Essay, Photography

Cameras and composition are only part of the photographic equation, but they’re my favorite part

Photography has changed a great deal in the last 40 years. If you think back 80 years, photography then had more in common with photography 40 years ago than photography 40 years ago has with photography now. Technology has changed so much about it, and I don’t mean just the advent of digital cameras. Technological advances let us easily make photographs now we couldn’t 40, or 20, or even 10 years ago. We can manipulate our photographs with software in ways that wet-darkroom artists of yore couldn’t fathom. How we view photographs has changed radically as well, given that we look at most of them on screens now!

40 years ago, we had film, film cameras, and the darkroom. I was in high school 40 years ago, and oh how I wanted to be in the Photography Club! But to enter you had to take at least one photography class, and to take that class you had to buy an SLR camera. I was so sure that camera was out of my working-class family’s reach that I didn’t bother asking.

I came upon an Argus A-Four, a 35mm viewfinder camera, at a yard sale for four bucks. I puzzled over the controls, as I didn’t know the first thing about exposure. One of my friends was in the Photography Club, so I asked him. “f/8 and be there,” he said as he gave me a bulk-loaded cartridge of Plus-X from the club stash. He told me to shoot the roll, and then he’d teach me how to develop the film and make a contact print in the school darkroom.

I found developing and printing to be tedious and boring. It was sort of cool to see my images materialize on the contact sheet, but the work to get there held no interest for me. I realized that perhaps it was just as well I couldn’t get into the Photography Club, because everybody had to develop and print their own work. I realized that I really wanted only to learn about the camera and about composition.

The majority of the photos members of the Photography Club took never found an audience outside the Photography Club. There was an annual photo contest at the school, and the winners’ prints were displayed in the hallway. Some Photography Club members also made photos for the school newspaper and the yearbook. Occasionally a club member would find their work selected for display at the Art Center downtown.

I still have the negatives and the contact sheet (sadly cut into strips for easier storage). I’m very happy to have these images! I scanned the negatives a few years ago. Here’s my favorite photo from the roll. Meet my friend Karen, who used to drive me home from school every day in her big Chevy.

Karen and her car
My friend Karen and her car. Argus A-Four, Kodak Plus-X, 1984

Now that I’ve started developing my black-and-white film and scanning it at home (to save lab costs and get images faster), I understand well what many photo bloggers I admire have written for years: a negative holds so many possibilities. That’s why the high-school photography class required students to develop and print their own work, so they could experience and understand that for themselves. Knowing how to use a camera and compose interesting and pleasing photographs is only half the equation. Processing the film to get a good negative and knowing how to print (or scan) that negative well is the other half.

Technology has given us enormously capable digital cameras today, removing the messy and occasionally smelly chemicals from the process. Slip your SD card into your computer, fire up Photoshop, and you can do a great deal of processing even to a JPEG to conform it to your vision. If you shoot RAW, you can do a great deal more with your images.

But little has changed for me: I will probably always be happiest when I nail the image in the camera, and then nail the development and scanning when I shoot film, so that I need do little or no post processing to get the image I want. Given my documentary style of photography, I’m looking to capture the scene as I saw it. When that’s not possible, I’ll settle for an image that looks like the scene could look that way in real life.

Meanwhile, I will keep sharing my work here for you to see. The folks in the Photography Club probably would have died and gone to heaven over having that option.

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1950 Hudson Commodore

Hudson grille
Nikon F2AS, 50mm f/2 AI-Nikkor
Kodak Plus-X Pan
2014

This 1950 Hudson was my favorite car of the 2014 Mecum auction here in Indianapolis. I love step-down Hudsons anyway, and this one was a peach.

Have I ever mentioned that when I was in middle school I wrote short stories? I don’t have any of them anymore, and I’m sure none of them were any good. The only one I remember at all was the one where I had the main character drive a step-down Hudson.

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Film Photography, Old Cars

single frame: Hudson grille

1951 Hudson grille.

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Film Photography, Old Cars

Kodak Plus-X and the Carmel Artomobilia

I had two SLRs slung over my shoulders at the 2017 Carmel Artomobilia last month: my Pentax ME with wonderful Fujifilm Superia 100 inside, and my Pentax Spotmatic F with my last roll of Kodak Plus-X.

Cobra

On this day, with this lens (55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar), the Plus-X returned blacks you could just fall into.

Camaro

And the grays and whites came out creamy.

Hurst Olds

I wished briefly that I had screwed in my 35mm f/3.5 SMC Takumar. The thick crowds made it difficult, at best, to back up far enough to get entire cars in the frame. The 35/3.5 would have made me back up a lot less.

Toronado

But I’ve been exploring the 55/1.8’s considerable charms lately, and in retrospect am not disappointed I left it on the camera. It performed well, and it’s seldom a real problem to focus on an old car’s details.

Firebird

Growing up in the 1970s as I did, when half or more of the cars on the road were from GM, it was easy to take their dominance for granted. Looking back, it’s clear just how good their designs were. How daring it was in 1970 that the second-generation Camaro and Firebird had no distinct rear passenger windows! The shape of this window opening is just smashing.

Flying lady

Packard’s Flying Lady hood ornaments are a favorite subject. I shoot them whenever I come across them at a car show.

Ol' propeller nose

This is the famous front end of the Studebaker I photographed from the rear here. The girl walking away was a happy coincidence as I framed this shot, so I made sure to include her.

Citroen

The Citroën DS is funky from every angle and in every detail. Just check out how these headlights don’t both point forward. This is a later DS; earlier ones had uncovered headlights.

R/T

Plenty of American muscle was on display at the Artomobilia. I’m partial to the Mopars of the era for their no-nonsense styling.

Avanti

Avantis were made in my hometown, South Bend. They were Studebakers at first, but after Studebaker shuttered a new company formed to keep Avanti production going. They used leftover Studebaker engines at first but eventually had to turn to Chevy to provide powerplants. Post-Studebaker Avantis were given the “Avanti II” name, probably for rights reasons.

Avanti II

As the show began to wrap up and the crowds thinned, I was able to get a few wider shots of the event and its cars.

Vette 2

It wasn’t all classics at the Artomobilia. Several owners of newer hi-po Ford Mustangs lined up their cars for inspection.

Hoods up

Here’s hoping I can find time for more car shows. I do love to photograph cars and I think I’ve become pretty good at it. They’re certainly the subject with which I am most confident.

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Piloting the Buick

At the wheel of the old Buick
Pentax Spotmatic F, 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar
Kodak Plus-X
2017

I’ve never been very good at moving fast. I’m more the slow, thoughtful type. But there are moments in my photography when a wonderful scene emerges before my eyes and I have to move fast before it disappears. Such was this moment.

I forget what my camera’s settings were. I probably didn’t even know as I framed and focused. I probably just twisted the aperture ring until the viewfinder’s exposure needle registered good exposure, pressed the shutter button, and trusted that on such a bright day I’d have settings that would give me enough depth of field.

I was right. And I moved fast enough to catch the girl’s delighted smile.

Film Photography, Old Cars

single frame: At the wheel of the old Buick

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Film Photography

Kodak Plus-X in the Pentax Spotmatic F

I love Kodak Plus-X. It’s a shame Kodak discontinued it.

All of the Plus-X photos I’ve shared on this blog have come from some expired stock I bought a few years ago. It was promised to have always been stored cold, and it performed like new.

My last roll had been moldering about the refrigerator for going on two years because I wanted to honor it with the perfect subject. Finally I decided that no subject would ever be perfect enough. I might as well just shoot it up.

I loaded it into my Pentax Spotmatic F, mounted my 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar lens, and carried the camera with me wherever I went. Naturally, I started in the yard. I often do. I hadn’t moved out of my old house yet.

Sale Pending

I had the Spotmatic along while Margaret and I took an evening stroll down Main Street in Zionsville. It’s become tradition that I shoot the Black Dog Books sign.

Black Dog Books

This shop on Main Street had closed for the night, but there was enough light for me to press the lens to the window and make this photograph.

Window shopping

And then a perfect subject came along: the Carmel Artomobilia. I’ve already shown you color photographs from this show here, and I’ll show you more black-and-white photos from this roll in an upcoming post.

Carmel Artomobilia

But as a preview, here are a couple wide shots.

Oldsmobile butts

I’m sure I could buy more Plus-X. It shows up from time to time on eBay, and the Film Photography Project has been known to sell it sometimes. It is said to usually perform well even when it hasn’t been stored cold.

But I think it’s time I shoot up my backlogged stock and then stick largely to films that are still being manufactured. Expired, discontinued films certainly have their charms. I might still be wooed here and there. But I wish to find my go-to films, the ones I reach for again and again because I know them well and can shoot for their strengths. If Plus-X were still being manufactured, it would absolutely be my slow-speed black-and-white film. Alas.

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Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis

Ghostly church
Kodak Six-20
Kodak Plus-X
2010

The first time I photographed Second Presbyterian I was shooting my folding Kodak Six-20 and some Plus-X that I bought pre-respooled as 620 from B&H. The entire roll came back looking like this, to my disappointment.

I came across the negatives recently and they look normal. My wife bought me a new flatbed film scanner for my birthday, and it takes medium-format film, so I may try scanning the negs myself when I get moved and settled.

I’ve reviewed the Kodak Six-20 twice: here and here.

Photography

single frame: Ghostly church

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