Camera Reviews

Keystone XR308

I regret buying this camera. But I was 15, I was about to spend a summer in Germany, and I needed a camera I could count on. I wanted it to have electronic flash and telephoto. I also wanted to carry it easily, either in a pants pocket or in a small pouch attached to my belt. The Keystone XR308 was the only camera I found that checked those boxes within my tiny budget.

Keystone XR308 camera
Image credit: anticuria.com

The XR308 turned out to be terrible, but I didn’t know it at the time. It was a step up from the awful 126 camera I had been using, and I was happy to have it. I don’t have it anymore, though. It went away in 2003 with the about 150 other cameras that comprised my first collection. But here’s a bathroom-mirror selfie that shows it in my hands. I didn’t stop to think how the flash would ruin the photo!

The XR308 takes 110 film, which was still popular in 1984. There’s not much to the camera. Its lens is probably plastic, set in a simple leaf shutter. It has a preset aperture and shutter speed, adequate for decent exposure with plenty of depth of field in a wide range of daylight, optimized for the ISO 100 and 200 films of the day. When you turned on the flash, it made that whistling sound flashes used to make while they charged. The green light atop the camera would glow when the flash was ready.

I took several cartridges of Kodak color film with me to Germany, but it wasn’t nearly enough and I bought film there, too: Porst (the big German camera brand at the time) and Fuji because they were cheaper. Here is some of my exchange group at the Cologne Cathedral.

A couple buddies and I walked the 533 steps to the top of the cathedral’s right spire, where we could see for miles.

Softness. That’s the defining characteristic of photos from the XR308. That and graininess, which is enhanced in these scans I made on my el cheapo Wolverine Super F2D digitizer. It takes 110 natively; my flatbed scanner does not. Here’s the Berlin Wall, which was five years away from falling.

I made the best choice in camera I could, but I still wish I could have chosen better. Soft, grainy photos are better than no photos, however, and I have photos that record some incredible memories. Here’s a rare scene: of the Brandenburg Gate from inside East Berlin. I stood as close as the barricades would allow; from here to the gate was a no-man’s land. If I had stepped over I could have been shot without warning.

The XR308’s telephoto lens turned out to be terrible. It was a piece of cheap plastic that yielded even softer photos than the regular lens. Have a look; here’s a telephoto shot from the same location as the photo above.

Ooh, ooh, here’s a photo I probably shouldn’t have taken. It might have been trouble had I been spotted by officials. It’s an East German military parade in front of the Neue Wache.

Here’s another good memory: my first beer. My group toured the Rhenania Alt brewery in Krefeld, the town in which we lived. Thankfully, I didn’t photographically record my first drunk, which also happened this day. I probably had only three beers, but as a first-timer that was probably one beer too many.

I got to record the day I met my German pen pal, Annette. We’d corresponded for about five years already on the day her family drove her up from Frankenthal to meet me.

It also let me capture all the places we visited and the people I traveled with. Here’s Rolf in his Birkenstocks looking down the business end of a cannon at Krefeld’s Linn Castle.

The XR308 remained my regular camera when I returned to Indiana. I owned a hundred or more old cameras by this time, but none of them had that useful built-in flash. Here’s a photo of me with some high-school friends in our mathematics classroom. Check out the barrel distortion this photo reveals.

Oh, let’s stroll down memory lane for a minute. Here’s my dad. He loved to play video games! We had a bunch of game cartridges for our Commodore 64. I’d also laboriously type in the source code for games from the various computing magazines of the day. I learned some useful coding tricks from that, and my dad got more games to play. Dad’s about 45 here, which is younger than I am now.

Here’s mom banging away at the typewriter in the kitchen, where her desk was. My brother used to sweet-talk Mom into typing his essays for school. I typed my own. Yes, I still feel superior.

I took the XR308 to college. Here’s my friend Michael in my dorm room. I didn’t know then that we’d stay good friends for decades. I can’t imagine us ever not being friends.

My roommate and I painted the room ourselves, by the way. We were both Beatles fans, so we painted up the old Beatles logo. Our work remained for about 25 years.

The last photos from my XR308 are from 1986. Here’s a photo I made from the roof of my dorm showing part of campus. (See more of them here.)

From that summer, here’s my first car, a 1975 Ford Pinto. I call it mine, but it really belonged to my aunt Betty. I worked for the courier service she owned, and she let me drive it home at night. Here’s its story.

My mom rescued me from this crappy camera that Christmas when she bought me a 35mm point and shoot, a Kodak VR35 K40 (review here). It was terrific; the sharpness of my photographs improved dramatically.

Oh, to have dramatically better photos from Germany! I should probably get over myself and just be grateful I have photos from this era at all.

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

Wanted by the FBI

On my flight to Germany in the summer of 1984, engine trouble forced us to land in Düsseldorf rather than in Frankfurt as planned. Because Düsseldorf expected no international flights that day, nobody was working in customs. My passport went unstamped, and I waltzed into Germany uncounted. How very un-German.

Several weeks later, my group visited Berlin. The Wall would not fall for five more years. At Checkpoint Alpha on the East German border, grave, armed border police in fitted olive uniforms boarded our bus and, without looking at or speaking to anyone, collected all of our passports and exited. They made us wait more than an hour, our anxiety growing, before they returned with our passports (all tossed into a box) and waved us through. Each passport had received an East German stamp. The road from there to Berlin was bounded by walls so tall that we couldn’t see over them even from our bus seats way up high. I guess the communists didn’t want you to see the glorious living conditions on the inside, or everybody would want to move there. Several hours later down that road we were easily waved through the checkpoint at the West Berlin border.

Checkpoint Charlie

A few days later we crossed into East Berlin to see the sights. At the famous Checkpoint Charlie, stone-faced border police once again boarded our bus, collected our passports, and made us wait for a long time before they returned them all stamped.

Checkpoint Charlie

In East Berlin I walked in the Alexanderplatz, stood in line to buy a communist propaganda rag, er, newspaper (the top story that day was essentially how President Reagan was an idiot), drank beer and laughed with teenaged East Berliners, and tried to use a fetid underground open-pit public restroom. Shudder. I held it until we got back to the west.

At Checkpoint Charlie

In West Berlin, I bought a book called Durchschaut die Uniform, or See Through the Uniform, telling stories of border guards — not only about the distasteful jobs they did, but about the people they were. The last page showed two pictures of four border guards, the first with their stony faces and the second with wide smiles. The second photo seemed so strange! But I got the book’s point, which was to have a heart because these guards were real people. So I decided to put on a pleasant face for them on the way home. As we left, we passed back through Checkpoint Alpha. Dour border police boarded our bus and collected passports. When they took mine, I looked them in the eye and smiled. It was met with indifference. They just took our passports and inspected our bus for things we were not allowed to take out. Inspection successful, they left and we were free to pass through. We made our way back across free Germany.

A few years later I renewed my passport when it expired. I wondered if anybody at the passport agency noticed that my old passport contained stamps only from communist East Germany.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States rode in on its white horse ostensibly to save the day. It was war, and I was draftable, so I was nervous about what might come.

At work the next day my co-workers were subdued and serious. I worked as best I could while I listened to news reports on the radio. Midafternoon, the receptionist called from the main building. “Uh, Jim?” she said. I could hear concern in her voice. She paused. “Uh… Jim, there’s a man from the FBI here to see you.”

My mind reeled for several seconds. My passport! They must have a file with my name on it! They think I’m red! They’ve come to carry away the commies!

“Jim?”

“Um. Yes. Tell him to drive across the street to this building.”

I stepped outside to await my doom. I paced under the gray sky, wondering what the internment camp would be like. Before long, a gray sedan turned in and parked. Out stepped a doughy man in a gray suit. He approached, showed me his ID, identified himself, and asked, “Are you James Grey?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Is there a place where we can talk privately?”

My brain screamed, “Talk privately? Aren’t you here to purge the land of communists in the name of national security?” I was growing dizzy. I managed to mumble, “Sure, come inside.” I led him to an empty room and we sat down.

“Mr. Grey, do you know a man named Robert Woolf?”

I’ve heard stories about what happens to cars that are accidentally shifted into reverse while going 40 miles per hour. Namely, the car’s transmission suddenly disintegrates, distributing its pieces along the road. This is what happened to my brain at that moment.

In shock, I managed to say, “Yes, I know Bobby.” Where the heck was this going?

“I need to ask you some questions about Mr. Woolf.”

Bobby, a college friend and roommate, was a sharp, smart guy who majored in computer science and is now well-respected in his field. His senior year, as he looked for his first job, he applied at the National Security Agency. He was pretty jazzed about the job, but he never heard back from them. He applied for other jobs and eventually accepted one in Silicon Valley.

“Is this about the NSA job? Don’t you know that Bobby accepted another position?”

The agent paused. He may have swallowed. He said, deliberately, “Yes, every person I talk to tells me that. But I have to do these interviews anyway.”

So for twenty dull minutes he asked me questions about Bobby’s associations and character. I told him what I knew and he went on his way. I felt sorry for the guy having to drive all over the place talking with Bobby’s friends and family, needlessly looking for skeletons to qualify Bobby for a job he no longer wanted. I tried to empathize with the guy, but he’d have none of it. He stuck to his questions until he had no more to ask, and then he got back into his gray sedan and drove away.

I learned that it’s fruitless to try to connect with a government official doing a distasteful or useless job. They just want to get it over with.

But at least there was no internment camp for me!


This is this post’s fourth appearance: May, 2007; January, 2012; July, 2014, and today. I’m re-running it in response to the WordPress.com daily prompt, “Passport.”

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Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.

Inside the Olympic Stadium

I spent the summer of 1984 in Germany on an exchange trip with other Hoosier high-school German students. While the trip’s purpose was to immerse us in the German language and culture, we did travel around Germany a little. We spent most of a week in Berlin seeing the sights, including a stop at the Olympic stadium. In 1931, Berlin was chosen to host the 1936 Summer Olympics. An existing stadium was going to be used for the Games, but when the Nazis came to power in 1933, they saw the excellent propaganda opportunity the Games offered them. Wanting everything associated with the Games to be tip top, Adolf Hitler ordered this grand new stadium built. Amazingly, it survived World War II almost entirely unscathed.

This image from inside the stadium is actually three photographs. My lousy 110 camera made fuzzy images, but it was the best I could afford and I made the most of it. I made a habit of shooting large scenes as sequential overlapping photos so that I could lay the prints out in the same order to see the whole. It worked, but the results were a bit wonky. I could not have imagined that 25 years later I’d be able to digitize them and use sophisticated software to make seamless panoramic images of them.

Photography

Captured: Inside the Olympic stadium

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Stories Told

Everyday life, half a world away

I’ve written at length this week about the big things that affected me in Germany. I’ve saved the best for last: the everyday family life I enjoyed.

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My home that summer

Ulrich (OOL-rick) and Irene (ee-RAY-nuh) were my host parents, and Peter (PAY-ter) and Ulrike (ool-REE-kuh) my teenaged host brother and sister. They lived what I see now was an upper-middle-class life in Krefeld. Row houses were the rule, and almost everybody shared walls with their neighbors on both sides. It was a sign of status that their house was attached to a neighboring house on only one side, and even then, only via a garage wall.

They were a good family that loved each other. They lived a low-key life centered around each other and their home. The family ate two and sometimes three meals a day together. Freshly baked rolls were delivered every morning for breakfast, and cheeses and hard sausages and Nutella came out every morning to top them. Irene thought for sure that as an American I’d want a bowl of corn flakes for breakfast, and bought box after box for me. I never had the heart to tell her I’d rather have rolls and Nutella! That chocolate-flavored nut spread was such a sugar-laden pleasure! It would be 20 more years before you could buy it in the States.

The main meal of the day was at about 1:30. Ulrich came home from work to eat with his family. Dinners were usually meat, vegetable, and boiled potatoes with a thin brown gravy. I never got tired of those boiled potatoes – they were outstandingly delicious! I don’t know what the Germans do to grow such flavorful potatoes. No American tubers can touch them. Ulrich went back to work after dinner and so missed afternoon coffee and sometimes even the evening meal. There was usually some sort of sweet or pastry at afternoon coffee, and that summer it frequently featured strawberries. Evening meal came at about 7 and usually consisted of an open-faced sandwich of hard sausage. It was nice to have such a light supper; it made it easier to fall asleep at bedtime.

After Ulrich made it home in the evening, it was his habit to offer me a beer. I’d never had beer before, so out of anxiety I declined. Later I did come to enjoy German beer, but by then it had become almost a game between us: he’d offer, I’d decline, and he’d sigh. I hope he knew we were both playing! On my last evening in their home, I did have a beer with Ulrich, and he seemed delighted.

Irene kept a lovely and spotless home. She was home anytime I was, and was always up for a conversation. I think that my German skills improved mostly through conversation with Irene, who wasn’t shy about gently correcting poor pronunciation, untangling my garbled grammar, and feeding me words I didn’t know. I liked to run errands with her around Krefeld in her car, an itty bitty Citroën Visa, easily the smallest car I’ve ever been in.

I spent a fair amount of time with Peter, who was about my age. The family had hosted several other Indiana teenagers in past years, but they all had been girls. That year the family specifically requested a young man and they got me. I think Peter secretly wished I had been more athletic, as he liked to play soccer and I just couldn’t keep up. But I did show him a thing or two on the family’s home computer. His sister Ulrike was kind and friendly, but a couple years older and involved in her own world.

Krefeld streetcar

Krefeld streetcar

The family had few rules for me, the most important of which by far was to enter the house quietly late at night so I wouldn’t wake them up. I was free to run around with my friends in the exchange program. Public transportation was outstanding and I could get anywhere I wanted to go in Krefeld on the streetcar. I rode it to school every weekday and also downtown where I would meet friends. We’d walk through the train station or Horten, a department store. We’d stop at an ice-cream stand, or step into a fast-food joint for pommes (french fries). Once we took part in a tournament for the board game Risk. The Germans who played seemed astonished that not only could these kids from Indiana play the game, but we spoke their language and reasonably well.

A couple times my friends and I met at the Gleumes (GLOY-miss) brewery for beer. Krefeld had two breweries at the time, Gleumes and Rhenania, but I liked Gleumes a little bit better. We all toured the Rhenania brewery, though, and at the end we were invited to sample their brews. That was the first time I drank beer, and because I had no idea what I was doing I got good and bombed. But the streetcar stop was on the corner, so there was no need to drive. The Germans are onto something: you can drink beer in public starting at age 16, but you can’t get your driver’s license until you’re 18. You learn how to handle your beer before you learn to drive! And when you’ve had a little too much, there’s no need to drive, because the extensive public transportation will get you home. Anyway, I was so tipsy after my brewery tour that I missed my stop and got to tour Krefeld by electric rail while I sobered up.

Another time we walked into a random pub in Düsseldorf where they made their beer on the premises. The brewpub concept is hot in the States now, but the whole idea was a revelation to me in 1984. We sat down and the bartender produced beers for all of us without us asking. They made one kind of beer, so if you were there, that’s what you got! I turned the cardboard beer coaster over just to look at it, and found it covered in penciled tick marks. The bartender quickly chided me (in German): “The last fellow drank that many beers and that’s how I kept track. Unless you want to pay for all that, lay that coaster down with the unmarked side up!” That last fellow could put away an impressive amount of beer!

I wish I had more photographs of simple times with friends and my host family. I didn’t know how to compose a candid shot then and I was simply too anxious to ask people to pose. I have a handful of candid shots but that’s all. I cling to them, especially as during college I lost contact with the other students who made the trip with me, and shortly after college contact with my host family petered out. It’s been 25 years since I last saw or corresponded with any of them.

But my memories remain. Such good memories. Such a remarkable trip that tangibly shaped who I would become.

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Stories Told

Wanted by the FBI

On my flight to Germany in the summer of 1984, engine trouble forced us to land in Düsseldorf rather than in Frankfurt as planned. Because Düsseldorf expected no international flights that day, nobody was working in customs. My passport went unstamped, and I waltzed into Germany uncounted. How very un-German.

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Several weeks later, my group visited Berlin. The Wall would not fall for five more years. At Checkpoint Alpha on the East German border, grave, armed border police in fitted olive uniforms boarded our bus and, without looking at or speaking to anyone, collected all of our passports and exited. They made us wait more than an hour, our anxiety growing, before they returned with our passports (all tossed into a box) and waved us through. Each passport had received an East German stamp. The road from there to Berlin was bounded by walls so tall that we couldn’t see over them even from our bus seats way up high. I guess the communists didn’t want you to see the glorious living conditions on the inside, or everybody would want to move there. Several hours later down that road we were easily waved through the checkpoint at the West Berlin border.

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A few days later we crossed into East Berlin to see the sights. At the famous Checkpoint Charlie, stone-faced border police once again boarded our bus, collected our passports, and made us wait for a long time before they returned them all stamped.

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In East Berlin I walked in the Alexanderplatz, stood in line to buy a communist propaganda rag, er, newspaper (the top story that day was essentially how President Reagan was an idiot), drank beer and laughed with teenaged East Berliners, and tried to use a fetid underground open-pit public restroom. Shudder. I held it until we got back to the west.

In West Berlin, I bought a book called Durchschaut die Uniform, or See Through the Uniform, telling stories of border guards — not only about the distasteful jobs they did, but about the people they were. The last page showed two pictures of four border guards, the first with their stony faces and the second with wide smiles. The second photo seemed so strange! But I got the book’s point, which was to have a heart because these guards were real people. So I decided to put on a pleasant face for them on the way home. As we left, we passed back through Checkpoint Alpha. Dour border police boarded our bus and collected passports. When they took mine, I looked them in the eye and smiled. It was met with indifference. They just took our passports and inspected our bus for things we were not allowed to take out. Inspection successful, they left and we were free to pass through. We made our way back across free Germany to Krefeld.

A few years later I renewed my passport when it expired. I wondered if anybody at the passport agency noticed that my old passport contained stamps only from communist East Germany.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States rode in on its white horse ostensibly to save the day. It was war, and I was draftable, so I was nervous about what might come.

At work the next day my co-workers were subdued and serious. I worked as best I could while I listened to news reports on the radio. Midafternoon, the receptionist called from the main building. “Uh, Jim?” she said. I could hear concern in her voice. She paused. “Uh… Jim, there’s a man from the FBI here to see you.”

My mind reeled for several seconds. My passport! They must have a file with my name on it! They think I’m red! They’ve come to carry away the commies!

“Jim?”

“Um. Yes. Tell him to drive across the street to this building.”

I stepped outside to await my doom. I paced under the gray sky, wondering what the internment camp would be like. Before long, a gray Chevrolet sedan turned in and parked. Out stepped a doughy man in a gray suit. He approached, showed me his ID, identified himself, and asked, “Are you James Grey?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Is there a place where we can talk privately?”

I thought, “Talk privately? Aren’t you here to purge the land of communists in the name of national security?” I was growing dizzy, but I said, “Sure, come inside.” I led him to an empty room and we sat down.

“Mr. Grey, do you know a man named Robert Woolf?”

I’ve heard stories about what happens to cars that are accidentally shifted into reverse while going 40 miles per hour. Namely, the car’s transmission suddenly disintegrates, distributing its pieces along the road. This is what happened to my brain at that moment.

In shock, I managed to say, “Yes, I know Bobby.” Where the heck was this going?

“I need to ask you some questions about Mr. Woolf.”

Bobby, a college friend and roommate, was a sharp, smart guy who majored in computer science and is now well-respected in his field. His senior year, as he looked for his first job, he applied at the National Security Agency. He was pretty jazzed about the job, but he never heard back from them. He applied for other jobs and eventually accepted one in Silicon Valley. He used to e-mail me complaints about the traffic out there.

“Is this about the NSA job? Don’t you know that Bobby accepted another position?”

The agent paused. He may have swallowed. He said, deliberately, “Yes, every person I talk to tells me that. But I have to do these interviews anyway.”

So for twenty dull minutes he asked me questions about Bobby’s associations and character. I told him what I knew and he went on his way. I felt sorry for the guy having to drive all over the place talking with Bobby’s friends and family, needlessly looking for skeletons since Bobby no longer wanted that job. I tried to empathize with the guy, but he’d have none of it. He stuck to his questions until he had no more to ask, and then he got back into his gray sedan and drove away.

I learned that it’s fruitless to try to connect with a government official doing a distasteful or useless job. They just want to get it over with.

But at least there was no internment camp for me!


Originally posted in May, 2007, and again in January, 2012.

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Stories Told

Gleich aus Deutschland zurück, 30 Jahre her

I spent my 16th summer in Germany. I was in an intensive language-immersion program through Indiana University that gave me a stunning command of the German language. I came away so fluent that even though I’ve had little call to speak German in 25 years and have forgotten a lot of vocabulary, when I encounter a native German speaker I can still make myself understood.

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Me drinking beer in Krefeld

This was also an exchange program. I lived with a kind and patient family in Krefeld, a town in western Germany near the border with the Netherlands.

It wasn’t all language instruction; we did touristy things too. We visited cities all over western Germany and spent a week in Berlin. We toured castles, churches, and breweries, and took a boat trip down the Rhine River.

The trip was a defining time in my life. It gave me perspectives on the world that I would never have gotten otherwise. I had a lot of freedom there and learned both how to handle it and that I was inherently trustworthy with it.

This summer is the 30th anniversary of my trip. This is about the time I returned home, and so I’ve been reflecting on my time in Germany lately. I’ve written about the trip many times before, and all week I’ll be sharing the best of those posts again. I’ll also tell some stories I haven’t told before.

To whet your appetite, here’s a gallery of some of the best scenes from my trip.

I wasn’t much of a photographer in 1984, but I’m sure glad I have these photos now.

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