Lifestyle photography - Piano Yoga

Here are a few fun shots we added to the end of a central Houston portrait session. We managed to combine Julia's yoga poses with the piano - the cat wandering into the center of the shot was a welcomed element for the composition!

I broke out the large format 4x5 camera to get a few film shots with a more classic look and the ability to angle the plane of focus. 

Camera Kit: Large format 4x5

Large format seems like an extinct branch of photography to the uninitiated, but the format never went away. Actually, it is finding a new wave of appreciation among film photographers. There are a few reasons for the resurgence - there is no digital equivalent sensor size, nor is there a digital camera body capable of tilts, shifts, swings, rises and falls (with the exception of some specialty lenses). Used equipment is found online in abundance, and some entrepreneurs are even making new cameras such as the Intrepid Camera Company, Stenopeika and others. 

Intrepid 4x5 large format camera kit

The jump to large format

As for major changes in your photography workflow, the jump from digital to film is the biggest. You need to find a lab or learn to develop film yourself and then either scan the negative  or darkroom print your images. Most people will start with either 35mm cameras (because they are the most similar to consumer digital cameras) or medium format systems such as the Hasselblad 500 (because the cameras work in the same way as 35mm ones). 

The jump from small to large format film is a little easier. With large format, a few things change. Firstly you no longer need to get emotionally attached to a single manufacturer. You can pair anyone's lenses with anyone's bodies and choose any film holders for the negative size you have chosen. For bodies, you can choose between studio monorail systems which are the cheapest way to get going down the rabbit hole, or fold-able field cameras that have more restricted movements, but can fit in a backpack.

There are also a few extra pieces of kit your smaller camera systems may not have needed - lens boards, sheet film holders, a focus loupe and a dark cloth. Tripods and cable releases are no longer optional - you are going to need them to get even basic shots.

What is it good for?

  • Taking one photograph really well. This process is the antithesis of 'spray and pray'. A lot of time is spent picking and tinkering with the composition. It takes so long to set the camera up that you don't want to waste that time on a mediocre image.

  • Tilts and shifts by design. And rises and falls, too. The cameras are made to move the lens around for perspective control and plane of focus manipulation. 

  • MASSIVE negatives. They dwarf the grain even in 400 speed film.

What's the compromise?

  • Large format is not small. No way are these cameras going to fit in your pocket. Or small bag. Not even a medium bag. With a monorail camera, even a large bag is often insufficient. The compact Intrepid camera, on the other hand, easily fits in a backpack with a couple of lenses.

  • Forget about a quick snapshot. By the time the camera is set up, focused, shutter cocked and film holder inserted, a good deal of time will have passed. If you have a human subject, you have to keep their attention during setup and focusing or else there will be some long silences.

  • Lots of lens research required. You need to figure out which lenses cover your negative, and if you want extra coverage to accommodate small or large movements on the camera. Fast lenses allow for easier focusing via a bright image, but slower lenses are siginificantly smaller and lighter.  You also need to make sure your body can cope with ultra-wide angles (75mm or less) or very long lenses (300mm or more) or if it needs special bellows or lens boards to cope with them. A great list of lens stats to get you going can be found  at

What's in my camera bag?

  • Cameras: Intrepid 4x5 folding field camera

  • Lenses: Schnider 65mm f5.6, Schnider 90mm f5.6, Calumet 150mm f5.6, Rodenstock 210mm f5.6, Rodenstock 300mm f9

  • Accessories: Lens board for each lens, film holders (9), focusing cloth, cable release

Good habits for loading large format film holders

Large format film holders have dark-slides with a white and black side so you know if the film is exposed or not, but if you have a few holders on the shelf, how do you know which are even loaded with film? Which are ready for developing?

Everyone has a system - here is what I do:

4x5 film holder system
  1. Empty. Film holders sat on the shelf have no film in them. They are ready to be loaded.
  2. Loaded, un-exposed. These holders are in Ziplocs, slides are white-side out and handles down in the bag so that I don't accidentally pull out the slide when removing the holder from the bag. 
  3. Loaded, exposed. Same as above, but the slides have black sides out. The holders stay in the bags until they are emptied for development. 
  4. Back to step 1.

Sandwich-sized Ziplocks are the perfect size for 4x5 film holders and help protect against the elements when out in the field. 

I process images in batches of 6 (3 film holder's worth) because this is the capacity of the mod 54 insert for the 3 reel Patterson tank. Used film holders are cheap (check out the bargain ones on KEH) - I keep two sets of 3 holders so that I can still shoot even if I have one batch still to process. 



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.


Two manual camera settings that beat automatic ones

Between a scene presenting itself and you pressing the shutter button, there are two calculations you or your camera need to make - the exposure settings and focus distance. Eliminating these calculations makes the shot happen faster, and makes the image more important than operating the contraption in your hands. Here is how.

1. Estimating exposure.

Many vintage cameras lack light meters. External light meters can be used, but that is one more gadget to carry around and slow you down. Both film and digital have a lot of latitude with respect to over or under-exposure, so you can worry less about settings and more about making a compelling image.

Just use the sunny-16 rule and relax. In summary, the rule means using f16 and shutter speed of 1/ISO in full sun. Drop one or two stops for cloudy conditions. This is an exact equivalent of shutter or aperture priority depending on how you reduce the light hitting your film.

This method is preferable to your camera's reflected light meter (if it has one) because you are essentially using an ambient reading, and you can ignore the apparent brightness of the subject (e.g a bright white building, or black cat).

With indoor light at night, I find I can shoot ISO 400 film at the equivalent of f2.0 at a 60th. 

2. Zone focusing.

Just because we have auto focus, it is not necessarily the fastest way to focus. The lost art of zone focusing is to use a narrow aperture and set it to the hyper focal distance. This is much easier to do with vintage lenses with lots of distance scale markings. Lenses for modern digital cameras are not as easy to manipulate for zone focusing.

For example, I use f11 and set infinity to the '11' mark on my Rollei 35 lens for walking around cities. Anything 3 meters and further will be in acceptable focus - a picture is ready to be taken at any time. 

TIP: 'Trim' your settings

Pilots use trim controls to keep an aircraft flying in a straight line without having to make constant corrections on the main controls. It compensates for changing wind and weight distribution conditions. In a similar way, I find I'm 'trimming' the settings on my camera as I walk around outdoors even when not actively shooting. For example, if clouds roll in-front of the sun, I'll decrease the shutter speed a stop or two. If I want the background out of focus, I'll set infinity beyond the hyper-focal range. Having the settings trimmed means not fumbling with the camera when a subject presents itself. Read more about the exact settings I use here.


Downtown Houston, Rollei 35s, Ilford HP5.

Downtown Houston, Rollei 35s, Ilford HP5.

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. 


The 13th frame on a Hasselblad 500

Hasselblad 500 cm 12 back

Turns out that the oldest 12 magazines (6x6) for the Hasselblad 500 have a distinct advantage over the later automatic ones. You can start the roll a little earlier to fit a 13th picture on the end of the roll. Most of the time...

How to get the extra frame

  • The paper backing of HP5 120 film is numbered so that on really old cameras you can visually set the first frame starting point after loading. The trick on the Hasselblad is to start the roll on the first circle symbol rather than on the number 1 that you would usually aim for. Other films will have different symbol conventions on the paper, but should work in a similar way.
  • Another way to figure out where to start is to look at the paper of a used roll. By leaving the tape on the film side of the paper you can visually inspect where the film starts and the corresponding symbol needed on the reverse of the paper. Remember that the symbol is referenced to the center of the first 6x6 frame, not the top of it. The starting point, therefore, is 3cm further into the roll from the tape mark.
  • After taking the 12th picture, the frame counter needs to be reset to prevent the camera locking the shutter button. 

What could go wrong?

  • Firstly you must avoid starting the roll too soon. This might take some trial and error for your magazine, but if you start the roll too early the first frame might expose over the tape that attaches the film to the backing paper.
  • The camera is not designed to take the 13th frame, otherwise this would just be the normal number to expect. I often find there is a large gap between frames 12 and 13 - sometimes so large that the top of the last image is lost over the edge of the roll. I'm not sure why this happens because sometimes I get the entire 13th image without issue. 
Sometimes the bonus 13th square frame is cropped at the end of the roll of film. 

Sometimes the bonus 13th square frame is cropped at the end of the roll of film. 


Given the risk, the 13th frame should be seen as a bonus and not used for any critical shots. It is nice to get the most out of a roll of 120 film and the old magazines are the most desirable in my opinion for this reason.

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.


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


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...


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