Sunday, February 21, 2010

Going back through time

Some of you may know that I have recently started shooting film again. Some thought that I was being an idiot, and may well be right depending on where in the convenience / cost / quality / flexibility continuum they stand. To me, film provides limitations that the cameraman must operate within, which ultimately leads to a better photographer.

I said 'again' as if it inspires some kind of nostalgia. Sadly, it does not. I am not saying that film doesn't do it for me -- quite the opposite in fact. I am just saying that there isn't really an 'again' -- the last and only time I shot in film was using a point and shoot Konica cam back in the days of high school, a distant 8 years ago. It came with a motor that makes a whizzing sound after the shutter clicks to advance the film and a much longer rewind at the end of the film. There was also an automatic flash that had a mind of its own.

So there is no nostalgia because there is nothing to miss. I can almost say that I am a film virgin. So you can imagine my excitement when the shiny 37 year old camera arrived about a week after I ordered it on eBay. Huge gamble I must say -- one never truly knows what "excellent condition" really means on eBay -- but nevertheless, the Canonet QL17 GIII arrived in pristine condition. Admitedly, I was pretty upset when it arrived with an engraving on the back cover saying 'Made In Taiwan'. I thought everything was made in Japan back in those days (1972)!

So the little camera arrived. It's the first rangefinder camera I ever used. To those of you who are wondering what a rangefinder is, it is a camera that triangulates the distance to the subject This distance is then transferred to the focusing mechanisms of the lens so that the subject gets in focus.

Unlike SLRs, which has a noisy mirror (that makes the sweet schp sound) that needs to get out of the way before a shot is taken, a rangefinder does not have a mirror -- it is a lot less quieter in operation. This noiseless operation, and its compact size, makes it ideal for capturing the spur of the moment situations, as in candid street photography -- the subject is usually unaware of the shot and is therefore much more relaxed.

Street photography. Now that's a genre of photography that not many people practice and is usually left to bold and skilled enthusiasts who are out there for the passion of life. Rarely ever used commercially for legal reasons. In most of the Western world, photography of anything visible in the public domain is fair game if it is done for personal use. As soon as the photos are sold or published, one needs a written release signed by the subject of the photo -- kinda goes against the spirit of candidness in the wonderful world of street.

Street photography is, against popular belief, not about voyeurism. Street photography is about reportage, on a personal level, and being a part of the dynamics and the vibe. It is not about putting a telephoto zoom on the camera and shooting the action from across the road (now that makes one into a voyeur). No, street photography is about walking around with a camera that does not draw much attention, and catching people going about with their daily lives. It's about catching the extra-ordinary moments of ordinary lives -- the joy of the laughter of a child, the love of a kissing couple under the lights, the vibe of the Downtown districts and catching humour in contrast. If people see the camera, they will either pose for the camera or run away, and the moment is gone.

As I am a purist at heart, I will also tell you that as invisible as compact digicams go these days, these are not good for street. Firstly, they make my decisions and I don't like it when a computer does my thinking for me. Secondly, they are slow -- it typically takes the thing about 4 seconds to switch on and a second to focus, and the moment is gone. Thirdly, the grain sucks, which is a subject for another time. Lastly, the wait to get the developed images is exciting. The con? Well, the wait to fill up an entire roll of film before getting it developed... Can't exactly afford to develop a roll a day in this kak economy!

So I got a vintage rangefinder, like the old masters did. The little Canonet is nicknamed the poor man's Leica. Leicas, now that's a name to consider. These things are built like tanks, for a good reason too. Because street photographers take their cameras everywhere with them, they tend to take a beating or two. Leicas are built to last -- most of the ones built in the 1950's are still in working order and can be purchased on eBay for about $1000 a piece. Now I am not crazy enought to spend that kind of cash on a 50 year old camera, despite the quality. So I settled for a Canonet. Perhaps not built like a tank, but at least like a Humvee (or for Richard, a Jeep).

With excitement I loaded a roll of test film into the camera, a roll of ISO400 colour negatives from Black's. Admittedly not a household name in film, but I thought I would give a cheap film a try before moving onto the old boys like Kodac, Fujifilm and Ilford, just to make sure that the cam works if for nothing else. The results absolutely blew me away.

Before we get to the results, film photography brings about some mysterious anticipation. There is obviously no immediate feedback of results. The suspense makes receiving the prints that much more exciting. There is also the costs associated with buying, developing and printing film, which make me think that much harder before I release the shutter. I spent a lot more time framing my every shot whereas I would have shot 20 with a digital and picked the best one, which in most cases would still be crappy. It forced me to see. The fixed lens also made composition more thoughtful -- no longer relying on the zoom to get things closer, I will walk and move myself into a better position instead.

Another challenge is using fully-manual exposure -- cameras from those days did not really come with many automatic features. The camera does have a single automatic feature in the form of 'shutter priority'. Unfortunately this automatic feature requires a battery to operate but apparently mercury batteries are no longer legal. Oh well. It will be full manual from now on. After seeing the results of the test film, I guess this was a blessing in disguise.

So the results: most shots were underexposed (but still very acceptable results with pleasantly-surprising results). The exception is the shot of Finch Station, which appears to be overexposed by a stop or two. This is the side effect of trying to guesstimate the strength of lighting within the room. It's especially difficult if one is running between a fluorescent light sources and a tungsten. I suppose I should be carrying a light meter too from now on?

The colour of the prints were a lot more saturated than I originally anticipated. Not a bad thing depending on the type of effect wanted, but certainly not my style. I will stay clear of the Black's film in future. Will probably try out some black and white Ilfords to see what I get.

So, much perfectness and excitement found in the first roll of not so perfect film under not so perfect conditions. The small size of this heavy but little metal box means that it will travel with me all the time. Much more much exciting and perfect times to be had ahead!

PS: The thesis is handed in and is now with supervisor. It should be a month or two before it comes back to me with comments. Then it will be another couple of months of fixing up. Until then, there is time to hit the snowy streets before the romantic atmosphere goes away.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Night shot

So it snowed last night. A lot. I decided to try to capture some whiteness and at the same time calibrate my old Sekonic 28c light meter from the 60's. It turns out that the thing is not very accurate in very low light or very bright light. Some more calibration will be needed when the light gets better, but until then I guess I will have to rely on the in-camera light meter in these tricky lighting situations...

In any case, after much trial and error, here is the product. The final exposure settings look nothing like what the light meter told me to use. At 60sec at f11 on ISO 100, this is about 5 stops out from the light meter's readings. To those of you who don't know what that means -- it means that that relatively speaking, the light meter thinks that a candle light is as bright as a 100 watt light bulb. Lots of negative space in the background too, but it's unlikely to improve anytime soon because people are getting more conscious about their lights, pollution and the rest of it. But hey, gotta save the planet right?

The thesis is still going on. Hoping to wind it up this coming weekend. Hopefully I will be able to finish my part and send it off to the supervisor, and hopefully get a couple of months of peace for some proper photography and PS3. At least before he bounces it back and tells me t0 rewrite the damn thing...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sunday Rant

Some of you may have seen these pics on my Facebook page. I dug them out again as I was reflecting a few days ago, with the introduction of the iPad, on a comment that was made to me a few months ago. I was at accompanying a friend to a gaming convention in South Africa. You can imagine the scene: geeky guys and video games. I was walking around with my trusty Olympus cam with the 14-54 f2.8-3.5 attached, asking the models at the convention to pose for me (as any guy would). The lens, on the four thirds format, is equivalent to a 28 - 108mm on the 35 equivalent, a normal telephoto zoom that is quite typical for a portrait lens. I must admit, the semi professional set up did it's duty of appealing to the vanity of the subjects, and most of them willingly struck up poses. I even ended up with some email addresses and Facebook friends.

But that's another story for another day.

Now where was I before I got distracted by models... Hmm, yes, the geeky guys at the convention. As I was roaming around relatively unchecked (as one would in SA), I was approached by some geek wearing an 'Incredible Connection' shirt.

"Hi. Don't you want to upgrade your camera?"

I looked around in various directions and was quite sure that he was indeed addressing me.

"No, not really. I am quite satisfied with what this camera is doing. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, it's just that Canons and Nikons are much better cameras than Olympus."

I was in no mood to get into an in-depth argument with a teenager whose face was pink with pimples and wearing a shirt that generates as much hate amongst the SA techno community as a white kid driving a Ferrari through the middle of Harlem. I didn't want to get into that argument partly because I had better things to do, like running after models. It was also partly because I knew that he was right - that Canons and Nikons were much better cameras from a technical standpoint. Had I entered an argument with him, provided that he knew his marketing materials he would have put together a very convincing argument on why I should have switched. I suspect he would know because salesmen learn these things backwards and can quote specifications like waiters can tell me their chefs recommendations for the day with twenty synonyms of delicious scattered in their five dishes, I always wanted to a ask the waiters how they know the fish is delicious and juicy and all that good stuff, but I always managed to resist and keep my peace, because I am such a nice guy, and because I know that he will eventually bring me my order.

Now where was I before I got all distracted again? Oh yes. Had I entered an argument with him, I would in all likelihood have lost, even though the guy in all likelihood doesn't know f*ck about his preaching topic of cameras.

So why do I use an Olympus? Because it has soul.

I shall not take away from Canon and Nikon all their technical glory. For any tech junkie and the novice photographer, Canons and Nikons provide the most amazing, technically perfect photos. They offer significantly more preset functions and systems designed to assist the user with the various settings. Problem with these settings is that they take control away from the photographer so it becomes the cameras photo and not the photographers. Would you trust your plane to land in autopilot mode? They also offer the least noise when using high ISO sensitivity. Question is, should anyone be shooting at ISO 16000 in any case? If you're a professional, then you light things up with strobes and don't need high ISO. If you're not professional, then you shouldn't be too concerned with a little noise in your photos because honestly you will not be printing poster size prints to give a damn about noise. Just to prove a point, The photos above were taken at ISO 1600 using f3.5 @ 50mm. in very dim lights with no flash. Shutterspeed varied depending on lighting conditions but in general they were short enough to be done handheld with no visible shake - thanks to the in-body stabilizer - something that Canonites and Nikonians can only envy at. The noise is only really noticeable if you zoomed all the way in. And no, the weird colour is the first pic is not caused by the camera - Sony for some bizarre reason liked their stand lit up in gay orange...

To some extent, the professional camera marketing has become a bit like cellphones. They are packed with features that no one will ever use. Why would anyone use the MP3 player on their cells when all of them are already carrying iPods? What do I do with a camera on my phone that captures at 2mp? Do I really need a tip calculator or do I just not know how to add 10% to the bill?

If no one cares to use these features, why succumb to aggressive marketing?

So why Olympus? Once you go manual, you don't go back. And at manual, the cameras are driven down to the lowest common denominator, there really is not much to distinguish between the cameras. There is almost no difference in dynamic range between Canons, Nikons and Olympus. The graininess of the high sensitivity shots on an Olympus remind me that the camera is not perfect - and perfection usually reveal themselves in imperfection.

So it comes down to soul. Canons and Nikons do me no favours when I want to change simple settings when they force me to go through their menu systems. They just do not feel right.

A relationship with ones camera is like a real relationship. Some things just feel right, and some just don't. It's not always going to be the hottest girl that gets a guy's attention, although society does lead us to believe so. One can't explain it. It's just the way it is. (I can see some friends cracking up at this one - a single guy liking a relationship with a camera to a real one. Well, get over it.)

There is a reason why Leicas are the simplest of cameras with only two or three nobs and switches on them. Yet they are the chosen cameras for most professional photographers in the pre-digital age. It all comes down to soul.

Ultimately, the camera does not make the photographer. The photographer makes the photographer.

So what does the iPad have anything to do with cameras? Nothing. It just reminded me that there will be some sheep out there who will go where ever the sheep dog tell them to go. People will flock out to buy the iPad because it is "cool" but is not needed. There has to be some intelligence left within mankind that will eventually slow down the progression of vanity.

Just a thought...