Scanning with Nikon LS-5000 Time Machine

Zermatt Curling C;ub, Switzerland 1957
Champs Elysees, France 1957

For the past few months I’ve been working on scanning/archiving slides for my family. It’s a big job – many hundreds of a mixture of very old (late 1950’s) to just sort of old – made in the last few decades.

Gornergrat, Switzerland 1957

Several reoccurring thoughts travel my mind as I sit before the screen, inserting slides, waiting for focus, scanning the slides, and naming them in some orderly fashion so we’re actually able to find them once scanned.

Place de la Concorde, Paris, 1957

One is, I’m sure glad we have these images. They are the closest thing to a time machine I’m aware of. The other night I was looking at photographs of the Zurmatt Curling Club in Switzerland, circa 1957. Wow… talk about a blast from the past. My father took a trip to Europe after getting out of the army in the late 50’s. He and his Kodak Retina documented the countryside well and now, 60 years later, I’m seeing what he saw. That’s pretty cool.

Goat Cart and Children, Paris, 1957

Another is, as I inspect each slide, many are made on Ektachrome and carry a rather red bias. Thank goodness for the sophisticated software we have available today to bring the very best out of even these ancient (by photographic terms) slides.

Madeline Church, Paris, 1957

I wonder how much longer the film will continue to carry an image? The slides have been stored properly and meticulously labeled providing ample information to name and describe them. Though these images have remained intact for many years, there will come a time they’ll fade away to nothing. Everything has a life span and nothing lasts forever. Digitally archiving them while they’re still viable is a good use of time and energy.

View of Paris from Arc de Triomphe, 1957
View of Paris from Arc de Triomphe, 1957

I’m grateful for on-line sharing services like zenfolio, of which I’ve been a part of since 2007, allowing such easy archiving and custom, private sharing of these and other images with select audiences. Sharing these images with family members across the globe with a few clicks is easy, cost-effective and painless. And the delight it brings those is real.

Horses and Sleigh, Zermatt, Switzerland, 1957

I think about how there are really no shortcuts. To get the most out of each frame, the image needs to be scanned, optimized, color adjusted and cropped at a decent enough resolution to cover what might be asked of them in the future. I’ve decided on a modest resolution of about 2,700 px on the longest dimension, rather than the full 5,000+ to save some time – and also predicting not many (if any) images will ever be enlarged great than 8″ x 10″.

Arc de Triomphe, France, 1957

I purchased my Nikon Super CoolScan 5000 some time around 2008. I remember driving to Denver in a snow storm and buying – new – the last one on the shelf at Wolf Camera for something like $1,000. The kids in the store looked at me like I was nuts. “Don’t you know about digital cameras?” their smirking eyes said as I walked out the door with my prize. I’ve seen LS-5000’s at auction for upwards of $2K. It’s a great scanner – providing you use the right software with it. But that’s another post.

Subway Poster, Paris, 1957

I’m grateful for this moment in time where we as photographers have the ability to choose from the affordable overabundance of such exquisite high-end picture making gear what tools to work with. I’m grateful for the advanced technology available today to get the absolute most out of every frame shot – from scanning software to post-processing editing tools,  Digital Asset Management tools and on-line sharing tools. I’m grateful for long-stored analog film in the freezer as well as all-new emulsions rolling off the production lines of Kodak and others.

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.
Asked and answered: moving forward, the F6 is king.

With the question of what camera to trust finally settled on once and for all, I’m grateful for my F6, which I fully expect to be clicking away many years from now, its corners and rubber grip worn, with a roll-count well into the thousands.

Statue of Liberty, NY on Kodachrome. Date unknown.
Statue of Liberty, NY on Kodachrome. Date unknown.

The attributes of film endure, providing us with the ability to – 60 years from now – look at the world through the lens at this great time to be a film photographer.

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 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.

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.

Santa Fe and Vintage, Nikon Film Bodies, chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace to you, John B. Crane