A Case for 35mm Film

Introduction

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.

SIZE

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.

When's the last time you popped some corn and fired up the slide projector?
When’s the last time you popped some corn and fired up the slide projector?

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:

Fall colors, Sawatch Mountains, Independence Pass, Colorado.
Fall colors, Sawatch Mountains, Independence Pass, Colorado. Velvia 100 35mm.

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.

Packing Photographic Gear for Haiti 2010 Post Earthquake Relief Trip from CRANEDIGITAL on Vimeo.

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

Mamiya RZ67 System
The Mamiya RZ67 System: capable of tremendous image quality – if you can get it out into the field.

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 Mamiya RZ67 Pro II at work in North Park, Colorado. If you can get the RZ into the field it can produce tremendous images.
The Mamiya RZ67 Pro II at work in North Park, Colorado. If you can get the RZ into the field it’s capable of tremendous images.

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?

The Mamiya RZ with medium format film is an amazing photographic tool.
The Mamiya RZ with medium format film is an amazing photographic tool, especially with a high-grade film like this Portra 160VC.

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.

The Spear Head, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
The Spear Head, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

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.

Street Photography in Memphis, Tennesse
Street Flipper, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014). Nikon F6 and Portra 400.

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.

Nikon F6 35mm film camera packed and ready to travel in the Lowe Pro Photo Trekker AW.
Nikon F6 35mm film camera packed and ready to travel in the Lowe Pro Photo Trekker AW.

35mm Cameras, systems and Great Design

The early Canon AE-1/AT-1 system was my first experience with 35mm SLR film cameras many years ago. To this day I admire the 35mm SLR design and form factor.
The early Canon AE-1/AT-1 system was my first experience with 35mm SLR film cameras many years ago. To this day I admire the 35mm SLR design and form factor.

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.

A few cameras out for a little TLC. Though there are favorites reached for time after time, they're all wonderful tools. At the end of the day it doesn't really matter what camera you use. It's about the whole experience of lining something up in the viewfinder and - if even just for a moment - identifying it as worthy of your attention.
A few cameras out for a little TLC. Though there are favorites reached for time after time, they’re all wonderful tools. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what camera you use. It’s about the whole experience of lining something up in the viewfinder and – if even just for a moment – identifying it as worthy of attention.

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?

Weather sealing on the Nikon F6 is as good as it gets. This image is from one of Nikon's advertising pamphlets describing how the camera was immersed in intense dust for prolonged periods with no ill-affects.
Weather sealing on the Nikon F6 is as good as it gets. This image is from one of Nikon’s advertising brochures describing how the camera was immersed in intense dust for prolonged periods with no ill-affects.

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.

Rapid frames rates like the F5's amazing 8fps let you burn through a roll of film before you think to lift your finger off the shutter release.
Skipping Lake Tahoe. Rapid frames rates like the F5’s amazing 8fps let you burn through a roll of film before you think to lift your finger off the shutter release.

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.

Fall colors in Gunnison National Forest, Kebler Pass, Colorado. Velvia 100 and the Nikon 28-70 ED zoom, tripod-mounted and cable release.
Fall colors in Gunnison National Forest, Kebler Pass, Colorado. Velvia 100 and the Nikon 28-70 ED zoom, tripod-mounted and cable release, mirror-up.

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.

The L-bracket makes mounting the camera on a tripod horizontally or vertically quick and easy.
The L-bracket makes mounting the camera on a tripod horizontally or vertically quick and easy. the L-bracket also provides additional attachment points for accessories.

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.

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014). Sometimes it doesn’t make a bit of difference what camera a photo is made with, and the old adage, “f8 and be there” is all you need.

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.

HOH Rainforest Tryptich no.1
HOH Rainforest Tryptich no.1

image quality

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.

Aspen leaf, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado. Velvia 100, Micro Nikkor 105VR with CLS-triggered flash.
Aspen leaf, Gunnison National Forest, Colorado. Velvia 100, Micro Nikkor 105VR with CLS-triggered flash.

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.

35mm has a “look” to it. What is that look? Difficult to decisively say. Here’s a brief discussion by Ted Forbes and the “Art of Photography” that touches briefly on the topic. It has to do with the relationship of the size of the image to the grain structure. If you were to make an image on 120 film, then again on 35mm film – and print them the same size – they’d look slightly different to the photographer’s eye. Not radically different, but slightly different.

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 techniuqe. 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.

Lowe Pro Commercial AW loaded and ready to roll. Having everything in one bag that can just be grabbed when it's time to go ensures you'll have what you need when the time comes.
Lowe Pro Commercial AW loaded and ready to roll. Having everything in one bag that can just be grabbed when it’s time to go ensures you’ll have what you need when the time comes.(Mamiya 645 on Ilford HP5+)

One System

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.

Shrine to FORD, Ward, Colorado. Shot on Ilford Delta 100 Professional with a Nikon F2, then processed in Ilford DDX at home.
Shrine to FORD, Ward, Colorado. Shot on Ilford Delta 100 Professional with Nikon F2S, then processed in Ilford DDX at home.

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.

Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016). Made with a all-mechanical, 47 year old Nikon F with no metering on ILFORD FP4+ black and white film, self-developed in ILFORD DDX developer.
Medicine Bow, Wyoming (2016). Made with a all-mechanical, 47 year old Nikon F with no metering on ILFORD FP4+ black and white film, self-developed in ILFORD DDX developer.

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

A few Nikons from the collection
A few Nikons from the collection

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 Nikons from the collection
Nikon F with eye-level finder on left, Nikon F2AS on right.

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.

35mm film
Can a compelling reason be made to shoot 35mm film? I believe it can. And even if you simply just want to – that’s O.K. too.

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?

I’ll leave that for you decide.

Cheers.

Pure Film

A few weeks ago I did something I’ve been meaning to do for years: began developing my own black and white film again. After a 30+ year hiatus, the time had finally come.

Developer, Stop and Fixer in amber flasks, ready for action.
Developer, Stop and Fixer in amber flasks, ready for action.

Up until last year I’d been fortunate enough to have one of the best pro film labs in the country only minutes away. I’d always told myself when they shut down, I’d begin. Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances that time came last year, but I held on, continuing to search for a suitable alternative for the next several months. A few weeks ago I finally said Uncle and put in an order to B&H.

IMG_1770

I suppose there are reasons that seem suitable at the time why we do things like wait… and it’s easy to second guess decisions in hind-site. But I’ll say this: I wish I’d done this a long time ago. Today’s film processing is essentially the same as 30 years ago, with a few key differences. Patterson tanks and reels are one of those differences. The last time I tried to wind a roll of film onto the old, stainless spiral reel it was a catastrophe. The Patterson reels are easy as can be. Another reason is the lack of dark room. A nice, big changing bag took care of that. The chemicals and process are all pretty much the same – and now it’s actually fun – especially when compared to the alternative -sending it out, waiting for at least a week. And there’s the cost. Dramatically less developing yourself, even after gearing up with fresh, new supplies.

Preston Miller, Bindle Coffee, Fort Collins, CO
Ilford Delta 100 developed in Ilford DDX.

Then there’s the creative control you have over your films. For whatever reason the ILFORD Delta family of emulsions has always resonated with me. I shoot other films too – but gravitate back to the ILFORD films when the fridge is empty and it’s time to reorder. It’s simply not a feasible request; asking a commercial lab to custom develop your film with different developers than they’ve standardized on. With that, I’ve always wondered just what qualities in the film I’m missing out on by not experimenting with different developers and simply accepting the lab’s standard. Now I know, and will never go back.

Moraine Park, RMNP (Red Filter)
Moraine Park, RMNP (ILFORD Delta, Red R60 Filter)

Recently I’ve been considering something else I haven’t completely thought through, but will give it a go here. There seems to be many who become interested in photography – using the digital camera as a gateway. This can be a great thing. The digital camera’s immediate feedback provides invaluable tools for learning about light, composition, exposure, etc. About 10 years ago I was amongst this group. I’d been involved in photography for many (many) years prior, and to be honest, had just grown a little bored with it. There were times I’d go on a trip, shoot lots of film, then simply leave it undeveloped in my file cabinet – sometimes for years. Along came the digital camera and immediately I was enthralled. The curtain was pulled back on the seemingly long, mysterious process of going from the snap of the shutter to viewing the final image. There it was on the camera back; no more mystery. No more anticipation. What seems to happen with people who become newly interested in photography through digital cameras is – they grow bored with it. It turns out for me that mystery and anticipation was actually one of the benefits of the process, not a detractor -as I think it might be for those who get a digital camera and have a “perfect” image handed to them milliseconds after its exposure. Once the novelty wears off it becomes less interesting. This isn’t always the case, but I have seen this pattern repeat itself.

The beginnings of rebuilding a humble darkroom.
The beginnings of rebuilding a humble darkroom.

My stint with digital lasted about 3 years before migrating back to film. Now I enjoy both digital and film, but admittedly leave my digital camera home unless there’s a specific reason to bring it. Now, developing film again has deepened my commitment to film and made me even more focused. It’s such a treat to shoot and develop a roll yourself within the span of days rather than weeks or months. The quite satisfying feeling of actually making something with your hands returns.

I’ll encourage anyone who’s ever thought about developing film passingly but deemed it too complicated or expensive – to think again. It has been said to me and I agree; if you can bake a cake you can process your own film. Give it a try.

Servicing the Nikon F6

Even though the shutter is rated to an astounding 150,000 actuations (over 4,100 rolls of film), after 7 years of moderate use I decided it was time to send in the Nikon F6 for servicing, while I felt I stood a reasonably good chance of still getting parts. While in the shop it made sense to have the non-Ai modification to the lens mount made to allow those old, beautiful non-Ai lenses to be used by the camera. This post chronicles the process from a Nikon Professional Services (NPS) member’s point of view.

INTRODUCTION:

Since purchasing my F6 new in August of 2008 it has traveled all over the place with me, mainly in the United States, but also in Haiti’s extreme heat and humidity. Its been in the rain, dirt, mud, dust, desert, forest, mountains and just about every other place you can think of. The camera has been pulled out of and stuffed into a bag or crate countless times. I’ve run close to 400 rolls of film through it – not epic by heavy shooter standards, but not too skimpy either. So even though the shutter is rated to an astounding 150,000 actuations (I haven’t even used a 10th of its shutter’s life span), the rest of the camera has begun to show some wear and tear. There’s nothing glaringly wrong with the camera, except the sub (front) command dial missing more often then hitting when rotated – but after reading a few scary threads on other blogs about serviceability, availability of parts, etc. I decided to have it done while there was still the opportunity to do so. Even though these cameras are built to last, nothing lasts forever. With use everything eventually breaks, wears out or needs maintenance of some sort. Being a preventative maintenance guy I believe in taking good care of things. On top of these reasons, I’ve wanted to have the modification to accept pre-Ai (F-mount) lenses made on the F6 – before it became impossible to get parts. What follows below is an account of the process, beginning with the most recent update and growing older the more you read.

UPDATE 11/27/15:

Today – 22 days after the F6 left here for its journey to the mother ship in California for servicing – UPS rang the doorbell and handed him back to me. He was packed in the same, original gold box and all original packing material he left here in three weeks ago. Upon opening the box I was delighted to see him safely cradled between the two, form-fitting cardboard inserts he originally arrive here in back in 2008, wrapped in the same, plastic bag. I’m happy to report he’s back to his old self and looking rather smart; better than ever. Nikon Service did an excellent job of cleaning, adjusting, and servicing the camera. They:

    • Replaced the rubberized grip. Due to extreme fluctuations in temperatures the grip had worked its way loose over 7 years of use. This appeared in two places: the most noticeable was the bottom right-front above where the MS-41 battery caddy slides in. At first it was just a little, but it grew to a gap between the bottom black rim and grip producing an entry point for moisture and dirt. The second as on the back door where, when you grab the camera with your right hand, the thumb rests.
    • Replaced the rubber button collars surrounding BKT buttons on top-back-left and AE/AF-L and AF-ON buttons on top-back-right that had gradually worked their way loose and torn; both one clumsy grip away from tearing off completely.
    • Adjusted the sub-command dial: it was not consistently engaging when rotated. Being primarily Aperture-Priority and Manual exposure shooter I use the sub command dial more frequently than the main command dial.
    • Performed the non-Ai lens modification to the lens mount allowing use of pre-Ai/non-Ai/F-mount lenses. (this added $50 to the cost of servicing)
This is what the F6 looks like with the Pre-AI modification made to the Aperture ring mount.
This is what the F6 looks like with the Pre-AI modification made to the Aperture ring mount. Much like the Df, the small, metal tab folds down without the need for an additional pin as found on the F4 and F3.
The F6 with a Pre-AI 50mm 1.4 lens mounted.
The F6 with a Pre-AI 50mm 1.4 lens mounted.
      • Replaced the internal battery, which was working fine, but after 7 years decided to replace it while it was in for servicing. (this added about $75 to the cost of servicing)
      • As an added bonus they sent it back with two Energizer Lithium Photo batteries (it left here with no batteries).
      • They also replaced the internal battery without eradicating the 10 rolls of data stored in the camera I had forgotten to extract before sending it in. They were also able to maintain the present roll count of the camera, keeping my file naming structure intact – which I was very pleased about.
      • As if all the above weren’t enough – I was granted the NPS 20% discount, bringing the grand total to what I felt was a reasonable cost. The camera looks, sounds and feels like new – but it’s most certainly my same old friend, evidenced by the serial number, a few well-earned battle scars and the worn eye piece shutter lever on the viewfinder.

The executive summary: I’m extremely pleased with the job Nikon Service did on my F6. They made me validate the camera was purchased new, in the US (even though there is a “Nikon USA” sticker on the rear, flip-down door) before performing service. The parts hold was about 1 week, and upon completion the shipping was next day. Who could ask for anything more.To anyone considering sending your F6 in for repair – especially if you bought it new in the US, and can prove it – do not hesitate.

In hind site I’m glad to have not purchased a gray market camera years ago. At the time it would have saved a couple hundred dollars, but painted me into a corner when it came time for service. After this experience I’ll be sending him again – more frequently this time – knowing cost is reasonable and confidence is high in a quality service experience. Thank you Nikon Service.

UPDATE 11/24/15:

Thus far I am very impressed with Nikon Service. This morning I received a e-mail from the gentleman coordinating my repair with Nikon Service informing me that there was in fact a way to preserve the data on the camera, and the repair should be completed by today. Having forgotten to extract the last 10 rolls of data from the camera before sending it in for repair, this was great news. Coming unsolicited, by the way, after I’d told them to proceed yesterday. So high marks for being proactive and willing to accommodate requests on the fly.

UPDATE 11/23/15:

The camera has been on Parts Hold for a week. I just received word today it should be completed by tomorrow. As suspected, replacing the battery does reset the number of rolls the camera has recorded to zero. This is something to be aware of when purchasing a used F6 if you’re using the roll count to gauge the age of the camera. If the internal battery has been replaced, the counter begins again at zero. There is no way to prevent this.

UPDATE 11/17/15:

After a reminder from my friend Andy in the UK I used Nikon’s web-based system to request replacement of the internal battery while it’s there for service. The current battery functions – but I figure I may as well replace it while the camera is being worked on. This raised the estimate from $115 to $170. Well worth it. TIP: If you need to reset your film roll number go to: SET-UP\Shooting Data\Film number: and re-enter the number of rolls in the camera. This is both good and bad: Good if your roll counter accidentally resets to 0. Not so good if you’re buying a used F6 and are counting on the number of rolls the camera has exposed to determine the age of the camera.

LATER in the same day…

Great news. The repair estimates have come in much less than anticipated.: $114 to CLA and replace the grip. Another $50 to modify the aperture ring mount to accept pre-ai lenses. I was happy to authorize and pay for the repairs immediately. I’ll keep updating through the process and conclude with an unwrapping video when the camera is returned. I’ve been “investing in” some pre-ai lenses this year as I build out my F/F2 kit and am anxious to mount them on the F6.
A Haiti Christian in her earthquake-destroyed church, Port au Prince, Haiti.
A Haiti Christian in her earthquake-destroyed church, Port au Prince, Haiti. (Tri-X)
Croix des Bouquets, Haiti
Croix des Bouquets, Haiti (Velvia)
Port au Prince, Haiti after the 2010 earthquake
Port au Prince, Haiti after the 2010 earthquake (Tri-X)

So after 7 years of moderate use I (a little reluctantly) decided it was time to send him in for a little TLC. This blog post will track the process of having the F6 serviced by Nikon and hopefully be of some benefit to anyone else who’s contemplating having their F6 serviced, now or in the future.

Wood Chisels, Allenspark, Colorado, Portra 160
Wood Chisels, Allenspark, Colorado (Portra 160)

Getting it ready to send:

First off, “sending him in” means sending the camera to Nikon’s Service Center in Los Angeles, California. Being in Colorado – Los Angeles is the proper service center.

Being a NPS (Nikon Professional Services) member, I decided to go through the NPS web site to set up the repair and print the packing slip. The NPS literature states that being an NPS member provides preferential treatment so I figured hey, why not. I filled out all the requisite information in the web form and printed it out. Always keeping original boxes, (much to the chagrin of my office) I carefully packed the F6 body in its original packaging materials, minus the strap, MB-40 grip and any batteries. I included the body cap, wrapped the camera in the original plastic bag it came in and placed it carefully in the cardboard cut-out form cradling the camera top and bottom, then slipped the golden, exterior box around it, then placed the whole thing in a corrugated cardboard box with a thin layer of bubble wrap around it. I sent the package USPS Priority Mail, trackable and insured for $2,500 which would cover the cost of a new one if the postal system lost or damaged it. It cost about $48 to ship it one way. It would have cost another $20 to ship it UPS.

The package left Colorado on a Wednesday and arrived in California on a Saturday.

North Park, Colorado, Velvia
North Park, Colorado (Velvia)

After a few days of waiting I called the Nikon service center [(800) 645-6687, Option 1 for English, Option 5 for repairs] and made it through to a helpful, intelligent human who was able to peer into the Service system. My camera had not been “entered” yet, and he suggested I called back in a couple of days.

That puts us at today. A second call produced a second, helpful, intelligent human who peered into the system again and told me the camera was received, but listed as “non domestic.” I asked her what non-domestic meant to Nikon service and she told me I had to provide proof of purchase in the US for them to repair my camera.

Thank goodness I keep important receipts like that – even from 2008. I went into the storage area of my office and after 5 minutes (and feeling pretty proud of myself), produced the original sales receipt from B&H Photo, dated August, 2008. The document was scanned, then attached to a reply e-mail from Nikon.

A follow up call (call number 3) put me in contact with the original gentleman from earlier in the week who said he’d personally make sure the document was forwarded and provide an update soon. He did both of those things, and Nikon has agreed to now look at my camera.

My account with Nikon now reflects this repair on-line and I’m able to track status via a service order number. Just as importantly I’m able to communicate (presumably) directly with Nikon service through this portal additional details as necessary. In an effort to clearly communicate my hopes of the F6’s visit to Nikon Service, I was told to send an e-mail through their system and it would be posted on the service center’s web page, which it was. Here is the e-mail I sent:

Smoker, Ektar
Smoker (Ektar)

Good Morning Nikon Service,

Thank you for repairing my Nikon F6. Below is a list of items I’d like you to provide pricing on:
1) Clean, Lubricate and Adjust (CLA). The camera is 8 years old and has never been serviced.
2) I’d like to have it modified to accept Pre-AI lenses. As I understand it, this is accomplished by installing the same folding, metal flap/pin assembly on the lens mount similar to that found on the F4 and F3.
3) I’d like the grip replaced on the entire camera. It has come loose on the front-right extruded handle (by the battery compartment), and also on on the back door. This allows moisture and dirt in the inner workings of the camera. The rubber grip has repeatedly come loose on the back door where the right hand grabs the camera. I’d like this replaced.
4) The small rubber collars surrounding the  AF-On/AE-L button on the top-right of the camera, and the same on the top left of the camera surrounding the BKT buttons. These have gradually torn and worked their way loose. I’d like them replaced.
5) The Sub-Command (front) dial on the camera often misses when it’s rotated. So it rotates freely and fine – but does not effect change often times when rotating. I have used the Custom Settings Menu to swap Main and Sub Command dial functions because of this. I’d like to know what it will take to have the proper level of functionality restored to the dial. In effect, so it works properly.
Please provide cost and time estimates on the above.
Thank you very much,

John B. Crane, Photographer

CoCoa Beach, Florida, Ektar
CoCoa Beach, Florida (Ektar)
That puts us where we’re at now: waiting to hear back from service if they are able to perform the above.
I’ll continue to update this blog post as information progresses. In an attempt to help things go smoothly and well I’m following all protocol suggested by Nikon.
Nikon F kit
Nikon F kit (Portra 800)

In hind site I’m glad to have not purchased a gray market camera years ago. At the time it would have saved a couple hundred dollars, but painted me into a corner when it came time for service. After this experience I’ll be sending him again – more frequently this time – knowing cost is reasonable and confidence is high in a quality service experience. Thank you Nikon Service.

Mirror-Up Shooting: It’s For Real

Recently I read a blog post from someone claiming Mirror-Up shooting was a hoax. A waste of time, something camera manufacturers dreamed up as way to add a new feature to the camera and charge more for it. A “Emperor’s New Clothes” hoodwink, if you will. Well, take a look at this:

It’s slow motion video of the venerable Nikon F2 at 1/2000 sec. and the lens stopped down to ƒ16. If there were ever any doubt in anyone’s mind whether the mirror’s movement has the ability to create vibrations inside the mirror box this should answer the question once and for all.

To those who don’t know what Mirror-Up shooting is, please visit this page for a more detailed explanation. Essentially, M-Up is a feature included in certain cameras allowing a 2-step shutter release. The first step raises the Mirror up out of the way. The camera then is allowed to “settle” as long as you want before the second step – releasing the shutter in the camera and actually exposing the film. This all happens so fast in regular shooting that it feels like 1 quick step – but it’s actually 2. M-Up is highly useful in slower-speed photography: between 1/30 sec. and 1-2 seconds. For shutter speeds outside of this range it could be argued that the motions happen so fast there’s not time for the slight movement to affect image quality. But in that dead zone of slow exposures M-Up is real.

The 440

A few weeks ago I needed to get out – as in far away from the computer – in a big way. The weather wasn’t good along the Front Range and checking the iPhone confirmed pretty much any place within easy driving distance was experiencing the same. It looked like the only thing to do was out drive the front. I fueled up, stopped for the requisite Americano and headed into the rain not knowing what the day held. Not knowing what lie ahead isn’t just part of the fun – it’s the reason I go.

There are a number of different ways to connect with my favorite haunts – North Park/Southern Wyoming. Memorial Day this year marked the opening of Trail Ridge Road, which connects the front range with the deeper mountains through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a bit circuitous route, but any day beginning on Trail Ridge Road is a good day no matter what happens next. I headed up to the Park, bought the annual pass and wasted no time getting high. That’s a eyebrow-raising phrase here in Colorado these days… what I mean  is quickly gaining elevation. On a week day there was little traffic – one of the wonderful benefits of being able to take off in the middle of the week instead of waiting for the weekend.

Highway 14, North Park, Colorado
North Park along Highway 14 south of Walden, Colorado (2015). Nikon F100 + Ektar

At the bottom of Trail Ridge you wind up in Grandby T-boning at the intersection of Highway 40. A right takes you towards Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling. I stopped at the market in Kremmling for a break, the weather already improving, and considered my route. I only had the day, needing to be back that night – so was somewhat limited by daylight. The western edge of North Park is unofficially bound by 40 as it winds up over Muddy Pass. From there I picked up 14 and headed east towards Walden.

White gate near Rand, Colorado, North Park, Colorado (2015)
White Gate, North Park, Colorado (2015). Nikon F4s + Velvia

A great thing about being open to the day is a willingness to detour onto new roads. There are roads I’ve driven by many times making a mental note to return someday to explore as time allows. Nearing Walden I came upon one of those roads; a dirt road peeling off across the pasture lands to the east. With plenty of fuel and a cooler full of fruit and water this was the perfect opportunity and I didn’t hesitate.

I have and shoot a lot of cameras – many of which I was carrying on this day – all loaded with different films. I think back to a story once read about Robert Frank (The Americans) who was one day detained in a small town by a police officer who noticed he had an unusually large number of cameras visibly scattered about in the car. I smile as I think about the packed Pelican crate tucked safely in the back of the Subaru, beneath a foil space blanket to keep it cooler in the high-altitude sun shining through the rear window. I also make a note to check the cooler containing extra film brought along at the next stop.

I know some people think you should only only shoot one film, getting used to its characteristics in certain light, the look it produces etc. I understand the reasoning behind this – but toss it out the window. Different films are for different light, different applications, different scenes, different subjects. A film camera loaded with roll film can only practically shoot one roll at a time. Having different cameras loaded with different films allows greater flexibility for an image that may be better suited for a chrome (slide) film, or C41 (color negative) or black and white.

There has been a great deal of rain in Colorado this year; a wonderful break from the high and dry monotony pestering ranchers, farmers and other ag-centric folks over recent past. All this rain has turned browns into greens; refilled drainage ditches, draws and ponds, and contributed to an overall pleasant aroma to the high prairie. Standing water also means lots of bugs.

Roadside drainage ditches and draws are full these days in North Park with all the standing water that's fallen.
Roadside drainage ditches and draws are full these days in North Park with all the standing water that’s fallen. Nikon F4s + Velvia
Clouds hover over Wyoming to the North of North Park, Colorado.
Clouds hover over Wyoming to the North of North Park, Colorado. Nikon F4s + Velvia

After Rand I picked up 125 North towards Cowdrey, veered left at the Dean Peak Junction and was on my way North into Wyoming.

I was eager to shoot my new F5 for the first time and had both it and the F6 on the seat next to me just in case. Sometimes things catch your eye and digging a camera out of the crate takes time. Only a few frames had been made thus far in the trip. Light during mid-day isn’t ideal, which is why that time is spent moving between places – to be in position for the edges of the day. Often times I’ll think I see a shot and head down a dirt road looking for the right vantage point. More often then not things don’t line up, or the light’s wrong, or there’s too much mud (which has happened a lot this year), or I’m met with a “No Trespassing” sign (I always respect No Trespassing signs) and the detour is chalked up to a learning experience as I head back to the main road. As I’m driving down a double track or dirt road I’m always considering my exit plan. Once while trying to turn around on a double track in Sweetwater County the car became stuck – high-centered in the middle of no where. I try to avoid this.

About the time I rolled into southern Wyoming it was later in the day and the light had improved considerably. I’d left rainy skies far behind and was enjoying fresh air, brilliant bluebird skies punctuated by dramatic, enormous cloud masses as the edge of the front just passed through quietly lumbered its way east.

Riverside, Wyoming (2015)
Riverside, Wyoming (2015) Nikon F5 + Ektar

Riverside, Wyoming is a quiet town just north of the Colorado/Wyoming state line. I pass through Riverside often, en route to other destinations. This day it marked the point I was to turn east and head home. The Trading Post sits on the corner of Wyoming 230 and 70. The tired me planned on rolling right on by – until I saw the clouds, and what the light was doing. Thanks to the high pressure system chasing the front east, the air was freshly scrubbed and crystal clear. Brilliant light screamed across a fresh atmosphere and slammed into the wood siding, red roof and white accent signage. I suppose I’ve spent enough time cruising around to notice a gas station or two – and this was spectacular.

No tripod, no filters, no nothing other than f8 and be there. 2 frames clicked off the F5 loaded with Ektar and on I went. My real goal was trying to hit peak light on Snowy Range Road and I knew I’d be cutting it close.

Libby Flats Observation Point, Snowy Range Road, Wyoming
Libby Flats Observation Point, Snowy Range Road, Wyoming. Nikon F6 + Portra 160

Snowy Range Road – like Trail Ridge Road – is closed during winters. Signs along the approach alert the traveler well in advance whether it’s open or closed. Even with all the snow the mountains received this year I knew I was safe and car churned its way up the steep grade. I spent an hour milling about looking for a good composition vantage point based on what the light was doing – but wasn’t able to line up what I’d hoped. I used to become anxious during these moments, but now I’m relaxed. If the world aligns and an image is presented – wonderful. If not – you’re up in the mountains watching this etherial scene unfold. Where else would you rather be? A scene doesn’t need to result in an image. Just relax and enjoy not being parked in front of the computer.

Undiscouraged, I packed up and headed further up the road towards Libby Flats to catch last light on the Overlook. Almost immediately after making the one frame, shadows swept up and over, engulfing the stone structure until morning. It was time to head home. I put in 440 miles that day (and I wonder why I’m chewing through tires so fast). Driving home in the dark I was satisfied; happy to have been out wandering in the west with no agenda and plenty of cameras loaded with film. The net result was, I felt rested and ready to face another day tomorrow – at my best thanks to the break.

 

 

Memphis in the Meantime

Memphis has been the subject of many a discussion between my son and I for a few years now. We love road trips and just being in the car together so when ever we’re hunting for a just barely out of reach, crazy destination to spontaneously shoot off to in the middle of the night (from Colorado) – Memphis has been a part of that discussion.

Memphis has been the subject of many a discussion between my son and I for a few years now. We love road trips and just being in the car together so when ever we’re hunting for a just barely out of reach, crazy destination to spontaneously shoot off to in the middle of the night (from Colorado) – Memphis has been a part of that discussion. Alas, common sense has prevailed and Memphis had remained unvisited – until this past July. As we planned our route to a family reunion in Nashville I was delighted to see Memphis sort of en route on the way home. We tend to drive any place we visit not for fear of flying – though who wouldn’t these days – but because we prefer to pass slowly through places en route to any destination – not zoom over places at 300mph in an aluminum tube with wings. So it was settled: Memphis on the return leg.

It’s hard to determine the origins of my fascination with Memphis precisely but strong contributors are Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” John Hiatt’s “Memphis in the Mean Time” and of course the father of color photography, the incomparable Mr. William Eggleston – one who unbenounced to him – was instrumental in helping shape and refocus how I approach the art of color photography. Elvis and Graceland may have a little something to do with it too but not being quite as ardent “King” fans, they’re certainly not the strongest draw.

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)
Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

Graceland is Elvis’ old home and no trip to Memphis is complete without at least a drive by. We didn’t feel the need to go in – but were a little curious. Vans jammed with people cruised in and out of the fabled gates while a number of folks simply stood out front by the brick wall surrounding the estate. My wife and I agreed it was a little creepy – not sure how else to describe it… The wall was very interesting to me, containing “high-school yearbook” style insignias and drawings of Elvis along its 100 yard length. I walked it several times marveling at the influence this one, charismatic man had on so many people in a life cut short.

Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee
Graceland bussing people in and out of those fabled gates for a peek at Elvis’ mansion.

After Graceland we headed into the city center. It was a sunny, hot Sunday afternoon and we found a place in the shade to park near the bottom of famous Beale Street. As is usually the case on trips like this I’ll have my D3s and bunch of other gear buried beneath blankets in the car to keep everything cool, but leave it all in the car, choosing instead the F6, a 50mm ƒ1.4D and  some Portra 400 to carry while I wander. I like to minimize attention while shooting as much as possible and carrying a lot of gear gets uncomfortable – especially in the heat. While it’s true there are times when a few extra frames would be nice to have – I find I focus much more intently while shooting with a finite number of shots. Something I’ve discovered after years of editing: I hate sitting in front of the computer after a trip trying to decide which one of 10 images in a burst is the “best.” I’d much rather decide while shooting. This requires patience and being willing to pay the cost: sometimes being wrong and missing a shot. The benefits include more finely tuning your process to identify and take advantage of opportunity.

Memphis, Street Photography
Street Flipper, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

The street flipper is a great example. There were two young men providing the afternoon’s entertainment, flipping down the gently sloping grade of Beale street. Pretty amazing, actually. I stopped and watched the first guy and overheard another young man walking past me saying to his girl friend, “yeh, I’m pretty sure I could do that…” I thought it would be cool to get a shot of him in mid-flip – hopefully in the air – so I walked up the street and found a good spot. There were trash cans lining the street and the one across from me was brightly colored, different than the others. I didn’t want it to be the brightest spot in the frame and distract from this guy’s athleticism as he flipped through the frame so moved up the hill a bit more. Working with the 50mm produced a lot of background that I couldn’t control. I could minimize it though by shooting a shallow depth of field. An aperture of ƒ4 allowed 1/1250 shooting Portra 400 at ISO200. Plenty fast to stop the guy in mid-flip were I lucky enough to time it right. Focus might have produced a problem at this point. Acquiring focus as the flipper flipped through the screen wouldn’t be feasible (he was a fast flipper), and if I settled for what the camera wanted to do I’d have been focused on the buildings across the street – making the foreground flipper blurry.

What to do… Here’s where de-coupling your focus from the shutter release is a really fantastic idea – and I think everyone should do it. It’s a good thing I usually shoot like this because I was ready. If not, to dig through the camera’s menus there on the street and fuss with CSM Settings would have taken too much time and attention away from all that was going on around me. In the F6’s CSM Menu, Custom Setting A4/AF activation/”AF-ON Only” allows the camera’s auto focus feature to be activated using only the AF-On button(s – plural if you use the MB-40 grip as I do). The camera’s default setting is “Release/AF-ON” which means if I’d used this setting to pre-focus on a certain point, the camera would try to focus again when I pressed the shutter to make the image – producing a blurry image because the camera would have focused on the buildings across the street instead of the flipper. At ƒ4 there’s not much room to miss before the image is out of focus. Not what I wanted. Using the AF-On button I focused on the street in front of me where I suspected the flipper would land, then raised the camera to frame the shot and waited. Almost immediately the other flipper came flipping through the frame and I fired one shot, hoping I got him. A little thought, a little planning and a little camera knowledge goes a long way.

 

Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)
Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

 

Lorraine Motel, National Civil Rights Museum, Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis, Tennessee
Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee.

After asking around someone pointed us towards one of the more famous destinations of the area, the Lorraine Motel – where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony outside room 306. The Lorraine Motel has been turned into The National Civil Rights Museum for all to come experience. This was one of the most powerful – yet non flamboyant – destinations I’ve visited in recent memory. People hovered around and the air was reverent; respectful – not a lot of goofing around and selfies going on amidst the large group of kids who’d gathered in the shade across the street. The depth to which I was moved at this location was unexpected and we explored for nearly an hour, taking it in. The museum’s doors were open and the air conditioning felt great, and they always appreciate donations to keep the lights on.

Lorraine Motel, National Civil Rights Museum, Martin Luther King Junior, Memphis, Tennessee
The Lorraine Motel became The National Civil Rights Museum to commemorate MLK Jr. Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

Speaking of the heat, I was a little concerned when I grabbed the last role of Portra from the console of the car. It had become warm despite the AC running while we drove. I put it in my pocket and hoped for the best, and was delighted when processing (thank you Digi-Graphics!) revealed no issues what so ever. Sometimes I’ll carry a cooler for the film but most of the time I’ll simply protect the stash from direct sunlight and call it good. I’ve never had any problems, even in the extreme heat of the Caribbean.

Beale Street, Memphis, Tennssee (2014)
Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

After the Lorraine we slowly made our way back to the car, wanting to savor as much as we could. On a Sunday afternoon there wasn’t much activity outside Beale Street and it was nice to casually view the architecture and decor lining our path. The musical legend of Memphis alone is worth the visit, but add to that the food, culture, history…

BB King's Blue Bar, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)
BB King’s Blue Bar, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

great color and geometry in the signage, urban architecture, interesting people, and magnificent night light and my imagination ignites with photographic potential. It was tough to leave – but we had 1,200 miles and 20 hours of driving ahead of us.

Blues City Cafe, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)
Blues City Cafe, Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee (2014)

Memphis is one of the wonderful perks found in driving across the country rather than flying over. We only had a couple hours in Memphis – hardly enough time to scratch the surface – but I’ll take what I can get.  It was fun to finally be there if even for just a short time. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to return and devote the proper amount of time and attention to such a historically rich city. Happy shooting.

Happy Fourth of July

In years past my eyes have been focused upward, searching the skies above for the real Fourth of July photograph. This year I chose instead to focus on what’s right in front of me.

Allenspark, Colorado Fourth of July Parade
Allenspark, Colorado is nestled snugly just below Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. Each year Allenspark celebrates July 4th with a short but festive parade down the main street.

In years past my eyes have been focused upward, searching the skies above for the real Fourth of July photograph. This year I chose instead to focus on what’s right in front of me. Attending the Allenspark Fourth of July parade has become an annual event. Nestled high in the Rocky Mountains, tucked safely in the shadow of Indian Peaks Wilderness, Allenspark is where we began our married life 20 years ago today – and holds a special place for both my wife and I. As the small parade of locals passed in front of us, people, animals and vehicles adorned in American regalia, I was filled with a new appreciation for the strong character and relationships of this town – and our country. What we stand for, what’s important to us. Some days – especially in the mountains of Colorado – it’s great to be an American.

Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)
Fourth of July Parade, Allenspark, Colorado (2014)

Hope, Boundaries and Good Intuition

John Szarkowski writes in the introduction to William Eggleston’s opus, Guide, “It’s not easy for the photographer to compete with the clever originality of mindless, mechanized cameras, but the photographer can add intelligence. By means of photography one can in a minute reject as unsatisfactory ninety-nine configurations of facts and elect as right the hundredth. The choice is based on tradition and intuition–knowledge and ego–as it is in any art, but the ease of execution and the richness of the possibilities in photography both serve to put a premium on good intuition.”

I’ve devoted considerable thought over the past few years as to why we as people make photographs and frankly have come up blank. I don’t think I could explain to someone why I make photographs other than the simple truth; it pleases me to do so. It’s fun to read the plethora of great essays by others, from the famous to the unknown, presenting wonderful theories and insights. I think I’ve finally concluded however that I’m not sure it really matters beyond the simple truth; it pleases me to do so.

I’ve been making images since I was about 11 years old, when my folks gave me my first Kodak 110 camera for Christmas, complete with the rotating flash cube on top of that tiny plastic body. I loved that thing. My next camera was a Canon AT-1, the manual version of the ever popular AE-1 and from the moment I held it I was a National Geographic photographer. Ruined for life. That was a good many years ago, and though I never actually became a National Geographic photographer, I’m still making images. I wonder what else we do during the course of our lives that stays with us like photography does? For me the answer is not much. It’s one constant – besides my family and my faith – that has endured through the years.

I think maybe most photographers – especially film shooters – are optimists. A musician friend once spoke of “the hope of a picture” in reference to deferring the shooting and editing process to someone who understood – and had the creative and technical ability to realize – such a thing. One of the highs of photography for me is the possibilities. The camera is full of best case scenarios, creative potential and hope. One of my favorite photographers (and writers) Robert Adams once said, “The job of the photographer isn’t to record indisputable fact, but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope.”

Storm Chasers, Arriba, Colorado (2011)
Storm Chasers, Arriba, Colorado (2011)

Hope. Every time I load a new roll of film I get a little thrill. It’s like a full tank of gas for me, the allure of that elusive “perfect frame” possibly hiding in every roll. Like a golden ticket, hidden in only so many Wonka bars. Perhaps that’s one of the things that appeals to me most about shooting roll film; the focused flexibility required to maximize finite opportunity. The digital shooter might counter with some sort of volume equation – like, the more you shoot, the more likely you are to find that golden ticket. I’m not so sure about that..

Tomohisa IKENO, on the Nikon F6* design team, summed it as “the value of unique pictures.” He said, “With a digital camera, the number of pictures you can take is infinite, in the sense that there is no limit in the number of shots to take, unlike shooting with film. You don’t have to hesitate when taking pictures. Just release the shutter… But on the contrary, some photographers reject the prospect of such ease, as they desire a more careful, rigorous approach to making photographs. They want to treasure each picture-taking opportunity by etching their vision on film…a certain degree of respect to taking each great picture.” This careful, rigorous approach can go a long way towards fulfilling the “artist” struggling for a voice in each aspiring photographer.

National Geographic reported the number of digital photographs made in 2006 was 53 billion, in 2011 was 80 billion and in 2015 is projected to be 105 billion. That’s a lot of pictures made. And deleted. If you’ve ever visited flickr, it sure looks like randomly clicking 5-12 frames per second until you stumble onto something creative may seem to have replaced this “careful, rigorous approach.” But I believe as people we benefit from limits. Boundaries.

Architecture and Shadows, staircase, Denver, Colorado
The Staircase, Denver, Colorado (2013)

We pretend to love to hate boundaries. Truth is, though, while we may initially accuse boundaries of cramping our style, they can provide a more creatively satisfying approach through a thoughtful blend of methodical experimentation – with a little “wonder of the unknown” thrown in for good measure. Boundaries may not be mandatory in order to force one to think, but they certainly go a long way in helping us focus. Whether you have 1, 10, 12, 24 or 36 frames  – you have that much-needed boundary; a governor to help steer your thinking into productive action. And in a counter-intuitive way, I’ll contend that boundaries even encourage intentional creativity.

John Szarkowski writes in the introduction to William Eggleston’s opus, Guide, “It’s not easy for the photographer to compete with the clever originality of mindless, mechanized cameras, but the photographer can add intelligence. By means of photography one can in a minute reject as unsatisfactory ninety-nine configurations of facts and elect as right the hundredth. The choice is based on tradition and intuition–knowledge and ego–as it is in any art, but the ease of execution and the richness of the possibilities in photography both serve to put a premium on good intuition.”

Good Intuition. Photography encourages a sort of focused flexibility; balancing logistical boundaries while remaining responsive to the nudges and pricks emerging throughout the creative session. The focused photographer then responds with method, technique, knowledge and bravery. I’ll suggest that all these things help train up “good intuition.” These are the things that make creative film photography a wonderful journey. Sure, there’s math and science involved too; you measure light, choose an emulsion based on creative goals (or whatever’s thawed from the freezer); you communicate through the machine’s knobs and dials your preferences on how best to approach the scene – knowing through intimate repetition how it’ll interpret and render your input. You view, you tweak. Rinse and repeat. Until you get it right. Until you get what you want. Until you’re released to move on to the next thing.

Fall Colors in Gunnison National Forest, Colorado (2011)
Fall Colors in Gunnison National Forest, Colorado (2011)

Again, Robert Adams: “Over and over again the photographer walks a few steps and peers, rather comically, into the camera; to the exasperation of family and friends, he inventories what seems an endless number of angles; he explains, if asked, that he is trying for effective composition, but hesitates to define it. What he means is that a photographer wants form, an unarguably right relationship of shapes, a visual stability in which all components are equally important. The photographer hopes, in brief, to discover a tension so exact that it is peace.” This “peace” usually isn’t the product of dumb luck, but creative intent.

This narrative began as a high-and-mighty dissertation on why people should still shoot film. Then I pulled up some digital images made on a recent outing and thought, you know what? It really doesn’t matter – beyond what your creative intent is. Digital photography has made me a better film shooter, and shooting film has helped hone my vision; my focus. For whatever reason, though, I’m always more creatively invigorated when I pick up my film camera (and I love the quality of the image. tangent: Image Quality is often talked about as only “high” or “low.” I think of Image Quality as a summary of the unique qualities an image possesses).

The way I see it life is one, big art project; sometimes even maybe like a beautiful tapestry: if you’ve ever viewed one of these intricately woven masterpieces from the bottom it appears chaotic;  threads running everywhere, patterns abruptly halting, isolated threads hanging down; far from beautiful. But if you flip that same tapestry over and view it from the top, it’s a masterpiece.

Colorado Pet and Feed, Fort Collins, Colorado (2011)
Colorado Pet and Feed, Fort Collins, Colorado (2011)

As an artist then, I think an important step in recording this “masterpiece in progress” is to find a tool – a medium – that speaks to your creativity. A while back I was listening to a radio interview with Booker T. Jones, the incredible musician known for his unique sound, created with the Hammond B3 Organ. He said about his discovery of the B3, “I found an instrument that I can speak through.” I think that’s really the key to a lifetime of fulfilling, creative photography: finding tools that encourage your unique vision. Then begins the process – as it did for me that Christmas morning long ago when I popped that flash cube on my new Kodak – of getting out there and creating your own tapestry. Though at any given moment the results may not appear to possess coherent attributes; some semblance of purpose or direction; don’t stop. You never know what it’s going look like from the other side.

And yes, it’s OK if your only reason for doing it is simply because it pleases you to do so.

You’re in good company.

postlude: This essay was originally published in Bob Kidd’s “Sunday Street” blog. To visit Sunday Street please click here.

Honesty

An honest image means no trespassing. It means closing gates behind you and honoring the mandate to stay on the trail – and missing the shot you want because you did. An honest image begins an hour before sun up and ends an hour after sun down. It means a last tilt of the thermos of tepid, too-strong coffee for something to drink at the end of the day. An honest image means washboard roads, AM talk radio, bugs in the radiator and chipped windscreens. It means nearly running out of fuel and paying too much a gallon at the nearly closed, sporting good-convenient store-fast-food chain-delicatessen-truck stop-fuel mart that smells like burnt coffee and is out of TP.

I went on one of my 4042n jaunts last Saturday, this time to SoapStone Prairie Open Space, a relatively new area at the extreme edge of Colorado. You can cross into Wyoming on one of the short backcountry trails. Having decided the goal for the day was to record honest images, I headed out with a pack full of Portra 160, some Ektar, some Delta and of course Tri-X.

soapstone prairie natural area, fort collins, colorado
Soapstone Prairie Morning, Extreme Northern Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

What do I mean by honest images. I mean images of an area that don’t happen for a split second once a month, then are gone. An honest image is an unpretentious image. An honest image represents what an area looks like 99.9% of the time, not .1% of the time, deceiving viewers into believing every minute of every day looks like magic hour. An honest image means heading out when nothing’s flowering, nothing’s blooming and nothing’s having babies. An honest image is two does and a buck watching you work your way up the trail in grey-blue hour, wondering if you’re there to kill them, and deciding your not.


North of Wellington, Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

The honest image means a natural color film. Not a digital camera. Not Velvia (though I do think honest images can be made on Velvia). The temptation with Velvia is to force it into the dishonest realm – to compromise it. Juice it. An honest image means no Photoshop monkey business. It means no pano’s, no stitching, and for the love of all things good and right in the world, no HDR. An honest image means being intentional about the media you choose to record a scene that’s chosen you. An honest image means no black and white conversions. It means no cropping your way to a good image. It means thinking in series, or working for the stand-alone, solitary shot that needs no caption, no tag line.


Evolution of a front range sunset, no.3, Fort Collins, Colorado (Kodak Ektar)

An honest image means medium format, 120 fine-grained, color negative film to capture every bit of nuance, every slight tonal variation, every bit of every square inch of everything in front of your fixed, focal-length (non-zooming) lens as you stand behind the tripod with the cable release in hand and trip the shutter. An honest image means waiting. It means looking intently for composition and it means missing. It means seeing a shot and not being able to frame it properly and passing it by, but allowing it to burn into your brain for next time.


Rawhide Power Plant, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

An honest image means it fits the subject matter. Northern Colorado and southern Wyoming aren’t Disneyland. The land is muted, earthen hues. Greens, mauves, ochres, tans, cobalt blues, cadmium reds, burnt sienna’s; big skies, small plants, ugly rocks and lots of wind. It’s bright, sunny, high-altitude light out of dynamic range praying for a cloud to drift between the sun and the earth to make a shot. An honest image means driving for hours and stopping in the middle of an unmarked county dirt road to turn around to make a shot that you pray you can make before a car comes over the hill and… because with the wind blowing and the hood on your Carhartt up you can’t hear anything more than 3 feet away. An honest image means getting dusty and dirty kneeling down in the the ditch. It means chasing your hat across the prairie when the wind takes it.

red mountain open space, fort collins, colorado
Near Red Mountain Open Space, Northern Larimer County, Colorado (Kodak Portra 160)

An honest image means no trespassing. It means closing gates behind you and honoring the mandate to stay on the trail – and missing the shot you want because you did. An honest image begins an hour before sun up and ends an hour after sun down. It means a last tilt of the thermos of tepid, too-strong coffee for something to drink at the end of the day. An honest image means washboard roads, AM talk radio, bugs in the radiator and chipped windscreens. It means nearly running out of fuel and paying too much a gallon at the nearly closed, sporting good-convenient store-fast-food chain-delicatessen-truck stop-fuel mart that smells like burnt coffee and is out of TP.

An honest image means – above all else – joy. Peace. Solitude. Creative immersion. It means Discovery. An honest image is a very, very good thing.

Post-Lude: In the spirit of “honesty,” this post was first published in my previous blog, written when I was shooting a lot of medium format film. Images in this post were not made with the Nikon F6 on 35mm film, but the Mamiya RZ67 on 120 (medium format) film. Not that anyone cares – or would ever know.