Diversifying

If you become good at something, or well-known for something, what should you do next?

In writing or music the answer might be ‘do more of it’. This is the curse of the three-book or four-album deal. You become indentured to the publisher to make more copies of the same thing. But you can also become your own victim by repeating a successful formula, even despite the likelihood of diminishing returns.

As a photographer you might develop a particular look or style. If it gains approval, the temptation is to prolong that style to maintain the approval. If you were a professional the drive might be stronger, as that style might be what you are hired for. But tastes change – what about informal family group portraits shot against plain white backgrounds, for example? And what about your own creative growth? Do you want to be limited to wide-angle landscapes with a rock in the foreground?

There are artists who are recognised as having changed their work over time. Think of David Bowie as an obvious example, but you could also look at Sparks, Neil Young, Tom Waits or Alan Moore. Indeed, Alan Moore is explicit in his descriptions of the writing process, that as soon as you recognise yourself repeating a style you should stop using it and develop something else. His advice is to pick something you find difficult and try that. This is the way to grow, not from comfort and safety but from restraint and risk. If you don’t make yourself do something different, when are you likely to do anything different? Or as Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstei said, “We do not go through life imagining alternative ways of seeing what we see”. You could rephrase this as “nobody ever set out to prove themselves wrong”.

This is different to being in a creative hole. In a hole you are stuck and don’t know what to do next. Instead, here you are riding high, master of your craft and technique, but taking the conscious decision to break away and do something else. This is getting out at the top of your game, before your style becomes your handcuffs. It also hopefully avoids the diminishing returns of repeating what was a successful formula.

Bored already

I did write previously on developing a style, where I wondered if I had one. There must be something, as I’ve had one of my pictures identified as mine even though it was anonymous. So perhaps I now need to break away from what was recognisable and try something else?

I’ve mentioned Alan Moore above, and he has something to say about having a recognisable style. If I may steal quote from his book Writing for comics: “if your ambition is to be a creator, then know that creativity is an ongoing and progressive phenomenon and that stasis and stagnation is sure death to it”.

Taking that as the aim, what could I do with my own cliches?

  • Simplicity – try more complex pictures or containing more elements
  • Block or simple shapes – work through the full list of compositional elements
  • Black and white – shoot colour instead
  • Shoot some landscapes (which I currently avoid)
  • Shoot some street photography
  • Try shooting video rather than stills

I’ve had some words to say on most of these: I like simplicity; shoot a lot of mono; avoid landscapes and street photography. So now is my opportunity to stop doing what is comfortable and see what I can do in a less familiar genre.

Not that I’m presuming to have anything like a consistent style or to suffer with artistic angst. But it doesn’t harm to challenge yourself out of your comfort zone. I might even (one day) find what it is I’m good at or enjoy more than taking pictures of things that go fast or swim.

PS – I had a go at what I proposed. I went out and wandered around some landscape and did a bit of architectural photography. Not as bad as I’d thought. I may never take either of them up as my default, but having seen my first results I now want to improve. Give me a hand and we’ll shift this paradigm.

Selby riviera

What colour is that?

This came about during a walk near fields of ripe barley. I, as you would, asked my partner what colour the barley was. I challenged the first response of ‘wheaty’ and we got to describing what we could see, which seemed to be cream with a hint of pink. Then I realised I could bring the power of digital photography to bear, so I took a picture of the field.

When I got back I loaded the image into Photoshop and blurred it to even-out the range of tones. I then sampled the colour and looked at the RGB coordinates. There is a useful website at e-paint that takes RGB values and finds the best matching paint. Of the easily-available ranges, Johnstone’s had a colour that was a good match.

There is also a website that will give you the RGB values of a named colour. I used this to find the values for British Racing Green to use as a colour tone in a mono picture.

MG

I couldn’t leave it there though, could I? One of our lads was looking at a new flat but really liked the colour in one he had seen on an online estate agent’s website. So we found the picture, sampled the colour and found the paint. Simples.

Interior decorating through the power of photography.

Canonet 28

I was given this camera with the words “I was going to throw it away, but you can have it if you want and can make it work”.  A quick check showed that the light seals were glue and the meter battery was flat (but hadn’t leaked). A little bit of emery cloth on the battery contacts, a new battery and some light seals and it sprang into life. Incidentally, Covid handwash gel is perfect for cleaning old light seal residue: the alcohol does the work and the gel stops it spreading.

So, what do we have? An automatic exposure rangefinder camera with a 40mm f2.8 lens. It was made from 1971-76 and was one of the last all-metal compact cameras before everyone switched to using plastics. This puts it right in the middle of the production run of the Olympus Trip (1967-1984) and it’s a similar offering.

The Canonet 28 was a cheaper person of the more famous Canonet QL17 and was made in Taiwan. It has shutter speeds ranging from 1/30 to 1/600, apertures from f2.8 to f16 and film speed settings from ISO 25 to 400. All pretty normal, basic and usable. Like several other automatic cameras of this type, the shutter locks if the meter indicates under or over exposure. So putting a lens cap on the camera prevents accidental shots. It also stops you taking blank shots if you forget to remove the lens cap.

The white tape makes the lens cap a tighter fit.

The lens might be better than you would expect, with five elements in four groups. This is the same configuration as the Pentax 40mm pancake lens that everyone is chasing, so this Canon might be a cheaper alternative that comes with its own film holder and shutter.

The viewfinder shows only the shutter speed selected by the meter, not the aperture. But they vary together from 1/30 at f2.8 to (the experts say) 1/620 at f14.5. If you take the setting off the Auto position you get 1/30 shutter speed but access to manual control of the aperture. This is meant for using flash. The meter itself will lock and hold its setting with a half press of the shutter. Perfect for this camera’s audience – you can shoot on automatic, then take a bit more control as you learn more about photography. It also weighs just over half a kilo, so not too onerous to carry around. The only thing to perhaps think about is that it was originally built to use a 1.35v mercury battery. Mine now has a fresh 1.5v cell (same as the expired one that was in it), so there may be a difference in the metering. We’ll see if it matters.

The lens has a short focus throw, turning only through about 40 degrees to go from infinity to its closest focus of 0.8m. The rangefinder patch in the viewfinder looks faint, but in use works quite well. I’m used to twisting and turning my rangefinders to get an edge or feature that can show a double image for focusing (or even using a laser pointer). The Canon surprised me by showing a clear double image without any fiddling.

The flash hot shoe has an extra contact, as there was a dedicated flashgun for this camera that could be used in full autoexposure mode. With any other flash you have to take the camera off auto and set the aperture. This sets the shutter speed to 1/30, which is pretty slow for a Copal shutter that should sync at all speeds.

There is a little window below the tip of the winding lever that gives visual confirmation that the film has engaged with the sprockets and is winding-on. It’s a bit superfluous, as the rewind crank also rotates. Or I thought so, until I rewound the film. When you do that the indicator wiggles until the end of the film releases from the make-up spool. This makes it easy to rewind the cassette with the end still out. The film counter window is tiny, but has a magnifier. Even so, I had to tilt the camera into the light to be able to see the numbers.

There is another bit of good design that you find when you load the camera. Rather then the usual wind-and-fire to get past the initial exposed part, the Canonet just winds-on a couple of times to get to the start position. Clever, as it just works and would save you from losing the first shot or two on the film if you were not familiar with 35mm.

In use, the viewfinder display of the camera’s selected shutter speed is not that helpful. It really only confirms that the camera is not struggling with overexposure or a slow speed.

The shutter button has quite a long action, but this does make it easier to find the half-press spot where the meter reading will be locked-in. This is really the only control you have – take a look at the displayed shutter speed, point the camera at a darker or lighter area to change it, then lock that exposure with a half-press of the shutter button. Then reframe and shoot.

I’m impressed with the build quality of this camera. It was Canon’s cheap and low-end model but the rangefinder seems to be in adjustment and everything works.  For a 45 year old camera, this is pretty good. It does help that it has obviously been looked after.

Carrying the camera is not so great. The standard strap slips off my shoulder (which could be fixed) and it places the camera under my elbow. This would be fine, but it risks me knocking the lens cap off. That would enable the camera’s meter and shutter, so there could be a risk of taking accidental shots. The camera is small and light though, so it’s easy to hand-carry. Hey, I could even go tourist and carry it around my neck.

I loaded the camera and took it for a walk. Normally I would be more interested in the handling of the camera than the pictures, but I’m curious to see what the automatic exposure does and how the 40mm lens performs. …And it’s pretty obvious that the higher battery voltage is being seen as more light, meaning that the camera is underexposing. Now, I’m sure I could do something clever with a battery adapter but I took the crude and simple route: I put a spot of black marker pen on the meter window. It’s not a permanent marker, so I can see how the lens works and buy the adapter if I need it.

The lens is quite good. It even delivers a slightly swirly bokeh under the right conditions.

Even though the aperture of f2.8 is modest, it can be used in lower light and it can give some subject to background separation.

The negatives were nicely exposed, so the bodge with the marker pen seems to have worked. Neat.

So overall, quite a handy package that works better than you might expect for what was a cheaper consumer camera.

What does photography mean to me?

Grant Scott asks this question of someone every week. But he knows what he’s doing and the people who respond are gifted and experienced.

And then there’s me.

It’s a good question, and of course it made me think. I post here every week, so you may have some sense of what I think (or don’t), but there is a difference between the things I want to write about and what I feel about the subject. So there’s no harm in me answering the question and it may help me get my ideas in order.

I think photography has three meanings for me: curiosity, creativity and recall.

Curiosity is my sense of being slightly alien and wanting to make a record of how I see things, if only that I can see later what I saw then. I can take pictures of things I can’t do (like sports) or can’t describe (minimalism) or can’t understand (the rest). I can capture what I saw that was different or attracted me. I may never show anyone else, but I have a picture that can say to me “this is what that thing looked like”. I have a good memory but no mind’s eye, so I can look back but I can’t easily look forward into an imagined picture of the world. So if you asked me if I wanted to go and see some whales or waterfalls, the answer would be yes. I want to see what they look like, I want to learn what it takes to photograph them and I want to see if I can take a picture that captures what I saw and felt.

I confess that same curiosity also led me to find and try all sorts of odd cameras and lenses. I would wonder what an extreme wide angle view might look like and then find out. I wanted to take pictures of what I saw underwater, so had a go at that too. Curiosity is fine, but hoarding is not. But once I realised that, I fixed the issue. I’m still as curious as a cat, but I’m now less laden than my former snail.

The creativity aspect is important to me, as photography is a type of art that I can do. I can’t draw, paint or act and my dancing looks like I’m fending off a bee. But I can take photographs that I like. I can take a picture that is not a straight record, but instead shows what I saw or what could be made of the elements of the scene. The camera is a machine that allows me to be creative: it does the things I could not otherwise do. The nearest I could get to painting a landscape would be to give the trees a coat of emulsion, but a camera allows me to render an image of what I saw or thought.

This brings me to memory, as photography provides me with  a history of the people I have met or I am related to. I have pictures of friends, family and many other people that compile a history of people and events. And when I said I had a good memory, I really mean I have a particular memory. I can remember things like trigonometry or the equations of motion from secondary school. I can’t remember what I was wearing last weekend. So I have pictures of my Great Aunt Maud dancing after a couple of sherries and showing her knickers. I have a picture of a nun sat on the fence waiting for the Pope to arrive. I have a picture of my wider family walking in a group under the Esplanade at Brighton, looking like a poster for Reservoir Dogs. These are my memory. I also inherited a large quantity of negatives and some prints from my ancestors. These are my extra memory. Together they are my connection.

This is what photography means to me. What does it mean to you?

Kodak 616

I’ve got a rather handsome art deco Kodak folding camera made in 1938 or ’39. The plate on the lensboard describes it as a Six-16 Model C. It was an ornament for a while, until I got curious about using it. The camera was made to use 70mm wide film to produce negatives of 2.5 by 4.25 inches. That’s more than twice the size of the usual square 6×6 roll film negative. You could think of it as a half-frame 5×4 camera. The idea was that the negatives were big enough to be contact-printed at around postcard size. Load it with ortho film, develop in dishes under safelight and you could make contact prints. Very easy amateur photography without the need for an enlarger.

What this large negative size gives you is a large camera. Quite heavy too, as it’s made of smart lacquered metal. But I got to wondering if it could be adapted to take 120 roll film.

The first thing it needed was a clean – it had been on someone’s shelf and was very dusty. The lens seemed to clean-up ok. The lock nut on the back needed tightening, but that’s easy. The main thing was that the wind-on knob wasn’t engaging in the film spool. It should be spring-loaded, so that it can be pulled out to release the spool but will be held in the drive slot. A quick disassembly of the winder found no spring. That’s odd. I wonder if that accounts for the excellent condition of the camera? It would have made winding-on unreliable, so perhaps it wasn’t used much? But where could I get a suitable spring? A clicky pen spring was too small – I needed one with a 5mm inside bore and about 5mm length. To the rescue came Springs and Things. They had exactly what I needed. Their minimum length was 6mm, but I was probably going to have to trim the spring anyway to get it right.

So after a very fiddly session getting some small, awkwardly-placed and spring-loaded components together, I had a working knob (stop giggling at the back). A bit of careful bending of the metal fingers that located the ends of the film spool and we appeared to have a working wind-on. Hurrah!

Now, roll film has numbers printed on the backing paper to locate the frames. But these numbers don’t match the larger film gate of this camera. Luckily the numbers for 16-on (6×4.5) did match the location of the red window on the back of the camera. So what I did was to load the backing paper from a previously used film and start from the point where the film would have been attached. With this just past the film gate opening, I closed the camera back and saw what number appeared in the window. Then I wound-on the paper to clear the film gate and noted what number was then visible. It looks like I can get seven frames on a 120 film.

The next problem is that 120 film is 61mm wide and the film gate on this camera is 63.5mm wide. So what I need is a 2 or 3mm strip on each side of the gate to mask it down and support the film edges. Black art paper and tape will do the job. It’s easy enough to confine the tape to the places that the 120 film will not be moving across, so there shouldn’t be any issues with sticky residues. The 120 film spool seems to be the same diameter as the 616 one, but shorter. I used a couple of rubber tap washers to space the spool centrally. I will have to unload the camera in a dark bag though, as the longer 616 spool will not protect the edges of the film from light leakage.

Tap washers used as spacers, and you can see the strips of black paper taped down the sides of the film gate.

The good thing is that all of the changes are reversible, unlike some of the things I have done to folding cameras. It’s also a much easier conversion than for cameras that used 620 film.

The end result should be a wide-frame medium format camera – the Xpan of roll film, if you will. It will be shooting a 6 by 10.8 frame, or 1:1.8 aspect ratio. The lens is a 12cm f4.5, giving a 48 degree field of view across the long side of the frame. This is the equivalent to a 40mm lens on 35mm, so a slightly wide standard lens.

So, how well did it work? Well, the first step is that it worked at all. I took it out in bright sunlight as that would make it obvious if the bellows leaked. The first two frames overlapped, so I will need to check my wind-on numbers. But I have seven recognisable frames on the film! In retrospect I think I’ll adjust my numbering to get six more widely-spaced frames. There’s no point in having a panoramic camera if you lose the ends of the frame to overlaps.

That flare at the top right of the frame seems to be a hole in the bellows. When I looked carefully, a tiny wire spring that forms part of the folding mechanism was adrift and had poked a hole. So the next step is a small patch of black card. But this eighty year-old camera works!

If you fancy a panoramic medium format camera, then this is the way to go.

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