Friday, September 30, 2011

First Polaroid shots, failures and lessons

Its been two weeks and nearly two packs of film down.  I've wasted a few pictures in the process.  But, they really weren't a waste though, because I've learned some lessons along the way.

Let's start from the beginning, with the first pack of film.  The rollers were clean, as far as I could tell, everything looked good.  So, I carefully put the first pack of Fujifilm FP-3000b film in the back of the camera, made sure the tabs were where they were supposed to be, and closed the back.  Unfortunately, rather than testing at this time, I put the camera in my backpack to wait until I went out to take an actual picture.

I decided that I wanted the first picture to be something grand.  The State Capital was my choice.  The next day was cold and windy as I walked to the Capital.  I had not yet pulled the dark paper slide out to expose the first frame of film.  So, I took hold of the black tab and it wouldn't pull out, the tab ripped in my fingers.  Something was way too tight in there.  I unlocked the back of the camera to release that pressure and got the paper removed.  The camera was ready to take a picture.  So, I checked the film speed and scene settings, focused, cocked the shutter, framed a shot of the Capital, and shot.  Exactly the way everything is supposed to work, right?  Well no, not exactly.  Next it was time to process the picture and see my first instant photo.  I grabbed the white paper tab to pull it out and, you guessed it, it tore off.  The tab was too far into the camera for me to get a hold of it.  So, I had no choice but to open the back of the camera to try to get that tab out, so I could pull the film out.  Frustrated, I walked back to my office.

I went into a small room that did have a little light coming under the door.  But, I was only going to open it up a hair to get the tab out.  So, I got the tab and pulled it out.  The white tab pulls out the large tab to actually pull the film out.  Unfortunately, with the back of the camera ajar, the film tab missed the rollers, which it has to go through to distribute the developer to process the film.  I had to open the back of the camera up quite a bit, knowing I was probably letting a lot of light leak in to the film in the process. Can anything else go wrong?  But, I got the film tab fed between the rollers and pulled it through.  It processed, but was terribly underexposed.  I scanned in the paper negative and tried to save it, but the exposure was really, really bad.  I'm still learning how to best scan these paper negatives too.

This was not exactly the grand start to my Polaroid journey that I had planned.  As a matter of fact, it was downright disappointing.  But, it led to the first lesson I learned the hard way.  The camera back has two, very strong springs that push the film pack forward in the camera.  In the old days, Polaroid film was in an aluminum film pack, so it all worked admirably.  But, the Fujifilm we can buy now comes in a plastic film pack.  When those springs push on the film pack, the plastic gives so much that the film and tabs are wedged tightly in the camera and won't come out without releasing the pressure.  This is a problem for about the first four pictures, then the rest works ok.  Researching this problem revealed various solutions people came up with.  Some people bent the springs back so they wouldn't push so hard on the film, some broke off or removed the spring all together, some removed the timer from the camera back as well to make more space.  I didn't want to damage or manipulate the back, and the springs were way too strong to bend in any useful way.  So, my favorite solution is the next one.  Remove the aluminum back from an old Polaroid film pack and use it to replace the plastic back on the new Fujifilm packs.  I tried it on the second pack of film and it solved the problem.

Another issue I discovered was the exposure being off.  I guess after 40 years, I can't be too upset that the metering accuracy has slipped a bit.  I'll have to deal with it.  I found that if I put two layers of window tint over the magic eye, it got me in the ballpark for exposure.

I actually learned something else from this shot.  I used the indoor scene setting, and it is slightly backfocused.  It wasn't apparent outdoors at f/60, but it sure is at f/8.8.  The viewfinder is off a bit vertically, so its hard to be completely accurate.  However, I've found that if I move the split image to the right and then come back left with the focus until the images line up, its pretty good that way.

Time for some real fun, taking the Polaroid out to a public place with a lot of people.  I opened the camera up and hung it around my neck as I walked through the farmers market in Des Moines two Wednesdays ago.  Let me tell you, this camera is a conversation starter.  I had a few people ask about it, they're amazed that you can still get film for it.  There was a polka band playing, I asked this woman, who was dancing, if I could take her picture.  And as planned, I gave the photo to her afterwards.  (FYI, even with the two layers of tint over the meter, I still have to turn the exposure knob one stop to the dark side if I'm out in the sunlight.)

As soon as I had taken her picture, a girl stepped in and asked the dancer if she could take a picture also, which she did on her phone.  She then came over and asked about the camera.  Her name is Monet, she is a design student and model from California.  She was interested in possibly using a Polaroid camera and instant film for her own projects.  I didn't have any of my cards along, but I gave her my email address.  She hasn't written me yet though.

The second pack of film led me to another mystery that cost me a few blown shots.  But, again, it was a lesson learned for a mistake that I won't make again.  For the first shot in the new film pack, I went to the Octoberfest event in Capital Square.  So, I went through my whole shooting process, pealed off the picture... black.  I checked my settings and tried to figure out what went wrong.  A few black pictures later when I finally convinced myself that I didn't do anything to this film to mess it up, I had another theory.  The night before, I was trying to bend those springs back and left the cover off the camera, which would leave the meter exposed to light.  If the batteries die, you still hear the mechanical sound, but the shutter doesn't actually open, so you get a black picture.  I checked the battery connections and put new batteries in.  The next day, I went to the Japanese Garden by the Des Moines River downtown, all ready to take a nice picture with my new batteries... Black.

As it turns out, I had been making this more complicated than it really was.  On these old cameras, the shutter was not self-cocking.  So, you have to pull a lever down to get it ready to shoot.  If that lever is not pulled down all the way, as far as it will go, the shutter release will still make the lever spring back up like something is happening, but the shutter doesn't actually open.  Once I started cocking the shutter properly, another problem was solved.

Last weekend, we stayed at Ted and Marilu's house over by the Quad Cities.  Unfortunately, they were gone, so we had the place to ourselves.  So, I took a shot of the kids there and put the print on their refrigerator with their other pictures.  I'm not sure if they've noticed it yet, I haven't heard anything about it from anyone.

This Wednesday, I went back to the farmers market to try to talk to some more people.  I didn't really have much luck, although a couple people said, "Cool camera!" in passing.  So, I asked this girl at a fruit stand if I could take her picture.  She said yes, but wasn't very talkative.  But, that's ok, I gave her the picture and moved on.  As I was walking away, I saw her in the back of the stand looking at the picture with her co-worker, smiling and talking up a storm.  So, at least I made someone smile.

Sometimes, that's what its all about.  Not so much the photography, but the people.  Its about giving people something unexpected and unusual.  Its about making someones day, or at least bringing a smile to their face.  That is a big part of the Polaroid appeal, its not about equipment or technical perfection.  Its about people and every day life, and trying to capture a few moments of that life before it passes us by.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Polaroid Land 360 Camera

I actually won this camera on a Goodwill auction.  Unfortunately, they took a week to ship it out, but it's finally here.  The 360 was unique because it was the only non-professional Land camera that had an electronic flash.  Now, it was a proprietary system, not the same as modern electronic flashes.  Mine did not come with the flash unit, but I'm ok with that, as I plan to shoot very fast film in existing light anyway.  The other unique thing I mentioned previously, is the aperture goes all the way to f/60.  So, I'm hoping that will be enough to allow me to shoot ISO 3200 film in daylight.  Testing will show how well it will work out.  Most of the Polaroid Land cameras just had plastic lenses.  However, some models, including this one, had a 114 mm f/8.8 3 element glass lens.

As expected, the battery and terminals were corroded.  I cleaned the compartment up with some vinegar.  I had planned on this problem, and found a work around, as the batteries are now obsolete.  The camera needs 3 volts of power.  This model actually used two separate batteries, one for the shutter/magic eye, and the other for the electronic timer.  Now, back in it's days, the electronic timer was probably a handy little feature, as Polaroid film development had to be timed accurately.  Today, not so much.  The Fujifilm is self-terminating, meaning you don't have to time the exposure eactly.  When it's done, it will stop developing, even if I don't pull the picture off for hours.  So, I don't care about the timer.  However, this is not a manual camera.  So, I need to power the shutter in order for it to function at all.  So, I got a $1.19 AAA battery holder from Radio Shack, which holds two batteries giving me... you guessed it... 3 volts.  I did not know which wires went to which system in the camera.  There were two white (positive) wires and a black and a brown (negative) wire.  Well, I had a 50/50 chance, so I guessed the black wire. Wrong!  Playing the odds never seems to work for me.  Regardless, I separated them and soldered in the brown and white wires.  I don't know what speeds they are, but the shutter is opening and using different times for different light.  So, it looks promising.  Once I put some film in, I will know how accurate it really is.

The Zeis viewfinder appears to be off a little bit vertically.  I'm not exactly sure about the horizontal alignment, as there is no distance scale.  I am hoping that it is close, but may have to find some tracing paper to use for a makeshift focusing ground glass to test it further.  And the viewfinder should be adjustable, I'll just have to figure out how to do it.  Other than these few details, the camera is relatively clean, including the rollers.  I'll give it a quick once-over for cosmetic reasons, but I am hopeful that this camera will be a user, not just a decoration for the shelf.

I mentioned that it did not come with the special flash that it used.  Well, it also did not come with a manual, which isn't a big deal.  But, the one that is a bummer, is that the cold clip is missing as well.  The cold clip is basically two thin, flat pieces of aluminum that you would keep in your pocket.  Then, when you take a picture in cold conditions, you would put the film in the already warm cold clip, and put it back in your jacket to develop in more favorable temperatures.  I was hoping the cold clip would be there.  I may have to find one on a cheap Polaroid for future use.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Step one: get some instant film

I know, generally the first step would be to get a camera.  Then if it were in working order, get some film to try in it.  But, I never said I was going to follow the rules.  As a matter of fact, I am so rebellious that instead of following Polaroid's steps of 1. aim and focus, 2. shoot, 3. reset the shutter, and 4. develop the film; I am going to do the steps as 3-1-2-4!  Anyway, back to the film update.

As you can see from the picture below, I received some film today.  I'm starting out with a couple packs of the Fujifilm FP-3000b and a pack of FP-100b.  This is pack film, with 10 - 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 instant prints from each pack.  In case you didn't know, the 3000 and 100 stand for the film ISO.  And the "b" means they are black and white.  As I've mentioned, I'm a big fan of black and white.  And the "FP" stands for... heck, I don't know what that stands for!  But, if I had to guess, it would be Fujifilm Professional.  Now, the FP-3000b is actually rated at 3200.  Why they didn't name it with the accurate number is beyond me.

For some reason, Fujifilm didn't make any ISO sensitivities in between.  So, we get a daylight film and a low light film.  Interestingly, most of the old Polaroid cameras gave you two film speed settings, 75 and 3000.  So, I know that I will have to compensate for the ISO discrepancies.  On many of these old Polaroid cameras, the magic eye will drift over time, so I'll have to compensate for that as well.

Now, ISO 100 will be great for outdoor shooting during the day.  But, in any lower light situations, it's not going to cut it.  That's why I expect to primarily use the 3000.  It will be sensitive enough to shoot indoors and I hope to make it work during the day as well.  Now the problem with shooting film that sensitive during the day is that you may not be able to get things dark enough to prevent overexposure.  There are a couple ways to work around this.  The simplest one would be to use a neutral density filter of some type to steal a few stops of exposure.  Well, I'm not going to have any filters, at least not initially.  The other way would be to use tiny apertures so they don't let much light in.  Most current, modern cameras only go as low as f/16 or f/22.  Now, that's usually fine, unless you are limited to a fastest shutter speed of 1/1200 second with ISO 3200 film.  With those specs to work with, well, let's just say it would be problematic out in the sun.  Luckily, Polaroid planned for this, making much smaller apertures.  As a matter of fact, there was one model, the Polaroid Land 360, which had an aperture that stopped down all the way to f/60!  Oops, I just gave you a hint of my next blog entry.

The FP-3000b film has one, unique characteristic that I think I am going to like.  When you let it develop and peal off the picture, it leaves a negative image on the paper backing.  So, I could give the picture away, then take the backing home and scan it for my own use.  What more could I ask for in an instant film!  Well, ok, maybe I could think of a couple things, but I needless to say, I am looking forward to trying out this particular film.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Introducing, my Polaroid project...

I am going to do a “Polaroid” (or at least an instant film) photography project.  Let me preface this by stating, no, I do not have a Polaroid, or any other type of instant camera, or any instant film.  What I do have, however, is an insatiable appetite for anything photography related.  That, and a variety of experience with both analog and digital ( photography.  So, I am confident that I can learn what needs to be learned and figure out any challenges along the way.  I invite you to join me on that journey, by following and commenting on my progress.
Why, in this digital age, would I want to go back to instant film?  I actually have to thank Professor Jann Freed for the initial motivation.  She is the instructor for a leadership class that I am taking.  One component of her class is that we complete a creativity project.  After making a whole list of ideas that I’ve always wanted to do, or get back to doing, I came to the conclusion that traditional photography would be something I could throw myself into happily.  But, plain and simple, there is no way that I have time to process film and proceed in a way that I could journal on weekly.  That is what lead me to the instant film idea.
There has always been a certain magic to Polaroid photos.  The quality is often not really that good, and you don’t often see really exciting subjects either.  That’s part of the beauty, its just every day life.  Its not about taking award winning photos or technical perfection.  Its just regular life... but, shown in a way that will hopefully evoke an emotional response.  If I can make some smile by giving them an instant print, then the project has made the world a better place, in a little way, anyway.  I anticipate shooting with Polaroid to be an entertaining experience, as just pulling one of these cameras out will be a magnet for people’s curiosity.
Digital photography quickly took the wind out of film’s sail.  Then, when Polaroid quit making instant film a few years ago, that nearly sealed the coffin for instant photography.  But, the Polaroid culture couldn’t be wiped out quite that easily.  When Polaroid threw in the towel, that eliminated the copyright issues preventing Fujifilm from bringing their instant film products to the United States.  The name, Polaroid, is now becoming synonymous with instant photography, kind of like all locking pliers are generally called Vice-Grips.
While it would be possible for me to do my “Polaroid” project without the use of any Polaroid products, I am not going that route quite yet.  A small part of it is because of cost.  I do have a 4x5 Graflex Super Graphic large format camera that I could equip with a film back to use instant film packs.  But, the 4x5 film costs three times as much as the slightly smaller 3 1/4 x 4 1/4.  I’ll get to the instant large format arena at some point, but not now.  The big reason, though, is tradition.  I want to recreate a little part of photo history by using the equipment they used 40 years ago.  
When I need a fresh perspective on my photography, I often like to get back to the basics.  That can mean a lot of different things, like switching to black and white, forcing myself to shoot with a single, prime lens, etc.  In this case, it will likely mean all of those things.  So, it should force me to think differently than I do in my usual photography.  Please stop back soon, as this project will  hopefully be kicking into gear this week.  Let the adventure begin!