Does gear matter?

I think it does, but only in the sense of having the right tool for the job. Hammers for example. There’s lots of different types, to do lots of different jobs. You could put carpet tacks in with a sledgehammer, but you would need someone very trusting to hold the tack while you swung the hammer. Or you could use a tack hammer and keep your friends unbruised.

I should hang my head in shame though – I have a long history of improvising tools for one-off jobs. Things like using coins to pack-out the jaws of a spanner or cross-cutting the end of a bolt to use it as a thread tap. Things that make mechanics cry, let alone engineers. But photographically, some things do need the right kit. Even then, it’s possible to adapt.

Long lenses for example – you can use a shorter lens and a smaller sensor to take advantage of the scaling – a 200mm lens on APS-C becomes the equivalent of 300mm. (Sorry – 7 degrees or 122 mils). Use the better high ISO performance of a modern sensor and you can also cope with smaller apertures or a teleconverter.

Long lens and wide aperture. Or alternately, you should have seen the size of the spider.

For wider angle views it may be possible to stitch several shots together. I’ve also used one of those wide angle adapters that go on the front of a lens. Can be a bit rough at the edges but it could be the only way to get an extreme wide angle shot without owning an extreme wide angle lens.

You can get told off for lying on the floor in church

I’ve also wittered about the capabilities of a digital camera to emulate different types of film, so there are ways to get the look of something special for a one-off requirement.

Some things can only be done with specific kit though. It’s difficult to get the look of large format without actually using large format, for example. Smooth, grainless tonality, shallow depth of field, and the transition from sharp to soft – I’m sure there will be a clever PhotoShop action that can render the effect but it’s going to take some effort.

Underwater is another example – it’s difficult to take pictures without a waterproof camera or a housing. I have seen a cheat though. This was a box with a glass or plastic window that can be pushed down through the surface to allow a camera to see underwater without getting wet. It’s a miniature version of a glass-bottomed boat. But for any other situation I need an underwater housing or a specialised camera. So that’s one for the list of necessary things.

Panoramic shots may also need dedicated kit. The extreme of this is the Xpan or the Widelux or Horizon. The only alternative is to copy the craze that was on a lot of cameras (probably in the 90s) of cropping the frame to a letterbox. You could match the look of an Xpan but probably not the quality from a smaller frame. You won’t match the look of a Horizon though, as it has a swinging lens. So that’s another special shooter on the list.

The rest though is largely down to the lens. After all, a camera is just a device for putting a sensor or film behind the lens and (usually) providing a shutter and a method of checking the focusing. If the lens is fixed to the camera, then owning the set is the only way to get what that lens will do (unless you buy one of the transplanted jobs). What this means is that you don’t need to own dozens of cameras – at least not for practical reasons. A wide range of lenses that can be fitted to whatever camera has the best sensor/ shutter/ viewfinder then makes a lot of sense.

It’s partly why I stuck with Pentax – I can put all manner of lenses on the front, including medium format ones. Until I win the lottery and buy a K1 it means I use film for full-frame and APS-C for digital and to get the focal length multiplier.

I guess what I’m coming round to is a rationalisation. I definitely have too many cameras. While they can be nice toys, I need to think what category or use each one is in. Once a particular slot is filled, I probably only need one example. Small film compact, for example. I think I have five, so four of them could be surplus. Small digital compact? They are a bit more specialised as I have one converted to IR and some that have housings. Roll film toy cameras? Two.

I may build on this

So I’m going to be organising my gear by function with the aim of treating it like a set of tools. I need a range of spanners (or a good adjustable) rather than ten 10mm ones. I can feel a cull coming on for the surplus and the pointless. I might also put some thought into making sure that the uses that are important to me are adequately met. Not kit for kit’s sake, but for the sake of what I want to be able to do.

What about you? What set of circumstances does your kit need to cover? Do you have a good working tool for each one or a set of toys?

The Casual challenge

I do like a bit of a challenge and those nice people over at Casual Photofile have created one. A list of 34 things to photograph. The extra challenge for film users is to get them all, in order, on a single roll. Game on!

So this is going to take a bit of thought. I can’t take several shots of something and pick the best. I’m going to have to Deer Hunter it. I’m also using a camera for which I only have one lens, so there’s no playing about with that either.

I also cocked up at the start. I was using a new light meter I’d just bought without giving enough attention to how it worked. So the first couple of frames may be underexposed. I may have to stand-develop the film to recover those without blowing the rest.

Another aspect to the challenge is that thing about doing it all on a single roll of film. If I was going to shoot pictures on the theme of something wet, for example, I would go to a place and take several pictures. But this is one shot. I suppose I could go to the place anyway and take the challenge camera with me, then decide at the time which scene to commit to film. But I would prefer to think about the theme and take just the one shot. It feels more in keeping with the idea of the challenge, especially as I will be taking the pictures around where I live as I emerge blinking into the light after lockdown.

Taking only one shot of each subject is a challenge too. Like most people I would normally develop an idea. I’d take a picture, then reframe it or change the exposure, or maybe alter the depth of field. But this is one shot: what I shot is what I got.

So what did I do? I carried a copy of the list around with me and thought about what the next subject could be. If I hadn’t got the challenge camera with me I went back to shoot my single frame.

For anyone that didn’t follow the link above, this is the challenge list:

How did I do? Well, the original plan was to shoot the whole role, develop and scan it and then put the pictures up here. But I am conscious that it is taking me time and that if you wanted to have a go, all I am adding is delay. I will therefore post this as it stands and then come back to it later when I have my photos to show.

It also gives me time to think about what I want each item to mean. “Wooden” for example – something made of wood is easy; a bad actor would be harder.

Have a go.

Found versus made

Do you make pictures or find them? I usually find them: I take a camera for a walk and take pictures of what I see. I rarely build a picture from an idea. Someone doing advertising or product photography probably builds more than finds – they have to create a story around a subject. That might the definition of professional photography – that the photographer is able to make a story around a subject to match their brief or their intention. That, and getting paid for it.

I have done this (not getting paid, making a picture) – I wanted to take a picture of a friend’s business which was in a narrow street, and I wanted glancing light across the front. So I worked out when the sun would shine down the street at the right angle and turned up with a swing lens that would let me blur the buildings at either side. But the rest of the time I just snap what I see.

What got me thinking about this? An interview with Lottie Davies. She was talking about the result of several years’ work to make an exhibition and book called Quinn. It is an immersive story with pictures of the subject travelling through the country. The person Quinn did not exist and the tale is a story. But the pictures tell the story. This is about the best example I have of made. Every detail of this story was imagined and then created.

The opposite might be Henri Cartier-Bresson, the ultimate street photographer who took pictures that he found rather than made. Except he too saw a scene and waited for the right person or people to be in it and in the right place. But he didn’t direct them and his pictures are of what happened in that moment.

I suppose the distinction doesn’t really mean anything, as we all do both. It did help me appreciate the craft that went into something like Quinn though, and it will make me think that I should perhaps put more effort into making rather than accepting what is or hoping it was different.

Tempus fugit

From the Latin: fruit flies like a banana. Or maybe, as Yeats said, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. Except we’re not talking about the state of post-war Europe through christian imagery; I’m grumbling that my old kit is wearing out.

Own something for long enough and it will eventually crumble. For example, I’ve owned several old motorbikes. One was built in the early 60s and was primarily built for the police and army in parts of Europe. It was over-engineered and low powered, so it wore out slowly rather than broke. Mine had gone through the initial phase of bits breaking and had been maintained and fixed to a point where it mostly worked. I did the National Rally on it, so I must have had faith in it not breaking.
I also had a bike built in 1985. This wore out much more rapidly, but I also rode it much more (and faster). I was always on the lookout for used but good spare parts, as I needed to have replacement parts on hand for when stuff wore out. It was also useful to have a spare set of wheels, as I could fit new tyres to them and then do a quick switch. This was because I was commuting on the 1985 bike so I needed it on the road. One of the main differences between the bikes though, was the availability of parts. The newer bike was easier as there were still new spares available. The old one was an adventure. I had a copy of the parts list (in Italian, to go with the owner’s handbook in Serbo-Croat) so I turned internet detective to find people with supplies of the bits that wore out. It helped that Italian bike-makers tended to use the same electrical components and the manufacturer of my bike re-used components across several models. Having the part number meant that you didn’t need to know what the part was listed as on the supplier’s shelf. So the bike had an electrical switch from a Moto Morini, a rear light lens from a Moto Guzzi, an air filter from a Leyland Mini and a generator belt from a Fiat Panda.

I did eventually crash the 1985 bike. I split it up and sold it as parts to other owners. It made more money than selling the wreck and kept a load of other old bikes on the road.

But what has this got to do with photography? Well, it’s one reason why I have several cameras. Stuff wears out. Something as simple as crumbling light seal foam can take a while to fix. A cheap camera body with the right lens mount is a useful spare. For example, I was out in the cold when the camera I was using started misbehaving. Either the second curtain of the shutter was sticking or the mirror was locking up (probably the latter). So I rewound the film and loaded it into a spare camera that takes the same lenses. This will give me time to investigate the dodgy one (which immediately resumed working when warm). I’ve written previously about getting stuff repaired. Having a spare camera will let me do this with minimum impact.

dead pool
The dead pool

But, let’s face it, none of these cameras is getting younger and nobody is making new ones. While I dislike the idea of GAS or collecting for its own sake, having a spare is useful. The good thing is that so many people have jumped on the classic lenses thing that it’s fairly easy to pick up a camera body. The lens junkies sell off the bit they don’t want and if you are happy to avoid the overpriced favourites (Pentax K1000 anyone?) You can get something functional and cheap. I like both of those. And while I can’t fit the air filter from a Mini, there are plenty of entry level or clone cameras that will take my lenses.

What I should also do, I think, is send any dead camera bodies I have to the mender with anything that I send for repair. Since nobody is making these cameras any more, the dead ones are probably the only source of parts for the menders to keep the working ones going. A bit like old motorbikes.

piston
Not a camera but a thing of beauty nonetheless

One thing that happened in the old motorbikes world has yet to be matched in cameras, and that is people making new parts. Old motorbikes became so popular that people started remaking components for them from new. I suppose this could happen with cameras, but the most difficult part is the shutter, and only Copal seem to make them (and only sell them in bulk). Not quite the same as my old motorbike: that could use a certain Toyota car engine piston as an alternative to the original. There’s hope though – I did wish for Copal to sell shutters to makers and I’ve been very good this last year. How about it, camera fairies? In the meantime I’ll fix what I can, get someone clever to fix what I can’t, and pass-on any spare parts to people who can use them.

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