Top 5 film cameras (+ 1) under 500$

Top five best film cameras for less than 500 euro - Pentax ME Super

A couple weeks ago Kai of DigitalRev, with the help of Bellamy of JapanCameraHunter, did a video on the “5 top film cameras for under $1000”. Interesting, but having grown up shooting film in my opinion they got two major things wrong. Continue reading “Top 5 film cameras (+ 1) under 500$”

Cycling for photographers: an update

Portrait

After my last post someone asked if they need bike-specific shoes.

These are shoes that have a mechanism to lock onto (specific kind of) pedals, so you become one with the bike, better exploiting your power.

Now while they are certainly nice, almost necessary, to cover long distances on road, or to tackle more demanding terrain at a fast pace mountain biking, their sole is stiff as a plank.

It is intentional, because this increases the power transfer from your feet to the pedals; but at the same time this feature makes the shoes exceedingly uncomfortable for walking around, even for short-ish distances.

So no, I would definitely advise you guys to avoid them for “photographic” use, because when you are scouting a place for pictures you will use the bike to go there, but then you will have / want to do a fair amount of walking as well to get the best angle, to explore places too rough to go to with the bike and so on.

How to: cycling for photographers

Montague SwissBike X50

When you’re out in the mountains, or touring a city, or anyway going around spotting locations and snapping pictures there is always that much terrain you can cover without sleeping out in the open or in an hotel.

This is really frustrating considering that most good locations, especially in the mountains, are often miles away from places you can reach with your car. And even if you got a nice all-terrain vehicle you have to know the paths pretty well to not get stuck in some rut or in a place in which you cannot turn around.

This means that a sizable portion of your day will be spent first driving then hiking / walking, instead of photographing. Add to this the constraints of finding the right light (i.e. getting at the location you want to photograph at a specific hour), and then the range will be limited even further.

If I don’t find something to photograph along the way, and the path is not too steep, on foot in a day I can usually cover a maximum of 15-20Km / 9-12 miles before having to turn around for the return trip.

This is extremely annoying, and while there is nothing wrong in revisiting the same places over and over (on the contrary, it is extremely useful for artistic purposes) at the same time this can easily lead you to boredom and to putting the camera down for a while.

Fallen bridge on the Cecita brook

There is a simple solution, though. And compared with the prices of the gear we usually lust after it is a pretty cheap one too. Well, everything is cheap compared with some of those prices!

A well made mountain bike (or road / hybrid bike, if you are more of a city guy) will take you anywhere in relative comfort, and will dramatically extend the amount of terrain you can cover in a single day. Dramatically here means that, without steep hills in the way and once you get fit enough, you can cover as much as 160Km / 100 miles IN A SINGLE DAY and usually at least 80-100Km / 50-60 miles. There is also a lot of people out there touring the U.S.A., Europe, Asia, Australia on bikes racking up thousand and thousand of miles for months on end.

Just for reference, going often at a leisurely (read: sloooooow) pace to be able to spot interesting scenes I usually cover around 30Km / 19 miles in a couple hours (on reasonably flat or undulated terrain). When the gradient steepens the game get tough, but it is still doable and, in the worst possible case*, you can always step down the bike and push; after all you’re not competing in the Tour de France!

*Where I live the differences in altitude are often extreme: in just 10-15Km / 6-10 miles a road can get you from 200 to 1400 meters / 650 to 4600 feet or more. This can happen at sea level as well, because here in Calabria the mountains practically dip their toes in the sea along almost the whole coast.

Bonus point 1: especially when I’m out scouting a new location, it may happen that some of the best views are from a stretch of road on which there is absolutely no place to safely stop a car, not even for a few minutes (typically on a bridge or a causeway). This is no problem at all with a bike: just toss it up on the margin of the road, on a piece of grass or over the guardrail and you’re good to go.

Bonus point 2: you can adapt a small tripod head to the handlebars (or buy one pre-made). While not a substitute for a proper tripod, it will make possible going out ultra-light when you are not in the mood for carrying a lot of gear or maybe are just evaluating the potential of a place.

Note: above I said a “well made” bike. This means avoiding like the plague the cheap models sold in malls. These might barely be fine for use on flat tarmac (and even then, the experience will not be so comfortable and the bike will not last all that long), but for paths and cross-country they can be downright dangerous. Imagine what would happen if riding on a rough path out of nowhere one of the bike weldings should snap… Or what *will* happen when you’ll try to brake in wet conditions with your cheap steel wheels (hint: nothing, and you’ll become really intimate with a tree). You get the idea.

Stella under a tree

So, to ride in style and comfort this is what a bike-riding photographer will need:

 

1) A bike (duh!)

A mountain bike (landscape guys), or an hybrid / road one (cityscapers and street shooters). Pretty much anything from 450-500 euro will do. Obviously the more you spend the more you get, as always.

  • If you plan to use it only in cities go for no suspension at all (and you might find something good as low as 350€).
  • If you plan to limit yourself to normal paths peek one with just a (good) front suspension, a.k.a. “hardtail”.
  • If you plan to ride it on rough paths or on no paths at all spend a bit more, and get a full suspended model (front and rear); your butt will thank you, and you will ride safer too. But if you can’t spend more then get the best hardtail you can afford, instead of a cheap-o dual suspension.
  • If you, like me, have a car with a small trunk and worst still live in a building with a tiny elevator consider buying (for a bit more) a good full size folding bike like one of the Montague series. I own a Swissbike X50, but probably the best for price-performance ratio is the Paratrooper. For a small car trunk you can get away without having to spend more on a folding just removing both wheels from the bike (buy one with quick-releases) or using a car rack, but fitting a bike in a small elevator (important if you plan to use it also on your normal schedule) it is quite a bit more tricky.

“Cro-Mo” frames are made of steel, while the “6***” and “7***” are aluminum. Steel ones are usually heavier, but better for long touristic trips (steel is easy to weld in a pinch, aluminum is not). Both kind of frames are fine for every other use, but like I said before avoid at all costs steel wheels: they weight too much, are cheap, and on them the brakes simply don’t have enough friction to be able to stop you.

About brakes: good V-brakes are powerful enough, but if you have the dough spring for disk brakes; they are more powerful and much better in wet weather.

Keep your tires inflated at the correct pressure value to reduce the pedaling effort (it is written on the outside of each tyre). If you use your mountain bike only on tarmac, make yourself a huge favor and change those knobby tires for slick (treadless) ones. And check that the arrows on the side of each tyre match the direction in which the tyre is actually rolling.

Try to peek a bike weighting less than 10-11Kg / 22-24lbs (road) or 13-14Kg / 28-30lbs (if suspended) to actually enjoy the experience, otherwise you’ll think you’re trying to move a rock. Once bought the bike, learn how to correctly set the height of your saddle and stem, and to make basic repairs like mending a tube (Youtube as always is your friend).

 

2) A few safety items for the bike

At the very minimum you will need to carry:

You could certainly carry more, especially on a multi-day trip, but with the stuff above you will be covered for pretty much anything. You can buy the whole kit for much less than 50€.*

*Naturally you will have to bring along a bit of money and the stuff you usually carry hiking as well, like mobile phone, map, knife, etc. if heading for the wilderness

Roots and the Cecita brook

3) A few safety items for you

You will need:

  • Water: in cycling you are the engine, and to keep you cool you will have to be well hydrated
  • Food: energy bar and / or gels are great, light, tasty and can give you just the boost you badly needed
  • Gloves: if you should fall you will avoid scraping the palms of your hands on rocks or tarmac
  • Glasses: sunglasses or clear impact-resistant glasses are great to avoid bugs and pebbles flying straight into your eyes
  • A rain / wind jacket: even when the sun is shining going fast downhill can cool you to the bones!

All of the above you can have it for more or less 10€, with the exception of the rain jacket. The cheap ones do not breath, and you end up steaming inside them like a wonton dumpling.

The good ones are in Gore-Tex™ and, even if they can cost quite a bit, last an eternity if well looked after and let you enjoy your day. For a cheap breathable option look for military Gore-Tex™ jackets; they may be come only in camo and be not quite streamlined for maximum aerodynamic effect, but usually don’t cost a mint (30-50€).

4) An helmet

This is a really important item. But, honestly, I’m lazy and when I’m out spotting pictures I go slow anyway, so I carry one just when I ride for fun (read: fast) or on really rough terrain, otherwise I don’t bother. Not the safest choice, but anyone has to decide for himself where to draw the line between safety and comfort. I tend to run pretty hot, so in my book comfort wins; your mileage may vary, as they say.

This in the mountains; if you ride in a city, with all the cars, just get an helmet and use it. From 10 to hundreds of euro, depending on design and comfort. But keep in mind that as long it is CE approved even the 10€ model should adequately protect your head anyway. Discard it after an impact, and change it every few years regardless.

 

5) A saddle

There is a strong possibility that whatever bike you choose the saddle will not be comfortable enough for you. The right saddle depends from the width of your hip bones, so it is an extremely personal choice. Again, from 10 to hundreds of euro, but probably worth spending between 20 and 40€. Don’t skimp on this, is the difference between enjoying the ride and cursing your bycicle all the way.

Leather saddles (Brooks and the likes) are supposedly the best because they conform to your body shape with usage, but that will happen only after at least 800 Km / 500 miles of riding them.

 

6) A rack (optional)

If your bike came with a rack, or if you buy one, you can then mount the backpack (and the tripod*) on it and avoid having your back sweating like the proverbial pig. There is even a more elegant solution: the so called panniers, bike bags that clip onto the rack sides. Not indispensable, but nice (especially on roads, less so on dirty tracks) because they lower your center of gravity making the bike easier to control.

*Without a rack you can carry the tripod strapped to the top tube.

 

That’s all you need. For the cost of a cheap lens you will be able to shoot thousands of pictures more, get fitter and discover hundreds of new places. I’d call this a really good investment.

 

How to get the right colors from negative films

Kodak Ektar 100 colors, Hasselblad 500c/m and Distagon 50mm f/4

Scanning color negatives is the Holy Grail of the film lover.

The scanning part, per se, is no different that the one you have to carry with any other film, color or black and white. The tricky part comes when you try to obtain natural, or at the very least, pleasant colors from that piece of films covered in a bright orange mask.

A bit of help may come from some new kind of negative film, like the Rollei Digibase, that does not make use of such orange mask; but you will still have an hard time sorting out how to get an usable picture if you don’t know a few tricks.

I will assume here that you have had your negatives processed by a lab, or that you followed my previous posts on how to develop & scan them at home – that you can find here:

 

Best film scanner: Canon 5D Mark II vs Drum scanner vs Epson v700

How to scan films using a digital camera

How to develop color negatives in C-41, the easy way

 

Now you have your film neatly cut in strips and scanned. It’s time for a trip into Photoshop!

Open your freshly scanned image and invert it: CTRL + I on Windows, CMD + I on Mac. It will look something like this:

before image

Don’t panic. Now it is time to use one of the most powerful tools of Photoshop: the curves. They look scary, but are not that difficult to understand, really. Basically at the bottom you have a couple of arrows: these set black and white point. And then you can manipulate the curve, pulling and dragging around, to your heart’s content until the image looks good.

Here is like I do it: first choose one of the colors from the drop down menu on the top part of the curve panel. We well start with red. Drag the left bottom arrow keeping pressed the ALT (Windows) / OPT (Mac) button. You will notice that the image goes away, replaced by a monochromatic version, but that at some point details starts to appear. Those details are actually areas of blocked out shadows or burnt highlights, so we will stop just a fraction before something starts to show up.

Repeat the process, always keeping ALT / OPT pressed, for the right arrow and then for the green and the blue colors.

At this point the image starts to look pretty good, but a fair bet is that the colors are still quite a bit off, with some heavy color cast.

Photoshop CS6 curves

To remove it just switch to the opposite color in the drop down menu (if the color cast is red go for blue and vice-versa) and manipulate the actual curve keeping an eye on the image. Try to not overcomplicate things. Often one control point, like you can see in the blue curve, is enough.

I find that rarely, if ever, I have to recur to more than two points. The second one is mostly just for the sake of cleaning a bit the shadows, that often tend to have some kind of blue cast for “environmental reasons”, because of the light that bathed the scene, or a green cast when you shoot under a tree in spring or summer.

Something like the image at the beginning of this post is what you will get. Quite a difference from the blue mess we started with!

P.s.: you will notice that the leaves in this image tends to go from green-ish to yellow-ish tonalities more or less from the bottom to the top part. This has nothing to do with processing: it matches the scene, or in other words it is exactly like this particular tree was.

How to develop color negatives in C-41, the easy way

 

From the train, Kershaw 120

One of the best reason to still shooting film is the ability to use negative color film. It has been perfected for decades, and now is at the vertex of its evolutive path. For this reason you can shoot on amazing films like Ektar – to name but one – that give you beautiful colors and extremely small grain.

 

The problem

Problem is: good labs, especially if you don’t happen to live in a very big city and / or don’t trust the postal service with your precious pictures, are getting few and expensive. It’s much more common to get back the films all scratched and full of dust, with someone even sending back the negatives uncut and just rolled up and locked with a wristband – yes, it happened to me!

The obvious choice at this point would be developing the films at home. But, unlike black and white developers that are pretty much easygoing in terms of temperatures involved, C-41 – the name of the chemical process used to develop color negative films – is quite tricky. In theory, it requires you to maintain a temperature of 38 °C / 100.4 °F ± 0.3 °C during the entire process. A 0.3 °C margin is restrictive enough, but the real problems here springs from the 38 °C temperature. It is a really difficult threshold to maintain. During most of the year the water you use for the processing and the stock chemicals will be both at a much lower temperature.

To have the bottles of chemicals and the tank reaching 38 °C you will have to immerse them in hot water in some kind of basin or tray – and they will tend to float. But how will you be able to stop the heating process exactly at 38 °C? And what will happen when the water in the basin will starting to cool down? Yeah, you can add more hot water, but let’s be honest: there is no way you can control the temperature in a ± 0.3 °C range without an expensive and bulky color processor. And no, an aquarium heater is not a viable alternative. In many forum I read about this suggestion, but guess what: even setting aside the fact that it would lack the necessary precision, the goal of an aquarium heater is to let the fishes survive – duh! – so it will not run hotter than 32° C / 89.6° F; as you can see not hot enough by a long shot.

Pino Collito

The solution

So what, we give up? No way! There is an alternative, and if you have read some previous post of mine you may start guessing what I’m referring to: stand development at room temperature.

Yes, exactly like a black and white film. And that is possible mostly because the first developer of a C-41 process is, in fact, just a plain black and white developer. It is the next phase, the bleach or bleach-fix in some kits (blix for friends and family) that will remove the metallic silver and, so to speak, make the colors appear.

I first read about this technique on Lomography and I’m using it with just a couple changes. The results I’m getting are just plain great, without the awful and unpredictable color shifts caused by the imperfect control of time-temperature when trying to develop the films by the book at 38 °C.

 

The instructions

So let’s cut to the chase; these are the steps you need to follow to develop color negatives at home:

 

VARIATION 2 baths (for example: Tetenal C-41 kit)

Pre-soak = 3m (no agitation)
Developer = 45m (1m continuous agitation at first)
1st wash = 3m (changing the water every 30s)
Blix = 60m (1m continuous agitation at first)
Final wash = Ilford-style
Stabilizer = 1m (no agitation)

 

VARIATION 3 baths (for example: Rollei C-41 kit)

Pre-soak = 3m (no agitation)
Developer = 45m (1m continuous agitation at first)
1st wash = 3m (changing the water every 30s)
Bleach = 60m (1m continuous agitation at first)
2nd wash = 3m (changing the water every 30s)
Fixer = 1m continuous agitation and then 10s every minute for the amount of time given in the instructions
Final wash = Ilford-style
Stabilizer = 1m (no agitation)

 

Keep in mind that if your tap water is way colder than room temperature, say 5 or more °C degrees, like it happens in winter at my place, you should bring it to more or less room temperature or, better still, around 20 °C / 68 °F. No need for precision, just use the mixer faucet!

Strada delle Vette, Pentax ME Super 40mm pancake

Notes

Pre-soak
Just plain water. It swells the emulsion leaving it prepared to receive the developer and removes the anti-halo layer – this is why the water will come out of the tank with an heavy coloration.

1st wash
You could actually avoid this step, but it makes the blix last longer – and probably gives you better colors too, even though this is controversial.

Blix
This is simply a combination of bleach and fixer that some kit uses to combine two steps into one.

Blix & bleach
The times for blix and bleach can be extended up to 50% – with respect to the ones reported in the instruction booklets that come with every kit – without harm.

Ilford-style wash
It is an archival washing method devised by Ilford. Basically you fill the tank with water and turn it upside down 5 times, than you empty it. You repeat the process, but this time you turn it upside down 10 times, then you empty it. And for the last time you repeat the process, but turn the tank upside down 20 times before emptying it. That’s it; at this point you will have saved a ton of water – compared with the traditional 15′ wash – and your films will be still archival-quality clean. And yes, you can and should use it also when you process b/w films.

Stabilizer
This step has three functions: it hardens the emulsion, disinfects it agains fungus and bacterial contamination, and lets the water flow away out the film surface without forming drops.

 

After all this just hang the films to dry in a clean room – the best possible place is in the shower, after you run hot water for a minute to clean the air from flying dust particles – and come back in an hour and a half or so. Your pictures will be ready to be cut in stripes and scanned!

How to get good colors from the scans will be the argument of the next post.