One lens

My first camera didn’t have a zoom lens. It was a while before I could afford a second lens, so I learned the basics with a “standard” lens – a 40 degree angle of view. This is supposed to match the normal field of vision of the human eye, which it does not. Perhaps the ‘perspective‘ (meaning diminution) matches, which is more likely.

Zooms were great though – my favourite is a Pentax 24-50mm. I’ll bet though that a lot of zooms are used at one end or the other of their range and not much in between. There used to be a number of point and shoot cameras that offered two switchable focal lengths rather than a zoom. I know I had one for a while. It made a lot of sense – easier to make, quicker to use and probably got exactly the same shots.

I wonder though if sticking to a single fixed lens might be a useful exercise? I know that 35Hunter does a thing of using one camera with one lens for one month. I’m not sure I could be that disciplined. If anything, it would be the one month that was hardest. I’ve regularly been out with one camera and one lens, but I will change the combination depending on where I’m going. Not at all like the old days where the camera and lens of choice were the (only) ones I owned.

These days I have more lenses but I find myself swapping them less often. After that initial period with only my standard lens I had the standard hobbyist set of wide, standard and long. In those days it meant 28mm, 50mm and 135mm on 35mm film. (That’s 65, 40 and 15 degrees angle of view) I was constantly swapping lenses. The main reason was that I had them with me – I used to carry a huge bag stuffed with lenses and gadgets. As I got older I tended to cut down on the camera gear and carry things that were more useful, like drinking water or a map.

So what’s the big deal? I think I might have a go at the 35Hunter 1:1:1 challenge to see what effect simplicity has. Even though I take great joy from being able to play with different kit, it would be interesting to go back to the basics and my roots and see what happens when I have to work within constraints (and not the Konstruktor challenge). A good starting point could be that I’ve got a couple of cameras loaded already. I’m going to flip a coin and carry just one of them until it’s done, then swap to the other. Make that three – I’ve just found another one that’s loaded and part shot.

Choices

Which should it be then? The Pentax is loaded with Kentmere 400, the Mercury with Kentmere 100 and the Ricoh with some Kodak colour print film. The Pentax it is. If nothing else, it will get some part-used film finished.

Have a go yourself. See what happens.

Olympus 35 RC

I’ve played with an Olympus Pen-EE and a Fed 50 (the Trip-alike) but this camera is the real deal: a full rangefinder with a sharp lens in a package the same size as the other two.

Mine is not a great example – the shutter speed dial is a bit loose and the light seals were shot – but, in common with most of my gear, it was cheap.

What you get is a great package. Olympus were the best at putting a good lens on a small camera that worked well. Owning one of these isn’t like a Leica, where you fret in existential turmoil over whether your viewfinder has the right magnification or choice of frame lines and fumble with the awkward film loading. This just works. The tiny dimensions mean you carry it, and you probably get 38 frames on a film.

o35rc

The lens is a cracker – sharp and contrasty. Having said that I like the Fed 50, you can see the difference in the shots from the RC.

The camera has a very neat feature for anyone wanting to use flash, in that it can make a cheap and simple manual flash into an automatic. If you set the flash guide number on the side of the lens, the camera adjusts the aperture according to distance when you focus. Since the shutter is a leaf type you can use flash at any speed. What this means is that you can stick an old (cheap) flashgun on the camera to light the foreground and use the shutter speed to control how light or dark you want the background. It’s clever and it works. Note though – it only works for on-camera flash, so don’t go Strobist.

O35rc GN
Guide number setting on the side of the lens

The camera is basically a shutter-priority automatic, but you can also use it in manual mode. Why, I don’t know – the meter seems to do a good job. You can also easily compensate for odd lighting – aim the camera at something lighter or darker (depending on what you need) half-press the shutter button and the exposure locks. Reframe and shoot. Simples.

Flashmatic
Changing the background exposure by choice of shutter speed

Ken Rockwell loved it.

The shutter and the diaphragm are simple two-bladed designs with a square opening. The purists will tell you that this ruins the bokeh. The rest of us will just take pictures. I’ve only seen a square aperture produce odd effects in one of my underwater cameras and that was because the flash lit up the floating debris in the water. In practice I can see that some of my pictures with the RC have out of focus backgrounds but there’s nothing distracting. Again, it just works. Olympus use the same square aperture on the XA and why not – it’s mechanically simple, small and reliable.

Wheldrake Woods

So there you have it. It’s a neatly packaged little camera that you can focus accurately and has a good lens. It works really well with flash. Top marks, Olympus.

Fed 50: the poyezdka

As I didn’t like the Lomo LC-A very much, I was offered a chance to swap it. So now I have a different camera that was also on my ‘one day, perhaps’ list – the Fed 50.

The Fed 50 Automat was made between 1986 and 1996. It looks very much like the Olympus Trip but didn’t even start production until two years after the Trip had stopped.

Fed50

In some ways it’s more sophisticated than the Trip as it has more than two shutter speeds. Unlike the LC-A it tells you what combination of speed and aperture it’s going to use, in a range of 1/30 at f2.8 to 1/650 at f14. There is even a basic manual mode: set the camera to use flash and the shutter is set to 1/30. You can then change the apertures to suit. This is similar to the Lomo LC-A, although that set the shutter speed to a more useful 1/60. The viewfinder also shows the zone distance you have focused on. While the lens is marked with a conventional distance scale, twisting it moves a pointer in the viewfinder between the typical zone-focus icons of person, group, scenery.

Fed VF

I’ve seen mention that the dial that sets the film ISO is easy to nudge and that the camera tends to underexpose. So I’ll be careful with the ISO dial and I might set the camera to overexpose a bit on my first roll of film. And yes, having since carried the camera in a bag, the ISO dial does get nudged. A bit of tactical sticky tape is called for.

It’s a chunky little monkey that has some heft. It feels good to carry – like it would survive the occasional bump. It’s an easy carry too – it sits well in one hand with a wrist strap.

It does underexpose. I rated my first film through it at 250 ISO rather than 400 and it could even have done with a touch more. I wonder if putting a lens hood on might help, to restrict the view of the light meter that surrounds the lens. It’s a strange 45.5mm thread but I could get a step-up ring to take it up to a more conventional 49mm. <Rummages in the box of bits and finds a 45.5mm lens hood I never knew I had. Yippee!>

The first shots into low but strong (for this time of year) sunshine look like there is some internal light reflection at the sides of the film gate. Nothing that a dab of matte black paint won’t fix. (I have a Kiev 60, and dulling the reflections on that was like painting the hall). While peering at the film gate I noticed a raised spot of paint that probably coincides with scratches on the negatives. A scrape with a sharp blade, a rub with fine emery cloth and a lick of paint and we’ll see if both the reflections and scratches are cured.

I like the lens a lot more than the one on the LC-A, specifically because it doesn’t vignette. I like to be able to have things at the sides of my pictures occasionally, not dead central.

The usual old camera tests went well: it exposes evenly and the frames are well spaced. Things that should be in focus are. So mechanically it looks fit.

In use it felt very much like a Trip – set the lens to the right distance and just shoot. The Olympus Trip may have the sharper lens but I don’t have one to compare with. And who cares? While I was taking the first set of pictures one of the group remarked on me having a ‘proper old camera’. I don’t suppose you see too many people these days having to wind-on between shots. (And yes, we were all doing the right anti-virus stuff. No trumping here.)

On the second outing I found it still underexposes with a lens hood on. I could either try blanking a few of the light-gathering bobbles on the meter with a marker pen or just set the ISO lower. But the flare and the scratching were gone, which is good.

Where canoes go in winter.

Down side? It’s difficult to engage the end of the film in the takeup spool. Once it was properly caught it held tight, enough that it didn’t release on the rewind. Still, better that than not catching.

Where old vans go in winter.

So I’m very happy with it. I like the results, it has a viewfinder I can use and it’s proper old. It can be carried in one hand, set to the likely focus distance and you can just raise it and shoot. I definitely prefer it to the LC-A. Plus it doesn’t have the cult following of the LC-A, so prices are still reasonable.

Digital-clever film cameras

The late-model film cameras, the ones just before the Rise of the Machines, contain a lot of the functionality that transferred to digital.

My example is a very cheap Pentax MZ-5n body I found in a charity shop and joined to an existing Pentax autofocus 35-70 zoom. The camera was introduced in 1997 and has a poor reputation for breaking. It’s also 23 years old so won’t have improved. This particular one seems to be ok, but it owes me so little that I’m not going to cry if it stops working.

By the late 90’s the SLR camera makers were competing with cheaper compacts. This could be why the Pentax has a panoramic mode (a film mask) – to compete with APS and its ability to change formats. Mind you, my mum made accidental use of that facility at the time to create randomly-sized family snaps.

Electronics were getting smarter and faster and I expect ease of use was the thing. Nobody wanted to be selling a camera that you had to learn to use. Lock the lens aperture ring on A, turn the camera’s mode dial to P and away you go with a big version of a point-and-shoot. How many people using digital now are wondering about learning to go the other way and shoot in manual mode?

Anyway, with all the feature bloat you do get a lot of (fragile) camera for your money. Plus it’s a Pentax, so it’s backwards compatible with all their lenses. All you lose is some of the automation. Obviously the manual lenses won’t autofocus and the focus confirmation doesn’t work with screw-mount lenses. You can still shoot them though. You have to love the way Pentax look after their customers and their investment in lenses.

I’ll be comparing it with a Pentax K10d, their first “serious amateur” digital camera, introduced in 2006. As mentioned, the K10d is equally happy shooting the autofocus zoom from the MZ, although the APS-C sensor turns it into the equivalent of a 50-105 zoom

The MZ might have a frail body and internals, but it has some neat features that transferred to the K10. The focus confirmation in the viewfinder uses the same symbol; it can do evaluative, centre weighted and spot metering with similar abilities for the autofocus. It will do focus confirmation with manual lenses, although it does need fairly bright lighting. The autofocus will even do follow-focus. Shutter speeds run from 1/2000 to 2s in manual and out to 30s in auto. It will do half and full stop bracketing. By default it reads the ISO code off the film cartridge, but you can also set it manually. So this consumer camera had most of the bells and whistles in something that was a bit smaller than the K10. Which is interesting, as the MZ had to provide space for the film as well. But then, a digital sensor is thicker than film, and the K10 has a screen on the back as well.

So what’s this last hurrah for film like to use? The MZ feels surprisingly solid and grippy. Fitting a drive motor and a flash capacitor plus a larger battery into a film camera probably accounts for the protruding grip, which makes a real benefit out of a necessity. It has a data back, but this is sculpted to provide a thumb grip. Basically, I would feel happier carrying this around in one hand than something like a Pentax MX. This model of 35-70mm lens I’ve got on it is quite small, so makes a handy package.

Would I have bought one of these in 1997? Not so much. I did have a Pentax SF-X for a while, which was an older model, and found it a bit too fiddly. It also suffered problems with the mirror jamming in the up position. It did a job though, which was to drive some film past my lenses on a three-week trip to Aus. (Bought it second hand, then sold it on). So this may have put me off anything clever until I went to the dark side and got digital. Oddly, I think the kit lens that came with the SF-X when it was launched back in 1987 was the same zoom I’m using on the MZ-5 now. Did someone say backwards compatibility?

IMGP5272

Enough of the history already; what’s it like to use? Does a cheap (these days) techno-marvel with the reputation of a hand grenade cut the mustard? Surprisingly, yes. Pop it on full auto everything and it’s easy to use. It switches on the same way as my K10 and fires-up quicker (and far quicker than some digital compacts. I’ve got a little Fuji compact that takes nearly five seconds to boot up.). For fairly close-in action this thing is great. I would also be happy using this on longer lenses for sport and action as the motor winder is useful. Of course, with the bug, I can’t get out to shoot some fast-moving close action.

Dalby Forest

I can show you what I would use it for though using some previous shots from its young nephew, the K10d.

Dalby Forest

This was fitted with a roughly similar lens that does the (equivalent) of 24-70mm at F4. What I was shooting was fairly quick action in a constrained space, in the open and under trees. So the 35-70 lens was about right and an automatic flash filled the shadows and sharpened the picture. Incidentally, the MZ works with the same flashgun I use on the K10. Probably because the flash started out on Pentax’s film cameras and migrated to their digital. Did someone say backwards compatibility?

If I was shooting something similar in the future on film, the MZ and the 35-70 would be first choice. Let’s hope we all get that chance.

Kissed with a seal

This was written prior to the latest lockdown.
——————————————————-

Back in the water for some socially-distanced diving! Yay!

I should explain. There’s a group of us. Our reason for being a group is to take people diving who have physical and learning disabilities. Because you may not be able to walk on land but you can fly underwater. Covid stuffed that, as it did so many other things. We can’t safely do the necessary close contact and the pool we use has had to close. The side effect was diving withdrawal. I was showering with a scuba mask on. I was diving in lakes. We all needed time in the brine.

Then we got the opportunity to dive with the seals at the Farnes. The first attempt was cancelled due to the weather – we have to be able to get back on the boat so the waves can’t be too high. But then Poseidon smiled and we got to do some safe, well spaced and properly masked dives from an open boat (we’re missing it, not dying for it).
It was an auspicious start, looking at the rolling waves, as we left from luxury.nothing.twitching. Getting back on the boat is a serious business – we went to the outer group of islands near the Longstone lighthouse. Even the shortest swim to shore from there would be three miles. On the open water on the way out we lost sight of land when the boat was corkscrewing between wave crests. (Follow the link to the Farnes above and see how many ships have run into them).

We do try to get to the Farne Islands each year when the new seals are born. We are not there for the newborns but for the youngsters – probably last year’s babies. They are inquisitive and fun and both they and the adults seem to be comfortable with divers in the water. (Serious aside – if you do visit one of the places where the newborns are on land, do not disturb or bother them. It’s unkind for a start, and then realise that the mother weighs more than you and has teeth and claws. So take the longest lens you own.)

Sealed with a kiss
Sealed with a kiss

How close you get and how much interaction you have are totally controlled by the seals – they are beautiful and sleek swimming machines, and I’m a fat old bloke in a rubber suit. But if you’re lucky they will come over to see what you’re doing, nibble your fins and try to steal anything shiny. The yearlings behave just like puppies and mouth at you in the same way.

Farnes

 

I have dived there before with a video camera as it’s small and has nothing to fiddle with but an on/off switch. This time I wanted to get some stills as well. So it’s my working-man’s dive camera – a humble Canon Ixus 750 point and shoot in a housing with an extra external flash. I’ve been fighting with this for a while to get the lighting balance right between the external and built-in flashes, but I think I’ve finally got it.

It’s a joy though, both to be back in the water and interacting with the seals. These are wild animals but they are inquisitive and happy enough to come up and nudge you.

Farnes

 

There were a lot of seals in the water. Even some of the mature seals came over for a look, which is rare. They must have missed the taste of diver during these lockdown times.

Farnes

 

Yes, it’s British diving, so it’s cold and murky. But who would want to miss an opportunity like this?


And for the photographically inclined, this is where autofocus and auto flash exposure pays off. Despite being in a quite kinetic environment, the majority of my pictures worked. I could never have done this with a Nikonos.
You also want the widest lens you can, to get as close as possible, to reduce the amount of murky water between you and the subject.
And just occasionally, you need a camera that you can work one-handed so that you can fend off a seal who wants to steal the shiny thing. I haven’t shown it here because it’s just a blur, but I have one shot of a seal pressing its nose against the end of the lens.

So that was my first and probably last sea dive this year. It reminds me why we do it.

Update on the instant camera

I thought it might be the perfect camera for social occasions; not that we get many of those these days. And it really is. Show it to the kids, take a picture and print it, then show them the buttons to use and let go. For anyone wincing at the cost of Instax (£15 for ten shots?), this works out at two prints to the penny. Sure, the prints are high contrast and low detail, but the fridge soon gets covered in them.

The added joy is that you also have a digital file, so you can make multiple prints or even print them in colour. Three images will fit on a single 100*150mm sheet of paper. The image quality, especially in the dark, is as rough as a badger’s arse if you pixel-peep but still perfectly acceptable at the normal print size of 83 by 48mm. Despite my moaning, it copes pretty well with low light so it’s great for sociable evenings under house lighting. The mono prints from the camera will only show highlights, but the digital files can be printed later in colour and hold much more detail.

instants

I also like that the prints are wide and thin. I’ve written before about the fun of cropping to a 5:2 format to fit onto Moo business cards. These prints are about 7:4 so not as letterbox as the Moo cards but wider than normal.

Down sides? Squeeze it in a bag and you can turn it on and eventually drain the battery. So carry it on its strap and put up with the odd looks. Tear the prints off downward or risk a rough tear. Perhaps the strap is a bit short if you are bigger than a child. It won’t print while it’s charging. And that’s it.

This is definitely my party with friends camera. Not that I can do that presently. But when I get the chance again, it will be out with the bear-cam and cover the fridge with daft pictures.

My wife, who bought me the camera, was worried that I would think it was a gimmick and not use it. Instead, I love it (and my wife, obviously). It’s done two small bubble gatherings since June and it’s a hit. If I pulled out a normal camera I’d be shouted at to put it away and join in. The bear-cam gets passed around and we all take daft pictures of each other and then laugh some more in the morning.

Recommended for post-apocalypse parties.

The Werra – a socialist style icon

I got the loan of a Werra camera, as it is weird and I’ve always wanted to see just how odd it could be. I’m told it’s a Werramat model, which matches the description of the range of models in the manual (thanks again, Mr Butkus).

This is a stylish and sleek camera with some nice design touches. For a start, it has a deep lens hood. The hood is part of the design and stows backwards over the lens, protecting the shutter, aperture and focus controls. You do have to remember to focus on infinity before using it as a guard though, or the protruding lens can crack it. Score one to the idea and take one away for the execution. Give back maybe half a point – you won’t make the mistake of shooting this camera with the lens cap on. You can leave the lens hood covering the lens, take the lens cap off and shoot through the hole, at the expense of not being able to change the settings or focus. If you really wanted to.

Werra closed

You advance the film and cock the shutter by twisting a ring at the base of the lens. The twist is quite short, about 80 degrees. Why go to the trouble? To preserve that smooth and polished top plate, I guess. There is one control on the top of the camera – a large and nearly flush shutter button. This camera looks stylish.

Werra hooded

As a consequence of the smooth top and front, some of the controls were moved to the bottom of the camera. There you will find the frame counter, the release for the camera back and the film rewind crank. In use you will find yourself tipping and turning the camera a lot. Tilt it back to change the settings on the lens or to wind-on. Tilt it forwards to see the frame counter. In use though it is possible to twist the lens base and wind-on with your left hand while the camera is still up to your eye. When you do tip the camera over to see the frame counter, it is oriented correctly for reading. Nice touch.

Werra bum

There are some more nice design features on this model. For example, there is a tiny prism in the bottom right corner of the viewfinder that shows the aperture and shutter speed set on the lens. The lightmeter displays in the bottom of the viewfinder and is coupled to the lens settings, so you turn the aperture or shutter speed rings on the lens to centre the needle. That little rectangular patch to the right of the shutter button appears to be a bit of frosted plastic, but is actually part of the lightmeter and illuminates the scale in the viewfinder. The lightmeter itself is more than just a match-needle affair – if the light is too low for some combinations of shutter and aperture, a dark bar intrudes from one side of the metering scale in the viewfinder. If the light is too high, the dark bar intrudes from the other side. It’s a very clever way of telling you that some combinations of speed and aperture will not give good exposure under the present conditions.

viewfinder

The shutter is, from reading other reviews, also a clever thing. Where most bladed shutters top-out at 1/500, this goes to 1/750. It also has slow speeds going down to 30s. All this from a camera that, if the serial numbers work like Russian ones, will be 60 years old next year. So this camera was built at the same time as the Berlin Wall and was meant for export to obtain hard currency.

The Werra is a technical surprise. Compare it with say, a Praktica, which was also made in East Germany. The Praktica is a basic SLR with obvious controls. The Werra is a clever design with some useful functionality. The viewfinder has built-in diopter adjustment, for example.

So what’s it like to use? The lens is a Zeiss Tessar so should be sharp enough. To an SLR or rangefinder user it feels a little strange doing the whole business of metering and composing with the camera to your eye but having to take it away to set the focal distance on the lens. I carried a little clip-on rangefinder to check focus, but of course there is no flash shoe on the top of the camera to clip it to. The manual shows an optional flash bracket that screws to the tripod mount or a cold shoe that appears to fit over the viewfinder eyepiece.

The shutter is discretely quiet. The twisting film advance worked better than I expected but you need to make sure it fully returns to its start position. The negatives it produced were evenly spaced and different combinations of shutter and aperture gave consistent exposure. Not bad for its age. The film gate has the guide rails cut in a hatched pattern, which would have the effect of stretching the film and flattening it. Like I said: nice technical touches. It all feels very well made and functioning, very different to the Fujicarex I had. The Fuji felt like a very complicated machine working at the limits of reliability. The Werra feels well made, competent and a bit odd.

Werra inside
A is the clever guide rail. B is the export quality mark. C could be the housing for the clever high-speed shutter.

This was an export camera, which would probably appeal to the more technical photographer who would appreciate the details. The Werra range was developed and added features with something like seven models, of which this Werramat is the sixth. The sleek exterior of these cameras hides some good design and manufacturing. In the same year this was made Olympus released the Pen-EE with no settings and 72 shots per film. This mutated into the Trip, sold a squillion and the Berlin Wall (that went up around ’61) eventually came tumbling down. No philosophical insight intended.

quad

I did like the Werramat but as a loaner rather than a keeper. They feel well designed and very well made, so worth a look if you fancy something a bit unusual but stylish or a very clever thing that hides its craftiness.

That, and washing your hands
That, and washing your hands

Thanks for the loan.

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.

Sony Cybershot T77 – the new Pen?

I’ve written about the joys of using an Olympus Pen for film photography, in particular its small size and light weight.

Now here is my digital equivalent, and it’s smaller, lighter and smarter.

Sony

The DSC-T77, as it likes to be known, is a tiny little digital camera that folds a zoom lens inside the body. There is nothing to pop out so it doesn’t change shape when zooming. The camera uses a drop-down sliding cover, so one flick of a finger fires it up. Or it would, if it wasn’t so shiny. Until I put some Sugru on this baby it was like handling a thin bar of soap.

Sony made a whole range of these, including waterproof versions.

The camera is genuinely tiny – just 94mm wide, 57 tall and 15 thick. I can hide it in my hand. In the package you get a 10 MP sensor and a zoom equivalent to 35-140. The down side to this is that the on-screen menus need a fine finger to fettle them. Sony provide a little plastic pointer on the wrist strap, so this serves in place of my stump of a fat digit.

It comfortably fits into a pocket and doesn’t even spoil the line of a suit. I’ve got an old wallet for a Blackberry that’s a perfect fit as a case.

The very small size and a useful macro capability make this camera good for pictures too small to get a different camera, or any camera plus your head, into. I’ve taken shots from inside a bunch of flowers, for example. The closest macro distance is 8cm.

The downside of the small size is a small battery. The camera seems to use the battery even when it is shut down – probably to maintain its settings and allow the quick start-up. I bought a second battery for it, so I’m in the habit of swapping-in the fresh battery before I take the camera out. The first start-up after a battery swap always takes longer, but thereafter it’s quick. Much quicker than my waterproof Fuji one, for example. Even so, if I was taking the Sony away for a weekend I would take both batteries.

It uses Sony’s memory stick duo storage card, but that’s no great problem as my card reader takes them. Plus it’s a snapshot camera. You put a card in, clear the old photos off as you go and never bother with a second card.

The lens and pictures are capable. I’d like to tell you how I’ve shot pictures of brick walls to measure the resolution and aberations, but that’s not what the camera is for and I can’t be arsed. This is a tiny little, easy to carry, quick to use, snapshot camera. The zoom lens is handy, particularly as it doesn’t trombone out of the front of the camera. The widest aperture runs from f3.5 to 4.6, which isn’t too bad since you can push the ISO to 3200 if you really need to. There is a tiny flash which is really only useful close up but does offer slow sync.

Hut

It also does face detection and various focus and exposure modes. What’s not to like? Granted, it’s small and fiddly. Since the camera body is so smooth, there are no dials and everything is driven by menus. This can be a pain trying to find things, so I tend to set the camera up the way I like it and then leave it alone. I would only tweak it if I was going into a known different situation – people running about or dark backgrounds, for example.

Balance
People sit under it to each their packed lunch.

So this really does fit with the idea behind the original Pen, in being an image note-taker. The zoom lens makes it more useful than a mobile phone camera and the quick start-up means that it is not less handy. It’s also smaller than my mobile phone.

Troll
A troll, caught by sunrise and turned to stone.

Let’s hear it for the snappy Sony!

The beauty of good design

There’s a great book called The Psychology of Everyday Things that was my introduction into why I found some things strangely difficult to operate. I remember a pal’s Alfa Romeo car that had a bank of identical, black, flush, push-switches to operate things like the heating and air flow. Not only was it impossible for the driver to use them without taking their attention away from the road, I can vouch for struggling to work out which one to use when I was the passenger. Was it in the Hitchhiker’s Guide that the spaceship had a black control panel of black buttons that lit-up black when pushed? Alfa got there first (or I suppose they would be called Omega).

Good design works because it leads you. Bad design breaks the flow or works contrary to expectations. Have you ever pulled on a door that had a handle, only to find it opened with a push? Poor design. There is a wonderful blog series called The Weekly Design Roast that I recommend for examples to make you weep.

In camera terms, I find that digital cameras usually have poor operating design. It’s probably because the camera is capable of so much and there is a strong commercial pressure to add features. You know how it goes – “ooh look, this one can do focus-stacking or that one can do HDR, or do I spend a bit more and buy the one that can do both?” And then we have no idea how to use the special function because we didn’t memorise the manual. A guy recently mapped-out the menu system of a Sony camera. That’s what happens when a very complex device is squeezed into a small package. Or when features are added to the point that they exceed the interface.

Canon did a thing with their digital compacts. It made sense in production to use the same processor in different models, so they disabled some of the features in the cheaper ones. And then we found out how to turn them back on again. The common component build is very sensible in manufacturing, and what an Easter Egg of delight for the fanboys who found out how to hack them. It also made sense to remove features from the simpler models in the range, and this was an easy way to control the feature set with a limited range of electronics.

Perhaps a better example is a humble clip. This is a thing used by sailors and divers to attach one thing to another. Exhibit A is a stainless steel item comprising five components and requiring machining, drilling and bending to assemble. Exhibit B is the alternative that does the same job with two components, only one of which needs bending. Good design makes manufacturing easier and creates less waste. The simpler clip also has no sharp edges that could damage a rope or fingers.

Clips

The opposite of this would be a microwave oven. What you want is to control the power, control the time and be able to stop and start it. What you get is usually so confusing that you need the manual. A manual, for a machine with two variables?

Or if you want an example of a very simple machine with poor design, take a look at one of those cute-looking anthropomorphic vacuum cleaners. They get stuck on every doorframe or piece of furniture. If you pull them, they stay stuck but the side catches open and the top falls off.

So what has this to do with photography? Camera design can be a collision of feature bloat and bad ergonomics.

There are cameras that it is possible to hold wrong – see the Contax/ Kiev 4.

There are some where you have to wind on before changing the shutter speed or you break them – see old Russian rangefinders.

Then there are cameras that make you wonder what the designers were smoking – how about the Konica AiBorg?

Or there’s my experience with The Ergonomic Disaster.

Mercury

I’ve had a long-running fight with more than one digital compact to try and get the built-in flash to balance with an external one. And the clever dedicated flash for my dSLR needs me to carry the manual to have any hope of changing the settings. In fact, the flash is a microwave: it has strange controls with weird symbols and no obvious way to change the main settings. I admit to writing on my dSLR with a white marker to differentiate the metering control from the focusing control.

If I look at my Canon G9, an up-market compact, it has nine buttons, four rotating dials, two rocker switches and a shutter release. Some of the buttons bring up menus on the screen to choose more options. Some of the buttons are used a lot – flash on/off, macro on/off and zoom. Some I’ve never used, like print. There’s one button that I hadn’t noticed until I counted them and I’m not sure what it does.

I suppose the opposite extreme is my little Sony compact that has almost no physical controls and relies completely on menus and a touch screen.

I recognise that digital cameras are so clever, with so many options, that multiple controls or menus are needed. But perhaps what I want is the sort of design that was built into the BlackBerry phones. On the surface, they just worked. But there were features and shortcuts built in that you could use to do things easier or quicker. Using them gave a feeling of delight, but not using them didn’t get in the way of its core function.

What’s a well-designed camera then? I don’t know, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen or used one. You may think a camera is a simple design, so try this on a beginner:

This is a film camera. Wind it on after every shot with this lever. Yes, or it won’t take a picture. You will know the film is finished when it won’t wind on, but don’t push the lever too hard. Then press the little unlabeled button on the bottom of the camera. Pull up this little folding handle here and wind it round. There may be an arrow to tell you which way to turn it. Or not. You will know when the film is rewound when the handle turns easily. Or jams. Pull the whole winding thing up to open the camera. Yes, it does look like you are breaking the camera. Pull it some more. The back of the camera will then pop open. Pick up the film from the floor. And the camera. Try to wind the end of the film completely back into the cassette so you don’t shoot it again. No, twist it the other way. See that bit inside the camera that you poked your finger through? That was the shutter. Yes, it was important.

Why do you think point and shoots and compacts sold so well?

I’m not a klutz and I am comfortable with technology, but I can tell good design from bad. And there ain’t half some bad design out there. What’s your experience?