SHORT SCHRIFT

Short Schrift would be a sort of blog, except that I don't like blogs. I don't even like the word 'blog'. Think of it instead as a sort of column. The text (Schrift in German) of each is indeed short, under 200 words, and I aim to put up a new one every week. Because the webmaster is a wanderer, it won't be the same day each week, so the only thing you can do is keep checking. But if you miss one, you can find it here, last piece first.

20 September 2015

camera

An oft-voiced objection to any new photographic technology, when it is introduced, is that it makes it 'too easy' to take pictures. The leading examples in my lifetime have been autofocus; before that, auto-exposure; before that, through-lens metering. Going back before I was born, much the same was said about 35mm, roll-film and dry plates.

On the other hand, what might it mean to say that photography was 'too difficult'? Well, just look at the camera above. There are no focusing aids built in. You have to guess the distance or, with the handy rangefinder in the accessory shoe, measure the distance and then transfer the reading from the rangefinder wheel to the focusing mount. There's no meter: you have to guess, or use a crib sheet or a separate hand held meter. There's no parallax compensation: you have to learn what the finder will show at various distances. The lens is not interchangeable, and it's quite slow.

All of us can live without excessive automation, and many of us prefer cameras that are not overloaded with pointless features we never use, such as multi-mode auto-exposure. But surely there comes a point when we think, “No, I'd rather have this or that feature built in, thank you all the same.


22 August 2015

timer

How much does time matter? Well, obviously, a lot when you're developing film. But does digital photography save that much time as compared with silver halide?

An interesting question. A lot depends on what you want, and on how much you do yourself. If you're content with what your mobile 'phone captures, and show everyone the pictures on the miserable little screen on the front, then yes, it saves a vast amount of time. Whether anyone wants to see your pictures is another matter, but then, 'twas ever thus.

Suppose you're serious, though. You take pictures with a real camera; you take the film to a lab, or if they're digital, you download them to your computer; you look through them. Depending on where you live, it often takes about as much time to drop your film off at a lab, and then pick it up again, as it does to process it, so that's a zero-sum game. Downloading is probably quite a bit quicker. Scanning film is a LOT slower. But now we come to post-production...

Because you can do so much more on screen, and undo it, and re-do it, and because you don't have to spend money on expensive paper as you work towards the perfect print, it seems quite likely to me that a good digital print probably takes at least as long as a good silver halide print except perhaps with black and white, where you'll never get quite the same result anyway. In that sense, unless you're happy with a different (though not necessarily inferior) digital print, it takes forever.


25 October, 2014

watkins book

From time to time, I'm putting reviews of books (and magazines) old and new into Short Schrift. Here's one now:

The Watkins Manual of Exposure and Development. Alfred Watkins, The Watkins Meter Co., Hereford, fifth edition of 1911, about 160pp (not all numbered) 4.75 x 7.1 inches/122x175mm

If you were an amateur in 1911, this little soft-back told you pretty much all you needed to know about the technical side of photography, though you would have had to have quite a high tolerance for Mr. Watkins's relentless self-promotion. As well as the famous Watkins Bee Meter (including a Chronograph version, with built in Swiss stopwatch at 35/-) he also manufactured or sold developers, clocks, thermometers, developing tanks, a 'factorial calculator' (he invented the Watkins factor, the ration of development time to the appearance of the first image), wallets, exposure notes, speed cards (he was one of the first to apply serious speed tests to a wide variety of plates), and more, including, of course, the Watkins Manual, 1/- Nett.

It is however packed with useful information, much of which is still useful today. For example, the Snap Shot Beginners' Chapter (“For those beginners who have already decided to commence with a hand camera”) opens with, in capitals, A HAND-CAMERA IS A TOOL, NOT A MACHINE. A few lines later he adds, “The possession of the 'cutest camera' and the desire to snap everything, will not alter the stern fact that only a minor proportion of desirable subjects are well lighted enough to be snapped with success.”

As usual for the period, the half-tone reproductions are flat and grey, but there are quite a lot of rather good line illustrations, especially among the advertisements at the back. A curious feature is that many of the photographs are mounted 'sideways', so you have to turn the book to look at them, but presumably dear old Alfred reckoned that it was better to have a slightly bigger picture, and turn the book sideways, than not.

Overall, even though the vast majority is now of historical interest only, there is still plenty to learn and to reflect upon in this book, and it's well worth buying a copy if you can find one.


19 June 2014

camera, clarinet

At first sight, a camera and a clarinet have little in common. Change your frame of reference slightly, though, and suddenly, you realize: neither will do you much good unless you learn how to use them. The camera is vastly easier to learn to 'play' than the clarinet, but from an artistic point of view, learning to take snapshots with the camera is like learning to play scales on the clarinet - or perhaps, at best, like learning to play Chopsticks on the piano. You've learned how to control it, yes, but you're only using a fraction of its capabilities and you can't really say that you've mastered it.

How does a musician learn to play an instrument? Partly through a very great deal of practice, but also, through listening to others play. You need to compare your musicianship with others: you never really know how good (or bad) you are until you are brave enough to make that comparison.

By the same token, the photographer should go to as many exhibitions as possible, whether it's the local camera club or Arles. And, of course, practise, practise, practise.


02 May 2014

bessa, tape

Which would you rather have? A Voigtlander Bessa or a roll of aluminium roofing tape? Assuming your roof isn't leaking, the Bessa probably wins. But there's the first assumption: assuming your roof isn't leaking. Now let's make another assumption: that you have quite a lot of ancient cameras, some of which suffer from light leaks. Now, a single roll of aluminium roofing tape can repair a number of cameras: it's wonderfully tough, very flexible, and completely light-tight. I used it to light-proof the one plate holder that I use on my 100-year-old (or older) 12x15 inch Gandolfi.

Without that light-proofing, my Gandolfi is not actually usable. Arguably, in fact, it's not even a photographic camera, because I can't use it to take pictures. Suddenly, a 10€ roll of tape makes a rather valuable camera usable: certainly, a camera that is worth a very great deal more than the Bessa, even if I paid 100€ for the Bessa instead of 10€ (in fact, I think it was 25€).

Of course that's a false dichotomy: it's unlikely to be a question of the Bessa or the roofing tape. I can afford both. But which is actually worth more?


02 Feb 2014

chalais

From time to time, I'm putting reviews of books (and magazines) old and new into Short Schrift. Here's one now:

Chalais: le village aux sept hameaux. François-Xavier Seren, Meaux 1999, Imprimerie André Pouyé, 132 pp, 216 x 200 mm. 8.3 x 7.9 inches

The title means, “Chalais: the village of seven hamlets”. It's a lovely little book, printed with the assistance of Credit Agricole de la Touraine et du Poitou, and it contains lots of good black and white photographs (and a few indifferent or even bad ones) of Chalais and its people, and it illustrates three very important points for anyone wanting to do anything similar.

First of all, the reproduction quality is mostly rotten: flat and muddy. It does no justice whatsoever to the possibilities of black and white, with maximum blacks in some pictures falling as low as densities of 1.17. When you consider that a good black and white print can reach 2.17, and that density is a logarithmic scale, this means that the 'blacks' on the printed pages are reflecting a hundred times as much light as on a print, and that the grey scale is correspondingly reduced: it is compressed into a range of less than 4 stops, 16:1, where a good print can spread the same tonal range (pure white to maximum black) across more than 7 stops (more than 128:1).

Second, it can be a great idea to try to try to get the support of local businesses, especially banks who by their nature (a) are anonymous and often poorly regarded and (b) have lots of money.

Third, there's no substitute for hard work. M. Seren knew his subjects; got to know them; gained their trust; and photographed them in all sorts of circumstances, at work, at home, at celebrations... It's sad that the book didn't do more justice to this little-known Leica-wielding photographer. But it's still worth getting hold of, in the unlikely event that you can find a copy.


01 Dec 2013

film tin

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." Everyone knows about the "traveller, from an antique land, who said, 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone there stand'..." and about the way in which the once-mighty empire of Ozymandias had completely been forgotten. They tend to forget that exactly the same thing happens, a lot faster, in the modern world. Where are Agfa and Polaroid? For that matter, what is Kodak's future?

The lamentable truth, all too often, is that the names survive, licensed to often inferior products: literally, trading on a name. Sadder still, Gevaert (which was of course swallowed up by Agfa) is still coating very good film, without receiving any real credit and without most people even being aware of its existence.

This is what happens when money men are allowed to run businesses. They pretend they understand business. They don't. They don't even understand money. All they understand is short term gains. For themselves. For shareholders? Don't make me laugh. Why should they care about shareholders, even in the medium term, when they can line their own pockets, and get out when the going is good?


28 Oct 2013

camera

Why do so many photographers such a have a weakness for taking substantially worthless old cameras, and then modifying them to make cameras that are still substantially worthless, but different?

There's only one answer, I suspect. Because we can. I was actually given this Lubitel (or Lyubitel) 166B, and because I already had an older one, I grafted a Polaroid back on to it by removing the back door; sanding the back flat; and sticking a Polaroid back from an instrument recording camera onto it with Araldite (epoxy). Thus I created what may be the world's only Lyubiloid.

Why did I use the newer one and save the older one for 'real' film? Again, because I could. Once you are bitten by the bug that makes you do silly things with old cameras, you'll generally modify the ones you value least, or that are least interesting; as in, for example, a more modern and readily available Lubitel as against the one with the spring-loaded trapdoor on the side to hold two filters.

And why? Well, once again: because we can.


21 June 2013

deckle edge

Look closely at the picture above, and at the trimmer. It's a Johnson's deckle-edge trimmer, which gives you that 'chewed edge' look that you probably last saw in your grandparents' albums from the 1950s. Deckle edging became fashionable in the late 19th century in order to replicate, mechanically, the torn edge that was an inevitable consequence of buying pre-coated paper in large, rolled-up sheets and then tearing it against a straight-edge to provide the sizes you actually needed. It was a symbol of 'real' (artisanal, hand-done) photography, as against mass-produced 'machine made' prints.

What is it now? Pure nostalgia? Possibly. Or possibly not. In a way, it is something that photography has always been: a constant state of conflict between the past, the present (forever sliding into the past) and the future (when we will look back on the pictures). This picture is borderless, so it doesn't really work as deckle-edge. But print it small, with a big border, and it's another picture. Then desaturate it, or change it to black and white... With each change, ask yourself how your reaction to the picture changes. Oh: and if you can find a deckle-edge trimmer, prepare to be surprised at how much they cost.


26 May 2013

camera in the fields

From time to time, I'm putting reviews of books (and magazines) old and new into Short Schrift. Here's one now:

"The Camera in the Fields, A Practical Guide to Nature Photography", F.C. Snell, T. Fisher Unwin, London 1905: 256pp, 5x 7.2 inches, 185 x 127 mm inches

Old photography books are always a bit disconcerting, consisting as they do of a great deal more text than pictures: there are probably around 90 of the latter, often well under full-page size, and the reproduction quality is often a bit muddy; as you might expect, in a book published over a century ago.

Reading it, three things spring to mind. The first is the casualness with which the author captures what would now be endangered species (but which either weren't endangered or weren't recognized as such then), never mind 'common' creatures (including fledgeling birds). The second is that surprisingly many of the pictures are sharp, detailed and very attractively composed. This is all the more remarkable when you consider the third point, which is that he appears to have shot mostly on quarter-plate (3¼ x 4¼ inches, 83 x 108mm) using 'ordinary' plates (blue sensitive only; ortho was a novelty, and the dyes for pan sensitization were announced the year the book was printed) at ISO speed equivalents which are unbelievably low to modern eyes.

At the end, you come away with some regret and nostalgia for a countryside that has now substantially vanished, and an admiration for anyone who could get pictures as good as he did – or indeed at all – with the equipment available to him. You also have a new respect for colour photography: grey moths, lizards, frogs and even hedgehogs look a bit odd to a modern colour-habituated eye.

02 May 2013

fermentation

Many photographers reckon that they have to 'live with' a picture for a while before they can judge it properly. Something that looks good when it first comes out of the wash-bath, or rolls off the ink-jet printer, may prove to lack staying power. Equally, there are pictures which we like well enough when we first see them, but about which we cannot get excited. After living with them for a few days or even weeks, however, we begin to see more and more in them; they may even join the ranks of our favourites.

Another version of the same thing, which I prefer, is 'fermentation'. It's like 'living with' the picture, but it doesn't involve looking at it every day. You leave it in a box, and look at it occasionally. When you do, you can have one of three reactions. The first is that your feelings about it haven't changed much; the second is that you don't like it as well; and the third is that you like it more. For me, the advantage of the 'fermentation' system is that you don't have familiarity to blunt your appreciation. Either way, you may care to try re-appraising pictures after you have taken them. My own feeling is that few of us are good enough to eschew anything that might help us to become better photographers.


17 Mar 2013

simon book

The magic box or treasure chest is a staple of fairy stories, perpetually replenished with treasure. It overflows with doubloons, pieces of eight, louis d'or, and perhaps, if it's a late model with all the upgrades, with sovereigns and maybe even Krugerrand.

But what is a camera, if not a magic box or treasure chest? It is perpetually replenished with pictures. Well, all right, you have to put film in it: in this one, anyway, though others can be fitted with a perpetually replenishable SD card. But after that, all you have to do is point it in the right direction; make a few simple adjustments (more with this one than with a point-and-shoot, admittedly); and press the button.

And, in the process, you do not just make it overflow with pictures. You also exercise your brain, your heart and your soul; which puts it, in many ways, rather ahead of the magic treasure chest.


02 Mar 2013

simon book

From time to time, I'm putting reviews of books (and magazines) old and new into Short Schrift. Here's one now:

Miniature Photography, From one Amateur to Another, Richard L. Simon, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1937: 168 pp, 5.4 x 7.9 inches, 196 x 136 mm.

When this book was published in 1937, 'miniature' photography (mostly 35mm, but rollfilm was commonly included under the same heading) was in much the same situation as digital photography in the early 21st century. There were still plenty who saw no reason to give up their beloved quarter-plates, 5x4s and larger, but there were also plenty who wanted to try this new-fangled stuff and wanted a non-threatening introduction to the subject.

As the title suggests, this takes 'non-threatening' to the limit: it's downright folksy. Why do the lens openings read '6.3' or 3.5' or '9' instead of 1, 2, 3, 4 or another series of numbers?" Or "There are six silver gadgets on and around the top of the Leica" 'gadgets' such as the wind-on, shutter release, shutter speed dials... but no mention of the eyesight correction 'gadget' on the viewfinder window. Or how about a chapter entitled "Ham and Eggs. Both have to be good." This somewhat laboured analogy likens the processing to eggs and the camera to the ham. There are those, too, who would dispute his assertion that "Essentially the Leica of today is the same as the 1924 model." Well, apart from the interchangeable lenses and the slow speeds and the coupled rangefinder...

He wrote the book when he'd only been using his Leica for a couple of years (he bought the camera in July 1934), and he comes across as exactly what he says: an amateur. Despite its manifold and manifest shortcomings, it is an amusing light read, and a worth-while insight into what photography was like three quarters of a century ago, when Kodachrome was brand new ("I do not know its use at firsthand [sic]"). The pictures are muddy and many are mediocre, but there are quite a few of them, and Mr. Simon is refreshingly honest in his admissions of failure "“ though it is impossible not to suspect that if he had not been quite so breezy about the whole thing, he might have got better, faster.

06 Feb 2013

zeiss ikon

One of the worst insults among amateur photographers is to call someone a 'fondler'. It implies that they buy expensive gear just to fondle it, rather than to take pictures with it. But what is wrong with buying expensive new gear, just to fondle it? Most complaints about 'fondling' centre upon the idea that 'fondlers' are somehow depriving 'real photographers' of the chance to use the gear. This is, of course, nonsense. Even ignoring how many 'real photographers' are also totally incompetent photographers, who might be better liked if they restricted themselves to fondling and didn't inflict their rotten pictures on everyone else, the truth is that the 'fondlers' are helping to keep the manufacturers in business; often unlike the 'real photographers' who buy second-hand from the 'fondlers' they affect to despise.

And, of course, the 'fondling' insult neglects such classics as the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super illustrated. Today, these are much better as cameras to fondle than as picture taking machines. Sure, they work. But am I really depriving an earnest photographer of the opportunity to take pictures? I seriously doubt it.


ammo box

14 Jan 2013

They say that guns don't kill people: people kill people. And of course they're right. But why and how do people kill people? How can we discourage them? Perhaps equally importantly, what encourages them?

A very good way to encourage and help them is to start wars and provide them with heavy artillery. Especially heavy artillery loaded with high explosive shells, as were originally contained in this box, which was serving as a step into what is now my studio when I bought my house.

A good way to discourage them, though, is to show them that most people – people we might be tempted to kill – are actually very like us. Oh, to be sure, there are common criminals and mass murderers and rapists and all kinds of other people who are not, I suspect, too much like most of the people who are reading these words. But most people really are quite like us, desiring happiness and the causes of happiness, and wanting peaceful lives. A good way to demonstrate this is to look at pictures of how others live: their weddings, their festivals, their houses, their towns. And what's the best way of doing this? Well, can you think of a better weapon (or anti-weapon) than a camera?


willy ronis book

10 Dec 2012

From time to time, I'm putting reviews of books (and magazines) old and new into Short Schrift. Here's one now:

Derriere l'objectif de Willy Ronis, Photos et propos, Hoëbecke, 2010: 160pp 7.7 x 9.9 inches, 216 x 195mm

The title probably translates best as 'Behind the lens with Willy Ronis'. Alongside Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau he was one of the all-time greats of humanist 35mm reportage, and the staggering thing about this book is that it's a collection of great black and white pictures with an account, for each one, of how and when (and generally why) it was taken. It's amazingly down-to-earth, with stories of how he had to wait for a particular shot; of how he took two or three shots and only one of them worked; of moments of pure luck; of how he had to climb up to get a better viewpoint... Better still, in many (not all) cases there are contact sheets, or the second-best picture that he didn't use, giving still more of an an insight into both shooting and then choosing the pictures.

He's also very down to earth about equipment. Until 1980, he used mostly French rangefinder Focas (though his famous Provençal Nude was shot with a Rollei in 1949) but after that he mostly used Pentax SLRs with two zooms, 28-50mm and 75-150mm. So much for Leica and Nikon! So far, this book does not appear to have been translated into English, but if you can muster any French at all, it's well worth buying.

There are however a couple of cavils. The publication date appears as 2001 on the title page, and the cover 'designer' who reproduced the square format images of Provençale Nude (page 96) as 645 images on 'film' numbered 23... 24... 25... clearly knew little or nothing about photography and had little respect for it. The publishers should not have allowed this to happen: where was the editor?


camera and chain

10 Dec 2012

Moth and rust doth corrupt: thus the Gospel According to St. Matthew, 6:19, as he exhorts us not to lay up treasures upon earth. With old mechanical cameras “ 'treasures upon earth' if ever there were such things “ another thing which doth corrupt is lack of use: above all, gummed-up shutters.

Exactly why this should happen, I've never been sure, though no doubt a professional tribologist could explain it to me. My suspicion is that exercise simply stirs up the lubricants, and keeps them slippery. This would be consistent with the remarkable truth that you can often restore a gummed-up shutter through exercise. The fastest speeds seldom gum up (though they may run slow), and by repeatedly winding and firing at ever lower speeds, you can usually restore even the slow speeds to usability, if not perfect accuracy. In fact, paradoxically, the slow speeds may then become more accurate than the faster ones, as the absolute delay caused by stickiness becomes a higher and higher percentage of the time the shutter is supposed to be open.

But the best idea, if you remember, is just to wind and fire the camera a few times, a few times a year, even if you don't put any film through it. If you remember...


insruction book

27 Aug 2012

One of the profoundest pieces of wisdom that I have encountered in recent years is that you should never trust a product that weighs less than its instruction book. Indeed, I increasingly suspect that you should not wholly trust any product that needs an instruction book at all, as this suggests that it is not designed properly. If it were, it would be obvious how to use it. This is especially true of cameras. I may be carrying the idea too far, but equally, I am not being entirely unfair. At the worst, you should need to read the instruction book once when you buy the product, and then, if it is particularly complicated, you may need to refer to it again when you need to do something you don't normally do. Otherwise, you really shouldn't have to spend as much time reading the instruction book as you do on using the product.

And yet, what is the advice that is ever and aye repeated in internet forums aimed at novice photographers? Read the instruction book again and again. No, no, a thousand times no. This is an appalling substitute for actually knowing what you are doing, and practising doing it. If you have to use 14 different modes as crutches for your own lack of knowledge and creativity, there's something wrong with you and something wrong with the camera. You are, in modern jargon, co-dependent. Either leave it on auto, and abdicate responsibility, or learn how to take control. The only way to learn how to take control is by taking pictures, not by reading the instruction book.


corned beef tin

18 Aug 2012

Think back to things you enjoyed in your childhood. Not the really great stuff: just things that you look back on with fondness and mild nostalgia. For example, I liked Lucozade, arguably the world's first 'sports drink', though my parents dismissed it as sickly sweet with a peculiar (and unpleasant) flavour. By my late 'teens I could see their point of view. This was of course long before it was rebranded and made available in numerous flavours, but given that it still contains something around 15% sugar, weight for weight, I still find it pretty sickly. Apparently, too, it's rather short on the electrolytes that characterize other sports drinks, but as I don't like the taste of any of them, I don't really care.

Although I couldn't find a bottle of Lucozade for this, I could find a can of corned beef. Admittedly it wasn't Fray Bentos, which I suspect was better than the spectacularly branded French version illustrated, but basically, the only way I could eat it was with indecent amounts of fiery Coleman's mustard. I've changed, and maybe it's changed too.

Now think of the cameras you coveted when you were younger. Do you really still want them? Maybe you do. I still love Leicas, but equally, maybe you've changed, and maybe so has photography.


sarah bernhardt

16 Jul 2012

From time to time, I'm putting reviews of books (and magazines) old and new into Short Schrift. Here's one now:

The Theatre, New Series, Vols. I and II, 1878 and 1879, London, Wyman and Sons., 458 pp and 410 pp, 165 x 240mm, 6.2 x 9.2 inches

No, they are not ostensibly photographic books, but each monthly magazine, price one shilling (of which these a 6-month bound copies), contained TWO PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTRAITS (I borrow the typography from their own advertisement), and the bound volumes therefore contain a dozen each.

The Woodburytype was a unique process, patented in 1866. It was used commercially from about 1870 to 1900: the image was cast in pigmented gelatine. The original print was bichromate-tanned gelatine, which was used to make a lead mould in a hydraulic press operating at some 5000 lb/sq. in. The mould was then used to cast images on which the thickness of the gelatine was relied upon to provide the variations in tone. The result was arguably the finest photomechanical reproduction process of all time. It was slow, expensive and difficult to use – each illustration was 'tipped in' (added separately, glued to a sheet of paper) – but it was utterly gorgeous. If you want to see 'star quality', more than 130 years later, just look at the pictures of Sarah Bernhardt (reproduced here, rather than a cover) or Ellen Terry – quite apart from the fact that they are wonderful photographs, albeit quite small, typically 75-90 x 115mm.

I include this review simply to point out that if you want to see good photography, there are plenty of alternatives to photography books and magazines. In the early 1970s I lived with a girl who took Penthouse every month, while I took Vogue. The newsagent would normally hand us the wrong magazines when we went in to collect them...


way into india

2 Jul 2012

A Way into India. Raghubir Singh, Phaidon 2002: 124pp 7.75 x 11 inches, 280 x 197mm

Anyone who has ever been to India, or who has ever wanted to go to India, really ought to look at this book. There's very little text: it's mostly just pictures, all landscape format, all colour, very well presented, all featuring the Hindustan Ambassador, the iconic car of India. Essentially a 1948 Morris Oxford, it has been built in India since the late 1950s, and it's still in production.

This is not, however, a book for petrol-heads. The Ambassador is just taken for granted as ubiquitous, an essential part of India. Fairly seldom is the whole car seen: it is a frame, a prop, a fragment in the corner; the subject is reflected in its window. It is in the background of a chaotic street scene; it creeps along beside someone pushing a hand-cart; it is parked next to an elephant; the boot is full of chickens; it is striped with shadows, painted as a taxi...

As the late Raghubir Singh himself said in the introduction, “It is the People's Car, the Politician's Car, India's Rolls Royce and stretch limousine all rolled into one solid, yet shaky entity . . . a substantial part of the unknown town and a small part of the unacknowledged village . . . It is an organic part of bird shit and cow dung coated India . . . a solid part of India that moves on, even as it falls apart, or lags behind.

Purely photographically, the pictures rely on very precise framing, by the look of it with a 35mm SLR: with the parallax of a rangefinder, much of the precision would be lost. The colours are vivid, saturated, very Indian. I bought it as soon as I saw that it had been published, and I have never regretted it. I look at it only once or twice a year, but every time I do, I smile, or sometimes even laugh out load.


wars of religion

16 Jun 2012

Photography surprisingly often invokes extremist passions. Listen to a devotee of film denigrating digital as soulless and gimmick-laden. Then listen to an advocate of digital dismissing film users as mindless reactionaries standing in the way of progress. The former sounds like an old-fashioned hell-fire-and-damnation preacher: the latter, like an equally old-fashioned Stalinist commissar. One would burn his opponents at the stake: the other would send them to the gulag. Why?

Because they are unhappy, and frightened, and narrow-minded, and above all, unimaginative. This is the normal state for extremists, though most fail to recognize it. They'll swear they're happy in their way. They just can't understand how others can be happy in different ways. Worse, they want to force everyone to be happy in the way that they think they are. Forcing anyone to do anything is seldom a recipe for happiness; and attacking the things that do make them happy, provided those things are harmless, must surely be the nastiest of petty sins.


cameras

21 May 2012

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet. In other words, faced with two opinions, one from someone who does something for a living and is intimately involved with it, and the other from someone who has A Bright Idea (and possibly only one), it's generally safer to believe the former.

On the other hand, the etymology of 'expert' is reputedly from 'ex', meaning a has-been, and 'spurt', meaning a drip under pressure, so it is always as well to avoid any 'expert' (usually self-appointed) whose vocabulary doesn't include the words, "I could be wrong."

For example, I believed -- and even argued in print -- that digital sensors would stop at around 6 megapixels, because bigger sensors would cost too much to make and the demand wouldn't be there: people who actually cared about quality would stick with film.

Of course I was completely wrong, and now, it's easy enough to see why. The time and money that digital photography saves in a commercial environment (including news photography) is spectacular, and as for the 'advanced amateur', there have always been those who have been more interested in the latest and shiniest camera than in actually taking pictures.

This is, however, the nature of futurology. Most things are easy to explain afterwards. Explaining them beforehand is the difficult bit.


knockabout camera

6 May 2012

Most people think about it sooner or later: an old 'knockabout' film camera that they can leave in the car without worrying about too much. But it's more complicated than it looks.

First, you want a good quality camera that can resist a bit of banging around. This precludes a lot of cheap cameras. Even if they don't stop working altogether, they can get misaligned, mist up, gum up or otherwise misbehave. Why carry a camera that takes bad pictures?

Second, you don't want it in excessively good condition. If it's too pretty, it's hard to give it the kind of offhand treatment that 'knockabout' implies.

Third, and for obvious reasons, it should be battery independent, or at most, rely on batteries only for the meter. By all means change the batteries once a year, on your birthday, if you're that sort of person. I'd rather guess the exposure.

Fourth, there's the problem of films going off, especially if they're overheated, so it makes sense to store the camera in the coolest part of the car and to shoot black and white, or, with colour, to process the films reasonably often, especially in summer: once a month, say, whether they are finished or not.

All of which explains why I find it a better idea to carry my 'real' camera(s) with me, rather than rely on a 'knockabout' camera which, to be honest, I never use.


waffen ss ring

16 Apr 2012

The devil, according to the old proverb, finds work for idle hands. But he finds work for busy hands too. And the trouble is, busy hands can often do the devil's work a lot more efficiency. Never mind the atrocities of the Waffen SS, Viking Division: most of us are not too keen on even such minor transgressions as taking and distributing pornographic pictures of consenting adults. Both require a high degree of organization, diligence and single-mindedness.

Whereas (let's be honest) most of us take our photography pretty idly, and on a very individual basis. A parallel is often drawn with fishing: as long as you enjoy yourself, it doesn't much matter whether you get any fish (or pictures). So let's hear it for idleness.

For those who are interested, the ring belonged to my late brother in law, Dr. Boyd Collins. During World War Two, he worked in military intelligence in the United States. This is why he was the only person I have ever met who belonged simultaneously to both the Nazi party and the communist party. Once, when a raid on the opposition headquarters was arranged, he had to feign illness in order to get out of visiting the rival party in order to beat himself up.


retina

4 Apr.2012

There is a pleasure in using -- maybe even just in owning -- well-made, intricate machinery: Feinmechanik. For many, there is even more pleasure in Feinmechanik that is not battery dependent. If there weren't, mechanical watches would have died out by now.

One of the finest examples of Feinmechanik, of course, is mechanical cameras. Many people immediately think of Leicas, but I'm at least as great a fan of leaf shutters, especially Compurs, most of which seem to work half-way to forever. A camera such as the little Retina IIa illustrated above is a jewel of precision engineering.

But yet, but yet: Like anything mechanical, the Retina requires occasional repair -- this one does -- and the cost of repair (by a Feinmechaniker) is often more than the camera is "worth": that is, more than you could sell it for right now.

What, though, does "worth" mean in this context? In 100 years, that little Retina will still be reparable, and assuming that film is still available (as I believe it will be), it will be "worth" far more than it is today. Even if you don't want to repair it now, at least put it in the attic for some future generation to find. Meanwhile, I'm going to get mine repaired just for the pleasure of using it. For the price of an evening at the cinema, I'll (once more) have a piece of battery-independent Feinmechanik.


camera

24 Feb. 2012

In the old Soviet Union, there was a saying: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." Hardly anyone people delivered their best work, because there wasn't much incentive: both pay and promotion were a lot more dependent on politics than on ability or diligence.

Among the products of this ramshackle empire were, of course, many cameras: Zeniths, Zorkiis, Kievs, Horizonts and more. Most were inclined to be a bit agricultural, and "quality control" was not a phrase that had a lot of meaning. If you got a good one, it was often surprisingly good, but a bad one could be equally surprisingly bad. This was even more true of the lenses, which were mostly copies of 1930s Zeiss designs. Either way, in the 1960s and 1970s Soviet kit was cheap fun, and by the 1980s, it was very cheap fun.

And yet, nowadays, many seem to have forgotten all about the indifferent quality control and low prices. Suggest that these cameras and lenses aren't very good, and they'll tell you that this is only because they are now decades old and have never been serviced. Well, no. They were never good to begin with. Sure, they can give you charming results; but direct comparisons with Leicas, such as some make, are simply a bad joke.


old films

18 Feb. 2012

There's an obvious spectrum between believing blindly in progress, and believing with equally blind certainty that the old ways (and the old things) are automatically best. Most of us tend towards one end of the spectrum or the other: for my part, I tend towards the traditionalist or 'old fogey' end.

It's always as well, though, to re-examine our prejudices periodically, and to see if we might not be wrong. For example, a lot of people bemoan the lack of choice in today's film market. Agfa, Konica and Polaroid are only the latest to go: what of Marion, Wellington, Photo-Hall or Illingworth? Wasn't it better in the Good Old Days, when we had plenty of choice?

Well, it depends on what you mean by 'better'. The Barnet High Speed Press Plates in the picture above were H & D 1500. That's about ISO 48. The Wellington Ortho Process plates were H & D 100: ISO 3 or thereabouts. And the Kingsway roll film was for just three exposures: a minimal advantage over three single plate holders.

Yes, competition is good, as long as the small companies can make products that are as good as those made by the big ones. Most of them couldn't. So we may not have as many films available to us today, but they are probably the best there have ever been.


fig and camera

10 Feb 2012

Unlike (say) cherries, figs ripen over quite a long period, so that for many weeks, on the same tree, there will be ripe figs, overripe figs, and unripe figs. When you're picking them off the tree to eat on the spot, especially towards the end of the season, it's not unusual to get a good one; then a couple of indifferent ones; and then another good one. It would make sense to stop there, while you're ahead, but the last good one always tempts you to try for another good one. Rather like taking pictures, really. Do we put our cameras away after taking one good picture? No, and this makes eminent sense.

Puzzlingly, through, some people tend to treat their cameras the same way, except that they don't seem to realize when they've got a good one. Still more puzzlingly, they'll buy a camera; sell it because they want something else; then buy another example of the camera they had in the first place, because the camera they replaced it with is not as good as the one they started out with. Why? Isn't it a better idea to spend your time on taking pictures (or picking figs) than on trying out new cameras?


camera

10 Feb 2012

Why does propaganda have a bad name? I can think of only two reasons. If you're not very good at it, you want to pooh-pooh those who are. Or it's, well, propaganda. We are the good guys: we tell the truth. The other side tells wicked lies and propaganda.

In the 1980s, I did a book of propaganda for the Tibetan Government in Exile: Hidden Tibet, Element Books, 1988. It's to counter Chinese lies. They love to cite historical precedents for Tibet, but they are a bit selective about them. Go back far enough, and there was a time when the Chinese paid tribute to Tibet. And Tibet issued its own coinage, banknotes, stamps, etc., for decades before the Chinese invasion in the early 1950s. That looks like independence to me.

Although I hesitate to mention myself in the same breath as Gerda Taro, Robert Capa, Chim and Henri Cartier-Bresson, they were enthusiastic propagandists too, for the Republican (i.e. legitimate) government during the Spanish Civil War. For that matter, Ansel Adams was a propagandist for the Sierra Club.

So instead of treating propaganda as a dirty word, turn it around, and ask yourself why you aren't producing propaganda for a cause you believe in.


camera

27 Jan 2012

The space probe Voyager 1 was launched in 1977. It is now more than 10 billion miles from Earth. Last time I heard, it was still broadcasting data from the edge of the solar system.

This is a poke in the eye for those who airily dismiss any piece of electronic wizardry as "obsolete" or worse still "worthless" once it is more than a few years (or a few months) old.

It would almost certainly be possible to design something a good deal cleverer today, though getting it built to the same standard might be more problematic, and the funding would be even more difficult. Besides, if you launched it tomorrow, it would still take decades to get to where Voyager 1 is today. And so, young NASA scientists are still using a satellite that was old when they applied to university. It's still doing what it was designed to do, and doing it very well.

One day, no doubt, it will either fail or go beyond the range of our ability to detect its signals. But right now, it works. If something does its job, then it does its job, much as (say) an 18-megapixel camera goes on delivering adequate quality for an A3 magazine spread. It doesn't stop working just because something newer is theoretically available. Unlike the brains of those who are besotted with (for example) the latest iPhone, computer, or, yes, digital camera.


camera

14 Jan 2012

We all live in our individual pasts. Think of foods from your childhood. As an adult, for example, you may have little time for cakes; but because your grandmother made brandy-snaps for you as a treat, they are forever associated with such positive memories that you may enjoy them disproportionately to this day. Likewise, other things may be blighted by negative associations: a friend hated plain wood floors, which he associated with his (particularly unpleasant) boarding school.

With this in mind, think of a camera you've 'always wanted' but never bought. Now ask yourself who it is that wants it. Is it you today, or are you just keeping alive an isolated memory, formed by the 'you' of many (or even a few) years ago? Is it not possible that you already have something better than what you 'always wanted'? Or that what you 'always wanted' has been supplanted by something even better, so you would do better to transfer your affections? Or that your actual needs, desires and circumstances have changed, and that the only reason you still 'want' the camera at all is that you haven't actually bothered to think about the meaning of 'want' since you fixed the desire in your mind?

And if you still do want it, and you can afford it, why haven't you bought it already? Perhaps now is the time. No-one lives forever.


knife

6 Jan 2012

The Swiss Army knife is such an icon of general usefulness that it is often used as a metaphor. Right now, many people would call the DSLR the Swiss Army knife of cameras.

But the truth is that the Swiss Army Knife is often second best. If you're cutting vegetables, a big kitchen knife is better. For cutting a large sheet of paper, a proper pair of scissors or a rolling cutter will be quicker and easier and give you a straighter edge. And if you need a hammer, it's even less use than a Nikon F.

Whenever you can, therefore, it's better to use the right tool than the Swiss Army knife. I know that overall, my Leicas are a lot less versatile than my SLRs: they don't focus as close, and they don't take such long lenses. I also know that there are times when my Linhof 4x5 is more versatile than either. Above all, I know that for the vast majority of the sort of pictures I want to take when I am out of the house, my Leicas are the best tool. So I use the best tool for the job, not the one that is theoretically most versatile.


lens

7 Dec 2011

The lens in the picture above is a Summitar, Leica's standard 50/2 from 1939 to 1953: a late one, because it's coated. It's about as bad as a lens can get, unless you clean it with a scouring pad or possibly a hammer and chisel. The scratches, chips and coating marks are bad enough, before you get to the balsam separation (look at the 'flower' on the top left, at the edge), but I've never seen anything like those apparently internal cracks: one straight across (clearer on the left), and another at right angles.

And yet, with a good lens hood, it takes remarkably good pictures: a little low in contrast, but hey, it's around 60 years old. It's not the first lens I've encountered where this is true. I was once given a 24/2,8 Nikkor which looked as if it had been shaken in a bag of nuts and bolts, without either front or rear caps. But it still worked.

The real joke is that for the right kind of picture, in the right hands, a career could be built around this lens. There's a lot that it can't do; but for what it can do, you'd be hard put to get the same look any other way.


pistol

21 Nov 2011

Which is more dangerous? It depends on who is pointing it; and at whom; and why. The revolver, after all, can kill someone. Often, though, this is not its primary purpose. It can also be used to persuade; to threaten; to intimidate: in short, to ensure that the one who is holding the gun can impose his will on whoever is staring down its muzzle.

The camera, on the other hand, can bring down an entire regime. To be sure, like the gun, it will have to be reloaded, and, like the gun, a dozen cameras, or a hundred, or a thousand, are likely to be more effective than one.

This explains why, although the first thing authoritarian governments usually ban is guns, they are fundamentally even more afraid of cameras. The Supreme Leader, or Fuehrer, or President-for-Life, is surrounded by bodyguards. He is quite difficult to shoot with a gun, though he may be perfectly happy to be shot with a camera. But his secret policemen, his torturers, his thugs, his Youth Wing: often, in the long run, you will do better to shoot them with the camera. Their leader understands all too well that this could put a noose around his own neck. So he, personally, is more afraid of cameras than of guns.


pocket camera

12 Nov 2011

People with no sense of history are inclined to sneer at the concept of ‘pocket cameras’ from most of the first half of the 20th century. “You’d need really big pockets,” they say.

Well, yes. Actually, many people did have much bigger pockets in those days, especially in their overcoats. The very concept of an ‘overcoat’ is hazy to many people today, because you seldom need them. Your motor-car is a big tin overcoat, which keeps you warm and dry, and you are unlikely either to freeze to death or to be soaked to the skin in the dash between the car-park and the (centrally heated) building to which you dash. At most, you are likely to need a showerproof jacket, or an umbrella. Compare that with walking to work, or waiting for a bus or train.

What is more, you can carry an awful lot in a motor-car: the ‘glove pocket’ can usually hold a good deal more than a pair of gloves. Not that you need to wear gloves inside most vehicles any more. Now think of what you might need to carry when, again, walking to work or waiting for public transport. Many more people had to carry many more things over much greater distances. Of course they used attaché cases, old gas mask bags, and more, but a lot of things also went into pockets. Including quite large cameras.


28 Oct 2011

fixed lens

Rangefinder cameras are not for everyone: there’s no question about it. The same goes for large format, 4x5 inch and above. Understandably, therefore, people on the internet are always seeking advice or reassurance before taking the plunge into one or the other, or even both.

One of the most common pieces of advice is, however, to me the least comprehensible. It is that the inquirer should buy a cheap (and frankly, often rather nasty) example of the camera in question, ‘in order to see if they get on with it’.

For example, if someone says, “Should I buy a Leica,” or for that matter a Zeiss Ikon or Voigtländer Bessa, they are advised, “Buy a cheap fixed-lens rangefinder, and see if you get on with rangefinders.” Or if they ask about large format, they are advised to buy a Speed Graphic.

To me, this is a bit like suggesting that someone tries a McDonalds burger to see if they like prime steak, or reads Robin Cook or Jeffrey Archer to see if they enjoy literature.

In other words, there is an enormous difference between a cheap’n’cheerful Canonet and a Leica (especially a digital Leica), or between a Speed Graphic and a Gandolfi or a Linhof; and someone whose imagination is not fired by the one may well have a very different reaction to the other.


18 Oct 2007

exchange

At one extreme, a ’CLA’  clean, lubricate and adjust  is a classic ‘strip, clean and overhaul’, in which the camera is stripped to its component parts, all of which are examined and, if they are out of specification, replaced.

At the other extreme, there are reliable reports of repairers who ‘CLA’ cameras by sluicing out the works with a solvent: adding lots of unsuitable lubricant; and adjusting the speeds by winding up the tension to disguise the fact that the bearings are still mired in the sludge that the solvent failed to remove.

Done properly, a strip, clean and overhaul can restore a camera to ‘as new’ working condition, with a much prolonged life in front of it. Conversely, a cheap sluice, lube and over-tension (‘SLOT’) can actually shorten the life of the camera.

Obviously, the proper job takes far longer. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily have any bearing on what the camera technician charges. Nor, alas, has it always much to do with his reputation. If the camera is basically in good order to begin with, it doesn’t need a CLA. An unscrupulous but good repairer need do little or nothing, and a bad repairer shouldn’t do much harm. In either case, the customer may well be delighted. It’s just when the camera needs repair that differences really begin to show. A good repair may often be a better investment than a cheap CLA.


7 Oct 2011

exchange

The Olympus Pen W is a lovely little camera. It has a 25/2,8 lens, the equivalent (roughly) of 35mm on 35mm, and a shutter speeded from 1/8 to 1/250 second. It’s much rarer than most Pen half-frames, with about 21,000 made in a 9-month period in the early 60s. And apparently, they sell for around $200: at the time of writing, £125 or 140€.

In Europe, that’s about the price of two pairs of Levis 501s, the jeans I’ve worn for decades. In the United States, it’s about the price of four or five pairs, or six or seven pairs if they’re on special.

Now, what’s important to me is not the absolute price, but the relative value. I can see the flaws of capitalism, which mostly boil down to hysteria: to taking someone else’s word for what something is ‘worth’, rather than thinking about what actually constitutes an ‘investment’. In one sense, I’m comparing apples and oranges. Indeed, cameras and jeans are more disparate than two kinds of fruit. But although I’d rather have four pairs of jeans than the camera, I’d rather have the camera than two pairs of jeans.

So next time someone says that something “isn’t worth that,” it’s worth looking at it in terms of what else the money would buy, rather than in terms of the money itself, and asking yourself which you would rather have: the money or the goods, and, if the latter, which goods.


22 May 2011

shoot

Political correctness is not all bad news. If it makes people think about what they’re saying, it can do some good. Certainly, the world is a better place without the casual racism, sexism and homophobia of my schooldays.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people (and even a few computer programs) that create problems out of nothing. My favourite is a program that prints s****** for ‘snigger’. Refusing to use ’shoot’ or ’snapshot’ in a photographic context is a good second.

No less a person than Sir John Herschel first used the term ‘snapshot’ by analogy in 1860. A ‘snapshot’, in pistol- or rifle-shooting terms, is one that is made quickly but accurately: Sir John was contrasting the then-new ‘instantaneous’ or ‘detective’ style of shooting with the time-consuming process of setting up a tripod, composing on the ground-glass (with camera movements as needed), closing the shutter, inserting the plate-holder, pulling the dark-slide, and so forth.

In any case, there are plenty of other uses of the word ‘shoot’ that are nothing to do with guns. To shoot one’s cuff, to shoot the breeze, to shoot dice (especially craps), a shot of liquor: the list goes on. And so, despite those miserable, unimaginative and only partially literate souls who complain about ‘shooting’ pictures, or photographic ‘shoots’, I think I’ll just go right on and take a few more shots.


24 Apr 2011

waste of money

There are really only two ways to waste money. One is buying things you neither need nor want, and the other is buying things you can’t afford.

The difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’ is sufficiently elastic as not to warrant investigation: how often does any of us need a new camera or lens?

As for ‘afford’, there are big differences between being able to afford something easily; being able to afford it if you make sacrifices; and not really having the money no matter what you do. In other words, ‘waste of money’ normally means one of three things.

First, I don’t need it or even want it. This needs no further comment.

Second, I’m not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to buy it. Fine, but don’t assume that others share your priorities.

Third, I can’t afford it. This is the one that really upsets some people. They are unwilling to admit that there’s anything they can’t afford, even when this is patently obviously the case. If you cannot find the money for (say) a 50/0.95 Noctilux, then you can’t afford it. No shame in that. But to call it a waste of money when you can’t find the money, and are too dishonest to admit it: well, that’s sour grapes, and it’s shameful. It’s the difference between ‘wasting’ money you have, and ‘wasting’ money you don’t have.


11 Apr 2011

retina

There is a pleasure in using (maybe even just in owning) well-made, intricate machinery: Feinmechanik. For many, there is even more pleasure in Feinmechanik that is not battery dependent. If there weren’t, mechanical watches would have died out by now.

One of the finest examples of Feinmechanik, of course, is mechanical cameras. Many people immediately think of Leicas, but I’m at least as great a fan of leaf shutters, especially Compurs, most of which seem to work half-way to forever. A camera such as the little Retina IIa illustrated above is a jewel of precision engineering.

But yet, but yet… Like anything mechanical, the Retina requires occasional repair (this one does) and the cost of repair (by a Feinmechaniker) is often more than the camera is ‘worth’: that is, more than you could sell it for right now.

What, though, does ‘worth’ mean in this context? In 100 years, that little Retina will still be reparable, and assuming that film is still available (as I believe it will be), it will be ‘worth’ far more than it is today. Even if you don’t want to repair it now, at least put it in the attic for some future generation to find. Meanwhile, I’m going to get mine repaired just for the pleasure of using it. For the price of an evening at the cinema, I’ll (once more) have a piece of battery-independent Feinmechanik.


3 Apr 2011

wrong

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet. In other words, faced with two opinions, one from someone who does something for a living and is intimately involved with it, and the other from someone who has A Bright Idea (and possibly only one), it’s generally safer to believe the former.

On the other hand, the etymology of ‘expert’ is reputedly from ‘ex’, meaning a has-been, and ‘spurt’, meaning a drip under pressure, so it is always as well to avoid any ‘expert’ (usually self-appointed) whose vocabulary doesn’t include the words, “I could be wrong.”

For example, I believed (and even argued in print) that digital sensors would stop at around 6 megapixels, because bigger sensors would cost too much to make and the demand wouldn’t be there: people who actually cared about quality would stick with film.

Of course I was completely wrong, and now, it’s easy enough to see why. The time and money that digital photography saves in a commercial environment (including new photography) is spectacular, and as for the ‘advanced amateur‘, there have always been those who have been more interested in the latest and shiniest camera than in actually taking pictures.

This is, however, the nature of futurology. Most things are easy to explain afterwards. It’s explaining them beforehand that is the difficult bit.


23 Mar 2011

technologies

Who was not fascinated by Polaroid cameras? Whether you first encountered the ones that took peel-apart film, or the ones that extruded a blank piece of plastic where you could see the image developing in front of your eyes, you must surely have been captivated.

And yet, the Polaroid Corporation as we once knew it has ceased to exist. Digital imaging did for it. Polaroids, after all, had two main uses. One was for happy-snappers who didn’t mind bulky cameras and pricy film. The other was professional studios, where Polaroids were used to check exposure, composition and even colour balance. The third use for Polaroids, so-called ‘fine art’, very much rode on the coat-tails of the big users.

The more you look around, the more examples you see of this. Infra-red photography was originally developed for scientific and military purposes. Once they switched to digital, its days were numbered. And ultra-fast films: once digital maximum ISO speeds exceeded 1000 easily, fast colour films began to disappear.

Many take this to mean that film itself will disappear soon, and indeed, whole manufacturers (Agfa, Konica) have disappeared. But will film disappear? Well, yes, one day. So will our galaxy. But I don’t think either is going to happen in my lifetime. If it does: well, I’ll worry about it when it happens.


14 Mar 2011

americana

Without doubt, there are national characteristics in camera design, and within national characteristics, there are company characteristics, not to mention characteristics in time. Within the reams of 1930s German engineering, for example, compare the pared-down simplicity of a screw-mount Leica or a folding Retina with the almost wilful complexity of the rangefinder on a Contax or the slow speed train on an Exakta.

Which is why it’s sad that overall, there are so few American cameras left on the market. As an overarching characteristic, I’d nominate simplicity and strength (as with Keith Canham’s large format cameras), distressingly often coupled to a lamentable disregard of fine detail. This assuredly isn’t true of Keith’s cameras, but on the other hand, consider the focusing mount of a Kodak Medalist, or a Graflex roll-film back.

At their best, though, American cameras are refreshingly original. Once again, Keith is a welcome example, but for another, think of the Graflex XL, one of the finest interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras ever made, once you put a decent back on it: mine has a Mamiya RB67 back, though I had to modify the locking bars on the camera to make it fit. And I’d still love a 70mm Combat Graphic.

Alpa was bought by a Swiss couple (Thomas and Ursula) who wanted to revive a noble Swiss camera brand. They succeeded. Why is there no-one in the USA to do the same with Graflex?

7 Mar 2011

knockabout

Most people think about it sooner or later: an old ‘knockabout’ film camera that they can leave in the car without worrying about too much. But it’s more complicated than it looks.

First, you want a good quality camera that can resist a bit of banging around. This precludes a lot of cheap cameras. Even if they don’t stop working altogether, they can get misaligned, mist up, gum up or otherwise misbehave. Why carry a camera that takes bad pictures?

Second, you don’t want it in excessively good condition. If it’s too pretty, it’s hard to give it the kind of offhand treatment that ’knockabout’ implies

Third, and for obvious reasons, it should be battery independent, or at most, rely on batteries only for the meter. By all means change the batteries once a year, on your birthday, if you’re that sort of person. I’d rather guess the exposure.

Fourth, there’s the problem of films going off, especially if they’re overheated, so it makes sense to store the camera in the coolest part of the car and to shoot black and white, or, with colour, to process the films reasonably often, especially in summer: once a month, say, whether they are finished or not.

All of which explains why I find it a better idea to carry my ‘real’ camera(s) with me, rather than rely on a ‘knockabout’ camera which, to be honest, I never use.


23 Feb 2011

always wanted

We all live in our individual pasts. Think of foods from your childhood. As an adult, for example, you may have little time for cakes; but because your grandmother made brandy-snaps for you as a treat, they are forever associated with such positive memories that you may enjoy them disproportionately to this day. Likewise, other things may be blighted by negative associations: a friend hated plain wood floors, which he associated with his (particularly unpleasant) boarding school.

With this in mind, think of a camera you’ve ‘always wanted’ but never bought. Now ask yourself who it is that wants it. Is it you today, or are you just keeping alive an isolated memory, formed by the ‘you’ of many (or even a few) years ago? Is it not possible that you already have something better than what you ‘always wanted’? Or that what you ‘always wanted’ has been supplanted by something even better, so you would do better to transfer your affections? Or that your actual needs, desires and circumstances have changed, and that the only reason you still ‘want’ the camera at all is that you haven’t actually bothered to think about the meaning of ‘want’ since you fixed the desire in your mind?

And if you still do want it, and you can afford it, why haven’t you bought it already? Perhaps now is the time. No-one lives forever.


16 Feb 2011

wine

Apart from the massive (and expensive) switch to digital, the biggest change I have seen in advertising photography since the 1970s has been an extraordinary decrease in the amount of wine consumed in the average studio.

Admittedly, there is a lot less sitting around and waiting, principally for processing and for motorcycle couriers, than there was in those days, but even so, there is always occasion for a glass, especially on a long and difficult shoot where the art director knows exactly what he wants but is capable of communicating it only by rejecting what he doesn’t want.

His intransigence was often lessened, and his tongue loosened, by diligent application of wine. Part of my job as an assistant was to open the first bottle of the day at around eleven o’clock, and then to keep ‘em coming until we all went home that evening. Lubricating the photographers with the same medium also tended to lead to a degree of lateral thinking, and if the client was there too, the campaign was often detectably improved. As a rule of thumb, a bottle per person per day was usually enough, or a little more than enough.

Nowadays, though, the drink of choice seems to be mineral water. The puritans say it gets more work done. Possibly; but what has it done for creativity, or for getting along with clients, art directors and account execs?


9 Feb 2011

cucumber

A cucumber should be well sliced, then dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing. Thus Dr. Johnson. But I’m inclined to say something similar to those lovers of outdated film who neglect two simple truths.

One is that while a lot of film can be used well after its expiry date, especially black and white film that has been reasonably well stored, badly-stored colour film can be a bit ‘iffy’ even at its expiry date. I’m talking about stuff that’s been in the window of a beach kiosk in Malta or Florida for a while. Crossed curves are a very real risk. These make it difficult or (with optical printing) impossible to obtain neutral greys in both the shadows and the highlights. Just plain colour degradation is also quite likely.

The other is that unless you are actually a fan of unexpected colour casts, or unknown film speeds, it’s pretty rash to use an untried film for anything important. This immediately runs us into definitions of ‘untried’ and ‘anything important’. Well, OK, testing shutters or lenses with a test chart ain’t important, though outdated film may not deliver as much resolution as fresh. But otherwise, how do you know what is ‘important’? You might see the best picture of your life at any moment. Doesn’t it deserve the best film? Or at least, one you’ve tried before?


2 Feb 2011

wrist strap

Wrist straps for 35mm cameras date back at least to the 1930s. In fact, the one in the picture probably is from the 1930s, because the metal fittings are nickel-plated instead of chrome: look at the difference in colour between them and the chrome finish of the 1950s Agimatic to which the strap is fitted.

Some people love ‘em; some hate ‘em; and quite honestly, I’m pretty indifferent. They’re OK sometimes, but mostly I prefer neck straps. What I can’t understand, though, is that despite the availability of substantial, comfortable, easy-to-use, well-engineered straps like this, with a proper swivel around a tripod screw, there are still people who affix miserably flimsy wrist straps to one strap lug, sometimes without even a split-ring, using only what amounts to a loop of carpet thread.

Yes, you’ll almost certainly be OK if you use the strap lug in a way that was never intended; pull straight outwards, instead of upwards; put all the load on one lug; and run the risk of sawing through the carpet thread (look at the strap lug through a magnifier: the hole is often quite sharp-edged). But with a proper wrist strap, screwed into the tripod socket, ideally with a dab of thread-locking compound on the screw, you’ve a much wider margin of safety. With an Agimatic, you might not worry too much, but with a few hundred quids’ worth of camera, better safe than sorry.


26 Jan 2011

strap

Camera straps can be a pleasure or a penance. The worst I’ve ever encountered were those thin, elegant snake-chains that were so fashionable in the 1950s. Not only do they do a very fair impersonation of a cheese-wire when loaded with a camera weighing more than a few ounces: they also have tiny gaps between the links. These necessarily open and close, pinching and pulling the fine hairs on your neck as they do so. After a few hours, your neck can look (and feel) as if it has been attacked by a very methodical millipede with poisoned legs.

Actually, the wide, embroidered ‘hippie’ straps of the 1970s were nearly as bad. They invariably rolled up, and cut nearly as badly as a thin strap, but they were normally plastic-lined as well, promoting a rapid, impressive and painful sweat-rash.

So now, Frances and I prefer top quality leather or fabric straps, usually from Artisan and Artist in Japan. Yes, they’re expensive. But what is comfort worth to you, if you carry a camera much?


19 Jan 2011

deception

‘Street’ photography fascinates many people. They look at the greats of the past - Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Brassai, Ronis, Petrussow and many more - and they dream of capturing the world around them today in the same way that their heroes captured their worlds in decades gone by.

Very often, though, they are too frightened to do so. They’re afraid that they will be attacked, or at least confronted, by their subjects. They feel guilty; they use words like ‘stealth’; they imagine (Heaven help us) that people will notice or care what sort of camera they are using.

So here’s another way to do street photography. Buy a big bellows camera, preferably at least 4x5 inch, and put it on a big tripod. Wear a yellow safety jacket. Look as if you have the right to be there. Festoon yourself with equipment, especially a big exposure meter. Then, shoot ‘test’ and 'reference' shots with your 35mm or digital camera…


11 Jan 2011

luxury

Luxury is always relative. A hundred years ago, a sewing machine was a luxury. Seventy-five years ago, a car was a luxury. Fifty years ago, a colour television was a luxury. Twenty-five years ago, a personal computer was a luxury. And so forth.

Today, the vast majority of people in the developed world live in the material state that Marx called ‘superabundance’. There’s enough for everyone. And yet, curiously, many people don’t seem to want to buy better goods. They just want more of them (how many cameras do you own?) and newer (when did you last replace your mobile ‘phone?).

The argument, often, is that things become outdated before they are worn out. They don’t, of course. I’m still using a mobile ‘phone I bought in the 1990s, and I make no more than a few dozen calls on it every year. Which is why I can afford to use Leicas. That's real luxury.


3 Jan 2011

fact and fiction

No-one in their right mind believes everything they hear, or everything they see written down. For a start, there's a whole category of writing called 'fiction', and there are things called 'plays', and that's before you start on the celebrity rags and the supermarket scandal-sheets.

Why, then, do so many people want to believe that every photograph they see is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Even when the camera tells the truth, it's a highly selective truth, a mere facet of the truth, which depends upon where the photographer pointed his camera and when he pressed the shutter release. Don't blame Adobe Photoshop for a decline in honesty, either: as long ago as 1857, O.G. Rejlander used over 30 negatives for a single print, The Two Ways of Life.

There are no guarantees of truth in photography. There is only the photographer's word. And guess what? That comes back to believing, or refusing to believe, what you hear or see written down.


25 Dec 2010

poison

Once, a good few years ago, a friend answered his door to be greeted by a woman with a clipboard. She wanted him to sign a petition to 'ban chemicals'. He was puzzled: "Which chemicals?" She was even more puzzled by his question, and snapped: "All of them!"

Not many are that stupid, but attitudes to photographic chemicals are often almost as dimwitted. The vast majority of developers and fixers are not particularly poisonous, and in any case, you would have considerable difficulty in quaffing enough of either to do you much harm, and even more difficulty in keeping much of it down.

Even so, I have seen it asserted that you should never develop film in the kitchen sink, because you run the risk of poisoning. Well, yes, so you do, if you are very careless and very stupid, and even then, it won't kill you. Is the world to be run exclusively, then, for the careless and the stupid?


16 Dec 2010

name

That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet. But would we bother to mention it at all if its name consisted of six words and 16 syllables?

A while back I was given a Kodak 635 DX Programmed Autowind 35mm Camera (7 words, 13 syllables or more, depending on how you read 'mm'). I know that's what it is: it says so on the top plate. If I put a roll of film through it, I could scan it with my Konica Minolta Dimage Scan Elite 5400II (six words, 17 syllables).

Made-up words like 'Dimage' are bad enough, but how about my Zeiss Ikon Contaflex BC Flashmatic (5 words, 11 syllables), where the word 'flash' is substituted by a lightning flash? That's not a name: it's a specification combined with a rebus.

No. Give me my Leica M2 (two words, four syllables) or my Nikon F (two words, three syllables). And let's start a campaign for short, memorable names.


8 Dec 2010

shooting

Cameras are made for shooting, right? There is, therefore, no sense in collecting them and not using them.

Nonsense. Plenty of cameras are outmoded, or simply not as good as other cameras that are available to you. Why would anyone want to use an Agimatic if they had anything better to use?

Well, there's pure curiosity, of course, and pure masochism. Set those aside, and it's hard to think of any other reasons. Likewise, 19th century underwear is more likely to be of historical interest than actually wearable, and although swords are designed for killing people, it's hard to argue that unless you regularly indulge in sword-battles and slaughter, you shouldn't keep an antique sword.

If a camera is not worth using, the only reason to keep it is as a curiosity. Otherwise, throw it out or give it away - and remember that even if it isn't interesting now, it probably will be in 50 years' time. But don't pretend that it has some mystical 'right to be used'.


29 Nov 2010

Look at photographs of photographers from 100 years ago and more. Quite a few wore odd-looking hats: brimless, cylindrical, looking like a badly-applied beret with embroidered braid around the bottom. Why?

Well, hats were a lot more fashionable in those days, but also, rooms (and studios) tended to be colder, and a major source of heat-loss is through the head, so hats were practical as well as fashionable. This does not, however, explain the style of the hat.

Until you start trying to take pictures with a hat on. Then, a brim, or worse still a peak, simply gets in the way. Berets never appealed to the English because they were Foreign (unless military) and foreigners objected on the grounds that only peasants wore them.

Frances made mine because I had a Breton cap with a stiffening band so rigid and inflexible as to constitute an instrument of torture. She removed that, and the peak. And as soon as I tried it, I understood the Photographer's Hat.


22 Nov 2010

The colours of the real world are almost invariably more saturated and better differentiated than the colour in a photograph. And yet, since the invention of colour photography, each advance in colour technology has been greeted by the Old Guard with the criticism that the colours are too vivid, too saturated, too unnatural.

It is easier to understand why if you remember that the colours in a photograph are not the original colours of the subject. They are a reconstruction, in dyes or pigments or on a computer screen, and they are designed to look 'realistic' across only a certain contrast and brightness range. 'Realistic' is a combination of historical expectation (colour photographs have become steadily more saturated throughout history) and technical feasibility.

'Garish and unnatural' is therefore more to do with our eyes and expectations than with actual colours and technology. Give us a few years, and our eyes and expectations will likely catch up; unless, of course, the colours are not reconstructed at all, but exaggerated beyond the range in which they were designed to function.

15 Nov 2010

Large format photography is surrounded with far more mystique than it deserves. Why, after all, do you think that the press-men of old used 9x12 cm and 4x5 inch cameras? It was because the big negatives could withstand appalling abuse, and still deliver more than adequate quality.

Exposure was usually by guesswork, and development was normally in deep tanks of developer that was almost never changed, but merely replenished. 'Soup' became an accepted slang term for 'developer', because that's what it looked like. As one press photographer put it, with pardonably picturesque exaggeration, "Sometimes you had to push the negative into the dev with your foot."

The simple truth is this. Large format can take an extraordinary amount of abuse. In other words, it is inherently technically easier than smaller formats, and gives you less reward, not more, for taking the utmost care in exposure and development. If you have been frightened off LF by those who make it look otherwise - ignore them!


30 Oct 2010

Few topics generate more responses on the photographic forums than "I am going to Delhi [or Paris, or Istanbul, or wherever]. What cameras should I take?"

The curious assumption is that you are going to take different pictures from any you have ever taken before. If this is your first trip abroad, it seems a reasonable assumption that you will take the same sort of pictures you take at home, but in a more exotic location. If you have been abroad before, equally, you should have some recollection of what you shot when you were there.

You have only to remember two things. First, if you take too much, you have to carry it all; security is a concern, even when you put the bag down in a restaurant; and you're always having to decide what to use. Second, if you take too little, you risk insufficient versatility and the risk of your one camera breaking or being stolen. Two cameras, two to five lenses, and you've got it. How hard is that?


15 Oct 2010

It's an old, old stunt. You 'prove' that it's the photographer, not the camera, that makes the picture, by the simple expedient of taking a great picture with an old box camera.

All such pictures really prove, though, is that a good photographer can work within the limits of his equipment: simple, graphic shapes because the camera won't record fine detail; good light, because the lens is slow; nothing that requires an unusually long or unusually short shutter speed, because the camera has only one speed; and nothing that requires a wide-angle or long-focus view, because the lens is fixed.

Sure, any half-competent photographer should be able to work within these constraints. But why would you bother, except perhaps once, to show that you can? And before you try it, ask yourself this. How would you feel if you missed a potentially much better picture, simply because you didn't have a better camera with you?


6 Oct 2010

don't run

Distressingly many people decide to Take Up Photography (with capital letters), and plunge right in at the deep end with spot meters, ultra-speed lenses, stand development and HDR. After all, they've had some really great results from their camera-phones or their point-and-shoots: how difficult can the rest of it be?

Quite difficult. Suddenly, you have far more control over every variable than ever you had before: focus, exposure, colour, contrast, sharpness and more. Each variable on its own is easy enough to understand, and in due course, to master. But initially, it can be very difficult indeed just to try to keep all of them in your head, never mind under control.

So why not take it easy at first? Rely on auto-exposure: start using manual only when you see where automation doesn't work. Don't start out with exotic, faddish films and developers. Shoot JPEGs until you feel you can take real advantage of Raw. You'll learn more, faster. More haste, less speed.


28 Sep 2010

any camera

Any camera is better than no camera - or is it? At what point would you actually give up photography, simply because you could no longer stand either the equipment or the process?

On my desk there are two SLRs, a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Super B and an Exakta Varex IIa. The Exakta's 58/2 Biotar suits me better than the Contaflex's 50/2.8 Tessar, but the Zeiss Ikon is infinitely easier to use. Which do I choose? And if I'm prepared to put up with reduced convenience in return for better quality, why don't I use my Pentacon 6?

But I'd rather use any of them - Contaflex, Exakta, Pentacon - than a camera-phone. That's part of the point of photography for me: taking pictures with a camera that is designed for taking pictures, even if its a lot less convenient than the camera phone.

Of course I say that. But what if it were achoice between a camera phone and a box camera...?


15 Sep 2010

 

When the Leica appeared in the 1920s, its f/3.5 lenses (Anastigmat/ Elmax/ Elmar) were regarded as unusually fast. Lens speed was useful, too, in an era when a 'fast' film was the equivalent of ISO 12 (of course, ISO and even ASA were far in the future).

On the eve of World War Two, you could buy an f/1.5 lens for your Leica or Contax, and the fastest films were probably Agfa Super Speed and Kodak Super XX at close to ISO 200. In 1955, Nikon introduced their (rangefinder-fitting) f/1.1, and with the revision of ASA standards in 1959-60, Ilford HPS went to 800 ASA (near enough ISO). Today you can buy an f/0.95 lens for your Leica, or you can crank the ISO setting on some digital SLRs to 100,000.

Now think about the best low-light, non-flash pictures you've ever seen in print. I'd bet that plenty date from the 60s, 50s and even 30s. For that matter, there was Erich Salomon in the 1920s. Of course it's always handy to have faster lenses and higher ISO speeds. But as the old pictures show, it's not what you've got: it's what you do with it.


8 Sep 2010

 

The cry "It's not photography!" goes back to the dawn of the art. Everything new has always been greeted with deep suspicion: dry plates, colour, auto-exposure, autofocus, digital. The howls of agony and rage are especially loud if the new is easier or more expensive than the old, or simply unusual. If it is easier, it destroys the craft of photography. More expensive? The 'ordinary photographer' cannot afford it! Outside the mainstream: irrelevant!

All such objections are utterly without merit. Nothing, after all, obliges you to give up the craft you already know and love; except, in all fairness, if the materials cease to be available, or at least, cease to be affordable.

Nothing, that is, except your mastery of the art. Most who complain that something 'isn't photography' are afraid that someone else is a better artist than they; or that the new process makes it easier for an artist of equal talent to produce better pictures; or that they can't afford the new process. That, or they just can't be bothered to learn how to do it.


29 Aug 2010

Most of us enjoy helping one another. That's one of the reasons why internet photo forums are so popular. Sure, there are people who want to show off, and aggressive little twerps who post things that they'd never dare say to someone's face, but by and large, people help.

I have to say, though, that I hesitate when faced with a post devoid of capital letters, festooned with smileys, or using '4U' for 'for you'. The standard excuse is that for many on the internet, English is their second language. The truth, however, is that while people for whom English is a second language may make mistakes, they are rarely as careless, lazy and stupid as those for whom English (or American) is their first language.

As a schoolboy, I was always told to re-read what I had written before I handed it in. At home, I was always told to 'ask nicely'. Both pieces of advice might be useful to those who actually want answers to their questions. Or 2 they're Qs.


15 Aug 2010

 

There is an old Chinese proverb to the effect that it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. Well, yes, no-one can argue with the metaphor. Do what you can, even if it doesn't amount to much, rather than complain that no-one else is doing anything.

In a literal photographic sense it's quite interesting too. A single candle can actually be quite attractive, but there's not much light, and it's very contrasty, so a bounce (reflector) to fill the shadows is a good idea. Also, the colour temperature is very low: about 1750K. Set 3200K on your digital camera, or use tungsten film, and you'll still have a warm picture.

Most people, of course, won't go to this trouble. They will just use on-camera flash. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this will give them a truly hideous picture, with a burned-out foreground, a murky background and impressively ugly shadows. So if you can't light a candle, maybe it's better to curse the darkness than to use on-camera flash.


5 Aug 2010

 

Inspiration can be both positive and negative. As well as the little voice that says, "It might be a good idea to try that," there should always be another one that says, "But not that." For proof, look at old photo magazines.

They will show you that while photographers don't change much, fashions do. What has become of that 1950s staple, Spanish fishermen mending their nets? Or their contemporaries, the curiously pubeless nudes under sunlight shining through slatted blinds? Or indeed crying children, who are mercifully less common today than in the 1930s, at least in pictures?

Count the ratio of good pictures to bad: there was at least as much dross in the past as there is today. There was never a Golden Age of photography; or if there is, we are living in it.

Next, weed out the competent but 'me-too' pictures, or the ones that look 'me-too' after a few decades, and often, there is very little there. Now look at some of today's magazines...


28 Jul 2010

 

Some photographers like simple cameras, with the minimum of modes, programs, features and options. I am one of them.

Again and again, though, people say to me, "You don't have to use all those options. You can still use it manually if you want." They say it triumphantly, as if it were a clinching argument.

But it isn't. I don't want a camera where, if I press the wrong button, I suddenly get Low Light Sports Mode. I don't want Low Light Sports Mode at all, ever, nor a button for selecting it. I want a focusing ring, an aperture ring and a shutter speed dial. If there's a meter, I want an ISO setting control. On a digital camera, it's true, I need a few more controls such as View and Delete. Otherwise, what ain't there can't go wrong - and better still, what ain't there can't lead me into a sub-menu I can't get out of, usually when I least expect it.


18 Jul 2010

 

For some reason, photographers love torturing themselves with hypothetical questions. One of the favourites is, "If you could only have one camera and lens, what would you choose?"

There are only two possibilities here. One is that you can't afford more than one camera and one lens, and the other is that you can. Either way, the question is pointless: you buy what you want and can afford.

What, though, if you cannot afford even the cheapest second-hand approximation to the camera you really want? Well, how serious are you about your photography? People give film cameras away nowadays. You're bound to find something usable.

And if you have plenty of money, but don't know what camera you want, it's not hard to find out. Stop whining and asking pointless questions. Instead, go and take pictures with what you've got. Ask yourself what it's stopping you doing. Then go and buy a camera that lets you do it.


10 Jul 2010

Until the arrival of the now-ubiquitous window in the camera back, a problem that was never really solved was film reminders. Was the camera loaded with black and white or colour? Negative or reversal? Twenty or 36 exposure? What was the film speed? Some old Kodak cameras got around it by listing Kodak films on the reminder dial, but even if you used only Kodak film, you had a problem when they introduced new ones. Other reminders mostly rely on your remembering which arrow applies to which speed: ISO 400 colour or 650 black and white?

The easiest answer with pre-window-in-the-back cameras is just to write the film type on the camera. Most chrome finishes are rough enough to accept pencil; on paint, a wax pencil works. As far as I know, the only manufacturer to try this 'officially' by providing a blank space on the camera was Leica: the film reminder on the M4P has ASA (6-6.4K) and DIN (9-29) marked in a circle with a blank space in the middle. Unfortunately it doesn't accept pencil. All they needed was a chrome disk!


15 Jun 2010

An accusation often levelled against digital photography is that it's too easy to take too many pictures. There is at least one area, though, in which most of us took more pictures on film, and that's when we got near the end of a roll. Rather than just wind off the last few frames, we'd try things. Backlighting. High- and low-angle shots. Ultra close-ups. Heavy filtration. Basically, anything we'd read about recently in the photo magazines, or had seen in a book somewhere, or had been meaning to try and had not got around to.

Without the perceived necessity of finishing the roll - with a digital camera we can download eight pictures, or eighty, and then re-use the card - there is far less incentive than there used to be to do this sort of thing. Also, because the medium is 'free', there is less of a disincentive to 'waste' pictures. Because we have to pay for every single frame of the film, whether we use it or not, those last two or three frames on the roll have a value, which the next two or three digital frames don't.

So here's a modest suggestion for digital camera users. Before you pull the memory card out of your camera, unless it's completely full, imagine that the next three or four frames are the end of the roll; that you have to finish them; and that you don't want to waste them. It might be an interesting exercise.


4 Jun 2010

Many amateurs buy the same camera over and over again. Some do it literally: exactly the same camera. I know of one who has had three Hasselblad outfits, and another who has had four Leica M7s. They buy them; use them for a while; sell them; miss them; buy them again...

Others buy cameras that are functionally identical, but from different manufacturers: a Pentax, then a Nikon, then a Canon, then back to a Pentax again. Of course, they have to change all their lenses and many of their accessories each time they change systems.

Professionals don't work that way. When they start, they buy into a versatile, reliable system, and usually, they stick with it. Sure, they may change. But not often. Nor do they normally worry about the latest and most feature-packed cameras.

With the exception of the medium and large format pictures, every single picture in the stack of books above could have been taken with the cameras in the illustration; admittedly, with a choice of lenses. It's not the kit you own. It's what you do with it.


 

25 May 2010

There's no doubt about it: cameras can be a form of jewellery, designed to enhance the wearer's status by advertising his (rarely her) wealth and good taste. But does it work?

Probably not. Rich photographers mostly buy cameras for the same reasons as the rest of us: because they think they are good cameras.

To say that a good camera is 'wasted' on a rich photographer is therefore nonsense. There are just as many bad, poor photographers as bad, rich photographers. Probably more, because there are more poor photographers. Besides, what can 'wasted' possibly mean? If you can afford it, and you enjoy it, where's the 'waste'?

In fact, the only time that carrying expensive cameras is really much use in establishing your status is in a camera store, or at a camera club. Even then, it can backfire. Often, I have an expensive camera around my neck. And there are always people whom you can almost hear thinking, "Rich idiot. Probably never takes a picture in his life."

 


 

17 May 2010

There are those who buy clothes for looks, and those who buy them for comfort. I am firmly in the second camp - and I feel the same way about cameras. I want clothes that I can put on; that will keep me decent, and either warm in winter or cool in summer; and that do not normally attract attention by their strangeness or ostentation.

This is one reason why I like Leicas. I've been using them for a very long time. I'm comfortable with them. I don't have to think very hard about using them: no harder than I have to think about putting my slippers on when I'm in the house. That's comfortable.

One of the reasons they are comfortable, too, is that I refuse to worry about cosmetics. I buy cameras to use, not to resell, so rubs and knocks and brassing and scratches just don't worry me. I used to buy and sell cameras, but I don't any more. I just take pictures with them. Maybe that's a sign of growing up as a photographer. I hope so.

 


 

10 May 2010

Health and safety, and recycling, and respect for the environment, are all wonderful things, and highly to be regarded. But aesthetics are important too. And ugly stickers bearing the logos and symbols of half a score of certifying agencies are hardly aesthetic.

A Bosch refrigerator was the first place I encountered these loathsome things, and as the refrigerator cost rather more than many of the cars I bought in my youth, I was less than enchanted. The sticker on the base of a Leica M8 was what really horrified me, though. A camera of classic elegance, pared down to the ultimate simplicity; and then, on the bottom plate, a sticker covered in alphanumeric soup, seasoned with peculiar looking symbols. EMV, D33C66, FC, PC ME95, VC1, inca, CE. Why not put the sticker inside the base-plate, where it doesn't ruin the look of the camera, and where there is, after all, far less temptation to remove it?

Which is what (with some effort, cotton wool and alcohol) I always do. So, apart from the picture above, I don't have any record of all these wonderful certifying agencies. This rather removes the point of the sticker being there in the first place.

 


 

2 May 2010

In the 1960s, Wallace Heaton were among the leading camera dealers in London, and they regularly published a catalogue, the Blue Book. According to my 1963/4 Blue Book, a Zeiss Contaflex Super B was £124:10s, plus £21:13:7d for the interchangeable back and £6:13s for the ever-ready case: a grand total of £143:6:7d, or around $400 at the early-to-mid '60s exchange rate of $2.80 to the pound. The UK Retail Price Index tells me that prices have gone up by a factor of about 16 since then, so the inflation-adjusted price is a truly impressive £2300. At the 1960s exchange rate this is well over $6000, and even today it is well north of $3500.

This is for a leaf-shutter camera with a 50/2.8 standard lens, manually-reset frame counter and non-instant-return mirror. Oh: and a choice of just three interchangeable front component 'Pro-Tessars', the 35/3.2 (£39:8:2d > £630), 85/3.2 (£41:8:10d > £660) and 115/4 (£43:3:2d) > £690).

Go on. Tell me again about the Good Old Days.

 


 

27 Apr 2010

Never mind the nuclear option: what about the unclear option?

In the days of mechanical cameras, most controls were self-evident. To be sure, there were tricks like the ring-around-the lens wind-on of the Werra, the rewind clutch of the Zorkii (concentric with the shutter release, and unmarked) and the self timer of the Pentax SV illustrated above.

In the computer age, we are however at the whim of computer nerds. Buttons, switches, dials and ports multiply without number, as do menus, sub-menus and firmware updates. Install the last, and there is no guarantee that your camera will work tomorrow the same way it did yesterday. Nor is there any guarantee that your definition of 'improvement' will coincide with that of the computer nerd...

 


 

21 Apr 2010

If you are unduly worried about scratching your camera, there are three possibilities. You can't afford it to begin with; or you've got the wrong camera; or you are an amateur camera dealer rather than a photographer. The reason to buy a camera is to take pictures, not to maintain resale value. Half cases, anti-scuff stickers for the baseplate, tape everywhere: why?

Sure, the first scratch on a pristine camera body is always sad, but it goes with the territory. It doesn't affect the image quality, though, and image quality is what it's about. If you're constantly swapping cameras, again, why? Can't you find a camera that works; and keep it; and learn to take pictures? If not, why not?

 


 

11 Apr 2010

Lately, Frances has taken to making sock dolls. These are, as their name suggests, a variety of rag doll made from (well-washed) old socks. Then she makes clothes for them.

Recently she held one up (fully clothed, in work blues and a red jumper) and said, "That was really fun. He's got a great personality. And he can't have taken more than about eight hours to make."

Eight hours. Yes. Well, we don't have a television. The point is, I just cannot imagine wasting eight hours on making dolls from old socks and the contents of the rag basket.

Two equally important points are that I don't have to imagine doing it myself, and that it's not time wasted. Not for Frances. Plenty of people can't imagine 'wasting' time on photography. Or indeed on reading, when they could be watching television.

The bottom line is simple. We all have time when we could be doing something else. Whether it's a sock doll or photography, it must surely be worth spending as much time as we can afford in doing the things we'd rather do.

 


iso 25600

 

5 Apr 2010

Saying that a given camera has a maximum ISO speed of 25,600 is completely pointless, even if it is perfectly true. It just doesn't fit with the rest of photography.

Take shutter speeds, for a start. Look at the traditional 'doubling' (or 'halving') sequence from 1/4 to 1/250: 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250. If they were truly halved, they'd be 1/16, 1/32, 1/64, 1/128, 1/256. But we almost instinctively know that the difference between 1/250 and 1/256 is trivial. Just like the difference between ISO 25,000 and ISO 25,600.

In other words, 'ISO 25,000' would be more than accurate enough, and a lot easier to remember. So why say 25,600? It seems to me that there are three possibilities. Only the first is honourable and creditable: that if they said '25000' people would think they were exaggerating, because it's too pat, too round a number. The second possibility is that they're computer nerds who know nothing about photography and its approximations, and can get all the numbers on an LCD. The third is that they're trying to blind their buyers with pseudo-precision. I prefer the first possibility. But I'm not convinced.


instruction book

 

23 Mar 2010

Time and again, you see plaintive requests on the internet for instruction books for old, mechanical cameras; machines that anyone with an iota of sense should be able to figure out for themselves, especially if they are armed with the sort of information that is given in the Basics section of this site. What do they find so difficult?

Probably, it's this. They were brought up with computers, and no-one can figure out how a computer works. With mechanical cameras, it would be an exaggeration to say "If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all," but it would be pretty close to the truth to say, "If you've seen half a dozen, you've seen most of 'em."

So give it a good coat of think, as the old saying goes; don't force the controls; and if there's something you don't understand, that's the time to go on line and look for an answer to a specific question. But if you really need an instruction book for everything on a mechanical camera, usually there's either something wrong with (or very unusual about) the camera. Or its operator.


sticky tape

 

10 Mar 2010

 

Surprisingly many photographers reckon that taping over the logos on their cameras makes them less obtrusive. It is hard to see how. If anything, it must make them more obtrusive, quite apart from making the camera less pleasant to handle and (unless you can find exactly the right sort of tape) forcing you to deal with the unsavoury goo that exudes from the edges of the vast majority of tapes.

After all, very few people pay that much attention to the appearance of a camera, even when it's being pointed at them. Ninety-nine out of a hundred won't notice either way: a camera is a camera is a camera, regardless of what it does or doesn't have written on it. The hundredth will look at the camera; notice the tape; and wonder why on earth it's there. This is what I mean by its being more obtrusive than an untaped camera. Is there something wrong with the camera, so that it needs to be taped together? Is the photographer trying to hide something, and if so, what? Is he ashamed of having an inferior camera? Or is he just a prat?


 

 

1 Mar 2010

At least four things jump out at you when you look at old photographic books from the 1950s and before.

First, there was often an extraordinary amount of text relative to the illustrations: they were writing about photography, not illustrating it.

Second, even though page size is usually small by modern standards, the pictures are even smaller: often, not even half-page.

Third, although the technical quality is sometimes very good, most of the time, it's awful: muddy and flat, with no decent blacks.

Fourth, the pictures are, for the most part, dire. Of course there are many exceptions, but you can expect vapid portraits; landscapes that are little better than snapshots; sickeningly coy nudes; and jokey 'table-top' still-lifes with twee little glass figures.

So although there is inspiration to be gained, and historical insight to be had, the main thing you get from looking at the majority of old photo books is gratitude that life is so much better nowadays, and that there is so much more good photography about.


 

wars of religion

 

22 Feb 2010

Photography surprisingly often invokes extremist passions. Listen to a devotee of film denigrating digital as soulless and gimmick-laden. Then listen to an advocate of digital dismissing film users as mindless reactionaries standing in the way of progress. The former sounds like an old-fashioned hell-fire-and-damnation preacher: the latter, like an equally old-fashioned Stalinist commissar. One would burn his opponents at the stake: the other would send them to the gulag. Why?

Because they are unhappy, and frightened, and narrow-minded, and above all, unimaginative. This is the normal state for extremists, though most fail to recognize it. They'll swear they're happy in their way. They just can't understand how others can be happy in different ways. Worse, they want to force everyone to be happy in the way that they think they are. Forcing anyone to do anything is seldom a recipe for happiness; and attacking the things that do make them happy, provided those things are harmless, must surely be the nastiest of petty sins.

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© 2010 Roger W. Hicks