La jetée

You may have seen the film Twelve Monkeys. It was based on a French short film called La Jetée. The source film is worth watching, especially as it is not a film but a story. It uses a series of still pictures to show scenes from a life as the narrator tells his tale. (Then watch Twelve Monkeys to see how to take an idea and run with it).

Then I recommend viewing David Godlis tell his tale of taking photos at CBGBs. It’s done using his original images with a Terry Gilliam-like process of lifting and moving cut-out sections.

Why might you be interested in these? Because it’s an interesting visual story-telling technique. La Jetée in particular makes very effective use of lighting, plus in one scene an out of focus branch to imply threat and change. All for the cost of taking some pictures in a dark room and on the streets (and a huge amount of thinking and planning).

Ok, so we’ve seen still images used as as flicker book animation in music videos. These are brilliant and evocative, but a huge amount of work is involved. I do love the simplicity and economy of the two ideas I have mentioned. So I leave you with the idea – record a spoken story and then cut a limited series of still images to match it.

Eppur si muove.

Sea & Sea Motor Marine MX-10

This is the younger sibling of the Motor Marine II. It is more limited, but in some ways easier to use.

The first thing you will notice is that it is big. You are not going to lose it down the back of the sofa. But with the external ‘potato masher’ flash attached it becomes quite an easy package to handle.

The lens is fixed focus, set at the 2.5m mark. You get a table of depth of field versus aperture in the manual. I copied this out and made a laminated card. I also laminated a card rangefinder to make it easy to find the focus point. This only really matters when I’m using it underwater, as I need to get as close as the camera will allow to minimise the effects of soupy water. It’s also easier to judge 2-3m distance on land.

On the surface you get a fixed shutter speed of 1/100. There is a physical switch for 100 or 400 ISO and space for two AA batteries inside the camera’s outer shell. The camera’s built-in flash has a guide number of 10. The camera allows the use of two apertures with the internal flash – f4.5 or f11. And that’s about it for features. There is a light meter guide light in the viewfinder – you half depress the shutter and tweak the aperture dial until the red light goes out. The lens is described as a 35mm and f4.5 using four elements in four groups. You will not be buying one of these for creamy bokeh or biting resolution, but to survive a family trip to the seaside.

In use it is actually very simple. You can use it like a basic manual point and shoot with optional flash. Get to between 2 and 3m from the subject, frame and snap. If you can find it there is a wide-angle adapter and viewfinder available that makes it closer to a 20mm field of view (the adapter is shown fitted in the pictures above, with the matching external framer). With this adapter and the external flash it actually becomes quite a handy package for fairly close work underwater or in bad conditions. The flash makes a useful handle and even with it on the camera is not too unwieldy.

I have used this underwater and would certainly use it if I wanted to shoot film on the beach or in bad conditions. The external flash has a sensor to control its exposure and gives the choice of two apertures, one for 100 and one for 400 ISO. For underwater use I loaded it with fast film, set the apertures and got to the preset distance to take pictures. There was nothing to adjust, just turn the flash off when not using it. This actually makes it easier to use than the more capable (on paper) big brother model – the Motor Marine II.

On the surface it can flare if you shoot into the light, mostly due to the flat glass window in front of the lens. It’s worth keeping a tissue handy if you are out in the rain to keep the drops off the lens. Other than that it seems to survive most environments and handling. You can also pick these up quite cheaply if you look carefully. So what’s not to like about a cheap, simple and rugged camera?

Don’t take my picture!

I hear it a lot from family and friends. On a superficial level it seems odd – why refuse something that has no impact and could happen anyway? And don’t you understand that I want to take your picture because I like you? I was curious to develop an idea I’d written about before, but encountered personally quite recently. So I asked.

One theme that came out strongly, and often first, is ‘I don’t like the way I look’. So, ok, there is always a responsibility on the photographer to find and show the best of people. But I wondered how a photograph was different to what you saw in a mirror. From asking, I’m told that a mirror is a totally different thing. You look into a mirror for a reason, like brushing your hair. Your image has a purpose. If you don’t like a part of what you see, you can look at a different part or focus on the task. A mirror is under your control and nobody else can see what you see. You can adjust the image as you wish – the frog belly under your chin goes away if you raise your head. It also has no persistence – your bleary eyes and pallid morning skin are gone forever when you turn away. Photographs are persistent and take away any control you have over what you see. Once that paunch is captured, it exists forever.

This leads to another observation that almost nobody is content with how they look: everybody would change something. And the risk in a photograph is that it has no sympathy. I have skinny chicken legs so I think I look weird, seen full length. I’d like to say I have a good feature that you could focus on, but it’s all pretty average. So if you take a picture of me, I would be conscious that you really want a picture of someone who looks like a confused stork. How much harder must it be for women, who have an expectation of appearance imposed on them? See selfie filters for further proof.

In a conversation we are happy to make and hold eye contact with another person. We make expressions and pull faces. But when the other person raises a camera something comes between you. There is a new person in the conversation who only takes. This is nothing to do with snaps – the grabbed pictures that remind you of an event or a time or the people you were with. The difference is the intention – a snap is a reminder with no motive; a portrait has a reason behind it. And a conversation stops when one person drops out to take rather than share.

I think this leads to the next point, which is distrust of motive. If I ask for my picture to be taken, I know why I’m doing it and what it is for. If someone else wants my picture I don’t know how it will be used or what it is for. I was out on a photo-walk recently and this came up. I wanted a picture of a shop doorway but the shopkeeper came out to stand at their street display. They were going to be in shot, but would have enhanced the picture. So I asked if I could take their picture. They declined, so I didn’t. Another member of our group then mentioned they had taken a picture of me, and did I mind. In this case, not at all and it was good of them to ask. But the issue is one of trust: why are you taking pictures of me? The solution would be to ask, give the reason, and offer to share the results. And don’t take offence at a refusal. And really don’t be a creep. If you wouldn’t be comfortable as the subject, don’t take the picture. This must figure even stronger for women, who spend their lives under the male gaze and with the constant background tension of the common male expectation that women exist for men.

Saying that though, taking pictures at a public event is different. People engaged in an activity or sport in public must accept that other people will want pictures of what they are doing. The interest is in the activity, and this is legitimate. Although I have seen some questionable shots of women playing sports. So the same rules apply: don’t be a creep.

And then, we have the actual portrait. I have pictures of my ancestors that have huge value. Some are formal portraits and some are the ‘stand there and I’ll take your picture’ variety. The formal portraits were obviously intentional. In an age when private photography was rare they preserved a statement of the subject’s status and appearance. My mum has two large paintings that are separate portraits of each of her grandparents (one set) when they married. The pictures are actually over-painted photographic prints, which would have have been a quick and cheaper way to get a good likeness. I’ve also got some of the formal ‘sat in a chair and frowning’ pictures. All of them are precious because they are family. I can see the value in having pictures of yourself at different ages to hand on, but the sheer volume of transient images we’re drowning in will probably bury the one or two pictures that summarise you and would entertain your grandkids. So perhaps there is value in relenting to at least one good environmental portrait so that future people can see who you were.

There is also memory. My wife travelled the world when she was younger but didn’t take any pictures. She has all the memories but nothing she can actually show me or the boys. The picture below is my grandmother as a young woman. She is the same person holding her great-grandson if you follow the memory link above.

Another lesson that comes from this is to get pictures of yourself when you are young. Friends pass and things change, but a picture of the daft younger version of yourself will remind you that, no matter what the world does, you were gorgeous. It’s all still in there, just toned down with some saggy bits and hair migrating from your head to your ears and eyebrows.

And yet, despite all this, the most interesting photographs are the ones with people in. Other than snaps they might be the hardest to take, for all the reasons above. Perhaps this is why so many photographers take landscapes? Taking an informal snap of your chums on your phone is fun. Get a ‘real’ camera and people question your motives and the rest of it. One of the reasons I like the pukey-bear-cam is that it breaks down the barrier by being informal and silly, with immediate results that are genuine snaps and not some Gollum-like Precious that you will perve over later.

In summary – don’t be evil. Don’t even be a little bit evil, which is weevil. Get as many informal pictures as you can, as they will become more valuable to you with time. Definitely take pictures of people, as people are probably the most interesting thing there is. But have some respect for others. Noli esse asinus as we used to say when I was a boy.

Olympus XA

I think this is the perfect small rangefinder camera. Quite possibly the perfect small camera.

I’ve actually had mine from new. I originally owned its smaller brother, the XA2. This got a bit of a soaking in salt water which caused the lens focusing thread to seize. I freed it but the shutter release was also unreliable, so an upgrade it was. The XA became my perfect take-anywhere, use-anywhere camera.

I have cleaned it since…

It is has aperture-priority automatic exposure. The aperture scale runs down the front of the camera with a lever to select. F5.6 is marked in orange, as is the 3m distance on the lens’ focus scale. These are the hyperfocal settings that turn the camera into a focus-free point and shoot. The tip of the focusing lever is accessible even when the camera cover is closed. I marked mine with some paint to show the 3m position, so I can check and set the lens to the correct distance even before the cover is opened. With the distance set and the aperture at 5.6 or smaller, it’s immediately ready to shoot.

The lens is sharp, as you would expect of an Olympus. The design of the 35mm F2.8 lens in the XA is very clever – it’s a wide-angle telephoto with internal focusing. What this means is that the camera can be tiny as the lens is very close to the film and doesn’t need to be extended to use. For such a short rangefinder base it’s actually easy to focus. And mine has never gone out of alignment, unlike every every other rangefinder I have used. It also focuses down to under a meter, so beats most other rangefinders.

The bokeh hunters will be dismayed though – the aperture is formed of two blades producing a square hole. All those people who track down lenses with the highest possible number of aperture blades producing perfectly circular openings will be horrified to learn the the Olympus just works: it delivers nice pictures. Maybe not for the people who are more interested in the blur than the subject, but it does very well what it was designed to do.

The autoexposure will give you shutter speeds from 1/500 down to 10 seconds, so it can keep taking pictures in the dark. Prop it on a table or wall, press the button and wait.

The shutter release is the divisive feature. It’s a flat panel with an electronic rather than mechanical trigger. It can also be hair-trigger sensitive. But the shutter release is very quiet, so this camera is super discrete. I used it during a concert recital in a medieval church and nobody noticed. I’m told that the release button can be unreliable on these cameras as they age though. If you are buying one, this would be the thing to check.

There is a little flashgun that screws to the side. It’s automatic, but has settings for 100 and 400 ISO. I found what looks like a hack with it. If you turn it on and let it charge, then switch it off and immediately take the picture, it acts as a fill-in flash. It may not be a clever trick at all, but it seems to work.

Other than that, I rate this little camera very highly. Think of it as a Leica with a built-in light meter and a decent 35mm lens, but easier to load, carry and use. My only wish was that Olympus had made a version with an 80mm lens. Then I could put the XA in one pocket, the ‘long XA’ in the other and skip around in weightless bliss.

Walkies

I went on my first ever photo-walk. This was in Coventry and was organised by the Sunny 16 crew to commemorate John Whitmore. I never met John, but I did like listening to him on the podcast.

I was also feeling a bit of a fan-crush – a lot of the podcast people I listen to would be there. It’s a bit like meeting the characters in your favourite soap.

Strangely, what could have been the hardest decision was easy: what kit do I take with me? We would be walking around, so I would be carrying whatever I took. I really don’t need to take a show-off camera. I’m more likely to take pictures of the people in the walk than of buildings, so that would direct my choice of lenses. Handily, I can take one camera and a lens that I am writing-up for this blog. Decision made.

Coventry though – that’s down south somewhere. The return rail fare was even more than a five-pack of Portra, so it would be car and park-and-ride. Call it two and a half hours to get there, but the walk was to start at 10:30 so that’s easy enough for an early riser. I’m not sure I’ve been to Coventry, so it should be interesting. It’s the most central city in England, after all. Besides that, I wanted to make the effort.

The trip down was easy enough and the car park was easy to find and just about a mile from where we were meeting. I could have taken the bus to get in, but it was a lovely crisp morning and I fancied the walk across the War Memorial Park. Let’s hope we never have to build more of these.

Incidentally, I use Waze as my sat-nav. It crowd-sources traffic flow from everyone using it and routes you around jams. It got me in and out of Leeds during the week by back roads that bypassed the traffic, so I like it a lot. Part of the A1 was closed northbound for my Coventry trip, but it routed me past it so I got home afterwards in time for the birthday party I was attending </advert>.

I had seen some of the pictures of the podcaster presenters, so I recognised Ade from Sunny 16 as soon as he arrived. He coped well with being accosted by what probably looked like a shambling old bloke with wild hair and a confused expression. Then the plan for the day developed – or rather, what would take the place of a plan. Half the people had spotted a coffee shop as they left the railway station and had stopped there to refresh. The group in the park at the meeting point gradually grew as others spotted the gaggle of odd-looking people with strange cameras and the obligatory shoulder bag. It sounds haphazard, but it wasn’t. There was actually a very good plan for the day and two guides with local knowledge. But the Law of Crowds says that the speed and intelligence of a group are inversely proportional to its number. You could say it’s like herding cats, but it’s harder. At least with cats you can use gaffer tape.

It was here that I discovered my goof de jour – the batteries had expired In my camera. I’d tested them before I left, but they vanished on the second shot. Luckily the camera was manual and luckier still I had brought a separate light meter. Even so, my exposures were going to be “variable”. I was shooting black and white, so I was going to have to develop it using semi-stand. If it had been colour print film I would just have made sure to err on the side of overexposure.

Anyway, enough of the geek-speak – let’s get to the important bit: the people. What a delightful bunch! The joy of chatting to whoever was closest as we wandered about (aimless and oblivious, to the despair of shoppers and drivers). The lack of pretentiousness and the general shared joy of a group of people with a common interest who are just glad to be together. I had been wary of organised photo-walks before because I was worried that I would be marched around the compulsory sights with a clique of technofiles. As it was I mostly chatted to a delightful chap called John who had just given up work, sold everything, and was about to cycle to Australia with his wife. Oh, and I may have taken a couple of pictures of stuff.

Coventry? Some nice bits, some rough bits. Some surprisingly old buildings amongst the modern brutalism. The remains of the cathedral. Quite poignant, given the invasion of Ukraine, was the plaque on the cathedral wall. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” it said. Yeah, right.

As you might expect, the group turned into a loose association, then a gaggle and then several gaggles. What would the collective noun be – a fractal of gaggles? We proceeded by Brownian motion, with groups splitting off to have lunch or drink beer. A small core of us followed our guide back to the starting and end point. Core? I’d call us a rump. Poor Ade then tried to find out where everyone was and to organise the next stage of the day.

The next stage was to go back to John’s house to sell or auction his photographic and darkroom gear to help his wife and daughter. This bit I sadly had to miss, as I was due back home at 5pm.

What a lovely day though, even though we were brought together for the saddest reason. I have changed my opinion of photo-walks. They are nothing to do with taking pictures and everything to do with meeting other people.

And the plan to stand develop the film? My Rodinal is at least two years old, but dabbing a bit on the cut-off film leader showed it was still active. The fix was exhausted though, but I had some fresh stock in the shed. And it worked. What could have been a difficult set of over and underexposed frames came out all usable, at the expense of a bit of grain. Hurrah!

Would I do it again? Yes. Have I got over my hero-worship? No. Will I bring spare batteries? Yes. Did I actually use the kit I brought with me? Yes, all of it.

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