Results from my First Yashica-A Roll

Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk as Captured by the Yashica-A

Last time I wrote about my dabbling in the film world I had had 3 Holga rolls developed. My Yashica and Franka Solida III had arrived after my trip to NYC so I had yet to run any film through them. I shot a few frames with each camera when Danny and Dina came to visit in April and then let the cameras lay dormant. As I explained in a previous post, with the cost of film and development so high, these cameras were somewhat for special occasions. I took the cameras with me to Delaware (a trip I have yet to blog about), and shot with the Holga and Yashica.

It was definitely interesting to have that roll completed, but sitting in my room for a week before I took it in and another week before I picked it up from the developer. Even though I had my booklet where I had written all the subjects and exposure settings, it was still a great joy and surprise to see the results when I picked it up from L’Imagerie. And, once I got them scanned into the computer, it was great to see them magnified.

Rehoboth Beach Roundabout Lighthouse

I must say that I am very pleased with the results. The glass is top notch – it’s a shame that kit lenses with today’s cameras don’t seem to match this quality at all. Of course, it’s hard to tell if the sharpness comes from the glass alone or from the use of medium format film vs an APS digital sensor. I’ve read that the larger the film, the shallower the depth of field. This is apparent in my shot of Danny where I’m at f/3.5 and the depth of field seems to be closer to f/2.8 or f/2.0 on my Rebel XTi.

Daniel at Breakfast

Another thing that’s amazing with this camera is that it is so easy to achieve proper focus. The camera has a focusing screen and a built-in magnifying glass to make sure you get your subject in focus. So I will definitely be playing some more with the camera in the f/3.5 range for its depth of field effects rather than because of low light situations (as was the case with the shot of Danny). I know that some people acquire focusing screens for their dSLRs to assist with manual focusing. I don’t know what’s involved in setting that up, but I think that all cameras in Canon’s pro range ought to come with it standard. It is so much easier to see if your subject is in proper focus rather than it LOOKING like it’s in focus and definitely not being in focus when you look on your computer screen.

Beach Grass

This camera, like a lot of older medium format cameras, does not have a built-in light meter. So, for the indoor shots, I used my dSLR to give me the proper shutter speed given the ISO and aperture I selected. When I was outside I decided to use the Sunny 16 rule. This worked very well – basically I just set my aperture to f/16 and my shutter speed near 1/100s (because the ISO was near 100) and all my shots were properly exposed. It worked well enough, though not perfectly. However, given that I was shooting into the sky at a white lighthouse and onto sand and other light-colour objects, this system worked better and more consistently than using a meter. Under such conditions I usually have to first trust my dSLR’s meter then check the results and adjust for the exposure area. I usually don’t mind it too much (except for situations where I’m chasing birds around in light and dark areas), but it’s not an acceptable system when shooting film.

So now I’ve shot film with a camera that’s more precise and controllable than a Holga. I really enjoy the process of using the camera. I like the manual, precise focus. I like the slightly more contemplative nature of using the camera. The results are great — very sharp and different. But I’m not, as of right now, as enthusiastic with the results as with the Holga. I think part of it was that the Holga was my first return to film and I may have felt that way with whichever camera I used first. But part of it is that the images, while sharp, lack something. I’m not sure what. I think, perhaps, next time I go out with black and white film in that camera, I might try and improvise a red filter to try and introduce some more contrast. And, I need to shoot colour with that camera to see how that comes out. It may also be that the specific film stock I chose tends to produce more average results rather than something grainy or punchy.

Portrait of Danielle Shooting a Portrait of Me

I still haven’t finished my first roll through the Franks Solids III. I did put a 400 ISO film in there, so it’s going to inherently be more grainy than what I get my first time through the Yashica. But, given that it’s a German camera, I’m pretty excited about how good the optics may be. The real kicker with that camera is that, from the way it’s built, you can’t tell if your focus is right on. You just need to estimate and I am very bad at estimating distance. I think that may end up being too frustrating of a camera for me to use most of the time. Time will tell if I change my mind.

And I’m still enjoying the Holga. No matter what I’ll probably always have a roll in there for odd photos here and there that need to be captured by that plastic lens.

Results of a Plastic Point of View

Day Three Hundred Sixteen:  Got Back My First Round of Medium Format Negatives

Thursday (22 Apr) as I drove into work, I knew the first few hours would be unbearable. My photos were waiting to be picked up from L’Imagerie, but they weren’t open until 1000. So I had to wait until my lunch break to go pick them up. The whole day I didn’t know what to expect. I’d never had medium format film developed and, while I’d had contact sheets with my APS film, it was not a true contact sheet.

Oranges for Sale
My second-favorite Holga photo from that first roll

When I was handed the manila envelopes holding the negatives and contact sheets, I was filled to the top with anticipation of seeing the results. And, when I did, it was great! And, to my joy and surprise, nearly all the photos came out! I knew, given the Holga’s mere offering of two exposure settings (sunny and cloudy) would make it a crapshoot to know whether or not I had done the right thing. But over half of the colour photos came out and more than two thirds of the black and white ones came out.

My favorite photo from my first Holga Roll

So I skipped the gym to go home and scan them so I could share them with the world! Once I figured out how to setup the negative scanner on my Canon Canoscan 8800F, I set it to the highest quality, 9600 DPI, and told it to SCAN! And … it … failed. I didn’t have enough RAM for the resulting 1.2 GB files! I was deflated! The whole point of shooting medium format is to get all that fidelity! Just like the digital medium format cameras I was ending up with huge file sizes, but it wouldn’t scan!

Group Shot with Holga
Holgas can create a different atmosphere for the traditional wedding shot

So I decided to go one step lower and get 500 MB files. This took 15 minutes per image. So I was only able to scan the colour roll as that took nearly four hours on its own. But I am very happy with the results of the scans! Also, the scanner was able to have a little more exposure latitude than the contact print, so, after scanning, something like 90% of the colour roll came out OK. It would need some tweaking in Lightroom or Photoshop, but it would probably be workable. That got me really excited for the possibilities to extract some details from some of the overly dark shots in the black and white rolls, although things have just been way too dark there.

Brighton Beach Boardwalk
Brighton Beach (Holgafied!)

Looking at the scanned negatives, I was able to get a much better view of the photos and the depth of field. As you know, depth of field and focus decrease as a photo is enlarged. That’s why photos with subtle levels of blur can look fine on the digital camera’s on-camera preview, but look horrible on the computer. What I like about the Holga is the way the photos quickly degrade when you leave the depth of field and also out towards the edges. It really brings to focus whatever’s in the center. I also enjoyed the square format and the vignetting. I’m not about to adapt vignetting in all my photos because that can definitely get old quickly, but I definitely love how it complements the other imperfections the Holga introduces to produce a workable whole. I got a newer model which is less likely to have light leaks. Of all the imperfections Holgas have, I was least enthusiastic about dealing with light leaks, so that doesn’t bother me. It might bother you.

Coney Island from Steeplechase Pier
Coney Island seen via Holga

So I learned with the Holga that you should use ISO 400 film because of the small apertures involved. Normally, photographers would recommend ISO 200 film for general use and ISO 100 for those times when quality was paramount. With my experience, I’d say that sunny is more or less only for a bright, sunny mid-day photo and any photos in the shade, late morning, or early evening should be taken with the cloudy setting. Any darker than that and you’re going to need flash or some other kind of artificial lighting.

Overall, I’m pretty psyched about seeing the results when I shoot from my Yashica or my Franks Solida III. The only negative was the sticker shock. It’s a little over $1.25 per photo from purchase to development. If I did a film 365 project and took no other film photos, that would be $485 – that’s a mid-level Canon SLR lens. That’s a LOT of money. So I’ll have to be sparse with my film photography, but that’s OK by me. The results with the Holga have also interested me in other low tech photographic techniques such as pinhole photography. I may try some unique ideas with that once I figure out how long I need to expose for. I also think the Holga would have a great aesthetic for street photography and plan to take it with me next time I go to Manhattan.

Nhi as Captain Nhung
Nhi, captured on candid-Holga-cam

Film Use Days 2 and 3, or How To Make Them Understand

Day Three Hundred Thirteen:  Meet the Yashica-A

At the time that I write this (about two weeks ago), I have run three rolls of film through my Holga, my Yashica A has arrived (unfortunately, too late for the wedding), and I have taken my film to L’Imagerie in Bethesda, MD to be developed. I used the Holga, along with my DSLRs, at Ho and Lauren’s wedding and I took some photos on the Brighton Beach/Coney Island Boardwalk. I also took some outdoor candids of Danielle’s family. One question was asked constantly: why are you using film?

In my father-in-law’s case, “WHY?!? Why do you want to use that?” The fact is, you can’t really explain it to anyone who’s not into photography. They see the inexorable march of progress – they were told that digital is better and that’s why they forked over all the money for the cameras and got rid of their film cameras.
And, in most ways they are right. Digital is better in nearly every way. My largest memory card, small compared to the largest sizes on offer now, holds around 400 RAW (better than best JPEG quality) photos. 400 photos before I have to change the memory card! 120 film is 12 photos. With digital you can review your shots as they happen and reshoot anything that didn’t come out right. With digital it’s all upfront costs and then free forever. (Minus cost of charging batteries or buying new ones) With film, the cameras are orders of magnitude cheaper, but you’re paying for developing each roll. Even if you do your own darkroom, you still need to buy the chemicals. You can change the ISO at will instead of being trapped by whatever you loaded into your camera.

But there are some ways in which film is better. With film, once you buy a good camera, you are set for life. My Yahica is from the 1970s. Most pros who were shooting film for decades before digital came along were shooting with one of the first cameras they bought all those decades ago. With film, most of the technology is in the film itself. You get your body and you’re set. There may be some advances in lens technology, but you’re fine overall. With digital you have the inverse. There’s much less tech in the memory cards. With the only negative being the small size, I still use a memory card that I used in my first digital camera. But I’ve gone through four camera bodies chasing for the same quality as film and I’m still not there. I need to outlay $2500 for that privilege. And, of course, you can’t replicate the aesthetic of film capture on digital.

I’m not saying you can’t get quality on digital. I’ve gotten amazing quality shots with my digital camera and the pros – wow! But, it’s a fact of the way that digital works, that it is almost impossible to get the same look and feel as film. The analog to digital converter in the camera is taking samples of reality and then approximating colour as best as it can. But, in the same way that an MP3 is not as accurate as the original recording, a digital camera cannot capture a smooth gradation. It simply isn’t possible in the way digitization works.

There are film purists out there as well as digital purists. The former cling to the past without seeing the benefits of the future. The latter view the past with contempt. “We’ve progressed past that,” they say. “Would you use a typewriter to compose a book?” they ask. And yet, I have indeed heard of modern writers who type up their manuscripts on a typewriter and then have someone type that into a computer. There’s something visceral about the clacking of the keys and bringing the author’s ideas into the world with a violent slamming of a key against paper. The deep boom of the carriage return (the reason for the arrow symbol on your “enter” key).
I feel what we have now is the ability to choose different tools for different purposes. As I mentioned before, digital is great for event photography and vacations. I would hate to have to haul tons of film around the world to capture the amazing sites. I would hate to miss what’s going on because I had to load a new roll of film. But there might be certain subjects, certain events that call out for film. And that’s when I’ll use film.

I’ll close up with a contrast of two comments I heard this weekend. Someone seemed incredulous that, with today’s technology, we hadn’t yet reached the fidelity of film. But, as I had to explain, it’s not a matter of advancing technology — it’s a matter of physics. You cannot amplify what you did not capture. So with a tiny sensor (or at least a smaller sensor than film) you cannot capture as much detail as film — it’s just impossible. And larger sensors cost more money and most people don’t care about photography the way that we photography enthusiasts (and pros) care about it. The other comment was from another photographer at the wedding. He had noticed that I was shooting with a Holga and we got into a conversation about photography. He told me his friend had a medium format film camera and, “even when he takes photographs of the simplest things, it just has this amazing feeling to it.”

Film Use Day 1

Back of the Holga 120N

As I write this I have shot 3 frames on my Holga 120N . It’s been a long time since I had to wait to see the results of a photo. One of my favorite aspects of film photography in the olden days was to get my roll(s) of film back from the drug store and being surprised at all the photos I had forgotten taking. But now I really want to see what’s on the rolls! Digital has spoiled me! Also, I’m curious to see the Holga work its magic!

I’m doing something a little differently compared to the olden days when I used to shoot film — I’m keeping a log of the settings I used on my photos. I didn’t do this before for a simple reason — 99.999% of the cameras I used were point and shoots. I used one manual SLR or interchangeable lens rangefinder (I don’t remember for sure) for a week. Now that I’ve been using digital cameras that keep track of the data (even if they are point and shoots), I’ve become a data whore. Well, I’ve always been obsessed with chronology (keeping all my CDs in the order in which I bought them rather than a more logical by artist or alphabetically), so I was determined to keep track of the approximate date and time of my analog photos anyway. And since my other medium format cameras (which haven’t yet arrived! Grr!) will slow my photo process by quite a bit, what’s a little more time to record the shutter speed and aperture? Especially in the case of my Holga where I can’t find consensus online about the true aperture of my model (I have one of the newer ones where the aperture actually works), it would be nice to record this info at first so I could get an idea of what settings to use. Sure, it’s great that the Holga is this quirky little camera, but I don’t want to waste money developing a roll of all black or all white photos. (Although I guess there’s some avant guard artistic merit there….)

I’m a bit amazed at my restraint at not shooting all 12 frames in one day, but I think that can be traced to three things. 1) Money 2) It takes time to wind up the rolls and that forces me not to shoot as if my camera were a machine gun and 3) Most days I don’t do that with my digital camera, either. I imagine, especially once the newness wears off, I’ll be turning in rolls of film to the camera shop that span timelines in the months because there aren’t that many events or locations in Baltimore that call for film usage. Right now I’m thinking of exploring Camden Yards (link to my set) and Otakon (link to my set).

It’d be interesting to see the Holga’s view of Otakon and the Yashica might make a conversation piece. Of course, to get all the amazing costumes without breaking the bank, I’ll mostly cover the event with my digital camera. I haven’t decided yet if I’m actually paying this year or just going to gawk outside the front door like last year. Either way I’m definitely going to see those costumes because the dedication that goes into them is amazing! And this year I’ll continue to build upon my boldness to actually go up to people and ask for a photograph.

But for now, I just have three frame exposed, waiting to be developed so I can know whether or not I’m even doing things correctly. Waiting to show me what the Holga can do and try and convince me not to put the camera away forever.

The Film Dilemma

Fujifilm Pro 400 H

Boy have we become spoiled in the digital age. I’m not sure when this will be posted, but at the time of writing this, I have a Holga 120N and a bunch of film at my desk. I bought a couple rolls each of colour and black and white film in ISO speeds of 160 and 400. I have no idea what to load into my Holga! With my digital camera I can change ISO on the fly. Dark outside? Increase the ISO. Want a slower shutter speed when it’s bright outside? Decrease the ISO. But with film I’m stuck for 12 frames with whatever I put in there!

Of course, this dilemma is exaggerated by the Holga. With a regular film camera, I can adjust the shutter speed and aperture to compensate for the film speed. Really, it becomes more a matter of how much grain I want in my photos. So I can choose 160 and only take photos outside or I can choose 400 and only take photos inside or near dusk or dawn.

The other thing that has been on my mind for days now is wondering what is worth the cost of capturing on film? I guess part of the answer for that will have to wait until I see the results of 120 film. Right now it’s looking like it’ll be about $12 to process and receive contact prints at a local shop. So that’s $1 a photo. That’s a lot of money considering the best quality prints I can get for my digital photos cost about $0.30 a photo. Now, the photos ARE supposed to be much higher fidelity, but it’s still a matter of economics.

Interestingly, as I’ve been scanning my old photo albums (unfortunately from the prints because I don’t have a way to read/scan APS film), I came to debunk the myth that digital has fundamentally changed my photography. In my head, I had this image of my photography as mostly being event-based (eg birthday party photos) and posed photography. After all, I had to pay for the film and developing costs from my allowance and later from my salary. So how could I afford to take candid portraits or other such shots? Revisiting my photo albums, I discovered that I was actually more of a photo documentary or photo journalist recording my entire life with photographs. And, as I gained access to more money, my photography increased in volume.

Really, digital photography had mostly changed my photography in minor ways. I was not previously into wildlife photography or nature photography. I identify strongly with people and was more interested in spending my money recording my relationships. I wasn’t about to spend $6 to record a roll of lizard photos or flower photos. With digital photography I am also more creative. I can experiment more with self-portraiture away from mirrors when I can just review whether or not I got the shot I wanted and take as many as necessary to get it right. Some photos in my 365 Project took over 10 shots (nearly an entire 120 roll!) to get right. (Or to realize that the first one was the best one)

I can also fire off more shots. For most of the events I recorded on film, I would have taken many more shots if I had digital. Is this good or bad? It’s nearly at the level of aflame war whenever someone brings it up on the net. I think the proper answer is that it depends upon the situation. First of all, I think it facilitates learning to see things from different angles if you can approach a subject and shoot from every angle without having to worry about developing the crappy ones. When you get home and load them onto your computer you can see which angles worked and try to analyze why. I would expect this use case would have people eventually taking fewer photos as they learn which angles work best for which subjects. Second, with event photography such as a football game or baseball game, you don’t know what the awesome shot is until the game is over. So you need to be able to capture all the great shots so you can later evaluate which is the best one. Third, someone covering a rally or political protest would definitely want the benefit of digital to be able to get as many signs and other photos because you don’t know if you’ve got the front page photo until you’re done. Finally, when documenting something taking place over time, it is useful to be able to take many shots. For example, if someone is building a sand castle, it may be interesting to see it evolve over time rather than just taking a final shot when it’s done.

So, without knowing how the photos will turn out, what do I take photos of? As of now, I think I will use film to capture some of the same things I would with digital, but taking a more considered approach. Where I might be able to take a half dozen photos with my digital camera, I’ll have to find that one special moment to click my film camera’s shutter. After all, even if I wanted to take a bunch of photos in quick succession, I still need to wind the film between shots and that takes time. So it is naturally a slower progression.
Something about this film also calls out to me for urban landscapes and street photography, so I’ll definitely use it next time I go to NYC. I’m also curious in some Holga B&W shots of famous Washington DC landmarks. I think there can be some pretty neat aesthetics — at least in my head and based upon what I’ve seen Holgas do. I also definitely want to take the cameras to photograph the Coney Island boardwalk. There, in addition to being a photogenic backdrop, there’s definitely a link to early photography with photographers peddling 120 film (and other older formats) to people at the beach back before everyone had cameras in everything — like phones!

After writing all this, I have a better sense of what I want to photograph, but I’m no closer to deciding what film to load into my Holga. (After going to work….) I decided to throw in some colour ISO 400 film because I have five rolls of that, so it’s not as though putting it into my Holga will keep it away from the Yashica that should be arriving soon. Plus, I think I want to use one of the B/W ISO 400 rolls in a wedding I’m going to soon that will mostly take place indoors.

Analog Strikes Back!

Medium Format Film

It would seem insane to even consider getting into analog photography in 2010. But, as I wrote in my tet travelogue, I’ve been bitten by the bug. I think, had I been able to take photography classes and develop my own negatives and learn about aperture and shutter speed and all that with analog cameras, I might not feel such a need to discover the past now. But, when I get an idea into my head it’s pretty hard to dislodge it. Additionally, I see all these photographers on flickr waxing about how they have discovered or rediscovered film photography. Another photographer whose blog I have been reading recently wrote an ebook about how he has rediscovered film and will now shoot both film and digital. All this conspired such that recently I went through another round of deciding whether I wanted to do some film photography.

I looked through B&H‘s catalogue of new medium format cameras. The only camera I could afford that wasn’t a Holga or other Lomography camera was the Chinese-made Seagull Twin lens Reflect Camera GC-105. I spent an hour looking for a flash unit what would work with the Seagull, a light meter, and film. Then I looked on the net for opinions of the Seagull and they were mostly negative. I went back to B&H and deleted the items from my wishlist. A few days later, I returned to the subject, common for something that has latched onto that part of my brain. I found a few people saying that others were being overly critical of the Seagull – it was good for at least a year’s worth of photography.

So I was faced with the practicality of spending $200 for a camera that might last a year for a format I might not like beyond my first roll. So I spent Saturday and Sunday doing research when I wasn’t spending time with my wife fixing up the house and doing chores. Eventually, it appeared that the overwhelming opinion was that one should get a used Rollie, Yashica, or Minolta rather than a brand new Seagull. So I hit up Ebay.

I hadn’t used Ebay since some time in college when I was searching for a cheap laptop. I became disillusioned with the site when every single auction I was involved in had me lose literally in the last minute. I would be winning an auction for days and then suddenly someone would beat me by $2. I still think that Ebay would best be served by having some more AJAX-y elements so that I can watch an auction in the last minute without constant refreshing.

So, without thinking I would actually win, I bet on a few Yashica TLRs. (The other cameras cost in the thousands of dollars! Talk about maintaining value!) I actually won an auction for a Yashica A TLR. I thought I could then back out of the other auctions, but I found out I couldn’t. This, of course, makes sense. If I were winning an auction and then pulled out, the price would drop. Someone could legitimately complain that they would have bet on it with the lower price. Plus, with all the auto-bidding, it would wreak havoc on Ebay. Luckily for me I lost the other auctions.

Most of the message boards where I was getting this advice were written in 2001, leading me to believe that I’m probably in the tail end of this film photography renaissance. I think 2001 was a key time because digital cameras were just starting to get really good, but there weren’t many affordable cameras that were even matching the quality of 35mm just yet. At any rate, it appears that I may have been wrong about being in the tail end of the trend. More and more people are trying to snap up film cameras while most camera manufacturers have abandoned their production. So prices have jumped up in accordance with supply and demand. While most of the forum posts were mentioning cameras in the $50-$100 range on Ebay, most of the ones I’ve found were starting at the $100-$150 range. And, many of the auctions I lost had the cameras going for $200! If you ask me, it appears that the camera manufacturers are leaving money on the table. There appears to be a market for film cameras that is left unfulfilled and so prices on the used market continue to increase. While they should continue to focus on digital cameras, I think they would probably make a decent profit with just one film sku. So far only a few medium format camera companies (where margins are high) have continued to produce film cameras.

I also bid on, and won, a German folding camera that just looks amazing. Even if it turns out the seller was lying and it doesn’t shoot photos, it would be amazing as a prop/conversation piece, so I was happy to win that for just a little over $50 with shipping included. So, I ended up with two medium format cameras for less than the price of a Seagull. Now I needed film!

So I went to B&H and snapped some color and black and white film in the ISO 100 and ISO 400 range. (Basically daylight and cloudy/evening) But now that it was so close, I got impatient. Most likely my auction winnings would not arrive before this weekend and I couldn’t just have unusable film sitting at home! So, despite what I said in my previous post, I bought a Holga. I regret not getting the one with flash, but without flash it was just $30 – easy to justify if it turns out that my initial misgivings with Holgas were right! But with flash I’d be able to use it indoors at an event I think would benefit from a shot with a Holga just because it would be SO different from what everyone else is doing.

My New Holga 120N

So right now I’m brimming with excitement and fear. I’m excited at being able to use 120mm film – linking me to many of the great photographers of the past. I’m excited at owning a piece of history with these old, used cameras. I’m [less] excited about seeing if Holga is all hype or will become an addiction. But I’m scared (although that’s really too strong of a word) that I’ve just wasted money that could have better gone towards my Canon gear. After all, I know that no matter what I’m not about to give up digital photography. It’s the only way I can afford to take all the shots I want, it’s the only economical way to experiment or take self-portraits, and there are many other benefits. Although may photographers will scold me for this, what I love the most is the ability to fire off nearly 1000 photos at a wedding and select the best one. Or with my wife’s cousin’s toddlers. Sure, I’m not developing the same skill as the photographers of old who had to capture that right moment, but I can capture all moments and then present only the best ones to the subject. Also, by shooting off tons of shots you increase your chances of getting a spontaneous exchange. For things like fireworks, you could waste tons of film on blank exposures, but with digital you can get it right. But I think it will be worth the experimentation and I hope that it holds enough attraction that I may consider using it for special occasions.

Day Three Hundred Eight:  Taking the Analog Plunge