music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Got Film?

When I was about 14, my dad unearthed his old 1950s Praktica 35mm camera and started teaching me the wonders of photography. He was the typical photo buff, having snapped his way through Europe while in the Army during the Korean War. His slides of post-war Italy and Germany were beautiful and sobering; beautiful because they showed what a jewel Italy was at that time and sobering because they also showed Berlin and other parts of Germany still in ruins 5 years or more after WWII ended.

I took to the camera quite happily and remember shooting a lot of black and white film with it. I had to use a light meter in order to dial in proper exposures and remember to use compensations when shooting with the old telephoto lens he had. Around that same time I ended up taking an after school photography class taught by a friend’s older brother. In this class, we learned how to develop black and white film, though I don’t remember if we ended up printing any of it.

After the infatuation faded, I ended up using small point-and-shoot film cameras and processing my film at the local one-hour places like everyone else. In 1990, I bought an Olympus Stylus, an ultra-compact auto-everything 35mm model for around $100. It was really a revolutionary camera at the time. Beautiful photos, ease of use, fit in a jacket pocket and perfect for travel. I used that camera up until the first affordable digital cameras came on the scene and since then, photographic life has never been the same.

In 2002, I bought a Canon D30, a digital SLR model capable of using Canon’s EOS film lenses. I picked up a few of Canon’s choice lenses, like the 50mm f1.4 prime, the 20mm f2.8 prime and their superb 70-200mm f2.8 L zoom. We traveled through Europe for three weeks and the camera performed perfectly. I also used it during the latter part of my 3 year project documenting the building of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles. I still use this camera almost daily and although newer models with faster autofocus, better low-light capabilities and more megapixels have become available, I’m still drawn to it because I know it so well and it fits like a glove in my hand. As in almost any art or endeavor, the tool is secondary to the expression, or as Lance Armstrong says, “It’s not about the bike.”

A few months ago, I read an article at Shutterbug about used medium format cameras and how their prices were dropping through the floor due to many professionals finally moving to digital, now that resolution was finally starting to rival (and possibly surpass) film. Would it be possible to own one of these classic professional cameras and have fun with film again? I looked on eBay and other places and I couldn’t believe what I saw. Many cameras that were priced in the thousands only two or three years ago were now selling for a few hundred dollars. I found a great deal on a Mamiya RZ67 system, sold what I didn’t need and ended up with an amazing camera for about $200.

The Mamiya RZ67 is a huge camera, best used on a heavy tripod. Oh, you can hand-hold it alright, but it’s like taking pictures with a shoebox. But that’s what I like so much about it. It forces you to think when you shoot. It’s a deliberate action, looking through the viewfinder, setting your f-stop, focusing with the rotating knob that controls the bellows, using the mirror lockup for long exposures. I’m so new at it that I still haven’t gotten in the groove, the whole pre-flight checklist before pressing the shutter, but I’ll get it. It’s fun re-learning the basics of good manual exposure, about all the different films available and I’m even thinking about developing my own black and white negatives again. I won’t give up on my digital camera, though. It’s still more convenient, lighter, easier to chase my 2-year-old around with; but I’m looking forward to experimenting with film, learning a thing or two in the process and hopefully making a good picture with it someday.

March 20, 2006 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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