Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon Nikkormat EL

1971 Chevrolet

It was the last of the Nikkormats (or Nikomats, as they were called in Japan): the EL. It was also the first Nikon SLR with aperture-priority autoexposure. Nikon made them from 1972 to 1976. They’re well-built cameras that can take years, even decades, of heavy use.

Nikon Nikkormat EL

This one was a latecomer to my SLR party; by this time I’d settled on my favorites. While I liked this camera fine when I shot my test roll with it I kept reaching for my usual cameras after that. The test roll was Fujicolor 200, and my 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor lens was mounted. This photo from that roll is of two cars I used to own.

Looking Over my Car

This is a fine, capable camera. Perhaps that’s why I waited until near the end of Operation Thin the Herd to shoot it: I expected I’d like it and keep it. I plopped in some Fomapan 100, mounted my guilty-pleasure 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor lens, and went to town.

McOuat

I also laid in a fresh battery, a stubby 4LR44. Thank heavens for Amazon, because you can’t get these batteries at the corner drugstore. The battery slips neatly in below the mirror inside the camera. Use the mirror lock-up button to get at it.

Founders Cemetery

Fomapan 100 is far from my favorite slower b/w film, but this roll had been moldering in my fridge for a long time and I decided to shoot it up. This is easily the best performance I’ve ever gotten from this classic film. Highlights are on the light side but at least they’re not blown out, which seems to be this film’s signature move.

Shelbyville on the Public Square

The EL’s tactile experience falls short of luxurious, but everything feels rock solid under use. If you send a Nikkormat EL out for CLA, it will outlast you. That’s what I need to do for this one. Every single frame on the roll showed shutter capping. I’ve just cropped it out of all the photos I’ve showed you before this one. Now you know why some of these photos are 16×9 rather than 4×3.

Capped!

The shame is, you don’t know a shutter is misbehaving like this until after you’ve shot the roll and had it processed. Unfortunately I shot two rolls of film in the Nikkormat before sending them off for processing. The second roll was Agfa Vista 200. Cropping saved many of this roll’s images, too.

Capped Soft Selfie

I brought the Nikkormat out for a day on the Michigan Road. This pizza joint is on the square in Greensburg.

Slices

Half the 35-70’s split prism focusing aid was black on this bright-sun day, a not uncommon problem with zoom lenses. I had to guess focus, and I frequently got it wrong. Between that and the shutter capping I got nine usable images on this roll, which I shot entirely on Greensburg’s square. Not a great day with the Nikkormat.

On the Square

You don’t expect to find a tiki bar in the heartland, but here one is nevertheless. It’s in what used to be Greensburg’s department store, Minear’s.

Tiki Bar

To see more from this camera, check out my Nikon Nikkormat EL gallery.

The Nikkormat EL is a competent and capable tool, its shutter issues notwithstanding. I didn’t dislike using it, but I wasn’t falling in love, either. Its size and weight is similar enough to my Nikon F2 or F3, which truly delight me to use, that I’ll probably always reach for those cameras first. I’m going to pass this Nikkormat along to its next owner.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Camera Reviews

Nikon EM

I’m sure photographers everywhere thought Nikon was going to heck in a handbasket when they released the EM, a 35mm SLR, in 1979. Plastic body parts? No way to manually set exposure? Whaaaaaaat?

Nikon EM

SLRs were originally considered pro equipment. But through the 1970s, everyday photographers came to appreciate the SLR’s many positive qualities. Camera companies sensed a vast untapped market of amateurs and even casual shooters. Pentax may have been first to figure that out with their small, light, simple, relatively inexpensive ME in 1976. Is it coincidence that Nikon’s similarly sized and featured camera reversed those letters for its name?

Nikon EM

The EM was the smallest, lightest, simplest, and least expensive SLR Nikon had ever made. Yet virtually every F-mount lens made to that point mounted right on. The EM eliminated most of an SLR’s fussy controls, limiting the photographer to aperture-priority shooting (the Auto mode you see atop the camera). If you could learn to focus, you could get Nikon SLR-quality photographs.

Nikon EM

Nikon was deliberate in which corners it cut to build the EM. They built in quality where it counted, starting with a metal chassis. They also built in a metal shutter with electronically controlled shutter speeds from 1 to 1/1,000 sec. — stepless, meaning that if the available light made 1/353 sec. the right shutter speed, that’s what the EM gave you. You could set ISO from 25 to 1600. The EM even had contacts on the bottom plate for an auto winder. All of this required two LR/SR44 button batteries, but if they died you could set the camera to M90 and keep shooting with a 1/90 sec. shutter.

If you like little SLRs like the EM, also check out my reviews of the Olympus OM-1 (here) and the Pentax ME (here). I’ve also reviewed a slew of Nikon SLRs including the F2 (here), the F3 (here) the FA (here), the N2000 (here), the N60 (here), the N65 (here), and the N90s (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

I was headed out for a day on the Michigan Road, thanks to a quarterly board meeting. I headed south on the road towards Napoleon, the little town where we were to meet. Our meeting was in the Central House (photo here), built in about 1820. I had Agfa Vista 200 loaded as I made some photographs inside.

Inside the Central House

During loading I had considerable trouble getting the film to take on the spool. You have to make perfectly sure that a sprocket hole is perfectly placed on the little notch that sticks out on the takeup spool. Also, the meter won’t engage until the film counter is on 1, so you can’t shoot those early frames.

Inside the Central House

To activate the meter on most period Nikon SLRs, you pull the winder lever out. It’s a drag. Not so the EM: just touch the shutter button. The camera beeps when the meter has done its thing. Also, a needle moves to point to the shutter speed the EM has selected. If the EM keeps beeping, it can’t find a good exposure at your chosen aperture.

Inside the Central House

The wind lever is both neat and annoying. It’s a two-part lever. The first part pulls out to provide a good angle for winding, and then both parts work together to wind. Under use, it feels as if too much pressure would break it. Winding itself feels thin and unsure, lacking the usual Nikon high-quality feel.

Bank

My EM’s meter didn’t always want to engage. I found that if I moved the selector from Auto to M90 and back to Auto the meter would play nice again for a few frames. Old camera blues, I suppose.

White Lily

On the way home I stopped in Greensburg to photograph some favorite subjects. When this gas station switched from Shell to Sinclair several years ago I was very happy to see this Sinclair Dino placed out on the corner for all to see. It’s the company’s longtime mascot.

Dino

I walked Greensbur’g square to finish the roll. The EM handled easily, which is the whole point of a camera like this. I never got used to the cheap-feeling winder, and the fussy meter remained annoying. But I never failed to get sharp, evenly exposed photographs from the EM.

On the square in Greensburg

To see more from this camera, check out my Nikon EM gallery.

This Nikon EM came to me from a reader who had it in surplus, and I thank him for letting me experience Nikon’s little SLR. I do like little SLRs, as my love of the Olympus OM-1 and especially the Pentax ME attest.

This is a nice little Nikon body for an easy day of shooting.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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Film Photography

More 35mm color negative work from the CanoScan 9000F MkII and ScanGear

The advice some of you gave me in this post helped me get decent black-and-white scans from my Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II and its bundled ScanGear software. I used the same advice to scan a little more color film.

I made these photos last fall with my Olympus XA2 on Agfa Vista 200. Roberts Camera in Indianapolis processed and scanned them. Their scans are 3130 pixels on the long side. I used ScanGear to scan them at 4800 dpi with all built-in image enhancement turned off, resulting in scans of between 6750 and 6800 pixels on the long side. I resized my scans to 1200 pixels long to upload them here.

I edited scans from both sources as best I could in Photoshop, including adding unsharp masking to the ScanGear scans.

My first test was of this shot of old US 52 and a great abandoned neon sign near my home. It shows considerable vignetting, which I believe is endemic to the camera. While I like the depth of blue in the sky, I don’t like how mottled it is. I tried various Photoshop settings and tools to smooth it out but wasn’t happy with any of the results. I wonder if the film profiles and multi-exposure scanning in Silverfast would resolve these challenges.

The Roberts scan captured more turquoise in a perfectly smooth sky. The Wrecks sign shows far better definition and detail. I suppose the Roberts scan might have a touch of green caste to it. Roberts also reduced the vignetting. I prefer the Roberts scan.

Wrecks

The CanoScan/ScanGear scan of this abandoned farm co-op building shows the same mottled deep blue sky, but plenty of great detail in the corrugated walls. This building is all that’s left of the onetime town of Traders Point, Indiana, by the way. See 1950s film footage of this town, including a brief look at this co-op building, here.

Here’s a crop of the image at 100%. It could be sharper, but it’s fully usable.

In the Roberts scan the colors aren’t as vibrant, and the sky is again more turquoise. In retrospect, I could have helped this photo by reducing exposure a little in Photoshop.

Co-op

From here on out, the winner isn’t as clear between the Roberts and ScanGear scans. This ScanGear scan from downtown Indianapolis shows a scene that’s changed, as the Hard Rock Cafe has since closed and its signs are gone.

The Roberts scan looks like it got more exposure than my scan. My scan highlights the vignetting the XA2’s lens tends to deliver.

Down Maryland St.

These arches are around the corner from the previous scene. Here’s my scan.

Here’s the Roberts scan. Each has its charms; I can’t call one better than the other.

Arches

Still downtown in Indianapolis, I shot this outdoor cafe scene. The day was drizzly and chilly and so not ideal for outdoor dining.

Here’s the Roberts scan. I like my scan’s blue umbrella and the overall color temperature better.

Blue umbrella

Finally, here’s a forlorn building. My scan gives its gray painted brick a bit of a blue caste.

The Roberts scan is more of a straight gray. Like all of the Roberts scans, it got a touch more exposure. Either scan is good enough for my purposes, but I believe I slightly prefer my CanoScan/ScanGear scan.

Gray building

I believe I’ve figured out a good base 35mm scanning technique and can refine it from here. Perhaps I can get a little more sharpness, a little better color. I do have to solve that terrible mottling problem, though; the two scans with blue sky in them aren’t that great.

Next, I’ll try scanning some medium-format negatives with the CanoScan and ScanGear. This is perhaps the most important test, as my goal is to shoot my lovely TLRs and my simple box cameras more often, and process and scan the film myself.

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Photography, Travel

The giants at Bernheim Forest

Our last stop on our Kentucky weekend was to Bernheim Forest. We wouldn’t have known about it had several locals not told us about it. One of them all but implored us to go, just to see the giants.

The giants at Bernheim Forest

Danish artist Thomas Dambo likes to make big things out of wood. His signature work has become giants like these, which he’s built in forests around the world.

This is Little Nis, who is considering his reflection.

The Giants at Bernheim Forest
The Giants at Bernheim Forest

Danmbo built three giants at Bernheim, but spread them out in the forest so you’d have to hike a while to see them. This is Little Nis’s mother Mama Loumari, who’s expecting another baby giant.

The giants at Bernheim Forest
The Giants at Bernheim Forest
The Giants at Bernheim Forest

Deep in the forest you finally find Little Elina, who’s playing marbles with boulders she found lying around. Dambo builds his giants out of local wood. Unsurprisingly, given that this is bourbon country, the Bernheim giants are made in part from barrel staves.

The giants at Bernheim Forest
The Giants at Bernheim Forest
The giants at Bernheim Forest

I photographed these giants with both my Canon PowerShot S80 and my Nikon FA and 35-70mm Zoom Nikkor on Agfa Vista 200. I found the giants challenging to photograph. I couldn’t find good compositions that fully communicated their size and charm, and the reflecting sun played havoc with even exposures. If I spent more time with the giants, however, I’m sure I’d start to feel at one with them and better photographic compositions would follow.

Bernheim Forest is a gem, and it’s a little south of Louisville just off I-65. We went straight home to Zionsville from here, and the trip took us just 2½ hours. You can visit for free on weekdays, and there’s an affordable charge to visit on the weekends.

Us at Bernheim Forest

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Camera Reviews

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon FA

Necklace

I own more Nikon SLR bodies than I can possibly use, but each one of them offers its own wonderful characteristics. Also, many of them were gifts to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras, and remembering the gift-giver makes it hard to want to say to goodbye.

Nikon FA

This Nikon FA is the body I received most recently, and I’d shot just one roll through it. I liked it for its compact size and excellent capability. Here’s a photo from that roll, which was Fomapan 200, through my 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E lens.

Wet hosta leaf

The FA is part of the FE/FM/FA family of semi-pro 35mm SLRs that Nikon introduced to replace its Nikkormat line. The FA was last to the party, introduced in 1983 as a technological tour-de-force. It is the world’s first camera with matrix metering, which Nikon called automatic multi-pattern (AMP) metering. I believe it is also the first Nikon SLR to offer programmed autoexposure, setting both aperture and shutter speed. It also offers aperture- and shutter-priority autoexposure and manual exposure.

The FA is also small and lightweight compared to Nikon’s flagship cameras like the F2 and F3. That makes it great for a long weekend of shooting, as when my wife and I recently visited bourbon country in Kentucky. I started with Arista EDU 200 on board, which is rebranded Fomapan 200.

Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

My 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor lens was mounted. Ken Rockwell calls this one of Nikon’s 10 worst lenses ever, but except for noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end I like it. I use it like three primes: 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm, all of which are marked on the barrel so I can dial them right in. For that convenience I’m happy to spend a little time correcting distortion in Photoshop. The photos above and below are from the Maker’s Mark Distillery near Loretto, KY.

Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

I shot in program mode at first, but the in-viewfinder display kept telling me 1/250 sec. and I wondered whether something was amiss. I switched to aperture-priority mode after that. But every photo I made came back properly exposed. Perhaps the FA’s program mode just biases toward midrange shutter speeds. This photo is of the spring house at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown.

My Old Kentucky Home

I blew through the Arista EDU in a day and switched to Agfa Vista 200 for the rest of the trip. In challenging late-afternoon light the FA did a good job of exposing so the Talbott Inn in Bardstown wasn’t lost in the shadows. This tavern and hotel has been operating since 1779.

Talbott Inn

Bardstown is charming, especially for people like Margaret and me who like old houses. We walked around town a lot just photographing homes and buildings.

Old Talbott tavern

I have one peeve with the FA, and I became more and more annoyed with it as the weekend rolled on. To meter, you have to pull the winding lever out to its first stop. With the camera at my eye, that lever poked right into my forehead. I wished for a different way to activate the meter. Also, my FA has a strange fault: the mechanism that prevents you from winding past an unexposed frame is broken. Otherwise, the FA performed well. Its size, weight, and feature set make it a great everyday manual-focus SLR.

Pointy signs

The 35-70 zoom also includes a macro mode. What a versatile lens this is.

Spring blooms, macro

It’s taken me most of the last 10+ years of collecting and using old cameras to internalize that the lens is the critical component of any camera. But I do believe the FA’s matrix metering made a real difference in mixed and challenging light. My beloved Pentax ME would likely not have done as nuanced a job exposing this mid-evening light.

Bardstown street

We drove out to Bernheim Forest on our trip to see the giants, these wooden sculptures just completed by artist Thomas Dambo. I’m sure I’ll do a whole post about them soon. Light reflecting off the smooth wooden surfaces made for a challenging exposure situation, with lots of bright and dark areas. I had to tone down highlights in Photoshop.

The giants at Bernheim Forest

The FA’s 1/4000 sec. top shutter speed lets me blur the background in dimmer light, compared to my 1/1000 sec. Pentax ME.

Smoking bear

Want to see more? Check out my Nikon FA gallery.

Let’s take an inventory of my manual-focus Nikon SLR bodies.

I’m not getting rid of my two Nikon F2s or my Nikon F3, no sir, nuh uh. I own two Nikkormats, an FTn that’s big and heavy like the F2, and an EL which is smaller and lighter like this FA. I also own an N2000.

The Nikkormats will have their turns in Operation Thin the Herd soon. But I don’t see me keeping either of them over my F2s and F3.

When the N2000 had its turn in Operation Thin the Herd (here) I decided to keep it. I travel with it, as if it is damaged, lost, or stolen, replacements can be had for as little as $20. And I just plain like it.

A working FA costs at least $100, but it’s a far more capable and sensitive performer than the N2000.

On this Kentucky trip either camera would have been fine, though the FA nailed exposure in some of these shots where the N2000 would probably have only done okay.

It comes down to this: The Nikon FA’s wind lever pokes me in the forehead. It’s really annoying.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Lilly Lake, Eagle Creek Park *EXPLORED*

Autumn at Lilly Lake
Canon Canonet QL17 G-III
Agfa Vista 200
2018

This photo was featured in Flickr Explore on November 19. It’s always fun to see all the likes and comments when one of my photos makes Explore.

I wonder how many Flickr viewers had any idea that I was shooting film? To know, they’d only have to click through to my image’s page and read the description.

Can an experienced eye guess that this is a film photograph? To me, the sky is the tell. It has a nuance to it that digital cameras seem unable to capture. They tend to render skies almost too perfectly, with wispy clouds against a sea of perfect azure.

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Film Photography

single frame: Autumn at Lilly Lake

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