Aerial Photography of Rocky Mountain National Park

Marquee view from above: Mount Meeker, Longs Peak, Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda, Chiefs Head

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]

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Poking their massive, craggy heads above the clouds to say hello; 14,259′ Longs Peak and 13,911′ Mount Meeker. Having stood atop both of these mountains, I appreciate this view from above all the more. [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.

Aerial photographs of Colorado; western slope, Kremmling area
Coming in to Kremmling, Colorado; west of Rocky Mountain National Park, between the park’s western border and Hot Sulphur Springs along Highway 40. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 38mm; 1/250 @ f5.6]
Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 48mm, 1/200 @ f7.1.]
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.

Aerial photography of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Over Weld County in a Cessna Skyhawk, 2011. Landing gear and wing struts are facts of life shooting from the air. As much as you want them on the plane for obvious reasons – they can be tough to shoot around.

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.

Ypsilon Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
A favorite from the day: 13,520′ Ypsilon Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park. Light is everything. The direction and angle of the plane determines the shots. With no way to roll the window down, shooting through it is the only option, introducing the challenge of reflections and glare entering from the opposite side of the aircraft. Having a skilled pilot maneuver to the desired point of view is crucial to frame things up properly. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 45mm; 1/250 @ f7.1].
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.

Aerial photographs of western Colorado.
The Colorado River just east of Kremmling, Colorado along Highway 40. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 48mm; 1/160 @ f5.6].
Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
A sea of dense, puffy clouds blanketed the Rockies this beautiful afernoon, with the occasional granite beheamoth poking its craggy head up through for a breath of crisp, high-altitude, Colorado air. The Mountains seemed to wave hello to our little craft as we passed above, reminding me of humpback whales breaching in Alaska. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 70mm; 1/250 @ f7.1]
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.

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Earlier in the afternoon flying into the sun (west) the light was a little more harsh; shadows more pronounced, and fighting glare and reflections off the windows was a challenge. Despite this – it’s just tough to make a bad photograph when this is what’s before you. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 34mm; 1/800 @ f5.6]
Refueling in Kremmling, Colorado (2017)

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…

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Nothing but Colorado’s magnificent high country filled the view in front of the plane. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 70mm, 1/320 @ f7.1.]
Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National, Colorado.
Coming home over Rocky Mountain National Park in perfect conditions. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 48mm; 1/400 @ f7.1]
Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 60mm; 1/400 @ f7.1]
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.

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 48mm; 1/320 @ f5.6]
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.

Having the time of my life. iPhone photo by Matthew Crane.
Having the time of my life. iPhone photo by Matthew Crane.
Having the time of my life. iPhone photo by Matthew Crane.
Having the time of my life. iPhone photo by Matthew Crane.

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.

Aerial photographs of Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Never Summer Range, western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. [Nikon F6, E100VS, Nikkor 28-70ED f2.8 @ 50mm; 1/500 @ f5.6]
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.

Flight Crew, Kremmling, Colorado (2017)

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.

Night Vision (sort of); or Custom Setting B5 (Extended Shutter Speeds)

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.

Upper Wacker and Dearborn, Chicago, Illinois (2016). (exif data: 10″, F11, 24(17-35), F2.8, Color matrix, M, Front curtain sync, 0.0, -1.0,0.0, non-TTL auto flash, Multiple exposure, AE Unlock, VR off, 2016/12/28,19:59; Ilford HP5+)

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.

Upper Wacker and the Chicago River, December 2016 (exif data: 02,20″,F8,20(17-35),F2.8,Color matrix,M,Front curtain sync,0.0,-0.3,0.0,non-TTL auto flash,None,AE Unlock,VR off,2016/12/28,19:42, Ilford HP5+)

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.

Chicago at Night, Harry Carry’s, Chicago. Nikon F6 + HP5+@ISO1600, developed in Ilford DDX
Harry Caray’s, Chicago, Illinois. Nikon F6 + HP5+@ISO1600, developed in Ilford DDX
Harry Caray’s, Chicago, Illinois. Nikon F6 + HP5+@ISO1600, developed in Ilford DDX

Nikon F6 + CLS (Creative Lighting System)

The setup: The F6 with the Nikon SU-800 Commander head mounted in the hot shoe; the Nikon SB-800 Speed Light (at left behind the diffusion panel) and the Nikon SU-R200 Speed Light at right with the white diffusion panel in front of it.

I’ve wanted to do a CLS write up for a while and finally had a nicely suited project to use. When the warm weather ends I clean out the shop from summer projects and get ready for some indoor fun through winter. This almost always turns up something interesting I forgot I had. This time it was this antique STANLEY Thermos, complete with frayed, knit sock. I thought it would be an appropriate entry to my Shop Series. So I’ll use the Thermos shot to introduce a few CLS components and how to work with them. You’ll see it’s pretty simple, but without a “quick start” it’s easy to file CLS into the “I’ll get around to it some day” bin.

Film photography with off-camera flash using Nikon's CLS is one of the truly great things about shooting film with the Nikon F6.
STANLEY Thermos Project – black and white: Film photography with off-camera flash using Nikon’s CLS is one of the truly great things about shooting film with the Nikon F6.
The setup: The F6 with the Nikon SU-800 Commander head mounted in the hot shoe; the Nikon SB-800 Speed Light (at left behind the diffusion panel) and the Nikon SU-R200 Speed Light at right with the white diffusion panel in front of it.
The setup: The F6 with the Nikon SU-800 Commander head mounted in the hot shoe; the Nikon SB-800 Speed Light (at left behind the diffusion panel) and the Nikon SB-R200 Speed Light at right with the white diffusion panel in front of it.
Stanely Thermos Project - color. Nikon F6 + Kodak Ektar, developed in Cs41 color developing kit.
Stanley Thermos Project – color. Nikon F6 + Kodak Ektar, developed in Cs41 color developing kit.

One of the key attributes of the F6 is the circuitry it contains to run Nikon’s Creative Lighting System, or CLS. No other Nikon film SLR has this ability. If you’re not using your F6 + CLS you’re missing out on one of the features making it unique. There are two components (besides the camera) you’ll need to run CLS on your F6:

a) The SU-800 Commander head. Because the F6 does not have a built-in flash, access to the CLS control is through the SU-800 mounted on the camera’s hot shoe. The SU-800 looks a little like flash but doesn’t actually contain a strobe unit. This is the brain, so to speak. You could also use a CLS capable speed light like the SB-800. This also has a “Commander” mode allowing access to the same functionality.

Nikon F6 with the Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800. At first glance it looks like a flash - but there's no strobe unit.
Nikon F6 and Wireless Speedlight Commander SU-800. At first glance it looks like a flash – but there’s no strobe unit. The red center emits a beam allowing focus assist in low-light conditions. The SU-800 retails for about $250 and uses 1 3-volt CR123 battery – the same battery as the F6 without the grip.
Nikon SU-800 Commander flash head, required to access the F6's CLS functions.
Nikon SU-800 Commander flash head, required to access the F6’s CLS functions. The letters and numbers visible in  the SU-800 display indicate the Channels each flash can use for individual control. Light levels are set on the Commander head and wirelessly communicated to remote Speed Lights. Pretty slick.
The SU-800 Commander head allows control over each "remote" flash via the menu. Here the SB-800 on left is shown in Group A; the SB-R200 on right is shown in Group B. Each group allows independent control of power levels.
The SU-800 Commander head (center) allows control over each “remote” flash via the menu. Here the SB-800 (left) is shown in Group A; the SB-R200 (right) is shown in Group B. Each group allows independent control of power levels.
Nikon SB-800: the long-time workhorse of the Creative Lighting System. The SB-800 menu system is a little more cryptic than the newer SB-900 series, but not prone to shut off due to overheating issues like the 900 is.
Nikon SB-800: the long-time workhorse of the Creative Lighting System. The SB-800 menu system is a little more cryptic than the newer SB-900 series, but not prone to shut off due to overheating issues like the 900 is.

b) At least one CLS-compatible flash, which means anything after the Nikon SB-300 and up. For this shot I’ll be using the SU-800, SB-800 Speedlight and the diminutive SB-R200 Speedlight.

SU-R200 Speedlight, part of the Nikon's R1C1 Macro Kit. I use these little guys all the time. They're small, portable, just enough power to breathe life into - but not over power the scene.
SB-R200 Speedlight, part of the Nikon’s R1C1 Macro Kit. I use these flexible little guys for all kinds of things. They’re small, portable, just enough power to breathe life into – but not overpower – the scene.
The SB-800 set to "REMOTE." Interacting with flash settings is accomplished from the Commander head.
The SB-800 set to “REMOTE.” Interacting with flash settings is accomplished from the Commander head.

To reinforce how simple CLS is to use I’ll keep it brief. The concept is simple: the SU-800 commander head communicates wirelessly with the other flashes and tells them when – and how bright to fire. The other flashes are simply set to “REMOTE” mode – ready to receive instructions from the Commander.

Because I’m going through the trouble to do this on film – film is cheap and I’m going to make the most of the opportunity. I devoted a full roll of Ilford FP4+ to bracket flash output and depth of field. Another nice thing about having plenty of images to choose from is if film acquires some imperfections in processing such as water spots or scratches there are plenty of other frames to choose from. Sometimes those analog anomalies add to “the look,” other times they don’t.

Here is a sample of the EXIF data generated from the chosen frame:

07, 2″, F13, 105, F2.8, Color matrix, M, Front curtain sync, 0.0, +0.2, 0.0, non-TTL auto flash/Optional speedlight/Multiple flash, None, AE Unlock, VR off, 2016/11/06,17:09

You can see there’s no specific flash power output; i.e., what the flash on Channel 1A was set to vs. 1B. Keeping notes on such things helps in future projects. The PhotoMemo Photographer’s Memo Book below (picked up from Mike Padua’s shootfilmco.com web site) came in handy to record the different steps – things that weren’t recorded in EXIF data.

After shooting, developing (Ilford DDX at 1:4 for 10 minutes) and scanning (Nikon LS-5000), Meta35 was used to marry the EXIF data with each frame.

Using Nikon's Creative Lighting System with black and white film.
Shop Series: STANLEY Thermos, Fort Collins, Colorado (2016)

The final result was the frame I felt best balanced light levels, depth of field and overall look and feel. To state the obvious – yes, it would have been easier to do this digitally. But for my creative goals there was no substitute for representing this vintage item in anything other than black and white film. I was particularly interested in how film rendered the different textures and imperfections in the smooth but aged metal finish of the thermos, the shiny metal cap and of course that beautiful knit sock complete with frayed threads dangling. From the moment I saw it – it had to be film.

Photographer's PhotoMemo book from shootfilmco.com. Inexpensive, well thought out and easy to have with you in a shirt pocket.
Photographer’s PhotoMemo book from shootfilmco.com. Inexpensive, well thought out and easy to have with you in a shirt pocket.

If questions come to mind as you explore CLS shoot me a note on our newly re-vamped contact page. I’ve love to see anyone with a F6 look into Nikon’s Creative Lighting System. It’s a unique feature and will change your photography for the better.

A Case for 35mm Film

35mm film has endured for a reason. Could it be the ideal format? You decide.

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 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.

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.

Mirror-Up Shooting: It’s For Real

Nikon F2 Photomic S Slow Motion Video

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.

Santa Fe and Vintage, Nikon Film Bodies, chapter 2

Supernatural autumn evening light bathes the Rio Grande Gorge just outside of Taos, New Mexico.

Chapter 2: San Luis, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico

One of my great joys in life is driving; to simply wander and explore with a camera; and once in a while to answer that perennial question – what’s down this road, or around the next bend? The drive from San Luis, Colorado to Taos, New Mexico has to be one of the most beautiful drives. Ever. When we lived in Santa Fe returning to Colorado was always a highly anticipated event – largely for the road trip. Sure, you can hop on I-25 and be door-to-door a few minutes faster, but that’s rarely the point.

159 south out of San Luis turns into 522 as you cross the New Mexico state line. The route is dotted with piñon pines – like beard stubble on a giant face – framing broad, sweeping vistas. Active skies hover weightlessly above distant mountain ranges toned by years of erosion and gnarled, stunted flora on this flat stretch of road passing through the southern region of the San Luis Valley. To the East the Spanish Peaks rise abruptly from the valley floor. To the west lies distant Kit Carson National Forest, home of Abiquiu and Georgia Okeeffe’s Ghost Ranch. The beauty of the area is understated during afternoon’s high angle light hours. Not quite desert – not quite mountains – the land can come across as harsh, unforgiving terrain void of life.

Sangre de Cristo sunrise, San Luis Valley, Colorado
Sangre de Cristo sunrise, San Luis Valley, Colorado

Towards the edges of the day, however, a softness emerges completely altering the same landscape in etherial beauty; the tones of distant ranges shifting from undifferentiated grays to subtle ochres, siennas, cadmiums, cobalts and indigos – and skies with supernatural color beyond comprehension. Dirt roads vanish into oblivion, pointing at no obvious destination save a clump of trees on the distant valley floor. A service road to a watering station for cattle? A driveway small children need to walk a half-hour to catch a bus on? One day – with a full tank of gas and plenty of film – I’ll discover where these roads lead. But today’s not that day. As is often the case when we hit this part of the drive it’s mid/late in the afternoon and the light isn’t so great – but only a photographer would complain about it. To pass through this land in the mornings and evenings is well worth the effort.

Big Horn Sheep, Rio Grand Gorge, Taos County (2014)
Big Horn Sheep, Rio Grand Gorge, Taos County (Nikon F6 + 70-200mm @200mm + Ektar pushed 1 stop; 2014).

In your rear view mirror you’ll see the impressive Sangre de Cristo range towering on the northern horizon, anchored by the ominous and deadly Blanca Peak, one of the most notorious “Fourteeners” in Colorado. For those who don’t know, Colorado is home to all 53 peaks in the Rocky Mountain chain – from Canada to Mexico – that rise above fourteen thousand feet in elevation. Near Fort Garland, Colorado the Sangre de Cristos hook to the east slightly then continue south into northern New Mexico where they melt back into the surrounding hillsides and rolling arroyos above the town of Santa Fe.

Sangre de Christo mountains, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Fresh snow on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains up Ski Basin Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico (Nikon F4s + TMAX400).

From a photographer’s point of view the land presents virtually endless compositions – but can be tricky for the landscape photographer to actually frame something up. Often times there’s little more than a horizon and sky to work with. Occasionally you’ll have something of foreground interest; an unusual roadside shelter, an old tractor abandoned along the road, a derelict mobile home trailer parked in a field, or towers of neatly stacked, freshly baled hay. For shots like this – where there’s less of an immediate object to focus on and the image relies more on faithful representation of subtle detail – I’ll switch to a fine-grain, high resolution film like Ektar, (or Velvia/Provia when I was shooting more chrome films).

The town of Questa, New Mexico is the next “major” town along the route. One of Questa’s claims to fame is its honey production. Long about the time we hit Questa, we’re hungry. Last summer we decided to uphold our tradition of avoiding chain restaurants and dining instead at locally owned establishments. This led us to WildCat’s Den in Questa. I’ll be honest… at first I was a little skeptical about bringing my family into this sketchy looking establishment, with bars on the windows. The WildCat Den sounded like something other than what it turned out to be – pure and simply, home of one of the best burgers in northern New Mexico.

The Wildcat's Den, Quesa, New Mexico (2013)
Donny, The Wildcat’s Den, Questa, New Mexico (2013)

We burgered up, chatted with the cooks and headed out. If you ever find yourself wandering through Questa hungry, make sure you hit the WildCat’s Den. Don’t be fooled by the bars on the windows – they’re to keep the burgers in – not the people out.

Roadside Memorial, Questa, New Mexico (2014)
Roadside Memorial, Questa, New Mexico (2014)

South of Questa, the only signs of life are the small, mountain enclaves of Arroyo Hondo, San Cristobal and El Prado. At night this drive can be harrowing, evidenced by the abundance of one of my ongoing fascinations – roadside memorials  – dotting the route. Unfortunately in New Mexico you see a lot of them. On the way out of Questa we passed this especially poignant one I couldn’t help but stop at.

Efforts to curb suicides at Rio Grande Gorge sputter
Jumper no.1, Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, Taos, New Mexico (August, 2013)

A big draw in Taos is the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. At 650 feet above the river below it’s spectacular – and easily accessible – spanning the Rio Grande Gorge just a few miles west Taos on Highway 64. Unfortunately its accessibility has become an issue for those wishing to use the bridge to end their lives. Jumpers off the Rio Grande Gorge bridge number 115 in the last 20 years. When we were there last August another person had recently jumped to their death. Emergency vehicles blocked access to the side of the bridge thus thankfully preventing the view to the body below. The knowledge it had just been discovered moments before we arrived temporarily erased the light-hearted spirit being on vacation inspires.

Efforts to curb suicides at Rio Grande Gorge sputter
Emergency workers make their way down perilously steep canyon walls to reach yet another body, a victim of suicide by jumping off the 650 foot bridge (August, 2013).

That’s quite enough talk about roadside memorials and people jumping to their death. Fortunately on this trip no such events preceded our arrival. Instead we were met by these guys (below image). I’ll take them over the other any day of the week. There were several different groupings of big horns along the east side of the canyon. The rams huddled together along the rim while the mommas with their kids dotted the cliffs below.

Big Horn Sheep, Rio Grande Gorge, Taos, New Mexico (2014)
Big Horn Sheep, Rio Grande Gorge, Taos, New Mexico (2014)

The F6 was the obvious choice for these images of Big Horns because of its VR capability. Afternoon light was beginning to dwindle and though they were relatively close on the canyon rim – 200mm closed the gap. Pushing Ektar one stop to ISO200 set the 70-200VR up for success with a comfortable working combo of ƒ5 at 1/400. The 70-200mm VR is a great lens but experience has taught me to not expect greatness for shots like this at ƒ2.8. No time for a tripod – everything was hand held. The F4s stayed in the car for this outing, not wanting to fumble with additional gear while changing film. He would have his chance to shine later.

Rio Grande Gorge, Taos County, New Mexico (2014)
Rio Grande Gorge, Taos County, New Mexico (Nikon F6 + 105VR lens + Ektar pushed 1 stop; 2014)
Old Jeep Willys Pick up truck living out the rest of its days as a planter, Taos, New Mexico (2013)
Old Jeep Willys Pick up truck living out the rest of its days as a planter, Taos, New Mexico (2013)

By the time we arrived in Taos we were ready for a longer break. Less populated and more mountainous than Santa Fe, Taos is a town of notoriety and size, standing unique in the regions’s art community. The hearty traveler could spend a lifetime exploring Taos and surrounding area. You never know what you’ll find winding through town on back alleys rather than being stuck in traffic on the main road. This old, turquoise Jeep pick up truck appears to be blessed living out its remaining days as a planter in someone’s front yard.

Taos, New Mexico (2014)
Taos, New Mexico (2014)

The Taos art community is world renown, spanning generations with heavy hitters like Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, E. Martin Hennings and Walter Ufer. Today, famous artists such as Charles Collins and so many others line the plaza with unique, inspiring art. Something about being around art makes you want to create art with the camera. For me that’s what our trips to New Mexico are all about – and the fun was only just beginning.

Lincoln's Union by Charles Collins, Taos, New Mexico (2014)
Lincoln’s Union by Charles Collins, Taos, New Mexico (2014)

“Lincolns Union” is a “Master Mind” sculpture created by Charles Collins – a bonafied “Master” from Taos, New Mexico (2014). The sculpture is composed of three, individual pieces that stand on their own, representing the Union solider, the Confederate solider and “the woman who held the flame of hope for both.” When reconfigured they form a unique, new shape resembling Lincoln’s face.

I could go on and on about Taos – but we’d never get to the next destination: Santa Fe. Coming up next, the Art Epicenter of the United States, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thanks for sticking with me this far. The real fun is about to begin.

Pushing Kodak Ektar 2 Stops

Angels of 7A Dahlia

Can it be done? Yes! Here’s the story:

The other day I was on an assignment and pulled a rookie move. I became so preoccupied talking and laughing with the client, fiddling with light – diffusion panels to knock the sun down; fiddling with power levels on the SU-800 and SB-R200’s  – that I forgot to change the ISO after previously shooting a 400 speed film. I don’t typically use the DX setting  – preferring instead to set ISO manually, especially when using custom rather than rated ISO’s. I realized my mistake halfway through the roll and was pretty embarrassed – though the client never knew.

I decided to continue on, hoping the lab would bail me out, and was blown away by the results. They were perfect. Kevin at Digi-Graphics said, “I’ve never pushed Ektar 2 stops before but it’s great film. It should be just fine. If it were junk film not so much. Who knows… this might be exactly how you should shoot Ektar…”

Dahlia, Water Lilly, Angels of 7A
Angels of 7a, Water Lilly Dahila

As it turned out, those were prophetic words… with a few caveats.

These images are scanned in using the Nikon LS-5000 and VueScan. I ordered prints with this roll – something I don’t usually do – and they were awful – unusably awful – the red channel completely flooded blocking up the center of the flower in one, big, featureless blob of red-ness. When I saw the prints I thought, “Uh-Oh… I’m busted” and the negs sat on my light box for nearly a week as I mulled over what to do. I’d also made a few digital frames as back-ups and began considering tweaking them into what I wanted for the final images.

Last night I took another look at the negs on the light box with a loop. I could see plenty of detail in the red regions of the film and thought what the heck, it wouldn’t be the first time the prints were disappointing but the images were still good. I sat down and started scanning and was – once again – blown away by what film does. Even though the original prints were unusably awful there was plenty of information there. The question was, how to get to it. A little VueScan magic did the trick. Switching to Manual mode I began adjusting values in the red channel for scanning. Turns out about half of the standard setting did the trick and all that lovely detail began to reemerge.

Light:
The F6 has the unique ability among other film cameras to leverage Nikon’s Creative Lighting System and this was a perfect opportunity to see what the R1C1 Close-up Flash kit could do. The flowers were in direct sunlight, so a diffusion panel was used to neutralize the bright, Colorado sun. The SU-800 Commander head was mounted to the F6 and set to an even 1:1 Group C, Channel 1. I typically use Group C for my Macro work because Groups A and B are used more often for the SB-800 and 900 for more common lighting tasks. The Flash Sync Mode on the F6 was set to “Slow,” and the Sync Speed (Custom Setting Menu item E-1) was set to 1/250FP allowing sync speeds greater than the 1/250th of a second using Auto FP High Speed Sync. The SW-11 Close-Up Adaptors were used to position the light extremely close to the center axis of the lens, providing a very mild, straight-on, diffused light source, but perfect for picking up reflected detail in the water droplets. The goal was natural-appearing lighting with that little extra something. Though it hadn’t rained in a while, I flicked some water on the leaves, then hit it with a spray bottle for a little extra sparkle on the petals.

Nikon F6 shown with: Nikon R1C1 Macro Close-Up Flash Kit (Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander, Nikon SX-1 attachment ring, Nikon SY-1-62 adaptor ring, NIKON SB-R200 wireless remote speedlight, NIKON SW-11 extreme close-up adaptor) Nikon DR-5 Right-Angle Viewer; Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens.
Nikon F6 shown with: Nikon R1C1 Macro Close-Up Flash Kit (Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander, Nikon SX-1 attachment ring, Nikon SY-1-62 adaptor ring, NIKON SB-R200 wireless remote speedlight, NIKON SW-11 extreme close-up adaptor) Nikon DR-5 Right-Angle Viewer; Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens.

I’ve said before but it bares repeating: the Creative Lighting System is indeed one of the unique attributes of the F6 causing it to stand out amidst other film cameras. At the end of the day photography is largely about how light interacts with medium. Being intentional then about how to use that light is one way to direct, or shape, the contents of the frame. In the spirit of Tomohisa Ikeno “Value of Unique Pictures” discussion (please click here), the more I shoot the F6, the more interested I am in exploring the unique images it’s capable of.  Nikon’s CLS figures prominently into that exploration.

Kodak Ektar, pushing 2 stops: This image shows how well Ektar's grain held up despite the 2-stop push. Incredible detail is still within its grasp.
Just Married, Lacinated-Cactus Dahlia. This image shows how well Ektar’s grain held up despite the 2-stop push. Incredible detail is still within its grasp.

As it turned out, shooting Ektar at ISO400 – while not something I’d have thought to do intentionally – produced great results. It allowed working with higher shutter speeds to combat a slight breeze shifting the flowers ever so slightly. Pushing Ektar also amplified the natural tendencies of this already vivid, contrasty film.  “Yup. Pushing a color film increases grain, saturation and contrast at the expense of latitude. Pushing an already saturated film super saturates it,” said my buddy Eric, well versed in matters of darkroom chemistry. Given that Ektar is already a finely-grained film, the increase in grain is nominal, if noticeable at all. But the increase in saturation is very noticeable – and to a lesser degree a bump in contrast may also be seen. This explains the flooding of the red channel in the initial prints.

Kodak Ektar pushed 2 stops pushes Ektar's already vivid color and contrast into overdrive. Straight out of scanning with no contrast or saturation boost.
Tahoma Sarah, Mini-Dahlia

These images are directly out of VueScan with no adjustment to color or contrast at all. Normally when scanning Ektar there’s a certain degree of color adjustment required to get the images looking right to my eye. Here – they just jump off the screen with no adjustment what so ever.

So in case you ever need to push Ektar, do it with confidence. It works great. Just be mindful when you go to print the images that you adjust the color properly. The resulting super saturated images may exceed most printers’ ability to reproduce the results. This I know for sure: I’ll be shooting my next roll of Ektar at 200 and pushing it a stop to experiment. Who knows… I may have just stumbled bass-ackwards into a new look.

Memphis in the Meantime

Street photography in Memphis, Tennessee

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.

Opening Post

Nikon F6 shown with: Nikon R1C1 Macro Close-Up Flash Kit (Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commander, Nikon SX-1 attachment ring, Nikon SY-1-62 adaptor ring, NIKON SB-R200 wireless remote speedlight, NIKON SW-11 extreme close-up adaptor) Nikon DR-5 Right-Angle Viewer; Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED Lens.

Welcome to the Nikon F6 Project. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

Nikon F6: I had in mind when I sat down to write this introduction a eloquent, thought-provoking soliloquy capable of convincing anyone, anyplace that shooting a film camera in 2009 still had meaning; that it wasn’t only worth doing but a good thing to do. Smart. An essay that would appear in blogs around the world extolling the virtues of film; of ardent, stubborn truth and idealism, old-school virtues, staying the course despite the appearance of what today appears to be. Nikon would have a parade for me in Japan and I’d throw yellow and black confetti on children as they … well, you get the idea.

Recently I put up a gallery on my zenfolio site entitled “nikon F6“. The only traffic it receives is me checking it from my iPhone. It’s becoming more obvious that no one really cares about 35mm film (except Ken Rockwell-God bless him). At first this saddened me. Then the other night we were at a family gathering and I was talking with a fellow photographer, a commercial pro from Denver. We were extrapolating years down the road and he said “no one will know how to shoot film… it will be the domain of the few, the eccentric, the creatives, the artists… it will be a specialty, a niché, desirable because it’s rare; a lost art.” An idea was born.

The Nikon F6 was introduced in 2004. There are plenty of detailed, very well written compendiums and chronological essays of the camera and some glimpses of the potential thought processes surrounding Nikon’s decision to build it. Honestly, I don’t know anything about any of that. It’s all cool stuff, but it doesn’t really do it for me. Google Nikon F6 and you’ll come up with a wealth of information. That’s not what this site is about.

Nikon F6
Shooting fall colors in Gunnison National Forest, Colorado (2011)

The Nikon F6 is of course a 35mm film camera. The thing about 35mm film that makes it special to me is the quality vs. portability matrix – and of course the fact that it’s analog, not digital. I remember a while back I was reading about one of my favorite photographers, the late Galen Rowell, (Galen Rowell, A Retrospective, Sierra Club Books, 2006) who said no way was he going to lug a large format view camera up a mountain to take pictures. If 35mm film is good enough for Galen, it’s certainly good enough for me. The key for me then, is to make sure I get that little, luggable camera up the mountain, into the canyons, under the waters, into the rivers, caves, air ways, flight paths, game trails, every other hard-to-get-to place you can think of and all those you can’t imagine. In other words, get out there and shoot. Go places. Do things. Meet people. See stuff. Which should come as no coincidence, is what I love to do.

I bought my F6 new in August of 2008 just before leaving for a photo trip to Zion National Park. Really more just to have one, just in case it was their last. But after reading up on it, running a few rolls of film through it and seeing the results I realized this was no camera to sit on a shelf gathering dust as a collector’s item. Rather, an instrument of precision and perfection to be exercised, pushed to the limits, run wide-open on high-test; a weapon against the ordinary; a domineering force of photographic Nikon F6 35mm film camera, Nikon SU-800 wireless speedlight commandernature born to destroy the bell-curve of “good enough;” a hunter of Barthe’s punctum with every release of the refined, kevlar focal plane shutter; the visual can-opener to life exposing to those willing to venture its deep, complex circuitry and technical capabilities exploration of things in a way never before able with 35mm film. Folks, film isn’t dead. It just needed a new champion to help take it to the next level. That champion is the NIkon F6.

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.

The Nikon F6 was built with a strong pre-disposition to seize the moment. It’s an incredibly sophisticated film camera – beyond what most people realize, employing the at-the-time latest digital technologies in terms of metering, auto focus and electronic sophistication including advanced flash capabilities being deployed in the top-end digital cameras – all in a highly refined, unsurpassed durable, rugged yet elegant package drawing on previous Nikon legends for what could be one, final, jaw-dropping, show-stopping, drop-dead perfect camera: the last of its kind. A final exclamation mark by the authors of photographic exclamation.

I grew up seeing the photographs the pros shot with high-end Nikon gear and think, “man, if only I had a camera and glass like that…” well now I do and I still can’t take photos like them. But I continue to try, schleppin’ around my bag, burning through film, squinting through the loop at the light box, scanning image after image, scrutinizing in Photoshop and even printing a few decent efforts… all this for the love of the process. You see, I believe the process of photography bares more examination, more attention, than it receives today. Back in the day, photography was pondered; studied; explored. What I fear is happening today is, there is such an overwhelming volume of meaningless, throw-away images shot millions of times a day that the notion of a photograph being “special” is as incomprehensible as someone pondering the bigger ideas behind why the sky is blue or the earth is round. It’s simply taken for granted. But photographs are special. They do warrant attention, study, examination and excellence in technique and approach.

Nikon F6 at work
The Nikon F6 at work: Zion National Park; Utah, Allenspark, Colorado; Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

So what is this site about? This site is about using the Nikon F6, and what incredible photographs it’s capable of taking. I say this realizing I’m inferring that my photographs are incredible. While even a broken clock is right twice a day and I’ve gotten lucky a few times, for the most part they’re not. And that’s not feigned self-deprication – it’s simply my today’s version of the truth. This site isn’t intended to self-grandize me and my work, but to show what this camera can do – yes, even in my ham-fisted mitts. The reason for this site is to honor, pay homage to, respect, revere what, at this writing, appears will be the last in the long, legendary line of NIkon F-series film cameras. And how to get every drop of performance out of it.

This site is my attempt at examining some of those photographs and some of the reasons for the photographs and how the F6 helped make them. It’s my attempt to hop off that relentless, speeding train of technological progress always apparently late for something – greater convenience, ease of use, digital sterility, simplicity of automation – and take a step back. Years from now, when the film market has all but dried up save for a few, stalwart romantics, and a film Renaissance rumbles through the pile of point-and-shoot castaways in our land fills, people will scour the web, whatever fashion it assumes in that day, and maybe come across this site.

To those people I extend a warm welcome, inviting them to explore the unique, wonderful and even romantic side of photography as it once was, and could be again with this fine instrument. Welcome back.

John B. Crane
Fort Collins, Colorado
08/26/09