High-tech meets low-tech

Last week I was given some bits and bobs from a scientific darkroom that shut down at the university once the researchers had converted to a fully digital workflow. One of the items was a box of Kodak Electron Microscopy film (SO-163, if anyone is interested).

The film comes in the unusual size of 3¼×4″, which apparently is standard for electron microscopes. That sounds very close to the quarter-plate format which is nominally 3¼×4¼”. I was delighted to find that the film fits exactly into the holders used in my Lancaster Instantograph, dating from the 1880s or 1890s. This means I now have a supply of film that fits this camera natively, rather than having to cut down 5×4″ film in the dark with a guillotine. What could possibly go wrong?

Lancaster Instantograph

Lancaster Instantograph

This Electron Microscopy film is designed to be exposed by a beam of electrons, not by visible light. I could tell it would be at least somewhat sensitive to light by the fact that the box says only to open the film in the darkroom, and to use a red safelight. This implies that the film is sensitive to blue light only, i.e. it is orthochromatic.

As the film is not intended for use with visible light, no information is available about its sensitivity (film speed). I did some boring exposure tests in my living room, starting with the assumption that it was ISO 25. This produced a slightly underexposed image, so I tried again at ISO 12 and got a good exposure.

The Instantograph has a fixed lens which is a 5″ single achromat. It has a focal length of 127mm and boasts two uncoated elements and an aperture that varies between f/10 and f/30.It lacks a shutter, so exposure is controlled by removing the lens cap. Pretty high tech stuff for its day, back when Queen Victoria was on the throne.

This frame was exposed at ISO 12 for 8 seconds. Aperture was wide open at f/10.

My living room

My living room

I developed in Ilford PQ Universal for 2 minutes. This does seem quite a short development time but the density of the negative is good, the grain is fine and the contrast is strong. Given that this is a very old lens shot wide open, the sharpness goes right into the corners and there is hardly light fall-off. PQ is know for its high contrast, so in future I will try other developers such as ID-11.

Having established ISO 12 as a reasonable starting point, I ventured out onto Troopers Hill and exposed two frames there, too. The light was much brighter so this frame was exposed for a mere 2 seconds with the aperture fully stopped down to f/30. I must have bumped the camera when removing or replacing the lens cap, because this image is a bit unsharp.

Troopers Hill

Troopers Hill

Even so, it is obvious that this is an excellent lens–not only for its day, but still outperforming many inexpensive SLR lenses made a hundred years after it. It would definitely blow any smartphone camera out of the water. It is probably the case that the film’s lack of sensitivity to red light means that the visible effects of chromatic aberration are reduced.

The Canon A family

I didn’t mean to be a collector – I really didn’t. I was given a Canon AE-1 Program by my uncle in 2009 and I started using it. I loved it and I fell firmly into film photography with both feet. I’ve bought various cameras since but I have always had a rule that I would only buy a camera if it did something that a previous camera couldn’t.

Canon AE-1 Program

Canon AE-1 Program

So here’s the story of my descent, starting with a couple of FD-mount SLRs that do not belong to the A-series.

After I’d built up a collection of FD lenses for my AE-1 Program I decided to buy a Canon FTb in 2011, because it was fully mechanical and requires no batteries to work. Mirror lock-up doesn’t require any power at all, so it is ideal for long exposures in astronomy.

Canon FTb

Canon FTb

In 2012 I bought a Canon T90 to make use of its more advanced metering possibilities and high speed motor drive, while retaining compatibility with FD lenses (unlike the newer EOS system which uses incompatible EF lenses).

Canon T90

Canon T90

In 2013 I bought a Canon A-1 because it is a highly regarded camera, and unlike most of Canon’s A-series SLRs, it could do aperture priority as well as shutter priority. It’s regarded as the best of the A-series, so why wouldn’t I want one?

Canon A-1

Canon A-1

By now, I was well-invested in the FD system and had a soft spot for the A-series. I wasn’t going to buy any more, because none of them offered any extra features that I didn’t already have. (Although I did pick up a Pellix QL for its stationary mirror and an EXEE because it has a bizarre lens system).

Then in 2014 I was offered an AE-1 and a AV-1 for the cost of the postage. It broke my rule about adding new functionality, but I couldn’t refuse. Somehow, I’d ended up with 4 out of the 6 A-series cameras. Now I wanted to complete my collection.

The AT-1 seems to be a fairly uninteresting camera – basically a budget AE-1 with half the features taken out. I wasn’t especially fussed by it, but I managed to find one for £6. Just one camera left.

The AL-1 however is Canon’s first dip of the toe into the autofocus world. It featured focus confirmation rather than autofocus, but the same technology later found its way into the T80, which was Canon’s first autofocus SLR. For that reason it’s an interesting camera – and it has a pretty mirror. Unlike the rest of the A-series, the AL-1 runs from AAA batteries but the battery door is notoriously unreliable. Like many examples, my AL-1 is broken and has to be used with an autowinder to keep the batteries in place.

Let’s have a quick look at the A-series and compare the specs.

AE-1 AT-1 A-1 AV-1 AE-1 P AL-1
Release year 1976 1976 1978 1979 1981 1982
Manual exposure
Auto exposure  ✓  ✓
Aperture priority
Shutter priority  ✓  ✓
Program exposure
Focus confirmation

And finally, here’s a portrait of the whole family.

Canon A-series

Canon A-series

From left to right, back row first:

  • Canon AL-1 with New FD 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 and autowinder
  • Canon A-1 with New FD 50mm f/1.4 and autowinder
  • Canon AE-1 Program with New FD 50mm f/1.8 and autowinder
  • Canon AT-1 with New FD 135mm f/3.5
  • Canon AE-1 with New FD 24mm f/2.8
  • Canon AV-1 with New FD 35mm f/2.8

Camping in Cornwall

Last week, Hannah and I camped in Cornwall for a few days. The highlights of the break were a trip to the Eden Project, and a beach day spent at Bude. Hannah enjoyed sunbathing and reading while I preferred to take a walk away from the sandy beach, past the harbour and towards the rockier coast. These are the best of the photos.

Tour of Britain – Stage 5 in Crediton

Having seen the end of Stage 4 in Bristol, we headed down to Hannah’s hometown of Crediton where an intermediate sprint on Stage 5 was being held on the high street.

Photography was seriously difficult here, because the crowds were thick and due to the downhill sprint, the cyclists were probably doing about 50mph. I just pointed my camera across the sprint line and held the button down. The speed of the cyclists is clear, but I managed to capture Matthias Brändle crossing the line first. He went on to win the stage in Exeter.

Metthias Brandle

Metthias Brandle

The only other photo worth publishing was of the official sprint line photographer using an iPad to capture the action in case it was necessary to check the photo finish to award points. I kid you not!

Photo finish

Photo finish

And my final comment is a shout out to the little boy in this photo. He and his younger brother were both there at the sprint line with their dad, both wearing Team Sky jerseys and really excited to see the Tour pass. Clearly dedicated fans from a young age, and this is exactly the kind of enthusiasm we need to boost cycling in the UK.

Tour of Britain – Stage 4 in Bristol

Stage 4 of the 2014 Tour of Britain finished on the Downs in Bristol today. Hannah and I went along to support, and got a spot about 300m from the end, by Sea Walls. We were on the outside of the bend on Circular Road so we’d get a good view.

I won’t bore you with too many photos of men riding bicycles, but a particular highlight was when Bernhard Eisel passed quite slowly, rolling into the finish with another rider. Hannah cheered for Team Sky so loudly that he heard, nodded, and threw over his water bottle as a souvenir. I caught it, but unfortunately another spectator snatched it and ran. Pfft, I didn’t want a slobbery water bottle anyway.

Unfortunately I can’t identify most of the riders here because they wear their numbers on their lower back, and underneath the saddle on their bike. When they’re riding straight towards you, it could be anyone!

Trial and error

The other day I posted some pictures I’d taken in Sherborne Abbey. They were shot on black & white film, scanned and edited digitally. I had envisaged a pale blue tone to emphasise the coolness of the stone building. At the time, I found the blue look I wanted digitally.

Choir

Choir

With that image in mind, I did some toner tests using Fotospeed BT20 iron blue toner. I found it quite hard to tame at first and I made a lot of small test prints until I got more-or-less the look I wanted after diluting it 1+2.

Test prints

Test prints

  • Test 12 is probably the best, but I’m still not quite happy with the shade. It’s too turquoise.
  • Test 5 has nice shadows but is too blue.
  • Test 3 is an interesting effect and one I might use again.
  • Test 9 is also an interesting effect, which definitely gives the impression of light

More experimentation is definitely needed, but I fear the look I wasn’t isn’t attainable with this blue toner. It has been recommended to me to use gold toner (which comes out blue) but that is quite expensive – about £60 per litre.

Victorian selfie

I had a brainwave about a better way of using my 1890s Lancaster Instantograph. It has no shutter so only very slow films can be used. Until now, I’ve been using paper negatives which are very slow, but can’t be enlarged – only contact-printed.

I remembered I had a box of Kodalith 5×4″ lith film which expired before I was born. Long-expired film loses its sensitivity and contrast, so I wondered if this film was now insensitive enough to be used without a shutter. I did a few brief tests and found that it can be exposed quite nicely at ISO 25, and that it develops well in paper developer. Lith film usually produces a hard black-and-white (not greyscale) image, but as this Kodalith is so old, it seems less aggressive.

I’ve invented the perfect recipe for a Victorian-style split sepia selfie – just 37 simple steps.

  1. Go into the darkroom. Switch off the light and work under red safelight.
  2. Use scissors to cut 5×4″ lith film down to 4¼×3¼” quarter-plate format
  3. Load cut film into film holder
  4. Emerge from the darkroom.
  5. Using a dark-cloth, position, adjust and focus the camera on its tripod using a large mirror. You won’t be able to hold this camera at arm’s length!
  6. Place the lens cap on the lens (it acts as a shutter on this shutterless camera)
  7. Insert the film holder into the camera
  8. Use a light meter to determine the exposure. I used a selenium meter from the 1950s and came up with an exposure of 60 seconds at f/10 (wide open) using the artificial light in my living room
  9. Withdraw the dark slide (you can see it sticking out of the side of the camera in my picture)
  10. Remove the lens cap and immediately stand as still as possible for the exposure
  11. Replace the lens cap
  12. Replace the dark slide
  13. Return to the darkroom and work under red safelight
  14. Unload the film holder
  15. Place the film in developer for 90 seconds. I used Ilford PQ Universal.
  16. Place the film in the stop bath for 30 seconds
  17. Place the film in the fixer bath for 60 seconds
  18. Switch on the light
  19. Wash the film
  20. Hang it up to dry
  21. When dry, load the film into the enlarger’s negative carrier. I don’t have a quarter-plate negative carrier and my 5×4″ carrier is glassless, so sandwiched by quarter-plate negative between two clear sheets of unexposed but fixed 5×4″ film
  22. Switch off the light and return to red safelight
  23. Scale and focus the projected image for your paper size
  24. Set the enlarger’s filter, aperture and exposure time according to your exposure tests
  25. Expose the print
  26. Place the print in developer for 90 seconds. I used Ilford PQ Universal.
  27. Place the print in the stop bath for 30 seconds
  28. Place the print in the fixer bath for 60 seconds
  29. Switch on the light
  30. Wash the print
  31. Place the print in the bleach bath for 30 seconds to bleach back the highlights
  32. Wash the print
  33. Place the print in the sepia toner for 60 seconds to replace the bleached highlight areas with sepia colour
  34. Wash the print
  35. Place the print in the selenium toner for 60 seconds to blacken the shadow areas
  36. Wash the print
  37. Hang it up to dry
Victorian selfie

Victorian selfie

Most of the flaws in this image are actually from using a a cheap and dirty mirror. It flexes, so the room appears distorted. It has fingerprints and dust on it, which causes the strange halos around the lights.

For anyone who is interested in darkroom processes, I recently published a video on YouTube which shows steps 21-34.

A weekend in Dunster

For our first wedding anniversary, Hannah and I spend a long weekend in Dunster, West Somerset. We first visited Dunster in the winter, and vowed to come back when the weather was nicer. It’s a small medieval village with a castle, a church and an ancient yarn market in the middle of the road.

Dunster High Street

Dunster High Street

Dunster yarn market

Dunster yarn market

Dunster Castle

Dunster Castle

St George's Priory, Dunster

St George’s Priory, Dunster

Dunster High Street

Dunster High Street

We stayed at the Luttrell Arms. It’s quaint and cosy and perfect for a quiet getaway. As we booked early, we had the pick of the rooms and we chose one with a four-poster bed and a tiny little study that overlooks the high street.

Our room at the Luttrell Arms

Our room at the Luttrell Arms

Our study at the Luttrell Arms

Our study at the Luttrell Arms

Our study at the Luttrell Arms

Our study at the Luttrell Arms

Our room at the Luttrell Arms

Our room at the Luttrell Arms

We weren’t there for many days but we packed a lot in. On the Saturday we took the West Somerset Railway from Dunster to Bishop’s Lydeard and back. We stopped at several of the stations en route.

Steam train at Bishop's Lydeard

Steam train at Bishop’s Lydeard

Coal tender

Coal tender

Diesel engines

Diesel engines

Watchet harbour

Watchet harbour

On the Sunday we drove to Lynton and Lynmouth, a pair of towns at the top and bottom of a cliff, connected by a funicular railway.

Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway

Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway

West Lyn River at Lynmouth

West Lyn River at Lynmouth

Lynmouth harbour

Lynmouth harbour

On the way back to Dunster, we drove across Exmoor. It was stunningly beautiful but the narrow road didn’t offer many places to stop and take pictures. I managed a couple!

Exmoor

Exmoor

Exmoor

Exmoor

Finally, we called in at Minehead in the evening. It was a bit late for sunbathing but we went for a stroll on the beach as the sun set. I photographed this footprint in the sand, and then we went wild at the amusement arcade.

Footprint at Minehead

Footprint at Minehead

These photos are from a variety of different cameras: Mamiya RB67 Professional, Canon T90, Canon AE-1 (which turned out to have a light leak) and Canon AV-1.

Lenses used were Sekor C 90mm f/3.8, Sekor C 127mm f/3.8 on the Mamiya RB67 and FD 24mm f/2.8, FD 35mm f/2.8, FD 50mm f/1.4, FD 70-210mm f/4 on the Canon SLRs.

Sherborne Abbey

A few weeks ago, I visited Sherborne Abbey with some friends who were singing with the choir In Ecclesia Exon. While they rehearsed, I photographed the beautiful building and some of its contents. I’ve photographed cathedrals and abbeys many times before but on this occasion I was trying to find something a bit different from my usual.

It was a hot day but the inside of the abbey was cool and refreshing. I decided that a subtle blue tone on these photographs would reflect the coolness of the stone as it felt to me at the time. Not so long ago I wrote about testing photographic toners to see what they do. These images are scanned from black & white negatives and toned digitally, although now I’ve seen that I like the blue tone I will make some blue prints the old fashioned way.

All of these pictures were shot with a Canon T90 on Ilford Delta 3200 film. I tend to like wide lenses when shooting in churches and these photos were taken with a Canon FD 17mm f/4 and a Canon FD 50mm f/1.4. Other photos on the roll were taken with a Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 but they didn’t make the cut.

Somerset Towers update

I’ve been busy this summer so I haven’t spent as much time as I would like taking pictures of the Somerset Towers for my project. Yesterday I went out for the first time in over two months and I photographed four churches. I’ve now got 32 of the 73 churches on my list.

This is my favourite picture of the day – the church of St Peter & St Paul in Charlton Horethorne. The church is nice but I also like the the stormy clouds behind it.

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Charlton Horethorne

Church of St Peter & St Paul, Charlton Horethorne

This picture was taken with a Horseman 45HD camera, equipped with a Schneider-Kreuznach Super Angulon 90mm f/8 wide angle lens. Exposure was 1/4s at f/22 on Ilford FP4+ film, pulled to EI 50.

As a side point, I’ve also been tracking the distance I travel to get to these churches across the county. So far I’ve driven 987km and I’ve not even done half of the towers!