It's been a while since I've used any really old cameras, but in the past few months I've put a few rolls of film through my 1920s Contessa-Nettel Cocarette and have been thinking a bit about where this camera fits in. Unlike modern do it all digital cameras, tools like this have a very limited range of applications, and of course, after almost 100 years of usage and neglect, most of them need to be handled with some care; most are less reliable than they might be. In the case of The Contessa, I've learned to be very careful in loading film to make sure it is flat in the transport system, and that the film door is closed precisely, to make sure the film is parallel with the back of the body.
With the practicalities dealt with, I'm also learning about the lens, and what it can and can't do. The negatives from this camera are 6x9cm in size, a format which on the face of it seems ideal for landscape photography. However, the limitations of the lens mean that's not as straightforward as it might be. In particular it tends towards low contrast, especially at long distance, giving images a washed out look. The picture above is a good example of this. Even allowing for the deep shade under the trees, the middle distance is a lot more contrasty than the background. Another factor is the film. This was taken with 400 ASA black and white film, a film speed unheard of in the 1920s, and I find that the camera produces better results with slower film and longer exposures. In any case, I've learned not to attempt landscape images without a foreground feature, or some sort of shade to shelter the lens.
Contessa-Nettel made cameras independently until 1926, when the company merged with Zeiss. A camera like mine--which has the top of the range F/6.3 Anastigmat lens--would have cost £3 17s 6d in 1924. To put that in context, in 1925 a railway engine driver earned around £4 a week. I imagine the Contessa would be in her element taking group portraits in shady gardens, perhaps in the hands of a twenty-something photographer visiting family in the summer vacation. Imagine the moustaches, waistcoats, and the elaborate hats. Even so, she's done alright with Rydal Water I think.
I promise I'll stop writing about the Sigma DP1 Quattro I was loaned last month, but not just yet. I took this picture soon after the camera arrived, in a wood not far from where I live. I've photographed this tree a lot--in fact it features in one of my pieces for the Northern Exposure exhibition--so I know this is a difficult location in terms of available light. In the past Sigma DP series cameras have struggled with low light, high contrast situations, so this was a deliberate test. The Quattro did very well. That wide lens makes for a lot of drama.
Technical stuff: This is taken handheld at ISO400 and 1/60th of a second, settings which, though I love it dearly, I wouldn't even consider with my older Sigma DP2 Merrill. I underexposed this to keep the shutter speed up, so the post processing involved fixing that and dropping the saturation a bit.
A couple of weeks ago I took a Sigma DP1 Quattro camera--kindly lent to me by Sigma Imaging UK--to Coniston in the English Lake District for a long weekend camping. I've already written one post on this here. Among the many limitations of the earlier Sigma DPx Merrill series was an occasional tendency to generate strange colour casts in deep shadow areas, or when taking pictures into the sun. It is something you learn to manage with that camera after a while, but one of the consequences was that many Sigma DPx Merrill owners gravitated towards black and white. The Merrills are superb cameras for black and white, creating deep and inky blacks (which nevertheless contain plenty of detail) and sharp, contrasty greys and whites. I use my DP2 Merrill as a black and white camera for perhaps 80 percent of the time.
I was keen to try out the Sigma DP1 Quattro in black and white, so I rode my bike down to the lake shore and set up the camera on a tripod. The pictures here were shot in B&W, in the camera, though the RAW files allow conversion to colour in the Sigma PhotoPro 6 software. Having said that, these images all come directly from the original B&W RAW file. They are all exposures of about 3-5 seconds, which gives the smooth look to the water, but also does interesting things with anything that moves, such as branches on trees and drifting boats.
Thanks to Sigma Imaging UK for lending me the camera.
I spent last weekend in the Lake District, near Coniston, famous for its water speed records and its mountain, known as the ‘Old Man’. A few days before I was loaned a camera by Sigma UK, and the plan was to try it out and to come back with some photographs. The camera in question was the unusual-looking Sigma DP1 Quattro which, with its wide 19mm (28mm equiv.) lens, is ideal for landscape photography.
It always takes a little bit of time to find your way around a new camera, but despite the odd looks of the Sigma there was only one ergonomic thing that annoyed me: having a button to switch from auto focus to manual focus right under where your thumb rests. The first time I caught this by mistake I thought the auto focus had broken and it took me a while to work out how to switch it back on again. In general though, the Sigma DP1 Quattro is well built and well designed, with a pleasantly textured metal body and well-placed buttons; it has heft, and feels solid and well balanced in the hands. Although different from the Merrill series, the menu system is easy and quick to navigate; I switched between the two cameras easily. The images it makes are what matters of course. This isn’t going to be a review of the camera—there are plenty of those—but more a brief record of my experience of using it as we marched up the hill and down again. I’m quite pleased with the pictures I brought back. Despite the emptiness of most of these scenes, it was actually quite crowded up there, honest.
Where most camera manufacturers offer bodies with interchangeable lenses, Sigma has gone for a different model: interchangeable cameras. Sigma’s DP1 Quattro is one of four compact(ish) cameras built around its innovative Foveon sensor, each with a different fixed focal length lens. These range from very wide (the soon to be released DP0) to one more suitable for portraits (the DP3). The DP1 and the DP2, with its 30mm (45mm equiv.) lens, sit in between. Sigma say that the reason for not having interchangeable lenses is that swapping lenses makes everything less accurate. In any case, these are quite small, light cameras, so carrying two or even three is no different from carrying a heavy DSLR and a brace of lenses.
Coniston Old Man is one of the most popular of all the Lake District fells. It is among the most accessible mountains in the area, though on the eastern side the steep final climb from Low Water puts lots of people off. But even if you don’t make it to the top, there is plenty to look at, from the high fells themselves to the scars, spoil heaps, debris, and ruins left behind by centuries of mining copper and slate. We decided to take an easy hike up beyond the derelict slate workings to have a picnic lunch at Low Water, a popular place to rest. A busy sunny Bank Holiday Saturday was not the time to go for the summit.
There is always a crowd milling around these fascinating abandoned workings, so I had to hang around for a while to take some pictures without a brightly-coloured coat somewhere in the background. The extent of the environmental destruction here in the middle of one of our most famous national parks is quite alarming when you look at it, but without these mines and quarries the village of Coniston, and buildings in places far beyond, would not have been built. The collapsed buildings here were part of the way down a long cable-car system for carrying slate down the mountain. I have watched these wooden structures gradually fall apart over the years. They always remind me of this poem.
I have owned an older Sigma compact (a DP2 Merrill) for some time now and I’m a fan of the distinctive, detailed “Foveon look” these cameras produce. With that in mind I’m also happy to accept their current limitations. The Foveon sensor isn’t yet as versatile as the ubiquitous “Bayer” type sensor, which features in nearly all other digital cameras. It doesn’t work as well in low light at high sensitivities, while the amount of data crunching required to “develop” the image in the camera, and later at the computer, makes it slow to work with. In good light, or on a tripod, though, these things are wonderful.
There was no need for a tripod on the day of our climb. If anything, the harsh shadows and bright blue sky posed a different kind of problem for someone trying to create atmospheric landscapes. But in fact the Quattro is significantly better than the older Merrill series in this respect. It's still nowhere near as versatile as, say, an Olympus OMD EM-1, but high speed low light photography is not what this camera is for. As a lightweight, easy to carry tool for taking highly detailed landscape photographs, it's excellent.