Stories as memories

So what happened was a collision between Jonathan Haidt, Instagram and Blade Runner. It sounds like the sort of thing the kids used to ask – “Batman versus Spider Man: who wins?”.

I had read Righteous Minds and the ideas had been slowly percolating through what remains of my cognition. Then I was listening to some people talking about the burden of feeding the Instagram beast and how our trivial daily pictures had come to frame and define our lives. Which led to the importance placed on pictures in Blade Runner as hoped-for proof that a memory was real.

From Jonathan Haidt I had taken the ideas of how the stories we tell and share encode a culture or group or religion. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. And in his model of the elephant and rider (read it and see), the rider makes up stories to explain the elephant’s behavior. 

Then there is Instagram, which is standing-in for all social media in my argument, becoming the journal or diary of our lives. It feels almost as if experiences don’t exist unless they are shared. I was listening to someone talking about the ubiquity of mobile phones with cameras and how the blizzard of images has become the measure of people’s lives. It is the end point of the democratisation of photography – it is no longer a technical specialist confined to the priesthood but is available to all. So photography is then used for it’s primary purpose – to capture what will become memories.

You may remember the scene in Blade Runner where Rachael is talking to Deckard about her memories and whether she can play the piano or only remember that she can. Deckard’s piano has old photographs on it, hinting that he too is a Replicant. And the baddies are found from the photographs they took. Photographs are the physical manifestation of memories, especially when memory itself can’t be trusted.

Back in 2016 I had a motorcycle crash. It was serious, in the sense that it could have been life changing, but I was very lucky. My memories of the events were mixed. I had great clarity of some actions and the sequence, but some parts happened so fast that they were just a loud noise. (Incidentally, what saved me from greater harm was training – I took an action that had been drilled into me that was counter-intuitive but life saving. If you are going to ride a bike, get some training too.) There was a lot to process, not least what could have happened. I did this by writing about it. It laid the ghost. I’ve been honest about whose fault this was (entirely mine), why it happened and what I did right. The only pictures I have were taken after the event but they are now the placeholder for my memories.

A good reason for wearing a full-face helmet

So where am I going with this? Towards the idea that the great majority of photography serves people as memory. We can talk all we like about art but pictures are stories in shorthand. So perhaps we should should let everyone get on with saving and sharing their memories and not be critical. If we want to take photographs for art’s sake we can be free from the Instagram treadmill: why throw art at the family album? And then we are also free to save our memories without worrying about art or style or any form of pretention.

Easy cable tidy

A quick practical post.

Digital things come with cables. I have a LOT of cables. And it is the nature of cables to tangle. So it’s impossible to find the one that has the correct connectors on each end. I could probably hang them on a shadow board if I had the time and inclination, but I don’t. So the answer is rubber bands.

Pinch the band so that it becomes a doubled-over snake rather then an open loop. Tie a knot close to one end.

Coil your cable so that the ends are close together (to make it easy to select the right cable). Hold the knot of the rubber band against the coiled cable. Pull the free end of the rubber band around the looped cable, keeping the band stretched, until you have used up the slack. Loop the end of the band over the knot. The little loop above the knot also gives you something to hang it up with. Simples.

Enjoy.

Well, that was a(nother) year

2021 was a year to remember, but not fondly. My second year of working from home during Covid, for one reason. It was also the year I retired from full-time work. This was a long-term plan that came to fruition and involved moving house during the same pandemic. Who knew it would be on-trend as part of the Great Retirement?

The Photography Show at the NEC was an unexpected bonus and seemed to create a sense that we could do it again next year, but better. As Granny Weatherwax said, “I Ate’nt Dead”, and that’s the main thing.

Scuba diving virtually stopped due to Covid and when we did get the chance to go out, bad weather kept the boat in harbour. It’s not that we can’t go diving in the rain, but strong waves can make it impossible to get back on the boat.

We had to move my mum into care, which has been a difficult decision and complex logistics, as she lives more than 200 miles away. Her physical health has improved as a result, which confirms it was the right decision.

Speaking of logistics, moving house has been … interesting. The new house is smaller and has fewer (almost no) cupboards. I thought I’d cleared out a load of photo gear but it seems to have been breeding in the cardboard boxes. The first issue is retention – I need another serious cull. The next is storage – where to put the things I want to keep so that I can find them and they don’t suffer from damp. Not that the house is damp, but the temporary storage of boxes can be. It does make you look at eBay differently. Rather than “ooh, that’s cheap and I’ve always wanted one”, I’m thinking “where would I keep that?”. Shame I didn’t do more of that in the past.

My hopes back in June that it would be all over once we were vaccinated didn’t pan out, as England heads back into another lockdown. We got lucky this time, as coronavirus has been fairly well studied. With the mess we made of handling Covid, be glad it wasn’t Ebola.

On the plus side our kids are fine and so are most family and friends. These things matter more than diving or photography.

As for 2022, I’m not really sure what to expect. I’ll be working fewer hours over fewer days, so I hope to spend much more time doing things I enjoy. I have a big shed with the new house that I plan to convert to a workshop/ brewery/ photography den. Not that I feel I need to build it before I can do those things, but it will make all of them easier.

So yes, let’s see what the new year brings.

Best wishes to you all.

Happy Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve eve, so stop reading this and go and be good to someone.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading my random thoughts. I hope this last year has not been too awful and that you get to spend some time with people who matter to you. Let’s hope we can all be sensible and kind, wear masks, get jabbed and help the rest of the world get vaccinated too. We’re none of us safe until we are all safe, which is supposed to be part of that Christmas spirit.

Cheers everyone.

Who cares what shot it?

Stop telling me it was shot on a phone – I don’t care and I shouldn’t care. Or mirrorless – I don’t care about that either.

I understand that camera phones used to be rubbish, but they are not any more. My own phone is state of the ark, but it’s much better than my first digital camera. But I can see no reason why I would tell anyone that I used a phone or even a shoebox with a hole in it, unless that was part of the story I was telling.

There was a great comment on the Shutters Inc podcast when one of the hosts was told that someone really liked a picture he had taken. But instead of the usual comment, what he was told was “your camera must have a good photographer”. Now that’s a good comment, and the kind of thing you’d want to hear.

Perhaps part of the reason is that phones have democratised photography so much that they are not considered serious. So someone who uses a phone as if it was a dedicated or ‘proper’ camera feels they have to explain. Or perhaps we are amazed by the capabilities of a phone camera, so want to tell people about it (but always remember – you bought it, you didn’t design it).

It feels like an artist saying that they made their picture using felt-tips or a paint roller. But the art world is bigger and has more history than the photography one, so I think that form of explanation would be left to the commentators and the artist would have no need to explain (unless again, it was part of the story). Would a picture be less of a picture if it wasn’t painted in oils? Will Gompertz wrote a fascinating book about modern art, explaining how each movement broke away from the previous and what the artists were trying to do. He didn’t spend any time apologising for their choice of materials but did explain why Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was revolutionary, “even if” it used a common and commercially-available subject.

So yes, the first time some shot a cinema film on a phone it was a breakaway moment. But then it was a thing that was possible. You don’t need to tell me that you did, as it’s not new: it’s just a known method.

In the same sense, the new Dune film appears to have been shot using digital cameras, then transferred to film, then back to a digital file for distribution. I’m sure it wasn’t mentioned in the credits or advertising. It was a method that the director used to get the look they wanted. I’m sure they would have dipped it in tea or dubbed it in Spanish if that’s what was needed to get their result.

I have seen some websites that list the camera, lens, aperture, shutter speed and processing method used, for a picture that is displayed as a small jpeg and may be viewed on any random device. I’m not sure I could see from the results that they have an expanded tonal range for example, or even if that’s a good thing. Some gross differences may be visible between different methods, but it would be hard to tell. Most of the pictures used in this blog are resized, so you have no real way to gauge the quality of the original. I went to see the retrospective exhibition of Bailey’s work a few years back and there was a portrait of a young Michael Cain in the world’s sharpest suit, printed to be two stories high. It never occured to me that he must have a good camera (or a very big enlarger), just that it looked fantastic. If he had happened to shoot it on a Holga, it would not have changed anything.

And all of the above might sound quite hypocritical when you see that I have also blogged about different lenses and cameras. My defence, if needed, is that the lense or camera was the subject of that blog entry, not the pictures they make. I do like using certain equipment because of the results it makes possible. But that should be the end of it – nobody needs to know the details of what I used, because even if they did they would not be able to recreate the picture. And if they did, that starts edging into plagiarism. Steal the concept, that’s fine, but not the execution.

So go ahead, shoot with your phone or your GoPro or your drone; just don’t make the equipment part of the image.

Things are looking up

In terms of ease of use and quality of results, photography is so much better than it used to be. What brought this (less than genius) thought on was finding a copy of Lichfield on Photography in a charity shop. Whatever you may think of his work, he was successful for quite a few years. The book dates from 1981 and is printed on fairly good coated paper. So the pictures ought to be good. But they’re not.

It’s probably not his fault. Possibly a lot of the mono pictures were converted from colour slides. Perhaps the printing was poor, resulting in the lack of any shadow detail. Or perhaps this was the best we could do in 1981.

I shouldn’t be sarcastic – I have said before that grain and sharpness are not the most important aspects of a picture. But that’s not the point here – what I noticed is just how much better are the results we see now compared to then.

Then was shooting Polaroids to check the lighting. High ISO meant heavy and intrusive grain. Commissioned work meant shooting colour slide film, with no opportunities for post-processing or even cropping. Your shutter might top-out at 1/1000 and your lenses at f2, or smaller if you used a zoom. To get the best results you would be shooting at ISO 25 or 64. Chimping would mean sending a test film for processing or clip tests.

I can hardly criticise – this is grainy and it wasn’t even dark

Now is autofocus and face detection, low-noise ISO in the tens of thousands, large aperture lenses and magic zooms. Plus the ability to tell immediately if the picture worked.

You could say that it needs less skill to make a picture, but it also means that it is easier to get a good picture. See Lichfield – you have to agree that he had the skill, but you can see the limitations of his equipment and the process of printing. Even something as prestigious as National Geographic shows how the underlying technology has improved.

I have certainly taken advantage of this in my diving. I started with a 3mp camera and rapidly found I needed better. I moved to an 8mp camera that has better features and image stabilisation. This wasn’t a deliberate choice mind, it was what was available on eBay. Eight megapixels was pretty good but then I bumped into the jaggies again. So the next step is up to 10mp with a camera that can save raw files. And the technology also brings me image stabilisation, automatic flash control and a macro mode. Compare this with the analogue cameras I have wrestled with underwater and I can’t see myself ever going back. Yes, the technology has made it easier and you could say it has removed the need for technical skill (Lichfield was also saying this in 1981 about cameras with auto-exposure). But it has also allowed me to concentrate on taking pictures rather than juggling the camera settings.

This is at the limits of what my 8mp camera can do and won’t take much enlargement

So I think a few things have happened: better kit has lowered the trade-craft barrier to entry; better kit has raised picture quality generally; good photography is no longer the preserve of photographers. Where is it going? I don’t know. But post-processing software can correct mistakes, smooth skin, replace skies and add mood. Cameras can focus on faces or even eyes and take a blizzard of shots to capture the perfect timing. But there is still a difference between good and bad pictures, if a good picture was your intent.

But basically, bring it on! I will take all the cleverness the camera people can give me (or I can afford) because it generally gives me better results. Or fewer chances to be rubbish. And it gives me the space to go back in time in an area of my choosing to gain an effect – things like using old lenses or shooting in mono rather than colour. Same with cars – my current car is far more advanced than my first one. Do I miss the ability to start the engine with a handle? No. Do I like heating? Yes, and I can turn it off if I want to get nostalgic. So if the purpose of photography is to make pictures rather than drive cameras, then things are much better now than they were then.

Colour in your camera

I’ve got an old photography book called Colour in your Camera by Gösta Skoglund.  The subtitle is ‘a book of colour photographs to show how to make colour photographs’. No punning or obscure titles here – this book is clear in its intentions.

What brought it to mind is that I’ve been thinking about colour recently. This, despite the majority of my pictures being black and white. Film-makers have made increasing use of the facility with digital capture of changing the overall colour balance of a film, or of using specific coloured lighting to set the mood of scenes. People joke about the Mexico filter, where the scene is rendered with strong yellow/ orange cast to make it look dusty and desert-like.

The reason why I even have to think about colour is that I’m late to the party (as usual). I started out using mostly black and white film and still shoot a lot of mono. I’ve even set one of my digital cameras to save and show a mono jpeg but keep the full colour version as a raw file. I like thinking about tone and shape. And then colour came along. Originally I shot colour slide film, as it was “pure”. Even then, the quick-result colour processsors could give you strange colour casts in your prints. I had some idea in my head that slide film retained the artist’s true vision (cue laughter and me slapping myself on the head). I think I had just read too many photography magazines.

What I missed with my gradual movement to using digital was that I was no longer at the mercy of the developer and printer – I could change the colours myself. I also got a total slap upside the head (I get lots of these) from my wife when we were looking at paint for the house. The big display of colour cards at the local DIY store was not a finely-graded copy of a rainbow but had some method behind it. Going side to side at a fixed horizontal level showed you colours with the same tonal value. This meant that, under the same lighting, different rooms would not be brighter or darker unless you meant them to be. Going verticaly up the colour swatches kept the same colour but varied the tonal value, so I could keep the particular shocking pink or acid green I had set my heart on and vary the brightness to suit the room or lighting.

Who knew? Well not me, obviously. I’m not sure I am colour-blind but I do appear to be colour-stupid. Or is it tone-deaf? What I have found to play and learn with is a colour wheel that will show me complimentary or contrasting colours.

There have been a couple of articles on t’interweb recently that got me thinking more about what colour means. One was a run-through of how colours are used to express mood. I also dived down the rabbit hole following a detailed analysis of the colours used in the film Ad Astra. The analysis was right – there is a very strong use of colour and colour cues in the film (it’s a shame it wasn’t also a good film, but it does mean you can focus on the colours).

I wonder if still photography can be as subtle as cinema though? In a film the viewer is hopefully concentrating on the story and action, and the colours are perhaps subtle clues that inform the viewer but may not even be noticed? A still image rests before the viewer with no distraction, so perhaps it gets more scrutiny? It has got me thinking, anyway. I wonder if I could experiment with strong ‘unnatural’ colours. I’ve also done some split toning of mono images before, so I will be using the colour wheel to look at the effect of making the highlight and shadow colours truly complimentary or analogous.

Complimentary colours
Analogous colours

I am also playing with spot colour or overall tone for mood.

So while I might be the last person to discover this, I’m going to spend more time both noticing the colours that exist and choosing the colours I use. Amusingly, I will be doing this as we head into our British winter, where the predominant colour is grey. So are there any other good resources I could study while I wait for the sun to return?

Winning

I’m a bit conflicted. I watched a presentation by a photographer whose intention was to win photography competitions. I’ve nothing against that – I’ve said before that I joined a club to have some social contact, and that they also run competitions. What felt strange though was this person’s extreme focus on taking the winning shot.

I should add – I have nothing against this person or their work. This is about how it made me feel and think.

It was almost as if the actual subject didn’t matter. The aim was to get pictures of say, people engaged in sports, with dynamic postures, frozen motion and clear facial expressions. This usually meant shooting in burst mode – 10 to 11 frames a second and racking up thousands of images from each event. I would struggle to select the best from that quantity and I would certainly struggle to store and catalogue them all.

Now, I can see why a professional photographer would do this. Their job depends on getting the perfect shot, so why not use the facilities available to shorten the odds? But I’m an amateur. I enjoy the process of photography as well as the result. I’ve taken pictures of sports and enjoy it greatly, but I can’t see myself shooting thousands of pictures of a single event. It may be rooted in my use of film when I first started. I might have had the capacity for a hundred shots if I brought extra film. Each shot I took was a single, with a pause to wind-on after each one and a longer pause to reload fresh film.

I remember the first sporting event I went to. My best mate’s sister was riding a horse in a point-to-point, which is basically cross-country and jumping fences. I had one camera, a 50mm lens and a 2x teleconverter. If you are prepared to be sensible with your own safety and that of the horse and rider it’s possible to stand at the end of a fence and get pictures of them jumping.

Of course, we got bored between races…

Later on I used to go to motorcycle trials, with the classic or pre-1965 bikes being a favourite. Here again you can get close to the action where the riders traverse the judged sections. And here again you need your good sense and the agreement of the people involved to not get in the way or fire a flash in the rider’s eyes.

So what am I saying? I found it odd that a photographer would take professional measures to shoot sports, when they didn’t want the professional outcome.

The photographer chose which sporting events to cover based on how likely the pictures were to win in competitions. So the ideal is a sport that not many other people cover, to which you can get good access and where the athletes make good shapes and expressions. But the result is literally thousands of images, with the chosen few then given a heavy workover in PhotoShop. I’m not sure that sounds like fun.

On the other hand I probably don’t take sport photography seriously enough. I went to a more recent motorcycle trial (by the way, this is trials riding – off road balancing over obstacles – and nothing to do with testing motorcycles) before the covid lockdown. I was shooting digital and took around 120 pictures, of which the editing got down to 70 I like. That fits better with my general avoidance of hard work.

Nice bit of Dutch Angle too

But, despite my grumbling, we are still at least this much of a free country. I couldn’t work that hard at taking pictures just to win competitions, but some can. I’m not that competitive, but some are. It’s a good job we’re not all the same.

What do you think? Are competitions important? How hard are you willing to work for your pleasure?

Herd impunity

What’s the camera all the cool kids are chasing right now? Is it a T-for-two something or an Olympus meow? Even the quotidian Pentax K1000 can go for the price of a Leica lens cap.

If you listen the photography podcasts there is a regular concern that when someone gives a good review of an old camera, the bidding on eBay gets frantic as everyone rushes to get theirs.

One of these had recent online interest and the prices rose. The other is a camera.

Second hand (as if new was an option) film cameras are becoming expensive. One reason, like film, is that we are comparing the recent trough to the current wave. Film camera sales peaked around 1998 and then slumped rapidly as digital improved. There was a time when you could barely give old film kit away. Now of course, it’s groovy again. Since its also no longer made, the money chases the goods and prices rise.

So if you want something that will still take film, what are you going to do? Not chase fashion is my advice.

James Tocchio wrote a useful article on Casual Photofile about reducing the costs of photography. In it was one piece of unusual advice: buy a late model camera. The automatic cameras of the late 90s were plastic, oddly shaped and felt nasty. But they are unpopular and cheap. And providing the electronics work, so will the meter and the shutter. That’s about all you need. Yes, it may well have programmed exposure and offend your artistic sensibilities and freedom to guess the settings, but it will mount good lenses and you can always fake bad exposure later in post-processing.

If I look on the bottom shelf here I find I’ve got several of these plastic fantastics that I acquired because they came with a lens I wanted (and were usually cheaper than the lens on its own or in some cases than a lens base cap). Pentax MG anyone? Or a Pentax F3? There are loads of cameras that used the Pentax K mount or M42 screw (with the added joy that a K mount camera can do both). Prakticas are better in all respects than Zenits but can use the same lenses. The later electric-coupled Prakticas or the ones that used their own bayonet mount are not at all popular, so will be cheap (with the added benefit of being good).

Combined cost was less than a popular point-and-shoot

Both Canon and Nikon got into the consumer camera trend, but I believe you need to be a bit more careful over which lenses fit. Even Pentax went through a range of lens types. All of them will fit mechanically, but some have options that will only work with later cameras. There is an explanation here.

So if I can convince you, have a wander down the path less trodden and spend the difference on going to nice places and doing interesting things. Or go to interesting places and don’t worry about breakage.

Except … I can guess what happens next: everyone starts chasing the cheap cameras and the prices rise. Second thoughts – you still REALLY want a Leica.

Cost of analogue

This started from a general feeling that was then further triggered by an opinion piece by Grant Scott. His argument is that the costs of analogue are too high, if the important thing is the outcome (the picture).

His premise is that digital photography, with its marginal cost of effectively zero, is the better method for getting results. This is certainly true for speed and convenience. It’s also true in teaching. Digital photography allows for experimentation and provides immediate feedback. Want to know what effect the aperture has? Take five or six shots and compare. Notice how moving things get blurred as the aperture closes down? That’s the relationship between shutter speed and aperture to maintain a consistent exposure. Now you try…

I’m not so sure how the costs of setting up compare. Even now (and I’ll come onto this) a basic film camera looks cheaper than a basic digital one, if you also want some manual control of the camera. The running costs are different though, which was the basis of Grant’s argument. But it’s a complicated argument and Grant has said that he got a lot of critical comment about his opinion piece. The cost per shot of digital is effectively zero. But the digital camera probably cost more than a second-hand film camera. But then the costs of developing, scanning, a computer and so on add to the real cost of using a film camera. All I can say for certain is that the cost per finished picture is higher for analogue, once the set-up costs are discounted (and those may work out around the same for digital and analogue). So Grant’s argument is that using film is a choice based on wanting to use it because you like it, or because it gives you the results that you want and can’t get by other means.

Film feels like it is becoming more expensive though, and it feels this is true even with inflation. Just about the cheapest options right now are Kentmere or Fomapan for black and white. Seeing some colour films selling at £15-18 a roll just means I will be reading about them rather than using them. But there is more to this than how it feels. Ludwig Hagelstein did an analysis of film prices in real terms in Silvergrain Classics. The headline of his analysis is that film isn’t that much more expensive than it used to be, allowing for inflation. However, there was a period when it was perhaps artificially cheap, so it looks expensive when you compare trough to peak. If I look back to when I was doing photographic printing, the price of 100 sheets of Mutltigrade adjusted for inflation would now be £69. The same paper now retails for £63. I’d call that the same relative price, so well done Ilford.

For anyone wanting to track the modern value of historic prices there is also a US equivalent here. You may also be interested to see how Mr Darcy on £10,000 a year could afford to light his cigars with Portra.

The hazards of cheap film

You’ve also to think that film is difficult to make. Back when Kodak were king they had enormous throughput and hence economies of scale. If you listen to Robert Shanebrook he talks of a machine applying perhaps ten or twenty separate layers to the film base, with thicknesses of a few microns. In the dark, too. This is very difficult to get right – I used to work in a paper mill and it’s hard enough getting a single layer of paper right. He says that in its heyday, film accounted for 110% of Kodak’s profit, meaning that it supported the other areas such as paper and chemicals. Lose that volume of throughput and you lose the economies of scale. So the price has to go up. There is also the consequences of stopping doing something and losing the ability to restart. Kodak did it when they closed the lines and their people retired. Fuji is doing it now. Polaroid are learning how hard it is to come back when the knowledge and machinery have gone. Nikon had a go at remaking a mechanical camera, to sell a limited number of them for a fortune and probably at a loss. There are also fewer people who can fix cameras and fewer parts to fix them with. And as a resource becomes scarce, the price probably goes up. (Unless you are a government, and believe you can increase the number of skilled people by shouting). It’s also very difficult to make something new when the components are no longer made. Reflex struggled to make or buy a working shutter for their camera, for example.

Or buy a pukey-bear-cam – digital AND it prints pictures

So the summary is that film, while interesting, is a niche product. The cameras that can shoot it are no longer made and will decline in number (unless someone like Copal steps in and makes shutters again). Film is hard to make and will probably remain as a low-volume product for as long as the cameras keep working. The true cost of film is roughly where it used to be historically: it’s just that the prices look higher due to inflation. Prices for some thngs will rise due to scarcity and competition for them, but that’s how markets work. So I believe the message is that we should enjoy it for what it is or the special results we want, grit our teeth about what feels like a lot of money, and have fun while it lasts.

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