I came across an article a while back which struck a chord with me. It was by Eddie Ephraums, on the use of phone cameras. He suggested that using the camera on a mobile phone can lead to a more relaxed approach to photography. His idea was that ‘image making becomes freer and I take pictures that feel closer to how I see.
Ironically, not trying to be a photographer seems to make me a better one.’ Using a smart phone camera allows me to snap a moment whenever I see it, rather than only when I have made a point of going out to take photographs with my DSLR.
I am also more inclined to share these photos, as I can upload them directly to the internet and am less concerned about theft of my copyright as the image is not of a high enough quality for would-be users to do a great deal with.
My newly developed dependence on this approach was brought home to me recently when I arrived at the venue of a yoga class I was about to teach and was suddenly stuck by the alignment of some elderly railings alongside the car park.
I reached for my phone before realising it was at home on the charger. I have been back several times since but the railings have not struck me in the same way again and I have not again been tempted to photograph them.
Another way in which I have found that using my mobile’s camera encourages me to photograph the world as I see it is that the tiny sensor and short focal length mean it creates a huge depth of field in an image.
This is much closer to the way the human eye sees the world than the shallower depth of field I am frequently tempted to select on my DSLR. I love images with only a small part in focus but if I am honest this is not the reality that I see but rather an image I have created as a result of the shortcomings of my camera’s ‘eye’.
At the end of last year, the media picked up on a study at Fairfield University which seemed to indicate that by taking photographs as a record of things you see, you impair your ability to actually remember them. The experiment was conducted during a museum tour, with some participants asked to take photos and others just to look. They also noted that if participants paid more attention to the object, by zooming in and photographing smaller details, the impairment effect was overcome.
This seems to fit in pretty neatly with my own experience and expectations. If we walk around snap, snap, snapping away, with paying attention, it is not surprising that we remember very little. In fact, perhaps our memory takes the opportunity to switch off, as we know we can look at the pictures later. This approach allows us to daydream, coast and really avoid being present to whatever is in front of us. Why pay attention? The camera will take notes for you! When I see those people who seem to view their entire holiday through the lens of a camera, taking pictures or video, I have to wonder if their attention is on the subject or on the technicalities of recording it.
It is only when we truly engage with our subject that we see it clearly. For me this invariably means up-close and personal, but it doesn’t have to. I love to explore the little details of texture and light, shadows and form. I like to slow right down, to spend time exploring my subject visually before I get my camera out of the bag. Sometimes I decide against using the camera at all; despite the advances of modern technology in those little boxes of tricks, they can’t always record the sheer magnificence of the scene perceived by the human eye. This is why I rarely take pictures of sunsets, preferring to sit and watch the subtly changing light than to dwell on camera settings and framing. In fact some of my most memorable images are the ones that ‘got away’. Despite my generally poor memory these days, those images are firmly settled in my mind to be treasured for the future. No camera required!
In the summer I have less teaching and I like to use some of the time it frees up on a photography project or two. This didn’t happen last year, as the summer was spent prepping for a new course. So this year I am doubly keen to explore an aspect of photography that is new to me, as a way of expanding my horizons and engaging my curiosity. Time for some blue sky thinking!
With this in mind I have been reading up on pinhole photography. This is really the simplest photography you can imagine. A tiny hole allows light to enter a sealed box containing a light sensitive medium and creates a negative image. You can then use this to create a positive either in the traditional dark room or by scanning it and inverting the resulting digital file.
You can make pinhole from just about anything; biscuit tins, shoe boxes and coffee containers, wheelie bins and even a spare transit van should you have one. For the more financially secure (and less adventurous?) there is also the option to buy beautifully crafted models that have been lovingly constructed from luxury components. Guess which option I will be taking? Yup! DIY pinhole camera here I come!
This was actually what prompted me to by the Agfa Clack I wrote about last week. This seems to be a popular ‘first build’ pinhole camera and I am hoping to convert one of the aperture rings to a pinhole without destroying the functionality of my Clack as a regular camera. Now, pass me that screwdriver!
A trip to the Wolverhampton camera fair is invariably likely to end in a few purchases, planned or otherwise. Sometimes it seems that going to the fair without a shopping list leads to worse excesses than when I plan my extravagances beforehand. Last weekend was no exception. There was absolutely nothing I needed to look out for, and so I went along with an open mind and a (unwisely) restocked wallet.
Faced with a dazzling display of photographic paraphernalia, my receptive mind reached down into its subconsciously creative recesses in a determined effort to justify one purchase or another. This time I homed in on a Clack.
A what? I hear you say? An Agfa Clack. But why? I think what appealed to me is the sheer simplicity of this camera.
The Clack is neither collectable (as defined by its price!) nor particularly rare. They were produced in serious quantities in the period 1954 to 1965 by Agfa Camera-Werk AG in Munich. Initially made with a metal body, and later a plastic one (mine is plastic), the Clack is essentially a smallish black box designed to hold 120 roll film.
You can choose one of 2 apertures to suit the prevailing weather conditions. I believe these are f/11 and f/12.5. Bokeh should be perfectly shaped, as the aperture disks are just circles in a plastic component which moves into position for each selection. Mine also has the close up filter, for subjects between 3m and 10m away. The shutter offers bulb or ‘M’, which I understand to be 1/30 second. So, the only real control you have over the exposure is in choice of the ISO rating of your film. I can see I shall be spending the summer checking my light meter, in my efforts to seek out conditions that suit my new camera!
The most exciting aspect of the Clack is of course the focussing mechanism. Err, there isn’t one.
I have plans for my Clack (watch this space!) but I can’t resist putting a roll of film through it first. How much simpler can it get?
In our digital age, it can be so easy. Cameras are everywhere, lurking in our bags and pockets as a vital function on our smartphones and tablets. It is rare for us to be without one, or maybe several at once. Hundreds of thousands of photographs are taken on a daily basis and many are shared immediately to social media networks. Gone are the challenges faced by the pioneers of photography; the uncertainty of success in actually creating an image, the slow and laborious process of coating glass plates, lengthy tripod-based exposures and dangerous developing chemicals. Taking pictures has become an everyday activity, as normal as brushing your teeth or getting dressed. As natural as breathing.
So what is it that prompts us to record our lives in this way? To freeze-frame tiny moments in time that impinge on our existence?
Perhaps your camera records those special moments you want to remember, creating reminders that transport you back in time. Raising a giggle or an ‘Ahhh’. Reliving happiness.
Does it capture the beauty around you? Bring you closer to your world, our world? Sparking a sense of peace and connectedness?
Maybe it creates something from nothing. Rendering the improbable delightful and unveiling the invisible.
My camera does all these things and more. What does yours do for you?
The Rolleiflex has become something of an iconic camera and I am still excited to own one. A search on Google will find plenty of pictures of celebrities (old and new) posing with one. Marilyn Monroe was famously pictured with a Rollei, as were James Dean, George Harrison and Paul McCartney. A popular image these days is of someone gazing into its waist level viewfinder, and I found pictures of Zooey Deschanel and Natalie Portman doing just that. It’s become one of those must-take shots whenever there is a Rollei nearby!
Posing with a Rollei aside, in its time the Rolleiflex was the camera of choice for famous photographers as well, not least Richard Avedon, Lee Miller, Diane Arbus and Robert Capa. More recently the work of Vivian Maier has come to the world’s attention, when a treasure trove of her images surfaced in a clearance sale at a storage facility in Chicago. Unable to pay the rent on her storage locker, her possessions were put up for sale, sight unseen, and the lucky buyers really hit the jackpot this time when they discovered what was in the jumble of boxes and trunks they had bought.
Maier was a nanny in Chicago and her spare time was spent out on the streets with her Rolleiflex. Maier was able to blend into her surroundings to record the daily life of Chicago residents and a fair number of self-portraits, using reflections in mirrors and windows to create her images. Over her lifetime she amassed some 150 000 negatives, although some films were not even developed and only a small proportion printed.
In our modern world, where the mobile phone rules as an everyday camera, carrying a Rolleiflex might be a little less unobtrusive than it was then. I will be finding out soon, as I plan to try out some street photography with my new acquisition before too long. Read more about the life’s work of this remarkable woman here on the BBC website.
Yet again I have fallen foul of that powerful emotion, Love At First Sight. I have generally found going to a camera fair without a shopping list to be unwise and this time it was about as unwise as it gets. With no specific purchase in mind, I wander the stalls browsing the myriad cameras, lenses and other doo-dads set out to tempt me. One regular stallholder arranges the front of his table with boxes of ephemera; lens caps, obscure remote switches, scratched sunlight filters. And behind these deceptively cheap defensive lines stand the real prizes, desirable vintage cameras strut their stuff on the back shelf in the hope of effecting a relocation before the day is out.
I have been tempted at this stall before, but my purchases stayed in the realms of the incidental. This time my eye was drawn immediately centre stage, to a pristine Rolleiflex. Oh my. The light glinted off the chrome-effect lens cap and I was in love. Holding this treasure in my hands felt so right it took great strength of mind to put it back down. But put it down I did, to spend the rest or the morning with that memory burning a hole through the synapses of my self control. With the end of the fair approaching rapidly, it was crunch time: would I be taking the Rollei home with me or not? Eventually I succumbed and emotion ruled the day. An exchange of used notes, a handshake and I walked away heady with excitement at my new acquisition.
It fascinates me how my mind plays games with me. You can’t afford it, put it back. You don’t need another film camera. You could buy a cheaper one, lots of stalls have them. Yes, but…will I regret it when I get home? It really is lovely. Just wait and see if it’s there at the end. Let fate decide. If it’s gone, it wasn’t meant to be after all. How I like to abdicate responsibility and let the Universe decide! However, sometimes stepping back from this process in a conscious way, to watch the drama unfolding inside you. is remarkably relaxing.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that you relinquish control completely to drift every which way the wind blows you. We need some structure to guide us along the path. Else the bank account would soon be empty and the house full of impulse purchases. But mulling it over, taking time and yes, being indulgent every now and then. Who knows what is around the next corner? Universe, thank you for my new Rolleiflex!
Sometimes it seems to me that modern life is all about possession; having the latest gear, clothes, car, phone. The list is endless as marketeers do a stupendous job of convincing us that life won’t be worth living if we don’t own the latest and best incarnation of their product. Alongside this comes the ‘the instant gratification society’ where we don’t just want it but we want it now. And this extends not only to things we must buy but to our pursuit of photography as well. When film was the norm we had the anticipation of sending away the finished roll to be developed and printed, waiting a week or so to see how the images had turned out. Yet with the advent of the digital camera we soon became accustomed to that JPEG preview on the rear screen. And how strange it seems now to use a camera which doesn’t allow you the option to see your image immediately after taking it. And taking this one step further, the potential that there will not be an image at all?!
As I mentioned in my last post, experimenting with old cameras comes with the risk that your films with yield nothing more than an attractive black shiny strip of plastic. Quite photogenic in its own way, but not quite what was intended when you set out to seek images that morning. At first, I found there was a tendency to curse the waste of time and money; buying the camera and the film, the time spent taking pictures and developing the film. However I soon realised that as a hobby it offered repeated opportunities to practise letting go.
The ability to let go is one of the cornerstones of a mindful life. Being prepared to let go of what is and receive what will be. Observing your reaction to the situation as it develops and runs its course. When I go out with a film camera I am living in hope, optimistic that my day will be successful photographically. But how do I define this success? When you take away the emphasis on the ‘quality’ of the outcome, the day becomes more about the process, the engagement and the moments of life fully explored through taking the time to look carefully. Who cares if there are no pictures at the end? I am practising to engage with life as if I had a camera, even when I don’t!
Read this week’s sister post on Letting Go here.
I have seen it suggested a few times recently that the immediacy and ease of digital photography detract from the meditative aspects of the activity. Often, when I see people out and about with their cameras or using their mobile to snap a quick selfie, I can only whole-heartedly concur. Modern cameras are so clever, we need know little of their workings to achieve a decent image and little thought is necessary when grabbing a set of holiday snaps in Program mode. This may be perfect if you are aiming to create a record of a day out or the fun at a party, but perhaps it is a slightly different matter when we are looking to connect ourselves more closely to our surroundings and explore the marvel of life in any particular moment.
On these occasions, I believe that slower can only be better. Taking time to look before bringing the camera up, framing the image thoughtfully and making a conscious choice to press the shutter at the right moment. No ‘continuous shooting’ mode here please! Taking time allows something of who we are to be absorbed into the image, to make it truly ‘my’ picture; as much a picture of me as a picture of the subject.
I think the urge to slow down is one of the reasons I am attracted to using older film cameras. Before handing over my hard-earned pennies, I check as best I can that the camera is functional. Shutter, aperture, glass and bellows (if it’s of that certain age, as so many of mine are!) are all subjected to my eagle-eyed inspection. Back home, my new acquisition receives a thorough clean and I ‘test-drive’ it with an old film, or film paper in the case of 120 film.
Then it’s time to venture out for the real ‘road-test’. Even though this is just a test film, I find myself resistant to pointing the camera any old how with little care for the subject of my image. Sometimes I will frame a scene, only to walk away. If the camera takes 35mm film, it can take several trips before I finish the film. This is somewhat ironic, given that I never know know at this stage if I will get images or not. And strangely enough, this is what I love most about these experiments of mine, and what keeps me rescuing more elderly cameras. With each one I have the later excitement of developing the film to discover whether my memories have been preserved…or are consigned to rest only in my thoughts. It’s this risk that makes me take my time to observe carefully and record in my mind’s eye as well; after all, this could be the only image I create that day! It’s never quite the same once I know the camera works, and that’s what keeps me coming back for more!