Constantly learning... learning... learning...

May 15, 2013 | Categories:

Something interesting came up this month in my pursuit for continual education.

I am an inveterate collector, so much so that in my family we sometimes say that I collect collections.  It might seem that way to others who view my collections just from looking at the accumulations.  I have several collections that I am working to improve, but I am not a free-for-all ammasser.  My collections are, for the most part, specialized to smaller topics within the wider whole.  When I add items to my collections, I have a purpose with each acquisition.

Where this collecting intersects photography is in vintage camera equipment.  Old cameras are easily obtainable, often for very little money.  Some of the cameras in my collection were purchased for as little as $5, and I've received a couple of them as freebies because the previous owner just wanted to see that they go to someone who would appreciate them.  I have had a fascination with cameras and capturing images since I first picked up a camera in the mid 1970s, so building a collection of old cameras would seem to be a natural extension of my passion for photography.

When I started collecting old camera equipment, one of my first decisions was to select a collecting specialty.  Since I had "grown up" shooting Kodak film, I decided that I would purchase Kodak cameras for my collection.  There is a very wide variety of Kodak cameras to collect from the earliest Brownie cameras introduced in 1900 to the point-and-shoot digital cameras of the 2000s.  I've been able to add a few cameras to my collection through visits to antique malls, garage sales, thrift stores and camera club white elephant sales.  As I talk to more people and tell them that I am building a collection of Kodak cameras, sometimes, they will give me a Kodak camera that I hadn't already added to my collection.

The interesting part of what happened this month is that someone I care about deeply asked me what purpose I had in building this collection beyond its hobby aspect.  Where is the educational component?  The first and most obvious component is researching the various camera models to find out what was produced and what I should be able to find with a reasonably exhaustive search.  That's all well and good, but it's not the purpose of my collection.  The physics of light is the same regardless of the camera that is being used.  Every camera is at its most basic level, a black box with a hole in one side.  Mastering or at least learning how to make photographs with older cameras helps me to learn how to adjust my most modern DSLR for the photographs that I am making today.

It's that last statement that is the purpose of my collection.  I'm not trying to be a completionist by accumulating one of every model camera that Kodak produced.  I want to buy old cameras to learn how to make high-quality photographs with them and by doing so, learn more about how light behaves in different situations and then apply that knowledge to make outstanding photographs with whatever camera happens to be in my hands at the moment.

Kodak Retina IIaOne of the cameras in my Kodak collection is a Retina IIa 35mm camera.  This small rangefinder camera was introduced in 1951 as an upgrade to earlier Retina models to include flash synchronization and film advance levers.  It is a folding camera that has a small bellows behind the lens/shutter assembly that supported apertures from f/2 through f/16 and shutter speeds from bulb and 1 second through 1/500 second.  Focusing is done through a ring that simply shows the distance away from the camera in feet where the subject will be in focus, cross-referenced with the selected aperture setting.  This camera model is readily available on the various internet auction sites for lot prices beginning around $50; I received mine as a gift from another photographer who wanted to see that it was well cared for and would continue to be used.

This camera is also very similar in operation to the SLRs that were my introduction to photography, so it seemed to be the best option for me to start using as a learning tool.  I loaded some black & white film that I still had and took it out on a sunny day this month.  Since the camera is completely manual, the "sunny 16" rule is my starting point for experimenting with this camera.  With the 400 ASA film that I had loaded, I should get good exposures by setting the camera at f/16 and 1/500 (the next slower speed is 1/250, which is what I would use for 200 ASA film, then it has 1/100 which would be used for 100 ASA film).  Now that we're finally into warmer weather and the snow has melted in my area, it is again feasible to go out to shoot on short notice; I took this camera with me to my local zoo to try it out.  I got some interesting looks from other zoo patrons, but nobody was bold enough to ask me about the camera.  I guess it looked too much like a modern camera for anyone to think much of it.  The first roll I used in this camera is ready for development now, so I'll get to see how close I was on my exposure guess soon.  Assuming that I got the correct exposure, the next step is to make modifications to my exposure for different lighting situations; but that's an experiment for another day.  As I learn more and get results back from shooting with my vintage camera collection, I will upload samples so you can see how close I get to making outstanding photographs with them.

Oh, and one other bit of education that this collection affords me is that I am practicing product photography as well by making photographs of the cameras for blog posts like this one.  However, the photograph shown here, although it shows the actual camera that I was discussing above, was made more as a test to ensure that my remote flash trigger worked properly in preparation for a work assignment that I have tomorrow.  Now that I've started posting about my vintage camera project, I'll work on improving the camera mugshots as well.