No turn left unstoned

What is the worst thing you can say on social media about photography? I think it’s “what do you think of my pictures?”. Let slip the trolls of yawn.

The best advice I heard on advice was from Abby Honold on Twitter, who said “don’t take criticism from people you wouldn’t ever go to for advice.”

This was covered in more depth, and a lot more characters, by Agnes Callard. She makes a distinction between advice, instructions and coaching. You give someone instructions on how to achieve a goal that leads to a further goal. Her example is telling someone how to get to the library. Ours could be “this is how you load film into your camera”.

She defines advice as combining the impersonal and the transformative. You could think of it as “instructions for self-transformation”. I believe that she is saying that instructions are how to do a thing. Advice is instructions on how to improve in your chosen direction. This makes coaching advice given by someone who has a relationship with you and some investment in your development.

So what does a self-professed expert in photography whom you have never met or spoken to give you instructions that develop you along your chosen path? Or do trolls seek prey? Does the Pope shave in the woods?

I think the answer, on any kind of open forum, is not to ask for general advice or criticism. If you do ask, make it specific: limit the scope. Asking “what do you think?” encourages people to do something they are not very good at and what you get is opinion, not advice. Ask a specific like “is the contrast too high in this shot?” or “does this need more depth of field?” and you are more likely to get a relevant reply. Be aware though, that unless the respondent really knows what they are talking about, you might be listening to an uninformed opinion.

How do you tell if an opinion is useful? The criticism should be of the work, not the photographer. It should describe what an improvement might look like. It might describe some of the difficulties you encountered, which shows the person has experienced them too.

If you want to here criticism done right, listen to some episodes of the Shutters Inc podcast. Try episode 437 as a starter. The pictures are on their website, so you can see directly what Glynn is telling Bruce. This is constructive commentary about the pictures, delivered in a form that can be directly used to make changes. There is also a comparison picture at the end where Glynn edits one of the pictures to show what he was describing. Stuff like this you can carry around in your head to use when it’s your turn to take pictures.

And perhaps a good response to anyone who does give you a piece of their mind is to ask how they did it differently and show you examples. We can all learn, but we should be learning how to improve rather than fight.

No path
So what do you think of my picture? Or does it lead us nowhere?

Or there is always the mature and considered response my old boss used to give to people he disagreed with – “go stick your head up a dead bear’s bum”. Which is completely contrary to the previous paragraph, but funnier.

Shiny! Faster! Better!

Have you seen how the sales of cameras is shrinking? A 24% drop in shipped cameras worldwide in 2018, which just follows the trend of the last years. The shipped cameras last year were about 20% of those sold in 2010 (meaning there has been a reduction of 80%). And while the market for cameras and lenses is shrinking, the price is going up (as you might expect). Don’t criticise Fuji for raising the price of their film when the whole of photography is becoming a niche market.

It’s mobile phones wot done it, of course. Plus that most people want a picture, not a camera. It’s like electric drills: what you want is a hole, not a drill. But you can’t buy a bag of holes (and if you did, the bag would be empty when you got back from the shop). So a drill is the necessary evil to achieve holeness.

In years past my parents had a camera. It came out for occasions and holidays and when the prints came back from Boots they would typically have a Christmas at each end and a summer holiday in the middle. My parents didn’t care about photography: they just wanted pictures. My mum still brings up the school trip I went on when I took the family camera and came back with pictures of bins. I thought it was art: my parents thought it was a waste of money.

Coach trip 10019
Not my school trip…

I think my parents were typical of most people. What they want is a convenient result without the faff. If someone has a smartphone with them there is no need to go looking for the camera, find a battery or charge it, and that whole fumbling foreplay that makes you wish you had just stuck with a good book and kept your socks on.

And smartphones are becoming increasingly capable. Why would you spend the effort and money in trying to find a good camera when, for the times you need one, you have one in your pocket?

I've done a Jacques
This is a very poor quality digital camera shot, taken while moving, a la Lartigue.

So high-quality cameras that can take different lenses always were a niche item, and now they are becoming a niche within a niche. And if a manufacturer has to spread the cost of research and development across fewer sold items, those units are going to increase in price.

A few weeks back we were staying with some friends. Their younger boy was making slo-mo videos of the dogs jumping for thrown footballs, or lying on the ground to take pictures of one of the dogs running towards him. He didn’t need a better camera than his phone. He was experimenting, then immediately reviewing the results, learning and adapting his methods. The results were fantastic, and a direct result of throwing away everything he started with. This kid stands to be a great future film-maker and a traditional camera would only have slowed him down or made his parents nervous of what he was doing.

So what is happening with the cameras themselves? Feature-bloat. We are very clever monkeys, and we constantly learn how to make things better, faster and cheaper. What started as exotic rapidly becomes commonplace. In other technology areas such as computing we have Moore’s law to express how we keep innovating. [As an aside, this is why one could get annoyed at things like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones: we are supposed to accept a society that has remained pre-industrial for hundreds or even thousands of years? I highly recommend The last Ring-bearer by Kirill Eskov as an antidote.] Where was I? Feature-bloat. When your camera/ TV/ car becomes too complex to use to its full potential, you are paying a premium for what the marketing people think will sell.

It works though – we do like shiny. It brings bragging rights if your car can do twice or more times the national speed limit, your watch has more hands, your camera can make toast. There used to be a great advert for the Citroen 2CV that played on this. They said it was faster than a Ferrari (because at its top speed of 72mph it would easily overtake a Ferrari doing 60). It had central locking, but only because the driver could reach all of the doors. There is something to be said for the Russian approach to cameras (and tanks) that what it doesn’t have can’t break.

On the other hand, there are some people who will use the extra capabilities. I can’t see myself needing 30 frames a second, or even 14, but there will be people who do. So I can only hope that there is a more basic model in the line-up so I’m not paying for what I don’t need.

So where is my whinge taking me? Technology marches on, both because we can and because it encourages us to buy the new thing. But the camera market is shrinking, so the costs of development have to be recouped from fewer sales and prices must rise. The camera market is shrinking because people want pictures and not cameras and there are more convenient alternatives. I’m told you can even use a smartphone to make phone calls.

What’s the alternative? By all means buy cameras, lenses and film. This is the only way that the manufacturers will continue to make stuff. I can’t afford to chase upgrades and shiny, so I fully expect that the end is nigh for the types of camera I might buy. I could wish that one of the big makers would bring out a simple model with basic features that they would sell and support for multiple years into the future, but where is the margin for them in that? Within a month a competitor will have brought out a similar model with one extra feature, or the manufacturer themselves will have brought out a MkII model and made the first one worthless. Incidentally, I wish more of them were like Pentax who announced an upgrade path for the K1.

So this effectively leaves me using the cameras I have until they break or buying second-hand kit as the owners move on. At least I can take some comfort that my buying of secondhand kit allows other people to buy new. And there is nothing wrong with an old camera – what was great five years ago is still great and older mechanical stuff can still (while the skills still exist) be repaired, so I can ignore the braggers. Remember: comparison is the thief of joy.

I’d better get used to being a recursive niche though, and learn to use my smartphone camera better.

Unius fit multis*

* The opposite of e pluribus unum, as any fule kno.

Recently I have become a film tart. Not that I was ever truly monogamous, but I have had – still have- some serious long-term relationships. HP5 and me go way back. It’s never let me down. I have let it down many times, but I am a bad person.

With the rise of mistakenly-moribund film from its beckoning grave, there are suddenly a range of head-turning and slinky alternatives on parade. I have been tempted by the fruit of another. My previous taste for only one has become a curiosity for many. (Yes, still talking about film)

So why the new squeeze? Curiosity. That and the fact that changing just the film can change everything. Why faff about trying to get the Tri-X look or the Ektachrome look in digital, when you can just load a roll and get the real thing? So what types of film am I dallying with?

Filllum

  • Ilford Pan F. A prize from the Sunny 16 cheap shots challenge. Not sure what to do with this yet.
  • Adox HR-50. Fancied the idea of a very contrasty film that has been pre-flashed to tame it. I might do something with this and the Pan F together.
  • Rollei Retro 80s. I’m going to run this through my IR-converted Agfa camera.
  • Silberra Ultima 160. Just fancied seeing what it was like.
  • Rollei Ortho 25. To try some rugged-effect male portraits.
  • Kodak Colorplus 200. 7 Day Shop had a deal on a pack of 10. This is destined for the underwater cameras.
  • Kosmo Foto 100 in 120 and 35mm. A staple favourite.
  • Fomapan 400 and 100. More of the above.
  • 5302 Release film from the FPP. A blue-sensitive copying film that rates around 1 ISO. May need a tripod.
  • Expired Fujicolour 200.
  • Foma Retropan 320 Soft. Female portraits and maybe a bit of old-looking buildings.
  • Kodak High Definition colour print. Expired.
  • Kodak Proimage 100. As above – to play with.
  • One roll of redscale hand-rolled. To play with.
  • Fay’s quality color print 100. Expired 1999. Actually made by 3M. To be used for something daft.
  • A small reel of lith film, around 8 ISO. Meant to be used for copying negatives to make slides. Worth a play. I might run this against the 5302.
  • Kentmere 400. Because I cannot be untrue.

It might be worth me getting a C41 developing kit. I’ve never done colour before, but I have the expired films to learn on.

Looking at the list though, I realise that once one falls off the straight and narrow, things get rapidly quite curly. To stick with the theme, these films were whispering ‘take me I’m yours’ when perhaps I should have stayed with black coffee in bed.

The colour print film is easy to explain: if I’m taking a film camera underwater then I might as well capture colour. Even though most British water is like swimming in gazpacho and I will be capturing shades of green.

Who knew it could snow underwater?

Now there’s an idea – different colours of the spectrum get absorbed at different rates by water. Red drops off rapidly, but blue penetrates furthest. I wonder what would happen if I shot an orthochromatic black and white film underwater? The low ISO would be a pain, but if I use flash I will be putting back the missing red light. So I could put a blue filter on the flash. This is all getting silly. The whole point of using flash underwater is to reveal the colours – grey things in a grey-green world go street carnival with a lick of strobe. So why try to make the colour separation even worse? Maybe because I’m curious – shooting flowers in UV light reveals how insects see them. I wonder if fish see things through an ortho filter* and what their world looks like? And then I realise that ortho film would ignore the red component of the flash anyway, so it could work… (And this is how daft adventures begin)

Back to Plan A – the colour print is for the fishes, the mono is for land. I can see that I have some fun and games ahead. Come on then film; some fantastic place awaits.

* Yes, they do. That’s why red is a good camouflage colour underwater, as the predatory fish can’t see it.