Film Photography

Shooting Kodak Portra 400

Salem Cemetery

How is it that I’ve been back into film photography for 13 years but have never shot Kodak’s Portra 400? My 2018 EMULSIVE Secret Santa gave me the nudge I needed by dropping two rolls into the gift box she sent.

Magnolia blooms

As I’ve seen others shoot Portra 400, some use it as a general-purpose color film and others find it most useful for photos that involve people. I don’t often shoot people. I tend to shoot things that don’t move. Like cemeteries. And flowers. In cemeteries.

Served

I had been shooting my Nikomat FTn and decided to keep at it for this roll. I had my 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C lens mounted. Portra gave me just enough exposure room to shoot inside, albeit with shallow depth of field.

Books

I can’t decide whether I think the colors are muted or not. So many people have said Portra’s colors are muted that I don’t trust my judgment. I see muted colors in these books, but that might be because the books’ colors are genuinely muted. The magnolia flowers and the American flag above don’t look muted to me. Are the greens below muted? I want to say no, but I also can’t recall how vivid the scene was in real life.

Down the path

I don’t notice grain in these photos at this size, but I do when I look at them at full scan size. It’s neither pleasing nor disruptive. It’s workmanlike grain, faint and unobtrusive. However, I scanned these on my flatbed scanner. Lab scans might have made the grain even harder to detect.

Flowers for sale

The Portra was at its best at early evening, the sun in that golden-hour sweet spot.

Blooms

Portra 400 is a very good film. I haven’t pixel-peeped to be sure, but it might have the least obtrusive grain of all the fast color films I’ve shot.

Starkey Park

But the film I use most, Fujicolor 200, suits me fine and costs a lot less.

Starkey Park

My EMULSIVE Secret Santa sent me two rolls of Portra 400, so sooner or later I’ll put the other one through a camera. I shot it at box speed this time, so next time perhaps I’ll shoot it at EI 200. Several photo bloggers I follow get really nice results when they do that.

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Camera Reviews

Operation Thin the Herd: Argus A-Four

In Faytette

I have a deep affection for this little bit of Bakelite, aluminum, and glass. The first argus a-four I owned, in the 1980s when I was a teenager, was the first camera I ever shot that let me set aperture and shutter speed. It generated the little spark for photography that, in my 40s, would finally burst into flame.

Argus A-Four

I put several rolls of film through that a-four, including a roll of bulk-loaded Plus-X that I developed in my high school’s darkroom. The photo below came from a roll of drugstore Kodak color film that I shot around my neighborhood. My brother made this shot of me leaning on the family car. It was the summer I turned 16.

Me, Van, July, 1982

I set aperture, shutter speed, and focus for my non-photographer brother — this is a viewfinder camera with no onboard light meter, so you have to guess and then set all of those things before every shot. You also have to cock the shutter by pulling the cocking lever atop the lens barrel. You’ll never make a quick shot with an a-four. But in the 1950s, when this camera was new, it was a solid step up from the box cameras amateurs otherwise used.

As my first marriage crumbled away I did a few regrettable things, including selling my entire camera collection. I owned a couple hundred cameras then, mostly junk excepting that a-four and a handful of others. My life eventually settled down and I started collecting again. I searched for and eventually found another a-four. I took it along to a muscle-car auction with some Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros loaded. Just check out the resolving power and sharpness of that 44mm f/3.5 Coated Cintar lens.

67 Ford LTD

This a-four hasn’t given me such great results on every roll, however. It seems like one roll turns out great and the next not so much, kind of like Star Trek movies. This was a not-so-great roll as too many shots turned out soft. I don’t think I focused wrong on so many shots, and I used apertures of f/8, f/11, and f/16 most of the time, so I should have had plenty of depth of field. It’s not so evident at blog size, but if you look at any of the photos at full size you’ll see that softness. Unfortunately I burned my last roll of Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros for these results.

Zionsville house

The a-four’s viewfinder isn’t precise. When I made this photo every bit of that arch was visible in the viewfinder.

Oak Hill

The camera is roughly the same size as a compact SLR like the Pentax ME or the Olympus OM-1, but is much lighter. The shutter button is awkwardly placed, but after a few shots you get used to it. The winding knob is this camera’s big usability disappointment. It’s too close to the body to really grab it, so to wind it on you make a whole bunch of short turns with just your fingertips. Mine turns stiffly, as though it could rip through the film sprockets.

Flowers

When I finished the roll and started to rewind, the film immediately tore. I’d been meaning to buy a dark bag anyway, so I bought one, put the camera in, spooled the film into a black 35mm film can, and sent the film to Dwayne’s. They processed it no problem.

Oak Hill

The lens is also prone to flare when the sun isn’t behind you. Or perhaps the lens is dirty. This a-four was on display in my home for nearly a decade and who knows how much grease and dust landed on the lens over the eyars. A swab dipped in rubbing alcohol, applied gently, would have been a good idea before I shot this camera. I regret not at least checking its condition.

John Hume

The shutter’s 1/200 top speed makes it challenging to shoot fast films on sunny days. I shot Tri-X 400 in this thing once and even on a cloudy day my external meter wanted exposures this camera can’t give. I shot everything at smallest aperture and fastest shutter (f/16 and 1/200 sec), relying on Tri-X’s famous exposure latitude to cover. Pro tip: use films of no more than ISO 200 in this camera.

Pleasant Hill Cemetery

The argus a-four was Argus’s answer to Kodak’s Pony, and unfortunately the Pony bests it slightly in every way. Its shutter is slightly faster, its lens is (in my experience) sharper and less prone to flare, and it’s a little easier to use.

Durango

Yet the whole roll through, I felt good when I brought this a-four to my eye. It connected me with my photographic beginnings and that just felt great.

Mail stop

To see more from this camera, check out my Argus a-four gallery.

I’m going to move on from the argus a-four, however. I’ll never shoot it again. Yet my first a-four introduced me to photography’s possibilities, and for that reason this camera has a special place in my heart. I reserve the right to change my mind.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Photography, Road Trips

Touring Arlington National Cemetery

If you know the region, you’re not at all surprised to see a photograph from Arlington National Cemetery that includes the Washington Monument. But for people like me who grew up more than 600 miles away, for whom this cemetery was only ever seen through television on a significant anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, it was a surprise.

Arlington National Cemetery

Indeed, Arlington National Cemetery is on one side of the Potomac River, and the National Mall is on the other. The cemetery is just a mile from the Lincoln Memorial. The Arlington Memorial Bridge connects the two sites.

Arlington National Cemetery

It’s a truly lovely cemetery of gently rolling hills. I could tell it had been there for a long time as the terrain looked natural. Today, building such a place would certainly begin with big earth-moving equipment to create a desired landscape. Anyway, I was right: veterans have been buried here since the Civil War.

Arlington National Cemetery

Not just any veteran can be buried here. Anyone killed in active duty can, but beyond that the rules are fairly restrictive to honor the limited space.

Arlington National Cemetery

It’s staggering how many of these little grave markers there are, row after row in every direction as far as you can see.

Arlington National Cemetery

We visited just before sunset. The low sun created golden light and long shadows. It was an ideal time of day to visit; it created a reverent atmosphere.

Arlington National Cemetery

Behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the stunning Arlington Memorial Ampitheater, completed in 1920.

Arlington National Cemetery

Its classical style was also enhanced by the setting sun.

Arlington National Cemetery

The cemetery was closing as we reached the last place we wanted to see: the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s burial site. This was just after we saw the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, by which I was so moved that I could not find it in me to photograph Kennedy’s grave. Instead, I turned around and photographed the cemetery as it led away from there.

Arlington National Cemetery

The trees, freshly flowered, were a lovely counterpoint to how I felt: struck by all the loss families had suffered across the generations as their children fought for their country.

Arlington National Cemetery

Canon PowerShot S95

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Cemetery

Cemetery trees
Pentax ME, 35mm f/2 SMC Pentax-FA AL
Eastman Double-X 5222
2018

I love how, in the winter, cemetery trees provide a counterpoint to the graves. Their littlest branches reach up into the sky as if just asking for a new day.

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Film Photography

single frame: Cemetery trees

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Looking out

Looking out
Pentax ME, 35mm f/2 SMC Pentax-FA AL
Eastman Double-X 5222
2018

Recently I mounted this autofocus Pentax lens on my Pentax ME to see what it was capable of. I’d been using it on my Pentax K10D DSLR — with great frustration, as the lens too frequently couldn’t lock focus. So I shot it in manual-focus mode most of the time. If I was going to do that, I reasoned, I might as well just shoot it on one of my manual-focus film bodies.

I spent some time in Crown Hill Cemetery with this combo. I’ve made a dozen or more photographs from this vantage point, the highest elevation in Indianapolis and the gravesite of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. I warmed this one up in Photoshop a little; it’s better for it.

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Film Photography

single frame: Looking out

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Film Photography

Shooting the 35mm f/2 SMC Pentax-FA AL on the Pentax ME

I bought this autofocus 35mm f/2 lens hoping it would make my digital Pentax K10D SLR into a useful kit. But that combo and I just didn’t bond. I thought maybe, since this lens has a usable manual-focus ring, it might be good on my Pentax film SLR bodies. So mounted it to my Pentax ME to see what it was really capable of.

Looking out

In retrospect I should have shot a film I know very well, like Fujicolor 200, for a more confident evaluation. Instead I shot Eastman Double-X 5222. I had just shot a roll of it in my Canon EOS 630 (as part of Operation Thin the Herd) and wanted to stay in that groove. It’s still enough for me to declare a verdict: this lens is pretty good, delivering great sharpness and smooth bokeh.

Buds

Just look at all the detail in the back of this little reader’s head. If you’ve read this blog for a while you might recognize it as the little reader at the James Whitcomb Riley gravesite in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Reader

I also brought the camera to church one Sunday and made few inside photos after service ended. I have shot this scene a couple times recently — I feel like there’s a good photograph in it, but I haven’t found it yet.

West Park CC

When I evaluate these photos on their merits, I see fine sharpness and detail. So then why do I feel so lukewarm about this lens?

Pews

It’s probably because it was the single most expensive photographic purchase I’ve ever made. I forget exactly what I paid but it was about $250. (Ok, so I’m the last of the big spenders.) For that kind of money I want this lens to absolutely sing.

Sanctuary

And it just didn’t. I could get a manual-focus 35mm Pentax lens for my film bodies for a lot less money and be just as happy with it, I’m sure. I think that’s what I’m going to do, because I find 35mm to be such a useful focal length on a 35mm SLR body.

And with that, my Pentax K10D DSLR experiment comes to an end. I just can’t find a solid purpose for it in my gear stable. I’ll be selling it, this 35mm lens, and a 28-80mm zoom lens I bought for it, on eBay soon.

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