In the summer I have less teaching and I like to use some of the time it frees up on a photography project or two. This didn’t happen last year, as the summer was spent prepping for a new course. So this year I am doubly keen to explore an aspect of photography that is new to me, as a way of expanding my horizons and engaging my curiosity. Time for some blue sky thinking!
With this in mind I have been reading up on pinhole photography. This is really the simplest photography you can imagine. A tiny hole allows light to enter a sealed box containing a light sensitive medium and creates a negative image. You can then use this to create a positive either in the traditional dark room or by scanning it and inverting the resulting digital file.
You can make pinhole from just about anything; biscuit tins, shoe boxes and coffee containers, wheelie bins and even a spare transit van should you have one. For the more financially secure (and less adventurous?) there is also the option to buy beautifully crafted models that have been lovingly constructed from luxury components. Guess which option I will be taking? Yup! DIY pinhole camera here I come!
This was actually what prompted me to by the Agfa Clack I wrote about last week. This seems to be a popular ‘first build’ pinhole camera and I am hoping to convert one of the aperture rings to a pinhole without destroying the functionality of my Clack as a regular camera. Now, pass me that screwdriver!
A trip to the Wolverhampton camera fair is invariably likely to end in a few purchases, planned or otherwise. Sometimes it seems that going to the fair without a shopping list leads to worse excesses than when I plan my extravagances beforehand. Last weekend was no exception. There was absolutely nothing I needed to look out for, and so I went along with an open mind and a (unwisely) restocked wallet.
Faced with a dazzling display of photographic paraphernalia, my receptive mind reached down into its subconsciously creative recesses in a determined effort to justify one purchase or another. This time I homed in on a Clack.
A what? I hear you say? An Agfa Clack. But why? I think what appealed to me is the sheer simplicity of this camera.
The Clack is neither collectable (as defined by its price!) nor particularly rare. They were produced in serious quantities in the period 1954 to 1965 by Agfa Camera-Werk AG in Munich. Initially made with a metal body, and later a plastic one (mine is plastic), the Clack is essentially a smallish black box designed to hold 120 roll film.
You can choose one of 2 apertures to suit the prevailing weather conditions. I believe these are f/11 and f/12.5. Bokeh should be perfectly shaped, as the aperture disks are just circles in a plastic component which moves into position for each selection. Mine also has the close up filter, for subjects between 3m and 10m away. The shutter offers bulb or ‘M’, which I understand to be 1/30 second. So, the only real control you have over the exposure is in choice of the ISO rating of your film. I can see I shall be spending the summer checking my light meter, in my efforts to seek out conditions that suit my new camera!
The most exciting aspect of the Clack is of course the focussing mechanism. Err, there isn’t one.
I have plans for my Clack (watch this space!) but I can’t resist putting a roll of film through it first. How much simpler can it get?
The Rolleiflex has become something of an iconic camera and I am still excited to own one. A search on Google will find plenty of pictures of celebrities (old and new) posing with one. Marilyn Monroe was famously pictured with a Rollei, as were James Dean, George Harrison and Paul McCartney. A popular image these days is of someone gazing into its waist level viewfinder, and I found pictures of Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman doing just that. It’s become one of those must-take shots whenever there is a Rollei nearby!
Posing with a Rollei aside, in its time the Rolleiflex was the camera of choice for famous photographers as well, not least Richard Avedon, Lee Miller, Diane Arbus and Robert Capa. More recently the work of Vivian Maier has come to the world’s attention, when a treasure trove of her images surfaced in a clearance sale at a storage facility in Chicago. Unable to pay the rent on her storage locker, her possessions were put up for sale, sight unseen, and the lucky buyers really hit the jackpot this time when they discovered what was in the jumble of boxes and trunks they had bought.
Maier was a nanny in Chicago and her spare time was spent out on the streets with her Rolleiflex. Maier was able to blend into her surroundings to record the daily life of Chicago residents and a fair number of self-portraits, using reflections in mirrors and windows to create her images. Over her lifetime she amassed some 150 000 negatives, although some films were not even developed and only a small proportion printed.
In our modern world, where the mobile phone rules as an everyday camera, carrying a Rolleiflex might be a little less unobtrusive than it was then. I will be finding out soon, as I plan to try out some street photography with my new acquisition before too long. Read more about the life’s work of this remarkable woman here on the BBC website.
Yet again I have fallen foul of that powerful emotion, Love At First Sight. I have generally found going to a camera fair without a shopping list to be unwise and this time it was about as unwise as it gets. With no specific purchase in mind, I wander the stalls browsing the myriad cameras, lenses and other doo-dads set out to tempt me. One regular stallholder arranges the front of his table with boxes of ephemera; lens caps, obscure remote switches, scratched sunlight filters. And behind these deceptively cheap defensive lines stand the real prizes, desirable vintage cameras strut their stuff on the back shelf in the hope of effecting a relocation before the day is out.
I have been tempted at this stall before, but my purchases stayed in the realms of the incidental. This time my eye was drawn immediately centre stage, to a pristine Rolleiflex. Oh my. The light glinted off the chrome-effect lens cap and I was in love. Holding this treasure in my hands felt so right it took great strength of mind to put it back down. But put it down I did, to spend the rest or the morning with that memory burning a hole through the synapses of my self control. With the end of the fair approaching rapidly, it was crunch time: would I be taking the Rollei home with me or not? Eventually I succumbed and emotion ruled the day. An exchange of used notes, a handshake and I walked away heady with excitement at my new acquisition.
It fascinates me how my mind plays games with me. You can’t afford it, put it back. You don’t need another film camera. You could buy a cheaper one, lots of stalls have them. Yes, but…will I regret it when I get home? It really is lovely. Just wait and see if it’s there at the end. Let fate decide. If it’s gone, it wasn’t meant to be after all. How I like to abdicate responsibility and let the Universe decide! However, sometimes stepping back from this process in a conscious way, to watch the drama unfolding inside you. is remarkably relaxing.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that you relinquish control completely to drift every which way the wind blows you. We need some structure to guide us along the path. Else the bank account would soon be empty and the house full of impulse purchases. But mulling it over, taking time and yes, being indulgent every now and then. Who knows what is around the next corner? Universe, thank you for my new Rolleiflex!
Sometimes it seems to me that modern life is all about possession; having the latest gear, clothes, car, phone. The list is endless as marketeers do a stupendous job of convincing us that life won’t be worth living if we don’t own the latest and best incarnation of their product. Alongside this comes the ‘the instant gratification society’ where we don’t just want it but we want it now. And this extends not only to things we must buy but to our pursuit of photography as well. When film was the norm we had the anticipation of sending away the finished roll to be developed and printed, waiting a week or so to see how the images had turned out. Yet with the advent of the digital camera we soon became accustomed to that JPEG preview on the rear screen. And how strange it seems now to use a camera which doesn’t allow you the option to see your image immediately after taking it. And taking this one step further, the potential that there will not be an image at all?!
As I mentioned in my last post, experimenting with old cameras comes with the risk that your films with yield nothing more than an attractive black shiny strip of plastic. Quite photogenic in its own way, but not quite what was intended when you set out to seek images that morning. At first, I found there was a tendency to curse the waste of time and money; buying the camera and the film, the time spent taking pictures and developing the film. However I soon realised that as a hobby it offered repeated opportunities to practise letting go.
The ability to let go is one of the cornerstones of a mindful life. Being prepared to let go of what is and receive what will be. Observing your reaction to the situation as it develops and runs its course. When I go out with a film camera I am living in hope, optimistic that my day will be successful photographically. But how do I define this success? When you take away the emphasis on the ‘quality’ of the outcome, the day becomes more about the process, the engagement and the moments of life fully explored through taking the time to look carefully. Who cares if there are no pictures at the end? I am practising to engage with life as if I had a camera, even when I don’t!
Read this week’s sister post on Letting Go here.
I have seen it suggested a few times recently that the immediacy and ease of digital photography detract from the meditative aspects of the activity. Often, when I see people out and about with their cameras or using their mobile to snap a quick selfie, I can only whole-heartedly concur. Modern cameras are so clever, we need know little of their workings to achieve a decent image and little thought is necessary when grabbing a set of holiday snaps in Program mode. This may be perfect if you are aiming to create a record of a day out or the fun at a party, but perhaps it is a slightly different matter when we are looking to connect ourselves more closely to our surroundings and explore the marvel of life in any particular moment.
On these occasions, I believe that slower can only be better. Taking time to look before bringing the camera up, framing the image thoughtfully and making a conscious choice to press the shutter at the right moment. No ‘continuous shooting’ mode here please! Taking time allows something of who we are to be absorbed into the image, to make it truly ‘my’ picture; as much a picture of me as a picture of the subject.
I think the urge to slow down is one of the reasons I am attracted to using older film cameras. Before handing over my hard-earned pennies, I check as best I can that the camera is functional. Shutter, aperture, glass and bellows (if it’s of that certain age, as so many of mine are!) are all subjected to my eagle-eyed inspection. Back home, my new acquisition receives a thorough clean and I ‘test-drive’ it with an old film, or film paper in the case of 120 film.
Then it’s time to venture out for the real ‘road-test’. Even though this is just a test film, I find myself resistant to pointing the camera any old how with little care for the subject of my image. Sometimes I will frame a scene, only to walk away. If the camera takes 35mm film, it can take several trips before I finish the film. This is somewhat ironic, given that I never know know at this stage if I will get images or not. And strangely enough, this is what I love most about these experiments of mine, and what keeps me rescuing more elderly cameras. With each one I have the later excitement of developing the film to discover whether my memories have been preserved…or are consigned to rest only in my thoughts. It’s this risk that makes me take my time to observe carefully and record in my mind’s eye as well; after all, this could be the only image I create that day! It’s never quite the same once I know the camera works, and that’s what keeps me coming back for more!
What a long and dreary winter we seem to be having. I remember thinking, at Christmas, that the autumn had been very dry. You notice these things when you have dogs to walk, and get a drenching twice a day. The house seems to be endlessly draped in soggy coats and the subtle aroma of damp hound permeates every room. It appears I spoke too soon, as since then we seem to have had nothing but rain, rain and more rain. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad it isn’t snow, as we would be under several feet of it by now, and indeed many poor people are still struggling with the effects of the wettest January in living memory.
On the other hand, despite the disruptiveness of snow in the UK, you can’t say it isn’t pretty to photograph. It also tends to come hand in hand with the bright, crisp days that have been so lacking in recent weeks. All this rain is falling from an enveloping blanket of low cloud that sucks away the light like a black reflector at a studio shoot. Yes, yes, I know that overcast days are supposed to create the ideal soft light for nature photography. But I have been hoping for a little drama, in the form of directional light to accentuate my subjects and provide some seductive shadowy contrasts on black and white film. And, above all, enough light that I can venture out with a roll of ISO 125 film and anticipate manageable shutter speeds. Apart from the fact that using an elderly film camera in a downpour is asking for a world of un-weather-sealed trouble!
And Tuesday was the day! Finally, a day that dawned sunny and coincided with a schedule flexible enough to take advantage of it. Yay! I added two film cameras to my collection back in December and neither has had a road-test yet. It took a while to get the film loaded into the Cosmic35 (a bargain at £3, including the original case) with the aid of some sticky tape to secure the leader. This camera has a 40mm lens, so the images it creates are representative of what we see with the naked eye. The viewfinder is just a little rectangular window, so it is indeed the naked eye that selects the view. I based my choice of settings on the sunny ‘11’ rule – this is the UK after all, sunny 16 can be a bit optimistic! Handily, it has a shutter speed setting of 1/125 to match my ISO 125 film. This little camera is quite high-tech for me, as I discovered that it prevents multiple exposures by preventing locking the shutter button until the film has been wound on. An interesting quirk of the film counter (yes it has one!) on my version is that it advances 5 or so each time I wind on, so keeping track of the number of exposures I had taken required more planning than my brain allowed for that day. I haven’t attempted to rewind the film and shall be saving that pleasure until I find myself alone in a darkened room with the heady anticipation of developing the film. But that excitement will be for another day!
I was very excited recently to find that my submission to the ‘Backchat’ column in Amateur Photographer was chosen for publication in the magazine. So excited, in fact, that I am posting here for you to read as well:
In recent months I have found myself pondering the apparent disposability of modern digital cameras. I don’t mean the gimmicky single use ones you might find on the table at a wedding reception, but rather the effective lifespan of high-spec offerings from respected companies. We have all heard of built-in obsolescence, and I for one never take out the extended warranty on a new freezer or microwave as you can guarantee it will go wrong very soon after the warranty expires. After all, the length of the warranty is not picked at random! Is this worrying modern concept now extending to cameras as well?
The letters page of AP 16th November featured another tale of woe from the owner of a recent camera model that had proven to be faulty in the awkward time period between ‘still under warranty’ and ‘Oh well, it’s given me good service, I was considering an upgrade anyway’. Is this just the tip of the iceberg? It worries me that the more bells and whistles the camera sports, the more there is to go wrong. I would love a camera with a folding screen as sometimes it is only years of yoga practice that allows me to contort myself into a position where I can see through the viewfinder as I attempt yet another macro nature shot. But when I find myself drifting towards adverts for cameras sporting this latest marvel, a little voice whispers in my ear “How long will it be before you break it?” This little voice is, of course, aware I am prone to clumsiness and fears for my bank balance should I need to get such a screen repaired. And it’s not just screens. What about wifi, GPS, electronic viewfinders? My partner has a number of Bronica film cameras and they produce excellent images. This strikes me as the ideal system; a modular camera where you choose the body, back, lens and viewfinder. If one bit goes wrong, you replace that section and you are back in business, with a lot less hassle than I suspect it would be to replace the articulated screen on a DSLR.
In equal measure with the high-tech specs, we now have a growing market in high-tech digital retro cameras. Having grown up with 35mm film cameras I love this look. So authentic are they, that I did a double-take as I flicked through this same issue of AP, thinking that the X100 pictured in Ask AP was actually picture of my beloved Canonet. I own an embarrassment of film cameras (new collective noun for the outcome when you take more money than sense to camera fairs!) which includes gems such as this, alongside older folding cameras by Zeiss and Ensign. Nothing expensive or terribly collectable and all very basic, but they all work, despite being over 70 years old in some cases. After all, there is not a lot to go wrong! I wonder how many of our modern digital cameras will still be functioning 70 years from now? Assuming that is, if you can still get a battery and memory card to make them work!
As the autumn gives way to winter the countryside seems to assume more muted tones, hunkering down to wait for the burgeoning abundance of spring. On some days this seems so extreme that the world appears to have turned into black and white before my very eyes. This time of year helps us to see the shapes and forms more clearly, without the distraction of colour. We may notice things that would otherwise be overpowered by the colourful palette of the scene. Textures, shadows and lighting hold centre stage and we can appreciate the finer details in our surroundings.
At night and in dim light, we are only able to see in shades of grey anyway, as the cone cells in the eyes that give us our colour vision are not stimulated in these conditions. Our night vision depends instead on the rod cells in the eye. They are much more sensitive to light than the cones and can be stimulated by just a single photon! The way rod cells are ‘wired up’ means that we lose some of the detail and clarity, giving our vision an effect reminiscent of looking through a soft focus lens. I often think that examples of old photographs, with that soft monochrome look, show us sights as our eyes might have seem them at dusk or in the early dawn, before our colour vision is fully active.
Photographing in black and white can be considered as a type of abstraction, as we know instinctively that the image is one step away from a more colourful reality. At any time of year, my camera is frequently set to show monochrome previews, as my love affair with this way of seeing the world continues unabated. In his book “50 Portraits”, Gregory Heisler suggests that working in black and white “frees up the photographer to see the world and re-create it in a fresh way, shifting the image from ‘how it looked’ to ‘how it felt’.” The image becomes defined by the range of tones that the camera’s sensor (or the film) can distinguish between the extremes of black and white. As Heisler generally works with larger format cameras, this range can be quite incredible. Even with my more modest 35mm and 120 black and white film, I can see a tonality that can be lacking in a digital image. When it comes to film, my interest is solely with monochrome; for digital the jury is still out. Will I take the plunge? Decisions, decisions…