Projects and ponderings for film photographers

Voyage to the Bottom of the Bay

Or: My adventures as a camera-auction bottom feeder


Oh, eBay.

Anyone interested in vintage photo gear will get sucked in eventually.

I admit, eBay has some very frustrating aspects. The sellers who stubbornly cling to inflated asking prices, ones which are sheer fantasy in 2015. Others with terrible blurry pictures and illiterate descriptions—witness the many listings for a lense, len, leans, lendes, len’s, or lends (search if you don’t believe me).

But you can also find odd bits of gear with novel and inspiring imagemaking potential, at a laughably low cost. Do you actually need a Yashica Dental Eye II? Probably not; but there is some price low enough where finally you say, “what the heck—I’m curious enough to pay that.”

Screen-capture from eBay auction


Skim a day’s closing auctions and you may be surprised what slips by with few or no bids. If an item piques your interest, next search “sold listings” to see how low its price can actually go (but always watch out for padded shipping charges). I’m a very lowball bidder—content to lose most of the auctions I follow. But that patience has scored me some very fun items, at prices lower than what you’d spend on dinner and a beer. Some recent examples follow.

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Everything Is Spinning! (on purpose)

“Bokeh” is a bit of photographic jargon often used and misused in confusing and contradictory ways.

But when you hear that a particular lens has “nice bokeh,” typically that means it makes out-of-focus backgrounds melt away into a smooth, un-distracting blur. The opposite of this would be lenses where the background is full of busy, “vibrating” lines or strange geometric highlights.

Yet it has come to this blog’s attention that some photographers actually seek out novel and attention-grabbing bokeh. About 300 of you have pledged $240,000 (so far) to revive a Meyer Görlitz lens with alarming “soap bubble” bokeh. (Trust me, 90% of the time that will just lead to weird and jangly backgrounds.)

Then there’s the Lomography New Petzval lens: 4 pieces of glass that will cost you $600 plus. Its main selling point is that it is said to give a “swirly” look to your photos.

Swirly Bokeh Sample

The background goes round and round (click to enlarge)

“Swirly bokeh” means a blurred background that seems to circle around the center of the frame, as if the world were starting to spin. In my mind, zany and very intrusive bokeh like this is a bit like a fisheye lens: Every once in while the effect can be intriguing; but pretty quickly things like that can wear out their welcome and seem gimmicky.

But: let’s say you want to give this circling bokeh a whirl—er, a swirl. Do you need to plunk down lots of cash on some exotic gadget; or might you already own something suitable already, right there in your camera-cupboard?

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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 »