Photo manipulation – yes or no?

We’ve all seen the results of HDR processing. Done well, it’s invisible. Done badly, it’s all you see. It went through a phase of everyone using it and eventually became overused and ugly. Extended dynamic range became weird luminance and a world without contrast.

Anyway, enough of the sarcasm. How much should you manipulate a picture?

I would have said just enough to get the result you wanted, but that’s pretty open ended. Take a look at the collages of Heartfield or Höch, who were Dadaists. Their work involved photography, but in the same sense that a painting might involve canvas. Their work was obvious manipulation to achieve a result. I’m not sure I often see the same intention in HDR photos, unless the aim is to show what the world looks like without contrast.

Or perhaps that doesn’t matter. The Filmosaur Manifesto says that the meaning of a photo is what the observer sees, not what the photographer intended.

How liberating is that? You don’t have to make a picture look like a photograph. You are free to have fun. The best medium for this is probably digital and the best camera is a phone. There are great tools like Paper Camera and (thanks to the Phlogger) Comica. Stop worrying about whether something is a worthy subject and just have some fun with it. The results are so far from a normal picture that nobody can judge the sharpness of your lens or how many megapickles you have.

So I’ve been having great fun, even during the dark months of lockdown, by playing with old pictures. Even ones I didn’t like as straight pictures can be pleasing when tweaked.

Who cares whether it’s artistic or even good? It’s something creative to do while we wait for the end of the apocalypse.

With luck, we’ll all be vaccinated and out to play this month.

I’m going to dull 8 it

Have you ever heard anyone say they are going to sunny-16 it? Do you think they only take pictures when it’s sunny? I’m curious because, while I know what the exposure should be in bright summer sunlight, I struggle to estimate it in the dull overcast of a British Standard Day. Even clear sunshine in winter can be two stops less bright than summer.

How hard is it to really carry a light meter? How about instead of a spare lens or a second camera?

How much would you spend on a roll of film? I can get Kentmere 400 for £4.30. How much is a light meter? I reckon you can get one for a fiver on fleabay (sanity check – I just bought two for £5). How much would you spend to get every frame on your film reasonably well exposed?

If you guess the exposure you will probably have forgotten your guesses by the time you develop the film, so you won’t have anything to learn from. If you use a meter then you will know for sure if you (or it) are over or under exposing. Then you can compensate.

I know there are some lovely new meters on sale and on kickstarter, but they cost more than a roll of film. Besides, they tend to be fixed to the camera so it can be difficult to know what you are pointing them at. I know that grass or a clear north sky will meter as that desired middle grey. I know that pale skin like mine (I can pass for Scottish) is one stop brighter. So if I’m shooting something in the same light as me I can meter off my hand and give it one more stop of exposure. It’s not very scientific, if you mean precise, but it’s better than guesswork.

MEtering 1
I wonder if the sunny bits are f16?

I’ve been using a meter more often recently than I usually do, as I’m taking one camera a month out to play. I’m finding that I can’t really guess a good exposure when it’s dull or I’m under trees. And while the latitude of the film might save me, I’d prefer to do a better job. Even Don McCullin took the time to use a lightmeter, and people were shooting at him.

So how do you know the crusty old meter you find actually works? Got a digital camera or one with a working meter? Point it at something fairly featureless like a wall or field and see what it says. Then what the old meter says. Adjust the film speed on the meter to make them agree and make a note on the meter what you did. It could be something like -1 stop on ISO if it under-reads.

Pool
Not even sunny

No digital? Try a mobile phone app. Speaking of which, even a phone app is better than no meter. I use one called LightMeter. I paid the extra to unlock it which let me check and calibrate it against a known good meter. I’d still usually rather use a small ‘proper’ meter though, just to save faffing with a phone.

My true confession though is in using the zone system. Not in the sense that large-format photographers do with special development and cleverness, but in knowing that the palm of my hand meters as zone 6. So meter my hand and overexpose by one stop. Or that sunlit snow will be at zone 9. Or the darkest shadow that I still want some detail in should be metered and then underexposed by two stops.

I hear that people who shoot portraits on colour negative film, which copes well with overexposure, meter the shadows and set that as the exposure. The reason is that they want to show some detail in the shadows and not grain or colour shifts.

Corridor
Spooky 16?

A vague memory intrudes… I recall watching a documentary years ago about a famous photographer. He was photographing models walking around a pool. He sat in a wheelchair and had an assistant pull him backwards, in front of the models. What a great idea to avoid falling in the water. But the reason for the memory is that he didn’t use a meter (or claimed not to, he had assistants). He used the exposure advice on the inside of the film packaging. Given that Kodak etc want your pictures to turn out well and that he was shooting in sunlight (and that I think he was shooting colour negative), it probably worked very well. Nobody talks about film boxing it though, do they?

But you can’t do any of this by starting with sunny 16 and guessing. At the very least, print yourself an exposure guide. It’s not a light meter, but it’s still better than guessing.

Should photography be easy?

Do we make a thing less valuable by making it easier?

Photography used to be hard; and then Kodak happened. What once took study became ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. The first Kodak cameras had 100 shots on the roll too – we’re talking digital levels of bangin’ ’em off. Kodak democratised photography and made the casual snap possible.

We stumbled along with folding and plastic cameras for a while. Then the rangefinder and the SLR came along. Things got technically complicated and photographs were taken by photographers. The cameras had all sorts of settings and you had to know what to do to make them work properly. There was good money in it though – Bailey made enough to run a Ferrari.

The reaction was point and shoots and the Instamatic. Either no settings or automatic. You didn’t have to know how to work a camera to be able to take a picture.

And so the waves of development rolled in, with simple following clever. Features were added, then automated. What started as complex became easier. Light metering, then automatic exposure, then autofocus. Film turned into cartridges or the camera loaded and wound-on itself.

Talent still counted: all the automation in the world couldn’t help people take good photos. But it became easier to take a picture that was well exposed and in focus, and for the results to be mostly pleasing. But the circulation of a picture was still limited to the people you could physically meet, unless you were one of the few.

The a couple of things happened. The first was the mobile phone. Suddenly, nobody needed a camera let alone film developing or printing. Photography was democratised again – anyone could do it, there were no constraints on capacity and you could see the results immediately. The quality may have been low to begin with but it was good enough and got better.

Then social media happened and suddenly we were all syndicated worldwide. You didn’t have to work for a magazine or newspaper to be seen, you just had to be seen. Upload a picture, get likes, get the endorphin rush. Rinse and repeat. What used to take dedication, craft or understanding could be replaced by novelty and desire. Being somewhere, doing something, looking special – the pictures sparked envy and emulation. Because, like a lot of things, fame followed a power law, with a few famous or popular influencers and a long tail of the rest of us.

But the price of entry was lower. Cameras, including mobile phones, were so good that skill was replaced with presence: you only had to be there. So there became important. You can see this in the rush of people to visit the spots recorded by influencers. Someone recently posted about an old wartime bomber wreck. The police then had to ask people to not park on the road, not get lost, and if they did call them or the Mountain Rescue to at least call them again if they found their own way down. And please don’t take souvenirs – it’s a war grave.

There was a similar discussion around Ben Nevis a while back. It starts near sea level but it’s high and cold on the top and it’s easy to walk off the edge. So in 2009 the cairns were moved to mark the descent route and avoid a gully. The advice has always been to be properly equipped and to know how to navigate, but now we have the equivalent of automation.

So the camera (or phone) needs no investment of skill to operate. Being seen by other people is just a matter of posting things that enough people will like, but the liking is ephemeral and has to be repeated. Not that the majority of people are like this. Most of us are happy to have a simple method to take a snap and share it with friends. Ultimately, nobody really wants to invest in or learn to use a drill when they can just get the hole.

Does automation and the removal of craft skill bother me? Not at all. I love the idea that everyone can take a snap at the very instant. These moments are precious.

Do I mind that people are shooting weddings or cinematic films on iPhones? No, go ahead. What has always and ever mattered is what the resulting film looks like, and nobody cares what you shot it on.

Do I fret that someone with a modern digital camera can take fantastic pictures without knowing anything about photography? Again, no. The technical things I have learned allow me to shoot with dodgy old manual cameras, which is my hobby. I use the digital kit and all the automation I can get when the results are important. I like to think that my understanding of how it all works helps me get better results more often. But I still know that someone with better kit will often get better results than me, most often when things like lots of megapixels or high ISO make a difference.

I could have looked-up that it would be 2EV, or I could have got out and metered it, but I put my phone on night mode. Bite me.

So what’s the point of this rambling grumble? It’s the bit I don’t like: the social media frenzy to chase likes and gain followers. And yet I write a blog. To be honest (with both my readers), I write because I enjoy writing. It’s a challenge to come up with new ideas each week. It’s interesting to string thoughts together and ask myself if what I am saying is what I mean. I’m delighted if someone reads them, but that is not the thing that drives me. So I attempt to sidestep hypocrisy by making a virtue of my obscurity. But I don’t splurge pictures on social media – I like using them to illustrate a story or using words to describe a picture. Holier than thou? Not really. If I was to blitz Instagram with images it would feel to me a bit like something that was automatic and outside my control. By writing this blog it feels more like having to understand what I’m doing.

Your mileage may vary, as they say, and I am far from being an influencer. Or even understanding what I’m doing.

I don’t believe you make something less valuable by making it easier, if the value is in the thing and not in the learning. I do believe we destroy value when we try to copy or compete, though.

What do you care what other people think?

I have wittered previously about editing your work and only showing your best stuff, but that doesn’t mean playing for likes.

If you try to take the same pictures as someone else, at best you will have an imitation. It’s valid to try and recreate a technique to learn something new, but copying a picture could be plagiarism at worst, or a marked lack of originality at best. It might feel safer to be like everyone else, but where’s the fun in that?

OK, that may be true for small values of fun. As we know, things which are different are criticised. The ability of social media to give an anonymous voice to the critical and sarcastic is a problem. Or it would be if you let it. If you don’t want the gratuitous attacks of a baying herd, don’t stand in front of one. That’s one option. The other is that if you ignore the crowd, you’ll be happier.

But how can you possibly ignore what people say about you or your work? Well, who are you taking pictures for?

If you are taking pictures for money, then the people who matter are your clients. So your work should be visible to current and future clients and there is no need for a method of leaving comments or feedback: if anyone wants to discuss a picture, bring money. Being paid is the only form of feedback you need.

But if you are taking pictures for pleasure, who’s pleasure is it? Do you need the approval of others? Do you need to show your pictures to the world, or to the people who matter to you?

Are we comparing likes or soap powders?

So I think you have two choices: keep your work to yourself and people who matter to you or show your work to the world but disable or ignore the feedback. Yes, I know, I’m both showing pictures and allowing feedback in this blog. But it’s small circulation – if I do start getting negative feedback I’ll see if I can disable the likes and comments. I can live without approval – I work in IT.

There is also a view, expressed best in the Filmosaur Manifesto, that you have no control over what people see in your pictures. So stop worrying that they misunderstand, because they are bound to.

Perhaps the best response to criticism is Elizabeth Gilbert’s – “if people don’t like what you’re creating, just smile at them sweetly and tell them to go make their own fucking art.”

And the best cure for worrying about opinion is the story about Arlene and Richard in the book that has the same title as the story – “what do you care what other people think?”.

Seven easy tips

You’ve all seen the articles – six steps to; five secrets of; the ten step program…

My opinion of these can be summarised in seven easy-to-follow steps:

  1. There are no separate steps
  2. Easy isn’t worth the effort – only effort will make things easy
  3. Numbered lists always in the wrong order are
  4. Experts who write lists are usually better at being experts than writing lists
  5. Following is not learning
  6. Why this exact number of steps? Do these cover everything?
  7. The filler that makes the number up to a magic quantity

So just follow these simple, easy to remember steps and you will raise your game/ achieve enlightenment/ sell more/ become famous/ have more sex (click here to pick one).

Take these five easy steps and you can count to nine on one hand

Thank you (send money, which may be the aim).

Old focus

When I was young and I had no sense… but that’s a different rhyme. From childhood I’ve been shortsighted and worn specs. I did try out for contact lenses in my early twenties, but they didn’t work well enough for my vision. The decider was when I got older and finally needed varifocals. I fell off kerbs, down stairs and was a hazard on the road. I’d seen the results of laser correction so went for it. So now I only need cheap reading specs for close-up, due to my advancing years.

What’s this got to do with photography? Focusing. And ageing.

I used to be able to focus anything. The same way I could read the fine print and thread a needle by eye. These days I use a magnifier and a needle threader. Not all my cameras have autofocus though, so I still need to do that by eye.

There’s a whole movement, perhaps cult, around rangefinder cameras. The argument seems to boil down to being able to see outside the frame so you can watch your subject come into view. Want to break a Leicaphile’s heart? Use an SLR and keep both eyes open.

That aside, I do like rangefinders where I can change the diopter value of the viewfinder. Step forward the Zorki and Fed. My lasered eyes focus best at infinity, so tweaking the viewfinder to match works well. I still need to wear my reading specs on my head so that I can see the camera dials but I’m fine with that.

Some of my old SLRs are becoming a challenge in dim light. Tell the truth, they probably always were. A Zenith is not known for the clarity and brightness of its viewfinder. In fact I usually set the Zenit lens by scale or hyperfocal distance and use the viewfinder only for framing. My Ricoh has a split prism in the middle of the screen plus a circle of microprism. These were useful even in my salad days. My Pentax MX has the functional joy of replaceable screens, so it’s fitted with the one which gives me what I need.

Ricoh XR2
Excuse the grunge. This post led to an early Spring cleaning session. This is the Ricoh XR2 – diagonal split prism and a ring of microprism.

I’ve also got a couple of classic Pentax SLRs, of which one is easier to focus than the other. The Spotmatic SPII has a little microprism patch in the centre of the screen which works well in daylight but I struggle with it in dim light.

Pentax Spotmatic
Pentax Spotmatic II. Central microprism spot with collar of slightly different microprism.

The SV has a larger microprism patch and is easier to focus when it’s darker.

Pentax SV. Large microprism spot but possibly a slightly darker screen than the Spotmatic. Same setup as a Praktica LTL.

I do feel guilty though, as if I am failing the cameras. In bright light they’re fine, but when we lack lux my focus sucks. To be fair though, the rangefinders struggle too. The only advantage is that with a rangefinder you can do the finger trick (move a finger in front of the rangefinder window. If it’s in focus the image in the rangefinder patch area won’t jiggle). I must say that I love my Pentax digital SLR, as it has focus assist and will show you the point of focus of any lens you can stick on the front.

A more recent Chinon C1. Horizontal split prism and microprism ring. The meter scale intrudes though.

I suppose one answer would be to shoot in better light, but I live in England. Right now we’re in our winter, so it’s dark by 5pm. I’ve got an f1.2 lens which helps, but I’m coming round to the idea that my later years will be automated or at least assisted. Or perhaps I just use what works best for the conditions? All the cameras focus easily in bright light but when the going gets dim I should swap to autofocus or pick the one that is easiest (the MX). What I don’t do is put an f3.5 lens on the Zenit (or worse, use the Konstruktor).

But I think I should tell myself to get over it – I can moan all I like about focusing, but try doing it underwater. So I’m back to where I started – focusing is getting harder with age, but there are ways of compensating. I’m just going to have to take more care over it or change my methods.

National Geographic

Despite the death of printed media, National Geographic seems to have continued to circulate every month since 1888. It has always been a pioneer and a showcase for photography. I confess to only flicking through copies in waiting rooms though – it was always both out of reach and not a thing we did when I was going up.

There was always that hint of imperialism too, in a ‘look at the quaint natives’ sort of way. I could be totally wrong about that though. Like I say, I was never a regular reader. All that I can really remember about it was the great photography.

Then I found a best of book in a charity shop. It’s called Through the lens: National Geographic greatest photographs. And it probably does what it says on the cover.

img_20201114_07495914023703385206484456.jpg

First impression? That photography got technically better. Look at a landscape (yes – yawn) shot on slide film and compare it with the digital stuff, even on somewhere like DIY Photography. Modern photography has finer resolution, wider dynamic range and endless opportunities for post-shot manipulation. Look at a National Geographic page and you see slide film – saturated colours, blocked shadows, high contrast. Technically you are looking at pictures spanning more than a hundred years. Some of them would be thrown out of a local camera club competition for not being sharp. But then you look at the pictures and begin to understand that the content matters more than the quality.

Remember Steve McCurry’s picture of the Afghan girl? It was on the front cover in June ’85. Seventeen years later he found the woman again and took another picture of her, holding a print of the original shot. You could say it’s a straight ‘stand against that wall, hold this, look at me, click’. But the girl was remarkable for her eyes and the woman is veiled. It makes you want to know the story.

Perhaps that is the best side of National Geographic – pictures that provoke interest and stories that explain and understand. Rather than a prurient interest in ‘foreigners’ it’s about confirming that we are all the same. Really – if the entire population of the world was wiped out except the people of Peru, humans would still retain 85% of their genetic diversity. (Superior; Angela Saini). So there is no them, only us.

[Which hasn’t stopped an idiotic political party segregating people by their names.]

There’s also the joy of being nosy. We’re social animals, so we spend a lot of time watching each other. It’s why groups of teenagers can’t just have fun – they have to have noisy fun so that other people know they are having fun. A person I know loves darker evenings, as people put their lights on but don’t pull their curtains. She’s not interested in the people as such but loves seeing other people’s houses. And it’s why I think empty landscapes can be boring.

Anyway – if you can get hold of some back issues of National Geographic, see what you think. And do get over the sharpness thing.

Digital-clever film cameras

The late-model film cameras, the ones just before the Rise of the Machines, contain a lot of the functionality that transferred to digital.

My example is a very cheap Pentax MZ-5n body I found in a charity shop and joined to an existing Pentax autofocus 35-70 zoom. The camera was introduced in 1997 and has a poor reputation for breaking. It’s also 23 years old so won’t have improved. This particular one seems to be ok, but it owes me so little that I’m not going to cry if it stops working.

By the late 90’s the SLR camera makers were competing with cheaper compacts. This could be why the Pentax has a panoramic mode (a film mask) – to compete with APS and its ability to change formats. Mind you, my mum made accidental use of that facility at the time to create randomly-sized family snaps.

Electronics were getting smarter and faster and I expect ease of use was the thing. Nobody wanted to be selling a camera that you had to learn to use. Lock the lens aperture ring on A, turn the camera’s mode dial to P and away you go with a big version of a point-and-shoot. How many people using digital now are wondering about learning to go the other way and shoot in manual mode?

Anyway, with all the feature bloat you do get a lot of (fragile) camera for your money. Plus it’s a Pentax, so it’s backwards compatible with all their lenses. All you lose is some of the automation. Obviously the manual lenses won’t autofocus and the focus confirmation doesn’t work with screw-mount lenses. You can still shoot them though. You have to love the way Pentax look after their customers and their investment in lenses.

I’ll be comparing it with a Pentax K10d, their first “serious amateur” digital camera, introduced in 2006. As mentioned, the K10d is equally happy shooting the autofocus zoom from the MZ, although the APS-C sensor turns it into the equivalent of a 50-105 zoom

The MZ might have a frail body and internals, but it has some neat features that transferred to the K10. The focus confirmation in the viewfinder uses the same symbol; it can do evaluative, centre weighted and spot metering with similar abilities for the autofocus. It will do focus confirmation with manual lenses, although it does need fairly bright lighting. The autofocus will even do follow-focus. Shutter speeds run from 1/2000 to 2s in manual and out to 30s in auto. It will do half and full stop bracketing. By default it reads the ISO code off the film cartridge, but you can also set it manually. So this consumer camera had most of the bells and whistles in something that was a bit smaller than the K10. Which is interesting, as the MZ had to provide space for the film as well. But then, a digital sensor is thicker than film, and the K10 has a screen on the back as well.

So what’s this last hurrah for film like to use? The MZ feels surprisingly solid and grippy. Fitting a drive motor and a flash capacitor plus a larger battery into a film camera probably accounts for the protruding grip, which makes a real benefit out of a necessity. It has a data back, but this is sculpted to provide a thumb grip. Basically, I would feel happier carrying this around in one hand than something like a Pentax MX. This model of 35-70mm lens I’ve got on it is quite small, so makes a handy package.

Would I have bought one of these in 1997? Not so much. I did have a Pentax SF-X for a while, which was an older model, and found it a bit too fiddly. It also suffered problems with the mirror jamming in the up position. It did a job though, which was to drive some film past my lenses on a three-week trip to Aus. (Bought it second hand, then sold it on). So this may have put me off anything clever until I went to the dark side and got digital. Oddly, I think the kit lens that came with the SF-X when it was launched back in 1987 was the same zoom I’m using on the MZ-5 now. Did someone say backwards compatibility?

IMGP5272

Enough of the history already; what’s it like to use? Does a cheap (these days) techno-marvel with the reputation of a hand grenade cut the mustard? Surprisingly, yes. Pop it on full auto everything and it’s easy to use. It switches on the same way as my K10 and fires-up quicker (and far quicker than some digital compacts. I’ve got a little Fuji compact that takes nearly five seconds to boot up.). For fairly close-in action this thing is great. I would also be happy using this on longer lenses for sport and action as the motor winder is useful. Of course, with the bug, I can’t get out to shoot some fast-moving close action.

Dalby Forest

I can show you what I would use it for though using some previous shots from its young nephew, the K10d.

Dalby Forest

This was fitted with a roughly similar lens that does the (equivalent) of 24-70mm at F4. What I was shooting was fairly quick action in a constrained space, in the open and under trees. So the 35-70 lens was about right and an automatic flash filled the shadows and sharpened the picture. Incidentally, the MZ works with the same flashgun I use on the K10. Probably because the flash started out on Pentax’s film cameras and migrated to their digital. Did someone say backwards compatibility?

If I was shooting something similar in the future on film, the MZ and the 35-70 would be first choice. Let’s hope we all get that chance.

The beauty of good design

There’s a great book called The Psychology of Everyday Things that was my introduction into why I found some things strangely difficult to operate. I remember a pal’s Alfa Romeo car that had a bank of identical, black, flush, push-switches to operate things like the heating and air flow. Not only was it impossible for the driver to use them without taking their attention away from the road, I can vouch for struggling to work out which one to use when I was the passenger. Was it in the Hitchhiker’s Guide that the spaceship had a black control panel of black buttons that lit-up black when pushed? Alfa got there first (or I suppose they would be called Omega).

Good design works because it leads you. Bad design breaks the flow or works contrary to expectations. Have you ever pulled on a door that had a handle, only to find it opened with a push? Poor design. There is a wonderful blog series called The Weekly Design Roast that I recommend for examples to make you weep.

In camera terms, I find that digital cameras usually have poor operating design. It’s probably because the camera is capable of so much and there is a strong commercial pressure to add features. You know how it goes – “ooh look, this one can do focus-stacking or that one can do HDR, or do I spend a bit more and buy the one that can do both?” And then we have no idea how to use the special function because we didn’t memorise the manual. A guy recently mapped-out the menu system of a Sony camera. That’s what happens when a very complex device is squeezed into a small package. Or when features are added to the point that they exceed the interface.

Canon did a thing with their digital compacts. It made sense in production to use the same processor in different models, so they disabled some of the features in the cheaper ones. And then we found out how to turn them back on again. The common component build is very sensible in manufacturing, and what an Easter Egg of delight for the fanboys who found out how to hack them. It also made sense to remove features from the simpler models in the range, and this was an easy way to control the feature set with a limited range of electronics.

Perhaps a better example is a humble clip. This is a thing used by sailors and divers to attach one thing to another. Exhibit A is a stainless steel item comprising five components and requiring machining, drilling and bending to assemble. Exhibit B is the alternative that does the same job with two components, only one of which needs bending. Good design makes manufacturing easier and creates less waste. The simpler clip also has no sharp edges that could damage a rope or fingers.

Clips

The opposite of this would be a microwave oven. What you want is to control the power, control the time and be able to stop and start it. What you get is usually so confusing that you need the manual. A manual, for a machine with two variables?

Or if you want an example of a very simple machine with poor design, take a look at one of those cute-looking anthropomorphic vacuum cleaners. They get stuck on every doorframe or piece of furniture. If you pull them, they stay stuck but the side catches open and the top falls off.

So what has this to do with photography? Camera design can be a collision of feature bloat and bad ergonomics.

There are cameras that it is possible to hold wrong – see the Contax/ Kiev 4.

There are some where you have to wind on before changing the shutter speed or you break them – see old Russian rangefinders.

Then there are cameras that make you wonder what the designers were smoking – how about the Konica AiBorg?

Or there’s my experience with The Ergonomic Disaster.

Mercury

I’ve had a long-running fight with more than one digital compact to try and get the built-in flash to balance with an external one. And the clever dedicated flash for my dSLR needs me to carry the manual to have any hope of changing the settings. In fact, the flash is a microwave: it has strange controls with weird symbols and no obvious way to change the main settings. I admit to writing on my dSLR with a white marker to differentiate the metering control from the focusing control.

If I look at my Canon G9, an up-market compact, it has nine buttons, four rotating dials, two rocker switches and a shutter release. Some of the buttons bring up menus on the screen to choose more options. Some of the buttons are used a lot – flash on/off, macro on/off and zoom. Some I’ve never used, like print. There’s one button that I hadn’t noticed until I counted them and I’m not sure what it does.

I suppose the opposite extreme is my little Sony compact that has almost no physical controls and relies completely on menus and a touch screen.

I recognise that digital cameras are so clever, with so many options, that multiple controls or menus are needed. But perhaps what I want is the sort of design that was built into the BlackBerry phones. On the surface, they just worked. But there were features and shortcuts built in that you could use to do things easier or quicker. Using them gave a feeling of delight, but not using them didn’t get in the way of its core function.

What’s a well-designed camera then? I don’t know, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen or used one. You may think a camera is a simple design, so try this on a beginner:

This is a film camera. Wind it on after every shot with this lever. Yes, or it won’t take a picture. You will know the film is finished when it won’t wind on, but don’t push the lever too hard. Then press the little unlabeled button on the bottom of the camera. Pull up this little folding handle here and wind it round. There may be an arrow to tell you which way to turn it. Or not. You will know when the film is rewound when the handle turns easily. Or jams. Pull the whole winding thing up to open the camera. Yes, it does look like you are breaking the camera. Pull it some more. The back of the camera will then pop open. Pick up the film from the floor. And the camera. Try to wind the end of the film completely back into the cassette so you don’t shoot it again. No, twist it the other way. See that bit inside the camera that you poked your finger through? That was the shutter. Yes, it was important.

Why do you think point and shoots and compacts sold so well?

I’m not a klutz and I am comfortable with technology, but I can tell good design from bad. And there ain’t half some bad design out there. What’s your experience?

Favourite camera or lens

Pick your top three lenses. What’s your favourite camera? If you could only shoot one type of film, what would it be?

Those are difficult questions, not because I have so many to choose from but because I don’t think I have favourites. Well, with film I probably do. Not with lenses or cameras though.

But if I don’t have a favourite, does this mean I lack discrimination? I don’t know. I can tell my lenses apart and I can pick one lens out of several that are similar to get an effect I want. But I’m not sure that I favour one lens or camera over another.

I’m very lucky – like a lot of photographers I have several cameras and lenses. This means I can use either what takes my fancy or what gets the job done. But I don’t find myself always using the same camera or lens. I don’t automatically pick up a certain camera or lens, so I guess I really can’t have favourite. I’ll spend a period using one camera and then probably put it away and use something else for a while. Unless I’m after a specific result, in which case I’ll use the combination that delivers it. For example – I wanted a mild telephoto lens with a wide aperture on digital to shoot something indoors that I could not get close to. So I used a 50mm f1.7 on an APS-C camera. Neither lens nor camera became a favourite and I’m not sure I have used them together since.

Actually, I think that having a variety of kit means I don’t need to have a favourite. Part of the joy for me in having options is that I can play with them. I do have kit I like because it’s a bit special, and by that I mean that it’s fun to use or does something unusual or in some cases has sentimental value. This would be the place I should provide a list of the things I claim are not my favourites so that I can show-off my wonderful toys. Instead, I’ll just say that I’ve got some stuff I like for a mixture of practical and sentimental reasons. If you have read any previous posts, you will have seen the results from some of these or read my reasons for liking them. One that I haven’t written about is a Pentax 15mm lens. This thing is awesome but a bit specialised. I may write about it but it’s hardly something that you can pick up in a charity shop. As for the rest of the kit, the whole point of it is whether it can produce the result I want. In this context I think that favourite means ‘does what I want it to’. So I have definitely had kit that was the opposite of favourite. There was the Nikonos that I just couldn’t love; I’ve got a little Fuji splashproof camera that has bad shutter lag and takes so long to start that the moment has usually passed; I’ve got a couple of zoom lenses that add little to a camera than poor handling and greater weight. The only one of these I have done anything about is the Nikonos as it was the only one with a resale value (if you don’t love something, let it go). Basically, cameras and lenses have to be good enough and reliable enough to do the job – the rest is marketing.

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For this you need a camera that can be operated with one hand.

So, of all the rest of my huge investment in kit, is any of them my favourite? No – I like using them. Would I replace them if one of them broke? Probably not. The various lenses have their own special thing and I’m keeping them because if I sold one of them and changed my mind, I probably couldn’t afford to buy them again. Would I take them to my desert island? Nope – I am unsentimental enough to want something sandproof instead.

But that’s just me. Do you have favourites? What makes them so?