Yellow flowers

Yellow flowers
Minolta XG 1, 50mm f/1.7 Minolta MD
Agfa Vista 200 (at EI 100)
2018

When I was 22 I broke up with a young woman who I still call my first great love. We were such comfortable companions. Our favorite thing was to watch bad movies together on cable well into the wee hours. She was brilliant at heckling them. Her dry, nerdy humor kept me laughing. I don’t laugh easily. She was a real gift in my life.

Yet we couldn’t make other things about our relationship work, important things. I don’t think she ever felt like I really loved her. I showed her in the ways I knew how, but she needed to feel loved in ways I didn’t understand and couldn’t give.  And when I was tired or overwhelmed or irritated I was prickly and difficult. Still am. She never knew how to deal with that and she took it hard.

Sometimes a relationship can’t last because you’re not right together in some ways that really matter. Yet you’re reluctant to end it because it’s otherwise so comfortable. But after awhile comfort isn’t enough, and after a longer while the places where you don’t fit start to grate. More of your needs must be met. We ended our relationship, and it hurt, and we missed each other. But it was necessary.

My many Minolta SLRs have all been lovely and felt great in my hands. Their lenses are sublime. My heart leaps over the images these cameras give me. I want to shoot with them forever.

But they have been so unreliable. I just can’t keep one working for the long haul. There may be photographers out there who enjoy taking their gear apart and keeping them working smoothly. I’m not one of them. I just want my gear to work, period. And that’s why I’ve just sold my last Minolta body and am running right into the arms of reliable Pentax and Nikon.

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Film Photography, Stories Told

single frame: Yellow flowers

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Film Photography

Where can you still get film developed? (2018 edition)

Oh, for the days when you could drop your film at any drug store or big-box store and get processing, scans, and prints. Walgreens, CVS, Target, Walmart, Costco, Meijer, et. al., used to offer one-hour or overnight service. No more. If they still take film, they send it to a commercial lab. Turnaround time is a week or more, and they throw away your negatives.

Where can you get your film processed, then? And keep your negatives?

Try your town’s camera store, if it has one. I live near Indianapolis, where Roberts Camera still processes 35mm negative film. I never order prints, just scans, which Roberts burns to CD. The scans are 3130×2075 pixels at 72 dpi, big enough to print 11×17 enlargements. They turn color film around within two business days and black-and-white film around in about a week. I haven’t used them for b/w film yet but they charge only about $8 to develop and scan color film. That’s about as inexpensive as you’ll find.

But what if you aren’t close to a camera store? Or if you shoot film they can’t handle, like medium-format (120) film, or an uncommon format like 110 or 127? That’s when I turn to one of several by-mail labs around the United States. I’m going to recommend the ones I use. I’d love it if you’d share the ones you use in the comments, especially if you live outside the United States.

Dwayne’s Photo

Dwayne’s in Parsons, KS, is perhaps the granddaddy of all by-mail labs. They’re consistent in quality and speed and their prices are reasonable among the by-mail labs so they’ve gotten a ton of my business. Their Web site is dwaynesphoto.com. 

Dwayne’s processes, prints, and scans 35mm, 120/620, 220, 127, 110, 126, Disc, and APS films. They process color and b/w negative and color slide films.

Ordering from Dwayne’s straight outta the 90s: you have to print out and fill out order forms, the right one for the kind of film you’re sending. When you send them more than one kind of film you have to fill out multiple order forms. They do take PayPal via these order forms now, at least. Here’s hoping Dwayne’s upgrades to electronic ordering.

Processing and scanning one roll of 35mm or 120 color or b/w negative film costs $10. Slide film costs $13.50-$15 depending on format. Other services’ prices vary.  Return shipping costs $5 for the first roll and 50 cents for each additional roll. They don’t offer prepaid mailing labels so have your postage stamps ready.

Their 35mm film scans are 2740×1830 pixels at 72 dpi. For an extra $5, you can get scans of negative films at a whopping 6770×4490 pixels at 72 dpi, which is big enough for poster-sized prints. Other formats’ scan sizes vary.

You can choose to download your scans or have them mailed to you on CD; the price is the same for either service. I go for the downloads and Dwayne’s pretty consistently emails me a link to them within a week of receiving my film. (Slide film takes longer.) I’ve not ordered prints from Dwayne’s.

Dwayne’s can handle any curveball I throw them. Recently one of my old cameras broke the film as I started to rewind it. I stuck the camera into a dark bag, coiled the film into a black film canister, marked the can “Loose Film Open in Darkroom,” and sent it to Dwayne’s. They processed it without skipping a beat.

Old School Photo Lab

Old School Photo Lab, of Dover, NH, is the other lab I use a lot. They process, print, and scan 35mm, 120/620, 110, 126, 127, 828, APS, and 4×5 sheet films. They handle color and b/w negative and color slide films.

You order and pay through their Web site, oldschoolphotolab.com. They used to undercut the other well-known labs slightly on price — and used to get the lion’s share of my business as a result — but recent increases have erased that advantage. Processing a roll of 35mm or 120 color or b/w negative film and getting their standard scans costs $17, including shipping both ways. Color slide film costs just a dollar more. They give discounts if you send several rolls at once.

What I love most about OSPL is that their standard 35mm JPEG scans are a generous 3072×2048 pixels at 72 dpi, for nearly poster-sized prints. No other lab offers standard scans that large, which makes OSPL still a good value. You can order giant scans, at 6774×4492 pixels at 72 dpi, for an extra $10 for JPEG or $20 for TIFF. Medium format scan sizes are similar.

When your scans are ready, they email you a link to where you can download them. If you want a CD of the scans, it’s 3 bucks extra and you have to wait longer to get them. OSPL prints digitally. I occasionally order 4×6 prints and they’re lovely.

OSPL used to be blazing fast but they’ve become popular and it seems to have slowed them down. Expect scans in one to two weeks; once recently they fell behind and I waited a month. Quality is consistent and good. The staff, and sometimes the owner, responds promptly and cheerfully when you contact them. The lab is active on Twitter and the feed is often a hoot. The same goes for their Instagram feed.

Willow Photo Lab

Willow Photo Lab of Somerville, MA, is the price leader. They offer processing, printing, and scanning of 35mm, 120/620, and APS negative films, in color and black-and white, through their Web site. They process b/w film by hand!

Order and pay via their Web site, willowphotolab.com. Processing and scanning one roll of 35mm costs just $7. Other services’ prices vary a little. Shipping costs depend on how far away from Massachusetts you are; most of my orders have been $3. They don’t offer prepaid mailing labels, so get your postage stamps out.

Scans are skinty at 1536×1024 at 72 dpi, sent to you on a CD. That’s only large enough for maybe a 5×7 print, so I always order their higher resolution scans for an extra $1.60. They’re 3072×2048 pixels at 72 dpi.

I’ve not ordered prints from Willow, but unlike most other labs they still do wet-process printing on light-sensitive photo paper. A full set of prints costs just a buck when you order developing and scanning too.

Willow changed hands in early 2018; the whole lab packed up and moved from Missouri. The new owner has maintained the same level of quality and service. They’re not the fastest lab, probably because they’re so small, but their prices make up for it for me. When you email them with questions, the owner responds promptly.

The Darkroom

The Darkroom, of San Clemente, CA, is the SEO king of by-mail labs. Google “film processing” and see where they show up! They process, scan, and print 35mm, 120, 126, 110, APS, single-use cameras, and 4×5, 5×7, and 8×10 sheet film. They handle color and b/w negative and color slide films.

The Darkroom offers online ordering and payment at thedarkroom.com. Processing, standard scans, the scan CD, and shipping both ways for a roll of 35mm color film costs about $17. Prices for other formats are similar. Scans come with every order, via both emailed download link and CD.

The Darkroom’s standard scans are puny, 1536×1024 pixels at 72 dpi. Other labs offer larger scans for about the same price. You can order larger scans, 3072×2048 and a giant 6774×4492 pixels, for an extra $4 or $9 per roll, respectively. I’ve never ordered prints from The Darkroom.

Scans are usually ready about 7 days after I drop the film into the mail. It takes up to a week longer for my negatives and the CD to arrive, but I expect that they’d arrive faster if I lived out west. I’ve never needed to contact The Darkroom for customer service.

Fulltone Photo

Fulltone Photo, of La Grange, KY, gets some of my business too. Their Web site is fulltonephoto.com. They process, scan, and print 35mm, 120, 126, and 110 film. They handle color and black-and-white negative and color slide films.

You print and fill out their order form and include it with your film. When they receive your film they email you for payment info.

Processing and standard scans $7 plus shipping; their site doesn’t list shipping costs. Medium format films cost an extra 50 cents; black-and-white films are a dollar more across the board. Slide film costs $14-17 to develop and scan. Shipping is discounted when your order costs more than $15.

Standard scans are especially small at 1818×1228 pixels at 72 dpi, which is good only for a 4×6 print. Fortunately, for an extra $5 you can get scans at 4535×3035 pixels at 72 dpi, which will print to near poster size. Last time I used them, a few years ago, they returned your scans only by mail on CD. I’ve never ordered prints from Fulltone.

Fulltone has always done good work for me. They’re the closest by-mail lab to my central-Indiana home, which cuts shipping time. Fulltone has a lovely Instagram feed here that I enjoy following.

Film Rescue International

Sometimes you’ll find some very old, very expired film in a camera. Any of the above labs will process it, but they might not get good images because old film deteriorates.

Send it straight to Film Rescue International, filmrescue.com. They process any film, no matter how old, and use creative darkroom and Photoshop techniques to coax the best possible images from it. They’re expensive, and they’re slow, but they do outstanding work.

I’ve used Film Rescue just once, for a roll of Verichrome Pan I found in a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye. That film had been in the camera for more than 40 years in unknown conditions, so I was afraid it might have deteriorated badly. They got good, high-contrast images from that film. They lacked “that Verichrome Pan look” but were crisp and clean.

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Minolta SR-T 101

State Theater

My Minolta SR-T 101 is from the first year or so of its 1966-75 manufacturing run, making it about as old as I am. It was a mighty advanced kit five decades ago and remains a competent machine today. I hope the same can be said about me.

Minolta SR-T-101

Before its turn in Operation Thin the Herd I’d shot this SR-T but once, and I was impressed with the sharpness, bokeh, and color its 50mm f/1.7 lens gave me on workaday Fujicolor 200 film. Really impressed. Wowed, even. Yet on that first outing I didn’t enjoy how heavy and clunky it felt.

Squirrel

This was the first old-school all-mechanical SLR I’d ever shot. My prior SLR experience was a Minolta X-700, an Olympus OM-1, and Pentaxes K1000 and ME. All of them were far more agile in my hand, even the K1000, which was closest in size and spirit to the SR-T.

Since then, however, I’ve experienced two dozen more SLRs, including early ones like the Pentax H3 and beasts like the Nikon F2. These experiences put the SR-T in proper perspective and let me use it with greater confidence and competence. On this outing, with Ferrania P30 Alpha loaded, it felt satisfying in my hands.

Distillery

When I put a battery in (an alkaline 625 cell), the meter needle jumped up and down, never settling in any light. My heart sank. I was so looking forward to trying this camera but I wasn’t willing to invest in sending it out for repair first. I know, I know, I can shoot Sunny 16 or use an external meter. But daggone it, onboard metering just makes an SLR so much more pleasant to use!

First Source

I asked about it on a forum I follow. One fellow suggested I remove the bottom plate (easy, just a couple screws) and make sure the wire was well connected to the battery compartment. I did, it was, and I figured I was out of luck. But when I screwed everything back together the meter gave consistent readings! Happy day! It read about a stop under, however. I set camera ISO to compensate for the meter’s underexposure and got to shooting.

Steps

I brought the SR-T along on a day trip to South Bend, my hometown. I haven’t spent much time there since my parents moved away four years ago, and I miss the place. Or at least I thought I missed the place. As I wandered downtown’s streets I encountered entirely too many men just hanging out on corners with nothing to do. Several of them approached me. I’m sure they would have eventually hit me up for money, but really, they mostly seemed bored and looking for human connection. I’d never experienced anything like it before in South Bend and it made me sad for the city’s current state.

No parking

I’m disappointed in how the P30 Alpha performed on this full-sun day. Images were so high contrast that subjects stood in full silhouette. Fortunately, in Photoshop I was able to coax out some shadow detail and tone down the highlights. Only a few photos couldn’t be made usable.

Jefferson Blvd. bridge from Howard Park

I didn’t think it through when I chose P30 Alpha. Testing old cameras is best done with forgiving films, which is one reason I shoot a lot of Fujicolor 200. That stuff can take a lot of abuse in exposure, processing, and scanning, and still return usable images. The P30 Alpha needs more careful handling in exposure and, especially, processing. My lab admitted that they did a lot of P30 when it was first released, but my roll was the first one they’d seen in a while. Perhaps they’ve lost the touch.

St. Joe River

But just check out the detail in texture in the St. Joe River above as it makes its way past the Jefferson St. bridge and the di Suvero sculpture. That lens’s excellent characteristics came through! And it did solid documentary work as I photographed this building that’s part of South Bend’s outstanding farmer’s market. Memo to other towns: study South Bend’s market and replicate it.

Farmer's Market

To see more from this camera, check out my Minolta SR-T 101 gallery.

This camera operates well within the typical mechanical-manual SLR idiom. I’m fluent in the idiom, and so in operation everything fell right to my hand. With a CLA that includes a calibration of the meter, this camera would be stellar.

Yet I’m not keeping it. I’ve already decided that I’m going to focus my SLR collection on Pentaxes and Nikons. If I get rid of none of those bodies I will still own a ridiculous number of SLRs, more than I can use. For an SLR from another manufacturer to stay in the collection, it has to have strong sentimental value or be head and shoulders better in some way than my best Nikons or Pentaxes. This SR-T 101 is very good. But it doesn’t clear that bar.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Film Photography

What’s on your film tails?

With my mechanical 35mm cameras I can shoot every frame, including 0 and sometimes even 00. It makes my inner skinflint happy to get 37 or 38 images on a 36-exposure roll.

Frequently the first image includes the exposed film tail. I usually burn that frame off without composing or focusing. But sometimes even that photo turns out to be interesting — and other times I don’t realize I’m not beyond the tail when I start shooting for real.

Coffee mug at the sink

With a rare idle hour recently I looked for interesting tail images. Unsurprisingly, most of them were crap. But here are some that aren’t, not entirely, anyway. Above: my coffee mug at the edge of my kitchen sink. Below: eggs in the refrigerator door. These may not be the most gripping subjects of all time, but I still find the incomplete images to have some appeal.

Eggs

Most of my interesting tail photos are from around the house. It’s not surprising: that’s where I usually am when I load my film! But once in a while I start a second roll while out and get a tail photo from wherever I am.

Chevrolet sign

Here are more. Click any of them to see them larger.

What’s on your film tails?

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography, Old cars

Operation Thin the Herd: Canon AE-1 Program

Chevelle nacelles

Who doesn’t like the Canon AE-1 Program? It’s universally praised, and with good reason. It’s a capable tool with good features. A photographer could make great images with it indefinitely.

Canon AE-1 Program

I mounted my 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD lens and loaded up some Agfa Vista 200, which I shot at EI 100. This is the lens I commonly use on this camera, as I did a few years ago on a photo walk Downtown when I had some Arista Premium 400 inside. That’s Circle Tower, a gorgeous building in the Art Deco style.

Circle Tower

Old buildings, old cars, and old roads — these are the things I photograph most. No old roads in this post, however, as I took the AE-1 Program to a “cars and coffee” gathering and shot two rolls there. It’s all old cars up in this joint for the rest of this post. I think my favorite car of the day was this late-70s Firebird because it was in rough, original condition. This is what all ’70s Firebirds looked like in the mid ’80s when I was in high school: rusty and rough. The school parking lot was full of them. This parking lot had just this one.

They're only original once

The AE-1 handled perfectly, as expected. Mine has developed that annoying squealing shutter that is common to this camera. But it doesn’t affect function, and it got quieter and quieter as I kept shooting. This Cadillac’s delightful tail was the first photo I made at the event. The shutter howled.

Cad fin

Color and light play make car shows a wonderful place to test gear, especially on color film.

Speedster

This Porsche Speedster was mobile during the event. I saw it in two or three different places, including coming out of the host’s garage.

Speedster on the move

People from all walks of life came to show and see the cars. Our shared interest created opportunity to talk to people we might not normally interact with. I bumped into one other fellow shooting film, someone whose clothes marked him as being in a much higher economic class than me. When he heard my AE-1 squeal, he whirled around and said, “I know that sound!” He then showed me the Canon T60 SLR he had picked up in the used section at our local camera store. We chatted for several minutes about the relative merits of Canon film gear.

Cop and camaro

What I concluded with that fellow is this: every Canon SLR I’ve ever shot has been competent enough, and the lenses are technically excellent. But the cameras never spark joy when they’re in my hands, and the images I get never give me “wow!” moments. In contrast I’ve swooned, and hard, over Nikon and Pentax SLRs and the images I’ve received from them.

Stang

I enjoyed my car-show morning with the AE-1. I got good results. But as I reviewed the photos, I felt certain that I would have gotten better color from the delightful 50mm f/2 lens I keep for my Pentax bodies. I know that my little Pentax ME would have felt better in my hands.

Celica GT

This, really, is what Operation Thin the Herd is all about. Now that I have built skill as a photographer and have experienced so much gear as a collector, which gear hits that sweet spot of feeling great in my hands and returning images that delight me? That’s the gear I want to keep.

Triumph tail

Yet the AE-1 Program handled everything I threw at it this sunny Saturday morning. I can’t really complain.

Lotus tail

If you’d like to see more photos from this camera, check out my Canon AE-1 Program gallery.

My heart beats for Pentax and my mind pines for Nikon. I own plenty of their gear, enough to keep me busy and happy for the rest of my life. Because my Canon gear just doesn’t grab me in the same way, because I’m unlikely to use it very often, I should probably let it go. Perhaps I’ll keep one body, maybe my mechanical TLb, and a couple of my older lenses. Perhaps not; this isn’t the day to decide. But this is the day to decide about the AE-1 Program, and I know it’s time to let it go.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon N90s

Church door

Sometimes a person needs to just get out and shoot for the joy and fun of it. At such times, a great choice is an auto-everything SLR and a zoom lens. You’ll be ready for pretty much anything you encounter. Especially when the body you choose is as robust and capable as the Nikon N90s.

Nikon N90s

I’ve had great luck with this camera every time I’ve shot it, no matter the film or lens I chose. Here I used the well-regarded 50mm f/1.8 AF Nikkor on Arista Premium 400.

Anthem

And here I used the 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor that came in the kit with the Nikon N65 I used to own, on very expired and poorly stored Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400.

High West

Ken Rockwell calls this plastic-bodied zoom lens one of Nikon’s 10 best lenses ever. I marvel at that a little bit, as Nikon had to have made ten superior F-mount primes. But this lens turns out to be a good performer, sharp edge to edge anywhere in the zoom range.

Lebanon front door

It does have some barrel distortion at 28mm. The shot below shows it a little. That’s its major flaw. But I’m not much of a 28mm guy anyway. 35mm is as wide as I normally go, and the distortion is largely tamed when you zoom in that far.

Union Station

The lens also had some difficulty focusing close. I tried to capture some magnolia blossoms but the lens would only hunt. It also tended to wash out the image a little if the sun wasn’t directly behind me, as this shot of the Slippery Noodle bar shows. I’ve meant to go to the Slippery Noodle ever since I moved to central Indiana in 1994. They say they’re Indiana’s oldest bar, operating since 1850.

The Slippery Noodle

But this should be a referendum on the N90s and not on that lens. So let’s get to it: this camera is large and fairly heavy. Also, its controls don’t follow the modern “mode dial” SLR idiom. But I didn’t experience its weight as a problem. And those controls, specifically a bunch of buttons and one unlabeled dial, are not hard to discover and learn.

Lucas Oil behind the old houses

For example, I was pretty quickly able to figure out how to manually set ISO. The camera accurately read the DX coding on the Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400 I had loaded, but I wanted to shoot it at EI 200. A few button presses and I was set. But on this cloudy-day photowalk Downtown along South Meridian Street I might have been better served leaving the film at 400. Meridian Street is the city’s main north-south drag, but some street reconfiguration in this area isolated a couple blocks and the lovely old homes on them.

South Meridian St.

The N90s gives you a lot of controls to keep track of. Apparently I set the camera to center-weighted metering the last time I used it, and forgot to reset it to matrix metering for this roll of film. I think that might have contributed to the problems in this shot of St. Elmo’s, a steakhouse operating since 1902. Pro tip: before shooting an N90s, press in the two green-dot buttons atop the camera for a few seconds to reset the camera’s settings.

St. Elmo's

But for this full-sun shot, everything worked perfectly. The Union 525 was originally a high school but is now a space where startup tech companies can begin to build their businesses. There’s quite a tech startup scene here in Indianapolis.

Union 525

The callery pear were in bloom this day. They smell like rotting shrimp.

Rolls-Royce

I’ve shot this camera often. See everything I’ve photographed with this camera in my Nikon N90s gallery.

A couple years ago I chose this N90s as my Nikon auto-everything body over the entry-level N60 and N65 I used to own. Those more basic bodies certainly demand far less of me than the N90s and could certainly have taken every photo you see in this post. But among these cameras the N90s was the only one built to last.

As I’ve been thinning this herd I’ve already decided that my main SLRs will be metal, (mostly) mechanical, and manual focus. I’ll never leave my first love, Pentax. And I have some truly great Nikon gear that will always have a home here. I might keep a Minolta and a Canon body in case I come upon an interesting lens for those mounts.

But I like the N90s. It’s a smashing companion to my 50/1.8 AF Nikkor and my wife’s 35/2 AF Nikkor lenses. With this zoom lens attached it’s a fine, but heavy, photo-walk kit. If in a few years I find I just don’t use it much, I reserve the right to change my mind — but for now…

Verdict: Keep

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