Archive for the ‘cameras’ Category

Infrared Strikes Back

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

As you doubtless know if you follow me on twitter, tumblr, or flickr, I have returned to infrared with a vengeance. For many months, my IR usage has diminished, for a variety of reasons — the main one being that I don’t have darkroom access presently and have not yet set up for film development at home or made other arrangements for black and white.

Given this, and given that even the lesser tier of IR film stocks is thinning, it made sense to finally go back to digital infrared in a more thorough way. (I’ve shot a lot of digital IR using unconverted cameras, with often acceptable results, but it’s a somewhat frustrating way to work when you don’t want to use a tripod — and my progress with IR is tending strongly toward the handheld and to IR flash street shooting.)

Complicating the matter slightly is my love for the 2.8cm f/3.5 H — a lens that is around half century old, cost me about $30, and has become totally definitive for me as the way to see the world in infrared. And using it with the Nikkormat and no ability to see through the viewfinder, I’ve pretty well trained myself to a certain angle of view…which I was reluctant to give up by going to a DX format converted camera.

So, after much poking around online and no shortage of hand-wringing, I bought a used Canon 5D and shipped it off to Lifepixel for conversion. (Using the “standard” option, which is the closest to the 72R/89B filtration I’m accustomed to.) I went with the 5D because it’s cheap (relatively), and because there are issues with the D700 for IR under some circumstances, thanks to some sort of shutter monitoring gizmo Nikon introduced.

New IR Kit

For most IR users, a 5D MkII would have been a better choice, because Live View will offer much improved flexibility and precision for IR focusing. In my case, that was irrelevant, since I’m interested almost exclusively in one lens and I only ever intend to scale focus it.

Lifepixel was fast and did a great job with the conversion, but I ran into two slight speed bumps:


Using an F-mount lens with an adapter on the 5D means that focus sales are off. This isn’t that big a deal — I just had to do some testing to figure out what the shift was. In the case of my lens/adapter/camera combination, it moves the IR index to a spot just to the left of the left-hand f/8 index on the DOF scale. For now, I’ve got this marked out with a bit of gaffer tape, because gaffer tape makes everything better.

2.8 cm f/3.5 H

More problematic: on some Nikon lenses, and the 2.8cm f/3.5 H is one of them, there are back-protruding bits that prevent the lens from mounting properly on the 5D. This is unrelated to the AI/Non-AI/AIS standards, and seems to be specific to certain lenses. I did not know this at the time I bought the 5D, or it would have given me serious pause.

In the end, I girded my loins, taped up the lens, and used a metal file to remove a couple of MM from that protruding part. This was very, very stupid on my part, and the correct procedure would have been to remove the back portion of the lens before modifying it, to prevent any filings from migrating to the interior of the lens. It seems to have worked out okay for me, but I certainly do not advise anyone else to do it this way.

The result: an IR kit that is a fairly close digital approximation of my old IR kit. Same (wonderful) lens, same flash (with same options of using hotshoe or side PC connection), with vastly higher working ISO options available — which means more flexibility and greater working range with the flash — and the ability to look through the viewfinder when I feel like doing so.

I haven’t gotten fully accustomed to it yet, and I don’t know it as well as I knew Rollei IR400. But it seems to be more or less a Sunny 11 situation, exposure wise, and the auto mode on the SB-24 seems to work well enough without much (if any) compensation for most situations.

I’ve already shot quite a bit with it, and been pleased with the results. It will take a while for me to know quite how to process the files, though — while the filtration is similar to what I’m accustomed to, 5D’s sensor is not going to behave in quite the same way as film.

Lake Merritt

Lake Meritt Channel

Betsy Ross Flag

Flood Control Station Tour

Unfortunately, in the time between when I more or less topped shooting with the Nikkormat and when I got the 5D kit set up, I seem to have lost much of my 28mm no-viewfinder composition mojo. Hopefully that’s reversible. In the mean time, well, we’ll just have to I’m canting photos for aesthetic reasons.

Stars Headband


Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Ricoh GRD II

Please forgive that horrible photograph. It’s a product of two powerful competing impulses: On the one hand, it seems stupid to write about a product without picturing it, and on the other hand, I’m at a point in my life where I simply refuse to put effort into to stupid gear photos.

Needless to say, there are plenty of reviews online that provide very nice pictures of the camera, as well as (almost) all the technical information you could require.

So, as to the camera, why do I have it, and what do I have to say about it that isn’t just summarizing dpreview?

Well, for starters, I should explain why I bought a new (used) digital camera. As you may know, I started on digital, but switched to film almost completely. I’m a still a hardcore film convert (and as any student of religion knows, converts are the ones who are always most strident), and I have some very nice, very portable film cameras, including the semi-pocketable Olympus XA.

But, a few different factors conspired to make me desire a compact digital camera:

* Sometimes I’m in social situations where a photograph is called for, but I don’t feel like expending precious film
* Sometimes I want a photograph of something for a blog post, but I don’t feel like expending precious film
* Sometimes I want a photograph of something to put online the same day (but don’t feel like busting out a big camera and polaroid back)

In the past, those factors never overcame my hatred for some of the ubiquitous features of digital compacts, like:

* Autofocus
* No usable MF option
* No scale focus option
* Often absurdly impossible UI
* Shitty image quality

In discussions about these problems, folks have often brought up Ricoh’s GR Digital cameras, which I previously ignored, because they’re so damnably expensive. However, I happened to take a look one day at both the focus and exposure options on the GR Digital II and it’s price on the used market, which is comparatively pretty reasonable.

So, after a bit more research and digging, I ordered one.

Now, I won’t go into what it looks like or its specifications, etc., because you can get that information in more detail elsewhere very easily. What I will address is the question that typically most interests me about digital compacts, the question which virtually no reviews of those compacts ever actually addresses:

Can the camera be used for LCD-free, scale focus street shooting, the way I would use a film compact?

Street photography isn’t the only or even necessarily the primary thing I want this camera for, but I strongly feel that this sort of scenario is one in which every small format camera should be able to offer at least acceptable usability. Obviously the camera market as a whole disagrees with me; but is Ricoh the exception?

Yes and no. Or, rather, yes, with some annoying caveats.

On the yes side:

* Yes, you can turn off the LCD and all noises
* Yes, there is what amounts to a hyperfocal setting
* Yes, there is an electronic DOF scale for effective manual prefocusing
* Yes, the camera can be made to record a photograph near-instantaneously
* Yes, it has aperture priority and manual exposure modes
* Yes, there are aperture and shutter speed controls under your finger and thumb where they should be
* Yes, the camera has a hot shoe and can reliably sync a corded flash at (so far as I can tell) speeds up to about 1/1000 or so

On the annoying caveat side:

* The camera does not appear to meter continuously in aperture priority mode; i.e., if you skip straight to a shutter release full press without a half-press first — which you should be able to do when working sans autofocus — you will often get seriously inaccurate exposures
* Also, the camera does not have enough dynamic range to allow you to be sloppy in your exposures
* This makes it impossible to abandon the LCD completely, because one cannot simply trust the camera to accurately expose for you
* While there is a mode which allows you to view settings on the LCD but skip the live view (good), that mode does not display the settings continuously; you have to twiddle a control to make the settings appear.
* It tends to crap out around ISO 400 in the “noise acceptability department.”
* Despite having a fixed lens, it does not have a built-in viewfinder, and while accessory finders are available, they are wickedly expensive. (As are many finders made for film cameras that cover a similar FOV, so I don’t mean to imply that Ricoh is trying to shaft the user on this front; wide angle finders simply aren’t cheap.)

Off Oxford St.

There are also some annoyances that aren’t really design complaints, but which frustrate me nonetheless. The delay in writing RAW files to the card, and the unnecessarily large size of those files, are particularly chafing. You would think that a camera with so many incredibly intelligent design choices targeted at an unusually sensible (in terms of photographic practices) market segment would favor less pixel density.

I’m also finding it difficult going, getting the hang of working with those files. So far, I’ve only managed to get results I like by going black and white, for example. However, hopefully that will improve as I get more practice with the camera.

But, at the end of the day, will I be using it?

Car Seats Facing Bing Wong

The answer is yes, or at least probably. There simply aren’t that many digital cameras that allow me to easily — by simply twitching a preset — go from ideal settings for daylight hyperfocal street shooting to ideal settings for shooting with a handheld flash. Not even my D40 — although that camera’s beautifully simple interface when paired with a non-metering lens remains the envy of most digital cameras, as far as I am concerned.

It’s too bad that I can’t use the GRDII like the digital equivalent of an XA — which, with its extremely reliable metering system and simple operation, is one of the most stress-free cameras imaginable in most situations.

But at the same time, I’m not exactly averse to busting out my handheld meter and getting old school. Doing so gets me the ability to more or less reliably pre-set exposure, and I have an adequate (although not perfect) eye for the 28mm-equivalent field of view. In other words, it’s a workable solution, even if it is not the ideal one.

Of course, if only someone would release a camera like a digital equivalent of the Rollei 35 — with external, top-viewable dials for exposure settings and a built-in VF — I would be a completely happy camper. But since that’s not going to happen, the GRD is probably going to be good enough…

Know your gear, and stay in practice

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Lake Merritt Channel, Double Exposure

Here are some of the fantastically stupid things I’ve done or allowed to happen lately while shooting

* Double exposures
* Lost exposures from forgetting to insert darkslide before changing backs
* Lost exposures from forgetting to remove darkslide before exposing
* Watching ill-attached lens hood roll hundreds of feet down an extremely steep hill, to the bafflement of passers-by
* Jammed shutter due to premature winding
* Complete and utter bafflement upon realizing I have forgotten, yet again, which way to turn the crank to rewind my XA

Why have all these things happened to me? Is it because I’m an irredeemable moron? Yes, of course it is. But it’s not just that. It’s also to do with the fact that I’ve been shooting with all my cameras lately. Instead of doing what I usually do, which is shoot with one almost exclusively for several weeks at a time, I’ve been switching between my Koni-Omega, my RB67, my Bessa, my XA, and, to a lesser extent, my Nikkormat and D40. This makes it easier to lose track of the working rhythms that make operating each camera a smooth process. That means it takes me longer to do things, and it also means I’m much more likely to make mistakes.

Perhaps it’s a case of me owning too many cameras. I don’t think I’m quite ready to concede that, however, since none of my cameras are really redundant — unless I someday stop shooting birds, at which point I could perhaps sell off my Nikon gear. And certainly none of them is an exorbitant expense — all were the cheapest representative of their class, and almost all used. : )

In fact, what is probably called for is not avoiding camera changes, but getting more accustomed to swapping between cameras, and making _that_ working rhythm something which is habitual, and something which I can count on myself to bring off efficiently.

Bessa R

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

After the recent, sharp increase in my interest in street photography, and after the interesting posts about the Leica for a year proposition on The Online Photographer, I started thinking more and more about getting an interchangeable lens rangefinder.

Of course it couldn’t be a Leica, despite the tantalizing logic of the Leica for a year idea, because (1) I don’t think I need to a Leica for its educational value; what will it really teach me that I can’t learn from my Koni-Omega? and (2) there’s no way I would be able to sell it at the end of the year, which undermines a key point of that tantalizing logic. I know me; I don’t like to part with gear.

But the idea of a system rangefinder remained compelling, because while I love my Koni-Omega and my Olympus XA, neither is very good for low-light work. The Koni-Omega lacks fast lenses, and the XA’s fulltime aperture priority and maximum 800 ISO metering make it great for moderate low light conditions but terrible for really dark situations.

There are some good fixed-lens rangefinders with faster lenses and manual control, but I wanted the ability to swap lenses and add in a second body later if it really clicked for me. I also didn’t want a FSU rangefinder, because I wanted something reliable and with straightforward operation. With those criteria and my persistent cheap-skatiness, the best option was a used early Bessa. What I settled on was a Bessa R which came with a 35mm f/1.7 Ultron.


I haven’t used the camera much yet, but I’m quite happy with it so far.

It definitely has some odd quirks, some of which I feel comfortable identifying as design flaws — the shutter speed selector is a pain to access, because it’s obscured by the advance lever. Not impossible to get to, of course, and with the lever extended a bit, it’s not even an issue, but it’s not a very elegant design. The film rewind lever is sort of cleverly designed, but doesn’t feel very sturdy — although it’s the only aspect of the camera that strikes me that way; I was surprised by how solid most of it seems.

Also, the black rubbery plastic (or whatever) around the middle of the body has a slightly odd smell, which I got to know pretty well for a while, because I’m left-eyed. (I.e., my nose gets pressed up against the body, as with most of my cameras.) However, this seems to have largely dissipated now that the camera has been aired out.

Bessa-R v. Nikkormat

There are also some things that I really miss from my Nikkormat FT-2. When shooting 35mm film, I’m used to being able to look at the top of the camera to check my exposure without bringing the camera up to my eye — this is really convenient when I’m moving in and out of sun and shadow and I need to continually adjust the exposure. I miss that when working with the Bessa, and I also miss the positioning of the shutter speed selector on a ring around the lens, instead of on a dial at the top of the camera.

But despite the lack of those little flourishes, I was surprised at how solid and usable the camera feels. A lot of reviews point to its cheap plastic build quality — and yes, it’s inexpensive, and yes, there’s plastic in it, but it doesn’t feel shoddily made, by any means. Of course, most of those reviews were written by people who had used Leicas, and I never have, so I don’t have to worry about that particular comparison. : )

However, this is all basically tangential to what i really care about in this camera — which is fast focusing in low light conditions. In that regard, it’s fantastic. The viewfinder is bright, the rangefinder is easy to see in dim light, and it seems to focus quite positively.

I haven’t had a chance to use it all that much, yet. I’ve only put a roll and a half through it, and none of it’s exactly photographic genius, but it certainly works….

Bessa-R - First Roll

Olympus XA

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Olympus XA

For a while now, I’ve been wanting a compact camera to replace the Sony point and shoot that’s currently on extended loan to my sister — extended loan, meaning I’ll probably never see it again. : )

But, knowing somewhat more about photography than I did when I got that camera, and in particular knowing that I often want to shoot in available light conditions, without flash, I was wary of buying a digital compact of the kind currently on the market. High ISO performance is simply too lame. This is a problem which is directly related to the size of the sensors used in these cameras, and until there is a major improvement in the design of sensor, or until the use of larger sensors in compact cameras (like the buggy and fiendishly expensive Sigma DP-1) becomes more common, I decided I would need to start looking more toward compact film cameras. Shooting film at high ISOs is not exactly a grain-free exercise, of course, but I find film grain to be generally unobjectionable (if not desirable), whereas digital noise in color images has to be massaged quite a bit before I find it presentable.

When looking for a film compact, I mostly steered clear of autofocus film cameras. Not that there’s anything wrong with autofocus per se, but I’ve become so accustomed to manual focus that I really don’t like the idea of doing without it — weird, I know, because it’s a step backward in functionality, but we all have our quirks.

So, I recently purchased a fascinating little piece of 70’s-era camera history: The Olympus XA. It looks like one of thouse silly plastic fixed-focus cameras, the sort of thing you might have bought for a particularly stupid and/or clumsy niece of nephew about to go on a trip. But what it really is, is one of the smallest coupled rangefinder cameras ever made.

For those not in the know, “coupled rangefinder” means that you’re not viewing the image through the lens, as in an SLR, but through a separate viewfinder, but that there’s a focusing aid coupled to the lens, to let you know when you’re in focus. How this works is there’s a little square projected into the middle of the viewfinder with a second, overlay image, and you adjust the focus until the images match.

This method of focusing allows rangefinder cameras to be designed more compactly than SLRs — no need for mirrors and prisms to redirect the light path. Rangefinder cameras can also be much quieter, and there are other benefits, like the absence of mirror slap — the motion of the mirror being lifted out of the way, which can cause problems at certain shutter speeds. These factors — in particular the compact size and the quiet — have made Leicas a favorite of street photographers and journalists.

Rangefinders have limitations; they aren’t much good for shooting at long focal lengths, at macro magnifications. They also can present problems because of parallax error. This is why I won’t be switching to Leica for birding any time soon.

Now, I’d love to use something like a Leica as my new point and shoot replacement, but I don’t have that kind of cash. Heck, even used Leica clones can be disconcertingly expensive. There are less expensive rangefinders with fixed lenses — like the Canonet — that nonetheless look and handle and shoot more like a “real” camera, and I looked at these, but I eventually settled on the XA, because, while it’s more limited in terms of its optics and functionality than some of those alternatives, it’s also by far the most pocketable. Given that my goal here is not to replace either my DSLR or my SLR, but rather to supplement them with a very compact, very portable backup, it makes the most sense.

Form factor and controls

The form factor is interesting. The design is quite impressive — tiny, lightweight, reasonably ergonomic. There is a “dust cover” that conceals the lens and viewfinder; sliding this aside turns the camera on and lets you take pictures.

Because the lens is pretty much flush with the body — a big part of the design feat — focusing is done with a small lever at the bottom of the camera. The aperture (it’s basically a full-time aperture priority camera) is set with a small slider on the right side of the camera. The shutter release is a big red button that you sort of brush with your finger — the release is electronic. The rest is fairly conventional.

It really is, by the way, fully pocketable. Shirt pocket, pants pocket, whatever. Because of its relative thickness, it does tend to bulge slightly, so wearers of extremely tight jeans should be appropriately wary.

Use and usability

So, how’s it working? First off, focusing using the double-image rangefinder is really cool, and when it works, it’s really quite fast compared to focusing using a split prism. There are two caveats, though:

  • Focus and recompose is tricky. With an SLR, even if the focusing aid (prism, AF point, whatever) can’t be positioned over the subject, it is still possible to gauge focus using the matte areas of the focusing screen. With a rangefinder, you only have visual feedback about focus within the area of the doubled image. This means you have to be extra cautious when recomposing, so as not to disturb the relationship between the subject and the film plane.
  • Overlay brightness. It can be hard to see the overlay, depending on what the light is like that you’re shooting in. This also applies to the shutter speed readout. I seem to recall somewhere that some folks put something translucent over the viewfinder to compensate for this.

I was surprised at how comfortable the camera is to hold. It doesn’t really work to support it from below, as you would an SLR. With an SLR, the weight of the camera is, in itself, a big part of what keeps things steady; with the XA, that simply isn’t a factor. I find I basically have to hold it from both sides — stupid tourist style — with perhaps a thumb thrown underneath. Having pressure applied from multiple angles seems to be essential.

Fortunately, I don’t mind looking like a stupid tourist. : )

Test shots

I’ve only shot one roll through the XA so far, a roll of Fuji Superia 800. I don’t much care for Fuji film, so far — but it’s just a test roll, and I wanted an 800-speed film (The XA’s max ISO) so that I could shoot in available light when needed. My second roll, the one in the camera now, is Kodak Portra 800. After that I’ll try running another roll of Superia through at a lower rating.



Up Live Plants


Obligatory Bathroom Self-Portrait

Setting aside questions of emulsion, there are aspects of image quality which have to do with the camera, and especially its lens. It’s definitely not like shooting with my Nikkor lenses; there’s a definite softness to the XA, and I noticed some impressive chromatic aberration in one of my test shots.

But that’s not a deal-breaker. The XA’s lens gives it a certain quality, a character, that is peculiar to it and not unpleasant. We’re not in Holga territory, here, but there is an XA “look” that is rather appealing not just despite but at least partly because of its slightly off IQ. I just need to figure out how to use it to best effect.