Minimalism

I should have known. I would have known if I’d thought about it. Just as there is Rule 34 for the internet, so in photography: if you can think of it, there’s a movement and special interest group for it.

I was surprised to learn that there was a minimalist photography competition. Then I was surprised that I was surprised, as I said.

Not that it’s a bad thing – quite the opposite. I like the Zen balance of the fewest number of elements or the counterpoint of simple shapes. I’ve heard the idea that you should dress-up to go out and then at the door remove one item. Minimalism is, to me, the removal of all but the essential (don’t try to picture me going out in just my underpants).

Swinsty Reservoir

So I went and had a look at the minimalist photography awards. As you would expect, a mixed bag. Some is very good indeed while some is either too busy or just not very good. The way the competition is organised is interesting though and appears to be self funding. You pay to enter, the winners get cash prizes, probably covered by the entry fees, and get to download and print their own winning certificate. I may be totally wrong, but it has a sense of the vanity publishing industry for writers (give us money and we will print your book). I’m sure I must be wrong – the awards are backed by a magazine and the winners did get some press coverage.

Photography, like publishing, probably has a strong power law for the distribution of income: a few people make a lot and a lot make very little. There is a difference in the work involved though. Writing a book might take you a year, so it requires serious effort and commitment. Taking a picture is effectively free. This is why I hear of professional photographers being undercut by anyone with a camera and why people are asked to do work in return of ‘exposure’.

It used to be that book publishing was such an investment that there was strong filtering: a publisher would invest in a known quantity like a successful author but needed to be pretty certain before betting on a new one (hence the power law of income). The vanity publishing industry catered for the people who wanted to be published and were prepared to pay to obtain a box of books they could give to friends. And then along came print on demand. Now I can put my masterpiece online and give people a link to print their own copy. On the whole it costs less for the prospective author and probably sells as many copies. (I do know whereof I speak: I self-published a book that was later taken-up by a publisher, but that was due more to chutzpah than talent.)

What’s the photography equivalent? I suppose there are places like Instagram where you can effectively publish for free and places like Etsy where you can sell prints. Then there are ‘zines (who wants to even think maga in these times?). Most of these seem to be small-run, quirky, and are given away or sold for little more than cost (go read Charles Stross or Cory Doctorow about the margins and money streams in mainstream publishing). Small-scale guerilla publishing of pictures or words are marvellous and not to be dismissed. Just don’t expect to be Barbara Cartland. And I have no idea who the photographic equivalent of our Babs would be – Ansel Adams?

So why am I on my soapbox? I like minimalist pictures very much. I like a lot of the award winning pictures in this competition. Paying a fee to enter a competition may set a useful barrier to the less serious or committed (see above for the zero marginal cost of one photo) and it may build to a prize fund worth having. The winners probably got what they wanted and we’re all happy. So let me wind-in whatever neck I had extended and take the whole thing at face value. The correct judgement to use here is Occam’s razor, not Hanlon’s.

Go and look at the gallery of minimalist images and see what you think.

Update on shooting IR

Having converted a Panasonic camera to shoot infrared and built a little push-on hood to hold the special filter, I had second thoughts. Part of it was looking at the work of Pierre-Louis Ferrer on Petapixel and his own website. Obviously, I’m not that good, but I liked what he was doing.

I realised that I normally use mono film, so what was my reason for not putting the IR filter directly in front of the sensor? Besides, fitting the filter inside the camera did away with the fiddly lens hood.

I also had a close look at Ferrer’s work and I think he is using a luminosity mask to do split toning. He is applying a pale khaki tone to the highlights and possibly a touch of blue to the shadows.

So for my next trick I found a useful YouTube video on creating luminosity masks in Photoshop Elements (as I’m too cheap to spring for the full version, and it does all I could want). The basic idea is to create a mask that controls where an effect works, based on the brightness of the image. So you can do something like tone the highlights a delicate shade without changing the mid-tones or shadows.

On my first attempts I realised that the highlights in my IR images were totally blown out. Back to the camera and play with the settings. IR mono scenes are very high contrast and the camera was not holding the highlights. Since I actually want the shadows to go black, I set the camera to underexpose by one stop.

Lower lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Lower lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I had a chance to go out for a walk in sunshine (I felt like a battery-hen on day release), so I took the remodified camera. With a dog lead round one wrist I was very glad to not be fiddling with the filter.

YSP sculpture
First go with luminosity masking

So the update is that I’ve fiddled with and adjusted the camera and learned a new technique.

Not bad for a day out.

Infrared conversions

I have Peggy to thank for this.

I’ve been fascinated for a long time with the look of infrared photography. I even got to shoot a roll of the famous Kodak HIE before it dodo’ed.

I went so far as to convert an old Agfa Super Silette to IR-only by fitting (gluing) a piece of infrared filter behind the lens. That didn’t work too well at first because I misjudged the exposure. What I really wanted though was an IR-converted digital camera so I could see the results as I was taking the pictures. This involves removing the infrared absorbing filter that sits in front of the sensor. I didn’t have a spare dSLR and my various other digital cameras were too difficult or too expensive, so it went on the wish list.

Agfa IR

That’s a bit of Lee polyester IR filter (730nm cut-off) behind the lens.

And then came Peggy’s article about Panasonic Lumix compacts. It seems that the sensor, and hence the filter, are ‘easily’ accessible through the back of the camera. What could possibly go wrong?

The first thing was to find a suitable camera. There are loads on fleabay, but the prices vary quite a lot. There are even some that have already had the filter removed – it seems that people attach them to rifles as a night sight. Eventually one turned up that was the right type but suitably undesirable, so cheap.

The screwdrivers were the next issue. I have several sets of jeweller’s screwdrivers that I have accumulated, but the camera used particularly tiny screws. Eventually a specs repair kit yielded a suitably tiny screwdriver. And then as soon as I got the back off the camera I went looking for a magnet – I didn’t want to be turning the camera over to shake out any screws I dropped. A few swipes over the magnetic clasp of a camera bag made the screws stick to the screwdriver and we were away. It really was fairly simple to lift away the sensor and remove the IR filter. I then cut a tiny piece from my Lee IR filter (8 by 10mm) to go in its place. This makes the camera permanently IR only, but means that I don’t need to mount a fragile bit of filter gel on the front of the lens. Besides, I can always go back in and remove it now I know how.

Challenge two is to charge the battery. The camera came without a charger, hence it was cheap. I have a USB cable that fits the camera, but this doesn’t charge the battery. I tried hot-wiring the battery + and – terminals to a USB cable (which delivers 5v) and to a 4.5v mains adapter. No joy. It looks like the battery also needs the ground terminal connected, which is why proper chargers have three pins and not two. So a charger is on its way to me from China. <interlude with hold music> The charger arrived and did its chargey thing and then we were charged.

And it only darned well worked! The first shot out into the garden looked like it had been snowing. I immediately took the dog for a walk and photographed everything.

IR 1

So it works very well indeed. But… Now I know why nobody fits the IR cut-off filter inside the camera. It restricts you to mono-only pictures without the option of the weird false colour effect you can get without the filter. So how to fit a filter to a camera with a pop-out lens?

Taking the IR-cutoff filter out was easier than fitting it in the first place, as I knew the sequence and the non-obvious screw that has to be removed. Without the IR cut-off filter in front of the sensor the autofocus hunts a bit. This is probably because visible and infrared light focus at different points. Fair enough – the camera has a setting that gives priority to infinity focus, so that’s what I went for. That didn’t work very well, but the next option was to use multi-point focus rather than a single spot. That seems to work a lot better.

Back to the bits box, and the benefit of hoarding old junk is that you can cobble some of it into gadgets. There in the box, previously unloved, was a 29mm push-on filter. The outermost segment of the lens, when it telescoped out, was 29.3mm diameter. The push on filter was thin brass. The crude and violent use of a socket and a hammer spread the mouth of the filter to be a snug fit over the lens. In the same box was a lens hood that was a reasonable fit over the filter. A trial fit showed that it was too deep and vignetted the corners. A few minutes with a hacksaw took care of that. A dab of glue and hello push fit IR cut-off filter with wide angle hood.

SHADE

And now I can play. With the hood on and the camera in mono mode, I have the traditional Wood effect of white leaves and black skies. With the hood off I get the false-colour effect of purple leaves and weirdness. Most excellent!

IR 3

Plus, pop the filter back on and I can do the high contrast black and white thing.

Monk Stray

So, many thanks to Peggy for the tip that this could be done at home.

PS
I have refitted the cutoff filter in front of the sensor. The external filter/hood gadget worked but I was in constant danger of dropping something while fiddling it on and off.

Strap-ons

What’s the best way to carry a camera? The obvious answer is a bag, but what about when you want the camera handy?

Back when we wore flares and cheesecloth the answer would have been a neck strap. I’ve still got a box full of neck straps somewhere. You end up with the camera bouncing on your chest and it looks like you are advertising it.

Ammo
20 year-old me (bless). Ignore the bad hair and look at the thin camera strap and army-surplus gadget belt. I’ve never been one to let style stand in the way of substance…

You can sling the strap over a shoulder but like many people, my shoulders slope down, not up. I once had a photographer’s jacket – one of those waistcoat jobs with lots of pockets. That was in the days before it could be mistaken for a bomb vest. One good feature (the only?) was that it had a button sewn on the point of the shoulder. This was great for keeping a camera strap from sliding off, but I’m not sewing buttons onto all my jackets.

I’ve seen events photographers using a waistbelt or a bandolier arrangement that lets them holster one or more big digital cameras. Ideal for what they do but impractical for me. I can’t see the need in normal situations to be able to quick-draw my chip-shooters.

Generally, a camera is in my bag or in my hand. When the camera has a full length strap I generally loop a turn about my wrist. This keeps the strap from flapping in front of the lens and acts as a safety stop if I drop the camera. I’ve seen some of the street photographers using wrist straps. I admit that at first I thought they were a bit too groovy, like neck-beards or man-buns (see total lack of groove in the photo above). But since I was already doing something similar with a neck strap, I tried making one. Obviously I wanted to try this idea before spending real money on it. A bit of rope left over from replacing the dog’s lead and a strong split ring and I think it works pretty well. The length is right to let me carry the camera in one hand in and secure enough that I’m not going to drop it. OK – score one to the hipsters: it works.

Strap 2

So my basic walking-around kit became the camera in a shoulder bag if I don’t need it ready, and when I do the camera is carried in one hand with the wrist strap on. I’m right handed so this leaves my left hand free to use a light meter or change lenses. I like it – it’s discrete. I have been doing the same thing with a neck strap, which is to take a couple of turns around my wrist, but I wanted to see if this was better.

Strap 1
Spot the lens. I will be writing about it in future.

But while a bit of paracord is not as cool-looking as a dedicated wrist strap, it does give me the option of slinging the camera over a shoulder if I need both hands for something.

Vic would prefer I kept hold of the rope.

But hanging the camera from one hand for general strolling about – ideal. The only thing that is easier is my digital SLR, which has a prominent grip (for the right-handed). This makes it even more secure to carry the camera hanging from one hand with a couple of turns of the strap around my wrist.

On the whole though, and having tried the wrist strap, I find myself going back to the neck strap. I can double it round my wrist to give me the discrete hand carry, but it also lets me sling it over a shoulder when I need to open a gate or un/clip the dog’s lead.

So yes, I’m glad I didn’t buy an expensive wrist strap but also glad I tried the idea out.

Shooting pets

Is harder than you would think. I know a guy who specialises in pet photography and he must be a mixture of lighting technician, sports photographer and saint.

For a start, pets are usually smaller than people. This means you need to get close, but you also need to get low to be nearer their level (and besides, dogs can’t look up). But close means shallower depth of field. And since pets are often arranged horizontally rather than vertically the fall-off in sharpness may be more noticeable.

Fur also soaks up light. I’ve got some pictures that include a black dog and it might as well be a hole in the film.

Wet dog, direct flash
Wet dog, direct flash, pushed film. Not the ideal combination.

Flash can still be useful, as the buggers won’t keep still or pose. You have to watch out for highlights in the fur though, as it can be surprisingly glossy. Think of your subject being a mixture of Vantablack and mirrors.

Horse
A touch of flash can make them look sleek

You also run the risk of startling the animal. One time I was shooting someone jumping fences on their horse. I so wanted to use flash to get a bit of light into the subject and freeze the motion, but I was advised that startling a horse mid-air while standing that close was a bad idea (still not one of the ten worst things though). Dogs and cats (and many others) have also got reflective retinas, meaning their eyes light up like a zombie apocalypse if you get the angles wrong. But if you don’t use any lighting you can lose the catch-lights in their eyes and make the animal look like it was stuffed.

The best lighting seems to be big, soft sources like a large window. It means you can see the detail in the fur and the eyes.

C
Those really are his eyelashes

This is where digital wins totally over film. You can shoot hundreds of pictures and review them instantly. You’ve got autofocus. You can judge the exposure right off the back of the camera.

Or you wait until they are asleep.

Sparky

And even though I wouldn’t want my mate’s job, at least it’s not shooting weddings.

Devil in the details

There I was: classic car show; lashings of sunshine; throngs of people. But the cars were close together and surrounded by the people. What’s a poor boy to do?

Go for details.

I can’t do justice to a red monster covered in fins and chrome, but I can find an angle free of distractions and condense the whole to a point.

75

Or a big Pontiac surrounded by gazers but alone against the sky.

104

Actually, this works rather well. It really is possible to summarise or to try to find the detail that evokes. Does this work with people? I think it does.

30

But it’s the cars I like, so indulge me and see if you know the make and model.

Ok, that one was easy.

This one?

Obviously American. As is the next:

This one comes with a matching owner.

But the next one isn’t even a car.

It’s a bit of fun.

One more? Go on then.

Very red car

Focusing on detail is useful though, when the whole is too big, too cluttered or badly arranged.

What do you think?

Does a photo have to be good to be good?

Scanning my way through a bunch of my parents old negatives I came across a couple of curious but dreadful shots. They were a pair of scuffed and fuzzy shots of a tv screen. They were taken on a 126 camera, so no choice of shutter speed or focus and the aperture probably fixed around f8. Hardly worth a second glance. Except they were of the first moon landing. My mum had taken pictures of the launch of the lander top section at the end of the mission, on its way to meet up with the command module. So the pictures are low quality snaps of low-key video on an old mono tv. And they are wonderful.

moonshots

I was young at the time, but I remember how excited my mum was by the landing and mission. So I have something that reminds me of both a momentous event and my mum’s enthusiasm. Who cares about technical perfection?

It’s the same with old family photographs: sharp, well-framed or well exposed are immaterial. There are pictures of my dad doing his national service, my granny in her nurse’s uniform, great grandparents and all the cousins of various degree. The key thing is not whether the picture is any good, but if you can name who is in it. Old prints are good if a kind relative has written on the back. Negatives are more difficult. The best thing I have found is to scan them or even photograph and invert them, then put them on your phone. Any family gathering is the chance to ask about the pictures. Why bother? Because family trees can send branches in all directions. One of ours went to America and became (a former) president. He was a cousin (probably not a first cousin) to my grandad. They actually looked alike, too. Not that I supported either of their politics.

Dan and great gran
Dan and great gran

So I think the conclusion is that I could have wasted my time and money on cameras and lenses when all I really needed was snaps of family and friends. Really? No – I have more and better pictures of the people who matter, so at least some of the investment was returned with interest. Pictures of people or special events are treasure.

I suppose I’d better print them and write names on the back for my own kids.

This is one of them.

danlips

Tell me you were looking at the tonal rendition and bokeh…

Testing a camera

“I’m going to run a film through it to test it” is what people say. But what do they do? If you stumble across the apocryphal 50p Leica or Nikon in a flea market or charity shop, how do you even know it works?

The first thing, even before putting film in it, is to check that the shutter works. Always wind-on the camera before changing shutter speeds. You really only need to do this with Russian and some other old cameras, but it is a good habit to get into. Teach your hands the habit and you might avoid breaking something in future.

With focal plane shutters, you are looking for both curtains to move smoothly without binding. When you wind-on the camera, the gap between the shutter curtains or blades should be closed as the shutter is re-cocked. The different shutter speeds should sound different. It is not unusual for the slower speeds to either not work or to be much slower than they should be. Your decision – it might free-up with use, you could pay to get the camera serviced, or you avoid using the slow speeds.

Open
Needs a clean. The mark on the shutter is due to it being left uncocked. No obvious holes.

With leaf shutters, the ones that are built into the lens, you can listen to check that the speeds sound different. The slower speeds on old cameras can often be either very slow or frozen. Again, they might loosen-up in use or you could avoid using the slow speeds. Don’t bother trying the self-timer. It has probably never been used and will stick part-way through its run. If it does you will have to try persuading it to finish so that you get control of the lens back.

What shape are the light seals in? If they are sticky, broken or absent, it’s pretty straightforward to replace them.

Does the camera back (or base for that old Leica) fit properly? If not, the camera may have been dropped. Check the lens mounting at the front as well, this might get damaged if the camera was dropped.

Take a look through the front of the camera with the lens off as you work the shutter. Do the internal bits all move as they should? Does the mirror on an SLR swing up and return? Does the aperture-closing plate on a screw-mount SLR swing forward and back? Take another look at the shutter – can you see any wrinkles, bald spots or holes?

Take a squint through the lens. Threads of fungus needn’t be the end of the world: some lenses are simple enough to clean yourself and some can be serviced. Or plan to throw the lens away. Lenses can also be cloudy, scratched, dusty or have the glued elements separating. However bad it is, at least try shooting through it to see what sort of effect you get.

Put the lens on and try focusing the camera. Does it focus at about the right distance? You can recalibrate the rangefinder on many rangefinder cameras, but I don’t know how you would fix an SLR that didn’t focus correctly (unless it’s due to having the wrong lens on it).

If it has a lens, does it focus smoothly and does the aperture close-down properly? Many SLRs have a method of closing the aperture down to the set value at just the point you press the shutter. Does this work? Does the lens close-down to the same size of hole each time? Does it open up immediately again? Sleepy apertures are a common problem with old lenses. You can pay to have it serviced or put up with it and shoot with a pre-closed aperture. Or throw the lens away and keep the camera body.

Cosmic
Needs a clean. The lens looks OK. The rust is external.

So – all that before you put a film through it. If the camera passes these basic tests then it might work. Now put the film through it.

Try to shoot at all the workable shutter speeds. Shoot stuff at infinity and close up. Shoot some close-ups with the subject in only part of the frame, so you get plenty of out-of-focus background. Make it really obvious in the close-ups where the point of focus was or shoot a ruler or a long fence. Take some shots into the light. At least one interior is useful, with bright windows and lots of stuff in the shadows.

When you get to see the results, the first things to look for are that the frames are about the same density and are evenly spaced. Even density means the camera was exposing correctly at different shutter speeds and that the lens aperture is closing correctly. Even spacing means the mechanical windy-on bits are working. You can also check the film for scratches.

Neg sheet
The spacing is a little irregular but the exposure seems fine.

Did the camera focus correctly close-up? There are ways of calibrating some rangefinders to fix this, but it would be an unusual fault in an SLR. The out of focus background in some shots will give you a sense of whether you like the lens or not. Some will give a sharp subject on a smooth background while others will make the out of focus areas look busy and distracting.

Shooting into the light will give you a sense of how well the lens resists flare. For the interior shots with bright windows, look at any halo around the bright spots and whether there is detail in the shadows or it is hidden by flare. You can improve things with a good lens hood or just call it character.

So there you have it: you now have a fair idea of how well the camera works and if there are any dodgy settings to avoid. Which might be why it was in the charity shop in the first place.

Mooning

You know how it is – a full moon on the horizon looks huge, but it shrinks as it rises. It’s inconsistent too: it keeps changing shape and it moves around the sky. So how do you get those Hernandez shots with a perfect moon in the perfect place?

Cheat, obviously.

With Photoshop or Gimp it’s easy enough to combine a moon shot with a foreground, but you can do the same thing with film too.

I got the idea years ago; from someone else, obviously. I was reading something from a photographer whose name I am afraid I have forgotten. He was off on honeymoon and planned to shoot landscapes to cover some of his costs. To make them special he shot one roll of film with full moons to double expose them later. But let’s get to the method…

The idea is to mark and load a roll of film in such a way that you can line it up to shoot the frames again as double exposures.

The first thing to do is to mark the inside of your camera. Load a film, keep the back open and make sure the film is lying flat and tight and the camera is fully wound on. Mark the film with a pen to match the camera marking. Close the camera, wind on two frames and start work.

Back 1

Back 2

Next, you need a moon and a notebook. The idea is to take a full roll of shots, placing the moon in different parts of the frame and at different sizes and noting these plus the frame number.

How do you expose the moon? Easy – it’s in bright sunlight so you could Sunny 16 it on a clear night, although to be more accurate you need to give it an extra stop of exposure using the perfectly named Loony 11 rule. How do you find when the moon is full or crescent? An ephemeris.

Carefully rewind the film, keeping the tail out of the cassette. When you want to use it, reload and line it up with the marks again. Fetch your notebook and look at your notes. Use a polariser, filter or time of day to render the sky dark, or at least darker. Expose and shoot for the foreground.

With luck and a fair wind, you will get big moons in your skies.

Moonrise over her hairbrush

Playing with the focal length of the lenses you use for the moon pictures and for the overlay changes the relative sizes and can give you the big moons you wanted. It can also look totally false or you can mess it up completely, but that’s how we learn, right?

Moon Rhine

Have fun.

A cheap digital light meter

I’ve been playing around trying to repair a lovely old Weston light meter (of which more anon). I also have a variety of other old light meters, all of which read slightly differently. I do have one meter that I bought new, but it’s getting to be as old as its owner. So which one is to be the reference standard against which I can test and adjust the rest?

The simple answer would be to buy a new meter. But that’s expensive and, well, easy.

Then I had a stroke of clever. Commercial illumination meters are much cheaper than photographic light meters, but they read in Lux. A quick search online found that there is a Lux to EV conversion (Lux is two to the power of EV times 2.5 – don’t panic: clever people have done the sums already). So I splashed out on a Chinese-made luxmeter for under a tenner delivered.

Amazingly, the intercontinental postal system is up and running again. What I got was a chunky gadget about the size of a TV remote.

Lux01

The meter can read from 0.1 to 200,000 Lux, which is about -4 to 16 EV. That’s a useful range. My little book of notes tells me that -4 is ‘night away from city lights or subject lit by half-moon’ and 16 is ‘subject in bright daylight on sand or snow’. EV 15 is where the sunny 16 rule applies. So basically this meter could cover everything I am likely to encounter.

My next job then was to build a Lux to EV converter. Now Lux is a logarithmic or exponential scale. We should all be familiar with exponential curves by now but what it means is that while EV 1 is only 5 Lux, EV 13 is 10,240 Lux. The meter handles this fine by switching scales but I was going to need to build a little conversion table on a card. My ideal would be a circular table like you get on an old light meter so that you can dial-up the reading and the ISO and see all the exposure combinations. The straight table to convert Lux to EV at 100 ISO is easy, as is the table that gives the options at different ISO – see lower below. The circular calculator took longer. I had to work out how many layers of disk I needed and what was on each layer. One of the scales also had to progress around the disk in the opposite direction to the others.

Lux03
Earlier versions

After a few attempts I got it right. I took a reading with the luxmeter and converted it to a shutter speed and aperture. I took a reading with my best meter, the Sekonic, at the same place and ISO. And they matched. Result! My Sonic meter is accurate, I have a tool to test the others with and I have a new digital light meter. Go me!

Lux02

I will get hold of some plastic sheet and see if I can make a better version of my wheel calculator. In the meantime it’s actually easier to print a small card with the Lux to EV conversion on one side and some common starter values for each EV and ISO on the other.

Luxtable

EVtable

Lux04

The advantage of using a card is that you can also add a rangefinder to it.

Enjoy!

PS
I did build a better version of the paper wheel.

Whel