Compact vs SLR

I want a new camera. Well, new to me. It has to be able to do some specific things, chief amongst which is the way it handles. Perhaps strangely, I need a camera I can use one-handed. So this means I need a compact and not an SLR.

This camera is to be used underwater as a replacement for the Nikonos. It will spend its working life in a housing, tethered to me with a lanyard. I will typically want to work the camera with my right hand and hold a big torch in my left, or use my left hand to brace my position.

SLRs are great, but I don’t want to have to use my left hand to work the zoom. Nor do I want to buy a housing that is specific to one range or model of lens. If you thought classic Leicas were expensive, try an underwater housing for a good-to-decent dSLR.

So I want a compact digital camera, as they usually have the zoom control somewhere under the right forefinger. I also want a Canon, as they make the best compact cameras.

OK – contentious. Let me explain best. Canon had (and have) a habit of putting top-range sensors and processors in their compacts, but disabling some of the functionality depending on the model. Enter the hacker’s kit – CHDK. Run a temporary firmware update from the memory card and you get back some of the hidden features, like saving RAW files, motion detection, timelapse and so on. So you can often buy a lower-range Canon compact and add back to it some of the features missing from more expensive cameras.

If you are happy buying second-hand you can also get some real bargains. My current underwater rig uses a Canon Ixus 750. The quality is quite good and I got a second camera as a spare from eBay for £5. Since there is always a risk of flooding the thing with salt water, the spare camera was cheaper than insuring the original.

But I’m pushing the performance and capabilities of the Ixus, so I want something a bit better. What I want is a wider ISO range, image stabilisation, a wider maximum aperture if possible, better macro capabilities if I can get it, better control over the flash (as I will be using a second external flash), more megapickles, and the lens to be wider at the wide end. Oh, and world peace.

So off we go to the shops. Or eBay. Up pops a Canon Powershot G9 with housing at a good price and soon it is mine (Precious). More features than Netflix and more knobs than a political rally. The housing is taken for a swim sans camera but packed with tissues to check the O ring. The camera is parked on the kitchen table while I read the manual and make ooh ooh noises.

Canon
Is this the new legend?

The first question is why it has a separate knob to set the ISO? Because it can. This is digital, not film. There is no need to set the ISO once when you load the camera and live with it – you can change it for every shot. So having a dedicated control makes more sense than burying it in a menu system. What stumped me for a bit is that the flash controls are in a menu system, which you get to by holding down the flash button and not by pressing the menu one. Hence all my first test shots were done using slow-sync flash and second curtain triggering. Sharp with a blurred overlay – nice!

It has an underwater mode that adds a virtual red filter. The usual trick is to then put a blue gel on the flash, but I need to see what happens if I’m shooting RAW.

There are also a bunch of settings for the autofocus to try, plus working out how to balance the built-in flash with the external one. The Ixus 750 was not very good at this – it kept seeing the external flash and quenching the built-in one. Even masking things with some highly technical plastic and gaffer tape didn’t cure it. Early tests with the G9 look promising.

So there you have it. For me, a reasonable compact camera beats a dSLR hands down. Or one hand down, anyway. Right then fishes, smile!

(And if his doesn’t work, perhaps I need a Diveroid?)

Want a K1000 for less than a k?

Seriously, have you seen the prices a Pentax K1000 can fetch? The allure, I believe, is that it is seen as the ‘best’ camera for learning about camera settings and how they affect the picture. What you get is a manual camera with a light meter and a top shutter speed of 1/1000. You also get access to the vast resource of K mount and M42 screw mount lenses ( and a large number of medium format lenses, using adapters).

But the prices! So you have to ask yourself, do you feel lucky, punk? do you want the functionality or the brand? If only there were other cameras that used K mount lenses and cost less than a K1000…

Pentax introduced the K mount in 1975 and appear to have given licence to other camera and lens makers to use it. As a result, there are quite a few K mount cameras around. The companies that took-up the offer of a pre-invented lens mount were not the big ones: Canon, Nikon etc all had their own systems and stuck to them. So the cameras that came with a K mount tended to be at the cheap end of the scale. As a result, there are loads of cameras with the same or better functionality than a Pentax K1000 at much lower prices.

You might think that buying cheap means buying twice, or that anything less than a Pentax is fragile rubbish. Or I could tell you that I am still using the Ricoh I bought around 1980 and which has only needed the light seals replacing. My professional-quality Pentax MX has twice had the shutter speed display in the viewfinder go out of sync. And the light seals replaced. Even so, for the price of some of these alternatives I could buy two cameras, with lenses, and still have change from a K1000 to feed them with film.

So here is one I prepared earlier. This is a Cosina C1. It has LED exposure indication in the viewfinder and a top shutter speed of 1/2000. The shutter works without the battery, just like a K1000, except it has a better top speed and synchronises with flash at 1/125. The meter ranges from ISO25 to 3200. The body is plastic and light in weight. That actually makes me like it more: try carrying a Zenit around – it’s far heavier and probably harder to use.

CS1 1

I bought it for the lens, so in effect it came as a base cap. I started using it because it actually works very well.

CS1 2

The shutter button locks when the winding lever is folded back, which is nice. And because it uses the K mount, for a few quid you can get the M42 adapter to use screw-mount lenses with proper infinity focus. A few quid more again gets you the adapters to use any of the Pentax medium format lenses, or in the case of mine, any Pentacon 6 or Kiev 60 lens. This opens the way to some pretty awsome Zeiss lenses like the 180mm f2.8 ‘Olympic’ Sonnar (photo here).

So, yay for the cheapies! If you want to see who made cameras with a K mount take a look at the Wikipedia article here.

A box of curiosities

I accidentally bought a box of cameras. Maybe not accidentally, but definitely unexpectedly. What happened was that I was mooching around on eBay, using odd searches – things like misspellings or imprecise descriptions like old camera. It sometimes turns up interesting results.

There was a set of old film cameras on sale, ending in less than one day. The description didn’t match the picture. One bid of 99p. So I popped in a bid of just over a fiver, expecting that I would be immediately over-bid. It’s a fairly low-risk way of learning how much interest there is. I was travelling at the time, so logged out and forgot about it, beyond a small curiosity of what they would eventually go for.

When I got home, there was an email telling me I’d won. Perhaps the message should be ‘be careful what you wish for’. So what did I get? Eight old film cameras, reportedly all working.

  • Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKE.
  • Zeiss Ikon Contina.
  • Fujicarex II.
  • Pentax MV.
  • Universal Mercury II.
  • Leidose Leidox Westlar.
  • Kodak Retina 1a.
  • Kodak Retinette 1b.

Which of course made me ask myself why I needed yet more cameras. Part of it is the fun of trying something weird at low cost and risk. I’m sure we would all like to have a go with a Leica to see what all the fuss is about, but it’s unlikely to happen soon.

The unusual suspects
Not quite as they arrived. The Pentax has grown a lens as a form of body cap and one of the Kodaks gained a rangefinder.

The mixed bag of marvellous oddities will give me a bit of fun though. The Pentax will work with my various lenses as a backup camera. The MV was an auto-only body that nobody liked but if it works, it has a place. It will nicely fill the role of sacrificial camera: one that can be put at risk because it doesn’t matter if it gets broken.

The Westlar uses 127 film which is scarce and expensive. Not sure what I’ll do with it. I may run 35mm film through it, which I did with an old Kodak I had.

Of the others, the Fuji and the Mercury are both unusual. The Fuji is a fixed-lens SLR with rangefinder focusing, designed to be used one-handed with all the controls operated by the right hand. It’s the mirror-image of an Exacta.

The Mercury is a half-frame camera with a rotary shutter. It was made in America from 1945 to around 1948, with some sales trickling on into the early 50s. The rotary shutter is supposed to reliably deliver its marked speeds, even at this age. The lens is coated and supposed to be quite good. We’ll see.

The other four are fairly typical 60s fixed-lens cameras, although the LKE has a rangefinder and the Retina is a mechanical marvel with a cuckoo-clock lens.

This is going to be fun! I’ll try them all out and write them up.

No more heroes any more

I wanted to love the Legend but I can’t. It’s not that I discovered my hero had feet of clay: it was more that we didn’t get on. It may well be the most competent camera in the world, but it doesn’t do what I need. I find myself saying “it’s not you, it’s me”, and it’s true.

What the Nikonos V does is rugged and sharp film photography underwater. It has a dedicated flash with off-the-film metering. Mine also has a close-up lens with a frame-finder. You don’t even have to look through the viewfinder – just place the prongs either side of the subject and shoot. Which would be perfect if I was shooting things that kept still and didn’t mind being surrounded by metal prongs.

However, this is not what I do. What I need is a camera that can do macro work and general context scenery. I need a zoom so that I can frame subjects that would flee if I got closer. I need autofocus that will allow me to lock on the subject and reframe. I need a screen on the back of the camera so that I can operate it at arm’s length, so that I don’t scare the critters or I can get the camera into small and awkward places.

Flabellina Affinis. Nudibranch, Gozo
I need to be able to do macro (this is about the size of my thumbnail)

I did get carried away with the romantic notion of shooting film in a classic camera. And then I realised I would be spending so much attention working the camera I was likely to ignore things like my dive buddy or my own safety.

The telling thing is that I took the Nikonos on a diving holiday and never used it. I didn’t want to struggle with it getting in and out of the water. Underwater, I didn’t want the restrictions of either fixed-distance macro or having to remove and stow the close-up lens to do general pictures. Basically, it was going to be too difficult and too restrictive, so what was the point?

Comino caves, Gozo. 7th October 2019
And general context shots

I’m not alone – Martin Edge talks about using Nikonos gear in his book The Underwater Photographer. And then he says he switched completely as soon as cameras with autofocus became available.

Comino Caves, Gozo. 7th October 2019
To accurately-framed shots at mid-distance

On my recent diving trip, instead of the Nikonos I used an old and cheap Canon Ixus 750 in a housing. It has many limitations, but it is small and moves easily between macro and scenic work and takes reasonable pictures. To be fair, it took great pictures. What it lacked are things that I now know I really do need: not the fancy gadgets and features they list in the adverts, but the things you find yourself wishing the camera could do better. So I will be replacing the Canon with something that has more of what I want and saying goodbye to the Nikonos that doesn’t really do anything I need underwater. I could keep the Nikonos for surface use I suppose, but I have better and lighter cameras. So the legend will be leaving.

I did manage to buy it at a good price, so I should hopefully get more for it than I paid. The surplus will go towards a more capable digital camera plus housing that has a better ISO range, hopefully some image stabilisation and higher resolution.

So mark this one up to experience.

So, was my dream shattered by reality? No: it turned out that my reality was different to my dream. The dream is still a valid and highly capable camera system. My reality is needing something more flexible.

Ah, screw kit!

So I’ve built myself my ultimate screw-fit kit. You may wonder why. I wonder why. As if our continued existence in this vale of tears wasn’t hard enough. Let me explain.

It all started when I realised that what I thought was a broken lens (that still seemed to work well) was actually a fine example of a rare and exotic optic. I did think of selling it, driven mostly by fear: I was walking around with a lens that on its own cost more than most of my gear combined. But the second thoughts said that the value of a lens is primarily in what it can do. So I kept it.

I had an old Pentax SV to drive it. It’s an fine old thing with a pretty good focusing screen (WAY better than a Zenit). No meter, but we’re all Real Photographers, right? We can gauge the light just by looking. Luckily I had a handheld meter too. There was no particular reason to own the SV – it was a cheap and useful fitting for the screw-mount lenses I had lying around.

Then a funny thing happened. I wandered into a charity shop and there was a Spotmatic with Pentax’s 80mm f1.8 lens on it. £40. Again – who needs a Spotmatic? But the lens was interesting. We went for a cup of coffee while I thought about it. After a very quick coffee I was back in the shop and running through the shutter speeds and apertures. And so it came to pass that it too became mine.

So now I have a brace of Pentaxes (Pentii?), a wide 50mm and a wide 80mm. Toss into the bag a Pentax 35mm f3.5 Lens that has been around for years. Add an old Weston meter and we’re done.

Screws

Ooh er. I’ve just assembled a screw-fit system. When I said it was my ultimate kit, I meant my only. It was more by accident than design. No, it was entirely accidental.

So how does this ancient ensemble work in a world of computers? Slowly. All those people who say they shoot film to slow them down could be right if they use screw kit.

The main thing is changing lenses. I can do the bayonet-twist as quickly as any psychopath. But a screw lens doesn’t tell you when it’s free – you just keep turning till eventually it comes off, while trying not to drop it when it does. Then you offer-up the new lens, get it square, try not to cross the thread, find the point where it engages and screw gently in case you made a mistake. And the base cap on the removed lens doesn’t just click and twist – you have to screw it fully home with the same care.

This is probably why old-time photographers were pictured with two or more cameras round their neck: it took too long to change lenses.

Apart from that, they are just cameras. Having a separate meter can be a bind, but you get over it. Just keep checking the reading each time the conditions change and remember what to set the camera at.

There really is nothing to get in the way. The camera will never make a mistake or get confused, because it can’t. The lenses are simple and silent. And there is a certain Zen pleasure in using the simplest equipment.

Would I use it for something important or where automation could help (like sports)? No. I use it because lets me use two lenses that I like a lot. If I had those same lenses in bayonet mount the screw-kit would never have been created. Indeed, I do use them with a bayonet mount adapter but with the loss of the auto-diaphragm.

So why the fuss and what’s the point? The cameras were cheap and work, but the main thing is that they let me use easily a bunch of old lenses I had in drawers and boxes. There is also a load of old and interesting lenses made in M42 that are either not available in the ‘proper’ mount of your choice or would be too expensive. It does make me really appreciate the invention of the bayonet mount though. For the curious, this is the line-up:

  • Yashinon 55mm f1.2
  • Pentax 80mm f1.8
  • Pentax 35mm f3.5
  • Industar 50mm f3.5
  • Helios 58mm f2
  • Soligor 35mm f3.5 (a repurposed paperweight)
  • Hanimex 200mm f3.5

I honestly didn’t start out to build a screw-fit kit: this stuff just accumulated from historic purchases of cheap stuff when I found it, plus a couple of lucky finds. I guess the creation of a system is just post-rationalisation for hoarding.

So, do I use this stuff or does it sit on a shelf and preen? A sub-set of the kit was out this weekend for a walk in some shady woods where I was going to need wide apertures (what idiot loads Pan F for anything other than clear desert skies?). Can you hand-hold an 80mm lens at 1/30th? Yes if you press the camera against a tree, safe in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter if you scratch it. Or the camera.

Plus, come the apocalypse or nuclear EMP, these things will still be working. Not that it will matter when we are fighting over the last tin of dog food. Which is a cheery thought to end on.

Awkward focus

How do you focus a camera that doesn’t tell you when it’s in focus? That’s really awkward.

If you can learn how to do this trick, there are loads of interesting old cameras that you could use. They can be reasonably cheap too, as people do prefer things you can focus. And yet, you may have heard the pundits talking about magical solutions like zone focussing or hyperfocal distances. What’s a poor boy to do when you thought zones were something to do with exposure and hyperfocals were what old people went to opticians to get?

Focusing a lens means moving it nearer or closer to the film or sensor, so that the light from your chosen subject is brought to the least fuzzy point. There was some stuff about it here. Many lenses have a built-in screw thread so that turning them moves them in and out, without letting light leak past. Other arrangements are possible, but they mostly all do the in and out thing.

Now, our eyes are not perfect and there is a lower limit to the size of things we can see. As you get older, that might be grandchildren. Grant me though, that we can’t see atoms, or even molecules. So when an image is projected onto the film or sensor by a lens, there will be a range of distances where everything appears sharp. If you could look closer, perhaps with a microscope, you could see that that amount that was truly sharp was less than it appeared to the eye. This is why small prints or pictures often look sharper than they are when you make them bigger.

But for practical purposes, there is a range of distances in front of the camera between which stuff looks sharp. This is the depth of field. Where this zone falls and how deep it is depends on several things. Let’s assume for now though that these things are outside your fine control: you can make a basic choice like the camera you are using, but you can’t change the lens on it. Let’s also assume that your camera might have one of the two forms of focusing: controlled and guess, where guess includes fixed and not adjustable. If your camera provides accurate and adjustable focusing and that is what you want, then move along – there is nothing to see here. But there can be good reasons why you might want to use your adjustable camera as though it was not. The main one is often speed of use. Focusing takes time.

So, how do you make best use of either what you are stuck with or what you choose to adopt? According to type is the answer. Guessed focusing comes in three forms: fixed, zone and scale.

Fixed is where there is no adjustment possible. It’s not autofocus – it means the focus of the lens is fixed and you do your best to put the subject in the sharp zone. If you are lucky you may be able to find out from the manual or t’interweb where the focus distance is, or what the depth of field is. I have a fixed-focus camera, and the manual lists the range of sharp(ish) distances for each aperture setting. Without this information you may have to find out, or just live with it. It’s a fair assumption that a fixed-focus camera will be set to somewhere around the distance where you can get an adult in the frame, around mid-length. My own fixed-focus camera is set for about 8 feet. You could leave it at that and just work with it, or use a bit of film in testing. What you need is a long fence or railings that you can shot at an oblique angle so that your picture shows it from close to far. Before you shoot, pace out some distances and mark them with chalk or a stone. Then examine the developed image to see where it is sharp and how far away that is. Then get someone to stand that far away and look at them using the camera, to get an idea of what that distance looks like. Or make a simple version of the card rangefinder. Then shoot everything at the sharp distance.

Fence

Next up is zone focusing. This is where the lens offers a set of symbols for where it will focus. These are usually head and shoulders, group, mountains. Again, you can work with it or do the fence test to get an idea of what each setting does.

Zone focus

In the case of my camera, head and shoulders works out around 1.5 metres or a bit less than 5 feet. Groups fall at around 5 metres/ 15 feet.

Cameras like this can be very quick to use – pick the type of picture you are making, set the symbol for focus and go. Providing the aperture is around f8, you are likely to have enough depth of field to not have to worry.

Scale focusing is like using the symbols, but without the symbols. This is where the lens is marked with real distances, but you have to guess or measure the distance of your subject and adjust the lens accordingly. The lens on the camera above has both a distance scale and symbols. It sounds dreadful – how will you ever be able to estimate the distance acccurately? Use some basic rules:

  • A head and shoulders is around 5 feet, or a bit less.
  • An adult, shot vertical on 35mm with a 50mm lens, just about fills the frame at 10 feet (3m).
  • A group will be around 15 feet, or 5m.

Then use a reasonably small aperture like f8 and it will mostly work. If you are picky or nervous, make yourself a card rangefinder. It will easily fit in the camera case or your wallet.

You can even use a ‘proper’ camera with scale focusing. The street photographers do this for speed. You need to have a lens that has depth of field marking on it.

DoF

If I set this lens to f8, then everything between 2.5 and about 5m will be sharp. If that’s the most likely distance for stuff I want to take pictures of, I can set the lens and aperture and use the camera like a point and shoot. It would let me do slightly wide head and shoulders shots through to slightly tight groups without having to adjust a thing. This is what news photographers used to do, to give them the reaction time they might need to get the decisive moment (as legend would have it).

Then we come to the secret weapon of landscape photographers: the hyperfocal distance. Given a particular aperture, the hyperfocal distance is the point you focus the lens at that gives a depth of field spanning from half that distance out to infinity. It sounds like magic, and the actual point you need to focus on varies with the film or sensor size, the lens and the aperture. You don’t have enough fingers and toes to do the maths. So you either use an online resource or an app to calculate it for you, or use the depth of field markings that the lens maker gave you.

Say I’m using the lens in the above photo and I want both a group of people and the mountains in the background to be sharp. So I want a depth of field from say 4m out to infinity. I twist the lens to find a pair of aperture markings that put infinity on one side and my closest distance at the other. Then set the aperture to match the marks – the point of focus is already set correctly. Job done.

Hyper

In this case I need f11 and my closest sharp distance is perhaps 3.5m. The actual point of focus of the lens is 6m, but I don’t care.

This also works well if you are taking pictures of things that occur a bit further away, but variable. Some sports or activities, for example. Set the depth of field to cover the area of the action and concentrate on taking pictures.

So there you are – sharpness made simples, and a way to make use of the cheap end of the camera market.

Packing it all in

I’m away on my hollybobs. Special ones, too. But I might be taking more cameras than clothes. Let me explain.

I passed one of those milestone birthdays this year. The sort of birthday that your younger self couldn’t even imagine. I remember at school working out how old I would be in the year 2000, which seemed an impossible distance away. Anyway, to mark the event I’m doing something special – I am going diving in clear, warm water.

I have dived in clear water before, but never as an experienced diver. All my experience has been in British waters so I have never really seen what good visibility is like, or been able to dive without a duvet under my drysuit. But now I am off to parts abroad (after October, to be known as ‘parts foreign’). Clear water, warm, small or no tidal range, little or no currents. Filled with smiling fish and marvellous things. Huzzah! But what camera do I take?

I need to be able to switch between macro and normal, as I want to be able to show the environment as well as the residents. No-brainer then: take the digital plus housing. The camera itself is an old model of Canon. Perfectly adequate for the job but old enough that I got a second one off eBay for a fiver. That way, if I do get a flood, it’s a camera swap rather than a crisis. So that’s one housing in the main suitcase and a couple of small digital cameras in the carry-on. Plus their batteries, as airlines get nervous about Li-on cells where they can’t see them.

What about the Nikonos? If I take it, I will need to take the bracket and two flashguns. So that’s two suspicious-looking bits of electronics and a chunk of metal in the big bag and a heavy X-ray opaque camera and the flash batteries in the carry-on. Plus film.

What about shooting video? If I use the digital camera for that, I’ll need to take a video light. I have one and it can double-up with a grip as a dive torch. Sorted. Except that’s another battery for the carry-on.

Then, what do I use for my touristy shots on land? The spare Canon digital could do the job, plus the Nikonos is amphibious. Do I need anything else? But I would really like to take another ‘proper’ camera with settings so that I can do the arty-farty bit. But then I would need lenses. What about a point and shoot? My mobile phone has a very capable camera plus editing software, so I could just use that. What if I could find the 80mm lens for the Nikonos? No, that last one is daft. My sensible head tells me to use the spare Canon, as I am carrying it anyway.

So: Nikonos plus two flashes and bracket; housing plus two Canon digitals; video light. Rational choices, but the film freak in me still wants to take another film camera. And the Nikonos is heavy to carry around. So is it the tiny Olympus XA, accepting that it has the same 35mm lens as the Nikonos, or is it an old Pentax point and shoot that has a zoom lens but could die on me? But if it does die I just wind the film back and ditch the camera. And the built-in flash is far more capable than the one for the XA. OK, so add a Pentax to the pile, feeding from the same film stock as the Nikonos. And add a film retriever in case I do have to rewind a part-used film. That won’t look at all odd on the luggage x-ray. Not a bit.

Then add to the pile a bunch of rechargeable AA cells for the flashes. Plus chargers for them, the Canons and the video light. And for my phone. And some film – all in original boxes so the airport guards don’t get nervous. Sorted.

Unless I change my mind again.

Plus seven pairs of pants and tee shirts. I’ll let you know how I got on.

Packing
Too many socks?

UPDATE-

And of course, I changed my mind again. The little demon of perversity sat on my shoulder during the drive to work and whispered in my ear. The Pentax point and shoot is as big as a housebrick, so why not take something smaller? The Balda folds up really small, and a couple of rolls of 120 film will take up no space at all. Plus it will fulfil my desire for something manual and awkward to fiddle with. And it delivers my real desire, which is to shoot black and white. So it’s Pentax out and Balda in.

Unless I change my mind again.

UPDATE

Guess what? I realised that the Nikonos was going to be hooked-up to its flashgun, and that I didn’t want to be undoing and re-doing the connection every day: too much risk of introducing a leak. Plus I weighed the bag and it was well under the limit. So I sneaked the Olympus XA in. So that’s one Nikon, two Canons, one Olympus and a Balda. Totally ridiculous, if it wasn’t for the need to take pictures underwater and on the surface, plus the desire to have enough resilience against breakage or problems.