Upgrading my trusty tripod

OK, I’m talking about tripod heads. There are a few reasons why it matters to me and might be relevant to anyone else:

  • Some classic lenses are really heavy (–> tripod)
  • Some people use classic lenses to stitch panoramic landscapes together (–> tripod)
  • I have a near classic set of tripod legs and it’s only the head I have an issue with
  • I hate turfing good gear out if it can be updated to be better

I’ve had my Manfrotto 055PROB tripod for about 20 years. The aluminium legs are good and solid, not all that heavy, and the centre column can also be mounted horizontally.

The 141RC three-way head on the other hand is a shocker. I’ve never liked it, but this didn’t matter much when I didn’t use it much. Now I use it a lot for film cameras, long exposures, landscapes, etc. The 141RC is really heavy, but not very steady. The three-way controls are clunky. I always have to level the legs for panning because the head offers no useful adjustment in that domain.

I recently saw one of the major tripod makers’ heads with a levelling bowl type adjustment underneath. Get the legs stable, and then level the head from its base rather than fiddling with legs on uneven ground. Great! Could I retrofit something like this on my on 055PROB legs? Turns out, yes.

So in the image below are pictured my Manfrotto 055PROB tripod legs, with a Sirui LE-60 levelling base and Sirui L-20S tilt head … and the giant clunky 141RC alongside for scale.

The Sirui gear is really nicely made. It included one of their big camera plates (TY-70-2), so my Pentacon Six TL medium format camera feels rock solid on there. Sirui camera plates are Arca-type quick release. The tripod with the Sirui gear on board weighs a lot less than before, and makes it easier to carry further. The new head arrangement is smooth, precise and compact. There are numerous accessible spirit levels built in. It’s a spectacular improvement.

So I’ll sell or give away the 141RC. The 055PROB legs will live on for at least another 20 years. _Nothing went to landfill._

Landscapes and long exposure shots will be SO much easier to do now.

Oh, and I guess I could have just bought a whole new setup. I can’t afford to do that (this retrofit is cost effective), and I like the old 055PROB legs anyhow …

An unexpected left turn

The Industar 50mm lens is a year older than me, and the Zorki-4 camera it’s attached to is a year younger.

Inside, a roll of CineStill BWxx 250 film. Does that mean the photos are going to look like scenes from ‘Raging Bull’ or ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ – both shot on the parent Double-X cinematic film stock? I sure as hell hope so …

And the biggest bonus for this photographer? A ~60 year old rangefinder camera is easier to manually focus than just about anything else when your eyesight is getting lousier by the year. The coupled viewfinder/rangefinder on this Zorki is remarkably clear and bright, and features a neat little dioptre adjustment which means even I can see through it in crystal clarity.

And did I add “it’s beautiful” – a lovely chunky little thing that feels great in the hand. It’s lineage back to the Leica 2 is pretty clear in both appearance and functionality. The Zorki is sometimes known as the ‘poor wo/man’s Leica‘, but that’s a bit unfair to the Russian optical engineers at Krasnogorsky Zavod. Sure, they copied the Leica 2, but then they innovated and improved the design, and with a fraction of the research funding. The lenses commonly found on the Zorki and FED rangefinders are based on the Zeiss Tessar and Sonnar designs that were part of the war reparation deals that the USSR took home from WW2 – but then the Leica Elmar was a Tessar formula lens too. The Tessar formula used in the Industar 50 is optically simple and the resulting lenses are small and light, but they are also tack sharp with nice contrast and colour. The Jupiter-8 lens (Sonnar formula) also has a very good optical reputation.

So maybe consigning the Zorki to povo-Leica status is a bit rude, but you do get some pretty lovely camera technology for very few $$$ compared to the German alternative.

I last regularly used film in a camera nearly 20 years ago, and didn’t imagine I’d be back there again. The unexpected connection between shooting through classic old film camera lenses on a digital camera, and film, is somewhat serendipitous. A friend kindly gave me her old Pentax Spotmatic SP 35mm SLR just recently, and being an M42 lens mount job, I can attach all my M42 Russian lenses, and use them at their nominal focal lengths rather than in cropped form on the Micro Four Thirds digital. Likewise the Zorki 4 accepts all Leica 39mm lenses (LTM or M39). That coupled with how easy it is now to get film processed and then scanned at very high resolution completes the loop, with final image development being back on the computer – in my case in the excellent open source DarkTable application.

Now it just remains to be seen what the first images from the Spotmatic and Zorki look like. Are the camera bodies light tight? Are the lenses focusing properly? etc.

Use a new lens for a change …

Just occasionally I need to be reminded of aspects of the 21st century that I generally ignore.

For a change yesterday I used the auto focus zoom lens that is the native kit lens on my Micro Four Thirds camera. It’s light, the auto focus is a novelty, it makes quite presentable images.  It also eats the battery rather quickly! I think generally my old Russian prime film lenses are sharper, and certainly produce a much nicer quality of ‘out of focus’ in the background – and with no electronics in the lens the battery lasts all day.  Maybe if I was wealthy enough to be using the Leica modern auto focus zoom equivalents I’d be a bit less Luddite? Fortunately the post processing grunt of DarkTable (magnificent Free Open Source Software) recovers a nice enough image after I accidentally set and left the ISO on 1600 …

Anderson’s Mill, Smeaton. (Lumix GH3 camera, Lumix 12-60mm kit lens)

PS: The logo

That most excellent logo which currently graces my page is shamelessly looted from the now defunct Valdai Optical-Mechanical Factory in Russia.

It along with various others produced many of the Zeiss lens clones that now have cult status amongst photographers like me who adapt them to modern mirrorless digital cameras.

If you’re a fan of the constructivist and other graphic art of the former USSR, you might enjoy looking at the range of logos from now mostly defunct optical works in the (now) Russian Federation and various former USSR states.  They are beautiful.


Vologda optical-mechanical plant, Vologda.

Why am I here?

I’ve been making photographs for about 45 years now. I learnt my craft on old Pentax and Olympus 35mm film cameras. Ran a darkroom and scientific photography studio for a while. Took lots of travel and nature photos until about the year 2000. From there a bit of a non-photography period, taking family shots with compact digital cameras and phones for a while. More recently I’ve gotten back into photography with gusto.

I use Micro Four Thirds digital cameras but exclusively vintage manual lenses. I’m particularly fond of lenses made in the USSR in the mid 20th century, based largely on pre-WW2 optical engineering designs by Zeiss at Jena.  I find that they allow me to produce images of great character and warmth that I can’t really replicate with modern computer designed, manufactured and operated lenses.

If I have any photographic heroes, it’s probably the fairly obvious Ansel Adams and Edward Weston amongst others, reflecting my bias for landscape and still life microcosms. That said, there are lots of contemporary photographers that occasionally inspire me too.

I use the Mikrokosm Fotos byline to reflect my predilection for the wide-field sampling that I typically do with a camera, and with the Russian words a nod to the old USSR-made lenses that I use and love. Only a little bit pretentious!

And so – I enjoy photographing buildings, dogs, and slices of landscape and still life.  And other miscellaneous images that present themselves.

Anything you see on my webpage exists in high resolution form in my image collection, and I’m more than happy to either sell images, or be commissioned to make you some new ones.

Drop me a line.