Contemplating boy Yashica-12 Fujifilm Velvia (expired 8-2006)
Inside Crown Hill Cemetery, as you go up what turns out to be the highest hill in Indianapolis, you find the graves of some of our city’s most prominent and wealthy citizens. The markers can be elaborate, sometimes even gaudy.
This statue of a kneeling boy sits on a concrete bench marked “Home Sweet Home.” No name is given. It’s unusual for this part of the cemetery. I’ve always wondered this statue’s story.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Portra was at its best at early evening, the sun in that golden-hour sweet spot.
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.
But the film I use most, Fujicolor 200, suits me fine and costs a lot less.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The a-four’s viewfinder isn’t precise. When I made this photo every bit of that arch was visible in the viewfinder.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s staggering how many of these little grave markers there are, row after row in every direction as far as you can see.
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.
Behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is the stunning Arlington Memorial Ampitheater, completed in 1920.
Its classical style was also enhanced by the setting sun.
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.
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.
Canon PowerShot S95
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.