In the days of yore, when folders were the king of the heap, traveling around the world with a folding camera was a simple fact of life. They were the teensy weeny digital point and shoot cameras of their day. Let’s be straight about this, folding cameras were never the professional’s choice. In that day and age the newspaper reporter would have been packing around a 4×5 Speed Graphic, or its equivalent. He would not have been caught dead with a folder. No, the folders were the amateur’s darling. That’s why there are still so many of them around. They were used once in a while and then forgotten somewhere in a drawer. They got pulled out for parties, bar mitzvahs and Christmas. A roll or two of film and back in the drawer they went. Face it, if they would have been the choice of the pro then there would not have been as many sold for starters. There are WAY more of us amateurs out there then pros. And those cameras that were sold would have been bruised and beaten unmercifully by that professional who was trying to make a living with his pictures. The results of that rough life are always a trail of broken cameras, today the same as yesterday. The folding camera was never intended for the pro. It was the camera manufacturer’s attempt to get more people to take pictures, and to sell more film. Then upgrading to the next best thing in a year or two. Sounds familiar…right? Just like today. Anyway, as you can see, a traveling medium format folding camera is really nothing new.
But that was then, and this is now. My job involves traveling to a lot of spots around the world, some interesting and others not so interesting. Since I like taking pictures for a hobby I also enjoy carrying a camera and capturing some shots of these interesting locations from time to time. Not unlike a lot of people we both know. Like almost everyone else, in the last several years I have always carried a digital camera. But I have never really been thrilled with the images I got with those cameras. Oh, they looked great when you looked at them in that tiny little display screen. And they were ok to e-mail to friends. Once in a while I would go down to Wal-Mart and spring for some 4×6 prints, which usually turned out ok, or the occasional, 5×7 print. But once in a while I would accidentally capture a pretty decent picture, or so I thought. But everytime I tried to enlarge beyond that 5×7 limit things broke down quickly and I have almost always been disappointed. So I began thinking. Dangerous, right? Obviously, since this little blog really isn’t about digital cameras, you already know I didn’t decide to get a bigger digital camera. Instead I decided to try my hand at using a medium format camera on the road, like they did in the old days. Although they were the digital point and shoot of their day, a 6×6 negative still beats a fingernail-sized image from one of those little digital cameras hands down. Face it, progress ain’t always really progress my friend. Going from a 2 1/4 inch by 2 1/4 inch negative to the equivalent of a 1/4 inch by 1/4 inch digital negative is not really better, no matter what they try to tell you. Getting a really nice, enlargeable image from a folder takes a little extra work, but it can be done. No matter how hard you work at it a digital camera can only capture just so much information inside that tiny little area, no matter how many megapixels they crammed in there. A 6×6 negative, scanned at 2400 dots per inch, is good for about 30 megapixels. That is a lot of photographic information. I think that it is pretty safe to say that my 6×6 medium format negative is going to enlarge a whole lot better than that fingernail sized digital image, grain or no grain.
So, I gave this a bit of thought and decided to carry my Agfa Super Isolette. I knew that it would be a whole lot easier to pull a folding camera out of my backpack then my Pentax 645Nii. The Agfa Super Isolette is one of my nicest medium format folding cameras. It captures a dozen 6×6 negatives on a roll of 120 film. It has a coated lens so I can use it with either color or black and white film without any worries about flare or reduced contrast. It has a very nice, 4 element Tessar lens (Agfa called their’s the Solinar) that is capable of capturing tack sharp images wide open, and a really good Synchro Compur shutter with speeds all the way to 1/500 seconds so I rarely have any difficulty getting shots with it. With the 1/500 second shutter I can easily use ISO 400 film in it during daytime so I am reasonably assured of decent, handheld, shutter speeds in most circumstances. Although it isn’t the lightest folder I own, it folds up into a very compact little package. Finally, even though it is a manual camera, it is actually reasonably easy to use. After all, just because I am leaving the digital camera at home doesn’t mean that I want to do without convenience. And using the Agfa is about as convenient as it gets with medium format folding cameras. Overall it seemed the perfect camera to carry around the world in my backpack.
Next, I decided to carry black & white as well as color film with me. I chose some ISO 400 black and white film, some ISO 400 Kodak Portra color film, and some Fuji ISO 400 and 160 color film. I didn’t bring any slide film on this trip, but in retrospect I think I’ll bring some along on the next trip. I left it behind this time because I didn’t envision using a tripod a lot, but I actually did have several opportunities to use a tripod so Velvia 50 or 100 is certainly doable and would have provided some excellent transparencies. But, the film I selected worked out great. I don’t know if you have had the opportunity to use the ISO 400 films that are being produced nowdays, but it is some really nice stuff. It has less grain then ISO 200 film had just 20 years ago, and it scans beautifully. It packed neatly into the bottom of my backpack, just above my shrink-wrapped bag of emergency clothes, and it really did not get in the way. I pulled out 3 extra rolls for the trip and put them in one of the side pockets so that they would be easy to get at. Overall I did not experience any additional inconvenience from the film. Let’s face it, although film is a lot bulkier than a couple of memory cards, it still is pretty compact and does not take up a lot of room. Since the Agfa doesn’t use batteries I wasn’t weighed down with these. But my little Sekonic L208 uses a couple of CR2032 watch batteries so a pack of them went in the bottom of the bag as well. If you have ever seen these little wafer thin watch batteries you know I was not seriously inconvenienced by carrying two of them. I had a harder time finding them after the trip was over then I did carrying them.
Since people have been carrying medium format folding cameras around the world on airplances far before I was born it was pretty obvious it can be done. However, this is a slightly different world and carrying film has new challenges, or so you would think from reading the stories being posted on the internet. I think we have all read the horror stories of trying to convince security personnel to hand inspect your film rather then let it go through the scanner and be ruined, and we have all seen the lead lined film bags being sold on Adorama and E-Bay so you can safely get your film through Airport Security. As things turned out, there was good and there was bad about the trip, but the good and the bad were not exactly what I had anticipated in the beginning. When I first came up with this idea I really thought that my biggest challenge would be getting my film through airport security. I had visions of grumpy old TSA agents pawing through my bag, ripping open my rolls of film, or asking to see the inside of my camera. Well, that didn’t happen. I had 30 rolls of medium format 120 roll film in the bottom of my backpack and nobody even gave it a 2nd glance. TSA states that the scanning x-rays used for carry-on luggage will not fog or damage film if it ISO 400 or lower. I can certainly attest to that. None of my film was hurt by the scanners. However they do say that the scanners used for checked baggage could cause a problem so they do recommend carrying it with you and not checking it. In addition I had read that people were forced to pull unused film out of their cameras by over zealous security agents. I purposely did not load any film in my camera but this turned out to be a complete non-issue. There may have been a time when this was a problem but evidently not any longer. No one even asked to take my camera out of my bag, let alone open it up so they could have a look inside it. Obviously no one was too worried about me and my film.
Once I was in the airport I pulled out the camera and loaded a roll of Arista Edu 400 black and white. What you see here was my very first official shot of the trip. Pretty bad actually. Probably not the best I could do, and I obviously need to work a little on my focusing, but I just set the camera on the arm of the chair and took the picture.
Using that same roll of film I took a few more shots throughout my trip down to Chile. One of the next shots I took was of the tarmac out the window. I set the camera on the heater vent along the bottom of the window and took this shot. Fortunately it is a little better focused.
There are more of the same but the real story here is not the pictures I took, or whether they are worth posting out on the internet for lots of people to look at. Rather the most amazing thing to me was the reaction I was getting. Next to my concern about carrying film through security, my next concern was actually using the camera, particularly in the airport. I didn’t really want to become the center of attention when I pulled out a medium format camera and started snapping pictures. In fact, that was one of the reasons that I decided to carry the Agfa rather than my Pentax 645Nii. I figured the Pentax was just too big and would attract too much attention. And it may have. But the Agfa certainly did not. In fact, most people didn’t even look my way, and if they did they certainly didn’t dwell on the fact that I was carrying a camera. This was actually the opposite of what I had anticipated. I didn’t run all over the airport snapping pictures like a mad man, but I did get to the point where I pulled the camera out of my bag without too much thought and grabbed a shot where I wanted. So my second worry really turned out like the first, a complete non-issue. No one cared. Which was great.
I really enjoyed using the camera. It was far nicer then using my digital point and shoot Canon, and not nearly as inconvenient as I imagined in the beginning. I carried my little Sekonic light meter around my neck under my shirt. I would reach down, grab the meter, take a reading, and drop it back down under my shirt. This took two or three seconds tops. I would then set my exposure on the camera based on the reading I had and how much depth of field I wanted. Focusing was really easy. Most of my pictures turned out to be at infinity, and those that weren’t I just use zone focusing. The entire process would typically take 6 to 10 seconds. Certainly it is quicker to use the digital but I can tell you from experience that by the time I take a picture, and then chimp the display screen, I am using up almost that same amount of time. I do get more pictures with the digital but I am not nearly as happy with the results when I get home. The only one I wasn’t happy with was that first one, and I’m going to try that again. Using the camera was actually very easy. I got to take some great shots and I had some great fun with it. I found it a lot more enjoyable carrying my folder around, pulling it out, setting it up, and taking pictures. I wore my “film vest” and carried the camera in the inside pocket of the vest, where it was always immediately available. Here is another shot taken of the harbor in Antofagasta, Chile from the sea wall near the hotel I stayed at. I suspect that, with time, the novelty will wear off and I won’t find it near as interesting to use the folder. But I can already tell you that I have enlarged a couple of my shots to 11×14, and I am very happy with the results. That would have been practically impossible to do with any of the images from my digital point and shoot.
Carrying a medium format film camera around the world is not that difficult. In fact, it is pretty easy. Using a film camera on the road is really no more difficult than using it at home is. I am going to do this a lot more. My results were much better. But I did say there was good, as well as bad about my experiences using this camera. The good was that my fears were pretty much misplaced and I won’t be near as nervous about doing this the 2nd time around. But, there was some bad. The bad was that my camera broke during the trip. Of course, a broken camera happens. Digital cameras die all the time. But in this case the shutter quite working correctly. It would not always catch and stay cocked when I rotated the lever to the cocked position. I would try to cock the shutter and it would not catch, instead it would seem to fire. Now, what I did not know was whether the camera was shooting a frame every time the shutter failed to catch. If so, I was double, triple, and sometimes quadruple exposing one frame of film as I tried to get the shutter to hold in place correctly. Obviously this meant that the frame would be ruined. But, since I could not watch the shutter, I didn’t know. And unlike digital, I did not have a display screen to check. The next problem was I did not know whether or not the shutter speeds were still working correctly. The shutter still seemed to catch and work at 1/250 seconds and 1/500 seconds. Obviously it would have been a pain in the butt, but I could still have worked around that, if I had been sure that it was still actually working at that speed. Since the shutter was obviously malfunctioning, the malfunction was also possibly affecting the actual shutter speed. There just was no way to know. So, rather then use up film that may end up being ruined because of inaccurate exposure, I finally just put the camera away for the remainder of the trip. As it turned out I was only able to shoot 5 rolls of film during the trip. Fortunately, most of the shots I took did turn out, but the problem certainly did affect the shots. The shutter speed was actually working correctly at 1/250 and 1/500 seconds. The shots taken at those speeds did turn out correctly. But the shutter was actually firing at the slower speeds when it would not catch properly, so those frames were ruined.
However, this has only whetted my appetite for more. The Agfa is being repaired as I write this. Mr. Jurgen Krekel is an absolute wonder with folding cameras and I am very glad I know him. Next time I’ll carry a second folder just in case one of them malfunctions again. Of course, Murphy’s Law holds that the camera will not malfunction unless it is the only one available. So I am sure that I will carry two folders and only need one for several more years.
So what have I learned so far? One, carrying film around the world is no big deal. The Security people obviously aren’t too worried by it. Next, carrying and using a medium format folder on the road is very easy and does not seem to cause any disturbance among the traveling public. Finally, cameras do break down, even well engineered and manufactured German ones, carry a spare if that is important.
Until next time, here are two more shots for the road.