Ilford FP4 Plus old and new

Ilford FP4 Plus then and now
Nikon Df
50mm f/1.8G AF-S Nikkor Special Edition
2021

I came into some Ilford FP4 Plus that expired in 1994. It was stored frozen, so I’ve been shooting it at box speed and so far it’s looked good.

The roll of FP4 Plus on the left is the 1994 stock. On the right is a roll of fresh stock. It’s interesting to me how Ilford has changed the markings on the roll in that time.

You might notice the metal spools. I shot the fresh roll in the Ansco Standard Speedex and the expired roll in the Sears Tower 120 Flash. Metal spools were still inside both cameras, so I used them to take up the first roll I shot in each camera. When you get an old camera with a metal spool inside, you know it hasn’t been used in a very long time.

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Photography

single frame: Ilford FP4 Plus then and now

Comparing a new and old spool of Ilford FP4 Plus.

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Collecting Cameras

Sears Tower Flash 120

In its heyday, Sears was on a quest to sell anything an average person could want. They were Amazon, minus the Web site and the free shipping. Sears offered a vast number of products under its own brands, including cameras under the Tower brand. A number of different manufacturers produced Tower cameras, usually simply relabeling for Sears a camera they already sold directly. Such was the case with this box camera for 120 film, the Sears Tower Flash 120, which Sears sold in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Made by Bilora in (then) West Germany, it was identical to the Stahl Box (Steel Box) camera but for a different face plate.

Sears Tower Flash 120

Like most box cameras, it offers a meniscus lens set behind a rotary shutter. A switch on the front lets you choose between bulb and a timed shutter of probably 1/30 second. The aperture is almost certainly f/11 — I’ve seen other Tower Flash 120s with “f/11” printed on the face plate. The box is made of metal, rather than the usual cardboard. Also, you operate the shutter with a proper button on the camera’s face, rather than a lever on the side. The button even accepts a cable release, although like most boxes, there’s no tripod mount. The Tower Flash 120 offers two waist-level viewfinders, portrait on top and landscape on the side.

Sears Tower Flash 120

I’ve seen two other versions of the Tower Flash 120. One wraps the box’s sides, top, and bottom with a ribbed, rubbery skin. The other uses a plainer face plate (it says “Model 7,” but I’m not aware of models 1 through 6) and a smooth, rather than textured, front and back. Some Tower Flash 120s use a slotted shutter-speed switch rather than the tabbed one on my copy.

Sears Tower Flash 120

My Tower Flash 120 was was donated to my collection by a longtime collector who retired and downsized. It came with its flash attachment, which takes two AA batteries. I’m not much for flash photography so I didn’t try it. But the battery compartment was clean, so I see no reason it shouldn’t work.

If you like box cameras, also check out my reviews of some classic Kodak boxes, the No. 2 Brownie, Model D (here) and Model F (here), as well as the No. 2 Hawk-Eye Model C (here) and its 50th Anniversary of Kodak companion (here). Or look at my reviews of the Ansco B-2 Cadet (here) and Ansco Shur Shot (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I’ve had this camera for a few years, but have put off a minor repair it needed. The bit of plastic that is the red window around back had come unglued. Repairing it meant bending the film pressure plate to get it out of the way, and I was afraid of damaging it. I finally braved it, and with a bead of super glue the camera finally returned to fully usable condition. I bent the pressure plate back into place with no trouble, but unfortunately a little super glue squished out and dried visibly on the red plastic. Fortunately I could still read the markings on my film’s backing paper.

I loaded some Ilford FP4 Plus into the Tower Flash 120. This film expired in December of 1994 but was stored frozen, so I figured it would be okay. The box opens from the sides near the front, by pressing the small button on each side simultaneously.

Tall shadow

The smooth, easy shutter button guards against camera shake. You still need a steady hand, however, thanks to the slow shutter.

Front yard

Surprisingly reflective glass made the viewfinders hard to use. In all but bright, direct sunlight, I saw my silhouette in the viewfinders, which obscured my subjects.

Deck

Thanks to the small, reflective viewfinder, it’s hard to frame subjects. Every last photo I made was far from level. I straightened them all in Photoshop.

Garden

The lens is remarkably free of vignetting, and is soft only in the very corners.

Across the street

I shot the whole roll in my yard, as I sometimes do. Except for the balky viewfinders, the Tower Flash 120 was pleasant to use and returned decent results.

My vee dub

To see more from this camera, check out my Sears Tower Flash 120 gallery.

Remarkably, the Sears Tower Flash 120’s body is based on a camera Bilora made starting in 1935. That goes to show that the box had long been perfected, but was still viable as a family snapshot camera even that many years later. It’s flash attachment made it even more useful. I am unlikely to use this camera often because I enjoy my 1910s-era Kodak box cameras so much more. But if you are box curious, or your collection leans hard into boxes, you would be well served to find one.

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

Ansco Standard Speedex

In the 1940s and 1950s, Ansco offered a line of folding cameras with Speedex in the name, all of which made square photographs on 120 film. Ansco manufactured some of the models while Agfa manufactured the rest, which makes sense as Agfa and Ansco were one company. Speedexes were available with a number of lens and shutter combinations of increasing capability. Ansco manufactured this one, the Ansco Standard Speedex, in 1950, and it was closer to the bottom of the range.

Ansco Standard Speedex

The Standard Speedex is refreshingly simple. It features a 90mm f/6.3 Ansco Anastigmat lens, set in a self-cocking Ansco leaf shutter that operates at 1/25, 1/50, and 1/100 second, plus time (press the shutter button once to open the shutter, and again to close it). It focuses from 3½ feet to infinity. That’s it.

Ansco Standard Speedex

Press the button right next to the viewfinder on top to pop the door open, and pull the door down until it locks to extend the bellows. Dial in aperture and shutter speed, dial in subject distance, compose, and press the shutter button. The viewfinder isn’t huge, but it doesn’t feel cramped, and it gives a clear view.

Ansco Standard Speedex

The wind knob is big and sure. I thought surely its reverse cant would make it hard to use, but I was wrong. It reads “B2/120” because Ansco used its own size codes for its films, and B2 is equivalent to 120.

If you like medium-format folding cameras, check out my review of the Ansco B2 Speedex (here), the Certo Super Sport Dolly (here), the Kodak Monitor Six-20 (here), the Kodak Tourist (here), and the Voigtländer Bessa (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I like folding cameras of this size and shape. I also like making square photographs. I do not, however, like having a top shutter speed of only 1/100. 1/250 is better, and 1/500 is better still, because they let me more easily shoot fast films and get shallow depth of field with slow films. The similar Ansco B2 Speedex has a top shutter speed of 1/250 and is available on the used market for about the same money as this Standard Speedex.

The slowest film I had on hand was Ilford FP4 Plus at ISO 125. That meant on a sunny day I was going to be shooting at f/16 and f/22. Everything within a mile of that lens would be in focus. But that was probably the design goal of a camera like this. For an amateur photographer, it would have been a step up from a box camera. Shooting 1/100 and f/16 meant it wasn’t critical to get focus exactly right, as you’d have huge depth of field. The wide exposure latitude of consumer films like Kodak Verichrome Pan (also ISO 125) meant that you didn’t have to get exposure exactly right, either. It was perfect for the everyday shooter.

Welcome to McDonald's

Snapshooters who bought the Ansco Standard Speedex were looking for a better lens than they’d find in a box camera, but to get it they had to learn a little about exposure. Surely, most of them just used the Sunny 16 rule. That’s what I did for most of this roll.

Country road

You could get Kodak Panatomic-X film then, too, which was ISO 25, 32, or 40, depending on when it was manufactured. That film would have allowed photographers to get shallower depth of field for portraits if they wanted it. I’ve not been able to find any information about the speeds of Ansco’s own films.

Grand old house

The lens’s f/6.3 minimum aperture means that with an ISO 100 or 125 film, you’re not making low-light photographs. But you could shoot your family picnic under an overcast sky and be fine. I never put this Standard Speedex to that test as I was fortunate to have bright, sunny days while I had film in it.

Clubhouse

As I began riding my bike this season, I carried the Standard Speedex in the saddlebag. I’ve carried other cameras that way, usually little 35mm point and shoots. I can fire off a shot almost on the fly with one of those cameras, but not so the Standard Speedex. It takes a minute to open it, make sure the aperture and shutter speed are right, and then frame. At least I didn’t have to also cock the shutter, as is common on cameras of this type. The shutter button takes a little effort to press, but mine could be a little gunky after 70 years. The red window on the back gave a commanding view of the frame numbers on the film’s backing paper.

Whitestown Municipal Complex

I wasn’t able to find any information about the lens’s design, but as an anastigmat lens it’s bound to have more than one element. I got a fair amount of contrast straight off the scanner. I toned it down a little in Photoshop.

Mail station

Before I loaded this camera with film, I tried to identify pinholes in the bellows by taking into a dark room and shining a bright flashlight inside. I found a couple and dabbed black fabric paint on to close them up. This is probably only a temporary fix, but it’s good enough for testing the camera. I missed at least one, however, as several of my images showed light leaks. Oh well.

Passat

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Ansco Standard Speedex gallery.

Cameras like the Ansco Standard Speedex are easy to come by and don’t cost much. Mine was a donation to the collection, but these go for 20 bucks on eBay all the time. As you can see, it is capable of good, sharp images. It’s easy and pleasant to use. But you can buy the Ansco B2 Speedex for about the same money, and it has that 1/250 second shutter rather than the Standard Speedex’s 1/100 second shutter. I’d choose the B2 Speedex if I were in the market.

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

Storefronts on Mass Ave

I had an errand to run Downtown along Massachusetts Avenue, or “Mass Ave,” as everybody here calls it. This diagonal Downtown street is loaded with hip restaurants, bars, and shops. I loaded some Ilford FP4 Plus into my Yashica-12 and brought it along. I walked up and down Mass Ave photographing storefronts.

I developed the roll in L110, Dilution B, and scanned the negatives on my Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II. These are easily the best results I’ve ever gotten from home developing and scanning. I got exposure right in the camera, developing led to negatives of good density, and repeated practice with the VueScan scanner software is starting to pay off. I’ve shot a fair amount of FP4 Plus over the years and finally it’s looking like I expect it to, compared to the results I got from the pro labs I used to send it to.

The Rathskeller is technically on Michigan Street, but its imposing entrance is fully visible to and accessible from Mass Ave. This building is also known as the Athanaeum and, as the sign over the door says, Das Deutsche Haus. Built in the late 1800s, it was originally a social club for German immigrants. Today it’s a restaurant, beer hall, and coffee shop.

The Rathskeller

The rest of these images are not as architecturally interesting. Over the last 20 years or so, entire blocks of Mass Ave have been demolished so enormous apartment and condo complexes could be built, with retail on the ground floor. Silver in the City, a kitshcy gift shop, is in one of the early-20th-century buildings that remains.

Silver in the City

Global Gifts is a few doors down, in the same building. It’s a non-profit organization that sources its items ethically from around the world.

Global Gifts

In the same building as the previous two businesses, Three Dog Bakery has been around for at least 15 years now. I remember when they opened — I thought this business surely couldn’t last. Home-baked dog treats? Really? They have several locations today.

Three Dog Bakery

I worked Downtown the first time in 1996-97, when Mass Ave was a very different place, not yet hip and cool. It was just starting to recover from a period when it was Indianapolis’s Skid Row, and many of its businesses remained from that era. I don’t know how long The Frame Shop has been here, but it strikes me as a 1990s-era Mass Ave business.

The Frame Shop

Lots and lots of bars line Mass Ave now. This one opened a couple years ago, replacing a longtime Mass Ave bar called the Old Point Tavern. It was one of the last old Mass Ave businesses to throw in the towel, and I miss the place. When I worked Downtown in the 1990s, I sat at the bar many a lunch hour in front of a bowl of chili. It was the kind of chili you might make for yourself at home. I didn’t make much money in those days, and the $3 (as I recall) bowl was a filling, delicious lunch for very little money. I miss the Old Point Tavern.

Tavern on the Point

I’ve never set foot inside the Burnside Inn, despite its inviting facade. It’s been open for only a few years, replacing a hair salon that operated here for a long time.

Burnside Inn

Nine Irish Brothers is a chain restaurant that opened in this new building some years ago. In this case, nothing was torn down to build this building — it was a green space. I’m sure some other building once stood here, but it was torn down long before I ever set foot on Mass Ave. Margaret and I have stopped in here a number of times because the Guinness is fresh and good.

Nine Irish Brothers

Finally, here’s my favorite Mass Ave bar, Liberty Street. They have the widest whiskey selection in town, and a massive mahogany bar. I’ve met my brother here for a tipple many a time. He lives just a couple blocks away, so it’s easy enough for him to get here!

Liberty Street

I hope I’m settling into a successful groove with my home developing and scanning. It’s been frustrating to have gotten such mixed results over the year and a half I’ve been doing it.

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Camera Reviews

Canon Snappy 50

The 35mm point and shoot was an exciting development in photography for the average person. When they first came on the scene in the early 1980s, 126 and 110 cameras abounded and Kodak’s Disc cameras were popular. Unfortunately, they delivered so-so image quality. 35mm film’s 24x36mm frame was larger than that of any of those films, and even a middling lens could result in good, sharp images at snapshot sizes and in enlargements up to 8×10. And besides, “the pros” all shot 35mm film. That wasn’t exactly true, but that’s what the average person thought then. It’s what I thought then. When I bought a new camera in 1983 for a trip I would take the next summer to Germany. I wanted one of the early 35mm point and shoots, specifically a Canon Snappy 50.

Canon Snappy 50

Canon’s Snappy cameras, the 50 and its little brother the 20, were the first point-and-shoot 35mm cameras I ever heard of, probably because Canon advertised them on TV.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford either camera. Dad had paid for the trip, which cost my working-class family a ton of money. He told me that if I wanted a new camera, I’d have to save my allowance and buy it myself. The Snappy 50’s street price was about $90 (about $250 in today’s money), and the Snappy 20 about $70 ($190). That’s not inexpensive: you could buy an entry-level Canon SLR body with a 50mm lens for about $120 then. My $5 weekly allowance, plus money I earned mowing neighbors’ lawns, was enough to buy me only a crappy 110 camera, a decision I’ve always regretted even though it was the best I could do. But I’ve never forgotten Canon’s first Snappy cameras, which is why I bought this Snappy 50. It’s just an old used camera today, so I got it for $20 shipped.

Canon Snappy 50

The Snappy 20 uses a fixed-focus lens, but the Snappy 50 offers autofocus. It is limited to two focus zones, though, one centered around 5.9 feet and one centered around 13.1 feet. It uses the narrowest aperture possible at each focus point for the greatest possible depth of field. The Snappy 50 uses a 35mm f/3.5 lens that stops down to f/16. The shutter operates from 1/20 to 1/500 second.

Canon Snappy 50

Atop the camera is a switch to select between ISO 100 and 400 films. The camera doesn’t read DX coding, which hadn’t been invented in 1982 when the Snappy 50 was new. Consumer color negative films were either ISO 100 or 400 in those days, so this limited range was fine.

Flash is off by default, thank heavens. When the red light blinks inside the viewfinder, there isn’t enough light, so turn on the flash by pushing out the orange slider on the front of the camera. It whistles while it warms up, which is such a 1980s sound! The light around back next to the viewfinder glows when it’s ready. The flash has a range of 5.2 to 14.7 feet at either ISO setting.

Two AA batteries power everything, and the camera won’t work without them.

Loading film was remarkably simple for its day. Pull the “Pull Open” block on the camera bottom to open the back. Then lay the film cartridge in on the left, stretch the film across to the red mark at the right, close the back, and press the shutter button repeatedly until the film counter reads 1. After you finish the roll, to rewind the film look for the film-roll symbol on the camera bottom. Above it is a button; press it in with a finger and hold it. Then with another finger, slide the lever above that button in the direction of the arrow and let go of both the lever and the button.

To shoot, open the lens cover with the lever on the side of the lens area. Then frame and press the shutter button.

If you like point-and-shoot cameras, also see my reviews of the Canon AF35ML (here) and Snappy S (here); the underrated Kodak VR35 K40 (here); the Minolta Talker (here); the truly crappy Nikon Zoom Touch 400 (here); the Olympus Stylus (here), Stylus Epic Zoom 80 (here), and µ(mju:) Zoom 140 (here); and the Pentax IQZoom EZY (here), IQZoom 170 SL (here), and IQZoom 60 (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I shot a roll of Fujicolor 200 in my Snappy 50 and sent it to Fulltone Photo for developing and scanning. Because this film looks great with a stop of overexposure, and because this was expired (though cold-stored) stock, I felt confident shooting it at ISO 100.

Stupid good

The Snappy 50 was pleasant to use. In the great point-and-shoot tradition, you frame and press the button, and that’s all. The camera winds to the next frame and you’re ready to go again.

Red car parked

The lens is sharp and the exposure system does a good job of reading the light even after about 40 years. Look at the good detail in this flowering tree.

Flowering trees

I really enjoyed the Snappy 50’s big and clear viewfinder. It turned out to be reasonably accurate, in that what I framed is more or less what the lens saw — except when focusing close, when parallax moved things I carefully centered in the frame up and to the left.

Cubs

I never figured out what to do with the Snappy 50’s long lanyard. I tried hanging it around my neck, but then the camera bounced off my chest with every step. When I slipped it across my torso, the camera banged uncomfortably against the bottom of my rib cage. In the end, I wrapped it around my hand three times and carried it that way.

In Starkey Park

Some point-and-shoots deliver dull, muted color on overcast day. I don’t know why, but that’s been my experience. The Snappy 50 was not so afflicted.

In Starkey Park

I enjoyed myself enough with the Snappy 50 that I laid in another roll and kept shooting. I used Ilford FP4 Plus, an ISO 125 film, on the ISO 100 setting. FP4 Plus has good exposure latitude, so the slight overexposure would be no big deal. I developed it in LegacyPro L110 (a Kodak HC-110 clone) and scanned it on my Minolta ScanDual II. Looking at the negatives, it looks like the whole roll is underexposed and overdeveloped. I’m still learning how to read my negatives so I could be wrong. But I had to do a fair amount of post processing to make these scans look okay.

I got it

I used flash on this photo, the only time I did. It lit fairly evenly, but of course it left shadows as on-camera flashes do.

In the kitchen

Processing the photos to bring out detail tended to bring out a fair amount of noise.

Road closed

Most photos had blown-out highlights. About 25% of the photos on the roll were so blown out, I couldn’t rescue them. I’m really bummed out about that. But I had a fine time with the Snappy 50 anyway.

Cemetery gates

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Canon Snappy 50 gallery.

The Canon Snappy 50 would have been a great camera for the average person in its day. It’s pleasant to use and it has a good lens. That’s the formula for a successful point-and-shoot camera right there, even in the present day.

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

Power tower
Agfa Clack
Ilford FP4 Plus
LegacyPro L110, Dilution B
2021

I’m fascinated with the power lines that run through my neighborhood, and with this tower in particular. I’ve photographed it over and over. I still haven’t found the best composition involving it. I suppose I’ll keep trying until either I nail it or I move away.

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Film Photography

single frame: Power tower

A tower of power.

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