The Return to Film: The Seagull 4A-103 (Part 1)

It seemed the basis for the PERFECT article, if only... 

Time has a way of getting away from a person, only to make it's duration known at a later date, when a specific thought comes to mind.  For me, it was seeing some photos that made me realize that I had shot just 3 rolls of photographic film in the past 12 years!

It is pretty unnerving to look back at how quickly the world of photography changed.  In 1998, I was shooting entirely on film stock, mostly slides.  By 2002, my Casio QV-3000 3MP Digital and I were inseparable.  The ease of use, instant previews, and instant results were definitely something lacking in the world of film.  I can recall day trips in the 1990's where it was commonplace for me to shoot three rolls of film in a single day.  And then upon finding my groove in the digital revolution, an entire decade had elapsed, and there was a realization that I'd shot as much film as I'd have occasionally shot in a single day.  

The stimulus for my film usage epiphany hit me when I came across some negatives and transparencies taken with a Chinese made Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera I acquired for about $100 in the early 1990's, that I typically referred to as my "Poor Man's Rolleiflex."  While certainly not of the caliber, feature set, or price of such a gem of a camera, when used properly, my Seagull 4A-103 had produced some really lovely images.  

For a time, the boxy Seagull accompanied me as I drove buses, allowing me to snap off some nice posed shots, such as this.

Despite some clunkiness, I was confident enough to use the Seagull to take photos at a friend's daughter's wedding, one of the very few times I ever shot such a ceremony.

Having found these and other images from this camera, and remembering the rather oddball fun of using this retro beast, I then set about to find the camera, with the promise that if I located it, I would definitely be putting it back into service.  After a couple of days, I was able to locate the Seagull, tucked away in a plastic bag in my mother's house.  It was on, or so I hoped.

It seemed the shutter was dead, leaving me to practically give up on this endeavor, but after a good bit of trail and error with the long dormant beast, I finally got it to work, albeit fueling worries that the exposures may not be accurate. Yet, I still took the chance, and ordered a roll of Velvia 50 to run through the camera.

Shooting film is very much "pay to play," so seeking to get as much bang for my buck as possible.  I was going to treat this generic roll of Velvia 50 somewhat like Steve McCurry's last roll of Kodachrome, albeit with my own spin. Thus, I set about to compile a list of desired subjects or themes that I would like to have represented on this roll, allowing for a couple of the 12 exposures to be the "slack" for poor exposures, or for spur of the moment photos.

I got out and starting shooting with the Seagull, taking along my Olympus PEN to act as a light meter of sorts to calculate exposure, since the Seagull lacks any metering, and color slide film can be very unforgiving.  I kept a checklist of my desired shots, and jotted down exposure information for each on a piece of paper, as I shot comparison shots on the Olympus that I'd planned to post with the film shots. It seemed like a really neat, and really quirky idea of sorts.

I paid meticulous attention to light and exposure, took care NOT to wind the film until I was ready to take a shot (to avoid mistakenly tripping the shutter), and was exacting with both composition and focus.  Instead of pointing and shooting, I was photographing, with an eye on all of the details... except for maybe one.  

About 2/3 of the way through the roll of film, I noticed something odd.  When I'd dial in the focus on a more distant object, such as in a landscape photo, the distance away I'd estimate the object to be, did not match the distance shown on the scale on the focusing knob.  For example, I'd focus on an object about 15 meters away, and the scale on the focusing knob would say I'd focused on an object 5 meters away.  Odd Indeed.  Was this always this way?

I had no recollection of ever really using the distance scale in the past, so I put it out of my mind, though when I went to focus on a distant horizon, I was surprised to see that I was focused well short of infinity. Now, this I clearly did not remember as being an issue before. Still, I tried to overcome my naturally anxious tendencies and finish off my first roll of film in years.  I sent off the roll to the developer in Kansas, and began my waiting game, with a bit of a anxious feeling in my gut, that began to grow.

Was there something wrong with the focus?  Is the camera still light safe?  Was the shutter good?  Did I load the film entirely properly?  These and other questions began to linger, but by this point, I knew what was done was done, and I'd had fun in shooting this roll of film, so I promptly ordered another fresh roll as I awaited the results.

On Thursday, the waiting was over, and the results were in.  I opened the envelope and took a quick look at the sleeved exposures.   Almost immediately, I recognize my first mistake, as the developed film strip begins in the middle of the second exposure.  I forgot that I needed to align a pair of dots aside the film path to a <-START-> line in the backing paper prior to closing the rear door and loading film.  Oops.  

That faux pas aside, as I eyeballed the resulting film strip, I was incredibly pleased to see before me a lot of perfectly exposed and vividly colorful images.  My return to film began to feel a sense of jubilance, and a sense that with film, I can still do things that digital can't quite do.  The excitement however, began to wane as I looked at many of these lovely images close up through a loupe.  

Despite their incredible color and vibrance, some of the best images were quite out of focus.  And this lack of focus adheres to a critical element of photography through any device in which you are not setting up the image through the actual lens that will be taking the picture, namely, that what you see is NOT what you get.  

Despite my disappointment in both the lost exposures and the focus issues, the roll was not a total loss.  At least a couple of the 10 frames fully exposed are actually quite decent, including one focused quite close to test bokeh and another landscape shot at f/11.  Both show the potential of the camera as well as the amazing vibrance of the Velvia film medium.

The results of my experiment left me feeling rather torn.  I admit that I actually LOVE the whole film experience and how it sharpens me, but I'm dismayed at most of the resulting images.  I looked on Google to see what help I can find to remedy "focus calibration" on Twin Lens Reflex cameras, but there seemed nothing too helpful.  However, one search on "Seagull" led me to discover other possible 120 TLR cameras that I could acquire to fill the same purpose.  I briefly considered pursuing a different TLR via ebay, though my main interest was getting the Seagull for which I had gotten such confidence in using at one time, back in my repertoire of working cameras.  I certainly don't want to focus each shot by trying to eyeball the distance (in the metric system no less) and setting the focusing scale to coincide.

As I looked in vain at the suspect Seagull body, confused as to how to remedy its issues, a thought occurred. I recalled a lot of Konica Hexanon lenses that I'd purchased on ebay, and how I gave them a good cleaning on their arrival by first rotating the face plates around the circumference of the front of the lenses to loosen them so that I could apply a cleaning solution across the entire lens glass.  I thought maybe I could do something similar by applying pressure to the face plate, and perhaps adjust the outer element of the viewing lens so as to calibrate focus with the focusing wheel.  I began to work to loosen the plate, but things didn't quite happen as I thought they would...

Instead of just the facing coming out, the ENTIRE lens assembly for the viewing lens came out from the top opening.  After looking confused for a moment, it then dawned on me that there was adjustability in the viewing lens the entire time.  In fact, at some point in my early 20's, I had more than likely been fidgeting with the camera in a spell of boredom, and had inadvertently "adjusted" the viewing lens.  Realizing this, I then set about to try to calibrate the viewing lens with the focusing wheel in an attempt to make my TLR a fully working part of my camera collection once again.  

After some trial and error, I think I may have the camera ready for round two, even though I was already halfway through the second roll of film I'd loaded in there.  There is certainly no harm in trying to see if my attempts were successful, as I can only hope that I didn't inadvertently fiddle with the positioning of the taking lens decades ago, which will be far tougher to try to recalibrate than the viewing lens.

So the bad news is that my article to try to compare the film and digital cameras by rationing out a single roll of film as an experiment has been dashed for now.  The good news however is that despite the hindrances, I'm actually quite excited to further experiment with medium format film, to the point where I'm very seriously aiming to shoot roughly one 12-exposure roll of 120 slide film each month as a feature for the blog, hopefully with my resuscitated Seagull, or if need be, with an heir apparent.  Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, to see if my efforts were successful.