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.

Modifying cameras

Have you ever modified a camera to make it work better for you?

I’m not talking about cosmetic changes like changing the leatherette (although I love what Peggy does with these), but functional changes. I know one of the frequent improvements is to add a grip. But these are finely-crafted and removable, whereas I’m talking about hacking the actual camera.

I’ve basically made two sorts of changes: for handling and for protection. You have to not care about resale value though. Speaking of which, who are these people who can sell a pristine old camera on eBay? How does anyone manage to use a thing for years and leave no visible marks of use or wear?

Back to the plot – for protection I mainly use Sugru. It’s perfect for creating bump corners – I’ve wrapped a small waterproof camera in it to protect the corners and the lens from being dropped or put down badly.

Sugru to protect from bumps, grip tape to avoid giving it the bumps

This is ideal, as I most often use this camera with cold wet hands on an open boat. The camera lives in an open plastic tool tray so needs all the protection it can get.

Before finding Sugru I used two-part epoxy putty to make things like a replacement for the plastic piece that fell off the end of a wind-on lever.

Although I no longer have it so can’t share pictures, I did make a remote release adapter for an autowinder. This was a bit of brass sheet that I bent and maimed until it fitted around the trigger button on the autowinder. I drilled a small hole and used a cable release to form a thread in the soft brass. This let me fit a long air release that ran inside my overalls and put the bulb in my hand. The camera was mounted on a bracket on the side of a crash helmet. The result was Heath Robinson’s version of a helmet-mounted camera. And yes, it worked.

Next to Sugru the other great find came from an article by 35hunter, and this is to use the sticky-backed grip tape that is used on skateboards.

This stuff is very good and could even be reversible, if you wanted to change the grip or sell the camera. I added a strip and a patch of tape to a Canon compact to provide grip for my fingers and thumb.

The tape has just enough ‘tooth’ to be grippy without being uncomfortable.


So since the grip tape came as a sheet large enough to cover a skateboard deck, I couldn’t just leave it at that. The obvious next step was the underwater housings for my diving cameras. Like the little Fuji compact, I’m usually handling these in water and wearing gloves. While the camera is usually on a tether, it’s useful not to let go of it in the first place.

What’s next in my mad plan is to replace the whole leatherette on a camera with grip tape. That’s a possible for the future though – I’ll wait to see which one starts peeling first.

So ok, not major modifications but practical, and they can be done without needing a 3d printer or workshop.

Make do and mend

I had some lenses fixed.

Let me tell you how this came to pass. I’ve had some of my lenses for a long time, and I’ve accumulated an eclectic collection of glassware over the years along with some knackered cameras. I’ve had a couple of the cameras fixed – basically waking-up sleepy shutters. Then I found that a Pentax 135mm lens I hadn’t used for a while had a very sticky aperture. I also had a lovely old Pentax 35mm lens with the same. It worked fine at closing down when taking a picture but was very slow to open-up again.

So what to do? I could perhaps replace the lenses, but what would I do with the old ones? I doubt if I could sell them and I hate the idea of throwing them away. The answer was to get them serviced, for a couple of reasons.

First is that we shouldn’t be throwing things away that we can repair (which is why the right to repair is so important).

The other is that there aren’t that many people who can still mend cameras and lenses. If they can’t make a living, we lose them completely. (Although there is a new hope)

Seawater meets electronics

I had previously had a Pentax with a dragging shutter serviced, plus an Olympic Zeiss 180mm lens with a gummy aperture. These were done by APM in Newcastle, and they did a good job.

For the 135mm and 35mm I used Peggy’s recommendation of the Camera Repair Workshop in Milton Keynes. Another good job – the glass in these lenses now looks brand new as well.

What I need now is someone who can repair a Kiev 60 with a forced winding mechanism (don’t ask). The obvious thing would have been to send it to Arax, but getting a parcel to Ukraine seems to be more complicated than sending it to Mars (and about the same price). But there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the UK who can repair them. So I guess I’m planning a Mars mission.

Glue, perhaps?

So overall, mending and servicing gear is a good thing. It might be useful to have a list of menders, so here is my first draft. Feel free to send me details of other people you have used with good results and I will update this post.

I’m sure there are more. Indeed, I know there are more. Let me know if you have any recommendations. Or if you have a broken Kiev 60 with a working winding mechanism. Or any spare pies.

Photo manipulation – yes or no?

We’ve all seen the results of HDR processing. Done well, it’s invisible. Done badly, it’s all you see. It went through a phase of everyone using it and eventually became overused and ugly. Extended dynamic range became weird luminance and a world without contrast.

Anyway, enough of the sarcasm. How much should you manipulate a picture?

I would have said just enough to get the result you wanted, but that’s pretty open ended. Take a look at the collages of Heartfield or Höch, who were Dadaists. Their work involved photography, but in the same sense that a painting might involve canvas. Their work was obvious manipulation to achieve a result. I’m not sure I often see the same intention in HDR photos, unless the aim is to show what the world looks like without contrast.

Or perhaps that doesn’t matter. The Filmosaur Manifesto says that the meaning of a photo is what the observer sees, not what the photographer intended.

How liberating is that? You don’t have to make a picture look like a photograph. You are free to have fun. The best medium for this is probably digital and the best camera is a phone. There are great tools like Paper Camera and (thanks to the Phlogger) Comica. Stop worrying about whether something is a worthy subject and just have some fun with it. The results are so far from a normal picture that nobody can judge the sharpness of your lens or how many megapickles you have.

So I’ve been having great fun, even during the dark months of lockdown, by playing with old pictures. Even ones I didn’t like as straight pictures can be pleasing when tweaked.

Who cares whether it’s artistic or even good? It’s something creative to do while we wait for the end of the apocalypse.

With luck, we’ll all be vaccinated and out to play this month.

Mending digital cameras

Is about as difficult as you would think. But sometimes it isn’t. Let me explain.

Film cameras are like proper clockwork watches. They have gears and springs and components that push and pull each other. There’s a guy on 35mmc who has taken a Minolta apart. Part of its mechanism is basically a length of string. My Pentax MX is allegedly similar: it uses a string to rotate the shutter speed indicator in the viewfinder and there is a known error when it gets out of sync. (It affects the display, not the camera). Analogue cameras – full of pingfukkits. Ask me how I know this.

Digital cameras though are built from sub-assemblies. This is how we build things now – a set of individual circuit boards linked together. This should mean that a camera can be more easily taken apart into chunks. It should mean that you can replace just the faulty chunk. Indeed, it can make it easy to alter some of the components.

Enter the G9. This is one of Canon’s clever point and shoots and has a serious design flaw. There are two internal screws that have no form of thread lock and so work loose. They are upside down, in the sense that gravity will normally encourage them out. They live just above the main power circuit board. So the usual sequence is ‘oh, it rattles’ followed by ‘oh, it’s broken’. Mine refused to switch on, then did but immediately broke.

IMG_2825
The main power board and the offending screws

OK, so I didn’t spend a lot of money on it originally, but I’m loathe to just throw all this technology away. Fear not, YouTube and some tiny screwdrivers are your friends!

As you probably expect for a common problem, someone has put a video on YouTube of themselves fixing it. The best part of this is that you can see exactly what they do and pause the video at the critical stages. Anyone of a certain age will remember trying to mend a car or bike with a Haynes manual. And as a kid, I can still remember helping my dad to connect a cooling hose after the cylinder head had been refitted, because it wasn’t clear in what order to do things (the only reason I was any use was that my hands were smaller than his).

So what’s the problem? I’ve already said that digital cameras come apart into chunks. It’s the coming apart that hurts. The connectors between sections are tiny. It’s impossible to tell by looking whether you pull, unclip or lift. This is where you want to watch someone else do it first. You can also get a sense of how much force they used.

The camera comes apart into sections if you undo the correct screws. It comes apart into even more pieces if you undo the wrong screws. So I sit under a bright desk lamp, YouTube on pause, gently dropping screws in order of removal onto a length of masking tape (sticky side up). I’ve taken old motorbikes apart often enough to have a method and order for where I put the loose bits. It’s also why I have thread locking compound to hand.

Sure enough, two loose screws fall out of the camera. So I put them back in with threadlock and reassemble. Could I be lucky? What do you think? Yep, still broken.

EBay is your other friend, and I order a new power board from China. Surprisingly cheap – they must sell a lot of these.

After careful stripping, fitting the new power board and reassembling, the moment of truth. Nope, still broken. When the screws fell out of the camera they were deep inside the body, so I think they must have dropped right inside and fused or broken other bits of circuitry.

What a nuisance. Even more so that the prices for the G9 seem to be high. Even broken ones are seeking more than mine cost working and with an underwater housing. But my kung fu is strong, and before long a nice working one is mine for a bit less than the original.

So what did I learn? Repairs are possible if someone else has done it before and filmed it, and if the parts are available. I now have a working camera and a replacement power board if this one suffers a loose screw. If it’s broken anyway, don’t be afraid of mending it. And internal screws need thread-lock.

Checklists

So you’re off to shoot something specific – what do you take? What if the event is special or not repeatable? What if something goes wrong?

I don’t shoot photos under these sort of constraints, but I’m no stranger to the planning. I regularly (pre bug) go diving. Even the closest site is an hour from home. So I have often had that feeling of terror that I’ve forgotten something. If we’re out on a boat there’s also the dread of finding that something important is still in the car.

Enter the checklist. An A4 page printed on both sides. One is all the kit that has to go in the car. The other side is what needs to be taken to the boat. It’s laminated so I can mark it off as I go. It doesn’t stop me worrying, but I know that if the list is ticked, I’m good. I have also made up prepacked sets of equipment to help. All the underwater camera gear is in a plastic tool tray. There’s a camera bag with a rangefinder kit and there used to be one with a medium format kit. Ready to go without searching for bits.

pack list

There’s also the procedural checklist. In my work I’ve had to do some complex tasks, sometimes repeating them. I’ve also had to organise people to follow a standard procedure.

Enter the checklist again. In this case it’s every step to be taken, with no assumptions and total clarity on what needs to be done. And you tick each step as you go. Then, when you are inevitably interrupted, you can resume where you left off. You can also step back and list the tools or ingredients you need before you start. When developing film that means not just checking I have the chemicals, but that they are fresh.

The final step is the planning, which includes the alternative steps for when things happen. Where do I have to be and when? Where can I park or put my stuff? Who is my contact? What if it rains?

Run every scenario you can think of. Make notes. Draw diagrams or maps. The benefit here is that you can plan your alternates with a cool head and then know, when things go bad, that you can follow the plan. What happens otherwise is that you make bad choices under pressure. For example, the Apollo 11 guidance computer rebooted as it was landing on the moon. The engineer responsible in Mission Control had already played-out that scenario and made good decisions. NASA learned this after the failure of Apollo 1 but then forgot and had to learn it again with Challenger.

A more recent example used in a lot of studies for problem solving and decision making was BA flight 9. Gliding a jumbo jet with dead engines, facing trying to get over the mountains or ditch in the sea. They tried to restart the engines without success. So what did they do? Follow the documented engine restart procedure again.

Ok, so none of my decisions will ever be this critical. Mine are at the level of ‘what if I’m delayed?’ Or ‘what if the battery runs out?’. I use Waze to guide me when driving as it routes around congestion. I use What3Words to find and mark my destinations – I can be accurate to the correct door in a street and it feeds the destination into Waze. In the diving world we prepare a safety sheet for the place where we are diving. It has important telephone numbers, the nearest decompression chamber, access routes – everything you need to know when you don’t have the time to look for it.

Safety

There’s one more thing that helps avoid mistakes: labelling. I used to do chemical analysis in a lab, so I became a bit obsessive about labelling. Two clear solutions in beakers, which is which? In the lab I used a wax pencil. These days it’s white electrical tape. If I pick up a camera I know if it’s loaded or not, and what with. That label stays with the film through until it’s developed.

So there you go – the blogger’s guide to avoiding fup ducks:

  • Packing list
  • Method list
  • Alternates
  • Labels

Plans may not survive contact with the enemy, but planning does.

The Konstruktor challenge

“It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” – that’s what we’re told. Or, if you use cheap old kit like me, it’s what we hope.

You’ve probably heard of the Sunny 16 cheap shots challenge or the Frugal Film Project (if not, you should). But here’s a different approach: what is the worst and least functional combination you can put together?

Why? Because it’s a challenge. How bad can it get before you really can’t take an interesting picture? Besides, we know that constraints increase creativity. And I should point out that I’m not doing this to say I’m a great photographer: I’m doing it because I’m bored with lockdown.

So what’s the deal? First, my worst or least useable camera. It was going to be an ancient Leidox that takes 127 film that I was going to try a roll of 35mm in. But it has several shutter speeds and apertures so that felt a bit like cheating. Then I remembered I have a Lomo Konstruktor. A fuzzy lens set at f10 on a plastic body offering 1/80 or B for shutter speeds. Hopeless focusing accuracy and dodgy film advance. Just what the masochist ordered.

Kon 1

For film I’ve got some positive copy stock that was meant for making contact prints from negatives. It’s probably got a negative ISO and was developed in paper developer under safelight (so it’s orthochromatic). It can do mid tones, but it needs careful development. Oh, and it is also very expired. I may have to shoot a few frames first with an adjustable camera to work out what to rate it at and how to develop it.

<Brief interlude – ISO 12 seems to work in Rodinal 1+25 for seven minutes. >

Then finally, what subject matter or conditions? It has got to be low light or night, hasn’t it? Mainly because ISO12 in a camera that’s fixed at f10 and 1/80 would need the light to be about a stop brighter than clear sunshine. So if I can’t do that, then I can hold the shutter open on B, which means at least a second so that I can count it. Or I could fire the shutter more than once and build up the exposure that way.

Konstruktor challenge
Fire the shutter multiple times to build-up the exposure.

Sat here reading a book during the evening I did a quick check and the light is EV3 at ISO12. That’s about fifteen seconds at F10, before any reciprocity. I’m going to need that B setting. My clever book of knowledge says that city streets at night are around the same light level.

Konstruktor challenge
That plastic lens flares a bit

The Konstruktor is also pretty awful at winding on, so I will be loading it with a short roll of around 24 exposures.

The die is cast. I would prefer the pie is vast, but the challenge is to cope with what I’ve got. What could possibly go wrong? Onward we march!

Konstruktor ~Challenge
Night shot – the only things that made it to the negative were the car headlights and a street lamp.

What did this prove, then? Nothing. But it was fun to push the limits of difficult. The Konstruktor is not an easy camera to use and ISO 12 ortho film is a bit limiting. But I was delighted to get some images and I will never again complain that my camera is awkward.

Fancy a go? It’s the kind of thing you could do with a chum by post: each assemble an awful combination of parts, swap them and see what you can do. And you may worry less in future that you don’t have the newest and best kit. Or you might start a new photographic movement.

Infrared conversions

I have Peggy to thank for this.

I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the look of infrared photography. I even got to shoot a roll of the famous Kodak HIE before it dodo’ed.

I went so far as to convert an old Agfa Super Silette to IR-only by fitting (gluing) a piece of infrared filter behind the lens. That didn’t work too well at first because I misjudged the exposure. What I really wanted though was an IR-converted digital camera so I could see the results as I was taking the pictures. This involves removing the infrared absorbing filter that sits in front of the sensor. I didn’t have a spare dSLR and my various other digital cameras were too difficult or too expensive, so it went on the wish list.

Agfa IR

That’s a bit of Lee polyester IR filter (730nm cut-off) behind the lens.

And then came Peggy’s article about Panasonic Lumix compacts. It seems that the sensor, and hence the filter, are ‘easily’ accessible through the back of the camera. What could possibly go wrong?

The first thing was to find a suitable camera. There are loads on fleabay, but the prices vary quite a lot. There are even some that have already had the filter removed – it seems that people attach them to rifles as a night sight. Eventually one turned up that was the right type but suitably undesirable, so cheap.

The screwdrivers were the next issue. I have several sets of jeweller’s screwdrivers that I have accumulated, but the camera used particularly tiny screws. Eventually a specs repair kit yielded a suitably tiny screwdriver. And then as soon as I got the back off the camera I went looking for a magnet – I didn’t want to be turning the camera over to shake out any screws I dropped. A few swipes over the magnetic clasp of a camera bag made the screws stick to the screwdriver and we were away. It really was fairly simple to lift away the sensor and remove the IR filter. I then cut a tiny piece from my Lee IR filter (8 by 10mm) to go in its place. This makes the camera permanently IR only, but means that I don’t need to mount a fragile bit of filter gel on the front of the lens. Besides, I can always go back in and remove it now I know how.

Challenge two is to charge the battery. The camera came without a charger, hence it was cheap. I have a USB cable that fits the camera, but this doesn’t charge the battery. I tried hot-wiring the battery + and – terminals to a USB cable (which delivers 5v) and to a 4.5v mains adapter. No joy. It looks like the battery also needs the ground terminal connected, which is why proper chargers have three pins and not two. So a charger is on its way to me from China. <interlude with hold music> The charger arrived and did its chargey thing and then we were charged.

And it only darned well worked! The first shot out into the garden looked like it had been snowing. I immediately took the dog for a walk and photographed everything.

IR 1

So it works very well indeed. But… Now I know why nobody fits the IR cut-off filter inside the camera. It restricts you to mono-only pictures without the option of the weird false colour effect you can get without the filter. So how to fit a filter to a camera with a pop-out lens?

Taking the IR-cutoff filter out was easier than fitting it in the first place, as I knew the sequence and the non-obvious screw that has to be removed. Without the IR cut-off filter in front of the sensor the autofocus hunts a bit. This is probably because visible and infrared light focus at different points. Fair enough – the camera has a setting that gives priority to infinity focus, so that’s what I went for. That didn’t work very well, but the next option was to use multi-point focus rather than a single spot. That seems to work a lot better.

Back to the bits box, and the benefit of hoarding old junk is that you can cobble some of it into gadgets. There in the box, previously unloved, was a 29mm push-on filter. The outermost segment of the lens, when it telescoped out, was 29.3mm diameter. The push on filter was thin brass. The crude and violent use of a socket and a hammer spread the mouth of the filter to be a snug fit over the lens. In the same box was a lens hood that was a reasonable fit over the filter. A trial fit showed that it was too deep and vignetted the corners. A few minutes with a hacksaw took care of that. A dab of glue and hello push fit IR cut-off filter with wide angle hood.

SHADE

And now I can play. With the hood on and the camera in mono mode, I have the traditional Wood effect of white leaves and black skies. With the hood off I get the false-colour effect of purple leaves and weirdness. Most excellent!

IR 3

Plus, pop the filter back on and I can do the high contrast black and white thing.

Monk Stray

So, many thanks to Peggy for the tip that this could be done at home.

PS
I have refitted the cutoff filter in front of the sensor. The external filter/hood gadget worked but I was in constant danger of dropping something while fiddling it on and off.
There’s an update here.

Back to the fumble

Have you ever been in the situation where you thought you were good at something, and then discovered that you knew nothing? You could say it’s like having your box prised open. It happened to me on my recent big diving holiday. I thought I had it down pretty good: I had a qualification and everything; I was even good enough to be in charge of other people underwater. Then we jumped into some warm water and casually went deeper than I had ever been before. I was a total rookie – I had strapped on just about all the kit I owned, treating a warm-water shore dive the same as a cold-water, far from shore, boat dive. I was a long way from streamlined, so had to put much more effort in to swimming. I was carrying too much weight, as I’d never dived without at least a very thick wetsuit. I was a bit anxious, so was breathing more than I would if I was relaxed. So I gulped through my air in no time. Far from being an experienced professional, I acted like a nervous beginner.

Have I done the same thing photographically? Oh yes! Many times I’ve thought I knew what I was doing, only to be proved wrong. I can develop film, until it comes out blank. I can do exposure, until I can’t. I can work this camera, and then it locks up. I can do flash portraits, until the pictures are totally underexposed. But these tend to be small and single events with an obvious solution. A quick self-applied slap on the head and we’re back in business. I’ve also been dumb on a motorbike – see photo for details. That was an externally applied slap on the head.

No, what I’m thinking about is the realisation that you are totally ignorant or borderline incompetent. People talk about imposter syndrome, but what if you realised that you really were an imposter? I know I have a lot to be humble about, but this is truly humbling.

It could be totally crushing: why not just give up and admit you can’t do it? If everyone else is so much better than you, why keep being the fool? Or you could treat it like the first stage in some imaginary ten-step programme. The first step is to admit to yourself that you are at the first step.

The second step might be to realise that you can learn. The good thing about acknowledging you are wrong is that you can become righter. There is a body of knowledge in lean manufacturing that says it’s better to do something the right way, even if you are bad at it, than it is to do the wrong thing efficiently. You do not want to become even better at doing the wrong thing. So you are better off learning from a position of incompetence than doing the wrong thing righter. Nobody is a total eejit – you will have done things and achieved things. It’s just that you have learned that you have more to learn. This should be a happy place – you can grow. Some lyrics and music just dropped into my head – anyone remember the Dylan song in Easy Rider? “He who not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s alright, ma” for the curious. Brilliant lyrics but a protracted dirge of a song.). So come on, be more Bob (learning, not droning).

Admitting that you need to learn is a huge release. If you can let go of that defensive pride, you are ready to learn what you don’t know or can’t do. And if you add what you learn to what you already know, you can get better at what you do. Sounds a bit New Age inspirational, doesn’t it? This isn’t supposed to be a pep-talk or the start of a new philosophy. I just know that, for me, trying to defend what I know when it is obvious that I don’t know enough is pointless. The world can’t hear my excuse: events will find-out the truth. And as an ex-boss used to say “if you think you’re good, you are not comparing yourself with the right people” (thanks for your support, John!).

So in diving terms I removed the excess weights, stripped the kit I didn’t need, focused on my breathing and used a larger tank. Photographically – I have re-read the manual and practised using certain set-ups or combinations of kit. I have owned my digital SLR for more than ten years, and I still read the manual for a couple of the features that I know it has but I rarely use. I have bought a new (to me) underwater camera, so I’m taking lots of pictures of small objects using flash until I learn how to use it. These aren’t really the same as discovering you are ignorant though – they are ways of avoiding the collision with ignorance. The real pain comes from the realisation that you don’t know enough. Humility hurts. It’s that feeling of pride leaving the body.

What we need around us is people who understand that knowledge and ability are but sparks in the void, and there is more that nobody knows than we do. Recognising that someone has admitted to themselves that they don’t know or can’t do a thing is supportive. There’s no need to be an arse about someone knowing less than you: just be aware that your time will come. So perhaps the golden rule of learning is to help someone as you would like to be helped yourself? And be more Bob.

A dog with two tails

So, I’m a lucky dog and I have a Nikonos V with a flash. As is usual with underwater flashguns it sits out to the side of the camera on a metal bracket that screws into the camera’s tripod socket. Most water is full of suspended silt, so you want the flash to light the subject alone and not the grunge between it and the camera. So that’s why the flash is out to one side on some sort of arm.

But I wanted two.

I’ve got the flash that came with the Nikonos, and very lovely it is too. It’s controlled by the camera’s light sensor, so it reads the flash exposure off the surface of the film. How easy is that? But I also have a second flash that has a slave cell. So the cunning plan is to mount the original flash to the left of the camera where it normally sits, but to find a way of mounting the second flash to the right. With a bit of luck I would get a main light / fill light effect.

Both flashguns use the same arrangement for locking to their bracket. They have an asymmetric pin that passes through a slot in the bracket and then turns to lock against sliding back out. The bottom surface of the flashgun has a raised ridge that then engages a groove in the bracket to stop the flashgun twisting. A large nut tightens the arm down against the bracket and locks them together. It’s a robust and strong fitting – just as well, as the camera rig will often be lifted by the flashgun.

So what I needed was a bracket that had the same slot and groove arrangement on both ends. Basically a bit of bent and machined alloy; couldn’t be hard to find or expensive, right? Wrongit was more than I was willing to pay.

So plan B was to find a bit of alloy and make my own. The alloy was easy – a bit of flat bar bought cut to length from eBay. Even the machining wasn’t too hard. I realised years ago that I was incapable of drilling a perpendicular hole and bought a proper bench-mounted pillar drill. My dad, bless him, had left me a biscuit tin full of assorted drill bits. It was easy enough to copy the arrangement of slots, holes and grooves from the original bracket. It needed a large clearance hole around the main flashgun connection to the camera, but that yielded to one of dad’s hole-cutters.

The final step was to bend the bracket downwards at a 20 degree angle. Flat alloy bar turns out to be really strong. I’ve got a small bench vice but it just started turning on its base. Dad came to the rescue again with his zombie-killing spanner. This is a large and long-handled pipe wrench. This went round the vice and gripped it. Pulling the alloy bar in one direction, the spanner in the other and with a knee on the bench to stop it falling forwards, the alloy gracefully received its 20 degree bend.

For some reason I have a small tin of white Hammerite paint. It was probably on sale. A couple of coats of that and the bracket looked almost purpose-made. Glue on a bit of neoprene sheet (used for repairing drysuits) to stop the camera twisting and to stop the tripod screw from falling out of the bracket when it’s off the camera, and Bob is my uncle.

Total cost around £5.

So what I have now is the standard flash held in its usual position, plus a second slaved flash that can be manoeuvred for fill-in. Or you could call it a major tangle-hazard.

Except, now I’ve made it, I wonder if it’s too wide.

Big arm

The key thing will be whether the flashes throw shadow from the two macro-framing arms. And that I can dive with it and not break bits off or get it caught in anything. I might have to bring the two flashes in closer to the camera. One way to find out – dive with it.

Except… my next dive is off a boat, and I’m not sure I want to be handling a rig this big. It might be better to wait until August, when I’m doing a shore dive. Which, embarrassingly, gives me time to make the MkII version. I think I need to bring both flashes in closer to camera. I will get less chance of using nice cross-lighting but the whole rig will be easier to handle and there is less chance of the macro arms casting shadows. I’ll have a look at the same time at the possibility of replacing the arm on the slave flash (the one on the left of the picture) with a longer jointed arm. This will let me put the slave light over the top of the subject while keeping the main light on the left.

And this, children, is why we use old milk cartons and sticky-backed plastic. If I had spent decent money on this I would be forced by pride to keep using it. But I will get another strip of alloy for a fiver and make the new and improved model. I count this as only mildly percussive learning, which is a bonus. Never too old to make mistakes, that’s me.

Update

This is the Mk II version. Looks a lot easier to handle, doesn’t it? That piece of white stuff with the numbers on? That’s a rangefinder card.

Mk 2