The need to make existing instant cameras more suitable for his shooting preferences sparked Albertino’s desire to modify them. In this interview, the Hong Kong-based analogue artisan talks about his passion for tinkering cameras and the incomparable wonder brought by instant photography.
Hi Albertino! Thank you for granting us this interview. Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
People describe me as a thinker, magician, and photographer. I work in a field that pays to do quantitative and qualitative forecasts to combat market uncertainties. I see similarities with instant photography. As an instant film shooter, we use principles, experience, limited tools and lots of estimations to handle the complexities in the real-world shooting. I always like activities that need lots of skills. Photography and camera modification largely satisfy my intellectual desire. And I just love to use it to document my life as well as to explore the world and highlight the interesting perspectives I have discovered.
How many cameras have you altered? Which one is your favorite?
I modified about six cameras and some are still in progress. My favorites are the Instax Yashica Mini, which is an Instax Mini 7s with a Yashica 635 lens, and the Instax Wide Ross Xpres, which is an Instax Wide 300 with Ross Xpres 105mm F3.8 lens.
Your work shows great craftsmanship, judging from the final look of the cameras and the photos they produce. How did your interest with modifying cameras start? And why modify a camera?
I bought my first Instax camera about two years ago. Initially I was quite impressed by the quality of the pictures. Instant picture always has some magic in it. It crystallizes a moment and frames it on a small photo. I got hooked immediately. But I’m a bit annoyed by the fact that I couldn’t turn off the flash and can never shoot pictures with a narrow depth of field. At that time, I started researching on possible ways to modify a camera in order to take better pictures.
I came across a variety of methods of modifying cameras. Take the Instax Wide as an example. Most of them involve tearing apart an Instax Wide camera, extracting the back and sticking it into another half of a Polaroid or Mamiya Press camera. For me it was too brutal and I hesitated to destroy two cameras. Later, I learned from a very experienced film photographer the technique of applying vintage lens onto an Instax camera. It started my journey to modifying the camera. I always insists that the modification is not just sticking two camera to make it usable. It should be efficient in its design and also the owner be impressed and hence appreciate the beauty of the camera.
What’s the biggest difference between the current instant cameras and the ones you have modified to take vintage lenses?
There are a wide range of instant cameras. Some are more like point-and-shoot cameras such as the Fuji Instax Mini 7s, 8 and 50, and the Instax Wide 200, 210, 300 while some are more sophisticated like Lomo’Instant and Instantflex TL70.
My modification allows a wide range of combinations of aperture and shutter speed. Much wider than the point-and-shoot types and other more sophisticated types of instant cameras. Hence, the photographer can adapt the camera settings to different situations, like in indoor, dim light environment, sunny days, sunset, targeting fast moving objects, etc. It provides freedom to the photographer to make compositions and apply effects much like the film cameras in the old days. It also allows unlimited multiple exposures. It is no longer just a point-and-shoot.
The vintage lenses I used are made of high quality glasses. These lens have its own character and unique expression of color and depth of field. The instant cameras in the market are mostly using plastic lens or not very sophisticated glasses. The difference in picture quality is apparent. Instant pictures from the vintage lens are stylish and have some vintage feeling. Some pictures look like being taken decades ago.
With the access of a wider aperture in the modified camera at f3.5, the depth of field can be very narrow and the bokeh in these pictures are amazing. Take the flagship model Instax Mini 90 as a comparison, the lens aperture has only F12.7 and shutter speed of 1/400 sec – 1.8 sec, compared to F3.5-22 and shutter speed of B, 1s, 1/2s, 1/4s – 1/500s in the modified Instax Mini 7s camera. The scope of artistic compositions are greatly enhanced in the modified cameras.
Aside from instant cameras, do you also alter other cameras? If so, what are they?
I modified a small remote control car to carry my Iphone 4, effectively achieving a GoPro effect but with a more powerful smartphone. I used it to do some shooting of crawling babies and do some landscape surveillance in the clubhouse. That’s a lot of fun.
What’s the most challenging aspect of camera modification?
Finding a good lens at a reasonable cost is the most challenging. My lenses are all from 6×6 and 6×9 film cameras. These are gradually depleting in the market as they are from cameras made during the 1950s to 1970s. The modification work is mainly handcrafted. Hence, some parts take days to finish as we aim for perfection.
What sets instant photography apart from other photography format?
In terms of the medium itself, I feel that instant film is very magical. Seeing it develops is an incredible experience. Nowadays people still get amazed by it as much as they do during that time when there were no digital cameras yet. It also offers lots of surprises as there are no preview. Some pictures that I thought I have made exposure errors turned out to be the pictures that I like the most.
Compared to digital pictures, instant films burn money. It is costly to take pictures and you couldn’t afford to shoot like you would with a digital camera. Hence, pressing the shutter becomes a very intense moment. You will run many estimations and calculations in your head to make sure your picture is properly composed and exposed. I think it helps to develop my photographic skills as I will be more aware of my mistakes than when I’m using a digital camera. The instant feedback also made the shooting experience more addictive.
What do you usually take photos of and why do you like photographing them?
Initially, I took a lot of pictures of my son and family with my Olympus EPL5. After I started shooting with the modified Instax, I started to carry it to the office and took pictures of my colleagues, friends, and friends’ friend. I like portraits and I found out that pictures of people (human faces) are more likely to impress the audience. Perhaps because human brains were more sensitive to human faces.
I also take pictures of the city—shooting the street, buildings and transportation. Some of my friends noticed that I took many pictures of trams. I think because they are convenient objects that I often see nearby my workplace and also they have a vintage feeling. I like photographing the people and places that I encounter in my daily life, as these real life inspirations are more engaging to me and more likely to move people.
You mentioned on your Instagram account that “A good Instax picture is a manifestation of sleight of hands magic.” In your opinion, what makes a good photo?
To me, apart from techniques, the most important quality of a picture is a message. Modern cameras are capable of many fancy effects. The resolution and the color expression capacity are at the highest level in history. However, many pictures revealed a problem of “vacuousness” or “lacking substance”.
Photography is an art. A good photo should reflect something unique about the subject, the photographer, the scene or the world. A photo with a message has some permanent quality. It will still be interesting no matter how many centuries have passed. However, many pictures showcase a lack of meaning, such as a selfie with certain “kawaii” posture with an ice-cream and romantic pre-wedding pictures in front of some famous historical buildings. There might be no obvious message that the photographer wants to convey. What about seeing a “kawaii” selfie that will impress the audience? Does the historical buildings have any relevance to the new couple? If the historical building is replaced with the kindergarten where they first met, the photo will have more meaningful message and will have some permanent quality.
I think advanced techniques would be good only if those techniques are necessary to make the pictures. In most case, they are not. I like the quote: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” It neatly summarizes the quality of “a good photo”.
Apart from photography, my favorite pastime is magic. An instant photo, taken on the spot with no second chance, has a lot of similarities to a magic performance. In close-up magic, you have to think on your feet to be able to react to the situation. In instant photography, you only have very limited time to decide the composition and exposure to capture the magic moment.
What’s next for you?
I am quite interested to modify a twin lens reflex (TLR) to shoot instant pictures. The preview feature in TLR is so appealing to me. I know Mint already has a TLR that shoots with the Instax Mini film. But I think it would be more meaningful to shoot using a real vintage lens that truly reflects the historical context of TLR.
I may also create some sleight of hands magic using an instant camera. I have created some magic tricks and showed it to some magicians a few months ago. They are quite impressed by the trick I performed with a modified instant camera, literally a “camera trick”. I am interested to create a few more good magic tricks using a camera.
I may do more special event shooting going forward. I was shooting for my friend with his pregnant wife in the university where they studied. It was a great experience. These unique pictures are the perfect gift and blessing to their baby and I’m very happy about it. I hope to do more of these shootings as I find it very meaningful.
Stay tuned as Albertino will soon work his magic on the Lomo'Instant Wide!