The build quality of old cameras

I can’t be the only person, I know I’m not, who bemoans the “plasticization” of products today, cameras in particular. Perhaps because of my engineering background, I can tell the difference between a product built to a high standard, and one that is not, and the difference bothers me. It seems we have made a step backwards, in the name of cost savings, or profitability.


Here shown is a Kodak Retina IIIC film camera from the mid 1950’s. It was sold as the pinnacle of the amateur 35mm market and reflected the best of the German optical and precision tradition. The body is a solid chunk of metal and just holding the camera is a pleasure. The matte chrome finish just radiates quality, as does the leather case with its velvet lining and chrome trim accents. Not much plastic to be found anywhere.

Some time back I inherited a modern SLR, a film camera, and upon opening it up I discovered that the entire film channel was made of plastic. The hinges on the back were plastic, and parts that required precision were plastic; the whole camera was plastic except for the optical glass, and who knows, maybe that was plastic too. The irony of all this was that the camera featured exotic electronic exposure and focussing circuits, a tricked out viewfinder with all kinds of lights and whatnot, and was billed as a precision device for its time.

This has been going on for a long time. Even on a professional DSLR, it is not unusual to discover that the battery door is plastic, just waiting to snap off. Lens mounts are no longer machined out of brass, but are plastic too, and with that comes a focussing ring that sticks and lurches. Even expensive cameras lack a precise feel.

Contax G2

This Contax G2 has a body of titanium, thus the creamy matte tone. Fit and finish put to shame the most expensive DSLR; the camera radiates precision and instills confidence as a result. It was produced in Japan in the mid 1990’s and could not be sold today at anything approaching a reasonable price.

Contrast that to the film cameras in my collection. Once you leave the box camera category, the cameras for both amateur and professional use are mostly metal. The fit and finish of the parts is excellent, or at least designed with some regard for durability. These old film cameras do not feel like toys, which is the feeling you get from so much of the product sold today.

In saying this, I have the highest regard for parts of molded plastic along as they are used where they make sense. For example, I have a plastic slide holder for my scanner and it is a miracle of complexity that mounts slides in position. If this part had to be machined from metal the cost would have exceeded that of the scanner itself. It’s all a matter of the right material in the right place.

I have concluded that good product design comes out of the vision of its human designer. Steve Jobs proved this with the entire line of Apple products wherein no detail was left untouched and thought about. From a conventional view, such products, always more expensive, should be failures on the market. Apple’s success has proved otherwise. People will pay for something that looks right and feels right. If only our tools, the photographer’s tools, were all built to the same standard.

The better you are, the fewer pictures you take

When photography required an investment in film and processing, you were always aware of the costs, which acted as a break on shooting wildly in the hopes that “something” would come out. Now that digital photography is the norm, it is far too easy to shoot willy-nilly, bracketing all over the place, in the hope that something will look OK, or perhaps memorable.

This point was made crystal clear to me when I attended a local group that went out on photo expeditions to do landscapes with their digital cameras. One person, the leader of the group, set up her camera on a five-exposure burst for every picture she took, and she took a lot of pictures. I calculated that in the space of a few minutes, she had sent over hundreds of pictures to her memory card. How many of them were suitable for hanging on a wall was another matter.

CanonP-snowI took just two views of this winter scene on my deck, and the image is presented uncropped. It has a quiet feeling, and is a natural subject for black-and-white film. I used a vintage Canon P rangefinder on 35mm Kodak Tmax 100 film.

I think it must be a natural tendency to blast away, especially in the digital age. It’s the old story of trying to make up in quantity what you lack in quality. But as your personal vision becomes attuned, as years of experience tell you what works and doesn’t work photographically, the number of pictures you need to take goes down, often by a lot. I have gotten to the point that I know in advance of clicking the shutter whether a picture has a chance at greatness. The editing process takes place before I snap the shutter, not later at a computer monitor filled with hundreds of pictures. In short, years of film photography have trained my eyes to see photographs ahead of time.

I wonder if the ability to pre-visualize has been lost in this age of instant viewing on the camera screen. The instant preview cuts out the thought process that goes into making a photograph. Instead of thinking about the end result, you can just keep changing something at random and hope that something wonderful pops out after dozens of exposures. Regrettably, I am seeing this pattern in photographers who call themselves professionals.

Backlighting as metaphor

leavesOn a late Fall day, backlit light from the sun poured through a few of the leaves, while others fell into shade. The resulting brilliance and saturation of color contrasted against the dreary background, giving this photograph its visual interest. Taken on Kodak Ektar 120 film with my vintage Wardflex twin lens reflex camera.

Backlighting, or light coming into the camera from behind an object, is usually done badly. When I taught photography at a trade school, the students thought it was the coolest thing to turn off the lights in front of a portrait subject and blast out light from behind. The result was dark and muddy faces and an explosion of light around the face. This was taken as an “edgy” break from the rules, which was the students’ goal in the first place. Only as the year wore on did the students realize that backlighting, per se, was not a shortcut to a beautiful (or edgy) image.

Why mention this? Because the story demonstrates how lighting is what allows a photograph to have the same impact as seeing something with our own eyes in real time. Lighting corrects for the difference between a photograph and actual perception. Or put another way, for the difference between photons falling on a sensor, in two dimensions, and photons falling on two eyes and then processed by a human brain.

Photographers learn this over decades of practice and hard-earned experience. It is part science and part art and part learning to see; the latter what Kodak called “visual literacy”. It is these three components of a good photograph that take so long to master, and for which there are no shortcuts, no list of ten tips, no tricky lens or camera that can help you. I’ll have more to say about all of this in future postings.

When blur conveys speed

bike race

The photographers at this bicycle race cranked up shutter speeds in an attempt to freeze movement. I decided to go in the other direction, slowing down my shutter to 1/15 second and panning with the riders. I used a 300mm telephoto lens on a Contax 645, which threw the background completely out of focus and blurred it to a complete abstraction. The end result is an image without background distractions, and a strong sense of speed. It now appears on the International site of the camera’s digital back manufacturer.

The Mystery of early-morning fog

Every once in a while, a powerful fog rolls over the golf course near my house, usually in the early morning hours. On one such occasion, I decided to capture its effects, using my ancient view camera and sheet film. I got two rather special photographs which now adorn the walls of my house.

In this age of “gun and run” digital shooting, there is something to be said for the whole experience of using a film camera, mounted on a tripod, and staring into the upside-down image on a 4 by 5 inch ground glass. Everything about taking a picture slows down, which has its creative advantages in my humble opinion.
golf course fog1Technical details: Zone VI view camera, 150mm lens, Kodak Ektar 100 color negative film. I metered the light with a spot meter, and exposed the film for 1/8 second at f/16.

This second photograph looks down the fairway. The thick fog produces an effect that really cannot be duplicated with lens filters, or later in Photoshop. The level of detail decreases with distance, as does the contrast. This image has an almost monochrome look to it, and a certain moodiness. Both pictures contain a huge amount of fine detail, the result of shooting on a large piece of film, and would reproduce clearly in murals of almost any size.

golf course fog2

Soft focus filters, demystified

loomI used a #3 diffusion filter on this still life of a loom. To give the feeling of late afternoon sunlight, I lit the scene with a low-angle Fresnel spotlight with a strong amber gel and then blew in some smoke from the right. This is another shot using a view camera and Ektar 100 sheet film. Note the glow surrounding the brightest parts of the image.

Diffusion, fog and soft focus filters: How do they differ?

Today’s cameras, lenses and sensors have gotten so good that images can now appear too sharp, almost too perfect. As a result, photographers have sought out ways to achieve softer, more evocative images.

This being the age of digital photography, there has been a shift to software solutions for softening effects, and there is no end of third-party programs and Photoshop techniques to break down an overly-sharp image. Nonetheless, there is an argument to be made for shooting digitally with lens filters from the get-go, because let’s face it, who wants to spend more time in front of a computer screen if you can get the same result, or an even better result, from a filter placed over the camera lens. Continue reading “Soft focus filters, demystified”

What has happened to commercial photography?

lobsterI don’t see much of this kind of food photography these days: razor sharp across the whole image, a key light located perfectly overhead, and the food looks delicious. I shot this on sheet film, using swings and tilts on a view camera.

There is always a danger in longing for the “good old days” of this thing or that, and the world of commercial photography is no exception. Nothing is more tedious than hearing some old wag complaining about the new way of doing things, usually accompanied by no small amount of self-importance, and moral superiority about how things have gone downhill.

So at the risk of falling into precisely this same gripe, I have to ask: what has happened to the technical and artistic standards of commercial photography? Continue reading “What has happened to commercial photography?”

Eastman Kodak eulogy

My feelings about Eastman Kodak

I think I share the feelings of photographers around the world that there is something incredibly sad about the recent bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak. Companies large and small go out of business every day, it is the way our system works, and for the most part, nobody pays much attention. But this time it’s different. There just seems to be something wrong about it. It almost feels as if an aging patriarch has been taken down, after a long and valiant struggle. We know these things happen, we know nothing lasts forever, but somehow our lives seem diminished by the loss of “the great yellow father”, a photography company that once stood astride the whole world of images–imperturbable, reliable, ageless.
I have Kodachrome slides taken in the 1960’s and still of excellent color quality. I wonder if the digital files I am saving today will be around for as long…not likely.

And it was once so. For roughly a hundred years, an eternity in the business world, the forward march of Kodak was taken as a foregone conclusion. The company seemed unstoppable, indeed was attacked as a predatory menace by government and competitors early on, as George Eastman bought up businesses, drove others out of business, and brought light-sensitive coated materials to every corner of life. By the 1920’s, the simple act of taking a picture, something we take for granted today, emerged as one of the great lifestyle activities for people rich and poor, and Eastman’s huge chemical complex at Kodak Park could not turn out the product fast enough.

By the 1930’s those coating lines in Rochester were rolling out mile after mile of film, printing paper, motion picture film, x-ray and other medical film, not to mention chemicals, cameras themselves, and there did not seem to be any aspect of modern life that was not touched in some way by the miracle of photography.
I got my first taste as a boy of about 11. I was living in a suburban town outside of New York City, where my father had a government job. One day I wandered into a section of the house attic that my parents used for storage; my brother and I slept in a finished section. Buried in that storage section were the components of a darkroom, equipment my father had purchased and used before my brother and I had come along, and the darkroom dismantled. Fifty years later, I can still remember how mysterious and fascinating the pieces seemed to me: the enlarger, the funny orange “safelights”, yellow processing trays (probably Kodak brand), and those brown glass bottles, some still filled with exotic liquids, and wrapped with that familiar yellow Kodak label and logo, for decades (and still) among the most recognizable brand identities.
I was blessed with a father who encouraged me always, so when I asked him about the treasure I had discovered in that dusty attic, he told me what it was used for. When I asked him if I could set up the parts again, and make a darkroom for myself, he agreed to help me out. Before long I stared in amazement as a black and white print emerged from beneath the clear pool of developer liquid, and from that point on the products of Eastman Kodak sealed my destiny. Like so many others, I fell in love with photography. It became my hobby as a boy, and later my profession as a grownup, and now fifty years later, I am mourning the death of the company that got me started.
Anyone who bothers to study the company’s history knows that Kodak was the lengthened shadow of its founder George Eastman, a pretty decent man overall. He is one of America’s least familiar industrialists, largely unstudied and somewhat mysterious, yet it can be said fairly that the company he built changed the world. The only close comparison today might be Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
By the time I was in high school, and running the photography operation of the 1962 yearbook, Kodak “meant” photography, and as mentioned, it stood astride the entire industry. It seemed unassailable as a business, and functioned as a guiding institution for progress. Its position and dominance were so secure, the company could afford to bestow lavish benefits on its employees, and almost guarantee lifetime employment. The mainstay product of the company, coated film, sold everywhere in the world, and its quality was so high and unchanging that no one, amateur or professional, ever gave it a second thought.
By the time I was solidly earning a living as a commercial photographer, say from about 1980, Kodak was a reliable and trusted friend of the professional photographer. The company maintained a network of technical service representatives who would visit you personally if you asked, and often handed out film samples and generally tried their best to work out problems. Back in Rochester, you could call on various film experts and a library of highly informative technical publications; almost always, Kodak had the answers, and built incredible brand loyalty.
Well before the threat of digital imaging, however, Kodak received its first wound from Japan-based Fuji Film. In professional circles, in commercial work at least, color transparency product was the norm, and it was here that Kodak made a serious misstep. The world of advertising photography had by the 1980’s taken on a rather overheated and glamorous persona, in which film “looks” took on almost as much importance as the subjects of pictures themselves. Built into Kodak’s “DNA” was a feeling that film products should be technically or scientifically “accurate”, and Kodak color transparency film was just that way. It was the legacy of decades of film production and color science. Kodak marketing people did not notice that commercial photography was being taken over by art directors and other creative types who took a much more flamboyant view of how color film should look.
This opened the door for Fuji to step in with films that had a wholly new “look”, perhaps not as accurate color-wise, but which looked enhanced on a light table. It wasn’t long before many advertising professionals switched over to Fuji film, and to the company’s credit, the product was of high quality and an able competitor to Kodak. I have a hunch that we saw then the first signs of a certain Kodak hubris, a corporate attitude that “we know best”, and that the upstart film company from Japan could not possibly be smarter or make a more desirable product. In any case, it took Kodak a number of years to wake up, finally, to the Fuji threat, but by then the brand loyalties had shifted and Kodak was forced to play “catch up”.
I continued to use Kodak product and never switched over to Fuji, but heard stories about Kodak putting pressure on dealers and laboratories, which led to a decline in harmony in Kodak’s customer chain. These were, by 1990, the first storm clouds that would pass over the bright blue “Kodachrome” skies. The company was becoming insular, frozen in a bubble of overconfidence and complacency.
Still, one has to wonder why the company never took seriously the threat of digital imaging. In the mid-1990’s, I was involved in a consulting project with Kodak, having to do with some digital imaging initiatives. A group of us, including a high-level Kodak product manager, sat in an executive conference room high above Rochester at their corporate headquarters. Clocks labelled with the location of Kodak’s many international locations, lined the walls, each showing the correct time in that time zone. At a certain point in the discussion, the product manager made this observation about digital imaging: “How do we stop this thing?”  Twenty years later, I can still remember with astonishment this utter refusal to acknowledge the digital freight train bearing down on Kodak’s future. Kodak was going to hold back digital imaging and that was that.
So it may have been true that by 1995 or thereabouts, the company’s future was doomed. On the one hand it had the imaging market under its complete control, with a product that it made by the mile and sold by the inch, resulting in huge profits that kept the whole machine running smoothly. But on the other hand, this same profit machine started to have a digital wrench thrown into its works, and there was little Kodak management could do about it, or far more ominously, wanted to do about it.
Really, it has to be asked if there was any way that Kodak could have managed a digital transition. What were they going to do, phase out Kodak Park, with its capital infrastructure going back decades, all of it based on silver halide imaging, and immensely profitable? By what marketing strategy could the company have introduced digital products without simultaneously eating into the market for its analog film products?
Nonetheless, it took 20 years to bring it all down, a testament to the inherent greatness of its film products. George Eastman stumbled onto one of the most durable of industrial products, one that remained viable and modern for 100 years, always improving, and in the process working its way into every corner of modern society.Toward the end, when the company closed down coating lines and destroyed large buildings to get them off the tax rolls, employees and retirees would come to witness the demolition. When the destruction ended, some could be seen openly weeping, as if part of their souls had been taken down. They remembered when the company was strong and good to them.
On some level, an unconscious level for sure, the name Kodak, and the company’s products, are attached to our history, both large and small, from images of space to the snapshots of a newborn baby. Kodak was there for all these events, and this accounts for the odd feeling of grief we feel over its bankruptcy.
I think it must be a rare thing to have such feelings for a business enterprise. But great enterprises, like great people, eventually meet their end, and life goes on, for better or worse, without them. Still, it does seem a great loss.
Contents Copyright 2012 by Michael Chiusano