This is what a contemplative life looks like.
A couple of weeks ago, I was given a new lease on life.
Specifically, a bag full of cameras (and lenses) that belonged to my grandfather.
35mm film cameras.
Now my daily camera these days is my cell phone, and it takes convenient but
usually terrible photos.
On those (rare) occasions where I’m actually worried about picture quality, I lug along my digital SLR.
Which also takes bland, slightly less terrible but significantly more inconvenient pictures.
And you know what? I take a lot of pictures, but I rarely spend any time looking at them.
I point the phone at the subject and press the shutter button. The pictures are taken, and on some level my brain says, “Ah yup, that one’s captured for posterity.”
(For some reason, my brain sounds like Jon Stewart imitating a cartoon turtle while talking about Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell.)
And since that moment has been safely tucked away on digital medium, I do a quick check on the LCD screen to make sure everything’s in focus and exposed properly, and then never look at the images again.
It’s as if I’ve decided, on some level, that knowing I have the pictures is enough, and reviewing them later unnecessary.
Receiving these film cameras got me to feeling nostalgic for the early days of my youth, when I shot with an all manual Pentax K1000 with a 50mm prime lens and a bobbing needle light meter, then went into the darkroom to develop the film.
Because in those days, that’s how you checked if your pictures came out. You sat in the dark while they soaked in chemicals, and then you put them in an enlarger and made prints.
If they didn’t turn out, you couldn’t just quickly try again. The event was long over.
If was an important event, you did a lot of swearing.
And let me tell you, if you’re in a small darkroom with another person and they start shrieking expletives and slamming the counter over and over with their fist, sloshing chemicals all over the place, it’s a little unsettling.
Or so I’ve been informed when asked why I was being banned from yet another darkroom.
Which is to say, I realized that I miss film photography.
Also, one of the cameras was at least fifty years old, and I really wanted to play with it for the novelty, if nothing else.
That fifty year old camera? A Zeiss-Ikon Contina III.
An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
Fortunately, the manual was surprisingly clear.
(Now calm down, lens aficionados, it doesn’t use Zeiss lenses. I had thought so too, but research revealed that there were problems with manufacturing at the time, and so they went with a different lens manufacturer.)
I went to the drug store and discovered they don’t carry what some people would call ‘a lot’ of 35mm film these days.
No, all they stocked was one roll of Fuji film.
One lousy roll.
Surrounded, to add insult to injury, by several brands of LED flash attachments for use with your cell phone camera.
I bought that lonely roll. Rescued it.
Rescued it from a long and miserable existence sitting untouched and unloved under Rite-Aid’s fluorescent lighting.
(I pick up a lot of stray rolls of film that way. Damn you, Sarah McLachlan!)
Upon examining the camera, I discovered I would need to read the manual. The light meter reports in EV (Exposure Value), and then you used that to lock the lens aperture and shutter speed to the correct exposure.
Also, it was a viewfinder, which meant I couldn’t focus through the lens. Instead, you turn the focus ring to the distance setting that matched how far your subject was from the camera.
This resulted in a lot of out-of-focus pictures on that first roll.
Turns out I’m not only a terrible judge of character, but of distance too.
Still, I had a lot of fun using the camera, and while most of the images were of poor quality, I have to blame myself rather than the camera.
Oh, it has its quirks, like the light meter consistently overexposing when shooting outside on a bright day, or there being nothing to remind you to set the focus. But that’s what the first roll was for: to help me get to know the camera.
Ironically, every single picture appearing in this blog post was shot using, what else, my digital SLR.
After my photo shoot, I couldn’t find a local place to develop the film that didn’t return the negatives.
(WTF?? I don’t get the negatives back, Walgreens? What do you do with them? Send them to the NSA so they can add to their database on me and my known associates?)
So I opted for mail order processing. That took, all told, nine days.
Nine days of wondering: did any pictures come out? Does the camera even work worth a damn? Is the light meter accurate?
And in the course of that fretting, I started thinking about the type of photography I wanted, nay, yearned to experiment with twenty years ago but couldn’t afford.
Medium format photography.
Back then, a decent MF camera cost many thousands of dollars. Far more than I wanted to spend on a hobby.
Not being able to afford it didn’t help either.
Bored, and needing something to distract me from the anxiety of waiting for my film to come back, I started researching MF cameras anyway.
I told myself it was window shopping.
It wouldn’t amount to anything.
And discovered that the bottom fell out of the market for MF film cameras when digital became established.
Suddenly the MF cameras I used to dream about were affordable (in the used market).
I won’t go into the hours I spent on research, staying up far later than was advisable on a work night, plugging makes, models, configurations and prices into a spreadsheet.
In the end, it came down to this:
Even used, MF film cameras are still pretty expensive. Affordable, yes, but advisable?
Not at my current skill level.
Compare this exterior to the Contina’s. Boring! All smooth lines and a complete lack of toggles! Pah!
No film advance lever! Even THAT is automated!
I decided it made more sense to break out the ‘fancy’ 35mm film camera I bought in the 90s. Not a super high-end camera, but no all-manual K1000 either.
Which is what I was using yesterday.
I hate it.
It’s a Pentax PZ-70. I spent a lot of time-saving up for that camera, and I loved it. Took some classes, bought a bunch of lenses and gear, even photographed a wedding with it.
I marveled, back then, at the technology I was able to buy.
Here’s the problem with it now: it’s too automated.
The 35mm lens I use on it (and my digital camera) for a prime is a featureless cylinder. No f/stop setting ring. The camera chooses for you.
Sure, I can put my all manual K1000 50mm prime lens on it, and put the camera in manual mode, but I still can’t control everything. The aperture setting goes to ‘B’ and that’s it.
(‘B’ is bulb mode for those of you not familiar with cameras. The shutter stays open for as long as your finger is on the trigger.)
All the joy, learning, and exploring I was engaged in with the Contina was gone with this camera, and I found this sucked all the entertainment and interest out of using it.
I also found that, given the automation, I went straight into cell phone photography mode: point it real quick and press the trigger.
I didn’t frame the picture. I didn’t think about angles. The impact of lighting on the shot didn’t cross my mind.
I was making a Xerox of the scene rather than creating a composition.
Because I didn’t have to.
Focus? Camera does that.
Exposure setting? Camera does that.
Film advance? Hell, the camera does that too.
I was practically superfluous to the experience.
So I’m starting to think maybe that used MF camera isn’t such a bad idea after all.
But first I’m going to dig out my old K1000 with the bobbing needle light meter and shoot a roll on that.
Proof the Contina can work (most, if not all, technical and artistic failings are the photographer’s, not the camera’s):
I’ve always held that animals are bastards. Here’s a bastard taking a dump in a public park. Jerk.
The easiest way to ensure a sharp image is to photograph something far away and set the focus to Infinity.
It’s rare to photograph this kid and NOT get motion blur. Metering’s a bit off, but it tends to be outdoors.