Photography

The joy of photographing

I’ve started sorting through this year’s photographs to find my ten favorite. I do this every year for a post just before the new year. See my past annual posts here.

I made more images this year than in any year before. But a lower percentage of them were good.

In 2020 I have used photography as a distraction from considerable stress. It hasn’t been only COVID — it’s also been family and work stress, at times intense. Sometimes it’s been too much to cope with all at once. Getting out with a camera let me take my mind off it for a while.

I photographed near home a lot; since I’ve been working from home, I’m here a lot. But I’ve also made some short trips just to make photographs. Whether by car or by bike, the trips themselves fill my bucket. I explore and see new places, or familiar places at different times of year. I especially enjoy the scents — the sweetness of new spring flowers, the freshness of mown grass and hay in the summer, the earthiness of fallen autumn leaves. It’s even been interesting to feel the weather: hot sun, cool overcast, rain.

Holliday Road Bridge

Wherever I stop for a photograph, I spend time with the subject. I get to know it a little by walking around it looking for the best angles. I enjoy it most when I’m in a remote place where others are unlikely to encounter me. I’m so self-conscious with a camera when I’m in public!

Central Indiana Telephone Co.

I photograph what seems interesting to me in the moment. Frequently when I look at the resulting images I see that the subject wasn’t that interesting after all, or that I couldn’t find an interesting way to see it. But it’s fun to try to find that interesting composition.

Maybe it’s just gravy when I nail a composition. I get so much pleasure out of simply using my cameras — the ones I’ve kept, anyway, after thinning the herd. I’ve shot my Yashica-12 a lot this year, and the more I use it the more I love it. Given that it’s a TLR, it’s a big brick in the hands. But its form factor fades away as I work the silken controls to control exposure and make the subject crisp, as I look through the magnifier built in over the focusing screen.

I’ve also shot the Olympus OM-2n often. I only got it this year and am still getting to know it. But that’s fun, too, when something about a new-to-me camera delights me for the first time.

I love it when I get a roll full of beautiful images. But even when I don’t, if I enjoyed everything about all the previous steps, I have no reason to be dissatisfied.

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Film Photography

Making film photography less expensive

As I’ve said before, film photography has never been less expensive. Great film cameras be had for pennies on the original dollar. Also, film and processing are less expensive, adjusted for inflation, than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet prices are on the rise. Many old cameras have become very popular, and their prices have soared. Kodak, Fujifilm, and Ilford have raised their prices a great deal in the last year or so. And the popular film labs now charge upwards of 20 bucks per roll for developing and scanning!

Fortunately, you can still manage the costs of cameras, film, and processing. You just have to manage your expectations, too. You can still find plenty of good cameras for under 50 bucks when you look beyond the popular choices. You might have to learn the limits of some lower-cost films that are new to you. You’re not going to get white-glove lab service where they remember all of your preferences. But you can have plenty of good fun, and get satisfying images.

Inexpensive cameras

Ah, for the halcyon days when for 50 bucks or less you could buy a hip Canon Canonet QL17 rangefinder, or a classic Pentax K1000 SLR, or an ultra-compact Olympus Stylus, or a smooth Yashica-D TLR.

Boy, are those days ever over. Fortunately, plenty of film-camera bargains remain. You just need to step off the beaten path.

Nikon N90s

Plastic-bodied auto-everything 35mm SLRs are currently the strongest bargain in film photography. They make great starter cameras. My favorites are Nikons, like the N65. Canon, Minolta, and Pentax made “plastic fantastic” SLRs, too. You can buy them for as little as $15 or $20, often with a zoom lens attached. It’s crazy, but even sturdy, well-featured semi-professional bodies like Nikon’s N90/N90s and Canon’s A2/A2e can often be had today for under $50!

If you must have a manual-focus SLR, plenty of cameras fly under that $50 price tag. I’m a big fan of Pentax and recommend the ME, ME Super, or Super Program. With Nikon, look to the Nikkormats, such as the FTn or the EL. With Canon, try the FTb, TLb, or T70. Or choose a solid Minolta SR-T, like the SR-T 101. Plenty of people sell these with a 50mm prime still attached, and I’ve yet to encounter one from any manufacturer that wasn’t very good.

If you simply must have the cachet of a big name like Voigtländer or Zeiss Ikon, look for models without onboard meters and focusing aids (such as rangefinders). Or look instead at Kodak’s Retina cameras, which in my opinion remain undervalued.

Pentax IQZoom 170SL

Point-and-shoot 35mm cameras are extra popular — and expensive — right now, especially those with fine lenses. Plenty of fairly priced cameras remain, however. Pentax’s IQZoom/Espio series has some gems. I’m a big fan of the 170SL. There was a whole series of Olympus Stylus cameras and some of them are still reasonably priced. Try the Zoom 140.

In medium format, you’re incredibly unlikely to find a TLR or rangefinder for chicken feed. Even vintage folding cameras now generally cost $100 or more. But you can have a great deal of fun with a box camera! Kodak and others made them by the bazillions and they go for very little. I’m a big fan of Kodak’s No. 2 Brownie, most of which are more than 100 years old. They do surprisingly good work. An Agfa Clack is another fine choice with more modern ergonomics. I’m stepping a little out of my depth here, but you can buy a brand new Holga for $40! You just have to be ready for the lo-fi look you’ll get.

My friends who love Soviet cameras say they’re the best bargains in film photography. They especially recommend the Fed 2 and the Zorki 4 as Leica clones. Or look for a Zenit 11 SLR, or a Lomo Lubitel 166 TLR. They all have their quirks, and the Soviets were not known for build quality, but well-functioning examples can still be had.

If you worry about getting a dud, check out my tips for inspecting vintage cameras before you buy: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Inexpensive film

There are some truly outstanding films today. Unfortunately, many of them now cost $9, $10, $11 or more per roll.

All is not lost: a number of 35mm films cost about $5, and some even less. The king of inexpensive color negative film is Fujicolor 200, which you can often find for under $4. Kodak ColorPlus is another fine choice — it has a classic Kodak look. You can sometimes snag Kodak Gold 200 or Ultramax 400 in 24 exposure rolls for under $5, as well. Unfortunately, I don’t know a color negative film in 120 that costs less than $5. You’ll sometimes find Kodak Ektar or Kodak Portra 400 for $7 to $8, however.

You have lots of $5-and-under choices in black and white:

  • Foma’s Fomapan films, in ISO 100, 200, and 400. These are often rebranded: Kosmo Foto, Arista EDU, Holga. Available in 35mm and 120.
  • Kentmere films, in ISO 100 and 400. These are made by the same people who make Ilford films. 35mm only.
  • Ultrafine Xtreme, in ISO 100 and 400. These are the biggest black-and-white bargains I’ve ever found. 35mm and 120.

I’ve heard reports of iffy quality control in especially the Foma films, but I’ve not had any trouble with them. But in challenging lighting conditions these bargain films sometimes return blown-out highlights or blocked-up shadows where Kodak and Ilford films perform well.

But Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 Plus and FP4 Plus only cost about $7 a roll. Sometimes you can find Kodak T-Max at this price. That’s just a couple extra bucks for those times you want that extra latitude.

I based all of these prices on what is listed today at B&H and the Film Photography Store. You can buy film online at lots of places; here are the places I recommend.

I know some of you are poised to comment: Buy film in bulk and load your own 35mm cartridges! After you buy a bulk loader, yes, this can cut the cost per roll. But bulk-loaded cartridges don’t have DX coding, which eliminates a lot of cameras. Also, cameras that wind automatically have been known to pull the film end right out of the cartridge. This is why I’ve shied away. But bulk loading might work for you, and can slash film costs.

Inexpensive processing

I really miss taking my film to the drug store or to Costco and getting serviceable developing and scans for as little as $6! But even when I was doing this, I knew these services were nearing their end. There just wasn’t enough business to sustain them.

Mail-in developing is where it’s at, and where it’s been at for at least a decade now. There’s been an explosion of small labs! But most of them are expensive. Many of the well-known labs have nudged their prices high.

All is not yet lost. Here are two less-expensive labs that I use.

Fulltone Photo: They charge $7 to process and scan 35mm color negative film, $7.50 for 120 color negative, $8 for 35mm b/w, and $8.50 for 120 b/w. If you spend $15 or more, they waive their $4.50 return shipping charge.

Dwayne’s Photo: This well-known lab charges $9 to process and scan 35mm or 120 color negative film, and $11 for 120 or 35mm black-and-white film. Shipping is $5 for the first roll and 50 cents for each additional roll.

Persistent Googling might turn up other inexpensive labs. If you know of any, let me know in the comments!

Developing your own film can dramatically cut costs. But first, you must buy a bunch of developing equipment and a film scanner. If you buy everything new, you’re laying out no less than $250. Each roll costs you time, especially in scanning, and there’s a learning curve to get consistently good results. But if you shoot a ton of film, after a long while you will break even and then start to save money this way.


There you have it: my best tips for saving money in film photography. If you have more of your own, share them in the comments!

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

Saluting the original film-camera reviewers of the Internet

The first time I wrote about old film cameras on this blog was about a month after I started it, in 2007. You can read that post here.

It’s remarkable how much has changed in film photography since then.

In 2007, as film stocks kept being discontinued we worried that falling demand for film would kill the business. All of our great film gear would become paperweights and doorstops.

Certo Super Sport Dolly
The Certo Super Sport Dolly, still an underrepresented camera on the Internet.

By the mid-2010s, the Great Analog Resurgence had breathed new life into film photography. Demand for film has slowly increased. It will never return to former heights, but it is enough to keep emulsions flowing from the factories. A few new films have been introduced, and a couple discontinued films have come back.

In 2007, only a handful of people wrote about their gear online. Some wrote full-on reviews, some wrote usage impressions, and some just listed specifications. I was grateful to all of them as they helped me figure out which cameras I might like to try, and to figure out whether to click Buy It Now on a camera that tickled my fancy.

I started writing about my old cameras here because I wanted to be as helpful to the world as these “OG” film-camera reviewers had been to me. I kept using their sites as I researched my own reviews. And then many of my reviews began to lead search results. I felt satisfied — and guilty, as my reviews began to outrank those of the good people whose shoulders on which I stood.

Argus Instant Load 270
Only a couple sites say anything about the Argus Instant Load 270 and my blog is one of them.

Since then, dozens of others have started film-photography blogs where they write about their gear. Many of them even do video reviews on YouTube! The Internet is awash in good information about even the most obscure cameras. So much so that many of my former highly ranked posts have fallen in the rankings. It’s personally disappointing, but I suppose what goes around comes around. What we all get in return is a thriving film-photography community.

I want to salute the people whose sites helped me so much when I began researching old cameras in my blog’s early days. Many of their sites are still up, although most of them are not still maintained. Many of them have the same design as when they started 15, 20, 25 years ago; a few appear to be straight HTML! I’m listing these sites in rough order of how often I visited them.

Photoethnography — Collecting and Using Classic Cameras: Karen Nakamura is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley who has used film cameras in her work documenting cultures. She built a large collection and wrote good reviews of her gear, offering usage and repair tips. For years, every time I was interested in a camera, my Googling led me straight to Karen’s pages. I took it as a sign that I had good taste in cameras.

Matt’s Classic Cameras: Matt Denton shares impressions of his classic cameras with usage and repair tips. I modeled my early camera reviews after his site.

Junk Store Cameras: Marcy Merrill loves the crappy cameras you find in junk stores. She makes lovely images with them. She appears to still add to her site, and she occasionally blogs here.

Photography and Vintage Film Cameras: Mike Connealy likes to find out what kind of images a simple old camera can make. He took this site down a few years ago but offered it to anyone who might like to host it. Fellow collector Mike Eckman resurrected it at his site. Mike Connealy is still active, and blogs about film cameras and photography here.

Random Camera Blog: Mark O’Brien has blogged about film cameras and photography since 2004. His blog is still active and regularly updated.

Collection Appareils: Even though it’s mostly in French, Sylvain Hagland’s site remains a key source of good information about classic cameras. Google Translate will put it into English for you in a jif.

CameraQuest’s Classic Camera Profiles: Stephen Gandy is a Voigtlander distributor who has written extensively about classic Voigtlander, Nikon, and Leica cameras, especially rangefinders but also SLRs.

Photography in Malaysia: Don’t let the site’s name fool you, Leo Foo has extensively documented several key classic 35mm SLRs.

Camera Manual Library: Mike Butkus has collected camera manuals for a very long time, and has scanned them and uploaded them to this site. It’s hundreds of manuals, to be sure. When you Google a camera name plus “manual,” the first result is almost certain to be Mike Butkus’s site. He’s done an enormous service to all us collectors and photographers.

Rick Oleson: Rick’s site is still hosted at Tripod, one of the original free hosting sites from back in the day. He offers usage and repair tips on a number of cameras, plus essays on how to make the most of your old gear.

Ken Rockwell: While Ken primarily focuses on new gear, he has reviewed several film cameras. They’re blended in with everything else so you have to hunt around to find them.

The Brownie Camera Page: Online since 1994, the Web’s earliest days, Chuck Baker’s site catalogs Brownie cameras and Kodak history, and gives useful information about how to clean up and use these old cameras.

Yashica Guy: Joe Marcel Wolff catalogs Yashica rangefinder cameras and offers usage and repair tips. He also makes and sells an adaptor that lets you use common batteries in these cameras.

Mamiya 35mm Cameras: Ron Herron collects Mamiya 35mm cameras and writes about them here.

Alfred’s Camera Page: Alfred Klomp shares information about his collection, including usage and repair tips. It hasn’t been updated since 2006 — it was already on ice the first time I visited it!

Roland and Caroline Givan’s Cameras: Roland and Caroline are fans of Agfa cameras, but they also enjoy Russian and half-frame cameras. They document their collection here.

TLR cameras: Barry Toogood documents his TLR collection.

Manual Cameras: N. Maekawa shares his impressions of using several all-manual film cameras.

Guide to Classic Cameras: Specifications and photos of dozens of classic film cameras.

Camera Collecting and Restoration: Dan Mitchell’s site of usage and repair info about many classic cameras.

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

What’s the best film camera to start with?

Every time I see a post about the best film camera to start with, the comments pile on. So many different, strong opinions. So many of them recommend a mechanical, manual SLR like the Pentax K1000 or the Minolta SR-T 101.

I think that’s a terrible place for a newbie to start. There’s so much to learn about exposure to use a camera like that. It’s a barrier that could turn a budding film photographer away.

Instead, buy an auto-everything 35mm SLR from late in the film era, around the turn of the century. My favorites are the Nikon N-series cameras, like the N55, N60, and N65. Get one with a lens already attached, preferably a Nikon Nikkor. A 28-80mm zoom lens is common and still useful. You can buy kits like these for $30 on eBay every day. (Read my post here about how to buy film gear on eBay.)

Nikon N65

There are some risks. Any used camera could have issues. But I choose these N-series cameras because, in my experience, unless one has been abused it is likely to work reliably.

The other reason I recommend these cameras is that when you twist the big dial atop the camera to Auto, you have a giant point-and-shoot camera. You’ll easily get great first results.

Nikon N65

If you try one only to realize that film photography isn’t for you, you’re out very little money. You can probably sell the kit to someone else for what you paid for it!

If you find you like shooting film, keep going with this auto-everything SLR until you feel like you’ve mastered it. Then try a mechanical, manual camera like that K1000 (more info here) or SR-T 101 (more info here).

Here are some photos I made with my Nikon N60 and N65 with my 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6-G AF Nikkor lens, a common one to find with these cameras. I used everyday color films: Fujicolor 200 and Kodak Gold 200, which you can still buy at the drug store. I walked up, twisted the lens barrel to zoom in on the scene, and pressed the button. (My wife shot the last one.) That’s all there is to it.

Red house
Goals
Story Inn
A portrait of the photographer

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Film Photography

Using Sunny 16 to check your camera’s meter

Something might not be right with the meter on my black Olympus OM-1. I’ve taken it out lately on some bright days and the exposure settings that give me that horizontal needle in the viewfinder aren’t agreeing with the Sunny 16 rule.

Olympus OM-1

I’ve said for years that I want to get better at reading the light with my eyes and setting exposure manually. It would let me shoot any non-metered camera in my collection without having to fumble with an external meter. But it also alerts me when one of my old cameras’ meters might not be accurate anymore.

I expect most photographers who learn this skill start with Sunny 16. I did, and I have it down well enough. I’ve even occasionally adapted it down to f/8 as the resulting faster shutter speeds are sometimes useful. (See Mike Eckman’s useful article on his “Outdoor Eight Rule” here for a dead-simple related technique.)

My OM-1’s meter doesn’t appear to be so far off that the good exposure latitude of the Kodak ColorPlus film inside shouldn’t cover it. I’m relying on the meter to see what happens.

But it’s very nice to know that I can sanity check any camera’s meter against Sunny 16 and adjust my shooting accordingly — even “go commando” and ignore the meter if I must.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Sunny 16 rule, here it is. Most negative films, both black and white and color, have enough margin to give you a usable image with these settings.

First, set the shutter to about the inverse of your film’s ISO. So for ISO 100, set the shutter to 1/100 or 1/125, whichever one your camera has. For ISO 200, it’s 1/200 or 1/250. For ISO 400, I don’t know a camera that has 1/400 so go with 1/500. Close enough is good enough.

On a normal sunny day where you see distinct shadows, set the aperture to f/16. On a cloudy day when the shadows soften, go with f/11. On a heavily cloudy day when the shadows are barely visible, use f/8. When it’s overcast enough there are no visible shadows, use f/5.6. A final tip: if the sun is blazingly bright and glaring, go with f/22 if you have it.

If you learn this well enough, you too can easily sanity check the meter on any camera you own. Set the ISO to 100, gauge the light and guess the shutter speed you should use at f/16, and then:

  • On a full manual camera, set the aperture to f/16 and the shutter speed according to the Sunny 16 rule and see where the exposure indicator lines up. If all’s well it should indicate close to proper exposure.
  • On an aperture priority camera, set the aperture to f/16 and see what shutter speed the camera chooses. If all’s well it should choose something close to 1/100 on a sunny day, 1/50 on a cloudy day, 1/25 on a heavily cloudy day, and down from there.
  • On a shutter priority camera, set the shutter according to the Sunny 16 rule and see what aperture the camera chooses. If all’s well it should choose something close to f/16 on a sunny day, f/11 on a cloudy day, and on from there.

Sunny 16 isn’t exact science. When I say “close” above, I mean within a stop or maybe even two of correct exposure. But if you set your camera to 1/100 and f/16 on a sunny day and the camera indicates strong over- or under-exposure, either you have a bad battery or your meter is faulty.

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Camera Reviews

Nikon EM

I’m sure photographers everywhere thought Nikon was going to heck in a handbasket when they released the EM, a 35mm SLR, in 1979. Plastic body parts? No way to manually set exposure? Whaaaaaaat?

Nikon EM

SLRs were originally considered pro equipment. But through the 1970s, everyday photographers came to appreciate the SLR’s many positive qualities. Camera companies sensed a vast untapped market of amateurs and even casual shooters. Pentax may have been first to figure that out with their small, light, simple, relatively inexpensive ME in 1976. Is it coincidence that Nikon’s similarly sized and featured camera reversed those letters for its name?

Nikon EM

The EM was the smallest, lightest, simplest, and least expensive SLR Nikon had ever made. Yet virtually every F-mount lens made to that point mounted right on. The EM eliminated most of an SLR’s fussy controls, limiting the photographer to aperture-priority shooting (the Auto mode you see atop the camera). If you could learn to focus, you could get Nikon SLR-quality photographs.

Nikon EM

Nikon was deliberate in which corners it cut to build the EM. They built in quality where it counted, starting with a metal chassis. They also built in a metal shutter with electronically controlled shutter speeds from 1 to 1/1,000 sec. — stepless, meaning that if the available light made 1/353 sec. the right shutter speed, that’s what the EM gave you. You could set ISO from 25 to 1600. The EM even had contacts on the bottom plate for an auto winder. All of this required two LR/SR44 button batteries, but if they died you could set the camera to M90 and keep shooting with a 1/90 sec. shutter.

If you like little SLRs like the EM, also check out my reviews of the Olympus OM-1 (here) and the Pentax ME (here). I’ve also reviewed a slew of Nikon SLRs including the F2 (here), the F3 (here) the FA (here), the N2000 (here), the N60 (here), the N65 (here), and the N90s (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

I was headed out for a day on the Michigan Road, thanks to a quarterly board meeting. I headed south on the road towards Napoleon, the little town where we were to meet. Our meeting was in the Central House (photo here), built in about 1820. I had Agfa Vista 200 loaded as I made some photographs inside.

Inside the Central House

During loading I had considerable trouble getting the film to take on the spool. You have to make perfectly sure that a sprocket hole is perfectly placed on the little notch that sticks out on the takeup spool. Also, the meter won’t engage until the film counter is on 1, so you can’t shoot those early frames.

Inside the Central House

To activate the meter on most period Nikon SLRs, you pull the winder lever out. It’s a drag. Not so the EM: just touch the shutter button. The camera beeps when the meter has done its thing. Also, a needle moves to point to the shutter speed the EM has selected. If the EM keeps beeping, it can’t find a good exposure at your chosen aperture.

Inside the Central House

The wind lever is both neat and annoying. It’s a two-part lever. The first part pulls out to provide a good angle for winding, and then both parts work together to wind. Under use, it feels as if too much pressure would break it. Winding itself feels thin and unsure, lacking the usual Nikon high-quality feel.

Bank

My EM’s meter didn’t always want to engage. I found that if I moved the selector from Auto to M90 and back to Auto the meter would play nice again for a few frames. Old camera blues, I suppose.

White Lily

On the way home I stopped in Greensburg to photograph some favorite subjects. When this gas station switched from Shell to Sinclair several years ago I was very happy to see this Sinclair Dino placed out on the corner for all to see. It’s the company’s longtime mascot.

Dino

I walked Greensbur’g square to finish the roll. The EM handled easily, which is the whole point of a camera like this. I never got used to the cheap-feeling winder, and the fussy meter remained annoying. But I never failed to get sharp, evenly exposed photographs from the EM.

On the square in Greensburg

To see more from this camera, check out my Nikon EM gallery.

This Nikon EM came to me from a reader who had it in surplus, and I thank him for letting me experience Nikon’s little SLR. I do like little SLRs, as my love of the Olympus OM-1 and especially the Pentax ME attest.

This is a nice little Nikon body for an easy day of shooting.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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