Halfway To Heaven – Why I Sold All My Minolta Cameras And Lenses

When I first held my first Minolta – an SR-1s with MC Rokkor-PF 55mm f/1.7 lens – it was as beautiful as any camera I’ve held before or since. 

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Minolta AR-1s, Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 55/1.7 lens

In use too, both lens and camera felt well built, smooth and oozing class.

Its simplicity was as alluring as its handsomeness – no meter, just the pure essentials need to make the photographic experience enjoyable and beautiful from start to finish.

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Minolta SR-1s, Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 55/1.7 lens, Kodak Color Plus 200 expired film

So, as a result, this camera surely remains at the heart of my collection, correct? Er, no. 

After the SR-1s whet my appetite for Minolta, I explored a handful of other lenses. The pinnacle of these was quite probably the big brother of the lens on the SR-1s, a Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4.

This gem remains the most gorgeous lens I have ever owned, and quite likely the most beautiful object I’ve ever owned. 

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Minolta X-700, Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens

Other thoroughly excellent lenses I tried were the very capable and silky smooth MD Rokkor 50/1.4…

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Minolta X-700, Minolta MD Rokkor 50mm f/1.4 lens, Ilford XP2 Super expired film

And the highly impressive MD Zoom 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro, which single handedly made me look at zoom lenses in a whole new light, and led to me using my best zooms as a replacement for a prime.

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

As well as a humble later era MD 50/1.7 that despite its diminutive size, weight and plastic feel, optically held its own against any other Minolta SR mount lens I’ve owned.

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Sony NEX 3N, Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7 lens

So again, surely I’ve kept all these gems too? Er, no. Again. 

Whilst with Minolta I was indeed halfway to heaven, and thought – and still think – many of their lenses are fantastic (and indeed now have a couple of arguably even better vintage Minolta AF lenses for my Sony a100 DSLR), the bodies just didn’t match up.

Yes, the SR-1s was a lovely camera, and for fully manual and meterless film photography it’s as good as anything I’ve used.

But, for 9 out of rolls of film I shoot with an SLR, if not more, I like to use Aperture Priority mode. So I sought out a Minolta body to accommodate this, and settled on the X-700.

The X-700 had the best viewfinder I’ve seen on an SLR, and was breathtaking to look through.

But otherwise,  whilst competent enough, it somehow always felt faceless and unremarkable.

I also tried the X-700’s simpler sibling, the X-300, which I actually liked a lot more.

It took the over complicated and over featured (in my view) X-700, stripped away everything you don’t really need but kept the compact size, big bright viewfinder and of course fantastic range of lenses. It yielded some very pleasing images.

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

So why didn’t I keep the X-300?

The answer is, which one? The first one that lasted a roll and half then seized? Or the second one that was dead on arrival (despite being sold as fully working)? Or that one’s replacement, which lasted a glorious seven shots before also seizing?

My confidence in the reliability of Minolta electronics, and the lack of personality of their bodies anyway made me wonder if I’d ever get to use my beautiful Rokkors on film again. 

In the meantime, the discovery of the divine Contax 139 Quartz which is a whole other world of class to the Minolta equivalents I tried, was the final aperture pin in the coffin.

So I sold my last remaining working Minolta body – that original SR-1s – as it was gathering dust, knowing if I wanted an old school all mechanical experience I had my Asahi Spotmatic F and a wonderful Super-Takumar 55/1.8, amongst other fine M42 lenses.

Ultimately, my Contax story has proved to be almost the opposite of the Minolta one – amazing bodies, the best I’ve used, but somehow disappointing lenses, not so much in the final image, but mostly in feel and pleasure to use.

The epilogue to this tale is that I’ve returned to the best combination of film bodies and lenses I’ve tried – Pentax.

Whether the M42s, like the aforementioned Spotmatic F with a fabulous Takumar 55mm, or K mount, like the later M or A series (my current K body is a Program A) with the excellent, light, smooth and very well built Pentax-M lenses.

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Asahi Spotmatic F, Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens, FujiFilm Superia X-Tra 400 expired film

The moral of the story? 

For me, with my love of the tactile experience of vintage kit, having just one piece of the puzzle – body or lens – was not enough.

A ten out of ten lens with a six out of ten body, or vice versa, is just frustrating, and gets in the way of fully enjoying either.

Whereas eight or nine out of ten for each is a far better balance and experience overall.

Which is your favourite system? Is it because of the lenses, the bodies, or, like Pentax for me, the most satisfying unison of both?

Please let us know in the comments below.

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

Binge, Purge, Repeat – Learning How To Escape The Camera Consumption Spiral

Recently, I had one of those revelations that the way you’re doing something is in fact entirely at odds with your reasons for doing it in the first place.

To elaborate, despite one of the main reasons I love photography being the ability to escape from the day to day and become lost in the moment, I was too often lost in the future instead.

More specifically, the future being which new (new to me, usually at least 30 years old!) camera and lens I would be using next.

So rather than being immersed and enjoying the equipment I’d chosen for that particular photoramble, I was trying to hurry it through, just to get to the next one.

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/1.7 lens

An overwhelming contributing factor was having too many new lenses and cameras I’d bought but not yet tested, and this evolving into an anxiety almost that I must get through them as quickly as possible.

Something needed to change. 

The first step in overcoming a problem, they say, is to acknowledge it.

So here it is – I buy way too much new camera kit and this gets in the way of me enjoying what I have. 

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M42 lenses, January 2017

How it gets in the way

1. Future, not present. The most obvious is what I’ve already mentioned. Whichever camera/lens I’m using, I’m thinking about which one to use next, or even to buy next, not the one I’m currently using. If your eyes are always on the horizon, you’ll never see the beauty at your feet.

2. Buying more kit means more time looking for it. Most often on eBay. I have limited “photography time” overall, as we all do, so time when I’m not able to be out with camera, I’d rather be spending editing photos already taken and communicating here with you, rather than shopping.

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Sony NEX 3N, SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.4 Pentax Mount lens

3. Limiting my total kit means when one comes in, another goes out. Again, usually via eBay, which means spending more time photographing and listing the stuff I’m selling, instead of investing this time in other ways – see point 2 above.

4. Never finding my favourite cameras and lenses. With cameras this is not as bad, and I know the half dozen cameras that form the cornerstones of my kit. With lenses though, I have far more, and seem to seek them out more. Because I’m rarely going on two consecutive shoots with the same lens, I’m not getting to know (m)any of them enough to find my absolute favourites. Which is unsatisfying.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 M42 lens, York Photo 100 expired film

5. Never finding my favourite combos. This is an extension of point 4 above. Simply speaking, even two cameras with two lenses gives you four combinations. Three cameras and three lenses gives you nine different match ups. If you went out on a photoramble even once a week, that’s nine weeks before you’d tried every combo once. Shooting film adds another variable. Three cameras, three lenses, three films equals 27 combos!

A part of me longs for the time when I know which combos give me the most satisfying photographs, and not just yet another “quite good but not spectacular” handful of photographs.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 135mm f/2.8 M42 lens

What I’m doing to stop the spiral

You’d think the first step would be obvious – stop buying. But for this to work for me, I need to know I have a good enough sample/range at my disposal to not be constantly thinking of new possible replacements.

So to get to this point, I’ve had to work backwards a little, and first narrow the parameters.

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Sony NEX 3N, SMC Pentax-M 75-150mm f/4 Pentax K mount lens

Essentially this has come down to limiting three things – cameras, lens mounts, and focal lengths. 

I now have a range of cameras I love.

For film, Asahi Pentax Spotmatic F (M42), Contax 139 Quartz (C/Y mount, but now used exclusively for M42 via adapter), Canon EOS 300V (EF mount, but now also used exclusively for M42), Pentax Program A (Pentax K mount, but also has an M42 adapter), and Minolta Dynax 7000i (Minolta AF mount, plus another M42 adapter. Have you spotted a pattern?!)

On the digital front I have two. Sony a100 DSLR which I use with a couple of Minolta AF lenses (same mount as the Dynax 7000i), plus have an adapter to use M42. Again. Then a Sony NEX 3N with adapters for, you guessed it, M42, plus Pentax K.

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Sony NEX 3N, SMC Pentax 55mm f/2 Pentax K mount lens

You’ll notice now there are only three lens mounts.

Minolta/Sony AF of which I have two lenses, Pentax K which number maybe eight lenses, and M42 which amount to around another 12 lenses.

The choice of these three lens mounts has a specific logic, at least to me. 

M42 – huge range of gorgeous all manual vintage lenses, very affordable, very easy to adapt to a range of cameras.

Pentax K (PK) – smaller but also very capable range of lenses (most of mine are Pentax’s own), very compact, smooth, high build quality lenses with some automation compared with M42.

Minolta/Sony AF – a wide range available, though I only feel the need for two, a 35-70/4 and 50/2.8 Macro, which allow for excellent results, plus far more automation than the mounts above.

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Sony a100, Minolta AF 50mm f/2.8 Macro lens

Finally the third element was focal lengths.

Whilst with compact cameras (a whole other subset outside of this post!) 35mm seems the natural choice, with occasional dips into wider focal lengths like 30, 28 or 24mm, with SLRs 50/55 is my normal, go-to length. Aside from a sole 35mm lens (the wonderful Flektogon 35/2.4) I don’t really get on with anything wider than 50mm.

In recent times though, I have come to greatly love 135mm. In between 50 and 135, I have two or three lenses that are either primes (like the Asahi Takumar 105/2.8) or zooms that bridge part of the gap (like the Minolta AF 35-70mm or SMC Pentax-M 75-150mm).

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Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens, Kodak Color Plus 200 expired film

I can’t see me seeking out anything wider than 50mm in the near future, or anything longer than 135mm (aside from the 150mm long end of that Pentax-M zoom). Or much else in between.

So by restricting myself to these three mounts, and mostly just two focal lengths, it becomes drastically easier to see an end to the binge, purge, repeat cycle of photographic kit consumption this post is all about tackling. 

Minolta AF mount I just tried because the Sony a100 so impressed me with M42 lenses, I was curious about the vintage native mount glass, ie Minolta (before Sony bought them out). The two lenses I have are so remarkable I can’t bear to part with them, though this would simplify my whole system to just the two mounts.

Anyway, I have no plans or temptation to seek out a full arsenal of Minolta AF lenses, not least of all because AF lenses – however capable – only have limited, occasional appeal for me. I just prefer giving my hands more to do when shooting.

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Sony NEX 3N, SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/4 Macro Pentax K mount lens

In both M42 and PK mounts I have too many 50s, and too many 135s.

But what I do know is I have pretty much the best I’m likely to find in both mounts, without spending silly money, and that both mounts offer some of the best lenses ever made, again without getting into vast amounts of money for high end Contax/Zeiss or Leica glass, for example.

So I’m looking forward to something of a new era with my photography. 

One of finding the best of the best 50s and 135s in the mounts I’ve chosen, and then exploring the combos that work best with each of these.

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

I recognise there might come a time when I might want to try an 85 or 90mm or a 28mm again.

But by already having limited my choice of mounts and camera bodies, I can do this in a manageable way, without needing to try out every 28/85/90mm lenses made in any mount ever.

In short, my first port of call would be either an M42 Takumar, an SMC Pentax-M in PK mount, or a Minolta AF, depending on the automation needed, and the camera(s) I planned to use it with most.

Photography, for me, is hugely about escaping and immersing in the moment and the beauty of what you’ve chosen to frame in that little rectangle. When I lose sight of this, I know it’s time to ask a few questions, and get back on track. 

With an ample lashing of logic and a smattering of willpower, I’m confident that in the coming months I’ll be able to do that, and after selling off the last few also rans, have a core kit that offers all I need without spending a penny more.

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

What are your consumption habits with camera kit?

Do you find yourself on similar binge, purge, repeat cycles that get in the way of you just enjoying and connecting with the best kit you already own?

Please share your experiences in the comments below.

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

Speed Myths – Why You Probably Don’t Need That Expensive f/1.4 Lens

Any serious photographer needs at least one 50/1.4 or even 50/1.2 lens in their arsenal. Otherwise, there’s no way you’ll ever be able to create your best pictures, right?

In this post I look into this assumption further, explore some of the pros and cons of fast lenses, and whether we really need them as much as we think, if at all.

Part of my educational background means I love numbers. They fascinate me. So cameras and lenses with their multiple scales of figures are a delight to behold.

Also, lenses as physical objects can be incredibly alluring, especially vintage lenses with all that metal and glass.

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Minolta SR-1s, MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens / Minolta X-700, MD Rokkor 50mm f1.4 lens

Partly because of this, and partly because of the online hype I sometimes succumb to, fast lenses, like the 58/1.4 and 50/1.4 Minolta Rokkors above, seemed essential to me, not only for optimum aesthetic deliciousness on my cameras, but to be able to make the best photographs.

You can’t deny the visual appeal of fast lenses. But the other point, about them being capable of better pictures, I’ve found to be largely, if not entirely, a myth. 

 

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

Take the sample photographs above, taken with a 50mm lens with, gasp, a maximum aperture of just f/2.8.

Because the lens is so slow, its maximum aperture a whole two stops more sluggish than a 50/1.4, the result is obviously going to be terrible.

There’ll be no way to create a shallow depth of field, the subject will likely be blurred because of the low shutter speed needed with such a slow lens, and all in all it will be ghastly and futile.

But hang on, in fact, this is one of my favourite photographs I’ve made in recent times, and probably the best I’ve made from dozens of shots of this gate I’ve taken with dozens of different lenses.

I couldn’t have done it any better with an f/1.4 or indeed an f/1.2 lens.

What about this next image, with the so humble it can’t be worth bothering with Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2?

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 Pentax K mount lens

To get that shallow depth of field, you’d need to wide open or very close to it, which would mean, as everyone knows, the images will be softer than an ice cream in the hands of a toddler on Brighton beach on an August Bank Holiday.

But no, actually, the Rikenon, wide open at f/2 is actually pretty impressive, even if I say so myself, and again this image is one of my favourites.

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

Next up, another candidate slower than a snail with a hangover, the ubiquitous M42 Zeiss Tessar 50/2.8.

Again though, shockingly, the results are pretty good, and there’s little, if anything in the photograph to suggest it was made with such a slow and therefore inferior piece of glass.

With this initial evidence laid out then, here are some of the myths of fast lenses, and why, in my experience, they don’t stack up.

1. You need a fast lens to be able to shoot handheld in low light.

Yes, this is true. If you shoot all the time indoors and/or at night, you’re going to be able to take shots at f/1.4 or f/1.2 that you couldn’t keep the camera steady enough for at, say, f/2. But I rarely shoot indoors, and virtually never at night, because in my experience, colours look best in good daylight, to our own eyes, and to the lenses of our cameras.

So for my style of available daylight shooting, this is a non-issue.

2. You need a fast lens so it’s super sharp two/three/four stops down, where you’ll really take most of your shots.

This is based on the logic that all lenses perform at their best two/three/four stops down. But many lenses, like the humble, plentiful and super affordable Rikenon 50/2 that made the Robin photograph above, are more than usable wide open at f/2.

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Sony NEX 3N, SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/4 Macro Pentax K mount lens

I very recently bought a Pentax-M 50mm f/4 Macro lens, which is stunning sharp, contrasty and colourful at f/4. I could shoot with it virtually all the time wide open and be delighted with the results.

The main reason I stop this lens down one or two stops is to get a larger depth of field at very close distances.

Some lenses are indeed at their very best at, say, f/5.6.

My recent experiment with four 50s showed that my Zeiss Pancolar 50/1.8 is really impressive at f/5.6, But at f/1.8, even f/2.8 it’s a bit of a mess.

Conversely, my Asahi Super-Takumar 55/1.8 is very usable wide open at f/1.8, and brilliant at f/4, when the Pancolar is only just beginning to get its act together. It wouldn’t matter if the Pancolar was f/1.2, if it wasn’t particularly usable until three stops down.

Surely it’s smarter to choose lenses like the Takumar 55/1.8 (or its near identical sibling the 55/2) that might be slightly slower than f/1.4, but perform well from wide open, or close to wide open onwards? 

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Sony NEX 3N, Jupiter-11 135mm f/4 M42 lens

3. You need a fast lens to be able to create beautiful bokeh.

Take a look at any of the images in this post. I think you’ll agree the out of focus backgrounds are far from unpleasant!

If you want shallow depth of field, use a longer lens, and/or compose and focus a bit closer (either with the lens, like the Pentacon Auto 50/1.8s that focus down to 0.33m, or by using an extension tube, close up filter or macro reversing ring).

The image of the magnolia above was taken with a 135/4 Jupiter-11. You don’t need f/1.4, f/2 or even f/2.8 with such a characterful 135mm lens.

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Contax 167MT, Yashica ML 50mm f/2 lens, Fuji Superia 200 expired film

4. You need a fast lens to be able to see and focus properly through the viewfinder. 

With film cameras, where the viewfinder might not be great anyway (for example pretty much every non-pro SLR after about 1984!), then focusing with a 50/2.8 or 135/4 is of course going to be more challenging than with a 50/1.4.

The options on the film front are to use AF lenses, and/or choose cameras with the best possible viewfinders. The best that come to mind from those I’ve had are the Minolta X-700 and X-300, Contax 139 Quartz and many of the Pentax M range, like the ME Super etc. All of these are very usable with f/2.8 and f/3.5 lenses, and super bright with f/2 and faster.

Again it depends on the kind of photography you favour.

With digital, at least with mirrorless cameras like the Sony NEX, the excellent focus peaking feature means less light coming through the lens is all but irrelevant, so a lens like the Jupiter-11 135/4 is just as easy to focus as a 50/1.2 would be.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/2 M42 lens

 

5. You need a fast lens to gain street cred / kudos with other photographers / attract potential future partners. 

As I mentioned at the outset, fast lenses mean bigger glass, and few can deny the appeal visually of these beauties.

But let’s get to the point of why we photograph.

Speaking for myself, I rarely photograph where there are many other people around anyway, and when I do, I try to be discrete. My camera is a tool to make find and capture beautiful compositions with. How it looks to others is largely irrelevant.

If I cared about what others thought about my camera I would have probably sold all my photography, and my car, bought a fancy Leica years ago, and flashed it around at every opportunity.

Creating any photograph that makes you happy is wonderful, but when it’s with kit that is humble and affordable, for me just magnifies the pleasure. 

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Sony a100, Minolta AF 35-70mm f/4 lens

As I think I’ve shown in this post, for my needs, and maybe yours too, a fast expensive lens is unnecessary to create photographs we love, and enjoy making

What are your experiences with fast lenses? What are your favourite slower lenses?

Please let us know in the comments below.

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

Soft Pleasures – Why Lens Sharpness Is Overrated

I confess I’m a sucker for a searingly sharp close up of a flower or decaying texture against a soft dreamy background.

But the sharpness is only part of the appeal.

In truth, it’s the textures of the background that allure me most. 

Here are some of my favourite photographs where sharpness was not paramount – or in some cases barely in evidence at all.

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Sony NEX 3N, Tamron 35-70mm f/3.5 Macro BBAR MC (17A), LightRoom preset

The Tamron 35-70/3.5 creates surprisingly painterly bokeh, whilst hinting just enough sharpness of definition to counterbalance it.

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Yashica FX-3, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Flektogon 35mm f/2.4 M42 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

The Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35/2.4 is one of the sharpest, if not the sharpest lens I have ever experienced. But sometimes its not needed, and the bokeh it produces takes centre stage.

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Minolta 7000, Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7 lens, Jessops Diamond Everyday 200 expired film

The sharpness of the Minolta AF is close to redundant here, with the disappearing wire mesh becoming the central subject.

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

As I recently talked about, one of the great appeals of the Pentacon 50/1.8 is that stopped down it can be very sharp, but at larger apertures its increasing softness can be highly endearing. Especially with this much sunlight streaming through.

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Contax 137MA, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia Reala 100 expired film

Up close the central stalks are pretty sharp – and the ML 50/1.7 is an excellent performer. But they’re overcome by the background. I couldn’t resist all those dewdrops one early sunny morning.

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Pentax PC-330 with 26mm lens, Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film

This cheap flimsy pocketable Pentax is plastic even down to the lens, and could never be described as anything approaching razor sharp. But its vignetting and flare created the kind of image that would have come out very bland with a high quality lens on an SLR.

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Minolta X-700, MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens, Fuji Superia 100 expired film

This must have been shot close to wide open with the large fast 58/1.4 Minolta, as nothing is sharp, just varying degrees of dissolving light.

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Contax 167MT, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7 lens, Truprint FG+ 200 expired film

The Yashica ML here produced the kind of swirl a Helios 44-2 would have been proud of.

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Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 film

Along with its Zeiss stablemate the Flektogon 35/2.4, the Pancolar 50/1.8 is as sharp as anything I’ve used. But here that wasn’t required, instead its background rendering was put to use.

Looking back through the last year or so of my photographs to write this post has been a great reality check, and amusing to see how many images I make that don’t need any kind of sharpness from the lens.

And yet I’ve spent so much time chasing the most sharp, precise lens I could, especially in the 50mm focal length. What was I thinking?

Soft is the new sharp!

How highly do you value the sharpness of your lens(es)? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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