By Tim Farmer
Lately the thought of shooting film again has become very interesting to me. Be it for the hip factor, or going back to my roots as a shooter, or just giving myself a new challenge, there’s something very compelling about shooting film right now. Maybe it just me wanting to focus more on the “ART” of photography, but whatever it is, it has led me to start a new project of shooting with older film cameras to see how it is not getting instant feedback on how my image looks and being forced to stay with one ISO setting of the film loaded in the camera.
Just a little background on me: I started shooting in the late 80’s with Nikon f3s, Pentax 67s, and an assortment of 4×5 studio film cameras. My focus in school was fine arts with an emphasis on alternative photographic processes. When I started shooting commercially, I was on the leading edge of shooters switching to digital. The first digital camera I shot with was a Phase One scan back, then when the Dicomed Big Shot came out, I used it until moving back to Phase One single capture backs on my Mamiya 645 camera body. Today, I shoot mainly with Canon and Sony digital cameras. Since I started working at Schiller’s, I’ve been highlighting some of the old cameras we have on display at the store on our Facebook page, but all I was doing was writing short histories and taking some photos of the cameras. As I worked on this, I couldn’t help but wonder how much fun it would be to run some film through the cameras that still work. So this project was born.
This beautiful Franka-Kamerawrk 1951 Rolfix 6X9 (or 6×6, as I will explain) is the first camera I want to try out. I really like the design and since I’d never shot with a view finder like this one, I thought it would be challenging and fun. So let me tell you a little of what I found out about this camera. First, the 6×9 or 6X6 setup: I didn’t know it until I loaded a roll of film, but it can take different sized photos. How is this done, you ask? On the back are two red glass viewing holes you use to advance the film. For people who have never shot a roll of 120 film before, it comes on a reel and is kept light-safe by the paper that’s taped to the back of the film. The paper has markings to indicate how far to advance the film, and you look through two red glass windows on the back to read the markings. When you’re not advancing the film, there’s a little slide that covers the holes keeping excess light out. On the slide, each hole has its own mark. One has a 6×9 (2 ¼ x 3 ¼), and the other has 6X6 (2 ¼ x 2 ¼), so you advance the film using the holes and marks on the paper for the size you’re shooting. There are inserts you put into the back of the camera if you’re shooting the smaller format. This particular camera is missing the insert needed to shoot in the 6X6 format. Seeing as I wanted to shoot 6X9, no problem. Some day I may look for the insert and shoot the 6X6 format.
Next thing to figure out is how the heck to make an exposure. Figuring out which buttons to push in order to change my f-stop and shutter speed took a second. I am used to having each on a different controller. On this lens you line up the f-stop with the shutter speed you get from a meter reading. Once it’s set, you can adjust your shutter speed and the f-stop while at the same time keeping your light ratio at the same level. It’s like setting your digital camera to shutter speed priority, just old school.
Focusing came next, and yes, I wasted four shots before I remembered to focus. Once I got it in my head that the auto focus on this camera didn’t exist, it was fun focusing by guessing the distance to my subject and setting the lens to that distance. I see why people used to use measured string when posing people for portraits. Out of the shots I took in the studio, only two came out sharp and neither of them was framed well. Which leads to the next challenge in this test…
Framing the shot. So I have to bring up a new concept to most people who are used to shooting with DSLR, because with cameras like this one and range finder cameras, you don’t look through the lens of the camera, so you’re not seeing exactly what the lens sees. This is called parallax. It’s not a big issue when you shoot objects far away like landscapes, but when the subject is close, you need to take this into account. In these images, I adjusted the wrong direction and what should have been centered was not.
So how was it to shoot? You need to think more. Unlike digital, where you can shoot and edit later, you really want to take the time and look for the right angle, view, and cropping that will convey your vision. You also need to keep on top of every aspect of the exposure. When I shot commercial, I had an assistant whose main job when shooting on location was to keep track of the exposure. They would have a meter in their hands and tell me constantly if the lighting had changed because of clouds or other changing light conditions. With my modern cameras, I can see the histogram right away and know if I’m on or not. That isn’t the case here. If I had to make money by shooting with this camera, I would hire an assistant again to keep track of the lighting.
In the studio, the exposure was easy. I put up my lights, metered, and took a test shot with my DSLR as a Polaroid to check my lighting. Once everything was shot, I didn’t change my lighting and could focus on the shooting. What is an issue is the speed of my shooting. I shoot fast, often my favorite images are the shots between poses. Shooting with this camera I understand why old portraits look so stiff compared to the modern style of shooting. This camera made me slow down so that my images looked stiff. Not only did I have to slide the slider and look through the red glass to advance the film, I had to remember to cock the shutter and adjust for parallax.
I found this camera more enjoyable to shoot out of the studio. When my subject was farther away, reducing the parallax issues and focusing on infinity was easier than focusing at 3.5 feet (wait…was it feet or meters?). Working the exposures was a bit tricky. The lens and shutter are old and don’t move smoothly. I was also testing a light meter app on my phone and it wasn’t as easy to use as my old Minolta IV light meter. I did find that taking my time outside was enjoyable and having to conserve the film and not just shoot, shoot, shoot forced me to look more. which led to me enjoying being outside.
Dust in an old camera. In this image I did no post-process cleaning in Photoshop to show another issue with using old cameras…DUST. Before using this camera, I did what I thought was a good cleaning. I carefully cleaned the lens glass, took a dust brush and cleaned all I could, but I didn’t use canned air to blow out the bellows. As you can see, that was a mistake. When I was down at the river, I had the camera in a bag as I climbed around which caused a lot of the dust to move. In the studio shots, the dust wasn’t a problem, probably because the camera really didn’t move around much.
Overall, this was fun. The glass on this Rolfix is not as sharp as modern lenses and the focusing and parallax keep you busy thinking. Trying to make a living with this camera would be no fun, but for a day out just enjoying yourself shooting, and especially if you’re trying to get an old-time feeling to your images, this camera will do the job. And if you want to just look hip and different, well, this is a camera for you.