Ray Bradbury on writing
I’ve recently returned from a few days away in the beautiful Ribble Valley in Lancashire, which was another early adventure in our new campervan. We decided to buy the van back in 2020 while the country was in the grip of a national lockdown due to you-know-what. The combined effect of the changes to our working lives and reluctance to consider travelling abroad, brought forward this plan that we had conceived for later in our retirement. We went for the VW factory-built California, a van based on the hugely successful work vans that we see everywhere in the UK. Being people that ‘just want it to work’, the VW California suited us perfectly as everything onboard was designed to work with everything else.
We’ve used our van, named Ruby because of her colour, several times already this year and are learning more about both camping and this wonderful machine every time we do so. This trip was no exception, with the list of accessories we’d forgotten to buy/bring with us being added as the week progressed. This was also the first time we’d used the van in really bad weather. The rain was relentless and the balmy temperatures of the week before quickly abandoned us too, which meant that we spent a great deal of time staying inside. Plenty of coffee, the odd glass of wine and a Scrabble marathon kept us amused as well as the mandatory ‘people watching’. It was while doing the latter, that I noticed someone setting up camp who would get me thinking about how in some ways our consumerism drives us on an endless quest to have the best possible kit.
The camper in question was a young woman in her early twenties who was traveling with her dog. She rolled into the site in a late 90s Land Rover Discovery with no trailer or caravan behind it. I watched as she started to ‘assemble’ her campervan, first running an electrical hook-up through one of the car’s windows, then fixing some metallic insulating material to the windscreen with what looked like gaffer tape, and finally erecting a tarpaulin gazebo off the back. Then came the seemingly endless equipment from the back of the car including a stove, chair, water container, small table, pots and pans. Within about 10 minutes, the old car had become a camper on a shoestring. I sat in the heated comfort of our Cali watching in amazement for a couple of reasons. The first was the notion of someone so young building such an ingeniously simple, yet effective camper and the second being that despite its Heath Robinson appearance, the camper worked perfectly. The former is a result of my simply getting older realising that what I’ve learned in my professional and personal life is rightly being challenged by the new ideas of younger people. I was fortunate enough to work closely with some brilliant engineering graduates in my former company, but it didn’t stop me from being ‘that grumpy old bugger’ that every business has on more than one occasion. Perhaps more interesting to me was the second point, which was that she had cobbled together a working van from bits and pieces and it had worked. I had no idea about how she got to this point or why and I wasn’t about to go and ask. It could have been that this was what she could afford or perhaps just making something that was fit for purpose was the goal. I started to think about my own experiences with buying gear, which goes far beyond our purchase of the California. In my photography, I have always aspired to get the highest possible specification for whatever I could afford at the time. As a result, I’m very fortunate to have a great DSLR camera and the professional lenses to go with it. It has cost me a small fortune over the years, but I’ve been driven by some internal idea that having the best in some way makes me a better photographer. But is this really true? Of course not. Take these photographs for example:
They were taken with the most basic form of camera there is, the pinhole. You will have undoubtedly seen pinhole cameras before as they have been made from tin cans, carboard boxes and even sheds over many years. All you need is a sealed box with a small hole in the front that can be covered/uncovered long enough to expose the film inside. The resulting image is of course not razor sharp, nor is there any control over field-of-view or perspective, but oddly that doesn’t matter. It is because the process is so simple (only having to work out how long to leave the hole uncovered for the film type), that the effort can instead be put into looking for a subject that might look good as a pinhole photograph. For example, anything with moving water or clouds looks good because the ‘shutter speed’ is so low, often many seconds in length. Pinhole has its own aesthetic which isn’t dramatically enhanced by the quality of the camera design or manufacture. Taking a pinhole photograph is oddly rewarding because of the level of guesswork in composition, image contrast etc. involved in doing so. You don’t know exactly what you’ll get, but know that you just don’t need the expensive equipment or labour-saving accessories to have a good time with it. Much like the woman with her DIY camping rig, whose the goal of relaxing with some food, wine and a companion was most important, not how easy it was to ‘get there’.
She left a couple of days later, with the disassembly of her camper being just as straightforward as its assembly. Perhaps the final point about the quality of gear was her laughing at my getting soaked when trying to release the water that had collected on Ruby’s awning. She had experienced the exact same just moments before. What I learned as she drove away was the importance of making best use of what you have and enjoying the results of your creative labours. Forget the gear, have the idea.
Fancy having a go with at building and shooting your own pinhole camera? The first part of my tuition programme deals with the basics of camera operation and exposure, which starts with the pinhole. Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.
What’s so interesting about Wildlife?
Since finishing my work at the end of January, I have discovered a passion for an area of photography that I’d only really dabbled in previously, Wildlife. I’m not really sure why my previous experiences with this genre didn’t leave me hooked, but I do know that I always viewed the results with a certain disinterest afterwards. It wasn’t that they were poor shots, or that I wasn’t interested in the subject at all, it was just that in my mind, one photograph of a particular bird was very much the same as another. So, what changed?
The first change was the amount of time I now had. It took a few months to get used to not having a 9 to 5 job anymore and I spend most of that time going for long walks and spending time in my local park. When I didn’t have to rush to any meetings or the dreaded ‘Teams calls’, I found myself just looking at nature, which I know sounds a little cliché but it’s true, I genuinely hadn’t really just watched. I started to notice the variety of wildlife that visited the park, from ducks to squirrels, herons to the illusive kingfisher. Each appeared to have a set of behaviours that fitted a loose routine. The heron would normally appear in the afternoon, the ducks would roost on dry land and move to the pond in the morning etc. This was the first thing that piqued my interest in wildlife photography - the behaviours and patterns of the different species, which could be observed easily enough if one puts in the time. I started to learn things too, the first being how violent and potentially fatal the mating ritual of mallard ducks is. I watched in horror as the drake almost drowned the female, only to be chased off by her when it was all over. The drama of the ritual and how to represent it in a photograph became the challenge which put my previous experiences with wildlife photography into context. There is a ‘creativity’ in telling a story of an animal’s behaviour which is, in my opinion, far more interesting than simply capturing its perceived ‘beauty’.
Continuing the duck theme, the next thing I learned was that they fish. I had gone 48 years without ever having known or seen a duck fishing, so it was quite a surprise to experience it for the first time. I was watching a group of ducks diving completely under the surface of the water, which isn’t really news to be honest as I’ve seen them do this many times before. However, I then saw a female leap onto the bank with a small fish in her mouth, which I quickly learned was a tactic to stop said fish from escaping her grasp in the water. The problem was that she was then spotted by a nearby group of drakes, looking like a gang from West Side Story. They decided that they were going to steal the fish and started to walk menacingly toward her. For some reason, I decided that I wouldn’t let them take it from her, so positioned myself between them and their target. Once the danger had passed, she was relaxed enough for me to take this shot of her and her catch.
I’d now observed a behaviour that I kept seeing repeatedly over the next few weeks. Then it dawned on me that the females were far better fishers than the males because they needed the nutrition to help produce their eggs. As I continued to watch them, I noticed the fishing decline once the broods had hatched. From a photographic perspective I was beginning to see the point of shooting wildlife as it opened up a whole new world that we just don’t see because we are busy rushing from one place to another.
My new-found passion for wildlife photography has also taught me how to get the most out of my camera and selected lens. I was asked recently what settings I generally use, and I couldn’t really answer. My workflow with the camera has evolved for my equipment and the conditions that I am shooting under, so it’ll vary from someone else’s experience or objective. Wildlife photography has come at a cost too, with the recent purchase of a longer telephoto lens so that I can increase my distance from the subject. I’m looking forward to getting out there to shoot with it.
For me, the learnings from this experience so far are to take time to look closely at something we might not immediately see any interest in. Slowing things down helps us to appreciate what our busy lives prevent us from noticing. This applies to all aspects of our lives, but in terms of my photography, only when I stopped and looked did this make sense.
You can see more of my wildlife photographs at www.richperspective.co.uk in the album 'Wildlife' If you’d like to know more or are thinking of taking up photography for the first time, please drop me a line about some beginner’s tuition.
A friend recently asked how long I have been interested in/obsessed with photography and my answer was, as usual related to when my Dad loaned me my first camera back in the early 1980s. It was a Voigtländer Vitoret 110, which shot the conventiently small 110 cartridge film that was around at the time. My Dad thought I might be interested in taking up what was his hobby and his father’s before him. Needless to say, I shot through loads of 110 film over the next couple of years and enjoyed it so much that I never got around to returning it to him.
While small and beautifully designed, the Vitoret wasn’t very flexible in its controls. You could select the type of weather conditions and…well that was it really. Focusing was a set of preset distances that were selected by the choice of weather, which many years later I realised meant a function of the lens aperture. It had the capability of firing a flash as well, but since there were no electronics the camera used one of those exploding flash cubes that literally went off to the left of your eyeball. Things were much more dangerous in the Seventies. Regardless, I was hooked. Fast-forward to 1986 and I was bought my first SLR camera, a Fujica STX-1N. Now I could experiment with different ISO films, aperture and shutter speed which set me loose and the rest, as they say, is history.
The friend who asked me then followed up their question with “these days I just use my phone”. I’ve never been a snob about phones as their cameras and processing software are becoming more and more sophisticated with every new release. Further discussion revealed an reluctance to using a so-called proper camera as being the expense of buying one. It got me thinking about how accessible photography is right now and whether there is enough of a draw to lure people away from a camera that comes free with their mobile. The old adage about ‘getting what you pay for’ does apply to photography and the rather flippant title of this post is something I’ve had said of my professional camera gear on more than one occasion. It’s not hard to see how the importance of having a fancy camera does, in many cases, turn people off to the prospect of taking up photography. Of course, the camera is only a small part of the equation that produces a ‘good’ photograph and I usually feign being offended when people imply that my ‘really good camera’ is entirely responsible for my work. I started to consider whether there was some way of showing that it doesn’t have to be this way.
The first thought was about the Digital Single Lens Reflex or DSLR, which is everyone’s idea of what a camera looks like these days. DSLRs are essentially the same as the old film cameras like my Fujica, but updated to produce a file rather than a film frame. Entry-level DSLRs can be purchased for a few hundred pounds with a cheap lens included and, in my experience the ones made by the main manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon or Sony, are excellent. They are certainly more than sufficient to get started with, but a few hundred pounds is still often prohibitively expensive, particularly if photography is something being ‘tried out’. You can buy them used online easily enough, but care is needed in finding out what sort of life a camera has had. Firstly, understanding how many times the shutter and internal mirror have fired can be the difference between a great camera and a disaster. IF the camera has been well used, these electronic systems can become unreliable. Another area of weakness is the battery, which if too degraded may be hard to replace with a genuine part. There are a few things then that make DSLRs a pricey prospect.
There is another way, however. Irrespective of the camera technology, the principles of exposure, composition etc are universal. As long as you have a camera that has the ability to alter ISO, aperture and shutter speed, you can learn photography. The beauty of this is that there are literally millions of old film cameras languishing in peoples’ lofts and kitchen drawers that could be an entry point into photography. If they are sufficiently old enough to be entirely mechanical and have been dry stored, they may well be perfectly functional. If not, there are many examples of manual film cameras online ranging from a few pounds to a few thousand. Some of these cameras are really special too. Icons like the Canon AE1, Nikon F3 and Olympus OM1 can be picked up for less than an entry-level DSLR – these cameras and their lenses were highly regarded in their day and still hold their own in our digital world. There are obviously running costs in the form of film and processing, but with the recent resurgence in the medium, there are still many labs around and great suppliers like Analogue Wonderland in the UK and The Film Photography Project in the US who stock film for all budgets down to around £4 per roll. Processing and scanning services are also wide available for around £10 for a roll of 36 shots, which makes each photograph around 40p to produce. I’m not suggesting that this is better than digital in any way (arguments about the way that the two formats differ aesthetically have raged for years), but a cheap film camera is a way of trying photography without having to invest in expensive kit. As an example, I bought this little camera for my collection earlier this year.
It’s a mint condition Zeiss Werra from the early 1950s and it cost me around £60 from eBay. It isn’t an SLR camera, doesn’t have a light meter or in-viewfinder focusing as with most cameras. However, it does have manual control over aperture and shutter speed which means that it can be used to practice the basics. I used a free light meter app on my phone to determine exposure for the film’s ISO and estimated the focal distance which is then set on the lens barrel. The great thing about this camera apart from the price is the lens, which is made by the legendary manufacturer Carl Zeiss. As you can see from the results below, it performs really well and its unusual form factor makes it an interesting and enjoyable camera to shoot.
What can we conclude from this? For me, photography is now more accessible than ever with the availability of high-quality digital cameras and a buoyant market for old film cameras that are just ready for a second life with an enthusiastic beginner. Regardless of the technology, the key thing is to have a go and to bear in mind that the camera is merely the tool with which to create. This idea of having to invest heavily is simply not true.
Whichever route you take, remember that I can help you with some beginner tuition sessions. Hopefully, you get to love photography as much as I do. Just drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.
In my previous post I described the humbling experience of shooting my first roll of Kodak Aerochrome colour slide film and getting what can only be described as awful results. In the analysis that followed, I concluded that I wasn’t entirely sure what had caused the shots to look so bad, but resolved to have another go with my remaining two rolls of film. In the back of my mind, I thought that perhaps the time of year was a factor, having shot the first roll on the first sunny day we’d had in the spring this year. Perhaps the film really needed mid-summer light in order to respond with that beautiful colour shift that Aerochrome was famous for.
As the country headed into a heatwave and I had a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales coming up, this seemed to be the ideal opportunity to have another go. Once again, I used my Nikon F6, which has one of the best meters of any film SLR, and that I had shot many rolls through without any exposure issues. I loaded the film in the dark, fitted the filter to my lens as instructed and headed out. Perceived wisdom, otherwise known as the internet, suggested that as the film had expired over a decade ago, I should overexpose by anywhere between 1/3 and 1 stop to counteract its age. As the film had been frozen since it was discovered by the FPP way back when, I was pretty confident that there weren’t any other mishandling issues that could contribute to the condition of the emulsion. Slide film is notoriously intolerant to overexposing, so I would need to ‘bracket’ the shots. This means taking a number of pictures of the same composition and varying their exposures to see which one works best. It’s a costly but useful thing to do in film, however bracketing is still used in digital photography today because there is no impact in doing so. Ansel Adams once said that if you need to bracket, you don’t know what you are doing – we’ll just leave that thought alone for now.
Conscious that I was suspicious of the lab that I used last time, I did some research and found one who specialised in developing IR film. Feeling really confident, I went out to shoot the beautiful Dales countryside. When I got the film back from the developers, I was distraught. Despite my best efforts, the film was totally ruined with a every shot saturated with a purple hue and all the contrast lost.
I was at a complete loss as to what had happened this time. Some more research online revealed that others had suffered the same problems despite doing everything possible to shoot and develop according to the manufacturer’s instructions. In my case, the bracketing made no difference at all, which led me to ultimately conclude that it was an issue with the film. Something had affected its behaviour in a way that I couldn’t comprehend. All I knew was that the issue was consistent with both rolls which, given they were hand-rolled from a bulk reel, isn’t a surprise. To be clear, I’m not making a point about the previous owner or supplier, just that this was my experience.
I guess my learning from this experience was swift. I have no rolls of Aerochrome left and it is now incredibly rare and expensive to get hold of. Even if it could be sourced the same risks associated with expired film, such as storage and handling, still exist. What this means is that whatever the reason for the poor results, my time with this film stock is done. Yes, it personally cost me a lot of money, but I don’t regret tying it. Film can be a cruel mistress with its lack of immediate feedback, the potential waste of actual money and errors creeping into the end-to-end process. That is why ‘digital’ took over and remains the dominant technology. For those who want the reward of the beautifully natural look of how film renders an image, we must accept that risk. I was certainly angry and disappointed, but it was worth giving it a go simply because of the mystique surrounding Aerochrome. The reward didn’t come, but I can’t dwell on that – time to move on to the next project. When I think about this, it’s pretty much the same for anything in life where if our best isn’t quite good enough, there isn’t much to be done but move on. In my case, I’m going to stick to the paths trodden by Kodak and Ilford from now on.
A couple of years ago I had a momentary loss of my faculties and bought 3 rolls of what is probably the most rare and mysterious film stock out there. Kodak Aerochrome is a colour infrared (IR) film that was originally designed for military use in locating man-made objects hiding in vegetation. The film renders organic materials that naturally reflect light in the IR spectrum as varying degrees of bold, mainly red colour where artificial materials generally look similar to how they do in visible light. In short, any plant or tree life looks like something out of a science fiction movie, while man-made stuff like artillery and camouflaging don’t. The film found other uses in airborne survey of vegetation after the military need diminished, but eventually Kodak called time on the film in around 2010. Since then, photographers and film-makers have used the remaining stock to create beautiful, other-world artworks. As the film became rarer, the laws of supply and demand drove up the price to an eye-watering $40 per roll (back when I bought mine). I grabbed my 3 rolls and put them in the deep freeze until I could find a subject. Then came the pandemic and my priorities changed. The film is ideally shot during the summer when the intensity of the infrared in the sunlight is at its highest. Once the summer of 2020 had passed, I resolved to shoot it in 2021. As the film was in the deep-freeze, it wouldn’t dramatically age during that year…unlike me.
Once the impact of the pandemic began to ease towards the end March 2021, I thought I would have a go at shooting one of the rolls during a brief period of bright, sunny weather. I selected my Nikon F6 to shoot it in, having first checked that it would work. Lots of film SLRs used light emitting diodes (LEDs) to determine how far the film was being advanced with each frame shot and this is a big problem with IR film. These lights emit sufficient light in the IR band to fog the film before we even start. The F6, being a professional SLR didn’t suffer from this problem and it had the additional benefit of having a very accurate light meter. I thought this combination would be a winner. After loading the film in the dark…yes, even loading in normal light can fog the film inside the cartridge, I was ready to shoot. I went to the local park to find some compositions that would include vegetation and man-made structures to really bring out the legendary look of the film. Once done, it was just a case of waiting for the lab to develop them. When it comes to processing, the film is a positive slide which needs to be done as E6 process. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s will remember sitting around a big screen looking at slides of someone’s holiday photos. Tedious slide marathons aside, in my opinion there is no more magical a film than a positive slide. Anyway, the IR film can’t just be put in a processing machine for similar ‘LEDs-ruining-everything’ reasons as mention previously. My lab uses a manual process that was established as safe for colour IR. With all of these elements in place, I was confident. How wrong could I have been?
When the film came back, the clearest issue was that they were all under-exposed. The film is expired and although it had been tested, I didn’t take the age of the film into account. There is a school of thought that says that if you’re using expired film, you need to over-expose by 1 stop for every 10 years by its expiry date for negative film. Wasn’t sure this also applied to positives. Perhaps I was instinctively worried that if I deliberately over-exposed to compensate, I would then run into the well-known narrow dynamic range associated with positive slide films - slides are notoriously stingy when it comes to exposure and demand to be spot on to get good results. Whatever the reason, there is nothing worse in film photography than under-exposed slide film and that is what I had.
When I look at these shots, I can see the desired infrared effect. However, the shadows are a mess. I used matrix metering on the camera to get the average meter reading based on the dynamic range of the scene. The loss of shadow detail and the weird grain that appears points to the exposure being well off. Like all film fails, it’s hard not to ask other questions. Was the film any good to begin with? Did the camera work properly? Did the lab screw up the processing? I started to think about these other possibilities.
Taking them in turn, the film came from the brilliant Film Photography Project in the U.S. and they in turn got it from a vault in a military facility. It had been stored properly by both parties and the FPP did their own testing on the batch before they hand-roll it. I find it hard to blame the film knowing how it was handled all the way from the various freezers to my camera. As for the camera, my F6 is only a few years old and has worked perfectly with every other roll I’ve shot through it - so I guess that’s not it either. That leaves the lab, which is an easy target and people often pin their photographic failings on the poor technician who processed the film. I can’t find any variations between the frames on the film and the image structure is present in each. No matter how I look at it, this was my issue and not theirs. One thing I’ve learned about film photography is that it pays to be humble about one’s own shortcomings when things go wrong rather than try to blame something else. Sometimes, you just get it wrong and the consequences as well as costs are yours alone.
What I’ve learned about this first roll and this experience is that trying something different and being prepared to get it wrong is a positive thing. I had to look past the cost of the roll, admittedly through my tears, and see what I would do differently next time. More research into shooting expired slide film and even waiting until the proper summertime conditions would be top of the list. I would also think about developing it myself if I can get some E6 practice before then. What I know for sure is that I can’t wait to have another go. With a holiday coming up, perhaps the stars will align next time.