Tuesday, 8 March 2022

What's on a film that sat in a camera on a shelf for 40 years?

Recently a friend handed me a boxed Zeiss Ikon camera, first made in 1932. The box was a little tattered, the instructions a bit creased but the camera looked in excellent condition. 


Now my heart usually sinks when asked about cameras. For me they are simply a means to an end, capturing ‘the picture’.  

He said it was his Godmother’s camera and had sat on his shelf for at least thirty years, and wanted me to shoot a roll of film with it. 

At home I read the instructions and popped open the back. To my amazement there was a roll of film that had been wound through the camera. There could be an unseen picture of relatives in younger days. Or it could be a case of a full year high days captured to the shout of ‘get the camera dear, time to do a picture’, Christmas, Easter, a summer holiday, a birthday celebration and a new-born all on one roll. Or just a blank strip of fogged film.


So now I had two jobs; first, get the film processed and secondly, see if the camera still works. 

The film needed to be processed C22. I quickly discovered that the C22 process was superseded by C41 in 1972. I decided to explore the rabbit hole of technical photo forums on how to best get this film processed, it made my head spin. So, I made a quick post on Facebook for some help and emailed a few photo labs to see what they advised. 


Capturing the present…


In the meantime, I decided to pop a roll of HP5 film into the camera to see if it was still light tight and the shutter worked. The shutter speed range is 25th to 125th with a ‘not so handy’ B setting too. Aperture ranging from F6.3 to F22. 


Before going out I again referred to the instructions. Just as well as I discovered if you want a horizontal picture hold the camera upright and if you want vertical picture hold the camera horizontal. See fig 1.

Fig 1.


A diagram to explain what is where on pages 2 and 3 and an attractive assistant to help with my exposure.

Focussing was (as ever) going to be a challenge. The focus ring was marked in feet, 4.6, 6, 9, 12, 18, 30 and infinity. I decided to keep it constant so paced out four steps and set the camera at 12ft at F8. I kept that distance in my mind’s eye, moving back or forth or letting people walk into range. It was all very hit and miss and needed a lot of practice. If people were moving too quickly, I decided to leave well alone as at 125th it would not freeze the ‘action’.


I fought myself with the notion that I had to try to make half decent pictures. Why put all that effort in if the camera was leaking light, but then again if it wasn’t leaking light I would end up with a boring set of pictures. Also, I couldn’t remember how much I had to wind the film to make sure that it didn’t double expose part of the frame. 


Upside down numbers appearing in dark red windows on the back of the camera as I wound the film. The black squares on the contact sheet are where I over wound the film. Lesson learned.

I spotted two ladies who were walking slow enough that I figured 125th would freeze their movement. As they came into the 12 ft line, I took their picture and immediately the woman on the left said, ‘you can take my picture wearing a bikini if you like.’ 


Quick as a flash I replied, ‘It’s too cold for me to wear a bikini and as I’ve put on a bit a weight it causes too much chafing when I run about.’ 


Lucky for me they hadn’t heard the second oldest joke in the photographer’s repertoire and off they went chuckling to each other.  

The picture itself, although dull except for the laugh with these two old dears, demonstrates that the lens is sharp enough and with a little tweaking in photoshop the tones are quite pleasing too. I shot the picture below to eliminate the movement element. Sharp enough to methinks. 

It started to rain so not wanting to get the old camera wet I headed home, second task complete. I have returned the camera to Chris, its owner, loaded with a roll of film so he can master it.


Processing the past…


As for developing the colour film I was given a few options. Process it in modern C41 chemicals but at room temperature for 50 minutes. This method may retain some colour but risks losing all images. Another forum said forget any notion of retaining colour and develop in ID11 for 13 minutes so at least you’ll be assured of an image if there is anything on the film. And a third suggestion was to process in ID11, agitate for one minute and then leave undisturbed for an hour. I went for option four and sent to AG Photographic+Photolab who assured me they give it love and care and hand process as black and white. 


And that’s exactly what they did. Here is the processed film on my light box. At first glance nothing to see. 

But the team at AG Photographic+Photolab must have worked some magic as there are two images.

The black lines are where the film has been fogged over the years. But what is most exciting for Chris is that woman in the first frame on the left is his Godmother, Carys Houston. But as yet, he is unable to identify the other woman in the picture or where this picture was taken. It also transpires the camera was actually owned by Carys’ husband, Canadian Roy Houston, who was a cardiologist and died in 1958. 


I have cropped the image here so you can see them more clearly. Is that a figure between them who has moved their head quickly and blurred? Remember the camera shutter speed is 125th at best. The hair dos look similar or maybe it’s just a plant? I’ll let you think on that. 

No-one is sure where or what the battleships are so even though at the time it was important enough for someone to take a picture of them, that importance has faded with time. No doubt there is someone out there in the Metaverse who can identify it. 


For sure this journey was not a Vivien Maier discovery in terms of photography. But in simplest terms Chris has another image of his Godmother Clarys and a Zeiss Ikon camera that works. 


Oh, and if you are wondering what the oldest joke in a photographer’s repertoire is, I think it is; ‘let’s go into the darkroom and see what develops.’


Thursday, 20 January 2022

It's okay to fail, isn't it?

It’s okay to fail, isn’t it? Here is my contact sheet from two days shooting on the Lea Bridge Road last week.

Now is the time of year when goals are set, personal New Year resolutions are made (probably already broken) and in the corporate world work place objectives are committed to paper. 


I can almost hear managers telling employees on the annual goal setting meeting:


“It’s okay to fail. In fact, if you don’t fail you are not pushing the envelope. You need to be innovative, creative, agile, risk-taking and forward thinking. To survive we must all differentiate ourselves from our competitors by pushing for what might seem as the impossible”. 


After the meeting and thinking back to the end of year review where failure was the focal point of the discussion you may begin to ask yourself ‘have I just been screwed again?’ 


Lucky me, I don’t have to go through this management-by-fear process but I do intend to use the new year to challenge myself - setting my own targets and no HR bell curve to meet. 

Photographers don’t need to be told when they have failed, they know it themselves. They just look at their pictures. Last week, hand on heart, I failed. I’ve shot a whole roll of film but have not captured a single decent picture. Here’s why. 


Three things to keep in mind, and yes, I could be accused of getting my excuses in early; firstly, I didn’t see the images until after I processed the film, there’s no looking on the back of the camera on a Rolleiflex.


Secondly, and obvious as it may seem as I was shooting back and white film so colour and lights are reduced to tone. I am working hard to think tone, not colour and this is not easy. 


And third, I have only 12 frames per roll of film.

I was interested in the Christmas decorations that still adorned the front of a house mid-January on the Lea Bridge Road. The bright cheerful lights set against the gloom of a winter’s afternoon and bus stop for the 55 that will take you to Oxford Street. I was drawn to the idea that this could help illustrate the multi-cultural nature of the Lea Bridge Road.

On the first frame the figures are too big and draw attention away from the decorations. With the second frame, the wall on the bottom right dominates the image so you don’t see the decoration or the people. I decided to move. 

On frame three I miss-timed the shot so the key figure, although interesting, obscures the tree and I don’t like the position of the woman’s legs or the fact she’s looking away. Frame four is well timed and I love the echo of the tree shape in the position of the man’s legs but he’s looking straight at me. That kills it for me on this occasion. 

Women walk past a house that is still decorated for Christmas January 14, 2022 on the Lea Bridge Road, London. 

The last frame I shot in this sequence, frame 5, has the figures well positioned either side of the tree and the echo of the triangle shape of the tree in the woman’s coat and dress shape is pleasing. But the light has dropped and the movement (and maybe some back focusing) in the figure on the right just distracts from the overall image. 


The following day it was quite misty so I thought I’d revisit the same scene and try to explore my ongoing struggle of the relationship of scale between figures and buildings. My attention drawn to the bus stop, a bus, a view down misty Lea Bridge Road and people waiting at the stop near the Christmas decorations. Remember the film from the previous day was still unprocessed so I had not yet seen what I had already shot. 

I was enjoying the strong diagonal lines of the wall and the windows on the right and the shape and line of the lamp post that cuts into the grey sky vertically dissecting the square image. What troubles me now is that there’s too much dead space on image 6 and even when the bus fills some of that space in frame 7 the position of the figures are less interesting. By removing the dead space top and bottom with a crop the lamp post is a visual distraction and the strong diagonals lost. I’ve ended up with a very dull image of a bus, a bus stop and some ill-positioned figures.

Before the sun cleared the mist, I wanted to further explore shapes against the grey misty sky.

In my opinion the most successful picture on this film is the one below but again not as good as I would like. I was looking at the shape of this tree against the sky on a road junction when I spotted a man about to cross. Sadly, passing traffic kept blocking my view. I would have liked to have captured him just before he reached the centre of the road. Also, the shapes would have been better if I’d crouched down lower creating more space between the lower branches of the trees and the roofline. By shooting sooner I would also be setting the dark tones of the figure against the lighter background of the houses in the distance. But I had to wait for the cars to clear and this was the best that was offered; not too bad but shame he begins to merge into the mid tones of the hedge and shame about the lamp post coming out the top of his head.

A man walks slowly across Heybridge Way on the junction of Lea Bridge Road, London in the morning mist January 15, 2022. 

As a final note I have to admit that I spent quite a lot of time waiting for this picture of Lea Bridge rail station which, at the end of the day, doesn’t really work.  I had to position the camera so the lens poked though the fencing mesh. Composing the picture into vertical thirds using the chimneys my interest was the open door in the foreground. All I needed was a figure going into or coming out to give the image a focal point. I waited and waited more, finally a train came into the station and I decided to swap a figure in the doorway for a train on the station. I would have waited more but decided that a £130 parking fine from Waltham Forest was too bigger price to pay for a picture that may or may not happen.  

I like the shapes and the potential for figures either in the doorway or on the stairwell on the right of the picture so will return when I have more parking time. I am after all setting my own agenda and my own targets.

January 18th, I decided to try to catch someone walking in or out of the doorway early, in morning mist. By the time I managed to get through a 45-minute traffic jam the fog had lifted, and my hopes of catching someone at the start of their shift evaporated. What did present itself was strong low light and shadows. I had planned to shoot using the same composition but I had to move to one side as my own shadow was destroying the picture, I lost the vertical thirds. What I did gain is a rather pleasing zig zag of shapes and a striding figure shadowed on the brickwork. 


What I love is continual change that forces you to abandon plans and initial ideas so you end  up with something you hadn’t thought of. Minutes after I took the picture below the sun had moved higher and the shadows had been lost.