A few weeks ago, a friend and I visited an unusual location to take some photographs. In the village of Purton in Gloucestershire is a graveyard of small boats and barges that were deliberately beached on the banks of the River Severn during the last century. The idea was to create an artificial embankment to prevent flood water from the river from flowing into the nearby Gloucester and Sharpness canal, at the narrowest point of separation. The resulting graveyard is an eerie but fascinating place, with the remains of wooden and concrete vessels sticking out of the ground. I’d visited before and taken, among others, the image that is on the front page of my website. The plan this time was for my friend to practice his photography skills and for me to shoot some pictures for a series that I’m working on about the reclaimed landscape. His camera was digital and my weapon of choice was my Hasselblad 500c/m.
I’ve written about the ‘Hassie’ on here previously, because while on holiday at the end of last summer, it spectacularly failed while I was out shooting in the middle of nowhere (see the post Blad Hassle linked here). I was able to repair it once I’d got back to our rented cottage, but the shoot was a bit of a disaster as a result. I’ve used the camera regularly since then, without any issues. The key thing to remember here is that this camera, although legendary in status because of its optical and mechanical build quality, is nearly 40 years old. It’s never been serviced during the time I’ve owned it, because I’ve found the shutter speeds to be pretty accurate and, as the old adage goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The issue it had in September was traced to one of the three lenses that I have, and I’ve since found that regular use is what prevents that particular problem from reoccurring.
We arrived at the ship graveyard and were blessed with plenty of winter sunshine, which I find to be much softer than later in the year. I was shooting Kodak Ektar 100 film, which is the stock I’d selected from the wider series and I had a few rolls in the bag to ensure that I got the shots I wanted. It was a great day, with lots of fresh air, laughs and both of us shooting some really interesting images…or so I thought. A few days after sending the film away to the lab to be developed, I received the negatives. The pictures were indeed good, but they had one thing in common….they were completely ruined by a light leak. For the uninitiated, cameras rely on whatever photosensitive medium it uses to be kept in complete darkness. The only light you want hitting the film, sensor, tin plate, piece of glass etc, should be coming through the lens when the shutter opens. If there is light coming in from elsewhere, it’s bad news. For shooters of ‘didge’, the photo can simply be deleted, an expletive uttered and the camera sent away for repair. For film shooters, it’s a slow and painful burn. I’d shot three rolls of Ektar, which retail at around £16 per roll. Add to that, the cost of developing, in this case a total of £18, I’d just lost 66 quid. The emotional rollercoaster of believing I’d shot some good work, followed by the anticipation while waiting for them to be developed, and finally the total loss of all 36 frames, resulted in a lot of anger and a few tears. So what happened?
Well, the Hasselblad 500 series system uses a removable film transport or ‘back’ that the film is first loaded into and then attached to the camera body. As a professional system that was very popular in its heyday, the concept was that the photographer could continuously shoot by having pre-loaded backs ready to go, swapping them out when a film was finished. When my Dad was a wedding photographer, he’d hand his film backs to his assistant, who would reload in the time it took him to finish his next roll of film. I have 3 backs for my Hasselblad, one which came with the camera when I bought it, and two that I’d found on eBay later. In the post-mortem of this incident, I realised that the back was the most recent one I’d purchased, some 3 years ago. It transpired that I’d loaded it with film at the time, shot most of the roll and forgot about it (when I’d got to Purton, I’d finished the 2 frames left on that roll to empty the back ready for the Ektar). What this meant was, the back was untested. On closer inspection of the unit and the negatives from the shoot, I can see that the light is entering the back via a damaged light seal, which is essentially just a couple of strips of foam and plastic. The problem had always been there, but I’d been too lazy to test it beforehand and hadn’t seen the issue in time to save my photographs.
One of the images with the light leak visible
I always accidentally seem to shoot a blank frame (not the camera's fault), which in this case shows the leak in all its glory
I didn’t write this post to confess to being an idiot, though (I could have done that in much fewer words). What I wanted to discuss are the pitfalls of buying camera gear online without having the chance to physically handle it. I’ve been really lucky with my collection, in that most of the cameras I’ve bought have met the ‘tests’ that I generally go through. Only on a couple of occasions, has poor information or a rogue seller caused me to receive something that doesn’t work properly. The questions I ask are relevant to both film and digital cameras but are perhaps more crucial when dealing with something that could be decades old. The first question or check that I make is simple enough; ‘has it been tested?’. If a seller indicates that a camera has been ‘film tested’, it’s reasonable to assume that they have gone through the process of shooting and developing. They might add that the shutter speeds appear to all work fine, (which is of course subjective rather than objective) but if they’ve shot with the camera, it would be apparent if there were significant inaccuracies. If the camera has a light-meter and it said to be film tested, even better. Mentions of a recent CLA (clean, lubricate and adjust) are the nirvana; the camera has really been treated well if this is the case. If the seller says that it appears to be working, ask questions to elicit the information above. The second thing I want to know is the condition of the lens (if there is one) that’s being sold with it. If there is any mention of lens fungus (yes, fungus can grow on the glass and its coatings), I always avoid. Fungus can be removed, but it’s costly to have it done properly and you can never be sure that it has been completely removed. There are lots of tales about fungus spreading between lenses in the same bag, but I’ve never seen any evidence of it. If a seller doesn’t provide decent pictures of the lenses or fails to admit to damage, there are routes to return the equipment as ‘not as described’. When it comes to digital cameras, the two additional things I always ask are “how many shutter releases has it had?” and “what is the condition of the battery?”. The first question is like asking how many miles a car has on the clock. If the camera has an electro-mechanical shutter and in the case of a DSLR, a mirror, it’s useful to know the wear and tear on the camera, particularly if it’s getting on bit. Digital cameras came into the fore in the early 2000s, so some of them are over 20 years old now. The good news is that most digital cameras, particularly the higher-end ones, keep a record of shutter releases. The seller should be able to find out how to furnish you with that information. If the camera has been extensively used, there is a risk it might need costly work to repair in the near future. The battery question is a real gotcha. Some camera manufacturers maintain battery designs for many years, for example Nikon have refined the design of the battery for the D6 and D6s cameras, but they kept them compatible with my old D4, which is 10 years old. However, some manufacturers don’t and when they are discontinued, that’s it. In these cases, you need to know how well the battery charges and holds its charge. If it turns out to be a problem after you’ve bought it, the only option may be to buy a third-party battery. This path is very risky, as there are some proper cowboys making batteries these days. Aside from all that, buying used gear is a great idea as cameras are often useful beyond their ‘fashionable’ life. In the case of film cameras, there are some proper bargains out there and with the right treatment, will probably still be working long after we have gone. In fact, most of the original owners of my film camera collection are long dead. Whatever you do, I hope you buy something and start making photographs as it’s very rewarding, even when it goes wrong. In my case, I’ll go back to Purton soon with a film back that doesn’t leak. It’s not as though the wrecks are going anywhere, is it?