Darkroomist Photographic culture of the analog variety from the fresh coast.


Tri-X is 61!

A Wired Article points out that Tri-X is 61 years old this year. I was a little slow on the uptake of Tri-X. My very first experience with black and white film in High School was with the brand new (then) Tmax. I distinctly remember my Photography Club proctor saying "I hope this works with regular developer because we don't have any Tmax developer." It did. Almost a decade later when I picked up photography again in 2001 Tmax was about all the local Ritz had. I eventually switched to Ilford Delta which is still a "T" grain film but I thought it looked more "organic." I eventual meandered out of "T" grain films with Efke and then budget Chinese films and Foma. Which brought me to Tri-X. Freestyle sold some Tri-X as it's Arista Premium and I started shooting it. I like it. It was actually quite a jolt going from 120 Fuji Neopan Acros developed in Xtol, to 35mm Tri-X developed in Rodinol. The Acros would have grain so tight it was hard to see with a grain focuser on 8x10 prints. The Tri-X formulation had golfball size grain by comparison. Not that there's anything wrong with that! :) Now I like Tri-X, I think I like Kodak XX a bit more but I'd rather shoot Tri-X than Shanghai or Lucky SHD. Neopan Acros still rules the iso 100 category though. That stuff is Magic!

This abandoned pier was shot in a brief crossover period when I was processing Tri-X in Xtol:
Old Pier Pano

Like the article mentions, this is an old, probably the oldest black and white film in continuous production, it's been there and proven itself in the hands of innumerable photographers. Shooting Tri-X is like time traveling. It's fun, a timeless look, and those of us still shooting film should consider adding it to our repertoire.

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Analog Photography Auto Rap

I couldn't resist doing a little analog photography ditty with the Auto Rap app :) :

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I Got Two Images in Lightbox Photographic’s MobilMagic XVIII Exhibit

Snap! I got two images accepted into Lightbox Phhotographic's Mobil Magic XVIII exhibition! It's a regular exhibition of camera phone art. It's juried and comprised of the top 25. While it's $10 per entry the Juror's top choice is awarded $50 and EVERY submission is printed and mailed to you. For $10 that's really pretty dang good. A bonus is that it's super accessible as all you need is a camera phone and a paypal account. I edited my images using Snapseed which is a free image editing app that you can use on your phone. There's an open call for the next Mobile Magic Exhibit and you can find that here.

Here's the prints I received:
Prints from Lightbox Photographic

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Manfrotto Monopod Clearance Deal at Walmart!

Last night I had to make a quick run to Walmart and took a quick look through their clearance isle. That's when I happened upon this super deal. It's a Manfrotto MMC3-01M monopod. They had it marked down to $10, Amazon has it listed for $24.75! It's small, and I mean really small (I included and iPhone 3gs for size comparison). Fifteen and change inches long when collapsed and 4.5 feet at max extension. It has the typical Manfrotto solid construction and the slightly oval shape feels very comfortable one's hand. Being extremely compact means this will see use on trips when bulkier gear wouldn't be welcome. Family vacations, hikes, geocaching, and other outings when photography isn't the main purpose would be the perfect time to pack this little wonder. There's only two draw backs to it really. The first is that there's no head on it so it's square and landscape only unless you put a mini ball head on it. Which brings up drawback number two. The max weight limit is 3.3lbs. If you put even a small ball head on it, or a pan/tilt head, you'd be bumping up against that limit fast. Best bet in my opinion would be a Holga for film or some other lightweight square format film camera, or a cell phone. Still, despite the drawbacks this monopod is way better than my old SLIK monopod. Not sure if this was a one-off deal at the Walmart down the street from me or if it's at more stores, but it never hurts to browse the clearance isle!

Manfrotto MMC3-01M Monopod

Manfrotto Monopod

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The Lensbaby 1.0 Lens

Lensbaby Lens

I mentioned The Lensbaby Lens in a HiFi and LoFi approaches to film photography. The Lensbaby is a unique tool that can give your images a distinct look, but it's also a bit of a double edged sword.

The Lensbaby is a take on plunger cam A lens mounted to some flexible tubing that you can get tilt, shift, and soft focus effects. Lensbaby took this concept and paired it with the single element soft focus lens and came up with a soft focus plunger cam. Effectively a selective soft focus lens that can blur the out of focus bits dramatically. Pictured above is their very first product The Lensbaby 1.0. Lensbaby has since gone on to create more refined and even completely new lenses.

This is not an autofocus lens. It's manual and in a very different way. To use the lens baby lens, you place a finger or two on each side of the metal flange surrounding the lens while you hold the camera and compose the shot. It takes a bit of coordination. By pressing towards the camera you focus further away. By tilting the flange, and hence lens, out of parallel from the film plane, you can move the point of focus around in the frame. This is how you get the tilt effect. Shift effects are possible as well but I've found them to be more difficult to execute and less pronounced in effect. You can also slightly tug on the lens to get get it focus on closer objects for a macro effect. All in all a very versatile lens.

Lensbaby pictures:
Child Portrait with Lensbaby 1.0

Lensbaby 1.0 Pine Cone

The downside of this lens is that it can get gimmicky very quickly. I got my Lensbaby Lens just before a trip to New Orleans and I went a little Lensbaby crazy. Off the top of my head I can say I took two really good images with it. The rest of the Lensbaby shots left me wondering why I shot that with the Lensbaby. Luckily I did bring and use more conventional lenses. Now I treat it like a fisheye lens. It's great for some shots. It is THE tool to use for somewhat soft and extremely selective focus effect, especially if fast hand holding (as apposed to using a tripod) is essential. Chromatic Aberrations are not corrected for and fringing happens regularly. On top of it, I don't believe the element is coated. The Lensbaby is NOT a walking around lens. It doesn't work well for that for me. The lens itself is too much a part of the image to use it without careful consideration like you would a fisheye.

A final bright spot in this write up is the size and weight of the Lensbaby. For a lens it's tiny and extremely light weight. If I were traveling light with a film SLR I'd probably pack this lens, a pancake, and a wide angle. The focal length is around 55mm so it should work well with most SLRs even ones with mirrors. Plus the milled metal lens cap is probably bulletproof! This model and its successor are no longer made by LensBaby but you can find an impressive line of its descendants in their product offerings.

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In depth explanation of how film works from the 1940 Society of Cinematographers

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Film photography: HiFi or LoFi?

Which is your shooting style?

In the middle of the 20th century major advancements were made in the ability to record and playback audio, from vinyl LPs, to reel-to-reel tape, to FM radio and better amplifier design. Collectively this better sounding audio was marketed as High Fidelity or HiFi (which is also the nickname that wifi is a spin off of). By the time I came along in the mid 1970s pretty much everything was HiFi. In the 1990s cassette based 4-track studio-in-a-box type of devices came out designed to be a sort of scratch pad for musicians. Some bands like Sonic Youth, Beck, and Ween took these relatively horrible sounding boxes combined them with all sorts of entry level effects and equipment and started a LoFi aesthetic. Turns out that after hearing reasonably high quality audio for 40 years makes crappy audio sound interesting. What these artists tapped into was a sort of love for auditory grit and grime and using that grime creatively.

Similar things have happened in photography. Focus and shoot cameras became a reality in the 1970s notably with the Canon AE-1, but Nikon, Minolta, Olympus, et al all made reasonably easy to use cameras with quality optics. While the SLR revolution made quality imaging possible for millions, these cameras were still expensive. More casual users were stuck with lamentable forays into affordable photography that included things like the Kodak Disc camera or 110 "focus free" cameras. Everyday consumer cameras took fairly poor pictures until the 1980's when the price point of AF 35mm "Point and Shoot" cameras put one in just about every household.

I first noticed a distinct LoFi photography aesthetic in 2003-ish a couple of years after I started taking a strong interest in photography. The site that first really grabbed my interest in LoFi photography was DigitalSucks.com which had the tag line "If it ain't plastic ... IT AIN'T REAL." At one point I started submitting to the site and even had one accepted IIRC. The site is long gone. It was short lived and went offline in 2006. The link is to the Internet Archive version (thanks IA!). The idea here was to shoot with toy or plastic cameras. Medium Format 120 cameras such as Holgas and Dianas were the weapons of choice with 35mm promo cameras (like the free camera you'd get with a subscription to TIME magazine) pulling up the rear. No light meter, no way to tell if the image was in focus, just a couple apertures, one shutter speed, and a single element plastic lens.

Though it didn't take as long the photography trend paralleled the music trend (and actually there was a video trends as well). After seeing uniformly acceptable images for so long, what would have been considered flawed images had become interesting. Still today the ubiquity of HiFi imagery on every smart phone has made niche for LoFi photography so much so that there are apps to mimic the aesthetic digitally.

If you are considering shooting film HiFi or LoFi is pretty much your first choice. Both results are easy to obtain, and they're not mutually exclusive. Just because you shoot one doesn't mean you can't shoot the other. If you want to start with hifi you can do it simply with a 35mm SLR and pretty much any one will do. Theoretically you can get something like 90mp off a 35mm frame but achieving that in real life is another matter. Using an older flat bed film scanner it's more like 10mp which is more than adequate for web display. The real magic come with printing in a darkroom. I've blown up 35mm shots to 16x20 and been impressed with the results. If you want to go up a notch from there, a 6x4.5 medium format camera is a great place to start. They're fairly inexpensive and the quality will pop out at you even in an 8x10. The larger the negative, the more visual information you capture and can reproduce. While shooting 4x5 can be challenging the results are yet another step above medium format.

Treman Waterfall

Abandoned Hunting Cabin

Like audiophiles buying special cables for their sound systems, HiFi photography is a rabbit hole you can explore until your heart's content without ever finding an end. The quest for sharp, crisp images of astonishing latitude that make wonderful prints is easy to start and can last your lifetime. You can also settle on what you like. There are a couple camera/film/developer combinations I truly enjoy. It all depends on your own tolerance for diminishing returns. At some point it costs more and more to make smaller and smaller improvements to the fidelity of your imaging system. Some people are happy with a Contax point and shoot 35mm and others truck a 7x17 panoramic camera around. Neither is right or wrong, it's all personal preference.

On the other end is LoFi photography. Much of the LoFi movement has precipitated around Lomography. Lomo cameras started in Russia as cheap plastic consumer cameras and visiting Austrians fell in love with them. Eventually they started making loom cameras and expanded to make Holgas, Dianas, and invent new LoFi marvels. LoFi film cameras are usually available in 35mm or 120. While Lomo cameras are great for what they are, I tend to think they're a bit over priced. If you want to start in LoFi photography the place to start is either with a Holga or a promo camera. Even Time Magazine promo camera on Lomography.com You can find promo cameras at thrift stores often for under $5.

Promo Camera Shots:
Corporate Light Toy Camera Rainy Day Monument Toy Camera

LoFi photography is an entirely different rabbit hole from Hifi photography. Hifi photography is a quest with a direction it has a goal or an aim. LoFi photography is more trial and error, more testing to find out how a specific camera is crappy, finding what types of subjects compliment your camera's type of crappiness. It's more, "Eh why not? -snap-" More shooting, less planning, less predictable results. With LoFi photography there's also modifying your camera to be crappy in specific ways, or reducing over-craptitude.

Holga Shots:
Holga Flash Tree

Baltimore Cemetary Holga

Baltimore Alley Holga

Can you have it both ways at the same time? Yes you certainly can! Just like you can listen to a LoFi band on a HiFi system, you can put crappy lenses on great cameras. The first thing that springs to mind here are Lensbaby lenses. Lensbaby's first and flagship product is a take on the old plunger cam. It's a single element lens on the end of some flexible tubing you mount to your camera. You focus by manipulating the lens (I'll do a write up on this lens later). Lensbaby has since come out with many more products and has improved on its original significantly. But it's not the only option. There's the Sima Soft Focus lens, Holga lenses adapted for SLRs, the 100mm Portragon, Loreo lens-in-a-cap, and I'm sure others. A friend of mine, Andrex Moxom, mounted a lens from an infamously crappy Great Wall medium format camera onto a Hasselblad camera body. He calls it "The Great Hassel!" Search ebay for a Darlot lens and you'll be surprised at how expensive they are. Many large format photographers love the very special way this specific turn-of-the-century lens makes out of focus background look eerie. On top of specific lenses you can put a pinhole lens on just about anything. Pinhole is probably the original LoFi photography before LoFi was ever a thing. Unfortunately putting a crappy lens on a good camera doesn't always produce results as gritty as an actual camera. On the plus side you'll end up with less throw away frames with the reliability that comes from a decent camera body. Many people find this to be a great in-between solution as you can always switch lenses back and get Hifi and LoFi on the same roll.

New Orleans Jazz Player lensbaby
Shot with a Lensbaby

The only reason for any of this is to support the subject matter. It doesn't matter if you take an ultra hi fidelity image of your messy living room or a snap a toy camera pic of it. If it isn't interesting the approach alone isn't enough to carry the image. You might get a little more leeway with LoFi but it's not a lot. From my experience, which is by no means definitive, I like to shoot interesting things with lots of detail, like waterfalls or abandoned buildings in HiFi, while more abstract or minimal subjects benefit from LoFi.

How about you? What do you prefer in your photography: almost hyper realistic detail or authentic, gritty imperfection? What do you like to look at? What is your approach and do you use any unique or different tools to get there?

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Potter Street Station Panoramic

B&W Panoramic of the Potter St Station Saginaw, Michigan

Officially named the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot most locals call it the Potter Street Station or just the train depot. Built in 1881, this structure was designed by the architectural genius Bradford Lee Gilbert. That's not tongue in cheek, the man boasted a phenomenal career that included the first sky scraper in New York City, the first expansion of Grand Central Station, the first flat iron building in the country in Atlanta, and numerous train stations across the country. Unfortunately this magnificent building has lost some of its splendor to the ravages of time. A fire in the 1990's took much of the roof which was replaced but the highest portion of the building collapsed. The building was the train station for Saginaw, Michigan until 1955 when passenger service to Saginaw was discontinued. Railroad company mergers and acquisitions spare the station from the wrecking ball and the structure was used to house railroad crews and supplies until 1986.

There's a fair amount of local interest in preserving the structure but the challenges are daunting. Last I heard it would take approximately twelve million dollars to return the structure to functional and rentable status. Finding that kind of money in Saginaw is no easy task. On top of it, the train station is in a rough section of town. The opposite side of the street literally looks like a Scooby-Doo ghost town. Even if the building were in perfect condition tomorrow it would be challenging to find tenants. Despite these challenges I think it's a structure worthy of retaining. Many of Gilbert's buildings are gone and the ones that are left should be preserved. In Saginaw and much of the rust belt when you want to save a historic building, you slap a new roof on it and begin a slow march looking for funding. That's where this building is at, it's where it's been for a few decades. It's the stasis of many historic treasures.

A word of urbex warning: this building is monitored with cameras, do not break in and look around. Ask permission and a member of the The Saginaw Depot Preservation Corporation will schedule a tour for you.

I shot this with my Bronica SQa with a 35mm panoramic back using a yellow filter to bring out the clouds more. I haven't offered this for sale on Etsy yet but prints are available!

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The Tokina 80-200/2.8 AT-X SD

Tokina AT-X 80-200mm/2.8

Here's my Tokina 80-200/2.8 AT-X SD. I got this lens used from keh.com some years ago. I was shooting weddings and everyone was raving about how you needed a 70-210/2.8 lens. I shoot Canon cameras and that lens sells for north of $1k and I simply couldn't afford it. There is a Canon 80-200/2.8L that was fetching $800-ish at the time that I was seriously considering. Then I checked third party lens section on keh's site and stumbled across this wonderful gem.

If you know Tokina lenses you might be familiar that the AT-X line is their stab at professional quality lenses. They usually fall short of Canon's L line in terms of ability but in this instance I found it to be "good enough." The quality of the build is awesome by today's standards. From what I can tell was the cross over from manual focus to AF and back then weight was apparently not a factor. Wide open at F2.8 it's a little soft, especially around the edges. At F4 it's great. For weddings this is generally ok as slightly soft isn't always a bad thing. Plus if there's two people in the frame F4 is a minimum for this focal length or someone will be out of focus. Still the large F2.8 maximum aperture collects a lot of light for focusing.

This brings us to the primary downfall of this lens, the AF is downright pokey. Ultrasonic lenses have been around for at least a decade and spoiled us. The focusing motor on this is slow and it has to move big elements a lot to do its job. I've done some shooting with my children with this lens and it's difficult. Soccer was a challenge! When focusing the front filter ring turns which can be bad under certain circumstances (petal lens shade, gradient filter, polarizing filters, etc would drive you nuts) but it's not a deal breaker. Also the tripod collar is *not* removable which is pretty much just nitpicking at this point. On the plus side, these can often be found used for under $500 and the red stripe can make you feel like you're using L glass! If you're shooting subjects you're posing this lens is great. The slow AF won't bother you in these more controlled circumstances. 200mm at F2.8 or even F4 is a classic beach/swimsuit combination.

Oddly enough I found myself not liking this lens for weddings. I used a crop sensor camera making this more like 100-300mm. Generally I shot wider and a 24-105mm/4 IS L fit my style much better. I eventually stopped using it for weddings because it weighs 1363g which was too much for how often I used it. I still held on to it for senior picture sessions and modeling work. I've also had an odd occasion to grab it for a quick wildlife photo in my back yard. It's a decent performer. I picked this one up at keh.com for under $300. Here's an awesome tip for finding inexpensive pro tele zooms: look for 80-200mm/2.8 lenses. Everyone is looking for 70-210mm lenses many folks never look just 10mm beyond that. Some of the 80-200's can be way less expensive, yet still very high quality glass. It's an older lens design which will have the slower AF motor problem but it could save you $500 or more. Right now keh.com has a 80-200mm/2.8 L for under $400 granted it's listed in rough condition but still functional and it's L glass. One word of caution when taking advantage of older AF lens deals: Sigma made some AF lenses that just don't play nice on Canon dSLRs. Sometimes they're called Elan only (which was a film SLR) but on digital cameras will give you Error99 or Error01 codes. Neither will hurt your camera but it just won't go either.

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1974 BBC Documentary on the Gandolfi family and their hand made cameras

A fun video on the art and craftsmanship of handmade, large format cameras.

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