Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Zeiss Ikon Ikonta B (521/16)

The post-War medium-format Ikontas retained most of the fundamental design characteristics of previous decades, but new materials and design ideas did take hold as the German camera industry struggled to reassert its place in the market. The 521/16 model, produced from 1948 to 1953, is notable for its compactness and light weight. The imitation leather covering no longer induces "Zeiss bumps" over rivet heads. A simple module under the winding key provides double-exposure prevention, and the plate at the front of the bellows to which the shutter attaches now has a charteristic folded tab with two rivets.

 Some of the 521/16 models came with the high-end Tessar lens, but mine is an economy model with a 3-element 4.5/7.5cm Novar Anastigmat, and a Klio shutter with speeds from 1 second to 1/200th. Fortunately, a minimum aperture of f22 allows easy use of modern 400-speed film. The shutter and lens required only routine cleaning. The double-exposure module wasn't working properly, but it was easily disassembled, and bending up a leaf spring restored the proper functioning. Combined with the big 6x6cm format, the Novar lens cedes no ground in image quality.

The Ikonta B is a nice option for anyone who might just be starting with film cameras, or perhaps someone who would like to graduate from using the more simple box cameras from those times which lacked full control of focusing and exposure.  Unlike the Kodak-made cameras of the period, Zeiss Ikon did not choose the doomed path of the 620 format, and instead went right on making their cameras suitable for use with standard 120 roll film.  So, with the Ikonta B there is no need to worry about the inconvenience of re-rolling 120 film onto 620 reels.  The Ikonta's strap lugs, light weight and good ergonomics also encourage a readiness to confront any photographic opportunity.  I think I paid about $25 for my camera; that was some years ago, but I still see them offered occasionally on ebay at that same price.

I never put many rolls of film through my Ikonta B, mostly because I had too many other great old cameras distracting my attention.  The results I got from the camera certainly showed that I should have given it more opportunities to show its stuff.
* * *
Wild Bill arrived in our southern New Mexico rural neighborhood driving a team of donkeys hitched to a little trailer similar to that used by Basque sheepherders.  He squatted on some land beside the old highway by the Rio Grande.  He bought an old pickup and used it daily to visit a cousin a mile down the road.  Bill had served quite a time in the Marines running a motor pool; I think he had some retirement income from that and maybe some Social Security as well.  He was kind to his animals and a good neighbor.

The largest and most impressive of the thousands of petroglyphs at Tres Rios is located at the top of the long ridge at the site.  It is usually alleged to depict a cougar, but I'm calling it as a jaguar because of the cross-hatching that fills in the figure.

The stairway leads down into the sunken courtyard of George Pearl Hall which houses the UNM School of Architecture.  It was designed by Albuquerque architect, Antoine Predock.

The Lobo is the UNM mascot, chosen originally no doubt because of its fierceness.  A more current association should probably take into account the Mexican Wolf's endangered status along with a similar situation among UNM faculty which has experienced many recent layoffs due to budget cuts.

If you come across a fire engine on the street and you have an old camera with film in it, you have to take a picture.  That's the law.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Argus A-Series Resources

The U.S. patent for the original Argus A showed C.A. Verschoor as the
 inventor, but the drawings and the design were surely the work of Gustave Fassin.

Literature on the Argus A cameras is not as copious as that for the later C3, but there are still some excellent resources available for learning about the first Argus cameras and their use.

1.   Glass, Brass & Chrome: The American 35mm Miniature Camera by Kalton C. Lahue and Joseph A. Bailey includes a good historical overview of the development of the Argus cameras. While the book's editing leaves something to be desired, the great virtue of the book is that the authors write from personal experience, providing real insights into the features and foibles of the cameras discussed A lengthy preview of the book is available on line through Google Books.

2.   35mm For the Proletariat: A Modern User's Guide to the Argus A/A2 Camera by Hrad Kuzyk is a welcome recent addition to Argus lore . The author, improbably, took his ancient Argus A along on a tour of duty in Iraq. I had it in the back of my mind to get an Argus A for a long time, and this book pushed me over the edge. As the author explains in his preface:

    "This book is intended to be a user's guide, not a collector's guide. As such, it does not concern itself with current street value, scarcity, condition rating, or other such collector-related information. While there is much of this text of interest to a collector of Argus cameras, this book concentrates predominantly on those issues that would be of importance to a user."

Some features of the A-model Argus are not very intuitive, so this guide is a big help in getting started with the camera. The excellent illustrations of repair procedures just about guarantee that nearly any Argus A can be made functional. The book is available in its entirety on line as a pdf file at TheArgusA.com.

3.   Complete disassembly instructions for the Argus ILEX Precise shutter is available at the Camera Collecting and Restoration web site. Most Argus A cameras will not require that level of intervention, but the well-illustrated, step-by-step procedures provide the ultimate resource for the worst-case scenario.

4.  All the A-Series Argus cameras are illustrated on a page at the Argus Collectors Group site

5.  View the Argus A2F User Manual.

All of my A-Series photographs have been made with the Argus AF and the Argus A2F cameras.

 And, here is the real me, exposed at arm's length by the Argus A2F:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Right time, right place, and good enough.

Argus A2F
The Argus A, introduced in 1936, was the first American-made camera to use the the standard 35mm film cartridge. The A2F, in production from 1939 to 1941, featured some additions to to the basic model A including a top-deck extinction meter with an exposure calculator. Shutter speeds ran from 1/25 seconds to 1/200 seconds, plus B and T. The 3-element Anastigmat lens had aperture settings from f4.5 to f18, and it sat on a full-focusing mount that allowed a minimum focal distance of 15 inches(!) Though it lacked flash-sync, the A2F was the most feature-rich and capable member of the Argus A line which continued on into the the 1950s.

 In the 1930s, Leica was the standard setter. It doesn't take much imagination to see that the Leitz cameras were the primary inspiration behind the the original Argus A. In fact, Leica-copies of varying degrees of fidelity appeared in many national guises. The most notable Leica-like cameras were made in the Soviet Union in vast numbers over a period of decades. It is interesting to compare the efforts in the U.S. and the Soviet Union to appropriate the Leica mystique. The Soviet response was driven by ideology and resulted in copies that were very faithful to the original German design and of quite good quality. Given the huge production and the somewhat inferior materials and workmanship, it is tempting to assume that the Soviet cameras were produced at a low cost compared to the Barnack originals. But, how does one make that determination in an economy that is totally State-run?

In the free-market economy of the U.S., costs, competition and demand were clearly the drivers of production, and the result from Argus (then, the International Radio Corp.) was a camera of more modest aspirations that resembled the Barnack Leicas only in rather broad terms. Charles Verschoor, the IRC president, avoided the mistake made by a number of other American industrialists of going head to head with the European camera makers who followed a tradition of ultra-high quality production aimed at satisfying the needs of a wealthy elite. Instead, the Argus A was conceived from the beginning as a product that would be widely accessible to middle-class photo enthusiasts, even in the midst of the world-wide Depression.

Verschoor made good use of previous production and marketing experience acquired in the making of low-cost radio sets. The cheap bakelite plastic cases of the radios provided a useful model for camera body construction using a proven, mature technology. Mass marketing acumen was clearly demonstrated in the choice to publicize the debut of the Argus A in the first issue of Life Magazine. Of course, making and marketing a cheap camera is one thing, while making a profit selling a good, cheap camera is quite another.

 Verschoor's entrepreneurial genius was evident in his choice of a chief designer capable of finding just the right balance between frugality and quality. Gustave Fassin was a designer of precision optical instruments who had learned his craft in Belgium where he taught at the Technical School of Ghent and had charge of workshops in the Societe Belge d'Optique before emigrating to the U.S. in the 1920s. Fassin took up residence in the capital of the U.S. photographic world, Rochester, NY, and taught at the University of Rochester Institute of Applied Optics. Fassin also worked for both of the giants of the photo world based in Rochester, Kodak and the Bausch & Lomb Company.

By the mid-1930s, Fassin held an impressive number of patents for optical devices, and he also clearly made good use of opportunities to learn about resources and production techniques that the big U.S. companies used to succeed in a very competitive industry. Although the patent application for the Argus A bears only Verschoor's name, the design similarities with the later Argus C3 carrying only Fassin's name shows that the first Argus was the Belgian's design. At the same time, there is little doubt about the importance of Verschoor's abilities to read the market and to marshal resources in making it possible to produce a pretty good miniature camera that cost one-fifth the price of Kodak Retina, and one tenth that of the Leica A with essentially the same basic features. The Fassin design even surpassed the high-priced competition in a couple respects, including the removable back that made film loading a snap compared to the Leica, and neither Kodak nor Leitz standard lenses provided the kind of extreme close-up capability of the Argus f4.5 Anastigmat on the AF in 1937 and A2F in 1939.

 In truth, the Leitz company leadership quite likely lost little if any sleep over the pretender from Ann Arbor. The Leica was never aimed at the kind of market that Argus captured, and in Europe Argus cameras were virtually unknown. Kodak's reaction to the competition from the Argus was more complicated. The Kodak 35 and the Kodak 35 Rangefinder cameras seem clearly to have been designed in response to the quickly building popularity of the Argus A, and later the C3. The domestically produced Kodaks featured some superior lens opitions and they sold reasonably well, but they didn't come close to achieving the popularity of the Argus cameras, and somehow Kodak never really caught up. Perhaps the company didn't try as hard as it might have to quash the competition. Kodak,after all, was more of a film producer than a camera manufacturer. In the U.S., Kodak's film manufacturing, distributing and processing capabilities gave it a market dominance similar to what Microsoft enjoys today. What that meant in terms of practical economics was that nearly every time an amateur photographer pressed the shutter release of an Argus A or C3, it was money in the bank for Kodak .

The compact simplicity of the Argus A2F is very appealing to me. The appearance and over-all ergonomics seem to me to be superior to the later and more popular C3. I don't mind the lack of double-exposure prevention, I like the self-cocking shutter, and the close-focusing capability of the camera makes it hard to beat in regard to versatility. The lens is adequately sharp, with no obvious spherical aberration. Being a pre-war design, there is no anti-glare coating on the lens surfaces. Images from the Argus tend to be a little soft around the margins. Images from the camera show a slight amount of corner vignetting, probably caused by the shadow of the large coil spring that held the lens in the open position. The focus ring of the A2F is a little difficult to get at and tends to slow shooting a bit as a result.  I'm not sure what to make of the extinction meter and exposure calculator on the top deck; it seems to me to offer little over just making a best guess about proper exposure. I wonder if the extinction meter wasn't conceived of more as a marketing ploy rather than as a practical picture making aid as was the case with the much-touted Autographic feature on the early Kodaks.

I'm sure the amateur photographers of the '30s, '40s and '50s argued at length over the merits of the Argus A and its descendants; and those who get around to trying the camera now probably can find some things to disagree about too. What seems inarguable, however, is the role played by the modest Argus A line in revolutionizing the way that Americans pictured life. Picking up an early Argus camera is a way of taking history into your hands, and making pictures with one provides a tangible link to a past that is otherwise largely beyond reach.

I put quite a few rolls of film through the Argus A2F and posted many of them on the blog. The pictures from the camera show good resolution; they are notable for a unique tonal character, due in part to the low-contrast optics. The capability to shoot very close to the subject in a simple, early 35mm camera makes shooting the Argus A2F an interesting experience.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

History In Hand

A neighborhood friend came to dinner the other night.  Knowing I was a photographer she brought couple cameras along to show me.  One was her Canon digital which she uses often.  The other she said her husband had found while working on an abandoned house in California some dozen years ago.  She reached in her bag and pulled out a Leica A, the first production model which Leica made from 1925 to 1936.

The camera showed some brassing and discoloration, but only from many years of use and not from any abuse.  The original Elmar lens extended smoothly without and resistance or wobbling and the glass was unmarred. The focusing helical seemed only a little stiff.  I put a small amount of pressure on the advance knob, but it did not want to turn.  I flipped forward the little rewind lever, but the rewind knob also resisted movement.  It seemed possible there was still a roll of film in the camera.

As I held the Leica in my hand my mind was immediately flooded with a parade of images by all the great mid-Century photographers like Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz and Rodchenko who used the then-new miniature camera to revolutionize photographic image making.  It was a thrill to hold the camera which had been used by a contemporary of those pathfinders.  I hope to have a chance to examine it more closely sometime.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Shooting Film

I've been reminded a couple times lately that there is a whole new generation of photographers who have never made images with anything but digital cameras.  There are some clear advantages to that, but also some disadvantages that are not so easily apprehended.  The big problem with any of the digital technologies these days is that it is all contained in a black box in which the underlying fundamentals of operation are obscured.  That is an important issue in photography because fundamental concepts like focus, depth of field and exposure play such an important role in the creative process of making images.  Digital cameras generally do a good job of guessing right on the settings needed to record a scene, but they don't really provide a good substitute for an artist's judgment.  And, even when sophisticated digital cameras may offer the possibility of manually selecting fundamental settings, there must be some awareness on the part of the user about the nature and value of manipulating the basic parameters of picture making.

Trying to be helpful to someone new to film photography is full of pitfalls.  People with long experience in film photography easily lose sight of how deeply embedded are the fundamentals in their thinking, and explanations tend to skip past the all-important basic concepts.  I know this to be true because, even though I was completely entranced with the whole idea of photography from as long as I can remember, I was also totally intimidated for years by the thought of ever dealing effectively with the arcane equipment and concepts embodied in film camera technology.  If I had stumbled on a good mentor in my early years, I think my development as a photographer would have followed a much different course.

With film and film processing having become generally inaccessible in retail outlets, acquiring an old camera from a relative or through a lucky yard sale find is likely to lead quickly to many more questions than answers.  Fortunately, there is no lack of information about getting started with film photography if one looks in the right places.  While I have related my experiences with getting pictures from old cameras often on this blog, I can see in looking over the posts that little of what I've provided here would be of much help to someone just getting started with the art and practice of film photography.  So, rather than trying to recapitulate what others have done well, I'm going to just pass along a few ideas and links to on line sources.

I'll hazard the guess than no camera maker ever sent a product to a retailer without a user's manual.  It is also equally accurate to say that a camera and its manual are very likely to part company soon after purchase.  Fortunately, this fact of nature is balanced by another fact of nature named Mike Butkus who for years has accumulated mountains of old manuals, scanned them and made them available on line free for the taking.  His site is the first place I always look when I want to understand the fine points of using any old new-to-me camera.  Some of the manuals are cursory or confusing, but many provide an excellent guide to the basics of picture making. Kodak manuals are often particularly helpful; one of their classics in a pdf from another site which provides all the essentials of good photography is the manual for the ubiquitous Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash.

In thinking about the topic of this post I did a quick Google search on the phrase, Film Photography Basics.  The first item on the rendered list was The Beginner's Guide To Film Photography - I Still Shoot Film.  As it says on page 1:  "Here you will find the basics of film photography in plain, simple, understandable English to help get you on your way. Updated Regularly."  There are many more sites with a similar aim which can be explored.

On line blogs, web sites and forums are full of photographers who are always willing to provide answers to finding, fixing and using old cameras.  It is really amazing what expertise can be found in such places about even the rarest of film cameras, their accessories and their history.  Some of the sites worth visiting include Photo.Net, Rangefinderforum, Filmwasters, and PhotographyToday.  One thing to watch out for at these kind of sites is that many of us old guys get pretty opinionated about equipment and techniques, and the back and forth about old cameras sometimes yield more heat than light.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Shooting the Kodak Recomar 18

The Kodak Recomar 18 is a 2¼ x 3¼ compact folding plate camera. Two models of this type were produced in Kodak's Stuttgart plant in the 1930's, the other being the larger Recomar 33 which yielded 9x12 cm negatives. The Recomars were designed to be used with plates or sheet film, either in individual film holders or in film packs. Roll film backs were also available which allowed the use of 120-format film.

All the major camera manufacturers produced compact plate cameras at around the same time; Kodak's offerings, originally a Nagel design, were very competitive in regard to materials and craftsmanship. The Recomar 18 was equipped with a Kodak Anastigmat f-4.5/105mm lens and a Compur shutter with speeds from 1 to 1/250 secs., plus T and B settings. There was no front or back tilt capability, but the lens board could be shifted laterally and vertically. Three different view systems were available to the user: a ground glass back, a wire-frame viewfinder with a pop-up eye piece, and a swiveling reflex finder to which was attached a bubble level. The extended bellows could be racked out to produce a subject to image ratio of nearly 1:1.

My camera came to me clean and fully operational, but it lacked the reflex viewfinder. I found a junker with a good finder for a few dollars, so now have everything as originally configured except a working bubble level. I also have a Rada roll film adapter, and have only used that to make pictures with the camera. The adapter makes the camera about as convenient to shoot as any of the folding cameras of the same era if used with the reflex viewfinder. However, with the Rada adapter in place, the additional bulk interferes with proper aiming of the camera through the wire-frame viewfinder in the landscape position. I really got the camera with the intent of using it for close-up work using the ground glass back, so the limitation on the use of the wire-frame finder has not been a hindrance to me.

I've only put a few rolls of film through the Recomar since acquiring it a couple years ago. The results I've gotten from the camera so far have been inconsistent. Thinking that something might need adjusting, I devoted some time recently to make sure that the ground glass back and the roll film adapter were properly positioned at the film plane. I also verified that the infinity setting was correct with the use of a film plane target and an slr. I bought a new piece of ground glass and installed it in the film pack holder, but the brightness is not noticibly better, and the Zeiss ground glass back with the little fold-open hood is more convenient. In low light, or when dealing with strong reflections on the ground glass, I drape a large black cloth over me and the camera.

The Rada film back allows the use of 120 roll film.
My conclusion at this point is that my dissatisfaction with the photos I've gotten from the Recomar has more to do with a lack of operator skills than with camera qualities. Except for tilts, the Recomar is a view camera and it demands a somewhat higher level concentration and attention to detail than I am accustomed to. Since I tend to use the camera mostly for close-up and macro work, that adds an additional level of complexity which also calls for greater self-discipline. I could spend some money and get a more modern medium-format camera, or I could use fine-grain film in one of my Pentax to do close-up photography, but I'm intrigued by the challenge of making pictures with this elegant little view camera that is really not significantly bigger when folded up than my Leica copy FED-1g.

Below are some photos from the Recomar 18. 

Monday, March 07, 2016

Shooting the 1A Pocket Kodak

The No.1A Pocket Kodak was in production from 1926 to 1931. Mine is an Autographic model with a Kodex No.1 shutter having speeds of 1/25, 1/50, T, and B. The Kodar lens is a three-element anastigmat design with apertures from f7.9 to f45. After pulling out the bellows to the locking point, focus is achieved by turning a thumbwheel so that the distance indicator on the bed is moved to the estimated distance from camera to subject. The viewfinder is a magnified brilliant design that swivels for either vertical or horizontal framing. There are two tripod mounts and a cable release socket.

Kodak's 1A cameras all used 116-size film which yielded 2.5" by 4.25" negatives. That format was discontinued in 1984, but one can shoot with the cameras using still-available 120 roll film. As the 120 film is a quarter inch narrower than 116, pictures made with it will have a panoramic appearance with the image extending out to the film edges and having a length of 4.25".

It is possible to use 120 rollfilm in the No.1A Pocket Kodak with no special modifications. The pressure plate in the camera back has corner cutouts that will easily accomodate the narrower width of the 120 reel, and the box-like structure of the body of the camera holds the supply and take-up reels securely in place. The tongue of paper backing leader should be secured with one full turn to hold it tightly. The supply-side reel is placed in the other end, and the camera can then be closed up. At that point, the ruby window on the camera's back must be covered with black tape as the narrow 120 film would otherwise be fogged. The film advance key is then turned eight-and-one-half rotations to bring the film into position for the first exposure. For the next and subsequent exposures, two-and-one-half rotations of the advance key will provide proper framing with no image overlap. Using this method, six frames will just fit on a roll of 120 film. (Film and backing paper thickness as well as leader length varies from one brand to another, so some experimenting with advancing to the first frame should be done with the film you intend to use.)

The one remaining problem is avoiding unwanted light exposure on the film when removing it from the camera. Since the 116 take-up reel is wider than the 120 film, the film edges remain exposed and vulnerable; the easiest way to deal with that is to unload the film and get it into a developing tank in complete darkness. If the film is to be processed by someone other than the photographer it can be rerolled in darkness from the 116 reel back onto an empty 120 reel. Below are some sample photos from the camera using 120 rollfilm.   * * *   More results from the camera are posted on my blog.

Hello to Angela from Stripey the Cat.