Compact vs SLR

I want a new camera. Well, new to me. It has to be able to do some specific things, chief amongst which is the way it handles. Perhaps strangely, I need a camera I can use one-handed. So this means I need a compact and not an SLR.

This camera is to be used underwater as a replacement for the Nikonos. It will spend its working life in a housing, tethered to me with a lanyard. I will typically want to work the camera with my right hand and hold a big torch in my left, or use my left hand to brace my position.

SLRs are great, but I don’t want to have to use my left hand to work the zoom. Nor do I want to buy a housing that is specific to one range or model of lens. If you thought classic Leicas were expensive, try an underwater housing for a good-to-decent dSLR.

So I want a compact digital camera, as they usually have the zoom control somewhere under the right forefinger. I also want a Canon, as they make the best compact cameras.

OK – contentious. Let me explain best. Canon had (and have) a habit of putting top-range sensors and processors in their compacts, but disabling some of the functionality depending on the model. Enter the hacker’s kit – CHDK. Run a temporary firmware update from the memory card and you get back some of the hidden features, like saving RAW files, motion detection, timelapse and so on. So you can often buy a lower-range Canon compact and add back to it some of the features missing from more expensive cameras.

If you are happy buying second-hand you can also get some real bargains. My current underwater rig uses a Canon Ixus 750. The quality is quite good and I got a second camera as a spare from eBay for £5. Since there is always a risk of flooding the thing with salt water, the spare camera was cheaper than insuring the original.

But I’m pushing the performance and capabilities of the Ixus, so I want something a bit better. What I want is a wider ISO range, image stabilisation, a wider maximum aperture if possible, better macro capabilities if I can get it, better control over the flash (as I will be using a second external flash), more megapickles, and the lens to be wider at the wide end. Oh, and world peace.

So off we go to the shops. Or eBay. Up pops a Canon Powershot G9 with housing at a good price and soon it is mine (Precious). More features than Netflix and more knobs than a political rally. The housing is taken for a swim sans camera but packed with tissues to check the O ring. The camera is parked on the kitchen table while I read the manual and make ooh ooh noises.

Canon
Is this the new legend?

The first question is why it has a separate knob to set the ISO? Because it can. This is digital, not film. There is no need to set the ISO once when you load the camera and live with it – you can change it for every shot. So having a dedicated control makes more sense than burying it in a menu system. What stumped me for a bit is that the flash controls are in a menu system, which you get to by holding down the flash button and not by pressing the menu one. Hence all my first test shots were done using slow-sync flash and second curtain triggering. Sharp with a blurred overlay – nice!

It has an underwater mode that adds a virtual red filter. The usual trick is to then put a blue gel on the flash, but I need to see what happens if I’m shooting RAW.

There are also a bunch of settings for the autofocus to try, plus working out how to balance the built-in flash with the external one. The Ixus 750 was not very good at this – it kept seeing the external flash and quenching the built-in one. Even masking things with some highly technical plastic and gaffer tape didn’t cure it. Early tests with the G9 look promising.

So there you have it. For me, a reasonable compact camera beats a dSLR hands down. Or one hand down, anyway. Right then fishes, smile!

(And if his doesn’t work, perhaps I need a Diveroid?)

No more heroes any more

I wanted to love the Legend but I can’t. It’s not that I discovered my hero had feet of clay: it was more that we didn’t get on. It may well be the most competent camera in the world, but it doesn’t do what I need. I find myself saying “it’s not you, it’s me”, and it’s true.

What the Nikonos V does is rugged and sharp film photography underwater. It has a dedicated flash with off-the-film metering. Mine also has a close-up lens with a frame-finder. You don’t even have to look through the viewfinder – just place the prongs either side of the subject and shoot. Which would be perfect if I was shooting things that kept still and didn’t mind being surrounded by metal prongs.

However, this is not what I do. What I need is a camera that can do macro work and general context scenery. I need a zoom so that I can frame subjects that would flee if I got closer. I need autofocus that will allow me to lock on the subject and reframe. I need a screen on the back of the camera so that I can operate it at arm’s length, so that I don’t scare the critters or I can get the camera into small and awkward places.

Flabellina Affinis. Nudibranch, Gozo
I need to be able to do macro (this is about the size of my thumbnail)

I did get carried away with the romantic notion of shooting film in a classic camera. And then I realised I would be spending so much attention working the camera I was likely to ignore things like my dive buddy or my own safety.

The telling thing is that I took the Nikonos on a diving holiday and never used it. I didn’t want to struggle with it getting in and out of the water. Underwater, I didn’t want the restrictions of either fixed-distance macro or having to remove and stow the close-up lens to do general pictures. Basically, it was going to be too difficult and too restrictive, so what was the point?

Comino caves, Gozo. 7th October 2019
And general context shots

I’m not alone – Martin Edge talks about using Nikonos gear in his book The Underwater Photographer. And then he says he switched completely as soon as cameras with autofocus became available.

Comino Caves, Gozo. 7th October 2019
To accurately-framed shots at mid-distance

On my recent diving trip, instead of the Nikonos I used an old and cheap Canon Ixus 750 in a housing. It has many limitations, but it is small and moves easily between macro and scenic work and takes reasonable pictures. To be fair, it took great pictures. What it lacked are things that I now know I really do need: not the fancy gadgets and features they list in the adverts, but the things you find yourself wishing the camera could do better. So I will be replacing the Canon with something that has more of what I want and saying goodbye to the Nikonos that doesn’t really do anything I need underwater. I could keep the Nikonos for surface use I suppose, but I have better and lighter cameras. So the legend will be leaving.

I did manage to buy it at a good price, so I should hopefully get more for it than I paid. The surplus will go towards a more capable digital camera plus housing that has a better ISO range, hopefully some image stabilisation and higher resolution.

So mark this one up to experience.

So, was my dream shattered by reality? No: it turned out that my reality was different to my dream. The dream is still a valid and highly capable camera system. My reality is needing something more flexible.

Rufty-tufty film camera review

Sand. Seawater. Dirt. Rough handling. Foul language. OK, maybe not the last one. Although the full set does sound like a good weekend.

Maybe these are the things you want your camera to handle. I’ve shot stuff in the past that meant I had to put the camera in the airing cupboard for a week to dry it out. Rain is one thing, but wind-blown sand is a horror. This stuff leaves you with scratchy focusing or crunchy cameras. You need something that laughs in the face of danger.

Lots of modern digital cameras have weather sealing, and you can buy compact cameras that are sealed and waterproof to five meters or so. But this is a review of the cheap-ass end of the market, based on stuff I own and use. The stuff that I don’t have to take special care of or dry out after use.

First up, the Sea and Sea MX-10. This is a very basic yellow plastic housebrick with a dedicated flashgun. Basic, because the lens is fixed focus and the shutter fires at 1/100. You have the joy of controlling the aperture and there is a rudimentary built-in meter that works for 100 or 400 ISO.

It’s a child’s toy amongst cameras – big, simple, strong. I printed and laminated the table of focus ranges for each aperture and then just get close enough to put the subject in the sharp zone. On land the lens is focused at 2.5m so you use the aperture to control the depth of field around it.

The only real drawback is the cheap two-blade aperture that forms a square hole, so turns your bokeh into cubes. It’s big, tough, very simple to use and (if you shop carefully) cheap as chips. A nice feature is that the lens front has a standard bayonet fitting common to Sea and Sea that lets you use their supplementary wide-angle lenses. You need these underwater as the refraction reduces the angle of view of the 32mm lens to nearer 45-50mm. On land it lets you get more in or keep bigger subjects in the sharp zone of the lens.

For a camera this crude and simple it actually works quite well. Plus you can drop it in the sand or the sea, take it swimming or go out in a British summer. Just don’t pay a lot for one – this is not a sophisticated camera.

MX10

Prior to this I had its big brother, the Motormarine II EX. This has a focusing lens controlled by a dial on the front of the body, that also includes a close-up setting. The EX model also includes a choice of shutter speeds, but they only run from 1/125 to 1/15. Frankly, I found it a bit of a handful. While you can scale-focus the lens you have no indication of the depth of field (unlike the Nikonos, of which more later). The camera uses DX coding but only recognises 50, 100 and 400 ISO film. Granted, it works, but the aperture and focus dials are hard to read underwater, particularly if you are of a certain age and need reading specs. Above water it falls into the gap between Lomo and hi-fi – it has some controls so you need to fiddle with it but not enough to make it worth the effort. I got some good pictures with it and learned a lot, but sold it on with no regrets.
Tech specs
35mm f3.5 lens. My copy of the manual says 34 elements in 3 groups, but you’d only get that if you dropped it. I reckon they meant 4 elements in 3 groups, making it a Tessar.
Focusing down to 0.5m.
Built in flash with GN10 at 100ISO.
DX coding for 50, 100 and 400ISO.

For a while after the EX I had a Minolta Weathermatic 35DL. I thought this was going to be the answer. It had autofocus and a dual-lens setup that gave you 35mm or 50mm. It was waterproof to 5m. But the focusing broke, even though the camera kept working. I only found out after shooting a whole roll of impressionistic fuzz. Late 80s electronics to blame, I expect. Verdit? Fragile.

Charlie chased

Next up is a Japanese oddity – the Konica Genba Kantoku 28WB. I admit to buying one of these when I read a review on 35mmc. This was the replacement for the Minolta, and it seems to be working better. It’s basically splash and dirt-proof rather than waterproof. The sharp wide-angle lens was meant for recording building projects. It’s chunky and has just enough controls to be useful – you can force the flash on or off and use a macro mode. If you keep the sun off the glass cover in front of the lens it takes a good snap. You also have the joy of a camera that can be thrown in a bag, used in the rain or dragged through as much dirt as you can eat. It also looks rather funky, like an overgrown point and shoot. This gets used a lot on beaches and it works well.

Genba
Tech specs
28mm F3.5 lens of 8 elements in 7 groups. Minimum focusing distance of 0.5 meter. Shutter speed range from 1/4 to 1/280 second. Metering by a CdS sensor with a range of 5.5 to 16.5 EV (ISO 100). The built-in flash has a range up to 5m at ISO 100 and 10m with ISO 400 film. Film loading and advance are automatic with a motor drive. Film speed set by DX coding.

At the top end of the range comes the Nikonos. There are two basic types – the ones up to type 3 that were manual and came apart for loading and the later types 4, 4a and 5 that had a conventional opening back. You can spend a lot of money on these if you go for one with a flashgun or wide-angle lens. Be aware though that lenses wider than the standard 35mm will usually only work underwater. For surface to damp places stick with the 35mm. There is an 80mm lens for it, but this is a scale-focusing camera so unless you also carry a rangefinder about with you, stick with the 35mm. So if you want one, go for the 35mm lens, no flash or extras and in orange rather than the optional green.

Mine is a type 5 and what you get is a heavy and robust camera with autoexposure, shutter speeds up to 1/1000 and a very nice 35mm lens. The focusing is by guesswork, but the lens does have a lovely pair of markers that show the depth of field for each aperture. It couldn’t be simpler to set an aperture, set the point of focus to give you a useful range and let the camera handle the exposure (unless you confuse the metric and imperial distance scales).
The viewfinder has a high eye relief as it is meant to work with a diving mask. The frame lines are well within the visible area, so it’s easy to see things coming into frame. Given that you keep the seals clean this camera will survive just about anything. They were used by photographers in Vietnam, which is where I understand the desire for an 80mm lens came from. Probably the low-vis green paint option too.

This is the expensive and heavy end of the range of tough film cameras. It can be cheap though, especially if you look for mis-spellings and partial names.

So, what do I recommend? If I’m going where I need a water and dirt resistant camera my first choice is the Konica. It’s not heavy (it’s my brother), it’s easy to use quickly and the lens is sharp.

Next would be the Nikonos. Great lens and more control over the camera. No flash though. Well, not a sensible flash that you could carry about with you.

If there was a risk of destroying the camera or things could get hectic, it would be the MX-10. With the flash attached and the aperture set there is nothing to fiddle with. Get the subject in the sharp zone and go. And if they attack, you can fend them off with it. An anti-zombie camera.

Or forget all this nonsense and buy a nice ruggedised digital point and shoot.

Drop in the ocean

We’ve all seen Blue Planet, but what could you realistically get with amateur kit in unexotic places?

First – amateur kit. Going any deeper into water than being splashed requires an underwater housing. If you thought cameras were expensive, look at housings. They are specific to the make and model of the camera, so any thought of changing your camera becomes at least twice the investment. I regularly dive with someone who uses a video camera, and the housing alone cost more than both of my family cars.

But, there are plenty of people who give-up the sport and sell their kit, or who do upgrade to something better. So the usual online markets are your friend, if you are happy to use a modest camera. There is also the ever-present risk of a leak, so I am happier risking £40 than £400 or even £4,000. I’ve got a second-hand Canon Digital Ixus 750 which was originally advertised as “With its sleek Perpetual Curve design, the contoured all-metal body of the Digital IXUS 750 represents the pinnacle of Canon design excellence”. Does make you wonder why Canon didn’t stop right there and not build another camera. It has a 7mpixel sensor, which is adequate. It also has a built-in colour correction mode for underwater, of which more anon. This, with housing, cost about £20.

Next – unexotic places. I regularly dive in a flooded quarry and off the cost of East Scotland. The quarry plays host to large groups of training divers, so the bottom gets very stirred-up (the quarry’s, although I’m sure some of them also feel the tingle). Visibility in the quarry can be less than two metres. There may be less silt in the water in Scotland but it also gets darker at depth.

The answer is to get close. The less water there is between the camera and the subject, the less silt and haze. So most underwater photography is done through wideangle lenses or as macro. The little Canon camera has a half-decent macro mode enabled through one button on the back.

The other problem is dark. Water absorbs a lot of light, and not all the colours are absorbed at the same rate. This is why the Canon has an underwater setting – to boost the red part of the spectrum and make up for the losses. For snorkelling depths this works pretty well. Any deep than a couple of metres though, and you need flash.

The little Canon point-and-shoot has one of them too. Right next to the lens. This is the ideal position for illuminating the silt in the water. Get in very close in macro mode and it works reasonably well. Try to take a picture of a person and you get the ‘diver in snowstorm’ look.

peasoup.jpg

So you get as close as you can.

Sea urchin, Eyemouth 15 June 2019

I found a second-hand underwater flashgun on that usual online market. This one was ideal, as it had a built-in slave cell. This means it can be triggered by the weedy built-in flash, or even used as a second fill-light. It’s a reasonably handy rig – small enough to hold out one-handed at arm’s length to get close to a fish without scaring it with your body bulk.

Sturgeon, Capernwray
Sturgeon
Perch, Capernwray
Perch

And sometimes you get lucky and find the entire seabed covered in a carpet of starfish.

Brittle stars, Eyemouth, 16 June 2019

So, surprisingly, you can use modest kit to take reasonable pictures. The limitations are that you probably can’t enlarge much from a small sensor, but the muck and refraction can make that a challenge even for big cameras. Lighting can be a problem, as can getting close and using very wide angle lenses.

It will never be a challenge to the BBC, but it will do for me.

UPDATE

A lobster eating a jellyfish. Never seen this before. Taken on cheap kit.

A dog with two tails

So, I’m a lucky dog and I have a Nikonos V with a flash. As is usual with underwater flashguns it sits out to the side of the camera on a metal bracket that screws into the camera’s tripod socket. Most water is full of suspended silt, so you want the flash to light the subject alone and not the grunge between it and the camera. So that’s why the flash is out to one side on some sort of arm.

But I wanted two.

I’ve got the flash that came with the Nikonos, and very lovely it is too. It’s controlled by the camera’s light sensor, so it reads the flash exposure off the surface of the film. How easy is that? But I also have a second flash that has a slave cell. So the cunning plan is to mount the original flash to the left of the camera where it normally sits, but to find a way of mounting the second flash to the right. With a bit of luck I would get a main light / fill light effect.

Both flashguns use the same arrangement for locking to their bracket. They have an asymmetric pin that passes through a slot in the bracket and then turns to lock against sliding back out. The bottom surface of the flashgun has a raised ridge that then engages a groove in the bracket to stop the flashgun twisting. A large nut tightens the arm down against the bracket and locks them together. It’s a robust and strong fitting – just as well, as the camera rig will often be lifted by the flashgun.

So what I needed was a bracket that had the same slot and groove arrangement on both ends. Basically a bit of bent and machined alloy; couldn’t be hard to find or expensive, right? Wrongit was more than I was willing to pay.

So plan B was to find a bit of alloy and make my own. The alloy was easy – a bit of flat bar bought cut to length from eBay. Even the machining wasn’t too hard. I realised years ago that I was incapable of drilling a perpendicular hole and bought a proper bench-mounted pillar drill. My dad, bless him, had left me a biscuit tin full of assorted drill bits. It was easy enough to copy the arrangement of slots, holes and grooves from the original bracket. It needed a large clearance hole around the main flashgun connection to the camera, but that yielded to one of dad’s hole-cutters.

The final step was to bend the bracket downwards at a 20 degree angle. Flat alloy bar turns out to be really strong. I’ve got a small bench vice but it just started turning on its base. Dad came to the rescue again with his zombie-killing spanner. This is a large and long-handled pipe wrench. This went round the vice and gripped it. Pulling the alloy bar in one direction, the spanner in the other and with a knee on the bench to stop it falling forwards, the alloy gracefully received its 20 degree bend.

For some reason I have a small tin of white Hammerite paint. It was probably on sale. A couple of coats of that and the bracket looked almost purpose-made. Glue on a bit of neoprene sheet (used for repairing drysuits) to stop the camera twisting and to stop the tripod screw from falling out of the bracket when it’s off the camera, and Bob is my uncle.

Total cost around £5.

So what I have now is the standard flash held in its usual position, plus a second slaved flash that can be manoeuvred for fill-in. Or you could call it a major tangle-hazard.

Except, now I’ve made it, I wonder if it’s too wide.

Big arm

The key thing will be whether the flashes throw shadow from the two macro-framing arms. And that I can dive with it and not break bits off or get it caught in anything. I might have to bring the two flashes in closer to the camera. One way to find out – dive with it.

Except… my next dive is off a boat, and I’m not sure I want to be handling a rig this big. It might be better to wait until August, when I’m doing a shore dive. Which, embarrassingly, gives me time to make the MkII version. I think I need to bring both flashes in closer to camera. I will get less chance of using nice cross-lighting but the whole rig will be easier to handle and there is less chance of the macro arms casting shadows. I’ll have a look at the same time at the possibility of replacing the arm on the slave flash (the one on the left of the picture) with a longer jointed arm. This will let me put the slave light over the top of the subject while keeping the main light on the left.

And this, children, is why we use old milk cartons and sticky-backed plastic. If I had spent decent money on this I would be forced by pride to keep using it. But I will get another strip of alloy for a fiver and make the new and improved model. I count this as only mildly percussive learning, which is a bonus. Never too old to make mistakes, that’s me.

Update

This is the Mk II version. Looks a lot easier to handle, doesn’t it? That piece of white stuff with the numbers on? That’s a rangefinder card.

Mk 2

The legend has landed

They say that the way to make the gods laugh is to tell them your plans. But sometimes something weird happens – you have a forlorn hope that will never be realised, and then it drops into your lap. It’s like John Cleese said “it’s not the despair, I can deal with that; it’s the hope”.

But truly, the legend has landed.

What am I on about? I got a Nikonos plus underwater strobe. Not just that, but a range of close-up attachments as well. Having only just said I wasn’t frightened of them any more. So the joke is on me to learn the true meaning of fear. Let’s call it apprehension. This is the justly famous underwater Nikon that was the only serious diving camera for decades. Even James Bond had one. I feel I should fall to my knees and chant “we’re not worthy“.

So what have I got? A Nikonos V with a Sea&Sea strobe, a couple of extension tubes and a supplementary close-up lens. The extension tubes come with the the matching prongs to mark the plane of focus and the field of view. The close-up lens has a couple of prongs but has holes to use four. So I will need to work out if the prongs I am using are meant to mark the frame width or the frame height.

prongs
It came from the deep…

For anyone wondering why my camera has prongs, you have to imaging the difficulties of shooting macro underwater. Digital made it so much easier because you can see on the camera screen what you are taking. Back in the bad old days the Nikonos was a viewfinder camera with a manually-focused lens. So you would buy and fit some form of close-up lens or attachment and they usually came with some form of frame to mark the field of view. Rather than look through the camera to frame the shot you would offer-up the frame to the subject and hope not to damage it or scare it away. (Can you see yet why digital won?)

So I need to figure this one out. The first step is to get the camera into a swimming pool (avoiding a public session and the likelihood of arrest) and take some macro shots of a marked surface so that I can check where the point of focus actually falls. And if the camera does leak, it’s better to have it do so in fresh water than salt.

I have printed and laminated an A4 sheet of paper with a focusing line to put the prongs on and a series of lines before and after. With any luck this will be nicely sharp where the focus prongs fall. I have also made the focus sheet double sided. This is because I don’t know if the lens should be set to infinity or the hyperfocal distance for the aperture I’m using. So one side says INF on the focusing mark, the other says HYP. [Update – jumped in the pool at the end of a scuba session and took some pics. No obvious bubbles from the camera and the flash worked. Now to finish the film and develop it.] [Update to update, it worked. The prongs mark the width of the frame.]

Of the two sets of close-up gadgets, the supplementary lens looks easiest to use. As it fits over the front of the lens I can fit or remove it underwater. So if I was photographing seaslugs and a whale shark cruised by, I could pop off the close-up lens and take a fishy portrait. The extension tubes would get in a lot closer, but I’m committed to macro during the dive.

Still, shooting off the remaining film will be fun and a chance to get to know the camera. The standard 35mm lens works in air as well as underwater and it’s no big chore to zone focus the lens. If it was ever necessary I still have a little rangefinder gadget to help me find the actual range.

card

The shutter sound is very muted – this is a very quiet camera. Not surprising when you feel how thick and heavy the thing is. It’s good for at least 50m, which would be a pressure of around 75psi. Doesn’t sound a lot – don’t lorry tyres run at a higher pressure than this? I remember taking diving a cheap but fashionable watch that said it was waterproof to 200m. And then seeing it gently implode at 20m. This thing is genuinely built like a tank. And 50m is the limit of how deep I could dive on air. Plus it’s dark down there.

The lens on it is Nikon’s 35mm f2.5. From the look of it it’s not the unwanted E series lens but a repackaging of their old rangefinder lens. Makes sense, as it was available at the time and a rangefinder lens can fit much closer to the film – this camera doesn’t have an SLR mirror needing clearance.

It’s all very well having prongs for underwater macro, but on the surface this is a scale-focusing camera. How on earth do you focus it accurately? One way is to zone focus – the lens has a really neat set of depth of field markers that change with the aperture. The other way is to use a rangefinder card like the one in the picture above (You can either calculate one or just measure the distances from an object and mark-up a piece of card).

Having said that and for all my smug cleverness, I measured the distances in feet and set the lens focus using the metres scale. Duh! Still, the ones set to hyperfocal distance worked.

The mighty Nikonos at Wheldrake Woods
Works pretty well on land too

The lens has another neat trick, in that you can mount it on the camera upside-down. This makes it easier to read the settings when you tip the camera backwards to look at the aperture or focus. It does mean that the image on the film is upside down, but it’s no bother to rotate it in the scanner or turn the paper round under the enlarger.*

So I’m pretty happy with it. My dreams have not yet turned to dust, or as they say: ” a thing of beauty is a joy for a fortnight”. The next thing to do will be to load this baby with some colour negative film and take it diving. That might be a while though – we’re at the cold end of the year and probably won’t get into open water again until the Spring. In the meantime I have a tough little camera with a pretty good lens that won’t be hurt by a spot of rain. A bit of a top duck.

* Yes, I know, but it’s funny.

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. And a gimp mask.

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 joy of cheap

Some would say I am tighter than a duck’s chuff. I just see it as being careful. There is also the joy of problem-solving: it’s easy to do something by spending money on it but it’s much more satisfying to find a solution that works for less. Nothing to do with being tight, not at all.

One of my other hobbies is scuba diving. In scuba, the minimum price of anything seems to be £250. You want a torch? £250. A regulator? £250. You get the idea. One of the things we do in murky British waters is carry a flashing beacon or strobe. These are clever sealed devices that are activated when they get wet. I’m sure they start at £250 too. But there is also the squid-fishing lure that is safe to at least 40m and costs a couple of quid. Same with lead weights – you can buy pouched weights or you could buy the pouches and fill them with shotgun pellets. These things are safe to save money on – there is no way I’m saving money by building my own regulator.

It can be very easy, when you first take an interest in a thing, to spend money on it. You have probably seen people whose first action is to spend a fortune on kit before they perhaps know how to fully use it. I’ve no problem with that: sometimes the kit is the sort that keeps you alive and it’s worth spending the money. You wouldn’t (I hope) go rock climbing with an old bit of rope you bought cheap with the intention of buying a better one when you have learned to fall off less often. But safety aside, how do you know what sort of equipment you need until you learn what you want?

This is another reason I like cheap or second-hand. I think it’s a great idea if you start a new hobby or set out to learn something, to use whatever kit you can get free or cheap. This will get you to the point where you have some idea of what you are doing. At that point you will have run into the restrictions of your cheap kit and have a better idea of what you really need. In photography terms you will have got past the stage of surprise that anything comes out at all and be pushing the limits of your camera, lens or methods. You might find you are shooting sporty things and you are pushing the reach of your lens, or doing lots of close-ups or portraits. Hopefully by this point you will know more people doing the same thing, so you have an opportunity to borrow what you think you need to see if you really do. This also helps stave off the cravings for acquiring gear for its own sake. You might be thinking “if only I had a … I would be a better photographer, and look how reasonable they are on eBay”. This way lies madness.

Say you’re doing portraits and what you need more than anything is a portrait lens. But what focal length and aperture? You could buy every increment from 80mm to 135mm and then find yourself sticking with the 80 because you can stay in the same room as your subject. Or you could borrow one of the lenses or find the cheapest one you can, and then find out whether you have to take a few steps back or a few steps forward to get the framing you like. Or even (heresy) put a cheap 2x teleconverter on a 50mm lens and see what a 100mm lens looks like before you commit. You will also learn whether the depth of field is sufficient. If you are struggling to get both eyes sharp then you can forget buying that pricy f1.4 lens and spend the money on lights.

Same with cameras. You may think you need a Leica to do street photography because it’s unobtrusive and quiet. So is an Olympus Trip, and you can get one of them for £20 and find out whether street photography is really your thing. Less chance of being mugged, too.

Cheap can also mean disposable, but in a good way. There are loads of fairly competent point and shoot compacts out there. They are becoming scarcer at charity shops (except for one near my mum’s house that is my special secret) but there is usually a good harvest at car boot sales. So if you are going somewhere that could damage or destroy the camera, go cheap. The best ones for this are the cameras that wind all of the film out of the cassette when first loaded, and wind it back in as you shoot. Even if you break one of these open you won’t lose the shots you have already taken. Barring that, tape the back closed with gaffer tape. If you have a particular compact camera in mind or want to know more about the plastic fantastic you found, go see the Canny Cameras website. I’ve also got a previous post around here somewhere about breaking cameras for fun.

The Nikonot
The Nikonot. Even the film cassette rusted when it filled up with seawater. Good job it cost less than a fiver.
The Nikonot
Even the shutter is rusting

There are also some useful digital compacts as well. Nobody wants anything that comes in around the 3-5 megapixies range any more, but they can deliver reasonable images. The problem you may have with these is the battery, unless they take AA cells. The best one to get, if you can find one, is any of the Canon models that are listed on the CHDK site. Get the right model and you can make it do tricks like a proper camera. I used mine to make a time-lapse film of an office being fitted out. Nice work for a junk-shop bargain. I also used it when we went up Great Gable – you don’t want an expensive SLR in your hand when you descend a steep scree slope. One of the hacks listed on the CHDK site can trigger the camera fast enough to record a lightning bolt. I must try holding the camera up on a selfie stick at the top of a mountain in a thunderstorm. What could possibly go wrong? The chaos monkey on my shoulder is whispering to me to try setting the camera to shoot say 30 images in sequence and then throwing it up in the air and catching it. Again, what could possibly go wrong? Nothing that would break the bank.

Hell's Gate, Great Gable
Seriously, that’s the way down?
Hell's Gate
Yep.

I love cheapo compacts though. It’s liberating to know that your camera has no value and you are free to take risks. And with a lot of the 80s and 90s compacts, you can reassure yourself that if you don’t break it the electronics will likely die soon anyway. Want some ideas? Smear a bit of Vaseline around the edges of the lens. Put a yellow filter over the lens, a blue one on the flash and shoot colour (then swap the filters over and repeat). Tape it to a long stick, set the self timer, and get some cheap ‘drone’ shots or an aerial shot of a crowd. Throw it up in the air and catch it. Whirl it round on the strap with a long shutter speed. Put it in a plastic bag and go surfing. Tie it to a dog. Ok, not the dog.

Cheap lenses? Getting rare. Seems like every groovy dude is buying-up old Russian and East German lenses to photograph single flowers against a blurred background. But if you are shooting APS-C on digital, the no-name 50mm lens is your friend. Here’s where you find that portrait lens you were looking for. There were plenty of cameras made by people other than Canon and Nikon that typically came with a 50mm f1.7 or f2. Since you are using just the centre of the frame it will be sharper on digital than it probably was on film. Use it at f5.6-8 and it will probably be really sharp. Use it wide open and you will get nice soft edges and a blurred background. If you want to annoy the purists, a lick of black paint to cover-up the maker’s name and details around the front element can be just the right mischief. Tell them it’s a NASA prototype. Speaking of which, have a look at the inside of any old film compact camera you find. Look for any shiny plastic surfaces in the space between the back of the lens and the film gate. Try giving those a very careful lick of matt black paint (do model shops still sell the little tins of Humbrol for painting your Airfix kits?). Instant improvement in contrast.

This is where you wish you’d bought a Pentax digital camera. An awful lot of cameras and lenses were made with the Pentax K mount, so that cheapo 50mm lens you fancy can be found on an unloved film SLR for a fiver on eBay. A cheap adapter also means that every M42 screw-fit lens will also work. Plus you can use every camera lens that Pentax made. Even the 6×7 and 645 medium format lenses will work with an adapter. I’ve got an adapter that lets me use Kiev or Pentacon medium format lenses, which is an easy way to get a long lens for occasional use. Mike Gutterman is right: Pentax rules.

And think of all the beer you can buy with the money you saved.

Going off piste

“What sort of camera do I need to take action photos while I am (insert activity)?”

You will be glad to know that the answer is “whatever you’ve got”. As long as you can afford to have it destroyed. Or carrying and using it won’t kill you. Cameras are tools, not jewels.

I think my first adventure was borrowing my parents’ Instamatic to go rock climbing when I was in the scouts. Or rather, I borrowed the camera and confessed to the rock climbing later. Instamatics are pretty tough providing you don’t drop them, but pretty basic too.

My first go on my own dime was sea-cliff climbing. I had a Kodak 620 folding roll film camera and the film box to read the exposure from. It was the only camera I had, so it was the one I used. This was when old folders were as cheap as chips though, so my maximum loss if I fell off or dropped the camera would have been the pictures I’d already taken.

Dorset sea cliffs

From then on it was a case of using what I had.

The least handy was a Lubitel. Its large size was partly offset by its light weight but it was a bugger to use and even worse if you didn’t have both hands free. It could only be focused on a central spot in the middle of the viewfinder, and only then if you used the pop-up magnifier. Great quality negatives though.

Climb40115
Vic getting his groove on, snapped on a Lubitel.

I did try to make a helmet-mount for when I was planning to do a charity parachute jump. I had an auto-exposure Pentax with a power winder. With a bit of drilling I mounted it on a flash bracket bolted to the side of an old rock-climbing crash helmet. A bit of bent and drilled alloy gaffer-taped to the winder gave me a mounting for one end of a cable release to press on the firing button. I had one of those long air releases with a squeeze bulb. I could route this down through my overalls, placing the bulb in one hand and hiding the slack inside my clothing. Wide angle lens on the camera set to the hyperfocal distance and we’re off. Or not. The response at the parachute school was “take that off, you bloody eejit”. Apparently having a heavy and tangle-prone weight on the side of one’s head and making one’s hand unavailable for pulling the reserve handle was a bad idea.

I reprised the helmet thing again recently in an attempt to make a hands-free video camera mount for when I’m diving. As usual one could spend money and do it right, or bodge it for cheap. So I bought a building site hard hat – a scaffolder’s one that had a minimal peak and a chin strap. The plan was to drill a chain of holes along the top so that it wouldn’t trap air. But in practice the difference between theory and practice is greater than theory predicts. I hadn’t reckoned on two things. The first was that the camera, devoid of its usual light bracket and grip, was slightly buoyant. The other was that in British waters I wear a neoprene balaclava hood. The helmet would fit over my head plus hood easily, but there was no chin to tighten the helmet strap against. So the first time I dived with it the helmet tried to stay on the surface, and then wobbled about like a sad little windsock. All was not lost though – I have used the helmet for things on dry land (despite the odd looks) and when I needed to visit a construction site. I covered the holes with reflective tape and ignored a fresh set of odd looks.

Caving? That’s what plastic bags are for. Admittedly the camera was inside a poly bag and also inside an old army ammunition box surrounded by bits of foam. This is the perfect use for the autofocus 35mm compacts from the 90s. Some of these cameras are pretty capable and have sharp lenses. It’s easy to back them up with a few old (cheap) electronic flashes linked to slave triggers. I use slave cells with a hot shoe built in, and the flash plus slave can be left sealed in a ziplock clear plastic bag. And if it all turns to worms you can usually save the film and be out of pocket for the price a couple of London beers.

Derbyshire
The gent on the left is well-known, but has a name you would not believe

Motorcycling? Only as a passenger, unless you want to leave your legacy in pictures from the point of impact. And as a passenger, make sure that you can’t drop the camera and that there is no strap dangling anywhere. Actually, you might be better risking dropping the camera than attaching it to yourself with a strap. You will also need at least one hand free to hang on. I know your mate driving the bike is an expert and smooth as butter, but you will at some point need to make a grab for support. Oh, and keep still! Shifting your weight can steer the bike. (I’m sorry Brian, if you read this, I really did think we were going to hit that car. ) The most impressive people in the world at doing this are the ones who cover cycling events. To see a bike being ridden slowly and smoothly through a buzzing swarm of cyclists and spectators while the pillion is stood on the pegs, twisting and turning, is a sight of great beauty and awesomeness. Seeing the pillion facing backwards to film the peloton from the front shows great trust and practice. Don’t try this at home.

Bike

There is a previous post about my adventures trying to take pictures underwater. Long story short is that splashproof cameras are great and even the cheaper ‘plastic bag’ housings work. Rain is still a problem though. Prior to all these clever digital SLRs with weather-sealing I’ve had to leave the camera and lenses in the airing cupboard for a week to dry out. It didn’t seem to do them any long-term harm and I’ve never had the dreaded lens fungus. Oh, and sand is nasty too. I went to photograph the seals at Donna Nook and there was a fairly strong wind blowing. If you walk out to where the seals are, there was a enough sand blowing at up to about waist height to start building dunes against any seal that kept still. This was not the place to put the camera bag down. I was using one of those clever sealed digital SLRs, but the lens was from an old medium format camera and had generous clearances. I’m glad to say that it wasn’t too crunchy afterwards. If the wind had lifted the sand any higher though, I wouldn’t even have been able to see the seals.

Pair in sand

So yes, do as the Americans say and run what yer brung. But do expect a bit of Fup Duck now and then.

Drowning, but waving

I’ve always wanted to take pictures underwater, ever since I learned to snorkel. I had no idea at the time how pictures were made, but I’d seen Jacques Cousteau and it didn’t look that hard.

Roll forward a good few years and I was at University, with a chance to go hosteling in Israel during the summer. This meant a chance to go to the Red Sea, and I knew that was a good spot. After a bit of research I bought a Ewa Marine housing for my SLR. Basically a tough plastic bag with a glass disk fitted for the lens and a glove protruding into the bag so you could work the camera. (They still make them: see the Ewa Marine U-FX). Good for about ten metres, and I didn’t expect to get anywhere near that with a snorkel. My camera had an aperture priority mode. Slap on a 28mm lens, do a bit of hyperfocal distance setting and I was ready to roll.

It mostly worked. Leave aside the difficulty of diving with bag of air in your hand – so many times I did the perfect surface dive to get down with the fishes, only to find myself rising back to the surface feet first. It did teach me that colour fades rapidly with depth, even in clear water. There is also that whole thing about refraction – what looked huge, toothy and dangerous to my eyes became a distant and timid minnow to the wide-angle lens. But I was so hooked – the camera and housing worked perfectly and I was the new Jack Custard.

Pipe fish
On its way home for tea – see below.

A few years later – different partner, different place, but the same camera and a chance to try some scuba diving. Out came the trusty housing. By this time it was looking its age – the plastic was cloudy and felt a bit stiff. What could possibly go wrong? Nothing, as it turned out. Except the buoyancy thing was even more pronounced and Ewa were right about the dive depth: get it down to ten metres or so and the bag squeezed enough to make operating the camera difficult. There was also the issue of the drop-off of light with depth. It’s all very well setting the lens on f8 but when the shutter goes clunk…. count to five… clunk you just know you’re going to get a bit of movement blur.

Clearing mask

The Ewa housing got used just a couple more times in a swimming pool before it was retired with campaign medals and good service award.

The whole Blue Planet thing went a way for a few years until the kids were of an age that they wanted to spend all their time in the pool on holiday. I bought some long-forgotten charity shop point-and-shoot horror to get back into the groove. Whatever the camera was, all I can remember is that it was useless and yellow. And then it broke.

Next stop was a Canon Sureshot A1, not really a diving camera but waterproof. What a revelation compared to the previous yellow monster – the Canon had a sharp lens, good autofocus and with the flash on gave cracking results on colour print film. It never went deeper than paddling, but it was brilliant. Until the catch on the rear door snapped off. Then it was effectively a paperweight.

So all this puts in perspective that I fancied myself as an underwater photographer, but all I’d really done was a bit of snorkelling. So then I learned to scuba dive. And what I wanted was a super sexy fantastic camera with several flashes and a housing. Or a Nikonos. I really fancied a Nikonos. What I actually did was to buy something cheap to learn on. I found a Sea & Sea Motormarine II with flash and wide-angle lens. This is like my lusted Nikonos in that the aperture and focusing are manual. How hard can it be? Set the aperture for the flash, estimate the distance, Bob’s your uncle.

So then began the most difficult thing I have ever done photographically.

Let’s start with framing. You are wearing a mask. It is impossible to get the camera up to your eye, and if you did you can see only a fraction of the centre of the field of view. Pre digital we used to fit a big frame to the top of the camera housing to help point the camera at the subject. For macro work you would have a frame held out in front of the camera to mark the plane of focus and field of view. If you are photographing sea slugs you’re buggered if a blue whale swims past, as however you set the camera up is how it stays until you are back on the surface.

Phil
See – not the best framing but at least I got the shot.

Then there is focus. Refraction in water and through the flat glass plate of the mask makes things look bigger and closer than they really are. So do I focus on what I think the distance is, or what I could calculate it to be? And by then the fish has gone home for its tea.

Exposure – not so bad if I’m using flash but relying solely on the magic lightning means the background – the body of water behind the subject – will go black. Balancing flash with ambient is easy on the surface but this Motormarine thing has no meter.

Insufficient limbs. I could do with an extra couple of arms. Bracing myself to avoid drift in a swell or current, aiming a torch to look under rocks or give the camera some idea of what to focus on, adjusting the angle of the flash and the camera settings and tending to the other few jobs that keep one alive underwater can get busy. Couple this with an old man’s inability to focus on anything closer than arm’s length also means I either guess what the camera settings are or use that extra hand to hold a plastic magnifying glass.

And then there is the sheer bloody awkwardness of the whole thing. The camera has to be tethered to the diver. The tether has to allow a long option so that you can hold the camera out to arm’s length plus a short option to attach it to your jacket. Every other thing you take with you as a diver has probably also got a tether, plus you are draped in hoses, straps and D rings. A camera with a flash attached is like an octopus with rigor mortis, cunningly designed to slip a stiff little limb through anything it can tangle. When I was learning to dive I would regularly be swimming along, followed by a little cloud of belongings bobbing along on lengths of bungee cord. (I still do this) Then I would surface at the boat and someone would helpfully offer to take my camera. I then had to admit that I had no way of letting go of it until I was on the boat, sat down and could start unclipping things.

The Motormarine did its job though – I learned what I really wanted. I wanted auto-focus, auto-exposure and a screen on the back so that I could see what I was pointing the camera at. And much though I still lusted after a Nikonos, it was way too much of a struggle. So I dig’ed-up.

Say hello to a Canon Powershot A70 plus housing. OK, so it’s a 3mp camera, but it was good to 40 metres. I also found a very neat Sea & Sea flash that worked off a slave cell, so my kit was complete. I still couldn’t see the tiny symbols on the camera or its screen, but I learned how to switch macro on and off and left it at that.

Louise at T4
Thunderbird 4 in typical British conditions. No wonder International Rescue lost it.

With my happiness complete, the housing then flooded and killed the camera. Note to self and a nod to the duck: check the O ring is clean before diving.

No probs, get another one off eBay. They were old and therefore cheap. Except old meant rare. I did find one and it worked for a few months before dying. Look again, and the remaining examples were more than I was willing to pay – £18 for something I could kill in a month? And still only 3mp? So I made the jump to a Canon Ixus plus housing with 4 enormous megapixels and a combined price of less than the old A70. It’s a shame really – I have a Canon Powershot A590 that would do the job very well indeed (especially with the CHDK hack installed), but I can’t find a housing for it. Anyone want a housing for an A70?

In the meantime, and because you can’t keep a determined idiot down, I got one of those action video cameras with a housing. Actually my wife got it for me, I think she realised that something that had only an on/off switch was more likely to work in my hands. This of course is truly brilliant – superb very wide-angle lens and a neat and small housing. There is no viewing screen on the back of this camera, but I’ve got a bit of plastic water pipe taped to side of the housing: hold the camera out at arm’s length, sight down the pipe and shoot. This worked very well with some very playful seals in Farne Islands, especially as I can save single frames out of the video as stills. There is no way I could ever have tracked the seals with a stills camera or managed the whole focus, frame, shoot thing. Highly recommended.

39_edit
Mike and his new pal.

So that’s where we stand with underwater cameras. Except the desire for a rufty-tufty splash and dirt proof camera never left me with the death of the Canon A1. eBay, purveyor of needful things to the lustful, offered me a Minolta Weathermatic in a tasteful yellow. Why yellow? Well, as ani ful no, there is meaning to the colour of things: black ones are sexy, red ones are fast and yellow ones float. So the Minolta is packed with the finest array of late 1980s electronics inside its little yellow shell. Which lasted about two years before the lens locked at minimum focus and then the camera died. Even taking it apart revealed nothing that was obviously blown or burned-out so it went to join the Canon A70.

This was replaced, thanks to a review on 35mmc, with a Genba Kontaku: a site-foreman’s camera from Japan. Yet again, very little money was harmed in this transaction. This developed a nasty rattle from something loose inside on its way over. The seller was very helpful and offered to replace it, but I opened the casing and used a bit of BluTack to hold down what appeared to be the flash capacitor. Simples, and no problems since.

So I’m set, with just the barest minimum of learning-by-failing and just the occasional hint of Fup Duck. I’ve yet to dive the mighty Ixus in earnest, but I’ll be taking the housing in on its own to check it’s ok.

Von and friend
Von with her new friend.