Horizon 202

Whatever possessed me to buy a camera where you can accidentally get your knuckles into shot? Or I thought I could, even though I haven’t done it yet. The temptation was the 120 degree field of view and the distortions you can get because the lens swings in an arc. I’m a sucker for odd.

With the clip-on handle fitted.

So the basics are that it swings the lens in an arc and projects the image through a moving slot onto a curved film plane. In action it scans a narrow strip of light across the film. There are two swing speeds for the lens and a set of different slot widths for the scan. Together these give you a range of shutter speeds. Not a full set, as the two ranges don’t quite meet.

You can see how your knuckles could get into the shot. The switch on the left selects the yellow or white range of speeds.

Because the lens effectively turns its head, straight lines across the frame appear to recede at the sides. Keep the camera level and the horizon will divide the frame across the centre. Tilt the camera and it bends from bowl to hill. There is a bubble level in the viewfinder and on the top of the camera to help.

Only do this when you are the passenger!

The basic specs are that this camera uses a 28mm lens set at a fixed focus distance. This is fine, as the depth of field covers just about everything. For those of us shooting mono or infrared the lens can take clip on filters which can be fitted part-way through winding the camera, when the lens is midway through swinging back to its starting position. The camera comes with three filters, stored in the clip-on handle. These are a yellow, a UV and a neutral density one. The ND filter is handy because you have a limited range of shutter speeds. I took the plain UV one apart on mine and replaced it with a visually-opaque IR filter. Because the lens swings across a curved film plane it doesn’t vignette at the sides like a fixed wide-angle lens might.

The frame size is the normal 35mm film height (24mm) but as wide as a medium format negative at 58mm giving you a 2•5:1 panoramic format. The 58mm width means it can be scanned or printed from anything that can handle a 6×6 film frame. To be able to scan the film on 35mm kit I scan each frame in two pieces, then combine them. You will get around 22 shots on a 36 exposure film.

The camera looks like a fragile plastic fantastic, but I believe it’s actually a cosmetic plastic shell over a metal chassis. I’d still avoid dropping it though.

The camera can be awkward to load – the film has to follow a curved path so it needs more than the usual guidance. The advice is to put the film behind everything: it goes behind every roller and guide you can see.

What got me thinking though, and the reason I bought it in the first place, is the potential of that swinging lens. It swings left to right, so a fast-moving subject also moving left to right ought to be stretched. Moving right to left it ought to be compressed. If I stand on a bend and photograph the traffic it should also do odd things with the shape of the corner. And I wonder what would happen if I panned the camera to follow a passing subject? There is also the potential to photograph a group of people arranged in an arc in front of the camera. The picture should look as though they stood in a straight line, but all facing the camera.

Moving right to left – some possible shortening of the bike

In use the camera is awkward to hold. The shutter release is set back, so your trigger finger is not in the usual position. It also takes a firm press to fire the shutter. The clip-on handgrip is very useful for keeping your fingers out of the frame, for aligning the camera and for allowing your right hand to take a loose grip in order to reach the shutter release. I’ve used it plenty of times without the grip though, as it makes the camera easier to carry.

Panning the camera. Less background blur than I expected, but it was a fairly slow pan.

You will spend a bit of time trying to get the bubble level in the viewfinder centered. The viewfinder shows the field of view of the lens pretty well but not the distortions it produces. When you do press the shutter you get an extended mechanical whoosh as the lens drum spins. It’s unusual and distinctive.

A lot of the time you can’t even see the distortion from the swing lens.

It’s a good idea to keep this camera in its case or well protected when you are not using it. If a bit of grit gets into the swing mechanism you will get vertical bright lines appearing in the frame where the lens slows-down briefly. If you are buying one second-hand, see if you can get a recent picture taken with it. Streaks mean grit.

Proof at last – the world really isn’t flat.

But, for all its awkward handling, this camera produces unique results. There are very few swing-lens cameras, and this one is probably the most accessible and cheapest way into the world of swing.

Alfred Klomp has also written about the Horizon camera in far more detail than me.

Come the (zombie) apocalypse…

This started with an interesting thought experiment in a podcast conversation I heard with Tim Urban. He asked ‘imagine a wicked witch removes everything we have made. How long would it take us to make a working mobile phone?’. Once we make one, we can have all our stuff back.

You might think ‘easy, assemble the chips and case’, but you have to make them. And the further back you go, the more you realise you need to take another step back. Then you realise you have to mine the raw materials, but first you have to make the tools to dig the mine. The same idea was explored in Lewis Dartnell’s book The Knowledge. He started with the question that, if you had to rebuild society from scratch, what do you do first and then next? 

To give this a little relevance, Dartnell included in his book a section on how to reboot photography. His author picture in the book was made using his simple startup method, so it works.

The point that Urban was making and Dartnell trying to resolve, is that we are massively interdependent and very specialised. The other point is that some knowledge is declining. For a long time cameras had clockwork shutters. They were made in huge quantities and spares and repair skills were common. Then we started using electronics. And then we dispersed the manufacturing and assembled cameras from modules. Very few manufacturers now still need shutters and Copal might be the last company making 35mm type focal plane ones.

Why do we care? Because film photography is dying. It’s had a bit of reanimation recently, but the long term prognosis is poor. The reason is that we can’t make film or analogue cameras any more and we are losing the ability to repair them.

Yes, I know that Kodak and Ilford are still going and that Lomography make cameras, but you can also still buy a cut-throat razor or a valve amplifier if you really want one. But they are niche products. Of the two, the valve amplifier is probably the better comparison – valves are difficult to make*. Mechanical cameras and photographic film are also hard to make. Electronics, at least now, are easier.

There is a massive initial investment, for sure. But then you are effectively making small computers and as we know, you can make a computer do a different job with a change of software. Indeed, you can reinstate the functions that Canon switch off in their compact cameras using a hack. They don’t build different processors for each model – they use a single processor and switch off the functions that the lesser models shouldn’t have.

If you want another example of the loss of skills, look at film. Polaroid stopped production and it has proved almost impossible to recreate what they did. I understand that it’s even nearly impossible to recreate the clever origami that some of their film packs used. Kodak might also soon be the only manufacturer of colour film.

So what are we left with? If we want to use analogue methods we will probably have to do the same backwards walk through history and technology as Tim Urban suggested, to get to something we can easily make and sustain.

I expect that electronic film cameras will break first. The most recent ones may be the first to go, as the components are smaller, harder to replace, and designed to remove excess cost. It’s a bit like the perfect racing car, which should cross the finish line in first place as every component simultaneously wears out. As the designers say – if it broke, it wasn’t strong enough; if it didn’t break it was too heavy.

Next will be the vast army of clockwork cameras. The higher value ones may continue longest as broken ones are raided for spares. Their perceived value or goodness may make it worth the effort. Strangely, one of the simplest mass-produced 35mm cameras may end up being the last that works. Take a look at the Argus C3 – it could be serviced and repaired by a soldier.

Next-to-last one standing?

If we lose 35mm film we are back to large format, which is simple enough to go on forever. A basic box that can be built or repaired by a carpenter and tailor. A basic lens that doesn’t even need a shutter. Sensitive material that can be made from paper, glass or metal. Some processes don’t even need silver. Perhaps we should start referring to large format photographers as preppers?

Of course digital cameras will continue for as long as people want them. They too need an infrastructure to make them work but they are riding the crest of the innovation wave. And if you fall behind that wave, you fall far. Does anyone still remember the floppy disks used for computer storage? Try reading one now. Or a backup tape, or Zip drive. How about the big laser disks that the BBC micro had and that a complete Domesday Book was stored on? At least I could scan the old negatives I inherited from my grandparents; I’m glad that I didn’t get a bag of obsolete memory cards.

So what’s the punchline? I can hope that a clever Chinese factory starts making knock-off copies of the Copal Square shutter and that film continues to be made. Or I could find a cheap large format camera and learn to make my own glass plates. But unless someone starts making analogue cameras again (and why should they**) then film photography is dying. So now is the time to plan your retreat back to a simpler time that can continue to function when our sources or support networks dry up.

* … and the Russians might be the only people still making them. So buy them at your moral peril.

** we may get lucky.

Pentax MX

The MX was Pentax’s professional-type system camera, sold from 1976 to 1984. I say professional-type, as it had some nice features but quite a modest specification. It’s main feature was that it followed the radical Olympus OM-1 in being small and light.

It was a mechanical camera with a traditional horizontal-run cloth shutter. The batteries powered the meter only. The shutter gave you speeds from 1s to 1/1000 with flash sync at a 1/60. The meter’s range was ISO 25 to 1600. The meter was centre and bottom-weighted, so you could get caught out when shooting in portrait orientation. But hey, this was a simple and reliable camera that predated computers and matrix metering.

The only evident professional feature in the body was the replaceable focusing screens. Perhaps not an obvious feature, as you changed them through the mouth of the lens mount. It could also take a 5 fps motordrive and a bulk film back. Oh, and every lens Pentax had made, including the screw-mount ones using a simple adapter.

I bought mine second hand from a camera shop, back when this was possible.  The local Jessops must have de-listed the MX a while later, as they dropped a load of focussing screens in their bargain bin. I bought one of every type they had at something ridiculous like a couple of pounds each. I’ve just done a quick count on fingers and toes, and I have owned this camera for more than forty years.

One thing that has gone wrong twice with mine is the shutter speed readout in the viewfinder. What you can see is a transparent circular disk with the speed numbers on. As you turn the shutter speed dial the disk moves in sync. Or it doesn’t. The first time it happened I sent it off to Pentax for a CLA. Then it happened again a few years ago. I asked one of my favourite repair shops and they asked if I could live with it – the linkage is apparently a fine wire running over pulleys and is a fiddly pain to reset. So yes, I can live with it. If you see one like this second hand be aware that it should reduce the price but does not affect the function.

The camera itself is rock solid. It just works. It still has the original light seals and they still work too.

I took it out on a walk recently around Coventry. Of course, when you take a camera out for the day you make sure the batteries are fresh, don’t you? What I did was briefly check that the meter lit up in the viewfinder. So of course the meter stopped working on the second shot. Luckily this is a mechanical camera and I had a light meter with me. So the Pentax did what it does best – it sat discretely in one hand on a wrist strap and just quietly worked. Ive got the Pentax 24-50 zoom, which is a perfect lens for walking about, so the two together make a great package.

The viewfinder (when the meter has batteries) shows a vertical series of lights to the right side. The green central LED is correct exposure, with orange either side for +/- half a stop and then reds for a stop or more out. There is a tiny extra window on the front of the prism that shows the lens aperture at the top of the viewfinder. All very discrete and usable. The meter switches on and displays with a half-press of the shutter. If the rewind arm is pulled out from its parked position the meter will stay on. The shutter button itself has a locking collar. It makes the camera easy to hand-carry: your forefinger pushes the catch to unlock the shutter, your thumb pulls the winding lever out a bit, raise the camera and everything is ready to go. I was using the camera walking around a city centre and with the 24-50 lens it was almost as easy to use as a point-and-shoot.

Loading it is also easy, certainly compared to something like a Praktica. The take-up spool uses Pentax’s magic needles. These basically provide multiple slots to hold the end of the film, so you don’t have to fiddle about doing part wind-ons to get the slot to line up. It’s quick and reliable. And can I just say how I hate the weird bit of wire that Prakticas use? The number of times mine has failed to hold the film leader is a pain in the aperture.

The Pentax shutter and mirror are well damped, so it’s quiet for an SLR. It makes a soft clomp noise, compared to my Ricoh which sounds like I dropped it.

So what we have is a pretty basic SLR with some nice features. Everyone has heard of (and is chasing) the K1000, but I think this is the better camera. I know it should be, as it was meant to be, but things do change with time. The later LX uses the same focusing screens but has more electronics and is much more expensive to repair, as it has lots of weather-sealing gaskets. So for me, the MX is in the Goldilocks spot.

Sea & Sea Motor Marine MX-10

This is the younger sibling of the Motor Marine II. It is more limited, but in some ways easier to use.

The first thing you will notice is that it is big. You are not going to lose it down the back of the sofa. But with the external ‘potato masher’ flash attached it becomes quite an easy package to handle.

The lens is fixed focus, set at the 2.5m mark. You get a table of depth of field versus aperture in the manual. I copied this out and made a laminated card. I also laminated a card rangefinder to make it easy to find the focus point. This only really matters when I’m using it underwater, as I need to get as close as the camera will allow to minimise the effects of soupy water. It’s also easier to judge 2-3m distance on land.

On the surface you get a fixed shutter speed of 1/100. There is a physical switch for 100 or 400 ISO and space for two AA batteries inside the camera’s outer shell. The camera’s built-in flash has a guide number of 10. The camera allows the use of two apertures with the internal flash – f4.5 or f11. And that’s about it for features. There is a light meter guide light in the viewfinder – you half depress the shutter and tweak the aperture dial until the red light goes out. The lens is described as a 35mm and f4.5 using four elements in four groups. You will not be buying one of these for creamy bokeh or biting resolution, but to survive a family trip to the seaside.

In use it is actually very simple. You can use it like a basic manual point and shoot with optional flash. Get to between 2 and 3m from the subject, frame and snap. If you can find it there is a wide-angle adapter and viewfinder available that makes it closer to a 20mm field of view (the adapter is shown fitted in the pictures above, with the matching external framer). With this adapter and the external flash it actually becomes quite a handy package for fairly close work underwater or in bad conditions. The flash makes a useful handle and even with it on the camera is not too unwieldy.

I have used this underwater and would certainly use it if I wanted to shoot film on the beach or in bad conditions. The external flash has a sensor to control its exposure and gives the choice of two apertures, one for 100 and one for 400 ISO. For underwater use I loaded it with fast film, set the apertures and got to the preset distance to take pictures. There was nothing to adjust, just turn the flash off when not using it. This actually makes it easier to use than the more capable (on paper) big brother model – the Motor Marine II.

On the surface it can flare if you shoot into the light, mostly due to the flat glass window in front of the lens. It’s worth keeping a tissue handy if you are out in the rain to keep the drops off the lens. Other than that it seems to survive most environments and handling. You can also pick these up quite cheaply if you look carefully. So what’s not to like about a cheap, simple and rugged camera?

Olympus XA

I think this is the perfect small rangefinder camera. Quite possibly the perfect small camera.

I’ve actually had mine from new. I originally owned its smaller brother, the XA2. This got a bit of a soaking in salt water which caused the lens focusing thread to seize. I freed it but the shutter release was also unreliable, so an upgrade it was. The XA became my perfect take-anywhere, use-anywhere camera.

I have cleaned it since…

It is has aperture-priority automatic exposure. The aperture scale runs down the front of the camera with a lever to select. F5.6 is marked in orange, as is the 3m distance on the lens’ focus scale. These are the hyperfocal settings that turn the camera into a focus-free point and shoot. The tip of the focusing lever is accessible even when the camera cover is closed. I marked mine with some paint to show the 3m position, so I can check and set the lens to the correct distance even before the cover is opened. With the distance set and the aperture at 5.6 or smaller, it’s immediately ready to shoot.

The lens is sharp, as you would expect of an Olympus. The design of the 35mm F2.8 lens in the XA is very clever – it’s a wide-angle telephoto with internal focusing. What this means is that the camera can be tiny as the lens is very close to the film and doesn’t need to be extended to use. For such a short rangefinder base it’s actually easy to focus. And mine has never gone out of alignment, unlike every every other rangefinder I have used. It also focuses down to under a meter, so beats most other rangefinders.

The bokeh hunters will be dismayed though – the aperture is formed of two blades producing a square hole. All those people who track down lenses with the highest possible number of aperture blades producing perfectly circular openings will be horrified to learn the the Olympus just works: it delivers nice pictures. Maybe not for the people who are more interested in the blur than the subject, but it does very well what it was designed to do.

The autoexposure will give you shutter speeds from 1/500 down to 10 seconds, so it can keep taking pictures in the dark. Prop it on a table or wall, press the button and wait.

The shutter release is the divisive feature. It’s a flat panel with an electronic rather than mechanical trigger. It can also be hair-trigger sensitive. But the shutter release is very quiet, so this camera is super discrete. I used it during a concert recital in a medieval church and nobody noticed. I’m told that the release button can be unreliable on these cameras as they age though. If you are buying one, this would be the thing to check.

There is a little flashgun that screws to the side. It’s automatic, but has settings for 100 and 400 ISO. I found what looks like a hack with it. If you turn it on and let it charge, then switch it off and immediately take the picture, it acts as a fill-in flash. It may not be a clever trick at all, but it seems to work.

Other than that, I rate this little camera very highly. Think of it as a Leica with a built-in light meter and a decent 35mm lens, but easier to load, carry and use. My only wish was that Olympus had made a version with an 80mm lens. Then I could put the XA in one pocket, the ‘long XA’ in the other and skip around in weightless bliss.

Sea & Sea Motor Marine II

I started out with one of these when I was first learning how to take pictures underwater. It served its purpose, as I quickly learned what I really needed (and sold it). So why did I buy another one? Because it was cheaper than a roll of film and came with a flashgun, so it was worth a punt to see if the flashgun could work with my Nikonos (it doesn’t). But it could make sense if you needed to take pictures in really bad conditions.

What you get is a big camera that is resistant to sand, mud and rain (and any sense of style). Unlike its smaller brother the MX-10 this camera has a zone-focusing lens and retains the basic light metering. The main restriction for land use is the slow fixed shutter speed of 1/100. If you buy the Motormarine II EX model you get range of speeds covering 1/15 to 1/125. No real gain and it points to how this camera was intended to be used: with flash. But if I was using this thing it would probably be in poor light and bad weather, so I would be using the built-in flash or the (huge) external one. The external flash is more sophisticated, as it meters off the film. If you were going to use this for flash photography in grim conditions you should definitely get the external flashgun with the camera. The internal flash has a guide number of 10 and turning it on sets the lens wide open to f3.5. So on a sunny day you are likely to overexpose the background by around four stops. The big external flash allows for some adjustment, so it is possible to juggle the aperture and distance for effect. But that’s really not what this camera is for. It works best underwater with the external flash, it works on the surface without flash, or it will survive horrid conditions on the surface. If I had to shoot on film in wind-blown sand or salt spray, this would be an ideal tool.

The camera runs off two AA cells and the external flash takes another four. The camera’s batteries power the wind-on, meter and the internal flash. It uses DX coding for film speed but only recognises 100 or 400 ISO. So far, pretty basic.

Aperture and distance are set on dials on the front of the camera, so the ergonomics are pretty poor. There is a built-in close-up or macro option of 0.5m, but framing could be a problem.

In use, and without the flash, you tend to set the distance and then look through the viewfinder while you twiddle the aperture dial until the red exposure light turns green. With the internal flash on you’re basically confined to 2-3m distance. You wouldn’t use the built-in flash underwater as it is close to the lens so will cause loads of backscatter. The external flash has a big extending arm and tilting head, so it can be aimed to give the best lighting.

The camera takes a range of wide-angle supplementary lenses made by Sea & Sea. They use a standard bayonet fitting and can be found quite cheap. The main reason for these is to bring back the narrowing of field of view you get underwater due to refraction, where a 35mm lens narrows to about the same angle of view as a 50mm lens. They can be fitted and removed underwater, but you tend to fit one and leave it to avoid dropping it. They also work on the surface so are useful if you can find them. Mine has a wide-angle adapter that gives me the equivalent of a 20mm lens. I’ve also got an underwater-use 16mm adapter. This is not as good as the legendary Nikonos 15mm underwater lens, but can at least be removed underwater to give you a narrower field of view if you need it. Coupled with the external flash the 16mm adapter actually works pretty well underwater. The depth of field is such that you really don’t need to fiddle with the focusing.

So what is this large lump of yellow plastic good for? It’s too much of a handful for scuba diving but is a cheap starter for something like snorkelling or other water sports. It works best with flash, either the built-in one for close work or the big external one. The zone focusing makes it a good candidate for a card rangefinder. I made one and laminated it, then attached it to the camera. For beach/ surf/ surface use I’d drop the external flash. For underwater use, the ideal setup would use the external flash and a wide or 16mm lens adapter.

The lens has square aperture blades. This is not a problem – Olympus did the same with their compacts. It can mean though that backscatter-lit silt underwater appears square. On the surface you’ll probably not notice it.

Why would you want one of these? If you wanted to shoot on film in the surf, on a beach or in foul weather and were happy using flash. But they are quite limited and outside of their narrow use-case will frustrate you. Indeed, most underwater film cameras were rapidly replaced with digital as the benefits of autofocus, autoexposure, a preview screen and after-shot review far outweigh any supposed quality difference. But, as a rufty-tufty camera it works well, and with the correct adapters and flash it can work well underwater.

So if you get down and dirty and you can find one of these at the right price, have a go.

Gear Addiction Syndrome

So I was reading Unwinding anxiety by Judson Brewer, as one does, and came across a definition of addiction: “continued use despite adverse consequences”. A chill ran through my heart (not really, but a wrinkle of worry wormed across my brow) – does he mean Gear Acquisition Syndrome?

If I have more camera or lenses than I can carry and I am still looking at the results of my saved searches from eBay, I must be addicted.

There was a time, a few years ago, when film equipment was cheap because it was old and analogue. I would have sold all my kit at the time but the return was so low that I kept it for occasional use. Then I bought a few lenses to make up what felt like a full set. Then I am afraid that I bought things to play with. And I think that is the basis of my GAS and addiction. “I am Fup Duck and I have too many cameras and lenses”.

But I like variety. I don’t need to have a collection of every model of a certain camera, as my addiction is not ownership or completeness: I want different things to try. I have analysed my set of cameras and lenses for functionality in what I felt was a rational approach to building a full suite of capability. What I didn’t think about was what caused me to have so much stuff to choose from.

One of the drivers is curiosity – I am a very curious person (probably in both senses of the word). I love to find out how things work and to solve problems. So something like a half-frame camera with a rotary shutter is catnip to me, as is a camera that you twist the lens to work. What is telling is that I borrowed one of these and sold the other one. I think I would own less kit if I could borrow more.

I think there is also a desire to be equipped and ready. It’s probably like carrying some multi-function survival tool around to give me the assurance that, come the zombie apocalypse, I could cope. And is a penknife with ten blades better than one with three? I went down that rabbit hole with underwater cameras and came to the conclusion that the best camera was one that was good enough, but easy to use. But this sense of having the special thing in case I ever need it has driven some lens purchases. My only defence is that I only ever bought cheap – when I spotted a 300mm lens in a charity shop one time, I bought it. I now have a long lens, if I need one, that cost much less than buying one in the future when I do need it. Of course, if I never use the lens it was a waste of money and storage. And that’s the very definition of addiction.

Now, what Mr Brewer talks about is the link between the trigger, the behaviour and the reward. So one of these loops for me is the trigger of curiosity: I wonder what a thing is like. The behaviour is then to acquire one of those things to find out. The reward is the pleasure of investigating and learning. This is fairly well controlled, as I tend to then sell the thing once I have played with it. So this little addiction varies from cost-neutral to making a small profit.

The other loop is more of an addiction, and this is the one where I buy things to fill a perceived gap. Do I have an underwater digital camera? Yes, but what about an analogue one? Do I have a 400mm lens? What about a 200? And shouldn’t everyone have a 70-210mm zoom? This is more pernicious as I accumulate these things and rarely sell them on. The saving grace is that the adverse effects are small: I do not spend much money on this stuff. I tend instead to take opportunities: I will buy something if it turns up at the right price (low) and fills a perceived gap. I’d love a macro lens, for example. Not because I shoot loads of macro stuff, but I would use it for scanning negatives. But I am not willing to pay what they sell for and I already have other means of doing the same job (bellows and an enlarger lens). So I would only buy a macro lens if it was cheap, which isn’t going to happen. But this particular form of my addiction has resulted in me owning more cameras and lenses than I need. And I think the resolution would be to rationalise what I actually use and need and find a way to hire or borrow things that I might use only once or never. What I will also need to do is to refocus the feelings of reward from having all the tools I could need into having the perfect “capsule wardrobe” of essential and multifunctional equipment.

The first step, of course, is to decide if GAS is actually a problem. I think it is, as I have more stuff than I can use. There is no point hoarding cameras for the future: if film does continue to grow then someone may start making cameras again. And if not, they won’t. In which case we may be left with large format film, as there won’t be any 35mm cameras left to shoot the smaller formats. So don’t worry, be happy. Enjoy it while it lasts.

The thing that’s going to help me though is to recognise that I don’t need a huge reserve of every type of camera and lens, plus an extra of each camera in case the first one breaks. It’s only recently (in relative terms – I’ve been around since the last ice age) that I’ve had anything more than a basic camera setup. That never seemed to stop me. So perhaps the simplicity of a capsule camera bag is what I need? That and the recognition that I don’t need to feed this hoarding behaviour.

What we potential members of Analogues Anonymous need is a camera and lens library so the we can scratch the curiosity itch without incurring ownership. Or get the use of something exotic for only the time we actually need it. I’ve got a range of odd kit that I don’t use all the time, but wouldn’t have the use of otherwise. If this charged enough to cover the costs of repairs and CLA, it could help keep some useful skills in business too.

What do you think? Would you give up hoarding kit if you could borrow it?

Lubitel

There are cameras that are awkward to use, but worth it for the results. I’m not sure that I have any of these – I have tended to get rid of stuff that is difficult in favour of things that work and don’t get in the way (are you listening, Nikonos?).

Back when the world was young, I bought a Lubitel TLR as my entry into medium format. I had been using an old folding Kodak before that, but this was going to have proper settings and controls.

It was a right pain in use. There is no focussing screen as such, so it lacks the main feature of a ‘proper’ TLR: the large composing screen. The viewfinder is the bright type, like the Ensign Ful Vue, but with a small ground-glass spot in the middle. There is a little fold-up magnifier to be able to see the spot. So focusing means picking where the point of sharpness will be, popping up the magnifier, finding the subject spot, doing your best to focus, then composing the main scene and attempting to get the verticals aligned with the frame edges.

You can take a Lubitel climbing, if your partner doesn’t mind you letting go of the rope.

Yes, it can be zone focused and yes, the focusing procedure can be done quickly. But the Yashicamat TLR I bought later could be focused and framed much more easily.

The camera is also held shut with spring catches, so be careful not to bump it. Saying that, the Yashicamat had a better catch for the back, but a surprise in the hinge. The entire back could be removed for loading, which I first discovered accidentally.

The lens is also quite slow, at f4.5. It helps that you are not focusing through it, but it does need to be stopped down for best sharpness. You are likely to be stopped down anyway, as the fastest shutter speed is 1/250. Oh, and the shutter needs to cocked with a little lever on the side. Later models came with a mask to shoot 6×4.5 as well as 6×6, so you could get more shots on a film and also crop less if you were printing the negatives.

It was capable of good results, given effort. The picture of the motorbike here was taken with it. The slow lens meant resting the camera on the ground, but that actually helped the composition.

Anyway, it did work and I coped with its shortcomings until a second-hand Yashicamat turned up. I eventually sold the Yashica after several years of not using it, but I have never regretted moving-on the Lubitel.

The Lubitel wasn’t completely user hostile, but it was never friendly. When you see how much is being asked for them, you have to think there are better solutions. For me, the Yashica was a far better TLR, but at a higher price. My old Balda folding camera is equally fiddly, but has the advantage of folding to pocket sized. I picked up a 6×6 camera with a collapsible lens that works as well as the Lubitel did and is easier to carry around. Eventually I bought a Kiev 60 and some lenses, which was a much better set-up at the expense of being a lot bigger and heavier (pulling a Kiev with Sonnar 180mm out of a rucksack is a real Crocodile Dundee moment).

I would rate the Lubitel as a potential entry to medium format, if you already know how to use a manual camera and can cope with the process of adjusting all the settings. I certainly don’t think it’s good for a beginner – there is too much to remember to do and the focusing is too difficult. But it can still be cheaper than most other medium format cameras (that are not toys).

Who cares what shot it?

Stop telling me it was shot on a phone – I don’t care and I shouldn’t care. Or mirrorless – I don’t care about that either.

I understand that camera phones used to be rubbish, but they are not any more. My own phone is state of the ark, but it’s much better than my first digital camera. But I can see no reason why I would tell anyone that I used a phone or even a shoebox with a hole in it, unless that was part of the story I was telling.

There was a great comment on the Shutters Inc podcast when one of the hosts was told that someone really liked a picture he had taken. But instead of the usual comment, what he was told was “your camera must have a good photographer”. Now that’s a good comment, and the kind of thing you’d want to hear.

Perhaps part of the reason is that phones have democratised photography so much that they are not considered serious. So someone who uses a phone as if it was a dedicated or ‘proper’ camera feels they have to explain. Or perhaps we are amazed by the capabilities of a phone camera, so want to tell people about it (but always remember – you bought it, you didn’t design it).

It feels like an artist saying that they made their picture using felt-tips or a paint roller. But the art world is bigger and has more history than the photography one, so I think that form of explanation would be left to the commentators and the artist would have no need to explain (unless again, it was part of the story). Would a picture be less of a picture if it wasn’t painted in oils? Will Gompertz wrote a fascinating book about modern art, explaining how each movement broke away from the previous and what the artists were trying to do. He didn’t spend any time apologising for their choice of materials but did explain why Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was revolutionary, “even if” it used a common and commercially-available subject.

So yes, the first time some shot a cinema film on a phone it was a breakaway moment. But then it was a thing that was possible. You don’t need to tell me that you did, as it’s not new: it’s just a known method.

In the same sense, the new Dune film appears to have been shot using digital cameras, then transferred to film, then back to a digital file for distribution. I’m sure it wasn’t mentioned in the credits or advertising. It was a method that the director used to get the look they wanted. I’m sure they would have dipped it in tea or dubbed it in Spanish if that’s what was needed to get their result.

I have seen some websites that list the camera, lens, aperture, shutter speed and processing method used, for a picture that is displayed as a small jpeg and may be viewed on any random device. I’m not sure I could see from the results that they have an expanded tonal range for example, or even if that’s a good thing. Some gross differences may be visible between different methods, but it would be hard to tell. Most of the pictures used in this blog are resized, so you have no real way to gauge the quality of the original. I went to see the retrospective exhibition of Bailey’s work a few years back and there was a portrait of a young Michael Cain in the world’s sharpest suit, printed to be two stories high. It never occured to me that he must have a good camera (or a very big enlarger), just that it looked fantastic. If he had happened to shoot it on a Holga, it would not have changed anything.

And all of the above might sound quite hypocritical when you see that I have also blogged about different lenses and cameras. My defence, if needed, is that the lense or camera was the subject of that blog entry, not the pictures they make. I do like using certain equipment because of the results it makes possible. But that should be the end of it – nobody needs to know the details of what I used, because even if they did they would not be able to recreate the picture. And if they did, that starts edging into plagiarism. Steal the concept, that’s fine, but not the execution.

So go ahead, shoot with your phone or your GoPro or your drone; just don’t make the equipment part of the image.

Things are looking up

In terms of ease of use and quality of results, photography is so much better than it used to be. What brought this (less than genius) thought on was finding a copy of Lichfield on Photography in a charity shop. Whatever you may think of his work, he was successful for quite a few years. The book dates from 1981 and is printed on fairly good coated paper. So the pictures ought to be good. But they’re not.

It’s probably not his fault. Possibly a lot of the mono pictures were converted from colour slides. Perhaps the printing was poor, resulting in the lack of any shadow detail. Or perhaps this was the best we could do in 1981.

I shouldn’t be sarcastic – I have said before that grain and sharpness are not the most important aspects of a picture. But that’s not the point here – what I noticed is just how much better are the results we see now compared to then.

Then was shooting Polaroids to check the lighting. High ISO meant heavy and intrusive grain. Commissioned work meant shooting colour slide film, with no opportunities for post-processing or even cropping. Your shutter might top-out at 1/1000 and your lenses at f2, or smaller if you used a zoom. To get the best results you would be shooting at ISO 25 or 64. Chimping would mean sending a test film for processing or clip tests.

I can hardly criticise – this is grainy and it wasn’t even dark

Now is autofocus and face detection, low-noise ISO in the tens of thousands, large aperture lenses and magic zooms. Plus the ability to tell immediately if the picture worked.

You could say that it needs less skill to make a picture, but it also means that it is easier to get a good picture. See Lichfield – you have to agree that he had the skill, but you can see the limitations of his equipment and the process of printing. Even something as prestigious as National Geographic shows how the underlying technology has improved.

I have certainly taken advantage of this in my diving. I started with a 3mp camera and rapidly found I needed better. I moved to an 8mp camera that has better features and image stabilisation. This wasn’t a deliberate choice mind, it was what was available on eBay. Eight megapixels was pretty good but then I bumped into the jaggies again. So the next step is up to 10mp with a camera that can save raw files. And the technology also brings me image stabilisation, automatic flash control and a macro mode. Compare this with the analogue cameras I have wrestled with underwater and I can’t see myself ever going back. Yes, the technology has made it easier and you could say it has removed the need for technical skill (Lichfield was also saying this in 1981 about cameras with auto-exposure). But it has also allowed me to concentrate on taking pictures rather than juggling the camera settings.

This is at the limits of what my 8mp camera can do and won’t take much enlargement

So I think a few things have happened: better kit has lowered the trade-craft barrier to entry; better kit has raised picture quality generally; good photography is no longer the preserve of photographers. Where is it going? I don’t know. But post-processing software can correct mistakes, smooth skin, replace skies and add mood. Cameras can focus on faces or even eyes and take a blizzard of shots to capture the perfect timing. But there is still a difference between good and bad pictures, if a good picture was your intent.

But basically, bring it on! I will take all the cleverness the camera people can give me (or I can afford) because it generally gives me better results. Or fewer chances to be rubbish. And it gives me the space to go back in time in an area of my choosing to gain an effect – things like using old lenses or shooting in mono rather than colour. Same with cars – my current car is far more advanced than my first one. Do I miss the ability to start the engine with a handle? No. Do I like heating? Yes, and I can turn it off if I want to get nostalgic. So if the purpose of photography is to make pictures rather than drive cameras, then things are much better now than they were then.

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