Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Light Fantastic

Autumn light, soft warm and perfect for the colours of the dying trees.

This time of year has to be one of my favourite for colour photography. Early morning mist and dew covers the leaves, flowers and cobwebs perfect subjects for close focus and macro work.(Kodachromes in the mail)
The longer more dramatic shadows and the yellow light make great subjects also.

One of the best photographic lessons anyone ever taught me, was when a friend of my father gave me a roll of Ektachrome 64.
He had one proviso: 'use this roll of film to take a picture of your favourite scene every day for the next month.'
I thought he was crazy, won't it get boring? who would want to see 30 shots of the same thing?
The month was October, my chosen scene was a local ruined church almost obscured by trees, I had to shoot it when I could, and this often worked out at different times of the day.
He processed the transparencies for me and put them into clear sleeves, he then showed them to me on his portable light-box.
I was actually pretty surprised, when I surveyed the film in front of me, every single image was different. Different colours, saturation, some were yellow a couple looked blue/cyan.

But the lesson it taught me as we never just photograph a subject, but rather the light falling on that subject and here in the UK the light often changes by the hour:- so if you see an interesting scene photograph it.

After all it may be a unique moment in time.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Months Wages

That was the cost of my first Leica, a 111c model made in 1947 and with it I purchased a Elmar 50mm F3:5.
Why did I make this insane purchase? I mean why buy what was at the time a 39 year old camera?

I had recently been to an exhibition of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson with a photographer friend of mine.

I really loved the immediacy and closeness of his pictures coupled with the feeling of being an observer.

It was the type of work that the miniature format Leica excelled at, being able to take shots unobserved: with the subject showing no or little reaction to having their image captured.
That must have proved very difficult in the days when cameras were not commonplace on the streets of our cities.
At the time I was shooting with a mixture of Pro Canon and Nikon models none of which really are for secretive picture taking, not just because of physical size but also mirror noise.

After using the little camera I found that I had underestimated one thing- the optics.
The 50mm F3.5 Elmar was very similar to the original design first computed by Max Berek in 1924 but with one important change- Lens coatings.

After the initial shock at how sharp the Elmar was, I decided to test it against my two Nikon 50mm lenses a 1.8 and a Nikkor H F2.
I was amazed that looking at the different lenses that there was very little between them once you got to F5.6 with the Leica having marginally better deffinition in the centre at F8 and the Nikor F2 the best at the edge.

The camera has served me well in the 20 years I've owned it, in fact I've never owned a camera for longer.
So was it worth it? You bet!
Guessing Exposures With Manual Cameras

The Sunny Sixteen Method

My Leica 111c left the Wetzlar factory in 1947, at the time very few (if any) cameras had built in light-meters, so my main problem was how to meter.
At the time I hadn't enough cash to buy a hand-held meter, so my options were to drag around my Nikkormat to meter with or just use my experience to make an educated guess.

I decided on the latter; but how educated could my guess be?
The system I decided on was the 'Sunny Sixteen' and it works very well, particuarly with negative film.

The Method is as follows:

First you choose the nearest shutter speed to match your film speed say 1/125 if you are using 100 ISO.
Then your aperture value will be set according to the light/weather conditions:

Sunny F16 (hard shadows)

Sun/Cloud F11 (soft shadows)

Cloudy F8 (barely visible shadows)

Overcast/Dull F5.6 (no shadows)

In bygone days the film manufacturers used to print his info with nice graphical representation inside the box, and this could be taped to the back of your camera.

My hand-held light meter

Most of the photographers I know don't even own one of these beasts, probably wouldn't know how to use one if given one, or just rely on their built in camera meters.
That's fine, especially with modern SLRs both film and digital; in fact DSLR users may choose to rely mainly on their histogram info.

But that's not very practical for me, none of my film cameras have built in light meters as I favour totally manual operation.
For people using manual meterless cameras (like my Leica M4-P) only have 2 choices, either guess (using the sunny 16 method) or buy an external or hand held light meter.
My choice was the Minolta Spotmeter F.

The Spotmeter has a 1% angle of sensitivity that makes it perfect for the Zone System which is a very accurate way of controlling tones recorded on B&W film.

The meter reading is taken from the tiny circle in the centre

Monday, September 18, 2006


Agfa Rodinal has been in production for over 100 years, and despite rumours to the contrary, it is still produced and available today.
Rodinal is a unique product in quite a few ways, it has excellent keeping properties (many years in a stoppered bottle) and can be diluted for both economy and its 'compensating' effect.
I use it to tame excessive contrast in subjects, especially on very bright sunny days, where the range of tones in the subject exceeds the tones the film can handle.
I have found certain films such as Ilford Pan F Kodak Plus-X and Fuji Acros in particular to have far too much contrast at recommended developing times.
One often quoted property of Rodinal is that it increases the grain of the film, that isn't true. At the 1:25 dilution the developer will give you very similar results to any general purpose developer in both apparent grain and acutance, higher dilutions will show progessively more grain along with increased accutance.
That doesn't mean (as I've heared people suggest) that Rodinal gives 'huge grain' but defined rather than smooth.
It must be said that some will feel that films need downrating to a lower EI and for some films that may be true I personally rate Kodak TMX at EI64 and HP5+ at EI320 to give the shadow detail I require.
Here is a shot taken on my Rollei TLR using HP5+ which was then developed in Rodinal at 1:100 dilution (5ml developer in 495ml water)
click on the image to see a larger view.

The image is typical of what a photographer can expect from highly diluted Rodinal; smooth tonal range, high acutance (aparent sharpness of fine detail) and slight compensating effect helping compress specular highlights with a small loss of photographic speed.
But what about grain? where is the grainy mess promised to us by internet experts?I know, this is medium format, where grain doesn't show as much but looking at prints from Rodinal negatives grain is rarely the problem most would lead you to believe.
Here is a 100 percent crop.

I'm not suggesting Rodinal is a panacea or wonder developer just that it is a valuable tool in my darkroom
All images and text © Mark Antony Smith