I’ve wasted more film shooting portraits of grass than almost anything else. It took me years to realise that a view that was magnificent, deep and structured to the eye looked small and insignificant to the camera.
It was all down to me of course. If only I had shot from lower down with a Joe Cornish rock ®️ in the foreground things would have been so much better. If only I had cooked the colours more (like a well known local calendar photographer who shall remain nameless). If only I had been there at Hernandez.
Instead I was usually on holiday with no specific intent to shoot landscape, it was just the thing that was in front of me at the time. There is also that thing where your partner is going “isn’t this fantastic?” and the correct answer is not “sure, but I’m not wasting film on it”. I lie: it was never my partner’s fault. I had it in my head that if I could see it, I should photograph it. And how do we learn but from our mistakes? Or rather, reflecting on our mistakes.
So yes, I’ve sure shot a shedload of shoddy snaps. The worst of these have got to be my landscapes. My only redemption is that I have tried to avoid the tripod holes and footprint grooves worn by previous generations of tourists. Seriously, if the picture is on every postcard you could buy, why are you making the same picture? Oh, I see, it’s because the picture is of you with the landscape/ edifice/ train crash in the background. Alien landing? Yep, that’s it just over my right shoulder. The picture is proof I was there. Otherwise you might think the camera went on holiday without me.
Saying that, I have a picture that I like very much indeed. It’s a landscape and I didn’t take it. I saw it in a gallery and my lovely partner remembered and bought it for me. It’s some smudgy shadows and a few dark shapes. It is also a brilliant evocation of a Dales farmhouse hunched in a hollow against the rain. That’s the kind of thing I would take, but the photographer has done it better. (Farm in Farndale, by Alan Clark)
There seems to be a canon of landscape photography that we all have to do to be a real photographer, like reading the classics. You’ve seen it and you’ve probably done it. You know the thing: long exposure of a river or waterfall, or waves. Trees alone and in groups on the skyline. A low-angle wide shot with flowers in the foreground expanding to the horizon beyond. Boats drawn up on the beach. With lobster pots if possible. Mountains seen from the car park. A jetty protruding from the point of view out onto a lake, preferably with long-exposure water. Yawn.
So what is the point of landscape photography? Is it to record what was there, or the nice weather at the time, or to see something that others didn’t? My worst landscapes are a poor record of what was there. Occasionally I’ve got what I saw in the scene and captured something more than just a record. Never forget the Filmosaur Manifesto though: a photograph has no meaning but what the viewer sees.
And why is the landscape category usually the most subscribed in any kind of photography competition? Is it because we think they make the best photographs, or that they keep still? Or are landscapes less challenging?
So what does the viewer want? What do people like about landscapes? My partner thinks that photos without people in are boring. I might have a superb moody, contrasty shot looking down Wast Water from the top of Great Gable and she will flick past it for the snaps of us gurning at the summit or holding hands in fear as we descend through Hell Gate.
But seriously, what makes a good landscape? Is there a difference between pictures of places you might never get to see, places that you might see but are rendered in a way that you would never find yourself, and pictures that just look nice? That picture of the Earth taken from the moon counts as both dramatic and rare. Ansell Adam’s pictures from Yosemite are places that I could one day visit, but never in the conditions that he saw them and rendered them. They are dramatic, and I would class them with my picture of the farm in Farndale: I like what the photographer has done with light.
And then there are the calendar shots. The calendar shots are the ones you see on posters and from stock libraries. These are the standard shots from the landscape canon above. You might see them on a calendar, but you’d never take one, right? You know what? Take the postcard shot; fill your boots, but then see if you can find the unseen or expressive view. Or just be honest about it and say “it’s nice to be here and look at this stuff, but I don’t need a picture of it”.
I’ve always had a thing for motorbikes. I got my bike licence before I could drive a car. Which caused a lot of fun when I was learning as the instructor’s car was a Leyland Mini. Apparently one is supposed to slow down for corners, even if the Mini romps them.
So, I liked bikes and I had a camera – what fun we could have! I had no interest in static bikes; nice to look at but boring. What I wanted was bikes in motion. Being the only one in my group who rode a bike meant that I either photographed other people or rode my bike without pictures. There was a huge roundabout near where we lived with a piece of hilly land inside. This became the local dirt track. There may have been a few lads with proper off-road bikes but the majority of us rode mopeds and stepthrus. I offer as a serious contender that the Honda 50 stepthru is brilliant off road: easy to control, centrifugal clutch and light enough to pick up or climb out from beneath. If there were two of you, you could lift them over gates and fences too.
Then it was commuting to work with two of us taking turns to ride or be pillion. Proper motorbikes, though, not the stepthru. Boredom as the pillion got the better of me and I started taking pictures from the back seat.
Then I discovered trials. Not that the cops caught up with me, but riding bikes off road over tricky obstacle courses. And not just any trials: classic trials. Modern trials bikes are so amazingly capable that they can be ridden up vertical cliffs and made to jump over gaps or obstacles. Fantastic to watch but it lacks a little in the gladitorial sense. Watching an old codger on an older bike wrestle it up a muddy bank when you can be close enough to hear their mutterings is sport made large.
Trials really need flash as they are usually held in the wet months and can be under trees. This requires some practice and skill, not just to avoid dazzling the rider but to get the exposure right for a dark thing against a dark background in a dark place. And while trials is all about low-speed control and balance, they can occasionally put on a spurt of speed. Then you could be contending with losing the background or having ghost images of the bike and rider. With film I was pretty much dependant on an automatic flashgun and the forgiving nature of colour print or mono. It would have been nice to have the flash sync on the second shutter curtain, but I had only heard of this being done by special camera modifications.
But I persevered, taking snaps, dodging errant bikes and occasionally helping retrieve the bike or rider out of holes or down from trees. I dropped out of it for a while when life got in the way and then some years later fancied going to see a local trial up in the Dales. Only this time I was digital. What a difference! My lens was an autofocus wide to standard zoom. My flashgun could talk to the camera to agree what the exposure was going to be. I could fire the flash on the second shutter curtain. I was like a pig in poo. OK, so the camera was only APS-C, so half the sensor size of my previous 35mm frame. (And microscopic compared to the time I shot a trial on medium format.) And yet, that weeny little sensor could resolve the engine numbers on the bikes. I’ve never had that with film. Chimping the shots meant that I could fiddle with the flash to ambient ratio to get some detail in the shadows without giving the riders a tan. Better yet, I didn’t have to change films in the rain or dust. Yay for digital!
In between watching the wobblers I continued to shoot road bikes. I did a shoot for the local bike club where they ferried me between corners on a series of bendy roads and then rode back along the route so that I could get action shots. It was a popular spot for local riders, so in the middle of shooting the sensible IAM riders an unknown loony came through, pulled a huge stoppie and then came back in the opposite direction on the back wheel. Respect!
I was given tickets to the Grand Prix at Silverstone as a present. I’d been to Silverstone before and tried to shoot on film. The results were variable, even if I did get a picture of Barry Sheen on an MV Agusta. The main problem was having a long enough lens. If I was close enough to get a reasonably-sized image I was shooting through the fence. If I stood up the banking to see over the fence, the bike became a small dot in the frame. So next time round I went digital. The joy of using an APS-C camera of course is that it has a crop sensor, so it makes your lenses longer. That and my choice of camera, which will take almost any lens made for an SLR or bigger.
So I loaded up with every long lens and medium format lens I owned. The medium format long lenses are perfect for this: I get 1.5x the focal length, a fairly wide aperture and I’m only using the central and sharpest bit of the glass. I couldn’t afford a 270mm f2.8 if I had to buy a real one, let alone the bigger combinations of lenses and teleconverters I was playing with. I also brought one of my few good ideas – a monopod with a plastic V attached to the top. You can set the lens in the notch and get decent steadiness without it stopping you from panning the shot. So compared to last time I could stand in the tiered public area by the hairpin and shoot over the top of the fence.
I know that the professional sports photographers use lenses that cost more than my car and can see that the moon landing was real. But I am the bunny of happiness when I can repurpose some Russian medium format kit and a forked stick.
I love the infra red effect. I like contrasty, dark, grainy black and white so the original Kodak IR film was marvellous. For my first go I didn’t have the special opaque filter but that was OK, it meant I could shoot it in an SLR without needing a tripod. So my one roll of high speed infra-red worked really well and gave me a taste for it.
Roll forward a few years. Kodak have stopped making their film but there is a Maco version. How hard can it be? Stick some in an old folding camera, stick a red filter on the front and expose at about 6 ISO. Pretty hard as it turned out. Very thin negatives. I need to get serious and do this properly. So I bought a square of special filter material: a piece of 720nm opaque IR filter. My thinking was that this would block wavelengths shorter than 720nm, so cutting out the visible part of the spectrum. Pop in a nice IR film that says it is sensitive down to 820nm and we should get glorious glowing Wood effect.
For my cunning plan to work I needed a good way of mounting the thin filter gel. Step forward the Agfa Super Silette. It’s a nice little rangefinder but not worth much. I don’t use it often so I would have sold it on eBay, but it’s worth less there than the effort of selling it. But if I were to convert it to an infra-red camera the punters would be wearing out their bid buttons for it. Plus, I would have some neat IR pictures.
So I carefully fixed a small rectangle of filter gel behind the camera lens. The Agfa has a rectangular mask in the body between the film gate and the back of the lens. It will be there to block the light that doesn’t fall on the film from bouncing around inside the camera. A perfect place for the filter. A couple of dabs of craft glue and some delicate work with tweezers and I had the perfectly-adapted dark-light camera.
So, in with a roll of Rollei 80s film and off we go on a sunny day at 3 to 12 ISO. The Rollei film has nice examples on T’interweb of IR effect through opaque filters. The Agfa being a rangefinder means that it doesn’t matter that you can’t see through the lens. Sorted.
What I got was a totally clear film. The leader and frame numbers were there, so it wasn’t that I had tried to develop it in fixer.
I had one remaining roll of dedicated IR film. Expensive and precious stuff, but it was sure to work. Work it did not. Another totally clear film. Now I’m stumped. Does the lens on the Agfa block infra-red?
This will be a developing post as I experiment. First step will be to prove it’s not the Agfa. If I use a bit of the 720nm filter on a different camera I will find out if the problem moves with the filter or stays with the camera. My memory is nudging me that one of my lenses has a special slot behind the rear element that will hold a bit of filter gel. If not I’ll bodge something with an old screw-in filter. I’m thinking the tests will be: no filter (proof the film is developed); red filter (some effect but not yet opaque); IR filter. If I rewind the film I can take the filter out of the Agfa and load the film into it. I can then do the same tests by putting the IR filter in front of the lens. That should show me that the film is OK, whether the Agfa is blocking IR or I did something stupid with the filter or film.
But if anyone can se what I am doing wrong, add a comment and put me out of my misery.
The historic, esoteric and mostly surpassed use of a light meter. Because all cameras have them built-in now, don’t they? Or you chimp it and make corrections. Or fix it in post -that’s what RAW files are for, no?
Incidentally – chimping. I was listening to a program on etymology, like you do, and they were discussing new words and changed words with the introduction of digital technologies. So the old salt Fleet Street photographers were gradually getting dig’ed up and what they saw was their colleagues pointing at the backs of their cameras and going ‘ooh, ooh’. Chimping.
And yes you can use autoexposure or the histogram or even drag something out of RAW. But my oldest camera is older than me and has nothing but a lens. Besides, I went through Zone phase where I wanted to spot-meter every object in the frame before agreeing with what the film packaging suggested was a reasonable exposure. First up though was an incident meter, because I had been told that this was the one true path to enlightenment. It could well be so for portraits, where you can put the meter under their nose and play with the lights. There is still some disagreement over how to meter backlighting though. But still, I got me an incident meter and proceeded to make a whole body of work with underexposed shadows. Fine for slides, as there is a chance of keeping some detail in the highlights. Crap for negatives. And total rubbish for any situation where you can’t walk out to where the subject is to take a reading.
So I tried an ordinary reflected-light meter. In this case a Leningrad that came in a strange-smelling leather case. Mixed results. If the scene was average and I pointed it in an average direction I got mostly average results. It lied like a sneaky thing when it got dark or if the light was in the cross-over range between the high and low measuring scales. The problem was that I seemed to spend my time taking pictures in minimal lighting. That and dodgy cameras with small-aperture lenses and inappropriate film. It still works and it’s small and robust enough to be the meter of choice when I need one. I’ve kind of learned its ways too, so there is a bit less transparency on my negatives than before.
For my Zone period I naturally bought a spot meter. A cheap and unpopular one off eBay, obviously. Oh, the fun I had metering things! I can see why people with large format cameras use spot meters for landscapes: anything else would have walked away by the time they were ready to take the picture. I can see a use for the spot meter though, in situations where the subject can’t be approached and is under different lighting to the rest of the scene. Something happening on stage perhaps. The meter is pretty big though and takes up space that I could use for an extra lens or camera. Did you see that news item where someone taking star photos on a beach in Ireland had the police called on them because they looked like a sniper? I wonder what would happen to me, walking around with a pistol that I keep raising to my eye? Imagine trying to use a Zenith Photosniper or an old Novoflex lens in public. We shouldn’t have to worry about these things.
I’m afraid I had an attack of the groovies and bought a Weston meter. It’s a think of beauty and just having it round your neck will make your pictures turn out better. It’s a way better reflected light meter than the Lying Bastard (the Leningrad). It’s also heavier and has more fiddly bits, so it just feels that it ought to be more accurate. The invercone business for taking incident readings is very fiddly though. My original incident meter works far better for this, not least because you can use it by holding it up in front of yourself. To use the invercone on the Weston you have to turn round and face away from the subject. No big deal, right? Try doing it when you are walking.
I got a narrow-angle Minolta Viewmeter 9 cheap. This looked ideal; it’s a half-way stage between a true spot meter and a standard reflected light meter. I guess the reason it was cheap is that it soon died. It’s on my desk at the moment with the lid off as I trace the wiring and solder joints. There’s a whole load of pulleys, strings and springs as well, so I am working up the nerve to lift the workings out of the casing. Hopefully not Fup Duck.
Weirdly, or maybe not, I’ve got a bit of plastic that works as well as any of my meters for general photography. It’s a Johnson Standard Exposure Calculator. Basically a numbered wheel set inside a numbered frame. Dial-in the type of scene, the weather, the month and time and the ISO and it gives you the exposure. It sounds complicated but it’s four movements of the dial. And it works. It says that it is based on the British Standard Exposure Tables BS 935, so it will work at this particular latitude north (or presumably south as well). For negative film it works great. It’s also tiny and lightweight. What’s not to love?
Basically it’s a sunny sixteen list, corrected for season and weather. I have an extended list in my notebook that gives estimates covering the range of -6 to 16 EV. I’ve also got notes I made over the ages (I do kinda miss those dinosaurs) that cover moonlight, the flare of a match and lit by flames. Sounds like a good night out. Strangely, I have actually used some of these. There does come a time when it’s so dark that the best you can do is guess, so it’s handy to have a starting point.
Still, it’s all fun and games as you try to get your eye in. I will continue to carry some form of light meter for the cameras that don’t have one of their own. I will continue to find myself struggling with dimness. But I’m learning.
I had a bit of a rant about photography clubs and judging in a previous post. Not that the man is down, but I feel a need to keep kicking. When I was still doing the club thing, one very interesting speaker we had wasn’t a photographer at all but an art teacher. You think photographers have it hard? We at least just deal with what is there. People who paint and draw can arrange anything to be anywhere, so they have to decide where every element of a picture is placed. What the art teacher said was that when you look at a picture, ask yourself why the artist arranged it that way, because they meant it. Painting and drawing aren’t just a slower version of photography.
It turns out there is even an eejit’s guide to composition: there are a set of well-known shapes that you can use to arrange things that are pleasing to the eye (try this for a starter). It turns out that putting the subject dead centre of the frame is only one of the options and may not be the best one. Like the painter and the scribbler, it appears that the photographer should take responsibility for choosing what is in the frame and where it falls. So I’ve heard judges suggesting that tension or balance could be improved by moving one of the elements. This is a useful ‘think of this next time’ response that could encourage reflection and learning. I’ve also heard judges criticise a picture because an object didn’t fall on a division of thirds, or because there were not an odd number of objects in the frame. Want to cause stress? Submit a square picture with the subject in the middle, or a rectangular picture with the subject in the wrong place. Or place a person at the edge of the frame, looking out.
Still, with Rule 10 of Lomography in mind, perhaps one should know what the rules are before breaking them? At least then the outcome was intentional, so that you can learn from it and develop it. Jackson Pollock didn’t just sneeze the paint onto his canvas. So yes, art is good. Look at lots of art. Some of those clever people could really squeeze a pencil and if the picture holds-up after even hundreds of years then there was some merit to it. There is no reason to turn into Oscar Rejlander though. If you feel yourself sliding into allegory, save yourself with the Filmosaur Manifesto. There’s also the Percy Principles of Art and Composition which I like. I think they boild down to: learn the rules, break the rules, learn. But don’t take it too seriously.
One thing I had a really interesting time with was cropping pictures to use as business cards. I wanted some of the Moo minicards, which are 5:2 ratio. This is much thinner than the 3:2 of a conventional 35mm frame. It’s very instructive to try and find the crop and when you do, you wonder what the rest of the picture was doing.
If I had more money than cents I would love a Hasselblad Xpan to shoot like this all the time. (I do have some alternatives though. I may write about them in future.) But cropping is free and can really change the tone of a picture. The Moo website offers the templates for their cards as downloads. Many a happy hour has been spent dragging photos onto the frame, resizing and rotating them. If the picture with the tree above is too puzzling, try turning it upside-down.
So there you go: composition. It’s one damn thing next to another.
That thing we all wish for but never attain… Not world peace or a flat belly: the perfect camera bag. It should hold everything I want to carry, slightly separated so the bits don’t rub together when I’m walking. A bit of padding so that I can put the bag down harder than I meant to without hearing the crunch of doom. Not so much padding that the bag becomes an inflexible cube: we want the not-a-camera-bag hipster look.
The contents need to be well organised so that the small bits don’t hide under the big bits. There needs to be enough space so that I can put something in the bag before taking something out. Think changing lens.
Weather resistance is good. I might want to put the bag down on a wet surface or take it out in the rain. And something like a zip is good for keeping out sand and dust if I’m in a messy place.
These days the bag might not just be carrying cameras. Mine usually has to fit-in a drink and snacks for the dog, a drink for my partner plus makeup, one or more mobile phones and a wallet. And sometimes it’s just a bag, carrying life’s daily drudgery while trying to send signals of groovy (I’m a commuting wage slave, yes, but you can see that I’m really a totally committed and artistic photographer).
My first bag was so uncool it hurts me even now. It was a rigid black box with a tab and press-stud closure and a black plastic strap. It had a few rigid internal divisions that separated my spare lens from my camera. Not well enough, as it turned out. I had one of those clever multifunction camera clamps – the thing that looks like a G clamp and promises to attach your camera to trees, fences and tabletops. That also was so uncool that the memory aches. So on a motorcycle journey with the bag of geekness strapped to the rear carrier my zoom lens gradually rotated against the G clamp. The result was a ring of bright paintless metal around the barrel of the lens.
Then there was the stylish but useless phase. This was a gorgeous pale tan leather bag I bought in Germany. I have no idea what it was meant for, but it was a rectangular block of stylish leather with no padding or internal divisions. So you accept that the kit is going to rub around a bit or you try and separate it with notebooks, scraps of cloth or old socks. Style darling; who needs substance? The bag gradually acquired patina. We fell out of love for a while while I was going through my middle-manager phase and then we got right back together and got our groove on. It is now the screw-fit bag: it holds a small outfit of M42 screw-fit camera, a couple of lenses and a light meter. I’m so hip with this on that my jeans go skinny and my socks disappear. And no, sorry, there is no room for the dog’s treats and water.
I went through a rather strange phase of trying one of those waistcoats with all the pockets. Just about the worst of all possible options, plus wearing one these days would get you shot on the Tube. This was replaced by an Army surplus belt with pockets. It was probably meant for ammunition or grenades. I thought I looked like Batman. The pockets were too small for anything other than a few rolls of film, so it was sold to someone who did a lot of marching and shouting at the weekend.
Then I got serious and went seriously large. This was the bag that could hold and organise everything. I could carry every lens I owned, every filter, all the extra focusing screens I had found for my Pentax (these were the days when camera shops had bins of stuff they couldn’t sell at a pound a pop). A light meter. Enough film for an expedition. A flashgun. There was nothing that could happen that wouldn’t find me ready. “F8 and be there”? I was there already and had every F thing I needed.
Difficult to carry though. In fact, difficult to lift. And really painful to carry after a few hours, even though it had a waist belt to supplement the shoulder strap. (I was still so uncool – I was the slacks and tank-top of photography).
It did come into its own when I went to photograph some bike racing at Silverstone. I took every long lens I owned and all the doublers and adapters. It was a beast to carry but that was really just between vantage points. I wish it had wheels.
Then it was my desert years of whatever bag came to hand that could carry all the stuff I had to schlepp about and could squeeze a small camera into the corner. It’s a testament to the basic toughness of most cameras that nothing broke or was even damaged beyond the expected dirt and scratched paint.
So I bought a Lowepro bag. This was one of their single-strap rucksacks that you could slide round to sit across the front of your hips, unzip the side of the bag and use it like one of those trays the people use to sell ice cream in theatres. Brilliant idea and execution. And it was on sale. This was the bag I used to take pictures of seals in a sandstorm as it kept all the lens-changing above the main body of windblown sand. It’s the perfect bag for a dedicated photographer-in-action who doesn’t have to carry anything else. Which is why on the hills I use a conventional rucksack with the camera kit sharing space with water, weather protection, navigation and all those other little things that keep you out of the news. Great bag for a dedicated photo occasion though, as long as you don’t mind your partner disowning you.
Then came the bag porn. Lledar in North Wales make leather bags. They have sales. They were discontinuing a model called Bailey. It was mine. This is a bag of such style that my partner will even allow me to carry her makeup, bottle of Coke and hairbrush. A dark leather messenger bag that is getting better with every crease and stain. It has padded dividers and pockets so that I don’t have to empty the bag to find the car keys. My life was complete. Nearly.
Incidentally – messenger bags. I was commuting by motorbike and wanted a tough over-the-shoulder bag that would carry everything. I got one of the big canvas bags that Royal Mail use (or used, they all seem to drive trolleys these days). It was the business: thick strap, big, canvas, large flap over the top to close it. Except when the wind lifted the flap when I was buzzing along at around 60mph. The bag turned instantly into a drogue chute. I now know why military jets use them for braking. (Parachutes, not shoulder bags).
So now I’m in bag heaven. I have the beautiful Bailey that carries a good chunk of kit, or a useful bit of kit plus some of life’s other essentials. There is another Lledar messenger bag that will take a compact camera, a wallet and a few bits. (Did I mention they have sales?). I still have the German bag for screw-mount days. And a rather useful waxed cotton bag that seals with a zip. It’s not an obsession. I could stop any time.
I admit to a thing about rangefinders. It makes no practical sense; why use a camera that can only focus a limited range of lenses that have to be specially made for it, that can’t show you what might be in sharp or soft focus, can’t frame accurately and lets you shoot all day with the lens cap on? (Ask me how I know this) Oh, and if you leave the lens cap off it will focus sunlight onto the shutter curtains and burn a hole through them.
But in many ways, the difficulty is the pleasure. And rangefinders do have some benefits.
Rangefinder lenses are easier to make and can be of simpler designs – there is no need to make room for the mirror of an SLR. The aperture doesn’t need to shut and close as you press the shutter, and the lens does’t strictly have to signal to the camera what the aperture is doing. That’s not to say that all rangefinder lenses are cheap – take a look at some of the Leica or Zeiss prices, and you won’t buy a Canon 50mm f0.95 on anything less than Bill Gates’ pocket money.
Rangefinder cameras can be smaller than SLRs and sometimes lighter, unless you are comparing a Kiev 4 with a Pentax MX. There is less going on inside the box, so a rangefinder should be quieter than an SLR and shake less when you press the shutter. Certainly I have an old Ricoh SLR that sounds like I’ve dropped a saucepan on cobbles when I take a picture. Best of all is my beloved Olympus XA which is whisper quiet, genuinely pocket sized, has an answer to the lens cap problem and a great lens.
And yet, I still find myself lugging a Zorki around, or an old Agfa Super Silette. I really think that it is because the difficulty is part of the pleasure.
If I have a job to do or a specific result in mind, I will use the appropriate kit. I would never use a rangefinder for shooting action at long distance with a big lens. This is what SLRs excel at. But I will happily take a rangefinder with me when I’m out walking. Sometimes it’s the convenience – the only thing lighter than my XA is my wallet. But most of the time it’s because I have to think and overcome the awkwardness. Part of my pleasure in photography is the pictures I make, part is the enjoyment of the process of making them. Having to make decisions, to make deliberate choices between alternatives, adds to the sense of engagement with the final product. I can think “I made this look like this” rather than “I held the camera and pointed it the right way while it did this”. Which is often better expressed as “I cocked this up all by myself”. Don’t get me wrong – I love autofocus and autoexposure and zoom lenses and RAW files that I can get something out of even if I have butchered the settings. At some point I’ll post about the differences in shooting motorcycle sport on film and on digital. Just take a look at the earlier post about my voyage into underwater photography – digital rocks!
But still I wander about with a poorly-assembled Russian rangefinder and a lying bastard light meter, or a 1960s family snapshot camera with a modest lens and a slightly misaligned focusing image. It pleases me to have to work at it. And that I don’t have to try and use an Argus C3.
Or how to annoy just about everyone at the camera club.
I shouldn’t knock camera clubs. They can be fantastic places to learn. As a group you have the means to get interesting people to talk to you: you can give them a decent-sized audience and can afford to pay them, plus you can spread the costs amongst the members. I’ve seen some fantastic speakers and images that I would never otherwise have had the chance to. But what is it about club competitions? Verily is it written that comparison is the thief of joy.
I love looking at other people’s pictures, and seeing the different approaches and interpretations of a theme is an education. I believe that creativity thrives under constraint, so setting a theme or conditions triggers the whack-a-mole to escape the limits and pop-up elsewhere. But awarding points and prizes? What makes a photograph better? And what is it with people now that they have digital cameras? Was everyone so very concerned with sharpness and detail in days of yore?
Does anyone remember the photography year books? They were a curated set of images drawn from all over the world (or the bits that were free to contact the publisher). My pal and I used to borrow every one we could get from the library and critique every picture like old pros with camera-bag shoulder and dev-stained fingers. I’ve looked back at a 1980 copy I found in a charity shop. Whether it was the printing or the source material, some of the technical quality is rough. (There is also a huge deference to anything to do with the British royalty, which really stands out) But that’s not the point: I still get a thrill from seeing a different way of looking or presenting. So why the fascination with sharpness? I have an opinion that a photo needs to be sharp enough to see what the photographer intended but it is not the most important attribute.
Perhaps the interest in sharpness was a carry-over from the swap from film to digital. The early digital cameras had less resolution than film and prints had a strange flat, posterised sort of look. You could tell digital because it lacked detail or tonal variation. So perhaps it was the joy of seeing fine detail emerge as the technology improved that led the race for resolution. There was a push for pixels as we went from three to five to ten to whatever, and then there was the discussion about having the right type of pixels on the right size of sensor. But when the best you can say about a picture is that it’s sharp, I think the plot has been lost.
Digital cameras now routinely outperform 35mm film with huge resolution and dynamic range and the ability to pick whatever ISO you want for individual shots. And amusingly, there is now a growing interest in using classic lenses with lower resolution and more aberrations. I used to think bokeh was something you bought for Mother’s Day. Now there are people who are more interested in the background than the subject. How many pictures of flowers do we have to see with out of focus backgrounds, where the point of the picture is the nature of the blur?
The mighty Hamish Gill wrote a very good article on his 35mmc site about bokeh. Basically, it’s either good or bad. Good means that it either contributes to the picture or is not distracting. Bad is when it’s ugly or distracting.
I must admit to never thinking about it beyond being able the throw the background out of focus to separate the subject or lose things I didn’t want to see. I think the market and reviews at the time were all about how many lines per millimetre a lens could resolve. I knew that some of my kit gave pretty shabby results if the lens was wide open, but I didn’t really have an alternative.
Then I started listening to the Classic Lenses podcast and learned a new four-letter word. Lenses I thought were crap were actually cult. Fuzzy was cool again. I wasn’t though: I admit to getting all my lenses together and arranging a blur-off in the garden. A head-sized foreground object with surface texture (a football; no family members were harmed in the making of this experiment) and a white object with linear detail in the background (a garden bench). And yes, I admit that the direct comparison was interesting. Some lenses give a sort of clumped look to the out of focus areas and some showed an odd effect in the closely-spaced white lines of the bench. A couple had a background so smooth it was like fog. And you can get the nicest portrait lens effect for peanuts using an old slide projector lens. So then I snap my fingers and I’m back in the room. In real life I am likely to remember only the main points of the comparison, and I could have guessed those without the test just based on my experience of using the things. It’s useful to have the confirmation though, all in one place.
The classic lens thing may have gone a bit far though when I see wide-angle lenses advertised as bokeh monsters. Really? Only if the monster ate your bokeh. And the whole thing about how many blades you have in your aperture? That’s something that only magicians’ assistants should worry about. Luckily I bought my bad lenses when they were just bad, so cheap. Who’s the silly cult now, then?
But back to the idea of sharpness. The Professional Photographers of America use 12 criteria in judging photographic prints. None of them is lens resolution. By some quirk of synchronicity I heard someone on a recent podcast saying that the most import three from the list of twelve were lighting, composition and impact. What, nobody is going to dock me points if my lens isn’t sharp enough? How many times though have I heard a judge at a club photo competition remark that a picture is very sharp or well exposed? It’s like praising a rally driver for changing gear.
So a little devil appeared on my shoulder. I put pictures in that had motion blur or poor resolution because they were taken in the dark on dodgy film or a wonky lens. Or had extreme grain or contrast. It was very childish. It helped me get over competing and comparing, as I set out to have the worst pictures in the room, and let me concentrate instead on analysing what I liked about what I was seeing. And I’m happy for you if your camera has more pixels than mine and your lens can resolve atoms. This is why I love the Sunny 16 Cheap Shots Challenge – it’s less about “look at the coma on that” and more “that was a stroke of luck”. More power to them.
“What sort of camera do I need to take action photos while I am (insert activity)?”
You will be glad to know that the answer is “whatever you’ve got”. As long as you can afford to have it destroyed. Or carrying and using it won’t kill you. Cameras are tools, not jewels.
I think my first adventure was borrowing my parents’ Instamatic to go rock climbing when I was in the scouts. Or rather, I borrowed the camera and confessed to the rock climbing later. Instamatics are pretty tough providing you don’t drop them, but pretty basic too.
My first go on my own dime was sea-cliff climbing. I had a Kodak 620 folding roll film camera and the film box to read the exposure from. It was the only camera I had, so it was the one I used. This was when old folders were as cheap as chips though, so my maximum loss if I fell off or dropped the camera would have been the pictures I’d already taken.
From then on it was a case of using what I had.
The least handy was a Lubitel. Its large size was partly offset by its light weight but it was a bugger to use and even worse if you didn’t have both hands free. It could only be focused on a central spot in the middle of the viewfinder, and only then if you used the pop-up magnifier. Great quality negatives though.
I did try to make a helmet-mount for when I was planning to do a charity parachute jump. I had an auto-exposure Pentax with a power winder. With a bit of drilling I mounted it on a flash bracket bolted to the side of an old rock-climbing crash helmet. A bit of bent and drilled alloy gaffer-taped to the winder gave me a mounting for one end of a cable release to press on the firing button. I had one of those long air releases with a squeeze bulb. I could route this down through my overalls, placing the bulb in one hand and hiding the slack inside my clothing. Wide angle lens on the camera set to the hyperfocal distance and we’re off. Or not. The response at the parachute school was “take that off, you bloody eejit”. Apparently having a heavy and tangle-prone weight on the side of one’s head and making one’s hand unavailable for pulling the reserve handle was a bad idea.
I reprised the helmet thing again recently in an attempt to make a hands-free video camera mount for when I’m diving. As usual one could spend money and do it right, or bodge it for cheap. So I bought a building site hard hat – a scaffolder’s one that had a minimal peak and a chin strap. The plan was to drill a chain of holes along the top so that it wouldn’t trap air. But in practice the difference between theory and practice is greater than theory predicts. I hadn’t reckoned on two things. The first was that the camera, devoid of its usual light bracket and grip, was slightly buoyant. The other was that in British waters I wear a neoprene balaclava hood. The helmet would fit over my head plus hood easily, but there was no chin to tighten the helmet strap against. So the first time I dived with it the helmet tried to stay on the surface, and then wobbled about like a sad little windsock. All was not lost though – I have used the helmet for things on dry land (despite the odd looks) and when I needed to visit a construction site. I covered the holes with reflective tape and ignored a fresh set of odd looks.
Caving? That’s what plastic bags are for. Admittedly the camera was inside a poly bag and also inside an old army ammunition box surrounded by bits of foam. This is the perfect use for the autofocus 35mm compacts from the 90s. Some of these cameras are pretty capable and have sharp lenses. It’s easy to back them up with a few old (cheap) electronic flashes linked to slave triggers. I use slave cells with a hot shoe built in, and the flash plus slave can be left sealed in a ziplock clear plastic bag. And if it all turns to worms you can usually save the film and be out of pocket for the price a couple of London beers.
Motorcycling? Only as a passenger, unless you want to leave your legacy in pictures from the point of impact. And as a passenger, make sure that you can’t drop the camera and that there is no strap dangling anywhere. Actually, you might be better risking dropping the camera than attaching it to yourself with a strap. You will also need at least one hand free to hang on. I know your mate driving the bike is an expert and smooth as butter, but you will at some point need to make a grab for support. Oh, and keep still! Shifting your weight can steer the bike. (I’m sorry Brian, if you read this, I really did think we were going to hit that car. ) The most impressive people in the world at doing this are the ones who cover cycling events. To see a bike being ridden slowly and smoothly through a buzzing swarm of cyclists and spectators while the pillion is stood on the pegs, twisting and turning, is a sight of great beauty and awesomeness. Seeing the pillion facing backwards to film the peloton from the front shows great trust and practice. Don’t try this at home.
There is a previous post about my adventures trying to take pictures underwater. Long story short is that splashproof cameras are great and even the cheaper ‘plastic bag’ housings work. Rain is still a problem though. Prior to all these clever digital SLRs with weather-sealing I’ve had to leave the camera and lenses in the airing cupboard for a week to dry out. It didn’t seem to do them any long-term harm and I’ve never had the dreaded lens fungus. Oh, and sand is nasty too. I went to photograph the seals at Donna Nook and there was a fairly strong wind blowing. If you walk out to where the seals are, there was a enough sand blowing at up to about waist height to start building dunes against any seal that kept still. This was not the place to put the camera bag down. I was using one of those clever sealed digital SLRs, but the lens was from an old medium format camera and had generous clearances. I’m glad to say that it wasn’t too crunchy afterwards. If the wind had lifted the sand any higher though, I wouldn’t even have been able to see the seals.
So yes, do as the Americans say and run what yer brung. But do expect a bit of Fup Duck now and then.
I’ve always wanted to take pictures underwater, ever since I learned to snorkel. I had no idea at the time how pictures were made, but I’d seen Jacques Cousteau and it didn’t look that hard.
Roll forward a good few years and I was at University, with a chance to go hosteling in Israel during the summer. This meant a chance to go to the Red Sea, and I knew that was a good spot. After a bit of research I bought a Ewa Marine housing for my SLR. Basically a tough plastic bag with a glass disk fitted for the lens and a glove protruding into the bag so you could work the camera. (They still make them: see the Ewa Marine U-FX). Good for about ten metres, and I didn’t expect to get anywhere near that with a snorkel. My camera had an aperture priority mode. Slap on a 28mm lens, do a bit of hyperfocal distance setting and I was ready to roll.
It mostly worked. Leave aside the difficulty of diving with bag of air in your hand – so many times I did the perfect surface dive to get down with the fishes, only to find myself rising back to the surface feet first. It did teach me that colour fades rapidly with depth, even in clear water. There is also that whole thing about refraction – what looked huge, toothy and dangerous to my eyes became a distant and timid minnow to the wide-angle lens. But I was so hooked – the camera and housing worked perfectly and I was the new Jack Custard.
A few years later – different partner, different place, but the same camera and a chance to try some scuba diving. Out came the trusty housing. By this time it was looking its age – the plastic was cloudy and felt a bit stiff. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, as it turned out. Except the buoyancy thing was even more pronounced and Ewa were right about the dive depth: get it down to ten metres or so and the bag squeezed enough to make operating the camera difficult. There was also the issue of the drop-off of light with depth. It’s all very well setting the lens on f8 but when the shutter goes clunk…. count to five… clunk you just know you’re going to get a bit of movement blur.
The Ewa housing got used just a couple more times in a swimming pool before it was retired with campaign medals and good service award.
The whole Blue Planet thing went a way for a few years until the kids were of an age that they wanted to spend all their time in the pool on holiday. I bought some long-forgotten charity shop point-and-shoot horror to get back into the groove. Whatever the camera was, all I can remember is that it was useless and yellow. And then it broke.
Next stop was a Canon Sureshot A1, not really a diving camera but waterproof. What a revelation compared to the previous yellow monster – the Canon had a sharp lens, good autofocus and with the flash on gave cracking results on colour print film. It never went deeper than paddling, but it was brilliant. Until the catch on the rear door snapped off. Then it was effectively a paperweight.
So all this puts in perspective that I fancied myself as an underwater photographer, but all I’d really done was a bit of snorkelling. So then I learned to scuba dive. And what I wanted was a super sexy fantastic camera with several flashes and a housing. Or a Nikonos. I really fancied a Nikonos. What I actually did was to buy something cheap to learn on. I found a Sea & Sea Motormarine II with flash and wide-angle lens. This is like my lusted Nikonos in that the aperture and focusing are manual. How hard can it be? Set the aperture for the flash, estimate the distance, Bob’s your uncle.
So then began the most difficult thing I have ever done photographically.
Let’s start with framing. You are wearing a mask. It is impossible to get the camera up to your eye, and if you did you can see only a fraction of the centre of the field of view. Pre digital we used to fit a big frame to the top of the camera housing to help point the camera at the subject. For macro work you would have a frame held out in front of the camera to mark the plane of focus and field of view. If you are photographing sea slugs you’re buggered if a blue whale swims past, as however you set the camera up is how it stays until you are back on the surface.
Then there is focus. Refraction in water and through the flat glass plate of the mask makes things look bigger and closer than they really are. So do I focus on what I think the distance is, or what I could calculate it to be? And by then the fish has gone home for its tea.
Exposure – not so bad if I’m using flash but relying solely on the magic lightning means the background – the body of water behind the subject – will go black. Balancing flash with ambient is easy on the surface but this Motormarine thing has no meter.
Insufficient limbs. I could do with an extra couple of arms. Bracing myself to avoid drift in a swell or current, aiming a torch to look under rocks or give the camera some idea of what to focus on, adjusting the angle of the flash and the camera settings and tending to the other few jobs that keep one alive underwater can get busy. Couple this with an old man’s inability to focus on anything closer than arm’s length also means I either guess what the camera settings are or use that extra hand to hold a plastic magnifying glass.
And then there is the sheer bloody awkwardness of the whole thing. The camera has to be tethered to the diver. The tether has to allow a long option so that you can hold the camera out to arm’s length plus a short option to attach it to your jacket. Every other thing you take with you as a diver has probably also got a tether, plus you are draped in hoses, straps and D rings. A camera with a flash attached is like an octopus with rigor mortis, cunningly designed to slip a stiff little limb through anything it can tangle. When I was learning to dive I would regularly be swimming along, followed by a little cloud of belongings bobbing along on lengths of bungee cord. (I still do this) Then I would surface at the boat and someone would helpfully offer to take my camera. I then had to admit that I had no way of letting go of it until I was on the boat, sat down and could start unclipping things.
The Motormarine did its job though – I learned what I really wanted. I wanted auto-focus, auto-exposure and a screen on the back so that I could see what I was pointing the camera at. And much though I still lusted after a Nikonos, it was way too much of a struggle. So I dig’ed-up.
Say hello to a Canon Powershot A70 plus housing. OK, so it’s a 3mp camera, but it was good to 40 metres. I also found a very neat Sea & Sea flash that worked off a slave cell, so my kit was complete. I still couldn’t see the tiny symbols on the camera or its screen, but I learned how to switch macro on and off and left it at that.
With my happiness complete, the housing then flooded and killed the camera. Note to self and a nod to the duck: check the O ring is clean before diving.
No probs, get another one off eBay. They were old and therefore cheap. Except old meant rare. I did find one and it worked for a few months before dying. Look again, and the remaining examples were more than I was willing to pay – £18 for something I could kill in a month? And still only 3mp? So I made the jump to a Canon Ixus plus housing with 4 enormous megapixels and a combined price of less than the old A70. It’s a shame really – I have a Canon Powershot A590 that would do the job very well indeed (especially with the CHDK hack installed), but I can’t find a housing for it. Anyone want a housing for an A70?
In the meantime, and because you can’t keep a determined idiot down, I got one of those action video cameras with a housing. Actually my wife got it for me, I think she realised that something that had only an on/off switch was more likely to work in my hands. This of course is truly brilliant – superb very wide-angle lens and a neat and small housing. There is no viewing screen on the back of this camera, but I’ve got a bit of plastic water pipe taped to side of the housing: hold the camera out at arm’s length, sight down the pipe and shoot. This worked very well with some very playful seals in Farne Islands, especially as I can save single frames out of the video as stills. There is no way I could ever have tracked the seals with a stills camera or managed the whole focus, frame, shoot thing. Highly recommended.
So that’s where we stand with underwater cameras. Except the desire for a rufty-tufty splash and dirt proof camera never left me with the death of the Canon A1. eBay, purveyor of needful things to the lustful, offered me a Minolta Weathermatic in a tasteful yellow. Why yellow? Well, as ani ful no, there is meaning to the colour of things: black ones are sexy, red ones are fast and yellow ones float. So the Minolta is packed with the finest array of late 1980s electronics inside its little yellow shell. Which lasted about two years before the lens locked at minimum focus and then the camera died. Even taking it apart revealed nothing that was obviously blown or burned-out so it went to join the Canon A70.
This was replaced, thanks to a review on 35mmc, with a Genba Kontaku: a site-foreman’s camera from Japan. Yet again, very little money was harmed in this transaction. This developed a nasty rattle from something loose inside on its way over. The seller was very helpful and offered to replace it, but I opened the casing and used a bit of BluTack to hold down what appeared to be the flash capacitor. Simples, and no problems since.
So I’m set, with just the barest minimum of learning-by-failing and just the occasional hint of Fup Duck. I’ve yet to dive the mighty Ixus in earnest, but I’ll be taking the housing in on its own to check it’s ok.