Checklists

So you’re off to shoot something specific – what do you take? What if the event is special or not repeatable? What if something goes wrong?

I don’t shoot photos under these sort of constraints, but I’m no stranger to the planning. I regularly (pre bug) go diving. Even the closest site is an hour from home. So I have often had that feeling of terror that I’ve forgotten something. If we’re out on a boat there’s also the dread of finding that something important is still in the car.

Enter the checklist. An A4 page printed on both sides. One is all the kit that has to go in the car. The other side is what needs to be taken to the boat. It’s laminated so I can mark it off as I go. It doesn’t stop me worrying, but I know that if the list is ticked, I’m good. I have also made up prepacked sets of equipment to help. All the underwater camera gear is in a plastic tool tray. There’s a camera bag with a rangefinder kit and there used to be one with a medium format kit. Ready to go without searching for bits.

pack list

There’s also the procedural checklist. In my work I’ve had to do some complex tasks, sometimes repeating them. I’ve also had to organise people to follow a standard procedure.

Enter the checklist again. In this case it’s every step to be taken, with no assumptions and total clarity on what needs to be done. And you tick each step as you go. Then, when you are inevitably interrupted, you can resume where you left off. You can also step back and list the tools or ingredients you need before you start. When developing film that means not just checking I have the chemicals, but that they are fresh.

The final step is the planning, which includes the alternative steps for when things happen. Where do I have to be and when? Where can I park or put my stuff? Who is my contact? What if it rains?

Run every scenario you can think of. Make notes. Draw diagrams or maps. The benefit here is that you can plan your alternates with a cool head and then know, when things go bad, that you can follow the plan. What happens otherwise is that you make bad choices under pressure. For example, the Apollo 11 guidance computer rebooted as it was landing on the moon. The engineer responsible in Mission Control had already played-out that scenario and made good decisions. NASA learned this after the failure of Apollo 1 but then forgot and had to learn it again with Challenger.

A more recent example used in a lot of studies for problem solving and decision making was BA flight 9. Gliding a jumbo jet with dead engines, facing trying to get over the mountains or ditch in the sea. They tried to restart the engines without success. So what did they do? Follow the documented engine restart procedure again.

Ok, so none of my decisions will ever be this critical. Mine are at the level of ‘what if I’m delayed?’ Or ‘what if the battery runs out?’. I use Waze to guide me when driving as it routes around congestion. I use What3Words to find and mark my destinations – I can be accurate to the correct door in a street and it feeds the destination into Waze. In the diving world we prepare a safety sheet for the place where we are diving. It has important telephone numbers, the nearest decompression chamber, access routes – everything you need to know when you don’t have the time to look for it.

Safety

There’s one more thing that helps avoid mistakes: labelling. I used to do chemical analysis in a lab, so I became a bit obsessive about labelling. Two clear solutions in beakers, which is which? In the lab I used a wax pencil. These days it’s white electrical tape. If I pick up a camera I know if it’s loaded or not, and what with. That label stays with the film through until it’s developed.

So there you go – the blogger’s guide to avoiding fup ducks:

  • Packing list
  • Method list
  • Alternates
  • Labels

Plans may not survive contact with the enemy, but planning does.

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The hall of fame

What do you do with your pictures when you have taken them? Put them on Instagram? Print them and put them in an album? Ignore them and take some more?

There’s an idea I copied that makes me happy every time I look at it: the hall of fame.

Our previous house had a corridor between two bedrooms and this is where it started. I got a load of small picture frames from Ikea or anywhere I could get them cheap. They were all around the size to take a 6×4 print. I then went through my files and printed pictures of friends, family, relatives. I printed copies of old family portraits and snaps taken with phones.

Then the walls got covered in a random layout of pictures. In this case more really is more.

When we moved to the current house we had a study instead of a corridor, so it was lined with pictures. None of them is art – these are the snapshots of people and events that make you smile. This is why we carry cameras and why photography should be easy – to capture moments with people you love and like (and family).

fame

Because we are all working at home now and meeting by video, I know that covering the walls with pictures is not a common thing. In grim times it is a happy thing though. There’s my dad on national service, my granny in uniform and our kids pulling faces. Over there are friends grinning or fooling about and the pair of us gurning like fools.

It makes me happy.

One lens

My first camera didn’t have a zoom lens. It was a while before I could afford a second lens, so I learned the basics with a “standard” lens – a 40 degree angle of view. This is supposed to match the normal field of vision of the human eye, which it does not. Perhaps the ‘perspective‘ (meaning diminution) matches, which is more likely.

Zooms were great though – my favourite is a Pentax 24-50mm. I’ll bet though that a lot of zooms are used at one end or the other of their range and not much in between. There used to be a number of point and shoot cameras that offered two switchable focal lengths rather than a zoom. I know I had one for a while. It made a lot of sense – easier to make, quicker to use and probably got exactly the same shots.

I wonder though if sticking to a single fixed lens might be a useful exercise? I know that 35Hunter does a thing of using one camera with one lens for one month. I’m not sure I could be that disciplined. If anything, it would be the one month that was hardest. I’ve regularly been out with one camera and one lens, but I will change the combination depending on where I’m going. Not at all like the old days where the camera and lens of choice were the (only) ones I owned.

These days I have more lenses but I find myself swapping them less often. After that initial period with only my standard lens I had the standard hobbyist set of wide, standard and long. In those days it meant 28mm, 50mm and 135mm on 35mm film. (That’s 65, 40 and 15 degrees angle of view) I was constantly swapping lenses. The main reason was that I had them with me – I used to carry a huge bag stuffed with lenses and gadgets. As I got older I tended to cut down on the camera gear and carry things that were more useful, like drinking water or a map.

So what’s the big deal? I think I might have a go at the 35Hunter 1:1:1 challenge to see what effect simplicity has. Even though I take great joy from being able to play with different kit, it would be interesting to go back to the basics and my roots and see what happens when I have to work within constraints (and not the Konstruktor challenge). A good starting point could be that I’ve got a couple of cameras loaded already. I’m going to flip a coin and carry just one of them until it’s done, then swap to the other. Make that three – I’ve just found another one that’s loaded and part shot.

Choices

Which should it be then? The Pentax is loaded with Kentmere 400, the Mercury with Kentmere 100 and the Ricoh with some Kodak colour print film. The Pentax it is. If nothing else, it will get some part-used film finished.

Have a go yourself. See what happens.

Happy New year

A happy New Year (tomorrow) and the best to you all.

What are you hoping for? Vaccination would be good. And please stop licking the bats.

I’d like to see friends in person and get out of the house more.

I want to shoot a load more colour film. I have a C41 kit but there’s no point making up all the chemicals until I have some film to put through it.

I made a resolution for 2020 to shoot more portraits. If we get to take our masks off in 2021 I’ll have another go.

I should sell some cameras. The plan was to shoot them, write about them and then sell them, as I don’t need to keep the pile of interesting relics I’ve gathered. As above, if I can get out more I can shoot more.

I’d love it if Copal decided to produce camera shutters in quantities that a small start-up could afford. The big hurdle to anyone trying to create a new camera is the shutter. Come on Copal – if you don’t sell shutters then nobody can build cameras, so nobody will be buying shutters.

I’m thinking of changing my default developer for faster mono film. While Rodinal is the most convenient developer ever, it’s a bit grainy on faster film. Not a problem on medium format, but it can look a bit gritty on 35mm. I have some scales and chemicals so I might try going back to home-brew, but being sensible this time. I’m thinking of using the D76h formula from the cookbook, as it is basically good old D76 with one less ingredient.

I’m going to try and scan my old colour negatives. There’s a lot of them, from the period where I shot colour exclusively. Those were the days when there were processors on the high street and film was cheap. Interestingly I was listened to a podcast interview with Tim Page and he was saying how much old C41 film had faded to the point of being lost. I know I have some colour negatives from Australia around 2006 that have some serious colour shifts. It might be time to scan them before they get worse.

Anyway, I’m hoping for a better new year. I hope you have one too.

Olympus 35 RC

I’ve played with an Olympus Pen-EE and a Fed 50 (the Trip-alike) but this camera is the real deal: a full rangefinder with a sharp lens in a package the same size as the other two.

Mine is not a great example – the shutter speed dial is a bit loose and the light seals were shot – but, in common with most of my gear, it was cheap.

What you get is a great package. Olympus were the best at putting a good lens on a small camera that worked well. Owning one of these isn’t like a Leica, where you fret in existential turmoil over whether your viewfinder has the right magnification or choice of frame lines and fumble with the awkward film loading. This just works. The tiny dimensions mean you carry it, and you probably get 38 frames on a film.

o35rc

The lens is a cracker – sharp and contrasty. Having said that I like the Fed 50, you can see the difference in the shots from the RC.

The camera has a very neat feature for anyone wanting to use flash, in that it can make a cheap and simple manual flash into an automatic. If you set the flash guide number on the side of the lens, the camera adjusts the aperture according to distance when you focus. Since the shutter is a leaf type you can use flash at any speed. What this means is that you can stick an old (cheap) flashgun on the camera to light the foreground and use the shutter speed to control how light or dark you want the background. It’s clever and it works. Note though – it only works for on-camera flash, so don’t go Strobist.

O35rc GN
Guide number setting on the side of the lens

The camera is basically a shutter-priority automatic, but you can also use it in manual mode. Why, I don’t know – the meter seems to do a good job. You can also easily compensate for odd lighting – aim the camera at something lighter or darker (depending on what you need) half-press the shutter button and the exposure locks. Reframe and shoot. Simples.

Flashmatic
Changing the background exposure by choice of shutter speed

Ken Rockwell loved it.

The shutter and the diaphragm are simple two-bladed designs with a square opening. The purists will tell you that this ruins the bokeh. The rest of us will just take pictures. I’ve only seen a square aperture produce odd effects in one of my underwater cameras and that was because the flash lit up the floating debris in the water. In practice I can see that some of my pictures with the RC have out of focus backgrounds but there’s nothing distracting. Again, it just works. Olympus use the same square aperture on the XA and why not – it’s mechanically simple, small and reliable.

Wheldrake Woods

So there you have it. It’s a neatly packaged little camera that you can focus accurately and has a good lens. It works really well with flash. Top marks, Olympus.

Fed 50: the poyezdka

As I didn’t like the Lomo LC-A very much, I was offered a chance to swap it. So now I have a different camera that was also on my ‘one day, perhaps’ list – the Fed 50.

The Fed 50 Automat was made between 1986 and 1996. It looks very much like the Olympus Trip but didn’t even start production until two years after the Trip had stopped.

Fed50

In some ways it’s more sophisticated than the Trip as it has more than two shutter speeds. Unlike the LC-A it tells you what combination of speed and aperture it’s going to use, in a range of 1/30 at f2.8 to 1/650 at f14. There is even a basic manual mode: set the camera to use flash and the shutter is set to 1/30. You can then change the apertures to suit. This is similar to the Lomo LC-A, although that set the shutter speed to a more useful 1/60. The viewfinder also shows the zone distance you have focused on. While the lens is marked with a conventional distance scale, twisting it moves a pointer in the viewfinder between the typical zone-focus icons of person, group, scenery.

Fed VF

I’ve seen mention that the dial that sets the film ISO is easy to nudge and that the camera tends to underexpose. So I’ll be careful with the ISO dial and I might set the camera to overexpose a bit on my first roll of film. And yes, having since carried the camera in a bag, the ISO dial does get nudged. A bit of tactical sticky tape is called for.

It’s a chunky little monkey that has some heft. It feels good to carry – like it would survive the occasional bump. It’s an easy carry too – it sits well in one hand with a wrist strap.

It does underexpose. I rated my first film through it at 250 ISO rather than 400 and it could even have done with a touch more. I wonder if putting a lens hood on might help, to restrict the view of the light meter that surrounds the lens. It’s a strange 45.5mm thread but I could get a step-up ring to take it up to a more conventional 49mm. <Rummages in the box of bits and finds a 45.5mm lens hood I never knew I had. Yippee!>

The first shots into low but strong (for this time of year) sunshine look like there is some internal light reflection at the sides of the film gate. Nothing that a dab of matte black paint won’t fix. (I have a Kiev 60, and dulling the reflections on that was like painting the hall). While peering at the film gate I noticed a raised spot of paint that probably coincides with scratches on the negatives. A scrape with a sharp blade, a rub with fine emery cloth and a lick of paint and we’ll see if both the reflections and scratches are cured.

I like the lens a lot more than the one on the LC-A, specifically because it doesn’t vignette. I like to be able to have things at the sides of my pictures occasionally, not dead central.

The usual old camera tests went well: it exposes evenly and the frames are well spaced. Things that should be in focus are. So mechanically it looks fit.

In use it felt very much like a Trip – set the lens to the right distance and just shoot. The Olympus Trip may have the sharper lens but I don’t have one to compare with. And who cares? While I was taking the first set of pictures one of the group remarked on me having a ‘proper old camera’. I don’t suppose you see too many people these days having to wind-on between shots. (And yes, we were all doing the right anti-virus stuff. No trumping here.)

On the second outing I found it still underexposes with a lens hood on. I could either try blanking a few of the light-gathering bobbles on the meter with a marker pen or just set the ISO lower. But the flare and the scratching were gone, which is good.

Where canoes go in winter.

Down side? It’s difficult to engage the end of the film in the takeup spool. Once it was properly caught it held tight, enough that it didn’t release on the rewind. Still, better that than not catching.

Where old vans go in winter.

So I’m very happy with it. I like the results, it has a viewfinder I can use and it’s proper old. It can be carried in one hand, set to the likely focus distance and you can just raise it and shoot. I definitely prefer it to the LC-A. Plus it doesn’t have the cult following of the LC-A, so prices are still reasonable.

National Geographic

Despite the death of printed media, National Geographic seems to have continued to circulate every month since 1888. It has always been a pioneer and a showcase for photography. I confess to only flicking through copies in waiting rooms though – it was always both out of reach and not a thing we did when I was going up.

There was always that hint of imperialism too, in a ‘look at the quaint natives’ sort of way. I could be totally wrong about that though. Like I say, I was never a regular reader. All that I can really remember about it was the great photography.

Then I found a best of book in a charity shop. It’s called Through the lens: National Geographic greatest photographs. And it probably does what it says on the cover.

img_20201114_07495914023703385206484456.jpg

First impression? That photography got technically better. Look at a landscape (yes – yawn) shot on slide film and compare it with the digital stuff, even on somewhere like DIY Photography. Modern photography has finer resolution, wider dynamic range and endless opportunities for post-shot manipulation. Look at a National Geographic page and you see slide film – saturated colours, blocked shadows, high contrast. Technically you are looking at pictures spanning more than a hundred years. Some of them would be thrown out of a local camera club competition for not being sharp. But then you look at the pictures and begin to understand that the content matters more than the quality.

Remember Steve McCurry’s picture of the Afghan girl? It was on the front cover in June ’85. Seventeen years later he found the woman again and took another picture of her, holding a print of the original shot. You could say it’s a straight ‘stand against that wall, hold this, look at me, click’. But the girl was remarkable for her eyes and the woman is veiled. It makes you want to know the story.

Perhaps that is the best side of National Geographic – pictures that provoke interest and stories that explain and understand. Rather than a prurient interest in ‘foreigners’ it’s about confirming that we are all the same. Really – if the entire population of the world was wiped out except the people of Peru, humans would still retain 85% of their genetic diversity. (Superior; Angela Saini). So there is no them, only us.

[Which hasn’t stopped an idiotic political party segregating people by their names.]

There’s also the joy of being nosy. We’re social animals, so we spend a lot of time watching each other. It’s why groups of teenagers can’t just have fun – they have to have noisy fun so that other people know they are having fun. A person I know loves darker evenings, as people put their lights on but don’t pull their curtains. She’s not interested in the people as such but loves seeing other people’s houses. And it’s why I think empty landscapes can be boring.

Anyway – if you can get hold of some back issues of National Geographic, see what you think. And do get over the sharpness thing.

Waterproof bags

I first need to be very clear about something. The people that make these bags do not make photography bags. They have nothing to do with the Russian camera-makers with the same name, nor with the photography business with a similar name. They make watersports, cycling and outdoors gear. Meet Lomo, purveyors of waterproof kit to the discerning, from the heart of Glasgow. But Lomo the watersports business has nothing to do with and makes no claim on photography. Got that? Good.

I came across their kit first through scuba diving. Lomo make practical stuff at great prices. Diving will beat your wallet to death with a naily stick if you let it. You can fall victim to fashion and (as they say in Scotland) prance about like a haddie in your shiny stuff, or spend less money on something tough and practical. Now, I may only be an adopted Yorkshireman, but I feel I should hold up my end of the reputation. So it’s go-go Lomo for this bro’.

I’ve been using a Lomo waterproof bumbag to hold a stuff when I was in the water. We (pre Covid) ran a duck race in the river at Ripon to raise money for a charity. I am usually at the finish line, stood in the river and working like a one-armed paper-hanger to catch the winning ducks. It’s not unknown to fall over in the river – the bottom is rocky and occasionally one of us has to pursue the odd duck that escapes past the end barrier. I could leave my car keys, wallet and phone on the riverbank, but I would prefer not to. Enter the Lomo bumbag. This is waterproof enough that I can keep my stuff on me and doesn’t get in the way. Couple that with a waterproof camera or helmet-mounted video and I can take snaps between bursts of frenzied duck catching.

Ripon Duck Race

The same bag comes diving with me when we’re on a boat. Every single thing you take on the boat is going to get wet. Apart from the obvious spray or rain, boats (pre Covid) can be crowded and wet kit will invariably end up on top of dry. Lomo make a wide range of waterproof storage bags which are good for things like extra jumpers. When (if) we’re allowed out to play again I also fancy one of their rucksacks.

Can you tell I'm a fan of their stuff?
Can you tell I’m a fan of their stuff?

So it’s a really short post because I just want to share something useful. If you go out in the wet, take a look at Lomo kit. (I could wish they were sponsoring me but they are not. It’s just good kit. Of course, if Ilford wants to jump in with a huge film deal, I am reassuringly open to influence. Or cake – anyone who makes cake and needs an influencer who clearly enjoys it, call me).

Cheers.

Digital-clever film cameras

The late-model film cameras, the ones just before the Rise of the Machines, contain a lot of the functionality that transferred to digital.

My example is a very cheap Pentax MZ-5n body I found in a charity shop and joined to an existing Pentax autofocus 35-70 zoom. The camera was introduced in 1997 and has a poor reputation for breaking. It’s also 23 years old so won’t have improved. This particular one seems to be ok, but it owes me so little that I’m not going to cry if it stops working.

By the late 90’s the SLR camera makers were competing with cheaper compacts. This could be why the Pentax has a panoramic mode (a film mask) – to compete with APS and its ability to change formats. Mind you, my mum made accidental use of that facility at the time to create randomly-sized family snaps.

Electronics were getting smarter and faster and I expect ease of use was the thing. Nobody wanted to be selling a camera that you had to learn to use. Lock the lens aperture ring on A, turn the camera’s mode dial to P and away you go with a big version of a point-and-shoot. How many people using digital now are wondering about learning to go the other way and shoot in manual mode?

Anyway, with all the feature bloat you do get a lot of (fragile) camera for your money. Plus it’s a Pentax, so it’s backwards compatible with all their lenses. All you lose is some of the automation. Obviously the manual lenses won’t autofocus and the focus confirmation doesn’t work with screw-mount lenses. You can still shoot them though. You have to love the way Pentax look after their customers and their investment in lenses.

I’ll be comparing it with a Pentax K10d, their first “serious amateur” digital camera, introduced in 2006. As mentioned, the K10d is equally happy shooting the autofocus zoom from the MZ, although the APS-C sensor turns it into the equivalent of a 50-105 zoom

The MZ might have a frail body and internals, but it has some neat features that transferred to the K10. The focus confirmation in the viewfinder uses the same symbol; it can do evaluative, centre weighted and spot metering with similar abilities for the autofocus. It will do focus confirmation with manual lenses, although it does need fairly bright lighting. The autofocus will even do follow-focus. Shutter speeds run from 1/2000 to 2s in manual and out to 30s in auto. It will do half and full stop bracketing. By default it reads the ISO code off the film cartridge, but you can also set it manually. So this consumer camera had most of the bells and whistles in something that was a bit smaller than the K10. Which is interesting, as the MZ had to provide space for the film as well. But then, a digital sensor is thicker than film, and the K10 has a screen on the back as well.

So what’s this last hurrah for film like to use? The MZ feels surprisingly solid and grippy. Fitting a drive motor and a flash capacitor plus a larger battery into a film camera probably accounts for the protruding grip, which makes a real benefit out of a necessity. It has a data back, but this is sculpted to provide a thumb grip. Basically, I would feel happier carrying this around in one hand than something like a Pentax MX. This model of 35-70mm lens I’ve got on it is quite small, so makes a handy package.

Would I have bought one of these in 1997? Not so much. I did have a Pentax SF-X for a while, which was an older model, and found it a bit too fiddly. It also suffered problems with the mirror jamming in the up position. It did a job though, which was to drive some film past my lenses on a three-week trip to Aus. (Bought it second hand, then sold it on). So this may have put me off anything clever until I went to the dark side and got digital. Oddly, I think the kit lens that came with the SF-X when it was launched back in 1987 was the same zoom I’m using on the MZ-5 now. Did someone say backwards compatibility?

IMGP5272

Enough of the history already; what’s it like to use? Does a cheap (these days) techno-marvel with the reputation of a hand grenade cut the mustard? Surprisingly, yes. Pop it on full auto everything and it’s easy to use. It switches on the same way as my K10 and fires-up quicker (and far quicker than some digital compacts. I’ve got a little Fuji compact that takes nearly five seconds to boot up.). For fairly close-in action this thing is great. I would also be happy using this on longer lenses for sport and action as the motor winder is useful. Of course, with the bug, I can’t get out to shoot some fast-moving close action.

Dalby Forest

I can show you what I would use it for though using some previous shots from its young nephew, the K10d.

Dalby Forest

This was fitted with a roughly similar lens that does the (equivalent) of 24-70mm at F4. What I was shooting was fairly quick action in a constrained space, in the open and under trees. So the 35-70 lens was about right and an automatic flash filled the shadows and sharpened the picture. Incidentally, the MZ works with the same flashgun I use on the K10. Probably because the flash started out on Pentax’s film cameras and migrated to their digital. Did someone say backwards compatibility?

If I was shooting something similar in the future on film, the MZ and the 35-70 would be first choice. Let’s hope we all get that chance.