Nostalgia Versus Current Reality

Paul in Majorca
Portrait of me in Majorca taken in March 1986 by my father in law, Brooke Spencer. Probably taken with a Leica R4 with a Leica 135/2.8 Elmarit-R on Kodak colour negative film. I’m holding my trusty Olympus OM1n with the Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm f3.5-4.5 lens. Those were the days.

Since the trans-continental relocation of the global behemoth that is Paul Amyes Photography (PAP) I have been hunkered down in the research lab deep in thought. To continue with my quest for photographic world domination I have been contemplating a new fine art project with a commercial bent that trades heavily on nostalgia for a bygone age.

While studying photography at art school I took two units in fine art photography and I was particularly taken with alternative processes, namely gum bichromate and cyanotypes. I experimented with taking digital images and then turning them into an A4 sized negative and using that to contact print onto papers that I had coated. To tap into that nostalgia thing and enjoy a retro photographic process I initially thought about capturing the new images on large format and using the resulting negative to make the contact print. There is something very beautiful about a large format contact but this is countered by the very damaging effect a large format camera has on your bank account. So this made me think about using digital capture and then making a negative from the file. It is not particularly difficult and at art school I experimented with paper negatives and ones made using overhead projector sheets. The paper negatives were best oiled with WD40 and they produced an image which was softened by the natural fibres of the paper. OHP transparencies gave a sharper image but the out put still looked like a modern image. Then I had a brain wave. What if I took older lenses and adapted them to a modern high-resolution digital body. The Sony A7r is now appearing on the second had market at very reasonable prices, and these will continue to fall as Sony introduces a new updated model every other week (a slight exaggeration perhaps). But before I splashed out some serious cash I thought I better find out whether the motley collection of old lenses I’ve got tucked in a shoe box in my equipment cupboard would be suitable. I decided to put them on an m4/3 camera and see how they perform.

 

A New Lease Of Life
Four of my favourite lenses; an Olympus Zuiko 35-105 zoom, an Olympus Zuiko 50mm f1.4, a Voigtlander 75mm shot telephoto and a Voigtlander 35mm lens.

 

The test was relatively straight forward. I’d use my Olympus EM1 as the camera body and mount the lenses using the relative adapters. The camera would be hand-held with the image stabilisation set manually to the focal length. The camera would be in aperture priority at base ISO (which for the EM1 is 200) and I would shoot wide open and then stop down full aperture stops until f8 – any smaller aperture and the results would be clouded by diffraction. I’d use focus peaking to focus accurately and I would refocus after every aperture change to avoid focus shift.

Voigtlander 35mm f2.5 Color Skopar
Voigtlander 35mm f2.5 Color-Skopar mounted on an Olympus OMD EM-1 mirrorless camera.

The lenses were:

Olympus Zuiko 50mm f1.4 MC. This was the third version of the lens and was introduced in 1984. I had fond memories of the lens and it produced some cracking images for me.
Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm f3.5-4.5. This lens was introduced in 1983, which is when I bought it. It cost me a small fortune, if I recall correctly £189, which at that time was two weeks wages. At the time I thought it was worth it and I used it as my every day do anything lens right up until 2003 when I switch to Canon because I could no longer get my OMs serviced. This was a lens that figured prominently in my plan.
Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color-Skopar. Introduced in 2004 this was another favourite lens, it was tiny, and very sharp. I loved using this with Ilford Delta 400 on my Bessa R2. Again a lens I had very high expectations for.
Voigtländer 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar Introduced in 1999 this was a lens I feel I should have liked. It is wickedly sharp and with its ten aperture blades produced wonderful bokeh. But for some reason I just did not click with it – I think it was the minimum focusing distance which made it possible to only get a head and shoulders portrait rather than a full headshot.

 

The images were shot with the camera in RAW and then opened up in Lightroom and examined at full screen size and then at 100%. There was no post processing done. The results weren’t really a surprise, but they were somewhat disappointing as they revealed some uncomfortable truths and some pleasant surprises. Here are the results:

Olympus 50mm f1.4 – wide open there was significant colour fringing, low contrast, and overall the image was soft getting worse at the edges. Stopping the lens down brought about significant improvements – the chromatic aberration all but disappeared by f8 and the corner sharpness really started to improve from f4. The bokeh was nice and smooth. A good start.

 

Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm f3.5-4.5
Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm f3.5-4.5. Focal length 105mm f4.5

 

Olympus 35-105mm – at 35mm and wide open the colour fringing very apparent even before pixel peeping at 100% and it didn’t improve any by f8. At 105mm and wide open the CA was significant but it does improve by f8, but is still visible. Edge sharpness was nothing to write home about wide open but by the time it was stopped down to f8 it did improve. Surprisingly the bokeh was better than expected at both extremes of the focal range.

35mm Color-Skopar – chromatic aberration was quite well controlled wide open and just improved as it was stopped down. The edge sharpness was slightly soft wide open but improved dramatically once stopped down to f4 and kept improving past that. Bokeh was a bit iffy, something that Voigtländers are often criticised for on the inter web.

Voigtlander 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar
Voigtlander 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar. Aperture 2.5

75mm Color-Heliar – straight off the bat this was a very strong performer and for me was a real surprise. Wide open CA was virtually non-existent and disappeared by f4. Edge sharpness was very good from f4 onwards. The bokeh was just gorgeous. The 10 aperture blades produce very smooth tonal transitions and lovely perfectly round bokeh balls.

 

Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm f3.5-4.5
Frida. Olympus OMD EM1 with Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm lens.

 

Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm f3.5-4.5
Avon Terrace – York. Olympus EM-1 with Olympus 35-105mm f3.5-4.5 lens.

Of the 4 lenses the poorest performer is the 35-105 zoom. In reality this should be expected in a thirty year old zoom lens design, but it is disappointing to me as I had such a high regard for this lens based upon my extensive use of it. Countless rolls of Fuji Velvia and Kodachrome 64 over a twenty year period had convinced me that it was a good performer. However slap it on a digital camera and the results are quite frankly so-so at best and absolutely pants at worst.

The 50mm has a lovely creamy dreamy quality to it that would make it very suited to fashion and beauty portraiture. The 50mm has a very nice smooth tonal fall off which now makes me question whether sensor size is as significant factor for this and that perhaps lens design also plays a considerable part.

The 35mm Color-Skopar was OK – meaning it wasn’t good or bad. I’d be interested to see what it does on a full frame sensor.

 

Voigtlander 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar
Frida on Mount Brown taken on an Olympus EM10 with Voigtlander 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar.

 

Voigtlander 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar
Pig melons on Mount Brown. Olympus EM-10 with Voigtlander 75mm f2.5 lens.

The 75mm Color-Heliar was a revelation, and it is certainly the standout lens here. It was when introduced an underrated lens when introduced with the Bessa rangefinder film cameras and was quickly replaced with an f1.8 version. But since then this lens has developed quite a following with people adapting it for use on digital cameras. Voigtländer took a classic lens design, gave it modern glass and coatings, boosted the lens aperture blades to 10 and produced something rather special. For shooting studio portraiture it would make anyone look good. Definitely a keeper lens and quite possibly the kind of lens you’d buy a camera body for just so you can use it. If only the 35mm was that good – I’d go out and hit the camera shops and dent the credit card straight away.

Modern lenses are technically very good, most of the problems with vignetting, corner and edge sharpness and colour fringing are now corrected in camera by software. They are sharp and contrasty which appeals to a great many photographers who have only known digital imaging. The legacy lenses are sharp in the centre of the frame, but they have lower contrast and this doesn’t give the edge acuity that many digital photographers want. But this also makes them more attractive because they have character and render images in a more 3D way with smoother tonality. The test has shown that the Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm is really not up to the demands of a high-resolution digital sensor. Nostalgia destroyed by the brutal reality of modern digital imaging. The other three lenses could stand some further experimentation.

Gone To The Dogs

Sometimes when I read the photography forums I wonder how we managed to make pictures in the past. No auto focus, shooting film so there was no instant feedback on exposure and content, being limited to 36 exposure rolls of film rather than 128Gb memory cards, frame rates of only 3 fps rather than 11. But make photos we certainly did. Going through my Lightroom catalogue the other day I looked at this short series I shot. The assignment was to make a short photo essay of six photos using black and white film and produce six prints. The equipment used was fairly basic by todays comparison, an Olympus OM4 fitted with an autowinder, an Olympus 35-105mm lens, an Olympus 65-200mm lens, and four rolls of Ilford HP5. The film was developed in D76 and the prints were made on Ilford Multigrade RC. The images below were from scans of the actual prints.

 

Gone To The Dogs
The steward walking the dogs out to the start line. Greyhound racing at Cannington in Western Australia.

 

Gone To The Dogs
Preparing the dogs at the starting gates. Greyhound racing at Cannington in Western Australia.

 

Gone To The Dogs
They’re off chasing the electric hare. Greyhound racing at Cannington in Western Australia.

 

Gone To The Dogs
Into the final straight. Greyhound racing at Cannington in Western Australia.

 

 

Gone To The Dogs
The winners on the podium being photographed. Greyhound racing at Cannington in Western Australia.

 

Gone To The Dogs
The punters watch the action on screens in side the bar. Greyhound racing at Cannington in Western Australia.

 

 

I won’t say any more because I feel I’m in danger of becoming the photographic equivalent of:

 

Familiarity

Chichester Cathedral
Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England. Olympus OM2n with Sigma 28mm f2.8 lens with Cokin Pink Graduated filter. Fujichrome 100. 1986.

I lived in Chichester, West Sussex, for 16 years and the cathedral was an ever-present presence. It has dominated the town and much of the surrounding countryside for nearly a thousand years and from the moment I took up photography I tried unsuccessfully to capture its likeness. Each time I tried I felt I got nowhere near what I felt it meant to me. I left England in 1988 and moved to Australia, but I continue to visit as I have friends and family there. Each time I visit Chichester I have another crack at the Cathedral

 

Chichester Cathedral
Chichester Cathedral viewed from the behind the gates of the Deanery. Chichester, West Sussex, England. Olympus OM4 with Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm lens. Fujichrome 100. Scanned and converted to black and white using SilverEfx. 1991.

 

The pictures here represent several attempts over the years from the mid 1980’s Cokin filter phase to the start of the digital revolution in 2007.  I have more, older and more recent (I figured there’s a limit to many I can post!) but none of them capture what I think is the essence of the building.

 

England 2007
Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England. 2007 Canon EOS 300D DIGITAL with Sigma 18.0-50.0 mm f2.8 EX lens with circular polarizing filter.

 

The problem is that I am too familiar with it. I have a picture in my mind’s eye of what I think it should look like and that preconceived idea prevents me from exploring the possibilities. Next time I visit I’m going to have to put aside my preconceptions and actually work on getting the shot.

 

Nepal Earthquake

I have very fond memories of Nepal. I went there in November to December 1987, and although the people are among the poorest in the world I found them to be some of the most cheerful and hospitable people I have ever met. One of my fondest memories is of a night when we stayed at a remote farmhouse while trekking. I had been ill with dysentery for a couple of months and had lost a lot of weight and looked pretty awful. We arranged for a bed for the night and a meal of dhal baht (the local staple of lentils, rice, and potato and cauliflower curry, sometimes topped with a fried egg if you were lucky). The older man of the household was very concerned about me – he literally tucked me in bed and soothed my forehead while making clucking sounds.  It was one of many wonderful and hospitable moments from people who had not much more than nothing.

 

Elephant In The Mist
Working elephant heading off to work in the early morning mist in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

On the 25th April Nepal was hit by a devastating earthquake which has killed over 6000 people and has an expected death toll of 10,000. Worse than tat it is estimated that twice that number will have been injured and tens of thousands of people have been made homeless. As photographers we take a great deal of pleasure from the world around us and those that live in it. Perhaps it is time to give a little something to those in need – maybe you already have and if so thank you. Many aid agencies, retail chains, iTunes and banks are taking collections for the people of Nepal. I’ll list some of the Australian ones but you can use those in your own country if you’d rather.

 

Chitwan National Park
Sam, Ewan, and Mark the local guide on our illicit elephant safari in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens. Illfochrome 200.

 UNHCR

Oxfam

World Vision Australia

Red Cross

Hanuman Dhoka
Hanuman Dhoka is a complex of structures with the Royal Palace of the Malla kings and also of the Shah dynasty in the Durbar Square of central Kathmandu, Nepal. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens, Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Waiting
A cycle rickshaw operator waiting for a fare. Kathmandu, Nepal. Olumpus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Stuppa
One of the many stupas in Kathmandu. Olympus OM40 with Zuiko 35-105 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

On the steps
Watching the world go by from from the temple steps in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 with 75-210 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Hopscotch
Nepali children playing on hopscotch on the temple steps in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Smoko
A Nepali man sitting on the temple steps in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 Sigma 75-210 Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

The Flute Seller
Flute seller, Freak Street, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Swayambhunath
The Swayambhunath Stuppa, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Just as an aside – all these photos were taken in 1987 on E6 slide film, mostly Kodak Ektachrome 100 and some on Ilford Ilfochrome 200. The slides have been stored in archival binders ever since. When I got them out to scan them for this post all had started to fade, and some the dyes had perished badly leaving just a magenta cast – hence that is why some are black and white. So if you have any valuable slides scan them now before they disappear for ever.