Exploring a landscape with handmade cameras

Foreword: this is a summary of a recent project that was undertaken as a final for a photography course. The article involves theory as well as practical elements. It is not a howto, but you are welcome to ask questions.


Surrealism has always courted accidents, welcomed the uninvited, flattered disorderly presences. What could be more surreal than an object which virtually produces itself, and with a minimum of effort? An object whose beauty, fantastic disclosures, emotional weight are likely to be further enhanced by any accidents that might befall it?“¹

Toy cameras are surrealist tools. Their crude plastic bodies are housings for unsophisticated mechanisms, requiring little to no input by the user, effortlessly producing images with artefacts that prompt unexpected and spontaneous results.

Though I am not a Surrealist, these qualities that move beyond reality and predetermined modernism are attractive to me as a photographer. They serve as a reminder that ‘photography is not bound by any obligation to reality; like any other art, it is a set of resources which can be put to a variety of uses, and out of which a style can be forged’².

Shifting this surrealist unpredictability from the toy to the handmade camera is an exercise in problem solving by working within the basic parameters of photography. An understanding of the integral theories behind the photographic medium are applied to practical and physical attributes: a light tight box, a means to prepare the recording medium (sensor, film or plate), an operational shutter, and an aperture to allow light to enter the box.

Cameras are tools, a means of capturing a scene on to a photographic medium. It follows that the handmade camera is a customised and specialised tool to meet the individual photographer’s needs. Just as an artist may use a handmade brush, material or tool to create a unique look and style, a photographer looking to create a unique representation or interpretation can do so through the act of making the tool.

Seeking to explore the landscape of the British countryside with a surrealist undetermined nature, which underlines the toy camera and lo-fi imagery, took the form of a four month final major project building two cameras and shooting with them.

Camera one started life with the premise of creating a wooden toy camera. It is a simple box camera made from 3mm balsa wood, housing a roll of medium format, and a 6×6 mask. An Agfa compur-rapid shutter sits at the front, of which the original lens elements are replaced with a meniscus element suitable for a 21mm focal length. The original plan was to implement a viewfinder, however the wide focal length made it easy to compose with. To load the camera, the top plate comes off, and film can be slid inside, similar to the Leica cameras.

Capture

The camera, rushed in design and construction to meet deadlines, suffers from fundamental issues and faults. One major flaw is that the lens barrel on the shutter is too long for the wide focal length, creating a deep vignetting and a frame size closer to a 4×4 rather than a 6×6. With the wide focal length, the original aperture markings became invalid as the f32 became an f8. The narrowest aperture of f8 meant that distortions were not tamed enough and the resulting images, can in some cases, have distracting artefacts. A curved film plane, like that of the fujipet toy camera, was later added to diminish a curvature distortion. During the time using the camera, a minimalist centre focused composition was adopted to take advantage of the sharp centre and blurred distorted edges.

The benefit of adapting a shutter to the camera body allowed for relatively accurate and controlled exposure timings. The slow shutter speeds on the compur-rapid shutter allowed for the capture of movement, which was used to capture waterfalls.

The fastest shutter speed, a respectable 1/400th of second, allowed for the capture of a snow covered landscape in bright conditions. The low contrast of the below image was created by a pull development process as a high speed film was accidentally loaded into the camera when a slow film was needed. Rather than scrapping the film, it was decided, in Sontag’s words, to court the accident. The unusual diamond shape and uneven exposure could be the result of cold temperatures making the shutter sticky.

The outcomes of the camera are interesting however, the images lack the surrealist spontaneity that the toy camera has. The shutter, with its range of speeds, insinuated a preference for perfection. Toy cameras have little to no options in the way of control, let alone shutter speeds. This is where camera two came in.

Camera two is a TLR camera made from a wooden box and a balsa insert box. A modified Holga shutter and a 50mm convex lens intended for science experiments are the basic photographic elements, while a mirror, fogged perspex, and an identical lens were used to create a rudimentary viewfinder. These devices were almost entirely housed within the insert box, while the main, larger, box housed the film and winding mechanism.

Camera two is not a work of art, it was constructed in a toy camera fashion -a rushed and slapdash manner so that a lo-fi look could be achieved from the beginning. In the way of mechanisms, it is possible to focus the camera by moving the insert-able box back and forth, however with a fixed aperture of f8, any immediate subjects are in clear focus making the need to focus redundant. This is nothing new in the realm of the toy camera as Holga and Lomography photographers are known to forget the focus and just shoot.

With a fixed f stop and shutter speed, results became more comparable to lo-fi with surreal results beyond that of the toy camera. Below is a pictorial pastoral scene which is similar in tone to George Davison’s onion field. The blurriness is similar to that of the pinhole camera, without the long exposure times.

Below, is another another murky-painterly pastoral scene with just enough clarity to make out the immediate path and its details.

Handmade camera project 2018

The light leaks and jagged edges come from a cardboard mask which was modified and experimented with over time. These artefacts were more prominent in bright conditions and subdued with tape and black matte paint.

The uncoated simple lens produces a low contrast that complements dense fog and defused light.

Handmade camera project 2018

The lines in the below image are caused by the cardboard mask becoming too coarse and scratching the film as it travels along. It adds a texture that is eerie and horror film like. In most cases the scratches are hard to see.

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In bright conditions, the uncoated simple lens performs well enough for the intended purpose. The below image is absent of flares and has enough contrast to produce a stark depiction of a single tree.

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All of the negatives were scanned and processed digitally. The darkroom could have provided further alternative processes, enough for a whole other project. Deadlines meant I could not pursue this. The post processing attributes applied -slightly burning in vignetting and adjustments to contrast, would be applied in the darkroom.

 

Conclusions drawn from this project

Intending to explore the landscape with a surrealist lo-fi undertone has resulted in processes at the fundamental level of photography. The basic tools created to produce the outcomes could have taken many forms in varying mediums. The choice of medium format as a recording medium seemed natural given that the majority of toy cameras use it. Medium format is also used by British landscape photographers, Micheal Kenna and Fay Godwin, of whom are personal influences and heroes of mine. Additionally, though the project was not about perfection, it could have been achieved, if desired, by  mounting a medium or large format lens. The cameras built for the project were successful for the purposes of looking beyond the toy camera and exploring the broader fundamental attributes of photography.

The pursuit of capturing the landscape with a simple camera over traditional and conventional equipment is synonymous with Edward Weston’s statement that ‘richness of control facilities often acts as a barrier to creative work‘ and that ‘the task can be made immeasurably easier by selecting the simplest possible equipment and procedures and staying with them‘³. Photographers can be addicted to the pursuit and acquisition of equipment rather than the photograph and message they wish to convey.  I am guilty of this at times -the zeal of shiny brass Leica. Using a simple camera, whether a toy, pinhole or handmade camera, removes the focus from equipment and to the creative semiotics and message.

The landscape photographs in this project, and others such as my Holga work covering the Peak District, are people-less, sublime, and unsentimental. Non-photographers will often use the word moody to describe the work, identifying the sublime visual signifiers as dark, eerie, and bleak. I see the work as a reminder that under the facade of the social construct: British countryside being a picturesque idyllic tidy garden, there lies a wilderness under layers of centuries old management and manipulation of the land.

A gallery of images from the project can be found here rcalow.photography/albums/lofi-landscapes.

 

References

  1. Sontag, On Photography. Page 52.
  2. Scott, C. (1999). Spoken Image: Photography and Language. Page 22.
  3. Weston, E. (2003). Seeing photographically. In L. Wells (Ed.), The Photography Reader. Page 107. (Original work published 1930)
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Exploring a landscape with handmade cameras

Exhibition at Lincoln’s cathedral centre

This weekend I helped run my course final show, an exhibition showcasing finals and the best pieces from the other years. The event was tiring, but fun. The general public asked a lot of questions about my final major project with it having a technical focused story behind it. I also had the opportunity to talk to photographers, Andy Weekes and Peter Barton, both of whom were encouraging.

My finals

My four finals consist of digital prints forming a short series of images taken with handmade cameras. These handmade photographic tools were used to explore the landscape of the British countryside. Just as an artist may make their own brushes for a unique style, the images are distinctive and unconventional. A blog post about the project is underway, but its taking time with commitments. It should be posted soon now that the course is finished.

Views of the cathedral from the centre
Tiny poster on the A board doing its thing
The result of taking pictures to pass the time

After this morning, helping to disassemble the exhibition and saying bye to people on the course, I’m looking forward to pushing my photography and future opportunities.

Exhibition at Lincoln’s cathedral centre

Industar 69 adapted to mirrorless

First of all, this lens is atrocious.

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There are many Russian LTM lenses. Some have an almost cult like following such as the jupiter 3, the more affordable jupiter 8, and the sharp, often rumoured radioactive, industar 61LD. I can vouch for the latter two as being decent for any zorki, fed, voigtlander and even leica rangefinder. The Industar 69 does not come close to any of these lenses.

The lens is actually for a Russian half frame camera, which has enough coverage for my fuji mirrorless, and is a weird zorki m39 mount, similar to the l39 mount used on leica screw cameras but with no rangefinder coupling and a different flange distance. Since it is slightly different from a typical screw lens, the lens requires modification for focusing to infinite when paring with a l39 lens adaptor, this can be done in minutes. There are other, more time consuming ways to achieve this, such as filing down adaptors, but this seems a little overkill for a cheap lens.

The pancake form factor and the 28mm, which results in a wide normal lens around 43-44mm on a aps sensor, makes for a convenient little lens. At the widest aperture nothing is sharp, though it favours the centre with dramatic falloff and blurred edges. It can be sharp around f5.6 but better at f11.

Yes, the lens is awful, but at the same time its becoming my favourite lens on my xpro1. For me, digital photography is too perfect at times. In the film realm I have my leica for straight photography and then I have my holga for pictorial-artistic sort of images, polar opposites. This lens, which didn’t cost much from Bulgaria, creates interesting artistic images with distortions that are not present in the perfect native fuji glass. It fulfils a role away from straight photography.

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Bonsai tree
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Forest 1
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Forest 2
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Forest 3
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Forest 4 – narrow aperture – much sharper image
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Soft wide aperture – Path
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Soft wide aperture landscape shot
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Young bull
Industar 69 adapted to mirrorless

My forgotten rolls of colour film

Last night I tried c41 processing at home.  I found it to be much faff and less enjoyable than black and white processing, but this morning, after processing more rolls, I think I have the process down.

I have the BelliniFoto Monopart C41 Kit from nik & trick. It features a developer, a bleach, fixer and a stabiliser to wash with. The main differences from a black and white process are the temperatures, which are much higher at 38c, and with this kit there are no water washes.

My main reason for getting a c41 kit was to finally process old colour films and to try the process. I stopped mostly shooting colour film towards the end of 2014 and started experimenting with black and white films, so there are a few colour films hanging about waiting for development.

The following is a complete 120 roll of ektar that I exposed with a holga pinhole camera on a trip to kent, 2015.

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The following are the best bits from 2 rolls of agfa vista (re-branded fuji stuff) spanning 2014-15, featuring two camping trips. I think they were shot with a contax 139q, and a Carl Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.7.

It looks like a tumblr blog, is that still a thing?

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Woods
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zebra billy can
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zebra billy can 2
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standing about
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lounging about
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axe
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axe 2
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tools
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tools 2
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Ben

Currently burning more agfa vista 200 in my oly mju ii. I want to see what a freshly exposed pushed film will be like.

My forgotten rolls of colour film

Bergger Pancro 400

This film is something special, a totally new film with two emulsion layers.

I am really impressed with the amount of detail it can hold in the shadows when underexposed, and how much detail it retains in the blown highlights. Scanning and processing was a little tricky, I always scan for neutral tiff files and then batch edit with a curve later on. The neutral scans were muddy in the shadows -its like the film retains details too well, and it took me awhile to sort out but I had to curve down the blacks a lot more than I normally would with HP5.

Speaking of hp5, the images are similar in tone but the grain is very different. Up close the grains are smaller and there seems to be more, probably because of the 2 layers.

I developed the film in my go-to HC110 at dilution B for 9 mins at 20c as recommended by Bergger in the data sheets (though, on the box there’s no HC110 data.) The film has to be fixed for a longer time than most films and it drys very straight with no curling.

The images were shot with my leica m2 at 400 iso and are a mixed bunch.

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Three shades of silver
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Flight
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NEC Arena
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Suit
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Graffiti
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Boat
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Woods
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Stranger on the stairs

The images have really nice tones but can I push the film to 1600 for some zone focusing street photography?

Bergger Pancro 400

Things I learnt in 2016

Social media and photography are two different things, the latter is always more important.

This year, social media wise, has been different for me. During the spring I found I was fed up of chasing likes. I cut down sharing images on Instagram, one of two social media platforms I use (the other being twitter, and even then I don’t use it enough). The singularity of the platform too, means it is difficult to group together images of value, like I can with a blog like this one. It’s also the increasing number of memes, spam bots and irrelevant content, I find myself not browsing Instagram. I am unsure what to do with it, perhaps I will start to use the dreaded phone camera for a visual diary.

Cutting down and separating social media from actual photography has allowed me to think more about photography. Ultimately, what is more important getting likes and posting the same stuff, or progression and experimentation?

According to Instagram’s yearly best nine, these are my “best” photos. They are not.

However, this roll, or grouping, may well be my best. What a roll it was! This sort of grouping is more effective, getting my name and my work out there, rather than Instagram’s singular focused images which are forgotten in 2 days, tops.

Electronic compacts are a fickle bitch, mechanical is the way to go

Compact film cameras with prime lenses are my kryptonite. I like having my tiny mju II in my shirt pocket ready to go, the amazing carl ziess lens of the contax t2, and the cult status plastic brick nikon l35af “Pikaichi” with its punchy sonnar like lens. They are all quirky, convenient, and produce effective images that are more interesting than a digital or phone camera. This is all well and good, however these cameras are dying a slow death with no way to get the tiny complex electronics inside them repaired. Owning a compact, you should be prepared for the day it goes crunk. This happened to me with a ricoh gr1. I ran one roll then poof, nothing. I am now using my small but all mechanical rangefinder, Olympus 35RC, as my everyday film camera.

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My one GR1 shot worth showing

The Fujifilm x series and the xpro1 is the digital work system for me

When I had a canon SLR, I did various jobs with it. Though, I never felt inspired with it. It was clunky, plastic, and uninspiring unlike my film cameras at the time. Acquiring the xpro1 was a game changer. It’s small,  unobtrusive, and requires a different and slower way of working. Rather than burst through a job, I take my time by finding a subject, take two sometimes three shots, changing aperture to make sure depth of field covers subject(s) and move on in a confident manner without looking down at the LCD screen. This sort of confidence is needed. Rather than turning up to a job with a big SLR, which everyone from grandma to granddaughter thinks is professional, you have to show it and let the work speak for itself afterwards.

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Tom getting his tie done / outtake from a christening I covered

Medium format, 6×17 is as good as it gets

Going from 6×12 to 6×17 for my panoramic pinhole work made a massive difference from wide to damn right wiiide. For example here is my favourite to 6×12 wide pinhole holga image:

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And here is a 6×17 wiiide reality so subtle image of the peak district:

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Experimenting with the reality so subtle, I found the extra 5cm of negative sucks in everything in front of the camera, making landscapes almost endless. It’s also fun to pull out 4 large negative images out of the developing tank. The fact that the images are from a pinhole camera too; I’m unashamed that out doing photographers with the latest most expensive kit with a simple box with a hole in it adds to the level of enjoyment.

Things I learnt in 2016

Thoughts on the Oly MJU-II

This is probably the closest I will come to writing a review of the Olympus MJU II otherwise known as Stylus epic, a cult point and shoot camera. There are already plenty of in depth reviews around, most of them stating the obvious that it’s small, like a slippery bar of soap -its that small.

After 3 and a half rolls (one was a tester), it looks like my MJU is cleared of light leaks which were ruining shots from my trip to Kinderscout. So I’ll just write some thoughts down, and show some snapshots, hopefully giving it justice. All the photos were shot with Rollei Retro 400s which is very contrasty.

 

The battered and all weather sealed MJU

First of all it’s small (very original blog post here). It fits in my jean pockets, along side my wallet, phone and keys. It also fits snug into a shirt pocket. I almost lose it in my jacket pocket. Roughly around 10.5 cm long, 5.5cm tall, and around 3.5cm at its most thickest depth. The ergonomics seem to have taken second preference to the size. It can be fiddly to handle, like I said at the start, a slippery bar of soap.

 

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Nate & Zoe’s wedding – Dan – with flash

The 35mm f2.8 lens is beautiful. With the flash on, or in the right conditions -not a rainy evening, it offers punchy tones and a slight vignetting. It is surprisingly sharp dead centre. The lens is almost as good, if not better than some, expensive luxury 35mm compacts.

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Nate & Zoe’s wedding – Luke – no flash

As a point and shoot it offers nothing in the way of manual control. The sliding front door opens to turn it on. Flash options and a timer are on the back door in the form of two buttons alongside a rewind button. Other than the shutter-release, that is all the control you get. There’s no ISO override either.

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Nate & Zoe’s wedding – Some guy from the Mafia caught in the act

The viewfinder is painful to look through and compose. It is tiny and takes time getting use to. In the centre of the finder sits a crosshair. Presumably not to trigger gun crime, but to help with focusing.

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Nate & Zoe’s wedding – Luke and this Trip35 among pints

The AF seems to just work. I’ve had one maybe two go wrong. But it might be me not half pressing the shutter release to lock in the focus. A green light in the viewfinder indicates if it is focused with no indication as to what on

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Clumber Park

Turning the flash off is a pain. This camera loves the flash. The first time I tried the camera was with dx hacked hp5 at iso 1600. Even at 1600 and in bright sunlight the camera still fired the flash! To turn it off you have to hit the flash button twice everytime time you turn the camera on. A pain, but whatever, I would rather get into the practice of turning it off rather than blasting some stranger in the face with fill flash in what was supposed to be a candid street shot. Just one of those things.

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Wedge of Swans

There is a spot meter mode! This is so useful for backlit photography like below, where you need the camera to meter the subject, it also focuses on that point. You can lock the metering by half pressing the shutter release. This was taken at dusk with no flash.

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Hays – No flash – Backlit

The reputation of this camera is high, almost too high. Is it really worth the three figured ebay prices it goes for? I recently saw a trailer for a documentary called ‘Don’t Blink‘ about Robert Frank, in which you can clearly see him using the mju. This makes me think: if its good enough for a legendary photographer, it’s good enough for me right? Well I still dont think its worth over a hundred pounds -its a plastic point and shoot camera from the 90s that takes good snapshots, it won’t turn you into Robert Frank.

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Corn field

I think overall the MJU II is compact camera showcasing the best of the late 90s photographic technology in one tiny package. It is very simple, but it makes beautiful images. I hope to carry the camera with me on commutes to art college in september onwards for some early morning street photography, hopefully accompanied by some autumn/winter fog.

I dont think its worth the 3 figures it’s going for on ebay. I’m glad I didn’t pay anywhere near that. Yes, mine is a little scratched and suffered light leaks, but it’s nothing a bit of sticky foam and black tape couldn’t cure. Compacts seem to be marketed on ebay at silly prices that make no sense anymore.

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Close up Fern

As a finishing note -this is the first time I’ve used Rollei Retro 400s. It is very contrasty, with little shadow, compared to hp5 it’s more like acros 100. May have to buy more.

Thoughts on the Oly MJU-II