Competent Companion

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Recently I’ve come across a number of Pentax compacts, and am gradually working through them, separating the best from the rest.

Which isn’t that easy.

Pentax know how to make a decent compact, and you can’t go far wrong with any of their models from the early 80s onwards for a capable point and shoot.

This post is specifically about the Pentax Zoom 70-X, the third incarnation of their Zoom 70 series.

See below the original Zoom 70, the 70-S in the centre, then the 70-X.

23222812202_bbdb232a51_cAfter playing with all three, I quickly found that for me the 70-X offered the most usable options.

When all three are so cheap (I paid about £3 including postage for each of them), it makes little sense to go for either of the first two.

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Here’s what I liked about using the 70-X.

The lens, whilst being a zoom rather than fixed, is a reasonable 35-70mm rather than the crazy 140mm+ of some models, which suggests it’s going to retain decent image quality across the range.

A neat feature is the focal length displayed in the LCD, so you can shoot at 35, 38, 42, 46, 50, 55, 60, 65 or 70mm, rather than a unknown figure somewhere between 35 and 70. Yes, these numbers aren’t going to be precise to the millimetre, but they give a good guide, and allow a different way of using the camera.

In my view there are two ways to use a zoom compact. 

The first is to stand still, look around for something you want to photograph, then point the camera at it and let the zoom do the work until what you see in the viewfinder is what you want to capture.

I never shoot like this.

What I prefer to do – and the focal length display of the 70-X aids this hugely – is to pick one focal length, then experiment with it, moving myself into position to get the shot I want.

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Much of the time so far I’ve used the camera at 35mm (my favourite focal length for a compact, and which incidentally gains brownie points from me for actually being 35mm rather than the 38mm virtually every compact from the late 80s onwards defaulted to).

Though I have the option to experiment with the 70-X as a 42mm (supposedly the same field of view we naturally see as humans), 50mm (the standard SLR prime lens), or 70mm lensed camera for more of a portrait length.

I feel that having the figure displayed in the LCD and knowing what you were shooting at helped to educate me further in the focal length(s) I like to use best in certain situations, rather than the point-zoom-shoot approach mentioned above.

The camera has pretty much all the modes you’d need on a compact, including the vital flash off switch.

It also has a useful backlight compensation mode (the camera has auto DX ISO, so this feature becomes all the more welcome) and Bulb mode for long exposures.

Also pleasing is the inclusion of a Multiple Exposure (ME) mode, which is relatively rare in compacts, and adds a whole other layer (literally!) of creative possibilities.

Using this mode means you can shoot twice on exactly the same frame without the camera moving it a millimetre, unlike the makeshift manual way of shooting multiple exposures on a camera with manual wind on, which is often tricky to get the frames to line up correctly.

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The only further addition I would like to see is a landscape/infinity option, for those shots when you feel the AF might be tricked and want to ensure you’re shooting at infinity.

Overall the camera handles well and with the curved rubberised grip at the front and raised grooves on the film door at the back, feels comfortable and confident in use. 

The viewfinder is quick to locate with your eye, and clear and bright, with the “bright lines” type of framing I prefer, as opposed to the smaller black outlines on later cameras.

The green AutoFocus (AF) confirm light comes on quickly and is very clear, as is the red flash light to let you know when the camera wants to use flash.

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I was more than happy with the photographs I managed to get with the first roll, and the colours, render and detail were all very pleasing, especially for a zoom compact. I don’t think you’d be disappointed with the quality of image this Pentax is capable of.

As with virtually all cameras though, there are downsides.

With the Zoom 70-X pretty much the only downside is its size. It’s not huge by any means, and as we talked about above, it handles really quite well.

But the overall bulk is marginally larger than the body of a Pentax MX SLR.

There are far smaller compacts that likely offer the same kind of performance and features.

As we speak I am testing a Pentax from a few years later, the Espio AF Zoom. It also has a 35-70mm lens, all the features of the 70-X (plus the landscape/infinity mode, though it lacks the focal length display in the LCD) in a body about two thirds the size and weight, and which could comfortably squeeze into all but the tightest of trouser pockets.

Having used a few Espios before, I don’t expect the image quality to let me down either.

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Also always a factor for me is the closest the camera will focus to.

The standard close focus of the 70-X is 1m, though there is a macro mode which allows you to shoot between 0.6m and 1m.

Cleverly, when you press the macro button, the VF shifts a little to compensate for the closeness, which I liked. But the camera also defaults to 70mm for the macro, which I wasn’t so keen on.

So at 35mm, you’re stuck with a paltry 1m minimum focus, which makes it very disappointing close up compared to something like an Olympus mju I which has a 35mm lens and focuses down to 0.35m.

If you’re looking for a very cheap, reliable and well featured zoom compact, and size and close focus aren’t significant factors, then the Pentax Zoom 70-X is a very sound option.

I could use it for ten rolls straight and I know I’d get some really pleasing shots, especially with the Multiple Exposure capabilities.

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But these days I’ve not only become more picky about my expectations from a camera, I’m also increasingly enjoying smaller and genuinely compact cameras.

Pentax’s own Espio (IQZoom in some markets) range offer half a dozen or more equally competent cameras, at similar pocket money prices and with much tinier bodies.

And if you’re going to carry a camera the size of the 70-X, there are a number of rangefinders of comparable size (plus a few of the smaller SLRs like a Pentax MX or ME or the later, lighter MZ-5N which has AF capabilities too) capable of better results and with far more creative control.

If you want a bargain competent companion, and you’re happy with large bulging pockets, the 70-X won’t let you down.

But for me, if the Espio Zoom 35-70mm and/or Rollei X-70 I’ve recently greatly enjoyed give comparable results, I can see the Pentax Zoom 70-X destined straight for the charity shops.

The Lost Lovers – Part One

This is the first in a series of posts about cameras I have known, loved and lost. I plan to look back at why I loved them (“Romantic Reverie”) and then why I ultimately sold or donated them (“In The Harsh Light”).

First up, the Yashica Electro 35GTN.

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Romantic Reverie

The Yashica Electro 35 GTN was hands down one of the, if not the, most handsome camera I have ever owned. The classic chrome versions are very elegant also, but for me, in black they were even more beautiful.

From the top looking down, all those magical numbers and dials – which three years ago would have had me utterly baffled and immensely intimidated – just added to the allure and mystique of the Electro.

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It felt like a proper, old school camera, with a real heft, solid build, and that large 45mm f/1.7 hunk of glass at the front.

Even better, it took amongst my favourite photographs I’ve taken with any film camera, and the rendering and colours produced by the “Color-Yashinon” lens still delight me.

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I chose the Electro 35GTN as my companion for a “one month one camera” project last summer and shot 10 consecutive rolls with it – vastly more than I’ve managed consecutively in any camera since – yielding many gems.

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In The Harsh Light

Yes it was undeniable handsome and made wonderful pictures, but that’s not enough.

In practice the Electro was bulky, heavy and clumsy to carry around and use…

The aperture priority mode is fine – and I would prefer this to the shutter priority of many rangefinders of this era – though the lack of info on the shutter speed the camera is choosing can be frustrating.

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Added to this, the over and under exposure warning lights were helpful to a point, but unfortunately the camera only lets you know if you’re under or over, not if exposure is ok. If you are within the acceptable exposure limits of the camera, it will of course take the photograph, but you have no visual indication.

What I ended up doing was setting the aperture fully open or fully stopped down, half pressing the shutter button to see the under or exposure light come on, then whilst keeping it half pressed, moving the aperture ring up or down until the light went out, which would mean I was confident I would get an acceptable exposure.

This did work, and the camera exposes very well, but I did find it a bit awkward (which the camera’s overall weight and bulk didn’t alleviate) and long winded. It seems to me an obvious oversight to not have included a simple green “OK” light to show you the exposure was within the limits of the camera, in additional to the yellow and red under/over lights.

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Also, the rangefinder wasn’t great, for me. I was able to remove the glass and clean it, which made a significant difference, but I still struggled to focus much of the time. Compared to an SLR, I found it tricky to focus, and it quickly tired my eyes. I couldn’t shoot more than a roll of film without needing to rest my eyes.

These fairly major downsides, meant that for me the Electro 35GTN began gathering dust on my shelf, in preference to cameras that were ultimately easier and more enjoyable to use.

The images the Electro 35s are capable of are quite wonderful, and the colours and textures I love.

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But, as I’ve found time and time again, for the kind of photographer I am, and for the reasons I photograph, the experience of using a camera is more important than the end results.

On the final outcome I’d likely give the Electro a 9/10. But for enjoyment of use it’d struggle to score about 5 or 6.

So, sadly, it had to go.

 

Expired Emulsions – Ferrania Solaris 200

The first post in this Expired Emulsions series introduced some of the reasons why I love using expired film, and how I use it.

One of my favourites is Ferrania Solaris 200 FG Plus.

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When I first got into film photography in mid 2012, my early film purchases were Fuji Superia 200 and 400, bought from a local camera shop. As I read more online, I read a tip off that Poundland here in the UK (discount chain store that sells everything for £1) stocked 35mm film, so off I went to my nearest branch.

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Poundland had fresh AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 36exp rolls in single packs, and the Ferrania Solaris 200 24exp rolls in twin packs with the expiry date suspiciously blacked out.

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I wondered how good a film that was effectively 50p a roll, and obviously expired (hence the doctored packaging) could be, but bought a couple of packs anyway.

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It turned out to be one of my favourite, if not my absolute favourite film I’ve ever used, and I managed to stock up maybe 70 or 80 rolls in the following months from Poundland, before they ran out nationally.

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Although I’ve used it almost as much as any film (AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 aka rebranded Fuji C200 – the other Poundland special – is my most used film), fortunately I still have maybe 30 rolls in my freezer.

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Also fortunately, it seems to hold up as well as it did the day I bought that first batch, and shows none of the sometimes unpleasant traits over-expired film can have like excessive grain and washed out colours.

15309097159_d9c938b7e7_zIn fact it is colour that the Solaris excels at. I’ve always considered it to be a film that works very well with autumn reds and oranges, but looking back through my archives have found it’s equally pleasing with yellows, blues and greens.

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The film is no longer made, though it can still be found knocking around in the usual online places, ie eBay. I’ve also found that some (but not all – Made in Italy is likely Ferrania, Made in USA is likely Kodak) Truprint film (UK photo chain that disappeared from high streets a few years back but remains in business online) is rebranded Ferrania, though I’ve yet to test any out.

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If you get the opportunity to use any Ferrania Solaris 200, I would highly recommend it, especially if it’s not too expired (five years ideally, but worth a risk even if a few years older). For the kind of vivid colours I so love about film, it’s in my view as special as anything I’ve tried, and the day my freezer stocks run dry will be a sad one.

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The Smiling Camera

The Smiling Camera

Not one for endless analysis, poring over the fine detail of tech specs, or pixel peeking, I prefer to judge a camera’s worth (and whether I keep it or not) by my response to two simple questions – 

1. Does it make me smile when I’m using it?

2. Does it make me smile when I see the final photographs?

A Yes to Q1 but not Q2 and it will likely get another chance to see if I can produce some better final images, or just for the pleasure of using it again.

Yes to Q2 but not Q1, and it will likely be on the way out pretty soon. Life’s too short to waste time and film on cameras I don’t love using.

Yes to both questions of course is the holy grail of the photollector.

For me, there are a small group of cameras that have excelled in these areas, including the three above –

Konica C35 EF3 (the only compact camera I have two examples of, and even think about buying a third)

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Canon Sure Shot A1

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Olympus XA

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I plan to use these two simple questions more to weed out the mediocre and the maybes and get my collection down a handful of glistening gems…

How do you judge a camera and whether to keep it or not?

Photollector

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Are you a photographer or a camera collector? 

The definition of each – and, more vitally, hunting for the balance between them – is something I have struggled with in the last few years.

Shooting film is wonderful for many reasons. For me, arguably the greatest of these is simply the joy of using old cameras, with their sensations, sounds and scents. 

Any camera capable of making a picture is a magic black box in my eyes.

Beyond that elevated starting point, some soar (me) even higher into the stratosphere of pleasure and wonder than others, though there are few camera I haven’t liked using in some way or other.

The ready availability of decades of vintage cameras, and usually at pocket money prices, makes them even more irresistible. 

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Indeed the average price I have paid for a working 35mm camera in the last three and a half years of shooting film I would estimate at around £7.

If you focus purely on compacts, then it’s likely under £5. The flourishing ranks of my unofficial “99p Camera Club”, ie any camera I have picked up for 99p, must number in the dozens now, and it was even a working title for this blog.

This overflowing abundance of tiny willing magical machines is also the worst aspect. 

Instead of having, say, one SLR, and one compact, then getting to know them back to front and inside out and squeezing ever better images from them, I rarely shoot two consecutive rolls in the same camera.

I have my favourites I return to time and time again (especially now with SLRs as I’m virtually a Pentax only man), but most of the time with compacts I’m all over the place.

Generally, this doesn’t bother me.

But sometimes I really dislike it, and it feels like I’m feeding a ravenous monster whose stomach has no limit to its capacity for more. 

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Cost is a consideration too.

Whilst cameras are very cheap, ten cameras at £7 each is still £70. Which could pay for the purchase and processing of up to 18 rolls of film.

Imagine shooting 18 rolls of film with just one camera, over, say three months.

How might that alter your relationship with that single camera? How might it improve your photography?

As I write, already I’m thinking of my most likely candidates for such a challenge – Olympus XA, maybe the XA2 or mju I, a Canon Sure Shot like the Tele, or recent acquisition the Sure Shot Classic 120, or maybe one of my adorable little Konica C35 EF3s, which arguably with their 35mm f/2.8 Hexanon lens have made the best pictures of any compact I’ve ever used…

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Last year I did a ten roll one month one camera challenge when I first bought a Yashica Electro 35GTN.

Ultimately, the Electro was too bulky and too fiddly to use for me to keep it. But that intense period did result in some of my favourite photographs of the year (those lenses are stunning).

And I really enjoyed the freedom of simply grabbing the Electro and asking “Which film shall I load this time?” instead of surveying the overspilling boxes in my room and asking “Which of the 25+ cameras shall I pick today, and which film might be best to shoot with?”

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It was (and still is) an excellent example of the “paradox of choice” – the more options we have, the harder it is to pick just one and commit to it.

The flip side of the monogamous photographer argument is that using a range of cameras widens one’s experience and knowledge of photography.

I can certainly say that I learned more about the essentials of photography by reading camera manuals (Canon’s are especially informative, even for humble Sure Shot models) than from any other source.

Also, for every less than amazing camera we use, it helps us appreciate our very favourites all the more.

Right now, for me I think it would be just too hard to give up a range of cameras for just one or two.

Or, maybe I haven’t found that one that is great enough. And so this further fuels the quest for more!

I know ultimately I would really rather be remembered as a decent photographer, than someone who had a lot of cameras.

How about you? Would you like to be considered foremost a camera collector and tester, or a photographer?

How do you find that balance between the two?

Wet Weather Wonder

23576529671_a04c5d3a70_cCanon Sure Shots and me have a pretty good history. I’ve had maybe ten, and all but one have been more than competent, intelligently designed, and fun to use.

I recently wrote about the Canon Sure Shot Classic 120, a camera that despite having a zoom lens, is very impressive in virtually all areas, and has become a favourite of mine.

This post is about the Canon Sure Shot A1, a compact made to be weatherproof and even waterproof, with specific design features to allow easy use underwater.

22981084901_54cc2380a0_cThe overall size is smaller than it looks in pictures, and handling is very good with the rubber grips front and rear and a big red shutter release button on top.

Similar to other later era Sure Shots, the A1 has a mode dial, and my favoured mode (flash off) is a simple two clicks up on the dial. I like that it’s the furthest most setting on the dial, so you can just grab the camera, push the lever up as far as it will go without looking at the front of the camera, and know you’re in the right mode and good to go.

I didn’t worry too much about its other features and modes, this is a camera that’s meant to be very much a point and shoot.

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The viewfinder is excellent, big and bold, and designed apparently to be usable with a diving mask or goggles on so even a few centimetres away from it you can clearly frame the scene.

The info in the VF is minimal, with the usual frame lines, centre section to focus the AutoFocus (and lock if required with a half press of the shutter button), and AF confirm light. If the green light doesn’t come on at all with a half press, then the camera hasn’t found focus and/or the subject is too close.

Speaking of close, the minimum focus is a pleasing 0.45m, closer than most compact AF cameras, and a big plus in my book.

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If the AF light stays green, the camera is focused and ready to shoot. If it blinks rapidly, focus is locked but (in the flash off mode I used it in) the blinking is warning you of camera shake, ie a slow shutter speed will be used, so you can make a decision to either switch to a flash mode, find a composition with more natural light, or just hold very steady and shoot!

Usually cameras have a green light for the AF and a red light for the flash. Once I understood the green light, I found it clever how Canon had eliminated the need for two lights and enhanced the camera’s overall simple, chunky and fun persona.

23658959585_16b3f11b0d_cOn the subject of the AF, it seemed to lock easily enough in use, but in the final images quite a few in my test roll seem a little off in focus. This might be down to it being a cloudy day with the camera using slow shutter speeds, and my hand not being as steady as I thought it was.

The lens is a 32mm f/3.5. My favoured focal length is 35mm, so I was intrigued to see if/how the extra 3mm would make a difference.

It did, marginally, and I was able to get a little more in the frame than usual, without getting into the wide angle compositions (and sometime the edging into distortion) that you get with a 28mm lens or wider.

23576529371_9f92c2f405_cThe lens – or rather the final photographs – were more “lo-fi” than I expected. On the basis of this roll compared with the roll I’ve shot with the Sure Shot Classic 120, I’d say the 120 has the superior lens – surprising, as that’s a zoom compared with the A1’s fixed lens.

I was happy enough with the end images, but if I was more obsessed with sharpness and clarity, there’d be a number of cameras I’d pick up before the A1.

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But to look for this kind of performance is missing the point of the camera.

Even on land it’s very easy and fun to use, and the almost oversized controls (including the refreshingly large VF) in an overall relatively compact package (jacket pocket compact, or hung around your neck with the funky wide strap) make it unique.

Though I didn’t test it underwater (and don’t plan to, I don’t know how well those seals have endured the last couple of decades) I was more than happy to walk around in light rain when I took the shots featured in this post, in a way I wouldn’t with a standard camera, and certainly not an SLR.

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The Sure Shot A1 helped me further clarify what I enjoy most about AF compact cameras, and the functions I value most –

A bright clear viewfinder, flash off control (and an easy way to select this), good handling, close focus (0.45m opens up a whole other world compared with 0.8m, especially with the slighter wider angle 32mm lens) and logical AF.

The A1 ticked all of these boxes for me, and overall remains another Sure (Shot) triumph for Canon in my eyes.

It’s not going to give you bitingly sharp images, but it will likely bring a great deal of enjoyment and a big smile to your face (and to the face of anyone who sees you using it and thinks you’ve borrowed your daughter/ granddaughter/ niece’s toy camera). And that is a huge part of what making photographs is about.

Expired Ambition

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Ferrania Solaris 200 film expiry date unknown

This is the first in a small series of posts about expired film, why I use it, how I use it, how you can use it, and some of my favourite emulsions.

Being a film photographer today means we not only still have a range of fresh film available to us from various sources and at various prices, but we have literally decades’ worth of unused film at our disposal too.

Although film has an expiry date, in my experience as long as you are still within ten years, and certainly within five years, there should be few if any issues with the film being able to produce pleasing results.

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Konica Centuria 400 film expired 2006

Part of the risk of using expired film is also part of the joy.

You could, if the film is too far expired, end up with very grainy, washed out, or even completely blank photographs.

To make the situation more complex, the condition of the film cannot be gauged purely by the “process by” date stamped on the box.

A film might be only a year expired, but if it has been sitting in the glove box of a car in blazing sun for three long summers running, it could well be in worse condition than a roll that’s 15 years expired but has been undisturbed in a freezer all that time.

Fortunately here in the UK, most old film has been simply been neglected at the back of a cool dark drawer, so the chances of it having been regularly roasted are slim. Which gives me the confidence to experiment with expired film within the limits suggested above – up to five and sometimes even ten years outdated.

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Kodak ColorPlus 200 film expired 2010

Some say as a very rough rule of thumb you should overexpose expired film by about one stop for every decade expired.

So ISO200 film that’s ten years old you might shoot as ISO100 for best results.

Personally, as I tend to use around five years expired film, I might shoot ISO200 at ISO125 or ISO100. It makes sense to over, rather than underexpose, as most colour negative (C41) films have great latitude, and are designed to still give good results 2-3 stops overexposed or one stop underexposed.

There’s an interesting post about film, latitude, and how to read it in the DX codes of film canisters on Japan Camera Hunter.

Sometimes if I forget to make any adjustment, or the film is being used in a camera with an auto DX coded system, I simply shoot the expired film at box speed.

With cameras that have manual ISO adjustment, it’s very easy to intentionally overexpose like this when shooting expired film.

The camera only exposes the film at the ISO setting you tell it to. The original (and arguably best) wave of compacts from the early 80s most often have a manual ISO dial to add further reason to shoot with them aside from the usual obligatory sharp and vibrant 35mm f/2.8 lens.

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Kodak HD2 200 film expired 2006

Another way is to use a camera’s exposure compensation controls, if it has them.

Most SLRs have +/- 2 or 3 stops and many decent compacts have a simple +1 or +1.5 exposure compensation setting that can be used. Some later compacts even have +/- 2 or 3 stops like SLRs.

An easy trick also, particularly for ISO200 film (which is the most widely available, and what I shoot far more than ISO100 or ISO400) is to rely on the default setting of auto DX cameras.

Aside from many Pentax cameras, like their Espios which default to ISO25 when the camera can’t read the DX code, the majority of compacts use ISO100 as their base setting. All the Canon SureShots I’ve used default to this, for example. Check the camera’s manual to find out more.

Then, by simply putting a piece of black tape over the DX code of an ISO200 film canister before you load it, the camera won’t be able to read the true speed of the film (ie ISO200) and will default to ISO100, giving you the one stop over exposure you wanted for the expired film. Simple!

So why would you want to shoot expired film, when there’s the risk of getting awful images? 

Because for me, in my experience of shooting dozens or rolls of expired film, the dud rolls I can count on the fingers of one hand. And even those can give rise to some interesting colour shifts and grain –

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Solution VX200 film expired 2011
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Konica Centuria 400 film expired 2006

Also, there’s a wider range of films to try when you’re prepared to reach back into film’s rich history by a decade or so.

Furthermore, expired film can be picked up pretty cheaply if you’re patient, on places like eBay.

I’ve sourced sizeable batches of Solution VX200 and Kodak ColorPlus 200 for example (more on these in the follow up posts) for only around £1-£2 per roll of film maximum. Go into your high street camera shop and a single roll of even the most basic Kodak or Fuji will likely cost £4 or £5 plus.

The final reason for me, is that shooting expired film is just a natural extension of the already somewhat unpredictable and wondrous adventure of using film and film cameras.

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Solution VX200 film expired 2011

With digital, every detail can be precisely controlled and adjusted and edited. With film, it’s much more organic and loose and often magical. Adding another layer of enigma with expired film just enhances the whole experience.

If you haven’t already tried shooting with expired film, give it a try today. I’ll be looking at a few of my own favourite expired emulsions in follow up posts.