The appeal of retro


October, upstate New York

Back when digital cameras first began to overtake 35mm film in terms of resolution and fidelity, I did a weird thing – I bought a large-format film camera kit which I built from wood, glue and a bit of ground glass.

The camera used 4X5 inch sheet film and required a lengthy amount of time under the dark cloth in order to compose and focus an image.

Its design and movements allowed things not possible with any other camera type in terms of focus thanks to the Scheimpflug principle.

At the time, it did for me what QRP would later do – it got me out and about on various trails. I discovered the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey  – places I would later go on QRP excursions with Sam Morse’s code.

Retro photography, retro radio.

I don’t use film anymore, the old 4X5 is buried in a box somewhere and the company that produced the kits is no longer in business.

There are more advanced ham radio modes available; some are even more efficient – if you don’t mind having a computer chisel away at the received signal and removing a bit of the human element in the process. I and others do mind, thus the continuing appeal of CW’s inherent efficiency.

If you remove the latest gee-wiz software from either the radio or the camera, you’re back to CW. Or film. And both are satisfying in a way that is hard to explain and even tougher to define.

I know deer hunters who insist on using a bow and arrow – they wouldn’t own a rifle if you gave it to them. I have a friend who built his own sailboat and another who built his own glider.

Readers my age or older may remember a series of books from the 1970’s – the Foxfire books, they were called, and they explained how the modern man could make his own soap, distill whiskey, tan leather, churn butter and all other sorts of retro skills no longer in use.

One of these days a niche ham group will resuscitate a few old computers with their dismal 64 TB of RAM (not that much RAM is needed, but older computers will be hard to find) and use them to make quaint JT65 contacts like their great-granddads used to do.

Then they’ll sit back and ponder why “going retro” can be so enjoyable.

Like me, they may not be able to answer that question but the lack of an answer will in no way diminish their enjoyment of the process.



  4 comments for “The appeal of retro

  1. Larry W2LJ
    March 26, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    I remember the Bender kits. You have one of those, John? They were nice, but not yaw free.

    I’ve been out of the business for close to 7 years now, is sheet film even still available anymore? During my last days in the business, large format users were seeking better and better ways to hook up digital backs to their cameras. I even remember repairing a few Sinar p3’s which were constructed just for that purpose.

    • March 26, 2013 at 2:15 pm

      They had their limitations but were a cheap way to get into large-format. I later bought one of these and accumulated more lenses, film holders, etc. Sheet film is still available but is getting difficult to process with most users doing it themselves in home darkrooms.

      Yep, digital backs are available for 4×5 and larger formats – the last time I checked, they cost as much as some cars.

  2. Scott 2E0OZI
    March 29, 2013 at 8:05 am

    Great article and I love my Nikon FE60, love the feel of it, and although I don’t have the time or money to really get into photograpghy, I do enjoy the pictures I do take. Its the same with CW – I’m a new ham only 2 and a bit years but from day 1 I wanted to do CW, and one day take it portable on my back (thats in the future). My brother in law visited last weekend and although my station is modest in the extreme, he was impressed with the Czech key and the fact I could tell him what a station was saying on 30m. And he’s a guy who’s hobby is cooking, he has many expensive gadgets and devices…..but the key and the sound impressed him. He said it was….steampunk cool :-)



    • March 29, 2013 at 8:52 am

      “Steampunk cool” – you just gave me a mental picture of how to combine ham radio and a photographic theme. Thanks! Give me a few weeks and I’ll post the result here.

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