I admit to a thing about rangefinders. It makes no practical sense; why use a camera that can only focus a limited range of lenses that have to be specially made for it, that can’t show you what might be in sharp or soft focus, can’t frame accurately and lets you shoot all day with the lens cap on? (Ask me how I know this) Oh, and if you leave the lens cap off it will focus sunlight onto the shutter curtains and burn a hole through them.
But in many ways, the difficulty is the pleasure. And rangefinders do have some benefits.
Rangefinder lenses are easier to make and can be of simpler designs – there is no need to make room for the mirror of an SLR. The aperture doesn’t need to shut and close as you press the shutter, and the lens does’t strictly have to signal to the camera what the aperture is doing. That’s not to say that all rangefinder lenses are cheap – take a look at some of the Leica or Zeiss prices, and you won’t buy a Canon 50mm f0.95 on anything less than Bill Gates’ pocket money.
Rangefinder cameras can be smaller than SLRs and sometimes lighter, unless you are comparing a Kiev 4 with a Pentax MX. There is less going on inside the box, so a rangefinder should be quieter than an SLR and shake less when you press the shutter. Certainly I have an old Ricoh SLR that sounds like I’ve dropped a saucepan on cobbles when I take a picture. Best of all is my beloved Olympus XA which is whisper quiet, genuinely pocket sized, has an answer to the lens cap problem and a great lens.
And yet, I still find myself lugging a Zorki around, or an old Agfa Super Silette. I really think that it is because the difficulty is part of the pleasure.
If I have a job to do or a specific result in mind, I will use the appropriate kit. I would never use a rangefinder for shooting action at long distance with a big lens. This is what SLRs excel at. But I will happily take a rangefinder with me when I’m out walking. Sometimes it’s the convenience – the only thing lighter than my XA is my wallet. But most of the time it’s because I have to think and overcome the awkwardness. Part of my pleasure in photography is the pictures I make, part is the enjoyment of the process of making them. Having to make decisions, to make deliberate choices between alternatives, adds to the sense of engagement with the final product. I can think “I made this look like this” rather than “I held the camera and pointed it the right way while it did this”. Which is often better expressed as “I cocked this up all by myself”. Don’t get me wrong – I love autofocus and autoexposure and zoom lenses and RAW files that I can get something out of even if I have butchered the settings. At some point I’ll post about the differences in shooting motorcycle sport on film and on digital. Just take a look at the earlier post about my voyage into underwater photography – digital rocks!
But still I wander about with a poorly-assembled Russian rangefinder and a lying bastard light meter, or a 1960s family snapshot camera with a modest lens and a slightly misaligned focusing image. It pleases me to have to work at it. And that I don’t have to try and use an Argus C3.
Or how to annoy just about everyone at the camera club.
I shouldn’t knock camera clubs. They can be fantastic places to learn. As a group you have the means to get interesting people to talk to you: you can give them a decent-sized audience and can afford to pay them, plus you can spread the costs amongst the members. I’ve seen some fantastic speakers and images that I would never otherwise have had the chance to. But what is it about club competitions? Verily is it written that comparison is the thief of joy.
I love looking at other people’s pictures, and seeing the different approaches and interpretations of a theme is an education. I believe that creativity thrives under constraint, so setting a theme or conditions triggers the whack-a-mole to escape the limits and pop-up elsewhere. But awarding points and prizes? What makes a photograph better? And what is it with people now that they have digital cameras? Was everyone so very concerned with sharpness and detail in days of yore?
Does anyone remember the photography year books? They were a curated set of images drawn from all over the world (or the bits that were free to contact the publisher). My pal and I used to borrow every one we could get from the library and critique every picture like old pros with camera-bag shoulder and dev-stained fingers. I’ve looked back at a 1980 copy I found in a charity shop. Whether it was the printing or the source material, some of the technical quality is rough. (There is also a huge deference to anything to do with the British royalty, which really stands out) But that’s not the point: I still get a thrill from seeing a different way of looking or presenting. So why the fascination with sharpness? I have an opinion that a photo needs to be sharp enough to see what the photographer intended but it is not the most important attribute.
Perhaps the interest in sharpness was a carry-over from the swap from film to digital. The early digital cameras had less resolution than film and prints had a strange flat, posterised sort of look. You could tell digital because it lacked detail or tonal variation. So perhaps it was the joy of seeing fine detail emerge as the technology improved that led the race for resolution. There was a push for pixels as we went from three to five to ten to whatever, and then there was the discussion about having the right type of pixels on the right size of sensor. But when the best you can say about a picture is that it’s sharp, I think the plot has been lost.
Digital cameras now routinely outperform 35mm film with huge resolution and dynamic range and the ability to pick whatever ISO you want for individual shots. And amusingly, there is now a growing interest in using classic lenses with lower resolution and more aberrations. I used to think bokeh was something you bought for Mother’s Day. Now there are people who are more interested in the background than the subject. How many pictures of flowers do we have to see with out of focus backgrounds, where the point of the picture is the nature of the blur?
The mighty Hamish Gill wrote a very good article on his 35mmc site about bokeh. Basically, it’s either good or bad. Good means that it either contributes to the picture or is not distracting. Bad is when it’s ugly or distracting.
I must admit to never thinking about it beyond being able the throw the background out of focus to separate the subject or lose things I didn’t want to see. I think the market and reviews at the time were all about how many lines per millimetre a lens could resolve. I knew that some of my kit gave pretty shabby results if the lens was wide open, but I didn’t really have an alternative.
Then I started listening to the Classic Lenses podcast and learned a new four-letter word. Lenses I thought were crap were actually cult. Fuzzy was cool again. I wasn’t though: I admit to getting all my lenses together and arranging a blur-off in the garden. A head-sized foreground object with surface texture (a football; no family members were harmed in the making of this experiment) and a white object with linear detail in the background (a garden bench). And yes, I admit that the direct comparison was interesting. Some lenses give a sort of clumped look to the out of focus areas and some showed an odd effect in the closely-spaced white lines of the bench. A couple had a background so smooth it was like fog. And you can get the nicest portrait lens effect for peanuts using an old slide projector lens. So then I snap my fingers and I’m back in the room. In real life I am likely to remember only the main points of the comparison, and I could have guessed those without the test just based on my experience of using the things. It’s useful to have the confirmation though, all in one place.
The classic lens thing may have gone a bit far though when I see wide-angle lenses advertised as bokeh monsters. Really? Only if the monster ate your bokeh. And the whole thing about how many blades you have in your aperture? That’s something that only magicians’ assistants should worry about. Luckily I bought my bad lenses when they were just bad, so cheap. Who’s the silly cult now, then?
But back to the idea of sharpness. The Professional Photographers of America use 12 criteria in judging photographic prints. None of them is lens resolution. By some quirk of synchronicity I heard someone on a recent podcast saying that the most import three from the list of twelve were lighting, composition and impact. What, nobody is going to dock me points if my lens isn’t sharp enough? How many times though have I heard a judge at a club photo competition remark that a picture is very sharp or well exposed? It’s like praising a rally driver for changing gear.
So a little devil appeared on my shoulder. I put pictures in that had motion blur or poor resolution because they were taken in the dark on dodgy film or a wonky lens. Or had extreme grain or contrast. It was very childish. It helped me get over competing and comparing, as I set out to have the worst pictures in the room, and let me concentrate instead on analysing what I liked about what I was seeing. And I’m happy for you if your camera has more pixels than mine and your lens can resolve atoms. This is why I love the Sunny 16 Cheap Shots Challenge – it’s less about “look at the coma on that” and more “that was a stroke of luck”. More power to them.
“What sort of camera do I need to take action photos while I am (insert activity)?”
You will be glad to know that the answer is “whatever you’ve got”. As long as you can afford to have it destroyed. Or carrying and using it won’t kill you. Cameras are tools, not jewels.
I think my first adventure was borrowing my parents’ Instamatic to go rock climbing when I was in the scouts. Or rather, I borrowed the camera and confessed to the rock climbing later. Instamatics are pretty tough providing you don’t drop them, but pretty basic too.
My first go on my own dime was sea-cliff climbing. I had a Kodak 620 folding roll film camera and the film box to read the exposure from. It was the only camera I had, so it was the one I used. This was when old folders were as cheap as chips though, so my maximum loss if I fell off or dropped the camera would have been the pictures I’d already taken.
From then on it was a case of using what I had.
The least handy was a Lubitel. Its large size was partly offset by its light weight but it was a bugger to use and even worse if you didn’t have both hands free. It could only be focused on a central spot in the middle of the viewfinder, and only then if you used the pop-up magnifier. Great quality negatives though.
I did try to make a helmet-mount for when I was planning to do a charity parachute jump. I had an auto-exposure Pentax with a power winder. With a bit of drilling I mounted it on a flash bracket bolted to the side of an old rock-climbing crash helmet. A bit of bent and drilled alloy gaffer-taped to the winder gave me a mounting for one end of a cable release to press on the firing button. I had one of those long air releases with a squeeze bulb. I could route this down through my overalls, placing the bulb in one hand and hiding the slack inside my clothing. Wide angle lens on the camera set to the hyperfocal distance and we’re off. Or not. The response at the parachute school was “take that off, you bloody eejit”. Apparently having a heavy and tangle-prone weight on the side of one’s head and making one’s hand unavailable for pulling the reserve handle was a bad idea.
I reprised the helmet thing again recently in an attempt to make a hands-free video camera mount for when I’m diving. As usual one could spend money and do it right, or bodge it for cheap. So I bought a building site hard hat – a scaffolder’s one that had a minimal peak and a chin strap. The plan was to drill a chain of holes along the top so that it wouldn’t trap air. But in practice the difference between theory and practice is greater than theory predicts. I hadn’t reckoned on two things. The first was that the camera, devoid of its usual light bracket and grip, was slightly buoyant. The other was that in British waters I wear a neoprene balaclava hood. The helmet would fit over my head plus hood easily, but there was no chin to tighten the helmet strap against. So the first time I dived with it the helmet tried to stay on the surface, and then wobbled about like a sad little windsock. All was not lost though – I have used the helmet for things on dry land (despite the odd looks) and when I needed to visit a construction site. I covered the holes with reflective tape and ignored a fresh set of odd looks.
Caving? That’s what plastic bags are for. Admittedly the camera was inside a poly bag and also inside an old army ammunition box surrounded by bits of foam. This is the perfect use for the autofocus 35mm compacts from the 90s. Some of these cameras are pretty capable and have sharp lenses. It’s easy to back them up with a few old (cheap) electronic flashes linked to slave triggers. I use slave cells with a hot shoe built in, and the flash plus slave can be left sealed in a ziplock clear plastic bag. And if it all turns to worms you can usually save the film and be out of pocket for the price a couple of London beers.
Motorcycling? Only as a passenger, unless you want to leave your legacy in pictures from the point of impact. And as a passenger, make sure that you can’t drop the camera and that there is no strap dangling anywhere. Actually, you might be better risking dropping the camera than attaching it to yourself with a strap. You will also need at least one hand free to hang on. I know your mate driving the bike is an expert and smooth as butter, but you will at some point need to make a grab for support. Oh, and keep still! Shifting your weight can steer the bike. (I’m sorry Brian, if you read this, I really did think we were going to hit that car. ) The most impressive people in the world at doing this are the ones who cover cycling events. To see a bike being ridden slowly and smoothly through a buzzing swarm of cyclists and spectators while the pillion is stood on the pegs, twisting and turning, is a sight of great beauty and awesomeness. Seeing the pillion facing backwards to film the peloton from the front shows great trust and practice. Don’t try this at home.
There is a previous post about my adventures trying to take pictures underwater. Long story short is that splashproof cameras are great and even the cheaper ‘plastic bag’ housings work. Rain is still a problem though. Prior to all these clever digital SLRs with weather-sealing I’ve had to leave the camera and lenses in the airing cupboard for a week to dry out. It didn’t seem to do them any long-term harm and I’ve never had the dreaded lens fungus. Oh, and sand is nasty too. I went to photograph the seals at Donna Nook and there was a fairly strong wind blowing. If you walk out to where the seals are, there was a enough sand blowing at up to about waist height to start building dunes against any seal that kept still. This was not the place to put the camera bag down. I was using one of those clever sealed digital SLRs, but the lens was from an old medium format camera and had generous clearances. I’m glad to say that it wasn’t too crunchy afterwards. If the wind had lifted the sand any higher though, I wouldn’t even have been able to see the seals.
So yes, do as the Americans say and run what yer brung. But do expect a bit of Fup Duck now and then.
I’ve always wanted to take pictures underwater, ever since I learned to snorkel. I had no idea at the time how pictures were made, but I’d seen Jacques Cousteau and it didn’t look that hard.
Roll forward a good few years and I was at University, with a chance to go hosteling in Israel during the summer. This meant a chance to go to the Red Sea, and I knew that was a good spot. After a bit of research I bought a Ewa Marine housing for my SLR. Basically a tough plastic bag with a glass disk fitted for the lens and a glove protruding into the bag so you could work the camera. (They still make them: see the Ewa Marine U-FX). Good for about ten metres, and I didn’t expect to get anywhere near that with a snorkel. My camera had an aperture priority mode. Slap on a 28mm lens, do a bit of hyperfocal distance setting and I was ready to roll.
It mostly worked. Leave aside the difficulty of diving with bag of air in your hand – so many times I did the perfect surface dive to get down with the fishes, only to find myself rising back to the surface feet first. It did teach me that colour fades rapidly with depth, even in clear water. There is also that whole thing about refraction – what looked huge, toothy and dangerous to my eyes became a distant and timid minnow to the wide-angle lens. But I was so hooked – the camera and housing worked perfectly and I was the new Jack Custard.
A few years later – different partner, different place, but the same camera and a chance to try some scuba diving. Out came the trusty housing. By this time it was looking its age – the plastic was cloudy and felt a bit stiff. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, as it turned out. Except the buoyancy thing was even more pronounced and Ewa were right about the dive depth: get it down to ten metres or so and the bag squeezed enough to make operating the camera difficult. There was also the issue of the drop-off of light with depth. It’s all very well setting the lens on f8 but when the shutter goes clunk…. count to five… clunk you just know you’re going to get a bit of movement blur.
The Ewa housing got used just a couple more times in a swimming pool before it was retired with campaign medals and good service award.
The whole Blue Planet thing went a way for a few years until the kids were of an age that they wanted to spend all their time in the pool on holiday. I bought some long-forgotten charity shop point-and-shoot horror to get back into the groove. Whatever the camera was, all I can remember is that it was useless and yellow. And then it broke.
Next stop was a Canon Sureshot A1, not really a diving camera but waterproof. What a revelation compared to the previous yellow monster – the Canon had a sharp lens, good autofocus and with the flash on gave cracking results on colour print film. It never went deeper than paddling, but it was brilliant. Until the catch on the rear door snapped off. Then it was effectively a paperweight.
So all this puts in perspective that I fancied myself as an underwater photographer, but all I’d really done was a bit of snorkelling. So then I learned to scuba dive. And what I wanted was a super sexy fantastic camera with several flashes and a housing. Or a Nikonos. I really fancied a Nikonos. What I actually did was to buy something cheap to learn on. I found a Sea & Sea Motormarine II with flash and wide-angle lens. This is like my lusted Nikonos in that the aperture and focusing are manual. How hard can it be? Set the aperture for the flash, estimate the distance, Bob’s your uncle.
So then began the most difficult thing I have ever done photographically.
Let’s start with framing. You are wearing a mask. It is impossible to get the camera up to your eye, and if you did you can see only a fraction of the centre of the field of view. Pre digital we used to fit a big frame to the top of the camera housing to help point the camera at the subject. For macro work you would have a frame held out in front of the camera to mark the plane of focus and field of view. If you are photographing sea slugs you’re buggered if a blue whale swims past, as however you set the camera up is how it stays until you are back on the surface.
Then there is focus. Refraction in water and through the flat glass plate of the mask makes things look bigger and closer than they really are. So do I focus on what I think the distance is, or what I could calculate it to be? And by then the fish has gone home for its tea.
Exposure – not so bad if I’m using flash but relying solely on the magic lightning means the background – the body of water behind the subject – will go black. Balancing flash with ambient is easy on the surface but this Motormarine thing has no meter.
Insufficient limbs. I could do with an extra couple of arms. Bracing myself to avoid drift in a swell or current, aiming a torch to look under rocks or give the camera some idea of what to focus on, adjusting the angle of the flash and the camera settings and tending to the other few jobs that keep one alive underwater can get busy. Couple this with an old man’s inability to focus on anything closer than arm’s length also means I either guess what the camera settings are or use that extra hand to hold a plastic magnifying glass.
And then there is the sheer bloody awkwardness of the whole thing. The camera has to be tethered to the diver. The tether has to allow a long option so that you can hold the camera out to arm’s length plus a short option to attach it to your jacket. Every other thing you take with you as a diver has probably also got a tether, plus you are draped in hoses, straps and D rings. A camera with a flash attached is like an octopus with rigor mortis, cunningly designed to slip a stiff little limb through anything it can tangle. When I was learning to dive I would regularly be swimming along, followed by a little cloud of belongings bobbing along on lengths of bungee cord. (I still do this) Then I would surface at the boat and someone would helpfully offer to take my camera. I then had to admit that I had no way of letting go of it until I was on the boat, sat down and could start unclipping things.
The Motormarine did its job though – I learned what I really wanted. I wanted auto-focus, auto-exposure and a screen on the back so that I could see what I was pointing the camera at. And much though I still lusted after a Nikonos, it was way too much of a struggle. So I dig’ed-up.
Say hello to a Canon Powershot A70 plus housing. OK, so it’s a 3mp camera, but it was good to 40 metres. I also found a very neat Sea & Sea flash that worked off a slave cell, so my kit was complete. I still couldn’t see the tiny symbols on the camera or its screen, but I learned how to switch macro on and off and left it at that.
With my happiness complete, the housing then flooded and killed the camera. Note to self and a nod to the duck: check the O ring is clean before diving.
No probs, get another one off eBay. They were old and therefore cheap. Except old meant rare. I did find one and it worked for a few months before dying. Look again, and the remaining examples were more than I was willing to pay – £18 for something I could kill in a month? And still only 3mp? So I made the jump to a Canon Ixus plus housing with 4 enormous megapixels and a combined price of less than the old A70. It’s a shame really – I have a Canon Powershot A590 that would do the job very well indeed (especially with the CHDK hack installed), but I can’t find a housing for it. Anyone want a housing for an A70?
In the meantime, and because you can’t keep a determined idiot down, I got one of those action video cameras with a housing. Actually my wife got it for me, I think she realised that something that had only an on/off switch was more likely to work in my hands. This of course is truly brilliant – superb very wide-angle lens and a neat and small housing. There is no viewing screen on the back of this camera, but I’ve got a bit of plastic water pipe taped to side of the housing: hold the camera out at arm’s length, sight down the pipe and shoot. This worked very well with some very playful seals in Farne Islands, especially as I can save single frames out of the video as stills. There is no way I could ever have tracked the seals with a stills camera or managed the whole focus, frame, shoot thing. Highly recommended.
So that’s where we stand with underwater cameras. Except the desire for a rufty-tufty splash and dirt proof camera never left me with the death of the Canon A1. eBay, purveyor of needful things to the lustful, offered me a Minolta Weathermatic in a tasteful yellow. Why yellow? Well, as ani ful no, there is meaning to the colour of things: black ones are sexy, red ones are fast and yellow ones float. So the Minolta is packed with the finest array of late 1980s electronics inside its little yellow shell. Which lasted about two years before the lens locked at minimum focus and then the camera died. Even taking it apart revealed nothing that was obviously blown or burned-out so it went to join the Canon A70.
This was replaced, thanks to a review on 35mmc, with a Genba Kontaku: a site-foreman’s camera from Japan. Yet again, very little money was harmed in this transaction. This developed a nasty rattle from something loose inside on its way over. The seller was very helpful and offered to replace it, but I opened the casing and used a bit of BluTack to hold down what appeared to be the flash capacitor. Simples, and no problems since.
So I’m set, with just the barest minimum of learning-by-failing and just the occasional hint of Fup Duck. I’ve yet to dive the mighty Ixus in earnest, but I’ll be taking the housing in on its own to check it’s ok.
I started developing my own film when I realised that the lab I worked in used to serve the works’ photographer – remember when companies would have one of those? He left behind a load of chemicals in the stores that we had no use for in the routine QA tests we did. So I made a batch of D76.
The opportunity came when my friend’s sister took part in a point-to-point race. For anyone thinking she was a jogger, this is cross-country horse racing and seems to be one of the most dangerous sports you can do (other than running while black in America). I had my first SLR, its 50mm lens, a x2 teleconverter and a few rolls of HP5. Being England, it was overcast. So I pushed the HP5 and stood close enough to the jumps to fill the frame as the horse and rider came over them. This was also before health and safety had been invented.
It was magic! OK, so none of the shots were that great but I had airborne horses, stern riders and printable negatives. The bug had bit.
The story from that point followed three streams: what combination of film and magic developer would compensate for my underexposure habit; what magical development regime would give me a full Zone System range of tones (because every good photograph had to have all of the Zones in it; and what on earth did I do wrong this time?
I suppose there was even a fourth strand of ‘how the hell do I load this film onto a reel when what I really want to do is throw it on the floor, stamp on it and scream in rage?’. The fourth stream will be familiar to everyone who has ever loaded film onto a plastic spiral in a sweaty changing bag, or onto a plastic spiral that was not perfectly dry. 35mm film is a bit more forgiving – sometimes if you wait a minute it seems to absorb the damp spot and can be persuaded to continue loading. 120 roll film has attitude and wants you to know it – it’s wide enough to ruck-up and jump out of the spiral in the reel and there’s no real chance to wind it back into the cassette, dry everything out and have another go. The one thing I never thought of was wearing a pair of latex gloves inside the changing bag.
But getting back to part one of the four-part trilogy (a nod to Douglas) – I did seem to shoot a lot of pictures in marginal lighting. I would typically have some highlights in the negative and empty shadows – as in, clear film base empty. I tried a few different developers but it was all too easy to go a week or so without developing and then find it had expired. Microphen, D76 and both red and blue flavours of Neofin failed me on reliability. Or I failed them – I was basically inconsistent and useless. Luckily I settled on Aculux which came in a bottle with good instructions tucked up inside the cap and mostly worked. And if it was more orange than straw-coloured when I poured some out it was time to buy some more.
In later years I tried two-part developers, again mixed from raw chemicals. When fresh and with a heartily-overexposed film they worked very well. The problem came from not knowing if one of the components had expired. I seemed to be able to get one, maybe two rolls developed from the brew and then the next film out would be blank. So I had basically been experimenting with a rather expensive one-shot developer. And besides, if I was going to over-expose a film I would live somewhere with year-round sunshine. Or sunshine.
Following the Zone System is a seductive rabbit hole that will lead you into the madness of not being able to take a photograph in N-1 lighting when you have an N+1 film loaded. If you don’t know what this means, walk away now and don’t try to find out. How many rolls of film did I shoot of grey cards and numbered scales of tones? How many precisely-detailed development times and dilutions did I write in my notebook? Looking at it now I find a neat little table showing the lighting range of the subject against the adjustment to ISO rating and developing time needed to capture the full range of tones. Eventually you realise that a picture in the fog doesn’t need to render as twelve zones on the negative, and won’t look foggy if you do. Likewise, harsh sunlight could be rendered as British Standard Cloudy or you can leave it to look like what it is.
I think what broke me of that habit was shooting some Ilford XP2. The technically finest print I have ever made was a straight print from an XP2 negative. It had shadow and highlight detail and just worked. So it was a picture of the arse end of a boat, but it was camera-club-tastic.
As for the final part of the trilogy (still with me?), this continues to bite me in the boat. Exhausted developer? – buy some Rodinal. Stop experimenting with weird brews that promise a million ISO and no grain.
Streaking on the negatives? Stop agitating it like you’re mixing a cocktail. But do agitate it: using that little swizzle stick to rotate the reel is a bad idea. All hail Eris, goddess of agitation.
Exhausted fixer? Keep a count of how many films have gone through it. Also, drop the cut-off leader from the film left-over from loading it into tank into a saucer of fixer. Measure how long it takes to clear the film. Fix for twice as long as that. Chuck the fixer and use fresh if it doesn’t clear within say, four minutes. Incidentally, if you keep your fixer in a glass bottle it can plate the inside of the bottle with silver over time and turn it into a mirror. Then you can pretend to be an alchemist.
Make-up the developer in a jug and keep the fixer in a bottle or completely different container. Write FIXER on it. Or put the fixer somewhere out of reach when you are developing. Remember – fixing usually comes last in the process.
And when the time comes to hang those perfect negatives up to dry, try to stay away from people who are beating carpets, drilling into walls or shaving a dog. And out of reach of cats.
And with all that, I find I can’t help myself: I want to try stand development. I have seen some amazing results from using it. Terry Cryer – the finest printer you have probably never heard of – did some amazing work with stand-developing (as well as him being good enough to teach the gods how to make mono prints). So it’s Rodinal 1:100 here I come and hoping that nobody thoughtfully empties that plastic drum I left in the sink.
News flash – just developed my first film by the stand method and got exactly the same-looking results as I got earlier in the week by my usual time and dilution. So when they are dry they will be into the scanner and compared.
Does anyone remember Jimmy Nail advertising Kodak film on TV? Would anyone believe that colour print film was a big enough competitive market to be worth advertising? Will it come back?
Like a lot of people who predate the smartphone, I started out on film. It wasn’t being worthy and I wasn’t a hipster: film was what made photographs. If I started now I would surely have begun with digital.
Film came in little boxes and many types, with strange names. You could buy film from a camera shop or a chemists, but it was like buying condoms: you wanted to appear like you knew what you were doing. I would learn the name of a film from a magazine then ask for one roll in the shop. I’d gulp at the price, keep a straight face and rush out to play.
It was always black and white film: that’s what real photographers used. The magazines said so. I was also working in a testing lab, so I had access to chemicals. Pretty soon I was making my own developer, then buying proper developer and processing my own film. Yet another reason to use mono film. My best friend had an enlarger, so I could print the occasional worthwhile negative.
Then I went off to university. Amazingly I had more money and film seemed to be cheap. I even shot colour, although as a purist this was obviously slide film. Then the madness began: I started experimenting with cheap film.
Lith film looked like an arty choice – 6 ISO, orthochromatic and develops in paper developer. Imagine a film that records only the highlights, and these are blocked and featureless. If it records anything at all. Or it might just have been that I was incompetent.
I bought a reel of motion-picture mono negative. It was somewhere around 250 ISO. It had also either expired in the Jurassic or been left on top of a radiator. Imagine a range of tones that ran from sludge to scum with a level of fog that looked like the camera was broken. Or it might have been that incompetence thing again. [I found a set of negatives from this recently when looking for something else. They had the film batch or serial number punched into the film as perforations every so often. Usually in the middle of an important shot]
Developing your own film is a joy and pleasure and a further step to achieving the apex of one’s craft. Unless the reel is damp or your hands sweat. Then you get marks where the film got creased and clear spots where two layers were touching. This is easily cured by putting the fixer into the tank first.
Film cassettes at the time were obligingly made so that the ends popped off to make them easily reusable. Unless you kept reusing them. Then you got scratches and eventually light leaks. Fighting a curly length of film from a dodgy cassette onto a damp reel in a snug changing bag was both formative for the character, developmental for the vocabulary and could result in bits of emulsion being gouged off the film base. It takes a lot of effort to achieve that, but so does winding a jammed film so hard it tears.
I stocked up on an unknown colour slide film for a holiday because it was cheap. The Orwo Chrome also came in neat alloy canisters, which were a tight fit for the film, especially when dented. These days you could just wave the Lomo name at pictures with extreme contrast and weird colour shifts. In those days I had fup duck.
I did go through a period, like everyone else I expect, of shooting only colour print and sending it off in a plastic envelope to get a set of prints and a replacement film. Eventually I learned that colour print likes plenty of light and low contrast. I had a Canon waterproof point and shoot camera that had the flash on by default. This did a brilliant job of fill-in and made great prints until the rear door catch broke off. Strangely an old Agfa Super Silette also did a great job and probably still does, but real men shoot mono, right?
Eventually I settled on a set of films that worked. Thank you Ilford. I also found and loved the best colour slide film of all time, Agfachrome 50s. If I could choose one film to be resurrected… I’d happily forgo a rebranded mono surveillance film or two.
So having tamed my competing desires for the cheapest possible film and the strangest emulsions I could find, what else could possibly go wrong?
Loading film into the camera is always an opportunity for a duck moment. I have learned now to take up the tension on the rewind so that I can see it revolve on the first wind-on. Previous to that I used to enjoy the occasional everlasting film. I had one camera, a Praktica with their weird bit of wire on the take-up spool, that I never did get to load successfully.
I had a Zorki for years that was bottom loading, like an old Leica. The only way I could get the film to lie properly across the gate was to load it, set the shutter on B, take the lens off, press and hold the shutter release and work the film into the right position with my thumb. I did wonder how Leica had a good reputation amongst photojournalists: I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to reload like this in a hurry. It was years later that I learned about the long leader – and what a joy when it worked. I did feel guilty about the extra couple of frames I lost though.
So I buy film that works and load it properly. What else could possibly go wrong? That’s when you forget what is in the camera. Oh, I’ve got a clever Pentax with a little pocket that holds the end of the film box as a reminder. I’ve got another camera with a sticky pocket that came with a magazine. But who sticks to sensible cameras? After many a fup duck I discovered white insulating tape (electrician’s tape). It sticks well but not too hard and doesn’t leave a glue residue. I can write on it with biro or marker. If I do something weird with the film, I can stick it to the plastic carton. Go me! It’s only taken a donkey’s lifetime to bring me close to competence.
Oh, and I still have a bulk film loader and some ortho lith film. I can hear the siren’s quack…
I was such a cool dude. Not only had I bought a proper SLR, but I had a neat rangefinder compact as my carrying-around camera. It may have lacked that expensive red dot on the front, but it was like a good camera (bad pun, but work with me here).
I had read everything I could find on people like Don McCullin and seen his battered cameras surviving bullets and worse. So my little rangefinder could live in my messenger bag. With a bit of luck the black paint might wear and show some brass on the corners. Then people would know I was an experienced photographer.
So the messenger bag went on the rear carrier of my bicycle. It was full of books and binders, and made a nice flat load. Except for the little camera. This wiggled itself into a drooping scrotum of canvas that brushed the spokes and was drawn into the gap between the wheel and the stay supporting the rear carrier. Those skinny little wire spokes wiped the lens right off the front of the camera body.
This was the first and last time I had insurance on a camera. The small amount of money I got back went towards an Olympus XA2. This had a sliding cover over the lens – no fool me; I wasn’t going to get caught the same way twice. There is a saying though that if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans. Or a certain duck I was coming to know.
I was on holiday with friends. We were at the seaside. The waves were fantastic – crashing into the sea wall and occaionally spraying up over the promenade. Dave and I leant over the wall – Dave to look, me to get a photo of the waves and spray. Just as we leant over, there was a deep booming noise below us. That would be the wave that climbed the wall and hit us so hard we got salt water up our noses.
The poor Olympus was flooded. I believe I got one picture of Dave with it, then rewound the film and tried to get it dried out. I was nearly succesful: the electronics continued to work, the lens was clean and I seemed to have escaped the touch of the duck. Until I lent the camera to my parents. They mentioned an odd cracking noise when my mum tried to move the focus lever, which then moved freely up and down. The brass thread that focused the lens had seized with salt water, and the little arm and pin that turned the lens to focus it snapped under the strain.
I did what any misguided idiot would have done and tried to repair it. The camera came apart easily enough and a wee dribble of WD40 freed the focus thread. Careful work with a piece of alloy from a beer can and a dab of Araldite made a new focusing arm. But it didn’t really work very well and the (infamous) shutter button began to play up.
It’s replacement was an Olympus XA – the proper one with rangefinder focusing. I still have it and I have beeen very happy with it. I have avoided feeding it into moving machinery and generally kept it away from water. You will be pleased to learn though that this was not the last camera I flooded, but more anon.