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.

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