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April 23rd, 2018

When Cameras Brutalize Film

I use stainless steel developing tanks and wire reels to develop film. I’ve been hooked on them since I was a teenager, probably for the same reason I get hooked on a lot of things that aren’t made of cheap plastic. I like having solid, reliable, built to last things in my life. But there is a lot of interest in the plastic tanks and reels, largely because many of those systems claim to be self loading.

People complain the stainless wire reels are too hard to load without the film jumping over a track and ruining the negatives. I’ve never had that problem, and always assumed people were just doing it wrong. Keep a steady tension on the film and keep it aligned with the reel as you’re loading it and it always works. Plus, if you always shoot the full 36 exposure rolls there is a simple check to see if you’ve jumped a track: if you get to the end of the roll before you get to the end of the reel you need to back up and find where it jumped.

Granted all this is a bit hard at first in pitch darkness. When I was a teen I sacrificed a roll of cheap B&W film so I could practice loading the reels in daylight, until I could do it right every time with my eyes closed. Oddly, sometimes I still close my eyes in the darkroom, pointless though that is.

I’ve never had a problem with this…until recently. And now I think I understand better what’s going on. See…I’ve been a Canon camera kid since I was a teenage boy with his first F1 he worked all summer flipping burgers to buy. And the take up spindle in Canon cameras rolls the film With the natural film curl. My first 35mm SLR, the Petri FT, took up the film Against the curl, and so did the Maranda Sensorex I traded up for. They did that allegedly to keep the film perfectly flat against the shutter frame. Canon, more reasonably, just made the pressure plate bigger. Over the years I’d forgotten how much easier the Canon made loading film onto those wire reels because the film wasn’t all kinked out of shape by the camera.

But now I’ve added two Nikon SLRs to my camera arsenal: a classic F with both standard and Photomic Ftn metering viewfinders, and an F2, with the first generation Photomic head which I am still scouting standard finders for. And I am rediscovering how difficult it is to load the wire frames after those cameras have had their way with a roll of film. I shot a roll with the F last Saturday morning and that afternoon it was a pain getting it on the reel. It happened to be the first one going into the tank and I fussed with it for minutes until I finally got it on. Then came the others from the Canon F1N and they went on without any complaining, and that made me take notice of the difference and I remembered.

Back in the day I was a pretty fierce Nikon critic, and it was this sort of thing that gave me the bad attitude. Don’t even get me started. But time brings perspective and I can appreciate what they did get right, even if what they relentlessly got wrong still irritates. I work with them now, in addition to my Canon F series SLRs, because of a thing I suspect only the old fully mechanical cameras have…a kind of human/machine rapport that can work with you artistically, depending on what you are reaching for.

The analogy I make is to how some musicians have many instruments for playing different kinds of music. It’s more than tonality, it’s how the feel of the instrument helps the artist in the expression of the work. That may sound wonky to some but I’ll bet every guitarist reading this knows what I’m talking about. What I discovered some years ago, when I examined the Nikon F2 I eventually bought in a camera store in Topeka Kansas, is that cameras can give you that feel across the human/machine boundary that helps the work too. I’d never really considered that before in my cameras, though I’d long known about it with my brushes and pens. I’d been very particular about those since I was in my single digits.

So I’ve made my peace…kind of…with Nikon cameras. And actually the Leica’s take up spool does the same damn thing to the film, but I forgive it because the Leica engineers got Everything else exactly right. That little rangefinder blows both the Canons and the Nikons away.

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