Shooting Film Again

Photography was not always a process of pixels, megabytes, SD cards and Photoshop. Once it was chemicals, paper, darkrooms and something called film. I learned to shoot in another age, when every shot counted, there were only 24 or 36 frames available. When it was a week or at least a few days before you knew if the shot worked.

Marble Grotto
The stream flowing into marble Grotto makes a tempting target for a medium format film camera, photo by Randy Zelick
I still have a few relics of those days, cameras kept for the memories they carry. Traveling through Europe or the Desert Southwest, capturing images on celluloid and silver. Several experiences over the last couple months have served to remind me of those days… Walking into a camera store in Portland, a store that is as much a museum to the era of film, shelves filled with beautiful machines from the past. Watching Randy load roll film into a classic Pentax 6×7 on a glacier in Alaska, hearing the soft click of that mechanical masterpiece. Reading blog posts from a friend on Oahu about his adventures in film.

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A Second Try for the EOS-M

My readers may remember that I purchased an EOS-M last fall. For a number of reasons I ended up returning the camera, a failed experiment.

Tenakee Docks at Night
Fishing boats under sodium lamps haunt the Tenakee docks
With the rumors of a new model or two on the horizon the prices on the original EOS-M dropped. Not just a little either, a camera that listed for over $800 was now available for $360 with the 18-55mm lens. Even less if you wanted the 22mm f/2 lens. For this price would I give the camera a second go?

In the interim a new revision of the camera firmware has addressed some of the major complaints about the camera, including the sluggish focusing. Low price, improved focusing, why not give it a try? I still like the idea of a camera with near DLSR capability, that is small enough to be carried at all times. Fine, I will order it again.

John Hopkins Glacier
John Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park
With EOS-M in hand I went on two trips this summer, to Oregon Star Party and a ten day boat trip out from Juneau. On both trips I used the camera extensively, shooting under a huge range of conditions. This includes a fair amount of night shooting under the stars. I also set up the camera on the telescope again.

In Alaska I had four cameras with me… A Canon 60D, the EOS-M, a GoPro Hero 2 HD, and a Canon G12. It was the EOS-M that I used for all of the walkabout shooting on and off the boat.

The only real drawback to the EOS-M is speed, it simply does not shoot fast. As a result I kept the full DLSR ready with the long lens, the 70-200mm L series telephoto. When wildlife appeared I was ready to shoot fast. Whales bubble net feeding, a gizzly on shore, for these it was the Canon 60D I grabbed. For everything else it was the EOS-M in my hand.

Camping Under the Stars
A camper and telescope set up under a starry sky
One of the features I liked about the camera when first trying it was the touch screen. My first thoughts about this feature were not positive, I wondered just how useful it would be. I have come to really appreciate the touch screen and the ease with which some functions can be used. With my heavy use of an iPad and iPhone, the touch gestures are quite natural. There are drawbacks, inadvertent photos with the touch shutter are common. Plus, it is possible to switch a setting without knowing. Many operations such as selecting the focus point or reviewing exposures are much easier with the touch screen. More than once I have found myself brushing fingers on the LCD of my Canon 60D before remembering it is not a touch screen camera.

I have come to appreciate the EOS-M for the reason I originally wanted the camera. It is a great carry camera, small enough to keep with you at all times, ready to get the shot. It isn’t fast, but it does take beautiful photos, providing better quality than a compact and capable of shooting in a wider range of conditions.

Shooting Film

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of my fellow voyagers our annual boat trip was an avid photographer. The wilds of Alaska are simply candy for a camera, spectacular photos can be seen in every direction waiting to be captured. As usual I was ready for photographic effort, with no less than four cameras along, not counting the cameras in my phone and iPad. The Canon 60D, EOS-M, a Canon G12 and a GoPro 2 HD comprised a nice array of capability. I was looking forward to the conversations and maybe a chance to learn a little from another photographer.

There was a surprise when I saw the photo gear Randy was unpacking, it looked a little odd.

Randy was shooting… Umm… How do I put this delicately… Randy was shooting film.

Yes, remember that stuff that came in rolls. For those who might not remember, this is how we took photos before digital sensors, megapixels and SD cards became the language of photography.

Randy Zelick
Randy timing an exposure with a medium format Pentax 6×7 camera.
Randy does it in style, a beautiful old Pentax 6×7 medium format SLR camera.

The setup is not compact, a bulky camera requiring a full backpack to carry with the camera, lenses and light meter. It is around fifteen pounds of gear, quite a contrast to the two or three pounds the EOS-M I used for most of my shooting.

The medium format camera presents difficulties on the boat. Taking long exposures is impossible from a moving and rolling platform. Still, he managed some nice shots when the water was calm, as it was when we visited walls of ice in Glacier Bay. Finding solid ground for the tripod required breaking out the launch and going ashore. We created a couple of great opportunities, landing on algae covered rock, we slip and slide to a place where the beauty of Marble Grotto is fully exposed. Another slippery landing, this time caused by glacial mud, allows us to explore the face of Reid Glacier with cameras and tripods at hand.

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Canon EOS-M

DSLR cameras have been the design of choice for professional and serious amateur photographers for over a decade, ever since the era of digital photography began. Big lenses and big sensors made the most of what light was available offering the best possible photographic performance. This performance is a huge jump over what the smaller lenses and sensors of compact cameras offer. A performance gain that makes carrying such a large camera worthwhile.

A DSLR is big because of the demands of the available technology. The swinging mirror directs light into optical viewfinders and phase detection focus sensors. Over the last couple years a new type of camera has appeared, taking advantage of advances in technology to dispense with the bulky swinging mirror design. Fast, high resolution electronic viewfinders and better focus technology allow this transformation. Engineers can create a camera far smaller while keeping the large sensor and interchangeable lens. Better yet, getting the lens closer to the image sensor allows a smaller, lighter, less expensive lens without sacrificing performance. Enter a new paradigm of camera that offers much of the performance of a DSLR in a compact design.

Canon EOS-M
The Canon EOS-M with the 22mm f/2 kit lens
All of the major players have now released their own spin on the mirror-less design. Panasonic and Olympus jointly released compatible designs under the Micro Four-Thirds standard. Sony has released their NEX system and Nikon the Nikon 1 system. A number of lens makers, Zeiss, Tamron, and Sigma now make lenses for these cameras. Canon was the last to release an entry into this new market segment.

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A Dummy Battery Adapter for the Canon 20Da

Another quick project to solve a little equipment issue. I realized I had a problem the morning before I was planning to spend a night shooting astrophotos up on the mountain. The batteries for my 20Da are old and do not hold a charge, no way I was going to be able to use the camera through the night.

The Regulator Installed
The regulator circuit installed inside the battery shell and connected to the existing contacts
The camera is an older model that remains quite valuable to me as it has been adapted to shoot astrophotos. The 20Da model differed from the standard 20D in having live focus and a re-tuned red cutoff filter that allows the glowing red of nebulae to reach the sensor. After seven years I still use the camera regularly.

I have the AC power supply for the 20Da, this is what I have been using for some time now. Shooting astrophotos in the driveway allows access to AC power. For field use this will not do, I need to operate fully from battery power. The camera batteries that I do have for the camera are now at least six years old, and do not hold enough charge to last.

Without AC power available I needed something that could plug into one of my 12V field battery packs. I really did not want to cut up the existing AC power supply to create a version to be used with an external battery. Plus, Canon used odd, proprietary connectors on the supply. (I really hate it when they do that!) I can not even use parts of the AC supply without modification.

With only a few hours available I came up with a plan. A little digging showed I had all of the needed components on-hand. Off to the work bench!

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Canon Introduces the 60Da

Most of my astrophotos are taken with my venerable Canon 20Da, a special version of the EOS 20D that was produced for astrophotography. Normal DSLR cameras work quite well for astrophotography, with one major drawback… The filter placed in front of the sensor blocks much of the Hα light emitted by many nebulae.

Orion Nebula
NGC1976 or M42, the Great Orion Nebula, taken with the Canon 20Da and a AT6RC telescope.
This light, emitted at 656mn, a wavelength deep in the red, give emission nebulae their characteristic shades of rich red. Hα is the strongest component of light produced by emission nebulae. Without this light, the nebulae will often appear bluish in photographs, as the next strongest component OIII dominates.

Specifically for astrophotography, Canon produced a special version of the 20D with a re-designed filter that allowed Hα light to reach the sensor, the Canon 20Da. The camera also featured on-screen focusing, a feature now found on most DLSR cameras, but unusual back in 2005.

The 20Da was discontinued in 2006. Astrophotographers wanting a DSLR camera with a filter that admits Hα light must buy a standard camera and remove the filter, or have it modified by specialist that offers a conversion service.

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The Canon 60D

A box was waiting for me when I got home. A long awaited box. A box that represented hours of reading, weighing and wrestling with the question…

A new camera!

I now have a replacement for my venerable Canon 20Da that I have used for over six years. Not that I will be getting rid of the older camera. It is still invaluable to me for astrophotography, a role it is specifically modified for. Nor will it replace my Canon G11, a camera I have carried every day for well over a year now. The G11 will remain my day to day camera, a role for which a compact is well suited.

Canon 60D
The Canon 60D DSLR camera, image credit: Canon USA

No, the 60D will be there when the smaller camera is simply not enough. There have been a few recent instances when I had opportunity for a good photo. An image I knew the camera in my hand simply could not capture. There was that pueo sitting on a lichen covered boulder last week. Or the summit under a blanket of fresh snow, lit by the full moon. Or… To many instances.

Another primary reason for the 60D… High quality HD video capability. This is something I have come to truly miss in my existing cameras. There have been a number of occasions when I really could have used that capability! Unfortunately now that I have a camera capable of truly good HD video, our backyard volcano has stopped producing photogenic lava flows. At least I know that will not last.

The decision was made more difficult by the choice of cameras available. A dizzying array of options now exist. A number of very capable DLSRs, the new mirrorless designs, this was a decision without a simple answer. In the end it came down to a choice between the Canon 60D and the very similar 7D. The newer 60D sports a flip out screen (something I love to have), better movie controls, and while it gives up a metal body it is also much lighter to carry. Both cameras use the same sensor and feature essentially the same image quality.

My thanks to Baron. I ran into him at the ROV competition last week. And lo… he was carrying both the 60D and a 7D. Even better, he let me fondle his gear while we chatted about the relative merits of the two cameras. Nothing like a hands-on look at the gear and the opinion of someone who uses the cameras extensively.

Even when holding a brand new camera I am wondering what will replace it in a few years. Maybe a mirrorless compact? That is a market segment to watch. What about my veteran G11 camera? Deb is making less than subtle suggestions about my getting a G12 so she can have my G11, mostly for underwater I suspect. Cameras are one place the technology is still changing rapidly enough to make these decisions difficult.

For now I need to learn a new camera and find its limits. A good low light session is in order, and I have a night on the summit coming up… with lasers!