Welcome to Through a Vintage Lens

Sanderson Regular Quarter Plate Camera

Like most of us, I shot film until digital came along, and then my backpack of expensive German glass languished in the cupboard for years. That lasted until five years ago, when I bought a 1920 Kodak for $10 on eBay and ran my first roll of film through it. Although light leaks and bad exposures plagued most of the frames, one image of an antique gas station was excellent, with pleasing color and subtle tonal gradation. I was hooked. I realized for the first time that equipment from the early part of the century could produce striking, professional-quality images. Better yet, I achieved beautiful results with both black and white and color film. As a result, most of my work is now done with my collection of cameras made between 1900 and 1930. They don’t just sit in their display cabinets, either. My cameras, the result of many hours of patient restoration, are old and beautiful, but they’re like sled dogs- they work for a living.

I prowl eBay for old Kodaks from the 1900s and 1920s. They have black leather bellows that pull out, and lenses named “Rapid Rectilinear”, “Anastigmat”, and “Tessar”. Many of these old lenses yield photos with a lovely “feel” unlike those from modern, mathematically perfect lenses. Bodies are covered with rich leather, and metal parts gleam with chrome or burnished brass. No flash- indoor pictures were taken by setting up the camera, turning out the lights, holding up a piece of “flash paper”, and lighting it with a match while your subjects held their smiles in the dark!

The No. 1 Kodak Junior

The No. 1 Kodak Junior

My present camera is a 1914 No.1 Kodak Junior, the “No. 1” indicating that it takes 120 film. In an era when enlargers were unknown and roll film came in sizes up to five inches wide, this was the miniature camera of its day. It has two shutter speeds, 1/25 and 1/50, together with T and B. F-stops are marked in the old U.S. system with 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64 equaling modern f-stops of 8, 11, 16, 22, and 45. The lens is an uncoated Rapid Rectilinear. Designed in the late 1800s, it nevertheless rewards me with razor-sharp images. If I want to be “modern”, I pull out my lovely, near-new 1928 No.1 Kodak with its four shutter speeds and crisp f/6.3 105mm Anastigmat lens for a days’ outing in search of old barns and farmhouses.

No. 1 Kodak Series III

Image processing is by a hybrid approach combining the best features of film and digital. My film is typically Ilford XP-2 for black and white or Kodak VC-160 for color. Both have fine grain and generous exposure latitude. Using film lets me record a tonal range of approximately seven stops, compared to the six-stop range usual with a digital chip. The negatives are then scanned, allowing me the full creativity and flexibility of processing in Photoshop.

There are challenges, however. I puzzled over streaks ruining my night photos until I remembered shining my flashlight into the film counter window to read the numbers on the film. I quickly bought a red flashlight for winding the film in the dark. Old bellows often leak light through pinholes at the corners. I finally found a liquid plastic used to coat screwdriver handles that sealed the tiny holes but remained flexible and didn’t crack.

These old relics are not simple to use; the older the camera, the more ways there seems to be to mess up a picture. Why I persist in this particular form of insanity is anybody’s guess, but it is habit-forming. One might think of this affectation as the photographic equivalent of bow hunting, where one maximizes one’s frustration and discomfort, and gives the prey every possible chance to slip away. However, I suspect that my affection (frequently unrequited) for the look and feel of brass lenses and old camera leather is probably incurable.

The results are worth it. I cherish the lovely tonal qualities of a marsh in the afternoon light, or the patterns of Palouse wheat fields after harvest. I love night photography, stalking old churchyards to capture the eerie mood of my shadow projected among eroded tombstones, or pondering the image of a floodlit Spanish mission. I always marvel at the rich color from a lens created forty years before color film appeared on the shelves.

The cameras are old, but they keep me young. I’m an inveterate explorer, and am always looking for an old barn, an abandoned car, or a group of gnarled trees to capture as images in my beloved antiques. With luck, I will be wandering the back roads with my beloved relics for many years to come.

Kodak Catalog Cover 1904 (From The KodakGirl Collection)

I began this site to share with others the wonderful rewards that I have gained from working with these old masterworks of brass, glass and leather. Not just the pleasure of owning or collecting them, but of actually using them and seeing the wonderful images that they can produce. I hope to share with you what I have learned about finding usable old cameras, some tips on cleaning and restoring them, and what I have discovered about using them.   In between, I may add some thoughts on the creative process and a few stories about my adventures as an itinerant fine art photographer with a funny-looking camera.  I hope that you find even a fraction of the rich pleasure that I’ve gained from these wonderful old machines.

More than just the cameras and the images, this blog is about the adventures that I have had and the people that I have met.  Owning and using a vintage camera is more than just about finding memorable images – wherever I work, on a sunset seashore or on the busy streets of Seattle, people come up to me an ask me about my cameras.  Older folks smile and say, “I had one just like that”, remembering snapshots of a special occasion.  Young people may never have seen a film camera before, and you can see their wonder as they peer though the viewfinder and follow the intricate folding linkages between their finger and the shutter.  They are not just fine old cameras; for a brief moment, they allow lives to touch, and while you give something, you come away with so much more.

Remember as you read that this site is a living organism, constantly growing and changing. Rather than waiting until posts are in their final, polished form, I have published many of my longer, technical posts as works in progress, sharing their growth with my readers as my own thoughts, discoveries, and learning processes evolve. Overall, I have tried to keep the blog in a format of informative,technically-oriented articles separated by images and discussions of the creative process involved in each image. Eventually, the blog format may evolve into a more formal web site.

T. Rand Collins MD

Bothell, Washington, USA

Note-  This posting appeared in modified form in the Fall 2009 issue of Canadian Camera magazine.