Lady Diana

How Lomo can you go? I’m afraid I succumbed. Meet Lady Di. She’s a 60’s original, so not even the newer Diana F.

Lady Di (the camera) is made of a small amount of thin plastic and very few moving parts, so it weighs very little. Heft is one of the many things it doesn’t have. Saying that, it has more controls than a Holga, which isn’t saying much. It’s like saying a Citroen Dyane is faster than a 2CV. The Wikipedia entry is not complimentary about the build quality – “It is constructed primarily of low-quality phenolic plastics of the type commonly found in toys imported from Asia during the 1960s.”

The shutter release has a long travel and, with the camera being so light, can probably shake the whole thing as it releases. I have found it works better to pull down on the release with my left forefinger, with my hand under the lens. The squeezing motion shakes the camera less and supports it more.

The shutter speed seems to be pot luck and could be around 1/50 to 1/100. Mine also has a B setting, but there is no cable release so you would need to keep your finger on the shutter lever or build a gadget to do it for you. The lens has three apertures. There is a wide open setting of f11 or two different holes that swing across to provide f13 or f19. Given the variation in the shutter, you may as well ignore the number values and just go by the weather symbols. The main control then becomes the speed of the film you load. Bright day? FP4. Dullish day? HP5.

Unlike the Holga it shoots a smaller frame, 4 by 4 cm, but this means it gets 16 shots on a roll rather than 12. My ex father-in-law’s old Balda camera covers the full 6×4.5 frame, but it has a better lens. The Diana’s wind-on is awful. It’s a noisy ratcheting dial that occasionally locks. Don’t force it, just wiggle it, and it frees and keeps working.

The push-fit lens cap is easily knocked off but you only really need it when the camera is packed in a bag. For walking around you can leave it off. Unlike a rangefinder camera you are not going to burn holes in your shutter curtains.

Because of its age the labels are falling off due to the glue under them drying out. The first was the focusing scale around the lens. This just needed a bit of alignment and a spot of superglue. Then the label on the winding knob departed. Luckily I found it in the bottom of my bag, which saved me using a bit of tape with an arrow drawn on it.

So, all that aside, does it live up to the hype? Is the Diana a better Holga? Why am I bothering when I already have a Golden Hammer?

Well, the first roll through the camera showed that, contrary to folklore, the camera had no light leaks. The roll of film did though – it obviously winds a slack roll so some light got through at the sides. I’ll just be careful in future to unload it in the shade and keep the used film roll covered.

The film could also have done with a bit more exposure. Perhaps the shutter speed is closer to 1/100 than I was expecting? The lesson is though that I can give it a bit more. So this will mean using a faster film or leaning more towards the cloudy aperture setting.

So how did the mythical soft lens turn out? Pretty soft, as it happens, with perhaps a touch of that Lomo vignetting. But does it have that magical quality that these toy cameras are known for? Maybe. Further experiments needed. Oddly, some frames seemed softer on one side than the other, and the soft side changed during the roll of film. There is a plate that holds the film against the gate, but perhaps this is a result of the loose take-up roll? I need to get this thing out again in brighter light, so that I can stop the lens down a bit.

Did I enjoy using it? Yes, as it happens. I’ve moaned before about carrying heavy cameras about but this one is featherweight. Set the aperture for the conditions, tweak the lens to the zone you will be shooting in and just go for it. This may be the perfect post-apocalyptic camera.

Zeiss Ikon Contessa LKE

A chunky monkey from the mid-60s, but quite well-featured.

This variant of the Contessa line was made from 1963 to 1965. From various clues I think mine was late in the series, so let’s say 1965. What you get is a substantial-feeling fixed lens rangefinder. It’s quite deep in the body and weighs-in at 630g. Ideally you would find one with a case, as the body has no strap lugs of its own. What it does have is a sharp Tessar lens, a decent range of shutter speeds, a rangefinder and a lightmeter. The lightmeter is a treat – there is a display on the top plate so that you can set the camera up while it’s still hanging on a strap. When you raise the camera to your eye, there is another meter needle in the viewfinder.

The cover on the left rotates to reveal the PC socket.

The rangefinder patch on this one is a bit faint, but helped by a spot of marker pen in the middle of the viewfinder window.

The shutter runs from 1/500 down to 1/15 and B, while the meter goes from 10 to 800 ISO. Not bad for ’65.

The rangefinder needed calibrating when I first got the camera, but it’s not hard. The top plate comes off with two screws (but not completely – there is a wire that runs to the flash PC socket but it has some slack in it). The adjustment screws are on the sloping rear wall of the viewfinder block. The bottom screw is obscured by the winding lever, which needs a third hand or a bit of tape to hold it back. Luckily it’s the top screw that adjusts the sideways movement of the split image. So a few minutes with a small screwdriver and a distant view through the window got everything lined-up again.

In use it’s easier than most cameras of this type. The aperture control ring has tabs to make it easy to locate and turn. The shutter ring has a decent bit of tooth to it, so it too is easy to find and set. You just have to remember to feel past it to get the the narrower lens.

The film rewind is a Zeiss quirk. It’s on the bottom of the camera. When you press the film release button the rewind arm pops-out far enough to get hold of it and fold it open to its operating position. Putting it on the bottom leaves space under the top plate of the camera for the light meter, so it’s a clever design.

In use it’s a good lens in a usable package. You could load a film, take this out and use it with results and handling as good as any more modern film camera. Nowhere near as small as an Olympus XA, but still practical.

The Lomo Spinner

If I thought the Horizon was a weird wide-angle camera, then this is taking it all too far. Where the Horizon rotates the lens to scan the image across a curved film plane, the Spinner rotates the whole camera while pulling the film past a slot behind the lens. It’s the same basic idea: scan the image across the film through a narrow slot. But where the Horizon shoots a 120 degree field of view, the Spinner can do 360 (and often a bit more). There is no standing behind this camera – you are usually in shot.

The metal ring is the pull-string that operates the spinning.

The camera is driven by a spring motor in the handle. You pull out a length of string to wind the motor and when you let go, the whole camera spins around on the handle. Your two composition choices are how level you want the camera to be, and where the rotation starts. Where the Horizon holds the film around a curve to match the rotation of its lens, the Spinner pulls the film past a slot as the camera rotates. This means it also exposes the sprockets.

The bubble level would be more useful on the underside. The switch for apertures and rewind is visible below the name badge.

The shutter speed is between 1/125 and 1/250 and there are two apertures available at f8 and f16. So you will also need to use the film sensitivity as one of the controls. Sunny days will use 100 ISO and darker days 400. It’s probably best to use colour negative film and go for over rather than underexpose and use the film’s latitude to cope.

Flat film gate with a slot. The film is held against it by the roller on the rear door. The drive belt at the bottom pulls the film through as the camera rotates.

Like the Horizon, the lens gets the extreme angle of view by rotating rather than being inherently very wide. But while the Horizon has a 28mm lens, the Spinner seems to be 25mm. Probably just as well, as the photographer usually in ends up in the shot and is pretty close to the camera, so that extra bit of wide-angle keeps the shooter in focus.

360 degree field of view

Shooting it is an experience – you hold the ‘stick’ at the bottom of the camera, try to get it level, then pull and release a string. Pulling out the full length of the string gets you a shot of a bit more than a full rotation. You can also pull out less string and get a smaller scan. This may be the only way to stay out of your own picture, other than holding the Spinner up over your head. This is why it really needs the bubble level on the bottom of the camera – so that you can hold it up and get it level and not be in your own shot. On the other hand it’s great for group shots, as the photographer is usually always missing. There is a tripod socket on the bottom of the handle, so it is also possible to set it up on a tripod, duck down and get a 360 panorama in one shot.

Croix de Van, Switzerland

The Spinner gets around eight shots on a 36 exposure roll, depending on whether you do full or partial spins. Scanning them can be a problem – I scan each frame in sections and combine them. The frame size can be up to 23cm – that’s 230mm, so six times wider than a normal 35mm frame. If you send the film away to be processed remember to ask for it not to be cut.

So it’s a rather specialised little beast, but good at what it does.

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.

How to expose

There was a bit of an argument on Faceplop/ Melter (colour me surprised), about the right way to meter light for photography. So I thought I’d weigh in with my own version.

The reason for even thinking about exposure is because what it means is getting the right amount of light on your sensor/ film. To do that you need to measure the amount of light there is. To do that you need some form of meter (which is better than guessing).

Actually, it’s a two stage process. The first step is to measure the amount of light correctly. The second stage is to decide how you want to use that information. Let’s start with step one.

The amount of light emitted by the sun is effectively constant. The amount that reaches the ground (or the subject) varies with time of year, time of day and the weather conditions. This is why a meter is better than guessing.

Sounds easy though: point the camera at the subject and either press the shutter or change the camera settings to what the meter says. Most of the time this works, and the better or more modern the camera the more likely it is to work pretty well. If you have one of these cameras and you get good results, that’s the end of this article.

But… some cameras don’t have meters, or don’t meter light well, or the subject lighting is not ‘average’. This is where we need a better way to meter the light. The obvious tool for the job is a separate hand-held light meter. But there are two basic types and they work in different ways, which was the cause of the online argument.

The first and most common type of meter is a copy of the one you find in a camera. You point it at the subject and it measures how much light is being reflected back towards the camera. Providing the bright and dark areas in the subject average out, the reading is good to use. A reflected light meter can struggle if the view contains lots of bright sky, or is backlit, or is a bright object on a dark background. There is a specialised version of the reflected light meter that has a very narrow angle of view, so lets you meter on a single small part of the subject. These are useful if you can’t get close, or for measuring the brightest and darkest spots to calculate the full range of brightness (the reason for this is in step two, below). These spot meters are expensive though, and don’t give you the general average reading you also need.

The second type of meter measures how much light is falling on the subject. This type is an incident light meter. The idea is that light falling on the subject is the correct middle point that you need to expose for. The brighter bits of the subject will reflect more light and be brighter, the dark bits darker. Providing the total range of brightness fits within the sensitivity of your film or sensor, then this works very well and is immune to scenes that are not an average mix of light and dark. It does need you to measure the light falling on the subject though, which can be difficult if the subject is distant to you or under different lighting.

A reflected meter, as top left, takes the average of everything it can see. An incident meter measures how much light there is and gives you a reading that works if everything is average.

Which type of meter is best? The one you have with you, obviously. Both types work, providing you understand what they are measuring and if they might need some interpretation. The reason for the interpretation is step two.

A typical digital sensor response is on the left. Analogue film is more S shaped, as on the right.

Your sensor or film can record a certain range of brightness. Too little light and it won’t record. Too much and it will record as pure white with no detail. Ideally the brightness range of the scene will match the sensitivity range of the sensor, and it usually does (because sensors and film were developed to match the average range of brightness we encounter). So the average reading that a light meter gives you is intended to provide the mid-point of the camera’s range. How that average reading fits onto the range of a digital sensor or a film is shown below.

The meter reading is meant to put the measured average on the mid point of the sensor or film range (the sun symbol). The total range of brightness in the subject should then fit onto the working range of the sensor of film (the arrow).

So despite all the noise about 18% grey and metering for the shadows or highlights, what you are trying to do is to find the average brightness and set it at the midpoint of the camera’s range. If possible you also set the camera so that the range of brightness in the scene or subject matches the range that the sensor or film can record. If the range of brightness in the subject is less than the range of the camera you can choose to move it up or down the camera range by giving it more or less exposure. Sensible people give as much exposure as possible, without the highlights going off the top of the scale. To be more accurate, the highlights in which you still need to see detail should be on or just below the top of the scale. If the sun is in shot, just accept that it will be overexposed. But if your subject has a white shirt or dress you may want any highlights to show a bit of detail and tonality and not be featureless white. This pegs the maximum exposure you can give. Alternatively, if the scene is low contrast (has a small range of brightness) you may want to give it more than the average exposure. This shifts the whole scene up the scale and will reveal more detail in the shadows. This is exposing for the shadows.

But what if the range of brightness in the scene is too great to get both the highlights and shadows within the camera’s range? You have options. One is to accept that part of the scene will not record. So you could let the highlights or the shadows fall off the scale. Most people keep the highlights and let the shadows go totally black, but it’s up to you.

The range is too wide for the sensor. You can give it less expsoure (which shifts the arrow left) and keep the highlights at the expense of the shadows, or go the other way.

Another option is to decrease the range of the subject. You can add light to the shadows with flash or a reflector. You can reduce the highlights by changing the lighting or adding some haze or filtering. Moving out of direct sunlight into open shade works well (but beware of the blue cast you will get from the sky).

A third option is to expand the range of the sensor or film. This is what HDR does for digital. With film you can play with different types of film, developer and processing. The aim with both is to be able to squeeze a wide range of subject brightness onto the narrower range of the sensor.

So, to get back to measuring exposure, a reflected light meter is saying ‘this is the average brightness of everything I can see’ while an incident light meter is saying ‘this is how much light there is. If everything in this light averages out, this is the correct exposure’. Which is better? If the full range of brightness in the subject fits into the range of your camera, the incident light meter is better as it can’t be fooled by non-average subjects. But if the brightness range is too great for the camera or you have something special in mind, you will need to set the camera differently to the average, change the lighting or take special measures to widen the camera’s range.

How do you know if the subject fits the camera range? Digital cameras win here if they can display a histogram or the under/overexposed flashies. If you can adjust the camera settings, you want the histogram shifted as far to the right as you can (as bright as possible) without losing any important highlights. With film I’m afraid it comes down to experience, and knowing that negative films, particularly colour negative, can take a bit of overexposure and still produce good results (due in part to that S shaped response, as above). If you have a separate light meter and you are close enough to the subject to be able to measure the highlights and shadows separately, try measuring the range. It works best with a reflected light meter. Take your overall average reading. Then measure the brightest highlight that should still show a bit of texture and tonality. This should be no more than 3 stops brighter than the average. The darkest shadow that you want a hint of tonality in should be no more than 4 stops darker. It is possible to capture a wider range, but this is about what works without taking special measures.

The special measures? There are ways of developing film that can capture a wider range of brightness. With slide film you are really stuck with what it offers. With digital you can try HDR. This combines a set of over-exposed shots (that capture the shadows) with under-exposed ones that capture the highlights. With some techno-magic the best bits of each are combined to compress a wide range of brightness in the subject to fit onto the range that the sensor is capable of recording. It can look strange if it’s done badly, and it often is.

The alternative is to base your exposure on what is important in the subject and let the rest fall where it may. If there are people in the scene, you would normally set the exposure so that you can see their faces. Just be aware that there is range of skin tones around the ‘average’ – don’t be like Kodak.

So if this is all getting too confusing, this is what you do in practice. Most subjects are average. Point your reflected light meter at the scene and angle it down a bit if there is a lot of sky in the shot. Or point your incident meter back towards the camera, with the meter in the same light as the subject. Job done. If the range of brightness in the scene is likely to be too wide, you will need to decide which end of the scale to keep, and it’s usually the highlights. On a digital camera take a test shot and look at the histogram or flashies. Reduce the exposure until the highlights are inside the histogram or stop flashing. With a reflected meter measure a highlight and give it three stops more exposure. It’s harder to gauge the difference with an incident meter but you could try taking one reading with the meter pointing at the camera and one pointing at the main source of light (often the sun). Try setting the camera at the midpoint of the two readings. And bracket – take extra shots with one stop more and one less of exposure. Bracketing is good for learning, as you can tell just by looking at the results that a scene like the one you shot really needs more or less exposure than what the light meter says.

So there you are. The purpose of metering the light is to work out how best to fit the scene onto the sensor. No one type of light meter is best – you need to use your brain with both of them. Incident light meters are less likely to be fooled, so may give more reliable results. Reflected light meters work from further away. The histogram or flashies on a digital camera do the same job. Light meters work best with average scenes, but luckily most scenes really are average (by definition). But look hard at your subject and the light and you will learn what different to average looks like and what to do about it. And then you can join the perpetual squabble on t’interweb about how exposure works. (As an aside, the only comparable geek argument is how countersteering works for motorcycles. So if you really want to start a flame war, ask people how best to expose for a countersteering bike.)

And by the way, you may have heard people either praising or damning the Zone System. All it does is help you try and fit the range of brightness in your subject onto your sensor, just as described above. None of this is magic, or even particularly difficult. It’s all about squeezing what there is into what you’ve got.

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.


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).

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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