horizon, for example. The net result is a well-structured but often stiff, stagnent image. Still, I kept trying to talk myself into believing the larger, ‘higher quality’ image was worth the trade off. In the end, with reservations, I sold the RZ system. I’ve missed it occasionally but believe I made the right decision.
So then, lets take stock so far: 1) It seems one of the things I value is portability, and the ability to remain flexible to my environment – and have a camera in-hand when it yields an image. 2) I also value consolidating systems and gear as much as possible to avoid hauling around too much incompatible “stuff.” 3)Having the flexibility to shoot a larger number of images per load has also proven valuable. 4) While I do use a tripod, I also value the fluid, dynamic composition shooting off the hand allows. 5) And the ability to fine-tune composition through focal length (which by the way is one of the reasons I prefer SLR cameras instead of rangefinders) is a real plus.
35mm Cameras, systems and Great Design
OK, if portability is so important why not a point and shoot camera? This introduces the idea of aesthetics and style to the equation; the tactile component; what brings beauty, elegance and joy to the process. Photography isn’t bereft of beauty; not simply an analytical equation or assortment of facts and figures. It’s art.
To shun the aesthetic component of photography is to strip the very essence of its role as art. This aesthetic component extends to the tools used in the process… it doesn’t mean you can’t make a good photo with an ugly camera – but why would you want to?
Stripping photography of aesthetic value and trying to turn it into pure pragmatism is like eating bread and water all the days of life because it’s convenient. Give me a solid, well-designed, well-built, rugged tool over a fragile, plastic box any time. Yes – the point and shoot will fit in my pocket and be very portable. But the aesthetic and flexibility hits are just too great.
The design of cameras; their usability, tactile layout, human engineering, curb appeal and just joy-in-hand is a real thing. It’s why some cameras resonate with some but not others; why people collect – but don’t use – cameras. The engineering, thought, devotion to manufacturing excellence and even quirkiness/funkiness – is all a real thing. Art, beauty and great design are most excellent qualities in life.
O.K. you say… beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Where’s the beef? What about the practical, the functional side of shooting a 35mm film camera?
How about weather sealing? Fatigue-minimizing ergonomics? Drop-resistance? A mind-boggling assortment of lens? Modern benefits like super sensitive electromagnetic shutters made of space-age materials? How about low operational noise? Rapid frame rates? Underwater housings? Interval exposures? Remote triggering for positioning in difficult or dangerous places or to capture wildlife.? And of course the aforementioned accessories? Interchangeable backs and viewfinders, for example. The list goes on and on because the 35mm system has been so popular for so long, and so many have wanted to do so much with it.
When initially exploring a system the first temptation may be to think “oh, I don’t need anything fancy…” But as your passion for the art of photography grows and you want to experiment, wouldn’t it be nice to not have to start all over again with a new system? The benefits of a contemporary 35mm film camera combined with today’s film is an awesome total photographic experience.
OK, so along with the points raised before, some sense of style, design and aesthetic appreciation is important to me. Got it.
So let’s look at the attributes of 35mm film itself and see if they line up with creative goals:
35mm roll film attributes
35mm is convenient. Not as convenient as digital, but more convenient than large or medium format. As roll film (not sheet film) with 36 frames available on a roll, you can load it and shoot a good many pictures before it runs out. When it does, because it’s so tuckable; stowable, it’s easy to have another roll or 3 in your pocket, ready. So being able to take a few rolls on a hike, for example, is pretty nice. It doesn’t mean you need to shoot it all – but if you need it, it’s there.
35mm still relatively inexpensive and available. Even if your local drug store no longer stocks/develops film, it’s easily obtained in quantities at a moderate cost. So if you pick up a brick or two, store it in the ‘fridge and use it over a span of time – it’s a great value.
35mm has a 3:2 aspect ratio that’s pleasing to some and not others. Some call the 6:7 aspect “perfect” (i’m guessing it’s the ones who developed the camera who decided it was perfect)… because you don’t have to crop for 8″ x 10.” Others say 6:45, which is pretty close to 3:2. Still others site the advantages to the square format because you don’t have to turn the camera on its side to shoot portrait. Whatever… I don’t know if it’s an old habits die hard thing or what, but I find the shape of the 3:2 frame agreeable to virtually any composition; either horizontal or vertical. Some things frame up better side to side, others top to bottom. And turning the camera on its side to shoot vertically being labeled “too difficult or inconvenient” reminds me a Seinfeld episode where Elaine complains about having to shake the juice before opening it. It’s not complicated.
I’m a believer in the L-bracket because with certain cameras I do shoot on the tripod regularly. The L-bracket provides fast, sure, solid mounting in either horizontal or vertical position. But the real power of the 35mm form factor is being able to easily hand-hold the camera.
The future of film
There are still plenty of different emulsions available from which to choose. It’s true – chrome (slide) films have taken a hit in past years. But other films are emerging in their place, and they’re really, really good. Still – Velvia 50 on a tripod with a good lens is capable of amazing image quality. Today’s 35mm film is relevant because it’s better than anything produced in the past. Kodak’s Portra line, for example, has been completely retooled, and it’s awesome. Portra 400 is not the same 400 speed film as yesteryear.
When I visit one of the few remaining camera stores in my area I ask how film sales are going. Every time I’m told the same thing: we can’t keep it on the shelves. People are still buying lots and lots of film whenever they find it available. Add mail order from local suppliers like Denver Pro Photo here in Colorado, or national mail order retailers like B&H out of New York- and continued availability seems assured.
I think it’s safe to assume the heyday of large-scale film production like we saw in the past is behind us. But there are new players emerging, and businesses seem to be consolidating, positioning themselves for future success. I for one am very encouraged. To form some idea of how many people are still devoted to film photography take a look at instagram and search something like #filmisnotdead, or #filmfeed, #analog, #filmphotography, #analogvibes or countless other film-centric hashtags. Film is very alive and very well.
35mm film is easy to work with. Because it had such a wide commercial appeal, having it processed is easy. Processing it yourself is even easier, as I’ve recently been reminded. The tanks to hold it are smaller, the reels are smaller, the chemicals are less. Everything about 35mm is smaller and easier to work with. Yet, done right – the image quality is amazingly high.
What about image quality? Let’s get this out of the way: this is where you get into the limitations of 35mm film for certain applications. It will never produce a 30″ or 40″ or large print as cleanly as that big, beautiful 4″ x 5″ piece of film – or today’s super high-resolution digital cameras. So if that’s the goal, 35mm is the wrong tool. But… how many times have I actually wanted to print a photograph that large? Not many. The rest of the time, something in the neighborhood of 18″ x 12″ with a nice, 2″ matte all around is more than large enough. And if it’s a good shot I want to go larger with – if technique is perfect and equipment is first class – I can.
The 35mm look
When people think of 35mm film often time they think of grainy, black and white (or color) photojournalism photos made over the years. There is a reason those images look like they do. Often times photojournalism films were in the ISO400 speed category and therefore had a courser grain. The reason was pretty obvious: as a photojournalist you need to be ready for anything, in any light. And a 400 speed film was a good way to stack the deck in your favor. The point of the photograph wasn’t how sharp or perfect it was – the point was the content of the image itself. So a “great photograph” might be great not because it’s super sharp and has no visible grain, but because it’s a compelling image.
Today’s 35mm film is capable of many other things beside grainy photojournalism photos. A fine grain 35mm film like Velvia (color slide film), Kodak Ektar 100 (color negative film) or Ilford PanF50 (black and white print film) has virtually no visible grain and possesses tremendous enlargement capability. So many different “looks” can be created with different 35mm films, developers and scanning or darkroom technique. See the “look” heading down further for more on this topic.
To the casual viewer who couldn’t care less what type of camera was used to make the picture – they see the contents of the frame, not the technical attributes of the photograph. The photographer is the only one who cares what camera was used.
It’s the same sort of thing that makes a digitally captured photograph look different than a film-recorded photograph. Most people would see the contents of the frame, not the presence or lack of subtle tone falloff, clipped highlights or grain/no grain. With today’s digital post-processing techniques, one could choose to process that “look” right out of a 35mm made image if so chosen.
When I parted with my RZ system – as painful as it was – I consoled myself with this: when I go out to shoot, everything uses essentially the same F-mount, Nikon system. I can use virtually any lens on any camera, film or digital, and everything just works. There are of course caveats in the details. But largely it’s true, and it’s reliable. And I like that because it reintroduces simplicity to shooting and allows me to enjoy the process of creating again. UPDATE/FULL DISCLOSURE: After this article was written I decided for those normal to wide shots where a little more resolution would help, adding back the ability to shoot medium format was a good idea, and picked up a Mamiya M645 1000S. It’s considerably smaller and more compact than the RZ system and with one lens, fits perfectly into the bag above. The M645 uses the same, screw-in cable release as my older Nikons, the same Kirk ball-head mounting plate I’m already carrying, and has a easy Mirror-Up mechanism. A 58-77 step up ring allows use of the same filters and lens accessories I’m shooting with the Nikon lenses. So now technically I’m back up to two systems, but now the MF rig is tiny and self-contained.
Easy Film Processing
As mentioned in a previous post, recently I’ve begun developing my own black and white films again, after a 30 year hiatus. To say I’ve enjoyed the process again is an understatement. I should have done it years ago. But I had a great local lab available and didn’t need to.
Processing your own black and white film is extremely easy. There’s a small, initial investment required for tanks, reels and a few odds and ends, but after that your cost per roll drops to virtually nothing. Contrast that with $10-$12 from commercial black and white processing and the cost savings is significant.
As wonderful as cost is – it’s perhaps the least compelling reason to process your own film. You also have the ability to try different developers to produce different looks. Then there’s the convenience of shooting and processing your film on the same day. Add to that the feeling of actually creating something with your hands again and the case for developing film at home is solid. Don’t wait like I did. Jump in with both feet and enjoy it.
A Buyer’s Market – Finally
The overabundance of high-quality tools with which to work in 35mm is one of those pinch me moments we don’t get enough in life. Really, really good cameras and lenses are ridiculously inexpensive on the used market thanks to people simply retiring their tried and true friends after experiencing the convenience of a first digital camera.
A few years back I picked up a Nikon N8008s for $26. It retailed new for about $500-$600 in the late 80’s, which in today’s money is around $1,100. I often wonder how many wished in hind site, a year or two later, they’d held onto their trusty 35mm friend rather than selling it for pennies. I’ll bet lots. It’s a shame, really. Things don’t suddenly become useless because something new comes along. This is an on-going problem in our culture; not just for cameras but other consumables too. After spending so many thousands of dollars on digital gear from 2006 to 2010 I’m pretty happy to get a great-working camera for $26. Be warned though: the used market has caught on and prices are rising.
Of course, being the best of the best, the F6 is still considerably more expensive than $26. And the F6 is the focus of this web site. After all, the F6 could be one of the greatest reasons to continue shooting 35mm film. Or – perhaps shooting 35mm film is one of the greatest reasons to have and use the F6?
Have you ever wondered how to embed EXIF data into your film-shot and computer scanned images? Are you one of the newly enlightened 35mm film shooters recently in possession of your dream, quasi-vintage film camera (think Nikon F100, Nikon F5, Canon EOS-1V or Minolta Maxxum) – but frustrated trying to figure out how to tweak its Custom Settings exactly how you want? You may have given up, resigning yourself to thinking, “some day someone will figure this out.” Well, that someone is Promote Systems, and thanks to the software company in Houston, Texas, your wait is over. Enter meta35, a new product allowing you to extract EXIF data your camera generates, import to the computer, then embed into the specific frame of film it corresponds to. Not only that, but Meta35 allows interaction with these old, beautiful film cameras Custom Setting Menus; tweak them, then re-export to the camera. Quickly, easily, and without any cryptic cheat sheets.
About a year ago I received an e-mail from a gentleman asking if the Nikon MV-1 Data Reader was the only game in town when it came to retrieving data off the Nikon F6. The answer at the time was, unfortunately, yes – as far as I knew. For those unfamiliar with the MV-1, it’s a glorified CF card reader in a black, velvet pouch that hooks up to the 10-pin ports on the Nikon F6, Nikon F5, Nikon F100 and Nikon N90S/F90X allowing the transfer of Exif data generated by the camera (when this option is activated, as in the case of the F100) – write that data as a tiny .txt file to a Compact Flash (CF) card, then transfer that data to the computer for further use. The MV-1 is perfect for what limited functionality if performs, but there are several downsides. One is cost; at close to $240 it feels dramatically over priced for what it is. Another downside is that it’s one-directional in the sense it’s designed simply to retrieve data stored in your camera and write it to a card. During that process it deletes the data from the camera’s memory. Yet another disadvantage to the MV-1 is they’re tough to find – and will become tougher as time passes.
In the old days there was a piece of software called Nikon Photo Secretary, allowing interaction with the F5’s inner functions. I never used Photo Secretary so can’t speak precisely to what it did or didn’t do. It was released about the same time as the F5 and from the looks of things, designed primarily to interact with the CSM (Custom Settings Menu) of the F5, providing easier access to its inner secrets. Regardless, if you can even find it today, and/or a computer that’ll run it – you’d be lucky. So what’s left?
Fast forward a year to an e-mail from the same gentleman a year ago, asking if I’d be interested in trying a new product for extracting data from the F6. Enter meta35, from Promote Systems in Houston, Texas. Meta35 is a new product providing today’s film shooter with the data generated by their cameras, previously inaccessible. And in the case of a camera like the F100 where you actually have to tell the camera to record data (its default is “off”), meta35 is the only game in town allowing access to this function, buried deep in the camera’s brain to wake it up, fully realizing its potential.
Meta35 is a software/hardware solution for not only these vintage, Nikon film cameras (F100, F5, F6, N90S/F90X), but also Canon EOS-1V and Minolta (Maxxum, Dynax and Alpha) cameras as well (please see footnotes at end of article). The software component runs on both Windows and Apple OSX as a efficiently designed, standalone application. The 2-part hardware component consists of a small cable with the appropriate connecting head for your camera on one end and standard 3.5mm jack on the other that plugs into a small adapter which connects to the computer’s USB port. Meta35 is extremely simple to use, well designed and fully functional.
Think of the camera’s data in two separate buckets:
– First, the Exif data generated while shooting a roll of film
– Secondly, the camera’s Custom Settings Menus (CSM), allowing deeper, more custom interaction with the camera.
The one-driectional MV-1 is capable only of removing (and erasing) generated EXIF data from the camera. Meta35 is bi-directional in the sense it allows you to read and write information to and from the camera. In regards to Custom Setting Menus, in the past its been difficult or impossible to access that data without some sort of deciphering key explaining what CSM function is mapped to what code in the camera. Meta35 somehow cuts through to not only decypher each camera’s CSM info, but allows retrieval, editing on the computer, then re-exporting altered CSM settings back into to the camera.
In the case of the F6, Meta35 does not allow changing CSM settings on the camera – this is simply done using the F6’s Menu on the back. But if you’re an F5, F100 or N90S/F90X, Canon EOS-1 or Minotla Maxxum shooter you’ll appreciate being able to easily read and alter each Custom Setting in the camera, then push those settings back to the camera and be ready to go.
EXIF DATA: Retrieving and embedding Exif data
When it comes time to embedding EXIF data into your image, meta35 is more than up to the task. Here’s a quick snapshot of the process. There are also links to short, informative “how-to” videos available here.
1) Hook meta35 to the camera and turn the camera on 2) Launch the software 3) Import the Exif data from the camera 4) Locate and load the image directory you wish to work with 5) The software automatically matches the exif data frame with the proper image* 6) Enter the additional IPTC data at the bottom such as titles, locations, keywords, etc. 7) Click “embed data” button
and presto – your image now carries all the data generated when shot such as f-stop, shutter speed, time, date, camera brand/model, etc.
OK – that’s a best-case scenario. Here are a few things you’ll figure out during your use of meta35, each tied to the number above:
1) Hook meta35 to the camera and turn the camera on. Make sure when you’re finished using meta35 you physically disconnect the cable from the camera or it will eventually deplete your batteries.
2) Launch the software.No issues here. It will run on both Windows and Apple OSX computers and I never experienced a single stability issue.
3) Import Exif data from the camera.This begins a bit of a fork in the road: if you use the MV-1 for the F6 it’s set to actually delete EXIF data from the camera after finished writing to the card. This of course leaves no data on the camera for Meta35 to interact with. So if you’re in the position of having both the MV-1 and meta35, use meta35 first to extract the data from the camera. meta35 allows the option of leaving the data stored in camera after extraction. If you wish to go back later and use the MV-1 to extract the data file you can do it then.
*In case you’re wondering – as I was – whether meta35 can work with data already imported from the camera and living on your hard disc, the answer is yes (!)*
4 and 5) Locate and load the image directory you wish to work with. This is an important step that takes a lot for granted. Without getting into a workflow discussion, I’ll say this: for most compatible use across the board it’s best to work with JPEG images. Here’s why.
a) Though meta35 presently understands both TIF and JPEG’s, it’s more compatible with JPEG’s on both platforms. On the Apple platform there is an issue preventing the software from writing all the EXIF data to TIF files on Apple OSX. It does allow some information like shutter speed and aperture, but not other information like camera brand, camera model and some others. They’re working hard to figure this out and I have no doubt they will. But for now, use JPEG’s – especially if you’re in the Mac.
b) When you scan images from a roll of film, this process assumes a logical, sequential naming convention. I’ve written other articles on this in the past so won’t get into it again here. But if you randomly name your files willy nilly when scanning, it makes associating the proper image later with the proper frame’s EXIF data much more difficult. Meta35 uses a logical sequence-based method. It understands “frame 1” in the EXIF data – and expects you to identify “frame 1” in your image directory. Much of this is common sense – but Meta35 isn’t a mind-reader – it needs you to do your part too.
c) The good news is, once you’ve imported the image directory you want to work with, re-ordering images in the image pane is relatively simple if you’ve not been diligent in your naming conventions while scanning. It’s easy to re-order, or even omit and exclude images from syncing. It’s rare that I scan all 36 images in from a roll of film, leaving gaps between images. No worries for meta35. It allows you to either exclude the data file or the image, based on how you prefer to work.
6) Enter the additional ITPC data at the bottom such as titles, locations, etc. This is a nifty way of adding keywords, descriptions, titles to your images. In the case of the Copyright pane there’s an option to apply to whole roll, saving time of entering the same information repeatedly. Same with the time/date stamp – allowing you to time/date stamp the entire roll. It’s a bit laborious to copy and paste information across all 36 images, but it needs to be done at some point and meta35 provides the most concise and streamlined opportunity to work on a whole roll at once.
7) Click “embed data” button. As noted above, this action will embed all entered data into your images, with the exception of TIF’s on the Mac, which embeds only some of it. The image is then permanently joined to its shooting data. When you open the image in other software such as Lightroom, Photoshop, or DxO Optics the data is there.
CSM Settings: Retrieving, Altering and Exporting Custom Settings from/to the camera:
Working with the camera’s custom settings menu is a breeze with meta35. As noted earlier, when altering the F6’s Custom Settings you’ll continue to do so on the camera’s menu itself. But for other cameras such as the F5, F100 or N90X/S, meta35 makes customizing the camera’s functions a breeze. Here’s the overview:
1) Connect the camera to the computer 2) Launch the software 3) Once the camera is located by the software, click “Import from Camera” 4) The camera’s Custom Settings appear within the software. Make whatever changes you wish. You’ll see short explanations associated with each setting if you need more information. 5) When complete, click “Export to Camera” and the camera is now updated. 6) Disconnect the camera.
It’s really that easy. No deciphering cryptic keys, or trying to memorize codes in the camera and what they mean. All information is clearly presented in the software as readable, easy to understand information.
Meta35 is a combination of software and hardware that lets photographers download shooting data from compatible cameras, embed the data into the EXIF metadata of scanned images and configure the cameras built in custom functions to optimize settings to the photographer’s needs. For version 1 software it’s robust, stable, well thought through and fully functional. It will be exciting to see where Promote Systems takes it from here.
Meta35 is compatible with the following film cameras that record data: Canon EOS-1V, Nikon F100, F5, F6(1), F90X, N90S, Minolta Maxxum/Dynax/Alpha 7(1,2) and Maxxum/Dynax/Alpha 9(1 ,3).
1. Custom functions can be set directly on the camera.
2. Requires Minolta DS-100 data saver.
3. Requires Minolta DM-9 memory data back.
– transfer film shooting data from the camera directly to a MAC or PC
– embed the shooting data into the EXIF metadata of the scanned images
– set up and customize camera custom functions
Meta35 retails for $149 for Nikon, Canon and Minolta versions, and is available for both Windows and Apple OSX computers. For more information please visit Promote System’s web site at meta35.com