Something for a change

I am not a studio photographer. The majority of my photographs are taken outdoors…apart from the usual documentary shots of family life, which often show inhouse situations. Therefore, the images I want to share with you today are are somewhat unusual. The photos are already 8 months old and were produced in a mock-up studio situation. And here is the story behind it:

My elder son told us that his biology teacher had tried to get corn seeds germinating in the middle of winter by immersing one side of a whole corn cob in water. The result was rather disappointing with only three or four seedlings appearing after a week or two. Back home my youngster was excited to repeat this experiment, naturally with the intention to beat his teacher on this one and present a much more impressive result in class.

We had two fully dried corn cobs, leftovers from an autumn decoration on the dining table. We put one of them into a flat bowl with a bit of water and then we waited. After five or six days the first white rootlets appeared and made their way to the bottom of the bowl. And soon after, the first green started reaching for light. Seed after seed came to life again and after three weeks you could hardly see the cob anymore. The young corn plants were about ten to fifteen centimeters high and the bottom of the bowl was filled with a network of intertwining shiny white roots.

At some stage of development I realised that the green and white seedlings produced a beautiful contrast against the golden corn seeds. Since I didn’t want to kill the young pants in the freezing winter temperatures on our terrace, I decided to setup a tiny studio situation with a chair, a background cloth and natural light near the window. I placed the cob on a white glass plate and took my rather heavy macro gear (see my other blog about macro photography here) consisting of the Nikon F90x, the Soligor C/D Macro MC 90mm f/2.5  and a Nikon SB21 ring flash for handheld shooting. Again, I used Kodak Gold 200, which delivers vibrant colors, high contrast and decent sharpness.

My Nikon F90x with the 90mm f/2.5 Macro lens and a ring flash in its full glory

There are a couple of things I especially like in the resulting images. First and foremost it is the complementary colors of the green and the orange tones against the blue background. Also the highly ordered arrangement of the seeds contrasts well with the chaotic growth of the seedlings and their roots. And finally, the photos illustrate one of the fundamental processes of life on Earth, the growth of a new plant from its seed, but the way my studio setup and the chosen gear renders the subject gives it a somewhat artificial appearance. It looks too clean, almost misplaced, like in a laboratory situation. At least that’s what comes to my mind when I look at the images. But see for yourself!

Corn cob 1-4

Berlin, 2020, Nikon F90x, Soligor C/D Macro MC 90mm f/2.5, Nikon SB21 ring flash with diffusor, Kodak Gold 200

Square Dance

Our summer holiday destination this year was a very last minute decision and what originally should have been Denmark turned out to be – after a 13 hour drive – our favorite Tuscan hills between Siena and Volterra. Regarding the weather it was definitely the better choice!

As for previous trips to Tuscany I decided to take a mix of 35mm and medium format cameras with me. But this time I wanted to limit myself to only two camera bodies. For the smaller format I grabbed my “ever ready” F3, but for medium format I decided to wake up a sleeping beauty. About two years ago I had purchased a late photographer’s equipment from the 1950s which among other treasures contained a Rolleiflex 3.5C with all sorts of accessories in good working condition. At the time, I only ran a test film through it, but without an idea for immediate use of the camera it went straight onto the shelves – until now.

Photographer and his toy

Berlin, 2020, Rolleiflex 3.5C, ZEISS Planar 75mm f/3.5, Kodak Portra 160

A couple of rolls of FP4+ and Portra160 later I wonder why I had waited so long to work with this fantastic camera. Sure, it is a bit clunky and especially if you carry it around your neck you may want a massage after a while. But the mechanical and optical qualities of it are pure bliss. Composing with the huge and bright groundglass of the waist-level finder is easy. Using a groundglass instead of a prism finder I always have to get used to the left/right conversion of the image, but with this camera it didn’t take long to adapt. For my landscape photos I decided to mount the Rollei on a tripod. A Rolleiflex TLR looks a bit awkward mounted on a tripod, but the combo does the job when the fading sunlight asks for longer exposure times. Since the in-built lightmeter is the only malfunctioning part of my model (the old Selenium cell is almost certainly broken), I used a mix of “sunny 16” and my external spotmeter. Both film stocks I used have a broad dynamic range and are quite forgiving when it comes to “one stop over or under”, but still, you want to nail the exposure if possible. I have bracketed some shots and already in the negatives I can see not-so-subtle differences, especially in the shadows, which may make or break a shot.

Farneta premises, Tuscany/Italy, 2020, Rolleiflex 3.5C on Ilford FP4+

By the way: these landscapes were already the second attempt to ban the beautiful Tuscan hills on film. My first photo walk the day before was a total disaster. And here is what happened: As said, I only ran one test film through the camera after I bought it two years ago. I was 100% certain that I still knew how to load a roll of film into the Rollei, when I grabbed the first FP4+ from my bag. I even remembered that it is absolutely necessary to fiddle the paper through the small slit between the two metal rulers to activate the film counter. But … I did not realise that I was loading the roll upside down with the paper towards the lens and the film facing the back plate! So I went with high expectations into the field only to find out that after frame 5 the advance lever did not turn anymore, neither forward nor backward. The film instead of winding onto the take up spool had somehow crammed itself into the space between the spool and the camera body, whilst the covering paper was neatly reeled up. When the film transport got stuck I knew that I had to open the camera. Not knowing what exactly had caused the accident I preferred to call it a day and went home. On the way back I already suspected the film to be loaded the wrong way – it was the only possible explanation. And so it was. One film down the drain, and the next one loaded into the camera to repeat the exercise.

And what about the Portra images? Here are a few. Typical subtlety of this film’s color rendering. Beautiful and perfectly suited for the late summer colors of the Tuscan landscape.

Farneta premises, Tuscany/Italy, 2020, Rolleiflex 3.5C on Kodak Portra 160

Macro

These days everyone is talking about macro photography. At least that’s my impression following several photography channels on Youtube that normally do not deal with this specific genre. However, this is not that surprising since across the globe photographers were confined to their homes to a certain degree and in order to stay productive they had to come up with alternatives to their normal outdoor photography preferences. Macro and still life are only two options for that, but they are the most obvious ones. The pandemic forced nature and landscape photographers to seek beauty in small to tiny objects they already had at or could bring home and arrange for macro photography sessions in their kitchens, sheds or gardens.

Being interested in nature for a long time and having a nag for animal photography in my early days as an SLR user I purchased a proper macro lens to go with my Nikon F301 already in the mid-eighties. It was a manual focus tank of a lens, the Soligor C/D Macro MC 90mm f/2.5, a re-branded version of the then highly esteemed Vivitar 90mm f/2.5 macro lens, produced by Tokina. I used it quite regularly back in the day and produced many color slides some of which I still do like very much today, e.g. the praying mantis in the botanical gardens in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

MantisPraying mantis

Antananarivo, Madagascar, 1989, Nikon F301, Kodachrome 64

Seeing all this macro hype on my computer I thought why not digging out this old and heavy lens and re-vive my former enthusiasm for the tiny and easily overlooked ones out there in nature. This time I used my Nikon F90x and a tripod because camera and lens weigh nearly 1.5 kg and when the lens is fully extended for a reproduction ratio of 1:1 it is almost impossible to shoot handheld without blurring the image. The objects I had in mind were spring flowers and flourishing shrubs in a nearby woodland area. I stumbled upon them when walking the dog the other day and saw the potential for a few macro shots. But I had to wait for an overcast day since blotches of sunlight here and there in the shots I thought would be distracting rather than doing any good. And a couple of days later I finally went out for the first time with my camera gear after a nearly 3 month’s break largely caused by the COVID-19 outbreak and its collateral effects impacting our daily life.

In macro photography depth of field is a big issue. Even if you decide to stop down your lens to say f/11 or f/16 the focal plane is still tiny. So, when shooting flowering plants you have to choose which part of the flower you would like to see sharp in your final image. There is a few possibilities to remedy this, though: you can either use a telephoto lens and shoot from a larger distance or – with digital cameras – you can deploy focus stacking. But I wanted to work around the imperfections of my film camera/macro lens setup and rather stick with the small focal plane. My goal was to get one typical character of the flower tack sharp and to have the other parts fall into a colorful blur supporting the image. A good example for this is the photograph of the dandelion’s blowball below. Blurred by using an aperture of f/4, the yellow dandelion flower in the background not only adds some interest to the photo, but at the same time puts the main subject – the seeds – into context. Looking at the image you immediately know that the blurry yellow blotch is a dandelion flower. You don’t need to have every part of the plant in focus to understand what’s going on. Your brain is able to put the puzzle together and this is what fascinates me more than shooting one of these ultrasharp, focus-stacked postcard images we are used to these days.

So here are a few of the results of this late spring photo walk which after a long time sparked my interest in macro photography again.

DandelionDandelion

Berlin, 2020, Nikon F90x, Kodak Gold 200

 

Hawthorn Hawthorn

Berlin, 2020, Nikon F90x, Kodak Gold 200

 

Celandine Celandine

Berlin, 2020, Nikon F90x, Kodak Gold 200

Buying a Leica, or not…

Over the last six months or so I regularly browsed the usual online market places looking for a well preserved older Leica M model at a reasonable price (which seems to be a paradox in itself!). I was surprised to see M2, M3 and M4 models popping up new on ebay every week. There seems to be quite some trading with these 50 to 70 year old mechanical gems. Checking online offerings of M-Leicas almost every day over a few months I learned two things: It is not easy to set your highest price to a successful level, because there is plenty of people out there willing to spend a fortune even for partly damaged M-bodies, which I find strange. And because of this, there are quite a few dubious people around trying to trick you into deals not worth your time, let alone the money.

When I started my quest for a Leica, I had the stupid idea to find a model matching my year of birth. I thought if I spend such a large amount of money for a 50+ year old camera, it should be something special. Like a birthday present bought for myself. This restricted my search to the M4. One day I found a beautifully preserved model – judged from the photographs. What also drew my attention was the rather low price of just under 600 Euros for an immediate buy. Knowing that well-preserved M4s on ebay normally crack the 900 Euro level, I wondered why the camera was still available. Even more so, since I had seen M-Leicas appearing in and disappearing from auctions within a few hours, when there was a good match between preservation and price. I decided to ask the dealer some specific questions regarding the camera, to make sure that this wasn’t a fraud. In his reply he did not answer those questions, but instead sent a few very general comments… and I kept my hands off the deal. The following weeks I regularly checked, whether someone would buy it, but nothing happened. The M4 was still on offer. Then I received an email from ebay saying that they tracked my conversation with the dealer and that they had blocked his account due to “some irregularities”. Phew….trusting my gut feeling was obviously the right choice!

After this incident I cautiously continued to look for M-Leicas, and also included the M2 in my search now. The full metal advance lever of the M2 I like better than the plastic one of the M4, anyway. And in contrast to the older M3 it also has proper 35mm frame lines in the viewfinder, a feature I definitely wanted to have. A few more weeks of (unsuccessful) browsing and bidding and I started to have second thoughts about the whole endeavor. Why do I want to have this Leica M in the first place? What exactly do I want to use it for? Is it worth to spend such a large amount of money for it, especially if I play it safe and purchase it from a trusted camera shop? On top of all this I would have to face the fact that the camera body alone does not lead anywhere without investing in a proper lens as well. In my head, the next couple of hundred Euros were already dripping from my bank account – it would be my first Leica after all and there was no fleet of M-lenses waiting at home to be mounted on a new camera body. Finally, I decided that the “I want to own a Leica M”-project will have to go on the back burner for the time being and a few weeks ago I stopped camera hunting.

As I have written in a previous post, I am not a camera collector. I don’t want to fill up a vitrine with prestigious cameras just for the sake of having them. Apart from the fact that cameras don’t get better when sitting in a shelf unused, I only want to own them, if I have reason to believe that for a certain photographic project or genre a specific camera model is the perfect fit for the job and may outperform any other camera I already have. The stunning performance of the Leica lenses in combination with the perfect ergonomics of the M bodies is certainly such a reason. But what are my current photographic projects, which would suffer from not using a Leica M? I can’t think of any…

In the end I had to admit that, against my conviction, I obviously got infected by the Leica virus (quite an infectious one!) which made me longing for one of these fantastic cameras – a fair enough reason by the way, but not for me at this time and under the current circumstances. The obvious genre I would have used the Leica for is street photography. Zone focusing, sunny 16 and all the rest of it, but you may remember that I own an Olympus 35 SP, often dubbed a “poor man’s Leica” due to its stunning optical performance and reasonably low price. I have been using it throughout 2019 for my “Last Day”-project and fell in love with this camera. It has about the same format and weight as a Leica M, has a pin sharp 42mm lens and (for the lazy photographer) can also be shot in full automatic mode thanks to a very precise light meter with spot function. One of the main differences between the Olympus and a Leica – apart from some mechanical quirks of the Olympus – is the fact that it has a fixed lens. Although the 42mm lens has proven to be perfect so far, there may be a time in the future when I can’t help but want to change lenses on a rangefinder and this will certainly be the time when the hunt starts again!

Flickr-ing photographs, at last

After setting up my website “Light & Grain” almost 2 years ago, I always thought about a presence on social media, as well. This is how most photographers today attract people and create interest in their work. The usual path is to show up at least on Facebook and Instagram and have a Youtube channel with new content being uploaded regularly every week, fortnight or month. I am a notorious non-user of Facebook & Co plus the time I have to spare for creating content just for my web page is already rather limited. This means that producing content at a certain (and probably necessary) pace to feed all these social media channels, let alone learning how to make proper videos, is simply impossible for me and I touched this topic already in a previous post.

On the other hand, my website – despite being the perfect online tool to store some of my better photographs and present them to any person on this planet who shows some interest – doesn’t get a lot of traffic. Certain blog posts seem to have been shared quite a bit (e.g. The Isolette and I), but most of my humble writings as well as the majority of my photographs have not seen many visitors. Thus, three weeks ago I reviewed the possibilities of the different photography-related social media platforms again and decided to give it a try – with Flickr.

It’s funny, but opening a Flickr account and posting the first photographs on this platform has a different feel to it than posting the same photos on my website. Knowing that only few people will stumble upon them on my homepage gives it a more private and personal touch. But, throwing them into the Flickr ocean of millions of online photographs could either mean that they slowly descend into the photographic marine snow lingering above the bottom of the deep sea of mediocrity (please excuse the analogy from my professional realm!) or that they are highly visible at the ocean’s surface with many people looking at my work…and reviewing, commenting on or even judging it. Equally scary scenarios! We photographers (and probably all creative people) have something like a split personality: We would like to share our images with many people, because we think we have something to say, but at the same time we don’t want to have too many witnesses, because we fear that the outside world criticizes our work. To step out into the open regardless is what the American author Brené Brown in her marvelous book Daring greatly describes as vulnerability:

When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make. […] Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen.1

In many respects, Brown’s book is a game changer for me and so it was for my online presence, first with my website and now with my Flickr account. And so far, I must admit, there is nothing to complain about regarding the feedback.

1 cited from Brené Brown, “Daring greatly”, Portfolio Penguin, 2013, page 2

Ektachrome – finally!

Being a fan of color slides since my very first days of 35mm photography back in the 1980s, I was enthusiastic to go back to Kodak slide film when the company announced to re-start the production of Ektachrome. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the new version of this classic film stock, although I must admit that I preferred Kodachrome back in the days. Despite it’s early announcement it was already December last year when sufficient numbers of this film had been delivered to FotoImpex  in Berlin so that I could finally order my first five rolls. They went straight into the fridge and lived there for another seven months until I finally had the chance to test one of them. I used my Olympus 35 SP, which I had brought to Denmark for my “Last Day” project, because the 31st July was amidst our summer holiday break. The camera has a reliable (spot) light meter, which measures EV values. These let you manually select the right aperture/shutter speed combination with two adjustable rings on the fixed lens of the camera. Slide film with its rather narrow dynamic range needs proper metering and, therefore, the small rangefinder seemed the perfect choice for the job especially because Ektachrome is (only) a 100 ISO film and the meter of the camera is absolutely flawless in daylight.

So what is my impression of this “retro” film stock? Shooting it during the day with overcast skies as well as during sunset – as expected – gave very different results. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Ektachrome can’t handle changing light conditions, but its color rendition very much depends on light quality. Overcast skies around midday lead to rather muted colors with a slight blue-greenish tint. Rumors have it that slide film is ideal for homogeneous light as in overcast conditions, because the contrast range is rather low and colors do not oversaturate. Having my Kodachrome experience deeply saved in the back of my mind, I was a bit disappointed on the performance of the new emulsion though. I know, Kodachrome was especially good at rendering orange to red tones and therefore never gave this ‘cool’ impression, even when shot under suboptimal light conditions. Thus, the direct comparison might be a bit unfair.

 

Sea Kale Sea kale II

However, have a look at the image of the sea kale as an example and you immediately see what I mean. The greyish to green color of the plant is not far from the original and I like the structure of the leaves, but the pebbles were much more colorful – at least that’s how I remember it. They were a mixture of flint and granite and the latter comes in a diverse color palette from black to grey-brown to pink. And the browns and pinks do not come across. I also had to play with the color rendition tools in Photoshop quite a bit to get a final result I could live with. However, this may also be due to flatbed scanners having considerable difficulties to properly scan 35mm transparencies – at least that’s my experience with my Epson V700.

 

F63_N19_rotes Boot_bearb The red boat

 

F63_N38_sunset_DK_bearb Veddinge sunset

When it comes to photographing golden hour light as in the sunset shot or the red boat image, Ektachrome really excels. The colors are vivid but not oversaturated as they might have been on Fuji  Velvia and at least on the light table (again, scanning them properly is a bit of an effort) these images look exactly like the real scenes as I have saved them in my mind. Shooting the new Ektachrome in the golden hour seems to be a no-brainer (as long as you meter it correctly), since the warm tones in the sunlight counterbalance for the otherwise cool characteristics of the emulsion. But if the light itself is rather neutral as in overcast weather conditions, it’s much more tricky to get satisfying results with this film. Maybe a warming filter (such as 81A) can help, something I shall definitely try in the future.

Would I recommend shooting this film? Definitely yes, but if you are looking for a versatile day-to-day color film, which is a bit forgiving when it comes to over- or underexposure and which renders colors rather naturally independent of the ambient (day)light condition Ektachrome might not be for you. But this holds true for all slide films in comparison to negative films. Also, if you are scanning your film at home, negative film is much easier to handle and probably gives better results at least when you’re using a flatbed scanner. Please bear in mind that this preliminary report is based only on a single roll of film. Although I don’t expect any surprising differences when shooting more of this emulsion, it certainly needs further testing with different cameras and lenses and – most important –  many more photo shoots in various weather and light conditions to get a better idea about this film. We have a golden autumn this year and colors in the woodland around Berlin are currently exploding…so, there might be opportunities very soon.

Cheating in photography – does it exist?

In a recent vlog the British landscape photographer Gary Gough presented images of boat wrecks which did not represent the real scene he was looking at when shooting. Since the background was not to his liking he used two photographs shot in different directions and combined them in post into ideal composites of foreground, horizontal lines and sky. Looking at the final images you couldn’t tell whether these were “real scenes” or collages made of more than one photograph and Gary was asking the viewers whether they think “this is art or (cheating) photography”. The overwhelming majority of online comments admired Gary’s post processing wizardry and clearly said that this is art. And Gary rightly concluded that being honest with the viewer and explain how the images came into being is key to avoid cheating in photography.

I was thinking about it for some time and wondered whether cheating does exist at all in photography? To begin with, a photograph is a 2D representation of a 3D landscape or object and therefore it is not the real scene. It is already an artistic transformation in itself. However, a two-dimensional print to a large degree can transport our three-dimensional human perception of the scene, but this totally depends on the skills of the photographer. If we now use “cheating” in a photography context, the question is where exactly does it begin? Is the camera already cheating, because its inability of capturing 3D? Or, to go a step further, was Ansel Adams cheating when he burned the sky of Moonrise almost to black to add more drama to the image? What about Man Ray’s “solarized” photographs? And think of the digitally reworked large scale images of Andreas Gursky? Did these photographers all cheat, because they kind of twisted reality in post-processing, either in the darkroom or in the computer?

Since the very first known camera photograph by Nicéphore Niépce people have tested the limits of photography and manipulated e.g. cameras, negatives, prints, and digital files to creatively form images to their liking, to match their thoughts and mood, to express their feelings or to carry certain messages. This is a creative process and definitely results in art. Photography translates as “drawing with light”. Thus, no definition with regard to content is given. What is called a photograph does not have to reflect or represent reality. The photographer uses cameras, enlargers, computers etc. as tools to create an image just like a painter with a brush and a palette. The trap we fall into here lies in the very nature of a photographic image itself. Since a camera is basically able to capture a realistic image of the scene in front of us, we tend to think of a photograph as objective. The camera is making it without us interfering with the process. In contrast, a painter has to translate the subject from his personal optic impression into choice of color and stroke of the brush using his brain as a filter. This process is regarded as subjective, hence the artsy result. But photographic images are not objective at all. Only the photographer sees a composition and points the camera into the right direction. Without this highly subjective brain-driven process photographic images would not exist at all.

But we have to reflect on this also from a different angle. This has to do with the use of images as a carrier of information as in reportages or news. No medium is able to capture actual events and implicit messages better than photography (or videography), impressively demonstrated during the heydays of reportage and magazine photography by many well-known big names in the photographic realm …and even scaled by mobile phone photographs today. Here, we rely on authentic images to form a personal opinion about the world around us. If we cannot rely on authenticity of news images for instance, we are completely lost. Images are just too powerful an influencer of people’s opinion that “objectivity” is key and manipulation should not be tolerated. But…careful…the trap is lurking around the corner again. As said above, it’s not the camera but the person holding it, who captures the photos. This means that every image shot by a photo reporter is the result of her identifying a subject or a composition worth shooting and using her professional mindset and skills to create a representation of the reality. In other words: Looking at news images means nothing but looking through the viewfinder with the eyes of the photo reporter who shot the image. And this again can be highly subjective.

So, what is it that makes photographic images so strong, so persuasive or even manipulative, if we look at them? I think it has to do with human psychology. Usually, photographs are easy to relate to. We are fascinated by the photographer’s skill, by the vibrant colors, or by the well-composed image. We are moved by the sadness of the captured scene or the joy expressed in faces. And ever so often we are kind of dragged into the image, because something in it reminds us of moments in our own lives. The first impression a photograph produces in our heads is usually an emotional one, which already channels our mind towards “like” or “dislike”. We may not be able to immediately nail it down as to why we sense it this way and not the other, but there is certainly something like a gut feeling. And this brings me back to Gary and his question whether we see his composite images as art or as photographic cheating. When I looked at his final images the first question popping up in my mind was: would I hang one of those images on my wall? Gut decision…probably not, since their overall style is not exactly what I personally fancy as photographs. You see? The decision whether I like it or not, has nothing to do with the fact that they are composites. And even if I knew they were representing real scenes, my gut feeling wouldn’t change. Gary’s images are representations of his creativity, skillfully photographed and processed and therefore, beyond doubt, a piece of art and photography at the same time. But whether people like it or not – and a lot do according to the numerous online comments on his vlog –  is a completely different matter.

To watch Gary’s vlog I am referring to, please click here.

Do you like gear reviews?

For me this is a bag of mixed feelings. On one hand it’s interesting to see how quickly the field of photography is developing and how much effort the companies are putting into throwing bigger and bigger machines into the market – currently the usual suspects on Youtube are going crazy about the new Fujifilm GFX100, a mirrorless medium format brick of a camera with incredible 102 MP resolution. Just to be clear: I am still using mainly analogue cameras and except very few camera portraits on this channel all photos on lightngrain.com are scanned negatives! However, gear reviews do also exist in the analogue world. They are probably not as blingbling as the ones dealing with new digital kit, but still they are guiding you through the functions and the pros and cons of pieces of equipment – often garnished with series of photos taken with the portrayed kit. Although I love old cameras and although I could spend hours listening to somebody portraying old mechanical models I have never had the chance to handle myself, I always end up slightly frustrated after watching another video focusing on kit. It is just too tempting to open another window in your computer and browse the second hand market for the model you’ve just been told that its lens is perfect or its mechanics are so smooth and durable. Next step is checking out prices of various offers and then the voices in your head start fighting: “This is such a bargain for a gem of a camera!” and “Have you seen how well it is preserved?” But your inner treasurer says:” You’ve just spend a fortune for this other camera”, and the photographer says: “Why on earth should I buy this additional model? I don’t even have enough time to shoot with all the cameras I already own!” The best camera kit is the one you have with you, but the more you start hording camera bodies and lenses the more complicated it gets to follow this advice. I don’t own cameras just for the sake of having them. If I buy a camera, I do it only for one reason: going out and shooting with it.

In this blog I have done gear reviews myself. Probably not as detailed as one would expect them to be, but several of my posts are based on certain camera models that I have purchased (and used!) over the last two years. Whenever I uploaded one of those gear-based posts, I had the feeling that it is a bit of a cheap-seater content. It is so much easier to write about gear and your experience with it than writing about photography projects, content or personal ambitions and emotions when doing photography. But the latter is the stuff I like best when reading other photographer’s posts or watching their videos. Why? Because you learn so much more from it for your own photography. So my aim for the future of this blog is to concentrate more on the photographic process and all sorts of images resulting from this rather than putting more gear blurb online. But bear with me…this kind of content takes much more in-depth research and thinking.

It is commonplace that gear reviews on Youtube get much more attraction than other photography content. And it’s a pity to see that some previously content-driven channels devote more and more time to gear reviews either because they are easier to produce or mediate more clicks. I think the notorious “what’s in my bag” stuff is so boring that it doesn’t do any good to the photographer presenting it. I know, there are many people out there, who want to know what bits and pieces their favorite photographers use to shoot their marvellous images. But does it really matter? Of course not, because it’s the ability of the person holding the camera and not the equipment itself which makes the difference. As trivial as this might seem, there must still be people around thinking if they use the same gear as their hero of photography they can produce the same portfolio. Not quite!

There has been silence on this channel for quite a while, because I have been more than busy in my daily job over the last two months. And getting a 9-week-old dog puppy four weeks ago didn’t really help either. Therefore, no photographs in today’s post, just a few thoughts along the way of long days in the office and repeated lessons to teach the dog not to pee and poop into our living room.

The next photographic content will be the winner and runner-up images from April 30th in my Last Day project. So stay tuned as these photos will be uploaded very soon.

Overambitious

There is definitely two hearts beating in my chest. One is making photographs, while the other gets more and more fascinated by old mechanical cameras. It’s a dangerous combination, especially when you plan to use all those cameras to make photos! I am currently stuck with three 35 mm and two medium format cameras loaded with b/w film, some of them half way through, others somewhere between frames 1 and 10, not to mention the recently repaired Billy Record and my cravings to finally start shooting my Rolleiflex. I kind of put the cart before the horse by not laying out projects and picking the most useful tool for them, but on the contrary getting carried away with my gear without having any plans what to shoot with it. Films were loaded in high spirits, but as soon as reality kicked in it somewhat ended in a typical amateur’s overwhelm. It’s frustrating.

So what to do? Seeking advice in photo books and Youtube videos? There you will find the following: Shoot every day! Let using your camera and making photographs become second nature! See…it’s getting worse! Since I am not the guy who runs around like a christmas tree with three different cameras around my neck it will take a while to finish all these loaded rolls. I usually don’t leave the house without a camera, be it my day-to-day Nikon F3 SLR or my newly purchased Olympus rangefinder – just in case. But situations worth shooting especially during my daily commuting to and from the museum are rare or so far have successfully managed to hide from my amateur’s eye.

Ever so often one feels completely stuck and instead of starting to work against it with small steps slowly leading out of the ditch one takes the easy path and immerses oneself into binge watching photography related videos on Youtube … only to end up even more frustrated than before. But…I have a recipe to leaving that vicious cycle, which at least for me works perfectly. And here it is:  Have a go at your last say 20 rolls of film and try to find patterns in your recent imagery. Maybe you discover that you have a nag for graffiti or you find images of architecture or flowers forming a large part of your portfolio. Then try to sort these pictures into themes or look for connections between them. The trick is that by doing so you immediately realize that e.g. certain subjects are missing to complete a small series of images or the pattern you discover in your photography leads to a more complex idea for a project. I give you an example from my own work: Last year I had a few days at the North Sea accompanying my elder son who wanted to spend his first week of summer school holidays with his grandparents in their holiday home. I quite extensively photographed fishing boats in the little harbor of Dorumer Tief. One of the images shows two ropes neatly laid down to form an “8”.

F36N4_Tau_Acht_bearbEight

Dorumer Tief, North Sea, 2018, Nikon F3, AF Nikkor 35mm f/2, Hoya K2 Yellow, HP5+

When I saw it on the negative I immediately thought, hey, let’s do the numbers from 1 to 9. I started thinking of possible objects which may resemble the missing numbers. Some are easy, others aren’t. “1”s are flying in the hundreds over our garden in early spring and late autumn and are made of flight formations of cranes and wild geese, but “7”s or “4”s are much more difficult to imagine. I know: this has probably been done by many photographers before. It’s not innovative and won’t crawl up the bestseller lists, but it’s a challenge and therefore highly motivating to continue your photographic journey. The next level would probably be letters and although this has been photographed to death with patterns on butterfly wings you may challenge yourself with completely different subjects to reach the same goal.

Any take home message from this blog? Instead of numbing yourself with Youtube watching the photographic journeys of other (better?) photographers out there take a look at your own work and what you’ve achieved so far. Try to read your images and filter your preferences from them and I am sure you will come up with several ideas what to shoot next.

The other Billy

No, I’m not talking about the bargain book shelf made by IKEA here (it’s a photography blog after all!), but about a much older top seller with the same name, the Agfa Billy Record. Collapsible to pocket format this folding camera shoots giant 6×9 medium format negatives and first appeared on the German market in the late 1920s. Before WWII Agfa produced several different versions of Billy Record cameras, equipped with lenses of varying quality.  Discovering a well preserved model on ebay the other day, I could not resist and bought it for very little money. It is one of the better versions sporting a Prontor II shutter with self timer and Agfa’s 105mm f/4.5 Apotar lens. Its metal body had the same Art Deco finish as the later Billy Compur and in contrast to the post-war Billys and Isolettes the bellows was made of soft and durable leather.

BillyRecord_klein The Billy Record

Apart from a few scratches on the body it was in perfect condition except one serious problem: the front element of the lens system – the focusing lens – was stuck. This is a common problem in old Agfa cameras (I talked about it in my older posts The Isolette and I and Isolette news). The lubricant used by Agfa had an oxidizing effect on the brass of the lens frame and thereby hardened to some sort of cement. Since I had experienced this during previous CLA work on different Agfa Isolettes I thought that getting the Billy up and running again would be an easy task, especially because the shutter was in a very good condition with all speeds firing correctly… alas, I couldn’t be more wrong! The front lens refused to react to any treatment whatsoever: ethanol, lighter fluid, heat from a hair dryer, acetone (only a few drops) didn’t have the slightest effect! The two lenses of the front element were still firmly attached to each other. Finally, mechanical force applied by a pro in a workshop did the job. After cleaning the lenses and putting it all back together again I took the chance to shoot a roll of TriX 400 a few weeks ago with surprising results. It’s pure fun to shoot this oldtimer, especially when using the collapsible, two-element “sports finder” on top of the camera. It’s basically a glass-less metal window, which gives you a surprisingly exact idea of your frame. Metering with Sunny 16 was easy, but focusing was obviously more of a problem. All objects I intended to put in focus weren’t, but things in the background like trees and houses were sharp. So what happened? The Billy Record has no range finder. To focus you have to estimate the distance between the camera and your object of interest and accordingly turn the front lens, which has an attached ring with an imprinted scale from 1m to infinity. It is attached with three tiny screws and I had to take it off before lens repair. When putting it back on again I was pretty sure that I remembered the position it was in when I unscrewed it. Obviously, I only thought I knew…

F50N3_Luther_bearbSoft Luther

The Luther statue at Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof in Berlin-Mitte is one of the 8 objects of interest on this film. Luther is completely out of focus, but the background is sharp – kind of an “inverted portrait”. The image was shot at f/16, but the front lens was so far off, that even the large focus range at this aperture didn’t help. On the other hand, for a 3-lens system from the 1930s the quality of the images wasn’t bad at all. Even in the corners of the large negatives the branches of the trees seem to be sharp, more so at the bottom of the frame, though. If you zoom into the Luther image you will see that there are two longitudinal scratches which I found running along all the negatives. Unfortunately, the two metal rollers in the film chamber are obviously not as smooth as they should be and need to be replaced.

Meanwhile, I have calibrated the front lens and will shoot another test film with my Billy as soon as possible. So, please, stay tuned as I will report on the new results here in a few weeks time.

P.S.: Historical information about the Billy Record is taken from Günther Kadlubek’s “Agfa: Geschichte eines deutschen Weltunternehmens von 1867-1997”.