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Category Archives: Photography

It’s Half The Camera It Could Be

An all-plastic answer to sh*tty Lomography plastic cameras

Like your childhood 126 cartridge film camera, but with fewer Spiderman motifs.

I’m always on the lookout for new ways to procrastinate. And when I open up my draft of Luck Be A Spacelady (my latest Marlowe and the Spacewoman novel) and see just how much more work needs to be done, I need those distractions.

The most recent is my discovery of and subsequent experimenting with half frame 35mm film photography. I had no idea these things existed despite they’re been around for longer than I have.

For those of you also unfamiliar with half frame cameras (but hopefully at least know what film is), here’s a quick explanation: the size of the image exposed on the negative is half the width of a typical 35mm exposure. You get twice the exposures on a roll of film at half the size (for example, 72 pictures on a 36 exposure roll). A more detailed explanation can be found here.

I bought the (relatively) inexpensive Kodak Ektar H35 camera, which came out recently and has received generally good reviews. My other option was to pay a lot of money on eBay for an older half frame camera that may or may not require servicing before I could be confident it worked.

That seemed like a high risk-to-reward ratio for an aspect of photography I might not end up liking, so I went with the entry level approach.

The camera is easy to use. No focusing, no exposure setting, no shutter speed setting. Everything is fixed. You just point and shoot. The only control you have is the ISO rating of the film you use. The camera is set up for using ISO 100 film in a sunny outdoor setting.

This is a blessing and a curse. You don’t have to fuss over settings to get a good picture, but at the same time you can’t fuss over the settings to get a good picture. You get what you what get. If you use, for example, ISO 100 film and the lighting conditions change (going from sunny to overcast or twilight), your pictures will be underexposed and you can’t do anything to compensate.

This also makes the camera a throwback to the cheap old 126 film cameras I had as a child.

Never underestimate the appeal of the nostalgia factor, especially when you start to get as old and close to death as me. I still remember the excitement and joy of receiving a Spiderman 126 film cartridge camera for my birthday as a young boy.

The camera does come with a flash for indoor / darker situations. However, my experience is that the flash isn’t effective beyond about five feet from the camera. I discovered this at the price of a lot of dark, indoor photos that are basically a waste of celluloid.

The opposite of AI, this camera is a fixed and dumb as it gets with respect to controls.

Change the aperture? I’m sorry, Ian, I can’t do that.

The shutter speed is fixed at 1/100 sec, which generally speaking is sufficient to freeze action in a photo. However, I found that a lot of my pictures, particularly those taken from a slowly moving vehicle, exhibit a lot of camera shake. Standing still and holding the camera still generally resulted in no shake, but with this camera I really had to pay attention to how I was holding it.

This is contrary to the concept of using the camera as a no-think point and shoot. A camera that requires no thought when it comes to settings actually requires a great deal of focus (ha ha, no pun intended) when it comes to holding it. It took me a while to figure that out, so a lot of the ‘extra’ photos I exposed on the roll didn’t come out.

Not necessarily a flaw of the camera, but given how light and easy this all-plastic camera is to shake, definitely a consideration to keep in mind when using it.

Maybe I can add some fishing weights (another distraction we won’t talk about now) to the camera to help with that issue.

After shooting two rolls of film, my overall conclusion is that shooting this camera is very much like shooting other film cameras: you will take a lot of pictures and on each roll, you’ll get one or two gems and the rest of the pictures are ‘meh’ at best. Now I might be able to improve the gem-to-meh ratio with more practice, but I will never be able to eliminate all the mehs.

Sure, more complicated cameras give you more control, and an experienced, professional photographer will almost certainly be able to get more gems on a roll through expert use of those controls, but for an average Joe like me, once you get past the reality that most of the pictures on a roll will be merely OK with only a few really good ones, you can be perfectly happy with your efforts and your camera.

I also discovered that who processes your negatives can impact the quality of the scans / prints. Specifically, vendors who scan the film like full-frame 35mm exposures (that is, two exposures per print) can produce poor quality images if the two different exposures have dramatically different lighting conditions. The scanner seems to split the difference, resulting in two terrible images even though the negatives themselves look fine. But if the vendor scans each half-frame exposure independently, the images will be more representative of the negatives.

I learned this the hard way with my first roll of film and when I saw the scans, I almost gave up on the camera. But then I examined the negatives and realized what had happened.

So I’ve made my peace with this camera. It’s fun, easy to use, and if you have a steady hand and the lighting conditions are right, you can get a good, albeit somewhat lower resolution picture. I might even use it again.

That said, I’m still on the fence as to whether or not I want to invest in an older, more fully featured camera. The Ektar H35 is brand new and everything works as it should. The older cameras, while more feature rich and of a higher quality (at least when they were new), are more expensive and, being decades old, have a very real risk of not working correctly out of the box.

If I could buy, say, an Olympus Pen EF brand new and at a reasonable price, I totally would. But paying hundreds of dollars for a camera that might have mechanical problems because it is as old or older than me gives me, a man of not unlimited wealth, pause. Thinking about such a purchase, I am forced to ask myself a couple of salient questions:

How much am I willing to invest in this hobby?

More importantly, shouldn’t I be focused on writing instead?

As seems requisite with posts like this, here are some example photos taken with the Kodak Ektar H35. I’d say any deficiencies are due to my middling photography skills, but honestly, except for the camera shake, the results are all down to the camera. Even poor framing isn’t entirely my fault, as the viewfinder is not through-the-lens and doesn’t have any parallax offsets printed on it.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

A functional, but not perfect and DEFINITELY cheap-looking viewfinder

 

 

 
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Posted by on 21 November 2022 in Angst, Art!, Life, Photography, Reviews

 

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An analog man in a digital age

Hidden puzzle game: find the cameras and lenses

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.

Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster.

An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

One thing about the Germans - they sure build great cameras!

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.

What the heck do sprockets have to do with photography!? You were born in the 90s, weren't you?

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.

Interior (electronics) require a battery. No battery, no picture.

Compare this exterior to the Contina’s. Boring! All smooth lines and a complete lack of toggles! Pah!

Again, seriously, this thing is completely dead without batteries.

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.

Why?

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.

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.

The easiest way to ensure a sharp image is to photograph something far away and set the focus to Infinity.

It's rare to photography this kid and NOT get motion blur. Metering a bit off, but it tends to be outdoors.

It’s rare to photograph this kid and NOT get motion blur. Metering’s a bit off, but it tends to be outdoors.

 
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Posted by on 30 March 2015 in Art!, Photography

 

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