From Estonia With Love - Part Two

And we continue with part two of our From Estonia with Love interview, with world travellers Margus and Kariina.
Be sure to read Part one of the interview here

(Click any image to view at higher quality - All photos copyright Margus Sootla)

So Margus, you do the bulk of the photography. You’re shooting with several cameras; you have a pretty serious medium format Pentax shooting film, a compact camera and a couple of video cameras as well.

Let start with the compact cameras - you’ve been through several!
You started with a simple Canon PowerShot A710is - Lost it to pickpockets in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Then you upgraded to Canon PowerShot G11 in jakarta. 

Now the G11 is an advanced compact camera - you can manually adjust all the settings. I noticed that your "snapshots" got a lot better after you bought the G11 - Did having a more capable camera encourage you to try harder with your digital photos?

Yeah, it is true that a good camera encourages you to try harder. This was the reason why we bought the G11. I've been used to using our medium format film kit from our 3-4 week holiday trips with excellent results, so in the beginning of our round-the-world expedition we obviously put a lot of focus on our film gear. All the best scenes and shots were on film, so the digital photos suffered. But later in our travels we started shooting more digital when I discovered the sad truth that when I can't scan my own film myself I never get the results I expect. I was sending batches of film home to Estonia to be developed and scanned by my friend, but...

In fact I kind of feel sad that I can't develop b&w and scan my own film on the road. You cannot fit a film tank, the chemistry and a proper scanner on the bike. So this fact demoralized me enough to start putting more effort into shooting digital while on the long-term trip - getting a better camera was a good start and this is where G11 came in.

The thing with travelling and shooting film is that there are some critical things that can go wrong - like the film rolls can get lost or damaged by x-ray scanners or plain stupid customs officials while being sent by mail - one of the batches that we've sent back home, one roll had obviously been opened and exposed to light while in transit! Sometimes something goes wrong with the processing, we lost a few rolls of potentially fantastic material from Baja, when the developing machine leaked some chemical. It is good to have a back-up digital camera, no matter how much we love our analog.

(Don't forget to click the images for higher resolution!)

Something happened to the G11?
Somewhere in UAE our G11 got a big nasty dust or condensation spot on the lens that was visible on almost on each shot.

Ah right, I remember that you replaced it with a Sigma DP2.
Now normally there is not a huge difference in the look of the images from compact to compact. But the Sigma is a bit of an oddball - what is it about that camera that makes the images so different?

Well, the G11 had been like a "stepping stone" for us in terms of feedback on the photos we got on the ADVrider forum, so we decided that it was time to upgrade to even better gear. After a lot of research this is where Sigma DP2s came into our game to be as our main photographic tool.

It has a prime lens fixed on "normal" length (around 45mm equivalent on fullframe) so I must get pretty close to get a good portrait. But I've now found it's rather an advantage compared to a zoom, since you first need to get make contact with the person to make a well set up portrait rather than gambling with the unpredictable scene from a far distance with a zoom lens.

The interesting thing about prime ("fixed") lenses I've found is that they really motivate you to play with composition of the picture, actively - from all sorts of angles and distances to find the best composition, not just lazily standing in one spot and trying to find good framing by zooming.

I've now found DP2s has made me a lot better photographer searching for the light, scene and composition - I guess being "limited" with a fixed lens and a very focused purpose camera naturally makes you think more about the picture so the fixed lens has actually been a pro for me. "Back to basics" thing I guess.

Also the actual 4.6 megapixel images it creates kicks our 10 megapixel Canon G11 images out of the water in terms of detail and tonal information. Working with Foveon images really makes you think about the bigger is better megapixel myth - the Foveon images contain REAL usable data. Every single pixel of the image contains real useful information - it's something I've never seen on any digital or even on film scans.

That being said, I would NOT recommend Sigma DP cameras to beginners, they're "photographer's compacts" - not your regular point-and-shoot so you need to know the basics of photography. But if you know your way around a camera they're bloody good to shoot with, I'd say phenomenal considering how compact they are!

There are minuses on the Sigma of course: slow operation, not so good high ISO, regular video only, crappy LCD and the list goes on, but when I look at the images on my computer I'm constantly amazed how good they are without any adjustments. Every pixel getting full 100% color information really makes difference,

OK, on to the “big guns”. You are the only motorcycle travellers I’ve ever heard of who travel with a medium format 6x7 film camera! And this Pentax is a bit unusual too - it shoots just like an SLR, you look through a viewfinder on the back of the camera. What made you decide to haul this massive camera around the world? Did you use this camera before the trip?

(Pentax 67 photo to show scale. Photo by ►g, [Not Margus!] via Flickr)
faraona al forno con patate

Yes, an analog camera has always travelled with us, near or far!

I'm a young guy who actually switched from digital to film, but the camera is a Pentax 67 medium format.  For lenses I have a 35mm f4.5 fisheye, 105mm f2.4 normal and 200mm f4 portrait. I used to carry a 400mm f4, but it was utterly heavy at 4kg and not being used as often as I’d thought, so I sent it back. 

I think the Pentax 67 is bomb-proof, solid metal and it's taken all the abuse of motorcycle adventure travel. That's why I went Pentax instead of Rollei, Hasselblad or Bronica. Although excellent cameras they are modular systems with too many "loose" parts. 

I wouldn't recommend medium format gear to anyone who's not pervy about film photography - it's a bulk of massive gear, not a single function is automatic. But if you are used to shooting in full manual mode and have learned the skills to shoot, develop and scan, the results can be straight-out National Geographic.

OK, lets put this in perspective: the image sensor on most compact camera is about the size of your smallest fingernail. The high-end digital camera sensors are about the same size as a 35mm film slide. Your Pentax shoots film that six-by-seven cm - That’s a huge difference!
What does this massive imaging area do for your photographs?

For me, high resolution is not the thing I’m looking for, it’s the aspect of a large sensor combined with an equivalent lens - there's pure physics behind that combination that you cannot alter. Even the latest high-end full-frame digital SLR cannot reproduce the effect you get shooting medium format.

For example. on my Pentax 67, the film is 5 times the size of a full-frame digital camera sensor!
Now a “normal” focal length on a full-frame SLR is 50mm, but on a medium format camera a "normal" focal length is 105mm. That means you have a depth of field as shallow as you get with 105mm telephoto-lens on a full-frame SLR, but you still have a "normal" angle of view.

OK I get it, cool! Like how telephoto lenses are known for being able to drop the background way out of focus, you get that same effect with a wider field of view.

Yes, the same applies to all focal lengths, you can even get a shallow depth of field shooting with fisheye lens!

So, the bottom line is: sensor size  - or imaging area actually - 
does matter. It is no wonder why National Geographic and many fine-art photographers still shoot medium and large format film.

(gotta see these photos full-size to appreciate, clickity click!)

But aren’t there “digital backs” you can get for film cameras?

There are some $20 000+ digital kits that are near to a proper medium-format, but the astronomical cost still means using film for photographers and serious hobbyists like me.

I’ve noticed that you really started photographing people once you were well into the trip, going through East-Timor you had many more people photos. Did it take a while to get comfortable with that, photographing the locals?

I think why there were not too many pictures of people before we got to East-Timor, besides that we maybe weren't too comfortable with photographing people, is that we had mainly been travelling through Western countries and the faces just did not inspire us that much. But it isn't all that simple even when you're into it. It really depends on the person and the environment. You just have to go by the feeling, although sometimes you also have to push your inner limits. Like, how do you ask a topless tribal lady if you can take a picture of her?

You mentioned that being obviously foreign and arriving on a big bike was a great ice-breaker. But do you find that people different of different areas of cultures react differently to being photographed, How about kids vs adults?

People of different backgrounds do react differently, that is for sure. People of the developed world, are better informed and more concious of modern technology and cameras, and for them it is an everyday thing to take photos, be photographed, and to upload the sexiest shots to Facebook. But when it comes to the third world, it is a whole different story. I think most of the people we have come to photograph do not have any photos of themselves, and for them it is a thing out-of-this-world to see a picture of themselves on the LCD! The people of the Hamer tribe in Africa were totally excited of seeing the reflection of their face in our bike's mirror, but that's a whole different story.

Many people are understandably mistrustful towards having a picture taken of them just because it is a new thing for them, but very often also for social reasons, or reasons associated to their beliefs. A woman of Islam, for example, is required to keep low profile, and having a picture taken of herself could mean that she is vain. Or if the photo is being taken by a man - even worse. This is why in Islamic countries it is often I who has to take pictures of women, if at all possible. Men are much more relaxed and liberal, but not all like their photo taken. 

Some people believe that if you take a photo of them, it takes away a part of their soul. In any case, it is wise to respect their choice so that everyone is happy. The kids are an interesting bunch - sceptical at first, but if you somehow catch them onto a picture, they will come begging for more after you've shown them the photo. Sometimes I feel they could pose for hours and not get tired of it - it is like a game for them.

But about the bike it is very true - I do not know what it is exactly that works magic, but as you roll into a random village in a third world country, you've got all the attention. You'd be surprised how fast and how big a crowd can gather. Not all places are alike, of course - in Pakistan, for example, people would first contemplate you from the distance and let you make the first contact. It seems pretty universal for places where not many tourists go, especially on a huge bike like this. But deep down inside every male on this planet seems to want to know "how fast can it go", or "how many kilometers per liter", and before you know you've got a whole lot of people asking questions - in their own language, of course! - and touching every imaginable lever and button on the bike. Once things are that far they don't mind a picture being taken. And the more, the better!

That said, the sad truth is that due to the language barrier it is often impossible to get much deeper.

So are you spending lots of time off the bike to take photographs?

Not really. I guess I'm now well accustomed to the conditions I shoot in. Even when I’m shooting medium format and using a light-meter I need only a couple of seconds to get the settings and composition right. Waiting for the right moment - moving of clouds, the right expression, the right movement etc. - can take time though. I remember it used to take me ages in the beginning to set up the shot. I guess it's all experience and practice.

And are you Paying attention to time of day - the good light - or do you take whatever the road throws at you?

It's obviously "what ever road throws at me" in most cases, though we sometimes take time or get up early to get the best light. Travelling most of time in areas near the equator means for most of the day, the light conditions are terrible.

Sure, short sunrises and sunsets, most of the day is high, harsh sunlight. 
OK, about resupplying, I imagine it’s difficult to come by medium format film in... Djibouti for example.
You must be carrying a ton of film! How much space does your film take?

I've stocked up only four of times during our two and a half year trip. Mostly I order them from a web shop or get fresh medium format film from big cities like New York or Bangkok.
I carry 20-40 film rolls with me which is good for a couple of months of travelling or more.

Kariina: I'd say the film rolls take up some two litres of space in our panniers.

Margus: With the amount of film I carry, it gives me 200-400 pictures and that's for months. I almost never shoot two shots from one place. This is what I love about the film - you have to plan your each shot and you rarely make mistakes shooting film with fully manual gear. 90% of the shots I take with my film camera are satisfactory.Usually I have only around 1 shot per roll that I'm not happy with. 10 shots to a roll by the way. In comparison with digital I have some 60-80% success rate on all the shots since I know I can make mistakes. I hate this about nowadays digital photography - you don't take planning seriously anymore and it's a mess to choose between two or three or four pictures from the same spot - and in the end of the day none of them are as good as if I had well planned the entire single shot like I would with film gear. 

How do you go about getting your MF film developed ? Is it all mailed back home, or is some done locally too? How have you found the quality of processing ?

I send them back to Estonia where my friend develops and scans them with a simple flatbed scanner and sends me low resolution JPEGs back through internet. I get close the needed results with b&w films, sufficent enough colour pictures for web use, but with colour films, I definitely have to re-scan them with a dedicated film scanner once I return home, those I'll print later.

Like I said before - I'm not in control of scanning adjustments and I find it to be a huge limitation.
I shoot the pic with my film camera already with the scanning idea in mind . But if someone else does the scanning for you and doesn't know the shooting conditions, it'll be compromised on scanning and the results do not meet the well chosen light and color conditions.

You go easy on the digital photo editing, there’s a good natural feel to the photographs.
What adjustments do you make in post-processing?

For basic editing I use Adobe Photoshop CS. I don't expect miracles out of my Photoshop adjustments and edits - I focus more on taking a good picture rather than editing it later.
Before importing to Photoshop I'm doing RAW development by using Sigma Photo Pro 4.2 on mac. Sigma Photo Pro together with Sigma three-layer X3 RAW files is very good software to work with in terms of color and overall professional "feel" of the developed images. Also the unique "X3 Fill Light" function makes often wonders if you play around it with contrasts and exposure - if you've gotten the shot right, developed it properly in Sigma Photo Pro then there's often nothing more to edit in Photoshop for me.

Still more to come! Part three of From Estonia With Love will be here soon...

In the meantime, keep an eye on Margus and Kariina's progress here.
They are currently in Angola, beyond the reach of the internet, but we are hoping to hear from them soon!

8 Response to "From Estonia With Love - Part Two"

  1. Dwain Deville Says:

    Fantastic...just fantastic. Keep em coming!!!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I agree with the last comment: fantastic. Simply beautiful.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    What seems incredible to me about the foveon shots is that the sky consistently looks dark and polarized. I know you can deepen things by dropping the exposure, or tomfoolery with graduated filters in post, but I don't think Margus is doing any of this. It seems to be part of the foveon "look".

    Thanks for the great piece, looking forward to part 3.
    - shaweetz

  4. Unknown Says:

    Great interview, I have been following them on ADV for a while, I have an interest in Africa since I was born there and lived in Africa till I was 23. They do take beautiful photos and I love the videos and sounds they post on ADV.

    George F

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Great interview. Thanks! I am interested in which film scanner Margus uses back home for his MF scans.

  6. Anthony - Motojournalism Says:

    Hmm, I scanned through the ride report, but I don't think he mentions what model of scanner he (or his friend back in Estonia) uses. If you ask him in the ADVrider ride report, I'm sure he'll let you know!

  7. Anonymous Says:

    you r are one amazing photographer and rider...I posted a link to your blog on our blog! Congrats!

  8. Ruang Tamu Warna Cokelat Says:

    Great interview, I have been following them on ADV for a while, I have an interest in Africa since I was born there and lived in Africa till I was 23. They do take beautiful photos and I love the videos and sounds they post on ADV.

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