Thursday, September 26, 2019

[35mm Ohio] Vintage Cameras Be Damned

A once reliable 35mm camera and its problems/once reliable 35mm cameras and their problems. 

- I-71, Cincinnati.

I’d been in Cleveland a few weeks prior. At the time, summer was nearing its last legs and I had an idea in my head about what I wanted to see and shoot along the Ohio roadside to close out the season.

I opted to go another route, though, and then the rain showed up. I only had some small point-and-shoot cameras anyways, and at the time—I didn’t even know if they worked. So I scuttled plans that were in the vein of a stereotypical summer vacation and opted to roll through Akron and other points before eating a gas station dinner.

This particular weekend though, Labor Day weekend, I was going to take that stereotypical vacation road trip—an endeavor that I had been putting off all year, one inspired by last year's passing through Cave City, KY. And I’d need at least one decent film camera to bring along.

From the start, though, things weren’t going well. I didn’t leave work until well after Cincinnati’s rush hour traffic had settled in. Thunder and rain were on the menu as I cruised around looking for a post office box (where, ironically, I needed to drop a few rolls of film). I made it onto the highway as the rain started to gently fall, splattering in big globs on the windshield.

The intermittent whoosh of the windshield wipers gave way to dark skies that thrusted away what had previously been a pleasant afternoon of sunlight. The storm quickly became one of the most tense situations I’ve ever experienced in a car. My only reprieve from the deluge of hail came from passing below overpasses, where everyone had the same idea and was taking their sweet time to eek through while enjoying temporary respite as cars approaching behind them slammed to dramatic halts.

I’ve driven in some bad conditions before, but this quickly became too much. I could barely see the brake lights of the cars ahead of me and felt panicked—thinking that at any moment, someone was going to appear in my rear-view mirror before slamming into my humble sedan. So I pulled off the highway barely a few miles into the trip.

The traffic was hardly moving anyways.

I stopped at a shopping center near the neighborhood in which I used to live, knowing that the parking garage would be a good place to lay low for a bit. The rain whipped sideways and the wind pushed in the smell of the summer storm. Thunder and lightning, directly overhead, were made far more intense by the noise echoing through the concrete and down the garage’s dreary ramps.

I stood near the edge, watching the traffic below as driver’s tried to avoid each other in the low visibility. Eventually, they all just sat there, still and helpless while the storm intensified.

I readied the first camera, my Pentax K1000.

But the light meter, it wouldn’t budge.

No matter where I pointed it, even when shining my cell phone’s flashlight directly at it—I couldn’t get a reading. I thought maybe I had done something wrong and fiddled with the dials, trying to wake the damn thing up. On these models, a malfunctioning light meter isn’t too uncommon of a problem, but the remedies are complicated. Annoyed and hurried, I accidentally hit the film release. Figuring the film was done for aways, I opened up the back and tried loading the film again—just to see if the light meter would go.

Still no luck. A roll of Kodak Gold 200 wasted.

So I grabbed another Pentax, a different model and one I hadn’t yet tried, another that my grandfather had dug out of his closet and handed to me. The battery was dead, but I was pretty sure I had some more.

I did, but I also quickly learned that this mid 90’s Pentax “prosumer” didn’t take AAs.

So I moved on to camera three, the last in this weekend’s 35mm road trip arsenal: The Nikon N80.

This camera has some personal history to it. I love this thing and there’s a story behind it and who gave it to me. This camera means a lot. It's mostly worked great since first receiving it in 2008. Of all the 35mm cameras I own, this one’s the closest to my digital SLRs in terms of function and quality. The shots from the parking lot carnival in 2014 turned out gorgeous, some of my favorite film shots. But in November 2018, it began having fits. The mirror would flip up and down, make a shot, and then get stuck.

Only occasionally, though. Just a rare, slight hiccup.

Things mostly worked out the last time I had used it and I assuaged my own fears: maybe I had used some old film, maybe some small component wasn’t clean, maybe I had loaded the film wrong before.

“It should work now, right?”

With a fresh roll of Portra 400 in it after a little TLC, I aimed at the traffic while the storm slowly started to shift away.

Click. Slam. Whir. 


Click. Slam. Whir.




The shutter was locked up, the viewfinder black. Pushing the shutter a few more times generally got it working again, but after enough times of messing with it—the camera would error out and require a restart. It had a malfunctioning mind of its own now with no rhyme or reason as to why it was acting the way it was.

- I-71, Cincinnati.

As the rain kept coming, I tried to Google an answer and only found purple, previously visited links from the last time I had tried to diagnose.

By now, it was too late. I needed to get on the road, needed to get moving. I wouldn’t be able to run home and grab a fourth camera. So I hopped back on the highway and joined the line of slowly creeping cars. It would still be a good weekend, these trips don’t depend solely on making photographs, but it’s always icing on the cake when I can do some wandering. If I’m going to travel hundreds of miles from one end of the state to the other, I might as well see if there’s anything cool to shoot along the way, right? But now, I had no idea if any of these cameras worked or if I’d have any of them ready in a few days for the stereotypical summer vacation I had set my sights on.

Spoiler alert: as the photos in this post show, some of the photographs turned out.

I-71 was a mess after that gods damned storm. All the way until 275, even after the rain cleared and the sun pushed through, the cars crawled. At the intersection of the next interstate, everyone started moving and flying as if a faucet had been turned on—no rhyme or reason for why anyone needed to go slow before that. The colors of the post-rain, sun-washed sky were gorgeous. The kind of view where you wish you had a working camera at the ready.

The smells of summer and the evening were coming through the cracked windows. I stopped at a rest stop for candy and coffee while taking a short break, realizing as I sat there how familiar I-71 had become after all these years—even before I started traversing the state regularly with film in tow. There’s a certain way people look at rest stops. They wear comfortable clothes, they all have the same posture and demeanor, they all stretch their legs in the same manner and squint their eyes no matter what time of day it is. I assume someone’s looked at me and probably thought the same thing before. There’s a commonality in how exhausted everyone seems.

Finally in Cleveland, I resolved to try and get at least one camera working. The N80 still wouldn’t fully cooperate even though the small LCD screen indicated that the film was supposedly advancing. Rather than rip the roll out in frustration, I figured I’d try to use it, get it developed, and see how things turned out.

I went to the roof of Laura’s apartment and tried making some shots of the nearby skyline with the zoom lens.

- Cleveland.
- Struggles.

Later in Van Aken, I made some shots of a Blue Line rapid station before stopping at Walgreens to spend too much money on batteries for that other Pentax.

- Van Aken rapid station, Cleveland.
- Nope.

The next day, we came across the Euclid Beach Rocket car. I was done worrying about the camera. It either worked or it didn’t. So I snapped away a few times at the silver vehicle sitting at the pumps.

- The Euclid Beach Rocket Car, Cleveland Heights.

Euclid Beach Amusement Park had existed in Cleveland until about 1969. After the park closed, its “space rocket swinging ride” was discarded. Ron Heitman discovered the ride’s vehicles and went about converting them into automobiles that can be rented for special events. On this day, the driver was gassing up while some nearby kids took notice.

- Wasn't that great of a composition anyways.

In downtown Cleveland, fighter jets roared overhead as the annual air show hit its mid-day stride—most of the aircraft being obscured by the buildings and storm clouds rolling in. I cut through the Cleveland Arcade as it was being set up for a wedding and then attempted to make a few frames before taking shelter in a parking garage for the second time that weekend. As the rain came down, I tried to watch the USAF Thunderbirds fly by, but eventually the weather was too much with only the roar of the jet engines pulsing through the air and nothing to see from where I stood.

- Downtown Cleveland. Notice how the photograph transitions from a crisp shot at the top to a slight double exposure at the bottom due to the camera's issues.

- Cleveland Arcade.

- Definitely not the intended exposure level.

- Mall C, Downtown Cleveland.

- The Cleveland waterfront wasn't really this dark on that day.

Despite the camera complexities, the weekend had been wonderful. When it was time to go, I had a choice to make: I could head straight back to Cincinnati and not risk wasting my time using cameras that were questionable, or, I could pursue my stereotypical vacation road trip. The sun was nice, the humidity was in full effect, and I felt the urge to go. So, I decided to head towards Sandusky and several others stops that I had in mind/laid out on the map.

Vintage cameras be damned.

- Orange Ave., Cleveland.

- At least 1 out of 4 worked.

- E. 37th St., Cleveland.
- For the love of God.

I finished off the roll of Portra as I rolled over Sandusky Bay and ABBA’s Fernando struggled to come in over the radio (fading beneath the overpasses like the rain a few days before).

- Sandusky Bay.

- At this point I was just pointing the camera out the window, mindlessly firing while watching the road.

In Port Clinton, I stopped in the massive parking lot of a half-used strip mall. I took stock of my cameras and film. The N80 probably wasn’t worth trying again. The K1000 had a busted light meter. The mid 90s Pentax was the only thing left and now I had proper batteries after shelling out $23.53 for two of them. I popped one in, loaded up a roll of Kodak Ultramax 400 and lined up the lens.

The metering worked, the internal information displayed, and the focus ratcheted into place super quick.

I pressed the shutter.


Nothing but black. No error codes. No sound of film advancing. No shutter released.

I pressed the shutter several more times. Nothing. Everything just died and shut off.

Camera three of three was no good.

But I had come all this way in search of a stereotypical summer vacation road trip (or something like that, I guess). So I went back to the K1000. If anything, I could draw on my early photography training and “sunny 16” it. Or, I could meter with my digital SLR and then mimic those settings on the K1000. To my surprise, though, after three days of sitting in the trunk of my car—the light meter was back.

The K1000 was good to go. Just in time for some standard roadside tourism.

The story continues in this post.

- Unintended multiple exposure, Sandusky Bay, Margaretta Township.

View the other entries in 35mm Ohio


  1. Sorry to hear about your camera troubles Ronny. It's a testament to the simple and elegant design that they're still working after so many years, but like most machines some quirks are inevitable after a long enough life. Something tells me modern digital cameras will not age as well despite fewer mechanical parts. I'm glad you were able to visit the Arcade while you were up north! Despite the troubles, looks like you got some excellent shots!

    1. Digital cameras are going to be interesting. I think they hold up somewhat ok, it's just that newer models can do so much more, so quickly. Thanks again for the arcade recco!