Keeping it simple

So I went off to stay for a week (pre-virus) in a pretty fishing village in the North East, planning to walk a bit of the Cleveland Way. As you do, I took a couple of cameras and lenses. That would be four film cameras and four lenses (two of the cameras having fixed lenses).

  • Praktica LTL body loaded with Kodak P3200.
  • Pentax SV loaded with Kentmere 400.
  • Ensign Ful-Vue loaded with Kosmo Foto 100.
  • Pentax Zoom 105 Super with Kentmere 400.
  • Pentax 35mm f3.5
  • Pentax 80mm f1.8
  • Industar 50 50mm f3.5
  • Yashinon 55mm f1.2

If you’ve ever seen the coastal stretches of the Cleveland Way you will know that it has its ups and downs, mainly where a river cuts through to the sea. Like Ankh-Morpork, Cleveland seems to be built on loam, which accounts for the deep river valleys and eroding clifftops by the sea.

So what I’m saying is that ‘descending the near side of a river valley and ascending the far side’ means stairs. Lots of stairs. With each riser taller than my dog. Very good for the thighs, the Cleveland Way. Next Christmas my party trick will be to crack walnuts between my bum-cheeks.

Cleveland Way

The cliff top path is also quite exposed. Each year a bit more of Cleveland slides into the sea, the farmers move their fences back and the trail creeps sideways away from the drop. We also had storm Ciara blowing hard offshore. Which makes it exciting when the wind is lifting and pushing you towards a crumbling edge on a slippery and muddy track and the poor dog has become a kite. Don’t do this in trainers. I did it in high-ankle walking boots, which while marvellous for fording small streams and puddles, meant increased thigh action on all the steps. See walnut trick above.

So was I going to carry all this camera kit plus map, water etc? The first day, yes. Then I got struck by a flash of sense and carried the Pentax point and shoot. Despite feeling like a housebrick it fits in my jacket pocket. I can work it with gloves on. I don’t have to change lenses. I can even use it one-handed if the dog looks like he’s off to Holland. There’s some advantage to this point and shoot thing.

Of course, being a Pentax means the lens is sharp enough. The autofocus struggled a couple of times though, mostly on back-lit scenes. It was easily sorted with a bit of hold the focus and reframe, so I forgive it. The lens is very prone to flare though, so it’s a definite ‘sun over the shoulder’ camera.

Saltburn pier

So that’s 36 shots with the Pentax point and shoot. 12 with the Ensign, mostly at night. 26 so far with the Praktica and 55mm lens, also mostly at night. And zero with the SV and the other lenses. Think of the weight I could have saved if I’d just accepted that light and simple beats complex and heavy. And that the last thing I wanted to be doing is trying to change screw-mount lenses in challenging conditions.

Compact cameras rock!

How to use flash


Not the cleaning product; the lighting one. But you knew that.

I’ve written before about my use of flash, but I’ve never written about yours. What made me think about it was an article on Emulsive, plus Em’s own opinions on the unhelpful arses who tend to answer questions on social media.

So here you go: flash 101. That said, this is not about how to light a scene with flash; this is about connecting a flashgun to your camera and getting the exposure about right. You can then learn how to use flash lighting by trying stuff out.

We’re talking here about electronic flash. There may still be the odd bulb or Magicube  around, but they must be rarer than free beer.
Electronic flash – let’s just call it flash – is a very brief and intense pulse of light. Packing even the small amount of energy from a battery into a very short pulse means that the flash can be very bright – the candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright, as they didn’t say in Blade Runner.

Your camera has a connection or method for triggering the flash just at the point the shutter is fully open. Most cameras have a ‘shoe’ bracket that the flash clips into, called a hot shoe because it has an electric contact in it to trigger the flash. Older cameras have a variety of fittings. Without the contact (a cold shoe) or without the shoe, you need to find a little round socket that a flash cable can plug into. Some older flashguns will take a cable connection, some even have a cable fitted, or you can find adapters that take a cable feed into a hotshoe fitting. If you need to find the cable port on your camera, it looks like a miniature version of an old coaxial TV socket. It can be set flush in the camera body or be on the side of the lens like a short stub of pipe. If it is labelled or there are several, use the one marked X or PC. If it’s on the lens, there may be a pointer with X, V and M symbols. Set this to X. Some old Russian cameras have a setting around the shutter speed dial for M or X. Again, set it to X. The X setting fires the flash when the shutter is fully open. The other settings are for flashbulbs. If your camera has a hotshoe and none of this other nonsense, it’s already set up to use flash.

Flash 1

In reading order: cold shoe; hot shoe; cable socket on lens; flash setting on lens; cable sockets in body; flash setting on shutter speed dial. The last one also shows an X on the speed dial, which is the fastest capable speed for flash, in this case 1/30.

A word about putting old film-era flashguns onto digital cameras: care. I’ve heard that some old flashguns can send voltage back down to the connection that triggered them. I hear tell that this can damage some modern digital cameras. If you are worried, buy a cheapo Chinese radio trigger to fire the flash with.

Cheapo radio triggers. Ignore the large plug – I use this on a different type of flash.

So, now what?

Rule 0 – get your hands on at least one flashgun. Ignore the ones that are dedicated to a particular camera. Even ignore the ones that are automatic or have sensors, although they are handy. Old manual flashguns are unloved and cheap. Get some.

Old manual flashes. They have exposure calculators on the back.

Rule 1 – you control the exposure of the flash using the lens aperture. The flash pulse is much shorter than even your fastest shutter speed, so the shutter speed can’t reduce the amount of flash light. In fact you may need a slow shutter speed. Both curtains of a focal plane shutter have to be out of the way, and sometimes this only happens at speeds slower than 1/125 or even 1/60. Check on your shutter speed dial for a speed that’s a different colour or a setting marked X. You should only use this speed or slower.

Rule 2 – the flashgun has a way of telling you what aperture to use. Some flashguns have a distance vs aperture calculator on the back. Or you can try to find the Guide Number (GN) in the manual or online. The GN will be a distance and an ISO, so something like 12 metres (100 ISO) would be typical. If you were shooting at 100 ISO, focus on your subject and read-off the distance. Divide your GN by your subject distance (in the same units) and that’s your aperture. So if my subject was at 3m, with this flashgun I should use 12/3 = f4 as the aperture. At 400 ISO I could close-down by two stops, so f8.

Rule 3 – surfaces. Flashlight bounces and fills like a torch beam. If you are shooting indoors, you might get smoother and rounder light by bouncing the flash off a wall or ceiling rather than pointing it directly at the subject. This is where you really need an automatic or sensor flashgun, as they can sense the right amount of light rather than trying to use the GN.
Be aware that flash bounced off a green wall will light the subject in green.

These have an auto mode, where the flash can control its output to match a defined aperture.

Rule 4 – slaves. These are little sensors that (usually) clip to the hotshoe fitting of a flashgun. They sense the brief pulse of a flash going off and trigger the flashgun they are attached to. They can do this fast enough that your camera sees both flashes. This is great for any old flashguns you can find (rule 0) – put a slave cell on them, maybe some coloured cellophane over the light and put them round the back or side of your subject. Or in the next room to shine through the door. Or inside a car or house you are shooting from the outside. Now you get to play with your light balance. To start with, unless you are after an effect, make sure the GN and subject/ backdrop distance for your slave flashes needs a wider aperture than your main flash. Then they will throw less light. Some flashguns will let you reduce their output. Or you can tape a tissue over the light. If you don’t want to trigger the slaves with a flash on the camera, fire one of them with a radio trigger or a long cable.
A slave cell also lets you fire separate flashguns from a simple point and shoot. Tape a bit of tissue over the camera flash if you need to tone it down.


Slave cells

Rule 5 – fill-in. It’s possible to balance the light from a flash with the daylight on your subject so that the flash fills-in the shadows. Measure your subject distance, refer to your GN and set the aperture one stop smaller/ darker to underexpose the flash. Then adjust the shutter speed to expose the scene correctly as though the flash was absent. If the shutter speed you need is faster than you can use for flash, you need more flash power or to get closer. Cameras with the shutter in the lens can usually work with flash at any shutter speed, so are good at fill-in lighting.
Get this right and it looks like you have used a reflector to fill the shadows (without needing an extra pair of arms). You could also underexpose the background for drama. Or put a blue filter on the lens and a yellow one on the flash to make the background go day-for-night blue.

Rule 6 – play. Flash freezes motion, so follow a moving subject with the shutter held open on B then trigger a flash just before you lift your finger. Try multiple flashes for a strobe effect. Try a flash from one side through an orange filter and one from the other side through blue, to get that modern orange and teal look. Put a flash on the end of a selfie stick, trigger it with a slave and you have instant side-lighting. Get a chum to point a flashgun at the back of a subject at night and fire it with a radio trigger to get backlighting. Put the camera on a tripod at night, lock the shutter open and walk around your subject firing a flash at it. Have fun.

The last resort – a long cable

Want more? Read the Strobist.

See? Nary a snarky comment made. It can be done.

The Ensign Ful-Vue bullet-hole camera

Bullet hole? Because the lens aperture is bigger than a pinhole but not as big as a ‘proper’ lens. I’ve written about a couple of them before. Last time I shot the Kodak. This time it was the Ensign‘s turn.

The Ful-Vue has a rough attempt at a focussing lens and a fixed set of aperture and shutter at F11 and 1/30. It can also be switched to a B setting for the shutter, and this is what I had in mind. How else was I likely to get any sort of image on Kosmo Foto 100 in February, in the UK? Especially when there turned out to be a huge storm at the time.

The camera has a rather scruffy metal body with a flat bottom, so it’s simple to stand it on the ground or a wall. Just as well, as the shutter release is below the lens and works with a pull-up action. Without being held down, there’s a risk of movement. On the plus side, the bright viewfinder makes it easy to line the camera up in the dark and looking down into it is much easier than trying to get my eye down behind the camera.

Now, 1/30 at F11 on 100 ISO should translate to an EV of 12. My guide says that this is “daylight scene under heavy clouds; no shadows”. This seems a bit overexposed for even a bright February day, but I suppose that consumer films must have been a stop or two slower when the camera was new. So given that I was going to be shooting day and night scenes plus perhaps interiors, I planned to use semi-stand development to rescue my variable negatives.

The nice thing about the Ensign is that it is not a precious object. Replacements are cheap, the lens has probably already got all the scratches it needs and the body is a light metal pressing. The only worry I had was flare through the uncoated lens. I have previously tried shooting an old Balda folder at night, and the lens on that threw huge rings of flare on the negative from an in-frame streetlight. Flare aside, I had no qualms in stuffing the Ensign into a jacket pocket and taking it for a walk.

Less mad flaring than I got with the Balda

The reduced flare compared with the Balda is probably because the Ensign has a single meniscus lens, whereas the Balda is a triplet: the Balda has more lens surfaces to bounce light around. So for shooting at night, simplicity wins. The Balda does win by a mile if you want a sharp picture in daylight though.

The semi-stand development gave me pretty even development across the whole film, despite the wide range of exposures between frames. When I was out in actual daylight, I made a bit of effort to shield the lens from direct sunlight and it seems to have worked. The lens is by no means sharp, but it does give a nice old fashioned look.

A bit of light leakage into the roll of film visible on the left.

It also has a bad habit that I will need to fix, in that it winds-on soft rolls. The take-up spool does not pull the film tight, so the finished roll is fat and at risk of light leaks. Luckily I took the exposed roll out in a dingy indoors room, so while there is some leakage is is minimal.


The scale-focusing lens feels more like guesswork, but there is a visible sharpish plane of focus in the shots where I used it.

You can see the sharpness fall away from the centre

So, given that you can pick one of these cameras up for £5 or less, I reckon they do a surprisingly good job. And they take standard 120 film, so there is less messing around than with something like the Kodak Brownie that takes 620.

The Ensign Ful-Vue II, a camera that works well within its limitations. And sharpness is over-rated, anyway.


So what are these magical arrangements that every photographer should strive for and will guarantee success?

There are some standard ways of arranging things in a picture that have been widely used. I know I’ve made fun of them previously, but they do work. I’ve also been listening to one of them there podcasts (forgive me, I forget which one) and they were saying that you couldn’t do the Daguerreotype thing any more: you couldn’t have people stood dead-centre in the frame, staring into the distance and keeping very still. And yet you can. So besides breaking the mould we should perhaps learn first how to make it?

So here’s the starting set of standard layouts, as seen in a myriad pictures of yore (and mine).

1981 10 11a
In reading order: thirds; golden mean; line; cross; L; T or variation of cross.

1981 10 11b
H shape; C or spiral; triangle; steelyard (large mass balanced by a small one)

1981 10 111
Circle; S or snake; diagonal; box within box or frame within frame; receding planes; stairs

It’s interesting to note how many of them are the same shape as letters of the alphabet. I wonder if I could write something rude using compositions?

Why do they work? Perhaps because the visual side of our brains are looking for patterns and give your system a little pleasure kick when they find one.

Anyway – why not give one of them a go?

Here comes the sun

The spring is sprung, the grass is riz.
I wonder where the boidie is.
They say the boidie’s on the wing.
But that’s absoid. The wing is on the boid.

I can’t lay claim to this verse, but I second that emotion.

So daylight is finally increasing and an old smudger’s thoughts turn to possibly leaving the house with a camera. But where will the light fall and how long will it last?

Being smarter than the average bear, we fire-up The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This marvellous tool is available as the usual web page, but also comes in smartphone versions to help people who have already left the house and find themselves wandering in the wilderness.

Find the spot you have in mind and take a look at how the sun (or moon) will rise and set, how they track across the sky and how high they get.

So what? Well I used this for a picture I wanted to get of a friend’s place, that was at the western end of a narrow road. I knew that the morning sun would glance across the face of the building, but I wasn’t sure exactly when. Easy – find it on the map, zoom in and drag the time-of-day slider across to see when the sun shone down between the houses.

Perk Up

I know I have mentioned this in a previous post, but what got me thinking about it was driving past a steamy big industrial site every day and watching the sun gradually climb over the hill behind me to illuminate the chimneys and then the buildings. If I wanted to come back at a weekend and stand on a nearby bridge, what time would I need to get there? Turns out I can’t be arsed to get up that early and drive nearly to work at a weekend.

But there you go. When does the sun fall on the front of a particular building, or backlight it?  When would a low-angled sun fall directly down the line of a wet road? When will the moon be low on the horizon? What time is golden hour or blue hour? Go ask the TPE.

One more trick up your sleeve. How do you easily find north or south? With a wristwatch. It has to be an anlogue watch with hands though. In the northern hemisphere, point the hour hand at the sun and bisect the angle between the hour hand and 12 o’clock (works for GMT, but take an hour off for BST). This half-way angle points south.

For the people of the counterweight continent, it’s a bit different. Point the 12 o’clock on your watch at the sun and bisect the angle between 12 and the hour hand. This points north. Simples.

For the landscape photographer (yawn), you might want to know when the sun will appear over a hill. Remember your trigonometry from school? Fair enough. Get a decent OS map and a bit of graph paper. Mark the low-level point you want lit and the high point that the sun has to clear. Work out the different in height and the distance between them. If you can’t remember the maths to calculate the upward angle from the low point to the high one, draw them to scale on graph paper and use a protractor. The TPE will then help you work out what time of year and time of day the sun will be in the right direction and at the right height (it shows the angle of altitude of the sun or moon).

Hell Wath fields
Oh no – we’re surrounded!


The art of the blog

The spoken word or the written? Has podcast killed the keyboard star?

Perhaps I’m biased: I write but (you can thank me later) don’t speak. I do enjoy my podcasts, but I also love a bit of textual feeling.

I commute by car. So I have around a 90 minutes a day when I can listen but not look. This is podcast time. The ‘casters fill my car with conversation and they take no offence when I shout back or pause them during the tricky bits (changes of gear or direction). If there was a high-occupancy lane, I would feel justified.

I also have times when the eyes are free even if the hands are occupied. Think lunchtime. This is when I hit the blogs. I do love a blog.

Podcasting is hard work, but worse than that it’s scheduled hard work. If you drop an hour of sound every week on a Wednesday morning, you better have that sucker recorded, edited and loaded every single Wednesday. And editing takes time. Every hour we hear probably takes two to record and edit.

So this is why I write. I can take as long as I like to develop a single article. As long as they drop out of the sausage machine every Thursday, nobody knows or cares how long they took to write. I often build a reservoir of posts ahead of taking time off, like a holiday. The joy of queuing six posts, and the freedom from deadlines, is delicious.
Not so for the pod people. They have to be there, and cheerful, every time. Imagine the strain.

In truth, you can hear the strain. Some need funding to support their (desirable and worthy) work. And it is work – audio files are big and need hosting.

So I have a soft spot for the path less heard. The quietly spoken word. The quirky and crinkly. And here’s a few to try:

Not perhaps mainstream, but close to the source. (Which, as I have learned, usually means I am the last person to discover anything. )
And if you are feeling brave:

  • PS – I just realised this is my 100th post. Go me!
  • Clue

    Making time for it

    There was a time I used to take pictures every day. Now I seem to have more days than pictures. Life somehow gets in the way.

    I commute to work. At this time of year it’s dark both ways, so I only get to see daylight at weekends. But there’s stuff to do and the days are short. We do get out, but often it’s walking the dog and there are only so many pictures I want of our local woods.

    So it feels like a dry spell, photographically.

    Time was, I’d go around with a huge bag of lenses. Primes of course, as any fule no that zooms are not as sharp. These days I might wander about with a compact camera but a blessedly lighter bag. So as well as taking fewer pictures, I’m carrying less stuff to take pictures with.

    Looking at other people’s pictures can be inspiring, but they have to be good. I must confess to being bored by a lot of what I see. I’ve given my opinion on landscapes before but I find myself looking at all sorts of pictures and thinking ‘so what?’ A picture should interest me, not look like a drive-by snapping.

    So how to keep my mojo rising despite these riders on the storm?

    Part of it is experimentation. There is no pressure on me to deliver any specific result so I can do what I like. On a recent walk I tried moving the camera on a slow shutter speed.

    Interesting – I might do more with this.

    I’ve got a tilting adapter for my Kiev medium format lenses to fit them to my 35mm camera. It’s good fun shifting the plane of focus around. Surprisingly it works with portraits – you can make the sharp zone vertical, shoot the person at an angle and really throw the background out.

    Works with buildings too.

    Bored with my dark commute, I stuck the camera on the dashboard and fired it with a remote.

    Christmas decs for commuters
    Don’t try this at home.

    I know there are things like photography clubs, but I kind of fell out of love with them. There are photowalks too, but I have other things to do at weekends. … And that’s the root of the problem: I have too many other things to do. I guess photography has remained an important part of my life, but not the most important. It used to be all-consuming, but I calmed down. I used to take a camera for a walk, and now I realise that I go for a walk and take a camera along. The difference is that the point of the walk now is the walk, not going somewhere steep just for the sake of a picture.

    Dan realises that what goes up has to find a way down.

    I think it’s just the time of year. By the time you read this I will have spent a week in Staithes, so I fully expect to have taken a picture or two and enjoyed doing so. And I’m taking a selection of awkward and difficult cameras. And then Spring will be here and I’ll get over myself and all will be well with the world again. So there.