My Philosophy on Equipment Failure

I’m in Iceland right now. Everyone is saying the weather has been very challenging since December. With one storm front after another sweeping the country every four days or so, it’s been quite an adventure to be here.

And today they say we have the worst storm this winter (see weather chart below). The cabin I am in is shaking with the wind :-)

Big storm today (Saturday 14th March) means we're staying indoors :-)

Big storm today (Saturday 14th March) means we're staying indoors :-)

I’ve had a few equipment failures in the past two weeks during my travels. One of my Mamiya 7 cameras was pushed over by the extreme winds and the outer casing of the body literally shattered in two. It’s now being held together by some duct tape which I always bring with me. I’m convinced it still works, but it’s been put away in my bag while I use a spare body that I always carry with me now.

Years ago, when I was a hobbyist, I had one of everything: one camera, one tripod, one light meter. I could keep these items for many years and see little wear and tear on them. But over the past few years of being out on location more often than not, I’ve been finding that I seem to be going through tripods every few years, Lee filters every six months and sometimes Sekonic light meters every year or so too - my second failure in equipment this week has been a Sekonic 758DR light meter which had been working perfectly fine all the duration of the trip but didn’t come on one morning after being stowed away in a cold camera bag for a few days.

I’ve been thinking about how my backup strategy is just getting more involved. I now travel with two of everything and I think I will be changing my plan to travel with three copies of the vital things in future (camera bodies and light meters and ball-heads).

I have two sets of clothing: two sets of gloves, two sets of waterproof shells, several hats (I  keep losing them), and now I will be travelling with at least two camera bodies, and at least two light meters.

I love to look after my equipment and I like to have nice copies of everything I own. Mostly it’s because I treasure my equipment, but there is also a more practical side to this: if I have equipment that is well looked after, it will be less likely to fail. So although I use my equipment a lot, and it is used in sometimes very challenging weather conditions, I don’t abuse it either. 

I’m not sore or sorry for the failures in the equipment I’ve brought with me. I’m quite philosophical about it, as the way I see it, the equipment you buy is meant to be used. It's not meant to be coveted or kept out of the rain or snow. It's there to be used to photograph the things you see and experience. If you use your equipment a lot in challenging situations, failures from time to time are going to happen and they should be expected also.

Photography is about getting out there. If we restrict ourselves to being fair-weather shooters only, then our photography will be restricted to a very small avenue of possibilities also.

Equipment is there to be used. It it gets used a lot, it will get damaged and fail from time to time.  I have accepted that this is part of the price for getting out there and making images.

And image making is after all, what we are here for :-)

Fujifilm XT-1

One of the perks of being a workshop leader, is that through meeting new participants each year, I get to see an array of assorted camera equipment, from the budget to the seriously expensive.

Image © Bruce Percy. Shot on a Fujifilm XT-1 camera with 10-24 lens. I think this camera has some of the most pleasing tones in any present digital system right now.

Image © Bruce Percy. Shot on a Fujifilm XT-1 camera with 10-24 lens. I think this camera has some of the most pleasing tones in any present digital system right now.

And once in a while, somebody turns up with a camera that I think has a very beautiful look to its images. During my Scottish workshops, I do a daily critique of participants images, so I get to see first hand the differences in colours and tones between different models. For a while, the digital camera that I thought had the most beautiful tones and colours was the Nikon D3X. 

I won't pretend to know much about the tech side of any digital camera. I rarely go to websites to look at equipment specs for digital systems as I'm pretty much focussed on my art with the medium I've been using for the past twenty odd years (I'm a film-shooter). But it is interesting to see how digital cameras are improving and advancing each year while running my workshops.

This year I've found that if the colours and clarity in a participant's work stands out, it's a fujifilm camera that's behind it. From what I'm seeing, I think the Fujifilm cameras have an 'almost' film-like quality to them - a more 'organic' look than what we've seen so far in digital imaging.

This week I'm up in the far north-west corner of Scotland with some friends, and one of them has let me play with his XT-1 camera. If I were in the market for a digital camera right now, I think this would be the one for me. The only downside about it, is that it doesn't offer some of the aspect-ratios I think are important if you are wishing to improve your composition skills. The Fuji line of cameras seem to offer 3:2, 1:1 and 6:19 only. It's an odd omission to leave out something like 4:3, 4:5 or 6:7 - any one of those would have given me a more pleasing proportioned rectangle to use rather than 3:2, which I feel is more towards a panoramic format than a rectangle, and often the culprit in making composition harder for newbies to master.

If you're in the market for a small system now, and are thinking of getting rid of the bulk and weight of a traditional SLR, I think the mirror-less cameras such as the Micro-Four-Thirds Olympus / Panasonic models as well as Fujifilm's X range of cameras would be worth investigating. Image quality is a moot point now. We've got far much more than most of us need now, and the quality that smaller systems have to offer is no poor contender to full-frame systems. 

If it were me right now, I'd be going for a Fujifilm XT-1 camera with 10-24 lens, despite it not having a 4:3 / 4:5 or 6:7 aspect ratio to play with. I love square and so I'd be happy to use it as a digital 'hasselblad' if you like. But I do hope that the omission of a decent rectangle aspect ratio will be addressed in a future firmware update at some point. 

Thoughts on the impact of equipment change

This year I re-entered the world of the field camera. You may think this camera is a large format 4x5 inch system. It's not. It's actually a medium format 6x9cm field camera, only I'm using it with a 6x7cm film holder. So it's really a 6x7 medium format film camera with the added benefit of having tilt, shift and swing movements. Many Canon and Nikon users can buy tilt-shift lenses for their fixed plane camera bodies, for me, I bought a camera with tilt-shift-swing movements built into the body not the lenses.

Because it is not a large format camera, it's much smaller and lighter than you can imagine from looking at the photographs here. I just took this little system with me to Turkey a few weeks back and I carried it onto the plane in a waist-level bag including four lenses (38, 47, 65, 80), light meter, filter case and my entire film stock. I don't like to travel with multiple formats if I can avoid it - too many options make for a confusing time and I wished to get to grips with this system while I was away. There's no better way to do that, than to leave every other camera (read that as 'crutch')  back at home.

So why did someone who already owns three different medium format outfits buy a fourth one? Good question.

My answer is that I'd been feeling restricted by the lack of movements in my fixed plane camera bodies. Working with medium format often means that I'm working within a range of narrower depth of field's than someone using smaller systems.

I know for instance that with my Hasselblad 50mm or my Mamiya 7 50mm, the closest I can get to my foreground subject is about 1 metre. For those of you who don't know much about medium format, a 50mm lens is equivalent (I must stress - in angle of view only) to a 24mm lens in 35mm format. I still have the depth of field properties of a 50mm lens, because a 50mm lens is a 50mm lens, no matter what format of camera you bolt it onto.

Shorter focal-lengths provide more depth of field than longer focal lengths. And this is affected by the choice of format you decide to use. Use a small format such as Micro-Four-Thirds and your focal-lengths are half of what they are with 35mm. Consider the following table. If you were to aim to get the same angle of view as a 50mm lens in 35mm format across other camera formats, you would use the following focal lengths:

But bear in mind that you have a lot less depth of field at 150mm than you do with a 25mm lens for the same aperture. You can see how focal-lengths affect depth of field by playing with an ultra-wide lens and a 200mm lens. When you attempt to focus an ultra-wide lens, it kind of feels as if nothing much changes right? That's because even wide open, most of the scene is in focus. Whereas with a 200mm lens, you find that the focus has to be extremely precise.

Back to my choice of field camera. Most 35mm shooters using a 24mm lens can get as close as 2 feet to their foreground and keep infinity in focus. With my medium format systems - I can't. The closest I can get is 1 metre, and that's all because I'm using a focal length of 50mm to get the same angle of view as your 24mm lens. One way I can get round this problem is to use tilt (see picture below for front standard tilt):

The other reason I chose to get a field cameras has to do with converging lines. I've been finding many subjects I wish to shoot don't work if I have to point the camera up or down at them. For instance, those lovely red huts in Lofoten can only be photographed if I'm exactly parallel to them. If I point the camera up, my subject starts to lean back, if I tilt the camera down my subject starts to lean forward. See picture below for an example of how to look down but also keep vertical lines straight (not converging). Notice how the film plane is level - the camera has not been pointed up or down:

I think buying new gear should always be done with a lot of consideration. We often think about the benefits of what some new equipment may bring, but rarely do we think about the consequences it may have on our existing workflow. I'm always concerned that I may lose something I value in the process of changing something.

For example, I had been using nothing much else but a Mamiya 7 outfit for around 12 years with only 3 lenses. I am so used to visualising compositions in these three focal-lengths and also in a 6x7 aspect ratio. I think my compositions got better and better over the years because I was so tuned into using the same tools time and time again.  Around 2010, I took on a Hasselblad (which has a square aspect ratio) and when I did, I did it knowing it would take me at least a few years to settle into it (it did). I felt I might find that it changed the way I see compositions and I was concerned that I might find my compositional-abilities disrupted by the change. So I knew about the possible impact, and took on the change with a lot of care for my creativity.

And now that I've just bought an Ebony SW23 field camera, I've been very careful to buy the same focal-lengths as my Mamiya camera because I didn't want to affect the way I visualise. Changes to my process are always done in small, almost organic steps.

So now that I've re-entered the world of the view camera,  I've already told myself it will take time. A lot of time. And to be patient. I'm very self-aware of my creativity and I like to observe how things morph and change over time. That is one of the most beautiful things about photography for me.

Perhaps the ultimate portrait camera?

In 2009, my good friend Adrian suggested I buy a Contax 645 outfit, for my pending trip to India and Nepal. He said it has some of the most amazing bokeh of any camera system he's used. I have to confess I took a bit of persuading at the time, as I thought most medium format outfits were perhaps too bulky and heavy to take on any extended journey.

Well, after a visit to a local second hand camera store, where they had plenty of the systems for around £950, I bought one. It was impossible to say no - once I'd raised the system up to my eye and peered into that gorgeous large viewfinder. Like an EOS camera on steroids, I had auto-focus, metering and it showed me the aperture and shutter speed in the viewfinder.

And because the standard lens has a focal length of 80mm, it behaves like any 80mm lens does - it has shallow depth of field! But with a field of view like a 40mm lens in 35mm land. Going medium format means you get a lot less depth of field for the same angle of view you get with 35mm. And shooting at f2 or f4 at 80mm results in some very shallow depth of field indeed.

I'm in the process of working towards making some new portraits, so I figured I needed to get round to getting a spare system. I never used to travel with any backup cameras, but over the last year or two, I've had a Mamiya 7 bite the dust in Patagonia (because I dropped it on its head) and a Hasselblad 503CX lock up on me in my travels to Iceland and Norway.

So tonight, after gazing at the second hand prices for the Contax 645 outfit spiralling to dizzy heights of around £1,700 for a decent system with standard lens, I've taken the plunge and bought my backup outfit. I feel relieved, because these babies have turned into gold dust of late. I'm amazed.... what exactly has happened in the intervening years since I first bought mine for £950 in 2009? It seems the power of the internet and one particular wedding photographer (just look up google for contax 645 and you'll find him) has spurred loads of photographers to buy this system. And for good reason.

The Contax system has amazing lens quality, and the bokeh that the lenses produce - particularly the standard lens of 80mm at f2, is just stunning. I found that this was the lens I used for 99% of my portrait images. I prefer to get in really close to my subjects you see.

I also have the 45mm, 140mm and the 210mm lens. I have used the 140mm lens once, for the indian girl on the tightrope that you see here. But most times, it's the 80mm I use, and I tend to be around two feet away from my subjects when I do.

I think it's time I made some new portraits. It's another side to my photography, which I feel I've been neglecting. It's been a concentrated few years running a workshop business.

If you like portraiture, and you're in the market for a medium format film system (the Contax 645 can be used with digital backs too), then I would look no further than this system. But you'd better act now, as the prices have really gone up of late and I don't see them coming down.

Hasselblad Lens Question

Recently, I've started to use Hasselblad cameras quite a bit. It all stemmed from a feeling that I wanted to shake up my process a bit. I normally use a Mamiya 7II camera and as much as I love it very much and it works so well for me, I felt I'd like to work in square aspect ratio and see how that would affect my judgement and compositions. It's been a very quick adaption for me, and I've found I'm really enjoying the square format quite a lot. I'm also enjoying seeing through the lens too, something I did not do with the Mamiya camera (and that's a beautiful process in a way as well - having to conjure in my mind how the final image will be, by using an approximate viewfinder - is a great tool for strengthening your sense of vision and compositional muscle). Anyway, i'm writing this post today, because I've noticed that the resolution I'm seeing coming out the 50mm CF f4 lens I have, although is nice, it is nowhere as detailed compared to the Mamiya 7 50mm lens. I know the Mamiya lenses are in a league of their own, so in many ways, it's no surprise that I feel the Hasselblad 50mm lens is less of a stelar performer when compared with the Mamiya's wide angle competitor.

What I would like to ask though is, if you are a Hasselblad shooter of the 5xx series, can you tell me if the FLE version is much more detailed than the standard CF in terms of resolution? I've been shooting mine around f11, and it's not as sharp as the Mamiya's 50mm at f22! I'd like to consider moving to the FLE version, but only if it's waranted. I see no MTF information on the web, so would be interested to hear your point of view.

Of course, the real proof is for me to go out and get one and try it for myself. That's ultimately the only way I'll know for sure. But I'd be interested in hearing from you anyway.