In film photography circles, there's this implicit assumption that when you "grow up" as a photographer you'll move up to the larger film sizes--medium format (i.e. 120 film) and large format. By that benchmark, I guess I've never grown up. There are times I've been tempted to try medium format, and in fact last year I did for a short while. I picked up a 1950s vintage Mamiya 6 Automat folder camera. While I liked the look of the photographs from that camera, I couldn't get comfortable with the viewfinder, so I sold it on eBay. Actually, my very first camera back in 1969 was a medium format folder, the Kodak Duo 620. I didn't shoot it for long before moving to 35mm on an Argus rangefinder. Once I started shooting 35mm SLRs back in the 70s, I was hooked.
35mm film cameras allow you to get in to capture photos in tight places quickly. That's why they became standard equipment for photojournalists, conflict photographers, and street photographers. If you're into the reportage style of photography made famous by Henri Cartier-Bresson, then 35mm is for you.
Another advantage of 35mm is the cost of the film. I just checked on B&H, and a 36-exposure roll of Ilford HP5+ black & white film costs the exact same amount as a roll of the same film in 120 format, which will yield 12 exposures on average. True, if you're after higher resolution or that medium-format/large-format look, then you'll have to move up to those larger film formats. For me, there's a low-fi look to 35mm film that I just simply love.
Finally, there is the availability and cost of the used 35mm SLRs. These cameras are the best value going on the used film camera market. True, you can find less expensive medium format cameras, but the good ones still go for more than 35mm SLRs, and for the most part, they are significantly bigger than 35mm SLRs. And don't get me started on 35mm film rangefinders. Those prices have gone crazy. For me, it's 35mm film SLRs all the way. And if you can't tell from the photo above, I have a soft spot in my heart for Nikon cameras.
I had to go. I didn't know what I would do or think when I got to the site where George Floyd was murdered, but I knew I had to go. When I arrived outside Cup Foods I stood for the longest time taking in the scene, breathing deep and slow, recognizing that this was the place where George Floyd's breath was taken from him. This was sacred ground. The tears welled up in my eyes, as they are now. I then did something that seemed to come out of nowhere and yet seemed the most natural and right thing to do...I asked George Floyd for his forgiveness. I asked him to forgive me for all the wrongs committed against people of color by systemic racism. I asked for forgiveness and I cried.
Finally, I got down on a knee and made one photo. The significance of taking a knee was not lost on me. I debated whether or not to do it, but I knew that the perspective I was seeking in the photograph required me to take a knee. The image of George Floyd needed to be above me, not at my eye level. I needed to be at street level when making this photograph. He needed to be looking down on me. I needed his forgiveness. I still need his forgiveness.
One of the activities that fills my time while we live under this "Stay at Home" order is developing film that I've shot on my walks around the neighborhood. I've been shooting black & white film, because I only have chemistry for that at present. I do have some color chemistry coming though, so I'm going to start shooting some color as well.
There is something satisfying about getting my process down for developing film. These days when so much seems out of our control, it's comforting to perform a process that I do have some control over. I've gotten to the point where I'm getting consistently good results. I've settled on one developer–Kodak HC-110. I love the tones and contrast I get with this developer. The other thing I appreciate about HC-110 is its long shelf life.
I'm using a hybrid analog/digital workflow, as are the vast majority of photographers shooting film these days. Up through developing the film, the process is analog. After that it becomes a digital process. I scan the negatives and import the scanned files into Lightroom for final image adjustments. I don't do a lot of editing in Lightroom, mainly tweaks to contrast and the tone curve. I also clean up the odd dust spot. I'd love to have a darkroom for printing, but that's something for another day.
Living under a stay at home order, my photography is limited to what I see on my nearly daily walks and what catches my eye around the house. I think this has been a good creative exercise...forcing me to find interesting images in the mundane. I guess when your world gets smaller, you notice more things in that world, such as an outlet box that looks like an electrical inspectors nightmare, or groceries delivered to the porch, or an arrangement in a planter, among other things.
Soon I'll write about another pursuit that's been filling my days, making sourdough bread. I need to make some good photos of that process and then I'll share them here.
I'm sure it won't surprise you that I have a few opinions about what cameras are best to start out with when getting into film photography. Some of the cameras that I recommend are on other's lists, but other commonly mentioned cameras are not on my list. Read on and you'll get my take on best cameras for getting started in film.
First, I'm going to step out on a limb and state that the best camera type for starting out in film is a 35mm SLR (single lens reflex). Here are my reasons for making that claim.
SLR Shooting Experience
With an SLR, when you look through the viewfinder you see what the camera sees. The image coming through the lens is reflected up to the viewfinder using a mirror and prism. You are seeing the image as it will be captured on film, not a rough approximation of it. An SLR viewfinder typically shows you 93% - 100% of the total image. I am a stickler for doing edge patrol on my frames, so an accurate representation in the viewfinder is extremely important to me.
The best values going on the used film camera market are 35mm SLRs. Even though film camera prices have increased with the resurgence of film photography, it's still easy to find good condition 35mm SLRs for under $250. Conversely, the prices on point & shoot and rangefinder 35mm cameras have increased to crazy levels.
35mm SLRs are among the most portable cameras available. Some of the more modern 35mm SLRs are beautifully compact, such as the Olympus OM-2n. The Nikon FE2 is another great example. Both these cameras are extremely well built, though, so don't confuse compact with cheaply constructed.
In their day, 35mm SLRs were super popular, and for the most part, they were extremely well built, so a good number of them are still working and available today. For example, the Nikkormat FT2, which was a brand of Nikon, is available for under $100 in good condition. If you're not completely comfortable with your knowledge in making a purchase, I'd turn KEH, a reputable online retailer of used cameras. If their rating says a camera is in excellent condition, you can count on it. You can also look on eBay, but you have to be more careful there. I've actually found prices to be better from KEH than eBay. Another good buying option is your local camera store. Most have an inventory of used film cameras. I bought my Nikon F3 from my local camera store, National Camera Exchange.
My camera recommendations are based on actual shooting experience. If I haven't shot a camera, I won't recommend it. I'm targeting my recommendations at the inexperienced film shooter. Here are my criteria for recommending cameras from among those I've shot.
My Camera Recommendations
I fully admit that my list is not exhaustive, and yes, there certainly is a Nikon tilt to my recommendations, since that is the brand I have the most experience with. There are a lot of fine brands I haven't shot, including Minolta and many other Canon and Pentax film cameras. I'd rather stick with my own personal experience when making a recommendation.
If you were to ask me to recommend one camera from all the 35mm SLRs I've shot, I'd go with the Nikon FE2, with the Olympus OM-2n a close runner up. If you're looking for the most affordable option I'd go for the Nikkormat FT2. Those can typically be had for less than $100.
A camera isn't any use without a lens. I recommend for starters you get a 50mm fixed focal length lens from the camera manufacturer. Generally, these are going to be f/2 or faster lenses. The 50mm lens was the standard kit lens in the day, so there are a ton of them available at reasonable prices. Once you've got the standard lens covered, then you can start expanding your collection. But for starters, it's hard to go wrong with a good old 50mm prime lens. If you're buying a Nikon film SLR, you need to be sure that the lens you're considering is compatible with the camera body.
If you have any questions or want feedback on a potential camera purchase, please submit a comment. I'll do my best to get back to you.
In these days of social distancing and now a stay at home order in Minnesota, daily walks have been my little sanity pill. I'm thankful that the snow has melted now and the trails are free of ice. Priscilla and I have been getting out for a two-mile walk pretty much every day. I'm also taking longer walks on my own, with a camera in hand. When out on our walks we can't help but notice the sounds of the birds. We can hear them so much better now that the traffic noise is reduced. The woodpecker drumming in the neighborhood sounds like an entire percussion section.
I'm shooting black and white film to document our lives during this pandemic. I'd like to move to color film as things green up, but the color development chemistry is sold out everywhere I've looked. At least with black and white I can continue to develop at home. Somehow black and white seems to fit the times anyway. I've got enough black and white chemistry to last me several months, plus I just took delivery of ten rolls of black and white film. That ought to last me a while.
I'm finding this time of forced isolation is a good opportunity to check out the functioning of my camera gear. I have amassed a bit of a collection of film SLRs (12 at this counting). A few of them are in need of a CLA (Clean, Lubricate, Adjust). I just got my Olympus OM-2n back from a CLA. A few other cameras are in need as well, but that'll have to wait until after the dust settles on COVID-19.
One project I just finished up is a Blurb photo book of our Paris 2019 trip. I included favorite film photos from that trip. Looking at those photos brings back such wonderful memories of our time there. Priscilla and I have decided that we're going back to Paris in the spring of 2021.
In this frightening time of the global coronavirus pandemic, I find photography is a calm place for me to retreat to. I can still get out for walks and make photographs, and I can still develop and scan my film in our home. As our boundaries tighten in around us, photography is still something I can do. I won't be doing any street photography, but I can still photograph around our home and neighborhood.
Somehow, black and white photography seems appropriate for this time. I've been experimenting with different films. Most recently I've been shooting with Ilford FP4+. I'd never shot with this film before. It quickly made its way onto my favorites list. I also tried some Bergger Pancro 400. Contrary to the FP4+, the Bergger film did not impress me and will not be a film I return to again.
I have a feeling an awful lot of my photos in the coming weeks will show us hunkering down, trying to stay healthy and safe. When we're on the other side of this awful contagion I'll have to put together a portfolio of the photographs I made during this time. It'll be interesting to see how they hold up as a body of work.
It’s hard to believe that this is our last full day in Paris, day 57 of 58. I suppose I shouldn’t really count tomorrow, since we’ll only be in Paris until our ten-something takeoff time, but I chose to count it way back when, so 58 days it will stay! Speaking of “way back when,” last night I got a bit nostalgic thinking about when it was that we first hatched this idea. I checked in the VRBO app and found that we had reserved this flat on March 24, 2018, exactly one year to the day prior to when we arrived in Paris to begin our adventure. On March 24, 2018, Priscilla was in the middle of her first cycle of chemotherapy, the AC cycle, which was tough going. By March 24th she had gone through two of the AC chemo infusions, which were basically like going through a bad bout of the flu each time. I remember sitting in the living room with a fire burning in the fireplace, talking about needing something to look forward to on the other side of cancer treatment. That was when we came up with the idea to spend two months in Paris in 2019. I suppose that explains the melancholy I felt last night, knowing that this dream that was conceived of during a deeply difficult time in our lives was coming to a close.
The biggest surprise for both of us has been the number of connections we’ve made here in Paris. We never expected that in just two short months. In fact, I remember thinking before we left on our trip how it would be different spending two months in a place where you don’t know a soul. I needn’t have worried. Our last week in Paris has been a series of goodbyes mixed in with some hellos to new friends. Friday we had lunch at Mokonuts and said our goodbyes to Moko. Saturday we said a long goodbye to our friends Claudia, Charles, Eileen, and Anaïs at Miss Lunch. We got there at one and didn’t head out until around four o’clock. It feels so strange to be saying goodbye to these friends. We have had many wonderful times with them. This afternoon we will be saying our goodbyes to Rasmus and Elissa, the owners of the store right below us. We’ve had to say our goodbyes to Ellen and Jean-Pierre via email, as they are back home in Brittany.
Thursday and Friday night we walked down to the Seine to say goodbye to this beautiful river, which we will surely miss. Friday night we joined a party of three at their table for drinks and live jazz. Fabrice and Annie and their friend Inno welcomed us to their table for what became a lively night filled with much conversation and laughter. It was one of those magical nights. We stayed until 11 pm. Saturday night the packing began in earnest. You know we’re at the end of a trip when I pack my camera gear. The flat hardly looks lived in now that all our stuff is put away.
Besides the people, there are other things we will miss about Paris, like the fabulous public Metro system and the ability to walk a block and find fabulous cheeses, meats, vegetables, fruits, baguettes, pain chocolat, and wines. The Marais has been the perfect home base for us in Paris. We are within a half-mile walk to three different Metro stations that give us access to a broad swath of the city in thirty minutes or less. Plus, we are walking distance from world-class museums such as the Picasso Museum and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Institute. I will definitely miss the fabulous street photography opportunities and the little tucked away spaces that are photographically rich. I’m sure Priscilla will miss the shopping opportunities, although with the amount of things she’s having to pack right now, perhaps not.
Regardless of how much we will miss Paris and the friends we have made here, we are more than ready to come home. As I’ve said many times, we are died-in-the-wool Minnesotans. That is home and always will be. This much looked forward to trip has been everything we could have hoped for and more. We have absolutely no regrets coming home from Paris. There is nothing we would have done differently. That our family and friends could join us during this adventure made it even better. For those of you who traveled with us virtually through this blog, we hope you’ve enjoyed the journey.
Soon we will be stateside and I’ll be able to put my “grocery-store French” to pasture until the next time. Hmmm, did I just write “next time.”
Let’s see, we’d best review our list of things to do in Paris. Visit the Jardin de Rosiers—Check! Go on a Champagne Tour—Check! Get the flu—wait just a minute, how did that get on our list. Yes, I’m sorry to report in that Priscilla has picked up the flu this week. And the week started out so promising. Sunday was Mother’s Day, with fresh pain chocolat from our favorite spot, Blé Sucré, fresh brewed coffee, and roses from the Bastille Market. Monday we met our new friend Eileen for coffee and then a walk around her favorite gardens in the Marais. Eileen lives six months of the year in Paris and six in Philly. We visited three gardens with Eileen, but I’m only going to remember the name of the first, the Jardin de Rosiers. This garden has a community garden feel to it, with vegetable plots mixed in with beautiful flowers. Priscilla was our resident flora expert on our walk. Eileen soon learned to just ask Priscilla if she wanted to know the name of a plant. The weather has turned sunnier and a bit warmer this week, so it was a great day for a walk in the gardens.
Tuesday was to have been our Champagne Tour, but the photo below gives you a hint of what happened with that. While the vehicle we were to take on our tour was in for regular maintenance a day or so prior, the mechanic at the shop broke something to do with the oil filter, which is never a good thing. The shop didn’t have the part in stock, so they glued it and told our guide it should be just fine. It was not. They showed up to pick us up at Place d’Italie but their vehicle died and would not be resucitated. They were planning to line up two replacement vehicles for our group of ten, including the guide and his colleague. This meant our tour would be delayed by at least two hours. Apparently you need weeks to be able rent such a van, so two smaller cars it was going to be. Our guide gave us the option to bow out with a full refund. Since our flat was only 20 minutes away by Metro, we decided to head back there and think through what we were going to do. It didn’t take us too long to make up our mind. Priscilla was already starting to feel achy, and the thought of being crammed three to a row in a smaller vehicle with four-plus hours of driving didn’t sound appealing to us, so we texted our guide that we wouldn’t be going. Shortly after that, Priscilla’s seemingly cold-related aching turned into full-blown shivers. She crawled into bed and slept much of the rest of the day. It became quite clear to us that what Priscilla had was the flu, not a cold. Today has been much of the same, lots of resting and not much eating. Our friend Claudia gave me a piece of fresh ginger when I was up at the Aligre Market this morning, and she instructed me to make hot ginger tea for Priscilla. I have dutifully followed Claudia’s orders, as has Priscilla. She seems to be getting a bit more spunk tonight, so we are keeping our fingers crossed that she will start to be on the mend tomorrow, and that I will not pick up the same darned flu, just before getting on our flight home. Wouldn’t that be just lovely!
Last night, Priscilla went to bed quite early, so I took advantage of the longer days and took my Nikon F3 film camera down to the Seine to see if there were any images to be had down there. I was not disappointed. It seems every single millennial in the 3rd and 4th arondisements was down at the river last night. People were so into their thing that they really didn’t pay attention to one largish old fart with an antiquated camera. If you’re wondering how I was able to get the film scans below turned around so quickly, the photo shop that I’ve been frequenting on rue Saint-Antoine provides same-day turnaround on film development and scanning if you drop the film off in the morning, which I did today.
I just have to throw one more photograph in this post, although it doesn’t really fit the theme. I captured the photo below when Priscilla and I were with Eileen touring gardens of the Marais. It’s not often you come upon someone sticking half out of a manhole, so I moved into the street and made this image. I have to say that I think this guy is the most handsome man to emerge from a manhole in pretty much all of recorded history. I can’t tell if he’s pissed with me for making his photo or just curious. I surely don’t believe this photograph is disrespectful. He looks great, and the incongruity of this GQ looking man emerging from a manhole makes it work in my mind. But if enough folks told me it was disrespectful or made fun of the man, then I’d bury the photo in a heartbeat. I always intend to treat my subjects with respect and dignity.
Just to finish up, it’s hard to believe we are down to just five more days in Paris. I’ve been journaling over here in a little Moleskin notebook. Each entry starts with the day and date, followed by the phrase “Day XX of 58 in Paris.” When we were in our first couple weeks, I tried to imagine how I’d feel when we got down to the “Day 53 of 58 in Paris” days. Back then those days seemed way far off. Now they are right in front of us. While we are getting ready in our minds to come home, I do want to savor these last several days. It’s just such a shame that Priscilla is having to spend some of them down for the count with the crud. That just ain’t fair in my book!
Priscilla insisted that I warn you that this was going to be a “geeking out on photography” post, hence the title for this post. I’m going to do my best to make this non-techie, so I ask your indulgence in allowing me at least one photography related post. Every once in awhile you’ve got to throw a dog a bone!
I’ve been doing quite a bit of photography on this trip, much of it on 30+ year-old manual focus film cameras. In the process, I’ve come to a fascinating and counter intuitive observation regarding street photography. The old manual focus film cameras have an advantage over modern, auto-focus digital cameras when it comes to street photography. I’m going to do my best to explain this in layperson terms, so please hang in there.
The first three photos in this blog post were all made using a technique called zone focusing. Here’s where the geeking out part starts. On the older manual focus film cameras, there is a scale on the lenses that shows you how much is going to be in focus, from front to back, depending on how wide you set the aperture on the camera. The aperture is the opening in the lens that allows light in. The smaller that opening is, the more will be in focus from front to back. All cameras have an aperture, even the camera in your smartphone.
With the two photos above, I was coming up out of a Metro station and had preset my camera for zone focusing. I set my aperture based on the lighting conditions and preset my focus point so that I knew that anything from 5 feet to 12 - 15 feet would be in focus. When I came up the stairs and saw these subjects, I simply raised the camera to my eye, framed up my composition, and pressed the shutter release. There was no need to focus. If I had needed to focus, the moment would have been lost. Modern digital cameras, like my Nikon D850, are not geared toward using this technique. True, the autofocus systems on most modern cameras are lighting fast, but they’re not faster than instantaneous. That’s how fast zone focusing is.
Don’t worry, I’m not giving up my digital gear. By most any objective measure, my Nikon D850 is the better image-making machine. It certainly is more convenient than using a manual focus film camera. And when it comes to dealing with low light, the D850 is far superior to film. So no, I’m not giving up my digital gear, but I am happy to have rekindled a love of film and the beautifully built cameras from decades ago on this trip. I’m also pleased to know that the old man still has the photographic chops to handle manual focus film cameras.
In the past two days we’ve taken in two fine museums within walking distance from our flat, the Picasso Museum yesterday and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Museum today. The Picasso Museum is housed in what used to be a hotel. It had been closed for five years for a major renovation project, reopening in 2014. The first time we tried to visit the museum in 2009, the line was all the way down the street and it was raining, so we opted out. In 2011 we couldn’t visit due to the renovation. The third time was a charm. The crowds were light and the weather beautiful. The exhibits at the Picasso Museum are incredibly extensive. In total there are 38 rooms with work displayed. The first two floors house a joint Calder/Picasso exhibit, Calder was an American artist (primarily sculptor) who also worked in an abstract style. The upper floors of the museum are dedicated to Picasso’s works. The curation and display of the work were top notch. Priscilla and I agree that this is one of the most impressive museums we have ever visited.
While I doubt Picasso needs any introduction, Cartier-Bresson might. Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the great photographers in the reportage style. He was a founding member of the famous Magnum photography agency. Before his death, Cartier-Bresson and his wife and photographer, Martine Franck, set up a foundation with the mission to preserve and share his work. Today we saw the photographs of Guy Tillim, in a body of work entitled “Museum of the Revolution,” and the work of Cartier-Bresson from France during 1926 - 1938. All of the work was fabulous. I could look at Cartier-Bresson’s beautiful black and white prints all day. Tillim’s huge panoramic street scenes from several post-independence African countries were amazing. I picked up a copy of Cartier-Bresson’s seminal book, “The Decisive Moment.” I’ve not been able to find this book in the States.
On our way back to our flat we stopped at a French burger joint—yes they do exist—in the Marché Enfant Rouge. That burger and beer tasted mighty darned good. As we continued on our way home, I split off to get some groceries while Priscilla lugged my Cartier-Bresson book back to the flat. I’ve gotten pretty good with my grocery-store French. I’ve also gotten to a pretty good place with the guy that runs the boutique coffee shop near us where we get our ground coffee. He professes to not having much English, but between my awful French and his slightly less awful English, we get it worked out. The ground coffee you get in the grocery stores is ground super fine for making espresso. It doesn’t work well if you’re making pour-over coffee as we are. By acting it out, I was able to communicate to our coffee guy that I wanted a coarser grind of coffee. He breaks out in a big smile now every time he sees me.
At this point I probably owe you all an explanation for why I’m shooting film on this trip. Those of you of a certain age may remember the introduction to the animated series “The Jetsons” in which George Jetson is stuck on an out-of-control treadmill, screaming “Help Jane! How do you stop this thing?” Well, that’s a bit how I was feeling with the social media treadmill. I was feeling pressure to get images shared out quickly and I was finding myself craving those likes and follows. Shooting film on this trip is my way of opting out. This ties in a bit to our decision to not post about our trip on Facebook. We didn’t want Facebook owning these memories.
The night of the Notre Dame fire, I had two cameras with me, one digital (iPhone X) and one film (Olympus OM-2s, loaded with black and white film). As I was photographing and filming the fire on my iPhone X, the thought occurred to me that I should share something about this, as it was terribly important news. So I shared one photo to Facebook just after seven o’clock local time. Then I went back to photographing and filming. I decided that it was more important that I be in the moment. The thought occurred to me that it would have been better if I’d have had my big Nikon digital camera with me that night, but it was too late for that. I was there and the fire was raging, so I shot with what I had.
Seeing the man in the photo below taking a selfie with Notre Dame burning in the background is a sign to me that things have gotten out of whack. Certainly lots of us were making photographs, but why that one man felt the need to place himself in the scene is beyond me. Just to be clear, his reaction was way outside the norm for how the French reacted that night to the tragic Notre Dame Fire. The overwhelming reaction was shock, disbelief, and deep sadness.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a diatribe against all things digital. I’m as digitally connected as the next person, and probably more so. What we are trying to do, though, is to find a happy medium, where the digital world enhances our lives rather than consuming them. Pulling away from that instant feedback loop is one key way of jumping the treadmill.
Believe it or not, we’re finally caught up with the goings on here at 24 rue Saint-Paul. I’ll try not to get so far backed up in the future. The next post will be covering Easter Sunday. We have ambitious plans to attend the sunrise service at the American Church in Paris. Priscilla doesn’t quite know how we’re going to pull that off, since we can’t seem to manage to get out of the flat before 11:30 a.m. most days.