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Going down smiling

I got the chance to go diving in warm water again. This time it was in the Red Sea, and my first time on a live-aboard boat. This means living and diving from the boat rather than going out from shore each time. What it should mean is more dives in the day and being earlier at each dive site than the shore-based divers. This means there could be fewer people so less crowding on the dive site, fewer chances to lose your buddy in the throng, and less disturbed silt.

The down side is that there are fewer opportunities to hire kit. Basically, I needed to take most of my dive kit with me, within the weight limit of the flight. So that constrained my camera choice. The dive kit was a necessity – a second or third camera was not. I had 20kg hold luggage and 10kg cabin luggage allowance. There were also some gotchas, such as the requirement that all powered gadgets in the cabin allowance (other than mobile phones) have the battery removed. So my dive computer, that I was planning to wear as a watch, went in the hold and added to the weight. (This rule seemd to be void – there was no problem bringing the dive computer through in hand luggage on the way back). The plus side of being on a boat was that I needed minimal clothing – I would not be going out in the evening or visiting tourist attractions: I would be diving or sleeping. I could get away with a few tee shirts and a pair of shorts, but all the camera gear had to fit into the 10kg allotment.

So – what to take? It would have to be one compact camera with an underwater housing plus spare batteries and charger. The external flash would be nice, but I would be diving in clearer water than the UK and my torch could substitute. Second camera, just in case? If I can squeeze it in, yes, as it would mean I could cope with one flooded housing event. Loads of memory cards, but they weigh nothing. Video action camera and housing? Probably not, as the main camera can do video. A general use camera for surface shots? Not if I take a second camera for the housing – I can use one underwater and the other on the surface. So it’s coming down to a brace of Canon G9 cameras and one underwater housing. For safety I need to pack the batteries, with their terminals taped-over, in the cabin bag. That eats into the weight allowance too.

Lots of test packing and weighing took place. One of the most useful pre-trip purchases was a small weighing scale. I hung this up in the shed and weighed my main suitcase each time I added an item. First in was a full set of diving gear and a thin wetsuit. By reducing my clothes and personal gear to the minimum I got the case down to 19kg. That 1kg leeway was a safety factor in case my (or the airport’s) scales were out. There was also a chance that some of my kit could be damp on the way back, so heavier.

The camera housing is basically a plastic box – light but bulky. This went in the hand luggage with one camera inside it. The second camera and all the batteries went in the same bag. And I was inside the weight limit!

What I hadn’t figured was that the camera and housing were buoyant underwater without the external flash. This was a bit of a nuisance, as holding the camera in front of me tipped me head-up. It doesn’t sound like much, but we try to get as flat and level a posture as possible to reduce drag. It’s all about reducing air consumption – I can vary between 16 and 21 litres of air a minute depending on how much I am finning. Given that we want to surface with a 50 bar (50 atmospheres) reserve, anything that increases my air consumption is to be avoided. The solution was to hold the camera in front of my navel when I wasn’t using it, so that I stayed level.

The joys of diving in the Red Sea were the clarity and the critters. The visibility was 30 meters or more, compared to the 3-5 meters we typically get in the UK. There is much less silt in the water too. But the critters… most awesome! Fish ranging from smaller than my fingernail to bigger than me. Octopus changing colour and texture to hide between rocks. Moray eels like sock-puppets with teeth. Shoals of exotic and lurid fish. They do say that divers come in two types, depending on whether they like wrecks or critters. You can probably tell I’m a fan of the tentacled and wriggly.

But enough of the diving already, what about the photography? There was almost too much to photograph. I could have taken a hundred pictures of one coral outcrop, and missed the thousand other blooms in the coral garden. There was every possible type, colour and size of fish.

And then there are the things you only see by looking very carefully. Crocodile fish looking like bits of rock; scorpion fish like coral growths; octopus hiding in plain sight.

The weirdest was a Filamented Devilfish that looked like a bit of craggy rock but flashed open a pair of butterfly wings as a warning. It then crawled away using its front fins as legs.

There were bigger fish cruising at a distance, including a Silvertip Shark that slid past close enough for it to take a look at the strange bubble-blowing fish but too far away for an effective photo.

Not a shark: Napoleon Wrasse.

One thing I found interesting is that I was shooting like a film photographer – trying to make every frame count – while one person on the boat was shooting like a Hollywood gunfight. He had a GoPro- type camera on a long extension stick, and he had set it to take a still frame every half second. At the end of one dive he told me had had taken 3,500 pictures. Given that only amounts to 28 minutes and we were diving for up to 60 minutes and four times a day, I guess he had a huge editing job to do when he got home. It’s similar to a sports photographer I have mentioned, who shot thousands of pictures at each event. I suppose it comes to the question of whether you make single pictures mindfully, or play the odds to get one needle-sharp picture in your haystack? I can see a use for both methods, so I’m not saying I’m better. I did notice though that he was using the GoPro pole as a selfie stick. That is something I’m less sure about. There are already underwater drones that can follow the diver and take video, so it won’t be long before the influencers move in.

In the meantime I will be taking snaps of smiling fish and bashful octopus to remind myself of the joys of diving. It helps when I’m paddling around in the cold soup we enjoy in the UK.


The Argus C3

I never intended to buy another camera, let alone one as awkward and basic as this. I had liked the look of them, but reading about using one put me off. And then one turned up at the right price, so I thought I could see if they were as odd as they appeared. 

So what you have here is probably the best selling camera with the longest production run ever made. If it wasn’t for the C3 we might never have adopted 35mm film as the default. Leica may have got there first, but selling two million cameras in the biggest consumer market in the world counts for a lot.

What they built was rugged and simple. Not simple to use, but simple to make, simple engineering and simple to fix. So this was no svelte Leica with its precision engineering. This was a large block of bakelite plastic with metal edges, made for easy assembly. The rangefinder mechanism is a self-contained block held on with screws. The front face of the camera is a separate sub-assembly that carries the lens and focusing gear and has an inspection hole to allow the shutter mechanism to be easily connected when the camera is assembled. The rest of the working parts fit onto the front of the camera body behind the face plate. This is automotive style industrial design, meant for a production line. That’s probably how they made so many of them.

The viewfinder is on the right. In the middle is the rangefinder window; its other lens is in the middle of the range dial.

I’m reminded of a motorbike I used to have – a Moto Guzzi Nuovo Falcone. This copied some of the concepts from an earlier model, such as the engine layout, but it was built to be sold to the Army and Police. It was robust and simple. The (car) dynamo was driven by a rubber v belt. You could take the entire top off the engine without touching any other part of the bike. You could get to the clutch and other important bits without draining the oil. It too was not svelte, but it was rugged.

I said that the C3 wasn’t simple to use, and this is what initially put me off. For example, most 35mm cameras have a mechanism that releases the toothed wheel that engages the film sprockets when the shutter is pressed. Not the C3. You have to press a button to release the film, start winding on and let go of the button. The toothed wheel will make one rotation (counting out the width of the exposed frame) and lock again. Asking the photographer to do this dispenses with some extra clever parts at the risk of accidental double exposures or missed frames. You also have to cock the shutter before it will fire. This avoids needing any mechanism in the camera body to tension the shutter on winding-on. It also avoids needing any moving parts passing through the plastic block of the body – the shutter mechanism is on the front of the camera so that is where the cocking lever lives.

The release that allows the wind-on to pull the film through.

There is also the camera’s most striking feature of the external gear train connecting the lens to a focusing wheel under your right forefinger. What this actually does is transfer the rotation of the lens to a dial that pushes a protruding pin on the rangefinder block. So it needs no arm inside the lens mount to register the lens moving in and out. This makes the lens mount a separate sub-assembly for easier assembly. The camera was basically assembled by three people: one worked on the body, one did the front plate and lens and one the rangefinder. Industrial production methods from Adam Smith via Henry Ford. The more I look at it, the more I can see how this camera was designed to be assembled by technicians rather than experts.

The end result is a camera that was tough enough to be used by soldiers and fixed in the field. Tony Vacarro used one right through World War 2.

The lens can be removed and was actually designed to be swapped with a tele or wide angle option. It’s a fiddly affair and I would not want to do it on a beach or while walking. But you can, so that’s far more sophisticated than the simple spec would have you think. Oh, and it’s perfectly possible to focus by twisting the lens and ignoring the focus wheel.

The viewfinder is small. It’s also separate to the rangefinder. None of your illuminated frames or focusing patch here. There is one window to focus through and a separate one to frame the shot. Mine came with a very blurry rangefinder. Someone had obviously had the viewing window apart to clean it and had assembled the two little lenses inside it the wrong way round. A quick check with Mike Eckman’s site and it was back to crisp and clear.

The slower shutter speeds on mine are hesitant, which is common. It’s 64 years old, after all. The fix is fairly simple: take the front off the camera (5 screws) and flush the delay mechanism with lighter fluid. I’m going to wait a bit and see how it goes – if the faster speeds (1/50 to 1/300) are ok then I can wait.

So – how does it shoot? Slowly. The fairly simple lens works well enough. This was the main point of the thing after all – not to buy the most awkward camera possible but to get access to another vintage lens with (supposedly) its own quality of rendering. You get into a rhythm with the camera quite quickly: flick the little switch and wind-on after each shot; cock the shutter lever just before shooting. The shutter fires with a very spring-like ping noise. At the end of the film, rewind it using a knob on the bottom of the camera. The film counter rotates as you rewind, so it’s easy to stop with the leader still out of the cassette. The odd winding arrangements may make it easier to do the Lomo thing. Double exposures should be simple, and it may even be possible to wind back to a previous shot. It’s just that I’m not cool or groovy enough to try this.

I found that I can stop worrying about the shutter – the top three speeds of 1/300, 1/100 and 1/50 appear to work just fine. The camera does space the negatives quite close together though. It’s a good job I have a film cutter I can use instead of scissors. The plus side of this is that I can probably squeeze an extra frame out of the film.

The lens was a pleasant surprise – it was sharper than I expected. The rangefinder appears to be correctly calibrated too.

The lines mark anticipated sea level due to global warming

So I’m actually finding it better to use than I feared. It’s a big lump with steampunk charm, but will probably last me for as long as 35mm film lasts.

Drag racing

I tried something new, and it wasn’t wearing different clothes. I learned that there is a drag-racing racecourse reasonably close to where I live. A local sports photographer was going to an event and offered to advise and support a small group of snappers. So I signed up.

Having been a nerdy wannabe (and then be) motorcyclist as a youth, I’d had some familiarity with the sport as it was back then. I think George Brown was still racing one of his Nero variants, or was at least recent enough that we knew his name. Oh, and it was known as sprinting, not drag, which is a better description of what it is all about. This of course sparked another memory of going to a tractor-pull competition. This was all about pulling a weighted trailer as far as possible up an earth strip. The trick was that the trailer had a large weight on it, and the front of the trailer was not wheels but a plain metal sled plate. As the trailer moved forward, the weight also moved forward, loading-up the sled and making the trailer harder to pull. This event also required ridiculous amounts of engine power and produced loads of noise and spectacle. What can I say? I loved it all. Anyway, back to the story.

First question is what lenses to take? A few years back when I went to Silverstone I took all of them and nearly came home with a hernia. But let’s say I want my field of view or frame to be 3m wide and let’s assume I will be 30m away from the racers. The magic formula tells me I want an angle of view of 100 mils, so I’ll need the equivalent of a 300 to 400mm lens on 35mm or full-frame. Easy. I have a 70-300 zoom and a fixed 400mm. If we do get near the paddock area I can swap for a 35-70 zoom. This is bold (for me): I usually take two lenses to go to the newsagent. The 400mm doesn’t have a decent lens hood and it could be sunny, but it’s easy enough to make one: it has a 5 degree angle of view so it’s just a bit of work with a protractor and some scissors.

I’m also taking my monopod. This is a Benbo one that must have turned up cheap somewhere in the past. It has a plastic V on top instead of a tripod thread. This makes it easy to support the lens, then set it aside instantly if I need to do something else.

So kitted-out, off I jolly well set. I also found out how the racing thing worked. The course is one eighth of a mile – a furlong, 220 yards or 201 meters. There are two lanes on the track. The racing is controlled by a small tower of lights, known as the christmas tree. The racer pulls forward to a marked line and the top light goes white when the front wheel is on the line. Then a set of orange lights go on, followed by a green. At the green light the racers depart. They are timed over the course distance and their speed measured at the end. It sounds sedate. Then consider that the fastest cars can complete the distance in under six seconds and be doing 130mph as they cross the finishing line. I was told that some courses are a quarter of a mile, and the cars can reach 250mph. That’s pretty extreme. So they use every method invented to accelerate as hard as they can – huge engines, superchargers, weird fuels, nitrous oxide, sticky tyres and probably pagan sacrifice. As a result, they can be loud. No, make that LOUD. I was warned to bring ear defenders, but didn’t expect to feel the pulsing sound in my chest.

The chequered yellow panels are the finishing line. The dots in the smoke are stones that were stuck to the tyres.

On the course I was at, the 300mm was just about ideal at the long end. I did use the 400mm to pick out single cars and details, but it’s slow to focus so not as handy as the the 300. If I go to another event I’ll probably take the same pair again. The 35-70 was perfect in the pit area. Oh, and that’s another thing – this is not Formula One: you can talk to the racers and team, look at the cars and generally get a close look at some extreme engineering. And what’s even further from F1 is that some of the cars and bikes are old. One of the racers was an old Commer van that still had the faded newspaper delivery sign on the side. Oh, and a large V8 engine hidden in the middle of the body. There was a Ford Anglia with a much bigger engine than the one in my grandad’s. And a rough looking MG which squirmed down the track as the rear tyres tried to overtake the front.

A fast shutter speed reveals what the eye cannot see – that the sidewalls of a car’s rear tyres are twisted into ripples by the extreme torque of the engine. And that the rotation of that engine causes one of the front wheels to lift off the road. If these things can reach 250mph I have no idea how they stay on the track.

Look at the rear tyre

One thing that worked very well was my new camera. It allowed me to raise the ISO as needed to get the shutter speed and aperture combinations I wanted. It also has good image stabilisation so it helped me work with long lenses in a buffeting wind.

Both front wheels are trying to lift, but the right one is held down by the torque reaction of fhe engine.

Did I enjoy the racing? Yes, I did. Lots of things going very fast and making loud noises. Did I enjoy the photography? Yes, I did. I love shooting action and people doing things. It was all about fast focusing, panning and framing. About as far from landscape or still life as you can get. Will I go again? Yes, given the chance.

Lady Diana

How Lomo can you go? I’m afraid I succumbed. Meet Lady Di. She’s a 60’s original, so not even the newer Diana F.

Lady Di (the camera) is made of a small amount of thin plastic and very few moving parts, so it weighs very little. Heft is one of the many things it doesn’t have. Saying that, it has more controls than a Holga, which isn’t saying much. It’s like saying a Citroen Dyane is faster than a 2CV. The Wikipedia entry is not complimentary about the build quality – “It is constructed primarily of low-quality phenolic plastics of the type commonly found in toys imported from Asia during the 1960s.”

The shutter release has a long travel and, with the camera being so light, can probably shake the whole thing as it releases. I have found it works better to pull down on the release with my left forefinger, with my hand under the lens. The squeezing motion shakes the camera less and supports it more.

The shutter speed seems to be pot luck and could be around 1/50 to 1/100. Mine also has a B setting, but there is no cable release so you would need to keep your finger on the shutter lever or build a gadget to do it for you. The lens has three apertures. There is a wide open setting of f11 or two different holes that swing across to provide f13 or f19. Given the variation in the shutter, you may as well ignore the number values and just go by the weather symbols. The main control then becomes the speed of the film you load. Bright day? FP4. Dullish day? HP5.

Unlike the Holga it shoots a smaller frame, 4 by 4 cm, but this means it gets 16 shots on a roll rather than 12. My ex father-in-law’s old Balda camera covers the full 6×4.5 frame, but it has a better lens. The Diana’s wind-on is awful. It’s a noisy ratcheting dial that occasionally locks. Don’t force it, just wiggle it, and it frees and keeps working.

The push-fit lens cap is easily knocked off but you only really need it when the camera is packed in a bag. For walking around you can leave it off. Unlike a rangefinder camera you are not going to burn holes in your shutter curtains.

Because of its age the labels are falling off due to the glue under them drying out. The first was the focusing scale around the lens. This just needed a bit of alignment and a spot of superglue. Then the label on the winding knob departed. Luckily I found it in the bottom of my bag, which saved me using a bit of tape with an arrow drawn on it.

So, all that aside, does it live up to the hype? Is the Diana a better Holga? Why am I bothering when I already have a Golden Hammer?

Well, the first roll through the camera showed that, contrary to folklore, the camera had no light leaks. The roll of film did though – it obviously winds a slack roll so some light got through at the sides. I’ll just be careful in future to unload it in the shade and keep the used film roll covered.

The film could also have done with a bit more exposure. Perhaps the shutter speed is closer to 1/100 than I was expecting? The lesson is though that I can give it a bit more. So this will mean using a faster film or leaning more towards the cloudy aperture setting.

So how did the mythical soft lens turn out? Pretty soft, as it happens, with perhaps a touch of that Lomo vignetting. But does it have that magical quality that these toy cameras are known for? Maybe. Further experiments needed. Oddly, some frames seemed softer on one side than the other, and the soft side changed during the roll of film. There is a plate that holds the film against the gate, but perhaps this is a result of the loose take-up roll? I need to get this thing out again in brighter light, so that I can stop the lens down a bit.

Did I enjoy using it? Yes, as it happens. I’ve moaned before about carrying heavy cameras about but this one is featherweight. Set the aperture for the conditions, tweak the lens to the zone you will be shooting in and just go for it. This may be the perfect post-apocalyptic camera.

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