You know I’ve been playing with film lately. Well, I’ve taken the next step. I’m now shooting medium format. I’m dipping my toe in the water and have experimented with the first two rolls. Boy, am I liking the results.
I’ve always heard how great medium format is, and I’ve been curious, but was intimidated. I would love to shoot medium format digital, but even with Pentax’s ground breaking 645Z, we’re still talking $10,000 for body plus lens. And the other companies, think $20,000 and up for their setup.
Film, of course, is different. I conveniently get to take advantage of all the people who have abandoned film for digital. Except, as I learn more about the film, I think I’ve gotten the better deal. I consider myself a technologist but I have to admit that old analog tech has some wonderful advantages.
I actually started shooting medium format before my trip to Japan. But with all my other posts, I’m just getting around to talking about it. It all started late last year, when I saw a beautiful used Mamiya 645E at Precision Camera. It was in fantastic shape and a complete kit with a 80mm lens was just $375. I jumped at the chance. The fine folks at Precision showed me how to load the 120 film and operate the camera. My feeling of intimidation dropped considerably.
Wondering how medium format is different from 35mm film or digital, image quality wise? I was and that’s the reason I wanted to play with it. The best way to describe medium format is that it has the sharpness and detail of digital but with the wonderful color of film. Viewed at 100%, there is still a slight grain, but it’s very mild, certainly a lot smoother than 35mm. On my 27 inch monitor, full screen, the detail is eye-poppingly sharp but with the mellow warmth of film.
Of course no camera test will be complete without Lucky. The Mamiya 645E was a relatively inexpensive camera (for medium format) when it was introduced 15 years ago. It was an entry-level model which cost less than $1500 for a complete setup. It’s not the most refined camera but perfect for getting into the format, inexpensively. Well the mirror slap from the camera was so loud that poor lucky neatly jumped out of his skin.
He got used to it and I took a few more frames. Hand holding this beast indoor is not optimal but I got this terrific shot. The depth of field is ultra shallow and the details, ultra crisp. I’ve been using Kodak Portra 400 film since I’m most familiar with it.
I’ll talk a lot more about the camera and will show interesting comparisons in upcoming posts. It’s interesting, my range of cameras are broader than ever. I’m now shooting with this fairly large medium format DSLR but also with the small sensor Pentax Q7. In a strange way, the two cameras compliment each other. The Q7 is very small, fast and free-form. The 645E requires discipline and precision. It’s fun because I shoot differently and learn skills which, I believe, strengthen each other.
I need to find new places to shoot in Austin. It’s easy to fall into set patterns and end up shooting in the same places all the time. I realized this when I posted my post Christmas color photos. I think the images turned out fine but they’re nothing new. Congress Avenue to 6th Street. It’s a route that I always take and I’m sure even the out-of-towners that visit this site are starting to recognize the same places.
Luckily, Austin is a growing city with new buildings and new angles to explore. I recently rediscovered the area around the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge on the western edge of the Central Business District. I started to shoot in that area, especially during the day, but I’ve yet to apply my night-time HDR technique. I went down last week to see what I could find.
I must say that this part of town is really developing into a nice residential area. It’s quiet, for now, with not many bars and restaurants. That may change once the Seaholm Power Plant redevelopment finishes. Curiously there are several fitness related stores and gyms in the area. No doubt catering to its proximity to Austin’s Hike and Bike Trail.
The Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge is also part of the Hike and Bike Trail and it connects the two halves of the trail on either side of the river. The bridge affords some nice views of the growing skyline but it also works well as a leading line that curves its way towards the new residential towers.
I also explored around the bridge from ground level. I managed to find some atypical angles that worked especially well with the wide-angle lens on the Pentax Q7. Austin is growing large enough that I need to get off the typical routes to find new and interesting compositions.
A park separates the residential district from the new Seaholm redevelopment. I remember seeing the glowing “City of Austin Power Plant” ever since I moved here more than 20 years ago. The plant was shutdown in 1989 but the building stood proudly, undeveloped for all these years. I had a unique opportunity to photograph inside Seaholm 4 years ago. It was years before redevelopment but plans were then being made to use this structure as a centerpiece. It’s nice to see that the redevelopment is now in full swing. It’ll be fun to photograph once it reopens and perhaps the developer will let me shoot the same angles that I captured 4 years ago.
The bridge you see over the park is not the Pedestrian Bridge. It’s a larger rail road bridge that carries freight and the occasional Amtrak train. A train passed as I was shooting this, which you can see as a blur atop the bridge.
There’s still raw undeveloped patches which, no doubt, will be nicely integrated in the neighborhood. This brightly lit tower is nearing completion and there are plans for a lot more residential and office towers. The 2nd Street District will eventually connect to this area and bring a much-needed east to west pedestrian flow.
Beyond finding new places to photograph, one of my rationals for shooting here is to document the development. In a few years, this place is going to change tremendously. Nice to have the before photographs for historical comparisons.
I’ve been out of sync with my holiday rituals since getting back from Japan. By the time I fully recovered from jet lag, Christmas was upon us. I realized that I didn’t shoot my usual downtown holiday photos including my yearly documentation of the Driskill Hotel Christmas tree. Even though it was after the fact, I went downtown on the 26th and created these images.
Downtown was quieter than usual, especially for a Friday. No doubt the usual revelers where taking it easy after Christmas. I had my Pentax Q7 with my 08 Wide-angle, the 01 Standard Prime and a tripod on hand for a super compact system. I headed down Congress Avenue and captured the Paramount Theater and the colorful Kruger’s Jewelers before turning on to 6th Street towards the Driskill.
You think after the 6th time, I would get bored of this, but every year the Driskill Tree changes. I shoot it differently too and with a variety of cameras. This year’s tree look skimpier then in years past. Also with construction off to the side, I shot closer than usual, which changed the angle and framing. Luckily I’m back to shooting with a super wide-angle so I got everything if frame, including the stained glass.
As long as I was on 6th Street, I wanted to further test the Pentax Q7 and create HDRs. The Soho Lounge’s blue neon is a frequent subject and with fewer people than normal, I got less of the distracting motion blur. Just enough to express motion but not enough to obliterate details.
Across the street, the most lively place seemed to be the Bat Bar, at least on the outside. A women frequently performs light twirling by the window that attracts attention. I also like the blue lights and colorful laser spots that adds to the visual interest.
Satisfied that I got what I came for, I switch to the 01 Standard Prime and shot free hand. I tested the high contrast black and whites that I often did in Japan for that dark and moody look. Tokyo is very bright at night and those black and white shots were easy to do. 6th street and many places in the U.S. are a lot darker — would the Pentax Q7 work here in America? I’ll post those images separately to see what you think.
I remembered that there was Christmas Tree in front of the Texas State Capitol so I headed back up Congress Avenue. While it’s tempting to shoot the Christmas Tree and the Capitol together from the street, I found that too much of the building is obscured. I couldn’t find a balanced composition that I liked. From the capitol grounds, however, I like this shot of the tree looking south.
Turn the other way and you get the view of the Capitol. The damp heavy air seems to give a soft glow around the lights. I think there’s a nice mood here and luckily without many people. Perhaps I should go downtown again after Christmas next year. It may be the perfect time for some quiet photography.
The day after I took these Halloween portraits on 6th Street, I went to the F1 Fan Fest. The Fan Fest is a way to bring a little of that Formula 1 racing excitement to downtown Austin. I’ve yet to go to the F1 races themselves but I’ve made it to this downtown event 3 years in a row. It’s a place for street photography and a chance to capture something different in Austin.
Of course, year to year, things don’t change much. After 3 years, everything seems about the same except, perhaps, it was a bit smaller this year. Part of the challenge is, as the downtown continues to grow, the open lots for special events decrease. I think at least two previous parking lots are now active construction sites, soon spawning more high-rise towers, I imagine. I wonder what’ll happen to this event when all downtown lots give way to higher tax generating structures.
I listened to more concerts this year than in the past. The Fan Fest sets up multiple stages with live music throughout the day. I happened upon an interesting and eclectic band from Brooklyn called Red Baraat, and stayed there for the entire show. I even went retro and bought their CDs instead of an electronic download. Of course, what always entices me is the shooting opportunity. Give me some colorful lights at night in an urban atmosphere and I’m game.
I also stayed much later than expected and went to the Joan Jett and the Blackhearts concert, the headliner for that night. I can’t say I’m a Joan Jett fan, per say, but she made her mark in the 80s so I identify with and recognize her music. I noticed a lot of folks that were near my age. I know Ms. Jett is older than me, but from my vantage point, the dark-haired, black leather clad singer looked and sounded the way she always did. Perhaps it was a collective way for all of us middle-aged folk to have high school flashbacks.
I got in late but slowly inched forward as the crowd shifted. I especially like it when I capture the beams of colorful light. I snapped a number of frames perfectly lighting the audience. I only brought one camera, the Fujifilm X100S, with a 35mm equivalent lens. My Olympus with the 50mm f1.4 equivalent or even my DLSR with a slew of lenses would have gotten me closer via a telephoto. Ultimately, though I’m satisfied with what the 35mm point of view gave me.
Missing this year was the big Infiniti car race venue. Maybe it fell victim to the lack of space or maybe the return on investment wasn’t there. Gone also was a large Fiat display that I remember from years past.
The energy drinks where out in force. Both Red Bull and Monster had elaborate setups to entice the crowed. I guess if you can’t drive F1 cars, you can feel the alternate buzz from their sugar and caffeinated concoctions. Of course they had attractive spokespersons and pumped up music. Monster cross promoted with the X Games skateboard demonstration.
Between the late night / early morning Halloween shooting on 6th Street the night before to another late night at the Fan Fest, I was worn out. At least I got about 5 miles of walking on each night. The photography distracts me from all the walking so I guess it’s a decent way to get some exercise. I considered going to an East side Dia de los Muertos parade the next day but decided to bag that. Even I have limits on the number of photography events per weekend.
It was a film free weekend too. I might be curious about film but I’m still practical. Digital is a lot easier at night and I still find it more desirable for fast-moving or fast changing action. It’s kind of nice to use both and I’m not such a purist that I restrict myself to either side of the divide.
I mentioned that I was testing a new film camera during my first ever University of Texas football game. I shot most of it with the Olympus E-PM2, a small mirrorless digital camera, my workhorse when I want a smaller camera with the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. But you know that I’ve been on a film kick lately.
I recently got a Nikon 35Ti, a high-end compact camera from 1993 with a fixed 35mm f2.8 lens. It was a premium compact which sold for $1000 back in the day, which is equivalent to about $1650 in today’s dollars. I got this slightly worn, titanium clad camera from Adorama for $265. Like the Rollei 35, which I picked up for a song, it’s possible to get very nice film cameras for a fraction of their original prices.
The Nikon 35Ti, unlike the Rollei 35, is a fully automatic camera with a sophisticated Nikon matrix meter and auto focus. It’s easy to shoot and unlike a SLR, it’s very compact though without the capability of changing lenses. It works for me since I love the 35mm focal length. In a way, this 35Ti is like the Fujfilm X100S of its day. They look very different, with the Fuji sporting a faux range finder treatment, but they are fundamentally compact auto focus cameras with a similar fixed focal length.
So why the attraction to film in this age of nearly perfected digital cameras? It’s all about the color and the feel. 35mm film is grainier with less resolution and it doesn’t perform as well in low light. By most modern standards it just doesn’t measure up. However, I’m fascinated by film’s character. I shoot differently too. When each shot costs real money, I’m more discriminating. I don’t necessarily think it makes me a better photographer, but it does impose limits which makes me try harder.
Take this photo, for example. The film and my post processing has really brought out Texas’ burnt orange. I joke that I probably see more fall color in this shot than I’ll ever get in Austin. I used Kodak Portra 400 film and added additional saturation via digital post processing. Portra typically has muted colors that work well for portraits but I find that I can amp up the saturation which satisfies my taste.
Here are two pictures of the same scene. Ignore the differences in framing. The Olympus digital image on the top is at a 28mm equivalent and the film image on the bottom is at 35mm. While I think both photographs are equally colorful, they have a different look and feel. Notice how the orange seems to stand out more in the film photograph — there is a liveliness to it. On the other hand, digital has a sharpness and precision that the film lacks. One isn’t necessary better than the other and one isn’t necessarily more accurate. It’s all a matter of taste.
For me though, I’ve been trying to move away from accuracy in my photographs. That may sound strange but let me explain. I’m not a product photographer, luckily, where accurate color and realistic representation of the subject is paramount. I’m trying to create images that convey a mood or feeling, perhaps in a way that a painting would. Paintings are not judged by how accurate they look, rather they usually try to provoke an emotional response. I know that I have a ways to go, but this is what I want to do.
So is using film a gimmick? Is it like using filters in Instagram to make something look different? Well I certainly hope not but I suppose it’s possible. All I know is that, for now, film evokes a different response for me and I’m hoping that it does so for my visitors. It’s something that I’ll explore for a while and incorporate its effects into my soup of photographic knowledge.
As for the Nikon 35Ti, I’m going to keep it. The first roll gave some strange and inconsistent results and I was afraid that it wasn’t working properly. What you see here is what I shot on my second. The camera is small and easy enough that I can concentrate on framing. It’s not bulky like my Canon Rebel T2. And while shooting everything in manual on the Rollei 35 can be instructional and even fun, in a challenging kind of way, I want something more accessible for my daily film shooter. I’ll let you know how the Nikon 35Ti works out.