Horizon 202

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

With the clip-on handle fitted.

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

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

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

Only do this when you are the passenger!

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

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

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

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

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

Moving right to left – some possible shortening of the bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aphantasia

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

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

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

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

How about imagining a sheep?

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

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

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

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

What are the rules?

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

So, what are the rules?

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

Have I missed any?

37

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

9

Oh, and so is Philadelphia. Just in case.

Come the (zombie) apocalypse…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next-to-last one standing?

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

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

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

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

** we may get lucky.

Stop motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to expose

There was a bit of an argument on Faceplop/ Melter (colour me surprised), about the right way to meter light for photography. So I thought I’d weigh in with my own version.

The reason for even thinking about exposure is because what it means is getting the right amount of light on your sensor/ film. To do that you need to measure the amount of light there is. To do that you need some form of meter (which is better than guessing).

Actually, it’s a two stage process. The first step is to measure the amount of light correctly. The second stage is to decide how you want to use that information. Let’s start with step one.

The amount of light emitted by the sun is effectively constant. The amount that reaches the ground (or the subject) varies with time of year, time of day and the weather conditions. This is why a meter is better than guessing.

Sounds easy though: point the camera at the subject and either press the shutter or change the camera settings to what the meter says. Most of the time this works, and the better or more modern the camera the more likely it is to work pretty well. If you have one of these cameras and you get good results, that’s the end of this article.

But… some cameras don’t have meters, or don’t meter light well, or the subject lighting is not ‘average’. This is where we need a better way to meter the light. The obvious tool for the job is a separate hand-held light meter. But there are two basic types and they work in different ways, which was the cause of the online argument.

The first and most common type of meter is a copy of the one you find in a camera. You point it at the subject and it measures how much light is being reflected back towards the camera. Providing the bright and dark areas in the subject average out, the reading is good to use. A reflected light meter can struggle if the view contains lots of bright sky, or is backlit, or is a bright object on a dark background. There is a specialised version of the reflected light meter that has a very narrow angle of view, so lets you meter on a single small part of the subject. These are useful if you can’t get close, or for measuring the brightest and darkest spots to calculate the full range of brightness (the reason for this is in step two, below). These spot meters are expensive though, and don’t give you the general average reading you also need.

The second type of meter measures how much light is falling on the subject. This type is an incident light meter. The idea is that light falling on the subject is the correct middle point that you need to expose for. The brighter bits of the subject will reflect more light and be brighter, the dark bits darker. Providing the total range of brightness fits within the sensitivity of your film or sensor, then this works very well and is immune to scenes that are not an average mix of light and dark. It does need you to measure the light falling on the subject though, which can be difficult if the subject is distant to you or under different lighting.

A reflected meter, as top left, takes the average of everything it can see. An incident meter measures how much light there is and gives you a reading that works if everything is average.

Which type of meter is best? The one you have with you, obviously. Both types work, providing you understand what they are measuring and if they might need some interpretation. The reason for the interpretation is step two.

A typical digital sensor response is on the left. Analogue film is more S shaped, as on the right.

Your sensor or film can record a certain range of brightness. Too little light and it won’t record. Too much and it will record as pure white with no detail. Ideally the brightness range of the scene will match the sensitivity range of the sensor, and it usually does (because sensors and film were developed to match the average range of brightness we encounter). So the average reading that a light meter gives you is intended to provide the mid-point of the camera’s range. How that average reading fits onto the range of a digital sensor or a film is shown below.

The meter reading is meant to put the measured average on the mid point of the sensor or film range (the sun symbol). The total range of brightness in the subject should then fit onto the working range of the sensor of film (the arrow).

So despite all the noise about 18% grey and metering for the shadows or highlights, what you are trying to do is to find the average brightness and set it at the midpoint of the camera’s range. If possible you also set the camera so that the range of brightness in the scene or subject matches the range that the sensor or film can record. If the range of brightness in the subject is less than the range of the camera you can choose to move it up or down the camera range by giving it more or less exposure. Sensible people give as much exposure as possible, without the highlights going off the top of the scale. To be more accurate, the highlights in which you still need to see detail should be on or just below the top of the scale. If the sun is in shot, just accept that it will be overexposed. But if your subject has a white shirt or dress you may want any highlights to show a bit of detail and tonality and not be featureless white. This pegs the maximum exposure you can give. Alternatively, if the scene is low contrast (has a small range of brightness) you may want to give it more than the average exposure. This shifts the whole scene up the scale and will reveal more detail in the shadows. This is exposing for the shadows.

But what if the range of brightness in the scene is too great to get both the highlights and shadows within the camera’s range? You have options. One is to accept that part of the scene will not record. So you could let the highlights or the shadows fall off the scale. Most people keep the highlights and let the shadows go totally black, but it’s up to you.

The range is too wide for the sensor. You can give it less expsoure (which shifts the arrow left) and keep the highlights at the expense of the shadows, or go the other way.

Another option is to decrease the range of the subject. You can add light to the shadows with flash or a reflector. You can reduce the highlights by changing the lighting or adding some haze or filtering. Moving out of direct sunlight into open shade works well (but beware of the blue cast you will get from the sky).

A third option is to expand the range of the sensor or film. This is what HDR does for digital. With film you can play with different types of film, developer and processing. The aim with both is to be able to squeeze a wide range of subject brightness onto the narrower range of the sensor.

So, to get back to measuring exposure, a reflected light meter is saying ‘this is the average brightness of everything I can see’ while an incident light meter is saying ‘this is how much light there is. If everything in this light averages out, this is the correct exposure’. Which is better? If the full range of brightness in the subject fits into the range of your camera, the incident light meter is better as it can’t be fooled by non-average subjects. But if the brightness range is too great for the camera or you have something special in mind, you will need to set the camera differently to the average, change the lighting or take special measures to widen the camera’s range.

How do you know if the subject fits the camera range? Digital cameras win here if they can display a histogram or the under/overexposed flashies. If you can adjust the camera settings, you want the histogram shifted as far to the right as you can (as bright as possible) without losing any important highlights. With film I’m afraid it comes down to experience, and knowing that negative films, particularly colour negative, can take a bit of overexposure and still produce good results (due in part to that S shaped response, as above). If you have a separate light meter and you are close enough to the subject to be able to measure the highlights and shadows separately, try measuring the range. It works best with a reflected light meter. Take your overall average reading. Then measure the brightest highlight that should still show a bit of texture and tonality. This should be no more than 3 stops brighter than the average. The darkest shadow that you want a hint of tonality in should be no more than 4 stops darker. It is possible to capture a wider range, but this is about what works without taking special measures.

The special measures? There are ways of developing film that can capture a wider range of brightness. With slide film you are really stuck with what it offers. With digital you can try HDR. This combines a set of over-exposed shots (that capture the shadows) with under-exposed ones that capture the highlights. With some techno-magic the best bits of each are combined to compress a wide range of brightness in the subject to fit onto the range that the sensor is capable of recording. It can look strange if it’s done badly, and it often is.

The alternative is to base your exposure on what is important in the subject and let the rest fall where it may. If there are people in the scene, you would normally set the exposure so that you can see their faces. Just be aware that there is range of skin tones around the ‘average’ – don’t be like Kodak.

So if this is all getting too confusing, this is what you do in practice. Most subjects are average. Point your reflected light meter at the scene and angle it down a bit if there is a lot of sky in the shot. Or point your incident meter back towards the camera, with the meter in the same light as the subject. Job done. If the range of brightness in the scene is likely to be too wide, you will need to decide which end of the scale to keep, and it’s usually the highlights. On a digital camera take a test shot and look at the histogram or flashies. Reduce the exposure until the highlights are inside the histogram or stop flashing. With a reflected meter measure a highlight and give it three stops more exposure. It’s harder to gauge the difference with an incident meter but you could try taking one reading with the meter pointing at the camera and one pointing at the main source of light (often the sun). Try setting the camera at the midpoint of the two readings. And bracket – take extra shots with one stop more and one less of exposure. Bracketing is good for learning, as you can tell just by looking at the results that a scene like the one you shot really needs more or less exposure than what the light meter says.

So there you are. The purpose of metering the light is to work out how best to fit the scene onto the sensor. No one type of light meter is best – you need to use your brain with both of them. Incident light meters are less likely to be fooled, so may give more reliable results. Reflected light meters work from further away. The histogram or flashies on a digital camera do the same job. Light meters work best with average scenes, but luckily most scenes really are average (by definition). But look hard at your subject and the light and you will learn what different to average looks like and what to do about it. And then you can join the perpetual squabble on t’interweb about how exposure works. (As an aside, the only comparable geek argument is how countersteering works for motorcycles. So if you really want to start a flame war, ask people how best to expose for a countersteering bike.)

And by the way, you may have heard people either praising or damning the Zone System. All it does is help you try and fit the range of brightness in your subject onto your sensor, just as described above. None of this is magic, or even particularly difficult. It’s all about squeezing what there is into what you’ve got.

Pentax MX

The MX was Pentax’s professional-type system camera, sold from 1976 to 1984. I say professional-type, as it had some nice features but quite a modest specification. It’s main feature was that it followed the radical Olympus OM-1 in being small and light.

It was a mechanical camera with a traditional horizontal-run cloth shutter. The batteries powered the meter only. The shutter gave you speeds from 1s to 1/1000 with flash sync at a 1/60. The meter’s range was ISO 25 to 1600. The meter was centre and bottom-weighted, so you could get caught out when shooting in portrait orientation. But hey, this was a simple and reliable camera that predated computers and matrix metering.

The only evident professional feature in the body was the replaceable focusing screens. Perhaps not an obvious feature, as you changed them through the mouth of the lens mount. It could also take a 5 fps motordrive and a bulk film back. Oh, and every lens Pentax had made, including the screw-mount ones using a simple adapter.

I bought mine second hand from a camera shop, back when this was possible.  The local Jessops must have de-listed the MX a while later, as they dropped a load of focussing screens in their bargain bin. I bought one of every type they had at something ridiculous like a couple of pounds each. I’ve just done a quick count on fingers and toes, and I have owned this camera for more than forty years.

One thing that has gone wrong twice with mine is the shutter speed readout in the viewfinder. What you can see is a transparent circular disk with the speed numbers on. As you turn the shutter speed dial the disk moves in sync. Or it doesn’t. The first time it happened I sent it off to Pentax for a CLA. Then it happened again a few years ago. I asked one of my favourite repair shops and they asked if I could live with it – the linkage is apparently a fine wire running over pulleys and is a fiddly pain to reset. So yes, I can live with it. If you see one like this second hand be aware that it should reduce the price but does not affect the function.

The camera itself is rock solid. It just works. It still has the original light seals and they still work too.

I took it out on a walk recently around Coventry. Of course, when you take a camera out for the day you make sure the batteries are fresh, don’t you? What I did was briefly check that the meter lit up in the viewfinder. So of course the meter stopped working on the second shot. Luckily this is a mechanical camera and I had a light meter with me. So the Pentax did what it does best – it sat discretely in one hand on a wrist strap and just quietly worked. Ive got the Pentax 24-50 zoom, which is a perfect lens for walking about, so the two together make a great package.

The viewfinder (when the meter has batteries) shows a vertical series of lights to the right side. The green central LED is correct exposure, with orange either side for +/- half a stop and then reds for a stop or more out. There is a tiny extra window on the front of the prism that shows the lens aperture at the top of the viewfinder. All very discrete and usable. The meter switches on and displays with a half-press of the shutter. If the rewind arm is pulled out from its parked position the meter will stay on. The shutter button itself has a locking collar. It makes the camera easy to hand-carry: your forefinger pushes the catch to unlock the shutter, your thumb pulls the winding lever out a bit, raise the camera and everything is ready to go. I was using the camera walking around a city centre and with the 24-50 lens it was almost as easy to use as a point-and-shoot.

Loading it is also easy, certainly compared to something like a Praktica. The take-up spool uses Pentax’s magic needles. These basically provide multiple slots to hold the end of the film, so you don’t have to fiddle about doing part wind-ons to get the slot to line up. It’s quick and reliable. And can I just say how I hate the weird bit of wire that Prakticas use? The number of times mine has failed to hold the film leader is a pain in the aperture.

The Pentax shutter and mirror are well damped, so it’s quiet for an SLR. It makes a soft clomp noise, compared to my Ricoh which sounds like I dropped it.

So what we have is a pretty basic SLR with some nice features. Everyone has heard of (and is chasing) the K1000, but I think this is the better camera. I know it should be, as it was meant to be, but things do change with time. The later LX uses the same focusing screens but has more electronics and is much more expensive to repair, as it has lots of weather-sealing gaskets. So for me, the MX is in the Goldilocks spot.

La jetée

You may have seen the film Twelve Monkeys. It was based on a French short film called La Jetée. The source film is worth watching, especially as it is not a film but a story. It uses a series of still pictures to show scenes from a life as the narrator tells his tale. (Then watch Twelve Monkeys to see how to take an idea and run with it).

Then I recommend viewing David Godlis tell his tale of taking photos at CBGBs. It’s done using his original images with a Terry Gilliam-like process of lifting and moving cut-out sections.

Why might you be interested in these? Because it’s an interesting visual story-telling technique. La Jetée in particular makes very effective use of lighting, plus in one scene an out of focus branch to imply threat and change. All for the cost of taking some pictures in a dark room and on the streets (and a huge amount of thinking and planning).

Ok, so we’ve seen still images used as as flicker book animation in music videos. These are brilliant and evocative, but a huge amount of work is involved. I do love the simplicity and economy of the two ideas I have mentioned. So I leave you with the idea – record a spoken story and then cut a limited series of still images to match it.

Eppur si muove.

Sea & Sea Motor Marine MX-10

This is the younger sibling of the Motor Marine II. It is more limited, but in some ways easier to use.

The first thing you will notice is that it is big. You are not going to lose it down the back of the sofa. But with the external ‘potato masher’ flash attached it becomes quite an easy package to handle.

The lens is fixed focus, set at the 2.5m mark. You get a table of depth of field versus aperture in the manual. I copied this out and made a laminated card. I also laminated a card rangefinder to make it easy to find the focus point. This only really matters when I’m using it underwater, as I need to get as close as the camera will allow to minimise the effects of soupy water. It’s also easier to judge 2-3m distance on land.

On the surface you get a fixed shutter speed of 1/100. There is a physical switch for 100 or 400 ISO and space for two AA batteries inside the camera’s outer shell. The camera’s built-in flash has a guide number of 10. The camera allows the use of two apertures with the internal flash – f4.5 or f11. And that’s about it for features. There is a light meter guide light in the viewfinder – you half depress the shutter and tweak the aperture dial until the red light goes out. The lens is described as a 35mm and f4.5 using four elements in four groups. You will not be buying one of these for creamy bokeh or biting resolution, but to survive a family trip to the seaside.

In use it is actually very simple. You can use it like a basic manual point and shoot with optional flash. Get to between 2 and 3m from the subject, frame and snap. If you can find it there is a wide-angle adapter and viewfinder available that makes it closer to a 20mm field of view (the adapter is shown fitted in the pictures above, with the matching external framer). With this adapter and the external flash it actually becomes quite a handy package for fairly close work underwater or in bad conditions. The flash makes a useful handle and even with it on the camera is not too unwieldy.

I have used this underwater and would certainly use it if I wanted to shoot film on the beach or in bad conditions. The external flash has a sensor to control its exposure and gives the choice of two apertures, one for 100 and one for 400 ISO. For underwater use I loaded it with fast film, set the apertures and got to the preset distance to take pictures. There was nothing to adjust, just turn the flash off when not using it. This actually makes it easier to use than the more capable (on paper) big brother model – the Motor Marine II.

On the surface it can flare if you shoot into the light, mostly due to the flat glass window in front of the lens. It’s worth keeping a tissue handy if you are out in the rain to keep the drops off the lens. Other than that it seems to survive most environments and handling. You can also pick these up quite cheaply if you look carefully. So what’s not to like about a cheap, simple and rugged camera?

Don’t take my picture!

I hear it a lot from family and friends. On a superficial level it seems odd – why refuse something that has no impact and could happen anyway? And don’t you understand that I want to take your picture because I like you? I was curious to develop an idea I’d written about before, but encountered personally quite recently. So I asked.

One theme that came out strongly, and often first, is ‘I don’t like the way I look’. So, ok, there is always a responsibility on the photographer to find and show the best of people. But I wondered how a photograph was different to what you saw in a mirror. From asking, I’m told that a mirror is a totally different thing. You look into a mirror for a reason, like brushing your hair. Your image has a purpose. If you don’t like a part of what you see, you can look at a different part or focus on the task. A mirror is under your control and nobody else can see what you see. You can adjust the image as you wish – the frog belly under your chin goes away if you raise your head. It also has no persistence – your bleary eyes and pallid morning skin are gone forever when you turn away. Photographs are persistent and take away any control you have over what you see. Once that paunch is captured, it exists forever.

This leads to another observation that almost nobody is content with how they look: everybody would change something. And the risk in a photograph is that it has no sympathy. I have skinny chicken legs so I think I look weird, seen full length. I’d like to say I have a good feature that you could focus on, but it’s all pretty average. So if you take a picture of me, I would be conscious that you really want a picture of someone who looks like a confused stork. How much harder must it be for women, who have an expectation of appearance imposed on them? See selfie filters for further proof.

In a conversation we are happy to make and hold eye contact with another person. We make expressions and pull faces. But when the other person raises a camera something comes between you. There is a new person in the conversation who only takes. This is nothing to do with snaps – the grabbed pictures that remind you of an event or a time or the people you were with. The difference is the intention – a snap is a reminder with no motive; a portrait has a reason behind it. And a conversation stops when one person drops out to take rather than share.

I think this leads to the next point, which is distrust of motive. If I ask for my picture to be taken, I know why I’m doing it and what it is for. If someone else wants my picture I don’t know how it will be used or what it is for. I was out on a photo-walk recently and this came up. I wanted a picture of a shop doorway but the shopkeeper came out to stand at their street display. They were going to be in shot, but would have enhanced the picture. So I asked if I could take their picture. They declined, so I didn’t. Another member of our group then mentioned they had taken a picture of me, and did I mind. In this case, not at all and it was good of them to ask. But the issue is one of trust: why are you taking pictures of me? The solution would be to ask, give the reason, and offer to share the results. And don’t take offence at a refusal. And really don’t be a creep. If you wouldn’t be comfortable as the subject, don’t take the picture. This must figure even stronger for women, who spend their lives under the male gaze and with the constant background tension of the common male expectation that women exist for men.

Saying that though, taking pictures at a public event is different. People engaged in an activity or sport in public must accept that other people will want pictures of what they are doing. The interest is in the activity, and this is legitimate. Although I have seen some questionable shots of women playing sports. So the same rules apply: don’t be a creep.

And then, we have the actual portrait. I have pictures of my ancestors that have huge value. Some are formal portraits and some are the ‘stand there and I’ll take your picture’ variety. The formal portraits were obviously intentional. In an age when private photography was rare they preserved a statement of the subject’s status and appearance. My mum has two large paintings that are separate portraits of each of her grandparents (one set) when they married. The pictures are actually over-painted photographic prints, which would have have been a quick and cheaper way to get a good likeness. I’ve also got some of the formal ‘sat in a chair and frowning’ pictures. All of them are precious because they are family. I can see the value in having pictures of yourself at different ages to hand on, but the sheer volume of transient images we’re drowning in will probably bury the one or two pictures that summarise you and would entertain your grandkids. So perhaps there is value in relenting to at least one good environmental portrait so that future people can see who you were.

There is also memory. My wife travelled the world when she was younger but didn’t take any pictures. She has all the memories but nothing she can actually show me or the boys. The picture below is my grandmother as a young woman. She is the same person holding her great-grandson if you follow the memory link above.

Another lesson that comes from this is to get pictures of yourself when you are young. Friends pass and things change, but a picture of the daft younger version of yourself will remind you that, no matter what the world does, you were gorgeous. It’s all still in there, just toned down with some saggy bits and hair migrating from your head to your ears and eyebrows.

And yet, despite all this, the most interesting photographs are the ones with people in. Other than snaps they might be the hardest to take, for all the reasons above. Perhaps this is why so many photographers take landscapes? Taking an informal snap of your chums on your phone is fun. Get a ‘real’ camera and people question your motives and the rest of it. One of the reasons I like the pukey-bear-cam is that it breaks down the barrier by being informal and silly, with immediate results that are genuine snaps and not some Gollum-like Precious that you will perve over later.

In summary – don’t be evil. Don’t even be a little bit evil, which is weevil. Get as many informal pictures as you can, as they will become more valuable to you with time. Definitely take pictures of people, as people are probably the most interesting thing there is. But have some respect for others. Noli esse asinus as we used to say when I was a boy.

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