Vintage delights

Bush Capital 1
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Bush Capital 1

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Beware of camera markets.  Sometimes the temptation is irresistible, as I found when I spotted a very nice Hasselblad 500 C/M at the Canberra Photographic Collectors Society’s recent Photographic Fiesta.  Not that I needed another camera, you understand …,

I love classic film cameras.  Solid, substantial, beautifully designed and crafted, the best are serious photographic tools that stand the test of time surprisingly well.  Some are legends that keep photographers like me dreaming for years – the Leica M series, the Hasselblad 500 series, lovely Mamiya and Fujifilm medium format rangefinders, the Hasselblad X-pan/Fujifilm TX – each with its own special features, capabilities and personality.  Plus brilliant lenses, of course.

My newly acquired Hasselblad 500 C/M is even more basic than my Mamiya 645 (whose metering prism viewfinder makes it feel more like an SLR).  The Hasselblad’s waist-level viewfinder shows a reversed image, which feels strange at first, but also surprisingly liberating – somehow this makes it easier to see the composition in terms of blocks of light, shade and mass.  (I suspect the author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain would recognise the feeling and applaud it as a compositional aid.)  The big, glowing image at the bottom of the chimney-like focusing hood seems both remote and strangely intimate, like peering through a peephole in time.  The camera itself feels surprisingly comfortable in the hand and quite intuitive to operate.  Best of all, it delivers generous, sharp, gorgeous 6 x 6 cm negatives that have a real ‘wow’ factor when they come up on my computer monitor – colour, sharpness, fine grain, rich tones – I love film!

What, no meter?

No problem:  second hand light meters are readily available, though they aren’t necessarily cheap.  Happily, I haven’t needed one yet.  I’m using my iPhone!  Yes, there’s an app for this:  Pocket Light Meter works like a spot meter and I’m finding it surprisingly accurate – a quick test put its recommended exposures within half a stop of my DLSR meter.  I haven’t tested it with slide film yet, but I am getting good results using it as a starting point for exposures on colour negative film.

Back to basics:  the joy of slow photography

The Hasselblad is not for impatient photographers or fast-moving subjects.  Its fully manual controls and waist level finder demand care and attention for best results.  With only twelve frames to a roll, it’s worth taking the time to make each one count.

Using a waist level finder feels very different:  hold the camera too high and you can’t see the finder, headshots work best for seated subjects (photographing someone’s face from below is rarely a good look), while focusing and working out depth of field require care and practice.  But working within the constraints imposed by your equipment is an excellent creative exercise, while slow photography is highly enjoyable for its own sake – especially when looking at a finder the size and shape as the final negative or transparency.

It’s also a great refresher course in basic camera skills and shot discipline, which is already paying dividends when I return to my DLSR and my iPhone.  Also, having to spot meter the scene for every exposure is forcing me to pay much closer attention to the quality and distribution of light on my subject.  Suddenly, I realise I have been looking for a ‘correct’ overall exposure instead of thinking about the full range of tones in the subject, where I want the mid-tone to fall, what that does to the lights and darks and how that affects the look and feel of the final image.

Of course I didn’t buy a Hasselblad because I imagined it would be good for my photography.  I just wanted the camera:  it’s been on my ‘probably never’ wish list for years and I enjoy slow photography – I need that occasional touch of Zen to balance my impatient, iPhone side.  It’s also a wonderful way to get back into the groove after a creative drought.  No, the answer to a creative downturn is not a new camera – that would be too easy as well as too expensive! – but trying something different, a new technique, subject, medium or just another way of working, is a good way to get the photography flowing again.  At a time when I am consciously trying to slow down and become more intentional about making photographs, to think about why and how I want to photograph a given subject, the Hasselblad just feels particularly apt and enjoyable to use.

Getting into practice

Not that you need a vintage film camera to try a bit of slow photography.  Just turn off those auto-everything controls that make modern cameras so forgiving when we try to grab an image instead of crafting it.  Use manual focus, manual exposure, spot metering, a single focal length (no zooming!) and see what happens.  With digital capture, experiments are cheap – the more you explore the variables, the better.  Pretend you’re shooting film:  turn off the LCD screen (no chimping!) and limit yourself to 12, 24 or 36 exposures, then go home and see what you made.

Or borrow an old film camera or – for a change of pace – a point and shoot compact for a week.  Or try a phone camera, a disposable underwater camera (if you can still find one) or that lens you never seem to use.  Maybe a different format or aspect ratio?  Spend a week shooting images you will crop to square, panoramic or, say, 6 x 7 and face some new compositional challenges.  Photograph people with a wide angle, landscapes with a telephoto, cityscapes with your macro lens.  Break a few rules and see what happens.  Play!  Above all, relax, have fun and enjoy the ride.

 

Andrée Lawrey | December 2012

 

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