Should photography be easy?

Do we make a thing less valuable by making it easier?

Photography used to be hard; and then Kodak happened. What once took study became ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. The first Kodak cameras had 100 shots on the roll too – we’re talking digital levels of bangin’ ’em off. Kodak democratised photography and made the casual snap possible.

We stumbled along with folding and plastic cameras for a while. Then the rangefinder and the SLR came along. Things got technically complicated and photographs were taken by photographers. The cameras had all sorts of settings and you had to know what to do to make them work properly. There was good money in it though – Bailey made enough to run a Ferrari.

The reaction was point and shoots and the Instamatic. Either no settings or automatic. You didn’t have to know how to work a camera to be able to take a picture.

And so the waves of development rolled in, with simple following clever. Features were added, then automated. What started as complex became easier. Light metering, then automatic exposure, then autofocus. Film turned into cartridges or the camera loaded and wound-on itself.

Talent still counted: all the automation in the world couldn’t help people take good photos. But it became easier to take a picture that was well exposed and in focus, and for the results to be mostly pleasing. But the circulation of a picture was still limited to the people you could physically meet, unless you were one of the few.

The a couple of things happened. The first was the mobile phone. Suddenly, nobody needed a camera let alone film developing or printing. Photography was democratised again – anyone could do it, there were no constraints on capacity and you could see the results immediately. The quality may have been low to begin with but it was good enough and got better.

Then social media happened and suddenly we were all syndicated worldwide. You didn’t have to work for a magazine or newspaper to be seen, you just had to be seen. Upload a picture, get likes, get the endorphin rush. Rinse and repeat. What used to take dedication, craft or understanding could be replaced by novelty and desire. Being somewhere, doing something, looking special – the pictures sparked envy and emulation. Because, like a lot of things, fame followed a power law, with a few famous or popular influencers and a long tail of the rest of us.

But the price of entry was lower. Cameras, including mobile phones, were so good that skill was replaced with presence: you only had to be there. So there became important. You can see this in the rush of people to visit the spots recorded by influencers. Someone recently posted about an old wartime bomber wreck. The police then had to ask people to not park on the road, not get lost, and if they did call them or the Mountain Rescue to at least call them again if they found their own way down. And please don’t take souvenirs – it’s a war grave.

There was a similar discussion around Ben Nevis a while back. It starts near sea level but it’s high and cold on the top and it’s easy to walk off the edge. So in 2009 the cairns were moved to mark the descent route and avoid a gully. The advice has always been to be properly equipped and to know how to navigate, but now we have the equivalent of automation.

So the camera (or phone) needs no investment of skill to operate. Being seen by other people is just a matter of posting things that enough people will like, but the liking is ephemeral and has to be repeated. Not that the majority of people are like this. Most of us are happy to have a simple method to take a snap and share it with friends. Ultimately, nobody really wants to invest in or learn to use a drill when they can just get the hole.

Does automation and the removal of craft skill bother me? Not at all. I love the idea that everyone can take a snap at the very instant. These moments are precious.

Do I mind that people are shooting weddings or cinematic films on iPhones? No, go ahead. What has always and ever mattered is what the resulting film looks like, and nobody cares what you shot it on.

Do I fret that someone with a modern digital camera can take fantastic pictures without knowing anything about photography? Again, no. The technical things I have learned allow me to shoot with dodgy old manual cameras, which is my hobby. I use the digital kit and all the automation I can get when the results are important. I like to think that my understanding of how it all works helps me get better results more often. But I still know that someone with better kit will often get better results than me, most often when things like lots of megapixels or high ISO make a difference.

I could have looked-up that it would be 2EV, or I could have got out and metered it, but I put my phone on night mode. Bite me.

So what’s the point of this rambling grumble? It’s the bit I don’t like: the social media frenzy to chase likes and gain followers. And yet I write a blog. To be honest (with both my readers), I write because I enjoy writing. It’s a challenge to come up with new ideas each week. It’s interesting to string thoughts together and ask myself if what I am saying is what I mean. I’m delighted if someone reads them, but that is not the thing that drives me. So I attempt to sidestep hypocrisy by making a virtue of my obscurity. But I don’t splurge pictures on social media – I like using them to illustrate a story or using words to describe a picture. Holier than thou? Not really. If I was to blitz Instagram with images it would feel to me a bit like something that was automatic and outside my control. By writing this blog it feels more like having to understand what I’m doing.

Your mileage may vary, as they say, and I am far from being an influencer. Or even understanding what I’m doing.

I don’t believe you make something less valuable by making it easier, if the value is in the thing and not in the learning. I do believe we destroy value when we try to copy or compete, though.

What do you care what other people think?

I have wittered previously about editing your work and only showing your best stuff, but that doesn’t mean playing for likes.

If you try to take the same pictures as someone else, at best you will have an imitation. It’s valid to try and recreate a technique to learn something new, but copying a picture could be plagiarism at worst, or a marked lack of originality at best. It might feel safer to be like everyone else, but where’s the fun in that?

OK, that may be true for small values of fun. As we know, things which are different are criticised. The ability of social media to give an anonymous voice to the critical and sarcastic is a problem. Or it would be if you let it. If you don’t want the gratuitous attacks of a baying herd, don’t stand in front of one. That’s one option. The other is that if you ignore the crowd, you’ll be happier.

But how can you possibly ignore what people say about you or your work? Well, who are you taking pictures for?

If you are taking pictures for money, then the people who matter are your clients. So your work should be visible to current and future clients and there is no need for a method of leaving comments or feedback: if anyone wants to discuss a picture, bring money. Being paid is the only form of feedback you need.

But if you are taking pictures for pleasure, who’s pleasure is it? Do you need the approval of others? Do you need to show your pictures to the world, or to the people who matter to you?

Are we comparing likes or soap powders?

So I think you have two choices: keep your work to yourself and people who matter to you or show your work to the world but disable or ignore the feedback. Yes, I know, I’m both showing pictures and allowing feedback in this blog. But it’s small circulation – if I do start getting negative feedback I’ll see if I can disable the likes and comments. I can live without approval – I work in IT.

There is also a view, expressed best in the Filmosaur Manifesto, that you have no control over what people see in your pictures. So stop worrying that they misunderstand, because they are bound to.

Perhaps the best response to criticism is Elizabeth Gilbert’s – “if people don’t like what you’re creating, just smile at them sweetly and tell them to go make their own fucking art.”

And the best cure for worrying about opinion is the story about Arlene and Richard in the book that has the same title as the story – “what do you care what other people think?”.

1:1:1 Mercury II

My second go at the 35hunter challenge.

I probably shouldn’t have loaded this camera, as I was unlikely to finish the roll quickly. I originally loaded it as I was off to the seaside and there would be wind turbines. I wanted to see if the rotary shutter did anything interesting with the rotating generator blades (it doesn’t). But this is a half-frame camera and gets loads of shots on a roll, so I wasn’t going to finish it quickly. But the 35hunter challenge was the kick up the arse I needed. It would also be the decider: do I actually want to keep and use this camera or do I sell it? If I sold it, could I benefit from it being the camera that captured Marilyn? Ok, not the, but a.

Whatever – it’s a strangle little camera that is entirely and prominently mechanical. But it gets loads of shots to the roll so you can shoot it like a paparazzi. It was loaded with Kentmere 100 as I wanted fine grain because of the small frame size. Ideally I would fit a little rangefinder, but the layout of the knobs and the big curved cover for the shutter disk make that awkward. So I carry one instead. Being American the distances marked on the lens are in feet. I’m more used to meters these days, but I do have a non-metric (you can hardly call it Imperial) clip-on rangefinder. Plus there’s always zone or hyperfocal focusing.

The lens is tiny. I don’t have many lenses that take a 25mm cap. I’m so used to wide-aperture primes the size of beer cans that this one feels dainty. Certainly after the Yashinon lens in my previous event, this thing is teeny-tiny. The engravings for the aperture and distance are tiny too, so I need my reading specs to make changes. It’s strange – all of the markings on this camera are tiny and the controls are small. This camera was definitely not made for old blokes with fat fingers.

Apertures

The focusing is quite stiff – I think Peggy broke a fingernail using it. That’s not a bad thing though (I don’t mean breaking fingernails) – it does stop the focus being changed accidentally. There is a depth of field scale on the arched top, so I find myself setting the lens to the hyperfocal distance for the aperture and varying the shutter speed if the light changes. In that respect it’s similar to the Pentax SV that was first out for this challenge, in that you can’t easily change the settings when the camera is up to your eye. People talk about shooting film to slow them down and these are slow cameras, the Mercury even more so. Where the Pentax has that lovely SLR feature of an accurate viewfinder, the Mercury is nearer guesswork. The tiny viewfinder has no frame lines so I find myself giving the subject a bit more room. This helps with the depth of field but I really don’t want to crop into the tiny negative if I can avoid it.

Having double the number of frames on a film ought to encourage taking more pictures by varying the composition, the distance and so on. But the manual focussing doesn’t encourage moving around and you have to take the camera away from your eye to wind on – no simple thumb lever here, this is a knob on the front face of the camera that you have to twist. I think I had a rant earlier about ergonomics. The Mercury is not quick or easy to use.

Another down side to the camera is that it has no strap lugs. This means I have to carry it in my hand or in my bag. If I do keep it I think I might make a case for it.

I sound like I’m hating it, but it’s actually fun to use. It’s quirky, and having to make decisions about the settings that can’t be changed quickly means that I have to think more carefully about which ones I use. It also looks quite steampunk, not that we carry cameras to impress other people (blush) do we? The shutter also makes a whoosh noise rather than a clack, and that’s fun too.

I was worried about the camera when I was using it. February has been very cold and I took the Mercury out in the thick of it. The shutter sounds like it’s running slow, so I kept putting the camera away in my bag or cuddling it. I needn’t have worried though – the film has a lovely set of evenly-spaced and well-exposed negatives. Not bad for a camera that could be over seventy years old.

Mercury scene

The lens does flare if the sun is in the frame. Also, the depth of field scale printed on the curved shutter housing is a bit optimistic. It may have been ok for small prints but not when you scan. The picture in the woods above should have been sharp to infinity but it’s obviously sharpest on the foreground tree that was at the point of actual focus.

Speaking about evenly spaced negatives – the Mercury spaces them with regular gaps between, unlike the Olympus Pen that creates closely spaced pairs. The result is that the Olympus negatives can be scanned like standard 35mm film but the Mercury ones have to moved around in the negative carrier to coincide with the frame edges. It’s also why the Mercury gets something like 64 shots on a roll of film while the Olympus gets 72.

Do I like it enough though? My Olympus Pen EE is much quicker and easier to use and does the whole ‘shoot loads, see what happens’ thing very well. It’s also easier to carry. I’m coming round to the idea that the Mercury is too fiddly to use, without the compensation of getting special results. So while I have been glad to use it, I think it’s off to a new owner.

Next up – the Pentax Spotmatic.

Old focus

When I was young and I had no sense… but that’s a different rhyme. From childhood I’ve been shortsighted and worn specs. I did try out for contact lenses in my early twenties, but they didn’t work well enough for my vision. The decider was when I got older and finally needed varifocals. I fell off kerbs, down stairs and was a hazard on the road. I’d seen the results of laser correction so went for it. So now I only need cheap reading specs for close-up, due to my advancing years.

What’s this got to do with photography? Focusing. And ageing.

I used to be able to focus anything. The same way I could read the fine print and thread a needle by eye. These days I use a magnifier and a needle threader. Not all my cameras have autofocus though, so I still need to do that by eye.

There’s a whole movement, perhaps cult, around rangefinder cameras. The argument seems to boil down to being able to see outside the frame so you can watch your subject come into view. Want to break a Leicaphile’s heart? Use an SLR and keep both eyes open.

That aside, I do like rangefinders where I can change the diopter value of the viewfinder. Step forward the Zorki and Fed. My lasered eyes focus best at infinity, so tweaking the viewfinder to match works well. I still need to wear my reading specs on my head so that I can see the camera dials but I’m fine with that.

Some of my old SLRs are becoming a challenge in dim light. Tell the truth, they probably always were. A Zenith is not known for the clarity and brightness of its viewfinder. In fact I usually set the Zenit lens by scale or hyperfocal distance and use the viewfinder only for framing. My Ricoh has a split prism in the middle of the screen plus a circle of microprism. These were useful even in my salad days. My Pentax MX has the functional joy of replaceable screens, so it’s fitted with the one which gives me what I need.

Ricoh XR2
Excuse the grunge. This post led to an early Spring cleaning session. This is the Ricoh XR2 – diagonal split prism and a ring of microprism.

I’ve also got a couple of classic Pentax SLRs, of which one is easier to focus than the other. The Spotmatic SPII has a little microprism patch in the centre of the screen which works well in daylight but I struggle with it in dim light.

Pentax Spotmatic
Pentax Spotmatic II. Central microprism spot with collar of slightly different microprism.

The SV has a larger microprism patch and is easier to focus when it’s darker.

Pentax SV. Large microprism spot but possibly a slightly darker screen than the Spotmatic. Same setup as a Praktica LTL.

I do feel guilty though, as if I am failing the cameras. In bright light they’re fine, but when we lack lux my focus sucks. To be fair though, the rangefinders struggle too. The only advantage is that with a rangefinder you can do the finger trick (move a finger in front of the rangefinder window. If it’s in focus the image in the rangefinder patch area won’t jiggle). I must say that I love my Pentax digital SLR, as it has focus assist and will show you the point of focus of any lens you can stick on the front.

A more recent Chinon C1. Horizontal split prism and microprism ring. The meter scale intrudes though.

I suppose one answer would be to shoot in better light, but I live in England. Right now we’re in our winter, so it’s dark by 5pm. I’ve got an f1.2 lens which helps, but I’m coming round to the idea that my later years will be automated or at least assisted. Or perhaps I just use what works best for the conditions? All the cameras focus easily in bright light but when the going gets dim I should swap to autofocus or pick the one that is easiest (the MX). What I don’t do is put an f3.5 lens on the Zenit (or worse, use the Konstruktor).

But I think I should tell myself to get over it – I can moan all I like about focusing, but try doing it underwater. So I’m back to where I started – focusing is getting harder with age, but there are ways of compensating. I’m just going to have to take more care over it or change my methods.