Photography, Stories Told

Photographic holiday memories

A rerun, from 2008 and 2012, as this Christmas nears. Now with new photos.


My grandparents always owned the latest Polaroid cameras, and they passed on that tradition in 1977 when they bought my brother and me Polaroid Super Shooter cameras for Christmas.

When I unwrapped the gift, I remember thinking how cool the box was. I liked the box so much that I kept my camera in it for the almost 30 years I owned it. Not long ago I learned that the box, like all Polaroid packaging of the day, was designed by Paul Giambarba, a top designer who was a pioneer of clean, strong brand identity.


I remember how easy it was to spot Polaroid film on the drug store shelf because it had the same rainbow-stripes design elements as the camera’s box. Film and developing for my garage-sale Brownie cost about half what a pack of Polaroid film cost, but the colorful Polaroid boxes on the shelf always tempted me. I often decided that next time I bought film, I would save my allowance for the whole month it took to afford a pack of Polaroid.

My brother also got a guitar that Christmas morning. My new camera came with a pack of film, so I loaded it and shot this photo of him on his first day with his guitar. He played this guitar for 20 years — he looked strange as an adult playing a kid-sized guitar!


20 Christmas Days later, when my older son was not yet a full year old, my wife gave my brother her old guitar. Our boy, drawn to the music, wouldn’t leave his uncle’s side as he played that evening. Steadying himself on his uncle’s knee, he looked up with wide amazement in his eyes.


May this holiday bring you the gift of excellent memories to share with your loved ones down the road.

When I first posted this, in 2008, Paul Giambarba himself left a comment! It was a thrill. I followed his blog for years. He discontinued it a few years ago, and thanked me in a final post for saying kind things about his work. None of this would have been possible without the Internet!

Photography, Travel

Always meet a fellow blogger when you get the chance

Our day along Northern Ireland’s Atlantic coast brought us near the home of fellow film photography blogger Michael McNeill. He writes the North East Liberties blog, which is named for the area of Northern Ireland that Michael calls home. When he read here that we were coming to Ireland, he wrote to offer a meetup. We made it happen.


Here we are, me with my Nikon N2000 slung over my shoulder and Michael with his pristine Nikon FE2 (I think it was) slung over his.

We met in Portrush, a holiday town just east of The Giant’s Causeway, from where we had just come. We met at the beach and walked to a little shop for tea. I announced my American-ness straightaway by taking mine black. Michael and Margaret poured on the milk.

Tea consumed, the getting-to-know-you conversation was going well so Michael suggested a stroll along the beach and up the little peninsula that comprises most of the town. I photographed this scene which I’m sure Michael has contemplated through his viewfinder many dozens of times.


A little harbor rests about halfway up the peninsula and provides obvious photographic opportunity. But I didn’t take very many photos on our walk, actually. I’m sharing everything I shot in this post. The conversation was good and it seemed a shame to pause for too many photographs.


We walked a trail up to the peninsula’s tip. Michael says that he often drives up here with his dog for walks.

View at Portrush

“If anyone knew I had friends in and didn’t take them to the Harbour Bar, I’d never hear the end of it,” Michael said, and with that, we popped in. A restaurant takes up the back, but up front is the kind of Irish bar you’d expect to see in a movie: crowded and spare, full of dim nooks and rough wooden tables. It’s an old bar, the oldest in all of Ireland. My stomach was out of sorts, so to my dismay and disappointment I had to decline the half-pint of Guinness Michael offered. But Margaret and Michael both enjoyed one, and our great conversation continued.

The Harbour Bar, Portrush

Margaret and I figured we’d meet Michael for a quick cup of tea and be on our way, but we had such a lovely time that we stayed in Portrush for a good three hours. We parted where we met, at the beach.

The beach at Portrush

Do follow Michael’s blog (here). He is dedicated not only to black-and-white film, but also to the art of darkroom work and printing. I believe most, if not all, of the photos on his blog are scans of his prints.

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Film Photography

What’s the best compact 35mm film camera to take on vacation?

As I get ready to visit Ireland with Margaret later this year, I’ve been trying to decide which film camera to take with me.

I’d love to shoot nothing but film over there, but ay yi yi the cost of processing the film when I get back! So I’ll pack my digital Canon PowerShot S95. This capable camera slips into any pocket and will let me shoot as much as I want. I just have to charge the battery each night at the hotel.

But I still plan to take one 35mm film camera and a few rolls of black-and-white film. The question is, which one? Frankly, I’d be happiest shooting one of my SLRs, but I want to travel light. This calls for one of my compact cameras. I have a bunch to choose from.

Olympus XA
The Olympus XA: a very nice compact camera

Vacation photography typically involves group family shots and portraits, as well as landscapes and streetscapes. Fortunately, compact 35mm cameras are made for just these kinds of photos. If you know going in that you want to shoot something other than that, such as closeups of local wildflowers or cinematic landscapes, consider taking gear that can do that. Most compact cameras can’t.

Which compact film camera you take on vacation depends on what is important to you.

Size — How small it needs to be depends on how you’ll carry it. Do you want it to slip into your pants pocket? Are you willing to carry it by its strap? Will you carry it in a backpack or purse? I want to slip mine into a jeans pocket, so the smaller the better, and it’s best if its lens is flush with the camera face.

Focus type — Decide whether to bias toward speed and ease, or toward control. If you think you’ll shoot almost exclusively group shots and landscapes, go for speed and choose an autofocus or fixed-focus camera. But if you think you’ll want to tightly control focus, such as for close work, consider a rangefinder camera. You’ll need to focus each shot, which slows you down — but that control will be there when you really need it. A middle-ground choice might be a zone-focusing camera. They generally offer three or four focusing zones. Many of them offer a focus setting that’s good for most shots; just leave it there unless you want to shoot something close up or far away. I shy away from zone-focusing cameras because all too often I forget to set focus at all.

Battery — A camera that doesn’t need a battery is ideal, but fairly rare. Next best: a camera that takes easy-to-buy AA or AAA batteries. But regardless of the battery the camera uses, if you drop in a fresh one before you go, it should easily last the trip.

Lens — Most compact cameras offer either a fixed lens of about 35mm or a zoom lens with about 35mm at its wide end. I think 35mm is just right for vacation photography. Compared to “standard” 50mm, 35mm widens the view up just enough to be useful for landscapes, without being so wide that it’s not useful for closer work. For me, zoom isn’t important; I don’t mind backing up or walking closer to my subject. My experience is that fixed lenses tend to be of better quality.

Annoyances — You want this camera to work fluidly in your hands. Why spend your trip frustrated with your gear? What’s annoying is personal, but here are some things that you might find annoying: a built-in flash that you can’t turn off, a mushy or awkwardly placed shutter button, a tiny viewfinder, no built-in flash, or a protruding lens that makes it hard to pocket the camera.

Cameras have a few other measures I don’t think matter too much in this case, such as range of shutter speeds, or range of film ISOs accepted. Pretty much all compact cameras offer a useful range of shutter speeds and accept the most common film speeds, such as 100, 200 and 400.

I own a number of interesting compact cameras, so the choice has been challenging. I used these criteria to narrow it down. More than anything else, I need a camera I can slip into my jeans pocket, which narrows the field way down. I want the best lens I can get, and I prefer autofocus.

So I went straight to my Olympus Stylus. I dropped some T-Max 400 into it for an audition. And I discovered a fatal flaw: every time you open the lens cover, the flash goes into Auto mode. I almost never want the flash to fire. I will never remember to turn it off every time I open it.

So now I’m auditioning my Olympus XA, even though it is a rangefinder. I don’t mind rangefinder focusing. The XA lacks a built-in flash, but that’s also not a problem for me. I have an external flash for it, but I think I’ll just leave it at home.

What compact film camera do you think you’d take on a long vacation?

Personal, Stories Told

Making traditions up as you go

A rerun from Nov. 2011, with an update at the end.

It’s my ex-wife’s turn to enjoy Thanksgiving with our sons, so I’ll be home alone tonight. Don’t weep for me – we had the family, the fine china, the turkey, and the post-dinner coma last Saturday.

Table set and ready

When I was small, we always had Thanksgiving with Mom’s family and sometimes again later with Dad’s. Mom’s family usually gathered at my grandparents’ palatial retirement estate – a narrow mobile home on a small lake. I swear we crammed 40 people in there every year. People ate their dinner anywhere they found a spot to squat.

My grandparents were the glue holding the extended family together, and after they passed nobody much wanted to gather for Thanksgiving. So we started having Thanksgiving at home, just the four of us. We did it up right with all the fine dishes and silver handed down generation to generation. When I married, we added new family members as they arrived. Eventually, eight of us fit around the table.

These days we have Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving in even-numbered years and whenever it works out in odd-numbered years.

We have adapted to every change. We were sad each time to see old traditions pass, but soon our new traditions had taken root and began to create memories just as warm as the old.

Things have continued to change since I wrote that four years ago. My older son is off to college; he and his brother had Thanksgiving with their mom this year. My parents sold the family home and moved to Indianapolis last year, so we no longer drive to South Bend for this holiday. I have a girlfriend, Margaret, who has four children of her own. I invited them, plus my parents and my brother, to my house for Thanksgiving. My mom, Margaret, and I worked together to prepare the meal. It was crowded at the table, and a lovely time was had, but even so my sons’ absence was felt.

Stories Told

Christmas memories

My youngest son wondered aloud this year why my Christmas-tree decorations are all glass bulb ornaments. I like the way they reflect the lights!

I do hang one non-bulb ornament on my tree. When I was in Kindergarten, my teacher gave every student a shiny red plastic bell ornament onto which she painted their name, “Kdg.,” and the year (for me, 1972!). It was her annual tradition. I have ornaments from other school years, crafty, schlocky things made of popsicle sticks, felt, and decoupage. They stay in the ornament box. I like the bell for its simplicity, its purity; it is a just-right reminder of a time I enjoyed very much and hold in high regard.


For me, the holidays are really about gathering with people I love and having good times together. These times inevitably create warm memories. The whole family is coming to my house this year for Christmas, and there’s so much to do! To give me a little more time to prepare, between now and Christmas Day I’ll be sharing with you some past posts of Christmas memories.

Next: The traditional Grey family Christmas music.

Stories Told

Christmas spaghetti

We started having the big family Christmas gathering at my house when I rented my church’s parsonage after my wife and I split. You’d think that holiday hosting duties wouldn’t fall to the newly single guy, but logistically it just made sense. I was pinching pennies thanks to exorbitant lawyer bills, and that first Christmas was mighty lean. It was so lean that I fed everyone spaghetti for Christmas dinner.

I must admit, I really like my homemade spaghetti sauce. I had perfected it through trial and error when I taught myself to cook in my early 20s in my first apartment.  But I was surprised when my Christmas spaghetti was a huge hit, and even more surprised the next year when everybody asked me to make it again. My mom has asked for it every year since. Now that money isn’t so tight, I make a bigger and more elaborate Christmas meal – but make spaghetti the night before or the night after. Here’s my recipe.

1 lb. bulk Italian sausage
1 stick pepperoni, cut into chunks
Small onion, diced
30 oz. crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
30 oz. diced tomatoes, drained
12 oz. tomato paste
5 cloves garlic, pressed
2 t basil
2 t oregano
1 t salt
1 t pepper

Brown the sausage with the onion and drain the fat. Add the tomatoes, pepperoni, and spices and simmer until the flavors come together, at least an hour.

As you can see, there’s not much to it, but it sure does taste good. I usually serve it with a salad, steamed broccoli, and warm crusty bread.

What unusual Christmas traditions does your family have?

Another tradition at my house is the Christmas music we play. Johnny Mathis figures heavily into the mix. Read that story.