Luddite for a Day

12Dec11

Originally posted at www.hmml.org 6-18-11

In my job I’m fortunate enough to work with some of the most up-to-date digital photography equipment available. HMML preserves manuscripts using high-end digital single-lens-reflex (dSLR) gear, and for certain projects, I work with medium and large-format digital cameras capable of astonishing resolution. In the fourteen years since I started using digital gear for photography, the technology has advanced greatly in terms of capability and sophistication.

As equipment improves, work methods change to take advantage of these new capabilities. Today, I can adjust a digital image to levels of exposure and color accuracy unheard of in the days of film. For example, I can easily adjust image exposure in increments that amount to less than a tenth of an f-stop. Prior to digital, such precision was impossible. Having such finesse in controlling a picture’s appearance often means that I find myself optimizing digital images to a somewhat obsessive level.

The technology brings other, less desirable things as well. High-end digital cameras contain hundreds of electronically controlled parts and tiny on-board computers. These computers interact with software running on other computers, so the situation is ripe for bugs, hardware/software incompatibilities, and all the other little annoyances that we’ve gotten used to in the computer age.

These things came to a crescendo recently after two weeks of working with a new 80-megapixel digital camera that had only been on the market for a week or so. Everything about this setup was brand-new: A new digital chip module, a new camera body, and new computer software running all this cutting-edge technology.

And, like lots of brand-new tech stuff, it had bugs. The camera would frequently lock up, requiring a “power-down, power-up” action to unlock it. Sometimes the new software would need to be restarted, and in some cases the entire computer would need to be rebooted to get things working. I was essentially a beta tester for this new equipment, reporting the quirks to the manufacturer so they could debug the hardware and software for future users.

On the plus side, the gear was capable of producing images of spectacular quality, so I spent a lot of time tweaking, checking, and pushing my images to ever-increasing levels of accuracy and consistency.

After two weeks of alternatively troubleshooting the new gear and optimizing images to ridiculous levels, I was a bit fried. After delivering the images to a service bureau, I noticed an interesting roadside scene while driving home. A road construction crew had excavated some giant culvert sections and had dumped them at the side of the road like some giant prehistoric tortoise shells. This is the sort of “rust and decay” type of subject matter that appeals to me artistically as a photographer. I decided that when the light was right, I would try to create a photograph of them.

When that time came, did I reach for one of my modern digicams? Not at all. I was in an analog mood after all that digital hand-wringing. My camera of choice was a 52-year-old Minolta Autocord loaded with old-fashioned 2 ¼-inch rollfilm. A monopod and a hand-held light meter completed the kit. Old school all the way.

The Autocord is a twin-lens reflex camera, an antiquated design that fell out of widespread favor decades ago. Essentially, it’s a box camera, albeit a beautifully-made one, with fine lenses and a precision focusing system. The camera uses the lower lens to take the image, while the upper lens directs the image to a mirror and ground glass viewing screen, allowing the photographer to compose the shot. You look down into the camera, and while the image viewed is right side up, it is reversed laterally left to right. This is somewhat disorienting at first, but it forces the photographer to compose carefully, to study the image on the viewing screen from edge to edge before taking the picture.

Minolta Autocord camera

Minolta Autocord Twin-Lens-Reflex Camera

On a camera like this, everything is manually controlled. No automatic “do-it-for-you” metering, focusing, film transport, anything. You meter the scene (I used a handheld meter that doesn’t need batteries), set the aperture and shutter speed, compose the image, and release the finely-made shutter, which makes just a whisper of sound as it records the image. I made twelve exposures, one roll of film, and left for home.

The next evening I relived the wonderful experience of darkroom work, listening to music and the sound of running water while processing the strip of negatives. Once the processing has reached a certain stage, the tank can be opened and the negatives inspected. I unrolled the still-wet film and took my first look at the images.

The images looked good. Without computers, microchips, ultrasonic motors, software applications, firmware updates or multi-pattern light metering, the exposures looked accurate and the compositions interesting. Images made with a 1958 camera with a light meter that required no batteries. Old school.

Sample photos

The artistic merits (or lack thereof) of the images are debatable, of course. There are a couple of images I like very much, but I have to admit that the process itself was quite refreshing in a nostalgic sense, especially after weeks of wrangling with the modern gear. I’m not about to go back to film altogether, but it’s nice to know that the old medium, with its inherent uncertainty and imprecision, could delver results that are in many ways as satisfying as ones made with the latest gear.

Might I have been off by a tenth of an f-stop? Who cares?

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