After a long, long (too long) break, we continue with our Series “A Coffee with…” where we present analog enthusiasts and their work. Today I am happy to talk with Becky Ramotowski, who has a real passion about pinhole cameras and ‘marinating’ prints in caffenol. Becky also wrote an awesome book about the “Secrets of Stargazing”. If you are interested in Astronomy, I can highly recommend this book! Surprisingly, Becky doesn’t drink coffee but enjoys a good glass of red wine, tea or mountain water… (Which all of makes nice caffeic acid based developer) Becky is also a group admin in our beautiful Caffenol Facebook Group, so if you are a Facebook member, go ahead and join our group.
Caffenol: Hi Becky, nice to have you here! Can you please introduce yourself to our readers:
Becky: Hi, my name is Becky Ramotowski, you all might know me as Astro Beck. I live in New Mexico, am a freelance writer, amateur astronomer and like to build pinhole cameras and use caffenol to develop my photos.
Caffenol: Anything else you want to add about you as a person?
Becky: I grew up in Texas, love football and old cars and pickup trucks. I also like to travel and take photos mainly to remind me of the places I’ve been and not necessarily to record a perfect photo. Oh, and I don’t drink coffee.
Caffenol: What do like about photography in general?
Becky: Photography lets me slow down and let everything soak in. Since I mostly do pinhole photography, I can immerse myself in my surroundings and see what’s going on and really get to know a place. I feel like I get to experience things that a lot of people miss because they are going too fast or are in a hurry.
Photography is more than just looking at and being somewhere and framing the scene. I like to feel the breeze and smell the wind if it’s blowing and listen to birds…it’s all part of the picture for me, even if you don’t see it in the photo I show you, I know it was there. It’s the little extras and nuances like that. It’s like each photo has a secret.
Caffenol: How did you get into caffenol?
Becky: My photographer friend Britt Aximon and her husband Magnus were using it and having terrific results. Their developing and resulting photos really grabbed me!
I was also interested in it as an alternative to the harsh and stinky photo chemicals I had been using. The idea of home brew photo developing also appealed to the mad scientist type of personality I have. Experimenting and mixing up a coffee cocktail that would develop film seemed too good to be true and that the ingredients were easy to find just made it that much more enticing. I found everything I needed except the Vitamin C powder on the shelf at my local grocery store. The Vitamin C powder had to be purchased at a health food store.
Caffenol: What kind of gear do you use? (You can include a picture of your gear if you like) Do you have digital stuff as well?
Becky: Oh man, I have lots of stuff. I have about 30 cameras that range from an old Pentax K1000 that I bought new in 1985 (it still works and I still use it), a Crown Graphic, a Yashica Mat 124G, a handful of Holgas and then I have a herd of pinhole cameras that I bought and some that I have built. I have some old box Brownie cameras that I love and a few Nikons that are used for astrophotography because they are totally manual and have mirror lockup.
I also have a Panasonic Lumix GF-1 Micro-four thirds digital that I use for quick snapshots and video.
Below you can see a few shots of the main gear I use and some of my camera collection.
Caffenol: Which is your favorite camera/lens combination at the moment? Why?
Becky: If you ask me this question tomorrow it will be a different answer, but today I would have to say my 4 x 5 pinhole camera. I like the simplicity of it and the ruggedness of it. I don’t worry about it getting rained on or dropped or knocked over. Besides, if it breaks, I know how to fix it or build a new one. It has character plus it always gets a conversation going when using it in public.
I like all of my other cameras too because they each do something different or reveal a different personality in the photos they make.
Friends sometimes ask me if I could only keep one camera which would it be, and I usually say the Pentax K1000 because I have an emotional attachment to it. It has traveled the world with me and it was the first camera I used when I started freelance work for newspapers. We have a long history together. Oh, and it has a ridiculously sharp f/1.7 SMC Pentax A lens that I love, which may seem kind of weird for a person that loves pinhole as much as I do. I have a pinhole body cap for it too, so maybe that balances everything out.
Caffenol: Which caffenol recipe do you use? Why?
Becky: I mostly use the Delta-STD recipe. It’s the first one I used and had good results with plus I have it memorized. I also like CM-RS which has salt in it. It works nicely with the hard well water everyone has around here.
Experimenting with other ingredients such as lichen, moss and crushed juniper berries because they are abundant is also fun but probably not for everyone. One of the cool things about caffenol is there’s room to experiment if you are adventurous.
I measure by volume when mixing the ingredients and not by weight so I feel like there is room for some “play” when using caffenol. Some readers and caffenol users might frown upon this idea, but I’m fairly laid back and like to let things happen as they will. Making photos should be relaxing and so should developing. If it’s uptight then it’s not fun.
Caffenol: Where do you buy your ingredients for caffenol?
Becky: I buy a cheap Kroger brand of instant coffee called CAFÉ AUTÉNTICO, (which interestingly is a product of Germany) at my local grocery store. The Vitamin C powder comes from a Vitamin Shoppe and the Arm and Hammer washing soda also comes from the grocery store. I can buy everything for under $20.00
Caffenol: Do you shoot Auto-Mode, A-Mode, S-Mode, P-Mode, M-Mode? Autofocus or manual?
Becky: Mostly manual. It’s how I think. For pinhole I just do it by feel, imagining myself being the emulsion collecting photons and going from there. Mind you I’ve had a lot of practice so just feeling how long an exposure should be is easy. Sometimes I mess up, but it’s all part of learning and getting better at it.
Caffenol: How do you scan your Pictures? What kind of tools do you use for post processing?
Becky: My negatives are scanned on an Epson Perfection 4990.
Next I use Photoshop to adjust levels and curves and maybe do a bit of tweaking on the contrast and then dusting, dusting, dusting! It’s dry here so dust is a devil. I have humidifiers in the house and they help, but dust still finds its way onto my negatives. After I scan and make adjustments I put the negatives in archival sleeves in a 3 ring binder and then put that in a file cabinet.
My bathroom does double duty as a darkroom. I use some light blocking material and Velcro it in the skylight to make it dark and a safelight hangs off the shower rod to make an instant darkroom. It’s a small workspace, but it is better than nothing.
I have an old Besseler enlarger but it’s not set up right now. The bathroom needs some rearranging before it can be used. That’s a project for this summer!
Caffenol: How do you educate yourself to take better pictures?
Becky: Mostly by studying other’s photos and going to galleries and looking at some of the famous photographers work and how they used natural light.
When I was 5 years old and had my first camera, my aunt told me to be still and hold the camera level. It’s something I still think about when I have a camera in my hands.
My favorite way to learn about photography is to watch movies. Not movies about photography or photographers but classic or epic movies by time honored directors that make you sit up and notice the cinematography as much as the story that is being told. This is unconventional, but I love studying movies. It has helped me understand framing and light and telling a story with still photos more than anything else. David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago, Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa and Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven are favorites.
Caffenol: Among your works, which one is your favorite? Why?
Becky: This solargraph that I made a few years ago of the Sun’s path during winter solstice.
It was one of the first solargraphs I made specifically for the days of Winter Solstice. Since I’m an astronomer, it has a special meaning for me. It shows a lot of energy in a subdued way and it puts me in place as far as how I fit in a much larger reality. It puts me at ease when I look at it.
This was a tough one to make because I had to leave the pinhole camera in the wild for 9 days and hope that it wasn’t damaged by the bad weather it was left out in.
Caffenol: Any other shots you want to show?
Becky: Yes, thanks! Here are few more favorites:
And here is a photo I made by brushing on caffenol on Harman Direct Positive paper. It was the Delta recipe and I used a foam brush to wet the paper and then kind of moved the caffenol around on the paper for developing. It looks uneven, and rightly so…
Caffenol: Whose work has influenced you most?
Becky: I think every photo I have ever seen has had some influence on me. Whether I like it or not, each photo causes a reaction or emotion that is stored away.
But you probably want names so a couple that immediately come to mind are:
Alfred Eisenstaedt’s, “Children at a Puppet Theater”, this is my most favorite photo of all time and I occasionally think about it when I’m out making photos even though I seldom photograph people.
Dorothea Lange, I can’t say anything about her depression era work that hasn’t already been said.
Pentti Sammallahti is someone I’d like to follow around so his skill would rub off on me.
Phil Bebbington, who is a good friend and makes timeless photographs of small town America.
Caffenol: What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?
Becky: That some films would come and go and to not get attached to a particular film because it might not be around forever. Also, it’s never about the camera or gear or film…it’s all about the mind of the photographer.
Caffenol: Where can we find your work? (Flickr, tumblr, personal website, facebook, etc…)
Caffenol: Thank you very much for that inspiring Interview, Becky! I love the idea of imagining being the emulsion, that is something I would like to practice. I would also like to thank you very, very much for helping with me with the Caffenol Facebook Group, it is a pleasure having you in the admin team!
Becky: I’ve been developing film for a long time and it was mostly a “put myself on autopilot” kind of thing. When I discovered caffenol, it took me off autopilot and put me in the seat of a car I wasn’t even sure would run. But, man did it run and it’s been running ever since!