I recently attended the annual open house and "Muster Day" activities at Camp Mabry in Austin. It has become a regular thing for me to go out and take pictures of the WWII reenactors at these events. The men and women who put the war reenactments on do so at great personal expense in time and dollars. I think it is an important way to communicate history and taking photos for these folks is my way of giving back a little.
I usually try and get at least a somewhat authentic period look to my photos. In fact, I shot most images this year with black and white film. I took 3 cameras with me this time around: a Leica IIIf, a Canon AE-1, and a Fujifilm X-E1. The Leica is a fairly recent acquisition of mine and I took it for a more period looking camera. Although my IIIf dates at 1952, it looks a lot like the IIIa or IIIc cameras that might have been carried by some during that era. I had a 50mm Elmar lens of 1938 vintage attached. The Canon had a cheap Vivitar zoom attached and my X-E1 was equipped with a 60mm XF lens. I used Kodak TRI-X in the Leica and the Canon. It is becoming my favorite general purpose B&W film - very versatile and looks great. The X-E1 was configured to capture B&W JPEGs.
My intention was to shoot primarily with the Leica and I did - sort of. Due to my lack of experience with this old camera, I messed up and didn't get it loaded correctly the first time. In my excitement of capture pictures of the troops, I went through a whole roll's worth of shots that didn't get recorded since the film wasn't advancing. I should have caught that. Foolish, painful mistake that I'm betting I don't repeat any time soon. What shots I did get were wonderful. The Elmar lens is sharp and contrasty - amazing image quality for its age. Stopped down a bit and focused carefully it is every bit as sharp as the modern macro lens that I used on my X-E1.
The lens that I used on the Canon AE-1 is not the greatest. The majority of film era zooms, particularly the moderately prices models, are not known for the best image quality. This Vivitar is very difficult to focus and flares easily. Still, if focus is achieved and the light is right it isn't bad. I mainly used it for battle field shots but I did get a few decent candid portraits with it. Those are the shots that are the most rewarding for me. While the excitement of the battle with explosions and gun fire is fun to watch and photograph, it is the moments before that when the reenactors are getting in character and donning their "war faces" that I find the most interesting to capture.
The camera and lenses I used spanned a period of about 70 years of technology. As I look at the images, the differences in the analog and digital captures are not so great - at least not in black and white. Still, there is something about film that just looks and feels right. Perhaps I'm waxing nostalgic but digital captures are a little sterile compared with the tonality and imperfections of film. There are certainly advantages to digital but film is more rewarding and endearing, especially for this sort of subject matter. I mixed the shots from the various cameras up a bit through this post. Can you tell which is which?
The troops of the Camp Mabry Living History Detachment will be back in action for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. If you're in the Austin area, it's sure to be a great time and you might just learn something about history. I plan to be out there shooting some more film now that I've gotten a better handle on that Leica!