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?

Out of the rut

Can one learn creativity or do you inherit it along with your hair distribution and eye colour? Even if you are creative, do you find yourself churning out the same stuff? How can one get out of a rut and be routinely creative, if that’s possible?

When you lift your camera to your eye, do you do what you have always done? And how do you do what you don’t usually do? (Gotta get a do-do joke in here). If you had to do the same thing for the rest of your life, how could you keep it fresh and interesting? If you went to the same places as everyone else, would your pictures look the same as theirs? Wasn’t there a study recently of how many pictures that people post online were essentially the same?

Perhaps more to the point then is to stop worrying about being creative and to find ways of pulling yourself out of the usual round of standard responses. It’s very comforting to stick with what we know: confirmation bias provides a force of positive feedback that strokes our egos til they purr. On the other hand, we are becoming more aware of the echo chamber effect that beguilingly narrows your world to a set of mirrors. So how do you give yourself a kick up the arts and break out of the mundane?

Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt created the Oblique Strategies cards to help musicians do this. The idea is to provide a constraint that forces the reader to apply lateral thinking to get around it. This is an excellent idea – so often when we are faced with no limits we confine ourselves to a routine. It’s no joke that some famous landmarks have tripod marks that you can use to get the standard shot. I’ve seen special selfie marks on the pavement showing people where to stand to get various monuments in the background. But what if your camera only had a pinhole lens, or only one shutter speed and aperture, or could only shoot close-ups? What would you do then? What if you ignored the scenery and only took pictures of the people? What if you used such a long exposure that the people vanished? What if you photographed the people taking the selfies?

So perhaps what we could do if we feel we are in a rut is to apply a really difficult or awkward constraint to see what happens. And it has to be a real constraint, not just deciding to only take the one lens out with you. This is what the OuLiPo group does. How about focusing the lens at two meters and not changing it? How about covering the viewfinder or screen and shooting everything blind? What about taking the lens off and using a magnifying glass? If you think that’s difficult, try writing a novel in French without using the letter e. Then imagine being the person to translate it into English. So how about making a set of cards? Or maybe it’s worth trying the original Oblique Strategy cards? A good start might be the Android or iOS app versions of the cards.

What else could we do? Don Komarechka apparently didn’t like the cold winters in Ontario so started taking close-ups of snowflakes. That led to bubbles, UV and IR and some extraordinary pictures. So the answer to the question would be to pick a thing and follow it wherever it takes you. You could try something like The Photographer’s Playbook for ideas for projects to follow.

You could also try adding a bit of chaos. I went through a patch where I was very bored with things. I took my kids to the library every Saturday but I had read everything on the one shelf I usually went to. So I took the number off the car registration nearest to the library and went to that section of shelving. (Most libraries are organised around the Dewey Decimal filing system) Easy if the car plate has three digits; if not add a zero at the end of the pair, or at the beginning and reverse the number. The rule was that I had to borrow one book from whichever section I was sent to. That led to some strange directions and a gradual dissolving of the rut I was in. And some odd looks from the librarian.

Burnt slide
When a colour slide gets too hot. Now what if I tape this to the front of a lens and use it as the aperture?

How would you do that with photography? Roll a dice to choose the aperture or shutter speed? Pick a random word from a book or newspaper that has to be your theme for the day? For those of us with more than one camera, roll a dice to pick which one to use? List all your camera, plus all your lenses, ISO levels, all the shutter speeds and all the apertures. Draw blind one card from each set and that’s what you are using for the day. It’s much the same idea as the cards above, but with less chance of selecting the results. You could have a play with this website. (Nobody seems to use a website to show their work any more, but it’s too good a domain name to let fade away. And yes, I have only just changed the content so it is a work in progress.)

This is why I love using my little Olympus half-frame camera: fixed focus, no manual controls, and 72 shots per film so each individual shot is less precious. There is nothing I can do to change the camera settings, so I fool about taking pictures instead. Load it with some cheapo expired colour print film and you have no idea what is going to happen. Perhaps that is too much chaos? The alternative would be binding constraints: something like one of the Lomo cameras that has almost no variable controls? Or an old box or folding roll-film camera from a charity shop? With twelve or fewer shots on the film you will have to shake off the digital ways of spray and pray.

Anyway, I believe that creativity isn’t something you switch on only when you need it. I believe it is something you can learn but must practice, and the lessons come from having to overcome a constraint. Fighting restrictions will lead you onto new paths. Do this often enough and you begin to see even the routine as something you could play with. And with luck you will never again bring home photos that match the postcards in the local shop.

Abstract raindrops
That’s the house across the road

Tie yourself down to set yourself free (but not literally).

Escalator
I wonder what happens if I leave the shutter open on an escalator?

Hail Eris!

The joy of cheap

Some would say I am tighter than a duck’s chuff. I just see it as being careful. There is also the joy of problem-solving: it’s easy to do something by spending money on it but it’s much more satisfying to find a solution that works for less. Nothing to do with being tight, not at all.

One of my other hobbies is scuba diving. In scuba, the minimum price of anything seems to be £250. You want a torch? £250. A regulator? £250. You get the idea. One of the things we do in murky British waters is carry a flashing beacon or strobe. These are clever sealed devices that are activated when they get wet. I’m sure they start at £250 too. But there is also the squid-fishing lure that is safe to at least 40m and costs a couple of quid. Same with lead weights – you can buy pouched weights or you could buy the pouches and fill them with shotgun pellets. These things are safe to save money on – there is no way I’m saving money by building my own regulator.

It can be very easy, when you first take an interest in a thing, to spend money on it. You have probably seen people whose first action is to spend a fortune on kit before they perhaps know how to fully use it. I’ve no problem with that: sometimes the kit is the sort that keeps you alive and it’s worth spending the money. You wouldn’t (I hope) go rock climbing with an old bit of rope you bought cheap with the intention of buying a better one when you have learned to fall off less often. But safety aside, how do you know what sort of equipment you need until you learn what you want?

This is another reason I like cheap or second-hand. I think it’s a great idea if you start a new hobby or set out to learn something, to use whatever kit you can get free or cheap. This will get you to the point where you have some idea of what you are doing. At that point you will have run into the restrictions of your cheap kit and have a better idea of what you really need. In photography terms you will have got past the stage of surprise that anything comes out at all and be pushing the limits of your camera, lens or methods. You might find you are shooting sporty things and you are pushing the reach of your lens, or doing lots of close-ups or portraits. Hopefully by this point you will know more people doing the same thing, so you have an opportunity to borrow what you think you need to see if you really do. This also helps stave off the cravings for acquiring gear for its own sake. You might be thinking “if only I had a … I would be a better photographer, and look how reasonable they are on eBay”. This way lies madness.

Say you’re doing portraits and what you need more than anything is a portrait lens. But what focal length and aperture? You could buy every increment from 80mm to 135mm and then find yourself sticking with the 80 because you can stay in the same room as your subject. Or you could borrow one of the lenses or find the cheapest one you can, and then find out whether you have to take a few steps back or a few steps forward to get the framing you like. Or even (heresy) put a cheap 2x teleconverter on a 50mm lens and see what a 100mm lens looks like before you commit. You will also learn whether the depth of field is sufficient. If you are struggling to get both eyes sharp then you can forget buying that pricy f1.4 lens and spend the money on lights.

Same with cameras. You may think you need a Leica to do street photography because it’s unobtrusive and quiet. So is an Olympus Trip, and you can get one of them for £20 and find out whether street photography is really your thing. Less chance of being mugged, too.

Cheap can also mean disposable, but in a good way. There are loads of fairly competent point and shoot compacts out there. They are becoming scarcer at charity shops (except for one near my mum’s house that is my special secret) but there is usually a good harvest at car boot sales. So if you are going somewhere that could damage or destroy the camera, go cheap. The best ones for this are the cameras that wind all of the film out of the cassette when first loaded, and wind it back in as you shoot. Even if you break one of these open you won’t lose the shots you have already taken. Barring that, tape the back closed with gaffer tape. If you have a particular compact camera in mind or want to know more about the plastic fantastic you found, go see the Canny Cameras website. I’ve also got a previous post around here somewhere about breaking cameras for fun.

The Nikonot
The Nikonot. Even the film cassette rusted when it filled up with seawater. Good job it cost less than a fiver.
The Nikonot
Even the shutter is rusting

There are also some useful digital compacts as well. Nobody wants anything that comes in around the 3-5 megapixies range any more, but they can deliver reasonable images. The problem you may have with these is the battery, unless they take AA cells. The best one to get, if you can find one, is any of the Canon models that are listed on the CHDK site. Get the right model and you can make it do tricks like a proper camera. I used mine to make a time-lapse film of an office being fitted out. Nice work for a junk-shop bargain. I also used it when we went up Great Gable – you don’t want an expensive SLR in your hand when you descend a steep scree slope. One of the hacks listed on the CHDK site can trigger the camera fast enough to record a lightning bolt. I must try holding the camera up on a selfie stick at the top of a mountain in a thunderstorm. What could possibly go wrong? The chaos monkey on my shoulder is whispering to me to try setting the camera to shoot say 30 images in sequence and then throwing it up in the air and catching it. Again, what could possibly go wrong? Nothing that would break the bank.

Hell's Gate, Great Gable
Seriously, that’s the way down?
Hell's Gate
Yep.

I love cheapo compacts though. It’s liberating to know that your camera has no value and you are free to take risks. And with a lot of the 80s and 90s compacts, you can reassure yourself that if you don’t break it the electronics will likely die soon anyway. Want some ideas? Smear a bit of Vaseline around the edges of the lens. Put a yellow filter over the lens, a blue one on the flash and shoot colour (then swap the filters over and repeat). Tape it to a long stick, set the self timer, and get some cheap ‘drone’ shots or an aerial shot of a crowd. Throw it up in the air and catch it. Whirl it round on the strap with a long shutter speed. Put it in a plastic bag and go surfing. Tie it to a dog. Ok, not the dog.

Cheap lenses? Getting rare. Seems like every groovy dude is buying-up old Russian and East German lenses to photograph single flowers against a blurred background. But if you are shooting APS-C on digital, the no-name 50mm lens is your friend. Here’s where you find that portrait lens you were looking for. There were plenty of cameras made by people other than Canon and Nikon that typically came with a 50mm f1.7 or f2. Since you are using just the centre of the frame it will be sharper on digital than it probably was on film. Use it at f5.6-8 and it will probably be really sharp. Use it wide open and you will get nice soft edges and a blurred background. If you want to annoy the purists, a lick of black paint to cover-up the maker’s name and details around the front element can be just the right mischief. Tell them it’s a NASA prototype. Speaking of which, have a look at the inside of any old film compact camera you find. Look for any shiny plastic surfaces in the space between the back of the lens and the film gate. Try giving those a very careful lick of matt black paint (do model shops still sell the little tins of Humbrol for painting your Airfix kits?). Instant improvement in contrast.

This is where you wish you’d bought a Pentax digital camera. An awful lot of cameras and lenses were made with the Pentax K mount, so that cheapo 50mm lens you fancy can be found on an unloved film SLR for a fiver on eBay. A cheap adapter also means that every M42 screw-fit lens will also work. Plus you can use every camera lens that Pentax made. Even the 6×7 and 645 medium format lenses will work with an adapter. I’ve got an adapter that lets me use Kiev or Pentacon medium format lenses, which is an easy way to get a long lens for occasional use. Mike Gutterman is right: Pentax rules.

And think of all the beer you can buy with the money you saved.

Destroying folders

Look away now if you are easily offended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scarborough
That’s the screwhead, top right.

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_2408
won’t work with protruding pentaprisms.
IMG_2407
Epoxy resin is your friend

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

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

Tree

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

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

Filmic folder fun for all the family.

set
Swing lens is great for isolating a vertical subject

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

Update

I found a picture of the pinhole conversion.

pinhole

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

Going off piste

“What sort of camera do I need to take action photos while I am (insert activity)?”

You will be glad to know that the answer is “whatever you’ve got”. As long as you can afford to have it destroyed. Or carrying and using it won’t kill you. Cameras are tools, not jewels.

I think my first adventure was borrowing my parents’ Instamatic to go rock climbing when I was in the scouts. Or rather, I borrowed the camera and confessed to the rock climbing later. Instamatics are pretty tough providing you don’t drop them, but pretty basic too.

My first go on my own dime was sea-cliff climbing. I had a Kodak 620 folding roll film camera and the film box to read the exposure from. It was the only camera I had, so it was the one I used. This was when old folders were as cheap as chips though, so my maximum loss if I fell off or dropped the camera would have been the pictures I’d already taken.

Dorset sea cliffs

From then on it was a case of using what I had.

The least handy was a Lubitel. Its large size was partly offset by its light weight but it was a bugger to use and even worse if you didn’t have both hands free. It could only be focused on a central spot in the middle of the viewfinder, and only then if you used the pop-up magnifier. Great quality negatives though.

Climb40115
Vic getting his groove on, snapped on a Lubitel.

I did try to make a helmet-mount for when I was planning to do a charity parachute jump. I had an auto-exposure Pentax with a power winder. With a bit of drilling I mounted it on a flash bracket bolted to the side of an old rock-climbing crash helmet. A bit of bent and drilled alloy gaffer-taped to the winder gave me a mounting for one end of a cable release to press on the firing button. I had one of those long air releases with a squeeze bulb. I could route this down through my overalls, placing the bulb in one hand and hiding the slack inside my clothing. Wide angle lens on the camera set to the hyperfocal distance and we’re off. Or not. The response at the parachute school was “take that off, you bloody eejit”. Apparently having a heavy and tangle-prone weight on the side of one’s head and making one’s hand unavailable for pulling the reserve handle was a bad idea.

I reprised the helmet thing again recently in an attempt to make a hands-free video camera mount for when I’m diving. As usual one could spend money and do it right, or bodge it for cheap. So I bought a building site hard hat – a scaffolder’s one that had a minimal peak and a chin strap. The plan was to drill a chain of holes along the top so that it wouldn’t trap air. But in practice the difference between theory and practice is greater than theory predicts. I hadn’t reckoned on two things. The first was that the camera, devoid of its usual light bracket and grip, was slightly buoyant. The other was that in British waters I wear a neoprene balaclava hood. The helmet would fit over my head plus hood easily, but there was no chin to tighten the helmet strap against. So the first time I dived with it the helmet tried to stay on the surface, and then wobbled about like a sad little windsock. All was not lost though – I have used the helmet for things on dry land (despite the odd looks) and when I needed to visit a construction site. I covered the holes with reflective tape and ignored a fresh set of odd looks.

Caving? That’s what plastic bags are for. Admittedly the camera was inside a poly bag and also inside an old army ammunition box surrounded by bits of foam. This is the perfect use for the autofocus 35mm compacts from the 90s. Some of these cameras are pretty capable and have sharp lenses. It’s easy to back them up with a few old (cheap) electronic flashes linked to slave triggers. I use slave cells with a hot shoe built in, and the flash plus slave can be left sealed in a ziplock clear plastic bag. And if it all turns to worms you can usually save the film and be out of pocket for the price a couple of London beers.

Derbyshire
The gent on the left is well-known, but has a name you would not believe

Motorcycling? Only as a passenger, unless you want to leave your legacy in pictures from the point of impact. And as a passenger, make sure that you can’t drop the camera and that there is no strap dangling anywhere. Actually, you might be better risking dropping the camera than attaching it to yourself with a strap. You will also need at least one hand free to hang on. I know your mate driving the bike is an expert and smooth as butter, but you will at some point need to make a grab for support. Oh, and keep still! Shifting your weight can steer the bike. (I’m sorry Brian, if you read this, I really did think we were going to hit that car. ) The most impressive people in the world at doing this are the ones who cover cycling events. To see a bike being ridden slowly and smoothly through a buzzing swarm of cyclists and spectators while the pillion is stood on the pegs, twisting and turning, is a sight of great beauty and awesomeness. Seeing the pillion facing backwards to film the peloton from the front shows great trust and practice. Don’t try this at home.

Bike

There is a previous post about my adventures trying to take pictures underwater. Long story short is that splashproof cameras are great and even the cheaper ‘plastic bag’ housings work. Rain is still a problem though. Prior to all these clever digital SLRs with weather-sealing I’ve had to leave the camera and lenses in the airing cupboard for a week to dry out. It didn’t seem to do them any long-term harm and I’ve never had the dreaded lens fungus. Oh, and sand is nasty too. I went to photograph the seals at Donna Nook and there was a fairly strong wind blowing. If you walk out to where the seals are, there was a enough sand blowing at up to about waist height to start building dunes against any seal that kept still. This was not the place to put the camera bag down. I was using one of those clever sealed digital SLRs, but the lens was from an old medium format camera and had generous clearances. I’m glad to say that it wasn’t too crunchy afterwards. If the wind had lifted the sand any higher though, I wouldn’t even have been able to see the seals.

Pair in sand

So yes, do as the Americans say and run what yer brung. But do expect a bit of Fup Duck now and then.