Modifying cameras

Have you ever modified a camera to make it work better for you?

I’m not talking about cosmetic changes like changing the leatherette (although I love what Peggy does with these), but functional changes. I know one of the frequent improvements is to add a grip. But these are finely-crafted and removable, whereas I’m talking about hacking the actual camera.

I’ve basically made two sorts of changes: for handling and for protection. You have to not care about resale value though. Speaking of which, who are these people who can sell a pristine old camera on eBay? How does anyone manage to use a thing for years and leave no visible marks of use or wear?

Back to the plot – for protection I mainly use Sugru. It’s perfect for creating bump corners – I’ve wrapped a small waterproof camera in it to protect the corners and the lens from being dropped or put down badly.

Sugru to protect from bumps, grip tape to avoid giving it the bumps

This is ideal, as I most often use this camera with cold wet hands on an open boat. The camera lives in an open plastic tool tray so needs all the protection it can get.

Before finding Sugru I used two-part epoxy putty to make things like a replacement for the plastic piece that fell off the end of a wind-on lever.

Although I no longer have it so can’t share pictures, I did make a remote release adapter for an autowinder. This was a bit of brass sheet that I bent and maimed until it fitted around the trigger button on the autowinder. I drilled a small hole and used a cable release to form a thread in the soft brass. This let me fit a long air release that ran inside my overalls and put the bulb in my hand. The camera was mounted on a bracket on the side of a crash helmet. The result was Heath Robinson’s version of a helmet-mounted camera. And yes, it worked.

Next to Sugru the other great find came from an article by 35hunter, and this is to use the sticky-backed grip tape that is used on skateboards.

This stuff is very good and could even be reversible, if you wanted to change the grip or sell the camera. I added a strip and a patch of tape to a Canon compact to provide grip for my fingers and thumb.

The tape has just enough ‘tooth’ to be grippy without being uncomfortable.


So since the grip tape came as a sheet large enough to cover a skateboard deck, I couldn’t just leave it at that. The obvious next step was the underwater housings for my diving cameras. Like the little Fuji compact, I’m usually handling these in water and wearing gloves. While the camera is usually on a tether, it’s useful not to let go of it in the first place.

What’s next in my mad plan is to replace the whole leatherette on a camera with grip tape. That’s a possible for the future though – I’ll wait to see which one starts peeling first.

So ok, not major modifications but practical, and they can be done without needing a 3d printer or workshop.

Pictures of other people

I can see this getting more difficult.

I know I’ve written before that I don’t see the point in taking pictures of people I don’t know or who are not doing something interesting, but this is different. What got me thinking was an article on Photofocus arguing that taking a picture of someone against their wishes was assault. It could be, but it also gives the power of claiming assault to anyone photographed in public. There was a recent case of someone apparently photographing women breastfeeding in public. The photographer may be a creep, there is not enough context to tell, but it shows a desire for legislation.

On the matter of context, I think that depends on the subject of the picture. If I’m taking a picture of a landscape (yawn) or a building and there are people in the frame, they are usually there as part of the scene (or because I couldn’t get a picture without people in it). The point of the picture is not the individual people: any people would do. This isn’t assault and I shouldn’t need their permission.

If I take pictures of people engaged in a sport or activity then, providing I am allowed to be there, I don’t need their permission. Their activity and skill is the point of the picture.

Dancing the Dark Morris

Even with individual people I think there is a difference depending on whether the person is identifiable or not. But this is also where it starts to get difficult, and it’s down to intent.

Different countries’ laws vary on public privacy. Some, like the UK and USA, have a basic assumption that whatever is visible in public is not private. Hence the argument over the breastfeeding women. It may be creepy but it’s legal.

Why is any of this important? Because it could become more difficult. If any new laws are passed that set limits on what we can photograph they are almost certain to be badly phrased and to restrict previous freedoms. I’m also worried that new laws get made from extreme cases, so end up as bad laws by that route. A ban on photographing people without permission is unworkable. A law that says anyone objecting to being photographed must have their picture deleted is equally unworkable and leads to threats and violence. I’ve seen it lead to threats even without legislation.

What do we do then? Perhaps if we are close enough to the subject for there to be interaction, we just ask if it’s ok? Perhaps it is just a case of being polite?

I’m not saying we should be scared, but I do think we should be mindful. I really don’t want to be confined to landscapes.

Who do you follow?

Think of your favourite photographers. Got them? OK, now imagine telling your list to a group of photographers. Stressed?

Wouldn’t it be awful to name someone who wasn’t cool? Or someone that everyone has heard of. Maybe worse – to admit to not liking one of the grand masters. Virtue signalling is really hard, isn’t it? Perhaps I’ve got it wrong, but is it the same as describing your musical taste? We’d all like to be groovy but we all dance round the kitchen to something we wouldn’t have on our playlist. Just as we’d all like to be Cartier-Bresson but we still take selfies and landscapes.

Maybe it’s better to differentiate your influences from the people you follow. I definitely have influences: there is work I’ve seen that inspires me to try harder or try differently. I don’t want to copy it – I couldn’t – but it does lead me towards what I like, rather than random snapping. In terms of following, there are people I read and some I view; rarely both. The ones I read have interesting views or things to say but, to be honest, I’m rarely reading them for the pictures. There are a few people whose pictures I will look at. Most often they have very little to say.

The difference between influences and following is, I think, one of timing. My influences are most often historical to me: they are pictures that have existed and I later found. They fed into my preferences and helped me learn what to put into a picture and the types of subject and treatment I like.

Ralph Gibson?

Those I follow have something interesting to say right now. They won’t make me change direction but I can learn from them, or at least be entertained. What I am absolutely not going to do is try to drink from the firehose of Instagram or Facebook, or join their Red Queen race.

I’ll be open about my list though – I have no intention of sharing it. The pictures I like are my preferences. I can explain to myself why I like them but nobody wants to expose their taste to judgement, particularly when that judgement is likely to be superficial. Say for example that you studied the style of something shot by Leni Riefenstahl (NB – this is an example, not a confession) but hated the content and what it represented. Your understanding might be to recognise and avoid anything reminiscent of that in your own work. You might discuss your feelings for the work in a conversation, but you would avoid putting Riefenstahl down as an influence. You’d be happy to claim Margaret Bourke-White though. Saying that, I’m happy to share someone I follow, because it’s a useful resource. This is sharing a benefit and I hope other people would do the same.

Rob Lowe?

Do you know who your influences are? It’s an interesting exercise to compile a list and put a reason against each one. I wonder if it’s also useful to have a hate list as well as the hit list. If there is work that you really don’t like, understand why. Perhaps it’s also useful to be clear why you follow some work. The link I gave above is to a resource. It’s useful and, if I ever took that kind of picture, good to know. It certainly hasn’t made me want to light everything with flash though.

So there you have it – another grumble from someone who needs to get out more. And what does it mean to follow someone anyway?

Make do and mend

I had some lenses fixed.

Let me tell you how this came to pass. I’ve had some of my lenses for a long time, and I’ve accumulated an eclectic collection of glassware over the years along with some knackered cameras. I’ve had a couple of the cameras fixed – basically waking-up sleepy shutters. Then I found that a Pentax 135mm lens I hadn’t used for a while had a very sticky aperture. I also had a lovely old Pentax 35mm lens with the same. It worked fine at closing down when taking a picture but was very slow to open-up again.

So what to do? I could perhaps replace the lenses, but what would I do with the old ones? I doubt if I could sell them and I hate the idea of throwing them away. The answer was to get them serviced, for a couple of reasons.

First is that we shouldn’t be throwing things away that we can repair (which is why the right to repair is so important).

The other is that there aren’t that many people who can still mend cameras and lenses. If they can’t make a living, we lose them completely. (Although there is a new hope)

Seawater meets electronics

I had previously had a Pentax with a dragging shutter serviced, plus an Olympic Zeiss 180mm lens with a gummy aperture. These were done by APM in Newcastle, and they did a good job.

For the 135mm and 35mm I used Peggy’s recommendation of the Camera Repair Workshop in Milton Keynes. Another good job – the glass in these lenses now looks brand new as well.

What I need now is someone who can repair a Kiev 60 with a forced winding mechanism (don’t ask). The obvious thing would have been to send it to Arax, but getting a parcel to Ukraine seems to be more complicated than sending it to Mars (and about the same price). But there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the UK who can repair them. So I guess I’m planning a Mars mission.

Glue, perhaps?

So overall, mending and servicing gear is a good thing. It might be useful to have a list of menders, so here is my first draft. Feel free to send me details of other people you have used with good results and I will update this post.

I’m sure there are more. Indeed, I know there are more. Let me know if you have any recommendations. Or if you have a broken Kiev 60 with a working winding mechanism. Or any spare pies.

What’s it light out there?

Now here’s a thing. I did a bit on how the clever kids use a light meter. Then I found that a manual exposure estimator from probably the 1950s also had a use.

I was planning to go out for a walk, and obviously planning to take some pictures. It looked reasonably bright outside, but would it make more sense to take faster lenses and film or the slower and sharper stuff?

I remembered I had this little calculator, dating from a time when a light meter would have been an expensive accessory and there certainly wasn’t one in your camera. Dial in the sort of scene you will be shooting in, the weather, time of day, month of year and the film speed. The front of the gadget shows the exposure setting. The values are based on the geographical latitude of the UK, but I expect there must have been versions for most places. So basically, a peep out of the window, a few spins of the calculator and it says I’ll be using 1/125 at f8 on ISO100.

Handy. And it saves taking kit I won’t use. And it’s a lot better than guessing.

Expired means was, not is

What is it with expired film? Why shoot expired film when you can get new?

I confess to shooting expired film in the past, but it was mostly because my unused film got old. I was also given a couple of rolls of very old Kodak film, that gave me all the problems you’d ever expect.

Why shoot a film that will have high levels of fog, low contrast and even strange spots? If it’s colour film the colours will have faded or shifted. If it’s roll film there is a fair chance that the frame numbers will show on the pictures.

One of the old Kodak films I was given was so old that the tape holding the leading edge of the film to the backing paper dried up and let go. The film coiled into body of the box camera leaving me to wind-on the backing paper.

So why wouldn’t you shoot fresh film? If you want pictures that look expired, why not add the effect later? At least that way you have some control over it. There was useful article on DIY Photography about making your own grunge filter. Use one of these and you can switch the expired effect on or off as you need.

If it’s the uncertainty you want, fine. But why stop there? Try something like Oblique Strategies or take every shot from the hip. Otherwise, why are you taking pictures? Is the purpose of your photo the subject or the method? What is it you want people to see? If your vision needs the look of expired film that’s great, but how are you going to get it reliably? I suppose what I’m asking is how to get consistent inconsistency, and I think the answer is to find a filter or processing effect that delivers what you want. In a way it’s the Zone Adams thing – have an idea of what the final picture will be and capture all possible detail and tone. Then you can turn that into multiple versions of what you saw. But if you start with a partial or compromised capture, there are fewer options later.

If it’s the subject that’s important though, I think you need reliable methods. I wouldn’t want to work hard for an image and find it was foggy or blotched.

There is also the question of not biting the hand that feeds us. There are few enough people making film and even those are dropping some products. Buy new and the money goes to the makers right now. If the market looks buoyant, others may enter it and with luck it will be sustainable. If we’re really lucky a resurgent film market will persuade someone to re-tool and start making film cameras again (I know Lomo do, but I mean things like a 35mm SLR).

You won’t get that from shooting granny’s mouldy HP3.

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Photo manipulation – yes or no?

We’ve all seen the results of HDR processing. Done well, it’s invisible. Done badly, it’s all you see. It went through a phase of everyone using it and eventually became overused and ugly. Extended dynamic range became weird luminance and a world without contrast.

Anyway, enough of the sarcasm. How much should you manipulate a picture?

I would have said just enough to get the result you wanted, but that’s pretty open ended. Take a look at the collages of Heartfield or Höch, who were Dadaists. Their work involved photography, but in the same sense that a painting might involve canvas. Their work was obvious manipulation to achieve a result. I’m not sure I often see the same intention in HDR photos, unless the aim is to show what the world looks like without contrast.

Or perhaps that doesn’t matter. The Filmosaur Manifesto says that the meaning of a photo is what the observer sees, not what the photographer intended.

How liberating is that? You don’t have to make a picture look like a photograph. You are free to have fun. The best medium for this is probably digital and the best camera is a phone. There are great tools like Paper Camera and (thanks to the Phlogger) Comica. Stop worrying about whether something is a worthy subject and just have some fun with it. The results are so far from a normal picture that nobody can judge the sharpness of your lens or how many megapickles you have.

So I’ve been having great fun, even during the dark months of lockdown, by playing with old pictures. Even ones I didn’t like as straight pictures can be pleasing when tweaked.

Who cares whether it’s artistic or even good? It’s something creative to do while we wait for the end of the apocalypse.

With luck, we’ll all be vaccinated and out to play this month.

I’m going to dull 8 it

Have you ever heard anyone say they are going to sunny-16 it? Do you think they only take pictures when it’s sunny? I’m curious because, while I know what the exposure should be in bright summer sunlight, I struggle to estimate it in the dull overcast of a British Standard Day. Even clear sunshine in winter can be two stops less bright than summer.

How hard is it to really carry a light meter? How about instead of a spare lens or a second camera?

How much would you spend on a roll of film? I can get Kentmere 400 for £4.30. How much is a light meter? I reckon you can get one for a fiver on fleabay (sanity check – I just bought two for £5). How much would you spend to get every frame on your film reasonably well exposed?

If you guess the exposure you will probably have forgotten your guesses by the time you develop the film, so you won’t have anything to learn from. If you use a meter then you will know for sure if you (or it) are over or under exposing. Then you can compensate.

I know there are some lovely new meters on sale and on kickstarter, but they cost more than a roll of film. Besides, they tend to be fixed to the camera so it can be difficult to know what you are pointing them at. I know that grass or a clear north sky will meter as that desired middle grey. I know that pale skin like mine (I can pass for Scottish) is one stop brighter. So if I’m shooting something in the same light as me I can meter off my hand and give it one more stop of exposure. It’s not very scientific, if you mean precise, but it’s better than guesswork.

MEtering 1
I wonder if the sunny bits are f16?

I’ve been using a meter more often recently than I usually do, as I’m taking one camera a month out to play. I’m finding that I can’t really guess a good exposure when it’s dull or I’m under trees. And while the latitude of the film might save me, I’d prefer to do a better job. Even Don McCullin took the time to use a lightmeter, and people were shooting at him.

So how do you know the crusty old meter you find actually works? Got a digital camera or one with a working meter? Point it at something fairly featureless like a wall or field and see what it says. Then what the old meter says. Adjust the film speed on the meter to make them agree and make a note on the meter what you did. It could be something like -1 stop on ISO if it under-reads.

Pool
Not even sunny

No digital? Try a mobile phone app. Speaking of which, even a phone app is better than no meter. I use one called LightMeter. I paid the extra to unlock it which let me check and calibrate it against a known good meter. I’d still usually rather use a small ‘proper’ meter though, just to save faffing with a phone.

My true confession though is in using the zone system. Not in the sense that large-format photographers do with special development and cleverness, but in knowing that the palm of my hand meters as zone 6. So meter my hand and overexpose by one stop. Or that sunlit snow will be at zone 9. Or the darkest shadow that I still want some detail in should be metered and then underexposed by two stops.

I hear that people who shoot portraits on colour negative film, which copes well with overexposure, meter the shadows and set that as the exposure. The reason is that they want to show some detail in the shadows and not grain or colour shifts.

Corridor
Spooky 16?

A vague memory intrudes… I recall watching a documentary years ago about a famous photographer. He was photographing models walking around a pool. He sat in a wheelchair and had an assistant pull him backwards, in front of the models. What a great idea to avoid falling in the water. But the reason for the memory is that he didn’t use a meter (or claimed not to, he had assistants). He used the exposure advice on the inside of the film packaging. Given that Kodak etc want your pictures to turn out well and that he was shooting in sunlight (and that I think he was shooting colour negative), it probably worked very well. Nobody talks about film boxing it though, do they?

But you can’t do any of this by starting with sunny 16 and guessing. At the very least, print yourself an exposure guide. It’s not a light meter, but it’s still better than guessing.

Literal is not art

This came from a comment made to David Yarrow, that I heard when he was interviewed on a podcast.

You may like David’s pictures or not – he doesn’t care because he sells them very successfully. But the difference between his picture of an elephant and any other picture of an elephant, as explained to him by the head of the Tate Modern, is that his pictures are not just literal pictures of elephants.

Let me explain.

You go on a safari holiday and take a picture of an elephant. Most likely it’s an accurate representation of what an elephant looks like. It reminds you of being there, but it’s probably a straight record of an elephant. The comment made to David was that a record is just that: it doesn’t add anything. It’s not art.

This is not an elephant

I think this explains my feelings for landscape photography. So often it’s just a record of what a place looks like.

I often return to a photography club I was in for examples. In this case they had monthly competitions on a theme. One month was record photography. On asking, I found that it was nothing to do with music. It was about taking pictures that show a thing as it is. (I could be a Kant and bring in the idea of ding an sich, but that would imply not taking a picture at all). In other words, they wanted a straight record of what something looks like with no interpretation. It would have been snide to say that most of the members’ pictures would qualify, but they would.

I think this also goes back to a comment I made in jest: are you a photographer or do you take photographs? Do you record what is in front of you or do you interpret what you saw in the scene?

I have a large horde of old pictures that only recorded the scene. For a short period after a holiday or trip they served to show other people what it was like and to remind me where I was. Then they become yet another unplaced picture of a hill or valley. These I can happily throw away. Others are interpretive and have some merit (but little skill). For example, years ago I was around Snowden and went to a famous rock-climbing area that translates as something like the dark black cliff. So I tried to photograph it as such. Nobody else would ever get it, but I still like the picture. It’s far from being art, but it’s even farther from being a straight record of a cliff.

So I think a straight record cannot be art. A photo of graffiti is a record of someone else’s art. Even a photo of the Mona Lisa is not the painting. If you are going to take a picture of something, what are you adding of yourself?

The Treachery of Imaging
The Treachery of Imaging

It may sound pretentious to talk about art in photography, but why else are you doing it? If you don’t interpret, you might as well be the Google Streetview camera car.

Focus assist for rangefinders

I had a bit of a moan about struggling to focus some cameras with my old eyes. It came home to me when I was trying to shoot some leaves caught in a wire fence in deep shade. I was turning and twisting the camera to find an edge that I could see move in the rangefinder patch. And then I had an idea. What I needed was a bright but small spot on the subject, so it would be really obvious and easy to bring two of them together. What I needed was a cheap laser pointer.

As usual, everyone else already seems to know this. Or at least it seems to be common knowledge to astrophotographers.

My first thought was to use a magnet to stick the pointer to the top of the camera. Then it occurred to me that camera top plates are probably made of brass, not steel. A quick test proved that my various rangefinders are not magnetic.

What the clever astro people are using is a hot shoe microphone adapter. Roughly £2 on eBay. On the other hand I don’t want to walk around with a weird gadget on the camera. So what I’ll be trying is the three-handed trick – one to hold the camera, one to focus and one to point the laser.

At this point I need to state what should be obvious – never point a laser in someone’s eyes. Also, never point a laser at a passing aircraft. It’s probably a bad idea to shine one into the lens of a digital camera too.

I had a trial go with the laser pointer we use to send the dog chasing itself dizzy and it’s easy to get the focus. It’s also easy to focus on things that are impossible with a normal rangefinder, like a smooth surface with no pattern. So it looks like a plan.

Off to eBay we go and a little laser pointer arrives in the post. It has a ring to attach it to a keyring, which I thought to use to hang it from one of the camera’s strap rings. What I found I could do though is to both support the camera and hold the pointer with my right hand. It meant holding the pointer like I was throwing a dart and pinching the camera between my little and ring fingers and the heel of my palm. It helps that I have big hands but it works. My left hand is under the camera, with my fingers focusing the lens. It sounds awkward but it works. The ‘dart’ grip lets me move the laser point around to put it on the focus patch. I’ve got a working focus assist.

Use of a laser pointer for focusing a rangefinder

I did try pointing the laser through the viewfinder to see if I could project two dots on the image, but that didn’t seem to work. It might do if I could line it up perfectly, but this is a quick and dirty tool, not a perfect one.

It’s also a good way to test that your rangefinder is calibrated. Shoot down the length of a long ruler or tape measure. Set up a matchbox part way down. Focus on it using the laser spot. Enlarge the negative to see if the lens focuses where it should. Russian rangefinders can mostly be adjusted and others probably can too. You don’t want to be shooting and developing a role of film after each adjustment though, so you will need to find a way of laying a focus screen on the film gate and locking the shutter open on B. I did do this once using Sellotape and a magnifier, but it took some careful cleaning to get rid of the stickiness afterwards.

Even without trying to adjust your camera, using a pointer to provide a focusing mark actually works and costs a couple of pounds.

Hurrah!