Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Nikon F4 and Canon EOS-1 Rodeo Shoot-out!

If you’re a regular follower of the tv programme ‘The Middle’ you’ll be familiar with “The year of Sue”. In homage to my family’s favourite show, I hereby dub 2017 to be “The year of Film” :-)

It started with a hiss and a roar when I was given a Pentax SV, Nikon F4 and Bronica ETRS, got even better when a Canon EOS 1 came my way, and has been topped off recently with 15 rolls of Rollei Retro 100 film that I ‘acquired’ for free! If that doesn’t make 2017 the ‘Year of Film’, then I don’t know what does? And I have a strange feeling it isn’t over yet…

Bull Riding, Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L', Rollei Retro 100 film
To celebrate this film windfall, I decided to take the F4 and EOS 1 to a Rodeo being held in Reefton, a small town an hour away from where I live. It’s been a few years since I last went, so I was very keen to go again – with a couple of film cameras and a bag full of film! The Nikon F4 came with a Nikkor 70-210mm f4/5.6 push-pull style zoom (a nice solid lens), while the Canon only had a 35-70mm EF lens. Since the EOS 1 can take any Canon EF lens, I asked a friend if I could borrow her 70-200mm f2.8 zoom (thanks Nicki), so that both systems would be somewhat comparable (although this didn’t turn out to be the case, as we shall see).

My first mistake was with film choice. I knew the weather was going to be great (full sun and a high of 27), so I decided that the Rollei film was all I would need. Then, at the last minute, I added a couple of rolls of Fuji Reala colour film, also ISO 100. Bad idea – at least as far as using the F4 was concerned. ISO 100, even in full sun, was just too slow with the lens zoomed out to 210mm with f5.6 as its widest aperture. At best I was getting 1/125th sec shutter speeds, and at worst 1/60th sec if the sun went behind a cloud. Not fast enough to freeze any of the action.

Nikon F4 with Nikkor 70-210mm f4/5.6. Rollei Retro 100 film
Of course, with the 70-200mm f2.8 attached to the Canon I had no such problems. Even at ISO 100 I was able to shoot at 1/500th and sometimes up to 1/1000th – plenty fast enough. The f2.8 aperture also gave the added bonus of blurring the background more and isolating the subject. So first lesson re-learnt when using film; always carry a variety of ISO films so you can increase your shutter speed. And on a side note – beg, steal, borrow (or buy) the fastest lens you can, especially when shooting sports. It really does make a difference.

Fast glass also makes a difference in the one area that seperates the two cameras the most; the autofocus systems. The Canon already has the upper hand over the Nikon in terms of autofocus speed and reliability, and this was only exacerbated with the f2.8 Canon vs f5.6 Nikon. There is no doubt that the EOS-1 locked focus quicker than the F4, although the Canon would still hunt for focus every now and then. I spent the day shooting through a wire fence, where again, the larger f2.8 aperture helped to completely blur the wire so it wasn’t apparent in the image.

Rough Ride, Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100
Both cameras are capable of fast frame rates (2.5 fps for the Canon EOS-1 and 4fps for the Nikon F4 – although both can do over 5fps with their grips attached), but I’m really not that keen to burn through a whole roll of film in under 6 seconds! So I had both cameras set on single shot and single focus (not continuous/servo focus or high speed shooting), which I figured would put them on a more even playing field? And yes, the Canon is noticeably faster, although probably no more accurate than the F4.

At the beginning of the day, I had hoped I would be comparing apples with apples – but because of the lenses I had, and the fact that the slow film put the F4 at an immediate disadvantage, this was never going to be a ‘fair’ fight. All my images shot with the F4 are unusable. Not because the F4 is no good at focusing – I just put the wrong film in it. ISO 400 would have levelled the playing field, or better still 400 pushed to 800. And yet, having said that, the lenses themselves also had a major part to play in the responsiveness of both cameras. There is no doubt that the ultrasonic motor in the 70-200mm f2.8 is vastly superior/quicker/smoother/quieter than the screw-driven system of the F4. It was clear at the time they were developed, and it’s still clear now.

Cowboy - Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'.
At the end of the Rodeo, I had used the Canon EOS-1 twice as much as the Nikon F4. So the Canon is the ‘better’ camera then? Well, I’m not quite sure I’d go that far. If I had ISO 400/800 film in the Nikon, and/or a faster f2.8 lens attached, then maybe things would have felt different? Canon’s EF autofocus system is still clearly better, but Nikon’s is definitely useable, especially at something like a rodeo where things aren’t moving at a hundred miles an hour.

In terms of usability, there are also wins and losses in both camps. I prefer the viewfinder on the F4, it feels larger and brighter than the EOS-1, and has an analogue readout interface that I like. But I prefer the automatic rewind and faster film change with the Canon. There’s no fiddling about with the dials, buttons and film chambers required on the F4 – it’s just a simple latch, film in, and away you go.

Something else I realised only at the end of the day had to do with using the F4 in aperture priority mode. All the cameras I’ve used for the last 15 years have controlled the aperture electronically, and if you are using a variable aperture zoom lens, this is controlled by the camera. But with the F4, you set the aperture manually on the lens (in aperture priority mode). So I zoomed the lens out to its full 210mm and set the aperture to f4. Simple. Except I realised much later (that night in fact), that the 70-210mm Nikkor is a variable aperture zoom that is f5.6 at 210mm. But I had the aperture set constantly on f4! So I guess I overexposed all the images by one stop? Not a big deal with negative film that has a greater exposure latitude. But also something that wouldn’t happen with the EOS-1 since the camera would take account of variable aperture information automatically. Another reason to shoot with constant aperture lenses I suppose?

Barrel Racing - Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100
I’ve been shooting for over 30 years, but I feel like a newbie again with a couple of classic film mistakes. Technology really has spoilt us as photographers and it gets easier every year to take ‘technically good’ photos. I know how important ISO is for regulating shutter speeds if you use aperture priority, and I know about variable aperture zooms. But I didn’t even give it a second thought, because I’m so used to my cameras taking care of it all for me. Despite the newbie mistakes, I am really enjoying shooting film. Let’s face it, the F4 and EOS 1 are amazing cameras that I could only dream of owning (and dream I did) in my 20s. To now own both of them is, quite literally, a dream come true.

Off and Racing - Reefton Rodeo. Canon EOS 1 with 70-200mm f2.8 'L'. Rollei Retro 100 film

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