What are you looking at?

When you go out, what do you look at? Probably your phone. If you’re out with a camera, what do you look at? Is it the thing you came to take pictures of, or other things (or your phone)?

It can be boring walking around with a camera hoping something will turn up. When it does, it’s often the same old stuff, shot in the same old ways.

So how do you get to (or back to) a state of wonder where everything is unusual? Because if you look with curiosity the world is fascinating.

That might be the answer. I’m a curious person, in both senses. I want to know how everything works. Except people of course, as my wife points out. Which is fine by the way – we compliment each other’s weak spots. But I do seem to spend my time when we’re out going ‘ooh, what’s that?’. What it leads to is me looking everywhere but where I’m going. Which is also fine, by the way – I still manage to dodge the things I shouldn’t step in.

Anyway, the point of this is to ask if it’s possible to develop that curiosity to see things that could be pictures. Or if you want to – I’m not saying this is a good thing and I’m certainly no paragon. But it can be fun. If you have ever had to wander around streets of shops (we will get to do this again, I’m sure) there is more to see than what’s in the windows.

Try looking up. Lots of buildings are older than the shop they contain and the clues are above the shopfront.

Sometimes you have to pretend to be an alien. If you didn’t know what a thing was, what could it be? A book that is very good for this is POET – the psychology of everyday things. It studies the assumptions that are built into objects. Like a door with a big loop handle that you have to push, not pull. (And then go and read my rant about poor design assumptions). But in this case it’s a way of looking at the world around you.

Someone installed a pylon upside-down

So it makes you think about why the things you see look the way they do. Who decided to do it that way, and why?

How would you have spaced the words?

Sometimes the alien says ‘how did that get to be there?’ Rather than just assuming that it is. This is the same thing that so annoyed my mum – she bought a film and lent me the family camera for a school trip to France and I came home with pictures of bins.

I do remember how much I enjoyed one aspect of geography at school, and that was being given a map and asked to work out why a town or village came to be where it is. It was usually down to paths and rivers, transport and raw materials. One way of recreating that interest, and another book recommendation, is to have a look at some Gooleys.

Sometimes weird stuff happens

But sometimes the weird stuff is just there for the looking.

So next time you’re out, be more alien.

Modifying cameras

Have you ever modified a camera to make it work better for you?

I’m not talking about cosmetic changes like changing the leatherette (although I love what Peggy does with these), but functional changes. I know one of the frequent improvements is to add a grip. But these are finely-crafted and removable, whereas I’m talking about hacking the actual camera.

I’ve basically made two sorts of changes: for handling and for protection. You have to not care about resale value though. Speaking of which, who are these people who can sell a pristine old camera on eBay? How does anyone manage to use a thing for years and leave no visible marks of use or wear?

Back to the plot – for protection I mainly use Sugru. It’s perfect for creating bump corners – I’ve wrapped a small waterproof camera in it to protect the corners and the lens from being dropped or put down badly.

Sugru to protect from bumps, grip tape to avoid giving it the bumps

This is ideal, as I most often use this camera with cold wet hands on an open boat. The camera lives in an open plastic tool tray so needs all the protection it can get.

Before finding Sugru I used two-part epoxy putty to make things like a replacement for the plastic piece that fell off the end of a wind-on lever.

Although I no longer have it so can’t share pictures, I did make a remote release adapter for an autowinder. This was a bit of brass sheet that I bent and maimed until it fitted around the trigger button on the autowinder. I drilled a small hole and used a cable release to form a thread in the soft brass. This let me fit a long air release that ran inside my overalls and put the bulb in my hand. The camera was mounted on a bracket on the side of a crash helmet. The result was Heath Robinson’s version of a helmet-mounted camera. And yes, it worked.

Next to Sugru the other great find came from an article by 35hunter, and this is to use the sticky-backed grip tape that is used on skateboards.

This stuff is very good and could even be reversible, if you wanted to change the grip or sell the camera. I added a strip and a patch of tape to a Canon compact to provide grip for my fingers and thumb.

The tape has just enough ‘tooth’ to be grippy without being uncomfortable.


So since the grip tape came as a sheet large enough to cover a skateboard deck, I couldn’t just leave it at that. The obvious next step was the underwater housings for my diving cameras. Like the little Fuji compact, I’m usually handling these in water and wearing gloves. While the camera is usually on a tether, it’s useful not to let go of it in the first place.

What’s next in my mad plan is to replace the whole leatherette on a camera with grip tape. That’s a possible for the future though – I’ll wait to see which one starts peeling first.

So ok, not major modifications but practical, and they can be done without needing a 3d printer or workshop.

Pictures of other people

I can see this getting more difficult.

I know I’ve written before that I don’t see the point in taking pictures of people I don’t know or who are not doing something interesting, but this is different. What got me thinking was an article on Photofocus arguing that taking a picture of someone against their wishes was assault. It could be, but it also gives the power of claiming assault to anyone photographed in public. There was a recent case of someone apparently photographing women breastfeeding in public. The photographer may be a creep, there is not enough context to tell, but it shows a desire for legislation.

On the matter of context, I think that depends on the subject of the picture. If I’m taking a picture of a landscape (yawn) or a building and there are people in the frame, they are usually there as part of the scene (or because I couldn’t get a picture without people in it). The point of the picture is not the individual people: any people would do. This isn’t assault and I shouldn’t need their permission.

If I take pictures of people engaged in a sport or activity then, providing I am allowed to be there, I don’t need their permission. Their activity and skill is the point of the picture.

Dancing the Dark Morris

Even with individual people I think there is a difference depending on whether the person is identifiable or not. But this is also where it starts to get difficult, and it’s down to intent.

Different countries’ laws vary on public privacy. Some, like the UK and USA, have a basic assumption that whatever is visible in public is not private. Hence the argument over the breastfeeding women. It may be creepy but it’s legal.

Why is any of this important? Because it could become more difficult. If any new laws are passed that set limits on what we can photograph they are almost certain to be badly phrased and to restrict previous freedoms. I’m also worried that new laws get made from extreme cases, so end up as bad laws by that route. A ban on photographing people without permission is unworkable. A law that says anyone objecting to being photographed must have their picture deleted is equally unworkable and leads to threats and violence. I’ve seen it lead to threats even without legislation.

What do we do then? Perhaps if we are close enough to the subject for there to be interaction, we just ask if it’s ok? Perhaps it is just a case of being polite?

I’m not saying we should be scared, but I do think we should be mindful. I really don’t want to be confined to landscapes.

Updates – Apple now police your pictures, and legislation of some form is coming. Not that I take creepy pictures or even think people should, but I do worry what the result of these new rules will be.

Who do you follow?

Think of your favourite photographers. Got them? OK, now imagine telling your list to a group of photographers. Stressed?

Wouldn’t it be awful to name someone who wasn’t cool? Or someone that everyone has heard of. Maybe worse – to admit to not liking one of the grand masters. Virtue signalling is really hard, isn’t it? Perhaps I’ve got it wrong, but is it the same as describing your musical taste? We’d all like to be groovy but we all dance round the kitchen to something we wouldn’t have on our playlist. Just as we’d all like to be Cartier-Bresson but we still take selfies and landscapes.

Maybe it’s better to differentiate your influences from the people you follow. I definitely have influences: there is work I’ve seen that inspires me to try harder or try differently. I don’t want to copy it – I couldn’t – but it does lead me towards what I like, rather than random snapping. In terms of following, there are people I read and some I view; rarely both. The ones I read have interesting views or things to say but, to be honest, I’m rarely reading them for the pictures. There are a few people whose pictures I will look at. Most often they have very little to say.

The difference between influences and following is, I think, one of timing. My influences are most often historical to me: they are pictures that have existed and I later found. They fed into my preferences and helped me learn what to put into a picture and the types of subject and treatment I like.

Ralph Gibson?

Those I follow have something interesting to say right now. They won’t make me change direction but I can learn from them, or at least be entertained. What I am absolutely not going to do is try to drink from the firehose of Instagram or Facebook, or join their Red Queen race.

I’ll be open about my list though – I have no intention of sharing it. The pictures I like are my preferences. I can explain to myself why I like them but nobody wants to expose their taste to judgement, particularly when that judgement is likely to be superficial. Say for example that you studied the style of something shot by Leni Riefenstahl (NB – this is an example, not a confession) but hated the content and what it represented. Your understanding might be to recognise and avoid anything reminiscent of that in your own work. You might discuss your feelings for the work in a conversation, but you would avoid putting Riefenstahl down as an influence. You’d be happy to claim Margaret Bourke-White though. Saying that, I’m happy to share someone I follow, because it’s a useful resource. This is sharing a benefit and I hope other people would do the same.

Rob Lowe?

Do you know who your influences are? It’s an interesting exercise to compile a list and put a reason against each one. I wonder if it’s also useful to have a hate list as well as the hit list. If there is work that you really don’t like, understand why. Perhaps it’s also useful to be clear why you follow some work. The link I gave above is to a resource. It’s useful and, if I ever took that kind of picture, good to know. It certainly hasn’t made me want to light everything with flash though.

So there you have it – another grumble from someone who needs to get out more. And what does it mean to follow someone anyway?

Make do and mend

I had some lenses fixed.

Let me tell you how this came to pass. I’ve had some of my lenses for a long time, and I’ve accumulated an eclectic collection of glassware over the years along with some knackered cameras. I’ve had a couple of the cameras fixed – basically waking-up sleepy shutters. Then I found that a Pentax 135mm lens I hadn’t used for a while had a very sticky aperture. I also had a lovely old Pentax 35mm lens with the same. It worked fine at closing down when taking a picture but was very slow to open-up again.

So what to do? I could perhaps replace the lenses, but what would I do with the old ones? I doubt if I could sell them and I hate the idea of throwing them away. The answer was to get them serviced, for a couple of reasons.

First is that we shouldn’t be throwing things away that we can repair (which is why the right to repair is so important).

The other is that there aren’t that many people who can still mend cameras and lenses. If they can’t make a living, we lose them completely. (Although there is a new hope)

Seawater meets electronics

I had previously had a Pentax with a dragging shutter serviced, plus an Olympic Zeiss 180mm lens with a gummy aperture. These were done by APM in Newcastle, and they did a good job.

For the 135mm and 35mm I used Peggy’s recommendation of the Camera Repair Workshop in Milton Keynes. Another good job – the glass in these lenses now looks brand new as well.

What I need now is someone who can repair a Kiev 60 with a forced winding mechanism (don’t ask). The obvious thing would have been to send it to Arax, but getting a parcel to Ukraine seems to be more complicated than sending it to Mars (and about the same price). But there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the UK who can repair them. So I guess I’m planning a Mars mission.

Glue, perhaps?

So overall, mending and servicing gear is a good thing. It might be useful to have a list of menders, so here is my first draft. Feel free to send me details of other people you have used with good results and I will update this post.

I’m sure there are more. Indeed, I know there are more. Let me know if you have any recommendations. Or if you have a broken Kiev 60 with a working winding mechanism. Or any spare pies.