Admiring the F again tonight; its simplicity, elegance, small footprint, lack of any type of power what so ever required to operate. All mechanical, no electronics. What a thing of beauty. Who would have thought in 1959 something was being released into the world that would have such a long lasting impact – not just on the art form of photography, but the world. Because the F ushered in the modern era of reportage photography, so many images of so many events in modern history were made with this tool and its offspring. What people can build when we put our minds to is simply astounding.
Today – 58 years later – the same device sits ready, with minimal (if any) attention required to do exactly what it was designed and built to do so many years ago.
The readers of Blue Hour Journal may not be familiar with this tool. I won’t bore you by over explaining it (but it’s difficult to come up with a fitting summary statement): The F is the first single lens reflex camera built by Nikon, paving the way for the concept of the modern SLR for years to come; giving birth to a fabled line of cameras and photographer’s works that will stretch into time for many generations.
This year marks Nikon’s 100 year anniversary. Many other companies relating to photography have gone by the way side in that 100 years. There can be no doubt photography as also changed dramatically in the span of time – especially in the last 20 or so since the advent of digital photography, and even more so in the last 10 since the advent of the smart phone. The state of Nikon as a company is unknown to me at this time. My assumption is they’ll continue to adapt, innovate and play an important role in what ever is to come. But what Nikon has accomplished can never, will never be erased.
“A camera is just a light-tight box,” some will say. Rubbish, I say. I wish everything I owned was built as well as Nikon built their old film cameras. Their endurance and legacy is not lost on this photographer. The F stands alone, having endured the rigors and scrutiny of time. It’s legacy carved in stone. And modern photography is the better for it. Bravo.
Winter is one of Colorado’s unique charms. One day we’ll be -15°, a few days later we’ll be in the mid-to-low 60’s. January can be a pretty dreary time, especially just after the holidays. Back to work we go, after what was hopefully a restful – but more likely a stressful – holiday season. Summoning the energy to get out into the cold isn’t easy some days. We photographers nobly begin our annual projects hoping to jumpstart determination; drive – then ride the wave into Spring. Only rarely do I succeed.
Inspiration is found employing a different focus; a different cadence because winter possess a different kind of beauty. The color of winter skies is gentle; grayish blues with hints of lavenders, purples and pinks. Overcast skies diffuse the light and bring out amazing textures in just about everything. Walking slowly through The Park on a weekend late afternoon with the cold, metal body in gloved hands I’m not searching for vistas. I’m searching the ground before me. I’m looking again at the things I step on or over come summer.
Despite the fact I can see my breath it’s not that cold at 8,500′ above sea level in January. In the distance a pair of bull elk casually glance up from the business of eating, making sure I haven’t drifted too close while their heads were lowered. Thick, mottled hair dresses long necks with massive racks towering above noble heads. How do they raise and lower all of that so effortlessly to nibble tiny amounts of grass. They slowly make their way in the opposite direction, feigning disinterest but keenly aware of my presence. I purposely ignore them. They’re a safe distance off – no threat to me or them – and truth is, I’d just as soon be left alone too.
One of the commonly cited demerits of 35mm film is its lack of resolution when you want to print really big. It’s true. This is a physical limitation; a wall unclimbable by any camera or any lens combination. Leica, Nikon, Canon, Zeiss… it matters not. A frame of 35mm film is a fixed size: 24mm x 36mm, and only contains so much data when exposed. Being a strong advocate of film photography – especially 35mm and medium format film photography – has pushed me outside of conventional use of these cameras looking for something a little different. This 5-foot wide panoramic image was stitched together from 5 vertically exposed frames shot with the Nikon F2AS – a camera made approximately 40 years ago – on Ilford Delta 100 35mm film. A ‘normal’ 50mm lens was used to minimize geometric distortion. Exposure is the same on all frames. The film was developed in Ilford’s Ilfosol 3 developer, then the frames were scanned using the dedicated Nikon film scanner. During scanning the exposure was locked to maintain consistency across all frames – something that aids in the software stitching process.
To blend the images together into a panoramic shot, Photoshop was used. Photoshop has an excellent tool under the File\Automate\Photomerge\ menu allowing you to load a sequence of images and allow the computer to determine the best configuration. Options include the Layout of the finished piece, Blend Images Together, Vignette Removal, Geometric Distortion Correction and Content aware Fill Transparent Areas. I select Auto for Layout, Blend Images Together, Vignette Removal and Geometric Distortion Correction.
From there Photoshop will run a series of procedures producing a blended version of the frames you’ve selected. It does an outstanding job. It uses Layer Masks(see image below – layer masks are the black and white shapes to the right of each layer in the palette at left of the image) to obscure the irrelevant portions of each frame, and heals the edges allowing them to blend more seamlessly together. So the process is non-destructive to the pixel data in each frame. You may go back and re-work by hand what the computer suggests – which I’ve found seldom necessary as long as each frame is exposed properly and overlapped enough during shooting.
A valuable feature is the Geometric Distortion Correction. Each lens has a varying inherent amount of geometric distortion to it. Depending on the lens and its design, this will either be a large amount or small amount – but some distortion is unavoidable. What’s nice creating such wide images this way is the ability of the computer to go through each frame and minimize such distortion so the resulting image is as “true” as possible. I wonder if a lens were available to make such a wide exposure in one frame to avoid the panoramic stitching – if it would suffer due to the extreme distortion such a wide field of view would introduce. In some respects then, I wonder if one obtains a truer image using this 5-frame method with a normal focal range lens (50mm) – than attempting to do one shot with a super wide-angle lens? Just a thought.
Once the image is assembled, typical scan-retouches are all that’s usually required. Removing dust and scratches, making sure the black and white points are set properly, then cropping/framing the final image. Below you can see the original results of the merge. The final image is cropped to straighten out the top and bottom of the frame – indicated by the light blue guide lines. This is where using a tripod comes in handy. The straighter the images are while panning during the actual exposures, the less waste there is at top and bottom. In the image below you can see to the left of frame there’s more white space on frame top. I was hand-holding the camera which prevented a more precise alignment.
I get such a kick out of this process is it demonstrates – once again – what a unique period we’re enjoying in the history of photography. Years ago when 35mm film was available but software was no where near its present level of sophistication – this would have been impossible to accomplish. Today, using old school tools and new digital methods of processing, creative floodgates have burst open allowing so many different ways to blend these two schools of thought together. What a wonderful time to be a film photographer.
Sometimes when visiting a new place surrounded by such emptiness there’s a mild reservation about leaving the imagined security of whatever semblance of civilization there is – and striking alone into the void. With minimal maps and no idea what really lay out there I check the fuel gauge and tires, listen to the car carefully for any indication of malfunction and make sure a little food and water are close at hand.
For some reason Medicine Bow, Wyoming calls to me. In the late 1800’s Medicine Bow was a mildly prosperous stop along the transcontinental Railway due to its proximity to water provided by the Medicine Bow River. Later – it was a vibrant stock and cattle holding operation and a stop for auto travelers along the old Lincoln Highway. In the early 70’s Medicine Bow was effectively cut off when Interstate 80 was built 35 miles to the south. Medicine Bow is one of the windiest places in America, a fact I can attest to from my visits. Often times when opening the car door, the wind catches and violently cranks it against the hinges causing the car to lurch.
My first intentional trip to Medicine Bow was several years ago as I determined to follow 287 north as far as I practically could. Outside of Laramie there’s not much topographic relief as one travels along the bottom of the enormous Laramie River Valley, ringed with high, wild peaks in the distance. The car drifts sideways in ever present wind as you unconsciously pull to the left while heading straight North. All but empty enclaves like Bosler, Rock River and Como Bluffs distantly dot the highway – a mirage providing the hope of relief that vanish as you approach, then roll through with no visible sign of activity. For a large portion of the drive the highway parallels the railroad and trains pass in either direction, the smile of their headlights providing brief companionship. Beyond the tracks, hidden from site by the risen berm lies the Laramie River, winding its way down from Wheatland Reservoir, 30 miles to the north east.
It’s the very definition of solitary.
Upon arriving in Medicine Bow I was struck by its sparse, barren landscape, wind, and intense, western afternoon light. Long, coal and cattle-laden freight trains regularly tear through the town’s center at full speed as I prowl around the tracks. Sometimes when visiting a new place surrounded by such emptiness there’s a mild reservation about leaving the imagined security of whatever semblance of civilization there is – and striking out alone into the void. With minimal maps and no real idea what lay out there I check the fuel gauge and tires, listen to the car carefully for any indication of malfunction and make sure a little food and water are close at hand.
On this most recent trip the emptiness is tempered by the presence of our one year old chocolate lab Tecla. As the sun begins to sink I start the car. 4 mule deer amble across the dirt road in front of me. Tecla erupts in the back seat, bouncing back and forth from passenger to driver side angrily barking at these large, four-legged invaders. Though the windows are up they glance briefly at the car, assess the threat, then pick up the pace as the rail road crossing sounds yet again. I drop the car into drive and head into the late, windy afternoon.
Coming home that night, topping the snowy pass separating Wyoming from Colorado the headlights catch a large, still shape sprawled across the road. It’s a deer. She’s been hit and killed and lay still, alone in the night. I stop. At the top of the cold, foggy pass visibility is low and I sit for a moment in the dark car deliberating. If another car hits her it’ll surely create problems for everyone. Tecla wakes up in the front seat and looks at me as I open the door and step into the night.
I grab the doe by the front legs and drag her across the road. She’s heavier than anticipated. ‘I’m so sorry, sweetheart’ I say as her head arcs back and the friction of the blacktop tries to prevent us from our task. The hair on her legs above her hooves is wet and my bare hands slip, then grab tighter. Leather gloves are somewhere in the car but I couldn’t risk the time to find them. A trail of blood is left behind on the road pointing to where she lay, and a large, round organ the size of a small beach ball that’s been dislodged, sitting in the road like a rock cairn on a hiking trail.
When I climb back in the car Tecla is awake and smells the dead animals’ scent on my hands. She aggressively sniffs and licks as one arm shoes her away, while the other searches the console for something to clean up with. There’s nothing. I drive 20 minutes down the pass and stop at Ted’s Place for a $2 bottle of hand sanitizer, then wipe down the steering wheel. This is life in Colorado and Wyoming, I think to myself – knowing I can’t share the event with my wife. “How was your trip,” she’ll say as I walk in, hungry and tired of being in the car. “Good. Really good.” And leave it at that.