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.

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