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

PAS or PoS?

There’s a lot of interest in “premium compacts” – little 35mm point-and-shoots with good lenses. A lot has already been said, and I think we can all agree that there is a strong follower of fashion thing going on.

But, sharp lens or not, there is a real risk that the electronics on a twenty or thirty year old camera could expire. We all know this.

Broke
In this case the electronics are fine – the lens focus motor has jammed. I need a bigger hammer…

Perhaps more to the point though is what one of these cameras can do. My own view is that if your wee gadget if fully automatic, then what you’ve got is a snapper. It can be great fun, and very creative, to use a camera with no controls at all. Being automatic makes it more likely that you will get recognisable results. But as we know, sharpness alone is overrated. And do you want to pay big money for something that has a limited life expectancy? And by big money, some of these things go for £1000+. Well, obviously the answer is yes if the name on the lens or camera matters that much to you. Say though that you like the idea of a competent point-and-shoot and it would be nice to have a few more controls than on/off. What is a photographer to do?

You could take a look at the Pentax Espio range (or IQZoom, which is the same thing). They brought out a wide range of cameras that played all the options. The nice thing though is that they added some useful settings like multiple exposure and a B shutter speed. They are also surprising well regarded. You can also get some of them for less than the cost of a coffee. Equally, there are loads of other makes and models that are better than you would give them credit for, and that cost less than a Contax.

So if you have a sudden hankering to be a celebrity clone or street-fighting snapper, here’s a strategy:

1. Find the cheapest point-and-shoot you can. Jumble sales, car boot sales, charity shops, friends and family. Pay no more than £5 – ideally £1 or less. Tip – if it’s a zoom model and the lens is partly out (not fully retracted), the camera is dead.

2. Clean the lens, blow-out the film gate. Find a manual. Load it with film and have a go.

3. Look at the results. Think about the experience. If you hate compact cameras in general, give it back to a charity shop to sell-on. If you hate this particular camera, do the same but go looking for its replacement. What does this one not do that a better camera should? That’s what you are looking for.

This way you can either get off the treadmill at small expense, or work your way intelligently towards something that is right for you.

4. If the camera dies, recycle it properly. We may need those rare elements.

Want to find out where to even begin? Go and surf Canny Cameras.

What’s my name?

If you haven’t done it yet, you will. Your camera, lovingly loaded with 100ISO colour print film, turns out to be 400ISO black and white when you finish the roll and open it. Or not loaded at all. Or you load and shoot the same roll of film twice.

Back before the last ice age, I worked as a chemist. Not the dispensing kind – I was the model for Beaker. I worked in a quality control lab within a manufacturing business, so we were processing multiple large batches of samples every day. One soon learned to label everything. My favourite tool was an ancient fat propelling pencil that took a wax insert that would write on glassware but was water soluble so it was easy to clean off.

The habit carried-over when I switched to working in IT. I did some big office moves and became a label fundamentalist.

Speaking of habits, my grandad used to say that a habit was a good servant but a bad master. He also used to iron his socks, so make of that what you will.

Labelling is a good habit though. But I can’t really write on my cameras and hope to wash it off afterwards. So I use tape.

Taped
Yes, my grandad used to buy socks in boxes…

I tried using the paper-based masking tape, but this stuff resists being written on and falls off when you are not looking. So I use electrical tape. My dad was an electrician, so I was brought up on fluff-covered rolls of gooey black PVC tape. That stuff is the opposite of useful for labelling. What I found in my local hardware shop is white electrical tape, which is perfect. The glue doesn’t smear and the tape releases cleanly without leaving a sticky patch. I can write on it with a marker or ballpoint.

So what I do is label every camera that is loaded with the film it contains. When a film is taken out of a camera, the label moves to the film container. If I’m developing it myself, the label then moves to the lid of the tank. If I remove a film part-shot, the label will show how many frames I’ve used.

I am delighted to say that I have not fupped a single duck since I started doing this. But, as I learned in IT, make something idiot-proof and the idiot gets upgraded. I may not mistake my films any more, but I have moved on to greater things and discovered many new and interesting ways to fail.

Go me!

10,000 hours

So, the story goes that you need to practice something for 10,000 hours to become excellent at it. The counterpoint says that if you are rubbish at something and keep being rubbish, then at the end of 10,000 hours you will still be rubbish, but older. The improvement comes not from practice, but from reflective practice.

How does one reflect as a photographer? Not with a catadioptric lens. One reflects by comparing one’s results with one’s intentions and trying to bring them together.

Have you ever looked at your negatives or the histogram of your digital files? Do you, like me, tend to underexpose? If you are shooting digital, do you push the exposure as far to the right of the histogram as you can get it?

Brocolli

What do you struggle with most? Movement? Exposure? Focus? How could you try one small thing to improve, so that you can see if it makes a difference? The good news is that, using digital, practice is effectively free. The results can also be immediate, so it’s easier to iterate the learning loop of try, see, think, try. The very gods of decision making, Kahneman and Tversky, say that rapid feedback of results is fundamental to making good decisions and learning. Or perhaps better stated that slow feedback leads to more errors – see people fighting with a central heating thermostat, for example.

Do you think about photography when you are not taking pictures? Not the bit where you wish you had shinier kit, but the imagining of what you would do right now with a camera in your hand. When you look at a thing, think about how you would frame it and what you would do with tones, textures and colours. What would it look like with a slow or fast shutter, or a deep or shallow depth of field? Try guessing what the exposure would be outside the window or across the street. It’s all very well talking about sunny 16, but do you know how sunny it has to be? And what happens if you are under trees or near a building? Knowing what the correct exposure would be is useful, but perhaps more useful is knowing the difference between light and shade. It means knowing that you can blow a background to white by shooting in the shade, or dropping it to black by shooting in sunlight.

This is all about readiness. It used to be knowing which way the aperture scale turns on your lens, or which way to turn it to focus closer. It meant knowing which way the shutter speed dial turned and if you could set it without looking. I suppose with digital it means knowing which of the control wheels or buttons does what, without having to search or even look. My own digital SLR has the usual smattering of controls, arranged mostly in a logical order (unlike a Ricoh Mirai), but I have still labelled two of them with white marker to make it obvious which controls the metering area and which the autofocus point.

Alongside the ready ability to use the camera is a familiarity with how to obtain certain results. What’s the best shutter speed for panning a moving object? How much fill-flash do you need in direct sunlight or in the shade? What’s the best way to capture flames or smoke or the wriggly air you get with heat? How far out of focus can a face be if the eyes are still sharp? What about fireworks or light trails?

Rally car at night, sparking as it lands at the bottom of a hill.

I guess the military parallel is that we would all like to be snipers, but we learn by firing tracer so that we can see where our bullets are really going. With the advantage that tracer can be corrected even while you are doing it. So we look at our pictures and think about what we would do differently, or we imagine ourselves to be taking a picture so that our heads get the practice even if our hands are carrying the shopping.

So I guess this is the biggest argument for using digital cameras to learn photography. I know there is this big movement to ‘really learn the ropes’ with a film camera (which has driven up the prices of ‘training cameras’ like the Pentax K1000) but I think most would be better off using a digital camera that allows manual control.

Will we be better photographers? Yes, better than we were. Will we be great photographers? Only other people can decide that. Don’t worry about it, see yourself improving and take pleasure in that.

Sealed with a KISS

So, I broke a camera. Then I found another one on eBay for £2.20. And it was mine. Well, you have to don’t you? And then the red mist cleared and I realised I had bought a fixed-focus camera with a single shutter speed and a fixed 32mm lens. Which due to refraction under water becomes the equivalent of a 45mm lens in terms of field of view. They used to give away cameras with magazines that had more features than this. OK, so the freebies weren’t waterproof to 45 metres and didn’t come with a dedicated waterproof flash. But this camera is as dumb as a rock.

So let’s get this baby wet! What could possibly go wrong?

Lots. But while a plan may not survive contact with the enemy, planning does. The camera manual gives the distance ranges for sharp focus for each aperture (yes, you can vary the aperture), both in air and underwater. The work of but a few minutes to make up a small table of these, laminate it and attach it to the camera strap. The lighting and exposure might be all over the place, so I loaded it with some XP2. This would cope easily with overexposure and would be likely to capture at least something if it was underexposed.

The big hammerhead flash might be a problem, as it can’t be aimed in any other direction than dead ahead. Backscatter from silt is always an issue, so a long flash arm that allows an oblique angle is nice if you have the right kit or loadsamoney. What the hell – this is £2.20 – if it doesn’t work I can probably resell it for more than that.

So me and the Nikonot went diving in a quarry. Full of water, mind. I call it water, it was more like thin soup. There were a lot of trainee divers in that day, and nothing stirs up your bottom like a trainee diver. The usual answer is to use the widest angle lens possible, allowing you to get very close and minimise the amount of water between subject and camera. But I have a fixed-focus lens that is only going to be sharp between three and six feet.

Capernwray - silt!
The joy of silt. And a gimp mask.

Oh what fun we had. I guessed what looked like about three feet, lined things up as best I could through the viewfinder (you think it’s hard to use a camera when you’re wearing glasses? Try a diving mask), and banged off 36 shots.

The joy of simplicity is that there is nothing to fiddle with: set the aperture according to the flash (f8 for an ISO 400 film) and just line up the shots and snap ’em. This is so liberating to a person who habitually uses a fully manual camera with a separate meter.

Cappernwray

Then I sent my film off to those marvellous people at AG Photolabs and wondered if I might get one or two usable shots from the roll. The first news is just how good XP2 is. Holding the neg strips up to the light showed some very dense frames. Pop them on the scanner and ping, out comes the detail. I had deliberately overexposed many of the shots knowing that the film would cope, and it really did. The only alternative I can think of would be to use HP5 and give it stand development. There’s a risk with this of getting uneven development though, so XP2 is one less variable in the mix.

The other revelation is that almost every frame on the roll was usable. I lost a couple with a strap or hose in front of the lens – typical hazard when you are using a viewfinder camera rather than an SLR. The rest were great! I’m amazed that a fixed focus, fixed everything camera can turn in results this good when shooting in soup.

Capernwray - Shergar
You can take a horse to water…

For my next trick I think I’ll try some colour. The equivalent of XP2 is supposed to be Portra 800 so I’ll be trying some of that at the next opportunity. Weirdly, and perhaps inevitably, this has also removed the fears I had for using a proper Nikonos. If I took the same approach of setting a fixed zone of focus and an automatic flash, it might work. The only advantage though would be to have a variable shutter speed. This would let me use a slow speed to bring the background out more, rather than leaving it as black. The only drawback though is the Nikonos’ special flash connection, so I would need the flash as well as the camera. So if someone reading this wants to donate me their kit or even swap it for the Nikonot, drop me a line (and likely kill me with shock).

Enough fantasising – this plastic housebrick turned out to be far better than I hoped. You’ve got to win one occasionally, haven’t you?