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.

ICM

Intentional camera movement and nothing to do with missiles. I didn’t even know it had a name until I heard someone talking about it. It used to be something that happened by accident, or you were Ernst Haas.

The trigger was looking at some pictures by Keith Snell. He’s been using a lot of intentional blurring and I liked the results. It’s also where I first heard it had a name. I’d done a few blurries in the past (easier to say than ICM) but not made much of it.

I’d also had a go at the Ernst Haas thing, directly influenced by his picture of a matador.

Everyone has done the fairground rides at night, with the motion of the rides streaking into wheels and arcs. Try taking your camera on the ride instead.

This could have done with a lick of flash to show my mate’s face a bit better

I’ve also got a Spinner camera, that pulls the film past a slot behind the lens as the camera rotates. But if you hold the camera still and let the mechanism spin, you get a long streak of blur.

While movement is easy with a digital camera, double exposure isn’t. Except it turns out it can be. My dSLR has a feature that I believe many have, of combining multiple exposures in-camera. I thought it was a feature that could reduce noise in dark scenes or at high ISO. But I now know it can be used just like double or multiple exposure on film. On my camera you have to set it up first by telling it how many exposures to combine and whether the exposures are additive or should be averaged together. But these are just settings to be experimented with.

This was taken with multiple exposures to build up enough light when using a simple camera.

I am liking some of the results though. Just to point out that these were made with a camera phone app rather than using the dSLR, as it’s more convenient.

Nice pastel shades and a bit Impressionist.

I quite like the effect of building a predominant colour and leaving the detail low. I’ve done some black and white prints previously that were toned to match the wall they were on. I might write about that too – photography as interior design – who’d a thunk it?

Anyway, what I need to be clear about is that I have no intention of copying another photographers’ work. What I want to do is learn their technique so that I can use it for my own pictures. It’s another tool in the box. If I may quote the inestimable Neil Gaiman “we all swipe when we start. We trace, we copy, we emulate. But the most important thing is to get to the place where you’re telling your own stories, painting your own pictures, doing the stuff that no-one else could have done but you”.

Still trying.

Book covers

Look at the books around you. Most of them have a picture on the cover. I’d never really thought about, but there is a whole industry that provides cover pictures.

Basically it’s the photo stock pictures business, but focused on a specific use case.

I’d also had some fanciful idea that it was the photographer’s job to interpret the book. My, how the publishers would laugh. Usually, the photographer provides pictures to an agency, which holds a large library of images. The people designing the book pick an image to fit the subject of the book or, more likely, its genre. This is probably why ‘dead or threatened woman’ thrillers have so often got a woman in a red coat walking with her back to you. And why ‘tough loner’ thrillers have a man walking away down the road. The picture tells you what the book is likely to contain even if you don’t know the author.

What got me thinking was my wife, a great fan of detective crime thrillers. She mentioned that there can be a mismatch between the quality of the cover and that of the text. Most often it seems to fail so that good books get bad covers. By that, I mean a cover that looks cheap, or lacking good design. Quite often the cover picture is trite: a formulaic copy of what other people are doing (red coat, back turned) or a literal version of the story (a pen leaking blood was a recent one). Sometimes, despite the cover, a book is good. It doesn’t seem to work as much the other way round – I guess a book published with no budget and less hope doesn’t get much other than a stock image on the front.

This is not the photographer’s fault. The snapper posts probably hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pictures to the agency. The pen leaking blood could have been used anywhere. It was a designer who thought ‘this book is about someone who writes murder stories and may have committed the crimes too, so what we need is a killing pen’. Or perhaps the designer is working on yet another Scandinavian endangered woman thriller by an unknown author and wants to signal the genre to potential readers. Cue the red coat. I make it sound easy, but it’s marketing and it usually works.

There will be a bespoke market too, where a particular photographer is commissioned to produce a specific picture. As in all such things, this will work to a power law: a few people get all the work and all the money and there is a long tail of the remainder. So I expect there are only a few known book-cover photographers.

I suppose the pictures that get on the covers are strong support for the Filmosaur proposal (point 3 of the manifesto) that a picture has no meaning but what the viewer thinks it means. A picture of a man running across a city bridge could mean anything from a thriller to a guide to time management. Or, using the picture of the slide above, anything from lost child to lost childhood.

Anyway, there is a whole industry out there creating pictures for book covers. What might be fun would be to shoot a picture for a book you like, just to play with capturing the story in a single image or even to pun on the contents. I admit to doing the opposite in my past, which was to hide all of the cover art and text beneath dust jackets made from old wallpaper or brown paper. It meant I could read anything I liked at school or commuting.

Anyway, I’m just waffling about something that caught my interest. If you want to know more about it or if the idea of shooting covers for a stock agency interests you, you could start somewhere like here.

Curating

Ever put a ‘zine or book together or assembled a set of pictures to exhibit?How do you decide what is in, what is out and what order the pictures should be in?

What got me thinking was an article by Grant Scott were he says that photographers need help with both curating and layout. Layout I definitely agree with – I’m the IT guy so I think green text on a black screen background is an undervalued part of our legacy. And a screen should be 80 characters wide and 25 deep. Curating though – deciding what is in or out and what order to put it in – I find it fascinating. The other trigger for this was my trawling of old photos and realising that I was keeping a lot of stuff that I really didn’t need and would never use.

But, back to the start. Imagine you had to present your life’s (photographic) work. Do you put it in chronological order, the major themes that have influenced you, the different styles you have used or by subject matter? Do all the portraits go on one wall, landscapes on another and selfies in the bin? Chronology seems good if you want to show the span of a career or life and how the photographer developed. Organising by assignment or theme seems good if the photographer has investigated several distinct subjects. There is also the power of repetition. Think of something like Anil Mistry’s book of abandoned mattresses.

I can give you a worked example from a small print exhibition I put on with a pal. The venue was a local wine bar. Upstairs room, maybe 10m square, old exposed brickwork. So the first decision was a common print size and a standard frame. We wanted a viewing distance of one to two meters so the prints worked best at A4. Random use of vertical and horizontal pictures because a fixed pattern would draw attention to itself and away from the pictures. Then we spread the pictures by subject type – there wasn’t going to be a set of landscapes together, then portraits for example. That may work if we were famous and prolific but in this case it might influence people to only look at part of the display – cute pictures of dogs, for example. Then colour range: do we ignore the main tone of the pictures or group the predominant colours and have a progression? Perhaps we should go from warm to cool to mono as you look around the room from the entrance? Or do we put the vibrant colour pictures in the darkest part of the room and the mono ones in the bright area? And are all the pictures to be hung at the same level, or do we follow what the old brickwork lets us do?

To relieve your tension, this is what we did: random vertical and horizontal, hung roughly aligned but as allowed by the brickwork, random placement of colour and subject. It was meant to look uncontrived. As Piet Hein said

“There is one art,
no more, no less:
to do all things with art-
lessness”.

But if I was ever famous, I would want someone much cleverer than me to both select the images and the way to display them. A few snaps in a wine bar is one thing, but an actual exhibition is a much bigger undertaking. Not that I’m ever likely to be famous. It’s a bit like asking if you would buy a Porsche or a Ferrari if you won the lottery.

There is also the sort of curating you would do to put pictures in a book or magazine. I think I have only made one picture book, and it was a set of old family photos put together for my mum. I did think about the placement though: should people look into the centre of the book or out? What should appear on facing pages? Is there a progression between relatives or places? Who gets the two centre pages? I probably thought more about it than my mum or anyone else who looked at the finished article, but that’s probably correct. See Mr Hein, above. The background to this, and the reason for thinking about the layout, is that I have self-published a how-to book. That meant paying a lot of attention to the way a book is structured and the features that make it easier to use.

Anyway, the other reason to curate is not to put together a show, but to organise your own library of pictures. It’s probably best to start with this version of curating so that you know what you’ve got and where it is. There is a lot of advice on t’interweb about how to curate your photos, but I’ve seen one fairly condensed set of rules here at Heartwork (other websites also apply). Their advice boils down to eliminating:

  • Duplicates
  • Mistakes, errors and bad shots
  • Landscapes (oh yes!)
  • Multiples within a series

Multiples within a series I might use for something else. I’ve used a bit of software in the past to combine a series of time-lapse pictures into a video. If I’d shot enough pictures in a series I might try that just to see what the result looked like. Or perhaps animate the shots that lead up to the best one and freeze on that as the final frame. But that’s nothing to do with curation, just me thinking out loud.

Mistakes and bad shots can be thrown away, but only after you have sucked all the learning out of them.

Empty landscapes (any landscapes, in my opinion) are boring. If it’s just a record of what was in front of you, then so what? Put people in a landscape and things get more interesting. Or take pictures of people.

Actually, there is one thing you can use the ‘technically OK but not worth keeping’ pictures for: make a mosaic. There are some apps available that you can give a target picture and a bunch of other pictures as a feed; they remake the target using tiled copies of the feed, selected by colour or tone as if they were large pixels. It’s quite good fun and I could see myself using it to create a mosaic using all the ‘spare’ pictures from an event. It’s not curating, but it is a way to make use of the pictures you would otherwise sacrifice to housekeeping. (I use AndreaMosaic for this, which is one of the Portable Apps suite)

So perhaps I’ve argued myself round in a circle. Selecting a set of pictures is interesting and another way of story-telling. Separating the good from the druff in your own pictures is instructive, saves space and can lead to other things.

Go curate!

Going to extremes

While I have wittered about cameras being Turing machines that can do anything photographically, there are edge cases that are difficult to adapt to. At these times we turn to the weird and wonderful. I admit to owning a few of these and being curious about the rest.

Very wide angles and panoramas are something I do have. I’ve posted before about the Horizon swing-lens camera, but I’ve also got a Lomo Spinner. Where the Horizon scans the lens across a length of film, the Spinner pulls the film past a slot behind the lens. Much the same effect, except the Spinner can do more than a full circle of view. It’s tricky to not include yourself in the picture and equally hard to keep it (nearly) level. But when you want a 360 view without stitching, the Spinner is your friend.

This is also a fine example of Swiss health and safety: a sign on the approach that says ‘be careful’.

For less extreme frame widths I’ve used wide angle lenses. I’ve got one of those negative diopter adapters that fits on the front and gives a wider view. On a 28mm lens you get the full circular fisheye effect with loads of internal reflections and fuzzy edges. Cheaper than a real fisheye for occasional use though.

The extreme of this might be something like the Nikon 8mm lens, that looked like a goldfish bowl. I’ve got a Pentax 15mm lens that I love dearly and had a 30mm fisheye for my Kiev which has roughly the same angle of view, although with much more curvature.

Not bad weather for Yorkshire – you can nearly see the horizon

At the cheap end of the scale I also have a Lomo Fisheye. Given its limitations it works pretty well. The circular image is a bit cropped, but it has a very strong fisheye effect.

At the opposite end are the long, long lenses. I suppose bird-watchers use these, and I use them for sports. Does anyone remember that creepy gadget that used to be on sale, that put a sideways-looking mirror in a fake lens hood for taking covert pictures of people? Jessops used to sell it as a candid angle lens attachment Eew. Although there must have been a market – my great aunt Maud insisted on borrowing my camera with a long zoom when (years ago) we went past the nudist beach at Brighton. Which is interesting, as I would not have done the same for a great uncle. (OK class, discuss).

I’m lucky that I have some longish medium format lenses with an adaptor that lets me strap them to an APS-C digital camera. The focal length multiplier, and the fact that the sensor is using the sharper centre of the image, means a very long lens at a fairly short price.  One of them is a Jupiter 36b 250mm though, which is so heavy it must be a solid cylinder of glass. On the plus side it has so much inertia there is no chance of it bouncing with your pulse.

But as the man said, ”call that a lens?”. At the long end there seems to be no limit. How about a 1700mm f4 made to cover medium format, allegedly made for a member of the Qatar royalty? It weighs 256kg, so your camera bag had better have wheels. Zeiss made that one, and then Canon stepped in with a 1200mm f5.6. Supposedly one of the most expensive lenses ever made (except for the Zeiss, which was never on general sale). There were only a few made and got used for special events where the Press needed to get really close. That lens is a few years old now, but Canon will still sell you an 800mm f5.6. Granted it’s nearly £14,000, but if you need one, you need one. Stick a 1.4x teleconverter on it and bump the ISO up on your modern camera and you have the same reach.

The problem of course is using something with such a narrow angle of view. You almost need a spotting lens to help you point the main lens in the right direction. Then it’s a huge tripod, high ISO and pray nobody bumps you.

So a long zoom might be easier, as you can find your subject at the wide end and then zoom in. It also gives you some adjustment if the subject is moving towards or away from you. I’ve shot at a cricket match with a 300mm, which was barely adequate from the boundary, but worked fairly well as the action was side to side. Somewhere like the public area by the hairpin at Silverstone is harder, as the vehicles come towards you, turn and go away. You need either a long zoom or to pick one spot. A narrow angle of view means that you need Jedi reflexes to trip the shutter, or you follow the vehicle and press the shutter at your pre-focussed spot. When I was there I saw a third solution. This guy had a very long fixed lens. He set the camera up on a tripod pointing up the track and obviously made a note of what was in his frame. He sat next to the tripod with a remote release. As the (bikes in this case) entered his area he tripped the shutter. Much less stressful than me trying to follow-focus with a manual lens on a monopod. I would love to have had something like the Sigma 200-500mm f2.8.  It comes with a teleconverter so at the top end you have a 1000mm f5.6. It weighs about 16kg though, so you’ll not be hand-holding it.

I suppose the other extreme is aperture. With computing power getting cheaper and manufacturing getting more clever, we can now make lenses as standard that used to be unique and hand-made. Zeiss made a very wide aperture 50mm lens for NASA. They made only ten copies. Yet now you can buy a mass-produced 50mm f0.95 lens. Instead of special order, you can even get it on Amazon. There seems to be a wide-aperture lens announced every week, and the prices are reasonable for something so clever. Like I said, I expect it’s a combination of computing power to design them and very clever automated manufacturing to make them. With that goes the ability to make aspherical lens elements more easily and cheaply, making the lens design easier and the lens performance better. I just hope it all goes to better use than the hunt for bokeh though.

I’ve got a close cousin to the wide standard lenses, in a 55mm f1.2. The wide aperture does make it easier to see the point of focus but the lens is quite heavy. Unless I really needed it, I am more inclined to take a short zoom when I go out, as it’s more practical for general shooting. But, and this was the whole point of the article, it’s a tool in the box. It sits with the very wide angle stuff and the very long lenses as solutions for specific problems. Anyway, that’s how I used to rationalise owning too many lenses. And I can’t even play guitar.

One to one or one to many?

One camera with several lenses? A particular lens used on several cameras? Or one lens per camera? If I think about the cameras I have that can swap lenses, I have more lenses than cameras. On the other hand, I still have a lot of cameras.

There is a definite argument for one lens per camera when you are shooting action or the conditions are bad. For some sports or action you don’t have the time to be swapping lenses, plus there is the risk of damage or dirt to the lens you are not using. And in wet or dusty conditions I don’t want to be swapping lenses anyway. I remember taking pictures on a very windswept beach where the air was basically opaque from ground to knee level. Not a place to put your camera bag down.

There is a risk that you end up looking like the Dennis Hopper/ Tim Page character from Apocalypse Now, dangling with cameras like a sale at Jessops. But if I was doing something where it was necessary, I’d probably do the same. Probably not as many drugs though.

But at the end of it all, a camera is just the thing that drives the lens. Except I suppose when the camera has a special quality of its own, like a certain type or size of film or sensor, and doing something clever like panoramic framing.

It’s an idea I started playing with previously, when I started wondering about the functional value of all my kit. So I really ought to think about the lenses too. Do I really need two 135mm lenses for example, or a boxfull of fifties? Maybe yes to the fifties, as they each have a distinctive character. Most of my lenses work on most of my cameras, so perhaps I need to make another grid to work out what I really need and what could be swapped for something more useful?

So, the meaning of the grid: N means the lens is native to that camera. A tick means it also fits this camera. The number in brackets is how many of that lens I own. (I know, I’m ashamed myself). I have given the lens’s actual focal length and ignored the angle of view.

You will see from the grid that I acquired lenses like they were cheap and about to go up in price. Guess what… I didn’t know about increasing in price but I do like a bargain. In general I bought the fixed focal length lenses because I wanted what they could do, the long lenses to cover sports and the zooms because they turned up at the right price. Maybe that’s not fair – there are three zooms that really matter. The 16-45 is brilliant on the APS-C digital camera. The 24-50 is equally great on the full frame camera. And one of the 70-210 is a Vivitar Series 1. This is the lens that a pal of mine at university used to fell a problematic person who was blocking his view. Any lens that can be set to stun and then keep rolling is a bit of a legend to me. I’ll admit – I also have lenses that turned up as a body cap on a camera I wanted, were too cheap to pass up or were part of a bizarre experiment.

I think I have definitely strayed into the many-to-one area in my lens to camera relationship. So what’s a poor boy to do?

I definitely have too many lenses. A few years ago I went to photograph some motorsports and, as I hadn’t done it for a while, took all my long lenses. That was one heavy bag. I can also feel a cull of zooms coming on. Some of them, like the 80-205, are worth peanuts but they are taking up space and someone else might get some use out of them. Same with one of the 70-210s and maybe a few more. So I suppose at the moment I am definitely in the region of (very) many-t0-one and I feel I need to get to the smallest set that fits the cameras I need them to.

Watch out eBay – here I come!

Showing your pictures

Do you show people what was there or what you saw?

It all came about because I joined (re-joined) a photography club. They have exhibitions and shows during the year, so I looked at the programme to see what I had that might work. The easiest picture to show is one you have already taken, so I trawled my files to see what I had and liked.

It’s an interesting exercise, but it can be a depressing one. It’s great to look again at pictures I like, to remember the circumstances of when they were taken and to get a small confirmation that I can sometimes take good snaps. The counterpoint to this is the depressing realisation that so many of them are dull or trite: I took pictures of what was there in front of me with little interpretation.

It feels the same as taking pictures of graffiti: it’s not your art. It exists in a scene and a picture of it is just a record of its existence. It’s not your creativity, it’s theirs. Using the graffiti as an element in the picture can be creative; using it as the picture is not. The same with paintings and sculpture – a record of them just shows you were there. Using them as an element of the picture shows your brain was there too.

This is not a picture of a statue
Ceci est une pipe

After I got over the slump of feeling useless I realised that even though I had only captured what was in front of me, it was the basis for further interpretation. For the purists, even Ansel Adams treated the basic negative as a musical score to be interpreted in a performance. And no, I am not about to express depth of field through interpretive dance. Not with my knees. But I can take a picture and make it more like what it was I saw. I’ve done this before – I have a picture of a friend’s motor bike. It’s a basic picture of a bike. But what I saw in its location is what I turned the picture into – something more moody.

The original shot has detail in the engine and so on, but that wasn’t the point of the picture.

This is probably not news to anyone, but it has got a bit of my enthusiasm back. I hereby declare to never more show pictures I think are boring (unless there is a reason to do so). Of course, your opinion of my pictures may differ. But I’m promising myself – if I’m going to show pictures to other people I should show them what I feel or what I saw, not just what was in front of me when I pressed the button.

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