Return of the Stereo-Realist

The popularity of stereo images (including video) has peaked and troughed through the decades. Each time, we embrace the novelty of it, then it fades away - probably because we get fed up with all the equipment we need to get it to work. The Stereo Realist is a 35mm stereo camera that came at a similar time to the ViewMaster you might remember from your childhood if you are at the age where you start to find gray hairs in the mirror. Funnily enough, it might be more practical to use the Stereo-Realist today than when it was born half a century ago. 

Stereo Realist 35mm camera

Stereo photography has some history

The Victorians embraced stereo photography. In fact, stereo images were originally drawings that pre-date chemical photography. It was a way to explore an escape from the tyranny of two-dimensional prints. It turns out that Brian May (the guitarist from Queen) is an avid fan of this medium and has released books documenting its history through the London Stereoscopic Company.

Then there was a stereo craze in the 50s and 60s that gave rise to the ViewMaster and a host of stereo cameras from various manufacturers. The Realist was released by the David White Company just in time to ride the wave. It was an expensive luxury camera and it proved to be very popular (read more about it on Dr T's website).

To get a stereo effect, the camera has two lenses separated by a distance similar to the distance between our eyes. So each lens makes a unique 25.4 x 23.4 mm image of the same scene. When the images are viewed as a pair, it tricks the brain into thinking there is depth in the image. I wouldn't say it is perfect - it is more like seeing a series of 2D cardboard cut-outs in 3D space. Still, it is memorizing and everyone who has seen one of my stereo images breaks out in a smile at the novelty.

Using the Stereo Realist

The Stereo Realist is a fully mechanical camera with a few quirks (find the manual here). There is very little coupling between functions. For example, winding the film will trigger the frame counter, but it will not cock the shutter. There is a separate lever on the front which readies the shutter for the next shot. And once the shot is taken, the winding mechanism to advance the film is locked until you press the the release button. None of this is a problem once the full cycle of motions is performed a couple of times.

Why is the Realist relevant again?

Because computers. In the film days, stereo photos would have to be printed at special labs at specific sizes for specific viewer hardware. But now we can scan the negatives, stereo-pairs of photos can be assembled in Photoshop (or even in a word-processor). The trick is to keep them small - two or three inches wide. They can be viewed on a screen, but printing the images out makes it a more tactile experience. 

The simplest way to view the stereo pairs is to go cross-eyed untill the two images appear to overlap and a third image seems to exist between them. This is easiest when the pictures are either small, or viewed from far away. Many people cannot (or will not try to) use this technique. In this case, you can use an set of inexpensive 3d viewers which are easily found on eBay (I recommend these low cost viewers).

 
Stare at the images and let your eyes cross until the images overlap. You'll perceive a third image in the center with a stereo effect. If you are having trouble seeing it, move further away from the screen or make the images smaller.

Stare at the images and let your eyes cross until the images overlap. You'll perceive a third image in the center with a stereo effect. If you are having trouble seeing it, move further away from the screen or make the images smaller.

 

Camera kit: Leica 35mm rangefinders

The Leica rangefinder took the small film size from cinema cameras and created 35mm photography for the masses. The masses who could afford it, that is. Almost a century later, these classic cameras are a favorite both among collectors and active film shooters.

Leica M2 iii summaron 35 elmar 50

WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

  • Size. The bodies are relatively compact compared to an SLR, but the M bodies are still quite big. The early Leica III with a collapsible lens is truly pocketable.
  • Focusing. Achieving focus is a pleasure with a rangefinder. The lenses are cleverly designed with a lever for your index finger to manipulate. Once the split images line up in the viewfinder, you are in focus.
  • Quiet operation. The shutter sound from the M-series cameras is a satisfying 'crunch' as quiet as a whisper. A lot of my enjoyment from vintage cameras are from how they feel and sound - the Leicas have the most beautiful shutter sound of them all.
  • Simplicity. You get one Leica and one lens and you are done. Further, the camera has options for shutter speed and aperture and focus and that's it. The picture becomes more important than the camera.

WHAT'S THE COMPROMISE?

  • Ergonomics. There is nothing to grip on these cameras. Form definitely trumps function in this area.
  • Not through the lens. The rangefinder is a separate light-catcher than the lens. Therefore you see a slightly different image from the one captured on film. A minor problem. More of an inconvenience are the limited number of framelines available. The rangefinder is generally optimized for a 50mm or 35mm lens. Longer lenses use smaller framelines that become difficult to use efficiently in the finder, unlike an SLR which gives you a full-size preview of the image from through the lens. Wider than 35mm and a separate viewfinder accessory is needed for composing shots.
  • Tripod mount. Pre-digital Leicas have a tripod mount on one side of the base rather than in the center. This means I can't use my capture clip on a Leica, and panning for panoramas becomes difficult.
  • Weight. Not a major issue, but these cameras are heavier than they look. This is the result of large brass components along with all-metal lenses.

WHAT'S IN MY CAMERA BAG?

  • Cameras: Leica III with nickel fittings, Leica M2 with self timer. 
  • Lenses: 35mm F3.5 Summaron M39, 50mm F3.5 Elmar M39 collapsable (nickel)
  • Accessories: M39 screw mount to M-bayonet adapters (35 and 50).

One too many cameras - the Olympus Trip 35

The acquisition of  a camera with no intention to use it. A classic problem. This is a camera addiction, I guess. 

I can quit anytime I want. I'll quit tomorrow. 

 
Olympus Trip 35
 

what is the offending camera?

I picked up an Olympus Trip 35 as an impulse buy while on vacation. Why won't it get used? Because it is designed to be used as an automatic. There is no way to set the shutter speed, and the aperture settings are supposed to be used only for flash photography (find the manual here). It has a passive light meter that dictates exposure settings for each shot. Can I trust the way the meter is calibrated? Has it lost accuracy with age?

So why keep it?

Because it looks iconic, in keeping with the PEN line of cameras, and this is full rather than half frame. It is very small and pocket-able. Lightweight. And automatic exposure isn't always a bad thing - sometimes taking pictures quickly for memories is desirable. Not every shot is for a project or portfolio. 

Ok, ok. I'll put a roll of film through it. 

 

Hybrid film processing (no darkroom needed)

Most people don't try film photography because they fear film processing lab costs or think they need a full-on darkroom to get the job done. I shoot black and white film which is easily developed at home for very little cost and without a dark room, but it takes a little time (the money-time compromise). I scan the images so they can be manipulated digitally and printed. I'll describe the entire process here.

NOTE: If you are in Houston and looking for overnight developing and scanning of your black and white film, you might be interested in my developing service.

Film

I use purchased 120 rolls for medium format and sheet film for 4x5. I use bulk film for 35mm and load it into reusable canisters using a Lloyd daylight loader. Getting film from its box to the loader requires a dark-bag.

developing the Negatives

 
Ilford chemicals to develop film
 

This can be done in a kitchen or bathroom using a dark-bag. The only time darkness is required is getting the film from the roll/film holder into a light-tight developing tank. This even works for 4x5 sheets using the 'mod54' insert.

Four liquids are used in specific dilutions: developer, stop-bath, fixer and a rinsing agent. They are mixed in  plastic measuring jugs and brought down or up to temperature in a water bath (kitchen sink) using a thermometer. The stop-bath and fixer can be reused to save on cost and waste. 

Developing times and temperatures are determined based on the developer and film combinations used. See the massive development chart for suggestions. I use my smartphone as a developing timer.

After rinsing, film needs to be hanged to dry (i use wooden clothes pegs) and they are cut to length with a film cutter to fit into dedicated plastic binder sleeves

Scanning

 
Using a 6D Mark ii and a lightbox to scan 35mm film
 

Darkroom printing requires a lot of extra equipment and a dark room. As much as I'd like to do this for fun someday, I currently use a hybrid method of shooting and developing film, but then scanning it and processing on a computer. A dedicated scanner can be used, but as I already have a digital camera, tripod and a macro lens, I simply place my film on a light box and take digital pictures of each frame. To make this process easier, I use the Canon's tethering software to use live view and remote shooting through my laptop. The images are high resolution RAW captures, and the resolution can be increased by stitching multiple images of different parts of the same negative.

Digital manipulation

Negative images can be inverted to positives using Lightroom or Photoshop (but not Adobe Camera Raw, the Photoshop Elements Organizer or Canon Digital Photo Professional, annoyingly).

A note on inverting photographs: I used to use Photoshop Elements for this task, but that means opening each image separately, inverting to a positive image, and saving the file (fortunately, saving can be done as a batch process). I have since started using Lightroom, and created a preset to invert a set of images automatically. This saves so much time it might be worth getting Lightroom for this reason alone.

With this hybrid approach, many digital techniques are now available: HDR, panoramas, spot/dust removal,dodging and burning, smoothing and sharpening, colour mapping, the list goes on.

The digital scans are effectively a backup of the physical negatives, which are stored in a folder and can be re-scanned with future technology at any time.

An image doesn't exist until it is printed, and I can easily send my scans to a print service or create a photo book.

In conclusion

There's a lot to think about when using film and developing at home, but it is not all that difficult and the process itself is part of the attraction of film photography. 

 

Camera Kit: 35mm SLRs, the M42 mount

 

35mm film is a tricky one to recommend to people wanting to transition form digital photography. Modern digital sensors cover this film size and the files can be modified to simulate the look of film, with all the convenience that digital offers. If you were to dive into the world of film, I would recommend either medium format or large format for the main reason that they have no digital equivalent (digital medium format is still not as large as even a small traditional medium format - I wrote more about that in a previous post). That said, there are still a few compelling reasons to shoot 35mm film...

M42Cameras

What is it good for?

  • A very cheap way to shoot film. Actually, it might be the cheapest way to shoot 'full frame' 35mm photos period, given that a good digital camera costs so much up front (cheapest "full-frame" is a Canon 6d1 for $1100 refurbished at time of writing). Used film cameras can be found online or in thrift stores for $20-40 and black and white film can be found for $5. Developing at home reduces costs significantly. 
  • It is familiar. 35mm is a modern standard from which we reference other formats (e.g. crop factors, focal length equivelents). There is almost no learning curve when transitioning from digital, assuming you have knowledge about exposure.
  • Easily available. When 35mm became affordable to the masses, they were sold in great quantities. The result is that there are many used/vintage.antique cameras available for very low prices today. 
  • Inter-compatibility. In the large format days, you could use any manufacturer's lens on any other manufacturer's body. Medium format brought with it propriety lens mounts and this is still the case with 35mm. However, one mount slipped through the net - M42 screw mount. It wasn't completely universal, but was used by more than one brand including Praktica, Pentax and Zenit.
  • Lenses can be adapted to modern cameras. Nikon's film 35mm lenses can still be used on many of their digital bodies today. Canon's FD mount and M42 lenses can be adapted for use on Canon DSLRs and many mirror-less cameras because their mirror boxes are shorter than the lens' native mounts. 

What's the compromise?

  • Digital 35mm cameras exist. And they can replicate the film look very well. But that takes a lot of post-processing. If you want to commit to the film look, shooting film makes life easier.
  • The cameras are heavy. They might look smaller than modern digital cameras, but they are often all-metal and hefty. The lenses are built so well they have a weight penalty, too.

What's in my camera bag?

  • Cameras: Praktica MTL 3, Pentax Spotmatic SPII, Ricoh Singlex TLS
  • Lenses: Super-Takumar 35mm f3.5, Pentacon 50mm f1.8, Industar 50-2 50mm f3.5, Helios 44-2 58mm f2.0, Sears 135mm f2.8,
  • Accessories: Macro tubes, tele-converter, cable release

 

Camera Kit: Half frame 35mm Olympus Pen

The Olympus Pen ticked a couple of feature boxes when it was released in the 1960s. It was smaller than regular reflex cameras, and it doubled the number of shots you could fit on regular 35mm film by using a half-frame format similar to how motion-picture is recorded to 35mm film. They almost look like a rangefinder camera, but retain the advantage of through the lens viewing. 

OlympusPenFT FV

What is it good for?

  • Economy. Having 72 shots on a roll of film has many advantages like packing less film on vacation, changing rolls less often and halving the cost of film.
  • Experiments. Having lots of frames available reduces the relative cost of shooting film. So this is my go-to camera for testing shutter speeds for star trails, lightning, night shots or water motion. If any shots are visually appealing beyond their experiment value, they are still high enough quality for small prints or publishing on the web.
  • Image orientation. With most cameras, landscape orientation is the default and I find 90% of my images are horizontal. Laziness or camera ergonomics are the reason, I guess. The Pen frame is in portrait by default and, surprise surprise, 90% of my images are vertical. It is good to switch things up.
  • Size. This camera is only slightly smaller than a regular 35mm slr, but the lenses are also smaller. A Pen FT and 3 lenses fit in a small pouch making it a perfect kit for travel. 

What's the compromise?

  • Image quality. With images half the size of  full-frame 35mm, the grain is amplified and the images look grittier. This could be desirable depending on your preferences, but it is very noticeable. This relegates the camera to experiments, test shots and non-critical work like vacation snapshots. 
  • Focusing. The viewfinder is small and focusing is a bit trickier than using a camera with a larger mirror.

What's in my camera bag?

  • Cameras: Olympus Pen FT, Olympus Pen FV, 
  • Lenses: 25mm f2.8 Auto-W, 40mm f1.4 Auto-S, 100mm f5.6 Auto-T
  • Accessories: 43mm 8x ND filter, 43mm circular polarizer, UV filter for each lens, cable release

Camera Kit: Digital 35mm, Canon 6Dii

I'm using digital less and less since I discovered mechanical film cameras. Developing the negatives is worth the effort. But digital still has a place, especially when it comes to capturing images of fast-moving sports, children and one-time events where the risks of shooting film outweigh the benefits.

What follows is not a review of this camera, but of using a digital camera alongside film cameras.

Canon 6Dii kit

What is it good for?

  • Unlimited shots. It is handy to not be picture-limited to take images of kids around the house, or on some trips where images might number in the hundreds.
  • Instant gratification. You know what your shot looks like before you leave a scene. You can also spend time experimenting with your lighting set-up. You can get your pictures processed and published online almost instantly.
  • Colour. I keep my film development costs down by only shooting black and white. That means that if I really want a colour image, digital is the easiest way to do it.
  • ISO as a variable for each image. With film you are often stuck at one ISO until you finish a roll. It is nice to use ISO as a variable in the exposure triangle for each image (like large format, actually). 
  • Autofocus. No mechanical film cameras have autofocus and I miss this feature sometimes. Especially when using wide apertures or of fast moving subjects like kids. 
  • Scanning film negatives. I use a DSLR in combination with a lightbox to scan my film negatives. The only reason I don't use a regular scanner is because I already have the camera and don't want another large piece of equipment on the desk.

What's the compromise?

  • Up-front cost. A 35mm ('full-frame') digital camera will cost at least three figures. A film 35mm camera costs barely two figures. And you can shoot a LOT of film for $1000. By the time you've spent that much, a digital shooter will be upgrading their camera to a new model for another $1000 or $2000. A film camera, ironically, will never be obsolete.
  • Size. Compared to film cameras, digital comes with a lot of bulk. This is especially true of the lenses which need to accommodate auto-focus and, often,  stabilization motors.
  • One system (usually). Related to the cost, it is generally the case you need to commit to one system. People are on the hunt for the perfect all-round camera for this reason. This is why the forums are filled with apologists for a given manufacturer (Canon vs Sony, for example). Unfortunately the perfect camera doesn't exist, and a compromise needs to be made, or money thrown at the situation to buy into more than one system. With film, the cameras and lenses are so affordable, you can get 3 systems (street, portrait and landscape, for example) for the price of one digital camera body alone. 

What's in my camera bag?

Is digital medium format 'full frame'?

Digital medium format is where digital 35mm was a decade ago. Crop sensors have been introduced to make the digital transition cheaper, but the only 'full frame' medium format sensors are the most recent flagship models in the smallest traditional size. 

Hasselblad 500 Medium Format Film

Medium format sizes

Medium format is pretty much any film or sensor size larger than 35mm (3.6x2.4cm) and smaller than the 4x5 inches of large format. 

Common digital sensor sizes compared to traditional film sizes. Looks like digital doesn't have all the bases covered (yet).

Common digital sensor sizes compared to traditional film sizes. Looks like digital doesn't have all the bases covered (yet).

In the film days, 'medium format' generally meant one of a handful of common sizes  - 6x4.5cm, 6x6, 6x7 and 6x9. It turns out, to date, only the smallest of these sizes have ever been approached in a production digital camera. As of time of writing, the largest digital sensor is 5.3x4cm with 100 megapixels, exceeding the previous generation's 50 megapixel 4.4x3.3. This is almost at the 6x4.5cm size (5.6x4.2cm in reality). And it is still a long way from 6x6. Notice in the figure on the right the size of digital medium format (green) compared to traditional film sizes (gold).

35mm's migration to digital

35mm sensors were not very affordable at the dawn of popular digital photography. To drive sales, smaller sensors were made similar in size to APSc film, which ironically faced an early demise due to the growing popularity of digital and the fact it was inferior to a regular 35mm roll in many ways. Camera marketing began using the term 'full frame' for their top-end 35mm-equivalent cameras, and 'crop sensors' for the APSc-sized sensor cameras. Small sizes are nothing new - cameras like the Olympus Pen used a 'half frame' size that allowed twice as many images on a roll of 35mm film. Economy and portability at the expense of image quality. Everything in photography is a compromise.

Medium format's migration to digital

Medium format has no single aspect standard - rather than comparing all sensor sizes to the largest common type, 6x7, like we do with 35mm relative to APSc and micro 4/3, it might only be reasonable to hold the smallest 6x4.5 as the standard for 'full-frame medium format' given this has been recently matched by commercial digital sensors. The larger standard negative sizes still have no competition. 

Sensor size is not the full story though. The larger-than-35mm sensors still have an advantage when it comes to colour depth, dynamic range and tonality. A big difference is camera-to-subject distance which affects depth of field. 

It is interesting that 'crop vs full frame' comparison is used in the 35mm world but not the medium format one. This might say a lot about the target markets - 35mm buyers care about specs, whereas the professionals using medium format have better things to worry about, like light, creative vision and getting paid.

Full-frame medium format

I'm sure full frame medium format will arrive in my lifetime, perhaps even a 6x6. It might be affordable to the amateur by the time my children have retired. So in the mean-time the only realistic way to shoot full-frame medium format is with a film camera. 

Luckily, film is not dead and old medium format cameras can be bought for a fraction of their original cost. From Hasselblads to the Rollei twin lens reflex, Mamiyas and Bronicas. Plenty of film still being made by Ilford, Kodak, Fuji and many others. Film might be too costly and risky for modern professional use, but these are not the concerns of the amateur. If you want to explore truely larger-than-35mm formats, film is definitely the place to start.