DSLR Scanning Sucks

DSLR Scanning Sucks

DSLR scanning sucks. There I said it! Since my journey back into film photography started in 2017 I’ve been using my digital camera to digitise my negatives. It works, it can produce arguably great results – on a level with the very best quality you can achieve from a high end commercial scanner. But it’s a terrible solution.

Why is it terrible? Because it requires a shed ton of expensive gear to be done remotely well. Yeah you can just about cobble something together with any semi-recent digital camera, a macro extension tube and a nifty fifty (because proper 1:1 macros are expensive), you can sort of use a tripod, you can find a cheap LED light panel that produces whiteish light and so on. But this creates a really awkward setup, once the initial euphoria of “it works!” passes, you’re left with this really cumbersome and unreliable system that probably produces uneven sharpness and is a nightmare to align each time you set it up again. Oh and you’re on your own when it comes to turning your digitised negatives into positives.

The solutions to improving this setup are all really expensive – once you’ve added up the costs of a high quality 1:1 macro lens (£300-1000 depending on system), a proper sturdy copy stand (£200 or more), a high CRI light box (£50-100) and something to hold the negatives themselves flat (£30-300) you’ve easily spent £1000 or more. That puts you well into the ball park price of the highest end prosumer scanners like the Epson v850, the Plustek OpticFilm 120, the Reflecta MF5000 and so on.

For my DSLR* scanning I’ve tried a variety of things, starting off with the bodged solution outlined above. Trying, failing and trying again, replacing and tweaking each of the many components that make it up. Each step has cost more money and I’m incredibly fed up of it. To give a recent example, I’ve been unhappy with using my old Durst negative carrier as it cuts off about 4mm of the frame in each direction and its a faff to align the film well in it, especially at the ends of the strip. I’ve all but given up on ever receiving my Pixl-Latr so I bought both of Lomograph’s DigitaLIZA masks. The 120 model is excellent and works really well, the 35mm one on the other hand isn’t fit for purpose. So I’m back to the suboptimal Durst carrier again. At least I was able to resell the DigitaLIZA so I only ended up about £10 out of pocket, but still it’s frustrating.

* I use a Fuji X-T2 which is obviously a mirrorless camera, but for the sake of simplicity and brevity I’ll refer to it as a DSLR in this article.

So is the solution simply to buy a flatbed or dedicated film scanner?

Dedicated scanners also suck. Yeah, I know. Most scanners currently on the market are at best anywhere from 5 to 10 year old models. Sure periodically manufactures bump the model numbers, but the fundamental hardware is basically the same. A telling sign of this is that we’re still stuck with slow USB 2 connections, now a twenty year old standard that should feel as anachronistic as parallel and SCSI ports. Scanning speed is glacial – generally the fastest you can find is around a minute per 35mm frame and more typically you’re talking about several minutes per frame, so the process of digitising an entire 36 exposure role is likely to take an hour at a minimum. They also nearly all lie about their actual resolution (DPI) so it becomes a guessing game of what resolution you need to scan at and then downsample from to achieve the optimal result.

“A telling sign of this is that we’re still stuck with slow USB 2 connections, now a twenty year old standard that should feel as anachronistic as parallel and SCSI ports.”

However scanners do get some important things right, or at least they try to. Automatic dust removal, software designed to handle the whole process of capture, inversion and colour balancing, consistent results and quick setup. Some scanners even automate the process to the extent they can do whole strips or even multiple strips without supervision.

I enjoy editing my photos almost as much as taking them, but I do not overly enjoy the digitisation process itself so anything that makes that simpler and more reliable is a huge win for me. So I’ve decided to buy a dedicated film scanner, in the knowledge that it’s rebadged old hardware, that it will be slow and that I’m likely to encounter a learning curve to get the quality of results that I demand. In an ideal world I’d have been able to buy a scanner capable of handling 120 and 35mm film, but the only two choices there I can find on the market that produce adequate scan resolutions are both over £1000 and seem if not discontinued, then extremely scarce on the ground. So I’ve decided to keep my DSLR scanning setup for medium format for now, but switch my 35mm scanning to using a PlusTek 8200i. I’ll explain my thought process a bit below.

Why I chose the 8200i

I’ve been researching film scanners on and off for awhile now and have found there is precious little information out there on this subject despite the prevalence of YouTube channels and blogs dedicated to film photography. The only website with comprehensive scanner reviews I’ve found is ScanDig, which itself feels like a time capsule from the early 00’s. Reading their reviews you’ll quickly spot a theme – most of the scanners aren’t that good, they all over state their resolution to varying degrees and that they’re all generally worse than the long discontinued Nikon models. What they don’t provide is any full resolution sample scans or offer any head-to-head comparisons with a reference image for you to make your own mind up. At least they provide a good list of different scanners you can then look up individually on Google.

I quickly decided I wasn’t happy with the quality from flatbed scanners and it sounded like they nearly all had issues with accurately focusing on the negatives which resulted in extremely low resolution being achieved with 35mm and only barely acceptable resolution from medium format. So next I turned to the dedicated film scanner market which thankfully is still limping along. The two main players here are currently Reflecta and PlusTek. Reflectas are also sold under a few different brands like Braun and Pacific Image.

“The Reflecta scanners seem to have a slight edge in terms of resolution, but are more expensive than equivalent PlusTek models.”

The Reflecta scanners seem to have a slight edge in terms of resolution, but are more expensive than equivalent PlusTek models. They also had very restrictive warranties until recently (up to 8000 scans) which makes me question the manufacturer’s expected longevity of their products given each photo will generally require at least 2 scans (preview and main), and potentially 3 with infrared dust removal. I also seemed to come across quite a few people complaining about technical problems with their Reflecta scanners, but that just have been happenstance.

In the world of 35mm scanners they fall broadly into two camps, automatic and manual feed. If you’re sitting there with a huge box of negatives that all need scanning and you don’t have unlimited time and patience on your hands then an automatic feed scanner is basically essential. You drop the negative into a carrier and it will work out where the frames are and scan each one for you. However for my needs where in the worst case I maybe have two or three films to scan at any one time, manual feed is fine. As you might expect manual feed scanners are cheaper. It also seems like one less thing to go wrong. PlusTek sell three manual feed 35mm scanners, the 8100, the 8200i SE and the 8200i AI. The 8100 is the cheapest and most basic model, it doesn’t do infrared dust removal – whether that’s important to you or not will depend on how much black and white you shoot (it only works on colour film). The 8200 models are identical except for the versions of the SilverFast 8 software they ship with.

First Impressions

The 8200i is a compact little unit and takes up considerably less space than any of the various DSLR scanning setups I’ve tried. It comes with a two film holders, one for mounted slides and one for a 6 exposure long negative strip (shorter strips can be used). I was a little apprehensive about the scanning software it comes with, SilverFast SE 8 Plus, as it has a reputation of having a steep learning curve. However it turned out it’s fairly easy to use – but I’ve been using professional level photographic software for over twenty years now so I’m not your average user.

The default scan setting uses 3600 dpi which produces roughly 19 megapixel images. This is definitely the sweet spot for useful detail from any film that’s ISO 100 or over unless you just want more defined grain. Scan times on my computer (3.6GHz i7 9700K, 32GB RAM) are around 55 seconds at 3600 dpi. A preview scan takes around 25 seconds. That time roughly doubles if you turn on the infrared dust spot removal as it has to do a second pass.

The 8200’s top resolution is 7200 dpi. At this resolution you’re not actually gaining that much more information, just inflating the size your file. Scanning at this resolution took 2:45 minutes on my machine. If you downsample this massive scan though you can extract slightly more detail than you get from the 3600 dpi scan so for certain special images it may be worth the hassle. It might also be useful if you need to do a lot of fine repair work on your negative before down sampling.

ResolutionNormal ScanScan + iSRD (infrared repair)
3600 dpi55 seconds1 minute, 40 seconds
7200 dpi2 mins, 45 seconds5 minutes, 50 seconds
Typical scanning times with and without infrared dust and scratch repair on a high spec desktop PC.

SilverFast has lots of modules you can add to your work flow for sharpening, grain and noise removal, auto-contrast and so on. I’m not using any of them – I want my scans to be relatively neutral because I will be post-processing them in Lightroom and Photoshop. I’m not really convinced any of them hold a candle to what you can achieve in Adobe’s apps either. Take the infrared dust and scratch removal feature – it does a fairly decent job of spotting the blemishes on your film, but the actual corrections it applies are ham fisted compared to what you can achieve in a few minutes with the dust and scratches filter in Photoshop (applied locally) and the clone stamp or healing brush. It’s fine for dust specs, but if you have scratches or damage to the emulsion it will do more harm than good.

What SilverFast does do a very good job at is converting colour negatives into positives. It has an extensive range of presets for all the common films from Kodak and Fuji, including many long discontinued ones from other brands. It is however missing anything that’s come out in the last few years like CineStill or Lomography films and surprisingly also Kodak’s ColorPlus. However you can easily switch profiles without needing to rescan to see how the colours change, so it’s just a case of choosing something that looks pleasing.

For black and white films the profiles tend to mess with the contrast and sometimes introduce a slight warming or cooling effect. I just look for which ever is neutral enough – I don’t want to bake a load of contract into my scans. Unless you scan your black and white images in colour mode you’re unfortunately limiting yourself to 8 bit output (that is only 256 shades of grey) which feels a bit unforgivable in a piece of software as mature and expensive as SilverFast.

When it comes to fine tuning your scans the first port of call should ideally be Photoshop (or a similar tool). You can fix any obvious blemishes and then a little colour noise reduction will leave your image looking pretty nice if still a little soft at the pixel level. Applying a moderate level unsharp mask (say around 100% with a radius of 0.9 and threshold of 2) and your image should begin to look pretty crisp, but not over sharpened. It’s at this stage that I import the photo into Lightroom for any colour correction or further sharpening. You could skip the Photoshop step and go directly to Lightroom, but I find Photoshop faster for dust spotting.

So how does the 8200i compare to my DSLR setup?

So far I’ve found the 8200i compares favourably to the best scans I’ve managed to make with my DSLR and macro lens. In terms of raw detail, when the macro lens is perfectly focused the results look as good as the 7200 dpi scans downsampled to around 24 megapixels (the native output of my DSLR). But where the scanner excels is that it’s always properly focused, something that is not easy to achieve with a manual focus macro lens like the one I use. So that means the regular 3600 dpi scans look as a good as or better than my typical results with the DSLR. I’ve found this especially true for slide film. I thought slide film just wasn’t that sharp – turns out I was wrong, I just could never focus on it properly!

Here’s a shot on new Kodak Ektachrome

Top right, DSLR capture. Note the mushy green foliage with very little fine detail. This is already a weak spot of my Fuji X-T2’s X-Trans sensor, but even non-green areas are this lacking in detail and I tried refocusing on the slide several times.

Bottom right, 8200i scan. The fine detail of the leaves in the distant trees here really surprised me – I just didn’t think ISO 100 slide film could resolve that much detail!

100% crop from DSLR scan
100% crop from 8200i scan

SilverFast also does a hands down better job at creating pleasing and balanced colours from colour negatives than I’ve ever been able to achieve myself. I’ve always found correcting for the orange mask kills my reds leaving them looking more orange and washed out than they should be. Films which I thought looked a bit washed out because of my low temperature home processing are suddenly bursting with vibrant colours, it’s a total revelation!

DSLR scan with colour correction in Lightroom
PlusTek 8200i scan with colour correction in SilverFast

So in terms of raw image quality and colours I’m honestly thrilled, it’s a marked improvement over what I had. I have discovered some downsides though. The first is that SilverFast can only output 8 bit per channel tiff files*, that somewhat limits your headroom for pushing and pulling highlights and shadows. It’s especially egregious for greyscale files where you are dealing with only one 8 bit channel. To get true 16 bit output you have to spend a fortune on Silverfast Ai Studio which is an expensive upgrade for such a basic feature.

So in terms of raw image quality and colours I’m honestly thrilled, it’s a marked improvement over what I had.”

* it can also output to its own proprietary HDR raw files which do offer 16 bits per channel but which of course require an expensive dedicated piece of software from Silverfast to work with 🙄.

I decided to try rival scanner software VueScan to get 16 bit greyscale output and it works fine, however it seems to produce a little bit of banding that I don’t see with Silverfast, although it only effects the extreme edge of the scan so I can crop it off easily enough and only lose around 20 pixels. I don’t find VueScan’s colour output especially good however, I’m sure with enough patience and trial and error you can make it good, but in this regard Silverfast is hands down better as it works out of the box.

The second major downside is that it turns out scanners can ‘see’ damage to the surface of a negative that my DSLR could not. I’ve never mistreated my negatives, I keep them all in glassine sleeves and I don’t squeegee them when drying. However I still seem to have scratched a lot of them, I can only assume during my previous digitisations pulling them through the negative carrier. I’ve not come across anything that was especially hard to fix in Photoshop, but if you’re going to be dealing with less well treated films then this is something to keep in mind. As I mentioned above the automatic dust and scratch removal is limited and it’s particularly poor at correcting scratches turning them into coloured gashes that clearly disrupt the grain pattern and any other fine detail they pass through.

So I should buy a film scanner?

If you’re totally happy with whatever setup you have at the moment and that doesn’t already involve a film scanner, then obviously no. However if you’re at all unhappy with the faff, the colours, the sharpness or whatever and you primarily want to scan 35mm then yeah, you really should invest in a dedicated scanner because the results are that much better. I wish there was an equally good and affordable solution for medium format. Maybe an Epson v850 is a good enough as a stop gap, but I hope either PlusTek or Reflecta will step up here and refresh their offerings for the new generation of film shooters.

120 Quick Takes Part 2

It’s been about 10 months since I last wrote about my experiences trying different film stocks so I thought it was high time for a new article. This time I’m also going to cover some expired films as I was given a hoard of old deep frozen film by a friend so have more experience with it now.

Black & White

Agfa Agfapan APX 400 (expired)

Rolleicord Vb, Xenar 75mm f3.5 w/ 16 exposure kit. Agfapan APX 400 @ ISO 320

This film hasn’t been manufactured in over a decade now, the roll I shot expired in 2005. I shot my roll of this film at ISO 320 to compensate for loss of sensitivity. The film has a traditional style emulsion that produces a noticeable but not unpleasant grain. I feel like it renders light quite softly, but still produces a good detail and sharpness. I shot this roll in my Rolleicord Vb.

Lomography Earl Grey (ISO 100)

Bronica SQ-Ai w/ 80mm f2.8. Lomo Earl Grey @ ISO 100

Earl Grey is rebranded Foma Creative 100. It’s a really nice, fine grained ISO 100 classic emulsion. I enjoyed shooting Creative 100 so it follows that I also like this rebranded version. Results from my SQ-Ai look crisper and sharper than from ETRS, but I’d put this down to differences in the lenses rather than any improvement Foma may have made to the film itself since last year. Sold in handy 3 packs it’s a really solid black and white film, and provides a cheaper alternative to say Ilford FP4+.

Ilford FP4+ (ISO 125, expired)

Rolleicord Vb, Xenar 75mm f3.5. Ilford FP4+ (exp. 2005) @ ISO 100

As part of the film stash I was given I got several rolls of FP4 plus, all dating back to the early 2000s. I’ve now shot a couple of rolls, exposing it at ISO 100 to give the old emulsion a slight kick. The results are great, it all looks as good as new producing lovely, fine grain negatives with a lovely tonal range. I also have some older non-plus rolls of FP4, including one dating back to the 1980s which I’m hoping to try over the summer.

Colour Negative

Kodak Portra 160

Rollei Vb w/ Xenar 75mm f3.5. Kodak Portra 160 @ ISO 160

I really like this film! It’s flexible, very fine grained and with a lovely warm palette. Compared to Kodak Ektar 100, it’s much easier to work with – you don’t need to worry about shadows turning blue, colours are a bit softer and more natural. You also get 2/3rd of a stop more light to work with over Ektar. It handles over exposure well giving you lots of headroom if you want to shoot at ISO 100 or slower speeds. You can sometimes find a five pack of Portra 160 for as little as £25 on Amazon which makes it a bargain for such a high quality film.

CineStills 800T

Rolleicord Vb, Xenar 75mm f3.5. CineStill 800T @ ISO 800

I’d wanted to shoot this film for ages – then after finally buying a roll, it spent several months sat in my fridge as I didn’t know what to do with it! The trouble with CineStills film is that it’s seriously expensive. A single roll of 800T cost me £15 – that puts a lot of pressure on you to make good use of it. I ended up taking it to Amsterdam with the hope of getting some good night shots around the city. Unfortunately it turns out Amsterdam isn’t a very brightly lit city! So I wasn’t that happy with many of the shots I got because I struggled to find brightly lit subjects to fill the frame, oh well c’est la vie! Still I like the look of this film, the glow you get around the highlights due to the removal of the anti-halation layer looks cool. Grain is incredibly fine for such a fast film, easily rivalling Portra 400. If I buy any more it will probably be in 135 format just so I don’t have to stress quite so much about the cost of each shot!

Rollei CN200

Bronica SQ-Ai w/ 80mm f2.8. Rollei Digibase CN200 @ ISO 200

This is an interesting film, unusually without an orange mask, making it slightly easier to digitise. Unfortunately my test roll didn’t turn out brilliantly, resulting in some of the shots having areas of uneven development. The film has a noticeable, but fine grain and good sharpness. Shadow areas can tend a little towards purple and it doesn’t give you much leeway for underexposure in the shadows. It’s probably better to exposure it at ISO 160 to give yourself more headroom. I was hoping to get some more of this film to play with now I’ve got my C-41 process better nailed down, but sadly it seems to be discontinued.

Lomography CN800

Bronica SQ-Ai w/ 150mm f4. Lomo CN800 @ ISO 800

Rollei Vb w/ Xenar 75mm f3.5. Lomo CN800 @ ISO 400

This film has been a really pleasant surprise. I bought it just because at the time I’d never shot an ISO 800 colour film, and at £15 for 3 rolls it seemed like a bargain. Shot at ISO 800 it produces nice colours and reasonably tight grain. But shoot it at ISO 400 and it produces lovely punchy colours and a very pleasing soft grain that makes it rival native ISO 400 films like Fuji Pro 400H. Having a film that works well from ISO 800 on down is incredibly handy if you know you’re going to be in quite mixed lighting conditions. I don’t know who makes this film (it’s sourced from China), but I highly recommend trying it.

120 Quick Takes Part 1

120 Film Quick Takes

120 Film Quick Takes

Since getting into film photography I’ve been keen to try as many different film stocks as I can get my hands on. Despite the resurgent popularity of film you never quite know how long any of these are going to be around, so it’s nice to use them while they’re still being freshly produced.

Black & White Films

Ilford PanF+ (ISO 50)

This is the slowest film I’ve shot with to date, rated at just ISO 50. Obviously this is one for bright outdoor shooting or tripod based long exposures. The benefit of such a slow film is the fineness of the grain and the ability to shoot wide apertures without requiring ND filters or very high shutter speeds.

In terms of grain, I’m a bit disappointed with this film. It’s not as clean as the faster Delta 100, Acros 100 or even Rollei Retro 80S. It’s the least grainy of Ilford’s classic emulsions, but if you’re only choosing it for clean and crisp images then you can find better, faster options. On the plus side I’ve found it handles contrasty situations very nicely with good shadow and highlight detail. This film is super quick to develop, requiring a 1:14 dilution of Ilfosol 3 and even then only taking 4 and a half minutes. I’ve read that PanF doesn’t have good keeping qualities once exposed so it’s best to develop as soon as possible after shooting.

Ilford FP4+ (ISO 125)

I really like this film, although it’s a traditional emulsion, grain is well controlled and fine, albeit still fairly noticeable in clear blue skies. Being a fairly slow film its best for use in bright conditions where it produces lovely tones. I’ve developed it in both Ilford DD-X and Ilfosol 3, which both produce similar results. In the later it’s very quick to develop requiring only a few minutes, which is good if you’re impatient like me! FP4+ tends to be very affordable and is available from £4 a roll.

Ilford HP5+ (ISO 400)

This was the first film I shot this year and I found it a bit too grainy for my liking in 35mm. Things are slightly better with the bigger negative sizes of 120 film but it’s still a bit grainier than I’d like, especially compared to Delta 400, even when that’s pushed a stop. HP5 is generally regarded as a fairly forgiving film when it comes to exposure latitude but I’ve not tried pushing or pulling it yet to confirm that. I think I generally prefer T grained films like Acros and Delta, but if you’re more a grain fan then this is probably what you want. I’ve only developed it in Ilford’s DD-X which may not be an ideal match. HP5 is usually around £5 to 6 a roll.

Ilford Delta 100

Delta 100 produces very clean, sharp images with good dynamic range and is practically grainless in appearance. It doesn’t block up shadows as much as Acros, with a broader mid-range. Handily like most Ilford films, you can buy this as individual rolls so it’s cheaper to experiment with. The film develops very well in Ilford’s Ilfosol 3. Delta 100 usually commands a price in the £5 to £6 range.

Ilford Delta 400

Delta 400 is one of my most used films. It’s great at box speed with fine grain and even pushed a stop 800 barely looks any different. It has a fairly flat contrast curve which is ideal for digitising, where you can tweak contrast as you see fit in post.

I’ve developed it in both Ilford DD-X and Ilfosol 3. DD-X is probably its natural match, especially for push processing. Results with Ilfosol 3 diluted to 1+14 have been a bit mixed so far, I’ve developed one roll pushed to 800 which came our great and another at box speed which was unacceptably grainy. I shall try 1+9 and see if that improves things or go back to DD-X. Amazon sell this film at £4.99 in which is about the best price you’ll find it for.

Fuji Neopan Acros 100

This film is stunning and my favourite for black and white photography. The digitised results could be from a modern digital sensor they’re so clean. If you’ve seen this film described as ‘grainless’ and not believed it, well believe it! Ok if you look very hard or try and push shadows or lightlights too much you’ll uncover a bit, but in a well exposed shot it’s amazingly clean.

Another benefit of Acros for those wanting to do long exposures is that it doesn’t suffer from the usual reciprocity failure that many films do. In terms of rendering, Acros tends to block up shadow areas but has huge range in the highlights, this produces some really beautiful results but needs careful exposure. I’ve had good results developing in the rotary processor with both Ilfosol 3 and DD-X. Unfortunately unlike with Ilford’s films, you can only buy this in 5 packs which makes it a little expensive here in the UK at nearly £6 a roll.

Fomapan 100 Classic

Foma is an interesting company producing traditional emulsion films at their plant in the Czech Republic. Fomapan 100 Classic actually reminds me of Ilford’s FP4+ quite a bit in the way it renders, although perhaps with slightly less sharp results overall. Still it’s a rather attractive film and given its low price in Europe, hard to ignore if you’re on a tight budget. It can be found for less than £4 a roll which is an increasing rarity with 120 film.

One thing to watch out for if home developing, is that it’s very flimsy and easy to mark when loading onto a spiral. It’s the first film I’ve handled that when unwound from the take-up spool was very loose – most want to tightly wind up again.

Fomapan 200 Creative

Despite the fairly low speed of ISO 200, this film is rather grainy and characterful making it good for fairly brightly lit scenes you want to give a bit of a gritty edge. That said if you don’t nail the exposure or want to darken a sky in post, things can get very messy. Like Foma’s 100 Classic, it’s a rather flimsy film which can make handling a bit more tricky when home processing. Unlike its cheaper slower sibling, 200 Creative tends to be in the mid £4 to £5 range.

Rollei Retro 80S

Rollei branded films are interesting primarily for their near-infrared sensitivity. In fact they do make purely IR film too, but I’ve not tried it yet. The benefit of having some IR sensitivity means in theory you can cut through haze on hot days which should be a boon for landscape photographers. Unfortunately it’s been a fairly poor summer here in Yorkshire, so I’ve not been able to test this aspect yet. Like the Foma films I’ve tried, Retro 80S is rather thin and while I had no trouble loading it onto my Jobo’s spiral, it’s remained very curly after drying which makes handling a little more fiddly.

In terms of image quality this is a remarkably good film. It’s as clean and grainless looking as Acros or Delta 100 with only a slight hit in speed. I’ve found it really doesn’t like underexposure, quickly losing all detail in dark shadow areas. One image, where I had to shoot what I thought was just 1 stop under to get a hand-holdable shutter speed, barely even registered on the negative!

Overall though I’m amazed at the quality, if you want a cheaper alternative to Acros or Delta 100 it’s a very good option. A roll of 80S will generally set you back around £4.50. The only real downside is that at just ISO 80 you will need brighter light or longer exposures than with comparable ISO 100 films. I’ve found 80S develops very well in Ilford’s Ilfosol 3.

Colour Negative Films

Fuji Pro NS 160

This was the first film I ran through my Bronica and I quickly decided I didn’t like it. I’ve found getting nice colours out of it when digitising to be a real chore, especially compared to every other colour negative film I’ve shot. It’s also expensive (quite a bit more so than Kodak Portra 160) working out at around £6 a roll, so it’s really hard to recommend. On the plus side the grain is fairly fine. It really doesn’t like underexposure and I’ve seen some odd effects at the edges of a few frames that I suspect might be light leaks which I’ve not seen with other films shot in the same camera. So I’m not sure if it’s an artefact from development, me miss-handling it or something else going on. Overall a thumbs down.

Fuji Pro 400H

Unlike NS 160, 400H is actually pretty nice. It digitises well and I’ve not seen any strange ‘light leaks’ or other issues. Overall performance is much the same as Kodak Portra 400. I’ve shot it at box speed and at ISO 200 and had nice results each time. This film handles greens very well so it’s particularly suited to landscape photography. It develops well in Tetenal ColorTec C-41. Available only in packs of 5, the cost per roll is around £6.

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak advertises this as the finest grained colour negative film and it certainly produces very clean results. Colours tend to be punchy and saturated in bright light, but they can take on blue or purple casts if it’s gloomy or a little underexposed. I’ve found shadow areas in otherwise well exposed sunny scenes can turn very bluish which can require some post-processing to correct. This is certainly a film where you want to carefully expose for the shadows.

I’ve had good results developing Ektar with the two bath Tetenal ColorTec C-41 kit. Amazon has recently had fantastic prices for Kodak 120 films, with five packs selling for £25 or less, that makes this film an absolute bargain at around £5 a roll. More typically it will fetch somewhere between £5.50 and £6 a roll.

Kodak Portra 400

As the name suggests, Kodak wants you to think of this as a portrait film. To date I’ve yet to shoot a single portrait with it, but the colours lend themselves well to landscape and street photography too. Grain is fine and not overly apparent. I’ve shot several rolls of this over exposed by a stop at ISO 200, which has a nice effect on the colours. I’ve seen reports you can overexpose this film by up to 6 stops and still get very useable results. Of course like most film it’s less a fan of being underexposed, but then at ISO 400 you already have good latitude and Kodak produces an ISO 800 version if you need further flexibility. I’ve found this film can be a little bit grainy in the sky, at least developed with Tetenal’s C-41 kit. Pricing is around £5.50 to £6 a roll.

What next?

There are still quite a few films I’d like to try which I’ve not yet had the opportunity to. In particular these are on my list:

  • Kodak Portra 160
    I want to see if this is a good alternative to Ektar with a little more exposure headroom.
  • Kodak TMax (100, 400)
    I want to see how this compares to the Ilford’s Delta films.
  • Fuji Velvia
    This film is legendary so I’m keen to try it sometime.
  • Fuji Neopan 400 CN
    There’s only two Fuji B&W films so I might as well try them both, this is a C-41 process one.
  • Rollei Digibase CN 200
    This is an interesting film in that it doesn’t have a colour mask so it should be easier to digitise. After being floored by how good Retro 80S is I’m keen to try more Rollei films.
  • Ilford Delta 3200
    I’m interested to see what the quality is like from such a fast film, probably one I’ll save for the depths of winter when there isn’t much light!
  • Ilford XP2 400
    I’ve heard good things about this but I’ve been avoiding using my expensive colour chemistry on B&W films so far as this is another C-41 process one.
  • CineStills 800
    I’m really keen to try this film as I’ve seen some lovely images taken with it. It can be a bit expensive and hard to find in the UK unfortunately.

If you’re wondering why I’ve not listed Kodak’s Tri-X, it’s because I have shot it in 35mm format and didn’t like it much. I’m not a fan of grainy films generally, especially where equal speed cleaner films exist, and my experience with HP5+ has taught me that moving up a format size doesn’t really change the overall characteristic that much.

A Yorkshire Camera

A Yorkshire Camera

Exploring a local antiques shop recently, I came across a beautiful 6×6 format folding camera that appeared to be in very nice condition. After giving it a once over and determining nothing was obviously wrong, I plunked down £9 ($12) of my hard earned cash to take the thing home. It turned out I had bought a Yorkshire camera. A GB Kershaw 110 to be precise, made in the great city of Leeds some 60 or so years ago. It was in very nice condition for its age, with just some dust in the optics and a tiny bit of corrosion here and there on the aluminium parts.

The biggest worry with any camera that makes use of soft bellows is pin holes and tears that could cause light leaks. These are usually found around the folds where the material is under the most stress. Thankfully the bellows on this camera are in tip-top shape, requiring no repair at all. Another common problem to look out for in old cameras is worn out light seals, where foam or felt has disintegrated or worn away over the years. Helpfully the Kershaw’s design made no use of either material, so there were no concerns there either.

The lens and viewfinder were very simple to clean of dust, both being made of just two elements. After I finished cleaning things up I loaded a roll of Ilford FP4 Plus. The use of bog standard 120 roll film means the Kershaw is as usable today as when it was new. Getting the film into the camera took a few attempts given the slightly awkward swing out spool holders, but I got there in the end.

In terms of operation, the Kershaw 110 is a very basic camera. A button on the top plate makes the front pop open, extending the bellows and putting the lens into shooting position. A single knob lets you wind the film on, with a red window in the back to let you see which frame you’re on*. The lens is anonymous, but I’d estimate it at around 80mm (45mm equivalent in 35mm terms) with its focus fixed to give you a depth of field from around 3m to infinity. It has a single shutter speed of somewhere around 1/50 of a second and a choice of two apertures, f11 or f16. Its only other features are a bulb mode and a flash sync port. Getting an accurate exposure is rather out the window with such limited control so you’re fairly reliant on the wide latitude of film and hoping for the best!

* 120 roll film is paper backed and that paper has frame numbers printed on to it for cameras like this without mechanical frame counters.

I found the camera simple to use in practice, even if I had a degree of ‘exposure anxiety’ while using it, worrying that for the light conditions I was hopelessly under or overexposing. In the end just about everything turned out fine. The ISO 125 film I’d picked meant I wasn’t too far off in terms of exposure when I was out of the shade.

I found I had no trouble remembering to wind on the film after each shot, so avoided any accidental double exposures. I didn’t have especially high hopes for the optical quality of the anonymous two element lens, but it actually produced some alright results. It’s a little soft at the edges, but the main portion of the frame is pretty sharp – if you can hold the camera still enough.

Indeed the slow shutter speed and awkward handling were the camera’s main let down and I lost about a quarter of the film to camera shake. It’s too bad it can’t take a threaded shutter release as I’m sure that would help quite a bit. It’s made me quite curious to see how good the results could be from a slightly less basic folding camera which could achieve better hand-holdable shutter speeds and with a more serious lens.

Exploring Flickr proves that Agfa Isolette’s and Zeiss Ikons can certainly produce wonderful results. The challenge with such old cameras is finding a copy in good working order without parting with too much money. Certain models are popular with collectors which can push the prices up to silly amounts.

So if you spy an old folding camera in an antiques shop, charity shop or at a car boot sale, don’t just brush if off as a relic from the past – it may be a very capable little camera in your hands. If it’s inexpensive and looks in fair condition, definitely give it a go!

If you enjoy my writing and images please help support me and the site by purchasing a print from my store here or on Etsy. Those old folders aren’t free ya know 😉

Fuji 35mm f2 WR Review

Fuji 35mm f2 WR Review

As soon as I saw the leaked images of the 35mm f2, back in early 2015, I knew I wanted one. I’ve shot with the older 35mm f1.4 on many occasions and it’s a lens I’ve repeatedly considered buying and then pulled back from. Optically great, not too large or heavy, but showing its age in many respects with regards to its construction and AF performance. So enter the new f2 model, with it’s Leica style tapered design, weather resistance, super fast internal focusing and it already looks like we have a winner on our hands.

Construction & Handling

As we’ve come to expect from Fuji’s Made in Japan lenses, the 35mm f2’s build quality is fantastic. There’s no cheap plastic here like you’d find on a Canon or Nikon lens in this price range. Compared to Fuji’s other entry level prime, the 27mm f2.8, the quality is markedly better. I’m sure I’m not alone in suspecting that the 27mm f2.8 was originally intended to be part of the XC range of aperture ringless budget lenses.

Fuji finally seems to have cracked what an acceptable level of clickiness is for an aperture ring. The 35mm f2 offers just the right amount of resistance in that it won’t turn accidentally, but also doesn’t feel like its putting up a fight when you do want to change it. The focus ring is nice and smooth like every Fuji lens I’ve used. It’s on the narrow side, but it’s usable for manual focus.

As the lens carries the “WR” badge for weather resistance, it has a rubber gasket around the mount. This is a feature that I was used to in my Nikon days, even on non-weather sealed lenses, and I’m glad it’s finding its way into Fuji’s lineup. It helps to seal the camera body against dust as much as moisture. Of course there are plenty of other seals within the lens too that should help keep moisture and dust from getting into the internals.

Exactly how effective Fuji’s WR is I don’t know – I certainly feel less worried about WR gear getting a bit of rain or snow on it, but without any kind of official standard it’s impossible to know just how “resistant” it is. Erring on the side of caution is therefore still probably your best bet to secure the longevity of your gear, with the WR stamp being more of an insurance policy than an invitation to treat things carelessly.

One area where the 35mm f2 does let us down a little is with the supplied hood. That it’s plastic is not unexpected these days, but what’s less forgivable is that it’s a nasty screw-in design that uses the filter thread. This is despite the fact the lens has a bayonet fitting specifically for a hood. Fuji will happily sell you a metal vented hood that uses said bayonet, but of course it’s stupidly expensive. On the positive side, at least the plastic screw-in hood is small and the lens cap fits neatly inside it. If you happen to also own the new Fuji 23mm f2, both hoods are interchangeable and the 23mm version does use the bayonet.

One more slight disappoint is the introduction of yet another odd-ball filter size, this time 43mm. Thankfully now the 23mm f2 has been launched sharing this thread size, at least there are two lenses in the lineup with it. Unfortunately the newly announced 50mm f2 lens doesn’t make it three, so if you opt for the 23-35-50 f2 set you’ll need either multiple filter sizes or step up rings *sigh*.

Optical Quality

As you might expect, the 35mm f2 isn’t optically as good as the 35mm f1.4. There’s a bit of electronic distortion correction being applied and the extreme corners never quite get there in terms of sharpness. That said the center is fantastic and in real world shooting, the very extreme corners being fractionally soft has never been a problem.

Insets showing sharpness at 100% in the marked locations.

The lens’s bokeh is smooth and pleasing, with Fuji blessing it with 9 aperture blades. Out of focus highlights stay nice and round even when stopped down. The example below with the crystal ball was shot at f5.6 for example. The older 35mm f1.4 only has 7 blades by contrast and produces more angular bokeh balls as a result. F2 still provides plenty of scope for shallow depth of field photography, but obviously the f1.4 model has the edge in terms of extreme subject separation and will produce slightly sharper results when stopped down to f2.


[exif id=”1448″]


[exif id=”1219″]

AF Speed

This little lens is a speed demon! It may not have one of those fancy linear motors to brag about, but its internal focus mechanism is incredibly quick on all recent Fuji bodies. Even old X-Trans 1 models show a good level of performance. As the 35mm f2 has an internal focus design, outwardly no parts move while focus is being acquired. This no doubt contributes to its extremely quiet operation and is a boon for polariser users.


[exif id=”1455″]

Compared to the Fuji 35mm f1.4

If you already own the older Fuji 35mm lens, should you “upgrade” to the new model? The answer to that question will depend heavily on the type of photography you do. If you’re mostly shooting posed portraits, desperately need that extra f stop or require the ultimate in corner sharpness then the older lens is probably still your best bet. However if you rarely shoot at f1.4, would benefit from the faster autofocus, quieter operation and weather sealing, then the new lens does look very attractive. If you have the money to spare then owning both could be a good compromise. For my shooting style and wallet the 35mm f2 just makes more sense.


[exif id=”1452″]

Conclusion

This lens isn’t optically perfect and it’s a little darker than its older f1.4 brother, but both those quibbles are largely offset by just how nice this lens is to shoot with. From its diminutive proportions, to its weather resistance, build quality, focus speed and general rendering – it’s just a pleasure to use. It pairs well with all Fuji’s current cameras, especially the X-Pro series. As part of a small f2 prime kit, along with the 23mm and 50mm, it will no doubt be finding its way into a lot of gear bags. All indications are that it is one of the best selling and most popular XF lenses available at the moment and I can see why.

If you find this review helpful please consider purchasing a print from my store here or on Etsy to help support the site.

Fuji 60mm f2.4 R Macro Long-term Use Review

Fuji 60mm f2.4 R Macro Long-term Use Review

The very first lens I bought to go with my X-E1 kit back in 2013 was the 60mm f2.4. Back then there were precisely 4 X-mount lens to choose from; the 18mm, the 35mm, the 60mm and the 18-55mm zoom. Not much compared to today’s lineup! At the time I wanted a lens I could use for some portraits at a friend’s wedding, so I bought the 60mm as it’s a reasonable focal length for that purpose.

Unfortunately the day of the wedding was incredibly gloomy and overcast, to top it off the venue itself was very dimly lit. If you remember what it was like trying to shoot an X-E1 on 1.0 firmware with the 60mm 2.4 also on 1.0 firmware back then, you can probably guess that things did not go well! The focus was grindingly slow and frequently failed entirely, I got a few shots, but overall the experience had me wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake switching away from a DSLR.

Thankfully over time the firmware of both the X-E1 and lens were improved and the performance moved from nearly unusable in imperfect light to just about passable. In good light the lens performance was already much better and while still no speed demon, subsequent updates have helped to make it a little snappier. Where it fell down in speed, it made up for it in rendering; producing images packed with detail and with a lush creamy bokeh that blew my 18-55mm wide open at 55mm out of the water. I grew to really enjoy using it for landscape, street and the odd bit of macro photography.

After about two years of using and enjoying the lens tremendously I found myself starting to get a lot of missed shots where the camera had claimed to focus and where the image looked sharp enough in the viewfinder, but where the whole image was noticeably out-of-focus when viewed up large. I’m not sure if this was just a run of bad luck, the result of a firmware update or something else (the lens would still reliably focus enough that I was sure it wasn’t broken). Anyway I decided I’d had enough, so I put it on eBay and bought the 55-200mm f3.5.-4.8.

A few months later I found myself in possession of an X-T10 and missing the 60mm as a compact and lightweight short telephoto option. With a holiday coming up that I wanted to pack fairly lightly for, I decided I’d reacquire a copy of the 60mm and give it a second chance. After looking on eBay I found one in mint condition at a bargain price of £219 and snapped it up. I’m pleased to say the performance and focus accuracy of the lens paired with the X-T10 is hugely improved. It’s still not going to satisfy those trying to capture fast action, but for most other uses it’s now a solid performer and I’ve not had any more false focus confirmations.

13-03
[exif id=”1348″]

Build and Handling

As with all Fuji XF lenses, the 60mm is well made in a mixture of quality plastics and metal. As one of Fuji’s older lens designs, it’s doesn’t feature internal focusing and the front element can extend out of the lens barrel by around an inch at macro distances. At non-macro working distances it barely moves from the main lens body at all.

The lens features an awkward 39mm filter ring size, which it shares only with Fuji’s 27mm f2.8 pancake lens and precious little else from other manufacturers. This can make finding filters a challenge. To make matters worse, Fuji decided to recess the filter thread behind the outer ring of the lens barrel. This means the only way you can fit a step-up adapter is to knock out the glass from a 39mm UV filter and use that as a go between to give the necessary clearance from the filter ring to the front of the lens. It’s a messy solution, but if you need to use ND filters or a polariser it may be your only option. If Fuji ever releases a mark 2 version of this lens I hope it’s an area they address.

The 60mm has a large, smooth turning focus ring that will let you dial in precise adjustments when shooting in macro. The only downside to this is that it can make demounting the lens a little tricky, as there’s very little of it that is non-rotating. The aperture ring offers a decent level of resistance and isn’t too easy to change accidentally (unlike say the 35mm f1.4 or the 14mm f2.8).

As one of the original three lenses that launched the X series, Fuji was kind enough to bundle a high quality metal hood, complete with vents to improve its handling on X-Pro bodies. The hood is really big – it nearly doubles the overall length of the lens when attached. I find I rarely carry mine any more. The front element is deeply recessed already, so the hood doesn’t offer that much more physical protection and it’s already fairly hard to make the lens flare. The hood can be reversed for storage, but unfortunately then completely blocks the aperture ring and makes it near impossible to dismount the lens from the camera body.

Note: The three original Fuji lenses (18, 35 & 60) all share the same physical hood mount, which makes them interchangeable – albeit with caveats. On the 60mm the 18mm’s hood will block the front element at macro distances but I hear the 35mm’s hood will work quite well with it and doesn’t vignette.

Optical Performance

As I mentioned in the build up, the detail and overall rendering from this lens is very pleasing. It produces lovely creamy bokeh and thanks to its 9 blade aperture, out-of-focus highlights remain nice and round even when stopped down – a feature that curiously sets it ahead of Fuji’s fast portrait primes. You can get decent subject separation at f2.4 when shooting portraits, although obviously it’s not in the same league as the 56mm f1.2.

_DSF3935
[exif id=”1311″]

The 60mm isn’t fully optically corrected and some digital distortion correction is applied both in camera and by Lightroom. The only way to avoid that correction is to use a RAW processor that lets you turn it off, such as Iridient Developer. Thankfully the corrections applied have a minimal impact on the overall image quality which remains high throughout the range, only really falling off as you start to push past f11. In my limited testing so far, the 60 seems to hold its own on the new 24 megapixel X-Trans 3 sensor.

60-corrected

Roll over this image to see the pincushion distortion that the lens has when uncorrected. The slight change in colours is down to one image being processed in Lightroom and the other in Iridient.

It’s easy to forget this is a macro lens as I find it such a versatile focal length for landscape and portraiture – but it does have the ability to focus as close as 26cm (just under 1ft) and produces a 1:2 magnification. That certainly won’t satisfy hardcore macro shooters, but as a handy addition to an already versatile lens it’s a welcome feature.

Common Blue Damselfly
[exif id=”791″]

Closing Thoughts

I think the 60mm has always been a bit of an underrated lens in the XF lineup. Being both optically very decent and a versatile focal length, but struggling to shake off its early reputation for sluggish performance. While that reputation used to be well deserved in the early days, Fuji has advanced focus speed in its recent cameras by leaps and bounds and the 60 benefits from that a lot. It will never be anyone’s first choice for fast paced sports or action photography and it will likely remain overshadowed by the 56mm f1.2 for portraiture. However for people like me, who have persevered and gradually been rewarded by Fuji’s kaizen philosophy, or those who are just now entering the Fuji system with a modern camera body, it’s a lens that has a breadth of utility that remains unmatched by any other prime on the X system. Portraiture, street, landscape, macro – no other single Fuji prime can offer that range of versatility at the present time. The 60mm will remain a very special piece of glass for the foreseeable future, despite its few quirks and shortcomings. Let me leave you with a selection of some my favourite images that I’ve taken with the 60mm over the last few years.

If you enjoy my images and reviews please consider buying a print from my store here or on Etsy.

11-12
[exif id=”1312″]

DSCF2931
[exif id=”1314″]

Whitby Colours
[exif id=”1315″]

20-01
[exif id=”1316″]

 

X100T Essential Accessories

X100T Essential Accessories

The X100 series cameras from FujiFilm are a joy to shoot with out-of-the-box, but they benefit enormously from a few essential accessories. These  improve the ergonomics, add a little physical protection from bumps and scuffs and make them even more gorgeous to behold.

Fuji X100T Premium Leather Case

The Fuji case comes in two parts, a lower half-case that protects the bottom and sides of the camera and a removable upper case that protects the lens, rear screen and top of the camera, naturally you can’t use the camera while this part is attached.

I had the official Fuji case for my 1st generation X100, and while it looked great and provided good protection for the camera, it was a bit of a pain to use. You had to remove the whole lower portion just to change the battery or memory card. Not ideal on a camera that chews through batteries quickly. Thankfully since then Fuji has learned how to add little button up flaps to their cases to make the battery and SD card slot accessible. Unfortunately they are still omitting a tripod mount, so you’ll need to remove the case to mount the camera on anything. The case also blocks the ports on the side of the camera which is a nuisance if you need to use a cable to transfer photos or charge the battery.

The case is made of black leather (a brown version is also available) with a smooth, completely untextured finish. Inside it has a dark grey, felt-like lining. The case is secured to the camera by little loops that fasten over the camera’s strap lugs. When using a wrist strap the case is only secured on one side, but it has a snug enough fit to still remain firmly on the camera without flopping about or sliding off. Whether this will loosen up over time of course remains to be seen.

Speaking of the snug fit, this case was originally designed for the X100/X100S body, and the X100T made some minor changes to that which mean the fit is a little tighter. The alignment of the battery access flap isn’t quite perfect as a result and I find I have to gently press the camera into the front of the case in order for it to spring open. Not a big deal, but not ideal given the cost of the case. It’s also worth mentioning that you’ve no hope of securing the upper part of the case with any accessories attached, so you’ll need to remove thumb grip, filter adapter and lens hood. For me I find this relegates the upper case to when I need to protect the camera during travelling, where I’m not intending to actually shoot with it (e.g. buried in a rucksack).

Honestly I think Fuji could do a little better for the money they charge here. If you’re not fussed about having full camera protection you might want to look at some of the premium half-cases from other manufactures like Gariz.

LightPriority rating: 3/5

DSCF3167

Lensmate LMX100T Thumb Rest

If I could only choose one accessory for my X100T, it would be a thumb grip – they make such a big improvement to the handling. Without one you only have a tiny area to actually grip the back of the camera without inadvertently interacting with the controls.

If you live outside Japan you only really have two choices* when it comes to quality thumb grips for Fuji cameras; Lensmate and Match Technical. Fuji actually make their own for various models, but only sells them in Japan. Match Technical charges astronomical sums for theirs, as they primarily target Leica customers, so most mere mortals will probably choose Lensmate.

Unfortunately getting hold of the Lensmate grip in the UK proved to be quite a headache. They only sell via their website and the first one I ordered went missing in the post. It took Lensmate’s customer service people a lot of persuading to send me a replacement, as it had been marked as delivered by the courier. When the replacement did come I inevitably got whacked with a customs charge.

Anyway delivery woes aside, the grip itself is excellent. It comes in a premium box with a magnetic clasp. It fits snuggly into the camera’s hotshoe and has a little rubber gripper underneath to ensure it’s not going to come out without a good tug. As it’s designed for the X100T specifically, it doesn’t block the drive button or command dial. A rubber bumper braces the grip against the side of the camera and a rubber pad inside the end of the grip helps to prevent your thumb slipping.

LightPriority rating: 5/5

* It’s worth noting you’ll find tons of cheap generic thumb grips on eBay/Amazon Marketplace, but most are poorly designed and are not targeted at any specific camera model. As they nearly all lack any kind of bracing against the camera body, they put a lot of leveraging force on the hotshoe, which overtime is likely to damage your camera.

Cam-In Leather Wrist Strap

I’ve always been a neck strap kinda guy, as I prefer to keep my hands free, but as I often carry my X100T in addition to my X-T10, having both on neck straps quickly gets impractical. I was tempted to get another Gordy’s strap as I love the one on my X-T10, but burned by my recent experience buying from the US with Lensmate, I decided to try buying a strap from a UK company called Colourful Camera Accessories. They didn’t have a huge selection of wrist straps, so from the limited selection I opted for a Cam-In brown leather model.

Despite being described as brown, it’s so dark in colour as to almost look black. Still the colour works well with my black X100T and case, so no problem there. The leather is a bit on the thin side (about half the thickness that Gordy’s use) but should be sufficient to handle the weight of the X100T without any undue risk. As with all leather products, it takes time to break in and soften up, so I expect the comfort using it to improve over time. Overall it’s decent enough quality, but not up to the standard of Gordy’s – which is disappointing given the comparable price.

LightPriority rating: 3.5/5

DSCF3144

Domke F-5XA Shoulder Bag

After a lot of research trying to find a good quality compact camera bag, suitable for a mirrorless camera with one or two small lenses, I finally settled on the Domke F-5XA. It’s ideal for holding a camera the size of the X100T, along with a mini-tripod or converter lens. If you don’t plan to stow your camera itself, the bag is handy for holding a couple of lenses and other accessories in combination with an interchangeable lens Fuji.

The bag is made from tough canvas that has been treated to be water resistant – I can vouch that it certainly resists light rain well. A flap secured by velcro hides the two front pockets and a chunky zipper guards the main compartment. The front pockets are suitably sized for spare batteries or filters (but not much else)

The easily detachable strap has rubber cords woven into it that make it very grippy and unlikely to slip from your shoulder. This is far preferable to those Velcroed on shoulder pads you get with many camera bags, that always end up slipping down the strap.

The only real niggle I have is that the bag only comes with one internal separator which can make organising smaller accessories tricky. Handily I found a divider from another old camera bag that was the right size and used that to create a very narrow pocket just big enough for a LensPen, white card and spare battery.

I have the black version of the bag which manages to look fairly anonymous, even with the Domke logo emblazoned on one corner in red lettering. The bag also comes in khaki and olive green colours, but not Domke’s “Rugged Wear” waxed finish.

LightPriority rating: 4.5/5

DSCF3173

JJC Lens Hood & Filter Adapter

Aside from the white printed JJC logo, this is identical to Fuji’s far more expensive hood and filter adapter. As with Fuji’s offering, it part blocks the optical viewfinder and the hood is non-reversible. JJC do make a smaller domed lens hood which I’m hoping to try soon. That should block the OVF no more than just the plain filter adapter. Unfortunately the JJC hood doesn’t come with the little fabric pouch that the official Fuji model has, but then it’s a fraction of the price so it’s hard to complain.

LightPriority rating: 5/5

I hope these mini-reviews are helpful to X100 series camera owners. It might seem a little over the top adding tons of accessories to a camera, but they really do add to the overall experience and make the camera even more of a pleasure to shoot with. If you have any questions about any of the gear I’ve reviewed here, leave a comment and I’ll try and answer as best I can.

If like my images and reviews and would like to help support the site, please consider buying a print.

Spring at Hardcastle Crags with the X100T

Spring at Hardcastle Crags with the X100T

On a warm and sunny spring day there are few nicer places to be, than wandering the trails that criss-cross Hardcastle Crags. A beauty spot just north of Hebden Bridge, that has drawn visitors from far and wide for over a century. The landscape is rugged and interesting, having been carved over eons by the fast flowing Hebden Water. A good mix of deciduous and evergreen trees provide shelter from the scorching sun and shade a carpet of bluebells and other wild flowers. The estate is managed by the National Trust so the paths are kept in good order and there’s no litter or other blight to spoil the views. It’s a great place to put a camera through its paces and have a thoroughly enjoyable day out. As it happens I have a new camera that I’ve been eager to acquaint, or perhaps I should say “reacquaint”, myself with. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to do a quasi-review and share some images of this beautiful place.

DSCF0367[exif id=”1266″]

My first Fuji X camera was a 1st generation X100. It was a camera I really adored and got great use from, but which fell out of favour after I got my first interchangeable lens Fuji, an X-E1. While I loved the versatility and 35mm equivalent lens, the old 12 megapixel sensor and clunky, slow performance (even compared to the X-E1) eventually led me to sell it. Since then I’ve often lusted after its replacements, first the X100S and then the X100T – but I’ve always had other things to worry about spending money on, so it had remained a pipe dream. That is until a few days ago, when I came across a bargain priced X100T with barely 100 shots on the clock on eBay. I’m now the proud owner of that camera!

Since it’s now been around a year and half since the X100T was introduced, it’s at what I’d consider a good price range on the secondhand market. The S can be had for a bit less, but not at enough of a discount to make up for its shortcomings in my opinion. There’s also still a sliver of hope the T might get a firmware update with some new features or performance improvements whereas that’s generally considered to be completely off the table for the S model. Either way, at least the T is sufficiently close in terms of performance and features to cameras like the X-T1 and X-T10 to feel very familiar.

DSCF0402[exif id=”1268″]

As with every generation of X100, the handling out of the box isn’t great, especially for one handed shooting. To make this camera really shine, it benefits massively from a hotshoe mounted thumb grip and a half case makes it more comfortable to hold while providing some protection against knocks and scrapes. A lens hood and filter adapter are also must haves. Thankfully cheap 3rd party alternatives are now readily available as Fuji charges an insane premium, especially for the filter adapter and lens hood. Unfortunately good quality thumb grips are still quite expensive, and getting one designed specifically for the X100T is important due to the placement of the drive button and command dial. It’s also best to avoid ones that offer no bracing against the camera body as they put a lot of strain on the hotshoe. I’d recommend either the Lensmate or Match Technical models.

DSCF0351[exif id=”1277″]

The X100T performs very nicely in use – I wish I had a 1st generation X100 on hand to compare it to, as I’m sure the difference would be night and day. In terms of general operation I’d say it’s more or less equivalent to my X-T10, which makes sense as they share the same basic hardware and the firmware versions aren’t too far removed, with the exception of the major autofocus changes Fuji made last year. Speaking of autofocus, in general it’s very good, although it won’t be setting any speed records. Things do slow down a bit in lower light and outside of the phase detect area in the centre of the frame, but I think it’s nothing a competent photographer can’t work around.

DSCF0423[exif id=”1269″]

After going for three years sans-X100, I perhaps looked back on some aspects of it with rose tinted glasses. I’d forgotten for example, how much of a challenge it was to achieve decent subject separation with its 23mm f2 lens. You might think that’s obvious from the focal length, but given Fuji’s 18mm f2 is quite capable in this department and is even wider, it’s a shame the X100 lens falls down here.

The biggest limitation of the lens is the hazing it produces at very close subject distances when shot at f2. This necessitates stopping down to at least f4, and that really mitigates the shallow depth of field advantage you get from being close to your subject in the first place. Bokeh at mid distances is also a mixed bag. It can be quite harsh with the wrong background, to the point where in many cases it’s safer to just stop down and get everything crisp and use some other technique to draw the eye.

The lens also seems to exhibit more field curvature than I’m used to seeing with Fuji glass, where focusing at some distances can leave the edges of the frame softer than they should be – even when stopped down to moderate apertures. I think this is probably slightly more pronounced on a 16 megapixel sensor than it was on 12, so stopping down a little more than strictly necessary can be a good plan. You’ll notice I shot most images here at f8 to mitigate this issue.

Field curvature concerns aside, the overall sharpness of the lens is excellent, especially in the centre of the frame where it’s outstanding.

DSCF0440[exif id=”1270″]

All lens complaints aside though, I’ve completely fallen in love with the 23mm (35mm equivalent) focal length again. I really like Fuji’s 35mm lenses (50mm eqiv.), particularly the 35mm f2. They are great for many things which the X100’s 23mm lens is bad at (see above), but I often can’t shake the feeling that they feel too tight for a lot of general shooting. The 23mm lens just offers that bit of extra flexibility in composition, without throwing up all the challenges that 18mm and wider focal lengths do with controlling the scene or dealing with converging verticals. It’s a shame that the only current 23mm lens for the interchangeable lens Fujis is a bit of a behemoth. Hopefully rumours that a 23mm f2 akin to the new 35mm f2 prove correct.

DSCF0449[exif id=”1271″]

I’m making a concerted effort to make more use of the optical viewfinder in the X100T, and after shooting with purely electronic viewfinder based cameras for quite sometime now, it’s a refreshing change. Whether I end up mostly using the EVF again, like I did with my 1st generation X100 or not remains to be seen of course. But there’s something really nice about being able to see beyond the frame you’re capturing and it’s interesting to contrast what your eye sees unaided with what the camera captures when the preview pops up.

The big new feature in the hybrid viewfinder of the X100T, over the previous models, is the little tab you can activate that gives you a live preview of what the camera is seeing at the selected AF point. If you’e a manual focus fan wanting to use the optical viewfinder, this will be a major boon and lets you get closer to a true rangefinder experience. Personally I’m not entirely sold on its utility for focus confirmation in conjunction with autofocus, but perhaps it will grow on me.

DSCF0454[exif id=”1272″]

Overall I’m delighted with the X100T. It’s a much better camera than the old X100 that made me first fall in love with the Fuji system. It still shares some of the quirks and oddities from that first generation model as it’s built around the same lens, but overall it’s a very refined and polished camera. To get the most from it you will need to get some of the essential accessories I mentioned above, but the payoff is worth it. You get a very small and light camera that can tackle a huge range of subjects with aplomb.

Most of the X100T reviews I’ve seen have been heavily focused on street photography, obviously an area where this camera excels. But it’s also great for landscape work and hopefully the images here demonstrate that and provide a different perspective to your usual gritty street scenes.

As usual, if you like my writing and would like to help support me and the site, please consider buying a print on my on-line store or through Etsy.

 

Fuji XF 55-200 F3.5-4.8 R Review

Fuji XF 55-200 F3.5-4.8 R Review

When I was a Nikon shooter I was always quite fond of the 70-300 VR zoom lens. It wasn’t technically super sharp at the long end, but it had good range and nice bokeh. After moving over to the Fuji system, for some time the longest AF lens I had was the 60mm f2.4. While it’s actually quite a versatile focal length for the kind of shooting I do, I did find myself wishing for something with more reach on many occasions. Last year I picked up the XC 50-230mm f4.5-6.7 at a heavily discounted price. I shot with it for a bit and it’s actually a pretty good piece of kit for the money, but I found the slow maximum aperture limiting. I also found the overall rendering often not to my liking and given how finicky processing X-trans RAWs can be, you really need good glass to get the best from it. So earlier this year I sold it and bought the XF 55-200mm f3.5-4.8. After using it for much of the year, this is my review.

Ergonomics & Build Quality

The 55-200 is a hefty, heavy lens at nearly 600g. Owners of similar focal lengths on DSLRs or even Fuji’s 55-140mm f2.8, will scoff at the idea of 600g being heavy – but paired with featherweight bodies like my X-E1, its weight and bulk are very noticeable. I suspect the balance is better on an X-T1 or X-T10, but it’s a combination I’ve yet to be able to try.

Fuji 55-200mm

As we’ve come to expect from XF lenses, the 55-200 is solidly built with a mix of metal and quality plastics. The focus ring is firm but moves smoothly, the cool feel of the metal exudes quality. The zoom ring with its rubberised grip looks smart, but is a bit too stiff for my liking. At least it means you don’t need to worry about zoom creep when you tilt the lens up or down, as it will most definitely stay where you’ve left it between shots. The aperture ring is reasonably stiff and will resist accidental changes fairly well. I wish Fuji would put marked aperture rings on all its zooms, the free spinning ones offer scant advantages over a thumb dial on the body, except familiarity of placement. It also has a couple of switches, one for toggling auto-aperture and one for enabling or disabling the image stabiliser.

At 200mm the lens nearly doubles in length, add the hood and it’s pretty serious looking at any focal length. It’s certainly hard to feel inconspicuous using this lens, which may limit its usefulness for some applications such as street photography. The front element is non-rotating as you’d expect on a modern lens and it takes 62mm filters. A filter size it shares with the 23mm f1.4, 56mm f1.2 and 90mm f2, which is unusually practical for Fuji who have a habit of picking a different filter size for each new lens.

Sharpness, Distortion & Focusing

The sharpness out of this lens is very impressive. It definitely gets a little weaker as you approach 200mm, but for most of the range the performance is strong, especially at typical working apertures of f5.6 to f8. Wide open there’s enough central sharpness to make it decent for portraiture at any focal length. As is common with Fuji XF lenses, the maximum aperture (at least at the long end) is a little brighter than usual at f4.8, rather than the more typical f5.6. You can use the lens at f4 through to 90mm.

The lens does exhibit some optical distortion which gets slightly more pronounced as you zoom in, but it’s not too extreme. Distortion is automatically corrected in software, so you don’t really need to worry about it. Here’s an example of an image with and without the correction applied (mouse over). The difference in colour rendering is down to one being processed in Lightroom and the other in Iridient Developer. Lightroom won’t let you disable the software distortion correction.

55-200 Corrected
[exif id=”1061″]

Fine detail rendering is generally very good, which is particularly important with the X-Trans sensor as it helps avoid the ‘watercolour’ look with foliage. That said you need to be aware of the limitations of the optical image stabiliser, if your shutter speed is high it’s worth switching it off as it can introduce enough motion blur to take the edge off the lens’s sharpness. I’ve found using the OIS in mode 2 produces the most consistent results, although this does mean you don’t get a stabilised view when composing your shot. Ideally Fuji would give us the option to set a shutter speed over which the OIS would just disable, so you didn’t need to worry about doing it manually. I’ve not done any formal testing on the effectiveness of the OIS, but I find I can happily shoot 200mm at 1/125 without fear of camera shake. (I usually use auto-ISO with a minimum shutter speed of 1/125)

Focus speed is very good, and bearing in mind this is based on my experience of using it with a slow old X-E1, performance on newer bodies should be excellent. The dual linear motors are quiet and you’re unlikely to hear them working outdoors. I’ve found the lens rarely misses focus and any blurriness usually tends to be my fault rather than the lens’s.

_DSF9044
[exif id=”1064″]

Bokeh

_DSF9532
[exif id=”1067″]

The 55-200’s bokeh won’t win any awards, but it manages to be fairly smooth and pleasing in most situations. There’s an outlining effect visible in highlights and it becomes increasingly cat’s eye like towards the edges of the frame, as shown above. You can get very smooth results with the right background and distance to your subject however, as below with the Bentley hood ornament.

_DSF8611
[exif id=”1063″]

Samples

Here are some more shots taken with the 55-200 for your viewing pleasure. It’s a versatile lens and I use it for a mix of detail, wildlife and landscape work. It should also work pretty well for portraiture, although some may find the limited subject separation achievable compared to its faster siblings less desirable, at least with full body portraits.

_DSF9261
[exif id=”1066″]

DSCF5106
[exif id=”1068″]

While 200mm is usually too short for wildlife photography, sometimes you get lucky as with the blackbird shot above. For ‘casual’ wildlife photography it can work though, just choose larger or tamer subjects! But don’t expect to be able to get shots of birds from any kind of distance.

_DSF6622
[exif id=”1059″]

Summary

While the 55-200 isn’t my favourite Fuji lens, it’s a solid and versatile performer. If you need a focal length beyond 90mm it’s certainly the best option currently available. Its size and weight do feel somewhat at odds with the ethos of the mirrorless world however, which is supposed to be about leaving the heavy, cumbersome kit behind. The XC 50-230 demonstrates you can have good reach in a lightweight package, but it comes with sacrifices in image quality, maximum aperture, build and handling which make it hard to recommend unless price is your primary concern.

Whether Fuji could have made size or weight savings with the 55-200 without resorting to the same compromises as present in the XC lens is uncertain. But to me it feels like many of the XC’s shortcomings are driven by cost saving measures rather than fundamental limitations of lens design.

Fuji has two other zoom lenses whose focal ranges also intersect with the 55-200’s (aside from the 50-230) but which are far more niche products. The 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 “super zoom” will no doubt have its fans, especially due to its weather sealing and pairing with the X-T1 as a kit. But optically it’s more compromised owing to its nearly 8x zoom range. On the other hand, the 55-140mm f2.8 is clearly aimed at the professional market with its fast maximum aperture and top quality optics. However its cost, size and weight will make it impractical for many.

Between those two choices, the 55-200 looks like the most sensible general purpose offering for those looking for quality, but wanting to strike a balance between size and cost. It’s for this reason that this lens is in my kit bag and will remain there for the foreseeable future.

As always if you find my reviews helpful and you like my images, please consider purchasing a print either from the store here or on Etsy. I’m not famous enough to get freebies from Fuji so I need your support to keep both this site running and to keep my camera gear up-to-date. 

Fuji XF 14mm f2.8 R review

Fuji XF 14mm f2.8 R review

Let’s just start by saying I’m really excited by this lens. I used to own the really nice Samyang 14mm f2.8 when I shot Nikon and it’s a focal length I’ve missed since switching to Fuji. For the last couple of years a Samyang 8mm fisheye was my fallback ultra-wide option, but fisheyes have limitations and I found I was using mine less and less. As a result I decided to sell it a few months ago. That left me with the 18mm f2 as my widest lens. The 18mm is a good lens, but it does have its shortcomings optically and I found myself yearning for something that could produce more dramatic results for landscape and street work. I did seriously consider Samyang’s new 12mm f2 ultra-wide angle, but I’ve read so many good things about the Fuji 14mm I decided to play it safe. I’m glad I did – this lens is clearly a winner.

Pros and cons of going wider

While 14mm (21mm equivalent) is not at the extreme end of the wide angle spectrum on APS-C, it’s enough to make photos look more dramatic and out of the ordinary. With the sheer ubiquity of 18-55mm (~28-85mm) lenses, people are used to seeing images at those focal lengths. That means lenses that break out of that range immediately have the potential to create more interesting pictures. The downside for the photographer is that it can make composition and getting the right exposure more complicated. You’ve potentially got to get a lot closer to subjects to make them fill your frame, then you have distortion to worry about, especially when shooting people. It’s often hard to keep bright light sources in the periphery out of your shot, which can throw off the camera’s metering causing under exposure or blown highlights. None of these things are insurmountable challenges, but they all take getting used to and are worth bearing in mind as they generally get more pronounced the wider the lens is.

14 vs 18

18mm vs 14mm

Compared to the Fuji 18mm lens (left), the 14mm is a fair bit bigger. It’s roughly the same size as the 60mm f2.4 or the 18-55mm f2.8-4 zoom. In fact it shares the same petal shaped, plastic (boo) lens hood with the latter. It has a 58mm filter thread which it shares with the 18-55mm, 16-50mm and 50-230mm zooms, but notably none of the other Fuji primes.

The 18mm is optically decent, (especially if you’re willing to work around its limitations in post*), but the 14mm is truly stellar. It shoots beautiful, sharp, undistorted images effortlessly. It’s already very sharp wide open at 2.8 and it really only gets better from there before diffraction starts to shave away at the sharpness past f8. But really most of the time you’re going to be using this lens from f2.8 to f5.6 where it really shines.

* The 18mm is hampered by chromatic aberration and the forced distortion correction both in-camera and in Lightroom loses you a lot of resolution at the image edges. For shots where resolution really matters it’s worth using a RAW processor that will let you disable this as it brings up the edge quality considerably (at the cost of some distortion natch).

Something presently only available on the 14mm and the 23mm f1.4, is the distance scale painted on the lens barrel and push-pull manual focus mechanism. When in autofocus mode, the focus ring is locked and won’t rotate. Pulling it back towards the camera body reveals distance markings and unlocks it with a satisfying click. The focus ring is range limited, with a 1/3rd turn moving it between infinity and near focus. The issue with this design is that there’s no way to autofocus and then tweak your focus manually. People who like to use manual mode and focus with the AE-L/AF-L button may be unhappy as a result. Personally I rarely use manual focus on AF lenses, but the distance scale and hard stopped focus ring will no doubt appeal to zone focus aficionados.

In use

Now if you’re after MTF charts or shots of brick walls, we’ll have to part ways here, but if you’d like to see some real life images shot with this lens then let’s plough on!

I’m lucky enough to live within easy travelling distance of the wonderful old English city of York, and where better to play with a wide angle lens than the cavernous, intricately detailed interior of York Minster Cathedral?

York Minster[exif id=”822″]

You’ll notice I’ve shot this at f10. That wasn’t intentional and it brings me to really the only negative point with this lens – the aperture ring is too loose and is very easily changed unintentionally. I find the 18mm and 60mm have about equal stiffness and aren’t too easy to jog once mounted, but the 14mm is definitely one to keep an eye on.

DSCF3924[exif id=”824″]

The lack of distortion (even with corrections disabled in RAW) is a major boon for anyone looking to shoot architecture. The focal length also makes getting sharp images handheld at low shutter speeds fairly easy. It was quite dim inside the cathedral so I found myself shooting 1/30 and even 1/15 sec on several occasions, despite this the majority of the shots I took were sharp and free from motion blur.

DSCF3929-2[exif id=”825″]

You definitely have to pay more attention to your composition with wider angle lenses, as I mentioned earlier. It’s not as extreme as shooting with a fisheye, where a few degrees up or down could ruin your image if you wanted a flat horizon, but it can still strongly impact the look of a shot. Attempting to keep verticals dead straight inclines you towards creating ’50/50′ images with the horizon bang in the centre. This can leave you with unwanted masses of sky or foreground when shooting landscape or architecture. A solution can be to tilt upwards a little then correct in post (Lightroom has fantastic tools for this and can even automate much of the process). Or of course you can try and find a higher vantage point! In this case I’ve left the shot as is, but you can see if I’d gone for straight verticals I’d have had a lot more chairs and tiled floor in the shot and lost much the fantastic vaulted ceiling.

DSCF3947-2[exif id=”826″]

This is my favourite shot of the day. Looking straight up at the ceiling of the main tower. It’s almost dizzyingly high. I’ve cropped this down a little bit to help with the symmetry, but you still feel the benefit of the 14mm, as gives you the leeway to do this that the 18mm wouldn’t. Even at f4 it’s fantastically sharp into the extreme corners. This is certainly a lens that will stand the test of time if Fuji moves to higher megapixel sensors in the future.

DSCF3989-2[exif id=”828″]

Of course the 14mm excels at grand landscapes too once you get outside. In this case after climbing 275 steps in claustrophobically narrow spiral staircases! Outdoors the challenge becomes balancing the exposure. It’s easy to throw off the metering by having so much bright sky in the shot. The advantage of shooting RAW is the huge dynamic range the X-trans sensor can capture. You can pull so much out of the shadows without things getting noisy, it can really save images where it appears you’ve completely lost areas to darkness. Hover over the image above to see the same shot with no adjustments applied. I’m happy to report I didn’t notice any problems with flare even when shooting with the sun just out of the corner of the shot. I imagine the smallish front element helps here.

Moving on to the National Railway Museum now, also in York, you can see another of the 14mm’s traits – incredibly close focus. In fact you can get to within 10cm of your subject and still be able to lock focus (you don’t even need to enable macro mode, which seems to have no practical effect with this lens). Bokeh is decent as wide angles go, although naturally it’s not quite as smooth and creamy as the 18mm f2 at close distances.

Train lamp[exif id=”837″]

DSCF3858[exif id=”838″]

Finally here’s one more shot from the museum. I’ve cropped it to 16:9 to further emphasis the cinematic look the lens gives to images. Wide angles like the 14mm are great for showing differences in scale, especially when you’ve got people in the shot.

Summary

I can really recommend this lens without caveats. Optically it’s stunning, it’s a good size, weight and balances well. The only real niggle is the loose aperture ring, and that’s something that’s easy to live with when the lens delivers such good results. Whether it’s right for you or not will depend on your shooting style and whether you prefer the versatility of a zoom or like a bag full of fantastic primes. I think I’m fairly heavily in the bag full of primes camp!

There are now quite a few wide angle options for the X mount: the 12mm f2.8 Zeiss Touit, the 12mm f2 Samyang, the 10-24mm f4 Fuji zoom and the 18mm Fuji at the narrower end, which is also covered by several of their general purpose zooms. There’s also a 16mm f1.4 Fuji due out later this year that will no doubt be an interesting optic. If you want a more extreme wide angle, the Zeiss and Samyang offerings are no doubt very good, although the Zeiss is pricey and the Samyang only manual focus. If you prefer zooms then the 10-24mm is also very good, but it can’t quite touch the overall optical quality of the 14mm based on the reviews I’ve seen, especially in the corners. It’s also getting a bit on the big and heavy side for my liking. If you’d like further reading, you can see a nice comparison between the Fuji wide primes and the 10-24mm on Fuji vs. Fuji.

~

If you’ve enjoyed this review, please consider supporting me and the site by purchasing a print from my store here or on Etsy.