Project 36X

2013 was all about getting back into film photography for me. Going into 2014, I did mostly documentary and urban photography in my new surroundings on Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill. Having moved back to Germany, 2015 was the year of my 52rolls project. It was a blast, but difficult to keep up shooting and scanning and editing and writing up essays to go with each and every one of the 52 posts for that year. On the digital front, 2015 was the year I began seriously feeding my Instagram account, helped along by a new iPhone.

So, now that we’ve already left January behind: What is my plan for 2016?

For one, I am settling into a style of documentary/ urban/ cityscape/ street/ whathaveyou photography. Perhaps a bit inspired by Stephen Shore, perhaps a bit taken with Mary Ellen Mark, William Eggleston, Berenice Abbott, and Luigi Ghirri. But really, none of that too much, and clearly not at anything resembling that level. I’ll be true to it, though, and see where it takes me. In slide, negative color film, or in black and white, or even in digital here and there.

Then, I also want to try some more instant photography. I have two instant cameras, and they should see some more use. And portraits. And flash. And portraits with flash. There’s always something to be learned there.

My stable of Super 8 cameras
Big and Small. My little stable of Super 8 cameras.

And then there is Super 8. It’s kismet that Kodak announced a new push for Super 8 filmmaking at CES 2016 with their Yves-Behar-styled new camera, slated for late this year. 2016, after some efforts in 2015, will be my year to get to grips with Super 8.

For one, I’ll shoot it as movie film. In black and white (Tri-X in my Minolta XL-401, provided that camera works well after I managed to get it running again last week) and in color (likely Kodak 50D or 200T in my Minolta XL-64 which I also need to test out, having just modded it to run at 24 frames per second).

But I will also attempt something else. Something that I have been thinking about for months. I will take still photographs with Super 8 film. That might seem like an incredibly bad idea, considering people disparage miniature format photography for its subpar image quality, and many don’t even give 35mm full consideration. Medium format and 4×5, that’s where it’s at for many of my photography friends. And sure, having shot some larger film, I understand the appeal. The detail you get is amazing. The pictures have a whole different kind of presence. It’s magical.

But that’s why I’m running the other way. I realized again, when hearing one photographer say that he doesn’t like 35mm because he finds the pictures he takes with it boring, that there’s a chance to do something different here. If photography is about visuals, then the visual of a grainy Super 8 frame will be radically at odds with large format beautiful pictures. It will be something much more normal, democratic, ephemeral.

My modded Minolta XL-601 from ca. 1978
Be Still, my Camera! Slightly modded Minolta XL-601 from ca. 1978.

Project 36X will start on my 36th birthday. I will shoot for 360 days, close enough to a year-long project. And when I’ve shot a whole roll of Super 8, its 15 meters of film will hold 3600 images. The numerology works out well here, and that’s nice, but the idea isn’t tied to it. What I am interested in is the sheer abundance of pictures on one roll of film. It should fit pretty well into these digital times in which we’re rediscovering vinyl and film and fountain pens. The subject matter? Whatever I can get in front of my lens. I have 3600 images to make, after all.

How do I intend to do this? I bought a Minolta XL-601 camera last year as my first foray into Super 8. I tested it with film, and it works. I’ve subsequently bought two more Super 8 cameras, so I don’t desperately need this one to be a movie camera. It has a frame by frame setting, it takes two AA batteries, and it has both auto and manual exposure. I have modded it (very non-intrusively and reversably with mostly gaffer tape, a screw drivers and a permanent marker pen) to be a still frame super 8 camera that I can bring with me anytime.

March 21st is my birthday. That’s when the project begins. Many things can go wrong with something like this. I’ve tried to prevent some of them to happen before even starting, but nothing is perfect. In the worst case scenario, I will have shot 3600 frames and will have nothing to show for it. That would be bad. But that’s part of the challenge: to do a lot of work and not be sure how, or if it will turn out. As the Dorothea Lange quote goes, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” If I have images to show at the end of the year, that’s great. If something goes wrong and I don’t, I will still have learned to see a little better.

I will only know if everything has worked out at the end of the year, after I’ve sent in my roll of Super 8 to be developed and scanned. I’m hoping to get single frame, high quality (4K or thereabouts) scans that I can then go through, edit, color grade, and generally mess with. But until then, I won’t have anything to show for. It’s quite a gamble, and it’s an admittedly strange project to undertake.

I am anxious to see what will happen. Time to order some film.

Review on 35mmc – Minolta Hi-Matic AF-2

Another review of mine is up on Hamish Gill’s amazing 35mm compact shooter site, the no-nonsensically titled The star: a $9.99 Hi-Matic camera.

Hi-Matic AF-2 with accoutrements
Hi-Matic AF-2 with accoutrements

I Reviewed the Minolta Riva Mini

It’s my favorite little point and shoot camera, so of course when Hamish Gill of asked, I jumped at the chance to review it.

You can read my post on Hamish’s site, the amazing one stop shop for everything 35mm compact cameras, here.

My favorite point and shoot
My favorite point and shoot

Spiritual Home Camera

Gear Acquisition Syndrome – “GAS” or “gas” – is one of the most insidious things about photography. Admit it, you *know* you don’t need more than one camera. But if you’re like me (and if you came here by googling “GAS,” while I can’t speak for any other similarities, at least when it comes to buying cameras, we seem to be in the ballpark), you still can’t resist acquiring several. And then several more. Because they were cheap. Because they looked cute, or cool, or interesting. Because they have emotional or historical cachet. It’s why I still am longing for a full set of A. Schacht lenses: they were made in Ulm, Germany, the city I was born in, and where I spent my childhood and teenage years. It’s why I’m only barely controling my trigger finger when it hovers over a “Buy It Now” for a Leica M6 in good condition.

SR-T 100x during a lunch break on
SR-T 100x. Spiritual home camera contender. And food.

There’s inspiration to be had by the greats, no doubt. Who, if they’re into photography, hasn’t wanted to duplicate the wanderings of Henri Cartier Bresson or Garry Winogrand with their iconic rangefinder cameras, or wished for a Crown Speed Graphic because Weegee used one? Who could resist the temptation of a large format field camera or a medium format Hasselblad? After all, those were the preferred tools of quasi-god of landscape imagery, Ansel Adams?

I confess, when I read that William Eugene Smith’s famous Miramata documentary series was shot on black Minolta SR-T 101’s, I went straight to eBay to look if I could score one. Despite the fact that I already own a silver colored SR-T 100x, a close cousin. And after seeing, hidden in the back of Luigi Ghirri’s book “Kodachrome,” that he had used a Canon AT1, I googled that model immediately.

Is there something wrong with me? I am very much aware of the fact that more gear frequently only means more things that can break, or get lost. It doesn’t usually mean better pictures. Sure, if you’re a professional, you might really need an 800mm telephoto lens, or a fisheye, or a zoom that’s image stabilized and goes to f2.8 throughout the range. You might live or die by fast autofocus and high ISOs. But then again, “professional” is one hell of a sliding scale of a term, as evidenced by so many opinions out there in the wilds of the web of what constitutes a pro, and what the things are that professionals need or don’t need. Who are we counting? People shooting iPhone pictures to accompany blog posts for which they’re getting paid, if only a pittance? In the strictest sense of the word, we should. Do we count visual artists? Even those who purposely use “vintage” equipment? Small town newspaper shooters, just starting out, provided that species still exists? Wedding photographers who have shot exactly one wedding, or three hundred, or anything in between?

When it comes to the definition of what a professional photographer is, people usually have an idea in their mind that they then present to others, and they make claims based on that idea. They spent years being a sports photographer, and thus proclaim that no professional would ever buy anything but an SLR because of course, we need crazy reliable autofocus and still image frame rates that would but a Super 8 motion picture to shame. And of course, if that image that’ll show up as a maximum 6×4 cm rectangle on a newspaper page or at 150dpi online via the AP isn’t sharp corner to corner, you’re never going to work in this town again. Or they insist that shooting film for weddings is passé, and impossible in this day and age, because you need to be able to give your clients turnaround times that rival that of Smart car. Because, else.

The simple truth is, whether you’re professional, amateur, or somewhere in between, your needs will not be the same as anyone else’s. Sure fashion photographers all work exclusively on medium format. Except those who don’t. Sure, you need at least two reflectors and three speedlight flashes with you at any given time. Unless that’s not your style, and you’ve never even owned a flash.

After getting serious about photography again a year or so ago, it took me about a week to buy my first analog camera, and about six months to decide that what I needed for my style of shooting was a digital Fuji X100s, because all over the internet people loved it for its compactness, image quality, and style. But if I’m honest, this camera – the one I spent by far the most money on – only left me wanting for the thing that it pretends to be but isn’t, a 35mm film Leica.

Maybe if I get that Leica, I’ll finally be content, and will only spend money on film and more of their exorbitantly expensive lenses. But it’s also possible that I’ll soon set it aside and reach for one of my much cheaper SLRs again. Because the camera that’s “you,” much like your personal style, your way of speaking, walking and what you like to eat and watch on TV, is something that happens to you, something that’s not a result but a process. My girlfriend has none of my problems. I gave her a Minolta X300s last year, bought used with a 50mm f1.7 lens from a small camera store in town. When we go out on a photo walk, I stand before my shelf of candidates like a deer in the headlights and eventually decide on something that will likely make me wish I’d brought something else instead later in the day. She grabs her Minolta. She grabs her camera. Because that’s what it is. There’s no contender.

Fed 2 camera
Another camera I didn’t need. Bought because it was… green.

Unlike her, I haven’t found my spiritual home camera yet. (I also credit her with coining that term, by the way). The closest I can come is probably my aforementioned SR-T 100x. The first SLR I ever bought in my life, in the summer of 2013 at a thrift store/antique shop near Munich’s Rotkreuplatz. The money I paid for it was less than what it cost to have it CLA’d, and less also than the leather strap I bought to carry it. The list of things it doesn’t do is longer than the list of things it does. But there’s something right about it. Maybe I keep recalling the words of the seasoned camera repairman that I brought it to for adjustment not long after acquiring it: “Good camera. Very reliable. Good lens. Very sharp.” And really, is there anything else you ever need to know about your camera?

Then again, if there’s ever a black 101 in reach…

Rangefinder Impersonators, or: Using Minolta’s Hi-Matic AF2 as an Analogue Fuji X100s

The Fuji X100s, and its predecessor, the X100 before it, have received both accolades and disparagament from many a commentator during the past three years or so. Though the camera is not everything to everyone, it seems that it is one thing: everybody’s favorite digital rangefinder camera that’s not actually a rangefinder.

Minolta AF2 and Fuji X100S
Analog and digital. Not easy to discern up front.

This is now a camera category. With its digital X-series of retr0-styled – read: designed to look and work the way that most cameras actually looked and worked from the early 20th century until the mid-1980s – cameras, Fuji hit a nerve. It didn’t hurt that its postmodern forays into yesteryear produced more than acceptable digital pictures. Some photographers even seemed to rediscover an analogue soul in the by now bewildering number of  digital offerings from a company that still makes, and importantly, still calls itself, Fujifilm.

The Fuji X100/s had the looks and many advantages of a rangefinder complete with close enough simulations of favorite Fuji film stocks, some ironically long discontinued in real life. As the owner of an X100s who began once again taking photos on film a little over a year ago, I wondered: was there an analogue equivalent? And not an expensive Leica M series camera, a somewhat less expensive but still not-cool-if-you-leave-that-on-the-bus C0ntax G, or one of the plethora of fixed lens rangefinders from the 1960s through early 1980s. No, those were fun, but I wanted something for those occasions when the camera I brought would be cheap, competent, and idiot proof.

Was there a camera, conceived at the time with a good fixed lens, 35mm or so field of view, some automation, and built in flash? Something that could be used like an X100S in program mode for unobtrusive pictures of streets, buildings, and most importantly, people? Something, in short, that I could carry everywhere instead of my trusty, but heavy and very very manual Rollei 35T? This is where, by way of an unexpected side entrance, the Minolta Hi-Matic AF2 appears on the scene.

AF2 - X100s Side by Side - Front
AF2 – X100s Side by Side – Front
AF2 - X100s Side by Side - Back
AF2 – X100s Side by Side – Back

In the late 1970s, the all-metal, mostly manual operation design language of SLR cameras was slowly but surely on its way out. Canon introduced the AE1, which in 1981 gave way to the AE1 Program, and on the heels of those cameras’ successes, Minolta thought it could capture the mass market with something a little cheaper and a little more technically advanced than it’s top of the line XD 7 (a.k.a. XD 11) camera. That something was the Minolta X-700, and it was a design they felt no great rush to update. In fact, it continued to be made well into the 1990s.

The X-700 sold, and it sold well. This would ultimately enable Minolta to throw some of the money earned into research and development for what became the Alpha (a.k.a. Maxxum, a.k.a. Dynax) 7000. The 7000 would set the standard for all autofocusing SLR cameras. Though today it exudes a naive 1980s charm, all the major elements of today’s high tech digital Canons, Sonys, and Nikons are already present in this, their ancestor. The 7000 had autofocusing built into the camera, not the lens (as Canon’s first attempt at the technology did), an LCD display, motorized film transport, and a menu system for settings. It was a technological achievement, and a commercial success.

Before that, however, Minolta had released a point and shoot autofocus camera that showed its old school rangefinder heritage: the Hi-Matic AF. Introduced in 1979, the AF was part of a class of small, semi-automatic cameras from different Japanese manufacturers that looked much the same. Konica’s C35 AF led the way in 1977. It used the simple passive autofocusing system patented by Honeywell. Canon’s AF35M (also in the guises of SureShot and AutoBoy) was not too far behind in November of 1979. Minolta’s entry, still featuring the cursive mid century modern logo that had branded their cameras since the 1960s, innovated on details (it had an auto focus lock, so you were not limited on getting the middle of your picture in focus, but could recompose after having focused), but otherwise stayed the course.

In 1981, coinciding with the release of the X-700, and the unveiling of Minolta’s new round, blue “rising sun” logo thought up by graphic design legend Saul Bass, the Hi-Matic AF got a makeover and became the AF2, to bring its look subtly in line with the X-700. Both were affordable yet not cheap, solidly performing cameras in their respective niches. A typical camera store ad in Popular Photography from 1983 prices an X-700 with two lenses and a few extras at just under $300 (US). The AF2, with an ambitious original list price of $250 sold for $100, including the case, two years after its introduction. (The AF2-M was $140).

Both sported a sleek, black, angular look that is forever associated with the 1980s – the technotronic age of Casio, early home computers, and MTV. The AF’s autofocusing system was updated from a passive one to an active one, rivaling the Canon AF35M’s.

In 1982, the AF2 received an even more modern, motorized sister, the AF2-M. The trend towards small, ever more automatic cameras usable even by absolute photography beginners was well on its way. Its current outgrowth is the smartphone camera: good enough for most people most of the time, but not longer a dedicated tool with manual settings and professional control over image parameters.

The camera that now sits on the table next to me, liberated from – judging from the almost imperceptible strands of lens fungus that adorn the rear element of the 38mm f2.8 lens that produces joyful color and sharp black and white images – a damp closet or garage, still looks almost pristine. The mold would have rendered it useless (“uneconomical to repair”) before too long, but it’s not now noticeable on pictures, and since the fungus that in wet climates so often attacks optical lenses is averse to UV light, it’s all the more reason to take this camera out and about and just… shoot.

After a few days worth of research and search search on eBay, this particular AF2 was mine for under $20 including shipping. It takes two regular AA batteries, and any kind of 35mm film you want to throw at it, but has a maximum ISO of 400 in its exposure settings. The manual remarks that you should set it for ISO 400 when using ISO 1000 film. In all likelihood this means that the camera will treat it like ISO 400 film, but that the manual writers felt confident the one stop plus change overexposure would not hurt the resulting images. Since the AF2 has a built in pop-up flash, I haven’t found the 400 ISO limitation particularly problematic yet.

The flash is small and not particularly powerful, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s enough for pictures of individuals or small groups, and that’s fine by me. I appreciate that the camera will beep if there’s low light, but won’t insist on activating the flash before firing. To activate it, move the “flash on” slider and hear it pop up with a satisfying clack. Charge time seems to be about five seconds when depleted, less if there’s still some charge left. The flash can also be used when there’s plenty light, as a fill flash, for example. The fact that the AF2 has a leaf shutter makes this all the more exciting and useful.

My AF2 came with a set of third party tele and wide lens converters and small goggles to indicate the changed field of view in the camera’s viewfinder. They seem like nice additions, but are by no means essential to enjoy the camera. They screw into the AF2’s 46mm filter mount if you need them. In this, they resemble the screw on lenses offered by Fuji for the X100 and X100s, though I would wager the newer lenses, benefitting from the fact that they are made by the manufacturer of the camera, and use electronic corrections applied in camera, offer much better picture quality.

AF2 Tele and Wide Lenses
AF2 Tele and Wide Lenses
AF2 with Wide Angle  Lens Converter
AF2 with Wide Angle Lens Converter

In fact, the 2010s era digital X100s and the 1980s film AF2 have quite a few things in common. They both look like, but are not rangefinders. They have fixed lenses with similar fields of view (23mm f2 on APS-C format on the Fuji, 38mm f2.8 on 35mm on the Minolta), share a similar size, have autofocus and an on board flash that can be activated or deactivated according to the user’s wishes. They have decent build quality, though the edge goes to the Fuji, with the Minolta’s plastic wind lever and rewind spool looking a bit more flimsy than necessary. They are quickly ready to shoot, and both give good picture quality, though of course each offers the up- and downsides of its respective kin in the film vs. digital debate. They are both quiet cameras. Both use leaf shutters. The Minolta’s goes off with a small “snitch” sound that almost sounds like a repressed sneeze, while the Fuji’s clicks almost imperceptibly.

For some applications, they actually can fill the same photographic niche. If you need a good quality camera for street, travel, people, or vacation photography and aren’t looking for full image control, either will easily suffice.

There are, of course, differences. If you need something to take white water rafting, the cheap old Minolta might be a better bet than the expensive Fuji. Likewise, if you need instant feedback and digital turnaround times, only the Fuji will do. Also, 30 years of camera development have not been for nothing. The Fuji has video, manual controls, and the high ISOs nowadays associated with big sensored digital cameras. If I needed to pick just one camera to do everything, the Fuji it would be. Then again, the Fuji is battery hungry and uses proprietary lithium rechargeables, while the Minolta happily sips AA batteries, alkaline or rechargeable, of any provenance. The Fuji is also $1300 sans case, while a fully functional AF2 will set you back an average of $20. That’s 65 AF2s for the price of one Fuji. Film, of course, costs money, but so do SD cards, backup hard disks, and extra batteries.

Why would one even attempt to compare two products from a full human generation apart that were designed for different people in different eras? For the same reason that one would ever look back at history; to try and understand where we are now, and understand how we got here. Also, to remind oneself that the amount of money you invest in a gadget often has very little correlation to the enjoyment you can get out of it.

So, what is there to consider if you want to buy an AF2? Luckily, not a whole lot. If you’re trolling garage sales or looking on eBay, make sure the shutter and flash work. Even sellers that do not know anything about cameras can often be asked to pop in batteries and try out those fundamental functions if you tell them the AF2 takes common AA batteries. Since the case was usually sold with the camera, most AF2s today still come in one. It’s a useful thing to have. I usually use mine as a bottom half case and bring the lens cap if I need to throw the Hi-Matic in a bag (the lens cap also prevents the shutter from firing accidentally). Check if there’s bad lens fungus, unless you’re going for an artsy out of focus vibe in your pictures. Finally, as a result of 1970s and 1980s Japanese camera manufacturers’ reliance on foam to make their cameras light tight, your AF2 will likely have some of that now degraded foam gunking up its film compartment.

This can easily though somewhat messily be cleaned out using some toothpicks, cotton swab, and rubbing alcohol. The little Minolta does not seem to rely on the foam to keep the film in its belly from undue exposure, however. I cleaned out all the foam, and immediately put a test roll through it without any visible light leaks. Eventually, I’m sure I’ll put light seals back just to be on the safe side, but it seems to me that if you keep the bottom case on while you use the camera, you won’t have much trouble.

Apart from that, the AF2 offers some useful functions, a very good and reasonably fast lens, enough automation to capture quick snapshots without feeling like an overengineered plastic wonder that whirrs and whines at the most inopportune moments, and a fun throwback design that looks perfectly in tune with Minolta’s SLR offerings from the same era.

If you want to learn the nuts and bolts of exposure and film photography, then the AF2 is not for you. It is for you if you like the look of film, but don’t much care about the technical ins and outs of photography, or if you already have a more manual camera and want something smaller, faster, and cheaper to accompany you every day, or during a vacation trip where expensive gear is liable to get stolen or damaged (beach, anyone?).

If you need any more convincing, just look at the pictures.

Those Minolta Colors

I’ve found myself shooting more and more with a camera I picked up on a whim this summer, the Minolta X-700.

Information is plentiful online about this camera. It was introduced in 1981, and could be bought new still in 1999. In essence, it was produced from a time when you could still buy all-metal all-manual SLRs new until the digital era began.

Minolta’s Rokkor SR-mount lenses have a reputation for being mostly excellent, and can be had cheaply these days, mostly because no digital camera will natively support them. The only way to use them on a digital camera is with an adapter, and the only camera so far that will accept them and also take full-frame pictures is the recently released Sony A7/A7R.

The X-700 is certainly no high-tech whiz-bang DSLR-type wonder of microchiped technology these days, but it also doesn’t feel ancient when you use it. Its claim to fame in the early 1980s was its P-Mode, which selects aperture and shutter speed automatically, leaving only focusing to the photographer. Yes, that’s not a big thing now. It was a big thing then.

Certainly, the emphasis here was on simplicity, and the X-700 delivers. It’s the kind of camera you can hand off to a complete photography newbie, and as long as they get the focus right, usable pictures will result.

But the X-700 also lets you take control and experiment.

X-700The only major quibble I have with the camera so far is that it doesn’t like the cold. At all. It frequently needs coercing to work in temperatures even slightly above freezing, though I recently purchased some lithium batteries that might help in that regard.

Despite being marketed as a professional camera initially, the X-700 never seems to have grabbed much of that market. It does have all the necessary accoutrements, however, including a massive motor drive. The motor drive is really something you’ll want for this camera. It simply feels good in your hand, and is a lot of fun to use.

Without it, the X-700 is nicely small and portable, especially with the 45/f2 lens that often comes attached to it. If walk-around type street photography is the name of your game, the X-700 – small, black, and with some really great and cheap fast primes – will deliver. Yes, the shutter is not completely silent. But neither is that of a modern DSLR.

With the drive and a portrait or zoom lens attached (the cheap and excellent MD 35-70/f3.5, a version of which was also sold as a Leica lens, is a favorite), the camera becomes a different beast. It will do a respectable-for-film 3.5 frames per second, and with the dedicated flash unit attached, it wouldn’t look out of place in the hands of a news photographer. Well, if there were any of those left. More likely, you’ll want to use that configuration for travel photography, if you don’t mind being that tourist with the big camera around their neck. The motor drive also has a dedicated shutter button for vertical pictures, so portraiture is another thing the X-700 excels at, especially with a matching through-the-lens flash such as the 360 PX that was once sold as an accessory.

The more I learn about analog photography, and about what styles of camera and photo-taking I prefer, the more I keep picking up the X-700. Once I weed out the camera collection I have, kind of accidentally, amassed over the past few months, I will likely get rid of many impulse buys and once seemingly good investments. Along with the Rollei 35, the Minolta X-700, however, is likely to stick around. The 35-70/f3.5 lens especially has proven wonderfully versatile. Provided I want to keep taking pictures with that one, the only real upgrade path from an X-700 (or any of the Minoltas) would be a Leica R camera. But that would mean switching to yet another obsolete camera system, and giving up one thing that adds to the X-700’s draw: it’s cheap, and so many were made that you’ll never worry about losing and replacing it. In fact, I already ended up with another X-700, and also its somewhat less capable sister, the XGM.