Pictures from Portugal: Porto and Coimbra in March

When I travel for work, I still try to sneak in a few pictures here and there on the way. Usually, I bring along my Fuji X100S, as it is small enough and good enough to document most things. I hardly leave the house, however (and certainly not the country) without a film camera. I don’t like bringing big heaps of luggage, though, so most often that camera is a rather small one.

On a recent conference trip to Portugal and the UK, I really tried to keep the weight of gear down and brought only my Rollei 35T. The Rollei is the first film camera I ever bought, in 2013, and I recently had it repaired and readjusted and some parts exchanged because it had not functioned satisfactorily and sat unused for a while. The viewfinder had lost its luster and become quite dim, and some screws were obviously no longer originals, so the camera needed a makeover. The camera repair shop also adjusted the light meter so the camera can now be used with common 1.5V batteries, and no longer relies on the 1.35V mercury cells that have been phased out because of environmental concerns.

I still have an original yellow filter and a lens hood, and thus equipped I threw the camera in my bag with a roll of the sadly gone Kodak BW400CN loaded. Scale focusing (i.e. guess focusing) the Rollei is a learned skill, and one I seem to have unlearned to quite a significant degree in the years I hadn’t used the camera. The pictures that did turn out, however, are reward enough. The lens is sharp and gives a wonderfully vintage street photography feel. Looking at the results, I feel transported to another time, another way of living and thinking and photographing.

 

 

Should You Do a 365 Photo Project?

It’s the beginning of the year, so naturally, people have tons of New Year’s resolutions. I chose not to make one. In my latest piece for Fstoppers, I I talk about why a 365-day photo project in particular may not be the best resolution to make.

52rolls 2015: Live and Learn

In December 2014 I decided to apply for Urban Hafner’s 52rolls project. I would commit myself to shooting (at least) 52 film rolls in 2015, develop them or have them developed, scan them, edit them, and put them up on the blog at 52rolls.net with little essays I would write for each.

To my own surprise I kept up with it – mostly, though I fell behind in scanning and posting, completing the project only a month after 2015 had already finished. I did it. I’m done now. I won’t do it this way again. Before I go, however, I wanted to share a few thoughts, and 52 of my favorite images – one from each roll – of 2015.

What will I do now? I may shoot 52 rolls of film again this year, but I won’t keep up with scanning, editing and writing. The 52 rolls community has been great, and I wouldn’t want to miss it. So I’ll keep checking the site, comment here and there, read up on what others have been doing. And mostly, enjoy the pictures they make. When I say I won’t do it this way again, that doesn’t mean I am ruling out ever doing such a project again, or even doing it again on 52rolls. If I do, though, the focus will be different. I may concentrate on specific techniques. I may shoot single images, or much shorter films.

Keeping up with shooting a roll of 36 or more pictures each week is just very hard to do. The fact that I set myself the task to not only shoot, scan and edit the images, but also to write up an essay – a mood piece if you will – for each roll, something that wasn’t part of the official project description, but something that I challenged myself to do, didn’t make it easier. But I did it. I created 52 photo essays. All along, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, but I did that.

52 rolls enabled me to give shape to ideas. Ideas that I might not have known I had. It gave me a chance to escape into a world I had not seen before, and won’t see again in quite the same way. A world, however, that I am now aware exists, in some fashion, right where I may step any moment. It freed me from thoughts of the content of my content, of the need to know how articulate what I was trying to say before I had said it. It made me creative by making me create. To do it again once more, though, would feel repetitive. Limitations are good. You can accept them, or fight them, or stretch the envelope of what they may allow. But they give you a frame. 52 rolls was my limitation.

It’s a cliché, but I learned a lot. Not in the “never knew about this, oh my god, totally new” sense. But in the experiential, learning by doing sense. I learned to produce a very specific type of content in a (somewhat) efficient manner. Looking back, I haven’t learned how to quickly edit a roll of shots to favorites yet. There are too many pictures posted on 52rolls. Some I love, some I like, some I wonder why I put them up. But up they are because I was still figuring out which ones would make the cut. I still am trying to do that, but I am more selective now. That takes more time, however, and time was precious doing 52rolls. So maybe one takeaway here is to learn how to limit how much I shoot and edit. My least favorite part is throwing away shots.

All in all, it was a lot to do. But you can’t do the things you can do if you won’t commit to the ones you may not be able to complete. In the end, it comes down to a question contained in a song by the stars of one of my early rolls for this project: “Was it all worth it, giving all my heart and soul / Staying up all night?” I gave it my all, and I stayed up much too long too many times. I certainly wasn’t as social as I could have been. I could have done a million different things with the free time that was taken up by 52rolls. For the clear and unequivocal answer, though, one simply needs to listen to the music until the end: “Yes, it was worth it.”

In 2016, I have a lot on my plate work-wise, so there will be even less time for photo projects than there was in 2015. It’s fun work, but it is work that involves much thinking, writing, and doing. And time. What time I have I will dedicate to continue learning, trying, and expanding the boundaries of my abilities. I dabbled in Super 8 last year, and I will do more with that in 2016. There will be an ongoing project involving that format. Other projects I have in mind or that are already in motion involve moving and still images, analog and digital, as well as sound, words and what have you. Stay tuned.

I hope you will follow some of what I plan to do in the future as well. On this blog, on ictusoculi.com, which is my creative outlet on the web, or elsewhere. I’m @ictusoculi on both Twitter and Instagram. Whether online or in real life, come meet up with me. I’ll be happy to see you.

Until then, stay safe. Keep looking and seeing.

Note: A version of this has been cross-posted on 52rolls.net as my last post for the project.

2nd Tier Superstars: The Setup

I announced 2nd Tier Superstars (2TS for short) last Sunday. It’s a new column about those cameras that aren’t talked about endlessly in forums, photography shows, and on blog posts as being the very best cameras for film photography.

X10S3359
Some Choices, Perhaps?

Second Tier Superstars is, instead, about those that are often neglected. Cameras that are less desirable than others, either because they do not carry the cachet of having been a professional’s choice, or because they don’t have the bells and whistles one expects after having become accustomed to modern digital SLRs and mirrorless wonders. This column seeks to make sense of a world of options. It is an opinionated review, and will in the end present you with exactly one choice. One camera, one lens. There are so many possibilities in this world of film photography that I feel there needs to be a place where you can come and where you don’t have to think about every little detail for a change. A place that picks a camera for you that you’ll be happy with, and that you can grow with.

This will not be a weekly, maybe not even a monthly column. It will come out whenever I have gathered enough information, both in the specs and in the handling department, to be able to be of some help regarding a camera. Better a few good choices than many random ones. My criteria for which cameras are included here are not set in stone, but they fall along certain guidelines:

  1. Must be less than €50, with lens and functioning. Make that roughly $50, £50 or equivalent where you are. For a camera and one useful lens, before shipping or import taxes. The point is not to lock in a hard upper limit. This would be impossible anyway, considering used prices depend so much on where you buy something, from whom, and in what condition. The point is to give you a rough idea of what you can get for €50. For some, this is chump change, for others a substantial amount of money. But for anyone, it is a reasonable amount to be spending for a working camera with a working lens that will serve you well.
  2. Will not be the top model of the line. If you can get a Nikon F2 or a Minolta XK or an EOS 1n in good condition with a lens for fifty Euros or less, count yourself lucky. Most people won’t have access to deals like that so easily. And this column is about the second tier anyway. About those cameras that informed, discriminating amateurs would have bought, and that professional photographers might have used as a backup, or as a camera for specific needs.
  3. Should be a system camera. That is, a camera that will allow you to change lenses, buy a second body, and buy accessories such as remotes, releases, dedicated filters or flashes to round out your kit. So you’re not stuck in a dead end and have to decide all over again what’s right for you when your needs change.
  4. Should be easy to find. Admittedly, this is a tricky one. Maybe your part of the world is awash in one camera brand and not another, maybe you can go to flea market and see only Canons but have your heart set to Yashicas. But eBay and the like have made buying cameras even from the other end of the world possible. It will surely add to your budget to have it shipped from Ukraine to Australia or vice versa, but it won’t quadruple it. (This is also why my magic number is €50 rather than €100; even if you pay another €50 in shipping, you’ll still have a working machine for a hundred Euros).
  5. Should work right out of the box. This disqualifies many wonderful cameras that are just too old to not typically need repairs or a good cleaning. You want to jump into film photography, not spend your days searching for someone who can repair the paperweight from 1957 that you just acquired. It may make sense to have even your well-working newer camera overhauled (CLA’d – for clean, lubricate, adjust, is the term) down the road. But right now, you just want to create some images!

So that’s the setup. These are the general criteria I will be following when assessing the future superstars. Stay tuned for episode 1, which will publish this Sunday, January 31, 2016!

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 35mmc.com. 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 35mmc.com 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

The Act of Cleaning

Cleaning is how we take ownership of things.

I noticed this when I received a beaten up Nikon F801 camera, won on eBay (or “that auction site” as it is so often referred to when people want to avoid brands; making clear that our internet auction needs are pretty much monotheistic) for €11,05 plus shipping. This worked out, all in all to €15,45 and even though the camera’s condition was untested and it was dusty and grimy, I considered it a good deal. The F801 was a semi professional camera when released in 1988, and probably cost more than I’d ever consider spending on a digital SLR these days. The camera was packaged with an extra back, the MF-21 multi function control back, to enable you to print dates and aperture and shutter speed on film, to time photos at intervals, or to “trigger trap” wildlife walking into focus. This seemed to me like a less sophisticated version of a police speed camera. Who knows how many cool wildlife shots that we commend the intrepid photographer for were taken with methods like this, on a tripod abandoned in the woods, just waiting for something, anything to walk into frame.

NikonF801_2
All Clean…

But I digress. The act of cleaning is the act of making one’s own. After unpacking and unwrapping the camera body, I first rubbed it off with a paper towel, getting most of the obvious dust. Then I put a cup of water, a cup of benzene, a small air dust blower, a used old soft tooth brush and q-tips on the table. The table was layered with more paper towels. I took of the camera strap. I rubbed the camera with paper towels and some water until it already looked much better. Its battle scars from a long life of use and a long life of neglect in a cupboard or closet somewhere became more visible than they had been. Little screws holding the machine together had small flecks of rust on their heads. I used q-tips dipped in water to clean these, and to clean the crevices and hard to reach places that the paper towel had not cleaned. I rubbed it off once again with a paper towel. Next, I dipped a q-tip in benzene and took to cleaning the less sensitive parts of the camera. The lens mount’s metal became shiny again, and the autofocusing screw appeared to be turning quicker and more freely after the operation. I blew out the mirror box with the dust blower, and unhooked the little latch that held the view screen to blow dust and dirt off it as well. This worked better than initially expected (I had half feared I would need to uninstall and rinse the whole thing), and only a few tiny flecks remained. The tooth brush was dipped in water, too, to get into even tinier crevices, into the rim around the control wheel. Then I dipped it in benzene as well and cleaned what had not responded to the water.I unscrewed the battery compartment and rubbed the contacts with another naphta-dipped q-tip. They did not look dirty to me, but there was no harm in giving them some extra cleaning. Maybe there was corrosion on them that I simply could not see. I put new batteries in the camera, and it started right up, though it remained wonky: the first shot after not using it for a few hours wouldn’t complete its cycle and the mirror would stay up until I pressed the shutter button again. I replaced the batteries with rechargeables and hoped this would fix it, but it did not. At this point, I do not know what will fix this, if anything will that isn’t prohibitively expensive for such a cheap camera. I added new batteries – 2 lithium CR2025s – to the data back, and it came to life also. Thankfully, it had been designed with foresight, and setting 2015 on the almost thirty year old piece of kit was not a problem. I cleaned the strap with some water and the toothbrush, and then disinfected it. I reattached it to the camera body, added a period 35–70 kit zoom lens, and pointed the camera at the window.

NikonF801_2
…From Top to Bottom

It did fire, at least it did the second, third, fourth, and fifth times. I put in a test film. How will I deal with the shutter problem? This morning I used up all the exposures on the test roll, took it out and proceeded to fire the shutter on high, 3 or so frames per second, for something between 5 and 10 minutes. Maybe this will fix it. Maybe it won’t. Then I will try something else.

Because the act of cleaning had made this my camera now, mine to own, to shoot, but also to maintain and fix. The act of buying it did not make it so, especially not since there was a long interval between clicking “bid” and being informed I’d won the auction and receiving the actual item and unpacking it and looking at it and holding it in my hand. It felt good in my hand. All it needed was a good cleaning.

An Analogue Mode of Seeing

Digital
Digital…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the decade (or by now, decades, I guess) old debate of analogue vs. digital when it comes to photography.

There’s much to be said for each side. And I agree with both of them. One is faster, more economical. The other more permanent and deliberative. And whoever wants to discount one or the other as a whole is arguing from personal incredulity, from a limited horizon, an inability to see what uses a world population numbering in the billions could find for literally any technology ever developed.

Analogue
…or analogue. In the end, it’s all about actually getting the shot.

I love the analogue world, and I love the digital world. I grew up during what is now recognized as the digital revolution. But for a while the old and the new way of doing things existed side by side. Pictures of me as a child were, by necessity, all on film. The first digital picture of me was taken at a trade fair in my home town of Ulm, Germany sometime during the late 1980s. I have long forgotten which forward-thinking company had set up a booth with their then high tech instruments to take pictures of willing attendees. But I remember that my parents sat, one after the other, both me and my brother on the little chair the photographers had set up, and had our pictures taken.

Today these pictures exist only as a faded black and white needle prints of low resolution, hanging on the wall of a staircase at our parents’ house. In what presages a huge problem of today’s digital world, long time archiving of images and documents, the only reason the images still exist is because they were printed out. No one in the 1980s would have thought to offer digital media of raw image data as the end product of a photo session.

Digital
Digital…

My first cameras were 35mm point and shoots. Most of the slides and negatives I took with them during the ’90s still exist in boxes somewhere. Ready to be rediscovered. Analogue has an edge on digital here. In a hundred years, barring flood or fire, they will still be there. But while archiving is always on my mind (I’m a historian, it comes with the territory), the main thing I’ve been thinking about lately, is the problem of scarcity in photography. It’s way of approaching the taking of pictures, and it’s a different but related issue to the archival one.

Analogue
…or analogue. More a matter of taste than anything else.

With film, the number of pictures one can take at a time is limited. 1 for sheet film. Typically between 9 and 36 with various types of roll film. I’d wager the most you can get out of a regular 35mm film cartridge and still achieve acceptable picture quality is around 75 half frame shots. But half frame is not a typical format. For most people the magic number is between 12 and 36 frames before you need to pause and reload. That’s between 12 and 36 pictures before you need to decide to spend time, money, and effort reloading your camera and taking additional pictures. Compare that to a 32GB SD card, an average size these days, which depending on resolution and quality will easily hold up to a couple of thousand pictures. It’s no contest.

Yet, I don’t come away with more keepers when I go out with my digital camera, compared to an analogue one. Digital is like commercial fishing with a net. Analogue is standing in a creek with a fishing rod. Analogue teaches you to get it right, and to move on with your life if you didn’t. Much like pen on paper, what’s written cannot easily be erased. Like most things in the world, that can be a good thing, but also a limitation.

Garry Winogrand, who used to take hundreds of shots in one outing, constantly reloading his Leica with yet another roll of 36 exposure film, has been called the “first digital photographer.” That’s not wrong, when you look at his approach, which used to be atypical, and now has become commonplace because of digital technology, the great enabler. His standing allowed him a way of working inaccessible to those who did not have the name, or the money.

I recently read an article about a photographer who revealed the process behind a stunning portrait he had taken. He had set his camera to take the maximum of consecutive shots per second, picked it up, pointed it at his subject, and let fly. He ended up with more than a hundred similar pictures, and one that was worth keeping. He took it, and cropped and post-processed it to his liking. I was dumbfounded. That was not what I had come to regard as photography. That was shooting some video and then choosing and cropping out a freeze frame.

But I caught myself. I should not discount the image because of the way it was created. Instead, I should acknowledge that someone had found a way of working that let them produce stunning imagery. Why should I care how they did it? As with every technology or technique, as the field matures you need to do something different to distinguish yourself. That might include getting better at whatever that field defines as craftsmanship. Or it might mean redefining what is needed in order to be where you want to be.

We can bemoan that working photographers today do not even know the basics anymore. But it certainly doesn’t help that many of these complaints have an air of ageism – towards young people, in this case – and sexism: an old guard of very technically well versed male photographers needing to reassure themselves that young people, and young women especially, can’t be good photographers just because they produce good images, as long as they don’t understand the arcana of the techno-priesthood. Because reasons. But who gets do define what the basics are 175 years after photography first came into the world? Who after all, are we to judge today’s farmers for not being able to plough a field with a team of oxen anymore?

Myself, I’ve made peace with the inadequacies of each approach, digital or film. I don’t raise my eyebrows anymore when pros and amateurs alike clock in at 500+ photos per day. I’m no purist when it comes to using filters before an image goes into Photoshop, getting exposures right in camera, or getting shots spirit level straight. Turns out, you can fix things in post. Whether you choose to or not is nobody’s business but your own. But when it comes to my way of seeing, I’m still much more of an analogue photographer. I remember the first time I finished a film, the 12 exposure roll that came with a red Konica Pop Super I was given for my ninth birthday, and was shocked to realize that I’d blown the opportunity to take any more photos. I remember how carefully I then planned how many shots I had for any given period of time, be it a trip, vacation, or other event. I also recall that, when I first entered the digital age, I would shoot with no abandon, capturing dozens of frames of the same thing, and somehow never being quite inspired while doing it. Whereas, when I picked up a film camera again two years or so ago, it became part of who I was, and of how I saw things. When shooting digital pictures, I now usually leave the huge memory cards at home. Instead, I’ll go out with two or three 1GB cards. At the highest picture quality setting, that’s 27 exposures in my Fuji X100s.

After that, it’s time for a roll change.