How Shooting Film Positively Transformed My Digital Photography

Before I discovered film, my main photography experience was with camera phones, then a Nikon Coolpix, which I shot 1000 photographs a month with for seven months.

Shooting film over the next five years – aside from its own unique pleasures – has gradually, yet radically, transformed how I approached and enjoyed digital photography too.

Here are the major reasons why –

1. Thoughtful composition and frugal shooting.

Using the Coolpix helped hugely to hone my composition. But I would still go out for a 30 minute photowalk, blast off 200 images, then spend four times longer editing through the photographs.

Something didn’t seem right about having 17 almost identical shots of the same dew dropped cobweb then agonising over which to keep and share.

The pleasure of being out taking photographs was starting to be tainted by the thought of all the time I’d be spending afterwards poring through them.

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Nikon Coolpix P300

Shooting with film, where capturing the same 200 images would be prohibitively expensive, taught me to be far more particular and careful about what I saw through the viewfinder before I released the shutter.

(A very simple trick I still use with film and digital is to ask before I shoot “Is this really a worthwhile photograph?” Often I decide it isn’t, and move on.)

This in turn translated to how I now use my Sony NEX mirrorless and a100 DSLR cameras.

A 90 minute photowalk these days might yield 50-70 shots, around the same as a couple of rolls of film.

Which means way less time hunched over a computer sifted through images back home.

More time out in the field (often quite literally out in a field) and less time editing and post processing is a hugely positive outcome for me. 

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens

2. Choosing aperture and depth of field.

Using film SLRs taught me plenty about the effect of aperture and distance on the depth of field.

Being able to see what the camera saw through the viewfinder was key to this – even without any study or research, you can experiment with changing aperture and focus and seeing with your own eyes how it changes what you see in the VF.

Prior to this film experience, I was just on auto or program with a digital camera, letting the camera decide everything but the composition and focus. Sometimes I lucked out, like the cobweb shot above. But I didn’t know why, or how to intentionally create the look.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 lens

Being aware of depth of field helped me discover some of the unique delights of many lenses like the Helios 44 series for example. 

Now, in terms of depth of field, my digital shots feel far more controlled and taken with intention, not just at whatever aperture the camera decided was best.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44M 58m f/2 M42 lens

3. The delights of vintage lenses.

As I wrote recently, using vintage lenses is one of the top three reasons I love film photography.

These days, with all kinds of adapters available, you can mix and match vintage lenses with modern digital cameras and enjoy the best of both worlds.

The quality, feel and distinctive look of vintage glass, combined with the convenience and low cost of digital is a delicious combination.

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Sony NES 3N, Yashica ML 135mm f/2.8 C C/Y lens

Cameras like the Sony NEX (E mount) and Canon EOS (EF mount) are very easily adaptable to a dozen or more lens mounts at very little expense. Most adapters I’ve invested in have cost between £6-12.

So the lenses I fell in love with using film cameras I can continue to use and explore further with digital.

Which, with the almost instant feedback of digital, has allowed me to get to know each of their unique characteristics in more depth and more quickly.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Tessar 50mm f/2.8 M42 lens 

Summary

The facts are simple. If I’d never got into film photography, and using classic SLRs and lenses, I’d probably just be using some standard bland DLSR 18-55mm digital zoom on auto or program mode the whole time.

Yes, with this set up I might well still have chanced upon a photograph I liked now again.

But having the knowledge and intention behind the photographs I now make with digital cameras, is vastly more rewarding, and that only happened because of the laste few years of film photography grounding. 

How has shooting film influenced your approach to digital?

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Preset Aperture Lenses – How They Work And Why You Need At Least One

Preset aperture lenses are different from standard lenses with a single aperture ring and set click stops.

Here’s how they differ, some of the reasons I enjoy using them, and why you should try them too.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

First, how they work. 

There are different variations, but the feature common to them all is you preset not the exact aperture, but the minimum aperture the lens will stop down to.

There is either via a separate aperture ring, or the main aperture ring is spring loaded and pushes in or out then rotates. This ring dictates the smallest aperture the lens will be at when the main aperture ring is turned all the way in the opposite direction from being wide open.

Here are examples of three minor variants.

Helios side
Helios 44-2 58mm f/2

With the Helios 44-2, the outermost part of the lens with the red dot is fixed. The next ring in, with the numbers on, clicks to the various standard stops. Above you can see it’s at f/8. The next knurled ring in adjusts freely between the maximum aperture (f/2) and the preset minimum aperture (f/8 in the picture above).

So you can adjust it as precisely as you wish, without needing to be at whole click stops like f/4, f/5.6 and so on. More on why you might want this later on.

Tak105 side
Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8

The Takumar is similar, but slightly more clear in its design. Again the outermost part with the red dot is fixed. The next ring where you can see all of the numbers sets the minimum aperture, and moves in clicks (and half clicks where you see the white dots). Then the next ring in, also numbered, moves freely between the maximum f/2 and minimum, in this case f/5.6.

The Takumar is a little easier to use for those used to setting an aperture number, as you still line up a specific aperture number with the red dot if you wish to.

Jupiter-37A side
Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5

The Jupiter-37A has just one aperture ring. Again the outer part with the white dot is fixed. To set the minimum aperture, you push the numbered ring in so its up against the large knurled focus ring, then turn it to the aperture required, then release the ring. It’s spring loaded so it pops back to the rest position as above.

Then the same ring rotates freely between the maximum aperture (f/3.5) and preset minimum aperture (f/5.6 in the picture above).

In practice, choosing and setting the aperture works as follows.

Say you want to shoot a lens at f/8. So you set the preset aperture ring to f/8, then open the lens wide open.

At the lens’s maximum aperture (wide open, so when you look into the lens from the front you can’t see the aperture blades at all), you have maximum light entering, so it’s easiest to compose and focus with the camera.

When you’ve focused, simply turn the main aperture ring all the way down until it won’t turn anymore. Then you know you’ll be at your preset aperture (f/8 in this example) and can take the picture at that aperture.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, LightRoom preset

Preset lenses give photographers a fast way to stop down a lens to a preset aperture, without having to count click stops, or take your eye away from the camera to see where you’re moving the aperture ring to.

Originally preset aperture lenses were superceded by lenses that offered set click stops (at f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 etc) plus open aperture metering.

With these lenses, you set the aperture ring on the lens but the aperture blades remain wide open (again letting in maximum light for easier focusing) until the instant the picture is taken, at which point they close down to the set aperture via a lever or pin on the back of the lens being depressed by the camera.

But for those of us using film and digital cameras with vintage lenses via adapters, open aperture metering isn’t an option anyway, we have to stop down manually. This is where the preset aperture lens comes into its own.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8 M42 lens, LightRoom preset

What I like even more than the convenience of being able to close down in a split second to my preset aperture, is the fine adjustment it allows.

I shoot Aperture Priority (Av) 90% of the time or more. This is because I love to control the depth of field of the image.

Also, because I rarely shoot moving subjects, shutter speed is of little importance to me.

Photographing a decaying door or ancient gravestone or still flower looks exactly the same at 1/30s or 1/4000s.

Varying the aperture though – especially at the close distances I like to shoot at – has a dramatic effect on the final image and its depth of field.

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Contax 159MM, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

With standard click stop aperture lenses, most have only full or half click stops. The actual number of the aperture I’m using is again pretty irrelevant to when I’m shooting Av mode.

But what if, in terms of the look of the photograph, the depth of field is too shallow at f/4 and too deep at f/5.6? 

With a standard click stop aperture lens, you’d have to choose one or the other (or, with some lenses like for example a Yashica ML 50/1.4, you can find the halfway rest point between two click stops).

With a preset aperture lens, you simply turn the aperture ring until the image looks precisely how you want it to.

It’s irrelevant whether it’s f/4.37 or f/5.13. What matters is how it looks.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, Fuji Superia expired film

So, in practice, I often preset my aperture at a stop beyond what I think I will need. Then I have that scope for fine tuning.

For example if I think I’ll need around f/5.6, I’ll set the preset aperture to f/8, then open it up.

After composing and focusing, I’ll stop the lens down until the image I see is exactly as I want it. It might be shade past f/5.6, a little before, or bang on. I have that ability to find precisely what looks most right for me.

And, after all, isn’t that how all of us photograph anyway – point our camera at something then adjust our position and the lens aperture until what we see in the viewfinder is what looks most “right” to us?

Another advantage of preset aperture lenses, is not directly due to their preset feature but seems connected.

My favourite preset lenses tend to have more aperture blades, and ones that close down whilst staying very rounded. The result is smoother bokeh highlights, like this –

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Sony a350, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens, LightRoom preset

With a standard lens, the majority have six blades, and are very straight edged.

So the bokeh highlights look like this –

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens

You can imagine how the first image would have looked it taken with the second lens.

Let’s directly compare two lenses.

The first three images show my Cosina Cosinon Auto 135/2.8 at f/5.6, f/8 and f/11. Notice how the (hexagon) shape made by the (six) blades is already angular at f/5.6 and becomes even more so as you stop down further.

Cosinon 5_6Cosinon 8Cosinon 11The next three pictures show the Jupiter-37A 135/3.5 at the same apertures – f/5.6, f/8 and f/11. You’ll notice how because of the greater number of aperture blades (12!) and the way they close down, it’s almost perfectly circular, even at f/11.

Jupiter-37A 5_6Jupiter-37A 8Jupiter-37A 11This smoother, more circular shape makes for smoother bokeh, especially in shots with multiple light sources where each one takes the shape of the open aperture blades in the lens.

Which preset aperture lens(es) I recommend

I love all three of the lenses featured in the first images above and would recommend any without hesitation. The Helios 44-2 58/2, Asahi Takumar 105/2.8 and Jupiter-37A 135/3.5. All are M42 mount and all are fantastic regardless of being preset aperture.

The fact that they are preset lenses just makes them, for me, even more enjoyable and controllable when shooting my preferred Aperture Priority mode.

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Sony NEX 3N, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens

If you don’t already use M42 lenses, then I recommend getting one of the three above plus an adapter for whatever you do use. It’s probably the most easily adaptable lens mount.

I’ve shot M42 lenses on Contax/Yashica, Pentax K, Canon EOS and Minolta AF film cameras, and Pentax K, Sony NEX (E mount) and Sony a100 and a350 (Sony/Minolta A/Alpha mount) digital cameras. Adapters exist for probably a dozen other camera mounts.

If you’re starting from scratch and want a super affordable film camera set up, check out my recent post on getting started with film for £27.

On the digital front I’d recommend either the Sony a100 DLSR  or if you want something more compact and even more adaptable try a Sony NEX 3, 5, or 7. All are amazingly affordable these days.

With a film or digital camera plus an adapter for vintage M42 lenses, preset aperture lenses are a delight to use, infinitely adjustable and give splendid results.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8 M42 lens, LightRoom preset

Have you tried preset aperture lenses yet?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

How I Shoot Manual Vintage Lenses With A DSLR

My experience with film and digital cameras over the last five years or so culminated recently in the revelation that it doesn’t matter so much whether I’m hunting for beauty with film or pixels.

What’s far more valuable to me is the hunting itself, plus the vintage lenses I love to use.

This post is the extension of that – How I use manual vintage lenses with a DSLR. 

For the purpose of the following explanations, let’s go with my Sony a100 DLSR, plus a Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Flektogon Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 M42 lens.

2017_03_12 Sony a100 ZeissFlektogon

Other lenses – especially other M42 mount lenses – follow a very similar process in use.

Initial set up

First, I ensure the M42 > Sony adapter is on the camera, then screw in the lens. I set it to minimum focus, as most of my photography tends to be up close.

The camera I try to set as neutral as possible.

I use ISO400, which gives a little more noise/grain in the final image than ISO200 or ISO100, a personal preference, and a leaning towards the grain I love with shooting film. I don’t like digital to look too clean and clinical.

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Sony a100, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens

Also, a higher ISO means in lower light I can shoot at smaller apertures without resorting to too slow a shutter speed and the increased potential of blurred shots.

I shoot RAW files at the maximum size (10MP with the a100), set the colour to “standard” and all the other colour, contrast, saturation and sharpness settings to neutral/zero.

For metering I go with centre weighted, which I’m most used to from shooting film cameras.

White balance is usually daylight as I only really shoot in daylight and this seems to give most consistently realistic colours, to my eye. I’ve found auto white balance can be a bit erratic with the a100. I turn off any other “enhancements” like noise reduction.

These settings I adjusted when I first got the camera, and now don’t need to touch them.

It’s not something I have to (or feel the need to) fiddle with every time I pick it up.

I want the camera to be as simple to use as possible.

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Sony a100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens

So after this initial set up, the only adjustments I make shot to shot predominantly involve just two settings – the aperture and the focus.

Talking of focus, it’s worth mentioning here to check your diopter adjustment. It can make a huge difference to how easy (or not!) it is to focus with a manual focus lens on a DSLR.

Look through the camera towards a bright light source with the lens set to infinity (or even better, no lens). Note how sharp and clear the central AF rectangle in the VF is.

Adjust the diopter up and down until you get the clearest picture. It should be quite obvious when you have the right setting, as moving a couple of notches either side will make the image significantly more fuzzy.

If this is a few notches out it will be very difficult to focus accurately.

Initial set up covered, let’s move on to using the camera shot by shot.

With film cameras, whilst sometimes I like to go meterless and Sunny 11, 95% of the time I use Aperture Priority mode (Av) mode. It’s the same with the a100, though it’s marked A on the mode dial, rather than Av.

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Sony a100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens

My default aperture is f/5.6 with a lens like the Flektogon, and indeed any reasonably fast lens.

This gives me, most of the time, the kind of depth of field I like, plus as a rule the lens is likely to be performing better (sharpness, colour, contrast) two or three stops down than at its maximum aperture.

The viewfinder (VF) on the a100 is bright enough in good lighting to be able to focus at f/5.6. If I need to be more precise with focusing I will open the aperture to the maximum of f/2.4, focus, then stop down to the required aperture.

To make stopping down easier, use the Auto/Manual (A/M) switch found on most M42 lenses.

If the aperture you want makes the VF too dark to focus, and/or you don’t want to be stopping up and down a lot, make use of the little switch like this –

Set your chosen aperture, ensure the switch is on A. Look into the lens and you’ll see the aperture wide open, ie you can’t see the blades.

Compose, focus, then when you’re ready, flick the switch to M, so the blades close, the camera can automatically set its shutter speed, then shoot.

Switch back to A, ready for the next shot.

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Sony a100, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 M42 lens

Shot to shot, step by step, this is my process – 

  1. Find something interesting to capture.
  2. Compose and focus.
  3. Adjust aperture, if needed, to adjust depth of field, either manually stopping down or using the A/M switch.
  4. Half press the shutter button so the camera’s meter activates and shows the shutter speed.
  5. If shutter speed is ok (not maxing out, or not too slow a for hand held shot), press the shutter button all the way to take the photograph.

I do tend to check the screen most shots afterwards, for one main reason.

Whilst with fully auto lenses like the excellent Minolta AF series, the a100 seems to meter very accurately, with manual vintage lenses it tends to slightly underexpose.

I have found by setting the exposure compensation (the button is marked AV +/-) to +0.3 as a base setting, most shots come out well.

As with any photography, when the light is tricky, you may have to compensate.

With digital we have the blessing of the screen to check, then adjust the exposure compensation a little if needed, and retake the shot.

If you’re really concerned about precise exposure (I’m generally not!) then use the Exposure Bracketing mode most DLSRs have to take three shots then pick the best exposed afterwards. The a100 cleverly shows the three exposures it will take on the sliding scale in the VF and you can still use this in conjunction with exposure compensation too if you wish.

Personally, I’d rather get it right with trail and error using the Exposure Comp feature than have three of every photograph to look through at home.

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Sony a100, Industar-61L/Z 50mm f/2.8 M42 lens

And that about it.

Hopefully, as you can see, after my modest initial set up, using the a100 with M42 lenses is very similar to using my Contax or Canon EOS film cameras with the very same lenses.

Set to Aperture Priority mode, compose, focus, adjust aperture, half press to check shutter speed, shoot. Repeat as required.

For me this provides the ideal balance between the pleasure of handling and using vintage lenses, yet the camera being invisible enough and the process simple enough, to not get in the way of me enjoying the exploring and the picture taking.

Hopefully this has encouraged you to try a DSLR with manual vintage lenses, or if you have already, how it can be reduced to a refreshing simple process, despite the many buttons, modes and switches at our disposal with these devices.

Do you shoot vintage lenses on a DSLR?

Let us know your experiences in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

How I Shoot Film With A Digital Sensor

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Konica Autoreflex T, Konica Hexanon 52mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Film photography is one of the greatest joys of my life. 

But how much of this pleasure can be experienced and enjoyed equally via a digital sensor, rather than on 35mm film?

To explore this, let’s start with the five biggest reasons I love film, in reverse order. 

5. The look of film.

4. Using vintage cameras.

3. Using vintage lenses.

2. The immersive experience.

1. The freedom.

So (how) can each of these be recreated with a digital camera?

Specifically, I’m going to be talking about the digital camera I have come to enjoy using most recently, the Sony a100 DSLR, launched around 2006. I picked mine up this year used for a shade under £60.

Let’s look at each reason in more depth, and see how much the digital experience fulfils the needs I’ve found film photography satisfies.

5. The look of film

Film is unique in its look, and the warmth, grain and vibrant colours of film cannot be equalled, in my eyes. Also the sometimes unpredictable results add an extra variable and delight. Shooting expired film, for example.

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Asahi Pentax ES, S-M-C Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens, Konica Centuria 400 expired film

This being said, I’ve found a handful of film presets for LightRoom that, whilst they don’t recreate entirely the look of film, do give a softer and more endearing feel to my digital photographs. Often these have me smiling almost as much in the final image.

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens, LightRoom preset

Plus, using the same vintage film lenses on digital bodies help get closer to the overall feel of shooting film. More on those later.

4. Using vintage cameras

No digital camera can compare to using an all metal and mechanical classic 35mm film camera like an Asahi Spotmatic F. Or the seductively smooth wind and shutter release of the wonderful Contax 139 Quartz. Not to mention its amazing, big bright viewfinder.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens

What I can say about my Sony a100 is it’s as close to a film camera as I have used, in that I enjoy the handling, plus everything is at hand.

The viewfinder is very usable – even with vintage, manual focus lenses, and its technology is intuitive and doesn’t get in the way of the experience of seeking and finding beautiful things to photograph.

3. Using vintage lenses

This reason has been absolutely pivotal in me learning to embrace and love digital photography. Discovering that adapters existed to shoot my old lenses on digital bodies was probably the biggest game-changer in my photography adventure.

My favourite vintage lenses (which are mostly M42 mount Takumar and Zeiss) can be used very easily on the a100, in the same Aperture Priority (Av) mode I use 90% of the time with my film bodies.

The delicious quality and handling of the Takumars, and the biting sharpness and close focus of the Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 and Flektogon 35/2.4 are just the same on the a100, meaning half of my pair of hands is just as happy as when using them on film.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 lens

Yes, there is the crop factor of 1.5x, meaning a 50mm lens for a 35mm film camera gives an equivalent field of view of around 75mm on the a100 with its APS-C sensor.

But I have a range of focal lengths that fits my needs with the 35mm Flektogon (52.5mm field of view on the a100), 50mm Pancolar (75mm), 55mm Takumar (82.5mm), 58mm Helios 44-2 (87mm), 105mm Takumar (157.5mm) and 135mm Zeiss Sonnar and Jupiter-37a (202.5mm).

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Sony a350, Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens, LightRoom preset

Plus, because the digital sensor only uses the central part of the lenses, where they deliver their optimum performance, you’re eliminating all of the outer edge weaknesses the lenses may reveal on 35mm film.

Also, since exploring Sony Alpha cameras, I’ve also bought three mid-80’s vintage Minolta AF lenses.

These lenses share the same mount (which Sony inherited when they bought the photographic arm of Konica Minolta on the mid 2000s), so fit straight on and are usable with all exposure modes.

I’ve been blown away by their performance, colours and sharpness, something I would not have experienced had I not gone down the Sony route and stuck purely to M42 lenses.

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Sony a100, Minolta 35-70mm f/4 lens, no post processing

2. The immersive experience

Using a film camera with a large bright viewfinder like the Contax 139 Quartz literally sucks one into the VF. Everything in the world except what’s in that rectangle is blocked out and forgotten.

Add the experience of focusing and adjusting depth of field (DOF) whilst using that larger than life VF immersion, it becomes a major highlight of my favourite film cameras.

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Fujia ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

The a100 can’t claim to have as big or bright a VF as the cream of my film cameras.

But it’s more than adequate to provide a very similarly immersive experience, and with a DOF preview button for native lenses (and of course the manual stop down of vintage M42 lenses which provides a constant DOF preview anyway), again it provides those same visual reward and engagement whilst shooting.

Or in other words, I still forget everything else but what’s in that little rectangle.

Which brings us on to the final, and most vital experience film photography brings me.

1. The freedom

Being able to grab a camera and head out to the sticks and wander around for an hour or two, hunting out beauty, gives me a huge sense of freedom and escape.

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Minolta Dynax 700Si, Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

I’m very fortunate to have all I do have in my life, but this need for escape is still strong.

Packing a camera with me, with its immersive experience (see no4) via vintage lenses (no3), enhances that hunt for beauty further and deeper, and helps me see and appreciate things I might not otherwise notice.

And so, we come to the title of this post, and the revelation I had – that the top three of the five most important reasons I love film photography are almost (say 95%) as rewarding with my digital Sony a100.

No, when shooting with the Sony, I don’t have film, its emotive nostalgia, tactile experience and unique grain and feel, or the pleasure of using a smooth highly crafted mechanical machine like my Contax 139 Quartz.

But I’m not giving these up, just using them alternately, in conjunction with digital.

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Chinon CE-4S, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 M42 lens, FujiColor C200 expired film

Plus digital, with its instant feedback and cheaper ongoing cost (as long as we don’t get caught up in forever chasing the latest and greatest digital wonder and its ever increasing cost – as I said my little a100 cost me £60 used, about the same as my Contax bodies) offers some benefits film can’t.

I’m still a die hard film lover.

But thanks to using the same vintage lenses on my Sony a100, I’m loving digital more than ever before too.

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Sony a100, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens, no post processing

Combining the two is allowing me to create not only a consistent experience, but also, I hope, a coherent and congruous body of work, which transcends which camera I used to make the pictures.

What are your favourite reasons for shooting film and digital, and how much do they overlap?

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Rise Of The Anti-Zoom – Why I Never Zoom With A Zoom Lens

Zoom lenses were made so you could stand in one place, point in any direction, zoom and capture the perfect composition. Right? 

Well, maybe. But not for me.

Instead I see a zoom lens as a small, highly portable set of prime lenses. Here’s why, and how I use them.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro lens

For the first four years or so of shooting film, I only had one zoom. It happened to come attached to a Pentax ME Super I found cheap, and I gave the lens away almost immediately.

So my history of shooting film (and using the same vintage lenses digitally on my Sony NEX) was almost exclusively with primes. 

This honed my technique of getting used to the particular field of view of a particular lens, as there was simply no way to adjust it. I like this consistency – it’s one less setting to adjust, a great help when I was starting out with film especially, with all the other adjustments you can make.

Then one day I read a review of a reputedly excellent Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro.

The review – and the subsequent photographs I found online – made the lens too good to ignore, despite it being a zoom.

So I bought one.

Essentially, being a bit intimidated by the range of focal lengths (though 35-70mm is modest for a zoom!), I set it to 70mm and started to experiment with the NEX.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro lens

 

Another factor for choosing 70mm was this was the end at which the “macro” focusing was available. I love finding the close up detail and beauty of objects.

The MD Zoom turned out to live up to its reputation, I was very impressed.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro lens

More recently I picked up a Tamron with C/Y adapter, in fact very similar in spec to the Minolta. To give it its full name, it’s the Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 CF Macro BBAR MC.

Whilst not as great as the Minolta, it’s still pretty good, and again I stuck it on 70mm and went off to explore.

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Yashica FX-D, Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 CF Macro BBAR MC lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Again, not being so keen on any lens wider than 50mm, and wanting to explore the closer “macro” focusing of the lens, in effect I treat it as a 70mm prime with close focus.

Very recently I acquired a Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 Macro. You might be noticing a pattern here. 

Turns out that this lens, on my Sony a350, has blown me away. And again I’ve only used it at the 70mm end.

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

I found the MD Zoom very impressive, and I think this Minolta is even better. And the images in this post are straight out of the Sony Alpha, converted from RAW to JPEG, and no other post processing. I’m loving those Minolta colours!

Anyway, back to the point of this post. 

Taking for example the Minolta AF 35-70mm, I see this mostly as a 70mm prime.

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

But I could also use it as a 35mm prime. And a 50mm prime. Or a 40mm prime, 60mm prime, or anything between. But let’s keep this simple for my argument and stick to 35, 5o and 70mm. Also because those are the three numbers marked on the barrel and easiest to set.

What I don’t do, on a photowalk, is this –

Stand in one position, look all around me, spot something interesting to photograph then point my camera and zoom in or out until it fills the frame as I wish, then take the photograph.

Before I begin the walk, I already decide what focal length I’ll use, set the lens to that, and then treat it as a prime.

By doing this I can focus on how the world looks at that focal length, with that lens. I have a consistency, a uniformity to work with.

Also there’s the distortion factor. 

Put simply, the same subject, filling the frame in the same way, will look quite different when photographed at different focal lengths. This post and collage of images is a great visual demonstration.

For me personally, I don’t want a set of images from one photowalk with one lens where they’re all distorted in different ways.

I’d find this confusing and frustrating.

This is mostly down to my inexperience in using a wide range of focal lengths (my default and most used by far is a 50mm lens) but partly my desire to keep things simple and clean with photography.

If I introduce too many options, too many variables, it takes away the escapist and immersive pleasure of photography. 

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Sony a350, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

With digital photography lately I’m trying to simplify further too, and so by using a particular lens like the Minolta AF 35-70 always at 70mm, with the same ISO setting on the camera, and keeping all other creative options neutral, it allows me to just focus on composition, and, er, focus.

Rather than for every shot drowning in a myriad of decisions and options before I even press the shutter button.

So it becomes more like the simple and joyful experience I feel when using film cameras.

Next, I’m looking forward to going out and using this Minolta at 50mm. Given its performance at 70mm, I’m hoping it will be pretty formidable at 50mm too, and might even surpass and supplant some of my current 50mm favourites.

But for now I’ll stick with treating it as my favourite 70mm prime.

How do you use zoom lenses? Do you find most shots are at a similar focal length or do you use the full range of the zoom?

Let us know in the comments below.

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The Fall Of The 50s Philanderer (Or How I Found The Perfect 50mm Lens)

I’ve shot far more photographs with 50mm lenses than any other focal length. But switching 50s more often than underwear can become an exhausting and hollow experience.

Here’s why my 50s philandering days are done, and how I’ve settled on my ideal.

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Pentax MZ-5N, SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film

It took me a while to realise, but after something like seven or eight different mounts and over 50 lenses, I realised that in the final image, there’s not a huge amount of difference between one 50mm prime and another.

Some of the lenses I considered humble and expected little of, impressed me greatly.

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Minolta X-300, Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

So when so many 50mm lenses can produce very satisfying results, should we just pick the first decent one we come across and look no further?

If so, why didn’t I do this four years ago?

This wouldn’t be a bad plan at all. But the curious and lustful side of me kept want to try more, to see if they were different.

When the basic optical performance is more than good with even the most mundane sounding lenses (like my three underdogs mentioned above), I started to look further at what separates them.

What makes one lens a forgettable fling, and another destined for a lifelong romance?

Photography for me is very much about how the equipment feels, the whole sensory and tactile experience. The final image is only a fraction of the appeal, for me.

Also, this is as much a reason (probably bigger) as to why I use and love vintage film cameras over digital, in comparison with the end look film photographs have compared with those made via megapixels.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens

So I started looking for two things.

First the luxuriousness of the lens, for want of a better word.

And second, some indescribable aspect of the final image that made a particular lens stand out from the pack.

This led me to the two favourites I have now.

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8, M42 mount

On the luxury front, the Pancolar is ordinary, at best. But in the final image it delivers something special.

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Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 film

For a long time I was sceptical about Zeiss, and thought that any decent lens would give similar results. Which is true. But, somehow, the Pancolar has something more.

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Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 film

Two other Zeiss I have in M42 mount – the Sonnar 135/3.5 and Flektogon 35/2.4 – bear this out too. Neither are the smoothest or best built I’ve used, but both give a secret something to an image not seen in their rivals.

Arguably these three are the only three lenses I ever need.

Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8, M42 mount

The Takumar is in a different league to the Pancolar in terms of feel. It’s just delicious to use, and oozes quality and charm. It’s quite probably the smoothest lens I’ve ever handled and used.

In the final image, it’s one of the best too.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

With the Takumar, it’s not down to drop dead sharpness. The Pancolar in my experience outguns it in that area.

But, similar to the Zeiss, the Takumar images have something special that I don’t see with other lenses.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Conclusions and Recommendations

If you’re relatively new to film photography and/or vintage lenses, what would I suggest, based on my own 50s philandering experience? Would I recommend you rush out and get a Pancolar and Takumar?

Well, not necessarily. What works for me might not for you.

If you’re keen to shoot film and you’re not too fussed about the camera you use, as long as it takes decent, well exposed photographs, then any of the major brands have a body and a standard 50/1.7 or 50/1.8 lens that will give great results.

Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax, Olympus, Konica and Yashica all qualify.

If you’d like a camera that’s small, light, and don’t mind having a later, more plastic body, the Canon EOS are very hard to argue against.

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Canon EOS 300V, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.4 C/Y lens

They’re compact, light, ergonomic to handle, offer reliable metering with a very usable viewfinder, if not as big and bright as some of the 70s SLRs.

The major trump card with the EOS system is their adaptability.

With cheap adapters (around £10) you can use M42, Contax/Yashica or Pentax K lenses, to name just three.

They offer tremendous value, and combined with something like a Super-Takumar 55/1.8, Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 or Fujinon 55/1.8 in M42 or a Pentax-M or Yashica ML 50/1.7 or 50/2 lenses can give you stunning results.

You can read in more depth why I like them and how to get started in film photography for just £27, with a Canon EOS at the heart of the set up.

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Canon EOS 500N, Fujinon 55mm f/1.8 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

If you go with the EOS system, you can then also add a digital option at a later today (early EOS digital bodies are currently £50 upwards) and use exactly the same lens(es) and adapter(s).

I regularly contemplate selling all my SLRs (currently down to six, less than I’ve had in about three years) and keeping just my EOS 300v plus M42 and C/Y adapters and lenses. It’s all I/you really need.

After a while, the endless chase for 50s became tiresome, and the urge waned.

Now I’m down to five manual focus 50mm lenses.

Seven, if you include my 55/1.8 Super-Takumar (which I have), and my Minolta AF (AutoFocus) 50/2.8 Macro.

I don’t need any others, and each of these gives something unique in user experience, the final photographs, or both.

If I had to pick one, for the final image it would probably be the Carl Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8.

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Fujica ST701, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 lens, Ferranis Solaris 200 expired film

For the joy of using, the Super-Takumar 55/1.8 is a delight, and up there with the best for the end result too.

My days as a 50s philanderer seem to be coming to an end.

Partly because I’ve realised that virtually every 50mm lens I’ve ever used was capable of more than decent pictures, and partly because those that remain are so enjoyable to use and to make photographs with.

Where are you on your adventures with 50mm? Have you tried one, two, or 2002?

Let us know in the comments below, and feel free to make your own 50mm recommendations.

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Triple Underdog – 3 Humble 50mm Lenses That Far Exceeded Expectations

Many vintage lenses have impressive reputations online.

But in my direct experience over the last four years or so, disappointingly often I’ve found them to be expensive and over-hyped.

In contrast, I’ve found a few with very modest (or virtually non-existent) reputations, but still capable of very impressive results.

Here are three of these dark horse performers, and why I like them.

1. Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2, Pentax K Mount

In Pentax K mount the yardstick tends to be Pentax’s own M lenses, not least of all the Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7.

But I’ve had a few 50/2 Rikenons and they’ve given the Pentax lenses a very close run for their money.

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2

The little Rikenon comes in two sizes, one version more compact than the other. I suspect they’re otherwise the same, and I certainly got equally good images from both.

Whereas with some lenses you try to avoid shooting at their maximum aperture, the Rikenons are great from f/2 onwards. The robin shot below is at f/2, and is straight out of camera (NEX) without any processing.

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2

Being more plastic than the Pentax-M 50/1.7, they’re lighter too, especially the compact version.

If I had a Pentax K mount body and just one of these Rikenon 50/2s, I’d be more than confident of capturing excellent images time and time again.

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Pentax ME, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens, Kodak Color Plus 200 expired film

Something like a Pentax MV plus the Rikenon would be a fantastic, compact set up – pretty much as small as a full frame 35mm SLR and lens gets. The cheapest I picked up one of these lenses was something like £5.

2. Cosina Cosinon-S 50mm 1.8, Pentax K Mount

Again in K mount, I got this with a Cosina CS-1 body unbelievably cheaply (less than £10) and was expecting cheap results.

But, despite being a bit crude to use compared to the best in K mount, the Cosinon-S was more than adequate in the final image.

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Sony NEX 3N, Cosina Cosinon-S 50mm f/1.8

I never got to test it on some of my favourite hunting grounds (or with a film camera), but even with fairly mundane lunchtime walks I captured enough to see its potential.

I should not have been surprised then when its Auto Cosinon 135/2.8 sibling in M42 (another bargain at around £15) gave me such memorable results too.

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Sony NEX 3N, Cosina Cosinon-S 50mm f/1.8

I later learned that whilst Cosina didn’t make that many of their own branded cameras and lenses, they’ve made them for virtually everyone else, including Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Konica! And still do – some Voigtlanders, amongst others, are made by Cosina.

3. Centon MC 50mm f/1.7, Pentax K Mount

This brand I’d not even heard of and bought it for around £15 attached to a Ricoh AF SLR, assuming it was a Rikenon 50/1.7, after the pleasing results the 50/2 version mentioned above gave me.

It was instead a Centon, a Chinese manufacturer apparently, and seemed like brand new. The build quality was surprisingly tight, and the focus smooth, both aspects superior than the Rikenon or Cosina above.

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Sony NEX 3N, Centon MC 50mm f/1.7 lens

I sold the Ricoh body for most of what I paid, so this lens ended up costing me literally a couple of pounds.

Again this was in Pentax K mount, which goes do show that you don’t need to buy a lens with Pentax stamped on to get decent results. Or even that you need to stick with Japanese and German optics.

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Sony NEX 3N, Centon MC 50mm f/1.7

In conclusion, in 50mm lenses at least, there are so many capable options out there, you don’t have to pay a fortune or for one of the biggest names, which sometimes don’t live up to their online hype and expectation anyway.

What’s your favourite 50mm lens? Which lenses in your collection have been dark horses and impressed you far more than you anticipated? Let us know in the comments below.

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