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The legend has landed

They say that the way to make the gods laugh is to tell them your plans. But sometimes something weird happens – you have a forlorn hope that will never be realised, and then it drops into your lap. It’s like John Cleese said “it’s not the despair, I can deal with that; it’s the hope”.

But truly, the legend has landed.

What am I on about? I got a Nikonos plus underwater strobe. Not just that, but a range of close-up attachments as well. Having only just said I wasn’t frightened of them any more. So the joke is on me to learn the true meaning of fear. Let’s call it apprehension. This is the justly famous underwater Nikon that was the only serious diving camera for decades. Even James Bond had one. I feel I should fall to my knees and chant “we’re not worthy“.

So what have I got? A Nikonos V with a Sea&Sea strobe, a couple of extension tubes and a supplementary close-up lens. The extension tubes come with the the matching prongs to mark the plane of focus and the field of view. The close-up lens has a couple of prongs but has holes to use four. So I will need to work out if the prongs I am using are meant to mark the frame width or the frame height.

It came from the deep…

For anyone wondering why my camera has prongs, you have to imaging the difficulties of shooting macro underwater. Digital made it so much easier because you can see on the camera screen what you are taking. Back in the bad old days the Nikonos was a viewfinder camera with a manually-focused lens. So you would buy and fit some form of close-up lens or attachment and they usually came with some form of frame to mark the field of view. Rather than look through the camera to frame the shot you would offer-up the frame to the subject and hope not to damage it or scare it away. (Can you see yet why digital won?)

So I need to figure this one out. The first step is to get the camera into a swimming pool (avoiding a public session and the likelihood of arrest) and take some macro shots of a marked surface so that I can check where the point of focus actually falls. And if the camera does leak, it’s better to have it do so in fresh water than salt.

I have printed and laminated an A4 sheet of paper with a focusing line to put the prongs on and a series of lines before and after. With any luck this will be nicely sharp where the focus prongs fall. I have also made the focus sheet double sided. This is because I don’t know if the lens should be set to infinity or the hyperfocal distance for the aperture I’m using. So one side says INF on the focusing mark, the other says HYP. [Update – jumped in the pool at the end of a scuba session and took some pics. No obvious bubbles from the camera and the flash worked. Now to finish the film and develop it.] [Update to update, it worked. The prongs mark the width of the frame.]

Of the two sets of close-up gadgets, the supplementary lens looks easiest to use. As it fits over the front of the lens I can fit or remove it underwater. So if I was photographing seaslugs and a whale shark cruised by, I could pop off the close-up lens and take a fishy portrait. The extension tubes would get in a lot closer, but I’m committed to macro during the dive.

Still, shooting off the remaining film will be fun and a chance to get to know the camera. The standard 35mm lens works in air as well as underwater and it’s no big chore to zone focus the lens. If it was ever necessary I still have a little rangefinder gadget to help me find the actual range.


The shutter sound is very muted – this is a very quiet camera. Not surprising when you feel how thick and heavy the thing is. It’s good for at least 50m, which would be a pressure of around 75psi. Doesn’t sound a lot – don’t lorry tyres run at a higher pressure than this? I remember taking diving a cheap but fashionable watch that said it was waterproof to 200m. And then seeing it gently implode at 20m. This thing is genuinely built like a tank. And 50m is the limit of how deep I could dive on air. Plus it’s dark down there.

The lens on it is Nikon’s 35mm f2.5. From the look of it it’s not the unwanted E series lens but a repackaging of their old rangefinder lens. Makes sense, as it was available at the time and a rangefinder lens can fit much closer to the film – this camera doesn’t have an SLR mirror needing clearance.

It’s all very well having prongs for underwater macro, but on the surface this is a scale-focusing camera. How on earth do you focus it accurately? One way is to zone focus – the lens has a really neat set of depth of field markers that change with the aperture. The other way is to use a rangefinder card like the one in the picture above (You can either calculate one or just measure the distances from an object and mark-up a piece of card).

Having said that and for all my smug cleverness, I measured the distances in feet and set the lens focus using the metres scale. Duh! Still, the ones set to hyperfocal distance worked.

The mighty Nikonos at Wheldrake Woods
Works pretty well on land too

The lens has another neat trick, in that you can mount it on the camera upside-down. This makes it easier to read the settings when you tip the camera backwards to look at the aperture or focus. It does mean that the image on the film is upside down, but it’s no bother to rotate it in the scanner or turn the paper round under the enlarger.*

So I’m pretty happy with it. My dreams have not yet turned to dust, or as they say: ” a thing of beauty is a joy for a fortnight”. The next thing to do will be to load this baby with some colour negative film and take it diving. That might be a while though – we’re at the cold end of the year and probably won’t get into open water again until the Spring. In the meantime I have a tough little camera with a pretty good lens that won’t be hurt by a spot of rain. A bit of a top duck.

* Yes, I know, but it’s funny.


Going Balda

Meet the Balda. It’s a cracking little snapper with a history.

The Baldax was made in Germany through the 1930s. You would imagine it pretty much stayed there. So how come it ended up in the hands of a Japanese soldier in the far east in the 1940s? It came into the possession of my ex father in law (father in outlaw?) who was building bridges for the army at the time in places like Borneo. His telling of it, and I’m afraid I’m hazy on the details, is that it was in a pile of stuff that had been removed from captured prisoners. I do know that he had a strong moral sense and principles and would not have done anything nefarious to obtain the camera. The problem is that I didn’t listen well enough at the time and he’s no longer here to ask.

So he used it on periods of leave in places like Thailand. Then it probably went into a box in the loft for the next forty years, when he gave it to me.

What we have here is a little folding camera around 75 years old that takes 6×4.5 images on 120 roll film. It’s basic zone focusing with a tiny little viewfinder. The body has spots of rust. It works like a charm.



It’s absolutely typical of how cameras worked at the time. The front snaps open when you press a button on the body. The shutter has to be cocked before it can be fired. You have to remember to wind on the film. There are two windows to view the frame numbers through. You wind to the first one, take a picture and then wind to the second window. This would have been because film at the time did not have dedicated frame numbers for 6×4.5 so it worked from the 6×6 ones. This results in the negatives being slightly paired rather than evenly spaced, much like half-frame on 35mm. But the miracle is that this thing has a working shutter and light-tight bellows. I should be so good at that age.


The lens is a modest triplet and focused by moving the front element. Within its limitations it can be pin sharp. The odd thing is that the distance scale is marked in feet. It makes me wonder if he didn’t buy the camera in England and take it with him, and the story was no more than a story.

It even works in the dark

The little pull-out leg on the lens cover means the camera can be stood on its own feet to take long exposure shots.


As seen in the Matrix

While it might not get much use, I would never sell it. Nor would I destroy it. This thing has history.


Once upon a time I shot a lot of slide film. I thought of myself as a purist rendering my art in vivid colours, free from the colour casts of the bodging high street printers. Then it became apparent that this was becoming a personal fetish – I looked at my slides once, put them back in the box and never showed them to anyone else. I was the Gollum of Agfachrome. So I switched to colour prints because I got results I could see and share easily. Plus, I don’t think there has ever been a time when I haven’t had either a camera loaded with black and white film or some mono film lurking in waiting. So I was pretty big in negatives.

Then film died, the world went digital, and I wanted to keep using all my previous images. It felt a bit like having your entire music collection on eight-track and your family movies on Betamax. So I had to find a way of turning negatives and slides into data. It would have been a lot easier if I had a full-frame digital SLR. I still had one of those dedicated slide-copier lenses – a metal tube with a slide holder and diffuser at the end and a sharpish lens buried inside. They worked fairly well on a 35mm film SLR but couldn’t zoom out to work with APS-C. I also had a flat-bed scanner with a range of film holders. The scanner did great service – the results weren’t great but at least I was getting something I could work with. For a while I had a great time rediscovering pictures that I had taken but never printed.

It was so encouraging that I bought a proper film scanner. This was limited to 35mm or smaller, so I developed a workflow that ran the slides, 35mm and half-frame negatives through the film scanner and the larger stuff through the flat-bed. Of the two, the film scanner is an easier process. I can put a strip of negatives in the holder and scan them one after the other, leaving me free to do something else. It’s slow work though.

I thought I might speed things up by photographing my old slides with a camera and close-up lens on a lightbox. I’ve got an old X-ray viewing lightbox that can sit on the floor. The big tripod can spread its legs far enough to straddle the lightbox and tea-bag it with a camera. Plop a small mirror on the top of the lightbox and fiddle about until the camera can see right back down its own lens, meaning that it’s perpendicular to the surface. Then it was a speedy business of blow dust off slide, chuck it on the lightbox, align and shoot. I got through about four boxes of slides in short order. Then I pulled the memory card and had a look at them on the computer. Total shite. Not even slightly sharp. I need a proper macro lens. So the next attempt was an enlarger lens fitted to a focusing macro bellows. This was far more fiddly. What I wanted was to arrange the bellows so that focusing moved the camera rather than the lens. This meant that the lens could be set at a fixed distance from the subject, so the magnification wouldn’t change when I focused. The problem was that the weight of the camera would make the focusing rack creep. So I either arrange the setup so that the camera is horizontal or I try mounting the enlarger lens on some fixed extension tubes. I’m still futzing about with this, but in the meantime I have gone back to using the dedicated scanner.


Contact sheets are another fly in my ointment. Back when I had a proper chemical darkroom and the earth was young, the first job in any printing session was to make contact prints from all the recent sets of negatives. I have ringbinders full. I used to sit with my contact sheets and list all the subjects and key words in a card index. I obviously used to have more free time than was good for me. Now I have a large number of negative files and no record of what’s in them. What I have tried doing is to lay the negs out on my lightbox and photograph them. This works reasonably well with a well-behaved film, but some of this stuff is like a bag of playful springs. I could put a sheet of glass over them to hold the strips flat for their portrait, but I don’t have enough hands to hold six strips flat at the same time. I wonder if I can find some strips of glass, 35mm wide, so that I can flatten the strips individually? I feel a bit of duct tape magic coming on. When I had a darkroom I used to have a dedicated contact print maker. It had a set of shallow slots that the edge of the film strip would tuck into. Just deep enough to hold the negs flat but leave the frame numbers visible. It went when I sold the darkroom kit, but I have this idea rattling in my head to recreate it with duct tape. And if it works, I could make one to hold medium format film. So what I need is a couple of pieces of window glass or translucent plastic….

But while Heath Robinson schemes away in the back of my head, I have been photographing the negative sets that are in filing sleeves. These at least can be laid flat on the lightbox and shot in a single take. And what fun I’m having! There’s loads of stuff that I could remember taking, but I’d lost track of. Lots of pictures I knew well, but I’d forgotten exactly which film they were on. This means I can make some better scans than my earlier attempts. There are some portraits of my parents that I had completely forgotten that I had mono versions of. I’ll get some of these scanned for my mum. The useful thing, as with proper paper contact sheets, is that I can work out what I’ve got and skip directly to the negative I want.

The trick now will be to not lose track of my pictures again. What I’m thinking is a version of my old card index. If I put a plain text file in the folder that contains the negative sheet and any developed images, I could describe the negs using a set of key words. Then it should be fairly simple to search across all of the folders. Yes, I could probably use something like Lightroom but I don’t have a copy. I do have a copy of Darktable though, so I might have a play with this to see how well it can do the filing without at the same time eating my remaining hard disk space.

The other thing I need to do is to buy a shed-load of negative filing sheets. When film photography looked like it was dying I started filing negatives as cut strips in paper wallets. These are far less practical than filing sheets for making contact prints, so I might start re-filing from the wallets into proper filing sheets that fit into a ringbinder. I could do this a few at a time and photograph them as I go. Time to go and look at the prices of filing sheets. That feels like a more practical option than trying to build my own film-strip holder. Not as stupid or unsuccessful though, so I’ll need a big roll of gaffer tape as well.

Yee ha!


Nothing to do with chimping for taxonomists, but Pan Luminis, anyone?

In our house they are known as dad jokes, aka differently funny.

Now that you’ve all stopped slapping your knees and got your breath back, I would like to talk about getting more in, with a preference for width over height.

There was always a problem with wide angle lenses that you get both. Go for a huge width of scene and you get a whole lot of foreground or sky to go with it. This is why so many wide angle shots are aimed downwards with something attractive in the foreground, so that there is plenty of stuff to fill the frame.

The APS format film cameras used to offer a panoramic mode by masking-down the negative into a narrow horizontal strip. The quality was a bit off and my mum used to trigger the wide mode randomly throughout the film, with amusing results.

I had a nice little Vivitar compact for a while that did the same trick – press a button and a couple of flaps masked the film into a narrow strip. There are a series of medium format cameras that do the same thing, but without the flaps: they use a lens that covers a larger format and use it to shoot a much wider negative than normal. The problem you can get with these is uneven illumination – the centre of the image gets more light then the sides. I believe one of the manufacturers sold a fantastically expensive centre-weighted neutral density filter to compensate.

Fewston Reservoir

The letterbox format is fun though. I wrote something previously about cropping photos to use on some Moo mini business cards (these are the same photos I use for the headers on this web site). The Moo cards are 70x28mm, or 5:2 format, compared with the standard 35mm frame of 3:2. It’s interesting work finding a good crop within your existing photos.

The other type of panoramic film camera is one with a swing lens. The best-known of these is probably the Horizon, which shoots a 24x58mm negative, or very nearly the 5:2 ratio of the Moo cards. The Horizon uses a 28mm lens but manages to cover a field of view of around 120 degrees by rotating the lens through an arc. This achieves a very wide angle scene with a modest and fairly cheap lens. The drawback is that it can distort some objects. Chief of these is the horizon, which can bulge up or down depending on whether you point the camera up or down. I believe there is a model of this type of camera that allows lens shifts to avoid the wonky world problem, but we’re getting into serious money.

It don’t mean a thing…

The alternative to swing lens (and film) is stitching digital images. My first little Canon compact came with stitching software, and I remember watching with joy as it assembled a panorama from a set of individual shots. Of course, I couldn’t just leave this alone. I had to try stitching multiple passes to make a massive and highly detailed shot, and to try shooting a Hockney-like mess of random shots to cover a scene.

Palace pano

The massive assembly shot was fun, in a pixel-peeping kind of way. It was a scene in Edinburgh. It looked like just an ordinary shot until you tried zooming-in on a detail, and then it just kept going. This seems to have grown from just a few people experimenting to an industry.

It’s harder with film, mind.

Film pano
Stitch that, as we used to say.

I did try loading a 35mm film in a medium format 6×6 camera. This would give me a 58x24mm negative like a Horizon but without the distortion of the swing lens. In effect this would be a poor man’s Hasselblad Xpan. All was going well until I met a bit of resistance winding on. I may have broken it…

That aside, I do like the letterbox format. I took the Horizon away on holiday with me recently after it had been languishing in a cupboard. I’ve not finished the film yet but I’m looking forward to it.

What film can’t easily do though is the weird stuff you can do by stitching digital frames.

Ripon square

And really, if you have to shoot landscapes, you might a well make them interesting.

Bodging lenses

Lenses are marvels of optical calculation and manufacturing craft. So why am I futzing around with old projector lenses and door viewers?

Part of is the joy of orneryness (easy for you to say): the pleasure in solving a problem by going against the grain and taking the less obvious path. Yes, I could spend the kids’ inheritance on eBay and buy a Meyer-Goerlitz lens with magical bubble bokeh. Or I could wrap an old slide projector lens in camping-mat foam and jam it up the middle of a set of extension tubes. There are some fantastic and rare macro lenses out there, but you could also pop an enlarger lens (which is usually well corrected for macro work) on some form of extension tube or bellows.

Something I have been looking at is the Petzval lens. I didn’t know they existed until Lomography started selling them. Nice results, even if you wouldn’t want to use it all the time. A lot of money to put out for something that would spend most of its time in the bag, though. Plus they don’t make them in either of the lens mounts I use. You can get old brass lenses that were made with the Petzval design on eBay, but they too have shot up in price. But the Petzval formula is pretty simple and some projector lenses use it. So I’ve been looking at old projector lenses but also thinking about building my own. There are places that sell lens elements in various types and strengths, so I’ve been tinkering with the maths to find a combination that works. By works, I mean can be far enough away from the film or image plane to allow for the depth of the camera body plus some means of focusing. This sets limits on the focal length of the lens, which in turns sets limits on how wide an aperture I could get.

My camera has a lens flange to focal plane distance of a gnat’s less than 46mm. So, without clever lens designs, the widest focal length I could use would be 46mm. At the long end I’m limited by the diameter of the lens elements I could find. It’s all very well building a 500mm lens, but not if it only works at f22. I might lose that swirly background I was working so hard to obtain. Besides, a long lens would turn into a ridiculous bazooka pipe. So I’m looking in the 80 to 150mm range. Focusing is not really a problem, as I have some magic focusing bellows left over from an earlier infatuation. On the other hand, life is short (and ars longa, even with support pants) so I will probably stick with bodging existing lenses.

Some years ago I was reading an article on Elliot Erwitt and his candid street photography. He was said to use an unusual lens combo: a longish manual lens mounted on a set of macro bellows. The lens was long enough to give a proper infinity focus and the bellows had a rack and pinion to focus. The bellows also meant that he could go from long shot to close-up without changing anything. So like photographers immemorial, I bought the kit to improve my pictures. This was when you could buy all sorts of accessories from Practika and Zenith at almost pocket-money prices.


Actually, it worked. With a 4″ enlarging lens on the front it really did cover a wide range at the expense of manual everything. So the bellows would be my focusing rack for further experiments. It didn’t work for slide projector lenses though. These were too wide to fit into the front of the bellows and the bellows wouldn’t shrink down enough to give an infinity focus. No problem, as bodging baffles brains. Along came a set of very cheap manual extension tubes from China. Then a layer of camping mat foam was wrapped around the lens using gaffer tape, until the lens was a snug fit inside the tubes. Then I had a lovely soft focus portrait lens that worked really well, as long as I didn’t point the camera downwards. The nice thing though is that it works for a whole range of projector lenses. If I need a longer flange distance I just add a couple more bits of extension tube.

proj 1

For anyone who is interested, the 150mm appears to have smooth bokeh while the 85mm looks like I could get some bubbly bokeh out of it.

Wide angles are a problem though. Proper wide angle lenses overcome the problem with the camera flange distance with clever optics. My 15mm lens can’t be 15mm away from the film or sensor due to the depth of the camera body and the need for a swinging mirror. The clever lens fairies in Japan made it work at a flange distance of around 46mm. But if I want to bodge something wide out of inappropriate parts that flange distance is the wasp at my picnic. And then I read an article on t’interweb… (which I have been searching for ever since). The idea is to use an extremely wide angle CCTV lens. Mount this on tome form of extension tube so that it would focus on a sensor, but leave the sensor as empty space. (OK, just mount the lens on a tube). Then mount this whole thing on the end of a reversed lens attached to a camera. The idea is that the virtual image focused by the CCTV lens is seen by the reversed (strong macro) lens and focused in turn onto a real sensor of film. And if I did the maths right, the macro lens would enlarge the virtual image from the CCTV lens to cover the camera sensor. Plus, a fisheye lens for a CCTV camera is not big bucks. Plus I could test this with my existing lenses before even buying a CCTV lens.

So I did the logical thing and experimented to see if it would work before I bought anything. Mount a lens in reverse on a camera and then hold another lens in front of it to see if I can focus any sort of image. All I got was a very good look at the dust on the second lens. I’m either missing something or the whole idea is daft. I do wish I could find the original article.

But in the meantime I have a couple of useful portrait lenses, a very close-focussing portrait lens and a huge glass condensing lens from an old overhead projector. I’ve been playing with the latter by taping it to the end of a cardboard tube. It’s got a focal length of around 330mm but I could shorten that by putting a magnifying lens between it and the camera.

I’ve also got a 9 diopter closeup lens that looks like it might be a doublet rather than a single element, so might be better quality. This particular one has a focal length of 115mm so fills-in the gap between my two projector lenses. The right size of step-up ring should mount this on my bellows. Or this might be the lens I use with the OHP lens to reduce the focal length. Decisions, decisions…

Go me! I’ve got more lenses than a Fleet Street pro (do they still exist?). There are people who pay good money for this sort of fuzziness.

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