Shooting film, part 2

What kind of subjects lend themselves to black and white film? Can you decide beforehand and try to see the world in black and white, as I started out trying to do, or do you decide afterwards, as most people do when converting digital images to black and white?

This is the continuing story of my experimentation with a totally mechanical Nikon F SLR loaded with Ilford HP 5 Plus black and white film. I wandered through the streets of Washington D.C. looking for subjects and came upon this bust of noted Soviet human rights activist Andrei Sakharov outside of the Russia House restaurant on Connecticut Avenue.

I worked hard on this one to try to compose it and shoot it in an interesting way and I like the way that it turned out. It turned out that focusing manually is tougher than I thought, even with the visual assists in the viewfinder of a film camera, like the micro prism. I was definitely out of practice and I worried that all of my images would be soft and out of focus. This image reassured me that if I am careful, I can get relatively sharp images and capture details like the texture that you can see on the hands and the head of the statue.

Andrei Sakharov

Eventually I made my way to the National Zoo and last week I posted some digital shots of some of the animals that I encountered there. The zoo posed a big problem for me in getting a proper exposure, because there was a mixture of harsh midday sunshine and shadows. As I looked over my negatives, I realized that I need to meter more often—I took a series of shots of lions that were sometimes in the sunshine and sometimes in the shade and overexposed many of the shots.

However, one of my favorite images of the roll of film was this one of a female lion that was properly exposed and captured a good amount of detail. At this point in the day, I had switched to a Tokina 80-200mm lens to give myself a bit of additional reach.


So could I take the kind of wildlife/nature shots that I normally feature with a film camera? It would be tough to do so, but this shot of a Monarch butterfly suggests that it would not be impossible. The pattern of the Monarch is so well-known, that most of us can imagine its orange and black coloration without actually seeing the colors. This is the only one of my black and white images on which I did a significant crop, and you can see how the background has become a bit grainy.

Monarch butterfly

For folks who are interested in the process, I developed the film with Ilfosol 3 developer, a general purpose developer. I exposed the film as though it were ISO 200, instead of the box speed of ISO 400, and learned that pulling the film like this is likely to lead to lower contrast (while shooting it at higher speeds will tend to give more contrast). I scanned the negatives with a Canoscan 8400f scanner as TIFF files and did a few adjustments in Photoshop Elements 11.

So what did I learn? I learned to slow down and be more deliberate as I contemplate my shots; I learned to look past some of the colors of the world and search for shapes and lines and contrast; and I leaned the value in producing my images in a manual, hand-on way, leading to a greater sense of ownership of those images.

I learned a lot, though clearly I have a lot more to learn as I continue to explore this new/old area of photography.

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Shooting film, part 1

Do you ever feel a desire to step outside of your comfort zone in your photography, to capture some images in a completely different way, to return to the basics of our craft? For the last month, I have felt an irresistible urge to shoot some black and white film, something that I haven’t done in over thirty years.

When I told some folks at work that I was planning to shoot some film during a week of vacation, one of them responded by asking if I was making a movie. I patiently explained that I would be putting some black and white film into a non-digital camera. He stared back at me with a look of incredulity and asked if I couldn’t simply convert some of my digital images into black and white.

I still have some analog cameras, but most of them have some electronic assists—I wanted a truly mechanical camera. I found a Nikon F SLR with a 50mm f/1.4 lens on my local Craigslist. The Nikon F introduced in 1959, was Nikon’s first SLR, although this particular camera was produced in 1971, judging from its serial number. The camera is so basic that it requires no battery. When was the last time you took photos with a camera without a battery? The camera has no meter and I ended up using my DSLR as the meter.

Nikon F

What about film? I went to one of the last remaining camera stores in our area and bought a couple of rolls of Ilford HP5+ film, a black and white film with a “box speed” of ISO 400. I ended up shooting it at ISO 200, because it was very sunny and bright the day that I went shooting. (Using the “sunny 16” guidelines, I would have been shooting all day at 1/500 sec and f/16.)

What should I shoot? I decided that an urban environment would be more suitable for my film project than my normal wildlife environment, so I got on the metro and headed into Washington D.C. with my Nikon SLR and my Canon DSLR in tow.

I got off on the elevated outdoor metro platform at Reagan National Airport and my first shot was of the airport’s control tower. I wanted to try to find subjects with shapes and lines that would show up in black and white. (I am including some digital shots of the same subjects at the end of the post. I didn’t try to exactly match the shots, but they give you an idea of the differences in how the cameras rendered the subjects.)

Reagan National Airport

The next shot was of the Metro’s ceiling at the underground station in Rosslyn, Virginia. (You may have already seen a similar shot that I took with my digital camera and posted last week.)


I exited the Metro in Rosslyn and walked across the Key Bridge into Georgetown. From the bridge, I took this shot of part of the waterfront in Georgetown. I like the old time feel of this shot.

Georgetown waterfront

One of the first things that you see when you cross the bridge is Dixie Liquors, an old-fashioned liquor store with a really cool sign that I have always liked.

Dixie Liquors

That was the start of my adventure with film. As I had hoped, I was looking at the world with different eyes and was forced to slow down, knowing I had to input manually the shutter speed and aperture and very conscious of the fact that I had no auto focus to help me. I was also shooting with a fixed focal length lens, so I did not have the luxury of zooming in and out. Most of all, though, I was filled with uncertainty, not knowing for sure if any of my shots would come out, worrying that my old camera might have a light leak or that I would mess up the development of the film.

I’ll continue my saga in another posting or two in the upcoming weeks. As promised, here are some digital shots that I took as I used my Canon DSLR as a meter for my manual Nikon.

control tower Reagan National Airport

metro ceiling

Georgetown waterfront

Dixie Liquors

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Harbinger of autumn

What signs do you look for that point to the change of seasons? Throughout most of my life, the changing colors of the fall foliage have been the primary indicator of the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.

The last few years, however, I have become increasingly sensitive to seasonal changes in the dragonfly population as I have increasingly focused my attention and my camera lens on these fascinating and colorful aerial acrobats. Summer is prime time for many dragonfly species, but certain species show up much later in the season and stay with us throughout much of the autumn days.

One of these late-arriving species is the Blue-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum ambiguum) and I was thrilled yesterday to spot a male of this species at Huntley Meadows Park, the marshland where I take a lot of my wildlife photos. This is my first spotting of a Blue-faced Meadowhawk this season and I suspect it won’t be long before I also start seeing his “cousin,” the Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum).

I particularly like the bright red color and bold pattern of this dragonfly’s body and its beautiful turquoise face. Although I may vacillate a bit from time to time, I think this is the most beautiful dragonfly species that I have ever encountered. What do you think?

Blue-faced Meadowhawk

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Summer loving

Summer days are drifting away and the biological clocks are almost certainly ticking loudly for some dragonflies. This past weekend at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna Virginia, I spotted these two Halloween Pennant dragonflies (Celithemis eponina) engaged in a little summer loving.

It’s hard not to feel a little bit like a voyeur as I move in closer to photograph the acrobatic intertwining of the tiny dragonfly bodies. Summer loving happens so fast and soon my colorful little friends will be gone for the season,

Halloween Pennant

Halloween Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

One of the highlights for me of a short visit yesterday to Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia was spotting this spectacular dragonfly, which I think is a female Banded Pennant (Celithemis fasciata).

Earlier this summer, I spotted a male Banded Pennant, whose body was blue, but the coloration of this one suggests to me that it is a female. The dragonfly was perched on the highest branches of a small tree, which allowed me to isolate it against the beautiful blue sky. You may notice that the branches are different in the two photos—the dragonfly flew away a few times, but returned to the same tree a short time later.

CORRECTION: My initial identification was incorrect. My local dragonfly expert, Walter Sanford, with whom I neglected to consult in advance, provided a correct identification. This is a female Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina), not a Banded Pennant.


Banded Pennant

Banded Pennant

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

D.C. Metro abstracts

In its simplest form, photography is about light and darkness, about lines and shapes. That was what I was seeking to capture when I took some shots in a Metro station in Rosslyn, Virginia earlier this week.

I took this week off from work and have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about photography, watching lots of videos, and shooting different subjects in different ways. I have even shot and developed some black and white film—I’ll do a separate posting on that soon.

This first shot highlights the distinctive ceilings that are present in many of the stations in the D.C. Metrorail system. I love the geometric patterns and the interplay of light and shadows in this image. I took this 1/3 second exposure by leaning my camera on a railing.

metro ceiling

The Rosslyn station is at a point in the Metro system where the trains pass under the Potomac River. Consequently, the escalators are extremely long. As I rode the escalator up, I was fascinated by the different lights and captured this image when I was approximately at the mid-point between the level of the tracks and the above-ground station.

It was midday on a weekday, which is why you don’t see more people in this shot. Things get really crowded during rush hour and woe to those who do not follow the Metro etiquette of staying to the right on the escalator steps unless passing.

metro escalator

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

Urban birds

Walking in Washington D.C. along the National Mall, I couldn’t help but notice that humans were not the only ones taking advantage of the water fountains along the periphery. Several different kinds of birds were bathing and drinking in the water of backed-up fountains.

In the first shot, a bird, which may be a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), seemed to be testing the water in the fountain—a few seconds later, it was happily splashing about.

urban bird

I love the defiant stance of the larger bird in the second shot, looking like he is the leader of an urban gang, prepared to defend his turf against outsiders like me.

urban bird

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


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