Back to the past

Like many, I learned the basics of photography before the digital age. Pause while I put on the sunglasses of nostalgia. With the glasses on, I remember the thrill of unpacking the film from its cardboard and plastic containers, fiddling to load the film without exposing too much leader, and hoping to squeeze an extra frame if I was using black and white, which I would later develop myself.

Only 36 shots on a roll, so I had to make every one count. Even so, with slide film I’d bracket either side of the measured exposure which would often result in only 12 unique photos from every roll. The film speed was given but we all had our favourite adjustments to get the results we wanted. Professionals would buy batches of film manufactured at the same time and expose one roll to test the proper settings for that batch. Colour print film had a wide exposure latitude, forgiving any minor errors in exposure (which is why wedding photographers used it). Slide film, and to a lesser extend black and white film, had to be accurately exposed or compensation applied at the processing stage. It had to be a consistent exposure variation for the whole film so we had to decide in advance. Many, including me, had two camera bodies loaded with different films just in case. My preference was for slide and black and white.

When I started, lenses were all manual focus. Film cameras had a great focusing screen with a split prism that made focusing easy in most situations. As my main interest was landscape, there was no need for lightning fast focusing. Part of the appeal for me was the slow, methodical approach and the actual taking of the photograph was almost secondary.

Then, once the snaps had been taken, there was the delay in seeing the results while the films went off for processing. Sometimes, if I was on holiday, I might have to wait up to two weeks to see the final prints or slides. Black and white film was slightly better as I’d process it myself and this could be done overnight. But then, all I’d have was tiny negatives until I printed off the images I wanted. I got good at assessing photographic potential from these tiny reversed images.

And here is where the nostalgia goggles start to leak reality.

I didn’t always develop the black and white films immediately after taking the photographs. Once I left college and the convenience of darkrooms set up and ready to go, I sometimes waited until I had two or three films to do. And then, I sometimes waited until I had more. It was all about the darkroom. At first, it was in my bedroom and had to be set up and put away every time I wanted to use it. And then I set it up in the garden shed and it was cold, damp and uncomfortable. So I started using less and less black and white, which was actually my favourite medium.

Slides came back from the processor in boxes and to view them properly I had to set up the projector. Which meant loading up the magazine in just the right way so that the projected images were the right way up and the right way around. It took time and was fiddly, so I got a smaller viewer for checking the results. And it was more convenient but no one else saw them.

The prints from print film stayed in their wallets and only occasionally got put in albums. I have some of those albums still on my bookshelf. They look impressive but I can’t remember what’s in them. I have sent for recycling more photos that I can remember.

One day, I bought a digital camera. The quality of the results weren’t the best but they were instant and that appealed to me. This meant I could retake the photo straight away rather than wait until I was next in the area. I could see the pictures on my computer and I could edit them without having to go out to the shed dressing in several layers of warm clothing. I didn’t have to breathe in chemicals and wait for the negatives to dry, all the while hoping no dust got on the wet film.

With the nostalgia goggles fully removed, I confess that I sold up all my film gear and went digital and never looked back. I have no regrets in doing this and I think it rekindled my interest in photography. I made the decision when I saw the results from a 6mp Fuji DSLR and for me, the moment when digital quality surpassed analogue quality was when I got my Nikon D300. Not only can I check the results (and for those who would never stoop to such crass activity are missing one of the main advantages of digital technology), but I can change film type and sensitivity without having to worry about rewinding a partially exposed film (and remembering where to wind it back on to afterwards). A modest memory card costs less than a roll of film plus processing and can be reused. Digital is just better.

So today, I picked up a CD with 36 images scanned onto it by the people that processed the film I dropped off to them about an hour earlier. I’d taken the photos on film that was at least four years out of date, on a camera made in the mid 70s using manual focus lenses probably made in the late 60s. And despite all I’ve said above, I enjoyed using the camera. I’d forgotten about the satisfying clunk as the mechanical shutter thumps down on it’s mounting and I’d forgotten about the big, bright viewfinder than made focusing a pleasure. The camera required me to translate the meter reading into aperture and shutter settings by interpreting three little red LEDs. I had to trust it was accurate but I also had to know roughly what to expect. And I found I did.

The images below are from that film. Some of the colours are odd and there’s a lot of grain. I suspect that’s a combination of out dated film and poor scanning from the shop. They were just test shots I took while out and about so they’re not masterpieces. But I have more film, some of which is new, and I’m sure there’ll be more posts about the old fashioned way of doing photography.

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Looking back

Four little words – ‘this time last year’. I make no apologies. This time last year I was on the way to completing a big challenge and I think I earned the right to use those words.

This time last year I was climbing up to Shira Plateau on the Western slopes of Kilimanjaro. It was the first full day of the trek and a hot and tough one as we climbed through the rain and cloud forest out on to the heathland the forms the crater of Shira. We ended up at 3500m and while the day was hot, the night was cold.

Today Rufus and I did not set out to recreate the event. Instead, we took advantage of the beautiful weather on the Brecon Beacons to get onto the hills again. Our goal – Fan Brecheiniog. It has featured on this blog many times and I hope it will many more times. I drove this way yesterday but the road was clearer today. There were several moments when i though the car might slide off the road on a thin coating of frost and ice, but a bit of care and forward thinking meant I was able to get to the start point for the long walk to Llyn y Fan Fawr. We set off from the car in brilliant sunshine and snow. The wind was cold but before long my hat and gloves came off as the temperature rose. Rufus bounded through the snow, stopping to greet a fellow canine walker as we made our way along the river. By the time we got to the first steep part of the day, the snow was several inches thick.

Rufus followed the tracks of previous passers by, as it was easier than battling through snow which, in places, was up to his belly. I followed Rufus; he has a good nose for the best path and I’ve learnt to trust his judgement. This time last year I was probably as fit as I have every been. Today was very different. I felt every square of chocolate eaten over Christmas, every mince pie and every roast potato. My backpack was lighter than the 8kg one I took with me on the trek but I felt it’s influence as I stopped several times ‘to take photographs’.

Then, after several false summits, there was the lake. And above it, Fan Brecheiniog shone in the morning sun. We stopped for a few minutes for me to get my breath back. Normally I would throw stones into the water for Rufus, but it was too cold for that today and instead I threw snowballs for him to chase. After yesterday’s fun, he’d learnt not to expect too much and it was enough for him to race to the snowball and break it apart with his nose.

Then we made our way over to the start of the short but knee-achingly steep climb to the bwlch. One of the great things about very cold weather is that all the marsh and bog freezes over. But for some reason I managed to step on the only bit of unfrozen bog in the whole place, and it was deep. I felt myself falling forward before I knew what was going on and I managed to stop myself from going flat on my face. But my left leg disappeared into the water and mud up to the knee.

Undaunted, I headed up the steep path. I thought I heard Rufus snigger, but he was so far ahead it may just have been the wind. It was hard going, even taking into account my lack of fitness. The snow was thick and slippery where it had been trodden down and then frozen overnight. At one point, I was conscious that the view ahead looked a bit like photos in a magazine accompanying an article on how to perform an ice axe arrest! After several ‘photo stops’, I made it to the little valley between Fan Hir and Fan Brecheiniog. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go on and I was looking at Rufus to see if he was coping. Apart from a few tiny snowballs on his feet, which I cleared quickly, he was fine. He was watching me to see if we were going on and every now and then he’d race a few steps up the hill as if to encourage me.

I set off again, adopting a slow plod as my tactic for making the ascent. The snow was deeper again and in places it was like walking up a sand dune – my feet would slip back as I pushed forward. The usual path on to Fan Brecheinog was completely covered in snow; I’ve never see than before. One set of foot prints led off tot he south and up in a curving climb and I decided to follow them as walking on the compacted snow would be easier. Rufus was now reduced to a plod as well as he battled through the snow but he kept going every time I took a breather. But eventually I decided that I was struggling to go further and it would be silly to exhaust myself and risk slipping on the way down. I called Rufus, who was a few paces in front of me.

I swear a big grin appeared on his face. Before I’d finished saying the phrase ‘lets go back to the car’ he had raced past me and was standing on the bwlch again, about 20m away. I love watching him run in the snow. He bounds like a big cat and the snow flies everywhere from his back paws. He usually races down from here and meets me at the lake. I was a little worried that he might slip on the snow going down, but I needn’t have been concerned. He is sure footed. We passed several walkers descending gingerly but I was using my walking pole now and I found it much easier than I had feared. One of the walkers had just put on a set of mini crampons but I knew from experience these wouldn’t work well in the deep snow. Sure enough, both Rufus and I sailed past him.

At the lake, I threw more snowballs for Rufus and we posed for a couple of buddy selfies. Then we set off back down the slope and the car. I don’t like the last mile or so; it tends to be boring. But snow changes everything and I was able to get some nice photos of the Brecon Beacons stretching off to the East. By now the snow was melting from the lower part of the hill. I had to avoid a few boggy patches I’d walked over with ease on the way up. The last bit of this walk is a short, steep climb of no more than 10 metres, and I found this really tiring. Slumping down into the car, I decided I needed to work at getting fit again.

As I drove off, around 12.50, I remembered that this time last year, I’d made it to Shira campsite, at 3500m after climbing 719m and I felt good. Today I’d climbed around 400m and felt shattered. More work required!

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Seeing things in a new light

This is an unashamedly technical post. For those of you turned off by nanometres and transmission filters, other blogs are available.

A couple of years ago  I took the plunge and invested in an infra red converted camera. Since then I’ve learnt to understand the best conditions and subject to apply infra red to, and I’ve experimented with post processing.  I had my Nikon D300 converted to record infra red images in 2013. I love the effect, particularly when post processed into black and white images. This post is about the basics and is based on a presentation I recently gave to my local camera club.

The nanometre bit

Infra red light is invisible to the naked eye and has wavelengths starting at around 590nm and stretching on to 1000nm and beyond.

 

Most digital camera sensors are so sensitive to ultra violet and infra red light that a special filter is placed in front of them to cut this light out. Converting a camera to take infra red photographs is simply a case of replacing this filter with one that blocks visible light and transmits infra red. That’s what I had done to my D300. It gets a little more complicated because there are different filters available to allow different wavelengths of light to pass through (in the same way that coloured filters allow different wavelengths of visible light through). My camera has a 720nm filter, (which blocks light of wavelength less than 720nm). Sensors to pick up heat energy are a completely different beast and are not dealt with here.

As a converted DSLR camera doesn’t need a transmission filer on the lens, you can compose and focus as normal. The image in the optical viewfinder remains bright and in visible light. To see the effect of the internal filter you will need to use live view. If you are using an unconverted camera with a transmission filter, you will need to compose and focus with the filter removed as by it’s very definition, the filter will block out visible light.

My D300 was calibrated for focusing and exposure by the company that converted it (Protech repairs). I still find that when faced with different subjects, I need to adjust the exposure from the indicated values and a degree of trial and error is sometimes required. You’ll always find me reviewing the image immediately after taking it.

Effects

The sun emits as much infra red light as it does visible light and so it is possible, with a converted camera, to use exposure times similar to normal. The classic infra red effect – white vegetation and dark skies – happens because green leaves reflect a lot of infra red light but blue skies do not. Scientists use infra red photography to spot growth and dead vegetation in the landscape. Contrast can be high in these photographs and you have to keep this in mind when taking the shot. Water also absorbs infra red.

Infra red light penetrates skin slightly and this results in a a soft, blemish free appearance in portraits. Eyes tend to appear black. The longer wavelength of infra red light is less affected by haze and pollution and so landscape photographs appear clearer and crisper.

Flare can be more of a problem as most lenses are designed to be used with visible light. The lens coatings and internal coatings that reduce reflections aren’t as effective with the longer wavelengths. Some lenses suffer from ‘hotspots’, a bright central portion which varies (and may disappear altogether) with a change in aperture. Of the collection of lenses I’ve gathered over the years, about half exhibit a hotspot with the D300.

Lenses that work with 720nm Infra red and a D300 camera:

  • Nikkor 60mm macro
  • Sigma 10-20mm D f/4-5.6
  • Nikkor 50mm f/1.8
  • Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 (manual focus)
  • Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D
  • Nikkor 70-300mm AFS f/4.5-5.6
  • Tamron 90mm macro
  • Tamron 18-270mm
  • Vivitar 19mm (manual focus)
  • Sigma 170-500mm

 

Results

below are a set of photos I took this morning. I’ve been experimenting with additional filters progressively the shorter wavelengths. This is very much a work in progress.

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A year in statistics

Happy New Year everyone.

It’s windy and wet out, so Rufus and I are taking the opportunity to chill after a few days of being out on the hills and in the valleys of the Brecon Beacons. No doubt we’ll be out again tomorrow, so there are no feelings of guilt. Today is a day for snoring and flopping and sighing and watching things on TV that we’d never normally watch. There will probably be some eating and drinking (non-alcoholic, of course) and a little more eating.

It’s also a time for reflection. I had a look at last year’s early January posts and there were some resolutions and some reviewing. So how did I do on the resolutions?

1. Give up chocolate? Hahahahaha!

2. Do more exercise? Well, yes. I achieved that spectacularly. Not only did I increase the number of times a week I went to the gym (and the activities I did there) but I got out on a lot more mountains. I hiked and cycled a total of 1395.6km, with a peak in December of 164.8km. Also, in December I climbed a total of 6,121m – that’s 226m more than Kilimanjaro! In the last nine days I’ve climbed 2,985m.

3, Take more photos. Well, I kept 16,093 photos from last year so I guess I must have taken about 18,000. I see I took 1300 infra red images, and 804 macro images. I started and completed my ‘One-a-day’ project on Flickr.

4. Save money. Well, yes and no. I’ve made up some of the losses from the car and the house repairs, but I’ve also spent some on the trek. But my philosophy has changed from ‘save as much as possible’ to ‘save and spend wisely’. There are some things I may not be able to do when I’m older, so what is the point in saving up to be able to do them in 5 or 10 years time?

5. Improve. Well, they say a good wine improves with age. I’m not sure that applies to people. We improve by experiencing things, learning new things and practising things we already do. I’d like to think I’ve done all three. It’s hard to measure as I never set goals last year and to be honest, I didn’t want to then and I don’t want to now. My improvement will come through experience, and that may strike at any time.

No resolutions this year. They just set you up to fall. Instead, aspirations, aims and a reminder to myself of something our expedition leader said on the last Everest Base Camp trek: “There are those who dream of adventure and challenge, and there are those who go and do it.” I want to be the latter.

Finally, geeky stats (you know you want them really).

30% of this year’s photos were taken with a Nikon D7000, 11% with a Fuji X10 and only 0.01% with an iPad. 16% were taken on a full frame digital camera. 18% were taken with a Tamron 18-270mm zoom lens, 10.5% were taken with a prime lens and, according to the programme I’m using, 1.4% were taken with a lens of focal length of zero mm! And that’s the bigger picture!

366 photos - 1 a day

366 photos from my one-a day project.