Jim Loses a Battle with a Dinosaur and the Magazine's New
by Jim McGee
A few years ago I was left an old camera when my Aunt passed away. At one time she had been an avid camera bug and traveler. She had taken a mountain of square Kodachromes that were filed neatly into projector carousels and tucked away for storage. These were brought out during family visits to illustrate the stories of her travels. I was too young to remember if my parents enjoyed these slide shows, for me they’re just a distant memory.
The camera is an Agfa Ansco Speedex folding camera. It takes 120 film and has a fixed lens of around 50mm. Judging by the old slides it's capable of taking some pretty sharp photos. Closer examination showed the camera can be set for f-stops between f4.5 and f32. Shutter speeds can be set from 1/200th of second to 1/25th of a second or bulb for timed exposures. You execute that timed exposure by sliding a lock behind the shutter lever to hold it open. The lens can be rotated to focus from a minimum of three feet to infinity, but seems to be frozen at infinity. There is even a threaded cable release receiver and a tripod socket for all those folks who wanted to try and duplicate the shots they'd seen in Arizona Highways.
To use the camera you adjust f-stop, focus distance and shutter speed then cock the shutter. Compose in the tiny, and optically poor viewfinder, and push down on the shutter release lever next to the lens. This trips the shutter - hopefully exposing the film correctly.I say hopefully for a couple of reasons. First there is no mechanical connection between the film advance and the shutter (more on that later). Second because there is no in-camera meter.
There is a shoe mounted meter that I haven't yet been able to fathom because no manual was to be found among the box of "camera stuff" that included the camera and slides, and because I suspect it just doesn't work anymore because of it's age. The camera was built in 1962 in Germany according the QC sticker that’s still affixed inside the camera.
For a while it sat on the shelf with some old folding cameras that I've collected. Its only mission in life was that it had to "look interesting". A job that it performed admirably. A call to a local camera shop had confirmed what I'd already assumed. That these old Agfa's were pretty common and not worth much except as a conversation piece.
By now you've no doubt figured out that I am in no way a classic camera expert. I'm reasonably proficient with today's 35mm and medium format cameras but if you go back much before the late 60's the equipment becomes very foreign to me. But when heading out to shoot fall foliage for this issue, I caught site of the old Speedex on the shelf in my office. Wouldn't it be cool to run some film through the old girl? I could use the in-camera meters in my 35mms to set the exposure. Wouldn't it be neat to see what kind of images I could get? Might be a lot of fun!
I spent the next half hour or so cleaning the lens and viewfinder with lens cleaner and a microfiber cloth. Years of accumulated gunk had left the lens amazingly dirty but the f-stop and shutter moved easily with a feeling of precision. The focus ring on the lens was a puzzle. It was firmly locked in place and I hesitated to force it for fear of damaging the lens. Since it was locked at infinity I consoled myself that it would work for some landscapes. If I like using the camera I could always take it to a repair shop and have them free-up the stubborn lens.
Next I held a light around the bellows while looking in the back of the camera to see if there were any light leaks that could ruin an exposure. There weren't. While the camera showed obvious wear from heavy use, it was in surprisingly good shapeOut of the refrigerator came a couple of rolls of 120 print film and I was ready to go. But when I loaded the first roll I got my first taste of just what "classic" means. On this camera you don't advance a lever to the next frame. There's a dial on top that you rotate forward until the number one shows up in a little red window in the back of the camera. That's OK until you're out in the field and some bonehead photographer (that would be me) forgets to wind the film forward after snapping the frame. Then you get a double or even a triple exposure. Please don't ask how many times I did this in a single day before I finally trained myself to always wind the film after snapping the shutter.
The camera itself is strongly built out of stamped steel and aluminum and is as heavy as an old manual SLR with a 50mm lens. It folds up into a compact package that fit easily into my aunt's purse, and would slide easily into an inside jacket pocket or the front pocket of a camera bag. A textured plastic sheet is applied to the front and back of the camera. It's grippy, and while well worn, it had held up admirably to ungentle use.
My idea was to shoot with my 35mm, then mount a 50mm lens with no filters and take a meter reading. I would dial that reading into the Speedex and duplicate the shot. I could then compare the images on the light table back in the office.
The first thing that struck me was how incredibly slow this process was. I tend to work at a snails pace when shooting landscapes, but this process felt painfully slow even to me. So much so that an hour into the day I was swearing to find a newsgroup dedicated to dinosaur cameras and have someone explain the old meter to me promptly upon returning to the office.
I was utterly amazed at how absolutely alien the whole experience of shooting with this camera felt. When you pick it up it feels like a camera, but when you actually shoot with it none of the controls feel "right". All the little tactile things that we rely on seemed to be missing or different.
This is coincidently one of the things that drives me crazy with some digital cameras. Little things like the fact that the shutter is a lever that you pull to the side rather than a button that you push down conspired to take away that feeling of familiarity and I had no confidence I was capturing anything worth keeping. Add to that the feeling of "did I remember to wind the film before I hit the shutter?" and you can see that if there was one thing I wasn't having with this camera it was fun!
The other thing that threw me was the square format. I hadn't realized just how bound I was by rectangles. I'd frame a shot with my 35mm that looked great in the viewfinder and click the shutter. Then I'd pick up the Speedex and I couldn't frame a damned thing that felt like a good composition. What's going on here? Turns out that I've trained myself to see in rectangular frames. Since all 35mm and most medium format cameras are rectangular formats I'd never noticed before. Now I had to rethink not only how I was shooting but how I was composing as well. I cringed when I dropped off the film at the lab.
Looking at the result was no more comforting. I'm used to a fairly high ratio of "keepers". Images that are correct technically and have strong composition. From these you cull the images that you'll scan and use for articles. Instead I was looking at double and triple exposures, exposure problems, and compositions that were often weak. There were a couple of keepers but nothing that I would rate as a really strong image. As always, the big medium format negatives are seductive in their own way but not enough to make me like what I'm seeing.
With time I could adjust my shooting style and recalibrate my eye to this camera and in so doing get better and more consistent images. In time it might even become fun. After all I've only run a couple of rolls of film. But I find myself wondering if it would be worth the effort.
Two days later I found myself looking down on tree shrouded lake. Those surrounding trees draped in their fall finery. The lake had been formed when a glacier scratched this valley out of the landscape thousands of years ago leaving steep slopes and a rock strewn beach. I was working fast in the fading light, at peace, and enjoying myself immensely.
The dinosaur was along for the ride that day but it hadn't come out of the camera bag. I thought about it briefly in the fading light but decided to keep shooting with my SLR and to just enjoy the moment
Last week I wrestled the dinosaur. Today I'm willing to admit the dinosaur won. But I know when I look at the images of this valley on my light table - it won't bother me. The dinosaur is back on the shelf. I've decided I don't need to master it.
Our Updated Look
Those of you browsing past issues will notice those issues are still in the old format. Over the next few weeks we'll be updating back issues as well.
We've also added a search feature that allows you to search all articles in current and previous issues by keyword, and a links page that links to the Web sites of most manufacturers of camera equipment. We say most because I can almost guarantee we've missed someone.
We looked at the idea of adding a page of links to reader pages, but the prototype page became so long so fast it was obvious that it would be both impossible to find anything on the page and impossible to keep the links up to date. We reasoned that the equipment links would be the most useful for readers.
On the international front we're adding an additional language, Russian, to our list of supported languages. This means that Vivid Light Photography will now available in eight languages.
A few readers wrote in asking if we'd considered adding discussion groups to the site. We posed that question back to you in the feedback column along with our concern that there might not be a need for discussion groups since there were already so many on the Web. Your response was that you agreed - for now. Many felt that existing discussion groups were flawed and while a better kind of group would be welcomed, more of the same would not. Since our search of existing technologies didn't turn up anything ground breaking, we have put that idea aside for now.
Another recurring question is whether we plan to publish a printed edition of the magazine that would be available on newsstands; for now the answer is no. We were founded as an Internet only publication and for the time being will remain so.
Also on the drawing board for the coming months is a reader survey on the front page - making it easier for you to speak out about what you like and don't like. The results of these surveys will be made available to manufacturers, who by the way, really do seem interested in what you have to say.
Finally, Jerome Geller wrote to say that he appreciated our efforts to get people back traveling and back in the air but he was surprised that the October issue didn't contain a photo of an American flag.
Here's one for you Jerome. This image was taken on a summer's morning in the historic town of Cape May, New Jersey. It's an image I took during a quiet morning walk. A slight breeze in the air is evident in the movement of the flag. That morning there wasn't a worry in the world. Let's look forward to a time when that is again the case.
In the meantime, I believe it is crucial that we continue to put aside our concerns and go about our lives as we normally would. Terrorism seeks to disrupt our lives through fear. So the true victory is the return of life to normal. It's how you flip a terrorist your middle finger!
Take care folks, see you at the airport,