The Vemödalen Project: Formats and Methods

(I know, you thought I forgot about this. Well, I didn’t.)

I admit that this might be considered a stretch by some when it comes to the conceptual basis of my little project, but after giving it some thought, I think it qualifies, and I’ll tell you why. The whole point of my undertaking is to approach photography, and specifically photographic subjects, differently than I normally would. Ideally, that approach would also be significantly different from the ways in which others have photographed those subjects, but ultimately it is a personal project with a personal objective, not a competition with the photographers of the world.

So that said, I went out a few weeks ago with a familiar camera and a relatively unfamiliar (to me) set of accessories. The camera in question was my Zeiss Super Ikonta C, a wonderfully battered piece of pre-war German workmanship that has clearly survived an active 80+ years and hasn’t slowed down very much. I’ve shot this camera before to good effect, but always hand-held; it occurred to me that I had another option, one that might in fact be more appropriate. I rarely use tripods, but the size of the negative and the look of the Tessar lens have both made me compare them with large format on more than one occasion, and I’d been reading one of Ansel Adams’ books (The Negative, in case you were wondering), which got me thinking about not only large format landscapes, but altering my approach to shooting them.

So instead of just using it like any other hand-held camera, I mounted it on a tripod and brought along a collection of filters as well. I loaded it with FP4+ in spite of the still-weak midday light I expected, knowing that I could extend the shutter speeds indefinitely. My plan, in a nutshell, was to shoot in the style of Adams: small apertures for maximum depth-of-field and contrast filters for maximum effect (where appropriate).

What I have just described is hardly original; clearly, it is anything but. But I’ve never shot this way before, and barring some unforeseen life-altering change, I have no expectation of shooting any larger formats at any future point I can envision. So while the methodology may be unoriginal, I hoped to use it to produce photos that looked different than anything I had produced before. Understanding the photographic possibilities available requires consideration of all the options, and this was one set I had not yet explored. If nothing else, I hoped to determine if shooting this way could open up a profitable new direction to explore further.

Olympus 35SP, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Olympus 35SP, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

First, I offer this 35mm shot for comparison, taken purely for documentary and comparison purposes. I used my (now departed) Olympus 35SP, a camera with a truly excellent 42mm lens of very similar focal length equivalency to the 10.5cm on the Super Ikonta, and shot at a relatively small aperture to produce adequate DOF. It was loaded with HP5+ instead of the FP4+ in the Zeiss; this was simply what was already in the camera, not any conscious choice on my part.

Had I simply taken this photo (minus the tripod rig) without ulterior motives, I suspect I would have been content but not particularly thrilled by it. It’s pleasant enough to my eyes, but nothing really makes it stand out. The details of the scene are clear and sharp, but it lacks some quality that would set it apart. In short, I’m sure it looks very similar to many photos of that scene taken before.

Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta C 530/2, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)
Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta C 530/2, Ilford FP4+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

The 6×9 from the Zeiss is a totally different animal, even if the scaled-down version here doesn’t show it fully; to appreciate just how different it is you really need to see the prints. As you would expect, there’s more detail resolved and the grain is less visible, but there’s more to it than that. The tonal separations are more subtle, even in the darker areas, and there’s a really nice three-dimensional effect up around the rock formation at the top of the cliff.

Perhaps equally importantly, and more relevantly to my project, the shooting process is very different, and I found caused me to think a lot more carefully about how I wanted the final image to look. It probably didn’t hurt that the Adams’ book discusses the Zone System in detail, and I was very clearly thinking about it as I set up each shot with the Super Ikonta; not to say that the two have to go together, but I found I was much more inclined to consider these details (and take the time to do so) when shooting this way rather than hand-held. There was a distinct difference in how I approached making the photograph that was directly related to the process I selected.

The upshot of this is that equipment, film format, and methodology all have the possibility of changing how one shoots a particular scene. In that sense, I consider this experiment a success, even if the end result was not necessarily unique.


Meet the Camera & Lens: Leica IIIa and Leitz Summar 50/2

Clearly, I have self-control issues. I had absolutely no need for yet another screwmount Leica body nor another lens, let alone another 50mm lens. In spite of this, I bought the kit. Why? It was cheap and broken. I can’t resist cheap and broken.

How bad was it? Bad. The body was missing half the vulcanite covering, had some dents and brassing, and was quite dirty in every possible way, inside and out. The lens showed even more brassing, mostly on the barrel, and the glass was filthy throughout. There was also internal paint loss and the front element looked like it was used for sandpaper testing. The kit was completely unusable in the state I received it, as I knew it would be, so this was always going to be a restoration project, and a fairly major one at that.

I started with the lens. Basic disassembly and cleaning was easy; the Summar is a straightforward double Gauss design (six elements in four groups), and as long as you don’t mess with the origami aperture, it’s pretty easy to work on. I polished the glass and repainted the sides of the cemented pairs – the paint flakes off of these, causing lots of internal flare (for which the Summar is known and unfairly maligned). Lubricating the helicoid and freeing up the aperture ring presented no problems.

The big job was the front element, which needed more than just cleaning and light polishing. The scratches covered the entire surface and rendered it almost opaque. Removing the dirt and haze did almost nothing, so it was time for the big guns. I ordered some fine cerium oxide powder – the standard media for glass polishing – and planned my approach. Ordinarily, I would have tried to take the bare element, create a mold of it, and spin it against the mold with the cerium oxide in between, in order to preserve the curvature. The Summar, however, has the front element locked in a metal carrier, so I made the decision to polish by hand. Not ideal, to be sure, but the polishing agent works slowly, especially with light, careful pressure, so as long as I kept the coverage even and didn’t inadvertently reshape the lens, I figured I’d be OK. If not, well, it’s not like the lens was usable as it was, so there really wasn’t anything to lose.

Polishing took many hours, probably eight or ten in the end. I periodically reassembled the lens and checked it on my X-E1 to make sure things weren’t going horribly awry. I stopped when I was satisfied with the results through the camera, even though the glass still shows some light marks, especially around the periphery. No point in trying to achieve meaningless perfection, particularly on a lens known for its imperfections.

On to the body. Stripping it down was not difficult. There are a lot more screws holding the body together on the earlier Leicas than the IIIc and later models, but none of them gave any trouble, which is pretty remarkable when you’re talking about a camera closing in rapidly on 80 years old and showing no signs of having been opened at any point in that time. I did not take the shutter crate apart – the curtains were light-tight and I generally do not like to get involved with the drum and rollers unless I have to; if a problem appears here after dealing with everything else, I can always pull it back apart easily. Lots of greasy dirt inside the mechanicals, but nothing broken, so everything was cleaned and lubricated, then reassembled. The rangefinder and viewfinder were pretty good, and the beamsplitter mirror was surprisingly clear, so again cleaning was all that was needed.

Recovering was next. This is one job I haven’t done before, at least not with pre-cut coverings, and I know that the adhesive used is very strong and not easily repositioned, so I was careful to get it right the first time. I lightly sanded the body shell, reassembled the camera (minus the three screws that go through the covering), and wiped it down with alcohol to ensure good adhesion. Applying the new cover (which I sourced from Hugo Studio) was relatively easy. It fits perfectly and does a really good job of mimicking the original vulcanite.

The finished product is entirely satisfactory. It’s still not conventionally pretty, with pretty heavy wear overall, dings and dents, and brassing (even along the film transport path along the back of the shutter crate), but rather it shows close to 80 years of honest wear. It’s a camera that’s been used – a lot – and now is ready to continue being used. I’ve already posted a photo from the combo here and a couple more in this set (violating my own rule about posting photos from gear I haven’t yet introduced – I was never very good with rules…).

It’s quiet…too quiet…

So I’ve been rather neglectful of this little site of late, or so it might seem. In truth, I was away for a couple weeks, and I made a conscious decision to take August to focus on some other photography-related efforts, notably starting to learn the dark arts of producing decent quality inkjet prints. This is not as easy as it should be, frankly, and as such requires some work to get up and running. The good news is that I’m finally making some headway on that front.

I should also note that, while I have not been posting here, I have been taking new photos. Lots of new photos. I’m still working my way through the 24 rolls of 35mm I shot on vacation, and on top of that I’ve shot 8 rolls of 120 in the last week or two. So there’s plenty to post here, or there will be when I get through the develop/scan/refine process.

To be clear, I’m not losing interest in photography, nor am I not letting the blog die a slow, lingering death. New photos, new musings (the brain never stops churning), new gear introductions (yeah, I know…), and other assorted tidbits will be forthcoming when time permits. For now, I thank you for your patience.