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Saturday, November 22

Project Saab

I've not been doing very much with a camera in the last week or two so I thought I'd "regale" you with something completely different, as a bunch of Oxbridge graduates and an irreverent American used to say. This tale involves my efforts on a subject I think of as Project Saab - my hunt to find a Swedish chariot that needs a bit of work - but not too much.

I've been searching for most of the year but still haven't found something suitable. Although I live in a part of Scotland that used to have three Saab franchises within an area about 40 miles in diameter it's proved a real struggle to locate the right kind of car. Mind you, we are talking about a model last made in 1993/94 - at the latest.

If I lived in the centre of England, it wouldn't have been a problem as cars come up for sale there quite regularly but I'm afraid I'm not so enthusiastic that I'd want to make an 800 mile round trip to view and buy - or possibly not buy - a Saab.

This whole Project Saab thing might appear to be somewhat out of left field so a brief bit of history would be a good idea at this point. First of all, I've been a bit of a car nut all my life. I wrote a weekly motoring column for one of the newspapers I worked for getting on for about 15 years, test driving hundreds of cars during that period. And all of it was done in my own time.

Despite them all, however, it was always the pre-GM Saabs that I liked the most. There was just something about their quality build, fine engineering, quirkiness and, in the case of the 99 Turbo, the first production car to be fitted with a turbocharger (The BMW 2002 range had one earlier but they weren't really production models), their performance.

The very first car I bought was the 1973 Saab 96 below. It's a scan of a slide that I found covered in muck at the back of a drawer so it doesn't look too great. It cost me £400 and was in truly beautiful condition. I drove it for a year or two and then passed it on to my brother who used it for a while and then, unbelievably it seems now but didn't at the time, scrapped it when the repair needed to the gearbox was going to cost more than the car was worth. That was a huge mistake and I wish we'd held onto it because they're becoming quite scarce.

My first efforts on the Project Saab front were aimed at sourcing another 96, something which I eventually managed to do through a contact. The car, that's it at the top of this post, was in Edinburgh and although a poor sight was structurally sound. It needed the wings bolted back on, a bit of paintwork, a retrim of the seats and just a bit of engine fettling and it would have been ready to go.

After viewing it and agreeing a price with the seller provided it would start (it had been off the road for a couple of years and the battery was flat), I said I was in no rush and asked him to charge up the battery so we could get it running before I committed myself. After about three weeks when he didn't get back to me, I texted him only to find that he had taken my reluctance to bother him (he was a very busy guy) as a sign that I was no longer interested and had sold the car to a TV production company. It'll probably appear in a show about doing up old classic cars…

Realising that it would be difficult to find another 96 in my neck of the woods, I thought I'd cast the net a bit wider and include the original Saab 900 Classic amongst the possible project cars. After giving the 96 to my brother, I went through a few cars before buying a 1982 900 Turbo that was my favourite of all the cars I've had - and there have been a fair few. So I thought it would be fitting to get a 900 if I couldn't find a 96.

Well, the availability of 900s is only marginally better than that of the 96, it would seem. Getting a bit desperate, I called a former Fife Saab franchise that is still operating as an independent garage and found that the owner's father had one which he used to get to and from work a few days a week. It belonged to an old woman who bought it new from the garage and had it serviced there every year until a year or two ago when she started hitting things on a regular basis and gave up driving, returning the car to the garage.

It might be for sale if I made the right offer, the owner said, so I had a good look and a test drive, took a few pics and uploaded them to a Saab forum where the members there quickly told me it was worth about half what I had intended to offer and convinced me to wait for a better project car to turn up. That's the Fife vehicle below, a base model 900, with faded paintwork but MOT'd and running quite nicely.

Then someone on the forum put me onto a guy about 50 miles away who is a bit of a Saab enthusiast, suggesting that he might have something suitable. I contacted him and found that amongst all the cars he keeps for spare parts and for restoring, he has a black 900 Turbo that needs an MOT and was going cheap. You can see from the pic below that the owner is a Saab nut - in fact, a car nut in general. He lives in the country and has an old workshop surrounded by cars in various states of repair. 

At the moment, he's restoring a 900 Carlsson, a high-performance 900 Turbo named after the legendary Swedish rally driver, Erik. I actually test drove a Carlsson way back in the early 1990s. It was very quick but the suspension was too hard for my taste and I preferred the "ordinary" Turbo - but I'll keep that to myself.

So that's where I am now, planning a trip to check the car out and see if we can do a deal. The one thing putting me off is the fuel consumption. The black Turbo is an automatic and probably wouldn't do much more than about 25 mpg in everyday driving. Given the cost of fuel at £6 a gallon (or whatever - I've long since stopped trying to work it out now that petrol is sold in litres), going anywhere becomes an expensive proposition. Still, as a car to keep in the garage and take out on high days and holidays, it might be a bit of fun worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, November 19

Single shot Rolleiflex: Zone System on the cheap?

If you want to practise the Zone System properly then you really need to be able to give individual development times to each negative. That's why it's mainly been the preserve of one-shot-at-a-time large format photographers who roam the countryside as eccentric-looking individuals - a bit like Phil Rogers, in fact.

Most of us don't bother with the Zone System beyond choosing to "place" an exposure on a certain value which basically means working out what exposure a tone you are measuring with your meter will need for it to record the way you want it to on the film. A two-bath or compensating developer can then be used to keep the density of the highlights in check.

The Zone System is an interesting approach to photography but the mass of wonderful photographs made by people who cared not a jot for it is all the evidence you need that, whilst laudable in some respects, it's not vital to successful image-making.

But as well as those who couldn't be bothered with all that technicality - not to mention cost - there are others who couldn't be bothered with all the equipment. Lugging a 5x4 or larger camera, a manly tripod and a pile of bulky film holders up a hill is no laughing matter.

Fortunately, there is a solution and it comes in the form of a Rolleiflex and a plate back. Rolleis take 120 film (220 as well but I'm not sure if that's made by anyone nowadays) for 12 exposures on a roll (unless you have fitted an adaptor kit for 6x4.5 or 35mm. But assuming you have a bog standard Rolleiflex, then 12 square shots is your lot).

The plate back is a direct replacement for the camera's normal back.

The plate back is fitted in place of the standard Rollei back and enables single shots to be taken - just like the LF photographer - on 2.5 x 3.5 inch sheet film, the image still being the normal 6x6cm or 2x2 inch square. The part of the film beyond the 6x6cm image forming area is handy when it comes to handling the individual sheets under the enlarger. The plate back harks back to a time when some photographers didn't entirely trust that roll film would remain perfectly flat in their new camera. The plate back allowed them to use glass plates for perfect flatness. I suppose it was also useful in certain branches of commercial photography where it was advantageous to take just a shot at a time.

The good news, if you have a Rolleiflex, is that plate backs can be had for very little money and the sheet film you need is still available. AG Photographic will sell you 25 sheets of Ilford FP4+ for £23.89. That's almost a pound a sheet - quite expensive really, especially when you consider that you can get 5x4 Fomapan 100 for less.

Plate holders load from the top

However, you can use a single shot Rolleiflex without having to break the bank. For instance, 50 sheets of Fomapan 100 5x7 costs around £48.50 at Silverprint. Each sheet splits perfectly into four giving you 100 sheets of Rollei plate back sized film for 48p a pop. That works out at £5.76 for 12 exposures, just under £1 dearer than a 120 roll of Ilford Delta 100. That's more like it.

But, you might argue, Delta 100 is a better film than Fomapan 100. Yes, but I can bet that individually-processed Fomapan sheets will, in many instances, give you better negatives than roll film Delta 100 - provided you know what you're doing. They should certainly be easier to print.

The reason I'm going on about the Rollei plate back is that I have one and it's tempting putting everything I've just written into practise. Unfortunately, the film holders I have suffer from deteriorated velvet light traps so these would need to be replaced before I could put them to use. Still, that wouldn't be a big job provided I can find the right type of material to replace the dodgy stuff. Anyone have any ideas for stockists?

An early Rollei brochure explaining the process.

If you have a Rollei and fancy the single shot approach, then bear in mind that you have to get the right plate back for your particularly model. The back I have fits both a 1954 MX EVS Rollei and a 1963 2.8F. However, it doesn't work with my old Rollei Standard - you need a different back for that. Also be aware that the plate holders, as the name suggests, were designed around glass plates.

If you want to use sheet film in them then you need an insert that acts as a packing piece to take up the slack. Most of the holders you'll come across on Ebay will have the insert as they're much more likely to have been last used with film rather than glass plates. But best to check.

The plate backs are a direct swap for the camera's normal back and take a minute to slot into place and lock down. The dark slides or plate holders are single-sided only. Some of the plate backs came with a glass plate that you could use for focusing before withdrawing it and inserting a holder but that seem a little unnecessary to me.

I've got six plate holders which is plenty when it comes to single shot use. I could always take my normal camera back with me and a couple of rolls of film should I run out and want to keep snapping. I can't see me giving the single shot Rollei a lot of use but it might be nice to try it a couple of times for fun.

Monday, November 17

Keeping in Contact

By David M.

Whatever the benefits of using film, it does impose some very slight inconveniences, rather like eating proper bread. I can’t believe that anyone truly looks forward to making contact sheets, except as a refuge from a noisy household. Not everyone is blessed with a noisy household, but the contact sheet squats like a guard-dog between the wild and free joys of snapping and the urbane delights of the darkroom.

Sunday, November 16

Leica M4 Brochure

If I were to splash out on a Leica M it would definitely be the M4. I can appreciate all the models and even have a soft spot for the "ugly duckling" M5 but, as far as I've ever lusted after a Leica, it's the camera featured in this brochure that does it for me.

Friday, November 14

A new way of seeing

Photo 1

It's proving difficult to attune my eye to the more graphic and minimalist style I'm now in search of. Years of shooting a particular type of photograph has left me wanting to squeeze detail out of shadows that I know should just be allowed to go black.

But it's fun in a masochistic sort of way having to constantly deny myself the delights of a hint of zone 2/3 texture. The weather here hasn't helped. It's been so grey lately that there are probably no more than four or five stops in most scenes I'm looking at so it's difficult not ending up with some shadow detail on the negative.

Photo 2

I'm not sure yet if it would be better exposing for dark shadows or giving a more normal exposure and printing the shadows down. Ralph Gibson produced negatives with shadow detail but then over-developed them and printed for a contrasty and grainy look. I reckon much the same - but without the heavy grain which I don't want - could be achieved by choosing an exposure that leaves the shadows nice and featureless, giving just a little extra development and printing on grade two or maybe three paper.

As I thought, it's much harder coming up with interesting images in the graphic style than it is driving out into the country and shooting a misty landscape. No wonder Ralph said something to the effect that you can't just go looking for photographs: you have to create them.

Photo 3

Leaving it to chance means that my hit rate will tend to be very low. I can go out with a camera in this mode and not see an interesting image the entire day. That's an awful waste of time - although it obviously saves on materials!

Now for a word about the pics - all scans, by the way - that accompany this post. Photo 1 is just a picture of two bottles in a water butt but I liked the curve of the steel edge of the barrel. In the negative you can see the curve of a second butt towards the top left corner but I darkened that because it detracted from the simplicity of the shot.

Photo 2 is a photograph of an old greenhouse that has some nice tonality and texture in it but not much more than that. I find with a lot of these shots that composition is the crucial element and that's probably why I enjoy this type of photography so much.

Photo 4

Photo 3 was taken at the same time, more or less, as Photo 4. It's a scene on the staircase in my home. The early morning sunlight was playing with the window and casting some nice shapes onto the wall. The problem was about getting a sense of balance in the composition, something I find the SLR much better for than a rangefinder with it's less precise viewfinder.

Photo 5

The last pic, Photo 5, was taken from the esplanade in Montrose looking down on the beach about ten feet away. I wanted the foreground rock to drop away to black so used an orange filter to help depress the shadow values. There's still some detail in it but it's easy to print it down to provide a very solid base to the photograph and a contrast to the sunlit rivulets.

So that's where I am at the moment with my new approach to photography. In some ways it's like abandoning everything I've done up 'til now and learning a new way of seeing. I'm not exactly sure where it'll end up but it's an excellent way of challenging myself and reinvigorating my photography.

Thursday, November 13

Prettiest camera ever?

I was sorting through some piles of stuff in boxes in a darkroom cupboard yesterday and came across what I consider to be the best-looking camera of the lot. It's my old Pentax SV from the early 1960s, a rare black model in its lovely and very high quality brown leather case.

It was sitting in a cardboard box along with a few other Pentax SV/S1 bodies only one of which is working. The others aren't really worth fixing so I've just kept them hanging around as spare parts donors.

The black one, unfortunately, isn't working either. There's nothing much wrong with it that a good service wouldn't cure, though. The shutter is sticky - sometimes firing OK and sometimes not. You're probably talking about £80 or so to put it right. I keep meaning to do so but never seem to get round to it - something that passes as the normal state of affairs for me.

The SV is in nice condition although not quite as nice as it looks in the pic. Some of the black enamel to the left of the viewfinder has tiny bubbles on it. It looks something like a camera rash, if there was such a thing. No doubt it's just what happens to enamel after sweat, nose grease, etc have worked away at it for 50 years.

I've got a few lenses for it - the one in the pic above, a 35mm f3.5 Auto-Takumar and a 135mm f3.5 Auto-Takumar. They're all great bits of glass, sharp and contrasty.

The SV is a lovely camera to use as well. I'm not going to claim that it's as well made as a Leica M3 but it's the closest to the Leica feel I've managed to get using a 35mm SLR, although I haven't handled any of the early Leica SLRs. I'm sure it would feel even smoother after a good service.

The viewfinder might not seem as bright as the best from the top SLRs of the 1970s and 1980s but it snaps into focus very easily. Overall, the fully-mechanical, meter-less and battery-free SV is a perfectly usable camera that I'd be perfectly happy wielding, along with the three lenses, as my only 35mm outfit.

But getting back to its looks: are there any better-looking cameras than this? Surely 35mm SLR design didn't peak in the early 1960s?

Monday, November 10

Analogue Archives: Kevin MacDonnell

Archival print processing, a career as an art critic and photographing london are all tackled in this 30-year-old column from 35mm Photography magazine. Kevin is in fine form here.

Sunday, November 9

Friday, November 7

Just how "minimalist" can one go?

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm trying to get away from "representational" photography towards something more creative or artistic. It's going to take a wee while to make the switch as I've been used to looking for a particular type of photograph for so long.

Part of the aim of less representational photography is to distill the image down to the bare number of elements necessary for it to seem successful to me. Of course, that might mean that it looks horrible to other people but I can only please myself with this idea.

Thursday, November 6

If you thought 5x4 was too expensive...

Apologies if you've seen or heard about this camera already but it's new to me, courtesy of TOD contributor David M. in an email. It's a plywood large format affair that is expected to sell at £129 minus lens which, if you're familiar with the cost of new 5x4 cameras that aren't pinholes, you'll quickly realise is something of a steal.