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Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

I love me some vintage cameras. Take a stroll through my office and you'll find old cameras on display all over the place. They just look cool. Vintage cameras are like vintage cars - they're from a time when visual aesthetic appeal didn't play second fiddle to cost of materials and functionality. Sure, most of these cameras didn't sit in your hands as comfortably as a modern day DSLR with its ergonomic grip and rubber coating, but they looked awesome.

Modern cameras, like modern cars, are designed primarily around the ideas of functionality and comfort. It's no wonder they all look the same - same grip, same shoulders, essentially the same control layout. Once manufacturers have a design that sells, they're afraid to mess with the ergonomics and style shooters have become comfortable with.

But vintage cameras are as varied as snowflakes. Designers were still experimenting with different designs back then. The collective ideas of survey-based marketing hadn't destroyed the art of product design yet. They had beautiful lines, interesting color schemes, and a charming lack of bells and whistles. Vintage cameras are sculptures that should be put proudly on display.

My favorite thing about vintage cameras is that their designs were usually so simple that there was little to break or malfunction. No electronics meant no deteriorating circuit boards. Few precision mechanisms meant fewer things to go out of alignment or timing. So long as you can find a film to fit, many vintage cameras from 100 years ago can still be used. I once put a roll of film through a 1920's era Kodak Brownie. It worked just fine.

A good friend of mine recently gifted me an Argus 40 TLR camera. "TLR" stands for "Twins Lens Reflex." "Twin Lens" because it has 2 lenses - one you look through to compose the image and the other lens to actually expose the film. "Reflex" because it has a mirror in it. Any camera with a mirror in it is a "reflex camera" because one definition of "reflex" is "archaic: (of light) reflected." You can probably guess how they got the name "Single Lens Reflex (SLR)."

I was thrilled to learn that this Argus 40 camera still worked - not bad for a camera from the early 1950's - and that it can accept modern film with a simple modification. It used the now-discontinued 620 film. 620 film just so happens to be the exact same size as modern-day 120 film, just on a thinner spool. So I picked up some old 620 film spools off eBay for $15, re-spooled a roll of 120 Ilford Delta black and white film onto a 620 spool and boom, I had myself a fully-operational Argus 40 ready for shooting.

With no internal light meter, I had to meter manually using a handheld light meter. No problem, that part's easy. The tough part was the focus. It's all done with a crude distance scale on the lens. I had to guess how far away my subject was, then find the corresponding measurement on the focus ring. My estimation of distance was really put to the test.

To try out my first roll of film, I ventured to nearby Old Towne Orange to photograph some old structures there (thought it was fitting for this camera) and finished off the roll at Corona Del Mar beach. I also threw in a photo of our dog for a real challenge.

I love the look this camera creates. The 75mm lens gets a nice, shallow depth of field, the square format is just classic, and the crude-by-today's-standards lens created some awesome lens flare, vignetting, and blurring. The images are gritty and riddled with flaws - just how I like it. Can't wait to do some portraits with this bad boy.

Click any image to enlarge

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

On Location Photography: Cleveland National Forest, Orange County

View on YouTube for full HD version

In the Cleveland National Forest of Orange County, CA you'll find something interesting along the Trabuco Canyon trail (adjacent to the more well-known Holy Jim Falls trail). Just a few minutes into the hike is an old car mangled and broken from decades of decay. How it got there I cannot imagine. The trail is narrow enough to only accommodate a single person and there are no roads within a reasonable distance. My guess is that the hiking trail was once wide enough for a car. Someone drove this car out on the treacherous road, got stuck, and ditched it. Or perhaps the story was much more interesting than that involving a cache of stolen goods, a bag of lye, and a Tommy gun. Whatever the case, this thing is just begging to be photographed in its rusted state.

Orange County, like California, offers a diverse range of landscapes. When you think "OC" you probably imagine sandy beaches and real housewives. But the Cleveland National Forest blanketing the Santa Ana Mountains offers some decidedly "un-Orange County" scenery with plenty of spruce trees, a babbling brook, and even the occasional snowfall. This area is as rural as Orange County gets and it's also where you'll find some of the best hiking in the county.

A little while back I decided to venture out to this area of "rural Orang County" looking for a short escape from the crowds and I was itching to photograph that car I'd photographed several times before. Having been there previously with my 35mm film camera in 2003 and years later with my Canon 5D DSLR in 2011, my goal was to get a new take on it, create some new compositions, and try an overall different approach. That's why I planned to do some black and white photography (which I'd never done there before) and some color landscape photography a little less vibrant and saturated than my usual stuff.

Here are the 2 shots I'd taken previously at this location. The first is my 35mm film image from 2003 and the second is from my DSLR in 2011:

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Upon arrival, I realized quickly that this photo trip wasn't going to go like I planned. The verdant forest surrounding the car that I remembered from my previous trips wasn't so green this time around. Everything was brown, dead, and dry. Even the creek bed was empty. We've had a terribly dry winter here in Southern California - one of the driest on record - and the vegetation in Orange County has been feeling the effects.

Without rich greens surrounding the rusting car, there was really no visual separation between my main subject and the background. It just blended in with everything else. The black and white photos came out so-so in my opinion and the color shots were absolutely abysmal. It was one of those shoots that just didn't go as well as I hoped. But as I say in the video, the sweet isn't as sweet without the sour, so although I didn't get any great shots, at least it'll create a deeper sense of appreciation the next time things do work out.

Click any image below to enlarge:

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

New Landscape Photography: Mojave Desert, Part 3

Landscape Photography in the Mojave DesertKelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert
Medium Format Fuji Velvia 50 Film
Click Any Image to Expand

Here we are at the third and final blog post for my recent trip to the Mojave Desert. The trip was only a day, but as I outlined in my first post, my goal was to capture these sand dunes in 3 different styles. The first post showcased photos with a shallow DOF, muted colors, and soft contrast look. The second post featured my classic black and white landscape photography look. This post is more like my usual stuff: high contrast, high saturation, epic compositions...you know, my best impression of Galen Rowell. Again, some similar compositions as in the previous posts, but a different overall stylistic approach.

The style of photography you see here has become commonplace in recent years. It seems every photographer (myself included) realizes at some point that an easy way to "wow" viewers is with vivid colors and rich contrast. It's a cheap way to rack up "likes" on Instagram and Facebook. This is why newbies often go way overboard with the saturation tool in Lightroom. Intensifying the colors is addicting and it's easy to get carried away with it. But aside from wowing viewers, it'll even make you feel better about your shots. It's as though capturing ultra-vivid colors is some sort of a validation that you're a good photographer. It's not, of course, but it's an easy way to feel like you succeeded.

I love the high-saturation stuff. It was my first love and I still gravitate towards the vibrant colors like a moth to a flame. But in recent years, I've come to appreciate the more subtle beauty of a soft color palette and not-so-epic compositions. I've grown to appreciate anything that's different. This vivid stuff is good, but I wouldn't consider it different. It's an all-too-common approach these days.

All that being said, I still couldn't resist the urge to expose a roll of Velvia 50 while I was out there in the Mojave Desert. Velvia film is the gold standard for high-saturation landscape photography, and boy did it work here. The colors of the dunes and sky jump off the film like oil paints. Oh so satisfying... But I've come to a realization in recent years that took me a long time to come to terms with. This vivid, in-your-face style of landscape photography looks great on your computer screen, on an iPhone, or on a magazine cover, but it's not really the type of thing the average person hangs on their wall. That's why magazines and screen savers are chock-a-block full of these types of vibrant images but you'll rarely see one hanging in someone's home. That doesn't make this style of photography any less valuable or meaningful, just that it serves a certain purpose but that purpose generally isn't for fine art. And, well, since the majority of photography is digital sharing these days, all the more reason to shoot in this style, right?

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography in the Mojave DesertThat's my friend Eric Bryan at the top of the dune there.
Check out his work at www.ericbryan.net

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert