A TLR, Film, and Doing Things the Hard Way
Rolleiflex f/2.8 FX
There’s no way to write about working with a Twin Lens Reflex film camera in 2015 without it being part of a personal story. So, with your brief indulgence – some background.
I’ve been doing photography professionally, commercially, as fine-art, and also as a teacher, writer and educator for more than 50 years. This makes me either an old fart, or someone with a modicum of experience, or both. I was also one of the early adopters and promoters of digital back in the mid-’90’s, but by 2004 I had closed and subsequently sold my darkroom. I was 100% digital and have been ever since. Until now, that is – April, 2015.
Let’s Take a Trip to Havana
A shooting trip to Havana, Cuba in March, 2015 with my good friend and fellow photographer Nick Devlin caused me to rethink the possible renewed role of using film for my work – or at least some of it.
Nick is a long-time aficionado of B&W documentary shooting, and on this trip was shooting with a new Leica Monochrome. Each evening we would share our “selects” for the day on-screen, and I have to say that I was captivated by the image “look” that Nick was getting. Sure – I’ve always done B&W conversion in Lightroom, and likely 30% of my work has been in B&W for many years. But it seemed to me that there was something more honest about actually shooting directly in B&W that got my creative juices flowing.
We started talking about how digital photography has become too “perfect”. Even consumer-grade gear now produces lovely wide dynamic range images, with great colour and extremely low noise. Better gear, even more so. It seemed to me that each image, baring of course my own creative limitations, was damn near perfect technically.
“Perfect is the Enemy of Good”
We discussed the aphorism “Perfect is the Enemy of Good“, which seems to sum up my feelings about digital. Do you remember when music CDs first came out? The marketing slogan was something like “Perfect music, forever“. Well, it wasn’t – being neither perfect not forever. But over time digital music reproduction did become extremely good. Yet here we are, many decades later, and vinyl record sales are growing in number; among people ranging from classical music lovers to 20-something hipsters.
Why? As best as I can tell it’s because CDs and now download files are not really perfect, or maybe they are and perfection can be boring. Vinyl records never were perfect, and still aren’t. They never claimed to be. But they have character. The medium’s analogue nature makes it thus.
Similarly, film is inherently highly imperfect. It has a narrower dynamic range, and shows grain – a form of analogue noise. But man does it have character, And so this is what Nick and I discussed as we walked the streets of the Havana time-warp; a city stuck in 1960’s amber.
As we walked and did photography, Nick with his Leica Monochrome (a schizophrenic digital device if there ever was one), and I with my “perfect” Fuji X-T1 and Sony A7II, I thought back to my many years of shooting film and how much pleasure there was in the craft aspect of working with film. I realized that I was trying to extract something of that from my digital images by using desaturation and toning techniques – the image immediately above being easily recognizable as such by those familiar with my work.
These thoughts kept going round and round in my head, and when something like that happens I know that I am at the start of a process – and something will eventually come out of it.
A TLR State of Mind
I had always wanted to own a Rollei Twin Lens Reflex, and never did. But, I shot with one daily for almost a decade when I worked for The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a staff still photographer. It was their property though, and it had a 3.5 Tessar lens, while what I coveted was an f/2.8 Zeiss Planar.
Incidentally, the reason for working most with the Rollei was that at the time the CBC considered 35mm as inadequate for quality magazine covers, double page spreads, billboards and such. By the late ’60’s most publishers were more than satisfied with 35mm, but that wasn’t the way things were where I worked.
Therefore I used both a Hasselblad and a Rollie for much of my shooting. The Rollei was smaller, lighter and also much quieter, and was the camera that I’d use on-set for this reason. The Hassys were for portraits, and other studio set-up work. Using both of these cameras did though lead though to my life-long love-affair with the square format.
When I left the CBC the Rollei stayed behind. I then bought a Hasselblad EL for my developing freelance business as well as my own fine-art work, but the Rollei was always a long-lost love.
Missing My Craft
Now, fast-forward from the late ’60’s to mid March, 2015, and the plot thickens. Nick and I are walking the streets of Havana at least five hours a day, and are speaking a great deal about the whole issue of digital vs. analogue (film) and colour vs B&W. As the days pass, I realize something profound. I really miss the craft side of photography. I miss getting my hands wet. I miss loading a Nikor reel in the dark. I miss seeing an image slowly appear under a safe light, as if by magic.
Yes – I have mastered digital. I’ve been using Lightroom since it was code-named Shadowland, and have been a long-time Beta tester for Adobe. I have produced countless training videos and dozens of articles on digital image processing over the past 15 years or so. But I was also a competent colour and B&W darkroom worker and teacher for many decades, and I’ve recently come to the realization that I miss it. The whole messy, smelly thing.
Taking The Plunge
Once I returned home I realized that I had to actualize my thoughts. I needed to return to doing film-based photography (at least some of the time) and it was high time that I fulfilled my desire to own an f/2.8 Rolleiflex TLR.
Research on the Internet, especially E-Bay, showed that used Rolleis fetch quite a high price. F/2.8 Planar models especially. But I also discovered that at Photokina in September 2012 Rollei introduced several new cameras, including a new model TLR, the FX. It turns out that now (Q2, 2015) these are still available new from selected dealers around the world. They come in a variety of types, including with different focal lengths as well as with black or brown leather, and a traditional 80mm f/2.8 Planar as well as an 80mm S-Apogon.
The S-Apagon may well be a Planar design. Some say that Rollei lost the right to use the Zeiss owned “Planar” designation, others that it’s a Schenider design. But I have been told by someone that has exhaustively compared the two lenses that while the S-Apogon may be minutely crisper, it is a quibble, and in blind tests hardly anyone can ever choose between the two.
I decided to go with the Planar, and black leather finish rather that the brown, simply because I’ve long thought the Planar to be one of the great classic lens designs, and have some nostalgia for the name. Black leather was chosen because it’s a bit less “bling” than the brown and therefore more discrete for street shooting.
But, observant readers will note that it was only on March 20, 2015, around the same time that I was in Havana deciding that I wanted to buy a TLR Rollei, that DHW Fototechnik went into liquidation and sold off all of its inventory and production equipment.
This was a concern, obviously, since if I was going to buy one of the new FX models, whether black or brown, and regardless of lens, I was concerned about warranty and repairs. To make a long story somewhat shorter I discovered that a major online reseller of Rollei equipment called leica-store-lisse (and also as FotoHennyHoogeveen.com) had just purchased all of the remaining stock of Rollei cameras and lenses, of all models and types. I also spoke with the company’s president, Duncan Meeder, and learned that he has been a friend of Rollei’s CEO for some 20 years and that they have an agreement that Meeder’s organization will be providing both in and out-of-warrenty service for Rollei products, worldwide. (In-warranty only from new cameras purchased from them directly, though).
So, I purchased a black leather 80mm f/2.8 Planar Rolleiflex camera from one of their E-Bay auctions and it arrived by Fedex a few days later.
As a side note, B&H also sells the Rollei FX, but curiously, at a very steep premium ($8,885) over European and Asian sources.
For anyone who has ever shot film the fact that film and processing aren’t free is understood, but will be a surprise to the digital worker who is used to exposures costing essentially nothing. The cost of a roll of 12 exposure B&W or Colour Negative film adds up to something over $1 a frame for film and processing. This price will vary of course, by country and other factors. Also, if one does ones own film processing (B&W processing is pretty easy and can be done without rigorous temperature controls and in as small a space as the kitchen sink), this price will be somewhat lower.
Nevertheless, unlike when shooting digital, where even a 5,000 frame week-long shoot has a total cost of almost zero (just some storage space on a hard drive, which now cost about $50 a Terrabyte), shooting and processing film has real costs associated with it.
This is not all negative (no pun intended). The constraint of costs imposed can be a strong force affecting the creative process. Rather than the technique of “spray and pray“, which so many photographers practice (myself sometime included), having a real cost associated with every shutter press forces one to be much more attentive to what one is shooting.
The Image Made Real
One thing that I like about film is that it is a physical manifestation of the image. With digital imaging we have millions of bits recorded on media, but they are somewhat ephemeral. On the one hand they can be copied and backed up, but on the other they are as ephemeral as a summer breeze.
If you’re aware of the case of Vivian Maier, an anonymous Chicago street photographer whose work was salvaged from oblivion when a box of her negatives was purchased at auction, then the physicality of film will resonate. In other words, film is a physical embodiment of an image’s original vision. I simply like that idea,
A Dirty Little Truth… or Two
Now we come to the part that film die-hards have likely been dreading. When it comes to image quality, and a comparison to contemporary digital, film sucks. It’s grainy, and it scratches and the emulsion can chip, no matter how careful one is.
The lowest acceptable ISO for medium format is, to my mind, ISO 100. I shot several rolls of ISO 400, B&W negative and colour negative, and while it once (obviously) met my standards in terms of grain and resolution, it no longer does.
ISO 100 is still grainy at 100% on screen, and thus isn’t competitive with digital, but in prints up to 13X19″ (Super A3-B) results look pretty good, though the grain sniffers (films equivalent to pixel peepers) will see grain. Some may be bothered by it; some not.
There are lower ISO films, such as Rollei RPX 25, and Adox CMs 20 (actually ISO 12). These are ultra-fine grained and require special developers for full tonal range reproduction. These are the only films which can stand up to digital in terms of resolution and grain, but you’d be comparing ISO 10 – 20 against ISO 400 or 800, at least against the Pentax 645z.
As for 35mm, as far as I’m concerned 135 film is simply not competitive at all against any digital camera. If you like it, fine, but history has moved on.
B&W Film Vs. Colour Negative
One of the reasons I wanted to make at least a partial return to shooting film was because I wanted to enjoy once again the “craft” side of photography.
Processing B&W film is relatively quick to learn and easy to do, and requires no more space than your kitchen sink.
Colour negative has its appeal though, even if one if aiming for B&W output. Firstly, it can be processed by labs all over the world. The process is called C41. An advantage of shooting colour negative is that one can alter tonal relationships in the final image based on their colour. In B&W negative shooting this has to be done with filters on the lens (orange to darken the sky, for example). With C41 negative film this is done as easily as with a digital original.
I therefore find myself shooting both B&W film as well as colour negative, balancing off the convenience and tonal advantages against my pleasure in hand processing the film myself.
As for image quality, again it’s a toss. Comparing Kodak Ektar 100 against Rollei RPX 100 it’s very close, almost a quibble. At 100% on-screen the B&W negative has a very slight resolution advantage. Visible, but not a deal breaker.
Finally, colour transparency material should be mentioned. While home processing of E6 film is possible, it requires time and temperature precision that is beyond most home labs, and certainly any kitchen sink lash-up. And sadly, E6 labs are a dying breed as transparency film was mostly shot by pros, who now have moved 99% to digital. For example, here in Toronto, a city of three million, which is a centre for advertising and publishing, there is not one single E6 lab remaining open.
Fifteen years ago I could have transparency film processed in 3 hours at any of a half dozen different downtown labs. Sad days now. Mail order is the only choice.
Truth be told though, transparency film was never the best for either darkroom printing or scanning. To be sure, it is sharp, but it is inherently high contrast, and therefore for scanning, colour neg is to be preferred to transparencies.
Printing Vs. Scanning
Of course for printing, if one wants the total craft approach, then traditional enlarging and chemical printing is de rigeur. But those days are behind me. I sold my colour and B&W darkroom in the early 2000s, and where I now live no longer have space to rebuild.
Also, as much fun as B&W printing is (and it can be fun), and as beautiful as the results can be (and they can be very beautiful), scanning and ink-jet printing are just more convenient, and most of the time are capable of producing higher quality results.
I am fortunate enough to still own a Hasselblad Flextight scanner. This is essentially the Imacon 323 model updated with Firewire 400. The problem is that the last three version of Mac OS-X don’t support the software, and no current Macs have Firewire any longer.
There are solutions, but the easiest for me was to resurrect a five year-old Macbook Pro, which I had used as a print server up until a couple of years ago. It still works, (though the battery has died), and I now have it dedicated to working with the scanner. It’s easy enough to have both computers on the wireless LAN and move files between them that way.
Since Imacon/Hasselblad scanners are now in the $13,000+ range, for the purposes of the article I decided to take a fresh look at the most popular desktop medium format scanner, the Epson V850, which costs about $900 in the U.S.
Working with scanning expert Mark Segal I did scans of Kodak Ektar 100 and Rollei RPX 100. After much pixel peeping we concluded that those with the Hasselblad scanner were better, but not hugely so. This being the case, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend scanning with the Epson V850. Using Silverfast and with a piece of museum glass holding the film flat, instead of using the Epson film holders, first rate scans are possible with this under-$1000 scanner.
An Imacon/Hasselblad scanner may be better, as will a professionally produced drum scan, but for most users the Epson will do an admirable job.
The Story For Now
That’s it for now. You’ll notice that none of the images used on this page were shot on film. The reason is, simply, that I have not yet done enough good work with the Rollei to publish any. But, I wanted to tell the story of my adventure so far. In the months ahead I expect to have some worthy images to discuss and display, and I also plan on working with Chris Sanderson to do a short video on how to develop B&W film in ones kitchen sink.