Machine Code (Tiny Notes For Better Photographs)

Part of the enjoyment of film photography these days is the range of cameras available at ridiculously cheap prices. It truly is a golden age for the vintage camera lover.

The downside of owning and using a number of cameras is you never get to deeply know and understand each machine, and how to get the best from it.

Because of this I’ve started making a small sticker for certain compact cameras with three simple items of “machine code”, to give me a better chance of eking out the most pleasing images with it.

Here’s an example of what the machine code notes look like – 

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I use my knowledge and experience of the Sunny 16 rule to aid with this approach too, in the same way I use it to shoot without a lightmeter in fully manual cameras.

The three codes, what they mean, and how they help, are as follows –

A is for Aperture

The numbers noted are the max and min aperture the camera is capable of. On SLRs and the like, obviously this is stated on the lens, so this system is mostly for compact cameras with Auto Exposure (AE), where the aperture range isn’t visible.

Knowing the max aperture is helpful in lower light. Some cameras have a low light or flash warning light come on to aid with this.

Knowing the min aperture is helpful on bright days, especially with faster film. The info is more useful in conjunction with the next note.

S is for Shutter Speed

The shutter speed range of the camera. As with aperture, this is useful to know in low light and bright situations especially.

If the camera has a max aperture of f/2.8 and max shutter speed of 1/2s, then you know you can shoot in really low light and still get a properly exposed image. If it’s f/5.6 and 1/125s, then you’re far more limited.

On the flipside, if you know a camera has a min shutter speed of say 1/45s, then you can confidently shoot without really worrying about camera shake – it can never go below that minimum shutter speed. As long as the light is sufficient for the exposure.

On the other end of the scale, if the max shutter speed is say 1/125s, and the max aperture is f/8, you need to be careful when shooting fast film, say ISO400 or ISO800 film on a bright day, as the camera is likely to max out and overexpose.

For these reasons you might think twice about taking certain cameras out on very bright or very dull days, and save them for when conditions where they’re more likely to perform well.

MF is for Minimum Focus

This is the minimum focusing distance of the camera. Many of the cameras I’m using this system for are Auto Focus (AF), and whilst some have a visual warning when the camera can’t focus (usually a rapidly flashing green light, rather than a steadily fixed one), many don’t.

If you think the camera is focusing correctly when you’re shooting at around 0.5m say, but it turns out it isn’t because it can’t and you forgot its minimum focus was only 1m, it can result in a very frustrating roll of blurred images.

With fixed focus cameras, it’s also useful, for similar reasons – you’re not likely to get sharp results trying to focus on something 0.5m away, if the recommended min focus is 1.5m.

With the best equipped cameras, these notes are less useful.

These cameras have a wide enough range of apertures and shutter speed to cope with virtually all lighting conditions – they were specifically designed that way. Plus they have a very close min focus and a visible warning when you’ve gone closer and the camera can’t focus.

An excellent example is my Nikon AF3, which is fast becoming my favourite AF compact. It pretty much does everything you want, and in a logical, cooperative way.

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Sometimes though, logical and cooperative can get a little repetitive and dull.

 

With more limited cameras, the challenge is greater to get a keeper of a photograph, but often the fun and enjoyment is greater too.

Creating a memorable image with a cheap hunk of plastic can be far more rewarding than doing the same with a sophisticated SLR with a stunning lens and foolproof metering.

On to how these machine codes work for me in practice.

Here are three examples of cameras with these notes, and how they specifically help in each case.

Fuji DL-300

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This Fuji is one of the best equipped of the classic 35/2.8 compacts I’ve used, and the machine codes reflect that. It’s not dissimilar to the Nikon AF3 in spec.

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The aperture range is wide, as are the shutter speeds. With ISO400 film on a sunny day, f/11 and 1/500s would be required, and with f/14 and 1/330s the DL-300 is close enough for accurate exposures.

On a very overcast day where you might need f/2.8 and 1/500s the Fuji has even more latitude, with the minimum shutter speed of 1/4s being some seven stops over this. You could virtually shoot in the dark!

The camera has a built in flash, and thankfully a button to switch it off. So you would assume that with the flash off, in dark conditions the Fuji would default to f/2.8 and use the required shutter speed.

The MF code in this case is of less use, as the Fuji also, like the best equipped AF cameras, flashes the AF confirm light when it can’t focus. You just focus a little farther away and try again until the focus light stays lit, then you know focus is locked.

Halina Junior G

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The Junior J is very basic, very plasticky, has a fixed shutter speed of 1/100s and a fixed focus lens. It reminds me very much of a 35mm version of the Holga 120. This is a good thing!

Surprisingly the Halina does have a range of apertures, albeit limited to three.

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From knowing the shutter speed was 1/100s, and noting the handy weather symbols on the barrel of the G, I calculated the apertures to be f/8, f/11 and f/16, and internet knowledge confirmed this.

With ISO100 film on a sunny day, you might likely use f/11 and then point and shoot.

With that aperture, the lens should be sharper and give a larger depth of field than using f/8. You could even push to f/16 if you wanted even more depth of field, which would of course also be forgiving with the fixed focus lens.

As I found with my AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 experiment, most consumer films with their -1/+3 latitude still give respectable pictures within this range.

Most fixed focus plastic compacts like this have a “sweet spot” around 3m, and greater depth of field obviously means more either side of this sweet spot is in reasonably sharp focus. Hence my “1m?” Min Focus – at f/16 objects at 1m would likely be fairly well in focus.

On a heavily overcast day, where according to the Sunny 11 rule you might need f/4, you might think the Halina is useless with its maximum f/8 aperture.

But with ISO400 film, you’d still be in a usable range.

If at 1/500s you need f/4, remember the fixed shutter speed of the Junior G is 1/100s, approximately two stops slower. In other words, with your shutter speed two stops slower, you can have an aperture two stops smaller, and get the same exposure.

So with the Halina, and ISO400 film, f/8 and 1/100s in overcast weather should still yield usable photographs.

I, or you, could of course write out all these permutations, but really you only need the simple machine codes and a knowledge of Sunny 11 (or write that out on a small card like I used to have) and even with such a simple camera, if you intelligently use ISO100, 200 and 400 (and even 800) film you have quite a wide range of situations in which to shoot usable images.

Pentax PC-330

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An even more basic camera which might not have much appeal to many with its fixed focus, fixed aperture and fixed shutter speed.

But the little Pentax has, in my view, two trump cards.

First its super large and bright viewfinder. The only compact camera with as big a VF is my Minolta AF50 Big Finder. Hence its name.

Every time I hold the PC-330 up to my eye I smile – you almost forget you’re looking through a VF. One go with one of these and you’ll probably never return to the horribly pokey dark tunnels that pass as viewfinders on virtually every zoom compact made after 1985.

Its second ace is the width of its lens.

At 26mm (or 25mm, according to the manual!) you have not only the ability to fit much more in the frame, but a vastly greater depth of field than with, say a 35mm lens.

According to the very useful DOF Master site, with a 26mm lens, with your subject 3m away (I’m assuming the fixed focus of the Pentax is approximately 3m), and at f/6.3 (the fixed aperture of this camera), everything between 1.63m and 18.5m will be in focus! With this range, who needs AF?

With a 35mm lens in the same situation, the depth of field would only be 2.05m to 5.57m. Still very usable if you’re careful, but nothing like the vast DOF you get with that little 26mm lens.

Aside – I also have a Superheadz Olive San which takes these to even greater levels. Its f/11 fixed aperture and insanely wide 22mm lens mean using the same 3m focus point, everything between 0.97m and infinity is in focus! The manual suggests the focus range is 1.2m to infinity, so reverse engineering these figures on DOF Master, the “sweet spot” of the lens is around 7m, for those who have one, or are thinking of getting one. Again, it pretty much eliminates the need for AF entirely.

Back to the Pentax PC-330, and the machine codes look like this – 

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I can use similar calculations as with the Halina, then choose the best film depending on the conditions to get the best from the camera. The Pentax has a slightly faster lens – f/6.3 to the Halina’s maximum f/8 – so can be used in slightly darker conditions.

You could feel confident using the PC-330 with ISO400 film on a sunny, hazy sunny or partially overcast day.

I would always rather over expose than under (remember the latitude of -1/+3 of most consumer films) so even on a bright sunny f/11 day, with ISO400 film and base settings of f/11 and 1/500s, you’re only going to be about three stops over exposing  with the Pentax and its fixed f/6.3 and 1/100s settings. Modern consumer film should absorb that over exposure in its stride.

I would likely hedge my bets and use ISO200 film with the PC-330, knowing that the relying on the film’s latitude I’d be fine in conditions from bright sun to fairly overcast, and have a camera that keeps everything from around 1.5m to 18m in focus.

Hopefully these real life examples have helped explain this system better and how it helps.

If you took a very capable camera like the Fuji DL-300, loaded some ISO100 film and went out in any conditions from the brightest sun to dusk you’d get usable results.

Do the same with the Pentax PC-330 though say, and you’d likely be ok at the sunny end, but when the light was poor the film would be underexposed and you’d likely have a roll of horribly grainy and near unusable images.

On the opposite side of this though, with simpler cameras with fixed aperture, shutter speed and focus, you ironically have more control.

You know that on a reasonably bright day, if you point the Pentax PC-330 at a person slowly walking by about 5m away and press the shutter button, the depth of field will be enough to mean they’re in focus, and the 1/100s shutter speed should freeze their motion on film.

In the same situation with a more sophisticated AF, AE (Auto Exposure) camera, you don’t know a) if the AF will lock on the right person quickly enough, and b) if the camera will choose a fast enough shutter speed to freeze their motion.

If the camera chooses a large aperture and fast shutter speed, you’ll have the motion captured but lose depth of field, meaning any focus errors will be further exaggerated.

If the camera’s AE goes the other way and chooses a small aperture for maximum depth of field, the shutter speed might be 1/30s say and your subject will be a ghostly blur.

With most AF, AE cameras you don’t really know what it’s doing until you see the final photograph.

Plenty of food for thought in how simple and uncontrollable these basic cameras are, or are not, compared with AF, AE cameras after all.

A final tip on where to find the three details you need for these machine codes, if you want to try something similar yourself.

There are essentially two sources – the camera’s manual, or a review on a website.

Quite often you’ll be fortunate to get a manual with the camera, but if not, Mike Butkus is an amazing resource.

Almost as valuable is Derry Bryson, though all of his manuals seem to use the US name of the cameras, so if you don’t have the same US version of the camera (like me in the UK where the Olympus Mju range is not known as Stylus, and the Pentax zoom range is called Espio, not IQZoom) you’ll need to do a bit of research first to find out your camera’s equivalent.

In some cases, the manufacturer’s own websites still have the basic specs you need. 

The Canon Camera Museum is excellent (there were no shortage of very capable and fun to use Sure Shots in the 80s), and the archives of Olympus and Nikon still have much usable info. Ricoh Japan also has a substantial history of their compacts (just have Google Translate switched on automatically, unless you’re fluent in Japanese).

As I said at the beginning of this post, you could just pick up one of the classic 35/2.8 80s compacts like a Nikon AF3, Canon MC, Ricoh TF-900, Minolta AF-S or similar and get great shots in almost all situations. 

But if you like a bit more of a challenge, and to keep alive that wonder of how a tiny plastic box with the most minimal of moving parts (and often no batteries!) can still produce memorable images, then these machine codes should help you towards making the best photographs you can.

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

The Crazed King Of Camera Straps

Is it just me who’s driven crazy by camera straps?

Once you have more than three or four cameras (and which film photography enthusiast doesn’t?), you want two things –

  1. A strap on each camera you use, so it’s comfortable to hold and wear, and more importantly so you don’t drop it.
  2. A neat and convenient place to keep your cameras so any one can be chosen to go and shoot some film with at a moment’s notice.

The trouble is, when you have condition number one above met, number two goes out the window. 

Even a mere couple of bestrapped SLRs on a shelf seem to become very easily entwined, ironically increasing the likelihood of dropping and breaking one.

Have you ever picked up one camera assuming it was unattached only to have two or three others leap from the shelf or box a fraction of a second later and hurl themselves headlong into your elbow/ chest/ face/ the floor or a combination of the above?

I knew I wasn’t the only one!

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Contax 139 Quartz, Flektogon 35/2.4 lens, leather quick release strap by 595strapco

With compact cameras it’s usually slightly better as many have short wrist straps, decreasing the possibilities of entanglement. 

But just as many have ridiculously long straps that when around your neck mean the camera dangles too low and bounces on and off your, well, privacy area, as you try to walk.

Or am I just a foot shorter than the average camera strap designer?

The obvious solution for both SLRs with neck/chest straps and compacts with wrist straps seems to be to just find one strap you love and then just use that on whichever particular camera you’re taking out each time.

Your cameras can sit happily separate on a shelf or in a box and be easily selected without the aforementioned lemming like leaping and resultant injury/ damage/ swearing.

But this is where SLR straps drive me even more crazy! 

Those tight, tiny metal rings that are so fiddly to remove from one camera and add to another, you lose the will to load a film after you’ve finally reattached them, ten minutes and half a dozen ragged fingernails later.

Compacts can be even worse, with multiple buckles and rubber padded sections needing to be navigated and woven in and out like some entry exam to the Guild of Professional Knotters.

So, after some years or frustration, I’ve finally found a simple and elegant solution for both SLRs and compacts. 

With SLRs, I liked the idea of a somewhat vintage looking leather strap. I came across 595strapco on Etsy, run by a very friendly chap called Dave Young, and soon bought a beautiful 42cm tan leather strap.

It was lovely, but if I wanted to use it on a different camera I had that same torture by tiny ring removal to endure. 

I got in touch with him again and found he also sells straps with a quick release clip at either end. I quickly ordered one.

It’s brilliant, and now as long as each SLR has a little ring already attached to each lug, I just clip the strap on in a couple of seconds. Now it’s the one and only SLR strap I ever need.

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Contax 139 Quartz, leather quick release strap by 595strapco

Plus I can have half a dozen SLRs cosied up on a shelf without any kind of surly strap stroppery, on my part, or theirs.

Inspired, I turned my attention to compacts.

Unlike SLRs, which virtually all have similar lugs, compacts vary greatly in their strap attachments.

Some do have a simple lug and ring like an SLR, some have a kind of plastic channel on the side through which a strap needs to be threaded, some have a plastic lug too thick to clip anything too, and so on.

But what virtually all my compacts do have in common is a tripod socket. 

I figured there must be simple screws that go into these for various tripods, and quickly found on eBay some very simple tripod thread mount screws with a D-ring that folds down flat.

Being ever the cheapskate, I found some that cost a mere £2.35 for a pair.

The D-ring can be used to hold as you screw in, eliminating the need for any tools. And of course the ring can easily be clipped on to.

All I needed now was one of my favourite compact camera straps (the short type, not the dangly droopy ones) and to attach it to the D-ring.

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Yashica Minitec AF, tripod D-Ring plus woven wrist strap

After I did this, I remembered I had an old leather strap that had come with the case of my 1956 Soviet Kiev-2A.

So a quick modification later, I had a vintage 60 year old leather hand strap for my compacts too.

The next step is to remove all straps from all the compacts I have (maybe a dozen) and use just one of the two new hand straps I’ve made.

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Nikon AF3, tripod D-Ring plus vintage Kiev-2A leather strap

Because the straps rely purely on the tripod thread, they’re just as quick to attach and reattach than my SLR quick release strap, taking literally about three seconds to unscrew. 

An added bonus with a strap mounted like this is it’s on the bottom of the camera, and when you’re holding the camera ready to shoot, the straps drops out of the way.

A number of cameras I’ve used have the straps attached on the right of the camera, getting in the way of holding it as you try to compose.

This solution has even got me re-enthused about my little Yashica Electro 35MC which I had considerable trouble using because it only had a strap lug on the left which for me made it ergonomically awful to use.

It’s such a tiny camera I didn’t want to use it without a strap at all for fear of dropping it. So the leather strap in the tripod mount is now ideal.

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Yashica Electro 35MC, tripod D-Ring plus vintage Kiev-2A leather strap

As I said, is it just me who’s driven crazy by camera straps?

Wait, I need to correct that. WAS it only me who was driven crazy by camera straps? 

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

New Experimental Vistas – Exposure Bracketing

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Contax 167MT, Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 @ISO200

With a typical ISO200 colour negative film, you’ll only get worthwhile results if you expose it perfectly at box speed, correct?

I decided to test this theory with a recent experiment.

The film I chose was AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200. This film is rebranded Fuji C200, their cheapest film, which I prefer to the more expensive Superia 200. It’s also available under other guises, like TudorColor XLX200.

The reason I chose Vista Plus 200 is it’s the cheapest and most widely available film for me.

I have three Poundland stores within about 15 miles, and all sell Vista Plus for £1 a roll. Combining this with processing in my local Asda – which I do four rolls at a time for £12.50 to develop and scan to CD – makes film photography affordable.

Buying the film, shooting it, then having it processed and scanned like this works out at £4.13 a roll.

Fortunately, Vista Plus 200 is a very forgiving film and very respectable results (in my eyes) can be gained.

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Contax 167MT, Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 @ISO200

For this specific experimental roll I had two main aims. 

First, to shoot the same composition at box speed (ISO200), one stop over (ISO100) and one stop under (ISO400), to see what the differences were in the final image.

Part of the reason for this is that I’ve not found an ISO400 colour film I like very much.

In lower light, and with compact cameras with autoexposure, in theory a faster film will encourage the camera to use a smaller aperture an therefore produce sharper images with a greater depth of field.

At the other end, shooting at ISO100 should force such cameras to use a larger aperture, and increase depth of field, when that was required.

Of course this is only relevant for cameras with some kind of manual ISO control. For auto DX coding cameras, they’ll always shoot a standard roll of DX coded film as box speed, unless they have some kind of exposure compensation control, like some of the excellent late Pentax Espios for example.

The second, slightly lesser, aim of this experiment was to see how Vista Plus looks in black and white.

The motivation is again cost. Even cheap b/w film like Fomapan is still around £3.50 – £4 a roll, and processing is the best part of £10 per roll. A total of £13+ per film makes it too expensive for me, especially when shooting and processing the Vista Plus is a third of the cost.

Yes, I could just shoot one third as many rolls as I do, for the same overall spend, but I currently love shooting film too much to cut down that drastically!

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Contax 167MT, Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 @ISO400, desaturated to b/w

For this venture I turned to my trusty Contax 167MT.

The MT is a fierce yet beautiful picture taking machine, with reliable exposures, continuous shooting and auto bracketing.

I set the camera to shoot at +1, 0, -1, ie one stop over exposed, box speed, and one stop under exposed. The lens was an M42 mount Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35mm f/2.4, via an M42 > C/Y adapter, a recent lens purchase that I know is capable of beautiful images.

The results were interesting.

What I did first was go through the scans and pick my favourite of the three shots for each composition. This has little scientific basis, it was simply the photograph I was most pleased with the look of.

Of my eight favourites (24 exposure roll / 3 shots per composition), five were at ISO100, one stop overexposed, two were at box speed, ISO200, and only one was at ISO400, one stop underexposed.

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Contax 167MT, Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 @ISO100

What can I take from this experiment?

A few things.

First, that Vista Plus looks more than acceptable shot a stop either side of box speed.

This is no shock, as according to the DX code on the canister, its exposure latitude is +3/-1. It’s a great film to use when shooting without a light meter at all.

In practice this means I can shoot Vista Plus all year round.

In the summer I can shoot at ISO100, when the top shutter speed of a camera might otherwise max out. In winter, at ISO400, so as to be able to shoot handheld at 1/15s, when 1/8s at ISO200 would probably, and 1/4s at ISO100 most definitely, result in camera shake.

Second, the look of Vista Plus at ISO400 is comparable to, and in most cases better than any colour negative ISO400 film I’ve used.

As with native ISO400 film, shooting Vista Plus at ISO400 results in a little more grain and more muted colours. So there’s no need to buy this more expensive film when I can use Vista Plus.

Third, I have more creative control over the look of the photographs, all with one film. 

If I want the most saturated colours, shoot at ISO100.

For more subdued colours and more visible grain, rate the film at ISO400.

Anything in between, just shoot at box speed, ISO200.

Fourth, desaturated to black and white, Vista Plus makes an more than usable alternative to “proper” b/w film. 

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Contax 167MT, Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 @ISO200, desaturated to b/w

The last half a dozen rolls of b/w film I’ve used have been CN films – Ilford XP2 Super, Kodak BW400CN and Fuji Neopan 400CN. All of these can be processed as C41 colour film, but they tend to cost £4-6 per roll to purchase, more than the cheapest proper b/w film like Fomapan.

The b/w shots I’ve shared in this post are simply colour ones that I’ve desaturated.

They were not originally intended as b/w shots, so the compositions, contrasts and textures aren’t necessarily what I’d choose if I was shooting b/w.

Hopefully though you will get some indication how Vista Plus looks as b/w, and make your judgement on whether it’s something you like.

At some point I will shoot a whole roll as if I was shooting b/w and see how that goes.

The next experiment.

I plan to repeat this experiment with my Contax 167MT shooting at +1, 0, -1 exposure again, but this time starting with ISO100 as the base value.

So in effect I’ll be shooting ISO50, ISO100 and ISO200. As I mentioned, Vista Plus has a latitude of +3/-1 so this should present no problems, I’m just curious to see how ISO50 comes out compared with ISO100 and ISO200.

Maybe I’ll even try another roll beginning with ISO50, so I get ISO25, ISO50 and ISO100 results. Again this is within the film’s published tolerance, I’m just intrigued at how it behaves as it’s further over exposed.

Finally, a few samples from the roll next to each other so you can see a direct comparison, and draw your own conclusions. 

Above three shots – Contax 167MT, Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 shot at, from top to bottom, ISO100, ISO200, ISO400.

Above three shots – Contax 167MT, Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35/2.4, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 shot at, from top to bottom, ISO100, ISO200, ISO400.

Have you experimented with shooting with different exposure settings on the same roll of film?

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