First foray into the darkroom

One of the reasons I decided to pursue film photography over digital is I love the process – I even enjoy loading the film (especially 120).  I think it’s the physicality of it I enjoy. As part of that, my dream has been to be able to take control of the whole process without having to use a computer. To that end, I recently bought a second hand version of Paterson’s ‘The Complete Darkroom Kit’. There are more up to date versions of this now – I think my one was made sometime in the early 1980s, but it includes all of the equipment needed to develop and print your own films, including an enlarger.

I have no experience of this, other than an early venture into film photography about 10 years ago when my parents bought me a pinhole camera kit for Christmas. As well as the camera itself (some pieces of wood with a hole in it), the kit also included everything you needed to develop and print your own pictures. I was living in rented accomodation at the time, so I waited until everyone went out, sealed myself in the bathroom (literally – I had to put tape over the edges of the door to stop the light getting in), and set about developing my own pictures. I’ll never forget the first moment a fuzzy image emerged on to the paper – I was absolutely enchanted by it. I remember having a real urge to experiment more – however, at the time I had no idea what I was doing, and didn’t know how I’d go about taking it to the next level, once I had exhausted the tiny bottles of chemicals. Funnily enough, it never occurred to me that taking up film photography might be a good idea..

Here’s one of my shots from that time. Not bad for a pinhole ‘selfie’. The conservatory behind had the bathroom with my improvised darkroom in it.

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So, coming back to the present day, yesterday I made my first attempt to print from a 35mm negative using my 1980s enlarger. With the kit I got all of the chemicals I needed, but they are all a few months out of date. Therefore, I was prepared to get no image at all.

This time, instead of a bathroom our utility room (read – former coal shed in our Victorian house) has become my darkroom.

So, after setting up the equipment, measuring out the chemicals and doing my best to try and keep the temperatures stable, my wife and I had a go at trying to print from a reel of negatives we took in Norfolk a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the first few attempts ended in failure – the minute we put the exposed photographic paper into the developer, it immediately turned completely black. I’m not sure what was going wrong here – I suspect it may be that the chemicals have gone off. Otherwise I guess it’s something to do with the temperature of the mix, or getting the ratios wrong, but I was fairly careful with those.

Lastly, in frustration, I tried just dipping the photographic paper in the developer for a few seconds rather than the 90 odd seconds recommended on the bottle, and managed to get a usuable image. Hurrah! I then decided that I had nothing left to lose, and that if the developer was too concentrated for some reason then it wouldn’t hurt to slosh some water into it and water it down. From this, I managed to get a slightly better looking print (see below).

Both are obviously pretty inadequate as prints go, but I’m happy to have managed to get an image, considering the state of the chemicals. I also quite like that the prints look like they were made about 150 years ago. They are both of Ely cathedral.

 

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Next step I think, is buy some fresh chemicals and have another go…

First Box Brownie photos

So I got my first Box Brownie photos back – I’m really pleased with them! I wasn’t expecting anything great, as through past experience (see earlier posts) there’s nothing more dispiriting than spending time setting up photos carefully only to find that none of them came out. Therefore, I decided to play it safe, and took my dog out for a walk in my hometown of March on a nice sunny day – ideal Box Brownie weather.

First, here’s a shot of our Victorian town hall. It’s a fine building when looking up but there is an ugly modern car park at the bottom so I chose this angle. I did manage to double-expose one of the pictures by accident, but this one came out the best.

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Wandering down to the old medieval church of St Wendreda’s, I spotted this interesting old gravestone, covered in ivy. I didn’t quite manage to get it all in the frame – one of the viewfinders is very dark, the mirrored surface inside is peeling off so I probably need to repair it. Not surprising after 100 years!2

This is a shot of the river Nene from the town centre. Not the most exciting of shots but I quite like the mirrored texture of the water.

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Lastly, a shot of the medieval church of St Wendreda’s. I was finding the viewfinder a bit disorientating as its reversed but still not bad!

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Considering how old the camera is, I’m pleased with how these came out. Now that I know it works, I’d like to experiment using it a bit more – maybe with some nice sweeping landscapes. I’m going to the Lake District soon so hopefully I’ll be able to get some good shots then.

It’s nice to take something that’s been useless for the best part of a century and give it a purpose again. I hope my little Box Brownie camera is happy about that – I like to think so..

 

 

 

Experiments with ancient cameras – the Box Brownie # No2

One of the things I love about working with film is getting the chance to play around with old cameras. I quite often go to antiques shops, and I can’t help thinking there’s something a bit sad and pointless about all of the objects that are on sale that will never get to fulfill their original purpose anymore, such as nice engraved cigarette cases that will never again hold a cigarette to toys that will never get played with again. Cameras are no exception and antiques shops are full of them, so much useless junk. I’ve sometimes heard parents earnestly explaining to their kids what cameras are as they’ve never seen one before…

One of the things you see a lot of in antiques shops are Box cameras. These were very popular up until around  the 1950s, and although they looked more sophisticated as time went on the basic principle remained unchanged for some 70 odd years.

The Box camera was first popularised by George Eastman’s Kodak company in the late 19th century. At that time, photography was extremely difficult and cumbersome, with heavy cameras, difficult loading procedures and uncomfortably long exposures. George Eastman’s idea was to introduce a simple, affordable camera for the masses that would open up photography and allow people to take snapshots.  Below you can see Eastman’s original patent for the Box camera in 1888. The principle was to remain essentially the same for decades.

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So, the Box Brownie was born – it’s essentially a cardboard box with a hole in one end. The shutter is operated by moving a latch that then moves a spring that opens and closes the shutter. There’s no control over the shutter speed, and no lens. You can slide up a catch that allows you a choice of three different apertures, and another catch allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you like. Small mirrors on the top and back allow you to compose the image (i love this feature – I am fascinated by camera obscuras and there is still something magical about seeing a reflected image generated by light alone).

The original Box Brownies came pre-loaded with film. You took your pictures, and then sent the whole lot back to the factory, who returned it loaded with more film and your prints. As time went on, newer versions were introduced and you could buy the film separately. 120 or medium format film, still in use today by serious photographers and liked for its depth of detail, was first developed for use with the Box Brownie.

Here’s a picture of George Eastman in 1890 experimenting with his Box Brownie. I’m fascinated by this picture – it represents the dawn of a new age, in which people could take their own photographs for the very first time. I also think it’s a beautifully composed picture in its own right. It’s interesting to look at the people behind him who are evidently interested in what he and the person taking the shot are doing. The original Box brownies took circular images like this.

489px-George_Eastman_(F._Church_1890)I bought a Box brownie at an antiques fair years ago. It was bought purely for aesthetic purposes, as most are nowadays. It’s been sat on my shelf for the best part of 10 years. I even took it to a school parents evening once, where it got used in a ‘guess the historical object’ competition. Therefore it has had a hard life. Not only is it over a 100 years old, but it has also had to suffer the indignity of being prodded around by the hands of grubby 21st century school children. Here it is below.

But, fear not little camera, for you are about to be used once again! I’ve been using 120 film a bit with the Diana camera, and I love it – it feels like such a blast from the past, unrolling the paper onto a little spool. Therefore I did a little bit of research, and didn’t realise until recently that you could still use this film in some versions of the Box Brownie.

The viewfinders when I bought it was dull and dirty, but after unscrewing the front and cleaning them up a bit they are almost as good as they day they rolled out of the factory in 1916. I found it strange to think that the last person to use those screws was some factory worker during the First World War.

Anyway, the camera has been newly loaded with film and is ready to go. If you have a Box Brownie camera and want to use it again, there are several good tutorials online such as here. It is very easy to load.

You can also still get the instruction manuals from places such as here.

EDIT:

So, I have taken my first roll of film – everything seemed to work fine, it was just as easy to use as George Eastman intended 130 years ago! The numbers appear in the little red window at the back so you know how many shots you have left (you can only take 9 on a roll of 120 film). So I will get it sent off to the developers, and see what happens. I couldn’t help wondering how long it’s been since anyone last took some pictures with this camera. I can’t imagine it’s this side of the Second World War. So – fingers crossed, and I’ll post the results on here.

I’ve no idea what I’m doing..but I like it

It was about October of 2016, and my wife and I were wandering around Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. It’s one of our favourite places to go – there’s a lovely Greek cafe that we visit every single time (for me the main attraction is Rum Baba!), my wife enjoys browsing round the shops, and I normally pop into Model Junction, which is just as geeky as it sounds but it still amazing. Anyway, on this occasion we were trawling round the charity shops when I spotted something in a box of junk. Even though it was submerged beneath layers of crap, and half of the case was missing, there was still something special about it that drew me over.

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I later found out it was a Voightlander Vito B, a West German camera from the late 1950s, but all I knew at the time was that it looked cool and I wanted it! I paid about £20 for it and got very excited about the prospect of taking pictures with it, even though I hadn’t used a manual camera for something approaching 20 years, and then only ones that required the user to do nothing more than demanding than to point and shoot.

Little did I know that this little camera lurking underneath the crap in a Suffolk charity shop was going to start a bit of an obsession that has cost me quite a lot of money, driven my wife quite mad and led me to start this blog!

Anyway, I was full of all kind of ideas about this camera. I bought some film, downloaded a manual from a website, and loaded it. I then took it around everywhere with me for a while, taking pictures while walking my dog, taking pictures in the house. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing – I paid no attention whatsoever to lighting conditions, at a push I might’ve known what a shutter speed was, but I had no conception of any terms such as aperture/depth of field/ISO etc, and had absolutely no idea what any of the confusing numbers or dials on the front of the camera meant. Why should I? My knowledge of photography was non-existent. As an example, I used to own a camera when I was a child and its main feature was stamping a picture of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in the corner of each picture (no idea why..). I’d got a digital camera in about 1998 – it seemed amazing at the time, being able to hook it up to a TV and looking at pictures instantaneously, although again the user had no control over it whatsoever other than pressing the shutter, which then took about 3/4 seconds before it actually took a picture.

 

So anyway, I finished my first roll of film, and excitedly looked into getting it developed. Unfortunately I hit the first brick wall here – I hadn’t realised how quickly film processing had become a niche activity. Nowhere offered it in our local area, apart from a shop a few streets away from us but they didn’t have any facilities to develop it themselves so they just sent it off to a lab anyway, so I thought I might as well just cut out the middle man (also, my wife had taken some tentative pictures with a Diana camera only to be told by the owner upon getting them processed that they weren’t worth looking at as they were ‘crap!’). So I sent it off to a lab in Birmingham, waited a few days, and then whilst I was at school received a phone call from the lab…

..the entire roll of film was blank. The camera was faulty.

I had suspected as much – there was no satisfying ‘click’ sound upon pressing the shutter, but I knew so little about cameras I assumed that this might just be normal. Anyway, I was learning another important lesson about analogue photography – expect stuff to go wrong, expect to make mistakes, and above all, when using an old camera, you don’t really know what you’re going to get until you get the first roll of usable prints back.

Anyway, as you can imagine, I was very disappointed. So I did what any sane person would do,  having sunk 30-40 odd quid into a totally fruitless project, with many seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

I went onto Ebay and immediately bought another Voightlander! Hooray!

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Again, this camera was 60 years old, and by now I had learned that things go wrong. However, I loaded the first roll of film in, pressed the shutter, and it made a satisfying CLICK noise – a sound that I realised I had missed so much when using crap digital cameras and mobile phones.

So we went away on holiday to Sussex and I took the camera with me. I still had no real idea what I was doing, but I snapped away and hoped for the best.  Soon I had finished the first and loaded a second roll of film – brave considering I didn’t even know if the camera worked and if I was just wasting money again.

On one of the last days of the holiday, we visited Brighton, and I finished the second roll off. It was a gloriously sunny day, and I was eager to see if I could get my film developed. Coincidentally (ahem), there was a film processing shop just a few minutes walk from the pier, so I eagerly dropped my two rolls of film off, again having no knowledge whatsoever of what to ask for in terms of development other than ‘please show me some pictures’.

An hour later, with a belly full of fish and chips, I returned, fully expecting to again be told that none of the pictures had came out, which would probably have made me admit defeat. Instead…

success! (not in terms of any artistic achievement you understand, but in terms of getting an actual image!)

I had my first experience of thumbing through a set of prints developed from film in at least 25 years, and it was very exciting.

My pictures from my first roll showed that I had no real idea what I was doing. They were completely overexposed – it was a very bright, sunny day (we were in Rye) and as I had no idea about aperture/ISO or shutter speed, I had simply snapped away and the results were predictable. Although I still do quite like the impressionistic blobs of colour (my wife was wearing a bright red coat on the day which helped!)

However, about half way through the holiday I did start reading through the 1957 instruction manual, set the aperture and shutter speed to a recommended combo, and the results were quite different!

Here’s Bodiam castle. Again, not exactly the most artistic images, but I was quite impressed with the sharpness of the image, and the ability to control things like what was in focus and depth of field – something I had never even thought about before and which I still didn’t really understand.

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The first picture I was really quite pleased with was this one I took from the pier in Brighton. There’s nothing particularly artistic or technical about it, but it was such a beautiful day, and I really liked the colours. The Voightlander seems to capture these particularly well.

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So – by the end of October 2016, I was pretty much obsessed. I couldn’t wait to get out and start shooting some film with my camera. I loved everything about it – the quality of the camera, the sound of the shutter, the process of loading the film, having to manually set the focus/aperture/shutter speed, but most of all, not knowing what you would get back until you were able to get it back from the lab weeks or months later, and so my interest in film started. That’s led me to this point, and to this blog. This is for me more than anything else – I really like to muse on the pictures I’ve taken and what I’ve learned, so it’s probably pretty boring for anyone else reading, but maybe someone else might feel inspired to have a go too, and maybe won’t feel bad for failing at first too!

In the next few posts, I want to talk about what I’ve learned since that point (it feels like an awful lot, considering I’ve only been using ‘proper’ cameras and film for about 6 months), and then would like to look at different cameras (I really want to use my 1916 Box Brownie), different techniques/projects, and see what happens.

Thanks for reading!