Projects and ponderings for film photographers

Rotation Orientation Exasperation

Today I’ll delve into a topic so geekily obscure that frankly, I’m a little embarrassed. Most vintage-camera photographers have encountered the issue at some point—perhaps just as a momentary stumble—but it’s something they may only have been aware of at some subliminal level.

I’m speaking about the “handedness” of the focus and aperture ring rotation, on camera lenses from the all-manual era.

When you grab the distance ring on your lens, which direction do you rotate it to rack focus from infinity towards a closer subject?

And which direction do you turn the aperture ring to open up the f/stop selection?

Opposite conventions for focus and aperture ring rotation

Click to enlarge: does anything look odd to you here?

Strangely enough, even as the basic form of 35mm SLRs reached near-total ubiquity in the 1960s and 1970s, manufacturers never settled on one single industry-wide convention for either control. Yet developing a gut instinct on which way to turn those rings is crucial to becoming more fluid and responsive when using your camera. Frustrating!


Volume Knob or Faucet?

Whether it’s racking a lens towards closer focus or opening the aperture all the way, somehow I conceptualize both as meaning GIVE ME MOAR. So ideally we’d like to have some logical parallel to the rotary-control conventions from elsewhere in life—whatever other things we grab and twist when we want to increase some quantity. Read the rest of this entry »

Some Cranky Opinions About Focal Lengths For Your Film SLR

My portrait lens says your kit zoom is lame and needs to go away

Today, practically all cameras come with a zoom lens; and photographers just take it for granted that you kinda smoosh the zoom ring back and forth until something looks sorta okay to you.

I think that’s regrettable for a couple different reasons. True, after a rocky start today’s zooms have evolved to be pretty decent in terms sharpness and compactness. But compared to single-focal-length lenses, you still pay a penalty of a couple of f-stops in maximum aperture. Furthermore, I think it gives a photographer a certain mental clarity having to make a deliberate choice between a limited handful of primes: “am I trying to do THIS, or THIS?”

As I wrote earlier, SLRs up through the 1980s typically came with a 50mm standard lens. From there, most photo hobbyists took the path of least resistance and bought one of the era’s cheap, ubiquitous 28mm wide-angles; plus either a 135mm telephoto or a chunky 70-200 zoom.

Well, in those days people also bought lots of station wagons with wood-grain-vinyl trim panels. That doesn’t mean it was a good idea.

Let’s forget “what everybody did,” and start over by asking what focal lengths are actually useful? And I’d argue the typical 50, 28, 135 combo is actually a poor choice in many ways.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Is this old film camera worth anything?” A Handy Visual Guide

When you see some fancy-looking camera, it’s a natural reaction to think, “this must be valuable!” And especially so if you remember once spending hundreds of dollars on one.

A cute but very dated Minolta A

Will you be my friend?

But the sad truth is that in 2015, there are not a lot of people around who still want a film camera. If you check on eBay, most film-camera listings close with no buyers.

Cell-phone cams are everywhere today, and are adequate for most people’s casual snapshot needs. Enthusiast digital cameras have evolved tremendously. In fact, lots of cities don’t have a place to buy or develop film any more. So almost nobody needs a film camera now. (I wrote a bit more about that here.)

Yet you sometimes hear about a film camera fetching a freakish amount of money.

So which is it? Is your late Uncle Hubert’s dusty old Minolta a valuable heirloom—or obsolete junk?

Well… it depends. Yes, a few of us weirdos do still have an interest in film cameras. But you have to think through who and why.

Read the rest of this entry »