Thoughts on gear for a BioArctic residency.

I am presently on a residency at ArsBioarctica in the Arctic of northern Finland. Before heading out, I spent several weeks deliberating what equipment to bring. Part of this was deciding whether I should plan to work on a specific project, or plan for anything and everything. Though my initial plan was to work with a (non-existent) direct-positive paper to use in a 4×5 camera, I ended up bringing my Leica M3 (with the Summar 50/2, Elmar 90/4 and Elmar 135/4), Nikon F90 (with the 85/1.8, Micro Nikkor 55/2.8 and 24/2.8) and my GH1 with a dumb K&F Nikon adapter and a Zhongyi Lens Turbo II, doubling up my use of the Nikkor glass. I packed rolls of Fuji Neopan 400 and Kodak Technical Pan. Additional gear includes the Fujifilm XP 50, Gopro 2, Gossen Digiflash, Tascam DR-100 and a couple of microphones (audio gear being pertinent to my collaborative efforts with Lauren for Sounding Out Spaces), a Leica micro tripod, a mini lighting stand and my beloved Gitzo Tatalux with a single clamp Slik head.

For the work that I have been doing here, the Micro Nikkor has been the most valuable piece of equipment: a task which the Leica would never have been able to perform without pointlessly complicated accessories. The F90 is an effortless camera to use, with a fantastic finder, and the Micro Nikkor 55/2.8 is an absolutely amazing tool for bridging the gap between the minute and the macro — photographing mountains or looking at lichens as though they were forests (I realise there is an issue with the definition of “macro”, since in photography it refers to getting close and intimate with small subjects, whereas the dictionary definition is indeed the opposite of micro). I also know from recent work with Tony Obr that it is very good at creating abstractions, despite its very nature being that of having been engineered for scientific reproduction. And again, I don’t know if this is a generational thing — the fact that the F90 was “the” camera of my mid teens — but I find its operation both in Aperture priority and Manual incredibly easy to control, or far easier to control than the F3 or Fujifilm S3. The F90 is also very practical for field work, seeing that it costs very little now (so scratching it is no biggie) and will take up bulk-loaded film with a straight-cut leader, with no faff.

My M3 is still a dream machine. I don’t use the Leica often enough for focussing to be as effortless as it used to be: I presently find it awkward to have to move the centre of the frame to a focus point then back, being more used to focusing on ground glass or a liveview LCD. I feel comfortable with the knowledge that the Summar will soften some detail without losing crisp lines. I love the way the camera feels in my hand, and the non-event that I experience when I release the shutter. The main joy, and the part that people who don’t shoot with rangefinders won’t know, is that the extra space around the 50mm brightlines in the finder mean that precise composition can be made in peripheral vision. This is something that is really hard to explain, but I often find that with an SLR you can spend quite a lot of time lining up a horizon with the top of your finder and still get it off. With a rangefinder, or in particular a Leica M, you can do a lot more looking around and composing of corners: thanks to the extra peripheral view in the finder: more intricate composition feels easier. I don’t imagine this would be of much use for landscapes (and I wouldn’t recommend using a silk-shutter rangefinder for landscapes if there is any chance that sun might go straight through the lens and burn a hole in your shutter), but for taking pictures of people close up something magical happens in the user-camera-subject interface. It is a truly pleasurable experience.
The Gossen Digiflash is a fantastic little lightmeter which can measure both incident and flash (and theoretically reflected light, but who measures that?). Its size and weight is pretty much unrivalled, and if you only work with one camera at a time, it is pretty much perfect. Its pitfall is that changing ISO is as hard as changing the time on your old Casio watch. Two button operation, and no up/down. For this reason I would like to acquire a Sekonic L308, however I feel that it is criminally expensive for a piece of gear that has been on the market for 25 years, with no model updates since 2005.

The Tascam DR-100 was a welcome upgrade from the diabolical Zoom H4n which was barely capable of recording anything other than its own digital preamp noise. Though it has many fewer functions, the Tascam has three hardware preamp levels and concentric rotating input level knobs which mean that gain levels can be adjusted during recording. I’ve been able to make clean recordings outdoors with its built in unidirectional mics using a simple Rycote windjammer, setting the levels by meter rather than headphones. Since we have not used the Rode NTG-2 on this residency, the DR-100 is a bit of overkill in size and functionality, so I may look into acquiring a DR-05 for Sounding Out Spaces missions.

I’ve also been using other Leicas here at the Lab: microscopes. There are a selection of Leica imaging units at our disposal, such as the DMLB, EZ4 HD and a few other scopes with an MC170 HD camera that can be moved amongst them. I started using them after my second outing in the Tundra where I discovered pink blooms of algae in the remaining patches of snow. I gathered a sample in a film canister, and took some images with the MC170, then found a 2.5x camera adapter and ended up perching my GH1 on top of the scopes to get higher quality images. I am really not impressed with the quality of the Leica sensors, nor the computer interface. They are slow and clunky, with high noise and a minute dynamic range. Shooting RAW with the GH1 gave a much better quality image for stills, and yielded some absolutely superb video footage of Tardigrades and Rotifers. The optics of the microscopes do also seem to yield a significant amount of chromatic aberration which became particularly marked when I was trying to capture a clear shot of a mosquito’s Labella. I spent many hours exploring the microscopic fauna of a square inch of arctic moss, discovering thousands of monsters, and yet I continue to drink the unfiltered water which — incidentally — is the best water I’ve ever drunk.

Tobias Feltus: