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How many damn cameras do you need?

How many can you actually use?

Maybe one for quality and perhaps one that’s small and easy to carry (but that’s what your phone is for, right?).

So why do film photographers in general end up with more cameras than they can shoot? I can go through my own reasons, or justifications. OK, confessions. Think of me as the witness for the defence.

It happened over a long period. I bought my first proper camera, a 35mm SLR, from new. Even though it wasn’t the latest model – it was something like a year old and not the one that was in all the adverts. But it was a better camera than the latest one and had been reduced in price. Over time I experimented with various Soviet offerings, messing-up and then fixing the shutter in a Zorki and fighting to focus a Lubitel. At some point I saw a well-used Yashica TLR in a camera shop (remember them?) and dumped the Russian pretender for a practical Oriental.

I tried, used and re-sold all sorts of things in those easy years when cameras were still being made and nobody wanted old ones. Some filled a particular niche and are still with me. My first ever SLR has new light seals and is still working well. The Yashica TLR still comes out to play when I’m feeling medium formatty. My little pocket camera I bought from new to replace a slightly lesser model that I killed by accident. This too is still with me.

Somewhere along the line I found a ‘proper’ Pentax SLR, second-hand in a shop near Hartlepool. Oddly, it’s been less reliable than the old Ricoh. Not that it doesn’t work, but it has suffered the common fault of the MX with the viewfinder readout of shutter speed slipping out of sync. Somewhere else along the line I picked up a big handful of focussing screens for it in a camera shop junk bin. So I can’t sell the MX because it would cost more to get the viewfinder readout fixed than it would probably sell for.

So that’s two SLRs, a TLR and a compact. Enough for anyone, right?

I wish it were so. There’s a Russian rangefinder, just because I like using rangefinders. There’s a K-mount SLR that came with a lens I wanted. It’s a lightweight bit of friable plastic, but it can hold the film in place behind a sexy lens so it’s sat on the reserve bench.

And then the madness was upon me. Not the madness that tries to recreate my youth by buying all the cameras I couldn’t afford when I was young. Not really. But sometimes I will read about a particular type of camera or I’m after something to do a particular job. If you don’t chase fashion you can usually find an example of what you are after for the cost of a beer or less. So that excuses my underwater cameras. And the little Canon digital that can be hacked about with the CHDK tools to do timelapse. And the weird Ricoh bridge camera that I got for 99p for the cheap shots challenge. And the old Pentax unmetered screw-mount SLR that I got to use with a few M42 lenses that were knocking about in the cupboard (but especially the 50mm f1.2 Tomioka that was on some broken old camera in a charity shop for £1).

Then there are the ones that people gave me (“It’s been in a damp box in my garage for ten years…”).

So basically, I’ve spent very little money but thrown nothing away. Most of it is worth about what I paid for it. So I’m no collector, hoarding every model of minty Minolta or tweak of Leica. I’ve basically got a bunch of stuff that accumulated over the years because I fancied having a go with it.

I have genuinely sold stuff off that I wasn’t using, although looking at the pile that’s left you wouldn’t think so. Three, maybe four folding roll-film cameras went to better homes. Some lenses I didn’t like. There’s a little Canon compact digital plus underwater housing that ought to go and an Agfa rangefinder with an IR filter fitted behind the lens. But on the whole, I have lots of cameras because I just fancied having a go with different things. There was no strategy to it, just curiosity. So, what’s in the pile?

  • 35mm SLR. ✔️
  • 35mm rangefinder. ✔️
  • 35mm compact. ✔️
  • Half-frame compact. ✔️
  • Medium format TLR. ✔️
  • Medium format SLR. ✔️
  • Medium format folder. ✔️
  • 35mm underwater. ✔️
  • Digital SLR. ✔️
  • Digital compact. ✔️
  • Digital underwater. ✔️
  • Weird stuff. ✔️✔️✔️

And if you think that just means one example of each…


Do I use them? Yes. Not all the time, but often enough to want to keep them around. The least used are the medium format ones. Having only 12 or 16 frames makes me feel I should use them for special occasions. I could sell some of the less-loved and less-used items but most of them are worth less than the postage would be. Mostly because I bought kit that was cheap but working and then used it rather than coddled it. So it has, er, patina. Or in some cases, rust. I don’t really care. I know there was a big discussion on the Sunny 16 podcast about the evils of hoarding working cameras in a time of decline, but I’ve spent in total less than the cost of a nice Leica and lens. Probably less than the cost of a ropy Leica and a fungoid lens. Definitely less than the cost of a fashionable 35mm compact. So I plan to use this stuff until it dies or I hate it. If it dies I probably won’t bother to replace it. If I grow to dislike something, it can go to Fleabay or a charity shop as I see fit. And one day I will learn which is the most reliable camera, Darwin will rule and the creationists will be wondering why new film cameras don’t just appear in the shops. (It could be something to do with us tasting the fruits of Apple)

In the meantime I’m going to keep playing with my toys, selling the ones I am bored with and occasionally buying a new one when I get the curious itch. Too many damn cameras? Probably; but I enjoy photography and that to me means all aspects of it. And I have the beautiful freedom of not relying on my photography to make a living. If I did my kit would be selected for reliability first and then functionality. But I am free to play.

Weeeeeeee! 😁


PAS or PoS?

There’s a lot of interest in “premium compacts” – little 35mm point-and-shoots with good lenses. A lot has already been said, and I think we can all agree that there is a strong follower of fashion thing going on.

But, sharp lens or not, there is a real risk that the electronics on a twenty or thirty year old camera could expire. We all know this.

In this case the electronics are fine – the lens focus motor has jammed. I need a bigger hammer…

Perhaps more to the point though is what one of these cameras can do. My own view is that if your wee gadget if fully automatic, then what you’ve got is a snapper. It can be great fun, and very creative, to use a camera with no controls at all. Being automatic makes it more likely that you will get recognisable results. But as we know, sharpness alone is overrated. And do you want to pay big money for something that has a limited life expectancy? And by big money, some of these things go for £1000+. Well, obviously the answer is yes if the name on the lens or camera matters that much to you. Say though that you like the idea of a competent point-and-shoot and it would be nice to have a few more controls than on/off. What is a photographer to do?

You could take a look at the Pentax Espio range (or IQZoom, which is the same thing). They brought out a wide range of cameras that played all the options. The nice thing though is that they added some useful settings like multiple exposure and a B shutter speed. They are also surprising well regarded. You can also get some of them for less than the cost of a coffee. Equally, there are loads of other makes and models that are better than you would give them credit for, and that cost less than a Contax.

So if you have a sudden hankering to be a celebrity clone or street-fighting snapper, here’s a strategy:

1. Find the cheapest point-and-shoot you can. Jumble sales, car boot sales, charity shops, friends and family. Pay no more than £5 – ideally £1 or less. Tip – if it’s a zoom model and the lens is partly out (not fully retracted), the camera is dead.

2. Clean the lens, blow-out the film gate. Find a manual. Load it with film and have a go.

3. Look at the results. Think about the experience. If you hate compact cameras in general, give it back to a charity shop to sell-on. If you hate this particular camera, do the same but go looking for its replacement. What does this one not do that a better camera should? That’s what you are looking for.

This way you can either get off the treadmill at small expense, or work your way intelligently towards something that is right for you.

4. If the camera dies, recycle it properly. We may need those rare elements.

Want to find out where to even begin? Go and surf Canny Cameras.

What’s my name?

If you haven’t done it yet, you will. Your camera, lovingly loaded with 100ISO colour print film, turns out to be 400ISO black and white when you finish the roll and open it. Or not loaded at all. Or you load and shoot the same roll of film twice.

Back before the last ice age, I worked as a chemist. Not the dispensing kind – I was the model for Beaker. I worked in a quality control lab within a manufacturing business, so we were processing multiple large batches of samples every day. One soon learned to label everything. My favourite tool was an ancient fat propelling pencil that took a wax insert that would write on glassware but was water soluble so it was easy to clean off.

The habit carried-over when I switched to working in IT. I did some big office moves and became a label fundamentalist.

Speaking of habits, my grandad used to say that a habit was a good servant but a bad master. He also used to iron his socks, so make of that what you will.

Labelling is a good habit though. But I can’t really write on my cameras and hope to wash it off afterwards. So I use tape.

Yes, my grandad used to buy socks in boxes…

I tried using the paper-based masking tape, but this stuff resists being written on and falls off when you are not looking. So I use electrical tape. My dad was an electrician, so I was brought up on fluff-covered rolls of gooey black PVC tape. That stuff is the opposite of useful for labelling. What I found in my local hardware shop is white electrical tape, which is perfect. The glue doesn’t smear and the tape releases cleanly without leaving a sticky patch. I can write on it with a marker or ballpoint.

So what I do is label every camera that is loaded with the film it contains. When a film is taken out of a camera, the label moves to the film container. If I’m developing it myself, the label then moves to the lid of the tank. If I remove a film part-shot, the label will show how many frames I’ve used.

I am delighted to say that I have not fupped a single duck since I started doing this. But, as I learned in IT, make something idiot-proof and the idiot gets upgraded. I may not mistake my films any more, but I have moved on to greater things and discovered many new and interesting ways to fail.

Go me!

Bullet-hole cameras

Proper blogs seem to be about cameras and lenses rather than photography, so here’s my grab at fame. 🙂

But here’s an unusual thing – instead of comparing cameras that you can’t afford this is a review of cameras that you can’t buy new.

Why am I bothering with this? Because both of these cameras can be had cheap, so you can risk taking them to places or doing things you wouldn’t do with your proper camera. Both of them are very limited in what they can do, so are good for creativity and experimentation. And both of them look funky. Using one of these will make you smile.

Back in 1950 Britain was on its economic knees after the war. Food rationing didn’t end until 1954. The country needed people to buy things and it needed things to buy. So the government arranged an exhibition of manufacturers to show the world that Blighty still had it. One of the companies that stepped up was Ensign, who showed a couple of new cameras. One of them was the Ful-Vue. It had a futuristic design, simple operation and sold well. It was so popular that Ensign brought out the Ful-Vue 2, which they claim sold over one million units during its three-year span.

Meanwhile, over in the USA, they were riding on a wave of mass production from the enormous manufacturing investment of the war. Kodak’s designer, the wonderfully named Arthur Hunt Crapsey Jr, produced an art deco Bakelite camera for the masses. The Brownie Hawkeye evolved through a flash-synced model, stayed in production until 1961 and sold by the squillion.

So what we have here is a head-to-head between two very similar cameras: an Ensign Ful-Vue II and a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash. Both are around 1950 vintage and so older than me. Both still work, unlike most of your later cameras with electronics. These babies will still be taking (not very good) pictures long after the rise of our robot overlords.

Both are very simple roll film box cameras. The large negative meant that simple contact prints of the negatives were acceptable and would be acceptably sharp. Both had a fixed aperture and a fixed shutter speed plus B. The Ful-Vue had a scale-focussing lens while the Kodak was fixed focus. The Ensign offered a shutter speed of 1/30 at f11 while the Kodak gave approximately 1/50 at about f16. America may have had better weather but the Brits had steadier hands. Both cameras used the simplest possible single-element meniscus lens. So technically, pretty much on a par. In marketing terms, these things were both the epitome of Minimum Viable Product.


Nice, simple. Watch out for the slow shutter speed. The shape of the Ensign and the position of the shutter release means you pinch the camera to fire it. This may help the steadiness. The Kodak has a push-down button to fire, but it’s a lighter action than the Ensign.

Both of them use a bright viewfinder through a second lens. The image is reversed like with a TLR so it can be tricky to frame a group or get your verticals right.

There is no interlock to prevent double exposures, so you learn to wind on after every shot. It does make double exposures easy though, if you want them. Plus, if you can put the camera on something steady like a table or wall, you can compensate for the small aperture by taking multiple shots on the same frame or holding it open on B.

Image quality

Fuzzy. Not too bad in the centre. But sharpness is overrated. The film is not held very flat and tends to give pictures that are softer at the sides. Since the negative is square one of the recommended tricks is to shoot groups with the camera rotated sideways. This makes the sides sharper at the expense of the sky and foreground, which is usually fine. Also, if you are shooting expired film or cock up the spool, it’s more likely to be the sides of the film that suffer. Turning the camera sideways and shooting horizontal subjects makes it easier to crop the top and bottom of the frame. But if you thought looking down into a reversed viewfinder was awkward, try sideways…

Pose value

Either. It comes down to a choice of art deco or streamlined curves. The Kodak has a little carrying handle while the Ensign takes a neck strap. Either would go well with a check shirt, beard and no socks. Actually, they are both lovely. You will feel happy using one and people will smile when they see you. Except photographers; they will shake their heads.


The Ensign wins on film choice. It uses 120 film while the Kodak uses 620. Kodak were the Apple of photography and tried to lock competitors out of the market by using dedicated film sizes. 620 is exactly the same film as 120, but rolled onto a spool that is slightly narrower in width with slightly smaller diameter end disks and a thinner centre post. Some 620 cameras have enough slack to take a 120 spool and I’m told that the Hawkeye can be made to take 120 with a bit of judicious fettling. Mine will take a fresh 120 roll on the feed side but will only wind the exposed film onto a 620 spool. No bother as I shoot black and white and develop it myself, so I can keep my 620 spools to reuse.

You can get 120 film in many types and places. 620 is more rare unless you can reroll your own 120 onto 620 spools. Just don’t call it 120mm or the Hypersensitive Photography people will growl at you.

The Kodak needs one to two more stops of light than the Ensign and won’t be sharp for anything closer than about ten feet. The Ensign has a focusing lens but the markings are speculative at best.

But that’s not the point. If you want sharp or adjustments, buy a better camera. These are fun and a challenge. Use one in bright sunlight as they were intended and get some nice retro shots. Or load it with slow film, go out in the gloom and take some long or multiple exposures. Waves of people washing against the rocks of architecture. Trees thrashed by the wind. Streaky skies and empty streets. All this from something that could cost less than a roll of Ektachrome or Portra.


Oh yes. Marred by the totally expired 620 film I tried to use, but what a joy to try and overcome all the constraints. Never again will I moan that my camera doesn’t have a top shutter speed of 1/4000. The only camera more basic than these is a pinhole. In fact, since the lens aperture isn’t that much bigger than a pinhole, can I call these bullet-hole cameras?

Scarborough Castle
Not normally this bad – this was some VERY expired film

The legend has landed

They say that the way to make the gods laugh is to tell them your plans. But sometimes something weird happens – you have a forlorn hope that will never be realised, and then it drops into your lap. It’s like John Cleese said “it’s not the despair, I can deal with that; it’s the hope”.

But truly, the legend has landed.

What am I on about? I got a Nikonos plus underwater strobe. Not just that, but a range of close-up attachments as well. Having only just said I wasn’t frightened of them any more. So the joke is on me to learn the true meaning of fear. Let’s call it apprehension. This is the justly famous underwater Nikon that was the only serious diving camera for decades. Even James Bond had one. I feel I should fall to my knees and chant “we’re not worthy“.

So what have I got? A Nikonos V with a Sea&Sea strobe, a couple of extension tubes and a supplementary close-up lens. The extension tubes come with the the matching prongs to mark the plane of focus and the field of view. The close-up lens has a couple of prongs but has holes to use four. So I will need to work out if the prongs I am using are meant to mark the frame width or the frame height.

It came from the deep…

For anyone wondering why my camera has prongs, you have to imaging the difficulties of shooting macro underwater. Digital made it so much easier because you can see on the camera screen what you are taking. Back in the bad old days the Nikonos was a viewfinder camera with a manually-focused lens. So you would buy and fit some form of close-up lens or attachment and they usually came with some form of frame to mark the field of view. Rather than look through the camera to frame the shot you would offer-up the frame to the subject and hope not to damage it or scare it away. (Can you see yet why digital won?)

So I need to figure this one out. The first step is to get the camera into a swimming pool (avoiding a public session and the likelihood of arrest) and take some macro shots of a marked surface so that I can check where the point of focus actually falls. And if the camera does leak, it’s better to have it do so in fresh water than salt.

I have printed and laminated an A4 sheet of paper with a focusing line to put the prongs on and a series of lines before and after. With any luck this will be nicely sharp where the focus prongs fall. I have also made the focus sheet double sided. This is because I don’t know if the lens should be set to infinity or the hyperfocal distance for the aperture I’m using. So one side says INF on the focusing mark, the other says HYP. [Update – jumped in the pool at the end of a scuba session and took some pics. No obvious bubbles from the camera and the flash worked. Now to finish the film and develop it.] [Update to update, it worked. The prongs mark the width of the frame.]

Of the two sets of close-up gadgets, the supplementary lens looks easiest to use. As it fits over the front of the lens I can fit or remove it underwater. So if I was photographing seaslugs and a whale shark cruised by, I could pop off the close-up lens and take a fishy portrait. The extension tubes would get in a lot closer, but I’m committed to macro during the dive.

Still, shooting off the remaining film will be fun and a chance to get to know the camera. The standard 35mm lens works in air as well as underwater and it’s no big chore to zone focus the lens. If it was ever necessary I still have a little rangefinder gadget to help me find the actual range.


The shutter sound is very muted – this is a very quiet camera. Not surprising when you feel how thick and heavy the thing is. It’s good for at least 50m, which would be a pressure of around 75psi. Doesn’t sound a lot – don’t lorry tyres run at a higher pressure than this? I remember taking diving a cheap but fashionable watch that said it was waterproof to 200m. And then seeing it gently implode at 20m. This thing is genuinely built like a tank. And 50m is the limit of how deep I could dive on air. Plus it’s dark down there.

The lens on it is Nikon’s 35mm f2.5. From the look of it it’s not the unwanted E series lens but a repackaging of their old rangefinder lens. Makes sense, as it was available at the time and a rangefinder lens can fit much closer to the film – this camera doesn’t have an SLR mirror needing clearance.

It’s all very well having prongs for underwater macro, but on the surface this is a scale-focusing camera. How on earth do you focus it accurately? One way is to zone focus – the lens has a really neat set of depth of field markers that change with the aperture. The other way is to use a rangefinder card like the one in the picture above (You can either calculate one or just measure the distances from an object and mark-up a piece of card).

Having said that and for all my smug cleverness, I measured the distances in feet and set the lens focus using the metres scale. Duh! Still, the ones set to hyperfocal distance worked.

The mighty Nikonos at Wheldrake Woods
Works pretty well on land too

The lens has another neat trick, in that you can mount it on the camera upside-down. This makes it easier to read the settings when you tip the camera backwards to look at the aperture or focus. It does mean that the image on the film is upside down, but it’s no bother to rotate it in the scanner or turn the paper round under the enlarger.*

So I’m pretty happy with it. My dreams have not yet turned to dust, or as they say: ” a thing of beauty is a joy for a fortnight”. The next thing to do will be to load this baby with some colour negative film and take it diving. That might be a while though – we’re at the cold end of the year and probably won’t get into open water again until the Spring. In the meantime I have a tough little camera with a pretty good lens that won’t be hurt by a spot of rain. A bit of a top duck.

* Yes, I know, but it’s funny.

Going Balda

Meet the Balda. It’s a cracking little snapper with a history.

The Baldax was made in Germany through the 1930s. You would imagine it pretty much stayed there. So how come it ended up in the hands of a Japanese soldier in the far east in the 1940s? It came into the possession of my ex father in law (father in outlaw?) who was building bridges for the army at the time in places like Borneo. His telling of it, and I’m afraid I’m hazy on the details, is that it was in a pile of stuff that had been removed from captured prisoners. I do know that he had a strong moral sense and principles and would not have done anything nefarious to obtain the camera. The problem is that I didn’t listen well enough at the time and he’s no longer here to ask.

So he used it on periods of leave in places like Thailand. Then it probably went into a box in the loft for the next forty years, when he gave it to me.

What we have here is a little folding camera around 75 years old that takes 6×4.5 images on 120 roll film. It’s basic zone focusing with a tiny little viewfinder. The body has spots of rust. It works like a charm.



It’s absolutely typical of how cameras worked at the time. The front snaps open when you press a button on the body. The shutter has to be cocked before it can be fired. You have to remember to wind on the film. There are two windows to view the frame numbers through. You wind to the first one, take a picture and then wind to the second window. This would have been because film at the time did not have dedicated frame numbers for 6×4.5 so it worked from the 6×6 ones. This results in the negatives being slightly paired rather than evenly spaced, much like half-frame on 35mm. But the miracle is that this thing has a working shutter and light-tight bellows. I should be so good at that age.


The lens is a modest triplet and focused by moving the front element. Within its limitations it can be pin sharp. The odd thing is that the distance scale is marked in feet. It makes me wonder if he didn’t buy the camera in England and take it with him, and the story was no more than a story.

It even works in the dark

The little pull-out leg on the lens cover means the camera can be stood on its own feet to take long exposure shots.


As seen in the Matrix

While it might not get much use, I would never sell it. Nor would I destroy it. This thing has history.

Sealed with a KISS

So, I broke a camera. Then I found another one on eBay for £2.20. And it was mine. Well, you have to don’t you? And then the red mist cleared and I realised I had bought a fixed-focus camera with a single shutter speed and a fixed 32mm lens. Which due to refraction under water becomes the equivalent of a 45mm lens in terms of field of view. They used to give away cameras with magazines that had more features than this. OK, so the freebies weren’t waterproof to 45 metres and didn’t come with a dedicated waterproof flash. But this camera is as dumb as a rock.

So let’s get this baby wet! What could possibly go wrong?

Lots. But while a plan may not survive contact with the enemy, planning does. The camera manual gives the distance ranges for sharp focus for each aperture (yes, you can vary the aperture), both in air and underwater. The work of but a few minutes to make up a small table of these, laminate it and attach it to the camera strap. The lighting and exposure might be all over the place, so I loaded it with some XP2. This would cope easily with overexposure and would be likely to capture at least something if it was underexposed.

The big hammerhead flash might be a problem, as it can’t be aimed in any other direction than dead ahead. Backscatter from silt is always an issue, so a long flash arm that allows an oblique angle is nice if you have the right kit or loadsamoney. What the hell – this is £2.20 – if it doesn’t work I can probably resell it for more than that.

So me and the Nikonot went diving in a quarry. Full of water, mind. I call it water, it was more like thin soup. There were a lot of trainee divers in that day, and nothing stirs up your bottom like a trainee diver. The usual answer is to use the widest angle lens possible, allowing you to get very close and minimise the amount of water between subject and camera. But I have a fixed-focus lens that is only going to be sharp between three and six feet.

Capernwray - silt!
The joy of silt. And a gimp mask.

Oh what fun we had. I guessed what looked like about three feet, lined things up as best I could through the viewfinder (you think it’s hard to use a camera when you’re wearing glasses? Try a diving mask), and banged off 36 shots.

The joy of simplicity is that there is nothing to fiddle with: set the aperture according to the flash (f8 for an ISO 400 film) and just line up the shots and snap ’em. This is so liberating to a person who habitually uses a fully manual camera with a separate meter.


Then I sent my film off to those marvellous people at AG Photolabs and wondered if I might get one or two usable shots from the roll. The first news is just how good XP2 is. Holding the neg strips up to the light showed some very dense frames. Pop them on the scanner and ping, out comes the detail. I had deliberately overexposed many of the shots knowing that the film would cope, and it really did. The only alternative I can think of would be to use HP5 and give it stand development. There’s a risk with this of getting uneven development though, so XP2 is one less variable in the mix.

The other revelation is that almost every frame on the roll was usable. I lost a couple with a strap or hose in front of the lens – typical hazard when you are using a viewfinder camera rather than an SLR. The rest were great! I’m amazed that a fixed focus, fixed everything camera can turn in results this good when shooting in soup.

Capernwray - Shergar
You can take a horse to water…

For my next trick I think I’ll try some colour. The equivalent of XP2 is supposed to be Portra 800 so I’ll be trying some of that at the next opportunity. Weirdly, and perhaps inevitably, this has also removed the fears I had for using a proper Nikonos. If I took the same approach of setting a fixed zone of focus and an automatic flash, it might work. The only advantage though would be to have a variable shutter speed. This would let me use a slow speed to bring the background out more, rather than leaving it as black. The only drawback though is the Nikonos’ special flash connection, so I would need the flash as well as the camera. So if someone reading this wants to donate me their kit or even swap it for the Nikonot, drop me a line (and likely kill me with shock).

Enough fantasising – this plastic housebrick turned out to be far better than I hoped. You’ve got to win one occasionally, haven’t you?

Grab shots

If I grab single frames from a video to use as photos, am I cheating?

Photographers are supposed to wait and capture the decisive moment. Video shooters can hose the scene and pick the frame that looks the most decisive. Except that Cartier-Bresson apparently did shoot frames either side of the one that became famous. Not to mention the news photographers who just hold the button down until the politician stops moving.

It occurred to me when I was diving over a weekend recently. I had been shooting single shots with a camera, but we were about to do a group dive on a wrecked aircraft and we wanted some grinning portraits of the two learner divers who were doing this for their first time. So I swapped and took a video camera.

Why? Well the video shoots thousands of frames, it has a wide angle lens so I can get very close, and it lets me shoot video as well. Very close is important underwater – the best way to reduce the haze and silt is to minimise the amount of water between the camera and the subject. Video was best because the swim-through of the fuselage would have lovely lighting from the windows and be backlit from the open end, plus we were likely to get some close encounters with fish later. So a video camera gave me the chance to capture a nice little story of the dive and some individual photographs of events. Granted, the grabbed frames are not your 20 megapixy dSLR jobs, but being there is more important than carrying tons of gear and missing the shot.


The other consideration is that my video camera is small. When I said that it was important to minimise the amount of water between camera and subject, a small camera can be poked under rocks and into cracks (fnarr, fnarr) to get up close and personal. I can also hold it out at arm’s length which means I can get the camera very close to a fish or critter without terrorising it by getting my body close.


So it might feel like cheating to capture everything and choose the best frames later, but I am thinking like a photographer while I’m doing it. By that I mean I’m not thinking “ooh look, moving stuff. Get it all!”. What I’m trying to think is “that’s a nice shot, and it would flow into that one like this”. So it’s more like a series of stills that transition. I blame an overdose of corporate Powerpoint slides.


The other thing I’m learning is editing. My fist attempts were virtually real time: the film took as long as the dive did. Then I got some feedback and started thinking about how to tell a (short) story. There was also a clue in the name of the software I used to do this: it’s called a non-linear editor. I don’t have to use the clips in the same order I shot them. I can even shoot my own B roll (get me! I am so down with the cool kids) to edit into the main action. There are establishing shots, close-ups, cuts and all sorts of wonderful things that the previous generations of properly clever people have already worked out and described.


And in the middle of it is the ability to pull out one of the best frames as a still image. What’s not to love?

OK, so I haven’t sold all my stills cameras yet. Up on dry land, where I can spare attention and hands to non-essential tasks, I still like to think I can select the combination of settings with the correct moment to make a better still image. I can get better quality too. The video might be shooting at 1080p but my real cameras range all the way up to medium format. Plus I can hold them still or even use a tripod. I do know that some diving photographers use tripods underwater for long exposures, but that’s a bit too hard core for me. Besides, I think my tripod would either dissolve or float (or tangle me up and kill me, which is also annoying).

This is why a free hand is useful. It’s not biting me, it’s playing like a puppy. Just as well.

I did hear though that some news photographers or paparazzi were doing the grab-frame technique: shoot the celeb on video rather than motordrive and select the best frame later. It makes sense if the subject is very fluid – you can shoot decent video at 60 frames a second but your SLR might only manage 5-10 frames a second for a short burst. What if your focus of the public’s attention had their eyes closed during your one crucial frame? The public would be distraught.

So yes, perhaps the hose-and-pick method is legitimate. I don’t really care about being a proper photographer, and the method works for me. So watch out for yet more fish portraits.

You lookin’ at me?

The joy of cheap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destroying folders

Look away now if you are easily offended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the screwhead, top right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Filmic folder fun for all the family.

Swing lens is great for isolating a vertical subject

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


I found a picture of the pinhole conversion.


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

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