Ok, where to begin…

This page just keeps getting longer and longer, so I’m jumping to the exciting bit first. If you are interested, read more but the punch line is right here:

Caffenol is a developer solution for black and white films and paper whose main ingredients are: instant coffe, washing soda (very similar to baking soda), and vitamin C. The developer is home-mixed from these ingredients and can simply be poured down the drain when developing is finished. As odd as that may sound, Caffenol actually works – and quite well at that. Some photographers are obtaining world-class results using this simple, inexpensive concoction. For more info see the Caffenol Cookbook & Bible.

I am totally new to Caffenol, though I think that the concept of developing film in relatively common household ingredients is one of the coolest things ever!

I am going to try to document my first experiments with this novel developer as well as I can and publish the results here.

At the time of this writing I have developed three rolls of 35mm film in Caffenol C-H and the negatives look wonderful!

Follow along!

Ok, now my story…

I have been keen on photography since I was a kid.

I remember my first camera with great fondness – a Kodak Instamatic X-15 that shot the old 126 cartridge film. It had a socket for flash cubes on top. No metering. Fixed aperture. Fixed exposure… What joy! Dad had gotten it for me at the drug store near our home in Meridian Idaho. Film was pricey, processing nearly out of the question. So not too many pictures were made with that little gem.

I continued to be a photo buff  through my younger years and eventually took my high school’s basic and advanced photography classes. My photographic career to this point was marked more by frustration and disappointment than anything else. I always felt that it was better equipment that I needed in order to take better pictures. And to be fair, this was probably at least partially true. I had graduated from the little Kodak to an even smaller Ricoh rangefinder that was given to me by a neighbor who was moving away and didn’t want to bother packing it (what does that say about its quality?). I still have it – and its an “OK” camera at best, but it was an actual 35mm manual focus, with a meter and a shutter priority automatic mode. Not bad for zero dollars!

I dreamed about owning a “real” SLR, like the Nikon F2A my newspaper staff photographer uncle used in California. But that was just wildly beyond any reality I lived in. I would have gladly accepted a Pentax K1000 or essentially any other camera with a mirror that flipped.

Regardless, my desires to make stunning images were just not being realized. I could develop my film and print the pictures with acceptable skill, but I was nowhere near where I wanted to be.

I read an article in Shutterbug about the advantages of medium format and eventually bought a Seagull TLR during college. I still have this camera as well and after twenty-five years of ownership it has taken precisely ZERO photographs… Long, boring story there… It’s broken, but makes a great decor piece.

I took another photo course at the University of Utah (armed with my diminutive Ricoh) and actually started to get some results that I liked, but I was still completely unable to produce the stunning Ansel-esque landscapes I dreamed of.

Life then took over and photography fell completely off my radar in the early ’90’s. I was far to busy finishing college, getting married, surviving medical school, residency, kids, etc., etc…

Fast forward to 2011.

I was planning to race in the Red Bull Romaniacs (about which I blogged for around three years… see my Romaniacs blog) but broke a leg just before the big event. Since airfare and hotels were already paid for, my wife and I traveled to Romania and instead of racing dirt bikes, I hung around with the media crews who were covering the event. Watching them photographing the action and seeing the results they obtained rekindled my interest in taking pictures.

I got into digital – which is fantastic – but I still found myself longing for  a film camera though. There is just nothing like the feel of a finely crafted mechanical gizmo in your hands. And I always enjoyed processing film anyway. I wanted to get back into it.

I started off with another rangefinder – a nice Canon 7 which I snagged off eBay for about $75. I immediately shipped it to Mark Hama in Georgia for a thorough CLA. At the same time I ordered a very nice 50mm f1.4 Canon lens from a seller in Japan (around $325 shipped). This combo works very nicely and is VASTLY better than any photo equipment I have owned before (excluding modern digital gear).

Having to meter with my iPhone got a bit old though. The 7 has an on-board meter, but after fifty-plus years it is now widly inaccurate.

My wife and oldest daughter got me a gift card at the local camera shop – Gordon’s Photo Service which is, by the way, a genuine camera shop, not a glitzy showroom for the latest electronic gadgetry. I used the money to outfit my digital lenses with UV filters, and had a few dollars left over. While perusing their collection of used gear, I noticed that they had several nice Nikon FE bodies. After much deliberation I took a nice black FE home, along with a factory-AI’d pre-AI 50mm lens for around $60 after I emptied out the last of the gift card money. Mine looks just like the black FE on Ken Rockwell’s site, just a bit more wear.

Can I just say that I LOVE that camera! It is absolutely a joy to shoot with. I went back to Gordon’s a while later and dropped some more cash on an AI-s 50mm f1.4 and things went from good to great. The AI-s lens is drastically sharper than the pre-AI version. I would not have predicted that, but there you go.

I also outfitted it with a nasty-looking old “guitar strap” which I think suits it perfectly. And the FE is now my near-constant companion. I keep it in a ratty-looking Hungarian “bread bag” I got from a military surplus store years ago. My 17-year-old daughter hates it, but I think it’s great! It definitely does not shout “tourist” when I’m carrying it around.

Ok, parallel story:

Along with the return to 35mm film photography, I have also jumped headlong into another near-lifelong ambition – to build my own folding view camera.

I have dabbled in woodworking for quite a few years and have assembled a reasonably complete woodshop at my home. I somewhere got the urge to build a pinhole camera that uses 4×5 film in a standard film holder.

As this idea progressed, I realized that what I envisioned was really just a full-blown view camera with a pinhole rather than a glass lens. Why not just go all-out from the start and make a true folding field camera? I had always wanted one (harking back to my deep-seated Ansel Adams fetish I suppose). Used view camera lenses are also dirt cheap on eBay, and I could always convert it back to pinhole at any time.

So, for the sake of brevity here: I will also try to document the 4×5 field camera build. My ultimate goal is to finish the camera, use it and develop the resulting film in (you guessed it!) Caffenol!


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