Up until the day I was able to call it “mine” I had never heard about the Burnett-Combo or David Burnett and I was completely unaware of the cult status of Kodak’s Aero Ektar lens.
So why did I buy it? The answer is simply impulse and intuition.
I think it makes sense to pause there for a moment and travel back in time to the beginning of 2016…cue the squiggly lines.
Moved by movements
At the beginning of 2016 I was experimenting with camera movements on a Hasselblad Flexbody. It was a revelation, as it helped me to create pictures that showed more of the magic and mystery I feel all around. I had also started to use film again and was falling in love with the look and the process of it, from choosing the right film to developing it at home.
After a while I began wanting more…more movements, more creative control and most of all more magic – so moving to Large Format seemed a natural next step.
I had read that a Graflex Speed Graphic would be a good and cheap camera to start with and was lucky to find a Speed Graphic that only needed a good cleaning.
Due to the focal plane shutter of the Speed Graphic I was free to choose pretty much whatever lens I fancied, really only being limited by the size of the lens-board and the maximum bellows extension. I knew I wanted a focal length somewhere between 150 and 180 mm, enough coverage for 4×5 film, room for movements and a large aperture to get the look I like.
So off I went, checking my favourite second hand stores online. I only got to the first one and there it was, a Kodak Aero Ektar 7″ (178 mm) lens with an f/2.5 max aperture. It was already mounted on a Speed Graphic lens-board, too! I Googled a few pictures pictures and what I saw seemed to fit nicely with my vision, so into the shopping basket it went and a few days later I mounted it on my Speed Graphic.
That’s when the real adventure started.
How I nearly gave up on the Aero Ektar
I know there are many different ways to use lenses, and the “look” some people like can be found uninteresting or even appalling by others. Most of the time, I like to shoot my lenses wide-open to get the narrow depth of field that I need to create a magical and dreamy look.
I found out quickly that focussing the Aero Ektar was not so easy…and the focus on most of my test shots was a tiny bit off. First I tried to blame my dogs for not holding still for 5 minutes while I was focussing and re-focussing but they made it quite clear that either I needed to get better and faster or they would stop modelling for me.
I was nearly ready to give up…but only nearly and in fact, the solution was actually quite simple – I got a new, bright, clean ground glass with a fresnel, and a magnifying glass.
What a difference, now I could actually see what I was focussing on!
On to the next challenge. As I said before, one major reason for my wanting to use Large Format was the possibility of camera movements. Unfortunately, due to the way my Aero Ektar is mounted on the very lip of the lens-board, it is really front-heavy and camera movements are difficult to adjust finely with the relatively flimsy metal frame and screws of the Speed Graphic’s front standard.
There are two simple solutions, I could either get a lens board where the rear element of the Aero Ektar extended into the bellows to make it more balanced (like the JoLo from Jo Lommen) or, if your Aero Ektar is mounted like mine, to hold the lens when tilting and shifting instead of relying on the front standard…it’s easier and more precise.
A colourful surprise
When I received my lens I had noticed the (now familiar) yellow-brown discolouring of the rear glass, which is caused by radioactive thorium. I wasn’t too happy about the radioactive bit, but the common understanding seems to be that as long as you do not sleep with your lens every night it should not be a problem. What I did not consider was that this staining also has other consequences.
First of all, you lose some light and so my test exposures were all a stop too dark. I adjusted my spot meter accordingly by changing the ISO setting to overexpose the film by one stop – problem gone. As it does not have any impact on the depth of field, I did not really mind.
Your lens might vary, so better do some tests first.
Second and maybe more critical…the first time I used colour film – in this case the beautiful Fuji Velvia 100 – I was up for a very colourful surprise. After the first shock, when I took the film out of the development tank thinking that I had made a mistake during the processing (E6 is quite sensitive and I do it manually), I remembered the discolouration on the lens.
But it did not take me long to see the magic in the colours and now I actually love it. You need to keep in mind though that one of my favourite things to do is to tone my pictures to enhance the feeling.
There are some tips on the internet about putting the lens under UV-light to reduce the staining but I have not tried that. There might also be a possibility to offset the discolouring by using a blueish, cool-toned filter or if you scan your pictures you can of course adjust the white balance or colour-channels in your software (at least Lightroom or Camera RAW/Photoshop make it easy).
I also have yet to test the Aero Ektar with some of the more muted colour films but I think the effects could be quite lovely.
When the magic happens
By now you might be thinking that the Aero Ektar is not worth all the effort but trust me, after the initial trials, when you get it all right for the first time, it can create magic – at least my kind of magic – and you are just one step away from it…
You can take nice enough pictures with the Aero Ektar pretty much everywhere but to bring out the magic you need more than a beautiful or interesting subject, you need a great background and interesting light. When you pay attention to those, the Aero Ektar will give you beautifully smooth out of focus areas with lovely glowing highlights or mysterious shapes and forms.
One of the locations that works really well for this is a forest with soft sun-light shining through the trees. Hopefully, the photos in this article give you a few ideas about what you can do with the Aero Ektar based on different subjects, lighting, movements and aperture – from more traditional to abstract.
- Which only leaves me to say: Enjoy experimenting!
- Last but not least a little summary of my basic tips:
- Only get an Aero Ektar if you really like the look wide open – otherwise it is just a (boringly) normal lens with lots of disadvantages.
- Get a good ground glass (fresnel) and a magnifying glass – if you use a Speed Graphic you might want to find one of the magnifying lenses with longer tubes to keep the viewing hood around the ground-glass on.
- Check the impact on your exposure from the discolouring and adjust your metering accordingly.
- If your lens is discoloured, shoot B&W unless you enjoy colourful surprises
- Be prepared to experiment, experiment and experiment some more – that’s at least what I do!
Thanks for reading!
~ Isabel Curdes
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