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The indecisive period

You have probably seen those marvellous shots that capture the precise instant of best action or perfect placement. We are led to believe that the photographer has the reactions of a Jedi and the philosophy of the Deer Hunter’s Mike.

…And then you get to see, or someone talks about, the Magnum contact sheets.

And you learn that even the best of us are still quite like the rest of us. The fabled single shot was preceded and followed by multiple other attempts or the exploration of a theme. What’s probably different about the experts though, is that they often develop a theme.

I admit to, some years ago, blasting a whole film on minor variations of the same subject. In my defence I was watching the sun go down over Uluru/ Ayers Rock. There was a fair chance that I would never be in the same place and time again, so it was worth trying every combination of exposure and creeping sun position. There was no single moment that made me think “that’s the shot”, just a later inspection of variations on the theme for me to choose from. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that every shot felt like the winner, but I was worried that if I waited for the perfect shot, I would realise that the best combination had just passed me by. So I had an indecisive period. But film is cheap compared to a flight to Australia.

I’ve heard people talking about the moody shots they took with beams of sunlight and a walking figure arranged perfectly. And what they do is find the scene and wait until someone walks into it. Very rarely do they have a focused camera to their eye at exactly the right moment.

Similarly with something like motor sport. I will stand at a point on the track and take the same shot multiple times as the racers come by. I will get the same arrangement of vehicles in multiple frames with nothing to choose between them. Except occasionally something will happen, and if I wasn’t taking the picture I would never have reacted in time. This is where digital beats film, as you can end up with hundreds of pictures where the only difference is the changing race numbers on the vehicles. At least the cost per frame of digital is zero, so you don’t mind so much. Decisive moment? Not unless you get lucky or have the reactions of a gunfighter.

Racers 1
Racers 2
That’s going to sting

The same thing happens at Press conferences: listen to the waves of shutter noise as the talking head emotes. The smudgers are playing the same numbers game: digital shots are free, the camera has a high frame rate, so blitz it and pick the best one later. The decisive moment becomes your favourite nuance of expression.

So are there ever any single unrepeatable moments? Yes, there are, and sometimes fortune favours the prepared. More often though the prepared means getting the first shot, then the next one, then the next one as either the situation develops or the photographer moves around to develop the scene. So don’t worry too much. Your perfect shot may be the one you are about to take, or your best effort might be one you just took. Just be prepared to take more than one but to show only the best. Then it looks like magic.


The Golden Question

Have you ever been out with a non-photographer? You know, those people who keep walking when you stop. Have you ever tried to explain to them your affliction? Have you ever tried explaining it to yourself?

Try this: as you raise your camera to shoot, ask yourself “what is it that I see?”. That’s what the picture is about, so that’s what it should contain.

If you had to explain to a friend (a very patient friend, or even your non-photographer) why you were about to take this picture, what would you tell them? Imagine your friend didn’t know an f stop from a ‘we’re effing stopping again” and you had to explain in simple terms what you could see so that they understood. What do you tell them? What is the key thing that you saw? Imagine you asked them to stand in your spot. Show them how that thing does that, and that thing does this in relation to it, or whatever you saw. Imagine showing them the scene that is to become the picture.

Would they get a sense that you see differently (or even better)? Would they get a sense that you will turn the prosaic to the poetic with something you will do to the image later? Or will they zap it with their mobile phone, grunt a thanks and walk on?

It’s an interesting question – what can you see as a photographer that non-believers can’t? The wrong answer would be that you take the same pictures as them with a more expensive camera. The better answer is that you make a better picture – something that captures more, or better, what was visible.

Anglesey, Rhosniegr
What I saw was Bill Brandt.

So – next time you lift your camera, ask yourself what you see. Then take more of that.

A dog with two tails

So, I’m a lucky dog and I have a Nikonos V with a flash. As is usual with underwater flashguns it sits out to the side of the camera on a metal bracket that screws into the camera’s tripod socket. Most water is full of suspended silt, so you want the flash to light the subject alone and not the grunge between it and the camera. So that’s why the flash is out to one side on some sort of arm.

But I wanted two.

I’ve got the flash that came with the Nikonos, and very lovely it is too. It’s controlled by the camera’s light sensor, so it reads the flash exposure off the surface of the film. How easy is that? But I also have a second flash that has a slave cell. So the cunning plan is to mount the original flash to the left of the camera where it normally sits, but to find a way of mounting the second flash to the right. With a bit of luck I would get a main light / fill light effect.

Both flashguns use the same arrangement for locking to their bracket. They have an asymmetric pin that passes through a slot in the bracket and then turns to lock against sliding back out. The bottom surface of the flashgun has a raised ridge that then engages a groove in the bracket to stop the flashgun twisting. A large nut tightens the arm down against the bracket and locks them together. It’s a robust and strong fitting – just as well, as the camera rig will often be lifted by the flashgun.

So what I needed was a bracket that had the same slot and groove arrangement on both ends. Basically a bit of bent and machined alloy; couldn’t be hard to find or expensive, right? Wrongit was more than I was willing to pay.

So plan B was to find a bit of alloy and make my own. The alloy was easy – a bit of flat bar bought cut to length from eBay. Even the machining wasn’t too hard. I realised years ago that I was incapable of drilling a perpendicular hole and bought a proper bench-mounted pillar drill. My dad, bless him, had left me a biscuit tin full of assorted drill bits. It was easy enough to copy the arrangement of slots, holes and grooves from the original bracket. It needed a large clearance hole around the main flashgun connection to the camera, but that yielded to one of dad’s hole-cutters.

The final step was to bend the bracket downwards at a 20 degree angle. Flat alloy bar turns out to be really strong. I’ve got a small bench vice but it just started turning on its base. Dad came to the rescue again with his zombie-killing spanner. This is a large and long-handled pipe wrench. This went round the vice and gripped it. Pulling the alloy bar in one direction, the spanner in the other and with a knee on the bench to stop it falling forwards, the alloy gracefully received its 20 degree bend.

For some reason I have a small tin of white Hammerite paint. It was probably on sale. A couple of coats of that and the bracket looked almost purpose-made. Glue on a bit of neoprene sheet (used for repairing drysuits) to stop the camera twisting and to stop the tripod screw from falling out of the bracket when it’s off the camera, and Bob is my uncle.

Total cost around £5.

So what I have now is the standard flash held in its usual position, plus a second slaved flash that can be manoeuvred for fill-in. Or you could call it a major tangle-hazard.

Except, now I’ve made it, I wonder if it’s too wide.

Big arm

The key thing will be whether the flashes throw shadow from the two macro-framing arms. And that I can dive with it and not break bits off or get it caught in anything. I might have to bring the two flashes in closer to the camera. One way to find out – dive with it.

Except… my next dive is off a boat, and I’m not sure I want to be handling a rig this big. It might be better to wait until August, when I’m doing a shore dive. Which, embarrassingly, gives me time to make the MkII version. I think I need to bring both flashes in closer to camera. I will get less chance of using nice cross-lighting but the whole rig will be easier to handle and there is less chance of the macro arms casting shadows. I’ll have a look at the same time at the possibility of replacing the arm on the slave flash (the one on the left of the picture) with a longer jointed arm. This will let me put the slave light over the top of the subject while keeping the main light on the left.

And this, children, is why we use old milk cartons and sticky-backed plastic. If I had spent decent money on this I would be forced by pride to keep using it. But I will get another strip of alloy for a fiver and make the new and improved model. I count this as only mildly percussive learning, which is a bonus. Never too old to make mistakes, that’s me.


This is the Mk II version. Looks a lot easier to handle, doesn’t it? That piece of white stuff with the numbers on? That’s a rangefinder card.

Mk 2

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