Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr.

This book is a mixed bag and I come away from it with mixed feelings. If Sammy Davis, Jr. shot as many frames as the book seems to imply, he perhaps wasn't much of a photographer as many of the images in the book are of dubious quality. However, I cannot make the mistake of comparing him to contemporaries such as HCB. He was a singer, an actor, a dancer, a muscian, and a consumate live entertainer. He seemed to take everything he did very seriously. Some of his images in this collection are rather good. Others were very badly exposed and, unfortunately, printed anyway. I think he wasn't much of an editor and, to be fair again, he didn't assemble these images. Some of the frames are delightful.

One thing that makes this collection interesting is the subject matter. He had access to, of course, the Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, Jerry Lewis, Nat King Cole, and so on. Most of the images are candid. Those are pretty good, and some are actually very good. Other shots are posed with big smiling faces blasted flat with a flash bulb, harsh shadows on the wall. Some are blurred, and some are slightly out of focus. If you weed out everything that a proper editor would weed out, the book would be half its size. But some folks want to see the bad stuff because they want to see the people in the bad shots. The book isn't expensive ($50, 2/3 of that from amazon.com). For $32 books, a big book would sell better than a thin book.

Was Sammy a good photographer? I think he was a good amateur photographer. He used good equipment. Some of his shots are inspiring. The snapshots are awful, especially those with flash. I preferred the blurred motion, slightly out of focus, natural lighting shots. Probably because I shun the flash altogether, use a Rolleiflex and Nikon RF, and a lot of my shots are blurred and slightly out of focus. But I have the sense to bury the really bad ones never to be seen by others.

The narrative by author Burt Boyar is interesting and welcomed. He has spent a lot of time studying and writing about Sammy Davis, Jr., and I'm glad that he was responsible for assembling this collection. Should you buy it? Go to Barnes and Noble, get a cup of coffee, and look at it. Ultimately, it is probably a book that a serious photographer might want to check out of the local library. But I was pleasantly surprised by some of Sammy's shots here. He never did anything without trying to do it well. He was a lot better photographer than was Patton, but photography wasn't Patton's strongest suit either. I came away from this book with even fonder feelings toward Sammy than I had before. I've always liked him as a man.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Classic 200 in Prescysol

What has the grain of push-processed Delta 3200 from a Minox yet is slower than TRI-X? Why would anyone want to know?

The European 200 ISO films all seem to have one thing in common: grain. The highly touted and expensive Bergger 200 is grainier than TRI-X, I found the Paterson 200 to be overly grainy, and the Classic 200 discussed here is grainiest of all. Classic 200 is touted as having a nostalgic, retro look. That might be the case if shooting 8x10 film, but with 35mm, it is grainier than anything I’ve ever seen short of Robert Capa’s botched Normandy shot. But, to be fair, it is the least expensive of the European 200 ISO films.

There is speculation that these 200 ISO black and white films are all from the same factory. At last count, we have:

  • Bergger 200
  • Classic 200
  • Foma 200
  • Forte 200 [I think Forte just folded]
  • Paterson 200

There may be more, but these have been commercially-available in the United States. I’m pretty sure that the Foma 200 is unlike the others. It develops beautifully in PMK Pyro and is one of my favorite films. The others? Any one of them would have been perfect for documenting the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Or just about any sandstorm. Or the Marlboro man’s lips. Other than that, it is just way too grainy. I have a few rolls left, but am not interested enough in this film to go out and purchase and grain-dissolving developer like Microdol-X. Inside me lurks the fear that I will run into a Pulitzer prize-winning photo opportunity only to dash my chances because my Leica was loaded with a roll of $1.99 film.

You'll have to excuse me for the subject matter in the pictures posted here. To add insult to injury, those guys were calling me a fornicator and a Catholic. The closeup of them reminds me of the shooter on the grassy knoll.

By the way, I developed it in Prescysol.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Kodak TRI-X in Prescysol

TRI-X and D76 might be thought of as standard bearers in the black and white world. If a film doesn’t develop well in D76, its chances of being accepted are reduced. Likewise, if a developer doesn’t work well with TRI-X, it generally ends up being marketed as having some other feature (good with zone system, ultra fine grain, high acutance, etc.). The developers that sell best are those that emulate D76 (HC 110, XTOL, and ID11).

Recently, I’ve been using an obscure developer named Prescysol. Previous blog entries have praised its performance with Fuji Neopan Acros, Bergger 200, and Agfa APX400. The acid test would ultimately boil down to how it worked with TRI-X.

I developed this roll of TRI-X exactly like I have developed everything in Prescysol. No matter what film you are using, it seems to work best at the film’s nominal ISO rating, and developed at 75F for 10.5 minutes with only three periods of agitation. The subject (photographer Bill Nelsch) was photographed with a 75/1.4 Summilux wide open in a restaurant. As I expected, the grain was well controlled, the grays are all there, and the areas in focus are as sharp as one is going to get with TRI-X. An enlargement of Bill’s eye shows the subdued characteristics of the grain with this developer.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Agfa APX 400 in Prescysol

I was disappointed when news of Agfa’s demise surfaced. I expected some of the smaller companies to go under, but not the German film manufacturer that represented a cornerstone in the market. This isn’t like Oldsmobile going under. It is more like GM going under. So when the news broke, I bought two cases of APX 400 film and one case of APX 100 film. I liked Agfa black and white film and paper back in my wet darkroom days, and if I didn’t pick up a few hundred rolls, I’d have been kicking myself. Then I shot some and scanned it.

Prints from scanned film aren’t quite the same as prints from conventional printing, especially considering that I have always used a diffusion head enlarger. The Nikon Coolscan picks up every grain of silver in sharp focus. So I’ll try divided D76. Still too grainy. PMK Pyro should do the job well. It not only develops the silver in the negative, it also softens the image by applying a layer of stain in the exposed areas. At least it does with Ilford FP4. But not with Agfa APX 400. There is almost no staining on the negatives. How about the old photojournalist favorite 777 developer? Better, but when you get close, it is very gritty. Someone suggested Rodinal. Although that flew in the face of logic, I gave it a shot. As I expected, the grainiest prints yet.

So the APX 400 stayed in a bag on my bedroom floor for 6 months, with another case unopened. I used TRI-X and Neopan 400 instead, and played with Foma 200 Creative. Maybe I could unload the Agfa film on eBay.

A month or so ago, I was rooting through some of my stored developers and ran across Prescysol. It had to be about 2-3 years old, and is in concentrated liquid form. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I decided to try it. TRI-X + Prescysol was a very nice combination [reviewed earlier]. Acros in Prescysol is also a very nice combination [reviewed earlier]. Bergger 200 in Prescysol was, as I expected, gritty. But in a sort of good way. So why not push my luck and try APX 400.

What bad conditions for a test roll. Early afternoon on a clear, haze-free day in blinding sunlight with lots of dark shadows. Why bother? But this was a once-a-year event, the Mystic Krewe of Barkus Parade in the French Quarter. I cringed with every shot, expecting chalk, soot, and abundant grit. No turning back.

The developed negatives looked good, at least to the unaided eye. Scanning them yielded a surprise. This notoriously sooty, gritty, grainy film yielded some nice grays and very subdued grain when developed in Prescysol. I followed the directions down to the letter, agitating only three times, letting the tank stand untouched for 3-3.5 minutes at a time. The test shots here are enlarged but not manipulated in any way. Just to convince you that the grain is well-controlled, I am including a close-up of a close-up.

I cannot imagine using any other developer with this film. I am anxious to see how this developer works with APX 100.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Recovering a Vintage Camera

I like using the high quality post-WWII cameras. Rolleiflex, Nikon, Contax, and Leica made some very durable professional cameras that have proven their excellent build quality by continuing to be excellent shooters today. And there are still some expert repairmen (and repairwomen) who can keep them running like they were made yesterday. But cameras are not built only of brass, aluminum, and steel. Other more perishable materials were used in making these instruments. And the synthetic materials of that era are no match for today’s polymers.

A few years ago, I bought a very well-cared-for Leica M4-2. Not a scratch, dent, or bright mark anywhere on the body. Last December, I pulled it out with the intention of testing some film and developer when I felt the crunch of old vulcanite, Leica’s hard rubber covering of their 35mm cameras during the mid-20th century. The brittle black rubber was on the camera’s back plate, under my thumb. The back plate is the only flexible part of an M4-2 body, and the miniscule flexing was enough to separate the rubber from the metal below it. What to do?

Cameraleather.com is web-based operation that offers durable leather and leatherette coverings for an amazing variety of cameras. The coverings are cut to fit the camera exactly. They have an adhesive backing that adheres to the metal after you remove the previous covering material. Colors and styles vary from the utilitarian black pebble look to the swanky reptile skin look. I wanted a color that would bridge the gap between black and chrome so that chrome lenses could be used on the M4-2 without looking goofy. I went with walnut brown in kid leather. Be advised that the kid leather doesn’t feel like soft glove leather. It is firm and

Although Morgan Sparks, the owner of Cameraleather, gives instructions on how to prepare the camera and apply the leather kits, working with adhesive sheets has never been my strong suit. I don’t like wallpapering or applying contact paper. I have difficulty wrapping up a package without long wrinkles in the tape. For an additional charge, you can have them strip off the old leather/vulcanite and apply the covering for you. That was fine with me; I didn’t need the grief of screwing it up.

The results were, in my opinion, very nice. The leather fits the camera body perfectly, with the holes perfectly lined up with the tiny screws on the body. Now I am impatiently waiting for vulcanite to fall off of my Leica IIIf or Leica M3 so I can give them a face lift as well. But my next project will probably be to have Morgan recover a Rolleiflex TLR whose leather is curling a bit at the edges. I think I’ll go with BR Green or Sequoia Green embossed leather.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Nikon S3 Year 2000 Limited Edition

The past 7 years have witnessed a rangefinder renaissance. Cosina acquired the Voigtländer name and started producing a variety of cute, relatively inexpensive, retro rangefinder cameras that can use Leica, Voigtländer, Contax, and Nikon RF lenses. Konica released a rangefinder in the Leica M mount. Rollei marketed a new rangefinder (very similar to the Voigtländer). Zeiss Ikon released a very impressive rangefinder in two versions. Epson and Leica both released digital rangefinder cameras. Bronica released a medium format rangefinder camera. And Leica released perhaps their finest rangefinder of them all, the Leica MP. But during the past 7 years, most of these rangefinder cameras were quickly discontinued, along with some other rangefinder cameras that existed before the rangefinder renaissance (Hasselblad, Fuji, Mamiya).

The rangefinder camera I haven’t mentioned is the Nikon S3. This camera seemed to make the least sense, at least to me. It is a close reproduction of a meterless rangefinder camera released back in 1958. The S3 wasn’t the most popular Nikon rangefinders, nor was it what many felt was Nikon’s best rangefinder. Producing it obviously required all new tooling at Nikon. And with this new S3 came a revised 50/1.4 Nikkor lens. Dubbed the Nikon S3 Year 2000 Limited Edition, it retailed for a bundle and nobody thought one of them would actually be used to take photos. The idea was apparently that the Japanese market would buy it as a collector’s item and that it would never see action. Early reports said that, even at the large price, Nikon lost money on every camera sold. Worse yet, nobody seemed interested in buying them. Why would a collector with a pristine Nikon S3 from 1958 buy a replica made over 40 years later? The lure of collecting is to be able to show off a 50-year-old camera that looks brand new, not a brand new camera that resembles one made 50 years ago. The rangefinder world ignored the new, meterless Nikon S3 and they sat on dealer shelves for several years.

Today, I found one on the Internet with a $5,183.84 price tag on it. Other stores on the web are offering it for $3,999. One Ebay seller just dropped his asking price from $3,000 to $2,500. No nibbles so far. And they continue to gather dust. Two really big stores in New York, Adorama and B&H, apparently decided to cut their losses and dropped their prices apparently below what dealers would pay for the cameras wholesale. When Nikon is losing money on them and the two powerhouse camera stores are losing money on them, it’s hard to convince me that buying one isn’t a bargain, but I wouldn’t want to make that pitch to my wife. I wanted to know if it was eye candy or a good camera. Nowhere could I find a soul who had one and could tell me. The silence was deafening.

Then Leica did something that really tipped the balance. They raised their prices for an MP and an M7 astronomically. Now one would have to shell out nearly $3,500 for just a body. And then they released the 50/1.4 Summilux aspheric lens for an earth-shattering $2,800. Squeak!!! That's $6,300 for a camera and fast 50mm lens. Suddenly Nikon’s original asking price for the Nikon S3 was getting palatable. I found one that Adorama was unloading for less than $3,000 on Ebay. That did it. I buckled and got it. It even came with a leather ever-ready case (does anyone really use those’).

I have a couple of old Nikon S2 cameras that I like very much. Had I not had good experiences with the 50-year-old S2s, I wouldn’t have plunged into an S3. Okay, what are my impressions of the S3?’


  • It’s a very handsome camera, like the original Nikon rangefinders. Although it is barely larger than a Contax IIa, it feels larger.
  • It’s much easier to load than a Leica of any vintage. But then what’s harder to load than a Leica’
  • The lens is exceptional. Why make a lens this good for a collector? Why not make thousands of them in M mount for Leica users? My 50/1.4 Nikkor from the 1950’s in LTM mount makes my knees buckle. Everyone should be so fortunate to have one.
  • It’s lighter than Leica’s MP.
  • With a cloth shutter, it’s relatively quiet, quieter than either of my S2 bodies (but perhaps not as quiet as a Leica M).
  • It isn’t a cheap-feeling reproduction. It really does look and feel like a 1950’s vintage Nikon rangefinder.
  • It’s a pleasure to use.


  • No meter. But we’re used to that. Anyone who uses a pre-M5 Leica or a medium to large format camera is accustomed to using a handheld light meter.
  • Vague rangefinder patch. Anyone who has used a Leica M3, Zeiss Ikon, or modern Voigtländer is spoiled by a bright rangefinder patch. The Nikon patch is not as easy to see.
  • Build quality is good, but it does look stamped instead of milled. My Leica MP body looks and feels like it was machined from a massive billet of solid brass. You could beat someone to death with a Leica MP, but only maim them with a Nikon S3.
  • The entire lens rotates when you focus it. It also rotates (unintentionally) when you try to change the aperture. If Nikon decided to come out with a new-millennium rangefinder, they hope they would fix this design shortcoming.
  • It has an infinity lock. What the hell is with the infinity lock’! Early Leicas had them too. I think this comes from a manual transmission mentality. Nobody in the 1940’s would leave their car out of gear when parking. You have to put the car in gear so it won’t roll. So let’s put an infinity lock on lenses so they won’t move from infinity. I hate them.
  • Very few lenses available. The only modern lenses for Nikon RF mount are the 50/1.4 Nikkor, a [now discontinued] set of fine optics from Voigtländer, and a 35mm lens that ships with yet another Nikon commemorative rangefinder, the SP.

Fortunately, I use a 50mm lens most of the time and the 50/1.4 Nikkor is a wonderful lens. Do I recommend the reissue of the Nikon S3? If you can get one at a reasonable price, by all means yes. And you had best snap up the remaining Nikon mount rangefinder lenses from www.cameraquest.com before they are gone.

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