I’d been watching a few auctions on ebay for 4×5 film, intending to buy some expired black and white sheets to experiment with. There’s a surprising market for expired film, partially opened boxes and film of generally dubious condition. I’m not sure how people purchase these items (at near retail costs) and have any assurance of what they’re getting themselves into. I even found a seller that claimed to have a chest freezer stuffed with expired infrared film, but it just seemed too sketchy to buy highly sensitive film that’s over 10 years old.
Still, there are a few diamonds in the rough available if you’re persistent and look often in the “recently listed” buy-it-now category. I found a current year unopened 25-sheet box of Ilford HP4 in 4×5 size with free shipping for $25. When I started looking into 4×5 film, I noticed that it’s not exactly cheap to shoot some flavors of film, but this box ends up being a dollar a shot.
My wife has recently become interested in Polaroid again, and at $24 for 8 shots of pretty low quality Impossible Film Project color pack, a dollar a shot for 4×5 is excellent.
More surprisingly, one morning I discovered a seller had very recently listed 20 boxes of Illford Delta 100. The guy obviously had no idea what he had or how to sell it, but the pictures showed that the boxes were 100 sheets, unopened and were set to expire in May 2015. The buy-it-now price was set at $40 with selectable shipping options. I hesitated for a few moments, not sure if this was a scam or if the film might not be as described, but I decided to take a chance and bought a box.
I checked later in the afternoon and the seller was down to 10 boxes remaining and had raised the price to $60. By the next morning, they were all gone. When the film arrived, it was exactly as described and with shipping, the total was $43.40. That’s $0.43 per shot! I don’t think you can get 4×5 film cheaper than that.
In my last post, I detailed how I stumbled into “large format” photography by buying a vintage Crown Graphic press camera. In truth, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into or what to expect, but I found myself charging forward anyway. Once I had the camera home, I had to start digging into it to try and figure a few things out. I did some rudimentary searching on the internet about these type of cameras, including general operation, cleaning and repair, then broke out some isopropyl alcohol and lens cleaning solution.
The Graflex World of Cameras
The Graflex company, now long defunct, was an early leading manufacturer of photographic cameras in upstate New York. While they made a collection of 35mm and 2 1/4″ x 3 1/4″ sheet film cameras, they’re most known for their iconic large-format press cameras. The Speed Graphic was a folding 4×5″ sheet film camera with bellows extension, ground glass, rangefinder focusing, and a focal plane shutter that allowed for (at the time) high-speed photography. Look at any photography from the glamorous 40′ and 50’s and they’re probably holding a Graflex press camera with an attached flash-bulb.
The Crown Graphic I purchased was a variation of the speed graphic that omitted the focal plane shutter in order to lower cost and reduce size and weight. The body is made of leatherette-covered mahogany with metal rails and standards and folds to a very compact size. While they’re essentially very simple in function and operation, the engineering of these cameras is really charming.
Examining and cleaning
After spending a few minutes marveling at the engineering of the camera, I started to clean things up. I gave everything a good scrubbing with paper towels and isopropyl alcohol, starting with all the “touchable” exterior surfaces. The vinyl leatherette was grimy in a few places, but overall was in decent shape considering the possible age of the camera. There was some persistent green gunk around metal rivets in the hand strap, but visually the camera only seemed to have moderate use over the years.
I rubbed down the camera rails and metal surfaces, then gently wiped down the bellows. The front standard has two sliding brackets that hold the lensboard in place and with a little bit of difficulty, I was able to navigate around the remote shutter actuator and remove the whole assembly.
The lens is a Kodak Ektar 127mm f:4.7 lens mounted on a Graphic Supermatic shutter with speeds from 1 second to 400. The ektar is somewhat highly regarded as standard equipment for the time, though it is noted that there are essentially zero camera movements available with this lens due to a severe lack of coverage on the 4×5″ negative.
This camera’s Ektar lens is marked with the serial number of ES12813, which according to the code online appears to show that it was manufactured in 1947. Since it’s reasonable to assume this is the original lens to go with the camera, it appears that we have a 68 year old camera!
At first glance, the lens appeared to be filthy with dust trapped inside and severe cleaning marks on both front and rear elements. More concerning was a dark spot in the upper center of the lens that I hoped was not an abrasion. The spot was noticeable from a distance, but I hoped that it might be some sort of grime inside the lens that could be cleaned away. I used a jar lid wrench to gently unstick the front and rear elements from the shutter, after which they both unscrewed easily. I carefully cleaned the front element with lens cleaner, a microfiber lens cloth and a lens brush and was delighted to find that it was nearly perfect after cleaning. The rear lens cleaned similarly well, however the spot remained in place and was confirmed to be a defect in the cement between the two rear elements. While lens separation is probably expected in 70 year old elements, it was still disappointing to see that it was something that could not be cleaned away.
It’s likely that this would not impact the image when stopped down, but most certainly would at wide apertures.
I reassembled the lens and mounted the lens board on the camera before cleaning the last final bits of the camera. The spring back containing the ground glass and viewing hood came off easily and I gave the glass several passes with alcohol until it wiped clean, then reassembled everything. The bellows appeared fully light tight, no repairs, pinholes or any kind of light leaks. All in all, the camera seemed to be in very good condition for its age.
Learning the functions
Since the camera is not exactly “lightweight” by modern handheld standards, I screwed the body into a tripod and took it around the backyard to investigate function. After yanking the front standard forwards and backwards while trying to make sense of the side focusing wheels, I decided to consult the internet.
For very basic operation of the camera, there isn’t a lot of documentation, so I didn’t catch on to what I was doing wrong initially. There are two very small stops on the camera rails that are meant to hold the front standard at infinity. I was dragging the camera right past them while trying to focus which is wrong (but can be used for macro focusing with a light correction). To focus, you simply drag the front standard to the stops, lock it in place and then use the focus wheel on the side to move the entire rails forwards and backwards. This, in turn, operates the cam that moves the side-mounted rangefinder, allowing the operator to focus without bothering with the ground glass.
Front standard locked at infinity stops
focal scale on moving rail
I was surprised to find that the rangefinder was actually darn accurate for focusing and probably didn’t need any adjustment for this lens combination. The second top-mounted rangefinder that confused me turned out to be a framing viewfinder.
For initial setup, the camera is setup to the infinity stops, the film holder is loaded and black slide removed (obviously once you’re sure the shutter is closed). Once this is set, you take a light reading to set your shutter and aperture, use the side rangefinder to focus, then switch to the top rangefinder to frame and then just fire the shutter.
Not exactly as efficient as digital, but still perfectly manageable in theory. Next would be to see how it functions in practice, but first I would need some film…
For reasons that still baffle me, I found myself trolling Craigslist on occasion in search of vintage photography equipment I do not need. This, combined with an insane lust for larger frame sizes, is how I came to be in possession of a Crown Graphic 4×5″ press camera.
For this analog film project, I was sure that I’d be most often shooting with my vintage Voigstländer Perkeo II (to be detailed in a later post), but in my downtime internet searches at work I became interested in frame sizes larger than the traditional 6x6cm 120 negative. I started looking into 6×7 options including the huge number of Mamiya RB67 kits gathering dust out there. Naturally, looking into 6×7 quickly became an interest in 6×9 cameras, specifically the Voigtländer Bessa folders that resembled my beloved Perkeo. I watched a few on ebay, but chose not to bid as the majority were listed by people who could not certify the function and condition in any way. Regardless, the going price for a quality Bessa hovered around the $200 mark and was difficult to justify buying an expensive, older, quirky camera just to gain 3cm of negative real estate.
Still, I found myself obsessing about frame sizes. This rabbit hole goes deep and I wound up on a forum where someone passionately (and logically) argued that 6×6 was the perfect format utilizing the highest quality center of the lens and all other sizes were bastardized compromises. Logically, it makes sense to concentrate your image in the center of your lens, but I’ve got this nagging urge to compose in-camera and never crop after the fact. This is what drew me to investigate the absurd 6x12cm format which then logically pulled me into the world of 4×5″ large format cameras.
Back to the Crown Graphic — I stumbled on a craigslist ad for a variety of 35mm darkroom equipment and buried in the listing the person mentioned that he had a number of 4×5 cameras and lenses he hadn’t yet bothered to post. I sent an email over asking about his large format cameras and he responded immediately that he had an old Crown Graphic that needed a good home. After googling a bit to learn what I might be getting myself into, I agreed to meet him and take a look after work.
The guy I met up with was named Brad, and he appeared to be some form of professional photographer. We ventured into his basement full of various photography items he was slogging through: complete jobo processing systems and accessories, unusual 120 cameras, and a variety of darkroom supplies were strewn about and ready for sale.
He presented a heavy, leatherette-covered box and pointed out the hidden button on the side of the camera. I popped it open and marveled a bit at the ingenuity of the contraption. Brad lead me through some of the features, showed me the range-finder, the focusing back, the shutter release and announced that he would throw in a stack of Graflex Type-5 film holders and a vintage polarizing filter. The camera was not exactly in museum condition, but was in very nice shape for its undetermined age.
We talked for a bit about photography and craft beers before finally exchanging money. $150 cash for a Crown Graphic and eight film holders.
I named the first blog post in this series “The Film Project” but realized afterwards how generic that might appear. I suppose the internet has decided that traditional film photography is to be dubbed “Analog” photography, so I’m going to adopt that nomenclature henceforth.
I’m a recent convert to the Amazon Prime world thanks mostly to their video service. I got sucked in reluctantly thanks to several previous negative customer service experiences with Amazon, but now that they’ve got their claws in me I’ll probably be a long term member.
While Amazon has a ton of great Prime-eligible products, the area of film photography is pretty barren. I was hoping that I could order all my chemical supplies online, but Amazon just doesn’t have the selection. I checked out B&H and started filling a shopping cart, but instead decided to shop local and drove out to buy supplies one weekend. Since I had film developing tanks on the way, I would need some undeveloped film and chemicals to kick this project off.
I thought about naming the store I visited, but this post is somewhat negative and they don’t deserve to be associated with negativity just because they’ve got a shitty selection of film. I can’t really blame them for moving along with the times and leaving film behind…
I walked into the shop and asked about darkroom chemicals, they looked at me sideways and pointed me towards a dark and abandoned section of their store where a couple of small shelves held all their offerings. I imagined hyperbolic dust everywhere marking general signs of neglect, as if they kept these chemicals out of a sense of obligation rather than need. After orienting myself, I started selecting a few items.
Choice of developer is obviously a huge topic of debate, but I decided I probably could not go wrong with a classic like Kodak D-76. If I remember correctly, I used D76 and TMax developer and never strayed from Kodak in my previous film experience. Diafine, Pyro, XTOL, and Rodinal all have their evangelists before you even get to the oddball options like home-made caffenol. I’m not terribly scientific, but I figured that locking down on a standard developer would probably a good idea at this point.
I grabbed a bag of D76 and then had to reference my phone for all the remaining black and white developing steps. Eventually, I pieced together the proper collection of fixer, stop bath, clearing agent, hypo, photoflo and a set of film roll hanging clips.
I dragged this handful back to the checkout counter and asked where they kept their film. The salesman pointed me to a different dark and abandoned section of the store that held all their film. The “film section” consisted of a modest collection of unrefrigerated roll film stacked on a shelf with very limited and inconsistent selection. This is the point where I realized I should have just shopped at B&H.
I was always a fan of the Illford Delta line of film, but where they had Delta 400 in 35mm, they’d only have HP5 400 in 120mm. Since I didn’t really know what I wanted to shoot yet, I took a shotgun approach and got a diverse selection.
1 roll of Illford Delta 400 in 35mm
1 roll of Illford HP5 400 in 120mm
5 rolls of Tri-X 400 in 120mm
1 oddball roll of Illford Pan F Plus 50 in 120mm
I have shot Delta and Tri-X so I’m as familiar as one can be after a 13 year absence. HP5 and Pan-F are both brand new to me, but I figured I should do some experimenting along the way here.
I brought the rolls back to the sales counter and the guy started gently peppering me with questions all hinting at the “why bother with film” line of thinking. I stumbled through some generalized responses about how I have these neat old film cameras I want to use, but had difficulty articulating the concept that I just kind of miss the process in general. This was met with shrugs and grunts as they rang up my order. It was kind of sad for me to see a couple of old camera geeks who displayed zero interest in traditional film. These are exactly the kind of nerds I would expect to passionately argue the true ISO of a given film and developer combination, but I suppose they’re probably just thankful that camera stores still exist even in their current form.
None of the film rolls I selected had prices listed, so I was jumping in blind. I took a hard gulp after he rung up 5 rolls of Tri-X at $8.99 a piece, while HP5 inexplicably rang up at $5.50. Grand total including chemicals was $127.50
Quite a bit more money than I was expecting, but I guess there’s no turning back now, I’ve got some film to shoot.
Did I blink and forget to make an entry? Is there a specific reason why this blog became almost instantly ignored as soon as I started writing in it?
No, the truth is that I became completely bored and frustrated with photography over the last few years. Be it the ease of the camera phone or just a general lack of desire, my DSLR has collected dust over the years. I discovered any number of distractions to keep me interested in other things, be they work, or homebrewing or even more homebrewing…
I discovered any number of technical problems that “hindered my process”:
My computer does not have enough RAM, so even booting Apple Aperture is a chore (by the way, it’s been so long that Aperture is now dead and photoshop/lightroom is now a subscription service). I’ve got so many images that I can’t comb through them and find the ones I like, so why even bother? My camera’s sensor is so small that I can’t get the kind of image I see in my mind. My print heads are dried out and it will cost hundreds to get new ink just to print a single picture. My monitors are such junk that the colors they show will never match a print properly. I can’t make videos because I have no one to shoot with, no one to help me and I have to wear too many hats. I’ve only got this one dumb light on hand, how can you light anything with one hot lamp? (this list could go on for days if I allowed it)
None of this is new to me. This is exactly what happened to me when I had an actual chemical darkroom. Dragging the enlarger out of the closet, setting up trays, mixing chemicals and spending literal hours just to get one halfway decent (yet unrepeatable) print drove me mad. Making silver halide prints is amazing, but it’s incredibly slow with a LOT of moving parts. What photoshop can deliver in 5 minutes takes hours of testing changes in exposure, developers, papers, contrast filters, dodging, burning, and toning.
When we moved for the last time, the box of darkroom equipment I’d been dragging from state to state went straight into the dumpster at the end of the day.
I think I’ve both regretted and appreciated this ever since. I hated making silver prints. They’re beautiful and unmatched, but I don’t have the dedication to master the slow art.
On the video side of things, a number of issues mostly outside of my control pushed me out of my chosen career and I essentially no longer work in video at all. It was a hard pill to swallow, but life has driven me down another path for the time being, and I have to be along for the ride.
Still I feel this nagging need to create.
I found myself reminiscing about film the other day and the stark contrast to digital. Obviously there’s an aesthetic difference, but I was more thinking about the complete lack of immediacy in film. Everyone has become used to the ability to look at a shot immediately and judge it on the spot. This has obvious advantages, but I think it also has some understated disadvantages. Digital costs nothing to shoot a million frames, but what you end up with is a million frames all given the same general level of consideration. With no cost per click, there is no need to be considerate and deliberate in choices. Its a different way of thinking and a different way of creating.
Film always had a certain mystique about it in that there could be a considerable amount of time between the click of the shutter and the realization of a print. I don’t know that it’s better, but it’s certainly different. Film was always a journey of discovery for me, a very frustrating one, but a process with a higher possible level of fulfillment and surprise.
I was thinking back to all my experiments in film and how the act of developing was never really a pain in the ass. It was printing I hated so much. On a whim, I bid on an eBay auction for a lot of roll film developing tanks and reels, specifically two 120mm reels, a 35mm reel, and three tanks.
I won the auction for $33 plus shipping…
Guess I’m going to be doing some experimenting with film again.