Can you still get film for it?

Shoot a film camera and you will have been asked this. The smart answer would be “no, they stopped making film, but I can dispose of your old film cameras if you give them to me”.

The other question is “why are you shooting film? Don’t you have a phone / digital camera / any friends / a life?”

Yes, I do have some of the above. Though I admit that my presence on Twitface, Flinger or Instabrag is minimal, as I post fewer than Graham’s Number of pictures online each week and anyone I think is following me is only heading for the same bus in the morning. But I like taking pictures on film. Specifically I like taking monochrome pictures on black and white film.

Part of it, I suppose, is that this is what I learned with. My photographic heroes all shot black and white and I so wanted to be like them. I gradually learned to see the difference between tone and colour (like shooting a green tree against a blue sky through a red filter and getting featureless murk as a result). I kept going because I enjoyed it and for a long time film was better than digital. In recent years I thought I would one day be sending my cameras off to landfill when the film finally ran out. There was no point in trying to buy better cameras as nobody was making them any more. I would keep the lenses though, as they all worked on my digital kit. Ilford dodged death and kept going, so that meant my favourite films were available throughout the dark years to keep me going. Then film got funky and rose from the grave and all was right with the world again.

So why does anyone stick with an analogue craft process in a world of bytes? Part of it for me is the investment in each frame. That was why I had to work so hard at the conversion when I bought a decent digital SLR. If I had just picked it up and used it I would have known no difference. But I wanted to know if it reacted like slide film or negative and what the hundreds of functions did. Did I want in-camera sharpening or automatic white balance? Do I want to save both a jpg and a raw file? It turns out I need to treat the highlights like slide film and avoid burning them out, but I need to treat the shadows like negative film and give the picture as much light as it will take. The difference is that I have learned how to do this on film but it was new to me on digital.

I still shoot digital like I was paying by the frame though. I hear of people shooting thousands of frames for a single event. How does anyone put a wedding album together, say, from more than a thousand pictures? I went to ta talk by a sports photographer who covered football matches. He had his camera linked to a laptop that had a live data connection. The competition was so fierce in his field that he started uploading captioned pictures as soon as the match started. His basic ‘boring game, nothing to see here’ would be at least a thousand pictures taken. He had set up keyboard macros on the laptop to save time from having to type each player’s name.

I learned of a camera feature for the first time with digital: the number of shutter actuations. It had never occurred to me using film that there was an upper design limit to the number of times the shutter would work. Perhaps film cameras have exactly the same limitation, but nobody has ever reached it? My original film SLR is nearly 40 years old and I’ve shot a lot of film, but I have a hunch it will be something like the meter or mechanics that dies first. I have heard of 20 year old cameras with shutter problems, but there does seem to be a difference between the vertically-run metal Copal shutters and the traditional horizontal cloth curtains. But if I shot one film a week for those 40 years I might have fired the shutter around 80,000 times. Our footie-shooting pal on two matches a week could hit this in one year. Second-hand DSLR, anyone?

So, rant over: the preciousness of each frame. Given at most 36 shots before a slow reload, I do tend to take more care with each one. Although I also tend to take two shots of anything important. This is a legacy of all the past mistakes in handling and processing. The opposite used to be true too: we used to joke about the film that went in for processing with Christmas at each end and a summer holiday in the middle. I was never that bad, but there is a risk if you have more than one camera that some of them sit on the shelf.

Is there an equivalent in the digital world for gear acquisition syndrome? There probably is, but I expect it’s focused on whatever is new and shiny. I did hear someone on a podcast saying that he had two copies of the same camera, one in black and one in chrome, and he would have to buy two copies of a new lens he wanted so that he could match black with black and chrome with chrome. I hope that is an extreme case.

I think the difference is using film. Providing the shutter works and it can focus the lens, the camera body is immaterial. The key parts are the lens and the film, and changing either one of them can change everything about how the picture looks. The only way you can change the film in a digital camera is to change the body. Perhaps this is what drives the turnover of kit. And yet there is a massive demand amongst film shooters to buy more cameras. There is even a Facebook group dedicated to GAS (also known as the burglar’s guide to cameras). I can see the attraction if you have always longed for some exotic professional gadget in your skinty youth, but there must come a point where you have more cameras than you can really use? It is tempting though, especially if what you want is to try a thing rather than own a badge. Half-frame? Medium format? Rangefinder? I can understand that. But wanting to have one of each model and variant of your particular object of lust? That’s collecting.

It’s ironic that we all thought we would be left with working cameras but nothing to shoot in them, while we are more likely to find we have film but nothing to shoot it in that still works. Still get film for it? Take a look at Analogue Wonderland’s stock list, or the list of available films put together by Em. Some of the processing labs managed to survive the lean years too, and can turn your film into digital scans. There used to be a processor on every street, but there’s enough left to make things viable.

As for the cameras, the old and simple ones will probably survive better than the clever ones. That could be why something like the Pentax K1000 still fetches good prices while the later autofocus, auto everything models can be had for the price of a fancy coffee. I’ve got a 1930s vintage Balda folding camera that still takes cracking pictures and a 1990s Minolta that died when the electronics developed a leak and let the smoke out. Who cares? What what need is something that keeps the dark in and can drive a good lens. The rest of the picture is the film, and I can change everything by changing that and not the camera.

The other aspect of film that has relevance, but is not the reason I use it, is longevity. Film is a physical object and black and white film in particular can last a very long time. My mum gave me a carrier bag full of old negatives that came from clearing-out when my grandparents died. Despite the fact that the negatives come in every popular format ever used I have usable images that go back as far as my grandparents as young people, my parents as babies and children and me as a babe in arms. There is even colour: my granddad had been told or read that a good colour photograph needs something red in the frame to draw the eye into the picture. So I have pictures of family and relatives taken in his back garden with a red plastic watering can playing a cameo role in every one. I’m not sure that my kids will be able to read the raw files off my old hard disks in years to come.

Cool Ken, plus can.

So I like using film. I like being able to get at least 170 (at current count) different styles of image using the same camera. I like having to think about what I’m doing and I like being responsible for how well things turn out. I’m a Film Using Photographer (and a duck).

Wide face
Can’t do this with digital. Why would you want to?

Shooting bikes

I’ve always had a thing for motorbikes. I got my bike licence before I could drive a car. Which caused a lot of fun when I was learning as the instructor’s car was a Leyland Mini. Apparently one is supposed to slow down for corners, even if the Mini romps them.

So, I liked bikes and I had a camera – what fun we could have! I had no interest in static bikes; nice to look at but boring. What I wanted was bikes in motion. Being the only one in my group who rode a bike meant that I either photographed other people or rode my bike without pictures. There was a huge roundabout near where we lived with a piece of hilly land inside. This became the local dirt track. There may have been a few lads with proper off-road bikes but the majority of us rode mopeds and stepthrus. I offer as a serious contender that the Honda 50 stepthru is brilliant off road: easy to control, centrifugal clutch and light enough to pick up or climb out from beneath. If there were two of you, you could lift them over gates and fences too.


Then it was commuting to work with two of us taking turns to ride or be pillion. Proper motorbikes, though, not the stepthru. Boredom as the pillion got the better of me and I started taking pictures from the back seat.

Then I discovered trials. Not that the cops caught up with me, but riding bikes off road over tricky obstacle courses. And not just any trials: classic trials. Modern trials bikes are so amazingly capable that they can be ridden up vertical cliffs and made to jump over gaps or obstacles. Fantastic to watch but it lacks a little in the gladitorial sense. Watching an old codger on an older bike wrestle it up a muddy bank when you can be close enough to hear their mutterings is sport made large.

Gotta get me one of them stepthru’s

Trials really need flash as they are usually held in the wet months and can be under trees. This requires some practice and skill, not just to avoid dazzling the rider but to get the exposure right for a dark thing against a dark background in a dark place. And while trials is all about low-speed control and balance, they can occasionally put on a spurt of speed. Then you could be contending with losing the background or having ghost images of the bike and rider. With film I was pretty much dependant on an automatic flashgun and the forgiving nature of colour print or mono. It would have been nice to have the flash sync on the second shutter curtain, but I had only heard of this being done by special camera modifications.

05 copy

But I persevered, taking snaps, dodging errant bikes and occasionally helping retrieve the bike or rider out of holes or down from trees. I dropped out of it for a while when life got in the way and then some years later fancied going to see a local trial up in the Dales. Only this time I was digital. What a difference! My lens was an autofocus wide to standard zoom. My flashgun could talk to the camera to agree what the exposure was going to be. I could fire the flash on the second shutter curtain. I was like a pig in poo. OK, so the camera was only APS-C, so half the sensor size of my previous 35mm frame. (And microscopic compared to the time I shot a trial on medium format.) And yet, that weeny little sensor could resolve the engine numbers on the bikes. I’ve never had that with film. Chimping the shots meant that I could fiddle with the flash to ambient ratio to get some detail in the shadows without giving the riders a tan. Better yet, I didn’t have to change films in the rain or dust. Yay for digital!

N.Anderton. Nab End.


In between watching the wobblers I continued to shoot road bikes. I did a shoot for the local bike club where they ferried me between corners on a series of bendy roads and then rode back along the route so that I could get action shots. It was a popular spot for local riders, so in the middle of shooting the sensible IAM riders an unknown loony came through, pulled a huge stoppie and then came back in the opposite direction on the back wheel. Respect!

It is big and it is clever.

I was given tickets to the Grand Prix at Silverstone as a present. I’d been to Silverstone before and tried to shoot on film. The results were variable, even if I did get a picture of Barry Sheen on an MV Agusta. The main problem was having a long enough lens. If I was close enough to get a reasonably-sized image I was shooting through the fence. If I stood up the banking to see over the fence, the bike became a small dot in the frame. So next time round I went digital. The joy of using an APS-C camera of course is that it has a crop sensor, so it makes your lenses longer. That and my choice of camera, which will take almost any lens made for an SLR or bigger.

Barry Sheen, MV Agusta, Silverstone
A god of racing takes one of god’s bikes out for a spin.

So I loaded up with every long lens and medium format lens I owned. The medium format long lenses are perfect for this: I get 1.5x the focal length, a fairly wide aperture and I’m only using the central and sharpest bit of the glass. I couldn’t afford a 270mm f2.8 if I had to buy a real one, let alone the bigger combinations of lenses and teleconverters I was playing with. I also brought one of my few good ideas – a monopod with a plastic V attached to the top. You can set the lens in the notch and get decent steadiness without it stopping you from panning the shot. So compared to last time I could stand in the tiered public area by the hairpin and shoot over the top of the fence.

The Doctor
The usual racer’s view of number 46.
Scott Redding, Marc VDS Team, Silverstone, June 2011
Shot stood on a picnic table, panning like a golfer.

I know that the professional sports photographers use lenses that cost more than my car and can see that the moon landing was real. But I am the bunny of happiness when I can repurpose some Russian medium format kit and a forked stick.

What’s not to like?

Bike jump
A future motocross champion
Stunt riding, Honda CR450
One day, my lad…

Infra dig

This time I broke a film.

I love the infra red effect. I like contrasty, dark, grainy black and white so the original Kodak IR film was marvellous. For my first go I didn’t have the special opaque filter but that was OK, it meant I could shoot it in an SLR without needing a tripod. So my one roll of high speed infra-red worked really well and gave me a taste for it.

Peak District

Roll forward a few years. Kodak have stopped making their film but there is a Maco version. How hard can it be? Stick some in an old folding camera, stick a red filter on the front and expose at about 6 ISO. Pretty hard as it turned out. Very thin negatives. I need to get serious and do this properly. So I bought a square of special filter material: a piece of 720nm opaque IR filter. My thinking was that this would block wavelengths shorter than 720nm, so cutting out the visible part of the spectrum. Pop in a nice IR film that says it is sensitive down to 820nm and we should get glorious glowing Wood effect.

For my cunning plan to work I needed a good way of mounting the thin filter gel. Step forward the Agfa Super Silette. It’s a nice little rangefinder but not worth much. I don’t use it often so I would have sold it on eBay, but it’s worth less there than the effort of selling it. But if I were to convert it to an infra-red camera the punters would be wearing out their bid buttons for it. Plus, I would have some neat IR pictures.

So I carefully fixed a small rectangle of filter gel behind the camera lens. The Agfa has a rectangular mask in the body between the film gate and the back of the lens. It will be there to block the light that doesn’t fall on the film from bouncing around inside the camera. A perfect place for the filter. A couple of dabs of craft glue and some delicate work with tweezers and I had the perfectly-adapted dark-light camera.

So, in with a roll of Rollei 80s film and off we go on a sunny day at 3 to 12 ISO. The Rollei film has nice examples on T’interweb of IR effect through opaque filters. The Agfa being a rangefinder means that it doesn’t matter that you can’t see through the lens. Sorted.

What I got was a totally clear film. The leader and frame numbers were there, so it wasn’t that I had tried to develop it in fixer.

I had one remaining roll of dedicated IR film. Expensive and precious stuff, but it was sure to work. Work it did not. Another totally clear film. Now I’m stumped. Does the lens on the Agfa block infra-red?

This will be a developing post as I experiment. First step will be to prove it’s not the Agfa. If I use a bit of the 720nm filter on a different camera I will find out if the problem moves with the filter or stays with the camera. My memory is nudging me that one of my lenses has a special slot behind the rear element that will hold a bit of filter gel. If not I’ll bodge something with an old screw-in filter. I’m thinking the tests will be: no filter (proof the film is developed); red filter (some effect but not yet opaque); IR filter. If I rewind the film I can take the filter out of the Agfa and load the film into it. I can then do the same tests by putting the IR filter in front of the lens. That should show me that the film is OK, whether the Agfa is blocking IR or I did something stupid with the filter or film.

But if anyone can se what I am doing wrong, ad a comment and put me out of my misery.

A quantum of sunrise

The historic, esoteric and mostly surpassed use of a light meter. Because all cameras have them built-in now, don’t they? Or you chimp it and make corrections. Or fix it in post -that’s what RAW files are for, no?

Incidentally – chimping. I was listening to a program on etymology, like you do, and they were discussing new words and changed words with the introduction of digital technologies. So the old salt Fleet Street photographers were gradually getting dig’ed up and what they saw was their colleagues pointing at the backs of their cameras and going ‘ooh, ooh’. Chimping.

And yes you can use autoexposure or the histogram or even drag something out of RAW. But my oldest camera is older than me and has nothing but a lens. Besides, I went through Zone phase where I wanted to spot-meter every object in the frame before agreeing with what the film packaging suggested was a reasonable exposure. First up though was an incident meter, because I had been told that this was the one true path to enlightenment. It could well be so for portraits, where you can put the meter under their nose and play with the lights. There is still some disagreement over how to meter backlighting though. But still, I got me an incident meter and proceeded to make a whole body of work with underexposed shadows. Fine for slides, as there is a chance of keeping some detail in the highlights. Crap for negatives. And total rubbish for any situation where you can’t walk out to where the subject is to take a reading.

So I tried an ordinary reflected-light meter. In this case a Leningrad that came in a strange-smelling leather case. Mixed results. If the scene was average and I pointed it in an average direction I got mostly average results. It lied like a sneaky thing when it got dark or if the light was in the cross-over range between the high and low measuring scales. The problem was that I seemed to spend my time taking pictures in minimal lighting. That and dodgy cameras with small-aperture lenses and inappropriate film. It still works and it’s small and robust enough to be the meter of choice when I need one. I’ve kind of learned its ways too, so there is a bit less transparency on my negatives than before.

The Lying Bastard. Yes, that is a list of zones. How nerdy is that?

For my Zone period I naturally bought a spot meter. A cheap and unpopular one off eBay, obviously. Oh, the fun I had metering things! I can see why people with large format cameras use spot meters for landscapes: anything else would have walked away by the time they were ready to take the picture. I can see a use for the spot meter though, in situations where the subject can’t be approached and is under different lighting to the rest of the scene. Something happening on stage perhaps. The meter is pretty big though and takes up space that I could use for an extra lens or camera. Did you see that news item where someone taking star photos on a beach in Ireland had the police called on them because they looked like a sniper? I wonder what would happen to me, walking around with a pistol that I keep raising to my eye? Imagine trying to use a Zenith Photosniper or an old Novoflex lens in public. We shouldn’t have to worry about these things.

I’m afraid I had an attack of the groovies and bought a Weston meter. It’s a think of beauty and just having it round your neck will make your pictures turn out better. It’s a way better reflected light meter than the Lying Bastard (the Leningrad). It’s also heavier and has more fiddly bits, so it just feels that it ought to be more accurate. The invercone business for taking incident readings is very fiddly though. My original incident meter works far better for this, not least because you can use it by holding it up in front of yourself. To use the invercone on the Weston you have to turn round and face away from the subject. No big deal, right? Try doing it when you are walking.

I got a narrow-angle Minolta Viewmeter 9 cheap. This looked ideal; it’s a half-way stage between a true spot meter and a standard reflected light meter. I guess the reason it was cheap is that it soon died. It’s on my desk at the moment with the lid off as I trace the wiring and solder joints. There’s a whole load of pulleys, strings and springs as well, so I am working up the nerve to lift the workings out of the casing. Hopefully not Fup Duck.

What could possibly go wrong?

Weirdly, or maybe not, I’ve got a bit of plastic that works as well as any of my meters for general photography. It’s a Johnson Standard Exposure Calculator. Basically a numbered wheel set inside a numbered frame. Dial-in the type of scene, the weather, the month and time and the ISO and it gives you the exposure. It sounds complicated but it’s four movements of the dial. And it works. It says that it is based on the British Standard Exposure Tables BS 935, so it will work at this particular latitude north (or presumably south as well). For negative film it works great. It’s also tiny and lightweight. What’s not to love?


Basically it’s a sunny sixteen list, corrected for season and weather. I have an extended list in my notebook that gives estimates covering the range of -6 to 16 EV. I’ve also got notes I made over the ages (I do kinda miss those dinosaurs) that cover moonlight, the flare of a match and lit by flames. Sounds like a good night out. Strangely, I have actually used some of these. There does come a time when it’s so dark that the best you can do is guess, so it’s handy to have a starting point.

Cemetary, Basingstoke
I let the camera decide on this one, and I think it did a good job.

Still, it’s all fun and games as you try to get your eye in. I will continue to carry some form of light meter for the cameras that don’t have one of their own. I will continue to find myself struggling with dimness. But I’m learning.

Nice grounds

A GEB pun. My intellectual outreach for the day.

I had a bit of a rant about photography clubs and judging in a previous post. Not that the man is down, but I feel a need to keep kicking. When I was still doing the club thing, one very interesting speaker we had wasn’t a photographer at all but an art teacher. You think photographers have it hard? We at least just deal with what is there. People who paint and draw can arrange anything to be anywhere, so they have to decide where every element of a picture is placed. What the art teacher said was that when you look at a picture, ask yourself why the artist arranged it that way, because they meant it. Painting and drawing aren’t just a slower version of photography.

It turns out there is even an eejit’s guide to composition: there are a set of well-known shapes that you can use to arrange things that are pleasing to the eye (try this for a starter). It turns out that putting the subject dead centre of the frame is only one of the options and may not be the best one. Like the painter and the scribbler, it appears that the photographer should take responsibility for choosing what is in the frame and where it falls. So I’ve heard judges suggesting that tension or balance could be improved by moving one of the elements. This is a useful ‘think of this next time’ response that could encourage reflection and learning. I’ve also heard judges criticise a picture because an object didn’t fall on a division of thirds, or because there were not an odd number of objects in the frame. Want to cause stress? Submit a square picture with the subject in the middle, or a rectangular picture with the subject in the wrong place. Or place a person at the edge of the frame, looking out.

Nick partial face copy
Hate the composition; what’s going on in the background? And it’s not even sharp.

Still, with Rule 10 of Lomography in mind, perhaps one should know what the rules are before breaking them? At least then the outcome was intentional, so that you can learn from it and develop it. Jackson Pollock didn’t just sneeze the paint onto his canvas. So yes, art is good. Look at lots of art. Some of those clever people could really squeeze a pencil and if the picture holds-up after even hundreds of years then there was some merit to it. There is no reason to turn into Oscar Rejlander though. If you feel yourself sliding into allegory, save yourself with the Filmosaur Manifesto. There’s also the Percy Principles of Art and Composition which I like. I think they boild down to: learn the rules, break the rules, learn. But don’t take it too seriously.

One thing I had a really interesting time with was cropping pictures to use as business cards. I wanted some of the Moo minicards, which are 5:2 ratio. This is much thinner than the 3:2 of a conventional 35mm frame. It’s very instructive to try and find the crop and when you do, you wonder what the rest of the picture was doing.

Weren’t you listening? There’s supposed to be an odd number of benches.
And don’t put it in the middle, either.
But he’s looking out of the frame.
Seriously? What’s this about?

If I had more money than cents I would love a Hasselblad Xpan to shoot like this all the time. (I do have some alternatives though. I may write about them in future.) But cropping is free and can really change the tone of a picture. The Moo website offers the templates for their cards as downloads. Many a happy hour has been spent dragging photos onto the frame, resizing and rotating them. If the picture with the tree above is too puzzling, try turning it upside-down.

So there you go: composition. It’s one damn thing next to another.

A brand new bag

That thing we all wish for but never attain… Not world peace or a flat belly: the perfect camera bag. It should hold everything I want to carry, slightly separated so the bits don’t rub together when I’m walking. A bit of padding so that I can put the bag down harder than I meant to without hearing the crunch of doom. Not so much padding that the bag becomes an inflexible cube: we want the not-a-camera-bag hipster look.

The contents need to be well organised so that the small bits don’t hide under the big bits. There needs to be enough space so that I can put something in the bag before taking something out. Think changing lens.

Weather resistance is good. I might want to put the bag down on a wet surface or take it out in the rain. And something like a zip is good for keeping out sand and dust if I’m in a messy place.

These days the bag might not just be carrying cameras. Mine usually has to fit-in a drink and snacks for the dog, a drink for my partner plus makeup, one or more mobile phones and a wallet. And sometimes it’s just a bag, carrying life’s daily drudgery while trying to send signals of groovy (I’m a commuting wage slave, yes, but you can see that I’m really a totally committed and artistic photographer).

My first bag was so uncool it hurts me even now. It was a rigid black box with a tab and press-stud closure and a black plastic strap. It had a few rigid internal divisions that separated my spare lens from my camera. Not well enough, as it turned out. I had one of those clever multifunction camera clamps – the thing that looks like a G clamp and promises to attach your camera to trees, fences and tabletops. That also was so uncool that the memory aches. So on a motorcycle journey with the bag of geekness strapped to the rear carrier my zoom lens gradually rotated against the G clamp. The result was a ring of bright paintless metal around the barrel of the lens.

Then there was the stylish but useless phase. This was a gorgeous pale tan leather bag I bought in Germany. I have no idea what it was meant for, but it was a rectangular block of stylish leather with no padding or internal divisions. So you accept that the kit is going to rub around a bit or you try and separate it with notebooks, scraps of cloth or old socks. Style darling; who needs substance? The bag gradually acquired patina. We fell out of love for a while while I was going through my middle-manager phase and then we got right back together and got our groove on. It is now the screw-fit bag: it holds a small outfit of M42 screw-fit camera, a couple of lenses and a light meter. I’m so hip with this on that my jeans go skinny and my socks disappear. And no, sorry, there is no room for the dog’s treats and water.

I think the stains add something

I went through a rather strange phase of trying one of those waistcoats with all the pockets. Just about the worst of all possible options, plus wearing one these days would get you shot on the Tube. This was replaced by an Army surplus belt with pockets. It was probably meant for ammunition or grenades. I thought I looked like Batman. The pockets were too small for anything other than a few rolls of film, so it was sold to someone who did a lot of marching and shouting at the weekend.

Then I got serious and went seriously large. This was the bag that could hold and organise everything. I could carry every lens I owned, every filter, all the extra focusing screens I had found for my Pentax (these were the days when camera shops had bins of stuff they couldn’t sell at a pound a pop). A light meter. Enough film for an expedition. A flashgun. There was nothing that could happen that wouldn’t find me ready. “F8 and be there”? I was there already and had every F thing I needed.

Difficult to carry though. In fact, difficult to lift. And really painful to carry after a few hours, even though it had a waist belt to supplement the shoulder strap. (I was still so uncool – I was the slacks and tank-top of photography).

It did come into its own when I went to photograph some bike racing at Silverstone. I took every long lens I owned and all the doublers and adapters. It was a beast to carry but that was really just between vantage points. I wish it had wheels.

Then it was my desert years of whatever bag came to hand that could carry all the stuff I had to schlepp about and could squeeze a small camera into the corner. It’s a testament to the basic toughness of most cameras that nothing broke or was even damaged beyond the expected dirt and scratched paint.

So I bought a Lowepro bag. This was one of their single-strap rucksacks that you could slide round to sit across the front of your hips, unzip the side of the bag and use it like one of those trays the people use to sell ice cream in theatres. Brilliant idea and execution. And it was on sale. This was the bag I used to take pictures of seals in a sandstorm as it kept all the lens-changing above the main body of windblown sand. It’s the perfect bag for a dedicated photographer-in-action who doesn’t have to carry anything else. Which is why on the hills I use a conventional rucksack with the camera kit sharing space with water, weather protection, navigation and all those other little things that keep you out of the news. Great bag for a dedicated photo occasion though, as long as you don’t mind your partner disowning you.

Then came the bag porn. Lledar in North Wales make leather bags. They have sales. They were discontinuing a model called Bailey. It was mine. This is a bag of such style that my partner will even allow me to carry her makeup, bottle of Coke and hairbrush. A dark leather messenger bag that is getting better with every crease and stain. It has padded dividers and pockets so that I don’t have to empty the bag to find the car keys. My life was complete. Nearly.

It smells all leathery too

Incidentally – messenger bags. I was commuting by motorbike and wanted a tough over-the-shoulder bag that would carry everything. I got one of the big canvas bags that Royal Mail use (or used, they all seem to drive trolleys these days). It was the business: thick strap, big, canvas, large flap over the top to close it. Except when the wind lifted the flap when I was buzzing along at around 60mph. The bag turned instantly into a drogue chute. I now know why military jets use them for braking. (Parachutes, not shoulder bags).

So now I’m in bag heaven. I have the beautiful Bailey that carries a good chunk of kit, or a useful bit of kit plus some of life’s other essentials. There is another Lledar messenger bag that will take a compact camera, a wallet and a few bits. (Did I mention they have sales?). I still have the German bag for screw-mount days. And a rather useful waxed cotton bag that seals with a zip. It’s not an obsession. I could stop any time.

At home on the range

I admit to a thing about rangefinders. It makes no practical sense; why use a camera that can only focus a limited range of lenses that have to be specially made for it, that can’t show you what might be in sharp or soft focus, can’t frame accurately and lets you shoot all day with the lens cap on? (Ask me how I know this) Oh, and if you leave the lens cap off it will focus sunlight onto the shutter curtains and burn a hole through them.

But in many ways, the difficulty is the pleasure. And rangefinders do have some benefits.

Rangefinder lenses are easier to make and can be of simpler designs – there is no need to make room for the mirror of an SLR. The aperture doesn’t need to shut and close as you press the shutter, and the lens does’t strictly have to signal to the camera what the aperture is doing. That’s not to say that all rangefinder lenses are cheap – take a look at some of the Leica or Zeiss prices, and you won’t buy a Canon 50mm f0.95 on anything less than Bill Gates’ pocket money.

Rangefinder cameras can be smaller than SLRs and sometimes lighter, unless you are comparing a Kiev 4 with a Pentax MX. There is less going on inside the box, so a rangefinder should be quieter than an SLR and shake less when you press the shutter. Certainly I have an old Ricoh SLR that sounds like I’ve dropped a saucepan on cobbles when I take a picture. Best of all is my beloved Olympus XA which is whisper quiet, genuinely pocket sized, has an answer to the lens cap problem and a great lens.

The world’s best rangefinder. Discuss. (And yes, I should clean it)

And yet, I still find myself lugging a Zorki around, or an old Agfa Super Silette. I really think that it is because the difficulty is part of the pleasure.

If I have a job to do or a specific result in mind, I will use the appropriate kit. I would never use a rangefinder for shooting action at long distance with a big lens. This is what SLRs excel at. But I will happily take a rangefinder with me when I’m out walking. Sometimes it’s the convenience – the only thing lighter than my XA is my wallet. But most of the time it’s because I have to think and overcome the awkwardness. Part of my pleasure in photography is the pictures I make, part is the enjoyment of the process of making them. Having to make decisions, to make deliberate choices between alternatives, adds to the sense of engagement with the final product. I can think “I made this look like this” rather than “I held the camera and pointed it the right way while it did this”. Which is often better expressed as “I cocked this up all by myself”. Don’t get me wrong – I love autofocus and autoexposure and zoom lenses and RAW files that I can get something out of even if I have butchered the settings. At some point I’ll post about the differences in shooting motorcycle sport on film and on digital. Just take a look at the earlier post about my voyage into underwater photography – digital rocks!

But still I wander about with a poorly-assembled Russian rangefinder and a lying bastard light meter, or a 1960s family snapshot camera with a modest lens and a slightly misaligned focusing image. It pleases me to have to work at it. And that I don’t have to try and use an Argus C3.