Teaching Old Glass New Tricks

Old camera and lenses, like this Exa with a 50mm f/2.8 lens from 1950s vintage, are fine, interesting and compelling machines that fire up my imagination.
Old camera and lenses, like this Exa with a 50mm f/2.8 lens from 1950s vintage, are fine, interesting and compelling machines that fire up my imagination.

Fellow photographer Robert and I were musing on the phone yesterday about the demise of “digital film,” a product that tried to gain traction in the late 1990s when the future of photography was still hazy. The idea of digital film was to manufacture a cassette that could be inserted into existing film camera so they could make digital photos.

inspiration...
For my birthday one year, my wife Abby bought nearly a dozen antique cameras and hid them around the house for me to find like Easter eggs.

It turned out that one company, Silicon Film, got as far as a prototype before camera makers managed to get the price of purpose-built digital cameras into the affordable range.

Despite my nostalgia for film and its creative potential, I watched a lot of people, mostly reporters, ruin a lot of film with bad technique. This piece of film was wound onto the developing reel with a clumsy hand, causing it to stick to another portion of the roll, preventing developer from getting to it.
Despite my nostalgia for film and its creative potential, I watched a lot of people, mostly reporters, ruin a lot of film with bad technique. This piece of film was wound onto the developing reel with a clumsy hand, causing it to stick to another portion of the roll, preventing developer from getting to it.

Why would anyone have gone this route instead of just buying a Nikon D1? Well, we all had tons of great 35mm film equipment sitting around, for which we paid a lot, and which was still working fine. What if, instead of shelving all those Nikon F100s and F5s and Canon ESO-1s, and shelling out $5000 for a D1 or 1D, we could insert a cassette with a digital sensor in place of a film cassette?

This is my Nikon F3 with my rare and excellent 25-50mm f/4 on it. I sold it about 15 years ago, and kinda miss it ever since.
This is my Nikon F3 with my rare and excellent 25-50mm f/4 on it. I sold it about 15 years ago, and kinda miss it ever since.

It turned out the idea was mostly vaporware, and while most people believe this was due to technical hurdles, I believe it was at least as much the fault of marketing and profitability obstacles: why sell accessories at small margins when we could be selling new cameras at huge markups?

Today we see more attempts at the concept like PSEUDO, I’m Back and Frankencamera (though RE-35 was a branding experiment and April Fool’s joke) and I wish them luck.

A Call to Action?
One concern that remains difficult to solve even after all this time is how to trigger the sensor so it knows when to record. My idea, which I haven’t seen iterated on the web, is a tiny infrared beam striking the shutter blade that switches on the sensor when the shutter begins to move.

Finally, with excellent, affordable digital cameras in abundance all around us, why would even be of interest in 2018? Answer: for the same reason lomography has it’s niche, to allow us to expand artistically. There are millions of idle film cameras sitting on shelves from our own home here in Oklahoma to the towering apartments of Hong Kong that could be put to use in some worthwhile endeavor.

Once upon a time, this 100-year-old Kodak camera was someone's brand new prize.
Once upon a time, this 100-year-old Kodak camera was someone’s brand new prize.

As an artist, I find this idea very compelling. As Robert and I talked, one question he asked was, “So are we talking about shooting with old glass?” Yes, I think so. Old lenses, though often not as sharp (since they were designed and built by hand in a bygone era) can create images with a unique and engaging character. Oklahoman photographer Doug Hoke does this all the time when he shoots 40-year-old lenses on his mirrorless cameras. Filters in smartphone applications like Instagram mimic the look of film and old lenses.

I love this idea, and not just for 35mm. My wife and I have more than a dozen old cameras sitting around of various formats, including a beautiful, working 100-year-old Kodak No. 2A Folding Cartridge Premo 116 format  conventional film camera making a 4.5 x 2.5 inch image, and a couple of Polaroids that make 4 x 5 inch images. If there were a way to make digital pictures with any or all of these machines, I would happily do so, and in doing, hopefully open up another artistic avenue for my work.

I found this exposed roll of 116 film in an antique camera my wife Abby gave me for my birthday. Although I don't know anyone who can process it, if I did, I would have it processed because it holds a mystery.
I found this exposed roll of 116 film in an antique camera my wife Abby gave me for my birthday. Although I don’t know anyone who can process it, if I did, I would have it processed because it holds a mystery.
0

1 Comment

  1. Two things stand out to me, both small.

    “As an artist, …” I enjoy that you marry technical precision and expertise with your artistry. One, I think, influences the other. Your knowledge of the mechanical workings of cameras and lenses influences your artistry, and vice-versa. One inspires the other, and I think that’s a necessity. Your vocabulary to describe how things work inspires you to do the work. I think that applies in all fields.

    Also, “interesting and compelling machines fire up my imagination.” This, I think, describes you. (Professional) photography requires a marriage of craft and inspiration, and that comes through in your teaching blog.

    0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.