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The look of film

I hear the nouveaux filmistas talking of ‘the look of film’, but what is it? Is there a magic or secret sauce that film has and digital can’t do?

From looking at old Photography Year Books or magazines I could say that the traditional film look is low dynamic range, odd colours, grain and blur. But equally, I’ve got digital pictures that look like I doodled them in crayon while blindfolded.

I know in the early days of digital it was easy to tell them apart. Digital had a visual smoothness – a lack of fine detail or grain. Not so much the grain though – it was perfectly possible to make smooth and grainless film images (if only I’d learned how). I think it was the lack of fine detail. And then digital got more pixels and a wider dynamic range and it could be as fine or as gnarly as film. So what now is the film look?

Film or digital, and why?

I can add grain to a digital picture if I want to. I can emulate the colours of Kodak or Fuji or almost any brand or age of film. Crush the shadows to black? Put a halo around the highlights? All easy enough. Double exposures? I used to think this was only possible on film, but then I learned how to do it with digital. So what is the magic that only film has?

Film or digital, and why?

I wonder if the look of film is actually the rendering of the older lenses we used? If I put an old film-era lens onto a digital sensor, would I get the magical look of film without the inconvenience? Maybe what people call the look of film is the look of older lenses? And what happens if I use a modern digital-era highly corrected lens on a film camera? Do I get the look of digital?

I think film has a couple of unique things, but you won’t see them in the final image. One is longevity: film is a physical medium and if you hold it up to the light you will understand that it contains pictures. This is less obvious with a memory card. So even if we can no longer read an old storage medium, we can scan or project film. The other is that you can revisit film with newer technology and get more out of it. I upgraded my scanner some years back and got better scans. Then I learned to use my scanner and got even better scans. My digital files will never reveal more detail than they already have. Actually, there’s a third thing – I can tell my analogue images apart from my digital by the scratches, dust and hairs.

But am I missing something? Is there a film look that only film has?


The power of the dark side

How much time do you spend organising your picture files or negatives? How about documents or files? Compare that with how much time you spend looking for them.

I worked at a place where one department in the business made large efforts to properly file their shared documents. They built trees of folders within folders (within… you get the idea). They made recursion into an art form. This meant that some files could rightly be saved in more than one place. So they did. So they lost track of which version of the file was the most recent, or they edited one copy and caused the others to be inaccurate. And unless you completely understood the filing system, you couldn’t find anything or you saved your files somewhere that made sense to you. Then they hit the next wall – that Windows needs the name of a folder tree to be unique within the first 256 characters. As the folders became ever more nested they hit the limit. Files could be seen but not saved or moved. There was a sense of humour crisis and an outbreak of tetchyness.

What’s this got to do with you? Because sometimes the appearance of organisation causes harm and frustration.

There are some simple methods of filing and finding pictures that go wide rather than deep. Search tools are very good. I use Agent Ransack but if you are at the commercial level of filing and storage, go for the full version (File Locator Pro). It can find just about anything, anywhere. If you think you may have duplicate copies of files, try Duplicate File Detective. If, like me, you may have several copies of the same picture in different places, use something like Duplicate Photos Finder. Another tool that is a charm for files spread across multiple drives is a utility from the Sith Lords of computing themselves. SyncToy can compare pairs of folders or folder trees and move the most recent copy of each file into one of them. Basically, grab the most recent versions of files from a bunch of drives or storage cards and put them all into one place. I also use it to make backups, as it can copy only new or newer files and so saves time.

Was it under B for bird or L for lunch?

… And a brief diversion – before we moved house I had a lot of books; around 750. They were spread across multiple shelves and rooms. I catalogued them using a phone application that scans the barcode and uses the ISBN to get the book’s details. I recorded which shelf each book was on and saved myself wandering about the house. It also meant that if I found some pre-loved treasure in a charity shop I could tell at once if I already had a copy. The key thing though was that the location had no finer detail than which set of shelves a book was on. That was good enough to find it, and resilient to putting the book back in a different place on the shelf. The lesson learned was from the Department mentioned above, where perfection failed to survive reality.

You could also try an organisational tip that comes from caching theory, called LRU or least recently used. Whenever you take a physical file or folder out of a filing drawer, put it back at the front of the drawer. Very soon the things you use most will be at the front. If it’s a stack or pile, put things back on the top and the things you want most will be where they are easiest to find. For files on a computer, see if you can change the view to put the most recently used or changed items at the top.

Why do you care? Because as the number of files and folders increases (like 1,000 picture shoots) things get harder to find. And as even Obama said, life is too short to bubble-sort.


If good means perfect then we have seen the rise of the good, followed by the return of the imperfect. Digital killed analogue, then analogue rose from the grave, but digital is winding-up a super double-punch to be launched by AI.

What got me thinking was an (old) essay by Glenn Gould on the rise of recorded classical music and the possible demise of live concerts. He wrote about the heinous crime of splicing tape recordings together to make a perfect performance from multiple takes. He also wrote about how recordings had changed the sound of classical music. With a recording the sound is not at the mercy of the concert hall’s acoustics and even solo instruments could be made audible.

Compare that with digital photography and tools like Photoshop. The analogy would be a change from something like slide film, where everything had to be right first time, to digital where ‘fix it in post’ became a thing. I’ve written before about how older analogue pictures weren’t technically very good. But now we praise pictures for their sharpness and employ software to make them sharper or reduce the appearance of noise.

And then, just as we were putting on our shades because the future was so bright, analogue awoke. I never thought I’d see cassette tapes again. I thought the same of vinyl records, but even Ikea is selling a record player. Film is making a gradual revival, even though we’ve lost a lot of the ability to make it (or the cameras to use it in). But where there is a demand there will be someone to take money for it, such as the Leica M6. I doubt we’ll ever see an Ikea camera, but there may yet be something that fills the gap between Lomo and Loco.

Forgotten, but not gone

But then there is the Rise of the Machines. AI-based utilities can generate pictures from a description. This can remove the need for any craft skill and allow anyone to be creative. I still expect the best pictures will be created by the most creative people though, as it’s their imagination that counts, not their tools. So where companies once hired people who were good with Photoshop, they will be hiring people who can imagine the best descriptions or can train the AIs on the best sources.

Perhaps I need a better description? This was ‘elephant riding a bus’.
So was this.

Give it a few years though and we could be seeing the resurgence of darkroom printing or the use of live models in reaction to (what will be thought of as) effortless automation. Grant Morrison dealt with the waves of changing approach as style superseded style.  He invoked the Sekhmet Hypothesis, which says that there is an 11 year cycle of solar magnetism that moves us between hippy and punk, or introspective to explorative. Not that I can even pretend to understand the theory, but I can see how styles or movements break out, dominate and then fade as they are seen to be establishment, ready to be crushed by the New Wave. Indeed, if you want to know how this works with art, read What are you looking at? by Will Gompertz.

What shall we do then? If you are an artist, then I expect you will be either exploiting the potential of the new or creating it. As new tools arise we can use them, but we will be guided by what we want to be able to do. I suppose this is a plea to use the tools rather than let the tools use us. Just because I can shoot sharp pictures doesn’t mean that all my pictures must be sharp. Just because I can ask an AI to make me a picture of hamsters doing the dance of the seven veils, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have more fun and reward from making a picture of which I’m capable. I might take a look at the clever noise reduction tools to see if I can rescue some old pictures, but I’m not going to make a career out of it.

But apart from all the wittering, it looks like we’re living in interesting times. But I think we always have. What about you though? Surfing the AI wave, making mix tapes or looking for a new stacked stereo system? Or waiting for the next sunspot cycle to bring back flares?

Not even funny

Seth Godin has a view on this that may resonate: “If your work isn’t more useful or insightful or urgent than GPT can create in 12 seconds, don’t interrupt people with it. Technology begins by making old work easier, but then it requires that new work be better.”

Or there is always XKCD.

Just before going to press, I saw that the Canny Man has done a good piece on promtography.

Camera, lens or light?

I heard it said (I’m sorry, I can’t remember where) that amateurs are interested in cameras, enthusiasts in lenses and photographers in light. It makes a nice pithy aphorism but does nobody any favours.

So ‘real photographers’ can’t be interested in cameras? And anyone who knows how their camera works can’t be a photographer? I think the phrase we need here is bollocks. I’ve argued elsewhere that technical aptitude is on a scale and that we should ideally try to combine an interest in both outcomes and methods.

What is more useful to think about is not camera, lens or light, but camera, lens and light. They are three variables that can be combined to make a result. You could think of them as another exposure triangle.

The camera makes the picture possible and dictates the type of picture you can make. I wouldn’t use a large format camera to shoot sports or action, for example. I know it’s been done, but so has Morris Dancing. There are better ways, unless the difficulty is part of the intended process. So the camera should be selected according to the job it has to do.

The lens makes the camera work and controls the type of picture. It lets you compress everything into the frame or isolate a detail. Without a lens of some kind you can’t form a picture. That light won’t just focus itself, you know. So the lens should be selected to frame the subject and to achieve an effect in the image.

Ooh, that’s a big Canon

And neither the camera nor the lens have any point without some light. But I think it’s useful to also distinguish light as the subject from a subject which is lit. It’s possible to make pictures where the subject or purpose is the beauty and placement of the light. It’s also possible to make pictures where the purpose is the subject and the light serves to make the subject visible – think of photojournalism.

Interrogation time

Perhaps the ideal, and the art, is to be able to see and combine a good subject with the best lighting. Then to use the best lens to render the subject and lighting in the way you want. Then to use a camera that allows you to capture what you intended.

So I don’t think the camera, lens, light axes are exclusive: you need to combine them. But perhaps what the original claim really means, and which I believe, is that your picture starts with a lit subject. You then work back to the equipment and settings needed to capture what you saw. If you start at the other end, say with the camera, then you are led to find things to put in front of it. I think this is why I have some cameras and lenses I seldom use. Taking a camera for a walk feels boring and restrictive. What I prefer is to go for a walk and take a camera plus lens that suits the conditions, the things I might find and the type of pictures I have in mind. But, saying that, I have used the constraint of a particular combination of camera and lens as a method of getting out of a rut and trying something new. It was never meant to be the starting point though, just a way of taking constraints to an extreme. It does make the point though, that starting with the camera is the wrong way round.

Fiat lux, as the Romans used to say.

Photo books

So the frog had read everything and was bored. He went to library in the hope of finding something new. The librarian, a chicken, took him round the shelves. The chicken walked along the shelves, pointed and said “book, book, book”. The frog said ” read it, read it, read it”…

But seriously, photobook or ‘zine, yes or no? Should you publish, and how do you do it?

The first thing to realise is that you probably won’t get a publisher interested in making your photobook, not unless you are already famous. The economics just don’t work for them: it will need expensive printing on expensive paper and it won’t sell enough copies to make a decent return. You could always self-publish, but you don’t have the publishers’ distribution and access to bookshops. Of course you could sell online, but you don’t have their marketing reach either. It all sounds grim. But just supposing you wanted to have a go, how could you do it?

Actually, the first question is why, not how. You need an audience, so who is this work for? You may have some lovely pictures, but who will want to look at them? Why would they want to look at your pictures and not someone else’s? So the very first question is to identify your audience. Next will be why they want to read or look at this work? If you have identified your audience, the reason may be as simple as curiosity. People will look at things that interest them.

You might intend to use your publication as a form of business card: a show-piece for your work. In that case the design and production needs to be excellent and relevant to the work or your style. Be prepared to spend money on both the physical object and on getting advice and help on the design. If you think your pictures are better than random snaps or selfies, then just imagine how a publishing or design professional might view your attempt at a book.

This prompts the next question – why a physical book? A printed book or ‘zine requires an initial investment to print and deliver to you a number of copies. The more you print, the lower the unit price but the bigger the investment. And then, when your garage or spare room is stacked with boxes, you have to market, sell and post every copy. Oh, and deal with complaints, postal damage or loss and returns. So why not make a virtual book? An Acrobat PDF file (or epub or one of the reading app formats) is easy to distribute, takes no space and costs nothing for additional copies. Think of all the carbon you will save. What you lose is the chance of profit and the control of your print quality. It may make it much easier to reach an audience though, as people can download a copy to try with no risk or expense and no time-lag before fulfillment. As we know, what everyone wants is for everything to be free, perfect and now.

What about print on demand though? This is where you lodge a copy of your book with an online printer. Your audience can then use a link to the work to order a printed copy. You will still need to make a pleasing design and to choose suitable paper and covers. It’s worth a look, if you know what you want (or can get help to design it) and can reach your audience. I can’t see it beating a PDF version for a speculative audience though – why would someone pay for a printed and posted book unless they are sure they will like it? Richard Osman can sell books because his name is on the cover. People will buy it because they know they will like it (and it’s on the shelf in the supermarket at a discount). A book on Fup Duck Photography by some unknown hopeful that you have order online and costs £15 posted is less of a tantalising proposition. But a downloadable PDF – why not give it a try? It may also help you build an audience that will eventually buy a ‘real’ book.

Speaking of which, if you photograph events, your audience is self-identifying. If you regularly attend a sport or activity, how about printing some slim ‘zines with recent pictures in and offering them at cost? If your contact details are included, you could get orders for prints or more work from it. That’s more useful than an unread coffee-table book that your mum will display for a year and then quietly lose.

Or even go guerilla. Print your tome, put an ISBN number on the back and mark it clearly as free promotional copy. Then slip it onto the shelves at bookshops. Actually, don’t do that – it’s annoying. It’s also been done before, and better.

The magic code that makes a book visible.

I’ll come back to one of the basics though – your book or ‘zine needs a narrative. It must have a reason to be and a story to tell, or it’s just a bound copy of your photo album. You may love your pictures, but your readers want a story. If you can’t describe briefly what your book or ‘zine is about then you don’t have a story and won’t have an audience.

Did you take your photo today?

As the story goes, a tourist in New York asked a passer-by how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer was “practice”. I think Gladwell’s idea of 10,000 hours of practice has been debunked though, as hours alone won’t do it. As proof, I’m sure I smile at someone at least once a day, but in all these years it’s not made me a nicer person.

So what I’m talking about is mindful or reflective practice. And while it’s possible to get all Zen about the meaning of mindfulness, what it really means is trying things, looking at your results and picking out the good stuff. The thing about the good stuff though, is that it doesn’t happen without the other stuff. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find that prince, but you’ll never find the prince without some froggy-snoggy action.

This is where digital beats film. Your snaps are essentially free, and the camera usually records in the picture file what its settings were. So there is no excuse against trying variations to see what works best. The mindfulness bit comes in when you pick which shot you like most, then look at what settings made it happen.

If you do this at every opportunity, you should begin to learn what you like and how to get that sort of picture. It’s a lot less stressful to know what sort of shutter speeds you need or how high you can push the ISO before you are doing it for real. Always dig your well before you are thirsty, Grasshopper.

This ties-in with the idea of journaling or keeping a notebook. Jot down ideas for or about pictures as they occur to you. Then try those ideas out and see what works. Or do it the other way round: take lots of pictures at any time, then make notes about the ones that worked so that you can do more of it.

Possibly the most-photographed viaduct in Yorkshire

There is also the benefit that the more you use your camera, and the more often you use some of the obscure features it has, the better you will be able to use the camera. As an example, I went out to do a bit of night photography. It took me a while to find out how to dim the rear screen. I did remember that it could do in-camera HDR though, so I tried that on a few things. What did I learn? That I need to set a wider range of exposures to get the full range. I also had a go, while out for a walk, at some ICM. My Canon G9 has a built-in ND filter function. Couple that to its lowest ISO setting and shutter-priority mode so that I can dial the speed right down and I might get some nice blurries. Save the configuration to one of the user profiles and I can have this ready to use when needed.

The Ouse, oozing

Except it seems the G9 can’t have both the ND filter and aperture priority at the same time. No worries, and better I found that out when I’m playing than when I try to use it. This is where the notebook comes in useful again.

So what did I learn? Well, I dragged the dog out on a couple of walks around previously boring landscapes so that I could play with some ICM. I learned that there is a knack to using old manual lenses on my dSLR that is not obvious but works perfectly, and I will now remember. I made a couple of impressionistic autumn landscapes that I actually like. I didn’t take any of it too seriously, so there was no pressure to be a Real Photographer. I had some fun, and having reviewed the results I’ll be out to try this again. But better.

Searching images

This is a very interesting article on searching for the locations of old pictures. The exercise itself is fascinating, but so are the tools for doing a reverse image search. It’s easy to type red apple into a search engine and get pictures of red apples. Putting up a picture of a red apple and having the search find similar pictures is much more difficult. What’s even more interesting is putting up one of your own pictures and searching to see if it turns up in places you weren’t expecting. Not that anyone would ever steal or copy one of my pictures. Why would they? My pictures only have value to me and are probably of no interest or use to anyone else. Unless they are the before in a before and after comparison. Even so, the reverse search is an interesting tool.

What would be awkward though, would be to find a near-duplicate of one of your images and then find that the copy pre-dates yours. Then you have to either be honest and admit you copied something you’d seen, be amused at the synchronicity, or recognise you had taken the same tourist shot as everyone else. (If you want more synchronicity, try the insta_repeat account on Instagram.)

My go at luminosity masking

So where is this going? Obviously, don’t copy other people’s work. Or rather, don’t try to pass off other people’s work as your own. By all means copy, but do it to learn, not to earn. I definitely copied a certain look I had seen for infrared pictures, in order to learn how the method worked. I have no intention of pretending to be Pierre-Louis Ferrer; what I wanted was to learn how to do luminosity masks. But that’s not the point and you don’t need my virtue-signalling. The main thing is that there are some powerful tools out there for doing reverse image search and they can be used to locate an old photograph or to find similar images. I’m also currently playing with an image searching utility on my computer (rather than the internet) that should be able to find pictures based on content. This could be a useful addition to my filing system for when I have an idea what the picture was like but I’m not using the right key words to find it.

Anyway, have a go and see what you can find.

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?

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?

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.

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