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Sunday, June 17

Stars in Their Eyes

Dalreichmoor, high up in the Carse of Gowrie

Way back in the mists of time there was a TV show in the UK called Stars in Their Eyes where ordinary members of the public could grab their 15 minutes in the limelight by impersonating a famous celebrity. I'm pretty sure the same format would have been used in many other countries around the world.

The impersonator would stand under the spotlight in front of the studio audience and declare to host Matthew Kelly, "Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be...Elvis!" By dint of some 1980s camera trickery, an Elvis-ish (you can only say that when you're drunk) being would suddenly appear. Personally, I couldn't stand the show but I believe it was popular.

I've revamped the format for photographers and will be relaunching it as, Cameras in Their Hands. This time around, the ordinary snapper gets to pick up his particular camera, say a Leica, and announce to the world, "Today, I'm going to be...Ralph Gibson!" I've been doing this sort of thing for years but it's harmless enough, I suppose. There must be a part of me that actually believes that, given the right camera, I can magically transform myself into the photographic hero who once wielded it with such success.

My latest Cameras in Their Hands moment happened last week but I'd need to sketch out the background to it first so bear with me. About 25 years ago I used nothing other than a 6x9 format Mamiya Press for my photography. It was the period, perhaps more so than any other, when I didn't give a stuff about camera equipment. I had a working camera with a big negative, 65mm, 90mm and 150mm lenses and I was happy. An ancient Slik copy of a Linhof tripod sometimes accompanied me.

The camera had once belonged to a hard-working pro in my home town of Dundee and had then been through the hands of a couple of photographers on the newspaper I worked for. It was in a bit of a state but still functioned well enough. It's long gone but I managed to find a few pics of it on my hard drive. Bashed about a bit, screws missing, peeling and missing leatherette. In short, it was a man's camera.

From time-to-time, I've posted a pic or two taken with it and Phil Rogers always says that there was something about them and that they were "me". Then TOD contributor David M. said something similar when I posted another old Press shot just a few weeks ago. He wondered if the 6x9 format might be THE sweet spot as far as photography formats go.

Their comments alone, thought-provoking though they were, wouldn't have been enough to stir me to action but they happened to coincide with some thoughts I'd been having of my own. I'm a big fan of Don McCullin's landscapes and have often had thoughts of copying his M.O. - slinging a Mamiya Press around my neck with a 75mm lens fitted and a handheld light meter and wandering over the hills, or the Somerset Levels in Don's case. Used in that fashion, the Mamiya becomes something like a big, heavy Leica with a 35mm lens fitted.

Plus, not long ago I was approached by a record company that wanted to use one of my old Mamiya shots for an album cover. Here's the pic:

And here's the cover:

There seemed to be some divine intervention taking place, the runes were aligned, etc, all of which was pointing me in a particular direction. Rather than fight it, I went with the flow, safe in the knowledge that, if it didn't work out, it was all the fault of Phil and David.

Some idle online browsing led me to a Mamiya Press Universal with 75mm and 100mm lenses at a well-known camera store. I reached an agreement with myself some time ago that there would be no further net expenditure on camera gear: if I wanted something then I had to sell something. Well, sitting staring at me on my desk is my much under-used Konica Hexar AF, a great camera with a brilliant lens that, all puns aside, I've just never clicked with despite coming close a few times.

It's value on Ebay was more than the cost of the Mamiya outfit so little wheels started whirring in the Robbins cranium and meshed with even smaller cogs and a few days later a box landed on the doorstep with a cosmetically nice camera and a couple of grotty lenses which will hopefully be great once they've been cleaned and serviced by Miles Whitehead.

We're back in the present again now. The spotlight was shining on me, I picked up the Mamiya and said, "Today, I'm going to be...Don McCullin!" And that's the road down which I travelled that led me back to a place I hadn't been in a long while - wandering over hills in search of landscapes with a big medium format camera hanging from my neck (that's the clumsiest sentence I've written in ages!). But what about the Rollei SL66, I can hear you ask. That's a big medium format camera, isn't it? Yes, but if you've ever tried to use one handheld with a 45 degree prism in place and eye sight that isn't getting any better, you'd maybe understand why I see it purely as a tripod camera. Believe me, I've tried working with it hand-held and it's no fun.

I did think about sending the Mamiya outfit straight to Miles as both lenses have a  small bit of fungus in them, thankfully near the edge of the glass, and one has a lot of dusty crud on the inner elements. The front and rear surfaces look unblemished, though. But the thing is I wanted to make sure it was at least working the way it should before the 15-day period during which I could return it expired. So I loaded up a roll of HP5 and satisfied myself that everything was functioning properly. Surprisingly, the lenses are usable as they are although maybe the 100mm is down a little on contrast. When Miles has done his stuff - viewfinder cleaned, rangefinder checked and calibrated to the lenses, etc -  I reckon everything will be spot on.

The Mamiya promises a lot as the 75mm lens is supposed to be very, very good. Along with the 50mm and the 100mm f2.8, it's one of the best made for the system. I believe it was designed for the Polaroid version of the Press Universal and has tremendous covering power for the larger Polaroid image. Apparently it just about covers 5x4. The 100mm f3.5 that I have is a good lens but seems to be no more than that. Still, a good lens on a big negative should be more than enough, quality-wise.

My first landscape foray with the outfit was great fun. I didn't walk too far over the hills but just being able to leave the car and a tripod behind was liberating. After about 40 minutes, the weight of the camera on my neck did become quite noticeable but with more use and perhaps an Optech strap things should improve. Best of all was the handling of the Mamiya.

It came with a grip that screws onto the left hand side (see pics of my old Mamiya above) and has a built-in cable release. The idea is that you hold the camera with your left hand and set the speeds, aperture, focus, etc with your right. That seems the wrong way round to me so I ditched the grip and just cradled the camera and lens in my left hand in the same way you would normally operate an SLR. I'm not sure how Don found out about my approach but I've noticed that he has copied me and does the same thing. One of the later film backs for the Press has a built in cable release on the right hand side and if I can get one of those I'll be all set.

At the top of the page is my first real landscape shot from the Mamiya. I'd rated the HP5 at 800 ISO for development in stock Microphen and was pleased with the results. I might try ID11 stock the next time for a little less grain, not that Microphen is too bad. It was the puddle twins in the foreground with the light reflecting off them that attracted me to this scene on Dalreichmoor. The big, menacing sky made it irresistible.

I've long felt an affinity with the moor and love driving through it in my old Saab. There is, so I've read, a strong connection between Dalreichmoor and our ancient friends, the Druids. When they weren't sacrificing people by burning them alive in huge wooden figures (if you've seen The Wicker Man - preferably the first version with Edward Woodward and not the Nicolas Cage remake - you'll get the idea) they were dying at an early age and getting themselves buried on the moor. Dalreichmoor is an odd word even for Scotland and it's conjectured by some that it's a corruption of "druid". Sounds a bit far-fetched to me but you never know.


DavidM said...

Gawain Glenton looks like an interesting chap. Hanseatic League, eh?
Well done with the serious camera. A new camera strap seems like a necessity rather than a luxury. Will you be getting a suitable meter to match? The classic Weston would seem to be about right, both for the camera and for freedom from battery failure in the middle of a savage and photogenic Caledonian moor. You may have an even better idea, of course.

Bruce Robbins said...

I seem to remember reading somewhere that the older Weston's are the ones that tend to keep working whilst the Euromaster's selenium cell is starting to pack up. However, I've got an old III in a cupboard that hasn't worked since the day I got it so who knows. I think I'll stick with my Sekonic. Dalreichmoor might look quite isolated but there's a petrol station not three miles away that has batteries for my meter. Not quite so intrepid as I seem. :)

morris 1800 said...

Nice one Bruce I'm a fan of Mamiya cameras. Did you find the direct viewfinder liberating in composing landscape shots. I enjoy using a 4x5 Crown Graphic through the viewfinder as opposed to screen focusing in the field. Just wish I always remembered to remove the dark slide....must make a note in my Filofax as an aide-memoire :-)

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Andy,
I normally don't get on with rangefinder viewing because I wear glasses but the Mamiya's 100mm bright lines are easy to see. It's much quicker focusing with it in comparison with the SL66. So, for me, it's probably the best option for medium format out "in the field". I was going to start using my Speed Graphic the same way as you by using the rangefinder but I think I've buggered the rangefinder mechanism up trying to get it bang on. I dropped it and can't get it to work well at all now. The Mamiya is a good compromise because you get 8 shots and a neg that's big enough for really good quality. I'm going to buy shares in Filofax.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Well, you see, to me it's an obvious match - that's a damn good looking landscape, and the same with the old trees one too - you and the format suit each other.

The lenses are single coated aren't they? You've got a great glow going on in the far distance on the Dalreich shot - more please Don!

Herman Sheephouse said...

Forgot to mention, there is another documenter of the UK using the Mamiya Press - John Davis - I rather like his photographs actually:

Omar Özenir said...

Love these photos Bruce. 6x9 is such a nice format. Wish I had a camera that uses it.

DavidM said...

I've just re-read this and wondered why you are rating the film at 800. As people begin to work for better quality and use bigger negs, they seem to prefer a lower film speed and reduced development to give more versatile negs. Pushing an already fast film seems like a miniature-format habit. The mass of the Mamiya should help with slower shutter speeds, too.

Paul Blanchard said...

I can confirm the value of a Mamiya Press camera for ' outdoor work' within the bounds of many of our budgets. The 50mm is a superb lens as is the 'Polaroid' 75mm but I have been rather disappointed by the early 90mm. Later 100's are a better buy even if in a rather fragile mount.

Bruce Robbins said...

One of the big Fujis would do the same thing probably in an easier fashion as well. Not sure what the supply is like in Turkey but you find them - and the Mamiya - regularly being offered on EBay from Japanese sellers who generally have a good reputation.

I was tempted to look for a 50mm but I think I'll resist. I don't want to end up with an "outfit" as it just becomes too heavy to lug over the hills. I wouldn't say this within earshot of Phil Rogers but I think the 50 is a Biogon that produces even better results than the 38mm Biogon on his SWC, not because it's a better lens but because it's not too far behind but has a bigger neg. :)

Good question. Have you ever asked any bad ones? The first thing I would say is that I'm not after the grainless and super smooth look. It doesn't do much for me. Secondly, why follow the herd? I like the look of really good 35mm and medium format - plenty of detail and visible but not detail-destroying or intrusive grain. I want it to look like it was taken on film and not the latest Nikon full frame digital which nowadays can do large format better than large format. I'm after a particular look that's a bit more gritty - don't know exactly what it is yet with the Mamiya but I'll know it when I see it. I can get it in 35mm up to 6x9 inch prints but I find the crispness starts to go slightly above that size. With the Mamiya, I'll be able to shoot hand-held and get "the look" at bigger print sizes. As you know, depth of field isn't great with the 6x9 neg and I need the faster film speed for stopping down. I could get away with 400 ISO on a lot of occasions but from what I can tell with Microphen, the grain isn't visibly larger at 800 ISO and there's all the shadow detail I need. Up here on a dull winter's day, I'm looking at 125th at f8 with 800 ISO which doesn't leave much room. The next film will be at 1600 ISO as I want to see what the penalty will be like.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Come and 'ave a go . . if you think you're hard enuff ';0)

Bruce Robbins said...

Sounds like that's the Biogon talking, Phil.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Probably is - currently got it on a course of anger management

DavidM said...

I've recently been amazed by the grain in Fomapan 400. Not entirely welcome for a user of really clumsy cameras.
The new Intrepid is proving very pleasant to use. Things seem to be where your hands expect them to be.

DavidM said...

Now, now, Kim and Donald. Stop it!

Bruce Robbins said...

Kim and Donald? I thought for one horrible moment you'd made a Kardashian reference, David, (incurring an automatic life ban) before realising that you would know no more about that family than I do. Then I realised you were talking about THE Donald. Had a good chuckle at that. I'd forgotten all about the Intrepid. Fancy a hands on user review?

DavidM said...

Never miss an episode of Kardashians, and all the repeats. So much wisdom, so much kindness. I was disappointed to discover that there isn't a sister programme called "Keeping up with the Klingons."
Is there a Donald Kardashian? Konald Kardashian?

MorseBlog said...

I have considered the Mamiya Press for many years. It is not a pretty camera (not that should matter too much), is relatively inexpensive for the format if you want interchangeable lenses. So far I have not pulled the trigger. I recently settled on the Fuji GSW 690iii. So far I like it as it makes lovely sharp images but I am still getting used to the rangefinder. I have the same rule and I had to give up my Mamiya C220 to make room for the Fuji. I have Rollei 2.8F so the C220 was a bit redundant. I still don't think a WLF can be beat for focussing and composing but I am keeping an open mind.

Bruce Robbins said...

Like the Star Trek reference, David. I like to annoy my teenage daughter by “accidentally” confusing the Kardashians with the Cardassians as well. They both seem about as alien to me that it makes no difference anyway.