Over the past seven months, Ilford has been publishing a set of helpful “Darkroom Guides” to the How To playlist on the company YouTube channel. The series was created to help film photographers take their “next steps in your black and white darkroom printing journey.” If that describes you, then this is one you’ll want to bookmark.
There’s a lot of information out there about film photography—including some exceptional websites like EMULSIVE that are exclusively dedicated to film lovers—but if you’re looking for “how to” advice, one great place to start is right at the source. Ilford’s channel is filled with great behind the scenes videos, how to videos, and some fascinating photo stories besides.
This particular series features Rachel Brewster-Wright—the owner of Little Vintage Photography—who uses each episode to walk you though one key darkroom technique. The series begins with an introduction to Dodge and Burn and moves on to more advanced techniques as the episodes roll on. By episode four, you’re learning how to use multigrade filters to take your printing to the next level.
There are currently four episodes live, which you can see for yourself below:
Episode 1: Dodge & Burn
Episode 2: Selenium Toner
Episode 3: Photographic Papers
Episode 4: Multigrade Filters
We hope to see more videos with Brewster in the coming months. In the meantime, if you enjoyed this then definitely check out Ilford’s full “How To” playlist for lots more tips and tutorials on shooting, developing, and printing your film photography.
Today we’re going to take a look at two film cameras. We have the Pentax 645nII and the Contax 645: two of the last medium format film bodies ever produced, and the two most popular go-to cameras for wedding shooters who are still shooting film.
There are lots of reasons why this is the case. While they don’t have fancy Eye autofocus or anything like that, they both have pretty good autofocus systems, very fast motor drives, and all the basic bells and whistles you could get on a film camera in the early 2000s.
They also have a meter inside. So if you want to use a meter you can shoot quickly, you can actually rely on the meter, especially if you’re shooting negative film where you have a lot of latitude.
There is a price difference between these two. The Contax is way more expensive at around $3,000, whereas you can get the Pentax for around $1,000. However, the Contax has a Swiss Planar T Zeiss lens, which is an incredibly sharp lens, and you also have a removable back on the Contax.
Pentax does not have a removable back, which means you have to fire through your whole roll of film before you can change. That’s a huge bonus for the Contax.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the lens on the Pentax only goes down to f/2.8, whereas the lens on the Contax goes down to a f/2. A lot of people think that that’s kind of a big deal. They like the idea of shooting at f/2, especially with the medium format. So I’m interested to take some portraits and compare the two to see how much of a difference it makes.
But aperture aside, the Pentax lens also doesn’t feel quite as nice as the Contax, and it shows up in the image quality. Speaking of which…
Image Quality Comparison
When comparing images from these two cameras, right off the bat, you do see there is a little bit more warmth in the Pentax. This image is a little out of focus with the Pentax unfortunately, but you do see that warmth there. And a little more contrast with the Contax Zeiss Lens.
Of course, you are scanning these things after processing the film, so whoever is making the decisions on these scans can push them around a lot. It’s just like being in Lightroom or Camera Raw. I would guess you could make these things match pretty close if you want to, but right out of the gate, with no additional work, the Contax has a richer, heavier color, heavier blacks, and heavier contrast than the Pentax.
Here we have our shot of the Capitol Records building. It is out of focus again on the Pentax.
We were at a distance here, and at this distance with the background that far away, the way the two lenses fall out of focus feels very similar. They’re both set to f/2.8, and they feel very similar, although there is a difference in the character of the bokeh.
If you look at the bokeh on the Pentax on the right it’s more oblong, whereas the bokeh is more round on the Contax.
When we were out working, the Contax was a little slower on the autofocus, even in bright sunlight. When we came back indoors and tried pointing both cameras at things here inside, that’s where the Pentax really pulled ahead. Both cameras would hunt, but the Pentax could actually find a subject and lock on somewhere with pretty much every frame. The Contax never stopped hunting, and because it can’t autofocus it can’t take an image.
I would say autofocus in a low light situation with the Contax is unusable. The Pentax seems a lot more usable in lower light and the viewfinder is brighter in the Pentax. So the ease-of-use in low light is better with the Pentax. That’s quite an advantage…
But back to the image comparison.
In this image, you can really see the difference between f/2.8 on the Pentax and f/2.0 on the Contax—it really falls out of focus much quicker, rendering a much prettier background with beautiful bokeh. I also love the way it resolves the lines around the trees.
It’s not all due to the aperture though, as you can see in the image below:
These are both shot at f/2.8 with the same distance between the subject and the background and the same distance between the subject and the camera. For some reason, the Contax falls out of focus faster letting the subject really pop out of the frame.
In contrast, this is probably the image where they look the most similar, although you definitely see a little more detail in her skin with the Contax. You get those nice lines in her face, and just a little more definition. With the Pentax, you get a much softer look—it feels almost like you’ve softened her face in post.
And here’s our final image. Unfortunately the Pentax was (again) not quite focused right here—it’s not focused on her right eye, it’s focused on her left eye.
But again, you see a little bit more warmth with the Pentax through the leaves, and more fall-off and contrast from the Contax with the Zeiss lens. It’s really a very pretty image, especially from the Contax with the way it falls out of focus.
If I was a wedding photographer and I was doing this seriously, I would definitely get a Contax. Yes, even with the autofocus being unusable in low light, I would just manual focus the Contax. The image quality is worth it.
I just think the Contax looks beautiful. The images have a very pretty look.
That’s not to say the Pentax is a bad option. At 1/3 the price, and with better AF, I feel like the Pentax is a great option, especially if you’re new to this. If you’re trying to get into film and get into the medium format world, the Pentax it’s super affordable, and it’s one of the newest medium format film cameras you can buy. I’ve seen them as low as $650 or $700 for the body.
The truth is, you can’t go wrong either way when it comes to these two cameras, it just depends on what your needs are. What do you want to spend it on? If image quality is king, consider spending the extra money on the Contax; if ease-of-use is more important, and budget it limited, the Pentax is a great option.
About the author: Jay P. Morgan is a commercial photographer with over two decades of experience in the industry. He teaches photography through his company, The Slanted Lens, which runs a popular YouTube channel. This review was also published here.
If you’re interested in photographing landscapes, you should know there are multiple ways to make your images more interesting – some that only require a bit of imagination. In this 26-minute video, Canadian film photographer Kyle McDougall covers four techniques he uses to make his landscape images better.
The first in a two-part series, McDougall looks at images from his collection and explains what he likes about them and how he constructed the images using a particular technique. Below are the four techniques he suggests to improve your landscape photos.
Organization and Detail: McDougall says composing a scene is “like taming the chaos of the real world.” He says that it’s about taking all the elements in a scene, deciding what you want, and organizing them into a flow. So while you obviously cannot move objects in a landscape, you have to move yourself and your perspective. Make sure objects are not cutting each other off or overlapping, for example.
Creative Framing: Creative framing involves what McDougal calls building a “frame within a frame.” That is to say, using the environment to frame images. Keep an eye out for shadows, as he says that “changes in tone form different shapes in your images.” Further, using framing can add depth and layers to your images. McDougal pays attention to lines that can divide the image, framing other elements, and drawing the eye.
Light and Shadow: Light and shadow create lines and can reveal other elements. In some cases, lighting adds interest where there would be none in their absence. You may want to wait for light to reach certain points before capturing an image or other times you might just get lucky with how light falls in unexpected ways. “You can pick a specific point to use it to add to the composition in a unique way,” he says.
Rule of Thirds: This should not be an unfamiliar technique, but McDougall says he will use natural occurrences of boundaries created by the scene to break his images into thirds. Doing this can be a combination of the three techniques above and using them all in different and interchangeable ways. “If you look close enough, there is always potential,” he explains.
Most everyone’s got one. If you’ve been around for a while, you may have some great stories or a few crazy or scary assignments, but this one is not what you might think. Oh, I have had some interesting gigs for sure, but most of my work was in studio and not at all scary (with the exception of melted ice cream). I’ll save those stories for another time. No, this phone call was a different kind of scary.
Thirty years of top work and my confidence went out the window within sixty seconds of answering the phone. Actually, the entire call lasted less than sixty seconds.
One February afternoon I’m cleaning up the studio and planning to run for the 4:40 train from NYC to Greenwich, with my biggest worry being whether I’ll grab a cab or get soaked. That’s when the phone rings. Tony, the creative director of J. Walter Thompson was on the phone, which either means bad news with a problem, or good news with a new assignment.
My work with J.W.T. was generally studio stuff: liquor, Burger King, pizza or something else that typically sits still and doesn’t talk back, but always pays well. Those days in New York I was a busy still-life shooter with a name in studio photography. I took pride in myself for lighting, composition, a sparkling personality, and a cool studio; all of which I’d banked on for several decades.
“I’ve got an interesting assignment, if you’re up for it.”
Well of COURSE I’m up for it, we both know that! But instead I simply responded
“Sure, what’s up?”
He must have been smiling to himself when he broke it so casually:
Would you like to shoot for Kodak? It’s a new campaign. You would choose one of the four films we’re advertising; like Kodacolor II, Hi-Speed Ektachrome, Ektachrome and Kodachrome II. It’d be your choice, you choose and show off the benefits of one, like Hi-Speed for candle light maybe, or Kodacolor II for saturated daytime…
“I’ll take Kodacolor,” I said, as I just laid it right out there. Dibs, if you will. Bright colors and sunshine? Mine! Fate sealed; challenge accepted. Next? Layouts; budget issues; unreal deadline?
Instead, Tony said simply “OK, let me know when you’re done.”
And there it was. “LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU’RE DONE!” Shit, now he’s just playin’ with me. This was starting to scare me.
“Wait – tell me more. What about…”
He ignored that and said, “Just have fun, do something great, as usual, remember bright colors, call me when you’re done.”
I tried again to extract details, but alas, “No worries, no layout, budget is great, I’ll talk to Bill Stockland (my rep) about it, but it’s pretty unlimited. Gotta run, have fun.”
Complete panic ensued.
I realized it was all on the line now: could I really do this? Thirty years of building a reputation, and now no excuses, no art director, no layout, just deliver greatness to the creative director of New York’s top ad agency or crash badly. And for Kodak, no less. Shit – at that time the name of my sailboat was actually ‘Kodachrome’ though it happened to be in winter storage at the time.
I needed sunshine. After pouring a healthy scotch, I scrambled to call Bill. He reaffirmed that I could go anywhere, do anything, spend any amount, but just come up with something great within maybe two weeks. He offered no help at all.
In those days my usual film was 8×10 Ektachrome (with a Polaroid tossed in here and there). I almost always shot in studio and always with a layout and I always brought the assignment. Roll film? I’d shoot a roll or two maybe once a year and I still owned a Nikon, if I could actually remember where it was…
I went home and, on the way, grabbed a brick of film, new batteries for the Nikon, packed up the wife and kid, and headed for California sunshine. It would be sunny, with parks, boats, zoos, and even hot air balloons seeming to be a safe bet, and I wanted safe. Upon arrival, this idea crashed.
I found that they don’t fly balloons when it’s rainy, and it was very rainy. No bright colors and no sunshine.
So, I learned something: when dropped into chaos, you’ll probably stretch a bit. You can actually relax and trust yourself. Sure, it was raining, but I did happen to have a great model with me. I decided to just relax and let things flow… which it did. I found a kiddie store on Union Street with a yellow Sou’wester hat and a matching yellow raincoat. Perfect Kodak color, actually.
A few weeks later Tony called. They couldn’t pick a single shot. My heart began to sink. Then he said that this shoot changed their entire advertising campaign. They decided to run an entire contact sheet when they couldn’t pick just one image. He loved it. Kodak loved it. It ran in a number of national magazines, influenced their future advertising, and it was my all-time favorite shoot.
Greatest model to the greatest shoot ever, Lauren Molly Bartone, age 3.
About the author: After his studies at the Art Center College of Design, Laurence Bartone first opened his commercial studio as a photographer in San Francisco. Ten years in and looking for new experiences, he headed East to NYC.
Heavily influenced by the lighting and composition of Vermeer, and the brilliance of both Irving Penn and Phil Marco, he believes every photo should tell a story. Bartone won four gold medals for advertising photography in SF, NY, and LA, and has been published in dozens of national magazines. His work consistently underlines his lighting and composition talents, with Bartone delivering successful campaigns and assignments – both in studio or on location.
Whether traveling through Europe, shooting on a beach in Tahiti or a vineyard in Australia, he’s descended from helicopters, climbed high-rise scaffolding, flown gliders, and even donned a scuba suit into the icy depths of the Monterey Bay Aquarium – all to get the best possible shot; as his incredible list of Fortune 500 clients would agree.
Photographer and YouTuber George Muncey of Negative Feedback recently set out on an ill-fated adventure in film scanning. He went out and bought the cheapest 35mm film scanner he could find online—the DIGITNOW! 135, which costs a whopping $60 on Amazon—and tried it out so that you don’t have to.
There’s not a lot of introduction required here. Muncey went on Amazon, found the cheapest 35mm film scanner money could buy, and put it to the test to see if it even approached “good enough.”
The point was to see if this is a viable option for someone who is just getting into film photography and doesn’t have much money to spend on a scanner or getting film professionally scanned. And if you’re looking to get the cheapest 35mm film scanner that pops up when you do a quick search, this is it (note, the picture shows the US model):
You should watch the video to see how it went, but we won’t keep you in suspense: the scans did not turn out well. In fact, as Muncey puts it:
The scans look like they were photos taken on an early 2000s camera phone, definitely not a nice film camera. And if you can get past the rather shocking quality, there’s a lot more waiting for you…
There’s some lovely color inaccuracy. None of these photos look how they were meant to. And if you can get past that, there’s dust… and a lot of it. There’s almost more [dust] than image.
Muncey describes the results as “potato quality,” and while the black-and-white film scans avoided the pitfall of color inaccuracy, they were still chock full of dust and scanned at such poor quality that it’s really just not worth it. Long story short: do yourself a favor and pick something up that’s at least a little bit nicer.
Check out the full video up top to watch Muncey suffer a little bit trying to set up and use this scanner, and if you haven’t gotten enough by the end, check out the followup video he published a few days ago where he buys the cheapest 35mm film camera on the Internet: