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”.

Light & Grain – the first year!

It’s unbelievable. I launched Light & Grain exactly one year ago with my first blog post New “kid” on the blog. And it feels as if it had been last week. The year has just passed in a rush with many professional and personal obligations leaving not much room for photography. Nevertheless, I managed to start with three so-called projects B/W, Color and Pinhole which quickly developed into small collections of 35mm and medium format photographs. Being rather unspecific, the project names had to be changed around summer, because I wanted to include genres like street or nature containing both color and b/w photography. By the end of 2018 two new projects, The last day and Dresden Bahn materialized and they had to find a home as well. In the end I decided to turn the old website a little upside down with the portfolio now displayed on the landing page and the real projects anchored in the menu bar. Since the portfolio didn’t match the original intro image, the fallen birch tree, this had to go as well. I think now the page looks much more professional, but see for yourself!

Producing a constant stream of content is a tricky one and well-illustrated by the frequency with which I was (un)able to publish my blog posts during the last year. In the beginning I had the naïve idea that writing a blog post every month would be an easy task. Being enthusiastic about the fact that I had managed to publish Light & Grain in the first place I thought that the writing part was the least difficult in terms of both topics and time. While I was correct topic-wise, time was a different issue. Same as now I used the commuting hours in the train to conceptualize the posts, but oftentimes I got stuck half way and ended up with bits and pieces of potential posts covering such different topics as gear, photo walks, history of photography, camera collections etc. Accumulating these texts on my computer did not help either with obeying to my self-set rule of publishing one post a month. On the contrary, there had been several months without any new online material, be it posts or photographs. On the other hand I sometimes managed to publish images and texts twice a week. Miraculously, at the end of the first year I had accumulated some 14 posts – more than the proposed 12 pieces of photography-related content I was dreaming of in the beginning. But now comes the interesting part: Is anyone reading it? Not very often to say the least. I must admit that I did not spend much energy advertising the page, yet…filling it was more of a priority for me. But attracting an audience is certainly something on my to-do list for the near future. As said in one of my earlier posts, even if the number of visits stays low, the webpage is still a very useful online dashboard for me to create and store content, which at some point in the future may serve a different purpose.

So, you ask, what did I learn from setting up my own photography page? Why didn’t I use Flickr or Instagram to expose my images and thoughts to a much larger community? Good question! To be honest: I am not overly enthusiastic about social media. And what you immediately learn is that no one’s waiting for you being present online. If you’re not actively advertising your content or use the different tools to get caught by the Google algorithms, no one stumbles upon your content. And even if someone landed on your page, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they come back. Why? The old Cartier-Bresson rule of thumb that your first 10.000 images are basically for the waste bin still holds and for me to pass that number is still some way ahead. If you are one of the few people who have visited Light & Grain in the past, please stay tuned as my website will continuously grow and its content will (hopefully!) mature over time. So, thanks for visiting my website during its first year of existence, and I am looking forward to meeting you here every now and then until the second anniversary of Light & Grain‘s online presence!

1 hour – 36 frames

Have you ever tried to shoot 36 frames in a single hour? I know… with a modern digital camera you can shoot them in seconds, but using a fully mechanical film camera from the 1970’s this is a true challenge. Why would I do this, you ask? And wouldn’t it be a waste of film not taking your time to carefully compose and frame your shots? Yes, maybe, but beginning of December I did shoot 36 analog photos in one hour, and here is why:

I have never owned a decent rangefinder camera nor did I ever have the chance to use one. My step into photography was a Fuji SLR and after that it had been different SLRs ever since. Two of my Agfa Isolettes have uncoupled rangefinders, but they don’t count. And the rangefinder of my inherited Voigtländer Vitomatic is so foggy that I used it only once and half of the expired Agfa APX 100 from the late ‘90s still sits in this camera unused. Talking rangefinders in most cases means talking Leicas and these cameras even when they are heavily used and beaten up are still so expensive that I always avoided to test one – simply not to get tempted.

oly35sp_b-w_bearbOlympus 35 SP rangefinder with 42mm f/1.7 lens

A couple of weeks ago I watched a video portraying a rangefinder camera often tagged as the “poor man’s Leica”, the Canon Canonet. Digging deeper into the specifications of these sharp-lensed bricks from the 1970s, a whole world of poor men’s Leicas sporting more or less the same design and lens quality unfolded on my computer screen. Olympus, Canon, Minolta and many other brands were competing in this market and successfully produced and sold millions of high-quality consumer rangefinder cameras. The good ergonomics, the small size, the often superb performance of the fixed lenses and the affordable price of these cameras made them very popular during the 1960’s and ‘70s, hence their availability on today’s second hand market. However, several models are highly sought after and I was lucky to find one of these for a reasonable amount of money – an Olympus 35 SP, the largest among a whole series of rather similar Olympus 35 rangefinder models. It has a 7-element 42mm f/1.7 lens, which produces pin-sharp images. After cleaning out the disintegrated light seals and replacing them with felt and black cotton wool, I inserted a WeinCell battery and was good to go for my first rangefinder test. The goal was primarily to check the tightness of the new light seals.

That’s why I used Kodak Gold 200, a cheap consumer color negative film from the drugstore. Ruining this film with a malfunctioning camera would have been annoying, but not a big deal moneywise.  I wanted to have the film ready for development in the late afternoon on my way back home. So I decided to use my lunch break to shoot the whole film during a short photowalk downtown Berlin. As said it was challenging to step out of the slow motion mode I am usually in when shooting film cameras, but the camera felt so comfortable and was so easy to use that the whole experience was pure fun and the 36 frames were in camera when my lunch break was over.

f46_n20_graffititür_oranienb_bearb          Doors & Colors (frame 20/36)

The Olympus 35 SP has an inbuilt light meter (with optional spot mode) which together with the auto function of both shutter speed and aperture makes it a manual focus point-and-shoot camera – exactly what I needed to test the light seals and the performance of the meter. A week later, when nervously picking up the developed negatives and prints I was quite surprised how well the camera had performed. Every single shot was perfectly metered and most shots were pin sharp underlining the quality of the G-Zuiko lens. Only some of the short-distance images were out of focus – probably a result of a slightly misaligned rangefinder.

Overall this “one film in one hour”-experience was interesting – and exhausting, because you’re highly concentrated for 60 min without any break and in constant alert to find the next composition worth shooting. It is a very good training to be repeated, especially if I abandon the lazy path next time and switch from auto mode to fully manual. I am already thinking about using this approach for a project, so watch out for this when visiting my website in the future.

f46_n5_spiegelung_monbijou_bearbAutumn sky (frame 5/36)

 

Isolette news

Remember my first steps into the world of folding cameras more than half a year ago? It was bag of mixed feelings. After purchasing two Agfa Isolettes with different lenses and getting enthusiastic about their performance and glass quality I realized that despite some maintenance work on their mechanics and repairing the bellows with latex light was still entering the bodies darkening the negatives here and there. My proposed quick fix of this was using silicon oil to prevent the to-be renewed latex drops from sticking together. But to be honest, I soon realised that changing the bellows was the only way to get these light-weight medium format gems back into working condition. For several reasons this project ended simmering on the backburner with the Isolettes left in my camera cabinet as useless beauties…until  a few weeks ago.

So, what happened?  Nothing but the obvious: I took the bait of purchasing a third Isolette, this time equipped  with the supreme 75mm f/3.5 solinar optics which was offered for a reasonable price on ebay.

Once the camera sat on my desk it became clear that despite its near mint condition from the outside, the mechanics were in desperate need for a full CLA. Astonishingly enough, the Compur Synchro shutter was fully functional. Even the slow shutter speeds were nearly accurate. But – as in many Isolettes – the focus ring was stuck and the uncoupled range finder knob also did not move a micron. Having been through this with the other Isolette III model in my collection, I thought this would be an easy task…alas, I could not have been more wrong!

Loosening the focus ring turned out to be a MacGyver-esk experience. After failing to move it with my hands or with thoroughly padded pliers I used Q-tips to add a substantial amount of lighter fluid to the thread, but the green Agfa grease didn’t let go. Instead of separating the first lens element from the second both lens elements came off the shutter body still firmly fixed to each other. Reading several related forum threads I learned that the green lubricating grease obviously turns into some kind of plastic through a polymerization process catalyzed by the brass of the lens frame. Some people talked about using acetone to dissolve that plastic – too harsh a method to my taste. Others recommended hot air from a hair dryer as the only method to soften the grease. This sounded reasonable, but after about 1 hour of heating and cooling (and burning my finger tips!) I realized that this was not going to work either. Desperate already, I filled a plastic container of a 35mm film canister with pure ethanol and soaked the optics for about 12 hrs. And…tadaaaa…on the next day I could move the lens elements with my fingers and separate them. The only disadvantage of this method was that the black paint applied to the lens framing brass came partly off as well, especially on the rear end of the second lens element. But this hopefully won’t do any harm to the image quality the optics are capable of producing.

And what about the bellows? Tight at first glance – obviously the camera wasn’t used much during the last 60 or so years. The positive effect of this is the superb preservation of the camera body, but the downside is obviously an infrequent movement of the turning elements such as the focus lens ring and the range finder, hence the extra effort needed to get them going again. Unfortunately, the test of the bellows with a torch hold insight told me that this seemingly functional part of the new Isolette had to go as well.

And this was the moment when I decided that all three Isolettes should get repIacement bellows. I remembered my correspondence with Sandeha Lynch, who sells handmade bellows for the Agfa folders. Not cheap, but of excellent quality and so accurately made that replacing an old for a new one is not complicated at all. I finally ordered two bellows to start with and a couple of days later I picked the cheapest Isolette – the one with the Apotar lens – as my first test object. Following Sandeha’s little instruction leaflet which came with the bellows it took me two evenings to finish the task. Same as half a year ago, the first Isolette is now (really!) ready for shooting, but the weather again is not. The last weeks gave us temperatures of around 0° C, dark and heavy clouds all day, the first snow flakes and almost no light to be caught on film. So, until the weather improves there is nothing else for it but to enjoying the looks of my first fully refurbished folder beauty…and the prospect of repairing the other two when I find some spare time to do it.

Isolette_Apotar_blau