Scanning my way through a bunch of my parents old negatives I came across a couple of curious but dreadful shots. They were a pair of scuffed and fuzzy shots of a tv screen. They were taken on a 126 camera, so no choice of shutter speed or focus and the aperture probably fixed around f8. Hardly worth a second glance. Except they were of the first moon landing. My mum had taken pictures of the launch of the lander top section at the end of the mission, on its way to meet up with the command module. So the pictures are low quality snaps of low-key video on an old mono tv. And they are wonderful.
I was young at the time, but I remember how excited my mum was by the landing and mission. So I have something that reminds me of both a momentous event and my mum’s enthusiasm. Who cares about technical perfection?
It’s the same with old family photographs: sharp, well-framed or well exposed are immaterial. There are pictures of my dad doing his national service, my granny in her nurse’s uniform, great grandparents and all the cousins of various degree. The key thing is not whether the picture is any good, but if you can name who is in it. Old prints are good if a kind relative has written on the back. Negatives are more difficult. The best thing I have found is to scan them or even photograph and invert them, then put them on your phone. Any family gathering is the chance to ask about the pictures. Why bother? Because family trees can send branches in all directions. One of ours went to America and became (a former) president. He was a cousin (probably not a first cousin) to my grandad. They actually looked alike, too. Not that I supported either of their politics.
So I think the conclusion is that I could have wasted my time and money on cameras and lenses when all I really needed was snaps of family and friends. Really? No – I have more and better pictures of the people who matter, so at least some of the investment was returned with interest. Pictures of people or special events are treasure.
I suppose I’d better print them and write names on the back for my own kids.
This is one of them.
Tell me you were looking at the tonal rendition and bokeh…
“I’m going to run a film through it to test it” is what people say. But what do they do? If you stumble across the apocryphal 50p Leica or Nikon in a flea market or charity shop, how do you even know it works?
The first thing, even before putting film in it, is to check that the shutter works. Always wind-on the camera before changing shutter speeds. You really only need to do this with Russian and some other old cameras, but it is a good habit to get into. Teach your hands the habit and you might avoid breaking something in future.
With focal plane shutters, you are looking for both curtains to move smoothly without binding. When you wind-on the camera, the gap between the shutter curtains or blades should be closed as the shutter is re-cocked. The different shutter speeds should sound different. It is not unusual for the slower speeds to either not work or to be much slower than they should be. Your decision – it might free-up with use, you could pay to get the camera serviced, or you avoid using the slow speeds.
With leaf shutters, the ones that are built into the lens, you can listen to check that the speeds sound different. The slower speeds on old cameras can often be either very slow or frozen. Again, they might loosen-up in use or you could avoid using the slow speeds. Don’t bother trying the self-timer. It has probably never been used and will stick part-way through its run. If it does you will have to try persuading it to finish so that you get control of the lens back.
What shape are the light seals in? If they are sticky, broken or absent, it’s pretty straightforward to replace them.
Does the camera back (or base for that old Leica) fit properly? If not, the camera may have been dropped. Check the lens mounting at the front as well, this might get damaged if the camera was dropped.
Take a look through the front of the camera with the lens off as you work the shutter. Do the internal bits all move as they should? Does the mirror on an SLR swing up and return? Does the aperture-closing plate on a screw-mount SLR swing forward and back? Take another look at the shutter – can you see any wrinkles, bald spots or holes?
Take a squint through the lens. Threads of fungus needn’t be the end of the world: some lenses are simple enough to clean yourself and some can be serviced. Or plan to throw the lens away. Lenses can also be cloudy, scratched, dusty or have the glued elements separating. However bad it is, at least try shooting through it to see what sort of effect you get.
Put the lens on and try focusing the camera. Does it focus at about the right distance? You can recalibrate the rangefinder on many rangefinder cameras, but I don’t know how you would fix an SLR that didn’t focus correctly (unless it’s due to having the wrong lens on it).
If it has a lens, does it focus smoothly and does the aperture close-down properly? Many SLRs have a method of closing the aperture down to the set value at just the point you press the shutter. Does this work? Does the lens close-down to the same size of hole each time? Does it open up immediately again? Sleepy apertures are a common problem with old lenses. You can pay to have it serviced or put up with it and shoot with a pre-closed aperture. Or throw the lens away and keep the camera body.
So – all that before you put a film through it. If the camera passes these basic tests then it might work. Now put the film through it.
Try to shoot at all the workable shutter speeds. Shoot stuff at infinity and close up. Shoot some close-ups with the subject in only part of the frame, so you get plenty of out-of-focus background. Make it really obvious in the close-ups where the point of focus was or shoot a ruler or a long fence. Take some shots into the light. At least one interior is useful, with bright windows and lots of stuff in the shadows.
When you get to see the results, the first things to look for are that the frames are about the same density and are evenly spaced. Even density means the camera was exposing correctly at different shutter speeds and that the lens aperture is closing correctly. Even spacing means the mechanical windy-on bits are working. You can also check the film for scratches.
Did the camera focus correctly close-up? There are ways of calibrating some rangefinders to fix this, but it would be an unusual fault in an SLR. The out of focus background in some shots will give you a sense of whether you like the lens or not. Some will give a sharp subject on a smooth background while others will make the out of focus areas look busy and distracting.
Shooting into the light will give you a sense of how well the lens resists flare. For the interior shots with bright windows, look at any halo around the bright spots and whether there is detail in the shadows or it is hidden by flare. You can improve things with a good lens hood or just call it character.
So there you have it: you now have a fair idea of how well the camera works and if there are any dodgy settings to avoid. Which might be why it was in the charity shop in the first place.
You know how it is – a full moon on the horizon looks huge, but it shrinks as it rises. It’s inconsistent too: it keeps changing shape and it moves around the sky. So how do you get those Hernandez shots with a perfect moon in the perfect place?
With Photoshop or Gimp it’s easy enough to combine a moon shot with a foreground, but you can do the same thing with film too.
I got the idea years ago; from someone else, obviously. I was reading something from a photographer whose name I am afraid I have forgotten. He was off on honeymoon and planned to shoot landscapes to cover some of his costs. To make them special he shot one roll of film with full moons to double expose them later. But let’s get to the method…
The idea is to mark and load a roll of film in such a way that you can line it up to shoot the frames again as double exposures.
The first thing to do is to mark the inside of your camera. Load a film, keep the back open and make sure the film is lying flat and tight and the camera is fully wound on. Mark the film with a pen to match the camera marking. Close the camera, wind on two frames and start work.
Next, you need a moon and a notebook. The idea is to take a full roll of shots, placing the moon in different parts of the frame and at different sizes and noting these plus the frame number.
How do you expose the moon? Easy – it’s in bright sunlight so you could Sunny 16 it on a clear night, although to be more accurate you need to give it an extra stop of exposure using the perfectly named Loony 11 rule. How do you find when the moon is full or crescent? An ephemeris.
Carefully rewind the film, keeping the tail out of the cassette. When you want to use it, reload and line it up with the marks again. Fetch your notebook and look at your notes. Use a polariser, filter or time of day to render the sky dark, or at least darker. Expose and shoot for the foreground.
With luck and a fair wind, you will get big moons in your skies.
Playing with the focal length of the lenses you use for the moon pictures and for the overlay changes the relative sizes and can give you the big moons you wanted. It can also look totally false or you can mess it up completely, but that’s how we learn, right?
I’ve been playing around trying to repair a lovely old Weston light meter (of which more anon). I also have a variety of other old light meters, all of which read slightly differently. I do have one meter that I bought new, but it’s getting to be as old as its owner. So which one is to be the reference standard against which I can test and adjust the rest?
The simple answer would be to buy a new meter. But that’s expensive and, well, easy.
Then I had a stroke of clever. Commercial illumination meters are much cheaper than photographic light meters, but they read in Lux. A quick search online found that there is a Lux to EV conversion (Lux is two to the power of EV times 2.5 – don’t panic: clever people have done the sums already). So I splashed out on a Chinese-made luxmeter for under a tenner delivered.
Amazingly, the intercontinental postal system is up and running again. What I got was a chunky gadget about the size of a TV remote.
The meter can read from 0.1 to 200,000 Lux, which is about -4 to 16 EV. That’s a useful range. My little book of notes tells me that -4 is ‘night away from city lights or subject lit by half-moon’ and 16 is ‘subject in bright daylight on sand or snow’. EV 15 is where the sunny 16 rule applies. So basically this meter could cover everything I am likely to encounter.
My next job then was to build a Lux to EV converter. Now Lux is a logarithmic or exponential scale. We should all be familiar with exponential curves by now but what it means is that while EV 1 is only 5 Lux, EV 13 is 10,240 Lux. The meter handles this fine by switching scales but I was going to need to build a little conversion table on a card. My ideal would be a circular table like you get on an old light meter so that you can dial-up the reading and the ISO and see all the exposure combinations. The straight table to convert Lux to EV at 100 ISO is easy, as is the table that gives the options at different ISO – see lower below. The circular calculator took longer. I had to work out how many layers of disk I needed and what was on each layer. One of the scales also had to progress around the disk in the opposite direction to the others.
After a few attempts I got it right. I took a reading with the luxmeter and converted it to a shutter speed and aperture. I took a reading with my best meter, the Sekonic, at the same place and ISO. And they matched. Result! My Sonic meter is accurate, I have a tool to test the others with and I have a new digital light meter. Go me!
I will get hold of some plastic sheet and see if I can make a better version of my wheel calculator. In the meantime it’s actually easier to print a small card with the Lux to EV conversion on one side and some common starter values for each EV and ISO on the other.
The advantage of using a card is that you can also add a rangefinder to it.
PS I did build a better version of the paper wheel.
Percussive learning in a world of automation is what it says in the subtitle to this blog. What that means is me making mistakes. My old boss used to say “if you think you’re good, you’re not comparing yourself with the right people”. In my case, I think the right people have me well outnumbered. It’s been very humbling to find that stuff I have just learned is well-known to everyone else. So this blog is not instructional – I have no secrets to impart. Where I witter about something technical, try it yourself before assuming I’m right.
But one thing I have learned is that it’s ok to make mistakes. And if you accept that you will make them and that being wrong doesn’t mean you’re stupid, then you get to learn. Learning means thinking about your mistake and working out why you didn’t get what you wanted. Or maybe looking at a picture and asking yourself why you are less than delighted. What would have made it better? Then think about how to do more of that.
This means reflection. It means saying honestly to yourself “I wish this was more…” and then working out what more means. If the definition of madness is repeating something and expecting a different outcome, then reflection is the road to sanity. The aim of reflection is to not repeat the same mistakes. Many of them will be similar, but what you are hoping for is to break things differently each time. Or if not break things, then to hone in on that thing in the picture you want to do more of.
I’d like to introduce you here to another idea – that of reducing variability. Anyone involved in manufacturing will know this inside-out (see above for me being outnumbered). Every process has a natural level of variation. What the manufacturing people strive to do is understand what this natual level is and then reduce it as far as possible. Then, if the output moves outside the expected range, you know that something is wrong.
What I have learned in photography is that my methods need to be precise, so that I can understand why something went wrong or be able to repeat something that went right. Mostly this means consistent exposure and development. I always use a light meter for example. Then, by looking at my results, I learn to understand and use the light meter better. I have been a bit of a tart for different developers in the past but I’m over it now. When I started out I developed just about everything in Aculux. These days it’s Rodinal for its keeping qualities. Like the metering, I always use a thermometer to get my chemicals to the right temperature and I use the same method of development and agitation every time (unless I am deliberately using stand development). So the results are that the negatives should be correctly exposed and consistently developed. Any variations that show up were either a deliberate choice or a mistake.
Anyway – that’s the theory: reduce variability so that it’s easier to understand what happened when the unexpected occurs. And then keep trying new things to see what happens. Break things with deliberate care.
I’ve been scanning a load of my parents’ and grandparents’ old negatives. Amongst all the fuzzy shots of relatives on holiday was one film’s worth of long-term shots taken in my parents’ garden. They were taken by me of a family occasion. I had obviously given both the prints and the negs to my parents so they could make reprints. I’d forgotten all about the pictures and the occasion. But aside from that, I’d forgotten how good a long lens is for pictures of people.
These days I tend to use standard to wide angle lenses. I get environment and context in the shot. But the simple joy of seeing a single figure separated from background, not particularly aware of your presence – it’s great.
It was a sunny Summer day and I was using 200ISO colour negative. I only had two long lenses at the time and it was obvious from the shots that I didn’t use the zoom. So these were shot on a 135mm lens. It was bright sunlight and I know I was shooting with flash, so the fastest shutter speed I could have used is 1/125 which means this lens must have been stopped-down and not wide open. It still blurred the backgound nicely though.
I think this focal length has gone out of fashion: it’s thought to be too long for portraits. One of the photo podcasts described it as a focal length that was invented to let German hill-walkers pick out a detail on the other side of the valley. I guess it would be too long for indoor portraits, but it worked perfectly in my parents’ garden. I’ve even got full-length portraits.
So I’m back in love with the 135. The one I was using at the time was a Pentax – the SMC Takumar f2.5. In the years since the aperture blades have become oily and slow, so I need to send if away for some TLC. But a Vivitar f2.8 came up on eBay at under ten squids and now it is mine.
Back in the old days we used to know that with a 50mm lens on 35mm (or full frame) held portrait, a person would nicely fill the frame at about ten feet. I just did the sums again and the field of view for a 50mm lens on a vertical 35mm frame is two meters at nine feet (ooh, nice mixed metrics – it’s 2m at 2.8m distance).
Slap a 135mm lens on and the distance increases to 24′ (7.4m). So yes, you’re unlikely to be shooting full length portraits indoors. I do like the effect though and it will come in handy with our current distancing and separation.
Down sides? I had obviously not used the Pentax lens much in recent years. Perhaps it really was a bit too long for people and not long enough for sport. I do remember that it was never out of my camera bag at the time. Perhaps then it was just me changing the sort of thing I shot? Maybe I got old and slimmed-down the camera bag?
So it looks like I’ve rediscovered the modest tele lens. Let’s see what I do with it during my government-allowed exercise period.
Just as Edison was reported to have discovered hundreds of ways to not make a light bulb, I have found many ways to make a photograph worse. How about huge, intrusive and detail-wrecking grain? Yep, got that one down real good.
In previous years I have push-processed some expired cine film, not for any other reason than the film was cheap and I wanted to take pictures in the dark. I have also enlarged a small section of a negative because I liked the effect.
This time was a bit different. I was using a film that was meant to be push-processed but I used the ‘wrong’ developer. To explain: I bought a roll of Kodak P3200. This has reportedly got a true ISO of around 1000 but can be push-processed in the recommended TMax developer to 1600, 3200 or beyond (but not beyond infinity, Buzz). What is positively not recommended is to use stand development in Rodinal. So that’s obviously what I did.
Why am I this contrary? Because I had one roll of this film and I didn’t want to buy a bottle of special developer – this stuff is already expensive; why add the cost of a bottle of developer that I couldn’t use for anything else? Besides, if we stuck to what other people say is safe, how would we learn anything?
P3200 is a low contrast film. This helps compensate for the gain in contrast you normally get when push-processing it. I was planning to use semi-stand development, which lowers contrast. There was a likelihood I would end up with golfball grain and two shades of mid grey. But I was also planning to shoot the film in conditions of extreme contrast: under street lamps, at night. What could possibly go wrong?
Metering, for one. How do you expose for a scene that contains its light source and ranges from light enough to read by down to dark enough for murder? My little book of notes says that ‘subject under bright street lamp’ is EV 4. If we say the film is going to be exposed at 1600, that converts to 1/60 at F2. There was going to be a full moon at the time I was playing, and the magic guide says this is around EV -3, or 2 seconds at F2. So I could be looking at a seven-stop range. This is well within the capabilities of a negative film.
But…. what I actually did was meter off a whitewashed wall behind a streetlamp and give it a couple more stops of exposure. And then give it a few more stops for scenes that contained street lights but were not directly lit by them. And after a few more beers, I basically waved the camera about and hoped.
The film got what is now my standard semi-stand development: Rodinal at 1+100, 30 seconds agitation at start then two gentle inversions every 30 minutes for a total of two hours. I was relieved to see exposed frames when I took it out of the tank and even more relieved to see some interesting images when I hung it to dry.
Then I scanned it. Oh boy, but that’s grainy! Metering off the wall behind the streetlight worked quite well. Guessing the exposure wasn’t too bad. Putting the camera on a wall and hoping gave me some ‘variable’ success with framing. But the grain!
So is this a waste of an expensive film or a method I would recommend? Both. If you want to emphasise the grain, try this. If you want to shoot fine detail in the dark, use a different method or a different film. There will be another post along soon that shows what a 100 ISO film can do under the same conditions and with the same development.
Not the cleaning product; the lighting one. But you knew that.
I’ve written before about my use of flash, but I’ve never written about yours. What made me think about it was an article on Emulsive, plus Em’s own opinions on the unhelpful arses who tend to answer questions on social media.
So here you go: flash 101. That said, this is not about how to light a scene with flash; this is about connecting a flashgun to your camera and getting the exposure about right. You can then learn how to use flash lighting by trying stuff out.
We’re talking here about electronic flash. There may still be the odd bulb or Magicube around, but they must be rarer than free beer. Electronic flash – let’s just call it flash – is a very brief and intense pulse of light. Packing even the small amount of energy from a battery into a very short pulse means that the flash can be very bright – the candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright, as they didn’t say in Blade Runner.
Your camera has a connection or method for triggering the flash just at the point the shutter is fully open. Most cameras have a ‘shoe’ bracket that the flash clips into, called a hot shoe because it has an electric contact in it to trigger the flash. Older cameras have a variety of fittings. Without the contact (a cold shoe) or without the shoe, you need to find a little round socket that a flash cable can plug into. Some older flashguns will take a cable connection, some even have a cable fitted, or you can find adapters that take a cable feed into a hotshoe fitting. If you need to find the cable port on your camera, it looks like a miniature version of an old coaxial TV socket. It can be set flush in the camera body or be on the side of the lens like a short stub of pipe. If it is labelled or there are several, use the one marked X or PC. If it’s on the lens, there may be a pointer with X, V and M symbols. Set this to X. Some old Russian cameras have a setting around the shutter speed dial for M or X. Again, set it to X. The X setting fires the flash when the shutter is fully open. The other settings are for flashbulbs. If your camera has a hotshoe and none of this other nonsense, it’s already set up to use flash.
In reading order: cold shoe; hot shoe; cable socket on lens; flash setting on lens; cable sockets in body; flash setting on shutter speed dial. The last one also shows an X on the speed dial, which is the fastest capable speed for flash, in this case 1/30.
A word about putting old film-era flashguns onto digital cameras: care. I’ve heard that some old flashguns can send voltage back down to the connection that triggered them. I hear tell that this can damage some modern digital cameras. If you are worried, buy a cheapo Chinese radio trigger to fire the flash with.
So, now what?
Rule 0 – get your hands on at least one flashgun. Ignore the ones that are dedicated to a particular camera. Even ignore the ones that are automatic or have sensors, although they are handy. Old manual flashguns are unloved and cheap. Get some.
Rule 1 – you control the exposure of the flash using the lens aperture. The flash pulse is much shorter than even your fastest shutter speed, so the shutter speed can’t reduce the amount of flash light. In fact you may need a slow shutter speed. Both curtains of a focal plane shutter have to be out of the way, and sometimes this only happens at speeds slower than 1/125 or even 1/60. Check on your shutter speed dial for a speed that’s a different colour or a setting marked X. You should only use this speed or slower.
Rule 2 – the flashgun has a way of telling you what aperture to use. Some flashguns have a distance vs aperture calculator on the back. Or you can try to find the Guide Number (GN) in the manual or online. The GN will be a distance and an ISO, so something like 12 metres (100 ISO) would be typical. If you were shooting at 100 ISO, focus on your subject and read-off the distance. Divide your GN by your subject distance (in the same units) and that’s your aperture. So if my subject was at 3m, with this flashgun I should use 12/3 = f4 as the aperture. At 400 ISO I could close-down by two stops, so f8.
Rule 3 – surfaces. Flashlight bounces and fills like a torch beam. If you are shooting indoors, you might get smoother and rounder light by bouncing the flash off a wall or ceiling rather than pointing it directly at the subject. This is where you really need an automatic or sensor flashgun, as they can sense the right amount of light rather than trying to use the GN. Be aware that flash bounced off a green wall will light the subject in green.
Rule 4 – triggers. These are little sensors that (usually) clip to the hotshoe fitting of a flashgun. They sense the brief pulse of a flash going off and trigger the flashgun they are attached to. They can do this fast enough that your camera sees both flashes. This is great for any old flashguns you can find (rule 0) – put a trigger cell on them, maybe some coloured cellophane over the light and put them round the back or side of your subject. Or in the next room to shine through the door. Or inside a car or house you are shooting from the outside. Now you get to play with your light balance. To start with, unless you are after an effect, make sure the GN and subject/ backdrop distance for your slave flashes needs a wider aperture than your main flash. Then they will throw less light. Some flashguns will let you reduce their output. Or you can tape a tissue over the light. If you don’t want to set the triggers off with a flash on the camera, fire one of them with a radio trigger or a long cable. A trigger cell also lets you fire separate flashguns from a simple point and shoot. Tape a bit of tissue over the camera flash if you need to tone it down.
Rule 5 – fill-in. It’s possible to balance the light from a flash with the daylight on your subject so that the flash fills-in the shadows. Measure your subject distance, refer to your GN and set the aperture one stop smaller/ darker to underexpose the flash. Then adjust the shutter speed to expose the scene correctly as though the flash was absent. If the shutter speed you need is faster than you can use for flash, you need more flash power or to get closer. Cameras with the shutter in the lens can usually work with flash at any shutter speed, so are good at fill-in lighting. Get this right and it looks like you have used a reflector to fill the shadows (without needing an extra pair of arms). You could also underexpose the background for drama. Or put a blue filter on the lens and a yellow one on the flash to make the background go day-for-night blue.
Rule 6 – play. Flash freezes motion, so follow a moving subject with the shutter held open on B then trigger a flash just before you lift your finger. Try multiple flashes for a strobe effect. Try a flash from one side through an orange filter and one from the other side through blue, to get that modern orange and teal look. Put a flash on the end of a selfie stick, fire it with a trigger and you have instant side-lighting. Get a chum to point a flashgun at the back of a subject at night and fire it with a radio trigger to get backlighting. Put the camera on a tripod at night, lock the shutter open and walk around your subject firing a flash at it. Have fun.
So what are these magical arrangements that every photographer should strive for and will guarantee success?
There are some standard ways of arranging things in a picture that have been widely used. I know I’ve made fun of them previously, but they do work. I’ve also been listening to one of them there podcasts (forgive me, I forget which one) and they were saying that you couldn’t do the Daguerreotype thing any more: you couldn’t have people stood dead-centre in the frame, staring into the distance and keeping very still. And yet you can. So besides breaking the mould we should perhaps learn first how to make it?
So here’s the starting set of standard layouts, as seen in a myriad pictures of yore (and mine).
It’s interesting to note how many of them are the same shape as letters of the alphabet. I wonder if I could write something rude using compositions?
Why do they work? Perhaps because the visual side of our brains are looking for patterns and give your system a little pleasure kick when they find one.