Back To The Future

The lead photo sums this post up – at least in terms of the camera gear and film used. The backstory is more involved. The idea of shooting film again grabbed me – except I didn’t have a film camera any more. Or did I? Rummaging around in a cupboard I found my old Rollei 35T – a tiny gem of a camera, bought used from the camera shop I worked at in the early ’80s. The condition still looked great, but the slow shutter speeds were sticky. Honestly, I vaguely recall getting it cheap because they were like that when I originally bought it. But with nothing usable now below 1/60s I decided some TLC was in order and so packed up the much loved but long neglected little beast off to Jeremy at Film Furbish. And the results from the first test film really aren’t bad – at least technically, if not artistically.

The final two images do highlight one of the challenges of this particular camera: the Tessar lens is quite prone to flare when directed anywhere close to the sun; and zone focusing is a skill one needs to practice! Probably the biggest “flaw” though, if there is one, is Yoli’s immediate comment, which I agree with: she prefers black & white as a medium for urban and portraiture rather than landscape. Although there is something of an irony to that since Ansel Adams was (still is) one of my all time photography heroes. So maybe it’s more about my lack of skill!

Which brings me to confession time. The Nikon FM2 in the cover shot is not one of those from my photographic past. Sadly I sold all of my Nikon bodies – so this was an acquisition from Harrison Cameras. I hadn’t really intended to add a film SLR just yet, but the price point and condition of this body were irresistible. With a better light meter, thru lens focusing, and better lenses, shooting a colour roll seemed like a good way to test it all out.

Overall, as with the Rollei test shots, I’m pretty happy. No light leaks, metering seems accurate, and quality and colour rendition looks good. Perhaps more significant for both sets is how much I enjoyed going back to shooting film again. As a process, it’s very different to digital – much slower and more thoughtful. And the results have that hard to define “analogue” character to them as well. Processing of both sets was done by the excellent team at Analogue Wonderland.

There is a final element to this post, which departs a little from my overall concept of the blog. My intention for the site at this stage is not to go down the gear review or technique route. There are plenty of excellent sites covering that already e.g. 35mmc – whose Rollei 35 articles I read in depth leading up to these experiments. Having said all that, I was interested how film shots would compare to the equivalent digital cameras I might use instead.

First up I took similar test shots on the Rollei and my OM System Pen E-P7 with the 17mm f/1.7 lens. It’s not a completely fair comparison, because the E-P7 is a Micro Four Thirds (MFT) sensor which is half the size of 35mm. But from a shooting perspective, they are both small bodies that I’d use for walkabout photography. Film version is on left – both were shot at f/4.0 (which is f/2.0 in the MFT world for equivalent DoF) and the E-P7 was cropped to match the 40mm field of the Tessar lens.

I could of course use software to make either of these match the other. But that’s not the point – my goal is to get back to basics with photography and not spend hours sat at my desk bending images to meet some arbitrary aesthetic. So the “straight out of the camera” look matters a lot. And in this case, whilst the digital image is clearly sharper and better exposed, the film image from a decades old vintage Rollei has a character which really speaks to me.

With the Nikon, I went a step further – I not only have similar focal lengths on a full frame Lumix S5, but also an adapter that lets me use the Voigtlander Nikon F mount lenses on the Lumix L mount body. So a 3 way comparison was possible: film; “film lens” on digital body; and native lens on digital body. The first set were the Voigtlander 55mm f/1.2 for the film lens, and the excellent Lumix 50mm f/1.8 for the native lens, all shot at f/4.

I have to say, I like the character of the “film lens” in both 35mm and digital – there’s a subtle luminous, and somewhat soft rendering which is absent from the clean, flat, and evenly sharp look of the digital lens.

And, since I had it, a second set with the Voigtlander 28mm f/2.8, and the Lumix 20-60mm zoom set to 28mm for the native lens. This time shot at f/8.

Here it’s a much closer tie – if anything, the “film lens” look on the digital body is my probably my favourite. The colours have a warm vibrance neither of the other images show to my eye.

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