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Monday, July 28

Night Photography

A row of bins waiting to be emptied the following morning.

One of the reasons I bought a full frame DSLR (Nikon D700) about four years ago was because I love night photography. The bigger digital sensor can be set to 3200 ISO and, with a lens of f2 or faster, the D700 can be used hand-held after the sun has slipped below the horizon with little in the way of noise at normal print sizes.

As much as I love film, that's really not possible with anything approaching the quality of the D700. Yes, you can push a film to 3200 ISO but be prepared for big grain, little shadow detail and high contrast. So, when it comes to "analogue", a slower film and a tripod are just about indispensable. It's for that reason that I haven't done much low light shooting since returning to film.

Lugging a tripod at night around the small town of Carnoustie where I stay tends to make you a bit conspicuous. However, with the sun setting well into the evening this far north, I thought it was about time to have another go since the streets are usually very quiet then. At 10 p.m. there's still just a faint glow in the sky which is much nicer than a jet black inkiness.

Above and more above: Maule Street junction.

I got a considerable boost from the Haar, the mist that rolls in off the North sea at this time of year. The perfect conditions for night photography, from my point of view, are mist and rain. The Haar made it one out of two so that wasn't bad. I did think of taking a squeezy bottle full of water with me so I could add my own puddles but thought that might attract even more quizzical looks.

One of the issues that has to be considered is the choice of camera. I'd love to have a go at night photography with the 5x4 or even the Rolleiflex SL66 but focusing can be a real problem. I decided to use 35mm so bolted the OM2 and standard lens to the tripod, hoisted it onto my shoulder and set off.

Another couple of views of Maule Street.

With a nice bright focusing screen, I thought the OM2 would have been just fine in the dim light but, as it turned out, I had to guesstimate the distance on probably half of the frames I exposed. That's not always easy or accurate when the subject is perhaps six feet away and the operating aperture is f2.8 but I seemed to get away with it.

Another reason for the OM2 was convenience - yes, the very thing I hate about digital photography and often criticise. What can I say? The camera meters to about -5.5 EV (don't quote me on that: I'm working from memory) and that's very dark. In fact, Olympus used to claim that the OM2 can take pictures by moonlight using its auto exposure function.

So my thinking was that I'd load the camera up with Adox CHS 100 II rated at 100 ISO for development in Spur's HRX, pick an aperture around f4, set the camera to auto exposure and use the self timer to trip the shutter. Then I'd use the exposure compensation dial to give it an extra two stops and repeat.

Although the OM2's meter at shorter shutter speeds is quite heavily centre weighted, when you're talking about exposures of a second or more then the camera reads directly off the film surface during the actual exposure resulting in a very average exposure reading of the scene. If you think about the typical night scene with deep shadows and a few pools of light then it seems sensible to try to average the exposure.


The results? In all but two shots, the plus-two exposure was the right one. The two failures required more exposure than that, probably another two stops but they were difficult scenes with one half in almost total darkness and the other half featuring street lights. An average exposure still left the shadows too dark and featureless.

Overall, I'm quite happy with the OM2 and this way of shooting as even careful use of a handheld meter is unlikely to get a much better strike rate but is a lot less convenient. In keeping with this simple philosophy, I had just one other lens with me, the 24mm f2.8 Zuiko which I used in a couple of shots.

Some photographers recommend curtailing the development a little to control the highlights in night photography but HRX seems to do a good job of that so I just gave the film the recommended time.

What I'd really like to do, though, is go out with the SL66 and the standard 80mm Planar. Will I be able to focus? I'm not sure. The image snaps in and out of focus quite well with the Rollei but I haven't really used it at night and focusing accuracy is more critical with the bigger negative.

Kalart rangefinders are supposed to be quite usable. Maybe it's time I gave
this one a try.

The same thing applies to the 5x4 but I KNOW I wouldn't be able to focus with it on the ground glass. The answer could be to check the accuracy of the side-mounted Kalart rangefinder on the Speed Graphic and use that. I've never even looked through the rangefinder and don't know how feasible this would be but there's no reason it wouldn't work provided it's accurate. And I'm sure there's a wee tutorial somewhere on the web for tweaking it if it's off.

Or I could just attach a side-mounted flashgun to it and blast away Weegie style…

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Thursday, July 24

Analogue Archives: Larry Bartlett Feature

Behind every great photographer there's usually a fantastic printer. Thus begins this 1983 article about Larry Bartlett, a printer who achieved some fame in UK photography circles and probably beyond in his own right. Larry died in 1995 aged just 43 - I read years ago that he took his own life but can't seem to find confirmation of this on the web.

He was John Downing's darkroom master and, in my opinion, Larry did as much as the photographer to produce John's award-winning photographs. Larry's talent earned him the Ilford Printer of the Year title on three occasions and he authored a highly-regarded book, The Black-and-White Photographic Printing Workshop, that is still in print.

There's an Independent obituary of Larry here but I prefer to concentrate on the printer in his prime with this December, 1983, feature from 35mm Photography.

Tuesday, July 22

Fifty Sheds of Grey

OK, I pinched the title from a book I saw in Dobbies garden centre the other day (I was dragged in by Cath to look at plants). The book was nothing but black and white pictures of sheds and there were some fine photographs and equally fine sheds between its covers.

It reminded me of a few photos I'd taken of sheds in the the allotment I sometimes visit when Cath's doing the shopping and I've only got half an hour to kill. Those of you who are now recoiling in horror at the thought of more allotment pics really should be ashamed of yourselves. Growing veg is a worthy pursuit and so is taking pics of it. :)

Sunday, July 20

Photographic history? £1200 to you, Squire.

MW's celebrity offering - taken from their website. No sure how long the link will be productive - depends on how quickly the cameras sell.

Got a few bob burning a hole in your pocket? MW Classic Cameras have a little bit of celebrity on sale for what I reckon is a quite reasonable price.

They're offering two Fuji rangefinders used by Terence Donovan and the Queen's photog, Lord Lichfield, for just under £1200 - with provenance available. I wonder if it comes in the form of a written note beginning, "One can confirm that this camera did, indeed, belong to one's royal photographer, etc".

The fact that Lord Lichfield was the Queen's cousin must have helped him get the palace gig but he was a good photographer and, by all accounts, a decent bloke as well. He died nine years ago aged 66.

Terence Donovan was one of those photographers who played a big part in the Swinging '60s along with Bailey and the like. Sadly, he suffered badly from depression and took his own life at the age of 60 in 1996.

Their rangefinders are a GSW690 with a 65mm wide angle lens and the GW690 camera with a standard 90mm lens, both 6x9. Think big plastic Leicas. Actually, the 90mm lens is nearer the 40mm focal length on 35mm so if you're a fan of that angle of view, here's its big brother - a Leica CL on steroids. The 65mm is roughly equivalent to a 28mm in 35mm terms.

The lenses in these cameras are superb and the results from the big negatives are everything a non-large format photographer could wish for. If you want to do a McCullin and wander the landscape with just one camera and lens around your neck I can't think of a better bit of gear.

I'm not sure which photographer owned which camera but I'm guessing that Lord Lichfield picked up Terence's Fuji when he died.

MW's ad says, "Fujica GSW690, 65/5.6 Fujinon SW + Fujica GW690, 9/3.5 Fujinon 6x9 cameras in fitted case badged "Patrick Litchfield" (sic). Formerly Property of Terrence Donovan & Lord Litchfield - Provenance (sic) available."

I've no connection to MW other than having bought my Rollei SL66 outfit from them three years ago and can't say what these cameras would be like beyond MW's description. However, when you think what they fetch on Ebay, it doesn't seem like a lot to me to own a small piece of photographic history. Whether that sort of thing is of any interest to you is another matter.

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Friday, July 18

Singular Image: Austin A10

Austin A10, Mamiya Press, 90mm Sekor, Ilford HP5

Around twenty years ago, it wasn't completely uncommon to find old cars like this from the 1940s and 1950s rusting away on farmyards or in industrial yards near my home town of Dundee. I'm not saying they were all over the place just that I wouldn't have been too surprised to have found one in this sort of state.

Wednesday, July 16

New Impossible film

Apart from a spell when I was about fifteen and used a Polaroid camera to photograph my golf swing so I could figure out what was going wrong (never did get to the bottom of that) I've never been too interested in instant snaps.

However, there are some gifted photographers who can use instant film in a very creative way and it's good that the Impossible Group is still producing this type of product following the demise of Polaroid film a few years back.

Their latest product is a black and white instant film pack which features eight sheets all lined with different coloured frames. It's called B&W 600 Hard Color and, as the name implies, is for use with Polaroid 600 type cameras.

The company said, "B&W 600 Hard Color is the latest in a series of Impossible Special and Limited Edition films that offer not just alternatives to a white frame – black, silver, gold, various colors, and even animal skins – but also different colored film emulsions, including cyan, magenta and sepia.

"B&W 600 Hard Color matches frames in rich variants of red, yellow, blue, orange, purple and green with warm, high contrast black and white images. The effect is unexpected but unarguably contemporary."

The new Impossible films have been reformulated under the supervision of its new chief technical officer, Stephen Herchen, who worked with Edwin Land doing a similar job at Polaroid. The company reckons its new products are up there with the best that Polaroid produced.

Impossible said younger people were growing increasingly bored with the "predictable same-ness" of digital colour photography and analogue black and white film-based photography was finding itself in fashion again.

B&W 600 Hard Color is now available for pre-order through the Impossible Online Shop. If you're very quick and order within the next couple of hours you can get a pack for £14, a £3 discount. 

Monday, July 14

DIY: Localised test strip maker

As most of you know, a test strip (below) is the normal way of working out a print exposure in the darkroom. A piece of paper is given an increasing exposure at set time intervals so that it's possible to decide the proper exposure for the negative.

This works so well that it's a practice that hasn't changed in many decades. The only slight drawback, however, is that when comparing the different densities on the test strip, you're comparing different parts of the negative. Some printers get round that by cutting up several small pieces of paper and exposing them at various times after they have carefully placed them one at a time over the same part of the negative.

Friday, July 11

The Lincoln Memorial: Abe sparks some more debate

There's an interesting topic being discussed on The Online Photographer website at the moment concerning one of Mike Johnston's print offers. It's a pic of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. taken by photographer David Dyer-Bennet in 1975 with, from David's memory, a Pentax Spotmatic.

David made the mistake (in my opinion) of showing the original drum scan of his negative side-by-side with his digitally processed sale print after the sale had started. Some buyers have since said that they would have preferred the original and a majority of commenters, from what I can tell, like the original image more than the processed print. Here are the images that have sparked the debate:

I much prefer the original as well. The before pic does a much better job of capturing the scale of the monument and the addition of the ropes, the stairs and the step ladders in the background all add to the image, particularly in giving it a sense of context which is much-needed when it features a couple of workmen steam cleaning it. Some perspective correction has also made the final print looked skewed and a bit weird.

I don't think either one is anything special as a photograph, to be honest. The memorial was dedicated in 1922 and has long been a favourite subject for photographers. Consequently, there are a huge number of images of it making it something of a hackneyed subject. If you do a Google search for "Lincoln Memorial" you'll find loads of pics many of which I would rate more highly than the TOP sale print. David's one is a little different because of the inclusion of the workers but it doesn't set my pulse racing. It's a nice image but I wouldn't put it any higher than that. What do you think?

How much more impressive is the photograph at the top of this post by Joe Lootens, a Belgian who made his home in the US. It was taken in the early 1940s, I think, or possibly earlier when the memorial would have been far less familiar to the public.

Lootens's blue-toned black and white print captures a sense of grandeur in a way that Dyer-Bennet's inkjet doesn't. As I understand it, Lootens isn't particularly well known even in the US. I have his book Lootens on Photographic Enlarging and Print Quality and it remains a favourite.

My edition is from 1953, seven years after Lootens was found dead on holiday at the age of just 43. Here's a cutting from the August 22, 1946, edition of the New York Post showing his obituary. I only know his work from the book I have and it was decent stuff but a little old-fashioned by today's standards. However, no excuses need be made for "Dedication", a striking and fitting memorial to the 16th US President.

Yet more digital artifice

Image © by Maaz Khan

I hardly ever look at digital photography websites these days. I'm not interested in pixel-related equipment and I couldn't give two hoots what mark DXO Labs gives the latest optical-plastic computer. But in searching the web for interesting snippets to do with film and darkroom, occasionally one happens upon a funny wee digital item.

It's maybe just me but I have to laugh every time I read about film photography being inconsistent, full of surprises and totally unpredictable. It's maybe that way when you just start out and haven't had time to develop a consistent way of working or are too lazy to read a how-to book but the hipsters seem to think the whole world of film photography progressed like that: from one unpredictable cock-up to another.

Wednesday, July 9

Steeped in History: Part Two

Here we are back at the 17th century stable I wrote about almost a month ago here. These are some photographs from the second roll of Silvermax I shot developed again in Spur HRX. In between, I also processed a roll of 120 Pan F Plus that I shot in the Rollei SL66E but cocked that one up I'm afraid.

I should have replaced the fixer a while back as I knew it was on its last legs but I didn't and, as a result, I got some little "dots" over large areas of the negatives. I've had this once before under exactly the same circumstances and you'd think I'd have learned a lesson but obviously not. Just as well it's a scene I can revisit any time and not some night shots of the Sacre Couer or something. That would have been painful!

The pic at the top of the post was a bit tricky. It was so dark in that wood-lined room that I could hardly see my hand in front of my face when I walked in. A minute later my eyes had become accustomed to the dark enough to be able to see roughly what was in front of me. When I saw the boards over the window I knew I had to take a pic. I bracketed over four frames because I wasn't sure of the metering or the reciprocity failure at such a long exposure - can't remember what it was now - but even the most generously-exposed frame is still a little under-exposed.

Looking at the four frames just now, I realised that the one I scanned wasn't the best exposed but the next best. The one here is probably a couple of stops under but there's enough detail to make it worthwhile. I'll probably print the better of the two, though. I love the way the light has squeaked through the wooden boards covering the window and reflected off the wall. It reminds me of some sci-fi films where the aliens are outside shining a probing beam in to check for inhabitants. Spooky!

I had the Contax 137MA on a tripod with the 28mm Distagon fitted and was using the self timer to trip the shutter. The camera was on auto and the plan was to make an exposure then a plus one stop and a plus two. Just to be on the safe side, I also exposed a frame at 1s at f2.8, the maximum manual timed exposure on the 137MA. I would have given it more but I didn't have a cable release with me. Probably 2-4s at f2.8 would have been about right.

This table with an empty wine bottle was just as I found it. Again, it was a really dark scene that looked quite low in contrast but the lengthy exposure has picked up a bit of punch. It wasn't quite as dark as the first shot thankfully. This time it was the 100mm f3.5 macro Yashica using the same approach as before - set it on auto and bracket one and two stops over.

This one comes courtesy of the 50mm f1.4 Planar. This is one of the reasons that I prefer SLRs to rangefinders. The temptation was to focus on the door lock and use f1.4 for shallow depth of field. When I did that, though, there was too much out-of-focus effect. I used the depth of field preview function and tried a couple of f-stops before arriving at the one I wanted which was f4. With a rangefinder, I wouldn't have been able to see any of that and would probably have had to take a few at different apertures to make sure I'd got the right one.

These stairs lead to the upstairs quarters in the stable block but I didn't have the courage to venture up there. It's far too easy in old buildings to come crashing throughout the floor and with no-one with me I could have been left prostrate on the ground floor for some time.

We're back to the Distagon here although I used the 100mm macro to take a meter reading of the roof area in the dark square near the top middle of the frame. I wanted to make sure I had some detail there and there's plenty on the negative. In a print, I think I'd dodge that area to bring a little more of it out.

That's the stable block, then. A wonderful piece of history almost on my doorstep that I was fortunate to find. I think I'll go back and do some more photography there with the SL66E. The 40mm Distagon I have is a great lens that has very little distortion and would work a treat in some of the confined spaces. Here's an SL66 shot similar to a Contax one I posted in Part One.

Rolleiflex SL66, 40mm Distagon, Ilford Pan F developed in Spur HRX

The mottled appearance from the exhausted fixer isn't really noticeable here because of the texture that's everywhere. This version is a lighter and airier image than the dark, gloomy one from Part One. I've mixed up some fresh fixer so if I do go back with the SL66E then at least I'll have something to show for it!