Design a site like this with
Get started

Agfa Super Silette

There are some lenses that seem to always make clear, bright pictures and this camera has one of them. It may be that it has good contrast, I’m not sure, but the pictures taken with this camera have a pleasing level of clarity. I had a Canon Sureshot A1 – the waterproof job – that had the same clarity, but I think that was due to it using the flash for most shots as fill-in.

This model of the Silette was introduced in 1955. In many ways it’s similar to the Zeiss Contessa LKE. The Zeiss gains with a built-in light meter but the Agfa is easier to use, with a focusing tab on the lens. The film rewind is a knob rather than a crank, so it’s slower to use but simpler to make and probably more likely to still be working.

The lens is slightly wide, at 45mm and with a modest f3.5 aperture. But, like I said, it’s good. The between-the-lens shutter is very quiet. This would make an excellent street photography tool. Not that I do that kind of thing, but I’m sure it would. The focus on mine is a little stiff due to the age of the lubricant, but the focussing tab on the lens makes easy work of it. It also means that it doesn’t get knocked off the set distance while I’m carrying it.

I did try converting this camera to shoot IR, using an opaque filter behind the lens. That didn’t work, so I took the filter out again. Besides, I have since converted a digital compact to take infrared, which works much better. I think the idea was good, but I was using extended range film rather than ‘real’ infrared. With a full visual cut-off filter, I think I wasn’t giving the film anywhere near enough exposure.

With the IR cutoff filter removed from behind the lens.

So what I’m left with is a nice, functional rangefinder camera with a good lens. I’ll take that.


Technical aptitude

Or, Zen and the art of manual adjustment.

Which might be puzzling, but there is a link (trust me). There seem to be a lot of people who take pictures but have little or no idea how the camera works. They just want the outcome. There are also a lot (but probably fewer) of people who want to know exactly how their camera or the method works. They enjoy the process. Robert Pirsig argued for a happy medium (that you can strike with a spanner). The question is how much you need to know about how something works to be able to use it well?

Pirsig’s view is that some people are aesthetes (in his words, romantics). They don’t want to know the details or workings. They see and value the outcome, not the process. He said that other people were technicians (classical). They study and learn how things work. They may actually be less interested in the outcome than the process. Part of his argument, apart from the real meaning of quality, was that the ideal is to combine the two. It meant having an outcome in mind but also knowing how to achieve it technically. Automation is a great assistant, but I wonder if there is value in knowing how the manual process or machine works, and where the point of best value lies?

The other aspect to this is your level of competence. When you set out to learn something, say photography or driving a car, everything is strange and nothing makes sense. Some of the basic controls have to be mastered before you can operate the machine well enough to get the result you want. To drive, for example, you may have no idea why you change gear, but you need to learn to do it to get the car to move. In photography you may have no idea why there are aperture numbers, but you need to learn that big numbers mean a small hole and what effect that small hole has. Or in both cases you can use an automatic. You’ll get results, but you will never learn the relationship between the settings and those results. The basics will get you started, but perhaps you should progress beyond them?

This ties into how we learn, or rather how we are taught. It was quite explicit in the subject I followed, which was chemistry. We first learned how things worked. Then we moved up to the next level of study and were told that everything previous was a simplification and this was how it really worked. Then we moved up a level… etc. But that is a path I chose to follow: I chose to become a technician or classical. The other extreme is the view that chemistry is akin to magic in that nobody understands it and it has no real place in our everyday lives. And then you mix chlorine and ammonia based cleaners and wonder why your eyes sting.

While the extreme of romantic might be to use a thing with no idea how it works, the extreme of technician might be to concentrate entirely on making it work without having a real use for it. If I may be so bold as to give some examples (knowing what would happen if I did this on a more social medium)… look at the number of pictures you see taken by people who have a new camera or lens. They say they are testing it. But basically, if it works, just use it. Taking straight uninterpreted record shots may be part of your testing, but I don’t need to see them. Perhaps if the picture showed something unique to that lens or camera it would be interesting, but “hurrah, it works” brings me no joy. The counterpart is the pictures people show that contain an effect or result that is interesting or expressive but can’t be repeated as the maker doesn’t know how they got it. These are just puzzles. I also think that while it’s great to get an effect by accident, you should then put some study into understanding how you got it. Otherwise it’s not art, it’s chance. (Or Dadaist poetry)

I’m also reminded, when I see plain record shots taken with a new camera or lens, of the people I see at tractor shows. I’ve seen whole fields full of people sat next to their restored and working pumping engine or circular saw. While it’s interesting to see what sort of stuff farmers had to cope with, it’s not being used for anything useful. Their whole point and joy seems to be that it works and they own it. The photographic equivalent is probably GAS.

I’m being unfair. Straight record shots taken with a particular lens will give the viewer an idea of the effects it provides, particularly if it’s compared with an alternative. I’ve done it myself. Better still is if you can compare lenses or results under similar realistic conditions. The Canny Cameras site, for example, shows what you can expect from various old compacts using the same subjects each time. Here it makes sense to use straight record pictures to show blurring, fringing or distortion and get a sense of what a charity-shop find is capable of. What I don’t want though are pictures of resolution charts. If you want to go down that rabbit hole I’ll get my technician mode on and ask what the variation is between items and what the sample size should be for meaningful testing. Testing a sample of one is not as useful as understanding variation. </nerd>.

I really don’t need the camera settings provided with a photograph, either. Show me something interesting and I will work out how it was done (or have fun trying). By all means tell me that you got the effect by tilting the lens or something else, but I don’t need to know your shutter speed or worse, what camera you used. The photograph – the outcome – should stand alone. The settings you used to get it are useful to you, so that you can recreate or improve your method, but not to me.

A lack of settings meant I had to take multiple exposures, hence the overlapping pattern.

So where am I going with this? I err on the side of technician, as I am deeply curious about how things work. But for me the purpose of photography is not to use a camera, it’s to take pictures. I just want to know how my camera works so that I can make it do what I want (or find the menu option I want). Although, in the case of some of the Russian cameras, it’s useful to know how to avoid breaking them too. I like to be able to use a camera well, just as I like to be able to drive competently. But the aim is not how well I can change a film or a gear, but to try and get the best out of the machine in support of its purpose.

To be fair though, digital cameras are complicated and laden with features while mechanical cameras rely on you knowing how to use them. Automation is a wonderful thing, but I can see how multiple options or complexity leads to anxiety. And if you are learning something new, it’s much more encouraging to get an early result even if you are not sure how it happened. In chemistry I was able to distill our home-brewed wine long before I was able to make my own incendiaries, oops – firelighters. Speaking of which, I accidentally triggered the speed limiter on my car and was stuck at 20mph for a couple of hundred yards until I could pull-in and find the off switch. Like all good design fails, it was controlled by a lever that is normally hidden to the driver but can be hit and triggered if you run your hand around the steering wheel. Perhaps the photo equivalent is the pin on some Ricoh lenses that fouls the autofocus drive on Pentax cameras and locks the lens onto the camera body. I bought a nice 20mm lens that had the bad pin, but knew enough to spot it and sort it out. This is where a little technical savvy is useful.

So I think what I’m arguing for is a balance. It’s useful to have some level of understanding of the process or the machine so that you know how to get the result you want, or why you got the results you did. I don’t need to understand how a carburetor works to be able to drive an old car, but knowing that the car has one and some idea of what it does can be useful (when the car wouldn’t start, or when the cable froze). I’m also not arguing that I stand at the point of perfect balance. I love to find out how things work, well past the stage where I know enough to use it. When I had my old motorbike it was quite rare in the UK. So I started an internet owner’s club and uploaded the manual and parts list. For a while I was the Oracle for technical information. The underlying reason though was to build a network of people and resources who could help keep me on the road. And on the road it was – I commuted to work on it, did the National Rally and wore out tyres, brakes and chains just like a regular bike. I even fitted indicators, as I’d rather be alive than historically accurate. Along the way I learned a lot about how some components of the bike worked, but I didn’t set out to be an expert mechanic, just mechanically mobile.

Speedo about to roll over to zeros. It’s in KM, hence the MPH stickers. The 170 is the reading at which to next fill the tank. Nerdy, or what?

So yes, I’m arguing to strike a balance between the romantic and classical approach, recognising that we will move from one to the other as we learn. But being at the extreme position of ‘I don’t care to know how it works’ or ‘I don’t care what I could do with it’ might be missing-out on getting the best results.

What do you think?

Cosmic, dude

This is the Cosmic Symbol or Smena 8m. Mine was made in 1977, which is when Star Wars was released. So this is the camera that came from a long time ago in a country far, far away.

Mine was also made in the same year that Olympus stopped making the EE-2. What a difference. But what a difference in the markets they were selling into.

I can’t remember how I came by this camera, but it must have been very cheap judging by the rust. I think it was in a job lot that had been stored in someone’s garage.

That paddle at the side of the lens is the shutter release

It is supposed to have a sharp and contrasty 40mm lens. I’ve got to say that my first experience with it was underwhelming. The pictures were low contrast and muddy-looking. It feels a bit like the LC-A in that people rave about the lens, but what they show is the effects of contrasty cross-processed film. I can get the same punchy results with a Konica site foreman’s camera that won’t rust. Anyhoo, what do you get for your money?

You get a basic plastic zone-focus 35mm camera with fully manual controls. Where the Olympus Pen EE-2 had clever automation, the Symbol is purely manual. It’s probably easier and cheaper to provide manual adjustments than to create reliable automation. The shutter speeds are hidden on the bottom side of the lens and you have to turn a ring on the front of the lens to set the aperture. I suppose having manual controls doesn’t mean they also have to be ergonomic. There are cut-out windows on the side of the lens that show a white marker to indicate which combination of speed and aperture are right for the weather. Basically, the camera will do a sunny-16 (or dull 8) estimation for you. No substitute for a meter but better than guessing.

The white square below the striped cloud shows that the camera is set for light cloud/ haze conditions.

The focussing is by zone, or estimation. There are symbols on the lens for portrait, group and distant view settings.

Even without a meter it can still be used for knight photography

And that’s it. There are no other features or gadgets. But what it doesn’t have can’t break. There are no batteries included and none needed. The shutter is only cocked by winding on, so there is protection against double exposures. The lens is a modest triplet design, so should be OK if stopped down a bit. Basically it’s a manual point-and-shoot that will work well enough and was produced in huge quantities.

Or even action, if you are careful

One nice feature is that it has a film speed reminder on the back, although I prefer to use tape as it can’t be knocked to a different setting.

If you find one, it may come with its case. This is an awful affair made of a thick vinyl material with a shiny surface. It looks like patent leather and feels thick and stiff. But it does provide a strap to carry the camera around with.

I should clean it

If you are looking for one on that auction site, try searching for Nomo as well – the case has the Cyrillic script for Lomo stamped on it.


Shooting the breeze

March in England is supposed to be the windy month. It’s an opportunity to take pictures of something that can only be seen by its effects.

What do you do? You can take pictures of what happens when the wind is blowing, or how it has shaped things by its force, or even things that use the power of wind. What says wind to you?

There was a sailing club when I was at school. My pal was good at it – he could make a small boat zip along and go where he intended. I spent my time headbutting the boom. As this blog’s strapline has it: percussive learning. I did try windsurfing, but I spent most of my time swimming after the board. Me and wind don’t get along.

Photographing in the wind can be difficult, particularly if it’s blowing sand or snow. You need to take precautions or use windproof kit. It’s a lot easier to photograph what the wind has done and where it’s been.

Why not photograph the wind? There are plenty of people who photograph water, clouds or stars. Besides the obvious wind-powered machines of boats and windmills there are turbines sweeping the skies (clear of birds). Photographing the wind means taking pictures of something that exists but can’t be seen, compared to something that can be seen but has no physical existence, like shadows.

It’s something to do while we wait for the weather to improve. Besides, you might find the answer.

Kick out the iambs

I’ve seen some explorations on podcasts of the links between photography and music. Is there also a connection between photography and writing? Is there any relationship between drawing with light and with letters?

You don’t often see this at galleries

Lots (if you ignore that the group is self-selecting) of photographers seem to be also musical. Why not? If you are artistic then you may have more than one outlet for your expression. I feel though, based on the smallest of samples, that there are fewer photographers who also write. I know there are blogs, but I am thinking more of writing as a separate activity in itself. It would be writing about things other than photography, just as the people who can make music probably don’t make tunes about photography. (And even as I write it, a series of photo songs pop up from the subconsious.)

Singing them Cost of Portra Blues.

I know I can’t play an instrument or ‘do’ music though. I have tried, but can’t seem to pick it up at all. At school I got thrown out of the recorder class. Just about the easiest instrument to learn and all I could do was make random noises. But as soon as I bought a camera I thrived on it. I took pictures of everything, learned every feature (both) of the camera and every photographic method I could. And while I couldn’t play a note at school, I did write a bawdy tale in the style and meter of a Canterbury Tale that made the teacher laugh (and then confiscate it).

Perhaps a better comparison though would be with poetry, as poetry is to prose what I suppose music is to humming a song. Just as music has a strange power over our emotions from a set of sounds, so poetry pulls our strings with words.

That changes the question to ‘is there a link between poetry and photography, and are there any rhyming snappers?’. Not me, for sure. I can string words together but I am more at the explaining end of the scale than the triggering of emotions. Unless it’s annoyance – I can do that one. Perhaps I can’t do music or art but I can do words because I can’t really see pictures in my mind’s eye. I have more of a mind’s steno pad.

I’m just curious. Once the overlap of people with skills in both photography and music was pointed out my little grey cell got to wondering if there was a written analogue? (Thank you, I’ll be here all week.) There may not be, or it might be more rare. We evolved to see and speak, so pictures, sounds and music are pretty much innate. But we have to teach our brains to read, which involves re-programming or re-purposing parts of the brain. So perhaps the venn diagram crossover of photography and writing is smaller than the one for music?

It’s just me being curious. If anyone has good examples of a wordy-piccie crossover, do let me know.

And just to prove that comment about being annoying:

On his darkslide, by Miltish

When I consider how my life is spent
Counting seconds in this shed, so dark inside,
 Or juggling lenses, both long and wide,
Lugging them all, though my back be bent
To serve therewith my muses, and present 
My true account, writ in silvery halide; 
“Did that take a whole day?” they ask, so snide. 
 I bite my lip, more bitter banter to prevent,
But mutter “I need neither chip nor chimp for aid 
To assist my eye, I have it best 
From rule of thumb and circumstance of fate
Of stochastic influence my art is made.  
You can keep your digital pleasures with the rest; 
They too expose who only stand and wait.”

Sorry about that.

PS – I should have looked harder. Not long after posting this an actual good photographer turns up, talking about poetry and photography.

Best picture?

I heard an interesting question. Rather than the usual “what’s the best picture you’ve ever taken?” Or “what’s your favourite camera?” It was “which camera has given you your best pictures?”.

None of these

It could be that you have just the one camera, so all of your pictures were taken with it. But it could also be that the pictures that mean the most to you were taken with quite modest kit. Friends, family, children and holidays may have been snapped on something small and unsophisticated, while your big camera was only used for ‘serious’ photographs which you have never looked at since.

I suppose there will be two definitions of best though. The one above is what means the most to you. The other version is what you want to show other people. Or perhaps I stop the sophistry and accept that you will have some pictures you like the most, whatever the reason.

I’ve been taking pictures for a long time though, so my best pictures were taken on a variety of kit. First, and for a long time, my best camera was my only camera. My humble Ricoh took pictures that I still like. The pictures of friends and family become increasingly precious as the subjects fade. But the camera itself had little to do with it, other than exposing correctly and allowing me to use different lenses.

With the kids growing up I went through a phase of using a 35mm compact point and shoot. For a while I had one of Canon’s waterproof cameras. This made great pictures because it used flash by default, and colour print film loves lots of fill-in light. Then it broke and was replaced with something that could switch between a 35 and 70mm lens. This was swapped as soon as possible for a little Canon digital compact (yes, I do like Canon compact cameras). The joy of digital, of course, is that you are not constrained by the size of a film or the costs of developing. You can snap away, grab shots, try things and simply delete the junk. This camera was reincarnated several times as bits broke and was eventually morphed into a better model in the range. (And reading this, I do seem to have broken some cameras over the years)

If I think about the pictures that I’m most pleased to have taken (being the ones I would show other people), then very much the same rules apply: an SLR or some form of point and shoot are the choices. I don’t think I’ve ever had a special camera though, in the sense of one camera that I prize for giving me the best pictures. It’s more that various cameras have come and gone, serving in a particular role. It’s almost Trigger’s broom: I’ve always had an SLR but the make and model has varied as they wore out or broke. Same with the compact – many actors have played the role, some better than others.

I might actually favour some lenses more than the cameras that carry them. I’ve got a very humble Industar 50mm lens that renders very smoothly as a mild telephoto on an APS-C camera. Longer lenses are very nice for pictures of people, and my wide-angles are good for action.

So, to answer the original question, do I have a special camera that has produced my best pictures – the camera I would save from a house fire? The answer has to be no. What mattered more than the make or model of camera was the type of camera. I took good pictures with an SLR because of its capabilities. I took good pictures with a compact camera because it was easy to carry and have it with me. Some cameras were easier to use than others, which would make me favour them, but that’s it. There are some lenses that I like, but none of them rate as the magic lens.

There is no magic camera for me either. What about you though – do you have a special camera that makes the best pictures?

Pentax Spotmatic SP II

This is one of the iconic cameras, or rather range of cameras. The Spotmatics had through-the-lens light metering and a set of excellent lenses with good coating on the glass. The same basic body went on to gain a K mount for the lenses and became the widely-loved K1000.

Mine is a Spotmatic II. It was launched in 1971 and gained a few improvements from the previous model in the film transport, higher sensitivity in the meter and a fixed hot shoe. The meter now works up to 3200 ISO. The lenses were also improved with full multicoating to become the SMC range. Because flashbulbs were still a thing, the flash sync for the hotshoe can be switched between X and FP and the camera also has separate PC sockets for each. A nice feature is that there is a film length reminder (or you could use tape).

The camera itself is pretty standard for features. Perhaps more accurately, the Spotmatics set what would become the standard for a good amateur camera. The shutter has speeds from 1 to 1/1000 plus B. The shutter is a horizontal-run cloth type with X sync at 1/60. The focusing screen has a microprism dot in the middle but no split-image prism. The meter is a stop-down type: you push up a button on the front of the camera, the lens stops down to the taking aperture and the meter switches on. There is a simple needle in the viewfinder with + and – markings. There is no lock for the shutter release, so I guess you either took care or only wound-on when you were about to take the next picture. I’m learning to take care when carrying the camera in a bag.

The switch controls the meter. Or it would.

In use I struggle a bit with focusing darker lenses. I’ve got a 35mm f3.5 lens that makes the focusing screen a bit dark, even in good light. But put a fast 50mm or the lovely Pentax 85mm f1.8 on and it snaps beautifully into focus.

The wind-on lever feels a bit thin, almost sharp, and takes a bit more force than I was expecting. Not that it feels like I’m forcing the camera, more that it feels a touch tighter than I was expecting. This may be just my camera, as my other Pentax cameras are buttery smooth. It still feels more smoothly mechanical than a Praktica.

Of course, the light meter on mine doesn’t work. It’s fine, as I have other unmetered cameras so I’m used to using a separate meter and tweaking the settings on the camera to keep it ready as the light changes.

It’s about as well-packaged as a camera can be, though. Not too big, simple design, all the key parts exactly where you would expect. It’s small and light enough for an easy and discrete carry on a shoulder strap. Indeed, with a 35mm lens on it was small enough to fit inside a spare poo bag (we have a dog) when I was caught out in the rain.

The M42 mount is about as ubiquitous as you can get, with access to a large range of lenses. And of course my screw-mount lenses also fit my more modern Pentax K-mount cameras. So why not use the K-mount cameras and ditch the old M42 camera body? Mostly because of its mechanical simplicity. This camera is probably as simple to fix as they come, so could probably outlast anything with electronics. Indeed, it has already outlasted my Ricoh, which died after only 40 years. I guess that what the Pentax doesn’t have (features etc) can’t break.

I bought the Spotmatic because of the lens it had on it: a Super Takumar 85mm f1.8. It’s a well-regarded lens, but was under-priced. This lens has the special tab that would allow the later Pentax ES to do open-aperture metering. It also has a tiny pin on the base that pops-out slightly when the lens is removed and disables the switch between auto and manual aperture control. An odd feature – I wonder if this was why it was cheap? Perhaps someone took it off the camera and thought the aperture switch was jammed?

So how well does an old meterless camera work? Pretty well, as it happens. The frames are evenly spaced on the film, meaning that the stiffness in the wind-on was not due to mechanical problems. Probably lack of use. The frames are well exposed, so the camera’s settings are accurate. It earns the highest accolade for a camera, in that it just worked. Changing screw-mount lenses is more of a chore than bayonet-fit ones, but that’s it. There’s not much more to say. The experience of using it was all about taking pictures and nothing to do with fighting the camera or searching for a setting. Simples. I can see why they were (and are) popular.

Bored of the things

Do you ever feel bored with photography? It’s easy to be bored with the process of photography – the cameras, lenses and all that jazz. But do you ever get bored with the results? Turning out yet another set of similar pictures that nobody else will ever see.

I have found myself becoming jaded. I fell out of love with landscapes first. Yet another static shot vacant of any human interest or involvement that nobody will care about, least of all me. And then with the pictures that I took because I had a loaded camera in my hands. To be fair though, some of these improve with age. A picture of something that no longer exists can be an interesting record. My first car or motorbike became interesting to look back at, both because of how young I looked but also the strange old styles. Want to see how odd historic engineering could be? Go and look at an Ariel Arrow. Thankfully I never owned an Austin Allegro, though I sometimes cadged a lift to work in one. Actually, my propensity for taking pictures of the odd and curious has been useful in illustrating this blog. Who knew that a fragment of gravestone or an upside-down harbour would ever be useful? But those are just a symptom of my curiosity; they are not my muse.

Not impressed

I’m bored with cameras too. Yes, it has been fun to play with different types, but all I really wanted was pictures. Really, once a camera can deliver the minimum viable requirement of holding a sensor up to the light, it’s done its job. People who form tribes around brands seem strange, although it is preferable to actual witch-hunting. The best antidote is something I heard from Shit my Dad says – “you bought it, you didn’t invent it”.

So what am I to do? I’m definitely not bored with underwater photography, so perhaps that tells me something? We’ve had a couple of years of the Covid blues (with a ‘reform the band’ world tour always a future option). I’ve been pretty busy with a crumbly new (to me) house this last year so it feels like my photographic opportunities have been limited to when I’m walking the dog. This is about as boring as it gets, as I’m taking a camera for a walk and taking pictures of dull and empty scenes to justify carrying it. One real highlight was a challenge set by Bill Ward on the Photowalk podcast: to use intentional camera movement. I enjoyed that – it was adding a bit of thought and creativity to walking the dog. I also enjoyed seeing some drag racing. What I want is more of the fun I get from those and from underwater photography – I like action and people in action. So I don’t necessarily need to get out more, just go to places where things are happening. I’m sure I’ll get out more as the days lengthen.

Looking forward to Summer

What will be interesting is how my feelings change between writing and posting this article. I started writing this around the winter solstice when northern England barely gets light. By the time I post this whinge the days will be getting longer, I may not be towing a cloud on a leash and I’ll be a happy snapper once more. But, SAD aside, I really am bored with some aspects of photography. Am I using film cameras because of a specific quality they have, because I’m unwilling to move on, or because I want to play with them like toys? I’d like to think it was a unique quality but I fear that I’m just a fiddler.

So perhaps I need to introduce some constraints? Use just one camera. Make that two: one compact that also does my underwater stuff and one ‘better’ camera that can use my collection of odd lenses. No more playing with stuff that I then leave in the cupboard with part-used film loaded. Maybe sell off a few more of the remaining relics? I did an exercise before where I looked at what each camera or lens did and where I had overlaps or duplicates. Perhaps it’s time to be even more specific. Do I really need four screw-mount 35mm cameras? Or four 35mm rangefinders? If I don’t have a thing then I can’t fret about not using it. I also really don’t want to be a collector. The kit I do have is absolutely not out on display. I can appreciate a shelf-full of exotica just as much as the next nerd, but the things I own are (as far as I can) things I use. That’s why I sold a load of stuff in the first place. It’s also how I came to recognise what drove my acquisitions: a mixture of curiosity and wanting to have a capability on the off-chance that I needed it.

So what does a photographer who is bored with photography do? I think I need to stop playing with cameras, stop taking pictures of things that bore me, and concentrate on going to interesting events or doing interesting things. I know there’s a group organising a trip to do a bit of bird photography soon. Previously I would have declined, but I’ve never done this before so why not? It might also get some use out of my long lenses. And if it helps me get over myself, let’s give it a go.

It’s always better after you’ve had your coffee. Not too much, though.

Chilly dip

Having flooded my camera while diving, I thought I’d try it again. And what could possibly go wrong when you go diving in sub-zero temperatures?

It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Someone mentioned on Thursday that they were diving on the Saturday, if anyone else fancied a dip. Ok, so it’s January and has been freezing all week. How hard could it be? Pretty frosty, as it happens.

I’d been diving back in mid December and the air temperature then was a bit lower – it was -3 in the car park and our wet kit kept freezing to the bench. The water was surprisingly warm – 7 to 8 degrees. This time the car park was a bit warmer at around zero, but the water had dropped to 5 to 6 degrees. It made a difference.

For a start, the camera battery kept fading.  I’d take three or four shots and get a low battery warning. Turn the camera off for a few minutes, then back on and I’d get another few shots before it complained again. The camera wasn’t the only one complaining. When I got in, the water creeping into my neoprene hood was painful. All the shock of a brain freeze without the fun of a Cornetto. We all got very cold hands despite thick gloves – so cold that my fingers felt like they were burning. It was difficult to work the controls on the flash and camera because my fingers were numb. On the plus side, the cold had taken most of the algae out of the water and the lack of other divers meant there wasn’t the usual stirred-up silt. I’ve dived here before when you could barely see your mask. This was good conditions for UK diving, with visibility of perhaps 15 meters.

On a murky day

The fish were as frisky as ever. Odd when you think that their bodies must be at, or close to, water temperature. We were diving in fresh water in a flooded quarry, and it had been stocked with fish probably when it first opened. The trout are now big and partly tame. They get fed so often by divers with little bags of fishfood that they approach any diver on the chance of a meal. We found one old trout that was blind – it swam slowly along the bottom and didn’t recoil at movement. In fact it bumped into my dive buddy. There are usually sturgeon, but they’d gone off somewhere to be replaced by some large carp. The fish hang around in a shallow part of the site, so they are striped with bands of sunlight refracted into rainbows.

The good news though is that the camera didn’t flood. I was worried that the O ring seal might have been damaged by the screw that was stuck against it and caused the previous flood. It looked OK, but there’s only one way to find out.

Blind trout

I was also trying-out a new way to reduce the backscatter in my pictures. My camera is a digital compact, so it has a small built-in flash. There is a big diffuser panel to soften the light, but it’s close to the lens axis so lights up all the silt in the water. The way to reduce this is to use an external flash on an arm, so the light beam is off the lens axis. But I need the internal flash to trigger the external one. I’d tried reducing the power of the internal flash to its minimum but it still made every shot a snow scene. So I bought some adhesive plastic mirror film and stuck a piece to the back of the diffuser. So the internal flash is blocked from lighting the subject, but still triggers the sensor on the external flash. Did it work? Yes, once I’d moved the external flash forwards enough that the sensor that controls its light output couldn’t see the reflection in the diffuser. I got my best photos to date, in terms of clarity and lack of silt.

The diving itself was … an experience. It was the coldest water I’ve been in, to date. But all my kit worked, my body core stayed warm and we had a couple of nice dives. I’m not sure what I could do to make the camera warmer – there’s very little free space in the housing that could fit a hand-warmer. I’m not sure I want to chance getting iron oxide dust inside the camera, either. Perhaps I could warm-up the camera itself before I put it in the housing? That’s probably a better idea. I could even get the camera warm, but make sure that battery was hot. As it was I just swapped for a fresh battery between dives. Oh what fun we have trying to keep cameras working in the cold.

We had a great day though, and I got some good pictures. It has to be the most fun you can have in a rubber suit.

Après moi, le déluge

Unlike King Louis though, I do care about what happens next. The story starts with me arriving at the end of the queue to get into a diving site. The camera and housing were in a tool tray on the passenger seat. I poured myself a hot drink from the flask and began to assemble the camera into its underwater housing. Then the queue started moving. So I dumped the camera into the tray, threw the tea out of the window and made my way in.

The usual business then ensued with getting scuba gear assembled, getting my drysuit on and sorting out what we were doing and who we were doing it with. I threw the camera into the housing and pressed the rear door closed. It was a little more resistant than normal, but the O ring seal is always a bit tight. And off we went diving.

I was trying-out something new with the camera and its external flashgun, to try and eliminate backscatter from silt in the water. This mean that, as soon as I was back from the dive I had a look at the screen on the back of the camera to review the pictures I’d taken. And then noticed there were beads of water on the inside of the housing. And then noticed there was a puddle of water in the bottom of the housing. It didn’t dry up, even with the names I was calling it. (This level of invective will usually scorch paper)

So out of the housing came the camera and out of the camera came its battery. The camera was wrapped in my towel with the battery door open. Luckily we were diving in fresh water, so there was a chance the camera might survive once it dried-out.

At the end of the day I got home and put the camera on a radiator to dry. I then had a good look at the housing. Trapped in the groove that the O ring seals into was a tiny black machine screw – the kind that holds cameras together. It was small enough to allow the housing to close, but large enough to cause a leak. It was a small leak: the housing took on perhaps an eggcup full of water after 45 minutes under three times normal atmospheric pressure. It did the fateful job of killing my camera, though.

The screw was trapped here, by the hinge

A quick check showed that the camera wasn’t completely dead, but it was badly injured. It would power-up enough to extend the lens, but the rear screen wouldn’t work and neither would the zoom controls. So, big decision – do I wait and see if the camera will revive, or buy a replacement if I can find one cheap enough? The check also found the source of the screw. There were actually two missing; one from either side of the tripod socket. Perhaps what I should do in future is give the camera a good shake before I put it in the housing, or at least check the O ring seal all the way round.

This is the screw, compared with an SD card for size

I’ve also got yet another dead copy of this camera that could be an organ donor. This was my first copy of this camera, and died with a common fault when an internal screw came loose. If the drowned camera doesn’t revive I might try swapping-in some components from the donor. Not that I have any way of telling which parts might have broken, but I can have a go and see what happens. Curiously, the loose internal screws that killed the first camera are different to the one jammed in the housing, so it’s not a repeat of the first problem.


But… repair or replace? I have one working copy of this camera and it would be useful to have two. The whole reason I had two was for just this situation. So off to eBay I shall go. The Canon G9 fetches a wide range of prices, but scruffy ones that lack a charger or case can be quite reasonable. The drowned camera shows no signs of getting better so I’ll leave it on the radiator, but replace it is. Lo and behold, eBay spits out a very reasonably priced and tidy G9 with the original camera case. So we’re back up and running. The next thing, of course, will be to dive the housing to see if I’ve fixed the leak. What I’ll do is put the dead camera in it to stop it being too buoyant. I’ll pack the housing with tissues, which will be a good indicator of leakiness or success. Sounds like a plan.

This is also why I dive with a camera that is good, but not expensive. I may have had a bad day, but my broken camera was replaced for less than my buddy spent on one of his new fins. (He bought two obviously, or he’d swim in circles). The joy of cheap – the G9 is not the very best camera, but I can buy replacements at a reasonable cost, so I don’t mind putting them into situations where they might break.

Let’s call this gaining experience.

%d bloggers like this: