Reliving an old principle of photography

Published June 12, 2021, 11:11 AM

by Noel Pabalate

MB Lifestyle photographer tries the handmade street box camera

Many veteran photographers who were able to shoot using film cameras would always argue that photography today is nothing compared to how it was before in terms of applying skills, techniques, and creativity. While that may be debatable, what I know is that if someone wants to be knowledgeable in a particular art, they must study its roots and learn its old principles.

The art of photography and its evolution is what I and lifestyle photographer Jovel Lorenzo discussed when we had a photo session using a classic street box camera, also known as the Afghan box, which he created out of love for photography.

The street box camera crafted by Jovel Lorenzo.

According to Jovel the camera became a medium for him to grow in his appreciation of the nature and culture of photography as an expression of art. He, therefore, wants to share it with other photography enthusiasts, like myself. And so I had the pleasure to try his street box camera.

Seeing this beast of a camera was already a feast for the eyes. Looking at it up close as Jovel taught me how it works, made me even more excited. It was my first time operating a photography equipment that uses a 100-year-old system. The box, which is both a camera and a darkroom, can only be operated manually.

The interior parts of the Afghan Box.

According to Jovel, memorizing the steps and the interior parts—the photographic paper compartment, focus pole, trays of developer and fixer chemicals, lens filter, tweezer, and the photo paper holder attached to the rotating focusing plate—is very important so I could set and develop the photo even without looking at them.

After getting familiar with its inner parts, I had Jovel sit comfortably on a chair against a dark blue-green wall. Then I set the large format (180-mm) fix lens in its widest aperture, which is f5.6, and opened the shutter. I immediately went to the back of the camera, opened the door of the viewing hole to look at the frame, and set the focus. I dragged the string connected to the lens filter and hooked it to see the normal color of the inverted image. To have a clearer vision of the upside-down image reflected on the paper holder made of acrylic glass, a gentle push and pull of the focus pole did the trick.

Photo shows an inverted image from the viewing hole when focusing on the subject. According to Ibn al-Haytham’s theory, the light that enters a dark room from the top of the hole travels downward and the light that travels from the bottom of the hole travels upward, creating an upside-down projection of the image.

To get the framing I wanted, I used the adjustment knob of the tripod where the camera was mounted. After seeing my subject distinctly, I asked Jovel to cross his legs, look away from the camera, and hold his pose. To mark the focus, I slid the paper clamp marker on the focus pole to the box’s back wall.

Next, I closed the viewing door where the sleeve access was attached. I pushed the pole to position the focusing plate forward so that my hand could have more space inside. I went in front of the camera and closed the lens’ shutter before I set the photo paper. I then inserted my right hand through the sleeve access and tightened it on my arm using a ponytail bond so that light wouldn’t get in.

The procedure became more challenging afterward because I had to do the next step as if I was my blind. Using my sense of touch, I imagined the parts and how I should operate them inside the miniature darkroom.

After making sure that no light would pass through the box that could affect the light-sensitive photo paper, I wasted no time unlocking and pulling down the holder. On the left side under it, I opened the compartment’s door to pull out the plastic envelope containing some 5×7 multi-graded glossy photo paper. I took one that would serve as the negative. Then I nudged the tray to carefully and correctly place it facing toward the glossy side. I touched the holder’s edges to make sure the photo paper was in place before I locked it back to its position. I inserted back the plastic envelope and closed the compartment tightly. Using my right hand, I remove the sleeve slowly while gripping its edge, which I twisted and hung on the rod after taking out my hand.

Before reading the light on my subject using an analog light meter device, I pulled the focus pole back up to the marker. I then positioned the light meter in front of Jovel’s face to get the suggested shutter speed that would compensate for the 3 ISO and the f5.6 opening. With an overcast sky as our source of light, the reading gave me a five-second exposure. But Jovel suggested changing it to four seconds. So I grabbed the shutter release cable, clicked and held on to the button, started counting 1001 to 1004, but in haste. Perhaps I was just able to expose the photo for two seconds. But at long last, after a minute or so, my model can sit back and relax as I become more tense while wondering what could be the result.

Next step: Developing the negative. Again, I pushed the focus pole forward, then cautiously inserted my right hand to the sleeve access. To get the negative, I reached for the lock of the photo paper holder to put it down. After unlocking, I clamped the negative paper with my thumb and middle finger, and slowly dipped it in the developer chemical positioned on the lower left corner. I grabbled for the tweezer that was clipped on the tray and poked the negative with it to make sure the negative soaks in the chemical. As I did that, I placed my left hand’s pointer finger on the analog watch affixed on top of the box to mark where the second hand started so I could begin timing the agitation.

To agitate the photographic paper with the chemical, I needed to move the tray gently for one minute. Because of the tray’s tight space, picking up the 5×7 photo paper was quite difficult, too. After getting it out, I had to let the chemicals drip in a few seconds before I soak it in the tray of the fixer. The same procedure was done while it was in the fixer. Then came the moment of truth.

The access to the negative was on the lower right side corner of the camera. When I pulled the drawer where the chemical tray was, I was shocked to see the negative photo to be mostly black, meaning it was overexposed. I wondered if there was something wrong with my calculation or if I just missed something. Jovel asked me if I placed the filter back to reduce the light coming in. I did not. My bad.

The negative on the left, which is the first shot, shows how overexpose the photo could be without using the lens filter.

Some Afghan boxes don’t have filters, but Jovel thought of including one to solve the overexposure problem and compensate well for the suggested time of exposure. It was one of the many genius solutions he did to come up with the best output.

Unhappy with my first try, we did the shoot again, but I made sure to unhook the filter’s lock before placing the photographic paper on the tray on my second try. Although I still overexposed it a bit, I was content with the second negative. By the way, soaking the photo paper in water for a minute or so after taking it out on the fixer is a must to wash off the chemicals.

To come up with a positive black and white photograph, I had to shoot the negative photo. So after taking it out of the water, I pasted it on the wooden tray holder attached in front of the lens. Then, I repeated the initial steps.

Lifestyle photographer Noel Pabalate develops a positive photo using the street box camera.

Shooting and developing looks complicated with so many details to remember, but it was fun and satisfying to experience old-school photography once more. It didn’t just bring out the creativity in me but also memories when I wasted a handful of black and white photo papers in an actual darkroom to perfect the result during our creative photography class in the late ‘90s.

The positive black and white photo of Jovel Lorenzo.

For photographers to try this classic, manual method of taking and developing pictures using a bulky wooden box is a real experience of photography as an expression of art. This really requires dexterity and, most importantly, a special love for photography.