Greg Pak: Photography

35mm Love Letter banner

I’ve started shooting 35mm film again after a 20 year hiatus, and I love it with all my heart. You can see my photographs on Grainery, Instagram, and Twitter, and you can back my analog photography guide and memoir 35mm Love Letter at Crowdfundr!

35MM LOVE LETTER launches on Crowdfundr – please back it today!

Hey, friends! I am absolutely thrilled to reveal a brand new passion project — 35mm Love Letter, a memoir and guide to the glories of analog film photography!

Like my previous how-to book Cooking Will Break Your Heart, 35mm Love Letter will be packed with incredibly practical information about a subject near and dear to my heart — and it’ll be a tribute to another aspect of my brilliant mother, Jane Pak.

My mother was an incredible amateur photographer who took hundreds of luminous black and white photos of her family and community when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. She taught me how to shoot and develop black and white film and gave me her Canon FTb when I was in high school, and photography became a huge part of my life. I started shooting film again after my mom died in 2021, and I do not exaggerate when I say that analog photography helped save my heart and soul this year.

Greg Pak with cameras in 1976, 1985, and 2022

So 35mm Love Letter is exactly what it says on the tin — a love letter to analog photography, celebrating both its glorious aesthetic look and feel and the slower but creatively inspiring process that it requires.

If you’ve ever been intrigued by film photography and would like a primer, this book is for you!

If you’re already an analog photographer who wants a little fellowship and inspiration from another shooter, this book is for you!

And if you just love a good story and want to know how film photography and the ethos of quiet observation taught by Jane Pak has guided the life of her son, this book is for you!

Please do check it out and back the project today! In addition to the digital how-to book itself, you can order physical copies of some of my previous books, or even pick up a vintage 35mm camera cleaned and tested by yours truly, or sign up for a three session online photography class!

Thank you so much as always for your interest and support. I literally could not make these projects without you, and I appreciate you so much.

I leave you with just a taste of some of the photos from the past four decades that may make their way into the book.

Photos taken by Greg Pak during high school and college in the 1980s. Subjects include a swan, a high school basketball game, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and a decapitated copperhead.

Seagull in Maine

Charles Pak in a museum in 1991.

Flowers in NYC.
 

 

 

This for 2023

Photo by Jane Pak of eight year old Greg Pak

Really hoping to bring this kind of energy back in 2023.

Photo taken in 1976 by my mother, Jane Pak, using a Canon FTb with Kodak Tri-X Pan.

(And yes, I have a big analog photography project on the horizon — please do keep your eyes open!)

 

What I’m shooting with today: Leicaflex Standard and a Summicron-R 50mm f2

Leicaflex Standard with a Summicron-R 50mm f2

I’m a kind of snob in reverse when it comes to Leicas. I’ve shot Canons since high school and love them and couldn’t imagine spending so much money on a Leica. But I picked up a Leicaflex Standard for a RIDICULOUSLY small amount on an auction site, and after a Leica rep confirmed the Summicron-R 50mm f2 lens it came with is NOT radioactive, I’m giving it a whirl.

I’ve loaded it with some Kentmere 100, which should give some nice, fine-grained images. I hear the Summicron-R may improve the latitude of images in comparison to my usual (excellent) Canon 50mm lenses, giving a little more detail in the shadows, for example. Very curious to see!

Weirdly, I spent VERY little on this camera/lens, but it turns out it’s probably one of the most valuable camera/lens combinations I own. So I’m going to be a little nervous with it outside today. Wonder how that’ll affect my shooting. We’ll see!

Took a picture of the moon

Photo of the moon

Ever since I’ve gotten back into analog photography, I’ve had my eye on the various cheap 500mm telephoto lenses that pop up on auction sites all the time. I finally plunked down sixty bucks for a Tamron SP 500mm fixed f8 tele macro reflex Adaptall lens, stuck it on my old Panasonic DMC-GX1 digital camera, set up a tripod, and took a picture of the moon.

I’m still figuring out how sharp the lens really is. But I’m already thrilled — OVER THE MOON, if you will (AAAAAAH!). I’ve never been able to take a picture of the moon with anything approaching this kind of detail, so sixty bucks seems like a brilliant investment at this point.

I’m eager to try it out with an actual film camera. Weirdly, when I put the lens on my Canon New F-1, the camera’s shutter won’t fire. Seems to work fine on my Canon T60, though. I’ll have to do a bit more research and experimenting. I have another Tamron Adaptall to Canon FD adapter around here somewhere, so maybe just swapping that out will make a difference.

Tamron 500mm lens

UPDATE: Took another picture of the moon!

the moon

The Metropolitan Museum of Art at dusk

The Metropolitan Museum of Art at dusk

I’m really only comfortable shooting 35mm film with manual exposure. It’s just the way I learned, it gives me the most creative control, and it actually feels faster and more natural to me.

But I recently picked up a ridiculously cheap old Canon A-1 and invested a little time and love to cure it of a sticky mirror and the notorious “Canon cough.” As a result, I now have a brand new sentimental attachment to a classic camera that’s one of Canon’s first SLRs to feature aperture priority and shutter priority exposure.

Canon A-1

So I’ve taken this turn of events as a challenge to try shooting a few rolls on this camera with automatic exposure. It’s still weird for me! Still takes me longer than shooting with manual exposure on an old Canon FTb! But I like the feel of the A-1, I’m intrigued by the possibility of getting comfortable enough with this that it actually speeds up some of my shooting, and I like some of the results, like the image above of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at dusk.

Canon A-1, Canon nFD 28mm f2.8, Kodak Tri-X 400 (expired in 2020), developed with Arista Premium Liquid Film Developer.

 

Shooting 35mm cityscapes in New York City

Back in 1986 when I was a high school senior in Dallas, Texas, I had a vague thought of driving around town at night and photographing the funky neon signs that towered over so many of the city’s corner shopping malls. Even then I had the sense that they weren’t long for the world and that as a 35mm photographer, I actually had the means of preserving their memory.

But high school was a pretty busy time and I never got around to it.

Decades later, I’ve fallen back in love with 35mm photography. Now I live in New York City, which isn’t particularly known for suburban shopping malls with funky neon signs.  But I’m more conscious than ever of the fleeting nature of our surroundings, and I’ve developed a habit of carrying a camera whenever I’m running errands in the city and shooting images of any bit of the landscape that catches my eye.

I’ve shot plenty of photos of some of the city’s biggest landmarks, with a special emphasis on the Empire State Building, probably my favorite building in the city. But other shots feel like my modern day version of the Dallas neon sign project I never started — such as photos of graffiti or old painted company signs on the sides of buildings that might be gone in another decade or two.

Here are some my favorite shots of the year with a few thoughts. I hope you’ll enjoy them, and I’ll be thrilled if they inspire you to take a little time to document your own surroundings.

In my first month of shooting film again, I shot this image with a Canon FTb, a Canon FD 50mm f1.8, and a yellow filter on Ilford HP5 400. This remains one of my favorite images I’ve shot all year. I never used filters in high school and college, so it was a revelation that I could pull so much more detail out of the sky with a yellow filter. But mostly I just love the way the framing and light work here. In film school at NYU in the 1990s, our cinematography teachers taught us to use light to direct the eye within the frame. I think this photo achieves that. For a fleeting moment, the sun glanced off of the Empire State Building in a lovely way, making it pop in the middle of these dark canyons of tall buildings. I also remember being dazzled by that famous shot in Rosemary’s Baby in which the camera ramps up the subliminal tension by not quite showing all of Mia Farrow through the doorway. Similarly, I love the way the framing here leaves the Empire State Building partly hidden by buildings in the foreground. It’s not a horror movie tension like Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s a bit of drama that pulls me in.

Canal Street scene shot with a Canon FTb on 35mm film

I shot this photo with a Canon FTb and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.4 lens on a 20 year old roll of Kodak High Definition 400 ASA film. It’s just a shot of Canal Street. But I freaking love it. The frame feels just right to me. I spent so many years shooting thousands of images with a 50mm lens; my eye just knows how to frame things with that focal length, and it feels so good. I also love the way this expired film renders the light, especially on the side of the building in the middle of the frame. It’s so crisp and cool and fresh. And the film holds the colors together in a special way, as if the entire scene were art directed. There’s a coolness to the sky and buildings that lets the red details of the signs and the Chinese medallion pop in a subtle, lovely way. Again, a simple image, but it makes me happy every time I look at it.

Boris Frumin, one of my brilliant NYU directing professors, used to list things that were cinematic, including flags and water and smoke. I’d absolutely add steam to the list, and was thrilled to find this great cloud rising from a grate in the Village this March. I shot this on Ilford HP5 with my old high school Canon New F-1 (newly repaired!) and, if I remember correctly, my mom’s old Canon FD 28mm f2.8.

New York City just screams for vertical shots. I was pretty thrilled with this angle on one of the entrances to Grand Central Terminal. The symmetry of the buildings is offset in a pleasing way by the car on the bottom left and the light reflections on the upper right. Just feels right to my eye. Shot on a Nikon FG with a Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

Another vertical shot that feels very similar to the Grand Central image. This is that fantastic United States Post Office building on Canal Street, but it felt like it wanted to be framed to emphasize the buildings overhead and that lovely shaft of angled light. Shot with a Canon A-1 and a 50mm Canon lens on Kentmere 100. This image really works because of the light. It’s creating the angle on the building on the right that makes the frame work in an interesting way, and it’s making the flag pop out from the foreground.

One of my ongoing themes has been the sky between buildings in New York City. I just can’t get enough of the shape the buildings make of the sky, and this image kind of epitomizes that interest. Shot on a Nikon FG with a Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8 on Kodak Tri-X 400.

This is my NYC equivalent of my never-begun Dallas neon sign project — shooting old painted signs on the sides of buildings. I love everything about these old signs — the textures, the way the paint has weathered, the glorious old fonts, the brand names and products advertised. An added bonus is the old school water tower on the building. I love it when I shoot a photo that at first glance you think might be decades old. Shot with a Canon AT-1 with a Canon FD 135mm f3.5 on Arista Ultra EDU 400.

I shot very little color film back in the day. I just loved black and white and had the most control over its look since we had a small darkroom and I could make prints on my own. So I’m still figuring out what I’m looking for when I shoot color film these days. This image felt like it worked — with lovely detail and color in the sky while maintaining detail in the buildings. Shot with a Canon AT-1 and a Canon nFD 24mm f2.8 on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200.

Another color shot that felt good. If the previous shot was all blues, this one’s all reds, and I dig it. Shot with a Bell & Howell FD35 and a B&H/Canon FD 50mm f1.4 on Fujifilm Fujicolor 200. Back in the day, the widest lens I had was a Canon FD 28mm, so this 24mm feels considerably more funky and dramatic to me, but I think the Ghostbusters building earns the treatment.

IFC

Just an absolutely everyday image of the IFC Theater in the West Village. But in five, ten, or twenty years, this might become a treasured record of the way things were. I’m trying to shoot lots of photos like these, and I feel good every time I get a keeper. Shot with a Canon A-1 with a Canon nFD 50mm f1.8 on Kentmere 100.

Jimmy Aquino interviews Greg Pak for Comic News Insider

In the wake of the New York Comic Con, my friend Jimmy Aquino interviewed me for the Comic News Insider podcast! We talked about a new comics project I’m working on for the NYC Department of Education, Planet Hulk Worldbreaker, Skaar, Darth Vader, Duo, and analog photography, accompanied by the glorious ambient sounds of Bryant Park in New York City. Check it out!

Cameras I Wanna Try

Look, I don’t NEED any more cameras. I got my beloved high school Canon FTb and Canon New F-1 repaired and I’ve fixed up a couple of cheap Canon T60s and a Canon AT-1 as wonderful take-everywhere cameras. I’m totally comfortable with Canons of this era and I love the images they let me take. But I’ve had a ton of fun over the past year trying out cheap vintage 35mm cameras from other manufacturers from the 1960s through the 1980s, and when I have a little idle time, I get the hankering to try out a few more. So here are a few of the cameras still on my mind.

Pentax MX

The Pentax MX is famously the lightest fully mechanical and manual 35mm SLR ever made. I’ve read multiple glowing reviews of how fantastic and huge its viewfinder is and how wonderful it is to handle. And it’s relatively cheap, with nice looking copies regularly selling for $70 or so on ShopGoodwill.com. But that puts it just a touch out of my typical comfort range for buying used cameras. As nice as a camera looks in online auction photos, you never quite know if it’s going to work properly until you get it in your hands. So I usually balk at spending more than $50 for a camera in these auctions. I’ve seen Pentax MX bodies go for that amount or less, but somehow I keep missing the deadline to bid. Some day!

Olympus RC and/or the Canon QL17 GIII

I grew up shooting single lens reflex cameras like the Canon FTb and Canon New F-1 and was barely aware of rangefinder cameras until very recently. But over the last year, I’ve been conducting a slow motion search for a cheap, super-light, take-everywhere camera to toss in my satchel while running errands in New York City. The Canon T60 has become that camera for me, but the Olympus RC and Canon QL17 GIII seem like serious contenders. Both cameras are compact and light with manual exposure controls and famously excellent lenses. But the Olympus RC tends to sell for $70 or so and the Canon QL17 GIII tends to sell for a bit over $100, which, again, is a bit out of my comfort range. However, there’s a Canon GL17 model without the GIII designation that’s pretty much the same camera as the GIII and tends to go for a lot less, so hope springs eternal!

Minolta ER

When I was in high school, I somehow got ahold of an old Minolta SLR with a fixed lens that I can remember fiddling with and keeping on my bookshelf but never actually shooting. I have no memory of where it actually came from. It might have been a camera my mom owned and used before she got her Canon FTb. Or maybe we picked it up at a yard sale or something. I noticed the camera in the background of a photo I took of my bedroom in high school and immediately felt the muscle memory of handling it. It was a heavy, solid, metal camera that made very satisfying clicks. It took a while to figure out what the make and model was, and now I’m a little obsessed with tracking one down. It’s a bit of a goofy desire — the camera’s too big and bulky for everyday use, and the chances that I can find an actual working model are pretty slim anyway. But I want to hold it in my hands again, feel that weight, and let that muscle memory take over. Nostalgia and sentiment are strong, y’all. Of course, the only samples I can find are over $100, so I’m not sure I’m going to pull the trigger on this any time soon.

Contaflex II

This was my maternal grandfather’s camera. He took hundreds of gorgeous, vibrant slide photos with it on Kodachrome during family roadtrips when my mom was a teenager. I dug up the camera after my mom died, and I love its weight and feel. But sadly the shutter’s gummed up and these cameras are notoriously over-engineered and difficult to service and repair. They’re not that expensive on auction sites, but according to various experts on the internet, the chances of finding a working model are extremely slim. I’d still love to shoot with this camera to get into my grandfather’s head for a bit. He was a quiet, meticulous man, and I have this strange feeling that learning to work his camera would help me understand the way his mind worked just a bit more.

Canon Dial 35

I became a bit obsessed with half frame cameras this year, and the Canon Dial 35 is a funky model that I’d just love to fiddle with. Half frame 35mm cameras take two 18×24 mm pictures in the space a normal camera takes one 36x24mm picture, which means you can get 72 frames out of a typical 36 exposure role of film. Each image is lower resolution, of course, since it takes up half the amount of film, but that’s part of the charm. The Canon Dial 35 stands out because of its strange form and clockwork mechanisms. Its unusual vertical orientation and funky crank knob make it look like something out of a 1960s science fiction or spy movie, and it was actually featured in The Prisoner television show. It’s a bit silly for me to want this camera — it’s an autoexposure only machine, and I only really enjoy shooting with full manual exposure controls. And I already have multiple great half frame cameras, including a phenomenal Konica Auto-Reflex that uses standard Konica SLR lenses and thus provides incredibly good image quality. But I look at the pictures of the Canon Dial 35 and I just want to fiddle with it. These are sometimes pretty cheap, so who knows!

Konica FT-1 Pro Half

Speaking of half frame cameras, the Holy Grail of the format appears to be the Konica FT-1 Pro Half, a full featured SLR that’s a variant of the full-frame Konica FT-1 Motor. Apparently Konica manufactured a small number of half frame versions of this camera that were given to special customers and executives around 1982. I don’t know if any other half frame cameras were being manufactured at the time, and I’ve never heard of a half frame SLR as modern as this one. I’ve only seen an active auction for one of these, and the asking price was $1399. So no, I’m not buying this camera. But boy, it’d be fun to try one out!

Olympus Pen F with an Olympus OM adapter

Okay, we’re getting into fanciful realms here. The only other half frame SLRs I know of besides the Konica Auto-Reflex and FT-1 Pro Half are the Olympus Pen F and FT. These are highly coveted, all manual, all mechanical compact SLRs with interchangeable lenses. I’d probably have managed to scrounge one up by now, but the big drawback is that the two most standard lenses for these cameras were manufactured with thorium glass elements, which means they’re slightly radioactive. Different people have different ideas about the actual danger levels of thorium in camera lenses, but I try to avoid it, so I’ve pretty much given up on chasing down these cameras. But there are lens adapters that allow you to attach Olympus OM lenses to Pen F series bodies. The trick is that the adapter itself sells for about $150. Add the camera itself and an Olympus OM lens or two, and the price starts to get pretty high up there. Again, not something I’m going to spring for any time soon, but fun to think about!

Canon EF

This is a strange, rare, but currently pretty cheap camera that was part of the Canon F line that included my beloved FTb and New F-1. The EF was built on the same basic chassis, so it’s a solid, heavy, classic-feeling Canon camera that takes FD lenses. But it’s got an electronic shutter and a shutter priority mode. Like the AE-1 and A-1, it also doesn’t show you your actual aperture in the viewfinder when you’re exposing manually — it just shows you the suggested aperture, and you have to lower the camera from your eye to make sure your lens is set properly before shooting. That should be a dealbreaker for me, but I got my hands on a non-working Canon EF and just like the feel of it. I’d love to try out a working version. But I haven’t yet committed to plunking down $60 or $70 for the privilege.

As I said at the outset, I don’t need any of these cameras. But it’s fun to learn and think about them, and it’s fun to have a little list of things to look out for when I pass a stoop sale or flea market. Simple pleasures, right?

Fixed a sticky aperture on a Canon FD 135mm f3.5 breech mount lens!

I spent an hour tackling one of the most challenging camera repairs I’ve dared so far, and it worked! Check out the clean, smooth action on this previously oily, gummed up aperture assembly from a Canon FD 135mm f3.5 breech mount lens!

Since I’ve gotten back into 35mm photography this year, I’ve been itchy to get my hands on a Canon FD 135mm f2.5 breech mount lens like the one my mom gave me in high school. As it turns out, that f2.5 lens is considered to be one of Canon’s best vintage primes, but the aperture on mine became unreliable in high school and I eventually gave it away in the early 2000s. I’ve kept my eye open for a replacement, and I thought I found one in a cheap Canon FTb lot from an auction site. But when I got the package, I discovered the lens was a f3.5, not a f2.5, and it was full of fungus and the aperture wasn’t working. Aaaah!

The first day I got the lens, I opened it up and cleaned the glass. I was able to get rid of the fungus, but it’s still pretty dusty — there are just a lot of flecks in there I can’t quite get out. I strongly suspect they won’t affect image quality, but I wasn’t ready to test the lens yet because the aperture was stuck wide open.

This morning I had a spare hour, so I finally opened up the lens again, removed and opened up the aperture assembly, and carefully used isopropyl alcohol to clean the housing and blades, which were indeed oily and sticky. Huge thanks to mikeno2, whose video about cleaning this model of lens was incredibly helpful.

The toughest part of the job was reassembling the aperture assembly.  Tiny pegs on the bases of the blades fit into tiny holes in two different parts of the housing, and the blades overlap in a circular pattern, and the very last blade has to tuck under the very first blade, which is a tricky maneuver. But it all worked out, and now I have what looks like a working Canon FD 135mm f3.5 breech mount lens!

This is a lot of effort for a lens that can be bought in good condition for under $40. But it’s enormously gratifying to fix up something that came to me in such bad condition.

Yes, I’ve still got my eye open for the f2.5 version of this lens, but for now, I’m going to have a lot of fun testing out my repaired f3.5 in the field.

I did the Minolta X-370 capacitor fix! (And then I discovered the REAL problem!)

Minolta X-370

A few months ago I picked up a old Minolta X-370 for less than $10.  This is a bit of an underdog of a camera, overshadowed by the X-700, the full-featured flagship of its line. But I like the simplicity of the X-370 — it’s a very light, efficient machine with manual exposure controls that don’t require you to lower the camera from your eye when you’re shooting. I thought it might be a good candidate for a cheap take-everywhere camera, and it cleaned up nicely and worked great — for two rolls. Then the mirror got stuck in its flipped up position and the camera exhibited the classic symptoms of the capacitor failure that plagues Minoltas in this line.

After reading a bunch of message board posts and watching this excellent video from Matt Originals multiple times, I decided to embrace the challenge of replacing the capacitor. I visited Digi-Key, spent a few bucks on the exact part Matt Originals recommended, and dug up my soldering iron.

Long story short: I replaced the capacitor! And the camera’s working now! But I’m not entirely sure the capacitor was the actual problem!

Replacing the capacitor

The message boards were right — if you can solder, this is a very manageable job! First, I removed the batteries and the four tiny screws on the bottom plate of the camera to expose the capacitor. It’s the blue thing on the left. As recommended by various online guides, I took note of the plus sign on the right side of the capacitor — I’d need to make sure the new capacitor was installed with its plus side in the same place.

Minolta X-370 with bottom removed to show blue capacitor

Second, I removed the old capacitor by carefully melting the solder attaching the capacitor to the circuit board, taking care not to melt the thin plastic of the board itself. I then cut the wires extending from the new capacitor to match the length of the wires on the old capacitor.

Old and new capacitors for the Minolta X-370

IMPORTANT: the specs for the new capacitor note that the longer wire is the positive terminal. So it’s key to remember which side that is before you trim the wires so you can make sure the positive wire of the new capacitor is attached to the same spot that the positive wire of the old capacitor was.

Then I soldered the new capacitor into place. I haven’t soldered anything for years, so I was pretty pleased with the outcome!

New capacitor in place in the Minolta X-370

Finally, I screwed the bottom plate of the camera back into place, reinstalled the battery, and fired up the camera… and the camera wouldn’t advance, the shutter wouldn’t fire, and the mirror remained stuck. Oh no!

The real problem?

I started googling again and read the message boards very carefully. According to Minoltafan2904 on Photorio.com, the capacitor problem is characterized by the shutter not firing, the film advance lever not moving past 30 degrees, and the LEDs in the viewfinder illuminating briefly, but going out when you press the shutter release button. All of those things were happening with my camera — but in addition, the mirror was stuck in an upright position.

Stuck up mirror on a Minolta X-370

So I started searching specifically for the mirror problem, and eventually I found this post by John Koehrer on Photorio.com, who suggested that a stuck mirror might be due to a shutter curtain not completing its cycle. The curtain on my camera looked fine to me. But on closer inspection, I saw just a bit of the black metal edge of the curtain on the far left. So I very carefully and gently nudged that metal edge to the left… and the mirror released!

Nudging the edge of the shutter to release the mirror on the Minolta X-370.

Now everything works properly! The LED viewfinder lights stay on and function correctly and the film advance and shutter advance work. The mirror got stuck again a few more times as I tested the camera, but I just nudged the shutter to release it and after a few dozen more firings, it doesn’t seem to be getting stuck any longer.

So was my problem all along just a shutter issue? Or did I have both a shutter and a capacitor issue? I suppose I could get a definitive answer by reinstalling the old capacitor to see if the camera still functions. But that feels like begging trouble. At least I know that I rose to the challenge of soldering and correctly installed the new capacitor (whether or not I needed to), which makes me pretty proud.

I still need to load the camera and test it in the field to see if the sticky shutter and stuck mirror problem recur. It could be that the camera needs a good old fashioned CLA (clean, lube, and adjust). But that would probably cost four or five times the price of a new used X-370 body. If we get to that stage, I might just do some more googling to see if I can figure out how to CLA an X-370 myself.

Maybe this seems like a lot of effort for a $10 camera. But this is one of the glories of analog photography for me. It feels absolutely fantastic to crack one of these problems and actually fix an old camera, and the photos I take with this junky beater will always feel extra special.