Shoot Like It's 1995!

My Canon EOS Elan IIe, pictured here with a Tamron SP f/3.5-5.6, 24-135mm zoom lens. The lens cost considerably more than I paid for the camera, but has proven to be a solid performer.

Camera reviews typically cover hot, new digital toys (like the newly leaked, 50.6 MP Canon 5Ds). Big name review sites and independent bloggers alike scramble to cover the latest photographic innovation. As in all areas of life, however, not everything worthwhile is necessarily cutting edge. You've almost certainly seen an Ansel Adams print. By the standards of 2015 technology, his camera gear was primitive and crude, yet he produced breathtaking photography; his prints sell very well to this day, and his books remain useful resources for students of photography.

This post is a brief overview* of a 20 year old camera still worth buying. It's decades newer than anything Ansel used, and modern enough to boast the ease-of-use people expect today. I own a number of vintage cameras, many of which require manual configuration. The Canon EOS Elan IIe works like a modern digital camera. The main difference is you have to load a roll of 35mm film, but there's no cocking or winding as with vintage cameras; it features a motorized advance and automatic rewind. Once the film is loaded, you can set the camera to full Auto mode or you can use one of the other program modes - the same ones available on the latest DSLRs.

The Canon EOS Elan II and IIe are basically the same camera, so either one is an excellent choice. (I previously shot with an Elan II, a gift from the kind folks at the Film Photography Project. Unfortunately, it developed a persistent, sticky shutter problem.) The only difference is that the IIe adds a novel feature that lets you program the camera to focus using your eye movement. I'm not sure how well this feature works as I've not bothered to set it up yet. I bought mine from KEH, a widely respected reseller of camera gear, for around $35. You may be able to find one even cheaper from thrift shops or a reputable eBay seller. Adding a basic kit lens, if needed, will likely set you back a bit more.

Stranger at the Knoxville Museum of Art last September. Natural light, shot on my Elan II using the remarkable Svema Color 125 film.

There are several features worth nothing about the Elan II/ IIe. It accepts auto-focus EF lenses, which also work with modern Canon DSLRs. If you happen to be a digital Canon (APS-C) shooter, this means you can share some lenses between systems. (Not all camera accessories will work between generations of cameras; when in doubt, check your product manual.) It has a pop-up flash, so you may find that other accessories are unnecessary for everyday use. You can even buy inexpensive infrared remote controls that let you trigger the shutter wirelessly - handy for including yourself in group photos and other tripod work. 

Both the Elan II and IIe are full-featured SLRs that allow you to control the focus point in your photo. Here I shot wide open, focusing on the front tire to deliberately throw the handlebars out of focus.

Another useful feature of the Elan II/ IIe is that it allows for manually selecting film speed. This is not always the case with other cameras from the same era. It's helpful because you can tell the camera to treat film as faster (or slower) than it's actually rated. A prime example of this would be "pushing" certain films, such as Kodak Tri-X 400 or Portra 400, to ISO 800 or even 1600 - either for creative effect or to compensate for low light conditions.  Being able to manually select your ISO is essential for some "boutique" or bulk-rolled films that may not have the standard DX encoding** on the film cassette. Of course, you can also let the camera select the ISO automatically.

In short, this is a modern camera in every way that really matters for making photographs. If you have thought about exploring film photography, but don't want to struggle with figuring out the manual controls on vintage gear, this would be an excellent way to ease into the world of film with minimal fuss. And if you're a bit shy, the Elan II/ IIe is unlikely to draw attention as its design will easily pass for just another digital camera on the street (as long as nobody asks to see the image on the back after you take their photo).

*For an in-depth, photographer's review, complete with technical specifications, see this online review from 1996.  

** DX encoding was developed in the 1980s as a way of automating film speed selection. One of the first cameras to offer this feature, the Konica TC-X, also happened to be my first SLR that I purchased new back in 1987. 

Assign Yourself a Photo Project

Participants in the Knoxville Zombie Walk (2010).

If you're a shutterbug like me, sometimes you need to get out and take some photographs of something... anything! It can be fun to just walk around a familiar area - solo or with friends - shooting whatever catches your eye. 

Spend enough time photographing random sights in any given location, though, and you'll inevitably wind up with multiple photos of the same buildings, signs and landscapes. In my case, I have hundreds or even thousands of photos from downtown Knoxville. It's a scenic city, and there are lots of interesting things to see. But eventually it starts to feel old, even as the photographic "itch" remains. Not everyone can simply hop on a plane or drive cross country to seek out exciting, new vistas. So what can you do if traveling to new places isn't feasible when your inner artist wants to roam? You could ignore the impulse to create, and waste an afternoon looking at funny photos of cats on Facebook - but there are better options!

The answer to your conundrum might be a photo assignment. That's right: You can give yourself an assignment to do something deliberate and specific with your photography. Your assignment might be something you complete in a single afternoon, or it could be a long-term project spanning a year or more. The best thing about an assignment is that it forces you to look at things through a particular set of constraints - and constraints can make all the difference for sparking creativity.

Downtown Knoxville. I shot this on a plastic toy "Debonair" camera while on a self-directed assignment. My theme? "Up" - basically pointing the camera at anything above me.

Some examples of assignments that people have completed include photographing objects that are a particular color or shape. Your subject might be a theme involving the use of reflections (as in glass windows or puddles of water), or texture (light raking rough surfaces in the early morning or late afternoon). If you're the outgoing type, some photographers make a project of photographing strangers - either as candid street photography or directly asking people to stop and take their portrait. Lousy weather? How about some macro photography on the kitchen table? Ask your friends if they'd be willing to model for you, and practice lighting techniques with a lamp and a $1 white foam board. These are just a few ideas, but you may be able to think of many more on your own that suit your interests and personality. If you're looking for more ideas, take a look here or here.

If you can't think of a specific project idea that appeals to you, a related idea is to seek out festivals and events in your area via Google. Most communities have some version of an events calendar online. In east Tennessee, the best time of year for festivals is typically summer and fall. Grab a favorite camera with a single lens (more lenses will just slow you down), and head out to photograph the festivities. Your local farmers' market is packed with people, produce and other goods. If there's a "Zombie Walk" or comic book convention in your area, you'll have no trouble getting spontaneous photos as participants are usually eager to show off their costumes.

I work these events as if I were on a paid job assignment, and people sometimes assume I am. Whatever assignment you decide upon, tackle your project as though you're a staff photographer for a newspaper. Just because you're not working for pay doesn't mean your assignment is any less important. Look at every detail as something that others might not see apart from your efforts to document it. Things you normally take for granted as boring fixtures that "everyone" has seen aren't boring to someone on the other side of the globe or across the country. You might be surprised at how the world around you looks from the fresh outlook that an assignment provides.

The Top Dial on Your Camera

With Christmas behind us, some of you may have purchased or received the gift of a new DSLR. Maybe you already own one, but you've been nervous about using it in anything but full "Auto" mode. If that sounds like you, this blog post might be helpful to you. The following is a brief discussion of what some of the settings on your camera's main dial do.

Camera features differ by brand and model, but all DSLRs offer these core functions. I'm going to assume that you probably have a Canon or Nikon. (I use a Fujifilm mirrorless camera, but its controls are laid out a bit differently, so I won't cover that here.) For specifics about your make and model, consult your user manual; if you lost it, you can probably download an electronic copy online. Also, try searching Youtube  - there's some great amateur instruction available there for nearly any camera ever made.

In the section below, the Nikon symbol for each setting is listed first; where Canon differs, I've noted that in parentheses. Don't worry too much about what it's called - the functions are standard from camera to camera even if they use different terminology.

Main dial on a Nikon D60 DSLR. Other Nikon models may differ slightly, but the main functions described below will be the same from camera to camera. (Photo courtesy Tonya Millsaps.)

The main dial on a Canon EOS Elan IIe 35mm SLR (mid 90s film camera). While modern Canon DSLRs will have some added settings, the main ones we're concerned about don't change.

The Settings

Auto Mode (represented on Canon as the small green rectangle). This is the mode for total newbies, and anyone else who wants to give the camera near total control over the photography experience. If you're still scared of your camera, there's nothing wrong with letting it make all the decisions for you. Today's digital cameras are basically sophisticated little computers with lenses attached, and you're almost guaranteed to get a properly exposed photo this way. As you take more photos, you'll probably start wondering if there's a way to exert more creative control over your photos.

P - Program Mode. It's a common joke in the photography world that the "P" stands for "Professional." The main difference between Auto and Program is that Program Mode gives you a tiny bit more control over your camera settings, while still leaving most decisions to the camera. When I first started using a DSLR, I got annoyed when my flash would pop up if I didn't think the scene required it. Then I learned that if I switched from Auto to Program, the flash wouldn't pop up automatically (even if all kinds of dire warnings about low light appeared on the display). If you plan to take a photo in low light with a tripod, for example, but want the camera to handle all of the exposure settings, use Program Mode. It's like training wheels for the other settings. It's also a good mode to select if you're pressed for time and just want to make sure you get the shot with minimal fuss. Sometimes you just need a snapshot.

A (Av) - Aperture Mode. When I'm not doing studio work, this is my most frequently used camera mode. Selecting Aperture Mode lets you pick a desired aperture, while letting the camera adjust your other exposure settings automatically. The aperture is also known as the f-stop. I use this when I want to control depth of field (how much of the image is in focus, from front to back). You know those beautiful portraits where the bride is in sharp focus but the background is softly blurred? That's shallow depth of field. To get that look, you can set the aperture to its widest setting (which is the smallest aperture for a particular lens, such as f/2.8 or f/3.5), and focus on the subject. Conversely, if you want to make sure a scene is all or mostly in focus - as in a landscape photo - you can pick a smaller aperture (a bigger number f-stop, such as f/11 or f/16). The camera will then adjust the shutter speed and possibly the ISO* (depending on your settings), to match your chosen aperture.

S (Tv) - Shutter Priority Mode. Most photographers I know tend not to use this setting as much as they do others. But it does have some useful applications. Let's suppose you're taking photos indoors or another low-light situation where using flash is not allowed. If the shutter speed chosen by the camera is relatively slow (say, 1/30 second), it can be difficult to get a sharp photo; the longer the focal length of your lens, the harder it is to hold steady at slower speeds. By selecting Shutter Priority, you can tell the camera that you want to use a minimum of 1/60 or 1/125 shutter speed. Your odds of getting an acceptably sharp photo are greatly increased. You can also use this approach in situations where you have fast moving subjects (like an active child or approaching bicyclist), to ensure that you freeze the motion. Likewise, you can use a slower shutter speed if you want to add some creative blur.

M - Manual Mode. This setting is pretty much what it sounds like: full, manual control over your camera's exposure settings. I know - it sounds scary. And I stayed away from using Manual Mode for years because I really didn't understand how the various camera settings worked together to create photographs. But Manual Mode is incredibly useful, and sometimes essential, for certain situations. When shooting with  off-camera flashes or monolights, you generally need to use Manual Mode to tell the camera how to expose for the sudden burst of light. (There are smart wireless triggers that let you get around this limitation, but that's a whole other blog post.) When shooting in Manual, you usually need to use a light meter, or when it comes to digital, you can experiment until the results look right. My suggestion is to start with other modes, and afterward, take a look at the EXIF information in your photos on your computer. This will tell you what exposure settings were used by the camera. Over time, you'll start recognizing approximate exposure settings for common situations.

Scenes - Scene modes (various). Many DSLRs have little icons on the dial to represent different scenes you're likely to encounter. These commonly depict things like a profile of a person (portrait), flowers (macro shooting), stars with people (night time portraits - movie stars are optional), and running or swimming (for sports action). If you're just spreading your wings and want to move beyond Auto, these scene modes aren't a bad place to start. They are basically presets for common situations that may suit your needs nicely. Selecting a portrait scene, for example, will automatically set the aperture to a pleasing, large aperture for shallow depth of field.

Don't be afraid to try some of the above modes on your camera dial. If you find you're overwhelmed or frustrated by them, you can easily switch back to Auto until you're feeling more adventurous!

 

*ISO is a measure of light sensitivity; the lower the number, the more light is needed to expose a photo, but the better the overall image quality. Raising the ISO to shoot in less light also means that some digital "noise" will begin to appear in your photos. All DSLRs let you set the ISO manually, or you can leave it set to Auto ISO so that the camera picks it for you. You can generally specify ranges (say, ISO 200 - 800) that you want the camera to stay within. The specifics of setting ISO will depend on your camera, so please consult your manual.

 

 

 

Shooting Expired Film

In the not-so-distant past, people were conservative about taking photos. It cost money to buy and then process film, and almost nobody took random photos of their everyday meals. As a result, when Mom took the camera out for some Christmas photos, there was often a partially exposed roll of film inside it, containing forgotten photos of birthdays or graduations from months before. Chances are that you've occasionally run across some old, forgotten film in a drawer or a box of a relative's personal effects. So what do you do with that old film - exposed or not - when you happen across it?

Film is a perishable item, with expiration dates typically a year or two out from when you purchase it. But did you know that expiration dates for film don't work like expiration dates for a jug of milk? You probably don't want to drink that milk beyond a few days from the "Sell by" date. A whiff of expired milk quickly tells you this isn't something you want to put in your mouth! Not so with film.

Photo taken on a roll of Kodak T-Max that had expired 14 years earlier. To my knowledge, it hadn't been kept in cold storage, yet the photos came out just fine with normal exposure.

When it comes to film, how quickly it goes "bad" depends on the conditions in which it's been stored and the type of film it is. Sometimes it's luck of the draw, but often the results are surprisingly good. If the film has been subject to high temperatures in long-term storage, the results are likely to be very grainy with significant color shifts toward red, but you'll most likely still get pictures.

Professional and serious amateur photographers alike often store their unused film refrigerated, or even frozen, in order to maintain freshness and extend its useful life. But even film stored at normal room temperature can give excellent results far beyond the expiration date.

In general, black & white films keep the longest under normal conditions. You can find many examples on Flickr of photos shot on black & white film that are 30, 40 - even 50 years past expiration - often with little or no visible degradation in quality. Color film, on the other hand, will typically start to degrade within a few years of expiration date, but you can sometimes get usable photos from even very old color film.

This was shot on an old roll of Kodacolor II film found with a camera my grandfather had owned. It expired in 1977. I was unsure if the film had been exposed, so I only exposed half the roll (it turned out to be all unexposed), when I took this photo in 2011. While it clearly suffered from the passage of time, I was able to make some usable photos 34 years after the film expired! This is a photo of the construction site for our new church building. (The swirly, concentric rings - aka "Newton's Rings" - are artifacts of scanning, not a flaw in the negative itself.)

Some kinds of film tend to store poorly and generally don't keep as well. Very high speed (ISO 1600 and up) and specialty infrared films tend to degrade faster due to radiation - something even cold storage can't prevent. Also, older integral films (Polaroid) rely on pods of chemistry that burst as the picture goes through the camera's processing mechanism. You can often find expired film for these cameras on places like eBay, but be aware that success with these films is becoming increasingly unlikely as the chemistry pods dry up due to age. Personally, I would avoid expired instant film and buy fresh, instead.

Recommendations

Photo taken on my plastic toy Debonair camera: Slide film expired by 11 years, cross-processed. Cross-processing creates its own unique color shifts above and beyond what an expired film otherwise exhibits.

I sometimes get asked by people if they can still get old, exposed rolls of film developed. Unless the film has been stored in excessive heat or otherwise badly abused, you can usually recover images from those old rolls. If it's black & white, it's a near certainty the images will be decent! It's hard to put a price on old family photos, so I'd always suggest you give it a try. There are labs that specialize in rescuing old film, and some don't charge anything if the photos don't come out, so your risk is limited to postage. I have no experience with them, but here's an example of one such lab. If you want to try a local lab, be sure to take it to a pro shop; 1-hour lab chain stores aren't equipped to handle expired film.

What if you run across unexposed (unused) old film in a kitchen drawer of storage closet and want to try using it to take new photos? There's a lot of discussion about exposing old film in various online forums, so it's probably a good idea to Google your specific film. Generally, if it's black & white, I'd recommend just shooting it at the rated "box speed" (ISO 100, etc). In the case of color film, you may want to try shooting it at half the box speed; if it's ISO 100 speed film, for example, set your camera to ISO 50. If you want to read a discussion about compensating for old film, you can start here. If you don't want to mess with these adjustments, just stick it in your camera and shoot at the rated speed - it's not an exact science! In either case, be sure to let your lab know what you are doing so they can adjust their processing accordingly.

I wouldn't suggest using long expired film for any critical purpose. But there's no reason not to use it for novelty and creative effect. What do you really have to lose for trying? There are actually many people who routinely shoot expired film on purpose, and sometimes the results are quite beautiful. In the case of exposed film found among the belongings of family members, if there's a chance it contains irreplaceable memories, I'd send it in today and possibly revisit a moment that hasn't been seen by anyone since someone pressed that shutter button!

Tiny Holes, Big Fun: The Joys of Pinhole Photography

Thinking about buying a camera for someone special (maybe even yourself), on your Christmas list? There are some appealing digital options on the market today. But what if you don't want to spend a small fortune on a camera that will be obsolete in two years? Maybe you're looking for something that can rekindle that creative spark you felt the very first time you took a photograph. In that case, a pinhole camera might possibly be the perfect gift! Not only will you likely save yourself some cash, but you'll also be able to take beautiful, timeless photos for years to come, with a camera that's never obsolete. Pinhole cameras are a great way to learn about the fundamentals of photography.

Pinhole photo I shot at a nearby lake. While the examples in this blog post are all black & white, you can just as easily use color film in a pinhole camera.

In its simplest form, a pinhole camera is nothing more than a light-tight container featuring a tiny hole (or aperture) to let light in. Inside the camera is a light-sensitive material that captures the image projected opposite the aperture, much like a movie is projected on a screen inside a darkened theater.

People have used an incredible variety of materials - from oatmeal canisters to cigar boxes to soup cans - to construct a pinhole camera. Really, the only limit is one's imagination. I listened to a fascinating interview with a lady who made large pinhole images inside a modified van, directly onto photographic paper.

For those willing to spend a bit more for quality, you can buy hand-crafted, ornate wooden pinhole cameras; a popular maker of such cameras is Zero Image. I have no personal experience with their products, but I have seen great images taken with these cameras, and they have a reputation for quality. These are not cheap but they represent the upper end of the market today. (It's also possible, of course, to buy specially made pinhole lenses that will fit on a digital camera and produce a similar effect. Somehow that doesn't feel as authentic to me.)

You can't tell from the photo, but I placed my tripod right next to the hood. You always need to get closer than you think you do with the Holga WPC.

I think film is the most fun option for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the delayed gratification involved in getting the film developed later on, and finally seeing what you made. Fortunately, you don't need a boutique camera to have fun. I own the Holga WPC 120. It's an all-plastic camera that shoots panoramic, very wide angle pictures on 120 (aka "medium format") film. Film is relatively cheap - a 5-pack roll of Fujifilm Acros 100* will set you back about $25 online. Unless you develop the film yourself, you'll probably need to take it to a pro lab or mail it off for processing. I recommend The Darkroom - they do great work at very reasonable prices (plus they'll make a digital scan of your photos available for download right away).

You'll also need a standard camera tripod and a shutter release cable** to keep the camera steady when shooting. Since pinhole exposures are typically measured in seconds and minutes, hand-holding the camera is not an option. Each roll of 120 film will produce 6 exposures using the Holga WPC 120. To adjust exposure time, you simply hold down the plunger on the shutter release cable for a predetermined length of time. To play it safe, I often "bracket" my shots - that is, I take a couple of identical shots at different exposure times to ensure that I get at least one usable image. That might seem like a waste of film, but I'd rather sacrifice a bit of film than discover later on that the one shot I took was way off the mark.

There are various charts and websites (Mr Pinhole is a popular resource), that will help you calculate a ballpark estimate for exposure time, but you can also experiment with different exposures on your own. I find with the Holga WPC 120, using ISO 100 film, daytime exposures run anywhere from 3 to about 10 seconds, depending on lighting conditions. (There's a guide affixed to the back of the camera but I find the suggested times generally too long.) 

The Oak Ridge United Methodist church has a Christmas tree sales event every year. (I used a different kind of film for this shot that tends to have extreme contrast, so it's not as nicely toned as the photos taken with Fuji Acros 100 film.)

So what do you get for your trouble? You get unique, dreamy looking images that have the same level of sharpness from front to back, due to the extremely small aperture of a pinhole. You get to have fun experimenting, never knowing for sure how your photo will look until later. If you learn to process your own film (you don't need a dedicated darkroom), you'll enjoy the satisfaction of making a photo from scratch using time-honored methods. And, at least with the Holga WPC 120 camera, you get impossibly wide angle photos that would normally require an ultra-wide lens to achieve on conventional cameras.

Instead of spending money on more megapixels this year for you or your loved one, consider delving into the exciting, lensless world of pinhole photography!


*Aside from the excellent quality of this film, it's especially well-suited for the longer exposures required by most pinhole photos. There's a phenomenon familiar to film shooters known as reciprocity failure that results in film needing more exposure time than standard calculations would indicate. How much more depends on the specific film being used. Fuji Acros 100 needs no adjustments for exposures of up to 2 minutes, so for typical pinhole use it's normally not an issue.

**I was disappointed to find that the shutter on my Holga WPC 120 camera didn't open fully with the standard shutter release cable I had on hand. It turns out that the camera required a cable release with a longer "throw" (the part that sticks out into the shutter release when you press the plunger). I had to search around a bit, but ended up buying a Gepe Pro Release that has an extra long throw. Regardless of brand, ask the seller if the throw is at least 5/8" to ensure compatibility with this model camera.

The Joys of Tunnel Vision

One of the traps that ensnares photographers is trying to stuff too much into a single photo. Especially when we're plunged into a new environment, we naturally want to include as much as possible in our composition of it. This isn't always a bad thing. If your purpose is to document an event - whether it's a concert or a family reunion - then shooting "wide" may be necessary to capture more action involving more people.

In most other situations, though, it's worthwhile to slow down and think about the individual elements of a scene that speak to you. Ask yourself what made you stop and reach for that camera. It wasn't everything, but one or more specific things, that arrested your mind. You should always ask yourself: What am I photographing here? If you can't answer that question for yourself, chances are you're wasting the effort on a shutter click.

I went on a photo walk yesterday in an unfamiliar Tennessee town. The scene was charged with visually interesting things; my brain was briefly overwhelmed by the cacophony of colors, shapes and lines. My initial impulse was to lift my camera and start shooting everything in sight on the street. You might get some sentimental photos like that, but I'm almost always disappointed by these photos when I look at them later. They lack a clearly-defined subject, and the viewer's eye has no obvious focal point on which to rest. Our eyes seek out a resting point in an image.

Sometimes I find more interesting subjects in alleys than I do on Main Street, like this gun shop side entrance. The white lines added visual interest by breaking up the solid red.

In these situations, give yourself permission to take a few snaps of everything in sight - get it out of your system! Then slow down and start examining the main elements that make the scene interesting to you. The photo walk took place in an historic town with lots of interesting urban decay juxtaposed by new and occasionally charming details. The leaves were beginning to change, so here and there were splashes of color. Crumbling walls with peeling paint partially revealed a mystery item priced at 5 cents back in the day. A modern but classic pedestrian garden was near one end of downtown, across the street from an old-time barbershop with a spinning barber pole out front. Each of these elements made for an interesting photo on their own.

When you try to include too many details, the details become so much visual noise. The next time you find yourself struck by a complex scene, take the time to explore the details. You'll probably find, as I have, that the most memorable photos come from thoughtful exploration of the details. One final tip: Be sure to bring a tripod along, if possible. Being able to securely position your camera is important  as you get closer to your subject.

Seeing the World in Black & White

We see the world in color, and most photographs today reflect that realistic outlook - or something close to it, thanks to apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic. But there's something timeless and visually arresting about a well-crafted monochrome* image - even in the digital age when color has never been easier and more natural. Simply put, a good black & white photo stands out from the crowd.

Mannequin in a store window. Shot on black & white film. I think the contrast and reflections here lend themselves nicely to monochrome treatment.

So why would you choose to restrict your photos to shades of gray? When the subject is a rainbow or a bunch of colorful balloons, normally you wouldn't. If color doesn't add anything important to the image, however, there's an excellent chance your photo might look better in monochrome. If the subject of the photo has very little color in it, and if the color that is visible is simply a distraction, monochrome is a great choice. Another instance where you might choose to eliminate color is when the shape, texture or lighting of a scene are more important than its color. You can use black & white to make the subject seem timeless, removing obvious clues about the age of the photo, or even applying aging artifacts like virtual scratches or a sepia tone to heighten the effect.

Black & white can also serve to mask undesirable aspects of an image. If the subject is a person with a lot of wrinkles, or someone with a less-than-perfect or ruddy complexion, creating a monochrome image can smooth over minor cosmetic issues, especially if you also apply a skin-flattering yellow filter. Occasionally, when I run into a photo that has difficult lighting and no amount of tweaking corrects the color satisfactorily, I'll just go "artistic" and convert it to black & white. That might be cheating a little, but it's a useful last resort to save an otherwise good photo.

Now that we've looked at some reasons why to consider using black & white, let's consider the how of doing so. One obvious way to get a black & white photo is to shoot it using black & white film. There's simply no more direct, traditional way to produce a monochrome photo. When film use is impractical, you can either shoot the photograph digitally as black & white at the outset, or you can manipulate it in post-processing. Many higher-end cameras will let you select black & white at the time a picture is taken; some will even display the scene in monochrome in the viewfinder, which removes the distraction of color even as you're composing the picture. This can be a helpful approach, especially when you're not accustomed to thinking in terms of monochrome.

The precise technique you use depends on your preferences, as well as the hardware and software you have at your disposal. If you own a camera that shoots in RAW format, you have the most flexibility because all of the available data about each photo is in there, ready to be skillfully extracted with the right tools. Failing that option, all modern, consumer digital cameras can produce a JPG file, and this file can be converted easily after the photo is taken. So even if your camera doesn't "do" black & white as a native function, you're not stuck in color.

If you're using a dedicated camera, the easiest thing to do is to copy your photos from your memory card to your computer. You can then use software to "desaturate" your photos, with varying degrees of fanciness. A free program like GIMP will offer a few basic options to convert your photo, and that may be all you need (along with any desired exposure adjustments), to get the results you want. More advanced software, such as Photoshop and Lightroom, give you much finer control and a variety of presets to choose from. If you want even more creative control, check out Google's Silver Effex Pro, which is sold as a bundle with other useful plugins. This is the software many pro photographers use for achieving a classic look.

What if you're using a mobile device to shoot and edit your photos? You have a growing number of apps to choose from. Two of my favorite apps are Snapseed - available for free from both Google Play and the Apple iTunes Store - and VSCO Camera - a free app for Android and iPhones (additional effects filters can be purchased inexpensively). Both apps allow you to manipulate your photos in a myriad of different ways. Another Android-only app I enjoy is Vignette, which has an Ilford Classic Black & White filter effect that looks terrific.

The next time you take a photo, ask yourself if this image might look better as black & white. If you have the time and inclination, experiment with converting it. You may find the resulting image looks better than its color counterpart!

*I'm using the terms monochrome and black & white more or less interchangeably here, since a majority of monochrome images today are, in fact, black & white. Of course, monochrome technically would also encompass any technique that renders image in a single tone - sepia, selenium toning, cyanotype, redscale, etc.

Fun with an Old School TLR Camera

"A TL-whaa?" you ask.

My Yashica 635, introduced in 1958. It's a typical TLR in most respects, although the 635 is unusual in that it was made to shoot either 120 or 35 mm film.

TLR is short for Twin Lens Reflex. These cool-looking cameras were marketed for decades, in various designs, and reached the pinnacle of their popularity in the 1960s. You can often find vintage TLRs on the used market at affordable prices - eBay, Craigslist or the odd yard sale. They typically run around $50-200, depending on the model and condition. If you're lucky, you may find one for a few bucks since the general public assumes film is no longer "a thing." Popular makes include Rollei, Yashica and Mamiya.

So how does a TLR work? Unlike an SLR, where you view and shoot through a single lens, the TLR uses one lens for viewing and another for taking the actual shot. This separation of lens functions has a variety of practical implications, one of which is that very close objects may require adjusting the camera position due to a phenomenon known as parallax. For shooting at normal distances (6+ feet, or so), this is not a problem. Due to the simplicity of their design and robust construction, these cameras also tend to hold up well over the years. Most use a single, fixed focal-length lens although there were some standard accessory filters and close-up lenses made.

Looking through the waist-level viewfinder of a typical TLR.

TLRs typically use a waist-level viewfinder, meaning you look down from above to compose and focus. Some models include a magnifying glass that flips out for more precise focusing (I use mine regularly). Because the scene is projected directly up from a mirror in the body, the image is flipped left-to-right, which can be a little disorienting at first. The viewing screen is surprisingly bright. In fact, there's a whole group on Flickr dedicated to using digital cameras to shoot through these viewfinders. Of course there's no reason you can't still use these cameras as intended to take photos on film - which, as you might suspect, is exactly how I use mine.

Most TLRs use 120 film, which is readily available online in a variety of types. Some models took 620 film, which is the exact same film on a thinner spool. 620 film is no longer made, but you can order re-spooled film for a small premium cost, or buy used or newly-manufactured spools online and do it yourself. You can buy color, slide or black & white film for that authentic old look. Loading film in your TLR is even easier than popping the back off your smartphone to install a micro-SD card. You can usually find videos on YouTube demonstrating the use of a particular vintage camera so there's plenty of community support readily available out there if you find yourself unsure of what to do.

Self-portrait illustrating how to shoot with a TLR. An obvious benefit for people who enjoy doing street photography is that people aren't accustomed to seeing a camera held this way, so you can photograph strangers discreetly. Bystanders will assume that you're simply preoccupied with that antique in your hands.

So why would you want to shoot with one of these vintage cameras? For starters, they shoot square photos that yield the beautiful, authentic look of film. The lenses are generally quite sharp, so your photos look at least as good as anything you shoot for Instagram. The negatives are several times larger than 35mm film, which means you can enlarge your photos to a high degree - really, we're talking massive enlargement potential. Another feature I enjoy is the "swirly" bokeh (out of focus area) effect I sometimes get shooting at larger apertures on my Yashica.

They're also great conversation starters, as many people have never seen a camera like this in the wild, and older people appreciate the nostalgia. It's unusual for me to not have at least one person ask about my TLR when I use it in public!

Photo shot this weekend on my Yashica 635, using Ilford Delta Pro 100 film. Home developed and scanned.

If you're not already a film shooter, but are looking for a cheap way to dip your toes into the water, keep your eyes open for a good deal on used TLRs the next time you stop at a yard sale or flea market. You might score a great buy on a beautiful and "obsolete" camera. Just don't tell the vendor that you can buy film for it.

Which Digital Camera Should I Buy?

It's the sort of question that lights up the eyes of salespeople and makes professional photographers twitch: "Which digital camera should I buy?"

Let me make a couple of points up front that should be obvious: (1) While I keep up with many trends in the wider photography world, my personal experience is limited, and (2) I am unquestionably biased in my recommendations. So take specific model suggestions with a grain of salt; the major players all sell roughly comparable models at various price points, and you can take fine photos with any brand of camera.  Don't let anyone try to tell you that brand X will make you a better photographer. As the famed photographer Ansel Adams said decades ago: “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”

With those caveats, I'll offer some considerations for the person who is looking for a camera that can offer more creative control and capabilities than their smartphone can deliver. Usually, when people ask for camera recommendations they have a budget limit in mind. (If you're rich, skip this part.) If your budget is under $300, your options are limited and I'd suggest sticking with your smartphone; you're not going to get an appreciably better photo with a camera in this price range. A cheap point-and-shoot camera offers a few advantages, but frequently not enough to justify the cost. (If you're looking for an optical zoom and a more powerful built-in flash, then you might actually benefit from a sub $300 camera.)

If you can spend in the $300-400 range and up, your options are much better. Even if you have the means to spend a lot more money, I'd recommend that you consider a more basic camera kit until you have a better idea what kinds of features you really need. With a few high-end exceptions*, you'll be better served by a camera that will accept interchangeable lenses. These cameras usually come with a basic "kit" zoom lens that are more than adequate for everyday use. If you shop carefully, you can find some good deals on refurbished gear at great prices - like a Nikon D3100 with an 18-55mm lens for $349 at the time of this writing. That's more than enough camera to take professional quality photos. Nikon's 18-55mm kit lens is quite good and surprisingly versatile.

As your skills improve, you can add lenses that match your shooting style. As any pro photographer will tell you, your most important investment is lenses. Even the best digital cameras today will start to look ancient beyond 5 years as technology progresses. But a quality lens will last you through multiple camera bodies. So if you need to scrimp, buy the cheapest body a manufacturer offers and save up for better lenses.

Prize-winning photo I shot in 2011, using an entry-level, 6 MP Nikon D40 camera that debuted in late 2006, using the kit 18-55mm zoom lens. The same photo shot on a higher-end camera would look pretty much the same at normal print sizes.

Don't be suckered into the megapixels arms race! As Ken Rockwell demonstrates, megapixels are not the most important spec in a camera. Even a 5+ year old DSLR can take photos that beat any smartphone in image quality under normal circumstances. Among other factors, dedicated cameras generally have much larger image sensors. What do you get if you cram more pixels into a tiny sensor? A lot of pixels on a tiny sensor! For making beautiful 8x10" prints, a dedicated 6 MP camera is all you need. More megapixels do allow you to make much larger prints, and you can also make bigger enlargements from cropped images. Today you're not likely to find a new camera that features less than 16 MP, so don't worry about megapixels. Megapixels simply aren't a measurement of quality - only resolution. Of course there are advantages to newer and higher-end cameras, but megapixels are not the chief among them.

I've owned a number of digital cameras, including a Nikon D40 and a Nikon D7000. Both my DSLRs served me well, and would have continued to do so if I'd stayed within the Nikon fold. About a year ago, however, I decided I wanted to change up my gear and go a different direction. I spent considerable time researching mirrorless (also know as ILC - interchangeable lens) cameras. These are high-end cameras that produce photos rivaling the quality of conventional DSLRs. The main difference is that they don't use a mirror like a conventional DSLR for composing photos. Consequently, they are generally much smaller and lighter, and - to the delight of many professionals - are less conspicuous in public. Another advantage of the mirrorless cameras is that you can often buy inexpensive adapters that will let you use vintage lenses on them. I can use my 30+ year old Konica lenses in this way, with excellent results.

California sea lions shot using a Fujifilm X-E2 and a 40-year old Konica Hexanon 135mm telephoto lens (with adapter). Konica lenses love mirrorless cameras!

Mirrorless cameras do have a few disadvantages compared to DSLRs. Their smaller size can take some time to adjust to, although this is a minor adaptation. Due to their smaller batteries, battery life is measured in the hundreds, not thousands of shots like my former Nikon D7000. Newer cameras are improving on this limitation, but fortunately spare batteries are cheap and widely available. The biggest drawback for mirrorless cameras relates to slightly slower focus speeds in some models (the actual difference is increasingly negligible), and fewer frames per second. Wildlife and sports photographers are probably still better served by a DSLR. For most any other purpose, mirrorless cameras are functionally equivalent to their bigger brethren.

There are a variety of options within the mirrorless camp, and this is not a comprehensive review of them. I decided upon the Fujifilm X-E2 mirrorless camera, which at the time made the most economic sense for me. The Fujifilm X series digital cameras offer the advantage of a using an APS-C (half-frame) sensor - the same sensor in the Nikon D7000 and many other "prosumer" level cameras, with some special Fujifilm features. Fujifilm's XF lenses, even their entry-level "kit" 18-55mm zoom, are widely recognized as exceptional in quality. The primary disadvantage of going with Fujifilm is that there are relatively fewer lenses to choose from, and only a few lenses made by third-party manufacturers.

From the various photography forums and podcasts I follow, it appears that mirrorless cameras are gaining significant traction in the market, whereas DSLRs sales and innovation have mostly stagnated. Some of the most exciting developments are coming not from Nikon or Canon, but from manufacturers like Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and other manufacturers of micro four thirds cameras. These are mirrorless cameras that offer many advantages in common with the Fujifilm X series, with the added benefit that a vast selection of lenses (interchangeable among brands) are available.

I almost bought a micro four thirds Panasonic Lumix camera, as it has some useful features and has garnered numerous positive reviews. Ultimately, I decided against going with micro four thirds out of concerns that the smaller image sensor used in micro four thirds cameras might not provide the performance I required - especially under low-light conditions. My concerns may or may not have been well-founded in that respect, but I'm definitely happy with my camera choice. When I decide to splurge for an upgraded body, the X-E2 will become my backup body, and my current lenses will work on either body.

*If you're looking to buy a good camera that uses a built-in lens, Fujifilm makes some great consumer cameras that are worth checking out; two of these are the Fujifilm X30 ($599), and the Fujifilm X100T ($1299). Both are only available for pre-order at the time of this writing, but early reviews suggest they are every bit as stellar as their predecessors. The X30 is a compact zoom, whereas the X100T is a fixed lens camera that's going to be very popular among professional and street photographers. If you don't care about having the very latest features, the X100S is predictably being discounted by retailers. The X30 does have a smaller sensor, whereas the X100T has the latest iteration of same excellent sensor as other cameras in Fujifilm's high-end models.

 

Awesomely Retro: Adox Color Implosion

Regular readers know that I like to alternate between cutting-edge and old school tech when it comes to photography. So, on the heels of my last post about using super-fast SSD drives to boost computer performance comes my review about a limited edition film that's both new and retro: Adox Color Implosion 100, "Surreal Color Negative Film".

"Limited Edition" means Adox went with paper labels on both the canister and the film roll.

This 35mm film was introduced by Adox just a couple of years ago.  Adox is a German film company with a long, international history. Today they make a small range of specialized films, as well as photographic paper and chemistry. Color Implosion is as quirky as the name sounds, and somewhat resembles color film that was shot back in the 70s but left unprocessed and stored in a warm place for the past couple of decades before being developed - but in an artistic sort of way.

While it's nominally rated at a speed of ISO 100, you can shoot it anywhere from ISO 100-400 in your camera. (Check your owner's manual to see how to change film speed manually; simpler cameras may default to ISO 100, which will work OK.) The speed you choose affects the overall warmth of the final images. At a speed of 100, the film has cooler, bluish tones. Punch it up to ISO 400, and the color "temperature" increases - with warm, vivid reds. At any speed you select, the colors are different enough to really stand out. Besides the unusual color palette, Color Implosion features lots of bold, beautiful grain. It's seriously and unapologetically grainy!

Adox Color Implosion loves antiques.

There's nothing subtle about this film, and it's definitely not well-suited for every subject. Looking to shoot photos of a newborn baby? Color Implosion is probably not your first option for an infant.  (Use Kodak Portra film if you want flattering, fine-grained portraits.) But if you're looking for the right gritty film for shooting vintage cars, old buildings, and adventurous human subjects, Adox Color Implosion may provide just the look you want.

Sure, you can probably achieve something close to this effect with Photoshop filters, but it's not the same as loading a roll of film and sending it out for processing while you eagerly wait to see the results. There's something very satisfying about the experience of creating photos on old school film that digital doesn't quite replicate.

Old cars with beads of rain? Color Implosion has you covered!

Since it uses normal color (C-41) processing, you can get it developed at any 1-hour photo lab. If you don't have a lab nearby that still processes film, I recommend mailing your film to The Darkroom - I've always been pleased with the timeliness and quality of their work.  They'll process and scan a roll for $11, and you can view your photos online as soon as they're done. As for the film itself, I've bought mine from Freestyle. At the time of this writing, a roll of 36 exposures will set you back a modest $6.99. It's not as cheap as Instagram, but it's a whole lot more fun!

Model Chryseis in downtown Knoxville, shot on Adox Color Implosion.



How to Make Your Old Computer Crazy Fast

I'm taking a departure from writing specifically about photography and delving into a bit of computer geekiness.  Don't worry – there is a photography angle here, as this will be about computer technology that can significantly improve the efficiency of your image editing. It also enhances all the other everyday tasks for which people use their computers.  Even better, this tip applies regardless of the kind of computer (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc) that you happen to use!

Illustration of an SSD drive, courtesy  Thrasos Varnava Graphics.    

Illustration of an SSD drive, courtesy Thrasos Varnava Graphics.

 

In brief, this is a summary of things I've learned recently about solid state hard drives – commonly called SSDs.  Due to a recent motherboard failure, I decided to purchase a new PC.  While investigating my options, I discovered that the latest higher-end systems today often make use of these super-fast drives.  While SSD drives (yes, I realize that's redundant but it looks better than SSDs), have been around for several years, only recently have they become truly affordable and practical for general use.  

Conventional hard drives are mechanical devices that rely on fast-spinning magnetic platters to store data.  This basic drive design has been with us since the 1950s!  Because a drive head, analogous to a needle on an old record player, must travel to read data at various locations from these spinning platters, hard drives have always been a performance bottleneck on any computer.  Because they're mechanical, conventional hard drives are also fairly susceptible to failure – commonly called “crashes.”.  

SSD drives, by contrast, are fully electronic, with no moving parts, and thus operate at speeds several times faster than even the fastest conventional hard drives.  (There are various technical factors that may limit just how fast an SSD will run on your computer, but let's just say they're really, really fast regardless.)  Data in an SSD drive is stored on non-volatile memory and hence can be accessed with lightning speed. While SSD drives are not immune from failure, they're generally regarded as more reliable than conventional hard drives due to their non-mechanical construction.

Since SSD drives run so much faster than a conventional hard drive, simply replacing an older conventional hard drive with one of these can dramatically improve performance.*  I'm composing this blog entry on a Toshiba laptop that I bought new in 2008 for around $500.  It's the kind of computer most people would consider destined for the junk heap – or maybe a beater to let the kids play on.  I've made several upgrades over the years that have extended its useful life.  But the most dramatic is the upgrade I performed this weekend: I replaced the slow, aging hard drive with a brand new, 120GB SSD drive.  My 6 year old laptop now screams to life where it used to yawn and search for coffee when I turned it on.

The difference in performance is dramatic.  The time it takes to boot up before reaching the login prompt has dropped about 50% (from 46 to 22 seconds).  After logging in, Windows 7 finishes loading and becomes fully available to use within a few seconds.  Small programs open almost instantly, while larger programs (like Adobe Lightroom) now open in a respectable 12-15 seconds.  Lightroom in particular was a real dog on this machine previously – so slow in loading image previews as to be practically useless.  While the dated on-board graphics adapter remains a small bottleneck, the laptop is now suitable for casual editing when I'm away from my main PC.  The cost for the new drive was a little less than $100, including tax and shipping.  Drives in the 500GB range will cost about $200-250; anything larger than 500GB is currently fairly pricey.  As prices drop, much larger drives will become affordable.

In brief, installing this SSD drive has given my aging laptop a new lease on life.  If you have an older computer that still works but seems a bit sluggish, consider installing a new SSD drive.  If it's a desktop PC or Mac, you can always install an SSD drive as your main system drive and continue using your old drive as a secondary data storage device.  SSD drives generally come with “cloning” software that, with the right hardware adapter (an external, USB 3 drive adapter will set you back $20-30), will let you precisely duplicate your existing hard drive.  Then all you have to do is physically swap in the SSD drive and you're up and running with very little time and effort.  Of course if your operating system hasn't been reinstalled in several years, you may decide to skip the cloning process and perform a fresh install from your recovery media.  

For a relatively small investment you can get a few more years out of your current system while realizing drastic performance gains.

*SATA interface drives were first introduced in 2002, so if your computer is really ancient, you should check to see what kind of drive interface it uses before investing in a SSD drive.  My laptop uses SATA 1, which does limit the speed at which data can be transferred.  Newer computers that use SATA 2 or 3 will see an even more dramatic speed increase than I am currently enjoying.

Why Does Aunt Rita Have Three Hands?

If your photos seem a little boring, then maybe you're not paying attention to background details.  It's taken me years to really grasp this concept, but one key to taking consistently interesting photographs is keeping an eye on what's behind your subject.  Managing background details can result in better photos instead of forgettable snapshots.

Minding what's in your background helps improve your photos in a couple of ways.  The most immediately obvious is that it helps eliminate distractions.  It's easy to get caught up in the moment, and fail to notice that a telephone pole or a tree is growing out of your loved one's head, or that a garbage truck is just now cruising down that scenic screet.  Your brain can easily tune out these details while you're busy making sure everyone is smiling.

Keep an eye out for distracting patterns, signs or general clutter that will later confuse viewers since these compete for visual attention. Remember that everything in your viewfinder becomes part of the final image, so while you see two people looking at the camera right now, it's possible you won't notice that construction sign or rude graffiti intruding into the frame until after the fact.  Let your eye rove around the corners of the viewfinder and make sure there's nothing in there you don't want.  You may not be able to "Photoshop" it easily after the fact, so it's far better to exclude undesirable features from the scene in the first place.

Sap buckets hanging on maple trees.  Here I used the element of repetition to add visual interest to the photo.

The second important aspect of considering the background is using elements of the scene to add interest to the photo.  This might be as simple as choosing a colorful background that complements the main subject - a blue car parked by an orange wall, for example.  Another time-honored technique is to use repetition when your subject is one of multiple identical objects, usually keeping the focus on the closest one.  If the subject is a person, you may want to surround them with relevant personal items so that you create what's known as an environmental portrait.  If your subject is a writer, for example, you may want to show them sitting with their keyboard, a thesaurus and other writing tools at their desk.

Whatever approach you decide to use, include only background elements that add to your composition.  Exclude anything that doesn't add to the photograph.  If there are unwanted elements in the background, you may find that moving even a few inches in a different direction eliminates the unwanted element, or enables you to include more of what you do want.  If you can't exclude an unwanted background, try to ensure that it's out of focus.

If you follow these simple guidelines, you may find your photos become much more interesting to yourself and others.

Always Shoot the Waiter

Summer officially begins in just a few days for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere.  For many people, summer entails lazy days at the pool, grilling hamburgers, eating ice cream and - most especially - that sacred institution known as summer vacation (or holiday for European types).  These days almost everyone takes at least occasional photos when we travel, often with a smartphone or tablet. But how do you make your vacation pictures truly engaging - the kind your friends actually look forward to viewing (not the kind they grudgingly scroll through on Facebook in polite boredom), and the kind of images you'll cherish as a personal reminder of those fun times?

I shot this photo somewhere in Europe while on a group tour in 1992.  It's not a spectacular picture, but to me it captured the essence of a Parisian cafe and is one of my favorites of the trip.

If you do any traveling, you'll inevitably end up with snaps of the iconic places that draw tourists: Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful or even the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota. If you are traveling abroad, you'll naturally want some photos of the Parthenon or the Eiffel Tower.  While it's a given that we want to photograph these famous landmarks, what will you remember most from your trip?  After all, the chances of you capturing a unique, killer photo of the Eiffel Tower are pretty much non-existent.

Years ago, a series of commercials for a popular instant coffee mix would show two women reminiscing about their travels abroad as they sip from their steaming mugs.  One of the women would interject a shared memory of the French waiter and in unison they'd exclaim, "Jean-Luc!"  Those were corny ads, but they do serve to remind us that often the most memorable parts of a trip are the seemingly mundane details.

Man repairing a thatched roof somewhere in England (1992). I like how the sunlight reflected off the flying bits of hay as he worked.  Candid photos of everyday people working are among my favorite subjects.

 

Whenever you travel with a camera in hand, be prepared to shoot those little details that make the trip special.  By all means, take a snapshot of L'Arc de Triomphe, and get the cliché shots of your loved ones "holding up" the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  But don't forget to take a picture of the local old men playing a game you've never seen before, the waiter in that sidewalk cafe, the lady on a bicycle balancing a loaf of bread, or the worker painting an historic building.  You'll most likely find that those are the photos that most accurately capture the soul of a place.

Try some Instant Film this Summer!

People above a certain age will remember Polaroid pictures.  Others have probably heard the Outkast song telling you to "shake it like a Polaroid picture" - which, it turns out, was never actually needed.  Depending on the specific camera, you loaded the film, pressed the shutter button and moments later you held a finished print.  What you may not know is that instant film is still alive and well in the digital era.  In fact, instant film has enjoyed a quiet but steady resurgence in the past few years.

Whether you're looking to rejuvenate an old Polaroid camera you found in your grandparents' closet, or if you're in the market for something new, there are a healthy variety of options to choose from today.  Polaroid itself is out of the film business, but that doesn't mean instant film has disappeared.

My Polaroid Land Camera 100, made circa 1963-1966.  I've had to make some repairs to the bellows using liquid electrical tape, but it works just fine.  I also performed a simple battery conversion so it can use cheap AAA batteries. You can buy original type batteries but they're a bit pricey.

For older Polaroid Land Cameras (with model numbers like 100, 250, etc), you can buy pack film from Fujifilm; FP-100c is a color, peel-apart film designed for the Land Camera series that makes for beautiful prints.  (Fujifilm recently stopped producing their FP-3000b, a high-speed black and white peel-apart film, but you may be able to buy some from online retailers before it's completely gone.)  When you consider that these cameras were manufactured around 50-60 years ago, it's impressive that fresh film can still be found for them.

If you have a later model Polaroid camera that uses integral film - the more familiar kind that pops out and develops magically before your eyes - there's a good chance you can buy brand new film from the Impossible Project.  Impossible is a company that arose from the ashes of the old Polaroid film production, and has succeeded in reformulating these old film types from scratch.  Not all of the old cameras are supported, and the film isn't cheap, but it's a fun way to bring new life to an "obsolete" camera today.  Impossible has a dedicated and growing following, and they are continually refining and improving their product line.  While early product runs were billed as "experimental" and were thus unpredictable, pictures made on IP film today are excellent.  You can buy refurbished, vintage Polaroid cameras and accessories from the Film Photography Project.

Instax Mini photo of my friend Chris, shot using the Instax Mini 8 camera.  I find the color palette of Instax film very pleasing and slightly old-school.

A third option is to buy a new camera to use new film: enter the Fuji Instax Mini and Instax Wide cameras and films.  Fujifilm currently makes several models of camera, and 2 sizes of film.  The Wide film is about the dimensions of old-school Polaroid photos, whereas the Mini is half that size (about the size of a business card).  These films are relatively inexpensive and even optionally offer colorful, themed designs on the borders.  The Mini 8 camera is a chunky, basic camera that runs about $65 online.  It comes in assorted colors and is clearly designed with kids in mind.  Fujifilm has recently introduced the Mini 90, which offers more sophisticated features and a retro design for "grown-up" photographers.

So if you're looking for a way to make taking your summer photos more interesting, consider buying an instant camera, and / or pick up some instant film for that old camera and wow your friends and family with real pictures - delivered instantly!

Do You Print Your Photos?

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the importance of backing up your digital images.  All of the methods I described there show how your cherished photos can be preserved in the event of a hard drive failure or other technical disaster.  But there's another important way we can back up our photographs and ensure that they are enjoyed for generations to come: printing.

It might seem strange to suggest printing photos as a novel idea, but in the digital era a huge percentage of pictures only exist in memory, most often viewed and shared on tiny screens.  Even the cheapest smartphones today boast at least a 3 megapixel sensor, which is easily large enough to yield 5x7" prints.

A favorite photo I shot back in 1990. Earlier this year I finally ordered a large print for our living room, and now I enjoy seeing it every day.

There's something special about printing photos that sets them apart from digital images.  You can put your favorite photos in nice frames or just tack them up on your cubicle wall at work.  Arrange them on the wall like an album, so whenever you need a breather at your desk you can just sit back for a moment and enjoy them.  Those faces and places from yesteryear will remind you of happy memories every day of the year.

There is a sense in which a picture doesn't become a true photograph until it's been applied to paper, where it becomes something tangible in the physical universe instead of existing as a mere file on a storage device.  It's fun to flip through photos on your phone but the experience is too fleeting to savor.

If, like many people, your pictures are stored primarily on your smart phone, businesses like Mpix.com and Walgreens now offer apps that let you select and send photos straight from your phone for printing - you don't even need a computer!  So what are you waiting for?

Organizing Your Digital Photos

A recent study suggests that we may be harming our memory capacity by taking tons of digital photos that we save and forget.  What researchers have found is that we're relying on these snaps rather than our minds to retain what we see.  It's been suggested that reviewing our photos after the event may help reinforce the memory.  After all, isn't that the point of taking a picture - to remember the thing we're photographing? 

Whether or not this study stands up to further scrutiny, it's certainly true we are awash in a sea of countless photos.  Our parents and preceding generations likely took fewer images in a lifetime than many of us take in a year.  Unless we take deliberate measures to organize all those pictures, it gets increasingly difficult to find them down the road.

Organizing your photos may not only help you recall those special occasions, but it can also save you the frustration of a hard drive littered with hundreds of thousands of files with nondescript names like dsc_0149.jpg.  Thankfully, there are better ways to organize your pictures that will make locating and viewing them easy instead of a chore.

There are two essential things to bear in mind when organizing your photos:

  • The system you use must make sense to you.  The precise way I organize and name my photos most likely won't make sense to most people, but these general organizational principles will work for anyone.
  • The system you use must be scalable.  Creating a folder called "Tommy's Birthday" probably seems like a good idea when Tommy is 1 year old.  By the time you reach his 10th birthday, you may find that the system becomes unwieldy. However you organize your photos, you need a method that grows with you.

For starters, you should try to keep all your photos in one main folder (or one library, if you're using Windows 7 or later).  Typically this will be a folder called "My Pictures" or maybe "Photos" (the exact terminology will depend on your operating system).  Inside there you should create your individual folders that organize the content in broad terms.  If you've been dumping all of your photos directly under "My Pictures," then it's probably a mess right now.  If you're not well acquainted with folder (or directory) structures, think of your hard drive as a file cabinet drawer.  You wouldn't dump all your important papers in one drawer, would you? Most likely you'd create folders for bills, legal documents, etc. It's pretty much the same thing.

With respect to folder names, think about what kinds of photos you like to take.  If you mostly take family snapshots, you might want to create main folders with names like Holidays, Birthdays, Special Occasions, Grandchildren or the like.  If you shoot a broad spectrum of subjects (as I do), you may want to name your main folders Family, Landscapes, Macro, etc.  The key here is to make the subject of each folder sufficiently broad but specific enough to accurately describe what you plan to copy into it.  

Avoid creating main folders that are too vague (e.g., Pretty Pictures) or too specific (e.g., Sunsets at the Beach), at this level.  Doubtless you'll have some photos that don't fit into your main categories.  You might create a Miscellaneous folder to deal with these, but you'll want to use it as sparingly as possible.

The next thing to consider is how you'll name the folders inside the main folders.  Let's go back to the example of Tommy's Birthday.  Assuming you'll be taking photos of multiple birthday events as Tommy grows up, you may want to name each specific birthday party using the exact date and a descriptive name.  Here's how I might name an example folder:

2014-08-05 Tommy's 3rd Birthday

Why not name it 8-5-14 Tommy's 3rd Birthday? When you only have a few folders, that's pretty easy to find and seems logical enough. But what happens when you throw Tommy's birthday party on August 4th the following year and create a new folder called 8-4-15 Tommy's 4th Birthday?  Your folders, as viewed in order, now list Tommy's 4th birthday before his 3rd.  The problem only gets worse as you add dozens of new folders: with vacations, anniversaries and so on all out of sequence.  This relates to the second point I made about your naming system being scalable.  Trust me on this - you'll be glad you did.

The last point to consider with respect to naming is how you'll name the individual photos themselves.  Approaches vary, but I suggest naming your files to match the specific folder names.  Going back to our previous example, you may want to name your files like this:

2014-08-05 Tommy's 3rd Birthday 001.jpg
2014-08-05 Tommy's 3rd Birthday 002.jpg
2014-08-05 Tommy's 3rd Birthday 003.jpg (and so on)

The reason I use the leading 0s in numbering the files is to ensure that they are displayed in the correct order when viewed in a folder.  While it seems like a small thing, this naming convention also ensures that most image viewing software will display the images in order when cycling through a large number of photos in a folder.  If you're viewing pictures from a wedding, for example, it can be jarring to see photos of the cake cutting appearing in between the bride walking down the aisle.  Of course, if you have thousands of photos in a folder, you may want to add an extra leading 0 (e.g., 2015-04-22 Bill and Susan's Wedding 0001.jpg) to keep them in order.

If you follow these guidelines, you will normally create unique file names incorporating the date, descriptive name and a unique number.  This is useful for finding specific photos using various search tools.  It's also important if you use photo cataloging software, since these programs require that each photo in their database have a unique name.  Your operating system will let you have multiple files named tommy.jpg in different folders, but other programs will have trouble differentiating the file names in a database.

Software

So you've decided you need to rethink how you organize your photos, but you're starting with a mess.  How do you sort through everything and start getting control of it?  You'll probably find it's easiest to use a dedicated program to help you catalog the photos you have.  

A good image manager will also allow you to rename and organize images at the time you import them to your computer.  However, I would strongly suggest that prior to using any of these programs it's a wise idea to first spend some time creating the basic folder organization you plan to use.  Otherwise, you'll likely end up leaving things in disorder and making things harder than they need to be.  The extra effort up front is worth the time it takes!

Here are some programs you may want to consider using, in ascending order of complexity and cost. They are all currently available for Mac and Windows:

Picasa 3 - This is a free image editor and cataloging tool from Google.  The editing functions are basic, but probably useful to many people who don't want a more complicated tool.  Like the other programs listed here, Picasa will help you import, organize and edit your pictures.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 12 - This program is a mid-level tool that provides more advanced editing and organizing capabilities at an affordable price.  Currently $79 from Amazon.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 - A more sophisticated program aimed at professionals and serious hobbyists.  Currently $147 from Amazon (also available on a subscription basis through the Adobe Creative Cloud).  Provides considerable flexibility in the management of your photo library and excellent editing capabilities.

 

Do They Still Make Film For That?

I own a fair number of cameras - too many, in fact.  I've been in the process of paring down my collection, and am probably just a few over the right number for my "stable".  Aside from a couple of sentimental or display pieces, I'm not so much a collector as a photographer who uses a variety of gear.  My working cameras run the gamut from antique to "vintage" to newer models made in the 1990s through the present.  If you have some old cameras on hand - perhaps handed down from older family members - and have wondered if there's any life in them, then this article is for you!

One of the most frequent comments I hear when out shooting my film cameras is: "I didn't know you could even still buy film!" Or it's phrased in question form as in the title of this article: "Do they even still make film for that?"  (Interestingly, Millennials are more likely to express genuine interest and respect for film usage than people of my own generation and older.)  I'm occasionally tempted to say something along the lines of "No, I just like to pretend I'm taking photos with this old camera." But of course I don't do that because I'm not a snob.

A 35mm Konica FS-1, introduced in 1979.  I'm a big Konica fan, and this model is one of my current favorites.  It was one of the first SLR cameras to feature a motor drive for advancing film.  You do have to rewind  the film manually, however. Konica lenses are still widely recognized as high quality.

The simple answer to the question is "Yes" - a thousand times yes! Film has most certainly become a niche market but it's not gone away even if it is less visible to the general public.  While "Who Uses Film Today?" could be its own blog entry, suffice it to say that today's film market caters to significantly more people than senior citizens who don't want to mess with new-fangled, digital kerjiggers.  Certainly such customers constitute a shrinking but important demographic of film users. But today's film shooters include teenagers, college students, artists, everyday adult hobbyists and even some professionals who use film exclusively or as one component of their photographic arsenal.  There are also a number well-known TV and movie producers who prefer the aesthetics of film and choose to shoot mainstream features using old-school film reels.

Film is admittedly harder to find in traditional retail outlets.  It's out there, but you may have to look a bit harder to find it.  I can usually find a small stock of popular film at Walmart or the local Walgreens (our local Walgreens has it nearly hidden behind the photo service counter). Typically these stores will stock Fuji Superia 200 and 400 speed 35mm films - both of which are great consumer films.  CVS stores sometimes carry a bit more in the way of selection, although they seem to have scaled back their selection in the past year or so.  Of course if you're fortunate enough to have an old school camera shop still open in your community,  you may find a decent local selection there.  (If you're in the Knoxville area, check out Thompson Photo.) Other retail outlets are hit or miss, but film hasn't disappeared entirely from store shelves - at least not yet.

Two rolls of 120 film I shot yesterday at a photography meetup event in Knoxville: Kodak Ektar and Kodak Portra.  Also called medium format film, 120 has been around for over a century and is still popular among photography enthusiasts. 120 film frames can be several times larger than 35mm negatives, and due to the larger size it yields detailed and beautiful scans.

So where do you find the biggest selection of films?  It's the same place where many of us buy everything from books to electronics to toilet paper: the Internet, of course!  One convenient place to buy film is Amazon.  The prices are usually competitive, and many of their offerings are covered by their Prime membership; assuming you're a Prime member, you get free, 2-day shipping on a huge selection of films.  

If you're looking for the best prices on black & white films (and related chemistry and supplies for developing your own), I recommend Freestyle Photographic Supplies.  Another great source for a huge variety of films - including a growing number of hand-rolled specialty films you won't find anywhere else - is the Film Photography Project.  Their prices are competitive and their shipping is priced at actual cost.  The FPP features a fun and informative bi-weekly podcast, along with other great content on their website.  I'm a huge fan of the show.

The chances are good that if you own an old camera you can find film for it.  Common film formats, including 35mm and 120 (aka medium format), are widely available in a variety of types. Even the humble 110 film has returned to the market several years after production had been halted.  Depending on the format of the film you need, you may still be able to choose between regular color print film, slide film or black & white.  Unfortunately, some films are gone and unlikely to return; these types include disc film and APS film (you can still buy remaining APS film online even though production stopped in 2011).

Before I close, let me clear up a common misapprehension about Kodak.  Contrary to popular belief, Kodak film is still being produced and sold.  While Kodak proper is no longer in the consumer film business, Kodak sold off that division to another company, now known as Kodak Alaris.  The new owner has publicly affirmed their commitment to continuing the existing product line.  That means you can still buy a wide assortment of fresh Kodak film.  In fact, I regularly use Kodak Portra, Kodak Ektar, Kodak Tri-X, Kodak T-Max and even the occasional Kodak Gold and Ultramax consumer films.

In a nutshell, you can still buy film for a large number of old cameras.  And with continued usage and support, these companies hopefully will produce beautiful films for years to come.  In a future article, we'll take a closer look at the different types of film in production today.