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Kick out the iambs

I’ve seen some explorations on podcasts of the links between photography and music. Is there also a connection between photography and writing? Is there any relationship between drawing with light and with letters?

You don’t often see this at galleries

Lots (if you ignore that the group is self-selecting) of photographers seem to be also musical. Why not? If you are artistic then you may have more than one outlet for your expression. I feel though, based on the smallest of samples, that there are fewer photographers who also write. I know there are blogs, but I am thinking more of writing as a separate activity in itself. It would be writing about things other than photography, just as the people who can make music probably don’t make tunes about photography. (And even as I write it, a series of photo songs pop up from the subconsious.)

Singing them Cost of Portra Blues.

I know I can’t play an instrument or ‘do’ music though. I have tried, but can’t seem to pick it up at all. At school I got thrown out of the recorder class. Just about the easiest instrument to learn and all I could do was make random noises. But as soon as I bought a camera I thrived on it. I took pictures of everything, learned every feature (both) of the camera and every photographic method I could. And while I couldn’t play a note at school, I did write a bawdy tale in the style and meter of a Canterbury Tale that made the teacher laugh (and then confiscate it).

Perhaps a better comparison though would be with poetry, as poetry is to prose what I suppose music is to humming a song. Just as music has a strange power over our emotions from a set of sounds, so poetry pulls our strings with words.

That changes the question to ‘is there a link between poetry and photography, and are there any rhyming snappers?’. Not me, for sure. I can string words together but I am more at the explaining end of the scale than the triggering of emotions. Unless it’s annoyance – I can do that one. Perhaps I can’t do music or art but I can do words because I can’t really see pictures in my mind’s eye. I have more of a mind’s steno pad.

I’m just curious. Once the overlap of people with skills in both photography and music was pointed out my little grey cell got to wondering if there was a written analogue? (Thank you, I’ll be here all week.) There may not be, or it might be more rare. We evolved to see and speak, so pictures, sounds and music are pretty much innate. But we have to teach our brains to read, which involves re-programming or re-purposing parts of the brain. So perhaps the venn diagram crossover of photography and writing is smaller than the one for music?

It’s just me being curious. If anyone has good examples of a wordy-piccie crossover, do let me know.

And just to prove that comment about being annoying:

On his darkslide, by Miltish

When I consider how my life is spent
Counting seconds in this shed, so dark inside,
 Or juggling lenses, both long and wide,
Lugging them all, though my back be bent
To serve therewith my muses, and present 
My true account, writ in silvery halide; 
“Did that take a whole day?” they ask, so snide. 
 I bite my lip, more bitter banter to prevent,
But mutter “I need neither chip nor chimp for aid 
To assist my eye, I have it best 
From rule of thumb and circumstance of fate
Of stochastic influence my art is made.  
You can keep your digital pleasures with the rest; 
They too expose who only stand and wait.”

Sorry about that.

PS – I should have looked harder. Not long after posting this an actual good photographer turns up, talking about poetry and photography.


Best picture?

I heard an interesting question. Rather than the usual “what’s the best picture you’ve ever taken?” Or “what’s your favourite camera?” It was “which camera has given you your best pictures?”.

None of these

It could be that you have just the one camera, so all of your pictures were taken with it. But it could also be that the pictures that mean the most to you were taken with quite modest kit. Friends, family, children and holidays may have been snapped on something small and unsophisticated, while your big camera was only used for ‘serious’ photographs which you have never looked at since.

I suppose there will be two definitions of best though. The one above is what means the most to you. The other version is what you want to show other people. Or perhaps I stop the sophistry and accept that you will have some pictures you like the most, whatever the reason.

I’ve been taking pictures for a long time though, so my best pictures were taken on a variety of kit. First, and for a long time, my best camera was my only camera. My humble Ricoh took pictures that I still like. The pictures of friends and family become increasingly precious as the subjects fade. But the camera itself had little to do with it, other than exposing correctly and allowing me to use different lenses.

With the kids growing up I went through a phase of using a 35mm compact point and shoot. For a while I had one of Canon’s waterproof cameras. This made great pictures because it used flash by default, and colour print film loves lots of fill-in light. Then it broke and was replaced with something that could switch between a 35 and 70mm lens. This was swapped as soon as possible for a little Canon digital compact (yes, I do like Canon compact cameras). The joy of digital, of course, is that you are not constrained by the size of a film or the costs of developing. You can snap away, grab shots, try things and simply delete the junk. This camera was reincarnated several times as bits broke and was eventually morphed into a better model in the range. (And reading this, I do seem to have broken some cameras over the years)

If I think about the pictures that I’m most pleased to have taken (being the ones I would show other people), then very much the same rules apply: an SLR or some form of point and shoot are the choices. I don’t think I’ve ever had a special camera though, in the sense of one camera that I prize for giving me the best pictures. It’s more that various cameras have come and gone, serving in a particular role. It’s almost Trigger’s broom: I’ve always had an SLR but the make and model has varied as they wore out or broke. Same with the compact – many actors have played the role, some better than others.

I might actually favour some lenses more than the cameras that carry them. I’ve got a very humble Industar 50mm lens that renders very smoothly as a mild telephoto on an APS-C camera. Longer lenses are very nice for pictures of people, and my wide-angles are good for action.

So, to answer the original question, do I have a special camera that has produced my best pictures – the camera I would save from a house fire? The answer has to be no. What mattered more than the make or model of camera was the type of camera. I took good pictures with an SLR because of its capabilities. I took good pictures with a compact camera because it was easy to carry and have it with me. Some cameras were easier to use than others, which would make me favour them, but that’s it. There are some lenses that I like, but none of them rate as the magic lens.

There is no magic camera for me either. What about you though – do you have a special camera that makes the best pictures?

Pentax Spotmatic SP II

This is one of the iconic cameras, or rather range of cameras. The Spotmatics had through-the-lens light metering and a set of excellent lenses with good coating on the glass. The same basic body went on to gain a K mount for the lenses and became the widely-loved K1000.

Mine is a Spotmatic II. It was launched in 1971 and gained a few improvements from the previous model in the film transport, higher sensitivity in the meter and a fixed hot shoe. The meter now works up to 3200 ISO. The lenses were also improved with full multicoating to become the SMC range. Because flashbulbs were still a thing, the flash sync for the hotshoe can be switched between X and FP and the camera also has separate PC sockets for each. A nice feature is that there is a film length reminder (or you could use tape).

The camera itself is pretty standard for features. Perhaps more accurately, the Spotmatics set what would become the standard for a good amateur camera. The shutter has speeds from 1 to 1/1000 plus B. The shutter is a horizontal-run cloth type with X sync at 1/60. The focusing screen has a microprism dot in the middle but no split-image prism. The meter is a stop-down type: you push up a button on the front of the camera, the lens stops down to the taking aperture and the meter switches on. There is a simple needle in the viewfinder with + and – markings. There is no lock for the shutter release, so I guess you either took care or only wound-on when you were about to take the next picture. I’m learning to take care when carrying the camera in a bag.

The switch controls the meter. Or it would.

In use I struggle a bit with focusing darker lenses. I’ve got a 35mm f3.5 lens that makes the focusing screen a bit dark, even in good light. But put a fast 50mm or the lovely Pentax 85mm f1.8 on and it snaps beautifully into focus.

The wind-on lever feels a bit thin, almost sharp, and takes a bit more force than I was expecting. Not that it feels like I’m forcing the camera, more that it feels a touch tighter than I was expecting. This may be just my camera, as my other Pentax cameras are buttery smooth. It still feels more smoothly mechanical than a Praktica.

Of course, the light meter on mine doesn’t work. It’s fine, as I have other unmetered cameras so I’m used to using a separate meter and tweaking the settings on the camera to keep it ready as the light changes.

It’s about as well-packaged as a camera can be, though. Not too big, simple design, all the key parts exactly where you would expect. It’s small and light enough for an easy and discrete carry on a shoulder strap. Indeed, with a 35mm lens on it was small enough to fit inside a spare poo bag (we have a dog) when I was caught out in the rain.

The M42 mount is about as ubiquitous as you can get, with access to a large range of lenses. And of course my screw-mount lenses also fit my more modern Pentax K-mount cameras. So why not use the K-mount cameras and ditch the old M42 camera body? Mostly because of its mechanical simplicity. This camera is probably as simple to fix as they come, so could probably outlast anything with electronics. Indeed, it has already outlasted my Ricoh, which died after only 40 years. I guess that what the Pentax doesn’t have (features etc) can’t break.

I bought the Spotmatic because of the lens it had on it: a Super Takumar 85mm f1.8. It’s a well-regarded lens, but was under-priced. This lens has the special tab that would allow the later Pentax ES to do open-aperture metering. It also has a tiny pin on the base that pops-out slightly when the lens is removed and disables the switch between auto and manual aperture control. An odd feature – I wonder if this was why it was cheap? Perhaps someone took it off the camera and thought the aperture switch was jammed?

So how well does an old meterless camera work? Pretty well, as it happens. The frames are evenly spaced on the film, meaning that the stiffness in the wind-on was not due to mechanical problems. Probably lack of use. The frames are well exposed, so the camera’s settings are accurate. It earns the highest accolade for a camera, in that it just worked. Changing screw-mount lenses is more of a chore than bayonet-fit ones, but that’s it. There’s not much more to say. The experience of using it was all about taking pictures and nothing to do with fighting the camera or searching for a setting. Simples. I can see why they were (and are) popular.

Bored of the things

Do you ever feel bored with photography? It’s easy to be bored with the process of photography – the cameras, lenses and all that jazz. But do you ever get bored with the results? Turning out yet another set of similar pictures that nobody else will ever see.

I have found myself becoming jaded. I fell out of love with landscapes first. Yet another static shot vacant of any human interest or involvement that nobody will care about, least of all me. And then with the pictures that I took because I had a loaded camera in my hands. To be fair though, some of these improve with age. A picture of something that no longer exists can be an interesting record. My first car or motorbike became interesting to look back at, both because of how young I looked but also the strange old styles. Want to see how odd historic engineering could be? Go and look at an Ariel Arrow. Thankfully I never owned an Austin Allegro, though I sometimes cadged a lift to work in one. Actually, my propensity for taking pictures of the odd and curious has been useful in illustrating this blog. Who knew that a fragment of gravestone or an upside-down harbour would ever be useful? But those are just a symptom of my curiosity; they are not my muse.

Not impressed

I’m bored with cameras too. Yes, it has been fun to play with different types, but all I really wanted was pictures. Really, once a camera can deliver the minimum viable requirement of holding a sensor up to the light, it’s done its job. People who form tribes around brands seem strange, although it is preferable to actual witch-hunting. The best antidote is something I heard from Shit my Dad says – “you bought it, you didn’t invent it”.

So what am I to do? I’m definitely not bored with underwater photography, so perhaps that tells me something? We’ve had a couple of years of the Covid blues (with a ‘reform the band’ world tour always a future option). I’ve been pretty busy with a crumbly new (to me) house this last year so it feels like my photographic opportunities have been limited to when I’m walking the dog. This is about as boring as it gets, as I’m taking a camera for a walk and taking pictures of dull and empty scenes to justify carrying it. One real highlight was a challenge set by Bill Ward on the Photowalk podcast: to use intentional camera movement. I enjoyed that – it was adding a bit of thought and creativity to walking the dog. I also enjoyed seeing some drag racing. What I want is more of the fun I get from those and from underwater photography – I like action and people in action. So I don’t necessarily need to get out more, just go to places where things are happening. I’m sure I’ll get out more as the days lengthen.

Looking forward to Summer

What will be interesting is how my feelings change between writing and posting this article. I started writing this around the winter solstice when northern England barely gets light. By the time I post this whinge the days will be getting longer, I may not be towing a cloud on a leash and I’ll be a happy snapper once more. But, SAD aside, I really am bored with some aspects of photography. Am I using film cameras because of a specific quality they have, because I’m unwilling to move on, or because I want to play with them like toys? I’d like to think it was a unique quality but I fear that I’m just a fiddler.

So perhaps I need to introduce some constraints? Use just one camera. Make that two: one compact that also does my underwater stuff and one ‘better’ camera that can use my collection of odd lenses. No more playing with stuff that I then leave in the cupboard with part-used film loaded. Maybe sell off a few more of the remaining relics? I did an exercise before where I looked at what each camera or lens did and where I had overlaps or duplicates. Perhaps it’s time to be even more specific. Do I really need four screw-mount 35mm cameras? Or four 35mm rangefinders? If I don’t have a thing then I can’t fret about not using it. I also really don’t want to be a collector. The kit I do have is absolutely not out on display. I can appreciate a shelf-full of exotica just as much as the next nerd, but the things I own are (as far as I can) things I use. That’s why I sold a load of stuff in the first place. It’s also how I came to recognise what drove my acquisitions: a mixture of curiosity and wanting to have a capability on the off-chance that I needed it.

So what does a photographer who is bored with photography do? I think I need to stop playing with cameras, stop taking pictures of things that bore me, and concentrate on going to interesting events or doing interesting things. I know there’s a group organising a trip to do a bit of bird photography soon. Previously I would have declined, but I’ve never done this before so why not? It might also get some use out of my long lenses. And if it helps me get over myself, let’s give it a go.

It’s always better after you’ve had your coffee. Not too much, though.
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