Canon 50mm f/1.8: the evolution of an icon

Anyone interested in photography will surely have heard of the “nifty fifty” – the 50mm standard SLR lens. Almost every single SLR manufacturer had a 50mm lens with and f/1.7, f/1.8 or f/2.0 aperture that was sold as the “kit lens”, and Canon was no exception. These days, “kit lens” has become a dirty word for a cheap, flimsy and poor quality zoom lens, but in the heyday of manual focus photography 50mm kit lenses were among the sharpest, fastest, smallest and lightest lenses available in the whole range, only surpassed in quality by their faster and spendier 50mm f/1.2 and f/1.4 cousins.

Canon is no exception, and over the nearly-60 years since they introduced their first SLR I’d be willing to bet that that combined sales of their 50mm f/1.8 models outnumber every other SLR lens sold, ever. I decided to check out every model Canon has churned out and explore the technologies introduced with each revision. To date, Canon has released fourteen versions of its 50mm f/1.8 since 1959 and while some have been minor revisions, others have been leaps in technology – but all with a shared heritage.

Every single one of these 50mm lenses (except one) has the same optical formula of six elements in four groups – the classic double Gauss arrangement which was first invented in 1888 and is still used to this day.

Lenses

Some of these lenses are directly marked I, II, etc on the lens itself to denote the revision. However some are not marked with the revision, so in these cases the revision is in brackets.

R mount

R 50mm f/1.8 (I) (1959)

Canon launched its first SLR, the Canonflex, in 1959 with just two interchangeable lenses using a new mount, the R mount. Canon’s R lenses were the first to use a breech-lock mounting system – all their previous lenses were equipped with a screw mount for use on rangefinders. The breech mount was superior to the screw mount as no wear occurred on the distance-critical mounting surfaces. It was a bit slower to use though, and some photographers felt that it was difficult to change breech mount lenses with one hand. Nonetheless, the breech mount stayed with the R mount and its successors for two decades.

The R 50mm f/1.8 has two aperture rings which makes it looks like a preset lens, however it is actually an automatic lens. One aperture ring sets the desired aperture that will be used when the photo is taken (although the aperture stays wide open until that point) while the other ring is effectively a depth-of-field control. The lens mount has two levers lever which the camera activates when the photo is taken (to ensure the lens stops down to the desired aperture at that moment, before springing open again) and when the film is advanced. The camera has no way of knowing what aperture the lens is set to, nor does it need to – as the Canonflex cameras had no TTL metering.

The R mount 50mm lenses were officially known as R 50mm f/1.8 but they all carried the designation Super-Canomatic Lens which is probably the coolest name of any camera lens.

R 50mm f/1.8 (II) (1960)

A mark II and III quickly followed the first version with only cosmetic differences.I have the II in my collection.

 

 

It has a larger knurled focus ring but the two aperture rings are closer together. In my opinion this makes them a bit fiddly to use…

R 50mm f/1.8 (III) (1963)

…and apparently someone in 1960 agreed with me because the mark III moved them further apart again.

FL mount

FL 50mm f/1.8 I (1964)

The FL mount replaced the R mount when it was launched with the Canon FX camera in 1964. It shares the same physical lens mount but uses a simplified single-lever system. R and FL lenses and cameras are compatible with each other.

 

 

The design of the lenses was smartened up, too. FL lenses are smaller and lighter than their R-mount predecessors. They scrapped the second aperture ring and instead had a switch which could be set to A (auto) or M (manual). In A, the aperture always remained wide open until the moment of exposure, but in M the aperture stopped down to the value set on the ring.

FL series cameras allowed TTL metering for the first time with stop-down metering. The photographer would keep the aperture wide open for composing and focusing (A mode), but would stop the aperture down in order to get a light meter reading at the correct aperture (M mode, or by using the stop-down lever).

FL 50mm f/1.8 II (1968)

Unlike most mark II lenses from Canon which are minor revisions, the FL 50mm f/1.8 II was a complete optical redesign, and is one of the few that carries the II designation on the lens itself. It was still fundamentally based on the double Gauss formula but had various improvements, including the elimination of astigmatism, reduced aberration and a new magenta/purple lens coating.

FD mount

FD 50mm f/1.8 (I) (1971)

The introduction of the FD mount in 1971 was a gamechanger. It had extra levers and pins on the mount so the camera could tell what the maximum aperture of the lens was, and perform TTL metering with the aperture fully open. This paved the way for full automatic exposure, although the first generation of FD cameras didn’t support that, and were controlled effectively as fully manual cameras with match-needle metering.

 

 

The FD mount also did away with the concept of preset lenses and A/M switches by having an aperture that could be controlled by the body. Setting the aperture ring did not have any effect until the camera commanded the lens to stop down at the moment of exposure.

This generation of lenses (and the mark II that followed it) are known as “chrome nose” lenses, because the filter thread and lens hood bayonet at the front is made from chromed metal.

FD 50mm f/1.8 (II) (1971)

I’ll be honest, I can’t work out the difference between the mark I and the mark II, which was released in the same year. However it is clear that the two “chrome nose” models were only in production for a fairly short time before being replaced, which contributes to their relative scarcity today, compared with the later models.

FD 50mm f/1.8 S.C. (I) (1973)

This lens is the first one to carry the SC designation. SC stands for Spectra Coating which is Canon’s trademark for their multicoating process. Some previous lenses also had the same coating but this was the first version use it as a selling point. There was also a superior SSC (Super Spectra Coating) but this was not used on the lower-range lenses such as the 50mm f/1.8.

The first SC lens is somewhat smaller and lighter than its chrome nose predecessor but otherwise is styled pretty much identically, with the exception that the filter ring and lens bayonet are now made from black plastic.

FD 50mm f/1.8 S.C. (II) (1976)

The mark II is slightly smaller and lighter again than its predecessor, but the most notable difference is that the number of aperture blades has been reduced from six to five. This trend continued with the rest of Canon’s 50mm lenses.

 

 

New FD 50mm f/1.8 (1979)

After 20 years of breech-mount lenses, Canon redesigned the physical latching mechanism and replaced the breech mount with a rotating bayonet mount, known as New FD (sometimes written as FDn). It was fully compatible with the original FD mount.

 

 

At the same time, Canon gave all the New FD lenses a makeover, styling them in black, making them slimmer and using plastic instead of metal. Overall, this means the New FD version is much lighter.

The New FD lenses all have better Super Spectra Coatings (SSC) – except for the New FD 50mm f/1.8 which retains the Spectra Coatings (SC) of the original FD series. The SC and SSC designations were dropped. The optical formula also remains unchanged, however this is the first of Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 lenses to stop down to f/22 instead of f/16. This may be a reflection of the faster films that were becoming available throughout the 1970s.

AC 50mm f/1.8 (1985)

The uncommon AC 50mm f/1.8 was an attempt at retrofitting autofocus capability to the manual focus FD mount. It was only compatible with the Canon T80 camera (although the T80 could use any FD lens). The physical mount was unchanged but the lens also had some electrical contacts alongside the physical linkages to control the autofocus and aperture. It is still possible to focus manually with this lens, but it clearly isn’t what Canon had in mind as the manual focus ring is only accessible with the fingertips through two slots that have been cut on the sides of the lens barrel.

 

 

While this solution “worked”, it wasn’t very good. The autofocus was too slow and inaccurate to be useful, and ultimately Canon decided to throw it all out and start over with the incompatible but autofocus-from-the-ground-up EOS system, which used EF lenses. However the concept was proven and Canon’s engineers continued developing the technology.

This lens is based on the New FD 50mm f/1.8 but differs from it optically in that it can focus down to 50cm – the first of Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 lenses to focus closer than 60cm.

EF mount

EF 50mm f/1.8 (1987)

The EF mount was a radical departure from the R/FL/FD line, and wholly incompatible with it. EF lenses have a different physical mount and no physical linkages – all communication is done electronically. All EF lenses support autofocus and contain motors and circuitry, so they tend to be a bit bulkier than their FD counterparts, although often lighter too, through extensive use of plastics. However, the styling is unrecognisable. With autofocus replacing the prominent focus ring and electronic aperture control from the camera body removing the need for an aperture ring, EF lenses had a much smoother barrel and no need to touch any controls on it during normal use.

The EF 50mm f/1.8 shares the a related optical formula as the New FD 50mm f/1.8 with the same six elements, but splits them into 5 groups rather than 4. In reality this means a group which used to be two elements cemented together is now two elements with an air gap.

EF 50mm f/1.8 II (1990)

The later EF 50mm f/1.8 II is optically identical to the mark I but seems to be an exercise in cost and weight saving. The mount flange is plastic rather than metal (a first for Canon) and the focus ring (which isn’t supposed to be used much, as this is an autofocus lens) is small and fiddly to use.

 

 

The EF 50mm f/1.8 II is the longest-lived of all Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 lenses, making it a whopping 25 years before being replaced. During this time, digital cameras were introduced but in Canon’s case, they used the same EF mount so no modifications were necessary and the same lens continued to be sold.

EF 50mm f/1.8 STM (2015)

As the predecessor of the STM model lasted a quarter of a century, you might wonder what was wrong with it. The EF 50mm f/1.8 STM is optically identical to the I and II EF models, so what changed? In the 2010s, DSLRs with video became the norm, but lenses like the EF 50mm f/1.8 II suffered from noisy and jerky autofocusing which ruined the video. The more expensive lenses boasted a USM designation (ultrasonic motor) and were almost silent during focusing, but for the cheap end of the range, Canon came up with STM (stepper motor) technology for silent autofocusing when shooting video.

The EF 50mm f/1.8 STM also has 7 curved aperture blades – the first Canon 50mm f/1.8 to have more than 6, and presumably designed with video in mind.

Timeline

Some people find it easier to visualise information in graphical form, so I knocked up a timeline showing all the 50mm f/1.8 lenses. For those of you reading in the future, I have assumed that the production of the STM version ceased at the end of 2018 (it probably won’t/didn’t!)

Canon 50mm timeline
Canon 50mm timeline

Specifications

Lens Launched Groups / Elements Aperture blades Minimum aperture Closest focus distance (m) Maximum magnification (x) Filter diameter (mm) Max diameter × length (mm) Weight (g)
R 50mm f/1.8 (I) 1959 4/6 6 16 0.6 58 65×48 295
R 50mm f/1.8 (II) 1960 4/6 6 16 0.6 58 65×48 305
R 50mm f/1.8 (III) 1963 4/6 6 16 0.6 58 65×48 305
FL 50mm f/1.8 I 1964 4/6 6 16 0.6 0.104 48 61×40 228
FL 50mm f/1.8 II 1968 4/6 6 16 0.6 0.103 48 62×43 280
FD 50mm f/1.8 (I) 1971 4/6 6 16 0.6 0.103 55 65×45 305
FD 50mm f/1.8 (II) 1971 4/6 6 16 0.6 0.103 55 65×45 305
FD 50mm f/1.8 S.C. (I) 1973 4/6 6 16 0.6 0.103 55 64×45 255
FD 50mm f/1.8 S.C. (II) 1976 4/6 5 16 0.6 0.103 55 63×39 200
New FD 50mm f/1.8 1979 4/6 5 22 0.6 0.100 52 63×35 170
AC 50mm f/1.8 1985 4/6 5 22 0.5 0.150 52 74×48 210
EF 50mm f/1.8 1987 5/6 5 22 0.45 0.150 52 67×43 190
EF 50mm f/1.8 II 1990 5/6 5 22 0.45 0.150 52 68×41 130
EF 50mm f/1.8 STM 2015 5/6 7 22 0.35 0.21 49 69×39 160

Test pictures

Facts and figures only tell you so much, but some test pictures are worth a thousand rambling words. The only camera I have that can use all of these lenses without resorting to an adapter with corrective optics is my Canon EOS M mirrorless, which can take R/FL/FD lenses via a dumb adapter that is basically an extension tube, and EF lenses via an adapter with electronics (since the EF-M mount used on the EOS M series is electronically compatible with the “classic” EF mount). For R/FL/FD lenses, the EOS M can’t communicate with the lens so it effectively operates in aperture priority mode with stop-down metering. EF lenses work natively.

When I started setting up the test shots, I realised that the R and FL lenses wouldn’t mount on my adapter properly. I noticed that the lenses have a wedge-shaped lump around part of the rear element which fouls the stop-down signal pin of the adapter. As I planned to take all the test images at full aperture, f/1.8, it was easier to simply remove the signal pin, which is just a long screw which sticks in from the outside.

EOS M to FD adapter
EOS M to FD adapter

Now I have the ability to test all of my lenses, but annoyingly I found that my R 50mm f/1.8 II has got a stuck aperture and I wasn’t able to open it up to f/1.8. It’ll need servicing before I can test it, so I omitted it for now.

All of these test shots were taken with the EOS M in aperture priority at f/1.8, fixed white balance (cloudy), ISO 100. The only variable that the camera could change was the shutter speed. The shots were all taken from a tripod, although I do appear to have knocked the alignment a little when changing lenses repeatedly.

The first set of pictures I took was a straight shot of my back garden. In itself, it’s not particularly interesting, but it does give a feel for how each lens looks.

 

There isn’t much to choose between these lenses, so it’s a bit more interesting if we take a 100% crop of the centre, specifically looking at the sharpness. I used the screws in the hinge as a target for manual focus using 10× magnification on the EOS M, but there is still some scope for focus errors at f/1.8. Some evidence of varying colour rendition is also visible.

 

Even more telling, I took a 100% crop from the top-left corner where there was bright sky, which should be a challenge for any lens. I am expecting the older lenses to show flare or loss of contrast. It is worth noting that the EOS M is an APS-C crop-sensor camera, so the corner of the digital frame is not the corner of the frame as it would appear on a 35mm camera.

 

I tested for light fall-off in the corners by shooting an image of the rendered wall of my house. All of the lenses show some evidence of light fall-off but it is significantly better in the EF lens. Notably, this is the only lens in the test sample with the newer “6 elements in 5 groups” optical layout, as opposed to the “6 elements in 4 groups” layout seen in earlier lenses.

 

The centre crop of these thrilling wall pictures was not very interesting, but the corner crop shows up some aberrations. Once again, bear in mind that the EOS M is a crop-sensor camera and the “true” image goes beyond what the EOS M’s sensor can “see”.

 

The FL lens shows significant coma, which we expected, as the FL II’s selling point was better aberration control.

Summary

We’ve taken a look at Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 SLR lenses since 1959 and we’ve had the chance to test a representative selection of them. It is clear that the technology has improved with each generation, enabling new ways of using the lens and improving image quality.

There’s no point in saying which is the “best” but I will say that I have a soft spot for the FL lens. It has a characterful rendition and is small and light. It has nice controls and handles well on a 35mm SLR  and on a mirrorless digital.

Behringer B-1 vs B-2

These two large-diaphragm condenser microphones from Behringer are likely to be among the first condenser microphones that audio engineers on a budget lay their hands on. What’s the fuss about? Are these good microphones? And how do they differ?

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The Behringer B-1 and B-2 are Behringer’s top of the range microphones. As part of the B series, they are true condensers (unlike the C series). The B-2 comes in two generations – the original and the Pro. The B-2 and B-2 Pro are basically indistinguishable and the name seems to reflect a redesign of some of the internal components. Behringer receives a lot of criticism online but I think much of it is unjustified and people are just repeating myths. Some Behringer mics aren’t great but the B-1 in particular is one of the good ones and represents excellent value for money.

The key difference is that the B-1 has one diaphragm while the B-2 has two. This means the B-1 permanently has a cardioid pickup pattern, while the B-2 is switchable between three different polar patterns. This makes it a more versatile microphone, but the inevitable compromises in the switchable design mean it has slightly worse sensitivity and noise characteristics.

Behringer B-1 Behringer B-2
Condenser, 1″ single diaphragm Transducer type Condenser, 1″ dual diaphragm
Pressure gradient Operating principle Pressure gradient
Cardioid Polar pattern Cardioid, omnidirectional or figure-of-8
Gold-plated balanced XLR connector Connection Gold-plated balanced XLR connector
-34±2 dBV Open circuit voltage at 1kHz -36 dBV (cardioid)
-37 dBV (omnidirectional)
-35 dBV (figure-of-8)
20 mV/Pa Open circuit sensitivity 16 mV/Pa (cardioid)
14 mV/Pa (omnidirectional)
18mV/Pa (figure-of-8)
20 Hz – 20 kHz Frequency range 20 Hz – 20 kHz
-10dB (switchable) Level attenuation -10dB (switchable)
6dB/oct at 75Hz (switchable) Low-cut filter 6dB/oct at 150Hz (switchable)
138 dB Max SPL (1% THD @ 1kHz) 138 dB (cardioid)
139 dB (omnidirectional)
137 dB (figure-of-8)
13 dB Equivalent SPL 17 dB
18 dB
16 dB
81 dB Signal-to-noise ratio re 1 Pa 77 dB
76 dB
78 dB
50Ω Nominal impedance <100Ω
> 1kΩ Load impedance > 1kΩ
∅ head 58mm
Length 174mm
Dimensions ∅ head 56mm
∅ shaft 50mm
Length 210mm
0.45 kg Weight 0.55 kg

In practice, you are probably unlikely to hear these differences. Don’t be fooled into thinking the B-2 is “better” because it has Pro in the title, or costs more. These are two different microphones for different purposes. I would suggest buying the B-1 unless you have a specific need for omnidirectional or figure-of-8 pickup.

Omnidirectional close-miking of instruments and voices is useful to avoid the proximity effect, if you have a nice-sounding room. The figure-of-8 pattern makes this microphone useful in a mid-side setup or a Blumlein pair.

Of course with any microphone review, words are meaningless and it’s all about the sound. In my tests, I was generally unsatisfied with the quality of the B-2 as part of a mid-side setup. I later did a direct comparison by recording female vocals with the B-1 and B-2 in turn. I thought the B-2 sounded thin, metallic and harsh. The B-1 was smoother by comparison. In the end, I thought the B-2s were unsuitable for my work so I sold them and bought a Sontronics STC-3X instead. That is much smoother for use in a mid-side pair.

In summary, I think the Behringer B-1 is a keeper but the B-2 is one to skip. The B-1 is a better choice for cardioid pickup and for omni or figure-of-8, there are many choices.

Building a darkroom from scratch

I’ve moved house a few times over the last 10 years and at each place I’ve set up my own darkroom. I started with a rented flat, where I would develop film in the bathroom sink but there was no room for printing. At a later rented house, I made a makeshift darkroom in the loft, and then when we bought a house there was already a windowless utility room in the garage that was ideal. We’ve now moved again, and there is nowhere suitable. So I set out to build my own darkroom from scratch in the garage (which is just a junk store).

The garage
The garage

I took measurements and drew up a design. The darkroom is going to be at the opposite end of the garage from the large garage door, so I can still use most of the space for storage. The annoying constraint is the side door into the garden, which is just 1.6m from the end wall. The red lines show the proposed darkroom boundaries and layout of the workbench and sink.

The design
The design

I’ve never done anything like this before, but I wanted to learn all the skills needed and do everything myself. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos of garage conversions. The garage is built from single-thickness blocks and needs to be insulated. I was initially hesitant because adding insulation takes precious usable space away from the darkroom, but I didn’t really have a choice in the UK climate. So I added CLS timber framing (38x63mm) to the three masonry walls, and filled them out with 50mm Celotex foil-backed insulation panels. Any gaps were filled in with expanding foam to prevent air currents.

Starting to insulate the back wall
Starting to insulate the back wall
Wall insulation complete
Wall insulation complete

I started work on the partition wall, also built from CLS timber and insulated with Celotex.

Partition wall framework
Partition wall framework

I had planned for the workbench to be the same length as the longest wall, but I was also worried about manoeuvring the long piece of bench in the tight space, especially with the partition wall now up. I decided to attach the workbench to the studwork before putting the plasterboard up, and plaster round it afterwards, to cover any rough edges or gaps. This should also make it pretty strong.

Workbench support
Workbench support

IMG_7146b.resized

My darkroom sink is just a kitchen sink that I got from a clearance sale. I’ve never had a proper darkroom sink in the past and I didn’t feel the need to splash out on one this time (pun intended). I’ll use my trays on the workbench and wipe up any spills after. The sink itself is clamped into the hole with clips and sealed with silicone.

Sink fitted
Sink fitted

At this point I also placed electric cables in the walls for future lights, sockets, etc. The garage already had lights and several sockets, so I just needed to add a few. Then, I started work fixing plasterboard sheets to the timber. I used ordinary 12.5mm Gyproc WallBoard but if I did this again I would probably consider the special bathroom type which is supposed to be more resistant to moisture.

First sheet of plasterboard
First sheet of plasterboard
Boarding the outside of the darkroom
Boarding the outside of the darkroom
Wall boarding complete
Wall boarding complete
Wall boarding complete
Wall boarding complete

For electrical points, I used dry-lining boxes which attach to the plasterboard and clamp themselves in place – no need for any additional support from behind. These four sockets will be behind the enlarger.

Mains sockets
Mains sockets

With the walls ready, I turned my attention to the ceiling. It definitely needed insulating as the roof is made of a single sheet of OSB, coated with tar and roofing felt. It has basically no thermal insulation properties but also becomes very hot in summer with the sun shining on it.

OSB roof
OSB roof

I used thicker Celotex (100mm) to insulate the space between the rafters. I also realised that the rafters are too far apart and not close enough to the edge to properly support the ceiling plasterboard. So I used a load more CLS timber to create ceiling support beams at 90 degrees to the original rafters. It was then easy to attach the ceiling plasterboard to the beams in sections, as a single sheet was too big to get in the door.

Insulated roof with ceiling beams
Insulated roof with ceiling beams

With the room fully boarded, I filled in all the recessed screw heads, caulked up the edges where the walls and ceiling meet, and used plasterer’s jointing compound to cover over the joins. I didn’t skim the entire face of the plasterboard as the cosmetic appearance is not too important. However the joint seams do stand slightly proud, so I should have used tapered-edge plasterboard rather than square-edge.

Plastered joins
Plastered joins
Plastered joins
Plastered joins

With the seams sanded smooth and three coats of cheap white emulsion applied, I was able to install the light fittings and cord-pulls. I’m using a cheap kitchen light fitting and an old Paterson safelight. I wanted the whole room to be white so the safelight is reflected around and diffused as much as possible. This means you get maximum benefit from the safelight without needing to increase its brightness.

Main room lights working
Main room lights working
Safelight working
Safelight working

Now I’d finished bringing large materials into the room, it was safe to hang the door and complete the door frame.

IMG_E7649b.resized

It’s just an ordinary door with no special facilities for light-proofing, so I painted the edges of the door and the insides of the door frame flat back to improve the light seal. The bottom edge of the door has also been fitted with a brush strip.

IMG_7662b.resized

I also boarded up the windows with 5mm plywood panels to ensure a proper light seal. The panels are stuck onto the UPVC window frames with silicone sealant to ensure a light-tight seal, with a few screws to hold the panels tight. I boarded each window pane individually, so you can still open the window for ventilation if necessary. The plywood is also painted white on the outside to reflect back any sunlight and prevent it from getting hot in summer.

Window boarded up
Window boarded up

With the door now in place, I know exactly how far the flooring will need to extend. I put down some polystyrene insulation tiles that were left over from fitting laminate flooring in the house and then covered it over with textured polystyrene floor tiles. I’ve used these before and I found them very comfortable to stand on for prolonged periods of time, and they should help insulate the concrete floor. The edges of the floor were concealed with softwood skirting boards. This is probably a bit of an extravagance!

Flooring and skirting boards
Flooring and skirting boards

While I had wanted to install tall laboratory taps, they proved to be too expensive for my low-budget darkroom. In the end I decided on wall-mounted garden taps as they are very cheap, can be installed high up and can be fitted with removable hoses or connected to print washers, film washers, etc, using quick connect hose fittings.

Tap station
Tap station

I completed the sink with self-adhesive vinyl splashback tiles. The garage backs onto the kitchen, so it was easy to drill through the wall and get a cold water feed. The tricky bit was the waste. While the kitchen drain does actually go through the garage, the garden door is in the way and there isn’t enough room underneath it to run a drain pipe. In the end I decided to install a waste tank underneath the sink for it to drain into, and an inexpensive pump to pump the waste water over the door and down into the drain via a flexible hose dropped into a washing machine trap. The pump is activated by a switch on the wall.

Sink all ready
Sink all ready
Fresh water inlet (copper) and pumped waste outlet (blue hose)

Finally, let’s have a look at the finished darkroom, equipped with a De Vere 54 enlarger which can handle negatives up to 5×4″. I have enough space on the bench to process prints up to 16×12″ in trays and up to 24×20″ in troughs. The first picture also shows a wall-mounted rack to store enlarger lenses, a swivel work lamp, and a trolley of film processing tanks and reels under the bench.

Finished darkroom (right hand side)
Finished darkroom (right hand side)

Looking the other way you can see the sink, now equipped with removable hoses, and the third tap hooked up to a Paterson 16×12″ print washer. To the left of the sink there’s a rack of tongs and safety glasses for the nasty chemicals, above the sink there is a hanging rack for finished prints and on the right there is a glove dispenser.

IMG_0329b.resized

This central view from the door gives a more balanced idea of what the space is like.

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From start to finish, this build took about two and a half months, although I did most of the work on my own in my limited free time. In total I bought over 100m in length of timber, nearly 30m2 of plasterboard and goodness knows how many screws.

Huge thanks to everyone who helped out, including Vassili (carpentry), Hannah (plastering and overall permission), Oliver (plumbing/flooding), Stuart (workbench), Matt (ceiling plasterboard), Edmund (fetching building materials), Drew and Paul (donations of equipment) and of course, all the Kickstarter backers who pledged funds in return for a reward – including friends and strangers.

Now the room is ready, I can’t wait to get back into darkroom craft! I’ve been without a darkroom for 11 months, although I’ve still been shooting film during that time. I need to develop the backlog of film and get printing so I can deliver the rewards to the Kickstarter backers. It’s going to be fun!

Building a new darkroom

I’ve moved into a new house now and it doesn’t yet have a darkroom. I thought I’d try something a bit different and launch a Kickstarter appeal to fund the construction of a new darkroom so I can continue my photographic work.

In return for your backing, there are rewards such as silver-gelatin prints, film processing services, use of the darkroom and one-to-one tuition.

Pledge now!

Restoring a Vest Pocket Kodak

A little while ago I was given a Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK) by a gentleman at church. It had belonged to his grandfather. When he rediscovered it recently, his grandchildren weren’t interested in it, so he kindly offered it to me. It was in poor condition but I promised to fix it if I could. One of the scissor struts had snapped and the bellows had tears and pinholes. There was paint loss all over the bodywork, but surprisingly the lens glass and the shutter were both in great condition and fully working.

Vest Pocket Kodak with broken strut

I investigated various options for manufacturing a new strut – the best method seemed to be having one laser-cut from 1mm steel but the minimum order cost was prohibitive and it was actually cheaper to buy another broken Vest Pocket Kodak on eBay and take the struts from that.

It was easy to drill out the rivets on the donor camera and release the strut. The holes in the strut were different sizes and I had to drill the smaller ones slightly larger to make room for the smallest rivets I could find, which were 2.5mm. I also drilled out the rivets on the camera I was repairing to get rid of the broken strut pieces.

I’ve never riveted before but I bought the cheapest possible riveter and a selection of small, short blind rivets. Once the holes in the struts were slightly enlarged, it was easy to pop a rivet in there and fasten it. In hindsight I should have put a piece of paper between the struts temporarily when they were riveted, and then removed it after riveting to give them some freedom to rotate. My rivets are a little stiff, but movable. A small amount of oil on the joints helped.

The back of the rivets protrude quite far and are at risk of fouling the bellows when the camera is folded flat, so I squashed them a bit flatter with some pliers and filed off the sharp edges. The new aluminium rivets don’t look quite as nice as the original chrome ones but at least they’re functional. The replacement strut is duller than the original, too – but that’s OK given that the camera is over 100 years old.

The next point of attention was the bellows. The overall structure of the bellows was OK but there were several splits and pinholes on the edges and corners. I didn’t think it warranted a full bellows replacement – which is lucky because that’s a tricky job. In the end I patched up these bellows by gluing the loose bits of leather down with UHU glue, adding some strips of fabric to give extra strength here and there, and covering the pinholes with an unusual substance called Liquid Electrical Tape. It’s supposed to be for coating electrical contacts in boats and motorhomes but it’s flexible, opaque, and easy to apply with a paintbrush, so it’s quite good at repairing bellows too. Unfortunately, it is bright red so it doesn’t really blend in. It’s not a beautiful repair, but it is functional.

Vest Pocket Kodak with new struts and repaired bellows

The Liquid Electrical Tape dried stiffer than I thought it would, so the bellows have much less flexure than I would have hoped. I think the bellows repairs would split if I forced the camera fully flat. It looks like it will collapse about halfway down without damage, and that’s enough to give the bellows some protection while I carry the camera in a rigid box.

The film used by the Vest Pocket Kodak, 127 film, has been officially discontinued but there are still one or two suppliers. I bought a roll of Rera Pan 100 which is currently being manufactured in Japan. This should give eight nice black & images. With the camera ready to go, I’m waiting for some nicer weather before I get started. Hopefully I’ll get some negatives worth printing, and I plan to give one to the gentleman who gave me the camera. I hope he’ll be pleased.

And what became of the Vest Pocket Kodak I bought for parts? Well, I took what I needed and donated the rest to someone who takes part in WW1 reenactments and was also looking for parts to restore his own Vest Pocket Kodak.

eBay Global Shipping Program

It hasn’t been many days since I last complained about eBay. This time, it’s their Global Shipping Program (GSP) that has annoyed me.

For those who aren’t familiar, the GSP is a service provided by eBay where if you sell items to international buyers, you can send the item to eBay’s shipping centre in the UK using standard domestic postage and they will forward it on to the buyer. They handle all international postage and customs fees and paperwork. The benefit to the seller is obviously less hassle, but also the seller is not responsible for loss or damage of the item after it has been received by the UK shipping centre. The scheme is not popular with buyers because it is the they that foot the bill for these extra charges.

On the whole, it sounds good, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

Last week a buyer in Italy bought a fragile piece of darkroom equipment from me (it was a cold-cathode lamp for a photographic enlarger made in 1952).

De Vere 54 cold cathode tube

The item was sold through the GSP, the buyer paid and so I prepared the item. Knowing it was a fragile glass tube, I wrapped it in many layers of bubblewrap, put it in a box and then put that box in a larger outer box. I sent it to the UK shipping centre via Royal Mail First Class Recorded. Royal Mail tracking shows the parcel made it there safely and GSP also confirmed safe receipt of the item. In theory, from this point onwards, my responsibility has ended.

However, several days later the buyer contacted me to say the tube was broken when it arrived. He sent me a picture of the broken lamp and of the box it arrived in – which is not the box I sent it in. It appears that shipping centre have re-packed this item, removing the bubblewrap and replacing a single layer of bubblewrap and a different box. This was clearly inadequate and unacceptable. Reading around online, it seems that it is fairly common for GSP to re-pack items during transit, although nobody is quite sure whether this is for customs inspections or simply to save money on international postage.

The buyer opened a return request with eBay to ask for a refund.

Despite eBay’s promises that sellers are protected from damage in transit, eBay froze the funds in my PayPal account and contacted me (by email) to say I should refund the buyer. The only options available to me on their website were “refund the buyer” and “contact the buyer”. There was no mention of the GSP or any seller protection. I read some forums where people had had similar experiences and it seems that the buyer has to raise the right type of return request. They have to choose “damaged in transit” whereas my buyer had chosen “faulty item”.

I couldn’t find any way to change the request or refer it to eBay. I messaged the buyer, explained the system and asked him to close this request and open a new one with “damaged in transit” as the reason. He went silent and didn’t reply. Meanwhile, eBay sent two reminders for me to give a refund.

While the amount in question was not large (£15) it’s a matter of principle, and I was sure if I refunded the buyer out of my own pocket that I’d never get reimbursed by eBay. I scoured eBay’s website looking for some way of escalating this to support, but all I found was a well-hidden phone number. Typical, for a 100% online company to not offer online support when it benefits them.

In fairness, after just five minutes on the phone to customer support they had refunded the buyer out of their own pocket and released the funds in my PayPal account (which will take 24 hours, for some reason). But I am still cross that despite their promises to protect sellers who use the GSP scheme, they don’t actually honour it unless you ignore everything you see on the website and phone up. If they want to the GSP to be a success, it needs to be more integrated into the system so that it is not possible for buyers to contact the seller about shipping problems when it is clearly the fault of the GSP – or at least very easy for sellers to refer these cases to eBay with one click. They definitely should not be sending nag emails to sellers to pressure them into doing the wrong thing and refunding when they are not liable.

The seller protection also extends to have negative feedback caused by GSP removed from your profile retrospectively. I suspect this will mean another phonecall if the buyer is still unhappy that he received a broken item with inadequate packing, and has no idea that it was GSP’s fault.

Boundary microphones

Boundary microphones are an often-overlooked type of microphone which can be extremely useful in some situations. They might not be ideal for studio recording but they really come into their own for live sound work.

Firstly – what are boundary microphones? They are a specialised type of condenser microphone which is placed against a hard surface – usually a wall or the floor. Usually putting microphones near walls is a no-no because of destructive phase cancellation, but by putting a microphone on the wall, you avoid this.

I’ve attempted to show what’s going on with my excellent drawing skills (using the venerable Dia). When using a conventional microphone on a stand, the sound can reach the microphone from the actor via two paths: either direct, or by bouncing off the stage. This can cause the interference due to the delay caused by the signal that went via the longer path. By putting a boundary microphone directly on the stage, you avoid the secondary reflected sound and have a much more coherent signal.

I volunteered to do the sound for a pantomime in a village hall with a stage. My predecessor had been using a pair of small-diaphragm condenser microphones (Behringer C-2, to be specific) on stands in front of the stage, with the microphones about two feet above the stage. This worked reasonably well but the microphones were in the audience’s eyeline and it was also possible for the front row of the audience to accidentally touch the microphone stands, making a loud thumping sound on the PA.

I had never used boundary microphones before but I suggested to the producer that we might try a cheap pair to avoid the problems we had with microphone stands in front of the stage. She agreed and I bought a pair of StudioSpares SB400 boundary microphones. I placed the microphones on the stage, at the front, and sat them on rectangles of thin foam to reduce the sound of footsteps.

StudioSpares SB400 boundary microphone

I was impressed with the sound quality but perhaps even more importantly for live sound, the gain-before-feedback was higher than with the small diaphragm mics on stands. I was able to boost the overall gain while using a bit of crafty EQ to cut out low-frequency vibrations below 100Hz. The lack of comb filtering with the boundary mics was audible. Overall, the speech was much clearer for the audience – and of course the microphones were invisible to them! I was also surprised to find that the boundary microphones picked up less stage noise than the condenser microphones.

I am now a convert to using boundary microphones for stage use. And these were inexpensive ones too – imagine how good it could be with more expensive mics.