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Lord Howe Island: Mamiya 7 Film Photography

I’ve been wanting to visit Lord Howe Island for quite a while. Only a few hours from Sydney, it’s a true paradise. I recall reading an interview with someone who had travelled to every country in the world. Their favourite place of all? You guessed it, Lord Howe.

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We were lucky enough to stay at Pinetrees Lodge, voted by Tripadvisor as the number one hotel in Australia. It’s not hard to see why when you arrive, given the wonderful food and service on offer. It’s on another level. Of course, the epic surroundings help, and they’re easy to find.

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I took the trip in the middle of a gear conundrum. When my Sigma DP-1 died, I finally decided to jump into a P-series Phase One system. I’ve been lusting after a Phase One for as long as I can remember, but never quite had the funds. Funnily enough, I soon as I started to use it I knew it wasn’t for me. I think I expected to point and shoot and only get magic in return. The results were great, but given the size and bulk of the system, the dual batteries, the cumbersome AF and glitches, I couldn’t do it.

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Impressed by the results I was getting from the Mamiya RB67 and looking at the work of Patrick Wack, I decided to go all-in with film and purchase a Mamiya 7 with 65mm f4 lens. It wasn’t cheap, but it’d done my homework and subsequently decided ‘this is the camera that will make my work great!’.

Many people call the Mamiya 7 the best camera ever made. Using one, it’s easy to see why. They’re just naturally fun (and easy) to use. There is little clutter to get in the way of process. It really helps you get on with the job. It’s also beautifully designed and feels great in the hand. I used Porta 400 exclusively, running through about a roll a day for the half-week we were there. I was having a blast on the island using the Mamiya. It seemed like this would be ‘the one’, even if it was a bit nerve-wracking getting the film through the airport.

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The results, as you can see, are fine. The 6x7 format works, the tones are wonderful and it gives a real, soft sense of the island. So, why did I sell the Mamiya when I returned home? I was excited to get the files back when I got back. I processed the whole lot in about an hour, but every time I zoomed in I was disappointed. The edges weren’t as sharp as I was expecting, the grain was more prominent… It sounds ridiculous, but I missed that clinical cleanliness of my digital files and the latitude for post-processing. The expense of processing and developing also played a factor (around $5 a shot AUD), so I made the hard decision to give the Mamiya up. I still have my RB67 to personal work, preferring its ability to focus closely over the 7 as better suited to portraits.

If you are considering a Mamiya 7, I’d go for the Mamiya 6 instead, which is more or less the same thing but with a square 6x6 format and a hell of a lot less in terms of cost. There are only a couple of lenses for the Mamiya 6, but I think this is actually an upside in many ways. Many 6 owners have the full set. Either way, there are both wonderful cameras and probably the pinnacle of rangefinders. If film is your thing, you’d be hard-pressed to find better. For me, it’s back to Sigma.

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As for Lord Howe itself, I’d love to return. It’s hard to beat a BBQ by the beach, Mt Gower looking on, pristine water ahead with barely a soul around. Then again, I’m pleased it remains a hidden secret of sorts.

While I got around to most of the island’s iconic locations, including the hike up Mt Gower, I never got to the one I wanted to see most: Ball’s Pyramid. This giant sea stack alluded me all trip. I could see it out there on the horizon but could never get close enough given the conditions. There was not a boat on the island willing to go out. I even tried to charter a plane, to no avail. But as the hotel staffer told me, ‘You have to leave something to come back for, right?’. Hopefully next time I’ll get to see it up close and add it to my Icons series. Time to get saving again then, I guess…

Some more images for you:

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Landscape Photography In The Warrumbungles: A Year With The Sigma DP1 Quattro

I recently spent a weekend in the Warrumbungle region, which apart from having the greatest name ever for a national park, is also ripe with photographic opportunity. We stayed at Coonabarabran, roughly a half hour from the Warrumbungle National Park. Coona itself is five hours from Sydney, so not too bad in the scheme of things. This trip also marked my Sigma DP1’s first birthday, but we’ll get to that later.

The big draw is the Grand High Tops circuit, a roughly four-hour loop that takes in all the famous peaks the park has to offer. The rock formations themselves are remnants of an eroded volcano active 13-17 million years ago. The volcano itself was estimated to be 1km high and 50km wide, so rather large. Standing up there, you can certainly picture it.

The Grand High Tops walk is impeccably maintained. There’s a paved track for a fair heft of the way, new staircases and plenty of rest areas. It’s far from the bush track it used to be. Even the camping facilities down the bottom are first rate. Just make sure you remember where you parked your car…

About 15min into the walk I realised I was going to get some serious blisters trying to break a new pair of boots in, but I pushed on. Suffice to say, make sure you’re prepared with not only proper footwear, but water, food and warm clothing, as it gets quite cold after sunset.

I didn’t realise that the region is dubbed the ‘astronomy capital of Australia’, but at night it soon became clear why. I have never seen so many stars so vibrant in the sky. The Sigma, with its lack of high ISO prowess, doesn’t do astrophotography, but if you have a camera that does, you’re in for a treat.

The main attraction in the Warrumbungles is the famous Breadknife, a thin (surprisingly thin) blade of rock that juts from the earth like something out of Jurassic Park. Rock-climbing is prohibited, but if you’re a crag fiend, fear not. There are plenty of other peaks to scale.

We headed up for sunset the first day where I shot the Breadknife from the top lookout, leaving Coonabarabran the following morning at 2:30am to catch sunrise back at the Knife at 5:30am. A word to the wise, camp at Balor Hut and save yourself the hiking.

Sunrise gifts you with golden light smacking the side of the Breadknife, but you have to be careful, as during certain times of the year the sun is blocked by Belogery spire to the right. I wasn’t aware of this, the sun only making it through by metres, enough to light half of the rock during the best light directly after sunrise. I don’t mind the look, however, as it provides shape to the dome in the background.

At the top lookout you can turn in any direction and find a mighty peak. Here’s Crater Bluff, an imposing peak that looks ripe for climbing. It was lit with the most magical light during sunset, but I wanted a comp a little out of norm. The result is actually my favourite image from the trip.

While the Grand High Tops is great, there are so many other peaks around the area that seemingly go missed, such as Timor Rock right next to the road. One morning we waited for sunrise and drove madly shooting all the peaks we could in the good light. Although the bushfires a few years ago were terrible, what they have done is remove the vegetation from many of these peaks, giving them an alien, spiny look. The lack of trees really allowed you to see the shapes and structures of the peaks unhindered. The new growth coming through is also photogenic in its own right.

Often I find the journey to a destination is just as interesting as the destination itself. The ‘Golden Highway’ is alive with expanse fields and rolling hills, but I was particularly drawn to abandoned structures, such as the motel and train station below in Dunedoo. I took these images handheld and they are perhaps the least processed of any of the shots I took during the trip.

A perfect stop on the way back to Sydney is Lake Windamere with its haunting trees. I could resist a quick long exposure (read: 30sec).

So, what are my thoughts on the Sigma DP1 Quattro after a year then? It truly has been a game-changer for me, putting me much closer to the kind of images I want to take. The detail and dimensionality continue to blow me away, but it is not without its faults. My biggest gripe is dynamic range, especially when the Sony sensors offer so much. I’m hopeful the new SD-H might address this, and a few other issues, such as a viewfinder and exposures longer than 30sec. It will be interesting to see how it compares.

Perhaps the greatest part of travelling with the DP1 has been its portability. It really is a pocket camera, taking up barely any room in my bag but delivering files that rival medium-format. Given its lack of high ISO usability, average screen and so on, it’s very much what I imagine using an older Phase One P25 would be like. I’d love to do a side-by-side some time.

People still look perplexed when I pull the DP1. Sitting next to a Mamiya RB67 on my shelf here it looks very, very small indeed. Honestly, I don’t think fellow photographers take it very seriously at all. Their loss, I say.

As for the Warrumbungles, get there ASAP if you can. The walks are super-accessible and I dare say the view from the top of the Grand High Tops is one of the best in the whole country. It’s ancient, mysterious and complete cat-nip for photographers. Go and see why.