35mm film

Vintage Iron

Old things fascinate me. I love old cars, old coins, old tools, and I love old cameras. I’m not a film versus digital jihadist – I use digital cameras too and wouldn’t give them up for a minute. My digital cameras are the “bread and butter” of my workday. They go on all of the important shoots. When I’m shooting for fun or trying to get “creative,” I’ll often grab one of my veteran film cameras, in part because they make me shift gears mentally and in part because the textures and tones of film please me. Most important is that I just enjoy using them.

There are issues with shooting vintage cameras that have to be acknowledged. The first is maintenance and the second is cost. Cameras that are 30-50 years old often have problems. Most of the time, we buy these cameras used and it is hard to know how much use and abuse they have received. Just the sheer passage of time can cause components in the mechanism to deteriorate: light seals rot, shutters get sticky, batteries go out of production, parts wear out, and dust and fungus can accumulate in places which are hard to clean. So, if you pick up an old camera at a yard sale or off of Ebay, chances are that it will need some maintenance to get it into working order. This means knowing your cameras and their weaknesses pretty well, and having some sort of support in the form of technicians who can repair and adjust them. This isn’t always easy to line up, but people are out there who have the parts and know how to work on most old cameras of quality. Sadly, as digital cements its supremacy in the photographic world, the number of skilled analog camera repairmen declines. I would hope that we will reach a point of equilibrium someday between digital and analog hardware so that the people who are able to work on older cameras can make a living, but that hasn’t happened yet.

The second major issue with older cameras is the cost of operation. Film and processing cost money. There is no escaping that, but the costs can be mitigated. You can develop your own film and you can often buy expired film which still works just fine, especially in black and white. Expired color film can be a bit more dicey, but it can render some interesting results and effects. I recently tested a batch of Fujichrome Astia 100 and found that it produced very acceptable pictures when using a bit of color correction in Photoshop.

The last important piece of the processing cost puzzle is a scanner which can scan film directly, such as the Epson “V” series of scanners. Again, this is a cost, but one that is worthwhile for many reasons. You can shoot a lot of film for the price of a Nikon D700 or Canon 5D, and vintage analog cameras these days can often be had for absurdly low prices. A good scanner working directly from film can easily produce an image of equal or higher resolution than the current crop of professional grade DSLR cameras. Also, a scanner will allow you to scan old prints whose negative are long lost. You will spend some money to shoot film, but many photographers still find it worth the effort.

I won’t rehash in detail why I still enjoy using film. If you want to read more of that, please see my article, “Dancing with Dinosaurs.” The condensed version is this: film causes me to shift gears mentally; I enjoy the textures and tones of film; and, I enjoy working with vintage cameras.

Lately, my vintage camera shooting time has been shared by two wonderful cameras: the Nikon F3 and the Yashica 635. Here’s a bit on each of these, and why I like them.

The Nikon F3: Introduced in 1980, the Nikon F3 has been called “the greatest manual 35mm SLR ever built” and few seem interested in disputing the claim. Built like a tank, the Nikon F3 is legendary for its sheer ruggedness and durability. If you’re the kind who needs to sling a camera into the belly of a chopper under a hail of gunfire, the F3 still has no equals. Many of the features of modern SLR and DSLR cameras that we take for granted today were developed on some variation of the F3 platform, such as electronic shutters, exposure automation, “off the film plane through the lens” flash metering, and even autofocus (F3AF). The F3 “H” variant was capable of shooting 13 frames per second. To this day, it still has the smoothest film advance in the world. The body was built to highly exacting tolerances so that it still gives some of the best lens performance and focus sharpness ever. I am told that the Nikon F6 has even more exacting focus, but those are as scarce as hens’ teeth. The F3 was in production for 20 years, the longest production run of any of the Nikon professional grade “F” series cameras because it was just that good. There are a bunch of them still out there and you can buy them for a song. The F3 is simply a classic. The quality of the components is so high that even my 30-year-old F3 has never required maintenance or repair. When you hold this instrument in your hands, you know that you are holding a real camera.

When I started shooting, back at the dawn of time, the cameras I used were much like the F3, only not as nice and not built as well – Nikon, Pentax and Canon 35mm SLR’s that were more or less manual. The F3 is as comfortable as an old shoe for me. I won’t go into the electronic and mechanical intricacies that make the F3 what it is; that would take many pages. I will just say that, among film cameras, it is the best at getting the picture I am seeing of any I have ever shot.

Yashica-635_800 The Yashica 635: I don’t think the Yashica 635 has ever won a “greatest” in anything, except perhaps, the greatest twin lens reflex camera that can run both 35mm and 120 film. The 635 is essentially a Yashica D with the additional capability of running 35mm film. The charm of the 635 is different, less tangible, but very real. I was walking down the street in downtown Louisville with my Yashica 635 hanging from my neck on a strap. A pretty young woman approached on the sidewalk from the other direction. As she got close, she glanced at the camera, smiled and said to me, “I love your camera.” OK, this is a keeper. Almost everywhere I go with the 635, someone stops me and comments on it. It’s the greatest photography conversation starter ever. I have fun with this camera. The 635 is funky. You look down into it and it has a little flip out magnifying glass in the viewfinder for precise focus. The shutter cocking mechanism does not advance the film – that’s a separate knob, so I get double exposures all the time because I get excited about something I’m seeing and forget to advance the film. They’re nice double exposures and some of them are cool, but it can be annoying when you ruin a good shot because you forgot to advance the film. Also, when you look down into the viewfinder, the image is reversed left to right. Now, I think this is cosmic, and I believe it triggers some left-brain, right brain creative neurology, but it does require some imagination to remember that the picture you’re shooting is going to be the horizontal opposite of what you’re seeing.

What I really like about this camera is the big 6×6 negative and the particular characteristics of the lens. With a good scanner, you can make images that will print wonderfully at a size of 8 feet square. At f8 and above, the lens is very sharp and capable of great precision, but below f8, the lens softens ever so slightly and I find it to be an extremely pleasing effect – it’s a subtle softening that lends an artistic feeling to the picture. If I have a criticism of this lens, the Yashikor 80mm f3.5, it would be that it’s a bit contrasty in bright light. I get my best pictures from this lens in soft light situations.

The Yashica 635 really makes me slow down and think about what I’m doing. 120 rolls in 6×6 only have 12 exposures, so I don’t click like crazy. Each exposure is very intentional. The 635 has no onboard light meter, so I have to stop and pull out my light meter and take a reading of the scene around me. Everything about shooting it is slow, deliberate and intentional. The intriguing paradox of the Yashica 635 is that I have shot some of my best photographs on it, or cameras very much like it, such as the Yashica 124G and the Rolleiflex.

You shoot on a vintage camera for the same reason you buy and restore a 1939 Ford coupe: because you like the way it feels and what happens in your head when you do it. It’s not the easiest or most practical path for photography. For the easiest and most practical, get a nice Nikon or Canon DSLR and your life will be good. For a path less traveled, which can be full of surprises and unexpected delights, the vintage cameras can be a magic carpet.


The Nikon 35mm SLR Saga

Modern Classic SLRs Series : Nikon F3

Ken Rockwell on the Nikon F3

The F3 on Camerapedia

Yashica 635 on Camerapedia

Examples of pictures shot on Yashica 635 cameras


More Weird Friends

Weird-Friends-4Nikon F3, 50mm f1.8 lens, Ilford FP4


1941 Buick Eight






41-Buick   Nikon F3 with Ilford FP4

I found this scene in an alley off of Franfort Avenue in Louisville. The background of vintage road signs is as good as the car itself and really made a great story telling piece out of the photo.


Weird Friends

My picture of the day…

Weird-Friends-2 Nikon F3, Ilford FP4 — Click here to buy this print

I hang out with a fairly strange crowd most of the time. But they’re interesting.


Dances with Dinosaurs: Why I Still Shoot Film

Florence_1 I am still in possession of every film negative I have ever shot – well, excepting a couple of rolls I shot of a girlfriend in a motel room in Nashville which I destroyed because I’m a good guy – but excepting those two rolls of slide film, I have them all. Yes, it takes some plastic tubs and shelves to store them all, but I have never thrown away a negative. I would no sooner pitch a negative than hurl a Morgan silver dollar into the alley. We all have our principles, and that’s one of mine. Think of what a rich vein of personal history that is: me and my sister at the San Antonio zoo in 1961, old shots from high school, my loves and friends, hiking trips through the mountains, the birth of the first-born, my “arty” experiments, every place I have ever been – you get the idea. I could probably spend the rest of my life just going through my old negatives and making prints, but sometimes dealing with the past can take too much energy, and I prefer to be working in the present. Yet, still I know I have my archive of forgotten treasures that carry all of those parts of my life into the future.

Quite a few of those negatives are really terrible. They are bad shots of people with eyes half closed or with dumb expressions in their faces. Some are just flat-out mistakes, a twitch of the finger that fired a photograph at nothing all, but I have them. I have every single one of them. But, that is also truth. We have those times when we wear dumb expressions on our faces, and times when the finger twitches and fires a picture at nothing at all. There are those times when it would have been a good picture, but we had something set wrong on the camera and it came out dark or blurry. Those moments are also truth. Those are all there too, in the boxes and binders.

Contrast this with the digital camera that you take to a party. You may shoot 3-4 dozen shots and then look at them in the view screen of the camera, “That sucks… delete, that sucks… delete, that really sucks… delete…” Maybe a handful of these photos survive, and maybe they’ll get uploaded to the computer, and maybe they’ll survive a while, at least until the next hard drive crash, when everything you’ve done for the past couple of years suddenly vanishes into the cruel and indifferent clutches of cyberspace.

Marian-with-Yashica-635 I have been working with personal computers since their beginning, and if I have learned nothing else, I have learned to never trust them. They die; they fry; they crash; they burn. And they only work when the power is on. My negatives don’t need electricity to remain in existence or even to be viewed, and, were I to get really hard-core about it, I could devise a way to print them without electricity. Fortunately, I’m not quite that compulsive, but it could be done. My negatives are among the most persistent elements of my “memory.”

I transitioned to digital photography for professional work in 2004. The case for digital is compelling: faster, more economical, greater capacity, instant availability of the images, and, on average, the onboard computers of digital cameras do assist us in getting more usable pictures more often. At this point, I have shot oodles of digital images, have stacks of boxes full of CD’s storing terabytes of digital photography. A lot of it has been very successful; in a number of situations digital has been an absolute life-saver. This is not another “digital versus film” screed. I love my digital cameras. What I have found, however, is that I also love my film cameras, and I do not want to be forced to abandon film photography.

I am finding that film and digital are different channels for me, as different as oil painting is from magnetic tape recording. I don’t try to do everything with film as I once did. I don’t have to. If I need a picture of a bottle for a brochure, I grab the digital, fire off a few frames and dump it to the computer. Life is good – no waiting for the lab to process the stuff. The job gets done and I’m off to the next thing. When I get a feeling in my mind that I want to express visually, I am still inclined to pick up a film camera and load it with a favorite film that I know will support the mood I want to capture. I’m talking about me here, not everyone in the world. I have years of experience with film. Like a painter who knows intuitively that cadmium yellow will produce a different feeling than yellow ocher, I know that particular films and developers will produce particular effects and moods in a photo. It’s not rocket science; it just comes from fooling around with them a lot. Most new photographers just coming to the art will never have the opportunity to explore film. They may create great pictures, but there is a sensibility that film imparts to photography that they will miss unless they make the effort to experience it. For most, that won’t be practical, and that’s fine – no judgment intended. I’m just glad that I spent enough time in the darkroom that film is hardwired into my psyche.

If I have a gripe with digital, it is with its perfection, a perfection that verges upon sterility. Assuming that you have adequate light, a digital camera will kick out a correct image every time. Film isn’t like that. Film is full of chaos and unpredictability. If you shoot film on a manual camera, and especially if you develop that film yourself, every roll is an adventure. There are surprises. You can get the “how did that happen?” moment in film. And yes, there are times that the camera can make you look better than you are.

Film carries the truth of the moment: This is what I saw and what I did in that particular moment. There is no little computer saying, “It really ought to look like this.” I won’t bullshit you: there are plenty of times that I want that little computer saying, “It really ought to look like this.” But, that’s not my truth. That’s the truth of me and the engineers at Nikon. I love them. They are a talented group, but there are some parties I don’t want to invite them to. Sometimes, I want it to be just me and the light.

Most people who might read this will not only have no nostalgia for film photography, they will joyously cheer its passing. To be freed of the expense, uncertainty, effort and processing delays of film is a godsend… for most people. I don’t condemn that point of view because I understand it completely, but you won’t find me in the cheering section. I am discovering that for me, film is an important color on my palette, one whose value is not negated by the development of newer imaging technologies. It is something I like to do which even now still engages my imagination.

To make such claims, I suppose I should get down to specifics and try to illustrate what I’m saying. I’m not going to stumble down that old “x is better than x” road, because it’s pointless and subjective, and in many aspects, film certainly does not win that debate. Contemporary digital cameras have achieved true excellence in image quality and function. Instead, I want to explore what it is about film that continues to fascinate me.

Mindset – The preparation for a shoot with film involves decisions. Film comes in color, black & white, and transparency (slides). It has speeds (ASA). Once the film is loaded in the camera, you are committed. You can’t just dial in a different speed in a menu. There is a huge trade-off between speed and grain (image quality) with film, which is far more pronounced than with digital. The difference is that with film, the grain can often produce a pleasing graphic effect, whereas it almost never does with digital imaging. Further, films have different characteristics in tone and color, and to a discerning eye, each formula is different. To me, Tmax 100 from Kodak looks different than Ilford Delta 100, even though they are both 100 ASA black and white films. So, when you’re preparing a shoot with film, you sift through your memories of the different films, matching those to the feelings you have about the images you want to produce. The film is already informing the final image you produce. Choose a Polaroid, or a 35mm SLR loaded with Fuji Velvia, or a medium format TLR loaded with Tmax, and the final product will be significantly shaped and formed by the choice of film you make. The film participates in the creation of the image. A good digital camera goes the other way and it’s a tremendous strength of the digital: it gets out of the way and gives you what you are seeing, quickly and efficiently.

The photographer’s mindset when shooting film is inherently more conservative about exposures. Film costs money and exhausted cameras have to be reloaded. I shoot fewer exposures when I’m using film, but I really look carefully at the picture I’m about to take. If it will be one of twelve rather than one of 175, it had better be right, or at least as close to right as I can get it. This is a slower method of doing photography, but it demands that you slow down, look around and get really present in the location where you are shooting.

Allan's-Wheelchair Visualization – There is no view screen on the back of a film camera. You will not see how an exposure comes out until the film is developed. You can’t really shoot “test shots” to see if the camera is getting what you want. You have to “know” or be able to imagine what the camera will do with this film in this light on this subject. In a secondary way, you have to know what you can do with a particular exposure when you print it. You can shoot a basically “correct” negative, but know that to really get the punch out of the negative, you will need to increase the contrast and push the exposure some to get that dark, moody feeling you want in the final print. All of this exercises the muscles of imagination. Film “kicks away the crutches” in photography by strengthening the capacity to visualize images. When you know you can take a film camera to a shoot and get the picture you want, you achieve confidence. When you see the image in your imagination, making the machinery capture the picture is easy.

I love cameras – I have always loved cameras – big, small, old, new, fabulously expensive, and el cheapo. Cameras are just cool. There has always been a bit of magic about cameras to me. There are some cameras that are such wonderful instruments in themselves that I want to load and shoot them, just to be using the instrument. The Nikon F3 is such a camera for me. It has an almost hypnotic pull on my psyche.

Tactile – There is something very neat about souping your own negatives. Your hands get wet; you smell the chemistry and hear the timers going off. Development is a multi-channel sensory experience that results in a set of negatives that are truly yours. There is a tremendous sense of ownership that comes with successfully developing a good picture. It’s different from five mouse clicks in Photoshop.

Texture – Film has texture. At its most basic, the texture of film comes from the tiny silver halide crystals embedded in the emulsion. When light hits them, they change chemically and this produces the image on the film when acted upon by the developer. You can see this texture in what we call “grain” in the film. In the right amounts, grain produces a visually pleasing organic effect. With too little grain, objects can begin to look plastic and two-dimensional.

Marian---California-Dreaming-4 Chaos – That bit of uncertainty which clings to every roll of film excites me. Going back to my “almost sterile” observation, a good digital camera becomes highly predictable once you get familiar with it. This is a good thing. On a lot of shoots, I want the confidence and predictability that my digital gives me. On the other hand, a bit of uncertainty and not knowing how a shot will turn out creates excitement and a sense of anticipation. I get more of the uncertainty with film. I enter “the cloud of unknowing” easily. Call me a romantic if you want to, but I like to play with the chaos in the universe.

Individuality – The choice of camera, film and lens creates a distinct and individual look in an image. Probably the best known illustration of this is the work of Ansel Adams. When you see an Ansel Adams print, you seldom need to be told that Adams produced it. It is obvious in the deep, rich grays and resolution of the photo. The great Edward Steichen is another example of a photographer whose technique produced a distinct and individual look. Our choices of films, developers and printing methods give us another way to achieve a distinctive look.

Permanence – As I said at the outset, my negatives stay with me. Nothing digital has lasted as long as my negatives. Someday in the future that may change, but it will be a long time from now.

Hopefully, this outline has given you a sense of why I continue to use film for photography. Maybe I have even encouraged you to dust off Dad’s old film camera and run a few rolls. That would be great. One of my agendas is to keep Kodak, Fuji and Ilford in business. Even as carefully as I have written this, I know that it ultimately fails to capture the magic of film. Perhaps, you just have to see that for yourself.

Click on images for larger version


The Colors of Photography

Alex-working-in-the-shop “Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected. Most of my photographs are of people; they are seen simply, as through the eyes of the man in the street. There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough–there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph. It is difficult to describe this thin line where matter ends and mind begins.” – Robert Frank – From pages 20-22 of Aperture, vol. 9, no. 1 (1961)


Pictures of the Day: Little League

I got the bug to go and burn some film in the F3 so I loaded a roll of Tmax 400 and went cruising around looking for something to shoot. Both of the college baseball teams were out of town. There were a couple of cheesy “art fairs” going on, but I didn’t really expect to see much at those besides soccer moms hawking their arts and craft. While rolling down Poplar Level Road, I remembered “Germantown Baseball, Inc.,” a little league club wedged between Saint X High School and Norton Hospital. I was in luck and two games were going on. I clicked a 200mm lens into the F3 and starting shooting.








Click on pictures for larger view

I’m not totally wild about the Kodak Tmax 400 film. It is nice and fast, and it does have a better tone curve than the old Tri-X but it’s still fairly grainy when developed in the Tmax developer. I may give it another chance and develop it in Microdol (if I can find some), but I don’t think I’ll be doing a whole lot of shooting on this film. I may also try to “pull” it – shooting it at half of its rated exposure index and reducing the development time.

Technical data: Nikon F3 with Kiron 80-200mm lens; Tmax 400 @400 in Tmax developer.


Pictures of the Day: Pueblo de Taos, circa 1982






Nikon FM, 50mm Nikkor AI f/1.8 lens, Kodachrome 64
Click on pictures for larger version.