More monochrome

Having put a roll of film through my much-loved Canon FTb, it was time to drag out another old classic, the Nikon F3.

I still think of this as one of the best cameras I’ve ever owned. I converted to Nikon in 1985 (and if that sounds like a religious experience, well it was), after having been an Olympus OM-2 aficionado for many years. But then all my Olympus gear was stolen in New York and it was time to rethink.

I bought a Nikon FE-2, a camera held in very high esteem to this day. But when I went to shoot the Reno Air Races in 1987 I needed a second body. Nikon UK loaned me an F3 with motordrive and a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens. I didn’t want to give any of that gear back, but when Nikon insisted I knew it was time to shell out some money. Pretty much every penny I earned on the articles and stock pictures I sold from that trip went on an F3 HP body, focusing screen with grid lines and motordrive.

The F3 just feels right in the hand – better than any camera I’ve had since. And it remains balanced even when you put the rather large motordrive on it.

I got to make extensive use of the camera straight away, with an assignment to shoot pictures for my first book, Cherry Point. There followed a return trip to the Reno Air Races and another aviation book, Kaneohe Bay. And, of course, lots of bits & bobs in between.

The F3 HP’s viewfinder image is very large and bright – far superior even to that of my current Nikon D800. And it’s metering is quite heavily centre-weighted, which is how I like it (the D800 is somewhat similar, in fact).

So I loaded up a roll of Ilford FP4 black & white film. I avoided the mistake I made with the Canon FTb – where I forgot what kind of film was in the camera – thanks to the presence of a memo-holder on the F3’s back. But in any case, I shot the whole roll pretty much straight away.

When I shot with the Canon FTb I used its standard 50mm lens – because that’s the only one I have for it. And I was surprised to find I liked it.

I have a much wider choice of lenses for the Nikon, but I wanted something similar. The nearest I have is an old, manual-focus 55mm ƒ/2.8 Micro-Nikkor macro lens. So on that went.

As before, I spent about an hour wandering my garden and the neighbour’s orchard.

Unlike the Canon FTb, the F3 doesn’t function without a battery. Luckily, the two LR44s it needs are still easy to find. With the camera powered up I could benefit from its built-in metering, whereas with the Canon I’d had to carry a separate meter.

I was intrigued to see how well the metering – or, to be more honest, my use of the metering – would cope. On modern cameras we have multi-point metering systems that compare readings across the frame with computer-generated models to decide on the exposure. But built-in metering 1980s style was a much simpler affair.

It turns out, it did alright. Black & white film is famously forgiving, of course. But I only had one notably mis-exposed frame – a shot in fairly low light of our gorgeous sprollie, Cézanne.

It was a few stops under-exposed and the scan was impossible to brighten much without the shadow areas becoming washed out. But I actually rather like the soft quality.

That goes for many of the other images, too.

The processing and scanning – by a French company, this time – were certainly an improvement over my last experience. I’m not exactly comparing like with like here: on the previous occasion I used Ilford HP5 and asked the processing house to pull-process by one stop. Also, the scanning was only at ‘medium’ resolution (about 6MP). This time I used slower (ISO 125) film, processed normally and with scanning at around 6300 x 4180 pixels (that’s about 26MP by my reckoning).

There were rather a lot of dust specks and not-infrequent small hairs to be spotted out. And there were some signs of poor processing (such as drying marks). So it wasn’t an unqualified success – but then, do I really want to go back to processing films myself?

The weird thing is that I haven’t got the film back yet. This company puts your scans into a Dropbox folder so you can grab them as soon as they’re ready, which is nice.

Overall, though, I’m happy. Maybe the hipsters are right. Images shot on film do have a different quality – a kind of lo-fi charm.

There are more images in the Sketchbook section.

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