Awkward focus

How do you focus a camera that doesn’t tell you when it’s in focus? That’s really awkward.

If you can learn how to do this trick, there are loads of interesting old cameras that you could use. They can be reasonably cheap too, as people do prefer things you can focus. And yet, you may have heard the pundits talking about magical solutions like zone focussing or hyperfocal distances. What’s a poor boy to do when you thought zones were something to do with exposure and hyperfocals were what old people went to opticians to get?

Focusing a lens means moving it nearer or closer to the film or sensor, so that the light from your chosen subject is brought to the least fuzzy point. There was some stuff about it here. Many lenses have a built-in screw thread so that turning them moves them in and out, without letting light leak past. Other arrangements are possible, but they mostly all do the in and out thing.

Now, our eyes are not perfect and there is a lower limit to the size of things we can see. As you get older, that might be grandchildren. Grant me though, that we can’t see atoms, or even molecules. So when an image is projected onto the film or sensor by a lens, there will be a range of distances where everything appears sharp. If you could look closer, perhaps with a microscope, you could see that that amount that was truly sharp was less than it appeared to the eye. This is why small prints or pictures often look sharper than they are when you make them bigger.

But for practical purposes, there is a range of distances in front of the camera between which stuff looks sharp. This is the depth of field. Where this zone falls and how deep it is depends on several things. Let’s assume for now though that these things are outside your fine control: you can make a basic choice like the camera you are using, but you can’t change the lens on it. Let’s also assume that your camera might have one of the two forms of focusing: controlled and guess, where guess includes fixed and not adjustable. If your camera provides accurate and adjustable focusing and that is what you want, then move along – there is nothing to see here. But there can be good reasons why you might want to use your adjustable camera as though it was not. The main one is often speed of use. Focusing takes time.

So, how do you make best use of either what you are stuck with or what you choose to adopt? According to type is the answer. Guessed focusing comes in three forms: fixed, zone and scale.

Fixed is where there is no adjustment possible. It’s not autofocus – it means the focus of the lens is fixed and you do your best to put the subject in the sharp zone. If you are lucky you may be able to find out from the manual or t’interweb where the focus distance is, or what the depth of field is. I have a fixed-focus camera, and the manual lists the range of sharp(ish) distances for each aperture setting. Without this information you may have to find out, or just live with it. It’s a fair assumption that a fixed-focus camera will be set to somewhere around the distance where you can get an adult in the frame, around mid-length. My own fixed-focus camera is set for about 8 feet. You could leave it at that and just work with it, or use a bit of film in testing. What you need is a long fence or railings that you can shot at an oblique angle so that your picture shows it from close to far. Before you shoot, pace out some distances and mark them with chalk or a stone. Then examine the developed image to see where it is sharp and how far away that is. Then get someone to stand that far away and look at them using the camera, to get an idea of what that distance looks like. Or make a simple version of the card rangefinder. Then shoot everything at the sharp distance.

Fence

Next up is zone focusing. This is where the lens offers a set of symbols for where it will focus. These are usually head and shoulders, group, mountains. Again, you can work with it or do the fence test to get an idea of what each setting does.

Zone focus

In the case of my camera, head and shoulders works out around 1.5 metres or a bit less than 5 feet. Groups fall at around 5 metres/ 15 feet.

Cameras like this can be very quick to use – pick the type of picture you are making, set the symbol for focus and go. Providing the aperture is around f8, you are likely to have enough depth of field to not have to worry.

Scale focusing is like using the symbols, but without the symbols. This is where the lens is marked with real distances, but you have to guess or measure the distance of your subject and adjust the lens accordingly. The lens on the camera above has both a distance scale and symbols. It sounds dreadful – how will you ever be able to estimate the distance acccurately? Use some basic rules:

  • A head and shoulders is around 5 feet, or a bit less.
  • An adult, shot vertical on 35mm with a 50mm lens, just about fills the frame at 10 feet (3m).
  • A group will be around 15 feet, or 5m.

Then use a reasonably small aperture like f8 and it will mostly work. If you are picky or nervous, make yourself a card rangefinder. It will easily fit in the camera case or your wallet.

You can even use a ‘proper’ camera with scale focusing. The street photographers do this for speed. You need to have a lens that has depth of field marking on it.

DoF

If I set this lens to f8, then everything between 2.5 and about 5m will be sharp. If that’s the most likely distance for stuff I want to take pictures of, I can set the lens and aperture and use the camera like a point and shoot. It would let me do slightly wide head and shoulders shots through to slightly tight groups without having to adjust a thing. This is what news photographers used to do, to give them the reaction time they might need to get the decisive moment (as legend would have it).

Then we come to the secret weapon of landscape photographers: the hyperfocal distance. Given a particular aperture, the hyperfocal distance is the point you focus the lens at that gives a depth of field spanning from half that distance out to infinity. It sounds like magic, and the actual point you need to focus on varies with the film or sensor size, the lens and the aperture. You don’t have enough fingers and toes to do the maths. So you either use an online resource or an app to calculate it for you, or use the depth of field markings that the lens maker gave you.

Say I’m using the lens in the above photo and I want both a group of people and the mountains in the background to be sharp. So I want a depth of field from say 4m out to infinity. I twist the lens to find a pair of aperture markings that put infinity on one side and my closest distance at the other. Then set the aperture to match the marks – the point of focus is already set correctly. Job done.

Hyper

In this case I need f11 and my closest sharp distance is perhaps 3.5m. The actual point of focus of the lens is 6m, but I don’t care.

This also works well if you are taking pictures of things that occur a bit further away, but variable. Some sports or activities, for example. Set the depth of field to cover the area of the action and concentrate on taking pictures.

So there you are – sharpness made simples, and a way to make use of the cheap end of the camera market.

In perspective

Want to start a fight? Ask a few photographers what effect the choice of lens has on perspective. Perhaps not a fight, but you will get a lot of hearsay rules and theories. But, as we know, a proper theory is one that can be falsified and makes testable predictions.

So a camera is basically a pinhole sitting at some distance from a sensor or film. The angle of view is set by the size of the sensor and how far away it is from the hole. A big sensor further away from the hole can have the same field of view as a smaller sensor closer to the hole.

Angle of view

Since the distance between sensor and hole is basically the focal length, this explains why different sizes of film or sensor need different focal length lenses to get the same angle of view. For example, a 50mm lens would be a telephoto (narrow angle of view) on an APS-C sensor, a normal lens on 35mm and a wide angle on medium format. Or, to put it the other way round, a standard lens on a small sensor would have a shorter focal length than one for a larger sensor – see A and B in the diagram above.

Let’s ignore the sensor size for now and just look at the angle of view of the lens.

Angle 1

The lens we have fitted has a wide enough angle of view to take in both the person in the foreground and the building in the background. If I stay in the same position and fit a lens with a narrower angle of view, it gets just the person’s face and a small section of the background.

Angle 2

What you will notice though, is that the relative sizes of the person and the building do not change, you just get a narrower slice of the wider version. You can test this by taking the same picture from the same position on both a wide and a narrow angle lens. Or use a zoom. Enlarge the wide-angle shot so that the central portion matches the narrow-angle picture and you will find that they match perfectly. This is the falsifiable test. This means that perspective, in the sense of the relative sizes of objects in the frame, does not change with your choice of lens if you stay in the same position. All that changes is how much stuff you get in the frame.

So what does a wide-angle lens change? If you get close to the subject, it changes the relative sizes of the nearby subject and the distant background.

Angle 3

In this diagram I shoot a head and shoulders with a narrow-angle lens (the dotted lines). It can see a narrow section of the background, so the background looks quite large in relation to the subject. If I get close to the subject with a wide-angle lens, so that I still get a head and shoulders (the solid lines in the diagram), the subject is the same size but I see more of the background and it looks smaller in relation to the subject. What changes is called the diminuition – the rate at which objects get smaller as they get further away.

This is why we usually avoid shooting portraits with wide-angle lenses. If we get close enough to fill the frame, the relative size of things near and further from the camera changes. These could be the nose or an arm or leg. But we do use wide angle lenses for landscapes, where we want to give prominence to a foreground object (like a Joe Cornish rock).

So there you have it – the angle of view of the lens only controls how much you can fit into the picture, providing you stay in the same place. You can use the angle of view of the lens to control how big the background is in relation to the subject, but only if you move nearer or closer to the subject.

What does this mean? That perspective is controlled by position, not the field of view of the lens.

Are you sitting comfortably?

If you recognise that phrase you could be as old as me, although the programme ran until 1982 so you might equally be a spring chicken.

What’s the story? Or, to poke another meme, “I’ll tell you a story, about Jack a Nory…”.

We, as a species, love story-telling. I believe this because Yuval Noah Harari says so and so do Mssrs Stuart and Cohen in The Science of Discworld II. Their argument is that it was the cohesive power of a shared story that taught us to collaborate across family and tribal borders. It also led to religion, but that’s another story.

So what the Darwin has this got to do with photography? Narrative has power and people look for a story. Even in the absence of an available story, people will make one.

The desire for a compelling tale is so strong that we will choose the embellished story over the plain and more likely one. See Kahnemann and Tversky’s Linda experiment for further details.

The expression of this in photography is when people tell you what they see in an image. I’ve heard photographers talking about people telling them what their picture is about, in terms and directions that were a great surprise to the person who actually made the image.

Fish on grass

So why should you care? Well, your pictures will tell a story whether you like it or not. If you have a particular story in mind, you should either make it very clear or add words. If you do not, the viewer will make their own story, and it may not be the one you intended. If you care, you need to make your story more clear. But if you think of how many times you see an image without a caption or description though,you might believe that the story should be in the image.

You might also think that what matters is not the story you are telling, but that there is potential in the picture for people to make-up their own story. Obviously this doesn’t apply to news photographers, social documentary and so on – these people really do have a story to tell and will work hard to do it. For me though, I can try to add elements to my picture that will lead the viewer to make a story. So I can try to show a relationship, or show someone’s doing something interesting that will make the viewer ask themselves what is going on.

Waiting for the man...

Perhaps this is the second Golden Question – the first was ‘what do I see?’. This one is ‘what does it say?’.

Does every picture have to tell a story? No. But that leads to the third Golden Question of ‘why should I care?’ Which is the realm of landscape photography.

Picture story

We – blogs, podcasts, websites – spend too much time talking about the gear and not enough about what we bought the gear for: the pictures. So here is a picture and the story behind it.

This is my dad. Was my dad. It’s not a great scan, but that’s not the point. My dad worked a lot with his hands. He was an electrician and later a maintenance guy in a large supermarket. In between he built everything we had, including (with a group) the house we lived in. I never saw my dad without some sort of injury to his hands. He would have a black fingernail, or cuts and a gashed knuckle. Shaking hands was like being power-sanded.

Later in his retirement he got sick, partly possibly due to the asbestos he was exposed to – it used to be sprayed onto the steelwork in large buildings to make them more fireproof. But he was a tough old bird and the lung damage was just a thing. He coped with more diseases then would kill a brown dog and had more come-backs than a prog-rock band. His nickname was Lazarus. This weekend would have been his birthday.

But that’s not the story. The story is a very simple one: this is my dad and these are his hands. He made stuff, he mended stuff and he held together a family.

Strong hands.

Hoppy birdy

One year of blogging. Slightly more than one post a week. What do I think of it so far? More to the point, what does my reader think of it so far?

The ideas keep coming, which is good. I have tried to avoid repeating myself, even though I do (repeatedly). I have mostly avoided talking technogabble about lenses or cameras. Mainly because I can’t review anything I don’t already own, and what I own is generally cheap and well-worn. Besides, camera reviews, at least the earnest ones that try to do a proper job, are boring. I have talked a lot about film, but I do shoot a lot of film. Besides, I am a film-using photographer.

How am I doing with my resolutions? I’ve taken some pictures of people that made me smile. Oddly, I have even taken some landscapes that other people like. I have even taken some that I like. I don’t intend to make a career out of it though – that’s landscapes, not taking pleasing photographs.

Duck Race 2019

Still haven’t found a good hat. Or rather, I have, but the rest of the world disagrees. In this case the world is wrong.

I did say I was going to sell-off some old kit and get the Kiev fixed. A quote to repair it is less than the cost of a replacement camera body from fleabay. Still more than I was hoping to spend though. No worries, I thought, sell something to cover the cost. The obvious sacrifice is a Yashicamat TLR. Given that I don’t shoot that much medium format, why not repair the camera that has a range of lenses and drop the other one?Except the TLR is the original pre-124g model from around 1957. Same lens etc but no meter. I found one on fleabay and watched it to get an idea of prices. It went for £40. There does come a point where it feels there is no point in selling something. If only I’d bought a Leica back when they were piled in camera shop junk bins for 50p*. If only I didn’t keep breaking stuff.

Perhaps a bigger question is why I am still blogging and not podcasting? After all, the analogue/ grain/ film podcasts are popping up like mushrooms (and developing a growing tendency to interview each other in an audible caucus race). Because writing suits me better than talking. I like to start with an idea and develop it (even if it looks like I don’t). I like to be able to show pictures with the words. I like being able to work in the small gaps between other things. If I had a podcast I would have to devote the same period of time each week to recording it. As a writer I can have several ideas in development and maintain a list of scheduled posts for a few weeks ahead. If one article takes me three months to write that’s fine – I can release it when it’s ready. Plus the writing makes me happy. And after all, dear reader, I am doing this as much for me as for you. For me it’s therapy – it quells those inner voices that say I should give up or just use a camera phone (and the ones that say I should kill again….). After reading this stuff you may want therapy too. Meet you at the pub.

Burning down the house

The main thing though is that I am learning from this. I could say that I’m growing, but that’s the pies. I’ve shown more of my pictures to more people in the last year than in probably all of the preceding ones. I’ve written regularly. One day there is a faint hope that I will finish the thriller I started writing, but in the odd few times I have even looked at it I can see that my writing has improved. No, really. Imagine what it used to be like.

So, what’s next?

More mutterings about photography, obviously. I’m like a lot of people in that while it’s important to me, it’s not the biggest thing in my life. I don’t have to earn a living from it, which is just as well if you believe that it’s one of the 25 worst jobs. That has to be worst-paid; I can think of far worse jobs.

More part-formed opinions and shallow commentary. More innocent joy at simple things like being in focus. Probably breaking more stuff. We’re off diving again soon, so there will be plenty of opportunities for destroying cameras and taking fuzzy pictures of green things in green fog.

More to the point, I am free and able to enjoy photography. Yay!

* Turns out I did, but was too stupid to realise. I bought what I thought was a damaged lens and was happy to use it as it was. It was only when I came to write about it that I looked a bit more carefully at the damage and realised it was an intentional design feature. So the cheap experiment turns out to be worth perhaps one hundred times what I paid for it. I should have bought a lottery ticket at the same time.

Taking it from the streets

I live in a very touristy place, so there are probably more pictures of me as background than there are of me in the family album. These will all be accidental though – shots of the side of my head as I walk through their picture. There are so many snappers that I usually don’t even try to walk behind the photographer. I used to, but there are too many of them. I’m still not mean enough to photobomb people’s selfies in front of the usual church/ old building/ old street though.

So how would I feel if someone asked to take my picture? The answer would usually be no.

If we don’t know each other, I can think of no reason why anyone would want a picture of me. Granted, if I was doing something interesting there might be a reason, but the reason would be the thing that I am doing and not my dashing good looks. I’ve got a good face for radio and the only reason I can think of that you would want my portrait is as a warning to children about the perils of loose drink and strong women.

Likewise, I don’t see myself as a street photographer. I have and will continue to take pictures of friends, family and colleagues. The same with people doing things. I love taking pictures of sports, but I don’t think I like people enough to want pictures of anyone I don’t know. There is also the privacy thing: much as I would not want to be photographed, I believe I should apply the same rules to other people.

Eyes

So that mostly breaks the idea of street photography for me. That’s the second one off my list. If I’m not careful I’ll end up taking pictures of flowers with fuzzy backgrounds and lusting after lenses with better aberrations. (Too late.) So how do I reconcile the conflicting desires to take more pictures of people but not take pictures of people I don’t know?

Family, friends, colleagues – not only no problem, but I like to take pictures of them. I’m a normal friendly chap, after all. Primarily what drives me though is activity. I have found that trying to get someone to sit for a portrait is awkward for both of us. But if you are doing something, I’m right there and I’ll get your expression. Most recently it was my mum giving a running commentary on the neighbours while washing dishes. I’ll not show it here because she’s not happy with her hair. But it’s so typical of her that I’m glad I have it.

Simon King has written a good description of his approach to street photography. I love his shots that have the odd juxtapositions and humour and I hope I would have taken them too. But to stop someone in the street because I like the way they look or dress? Not my thing at all. But that’s just me – I have no valid opinion on what’s right or wrong here. I can explain how I feel and what I do, but in this my opinion caries less weight than someone who actually does do street photography.

So what I will actually do is to carry on taking pictures of people I know and very definitely taking pictures of people doing things. But actual ‘in the street’ photography I will probably confine to the occasional odd thing that makes me smile. More straight than street.

Laffin Bob

Do I worry that I’m missing-out on a photographic essential? No: there’s plenty left for me to enjoy. I’m also not part of the APS or large format revivals so I’m content to be off the pace. More hip replacement than hipster – that’s me.

Your mileage may vary, as they used to say.

FIlm is dead, and so is your phone

Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements is 150 years old. Hurrah!

Film is back. Hurrah!

Film cameras are no longer made and will die out. Boo!

Some people are planning to make new film cameras. Hurrah!

Some people sell new film cameras. Hurrah!

Silver is running out. Boo!

So our revival could be short-lived. Silver is less abundant than uranium (surprise) but more abundant than gold. Part of the problem is that people don’t dissolve gold in photographic fixer and pour it down the sink. The main risk is probably mobile phones though. Everyone’s gotta get their upgrade. There is an estimate of over one million phones traded-in every month in the UK, ten million in Europe and twelve million in the USA. That’s where your silver is going, along with all the other rare elements.

What will happen is that the price of silver will increase rapidly before it finally vanishes. If you think film is expensive now, wait until it’s competing with smartphones.

I suppose the one light in the looming darkness is that, come the apocalypse, at least we will know that we can excavate the landfill sites as a source of raw materials.

What can you do? Keep your phone longer. Recycle. Pour your old fixer onto a wad of steel wool and let it stand before pouring it away. This plates the silver out onto the iron or drops it as sludge. You will be pouring less of a precious and rather toxic metal down the sink. What to do with silvery Brillo pads I’m not sure, but given enough silver sludge there will be a metal recycler who would handle it.

But enjoy film while you can. Before long we will all be shooting cyanotypes.

And if you shoot digital and are feeling smug, have a look at the number of rare elements used in screens, processors and lenses.

Think of the money I saved from those holes