What’s the camera all the cool kids are chasing right now? Is it a T-for-two something or an Olympus meow? Even the quotidian Pentax K1000 can go for the price of a Leica lens cap.
If you listen the photography podcasts there is a regular concern that when someone gives a good review of an old camera, the bidding on eBay gets frantic as everyone rushes to get theirs.
Second hand (as if new was an option) film cameras are becoming expensive. One reason, like film, is that we are comparing the recent trough to the current wave. Film camera sales peaked around 1998 and then slumped rapidly as digital improved. There was a time when you could barely give old film kit away. Now of course, it’s groovy again. Since its also no longer made, the money chases the goods and prices rise.
So if you want something that will still take film, what are you going to do? Not chase fashion is my advice.
James Tocchio wrote a useful article on Casual Photofile about reducing the costs of photography. In it was one piece of unusual advice: buy a late model camera. The automatic cameras of the late 90s were plastic, oddly shaped and felt nasty. But they are unpopular and cheap. And providing the electronics work, so will the meter and the shutter. That’s about all you need. Yes, it may well have programmed exposure and offend your artistic sensibilities and freedom to guess the settings, but it will mount good lenses and you can always fake bad exposure later in post-processing.
If I look on the bottom shelf here I find I’ve got several of these plastic fantastics that I acquired because they came with a lens I wanted (and were usually cheaper than the lens on its own or in some cases than a lens base cap). Pentax MG anyone? Or a Pentax F3? There are loads of cameras that used the Pentax K mount or M42 screw (with the added joy that a K mount camera can do both). Prakticas are better in all respects than Zenits but can use the same lenses. The later electric-coupled Prakticas or the ones that used their own bayonet mount are not at all popular, so will be cheap (with the added benefit of being good).
Both Canon and Nikon got into the consumer camera trend, but I believe you need to be a bit more careful over which lenses fit. Even Pentax went through a range of lens types. All of them will fit mechanically, but some have options that will only work with later cameras. There is an explanation here.
So if I can convince you, have a wander down the path less trodden and spend the difference on going to nice places and doing interesting things. Or go to interesting places and don’t worry about breakage.
Except … I can guess what happens next: everyone starts chasing the cheap cameras and the prices rise. Second thoughts – you still REALLY want a Leica.
This started from a general feeling that was then further triggered by an opinion piece by Grant Scott. His argument is that the costs of analogue are too high, if the important thing is the outcome (the picture).
His premise is that digital photography, with its marginal cost of effectively zero, is the better method for getting results. This is certainly true for speed and convenience. It’s also true in teaching. Digital photography allows for experimentation and provides immediate feedback. Want to know what effect the aperture has? Take five or six shots and compare. Notice how moving things get blurred as the aperture closes down? That’s the relationship between shutter speed and aperture to maintain a consistent exposure. Now you try…
I’m not so sure how the costs of setting up compare. Even now (and I’ll come onto this) a basic film camera looks cheaper than a basic digital one, if you also want some manual control of the camera. The running costs are different though, which was the basis of Grant’s argument. But it’s a complicated argument and Grant has said that he got a lot of critical comment about his opinion piece. The cost per shot of digital is effectively zero. But the digital camera probably cost more than a second-hand film camera. But then the costs of developing, scanning, a computer and so on add to the real cost of using a film camera. All I can say for certain is that the cost per finished picture is higher for analogue, once the set-up costs are discounted (and those may work out around the same for digital and analogue). So Grant’s argument is that using film is a choice based on wanting to use it because you like it, or because it gives you the results that you want and can’t get by other means.
Film feels like it is becoming more expensive though, and it feels this is true even with inflation. Just about the cheapest options right now are Kentmere or Fomapan for black and white. Seeing some colour films selling at £15-18 a roll just means I will be reading about them rather than using them. But there is more to this than how it feels. Ludwig Hagelstein did an analysis of film prices in real terms in Silvergrain Classics. The headline of his analysis is that film isn’t that much more expensive than it used to be, allowing for inflation. However, there was a period when it was perhaps artificially cheap, so it looks expensive when you compare trough to peak. If I look back to when I was doing photographic printing, the price of 100 sheets of Mutltigrade adjusted for inflation would now be £69. The same paper now retails for £63. I’d call that the same relative price, so well done Ilford.
For anyone wanting to track the modern value of historic prices there is also a US equivalent here. You may also be interested to see how Mr Darcy on £10,000 a year could afford to light his cigars with Portra.
You’ve also to think that film is difficult to make. Back when Kodak were king they had enormous throughput and hence economies of scale. If you listen to Robert Shanebrook he talks of a machine applying perhaps ten or twenty separate layers to the film base, with thicknesses of a few microns. In the dark, too. This is very difficult to get right – I used to work in a paper mill and it’s hard enough getting a single layer of paper right. He says that in its heyday, film accounted for 110% of Kodak’s profit, meaning that it supported the other areas such as paper and chemicals. Lose that volume of throughput and you lose the economies of scale. So the price has to go up. There is also the consequences of stopping doing something and losing the ability to restart. Kodak did it when they closed the lines and their people retired. Fuji is doing it now. Polaroid are learning how hard it is to come back when the knowledge and machinery have gone. Nikon had a go at remaking a mechanical camera, to sell a limited number of them for a fortune and probably at a loss. There are also fewer people who can fix cameras and fewer parts to fix them with. And as a resource becomes scarce, the price probably goes up. (Unless you are a government, and believe you can increase the number of skilled people by shouting). It’s also very difficult to make something new when the components are no longer made. Reflex struggled to make or buy a working shutter for their camera, for example.
So the summary is that film, while interesting, is a niche product. The cameras that can shoot it are no longer made and will decline in number (unless someone like Copal steps in and makes shutters again). Film is hard to make and will probably remain as a low-volume product for as long as the cameras keep working. The true cost of film is roughly where it used to be historically: it’s just that the prices look higher due to inflation. Prices for some thngs will rise due to scarcity and competition for them, but that’s how markets work. So I believe the message is that we should enjoy it for what it is or the special results we want, grit our teeth about what feels like a lot of money, and have fun while it lasts.
I’ve done a thing I never thought I’d do, and bought an SLR that is not compatible with my Pentax kit.
Up until now all my SLRs could share the pool of lenses. This new one stands alone.
Why was my head turned? A cheap and interesting lens. It was the beginner’s kit lens at the time this camera came out in the late 70s, and probably since. It’s 55mm focal length and f2.2. So far, so modest, but I heard it could give interesting results. It has four elements in four groups and the online wizards say it’s a Zeiss Unar design. This is the ancestor of the Tessar, the difference being that the air-gapped pair of rear elements in the Unar are cemented together in the Tessar. So you could say it’s not as good but cheaper to build than a Tessar.
I had a bit of fun (true for small values of fun) a while ago comparing bokeh and rendering between different types of 50mm lenses. What I hadn’t got at the time (or since) was a five element lens. I didn’t even know there was a design with four. But now I do.
It was on eBay as an Adaptall-2 fitting, which was great. It turned out to be Fuji bayonet with an Adaptall-labelled rear cap. No matter – the lens was very cheap and a bit of searching found a very cheap Fujica STX-1 body to fit it to. Even together the pair fell inside the Sunny 16 cheap shots challenge rules. We like cheap when we are experimenting.
The lens is certainly cheap. It has a plastic body and a five blade aperture. The camera is cheap too – it was Fuji’s entry model in the late 70s and early 80s. It’s totally mechanical, with a top shutter speed of 1/750. Mine has a dent on the corner and the crank is missing from the film rewind. But it works. It’s also the early version of this camera with a meter needle rather than LEDs, so it’s pre 1982, making it around 40 years old. But the meter works, so hurrah for cheap old cameras. Even so, who cares? It’s the lens I’m interested in.
So what does the father of Tessar look like? (I was going to call it John Durbeyfield, but that’s just too obscure). Quite hard to focus in dim light, but that’s more to do with the camera’s screen than the lens. It feels very plasticy – focusing it or changing the aperture feels like bits of plastic sliding on each other rather than brass or aluminium. It doesn’t rattle like some old lenses though, so that’s a bonus. Closest focus is 0.6m which isn’t bad. Some people have raved about its bubble bokeh, but I’ve seen so many adverts claiming that anything from a telescope to a microscope is a bokeh monster that I don’t really believe them.
As I’m not sure about the camera’s light seals I shot it first with the tail end of a part-used film. No light leaks apparent, so all seems well.
For the camera buffs it’s a basic SLR and works just like they all do. The shutter speed range and the one in use are visible at the left of the viewfinder with the meter needle on the right. A half-press on the shutter button switches on the meter. There is a lock for the shutter release so it’s safe to leave the shutter cocked. This is a cheap and basic camera that would (and still does) do the job. The only real drawback, then as now, is that you are largely confined to Fuji lenses. The flange distance was less than M42, so there was an adapter available at the time that could get you access to a wider range of screw-mount lenses. Whether the adapter is still available I don’t know, and I have no wish to use this camera with my M42 lenses – this is to mount the mighty Unar.
So how did it handle? Like a film SLR. All the usual controls in the usual places. A little limited in bright conditions by the low top speed, a little limited in dim conditions by the small maximum aperture and a dim focusing screen. And the lens? At the usual range of distances and apertures, just like any other standard lens. I’m not going to point it at a resolution chart or even a wall – what’s the point?
These are the first shots out of the camera. First test of course is to recreate the bokeh shots I did, but using Wilson’s fruity friend.
Nice and smooth with a hint of double image in the white bench.
The possibility of a bit of swirly in the background.
Again, nice and smooth. A bit of double image or outline in the strand of plant, which mean it may well do the fabled bubble bokeh.
Still, for what it cost this is fun. Fun enough that I used it for the Casual Photophile Challenge.
PS – the Classic Lenses Podcast then did an episode on this lens. Looks like mine is a good one for not being cracked.
I think it does, but only in the sense of having the right tool for the job. Hammers for example. There’s lots of different types, to do lots of different jobs. You could put carpet tacks in with a sledgehammer, but you would need someone very trusting to hold the tack while you swung the hammer. Or you could use a tack hammer and keep your friends unbruised.
I should hang my head in shame though – I have a long history of improvising tools for one-off jobs. Things like using coins to pack-out the jaws of a spanner or cross-cutting the end of a bolt to use it as a thread tap. Things that make mechanics cry, let alone engineers. But photographically, some things do need the right kit. Even then, it’s possible to adapt.
Long lenses for example – you can use a shorter lens and a smaller sensor to take advantage of the scaling – a 200mm lens on APS-C becomes the equivalent of 300mm. (Sorry – 7 degrees or 122 mils). Use the better high ISO performance of a modern sensor and you can also cope with smaller apertures or a teleconverter.
For wider angle views it may be possible to stitch several shots together. I’ve also used one of those wide angle adapters that go on the front of a lens. Can be a bit rough at the edges but it could be the only way to get an extreme wide angle shot without owning an extreme wide angle lens.
I’ve also wittered about the capabilities of a digital camera to emulate different types of film, so there are ways to get the look of something special for a one-off requirement.
Some things can only be done with specific kit though. It’s difficult to get the look of large format without actually using large format, for example. Smooth, grainless tonality, shallow depth of field, and the transition from sharp to soft – I’m sure there will be a clever PhotoShop action that can render the effect but it’s going to take some effort.
Underwater is another example – it’s difficult to take pictures without a waterproof camera or a housing. I have seen a cheat though. This was a box with a glass or plastic window that can be pushed down through the surface to allow a camera to see underwater without getting wet. It’s a miniature version of a glass-bottomed boat. But for any other situation I need an underwater housing or a specialised camera. So that’s one for the list of necessary things.
Panoramic shots may also need dedicated kit. The extreme of this is the Xpan or the Widelux or Horizon. The only alternative is to copy the craze that was on a lot of cameras (probably in the 90s) of cropping the frame to a letterbox. You could match the look of an Xpan but probably not the quality from a smaller frame. You won’t match the look of a Horizon though, as it has a swinging lens. So that’s another special shooter on the list.
The rest though is largely down to the lens. After all, a camera is just a device for putting a sensor or film behind the lens and (usually) providing a shutter and a method of checking the focusing. If the lens is fixed to the camera, then owning the set is the only way to get what that lens will do (unless you buy one of the transplanted jobs). What this means is that you don’t need to own dozens of cameras – at least not for practical reasons. A wide range of lenses that can be fitted to whatever camera has the best sensor/ shutter/ viewfinder then makes a lot of sense.
It’s partly why I stuck with Pentax – I can put all manner of lenses on the front, including medium format ones. Until I win the lottery and buy a K1 it means I use film for full-frame and APS-C for digital and to get the focal length multiplier.
I guess what I’m coming round to is a rationalisation. I definitely have too many cameras. While they can be nice toys, I need to think what category or use each one is in. Once a particular slot is filled, I probably only need one example. Small film compact, for example. I think I have five, so four of them could be surplus. Small digital compact? They are a bit more specialised as I have one converted to IR and some that have housings. Roll film toy cameras? Two.
So I’m going to be organising my gear by function with the aim of treating it like a set of tools. I need a range of spanners (or a good adjustable) rather than ten 10mm ones. I can feel a cull coming on for the surplus and the pointless. I might also put some thought into making sure that the uses that are important to me are adequately met. Not kit for kit’s sake, but for the sake of what I want to be able to do.
What about you? What set of circumstances does your kit need to cover? Do you have a good working tool for each one or a set of toys?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Have you ever heard anyone say they are going to sunny-16 it? Do you think they only take pictures when it’s sunny? I’m curious because, while I know what the exposure should be in bright summer sunlight, I struggle to estimate it in the dull overcast of a British Standard Day. Even clear sunshine in winter can be two stops less bright than summer.
How hard is it to really carry a light meter? How about instead of a spare lens or a second camera?
How much would you spend on a roll of film? I can get Kentmere 400 for £4.30. How much is a light meter? I reckon you can get one for a fiver on fleabay (sanity check – I just bought two for £5). How much would you spend to get every frame on your film reasonably well exposed?
If you guess the exposure you will probably have forgotten your guesses by the time you develop the film, so you won’t have anything to learn from. If you use a meter then you will know for sure if you (or it) are over or under exposing. Then you can compensate.
I know there are some lovely new meters on sale and on kickstarter, but they cost more than a roll of film. Besides, they tend to be fixed to the camera so it can be difficult to know what you are pointing them at. I know that grass or a clear north sky will meter as that desired middle grey. I know that pale skin like mine (I can pass for Scottish) is one stop brighter. So if I’m shooting something in the same light as me I can meter off my hand and give it one more stop of exposure. It’s not very scientific, if you mean precise, but it’s better than guesswork.
I’ve been using a meter more often recently than I usually do, as I’m taking one camera a month out to play. I’m finding that I can’t really guess a good exposure when it’s dull or I’m under trees. And while the latitude of the film might save me, I’d prefer to do a better job. Even Don McCullin took the time to use a lightmeter, and people were shooting at him.
So how do you know the crusty old meter you find actually works? Got a digital camera or one with a working meter? Point it at something fairly featureless like a wall or field and see what it says. Then what the old meter says. Adjust the film speed on the meter to make them agree and make a note on the meter what you did. It could be something like -1 stop on ISO if it under-reads.
No digital? Try a mobile phone app. Speaking of which, even a phone app is better than no meter. I use one called LightMeter. I paid the extra to unlock it which let me check and calibrate it against a known good meter. I’d still usually rather use a small ‘proper’ meter though, just to save faffing with a phone.
My true confession though is in using the zone system. Not in the sense that large-format photographers do with special development and cleverness, but in knowing that the palm of my hand meters as zone 6. So meter my hand and overexpose by one stop. Or that sunlit snow will be at zone 9. Or the darkest shadow that I still want some detail in should be metered and then underexposed by two stops.
I hear that people who shoot portraits on colour negative film, which copes well with overexposure, meter the shadows and set that as the exposure. The reason is that they want to show some detail in the shadows and not grain or colour shifts.
A vague memory intrudes… I recall watching a documentary years ago about a famous photographer. He was photographing models walking around a pool. He sat in a wheelchair and had an assistant pull him backwards, in front of the models. What a great idea to avoid falling in the water. But the reason for the memory is that he didn’t use a meter (or claimed not to, he had assistants). He used the exposure advice on the inside of the film packaging. Given that Kodak etc want your pictures to turn out well and that he was shooting in sunlight (and that I think he was shooting colour negative), it probably worked very well. Nobody talks about film boxing it though, do they?
But you can’t do any of this by starting with sunny 16 and guessing. At the very least, print yourself an exposure guide. It’s not a light meter, but it’s still better than guessing.
A digital camera is a Turing camera: it has the potential to emulate any camera, which means it has the ability to emulate any recording medium.
As an example, Ritchie Roesch has posted the recipes or settings to make Fuji cameras emulate different types of film. On the other hand, you could just shoot the actual film you are trying to emulate. Except some types of film are expensive or rare – try getting some Kodak HIE or Kodachrome to play with. So the ability to summon the ghost of films past has its uses. Plus you can effectively change films mid-roll or even for a single shot. It makes me wonder though – if I emulate a particular film effect in-camera, am I just replacing film with digits? What I mean is, that one of the strongest advantages of digital over film is that you have more scope to change it afterwards. If I save a file in the camera that has effects applied, I have actually shot a frame of film.
Perhaps the best way then is not to apply film effects in-camera, but later? Or at least save a raw file with no effects applied. If your camera lets you save both, you can have the raw file to work on and a jpeg to get an idea of what the final effect will look like. This might be useful if I was taking portraits in black and white. It’s difficult to visualise how colour translates, so saving jpegs in mono gives you something to show the subject.
If I choose to use a certain type of film or to process it in a certain way, I can’t go back and change my mind. If I shoot well-exposed raw files, I can do anything I want with them later. Is this a lack of commitment or is it pragmatism? Actually, it’s something I should do more often. I keep taking my old clunker cameras out for walks loaded with mono film. I should try using one of the digital jobs the same way, but having more options to change the results later. I’ve been having a go with the one camera, one lens, one month thing. Perhaps I should treat one of the digital cameras the same way? I’ve only got one that can swap lenses, so it looks like it’s going to be on the list. The emphasis will be different though. Rather than getting to know an old camera better, this will be more about seeing how much flexibility I can get out of a Turing machine.
Having thought about it, I’ve settled on using my Canon G9 compact. It can save raw files so I can play with the settings but still have the original to work on later. I’ve set it up to shoot back and white. It has two saved custom modes, so I have set them both to black and white but one of them to underexpose by one stop. I will use this when I push the ISO to 800 to see if I can use it for gritty pictures with deep shadows.
That’s the game then: G9 pretending to be a range of mono film types, with the option to later apply filters or effects.
I’m quite enjoying this. It scratches my mono film itch and lets me change my mind later.
Do we make a thing less valuable by making it easier?
Photography used to be hard; and then Kodak happened. What once took study became ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. The first Kodak cameras had 100 shots on the roll too – we’re talking digital levels of bangin’ ’em off. Kodak democratised photography and made the casual snap possible.
We stumbled along with folding and plastic cameras for a while. Then the rangefinder and the SLR came along. Things got technically complicated and photographs were taken by photographers. The cameras had all sorts of settings and you had to know what to do to make them work properly. There was good money in it though – Bailey made enough to run a Ferrari.
The reaction was point and shoots and the Instamatic. Either no settings or automatic. You didn’t have to know how to work a camera to be able to take a picture.
And so the waves of development rolled in, with simple following clever. Features were added, then automated. What started as complex became easier. Light metering, then automatic exposure, then autofocus. Film turned into cartridges or the camera loaded and wound-on itself.
Talent still counted: all the automation in the world couldn’t help people take good photos. But it became easier to take a picture that was well exposed and in focus, and for the results to be mostly pleasing. But the circulation of a picture was still limited to the people you could physically meet, unless you were one of the few.
The a couple of things happened. The first was the mobile phone. Suddenly, nobody needed a camera let alone film developing or printing. Photography was democratised again – anyone could do it, there were no constraints on capacity and you could see the results immediately. The quality may have been low to begin with but it was good enough and got better.
Then social media happened and suddenly we were all syndicated worldwide. You didn’t have to work for a magazine or newspaper to be seen, you just had to be seen. Upload a picture, get likes, get the endorphin rush. Rinse and repeat. What used to take dedication, craft or understanding could be replaced by novelty and desire. Being somewhere, doing something, looking special – the pictures sparked envy and emulation. Because, like a lot of things, fame followed a power law, with a few famous or popular influencers and a long tail of the rest of us.
But the price of entry was lower. Cameras, including mobile phones, were so good that skill was replaced with presence: you only had to be there. So there became important. You can see this in the rush of people to visit the spots recorded by influencers. Someone recently posted about an old wartime bomber wreck. The police then had to ask people to not park on the road, not get lost, and if they did call them or the Mountain Rescue to at least call them again if they found their own way down. And please don’t take souvenirs – it’s a war grave.
There was a similar discussion around Ben Nevis a while back. It starts near sea level but it’s high and cold on the top and it’s easy to walk off the edge. So in 2009 the cairns were moved to mark the descent route and avoid a gully. The advice has always been to be properly equipped and to know how to navigate, but now we have the equivalent of automation.
So the camera (or phone) needs no investment of skill to operate. Being seen by other people is just a matter of posting things that enough people will like, but the liking is ephemeral and has to be repeated. Not that the majority of people are like this. Most of us are happy to have a simple method to take a snap and share it with friends. Ultimately, nobody really wants to invest in or learn to use a drill when they can just get the hole.
Does automation and the removal of craft skill bother me? Not at all. I love the idea that everyone can take a snap at the very instant. These moments are precious.
Do I mind that people are shooting weddings or cinematic films on iPhones? No, go ahead. What has always and ever mattered is what the resulting film looks like, and nobody cares what you shot it on.
Do I fret that someone with a modern digital camera can take fantastic pictures without knowing anything about photography? Again, no. The technical things I have learned allow me to shoot with dodgy old manual cameras, which is my hobby. I use the digital kit and all the automation I can get when the results are important. I like to think that my understanding of how it all works helps me get better results more often. But I still know that someone with better kit will often get better results than me, most often when things like lots of megapixels or high ISO make a difference.
So what’s the point of this rambling grumble? It’s the bit I don’t like: the social media frenzy to chase likes and gain followers. And yet I write a blog. To be honest (with both my readers), I write because I enjoy writing. It’s a challenge to come up with new ideas each week. It’s interesting to string thoughts together and ask myself if what I am saying is what I mean. I’m delighted if someone reads them, but that is not the thing that drives me. So I attempt to sidestep hypocrisy by making a virtue of my obscurity. But I don’t splurge pictures on social media – I like using them to illustrate a story or using words to describe a picture. Holier than thou? Not really. If I was to blitz Instagram with images it would feel to me a bit like something that was automatic and outside my control. By writing this blog it feels more like having to understand what I’m doing.
Your mileage may vary, as they say, and I am far from being an influencer. Or even understanding what I’m doing.
I don’t believe you make something less valuable by making it easier, if the value is in the thing and not in the learning. I do believe we destroy value when we try to copy or compete, though.