Friday, July 31, 2015

Shooting Old Graveyards with Old Cameras

What better way to test out a new camera than in a cemetery? And by “new,” I mean new to me. A good friend sold me an old Mamiya 645 Super, a medium format (meaning 120mm film, wider film than 35mm) camera with a 45mm Mamiya lens.

Why Film?
"Snyder bought another film camera?!"
Well, until prices plummet, I still cannot afford a full-frame DSLR. As of this writing, they are still at the $5,000 altitude. This is why, a few years ago, I purchased a Nikon F3 film SLR – an absolutely beautiful thirty-year-old camera! And yes, you can still buy most size and speeds of film, and yes, you can still get it processed. (The smart thing to do is to get hi-res scans done of each frame at time of processing – this may double the processing price, but its worth it. Most services will otherwise charge five dollars per frame to scan your images!)

(Philadelphia Photographics is the company I use, by the way, for film processing. They also do mail order and digital uploads.)

So recently, I purchased this five-pound dinosaur of a Mamiya medium format film camera. Why, you ask. Well, to get the resolution of a full-frame DIGITAL medium format camera, you would have to part with quite a few dead presidents. The digital version of the Mamiya 645 is – ready for this? TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS!! While I could soften the blow and just buy a digital back for my Mamiya at a mere $12,000, I think I shall be content with the wonderful film images this machine produces.

Even though my scanned images in this article may look good, bear in mind that they are only 4MB scans – the original 40 x 56 mm negatives offer infinite resolution. So when you think in terms of a full-frame 50 MP medium format digital camera FOR $25,000 – well, 50 MP is still a far cry from infinite resolution!

Why did I shoot my first photos in a cemetery?

A bit fuzzy, a bit overexposed
To paraphrase artist Georgia O’Keefe, tombstones don’t move and you don’t have to pay the statues modelling fees. Plus, I’ll use any excuse to visit and make photographs in a cemetery! The images you see here are from the first roll of Ilford FP4 Plus, ISO 125 black and white film that I shot in the Mamiya 645. I got fifteen frames to the roll – the images are rectangular versus square, as 120 film produces when used in a Holga. Most images came out well-exposed, though a few are out of focus. I’m thinking the fuzzy ones were more a result of my not holding the camera steady during exposure. I may have to use a slightly faster shutter speed in future. This one at right is also overexposed.

At about five pounds, this camera almost requires a tripod. Even with the handy side grip (which is part of the auto-winder), it’s a bit challenging to keep the camera steady while holding the prism viewfinder up to your eye. There is an optional top-view finder available for the Mamiya 645, but honestly, with my bad back and less-than-stellar eyesight, I think that may not work for me. I’ll just have to make the eye-level finder work. The prism focus aid works pretty well, but split-screens are easier to see.

Mamiya 645 with Canon DSLR (Rebel model)

Here are a couple photos I took to show the relative size of this behemoth – one with the Mamiya 645 next to my Canon Rebel DSLR (above) and one with it next to my Canon G11 DPS* camera. Funny how the G11 is about the size of the Mamiya’s auto-winder handle!

Mamiya 645 with Canon G11

*I call digital point-and-shoots “DPS” cameras in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient.

When I was making these initial photographs at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, I purposely shot with as wide an aperture as possible on this bright sunny day. I wanted to make the most of shallow depth of field. Shallow depth of field is very difficult to attain with a digital system, unless you have a very expensive (fast) lens. The 45mm Mamiya lens on my camera opens to f2.8, which is the setting at which I made most of the black and white images you see here.

I also wanted to check internal light meter, to see if it was in the ballpark, and it was. I metered off the stone areas that I wanted to be properly exposed. Next time, I’ll meter off the middle gray card my friend gave me with the camera, to see how that changes things.

If, upon reading this, you feel that I adduce a tropism to film in this digital age, you are correct. However, it is not because I am analog-hearted. As I said earlier, film has Infinite resolution, whereas digital JPEGs and RAW files do not. When you produce a print from one of these 120mm negatives, you see the difference. So most of my serious photography is done with film, even in this late year of 2015. Digital, for me, is simply a convenience.

Someday, digital may totally replace film, as soon as high quality image sensors come down in price and are therefore available to the common man. Next up, this common man plans to shoot a roll of 120mm color film in the Mamiya 645 Super as he continues his regression into the dim, dark, and distant past of film photography!