Category Archives: Photography

Falconry on Troopers Hill

This weekend, the Friends of Troopers Hill hosted a free falconry display, which was put on by West Country Falconry. We were treated to an informative talk and a flying display from five different birds of prey. I can’t remember the species of all the birds we were shown but they definitely included a barn owl, a kite, an eagle and a hawk.

Lens test: Canon FL, FD and EF 50mm f/1.4 vs f/1.8

Some time ago I compared the EF and FD versions of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens. It wasn’t exactly a fair test because the EF lens fits natively on my DSLR, while the FD lens needs an adapter with an optic. Now I am fortunate enough to own a Canon EOS M mirrorless digital camera which can make use of FD lenses with a glassless adapter. I also acquired an FD 50mm f/1.4 and an FL 50mm f/1.4, so I shall compare them to the EF and FD 50mm f/1.8 specimens.

Canon 50mm f/1.8 and f/1.4


First of all, what are the differences? In most aspects these three lenses are the same. I’ve emboldened rows where they differ.

FL 50mm f/1.4 FD 50mm f/1.4 FD 50mm f/1.8 EF 50mm f/1.8 II
Focal length 50mm 50mm 50mm 50mm
Introduced 1966 1979 1979 1990
Maximum aperture f/1.4 f/1.4 f/1.8 f/1.8
Minimum aperture f/16 f/22 f/22 f/22
Elements/Groups 6/5 7/6 6/4 6/5
Aperture blades 8 8 5 5
Coating SSC SC SSC
Angle of view 46° 46° 46° 46°
Filter size 58mm 52mm 52mm 52mm
Closest focus 0.60m 0.45m 0.60m 0.45m
Weight 280g 235g 170g 130g

There really isn’t much difference. The only difference we really care about is the larger maximum aperture. But what does that actually get us?

Fast aperture

Well, it gets us an extra two-thirds of a stop of light. If you are wanting to shoot handheld in a place with poor lighting, this is your lens. I recently used it for exactly this purpose inside a church where flash was not permitted. There are other side benefits too. The faster aperture means your viewfinder will be brighter, your split-circle focusing more precise, and the in-camera metering will be more accurate. Happiness all round!

Aperture diagram

Confusingly, f/1.8 is not a “standard” aperture. f/1.4 and f/2.0 are “whole” f-numbers, and f/1.8 lies about two-thirds between them. I’m not sure why so many manufacturers use f/1.8 as a common lens – clearly it’s cheaper to make than f/1.4, but why not f/2.0? Maybe it’s considered to be too slow. There are several f/1.7 lenses around, too. Who knows.

Depth of field

The aperture also affects the depth of field. DoF depends on not only the aperture setting you’ve chosen, but also the distance to your subject. Let’s assume, if you are using the maximum aperture of your lens, that you are looking at a nearby object – say, 2m away.

50mm f/1.4 50mm f/1.8
2m Distance to subject 2m
0.13m Total depth of field 0.17m
0.06m In front of subject 0.08m
0.07m Behind subject 0.09m

By opening up another half a stop, you can decrease your DoF by a few centimetres. Not really anything to write home about, but possibly what you need for an arty shot.

Image quality

Most likely, the strong point of the f/1.4 over the f/1.8 is image quality at the same aperture, for any given aperture. I mean if we set both lenses to f/8 and take a picture, which lens produces the best image? Let’s find out :)

For this test, I will be using the ISO 12233 test chart. Just in case you haven’t seen one before, here it is.

ISO 12233 chart

ISO 12233 chart

Here’s what I did.

  1. I had a large version of this chart printed on rigid board about 90x55cm in size
  2. I hung it on my wall and illuminated it with a 500W halogen lamp
  3. I placed the camera on a tripod so that the chart fills the frame
  4. I set the camera to ISO400 in aperture priority mode
  5. I set the camera to Tungsten white balance
  6. I focused the camera manually (even the autofocus EF lens) using magnified live view
  7. I varied the aperture and took a shot for each aperture setting using the self timer to avoid camera shake

Ideally I would perform MTF measurements but the software is complicated and frankly I can’t be bothered. Instead I’m going to qualitatively assess these images by looking at 100% crops in the centre and in the corner.

Centre crop, lens wide open

First, let’s look at the centre of the chart with each lens wide open.

  • As expected, the FL lens performed most poorly here. This is unsurprising because it is the oldest lens, 13 years older than the FD lenses and made at a time when lens technology was less sophisticated.
  • The two FD lenses showed surprisingly little difference wide open.
  • The EF lens showed the sharpest image quality, unsurprising given that it was designed and manufactured with the aid of computers.

Corner crop, lens wide open

These corner crops are taken from the same source image as the centre crops above. Usually, lens defects are more apparent in the corners of the image.

  • The FL lens really showed its weakness in the corner. There is a real loss of sharpness.
  • The FD f/1.4 is noticeably sharper than the FD f/1.8, but both are acceptable.
  • Once again, the EF lens performed the best and there is hardly any chromatic aberration.

Corner crop, lens stopped down to f/8

These corner crops were all shot at f/8 – an aperture at which all these lenses should perform really well.

  • It is basically impossible to tell these four lenses apart when stopped down to f/8. I can’t really make any further comment to distinguish them.

General observations

  • The lenses introduce a different colour cast. The two FD lenses offer a slightly pink cast while the FL and EF lenses offer a slightly blue cast.
  • I didn’t have the willpower to process every single test image, but having observed that the lenses differed quite a lot at f/1.4 and were basically identical at f/8, I wondered at what aperture they start to become similar in quality. By f/4 they were similar, and by f/5.6 they were more-or-less indistinguishable.

Take-home lessons

  • People often say that the f/1.4 is unconditionally better than the f/1.8 of any given series (FD, EF, etc). For most real-world applications, this isn’t necessarily true.
  • This test does not take into account flare characteristics. The results are similar in a carefully controlled, front-lit test chart but all bets are off when the sun shines into the lens. The FL flares quite badly.

Sample photos

Of course, no lens test would be complete without some sample images. Here are a few of my favourites taken with these lenses.

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.

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.



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.

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!

Salt & Pepper

This week’s Photo Challenge is salt & pepper. It’s a simple theme with lots of scope for different interpretations. I immediately had the idea of a high-contrast black & white version.

Salt & Pepper

Salt & Pepper

This picture was taken using sheets of black and white plastic, and a small cookie cutter to sprinkle the condiments in circular heaps. It has had very little post-processing – just boosting the contrast and cloning out a few grains of salt that got away. I honestly spent longer prodding peppercorns with tweezers than I did on the computer.