Beginning Photography

Recently, I’ve been a bit obsessed with photography. Specifically 35mm film photography, but as a result I’m learning digital as well. Shortly after moving to Chicago, I brought a couple of my dad’s old film cameras with me: a Pentax Spotmatic F and Minolta Hi-Matic 7sii. The Pentax is a pretty standard, fully manual, single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, with a 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar lens which is very similar to the ever-popular K1000, albeit with an M42 screw lens instead of the newer bayonet mount. My dad had that camera when he was in college, so it seemed fitting to do the same when I was attending university as well. The Minolta is a nifty little rangefinder with a fixed 40mm f/1.7 lens, which I appreciate for its fast Copal leaf shutter and compact size. I believe it was originally my grandfather’s, as the camera bag I found it in had some of his business cards in them, which on its own was a neat little find. My initial pictures with those two cameras were pretty abysmal, as I had no real idea about how they operated, and any pictures that actually turned out were purely by luck.

Through the following years, I took the Spotmatic on vacations here and there when I thought of it, but it was infrequent and more of a novelty, playing at photographer rather than expecting anything good to actually come of the pictures. The Hi-Matic mostly sat forgotten in the same camera bag I had brought it in, mostly since the viewfinder was a bit difficult to use since I had no idea how to use a rangefinder. In December, I took a trip to the Philippines and brought the Spotmatic along, only to discover that the (already dubious) lightmeter battery had gone dead. The batteries for the Spotmatic F are the old PX625 Mercury type that are no longer produced, so I couldn’t buy replacement batteries that gave the same steady voltage that the lightmeter requires. Some people have had a modicum of success using hearing aid batteries, but I’ve also heard that there’s a sharp drop-off in voltage after some use, so that didn’t seem like a real solution at the time. After a bit of reading, I came across the “Sunny 16” rule: in bright sunlight at f/16, set your shutter speed to be the reciprocal of the film’s ISO or the next fastest speed. This is a great little trick which really helped me to wrap my head around the exposure triangle: tweaking one setting exposure setting requires compensating the exposure with another setting. When shooting film, the speed is set for you by the film’s sensitivity (although most films have a pretty decent exposure latitude), so I find it to be an interesting challenge to make whatever shot work even if the lighting isn’t perfect.

Since I’ve been shooting film much more this year, I’ve been trying out a bunch of different film stocks, which all have their own character and quirks. If I had to pick favorites, I would say Fuji Superia X-tra 400 for color and Ilford HP5+ for black and white. I really love Central Camera in the Chicago Loop, especially since they’re across the street from where I work, but also because they have a wealth of knowledge and enthusiastic staff. The only problem I have is that they don’t offer the option to push or pull film through the lab that they use. I really want to support them rather than sending my film off to some mail order service, but most of the shots that I take end up being in fairly dark conditions like concerts and dingy bars. As a result, I’ve started developing my own film, which allows me to eke out as much light as I can on my sorely underexposed film. I’ve mostly been using Ilford ID-11 and Kodak HC-110 to develop black and white film. I have to say that the HC-110 ends up being a bit easier to work with in the long run, as the concentrate is shelf-stable for much longer than the five liters of stock solution that I make of ID-11. The results for really extreme pushes, like HP5+ at 12,8000 ISO, have been much better with the HC-100 with dilution B than ID-11 diluted 1:1.

Well, I think that’s a good introduction to where I am now. I plan on following up with this soon, but judging from the rate I’m posting, who knows if that will actually be the case.