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


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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Book: Elmer Batters, From the tip of the toes to the top of the hose.

Elmer Batters, From the tip of the toes to the top of the hose.

Elmer Batters: from the tip of the toes to the top of the hose. When I first read the title of this book I thought "awesome, I love thigh highs!" A lot of my pinup work revolves around retro or vintage lingerie and thigh highs are an essential part of that. Heck I've seen pinups of a woman wearing a bathing suit with thigh highs, which is seriously pushing the idea that they go with everything, but if you can't do that with pinup where can you do it? Unfortunately I completely misread the subtext of the sub title. This book is foremost for folks into feet and that is really not my thing. Still there some solid classic pinup work buried amongst the foot fetish stuff. The book has a lot of nudity in it. I became familiar with Batters' work trough sifting through listing of vintage pinup negatives negatives on eBay. I was a little surprised by how much this tome leans on nekkidness. Nudity is represented more in this book than the overall picture I formed of Batters' imagery. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I still like it; not a total loss by any means. At the same time it's not entirely what I was expecting perhaps due in part to my own tunnel vision with respect to what I like in pinup and what I enjoyed about Batters' work.

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The Vivitar Series 1 Solid Catadioptric (Solid Cat)

Vivitar Series 1 solid cat

Here we have the Vivitar Series 1 600mm/8 solid catadioptric lens. This was one heck of a find (and a steal) I made years ago. This is hands down *the best* mirror lens ever mass produced for the photography market and contends for the best camera lens made in the USA (With Kodak's Aero-Ektar IMHO). It was made by Perkin Elmer a sciences and telescope optics company for Vivitar. Most mirror lenses have significant space between the catadioptric elements. This one has none, it is one element. This also makes it very compact and very heavy. Like all mirror lenses this with give you pronounced donut bokeh on out of focus highlights which were a deadly sin just a couple years ago. Opinion might me coming around on that. With the eos adapter, hood, and lens cap it's still shorter than the long side of an iPhone. Great great great super tele lens. Amazing piece of optical engineering. Heres a couple shot's I've taken with it. It's a little difficult to work with as it truly requires a tripod and the closest it can focus is 53 feet.

Amie J bridal vivitar series 1 solid cat

Moon shot with the vivitar series 1 solid cat

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An Urbex Poster is Born

There's lots to love about shooting medium format film. The tonality is great, the latitude is incredible, and the ability to capture and reproduce fine detail is astounding. One way to really appreciate all this is to print BIG. In my darkroom I can go up to 16x20 which is a pretty serious size print. Problem is big paper is expensive. I usually shoot on the reasonably price Arista RC VC which is a bit over $2/sheet plus shipping. Handling wet FB paper that size is challenging. Plus big prints are expensive. I usually get over $100 for one and I've been told that's too cheap. In wanting to make some of these wonderful images more accessible to people I thought I'd start designing some posters. This shot from Michigan Central Station is my first stab at it.

Back in 2008 myself and few other analog (and some digital) photographers made and urban exploration (urbex) trip to the huge, abandoned, Michigan Central Station train station in Detroit. This is a well known urbex destination and it is magnificent. It's a pre-WWII public structure build during Detroit's heyday. The craftsmanship and opulence of the the grand marble entrances is remarkable. It's also remarkable what time and neglect have done to the structure. Between the vandals and mother nature's wrecking ball, this wonder has slid far from the zenith it once held. I'm of the opinion that the fall from grace is itself a beautiful tragedy. Like an architectural parallel to MacBeth or Hamlet. With this building the story is not over. It's owner has taken renewed interest in the structure and has been removed some asbestos and making repairs.

Now available for the first time as a 23" X 35" poster:
Michigan Central Station Urbex Poster

A traditional darkroom 8x10 print is still available here.

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How much is this Camera Worth?

If you're like me you're the family's camera guy, photographer, photo man and all things photography related. If so you probably get this question a lot: "I have this XYXYXYX film camera, is it worth anything?" Usually someone standing near by could actually hear your eyes rolling. Most times the answer is "No" and not because you want it. It's just that the film cameras with the highest production numbers were, with few exceptions, consumer oriented overly simplistic garbage. Like I said there are few exceptions. SLRs and TLRs and rangefinders can get some money, especially if they were made in Europe. Some lenses still have good values and some are increasing (like the Canon FL 55mm/1.2) because of new mirrorless digital cameras that can use them. I've also gotten phone calls about enlargers. Sadly most 35mm enlargers are not worth much but a medium format Beseler 23c might fetch $100 if it's complete with everything needed to use it (lens, negative carriers, grain focuser, bulb, etc). Large format cameras are a whole other game. Usually the bellows are a primary concern because replacing leaky bellows on an 8x10 camera can run you $300.

For most of the camera questions Silver Based put together a nice guide covering how much a camera is worth.

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The Koni-Omega Rapid

Koni-Omega Rapid 200

A friend of mine, John Mickevich, posted a picture of a new-to-him Koni-Omega he just received and it made me think I should write up mine. The basics of the camera system is that it's a 6x7, medium format rangefinder. It has a somewhat unusual dial focusing system, and an extremely unusual film advance and cocking mechanism that's been likened to a pump action shotgun. This is by no means a subtle camera and it weighs enough you could defend yourself with it. There's a couple downsides to the system I want to get out of the way before we get on to the good stuff. First off is the system itself. There are four rapid models: Rapid, M, 100, and 200. Lenses are compatible across the entire model line but that's about it. The M and the 200 are almost the same camera with the exception of the face plate and the 200 has framing markings in the rangefinder for the 135mm portrait lens (which you will probably never find). The plain old Rapid is the odd duck out, it's back don't interchange with the rest of the system. The 100 is like the M and the 200 in that the backs interchange, but the backs have two pieces on the M and 200 allowing mid-roll changes. The 100 does not have the second piece so no mid roll changing with the 100. The Rapid also doesn't do mid roll changes. That's the weirdness with the system. Next is the matter of close focusing. The Koni-Omega's don't close focus, even with the 180mm best you'll get is a half portrait. There is a macro set available but it is so labor intensive to use (ground glass focusing insert!) you might as well just bust out a large format camera. Like with all rangefinders you're not looking through the taking lens so remember filters, throw away lens caps, etc. Finally it is possible to not have the back tightly pressed against the camera when you turn the locking mechanism and everything will function fine only light will leak all over your film so mind that as well.

On to the good stuff! Did I mention it's sharp? I originally got this setup because it's supposed to rival Hasselblads! Granted it has a slight advantage in film size and it's a rangefinder so there's no need for pesky lens tricks like retro focus which increases resolution. Using the camera is a ton of fun too. It's name is Rapid and it was meant to focus fast and advace/recock fast. There's even a sports finder for it! Don't forget price. There's a system on eBay at the moment, two cameras, all three lenses, backs, dark slides, instructions, etc for $350 which Is about what I paid for mine a decade ago. The lens lineup is nice too. There's a 60mm wide, 90mm normal, 135mm portrait, and a 180mm tele. The 135mm portrait lens is super rare and very expensive when they do surface. They're all very sharp but not super fast topping out at F3.5. Have you ever seen a camera with three accessory (cold) shoes? Well, here you go! Why would anyone want three accessory shoes? One for your wide angle view finder, one for a shoe mount light meter, and another for flash. Flash brackets are available for this system too. If you're Koni-Omega or lens tries to die on you, send it to Greg Weber. He CLA'd one of mine and a couple backs. He did a fantastic job though it wasn't cheap. He's the only only repair person I know of who has the jig to make sure the camera is shimmed correctly for precise focus.

All in all it's a great camera. Compact of it's format, great line of lenses, affordable. I stopped using mine when I got a Fuji GW690 and a Bronica SQa. Generally I like the SLR more for people work or using filters and it's necessary for my next adventure into montaging. The GW690 is just awe inspiringly sharp and it's 6x9. I think I'll take the Koni out for some shooting this year. I've been meaning to for a while and she's a great little camera. This one pictured is actually a M with a 200 faceplate because the 200 is black (M is silver) and that's more professional.

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