Saturday, February 27, 2016

Accessory Rangefinders

Quite a few of my old cameras require the user to estimate focal distance and to set that guess manually. For the most part, I've never found that much of a hindrance to making pictures with them, particularly in good light. Once in a while, though, in dim light and in close proximity to the subject, it is nice to have one of the little accessory rangefinders to help things along.

Of the three models I own, the tiny Voigtländer rangefinder is the most elegantly designed and crafted. The view of the image is pretty clear and contrasty, and the rotational movement of the dial is very smooth. The Voigtländer's small size adds little bulk to my pocketable cameras, and the standard-sized mount fits any camera that has an accessory shoe. I acquired this rangefinder recently from a fellow in England and it required no adjustment to the image alignment.

 The vertical orientation of the Kodak rangefinder allows it to be used with cameras having tall, flip-up viewfinders, as was the case with many of the old Kodak folders. The Kodak's cast metal case has a sculpted look that harks back to the 19th Century; the round, eye-like front window seems like something Jules Verne might have dreamed up. A very nice feature of this rangefinder is a pointer and rotating circular scale that allows reading the distance setting while looking through the eyepiece. The image alignment was off when I got the rangefinder, and it proved quite a tedious job to get it working properly.

The Kodak offers a split-image view similar to what one would see through the coupled viewfinder of an Argus C3. The coincident-image featured in the other two rangefinders seems a bit easier to use, but the semi-transparent mirror coating on such instruments inevitably deteriorates over time, and the lack of image contrast becomes problematic.

The Ideal Range Finder, as it says boldly on the side of the box, was

Made in U. S. A.
Long Island City, New York

The design is fundamentally functional with a black plastic case and a screw and bolt adjustment that looks like it came from the corner hardware store. As it turns out, this rangefinder offers the brightest view of the three, and is no less accurate than the Kodak or the Voigtländer. As stated in the product note folded in the box, the original buyer got a three year guarantee which included an offer to adjust the instrument if a drop caused it to lose proper alignment. The note also indicates that the user can do the readjustment by turning the set-screw on the dial. I found that to be true, though it required clamping the metal nut with channel-lock pliers and carefully exerting considerable force with a well-fitted screwdriver to turn the adjusting screw. There is no mounting bracket to fit a camera accessory shoe, though it would be easy enough to glue one in place.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Exposure Meters

All of these old selenium exposure meters remain responsive to light, some more than others. The heavy, bakelite-cased Weston at the top was one of the earliest to be made available to photographers in the 1930's. The General Electric DW58 on the left, nearly as old as me, seems as sensitive to light as when it was on the dealer's shelf. The feather-weight Sekonic L-158 on the right accompanies me on every photo outing.
Match-needle operation like that on the Sekonic was a big step forward over the early meters which required first noting the light value on a scale and then transferring that value manually to the circular dials. Also, given the tiny numerals on the old meter dials, one has to assume that the early photographers were blessed with both better vision and more patience than their current-day counterparts.

None of the selenium meters I have used have been very good in low light, which is exactly when you need them most.  Under normal daylight conditions they do ok, but my own guess work is usually pretty close to meter readings then.  In fact, I often just take a single reading when I first step outside, and then go with my own estimates from that point onward.  Given their somewhat limited range, the selenium meters might be better employed as a means for training your eye to gauge light conditions rather than as an immediate measurement tool. Still, I do feel a little more confident on photo outings with a light meter in my pocket.

For a really thorough treatment on the subject of light meters I highly recommend the web site about James Ollinger's Exposure Meter Collection.  James does a great job of dealing with their history and use. The FAQ link is especially useful for new users of the old meters.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Camera Repair and Restoration

This list of links for camera repair was originally posted on my web site. Also see the search box in the right column for the Classic Cameras Repair Archive.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Visual Literacy

The Museum of Modern Art is conducting a free on line course about understanding and talking about photographs, Seeing Through Photographs.  The six session course uses the well-developed Coursera on line learning platform.  Even highly skilled photographers often encounter difficulties in bridging the gap between vision and language.  It seems like this course has a lot of potential, both for creators and consumers of photographic imagery.  There is also the possibility that the quality of on line conversations about photography on blogs and web sites might be significantly elevated if enough people join in this learning opportunity.  There is an article about the new MOMA course at the PetaPixel site.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Three Women, Lost and Found

Family photos are not meant to be ephemeral or disposable; they are meant to be enduring keepsakes. Over time, however, people are careless with family photo collections. Memories fade about the people and events depicted, and a loss of meaning accompanies the loss of the people to whom the images were important. The albums and shoeboxes of snapshots end up on garage sale tables and in junkstore bins. I have looked through thousands of such photos over the past few years, but only these three have made it home with me.

A woman stands beside a new car. Who doesn't have such a picture in the family photo album? In addition to the classic subject, this one initially caught my eye because of the unusual color shift; only the car has retained something of the original color; everything else in the old Kodacolor print has faded to yellow-gray.
    Turning the photo over, I found a penciled inscription noting that it was made in nearby Canutillo, Texas in 1949. And, the subject's full name was given; it was an unusual surname, and I had little trouble tracking her down on the web. She was buried in an El Paso veteran's cemetery beside her husband after a long, distinguished career as an educator. I was pleased to have rescued an image that had recorded a moment in a life of dignity and accomplishment.

There are fewer women these days appearing in public in large, funny hats, other than The Queen. Of course, at the time this portrait was made, big hats looking like heavily-frosted chocolate cakes were probably not uncommon at all. This young woman looks comfortable under her adornment, and likely quite pleased to be both where and who she is. On the back of the brown cardboard mount she has written:

    Aug. 25 1898
    To Papa

I like this portrait because of its very nice photographic qualities. The lighting and the tonalities seem nearly perfect. The picture appears to be in near-original condition, in part no doubt because the cardboard mount has a paper flap that covered the surface, protecting it from the bleaching effects of light and surface contamination.
    People I have shown this photo to sometimes remark that the subject looks rather severe in her demeanor. To me she seems an attractive young woman, perhaps not yet beyond her teen years, and the expression to me seems enigmatic. Her dark outfit does lend a serious note to the portrait. I wonder about the limp, artificial-looking corsage; perhaps it was taken from the photographer's prop box in hopes of enlivening the composition. Surely this was some special occassion; a birthday, graduation or wedding.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Shooting the Kodak Flash Bantam

The Kodak Flash Bantam is a strut folder and one of the company's finest cameras in a line that originated from a simple design by Walter Dorwin Teague in 1935. By 1947 when the Flash Bantam appeared on the market, the shutter allowed speeds of 1/25 to 1/200 plus B and T. The four-element Anastar f4.5 lens had an anti-reflective coating and provided sharpness comparable to anything available at the time. The flip-up viewfinder is very bright and easy to use, and when folded down contributes significantly to the little camera's pocketability. The lens is fully focusable by estimation.

Kodak stopped producing 828-format film in 1985, but it is still easily possible to use the 828 cameras today, including the Kodak Bantams and the Argus M. Expired rolls of 828 film are often available on eBay and some new custom-rolled is sometimes available too. In either case, the film is a bit pricey, particularly since the little 828 rolls yield only eight exposures. Some ambitious enthusiasts cut down and re-roll 120 film to fit the 828 spools; while that nicely reproduces the original experience of using the camera, it is pretty labor intensive. A much easier alternative is to use standard 35mm film with no backing paper. The sprocket holes on the 35mm film will protrude slightly into the image, but the ease of use and increase in film length will compensate for the slight loss of image area.
The method I arrived at for using 35mm in my Flash Bantam requires two of the original 828 metal spools. I trim the protruding film leader square and tape it to one of the reels. The film is placed in a dark film changing bag and rolled onto the reel. The film is then cut loose from the cassette and taped onto the second reel, at which point it can be loaded into the camera which has had the back window previously taped to prevent exposure of the unbacked film in the camera. Advancing the film between exposures is done by rotating the winding wheel one-and-one half full turns for the first six or eight exposures, and one full turn for the remaining exposures. A 24-exposure roll of 35mm film will yield 15 to 20 frames per roll using this method. I develop and scan my own b&w film, but it is also possible to use commercial processing by putting the film back in the dark bag, taping the film end to the stub of film sticking out of the cannister and rolling it back in.

In addition to securely covering the frame window on the back of the camera, there are a couple other very simple camera modifications to the Flash Bantam which will greatly enhance the use of the camera with 35mm film, and also improve the images that will be captured by the coated Anastar lens. The little movable pawl that engages a toothed wheel allowed easy frame positioning with the original 828 film, but it is not needed and is a nuisance when loading and advancing 35mm film. To keep the pawl from slipping into the film sprocket holes you can easily introduce a small piece of foam rubber between the pawl's lever and an over-hanging tab on the camera body.
Some of my first 35mm film images from my Flash Bantam were lacking in contrast and showed a hot spot in the middle of the image. The image problem looked initially like lens flare, but the real origin was reflection at the time of exposure off the plastic framing window on the back of the camera. The simple fix was a strip of black paper cut to fit between the springs behind the pressure plate; if made the width of the camera back it will cover the shiny screw heads there as well as the reflective inner surface of the plastic window.
In shooting the Flash Bantam it is a good idea to aim a little high with the viewfinder in order to properly center the image between the film's sprocket holes.

My Flash Bantam needed just some cleaning of the lenses and a little squirt of electrical contact cleaner into the shutter to get it working properly. An excellent tutorial on Flash Bantam shutter repair can be found at the Camera Collecting and Restoration site.

A manual for the very similar Bantam 4.5 can be found at the Butkus site.

Numerous examples of images made with the Flash Bantam are available on the blog.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Don't miss these on line exhibits

  Seventh Avenue | Berenice Abbott 
Manhattan in the 1930's
Berenice Abbott's great portrait of fast changing NYC (in The Week)

Moving Freely, and Photographing in Marseille
Joan Liftin's street photography (in The NY Times)

These are two terrific photographers of the urban scene who are polar opposites in terms of technique.  Abbott's expansive, minutely detailed views of The City were made with a large format camera, often from precarious heights.  Liftin works fast and close to capture movement and emotion with the nimbleness of  a modern dancer.