Film Photography

In praise of square photographs

I wonder why square photographs aren’t more common. Maybe it’s because starting in the 1980s 35mm point-and-shoot cameras became popular. That could have cemented the format’s 3:2 ratio as normal for photographs.

In the digital era the DSLR kept 35mm’s 3:2 aspect ratio. Point-and-shoots went with 4:3 for some reason, but that’s close enough to 3:2 to not look weird. My digital point-and-shoot, a Canon S95, has a 1:1 setting buried somewhere in its menus. My iPhone 6s also offers a square setting. But no digital camera I know of shoots square by default.

For me, however, shooting square feels like going back to my roots. For the first eight years of my photographic life, I shot nothing but cameras that made square photographs. It was the 1970s and early 1980s; square was very common then thanks to the wildly popular 126 format.

Here’s a scan of a print from my first-ever roll of film, Kodacolor II in a Kodak Brownie Starmite II, August, 1976. Side note: just look at how beautifully these drug-store-print colors have kept over the last 40+ years! These are my childhood friends Darin, Colleen, Christy, David, Mike, tank-topped kid whose face I can’t see and therefore whose name I can’t recall, and Craig just entering the frame from the right.

Here’s a scan of the negative, cropped 3:2 to the subject. Conventional wisdom calls this the better composition because the subject fills the frame. But what it lacks is the big blue sky we used to play under and the city infrastructure that lay all around and above us. The crop also cuts off the rounded tip of Mike’s grand walking staff. The square format brought in all the details.

That’s not to say that square format is inherently magic. Just like with any aspect ratio you have to find the subjects and compositions that work best. Here are some decent square photos I’ve taken more recently.

Wheeler Mision
Kodak Brownie Starmatic, Kodak Ektar 100, 2018
Fire Station 32
Kodak Brownie Starmatic, Kodak Portra 160, 2012
Benches
Yashica-D, Kodak Ektachrome E100G, 2014
Jet
Yashica-D, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros, 2013.
Charles H. Ackerman
Yashica-D, Kodak Ektar 100, 2017
Available
Yashica-12, Ilford Pan-F Plus 50, 2018

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Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Yashica-12

Marathon

As a frugal film photographer with GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), I buy well-used cameras. Scuffs, dings, and even minor faults are part of that game. Every now and again I enjoy a camera so much I want to include it in my regular-use rotation. That’s when I invest in repairs, or even in buying another one in near-mint condition. That’s what led me to buy this Yashica-12 which had been serviced by premier Yashica repairman Mark Hama. To own it I forked over the most I’ve ever paid for an old camera. It’s not like it sent me to the poor house at just $135. But I’m used to paying under $50.

Yashica-12

I loaded Kodak Tri-X 400 and took it on a road trip. The camera performed well and returned flawless images, such as of this little cafe on the square in Lebanon, Indiana.

Please be seated

For this outing I loaded my last roll of Kodak Ektachrome E100G and brimmed with confidence that I’d get twelve colorful, sharp, and perfectly exposed images. What I got was a light leak. What the what?

Garrett & Damion

The seals can’t be bad, can they? That Mark Hama overhaul happened only a few years ago. Was I careless in spooling the roll into the camera? Was the roll a little loose after it came out of the camera? All I know is that the shots at the beginning of the roll were most affected, and the shots at the end (like the one below) very little.

Thorntown Carnegie Library

I shot this roll over my birthday weekend. My sons came to visit. We hiked some trails in a nearby nature park and I took one son up to Thorntown and told him the story of the time his mom got me out of a speeding ticket there. (Read it here; it’s kind of funny.) That’s the Carnegie library above and the main drag below.

Thorntown

I had such a nice time with the 12 that as I sent the E100G off for processing I loaded some Ilford Pan F Plus and kept going. I bought several rolls of this stuff thinking that at ISO 50 it would be a good match for my old box cameras. It wasn’t. It turns out this film needs precise exposure — not exactly the bailiwick for a camera with one aperture and shutter speed. The 12 was going to be a much better match.

Available

The 12 handled just as clumsily as I remembered. But I say so in the most affectionate way possible, as I just love the TLR experience. It feels deeply satisfying when an image comes into focus in that big ground-glass viewfinder. All of the 12’s controls feel great to use, full of heft and precision.

Entrances

My only gripe with the 12 is that you have to juggle the camera from hand to hand as you use it — the winding crank and the focusing knob are on opposite sides of the camera. I have yet to grow used to it. My Yashica-D places the winding and focusing knobs on the same side of the camera, which avoids the juggling. But the D’s winding knob isn’t as quick and easy as the 12’s winding crank, and the camera lacks a light meter. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

Carpentry Hall

I suppose another gripe with the 12 — with any TLR, really — is that it’s ungainly to carry. At the nature park I had forgotten to clip on a strap so I just held it in my hands. That got old fast, and I constantly risked dropping it. I clipped on a strap before we left for Thorntown and left it on for this trip to the old Central State Hospital grounds, but the 12’s form factor and weight made it ungainly even at my hip.

Ruins at Central State

The Pan F Plus turned out great. Look, no light leak! I don’t know what the deal was with the roll of E100G. It’s a shame that’s how my last roll of the stuff turned out.

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Yashica-12 gallery.

I wrote most of this review in August, but am just now getting around to posting it because I could not decide whether to keep this camera or not. I really need only one TLR in my life. My Yashica-D is so brilliant that I know I’m keeping it. (Though I might give it a turn in Operation Thin the Herd anyway, because autumn color is just around the corner and I have some Velvia in the freezer…) Yet the 12’s onboard light meter is such a convenience. I’ve decided is to defer this decision, which is a defacto decision to keep this camera. The 12 survives to fight another day.

Verdict: Keep

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Camera Reviews

Yashica-12

On my short list, in my inner circle, of favorite cameras is my Yashica-D, a medium-format twin-lens-reflex camera. It is such a joy to shoot! And it delivers excellent sharpness and contrast with buttery bokeh. What’s not to like?

Except that it offers no onboard light meter. I wished for one. I like the Yashica-D so much I shoot it often anyway, but I’ve always wished I didn’t have to guess at Sunny 16 or fumble with an external meter while doing so. So I’ve had my eye on metered Yashica TLRs.

Yashica-12

Recently I bought this Yashica-12. I paid more than I’ve ever paid for a camera in my life: about $135, shipped.

Longtime readers will remember my soft $50 upper limit for any camera. But my motives are changing. I want to have a handful of go-to cameras that deliver great results, and are mechanically reliable over the long haul. I’m now willing to pay more for a camera in that select group.

So why this Yashica-12 when there are so many fine Yashica Mat 124Gs out there? Two reasons: (1) I like to be different, and (2) this one had already undergone a CLA (cleaning, lube, and adjustment) by Mark Hama, the well-known Yashica repairman who long ago built Yashica TLRs at the factory in Nagano. That CLA probably cost as much as I paid for this Yashica-12 — which made this camera a real bargain. I love a bargain! So there’s a third reason.

Yashica-12

The Yashica-12 offers an 80mm f/3.5 Yashinon taking lens and an 80mm f/2.8 Yashinon viewing lens. These are said to be four-element lenses of Tessar design. The taking lens stops down to an itty-bitty f/32 and is set in a Copal SV shutter that operates from 1/500 to 1 second. The camera takes film from ISO 25 to 400. Those relatively low top ISO and shutter settings do limit what this camera can comfortably shoot to things that aren’t moving. But it’s not like you’d want to photograph racing cars or running quarterbacks with a heavy TLR.

The one thing I didn’t enjoy much about my Yashica-D was its slow, clunky knob film winder. The 12’s crank is fast and sure. And it cocks the shutter for you; the D has a separate cocking lever.

Using the coupled light meter is a breeze. It’s match-needle all the way. Opening the lid turns it on. It takes a dreaded, banned 625 mercury battery, but I just dropped in an alkaline 625 cell. Everybody says that messes with your exposures but that’s never been my experience.

Yashica-12

The meter needles are just north of the viewfinder on the top of the “Yashica-12” plate, which is perfect because as you prepare to take a photo you’re already looking in that direction. To set exposure, first turn the dial on the camera’s upper front corner, on the right as you peer down into the viewfinder, until your film’s ISO appears in the window. Then twist the aperture and shutter-speed knobs (on either side of the lenses) until the needles match.

Like any Yashica TLR, if you press in the plate in the middle of the lid, a magnifying lens pops out. It’s indispensable for my middle-aged eyes. That lid section also locks in place so you can use the square in the lid as a viewfinder.

The Yashica-12 makes 12 square photos on each roll of 120 film. The better-known Yashica Mat 124G takes both 120 and also 220, which is the same film as 120, but there’s twice as much of it on a roll. I don’t think I’m missing out by not being able to shoot 220.

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By the way, if you’re into Yashica cameras also check out my reviews of the Electro 35 GSN (here), the MG-1 (here), the Lynx 14e (here), and the T2 (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

I loaded a roll of Kodak Tri-X into my Yashica-12 and went shooting. My favorite thing to do with a new-to-me old camera is take it on a road trip. Margaret and I explored the Lafayette Road while the 12 still had shots left on this roll, so it came along. This photo is in Lebanon, Indiana, across from the Boone County Courthouse.

Please be seated

And here’s that courthouse. It was completed in 1911. The top of the dome, above the clocks, is made of stained glass.

Boone County Courthouse

And what would a trip up the Lafayette Road be without at least one photo of this great sign? This junkyard has been out of business for many years now, but I had one adventure buying parts for an old car here before it closed.

Wrecks

Later I took the 12 out to make portraits of my sons on Kodak Ektachrome E100G. I like this one best.

Damion

I also took the 12 on a short road trip to Thorntown. This continues the Lafayette Road theme because the road’s original alignment ran through Thorntown, right by where this now-vintage Marathon service station would eventually be built. I shot Kodak Ektar here.

Marathon

I did have some unfortunate fogging and light leaking on this roll. I don’t know why.

Thorntown Police

Concerned that something might be wrong, I loaded some Ilford Pan-F Plus 50 and shot one more roll. It had no difficulties.

Available

I shot this film because I never liked it much and just wanted to burn it testing this camera for leaks. Yet this film really performed behind this Yashica glass. I’ll remember that for the future.

3151

See my entire Yashica-12 gallery here.

Me and Yashica-12

I loved shooting this camera. I look forward to many, many years of enjoyment with it. But it did have a couple quirks, a couple things I wish were better.

First, I sort of miss the winding and focusing controls being on the same side of the camera, as with my Yashica-D.

Second, the ASA (ISO) scale is odd: 25, 40, 80, 160, 320, 400, with dots between the settings. For ISO 100 film, such as Ektar, I set it one dot right of 80, but I wish this were more sure. Or maybe I should just shoot Portra 160 in it!

Finally, the f-stop scale is labeled with yellow numbers, which my middle-aged eyes struggle to see in dim light.

I can adapt to the first two quirks. The last one…well, it’s not the only thing my eyes don’t see as well anymore. Soon I’ll need to carry cheaters with me everywhere I go. At least the Yashica-12’s viewfinder magnifier lets me focus with ease.

And I’ll do a lot of focusing with this delightful camera. I look forward to many years of pleasure and great results with it.

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

Agfa Isolette III

Here it is, Agfa’s highest volume camera of the 1940s and 1950s, the Isolette.

Agfa Isolette III

Actually, this is the 1951-60 Isolette III, one of a range of Isolette cameras, all of which folded and took 120 film. Each Isolette was offered with a couple shutters and lenses. Mine comes with the 85mm f/4.5 Apotar lens set in the Prontor SV shutter, which operates from 1 to 1/300 sec. You could get Isolette IIIs with better lenses and shutters, but this lens/shutter combo is no slouch.

Agfa Isolette III

What set the Isolette III apart from other Isolettes was its uncoupled rangefinder. That’s the knurled knob to the right of the accessory shoe. To use it, look through the viewfinder and turn that knob until the image in the rangefinder patch lines up with the viewfinder image. This is where the “uncoupled” part comes in: you then check the distance on that knob and set the lens to the same distance.

Notice that dot to the upper left of the winding knob? When it’s red, you need to wind the film to the next frame. The shutter won’t fire until you do. My experience has been that it’s unusual to find double-exposure prevention on an old folder like this.

When this Isolette was donated to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras, the first thing I did was look for pinhole light leaks in it. The left button on the top plate opens the camera, by the way; the right button fires the shutter. I love this symmetry! And glory be: I found a sturdy, light-tight bellows. That’s apparently nothing short of a miracle, as these Isolette bellows were made of patented Crumble-Away™ material. But while I shot my two test rolls, one corner of the bellows did start to flake a little.

And yes, I said two test rolls. In typical Jim Grey fashion, I leapt before I looked: before testing any more of this camera’s functions, I loaded no less than Kodak E100G slide film into it. Upon first press of the shutter button, my folly revealed itself: the shutter didn’t fire. I nudged the cocking lever hoping to trigger the shutter. Success! Sort of — the shutter was clearly slow. And slide film needs such precise exposure.

Bell

The shutter loosened up more and more the farther I went through the roll. This shot of my neighbor’s house and car shows some improvement.

Envoy

Still, facepalm. But figuring that the shutter would loosen way up if I kept firing it, after I finished the E100G I fired the shutter a dozen or so times at each available speed. The shutter sounded pretty good after that. So I loaded a roll of Kodak T-Max 400, which is much more forgiving of exposure error than E100G. But strangely, the shutter immediately became a little sluggish again. This was the first shot on the roll, and it was fairly overexposed. Photoshop corrected some of it but as you can see the sky is still blown out.

Focusing in the driveway

I took the Isolette right over to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a favorite photographic haunt, to hurry through the rest of the roll. I feared the shutter would get stickier if I let it rest. It was a good call: the shutter loosened up with each successive shot. This is my favorite shot from this roll.

St. Paul's

A camera like this slows you down. I used a light-meter app on my iPhone to figure out exposure. And the uncoupled rangefinder isn’t as fast as a coupled one. But the Isolette’s learning curve is shallow. That’s not true of some of the other manual-everything cameras I own.

St. Paul's

Pointed arches are a real theme at St. Paul’s. This congregation has roots to 1866, though all of these buildings are much newer. A quiet residential neighborhood borders the church to the west; busy Meridian Street, the city’s north-south main drag, borders it to the west.

St. Paul's

I enjoy shooting old folders like these. Along with pinhole and box cameras, this is photography at its most elemental. But I like to move in close, and these kinds of cameras seldom let you focus closer than about one meter. As you can see, I shot a lot of walls at St. Paul’s, rather than details.

St. Paul's

Even as the shutter loosened up with use, the shutter button didn’t always fully move the linkage that fired the shutter. I frequently found myself nudging the cocking lever to finish the job. No doubt about it, my Isolette III needs a good clean, lube, and adjustment. It will also eventually need a new bellows. Unfortunately, and I almost hate to admit it publicly, I’m not sure it will ever get either. Not as long as I own it, anyway. My Isolette curiosity is pretty much satisfied.


Do you like old cameras? Then check out all of my gear reviews!

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School arch

This arch, of which I’ve written before, once admitted students to one of the oldest schools in Indianapolis. Students have been educated at this site on the Michigan Road in northwest Marion County, Indiana, since 1837. The building formerly attached to this arch was built in about 1916 and razed in 1983. The school that stands on this ground now, Crooked Creek Elementary School, was built in stages from the 1960s through the 1980s.

On Monday I’m going to share some urban decay photos from this part of Michigan Road. But I wanted to lead with this photo, as the school is a bright spot in this neighborhood — the neighborhood in which I live. I shot it early last year with my Yashica-D on Kodak E100G slide film.

Photography, Preservation, Road Trips

Captured: School arch

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Camera Reviews

Yashica-D

Yashica-D

I’ve lusted after medium-format twin-lens reflex cameras for many years, but I’ve always rebuffed them for their high prices. The Rolleicords and Rolleiflexes are the most respected members of the genre and go for hundreds of dollars on the used market. Lots of companies made TLRs in the Rollei idiom, but even the clones can be mighty expensive.

Nobody cloned Rollei TLRs as prolifically as Yashica, which produced them from 1953 to 1986. Collectors broadly group Yashica’s many TLRs by the film advance mechanism: knob or crank. The crank-advance Yashica TLRs, which tend to have been produced later and offer the best lenses and shutters, go for the most money on the used market. The crank-advance Yashica-Mat tends to be the most expensive today because it includes a coupled CdS light meter. Except for a model here and there that flirted with selenium light meters, other Yashica TLRs are meterless.

Of the meterless knob-advance Yashica TLRs, the Yashica-D is the best specified. Its Copal MXV leaf shutter operates from 1/500 to 1 second. Early Yashica-Ds featured three-element, f/3.5 80mm Yashikor viewing and taking lenses. Later Ds came with twin four-element Yashinon lenses, also f/3.5 at 80mm. Even though the Yashikor is a fine lens, collectors favor the Yashinon. That’s probably why I got quite a bargain on my Yashikor-equipped Yashica-D – about $50, shipped.

Yashica-D

When I held my Yashica-D in my hands for the first time, it felt incredibly right. I wanted to shoot with it right now. It was much as how the scent of a delicious meal can make you hungry, or the sight of a beautiful woman can make you …well, you know. I’ve never been so affected by a camera before. I heeded its call, moving it to the front of the line ahead of several other cameras awaiting their test rolls.

All-manual cameras like the Yashica-D slow you way down as you deliberately focus and set exposure. I’m so used to my auto-everything digital cameras that I sometimes forget to set exposure on my manual film cameras! On the least enjoyable of my manual cameras I even resent having to mess with it. But using the Yashica-D is such a pleasure that I looked forward to it, and enjoyed the process. Not only do all the knobs move smoothly and precisely, but there’s also a sensually pleasing heft to them. I was delighted to find that focusing the camera moves the entire lens assembly in and out. You have to cock the shutter manually, but the lever slides like it’s on silk with a tiny, sure click at the end. Winding the film is even a pleasure, as the winder stops at each frame – there’s no infernal red window and no accidentally winding too far.

To focus, look down into the viewfinder and twist the big knob on the right side until the image is sharp. You can pop a magnifying glass from the lid to help you, or you can pop the center of the lid out and use that square hole as a sports finder. To set aperture and shutter speed, turn the two small dials between the lenses until the values you want appear in the window atop the viewing lens.

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By the way, I also own and have reviewed the Yashica-12 (here), which is much like the Yashica-D but offers a light meter and a crank winder. Other medium-format gems in my collection include the Certo Super Sport Dolly (here) and the Kodak Monitor Anastigmat Special (here). You can check out all of my camera reviews here.

It seemed right to shoot black-and-white film in this camera, so I loaded some Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros and took it along when my sons and I drove up to Terre Haute one cloudy afternoon. This jet has sat on the lawn of the Clay County Courthouse in Brazil, Indiana, for as long as I can remember.

Jet

We also stopped by Iron’s Cemetery, which is hidden from view along US 40 west of Plainfield. Check out that delicious bokeh.

Iron's Cemetery

The roll’s 12 shots went by too fast. So I went to the fridge for my last roll of now-discontinued Kodak Ektachrome E100G slide film and kept shooting. My D beautifully rendered the evening sunlight as it fell across my car’s tail.

Matrix Hindquarter

I really miss E100G; I love the color it returns. My back yard is an embarrassing wreck, but E100G makes it look good.

Blooms on the Edge of the Deck

I’ve put several rolls of E100G through this camera. This film just loves the D’s Yashinon lens.

Crown Hill National Cemetery

I sometimes get out my Yashica-D just to enjoy it. I own few cameras that bring me such pleasure. One evening after work I shot an entire roll of E100G on the flowers in my front yard.

Yellow and purple lilies *EXPLORED*

Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros was my go-to black-and-white film for this camera until it was discontinued.

Moore Road

The father of a dear friend gave me another Yashica-D, one he had used for many years. It was in like-new condition and it was older, so I sold my first Yashica-D and kept his. I shot some Kodak Ektar 100 in it.

Charles H. Ackerman

This Yashica-D came with a Spiratone close-up lens kit. It did nice work on the narcissus in my front yard.

Spring flowers from my garden

To see the rest of the photos I took with my two Yashica-Ds, check out my gallery.

My Yashica-D has zoomed right up to the top of my favorite-camera list. I’m still more a 35mm shooter. But when I want to shoot for the pleasure of it, or when I want to put my best medium-format foot forward, this is the camera I reach for first.

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