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.

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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?

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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?

Self critique through scanning

Like a lot of people, I’m at home rather than commuting to work at present. I’m lucky in that I can do a lot of my job from home, so I’ve been spending more time than I’m used to sat in my study. Yep, I call it that. We must maintain standards.

Just to the side of my desk is an old PC that runs my scanners. I didn’t take long for me to realise that I could poke a negative carrier along by one notch and hit scan, with no interruption to the day job.

I have rather a backlog of scanning. There were times past when I didn’t have the kit, the free time or the inclination to sit and feed a scanner. But now I have to sit next to one for eight hours a day.

It turns out there is some joy from discovering photos I knew I’d taken but lost track of. There is also some learning to be had in reviewing what I used to take pictures of. I have noticed that in the early days I used to take two shots of the same scene, from the same viewpoint, with the same exposure: basically two identical shots. I was so unsure of my technique that I was giving myself an extra frame in case of scratches, holes or other disasters. Totally unnecessary – I had quickly got past the stage of physically damaging the film by accident. I wish I had used the second frame to vary the exposure instead. How could I be so worried about damaging the film and yet so sure that I had nailed the exposure?

I can also see my photographic history through scanning. There is the black and white when I first started. It was cheaper to buy and I very quickly learned to develop it myself. Then I got a bit up myself and went all quality. There is a long period of slide film with just a few mono negs. I think these must have been the days when slide film was reasonably affordable. Of course, Real Photographers only shot colour slides, never colour negatives, and I so wanted to be good. It did leave me with an abiding love for Agfachrome 50s though. Then I probably realised just how far I had walked away from sociability and started shooting only colour print. I basically became a best friend of TruPrint. Does anyone remember them? You sent them a film in a plastic envelope, they developed and printed it and sent it back with a new film and envelope. It’s like the scene in Brazil with Sam Lowry and the message transport tubes.

Then we go through a digital period with hundreds, probably thousands, of pictures that only exist in my computer, with a few having made it onto the walls. Then the black and white reappears, but edgy and experimental. Or shite and forgotten how to work it. I never really left film photography, but it dropped back to a minor sideline for a while. One thing I do remember is asking for Agfachrome in a photo shop, to be told that it was no longer made (not since 1984 – eek!). I suppose I should be glad that they had even heard of it. A bit of a Fly Fishing moment. [And I have just realised that all the references here are to the 1980s. Not deliberate and certainly not nostalgic.]

But, unlike some, I don’t think I have ever thrown a set of negatives away. Well, not that had any sort of visible image on them. So I am working my way through boxes of badly-labelled slides and negatives. I can only think that, at the time, it was so obvious to me where and when the pictures were taken that I thought labels were superfluous. I admit to having completely forgotten some of the places I have been. Tunisia was one. I recognised the pictures, but the label on the slide box was a puzzle until it came drifting back. Yugoslavia? I definitely remember going, but I had no idea what it looked like or where I had been. And things keep turning up in the pictures that I thought were in completely different countries. A large stately home turns out to be in Ireland and not Northumbria. A decorated column is in Leningrad, not Rome. The camel was not in a zoo.

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But this is not about my focus being much more on the present than the past (a polite phrase for dodgy old memory), or on my former globetrotting (well, stumbling). The pleasure here is looking at the old photos and being mostly very glad I took them. The interesting thing though is how the importance of pictures changes with time. Scenery that was spectacular to be in results in (usually) meaningless pictures with nothing in them. Snapshots of people and places become fascinating. Friends grow old, children grow up, cars become classic. If only hair grew longer and waistlines slimmer.

Fun though. Plus I have discovered some excellent pictures of people that I will use again, especially one of my sister which awaits her next major birthday. The things I shoot have altered a little, probably for the better. There is less of the dull landscape in recent times and more interesting stuff. In the early years I seemed to hose the world with my camera. Since then I have learned (and occasionally practice) that a picture of everything contains nothing, so there is more of the detail or single item that stands for the whole.

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The other thing I noticed is that, despite what people say about the archival permanence of film, some of my old colour stuff is not holding up very well. It’s probably a good idea to get some of these old negatives and slides scanned as they are showing some odd colour shifts. The slides seem to be in better shape than some of the old colour negatives, although even some recent (2005) colour negative is showing some strong colour casts. All the better to get them scanned then. And what a good time to be doing it, when I’m locked in and getting distinctly Oscar with the wallpaper.

So here I am, like all of us, making a benefit out of a necessity.

Stay safe.

What did you do during the lockdown, daddy?

So, cheerfully, here we sit, hunkered down and hoping to reduce the rate of infection to something the health service can barely cope with. I work in IT, so I could say that I’m used to social distancing. I’ve also spent the early weeks working flat-out to equip the previously desk-bound part of a business with home working tools. It’s going to be interesting in the future when people realise that buildings, commuting, fixed hours and physical presence might be worth less than outputs. I wonder what sort of society we will become?

Anyway, enough of the nascent revolution. What can someone with basic film developing skills do when they are only allowed out for their one hour Boris break each day? Make beer.

A tea urn, a picnic cooler, some jugs and pots and a few ingredients and magic happens. This is not beer from a kit: this is home-built beer. I was lucky that I was given a day’s course in brewing as a gift a couple of years ago. The process itself is quite leisurely, with periods of waiting, so I must admit the entire course got totally canned while we were at it. So last year I bought a year’s worth of ingredients and knocked out a batch every three weeks. This year I bought another bulk load of grains and ingredients without realising that they would arrive shortly before the virus started spreading. So while I may not be stood at the sink inverting a tank, I’m still sloshing water about and measuring ingredients. It also scratches my creative itch – there’s much fun to be had inventing or adapting recipes. I’m not shooting enough film at the moment to be doing much with photography, but I have so far made:

  • Czech lager
  • Old Peculiar
  • An amber IPA
  • A dark IPA
  • A malty pale ale
  • A citrus pale ale

Yes, I do like my IPA, but I’ve also got two lots of porter and a Russian Imperial stout planned.

Beer
Two hobbies in one – a photo of beer

I think my main problem could be, come VC day, that I won’t want to leave the shed. I may not be able to find the shed door, either.

Stay safe everyone.

(Normal service will be resumed next week)

Making time for it

There was a time I used to take pictures every day. Now I seem to have more days than pictures. Life somehow gets in the way.

I commute to work. At this time of year it’s dark both ways, so I only get to see daylight at weekends. But there’s stuff to do and the days are short. We do get out, but often it’s walking the dog and there are only so many pictures I want of our local woods.

So it feels like a dry spell, photographically.

Time was, I’d go around with a huge bag of lenses. Primes of course, as any fule no that zooms are not as sharp. These days I might wander about with a compact camera but a blessedly lighter bag. So as well as taking fewer pictures, I’m carrying less stuff to take pictures with.

Looking at other people’s pictures can be inspiring, but they have to be good. I must confess to being bored by a lot of what I see. I’ve given my opinion on landscapes before but I find myself looking at all sorts of pictures and thinking ‘so what?’ A picture should interest me, not look like a drive-by snapping.

So how to keep my mojo rising despite these riders on the storm?

Part of it is experimentation. There is no pressure on me to deliver any specific result so I can do what I like. On a recent walk I tried moving the camera on a slow shutter speed.

Streaky
Interesting – I might do more with this.

I’ve got a tilting adapter for my Kiev medium format lenses to fit them to my 35mm camera. It’s good fun shifting the plane of focus around. Surprisingly it works with portraits – you can make the sharp zone vertical, shoot the person at an angle and really throw the background out.

Cathedral
Works with buildings too.

Bored with my dark commute, I stuck the camera on the dashboard and fired it with a remote.

Christmas decs for commuters
Don’t try this at home.

I know there are things like photography clubs, but I kind of fell out of love with them. There are photowalks too, but I have other things to do at weekends. … And that’s the root of the problem: I have too many other things to do. I guess photography has remained an important part of my life, but not the most important. It used to be all-consuming, but I calmed down. I used to take a camera for a walk, and now I realise that I go for a walk and take a camera along. The difference is that the point of the walk now is the walk, not going somewhere steep just for the sake of a picture.

Dan
Dan realises that what goes up has to find a way down.

I think it’s just the time of year. By the time you read this I will have spent a week in Staithes, so I fully expect to have taken a picture or two and enjoyed doing so. And I’m taking a selection of awkward and difficult cameras. And then Spring will be here and I’ll get over myself and all will be well with the world again. So there.

Happy Christmas?

May the joys of the season be upon you.

Wishing for anything photographic? Doing anything photographic?

I’ll be shooting kids again to help Santa. Nothing to do with his list, more a memento merry. We run a Christmas fare, cafe and Santa’s Grotto each year to raise money for a charity. One year I did the shooting and printing on my own, and I now understand the phrase of being as busy as a one-armed paper-hanger. The heating in the hall is also stuck on full, so I looked like I’d been jogging in a sauna wearing two jumpers.

The best fun to be had is stripping it all down afterwards. Most of the snow effect is done using Arctic camo net we borrow from a local Army unit. Once this has been strung over a gazebo frame, fixed with zip ties and then bound with tinsel and fairy lights it doesn’t shift easily. Oh, plus the gaffer tape we use to stop the gazebo from collapsing on Santa.

Grotto
What kind of message are we sending here? And are those really spiders?

Good fun though, for a good cause. And amazing how many 6×4 prints you can get out in four hours.

In other news I got my Emulsive Secret Santa packed and sent in good time. Hope you like it, Ms O. On Christmas day itself we will be repeating the now traditional trip to the beach with the dog. It’s a fun thing, with most of the other dogs in Christmas jumpers and hats. Far better than vegging in front of the queen, unless she has something public and medieval planned for Andrew.

Anything relevant to a photography blog? Possibly my first colour development kit if I’ve been good. Otherwise, no. We don’t get scenic snow any more, or at least not until we try to go back to work. So no pictures of robins and snowflakes.

Our elections are being held today, so depending on the outcome I may just keep walking when I get to the beach. Think of it as Duxit. I’ve been looking at my local MP’s voting record on theyworkforyou.com. Quite depressing. I would normally avoid speaking to a politician when they come canvassing, but our MP has a lot to answer for. (Don’t worry, I’m of the John Stuart Mill persuasion). Our MP is also ranked 630 out of 650 in terms of hard work and representation nationally, and 53 out of the 54 in my region.

Grinder
So how does it feel when politicians make laws about your body?

On the plus side, I brew my own beer (from grain; what else would you expect of someone who develops their own film?). Lurking in the garage are the bottles of Chimay I made at the beginning of the year and left to mature. So I may just hide in the garage rather than walk into the sea. In that case I’ll call it Fuxit.

Anyway, enough of the sorrows! Happy Christmas.

Update

Looks like it’s Fuxit.

You’re right, that does look like a majority. Not sure we wanted to see that though.

But the good news is that if enough people listen to this song for the times, it could be number 1 for Christmas. All together now…

Automatic for the people?

Imagine the shame – someone at the photo club noticed that my camera was set to Program mode. Even worse than being drummed out of the Brownies would be to be stripped of your spot-meter and have the covers torn off your copy of The Negative.

I know someone who has a very capable full-frame digital camera and always shoots in manual. Yes, I can see the point when the lighting is tricky or you are after a particular effect that would fool the meter (rather, the computer), but is there an acceptable level of assistance? Do real men twist their knobs?

What about aperture priority, where you take control of the depth of field but let the camera choose the shutter speed? Or shutter priority, where your choice of shutter speed is important? A lot of old manual cameras were probably used as virtual shutter priority: you would pick a shutter speed and leave it, as changing it meant taking the camera away from your eye and fiddling. So you would raise the camera, twist the aperture ring until the meter said go, and take the shot. That’s shutter priority using you as the actuator.

The reason that the camera-makers developed and sold automation was the delivery of the original Kodak promise: ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. Adding automation to a camera made it more likely that the results would be acceptable. And acceptable meant what what most people wanted – reasonably sharp and exposed. Most people wanted pictures, not cameras. Hence the rise of the point-and-shoot and the supremacy of the mobile phone.

So program mode was perfect for someone who wanted the potential for greater quality from a better camera without having to fiddle with the settings. Fiddling would mean less chance of getting an acceptable picture, negating the advantage of a better lens or bigger sensor. Automation also means speed and coping with changing conditions. I’ve been out in changeable weather with a manual camera, and it can be a pain to have to constantly check the light level. Really, this is what (many) digital cameras excel at: take a test shot, chimp it, apply a bit of exposure compensation if needed, then blaze away with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Prog mode
The work of the devil?

And then there is autofocus. We all use it, but pretend it’s not automation. Of course it replaces something that the whole of camera design was meant to make easy, but it’s just so durn useful. When you throw facial identification and follow-focus at sports or kids, it beats twisting your ring. And let’s be honest, if rapid manual focusing was so easy, the street-shooters wouldn’t all be using zone focusing.

What about image stabilisation? Yes, we know that Eisenstadt could hand-hold on the subway at 1/20th second. I’d love to see those contact sheets though – I don’t expect every frame was sharp. I LOVE having stabilisation on my digital camera, particularly as it works with any lens. I don’t even think of it as automation – it’s not replacing my finely-honed skills. Not really. Besides, nobody can see that I’m using it.

There is a more serious problem though, than the ridicule of my peers, and we have seen it already in artificial intelligence. Once an AI is trained and produces good results, we either forget or we don’t know how it works. And then it stops being accurate or it has an inbuilt bias, and we can’t tell or correct it: we just do what it says. The AI does magic and becomes a god, and we perform strange rituals to it (like peering at the back of the camera and chanting ‘ooh’). So perhaps there is some logic in knowing how to do it by hand? Even Lewis Dartnell’s book on rebooting civilisation from scratch had a section on recreating photography.

And anyway, what about light meters? Unless you guess the exposure, you are relying on at least some form of automation.

So where does this take us? There is no shame in automation. It is a tool that can increase your success rate. One should never be dependant on any particular tool existing, but there is no harm in using it well when it does exist. In a phrase used by an old friend “always use the most powerful tool for the job”. Automation can increase your options. But do learn how and why stuff works, it could save you from the cooking pot come the apocalypse.

Slow hand

“I love shooting on film, it slows me down”. Heard that before? It makes me wonder what the person was doing with digital. You don’t have to hold down the shutter button until the memory card is full, you know. And why can’t you take time and care with a digital camera?

I wonder if the influencing factor is cost? Per frame, film can be more expensive than digital. After all, the cost of one more shot in digital is zero. Maybe not though, as Instax is very popular even at a pound a pop.

Maybe it’s the fact that you can’t see immediately what you’ve taken. There is no chimping the camera to see if the exposure, framing, focus etc are right. They have to be what you intended with film, as it’s harder to make adjustments in post.

P.Jackson. Nab End. Finished 7th in Class A
Some things go fast(ish)

Perhaps it’s because digital allows you to take multiple shots of things that go fast, then choose the best one. The top end digital cameras can do burst rates way higher than film could. My Pentax MX could, with the proper motordrive, take 5fps. You can easily double that now with digital, or even more. Ilford used to make a special 72 exposure version of HP5 for motor-driven cameras, and some pro cameras could take a 250 exposure back. With digital you can wack in a big memory card and blaze away like a John Woo film.

Maybe that is the difference? Film has less capacity, so you have to take more care. Do you lay a million eggs in order that some survive, or do you nurture one and make sure?

Victor tanker
Some things could go fast but don’t

I must say though that I started out with film and I’ve never treated it like it was made of silver. If I wanted to shoot a lot, I did. I might actually take fewer shots on digital, as I can check immediately that I’ve got what I wanted. I was always inclined to bracket the exposure with film, or just to take two shots of the same thing in case my fumbling skills got scratches or dust on one of them (or I found a hole in the emulsion).

Some things do need careful exposure and time though, but I can see no need for a difference in approach between digital and analogue. Perhaps what people mean is that some film cameras lack auto-focus, auto-exposure etc so it takes longer to set them up. But that’s stretching it, because you can go as auto or manual as you want in either medium.

Aysgarth Bridge

Some things stay still

So I don’t really know. I do know that some film cameras take time to set up and adjust, so that may be the ‘slowing down’. On the other hand, how many options and settings does your digital camera have?

What is slow though, is turning exposed film into pictures. With digital you shoot, pop the card and start work on the computer. I’ve heard people brag about how many shots they take at a wedding or a sports event. If you have to edit all of these, make a selection and then do all the Photoshopping, digital must take nearly as long as developing a film and scanning it. But for the odd few shots, digital is far faster to get to a shareable result. But this makes the ‘slowing down’ of film an undesirable thing.

So, to quote the Hypersensitive Photographers podcast, I think it’s all bollocks. I think people are claiming for film some pseudo-artistic connection with their craft. It’s virtue-signalling. If you want to slow down, think more, take more care, then do just that. It doesn’t matter what type of image recording medium you use. Just stop claiming that you’re so fast you need analogue to slow you down. If you don’t engage your brain normally, what are you up to?