For much of the history of photography, black and white film was photography. I offer here nothing more than my inexperienced opinion on the subject, and a bunch of photos I’ve made. My only hope is to inspire others to take the plunge and have a bash at developing and printing their own photographs. It’s an immensely satisfying process, though I’ve probably reached no more than the level of having ‘just enough education to perform’. I’m happy with the results, even if my techniques wouldn’t stand up to close inspection by an expert.
Frankly, I’m still amazed every time the film comes out of the final wash and there’s something there at all!
I’m firmly of the belief that subject, composition and light are far more important to a photograph than the minutiae of lens sharpness, resolution, etc. which people love to obsess over at great length and in great depth. Feel free to interpret this as an excuse for the grainy, scuzzy photos, often taken with cheap old cameras and lenses, which I present here…
Black and White
I’m talking about monochrome negative film, and developing it myself here. Unlike colour negative (C41) or slide (E6) film, there is no standard process for developing black and white film. Every combination of film, exposure index (ISO/ASA number), developer and process temperature has it’s own particular processing time.
Lara, at work in the darkroom. Vivitar 35ES, Fuji Neopan 400 @ 400
At first this might seem daunting, but it’s really no big deal. The actual process of developing a film is the same in all cases, all that differs is the amount of time the film spends in the developer solution. The Massive Dev Chart is your friend here. The process is simple enough to be easily done with a minimum of equipment -colour film can be done with similar kit, but requires much better control of processing temperature for good results.
To summarise, developing a black and white film yourself involves the following steps:
- Loading - the only bit you have to do in complete darkness. In many ways the trickiest part of the process. Can be done in either a darkroom or a light-tight changing bag. Once the film is loaded into the development tank, the rest of the process takes place in normal room light, and is mostly just a case of pouring the chemicals in and out at the right time.
- Development - chemical magic which makes the latent image hidden within the exposed film dense enough to be visible. Typically takes 5-10 minutes, up to 20 minutes or more for serious push processing (e.g. ISO 400 film exposed at ISO 3200).
- Fixing (preceded by a ‘stop bath’ to end the development process) - makes the image permanent and the film insensitive to light. ‘Rapid fix’ takes 2-5 minutes.
- Washing and Drying - an art in itself it seems. I’ve tried a few approaches and I’m finally getting satisfactory results with Ilfotol ‘wetting agent’ as a final rinse. I had some luck with a squeegee, but it’s a very good way to scratch your film up badly, as I also found.
After this, what you do with the negatives is up to you - scan, print, file away, whatever…I’ve made some prints (a truly magical experience) but mostly I just scan them at modest resolution.
Black and white film photography is most satisfying if you develop the film yourself. I’ve been processing my film in Ilford DD-X, which is an expensive (£16/litre) liquid concentrate developer. It has the advantages of being available locally, being capable of developing a wide range of films at a wide range of exposure settinngs and being convenient to mix up in small quantities.
The only real downside is the price (a litre of concentrate will do 16 35mm films, so it’s about £1 a film), but it is possible to re-use developer solution to process multiple films and cut costs a little. There are many other developers available, but I’ve only used DD-X so can’t offer any further insight. It seems to be a good all-rounder and less hassle than developers which come as powder, especially if you’re developing the odd film now and again.
Alex, Ricoh KR-10, Ilford Delta 3200 @ 3200
My experience to date suggests that readily-available black and white films can generally be classified into three groups:
- Fine-grained, slow films (ISO 50-125).
- Medium-speed (ISO 400) films which can be pushed 2-3 stops with good results.
- Grainy high-speed films (ISO 1000, designed to be pushed to EI 3200 or faster).
I’m not going to get much more specific than that. Everything I’ve tried so far has worked pretty well and by and large they’ve all ‘done what it says on the tin’. The rest of this post will be mainly examples…
To date I’ve used a couple of slow B+W films - Ilford PanF Plus and FP4 Plus. PanF Plus is an ISO 50 film, whilst FP4 is nominally rated at ISO 125. I can’t fault the smoothness of PanF, and FP4 seems to work very nicely too.
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Ilford PanF Plus
Gribbin Head, Pentax ME Super, 50/1.7, Ilford PanF Plus, red filter.
Limpets, Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Ilford FP4+
St Michael’s Hill, Pentax ME Super, 50/1.7, Ilford FP4 Plus
400-speed black and white films are extremely useful to have around. Most can be exposed at an EI of 200 to 3200 with decent results, so heading out with a bag of 400-speed film should have you covered for most things. I’ve used Kodak Tri-X, Ilford HP5 Plus and Fuji Neopan 400 so far - Ilford Delta 400 and Kodak T-Max 400 haven’t yet found their way into my camera. I’ve most experience with Neopan, for no better reason than it being the cheapest black and white film available from 7dayshop. A group of us were doing a week-long darkroom workshop, so we bought 25 rolls:
(Yeah, there’s some other stuff in there too…)
It looks good at ‘box speed’ and even better pushed to EI 1600-3200. As I understand, Neopan 400, Ilford Delta 400 and Kodak T-Max 400 are ‘modern’ films, whereas HP5 Plus and Tri-X are older films. The newer films are supposed to have finer grain and higher sharpness, whilst some people prefer the look of the older films. Matt Benton is a sworn HP5 devotee, whilst Stephen Dowling does some awesome work with crazy-pushed Neopan.
Celidh, Pentax LX, 50/1.7, HP5+ @ 800
Sea Holly, Vivitar 35ES, Neopan 400 @ 400, red filter.
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Neopan 400 @ 3200
Jenny, Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Neopan 400 @ 1600
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Kodak Tri-X @ 400
Pentax ME Super, 50/1.7, Fuji Neopan 400 @ 1600
There are three of these films available, but I’ve only used one, Ilford’s Delta 3200. Kodak’s T-Max 3200 and Fuji’s Neopan 1600 are only available in 35mm, whilst Delta 3200 usefully also comes in 120 size. Delta 3200 has a ‘true’ ISO speed rating of around 1000, but is designed to be shot and processed anywhere between EI 400 and 6400, with Ilford giving developing times for speeds up to EI 12500 in DD-X. I’ve run this film between EI 1600 and 6400 with generally good results. I’m still getting to grips with the relatively simple (and easily confused) metering of my older film cameras in the sorts of low-light situations that call for such a fast film.
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Ilford Delta 3200 - EI6400
Both Delta 3200 and push-processed slower films work particularly well in medium format - the much larger negative makes the grain relatively smaller and less obtrusive. There’s no getting away from the fact that fast film is grainy, if you want super-smooth shots in virtually no light, digital is the way forwards (or buy a flash…). Embrace the graininess, and fast B+W is great.
Pentax 645, 45/2.8 (I think), Ilford Delta 3200 @ 3200
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Ilford Delta 3200 @ 3200. Polariser, red filter.
Pentax 645, Ilford Delta 3200 @ 6400
Matt, Ricoh KR-10, 28/2, Ilford Delta 3200 @ 3200
Will, Matt and Jay. Ricoh KR-10, 28/2, Ilford Delta 3200 @ 3200
A not-entirely-comprehensive set of my self-developed B+W photos can be found here.
I’ve got nothing against digital photography, I’ve just not been getting on very well with my digital camera for the last few months. However, whilst I took my Pentax 645 away to Germany with me this weekend (family trip), I barely had a chance (or the light) to make much use of it. I did - finally - manage to get some decent use out of the shiny new digital-only zoom lens (Canon 15-85mm) I bought shortly before getting into film properly. So, in the very near future my flickr stream will see a flurry of photos taken with a slow, image-stabilised, wide-range zoom lens on digital. Eeek.
Film fans, fret not, I’ve still got most of a roll of 35mm Velvia from Cornwall to scan…plus a first roll from this to develop:
…so the maximum-aperture, standard lens, film-y funtimes will continue soon :-)
Cross-processing colour slide film is about as ‘hip’ or ‘alternative’ as my film photography gets (I don’t own any cameras with a plastic lens, and I attacked my ME Super with black electrical tape when it developed a light leak). If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of ‘cross-processing’ film, it’s a term used to describe running colour slide film (E6 process) through colour print film chemicals (C-41). This gives you negatives on a clear base (compared to the orange of print film), which when scanned and inverted tend to give wild colours, and tons of contrast. It’s not unusual for things to turn out pretty grainy, too.
Cross-processing is unpredictable at best, and can result in heavy colour casts and shifts. That’s all part of the fun - you don’t shoot ‘xpro’ to get a realistic rendition of the world. Unsurprisingly, it’s a technique very popular with ‘lo-fi’ photographers and LOMO fans. I’ve dabbled a bit, with generally good results so far. I was inspired to try shooting xpro by a number of flickr photographers, including Trapac, ξαβλ, slimmer_jimmer, Daz, lomokev, *Hairbear and probably a load more I’ve forgotten just now. Go have a look, they all make excellent pictures.
Moving on to my decidedly less excellent pictures…I’ve chemically abused the following slide films:
Fuji Sensia 100
Just the one roll so far, shot with the Trip 35. As expected, this stuff went pretty red. Apparently (in the sense that some bloke on the internet once said so) it’s the same film as Astia, which seems to make sense from what I’ve seen (it also tends to go red). Set here.
Olympus Trip 35, Fuji Sensia 100 cross-processed
Fuji Velvia 100F
I got this film very cheaply (it was expired), and have rather liked the results. I’d say it’s quite well-behaved, and avoids the more extreme colour shifts I’ve seen people get with Velvia (50). The colours are very warm - blue skies can go purple and there’s a lot of contrast. The roll of 120 I scanned and inverted (can of worms…) myself ended up being really quite subtle as these things go. Set here.
Yashica Electro 35CC, Fuji Velvia 100F cross-processed, 3-stop ND filter
Olympus 35RC, Fuji Velvia 100F cross-processed
Pentax 645, 45/2.8, Fuji Velvia 100F cross-processed
Agfa CT Precisa
This is one that people rave about, with results to match. I fear I’ve not done it justice yet. The first roll was unfortunately cut short by the (hopefully fixable) demise of the Yashica, although I managed to swap the roll into another camera. This film tends to head towards the blue end of the spectrum when cross-processed, and seems to be a good choice for emphasising blue summer skies.
Yashica Electro 35CC, Agfa CT Precisa cross-processed
Olympus Trip 35, Agfa CT Precisa cross-processed
Kodak Elite Chrome (100, 100 Extra Color, 200)
The Kodak elite chrome films (their ‘consumer’ slide film range) are also popular for cross-processing. I got a bit excited (I blame the company and the beer) and managed to shoot three rolls of the stuff in one afternoon around Bristol, again in the Yashica. This is another film which is somewhat unrelentingly blue, which seemed to work on the day I shot it. Set here.
Yashica Electro 35CC, Kodak Elite Chrome 100 cross-processed
Yashica Electro 35CC, Kodak Elite Chrome 100 Extra Color cross-processed
Yashica Electro 35CC, Kodak Elite Chrome 200 Cross-Processed
There are always exceptions, but I personally think that the often incredible colours of cross-processed slide film are best suited to bold and simple images. Looking back at these reminds me that I really ought to get the Yashica fixed (its focus ring now stops at about 3 metres), it’s a nice little camera with a good lens, even if the 1/250 maximum shutter speed and flaky viewfinder lights can be a bit frustrating.
I wish I could put a finger on what makes slide film quite so awesome. I’d like to think I can spot a slide scan from 50 yards, it’s got such a distinctive look. Any more academic insights are welcome, and I plead guilty to being as interested in the medium as the message here. Furthermore, if slide scans look great, seeing the transparencies for real or - even better - projected is something else. Everyone should give it a go, even if just once - seeing your pictures realised as super-sharp little luminous thumbnails is simply magic. For now this post is illustrated with my own photos, but I’ll be linking to a bunch of stuff I love in the future.
Slide film gives blues like no other. Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Provia 100F (7 years out-of date.)
Before I go any further, a note for the uninitiated. Slide film, once processed, gives you positive transparencies, with the colours the ‘right way round’ - originally intended for projection, hence ‘slide show’. There’s something indefinably special about the colours, but what is certain is that in most cases, slide film gives greater contrast and saturation than colour print (negative) film. Punchy, if you like. And excellent at rendering blue skies the way every regional tourist agency in the world would like them to be.
These days, all slide film uses the ‘E6’ process - in my experience you’ll be lucky to find somewhere to process it in-house on the high street, but there are plenty of places who can do it by mail order. It needn’t even be particularly expensive, especially if you can scan the film yourself. More on this in a future post.
Mike, chillin’. Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Provia 100F.
Most slide film is rated at 100 ISO or slower, I’ve never shot anything faster (Kodak go to 200, Fuji to 400), so I can’t comment on those. Clearly you’re going to need decent light and/or fast lenses and/or a tripod, but the same goes for any slow film. Slow speed is price you pay for awesome colours and fine grain - although I’d often count it as an advantage, since it makes using fast lenses wide-open in good light that bit easier, especially if you throw a polariser on the front.
I’m by no means a slide film expert, but I’ve used a fair few to date and I can say with some confidence that they can be classified as follows:
- Fuji Velvia.
- Everything else.
What’s so special about this Velvia stuff then?
Velvia takes the obvious, tangible characteristics of slide film - high colour saturation and contrast - and turns them up to 11, if not beyond. Subtle it isn’t. It’s not without its problems - an ISO rating of 50 and absolutely zero tolerance of under- or over-exposure for starters. Get it wrong and you’ll be rewarded with the deepest blacks or clearest blown highlights you’ve ever seen. It’ll also tend to make white people look pink, so it’s not a great choice for portraits. Until of course someone like Ben Eddings completely gets away with it.
What Velvia absolutely rules at is delivering the most gorgeous blues, greens and warm evening sunlight colours of any film. I’ve never seen a large-format Velvia transparency, and I think it’s better for my bank balance if I keep it that way…
BTW, when I say ‘Velvia’ I mean the original ISO 50 film with code ‘RVP’ (Reversal, Velvia, Professional?). I’ve not shot the current ‘Velvia 50’ version (RVP50), but as far as I can tell it’s identical save the name. Velvia 100F is not the same, and I’m yet to try Velvia 100 (non-F). Confusing, no?
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Velvia. Standard operating procedure.
What about the other films?
Don’t get me wrong, they’re great too. In fact, for many things there are probably many better choices than Velvia, but if you’re going to put up with the cost and inconvenience of shooting slide film, there’s a pretty compelling argument for shooting only the most saturated, punchy slide film available. That said, I’ve lately been really getting into the look that slightly less over-the-top slide films give, and appreciating their more tolerant exposure characteristics. Shooting slide film is a bit like shooting digital without looking at the screen, whereas most colour print film will deal with a stop or two of overexposure without any major ill effects.
Fuji Astia/Kodak E100GX
At the other end of the spectrum from Velvia is Fuji Astia - a (relatively) low saturation, low contrast film. Boring, you might say, but I think it’s got a certain timeless appeal. The look is still distinctively slide film, but the colours look a good half-century older than the brash punchiness of Velvia. I’ve not shot that much Kodak slide film yet, but the roll of E100GX I took around the harbour in Bristol came back with a look not a million miles away from that of Astia. Sadly both are now either discontinued or unavailable in the UK. E100G is still around, but I’ve not given that a try - the ‘GX’ version gives a warmer colour tone, with less of the ‘ektachrome blues’ the Kodak E6 films are known for.
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Astia 100F
Pentax 645, 75/2.8,Kodak E100GX
And yes, I’ve included the frame edges like some kind of hipster. If I could just get the film code in…
Fuji Provia/Fuji Velvia 100F/Kodak E100VS
I’m lumping these together because they’re all 100 ISO films, and all deliver decently punchy results without going crazy. I wouldn’t like to rule definitively on their relative merits just yet, other than to say that the Kodak film (E100VS) gives a noticeably cooler colour tone than the Fuji films. I don’t plan on shooting any more Provia in a hurry, but that’s only because I’ve got a stash of V100F and E100VS to get through first. It seems more than nice enough and is quite reasonably priced on 7dayshop…
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Provia 100F
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Kodak E100VS
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Velvia 100F
I’ve pretty much covered Velvia already, but I guess any excuse to share a few more photos taken with it justifies this paragraph. All the Velvia I’ve shot (35mm and 120) has been a few years expired (2007), and I’ve paid between £1.60 and £2.60 a roll for it. All of it has worked just fine. Hit the ‘bay, and knock yourself out.
Whatever you do, do not pay the ridiculous £11 I’ve seen asked for a roll of 35mm Velvia on the high street, unless that includes processing. It’s good, but not that good - eBay and 7dayshop are your friend, especially if you’re prepared to take the minimal (in my experience) risk of shooting date-expired film.
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Velvia
Ricoh KR-10, 19/3.8, Fuji Velvia
Olympus Trip 35, Fuji Velvia
I’ll admit that when I know the camera’s loaded with Velvia, I’m inclined to get as much blue sky as is reasonably possible in each frame…
The obvious application of a film like Velvia is to deep blue skies and fields of ripe barley. Something like this, for example:
Pentax 645, 45/2.8, Fuji Velvia
However, these films also excel in that soft, moody light you get just after a rain shower - I’m thinking pavement reflections, raindrops hanging from leaves, that kind of thing. Shooting high-contrast slide film in flat light, and low-contrast print film in the kind of harsh light that slide film and digital love to hate is probably a good plan if you can arrange your films and cameras appropriately. Something a bit like this:
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Velvia
Oh, and did I mention - 35mm slides are cool, but medium format transparencies are addictively beautiful things. I’m hooked…
Just to say that you can now leave comments via disqus, which doesn’t require registration. Any sillyness will be moderated with an iron fist ;-)
In the mean time, another frame from Cornwall. Kodak E100VS, polarising filter. I rather like this film - it’s got a totally different character to Velvia.
More blue skies, blue seas and pretty flowers from this roll here.
Colour negative (print) film is handy for a number of reasons. For one, it’s the only type of film and processing widely available these days. Many larger supermarkets still offer a film processing service, and it’s this ‘C-41’ process which colour print film uses. Secondly, colour print film is generally very tolerant of overexposure, making it handy for trashy cameras with no, or unreliable metering, amongst other things. Finally, whilst slide (transparency) film generally gives better and often more vibrant colours, many colour negative films are capable of giving very pleasing results.
This post is a summary of my experiences with different films, illustrated by a few photos.
Cheap and cheerful
For the classic ‘film’ look, try something cheap’n’cheerful like Kodak ‘Colorplus’ or ‘Gold’, perhaps not the 400ASA version though, I’ve had some pretty nasty-looking results with that one.
Ricoh KR-10, 19/3.8, well-expired, badly-stored Kodak Colorplus 200.
Kodak’s Portra films are widely regarded as being very good, and I’ve certainly seen enough good results from others to believe that. I’ve had less luck myself, but then it’s been a while since I shot any and I fiddled with the scans a fair bit. I will have to give them another go, especially since Kodak seems to be supporting them for the future. The 800-speed version works pretty nicely both with and without flash. Lomokev gets some lovely tones and colours with 400VC.
Olympus Trip 35, Kodak Portra 400VC
Canon EOS500, lens unsure (50/1.8?), Kodak Portra 800, artificial light.
Another film I wish I could get on better with. I’ve not had an entirely satisfactory experience with it yet, whilst many people love it. Still got a roll in my stash, I’ll give it another go some time as I’m sure it’s my fault and not the film’s. Swishrelic loves the stuff, I’m not so keen on the way it renders blue skies and it seems to tolerate overexposure badly for a negative film. I shot a roll of 120 in the 645 at EI125, which seemed to work a little better, especially in softer light.
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Kodak Ektar (EI125)
I’m lumping the current (several discontinued) Pro160S/160C/400H/800Z with their predecessors here. My experience is a bit limited - I got good results with the 800Z, really not bad for such a fast film. I was disappointed with the graininess of some expired NPH400 I shot, but quite amazed at the way 160S can tame harsh light. I think they’ve discontinued that one…
Pentax 645, 75/2.8 (Tv=1/1000s for maximum Av), Fuji Pro160S
Pentax ME Super, 50/1.7, Fuji NPH400 (expired)
Olympus 35RC, Fuji Pro800Z
I’ve shot two versions of this - 400 in 120, and 1600 in 35mm. The 1600 (expired, got a job-lot very cheaply) is hilariously grainy. If you like grain (and I mean *really* like), give it a go. Clean high-ISO performance is a very good reason to shoot digital. The 400 on the other hand seemed very well-behaved, in 120 format at least.
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Superia 400
Pentax ME Super, 50/1.7, Fuji Superia 1600
Reala is a 100-speed colour print film which has been either discontinued, or is no longer imported into the UK - in 35mm at least, 120 seems to still be available. I can’t remember the details. Google it. All of which is a shame, because it’s lovely stuff. Of all the colour negative films I’ve shot, it’s the only one which has really made me go ‘wow’ - the colours are lovely, and unlike Kodak Ektar it seems to be able to deal with harsh light and does blue quite nicely. I’ve stocked up - there are some good deals on expired ‘pro-pack’ boxes of 20 on eBay at the moment.
Pentax ME Super, 50/1.7, Fuji Reala (expired)
Olympus 35RC, Fuji Reala (expired)
Pentax 645, 75/2.8, Fuji Reala
Colour print film can definitely give very nice-looking results, but I don’t think I’ve made the best of it yet. I’m generally happier with the look of my colour slide and B+W negative film photos - Fuji Reala is lovely stuff however.
On flickr, my photos are sorted (in general) into sets for each roll/occasion, and then also into sets by camera and by film. You can see all my ‘by film’ sets here.
The availability of so many different types of film is one of the things that draws me to film photography. I’m fascinated by the different way in which each film renders the world - to the point where I now have a slightly alarming collection of different films to be getting on with shooting.
For the die-hard film geeks out there, this little collection contains, in no particular order, and mostly date-expired:
Fuji Velvia, 135 and 120
Fuji Astia, 135 and 120
Fuji Neopan 400, 135 and 120
Kodak E100VS, 135 and 120
Fuji Reala, 135 (yes, a ton of it) and 120
Fuji Velvia 100F, 120
Ilford Delta 3200, 120
Ilford FP4+, 135
Agfa CT Precisa, 135
Kodak Portra 160NC and 160VC, 135
Fuji Pro800Z, 135
Fuji 400NPH, 135 and 120
Kodak Supra 400, 135
Kodak PJC1600C, 135
Fuji Superia 1600, 135
Kodak Ektachrome 100 Pro and 100 Plus, 120
Fuji Provia 100F, 120
Fuji Pro160C, 120
Kodak 2475 Recording Film, 135
Kodak BW400CN, 135
Kodak Portra 400BW, 120
Kodak Ektar 100, 135
Kodak Verichrome Pan, 120
Fuji Sensia 100, 135
Fujichrome 400D, 135 (so far expired it’s useless…)
Ilford PanF Plus, 135
Not pictured: 5-pack of E100GX 120, 5-pack of Velvia 100 120.
Any suggestions that this is ridiculous will be brushed briskly aside.
As with my camera posts, I’ll be writing a bit about each type of film (colour neg, colour slide, B+W) separately, mainly just to record my thoughts while they’re fresh. You can see the results from the different films I’ve tried here. For now, here’s a photo taken in Porthcawl, Wales on Fuji Reala 100 with my Olympus 35RC. Reala is the best colour print film I’ve used yet, and I implore anyone remotely interested to stock up before it’s gone. I’ve got a big stash because it’s been available at £1 a roll on eBay recently!
Once I’ve completed this little ‘brain dump’ project, I’ll most likely just be posting photos as they come - assuming they’re any good…
I’m not really sure why I bought this camera, and at the time I couldn’t really justify its purchase - a bit of an ‘eBay accident’. However, I’m very glad I did - it only took one roll of film to convince me that it was a good idea. In part I blame Will Miners, whose Bronica SQ-A I marveled at over coffee, and Sebastian Pourcel (plus many others) on flickr for posting countless beautiful photos with a distinctive look only possible with medium format.
The Pentax 645 is an SLR producing 15 6x4.5cm images (hence the name) on a roll of 120 film, or 30 on 220 film if you can find it, using a different film insert. (For the uninitiated, 220 film is the same 6cm width as 120, but each roll is twice as long. It also costs twice as much to buy and process…). Unlike ‘system’ cameras such as the Hasselblads, Bronicas, Contax, Mamiyas and the like, the Pentax doesn’t have interchangeable viewfinders or film backs. No mid-roll switching from B+W to colour slide, short of buying a second body, and no waist-level-viewfinder funtimes then…
However, on the plus side, these make the camera a lot more compact than something like a Bronica ETRS with a prism finder and ‘speed grip’. Compared to my Canon 20D with a wide-range zoom lens, the footprint of the 645 and its 75mm standard lens is virtually identical, and it fits in the same space in my camera bag. The difference of course is that the 645 body is a huge box, to incorporate the massive mirror and focusing screen. With a bigger lens it becomes an imposing, if not unmanageably huge device.
Continuing down the list of positives, the 645 shoots in a way which will be familiar to anyone who’s used a 35mm (or digital, for that matter) SLR before. Focus is manual, but exposure and even film wind-on are automatic. Pressing the shutter button results in a noise akin to an old-fashioned cash register, perhaps appropriate given the cost of each frame. It’s missing a little sense of occasion that comes with the quirks of Will’s Bronica, but it’s still a lot of fun to shoot with.
Like the ME Super, the metering isn’t very clever, and I’m still learning how best to use the exposure compensation. The user interface and top LCD screens appear to have been stolen from a 1980s digital watch, adding a little, ahem, ‘retro charm’ to proceedings. The later autofocus 645N and 645NII have a much more sensible setup, but they’re well out of my price range, as are the more recent 645 AF lenses. There’s even a digital 645 now, suggesting it’s a system which is going to be around for a while. Lenses are reasonably plentiful - my camera came with the 75/2.8 standard and 45/2.8 wide-angle lenses, which both seem to work very nicely. I’d like to add the 150/3.5 at some point, whilst the 35/3.5 ultra-wide goes for alarmingly high prices on eBay.
Returning to the subject of viewfinders, the stand-out feature of the 645 for me is just how good the ‘finder is. Perhaps it could be brighter, but combined with the long throw of the 75mm lens’ focus ring, I’ve never used any manual focus camera which is so easy to focus. It’s a pretty big viewfinder, but it’s closer to good modern 35mm cameras in size, the ME Super and MX have it licked for sheer size. The view through the 645 is far crisper, however, and has a habit of making everything look beautiful.
You may disagree, but I’d say what it puts on the film is also beautiful. You can see my 645 efforts here, and below are a selection of my favourite frames from this camera. I think I’ve made some of my best photographs yet using this camera. I make no apologies for the larger selection of images here…
Ilford FP4+, 75mm lens.
Fuji Velvia (RVP), 45mm lens.
Ilford Delta 3200 @ 3200, 75mm lens.
Kodak E100VS, 75mm lens.
Fuji Neopan 400 @ 1600, 75mm lens.
Fuji Provia 100F (7 years expired!), 75mm lens.
As the images above demonstrate, I like shooting fast B+W and slow colour slide film with this camera…