Can I Be Happy Traveling With A Folder??

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.

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Folding Cameras – A Good Intro to Medium Format?

I have to say, I’ve read a lot about folders on the internet and in my opinion about half of what I’ve read is useless. One of the biggest misconceptions is that an old, medium format folding camera is a good introduction to medium format photography. I can’t tell you how many times I have read this posted on some forum. If you don’t believe me, go and look for yourself. I’m not really certain that the people who are recommending this have actually used a good folding camera and then compared that to using a decent medium format camera. Actually I think they make this recommendation thinking that it is a less expensive alternative. But in reality a good, useable, medium format folding camera will cost as much, if not more, than a more traditional medium format camera. I would suspect that there are a lot of people out there who have bought a folding camera to get into medium format, and then regretted their decision later. In my opinion, if you are interested in dipping your toe in the water and testing out medium format then there are better ways to do it.

Before you get the idea that I hate folding cameras let me assure you, that is definitely not true. At last count I own 7 folding cameras that shoot 120 roll film and another that shoots 35mm, and I shoot them a lot. In fact one of my most used medium format cameras is a folding camera that captures truly beautiful 6×9 images on 120 roll film. One of my “carry everywhere” 35mm cameras is also a folding camera. I use these cameras regularly. There are a lot of great reasons for using folding cameras but I would never recommend one of these as a way of introducing someone to medium format. I can think of at least 5 reasons why another type of medium format camera is a better choice.

1. ARE YOU SERIOUS? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO USE THIS?

Folding cameras went out of style years ago. Although Fuji still makes a version, these type of cameras have not been in regular use since the 50s came and went. So almost everyone who may want to try medium format has probably never seen one of these beasts, let alone tried to use one. Medium format is a different experience to start with and there is already new things to learn. Why would you purposely confuse the issue by saddling the initiate with a completely alien style of camera. Most people today have never had to load a roll of film, let along thread and advance it entirely by hand. The large majority have never heard of a camera without a rangefinder and zone focusing is a completely unknown concept. A folding camera is an awesome piece of equipment but using one requires a completely new set of skills.

2. I CAN’T FIND IT A MY LOCAL SUPERMART?

Folding cameras are not found on the camera shelf at your local super department store. Not even the film is available there. They can’t even be found at Amazon.com. Usually they are found either in second hand shops or on-line auctions. They probably haven’t been used in decades, are coated in dust and almost certainly need to be serviced before they will work at all, let alone work as designed. It is going to be challenging to find a good, useable example, let alone finding someone out there who is actually competent enough to service the camera. An awful lot of these cameras take marginal medium format images to start with. And that is assuming that they work correctly. If they aren’t working properly you may end up getting discouraged with medium format before you have ever really been given a chance to experience that awesome feeling that you get from that truly beautiful medium format print that hooks you for the rest of your life. By recommending a folding camera as the entry point for medium format I am afraid that we may be ruining that wonderful experience for a lot of people. Of course, medium format folding cameras are fully capable of taking those truly stunning images. Done right these images will make those pictures you are getting from your digital point and shoot, or even your 35mm, look truly pale in comparison. But that requires a camera that is really in top condition, and the knowledge to use it right.

3. WASN’T THIS SUPPOSED TO BE AN INEXPENSIVE ALTERNATIVE?

The medium format folding camera probably isn’t the inexpensive alternative that everyone makes it out to be. Yes, theoretically it is possible to find a medium format folding camera in excellent condition for a very low price on your friendly local on-line auction site, but the chances really aren’t that great. In reality a reasonable price for a folder in decent condition starts around $200 and goes up from there. The really good ones start at $400. I can’t think of anything in the world that will work without service for over 50 years, not even a beautifully designed camera. So your new purchase should probably be serviced. You can expect to pay $80 for a simple CLA (cleaning, lubrication and adjustment.) If your bellows needs to be replaced the cost jumped by another $100. So, although there is an outside chance that you may find a folder in good condition for under $100 the reality is that you will probably pay over $300. For that money you can almost certainly find a used Mamiya M645 or a Pentax 645 in good shape. Both of these cameras will be far easier for the novice to pick up and use because they are far more familiar designs to start with. Next, each of these comes with a standard lens that is considered to be top of the line so you have a better chance of getting a decent shot when you find something to photograph. The lenses are coated so they are far less prone to flare which can cause that beautiful picture to fade drastically. Folding cameras also come with coated lenses, but an awful lot of them did not. They will still take beautiful pictures, but it will not be anywhere near as easy.

4. DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH THIS FILM COSTS?

Using medium format film is not inexpensive to start with, so if you are going to try using it you might as well get the most out of your investment. The cost of the camera and the lens is only the tip of the iceberg. Film will cost around $5 per roll and once you have used that roll of film you can’t develop it at your local drugstore. You will have to find a lab and then mail them your film. Developing and prints will almost certainly cost you another $20. So, in addition to the equipment needed to take the picture, it will cost you a minimum of $25 to see those pictures in the first place. Since I seriously doubt that most people will shoot only one roll of film and then walk away, I expect that the film costs will end up being a lot higher than the cost of the camera and lens. With this in mind you may as well buy a camera you will really understand how to use. Learning to capture great images with medium format film takes time, don’t complicate that with a camera you also need to learn how to use. I can’t count the frames I have double exposed because I forgot to advance the film, or the shots I have missed because I forgot to cock the shutter on my wonderful folding cameras.

5. HOW DO I ZOOM IN?

Folding cameras were the digital point and shoot cameras of their day. They were certainly capable of great images but they were never really designed to produce big enlargements. In fact, the 6×9 negative was almost always contact printed. It was the 4×6 print of its day. Enlargements were possible for sure, but they were no more common then than they are today. So these were never intended as system cameras and it will not be possible to extend their capabilities very much. You will not be taking close up pictures nor will you be able to zoom in tight with one of these cameras. They all use what is commonly known as a normal prime lens and you cannot exchange these lenses. They are beautiful triplet or 4 element designs and I truly love working with them. But they are not as versatile as the zoom that comes with your digital point and shoot. If you do find that you actually like medium format you will eventually feel a bit restricted with what you have. Exploring medium format even further will almost certainly require extending the capabilities of your camera. This means buying into another system down the line. It makes more sense to buy a system that can be extended in the first place.

SOME BETTER OPTIONS

I love using folding cameras and I shoot film in them on a regular basis. There are lots of good reasons for using them. They are extremely handy. They are quite portable. They can be a challenge. They are a great way to experience what it was like to take pictures in the middle part of the last century. There are many very good reasons to shoot folding cameras, but using one to try out medium format almost certainly isn’t one of them. Instead, go out and buy a Mamiya M645 1000S or a Pentax 645, or a Yashica Mat 124G twin lens reflex. There are a number of great options. Do your research and explore them all. If you do decide to buy a medium format folding camera then do it for the right reasons. Don’t do it because you think it is an inexpensive way to try out medium format, because it really isn’t. If that is your reason for buying a folding camera than you may go away disappointed. I would much rather that you enjoy learning to shoot medium format film with a more versatile camera, and then buy that folding camera because you want the challenge of learning to do something different.

Now that I have tried my best to talk you out of a folding camera, if you decide to buy one anyway, I truly hope that you enjoy the experience. Until the next time, stay healthy and take lots of pictures.

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Jump Right In

Sometimes the best way to do something is to jump right in, so that is what I am doing. I enjoy photography. Please understand, I am not a professional. I am just a normal guy who likes to take pictures and who loves to talk about photography in general and the equipment in particular. Over the past few years I have moved from film to digital and then back to film again. I have even re-discovered developing, more as a cost containment measure than from any belief that I can develop my film better than the lab I use. Photography has become my hobby, not my only hobby, but certainly one of my favorite ones. Along the way I have learned several things but one thing in particular has pushed me to start this blog. As an amateur, finding useful information to help me advance in my hobby has been challenging. There are hundred of sites on-line, and countless books, that are happy to discuss composition, apertures, shutter speeds, and other trivia related to exposure. But there is a lot less information out there regarding your creative options and how to use your equipment to achieve that vision.

There is a huge amount of technical information available about digital cameras. Whether you are looking for an inexpensive point and shoot, a long-reach telezoom, a high end digicam, or a digital SLR, you will almost always find a lot of information about it, and its’ accessories, just by typing your search in Google, or whatever your favorite search engine happens to be. Now don’t misunderstand me, I do enjoy digital cameras, and I own some very nice ones. But I won’t be talking much about them on this site. What I will be discussing is taking pictures with older film style cameras. It is more difficult to find information about older cameras than the newer, digital ones, especially just basic information about what it is like to use them for specific photography. Don’t misundertand me. There is tons of material available that will discuss exposure issues and how to achieve depth of field. But there is a lot less information about which cameras are best for taking portraits, and how to actually use that older camera to get a portrait. Forums can be invaluable and I encourage you to make use of them and ask many questions. But sometimes it is just helpful to have a starting point so you even know what question you should ask. So I have decided to write about using my older film cameras. I do not profess to be any type of expert so it isn’t likely that you will find any special technical data about these cameras that cannot already be found on-line. Likewise, I am not a collector so I will not be able to give you any insight into what camera may be some type of very rare collector’s item. I am just an amateur who loves taking pictures with all kinds of different cameras. So this is my journal where I explain how I manage to get things done and what the results look like. I will talk about what I like and what I don’t like, from one photographer’s perspective. I don’t expect that I’ll be taking too many pictures of brick walls or newspapers, since I don’t enjoy doing that type of thing, but I will discuss lenses and other equipment that I have found to be useful for specific purposes, and why I find them useful. I will also discuss what it takes to use modern equipment with the older equipment, like when I try to use my wireless transmitters and off camera electronic flash with my 1950s folding camera. If you find this kind of information interesting you are more than welcome to follow along. I will also be doing and talking about a lot of this in real time so you will get to join me as I make my mistakes. You may even recognize some of them.

I should warn you, not all my mistakes will be photographic. I am brand new to this internet blogging world as well so I suspect you will be witness to more than my fair share of bloopers here as well. Oh well, such is life. We’ll all survive it I’m sure. Hopefully I will provide some information to someone along the way.

Of course the whole reason for cameras in the first place is the picture. I captured this one with my Pentax 645Nii using my Pentax FA-645 45-85mm f4.5 zoom. This is one of my favorite cameras and I absolutely love using it. I don’t really think of this camera as old, and I do use much older ones, but it certainly is a classic that is capable of capturing some absolutely stunning images when I do my part. This is just one of the cameras, and one of the lenses, I will discuss during future posts.

Until then, stay healthy and keep your camera close.

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