Stop motion

Just an aside into something I found useful and that you can make some cameras do: time-lapse.

The reason was a piece of work I was doing to fit-out a new office. There was some building work to be done to make some new partition walls, but a lot more work to rewire the place with mains and network cables. I wanted a record of the work in progress.

I have mentioned before the CHDK utility for Canon compact cameras. I had a dibble through the options and found there was a time-lapse feature that would work on my little compact. A search on the web got me a cheap mains adapter so that I could have the camera powered-up and working all day without worrying about batteries. So I set the camera up on a tripod and let it run.

The complete fit-out took two weeks, of which I captured the days when things were happening. The result was a few thousand .jpg files. Another search on the internet found a utility that would assemble the files into a video.

The results were great. I deliberately dropped the series of files when there was nobody in front of the camera, so the video was all action. As it played-back in faster time, it was amusing to see people whizzing up ladders and the partition wall sprouting. One of the jobs I’d done personally was to cable the network cabinet. In real time this meant consulting a plan, selecting a cable of the right colour and length, plugging the cable into the equipment in the bottom of the cabinet and again at the top. In the speeded-up version I am doing squat jumps.

The end result was a film that showed the story of the new office being built. There is a meme in the UK of speeded-up sketches from the Benny Hill show, so I added the same backing music (quietly) to the film.

When the new office opened we had the film playing on a loop on the screen in the canteen that would later show the news and weather. Things like building work, infrastructure and IT are usually taken for granted (when they work), so it was not a bad thing for the office staff to see their new office being created from an empty shell.

There are now much better technical options available, but this worked too.

How to expose

There was a bit of an argument on Faceplop/ Melter (colour me surprised), about the right way to meter light for photography. So I thought I’d weigh in with my own version.

The reason for even thinking about exposure is because what it means is getting the right amount of light on your sensor/ film. To do that you need to measure the amount of light there is. To do that you need some form of meter (which is better than guessing).

Actually, it’s a two stage process. The first step is to measure the amount of light correctly. The second stage is to decide how you want to use that information. Let’s start with step one.

The amount of light emitted by the sun is effectively constant. The amount that reaches the ground (or the subject) varies with time of year, time of day and the weather conditions. This is why a meter is better than guessing.

Sounds easy though: point the camera at the subject and either press the shutter or change the camera settings to what the meter says. Most of the time this works, and the better or more modern the camera the more likely it is to work pretty well. If you have one of these cameras and you get good results, that’s the end of this article.

But… some cameras don’t have meters, or don’t meter light well, or the subject lighting is not ‘average’. This is where we need a better way to meter the light. The obvious tool for the job is a separate hand-held light meter. But there are two basic types and they work in different ways, which was the cause of the online argument.

The first and most common type of meter is a copy of the one you find in a camera. You point it at the subject and it measures how much light is being reflected back towards the camera. Providing the bright and dark areas in the subject average out, the reading is good to use. A reflected light meter can struggle if the view contains lots of bright sky, or is backlit, or is a bright object on a dark background. There is a specialised version of the reflected light meter that has a very narrow angle of view, so lets you meter on a single small part of the subject. These are useful if you can’t get close, or for measuring the brightest and darkest spots to calculate the full range of brightness (the reason for this is in step two, below). These spot meters are expensive though, and don’t give you the general average reading you also need.

The second type of meter measures how much light is falling on the subject. This type is an incident light meter. The idea is that light falling on the subject is the correct middle point that you need to expose for. The brighter bits of the subject will reflect more light and be brighter, the dark bits darker. Providing the total range of brightness fits within the sensitivity of your film or sensor, then this works very well and is immune to scenes that are not an average mix of light and dark. It does need you to measure the light falling on the subject though, which can be difficult if the subject is distant to you or under different lighting.

A reflected meter, as top left, takes the average of everything it can see. An incident meter measures how much light there is and gives you a reading that works if everything is average.

Which type of meter is best? The one you have with you, obviously. Both types work, providing you understand what they are measuring and if they might need some interpretation. The reason for the interpretation is step two.

A typical digital sensor response is on the left. Analogue film is more S shaped, as on the right.

Your sensor or film can record a certain range of brightness. Too little light and it won’t record. Too much and it will record as pure white with no detail. Ideally the brightness range of the scene will match the sensitivity range of the sensor, and it usually does (because sensors and film were developed to match the average range of brightness we encounter). So the average reading that a light meter gives you is intended to provide the mid-point of the camera’s range. How that average reading fits onto the range of a digital sensor or a film is shown below.

The meter reading is meant to put the measured average on the mid point of the sensor or film range (the sun symbol). The total range of brightness in the subject should then fit onto the working range of the sensor of film (the arrow).

So despite all the noise about 18% grey and metering for the shadows or highlights, what you are trying to do is to find the average brightness and set it at the midpoint of the camera’s range. If possible you also set the camera so that the range of brightness in the scene or subject matches the range that the sensor or film can record. If the range of brightness in the subject is less than the range of the camera you can choose to move it up or down the camera range by giving it more or less exposure. Sensible people give as much exposure as possible, without the highlights going off the top of the scale. To be more accurate, the highlights in which you still need to see detail should be on or just below the top of the scale. If the sun is in shot, just accept that it will be overexposed. But if your subject has a white shirt or dress you may want any highlights to show a bit of detail and tonality and not be featureless white. This pegs the maximum exposure you can give. Alternatively, if the scene is low contrast (has a small range of brightness) you may want to give it more than the average exposure. This shifts the whole scene up the scale and will reveal more detail in the shadows. This is exposing for the shadows.

But what if the range of brightness in the scene is too great to get both the highlights and shadows within the camera’s range? You have options. One is to accept that part of the scene will not record. So you could let the highlights or the shadows fall off the scale. Most people keep the highlights and let the shadows go totally black, but it’s up to you.

The range is too wide for the sensor. You can give it less expsoure (which shifts the arrow left) and keep the highlights at the expense of the shadows, or go the other way.

Another option is to decrease the range of the subject. You can add light to the shadows with flash or a reflector. You can reduce the highlights by changing the lighting or adding some haze or filtering. Moving out of direct sunlight into open shade works well (but beware of the blue cast you will get from the sky).

A third option is to expand the range of the sensor or film. This is what HDR does for digital. With film you can play with different types of film, developer and processing. The aim with both is to be able to squeeze a wide range of subject brightness onto the narrower range of the sensor.

So, to get back to measuring exposure, a reflected light meter is saying ‘this is the average brightness of everything I can see’ while an incident light meter is saying ‘this is how much light there is. If everything in this light averages out, this is the correct exposure’. Which is better? If the full range of brightness in the subject fits into the range of your camera, the incident light meter is better as it can’t be fooled by non-average subjects. But if the brightness range is too great for the camera or you have something special in mind, you will need to set the camera differently to the average, change the lighting or take special measures to widen the camera’s range.

How do you know if the subject fits the camera range? Digital cameras win here if they can display a histogram or the under/overexposed flashies. If you can adjust the camera settings, you want the histogram shifted as far to the right as you can (as bright as possible) without losing any important highlights. With film I’m afraid it comes down to experience, and knowing that negative films, particularly colour negative, can take a bit of overexposure and still produce good results (due in part to that S shaped response, as above). If you have a separate light meter and you are close enough to the subject to be able to measure the highlights and shadows separately, try measuring the range. It works best with a reflected light meter. Take your overall average reading. Then measure the brightest highlight that should still show a bit of texture and tonality. This should be no more than 3 stops brighter than the average. The darkest shadow that you want a hint of tonality in should be no more than 4 stops darker. It is possible to capture a wider range, but this is about what works without taking special measures.

The special measures? There are ways of developing film that can capture a wider range of brightness. With slide film you are really stuck with what it offers. With digital you can try HDR. This combines a set of over-exposed shots (that capture the shadows) with under-exposed ones that capture the highlights. With some techno-magic the best bits of each are combined to compress a wide range of brightness in the subject to fit onto the range that the sensor is capable of recording. It can look strange if it’s done badly, and it often is.

The alternative is to base your exposure on what is important in the subject and let the rest fall where it may. If there are people in the scene, you would normally set the exposure so that you can see their faces. Just be aware that there is range of skin tones around the ‘average’ – don’t be like Kodak.

So if this is all getting too confusing, this is what you do in practice. Most subjects are average. Point your reflected light meter at the scene and angle it down a bit if there is a lot of sky in the shot. Or point your incident meter back towards the camera, with the meter in the same light as the subject. Job done. If the range of brightness in the scene is likely to be too wide, you will need to decide which end of the scale to keep, and it’s usually the highlights. On a digital camera take a test shot and look at the histogram or flashies. Reduce the exposure until the highlights are inside the histogram or stop flashing. With a reflected meter measure a highlight and give it three stops more exposure. It’s harder to gauge the difference with an incident meter but you could try taking one reading with the meter pointing at the camera and one pointing at the main source of light (often the sun). Try setting the camera at the midpoint of the two readings. And bracket – take extra shots with one stop more and one less of exposure. Bracketing is good for learning, as you can tell just by looking at the results that a scene like the one you shot really needs more or less exposure than what the light meter says.

So there you are. The purpose of metering the light is to work out how best to fit the scene onto the sensor. No one type of light meter is best – you need to use your brain with both of them. Incident light meters are less likely to be fooled, so may give more reliable results. Reflected light meters work from further away. The histogram or flashies on a digital camera do the same job. Light meters work best with average scenes, but luckily most scenes really are average (by definition). But look hard at your subject and the light and you will learn what different to average looks like and what to do about it. And then you can join the perpetual squabble on t’interweb about how exposure works. (As an aside, the only comparable geek argument is how countersteering works for motorcycles. So if you really want to start a flame war, ask people how best to expose for a countersteering bike.)

And by the way, you may have heard people either praising or damning the Zone System. All it does is help you try and fit the range of brightness in your subject onto your sensor, just as described above. None of this is magic, or even particularly difficult. It’s all about squeezing what there is into what you’ve got.

Pentax MX

The MX was Pentax’s professional-type system camera, sold from 1976 to 1984. I say professional-type, as it had some nice features but quite a modest specification. It’s main feature was that it followed the radical Olympus OM-1 in being small and light.

It was a mechanical camera with a traditional horizontal-run cloth shutter. The batteries powered the meter only. The shutter gave you speeds from 1s to 1/1000 with flash sync at a 1/60. The meter’s range was ISO 25 to 1600. The meter was centre and bottom-weighted, so you could get caught out when shooting in portrait orientation. But hey, this was a simple and reliable camera that predated computers and matrix metering.

The only evident professional feature in the body was the replaceable focusing screens. Perhaps not an obvious feature, as you changed them through the mouth of the lens mount. It could also take a 5 fps motordrive and a bulk film back. Oh, and every lens Pentax had made, including the screw-mount ones using a simple adapter.

I bought mine second hand from a camera shop, back when this was possible.  The local Jessops must have de-listed the MX a while later, as they dropped a load of focussing screens in their bargain bin. I bought one of every type they had at something ridiculous like a couple of pounds each. I’ve just done a quick count on fingers and toes, and I have owned this camera for more than forty years.

One thing that has gone wrong twice with mine is the shutter speed readout in the viewfinder. What you can see is a transparent circular disk with the speed numbers on. As you turn the shutter speed dial the disk moves in sync. Or it doesn’t. The first time it happened I sent it off to Pentax for a CLA. Then it happened again a few years ago. I asked one of my favourite repair shops and they asked if I could live with it – the linkage is apparently a fine wire running over pulleys and is a fiddly pain to reset. So yes, I can live with it. If you see one like this second hand be aware that it should reduce the price but does not affect the function.

The camera itself is rock solid. It just works. It still has the original light seals and they still work too.

I took it out on a walk recently around Coventry. Of course, when you take a camera out for the day you make sure the batteries are fresh, don’t you? What I did was briefly check that the meter lit up in the viewfinder. So of course the meter stopped working on the second shot. Luckily this is a mechanical camera and I had a light meter with me. So the Pentax did what it does best – it sat discretely in one hand on a wrist strap and just quietly worked. Ive got the Pentax 24-50 zoom, which is a perfect lens for walking about, so the two together make a great package.

The viewfinder (when the meter has batteries) shows a vertical series of lights to the right side. The green central LED is correct exposure, with orange either side for +/- half a stop and then reds for a stop or more out. There is a tiny extra window on the front of the prism that shows the lens aperture at the top of the viewfinder. All very discrete and usable. The meter switches on and displays with a half-press of the shutter. If the rewind arm is pulled out from its parked position the meter will stay on. The shutter button itself has a locking collar. It makes the camera easy to hand-carry: your forefinger pushes the catch to unlock the shutter, your thumb pulls the winding lever out a bit, raise the camera and everything is ready to go. I was using the camera walking around a city centre and with the 24-50 lens it was almost as easy to use as a point-and-shoot.

Loading it is also easy, certainly compared to something like a Praktica. The take-up spool uses Pentax’s magic needles. These basically provide multiple slots to hold the end of the film, so you don’t have to fiddle about doing part wind-ons to get the slot to line up. It’s quick and reliable. And can I just say how I hate the weird bit of wire that Prakticas use? The number of times mine has failed to hold the film leader is a pain in the aperture.

The Pentax shutter and mirror are well damped, so it’s quiet for an SLR. It makes a soft clomp noise, compared to my Ricoh which sounds like I dropped it.

So what we have is a pretty basic SLR with some nice features. Everyone has heard of (and is chasing) the K1000, but I think this is the better camera. I know it should be, as it was meant to be, but things do change with time. The later LX uses the same focusing screens but has more electronics and is much more expensive to repair, as it has lots of weather-sealing gaskets. So for me, the MX is in the Goldilocks spot.

La jetée

You may have seen the film Twelve Monkeys. It was based on a French short film called La Jetée. The source film is worth watching, especially as it is not a film but a story. It uses a series of still pictures to show scenes from a life as the narrator tells his tale. (Then watch Twelve Monkeys to see how to take an idea and run with it).

Then I recommend viewing David Godlis tell his tale of taking photos at CBGBs. It’s done using his original images with a Terry Gilliam-like process of lifting and moving cut-out sections.

Why might you be interested in these? Because it’s an interesting visual story-telling technique. La Jetée in particular makes very effective use of lighting, plus in one scene an out of focus branch to imply threat and change. All for the cost of taking some pictures in a dark room and on the streets (and a huge amount of thinking and planning).

Ok, so we’ve seen still images used as as flicker book animation in music videos. These are brilliant and evocative, but a huge amount of work is involved. I do love the simplicity and economy of the two ideas I have mentioned. So I leave you with the idea – record a spoken story and then cut a limited series of still images to match it.

Eppur si muove.

Sea & Sea Motor Marine MX-10

This is the younger sibling of the Motor Marine II. It is more limited, but in some ways easier to use.

The first thing you will notice is that it is big. You are not going to lose it down the back of the sofa. But with the external ‘potato masher’ flash attached it becomes quite an easy package to handle.

The lens is fixed focus, set at the 2.5m mark. You get a table of depth of field versus aperture in the manual. I copied this out and made a laminated card. I also laminated a card rangefinder to make it easy to find the focus point. This only really matters when I’m using it underwater, as I need to get as close as the camera will allow to minimise the effects of soupy water. It’s also easier to judge 2-3m distance on land.

On the surface you get a fixed shutter speed of 1/100. There is a physical switch for 100 or 400 ISO and space for two AA batteries inside the camera’s outer shell. The camera’s built-in flash has a guide number of 10. The camera allows the use of two apertures with the internal flash – f4.5 or f11. And that’s about it for features. There is a light meter guide light in the viewfinder – you half depress the shutter and tweak the aperture dial until the red light goes out. The lens is described as a 35mm and f4.5 using four elements in four groups. You will not be buying one of these for creamy bokeh or biting resolution, but to survive a family trip to the seaside.

In use it is actually very simple. You can use it like a basic manual point and shoot with optional flash. Get to between 2 and 3m from the subject, frame and snap. If you can find it there is a wide-angle adapter and viewfinder available that makes it closer to a 20mm field of view (the adapter is shown fitted in the pictures above, with the matching external framer). With this adapter and the external flash it actually becomes quite a handy package for fairly close work underwater or in bad conditions. The flash makes a useful handle and even with it on the camera is not too unwieldy.

I have used this underwater and would certainly use it if I wanted to shoot film on the beach or in bad conditions. The external flash has a sensor to control its exposure and gives the choice of two apertures, one for 100 and one for 400 ISO. For underwater use I loaded it with fast film, set the apertures and got to the preset distance to take pictures. There was nothing to adjust, just turn the flash off when not using it. This actually makes it easier to use than the more capable (on paper) big brother model – the Motor Marine II.

On the surface it can flare if you shoot into the light, mostly due to the flat glass window in front of the lens. It’s worth keeping a tissue handy if you are out in the rain to keep the drops off the lens. Other than that it seems to survive most environments and handling. You can also pick these up quite cheaply if you look carefully. So what’s not to like about a cheap, simple and rugged camera?

Don’t take my picture!

I hear it a lot from family and friends. On a superficial level it seems odd – why refuse something that has no impact and could happen anyway? And don’t you understand that I want to take your picture because I like you? I was curious to develop an idea I’d written about before, but encountered personally quite recently. So I asked.

One theme that came out strongly, and often first, is ‘I don’t like the way I look’. So, ok, there is always a responsibility on the photographer to find and show the best of people. But I wondered how a photograph was different to what you saw in a mirror. From asking, I’m told that a mirror is a totally different thing. You look into a mirror for a reason, like brushing your hair. Your image has a purpose. If you don’t like a part of what you see, you can look at a different part or focus on the task. A mirror is under your control and nobody else can see what you see. You can adjust the image as you wish – the frog belly under your chin goes away if you raise your head. It also has no persistence – your bleary eyes and pallid morning skin are gone forever when you turn away. Photographs are persistent and take away any control you have over what you see. Once that paunch is captured, it exists forever.

This leads to another observation that almost nobody is content with how they look: everybody would change something. And the risk in a photograph is that it has no sympathy. I have skinny chicken legs so I think I look weird, seen full length. I’d like to say I have a good feature that you could focus on, but it’s all pretty average. So if you take a picture of me, I would be conscious that you really want a picture of someone who looks like a confused stork. How much harder must it be for women, who have an expectation of appearance imposed on them? See selfie filters for further proof.

In a conversation we are happy to make and hold eye contact with another person. We make expressions and pull faces. But when the other person raises a camera something comes between you. There is a new person in the conversation who only takes. This is nothing to do with snaps – the grabbed pictures that remind you of an event or a time or the people you were with. The difference is the intention – a snap is a reminder with no motive; a portrait has a reason behind it. And a conversation stops when one person drops out to take rather than share.

I think this leads to the next point, which is distrust of motive. If I ask for my picture to be taken, I know why I’m doing it and what it is for. If someone else wants my picture I don’t know how it will be used or what it is for. I was out on a photo-walk recently and this came up. I wanted a picture of a shop doorway but the shopkeeper came out to stand at their street display. They were going to be in shot, but would have enhanced the picture. So I asked if I could take their picture. They declined, so I didn’t. Another member of our group then mentioned they had taken a picture of me, and did I mind. In this case, not at all and it was good of them to ask. But the issue is one of trust: why are you taking pictures of me? The solution would be to ask, give the reason, and offer to share the results. And don’t take offence at a refusal. And really don’t be a creep. If you wouldn’t be comfortable as the subject, don’t take the picture. This must figure even stronger for women, who spend their lives under the male gaze and with the constant background tension of the common male expectation that women exist for men.

Saying that though, taking pictures at a public event is different. People engaged in an activity or sport in public must accept that other people will want pictures of what they are doing. The interest is in the activity, and this is legitimate. Although I have seen some questionable shots of women playing sports. So the same rules apply: don’t be a creep.

And then, we have the actual portrait. I have pictures of my ancestors that have huge value. Some are formal portraits and some are the ‘stand there and I’ll take your picture’ variety. The formal portraits were obviously intentional. In an age when private photography was rare they preserved a statement of the subject’s status and appearance. My mum has two large paintings that are separate portraits of each of her grandparents (one set) when they married. The pictures are actually over-painted photographic prints, which would have have been a quick and cheaper way to get a good likeness. I’ve also got some of the formal ‘sat in a chair and frowning’ pictures. All of them are precious because they are family. I can see the value in having pictures of yourself at different ages to hand on, but the sheer volume of transient images we’re drowning in will probably bury the one or two pictures that summarise you and would entertain your grandkids. So perhaps there is value in relenting to at least one good environmental portrait so that future people can see who you were.

There is also memory. My wife travelled the world when she was younger but didn’t take any pictures. She has all the memories but nothing she can actually show me or the boys. The picture below is my grandmother as a young woman. She is the same person holding her great-grandson if you follow the memory link above.

Another lesson that comes from this is to get pictures of yourself when you are young. Friends pass and things change, but a picture of the daft younger version of yourself will remind you that, no matter what the world does, you were gorgeous. It’s all still in there, just toned down with some saggy bits and hair migrating from your head to your ears and eyebrows.

And yet, despite all this, the most interesting photographs are the ones with people in. Other than snaps they might be the hardest to take, for all the reasons above. Perhaps this is why so many photographers take landscapes? Taking an informal snap of your chums on your phone is fun. Get a ‘real’ camera and people question your motives and the rest of it. One of the reasons I like the pukey-bear-cam is that it breaks down the barrier by being informal and silly, with immediate results that are genuine snaps and not some Gollum-like Precious that you will perve over later.

In summary – don’t be evil. Don’t even be a little bit evil, which is weevil. Get as many informal pictures as you can, as they will become more valuable to you with time. Definitely take pictures of people, as people are probably the most interesting thing there is. But have some respect for others. Noli esse asinus as we used to say when I was a boy.

Olympus XA

I think this is the perfect small rangefinder camera. Quite possibly the perfect small camera.

I’ve actually had mine from new. I originally owned its smaller brother, the XA2. This got a bit of a soaking in salt water which caused the lens focusing thread to seize. I freed it but the shutter release was also unreliable, so an upgrade it was. The XA became my perfect take-anywhere, use-anywhere camera.

I have cleaned it since…

It is has aperture-priority automatic exposure. The aperture scale runs down the front of the camera with a lever to select. F5.6 is marked in orange, as is the 3m distance on the lens’ focus scale. These are the hyperfocal settings that turn the camera into a focus-free point and shoot. The tip of the focusing lever is accessible even when the camera cover is closed. I marked mine with some paint to show the 3m position, so I can check and set the lens to the correct distance even before the cover is opened. With the distance set and the aperture at 5.6 or smaller, it’s immediately ready to shoot.

The lens is sharp, as you would expect of an Olympus. The design of the 35mm F2.8 lens in the XA is very clever – it’s a wide-angle telephoto with internal focusing. What this means is that the camera can be tiny as the lens is very close to the film and doesn’t need to be extended to use. For such a short rangefinder base it’s actually easy to focus. And mine has never gone out of alignment, unlike every every other rangefinder I have used. It also focuses down to under a meter, so beats most other rangefinders.

The bokeh hunters will be dismayed though – the aperture is formed of two blades producing a square hole. All those people who track down lenses with the highest possible number of aperture blades producing perfectly circular openings will be horrified to learn the the Olympus just works: it delivers nice pictures. Maybe not for the people who are more interested in the blur than the subject, but it does very well what it was designed to do.

The autoexposure will give you shutter speeds from 1/500 down to 10 seconds, so it can keep taking pictures in the dark. Prop it on a table or wall, press the button and wait.

The shutter release is the divisive feature. It’s a flat panel with an electronic rather than mechanical trigger. It can also be hair-trigger sensitive. But the shutter release is very quiet, so this camera is super discrete. I used it during a concert recital in a medieval church and nobody noticed. I’m told that the release button can be unreliable on these cameras as they age though. If you are buying one, this would be the thing to check.

There is a little flashgun that screws to the side. It’s automatic, but has settings for 100 and 400 ISO. I found what looks like a hack with it. If you turn it on and let it charge, then switch it off and immediately take the picture, it acts as a fill-in flash. It may not be a clever trick at all, but it seems to work.

Other than that, I rate this little camera very highly. Think of it as a Leica with a built-in light meter and a decent 35mm lens, but easier to load, carry and use. My only wish was that Olympus had made a version with an 80mm lens. Then I could put the XA in one pocket, the ‘long XA’ in the other and skip around in weightless bliss.

Walkies

I went on my first ever photo-walk. This was in Coventry and was organised by the Sunny 16 crew to commemorate John Whitmore. I never met John, but I did like listening to him on the podcast.

I was also feeling a bit of a fan-crush – a lot of the podcast people I listen to would be there. It’s a bit like meeting the characters in your favourite soap.

Strangely, what could have been the hardest decision was easy: what kit do I take with me? We would be walking around, so I would be carrying whatever I took. I really don’t need to take a show-off camera. I’m more likely to take pictures of the people in the walk than of buildings, so that would direct my choice of lenses. Handily, I can take one camera and a lens that I am writing-up for this blog. Decision made.

Coventry though – that’s down south somewhere. The return rail fare was even more than a five-pack of Portra, so it would be car and park-and-ride. Call it two and a half hours to get there, but the walk was to start at 10:30 so that’s easy enough for an early riser. I’m not sure I’ve been to Coventry, so it should be interesting. It’s the most central city in England, after all. Besides that, I wanted to make the effort.

The trip down was easy enough and the car park was easy to find and just about a mile from where we were meeting. I could have taken the bus to get in, but it was a lovely crisp morning and I fancied the walk across the War Memorial Park. Let’s hope we never have to build more of these.

Incidentally, I use Waze as my sat-nav. It crowd-sources traffic flow from everyone using it and routes you around jams. It got me in and out of Leeds during the week by back roads that bypassed the traffic, so I like it a lot. Part of the A1 was closed northbound for my Coventry trip, but it routed me past it so I got home afterwards in time for the birthday party I was attending </advert>.

I had seen some of the pictures of the podcaster presenters, so I recognised Ade from Sunny 16 as soon as he arrived. He coped well with being accosted by what probably looked like a shambling old bloke with wild hair and a confused expression. Then the plan for the day developed – or rather, what would take the place of a plan. Half the people had spotted a coffee shop as they left the railway station and had stopped there to refresh. The group in the park at the meeting point gradually grew as others spotted the gaggle of odd-looking people with strange cameras and the obligatory shoulder bag. It sounds haphazard, but it wasn’t. There was actually a very good plan for the day and two guides with local knowledge. But the Law of Crowds says that the speed and intelligence of a group are inversely proportional to its number. You could say it’s like herding cats, but it’s harder. At least with cats you can use gaffer tape.

It was here that I discovered my goof de jour – the batteries had expired In my camera. I’d tested them before I left, but they vanished on the second shot. Luckily the camera was manual and luckier still I had brought a separate light meter. Even so, my exposures were going to be “variable”. I was shooting black and white, so I was going to have to develop it using semi-stand. If it had been colour print film I would just have made sure to err on the side of overexposure.

Anyway, enough of the geek-speak – let’s get to the important bit: the people. What a delightful bunch! The joy of chatting to whoever was closest as we wandered about (aimless and oblivious, to the despair of shoppers and drivers). The lack of pretentiousness and the general shared joy of a group of people with a common interest who are just glad to be together. I had been wary of organised photo-walks before because I was worried that I would be marched around the compulsory sights with a clique of technofiles. As it was I mostly chatted to a delightful chap called John who had just given up work, sold everything, and was about to cycle to Australia with his wife. Oh, and I may have taken a couple of pictures of stuff.

Coventry? Some nice bits, some rough bits. Some surprisingly old buildings amongst the modern brutalism. The remains of the cathedral. Quite poignant, given the invasion of Ukraine, was the plaque on the cathedral wall. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” it said. Yeah, right.

As you might expect, the group turned into a loose association, then a gaggle and then several gaggles. What would the collective noun be – a fractal of gaggles? We proceeded by Brownian motion, with groups splitting off to have lunch or drink beer. A small core of us followed our guide back to the starting and end point. Core? I’d call us a rump. Poor Ade then tried to find out where everyone was and to organise the next stage of the day.

The next stage was to go back to John’s house to sell or auction his photographic and darkroom gear to help his wife and daughter. This bit I sadly had to miss, as I was due back home at 5pm.

What a lovely day though, even though we were brought together for the saddest reason. I have changed my opinion of photo-walks. They are nothing to do with taking pictures and everything to do with meeting other people.

And the plan to stand develop the film? My Rodinal is at least two years old, but dabbing a bit on the cut-off film leader showed it was still active. The fix was exhausted though, but I had some fresh stock in the shed. And it worked. What could have been a difficult set of over and underexposed frames came out all usable, at the expense of a bit of grain. Hurrah!

Would I do it again? Yes. Have I got over my hero-worship? No. Will I bring spare batteries? Yes. Did I actually use the kit I brought with me? Yes, all of it.

Becoming arsed

To explain, there is an English expression meaning “I can’t be bothered”, which is to say “I can’t be arsed”. Just to avoid the confusions arising from a common language. This is about getting arsed again.

After two years of lockdown, isolation and working from home it can be difficult to even get interested in life again. Apparently this condition now has a name: languishing. I find myself flipping between sparky and dull, so I guess I’ve caught a bit of languish.

Part of it is that many of the activities I used to enjoy and take pictures of have closed down. I could still go for walks all through the lockdowns, as long as I stayed away from other people, but where’s the (photographic) fun in that? I did join a photo club, which meant that even if my active photography was restricted, I was still thinking about pictures and how to do things differently or better. This kept me cheerful and mostly sane. I also did a long exercise of scanning all my old colour slides. It’s something to do while vegetating through online meetings. I would really like to get out more though, to get over the slump of lockdown and to rekindle some enthusiasm.

Anyway, enough of me, let’s talk about you. Are you too wondering how to get some interest back or find that mojo? Well, the components of fun, according to Prof Laurie Santos, are playfulness, connection and flow. Playfulness means not taking the thing seriously: it’s not a competition. Connection means other people, so lonely treks in the woods are out. And flow means being absorbed in the moment. And it doesn’t even have to be about photography either. Why not do something daft but fun, for no other reason than you can have fun with some other people? Try learning something new and flow will come, as you concentrate on how to do it. If the activity is not photography, then it might create opportunities for pictures. At the very least it will stop you worrying about the price of film or whether you should upgrade your camera again.

My distraction was beer making. I’ve always pottered around in the shed making brews, but I took up with a local brewing group when I moved house recently. They are all far more experienced and skilled than me, but it has made me raise my game and study the science and methods behind the process. It’s also ridiculous fun to stand in a barn, freezing and wearing wooly hats and gloves, discussing the subtleties of the beers we are tasting. Imagine an Inuit party where everyone stood far enough apart you would think they must be family.

The other remedy is to take delight in the small and everyday. Ross Gay wrote a book about a year’s worth of noticing the delightful. We were out walking and noticed that the low-angled winter sun revealed that the field was covered in a complete layer of fine spiders’ webs that sparkled in the light. We also had a chat with some twitchers who had come to see a rare bird, of which there were around six sightings a year in the UK. They let us have a squint through their telescope. I can’t tell one bird from another, but it was a lovely gesture of friendliness.

So I guess the summary is to try something new if you can, especially if it involves other people, and to take delight in your surroundings and experiences. I may not be taking any more pictures, but I’m not anxious about it and the ones I do take mean more to me.

Sea & Sea Motor Marine II

I started out with one of these when I was first learning how to take pictures underwater. It served its purpose, as I quickly learned what I really needed (and sold it). So why did I buy another one? Because it was cheaper than a roll of film and came with a flashgun, so it was worth a punt to see if the flashgun could work with my Nikonos (it doesn’t). But it could make sense if you needed to take pictures in really bad conditions.

What you get is a big camera that is resistant to sand, mud and rain (and any sense of style). Unlike its smaller brother the MX-10 this camera has a zone-focusing lens and retains the basic light metering. The main restriction for land use is the slow fixed shutter speed of 1/100. If you buy the Motormarine II EX model you get range of speeds covering 1/15 to 1/125. No real gain and it points to how this camera was intended to be used: with flash. But if I was using this thing it would probably be in poor light and bad weather, so I would be using the built-in flash or the (huge) external one. The external flash is more sophisticated, as it meters off the film. If you were going to use this for flash photography in grim conditions you should definitely get the external flashgun with the camera. The internal flash has a guide number of 10 and turning it on sets the lens wide open to f3.5. So on a sunny day you are likely to overexpose the background by around four stops. The big external flash allows for some adjustment, so it is possible to juggle the aperture and distance for effect. But that’s really not what this camera is for. It works best underwater with the external flash, it works on the surface without flash, or it will survive horrid conditions on the surface. If I had to shoot on film in wind-blown sand or salt spray, this would be an ideal tool.

The camera runs off two AA cells and the external flash takes another four. The camera’s batteries power the wind-on, meter and the internal flash. It uses DX coding for film speed but only recognises 100 or 400 ISO. So far, pretty basic.

Aperture and distance are set on dials on the front of the camera, so the ergonomics are pretty poor. There is a built-in close-up or macro option of 0.5m, but framing could be a problem.

In use, and without the flash, you tend to set the distance and then look through the viewfinder while you twiddle the aperture dial until the red exposure light turns green. With the internal flash on you’re basically confined to 2-3m distance. You wouldn’t use the built-in flash underwater as it is close to the lens so will cause loads of backscatter. The external flash has a big extending arm and tilting head, so it can be aimed to give the best lighting.

The camera takes a range of wide-angle supplementary lenses made by Sea & Sea. They use a standard bayonet fitting and can be found quite cheap. The main reason for these is to bring back the narrowing of field of view you get underwater due to refraction, where a 35mm lens narrows to about the same angle of view as a 50mm lens. They can be fitted and removed underwater, but you tend to fit one and leave it to avoid dropping it. They also work on the surface so are useful if you can find them. Mine has a wide-angle adapter that gives me the equivalent of a 20mm lens. I’ve also got an underwater-use 16mm adapter. This is not as good as the legendary Nikonos 15mm underwater lens, but can at least be removed underwater to give you a narrower field of view if you need it. Coupled with the external flash the 16mm adapter actually works pretty well underwater. The depth of field is such that you really don’t need to fiddle with the focusing.

So what is this large lump of yellow plastic good for? It’s too much of a handful for scuba diving but is a cheap starter for something like snorkelling or other water sports. It works best with flash, either the built-in one for close work or the big external one. The zone focusing makes it a good candidate for a card rangefinder. I made one and laminated it, then attached it to the camera. For beach/ surf/ surface use I’d drop the external flash. For underwater use, the ideal setup would use the external flash and a wide or 16mm lens adapter.

The lens has square aperture blades. This is not a problem – Olympus did the same with their compacts. It can mean though that backscatter-lit silt underwater appears square. On the surface you’ll probably not notice it.

Why would you want one of these? If you wanted to shoot on film in the surf, on a beach or in foul weather and were happy using flash. But they are quite limited and outside of their narrow use-case will frustrate you. Indeed, most underwater film cameras were rapidly replaced with digital as the benefits of autofocus, autoexposure, a preview screen and after-shot review far outweigh any supposed quality difference. But, as a rufty-tufty camera it works well, and with the correct adapters and flash it can work well underwater.

So if you get down and dirty and you can find one of these at the right price, have a go.

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