Feature #006: Greener Pastures

Feature #006: Greener Pastures

I go over the shooting process for Greener Pastures and reflect on what I learned shooting it, technically and artistically. The first Feature I shot on my Pentax 6x7, and heavily using Fujifilm, specifically Pro 160NS and 400h, alongside Provia 100f. This project was based in Silverlake in Los Angeles.

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What I learned shooting #005: Pentax 6x7 (MLU)

What I learned Shooting #005: Pentax 6x7 (MLU)

I deeply resent that I have to write this article. I deeply resent the fact that I paid 200 dollars for a broken Pentax 6x7, and then had to throw another 100 bucks to get it to work. I resent the fact that the Pentax 6x7 is the it-girl camera (or at least, it sure seems like it) in medium format right now, alongside the Mamiya 7ii, the evergreen favorite.

I know your first instinct as a reader will be to ask “why bother writing it if you hate doing it, or that you have to do it” -- and to that my response is simple: reviews, specifically camera reviews for in-demand cameras get website traffic. Likewise with film reviews for permanent favorite emulsions, ie your HP5+, your Portra 400, your Ektar, your Fuji Pro400h Reviews. I’m not above a little commercialism, I’d even argue it’s healthy.

That aside, The Pentax 6x7 (MLU) or non MLU is a great camera, and I do really like it, a lot. Some of the images I’ve gotten from it, like the glassy more-than-real, but still organic images it produces when I’m shooting at the heights of my abilities (not trying to be egocentric, it just seems like the highs that come out of this camera are really, really really high). I’m probably never going to sell it, if for no other reason, than I could probably never afford to buy the dumb thing back.

To save you the trouble of reading *another* fawning. Pentax 6x7 review:

The Pentax 6x7 is a big clunky steel machine with no frills. The lenses are my favorite general look of all the medium format systems that I’ve seen, or had access to so far. It’s capable of taking some really amazing photos that would be very very hard to replicate in 35mm. I think the best examples currently posted up on my website are the photos in Feature #4: Apocalypse Gulch. I think my (current) flagship Editorial Homecoming (Mourning) is great, and it shows off the optics, but not quite as clearly as the Salton Sea photos.

For a slightly different perspective, I think this review by Daniel J. Schneider is probably more helpful to an actual potential buyer than my post/review/essay this is going to be.

My Best/Worst about the camera, with brief explanations:

Here’s my top five favorite things about the camera:

  1. The Lenses, and their rendering. I know in terms of pure sharpness the Zeiss lenses on the Hasselblad probably blow the Pentax 6x7’s to shit, as well as the painfully sharp Mamiya RB/RZ or Mamiya 7 series glass; but I think the Pentax lenses have tend to have a certain (still super sharp/high resolving power, if that’s your bag) human look that suits my own particular need/style of photography really well.

  2. The Viewfinder is kinda magic. Not like it makes you better, but just having a giant bright image makes it really nice to compose and shoot on. I guess I have some (minor) complaints about the focusing because the depth of field tends to be super thin, but overall, the viewfinder (ground glass) just shines. I haven’t had a chance to use a dedicated waist level finder or chimney on the Pentax 6x7, but when I’ve just stared down through the ground glass it’s pretty amazing.

  3. The Aspect Ratio. The Pentax 6x7 has a nearly perfect 4:3 ratio, which, for what it’s worth makes it pretty perfect for darkroom printing on the common sizes, ie 8x10, 11x14, 20*24. Beyond that I think the the boxy, relatively even aspect ratio also lends itself to a more thoughtful, slow composition style, as opposed to the more dynamic ratio of 3:2 (ie 35mm). I know cropping is always an option, but usually the way the box or viewfinder

  4. It’s Imposing. I know I typically tout the Minolta XD-11’s nice compact feel in hand, and the form factor is small, so this may come as a surprise. But I like that the Pentax 6x7 is a big, gnarly, imposing camera, that makes a loud-ish, clack, when the shutter fires. It makes you, and to some extent, the subject (if you’re doing portraiture) take the camera seriously. It feels like an event, when you shoot and work with the camera, but maybe not as involved or static as one would when shooting and setting up a large format.

  5. (hypocritically) Flex Value. I’ve pissed and moaned a lot about price here (or if you keep reading I will), but there’s something kinda nice about owning an expensive piece of gear, and one that seems to be retaining it’s value, or even increasing it. I typically scoff at the Leica community, more for the idolatry of the red dot and the flex around it, but it’s kinda nice to brag that you got a deal on your (now expensive) camera, and show it off some. But not too much, nobody likes a rich prick.

Here’s some stuff I don’t love about the camera:

  1. It’s heavy. Not so heavy that it’ll break your back, or do permanent damage right off the bat, but the thing is definitely very heavy, and after a long day of hiking with the thing, you’re not going to feel great. I don’t actually care that the camera’s big or (relatively) loud -- I’m not really a street photographer, or at least what I do in street photography is so irrelevant to disturbing people that the noise and physical size/threatening look of the Pentax 6x7 don’t really matter that much.

  2. It’s expensive, and the price of replacement is just going to keep going up. A big reason why I’ve never even bothered to experiment with another system is that I don’t think I’d get enough money back selling whatever else I tried to buy back my original equipment if I didn’t like it -- and the camera’s good enough for what I use it for that I guess it doesn’t matter, but I still don’t like the thought of paying another 500 dollars to shoot the camera.

  3. The Eye level finder only covers 90% of the frame. It’s a perfectly nice finder/prism, but missing 10% of your image can be kinda tough, or like easy to forget about. Usually the image is pretty much exactly what I shoot, but that extra 10% has definitely snuck up on me before, requiring me to go back and crop back in, which overall is fine, but definitely a little demoralizing or frustrating.

  4. The flash sync speed kinda sucks. There’s no real good way to shoot flash with the camera, handheld, even with the specialized leaf shutter lenses, it’s still a pain and a lot of button clicks to get everything right, and not really anything you’d want to do handheld. I’m not a huge flash shooter or anything but this is admittedly, a significant border to entry for me.

  5. I’m now part of the medium format community, or like, if I want to share something (like this or one of my features/editorials) on facebook to a group to kinda get more eyes on it, I have to wade through the sea of shit that is the group of dumb, stubborn, fucks with no discernable taste who see fit to constantly criticize anything they neither understand nor like for not meeting their narrow, boring, and tasteless criteria of good photography, that seems to reek of being a professional hobbyist who approaches photography as an engineering question than an art. On top of that, the belief that they could be wrong is so foreign to them, that they refuse to try to see anything in a light that doesn’t favor them. There are plenty of perfectly nice people in the groups, but I get burnt out pretty quickly from the constant trolling, or dickish “criticism” which contains no palpable or helpful criticism that tends to hang over the board. (If this is you, you can kindly fuck right off my website, thanks.)

That brings me to, the eponymous section of the review/column:

So, what did I/have I learned shooting the Pentax 6x7:

  1. It’s probably way overpriced for what it should be, or like, I remember looking into buying one three to five years ago (I wasn’t ready for one) and it was like 200 bucks, maybe 300-400 with a lens. Tops. I know the whole film market has grown, and I should be happy, but as someone who’s been a (relatively) long-term film shooter, it kinda chaps my ass that all these johnny come lately kids are (un-intentionally) jacking the price of gear way the fuck up. I guess I should just be glad I don’t give a fuck about premium point and shoots.For a point of comparison, and SEO ranking, even the price of my beloved Minolta XD series cameras, have shot through the roof. Five years ago, when I got my first one, it was basically in mint condition, and I paid maybe 50 bucks for it. To get one of a decent quality, now, it’s something like $150 -- and even then the internal guts of the thing are a crapshoot. Additionally, it’s not like there’s a lot on the US used market either -- so you’re stuck gambling on Japanese eBay, which isn’t totally unreasonably priced, considering convenience of being able to just order the camera, but it’s always 30-40% over whatever budget I have for a camera or lens. Paralleled to the Pentax 6*7, even when I was buying mine, I remember the market being about 400 for a body only, with an unmetered prism, if you’re lucky. All this should probably be couched in “Andrew is an aggressively cheap bastard when  any purchase over $100 dollars is involved -- and his sense of value is way way stunted.”

  2. I like the camera and love the images it produces but I have yet to really bond with the camera in a meaningful way, or build a real relationship aside from “this camera is a tool, a really good tool.” My only real hypotheses are that 1. I haven’t gotten Stockholm syndrome’d by the camera yet -- it’s only been a year and some change, which leads into 2. The weight and expense of the camera, ie the price of 120 film (development and scanning, too), having repairs and CLA’s done (the big name Pentax guy charges $300 bucks for just a CLA -- I’m sure it’s basically a rebuild, but still, it doesn’t sit well with me -- see “I am a cheap bastard” above.), and just the dead weight of lugging the Pentax 6x7 (with lenses) around is prohibitive to me shooting enough with it to really gel with it beyond “camera make photo.”

  3. Right now, I really only take the camera out when I do “serious project work” -- and even then, because I seem to have a nasty habit of accumulating (and shooting) 100 foot rolls of 35mm film, I still seem to end up using the Minolta XD-11 for a good chunk of my projects. That being said I do lug the Pentax 6x7 with me to do landscape photography when I travel -- and it’s definitely been good or great for that -- I have some stuff coming up to show that off, I’m almost done re-scanning all my photos from one specific trip to show that off.

  4. Bracketing is for chumps. Admittedly I haven’t fully incorporated this lesson into daily practice all the time, but typically, the amount I bracket shots has radically decreased way down. Typically (with limited exception) I tend to fall into the category or thought pattern of “first shot, best shot” and it’s borderline madness for me to re-shoot something better the second time when I’m overthinking it, but traditionally I still do or have a lot. Having only ten frames on a roll definitely cuts way down on the amount that I’m tempted to re-do something, if for no other reason than budget.

  5. Having a bigger/better camera doesn’t make your work better. I know this is something I say a lot, but I definitely have gotten some better shots out of the Minolta XD-11 than the Pentax 6x7, on the same day, just because I wasn’t working hard enough at getting the Pentax 6X7 framing right, or I just flat out didn’t have the right/wide enough lens for it. You can’t always make your new fancy toy work out for everything, as much as you want it to.

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Test Your Goddamn Film.

Test Your Goddamn Film

Until early 2018,

I never took properly testing my film or developer too seriously. I picked a developer, cycled in between basically anything I could find and shoot, mostly just to shoot whatever I could find, and just stuck with whatever recipe the massive dev chart suggested, and hoped for the best. Honestly, it worked -- most of the time. That being said, over time, I’ve begun to desire more consistent results, to build a codified aesthetic, or voice if you will. I had a long period shooting Delta 100, in Kodak Xtol 1:1, but even then I’d go off and get distracted shooting Fomapan 100 for a week, or some bizarro expired neopan, without really digging into testing best practices for that core of Delta 100. While I may not have finally settled into a consistent aesthetic -- I’m still settling on my daily shooter/singular film stock -- I have learned or at least gained an appreciation for good testing and consistency. I think thorough testing is a necessity to the craft of black and white analogue photography, and to a lesser extent -- color photography.

Traditional Silver Black and White Negative film, and its developers, is the only film which requires extensive testing. There’s only one true “correct” developer for color negative still film, which is C-41 or whatever the company making it is calling it. Any color negative development, outside of that is cross-processing. Once you learn what an individual emulsion does, and how it reacts to light, and what it does when pushed or pulled or whatever other idiot processing decisions you want to subject it to it’s not going to deviate from that -- but even then, with rare exception, almost all C-41 film behaves the same way. As of writing this, there are over 100 different developers listed on the Massive Dev Chart. Given some (most) of them may not be in wide use. But even then, let’s say there are 10 “standard developers” (Rodinal, HC-110 or Ilfotec HC, D-76 or ID-11, DD-X, Xtol, Sprint, the Pyro Family, Ilfosol S, and Diafine), that’s still 9 more developers that are standard process than color film has. And each one of them has different dilutions which do different things, and act differently based on the relative temperature one develops at.

For my primary case study, I’d like to use Rodinal, because it’s such a universal developer. Let’s go over some standard assumptions -- Rodinal has three standard dilutions, 1:25, 1:50 -- the “standard” , 1:100 -- which sometimes is performed as a semi-stand development, and sometimes as a full stand for at least one hour. Rodinal does *not* play nicely at higher temperatures than the given 20ºC/68ºF, and tends to create heavy, heavy grain, as it is an Acutance developer, and most of its developing action comes from making grain larger rather than cutting away at the grain -- ie a solvent developer -- I’ll get to that soon. On top of that, because rodinal works at high dilutions, 1:50, 1:100, and those dilutions can take so much time, you can get compensation. Compensation is a bizarre phenomena which seems to allow one to get a more even rendition, along with sharper edges on their image subjects, but within certain limits, and only with certain developers. On top of that rodinal can be used to push, but because of the way the developer works, it’s typically not used as a push developer. Or at the very least, from my personal experience, one should not use additional time to push the film itself, to “gain” a stop, so much as they should use it to increase the negative thickness or the amount of contrast on the negatives. (NB: most of my info is pulled from Massive Dev, or Unblinking Eye -- they have a page specifically on Rodinal).

I don’t know if you’ve been keeping tally of all the variables and considerations in that last block of text, but that’s a lot of variables, with a lot of finicky and personal/preferential answers -- That’s three separate dilution choices, temperature volatility, speed volatility (ie how much grain the developer creates given the speed of the film, then also how much nominal speed the film loses in the developer), what kind of contrast you need, how much extra time you should be developing to compensate for a particularly dark or light scene. And those are just the developer variables, that’s not even taking into account how you rated the film you’re developing, or the water quality/mineral content of the water that you’re using for your dilutions.

That being said: most film, or at least any film made by a decently large manufacturer, or of “professional quality,” typically comes with its own datasheet, which should either be right on the film’s own box, or available from the manufacturer, online. Kodak is really great about this, as is Ilford, given the number of different films they manufacture. I even have a data sheet from the now defunct AGFA, for the batch of APX100 I shot (which actually confirms their loose recommendation of 17 minutes, in Rodinal 1:50.) These sheets typically give best practice for the film, and the best possible starting point. That being said, they’re not long on examples, just pure data on “how much contrast do you want vs. how thick your negative will be (gamma), and this is what the light response curve is.” Which is great, but not really a good substitute for figuring out what you actually need out of a film, which, unless you can perfectly read all those charts, and intuitively know what the film will look like, you still have to go and shoot film yourself to find out what the compensation is like, the amount of grain is in a given developer, or even how a developer will render the film given the scene. And this isn’t even taking into account all the variables that go along with developing, aside from time. All of this is a good starting point, but at the end of the day, you should still conduct your own tests.

Testing your film is important. Thorough testing allows one to get exactly the look, feel, and density one requires out of their film, without having to worry too much, or spend an excess amount of time correcting or photoshopping, once a desired benchmark is set. Once you sets your benchmark, you end up saving much more time in the long run despite the initial timesink of having to do all the research and testing in the first place. To make this personally relevant, this process of testing, in detail, is why I won’t review a film, unless I can shoot at least 20 rolls of it (if not more), because without that thoroughness, or exposure to multiple developers, conditions, etc, I feel it paints a relatively incomplete picture of what a given film is capable of. Admittedly, I was inspired to do or start testing thoroughly or sticking with a single film (per usage) at a time by Johnny Patience’s Article on the death of the zone system, which is also definitely worth a read.

Anyway, to sum all of this up: If you want the best most consistent results, test your goddamn film.

If you’ve enjoyed this content, buy a zine in the shop, so I can continue to produce it, and host it here on the website. -- Thanks!

What I learned shooting... #4: Agfapan APX100 (35mm)

A thorough review and overview of one of the last batch of Agfapan APX100 in 35mm. Tested primarily with the Minolta XD-11, and Rokkor MC-PG 50mm 1.4 lens, and to a lesser extent the Minoltina AL-s. Primary Developers used were Kodak Xtol, and Rodinal.

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Sharpness Doesn't Matter.

Sharpness doesn’t matter.

Or at the very least, it shouldn’t be the most important question.

Full disclosure:

I'm a functional illiterate when it comes to finite technical details in photography; but I have the basic visual faculties to see what’s in front of me. Every time I trawl any forum where lenses are discussed, evaluated and ranked, the discussion always drifts to “how sharp is it? Or which lens is sharpest?” I used to read these threads, get invested, argue, and fiend over finding the “right” equipment. With limited exception, I’ve given up caring much about sharpness. Sharpness is a dumb concern, most of the time, and rarely matters much for most photographers in practice.

The first question I always ask when talking about sharpness, resolution or negative size, is “how big are you printing or displaying?” Like my complaint in my “your cellphone is all the point and shoot you need article” I’m going to repeat it here, again, “are you really posting or presenting your work anywhere aside from Instagram, on a 6.5” at the largest?” and the answer is usually a flat “no.” So what’s the purpose of caring or getting caught up in how sharp or “correct” a lens is?

Failing the need question on the basis of print size, let’s move on to content. How often does one really consider or need a ultra-highly resolved image down to the finest details? Or how often does ultrafine detail play into your imaging? If you’re a commercial photographer, or you work a lot with finite texture, and need to render images a specific, highly controlled way, this is understandable. However, how many people do you know who work with film, or really even digital, that are working on subjects like this? There’s a handful, sure, but do you? Is that really what you care about in photography?

Some lenses are just duds. They are bad, they make inferior pictures, with little upside like amazing bokeh or some other unintended but amazing effect. Likewise, there are some magic lenses, but they’re becoming exorbitantly expensive. Outside the maybe fifty odd “vintage” lenses that are “legendary,” it doesn’t matter, provided you don’t get a dud; A 50mm, is a 50 is a 50; some have better maximum apertures, and their renditions may vary, but they all essentially take the same photo. I feel like the lenses that prove the rule for me, are modern autofocus lenses, which have no discernable character, and have profiles in Lightroom that can fix base defects in seconds, you can essentially “fix” any two cameras and lenses to look next to identical in seconds.

I do not understand the need for sharpness or why the need for scientific accuracy is so dominant, film or digital. If I might offer up alternatives to “is it sharp” -- “will this lens do what I need it to?” “does the lens’s rendering actively compliment the aesthetics and subjects I’m trying to get?” “will it fit the arcane or special/specific need I need to render my vision?” -- rather than ask the bland, superficial, and ultimately pointless question of “how sharp is this lens?” My concluding questions, are “Is sharpness important?” and “why is sharpness important to you?”

Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed this essay, or any of the content on my website, consider buying a zine in the shop.