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 I quickly discovered that the C22 process was superseded by C41 in 1972.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.’