SLR – the perfect camera

There is an idea in computing of the Turing Machine. This is a general-purpose computer that can do any computational task by changing its program. I have mentioned this before in the same sense, of being able to make a digital camera emulate other sensors or effects. My premise here though, is that there is also a general-purpose type of camera, and it’s the SLR.

The SLR can do any photographic task, because it can be adapted and has few constraints.

The key feature is that the viewing lens and the taking lens are the same: you look through the actual lens in use to frame and focus the image. This means that what you see is what you get. The only other camera that does this is the large format type, where you compose and focus on a sheet of ground glass that gets replaced by film to make the exposure. The benefit of the SLR is that the ground glass and the film are in the same box at the same time: when you have composed and focused the mirror flips up and the shutter opens to send the incoming light to the film (or sensor). There are no delays while you swap the focusing screen for the film.

The clever hinged mirror

The other clever trick that the SLR has is the pentaprism. This reverses and inverts the image from the lens so that you see the scene the right way up and the right way round. Compare this with the large format camera above, where the image you see is upside-down. Or a TLR, where the image is the right way up but reversed left-to-right. So the SLR shows the world in the same way that it looks without the camera. There is no struggle to follow action or level a horizon, because the camera moves in the way you expect.

The inside of a pentaprism

Because you look through the lens, so can the lightmeter. Rather than the meter having a different view of the scene, you know exactly what it is measuring. This means that the meter automatically adjusts for filters, close-up work, odd apertures and strange lenses. By strange, think of using projector lenses, or even zoom lenses that have a variable aperture.  As an aside, this is why cine lenses have T markings rather than F stops. T is the actual transmission of the lens and is true for all lenses at the same setting. A marked F stop may not be the actual value of the light that gets through though, due to the realities of multiple elements etc. This is why it is useful to be able to meter through the lens to measure the actual light rather than the marketing department’s number. It also means that with a long lens, for example, you are measuring the distant scene rather than the general light you are standing in.

The benefit of rangefinder cameras, we are told, is that you can see outside the frame. This means you can see things that are about to come into the frame. This is supposed to be a benefit in street photography. The disadvantage is that the frame you see is not quite the same as what the lens sees, and this gets worse as you get closer. You also need the camera to have the necessary viewfinder frames for your lenses, or you need to use a supplementary viewfinder, introducing another source of error and turning the focusing and framing into separate actions. An SLR, on the other hand, will focus and frame any lens you can fit to it. Rangefinders also struggle with very long or very wide lenses, as the viewfinder and focus patch become less useful. Just think of the difficulties of focusing a 500mm lens (4 degrees) or a 180 degree wide angle. With the 500 the actual field of view may be smaller than the focusing patch. With the wide angle you have no idea if your feet are in shot or not. An SLR will happily handle both.

Swap the focusing screen for a different one

Rangefinders do have one advantage over the SLR though, in that they are often quieter to use. There is no sound or vibration from the SLR’s mirror flipping up and down. They can also be physically smaller, as the camera body doesn’t have to hold a tilting mirror.

The big development has been in mirrorless cameras, which combine the smaller size of the rangefinder with the through-the-lens utility of the SLR. I think that mirrorless cameras took off due to mobile phone cameras. We got used to the idea of holding a camera out in front of us and looking at the screen on the back, rather than holding the camera to our eye. So the mirrorless camera gains the smaller body of the rangefinder and drops the complex mechanism to raise and lower the mirror. It does rely entirely on electronics to display the viewfinder image though, so you need bigger batteries and get through them quicker. So there is a trade-off between the bigger and heavier SLR and the smaller and lighter mirrorless that may require you to carry an extra battery. There is also no equivalent to the manual SLR. I can use my Pentax MX with or without batteries and it works just fine. On the other hand, everyone seems to be swapping to mirrorless cameras, so perhaps I am wrong about SLRs? For digital, I probably am.

The epitome of the SLR is the professional system camera. These took full advantage of the adaptability of the configuration to allow you to swap viewing/ focusing screens, viewfinders, film capacity, motor drives, macro gadgets etc. You started with the basic film holder and shutter and added other bits as needed. The need for this has gone away with digital, as you can add picture capacity by using a larger storage card and do most of the other tricks in software. So what you are left with is the viewing mechanism – the facility to see through the lens and focus the image produced by that lens.

The downside of the SLR is that they are more complex than other types of camera. There is some clever orchestration to close-down the lens aperture, lift the mirror, trigger the shutter and then reverse it all. It also means that lenses for an SLR have to be designed to have a large enough distance between the back of the lens and the sensor to allow room for the mirror and shutter. This flange distance was fixed by the camera manufacturer for their cameras and lenses and is the main reason why not all lenses work on all cameras. The precise mechanical engineering of the mirror and shutter are probably why SLRs are declining: it’s a lot easier to use electronics to display what the lens is seeing than to use mirrors and prisms to do the job. It certainly makes manufacturing easier. For what is basically a niche product in a small market, this is important. The lack of a reasonably priced shutter mechanism is probably what is preventing any new SLR being developed (although we may be in luck).

So basically, there you have it: the SLR was the pinnacle of practical usability, replaced by alternatives that were cheaper to make or more flexible (mirrorless cameras and mobile phones). RIP the SLR.

Ricercare

I’m puzzled. I worked in IT (that’s reason enough, right there). Not the brainy side where they do development, but the messy side where we fix stuff. So we do a lot of systematic problem-solving, very often under pressure. If you can’t run the payroll on time, people get excited.

Now, I know that nobody ever came to work to use a computer. Well, maybe the code developers did, but they’re special. The rest of us have a job to do. A computer is one of the tools and, like a tool, I don’t have to understand how it works. As a colleague used to say – people don’t want drills, they want holes. But you can’t buy a bag of holes, so you have to use a drill.

This is where the puzzlement comes in. Why do so few people learn how to use the tools? I used to think I knew the answer, but I swapped sides and now I’m not so sure. Let me explain. And I promise I will get around to photography.

First, a small aside. The people in IT who provide support may often know less about what a computer can do than the people asking for help. The reason is that the IT people don’t use their computer to do your job. They know the basics and can fix most problems, but asking the IT guys how to set up running headers that repeat the section title or how to best-fit a curve to data, and they will do exactly what you could: read the Help file.

So this is what I did. Every time I wanted to do something difficult, I copied and adapted examples from Help until it worked. The (previous) scientist in me would use test data so I could check that the results worked. The geek in me wondered why nobody else did this. I also wondered why our organisation would throw people at technology with no training. Or rather they did train, but sporadically and with precise focus on how to do specific tasks.

What broadened my view was changing places. In my (early) retirement I took a part time call-centre job. We have multiple systems in use – many more than when I was a techie. I can use them, but I have no spare time to learn anything more about them. I also have no reason or incentive to do anything more than my assigned task. When something doesn’t work I don’t have the time to dawdle through the (non-existent) help facility. I want it fixed, right now. I also don’t want it changed. The systems are a minor component of what I do, but a major obstacle if they don’t work the way I expect. So now I understand why people hated IT when we rolled-out a change.

So what has this got to do with photography? So how well do you understand your camera? What about your editing software? Or your scanner? Just as we used to get people telling the IT help desk that they wished they knew more about computers (by which they meant how to use computer applications), so I hear people saying they wished they knew how to use their camera/ Lightroom/ scanner etc.

A while back I wrote an article about some aspects of learning. This was about the stages of moving from novice to expert and the false reassurance of feeling competent. While it set out what I had learned from the experts on the shape of the path, it didn’t explain how to make progress along it.

Hence the title of this post.

I have found that reading a manual or delving through menu options are not good ways for me to learn. Like I said, I could learn everything about the drill but what I want is the hole.

What I have found works for me is to try to do one thing, often imitating something I have seen or heard of. So with PhotoShop, for example, I started by removing hairs and scratches from scanned film images. I tried using cloning, but the results were horrible. Then I read about using layers. Then a bit more investigation led me to the healing brush tool. Combining that with a layer gave me a reversible and controllable spotting technique. Hurrah!

Comic
Trying a comic-book effect

I did the same with other effects that took my interest: toning; split toning; dodging and burning and so on. In each case the focus was on learning how to obtain a specific effect rather than memorising the entire manual. Each time I was happy with a process I made notes of the settings and layers I had used in a cookbook of techniques. This way I didn’t need to remember everything – I could look at the contents list for things like smoothing skin or sharpening to find the starting position. And each time I had a go at achieving an effect I could add it to the cookbook. A recent example is the use of texture layers. I went to a talk by the talented EJ Lazenby and saw how she uses texture layers and blending modes to achieve effects. Not a technique I will use every day, but useful to know and handy when needed. Very useful for dropping bad backgrounds in portraits (better would be to see and change the background at the time, but hey…). So I had a go, and fiddled until I got a result I liked. Then added it to the cookbook as a useful tool. I’m basically building myself the mythical bag of holes.

Texture
Trying the use of a texture overlay

What I am also doing (I realised, eventually) is breaking down the learning of a large area of knowledge into small steps that I am motivated to investigate and that reward me with results at each stage. To mangle another metaphor, I’m not trying to eat the whole elephant in one go. Instead I am serving an elephant-based buffet comprising elephant three ways, joues d’éléphant and a surprise pudding (of elephant). I still have no idea what PhotoShop is fully capable of, but if I see an interesting result I will learn how to obtain it. It also reduces stress. I am not fretting that I don’t know the whole of PhotoShop as I have a set of things I can do and a method for adding to the set based on interest or need.

It’s the same information-bloat with cameras. They are now so capable and feature-rich that I don’t imagine anyone knows or uses their full functionality. There is an example here of the full set of menu options on a modern camera. You can’t memorise this stuff. What you have to do is try one thing, say HDR, and see what works and what you like. Most digital cameras have one or more user or custom settings that remember a set of options. My Canon has one user mode saved that lets me shoot in mono (like a real camera) and a second mode for underwater. And I can always flick it back to program or manual if needed.

So rather than try to map the entire territory, I have explored paths that looked interesting and then left breadcrumbs so that I can find them again. Perhaps you have seen the film Jumper? The cool kids can travel instantly, but only to places they have seen in real life. I too have found my way to some useful results so I can jump to them any time I need them. The gaps between the end points remain undiscovered, unless I need something new.

Scott Redding, Marc VDS Team, Silverstone, June 2011
This was a more subtle use of several methods to improve the shadow detail

So, my sincere apologies to anyone trying to just get a job done. I am now in the same position at work and I just want stuff to work without effort. But for things that are optional, done for fun or to get a specific outcome, may I recommend trying small steps, with each one focused on getting a specific result? Don’t try to learn PhotoShop, learn how to darken a sky or level a horizon and then go from there.

And, as they used to say on Blue Peter, here’s one I made earlier:

Learning like this works for me. I hope you find it useful.

PS – why Ricercare? Because GEB.

The Lomo Spinner

If I thought the Horizon was a weird wide-angle camera, then this is taking it all too far. Where the Horizon rotates the lens to scan the image across a curved film plane, the Spinner rotates the whole camera while pulling the film past a slot behind the lens. It’s the same basic idea: scan the image across the film through a narrow slot. But where the Horizon shoots a 120 degree field of view, the Spinner can do 360 (and often a bit more). There is no standing behind this camera – you are usually in shot.

The metal ring is the pull-string that operates the spinning.

The camera is driven by a spring motor in the handle. You pull out a length of string to wind the motor and when you let go, the whole camera spins around on the handle. Your two composition choices are how level you want the camera to be, and where the rotation starts. Where the Horizon holds the film around a curve to match the rotation of its lens, the Spinner pulls the film past a slot as the camera rotates. This means it also exposes the sprockets.

The bubble level would be more useful on the underside. The switch for apertures and rewind is visible below the name badge.

The shutter speed is between 1/125 and 1/250 and there are two apertures available at f8 and f16. So you will also need to use the film sensitivity as one of the controls. Sunny days will use 100 ISO and darker days 400. It’s probably best to use colour negative film and go for over rather than underexpose and use the film’s latitude to cope.

Flat film gate with a slot. The film is held against it by the roller on the rear door. The drive belt at the bottom pulls the film through as the camera rotates.

Like the Horizon, the lens gets the extreme angle of view by rotating rather than being inherently very wide. But while the Horizon has a 28mm lens, the Spinner seems to be 25mm. Probably just as well, as the photographer usually in ends up in the shot and is pretty close to the camera, so that extra bit of wide-angle keeps the shooter in focus.

360 degree field of view

Shooting it is an experience – you hold the ‘stick’ at the bottom of the camera, try to get it level, then pull and release a string. Pulling out the full length of the string gets you a shot of a bit more than a full rotation. You can also pull out less string and get a smaller scan. This may be the only way to stay out of your own picture, other than holding the Spinner up over your head. This is why it really needs the bubble level on the bottom of the camera – so that you can hold it up and get it level and not be in your own shot. On the other hand it’s great for group shots, as the photographer is usually always missing. There is a tripod socket on the bottom of the handle, so it is also possible to set it up on a tripod, duck down and get a 360 panorama in one shot.

Croix de Van, Switzerland

The Spinner gets around eight shots on a 36 exposure roll, depending on whether you do full or partial spins. Scanning them can be a problem – I scan each frame in sections and combine them. The frame size can be up to 23cm – that’s 230mm, so six times wider than a normal 35mm frame. If you send the film away to be processed remember to ask for it not to be cut.

So it’s a rather specialised little beast, but good at what it does.

“I want to learn how to take pictures”

This is often followed by “what camera should I buy?”.

Perhaps the best way to start would be to go to the end and work backwards. “What sort of pictures do you want to take and how will you use them?”.

The answer friends and family, shared online means sticking with your phone camera and perhaps learning the basics of composition. This desired outcome is not about learning how a camera works but all about how pictures work.

To capture the amazing places I go and make prints could mean a decent quality digital camera with a zoom lens and adding some time to learn post-production and printing (or post-production and finding a reliable print shop). This is also all about how pictures work, with enough about the camera settings to be able to capture scenes as intended.

I’ve been given a camera and want to learn to use it can be much more focused. This is a technical how-to that is tightly constrained to a specific camera’s functions and capabilities. But once the camera has been mastered, what then? I could learn how to operate a lathe but unless I have an outcome in mind it would be an empty technical skill. I think that learning to use a specific camera should be directed by what it will be used for. Shooting fast sports needs different settings to macro work or portraiture, so you would be learning less but it would be more relevant and useful.

A manual rangefinder, because Leica.

Because all the social influencers are using one of these is a scary response. Perhaps the best that can be offered is a description of the workflow and some advice on the costs. Camera possession as social confirmation is a strange edge-case. My preference would be to suggest a cheap and simple digital point and shoot to try. If they like the results and persist, then we can talk about how or if to upgrade, based on what they want to be able to do.

a TLR, because life isn’t hard enough already

The ‘given a camera’ and ‘want to be like them’ responses could also be part of an enquiry that was “I want to learn to use film”. I think this needs the same response of ” what do want to be able to do?”. Why go to all the bother and expense of using film if you are already getting the results you want? And if what you want is to learn to control the camera more, digital is by far an easier learning tool than analogue, as it’s so much quicker to see the results (plus the results are not dependent on a further step, so there is one less variable in the process).

It was my dad’s

With all of these, I think the best approach is to start with old, cheap and simple. This is because you don’t know what you really want until you learn what you want to be able to do. Once you find yourself pushing against a constraint in your kit, then you know what kit you really need. And you might get bored and give up too, so why invest heavily at the beginning? As an example, I go scuba diving. For this I wear an inflatable jacket that also carries the air tank. The jacket can be inflated to control my buoyancy underwater and to float me on the surface. There are many different types of jacket and they can cost a lot of money. The one I use for normal diving is functionally OK, even though a bit awkward to use. But it has loads of buoyancy if needed, so is great for the diving I do with novice divers in open water. I also have a second jacket that I use in the pool when training. This is a different design that has the buoyancy arranged on the back, either side of the tank. The jacket is very comfortable to wear and holds me easily in a good posture underwater. But if I ever needed this jacket to support me on the surface it would fail: the buoyancy bags would roll me face-down in the water. Fine for snorkelling, not fine for general safety.

It’s similar with cameras and photography. Starting with secondhand kit means a soft entry and a chance to learn what you like or not and what you need versus what you have. Do I need depth of field preview? Never used it. Do I need to be able to change focusing screens? Not really. Do I need light metering? Yes please. Rangefinders? Why make things harder? Autofocus and focus confirmation? Yes very please. Good high ISO performance? Very useful. Wide range of lenses? Absolutely. Small, light, rugged and available? Definitely.

So those requirements cover several different types of photography (or use cases, as we nerds say) and result in several types of camera. Each camera has a job, as opposed to buying something very clever and having too much power most of the time. I confess though, that I am as guilty as many others of having more kit than I need. My only defence is that it was all the cheapest I could find, in the usual quest to find out if X is better than Y. Everyone raves about the Lomo LC-A for example. Tried one, didn’t like it, swapped it for something else more functional and suitable for my needs.

I’m an IT guy, so I was often asked the equivalent question of ‘what computer should I buy?’. This got the same answers of ‘what do you want to be able to do’ and ‘will this change over time’. Wanting to do a bit of t’interweb and email leads to a different solution from editing video.

So, circling back to where we came in… I think there are two avenues to explore. Learning to take pictures is a lot about learning what makes a picture work, and this means studying pictures. It means working out what you like in a picture and the types of picture you like. Then you can study how to get the effects you like in the type of pictures you want to take. Things like exposure, aperture and shutter speed make sense when they are linked to results. Learning to use a camera is a technical skill that can be learned but has very little to do with the final pictures (as long as the camera settings are about right – but that is why we have automatic modes).

The bonus from this is that, if someone is learning how to get the type of pictures they want rather than how to operate a camera, they might be less inclined to give up when it gets difficult. Every step forward would be towards what they want, rather than just one possible method of getting what they want or a further descent into a technical rabbit hole.

Speaking of rabbit holes – anyone who keeps asking for a camera recommendation should go here.

Pentax 15mm lens

This is one of those lenses I mentioned that, if I ever sold it and was filled with remorse, I couldn’t afford to replace.

How I came to buy it originally was luck. It was a rare and expensive lens – Pentax can’t have sold a dozen of these a year. And yet a branch of Jessops nearby had one on sale. This was in the days when Jessops were useful. When I asked about it, the reason was because a customer had ordered it but then declined to buy it. It was such an extreme lens that the shop must have thought they would never shift it. So they had it on sale for the same amount I had separately paid for a secondhand MX body. Even then I swithered about it. How many people really need a 15mm lens?

And yet it’s rather marvellous. It has a 100 degree horizontal field of view, but it is also rectilinear. This means that straight lines stay straight and don’t bow like a fisheye lens. There is a whole rabbit warren to drop down if you want to learn about the different ways an extreme wide angle can work, but it basically comes down to two things: do straight lines curve or not and do circular things stretch into ovals at the sides of the frame?

This is an estate agent’s lens. Pop this on a tripod, get it level and you can make a phone box look like a ballroom. All the lines stay straight, so there is no obvious distortion. You can get a lot in the frame without the usual fisheye distortion or get in close and get some strong diminution effects.

It may not look much, but that’s the point. I was nearly close enough to touch the building.

Those that know give the lens a mixed reception and say it’s soft in the corners wide open and suffers from flare. I like it a lot, but use it less than perhaps I could. The built-in yellow and orange filters are useful for black and white and there’s also a UV and skylight filter for colour. The built-in lens shade does at least belp to keep the front element from harm.

In terms of handling it’s a bit of a beast. It’s heavy, for a start – 595g. The large front element and built-in hood need a deep slide-on lens cap that is better described as slide-off. I’ve got a strip of masking tape round the end of my lens to make the cap a tighter fit, but it’s still covered in dings from its escape attempts. Despite being heavy, it’s easy enough to carry though. I did a photo-walk and used this lens. The camera was actually a nice balance and quite discrete for hand-carrying. With the lens on a Pentax MX body weighing 495g the point of balance was to carry the outfit by the lens body with a wrist strap for safety.

Strap 1

It has a lovely smooth focus action, just as you’d expect from a Pentax lens. The extreme wide angle means that the throw of the focus ring is quite short – perhaps 60 degrees to get you from infinity to it’s minimum focus of something like 25cm. The depth of field is also pretty extreme – at f8 it covers from infinity to about 50cm. Circles do become elliptical at the sides of the frame though, but that’s to be expected with an extreme angle of view.

Does it flare? It can, yes, but the picture below was taken into the sun. I have had some flare streaks before, but it seems to be from shooting across the sun rather than into it. Up with it you are going to have to put though, as you’re not going to get a bigger lens hood on this baby (unless you make one).

Coventry

The built in filters are more convenient than some fisheye lenses that need separate filters fiddled onto the rear of the lens. They also stay clean and are part of the lens’s formula. The down side though is that you can’t easily swap one of the filters for something else. I had an Arsat 30mm fisheye for my Kiev 60 that took screw-on filters on the rear of the lens, so it would be possible to take say the green filter apart and replace it with a neutral density. I did this trick with my Horizon camera to give me an IR filter.

So, is it worth the expense? Maybe, if you can get one at a good price. You really need the lens cap with it, as nothing else will fit and that front element sticks out a lot. It would be interesting (in a nerdy kind of way) to compare it with some other extreme wide angle lenses such as Samyang. But then you descend into the madness of rectilinear versus fisheye rendering (see link above) and end-up buying one of each. But, if you can find or borrow one, try it. It really is a new way of looking at the world.

Horizon 202

Whatever possessed me to buy a camera where you can accidentally get your knuckles into shot? Or I thought I could, even though I haven’t done it yet. The temptation was the 120 degree field of view and the distortions you can get because the lens swings in an arc. I’m a sucker for odd.

With the clip-on handle fitted.

So the basics are that it swings the lens in an arc and projects the image through a moving slot onto a curved film plane. In action it scans a narrow strip of light across the film. There are two swing speeds for the lens and a set of different slot widths for the scan. Together these give you a range of shutter speeds. Not a full set, as the two ranges don’t quite meet.

You can see how your knuckles could get into the shot. The switch on the left selects the yellow or white range of speeds.

Because the lens effectively turns its head, straight lines across the frame appear to recede at the sides. Keep the camera level and the horizon will divide the frame across the centre. Tilt the camera and it bends from bowl to hill. There is a bubble level in the viewfinder and on the top of the camera to help.

Only do this when you are the passenger!

The basic specs are that this camera uses a 28mm lens set at a fixed focus distance. This is fine, as the depth of field covers just about everything. For those of us shooting mono or infrared the lens can take clip on filters which can be fitted part-way through winding the camera, when the lens is midway through swinging back to its starting position. The camera comes with three filters, stored in the clip-on handle. These are a yellow, a UV and a neutral density one. The ND filter is handy because you have a limited range of shutter speeds. I took the plain UV one apart on mine and replaced it with a visually-opaque IR filter. Because the lens swings across a curved film plane it doesn’t vignette at the sides like a fixed wide-angle lens might.

The frame size is the normal 35mm film height (24mm) but as wide as a medium format negative at 58mm giving you a 2•5:1 panoramic format. The 58mm width means it can be scanned or printed from anything that can handle a 6×6 film frame. To be able to scan the film on 35mm kit I scan each frame in two pieces, then combine them. You will get around 22 shots on a 36 exposure film.

The camera looks like a fragile plastic fantastic, but I believe it’s actually a cosmetic plastic shell over a metal chassis. I’d still avoid dropping it though.

The camera can be awkward to load – the film has to follow a curved path so it needs more than the usual guidance. The advice is to put the film behind everything: it goes behind every roller and guide you can see.

What got me thinking though, and the reason I bought it in the first place, is the potential of that swinging lens. It swings left to right, so a fast-moving subject also moving left to right ought to be stretched. Moving right to left it ought to be compressed. If I stand on a bend and photograph the traffic it should also do odd things with the shape of the corner. And I wonder what would happen if I panned the camera to follow a passing subject? There is also the potential to photograph a group of people arranged in an arc in front of the camera. The picture should look as though they stood in a straight line, but all facing the camera.

Moving right to left – some possible shortening of the bike

In use the camera is awkward to hold. The shutter release is set back, so your trigger finger is not in the usual position. It also takes a firm press to fire the shutter. The clip-on handgrip is very useful for keeping your fingers out of the frame, for aligning the camera and for allowing your right hand to take a loose grip in order to reach the shutter release. I’ve used it plenty of times without the grip though, as it makes the camera easier to carry.

Panning the camera. Less background blur than I expected, but it was a fairly slow pan.

You will spend a bit of time trying to get the bubble level in the viewfinder centered. The viewfinder shows the field of view of the lens pretty well but not the distortions it produces. When you do press the shutter you get an extended mechanical whoosh as the lens drum spins. It’s unusual and distinctive.

A lot of the time you can’t even see the distortion from the swing lens.

It’s a good idea to keep this camera in its case or well protected when you are not using it. If a bit of grit gets into the swing mechanism you will get vertical bright lines appearing in the frame where the lens slows-down briefly. If you are buying one second-hand, see if you can get a recent picture taken with it. Streaks mean grit.

Proof at last – the world really isn’t flat.

But, for all its awkward handling, this camera produces unique results. There are very few swing-lens cameras, and this one is probably the most accessible and cheapest way into the world of swing.

Alfred Klomp has also written about the Horizon camera in far more detail than me.

Aphantasia

Now, here’s a thing. And I didn’t even know it was a thing. It’s the inability to see pictures in your head. A blind mind’s eye.

It started when I was reading Imaginable by Jane McGonigal. Highly recommended, by the way. But there was an initial exercise that asked “imagine yourself waking up in ten years’ time. What’s it like”. So in all good faith, I started describing it to myself. Then the book continued to ask me to imagine every detail and colour of the scene as vividly as possible “unless you are one of the 2% of the population who have aphantasia”. Say what? I could describe my future world eloquently in words, but the best picture was a fuzzy version of my existing bedroom. Hang on – do other people see pictures?

Now close your eyes and imagine a horse. But not this one. This is Bob.

Then, as life does, synchronicity slapped me on the head. There was a press headline on a news feed about a study into aphantasia. So I read it. Then took an online test that seemed to have a lot of its results feeding into further research. And you know what, I don’t seem to have much of a mind’s eye. I can’t see a picture in my head of things that I’m not directly remembering. Even then, it’s lacking in detail. Like most things, it’s a spectrum. A fuzzy imagining, rather than a total absence, is called hypophantasia. Nothing to do with the Disney film, by the way.

How about imagining a sheep?

The first question of course is wether this is true, or at least true for me. The online test seemed to confirm it, but I’m sure every hypochondriac says the same. On the other hand it would explain a lot. It may explain what my wife calls my total lack of an aesthetic sense. But if I can’t imagine what something could look like, I’m unlikely to go out and buy paint. It could also explain why, the one time I went off piste and did buy paint, it was so far from the right colour it wasn’t even wrong. My wife is still puzzled why someone who takes photographs could not see it was the wrong colour. Perhaps I now know why. It may also explain my fascination with colour in production design: I can’t really see what a scene could look like, so I think people who can are very clever. It could even explain why I feel I see things as an alien, but that’s probably stretching it. I do think it could explain why I was rubbish at art when I was at school, but much better at writing (and explains this blog).

If this is true, and it’s still an if, it’s not the end of the world. The condition seems to be no hindrance to creativity. In the case of Derek Parfit it was mooted as the reason for his interest in photography. It may even be compensated by better spacial cognition.

So if it is true, it explains a few things. If not, it’s harmless and gets me out of choosing paint. I may be using this as the drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination – but at least I got a drink out of it.

Out of curiosity, how do you get on with this test?

What are the rules?

With full credit to the song from “it’s always sunny in Philadelphia”.

So, what are the rules?

  1. Sharp is better
  2. Boring subjects are made better by good technique (but see rule 6)
  3. Better cameras make better pictures
  4. Wider lens apertures are better
  5. Expensive lenses are best
  6. Bad technique is better (Lomo)
  7. More pixels = more better
  8. You have to really understand 18% grey
  9. Bokeh makes the picture
  10. If you don’t understand, you’re stupid
  11. You need the same camera as them
  12. Old lenses are better
  13. This number is unlucky
  14. You can guess the exposure
  15. You will work for exposure (the other kind)
  16. The past is not relevant
  17. If you had a Leica and a Rolleiflex, you would be perfect
  18. All women naturally stand around in poses like they do in photographs
  19. Shooting film slows me down
  20. Real photographers shoot in manual
  21. Tripods are for HG Wells
  22. I could have taken a better picture than that
  23. I don’t need to ask anyone for permission
  24. You want me to explain that to you
  25. Mirrorless is the best
  26. Film has a special look
  27. Street photography needs a rangefinder
  28. You should start a podcast
  29. Instagram will bring you fame and money
  30. Thirds are the secret of composition
  31. You should learn more about cameras
  32. Taking pictures of graffiti is art
  33. Lenses should be tested
  34. A wedding, or any event, needs thousands of pictures
  35. It’s only serious if it’s in black and white
  36. Make sure the sun is behind you
  37. Everyone loves pictures of wildlife
  38. Almost as much as they love landscapes
  39. Always aim for the highest possible contrast in your picture
  40. “Well seen” is the highest praise possible for your pictures
  41. Everybody wants their picture taken
  42. There is an answer for everything
  43. For more diversity in photography, try a different lens
  44. It’s extra special if you shoot it on an iPhone
  45. Youtube needs you
  46. Expose for the shadows
  47. Petrol stations at night
  48. Taking pictures of poor or homeless people elevates them
  49. The Milky Way and a tent lit from inside
  50. There is only one way to leave your lover

Have I missed any?

37

And in deference to Poe’s Law, I need to make it clear that this post is ironic.

9

Oh, and so is Philadelphia. Just in case.

Come the (zombie) apocalypse…

This started with an interesting thought experiment in a podcast conversation I heard with Tim Urban. He asked ‘imagine a wicked witch removes everything we have made. How long would it take us to make a working mobile phone?’. Once we make one, we can have all our stuff back.

You might think ‘easy, assemble the chips and case’, but you have to make them. And the further back you go, the more you realise you need to take another step back. Then you realise you have to mine the raw materials, but first you have to make the tools to dig the mine. The same idea was explored in Lewis Dartnell’s book The Knowledge. He started with the question that, if you had to rebuild society from scratch, what do you do first and then next? 

To give this a little relevance, Dartnell included in his book a section on how to reboot photography. His author picture in the book was made using his simple startup method, so it works.

The point that Urban was making and Dartnell trying to resolve, is that we are massively interdependent and very specialised. The other point is that some knowledge is declining. For a long time cameras had clockwork shutters. They were made in huge quantities and spares and repair skills were common. Then we started using electronics. And then we dispersed the manufacturing and assembled cameras from modules. Very few manufacturers now still need shutters and Copal might be the last company making 35mm type focal plane ones.

Why do we care? Because film photography is dying. It’s had a bit of reanimation recently, but the long term prognosis is poor. The reason is that we can’t make film or analogue cameras any more and we are losing the ability to repair them.

Yes, I know that Kodak and Ilford are still going and that Lomography make cameras, but you can also still buy a cut-throat razor or a valve amplifier if you really want one. But they are niche products. Of the two, the valve amplifier is probably the better comparison – valves are difficult to make*. Mechanical cameras and photographic film are also hard to make. Electronics, at least now, are easier.

There is a massive initial investment, for sure. But then you are effectively making small computers and as we know, you can make a computer do a different job with a change of software. Indeed, you can reinstate the functions that Canon switch off in their compact cameras using a hack. They don’t build different processors for each model – they use a single processor and switch off the functions that the lesser models shouldn’t have.

If you want another example of the loss of skills, look at film. Polaroid stopped production and it has proved almost impossible to recreate what they did. I understand that it’s even nearly impossible to recreate the clever origami that some of their film packs used. Kodak might also soon be the only manufacturer of colour film.

So what are we left with? If we want to use analogue methods we will probably have to do the same backwards walk through history and technology as Tim Urban suggested, to get to something we can easily make and sustain.

I expect that electronic film cameras will break first. The most recent ones may be the first to go, as the components are smaller, harder to replace, and designed to remove excess cost. It’s a bit like the perfect racing car, which should cross the finish line in first place as every component simultaneously wears out. As the designers say – if it broke, it wasn’t strong enough; if it didn’t break it was too heavy.

Next will be the vast army of clockwork cameras. The higher value ones may continue longest as broken ones are raided for spares. Their perceived value or goodness may make it worth the effort. Strangely, one of the simplest mass-produced 35mm cameras may end up being the last that works. Take a look at the Argus C3 – it could be serviced and repaired by a soldier.

Next-to-last one standing?

If we lose 35mm film we are back to large format, which is simple enough to go on forever. A basic box that can be built or repaired by a carpenter and tailor. A basic lens that doesn’t even need a shutter. Sensitive material that can be made from paper, glass or metal. Some processes don’t even need silver. Perhaps we should start referring to large format photographers as preppers?

Of course digital cameras will continue for as long as people want them. They too need an infrastructure to make them work but they are riding the crest of the innovation wave. And if you fall behind that wave, you fall far. Does anyone still remember the floppy disks used for computer storage? Try reading one now. Or a backup tape, or Zip drive. How about the big laser disks that the BBC micro had and that a complete Domesday Book was stored on? At least I could scan the old negatives I inherited from my grandparents; I’m glad that I didn’t get a bag of obsolete memory cards.

So what’s the punchline? I can hope that a clever Chinese factory starts making knock-off copies of the Copal Square shutter and that film continues to be made. Or I could find a cheap large format camera and learn to make my own glass plates. But unless someone starts making analogue cameras again (and why should they**) then film photography is dying. So now is the time to plan your retreat back to a simpler time that can continue to function when our sources or support networks dry up.

* … and the Russians might be the only people still making them. So buy them at your moral peril.

** we may get lucky.

Stop motion

Just an aside into something I found useful and that you can make some cameras do: time-lapse.

The reason was a piece of work I was doing to fit-out a new office. There was some building work to be done to make some new partition walls, but a lot more work to rewire the place with mains and network cables. I wanted a record of the work in progress.

I have mentioned before the CHDK utility for Canon compact cameras. I had a dibble through the options and found there was a time-lapse feature that would work on my little compact. A search on the web got me a cheap mains adapter so that I could have the camera powered-up and working all day without worrying about batteries. So I set the camera up on a tripod and let it run.

The complete fit-out took two weeks, of which I captured the days when things were happening. The result was a few thousand .jpg files. Another search on the internet found a utility that would assemble the files into a video.

The results were great. I deliberately dropped the series of files when there was nobody in front of the camera, so the video was all action. As it played-back in faster time, it was amusing to see people whizzing up ladders and the partition wall sprouting. One of the jobs I’d done personally was to cable the network cabinet. In real time this meant consulting a plan, selecting a cable of the right colour and length, plugging the cable into the equipment in the bottom of the cabinet and again at the top. In the speeded-up version I am doing squat jumps.

The end result was a film that showed the story of the new office being built. There is a meme in the UK of speeded-up sketches from the Benny Hill show, so I added the same backing music (quietly) to the film.

When the new office opened we had the film playing on a loop on the screen in the canteen that would later show the news and weather. Things like building work, infrastructure and IT are usually taken for granted (when they work), so it was not a bad thing for the office staff to see their new office being created from an empty shell.

There are now much better technical options available, but this worked too.

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