Category Archives: Cameras

Getting back into the studio again…

Yesterday, in a fit of activity, I got in to the studio and shot a few still-life photos. I’m participating in a print exchange through the Large Format Photography Forum (www.largeformatphotography.info/forum) and I needed to shoot some images for the exchange. The final images will be platinum prints. I decided to use a lead crystal cut glass decanter I have as a subject – I wanted something challenging to photograph and that would create some striking images. I got the inspiration seeing the decanter on my coffee table with the sunlight coming through it and casting a shadow. I brought it over to the studio and set it up on a sweep of white seamless paper, and lit it with just one light, as it would be in the real world (there is only one sun!). It casts a beautiful shadow on the seamless, especially the way the crystal is cut with these random little scallops out of the body. I used the Century Master portrait camera, which after having been hauled around a bunch is starting to get a bit loose. As always, the lens on it is my Seneca Portrait f5. I put the whole plate back on the camera for these shots, as it’s about my favorite format. I indulged in my film choice and used some of my remaining stock of Arista.EDU Ultra 200 (aka Fomapan 200). Arista.EDU Ultra is Freestyle Photo‘s house-label film, made for them by Foma in the Czech Republic. Foma discontinued the 200 a year or two ago when their source for one of the critical components dried up, and just started re-making it but only in roll film. It’s one of my all-time favorite films, not only because it was dirt cheap (1/3 the price of Ilford), but because it produced beautiful results – it has this old-time feel to the image quality from a reduced red sensitivity. Here’s a couple of shots of the setup (pardon the poor quality- they’re taken with my iPhone which is not the best in low light). I’ll post some scans later of the finished prints.

Studio setup #1

Studio setup #2

Getting wet in Puerto Rico

Some underwater shots with the Olympus Stylus Tough 6020. Rated to 16 feet. It was remarkably capable – I think 90% of the shortcomings I experienced were attributable to operator error. The biggest hassle/complaint about the camera that I can point to the camera as the source of the shortcoming is shutter lag. While not such a big deal on dry land where you can stand still, but when your own natural buoyancy combines with the motion of the waves and current, it’s hard to hold still and compose a shot. With too much shutter lag, you end up losing a lot of shots. Something I’m neutral about is the built-in owners manual. The camera does not come with a printed owners manual, but instead has a built-in help system for all the features and functions. The upside is you don’t have to carry the owners manual with you and possibly lose it. The downside is it takes battery power to read it, and the camera is not the most efficient at conserving battery power. According to the camera specifications, you get about 200 shots per charge of the battery. I don’t think I got that many, but I did a fair bit of chimping. I’d say I got between 80-100 shots. I’ve got another gripe with the camera I’ll address in another post.

Some new results from Old San Juan

Just a few better images from the trip to Puerto Rico. Definitely NOT with a view camera – everything was shot with a Contax G2, mostly with the 21mm and 90mm lenses, with a couple of 45mm grabs in there. As always, working with the G2 is a joy, and it produces incredible results. Even though it isn’t “as silent as a Leica”, I enjoy the whirring of gears of the auto-focus, and the snick-snick of the shutter.

I’m some kind of obvious when taking photos, as even when I’m using the G2, which is a pretty inconspicuous camera, I seem to attract attention. My father and I were coming back from dinner and I stopped to take a photo, and this panhandler approaches me. He asks, “How much does that camera cost”? I can tell he’s not a photography enthusiast, so I reply, “I don’t remember, I’ve had it for a while. It takes film” – hoping that will discourage any thoughts of taking it. He then states, “I guess you have a relationship with your camera”. DUH. I do, but don’t even THINK about trying to end that relationship non-consensually. I do have a love affair with my cameras, and I’ll happily share that with anyone interested, but I’ll smack you to the moon if you try to mess with that.

This time, I was paying attention to creating abstract compositions, which is easy in some ways because the tropical light is so strong, even early and late in the day you get powerful shadows and directional light, unless you’ve got profound overcast. The wrinkle is color- because our natural perception of the world is color, working with color film tends to emphasize our connection to the reality of the subject and distract from perceiving it as just line and form. I hope I’ve managed with a few images to challenge that limitation. I know for myself as a predominantly black-and-white photographer that switching gears to see and think in color is hard – some of the photos I took on this trip I can look at and see very clearly that they would be better as black-and-white images. Sometimes color creates contrast that we don’t see when we are used to thinking only of tone and reflectiveness, and sometimes what looks good as contrast between light and shadow looks god-awful in color because it’s too harsh and the color is overwhelmed.

For those who are interested, all these were shot on Kodak Ektar 100 (with a few using the new Kodak Portra 400). I think it is my new go-to 35mm film, displacing even my beloved Fuji Reala. I like the palette of Ektar better now- the Fuji’s greens are a little too strong, the blues and reds a little weak compared to the Ektar. I’m also highly impressed with the Portra 400. I brought along two rolls of it thinking I might use it for some night photos. Dummy me didn’t segregate it from general population in the film pocket of my camera bag, and I accidentally grabbed a roll and loaded it thinking it was still the Ektar 100 (BAD Kodak – the design for the canister is identical except for the text label, so you can’t tell easily through the plastic tube which is which). The upside is, I can almost not tell any difference between them, at least in a scan and a 4×6 print. I’ll let you look through the gallery and decide for yourselves which is which. I’m not telling.

Settling in to the new studio

I was out to my parents’ house for lunch yesterday, and on a whim, as we were discussing possible family vacation plans, I decided that it was time to bring the studio camera from their basement down to the studio (a much more logical place for it to live). So with a bit of clever maneuverings, we drove their Toyota Highlander across the snow-filled yard (they still have a good 6 inches on their grass) and pulled it up at the basement door. Mom had this fear that the Toyota (with a good 8 inch ground clearance) would get stuck in the snow, so she got on the John Deere lawn tractor with the snow-blower and blew a path from the driveway to the basement door. Completely un-needed, and she probably did more harm to the lawn with the John Deere (which had chains on the tires) than the Toyota would have.

Dad and I got the camera stand out of the basement, which was a minor miracle, as my dad is 72, with a bad back, and the stand is made of solid oak and cast iron. It fit, barely, in the back of the Highlander with the rear seats folded forward. On the way home I rounded up a couple friends and we unloaded everything down at the studio much easier than getting the stand into the back of the car (it helps that the studio is at street level and we only had to take the stand up one single step to get it in the back door. While I have the Highlander, I’m going to do another run over to the studio today with a bunch of accessories, and try to get the space a bit more organized.

Whole Plate camera on The Online Photographer

Just came across this post on The Online Photographer (a great blog if you’re not familiar with it):
http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/01/the-single-use-device.html

Although I do not consider my Whole Plate cameras to be “Single Use Devices”, I am truly in love with the format and am very happy to shoot with it, and even moreso to find another member of the (very small) whole plate clan.

Why I do this stuff

So far this blog has been long on pictures and short on words. Lucky you. I figured it was time to actually write something, and now was as good a time as any to explain how I got into all this giant cameras and funky antique process stuff. The story of it kind of mirrors the story of how I got in to photography to begin with- almost by accident.

I started doing photography after college, as something to do while looking for a job. I originally thought I would learn JUST enough to use it to record subject matter for painting and drawing. It was a means to an end. That plan went out the window when I saw my first negatives come out of the developing tank, and was even more firmly convinced that this was the thing for me when that first print appeared in the red-lit tray on a rack in my bathtub.

Back maybe six or eight years ago, there was this big scare that Ilford might go bankrupt and that silver gelatin paper might go away, and maybe even film too. Well, I was so much in love with wet darkroom printing that I figured it was time to learn how to do hand-coated processes so I could keep using my 4×5 that I liked so much. I didn’t realize what a Pandora’s box this would open. Prior to this epiphany, I was only vaguely conscious of the existence of antique/alternative processes. I knew cyanotypes existed, and someone in a class I took once did some VanDyke Brown prints on fabric. I saw a handful of platinum prints at the View Camera conference, but that was about it.

That event was I think the turning point for me because it was there that I also saw people working in wet plate collidion. My eyes were opened to the possibility of what could be done without commercially manufactured products. After seeing some more prints,
I decided I would try platinum printing. I was mostly shooting 2 1/4 inch square roll film with some 4×5 mixed in at the time, and 4×5 negatives were big enough to learn on, but platinum like almost all other alternative/antique processes is mostly insensitive to non-UV light. This means that you can’t enlarge an image to whatever size print you want from a small negative- you have to work from a negative the size you want the finished print to be.

Realizing the limits of 4×5 prints rather quickly, an 8×10 camera ensued. 8×10 is a beautiful size print but a pain in the ass of a camera. Along came my Argentina trip and a 5×7 joined the family. And so on. Platinum printing became my mainstay as I grew to love the medium for itself, to the point that I have all but retired my enlargers, and only work in contact printed alternative processes. I’ve dabbled in wet plate and I’ve even learned how to make daguerreotypes.

This is my medium, these are my processes, and this is the how and why I make my photos.

W. Watson & Sons 12×15 “field” camera restoration project – step 1

Well, here’s a piece of ambition for you- getting this 12×15 W. Watson & Sons 12×15 inch “field” camera restored and up and running again. The W.Watson & Sons dates to around 1880. Once it is up and running, I’m planning on putting a nice 16″ (405mm) Kodak f4.5 Portrait meniscus lens on it.

The biggest hassle will actually be getting new film holders made for it, since it’s a bit of an exotic size to begin with, and it was originally designed for glass dry plates, not film. I’ve got someone lined up for the film holders – it’s just a matter of negotiations and finding the time to have them made.

I’m shopping around for new bellows for it because I’m just too damn lazy to make my own – this would be a simple case to do because the bellows are square and not tapered (I had a fragment of the original bellows but they were too rotted to use for anything, and they stank something awful).

Making the new ground glass will be easy – I just have to get some reasonably accurate measurements from the ground glass frame, go to the hardware store and have them cut me a piece, then get busy with the valve grinding compound. By the time I’m done with it, I’ll have a very buff left arm.

I was very lucky really, that the camera was in as good a shape as it is – when it arrived from the UK, it was quite filthy and looked like it needed a complete stripping and rehab. With a bit of cleaning and some olive oil, the mahogany came back quite nicely, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the brass hardware was originally gilded, and that much of the gilding remained.