Or, a short photographic history of Lawrie Conole, and a mini review of the Sigma SD Quattro camera
I’ve been on the journey from film to digital a few times over the years. You’d think by now I might have worked out where I want to be on the photographic spectrum, between completely analogue at one end through to totally digital at the other. But it’s never really that simple.
Cameras were significant objects in my childhood. On the one hand I very distinctly remember the boxes of monochrome family photographic prints my mother compiled with a Kodak Box Brownie, but I have no memory of her actually standing there in front of me using it. On the other hand, her unmarried sister, my Auntie Dorothy, had what was obviously at the time a much more expensive and sophisticated Voigtländer 35mm rangefinder camera. She compiled hundreds, maybe thousands, of colourful Kodachrome slides, which led to interminably long family slide nights – where we the children who were in most of the photos started snoring after a short time.
Fast forward a few years, and when I was about 10-11, I was given a Kodak Instamatic camera. I distinctly remember the weird brownish/green colour-cast, square images it produced, but I haven’t kept any of them. At around about that time I also started developing a pretty solid interest in birding (birdwatching), and so there were quite a few images of tree foliage, in which if you were very careful and keen-sighted you might find a few tiny photographic grains that comprised a splodgy Silvereye or maybe a New Holland Honeyeater. This may explain why my interests in ornithology and photography never really crossed paths very often in the years that followed. Photographic birds with a wide angle plastic lens is hard …
The Instamatic was retired at some point, and I was camera-less for a few years. When I was about 17-18 (around 1977) I got my first 35mm film SLR. It was a second hand Pentax Spotmatic, with a 50mm standard lens, and I started feeding it Kodachrome 64. Landscapes, wildflowers, family (but not birds) were my targets. Shortly after I traded the Spotmatic in for a Pentax MX – possibly still my favourite 35mm film SLR, and I think my younger brother still has it somewhere. It was joined a bit later by a secondhand Pentax ME-Super (ditto for current whereabouts). With those I had a couple of Pentax 50mm standard lenses, plus a Sigma 28mm and a Sigma 80-200mm zoom. A few birds were captured, but mostly it was landscape, vegetation, wildflowers, bats, frogs, lizards … full on natural history documentary scientific photography .. hobbyist style. Those Pentax SLRs travelled all over eastern Australia with me, chasing critters – from the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia up through Central Australia in the Northern Territory, all through Queensland and New South Wales – most of their lives spent across my home state of Victoria, and a bit in Tasmania. Everything from alpine to desert to wet tropics, which they took in their stride – remarkably robust and durable kit.
In the period from about 1986-1990 was my period of professional scientific photography, when my job included running a darkroom and photographic archaeological artefacts of various kinds (stone tools, canoe trees, animal and human skeletal material, staff at work, etc.) at the state archaeological authority. Though I was still using the MX and ME-Super in my private photography, my work cameras were an Olympus OM-1 (35mm) and a Zenza Bronica ETRS (120 film). Still solidly in the film era!
From 1990 until about 2000 I worked at the state museum. The museum had a dedicated photographic team, so I didn’t take photos at work until around 1995-96 on a research project documenting aspects of the state science museum collections. Around this time the museum’s photography team had started capturing digital images of the state collections, using a high end video camera to make digital still images. For my project I needed only relatively low resolution thumbnail images to go on database card entries for quick reference. Enter the first digital stills camera that I’d ever encountered, the Kodak DC50. Capturing images in glorious 0.4 megapixel splendour. From that encounter I formed the opinion that digital had a very, very long way to go before it posed any kind of existential threat to film.
In 1996 I took my Pentax MX to Indonesia, for a month of travelling in Java and Bali, shooting Kodachrome 64. In 2000 I travelled to ex-Soviet Central Asia on holiday. Throughout Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (and a bit of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) I took my Pentax MX plus a standard lens and the Sigma wide angle, and I shot Ektachrome. That MX was a delight, and largely bombproof …
Then I lost my photographic mojo to a very large extent, and gave my Pentax SLRs and lenses to my younger brother.
I didn’t have a camera at all between 2001-2004. With the birth of my daughter Marta approaching, I bought a Nikon Coolpix 4500 compact digital camera – 4 megapixel. As digital compacts go it was a fantastic camera. The revolutionary rotary two-part body meant that it could be shot in the manner of a waist level finder camera – fantastic for candid portrait photography – though the screen was relatively small and not very high resolution. Macro ability was also impressive, and the colour rendition was excellent. It also had an optical rangefinder style viewfinder. As my eyesight deteriorated with age, I found it more and more difficult to use the screen, and consequently stopped using it altogether by around 2009.
In 2010 I travelled to Brazil to a conference where I would present some of my PhD research. My travel funding paid for a small Pentax Optio H90 point-and-shoot digital. It barely survived the trip before it ceased to operate reliably, but it did capture some great images along the way.
Then the dark ages, where I hardly took any photographs except family snaps with mobile phones (they weren’t that great back then) from 2010-2017.
Major ructions occurred in my life in 2017. I came out of a 16 year marriage, and moved to a slightly larger small town than where I had been living with my family. The family dog Harry came with me (more about him later). A few months into bachelorhood after using an iPhone 5c increasingly for landscape and dog photography, I felt the urge to have a ‘real’ camera again. Enter a second hand Olympus Pen EP-3, with 14-42mm kit lens, 16 megapixel sensor.
It didn’t take all that long before my research discovered that the Micro Four Thirds system was great for adapting classic manual focus lenses. I never really enjoyed zooms very much, and although AF was great for fast-moving kids and dogs, my main interests were in landscape, portraits and still life – MF territory.
My first Soviet M42 lens was an Industar 50-2. It cost about AUD$15 delivered from Ukraine. New old stock. And it was awesome – image quality was quite superb – virtual pancake so the camera was pocketable (in a generous coat pocket). I was hooked. Initially I used it with a dumb adapter as a virtual 100mm lens. Soon after I got a Viltrox speedbooster and it became a 75mm equivalent lens, and a bit brighter than its nominal f/3.5.
From there I experimented with a range of old manual focus lenses, mostly former Soviet Union in origin. The Jupiter-9 became and remains one of my favourites, as does the Helios 44-2. I got a couple of Minolta MD lenses – 55mm and 135mm – plus a Zhong Yi Lens Turbo II speedbooster. That combination had some real character, and superb IQ.
A little while later I stayed with Micro Four Thirds but moved to Panasonic Lumix – a GH3. I gave the EP-3 to my daughter.
Amongst the M42 lenses I had was a Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8. I’d never really found its sweet spot, and hadn’t used it much. A friend gave me her old black Pentax Spotmatic in mid-2018. Around 40 years since I’d handled a Spotmatic, and the familiarity in-hand was immediate and a little spooky. It just felt right, and I knew where everything was without looking. Re-enter the world of film!
I shot a few films with the Spotmatic. I had a variety of M42 lenses to use on it. It was a great idea, but my eyesight has really deteriorated in 40 years. I found it incredibly difficult to focus – not like the old days when I could quickly see what was in and what was out. Enter one Minolta SRT101 opp-shop rescue.
The SRT101 was easier for me to focus. Still not easy, but easier. I had two Minolta lenses to use on it, and a very simple adapter ring brought all the M42 lenses into play as well. I shot a few films on the SRT101.
35mm film SLRs and my eyes were not really getting along. I also thought that both the MD Rokkor and M42 lenses were producing superior IQ on digital than with film. My re-entry into the film world was stalling – just when it was becoming the very hip thing to be doing. I knew that I could get great IQ on film, but how was I going to get there. Another timely donation – a Zorki 4 rangefinder. Oh – I remember rangefinders! I remember the torture by Voigtländer and Kodachrome in childhood. But surely they are primitive old tech?
Wow. I can see _so_ well through a rangefinder (the viewfinder dioptre adjustment is superb). And I can focus (the rangefinder patch is bright and clear). And I actually like both the hands-on experience of using the Zorki 4, and the IQ. This is my 35mm film camera. See a slightly longer version of the Zorki story here: https://www.35mmc.com/22/09/2019/5-frames-with-kodak-portra-400-on-a-zorki-4-or-down-a-rabbit-hole-by-lawrie-conole/
Then there’s medium format film. I enjoyed using the Bronica in the 1980s. My research led me to the Pentacon Six TL medium-format SLR and its superb Carl Zeiss Jena lenses. So much more affordable than either Bronica or Hasselblad, obviously. I didn’t really want to go down the TLR route – the CZJ lenses were calling me – Biometar, Flektogon, Sonnar. And then I heard about the guy on eBay from Slovakia – Cupog as he’s known there – really knows Pentacon Six cameras and how to CLA them properly. Accordingly, the P6 and those three lenses came to me from Slovakia – in beautiful working condition and a relatively tiny price. The IQ was breathtaking; still is.
Maybe now the last turn back to digital. It’s late 2019 and I’m rationalising my modest collection of classic cameras and lenses. The 35mm film SLRs have to go – I can’t focus them. The Mir-1ш 37mm and I never really hit it off, on film or digital (it’s replacement the Meyer-Optik Görlitz 30mm is sooo much better). The Zorki 4 stays. So does the P6 and its lenses. The Lumix GH3 is superb when coupled with the Pana-Lumix 25mm, and various classic lenses. For high resolution landscapes, still life, portraits … enter the Sigma SD Quattro (SDQ hereafter).
THE SIGMA SD QUATTRO MINI-REVIEW
There’s a list as long as your arm about why _not_ to buy the SDQ. Aside from the general (non-Sigma) fanboy chauvinism and discrimination out there against Sigma cameras (but not their lenses), what else? As a general purpose mirrorless digital camera it ticks very few of the boxes. For a mirrorless camera it’s relatively large and heavy, and it has a DSLR lens mount (Sigma’s proprietary SA mount) with an empty mirror box tube protruding from the front of the camera.. It has an APS-C crop sensor. No IBIS – no any kind of IS. No video. Almost restricted to the lowest ISO settings around 100-400 before IQ starts to drift. Odd green flare if there’s a bright light source in screen. File writing is slow. Battery life pretty short (~200 images with AF lenses). The proprietary X3F super definition raw format is unreadable to all but Sigma’s own software. Autofocus is apparently very slow.
Most of these factors are irrelevant to me. The potential users of Sigma cameras are necessarily an odd bunch.
The sensor may be APS-C crop size, but it’s a Foveon. Almost all other digital cameras use Bayer sensors. In the right hands the Foveon produces filmic naturalistic colour; monochrome rendering is superb; take out the removable hot filter in front of the sensor and you have real infrared capability (still need a visible light filter on the lens). The 39MP Foveon produces dazzling detail resolution equivalent to a 50+MP Bayer sensor. Classic lens rendering with the Foveon is amazing; particularly with the CZJ medium format lenses, but the Helios 44-2 for example is superb with this sensor. The virtual mirror box DSLR mount means that adapted M42 lenses only need a thread ring adapter – compatible flange distance is already there. Focus peaking in your choice of red, yellow or black – that’s a luxury with MF lenses that I’ve not used before – and I like it. The SDQ has a Super Fine Detail mode, which stacks 7 exposures with bracketing fused into one raw file, in camera – exported JPEGs are about 60MP. The light rendering and resolution of the SFD files are jaw dropping sensational; at least medium format quality. I have a Lumix GH3, so video is well in hand if I need it. My Google Pixel 2 phone shoots 4K if I need that. 100-400 ISO is more than I need on most days, and I have a tripod. If I want to shoot straight at a light source I’ll use the GH3. Battery life is not long it’s true, but better with MF lenses when electrons are not being used to drive Sigma’s hybrid phase/contrast AF. And miraculously, it uses the same battery as Lumix G-series cameras, so I have a few already. The SOOC JPEGs at superfine are nearly perfect, and there’s the DNG option. AF is irrelevant to me on this camera. The Sigma menus are the best I’ve used, and the manual controls are intuitively selected and placed. Two two pane screen on the camera back is very nice. Camera build quality overall is very impressive. Ergonomics are fantastic, even compared to the GH3 which I rate very highly. I like the heft of the camera, and with CZJ medium format lenses on board, it’s very much medium format handling. Perfect (for me).
I was originally intent on getting the Sigma SD Quattro H – much the same camera but with a bigger APS-H sensor – the biggest ever Foveon sensor made by Sigma to date (apparently there’s a full frame Foveon coming this year). That proved to be impossible in Australia, as the importer had none, and neither did any of the distributors. Getting one from Japan was going to be too expensive. I’m not sure I’m missing much with the APS-C versus APS-H sensor, but I remain curious.
The images that im getting from the SDQ and the CZJ lenses are as good as medium format film, occasionally better. The SDQ is slow to use, like film medium format, and I love that. Having said that though, it’s so much easier to use than medium format film. I’d sell the P6 today (much as I love it, it’s not getting used now) but it’s probably not worth much without its beautiful lenses. I can see those beautiful lenses outlasting me … 🙂
BACK TO THE MAIN STORY
So I first encountered digital in about 1995-1996 with a 0.4MP Kodak DC50. It was useful for the particular job at the time, but not to be taken seriously for IQ. Early 2000s with my film cameras gone, the 4MP Nikon Coolpix 4500 was a great camera to use as a sophisticated point-and-shoot, and the IQ was actually very nice. In 2010 the little Pentax Optio was a brief blip – IQ was quite good, but the camera wasn’t robust enough for my lifestyle. Film still had the edge. Come 2016-17 and I was using the 16MP Lumix GH3 about 95% of the time with classic MF lenses – it was (still is) an excellent camera and IQ is easily good enough for A2 and A1 printing. I was using film again in 2018-19 – mostly for the lovely handling and IQ of the Zorki 4 rangefinder, and the beautiful monochrome IQ of the Pentacon Six TL medium format system. Since the SDQ arrived on my desk, film is slipping away again, maybe for the last time. I still love using the Zorki 4, but I have to force myself to use it. The P6 has donated its stellar lenses to the SDQ, and with the SDQ as main camera, GH3 as second camera, digital is now doing everything I want or need.
I’m going to leave it mostly to the deliberate film-shooting photographers and hipsters to keep film alive – it’s future seems assured at the moment.
… but the Zorki 4 will still get some occasional outings I think. It’s too lovely to leave on display on the mantelpiece, as a decorative curio alongside the Zenit E …