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Destroying folders

Look away now if you are easily offended.

There were a lot of mundane folding cameras made. By this I mean the ones that take roll film and have a bellows and lens that fold out of the camera body. Some were great – if you find one cheap then do give it a go, you might be surprised at how good the combination of a small-aperture lens and a large negative can be. On the other hand, there was a lot of grey porridge. If you have or find one of these, there is a second life for it.

Check it over first though. The two things that can fail are the bellows and the shutter. If the bellows has gone, buy it for pennies. If the shutter has jammed it can be worth unscrewing the front and back lens elements and dripping a bit of lighter fuel through it. Again, don’t pay real money for it.

Ideally you want a camera that takes 120 film, which you can still get easily. 620 film is a workable alternative – some of the cameras will take 120 film and some can be made to take 120 film by slightly trimming the disks at the end of a plastic spool. (See here or here).

So, victim in hand, take a look at how the bellows and door attach to the camera body. The whole lot can often be removed by undoing a few screws. A bit of similar surgery can remove the support arms from the lens and shutter assembly. You are then left with a camera body and a lens plus bellows.

What I did with the camera body was to make a small box out of thin plywood that just fit into the opening left by the bellows. And you will find, like I did, that you need to seal all of the holes where the screws were removed or you will have some impressive light leaks. I made the depth of the box just enough to slightly protrude from the camera body. This made the front of it something like 21mm away from the film plane. Then I made a nice round hole in the centre of the front surface of the box and taped a home-made (drink-can alloy) pinhole over it.

I then had a 6×9 film camera with a pinhole lens at 21mm focal length. This gives something like 137 degrees angle of view. The field of view was in fact so wide that my initial pictures included the head of the screw that acted as a hinge for the flap of wood I was using to cover the pinhole as a form of shutter.

That’s the screwhead, top right.

You could as easily go long – build a deeper box and make a telephoto pinhole. A standard lens on 6×9 is around 105mm, so you could start around 200mm and go from there. There are some good online pinhole calculators that will tell you what the optimum diameter of the pinhole should be for any chosen focal length. For home builders it might be easier to start with a pinhole and calculate its optimal focal length. This is probably easier than trying to make a tiny hole with a specific size. Which leads to the question of how you measure a tiny hole? You could try photographing it against a ruler with a digital camera if you have a really good macro lens. Then enlarge the shot and compare the pinhole diameter to a 1mm division on the ruler. The way I heard was to put it on a flatbed scanner and scan it at a known resolution. Enlarge the image and count the pixels.

I’ve seen some interesting results from using two narrow slits at right angles, leaving a small hole at the point they cross. Separating the two sets of slits gives an anamorphic effect. Whether it is the horizontal or vertical slit that’s furthest from the film will control whether the image is stretched horizontally or vertically. I reckon I could do this using a couple of razor blades to make the slot. I could guage the gap using a piece of thin wire, which I could measure with a micrometer. Time to find another old folder to torture, methinks.

There is no need to put the pinhole in the centre of the film either. Offset it vertically towards the top of the camera and you have the equivalent of a rising front on a large format camera: the camera will be looking upwards without distorting the verticals. Or put four pinholes on the camera, offset up, down, left and right. Then you can uncover and use the best one for effect.

But at the end of the day a pinhole camera is a one-trick pony. It shoots super wide. Whoopee. Though to be fair, I doubt I could ever find a 21mm lens that covers 6×9. But seriously, pinholes: they are everything you could do with a proper lens, but not as good. Which is why I have no pictures of the clever camera body I made: I did it, I used it once, I sold it.

So what do you do with the leftover lens and bellows? Way more interesting stuff than owning a pinhole camera for a start. Find a body cap for your camera, cut a big hole in the middle of it and glue it to the bellows. The result is a cheap version of a Lensbaby. This means you can do all the effects with shallow or extended depth of field and do the shift-lens thing with buildings. The only problem is keeping the lens still – you could be working with an f8 lens and slow shutter speeds. Mine works OK in fairly bright light. If I got serious about it I would find some way of locking the lens in a chosen position. Perhaps if I made a front standard like on a large format camera, sliding on a bit of wood that I can attach to the camera’s tripod socket?

won’t work with protruding pentaprisms.
Epoxy resin is your friend

My Mark 1 effort works fine on my film cameras but won’t fit my digital SLR because it has a pentaprism that protrudes forwards. What I will do for my Mark 2 is to try attaching the bellows to the body cap with velcro (I just need to find a nice old 6×6 folder that I can destroy).

Some older shutters have a T setting that locks the shutter open. If not you will need to find a locking cable release to hold the shutter open on B. Assuming the lens was originally meant to cover 6×6 or 6×9 roll film, you should be able to shift it a fair distance away from the central line and still get an image. You can also expect to get soft focus at the edges of the lens coverage, colour fringing and loads of dust released from the inside of the old bellows.


So for the price of an unloved old folder from a junk shop you get a pinhole camera and a tilt and shift lens. What’s not to love? Better than that – you get to sell-on an unloved and useless folding camera to someone who actually wants a pinhole while retaining the useful bit.

model shot
Tilting the lens back gives that ‘model’ look.

Filmic folder fun for all the family.

Swing lens is great for isolating a vertical subject

It’s got me thinking though – I wonder what a swing lens would do to portraits?


I found a picture of the pinhole conversion.


This is the Mk II version without the hinged bit of wood for a shutter. The mass of tape is there to provide a smooth surface so that the piece of tape I am using as a shutter can peel away easily. As you can see, this is a 21mm lens on 6×9 film and has an aperture of f190.


For weddings and a free-for-all

It used to be that the hired wedding photographer did a few group shots at the church and handed over perhaps a dozen proofs to choose from. There was a standard shot list that ran the combinations of families and funtionaries and when it was done, so was the job. A longer assignment would include the speeches and cutting the cake. Then the professionals found themselves surrounded by a crowd of friends and family, all taking copies of the same group shot. Some of the savvy ones used a longer lens and politely asked the throng to remain behind them. This meant that they got the tight group shot and uncle Joe got the church, the trees and a small group in the distance.

Then cameras got democratised, and even uncle Joe had a DSLR with a zoom lens. The professional still had the edge in being able to use fill-in flash and compose a picture better, so quality could rule the day if that is what people wanted. And then I think it went off in one of two directions.

In one, the ubiquity of mobile phones changed weddings into paparazzi events to be reassembled from a thousand selfies. In the other the ‘free’ nature of digital meant that the remaining professionals were talking of shooting more than a thousand frames. How on earth does anyone choose from that shotgun blast? With that many shots you could join them up and make a stop-motion video of the wedding. And does it set the expectation that every person attending will have a personal selection of candid and formal portraits to choose from?

Actually, that raises a question: what is the purpose of wedding photography? Is it to record the event and participants, or is it getting to the other extreme of a glamorous fiction? The answer is probably ‘all of the above’. I imagine that the vast majority of weddings are basically recorded: there are some nice pictures of the key people and some nice groups and it forms a pleasant memory of the event. And then there is the top end stuff. These are like car adverts, where the perfectly clean and shiny example of automotive orgasmatron is shown speeding down empty roads in a stunning landscape with a smug driver pressing the buttons for groovy tunes and warp drive. These will be the weddings shoots that have backlit brides on sunset beaches and visions of the couple reflected in their rings. High end and aspirational, but more the exception than the rule. That red glow in the evening in Middlesbrough usually had less to do with the sun going down than something going bad at the Wilton chemical works. (Incidentally, I worked with someone from Middlesbrough. It wasn’t until he left home that he discovered that sparrows weren’t black.)

“I met my love by the gas works wall…”

I have shot very few weddings, and only as the ‘mate with a good camera who can do it for free/ food/ a favour’. The easiest physically was shot on two rolls of 120 film with a fixed-lens TLR. That’s 24 shots, or about 20 with editing. Stressful though, as you have no idea if aunty had her mouth open or her eyes shut until the film is processed, and then it’s too late. It constrains things to just the formal group shots, so it’s over and done in no time. Less tense but logistically harder was using a digital SLR and a bagful of lenses. The post-processing took longer than the wedding. Let nobody tell you that digital is quicker. The happy couple got a DVD full of pictures to print or share as they wanted. It was far less stressful in some ways though, as chimping meant that I knew I had the shot or could shout everyone to pay attention and face front while I repeated it. With someone acting as sheepdog we got the standard combinations of relatives and family wheeled into and out of the group shots in quick time, so nobody got bored or took their hat or jacket off. We did get an uncle walking through the background smoking what he thought was a crafty fag, but he was easily retrieved by a young nephew.

The biggest thing I’ve learned though is to get explicit and detailed agreement over what type of photos are required, what access you can have and what sort of results they want. Easily said, and easily done if you are a professional. But it can turn to worms if it’s a family wedding. You thought you were shooting just the ceremony and your mother puts a contract out on you for not getting the speeches or not getting a snap of granny. And now she’s dead and nobody remembers what she looked like. Or you find yourself in a scrum of relatives holding their phones out at arms length, right in shot. It’s considered bad form to punch your relatives unless it’s a Scottish wedding. Or at least wait until after the speeches.

“The party’s over, It’s time to call it a day…”

I had an unusual arrangement when I agreed to shoot a family wedding and turned up to find that a friend of the couple had been named as the official photographer, but could they borrow my camera? That’s a dilemma: do you leave the camera set for spot-metering, spot-focus, diffused flash with a bit of compensation, or do you set it to idiot mode like a big point-and-shoot so that they will at least get a workable result? Seriously: in any normal world you would invite the designated photographer to use the camera they brought with them or to stuff it up their arse. Whichever worked best for them or was the best fit. But really, I got over myself, put the camera on safe mode and put up with it. It was their wedding, not mine. And besides, they only did the ceremony shots inside, leaving me free to do all the groups, portraits, candids, arrival and departure, cake, speeches….

It really was a case of getting over myself: I am not the big must-have wedding professional. I can take competent shots but you would only engage me because I do mate’s rates. I don’t want to make my living as a wedding photographer, so I never put the effort in to be better than that. I can see how the big boys shoot a thousand frames though: it’s easy to keep poking the shutter button as the incremental cost is zero but that next shot might be the one. The wedding where someone borrowed my camera resulted in 150 shots, edited down to 90. That would be 13 rolls of 120 film or five rolls of 35mm, plus developing and proof-prints. That’s a chunk of cash to lay out with no guarantee of covering it.

The other difference is that I would previously have dropped-off my films and collected the results. What I took is what the couple got. With a digital wedding I did all the post-processing. That’s a few more hours graft to get everything consistently colour-balanced, sharpened and captioned. Then I could pop them on Dropbox and fire out the sharing invitations. That at least is a huge advantage of digital: the ability to share the finished article with the whole wedding party immediately, with no further work on collating print orders. I’ve done the traditional print thing before and it was a pain in the arse. By the time everyone had decided what they wanted and I had managed the print order and distribution it was time to photograph their first child’s birthday.

This digital print-it-yourself thing works perfectly for me. I also have a good quality print shop that I use, so I let them know that I can get big enlargements, mounted, framed and all that business at good prices if they want it. Mostly they want the pictures on their phone or to bang a few copies out on the home printer, but I’ve had a couple of orders for something bigger or nicer. Even the traditional canvas print – these can look better than you might think.

And from the extremes of a fixed and manual-everything TLR to carrying every lens I own, I have found the perfect wedding kit: a large-aperture, wide to slightly long zoom (24-70mm equivalent) plus a really good dedicated flash plus diffuser. I’ve also got a really wide-aperture 75mm equivalent manual lens from my old film SLR for those too far away and dark moments or that flattering portrait of mother/granny/bride. On the last wedding I did it even managed to throw out of focus the car-parking signs behind the wedding party (no options to move or reframe).

Do I want to do more of this kind of thing? Not really. Can I do it and would I do it if asked? Sure, but let’s agree the details.

And if you want to borrow my camera, I brought one along you can use.

Lomo can you go
It started as sarcasm, but now I’m thinking… you know what?…
  • The Pogues and Bobby Darin, if you were wondering.

How to photo goodly

This is a long one. I have some stuff I wrote to use elsewhere, but never did, about how cameras work. Imagine an idiot’s guide written by an idiot. I’ll see if WordPress lets me file it as a resource or something, as I don’t want it to replace my eagerly-awaited weekly postings of nonsense and bad attitudes. Or for anyone to think this is a website about learning photography. Think of it as something I have to get off my chest and will feel a lot better for. I have a built-in need to explain: the only book I wrote is a manual on how to do a thing, rather than something I made up. Right, back to the plot.

My approach will start with the theory, as this explains why. That leads to what to do, which then leads to how to do it. When to use it is up to you: it’s a tool in your bag.

Photography records the way light reflects from a subject. A camera is a box that keeps out all of the light except that which reflects from the subject. The camera provides a method for focusing the light onto something that will record it, plus a method of capturing a specific chunk of light: a moment in time. This is where most people come in – they want to record what something looks like or to capture a moment in time. If you want to know how this all works so that you can change your results, read on.

Take a look at a scene or subject around you. Ignore the colours and look at how bright or dark things are. Your scene may include objects or shadows that are black right through to things that are white or shiny. The brightness of any part of the scene depends on how much light it reflects towards you. This can also depend on how much light falls on it: a white area of snow in sunlight can reflect a lot more light than a black dog in the shade.

Your camera contains a film or sensor that will capture and record the light that you let in. The first thing to know is that your film or sensor has limitations. The ideal that we strive for is to capture the full range of tones in the subject from shadow to highlight, while being able to see a little detail at both ends of the scale. We like to see just a hint of detail in the shadows or darkest parts of the scene so that they don’t appear as empty black spaces. We also like to see a bit of detail and texture in the highlights or brightest parts so they don’t appear to be glaring white. When you have learned to do this you can then creatively ‘ignore’ it, meaning that you can choose what you want the shadows or highlights to look like, how much detail you want to keep and how much contrast you want between light and dark. Look at something like Bailey’s portrait of Michael Caine. Not much detail in that suit, but there doesn’t need to be. Look at almost any Ansel Adams landscape and you will see every tone and shade the gods invented. So, what has this got to do with the limitations of the film or sensor?

Think of the light arriving at the camera as a stream of photons, like a stream of little bullets. The more photons that hit a single point on the film or sensor, the brighter that bit of the subject was. Obviously, the darkest thing that the sensor or film can record is a single photon. There is an upper limit too due to the physical nature and constraints of the sensor or film. Imagine the film or sensor is a row of buckets. Each bucket can hold up to 1000 photons. Any more than this and they overflow and run away. So the brightest thing you can capture needs to deliver 1000 photons per bucket and the darkest just 1.

This means that the slice of time you need to capture with the camera should deliver just the right amount of light to the film or sensor. Too much and all the buckets will fill-up so you will have a blank white picture. Too little and most of the buckets will be empty, so you get Michael Caine’s suit. At a basic level you have two controls over what the film or sensor records: how bright and how long.

Imagine taking a bar of chocolate out of the fridge and leaving it out in the sun. Leave it for a few seconds and you still have a tooth-breaker. Leave if for a few hours and you have a drink. The strength of the sunlight matters too. A minute in summer might be the same as an hour in the winter. So you adjust the two basic controls of the camera to allow just the right amount of light through.

So you want 1000 photons let through for the brightest bits. You can let them through in a brief wave if they stand side-by-side, or you can make them line-up in single file which takes longer. Imagine a bunch of people trying to get into a room. If the room is a hangar with a huge door you can open it wide and they can march in shoulder to shoulder. But you only need to open the door that wide for a brief moment. If instead they had to come in through a narrow gate they would have to file in, one behind the other, and the door would need to stay open for longer. So your basic controls of how long and how bright are linked together.

The shutter and aperture work together and can be changed in step, so that you can choose to have a wide group of photons walk quickly through the shutter or a narrow line of photons file through slowly. Holding one of them constant and varying the other controls the total number of photons that get through, making sure you have enough and avoiding over-filling any of the buckets. Setting the right combination to suit the subject and the sensor or film is called the exposure, because it is how much light you expose the film or sensor to.

These are the same amount of light

So this explains the two main controls you have over a camera: shutter speed and aperture. The shutter controls how long the door stays open, the aperture controls how wide you open it. Why you might choose a narrow aperture over a wide one is something I will come to later.

How do you choose the right combination of shutter speed and aperture? Some cameras have an exposure meter built in that will tell you when the combination is right. Some cameras are automatic and will set the right combination themselves. But that is what they are doing: sorting out the size of aperture and the speed of shutter to give just the right amount of light.

Now, the thing that may seem illogical but is true, is that everything in photography works in powers of two. So the step between one shutter speed and the next is to double or halve the amount of light (depending on whether you change to a slower or faster speed). The aperture doubles or halves the area of the hole. This is how they match: doubling the size of the hole by opening the aperture can be balanced by halving the amount of light by changing to the next fastest shutter speed. Why doubling and halving? Just accept it for now – it’s to do with physics and the response of the film or sensor. What it means though is that both of the controls have the same effect: a single change in one of them can be exactly balanced by a single change in the other. You don’t need to do sums and try to work out what a 10% bigger aperture means: every major increment is twice or half, and the same applies to the shutter.

Let’s get back to the aperture and the lens. Imagine you are looking at a tall fence with a small knothole in the wood. If you put your eye right up to the hole you will be able to see almost everything on the other side of the fence. Stand further back and you will see a small patch of the scene beyond. Lenses and their apertures work like holes in a fence. Aperture is just another word for the size of the opening in the lens.

You will have seen that lenses have a size or distance printed somewhere on them as a certain number of millimetres (or inches if you have an old lens). This is called the focal length of the lens and is the equivalent of how far away the knothole is from the film or sensor. A small number means that it is close and you have a wide angle of view through it. A large number means far away, so a narrow angle of view. In photographer talk, for a wide angle view you want a lens with a short focal length. To isolate a small part of a scene or something at a distance, you want a long focal length. How long is long and how short is short? That depends on the size of your film or sensor. A great big wide sensor can capture right out to the edges of what comes through the lens. A smaller sensor or film can see only a central portion of what is available. So what might be an extreme wide angle lens for a big camera might give a much narrower view on a smaller one.

This is a 105mm lens

Don’t worry about it for now – the lenses or zooms that fit your camera will have been chosen to provide the range of wide to narrow angle of view. Where the theory comes back in though is that a hole close-by lets more light through than one further away. You can try this at home. Pull the curtains in a room during daylight but make a small hole at the join – a short length of toilet roll core perhaps. Look at the wall furthest from the curtains and you may see a dim upside-down image of the world outside. Hold up a piece of paper on that wall and then walk towards the curtains. The image or light on the paper will get brighter as the light that previously had to cover the entire wall is captured by a smaller piece of paper.

This could be a problem (but isn’t). If the amount of light reaching the film or sensor depends on the focal length of the lens, how do you calculate the exposure? You might get everything set nicely with a wide angle lens and then swap to a longer focal length (narrower angle of view, magnifies a small portion of the scene). The aperture is further away, so it will be darker. What do you do? Simples. A small hole close up is the same as a wider one further away. They are like the cows on Craggy Island. So instead of measuring the size of the whole, we express it as a ratio. The ratio is the focal length of the lens (how far away the knothole is) divided by the diameter of the hole. Very conveniently, this gives us a number that tells you how much light is getting through, whatever the focal length of the lens. So if the diameter of the aperture was 1/4 of the focal length of the lens, then every lens in the world that was set to the same ratio would let through the same amount of light. But because we are photographers and love jargon, we don’t call the ratio 1/4. Instead we call it f/4, usually shortened to f4.

So swapping my superwide 15mm lens for a superlong 400mm lens means that, providing they can be set to the same aperture number, I don’t need to change the shutter speed. And if the long lens is f8 while the wide lens was f5.6, I can compensate by slowing-down the shutter by one step. The biggest opening that a lens can make is also expressed as the same number and lets you compare two lenses. Think of a huge barrel of a lens with a large diameter bit of glass at the front. It gathers a lot of incoming light. Then think of a skinny wee lens with a small bit of glass at the front. It gathers and passes through less light. But we use the same number that we use for apertures to express how wide the lens is compared with its focal length. The lens will have printed on it the widest aperture it can provide. Using ratios to express the size of the aperture means that we don’t have to do sums.

So the biggest hole this lens can make is 1/6.3 of its focal length. Set it to f8 like here, and it lets through the same amount of light as every other lens at f8.

So why the weird choice of numbers? For a start, think of the numbers as ‘one over’, so 8 really means 1/8 and 11 means 1/11. Nobody prints the 1/8 or 1/11 on the lens to save space. It’s part of the lore of photography and it makes us special. Shutter speeds are the same – the dial might say 2000 but it really means 1/2000. So the bigger the number, the smaller the hole or the shorter the time.

That still hasn’t explained the strange choice of numbers for apertures. What we are trying to do with apertures is make each setting double or half the area of the next one, because it’s the area of the hole that matters (it’s how wide we open the door). Think back to school – the area of a circle is pi times the radius squared. So to double the area you don’t multiply the radius of the hole by two, but by the square root of two (call it 1.4).

Imagine a lens that had the diameter of the front element equal to the focal length of the lens. We would call the maximum aperture of this lens f1. The next setting on the aperture that lets through half as much light would be (one over (f1 times 1.4)) or f1.4 (as it would be marked on the lens). The next smallest hole, letting through half as much light again, would be (one over (f1.4 times 1.4)) or f2.

Basically, the aperture numbers ascend in multiples of the square root of two. This means that each major setting is half or double the area of hole. There is no reason for choosing the particular ratios that give rise to the aperture values of 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11 etc but the camera industry has mostly decided to settle on these. Older cameras may have different numbers, but the apertures will always be in multiples of 1.4 and the shutters speeds will always double or half. So in the picture of the old lens above, the biggest they could make it was f6.3 (so it has a diameter of 1/6.3 of its focal length of 105mm), but the rest of the aperture scale uses the normal range of numbers.

Basically, don’t fret about the weird aperture numbers. Each major setting is half or double the light. Every lens that is set to the same number lets through the same amount of light. See? Powers of two.

Back to exposure and the buckets. Why not blast the film or sensor with light to make sure that you capture enough light from the darkest areas? So the most each bucket can hold is 1000. As more and more of the buckets are filled, they can only show solid white. What you would (usually) prefer is that one or two buckets had 1000 photons, but there were some with 999, 998, 997 and so on. These will show in your picture as subtle tones and texture in your brightest areas. So you chose an exposure that only just fills the brightest bucket and lets the others give you tonality.

Same at the shadow end – you may only want a few buckets with a single photon in and loads of others with 2, 3, 4, etc. This gives you the detail and texture in the shadows.

Anyone with a digital camera can now feel smug. If your camera can display a histogram, what you are seeing is how many buckets contain various numbers of photons. By convention the fullest buckets are on the right of the graph and will correspond to the brightest areas in the subject. The height of the graph at each point is the number of buckets that contain that number of photons.


And this is how you decide on the right exposure with a digital camera. I could give this picture (above) a bit more exposure – a slower shutter speed or a wider aperture – because there is still some space at the right side of the graph. I don’t have a single bucket close to full. The nearer I can get to getting as many photons in the buckets as possible, the more detail and information my picture will contain. You can always choose to deliberately hide detail later (like Michael Caine’s suit), but if it’s not there to begin with you are stuck with only having that choice.

And if you shoot film? Experience and practice, but greater skill and rewards.

There is one remaining control, and that is the sensitivity of the film or sensor. Imagine if the buckets were wider – each bucket stands more chance of capturing photons and fewer of them would zip through the gaps between the buckets. So overall you would be able to let less light through but capture more of it. Film can be made with wider buckets so it is more sensitive to light. The down side of this is that the wider buckets are more visible in the final picture as grain.


Taken to the extreme, the grain gets in the way of fine detail. This is why you would choose a low-sensitivity film for pictures where you want fine details and smooth tones.

What happens with digital cameras is not so much the use of wider buckets, but using an amplifier to boost the signal. If the most that any of your buckets could capture was 500 photons, then using an amplifier to double the signal would get you back to a normal result. The down side of this is noise. If you ever had a home hi-fi with an amplifier, you may be aware of the hum you could hear if you turned the volume up when nothing was playing (OK – I only ever had cheap hi-fi kit). In a digital camera this is odd specks of colour in what should be a smooth tone.

Styhead Tarn towards Keswick

Digital cameras are getting much better at this and now offer amazing sensitivity with very little noise.

The sensitivity of a film or sensor is (you guessed it) represented with a number. In this case it is the ISO number. The smaller the number, the less sensitive the film or sensor is to light. Less sensitive means it will capture smoother tones, with less grain or noise. More sensitive means you need less overall light to get a picture, at the expense of some grain or noise. 50 to 100 ISO is considered slow – meaning less sensitive. It needs to see the light for a longer time to be properly exposed, which is why we call it slow film. 400 ISO and above is considered fast – meaning more light-sensitive. You pick your film (or sensor setting) to match the conditions you are shooting under or the effect you want to get. And guess what? Film speeds come in powers of two. Swapping from a film or sensor at 100 ISO to one at 200 ISO means that you can close the aperture by one increment or speed-up the shutter by one.

So now you can play the combinations of sensitivity, shutter speed and aperture. An old-fashioned light meter might explain how the combinations work together.


The meter above shows the film speed set at 100 ASA. ASA is what we used to call ISO, so this is a slow 100 ISO film. The meter says there is a light level of just a tad over 80 – you can see it on the top of the dial. Setting the meter dial to match the reading of 80 gives a set of shutter speed and aperture combinations around the bottom of the dial. These are all equivalent, so I could choose 1/250 shutter and f5.6 aperture; 1/125 shutter and f8 aperture; and so on. If my camera could do it, I could use one of the extremes like 1/2000 shutter at f2 or half a second (1/2) at F64. And if the amount of light changed, or I swapped for a film or sensor with a different ISO, I would get a different set of shutter/aperture combinations to match.

Remember above when I said that I would cover the reasons why you would choose one shutter speed/ aperture combination over another? Right then…

Despite what the manufactures may say, no lens is perfect. They are designed to do the best they can to focus all of the light perfectly onto a flat film or sensor.

Lens 1

Look at that cone of light on the right of the lens, focused onto the film or sensor. The light comes down to a point and then widens out again. The perfect point of sharp focus is when the tip of the cone just touches the film or sensor. You focus a lens by moving it in and out, closer or further from the film or sensor. What you are actually doing is moving that cone of light so that the sharp point of it falls on the film or sensor.

Imagine that row of buckets again. The tip of that cone need not be perfectly sharp – it can be allowed to get as wide as the mouth of the bucket. Anything smaller than the bucket is still going to be recorded as one bucket’s worth. So there is actually a range of focus over which the picture will still look sharp. This depends on how big the buckets are, which is why low-sensitivity films with their small buckets can look sharper. It also depends on how large you make the final picture – your eye can only see down to a certain level of detail so anything sharper than that is lost. So this means that even if you focus the cone of light perfectly on the film or sensor, some of the parts of the scene that are not strictly focused still have light cones narrow enough to fit into a single bucket. This makes them look sharp too. What this means is that, depending on the film or sensor, the final enlargement and the quality of the lens, there will be a range of distances over which the subject looks sharp. This is called the depth of field.

The lens in the picture below is wide-open: it has a wide aperture. The cone of light focused onto the film or sensor comes in at a sharp angle and diverges again quickly. So the sharp point of the cone becomes a large disk as you move away from the point. The steep angle of the cone makes this happen rapidly as you move away from the sharp point.

Lens 4
As the lens moves back and forth to focus, the sharp cone of light rapidly becomes a disk.

Now imagine that you close-down the aperture of the lens.

Lens 5

The cone is now sharper, so it changes size more slowly as you move away from the point. This means that more of the subject appears to be in focus. This is why pinhole cameras, that have a tiny aperture, make it appear that everything is in focus (or as sharp as it can be for a pinhole camera). A wide-open aperture gives a shallow depth of field and can isolate your subject as sharp against a blurred background. A small aperture gives a large depth of field and can make everything in the picture look sharp.

So there you go: fast shutter speeds will minimise blur from your hands shaking or things moving. Open apertures give a shallow depth of field and closed apertures give a greater depth of field. Don’t over-fill your buckets but do get them as full as you can. And everything works in powers of two. You know I said a bucket could hold 1000 photons? It’s actually 1024 (two to the power of ten).

Vicarious photography

I read blogs and listen to podcasts because want to hear the thinking of people who are better than me or who can lead me to new ideas. Why am I writing this blog then? Well, I already knew I had a good face for radio, and then I learned I had a great voice for mime. So I stuck to writing articles. I once wrote a series of articles for a motorcycle monthly about living with an old bike. I ran it under a pseudonym (Nescio, for the classically curious) for about a year. Then one day someone I worked with came up to me in the car park and said “you write that column, don’t you?”. Who’da thunk it?

This one is Dave’s bike.

I have learned a little from my mistakes and now try to steer away from explaining – you may have seen the XKCD cartoon where the guy can’t come to bed because someone on the internet is wrong. Just don’t get me started on how countersteering works on a bike. Let’s just say that, if it was really due to gyroscopic procession, your steering would depend on the weight of the front wheel. Quick nurse, the pills, and get him off that soapbox!

Anyway, back to the words. I do love a good blog, plus I’m a fairly recent convert to podcasts. Like I said, I best love the stuff that leads me to new ideas or new things. I really don’t care that some new camera has been announced that has a million autofocus points or is sensitive to mood. I care very much that I picked up ideas for doing diptychs on half frame and for making a chain-reaction series of double exposures. I also followed-up on an article about reducing noise in digital exposures to learn that I could use a feature on my camera that I had always thought was a wasted menu option. My camera is old by digital standards, so the image quality starts falling apart above 400ISO. But it lets you combine multiple underexposed images into a single one that has much less noise. Again, who’da thunk it? Thank you, blogmeisters.

I do tend to avoid social media, though. For a start, who has the time? I also dislike anything that clamours for my continual attention: I can read a blog or listen to a podcast when I want to, not when Faceberk wants to stick more advertising in my eyes. I don’t suppose anyone now remembers the wild west of Usenet? If ever there was a forum (fora, I suppose) hell-bent on correcting every opinion that was wrong, that was the one. The only way to stop some discussion threads was to mention Hitler (Godwin’s Law: I’m anti-Nazi).

So blogs are good. They are generally run by one or a few people with an interest in their subject and no axe to grind (unless you want to talk about contersteering). You get less of the past tyranny of a few Internet deities predating on innocent newcomers like Lovecraftian face-eating horrors rising from the vasty deeps (resentful, moi? I suppose that’s what percussive learning is all about though). Sure, people occasionally go off on one, but there is less of it on a classic lens forum. There are way too many pictures of tiny single flowers so that people can show off their bokeh, though. But at least it’s not Nazi bokeh and avoids outright death threats to the poster.

War has just broken out...
It starts with a snide word, and before you know it you’re exchanging nukes.

But I would like to raise a serious and possibly contentious point: not all opinions are equally valid. A second point is that critical thinking is typically neither. On the second point, you have only to see the sort of things that Snopes tries to debunk. On the first point, I believe you can have a valid opinion if you put the work in, and that means not just having an opinion but being able to explain how you go there as well as what it would take to change it. It’s like some of the things a relative of mine expresses as fact. When challenged this becomes “what I think”, but never goes deeper than that. If you don’t know why you think what you think, you haven’t thunk. So rather than the current fad of distrusting experts or invoking relativism in place of expertise, I would like to hear what the good people think as well as understanding what makes them good.

So let me put this blog into context. Treat me as an unreliable narrator. I have a little knowledge gained by reflecting on my mistakes and a large body of experience of making those mistakes. My set of currently-unexamined mistakes dwarfs the few I have learned from. If ever I feel clever I try to remember Dunning and Kruger. So having revealed that I’m an eejit, I shall endeavour to be at least readable. And don’t take this to be some form of false modety – I truly have a lot to be modest about.

But back to the good people. What a joy it is to read or listen to people who know whereof they speak, or who can express an interesting idea. Or even raise whatever the photographic equivalent of countersteering is so that I can shout in my car and frighten other motorists at the traffic lights.

Bokeh or bollocks? Discuss.

I could now provide my curated list of the finest blogs and poddles, but what makes me the expert of your taste? There are loads of things to read and listen to out there, plus loads of references to them. Try them. Live with them and see what sticks. You can expect your tastes to change as your knowledge develops or you reflect on the style and content. And besides, you need to put the work in to have an opinion.

When countersteering goes bad.

Phoning it in

I do love having a camera in my mobile phone. I think it’s got a higher resolution than my first digital camera and it’s certainly more capable. The key thing though is that it means always having a camera with me. And because a mobile phone is really a computer (and way more powerful than my first computer. Or second. Etc) I also have photo editing tools on it and some alternative camera applications. So I can do long exposures, weird effects and all sorts of image manipulation.

It’s brilliant for experimentation. Being digital I can try what I like at no additional cost. If it works, great – shift the file across to the PC and make like I meant it. If not, so what?

To retain any shred of analogue credibility I will also add that I’ve got a light meter application on the phone. It can do both incident and reflected so it’s one less thing to carry when I go out with a real camera. Not as groovy as my Weston meter, but it has numbers I can read without specs.

But back to the phone. Things I like:

  • Variable format -wide through 4:3 to square
  • HDR, if I ever find a use for it that isn’t showing off
  • Burst mode – great for a sequence or getting the peak of the action despite the shutter lag
  • Paper Camera app – nice special effects that I can use on stored files, so I still have the original
  • Stabilisation – handy when you are basically holding a bar of soap
  • Night mode, so I don’t have to fight with it so often
  • A long exposure app – great for playing with. You can even get blurry water like a real landscape photographer
  • A useful photo editor so that I can tweak-up a snap before sharing it with someone. Basically level-up, crop and correct so I look like a better photographer than I am
  • Mono Art, which is a reasonably capable mono conversion app that imitates filters so that I can do the dark skies/ white clouds thing or gothically-pale faces.

Things I hate? It can be a fight to get a level horizon and there is some serious shutter lag. The horizon thing got better when I switched on visible grid lines on the phone screen. The shutter lag is just a pain. It’s also proctalgic to have to unlock the phone before I can use it. Yes, the camera will open on its own with a hot key, but it’s no substitute for a loaded and primed camera that you can just raise and shoot.

So it’s no good for street-type sniping, but it is good for those ‘wow, I wish I had a camera’ moments. It’s also fun during those waiting-for-something-to-happen times to pull-up a previous image and play with it. I’ve never shot mono film through a magenta or cyan filter, but I can see what it does to things. Same with playing with tilt-shift blurring, posterisation or extreme edge effects. I may not be using these to make the primary image, but it can be fun to send someone the picture of themselves that they were really not expecting.

It was a very big tree…

Would I buy a phone because of the camera? No. If I was spending that much on a camera, I’d buy a camera. Would I choose between phones based on the capabilities of the camera? It’s on the comparison list, so I would take it into account, but it’s not top of the list. It’s a nice to have, not a necessity like coffee or beer.

So what do I use this marvel of miniaturised mechanismo for, I hear you ask? Snaps, mostly. Immediate gratification through digital cleverness, if you want to get all Viz about it. But I also shoot a lot of black and white film in the real world, so the Mono Art app is great for previsualising the effect of filters or post-processing. Using an orange or red filter for a portrait can usefully lighten skin tone and hide blemishes, but it can also make lips pale and eyes dark. A blue filter on your standard-issue pale male will make them rugged, if not handsome. Or it could make them look like an acned goth, so it’s worth checking.

Face filters
As seen through orange and blue filters. From vampire eyes to rugged.

Same with landscapes: do I need a yellow, orange or red filter to punch through the haze and what happens to the tones in the grass or sky? A red-brick building nestled in green hills against a blue sky? I can make it appear as a white beacon of hope or a black carbuncle of despair against a background that runs from brooding to sunny. I used to shoot through filters all the time so I knew what the negative would look like. Less so now, so it’s useful to see what might happen and whether it corresponds with what was in my head.

The other thing that the phone can do that a proper camera can’t is get into small or awkward spaces. I’ve taken macro shots from inside a bunch of flowers and really low-angle shots that a man of my years couldn’t make without help to get up again.

I also have a secret love for the Paper Camera app, particularly the Comic Boom, Gotham Noir and Neon Cola settings. I know that special effects don’t make up for taking rubbish pictures, but how else do you turn a picture of a mate DJ’ing into something more interesting than bloke with headphones peering at turntable?


Album cover

So yes, I think phones are good. They killed the point-and-shoot, didn’t they? Wim Wenders says that phones killed photography, but that’s like saying that burgers killed cookery.

TED talk

Meet TED, the ergonomic disaster.

TED is a 1990s vintage Ricoh Mirai. It was the answer to the question of ‘if we want to put a decent-sized zoom lens on a camera, what could we do to make it less like a brick on a stick?’ So what they made was a large, heavy and awkward point-and-shoot that looks like the Millenium Falcon’s chunky brother. It was a badge-engineered clone of the Olympus AZ-4 Zoom, which at least had the distinction of appearing in a Batman film.

This is the ship that did the Kessel run in four barsnacks.

I didn’t want this camera in particular; I wanted a cheap camera for the Sunny 16 Podcast cheap shots challenge. This is a great idea: camera plus film to cost less than £20 and submit two images for each themed stage. So I searched eBay for cameras starting at 99p. The Mirai was accurately described as difficult to use and lacking a manual. This seemed to scare the punters, so it was mine for 99p and postage. Add a couple of squids for a battery and I was still well within the limit. In went some expired colour print film left over from an ancient holiday and we were in the running.

Which brings me back to describing the camera. What were they thinking? It’s fine to rethink the shape of something, but there should be some consideration to placing the controls where one might expect to find them. When the original Mini came out the driver didn’t have to learn that the clutch pedal was on the passenger side and the ignition key went in the boot.

Some of the controls are obvious. Holding the fold-down handgrip puts the shutter button and zoom controls under your right fingertip. You have to ask though why the handgrip can be locked in a series of small angular increments. At anything less than fully down, with normal hands, you’ve just got an awkward bulge rather than a grip. It’s like someone sticking their elbow out for you to help them down the stairs. Just to the rear of the shutter release are a couple of arrow buttons that adjust the automatic exposure. Over time you probably learn where they are, but without practice you have to take the camera away from your eye to look for them. Right next to them is the button that removes any current settings and returns the camera to its default. That’s commonly known as a gotcha. Oh, and there’s an lcd screen on the top of the camera that shows all the current settings and frame count. It’s cunningly placed on the top and front of the camera, so you can’t just glance down at it. Instead you have to tilt the camera back, like reading the spine of a book. When the lens is focussing it re-uses the frame counter symbols to tell you at what distance the lens is focused. That might be useful if you had a third eye to read it with. The alternative might be as a form of shoot-from-the-hip feature (very lomo), where you can guess if the autofocus is about right before capturing your candid masterpiece. Except that there is a panel on the top of the camera that lights up when the camera is on and blinks off when you press the shutter. It’s the still-image version of the red recording light on video cameras.

Those magic buttons to adjust the autoexposure are set to control the shutter speed and aperture combinations. You can bias it to fast/open or slow/wide with the exact combinations decided by the camera based on zoom focal length and film speed. If you want to force a bit of under or overexpousre you have to open the Creative Control door on the left side of the camera, hold down a button and use the arrow buttons next to the shutter release. Not exactly quick. The Creative Control Panel hides a few things you might find useful. Basically, if there is a function that you may not use often, but when you do you want it quickly, it’s hidden here so that you have to take the camera away from your eye and fiddle with it. So here you will find the controls for continuous shooting, metering spot or average, manual rewind, bulb mode and exposure compensation.

Panel of goodness
The panel of hidden goodness. Also showing the switches for manual focusing and sound alerts.

You can switch the autofocus to manual, but the switch to do this is on the bottom of the camera (so be careful how you put it down and don’t accidentally move it with your left thumb). There is even a homage to the Hitchhiker’s Guide with a black button marked in black that lights-up black. This is the one that switches between direct and fill-in flash modes. It is, of course, on the top of the camera near the dedicated hotshoe. It controls the built-in flash that pops-up violently when you slide another unmarked switch on the top of the camera.

Basically this thing is a booby trap of features that the designer sneezed onto the plans.

Prepare for landing.

In use it’s heavy and awkward compared to a point-and-shoot or an SLR. The folding handgrip makes it awkward to carry when deployed and one more thing to fiddle with when you want to use it.

The lens seems sharp though, even if the aperture is a bit limited. The filter size is 52mm which matches my 135mm Takumar lens. The difference is that the Takumar opens to f2.5 and not the f5.6 of the Ricoh. Still, the Ricoh zoom has 15 elements in 13 groups, so it must be good, right? It’s not bad. Compared to what else I could have got for the money it’s brilliant.

The autofocus hunts a bit. In dim light an IR focus assist light comes on, which of course sets the focus on the window you are shooting through or whatever is nearest. I had a right job trying to get it to focus through a hole to what was beyond. The whole zoom and focus thing is a bit slow, but that might be the age of the camera. I would not use it to shoot action, or certainly not if the action varied its distance from me. But on the whole it probably does what it set out to do, which was to explore the bridge camera space with a more capable point-and-shoot that wasn’t as scary as a full SLR. Even if my SLR, which is ten years older than the Ricoh, is way easier to use. So is my digital SLR, which has more modes and features than I have digits. But whatever this weird little diversion was , I certainly got my 99p worth.

Caution - contains landscape
Look – differential focusing and bokeh! Its mother would be proud.
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