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Friday, 31 August 2018


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Even given the same light, your friend would have gotten closer to ultimate image quality with a $100 Yashica Mat 124. He didn’t figure out that 35mm was never about ultimate image quality. It was about good enough image quality in a convenient (i.e. productive) package, and the features that make 35mm expensive are either 1.) designed to increase convenience, or 2.) an attempt to overcome the inherent limitations of small format. The guys really pursuing ultimate image quality back in the day (and it’s no different now, really) were and are using 8x10 view cameras.

I learned that comparing 4x5 Tri-X to 35mm—yes—Panatomic-X developed in Rodinal. My Canon F-1 results were flat and dimensionless compared to my buddy’s clapped-out Speed Graphic with it’s Coke-bottle-bottom lens and fast, grainy film. Even in good light.

I remember years ago talking to a photography gallery owner. We were chatting about (then) current trends. He told me about a photographer who’d brought in some beautifully processed platinum prints. The photographer had used a vintage LF camera, with an equally vintage lens. He’d perfected the use of the wet plate process, and worked equally hard on finding the best handmade paper to handcoat with platinum emulsion. It was obvious, the gallery owner said, that this guy had put a lot of work into his craft. The problem was that the photographs were boring. Beautiful, but pedestrian. When the gallery owner told him, “Sorry, no...” the photographer was stunned. “Don’t you know how much effort, money and time went into making these?!?!”

Equipment, process, technique, etc... does not mean anything if there isn’t vision. Like I said the other day, the viewer does not care (nor should she or he) about material, equipment, or any of that. All they care about is the work in front of them.

Oh so true. I have seen this in action at my local photographic society many times and if you try to point them in the right direction they don't want to listen.I reckon it's mostly down to those clever marketing guys. Even us seasoned photogs get sucked in. Why is it that every time a new camera model is released I think that I need it when I know full well that I would be better off buying a lens?

"I just always shot in beautiful light, no matter what kind of picture it was"

Yup. That. Fine photos are made when the light favors the photographer's intent. A simple truth often forgotten.

...and don't forget to use a tripod.

And oh, yes...put something interesting in front of the lens.

'Ultimate technical image quality' has generally been interchangeable with 'use a heavy tripod' for me. The cumulative effect of a high resolution sensor, optimal aperture, low ISO, high quality glass, beautiful soft light and carefully considered composition were all basically thrown out the window when hand-holding a camera.
In the last year, however, I've been gobsmacked by just how good image quality has gotten with newer sensors at high ISO. Plenty of photographs don't depend upon extreme resolution for their impact. I took some photos at my niece's wedding last week in a dimly lit hotel ballroom, making sure I stayed out of the professional photographers' way. (You never want to be 'that uncle'). Even at ISO 3200, the image quality was more than enough for really nice 8x10" prints.
I'm finding it hard to wrap my head around this; no longer chained to a 10 lb. tripod, the possibilities seem endless.

Well, I hear ya, but...

AFAIK, a day is 24 hours long, and every part of that day is interesting in some way---you just have to find it, "beautiful light" or not. For photography, it seems to me that "beautiful Light" means 2 things: Light that allows easier photography due to the limitations of the equipment; and what most everyone thinks of as Beautiful Light in their own minds.

Adjusting to the first part either means setting aside your photography time to those parts of the day that "shoot" the easiest, or else doing the heavier lifting of figuring out how to get the equipment to capture all the other kinds of light in all of the rest of the day.

The problem with the Beautiful Light in our own minds is that if you discipline yourself to only shoot at those times, well, you miss all the rest of it, for one, and then secondly, all of your shots are going to start to look the same, and maybe not in a desirable way, and also like all the other images shot in Beautiful Light. And it seems to me we're seeing a lot of that these days.....

So, I think I'll struggle as I do today, finding the path through the weeds of ugly light.

Well said!

Pan X was ASA 32 - we just all shot it at 25.

The most important tools remain between the ears; a good eye and good judgment. Anyone can learn technique, but it’s knowing when, where and to what degree to apply that technique that’s critical. This has always been true for shooting and printing, for film or digital. And not just photography.

"We live in a time where all cameras have incredibly, jaw-droppingly good image quality. Use what ya got, find your look, have fun, and make some photos." --Jim in Denver

Thank you Jim. Spot on the mark!

The best lens is a tripod.

Never liked TXP in 135 format, and found that if I had to go fast, then Ilford's HP3 and then HP4 equivalents suited me better.

However, on 120 film it was the opposite way around. Maybe the Nikkors had a different contrast to the Hassy lenses.

Both were always processed in D 76 1+1.


Ha, I just borrowed a camera from the photography department where I am taking a Film and Darkroom course and it has the 55mm Nikkor macro/micro lens on it that you mention in your anecdote from 1982.

I will try not to commit the sins of your fellow student from back then as I go out and shoot with it this weekend! Entrancing light, check; John Loengard, check; now if I can only find the Beatles in a swimming pool I'll be all set....https://johnloengard.com/

We moved a while back, and so I had a blank slate as to what photographs to hang on the walls. Several (digital) color, and three 8 x 12 inch black and white darkroom prints. They are not necessarily the three best images I’ve ever put on film, but I thought they went together well. After hanging them, I realized that they’re all 35mm. (I shoot up to 6x7.) What’s up with that? Simply, they are all really good prints because they were all taken in really good light. Easy to print with negligible manipulations.

As one of my favorite photography instructors once remarked, "you can't buy skill and experience."

I’ve known sharpness fanatics who had no eye for tonality. None, nada, zip, sensitivity for controlling tones. That, and adhering to high noon on a sunny day for shooting. This goes for both film and digital. I went through that phase 40 years ago. Some of my earliest darkroom prints make me want to throw up.

Sometimes I get to reading the experts debating Photoshop vs. Lightroom vs. Capture One- and their various plug in programs. Each has their own tried and tested ultimate formula for coaxing the absolute most from each and every pixel (usually from a FF sensor). I usually come away feeling pretty darn low since I know I cannot anywhere, anyhow begin to compete with their level of expertise and proficiency.

Then I look at their work, and often, I don't feel quite that bad anymore...

That's not to put anyone, or their work, down. And it certainly doesn't mean that IQ doesn't count- it most certainly does! But, as is usually the case (there's always the exceptions), there needs to be some kinda balance between creativity and technical expertise. One should never, ever feel satisfied in either area of their creativity. But if you're producing results that can effectively highlight your vision, instead of hinder it, then at least you're on the right track...

Two quotes from the God, Ansel Adams, come to mind. As I best remember them ...

"There's nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept". Rephrased - content is king! All the UTIQ in the world means nothing if the the content is crappy.

"The negative is the score; the print is the performance". If you start with a crappy score, all the skill and technical know-how will just produce a stellar performance of a crappy score.

Nuf said.

Such a pointless quest. UTIQ isn't a component of the vast majority of the world's most celebrated photos. You may as well search for the best reproduction in an office copier. Art, or relevance, or memorability, lies elsewhere.

Pushing Panatomic X in Rodinal. Now there is a technical combination that I wasn't ready for. Sort of take the breath away, doesn't it?
Over time I, too, got a reputation for printing, and in our newspaper photo lab the guy who printed the orders from readers who wanted a copy of the picture that had been in the paper liked to print my negatives. They were easy to print. What was my secret. I exposed my Tri-X at ASA 250. Just overexposed it all the time. After a while I figured out that the old idea of exposing just enough to record the shadows was - in practice - a bunch of hooey. Get some guts in the shadows of your negatives and printing got a whole lot easier.

This is why I've decided to give up with home development and just shoot XP2. I can't make enlargements at home and I hate scanning, so what's the point learning to develop really well? I'd rather spend time shooting, and if I send to a good lab I can assume that if my prints come back badly it's my fault.

On the other hand, last time I bought a new camera, I was soon taking available light photos one or two stops short of the maximum ISO. This was to see what I could get away with, and so find the limits of the camera.

Got some good pictures, and as I don't care that much about Ultimate Technical Image Quality so long as it's sharp enough, I was quite happy.

What? No sulfite?

And I'll bet the guy used a condenser enlarger if not a point source.

Doesn't everyone know you are supposed to overexpose Pan-X ? And use a coldlight?

My recipe was Pan-X, D-19 1 to 1 about 72 degrees ( nyc water comes out of the tap too warm ) for 5 minutes and *everything* depended on the agitation. Not exactly negatives that would print themselves but full of possibilities for intrepetation.

[D-19, good idea. --Mike]

Oh, almost forgot the other part of the recipe. Lots of strobes, or at the very least an on axis fill flash.

Yep, in the late 1960's Nikon's Micro-Nikkor 55mm/f3.5 was considered a very sharp lens.

Kodak Panatomic-X was considered a very fine grain film.

But Rodinal tends to produce grain which made no sense with a fine grain film. This made me wonder a wee bit.

I was using Microdol-X, and it was then considered a very fine grain developer.

All said, that decade was one of "Fun with Films".

I have a feeling that photographers who are obsessed with equipment 'quality', and maybe even image quality, produce mainly unimaginative, boring pictures. It is like listening to 20Hz sine wave because the top of the line audio equipment can reproduce it so well.

Jim in Denver says use what you’ve got. I’ve had high-end cameras and lenses in the past and hope to again one day, but this summer in Corsica I only had my ten-year-old Nikon D60 and Tamron zoom. The results at modest but sufficient size were not obviously worse for it:


People seem to assume an inferiority in 135 format systems.

This is really a quite misplaced assumption because the reality is that it's just another format, a tool within the photographer's box. To illustrate: when I was confronted with a particular kind of client with a specific need, then format was the deciding, automatic and reflexive choice I made pretty much without conscious thought. For instances where we were producing straight, show-every-stitch pictures of clothes, 120 was the automatic choice because static was going to be the name of the game. Where editorial-style material was wanted, the choice was invariably Nikon.

Everything in professional life works like that: horses for courses.

When you consider the genesis of Sarah Moon, you are thinking 135 format 500 ASA colour with grain like mothballs; she went on to attain mythical status and love. Hans Feurer, OTOH, also uses 135 format to great success, from Pirelli and Mintex calendars to current shoots for the top fashion magazines in the world, almost invariably in colour. He used Kodachrome until it was no longer available before making the digital transition, film look being so much a part of his expressive sense. Different styles, but both dependent on the look of small format film/digital and optics.

Throw in the magical black/white of Peter Lindbergh - who ranged from 6x6 thru 6x7 and then fixed on Nikon in both film and digital, and if you still look upon 135 format as inferior, you are living in an absolutely false sense of photographic nirvana.

Please tell me more about why you want a black and white only digital camera. I am missing something. I love black and white film and prints. I am not understanding what a camera can do that Adobe camera raw can't.

[Mike replies:]


BTW- For those who think you couldn't achieve any kind of "real" IQ w/35mm- you've never seen a Henry Wessel print in person...

Pan-X was my go-to film in the 70's. It responded to full exposure, even a 1-stop pull, and the most delicate development you could manage. If you did it right, you really could read through the highlights of the negative.
Those negs laid down on a grade 2 or 3 paper with minimal darkroom magic, and some of my prints from that time are still favorites.

Pushing Pan-X didn't work, and really made no sense when Tri-X was always available.

I'm surprised that the instructors in your story didn't make some gentle suggestions.

There are a bunch of new "I use film" websites now. Pushing to the limit is all the rage. And they like to "test" new films by pushing the first roll and stand developing for an hour in Rodinal. Oops, bromide drag.

But I'm a grumpy old guy and you can just get off my lawn.

I've owned a couple of 'ultimate' cameras. The Leica CL with a beautiful Summitar probably came closest, that or the Canon 7 with Canon 50/1.8. But really, the secret to the best work with either was Plus-X at EI400 and Diafine. I can, sometimes, come close with my EP-3 & 25/1.7 but only close.

In my experience, the 55mm f2.8 Micro-Nikkor's reputation for sharpness is well deserved. See what this 30-or-so-year old unit from eBay is capable of, with the help of Topaz Studio AI Clear.


Not a lot of sense in it that I can see; you have the option with a normal sensor arrangement to make your b/w shots and even use the built-in filters you get as bonus.

Why tie one arm behind your own back?


I read:
I loved your explanation of seeing in B&W. Really opened my eyes to something new, forgive me the pun.
Your predictions of the future were..... this doesnt matter....

Thank you for this expanation.

When I was a pro-photographer (worked for a while for my dad), the number of times that clients said, when viewing the proofs of a shoot "My goodness, you must have a really good camera!" was hilarious. And I guess in a way gratifying. I always simply said "Glad you like them" :-)

In the "outakes" for the DisneyNature "Made in China" documentary, they show a photographer/videographer next to his tripod.

"The light is lousy now, but they say that if you wait 1/2 hour here the conditions will change"

They show him 1/2 hour later. It is hailing.

They show him 1/2 hour later. It is snowing and a white out.

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