Ice, Water & Steam

For ages I’ve had the idea of producing a themed set of three black & white prints to display on the wall on my stairs at home. This evening I finally had the inspiration (the three classical states of water) and motivation to take the pictures and develop the film immediately after.

I wanted to shoot these pictures on film so I’d have the pleasure of making the prints in the darkroom. I broke out my trusty Mamiya RB67, which takes 10 shots on a roll of film, giving me just 3 or 4 attempts to get each photo right. Last time I tried something similar with my digital camera, I took over 200 photos to get the one I wanted. On this occasion, it took three attempts to get the ice right, and just one for both the water and the steam :D




These pictures are not perfect. In the ice and water pictures, the background is not sufficiently overexposed and it’s distracting. In the steam picture, some of the light got onto the backdrop despite my best efforts. It might seem like nit-picking but I’m not going to put these on my wall, else I will grimace at my mistakes every time I go up or down the stairs :P

However, I’ve now got a better idea of what to do next time. My cotton backdrops are in the loft so I used some A3 pieces of black and white perspex that I bought for macro photography. They’re a bit reflective, and not large enough (I couldn’t get all the steam in). Rather than using a flashgun to illuminate the backdrop, I think I will use a softbox as the backdrop instead. Using the flashes bare, without modifiers, the lighting was a bit harsh. Unfortunately my white umbrellas are also in the loft with the backdrops ;)

For those who are interested, here’s my setup. That’s a Mamiya RB67 medium format camera with Sekor C 127mm f/3.8 lens, bellows fully cranked out and an extension tube. Also with prism finder (that black lumpy bit on the top is full of glass, and weighs a kilo on its own) and a roll film back loaded with 120-format Ilford FP4+. I’m using a cable release to get mirror lockup to reduce camera shake (the mirror is 6×7cm and makes a mighty thwack when it flips up), and a wireless flash trigger to sync with two flashguns.

Setup shot

Dad’s retirement

Recently on my blog I posted about using flash bulbs with an old box camera. The photos in this post are taken with said box camera, and the indoor ones are using flash bulbs. This is my first attempt at using flash bulbs, and indeed at any flash photography on film.

I had a bit of trouble getting it to fire reliably at first[1], so the first photo is exposed twice, once with flash and once without. Most things in the non-flash exposure are invisible, except for the lamp.

Once at my parents’ house in Nuneaton, Dad demonstrated that while he may be retired now, his knees are still good enough to kneel by the fireplace.

Clearly photos by the fireplace did not offer a sufficient thrill to entice my brothers home, so I went to pick up Edmund from Nuneaton railway station a little later on. Of course,any excuse for some photos…

Here I knelt as close to the edge of the platform as I dared while a train passed. You can see the concrete kerb-stone at the bottom of the picture. The driver gestured that I should get back a bit, but I wasn’t likely to mess up a photo with the price of film these days!

On Sunday, we ate at the Courtyard. Edmund’s girlfriend Lara came along too and I finally managed to get everyone to pose together for this photo. Nobody was quite ready for the snap, but having spent about quarter of an hour setting the camera and flash up, I wasn’t likely to try again! I think the not-quite-posed nature of the picture adds a lot to it :)

After the meal, Oliver took custody of the camera and after some tuition, managed to make it work.

After the meal on Sunday, Hana and I returned home to Bristol. I processed the film, dried it, scanned it, and uploaded it here – long before my parents had even looked at the photos on their digital camera. They’re probably still looking for the USB thing-a-ma-jig that plugs into the digital-ma-bob right now! :D

Who says film is impractical?

[1] I disassembled the flashgun and cleaned the internal copper contact strips with cotton buds and spirit vinegar. I also found out that you have to scrape the oxide off the terminals of each flash bulb before use.


A while back, I bought a Conway Synchronised box camera which came with a Coro Flash included. More recently I managed to get hold of some flash bulbs for it, but had trouble using them.

Using a multimeter and some paperclips I tested each stage of the flashgun and the synchronised trigger mechanism in the camera and found that each stage of the system worked in isolation, but still no joy taking photographs with a flash. I think some of the connections were a bit loose due to corrosion.

I took the (very simple) flashgun apart and washed all of its copper connectors in spirit vinegar to make them red and shiny again. Most importantly, I found it was necessary to scratch the corrosion off the contacts of each bulb before use, using the handle of a teaspoon or similar.

Now I can enjoy reasonably reliable retro flash photography, using Philips Photoflux PF1b flashbulbs. They’re quite expensive but I bought 15 bulbs from eBay for about a tenner. They’re good fun to simulate “proper” retro photography.

A note to anyone who is old enough to remember this stuff from first time round: Sorry for being so excited about obsolete technology. I’m just discovering this stuff for myself and I think it’s great! :D


I heard about Audioboo – a sort of Youtube for audio clips – the other day on BBC Click. I decided to give it a go, since I fairly often embed audio clips in my blog, simply by hosting and linking to MP3s and letting the user’s browser handle the playback. This doesn’t always work out for the best.

So here’s my first attempt at uploading content to Audioboo and embedding it in my blog.

New camera: Coronet Conway Synchronised

For some time now I’ve been wanting to get into medium format photography. I have the right developing stuff to process the films myself, but unfortunately no way of scanning the negatives without buying a flat-bed scanner. But my colleague Paul offered to scan 120 roll film if I processed it first. With this barrier removed, I decided to give it a go.

Many of the readily-available 120-format cameras are so-called “toy cameras” such as the Holga and Diana. I wasn’t interested in modern(ish) toy cameras, and instead looked for anything old and inexpensive.

Eventually I bought a Coronet Conway Synchronised: a cheap 1950s box camera, made in Birmingham. I was drawn to it because it came in its original box with manual, paperwork, and a parabolic flashgun.

Coronet Conway Synchronised

It’s extremely crude, with a fixed aperture and fixed shutter speed at approximately 1/30s (or bulb mode). The lens is fixed-focus from 9 feet to infinity, with a small lever to snap it into “close up” mode – 4 to 9 feet.

What this means is there’s no metering or manual control of any sort. The only control I have over exposure is the choice of film speed. There’s no guidance in the user manual on which film speed to use, so I’ve gone with a fast film – some Ilford HP5+ 400.

I mentioned this camera came with a flashgun, the Coro Flash. It takes bayonet-type single-use flash bulbs like the PF3N. These are almost impossible to come by these days, but fortunately I found that the PF1 with an adapter will fit. PF1 bulbs are somewhat easier to find on eBay, so I’ve ordered a box of 15 and will try my hand at dangerous indoor photography :)

Conway Synchronised with Coro Flash

I shot a roll of any old rubbish, just to test the camera and see if the film was a good match. Turns out the exposure was almost spot-on every time, in a variety of lighting situations, so I’m very pleased. Unfortunately, in my confusion in loading the film I didn’t line up the right set of numbers with the little window on the back of the camera.

The camera is supposed to be wound on 9cm after each photo: by following the numbers, I was winding it on 6cm. The photos are all overlapping. But it has probably worked out for the best. I’ve ended up with a long, blended patchwork panorama of what was otherwise a set of garbage test shots.

Like I said, I don’t have any way of scanning these photos and I’m not about to ask Paul to waste his  time scanning the results of my partially failed experiment. I found a sort of workaround, by attaching the film to my computer screens, bringing up a white page, taking photos on my DSLR, and stitching them together with Hugin. The photos and the stitching are pretty bad, but you get the idea.

How to scan 120 roll film

You can click this preview for a bigger version. As far as I can make out, from left to right, you can see:

  • Two waterfalls in Brandon Hill park
  • Two shots of Cabot Tower, also in Brandon Hill park
  • My friend Nathan on a bench
  • Cabot Tower again
  • Nathan again
  • A leafy landscape
  • A shot over University Hall at Stoke Bishop (with the frames of my screens through it)
  • A long-shutter picture of a car driving past my balcony at night
  • My friends around my table
  • A car in the car park
  • Hana in the car park
  • Two views from my balcony – one portrait, and one landscape

A roll of 120 format film

As you can see, it’s a “disaster” in terms of producing good photos, but I rather like the effect of a mixture of memories from throughout the week. The frames of my monitors doesn’t help, but I might give this technique another go, using my TV screen :D

Stop and think

It was an interesting challenge from Stu this week.

Set up your photo of any subject.
Now stop. Think. Make THREE improvements to your photo.
…and finally take it.

I was somewhat lacking in inspiration, but since I’ve recently become interested in how to light scenes properly, this is a perfect opportunity for some experimenting and improving with an off-camera flash. I had a go with portrait lighting a few weeks ago (also a Tuesday Challenge) so this time I’ll try something a little different.

Attempt 1

I set up this relatively uninteresting scene – a picture of my 35mm SLR on a box, in front of a kitchen cupboard. Sorry, it was the best I could think of. It will probably be quite challenging due to the reflective metal areas on the camera.

Attempt 1

Nice camera, but a poor photo. It was lit using only the ambient light in the kitchen, and it’s too dark. Lots of the camera is in shade, and the top metal part is reflecting the light directly into the camera. This is a scene that could definitely benefit from some carefully directed light.

My digital camera was also in full auto mode, and due to the low light, the camera has bumped the ISO right up, causing some graininess.

Attempt 2

I popped up the built-in flash to cast some more light on the scene.

Attempt 2

As built-in flashes always are, it was a disaster. The light is too hard, too cold and probably worst of all, the “nose” of my camera is casting a shadow.

On the plus side, there is now plenty of light. It’s just in the wrong place.

Attempt 3

I put a hotshoe flash on top of my camera. This is further away from the camera lens, so it shouldn’t cast a shadow, and the greater distance between the flash and the lens should mean more interesting shadows, and a less “flat” picture.

Attempt 3

Well, this is the best so far. But the flash is still too close to the scene, and a large part of the image is overexposed. We need to move the flash somewhere else.

Attempt 4

Now I’ve got the flash on its own tripod, triggered wirelessly. This gives me the freedom to move it around and cast the shadows in any direction. I can also move it nearer or further from the scene. I’ve put a white carrier bag over the flash to diffuse its hard light a little.

The keen-eyed among you might also spot that the SLR is “looking up”. I’ve propped it up with the lid from a bottle of Coke to give it a more “sporty” stance.

Attempt 4

Ah! That’s much better. No badly overexposed regions, no hard lighting and no odd shadows. There’s also detail in the shot – you can clearly see the Canon logo now that light isn’t reflecting directly off the camera body.

It’s still a pretty basic shot, but it’s all I’ve got time for this week :(

Oh, and if you wanted to see how I did it…

The setup shot

Copper macro

I stole the idea for this shot from Paul Seward, who in turn stole it from John Domingo.

With such clear instructions I thought “Meh, how hard can it be?”. I don’t think my result is anywhere near as good as Paul’s or John’s, which just proves it’s probably harder than I thought :)


Given that it was a brand new mirror, straight out of the cellophane, I’m disappointed by the refraction. Maybe I was too close to the mirror.

I found it pretty hard to align the flash. It would be easier with a modelling light so I could adjust the red gel and see where the red light would fall.


The title “On not buying cheap crap” was a close runner up for this article.

A few months ago I bought a set of flashes from eBay. The price was very low, and obviously I wasn’t expecting miracles. For around £130 I managed to get two 150W flashguns, two tripods, all the power and sync cables, wireless triggers, three photographic umbrellas, a softbox and a carry case. Delivered. Not bad!

The build quality of the kit isn’t brilliant, and would quickly break if I lugged it around everywhere like a pro. But it seemed fine for occasional home use and I’ve used the various pieces several times with good photographic results.

The other day I used one of the flashes with a snoot to take a series of smoke photos. I kept the 50W modelling lamp on so I could see what I was doing. After I finished taking the photos, I turned the flash off and went to bed. In the morning, the snoot (held onto the front of the flash by one bolt) had fallen off and was lying on the floor. I didn’t think anything of it until I inspected the flash.

It seems using the snoot had significantly reduced ventilation to the modelling lamp, causing it to get hot enough to soften the plastic. The weight of the snoot (hardly anything!) was apparently enough to cause the front of the flash to sag, where it has now set.

Two flashes and a snoot

The snoot now doesn’t bolt onto the flash properly, so I will have to use it on the other flash. With great caution.

Lessons learnt

  • Don’t expect too much from cheap rubbish. By “too much”, I mean don’t expect it to stay as a solid during use.
  • Use the modelling light as little as possible when using a snoot.
  • If I ever build a hot light, I will not use thermo-softening materials.