Aphantasia

Now, here’s a thing. And I didn’t even know it was a thing. It’s the inability to see pictures in your head. A blind mind’s eye.

It started when I was reading Imaginable by Jane McGonigal. Highly recommended, by the way. But there was an initial exercise that asked “imagine yourself waking up in ten years’ time. What’s it like”. So in all good faith, I started describing it to myself. Then the book continued to ask me to imagine every detail and colour of the scene as vividly as possible “unless you are one of the 2% of the population who have aphantasia”. Say what? I could describe my future world eloquently in words, but the best picture was a fuzzy version of my existing bedroom. Hang on – do other people see pictures?

Now close your eyes and imagine a horse. But not this one. This is Bob.

Then, as life does, synchronicity slapped me on the head. There was a press headline on a news feed about a study into aphantasia. So I read it. Then took an online test that seemed to have a lot of its results feeding into further research. And you know what, I don’t seem to have much of a mind’s eye. I can’t see a picture in my head of things that I’m not directly remembering. Even then, it’s lacking in detail. Like most things, it’s a spectrum. A fuzzy imagining, rather than a total absence, is called hypophantasia. Nothing to do with the Disney film, by the way.

How about imagining a sheep?

The first question of course is wether this is true, or at least true for me. The online test seemed to confirm it, but I’m sure every hypochondriac says the same. On the other hand it would explain a lot. It may explain what my wife calls my total lack of an aesthetic sense. But if I can’t imagine what something could look like, I’m unlikely to go out and buy paint. It could also explain why, the one time I went off piste and did buy paint, it was so far from the right colour it wasn’t even wrong. My wife is still puzzled why someone who takes photographs could not see it was the wrong colour. Perhaps I now know why. It may also explain my fascination with colour in production design: I can’t really see what a scene could look like, so I think people who can are very clever. It could even explain why I feel I see things as an alien, but that’s probably stretching it. I do think it could explain why I was rubbish at art when I was at school, but much better at writing (and explains this blog).

If this is true, and it’s still an if, it’s not the end of the world. The condition seems to be no hindrance to creativity. In the case of Derek Parfit it was mooted as the reason for his interest in photography.

So if it is true, it explains a few things. If not, it’s harmless and gets me out of choosing paint. I may be using this as the drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination – but at least I got a drink out of it.

Out of curiosity, how do you get on with this test?

What are the rules?

With full credit to the song from “it’s always sunny in Philadelphia”.

So, what are the rules?

  1. Sharp is better
  2. Boring subjects are made better by good technique (but see rule 6)
  3. Better cameras make better pictures
  4. Wider lens apertures are better
  5. Expensive lenses are best
  6. Bad technique is better (Lomo)
  7. More pixels = more better
  8. You have to really understand 18% grey
  9. Bokeh makes the picture
  10. If you don’t understand, you’re stupid
  11. You need the same camera as them
  12. Old lenses are better
  13. This number is unlucky
  14. You can guess the exposure
  15. You will work for exposure (the other kind)
  16. The past is not relevant
  17. If you had a Leica and a Rolleiflex, you would be perfect
  18. All women naturally stand around in poses like they do in photographs
  19. Shooting film slows me down
  20. Real photographers shoot in manual
  21. Tripods are for HG Wells
  22. I could have taken a better picture than that
  23. I don’t need to ask anyone for permission
  24. You want me to explain that to you
  25. Mirrorless is the best
  26. Film has a special look
  27. Street photography needs a rangefinder
  28. You should start a podcast
  29. Instagram will bring you fame and money
  30. Thirds are the secret of composition
  31. You should learn more about cameras
  32. Taking pictures of graffiti is art
  33. Lenses should be tested
  34. A wedding, or any event, needs thousands of pictures
  35. It’s only serious if it’s in black and white
  36. Make sure the sun is behind you
  37. Everyone loves pictures of wildlife
  38. Almost as much as they love landscapes
  39. Always aim for the highest possible contrast in your picture
  40. “Well seen” is the highest praise possible for your pictures
  41. Everybody wants their picture taken
  42. There is an answer for everything
  43. For more diversity in photography, try a different lens
  44. It’s extra special if you shoot it on an iPhone
  45. Youtube needs you
  46. Expose for the shadows
  47. Petrol stations at night
  48. Taking pictures of poor or homeless people elevates them
  49. The Milky Way and a tent lit from inside
  50. There is only one way to leave your lover

Have I missed any?

37

And in deference to Poe’s Law, I need to make it clear that this post is ironic.

9

Oh, and so is Philadelphia. Just in case.

Don’t take my picture!

I hear it a lot from family and friends. On a superficial level it seems odd – why refuse something that has no impact and could happen anyway? And don’t you understand that I want to take your picture because I like you? I was curious to develop an idea I’d written about before, but encountered personally quite recently. So I asked.

One theme that came out strongly, and often first, is ‘I don’t like the way I look’. So, ok, there is always a responsibility on the photographer to find and show the best of people. But I wondered how a photograph was different to what you saw in a mirror. From asking, I’m told that a mirror is a totally different thing. You look into a mirror for a reason, like brushing your hair. Your image has a purpose. If you don’t like a part of what you see, you can look at a different part or focus on the task. A mirror is under your control and nobody else can see what you see. You can adjust the image as you wish – the frog belly under your chin goes away if you raise your head. It also has no persistence – your bleary eyes and pallid morning skin are gone forever when you turn away. Photographs are persistent and take away any control you have over what you see. Once that paunch is captured, it exists forever.

This leads to another observation that almost nobody is content with how they look: everybody would change something. And the risk in a photograph is that it has no sympathy. I have skinny chicken legs so I think I look weird, seen full length. I’d like to say I have a good feature that you could focus on, but it’s all pretty average. So if you take a picture of me, I would be conscious that you really want a picture of someone who looks like a confused stork. How much harder must it be for women, who have an expectation of appearance imposed on them? See selfie filters for further proof.

In a conversation we are happy to make and hold eye contact with another person. We make expressions and pull faces. But when the other person raises a camera something comes between you. There is a new person in the conversation who only takes. This is nothing to do with snaps – the grabbed pictures that remind you of an event or a time or the people you were with. The difference is the intention – a snap is a reminder with no motive; a portrait has a reason behind it. And a conversation stops when one person drops out to take rather than share.

I think this leads to the next point, which is distrust of motive. If I ask for my picture to be taken, I know why I’m doing it and what it is for. If someone else wants my picture I don’t know how it will be used or what it is for. I was out on a photo-walk recently and this came up. I wanted a picture of a shop doorway but the shopkeeper came out to stand at their street display. They were going to be in shot, but would have enhanced the picture. So I asked if I could take their picture. They declined, so I didn’t. Another member of our group then mentioned they had taken a picture of me, and did I mind. In this case, not at all and it was good of them to ask. But the issue is one of trust: why are you taking pictures of me? The solution would be to ask, give the reason, and offer to share the results. And don’t take offence at a refusal. And really don’t be a creep. If you wouldn’t be comfortable as the subject, don’t take the picture. This must figure even stronger for women, who spend their lives under the male gaze and with the constant background tension of the common male expectation that women exist for men.

Saying that though, taking pictures at a public event is different. People engaged in an activity or sport in public must accept that other people will want pictures of what they are doing. The interest is in the activity, and this is legitimate. Although I have seen some questionable shots of women playing sports. So the same rules apply: don’t be a creep.

And then, we have the actual portrait. I have pictures of my ancestors that have huge value. Some are formal portraits and some are the ‘stand there and I’ll take your picture’ variety. The formal portraits were obviously intentional. In an age when private photography was rare they preserved a statement of the subject’s status and appearance. My mum has two large paintings that are separate portraits of each of her grandparents (one set) when they married. The pictures are actually over-painted photographic prints, which would have have been a quick and cheaper way to get a good likeness. I’ve also got some of the formal ‘sat in a chair and frowning’ pictures. All of them are precious because they are family. I can see the value in having pictures of yourself at different ages to hand on, but the sheer volume of transient images we’re drowning in will probably bury the one or two pictures that summarise you and would entertain your grandkids. So perhaps there is value in relenting to at least one good environmental portrait so that future people can see who you were.

There is also memory. My wife travelled the world when she was younger but didn’t take any pictures. She has all the memories but nothing she can actually show me or the boys. The picture below is my grandmother as a young woman. She is the same person holding her great-grandson if you follow the memory link above.

Another lesson that comes from this is to get pictures of yourself when you are young. Friends pass and things change, but a picture of the daft younger version of yourself will remind you that, no matter what the world does, you were gorgeous. It’s all still in there, just toned down with some saggy bits and hair migrating from your head to your ears and eyebrows.

And yet, despite all this, the most interesting photographs are the ones with people in. Other than snaps they might be the hardest to take, for all the reasons above. Perhaps this is why so many photographers take landscapes? Taking an informal snap of your chums on your phone is fun. Get a ‘real’ camera and people question your motives and the rest of it. One of the reasons I like the pukey-bear-cam is that it breaks down the barrier by being informal and silly, with immediate results that are genuine snaps and not some Gollum-like Precious that you will perve over later.

In summary – don’t be evil. Don’t even be a little bit evil, which is weevil. Get as many informal pictures as you can, as they will become more valuable to you with time. Definitely take pictures of people, as people are probably the most interesting thing there is. But have some respect for others. Noli esse asinus as we used to say when I was a boy.

Talking about photography

Talking about photography may be as sensible as dancing about geometry, but do you fancy a rhombus?

I love my podcasts, but that love has changed during the covid lockdown and working from home. Like 35hunter I no longer have a commute to work (or I didn’t, that’s changing). I was spending 40 minutes each morning and evening trapped in a car with nothing to do but be entertained. Perfect for podcasts. These days, if I commute at all, it’s 20 minutes or less. Some of the longer podcasts could take me three days to listen to.

Many of the podcasts I listen to are about photography (or I wouldn’t be writing about them). The good thing about this is that it’s almost impossible to describe pictures, so the discussion should be about photography itself. The bad thing is that it is easy to talk about cameras, so there are lots of podcasts that are audiobook versions of the manual. There are also a lot of photography-related podcasts, so there’s a lot of camera manuals out there.

One reason may be that talking is easier than writing, so if you have something you want to say, saying it wins over writing it. There is also convenience – I can listed to a podcast when I’m driving but I can’t read a blog (though I still like my blogs too). Although I did once work with someone who told me how they held a book on the steering wheel so they could read when they were driving the boring stretches on a motorway (eek!).

The written word is sometimes open to misinterpretation.

We are programmed to converse – we have evolved so that language is innate: a baby can learn to speak just by listening to the noises the big people make. We have to be taught to read. Together these are the most powerful tools we have – talking gives us collaboration and cohesion, writing gives us cultural memory so that we can learn from others without having met them. But to be able to read we actually have to rewire our brains. More Homo Flexibilis than Homo Sapiens, but it’s put us at the top of the tree (if only we were also sapiens…).

You want a subject for discussion? How about the amount of dogfruit you see when you are out walking?

Anyhow – what’s that got to do with podcasts? It was a bit of a diversion really, into things I find interesting, but it may explain why there are more podcasts on photography than blogs. There is also a huge number of books on photography, but writing and publishing are difficult and have a high barrier to entry. A spoken podcast has a much lower entry cost and uses a skill you’ve had since you could walk.

I should be clear though – I am not criticising podcasts or saying that they are less clever than writing – I love my podcasts. I’m just thinking out loud about the different media.

Podcasts are also a larger commitment than writing: the participants have to turn up on time, every time, and spend at least the length of the podcast talking. I expect most blog writers, like me, can have several ideas in development and only need to post them on time. I can spread my input over weeks if need be, and I don’t need to commit a set amount of time at fixed intervals. So all kudos to the podcasters for their commitment.

So which podcasts do I rate? Given the bias I have expressed for photography and against cameras, it’s these:

UNP – Grant Scott talks about the business of commissioned photography and art, and has photographers describe what it means to them.

A small voice – Ben Smith interviews photographers about their work.

Sunny 16 – it feels like a family gathering, with everything from drunk uncles to wise aunts. Always entertaining.

Negative Positives – the American family gathering with sufficient mutual sarcasm that they could almost be British.

Shutters Inc – Bruce and Glynn on photography, life and everything. They have done the best criticism and feedback of each other’s pictures and are the role model for how this could be done.

I dream of cameras – Jeff and Gabe talk about cameras, but I listen because they are funny and entertaining. This is an offshoot of the Sunny 16 podcast and can be found in the same place.

My list has changed over time, with some dropping off and some added. There are others, obviously, but these are the ones that I listen to each episode. How about you? Any recommendations?

PS – added a new one that I am enjoying: Lucy Lumen’s Podcast Adventure.

Developing a style

There are some photographers whose pictures are distinctive. There are others whose work is so well known that it is distinctive because you know who took it.

Do you have a style? Could someone see a picture and guess it was taken by you (and not just because it’s on your wall)? Has your style changed with time? Do you need a style at all? Is a fixed style another word for rut?

There are also styles of photography – street, urban landscape, documentary and so on. Do you stick to a style or have a range? By range I mean shooting a series of pictures with a specific look, and then another series with a different look?

I must say that I never thought about my personal style and never thought I had one. (You’ve only to see how I dress to agree.) I would try to render a picture in the way I thought I had seen it but that was always more about the picture than adding myself to the picture. And yet, the reason for thinking about this was somebody recently looking at an anonymous picture in a set and guessing it was taken by me. I can understand why, which made me realise that the things I like to photograph and they way I present them is exactly what is meant by a style. Perhaps I do have one?

It’s probably all sophistry though, because you always add yourself to the picture just by choosing where to point the camera and when to press the button. So before I damn my soul and write an artist’s statement, what is this thing called style?

Let’s ask Michael Freeman, who wrote a book called Achieving photographic style. The book is an analysis of the ‘central aesthetic values of the photographic image’. He takes some basic types (or styles) of photography and analyses what makes good pictures in each genre work. So perhaps this doesn’t tell me how to obtain or find my personal style, but he could tell me what each genre contains.

The genres he examines are:

  • Journalism and reporting
  • Advertising
  • Glamour
  • Landscape
  • Portraits
  • Special effects

Not a huge list. Adobe list 28 types. Urby list 32.

But none of these are what I am after. I can fairly easily pick the genres I like – yes for things like portrait and action, no for many others. That doesn’t give me a style though, it gives me a subject. To have a style I need to do more than point a camera at something. The additional part is the selection you make when you take the picture. I like visual simplicity and simple shapes, so I will take pictures where I can achieve this. (By the way, this is how my picture was named in the anonymous set).

I like action, but where there are only a few elements in the picture. Street photography often seems too busy, unless you get close and then it turns into portraiture. I have ranted previously and often about landscapes. The only landscapes I am interested in now are where I can make pleasing and simple shapes. I also like amusing (to me, anyway) juxtapositions or irony. I’m also happy not have the ultimate levels of sharpness or resolution – it is a bourgeois concept, after all. I am very lucky – I don’t have to make pictures for anyone else so I can please myself.

So I think these have become my style. I often stray, and I usually dislike or find boring the pictures that result. So I think that, if I do have a style, it has evolved from what pleases me and what I want to see in my pictures. And that came out of me thinking about what it was I could see when I started to lift the camera, and wanting to make sure I captured as much as I could of that thing.

I know the pictures in this blog are not in a single or recognisable style. They were taken over many years and mostly long before I brought my brain along when I went out with a camera. But all of them make me happy in some way, if only as warnings to the children of the perils of strong women and loose drink.

But in answer to the question I think it is possible to have a visible style, but only if you apply your preferences. Most people choose to decorate their home or to dress in a certain way. They select from options and a new item might be added if it conforms to the overall style. We should do the same with our photography: take pictures of things we like in ways that we like to see them. And like home decoration, your style may change over time.

Your options also change with technology. Colour mixing has made the range of paint colours far greater than it used to be – I don’t have to use magnolia for a neutral/ warm wall colour any more. In photography I can now shoot at extreme ISO or wide dynamic range. These give me options that I might like to use, and will be come part of my style.

Ultimately though, I don’t care whether I have a recognisable style or not. The value for me is in working out what I like and how to do more of that. And what I like is to try different things, as settling into a style isn’t a signature but an epitaph.

But I’m still going to keep wearing that hat.

Stories as memories

So what happened was a collision between Jonathan Haidt, Instagram and Blade Runner. It sounds like the sort of thing the kids used to ask – “Batman versus Spider Man: who wins?”.

I had read Righteous Minds and the ideas had been slowly percolating through what remains of my cognition. Then I was listening to some people talking about the burden of feeding the Instagram beast and how our trivial daily pictures had come to frame and define our lives. Which led to the importance placed on pictures in Blade Runner as hoped-for proof that a memory was real.

From Jonathan Haidt I had taken the ideas of how the stories we tell and share encode a culture or group or religion. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. And in his model of the elephant and rider (read it and see), the rider makes up stories to explain the elephant’s behavior. 

Then there is Instagram, which is standing-in for all social media in my argument, becoming the journal or diary of our lives. It feels almost as if experiences don’t exist unless they are shared. I was listening to someone talking about the ubiquity of mobile phones with cameras and how the blizzard of images has become the measure of people’s lives. It is the end point of the democratisation of photography – it is no longer a technical specialist confined to the priesthood but is available to all. So photography is then used for it’s primary purpose – to capture what will become memories.

You may remember the scene in Blade Runner where Rachael is talking to Deckard about her memories and whether she can play the piano or only remember that she can. Deckard’s piano has old photographs on it, hinting that he too is a Replicant. And the baddies are found from the photographs they took. Photographs are the physical manifestation of memories, especially when memory itself can’t be trusted.

Back in 2016 I had a motorcycle crash. It was serious, in the sense that it could have been life changing, but I was very lucky. My memories of the events were mixed. I had great clarity of some actions and the sequence, but some parts happened so fast that they were just a loud noise. (Incidentally, what saved me from greater harm was training – I took an action that had been drilled into me that was counter-intuitive but life saving. If you are going to ride a bike, get some training too.) There was a lot to process, not least what could have happened. I did this by writing about it. It laid the ghost. I’ve been honest about whose fault this was (entirely mine), why it happened and what I did right. The only pictures I have were taken after the event but they are now the placeholder for my memories.

A good reason for wearing a full-face helmet

So where am I going with this? Towards the idea that the great majority of photography serves people as memory. We can talk all we like about art but pictures are stories in shorthand. So perhaps we should should let everyone get on with saving and sharing their memories and not be critical. If we want to take photographs for art’s sake we can be free from the Instagram treadmill: why throw art at the family album? And then we are also free to save our memories without worrying about art or style or any form of pretention.

Who cares what shot it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winning

I’m a bit conflicted. I watched a presentation by a photographer whose intention was to win photography competitions. I’ve nothing against that – I’ve said before that I joined a club to have some social contact, and that they also run competitions. What felt strange though was this person’s extreme focus on taking the winning shot.

I should add – I have nothing against this person or their work. This is about how it made me feel and think.

It was almost as if the actual subject didn’t matter. The aim was to get pictures of say, people engaged in sports, with dynamic postures, frozen motion and clear facial expressions. This usually meant shooting in burst mode – 10 to 11 frames a second and racking up thousands of images from each event. I would struggle to select the best from that quantity and I would certainly struggle to store and catalogue them all.

Now, I can see why a professional photographer would do this. Their job depends on getting the perfect shot, so why not use the facilities available to shorten the odds? But I’m an amateur. I enjoy the process of photography as well as the result. I’ve taken pictures of sports and enjoy it greatly, but I can’t see myself shooting thousands of pictures of a single event. It may be rooted in my use of film when I first started. I might have had the capacity for a hundred shots if I brought extra film. Each shot I took was a single, with a pause to wind-on after each one and a longer pause to reload fresh film.

I remember the first sporting event I went to. My best mate’s sister was riding a horse in a point-to-point, which is basically cross-country and jumping fences. I had one camera, a 50mm lens and a 2x teleconverter. If you are prepared to be sensible with your own safety and that of the horse and rider it’s possible to stand at the end of a fence and get pictures of them jumping.

Of course, we got bored between races…

Later on I used to go to motorcycle trials, with the classic or pre-1965 bikes being a favourite. Here again you can get close to the action where the riders traverse the judged sections. And here again you need your good sense and the agreement of the people involved to not get in the way or fire a flash in the rider’s eyes.

So what am I saying? I found it odd that a photographer would take professional measures to shoot sports, when they didn’t want the professional outcome.

The photographer chose which sporting events to cover based on how likely the pictures were to win in competitions. So the ideal is a sport that not many other people cover, to which you can get good access and where the athletes make good shapes and expressions. But the result is literally thousands of images, with the chosen few then given a heavy workover in PhotoShop. I’m not sure that sounds like fun.

On the other hand I probably don’t take sport photography seriously enough. I went to a more recent motorcycle trial (by the way, this is trials riding – off road balancing over obstacles – and nothing to do with testing motorcycles) before the covid lockdown. I was shooting digital and took around 120 pictures, of which the editing got down to 70 I like. That fits better with my general avoidance of hard work.

Nice bit of Dutch Angle too

But, despite my grumbling, we are still at least this much of a free country. I couldn’t work that hard at taking pictures just to win competitions, but some can. I’m not that competitive, but some are. It’s a good job we’re not all the same.

What do you think? Are competitions important? How hard are you willing to work for your pleasure?

Herd impunity

What’s the camera all the cool kids are chasing right now? Is it a T-for-two something or an Olympus meow? Even the quotidian Pentax K1000 can go for the price of a Leica lens cap.

If you listen the photography podcasts there is a regular concern that when someone gives a good review of an old camera, the bidding on eBay gets frantic as everyone rushes to get theirs.

One of these had recent online interest and the prices rose. The other is a camera.

Second hand (as if new was an option) film cameras are becoming expensive. One reason, like film, is that we are comparing the recent trough to the current wave. Film camera sales peaked around 1998 and then slumped rapidly as digital improved. There was a time when you could barely give old film kit away. Now of course, it’s groovy again. Since its also no longer made, the money chases the goods and prices rise.

So if you want something that will still take film, what are you going to do? Not chase fashion is my advice.

James Tocchio wrote a useful article on Casual Photofile about reducing the costs of photography. In it was one piece of unusual advice: buy a late model camera. The automatic cameras of the late 90s were plastic, oddly shaped and felt nasty. But they are unpopular and cheap. And providing the electronics work, so will the meter and the shutter. That’s about all you need. Yes, it may well have programmed exposure and offend your artistic sensibilities and freedom to guess the settings, but it will mount good lenses and you can always fake bad exposure later in post-processing.

If I look on the bottom shelf here I find I’ve got several of these plastic fantastics that I acquired because they came with a lens I wanted (and were usually cheaper than the lens on its own or in some cases than a lens base cap). Pentax MG anyone? Or a Pentax F3? There are loads of cameras that used the Pentax K mount or M42 screw (with the added joy that a K mount camera can do both). Prakticas are better in all respects than Zenits but can use the same lenses. The later electric-coupled Prakticas or the ones that used their own bayonet mount are not at all popular, so will be cheap (with the added benefit of being good).

Combined cost was less than a popular point-and-shoot

Both Canon and Nikon got into the consumer camera trend, but I believe you need to be a bit more careful over which lenses fit. Even Pentax went through a range of lens types. All of them will fit mechanically, but some have options that will only work with later cameras. There is an explanation here.

So if I can convince you, have a wander down the path less trodden and spend the difference on going to nice places and doing interesting things. Or go to interesting places and don’t worry about breakage.

Except … I can guess what happens next: everyone starts chasing the cheap cameras and the prices rise. Second thoughts – you still REALLY want a Leica.

Cost of analogue

This started from a general feeling that was then further triggered by an opinion piece by Grant Scott. His argument is that the costs of analogue are too high, if the important thing is the outcome (the picture).

His premise is that digital photography, with its marginal cost of effectively zero, is the better method for getting results. This is certainly true for speed and convenience. It’s also true in teaching. Digital photography allows for experimentation and provides immediate feedback. Want to know what effect the aperture has? Take five or six shots and compare. Notice how moving things get blurred as the aperture closes down? That’s the relationship between shutter speed and aperture to maintain a consistent exposure. Now you try…

I’m not so sure how the costs of setting up compare. Even now (and I’ll come onto this) a basic film camera looks cheaper than a basic digital one, if you also want some manual control of the camera. The running costs are different though, which was the basis of Grant’s argument. But it’s a complicated argument and Grant has said that he got a lot of critical comment about his opinion piece. The cost per shot of digital is effectively zero. But the digital camera probably cost more than a second-hand film camera. But then the costs of developing, scanning, a computer and so on add to the real cost of using a film camera. All I can say for certain is that the cost per finished picture is higher for analogue, once the set-up costs are discounted (and those may work out around the same for digital and analogue). So Grant’s argument is that using film is a choice based on wanting to use it because you like it, or because it gives you the results that you want and can’t get by other means.

Film feels like it is becoming more expensive though, and it feels this is true even with inflation. Just about the cheapest options right now are Kentmere or Fomapan for black and white. Seeing some colour films selling at £15-18 a roll just means I will be reading about them rather than using them. But there is more to this than how it feels. Ludwig Hagelstein did an analysis of film prices in real terms in Silvergrain Classics. The headline of his analysis is that film isn’t that much more expensive than it used to be, allowing for inflation. However, there was a period when it was perhaps artificially cheap, so it looks expensive when you compare trough to peak. If I look back to when I was doing photographic printing, the price of 100 sheets of Mutltigrade adjusted for inflation would now be £69. The same paper now retails for £63. I’d call that the same relative price, so well done Ilford.

For anyone wanting to track the modern value of historic prices there is also a US equivalent here. You may also be interested to see how Mr Darcy on £10,000 a year could afford to light his cigars with Portra.

The hazards of cheap film

You’ve also to think that film is difficult to make. Back when Kodak were king they had enormous throughput and hence economies of scale. If you listen to Robert Shanebrook he talks of a machine applying perhaps ten or twenty separate layers to the film base, with thicknesses of a few microns. In the dark, too. This is very difficult to get right – I used to work in a paper mill and it’s hard enough getting a single layer of paper right. He says that in its heyday, film accounted for 110% of Kodak’s profit, meaning that it supported the other areas such as paper and chemicals. Lose that volume of throughput and you lose the economies of scale. So the price has to go up. There is also the consequences of stopping doing something and losing the ability to restart. Kodak did it when they closed the lines and their people retired. Fuji is doing it now. Polaroid are learning how hard it is to come back when the knowledge and machinery have gone. Nikon had a go at remaking a mechanical camera, to sell a limited number of them for a fortune and probably at a loss. There are also fewer people who can fix cameras and fewer parts to fix them with. And as a resource becomes scarce, the price probably goes up. (Unless you are a government, and believe you can increase the number of skilled people by shouting). It’s also very difficult to make something new when the components are no longer made. Reflex struggled to make or buy a working shutter for their camera, for example.

Or buy a pukey-bear-cam – digital AND it prints pictures

So the summary is that film, while interesting, is a niche product. The cameras that can shoot it are no longer made and will decline in number (unless someone like Copal steps in and makes shutters again). Film is hard to make and will probably remain as a low-volume product for as long as the cameras keep working. The true cost of film is roughly where it used to be historically: it’s just that the prices look higher due to inflation. Prices for some thngs will rise due to scarcity and competition for them, but that’s how markets work. So I believe the message is that we should enjoy it for what it is or the special results we want, grit our teeth about what feels like a lot of money, and have fun while it lasts.

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