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The difference

What one thing made the biggest difference to your photography?

For me it was a bit of critical feedback. Someone was looking at my images and said “pictures without people in are boring”. After the initial sting (the feeling of pride leaving the body), I realised it summarised what I liked most to take pictures of: people doing things. It was liberating. I didn’t have to take pictures of places to record that I’d been there. I didn’t have to take pictures of objects to show that I’d seen them. My loose definition of ‘people doing stuff’ could cover sport, family and friends. I still do the equivalent of landscape and wildlife photography when I’m diving, but I seem to be the only diver in my group who regularly photographs other divers.

I can’t think of any piece of equipment that has made a large difference. Any improvements have been incremental. There was never any feeling that this thing, whatever it was, had lifted the veil and changed my life. Saying that, there was a touch of that feeling when I bought my first camera. This was the first camera that was mine, as opposed to borrowing the family snapper. I could do with it what I wanted and because I paid for my own film and development, there was no guilt in shooting things that were “without merit”. That was a liberating step.

Once apon a time, this was the British Microsoft

I could say that getting an underwater camera made a big difference, but that too was incremental. I started with barely-capable splashproof kit and progressed to using an SLR in a flexible housing (a plastic bag). None of it was revelatory, as I gradually worked my way towards what I wanted to be able to do. If I could send my present setup back in time to beginner me, that would be a huge improvement. But what I use now didn’t exist then, and the path that led me from there to here taught me a lot along the way. And actually, I had to develop my diving skills as well. There would be no point giving my scuba-diving camera to my snorkelling protege, as it is meant to be used differently.

So it feels like my path from there to here in photography has been one of small steps and minor improvements. Except that here is a long way from there. I can look back and be amazed at the differences, but none of the steps felt large, or even planned. I am aware that I hosed the world with my camera when I first started. Everything felt new and I took pictures of things to see what they would look like in a picture, or to see if I could even get a picture. So along the way I have accumulated a vast record of boring pictures that capture an event as a bystander would see it, with no interpretation or art. The liberation for me was the comment I got as feedback, that freed me to ignore the things I didn’t feel engaged with.

It’s like books: I used to feel a duty to finish what I started. Then I found that there were lots of books in the world and I could neither read them all or be interested in them all. And some books were not well-written. This meant I could stop reading a book that didn’t engage me or at least teach me. (An aside – I keep a list of books I’d like to read so that I can raid bookshops and libraries with purpose and method. But serendipity needs to be in the mix too.)

So gaining a sense of what was valuable to me (or rather, having it pointed-out by helpful criticism) was the thing that made the biggest difference. What about you?


Second cheapest

So the idea is, if you are not sure what you need and faced with a long scale that stretches from cheap and cheerful to costly and complex, start with the second cheapest. The idea comes from Ronald Turnbull, and is his way of choosing mountaineering gear. For him, the enemies are weight and cost. The basis of the idea is to start with about the minimum and work up to what you need through actual experience.

I know I wrote previously about buying second-hand as a lower cost entry point. Ron’s is a slightly different strategy, of buying new but buying cheap. As film cameras age and fail, buying used is going to be increasingly risky. I know there are cameras that can be repaired and maintained, but they tend to be expensive and the skilled people who can repair them are also in short supply. The reason these cameras can be fixed at all is that they are expensive. People who buy a Leica or Rollei don’t want to throw them away if they break. People who break a Zenith tend to buy another one, even though they are eminently fixable.

If you look at digital kit there is an enormous range of functionality and features, with new models arriving like Russian taxis. If you know exactly what you need, the choice is easy. Otherwise, it’s confusing. So Ron’s Way might be the best: pick the one above the cheapest, use it and learn what it lacks. I know the old adage of buy cheap, buy twice, but there is no guarantee that buying expensive will deliver what you need. I could buy one of those mythical Leicas or Rolleis, and then find that what I really wanted was autofocus and the ability to use long lenses for bird photography. Or I could buy a top-range digital camera only to find it can’t take alternative lenses.

Not the second-cheapest, but it was second-hand.

Sure, you could do the logical thing and make a list of what you need and compare it with camera specifications, but is your list going to be based on experience or desire? I could wish for a 500mm lens, but I can’t think when I might ever use it. But I did learn from using a digital SLR that I needed better high ISO ability and to be able to use my wide angle lenses without cropping. I confess that I also didn’t buy the original camera new: I waited until a new model was announced and the price of the old one dropped like a rock. It has done, and still does, great service. I have used most of the features it offers. It went on sale in 2006 and was superseded in 2008, so mine is around 14 years old. I don’t care what the shutter count is and I’m not scouting for a spare one as a backup. If it breaks, the new camera is a total replacement that can do everything the old one did plus more.

Already obsolete when I bought it.

So perhaps we add the Duck Dodge to Ron’s Way? Buy a good model when it gets replaced and the price drops. But if you are not sure what you want yet, try Ron’s Way – buy the second cheapest.

The passing of a trouper

RIP the Ricoh XR-2. This was my first proper SLR camera and has soldiered on through everything that was ever asked of it. It’s been used underwater, in the rain and for everything and it just kept going. The light seals perished but were easily replaced.

And then I developed a film that was blank. A quick check found that the shutter was firing at a single speed, as there was no difference between 1/1000 and 1 second. The other obvious thing was that although the shutter blades were moving, there was no gap between them. Fresh batteries made no difference.

The shutter is a Copal Square and is electronically timed. So it looks like the electronics have died. I know that shutters have a life expectancy, and knowing how much I have used this camera over the years I guess I’ve just found it.

Forty years of hard service. Not bad for a consumer camera.

Am I going to replace it? No, I have more than enough cameras. I did have a Ricoh KR-10 for a while, but that was a bit too odd ergonomically. So if I’m not replacing it with another Ricoh I can just use one of the many other cameras I have, such as a perfectly serviceable Cosina.

On the other hand, it’s worth checking it over before throwing it away. It appears to be firing at the manual speed only. I understand that the shutter blades are held and released by a couple of solenoids. If they weren’t working or were covered in muck it could explain what the shutter is doing. What’s the harm in looking? Actually, quite a lot. I’m not the most gifted at fiddly repairs, or even repairs. I might be better sending this and some other casualties of time and hard use to one of the people who is still repairing cameras. That’s if they have any use as parts.

So what I actually did is take it, plus some other knackered SLR bodies and a lens, to the Photo Show in Birmingham. I donated them all to the Camera Rescue people. With luck they will either live to work again or donate components so that other cameras can have a longer life.

How did you learn?

What got me thinking was hearing a photographer described as ‘self taught’. That has surely got to be the majority of us, don’t you think? Even when I started taking pictures, I knew there were college courses that included photography. But I was on the science track. Schools then streamed pupils in subject groups, and I was better at science than art.

I could probably have done an arts or photography course after secondary school, but I was always going to be a better technologist than artist. Besides, teaching myself photography was part of the fun. I read every book on photography in the library. With my pal, who had a camera and knew how to use it, we read every magazine we could find (or afford) and critiqued every Photography Year Book. We also took pictures of anything and everything.

This was back in the days of Real Cameras which used film. It meant that the feedback cycle of comparing the results with the subject and one’s intentions was quite long. Digital photography has made the cycle much shorter – you can shoot, chimp and adjust immediately. This has got to be a better way of learning. Using film also introduces more variables. I might have got perfect focus, but then I messed up the development or printing. It was the reason why I would habitually take two shots of a subject in case I broke one of them. But film and chemicals seemed to be cheap and were certainly easy to obtain: Boots sold an own-brand mono film and every half-decent camera shop had bottles of Aculux. So we followed the percussive learning route – running into every wall until we found the way.

We were young in those days. Bless.

I was lucky in many ways that I was technical. I could develop my own film, I knew how things like dilution and temperature worked, and I (eventually) understood the camera’s settings. So gradually, over several years, my outcomes came closer to my intentions.

I will confess though, that my pal and I were rather taken with the legends of our revered photojournalists. We watched a documentary about Don McCullin in which he made a throw-away remark about changing film while lying in cover. So we practiced loading our cameras without looking or in the dark. One of the magazines told us we should be able to change the camera settings without looking, so we practiced. It was a harmless bit of fan-boy homage, but we did actually learn to handle our cameras with more confidence and less fear.

We were messing about when I noticed the shape of his shadow. It took a fair bit of processing to get the result I wanted from the picture I took.

Do I still think this kind of apprenticeship is necessary? No. The purpose of photography is the results, not the methods. I chose to learn the methods because I wanted to get more control over my results. My digital cameras now allow me to get the results directly within the camera and allow me to check immediately that I’m getting what I wanted. Do you still need to understand the exposure triangle? Totally. But getting immediate feedback makes it easier. It’s also changed in that ISO is now something you can vary with every shot, rather than being fixed for the length of the film you are using.

Would my photography have benefited from an input of art history or informed criticism? Absolutely, but I found my way into these later. So what’s my point? I am entirely self taught. I claim no merit from it: it’s just the way it worked out. For me the journey has been part of the pleasure. I guess that is the technologist in me: I want to understand how things work so that I can use them better. When I started taking pictures I did have to know how my camera and film worked in order to get the results I wanted. If I was starting now I would have a lot more automation and a much quicker learning cycle, so I would probably let the camera handle the settings while I concentrated on the results.

I also have a bad feeling about what a photography course could contain. I know what a proper college syllabus covers, as I’ve looked at them to see if I should do some proper study in photography. These courses are good. My reservations are for the shorter informal sessions given by amateurs. My fear is that these are more about how to control and use a camera than how to see things in a way that makes good pictures. If this is the way you might learn photography you would be better off looking at good photographs and paintings and thinking about why they are good.

So I followed the self-taught route, driven by a desire to make pictures and learning what I could in a haphazard fashion. The alternative route of formal learning teaches you more, better and quicker and leaves no gaps in your understanding. Self taught needn’t be less skilled, just as formally trained needn’t be more artistic. I think the route to avoid though is learning how to use a camera in the hope it will improve your pictures. Nobody cares what shutter speed you used, but using the right one can get the result you wanted. And the right shutter speed comes from your intention, not from the manual.

But to get back to the original point, I wonder how many photographers didn’t take an arts course or learn photography through formal education? Or perhaps it’s more strongly streamed than I realise. Perhaps people who want to take photographs usually follow the artistic education route and do learn by formal methods, while people like me fall into photography because they like it and learn by any method they can? But I’m a sample of one. How did you learn photography?

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