Another New Toy

It’s Plastic. It’s Fantastic. It’s my entry into medium format film. It’s the FPP’s Plastic Filmtastic Debonair!

And this is my first week with it…I snagged the Debonair  and a few rolls of film for a great price from the good people at the Film Photography Project just minutes before my gear acquisition moratorium kicked in. I have too gear just sitting on shelves at present, and with God’s help, and for as long as I can stand it, I plan to purchase film and batteries only, and (maybe) some filters, and to sell gear to clear out some space and fund future acquisitions. It’s going well so far, all of 20 days in, but this post is about my experience with the Debonair, and not about my goals or self improvement projects: those will have to wait for another post, if I share them at all.

The Debonair

First, a bit of background. The Debonair is a plastic, fantastic, medium format camera, not quite as famous or prone to light leaks as the Holga, and not as expensive or cheaply constructed as the Diana, but something like a combination of the two, with the 60mm f/8 of the Holga (it even accepts the Holga close up, tele, and fisheye attachments, or so I hear), the fancy lockable back of the Diana, and with a couple of unique functions of its own. Like both cameras, it shoots 120 film, but instead of square or fancy switchable aspect ratios, it shoots a roughly 6 x 4.5 “half frame” aspect ratio, and gives 16 frames per roll of 120.

It’s surprisingly light, but doesn’t feel particularly fragile, though I don’t particularly want to drop it from any great height and I still use the included wrist strap obsessively. The 60mm, f/8, fixed lens is plastic, of course, and it focuses as close as 4 or 5 feet, give or take, with markings for head & shoulders, family, and mountain. It stops positively at both ends instead of unscrewing all the way like my Holga lens for Nikon.  A switch on the top of the lens, next to the chunky shutter, toggles between the two shutter speeds: flash/cloud and bright sun, corresponding to something like 1/60th and 1/100th or thereabouts.

I took some shots of the blinds and backyard right at the start of the first roll at all three distance settings. I didn’t quite maintain the same framing, but here are some 50% crops of head & shoulders, family, and mountain:

To my eye, it looks like head & shoulders is sharp enough in the center at about 3, 3 1/2 feet (the blind cord) through maybe 8 feet (the brick pillar); the family looks better all over, good enough from 3 1/2 or 4 feet (the window lock) through 15 feet or so; the mountain is tack sharp from 6 or 8 feet all the way to infinity and beyond.

Good to know.

There’s a hot shoe on the top, and the manual suggests the camera will sync only on the cloudy/flash setting. I haven’t tested it with film, yet, but if you watched the unboxing above, you’ll note that my Debonair will fire the flash on both shutter speeds. God willing, the next roll I shoot will see some flash and we’ll see how well it does.

The big honking shutter release button has a solid kathunk to it, and it requires a fair amount of effort to click it, enough that I’m thankful the shutter doesn’t go any slower. It’s fairly quiet overall, and the camera looks toy-like enough that you’re unlikely to cause much disruption.

The viewfinder is clear enough, but wildly imprecise. It matches more or less the narrow dimension, and so whatever you shoot is going to be taller or wider than you frame. As mentioned above, the Debonair shoots something like a 6 x 4.5 aspect ratio, but if it’s 6, it’s a bit wider than 4.5. I cropped this selfy at a 12×9 ratio with Capture One’s crop tool, and then again with the frame edges showing so you can see the difference.

With the extra space, the Golf becomes more obviously a two-seater, and the neighbor’s porch has another way in… But if that isn’t clear enough, here’s a screen grab of the crop in action.

So, 6 x 4.75 or 4.8, maybe, and with an edge that wanders to and fro. I wasn’t quite square on in my scanning, but still, that frame is in no way square or 6 x 4.5. This isn’t a complaint, it just is, and expect to see some black frame edges on future pictures from the Debonair, especially once I start shooting color with it.

In shooting, it reminds me a bit of the Diana Mini half frame camera. Held horizontally, both shoot in portrait orientation, and with the plastic and the machine gun winder and the little lever on the bottom to remove the back, it really feels like a giant Mini. It makes me sorta want to shoot it like the Diana Mini, with overlapping frame panoramas and all, you know, but given that this was my first foray into medium format, I didn’t play around much.

That’s something I need to do on the next roll or two, or fifteen.

Unlike the Diana Mini, there is quite a bit of metal in the Debonair: two metal roll tensioners and some metal shutter parts. Hooray!

I say ‘hooray’ only because I read something similar somewhere. It seems that the metal tensioners help keep the film taught, and it seems that other, similar cameras only have one, if that.

These metal clips have a second use: apparently, you can tape a 35mm roll to one side, tape the leader to the takeup spool, and shoot sprockets at will. GoGo. Packing peanuts are also recommended, but tape sounds easier.

The red window in the back shows the numbers and other markings on the backing paper clearly. As my first play around in medium format, I had to look up what the backing paper looks like to make sure I was getting it right, and I had to throw the camera into the darkbag and rewind the first roll a couple of times to get it right. The winder only turns one direction, and it has no stops in it, so you need to watch the window. I got a distracted on the second roll and wound past one frame, and shame on me for not paying attention, but I’m actually glad that the winder isn’t tied to the shutter in any way, as it leads to some creative possibilities, like multiple exposures and previously mentioned panoramas.

Enough… let’s get to some shooting.

First Roll: TMY 400 (expired 2008)

My first roll of 120 film, my first roll through the Debonair, my first roll of the new year, and my 13th weekly roll was the free roll of 2008 expired T-Max 400 that the good people at the FPP included in the box with it.

After testing the focus with the first few shots (see above), I tested the shutter with a couple of shots in a parking lot, and then shot most of the rest of the roll during a brief walk at the Harry Hines Heronry. Overall, this roll took much more work in post to get results that I liked. Just about anything shot on the Cloudy setting was overexposed, and most of the shots on the Sunny setting had blown highlights. Given Sunny 16 and all, I think 50 or 100 ISO film is probably more appropriate, and the roll of FP4+ I shot next was almost spot on, exposure wise.

The vignette both darkens and blurs the corners, and significantly in some shots. I don’t mind the darkening at all, but the blur can be bothersome. I imagine it could work in some instances, but with busy edges and corners like you find in winter trees, it’s just distracting.

I also found a bit of flare in bright lights. I don’t mind that at all, and look forward to seeing what it looks like on color film.

The center of the frame is surprisingly sharp, and I’m quite pleased with it. Given the vignette on this copy, though, I’m going to have to work hard on my shooting and processing technique with it. This one in particular would work much better with a darker sky, shot at dusk or at night, maybe with flash…

A couple of more shots of the wooded area around the Heronry and a shot of the jasmine, growing up the front of the garage, and the roll finished uneventfully.

Second Roll: Ilford FP4+

For the second roll, I loaded up some FP4+ for the (defunct, disbanded, concluded, you-don’t-have-to-go-home-but-you-can’t-stay-here) #FP4Party. I’m disappointed that it’s gone, but it’s really a good thing: I’m wanting to shoot less willy-nilly, whatever stuff, and more project-type, meaningful or coherent stuff, and things like the FP4Party (and this weekly roll thing) tend to lead me toward random, snapshot shooting, rather than purposeful, thoughtful shooting. I don’t mind snapshots as an aesthetic, and I’d like to include it in my own work, but I want to stay out of it as an activity.

Anyway.

I got great examples of the sunny/cloudy shutter and far/close focus test. So here’s Sunny and Far:

And here’s Cloudy and Close:

Close focus is really something of a disappointment to me. I’ll have to test more, but I think it distorts more at head & shoulders than at family or mountain. I might appreciate it in different lighting conditions or with different subjects, but mountain focus appears to leave everything from about 6 or 8 feet to infinity acceptably sharp, so, as noted above I’ll probably leave it there unless I have some reason to focus closer, and, really, I’ll need to run more tests to figure it all out.

I shot almost the entire roll in the front yard on our first snow of the year… It’s a big event when it snows in Texas, and I just had to document it.

MashaAllah.

So that was my first experience with medium format, and I’m excited to shoot more, but now kinda wanting a RB67 or C330 or something with a good deal more precision to it. The Debonair is a great little camera that I need much more practice with, and it’s perfectly capable, just like any other camera, but it’s not particularly precise in any way. What is it, though, is impressive: it’s inexpensive, reasonably well built (for a block of plastic), ludicrously easy to use, readily available (at time of writing), and has pretty much everything you need in a camera.

Purpose
Price
Craftsmanship
Ease of Use

Overall, I’d give it a solid 4.5.

If you haven’t shot medium format before, the FPP Debonair is probably your least expensive entry into it. You can pick up a brand new one and a roll of film for $19.99 from the Film Photography Project shop, and they’re also available used on the ‘Bay and etsy at various price points. I’d stick with the FPP, myself, especially since you can pick up some extra film, developing chemicals, and pretty much anything else you need from them, and they ship quickly and fairly cheaply. One of these days, I might consider picking a second one up and turning it into a pinhole or keeping it in the back of the closet in case my current one breaks.

Really, though, for $20, I’m thrilled with the Debonair, and I look forward to letting go, and just shooting with it, once I find some set of subjects or ideas that I want to explore using its particular quirks and limitations, and I’m glad I finally picked one up.

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