Many, many years ago, the first camera I ever owned - leaving aside an Agfa Instamatic I had as a child, which I barely remember - was an Olympus XA1, which I bought in Oxford St, London, when I was a University student. According to current internet lore, the XA1 was rubbish, but apart from the fact that it was all I could afford, it was good enough for me at the time. This set me off on the path towards becoming what I believe is called a full-blown Olympus fanboy - although there was to be a decade long Canon diversion in my future. Later, I bought an XA3 (slightly less crap) to take to the Antarctic, and it was the ideal camera to have at hand in the cockpit of the Twin Otter I spent most of my working hours in. Indeed, my team mate and pilot had an XA, which I coveted, although I probably was better off with the zone focussing XA3.
Anyway, both my XA1 and XA3 have long since vanished, but a few weeks ago in the local antique / junk Saturday market, which I very rarely visit, I noticed a pretty clean looking XA complete with flash. It was going for 37 Swiss Francs (about $40), which I was quite prepared to hand over, but in true Monty Python style the stall holder insisted on haggling me down to CHF 25, which was even better.
So, I bought a roll of Fuji Superia 200, which is all I could find at the time, and here are a few shots. I took a few frames for me to get used to the rangefinder and the exposure meter, but the camera doesn’t seem to have an y light leaks or other faults. Not bad for the price.
I’m not that keen on Superia 200 - I think Kodak Portra 160, or Ektar 100, would be better, but I have to order those. The real shock is that at least at 1-hour photo lab prices, processing a 24 Exposure roll of colour print film costs CHF 35 - more than the camera!
I scanned the negatives using Silverfast’s Superia 200 Negafix preset, but the results were very much on the cool side and nothing like the lab’s interpretation. The Fuji Press 400 preset, on the other, was almost spot-on. That’s one of the problems with scanning colour negative rather than positive (slide) - there’s no real reference point, and it’s all down to interpretation.
It’s fun using the Olympus XA, and the results are pretty good. But I’m not sure how relevant it remains in the digital age.
A few reviews around the web, especially a very thorough four-part epic on Gary Seronik’s Film Advance blog, seem to confirm my own thoughts on the Belair 612 and its plastic lenses. Basically it seems to be being marketed to, and appeals to, more “serious” photographers, but its Lomography DNA is just all too obvious. And it’s probably too much trouble to appeal to the tradition Lomo crowd. It’s a pity, because with a little more investment you could have a useful if very basic camera. As it is it’s pretty much a waste of time. Possibly the “real” lenses which are now very late coming might improve matters, but I’m not convinced. There are plenty of tips on how to achieve longer exposure than 1/125th, how to lock exposure, and other esoterica, but it’s all very fiddly and haphazard.
Anyway here are a couple of photos showing the field of view of the two lenses (and also that nominal auto-exposure is a bit approximate for slide film - or perhaps the Lomo Pro-X film is more like ISO 160 than 200 - and that neither plastic lens seems to focus at infinity)
And here’s a couple more showing that the camera actually can step up and deliver a genuine Lomography experience…
Lomography. The painfully hip (although probably not so much these days) trend for making photographs with hopelessly bad cameras, where the whole point is in the flaws and general eccentricities. Or, alternatively, a company in Austria making a nice little sum turning out garishly packaged plastic boxes promising aforementioned hipness. Either way, the argument seems to be that Lomography is especially creative. I find this somewhat hard to understand, as the artist (the photographer, presumably) has little to no control over the creative process, having a few wildly inaccurate, crude controls, and the random lens, light leak and framing behaviours to deal with. Fun, maybe. Creative, not so much. But what do I know, I’m not hip.
Having said all that, back in November, in a fit of retail therapy I ordered Lomography’s latest creation, the 612 format Belair panoramic camera. I’ve always wanted to work with the 612 format, and while a Linhof 612 would cost around $4000, the Belair costs approximately 1/20th of that. While their first attempt at a panoramic camera, the Sprocket Rocket, in my view verges on the insulting, they seemed to be sort of serious about this one. So what the hell.
So it turned up in January, and to be honest I took one look at it and shoved it in the back of a cupboard. I wasn’t in the mood for it. But last week, I took it for a spin.
The Belair 612 comes in various finishes. Mine is called a “Jetsetter”. It’s plastic with some kind of a metal (I think “tin” best describes it) shell, and boasts a plastic faux-leather wraparound. It looks cute from a way off. It comes with two interchangeable lenses, a 58mm and a 90mm, both with f/8 and f/16 settings (cloudy & sunny…). And it has automatic exposure, with settable ISO. Focussing is zone only. Both lenses have dedicated viewfinders. These are truly, truly awful.
As far as operation goes, it’s basically a no-frills medium format film camera, which is fine. However the film loading is unnecessarily tricky, as the take up canister has little wiggle room, and you need to be careful to keep tension on the spool. It’s not exactly a Hasselblad A12, let’s put it that way. The shutter release is a bit of angled metal sticking out of the front standard. It is almost impossible to avoid camera shake when triggering it, and there’s neither remote release nor timer.
So, ok, it’s not that impressive out of box. Even if it is a comparatively classy box. And even considering the price. So how well does it work ? I loaded it up with some Lomography X Pro Slide Film (Agfa RSX II, apparently) and tried it out, both handheld and on a tripod, with both lenses. I made a few standard mistakes that can catch you out with any camera of this type, including double exposures, and winding on the film too far. But generally it worked. Here are some results, scanned at 2400dpi.
A 100% crop from the centre of the second image shows pretty much what I see through a loupe on the light table: not exactly medium format resolution. Just mush, basically.
So, the results from the plastic lenses are as one could predict. I have got one of Lomography’s Russian-sourced glass lenses on order, but they have been repeatedly delayed. The camera does not seem to be too prone to light leaks, which will surely come as a big disappointment to the hipsters, and given that I was using slide film, the exposure was in general ok. But it would be safer to use negative film. On the plus side, it is sort of fun to use, and I could immediately confirm that I like the 612 format.
But with those lenses, no pressure plate to keep the film flat in the camera, and adding to that the relative difficulty of scanning 120 format film, sharpness is not a characteristic which is going to be associated with the Belair 612.
It’s got a certain allure, but it doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a “serious” camera or a Lomo post-modern toy, and given the expense of feeding it 120 roll film, I’m not sure it makes that much sense. You could get far better results simply by cropping an image from pretty much any point and shoot digicam - and then run it through Instagram or whatever if you really must.
In conclusion, I didn’t really get on with the Belair. But that’s just me - it may well work for you and inspire your creativity. There’s certainly no cheaper medium-format, interchangeable lens, panoramic camera on the market. I wish I could recommend the Belair 612, but I can’t. Let’s see what it can do with a real lens. If it ever arrives.
This is something I’ve been dithering about since the dawn of time: the camera, and film in particular, does not see always light the way that we do, or rather the way that our brain interprets it. With normal open air daytime light, this isn’t usually so obvious, but in shaded light, in morning and evening, and of course in mixed and artificial light, it’s a completely different story. The question is, should it be corrected ? There isn’t a “correct” answer to this - it is down to circumstance, taste, intent, perception and even ability. For mixed artificial and natural light it’s a real dilemma, but since I don’t really do that sort of thing, not for me. But it strikes in landscape a lot too. Take this shot:
This is pretty much the scene as-is on film. The shadow areas show a strong blue tint, because the light is mainly coming from reflected a cloudless blue sky. In the background, there’s an area lit by the sun, and that looks “normal”. However, if you were actually there, your brain, knowing what colour the rocks and water are “supposed” to be, would tell you it looks roughly like this:
So, which one to go with ? In the past I’ve tended more to go with the re-balanced version, but that can look pretty artificial if you’re not very careful, especially in the shadows. One photographer I have considerable time for, Bruce Percy, does not appear to correct his transparencies at all - and sometimes to me this seems to go too far.
I’ve just added three XPan shots from the nearby Gole della Breggia (including the one above) to my Recent Work gallery. In this case I’ve decided to leave the colour as it came off film, or rather as the scanner interpreted it, which is more or less the same thing.
But I’m really not sure…
With my forthcoming cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula as the excuse, a few days ago I started posting some scans of slides dragged from the ancient past, when I spent two summer field seasons in Antarctica on British and Norwegian science programmes.
I’ve got something like 1500 slides from those trips, a mix of Kodachrome 25, Kodachrome 64, and Ektachrome (100, I think). About 250 I had selected around 15 years ago, and stored in archival boxes. The rest, some of which I’ve barely glanced at, are in the “rejects” folder. Many are in poor condition, having suffered fungus attacks. A large proportion are badly exposed, badly composed, heavily vignetted, or out of focus. Usually all of these. But some are interesting - to me at least, from a number of points of view. They show how I took photographs when I had no real idea of what phtography was about. Sometimes they are of some merit, but mostly they show that I was trying to tell stories to people back home, to capture atmospheres, moods and colours. There’s no real sense that I had any concept of “landscape photography” as an aim in itself.
From a technical point of view, I’m benefitting from a lot more experience in scanning. I have had attempts at scanning selections in the past, in particular about 6 years ago, when I published a small book, but now I have a fully colour managed Kodachrome calibrated, Silverast HDR workflow, and I can use Silverfast 8 HDR. I started scanning on my Canoscan 9000F flatbed, but eventually switched to the Minolta film scanner. Even though the benefit with some of these slides is minimal, and I lose the 64bit HDRi option, the ability to auto focus, set the focus point, or fully manual focus on the Minolta is a significant benefit for extracting the finest detail.
Initially I was hoping to create a Blurb book, just for me, to take along on the trip, but the amount of work required just to do the initial 48bit HDR scans is huge. It seems I’ve been feeding the scanners since summer, and I’m not even half way through. So at best it will be an iPad portfolio, and starting a few days back, a daily post on Flickr. Maybe life is easier with digital…