Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Winter light in the city

One common recommendation is to make photographs when the sun is low in the sky so the directional lighting provides dramatic modeling of your subjects. Most of the time, that means either quite early in the morning or late in the evening. In relatively northern Wisconsin, around the time of the winter solstice, the sun never gets more than 22½° above the horizon so you can take advantage of the dramatic light in the middle of the day. 

I had gone out for a ride in the mild sunny weather on the afternoon of the 20th and wished I had taken a camera with me. On the day of the solstice it was cloudy, but the next day was completely clear. The forecast looked like I wouldn't be able to take advantage of the low winter light again for awhile so I took the opportunity and set out on my bicycle about 9:30 am. The downside was that the temperature had dropped to 12° F.

I've wanted to take this view of the Pabst Castle for a while but there's always a car parked in front of it. Despite being on a business day and the rest of the lot being full, this time the view was unobstructed.

As I rode past the library I noticed one of the lions roaring directly at me. The old front staircase and the landing between the lions is blocked off by a little railing. At 6cm from a 6x6cm negative, this camera is only modestly wide angle as far as pinhole cameras go, but I still needed to get closer to get the image I wanted. I stepped over the plantings at street level and put the tripod over the railing on the landing. I could barely reach the shutter on my tiptoes. I'm amazed that the camera was level and the composition exactly like I wanted.

The front of a building on Main Street that I've photographed the back of before. Originally built in 1900 as the Frank Percey Gun and Fur Shop, it was restored about five years ago and recently turned into an Elsewhere Market and Coffee Shop.

The Roxy, a classic Wisconsin supper club on Main Street. Inside it's like a time machine to the '50's

The front of this building on the 500 block of Main Street used to be a resale shop. The ventilation stacks and street lamp in the back probably date to when it was Oshkosh Steam Bakery.

A small garage building with several clients of the gas company.

A yellow arrow pointing down an alley at nothing I could see down there.

I normally present photos in the chronologic order they were taken but this time they're in reverse order because I didn't want to lead with this. Everybody always talks about how all the little surprises make pinhole photography so charming, but not always. When winding the film it seemed a little tight but not worse than I've encountered before. I always unload the camera in the darkroom to avoid any possibility of a "fat roll" fogging the edges. When I went to load the film on the developing reel, I discovered that it had caught on something and had actually torn the film in several places. If the take up reel isn't parallel to the supply, it will bind up and usually just won't advance any more. I've had it crumple the backing paper, but I'd never seen it tear film like this. Only the first four frames were affected and then somehow the film straightened out for the rest of the roll. It took me about twenty minutes in the dark to get it loaded on the developing reel. 

I was sorely tempted to retouch the damage as well as possible but out of some sense of authenticity I left them visible. These damaged frames wouldn't stay flat in the scanner film holder, but I could sandwich them in the glass negative carrier from my 1940's Federal enlarger and capture them with the Nikon D750.

The back door of the gothic revival St. John's Lutheran church. Only a slight tear on this one.

A modern rear entrance just beside it on the back of church. I had composed it loosely enough that I could just crop out the damage.

An old carpet factory near our house has been converted to apartments with a large sunny meeting room on one end. Apparently the damage to the film occured after the exposure. I'm kind of surprised that these bent flaps of film got developed without sticking to something, I couldn't really get them into the reel but they just wrapped around the edge against the inside of the tank.

The first frame was the only place that a piece of film actually broke off. It kind of goes with my shadow.

All with the Spooky Cube. Hand-drilled .30mm pinholes 6cm from a 6x6cm frame on Kodak T-Max 100.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Again with the Random Acts of Color and Lunography

In what I hope isn't becoming a pattern, I loaded the Tenth Anniversary iPhone Box Camera with Ektar 100 and took it along on our latest trip to Massachusets. I was too obsessed with using up 36 exposure rolls in my little Populists and it stayed in my backpack.

We left the colorful ghost peppers on the vine as long as we could. Sarah put them in a steel bowl on the kitchen table that was too much like Edward Weston's famous setup for me to resist.

An irresistable sunbeam illuminating the little pumpkins and the tomatoes we had picked green which had been in a paper bag with an apple for weeks to mature.

I went to Appleton to pick up the prints and negatives from Murray Photo and to check out the cardboard window shades I had made in order to turn the classroom at the Trout Museum into a camera obscura. It's located on Houdini Plaza where the Oneida Street Bridge crosses the Fox River and intersects with College Avenue. In the classes I'm teaching next summer, this is the environment they will have to take pictures in. Normally a wide angle camera like this will provide views of tall buildings with distinctly converging verticals. This one was taken from the second level of the parking structure across the street so the camera was almost level. The classroom I'll be using is on the top floor of the smaller building in the center of the image.

From ground level, the view is what you might expect from a wide-angle pinhole camera. One of the assigments I'm thinking of giving for this class is a building. I've debated whether I want to have them make a camera with a rising pinhole. I'm concerned that would take up too much time. Since they will be making cameras of different distances to the pinhole it might be instructive for them to see how this convergence changes with angle of view. I'm also thinking of assigning them a specific building so they don't all take the exact same picture. Incidentally these individual assignments and the angle of view of the camera they make will be assigned by drawing lots. If assignments like this seems like limiting the creativity of the children, if you're a sports enthusiast, think of these as fundamentals drills and if you're a musician, as etudes.


Another assigment I was considering is an abstract composition of light and shadow. Think that's too sophisticated an idea for an 11-17 year old population? Now I'm curious to see what they'd do with such a nebulous concept. In early November it was hard to keep the low mid-morning sun out of the image. Most of the direct sun is hidden here but it really blows out the corner of the left-hand building where it's reflected off the windows. The sun will be much higher in the sky next summer.

There was a very deep partial lunar eclipse during all this. I was curious if that tiny bit of illuminated satellite would still be so overexposed you couldn't tell the difference. It was completely overcast all day but about 8 pm it suddenly got perfectly clear for the 10 hour exposure. It looks a lot like a total eclipse except instead of the famous redness of the shadowed moon, it seems a little bluer than usual during maximum eclipse. Jupiter at magnitude -2.5 must have passed through the scene as well, but left no trail I can see,

One morning the sunbeams called to me.

A sunbeam filtered through the sheer curtains onto the fern and Wisconsin lamp above Buddha's corner.

In case anyone thought I was just making a musical reference in my October footograph,  I really do wear blue suede shoes.

We've been in a somewhat confusing but creative transition between Halloween, Thanksgiving and Yuletide decorating. The tree in the sunroom led the festive season.

The Tenth Anniversary iPhone Box Camera has a .26mm hand-drilled pinhole 36mm from a 6x6cm frame.

Friday, December 3, 2021

First Film in the 4x5 Pinhole Lab Camera

Early in the millenium, we got rid of the freezer in my department which held photo sensitive materials -  most of it with expiration dates in the late 80's, about when desktop publishing replaced the darkroom. It broke my heart to throw away a mountain of Photo Mechanical Transfer paper. I gave away about 40 rolls of Panatomic-X to the Art Department but they weren't interested in an unopened box of 100 sheets of 4x5 Plus-X that had expired in 1981. It's been sitting in my basement darkroom ever since.

I must have had some intention of using it at that time because I bought a Yankee Cut-Film Daylight Developing tank. Something else grabbed my fancy, and I never did anything with it.

Since I retired and became a full-time pinhole photographer, that box of Plus-X has been calling to me. It's what got me to build the 4x5 Pinhole Lab Camera about a year ago.

Shortly after I built it, I exposed 12 sheets of the Plus-X and tried to stand develop it in Caffenol in the Yankee tank.  If you've ever read reviews of that Yankee tank, it's often recommended that the best way to use it is to fill it with cement and make a boat anchor out of it. It's nearly impossible to tell if you've got the film loaded one to a slot on both sides of the tank and any agitation sloshes developer all over. All of the sheets were stuck to each other. I think this also might have been the first time I had problems with gaps in the sleeves of the changing bag. What did get developed looked extremely dense.

It seemed best to get some experience with film and developer I knew was good. I bought some Arista.edu 400 and intended to stand-develop it in Rodinal in a tray. I was pretty sure I could get in and out of the darkroom in the far corner of the basement at night without letting any light in. For some reason I never got up the nerve to try it.

Early in October I went to Appleton to meet with the Education Coordinator at the Trout Museum about my ideas for a summer class. Since it was a critical part of my plan, I first went to talk to the owner of Murray Photo, across the street from the Museum, who runs the only lab left in the Fox Valley. Although we had already corresponded by email about next day processing specially for my group, it seemed like a good idea to make a personal relationship. Murray Photo is also a major dealer in used film equipment. Our conversation took place among a display of monorail view cameras and Omega enlargers and I found myself asking: "You wouldn't happen to have any hangers and tanks, would you?" It turned out that someone had recently brought in five tanks, three with floating lids, and nine hangers. They wanted $75 for it. I had to rush back to my car so I didn't show up for lunch with a big box of darkroom gear, portrayed here at 3 inches with the Arista 400.

Our two-car garage was the subject of my first exposure using the Arista, with the image plane at four and a half inches. Two black Mustangs on a cloudy day in a white garage would be a good test. This is the whole negative with the imprint of my cardboard film holder on the edges. I wonder if I can get that strip at the top of the holder (the bottom of the negative) straight? I have to remember that when that fixed-rise upper pinhole is needed to keep the parallels vertical, I can always lower the tripod a little to avoid cropping the bottom too tight..

My second exposure was with the Plus-X, still at four and half inches. It looks perfectly fine.

At three inches, the leaves and needles frozen into Elwood's Pond for another test of the Plus-X.

With the image plane at six inches, at f333, I used the Arista 400 for this two hour exposure of the ivy on the foundation of the house.

This is the first time I've developed 4x5 film in hangers and tanks since 1975. You may have noticed some unwanted artifacts at the top and sides of these photographs. It varies in intensity. This one is the worst. In some it looks almost like a scum line, but it's actually in the negative. I don't think it's a light leak in the camera or in the darkroom because it's the same shape on all of them and on both the Plus-X and the Arista.

These were presoaked and semi-stand developed in Rodinal 1:100 for an hour. These tanks take two liters of chemistry! I'm very sure the film was completely submerged. I agitated for the first 30 seconds, and then two dips at a half hour.

Is it possible that these result from the film resting against the hanger during development? I probably should try regular development with agitation at 30 second intervals.

If any of you Lords of Large Format out there have any wisdom about this, please let me know.

Of course I can always crop these flaws out. At an inch and a half, the tableau on the dining room dresser.

Sharp eyed viewers may have noticed a Spooky Cube at the bottom of that composition. You can read about it here, and see pictures done with it here.

That left the problem of how to get a positive of a 4x5 film negative. My Epson 550 scanner only goes to 6cm wide. Over a year ago, I briefly was having trouble with it talking to my vintage computer. I bought a backlight and some diopters for my "macro" 28-200mm Tamron to use Sarah's Nikon D750 to capture my negatives. Even with the diopters this set-up barely got down to fill the frame with the 6cm negatives. It was pretty clumsy to use - the tightest macro was at the longest zoom. The scanner problem was resolved quickly and I lost interest in using the camera to capture negatives.

During the last year, anticipating the 4x5s, I occasionally would browse the internet for a used Micro-Nikkor. It didn't matter how old it was since I was going to use it on Manual anyway. Last month I found this 55mm f3.5 modified to auto-index for $44 from Roberts Camera, with free shipping.

I took a few exposures when it arrived to make sure it worked. I no longer had an excuse to put off trying the film. When I had the negatives, I lined everything up using Live view on the camera's screen to align it and adjust the exposure. When I hit the shutter everything went black. The camera had been in a low battery state and I thought that was the problem. After 24 hours charging, I tried again and the display showed "Err." Putting the new electronic lens back on didn't change anything. Very frustrated, I jumped on my bike to Camera Casino where I was sure they would show sympathy for the pinhole photographer and show me what stupid thing I'd done with the D750. They had no idea what it was. Their Nikon technical specialist wouldn't be in for a few days and if he couldn't figure it out, it would go off to Nikon.

Later that afternoon, I tried to capture the 4x5's with my iPhone SE and with Sarahs iPhone 10. Both made pretty good images, but had a funny quality at full resolution. In frustration I sought solace on YouTube. It turns out that with a non-electronic lens with the camera in Live view, the camera gets confused about where the mirror is and goes into the error state. The solution is to trip the shutter again, and then everything works. Unbelievably, we hadn't tried that.

I brought it home and tried again, using the optical viewfinder. That wouldn't give me a preview of changes to exposure, but I just used the meter and did some bracketing to get what looked like a proper image of the negative. Five minutes later I was ready to edit my seven negatives. I'm still learning how to expose that negative for a best positive (the D750 doesn't have an inverse effect), but I'm pretty happy with the results.

The charm of this format is starting to sink in, especially now that I know I have about 130 sheets of film. I'm going to see if the Pinhole Lab Camera can teach me more lessons.