Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Miniature Photography with 35mm film

Exakta VX (1955) next to Fujifilm XT4 (2020).

Over the many years running this blog, I have increasingly spent more time thinking about photography. Taking good photos is important to get people interested in your work, to clearly convey ideas, and to document things effectively. For most of the blog’s existence, I used my phone’s camera. And while I found success with this, I started to recognize that my phone often struggled to get miniatures entirely in focus, due to the fixed wide aperture (low F-stop, letting in a lot of light, but with a shallow depth of field, particularly if close to the subject), and the photos often looked unnatural due in part to the aggressive computational processing that was done on each, regardless of my input. This led me to getting a mirrorless digital camera, specifically a Fujifilm XT4. I selected the camera due to it being one of the only modern cameras made with “traditional” dials, like old 35mm film cameras, for the important elements of the exposure triangle: ISO (International Organization for Standardization, a measure of light sensitivity), Shutter Speed, and Aperture (this is on the lens themselves, rather than the camera body). Instead of these things being controlled electronically inside the camera, I thought the physical dials would force me to be more mindful of these settings, rather than relying on the camera to do it automatically. The camera also has the ability to use preset “film simulations” which allow one to take photos that would emulate the color science of Fujifilm's classic film stocks, like their black and white Acros. Something about connecting back to the roots of analog photography appealed to me. So far, the XT4 has been great, allowing me to learn the process of photography, both in my home space for photographing models in a controlled setting, to events, where lighting is not always reliable. Like I had hoped, the physical dials encouraged me to be more particular with the settings I was using, and how they were affecting the outcome. While I did not know it at the time, all of this experimentation and attunement to remnants of analog photography were priming me for my next step in photography, 35mm film!

The Exakta VX with a Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm F3.5 lens.

A photo of the cloth shutter on the Exakta VX; notice the small holes which make using it for outdoor photography difficult.

My grandfather has always been passionate about photography, particularly wildlife photography. For simplicity and convenience, he now shoots with a small mirrorless Canon digital camera, but he would often talk about shooting 35mm film. He once even had his own darkroom to develop black and white film. Recently, when going through his things, he found one of his old 35mm film cameras and gifted it to me! The camera is an Exakta VX, made in Dresden Germany in 1955-56 by Ihagee. Ihagee is famous for introducing what is thought to be the first single lens reflex camera (SLR) to the 35mm film format. Their factories were almost completely destroyed during the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, but after the war the USSR was able to get the factories running again (as Dresden was in East Germany), which is where the camera I have came from (it even has a stamp on the bottom proclaiming U.S.S.R. OCCUPIED). The camera is fully mechanical, with every aspect of its workings controlled like clockwork with gears and springs. It is a real joy to use, with all of its tactile sensations, like cranking the next frame of film into place and the satisfying click of the shutter (which is located on the front left of the camera, a design feature to allow the user to use their right hand to manually focus the lenses with their right hand). The build quality is incredible, with tight tolerances and precise machining; despite being made almost 70 years ago, it functions flawlessly (all of the shutter speeds appear to be roughly accurate, although I do not have a precise way to measure this). The camera has a bayonet mount to change lenses, all of which were created by a third party, as Ihagee only created camera bodies. Despite this, all of the major German lens manufacturers including Isco-Göttingen, Steinheil, and the legendary Carl Zeiss (Jena, the East Germany portion of the company after WWII) created lenses for the Exakta system. The one with my camera is a Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm F3.5. Interestingly, in popular culture, the Exakta VX is famous for having a central role in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window.

Attempting to take some miniature photography with the Exakta, using its waist level viewfinder to focus.

My grandfather even had a few shutter release cables for the camera, which I put to use!

Receiving the Exakta really reignited my passion for photography, and for the first time I had the chance to use a film camera, with all the dials that the Fujifilm XT4 was emulating, namely the shutter speed dial on the camera and aperture on the lens. While there is a dial for ISO, it is merely a book-keeping device, reminding you the speed/ISO of the film you loaded into the camera, as after you load the film you need to shoot the entire roll before getting an opportunity to use a less/more light sensitive film. Decades later, when lightmeters were built into cameras, the ISO dial both reminds you what film speed you loaded and instructs the light meter so that it can assist you in finding the proper exposure settings manually. When using a camera like this today, without a light meter, you can use a separate physical light meter or download an app for your phone, which uses the phone camera and its internal light meter to give you the correct exposure settings. Conversely, you could just estimate the correct setting by eye using the Sunny 16 rule.

A Dark Angel against a horde of daemonic creatures (created by Ana Polanšćak and Helge Wilhelm Dahl), taken on Fujifilm Acros II film.

A Dark Angel preparing to exterminate a frenzied mob (created by Ana Polanšćak), taken on Fujifilm Acros II film.

To my delight, having photographed with the XT4 for years, using the Exakta came quite naturally. I did have to adjust to focusing manually, through the waist-level rangefinder. Finding the correct exposure settings was the most difficult part, but a combination of using my phone and the aforementioned Sunny 16 rule worked pretty well to get some good shots, both outdoors and some miniature photography. To take photos of miniatures, I put the camera on a tripod and used a shutter release cable my grandfather gave me so that I could use longer shutter speeds without introducing camera shake. The 50mm lens has a minimal focusing distance of about 3.5 feet, so it is not ideal for taking pictures of miniatures. I took a few and included them here, but they had to be cropped quite a bit to get unwanted background out of the frame. I have since found a few different lenses on eBay with a closer focal length (another 50mm and a 35mm), so I am excited to give them a try. The only other area of concern is that the cloth shutter, being close to 70 years old, has developed some tiny holes in it that can result in pinpoint areas of overexposure, particularly if taking photos in direct sun. This is not a major concern when taking photos of miniatures, but I am trying to find someone who could service the camera and replace the old cloth. Regardless, I am incredibly excited to continue to explore film photography, with the Exakta and other film cameras. I recently got a Nikon F2 (1976) from a local photography shop, and have been using it too. Expect to see more photos here soon!

A lone Imperial Guard soldier makes a desperate last stand, taken on Fujifilm Acros II film.

Cardinal Aseneth Levedescu from the Church of the Red Athenæum, taken on Fujifilm Acros II film.

The Exakta VX (1955) next to a newly acquired Nikon F2 (1976), both 35mm film cameras.

- Eric Wier


  1. 35mm film is certainly a retro way to photograph miniatures! Next you will be blowing in cigar smoke or using colored reflectors to get some in camera effects done. Are you developing the film yourself, or sending it out for prints?

    My wife has a large collection of retro cameras and a midlevel DSLR with a battery of lenses, but using the camera I have with me (the phone) is better than remembering too late that there is a higher powered option on a shelf at home.

    1. It has been a fun process to learn, and I feel I am becoming a better photographer slowly! You are certainly right the best camera is the one you have with you, which is usually a phone! I certainly really value my phone in that respect.

      Currently I use a local lab to develop my film. I do the scanning and negative conversion myself in Adobe Lightroom (Negative Lab Pro), however.