Voigtlander Vitoret: Test/Review

The Voigtlander Vitoret is a relatively inexpensive camera manufactured in the 1960s in Braunschweig, then-West Germany. It’s pretty simple compared to its fancier cousin, the Vito, and it came in different versions – with an exposure meter, rangefinder, and other features – but this is the simplest of them – set your aperture (f/2.8-f/22), shutter speed (1/30, 1/60, 1/125 and bulb), estimate distance/focus, and click. The long stroke film advance cocks the shutter and it has a large viewfinder. Underneath, it keeps track of how many shots you have taken. It’s got a Prontor leaf shutter and a Lanthar 50mm/2.8 lens, or like mine) if built for export, a Vaskar 50mm/2.8 lens.

I’ve seen other folks get some pretty nice pictures with their Vitorets, but mine didn’t turn out great and honestly the camera did the job but it wasn’t that fun to shoot, in terms of feel, shutter sound, etc. I actually forgot I had film in it for quite awhile – some of the shots were taken in Mauritius, and then later in Madagascar, and then I forgot about the film (Fuji 400H) for a year or so, and that may have contributed to the loss in photo quality. some of the issues I blame on waiting so long to develop the film, but a good 50% of the shots were also blurry – maybe my fault for failing to estimate distance accurately, but not a lot of room for error Here are a few sample shots:

Rocks and Water
Rocks and running water, Mauritius. The camera did a good job here.
Salt Production
Evaporating sea water to get salt in Mauritius
On the Path
Walking around the neighborhood in Madagascar
Ducks and Geese
More scenes from Madagascar. I find it odd that some of the ducks appear to be transparent?
Laundry Point

Overall, meh camera but still working nicely nearly 60 years after manufacture. I may put a roll of black and white through it in the future, but for now it’s going on the shelf. See more photos shot with the Voigtlander Vitoret here.

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Yet Another Sh*tty Camera Challenge

If you spend any time on “film photography twitter” you’ll have heard about the CULT (allegedly) that is the Sh*tty Camera Challenge. The rules are simple: find a camera that costs less than a roll of film and see what you can do with it.

This time around we were given a bit more time (3 months) than in previous editions, which is a good thing since I moved from Madagascar to Burundi and had to wait for all my film stuff since you can’t exactly drop off your film in downtown Bujumbura.

Back in August I acquired my camera: a handsome bright red plastic specimen that looked like a toy plastic from the 1990s or so. I had stopped by a camera shop in Pretoria, South Africa called Ludwig’s Photographic and when I walked in I saw he had a huge collection of vintage cameras stacked on shelves all over his shop. I looked at a couple of Kodak Retinas and picked up a tiny Minox for a very reasonable price, and when I expressed interest in the Braun, he threw it in for free.

It’s a cute little camera with an automatic flash and what appears to be autofocus. It was a bit cranky in terms of operation – I had to fiddle with it quite a bit before the shutter button would work, and if you forgot to shut it off the battery died pretty quick (and it won’t let you take photos without a working flash). But I took it along with me on a business trip to Geneva and gave it my best.

It turns out that according to the limited information available on the internet, the Braun camera company was started in 1915 but they stopped producing cameras in the 1960s because they had trouble competing with the Japanese. Given this new information, I was much more impressed with the fact that this 60+ year old camera still functioned at all! Incidentally, the company still exists, but they now sell photo- and optics-related accessories.

So how were the results? Surprisingly, there weren’t as many blank spots on the film as I had feared. I had chosen a gloomy time to visit Geneva, and thus the photos are a bit underexposed, and the Fuji 400H film in many cases has a lot of noise. A number of photos are also out of focus. But in retrospect it performed remarkably well, and it’s all in the spirit of the #sh*ttychallenge.

If you’re interested in results from previous challenges, you can check them out here and here. Thanks for checking out my results!

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Found Film from the 1940s: Prudential!

Some of you who have looked at my blog once or twice are aware that I used to develop “found film” that was found undeveloped inside cameras, either that I had bought or that someone else had found inside a camera and didn’t know what to do with. Occasionally it would be a trove of “lost” negatives I would come across. Anyway, I stopped doing that, mostly because it became trendy and the prices of found rolls of film started to go up beyond what I was willing to pay (for a gamble).

I have a collection of about 100 film cameras I carry around as I move around the world and I spent the better part of the weekend building shelves to put them on display. Along with the cameras is a fair amount of photography paraphernalia that has showed up with the occasional purchase, including these metal Kodak canisters that were produced until the early 1970s.

I’m not sure why I never opened them all, but I decided to look inside a few and to my surprise I found film inside them – tightly rolled up and smelling of vinegar (not a good sign, I’m told). But I could tell the images were quite sharp and I couldn’t wait to scan them and see what had been stored inside those little metal cans all those years.

Found Film Prudential

I found pictures of a young family. A young man and a young woman, with two young daughters. Although the film was mainly Super XX and Plus X “safety film,” which was manufactured until the 1980s or later, the hairstyles and clothing suggested older.

Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential

What I found interesting about the photos, however – apart from the many posed family photos – was that about half the shots were of a building under construction:

Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential

I was able to determine from some of the photos that this was, in fact, the construction of the **stern home office of Prudential Insurance (with the first three letters unreadable).

Found Film Prudential

I’m guessing the photographer’s father, or father-in-law, was a key figure in the construction of this building because there are several portraits of him. I began searching for Prudential insurance buildings from the 1940s. Why that time frame? Because of this single photo:

Found Film Prudential

I initially thought the building was Prudential’s Jacksonville headquarters, seen here in 1955. But the building wasn’t quite right, and it didn’t explain the sign in front of the construction site, which clearly said “**stern” and not “southern.” Prudential is headquartered in Newark, NJ, so odds were this was the company’s Western headquarters.

Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential

So I decided to look further west. And I found the company’s Los Angeles “western” headquarters, which, when it was built in 1948 by Wurdeman and Becket was, at the time of its construction, the tallest and largest privately owned structure in the city, spanning two city blocks and holding 517,000 square feet of office space on Los Angeles’s “Miracle Mile.” According to this post, the building “altered the character of the Miracle Mile from a shopping destination to a white-collar office district. Its International Style design also marked a stylistic change for its architects.” 

But I wasn’t fully convinced. One side of the building wasn’t quite right.

Found Film Prudential
Found Film Prudential

I consulted Google Maps and decided that either I had the wrong building, or else they must have added another wing onto the flat side shown two photos up. It was the signs on the photo below, “Steel Work Bethlehem Pacific,” but more importantly, the sign announcing the future home of “Ohrbach’s” that convinced me this was the old Prudential Western Headquarters at 5757 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, under construction in 1947/48.

Found Film Prudential

Per the aforementioned article, Ohrbach’s, a New-York-based store, occupied this building until 1965. And Pacific is, well, Pacific.In 1982, Prudential moved to a larger building, leaving behind a piece of the rock of Gibraltar, its iconic trademark image, in the lobby. The building was renamed Museum Square. In 1993, the Screen Actors’ Guild moved its national headquarters into the building and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists followed in 1997. And as a part of the lease agreement, which expires in 2026, the building was renamed the SAG-AFTRA Plaza in 2014.

So the older child in these photos was likely born in 1945 or so. And her younger sister, shown below, I’m guessing, in 1947 or 1948. I wonder if they are still around and if they wonder where their photos ended up?

Found Film Prudential

My favorite photo of the entire 96-photo collection, however, is the one below. This lady appears in two of the photos in the entire collection, and I’m guessing she was an auntie of the little girl. But all we can say for sure is that she had an ice cream cone in the hospital in the late 1940s, and was filmed on 8mm enjoying it.

Found Film Prudential

I’ve uploaded my favorite 36 photos of the collection here, in case you want to see more, or prove that my sleuthing was incorrect.

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Episode 3 of “Artisans” Published!

Eons ago (ok, October last year) I posted the first episode in a series of mini-documentaries about jobs in the informal sector in Madagascar, about the traveling blacksmiths that wander through the city repairing umbrellas, plastic tubs, roofs…

A couple of weeks later, the second episode, about brickmakers. And then, for a long time, nothing. I had recorded the footage for two more episodes, and with the help of my Malagasy language teacher, eventually translated the footage, but I didn’t think the stories were quite complete. My friend Safidy, who created Zanaky ny Lalana, was busy building a new house, but we finally found the time to head back out to La Reunion Kely to gather what turned out to be excellent footage. I had repaired my drone and re-shot the aerial scenes I had missed the first time (I forgot to record!).

I didn’t realize Safidy had arranged for Benja, my subject, to create a piece of jewelry from start to finish – more than two hours of recording – and I didn’t have enough battery juice to finish. Luckily, Safidy stepped in and shot some great macro footage with his Olympus camera, supplemented with what I could gather on my iPhone and we made it work.

Then came my departure from Madagascar, a long period of leave in Oregon during which I thought I’d edit video but never managed to, and a move to Burundi. Finally, a year later, I finished this episode – I think the best yet in the series, about Benja, who left his job as a truck driver and retreated to La Reunion Kely, an informal settlement in Antananarivo, to create jewelry from discarded metal or old coins.

Benja made a vangovango, a traditional Malagasy bracelet, from discarded aluminum cable, and it was amazing to watch him work. In the end, I insisted on buying the finished product, for which he wanted 12,000 Malagasy francs (about $2.40) but needless to say I paid him a bit extra for his time. It was fascinating to see him work, using tools he had adapted or created from discarded materials to shape his artistic creation.

And so now I am pleased to announce the completed video, which will form an integral part of my grad school application(s). I’m pretty proud of how it turned out – please give it a look so it will have lots of views by the time the selection committee has a look!

There will be one final (fourth) episode in this series. The background music you hear throughout all three episodes, played on a traditional Malagasy valiha – I’ve interviewed the gentleman who plays that music, and made the instrument on which it is played. But that will be done once I submit my college apps. Until then, I hope you enjoy seeing how Benja upcycles discarded metal to create jewelry!

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An Old Camera Gets a New Life

Admittedly, I own too many cameras. So when it was time to leave Madagascar, I invited a couple of friends – who happen to be the only other film photographers in Madagascar, as far as I know – to see if anything caught their attention.

Safidy and Toni browsed my collection just days before they were destined to be packed in boxes and shipped to mainland Africa, and Toni liked the heft and feel of one that happens to also be a favorite – but I never really used much (another sign I own too many cameras). It’s a 1958 rangefinder I blogged about here, that I had acquired from an estate sale of the late Lieutenant Colonel (ret) Robert Williams, who had passed away in late 2008. How do I know? He engraved his social security number in the bottom.

Aires 35V, manufactured in 1958 or 1959

I always thought I had only ever run a single roll of black and white film through it, but when I went hunting for a photo of Toni, I stumbled across a folder of color photos I had taken with the Aires at Safidy’s wedding, where we can see Toni doing what he loves best.

Toni is third from the right, snapping a photo. Safidy and his soon-to-be bride are at the table of honor, in the center.

I asked Toni if, once he had a chance to experiment with the Aires, to send me some samples and he recently obliged. It’s great to see an old camera like this get a new life with yet another owner, and I’m certain it will keep clicking for years to come. If not, hopefully Toni will pass it on to another person who appreciates it as much as the late LTC Williams, I, and he did!

Toni’s pictures featured below. You can learn more about Toni’s work and see some of the phenomenal pictures he has taken over the years with cameras both digital and analog, at his website.

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Memories of Favorite Places: Ile aux Nattes, Madagascar

Off the eastern coast of the island of Madagascar stretches a 57-kilometer long by 5 kilometers wide island, covered mostly in green and dotted with thatched-roof villages. Ile Sainte-Marie (Saint Marie’s Island), or Nosy Boraha, as it is known in the local Malagasy, is a popular destination among the whale watching community (see this post for our whale-watching experience) late every summer.

And just off the southern tip of Ile Ste Marie is another small island, Ile aux Nattes. It’s about 10 kilometers all the way around (I’ve “run” it – involves splashing through shallow water in places or clambering over rocks) and separated from Ile Ste Marie by only about 300 meters and a short pirogue ride.

Inside a pirogue. Aerochrome infrared film turns the trees red.

Ile aux Nattes is ringed with small resorts, most of which have been there for years, and are owned by foreigners who love the simplicity and tranquility of the island. There are no cars on the island, and people get around either via the packed red clay trails that criss-cross the island, or via the small boats that work the perimeter of the island.

Aerochrome infrared photo from the south end of Ile aux Nattes

From the southern end of the smaller island, you see nothing but blue sea as a lagoon stretches at least three miles into the distance before reaching the distant breakers. Les Lemuriens (“the lemurs”), a small resort, is a frequent lunch destination for visitors to the island – the food is excellent – but you can also stay in their bungalows and spend the day reading or napping in a hammock strung from the trees overhanging the water.

It’s a magical place; there’s not a lot of touristic hoopla but you can simply relax, or you can venture over to the main island and rent a moped and explore, stop somewhere for freshly-caught seafood, or dine in some truly amazing restaurants. There’s also a Pirate Cemetery, as the island was once known as a getaway for pirates who marauded the Indian Ocean, and many of whom ended up settling here.

Enjoy my video tour of both islands.

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Introducing Kids in Madagascar to Photography: Results (3)

This is the third in series of posts in which I write about introducing kids to photography, using point-and-shoot film cameras from the 1980s and 90s, at the youth center, Le Cameleon, in Antananarivo, Madagascar. You can find previous posts in this series herehere and here.

When it came time for the kids to choose their third roll, I had extra color and black-and-white film and I offered them their choice. I was hoping they’d opt for black and white, and they generally did – but I think it was mainly because they knew this would be their last roll before we had to wrap up the project, and my color film was 24-exposure and the black and white offered 36!

Feno

For some reason, this roll of Feno’s turned out a bit out of focus, but it can have a lot to do with the camera we gave him. I still appreciated his choice of subjects, and honestly every photo doesn’t have to be razor-sharp to be good. His photos make me a little nostalgic for the many times we went to Anjezika, both to build the center and to work with the kids, because I think they accurately capture the mood of the neighborhood.

Much of Anjezika is partially under water for part of the year. This presents a real health risk for its residents and contributes to one of the leading causes of death for children in Anjezika: drowning.
There is no sewage in Anjezika; toilets are built by digging a hole, adding bricks to increase the depth of the holding tank, and then adding a superstructure wih a toilet of sorts. They eventually overflow, and when it floods, the sewage mixes with the floodwaters.
Many people in Anjezika earn money by selling food at improvised shops.

Hasina

Hasina rejoined the group for the final session. We learned that he doesn’t actually live in the community, but has to walk several kilometers to enjoy the center’s services; maybe he has relatives here – we weren’t really sure. But I thought this was a phenomenal photo, even with the framing issue – if it were mine, I’d fix it with a slight crop. And yes, I know that’s cheating!

Nevada

Nevada also re-joined us for the final session, and we had a hard time selecting just a few photos from a roll which pretty much all turned out well. She clearly likes portraits, and the only real problem was occasionally cropping the tops.

Self-portrait by Nevada
Another excellent self-portrait, in my opinion.
Family photo

Nantenaina

Nantenaina was our most regular participant – he was always the first to arrive, and his results were consistently good, once he stopped opening everyone’s cameras 😉

I like his attention to backgrounds.

It’s a bit blurry but I like what he was trying to do here.
I love this photo – how he framed it, the expression he captured – everything. Nantenaina has an excellent eye!
Interesting angle!

Sarobidy

Sarobidy also proved she has an excellent eye and attended every session, studying her proof sheets carefully to see how she could do better. For this last session I had told each of the students to try and capture things that were important to them or held meaning, and I think Sarobidy did this well. Like some of the other kids, she often wanted to be the subject of the photo, but she would set up the scene and then let the other person know when to press the shutter button.

So what’s next? Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to implement the entire program we had envisioned – I had wanted to print their best photos in large format and host an exhibition at the center, but we simply ran out of time. I was able to print postcard-size photos of all of their best shots and I left them their negatives. Rendi, a friend of the center living in the United States, donated a digital camera which Nantenaina uses to shoot updates for the Facebook page; and they are working on getting a DSLR. Safidy, our partner and the visionary behind the center, is mentoring three of the kids to see if their early exposure to photography can translate into something that can lead to a better future for them.

And as for me, I’ve moved on from Madagascar, but I’ve learned from the experience and am looking forward to implementing this program again in other countries and communities!

Posted in Good Causes, Madagascar, Photography, general | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Introducing Kids in Madagascar to Photography: Results (2)

This is one of a short series of posts in which I write about introducing kids to photography, using point-and-shoot film cameras from the 1980s and 90s, at the youth center, Le Cameleon, in Antananarivo, Madagascar. You can find previous posts in this series here and here.

Previously I wrote about how we had sent the kids away, each with a different camera, and a roll of color film. When they came back, the intention was to actually demonstrate how the film gets developed, but this ended up being logistically too challenging, given the lack of running water, and so instead I brought the equipment and explained the process. We were even able to use a dark bag I had brought along to demonstrate how the tanks get loaded to “unstick” a roll of film inside one of the cameras.

For the black and white roll, we repeated the process, and it was clearer to explain about the difference between positive and negative images using the monochrome images. Given that I had given them some less expensive “student” film to practice with, there were some issues with the results, but I was able to correct most of it using Photoshop, since the errors weren’t a reflection of mistakes made by the kids.

And here the results of week two:

Feno

Feno had an issue with his camera, with a lot of blank images in the middle of the roll. We never figured out why, and he was disappointed at only getting one decent shot on the roll of 36.

Nantenaina

Hasina and Nevada didn’t show up this week. We agreed that Nantenaina’s photos showed talent and improvement. They come up a bit dark here on the blog, but we discussed how he’s paying attention to proper framing, his backgrounds, and consciously placing his subjects where he wants them. I like that he is experimenting with different kinds of subjects as well. Great job Nantenaina!

He loves his cats – they feature regularly in his photography.

Sarobidy

Sarobidy clearly has a preference for portraits, and they are well exposed and generally well framed, though we talked about extraneous things in the edges of the photos. But she is good at capturing expressions at the exact right moment.

Love this shot! If only that guy weren’t on the right!
Self-portrait, this time correctly aimed.

You can see the final installment in this series here.

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Introducing Kids in Madagascar to Photography: Results (1)

I wrote last time about the youth center, Le Cameleon, we crowdfunded and built in Antananarivo, Madagascar, and the project we organized to introduce a half dozen interested kids to photography, using point-and-shoot film cameras from the 1980s and 90s.

I was excited and hopeful the kids would wind up with good results, because I didn’t want them to be discouraged by their first try. We had spent a fair amount of time explaining how light enters the camera and affects the chemistry on the film, on framing, and use of light. All of the cameras we had given them were slightly different, with different features and capabilities, but we avoided showing them things like the timer function and complicated flash settings (other than off/on). We put the (color) film in the cameras for them and suggested themes, like “animals” or “buildings”, or “portraits” and sent them off until the following week.

But kids are curious and clever when it comes to figuring out how things work. One of the kids complained that someone else had opened her camera and exposed the film. As it turns out, he had also opened his own camera, and he wasn’t alone in this. But this ended up being instructive, as we were able to show them what happens when there is a light leak. We also learned that you can’t get too close to your subject, or your camera can’t focus properly. A couple of the girls figured out how to use the timer function to take selfies, but they didn’t figure out how to aim the camera correctly and ended up taking pictures of their chest and lower jaw. So this first roll was a great learning opportunity, and all of the kids were able to find a few photos they were pleased with.

And so here are some of those photos they were pleased with from that first roll:

Feno

Hasina

One of Hasina’s very first images, which I personally thought was very nice.
Hasina figured out on his own that his camera had a “normal” and a “panoramic” option.

Nevada

Nevada was the one who complained her camera had been opened partway through. I assumed the photos would be ruined and gave her a second roll. But was surprised when she had a lot of properly exposed photos!
Nevada’s task was to take portraits.

Nantenaina

Ironically, Nantenaina was our curious student who opened several cameras, including his own! Here he sets up the shot and has someone else press the shutter.
Photo of Anjezika neighborhood
Effective use of the flash!

Sarobidy

Sarobidy is one of our “success stories” at the center, having successfully prepared for and passed the test to enter school for the first time at the grade 5 level. She continues to attend school and is among the top in her class.
Sarobidy’s assignment was to photograph animals, but they are a challenging subject. In later rolls, we would let the kids choose their own subjects.

At the end of the session, we gave them all a roll of black and white film. We wanted to wait until they saw their results before they tried again. You can see those results here.

Posted in Good Causes, Madagascar, Photography, general | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Sharing our Passion: Kids in Madagascar Get a First Taste of Photography

A few years ago, I joined a couple of other folks with a passion for photography and an interest in doing something for the local community in Antananarivo, Madagascar. We collaborated to successfully crowdfund a small youth center that would cater to local vulnerable kids who, for whatever reason, were not attending school. Thanks to the support of generous donors, including a member of that community who did the actual construction, a few months later, Anjezika Community Center and School – later re-dubbed “Centre Le Cameleon” – was born.

The idea behind the center was that it would provide a safe space where kids could engage in enrichment activities to expose them to new interests and skills that would pique their curiosity. We never intended to function as a school or to focus on schooling itself, but thanks to the initiative and imagination of our paid administrator, who has become the energy and lifeblood of the center, Le Cameleon has managed to integrate virtually each and every child at the center – over 200 – into a local school, even to the extent of training them for the 5th grade completion exam.

The one thing we three founders had in common – besides a passion for helping disadvantaged youth – was photography. And from the start, we had always had the intention of introducing some of the older kids to photography, in the hopes of “awakening” some hidden talent. And so over the next two years or so, I gradually built up the supplies I would need. I bid on batches of “condition ‘as is'” point and shoot cameras on eBay, built up a supply of film and other implements we could use to demonstrate the magic of photography, but for a variety of reasons we kept postponing the actual classes until I was poised to leave Madagascar for good, and we could postpone no more.

After the smoke cleared, I found ten point-and-shoot cameras that actually worked (and for which I could order batteries)

Finally in April, just a few months before my departure, we managed to assemble a handful of 13-, 14- and 15-year-old kids with an interest in photography, and present our class. We explained to them how cameras worked, and briefly turned the second floor of our center into a camera obscura – basically putting the kids inside a giant “camera” in which the outdoor scene was projected onto the opposing wall.

The scene from outdoors is projected – albeit upside down – on a stretched piece of butcher paper

A half dozen kids expressed an interest in learning about photography. After the camera obscura demo, we showed them a series of vintage cameras, gave them each a point-and-shoot camera and a short class on how to operate it, courtesy of Safidy, who runs the humanitarian photography website Zanaky ny Lalana (Children of the Street), and photographer Toni Haddad. We sent the kids away with a roll of b/w film and an assignment.

Toni explains to the kids about framing, shortly after they’ve been “issued” their cameras
Looking at vintage box cameras to better understand the principles that allow cameras to work
Safidy provides examples of “better” photos and “not as good” photos for comparison

A couple of weeks later we showed them how film is developed, but were unable to actually demonstrate it due to the lack of running water at the Center. And we sent them away with a roll of color film. And in subsequent weeks, with additional rolls of film of their choice, until I finally ran out of time in Madagascar and we had to “go final” and collect the cameras. But along the way, we printed their pictures and asked them to evaluate their own work, choosing which pictures they thought were best, and explaining why.

In the end I think we achieved our goal of exposing these kids to something completely new, and maybe even kindling a spark of an interest they may return to at some point in the future. Their patience and dedication were impressive. And I got a smile when I explained that they were likely the only kids in their whole country who know how film gets developed!

So if you’ve read this far, you’re probably curious how the photos turned out. For that, you’ll have to wait until my next post, because there are so many to share! You can start here.

Posted in Good Causes, Madagascar, Photography | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Visit to Isalo National Park, Madagascar

Shortly before leaving Madagascar after having lived there for more than three years, I finally made it to Isalo National Park, which is one of the premier tourist destinations in country, and one I would have regretted missing out on.

Landscape
Isalo National Park in southern Madagascar

My wife and daughter had visited this huge national park, established in 1962, which incorporates a huge (about 100 miles in perimeter) expanse of limestone that has been weathered and carved over millions of years into cliffs, gorges, odd pillars and towers, and valleys containing rich and often completely unique plant and animal life. It’s a beautiful park where you can hike for days and days, reminiscent of some of the national parks in the American West. But with baobabs.

Baobabs
Twin baobabs. Madagascar is endemic to six of the world’s nine species of baobab tree.

We took a flight to Toliara, picked up a local driver, and stayed in one of the handful of excellent hotels in the local area – Isalo Rock Lodge. Another common way to experience the park is to spend a week or so driving the RN7 (national route 7) all the way from Antananarivo, stop at Ranomafana and the other parks along the way, and then fly back from Toliara (you’ll still need to work out something with a driver). It takes too much time to try and drive both ways from Antananarivo, and I wouldn’t recommend that option, especially if you plan on driving yourself. Guides are required in all national parks in Madagascar, and we tried to stop by the park entrance to arrange a guide for bright and early the next day, but were told this is not possible. But I do recommend you arrive no later than 0630 to pay your entry fee and hire a guide, so you can cover some distance while the weather is still cool.

Gorge
There are some hidden water spots in the park, but much of the hiking is in the sun and through dry, hilly terrain.

I took along a Rolleiflex 2.8c, which allowed me to capture spectacular, square, square, medium format exposures of the varied landscapes and hidden gorges of the park. In addition to 120 format Fuji Pro 400H, I also took along some other film, including an expired (in 2005) roll of Agfa APX25 and a Kodak Tri-X 400. Oddly, the expired Agfa film turned out pretty nice – a bit of lightening along the edges – but the Tri-X ended up looking like expired, fogged film.

Gap
The expired Agfa shots came out sharp and balanced.
Birds
The Tri-X looks like I made a processing error – but I developed both b/w rolls at the same time and in the same way. Interesting, if unintended, effect.

As much as I was tempted to snap photos of every single jaw-dropping vista we came across, I forced restraint because I realized that at a certain point, all of the rock formations and cliffs end up looking the same in the end. And it’s forbidden (probably justifiably so, given the nuisance value) to launch drones inside the park, but I did send my DJI Mavic up for a look along the park’s periphery (but technically outside, and also quite high) to get an impression. I launched from “la fenetre” (the window), a rock formation that is approached from the south edge of the park, and can be accessed without paying an entry fee. There are some spectacular photos of la fenetre out there, but on the evening that we were there, it was far too crowded to try and capture one of those iconic shots you can see elsewhere on the web.

So rather than sharing with you all of the various photos I took, I decided to splice the photos and the drone video together to produce the two-minute video below. Unfortunately the photos are square but the video aspect ratio is not, so the tops and bottoms of the stills are all cropped. But I think it still turns out ok.

If you do decide to visit Isalo, I encourage you to also check out the much smaller Zombitse-Vohibasia national park, just 50 miles to the west. This small, community-run park takes just a few hours to visit on your way and is home to eight species of lemurs and many other species of plants and animals.

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One Last Trip – “Lemur Island”

Given today’s justifiable flak surrounding the keeping of pet lemurs or the existence of lemur “petting zoos” that rely on capturing lemurs from the wild, Madagascar’s “Lemur Island” (officially “Vakona Private Reserve”) near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park is seen by some as controversial. The reserve consists of several different islands (lemurs don’t cross water) criss-crossed with canals, and each island houses a small group of lemurs rescued from pet or captive situations. The animals can’t live on their own in the wild, and their density is too high for the islands without augmenting their food. So tourists help pay the bills.

This reserve also gets a bad rap because some species of lemurs, already quite trusting of humans, have gotten quite aggressive and will jump on visitors to get at bananas and other fruit. Which has made some of them a bit chubby. But while some species are difficult to keep in captivity, all of the lemurs at this attraction are pretty hardy types, and among the more common of Madagascar’s 107-ish species of lemurs – some of which are endangered or threatened.

So on our final trip in Madagascar, we decided to make one more stop at the popular tourist attraction. You can buy tickets at Vakona Forest Lodge, near lemur island in the southern edge of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. We first visited this place in 2012 with our kids, back when we had no idea we’d end up living in Madagascar for three years (2016-2019). Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do a full visit of the national park – if you are reading this as travel advice, we strongly encourage you to visit for 2-3 days and see the lemurs in the wild, hear the indri’s call, and do a night walk to see some of the smaller wildlife and nocturnal lemurs. In the meantime, here’s a short clip of what you can expect to see/experience on Lemur Island:

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Off the Beaten Path in Vatomandry, Madagascar

You could live in Madagascar – for as long as three years – and have trouble getting to see all of the on the beaten path things there are to see in that country–in fact, that’s what I just did, and I can confirm this. But for one of my final posts on traveling in Madagascar, I’d like to share one of the places we visited in Madagascar that’s off the beaten path.

Vatomandry is roughly on the midpoint of the east coast of Madagascar. It sits on national road 11a, between the smallish towns of Mahanoro and Brickaville, each with less than 50,000 inhabitants. The road is sometimes good, sometimes completely covered in potholes. But traffic is pretty sparse and it’s a pleasant trip as long as you keep a watch for the potholes.

Vatomandry sits astride the Pangalanes canal, a series of waterways, lakes and canals that stretches 645 km along Madagascar’s eastern coast. While the actual canal runs west of the town, an inland waterway about 300 meters wide runs to the east of the town, separating the town from a thin band of land approximately the same width.

it is on that thin band of land that Ms. Jeanine and her husband decided to retire some years ago. I suppose things got a little too quiet, and so they decided to build a handful of bungalows to house guests. They have two brick-and-mortar units, each with a couple of bedrooms, and a half-dozen smaller units modeled after traditional family homes, made of locally-harvested building materials and thatch roofs.

The facilities are a bit rustic – don’t look for a hot shower or multiple outlets to charge all your devices – but it’s clean and comfortable…and absolutely quiet. Some of the local women are employed to prepare fresh meals – which were excellent, and more than we could eat. There’s no need for shoes, and if you walk east (away from the mainland) about 50 meters from the house, you see the open sea across an expansive beach that extends in both directions. When it gets dark, there’s not much to do but go to sleep, and you wake up again when the sun comes up, rested and refreshed.

If you’d like to stay here – it costs 120,000 ariary (about 35 dollars) plus a bit for meals (30,000, or $8, to include dinner and breakfast) and tips – you can give Jeanine a call at (+261) (0)34 94 787 81. If you’ve got your own car, they’ll have you park it at the Shell station on the mainland, and someone will get your suitcases and paddle you across the water in a traditional pirogue. You’ll find less expensive places to stay, but they won’t be anywhere as nice or as charming as this one. And Jeanine loves to chat, and speaks a bit of English for those who are French-challenged.

Be sure and bring mosquito repellent if you go. The breeze keeps them away much of the time, but once things quiet down you’ll be grateful you did.

We ran into a French couple there who were visiting the place for the second time in as many years. They said the peace and quiet was exactly what they had been looking for, and they planned to stay in one of the traditional huts the following year. Asked where they were headed next, they answered, “We have no idea.” 

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Testing Kentmere 400 Film

I’m not sure why I’ve never really heard of this film – most online discussion refers to it as a “cheaper” film produced by Ilford Photo, but I was quite impressed.

Paying Attention in Class

I found the tones and the grain very pleasant, and found the results nicely balanced despite having shot both day and night, indoor, outdoor, and with and without flash.

I received a roll of this in the 2017 Emulsive Santa gift exchange, and it’s sat in my freezer for nearly a year. In December 2018 I took it along in my Nikon F100 on a trip to New Orleans and carried it along well after dark in the French Quarter.

Entertainer Double Portrait Singer

About half the night shots came out blurry. I didn’t use the flash a whole lot, and I simply wasn’t holding the camera still enough. But I like the balanced results – you can tell it’s night, but you don’t see a lot of noise or crushed blacks like I’ve seen in other films.

At the other extreme, daytime shots in sunlight were equally balanced. I tend to prefer a bit more contrast, but I think that’s something I’ve subconsciously absorbed from looking at too many post-Lightroom digital shots where people have slid the ‘clarity’ and ‘detail’ sliders too far to the right. Once I successfuly fought the urge to push the contrast slider to the right, I found the grays grew on me – and this is how black and white exposures should look, I think.

Motorcycle Gang Royal Enfield Family Photo

A little online research reveals that Kentmere 400 (and 100) are indeed among the cheapest films available – less even than the Arista EDU I like to use when I’m testing a camera’s functionality. And aside from a bit less sharpness than I’ve seen in some other black and white films (I actually find the fuzziness pleasant) I don’t really see why I should be paying double for higher end films, as a hobbyist – and even as a professional, depending on the effect I’m looking for. Will definitely check this out again!

Taking a Load Off
Grandmother takes a load off and soaks her feet in the cool laundry while holding her grandchild. Antananarivo, Madagascar.
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Locust Swarm in Madagascar

Shortly after arriving in Madagascar a few years ago, we watched the BBC’s Planet Earth II episode in which a film crew found it amazingly difficult to track down a swarm containing more than a billion of the tiny, destructive creatures. Apparently, it can be surprisingly difficult to find and film them. We had also seen footage, prior to coming here, of the swarms that occurred when locust populations exploded in 2013. But, thankfully – given the impact they can have on already-meager crop yields in parts of the country – we had not seen any since our arrival; it seems international organizations are working with the authorities to keep them in check.

But we were returning from Madagascar’s Isalo National Park, some four hours by road from Toliara, on the island country’s southeast coast, when we spotted several large swarms along the Route Nationale 7. They were nowhere near as large as those filmed on Planet Earth II, but they nonetheless made an expression. We pulled over to the side of the road, and I quickly launched my drone to get (and film) a closer look.

Needless to say, a number of the insects were caught by the drone’s propeller blades and I had a cleanup job later. I also had trouble with the drone’s obstacle avoidance system – it kept braking because locusts were flying in front of its sensors – but I was happy to get a decent amount of footage from inside the swarm itself.

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Camera Review: the Pho-Tak Traveler 120

Pho-Tak Traveler 120
The Pho-Tak Traveler 120

Never heard of the Pho-Tak Corporation and the cameras they manufactured around 1948-1950 in Chicago? Neither had I, until I unwrapped this Christmas gift from my daughter, who sparked my interest in vintage cameras about 6 years ago.

It’s a solid little tank of a camera, made almost entirely of metal, with a worn black leather strap on top that tends to flop in front of the viewfinder at inopportune times. It takes eight 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 inch exposures on a roll of 120 film through it’s fixed focus lens and single blade shutter that offers either 1/50 second or “time” exposures. It apparently cost $6.95 back in 1950, but I’m sure it costs a bit more nowadays, pretty much wherever you can find it. On eBay, expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $40 for this 70-year-old camera.

Fun fact about this camera: some of this type were manufactured with the word “time” printed to the left of the word “Traveler,” making this, for some, the “Time Traveler” 120. Mine is not one of those, but arguably shooting with one of these cameras is still traveling in time.

Pho-Tak Traveler 120

It’s a simple camera, really – much like most other box cameras. No aperture or focus settings, just a switch for 1/50 second or “time” exposures, a shutter button, and a film winder. There are inputs for a flash, but I’m guessing you’ll be hard pressed to find one of those, much less put it into actual use. So this is a camera you’ll want to use outside in bright sun. I took mine out for a test run in New Orleans after I found a shop selling overpriced Tri-X 400 and Fuji 400H film. I bought one roll of each.

the Quarter
French Quarter, New Orleans, Christmas 2018

With color film, the results were mixed. The camera is a bit bulky and heavy to carry around, but the leather strap is handy as long as you move it from in front of the viewfinder when you shoot. But the results were generally sharp and well-exposed at 1/50s. Unfortunately, I realized partway through the roll that the little red plastic window was no longer attached where it belongs and I used my thumb to block bright sunlight as much as I could, but was not always successful.

Blue Bicycle

The other issue I had, clearly visible in the image above, was that the film didn’t advance smoothly, and it seems that forcing the film to advance caused it to scrape across the rollers so that the emulsion was scratched – not much in the beginning, but increasingly as I worked my way through the roll.

New Orleans
Mural
Murals on the streets of New Orleans

In a number of the photos – both black and white – the film appeared to loosen in the camera, causing the bottom (and sometimes the top) of the exposure to be not-quite-straight, requiring cropping.

Posing in Front of Trains

The black and white photos were much better. I took care to tape the red plastic window in place and I didn’t have any more scratching of the emulsion. Nearly all the pictures turned out – even in low light (may be more a testament to the film than the camera) and at closer distances.

Test photos taken with a Pho-Tak Traveler 120.  New Orleans, Christmas 2018.
Mural in an alley in the French Quarter of New Orleans
Flower Boxes
Window boxes, New Orleans
Skyline
Street view from a small restaurant in New Orleans

View from a Cafe

Verdict: This camera is virtually indestructible – apparently except for the plastic window protecting the film from light leaks. A bit chunky and bulky but as long as the film moves freely, seems to take reliably good photos. If nothing else, it will definitely start conversations.

Thanks to my daughter for passing along this unique “time traveler” of a camera. As I take more photos with this camera, they’ll show up here.

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Ektachrome Returns!

I followed with interest the hype surrounding the re-release by Kodak Alaris of Ektachrome 100 slide film, announced in early 2017, after having been completely phased out by 2013. Honestly, initially I wasn’t that interested, but as time wore on I become more intrigued as to what the slide film might offer. When the long-awaited and long-delayed release finally happened on September 25, 2018, I was ready, having pre-ordered from Freestyle Photo.

Quite possibly the first rebooted Ektachrome to arrive in Madagascar. Oct 26, 2018.

Unlike many photographers out there who have reviewed the film, I suffer from logistical delays. My film shipped on September 26, and arrived weeks later. But this film wasn’t cheap, so I waited for the right opportunity to shoot it, over the course of December. And then shipped it off to Blue Moon Camera in Portland, because E6 chemicals only appear to be available in liquid form, meaning I can’t get it in Madagascar.

I grew up in the 70s, and I remember adults shooting slide film. I remember the jokes about being invited to look at others’ vacation slides. But I never shot slide film myself. So I was curious what was so special about it – other than the fact that it’s positive film, not negative.

Condemned
A condemned storefront in New Orleans, Louisiana
W Hotel
The W Hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans

When the film arrived in late January, neatly framed in slide frames just like I had seen growing up, holding the slides up to the light, I was impressed by the bright colors. None of the faded colors I sometimes see with underexposed negative film – I always feel like I need to process the scans with software to make them “pop” – in the case of these slides, every single photo was as bright and as vibrant as I remembered from the day I had taken the photos.

Nightlife
New Orleans’ French Quarter at night, Christmas 2018
Blur
Jazz Club in New Orleans

I was especially impressed with the night shots – even the ones that were blurred because the shutter was forced to stay open too long. Blacks were black, neon was bright and crisp, not blown out – and there was none of the noise and grain that so often disappoints when I shoot color (or black and white) film at night and I think, “it seems like there’s probably enough light, I’ll just risk it.” And firing the flash did the trick – no blur, and none of the overdone highlights like I often get with negative film.

Dancers
Same scene as above, but with flash

I chuckle as I think of folks from my parent’s generation, who have been trying for years to figure out what to do with their slides, and wishing there were a cheap service to convert them all to digital. Because now I have two 36-exposure rolls of slides, neatly mounted in frames and stored in transparent sheets. And unlike the previous generation, I have no projector for them, no idea where to get one, and even if I did, I can’t imagine the reaction I’d get if I invited friends to come and “look at our vacation slides.”

Preferred Candidate
Rajoelina supporters just ahead of Madagascar’s 2018 election
Two Girls
Malagasy Girls

So what should we look forward to from the Ektachrome re-release? Can we expect a resurgence of slide projectors (currently only available from eBay and other vintage resellers)? What are people going to do with their slides?

Storm
My dog Storm
Rock

One thing is for sure – the consistent, bright colors offered by Ektachrome aren’t offered by any other film on the market today. Unfortunately, it costs over $12 per roll, and then there’s the development cost if you haven’t invested in the chemicals. And you end up with a product that takes up space but has to be scanned back to digital if you want to share it.

Shop

So what’s the point?

I don’t know – there are a lot of “cons” – but regardless, Kodak Alaris is gearing up to release Ektachrome in medium and large format sizes. And I have no idea what I’md do with it once developed, but I’m looking forward to ordering some as soon as it is!

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Rice Harvest in Antananarivo

After three years living in Antananarivo, you gradually stop noticing the things that you found so fascinating and unique about this city as a newcomer.

Antananarivo is a city of 1.5 million people. It has a downtown – an older, French-looking “haute ville” (high city) – cobblestone roads running along, over, and under the hills that characterize this central highlands capital of Madagascar.

Fisherman

The low areas between the hills are filled with the accumulation of centuries – millenia – of silt that has run down with the seasonal rains. Raised digues – or earthen dikes – crisscross the low-lying areas, along with traffic arteries. They separate the rice fields, and also serve as earthen roadways. Others have been widened and paved over, and 1970s Renault and Citroen taxis, big Mercedes “bush taxis” and SUVs operated by government officials and expats move in stop-and-go traffic, while in the rice fields below, people living on a few dollars a day continue planting and harvesting rice as they have for generations. Running or biking through these areas, you feel like you’re in rural Madagascar – yet you’re in the middle of an African capital. And after awhile, it doesn’t seem all that unusual anymore.

Village in the Middle of the City

Many days when we head to work, the morning light is amazing. A yellow-orange light hangs over endless bright green rice fields that stretch into the distance, interspersed with areas of reflective water that reflect that light, the occasional egret fishing for minnows.

But every January, the race is on to harvest all of that rice.

Many of Madagascar’s people can trace their roots to Borneo. Much of their culture and traditions comes from that part of the world, to include architecture, rice cultivation, and the worship of the ancestors and their ways. Consequently, even though it may not make economic sense to an outsider, Malagasy people insist on growing rice when it might be more practical to grow other crops, and sell that to purchase rice. Planting and harvesting often appears inefficient, labor intensive, and wasteful, but it’s how the ancestors did it. And the city of Antananarivo accomodates the practice by operating locks and waterways in such a way as to flood and drain the rice fields in accordance with the needs of the growers.

En Route

After nearly three years in country, we decided to spend a day taking a closer look at the rice harvest in Antananarivo. Throughout the rice fields, small groups of people can be seen heading out early in the morning carrying small scythes, tarps, bundles of rice straw, and a 50-gallon drum or similar item. Around 8 am the work begins.

Cutting the Rice Cutting the Rice

The workers deftly cut handfuls of rice using scythes, dropping the chest-deep rice grass where it is cut. Behind them, others wander into the knee-deep water carrying bundles of dried rice straw, and they drop them in the water, where they float. We watch, wondering what the dried bundles are for, and we finally realize they are pulling individual pieces of rice straw from each dried bundle, and using those to tie the freshly-harvested rice into bundles of wet rice straw.

Some of them stretch out a tarp on the water, which inexplicably floats as they toss the freshly tied bundles onto it. In other locations, pirogues are used to gather the rice and take it to the digue pathways, where they are piled up for the next step in the process.

Boatload of Rice

Up on the raised trails that crisscross the rice paddies, others are preparing for those next steps. Tarps are spread out across the full width of the path, and a 50-gallon-drum or something along those lines (we saw a wide variety of implements – main thing is it needs to be about the size of a drum, and not too heavy to carry from miles away) is rolled to the center of the path.

Morning Steam

Bundles of rice, either just collected from the paddies or stacked the previous day, are then individually beaten on the drum (or other implement). The people doing the work are typically wearing some sort of apron and often also have a piece of plastic to protect their hands, because once this part of the process begins, rice starts flying everywhere, and it can sting.

Effort
Teamwork

Bear in mind that these digues also serve as roads of sorts. They are used by people to get from village to village – not only on foot, but by bicycle, by zebu cart, occasionally a small Renault, and in our case, by motorcycle. The tarps cover the entire expanse of the raised pathway, and you feel a bit odd walking – or driving – over what is essentially these peoples’ food, but they will cheerfully pause what they are doing and wave you through.

Zebu Cart

After the rice is “beaten” from the grass, the grains, still in their woody hulls, are collected in 50kg rice bags. Later, they will need to be spread out to dry – over the coming weeks, we’ll see rice hulls spread along roadways, sidewalks, in the middle of roundabouts…. Once it’s dry, flat trays will be used to toss the rice in the air so that the wind catches the lighter hulls and blows them away. These are in turn collected and used as fuel for the brick kilns that wil follow in the coming months. And the straw? The straw is immediately tossed aside, but will be spread on, and next to the roadways, and once dry, will be collected in piles to be used as feed for the zebus. Nothing is wasted.

Well, sort of. To be honest, a lot of rice is wasted.

As an aside, the footage above was captured with my newest toy/gadget, the DJI Osmo Pocket.
You should check it out.

As outsiders, one thing we ask ourselves is why the Malagasy insist on using such a labor-intensive and frankly wasteful method to harvest the rice. As you can see from the video, rice is literally flying everywhere – into the canal, off the tarp…in the villages there are chickens eating it almost as soon as it is harvested. Much rice remains on the plant and is discarded. So much rice is wasted that later in the year, on these pathways, the rice will start to poke out of the ground like a new lawn.

We wonder why there are not more entrepreneurs using hand-portable rice mills. Or industrial rice mills, which will capture a much higher percentage of the rice that has been painstakingly planted by hand months before, in exchange for a small “fee” – say, 5% of the harvest. Or why they even grow rice in the first place, when it’s relatively cheap, compared to other products. But we remind ourselves that we’re outsiders, and many of the mysteries of rice growing that were brought from distant Borneo as much as two millennia ago are simply not known to us “vazaha.” Maybe they’re not known to the Malagasy either – some will tell us, “the ancestors also didn’t know why they did it this way, but they did it anyway.”

But that’s how the rice gets harvested in Antananarivo.

Photo by Alex Cottin
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Great News: Jerome is Learning English and Coding!

Way back in 2016 when I was still new to Madagascar, Anne and I saw an online notice that a crowdfunding initiative on the eastern coast of the country was looking for a photographer and a videographer to produce a crowdfunding video and associated imagery to support a project (at the time still unnamed) to teach young Malagasy people English and coding skills.  If successful, this project would potentially have a huge positive impact on the lives of hundreds of young, talented Malagasy people.

A few years have gone by and thanks to a lot of hard work by Onja founder Sam Lucas and innumerable volunteers who have supported his dream, and tens of thousands of dollars in pledges and donations, the first wave of 30 students in this innovative program have started in their quest to become Africa’s next top coders!

Supporting this project was an amazing adventure for us.  I blogged about this amazing experience here, here and here, if you’re interested.  But if you recall the video I created in collaboration with Sam (who taught this retired U.S. Army PSYOP officer a thing or two about appealing to millenials), we centered the appeal around a charismatic young fellow named Jerome.

Jerome was the highest scorer in Sam’s aptitude test, administered in a number of remote villages, but we caught up with him after several days’ travel just as he was heading out to a religious retreat with all of his friends.  He selflessly decided to stay back from his retreat and help us with our crowdfunding video, and since then I’ve often wondered if things ended up working out for Jerome and his mom, who was singlehandedly trying to raise her kids the best she could.

Well it turns out that Jerome is a part of this first cohort – he’s on the far right, second row from the back in the grey shirt.  We plan to make a trip to the coast when we can to see how things are going for the group, who now face the challenge of achieving English fluency in the next 12 months.  We’re told Jerome has done quite well so far, and we hope that along with his 29 classmates, he’ll be able to make a difference in the well-being of his family and his community.

If you think this is a great project (we do!) please consider supporting it financially.  They can’t do this without your help.

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Swimming with Whale Sharks in Madagascar

Check another item off the bucket list:  in November, we made it to Nosy Be to see the whale sharks – considered endangered by some – feeding on the plankton that “bloom” there the same time every year.  This capped off an amazing year in Madagascar – just a month prior, we managed to get out to Ile Sainte Marie to see the whales that come there every year to give birth to their young.

Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish, and the largest non-cetacean (whale) animal in the world, measuring up to nearly 13 meters (40 feet) in length and up to 20 tons, though larger (non-verified) exemplars have been reported.  The whale sharks off the coast of northwestern Madagascar, near the island of Nosy Be, are allegedly smaller than those found in the open sea, but when you’re in the water with an animal whose mouth is easily four feet wide, such distinctions become academic.


I didn’t really know much about whale sharks when we set out to find them, and I was curious how people manage to spot them, given that they don’t spend a lot of time leaping out of the water like the whales we had seen in October.  Our host at the Coco-Komba lodge (on the island of Nosy Komba) explained to us that it’s just a matter of finding the “birds that dive”; the “fish that jump”; and, of course, all of the other boats containing tourists that swarm around any sighting.  And fortunately, since we were only scheduled to be there three days, the first morning he would be able to take us out personally on his own boat – without any other tourists!

The next morning, we had a leisurely breakfast and Patrick, our host, equipped us with fins, snorkels, and a picnic lunch and, together with his first mate, we launched out in search of the world’s largest fish.

Once we were a few miles out, it didn’t take long to see what Patrick had been talking about.  We came to a series of places where the sea birds were frantically diving into the water while footlong bonitos and yellowfin tuna leaped out of the water constantly, creating a churning area of water about 30 meters across.  Thankfully, there were never any other boats swarming around these sites.  And after a few different such areas, Patrick finally spotted the gaping mouth of a whale shark poking above the surface, where the shark was skimming the orange plankton that formed a film on the surface and clouded the water…and so he shut off the motors and told us, “go, go go!”  Armed with GoPro cameras, we slid into the water, minimizing the splash to avoid spooking the fish.  And here’s what we saw:

It was an amazing morning – between 8 am and noon, we must have seen a two dozen of these amazing animals, called “marokintana,” or “many stars” in Malagasy, for the pattern of white dots that cover everything but their bellies.  Most of the time, they would ignore us, lazily moving through the water while scores of other fish – basically a floating mini-ecosystem – accompanied them.  A few times I’d lose track of the shark in the murky water and come to the surface, where I’d be even more disoriented due to the fish jumping and sea birds diving all around me.  “He’s right behind you!” they would shout from the boat.  Once, I came to the surface and asked Patrick, “Um, there appear to be ‘normal’ sharks in the water with the whale shark – should I be concerned?”

The next day, our host was busy with other guests, and so he arranged for us to go with a local operator specializing in whale shark spotting.  We joined 6 or 7 other tourists and spent hours looking for the fish, but only managed to spot a few juvenile sharks that dived as we entered the water.  We noticed that they didn’t appear to be accompanied by the other fish we had seen the day prior.  Eventually, the operator gave up, and we found a place where others had reported manta ray spottings.  We swam around for a bit, and eventually we started spotting the rays 10-15 meters below the surface as they “flew” through the ocean waters below.

From whale shark watching, we continued to Nosy Sakatia, to an area where green sea turtles are known to feed on the sea grass in waters.  We swam with half a dozen or so of these amazing sea reptiles before heading back to the lodge.

Madagascar has been wonderful, not only in terms of the people we have met, but also in terms of its flora and fauna, much of which is not found anywhere else in the world.  Green sea turtles and whale sharks can be found elsewhere, but Nosy Be and the small islands that surround it are one of the prime locations to see both of these animals up close, and so our bucket least was just shortened by a couple of items.  I highly encourage you to do the same – every year in November.  While supplies last.

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…but what’s there to do in southern Madagascar?

In our quest to see everything there is to see in Madagascar (for which, honestly speaking, there is simply not enough time, but we’re trying our absolute best!) we recently made our way to south Madagascar.  Specifically, we went to “Fort Dauphin” – which was renamed Tolagnaro, (or Toalagnaro), in 1975 and yet inexplicably, everyone continues to refer to it as Fort Dauphin.

Mangroves

To be honest, the city of Tolagnaro itself is not exactly the world’s top tourist destination.  It’s a small, quaint town with amazing sea views that’s a bit neglected by the center (of Madagascar) since it was initially founded in the 1600s.

When we visited the area, we only ended up staying a day in the town itself, and then headed toward the northeast to Manafiafy Beach & Rainforest Lodge.  The trip up goes pretty quickly in the beginning – about halfway to the resort, it’s a beautifully paved road, courtesy of QMM/Rio Tinto, which mines ilmenite nearby.  After that, it’s unpaved although still pleasant and scenic.  Which brings up an odd fact about the Tolagnaro region:  as you drive through local villages, rather than the usual “salut, vazaha,” the kids will call out “eh-lo” (hello).  This is apparently because the region was the target of English-speaking missionaries (British, Norwegian, and finally American – for a century!) for quite some time.  In fact, many of the staff at local resorts speak English – but not French!

Beach RocksOnce you arrive at Manafiafy Beach Resort, you’re immediately struck by the amazing scenery, thanks to offshore rocks that protect small bays and beaches.  Upon arrival, the resort assigns you a personal guide who works with you to identify daily activities that cater to your personal interests.  If you’re not into being waited on hand and foot, they quickly get the message, however.

Among the activities we chose were a night walk to a nearby littoral rain forest, nearly unchanged from the way it was when humans first arrived in Madagascar.  A local guide helped us find and identify several local lemurs and reptile species.

Nocturnal Lemur A nocturnal “sportive lemur” stares down at us from a tree.

Brookesia The tiny Brookesia chameleon is sought after by herpetologists.

Leaf Tailed Gecko It’s usually difficult to spot the leaf-tailed gecko.  it helps when they are in the open.

Probably our favorite outing was when we got up before sunrise and took a boat trip into the nearby rivers and lakes.  The brackish water is lined by mangroves and is home to numerous water birds and kingfishers looking for a meal in the abundant shallow waters.  We were treated to a stunning sunrise, and then made our way deep into the winding river system.

We spotted countless birds and enjoyed the amazing scenery.  you could clearly see the difference between one side of the river, which was primary forest, and the other side, which was available for human exploitation.  I got my drone to follow us out, and eventually lost track until the drone “decided” it lacked the battery power to return to its start point, and apparently lost its will to “survive” by attempting to land in the shallow water.

Sunrise A tiny kingfisher sits on a rock at sunrise (above) and an hour or so later (below)

Kingfisher on the Rocks

Taking Off  Wings are a blur as a Malagasy kingfisher decides we’ve gotten too close.

We also headed into a nearby fishing village with our assigned guide, who provided important details about the local village, such as its prohibition on four-legged animals, which had been in place for generations since having been put in place by a king with a leg deformity.  Local fishermen arrived every 10 or 15 minutes with their catch of the day, which became the object of endless haggling by the villagers who had walked from as far away as the distant mountains that could be seen in the distance.

Tuna ranging in length from four to five feet were arranged on nearby tables, and we wondered where the ice in a nearby chest had come from.  We were told that it had been brought from the city to preserve the fish.

Future FishermenLocal children seemed fascinated with us, though we knew we were certainly not the first “vazaha” to visit their village.

Butcher

As you look out to sea from Manafiafy Resort, to the left, a long rock stretches a few hundred yards into the sea.  We were told it’s the one place where (if you’re lucky) you can get a bit of cell phone reception.  At the top there’s a bench where you can enjoy the idyllic scenery, and there’s these odd wooden carvings in clusters nearby.  We had fun one cloudy night playing around with long-exposure night photography, using red or white flashlights.  But it’s also quite pleasant just sitting up there and alternate between simply gazing out to sea, and doing nothing at all.

Wooden heads

Wooden heads

 

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Vintage Camera Test: the No. 1A Autographic Kodak Junior

No. 1A Autographic Kodak Junior

The No. 1A Autographic Junior was made in various versions between 1914 and 1927.  it’s got a beautifully detailed brass and enamel faceplate, a fold-out foot with the Kodak logo, and its name engraved on a brass plate below the shutter assembly.  They all shot 6.5 by 11 cm frames on size 116 autographic film (which allowed you to add details to the photo via a small window on the back and a slim metal “pen”) and cost between 11 and 24 bucks back in the day.

No. 1A Autographic Kodak Junior

This particular version, with its Kodak Anastigmat f/7.7-45 lens and Kodak ball bearing shutter, was made between 1915 and 1925.  As the lens name implies, it allows apertures from f/7.7 to f/45, with f/11, 16, 22 and 32 in between, and the shutter takes T, B, and 1/25, 1/50, or 1/100s exposures.  Apparently some versions had fixed focal lengths, but this one lets you slide out the bellows and click the lens into a slot anywhere between 6 and 100 feet camera to subject distance.

I’ve had this camera for a few years, but I never tried running any film through it until last year’s Let it Develop 365 project.  It’s an easy enough camera to use, and I used fresh Tri-X 400 (size 120) but disappointingly all the pictures ended up fogged.  This camera is in amazing shape, but even so, I suspect the bellows have been replaced at least once because they’re absolutely pristine without any worn corners that might hide pinholes that would ruin the exposures.  And none of this explains why my photos didn’t really turn out.

Hill ViewStreet View

Toy Truck I do like this photo of this little fellow, who wasn’t paying attention when I snapped his picture.  But the odd light band running vertically through most of the picture doesn’t really make sense.

Antananarivo Skyline

Verdict:  Should have taken much better pictures:  clean lens, smooth operating shutter with plenty of settings for any light conditions, pristine bellows.  Maybe some controlled bracketing/testing would help identify the problem?  Sharing a few other folks’ results below for comparison:

Untitled

Mt Shasta

Allegheny Cemetery 2010 #1

Update (March 2019): I’ve run another roll of film through the camera, this time color (Fuji 400H) and the results are much better. I’m still getting a bit of the odd “ghosting” on a few images. I suspect there is still a small light leak somewhere. But this time the camera gave me different problems: after five (and a half) frames, I could no longer advance the film. I also discovered that if you let this one get dusty on a shelf, it’s good to clean the mirror in the viewfinder with a Q-tip. It’s open so it can fold flat when the camera is closed, and dust can build up on it, preventing you from framing your image properly.

This one is probably going to spend a fair amount of time on the shelf in the future, given the problems I’ve had with it. Still quite amazing photos for a 100-year-old camera though!

Old Car
old car in a village north of Antananarivo, Madagascar.
Demonstration
Students from the American School work with local kids in a vulnerable community in Antananarivo
Anjezika
Anjezika, Antananarivo
Motorcycle Riders
Evidence of a light leak, top left. Still nice colors otherwise.
Posted in Vintage cameras | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

My Experience with Kodak AEROCHROME

A few months ago, I’d never heard of “Aerochrome” film.  What is aerochrome?  According to Kodak, “KODAK AEROCHROME III Infrared Film 1443 is an infrared-sensitive, false-color reversal film intended for various aerial photographic applications where infrared discriminations may yield practical results.”  It was discontinued in 2010 and the last bit of it expired in 2011.

I heard about it from an article on Emulsive.com.  He (“Em”) was so enthusiastic about this film, and it was such a curious story – apparently a fellow named Dean Bennici took it upon himself to rescue and re-roll and/or recut all the remaining Aerochrome in existence – that I decided to do a bit more digging to see whether I could find some of this odd film.

I found my answer on eBay, where this Bennici fellow apparently sells the film himself.  I was a bit wary; $38 for a roll of 120 film (plus shipping from Europe) was pretty steep, and I started poking around on the internet to see what other people had to say about the stuff.  It turns out there are all sorts of warnings and pitfalls out there – some people insist that the film has to be stored at sub-freezing temperatures (apparently the tech specs state this) or it will be instantly ruined.  Others warn that all the containers it could possibly be stored in are somehow porous to infrared light, and thus the film will become hopelessly fogged unless you keep it in the equivalent of a lead-lined underground bunker.

Given that I planned to order the stuff from Madagascar, meaning it would be shipped international post from Europe to the United States, and then halfway around the world again to me, I figured my odds of receiving any usable film were pretty slim.  So I sent a note to Dean Bennici on eBay, who assured me that he had been shipping this film all over the world for some time, and I had little to worry about.  So I ordered two rolls.

So what’s so special about this film?  Well, it’s a bit experimental and fun.  Apparently anything living and green reflects infrared light from the sunlight hitting it, causing the greenery to appear bright red (or pink) on the film.  What’s the point of that, you ask?  Not really much point, I guess – it’s just for fun.  You can get pictures that are otherwise not achievable using photoshop or other techniques.  Otherworldly stuff.  Like this:

(borrowed, for illustration purposes, from thephoblographer.com.)

Admittedly, not everyone’s cup of tea.  But then again, neither is film photography, in general.

It seems that in addition, to make the effect work properly, you need a yellow or orange filter.  Which I did not have.  Fortunately, I managed to find a yellow filter for my Rolleiflex 2.8c on eBay for around 20 bucks.  So I ordered that too.  Once the film arrived two weeks later, I did some more reading and discovered that unlike most color film available these days, it has a relatively narrow exposure range – meaning it’s easily under- or overexposed, ruining the overall effect.  As a result, people suggest bracketing to ensure at least one good photo, but at 12 exposures per (expensive) roll, I decided to rely on my iPhone light meter and hope for the best, shooting 12 different shots rather than four bracketed shots.

One of the good things about Madagascar is that there’s lots and lots of vegetation.  So plenty of places to use this film.  I decided to bring it along with me as we travelled with our daughter throughout Madagascar.  We went to Ile Ste-Marie, an island off the northeast coast, which meant the film would be exposed to x-rays yet again since a flight was involved, and also warm temperatures, because, well, that’s why people go to Ile Ste-Marie.  So my odds of getting usable photos was continuing to decline.  We also took it on a road trip to south-central Madagascar, past Ranomafana National Park and onward to Andringitra.

I ended up shooting both rolls while I was up there, and considered whether to try and develop the film myself – maybe one roll in C41 (essentially cross-processed) at home, and send the other roll off to be processed E6.  In the end, I decided to entrust both rolls to the professionals at Blue Moon Camera in Oregon (USA), meaning my film faced yet another three weeks of travel, and additional x-ray machines.

By this point, I wasn’t holding out much hope for usable images, but I found out via their Facebook group that my film had arrived safely in Oregon, been developed and shipped back out, and that the staff there clearly remembered seeing usable images on the film!  Just two more weeks, and the negatives finally arrived in Madagascar again.

Here are my favorite shots.  It’s hard to narrow things down, given that they’re all so different from your “typical” Madagascar tourist photo.  In fact, unlike most trips I’ve taken, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that no one has ever taken photos like these at these locations.

Rice Field Farmers tend to their rice fields in Madagascar.  Most of the fields have just been plowed, and only the red indicates vegetation.

Under the Trees View from Ile aux Nattes, a smaller island just off the southern tip of Ile Ste-Marie, which is east/northeast of Madagascar.

Blossoms From a viewing platform at Ranomafana National Park, in Madagascar.

Lone Tree

Red Palms Near the airport of Ile Ste Marie, Madagscar.

Pirogue In a pirogue of the coast of Ile Ste Marie, Madagascar.

Red Riverbank Taken from the bridge entering Ranomafana National Park, one of Madagascar’s most visited.

Just for illustration purposes, here’s an example of what over- and underexposure look like when you’re using Aerochrome.  I’ll admit I regret somewhat not having bracketed these, because they potentially could have been really good /interesting.

Red Chameleon Underexposed shot of “le Cameleon,” a mountain near Andringitra Park in southern Madagascar.  On the top of the mountain a series of boulders look just like the namesake animal.

Tombstones Tomb markers in the rain forest from many hundreds of years ago.

Verdict:  I’m glad I tried this film and agree with Emulsive that you simply need to try this at least once.  It would be fun to continue experimenting with it, but given that each roll ended up costing about $60 (or $5 per photo – $10 if you consider that only half turned out) I’m not sure I’ll do this again.  It might be fun to keep a roll in a camera just for those rare occasions where I might say, “This would make a good aerochrome shot” but I still worry frankly that the film would degrade over the 3 to 6 months it would likely take to get through a roll in that manner.  So for the time being I’ll just admire all of the other aerochrome people have taken and put up on the net – there are plenty that have turned out much more interesting than mind.

For a couple of other examples of really interesting Aerochrome shots, try this post on Emulsive from a trip he took to Yucatan.  Or check out this post, where Em interviews Dean Bennici himself, who has shot a couple thousand rolls of the stuff.

You can browse the complete two rolls I shot myself here on Flickr.  If I ever try the stuff again, that’s where it’ll be posted.

Posted in Film tests, Photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Making a Camera Work: The No. 2 Folding Pocket Kodak Model C or Maybe D…

Among the growing group of people who collect and operate vintage film cameras, there are two types of people:  those who quickly figure out a way to make an old camera work again, and those who obsess way too long over making an old camera work, to the point that it’s no longer really about the camera.  But, by gosh, you’re going to make that camera work.

This is the definition of obsession.

So let’s talk about the No. 2 Folding Pocket Kodak (Model C).  Or maybe it’s a (Model D).  The inside of the back cover says D, but print under the front rails says (Model C).

There’s not a whole lot of information on these, other than the No. 2’s were all manufactured between 1899 and 1915, and the bellows went black in 1913.  So this one is probabably from 1909 to 1913 or so.  It’s a typical folder of that time in that you press a hidden button to open a flap that opens parallel to the long side of the camera, revealing metal rails on a wooden bed that allow you to pull the shutter mechanism consisting of an FPK automatic shutter and a rapid rectilinear lens forward, revealing the beautiful, red bellows.  It’s made of aluminum and covered in black leather and allows aperture settings from f/4 to f/128.

The No. 2 FPK was designed to take twelve 3.5 by 3.5 inch square exposures and used 101 film.  Which is the very first kind of rollfilm produced – for the No. 2 bullet camera, introduced in 1895.  The “No. 2” in the camera designation gives away the film size, 101.  Learn more about early film designations here.

So the challenge of making this camera work properly was to get as close as possible to the 101 film standard.  Even 11 decades later, the shutter on this particular camera works like a charm, the leather is intact, and the aperture opens and closes as it should.  No fungus on the lens, so everything should theoretically work out fine.

It’s the 101 film, however, that would turn out to be the headache.  To make one of these work, you first need a second spool – one to hold the film, and another to take up the film as it is exposed.  There are other solutions involving 3D printers, but I don’t have the patience to deal with those.  But 101 film spools are difficult to search for.  It could be that there simply aren’t many out there (the film was discontinued in 1956) or it could be that the 101 moniker is overused – SRT-101, for example.  But no spools were turning up.

By sheer coincidence, however, I learned that 122 film spools, which hold slightly smaller film (3.25 inches) appear to fit in this camera.  The spool itself appears to be just a hair larger than the 101 – I used it as the takeup spool and it was difficult to turn but doable.  As a bonus, it came with backing paper.

I had planned to use 120 film even though it’s only 2.4 inches wide, but the fact that you end up losing more than an inch of image, and I had a backing paper on hand made me wonder whether a better solution might be an option.

Despite a difference of 1/4 inch in film width, it seems that 101 and 122 film spools are actually very similar in length.

I realized I have a box of 4×5 Bergger Pancro 400 in the freezer.  So in theory I could cut pieces of 4×5 inch sheet film to size and if I could find a way to attach them to the backing paper, I’d be able to take images the full 3.5 by 3.5 inches.  So I made myself a cardboard template (in retrospect a hard plastic would have been better) 3.5 by 3.5 inches.  I knew I’d have to work in the dark, so I creased the backing paper every 3.6 to 3.7 inches.  The plan was to use masking tape to attach the sheet film pieces to the backing paper, leaving a space for the tape to stick.

The other issue was knowing how far to turn the film advance knob to avoid overlapping exposures and maximize the length of the backing paper.  The round window that allows you to see the numbers on the back of the paper is in the middle of the camera back.  So I used a sharpie to mark the exposure numbers in the middle of the backing paper, exactly between each set of creases.

Next, it was time to prepare the film.  I sat on the floor of my pitch black bathroom with the box of Pancro, a roll of masking tape, scissors, my 3.5 by 3.5 template, the film spool and backing paper, with the creases indicating where the film should be taped.  In complete darkness, I cut the sheet film to size, ensuring I kept track which way the emulsion was facing.  Then I taped a sheet between each set of creases, ensuring as much as I could in the dark that I had enough masking tape to hold the film in place without covering too much of the film that would be exposed.

This all sounds great, but when you’re sitting in the dark doing this, and the spool and backing paper want to return to their rolled-up state, but the sheet film is thicker and less flexible than you expected, meaning it resists being rolled up, and you only have two hands, the process can be challenging and nerve-wracking.  Add to the equation sweath fingers, starting from about 20 minutes in and gradually increasing as time goes on.

Eventually I managed to attach 10 pieces of sheet film to the backing paper, and painstakingly rolled it as tightly as I could to try and fit it in the camera.  I think 12 would have made the roll too thick, honestly.  And I walked home from work one day and snapped a bunch of photos in the late afternoon light.

When it came time to develop the film, I had to first separate the sheets from the backing paper, and then develop 10 individual sheets of Pancro film – which can be challenging for me as I don’t have any equipment for sheet film.  Some of the corners of individual sheets had bent, but by and large the film was correctly placed and aligned, and when I saw the processed film, it was clear I had usable images to work with.

The final piece to the puzzle was scanning the film.  My scanner maxes out at around 70mm, so I had to make two scans of each sheet, and stitch them together with photoshop.  But in the end I had 10 somewhat decent exposures.  Not as nice as others I’ve seen online for a similar camera by any stretch, but they were decent.  Here are a few samples, and then I’ll offer my verdict.

Father and Child

 In Madagascar, I’ve noticed a special closeness between fathers and young children, and I’ve wanted to do a series.  Every time I mention it to a Malagasy person they seem surprised at my observation.  As this man was when I asked him if I could snap a photo.

Ladies WalkingI snapped this shot at waist level, and I don’t think these ladies realized what was going on until I passed them and they wondered what strange device I was holding.  Clearly a novice photographer, I can’t bother to ensure my own shadow doesn’t spoil the picture.  This is not the only shot I did this in.

ShoulderThe streets of Madagascar are home to some of the oldest cars in the world.

Car and ShadowThis car has seen better days.  Again, my shadow spoils it all.

Verdict:  Clearly, many of the problems in these photos are due to the method I chose to process them.  Sometimes when you’re doing a lot of sheet film at once, the sharp corners (the Bergger Pancro is thick and its corners don’t give way) will scratch other photos.  The fact that two of them had bent corners didn’t help the issue.  But this film is not cheap, and it’s supposed to be pretty good quality.  On some of the photos there is a bit of damage along the edges where I used photoshop to “repair” where the masking tape had been, but I’m stumped by the fogging in some of the darker photos – especially the one below.  The pattern is a bit mottled, and so I wonder if, despite not having any holes in the bellows, the corners are simply no longer light-tight?  I could test this by covering the bellows with black plastic, but preparing the roll was such a pain, I’m not sure when I’ll work up the motivation to do so…  So I’m hoping instead someone else has run into this and will advice accordingly.

Rice Fields The rest of the photos for this camera can be found here.

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Results, #ShittyCameraChallenge, October Edition

Back in June, I was excited to post my results in the first Shitty Camera Challenge.  At the time, the results were completely appropriate for the camera I used at the time, and I still lie awake at night wondering how my life would have been different, had I been selected (at random) as that contest’s winner, making me the proud owner of a vinyl copy of Chicago’s first album.

I’ve managed o work through the trauma and the self blame, and have taken all of that guilt and remorse and squeezed it into a tiny ball and tucked it away in the recesses of my large intestine.  Appropriate, given the name of the contest.  I’ve turned over a new leaf, because it’s October, and a new challenge has unfolded on Twitter.

I searched far and wide for the camera to be used in this month’s challenge, and I came up with this wonderful plastic Samyang no-name camera that comes with tele and wide options, auto focus, and a built in automatic flash that still works.

It came to me with a roll of film already inside – maybe 5 or so exposures already taken.  I happily went off and snapped the rest of the roll, developed it in my kitchen sink, and was surprised to see that all of the photos were completely identical:

Given my past performance in this event, my fragile self-esteem was already shattered, and I would have given up at this point, but I had already started a new roll by the time I realized the extent of my failure.  It took the rest of the month for my noticeably less enthusiastic self to complete that roll, and when I hit the “rewind” button on the camera, it made a grinding sound, but nothing else.  The battery was OK (the flash still worked) but I had to pull the film out of the camera in the dark, using some force.  A metal pin, which may have been the cause or the result of my problems, came tumbling out with the film.

When I unrolled the film from the developing spool, my worst fears were confirmed when I didn’t see any pictures on the film.

But then I looked closer, and I could see faint shapes and shadows when I held the film in front of a lamp, and so I decided to run it through the scanner after all.  And to my surprise I learned that I had a full roll of horribly underexposed photos.  A bit of enhancement in Lightroom to see the images and it seemed that about halfway through, something happened which caused all of the photos to have long scratches/scrapes horizontally.  All perfectly legal and appropriate for this type of contest.  Here are some of my favorites.   The first three are from the island of Anjouan, in the Comoros; the rest are in and around Antananarivo, Madagascar.

Did I win?

 

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