So You Think You're a Photographer?

Please forgive the silence of late. Summer means racing and that means I'm in full slam with the 2010 American Le Mans Series tour of North America. But in between things, as in my previous post, I've been working on a project involving instant film cameras… specifically old Polaroids and PackFilm.

Red obsession... what's not to like?My first venture into shooting with instant film involved using a Polaroid 250 Automatic. Certainly one of the better vintage Polaroids. But, if you follow the timeline of Polaroid cameras, by the mid 60's the company had become very motivated to get the camera and instant photography into the hands of the general public. Whereas the older models, or RollFilm cameras had required fairly advanced photographic skills. In other words, you'd better know your f/stops and shutter speeds, and you'd better own a meter. The 'sunny sixteen' rule was a start, but you'd be burning up a lot of film while getting up to speed.

So while the automatics get the job done, like any automatic camera, there are a whole lot of compromises. And that's my hang up with the 250. You can get some pretty neat pictures, but you're not fully in control.

Beautifully detailed and finshed with genuine ostrich.Further investigation led me to believe I wanted something with full control. Pushing the button and spending a buck or two… only to find out I was over or under-exposed wasn't going to cut it.

At this point, let me jump ahead. I quickly discovered a camera that appealed to both my photography wants and my aesthetic needs. I mean, it's gotta look good, right?

There are several people out there that are doing Polaroid conversions. What this means is they are converting older Polaroid cameras to accept newer PackFilm and other types of film. Keep in mind, this has nothing to do with the old SX-70 Polaroid and "integrated film" used by those models. We're referring here to the peel-apart films.

I'm still not over how gorgeous this lens is. Wow!Peel-apart films are currently being produced by FujiFilm. The standard size is 4.25" x 3.25" - however, they also produce the same film in 4"x5"… and that's what got my attention.

The first camera I'm going to share with you uses the 4"x5" film.  I'll have a second one in a few weeks that will be virtually identical, except it takes the 4.25"x3.25." I should note at this time, FujiFilm is currently producing all the 4.25"x3.25" films… whereas the 4"x5" black and white film could be in jeopardy.

The camera I have was converted by Patrick Putze. - This camera started life as a Polaroid 110A and converted to a 110A/B. It also incorporates a Fuji 4x5 back. As you can see in the photos, it is covered in red ostrich leather.

Not only does Patrick do the conversions on the cameras, they are fully restored as if they were being presented at the Pebble Beach Concurs de Elegance. Patrick's work is absolutely impeccable.

Tricked out with a Fuji 4x5 back.Each camera he delivers is a newly converted and refreshed professional Polaroid 110A Pathfinder with Polaroid 110B rangefinder.  The camera uses the body and photographic mechanics of a 110A or 110B. 110A bodies get upgraded to the 110B range-finder.  The 110B range-finder is more advantageous than the 110A because of its single-window range-finder/viewfinder. A single window range-finder allows you to focus and compose your photo at the same time.  The range-finder is parallax-corrected with Leica-like bright frame lines for easy composition.

These cameras come with a Rodenstock Ysarex 127mm lens. Let me tell you, the lens is simply amazing!  Shutter speeds go from 1 second to 1/300 second and include a BULB setting.  Aperture range is from f4.7 to f45 (and you can step in between). 

SPEED TV commentator, Brian Till.A PC sync socket for flash is provided and will sync with all shutter speeds with 'X' and 'M' settings.  A 15 second timer delay is also built into the lens. The lenses on Patrick's cameras are absolutely mint condition with no fogging, mildew or scratches anywhere. I swear, you could wear one on your wrist. They're gorgeous. 

Images from the Rodenstock lens are scary sharp (provided you've focused right and held still). 

All of Patrick's shutters have been professionally CLA'd (cleaned, lubed, & adjusted).  He even has custom shutter/lens combinations available with modern shutters and newer multi-coated lenses by various manufacturers.

So… by now I'm sure you're thinking, "John, this is all very cool (strange... but cool), but why are you doing this?" Fair question.

Spare bits for the Highcroft Racing AcuraIf you consider all the variables in photography, shooting digital has made a quest of simplifying the control of those variables. Follow along with me.

With a film camera, it was the different types of film that would provide different "looks"… things like color, saturation, contrast, grain… etc. Whereas your digital camera's sensor has neutralized those variables. Maybe one brand of sensor might have different characteristics than another, but for the most part, the 'film' in your digital camera is fixed.

In the end, with digital, that really isn't a problem. We can control white balance, contrast, saturation and even grain/noise either through in-camera settings or after the fact in post processing.

Intersport Racing's crew getting ready.We can even fix our mistakes. Slightly over or under exposed images can be recovered brilliantly.

And of course, digital can afford us all kinds of special effects and repairs… like adding vignette, converting to black and white, adding noise, reducing noise, spot removal, dodging, burning, cloning… and on and on.

I shot film years ago. I shot a lot of film. I shot enough film to know what I liked and what I didn't like. I even dabbled in pushing Tri-X 400 to 800. But that was how you shot. You really didn't have a lot of say in the matter. You'd pick your ASA (speed) and decide whether you were shooting black and white, negative, slide transparencies, Kodachrome, Ektachrome, indoor or outdoor and so on.

Guy Cosmo's Tequila Patron Ferrari.What puts me off the most when I consider shooting with film is the wait. I'm fundamentally impatient. Whereas the instant feedback of digital shooting helps everyone. You can immediately learn from your mistakes and since you can shoot with little or no financial penalty, you can keep shooting until you get it right.

So the idea of Polaroid instant film does offer a little bit of both worlds. You have the film mentality and look, and you have the immediate (well, not quite immediate) feedback.

Dyson Racing's hot-shoe, Guy SmithAs some of you know, I've written extensively about my experience with the Lecia Digilux 2. What I like about that camera is its analog feel and controls. Certainly the camera provides brilliant image quality, but for me, I like the mindset of the camera. It's more camera, less computer. And I find  that using it makes me a better photographer. I think the Polaroid will do the same. In fact, I know it will.

Let me try to report the emotion(s) of my initial experience with my beautiful new red ostrich skin Polaroid 110A/B 4x5 back conversion.

First and foremost, the camera is nothing but COOL. It is awesome. And the images, when 'right,' are tack sharp and out of this world.

However, we need to discuss the journey of arriving at 'right.' Wow! What an eye opening experience.

A little work on the nose of Scott Sharp's FerrariAssuming the film is in the camera, you take a meter reading (you need a handheld… there's nothing built in these babies), you set the aperture and shutter speed, cock the shutter, focus and shoot. You pull the white tab, then the black end of the film and you wait 60-75 seconds depending on the temperature.

Anxiously, you peel apart the film and get the first look at your image.

It is at this juncture you realize how much digital has changed your life. And what you hold in your hands is probably anywhere from a $1-$3 mistake. Wow.

A Fon du Lac marina at duskYou remember the first outing with your new Binford 100MP, 20X digital Zoom ProTech 5000, right? You were probably all over the place. The wrong ISO, auto focus not on, shooting 100mm and 1/15 of a second at ISO 3200 … hey it was late and shooting your black cat in the backyard should have been a worthy workout for such a stunning piece of technology. It was a panic right?

But in the end, within a few hours and probably a thousand frames of so, you got the hang of it. Nice… just use the green square or 'P' and show all your friends your spectacular images while dreaming of an exciting career in photography. Why not? All your friends told you… "dude, these could be postcards… you could sell these!"

The lighthouse at Fon du Lac shot at duskWell, with the Polaroid… it's not going to be a few hours or so later and at $1-$3 a picture, probably not a few thousand frames either.

And even when the shot is exposed accurately, you're still not likely to be holding your ideal notion of a Kodak moment. You can't adjust the white balance. You can't punch up that sky to make it a little more blue. What you see, is what you get. Period.

Yet oddly enough, if you hold the print up in front of you while looking at the scene you just shot, it's probably spot-on.  Ah… reality, what a concept.

Ken May at the Back Porch Bistro around 8PM.So back to why I'm doing this. I want the challenge. Even if it's hard, I want the satisfaction of peeling back the film and seeing a great image. And I'm here to tell you, when they're good, they're really good. There's an emotion of holding a killer instant print in your hand that no amount of chimping at the back of a 5D MK11 will ever replace. It's just awesome. Maybe it's why mountain climbers climb mountains. I don't know. I can only tell you, it's a blast.

I intend to keep going. I fully intend to get this right. And… I'm totally committed to completing a project worthy of the effort and the format.

Oh… did I mention EXIF data? LOL

I hope you'll check back to see how it's going.