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Explore/ exploit

You could spend all your time exploring new things, or stick entirely with what you know and look no further. But perhaps there is a good working balance between exploring and exploiting?

Look! Over there- new stuff!

There is a mathematical calculation of the ideal balance that uses the Gittins Index, but it’s complicated. Or you can focus on minimising regret, meaning “if I look back at myself from the future, will I regret not doing this?”. This is why it is always worth learning something: the future you will have the benefit of what the current you learns. But you can’t learn everything, just as you can’t try everything. Plus you get a lot of benefit from using what you already know. So this brings me back to working out the best balance between finding new stuff and using what I’ve already got.

All very theoretical, but what has it got to do with photography? My balance has always been more to explore than exploit. I have tried different cameras, lenses, film and methods because I could, and because I was curious. I could instead have settled on a single useful combination and worked it hard. There is a lot of value in sticking with something you know and working the arse off it. You will know exactly how your lens, film or sensor will record the subject; you will know how every feature and option works. But you’ll never have a new trick in the bag. The alternative would be to chase every new thing, but this means you will never have a body of competence.

The research says that the more time you have, the more you should explore the new. The depressing down side to this says that the less time you have (the older you are), the more you should stick with the known and ignore the new. The antidotes to this stagnation are things I have written about before: how to introduce chance and trigger new directions; how to recognise you are repeating yourself and break out. But aside from that, I do appreciate that I have accumulated a lot of files and negatives and a lot of notes and records on how to do things. Many years ago I had a copy of Photoshop Elements – probably version 4 or 5. I upgraded it gradually, I think I’m now on 7, and made notes of how to achieve effects. This cookbook has turned into a useful resource. I am still exploring, in the sense of adding to it when I find or learn something new, but the collected notes are very useful to exploit.

I could put some effort into learning Lightroom (or more likely, Darktable and GIMP), but I’m not sure the eventual benefits are worth the investment. GIMP would be worth it for when I hit the limits of Elements, but I don’t have to process large batches of images, so I don’t really need a workflow. It’s the same with video: I have a copy of Kdenlive that I use to edit together video clips into a short film. I’ve learned it well enough to do what I need, but I’m not a video maker. And yes, I did explore shooting video. Of course I did.

There is another point of view that’s relevant, and it came from some writings of Glenn Gould. He drew some interesting parallels between known knowledge and the unknown. His view was that the known was a basis for exploration and we should avoid freezing it into The Method. He also wrote about the liberty of performing (music, in his case) in the recording studio rather than in public. He felt that public performances led to safety and the avoidance of risk, while in the studio he could take risks and do difficult work, knowing that he could combine the best parts and drop the mistakes. So he was combining the exploitation of his abilities and learning with the exploration of the new. Did he get the balance right? Probably, but he was quite exceptional.

I think the best I can do is to turn down my curiosity dial a little and turn up the wick on exploiting more of the work I have already done. Or perhaps I let it match the seasons, and do my exploring when the days are longer? What do you do?


Agfa Super Silette

There are some lenses that seem to always make clear, bright pictures and this camera has one of them. It may be that it has good contrast, I’m not sure, but the pictures taken with this camera have a pleasing level of clarity. I had a Canon Sureshot A1 – the waterproof job – that had the same clarity, but I think that was due to it using the flash for most shots as fill-in.

This model of the Silette was introduced in 1955. In many ways it’s similar to the Zeiss Contessa LKE. The Zeiss gains with a built-in light meter but the Agfa is easier to use, with a focusing tab on the lens. The film rewind is a knob rather than a crank, so it’s slower to use but simpler to make and probably more likely to still be working.

The lens is slightly wide, at 45mm and with a modest f3.5 aperture. But, like I said, it’s good. The between-the-lens shutter is very quiet. This would make an excellent street photography tool. Not that I do that kind of thing, but I’m sure it would. The focus on mine is a little stiff due to the age of the lubricant, but the focussing tab on the lens makes easy work of it. It also means that it doesn’t get knocked off the set distance while I’m carrying it.

I did try converting this camera to shoot IR, using an opaque filter behind the lens. That didn’t work, so I took the filter out again. Besides, I have since converted a digital compact to take infrared, which works much better. I think the idea was good, but I was using extended range film rather than ‘real’ infrared. With a full visual cut-off filter, I think I wasn’t giving the film anywhere near enough exposure.

With the IR cutoff filter removed from behind the lens.

So what I’m left with is a nice, functional rangefinder camera with a good lens. I’ll take that.

Technical aptitude

Or, Zen and the art of manual adjustment.

Which might be puzzling, but there is a link (trust me). There seem to be a lot of people who take pictures but have little or no idea how the camera works. They just want the outcome. There are also a lot (but probably fewer) of people who want to know exactly how their camera or the method works. They enjoy the process. Robert Pirsig argued for a happy medium (that you can strike with a spanner). The question is how much you need to know about how something works to be able to use it well?

Pirsig’s view is that some people are aesthetes (in his words, romantics). They don’t want to know the details or workings. They see and value the outcome, not the process. He said that other people were technicians (classical). They study and learn how things work. They may actually be less interested in the outcome than the process. Part of his argument, apart from the real meaning of quality, was that the ideal is to combine the two. It meant having an outcome in mind but also knowing how to achieve it technically. Automation is a great assistant, but I wonder if there is value in knowing how the manual process or machine works, and where the point of best value lies?

The other aspect to this is your level of competence. When you set out to learn something, say photography or driving a car, everything is strange and nothing makes sense. Some of the basic controls have to be mastered before you can operate the machine well enough to get the result you want. To drive, for example, you may have no idea why you change gear, but you need to learn to do it to get the car to move. In photography you may have no idea why there are aperture numbers, but you need to learn that big numbers mean a small hole and what effect that small hole has. Or in both cases you can use an automatic. You’ll get results, but you will never learn the relationship between the settings and those results. The basics will get you started, but perhaps you should progress beyond them?

This ties into how we learn, or rather how we are taught. It was quite explicit in the subject I followed, which was chemistry. We first learned how things worked. Then we moved up to the next level of study and were told that everything previous was a simplification and this was how it really worked. Then we moved up a level… etc. But that is a path I chose to follow: I chose to become a technician or classical. The other extreme is the view that chemistry is akin to magic in that nobody understands it and it has no real place in our everyday lives. And then you mix chlorine and ammonia based cleaners and wonder why your eyes sting.

While the extreme of romantic might be to use a thing with no idea how it works, the extreme of technician might be to concentrate entirely on making it work without having a real use for it. If I may be so bold as to give some examples (knowing what would happen if I did this on a more social medium)… look at the number of pictures you see taken by people who have a new camera or lens. They say they are testing it. But basically, if it works, just use it. Taking straight uninterpreted record shots may be part of your testing, but I don’t need to see them. Perhaps if the picture showed something unique to that lens or camera it would be interesting, but “hurrah, it works” brings me no joy. The counterpart is the pictures people show that contain an effect or result that is interesting or expressive but can’t be repeated as the maker doesn’t know how they got it. These are just puzzles. I also think that while it’s great to get an effect by accident, you should then put some study into understanding how you got it. Otherwise it’s not art, it’s chance. (Or Dadaist poetry)

I’m also reminded, when I see plain record shots taken with a new camera or lens, of the people I see at tractor shows. I’ve seen whole fields full of people sat next to their restored and working pumping engine or circular saw. While it’s interesting to see what sort of stuff farmers had to cope with, it’s not being used for anything useful. Their whole point and joy seems to be that it works and they own it. The photographic equivalent is probably GAS.

I’m being unfair. Straight record shots taken with a particular lens will give the viewer an idea of the effects it provides, particularly if it’s compared with an alternative. I’ve done it myself. Better still is if you can compare lenses or results under similar realistic conditions. The Canny Cameras site, for example, shows what you can expect from various old compacts using the same subjects each time. Here it makes sense to use straight record pictures to show blurring, fringing or distortion and get a sense of what a charity-shop find is capable of. What I don’t want though are pictures of resolution charts. If you want to go down that rabbit hole I’ll get my technician mode on and ask what the variation is between items and what the sample size should be for meaningful testing. Testing a sample of one is not as useful as understanding variation. </nerd>.

I really don’t need the camera settings provided with a photograph, either. Show me something interesting and I will work out how it was done (or have fun trying). By all means tell me that you got the effect by tilting the lens or something else, but I don’t need to know your shutter speed or worse, what camera you used. The photograph – the outcome – should stand alone. The settings you used to get it are useful to you, so that you can recreate or improve your method, but not to me.

A lack of settings meant I had to take multiple exposures, hence the overlapping pattern.

So where am I going with this? I err on the side of technician, as I am deeply curious about how things work. But for me the purpose of photography is not to use a camera, it’s to take pictures. I just want to know how my camera works so that I can make it do what I want (or find the menu option I want). Although, in the case of some of the Russian cameras, it’s useful to know how to avoid breaking them too. I like to be able to use a camera well, just as I like to be able to drive competently. But the aim is not how well I can change a film or a gear, but to try and get the best out of the machine in support of its purpose.

To be fair though, digital cameras are complicated and laden with features while mechanical cameras rely on you knowing how to use them. Automation is a wonderful thing, but I can see how multiple options or complexity leads to anxiety. And if you are learning something new, it’s much more encouraging to get an early result even if you are not sure how it happened. In chemistry I was able to distill our home-brewed wine long before I was able to make my own incendiaries, oops – firelighters. Speaking of which, I accidentally triggered the speed limiter on my car and was stuck at 20mph for a couple of hundred yards until I could pull-in and find the off switch. Like all good design fails, it was controlled by a lever that is normally hidden to the driver but can be hit and triggered if you run your hand around the steering wheel. Perhaps the photo equivalent is the pin on some Ricoh lenses that fouls the autofocus drive on Pentax cameras and locks the lens onto the camera body. I bought a nice 20mm lens that had the bad pin, but knew enough to spot it and sort it out. This is where a little technical savvy is useful.

So I think what I’m arguing for is a balance. It’s useful to have some level of understanding of the process or the machine so that you know how to get the result you want, or why you got the results you did. I don’t need to understand how a carburetor works to be able to drive an old car, but knowing that the car has one and some idea of what it does can be useful (when the car wouldn’t start, or when the cable froze). I’m also not arguing that I stand at the point of perfect balance. I love to find out how things work, well past the stage where I know enough to use it. When I had my old motorbike it was quite rare in the UK. So I started an internet owner’s club and uploaded the manual and parts list. For a while I was the Oracle for technical information. The underlying reason though was to build a network of people and resources who could help keep me on the road. And on the road it was – I commuted to work on it, did the National Rally and wore out tyres, brakes and chains just like a regular bike. I even fitted indicators, as I’d rather be alive than historically accurate. Along the way I learned a lot about how some components of the bike worked, but I didn’t set out to be an expert mechanic, just mechanically mobile.

Speedo about to roll over to zeros. It’s in KM, hence the MPH stickers. The 170 is the reading at which to next fill the tank. Nerdy, or what?

So yes, I’m arguing to strike a balance between the romantic and classical approach, recognising that we will move from one to the other as we learn. But being at the extreme position of ‘I don’t care to know how it works’ or ‘I don’t care what I could do with it’ might be missing-out on getting the best results.

What do you think?

Cosmic, dude

This is the Cosmic Symbol or Smena 8m. Mine was made in 1977, which is when Star Wars was released. So this is the camera that came from a long time ago in a country far, far away.

Mine was also made in the same year that Olympus stopped making the EE-2. What a difference. But what a difference in the markets they were selling into.

I can’t remember how I came by this camera, but it must have been very cheap judging by the rust. I think it was in a job lot that had been stored in someone’s garage.

That paddle at the side of the lens is the shutter release

It is supposed to have a sharp and contrasty 40mm lens. I’ve got to say that my first experience with it was underwhelming. The pictures were low contrast and muddy-looking. It feels a bit like the LC-A in that people rave about the lens, but what they show is the effects of contrasty cross-processed film. I can get the same punchy results with a Konica site foreman’s camera that won’t rust. Anyhoo, what do you get for your money?

You get a basic plastic zone-focus 35mm camera with fully manual controls. Where the Olympus Pen EE-2 had clever automation, the Symbol is purely manual. It’s probably easier and cheaper to provide manual adjustments than to create reliable automation. The shutter speeds are hidden on the bottom side of the lens and you have to turn a ring on the front of the lens to set the aperture. I suppose having manual controls doesn’t mean they also have to be ergonomic. There are cut-out windows on the side of the lens that show a white marker to indicate which combination of speed and aperture are right for the weather. Basically, the camera will do a sunny-16 (or dull 8) estimation for you. No substitute for a meter but better than guessing.

The white square below the striped cloud shows that the camera is set for light cloud/ haze conditions.

The focussing is by zone, or estimation. There are symbols on the lens for portrait, group and distant view settings.

Even without a meter it can still be used for knight photography

And that’s it. There are no other features or gadgets. But what it doesn’t have can’t break. There are no batteries included and none needed. The shutter is only cocked by winding on, so there is protection against double exposures. The lens is a modest triplet design, so should be OK if stopped down a bit. Basically it’s a manual point-and-shoot that will work well enough and was produced in huge quantities.

Or even action, if you are careful

One nice feature is that it has a film speed reminder on the back, although I prefer to use tape as it can’t be knocked to a different setting.

If you find one, it may come with its case. This is an awful affair made of a thick vinyl material with a shiny surface. It looks like patent leather and feels thick and stiff. But it does provide a strap to carry the camera around with.

I should clean it

If you are looking for one on that auction site, try searching for Nomo as well – the case has the Cyrillic script for Lomo stamped on it.


Shooting the breeze

March in England is supposed to be the windy month. It’s an opportunity to take pictures of something that can only be seen by its effects.

What do you do? You can take pictures of what happens when the wind is blowing, or how it has shaped things by its force, or even things that use the power of wind. What says wind to you?

There was a sailing club when I was at school. My pal was good at it – he could make a small boat zip along and go where he intended. I spent my time headbutting the boom. As this blog’s strapline has it: percussive learning. I did try windsurfing, but I spent most of my time swimming after the board. Me and wind don’t get along.

Photographing in the wind can be difficult, particularly if it’s blowing sand or snow. You need to take precautions or use windproof kit. It’s a lot easier to photograph what the wind has done and where it’s been.

Why not photograph the wind? There are plenty of people who photograph water, clouds or stars. Besides the obvious wind-powered machines of boats and windmills there are turbines sweeping the skies (clear of birds). Photographing the wind means taking pictures of something that exists but can’t be seen, compared to something that can be seen but has no physical existence, like shadows.

It’s something to do while we wait for the weather to improve. Besides, you might find the answer.

Pentax SV

The Pentax SV was launched in 1963 along with a range of Super Takumar lenses. It brought the heady technology of an automatic aperture and a self timer. The automatic aperture is a little metal plate in the throat of the lens mount that pushes a pin on the back of the lens to close the aperture down as the picture was taken. This eliminated having to focus with closed-down aperture, or to remember to use some form of pre-set mechanism. But it had no built-in light meter, and may have been the last model in the range to lack one. Even so, it was used by the Beatles in the Hard Day’s Night film. Now that’s a product endorsement.

In groovy hipster guise with a wrist strap

There was an update to the camera in 1964 to work with the new Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens, as it protruded back into the mirror box and needed more clearance. The revised camera has an orange R on the rewind knob. My camera lacks this, so is a 1963 model. Speaking of which, the SV had a fold-out winding handle to rewind the film, which was not a common feature at the time. Nor was the single-stroke film wind-on lever, instead of a knob. The Pentax SV introduced what became the default layout for 35mm SLRs.

Dwarfed by the lens. You can see that the R is not orange. The red dot means the shutter is cocked.

It also has one rare feature in having a T position amongst the shutter speeds. This opens the shutter on the first press of the shutter and keeps it open until the button is pressed again. It’s useful for long exposures as you don’t need a locking cable release or to sit and hold the cable release down. I admit to only ever using the T setting once, on a different camera, to try some star photography. The feature worked but my pictures were rubbish.

Connections for both flash and bulb.

It has one old-fashioned feature in the release catch to open the back. This is a catch on the side of the camera. The Spotmatic, which came later, had the now-standard method of pulling up the rewind crank.

Look, no meter!

The other thing you’ll notice is the flash hot shoe. Or rather, its absence. The shoe is a separate item that clips onto the viewfinder eyepiece. Since I have far better cameras to use with flash, I leave it off to avoid losing it.

So there you are: good, solid, unpretentious and with a huge range of lenses. Works just like a modern camera, as it set the design for them. It’s up there with the Praktica as a post-apocalyptic snapper that will probably outlive the cockroaches.

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