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5 Tips to Improve Your Film Photography

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5 Tips to Improve Your Film Photography

Moving from digital to film photography has always been a daunting task. Having the perks of shooting unlimited frames , having a nice preview after every shot and ability to post process the images in photoshop or lightroom certainly gives photographers a lot of assurance. However working with a film is the total opposite and many find it risky. Here are some tips to help you elevate your film photography to the next level !

 

1. Exposure is KEY - When it comes to film, exposure is the most important thing of all. The film colors and  details depend greatly on the exposure. You may use the same film, same camera and lens but with different exposure the colors and details will varies greatly.

Below are 3 examples taken with the same roll of film , Kodak Portra 160 with my Rolleiflex 3.5f . Thought it may not be the same exact scene but it does give you a fair indication.  The first photo was shot at perfect exposure while the middle shot was over exposed half a stop to give the skin a little more glow. The last shot was shot under (not intentionally , probably too much sake lol ) . As you can see the last photos looks faded, desaturated and grainy as compared to the rest of the images. The middle photo has a lot more pop in term of contrast and colors while the first looks more neutral. Play around with the exposure and see which works best for you !

 

2. Expose for the shadows - I think this the most important key factor that most got it wrong when photographers pick up a film camera. Being a photographer started out with digital cameras , we were told countless times to watch for the over blown highlights as most digital cameras have problems dealing with over exposures. We have been told countless times that over blow highlights are bad bad bad in digital.  However this is not the case with film. The shadows is what matters when you are shooting film. Film have a much larger dynamic range than digital sensors , approx 16 vs 12 stops on the average hence it's able to handle highlights pretty well. However film will suffer once it is under exposed.

As an example below on the bottom left , I had my wife standing in front of a glacier. On a typical scene like this, the camera exposure will usually under expose the scene thanks to the huge chuck of snow at the background. Knowing that the main subject on this photo would be of course my wife, hence I did a close up metering on her face , walked back and recompose the shot. It turns out perfectly exposed. I would not be able to produce a shot like this if it was shot with a digital camera without doing the HDR function.

As for the shot of the Tibetan monk, I meter the shadow area which he is as passing through to ensure he is not underexposed. As you can see the highlight on the wall and sky is perfectly intact. That's the beauty of film !

3. Use film within the best before date   - Always use the film within the film shelf life period for optimum quality. This includes shooting and developing the film within that period of time. I often try to buy the freshest film possible so I would have sufficient storage and usage time. Standard film would have around 1.5 to 2 yrs of shelf life hence check always check the film expiry date  just like how you buy a loaf of bread or a fresh carton of milk from the mart. Expired film may look cool sometimes if you are lucky but usually it tend to be more grainy and the colors are highly unpredictable.

 

4. Don't be over ambitious - Spend time to know your film more before switching  to another type of film.  Every film has it’s own characteristics in term of colors, details, latitude and preferred exposure method. For example , Kodak Portra works best with 0.3 stop over exposure while Fuji Pro400 H needs a minimum of 1 stop over exposure to give the creamy pastel colors.  Kodak Ektar and black and white film works best with perfect exposure . Try out 5 rolls of the same film before switching it out and see which works best for your work.

From left to right  Fuji Pro400H - Creamy pastel color with soft highlights , great skin tone | Kodak Ektar 100 - Sharp, punch contrast, low grain and punchy red color. Fuji Superia - High contrast,  harsh highlights and accesntuate on green color.                         

5. Black and white and color film exposes differently - When I shoot with black and white and color film, I think very differently. For colors I usually look for even exposure scene and I expose for the shadows as what I have explained in point 2. However for BW film, I prefer to hunt for subject or scene which has more dramatic lighting , after all it's the shadow and highlights of a photos that makes a black and white film 'black' and 'white' . I never liked a BW film being too flat without shadows. Hence every time I travel , I often carry two cameras one loaded with box speed or pushed  black and white film while another loaded with color film so that I could switch between the two depending on the lighing condition.

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Which Film Camera to buy for beginners ?

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Which Film Camera to buy for beginners ?

So many film cameras in the market, which one should you buy ? Here are some tips for those who is starting out :

1. Keep it simple - The simpler film camera is , the less likely the camera will fail. Even if it fails, it would be easier and cheaper to repair. One have to consider the age of these film cameras could be as old as your parents A Leica M3 would probably be around 65 years old by now. I would suggest to get a camera with full mechanical function which does not rely on battery to operate.

2. Work within your budget - There is a huge range of film cameras in the market and their price varies from USD 40 all the way to USD 40k depending on the brand , rarity and condition. The Nikon FM or FE2 , Canon Canonet, Olympus 35SP, Yashica 124G, Minolta Autocord and Asahi Pentax are pretty affordable for newbies.

3. Type of cameras, Rangefinder or SLR - This depends on your shooting style. I would suggest rangefinder style camera if you love to shoot streets, travel and journalistic as rangefinder is more suited for the wide to mid range zoom lenses. The size is compact , less obtrusive and usually very light. Go for SLR if you love doing portrait , macro, sports or wildlife. What about TLRs you may asked ...well I wouldn't recommend it as your first camera as the number of shots per roll is a lot less as it is a medium format camera. You will only get 12 exposures for roll of film hence make your learning curve a lot more expensive.

3. Keep it small - There is a saying ' The best camera is the one with you ! '. I would suggest to start out with a camera which is small and portable so you would use it more. We understand that huge and bulky cameras such as the Hasselblad  500cm and Mamiya RZ67 looks uber cool but it require quite a bit of muscle to lug it around. It certainly not an everyday camera for you to learn. First the number of exposures are greatly reduced ( the Hassie 500cm only clocks 12 shots ) , the processing fee is pretty much the same hence the cost per shot is a lot higher !

4. Availability of film format and place to process the negatives - Through out the years many film format has already been discontinued. Hence if you found a camera with the below format kindly avoid them at all cost unless it plan to keep the camera as a paper weight or a display item - 220 ( discontinued ) , large format 4 x 5 and 8 x 10

5. BATTERY type - Many of the older film cameras out there uses mercury battery which is no longer in production. Always check if there is a replacement / substitute battery which you could use. If not it would be pointless to own a camera which you can't operate unless you are a camera collector.

 

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Buying your first classic film LEICA M ?

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I can still remember the day I first got myself a Leica camera. It has that mystical feeling or aura which I simply can't put it in words. My hands were sweating and my heart were racing when I was opening the DHL box after longing to own my dream camera for such a long time. The process is indeed rather daunting specially not everyone has the luxury to test every single one of the Leica M ( both film and digital ) in the market and pick the one that suits you perfectly. I am based in a Kuala Lumpur Malaysia and access to vintage film camera is already hard due to the lack of demand and popularity here. Hence I am writing this article to help out those who is keen on getting their very firstfilm Leica M. Below are some points to consider :

1. Do you need built in light meters ?

2. Favorite focal length ?

3. Budget ?

4. Purpose intended for ? Use or collection ?

 

NON LIGHT METERED M

Leica M3 - Around USD 1000 to USD 1300

Let's start off with the great grandfather of all M's ....the Leica M3. This is the first M every created by Leica dated back in 1954. The M3 is extremely well made, with brass top and bottom and the amazingly huge 0.92x viewfinder is a class on it's own. It has the largest viewfinder and focus patch ever made on any Ms to date. The widest frame-lines is 50mm hence if you are using a 35 or a 28mm lens, you will need an additional viewfinder mounted onto the hot shoe. The cocking and winding mechanism is buttery smooth and it's joy to use.  This camera doesn't come with a built in meter ( as it wasn't even invented yet back then ) and doesn't require any battery to operate as it's fully mechanical. Hence you might need an additional light meter or sunny 16 metering method when one.

As the production life span of the M3 is around 12 years , there are minor updates being implemented along the way hence later / bigger serial number would be more sought after by collectors and users alike. Early production M3 starting from approximately around ( 700,000 ) would have a double stroke cocking mechanism, which means you need to turn the film lever twice to advance one frame. German has always been really safe and precise with their engineering and it's actually a safety factor to avoid film breakage. This function was later changed to single stroke as it reaches 850,000 production number. Go for serial number 950,000 and above and you will be sure to have all the latest and greatest upgrades such as even larger viewfinder, self timer, modern strap lugs and unbreakable metal pressure plate. A chrome M3 will set you back around USD 1.2k while the rare original black paint one is about the price of a kidney : )

Pros : Highest magnification M ever produced ( 0.92x ) hence perfect for 50mm shooter, amazing built quality , silky smooth mechanism , works great with summilux and noctilux , believe to be built without compromise and manufacturing cost in mind . Historic value as it is the first M ever made !

Cons : No light meter , need additional viewfinder to use wider than 50mm focal length , slower film loading mechanism ( but fool proof ) , needs to hunt around for a really good unit as it's the oldest M of the lot. Iconic camera hence most sought after.

 

Leica M2 - Around USD 650 - USD 900

The M2 was created a year or two after M3 was launched based on feedback gathered from photographers.  It's a more affordable version of the M3 as many photographers couldn't afford the M3 back then. Hence some functions and features were removed to keep the price down. The automatic film counter on the M3 was replaced with a cheaper manual reset version. Secondly early production M2 doesn't come with a self timer function but later it was added back during halfway of the production cycle. The viewfinder magnification was reduced from the whooping 0.92x to the more modern 0.72x to cater for 35mm focal length.  The outlook is still pretty much the same as the M3 except for the top penal which has an obvious rounded film counter. The build and feel is still as good as the regular M3. For the price it makes a good first M camera for most user due to it's attractive price point. One can always add a Leica MR4 or Voightlander VC2 pocket size light meter on the camera hot shoe which makes life a lot easier.

Pros : Wider 0.72x viewfinder makes it more suitable for 35mm focal length, same amazing built quality as the M3 with silky smooth operation, flare proof viewfinder and more affordable as it's often overshadowed by the more bling up M3. A real workhorse.

Cons : No light meter, slower film loading mechanism as M3, manual reset film counter, no self timer on some earlier units ( if you are into selfies )

 

Leica M4 - Around USD 1400 to USD 2000

There are a few variation of this cameras being produced, the original first production M4 and the later M4-P and M4-2. I would suggest to stay away from the later ones as they were never really sought after. The M4-P and M4-2 were made during the economic down turn of the company, production was moved from Germany to Canada and many of the parts were replaced with lower quality ones. The original M4 is still the best among the rest in my opinion, it still has the same construction as the M2 and M3 with a modern film winding mechanism , easier film loading method and the same 0.72x viewfinder magnification. Again the black version is more sought after by collectors due to it's rarity. Many regard the M4 as the last best classic film M ever produced.

Pros : Modern film loading, modern film winder, still made the same way as the M2 and M3 with top notch materials.

Cons : High price due to it's collectability and rarity as production life was not as long as it's older siblings.

 

METERED M

Leica M5 - Around USD 800 to 1300

The M5 is the most unique of all film Ms. It's the first M with a built in light meter and the operation was rather primitive but highly accurate. The cds light sensor moves into the front of the shutter curtain once the film is cocked and moves out of the way when the shutter fires. The size of the light sensor is rather small hence it operates like a spot meter. Due to the moving mechanism, some wider angle lenses such as 4/21mm and 3.4/21mm Super Angulons which has a deep protruding rear elements which extends almost to the front of the shutter shutter on the camera when mounted. The earlier version of the collapsible lenses should be avoided as well as these lenses might hit the light sensor moving arm and cause great damage.

Besides that, the M5 body shape and ergonomics was redesigned ground up. It borrowed many of it's design ques from the Single Lens Reflex ( SLR ) camera which was just introduced in the market during that time. The body was larger for better grip ( like an SLR ), the small shutter speed dial from the past was replaced with larger ones which overhangs on the sides with allow the index finger to maneuver it easily, strap lugs position been changed for more ergonomic , film winder been switched to the bottom plate for easier operation. Some calls it ugly but I think it's a beauty. Due the larger body size, it balance with the heavy 50 Noctilux or 50 Summilux really well but when mounted with smaller 35 mm lenses ...it does looks weird. The M5 wasn't loved by much and it was discontinued not long after making it one of the shortest production life M ever made.

Despite it's 'ugly ducking' moniker,  the M5 is one of my favorite so far. The metering is spot on accurate, fast and ergonomics maneuvering and it balance with my chrome 50 Summilux really well.

Pros : Ergonomics , love the spot meter , reasonable price, 1.35v mercury been discontinued hence replacement Wein Cell is not as easily available.

Cons : Big and bulkier than a regular M, collapsible and wider lenses might not be compatible, doesn't looks like a regular M which most people love.

 

Leica M6 - Around USD 1400 - USD 1800

Leica M6 started it's production life from 1984 to 2002 hence there have been quite a few variations and improvements being implemented along it's production life. The M6 has a few variations ...the Classic and the TTL version and all comes with 3 variations of viewfinder magnification 0.58x , 0.72x and 0.85x

Viewfinder comparison

source : http://lavidaleica.com/content/overview-m-system

source : http://lavidaleica.com/content/overview-m-system

The M6 Classic is the early production units for this model. The design ques was brought over from the older Leica M4 with an additional light meter and the self timer function was removed. None of the M5 elements or design features were carried over. The shutter speed dial, film release lever and etc is basically identical to the M4. The body material is no longer using brass as per the older Ms and some components has been switched from metal to engineered plastics to make it more affordable to the masses. The sought after Leica script engraving on the top panel has been removed as well and the viewfinder is more flare prone compared to the older Ms. When shooting against strong sun light at certain angles, the frame lines as well as the center focus patch will be blinded making focus impossible.

On the other hand, the M6 TTL which refers to FLASH TTL and not exposure TTL came out on the later life of the production cycle.  Both Classic and TTL has in camera through-lens metering hence it's rather misleading Leica newbies. The only difference is manual flash or TTL automated flash that's all. The TTL cost a fair bit more and it sucks battery like no tomorrow , well for my unit at least. The classic can last me 20 or so rolls of film per change while the TTL would probably do 5 to 7 rolls if I am lucky. The camera will constantly consume battery when it's cocked or the shutter speed dial wasn't set on OFF mode.

Having both the Classic and TTL version of the M6 in my collection, I would say go with the classic as it has way longer battery life and a few mm smaller as compared to the TTL siblings. Also it's cheaper too !

Pros : A workhorse, built in metering , abundance to choose from with different viewfinder magnification options, easiest to hunt for a good unit, built in light meter , uses 1.5v LR44 battery which are easily available.

Cons : Lower quality materials used as compared to the earlier Ms but still very dependable , flare prone view finder.

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Leica M3 Review

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The Leica M3 is one amazing camera and I absolutely love it to the max. I had this camera for almost 2 years now right after I bought my Leica M2. I have always loved the design and built  of the film Leica cameras particularly those made in the  early 50’s till early 70’s.The built quality and use of materials are impeccable which explains why it still look pretty darn good after 50 over years. The finish is flawless even till today and it has the smoothest film advance I have ever come upon on a film camera. It feels like it’s running on a layer of butter !

The M3 is the first M series ever produced by Leica in Solms, Germany back in 1954. Equipped with a bright 0.92x viewfinder, 3 frames lines ( 50, 90 and 135 ), a self timer and 1/1000th sec shutter speed is all the features there is in this camera. Pure simplicity and only the essentials. What I love most about this camera ( besides it’s look ) is the viewfinder. It has the clearest and highest magnification viewfinder among all the M series and best of all it’s flare resistant ! The newer M6 classic, M6 TTL and M7 are prone to flare which makes focusing really difficult when shooting against strong lights. Only the recent Leica MP has flare proof RF like the M3. As I love shooting against back light , this is a truly a blessing. 

The 50mm frame is permanently visible, with broad white lines and rounded corners.
The 90 and 135mm frames pop up when the corresponding lens is inserted. Very clever and first in it's class back in that era. 

If there is a need to use 35mm or wider lenses, the M3 with its basically 50mm viewfinder is handicapped and it’s almost impossible to guess the exact frame lines. The only way would be to use the Leica 35mm with auxiliary reducing goggles or an additional 35mm view finder attached to the camera hot shoe. Easy fix indeed.  

There are many variants of M3 in the market due to it's long production life , hence the serial number is the easiest way to gauge which version you are having. Older M3’s adopted the continental shutter speeds (1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/250) and later ones the international range (1/30, 1/60 etc.). The first version of the M3 has a smaller viewfinder frame , require double stroke to wind film ( cock twice instead of one time ) and lower ISO / ASA range on the indicator. Later models have subtle upgrades on all these parts. 

Film loading on the M3 is slightly conventional where one needs to remove the spool from the camera. It is indeed a little slower then the M6 quick load style but at least it is the most reliable and fool proof loading method. There are a few times where the film leader wasn’t securely fasten to the take up spool chamber on the M6. I know this is more like a user problem …but the M3 loading method does not have such room for errors. I heard that the quick load kit work wonders by converting the M3 conventional style to more modern M6 style but I was told that the film counter will not reset itself. I can live with it hence not a biggie for me.

I use this camera mainly for black and white photos. I love pairing it with the 50mm f2 dual range Summicron or the 5cm f2 collapsible cron with yellow filters for that classic black and white look. For metering, I’ll either use the sunny 16 rules when I’m outdoor or my trusty light meter apps on my iphone for more tricky lighting condition. Works great for so far and really enjoy using this camera a lot and I am a big fan of 50mm lenses. 

If you ever plan to get one , I would suggest hunt around for a serial number above 950,000 as most likely will have one with all the subtle upgrades implemented. Do check the rangefinder mirror too for signs of desilvering as repair would be costly. Comparing to the M2 , M5 , M6 classic , M6 ttl which I have, the M3 is still one of my all time favourite . 

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Why you should own a Rolleiflex SL66 !

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The Rolleiflex SL66 is one of those under dogs camera which is not very popular among film shooters. I would say it's a hidden gem among all the 6x6 cameras. Those who love shooting in the studio would go for the ever so popular modular Hasselblad 500cm due to it's wide lens selection, additional motor winder / grips, optional finders, as well as Polaroid back options. Street and travel photographers would prefer the slightly lighter and smaller fixed lens Rolleiflex TLR  like the 2.8 f or 3.5 f. This SL66 I would say it's actually a beast on it's own. I had this camera for almost two years now and have taken quite a lot of images with it and it never fails to surprise. Here are 6 reasons why you should own one !

1. Best for close up portrait - The SL66 is the only few 6x6 format camera which has a bellow besides Mamiya C330. Bronica, Hassellad, Pentacon, Minolta Autocord, Yashica TLR as well as it's siblings Rolleiflex TLR doesn't offer this option.  The bellow enable you to do close up portrait without having to pay for additional extension rings and lenses.

2. It has the amazing Zeiss Plannar 80mm f2.8 - This is the legendary lens which is found on the amazing Hassie as well as the Rolleiflex 2.8f . The 80mm f2.8 Planar has gorgeous rendition and color reproduction. It's constantly spot on and the focal length is very usable. With an added bellow and reverse mount option for close up macro , the possibility is endless without spending a single penny ! For a Hassie, you would need to buy multiple close up extension rings for the same effect.

3. It has tilting bellow  ! As far as I know, only the SL66 has a tilting bellow for 6x6 format which gives your the flexibility of correcting your perspective like a tilt-shift lens. ( minus the shift of course ) . This gives a lot of flexibility for the user to control the focus point and to creature your signature look.

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4. Modular  - Just like the Hasselblad, the SL66 is just as flexible. You can customize and swap out any parts of the camera as you wish, from the focusing screen , finder, film back , lens, grips and etc. This is never a dull moment with this camera.

5. Fully mechanical - The SL66 is a full mechanical camera, hence there is no battery needed for operation. I always love full mechanical camera as it will just keeps going on and on. A good CLA will bring this camera back to life in no time. The elder siblings SL66E has a more modern  electronic circuit board for the metering but apart from that it's basically the same camera at a fraction of it's price.

6. It's more affordable than a Hassie. Well USED TO be . Comparing in term of price point, the SL66 is a lot cheaper than a regular 500cm and it's packs with tons of goodies. I got  mine 2 years ago for around USD 600 mint condition with a 80mm f2.8 lens with hood as well as a Rolleiflex original leather case. A Hasselblad 500cm is selling for around USD 1000 back then due to the fame with the Hassie brand. However SL66 price has gone up recently on ebay hence you might need to hunt around for a decent unit.


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