Project 36X

2013 was all about getting back into film photography for me. Going into 2014, I did mostly documentary and urban photography in my new surroundings on Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill. Having moved back to Germany, 2015 was the year of my 52rolls project. It was a blast, but difficult to keep up shooting and scanning and editing and writing up essays to go with each and every one of the 52 posts for that year. On the digital front, 2015 was the year I began seriously feeding my Instagram account, helped along by a new iPhone.

So, now that we’ve already left January behind: What is my plan for 2016?

For one, I am settling into a style of documentary/ urban/ cityscape/ street/ whathaveyou photography. Perhaps a bit inspired by Stephen Shore, perhaps a bit taken with Mary Ellen Mark, William Eggleston, Berenice Abbott, and Luigi Ghirri. But really, none of that too much, and clearly not at anything resembling that level. I’ll be true to it, though, and see where it takes me. In slide, negative color film, or in black and white, or even in digital here and there.

Then, I also want to try some more instant photography. I have two instant cameras, and they should see some more use. And portraits. And flash. And portraits with flash. There’s always something to be learned there.

My stable of Super 8 cameras
Big and Small. My little stable of Super 8 cameras.

And then there is Super 8. It’s kismet that Kodak announced a new push for Super 8 filmmaking at CES 2016 with their Yves-Behar-styled new camera, slated for late this year. 2016, after some efforts in 2015, will be my year to get to grips with Super 8.

For one, I’ll shoot it as movie film. In black and white (Tri-X in my Minolta XL-401, provided that camera works well after I managed to get it running again last week) and in color (likely Kodak 50D or 200T in my Minolta XL-64 which I also need to test out, having just modded it to run at 24 frames per second).

But I will also attempt something else. Something that I have been thinking about for months. I will take still photographs with Super 8 film. That might seem like an incredibly bad idea, considering people disparage miniature format photography for its subpar image quality, and many don’t even give 35mm full consideration. Medium format and 4×5, that’s where it’s at for many of my photography friends. And sure, having shot some larger film, I understand the appeal. The detail you get is amazing. The pictures have a whole different kind of presence. It’s magical.

But that’s why I’m running the other way. I realized again, when hearing one photographer say that he doesn’t like 35mm because he finds the pictures he takes with it boring, that there’s a chance to do something different here. If photography is about visuals, then the visual of a grainy Super 8 frame will be radically at odds with large format beautiful pictures. It will be something much more normal, democratic, ephemeral.

My modded Minolta XL-601 from ca. 1978
Be Still, my Camera! Slightly modded Minolta XL-601 from ca. 1978.

Project 36X will start on my 36th birthday. I will shoot for 360 days, close enough to a year-long project. And when I’ve shot a whole roll of Super 8, its 15 meters of film will hold 3600 images. The numerology works out well here, and that’s nice, but the idea isn’t tied to it. What I am interested in is the sheer abundance of pictures on one roll of film. It should fit pretty well into these digital times in which we’re rediscovering vinyl and film and fountain pens. The subject matter? Whatever I can get in front of my lens. I have 3600 images to make, after all.

How do I intend to do this? I bought a Minolta XL-601 camera last year as my first foray into Super 8. I tested it with film, and it works. I’ve subsequently bought two more Super 8 cameras, so I don’t desperately need this one to be a movie camera. It has a frame by frame setting, it takes two AA batteries, and it has both auto and manual exposure. I have modded it (very non-intrusively and reversably with mostly gaffer tape, a screw drivers and a permanent marker pen) to be a still frame super 8 camera that I can bring with me anytime.

March 21st is my birthday. That’s when the project begins. Many things can go wrong with something like this. I’ve tried to prevent some of them to happen before even starting, but nothing is perfect. In the worst case scenario, I will have shot 3600 frames and will have nothing to show for it. That would be bad. But that’s part of the challenge: to do a lot of work and not be sure how, or if it will turn out. As the Dorothea Lange quote goes, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” If I have images to show at the end of the year, that’s great. If something goes wrong and I don’t, I will still have learned to see a little better.

I will only know if everything has worked out at the end of the year, after I’ve sent in my roll of Super 8 to be developed and scanned. I’m hoping to get single frame, high quality (4K or thereabouts) scans that I can then go through, edit, color grade, and generally mess with. But until then, I won’t have anything to show for. It’s quite a gamble, and it’s an admittedly strange project to undertake.

I am anxious to see what will happen. Time to order some film.

2nd Tier Superstars, Episode 1: Nikon AF

In this inaugural entry for Second Tier Superstars (check out this post to see what the concept is all about), we’ll be taking a look at some autofocus Nikon SLRs from the late 80s and early 90s.

Autofocus Nikons for Your Consideration
(Mostly) Autofocus Nikons for Your Consideration

Nikon Autofocus SLRs

Nikon is behind many of the world’s most iconic cameras, and images. A preferred professional’s choice since at least the 1970s, their machines have been there and back again numerous times. They’re also the only manufacturer that kept some semblance of compatibility between the cameras and lenses they made from the all mechanical manual focus era to the digital autofocus SLRs of today. While identifying whether a Nikon lens will work with a specific camera isn’t always straightforward, there’s enough overlap to share a fair amount of lenses between your DSLR and a manual focus Nikon from thirty or forty years ago.

So, what kind of Nikon should you buy? Essentially, there’s two camps here. The one says to get something old school, like an F2, F3, FM2, or the like. Something that has dials and wheels and may even be all mechanical, meaning that when you run out of batteries in the jungles of an unnamed exotic locale, or when all things electronic have long died because of the cold in Antarctica, it will keep ticking. The other is more interested in keeping the usability much the same as with the digital camera they already own, and may even want to use some of their expensive lenses of the newest generation with the old film camera they bring for fun. They will suggest an F100 to you, an F5, or, if you have the money to still buy a film camera in current production, an F6.

Camp 1 definitely has its merits. I’ve had electronics on old cameras fail while far from home, and without a backup camera that means you’ll either scramble to have the one you have with you repaired or replaced, or you go back to snapping pictures on your iPhone. But electronics have become pretty reliable, and the older, mechanical cameras also will likely need some attention by a camera shop before you can use them with impunity. And Camp 2 is right in many ways as well. If you want full compatibility and no compromises and you have the dough, go for it! But here, we’re interested in more modest machines.

The Top Tier

If we’re stepping down a bit, it may be helpful to ask what the top tier of comparable cameras is. For Nikon autofocus, your options essentially are, in chronologically ascending order: F4, F5, F100, F6. The single digit F cameras for Nikon were always the cameras they wanted to sell to professionals. They were state of the art, rugged, heavy, and very very good. The F100 snuck into this listing because it is still relatively expensive at around €200 upwards, and because in technological terms, it sits somewhere between the very specialized F5 and the currently still made and expensive F6.

Second Tier Options

So what are your options just below? Again, chronologically: The F801, F801s, F90, F90x, F80. Below that are many more cameras to consider that are not bad either, such as the F501, F401, F601, F70, etc. But the five listed above are a good representation of what you may be considering if you’re serious about taking pictures on film. Each and every one of these cameras will let you take great pictures. Each has their quirks, and each has their advantages.

My recommendation comes at the intersection of handling and feel of the little machine, capabilities, and reliability. Again, this will be very subjective, but it will be based on careful weighing of all these factors. You may come to a different conclusion, but maybe I can still offer a little help with this write-up.

If you’re thinking about Nikon AF cameras, and handling and feel is important to you, you’ll undoubtedly hear about the F501. It was Nikon’s first camera with integrated autofocus (after an abortive detour with the F3AF, which made the lenses do the autofocusing). It sold millions, and it is a good camera even today. It sits between the two generations of cameras. It has a lot going for it. You can switch out the viewfinder. It takes easy to get AAA or AA batteries. It has automatic film wind. And it doesn’t feel like a plastic piece of junk, it’s still well made. But it also lacks features, like a depth of field preview button (these let you see what in your final image will be sharp and what will not), and it is getting long in the tooth, so it’s not all that reliable anymore. I have one that I had to clean thoroughly before it woke from its decades-long sleep, and it still constantly underexposes two stops. If you have a working one lying around somewhere, though, there’s no need to get rid of it.

X10S3359
Spot the Difference. Nikon F801s and F601.

I won’t address all the autofocus film cameras Nikon has ever made, there’s just not the space here (and I haven’t used every single one). One camera I want to address, however, because it is so similar to the F801s, is the F601. The F601 is the first Nikon SLR I ever bought. I bought it used, and it works fine. But it shouldn’t be your first choice. For one thing, it takes an odd battery. That’s ok when you have the battery, and some extra ones as backup, but it’s not a great out of the box experience. If you don’t mind the weird battery, keep reading, I have another camera choice for you later on. The F601 also has an odd firmware bug that throws up an error (the display reads “fEE” in that case) that’s usually an indication you are trying to use the camera in program mode and that you haven’t set the lens to the correct, highest aperture. Except the F601 sometimes will do this even when you have set the lens correctly. I tried it with several lenses, and I ended up missing shots because it randomly thought it couldn’t use them. There’s one more thing: the film door. It breaks. You don’t want that. I could be mistaken, but I think you don’t want that.

The Winner Takes It All

X10S3344
Spot the Difference, Redux. Nikon F801s and F801.

So, which camera should you get? To my mind, the Nikon F801s. In the second tier, the F801 and F801s are very similar, but the F801 has slower and less reliable autofocus, and lacks spot metering. This mode is great for portraits (you switch the camera to spot metering, focus and meter for the face, and the most important thing in your picture will be perfectly exposed every time) so that makes the F801 less useful. The F90 and F90x are nice upgrades to the F801 series in terms of autofocus. They can also be used with big battery grips which will enable faster shooting, balance bigger lenses, and totally make you look like a badass. If that’s a necessity or not, I leave up to you. So why do I not recommend the F90 and F90x? It’s because they don’t reliably meet criterion number five.

In the 90s, Nikon and other camera and lens manufacturers experimented with new, or just different plastics that twenty years later turn out to have an annoying side effect: they disintegrate. You will have trouble finding an f90(x) with its film door perfectly pristine. The rubbery covering is very likely to be gummy, sticky, or flaky. In some rare cases, this annoyed the original owner enough so they got some isopropyl alcohol and removed the excess goo in a very messy process. If you come across such a “cleaned” F90, by all means, buy it. It has what the F801s has, plus the extra advantages described above. But since most of us are either buying online, or don’t have tons of time to ascertain how sticky the camera is, I can’t recommend these cameras here.

This column is about getting a camera that has a good chance of working after you got it and put some batteries in it, and then start taking pictures. If you’re the crafty type, you may enjoy refurbishing cameras. In that case you’ll have a great, cheap camera in the F90 series. But for those of us who just want to go out and shoot, it’s not the best choice.

Glass is Forever

If you see an F801s at a reasonable price point with a lens, go for it. Just make sure you buy a Nikon lens, and not a third party one. Not that those are always bad, but they sometimes have compatibility issues, and once again, we’re trying to buy something that will work out of the box here. If the camera you have set your sights on has any standard zoom, or a 50mm lens, you should be fine for a start. However, many better quality cameras are likely to be sold without a lens, or “body only”. That won’t do you much good. What now? There are literally hundreds of choices at all price points.

Your first lens should be standard zoom, a 35–70/f3.3–4.5 AF or similar. Don’t pay too much attention to comments on the internet about how such a standard zoom isn’t any good. All the pictures in the gallery above were taken with this lens and the F801s. You’re starting out, and for many people, this was their only lens and it did just fine. These lenses are useful, small, cheap, and they have very pleasing bokeh (the out of focus areas of the image, or what a lot of people mean when they say an image looks “professional.”) Branch out with primes (lenses that don’t zoom), such as Nikon’s still produced and fully compatible 50/f1.8 AF-D, or a 70–200/f4.5–5.6 AF if you like to take portraits and pictures of things that are a bit farther away. After that, the sky’s the limit.

Since we chose the F801s, you will be able to use all of Nikon’s newer lenses on it, as long as they cover the full frame (Nikon lists those as “FX” lenses). Some (the “G” series) will not work in all modes because they lack a ring for selecting aperture, but you will still be able to use them in shutter and program automatic modes. Some (the “AF-I” and “AF-S” models) will not autofocus on the F801s, but you can still manually focus them, as you would on an old school Nikon.

Accessorize and Expand

Once you have your lens needs covered and if you have money left over, buy another lens, or buy a backup body (having one for normal or wide lenses and one for tele, for example, is a great “set” to own). Maybe buy another F801s as a backup, a program back MF-21, or a Nikon SB-24 flash to go with it. Or a remote cable; the F801s takes an early proprietary Nikon type.

X10S3346
Flash and Program Back. Well worth it.

The program back can be switched out for the normal back door of the F801s without any tools and in a matter of seconds, and it lets you do tons of useful, fun, not useful, and downright weird things with exposure. If you miss those red numbers in the bottom of the frame that showed you when exactly a picture was taken in the 90s, you can do that here with the program back. You can also program long exposures, time lapses, and even a “trigger trap” that will let you focus the camera in a specific spot and have it triggered when something moves there. If you like taking pictures of animals, such as birds in a nest, or want to set up your camera unsupervised in the woods somewhere to catch a bear stealing honey, this is kind of great. It’s probably useful for many other things as well. I’m thinking of setting it up with my F801s and a telephoto lens to catch planes coming in for landing at the airport.

Since the F801s does not have a built-in flash, you may want to get one. The SB-24 is a great choice because it’s versatile, powerful, and relatively cheap. It works with the F801s in a fully automatic mode that won’t have you worrying if you set it up correctly.

If you still don’t know what to do with your money, you seem to have so much of it that you probably didn’t need to start looking for a camera in the second tier. If you still ended up with an F801s, don’t feel like you ended up with second best just because it’s second tier. I’m not in the investment portfolio advice business, but maybe you want to grab dinner with that money, or maybe you want to buy some more film. Yes, that’s it: buy film!

The Hidden Gem

The “hidden gem” is a category I didn’t envision when thinking up this column, but it somehow forced itself on me. It’s what I call a camera that almost fits into the second tier, but not quite because of some criteria, some odd quirk that many people don’t like, or has just been plain forgotten about for no discernible reason. But it’s not strictly a third-tier camera either. It’s the one that got away, the one that finished fourth in the Olympics. For this installment, the hidden gem is the Nikon F601M.

X10S3345
Hiding. The F601M is easily told apart from its almost identical sister because it has no flash.

The F601M is disqualified from this lineup because, pure and simple, it is not an autofocus camera. It’s great, however, because it is not an autofocus camera but still works like one. Since Nikon’s manual focus lenses (from the AI generation onward) are all compatible to some degree with this generation of cameras, you may have picked some up. You may have grabbed a Series E 50/f1.8 at a flea market somewhere, or been given a couple of old zooms or a wide angle or portrait lens.

The F601M is essentially an F601 with the autofocus and the built-in flash taken out. Instead of autofocus it has a nice, bright viewfinder with a split prism focusing field in the middle. Line up its two halves on the point you want sharpest in your image, and you’re done. It’s easy focusing for situations in which the autofocus fails, or in which you don’t want to use it for other considerations.

That said, there are three downsides to the F601M that may put you off it. For one thing, it does not have a depth of field preview button. And it takes an odd, hard to find lithium battery instead of something more common like the AA batteries the F801 and F801s need to work. And lastly, like the F601, it has a reputation for losing film door hinges. This can be repaired, but that repair will cost you more than the camera, so I wouldn’t buy one on which the door isn’t guaranteed to be ok. Nikon realized at some point that the door hinges on this series were a bit subpar. When the cameras were sent in for repair, new, solid hinges were installed instead. If you get one with this repair already done, you don’t need to worry about the door ever again. If you can live with these limitations, it makes a great companion to the F801s.

That’s it for episode 1. I hope you got something out of it. If you have suggestions for future superstars I should take a hard look at, put them in the comments, or throw them at me on Twitter, @ictusoculi.

TL;DR: Buy an F801s (a.k.a. N8008s) with a 35–70/f3.3–4.5 AF lens.