12.23.2015

Following in My Father's Footsteps: The 828 Kodak Bantam Special.

It was among the first cameras to enter my hands that would rekindle an interest in shooting with film again.  And yet I am only now writing about it.  

Why you might ask? Let's just say the best laid plans do not always come to fruition.

It was quite possibly the most novel and quirky idea for this blog that I'd ever summoned up. It was going to be epic and a little bit amazing.  And it stalled.

In a nutshell, while going through items my mother had passed onto us, I encountered a remarkably small little camera of my father's that caught my eye.  After a little bit of investigation, I discovered it was none other than a Kodak Bantam camera that uses 828 film, a format discontinued in the mid-1980's that is slightly larger than 35mm.  Soon after, I found a batch of Kodachrome slides from the 1940's and 1950's that were clearly taken with this same camera, as evidenced by the larger transparency size.  Eventually a magnificent idea began to gel.



What if I took this camera and literally "followed in my father's footsteps" to retake the images from these perspectives today?  It seemed like the perfect "then and now" photo montage but with an interesting twist.  I'd not seen where anyone had done then an now images taken over 50 years apart with the exact same camera.  It was a flash of brilliance! 




But from there, it started to fall apart.  The most imminent challenge was that the film format was now technically obsolete.  Fortunately, the good people at "Film for Classics" respool the old 828 film spools with fresh Tri-X film for sale, which enabled me to retain some life in the old Bantam.  This would add an even odder twist in this exercise that the vintage photos would be in full color while the contemporary shots would be in black and white. 

I selected 8 locations to get matched photos for, ranging across a nearly 50 mile swath ranging from Washington DC to northwest of Baltimore, MD.  And just as I was about 75% done this task, the film door to the neat little Bantam made me aware of a shortcoming of its design.  The back popped open while in a bag, exposing the film.  Agonizing to say the least. The project stalled.

Frustrated but not fully flustered, I decided to modify the project, and add a D-I-Y aspect to it.  I had wanted to the contemporary photos on slides as it was, and some online digging revealed ways to use other film formats in 828 cameras.  The "easy" method involves taking a length of 35mm film and affixing the end to 828 backing paper and spooling.  This works well since the original 828 film was simply using a sprocketless 35mm stock anyway with a single hole per frame. However, the image area exceeds into the 35mm sprockets, somewhat nullifying the appeal of the larger image area.  

The other method seemed slightly less involved and was what I ultimately elected to do, involving cutting down a roll of 120 film to the width of 828 film.  I did so by rigging up an old unused TLR camera with a film glide path that would hold a utility knife blade to cut down the film.  I would wind this in the dark and then trim the length of the roll some before respooling it on the 828 spool. All this would be done entirely in the dark.  It was far from perfect in its execution, and my desire to have the 645 frame numbers of the 120 backing line up with the Bantam's counter window (to help wind the film to a proper distance after exposures) was botched by my aligning it with the wrong side.  Oops.  Still, I had a makeshift roll of "Provia 100F 828" loaded into the camera and ready to try the assignment again.  I wrapped the edges of the camera in black electrical tape to secure the loose door and set out to try once again, hitting the first site a few days later.

Then life happened.  I had managed to revisit one of the sites for a match shot, but by this point in the late Fall of 2014, my free time to work on the project was woefully waning.  This was particularly pathetic because 3 of the sites were just a little over a mile from work, and my workload just wasn't allowing me the time to take an extended lunch to get the follow up shots.  The project stalled... again.

Finally, a posting about Bantams on a Facebook Collectors board gave me the push I needed to pick up the flaky camera once again and work the downsized roll of Provia through the classic 828 camera.  I had to shelve the "then and now" shot idea for a little bit, but I was certainly curious about the capabilities of the camera before I try once again to work through the project properly.  

Of course a question arises from going through all of these complexities.  That being, aside from paying homage to my Dad, what appeal is there to using a nearly 70 year old camera that uses a discontinued format, has just 4 timed shutter speeds, and sports a fairly slow lens?  Well, for starters, have a look at this 1947 vintage Kodachrome that my father shot with this Bantam camera when new. 


Image quality wise, this camera packs a pretty amazing punch.  And its form factor is nothing short of phenomenal, folding down to a size that is smaller than all but one of the digital cameras I have ever owned.  The few controls are closely situated, logical in nature, and intuitive for the most part.  Only the lever to cock the shutter is less than clear in its location and use.  

For a time this fall, this little camera became my portable little buddy, slipping easily into my jacket pocket for trips to and from work.  It was a great camera for the purpose of readily being able to get a shot while in the midst of a hectic commute, and one that was easy to take along when going out for lunch.  It was much more mobile than my clunky Exakta, and significantly handier than even a 645 folder, even if its feature set was a bit less robust. 



The Bantam is one camera that successfully manages to straddle the fence between portable and capable, and this facet makes it worth considering as a take along camera at the ready, even if its film format has been technically gone for decades.  

So how did it perform?  Wellll, once I finally got my developed roll of slides back from the photofinisher, I was elated to see that I had a set of perfectly exposed shots with some excellent color rendition.  However, there was still something about the images that didn't quite work.  A look at the "then and now" shot I managed to take should illustrate the issue.
 


A shot taken in 1952 above with another taken with the exact same camera in the same spot in 2014 below.  The view through the lens 62 years later has become quite a bit, well, fuzzier.  The problem lay not with the film but rather the camera.  


Usually 2 out of 3 isn't bad, but in this case, the result were images that were entirely unusable. That said, I was really glad that the light intake and rendition of the lens was at least good, and more importantly, that the shutter seemed to be working flawlessly after nearly 70 years, most of which were dormant.  I hoped I might be able to fix the camera somehow.  Sure I liked the model and could get a replacement for a good price, but it was really important to me to fix this one given that it was a family momento.


I polled a Facebook Vintage Camera Group and got some very helpful feedback, particularly from Mike Eckman.  Eventually (and yes this took a long time with my slow self), I finally got an understanding of what had happened, and how to remedy it.  The solution involved calibrating (or more accurately collimating) the focus and then tightening two tiny screws on the lens bezel. Using a ground glass pressed to the film plane, I was able to confirm focus at both ends of the focus range, and I was ready to give this camera one more try to get some results. 

When the transparencies arrived back from Zebra Color, I was elated to see what appeared at a glance to be a set of well exposed and SHARP images before me.  Looking at the shots with a loupe confirmed that my tricks to repair the lens did in fact work, and the results were amazing.  This camera had indeed proven to me that it was just as capable in most situations as much more recent cameras with the benefit of far more technological advances.  It seemed only right to mount each image and scan them for sharing here. 



A quick shot taken against a light pole at 6am in Frederick shows the ability of the Bantam to shoot in low light, even if I jostled the camera to result in a shaky image.  That said, the image isn't horrible for a grab taken without a tripod. 


My first daylight shot since collimation shows problems: particularly poor focus.  In that vein, I may not have been entirely attentive to the focusing distance on this image, or more likely, I didn't ensure that the camera lens popped out fully from the body when I started using it. 


Much better results come from the next image, which manages to pull focus in on the middle range of the possible subjects within the frame.  It isn't perfect, but it is a world better than the images taken of similar subjects prior to the lens being readjusted.


And then, the positive results started to appear.  A shot of a statue at the National Building Museum shows an image that looks just as I was hoping to achieve.  Outstanding sharpness can be observed across the entire frame in the areas, which render in a very sharp focus. 


A shot taken off a deck into sunlight reveals another great feature of the Bantam, a deeply recessed lens that is not prone to flare.  Excellent results are becoming more evident as I look down deeper and deeper into the contents of this roll.


Challenging light results in a slight bit of underexposure, but the results are still very admirable for this little Bantam camera.  This and the next photo were casually grabbed while on a quick outing.


Better exposure for the scene is observed here, where the Bantam pulled in a sharp rendition of a scene that retains some of its warm season colors.



Another scene with challenging lighting is this one, with the subject falling in an uneven shadow with a lot of fully lit backdrop to wash the scene out.  The Bantam and Velvia 100F still managed to make a scene that rendered well even with the challenging lighting.



By the second half of the roll, my confidence in composing and shooting with the Bantam was increasing.  This shot was taken while out physically shopping for a Christmas Tree, aided by the Bantam's amazing portability.  I would have never done this even with a Medium Format folder, let alone the Exakta SLR.


Shot of the closest focusing range, it seems only the lights at the bottom are in focus.  Still hoping to try some more shots at the close end of the focus range with better results.


Even with a slow shutter speed of only 1/25 of a second, the Bantam is still highly usable after dark thanks to the "B" and "T" settings.  Unfortunately, I hastily put the Bantam on the tripod in this instance, yielding this shaky shot on my first attempt.


But on the second try, I got complete magic from the tiny camera, rendering this warmly lit holiday scene taken in Frederick in the wee hours of the morning.


A sign dating from the era when the Bantam was made makes an ideal subject for the diminutive little camera on a clear and cloudless day.  The rendering could not be better, portraying as sharp and colorful.


Last shot on the roll was this one, focused on the distance range between the two trees, and providing a razor sharp image in foreground with some deliberate muting of the background.  I could not be happier with these results that end out the roll of film.

Though my initial project remains uncompleted, I am certainly not deterred. In fact, I am in an even better mindset for it than my initial enthusiastic burst of 2014.  This is because I originally approached the Bantam as a curiosity that I would use for a novel one-off project.  As a result of subsequent trials and tribulations with this camera that have finally met with success, I now view the Bantam as an amazing piece of compact machinery that I can easily see myself using on a regular basis.  Sure a slightly faster lens that also stops down to f/22 would be great, as would a 1/10 and 1/400 shutter speed, but the Bantam, even with some limitations, still comes away providing some of the most outstanding images I have ever seen in any vintage camera, let alone one with a remarkably tiny footprint.  This Bantam is one mean little bird!