New Year, old camera?

As I eagerly, yet impatiently, await Nikon’s latest announcement and delivery of their new line of digital SLRs (early 2012 please?) I instead found another “new” camera that just outright, completely oozes coolness without the high tech specs of today’s digital models. While checking out an eclectic antique shop in New Oxford, PA this week with my wife Erin I stumbled upon “The” camera of my fellow past press photographers. It was a WWII era Graflex Speed Graphic “press” camera (above). It was priced right and came with 14 film holders. The serial number on the camera was worn off so I had to do my homework. I used the camera’s lens to give me a production range. Photos from the web also quickly narrowed the camera model down to the early 1940’s. Was it Dirty? Yes. A little patina and crusty too? Yep. Did it even work? Not sure. Finding 4X5 film for it and then having it processed would be a process in itself (and quite expensive). Well, to be honest, I didn’t get it to take on my next photo shoot (although it would be interesting to see the reaction of my clients as I walk in with it) I got it for its sheer coolness factor and the history that the camera has probably documented. I would love to know a little bit about the shutterbug who used this relic. The photographer marked each film holder with “Hugh”, I assume his name. I am researching it. It will now simply be displayed with the rest of my collection.

I thought it would be interesting to see how this camera would stack up against a few basic rumored specs of the new D4 and my current model. I admittedly didn’t know a lot about this camera before I picked it up. First off, I could not believe how heavy the Speed Graphic was. It was a press camera and although it was possible to put on a tripod most times the news photographers were handholding these as they did their run and gun shooting. It was about 7 pounds with the lens. Pretty heavy right? Then I weighed my current Nikons and the lenses I generally shoot with only to find that they weigh anywhere from 5-8 pounds each! I carry two bodies with lenses most everywhere I go…most old timers carried one body. That’s twice the weight of one Speed Graphic. Advantage, Speed Graphic (and thus my shoulder).

The Speed Graphic gets it name from the fast 1/1000 shutter speed it offered by its’ focal plane shutter. To confuse matters, it also has a second shutter in the lens. The D4 shutter should top out at 1/16000. I generally shoot at 1/1000 or slower anyway but occasionally hit 1/2500 or higher.  I could live with 1/1000 offered by the Speed Graphic I guess.

The rumored D4 is said to be shooting at around 12 frames per seconds. The Speed Graphic frame rate is slightly less.  In a nutshell, after each shot you have to insert the slide back into the film holder to protect the negative inside it; then pull the film holder out of the camera and re-insert on the opposite side (each holder was two sided), pull that slide out, re-focus and frame if necessary then shoot and re-insert the slide back into the film holder again. Repeat. I didn’t time myself changing the film holder out but I was slow. I am sure the folks using these back in the day were incredibly quick at it. It meant getting the shots or not. It also proves that waiting for the “moment” was critical. You often times had one chance to capture the image that would tell the story. Today I notice photographers laying on the shutter button and not letting off until the dust settles and the buffer is full. Indeed, that may get you the shot after editing out the other 75 images around it. Skill, patience and knowing when the peak moment in the action will occur also says a lot about the photographer. I’d like to think after 20 years of shooting I could get “the shot” with a Speed Graphic. So again, the Speed Graphic hangs in there.

Framing and focusing have been simplified greatly by today’s bright viewfinders and “Live View” modes many cameras have. My Speed Graphic has the ground glass, an optical tube viewfinder, a crude peep site, an even cruder wire frame finder that pulls up on the front of the camera supposedly used to frame and follow fast action and then a more precise Kalart rangefinder mounted to the side. That’s a lot of options!

Without getting overly technical, today’s very high megapixel cameras coupled with some incredibly sharp lenses have reached a point that can match or many times even exceed that of traditional film. This is hotly debated…BUT the 4 inch by 5 inch negative will also give you an incredible amount of detail and ability to make some sweet enlargements.

I could go on and on about this camera. My New Years resolution: I will sell off my digital cameras and start shooting with the Speed Graphic instead!

On the downside however, I did have a hard time finding where the compact flash slot was on the Speed Graphic. Didn’t see a button to change the ISO sensitivity from shot to shot or where the custom white balance settings were. I couldn’t find the menu with custom settings anywhere on the Speed Graphic and, in fact, after pressing all the buttons on the thing I never did even get a hi-resolution monitor to come up on the back of it.  My lithium ion batteries are apparently not compatible either. I tried hooking it up to my Macintosh but couldn’t find the proper cables. I would need to special order that. It does seem a bit complicated to focus and doesn’t have a 51-point autofocus system. I bet it won’t do HD video either. Ok, so maybe this isn’t the right camera for me to use in the new year. It’s not 1942 anymore. Technology has changed immensely and we need to embrace it to keep pushing forward but we still need to look back now and then at how it was done in the past by all those great photographers. Now, how about that new digital camera line announcement Nikon?

Cheers to all. Have a Happy New Year and great 1942….errrrrr 2012.

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