Blog: Film Photography
Gregory Gross

Blog: Film Photography

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Glass of Water in Sunlight, Revisited

November 28, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Photography, Film Photography, Adapted Lenses

Earlier this month, I posted an image of sunlight passing through a glass of water. At the time, I was trying to use up a roll of Ilford Delta 100 black and white film I had in my Nikon F, and this subject seemed a good way to do so. A moment later, I also shot the same thing with my Canon EOS M50 and an adapted 58mm Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar lens.

Having gotten my latest round of film back from the developer, I can now share both renderings. The one on the left is the film image, and the digital one is on the right:

Glass of water in sunlight
Glass of water in sunlight
Glass of water in sunlight. Nikon F with Nikkor-Q 135mm f/3.5 lens, Ilford Delta 100 film, 1/250 sec., f/8 (right) and Canon EOS M50 with Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm f/2 lens, ISO 100, 1/250 sec., f/8 (left).

I’ve grown to love working with film, but I have to confess I’m torn between the film rendering and the digital one. The film image has a natural softness in both resolution and grey tone that I like. The other has the distinctly clinical resolution that I’ve come to expect from digital photography. But it also has a satisfying contrast punch, and its depiction of light reflecting off the grain of the table’s wood is rather pleasing to me.

Which is better? I'm not sure.

The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography, by John Schaefer

November 28, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Film Photography, Photography, Book Reports

John Schaefer’s <i>The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography</i>
John Schaefer’s The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography.

Several times over the past few years, I’ve checked out the first volume of John Schaefer’s The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography from my local library. I’m rewarded every time I do so.

When I first pulled that book off the library shelf in 2021, I had just begun my own journey into exploring photography more seriously. At the time, I was more interested in digital photography, so I glossed over much of the book’s content centered on film.

Published as a revised edition in 1999—the initial one came out in 1992, when film was all that was available—the book appeared at the dawn of the digital age. Some of the content in that revised edition touches upon digital photography, and in the year 2023 that content can seem rather quaint.

But beyond that triviality, Schaefer’s The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography has great value. The book has wonderfully in-depth coverage of an entire range of topics of interest to all photographers regardless of whether they shoot digital or film: lenses, tips on photographic visualization and composition, and so on.

But as time has gone on, its value to me has only increased especially as my interest in film photography has grown.

For the film photographer, there is a ton of meaningful information. Topics for individual chapters include technical aspects of black and white film that make exploring that medium so fascinating, film exposure, a step-by-step guide to developing negatives and making prints, and challenges unique to color film photography. As I’ve been exploring using film more seriously, I’ve found the insight this book has offered me to be invaluable. Yet again, it’s a reminder that one needs to turn to a seriously written and edited book rather than rely on what one finds on the internet.

I like the way Schaefer navigated one perennial question: is expensive gear really worth the cost? What’s the difference between what one can accomplish with a $500 camera versus a $5000 one? To be sure, cheap gear often underperforms relative to more expensive gear. Poor optical quality and mechanical construction has a way of turning up in images one produces with inexpensive camera bodies and lenses.

The difference is most often slight albeit perceptible. Does that difference warrant the cost? On this question, Schaefer writes (p. 44):

The answer is again relative. If your confidence is enhanced by knowing that you are working with the finest optical instrument available, and if you respond to the challenge and opportunity it offers, the answer is yes. Remember, however, that as factors in the quality of the photographs produced, the physical properties of camera and lenses are less limiting than the photographer’s technique and imagination.

Although he offers thoughts that let the individual make up his own mind about the question of cost—after all, what’s costly to one person isn’t to another—Schaefer reminds us that an image with true stopping power isn’t that way because of the camera. It’s that way because of the photographer’s ability to visualize an image and to creatively use a camera—any camera—to capture that image in a photograph. You can’t teach that, and you certainly can’t buy that. The instinct that lies behind the most powerful images has to be developed, and the obligation is on the photographer alone to do that.

But perhaps the most useful advice I’ve gleaned from this first volume of The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography concerns the purpose of photography. Why make all the images I feel so compelled to make? Why do photography to begin with?

These are questions that point to the importance of projects. In the final chapter of his book, Schaefer touches upon the search for photographic themes (p. 384):

Writing a colorful phrase or sentence is one thing, but crafting a poem or an essay is another matter altogether. Beginning photographers often use their cameras to create images at random, responding to momentary impulses; while individual photographs taken in this manner may be successful, the viewer is usually left with the impression of having received fragments of messages rather than fully developed ideas.

Schaefer suggests a different approach:

As you learn to master your equipment and expand your skills as a photographer, you should work toward creating photographic “essays” that examine themes in more depth. A portfolio of a dozen superb prints organized around a single idea is often much more effective than an assembly of prints of a dozen unrelated subjects.

A bit later, Schaefer continues:

One of the best ways to progress in photography is to select a subject that is accessible and of interest to you and make a commitment to create a portfolio of prints on that topic. Some of the themes that lend themselves well to such an approach are the landscapes of a region; the nature scene and nature; portraiture; people and their culture, rituals, and history; architecture; current events. Pick one of these or any other subject that stimulates your enthusiasm. Be prepared to work on your project for several months, and plan to persevere until you have assembled a collection of fine prints that you would be pleased to share with an audience. You will be delighted to find that along the way you have become a reasonably accomplished photographer.

I often take pictures of things that happen to catch my eye at random. I have a nice collection of images that document life in this way, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Life, after all, rarely if ever goes according to a predefined plan.

But I’ve also come to realize the wisdom of Schaefer’s advice. By engaging in a project, you give your photography purpose, and that purpose will help drive your photography and make it a well-formed and meaningful “essay” with greater depth than what you can accomplish by collecting little fragments of this and that and making it into a collection that ultimately lacks any coherence.

I’ve realized that meaningful projects help focus my mind, drive me to explore a theme or subject, and ultimately push me to create and assemble a collection of images that say something worthwhile.

Disaster Averted

November 21, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Film Photography, Photography

I was reminded of something this morning, something that I’ve known for a long time now: eBay is insidious.

I am guilty of being a serial window shopper. I usually succeed in mustering enough discipline to resist temptation. On numerous occasions, my tendency to wring my hands over big purchases has served me well in that regard. But every now and again my curiosity gets the better of me.

Today it was an old Praktina FX camera that appeared for sale on eBay some time ago. Introduced in 1953, this interesting camera model was perhaps the first system SLR to appear on the market. Its East German manufacturer, KW, targeted the Praktina toward professional photographers. It had interchangeable viewfinders and focusing screens, a unique breech-lock lens mount, and countless accessories. (For more on the Praktina, visit Alberto Taccheo’s extensive website on the Praktina camera and Mike Eckman’s thoughtful review.)

My 1962 Questar with the Praktina FX camera body that came with it
My 1962 Questar with the Praktina FX camera body that came with it.

The example I own came with my all-original 1962 Questar and has a unique modification for use with a telescope. That modification flips the reflex mirror up well before an exposure is made, thereby eliminating one source of vibration that would blur the exposure being made at high magnification. (I have much more about using a camera with a Questar telescope here.)

My Praktina FX is in near mint condition, but I can’t imagine that it’s been serviced in the recent past. I’ve always been reluctant to take it out and about and really use it.

For a while, I’ve hunted around for another example that I’d feel more comfortable with putting through the paces. Egging me on are a few other accessories that I’ve accumulated over the years, a collection that begs to be put into action.

But having put a few rolls of film through the example that I have, my logical side has always reminded me about my actual experience using it. In a nutshell, the Praktina feels downright crude compared to my Nikon F, which I use regularly. Indeed, the Nikon F deserves its reputation as a truly great camera. In contrast, the Praktina’s film advance action feels a little flimsy, it lacks an instant-return reflex mirror, its semi-automatic aperture is a bit clumsy to operate, and so on.

Old hankerings sometimes die hard, though.

Okay, so another Praktina FX is for sale on eBay, and it looks like it’s in great condition. To his credit, the seller disclosed that the shutter operates inconsistently. I would expect as much on a camera that is around 60 or 70 years old. The question is whether I could get that problem fixed.

Nikon F with 50mm f/2 lens
My Nikon F, pictured here with a 50mm f/2 lens, shoots like new thanks to the masterful servicing it got at Advance Camera in Portland.

A quick telephone conversation with the good folks at Advance Camera in Portland helped enormously. Having gotten my Nikon F serviced there earlier this year, I wouldn’t hesitate to send another camera to them for work.

I knew that, if I purchased another Praktina to use while I’m out and about, I’d mostly likely be committing myself to substantial repair costs. If those repairs aren’t possible, though, it’s better to avoid buying the camera to begin with, right? And what better way is there to make a decision along these lines than a simple phone call?

I’m glad I made that call. The gentleman on the other end of the line advised me that the shutter mechanism on those old cameras is incredibly tricky to adjust once the camera is disassembled. In light of the difficulty, they were not willing to take the camera in for repair.

That five-minute call saved me a lot of money and a lot of headaches. It also brought me to a stronger conviction that perhaps my one and only Praktina FX camera is enough for me.


November 1, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Travel, Film Photography, Photography

On more than one road trip to Southern California, my wife and I have simply blown through Sacramento. But thanks to a conversation with a neighbor about, of all things, a movie—he had recently seen Oppenheimer in the IMAX theater there—we got put onto a train of thought that ultimately led us to reconsider a town that we had merely seen as a pit stop. Feeling the call of the open road, we decided to spend a few days exploring Sacramento.

We began the visit by doing a bit of hobby shopping. While my wife made a visit to a yarn shop in Midtown Sacramento, I strolled over to Mike’s Camera to pick up some film and to see if they would be willing to indulge my curiosity about a particular Canon full-frame mirrorless camera I’ve been ogling, the R8. I wanted to know what it felt like to bring the camera up to my eye and hold it in my hand, and I liked what I saw.

It also turns out they had a great selection of 35mm film in both color and black and white. While I stood there making my purchase selection, I observed a healthy amount of traffic at their film processing drop off and pick up counter. If there was any remaining doubt in my mind about whether film was alive or not, there was none after that.

I myself ended up with a fresh stock of ten rolls of film: a few rolls of Ilford Delta 100 to try out—I’ve never shot that film stock and am interested to try it out—and eight rolls of Ilford FP4 Plus, which I’ve grown to like more and more.

Film haul
My haul of film from my trip to Sacramento.

With our respective hobby shopping out of the way, my wife and I converged again and visited a number of sights.

Highlights included the California State Capitol, where we casually wandered around.

California State Capitol
California State Capitol, Sacramento. Canon EOS M50 with Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM zoom lens, ISO 100, 1/250 sec., f/7.1.
Looking up at the rotunda dome
Looking up at the rotunda dome, California State Capitol, Sacramento. Canon EOS M50 with Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM zoom lens, ISO 640, 1/80 sec., f/3.5.

Seeing portraits of various governors of the nineteenth century on the ground floor, it occurred to me to hunt around for more recent ones. It didn’t take long to find them at the top of a stairwell. One pair of portraits, that of Ronald Reagan and of Jerry Brown, hung next to each other in stark contrast. Their stylistic differences clearly underscored the differences in their respective administrations.

Portraits of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown
Portraits of Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown in the California State Capitol, Sacramento. Canon EOS M50 with Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM zoom lens, ISO 500, 1/60 sec., f/3.5.

We also visited the Crocker Art Museum. Both my wife and I are aficionados of modern art (she more than me), so we naturally gravitated to their more recent collection of art.

Crocker Art Museum
Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento. Canon EOS M50 with Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM zoom lens, ISO 500, 1/60 sec., f/3.5.
Crocker Art Museum
Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento. Canon EOS M50 with Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM zoom lens, ISO 800, 1/60 sec., f/5.

In a nutshell, we enjoyed browsing through their exhibits. But as far as art museums in mid-sized cities are concerned, nothing compares to the modern collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Another highlight was our visit to the Leland Stanford Mansion. Interior photography was unfortunately prohibited, but I did snap this photo of the striking contrast between the mansion amid the modern office buildings that surround it.

Leland Stanford Mansion
Leland Stanford Mansion, Sacramento. Canon EOS M50 with Canon EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM zoom lens, ISO 100, 1/100 sec., f/5.

Having grown up in a Rust Belt town myself, maybe I have a soft spot for underdog cities. I get the feeling that Sacramento doesn’t get fair credit for what it offers especially given the fact that it sits in the shadow of the Bay Area. But I’m glad we made a point to visit Sacramento because we discovered a city with a ton to do and with a lot of interesting character.

Shooting a Local Event on Film

September 13, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Local Events, Out and About, Film Photography, Photography

Having seen that a local youth group was planning on converging on the center of town to call for climate change-related reforms, I immediately thought the event would be a great way to practice my film photography as a photojournalist of sorts. The Nikon F, after all, was largely synonymous with photojournalism in the 1960s. I’ve used my Nikon F to photograph local protests in the past, and I’ve found that shooting faster-paced events like this on film can be an exciting challenge.

Although the event was a little on the quiet side, I still found decent subject matter to photograph.

Local protest event
Nikon F with Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 lens, Ilford FP4 Plus 125 film.
Local protest event
Nikon F with Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 lens, Ilford FP4 Plus 125 film.

Part of seeing an event like this is the way that professional photojournalists circulate among the crowd. To document that experience, I often find myself drawn to photographing the photographers.

Local protest event
Nikon F with Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 lens, Ilford FP4 Plus 125 film.
Local protest event
Nikon F with Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 lens, Ilford FP4 Plus 125 film.

After having shot only one roll of film—I never loaded the spare roll I had in my pocket—I thought to myself at the end of the event I didn’t get many keepers. I was delighted to discover upon scanning the roll that there were indeed several that I quite liked. I was also very pleased with the image quality that I got from Ilford FP4 Plus, and I’m encouraged to shoot more on that film stock.

New (to Me) Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 Lens

August 21, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Out and About, Film Photography, Photography, Camera Gear

Today was the first time I got out with my new (to me) Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens. The one I had worked well enough. But the perfectionist in me frowned upon the dry and scratchy focus action. It’s a good user lens, but I wanted something nicer.

My new (to me) Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens
My new (to me) Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 lens.

Having resolved to myself to buy not one more lens unless I can evaluate it in person, I found that something nicer at National Camera Exchange in Minneapolis. I’ve done business with them in the past, and I trust them. That’s something I can’t say about many of the sellers I encounter on eBay.

The example I got was in exceptionally good condition. Its focus action almost feels like it was recently lubricated. The aperture ring has nice and firm clickiness, for lack of a better way to describe it, the glass is clean, and the lens body’s finish has few if any blemishes or other signs of use.

It was an added bonus that the lens was on sale. I was prepared to spend twice as much for a good example as what I spent on this. And I don’t think I could have found anything nicer.

There’s a nice stretch of sidewalk near my house that always makes for a great photograph. I captured this image with my new (to me) and first-rate 50mm Nikkor:

Neighborhood sidewalk
Neighborhood sidewalk. Nikon F with Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 lens, Ilford FP4 Plus 125 film, 1/125 sec., f/2.8.

Pushing Myself to Get Out

August 17, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Out and About, Film Photography, Photography

I felt like going out with my camera today... but I kind of didn’t, too.

There were a number of things that pushed me to get out, namely a desire to add one more roll of film to the two that I had ready for developing. And I just wanted to go for a walk.

But the weather is still hot, albeit cloudier and somewhat cooler than the 100+ degree temps we’ve had this week. Maybe it was the heat or maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t feeling 100% inspired to be photographing things, but I was just in kind of a foul mood as I walked around today. It’s not the best way to wander around with a camera.

I stopped into a few shops while I was in town today. But I didn’t really see any shots in most of those shops, in all honesty.

I’m trying to look for subject matter that I haven’t shot yet—I’m getting tired of taking the same shots over and over again—and I succeeded to a certain degree today.

The best shot I took was one that I think demonstrates the beautiful range of greytones I get from Ilford FP4 Plus:

Fire escape
Fire escape. Nikon F with Nikkor-H 50mm f/2 lens, Ilford FP4 Plus 125 film, 1/250 sec., f/11.

On a positive note, I did get stopped by a gentleman who noticed my Nikon F. It turns out he was a military news photographer and owned several Nikons over the years. We chatted cameras for a bit. I do like it when I can engage with people like that. The encounter made the trip out today worth it.

After a while, though, I felt like I wasn’t having a good day, and I wandered home.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

August 14, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Travel, Film Photography, Photography

With high temperatures forecasted to reach well into the 100s, it seemed like a good idea to go on a daytrip to see the redwoods on the far northern California coast. I shot the trip on the one and only remaining roll of Fuji-made Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 I had left from a three-pack I found at a local drug store some time ago.

It was still quite warm when we finally made it to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, unexpectedly so, in fact. I fumbled around with my Nikon FM10 camera for a good hour and a half or so. I swear it felt more like a half hour. The mosquitos were quite bad, again unexpectedly so. But it was nice to experience the sheer size of those trees in person.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Nikon FM10 with Nikkor 35-70mm f/3.5-4.8 zoom lens with Fujifilm 200 film. 1/60 sec. at f/5.6 (left) and 1/125 sec. at f/8 (right).

Row of Wigs at a Costume Shop

August 9, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Out and About, Film Photography, Photography

As part of my effort to add more of a social element to my photography, I ventured out with my Nikon F loaded with Ilford FP4 Plus film and resolved to stop into some local businesses that I hadn’t been in before

One of my stops was in a costume shop. “Is that a film camera?” the shopkeeper asked me. I responded, “Why, yes, it is!” or something to that effect, and I told him all about it, perhaps in more detail than he was counting on. (One of my weaknesses is gushing about my Nikon F even to those who may not care as much as I do.) The shopkeeper mentioned that he has a cousin who is very much into film photography and had a growing collection of film cameras. He himself had an old Olympus that, upon finishing the conversation, I encouraged him to use.

I then wandered around the shop and came across a room toward the back of the store that had several rows of wigs that looked interesting.

Row of wigs at a costume shop
Row of wigs at a costume shop. Nikon F with Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 lens, Ilford FP4 Plus 125 film, 1/30 sec., f/2.

Window Reflection

July 29, 2023

Permalink  |  Tags: Out and About, Film Photography, Photography

One of the things I benefit from by going to my local photography club meetings is our series of monthly shooting themes. These suggestions often get me out there and try for compositions I wouldn’t otherwise go for.

For this month, one of our themes is reflections. On my photo walk today with my Nikon FM10 film camera in hand, I’ve tried to capture some interesting window reflections off a restaurant window. I worked this composition by focusing on the salt and pepper shakers and capturing sidewalk passersby out of focus. Mostly I got lame exposures. But to get that one keeper image, you have to keep at it.

From this came the one image that I was very pleased with:

Restaurant window reflection
Restaurant window reflection. Nikon FM10 with Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 lens, Agfa APX 400 film, 1/1000 sec., f/2.8.

The abstracted appearance of everything in the reflected background—the brightly lit street scene, the tree shadow, and the woman’s motion—is something that I find quite compelling.

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