I came back to film in early 2019. The camera I bought was a Rolleicord III. It was the same model as the first serious camera I owned back in the late 1990s. I got that first Rolleicord from my grandmother, who had bought it when she was studying in Switzerland in the 1950s, but who by then had already given up photography for a couple of decades.
My grandfather, who was a pro photographer for a while, gave me a Sekonic light meter and when my grandma gave me the camera along with it came a Rolleikin 35mm film adapter – which wasn’t working. I took it to the photo lab/camera store in the city where I was studying and the guy said it was a criminal waste to try to use that camera for 135 film!
He took the Rolleikin away, repaired it and sold me a couple of rolls of 120.
Starting photography with a manual medium format camera, on a student’s budget and in a foreign country, I had a steep and expensive learning curve in front of me. For a while in the late nineties and early aughts I had access to a darkroom for developing and printing. I didn’t shoot as much as I wanted because, film, in particular medium format, was a bit too expensive but I shot regularly, even when I couldn’t develop or enlarge myself anymore.
I would later buy a 35mm film SLR, a Canon AE-1, and even later, on a visit to Ecuador, my grandfather would give me his ‘portrait lens’ for that system, a 100mm f/2. That lens ended up rolling down a mountain. I still hanker for it.
By the late 00s both of the cameras needed repair and I was mostly shooting digital compacts. As I was going away indefinitely to live abroad, I left the cameras to friends who’d shoot them. I shot digital compacts exclusively for about a decade, and in the fall of 2018 I ended up buying a full-frame mirrorless camera. Adapting old manual lenses to it and listening to podcasts celebrating analog photography got me eager to shoot film again.
As I was scrolling through a certain auction website last year, it made sense to look for that Rolleicord again. Interestingly, the prices were much more affordable than I remembered. I bid on a model with a very short description — usually a bad sign — and got it for 51 Swiss Francs (about the same in US dollars), which is almost certainly a lot less than what I paid for the repairs made to my grandmother’s camera way back when.
Add to that a developing tank, developer, fixer and stop bath and a couple of rolls of film and I was still well below the 200 Dollars mark. In hindsight, I should have bought the dark bag there and then. I spent a couple of months fitting towels under doors and trying to make my bathroom dark enough for loading film onto the developing tank reels. At the beginning I would load film during my young son’s naps, as the door had no lock and there was no way of convincing him that he shouldn’t enforce an open-door policy at all times.
The Rolleicord III K3B is a TLR that shoots twelve square 6x6cm frames on a roll of 120 format film. Built between 1950 and 1953 as part of a long line of affordable, consumer market models to accompany the up-market Rolleiflex. It is solid and well made but at 830 grams it weighs about the same as a 1960s or 70s SLR with lens. The taking lens, a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar 75mm f3.5, is a four-element Tessar copy and is not particularly great when shot wide open. Something I needed to be reminded of when I started shooting it again in February 2019. Also, at f/3.5, the depth of field is very thin and the viewfinder is not super bright.
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Focusing in low light is not particularly easy. It became clear soon enough — by the third or fourth roll — that the camera needed a CLA. The film transport mechanism is, in my experience one of the weak links in this model, and by the 6th or 7th frame, it sometimes becomes hard, or impossible to advance the film. Since the CLA I’ve shot about 40 rolls on it, and have since bought a Rolleicord V to serve as a backup. It has the same lens, a double exposure prevention system and a better film transport mechanism. I now use both pretty regularly.
I shot two-thirds of my first roll, Kodak T-MAX 400, inside my apartment under rather low light conditions – I missed focus twice. I took eight frames of my wife, alone, and with my then five months old daughter. I then took another four frames outside of a house that was being demolished.
Although I’d like to crop and reframe all of the images in that first roll, I think there are at least two images that I’d like to try and print in the darkroom.
This roll had a relatively high keeper rate for any of my rolls of film, let alone the first but it probably has to do more with the subject matter than with intrinsic image quality. One of the keepers — the shot of my wife and daughter from behind the sofa — was made just after taking basically the same shot with my digital camera. I took two of those and missed focus on one. This kind of dependence of my analog photography upon my digital one is something that disappeared very quickly. I now meter with my phone or with a spotmeter. Still, it was reassuring at the beginning.
Four of the frames are portraits of my wife wearing a stripey blouse with sunder the shadows made by the window blinds. I wanted a very contrasty shot, so I exposed for the highlights. I should have framed the shots tighter and lower (they are cropped here). I’m happy I was unsure of myself and ended up taking four shots, testing my wife’s patience.
The last one below is perhaps the one I like the most. Whenever I come back to it, I’m unsure of how much of the shadows I want to show. Also, I now feel that the clever play of the shirt with the shadows of the blinds is too busy and distracting. Anyway, I hope to be in the darkroom with that negative soonish and will try to produce a satisfying print. I’ll probably end up being just as ambivalent as I am now.
The final shot below is typical of what happens when you first try to use a waist-level finder, which reverses the horizontal axis, after having used eye-level viewfinders for a while. My wife was holding something she had sewn so that I could take a picture of it and her. I tried to include more of the thing in the shot, and so I quickly and confidently reframed, pressed the shutter, and realized that I had moved in the wrong direction. There is no amount of cropping that would save that image.
Final comments about the feeling of coming back to film and what that first roll meant to you.
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Poorly exposed, badly framed and blurry photos? No-one is perfect, especially when shooting their first roll of film...but that's ok and I'd like to spread that message. Submit as many frames from your first roll as you're able to with an accompanying text of at least 500 words using this Google form. If you would prefer to submit another way, please use the contact link at the top of the page.
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You have a lovely honest way of writing. You pictures have the same honest quality. Thanks very much for taking the time to write.
Thanks Conor. Random thoughts: I suspect it’s easier to write about pictures that one doesn’t feel the need to stand for because, to some extent, there’s always the excuse of it’s being the first roll. I guess it’d be interesting for me to try and write about pictures that don’t allow for those kind of excuses. One day…
What a great story. Reminds us of the generational aspect of both the practice and the subjects of much photography. My love of photography was very much inherited from my late father. As were his three Barnack Leicas and a Swiss alp of photo junk he collected at camera bring and buy sales 🙂
Thanks. Those Barnacks are beautifully built and I love the magnification on the focusing window. I’ll get one someday.
Thanks! Starting to shoot film again has been a wonderful adventure.
Lovely story and pictures to match. 🙂