Camera technology and photography has changed massively over the past 100 years. When you consider at the turn of the last century, amateur photographers were using cardboard box cameras, and 50 years after that, they were using Argus C3s with coupled rangefinders, interchangeable lenses, and the ability to shoot film that gives you up to 36 exposures on a single roll. To the average photographer in 1900, this technology from the 1950s would have seemed like science fiction!
Fast forward to today, and the technology we have now compared to that same guy or gal shooting that Argus, seems downright archaic compared to the digital mirrorless cameras with 100+ point auto focus systems, 3 inch (or larger) swing out LCD touch screens, and the ability to shoot thousands of images and never have to develop film.
Yet, for all of these advancements, I still enjoy using those old cameras with their rudimentary feature sets. I enjoy slowing down and stepping back into the shoes of a photographer from half a century or more ago and using a fully mechanical camera with automatic nothing….mostly.
The exception to this is when it comes to macro or closeup photography. Most 35mm rangefinder cameras can only focus down to about 3 feet without some type of closeup filter or proximeter installed. SLRs with non macro prime lenses can often go down to about a foot and a half, but if you want to get closer, you have to start adding extra equipment like bellows or extension tubes.
While bellows and extension tubes are still options for digital photography today, they’re not as necessary as many cameras have dedicated macro modes. Even for those who don’t, when you use a closeup lens or extension, the CPU controlled auto focus sensor usually handles the focus for you. My FujiFilm X-T20 has a common feature called focus peaking in which the sharp edges of an in focus image are highlighted on the viewfinder in red making closeup photography a snap!
This wasn’t always so, and that’s why this week, we’re taking a look at an article that first appeared in the September 1957 issue of Modern Photography that discusses methods for achieving closeup shots using 35mm cameras. Reading this article, it made my head hurt. Not so much that I am incapable of using the devices shown, but when you consider using a vintage film camera is already a slower process that requires more concentration and appreciation for fine details, and that the cameras of the day have darker viewfinders that are harder to see through than modern digital cameras, the prospect of me setting up a copying stand with bellows attachment and setting up auxiliary lighting just to take a picture of a bug seems really intimidating.
I’m sure there will be those that scoff at my trepidation for what was once “business as usual”, but like I said, I do appreciate the nature of old cameras, but I think this article reveals that I have my limits. While I am sure that when executed perfectly, getting a great macro shot on film is a very rewarding experience, it’s just not something that interests me.
But therein lies my fascination with it. Throughout my experiences with these older cameras, I’ve learned to appreciate that things like an auto returning reflex mirror, open aperture metering, and double image prevention are features that weren’t always taken for granted, but with macro photography, the gap between how it used to be, and how it is now, is even greater than I would have ever imagined! A ground screen attachment on the back of a Nikon rangefinder! Are you kidding me?
If anyone reading this article has ever captured macro photography successfully using the methods below, I take my hat off to you. Congratulations sir or madam, you have way more patience than I, but the next time you see me out in my garden trying to get that perfect shot of a bee pollinating a flower, I’ll be there happily with my digital mirrorless camera shooting in continuous burst mode while staring at the rear LCD screen hoping that at least one of those shots is good!
If you like history and like seeing the hoops photographers had to jump through to take pictures of bugs and flowers, check out the article below. There’s Exaktas, Praktinas, and even Alpas with all sorts of bellows, extension tubes, and other gadgets for your viewing and reading pleasure. Take a look at the Praktina with bellows attachment on the 4th page as I was able to recreate that same setup in my image earlier in this article!
If one article of looking at scary equipment taking pictures of bugs isn’t enough, I found another. This time, its from the August 1960 issue of Modern Photography, and this one was written by Herbert Keppler himself!
All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2019.