Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some airplane shooting buffs lately have started hoisting their cameras up on tall poles to get a high angle on their subjects. This has a number of advantages when shooting planes on the ground. Small planes are considered to be flattered by an angle that shows the upper surface of the wing; you can sometimes hoist the camera high enough to shoot into cockpits; in museums, you can get above the clutter of guardrails and display cases; plus it just looks different.

With digital, especially if you have a remote or articulated live view screen, this is easy. I decided to see if it could be done with a real man's camera. The other constraint on my rig was that it must be very portable -- enough not to require any extra baggage when flying on business trips.

My chosen camera was an Exakta VX-IIa with waist level finder.

I figured that I could hoist the camera (prefocused) inverted on a lightweight tripod, compose by squinting overhead at the groundglass, and fire it using a long cable release. I obtained a cheap Sunpak tripod, $30 brand new from B&H, which has the useful property of collapsing small enough to fit in a standard small airline roller bag, and a 40-inch cable release. The first problem I encountered, fortunately during a trial run at home, was the discovery that the pan-tilt head that is permanently attached to the Sunpak will not invert. I therefore had to go to the hardware store and spend another $3.50 on a bracket and some nuts and bolts of the proper size to build a mount to hang the camera from the tripod head. That worked well enough. Here is a picture of the rig, "in the field" so to speak.

Problem number two surfaced only when I was prowling around Chino airport looking for targets for my first test of the system. When used with an auto lens having a pass-through shutter release, the Exakta requires the trigger pin from the cable release to stick out a very long way to trip the shutter -- longer than any cable release I own, including the 40-incher. I do have an old mechanical self-timer whose pin projects far enough, but was useless because of the Exakta's shutter position, which would have the timer project forward and appear in the frame. The only alternative was to use a non-auto lens with no pass-through release -- or, as I ended up doing, kluge this by mounting an auto lens not quite all the way while wrapping the pass-through arm in a rubber band to induce a stop-down mode. This worked but was not quite satisfactory. If you think it might be hard to compose through a 24x36mm groundglass that you are balancing on a pole 3 feet above your head, try doing it with the lens stopped down to f/11 or so. These shots were taken in that manner, at the Chino Airport in November and during my visit to Fantasy of Flight last weekend. Lens was a Vivitar T4 24/2.8; film was drugstore-brand Fuji 200 neg film and Velvia 100.

All in all, it was successful as a proof-of-concept trial. I spent some time trying to modify the cable release so that it will trigger an Exakta through the pass-through shutter release, but to no avail. Eventually I solved the problem by buying a Miranda Sensorex, which has interchangeable finders like the Exakta but no funky shutter release issues; also it's a more modern and reliable camera all around and its tripod socket is flush with the bottom, giving greater stability on the bracket. I'll practice more with this system over the next few months and maybe, when airshow season rolls around, I'll even consider heaving a 6x6 TLR up there.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Learning to Love Leitzes

Recently I acquired my first two Leitz lenses for shooting on my Soviet-made, Leica-compatible rangefinders. An avowed bottom feeder, I never thought I would see this day. But falling prices on the global online bazaar have placed some of the uncoated prewar Leitz lenses well into budget territory, and those are what I acquired: the 135mm Hektor and 90mm Elmar, dated by serials to 1937 and 1938, respectively.

The Hektor cost me around $60 and was optically and mechanically fine, although the barrel shows plenty of use. The Elmar was represented as having "some specks between the elements as well as some fungus …" Whenever "some fungus" is mentioned in an item listing, especially as if it is an afterthought, it is safe to assume that the lens looks like a biology experiment, which explains how I got it for $35. By the time it arrived, I had downloaded many resources and prepared myself for a teardown and cleaning, but it turned out that the fungus was just a tiny bloom along the edge, not nearly enough to warrant the risk of a repair job.

There seem to be two schools of thought on lens fungus, what I call the contagion and environmental theories. The contagion theory holds that although conditions play a role, lens fungus is a special disease that is transmitted from lens to lens, like the flu. Believers in this theory are likely to immediately clean any fungus from a lens and then still keep it quarantined from their other lenses or, better yet, hurl it with all available strength into a quarry or large body of water and try to forget they ever touched it. The environmental theory posits that lens fungi are common, pervasive strains and their spores are already on every surface of every lens you own, just waiting for the right conditions to germinate and spread. Under that theory, there is no harm in keeping the infected lens around other lenses, no need to clean it unless there is so much fungus that it interferes noticeably with lens performance (which requires rather a lot of fungus), and a good chance that further growth can be arrested through proper lens storage. I subscribe to the environmental theory, which made my quite happy with my purchase.

I selected a Fed 3, my favorite of my Soviet rangefinders, to try out the lenses. The first issue was mounting. The Elmar was no problem; it has a collar-type focusing cam like any of the Industars. The Hektor, however, has a tongue-type focusing cam, designed to work with the roller-type followers used on Leica cameras, and as several sources on the web will explain to you, it tends to catch and snag on the shoe-type follower used on the Zorkis and Feds. Web sources differ on whether the Hektor can easily be made to work with a Fed or Zorki, but I decided to give it a try. Given the market price for Fed 3s, there is not much downside to experimenting with modifying the camera.

The basic problem with fitting a Hektor to a Fed/Zorki is not necessarily inherent to the tongue cam and shoe follower combination; it arises from the fact that the Leitz tongue cam is made out of very soft brass, and the Fed/Zorki follower shoes are made out of very hard metal, with an unnecessarily sharp point at the toe, that sticks out way farther than it needs to when no lens is mounted, with the result that the sharp hard point digs into the lens tongue and snags, rather than riding up on it as it should. It was immediately clear that this was happening with my lens and camera, and even a couple of gentle tests put a tiny nick in the soft brass. Rick Oleson has some tech notes that describe adding a spacer behind the mount backplate of a Zorki to prevent the follower from coming so far forward, but while a variant of this mod is possible on a Fed 3, it is not as easy because the Fed has no mount backplate in that position. I decided instead just to modify the shape of the Fed follower by grinding down the point at the toe. Using a small grinding bit in my Dremel tool, I was able to round and smooth the toe of the shoe until it rode easily over the brass tongue in the lens. None of this will affect the focus calibration as long as you don't touch the front edge of the follower, which contacts with the lens screw when the lens is mounted. For anyone trying this, I have three pieces of advice, (1) take your time and don't force the spinning tool against the shoe, just touch it lightly because the metal is really hard and you don't want it slipping off and hitting something else, (2) the grinding is most easily done with the shoe forced fully back, away from the mount, so that you don't nick the mount threads, and (3) it's a good idea to stuff a tissue or something inside the camera body to catch the tiny metal shavings that are going to end up in there. The whole process takes about half an hour.

I took the Fed with the Elmar, the Hektor, and an Industar I-16 L/D on a recent trip to Florida. These photos were taken at two locations, the Fantasy of Flight airplane collection at Polk City and the boardwalk along the ocean at Miami Beach. Film was the new Ektar, which I was trying for the first time. I used an Imarect as my viewfinder.

With these uncoated lenses a lens hood is a must, but the Leica slip-on hoods cost as much as the lenses did. I solved this problem through the camera collector's compulsion to try every cylindrical object he encounters on his old lenses to see if they're the right size to make a cap or shade. It turns out that the toilet tissue rolls in service in my household fit very nicely over the Elmar and Hektor lenses. When one of these had served its intended purpose I cut the cardboard tube to the appropriate length, padded the interior slightly for a snug fit over the lenses, and wrapped the works in electrical tape to give it that classy, not-a-toilet-paper-roll look. While using the hoods in sunny Florida I had no flare problems with either lens. Additional benefits of these hoods is that being flexible, they stand up to a good deal of abuse and they're also expendable, since everyone with a butt needs to buy the main component and the rest of the investment is just five minutes and a little tape.

As for the lenses, well, they do their thing. They focus properly and they're sharp. Leica glow? I don't know. Maybe I'll have some when the fungus grows a little more. They get attention, too. There are a lot of retired folks in Miami, including at least one retired photographer who accosted and interrogated me about my equipment and shared his memories of his old Leica gear which, of course, he had unloaded for next to nothing on ebay.

The Miami Beach boardwalk is fascinating, especially the older hotels that were once luxurious, but have fallen into disrepair and are now awaiting renovation or rebuilding. The architecture was brought out most starkly in the abandoned buildings, for some reason. This used to be the Seville Hotel. It still functioned as a hotel, albeit a bad one, as late as a few years ago. The Miami climate is not kind to buildings that are not occupied and maintained.

As for the Ektar, I liked that too. I did not have the exposure, color, or scanning problems with it that others have reported. In the shot below, taken with the I-61 lens, it pulled a great deal more detail out of both the highlights and the shadows than the same shot taken with a digital camera for insurance. Also, because the exposure on this shot was tricky, I bracketed in three 1-stop increments and all were usable; in fact, they were hard to tell apart. Preliminarily, my feeling is that Ektar and old uncoated Leica lenses might be a good combination. Ektar seems to give you the almost grainless sharpness of slide film, but without the unforgiving latitude that can be a problem with these imprecise old shutters. I will be using this combination more, I think.

In the dawn cloudscape below, the Ektar rendered the colors exactly as I remembered them when taking the shot, without any tweaking of the scanner settings that I've developed for generic negative film (Dimage 5400 scanner; Vuescan software).

Next time, though, I will remember to put the lens cap on before rewinding. Several frames were spoiled by light leaks from the edge of the film that were most likely caused by my forgetting this rule. It's one of those hazards of having a lot of old cameras that I don't use often. I've taken to making up placard stickers for my cameras when I get caught like this, and my Fed now bears one to remind me on this point.

Arguses Resurrected

Imagine that you were an amateur photographer in America about 50 years ago, not terribly well off but doing okay, thank you. A Leica might be too rich for your blood, but you like rangefinders and you want the versatility of interchangeable lenses and good German glass. What might be the contents of your camera bag?

One viable outfit might center around the Argus C44, America's world-class 35mm rangefinder from that period, with a set of lenses. As a backup, or because it was your starter camera and you're still attached to it, you might own an Argus 21 Markfinder, a simple but equally high quality zone-focus camera built on the same chassis, with a fixed (well, actually removable, but not replaceable with anything) 50mm lens. You'd need the argus multi finder to go with the lenses, and an external handheld light meter, and a flash attachment and some other odds and ends. The whole kit would fit comfortably in a handsome leather case and would allow you to deal with most any photographic situation with great results and considerable style.

So this is what I saw in an auction listing not long ago, and although I've never wanted to own an Argus -- I've always assumed that a C3 brick would find its way into my hands someday, as part of a lot with something I really wanted, but it never has -- I decided to take the plunge. This was one of those items where the condition was a total gamble; nothing looked abused, but there was no representation of anything being in working order or having been used in a long time.

In due course the cameras arrived, in a leather case whose odor spoke richly of the diverse life-forms that had hitched a ride with the gear, probably none too happy at being aroused from their decades of peaceful existence in some closet to be transported around the country in cold planes and mail trucks. Not having handled cameras of this type before, I was impressed with their fit and finish, and externally they looked okay. The camera bodies and standard lenses had some minor surface tarnish and pitting,but just enough to give them patina, while the wide and tele lenses shone like new. The cameras are handsomely styled, and the lenses for the C44 are probably the most attractive photographic lenses I have ever seen, with their clean, fluted styling and matching lens hoods.

Functionally, the news was not so good. The shutter on the C44 worked, but was very slow, often hanging open for several seconds on the 1/15 setting. The Markfinder shutter and wind mechanism were fused absolutely immobile. Large areas of rust were on the shutter blades, although these did not seem to be the source of the problem. Diaphragms and focus rings on all of the lenses were either very stiff or stuck. With a little coaxing, however, everything on the lenses started turning. The one bit of good news was that the cameras' rangefinding mechanisms worked smoothly and were in good calibration.

The lenses were all affected by fungus to some degree: just a little on the tele, a moderate amount on the two 50s, and quite extensively on the 35. The 35 was the only one that worried me, because the elements of this lens are quite small and none of their area was fungus-free. I am aware that you can have quite a bit of stuff inside a lens and still get nice images, and this fungus took the form of thin spiderwebby traces, but I still thought I'd better open up the lens and have a look. Unfortunately, it defeated my efforts to reach the elements, and the only thing I accomplished was to completely screw up the focus collimation. Recollimating a slow, wide angle lens for 35mm cameras is not easy because the lens casts such a small, dim, and superficially sharp image onto one's scotch tape groundglass, and it doesn't help when the tripod socket comes off with the film-loading back so you can't use a tripod while collimating; it took hours to get it right, although at least I took the opportunity to clean the helical and make it the smoothest focusing of the lenses. At this point I decided to try out the lens, together with the others, and see how much of a problem the fungus was.

First, though, I had to get the cameras working. One very nice feature of these cameras, which you can see in the photo below, is that the shutter mechanism is not sealed off from the film chamber like on modern cameras; a lot of it is directly accessible to small tools, and certainly easy to flush with Ronsonol, just by opening the back and squirting through the generous holes. I started by coaxing the Markfinder shutter through the cycle by pushing various parts of the shutter mechanism, causing a cascade of particulate crud to fall out of the camera. Then both cameras got a good Ronsonol flush, liberating a lot more crud. Within an hour, both were running smoothly and sounding pretty good.

I wasn't sure what to do about the rusty shutter blades. I found an old camera maintenance book which suggested lightly scribbling on the rusty areas with a normal graphite pencil, which purportedly not only removes the rust but lubricates the blades as well. I tried it on the Markfinder. It made the blades look a little better but didn't seem to change their performance. I decided just to leave the C44 blades alone.

Although the shutters were now sounding good, I know better than to assume that old shutters will continue to work the way they do just after a Ronsonol flush. Such a flush has two effects, one permanent (washing out the crud) and one temporary (lubing the works). You need to wait a few days for the stuff to evaporate and the lube effect to go away to find out if they're really working. In this case, the treatment actually did work, and after three or four days, the shutters stablized within half a stop of their nominal speeds; a little fast on the slow speeds, a little slow on the fast ones. The Markfinder shutter, which had completely seized, actually ended up slightly the better of the two.

After testing the shutters I did something that I am doing with more of my classic cameras; I made up decals to place over the existing shutter speed dials which denote the true shutter speeds achieved at each setting. In this case I laser printed the new markings onto a decal that I had colored with silver Sharpie, giving a black-on-silver effect that on casual inspection could pass for an original dial.

The Argus multi-finder that came with the C44, like many of its ilk, was fogged to the point of opacity. It took a while to figure out how to get into it, but ultimately I was able to remove and clean most of the elements. There are enough that I couldn't reach that the unit is still foggy, though now usable. For actual shooting I decided to use a Leitz Imarect.

With the gear apparently working, there was one further cosmetic issue to address. When I first removed the Markfinder from its case, the rear three body covering panels came off neatly with the case. I could have reattached them, but they were pretty nasty. I elected to recover the camera. This was my first recovering job and to get new leatherette, I headed to the local shopping mall and to the handbag section of a discount clothing store. There were many economical sources of pseudo-leather there in assorted fashion colors; many in black, but I wanted something different. After momentarily considering a restrained metallic silver leatherette, I selected a tasteful purple handbag for under $10 that yielded enough material to cover at least 4 or 5 cameras. (I should perhaps have taken a moment to consider whether I would ever want to do more than one camera in this color.) In recovering the camera I made a poor choice of adhesive and there are bumps in the covering here and there where it would not smooth out, but for a first effort it looks okay.

Okay, time to go shooting. I found both cameras enjoyable to handle. They don't feel as well made as a Leica, a Zeiss-Ikon, or even a Fed of the same vintage, but as least as nice as an Agfa Karat. There are websites out there that complain about the process of changing lenses on the C44, but it really is not difficult and I never had any problems getting them to connect properly. Certainly nothing compared to, for example, the terrifying process of mounting a Jupiter-12 on a Kiev.

I did have two minor issues with using the C44. One is, especially with stiff lenses, focusing using the wheel around the rangefinder window doesn't provide enough torque to move the lenses smoothly. I'm more comfortable focusing by grasping the large ring around the lens mount from below, but this is smooth and hard to grip firmly. I solved this by removing the rubber focusing grip from a junker lens of just the right diameter -- I think it was a Minolta Celtic 35/2.8 -- and fitting it around the lens mount ring. Now it's much easier to focus the camera in the traditional SLR or Leica manner. The other issue is that the C44's frame counter dial is located right next to the film wind knob, and the counter dial is easy to turn by mistake when advancing the film. So far I have screwed up the frame counter on every roll I've shot with the C44, and had to guess what frame I'm on when I realized what I'd done.

I tested the camera around New York and on a business trip to Lakeville, Massachusetts. I was impressed with the performance of the fungus-infected lenses, especially the 35mm. In the fourth shot below, when the neg is viewed through a loupe, every twig in the picture is well defined. I may still look for a replacement for this lens, but not with any urgency.

I'm not sure what role these two Arguses will play in my future shooting. It's always satisfying to bring cameras back from the dead, but these cameras are quirky and a bit cantankerous. On the other hand, the multiple lenses confer a good deal of versatility in a more compact package than an SLR setup, and the shutter speeds are consistent enough that I wouldn't hesitate to shoot slides. I can easily imagine situations like a walk through the woods on a fall day where it would be very pleasant to put this gear to use. So these elderly cameras may have quite a few years of image making ahead of them still.