Buying a Crown Graphic Camera

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.

Perkeo II
My Voigtländer Perkeo II Medium Format Rangefinder

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 6×6 120mm 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 6×12 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 120mm 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.

Next steps:

  • Clean and inspect the camera
  • Find a manual and learn how to use it
  • Test Shutter speeds
  • Figure out how to work with 4×5
  • Buy some 4×5 film

Analog Film Project Running Total

  • Developing tanks and reels: $48
  • Chemicals and film: $127.50
  • Crown Graphic camera and film holders: $150

Total Costs: $325.50

Buying Photo Chemicals

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.

Analog Film Project Running Total:

  • Developing tanks and reels: $48
  • Chemicals and film: $127.50

Total Costs: $175.50

The Film Project

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.