Wednesday, June 27, 2007

My Favorite Cameras: Polaroid SX-70

Untitled #33
Originally uploaded by edscoble
Really, it was two things that got me back into photography. One was the website Flickr, which opened an easy avenue for me to share my photos with a receptive audience. The other was the Polaroid SX-70.

The camera came back into my life at just the right moment. It had been my grandfather's camera, and I was given it when he passed about 10 years ago. I thought it was interesting at the time, but I just packed it away somewhere and forgot about it. I'm not sure what made me think of it again, but about two years ago I remembered the camera and started to see if I couldn't still use it. To my great surprise, Polaroid did indeed still produce film for it.

I took it to an out of state wedding that weekend and it was love at first shot. Everyone was intrigued by such an old strange camera, and I ended up giving a lot of the best shots away. I picked up a photo scanner, and once I found what a large and growing community there was around Polaroid cameras and film, the hook was set.

The elegant simplicity of the camera is its biggest charm - it's a single-lens-reflex camera that folds completely flat into an easy to carry package. My camera is manual focus, but it sets the exposure automatically. All you do as a photographer is compose, focus, and shoot. You don't have any post-processing control over developing, color, saturation, or contrast, and that can be incredibly freeing as a photographer. You just concentrate on the basics of composition and lighting and let the camera do the rest.

Unfortunately Time-Zero, the Polaroid film for the SX-70, was phased out of production in 2006. It had a unique color cast to it, mixing green in where it should be blue, and a strange desaturated look. I was a big fan of the look, but all good things must come to an end. Thankfully, there are ways to use Polaroid 600 film in the SX-70, from using a ND filter over the lens or film, to modifying the camera's circuitry to compensate for the faster film.

I recently had my camera modified by a friend to accept 600 film, and I'm blessed to have it back. If you're interested in having one yourself, check his auctions on ebay, as they frequently come up for sale there.

Some Examples:

The Chosen One Pale Blue Eyes
Pacific Sam says "Hi"

Sunday, June 24, 2007

(artificially) light a photo

It's a simple concept, but one that's easy to forget. Photography is 99% about light. Many of us amateurs happily point and shoot away, hoping and praying for good results, but I've found that those good shots become a lot more frequent and consistent when you experiment with artificial light a little.

One of the early things you'll learn as a photographer is natural light = good, artificial light = bad. That rule is entirely wrong, though, so you have to try to overcome it. Natural light is great sometimes, but you have to be able to recognize the times it's great, and the times it's not so hot. Being well versed in artificial lighting not only can help you recognize bad light, it can give you options to overcome it. is one website every amateur should at least take a peek at. It's a blog that deals with simple artificial light using off-camera flash, and it's written in a way that even a complete dolt like myself can understand. It's not the holy bible of light, more like the annotated primer. The site has helpful hints and equipment advice, along with some sample shoots and assignments.

In that vein, I have started to assemble a "studio" setup myself. Studio lighting sounds expensive, and it certainly can be - strobes can run in the hundreds of dollars, along with radio triggers and other accessories. But that doesn't mean that a poor photographer lacking funds can't use artificial light to good effect.

My own kit proves this theory; I must have spent less than $80 on the whole thing, not including the camera of course. All you need is a flash that has a manual mode, a light stand, some cords or radio triggers, and an umbrella. In my case, that means a Nikon SB-24 ($40), an old tripod, some chinese flash triggers ($25) from eBay, and a sun Parasol with reflective silver lining from Wal-mart ($6). Set it up on manual power, pop off a few test shots, and you're at the beginning stage of lighting. And that's a beautiful thing.

Monday, June 4, 2007

My favorite cameras: Brownie Hawkeye Flash

Originally uploaded by aikithereska
You may know this already, but I'm an avid collector of cameras, and in a non-traditional way. A lot of my cameras, probably 80% of them, have little to no value at all. That works great for me because A) I like the results, and B) I can't afford a ton of decent cameras.

Lots of people find it more than a bit odd when I pull out an old Polaroid camera to take a picture. Sometimes I get odd looks, and just about always a lot of questions, which is fine with me. Most people today, even photographers, live in a purely digital world, ruled by megapixels, write speed, and zoom lenses. That's a wonderful thing - I have a digital SLR I use constantly, but there are plenty of things it doesn't do well that my cheap cameras do better.

Brownie Hawkeye Flash

Which brings me to the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash, or BHF. It's a favorite camera of mine for many reasons. It's a bakelite box camera with a simple meniscus lens, takes medium format film, looks cool and takes great pictures, like the Statue of Liberty above. Best of all, they're common as dirt. Don't pay more than $10 for one.

The lowly Hawkeye has developed something of a cult following on the internet. People modify their BHF in many ways - most often by flipping the lens to distort the images. I hacked mine apart myself to add a tripod socket and cable release socket for increased stability during long exposures.

For snapshots, as long as you have enough light, just load it up with 100 speed film and you're golden. Everything takes care of itself. For indoors shots you'll need faster film, or use the bulb switch for exposures of a few seconds.

The results for a clean, normally-oriented lens are actually quite good - far better than those of other typical toy cameras such as the Holga or Diana. Flip the lens and sharpness falls off rapidly from the center, with focus being reduced to 2 to 5 feet instead of the usual 5 feet to infinity.

If you're looking to get into toy cameras, and want something simple to use you could do worse than a BHF. There's a great community on Flickr that is glad to educate folks about this wonder of plastic, so don't be afraid to get your feet wet!

Some Examples:

In the Bedroom
My Theme 2: Ann Arbor Architecture