Time Capsules

I originally wrote this for our private, family-based blog but it’s relevant here as well.

One of the supposed disadvantages to shooting film is how it doesn’t mesh with the instant-gratification, instant-upload nature of the rest of our online lives. When everyone else can share photos within a day of taking them, waiting weeks or months to finish the roll, get it developed, and then scanned is an unnecessary amount of work.

This, however, is a large part of what I enjoy about shooting film. Especially when it comes to family/kid photos. It’s too easy to get caught up in the now and the new—just spending our time documenting and sharing each new development as it occurs. The time-delay of film forces me to remember and reflect.

From my most-recent roll.

jean jacket Wearing the jean jacket he got from his Grandma for Christmas
Santa Clara
February 2011

runrunrun Enjoying the sunny day
Santa Clara
February 2011

cabinetsBusy busy busy
Santa Clara
February 2011

cage boy Hoover Park
Redwood City
March 2011

cage boy Hoover Park
Redwood City
March 2011

With each of these, I’m forced to remember when I took it and figure out what was going on. There’s no EXIF information to help me. No time stamps or geotag information to give me hints. Part of the joy with looking through family photo albums is telling the stories that accompany the photos. Shooting film forces me to open that time capsule each time I finish a roll.

Corporate tool

The company I work for was running a photo contest. There was even a decent prize for the winner: $1000 and the photograph would be displayed on the building.

Placeholder photo showing where the contest winner would displayed

I didn’t enter.

I didn’t even seriously consider entering.

Yet when the finalists were announced today, my reaction was disappointment followed by incredulity.

“Is that the best we can do?”

“I can totally do better than 60% of those”

But I don’t regret not entering. I’m just trying to articulate why I stayed out. I also suspect that I’m not the only photographer at the company who abstained and I wouldn’t be surprised if the others did so for similar reasons.

  1. Rights grab. Even entering the contest required me to surrender all rights to my photo.
  2. I have not yet drunk enough of the corporate kool aid to do things just for recognition from my coworkers or management.
  3. It was patently obvious what kind of photos the company wanted. This wasn’t truly a “submit your best shot” contest. Everyone knew that bright, colorful, and exciting images were going to win. Especially because we specialize in color printing and want to show off that technology.
  4. Designer integrity. Given the requirements, this amounted to a design-on-spec job. I refuse those on principle.
  5. Artistic integrity. Sure, I could have selected a generic sunrise/sunset photo whose rights I don’t care about and see what happened. But anything worth publishing is something I want to actually care about.

Also, I’m too much of a wise ass. For a corporate contest, I’d be unable to refrain from submitting something taken at work. Granted, I have plenty of nice, colorful, examples from work.
morning in foster city
full moonrise
However, when I saw the contest, one photo immediately came to mind. And it was perfect. Except it was completely not going to win.

So why bother surrendering the rights to it?
misty lot
Yup, a black and white photo of the company parking lot.

And yes, I know that properly printing black and white using full-color inks is as hard (if not harder) than printing nice color. But that’s not what we’re selling.

Photo drives


Thanks to Gohlke, I’m thinking about instances when I’ve tried to photograph something that caught my attention while I’m driving or riding in a car. It’s an interesting exercise. Things always look different from a car and it’s often difficult to capture the way that movement and speed change my perspective.

In the rare instance when I’m not driving, I can practice actually shooting from the car. This is good practice (and yay for digital) for figuring out what works and what doesn’t and how movement at 70mph translates into static images.
pacheco pass
The expected workflow though is to recreate from the sidewalk what struck me from the road. Sometimes I’ll make a special trip to a location I’ve been noticing for months. In these cases, I don’t always know if what I’ll find is what I see when I’m driving. I just know that I’ve noticed something interesting on a drive and it deserves further exploration. In these cases, the drive is merely scouting for the photography.
western motel
motel capri
Othertimes I actually go out driving with the intent of photographing things which I see from the road. I’ve only really taken photodrives when I’m already traveling. This is distinct from stopping the car and exploring on foot. These are photos where I explore by car and hop out when I see something interesting.
O'Keeffe country
Finally, there are the times I see something during regular everyday driving which is so compelling that I immediately pull over and get out my camera. I’m trying to force myself to do this more often. But it’s hard. Driving is typically about the destination, not the journey—commuting or errands even moreso in this department. Delaying my arrival is always a difficult decision.
Everything must go.
cold sunrise
trash day
The last two scenarios are interesting as they force my brain to work really fast. It’s not enough to notice something interesting. I have to be able to figure out exactly what caught my eye and determine if it’s worth stopping the car before I’ve driven too far past it.

San Francisco Bay

Something I’ve been doing for over a year. And I haven’t quite realized the extent of it until today. It’s one thing to take photos of the San Francisco Bay when there’s an obvious subject. Maybe the view is fantastic. Or maybe the light is spectacular. Or there are cool clouds. Or the geometry of the bridge (or anything) adds a nice focal point. There’s usually something obvious to take the picture of.

It’s when there’s no obvious subject that I find I like the bay best. I’ve been taking these for myself. I suspect I’m not the only one who likes them.
high tide

Super Mega Mega Bokays


I was never comfortable shooting the Brownie Hawkeye Flash with just a single 620 spool. While I don’t usually reload immediately, it’s nice to have the option. It’s also nice to not have my only spool at Keeble when I’m getting my film developed (by request, Keeble returns the spool with the negs).

So I started looking for additional spools. I found that these are typically cheaper when they’re inside a 620 camera and eventually found another Hawkeye on ebay for $5 (including shipping). Since I already have one Hawkeye, I figured that with the second one it would be a fun experiment to flip the lens around. The resulting flipped-lens camera is a very different look. Lots of edge blur and closer central focus (and no infinity focus).
new and old 1
Further experimentation has lead me to two main usages where this camera is especially fun: low-angle close-to-the-ground street-texture shots and portraits.
rosina with light leaks
I’m not usually one of those photographers who goes out of his way to get crazy blur. At the same time, the quality of the blur here helps really emphasize the subject matter. The camera itself also helps a lot. A waist-level viewfinder really enables with the low angles and the fun look of the bakelite Hawkeye makes it easy for people to relax and genuinely smile.

Kodak Retina IIa

My first ever $5 Keeble bargain bin purchase. This was one of those cameras that just looked too good to be passed up. I was extremely pleased to discover that it works and I’ve been running a roll through it every month or so since I purchased this in July. For a $5 speculative purchase, this camera has become one which I plan to use for a while.
This camera dates from the 1950s and has both a coated 50mm f/2 lens as well as a coupled rangefinder in the viewfinder. In many ways, it’s the perfect pocket camera.
self portrait
So far, I’ve been running random film through it but I’m really liking how it handles XP2 Pro. My only real complaints are that the viewfinder and rangefinder spot are both a bit dim and that it has a tendency to backfocus a little bit. I’ve also noticed it has a tendency to flare a bit with backlight, but that’s always a possibility with any lens—especially those which are over 50 years old. All in all though, I really like it. It’s been fun learning how to use a rangefinder and it scares me to realize that I think I like them…

Disease of the eye

My art professor used to always tell us that “perspective is a disease of the eye”—his point being that forcing everything to fit an arbitrary rule causes us to always see things the same way.  Every time I’m on flickr, I can hear him saying this as I’m constantly running into people who instantly judge and dismiss photos for completely arbitrary things like canted horizons, lens distortion, lack of sharpness, etc. etc.

Now, it’s one thing if someone’s incapable of ever getting a horizon level or if every shot uses a gimmick like fisheye distortion or blur. But many times I’m seeing the comments in one-off cases. Heck, many times I receive those comments when I’ve intentionally shot something that way. I often shoot things off-kilter and I’m not wedded to perfect focus or lack of distortion.
At the same time, yeah, the constant criticism of this kind of shooting has made me think about exactly why I frame certain things the way I do.

REASON ONE — laziness


Sometimes I can’t be bothered to frame something perfectly level. Maybe I’m in a hurry, but often it’s just easier to make it obviously intentionally slanty rather than looking like I tried to make it level and failed. It’s also a lot easier to shoot interesting lines out of the corners of the frame rather than trying to line up everything parallel to the edges while keeping the camera level. One of these days I’ll use a tripod and actually compose carefully.



REASON TWO — cheap zoom


Originally a digital SLR phenomenon for me, the nice thing about a crop sensor is that I get some free extra reach. And what was the first thing I did with that reach? Start turning my camera so that I can squeeze out every last angle of view out of my lens. I do it with my wide angles and I do it with my telephotos.

top of the climb

The next step of this is to start doing it with all my cameras by coupling it with foot zoom. Want to get closer and fill the frame more? Better start angling the camera so the subject fits.



REASON THREE — focus point limitations

all alone

My D40x has a measly 3 focus points. When I have an auto-everything lens mounted, I tend to have one of the two side points active. And I tend to keep it active and trained on my subject while just paying attention to its location in the frame rather than looking at the horizon or anything.

Brownie Hawkeye Flash

National Hotel

When we were cleaning out my grandmother’s house over 10 years ago, we discovered a bunch of old cameras: a Kodak Brownie 116 2A, a Kodak Art Deco 616 folder, and a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash. At the time, we kept them because they were cool to look at. As my interest in photography has grown, I’ve determined to get them up and working—even if I’m only able to get a single roll out of them.

Converting the 116 and 616 cameras so they can take 120 film doesn’t look too difficult but it’s still a semi-involved project which I’ve been putting off. The Hawkeye on the other hand was really straightforward. Despite being a 620 camera, it can actually accommodate 120 film and only needs a 620 takeup spool.

The Hawkeye also satisfied other urges I’ve had regarding toy cameras, lo-fi photography, and pseudo-vintage looks. As much fun as I know I’d have with Hipstamatic or a Holga, I’m allergic to anything that trendy. A camera as old as my father (manufactured in the same month he was born!) does all that in a much more personal way.

After one roll, I was hooked.
A lot of the appeal was that this was also my first experience with medium format. And a lot of the reason why I haven’t shot more rolls in the Hawkeye is that I quickly borrowed a YashicaMat 124G for “proper” 6×6 work.

I’ve since come to realize that the Hawkeye really sings with 100-speed black and white film—especially if you aim it at older structures.
motel capri
western motel
City Center Motel
Mission Santa Clara
This isn’t to say that color work isn’t also fun. It’s just that I don’t feel the same excitement with my color results unless I really simplify my composition.
chris house
Hawkeye landscapes are underwhelming. Thankfully, I live near by all kinds of old buildings and signs which are just calling for this camera.

Give me el poder


When I first started photographing power lines and pylons, it was mainly as an excuse to take photos of clouds and sunsets while keeping something else interesting in the frame. It’s since become an exercise of its own as I’ve come to realize that no “nice” sky is even needed if the power lines are interesting enough.

foggypier-1Eventually, it’s become an exercise in just the pure black on white graphics of the lines themselves.




Although it never hurts to return to my roots (so to speak) and use the powerlines as a way to break up what would normally be a very empty sky.

wee moon

Bird in the Hand

Probably the area of photography where I’ve grown the most. Also quite possibly the single area of photography where I actually know how better gear would improve my results (slow manual-focus lenses only allow for so much). Granted, I’m not sure I want to be a better bird photographer since I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.

DSC_0011 big bill

When I first started shooting birds, I was taking photos in a purely documentary way. See bird, shoot bird, identify bird—repeat with each new bird. I even tended to avoid “common” birds like gulls and ducks. Now, having been able to ID every species I see during my lunch breaks, I find myself bringing a bird lens infrequently.  And using it less and less when I do bring it.

Blue Eyes DSC_0020 DSC_0009

Documentary shooting only goes so far and only means something when everything is new to the shooter (the root cause of much of the inanity of travel photography). Now when I go birding, I’m trying to capture the bird doing something. Whether it’s something as commonplace as flying—giving me the technical challenge of being able to hit it in-flight—or even more interesting behavior. Or at the very least, the bird should be in an interesting location.

DSC_0058goblin handsDSC_0029Coot Armynot elegantyawnfishingscoopglideBrown Pelicanout of heresurprise

It’s not like I wasn’t looking for those types of shots before. However, now that that’s all I’m looking for, I find that I’m carrying that long lens around and not using it a whole bunch.

Part of me feels like this is wussing out and optimizing for quantity instead of quality. However, since I generally only have my lunch hour to take photos, it’s a tough call. I wouldn’t mind birding for a day and coming back with only a few images. But when I have less than an hour to shoot? I find I optimize my photowalks toward exercises where I think I’ll actually expect to take a few decent frames.