Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ntchs! [stranger 10/99]

ntchs! [stranger 10/99] (Flexaret VI, Kodak Tri-X 400, EI 400/27°)

You've seen her, she waits on her bike for the traffic light to get green. You approach her silently, measure the light and set shutter speed and f-number. You make as if you waited for the green light, too, and very carefully turn your TLR ninety degrees to the left. You look down to the waist-level finder, adjust the focus and compose the picture and then...
My tenth stranger decided to check her bonnet exactly when I released the shutter. Damn! :)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Meterless exposure

I once read a story, probably apocryphal, about an interviewer who asked Henri Cartier-Bresson, the legendary street photographer, if it was true that he did not use a light meter to get his exposures. Cartier-Bresson said it was true and, to prove it, proceeded to give two exposures (shutter speed and aperture for a given ISO film speed), one for the left and one for the right side of the interviewer's face, which was lit from the side. Both exposures turned out to be correct.

The ultimate challenge when using vintage photographic cameras is that they usually predate the automatic exposure era. The problem of determining exposures has to be faced by the photographer alone, and this is one of the reasons why I love them. As I began photographing with the Retinette I thought about getting a light meter. At first I even took one of our dSLRs with me to measure, and then transferred shutter speed and aperture settings to the Retinette, but this was kind of using a can(n)on to kill a fly... ;) Then I came across Fred Parker's ultimate exposure computer, which was exactly what I was looking for: a (relatively) easy way to determine exposure without the need of a light meter, using nothing more than your eyes and your brain.

The main idea is to estimate the amount of light falling into a scene. This is the only input required: everything else is known or can be decided creatively. The amount of light is measured by a magnitude called exposure value (EV). Our eyes and our brains are indeed perfectly capable of estimating exposure value, one just needs a little practice and some reference points. For example, a typical scene in bright direct sunlight has an exposure value of EV15. A direct light in heavy overcast or an area in open shade with clear sunlight needs EV12. The light with a clear sky one hour after sunrise is EV9-11. A home interior in artificial light is EV5-7. And so on.

(Retinette IA, Fujicolor Superia Reala 100, ISO 100/21°)
This one was shot at EV14, since the sun came from one side, on an ISO 100 film. I set 1/125 and went one step down the EV scale to an f/11 aperture.

Once the exposure value has been estimated, determining the aperture and shutter speed is quite easy if you use the sunny f/16 rule as an anchor point. This rule states that EV 15 (corresponding to bright direct sunlight) requires approximately the reciprocal of the ISO speed for the shutter at f/16. If you are using ISO 100, then 1/125 @f/16 is the nearest setting; for ISO 200 it would be 1/250 @f/16 and for ISO 400 it would be 1/500 @f/16.

lehener brücke crop
(Flexaret VI, Kodak Tri-X 400, ISO 400/27°)
This picture was shot at EV15 on an ISO 400 film. I set the shutter speed to 1/400 (maximum in the Flexaret) to freeze the movement as much as I could, since I was walking. The sunny f/16 rule required an aperture of f/16.

Both shutter speed and aperture (f-number) scales are calibrated for each stop to be exactly one EV point. This makes using the sunny f/16 rule very easy. Suppose we want to shoot a scene at EV12 and we have ISO 200. Now EV15 would mean 1/250 @f/16, but we want to go 3 stops down to EV12. Now we could go three units down in any dimension: keep shutter speed at 1/250 and set aperture to f/11 (-1EV), f/8 (-2EV) and finally f/5.6 (-3EV = EV12, our target), or you could keep aperture at f/16 and reduce shutter speed to 1/125 (-1EV), 1/60 (-2EV) and 1/30 (-3EV = EV12, again our target). A combination of both is of course possible: 1/125 @f/8 (-1EV in shutter speed and -2EV in aperture) and 1/60 @f/11 (-2EV in shutter speed and -1EV in aperture) would both expose correctly for EV12.

In this way, you can always decide an aperture first (for depth of field considerations) and then determine shutter speed and ISO for the scene. Or start with the shutter speed (to freeze a moving subject, for example) and determine aperture and ISO later. The ISO speed scale is calibrated in EV units as well. The step from one ISO speed to the next is exactly 1 EV. For film users like myself ISO speed is something that you cannot change easily from picture to picture, but it is no problem if you use a digital camera.

(Praktica BMS, Prakticar 50mm 1:1.8, Fuji Neopan 100 Acros, ISO 100/21°)
The film was an ISO 100 and I estimated EV11 for this one. I set shutter speed at 1/125 to minimize camera shake and that left me with an f/4 aperture.

I find it very useful to learn the most usual ranges of aperture and shutter speed scales by heart (*), because cameras (especially the older ones) do not always stick to the standard EV stops, especially on technically challenging matters like maximum aperture or maximum shutter speed.

lights and shadows
(Hapo 66-E, Kodak Tri-X 400, EI 800/30°)
I was shooting this film at an exposure index of 800 (like an ISO 800). My exposure value estimation was EV7. I set the aperture to the maximum the Hapo can go, f/3.5, for which I needed 1/50 on the shutter speed.

I admit that it might look difficult at first, but it is true that with a little practice you will be estimating exposures in no time. This way you can avoid having to rely on light meters, which have many problems and pitfalls of their own. Of course there is the danger of estimating EV wrong in the first place, but with time and practice one gets better and better (**). I often discover myself thinking about the EV of scenes that I see around me in the bus, in the street, in a restaurant, ... and even though I do not take a picture, determining which ISO, shutter and aperture would I use.

flowers by the lake
(Flexaret VI, Fujichrome Velvia 50, ISO 50/18°)
I shot this one at EV12 since the sky was covered with clouds. Since the film was an ISO 50 (not really the best choice for that day, by the way!), I needed to go up to f/3.5 to achieve a relatively shake-free 1/100 shutter speed.

I am convinced that meterless exposure is a very healthy exercise to train your eye for the light which is, indeed, what every photographer should aspire to.

(*) These are the agreed standards for shutter speed and aperture/f-number. Each step to the left represents +1 EV and each step to the right represents -1 EV.

shutter speed 1s 1/2 1/4 1/8 1/15 1/30 1/60 1/125 1/250 1/500
f-number 1.4 2 2.8 4 5.6 8 11 16 22 32

(**) the exposure latitude of the different types of film or sensors that you use, that means how "forgiving" it is, can also help when you make such mistakes. Color slide film is the least tolerant one, exposure has to be estimated quite precisely (maximum 1-2 EV error).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A photographic story - #2 Awakening

In summer 2002 Mar and I spent a week in Azaila, Teruel, to stay in an old house that belonged to some relatives of hers. For that trip we borrowed my sister-in-law's film single-lens reflex camera, which she calls by the nickname Eduvigis.

eos 3000n
(EOS 350D, EF 50mm f/1.8, 2.5s, f/11, ISO 100)

Eduvigis is also known as Canon EOS 3000N and sports a 28-80mm zoom lens. This was the first time I used a zoom lens and I remember being fascinated by the "live" change of framing you could actually see through the viewfinder as you turned the zoom ring on the lens. But what I found the most fascinating of all was the autofocus: I remember playing and playing with the camera, pressing the shutter button halfway and marveling at the speed with which the subjects got sharp, with a double beep that, in fact, is still there in Canon's modern dSLR cameras.

I remember taking pictures of Mar while visiting the ruins of an Iberian settlement and marveling at the way the infinite landscapes in northern Teruel got blurred. I remember the uneasy silence filling the abandoned streets of Belchite Viejo and not really knowing how to take pictures there. To transmit the deserted look of the ruins, broken by the bombs of the Spanish Civil War, required much more "photographic eye" than I had back then.

Anyway, and in spite of using full automatic exposure mode all the time, the pictures came out really nice and we loved them. In fact, two portraits of us, taken with Eduvigis in that vacation, are framed in our bedroom since then.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

16:9 bus stop [stranger 9/99]

16:9 bus stop [stranger 9/99] (EOS 40D, EF 24mm f/2.8, 1/640, f/11, ISO 400)

My ninth stranger was eating an apple as she waited at the bus stop.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Efke 25 - the vintage film experience

When you commit yourself to using vintage cameras you are unsuspectingly plugging into a long-running tradition of ingenious camera makers, clever film designers and, in general, brave pioneers of every type, spanning more than a century to the past.

sunset behind the trees (Flexaret VI, Efke 25, EI 25/15°)

I live in a city where getting film is unfortunately limited to the biggest brands (Kodak, Fuji, Ilford) and at a price that is not really competitive. Last time we spent a weekend in Vienna, I browsed through Blende7's online film catalog to see which films was I going to buy. One of the exotic film brands that immediately catched my attention was Efke, manufactured by Fotokemika in Samobor, Croatia, featuring a very sober gray and green design. I bought a spool of Efke 25 roll film.

solitary bench (+1) (Flexaret VI, Efke 25, EI 25/15°)

I then learned that I had got quite a special film, because Efke is one of the few manufacturers that produce film using the old ADOX formulas, a legendary film design introduced in the 1950s by the Adox Fotowerke Dr. C. Schleussner GmbH in Germany. The ADOX formula has much higher silver content than modern black and white films, resulting in very high quality reproduction of grays and almost no visible film grain. The film base is very thin and highly transparent, which eases inspection and scanning of the negatives.

schneeglöckchen (Flexaret VI, Efke 25, EI 25/15°)

Of course ISO 25 was somewhat of a challenge as well, because we are entering a low-sensitivity region that is absolute terra incognita for the digital photographer, where most cameras have ISO 100 as lower end. ISO 25 means a typical scene in direct bright sunlight should be taken at 1/25s with f/16, or 1/100s with f/8. A more challenging photographic subject, like a portrait in a heavy overcast day would require 1/10s with f/5.6. A tripod, a support or a very steady hand are almost indispensable.

backlight (Flexaret VI, Efke 25, EI 25/15°)

Last March we went for a hike with friends. The excursion took us through a very beautiful path that crossed a marsh landscape. As the sun was bright and high in the sky, I loaded my Efke 25 into the Flexaret. A while later some clouds gathered and started covering the sky from the east. At first I feared the light would not be enough for my low-sensitivity film (I did not have a tripod!), but afterwards, when looking at the developed negatives, I was really pleased with the rendition of the tones in the sky. The pictures came out with a difficult to describe and yet very real old-looking atmosphere, as though the pictures had been taken on the 60s. The Belar lens on the Flexaret certainly helps conveying this look, but I guess most of the merit comes from the film.

twin trees (+1) (Flexaret VI, Efke 25, EI 25/15°)

I will definitely be using more Efke film, and also the ones produced by Fotoimpex near Berlin, a small company that is using the ADOX formulas and the trademark since 2006. I really like the feeling that I get when using it, for me very similar to the reverence with which we would take a very old and very valuable book in our hands.

Pictures taken on Efke 25 in my flickr photostream

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sudoku [stranger 8/99]

sudoku stranger 8/99
(EOS 350D, EF 50mm f/1.8, 1/25, f/4.5, ISO 100)

My eighth stranger was playing sudoku while waiting for the boarding call for her flight.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

From the hip

As I started with the 99 strangers challenge, one of the techniques that I wanted to try was photographing from the hip. You take your camera in your hand, leave your arm hanging along your body, so that the camera is somewhere at your hip level, and take pictures from there. There is of course no looking through the viewfinder.

FTH photography(*) is a very challenging exercise, because there is a lot of randomness going on, and can be quite frustrating as well: be prepared to shoot more than 250 pictures and end up, with luck, getting 5 or 6 usable pictures. But, although luck is random in nature, it tends to be on the side of those that go looking for it and are prepared to embrace it.

I have made two FTH photo walks and I would like to share my experience and my thoughts with you. All pictures in this post have been taken from the hip.

selfie fth
(EOS 40D, EF 24mm f/2.8, 1/125, f/11, ISO 400)

Holding your camera
  • wrap the neck strap around your wrist in a way you feel comfortable letting go of your camera so that it hangs safely; you may need to roll the neck strap up to three times around your wrist (at least that worked for me!)
  • the camera feels more natural in a portrait (vertical) orientation, that's why most of the pictures in these sessions have portrait orientation
  • press the shutter very slightly, looking for the minimum pressure that would fire; this helps minimizing camera shake
  • try to keep your arm as still as possible when shooting, do not swing it too much when walking

flare fth
(EOS 40D, EF 24mm f/2.8, 1/250, f/11, ISO 400)

  • I prefer using aperture priority mode with a fairly high f-number, to ensure enough depth of field
  • use a moderately high ISO (400 or more, depending on lighting conditions) to ensure fast enough shutter speeds not to blur the shots: we want to achieve 1/250 or faster, to be on the safe side

flare fth
(EOS 350D, EF 24mm f/2.8, 1/2000, f/11, ISO 400)

Focal length
  • I used a wide angle lens (24mm, meaning 38mm on my cropped sensors) because the angle of view allows shooting from a closer distance and gives a better chance of not missing your intended targets
  • wide angle lenses also tend to have huge depths of field, which is good for the next point

letting the hours go by (fth)
(EOS 350D, EF 24mm f/2.8, 1/400, f/11, ISO 400)

  • I used hyperfocal distance with a deep depth of field
  • I would not use autofocus, it is too risky: set your lens on manual focus and be aware of the limits of your depth of field and try to shoot only when you are sure that your subjects are within this range

hyperfocal dog fth
(EOS 40D, EF 24mm f/2.8, 1/800, f/11, ISO 400)

  • this is the most difficult and frustrating point!
  • do some test shots first, to get the feeling of the slight wrist movements you can do and its effect on the direction your camera is pointing to
  • get close to your subjects, but be aware of your depth of field limits, or your hyperfocal distance!
  • in order to photograph walking subjects it is better to outwalk them and walk in front of them, as this leaves your hand in a relatively comfortable and natural-looking position and can provide an interesting frontal low-angle point of view

couple fth
(EOS 40D, EF 24mm f/2.8, 1/250, f/11, ISO 400)

  • maintain a surreptitious attitude, you don't want to be noticed
  • do not make eye contact with your subjects, especially as you are taking the picture
  • do not look at your camera after shooting, never ever check the display on your camera just after you took a picture, this will draw attention to your camera and will give yourself away as a photographer, and this is exactly what you do not want
  • act as a lost tourist
  • stand still at a busy corner, as if you were waiting to meet someone
  • ignore your camera at all times; act as if you were carrying a briefcase, not a camera
  • better go alone: you are going to be acting a little weird, stopping, walking faster, suddenly changing directions, and you want to blend into the background

vespa fth
(EOS 40D, EF 24mm f/2.8, 1/320, f/11, ISO 400)

FTH photography is not easy, but it can be very rewarding, and with patience and practice, you are going to get more and more good shots and you will definitely grow as a photographer. The technique should just be a means of achieving an artistic expression. FTH photography is quite challenging because of the technique, but do never forget about the art! :)

(*) from-the-hip photography :)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

From the other side of the curtain - Praktica BMS

Last month we spent a week with our families in Tarragona and Barcelona. As this time I did not want to be carrying too much weight around, I decided to leave most of my photo gear at home. I left the Flexie and took only the Hapo for medium format. As for 35mm, I left the Retinette at home as well and asked my dad if I could borrow his last film camera for the week, a Pentacon Praktica BMS single-lens reflex. After using it for a couple of days, I was not able to resist the temptation and promptly accepted my dad's offer of keeping it, as he is not shooting film any more.

praktica bms
(EOS 350D, EF 50mm f/1.8, 1s, f/6.3, ISO 100)

The Praktica BMS was made by Pentacon in Dresden, Germany (then the German Democratic Republic) in the late 80s. It is a very sturdy, spartan camera that gets the job done. The loud and resolute sound of the focal plane shutter does not leave place for misunderstandings: the Praktica is a robust performer, made for a lifetime, that is able to take a fair amount of abuse without loosing its grip.

I am using two lenses: a Pentacon Prakticar 50mm f/1.8 normal lens and a Prakticar 28mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens with close-up (macro) capability. Both are manual focus lenses. There are no bells and whistles here: the only aid to the photographer that the Praktica has is a built-in light meter(*), everything else is full manual. There is no automatic exposure program. The loveliest feature is a very ingenious lens and mirror system that displays the aperture currently set on the lens through the viewfinder. Purely optical, no need for complicated electronic communication between lens and camera body for that.

praktica bms - ttv
(EOS 350D, EF 50mm f/1.8, 3.2s, f/5.0, ISO 100)

What I love about using this camera is that the overall experience is very similar to using a digital SLR, which is where I come from, but the Praktica made me realize how little do you actually need in order to take a picture. Making a picture turns around the photographer, the camera and the subject. And with the Praktica, as with every full-manual operation camera, the photographer is the only one doing the thinking, and I like this feeling.

The Praktica BMS was produced between March 1989 and December 1990. I do not know when was it made, but I like to imagine that just in the moment my dad's camera was finished and packed, the workers at the VEB (**) Pentacon in Dresden stopped what they were doing and grouped around a radio that was giving a life news report that the borders to West Berlin were open and that the Wall was falling.

Pentacon Praktica BMS
My Praktica BMS flickr set

Maker Pentacon
Model Praktica BMS
Type Single-lens Reflex
Lens #1 Pentacon Prakticar 50mm f/1.8
Lens #2 Prakticar 28mm f/2.8 macro
Shutter 4s - 1/1000 + B
Film type 35mm (135)
Year Mar-1989 - Dec-1990
Country East Germany

(*) that, in fact, only works with the 28mm lens attached!
(**) Volkseigener Betrieb, meaning people-owned enterprise, as state-owned companies were called in the communist German Democratic Republic.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

On the bench [stranger 7/99]

on the bench [stranger 7/99]
(Flexaret VI, Kodak Tri-X 400, EI 400/27°)

My seventh stranger was enjoying the winter sun on a park bench.