The Online Darkroom Store

Sunday, June 17

Stars in Their Eyes

Dalreichmoor, high up in the Carse of Gowrie

Way back in the mists of time there was a TV show in the UK called Stars in Their Eyes where ordinary members of the public could grab their 15 minutes in the limelight by impersonating a famous celebrity. I'm pretty sure the same format would have been used in many other countries around the world.

The impersonator would stand under the spotlight in front of the studio audience and declare to host Matthew Kelly, "Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be...Elvis!" By dint of some 1980s camera trickery, an Elvis-ish (you can only say that when you're drunk) being would suddenly appear. Personally, I couldn't stand the show but I believe it was popular.

I've revamped the format for photographers and will be relaunching it as, Cameras in Their Hands. This time around, the ordinary snapper gets to pick up his particular camera, say a Leica, and announce to the world, "Today, I'm going to be...Ralph Gibson!" I've been doing this sort of thing for years but it's harmless enough, I suppose. There must be a part of me that actually believes that, given the right camera, I can magically transform myself into the photographic hero who once wielded it with such success.

My latest Cameras in Their Hands moment happened last week but I'd need to sketch out the background to it first so bear with me. About 25 years ago I used nothing other than a 6x9 format Mamiya Press for my photography. It was the period, perhaps more so than any other, when I didn't give a stuff about camera equipment. I had a working camera with a big negative, 65mm, 90mm and 150mm lenses and I was happy. An ancient Slik copy of a Linhof tripod sometimes accompanied me.

The camera had once belonged to a hard-working pro in my home town of Dundee and had then been through the hands of a couple of photographers on the newspaper I worked for. It was in a bit of a state but still functioned well enough. It's long gone but I managed to find a few pics of it on my hard drive. Bashed about a bit, screws missing, peeling and missing leatherette. In short, it was a man's camera.

From time-to-time, I've posted a pic or two taken with it and Phil Rogers always says that there was something about them and that they were "me". Then TOD contributor David M. said something similar when I posted another old Press shot just a few weeks ago. He wondered if the 6x9 format might be THE sweet spot as far as photography formats go.

Their comments alone, thought-provoking though they were, wouldn't have been enough to stir me to action but they happened to coincide with some thoughts I'd been having of my own. I'm a big fan of Don McCullin's landscapes and have often had thoughts of copying his M.O. - slinging a Mamiya Press around my neck with a 75mm lens fitted and a handheld light meter and wandering over the hills, or the Somerset Levels in Don's case. Used in that fashion, the Mamiya becomes something like a big, heavy Leica with a 35mm lens fitted.

Plus, not long ago I was approached by a record company that wanted to use one of my old Mamiya shots for an album cover. Here's the pic:

And here's the cover:

There seemed to be some divine intervention taking place, the runes were aligned, etc, all of which was pointing me in a particular direction. Rather than fight it, I went with the flow, safe in the knowledge that, if it didn't work out, it was all the fault of Phil and David.

Some idle online browsing led me to a Mamiya Press Universal with 75mm and 100mm lenses at a well-known camera store. I reached an agreement with myself some time ago that there would be no further net expenditure on camera gear: if I wanted something then I had to sell something. Well, sitting staring at me on my desk is my much under-used Konica Hexar AF, a great camera with a brilliant lens that, all puns aside, I've just never clicked with despite coming close a few times.

It's value on Ebay was more than the cost of the Mamiya outfit so little wheels started whirring in the Robbins cranium and meshed with even smaller cogs and a few days later a box landed on the doorstep with a cosmetically nice camera and a couple of grotty lenses which will hopefully be great once they've been cleaned and serviced by Miles Whitehead.

We're back in the present again now. The spotlight was shining on me, I picked up the Mamiya and said, "Today, I'm going to be...Don McCullin!" And that's the road down which I travelled that led me back to a place I hadn't been in a long while - wandering over hills in search of landscapes with a big medium format camera hanging from my neck (that's the clumsiest sentence I've written in ages!). But what about the Rollei SL66, I can hear you ask. That's a big medium format camera, isn't it? Yes, but if you've ever tried to use one handheld with a 45 degree prism in place and eye sight that isn't getting any better, you'd maybe understand why I see it purely as a tripod camera. Believe me, I've tried working with it hand-held and it's no fun.

I did think about sending the Mamiya outfit straight to Miles as both lenses have a  small bit of fungus in them, thankfully near the edge of the glass, and one has a lot of dusty crud on the inner elements. The front and rear surfaces look unblemished, though. But the thing is I wanted to make sure it was at least working the way it should before the 15-day period during which I could return it expired. So I loaded up a roll of HP5 and satisfied myself that everything was functioning properly. Surprisingly, the lenses are usable as they are although maybe the 100mm is down a little on contrast. When Miles has done his stuff - viewfinder cleaned, rangefinder checked and calibrated to the lenses, etc -  I reckon everything will be spot on.

The Mamiya promises a lot as the 75mm lens is supposed to be very, very good. Along with the 50mm and the 100mm f2.8, it's one of the best made for the system. I believe it was designed for the Polaroid version of the Press Universal and has tremendous covering power for the larger Polaroid image. Apparently it just about covers 5x4. The 100mm f3.5 that I have is a good lens but seems to be no more than that. Still, a good lens on a big negative should be more than enough, quality-wise.

My first landscape foray with the outfit was great fun. I didn't walk too far over the hills but just being able to leave the car and a tripod behind was liberating. After about 40 minutes, the weight of the camera on my neck did become quite noticeable but with more use and perhaps an Optech strap things should improve. Best of all was the handling of the Mamiya.

It came with a grip that screws onto the left hand side (see pics of my old Mamiya above) and has a built-in cable release. The idea is that you hold the camera with your left hand and set the speeds, aperture, focus, etc with your right. That seems the wrong way round to me so I ditched the grip and just cradled the camera and lens in my left hand in the same way you would normally operate an SLR. I'm not sure how Don found out about my approach but I've noticed that he has copied me and does the same thing. One of the later film backs for the Press has a built in cable release on the right hand side and if I can get one of those I'll be all set.

At the top of the page is my first real landscape shot from the Mamiya. I'd rated the HP5 at 800 ISO for development in stock Microphen and was pleased with the results. I might try ID11 stock the next time for a little less grain, not that Microphen is too bad. It was the puddle twins in the foreground with the light reflecting off them that attracted me to this scene on Dalreichmoor. The big, menacing sky made it irresistible.

I've long felt an affinity with the moor and love driving through it in my old Saab. There is, so I've read, a strong connection between Dalreichmoor and our ancient friends, the Druids. When they weren't sacrificing people by burning them alive in huge wooden figures (if you've seen The Wicker Man - preferably the first version with Edward Woodward and not the Nicolas Cage remake - you'll get the idea) they were dying at an early age and getting themselves buried on the moor. Dalreichmoor is an odd word even for Scotland and it's conjectured by some that it's a corruption of "druid". Sounds a bit far-fetched to me but you never know.

Thursday, June 14

In praise of the Filofax

Well, it's difficult for me to admit it but I guess I can accurately be described as a Luddite now. I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that technology, especially computer-related digital technology, is, on balance, diminishing the quality of life. I know it's not a massive revelation but it's still hard for me to admit it.

A couple of things happened to make me realise the path I'm on, a path away from the ubiquity of electronic devices and their propensity for restricting our life experiences under the guise of opening up new vistas.

First, my iPad started playing up. In truth, it had been slowing down and becoming ever more recalcitrant for months. I thought I'd teach it a lesson so I backed everything up - or so I thought - and wiped the bugger clean. That marginally improved the performance of the machine so I was reasonably happy - that was until it came to developing a film using the Massive Dev Chart app on the iPad.

That was when I realised that I no longer had the app on my iPad. It had disappeared along with my developer times and all my notes which I'd typed into the app. Now, I know some of you will be sitting there thinking, "Well, that's not exactly the iPad's fault, is it? The muppet forgot to back up the app and now he's blaming the device!" And, of course, you'd be right. You could also accuse me of over-optimism in placing my faith in the iPad as an archival storage system when notebooks and pencils are cheap and reliable. I get that, too.

However, there is one storage system that has stood the test of time despite being given no special treatment nor back-ups of any kind - the humble Filofax or personal organiser. I stumbled upon mine in a box of stuff that I hadn't looked at for many years. It's a cheap copy and not the big name brand but it was still stuffed with developer notes and information sheets from boxes of developer and film going back more than 25 years. It was a lovely thing to behold, if truth be told. A snapshot of a point in time before digital photography was even a term, when I had most of my life before me and when Jessop's own-brand film (re-packaged Efke) was a pound a roll (it always comes down to money eventually, doesn't it!).

Whatever happened to the Filofax, I wondered to myself. It was such a big part of the stationery industry and now it's gone. Another victim of the digital takeover. Except it isn't. Gone, that is. There's a burgeoning Filofax community out there peopled by all sorts from hipsters and young mums to company executives and lawyers. This reality kind of blew me away. But it was also an affirmation. It fairly made my day to know that not only was I not alone in my growing mistrust and dislike of digital devices but I didn't even need counselling. I wasn't (that much of) a freak after all!

My eager research into the Filofax led me, almost inevitably as it turns out, to a great website called Philofaxy (very clever name) where I discovered, amongst many other things, that personal organisers have been around since long before the war. The main contributor to the blog seems to be a retired UK radio engineer - and photographer - who has a fine command of the English language so it's not only chock full of information but can also be read without filling me with rage at the slow dismantling of our main form of communication. Everything you might reasonably want to know about personal organisers is readily accessible on the Philofaxy site. Including the fact that you can pay as much for a leather bound Filofax or similar quality brand as you might for an iPad. Obviously, you could write your photography info on a £1.50 notebook out of Asda but you could also use a £25 Minolta SRT101 as your main camera and there aren't many who do that. A good place to start on the Philofaxy blog is right at the beginning where you can read about the events that sparked the whole thing off.

There are printable PDF files for a whole range of inserts for the Filofax from notebook pages to "to do" lists and calendars and all the way through to PHOTOGRAPH EXPOSURE NOTES! Yes, you can print out your own pages and slot them into your personal organiser for use in the field. OK, the money you'll save from this DIY approach won't enable you to pay off your mortgage early but it tickles the nerve centre where independence and self-sufficiency reside and, at least from my perspective, imparts a warm glow to the being.

A nice Omega organiser. £350 of your finest British pounds, sir.

So how much is entry to the Filofax club? Filofax organisers start at about £30 or thereabouts and go right up to several hundred pounds. There are other premium brands which are even more expensive. I really fancy a leather-jacketed one in a nice dark brown filled with my DIY exposure note pages and associated scribblings in the notebook section. I can guarantee that such a Filofax would be around as long as I am which is more than I can say for an iPad.

In fact, just last night, I was sitting on the settee with said iPad looking at some Ray Moore photographs when I stopped to blow a hair off the screen. Turns out it wasn't a hair but a long, hairline crack! I looked further and found a series of cracks partly hidden by the cover I use over the device. Again, the "muppet" must confess that the cracks are no doubt the result of some rough handling as iPad screens tend not to self-destruct. But must things always happen for a reason? Or is it only coincidence that my iPad has started the no doubt inexorable process of disintegration just as I rediscover the joys of the battery-free personal organiser?

I don't know the answer to that one. But I do know that I'll not be taking any chances. From now on, my developer notes, etc, will be committed to good old paper using no more than the humble Biro. 

Monday, June 11

Moving the goalposts

Where have all the dogs gone? Ray Moore could conjure up a hound or two (apparently) when he needed them. Lots of other photographers can as well. I've had luck influencing the flight patterns of seagulls so they fly into my frame at just the right spot, but dogs?

I love the creatures - have three wee bichon frise pals who are great (they look nothing like the poncy ones you see at dog shows, btw), even if they stop me and Cath from getting a holiday together as they'd never survive going to a kennel for a couple of weeks. You'd think there would be some quid pro quo from the canine world to one of its major benefactors. But, no. 

Hence the rather empty-looking photograph at the top of the page. I waited for about 30-40 minutes sitting on a grassy bank overlooking these local council football pitches in vain. I wanted a big black dog to stop for a pee against the nearest goalposts. At a push, one of the goalposts in the next row back would have done. Even a white dog would have been acceptable. Possibly even preferable. These are hardly unreasonable requests and I'm flexible.

To be honest, I wasn't too prepared for this shot. I had the OM1 and a 28-135mm Tamron zoom on it, a roll of Tmax 100 and nothing else. It was about 8.30 a.m. and the weather was quite dull. At f4 I was working at 125th - and no tripod. The Tamron zoom is quite decent but it's not outstanding close to wide open. I'd have liked to have been at f11 and tripod-mounted.

Normally, I'd have gone for a walk along the beach at that time of day but I feel I've photographed that area to death in recent weeks and wanted something different. I'd played football at Dundee's Drumgeith Park as a teenager but had never visited it since so I thought it was worth a look.

Perfect Placement

Is it possible that whoever laid out the football pitches many moons ago did so without reference to the needs of a photographer sitting on a bank overlooking them? It hardly seems possible so perfectly placed are they. If I could pick them up and reposition them I don't know if I could improve on their arrangement seen from my particular viewpoint.

The 135mm end of the zoom was needed to frame them nicely. Unfortunately, the lens suffers a bit from some vignetting unless stopped down a few stops although the slight darkening of the outer edges of the frame actually works quite well in this photo. I don't think it's quite as marked as it seems here when I print from such a neg: the scanner has probably made it look worse than it is.

After developing the film in ID11 stock, I was quite pleased with this shot and resolved to keep going back until a black dog, pack of wolves, herd of wildebeest or similar, made an appearance. A week or so later I returned to the park, fingers crossed. What did I find? Some bugger had taken the goalposts in for the summer season! They had literally moved the goalposts! It couldn't have been the guy who laid them out 40 years ago as he would obviously have checked with me to see if I had everything I needed first.

My suspicion is that it was a woman. They can accompany men to the terraces or even start playing the game but we all know deep down that they're just doing it to spoil men's fun. 'Twas ever thus.

Wednesday, May 30

Under the influence...

Carse Sheep Farming

Rae Knowes, 1980 by Raymond Moore

Is there a danger, photographically-speaking, in spending too much time looking at the work of photographers we admire? I ask after I was struck by the similarities of a photo I'd taken to one by Ray Moore. At the taking stage, I wasn't conscious of Ray's image. Even after developing the film and scanning the neg into Photoshop it still didn't hit me. But when I was sitting having a morning coffee in McDonald's drive through and looking at some of Ray's photographs it stuck out like a sore thumb.

There is a strong similarity between the photographs from the elements in the frame - sheep, hill, telegraph pole(s) - to the weather (snow, blank sky), the format and the perspective. How heavily influenced must I have been from having viewed Ray's pic at some point in the past? I vaguely recall having seen his pic before so the image must have been imprinted somewhere on my brain.

The question I asked myself was, "Would I have taken my photograph if I hadn't seen Ray's?" I remember the circumstances surrounding it quite well. It was a pretty grim day, snowy and very grey-looking. I'd dragged Cath out to the Carse with me so that she could push the car if we got stuck or dig me out of a snow drift*. I was driving up a hill in a quiet part of the countryside with no parking place on what was almost a single track and had little alternative but to stop in the middle of the road to take the shot. I certainly didn't fancy parking somewhere out of the way and walking a few hundreds yards back to this spot in the snow.

I had Tmax 100 in the Contax and didn't have time to set the tripod up as I was sure, as almost always happens whenever I can't find a parking space and stop in the middle of the road to take a quick pic, that the complete ensemble from the Wacky Races would be along in a minute to tell me to get out of the way. I used the 100mm Sonnar hand-held at 1/30th and wide open at f3.5. "Cloudy dull" weather in my neck of the woods in winter and with 100 ISO film is 1/60th at f4. I gave it a stop more than that as it was 2 x cloudy and dull and the exposure was fine. There's no evidence of camera shake in the scan that I can see.

It was a good shot of the Carse in the winter as it showed the type of conditions we can get along with some of the sheep farming that goes on. That was my motivation for taking it. But, I've no recollection of saying to myself at any point, "This one will be just like one of Ray's". I suppose it's almost impossible to avoid being influenced by our photographic heroes and that needn't be a bad thing as long as we don't set out to consciously copy their work. I can honestly say that Ray's pic didn't enter into things as I stood there freezing in the snow, trying to keep the camera steady.

Of the two photographs, I prefer Ray's. I like his placement of the pole in the centre of the frame which makes for a more interesting composition. My composition is more clasically-balanced but lacks the edginess of Ray's image. This "balancing" is something I have to fight against as it can make the photograph a bit dull or unexciting. I've noticed that Ray sometimes has the subject matter in his photographs to the left and centre of his frame with the right side almost devoid of interest. I've no idea if this was something he did on purpose or just the way he saw the world.

I have my own theory about photography and that is that we improve by studying those images we like until they become burned into our subconscious. We absorb the elements that make them, in our eyes, a success. Then, when we're out and about, some or all of those elements appear before us in a scene and a wee alarm bell goes off in our heads followed by a voice whispering, "You have the elements for a successful photo before you. Get the camera out."

Ironically, my photography really improved when I stopped buying "how to" books and started buying books that only had the work of other photographers in them. I'd stare at these images for ages in the same way I studied Ray Moore's output on the iPad. During that time, I've moved away from admiring the Ansel Adams-type of photograph towards the likes of Ralph Gibson, James Ravilious and Ray. In other words, it's the 35mm aesthetic that floats my boat rather than the dead sharp and grain free.

Returning to the subject of this post, I suppose I'll be fine as long as the inspiration for my photography remains in the subconscious. If I ever stand before a scene and say to myself, "This is just like that pic by Mr X," then I'll probably be in trouble. And would I have taken my snowy sheep shot if I hadn't seen Ray's work? Yes, I'd like to think I would have.

* Humour alert. Thought I'd better make that clear in case someone tried to report me to misogynists' anonymous.

Wednesday, May 23

The Robbins Files: Peeling paint!

I've written well over 600 posts for The Online Darkroom, the vast majority of which have been published for your unalloyed delectation. There are a few dozen, though, that have remained in draft form for whatever reason. Maybe more research was needed. Or I might have added a few photographs to a blank post and been unable to find the words to tie them together. These things happen from time to time.

I was looking through some of these draft posts, mainly to see if I could safely delete them, when I came across one that was complete and unpublished. A valuable collector's item possibly? Haha. It was the second (written 18 months ago) in what I thought was going to be a series called The Robbins Files (see what I did there?) where, instead of putting some effort into writing a new post and showing some fresh work, I'd dig some old negatives out and scan them. Anyway, apart from the first one I don't think I got around to doing any more. I thought I might as well publish the second one. Who knows, it might spur me on to make it an irregular feature. Stranger things have happened.

What can I say? It is indeed peeling paint. When I was a member of a local photography club for a couple of years that cry used to ring up - Not peeling paint! - whenever someone put forward such a shot for judging. The same complaint could regularly be heard at camera clubs up and down the country a few decades back. Magazines even wrote about this "genre" and warned readers to steer well clear of it. Peeling paint must have been original at some point but it very quickly became one of those hackneyed subjects that "serious" photographers wouldn't touch with a barge pole. Sort of like Bryce Canyon*.

In this second trawl through my old negative files, I thought it would be funny to show this pic which I took in the face of the Anti-Paint Brigade (peeling division). It's a Rolleiflex shot that wouldn't have been worth taking without the strong sidelight. It's a picture that, to me and me alone, says "Get it up ye!" to the blazer brigade. Mind you, I wouldn't have dared to enter it in a club competition. After all, people might have thought that I wasn't a serious photographer.

And now another random shot - you're getting them as I found them when grabbing neg bags from the shoebox. This is a forest near Scone in Perthshire called Druid's Wood. When I visited it with my late pal, Ken, it was so atmospheric that we thought we'd stepped into another dimension - and that had nothing at all to do with the Wiltonesque piles of magic mushrooms carpeting the wood. What bizarre shenanigans had taken place here over the centuries? Ritual sacrifices? Wild Kundalini-style sex games? Demonic invocations? Knitting?

The neg is a lightly cropped 6x9 cm effort from my old Mamiya Press and a 65mm wide angle Sekor. There wasn't much room around the stone circle although the lens has made it look almost expansive. This was about the only viewpoint I could find that let me fit in the stones without chopping them up vertically with tree trunks.

The sad postscript to this story came when I returned to Druid's Wood just a matter of weeks ago. The landowner had decided, in his wisdom, to fell all the trees. The special, quiet atmosphere was gone, possibly forever. Who knows? The stone circle is a bit of a hike from the road and I was too dispirited to make the effort to see what it looked like in the middle of this new Somme-like landscape. Sad. Druids, by the way, weren't quite as they're popularly depicted - white robbed, peaceful and dancing round Stonehenge at the summer solstice. Their apparent environmental leanings just cloaked their true character, vicious, blood thirsty and willing to trample on anything in their way in pursuit of their ambitions. A bit like liberals, I suppose.

Finally, here's a photograph to show you what patience can sometimes achieve - absolutely nothing. This is a bank of the River Isla and you can just see the black entrances to the swallows' nests drilled into the mud. I thought it would be lovely to capture a bird on the wing heading home for a rest and a cup of tea but, despite waiting for ages with my Mamiya Press and sitting still longer than I'd done since primary school, none of the buggers could be tempted home. Didn't they know that they could have been made famous? Ah well, show me a bird and I'll show you a bird brain.

* Personal bias alert

Sunday, May 20

Clutter...or Art?

There have been a couple of times in the past when I've railed against the horrible art speak that can spring up around photography from practitioners determined to make the medium as impenetrable as possible or to "elevate" their often meagre efforts in the eyes of an uninformed or even wilfully ignorant (from their point of view) public.

I came across a new term for me just the other day when watching a video about US photographer Stephen Shore. He was discussing his pic below and used the words "structural density" to describe what would normally be thought of as "clutter".

It's actually a nice photograph, in my opinion, without being in any way special or noteworthy. Nevertheless, according to Mr Shore it represents, "the height of structural density in my work". I've put it in quotes even though I didn't note the exact words at the time but the term "structural density" was definitely mentioned.

So structural density? Sounds interesting, doesn't it? Ask the average person about the structural density in their latest iphone pic and you're going to get a very blank stare. Go on about the structural density of your latest image to your wife or husband and see where that gets you. But when a photographer with a bit of a name uses the term suddenly it's accepted as something "out there" and arty, possibly even important.

What does it really mean? Well, apart from "clutter" you could also say "busy". If you were being mildly critical you might say "overly fussy". Forthright types might say “crammed full of crap”. All it really means is that there is lots of stuff in the view. That's it. "Lots of stuff" can be good or bad in a photograph depending on how you compose or arrange everything. I like Mr Shore's composition here. As I said before, it's a very pleasant image that I find nice to look at. There's plenty to explore within the frame and it's captured rather well the intense southern Californian light.

I set out, for a laugh, to capture some structural density of my own recently in Dundee's Slessor Gardens, part of a big project to transform the waterfront area of the city. There’s some building work going on and a lot more still to come so things can appear somewhat chaotic depending on where you look.

My first structural density effort must be one of the busiest shots I’ve taken. It could be the pinnacle of photographic clutter! I took one shot of this scene and thought, “Wow, the density!” Then a man walked into the shot to add a final layer of density so I took another. Short of a troupe of jugglers performing in front of the seat I didn't think the structure of the pic could get any denser so I called it quits.

The second pic has no fewer than 11 poles on show in what is a fairly small field of view. Perhaps this needs a separate sub-category of “vertical structural density”? Would perpendicular profusion sound more arty? I don’t know. Anyway, it certainly has a lot going on.

Is there an artspeak dictionary or an app for converting English into gobbledygook? If not, why not? It could be invaluable to art students making it easier and quicker for them to write their personal and artistic statements and freeing up more drinking/smoking/fornicating time. Imagine, just one click from:
I photograph stuff I see around me. Not sure why but it gets me out the house.
I see my image-creation as a never-ending quest to explore the synergy of material artefacts in the built environment and their spatial significance within the inevitable confines and conflicts of the capitalist hierarchy. Fuck Trump.
It was explained to me some time ago that this sort of mangled English has developed in the art world because art needs its own language to express the ideas behind it. I don't buy it. If you can't explain it with "normal" English then mixing up a whole load of polysyllabic words into a structurally dense sentence isn't going to help.

But that's the real goal, isn't it? We're not supposed to understand it so that we're encouraged to see those uttering complete bollocks as ├╝ber-sophisticated or enlightened in some way that we plebs aren't. Anyway, I can't say I'm a big fan of structurally dense photographs whether cloaked in quasi-mystical jargon or not.

I prefer simple compositions like this one above I took last week in the Fife town of Leslie. They need less explaining. What is it about? Beyond a shot of a playpark? Don't know. Why did I take it? Don't know. I like it - you may not - but that's all that matters to me and screeds of pseudo-intellectual garbage will never alter that fact.

Sunday, May 13

The Carse

How exciting - we're back in the Carse again! Well, I like it anyway. You might start getting fed up of seeing these project pics but it's my blog. Haha. The pics here, as you can probably tell from the snow in some of them, were taken a couple of months ago when much of the UK was under a white blanket. I thought it would be a good idea to show them now before it's full-on summertime and they start looking a trifle incongruous.

I'd bravely ventured forth into this white hell emboldened by the surefootedness of a fairly ancient four wheel drive Volvo that we bought in December. There are lots of great pics to be had up the hills in the snow but getting to them can be problematic. Cath was surprisingly receptive to the idea of a 4WD as long as she didn't have to drive it so a 10-year-old XC70 now sits in our crowded drive alongside my old Saab and the wee Hyundai runabout that Freya will get as soon as she passes her test.

We managed a couple of trips up Glen Shee to Braemar in the snow but the car was mostly used for keeping out of ditches in the Carse. I hope to be able to get further afield in the Volvo next winter, particularly Glencoe which I've only visited in spring and summer.

Anyway, back to the subject of this post. These are all OM1 pics, as have been most of my 35mm Carse shots thus far. An OM1 was my first ever big purchase and the first camera I bought. I'd saved up a couple of weeks wages from working for the local parks department after leaving achool and before going to university and spent it on a secondhand black OM1 with 50mm f1.4 Zuiko.

Over the years, I've had a go with just about every 35mm SLR out there. Apart from a spell using a Nikon FE2, I've always had an Olympus to hand. Aside from the OMs, the other marque that I always hankered after was the Contax but they were fiendishly expensive at the time. Over the past few years, though, I've been able to build up a great Contax outfit as post-digital prices became very reasonable.

These two outfits are what I've used for most of my 35mm SLR photography.
However, I find it hard to see past an OM1 or OM2 and always tend to gravitate back to them and that's the way it's been with the Carse.

The OM1 I'm using is a black one just like my first ever camera purchase so I've come full circle. As I mentioned in a recent post, the normal outfit comprises of a 24mm Zuiko, the 50mm f2 macro and a 75-150 zoom. The first two lenses are great and I don't think I could do much better, but the zoom is a weak spot. Ergonomically and functionally it's brilliant but it's not the sharpest lens and suffers from a bit of barrel distortion at the long end which is annoying when photographing horizons which I tend to do a fair bit when using a telephoto.

My preference for a theee-lens, portable and lightweight outfit is the tried and tested wide angle, standard and telephoto so I think I'll have to see about picking up something like a 100mm f2.8 Zuiko or maybe a 135mm as a replacement for the zoom. I know it's not thought very arty or creative to talk about gear but who cares. It's my blog anyway. Oops, that's the second time I've written that.

So, the pics. One and two are shots of the Paragon Skydiving Club based at Errol Aerodrome an old wartime airfield. The club doesn't look much but it's a professional operation that does a lot of good through charity jumps. I've signed up to jump on my 98th birthday*.

At the end of the runway is this old Fairey Gannet (Pic 3), left to rot away, which I photographed over the wing of an almost equally old Hillman Imp heading for a similar fate.

Number 4 is something you'll not have seen from me before - a bleak road. Actually, if I have a "style" then this is it - the photographic equivalent of Morrisey's greatest hits. I took this with the Tamron 28-135mm SP zoom which is a damned handy lens. I had the camera on a tripod and was standing on some uneven ground right by the roadside. Every passing car was throwing up slush and muck so I had to keep jumping backwards to stay clean(ish) and dry(ish).

I went to some lengths to separate the wooden hut on the left from the fence post beneath it. Doesn't sound like much but with the cars and wet, bumpy ground it was quite a feat. I saw the hut as a sort of full stop to the track and losing it amongst other dark things would have been careless. 

Pic No. 5 is a straightforward shot of Port Allen from a slightly different viewpoint to previous efforts to show the small inlet connecting to the River Tay beyond. No. 6 is a country noticeboard and post box that I'm going to photograph again. I picked up a tip from a James Ravilious book to note the collection times for the post box so you can snap the postman emptying it. I might scare the living daylights out of him by snapping him Weegee-style, jumping out from behind a parked car with the Speed Graphic and the biggest flashgun I can bolt to it.

The pic above is a wide angle shot of a graveyard in Errol on a suitably moody day. And finally, a shot of Little Ballo farm in the Carse Braes. I pass this farm road quite regularly and almost always stop to photograph it if the weather is in any way inclement. See what I mean about bleak roads?

* Like hell I have!

Monday, May 7

A wider view

Winding Path

After posting this from my PC I checked to see that it looked OK on the iPad and found that the shadows and mid tones on the latter are about a zone lighter than on the PC. Where I'm talking about moody tones, you'll just have to squint or adjust your monitor a little to see what I'm on about. It's too much work redoing all the pics and reformatting the post. I'll try to get my monitor and the iPad in greater agreement for future posts.

If there's a knack to using a wide angle lens, it's making sure you have something filling the foreground. Wide angles make things smaller and if you don't have something dominating the bottom of the frame then chances are the main point of interest will be something very small and insignificant in the middle to far distance.

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course, but failing to get in close to the subject and maximising the apparent expansion of space that occurs as a result is what makes some photographers think they can't use lenses wider than 28mm with any success. The wide angle "look" isn't enjoyed by everyone, however. Ralph Gibson decided early on that whatever style he was going to develop it wasn't going to be the Bill Brandt super wide effect.

Lingering Snow

I mentioned a few posts back that I've taken to going out with an OM1 and 24mm, 50mm and 70-150mm Zuikos in a neat wee Domke satchel-type bag. As a result, I've been using the 24mm more than I've done for a long time.

The Zuiko is that great combination of small, light and sharp so it's a great addition to my walkabout bag. The focal length used to be thought of as the start of the "super wide" range but it's really nothing special at all nowadays with some very wide zooms out there and the likes of 12mm and 15mm lenses having been made by Voigtlander for the Leica in the last few decades.

Broughty Ferry Beach

Still, I find it's just about perfect for the type of photograph I like to take. Anything wider and the distortion effect in the foreground becomes a bit overwhelming in my opinion. It ceases to concern the relationship between the foreground and the background and surrounding space and becomes just about the weird look alone.

Winding Path

My favourite of the shots in this post is the first one. It has what I like in a photograph which is a simplicity without too many distracting shapes, details and tones. There's really just the path, the sky and the grass. The image is a scan of the negative and hasn't had much done to it at all in Photoshop.

I like to use the image editing software to explore the possibilities so that I have some idea of what to do when it comes to the printing stage. I did another version of the photograph where I lightened the path to give the impression of light bouncing off the dampness. It's something that could be done in the darkroom either by dodging under the enlarger or by the use of a bleach on the print.

On one level, it was a more striking image than the one here but it detracted from the subdued bleakness of the scene. Also, the tones here complement each other well so that no single one dominates - they're quite harmonious. With the lightened path, it became all about, well, the lightened path! It upset the balance of the photograph and added a sparkle that was at odds with the sombre mood. Who'd have thought photography could be so complicated?

I asked for a second opinion from Cath having done up the two versions and presented them to her without comment. She preferred the one in this post as well although she couldn't really put her finger on the reason. The other thing that struck me was the influence of the street sign on the horizon near the left hand side of the frame. It may be small but it helps to balance the picture.

An Abrupt End

Lingering Snow

Lingering Snow was taken a couple of months ago when the cold snap we had around here at last started to lift. There's always a pocket of snow that remains in shadowy ditches and stubbornly refuses to move and this was one of those.

It's another pic that caught my eye because of the similarity in texture between the ground and the sky. I normally meter snowy scenes directly from the snow and then open up two stops to place it on zone seven. You have to watch in case the snow causes some under-exposure. The Lingering Snow negative has plenty of detail away from the snow but I chose to give it the moody treatment like this for the same reason I avoided lightening the path in the first photograph. This pic is all about the highlights - the snow and the sky - and "printing down" the rest of the frame is the best way to emphasise this.

Broughty Ferry Beach

Broughty Ferry Beach worked out better than I thought it would. I was shooting into really strong sunlight and was concerned that flare would spoil the shot. Then there was the exposure to work out. How to capture some detail in the sand shadows without blowing out the sky?

The Zuiko did a good job here, I reckon. Yes, there's some flare but rather than spoiling the shot I think it adds to the atmosphere. There were a few strollers out (this one was taken in the evening) so I waited until a couple got themselves into a nice spot where they were adding interest to the empty patch of water at the top left. The building almost right in the middle on the skyline is Broughty Castle.


An Abrupt End

An Abrupt End is a quirky wee shot that was taken earlier in the same week as Lingering Snow. The building is a little pavilion next to some tennis courts. Someone, maybe a parks department worker, has trundled something across the snow and then apparently vanished into thin air. I like the switch from white tracks on black tarmac to black tracks on white snow. Without the 24mm in the bag I probably wouldn't have bothered to take this photograph - one of the reasons I'm no good as a one-lens photographer.


A bit of urban grittiness now with Menzieshill. This is a well-used path across a park stretching from one busy road to another. I'd spotted the potential in this shot before and went back to photograph it in the snow because it just didn't do enough for me in the dry. Like Lingering Snow, it's been printed down to emphasise the highlights in the snow and sky.

Broughty Beach 2

Broughty Beach 2

Broughty Beach 2 should probably have been Broughty Beach as I took it five minutes before the into-the-light shot of the castle. Never mind. It shows how low the sun was in the sky at this time of day and is a reminder that I really should look out the lens hood I have for the 24mm. I'm not sure it would have made a huge difference in the later contra jour shot but it wouldn't have harmed it. I'm undecided about this photograph basically because it seems such a hackneyed subject. Probably every photographer who's ever been near a beach in the evening has a taken a similar photograph.

Being naturally shy and retiring, I've always had a bit of a problem photographing in public and there were quite a lot of people milling around this scene. I feel self-conscious - a bit of a plonker would be another way to put it - standing on the street with a camera in hand. However, I'm gradually getting to grips with it thanks to a mantra I've started chanting inwardly to myself. Full of Buddhist mysticism, it goes like this, "I don't give a shit". Works for me.

Road to the Coast

Road to the Coast

Finally, Road to the Coast, a pic that you'll possibly agree bears a striking resemblance composition-wise to some others in this post. What can I say? It's how I see the world through a wide angle lens. With lenses from 35mm to 135mm I tend to shoot with the camera in landscape format but with the wider lenses I seem to see a lot of vertical compositions as is the case with all except the first one in this post - and I've got a vertical version of it as well.

Road to the Coast was taken in North-East Fife on a chilly day when there was some ice on the puddles. Thankfully, after a cold winter and equally cold spring we're at last beginning to feel the weather taking a turn for the better. There's even some blossom on the orchard trees in the Carse. Time to get the Rollei SL66E out for some fun.

Saturday, April 28

How to stand out in any field

It's easy, really. Just get a pair of wellies. That works for me at any time of year - and is especially handy when the conditions are as you see them in the two pictures on this post. It can be hard to believe sometimes but my home town of Dundee is one of the driest parts of Scotland. That might sound impressive but it's a bit like being the safest part of Aleppo. In other words, we still get lots of rain up here where we at about the same latitude as Moscow.

These pics were taken about ten miles away near Tentsmuir Forest in north-east Fife. I'd been out in the car and on the way home when I saw this nice light glinting on a muddy field. Without me good old wellies I think I might have given it a miss. I once climbed into a similarly soggy field in pursuit of a picture wearing a pair of trainers. My first step landed in a cow pat soup and my trainers still smell of cat pee to this day. Nothing shifts the pong. I'd throw them out but I'm too tight and want my money's worth first.

These pics were taken on the Contax RTS II, the same camera that's now developed a fault (see previous post) and is awaiting its turn at the camera repairers. It's great when it's working, though, and the Zeiss lenses I have for it - the 28, 50 and 100 - make up a brilliant outfit for landscape work. The film was Tmax 100 developed in ID11 stock. I'm still working my way through the 5 litre pack I bought a couple of months ago so most films will see a dunking in that brew.

Conventional wisdom is that you lose a little sharpness using it as a stock solution but the tonality is definitely better for the weather I shoot in. I've never done a proper test but I'm not sure if the enhanced sharpness from using it 1+1 or 1+3 would be all that evident in a 10x8 print. I know I've said it once or twice before but I really think I'd save myself a lot of bother just sticking to ID11 for everything. Every time I use a new developer I have the inevitable "dial in" time before getting it right only to find that there's not all that much difference in my negatives anyway. Really, what's the point?

Friday, April 27

When good cameras go bad...

I'm suffering from camera fatigue. Not that I'm fed up of them, you understand. For, as Samuel Johnson said, "When a man is tired of cameras, he is tired of life." No, it's the cameras that are fatigued and, apparently, fed up living a creative, fulfilling existence. My litany of camera woes has been steadily mounting in recent years.

For what seemed like decades I'd had no trouble to speak of from any bits of my equipment - then things started to fall slightly apart. (Anyone in their mid-50s will read that last sentence and quite possibly nod along in sympathy).

The King of Cameras. Never bettered in my opinion.

So I'm now facing some expensive repair bills if I want to keep what I have in a fully functioning condition. I've already had my Leica M2 serviced along with the 35mm Summaron and the 50mm Summicron. Just a couple of weeks ago I sent off my Rolleiflex 2.8F, a zoom lens and my old black Pentax SV for some TLC as well. The Rollei was working fine but I noticed what looked like a small bit of fungus starting to appear in the viewing lens.

Up with that I will not put so I thought "it's only the viewing lens, how hard can it be" and proceeded to clean it and upset the focusing in the process. I tackled it with my best DIY collimation approach but wasn't happy. Since I'll be getting buried with the Rollei (sitting in my Saab with my hands zip-tied to the steering wheel and a rictus grin in place, if you must know) I wanted to have it sorted properly, so off it went.

The SV has never worked properly in the time I've had it but it's a beautiful camera and I've some equally beautiful Takumars that I want to use with it so it's worth the expense. It has a lazy second shutter curtain that does an impression of a bad salesman: it either fails to close or finishes too slowly to get the job done. I tinkered with it (I occasionally break cameras as a hobby) and got it going reasonably well but it's almost as old as I am so I felt it would benefit from a proper service and a shutter overhaul.

The zoom is the legendary 35-80mm f2.8 Zuiko, rated as one of the best lenses made by Olympus if not, in technological achievement terms, the best. Performance at all focal lengths is said to be on a par, genuinely, with the equivalent fixed focal lengths and it has a constant and fast-for-a-zoom maximum aperture as well.

The latter feature means it's on the big and heavy side - possibly too much so for my taste - but I'd like to give it a whirl to see what it's like anyway. This zoom goes for upwards of £500 on Ebay although I've a feeling it might be a bit on the expensive side to put right. I'm awaiting an estimate for the removal of the fungus that's deep within the lens barrel, assuming it can be removed and hasn't done too much damage.

If those were my only camera worries I'd be fine but it seems the God of cameras - let's call him Opticus - has got it in for me. Old Opticus has also seen fit to make the film winding mechanism on my favourite OM2n start slipping, the meter of my OM1 become very erratic and the winding mechanism on my Contax RTS II start slipping at the end of a roll so that it seems to have a film of infinite length in the back.

Opticus decreed a while back that the Nikon F100 should only be able to work in multi-exposure mode. It operates apparently without fault until you develop the film and find that you've taken 36 exposures on the one frame. And, most recently, Big O took to messing with my Pentax MX. The shutter has started squeaking and the slow speeds are stalling, both most likely from a lack of lubrication.

OK, it's been sitting unused in a case for a few years but I had it serviced about five years ago and have only run a few films through it in all that time. Confirmation that the worst thing for cameras, as with humans, is an idle life.

It's good that film camera prices have been rising for a couple of years as the cost of servicing and repairs doesn't seem so bad when it's quite a bit less than the value of the camera. That definitely wasn't the case for most of my 35mm SLRs just five years ago.

If I want to keep on using film then I've got to have a camera or three to hand and often enough you're better off with the devil you know. It's taken me a while to appreciate it but it makes more sense to spend the money on servicing than on a "new" second-hand camera that might just develop the same problems.