Thursday, June 7, 2012

Vintage Cameras - a new voice

photography, vintage cameras, the bridge, chico, river
I love working with vintage cameras and buy them when I can. What's cool about them is that each one has their own voice. In an age of digital cameras - even with Hipstamatic - it's still really nice to find something very uncontrollable that has a quality built over years - the true essence of a unique voice. The above image was taken with this 120 Tower camera that I found in a local vintage shop for $28. The Tower was made by Sears in the 50's and 60's.

I'm starting a new series and am trying to find its voice. Vintage cameras allow for an interesting lack of control, which I appreciate for its "zen" of image-making mentality. Plus, let's face it, they're so cool. What I really love, is that nobody takes me seriously when I'm working with this, so I can pretty much go anywhere and shoot.

Buying vintage is fairly easy, remember that they were made for the general public and it's still just basically a dark box with (maybe) a lens.

1. Shutter: this is the first item I check to see if there's any point in continuing. Sure you can fix shutters, but I want to take images...not repair cameras. I like to open the back of the camera because it's easier to see how the shutter's working when you hold it up to the light. This process can vary by type.

• To open one of the older box cameras - on the side there's a metal winder for advancing film, you need to pull this out before the back will slide off. There may be a few "latches" that you just undo. Once the back is off, then just click the shutter as you look through the back of the camera. I look for the cameras that have a tab I can switch from "I" to "T" which lets me do long exposures at night.

• To open the newer roll cameras (like the Tower) there is usually some kind of rotating switch on the back or bottom of the camera, just turn and you should be able to pull the back off. With the newer cameras need you to "cock" the shutter by rotating the film advance knob. The upside and downside of this type is you can't do multiple exposures. My Tower had a timer function, but if you look closely you'll see it's broken (the missing gray button on the right side).

2. Format: now that the back is off, you'll usually see a label that lists what size film it takes. I've decided that I'm sticking with what I can find at a good camera store (yea Freestyle) and I like a larger format negative for image quality. Of course this is a bit ironic when you consider I often leave the dust on the lens. 120 film is inexpensive and they still make it in many speeds. It's been around since the early 1900's and is a roll format that's backed with paper - which has markings for 16, 12 and 8 shot cameras (rectangular or square). You'll find a lot of 620 cameras, it's the same film, just on slightly smaller reels, so if you're really devoted, you can reload 120 onto a 620 reel.

3. The Lens: first advice is DON'T clean the lens until after you've shot a test roll. That lovely atmosphere in the top shot...dust from half a century of hanging around. Since it's dust on the lens it acts as a diffusion filter, if you find the effect too fogging, try cleaning it in stages. All I know is I found this out the hard way. Otherwise, it's great if your lens has some type of focusing mechanism and even better if it's got aperture controls. On the primitive versions it's a tab you pull out that has a series of various sized holes that go in front of the lens. Simple, yes, but remember you can't do half-stops (crescent-shaped images).

4. Folding Cameras: folding cameras are the ones that have bellows. The older ones were considered "pocket cameras" which says something about pockets back then.  The fun trick is figuring out how to open them...there's a "button" you push, it's under the surface material and it's usually on one of the flat sides. This will pop open the front, then gently pull it down and pull the lens out on the track. Many of these have leaks in the bellows, but you can usually tell by looking at them if they're in good shape. Some people bring flashlights, I just hold it up to the light with the back open. The back usually opens with a slider on the rounded ends.

5. Viewfinder: odds are that you'll barely be able to see through these. Sometimes it's a real lens, but in the box cameras it's just a very dirty magnifying piece of glass. Don't worry about it, they're not very accurate anyway. Remember the image is flipped.

That's the basics of how to get started with vintage cameras. You can find them online, at yard sales, flea name it. Occasionally you're going to find someone who thinks they're worth much more than they are. Just because they're old, doesn't mean they should be expensive. Most of mine have been under $40. For film processing, I've been doing mine manually...but there are plenty of places which can process and even scan if you want that extra step. Several that do mail order are The Icon, Richard Photo Lab and A&I in Hollywood.

Bottom line though - remember, it's not the camera that makes it an interesting image - it's the partnership in how it translates your voice and vision.

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