Sealed with a KISS

So, I broke a camera. Then I found another one on eBay for £2.20. And it was mine. Well, you have to don’t you? And then the red mist cleared and I realised I had bought a fixed-focus camera with a single shutter speed and a fixed 32mm lens. Which due to refraction under water becomes the equivalent of a 45mm lens in terms of field of view. They used to give away cameras with magazines that had more features than this. OK, so the freebies weren’t waterproof to 45 metres and didn’t come with a dedicated waterproof flash. But this camera is as dumb as a rock.

So let’s get this baby wet! What could possibly go wrong?

Lots. But while a plan may not survive contact with the enemy, planning does. The camera manual gives the distance ranges for sharp focus for each aperture (yes, you can vary the aperture), both in air and underwater. The work of but a few minutes to make up a small table of these, laminate it and attach it to the camera strap. The lighting and exposure might be all over the place, so I loaded it with some XP2. This would cope easily with overexposure and would be likely to capture at least something if it was underexposed.

The big hammerhead flash might be a problem, as it can’t be aimed in any other direction than dead ahead. Backscatter from silt is always an issue, so a long flash arm that allows an oblique angle is nice if you have the right kit or loadsamoney. What the hell – this is £2.20 – if it doesn’t work I can probably resell it for more than that.

So me and the Nikonot went diving in a quarry. Full of water, mind. I call it water, it was more like thin soup. There were a lot of trainee divers in that day, and nothing stirs up your bottom like a trainee diver. The usual answer is to use the widest angle lens possible, allowing you to get very close and minimise the amount of water between subject and camera. But I have a fixed-focus lens that is only going to be sharp between three and six feet.

Capernwray - silt!
The joy of silt

Oh what fun we had. I guessed what looked like about three feet, lined things up as best I could through the viewfinder (you think it’s hard to use a camera when you’re wearing glasses? Try a diving mask), and banged off 36 shots.

The joy of simplicity is that there is nothing to fiddle with: set the aperture according to the flash (f8 for an ISO 400 film) and just line up the shots and snap ’em. This is so liberating to a person who habitually uses a fully manual camera with a separate meter.

Cappernwray

Then I sent my film off to those marvellous people at AG Photolabs and wondered if I might get one or two usable shots from the roll. The first news is just how good XP2 is. Holding the neg strips up to the light showed some very dense frames. Pop them on the scanner and ping, out comes the detail. I had deliberately overexposed many of the shots knowing that the film would cope, and it really did. The only alternative I can think of would be to use HP5 and give it stand development. There’s a risk with this of getting uneven development though, so XP2 is one less variable in the mix.

The other revelation is that almost every frame on the roll was usable. I lost a couple with a strap or hose in front of the lens – typical hazard when you are using a viewfinder camera rather than an SLR. The rest were great! I’m amazed that a fixed focus, fixed everything camera can turn in results this good when shooting in soup.

Capernwray - Shergar
You can take a horse to water…

For my next trick I think I’ll try some colour. The equivalent of XP2 is supposed to be Portra 800 so I’ll be trying some of that at the next opportunity. Weirdly, and perhaps inevitably, this has also removed the fears I had for using a proper Nikonos. If I took the same approach of setting a fixed zone of focus and an automatic flash, it might work. The only advantage though would be to have a variable shutter speed. This would let me use a slow speed to bring the background out more, rather than leaving it as black. The only drawback though is the Nikonos’ special flash connection, so I would need the flash as well as the camera. So if someone reading this wants to donate me their kit or even swap it for the Nikonot, drop me a line (and likely kill me with shock).

Enough fantasising – this plastic housebrick turned out to be far better than I hoped. You’ve got to win one occasionally, haven’t you?

The Shadow knows…

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…” (Evil laugh)

So, I was chatting to a work colleague and he was showing me his new mobile phone. It’s what boys do when we don’t have any lenses to compare. His phone appeared to have several camera lenses on the back, plus the magic word Leica. But what he was showing me was that the camera could recognise what he was taking a picture of and adjust its settings accordingly. Keep that in mind as exhibit 1.

I was chatting to another colleague (I know, is there no end to my social round?). He is a web developer. He had developed an application that looked at the feed from a CCTV camera placed near the runway at a small airfield. When something moved in front of the camera it took a snapshot. He used some clever web services to look at the picture, recognise what was in it and send him back the results. If the results said ‘airplane’ he saved the image as a record of a landing or takeoff. Exhibit 2.

So what these have in common is that a web-based service is analysing the content of a picture in real time and with impressive accuracy. How cool is that?

Pretty damned uncool if I took a picture of my baby in the bath. Remember that woman who had her picture removed from Facebook because her elbow resembled a naked breast? What if the web service says ‘naked child’ or ‘person holding gun’?

Bang
Bite me, Google

We used to have a rule when the kids were younger of ‘no weapons at the table’. This obviously changed with time to ‘no phones at the table’. But there are a myriad pictures of them carrying everything from wooden broadswords to plastic laser blasters. There are an equal number of cute little snaps of them wearing nothing but a cheeky grin and a dusting of baby powder. These are in the special album that we threaten to bring out when we get the visit + girlfriend. You can get a lot of errands run this way.

But these are my pictures and were seen, if at all, by a photo lab technician who was a human being and probably got the context. I’m a lot less comfortable sending them off to t’cloud and saying “can you see what it is yet?” (about as comfortable as we all are using that reference any more). It did cross my mind what would happen if I took a few pictures of some Frank Frazetta or HR Giger art? (Not that I’m a closet teenage boy, just that they are an example). I expect it would stuff my chances of getting through US Customs.

Am I being paranoid? Some parts of the world are truly Fup Duck but I do hope that thoughtcrime remains a thought experiment. And that nobody discovers my stash of dinosaur porn.

Zoom zoom

Time was, that a zoom lens was what amateurs used. Real photographers use fixed lenses. A Real Photographer (RP) always had the right lens on the camera and a range of alternatives in their battered canvas shoulder bag. An RP could change a film under sniper fire and judge the right exposure by eye. And besides, all the magazines said that zooms were inferior. At the time they probably were, or perhaps the journalists had a heavy investment in fixed lenses and wished it so.

And then computers happened. Or rather, Moore’s Law and whatever the equivalent is in manufacturing. (Foolish boy! Moore’s law is about manufacturing.) We are very good at learning how to make things better. Cars don’t rust like they used to and getting to 100,000 miles is not worth writing to the papers about. We no longer have to take engines apart to de-coke them or regrind the valves. So apply cheaper and more powerful computers to optical design and clever manufacturing to lens grinding and glass-making and we built a better zoom.

So zooms started to challenge the quality of fixed lenses. Remember of course that this mythical quality was measured by shooting resolution charts and not by the results people got using them. I reckon that people using zooms have always been happy with the results, or they wouldn’t shoot zooms.

And then along came the zoom compact and it sold by the squillion. I remember a TV ad that showed people photographing a group, perhaps at a wedding. The people using ‘ordinary’ point-and-shoots were sliding closer and further to the group to frame their shots. The smug one with the advertised camera used the in-built zoom lens to go from group to single portrait without having to move. Is this the camera that caused obesity? Anyway, we all bought 35mm compacts with zooms and a built-in flash. Although I bet almost all of the pictures were taken at one of the extreme ends of the zoom range.

Hot on the heels of the film compact came the digital one, and these all had zooms as standard. Then came the digital SLR with its standard zoom out of the box. Zoom became the default. I was at an event recently that had an official event photographer capturing the speakers for posterity. He had a pair of cameras, both fitted with zooms. Why not, when you can avoid even having to change lenses? He was shooting in the usual ill-lit theatre environment using a 70-210 zoom and no flash. And the shutter was going click rather than cliiiiiiiiiiiiiiick. So given you can push the ISO to the moon, why not use a zoom to get the framing rather than a wider fixed lens to grab the light?

In fact, the only reason I can see for people using a fixed lens at the moment is to get a special effect or to gain a wide aperture. Give it a year or so and the f1.4 zoom will be in the shops and we need never change lenses again. Although I suppose there will still be sports photographers or weird old codgers who mutter into their beards and smell of fixer. Or Leica users.

Drumming
Sometimes you really need a wide aperture

I found an object of my youthful lust in a charity shop a few weeks back. A genuine Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm zoom. Filthy as hell, but £8. The joy of (some) old mechanical stuff though is that it was assembled by people, so it can be disassembled by people. You will know what I mean if you have ever tried to fix or replace a component in a smartphone. But the lens came apart in a logical order and cleaned up well. How well does it work? Not sure yet. I must say that I find myself using long lenses less often these days. I’m not a bird watcher and I don’t spectate at sport very often. So I find myself using lenses in the range covered by the zoom compacts of old: a bit wide to a bit long. My favourite zoom of all has the (35mm equivalent) range of 24-68mm and just lives on the camera. So yes, I probably didn’t need the Vivitar. But I can sit in a dark room with it, cackling and calling it precious. And that’s good too.

The serious question is that I am off on holiday next week. Do I take a bagful of fixed lenses or couple of zooms?

[Interlude]

So I took the Vivitar 70-210 and a Pentax 24-50mm. I took a couple of shots on the long zoom and none at all on the wide. Part of it was the conditions – I spent a lot of time walking on beaches or sand dunes. I’ve got a rufty-tufty fixed lens camera that is sand and water proof and that got most of the action. I had no problem putting it down onto wet sand to take some very low-level shots or of using it in a storm of blown sand. I think the zoom lenses would have got a bit crunchy or the camera would have seized.

So it set me off to thinking again. I’ve got some compact cameras with built-in zooms. I don’t even think about it when I’m using them – it’s a very convenient way to get the framing quickly, particularly as they will also do macro. I have a digital SLR with two zooms that cover the range from wide to long. I’ve also got a lifetime’s worth of old fixed lenses that I have bought or been given over the years. And I’ve got some cameras that have fixed lenses. So the thinking has been reflection on how I actually use these things.

Uluru
A Darth Vader memorial appears and you need to frame it? Time for a zoom.

On the digital stuff the zooms are autofocus and quick to zoom. So I just use them and don’t even think about it. The only problem with the film-camera zooms is their limited aperture, which can make focussing a bit iffy in poor light. The challenge to them though, is that I’m no longer a film-only photographer (but I am still a FUP duck). It used to be that if I wanted the benefits of carrying just the one lens, I had to fit something like a 35-70mm to my camera. I find that what has happened is that, if I want to use a zoom, I use a digital camera. The kinds of things I use a zoom for are the kinds of things that suit digital capture, with its low marginal cost, large capacity and opportunities to play around. And then the kinds of things I like using film for better suit the use of fixed lenses (or I can’t change the lens anyway). For film, part of the pleasure is the difficulty, or perhaps the right word is engagement.

Croc
Sometimes you can’t use your feet to zoom.

Until I started writing this and thinking about zooms, it had not occurred to me that I do this. So I wonder if I should flog all my film zooms on fleabay and settle down to being an old codger who smells of fixer? I could end up listening to the Classic Lenses Podcast.

Grab shots

If I grab single frames from a video to use as photos, am I cheating?

Photographers are supposed to wait and capture the decisive moment. Video shooters can hose the scene and pick the frame that looks the most decisive. Except that Cartier-Bresson apparently did shoot frames either side of the one that became famous. Not to mention the news photographers who just hold the button down until the politician stops moving.

It occurred to me when I was diving over a weekend recently. I had been shooting single shots with a camera, but we were about to do a group dive on a wrecked aircraft and we wanted some grinning portraits of the two learner divers who were doing this for their first time. So I swapped and took a video camera.

Why? Well the video shoots thousands of frames, it has a wide angle lens so I can get very close, and it lets me shoot video as well. Very close is important underwater – the best way to reduce the haze and silt is to minimise the amount of water between the camera and the subject. Video was best because the swim-through of the fuselage would have lovely lighting from the windows and be backlit from the open end, plus we were likely to get some close encounters with fish later. So a video camera gave me the chance to capture a nice little story of the dive and some individual photographs of events. Granted, the grabbed frames are not your 20 megapixy dSLR jobs, but being there is more important than carrying tons of gear and missing the shot.

Swimthru.png

The other consideration is that my video camera is small. When I said that it was important to minimise the amount of water between camera and subject, a small camera can be poked under rocks and into cracks (fnarr, fnarr) to get up close and personal. I can also hold it out at arm’s length which means I can get the camera very close to a fish or critter without terrorising it by getting my body close.

Lobby.png

So it might feel like cheating to capture everything and choose the best frames later, but I am thinking like a photographer while I’m doing it. By that I mean I’m not thinking “ooh look, moving stuff. Get it all!”. What I’m trying to think is “that’s a nice shot, and it would flow into that one like this”. So it’s more like a series of stills that transition. I blame an overdose of corporate Powerpoint slides.

Sturgeon.png

The other thing I’m learning is editing. My fist attempts were virtually real time: the film took as long as the dive did. Then I got some feedback and started thinking about how to tell a (short) story. There was also a clue in the name of the software I used to do this: it’s called a non-linear editor. I don’t have to use the clips in the same order I shot them. I can even shoot my own B roll (get me! I am so down with the cool kids) to edit into the main action. There are establishing shots, close-ups, cuts and all sorts of wonderful things that the previous generations of properly clever people have already worked out and described.

Perch.jpg

And in the middle of it is the ability to pull out one of the best frames as a still image. What’s not to love?

OK, so I haven’t sold all my stills cameras yet. Up on dry land, where I can spare attention and hands to non-essential tasks, I still like to think I can select the combination of settings with the correct moment to make a better still image. I can get better quality too. The video might be shooting at 1080p but my real cameras range all the way up to medium format. Plus I can hold them still or even use a tripod. I do know that some diving photographers use tripods underwater for long exposures, but that’s a bit too hard core for me. Besides, I think my tripod would either dissolve or float (or tangle me up and kill me, which is also annoying).

Teeth.png
This is why a free hand is useful. It’s not biting me, it’s playing like a puppy. Just as well.

I did hear though that some news photographers or paparazzi were doing the grab-frame technique: shoot the celeb on video rather than motordrive and select the best frame later. It makes sense if the subject is very fluid – you can shoot decent video at 60 frames a second but your SLR might only manage 5-10 frames a second for a short burst. What if your focus of the public’s attention had their eyes closed during your one crucial frame? The public would be distraught.

So yes, perhaps the hose-and-pick method is legitimate. I don’t really care about being a proper photographer, and the method works for me. So watch out for yet more fish portraits.

Trout.png
You lookin’ at me?