As I mentioned in my last post, while I have taken a few photos over the last year, I haven’t really felt that the process was particularly directed. Mostly it was just pointing the camera at something that momentarily caught my attention and taking the shot. Unsurprisingly, I found myself gravitating toward my least demanding cameras – the Minox 35ML got more use than any other. One could argue it was a very zen way of photographing, but that’s a big stretch, as it implies intent; this was zombie photography, driven by some primal urge toward something I vaguely knew I wanted, but didn’t know why, or how to get it. In case it wasn’t clear, I’m talking here about meaningful photos, not delicious brains.
Clearly, this process, or lack thereof, is not going to produce any sort of coherent result, unless of course your objective is to be incoherent (much as I admire the conceptual novelty of Dadaism, it is not something I have embraced). There is no overarching idea or purpose behind any of my photographs from this period. They are snapshots in the purest form of the word. Still, one might ask, doesn’t a group of images taken in similar circumstances or conditions take on a collective meaning, even if the individual photos have none? Perhaps, but I’m still too close to them to even begin to think about them that way. For now, it’s just a pile of pictures.
But this is the Internet, damn it, and by now most of you have either stopped reading and gone to look at Instagram, or if you’ve inexplicably stuck with me this far, are nonetheless growing frustrated and annoyed with the seemingly endless stream of boring words on what is ostensibly a photography blog. So here are a few of the photos I shot in the last year or so, more or less randomly chosen, all from the Minox that kept finding its way into my pocket. There’s no theme, no big idea – just pictures. Are they interesting? I’m not really sure, but if any of them are, it’s pure dumb luck. As the saying goes, it’s better to be lucky than good.
It’s been the better part of a year since I got my Hexar AF Rhodium, and as it is so different from the sort of equipment I normally favor, it seemed appropriate to offer a bit of a followup. Readers of the initial piece will note that I was rather uncertain about how I would get on with the Hexar, openly speculating that its time with me might well be short. Well, it’s still here – time to address why.
Put simply, I’m really enjoying using the camera. I don’t really know why, but I am. It fits my hand well, it’s very easy to use, and the results are very, very good. I took it on vacation last summer, shot a friend’s band’s gig in a dark bar, and used it extensively this past fall as I burned up some of my old expired color film stockpile. I’ve shot maybe a dozen rolls of film with it – B&W (some of it pushed to 1600), color print, and slide – and it’s handled everything nicely. The metering spot-on. The autofocus is startlingly competent. There’s really been nothing to dislike.
I’m growing more accustomed to the 35mm lens. In spite of having a few lenses in this focal length, I haven’t tended to use them a lot. It’s proven a useful in-between for when I’m only carrying one camera (I’m finding myself tending more toward the 50/28 two lens kit when I travel, so 35 splits the difference). It stills requires more conscious attention than when I shoot 50, but that’s just me. The speed of the camera itself helps to offset my own slowness in framing and composition.
The quality of the lens is well-documented, but I feel a few words are necessary nonetheless. The rendering is somewhere between modern and classic. It captures fine textures very well without feeling overly sharp, and the fall-off into the out-of-focus areas is gloriously creamy. Contrast is again more than you would see with lenses from the 1950s and 60s (let alone uncoated ones), but not the biting contrast of truly modern glass. While it definitely produces more modern-looking results than most of the lenses in my collection, it strikes a nice balance that makes it clear it is not something calculated by unfeeling machines and churned out in the last decade.
In spite of all this, there’s still some cognitive dissonance. Relying on a partially automated, battery-dependent camera partially made of plastic sticks in my craw. The whirring noises bug me. Where’s the damn advance lever? Even though it’s given me exactly zero reasons to doubt it, my own predilections leave me feeling every-so-slightly suspicious that it’s going to melt or explode or whatever modern cameras do when they fail.
What I plan to try next is to use it for some street photography. Rather than allow the camera to just do its thing, I’m going to lock the focus at 3m, the aperture at f/8 (or f/5.6, depending on the light), and go from there. I may even set the shutter to 1/125, but chances are I’ll at least let the Hexar control the speed via its Program mode (which is a sort of smart Aperture Priority), in part because I don’t want the little electronic elves to feel spurned and go off pouting and letting the smoke out. When I shoot manual cameras in the street I use the settings above in most cases, so it will be interesting to see how the Hexar AF compares in similar circumstances. I have a feeling it will be fine.
So what’s the verdict? Well, I’ve been happier with the Hexar AF than I expected to be. In spite of knowing that I could probably sell it easily and for a fair sum (certainly more than what most of my cameras would fetch), I’m keeping it for now. Will it continue to impress me favorably, or will it crap out and leave me annoyed at my misbegotten faith in it? Who knows. I like it enough that I think I’d be genuinely saddened if it failed in a way I couldn’t fix, and that’s not something I would have expected to find myself writing when I first laid hands on it.
Postscript: I followed through with my plan a few days ago. As intended, I set the aperture at f/5.6 (it was mostly cloudy) and let the camera settle on a shutter speed, but I left the autofocus on for the most part. I’m not sure why – I think the idea of setting the focus manually seemed contrary to the nature of the Hexar AF. I mean, it’s got AutoFocus in the name, for crying out loud! (Before you nitpickers get all wound up, I know the official name is “Hexar,” not “Hexar AF,” but what does everyone call it? So there.)
So how did it do? Fine, in that it didn’t cause me any problems, and was as compliant as I expected it to be. As for the photos, well, they’re what I expected from the lens in technical terms, but they also confirm that I am more a natural 50mm shooter, especially in the street. Several times I felt like I wished I had the longer focal length, and the photos reflect that my framing with the wider lens is looser, and in my eyes less refined. It just feels sloppy, or perhaps uncontrolled. I know a lot of people prefer wider lenses for street shooting, and I definitely found it useful in certain circumstances, but it never felt as instinctive as a 50mm.
So the Hexar is not likely to supplant the Leicas for street work, but that doesn’t change my feelings about it. It’s still a very good general purpose and travel camera; like every camera, you have to learn and work within its limitations, but first you have to find them.
Pity the poor, much-maligned box camera. For decades it was the means by which millions of people took photographs, enabling the untrained masses to do what had once been the sole purview of professionals with expensive, complicated equipment. To make this mass movement possible, the box camera had to include some compromises. Shutter speeds? Those are complicated, aren’t they? Aperture setting? What’s that? Focusing? Ugh, that sounds hard.
At their most basic, box cameras took away virtually all the potentially confusing choices and replaced them with a level of enforced conformity that would make a totalitarian dictator all warm and fuzzy. One speed, one aperture, fixed focus, and done. As long as you remembered to wind the film and pointed it in the right general direction, you’d get a photo. Sure, some got all crazy and added an extra aperture setting or a close-up lens, or heaven forbid, more than one speed or an actual focusing mechanism. But most of them were the camera equivalent of a pointy stick or an appropriately-shaped rock: the simplest tool for the job at hand.
There’s a purity of sorts to shooting with a box camera. With all the technical decisions made for you, you can concentrate all your attention on making the photograph. In 1962 in a letter to Pop Photo magazine’s features editor, Hunter S. Thompson wrote “Any man who can see what he wants to get on film will usually find some way to get it; and a man who thinks his equipment is going to see for him is not going to get much of anything.” The box camera is the ultimate test of this view, and in my experience it validates Thompson’s argument. That a photographer toting $10,000 worth of top-of-the-line equipment can take a technically competent photograph tells me nothing about their skill and vision as a photographer; hand them a box camera and see what they can do.
I’ve had a couple of box cameras for years, both Kodaks: a 1930s-vintage Six-20 converted to pinhole, and a Brownie Hawkeye from the 1950s in which I’ve reversed the lens for dramatic effect. The Six-20 is made from heavy steel, has one speed (plus B – fairly useless without a cable release hook-up, which the camera lacked before I added it) and one aperture, a tiny little straight-through viewfinder, and shoots a 6×9 negative (against a curved film plane no less – pretty advanced stuff, though it was probably included because it was cheaper than fitting a better lens). The Hawkeye is Bakelite plastic, employs a more traditional top-down box camera viewfinder, and makes a 6×6 square negative, but otherwise is very similar in function to the earlier Six-20. Both were capable of producing perfectly adequate photos in their respective original, unmolested, meniscus lens-equipped forms; one of my motives for reversing the lens on the Hawkeye was that I felt the photos it originally made weren’t “box-cameray” enough.
Fast forward to recent months. In quick succession I acquired two more box cameras, less by design than opportunity and my well-documented inability to resist cheap. One is another Brownie Hawkeye, which I certainly did not need, but I figured I could have one with the lens reversed and one with it in its usual orientation (I’ve got another idea for this one, but time will tell if that comes to pass). It was in good shape and an early example (glass lens, metal winding knob), which I prefer (apparently I’m a box camera snob). The second is a new entry, an Ilford Craftsman, one of the more advanced box cameras of the post-war era. With their arrival, it seemed a good opportunity to revisit the box camera genre.
The new Hawkeye is, well, just like the old Hawkeye. By the 1950s Kodak had pretty well dialed in the box camera formula. It’s very intuitive, the controls are nicely weighted (for a plastic box camera) and well-placed, the viewfinder is bright (but small), and it just looks good. The shutter fires somewhere around 1/40, and the aperture is something like f/11 (no point in getting specific with a camera intend for people who prefer not to think about these things). With ISO 100 film you’re good for sunny days; if you need more speed, you need faster film.
Photos from the Hawkeye are surprisingly good technically. Contrast is on the low side, as you would expect, but resolution in the center really isn’t bad at all, at least for 4x enlargements give or take (which would be a 10″x10″ print). How much bigger do you think most people are going to print? For a contact print, which would have been the most likely end for most box camera negatives, they are more than adequate. Sure, the corners get fairly soft, but seriously, who cares? How many genuinely good photos have you looked at and said “Yeah, it would be a great shot if the corners were sharper”?
On to the Ilford. Superficially, it’s taller than the Hawkeye, but it’s the same sort of rectangular Bakelite body shooting 6×6 squares. The Kodak is a better-engineered package; the Ilford feels like certain things were afterthoughts, like the hinges that hold the back to the body. Made in England in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it’s construction unsurprisingly reminds me of English sports cars of the same era: a bit cobbled together, but I’m sure it will all work out in the end. Probably.
But like those sports cars, the end result is greater than the sum of the parts. The Craftsman offers more features and refinements than the Hawkeye. The viewfinder is much larger and equally bright and has a pop-up hood for shade, making for a nicer and easier shooting experience. Where the Kodak offers a lowly meniscus, the Craftsman’s lens is a cemented doublet. The biggest difference lies in the fact that the Ilford gives the user – wait for it – choices! Unlike with the Hawkeye, the photographer has a selection of two shutter speeds (1/25 and 1/75, plus the ubiquitous B) and two apertures (f/9 and f/18), and on top of that – hold on to your hat – adjustable focus! Is this photography or rocket science?!
What’s remarkable is that the settings actually have an effect on the photographic output. The focus, which is infinitely adjustable from 4 feet to infinity, does what focus does – no surprises there. The difference in shutter speeds is noticeable, or at least it was after I cleaned and lubed the mechanism. It’s not a big difference (nominally one stop), but it’s there. The aperture is where the real change happens. At f/18, the photos show similar character to those from the Hawkeye: decent central sharpness, going softer toward the corners, with a bit more contrast than the Kodak manages. At f/9, however, things go softer across the board (though the center is still reasonably well-defined), contrast falls away, out-of-focus areas can get a little swirly in certain conditions. It’s deeply flawed and it’s glorious.
The Ilford, especially at f/9, achieves something the Brownie Hawkeye never quite manages – unique character. When I look at Hawkeye photos, I have to check to see what camera produced them; shots from the Craftsman are instantly recognizable, particularly those at the wider aperture. Sure, you can reverse the lens on the Hawkeye, but the level of distortion that produces is very much a specialty effect.
So what’s the point of all this? Well, nothing profound really, as befits the subject. Box cameras are cheap, easy fun. Some are “better” than others, but that’s a pretty subjective term in the best of circumstances. Both of the cameras discussed here have their charms, as I’m sure do many others. Using them from time to time helps to remind photographers of what really matters: it’s not the equipment, it’s how you use it.