Changing My Approach to Evaluating Cameras, Lenses, and Emulsions

I’ve tested a lot of new-to-me cameras and lenses over the last few years, and the process has become something I dread. Fortunately, all basic testing has been completed, and now I am in the “will I keep this” phase of testing. Most earlier tests were driven by the need to determine if I would return the camera to the seller. I did the initial keep-or-return tests with little forethought— I used a roll of 12-exposure film and fired away. For manual lenses, I used a four-thirds Olympus e300 with a Fotodiox adapter. Gear that didn’t meet basic usability requirements (e.g., non-working meter, stuck film advance, fungus/haze) I either returned or asked for a partial refund. Returns have been few, and the cameras I’ve sent back were so obviously flawed that they never made it past the visual inspection stage. I have never returned a lens.

The few times I’ve gotten lenses with issues, the lenses came in sets of high-quality items obtained at such good prices that I did not bother to raise an issue. For example, a cosmetically pristine MC Rokkor 85mm 1.7 with oily blades came in a set that included five other lenses, including an MC Rokkor 58mm 1.2, MC Rokkor 35mm 1.8, and two MC Rokkor Macro lenses (100mm 3.5 and 50 mm3.5), an MC Rokkor 200mm 3.5 prime, and a working XE-7 in excellent to near mint condition. No way that set was going back.

After doing basic functional testing, I began deciding how each item would fit into my workflow. Things that functioned correctly but didn’t fit my workflow went into the “sell” container. For example, while excellent cameras, the 7xi and 9xi will never get used as long as I have access to my Maxxum 7s, Maxxum 9, and 700si. I have developed definite preferences, though I cannot necessarily articulate why. I love my XDs and Maxxum 7s; all others have to justify their continued presence in my collection. As a result, I am now testing for comfort and usability. So far, I have been more successful at choosing what I like than what I don’t like because, for most items, I am neutral. But at this level, the tests become more involved.


I spend a lot of time trying out studio ideas, and for the studio, I have a definite preference for the Autocord, Yashica Mat 124, and Pentax 645. It’s hard to beat medium format for studio shots. Among AF cameras, the later Maxxums (7, 9, and 7D) are much better in low light than earlier models, so they are preferred when doing 35mm.

For flower photography, I definitely prefer AF cameras with spot metering when doing general garden shots, but love the Pentax for art-type images. All the color emulsions render reds appropriately using any Maxxum with spot metering—except for Ektar. I may switch to Portra 160 for red flowers to avoid having to remember to use negative EC. The Hi-matic 7sII and Freedom 160 have stolen my heart for everyday shooting, around town, or traveling. With a 35-70mm lens, the Maxxum 5 and Maxxum 70 are great cameras for travel or a stroll, but the 7sII and Freedom 160 make me pause and consider whether an SLR is really necessary.

Coral Angelonia, Maxxum 7D, 100mm 2.8 Macro

For VMLP reviews, I have had to streamline my approach. Until now, my practice has been to do gear evaluations while capturing images for the reviews. Using this kill-many-birds-with-one-stone approach required a lot of planning and time, and I usually ended up with results that left out something significant. Looking back, I realize I crammed too many goals into the same shooting session.

From now on, I will use two test phases: a technical review and a usability/ergonomics evaluation. For lens testing, I will consider sharpness at multiple focal lengths and apertures, distortion, weight, and size in the technical phase. Then, once the technical review is done, move on to planning shots and looking at color rendition, ergonomics in the field, flare, and ease of focusing under normal conditions. The technical review could be done in a studio using standard test subjects and a lightbox to control conditions.

For cameras, the approach would mirror that for lenses. The technical phase (e.g., metering accuracy, exposure modes, focus modes, focus aids, loading film/unloading film) would be studio-based. Field tests would then focus on ease of use under usual shooting conditions, battery life, viewfinder ergonomics, and shooting modes (e.g., macro, portrait).

If an emulsion is the review target, studio evaluation would include response to light temp, grain, sharpness, and color/gray capture. Field tests would then evaluate how it renders for my intended subjects. For example, Portra is more pastel, Fuji more green, Lomo more saturated, Ultramax neutral, and Ektar blasts reds.

For VMLP reviews, I will now choose a camera and two lenses each month. I can plan and complete review evaluations in predictable chunks using the same subjects and conditions using this approach. Hopefully, this approach will make the review process more predictable and efficient.

Regarding emulsions, I have shot more color than B&W. Here, Ektar is my favorite for flowers because of sharpness and saturation, but red flowers are a challenge because of how Ektar blasts red. Portra, I like a lot, and it is my second choice for flowers, especially in medium format. Fuji 200 and 400 Superia, I have, but will not buy more. However, I will continue using Fuji 100 12-exposure rolls to test ideas and gear. I have yet to try ProImage 100, Fuji ProH 400, and CineStill 50D, which are waiting in the freezer. Ultramax is good, and if it were sharper would move up the preference list. As it stands, it’s great for a stroll.

Of B&W emulsions, I have Ilford Pan F 50, FP4+ 125, Kentmere 100 and 400, T-Max 100 and 400, Delta 100 and 400, Kodak Double X, and Lomo Potsdam and Berlin to try, and now that I have managed to deal with Tri-X’s curliness, it is back in the mix. I have 12-exposure rolls of T-Max 100 and Ultrafine 100 and 400 for testing, and since the Ultrafine cannot be replaced, I have bought Kentmere 100 and 400 to try out. I hope FP4+ or Pan F 50 will be good studio films for fine-grain art photos. The cine films, Potsdam, Berlin and Double X, are just for fun.

If all of the above sounds like a bit much for a hobby, I agree—it is. However, along with drawing (and maybe painting), photography is moving beyond being a hobby. And it is that unexpected transition that has decreased my post frequency over the last few months while I got my act together and figured out what I wanted to accomplish. After repeatedly getting to a point where I asked myself why I was doing “X,” it became clear that I was pursuing three goals: fine art photography, drawing, and the VMLP—none of which was the reason I bought that first camera.

I’m having to learn to be more focused in my efforts, and determining my preferred tools is a required first step. Is anyone else dealing with this issue—realizing that a hobby is becoming something more?

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