Walking on the beaches

All lined-up for the first sea dive of the year, thanks to Covid, and then along comes a storm. The forecast is for an onshore wind and 5m waves. Not good when the shore is cliffs and the boat would be going up and down too much to get back on it.

But the accommodation is booked and I’ve got the weekend free. So off to the seaside it is.

So, what to take? Easy for a couple of things as I’m writing posts about them. Should be easier than the last time I weighed the virtues of a camera against clean socks.

The list is therefore:

  • Canon G9 as I don’t use it enough and need to learn it better.
  • Lomo LCA as it’s new and on the blog list.
  • An IR converted digital, for kicks.
  • The Balda, as it’s tiny.
  • Ricoh with 15mm lens, as it too is on the blog list

And a spare pair of socks. And because I’m in a car, there’s a strong temptation to add some sand-proof cameras just in case. (Aside – it’s not just Mike Gutterman who has to put his family on the roofrack when he goes to the beach).

This looks more like a blogging weekend than a photography one. Still, high tide is 12:55 on Saturday and with a strong onshore wind ought to be interesting, even if I don’t really like landscape photography.

The LC-A got the most use, mostly because it fit in the pocket of my coat and was quick to use. There wasn’t really enough blue sky between the clouds to make the most of the IR effect. The G9 was as competent as you would expect, with the added joy of being able to change the ISO to suit the conditions – 80 for shooting the sun reflecting off the sea, 400 for being battered by the wind on the clifftop path. I’m afraid the Ricoh and its heavy lens just came for the ride. The scenery just didn’t suit an ultra wide angle. The Balda? Just one shot. So this was my Deerhunter camera on the day.

Berwick upon Tweed

Interestingly, a charity shop in the town had an old Tokina 400/6.3 manual preset lens in M42 mount. They wanted £350 for it, and I thought they had misplaced the decimal point. I queried it and the chap told me they fetch £1,000 on eBay. I politely declined. Not least because I find myself using long lenses less and less. And because I’ve already got a Vivitar 400/5.6. Seriously though – £1,000? Mind you, there was another punter in the shop as I was leaving trying to bargain them down to £100. That’s more like the price they offer for on eBay so I do hope the shop can find a realistic price that still makes them money.

Berwick upon Tweed

How did it feel taking a bunch of cameras for a walk? Pretty good, actually. I’ve been locked-down at home for long enough to appreciate being out and away from other people. At the time of writing I’ve been working at home for 22 weeks, and I find it combines all of the work and none of the pleasure. The simple joy of my entire time being my own to control was a welcome break. And I got some pictures. What’s not to like?

Zoom zoom

Time was, that a zoom lens was what amateurs used. Real photographers use fixed lenses. A Real Photographer (RP) always had the right lens on the camera and a range of alternatives in their battered canvas shoulder bag. An RP could change a film under sniper fire and judge the right exposure by eye. And besides, all the magazines said that zooms were inferior. At the time they probably were, or perhaps the journalists had a heavy investment in fixed lenses and wished it so.

And then computers happened. Or rather, Moore’s Law and whatever the equivalent is in manufacturing. (Foolish boy! Moore’s law is about manufacturing.) We are very good at learning how to make things better. Cars don’t rust like they used to and getting to 100,000 miles is not worth writing to the papers about. We no longer have to take engines apart to de-coke them or regrind the valves. So apply cheaper and more powerful computers to optical design and clever manufacturing to lens grinding and glass-making and we built a better zoom.

So zooms started to challenge the quality of fixed lenses. Remember of course that this mythical quality was measured by shooting resolution charts and not by the results people got using them. I reckon that people using zooms have always been happy with the results, or they wouldn’t shoot zooms.

And then along came the zoom compact and it sold by the squillion. I remember a TV ad that showed people photographing a group, perhaps at a wedding. The people using ‘ordinary’ point-and-shoots were sliding closer and further to the group to frame their shots. The smug one with the advertised camera used the in-built zoom lens to go from group to single portrait without having to move. Is this the camera that caused obesity? Anyway, we all bought 35mm compacts with zooms and a built-in flash. Although I bet almost all of the pictures were taken at one of the extreme ends of the zoom range.

Hot on the heels of the film compact came the digital one, and these all had zooms as standard. Then came the digital SLR with its standard zoom out of the box. Zoom became the default. I was at an event recently that had an official event photographer capturing the speakers for posterity. He had a pair of cameras, both fitted with zooms. Why not, when you can avoid even having to change lenses? He was shooting in the usual ill-lit theatre environment using a 70-210 zoom and no flash. And the shutter was going click rather than cliiiiiiiiiiiiiiick. So given you can push the ISO to the moon, why not use a zoom to get the framing rather than a wider fixed lens to grab the light?

In fact, the only reason I can see for people using a fixed lens at the moment is to get a special effect or to gain a wide aperture. Give it a year or so and the f1.4 zoom will be in the shops and we need never change lenses again. Although I suppose there will still be sports photographers or weird old codgers who mutter into their beards and smell of fixer. Or Leica users.

Drumming
Sometimes you really need a wide aperture

I found an object of my youthful lust in a charity shop a few weeks back. A genuine Vivitar Series 1 70-210mm zoom. Filthy as hell, but £8. The joy of (some) old mechanical stuff though is that it was assembled by people, so it can be disassembled by people. You will know what I mean if you have ever tried to fix or replace a component in a smartphone. But the lens came apart in a logical order and cleaned up well. How well does it work? Not sure yet. I must say that I find myself using long lenses less often these days. I’m not a bird watcher and I don’t spectate at sport very often. So I find myself using lenses in the range covered by the zoom compacts of old: a bit wide to a bit long. My favourite zoom of all has the (35mm equivalent) range of 24-68mm and just lives on the camera. So yes, I probably didn’t need the Vivitar. But I can sit in a dark room with it, cackling and calling it precious. And that’s good too.

The serious question is that I am off on holiday next week. Do I take a bagful of fixed lenses or couple of zooms?

[Interlude]

So I took the Vivitar 70-210 and a Pentax 24-50mm. I took a couple of shots on the long zoom and none at all on the wide. Part of it was the conditions – I spent a lot of time walking on beaches or sand dunes. I’ve got a rufty-tufty fixed lens camera that is sand and water proof and that got most of the action. I had no problem putting it down onto wet sand to take some very low-level shots or of using it in a storm of blown sand. I think the zoom lenses would have got a bit crunchy or the camera would have seized.

So it set me off to thinking again. I’ve got some compact cameras with built-in zooms. I don’t even think about it when I’m using them – it’s a very convenient way to get the framing quickly, particularly as they will also do macro. I have a digital SLR with two zooms that cover the range from wide to long. I’ve also got a lifetime’s worth of old fixed lenses that I have bought or been given over the years. And I’ve got some cameras that have fixed lenses. So the thinking has been reflection on how I actually use these things.

Uluru
A Darth Vader memorial appears and you need to frame it? Time for a zoom.

On the digital stuff the zooms are autofocus and quick to zoom. So I just use them and don’t even think about it. The only problem with the film-camera zooms is their limited aperture, which can make focussing a bit iffy in poor light. The challenge to them though, is that I’m no longer a film-only photographer (but I am still a FUP duck). It used to be that if I wanted the benefits of carrying just the one lens, I had to fit something like a 35-70mm to my camera. I find that what has happened is that, if I want to use a zoom, I use a digital camera. The kinds of things I use a zoom for are the kinds of things that suit digital capture, with its low marginal cost, large capacity and opportunities to play around. And then the kinds of things I like using film for better suit the use of fixed lenses (or I can’t change the lens anyway). For film, part of the pleasure is the difficulty, or perhaps the right word is engagement.

Croc
Sometimes you can’t use your feet to zoom.

Until I started writing this and thinking about zooms, it had not occurred to me that I do this. So I wonder if I should flog all my film zooms on fleabay and settle down to being an old codger who smells of fixer? I could end up listening to the Classic Lenses Podcast.

Fuzzy duck

Or how to annoy just about everyone at the camera club.

I shouldn’t knock camera clubs. They can be fantastic places to learn. As a group you have the means to get interesting people to talk to you: you can give them a decent-sized audience and can afford to pay them, plus you can spread the costs amongst the members. I’ve seen some fantastic speakers and images that I would never otherwise have had the chance to. But what is it about club competitions? Verily is it written that comparison is the thief of joy.

I love looking at other people’s pictures, and seeing the different approaches and interpretations of a theme is an education. I believe that creativity thrives under constraint, so setting a theme or conditions triggers the whack-a-mole to escape the limits and pop-up elsewhere. But awarding points and prizes? What makes a photograph better? And what is it with people now that they have digital cameras? Was everyone so very concerned with sharpness and detail in days of yore?

Does anyone remember the photography year books? They were a curated set of images drawn from all over the world (or the bits that were free to contact the publisher). My pal and I used to borrow every one we could get from the library and critique every picture like old pros with camera-bag shoulder and dev-stained fingers. I’ve looked back at a 1980 copy I found in a charity shop. Whether it was the printing or the source material, some of the technical quality is rough. (There is also a huge deference to anything to do with the British royalty, which really stands out) But that’s not the point: I still get a thrill from seeing a different way of looking or presenting. So why the fascination with sharpness? I have an opinion that a photo needs to be sharp enough to see what the photographer intended but it is not the most important attribute.

Drinking coffee

Perhaps the interest in sharpness was a carry-over from the swap from film to digital. The early digital cameras had less resolution than film and prints had a strange flat, posterised sort of look. You could tell digital because it lacked detail or tonal variation. So perhaps it was the joy of seeing fine detail emerge as the technology improved that led the race for resolution. There was a push for pixels as we went from three to five to ten to whatever, and then there was the discussion about having the right type of pixels on the right size of sensor. But when the best you can say about a picture is that it’s sharp, I think the plot has been lost.

Digital cameras now routinely outperform 35mm film with huge resolution and dynamic range and the ability to pick whatever ISO you want for individual shots. And amusingly, there is now a growing interest in using classic lenses with lower resolution and more aberrations. I used to think bokeh was something you bought for Mother’s Day. Now there are people who are more interested in the background than the subject. How many pictures of flowers do we have to see with out of focus backgrounds, where the point of the picture is the nature of the blur?

Lilly
Hang on, isn’t the bokeh supposed to be behind the flower?

The mighty Hamish Gill wrote a very good article on his 35mmc site about bokeh. Basically, it’s either good or bad. Good means that it either contributes to the picture or is not distracting. Bad is when it’s ugly or distracting.

I must admit to never thinking about it beyond being able the throw the background out of focus to separate the subject or lose things I didn’t want to see. I think the market and reviews at the time were all about how many lines per millimetre a lens could resolve. I knew that some of my kit gave pretty shabby results if the lens was wide open, but I didn’t really have an alternative.

Then I started listening to the Classic Lenses podcast and learned a new four-letter word. Lenses I thought were crap were actually cult. Fuzzy was cool again. I wasn’t though: I admit to getting all my lenses together and arranging a blur-off in the garden. A head-sized foreground object with surface texture (a football; no family members were harmed in the making of this experiment) and a white object with linear detail in the background (a garden bench). And yes, I admit that the direct comparison was interesting. Some lenses give a sort of clumped look to the out of focus areas and some showed an odd effect in the closely-spaced white lines of the bench. A couple had a background so smooth it was like fog. And you can get the nicest portrait lens effect for peanuts using an old slide projector lens. So then I snap my fingers and I’m back in the room. In real life I am likely to remember only the main points of the comparison, and I could have guessed those without the test just based on my experience of using the things. It’s useful to have the confirmation though, all in one place.

The classic lens thing may have gone a bit far though when I see wide-angle lenses advertised as bokeh monsters. Really? Only if the monster ate your bokeh. And the whole thing about how many blades you have in your aperture? That’s something that only magicians’ assistants should worry about. Luckily I bought my bad lenses when they were just bad, so cheap. Who’s the silly cult now, then?

But back to the idea of sharpness. The Professional Photographers of America use 12 criteria in judging photographic prints. None of them is lens resolution. By some quirk of synchronicity I heard someone on a recent podcast saying that the most import three from the list of twelve were lighting, composition and impact. What, nobody is going to dock me points if my lens isn’t sharp enough? How many times though have I heard a judge at a club photo competition remark that a picture is very sharp or well exposed? It’s like praising a rally driver for changing gear.

Gorilla
Yes, the gorilla moved. So did my pants.

So a little devil appeared on my shoulder. I put pictures in that had motion blur or poor resolution because they were taken in the dark on dodgy film or a wonky lens. Or had extreme grain or contrast. It was very childish. It helped me get over competing and comparing, as I set out to have the worst pictures in the room, and let me concentrate instead on analysing what I liked about what I was seeing. And I’m happy for you if your camera has more pixels than mine and your lens can resolve atoms. This is why I love the Sunny 16 Cheap Shots Challenge – it’s less about “look at the coma on that” and more “that was a stroke of luck”. More power to them.

So, fuzzy duck? Ducky fuzz!