I first picked up a camera and tried my hand at ‘serious photography’ when I was about fifteen years old. A good friend from my Civil Air Patrol squadron was very serious about it. He had a darkroom and everything. He loaned me a camera one day, (A Pentax as I recall,) and we went shooting. Probably with black and white Kodak Tri-X. At the end of the day we went back to his place to process our film. We crowded into his bathroom – with towels draped over the windows and jammed under the door – and DEVELOPED the film! Then we PRINTED IT!
Damn, that’s MAGIC!
I was hooked. I could never draw worth a damn, but I had pictures in my head – and I saw pictures everywhere I went. I shot with borrowed cameras, and joined up with the photographers in my High School. By senior year, I was on Yearbook staff – shooting with my older brother’s NIKONOS – yeah, an underwater rangefinder, which I also used when scuba diving. It was stolen from a locked car while I was cheer-leading at a basketball game.
But that’s another story.
My next camera – the replacement – was a Minolta SRT 202. I shot with that for another two years I think. I’m pretty sure it’s the camera I took with me when I hitch-hiked up to Canada, and across the US. It was ALWAYS on my hip in a Vivitar hard case. It was in my hands when I shot my first front page photo for the Houston Post. An assassination attempt on one of my professors at the U of H, I happened to walk into the building just as the assassin ran out .
But that’s another story.
The Minolta was stolen when someone broke into my apartment, along with my brother’s 12-string guitar. You’d think he would have learned to stop loaning me things. God bless you, Tom.
I replaced it with my first ‘professional grade’ camera. A Canon F1. This was the real deal. This was what news photographers, fashion photographers, sports photographers, National Geographic photographers shot with. (No – don’t sell me a Nikon – I’m a Canon man, born and bred. Back in the day, this was like arguing Mac or PC. Don’t. Just… don’t.)
I scraped my pennies together and bought it with the BEST lens available. A 50mm 1.2 FD lens. That’s a HUGE chunk of glass. And very, very fast. But I was shooting a lot of theatre and portrait work, headshots and such – and natural light was all I could afford.
That camera served me well, up until the mid nineties I think. I had moved away from photography as an avocation – it was simply another skill in my arsenal for ‘storytelling’. Not my main focus – pun intended. While I was away for a summer, jousting – I left the F1 on a shelf – with that beautiful lens exposed – in our house in Seabrook, Texas.
The salt air is not kind to optical glass, nor camera interiors.
The camera more or less died at that point, and I stopped shooting film. Not too soon after, the digital age was born – and I’ve owned a number of cheap point and shoot digital cameras. Including a lovely little Lumix, and of course my current Android Phone.
Two months ago, my wonderful father-in-law passed away. I was offered a choice of some of his possessions. I knew that he ALSO shot with an F-1. So I asked my mother-in-law Veranne, if it was still around, if it wasn’t too much to ask for – I’d love to have it.
It was still around.
It wasn’t too much to ask.
I do have it now.
Unlike me, Harold took SUPERB care of all of his kit. When it got to me, it was in top notch condition, and came with his lovely 100mm FD and 35mm FD lenses. Together, with my legacy 50mm 1.8, 24mm 2.8 and 70-210 f4 zoom – I now had a wonderful well rounded classic Canon kit. In fact, it was the kit I always wanted as a kid.
As it happens, my good friend Gary Watson – fellow filmmaker and writer – has recently jumped back into shooting film. He’s gone off the deep end, shooting large format 4X5, and toting a vintage Leica 35mm camera. Seeing his work on Facebook – inspired me to go down to the local camera store, and buy two rolls of film. I was itching to ‘get back into it.’
As it ALSO happens – I’m a serious ‘junker’. I love going to thrift stores and salvo’s. I’ve been MEANING to get back into photography for a while – with an eye towards buying a Canon 5d Mark III top of the line – digital camera. So while I stroll through the junk shops, I keep my eyes open for Canon EF lenses. People get rid of ‘old film cameras’ when they clean out their garage – and a keen eye can spot these beauties under the counter and pick them up for as little as thirty dollars or so. Often, with a camera body attached. This happens because “No One Shoots Film” anymore.
The EF lenses can be used on the newer Digital camera bodies. So I’ve been collecting EF lenses for the eventual day when I will own a Canon 5d. (no, don’t sell me a Nikon…)
I also had a couple of EOS Rebel bodies stuffed in a sack, with good intentions of recycling them on Ebay. After a google search, I pulled out the ‘newer’ body – the Eos Rebel 2000, and downloaded the instruction manual. I went down to the drug store and bought two batteries. ($20? Seriously?) And loaded it up. Everything seemed to work – so along with my stack of CANON EF lenses – I was loaded for bear!
I bought a roll of Illford 400 and a roll of Illford 100. Mostly as a chance to compare the grain – while working with different cameras. I loaded the faster 400 film into the F1, and the roll of 100 into the Rebel, and headed out on a Photo Safari.
I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect day.
Beautifully warm for the Bay Area – with large puffy cumulus clouds to give character to the sky. Planning to shoot Black and White – I was thinking in terms of sweeping contrasty vistas – sea and shore – maybe. Also – big architectural edifices. Easy enough with the Golden Gate less than an hour away. So – my creative eye was already saying “Don’t think color – think shadows. Think contrast. Think TEXTURE. Think shapes and patterns. THINK GRAPHICALLY…”
My mind was in the black and white zone.
First stop as I headed up highway one – was the Montarra light house. A little B&B cum youth hostel with a tiny lighthouse in the parking lot. No, it’s a real light house – or used to be. Lovely image against the stark sky. The support buildings are on a bluff overlooking a gorgeous beach.
Montara Light House and Youth Hostel. Eos Rebel Illford 100.
The first few frames I shot, were with the old Canon F1. Like riding a bicycle, the skill never really disappears. My hands found the focus and aperture rings easily, I matched the ‘ring and needle’ for the proper exposure – and fired away.
That satisfying “CLICK” – the sound of the shutter releasing, the mirror flapping, and then – RATCHETING the film advance.
Oh yeah, I was back – baby!
I switched off to the EOS. Framed a shot – Oh- look AUTOFOCUS – CLICK WHIRRR – Auto Advance. Huh. This is a new experience. The EOS was also much LIGHTER than the F-1. Somehow – this felt less ‘reassuring’ to me. Less steady in my hands. No question the body and lenses had a lot less steel in them. But the set-and forget – Either Shutter priority or Aperture priority – was something I was familiar with in videography – so that was a nice touch.
Back to F1- and …. ooops, I forgot to advance. So, switching BETWEEN the fully manual camera – and the more or less FULLY AUTOMATIC camera – was a bit of a stumbling moment. And a good test for what I liked, and didn’t like about the old old school, and the old ‘new’ school of film cameras. I had skipped right over that EOS era.
Second stop – the Golden Gate Bridge. I parked in the lot to the southeast of the bridge – out in front of the old Bachelor Officer’s Quarters of the Presidio. With such a day, the lot was swarming with tourists. With such a bridge – their hands were all full of cameras.
I decided to hike DOWN the battery trail, to the water beneath the bluff. This was the way down to the old civil war fort, Fort Point. Again – just gorgeous views of the bridge, the bay, Alcatraz Island and Fort Point.
Before I knew it, I was running low on film. I knew I wanted to shoot the Palace of Fine Arts – not far away. So I hiked up the hill, and loaded out for the old remnant of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_Fine_Arts
This beautiful location is a favorite for Bridal portraits. It’s a rare day you don’t see one being shot here. It’s also a location that pops up a lot in films.
I grabbed a few more shots with both cameras – running out of 400 on the F1- and headed home. Before I took the film in – I snagged some very low light – very hand held still life shots with the EOS. Should have put the camera on a tripod and increased the depth of field a bit.
I dropped the film off at Kaufmanns, in San Mateo, and had the rolls developed overnight. Grand total of ten dollars for both.
On first glance at that negative sleeves – I could see that the F1 roll was ‘thinner’. The negs not as ‘dark’. This means either of two things – under exposure OR under development. (or possibly both) The negs weren’t TOO bad. Maybe a half a stop or so? I remembered when I checked the meter battery on the F-1, that it was on the ‘low’ side of ‘good’. How long had it been in the camera? Years, undoubtedly. It’s possible the meter was erring on the side of me under exposing. I was careful to center the ring and needle. The EOS negatives looked solid – so I’m going to give the lab the benefit of the doubt – and change out the camera battery on the F-1.
I took the negs home and did a quick set of low rez scans on my Epson 2400 Photo scanner. This damn thing is ANCIENT. At least eight years old. I looked at the low rez images, and sorted out the ones you see above. Another pass at the selects, scanning at 3200 dpi. Funny – it takes about as long to get the image from scanned to the finished file on my computer – as it would be to get from the enlarger easel through the developing treys to the wash. About six to seven minutes total for each negative.
Of course, I can set the scanner to scan while I go take a shower – so there’s THAT convenience.
What I did notice, was that the images I have now – are not nearly as sharp as they should be. Looking at the negs with a lupe – they are sharper than they appear above. I’m convinced this is because of the scanning process. The negatives sit in a plastic holder, slightly above the glass – and the scanner scans them. I just don’t think it’s as sharp as focusing on the easel through a grain magnifier.
If I’m going to continue this course, I might need to invest in a high-quality photo scanner. And of course – a nice photo PRINTER.
I’m not really a Photoshop wizard – and I’ve only got a version of PHOTOSHOP ELEMENTS to work with – so the images in this article are with minimal manipulation. Basically cropped, and exposure adjusted. Also – the cloning tool is great for the occasional dust spot !
I prefer the darkroom experience. But I’m no Ansel Adams.
I do miss the tactile sensation of handling the negatives in the enlarger. There’s something about physically MOVING the easel around in order to crop the image. The smell of the chemistry in the dark. Slipping the paper into the developer and watching as the image magically appears. That’s as close to ALCHEMY as I think I’ll ever get in my life. I was fortunate enough a few years back to visit Ansel Adam’s home in Carmel, and see his darkroom exactly as he used it. The walls in his house were hung with the Master’s prints done by his own hand. This is a photo of me taken the last time I was in a darkroom
I’m in Ansel Adam’s darkroom – holding his own DODGING tool.
But that’s another story