Shooting Film Again

Photography was not always a process of pixels, megabytes, SD cards and Photoshop. Once it was chemicals, paper, darkrooms and something called film. I learned to shoot in another age, when every shot counted, there were only 24 or 36 frames available. When it was a week or at least a few days before you knew if the shot worked.

Marble Grotto
The stream flowing into marble Grotto makes a tempting target for a medium format film camera, photo by Randy Zelick
I still have a few relics of those days, cameras kept for the memories they carry. Traveling through Europe or the Desert Southwest, capturing images on celluloid and silver. Several experiences over the last couple months have served to remind me of those days… Walking into a camera store in Portland, a store that is as much a museum to the era of film, shelves filled with beautiful machines from the past. Watching Randy load roll film into a classic Pentax 6×7 on a glacier in Alaska, hearing the soft click of that mechanical masterpiece. Reading blog posts from a friend on Oahu about his adventures in film.

I found myself out in the garage, digging out a really old camera bag from storage. In the bag are a number of old 35mm camera bodies. A Canon Elan IIe, a Canon A-1 and even a Canon F-1. The F-1 seems to have something wrong with the shutter, it does not quite close properly. The A-1, the first 35mm camera that I owned, blowing my basic training paycheck on, seems in good shape but is missing a battery to be certain.

Nikomat and 105mm
A 1970’s era Nikomat FT manual 35mm camera and Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 lens
The body I end up pulling out is a classic Nikomat 35mm body that from the 1970’s. A camera nearly as old as I am! I never really used the Nikomat, I seem to remember I bought it for astrophotography just before I switched to CCD. I do not even remember where I bought it, was it the Tucson camera show?

The camera is big and heavy, but feels good in the hand. It is an all mechanical camera, with only a simple light meter requiring a battery. The battery is a little button cell, but not one I remember, an odd shape. Is it still available? A quick search on EBay, the source of all things odd and obsolete, reveals that the battery is indeed still available. A few moments later and I have a pack of five on order for $4.95 and free shipping.

The reason I pulled the old Nikon from the bag is simple… Any photographer knows that the camera is really all about the lens. I have several old Nikon lenses available, not just any lenses either, but classic primes. Years ago I had purchased these lenses for use in astrophotography, on the front of either a CCD camera or a Canon DLSR. These include a 50mm f/1.8, the 105mm f/2.8 and the 180mm f/2.8. Even now, when old film equipment is available for almost no cost, these classic lenses are still worth a fair amount, trading briskly on EBay and used photo equipment forums.

Just handling the camera brings back memories. Of days when I shot film all through Europe, a 35mm camera in hand as I traveled. I have to remember the motions… Focusing with the viewfinder screen, checking the light meter, adjusting f-ratio manually, shooting, advancing the film with the lever on top. It takes a few moments to remember how to load the film into the sprockets.

I check the camera out thoroughly… The shutter seems to open and close for the correct exposure, the film advance spins the sprockets, even the self timer runs. Everything seems to be working nicely, not a surprise with an all manual camera. One repair will be necessary… The foam light seals and mirror pad have deteriorated, replacement parts are also available on EBay, another order to place.

Loading a new battery I check the light meter… Houston, we have a problem. The needle swings when the light meter is turned on, but otherwise just sits there. No response to light or dark however I swing the camera around the room. I see I have something that will need to be fixed before the experiment can begin.

I do not expect to return permanently to this dying technology. I will return soon enough to my digital cameras. It is enough to see this wonderful camera restored and used again, even if only for a moment, a few rolls. An experiment in nostagia, of appreciation for a art and skill now fading.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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