Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Let me preface by saying, I’m not in the habit of long discourses about equipment. I prefer my photographic adventures to be about connection, experience and creativity, not the gear. My philosophy, which is far from unique, is that the equipment truly doesn’t matter. A camera is a tool and an astonishing one at that, but also it’s a means to an end. Still, sometimes the machinery is so odd, verging on wacky, and one’s relationship to it is a bit skewed and has implications that go beyond mere tech; therefore it deserves some verbiage to be spilled.

When I worked full time in the non-profit world, the jobs quickly became very dull, boring and routine. I needed an outlet. I daydreamed often about photography and finding the perfect camera for capturing the urban landscape. I wanted to find the ideal antique roll film instrument that would get me the kind of photos I yearned to make. Much like the Sunday painter who accumulates a complete set of the most expensive oil paints or pastels that barely get touched, I amassed cameras. I did manage to pluck some solid images, but mostly I gathered a lot of gear. The majority were barely tried and then sadly sat, fallow. The bottom line was the problem was not the equipment, but my life. The grind was sucking me dry.

Over the last few years, I’ve weeded down. I made the decision that I don’t want to be a camera collector. Instead, since about 2010, I’ve shot thousands of photos and spent countless hours in the urban landscape rather than sitting around thinking about what kind of camera to use. A lot of the gear I accumulated ended up having mechanical issues as well, so not only do I have a lot of unused cameras, a lot of them are indisposed and need pricey repairs. So, part of thinning things out has been getting a few fixed, deciding which I’ll never use, selling some off or finding homes for others, and running a few tests.

Ironically, the cameras that ended up being the best for the urban maw, turned out to be the neither antique nor unusual.  I’ve done a ton of shooting with a Panasonic Lumix, a micro 4/3 system digital that has an electronic viewfinder. I equipped it with a better non-kit Olympus medium range zoom lens. I also use a Nikon F100 35mm, alsosporting a wide angle to near- telephoto lens. The agility, durability, and versatility of these two image capturers far outweigh any drawbacks that might be generated by the relatively smaller formats.  Recently, too, I’ve taken to carrying a disposable camera—no focus, no exposure adjustment, no anything! You just see, advance the film and click! Admittedly, the focus is not always that great, you get over and under exposure and grain, but surprisingly, I’ve gotten a number of memorable shots.

Despite a methodology that seems to be working for me, I figured it might be fun to have at least one really decent antique that I could use. I chose a German camera with an uncoated f 2.8, 75mm Xenar lens that was made about 1935.  Named a Welta Weltur, it takes still-available 120 film and produces sixteen 4.5 x 6 cm shots per roll.  What makes the Weltur so unusual is it’s a compact folding camera that has a small coupled, in-finder split image focusing system that is linked to the moving front standard. The whole lens and shutter assembly moves in and out. The theory is that you move all the lens elements, not just the front optic; therefore the image quality improves. The way the Welta engineers were able to integrate a system like this into such a small package boarders on the ingenious.

When I first got this contraption, I had Carol Miller at Flutot’s Camera clean the Compur shutter and I had run a roll of Tri-X through it. Inspecting the negatives, I realized they were probably badly done by the commercial lab, poorly scanned, and I had never really put the camera through any kind of real tests. So, this weekend I made some images using Efke 100, a modern film made in Croatia that many say has the qualities of old fashioned film stock. Additionally, I developed the negatives myself, something I hope to do more of in the coming year, but that’s for another entry!

Deploying the camera is slow. This is the kind of tool made for capturing big vistas that don’t move very much or taking photos of friends and loved ones where you have their cooperation.  One winds the film from one red window located on the back of the camera to the next, located higher up, carefully aligning the numbers printed on the film’s backing paper. The negatives are spaced closely and accuracy is important.  To shoot, you unfold the camera, point it towards you to set the speed and aperture (I just guessed), then flip it around, frame, focus, and carefully push the shutter plunger so as to minimize shake. The in-the-viewfinder rangefinder is accurate, but it is a bit pernickety and it often takes a few tries to make sure the two images are, in fact, aligned. Also, the viewfinder is fairly dim and the framing is not parallax corrected. 

I have to admit a strange feeling of disorientation using this camera. I really didn’t know what to shoot—what kind of things would work well with its character and I also found it very much got in the way of my working style, which has changed radically over the last few years. I couldn’t really pre-visualize what I was going to get. Some of the accidents were fortuitous. Maybe that is true appeal.

Tech: Efke 100 film, HC110 developer diluted 1:49 at 68F for 8.5 minutes with 2 agitations every 30 sec, scanned on Epson V500 using no special hardware or software, spotting and adjustments in Photoshop.

The photos can be seen here: