Resurrect Your Vintage Camera, Digital Style


Stop us if this sounds familiar:

You’re wandering around your favorite thrift store/ flea market/ crazy cat-lady neighbor’s attic and you find a great vintage camera.

You get all excited until you open the back and discover it only takes some bizarre outdated film that hasn’t been around since President Taft was voted People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” So you put it back, sigh, and daydream about that naughty naughty Taft.

But hark, dear reader: you can take digital pictures using that incredibly cool old camera. Combine your digital camera with your kitschy cam, and you’ll end up with some serious vintage-style awesome.

Come on along and we’ll let you in on the secret.

Digitize Your Old Camera

How To Do It:

through the viewfinderYou’ll need two cameras for this trick: one (preferably digital) to take the picture and another to aim through. Most people seem to favor cameras with waist-level viewfinders, such as the old Kodak Duaflex, because they’re large and easy to see.

Frame your shot using the older camera (call it Camera B), then aim your digital camera (Camera A) at the viewfinder and take the picture. Afterwards, crop the photo to take out everything but the viewfinder image.

Why’s It Cool?

vintage cameraThrough-the-viewfinder photography (or TtV as the kids are calling it) gives you an old-fashioned look you just can’t get with a nice clean digital camera. It was popularized a few years ago by a clever fellow named Mr. E Cipher.

The edges of the picture are blurred and the thick viewfinder glass gives you a fisheye effect. Dust and scratches can actually enhance these kind of photos. Plus you can leave the black edge around your picture when you crop it for that retro darkroom look.

Digital enhancement like boosting color saturation and fake cross-processing work really well with these kinds of images. Black-and-white and sepia images are also terrific.

About the Camera

Any camera can be used for TtV as long as the viewfinder is large enough. Waist-level viewfinders are easy to work with because they’re large and bright.

If you happen to see a Duaflex or Brownie Starflex for under twenty bucks it’s worth picking up. Thrift stores, yard sales and eBay are all good places to look. It doesn’t matter if the camera actually works or not, as long as the viewfinder is free of major fungus or dark blotches.

Bits of dust and small scratches can make your pictures more interesting, or they can annoy the heck out of you. If they annoy you, carefully take the camera apart (don’t lose any pieces!) and clean the inside with a lint-free cloth. If you need help, take a look at Russ Morris’ cleaning page.

The Tricky Bits:

As you may have foreseen, there will be some extraneous stuff in the picture (like the top of Camera B). You can get rid of most of this by filling the frame with the viewfinder image. Get as close as you can with Camera A while still being able to focus. Zoom lenses and macro settings will come in handy.

You may have also figured out that keeping light to a minimum will help. There are lots of contraptions for blacking out the space between Camera A and Camera B. Cardboard “smokestacks” are popular. If you happen to have a Duaflex, you can use this pattern to make a really nice custom sleeve. Improvisation is definitely encouraged. If you drop your camera in a black sock, cut out a hole for the lens, and that works for you: kudos. You can see some of the contraptions people have made here.

The Awesome Bits:

plantYou know how if you get too close to a subject with your normal camera, the picture won’t be in focus? Since you’re shooting through a viewfinder instead of an actual lens, you won’t have that problem. Get as close as you want to your subject- you’ll have some really unusual macro pictures.

Carrying a weird two-camera rig around will get you some attention. Use their curiosity as an intro for taking their portrait. Or be sneaky about it: lots of people won’t be able to figure out what you’re photographing since your camera’s pointed down. Turn Camera B ninety degrees and use it as a spy camera to photograph the person next to you.

More Resources:

  • Russ Morris has been doing TtV for a while and has written a definitive tutorial on the subject. Read everything he’s written- he’s a smart guy.
  • Look around the discussion boards on Flickr. There are a number of TtV pools with great advice and plenty of links. Be sure to check out the spinoff groups as well.
  • Check out some of the “Best Of” archives. It’s a great way to get inspired and see what other folks are up to.

Photo Credits: vintage camera: Hula Seventy, others: Kelly Jensen.