The Gentleman’s Lens

I’m not a lazy photographer by nature. Whatever pictures I’m taking with whatever equipment I’m using, I try to get the best technical result I can. It’s a personality trait. Long experience has taught me that cheap cameras and lenses used carefully and sympathetically can outperform the best equipment lazily used. I recently used a sub £50 lens(UK) (USA) which on a test rig is dross. I got some very nice pictures using it for what it was suited to. Here’s one.
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Would it have been better on a Nocticron(UK) (USA) at 20 times the price? No, not really, though the picture would have been easier to make. Autofocus, autoexposure, stabilization, as opposed to tripod mounting, twist the focus ring yourself and meter the exposure for yourself. Even so, give me a DIY lens and the extra effort doesn’t faze me at all. I’m not, repeat N.O.T. lazy.

So why, if I go to Lightroom and click on EXIF, do I see that my most used lens is my Panasonic 14-140 f/3.5-5.6 (UK) (USA)? Is it sharper than than the Olympus Pro lenses (USA)? No. Lighter or smaller than the the 12-32 (UK) (USA) and 35-100 (UK) (USA) Panasonics? No. I have all those lenses so it’s not that I’m short of (better?) alternatives. Why then? I think the answer is that it is my gentleman’s lens.

The gentleman has always held an emblematic status in England. A gentleman is good at what he does but not superb. That would involve too much effort, which is ungentlemanly. A gentleman is superior but without effort. Effort would imply that he is concerned about what others think. That would be pandering and decidedly ungentlemanly. The essence of a gentleman is summed up by the old English aristocracy’s mode of dress. For example, an expensive, but not too expensive jacket which has been allowed to become a bit ratty, with leather patches on the elbows and frayed – but not too frayed – lapels. The message of the jacket is that the wearer has enough money but not too much (vulgar!), though almost certainly more than you because he allows a good quality jacket to become scruffy whereas you, not being a gentleman, would probably have had it repaired or – horror! – bought a new one. The message is that so superior are you that you do not even deign to compete.

So, to my gentleman’s lens, the Panasonic 14-140. It isn’t as sharp as the Olympus Pro pair but they are awfully manly and butch and, well, professional looking. A touch of the trying too hard syndrome there, I think. Very nice if you want other photographers or even admiring onlookers to think you are a professional, just back from the war or a steamy photo session with Carla and Kate. But my gentleman’s lens, it’s not too big, not too small. It’s quite cobby when it’s in the 14mm position but looks a bit of a dog tromboned out to 140mm. Perfect! It shows that the photographer using this lens is not concerned with how it looks, only that it is good enough to do what he needs without too much effort. He is focused on, or more gentlemanly, heedful of his results. Swapping lenses is not only an effort but slightly undignified, not to say a distraction from the job in hand. This photographer is plainly a true artist, no more concerned with his equipment than a painter is with his brush!

What about the 12-32 and 35-100? Both wonderful examples of modern lens technology. Excellent performance and tiny with it. A truly informed choice by the photographer who values portability and the size/ quality balance. Whoa! Informed choice? Size/ quality balance? That’s a bit intense isn’t it? Can you imagine an intense gentleman? The whole gentlemanly demeanour is of effortlessness, insouciance. My gentleman’s lens didn’t take a lot of choosing. It’s small but not especially so. It has excellent performance but not outstanding in the context of Micro Four Thirds primes. It is the gentleman’s choice yet again. It works. It does the bidding of its master and that is all it has to do. Flash looks, stellar performance, sky high price? Simply too, too vulgar, dear boy.

I can’t help feeling Panasonic have missed a trick here. Fender sell editions of their classic electric guitars called Relics. They distress them, rub off paint where years of contact with a beer belly would rub off paint, add myriad dents, dings and scratches and sell them for three times the price of the regular model. All that money so you look like a road hardened roadhouse player who doesn’t give a cuss ’bout anythang ‘cept the blues, rather than a bank clerk who has just turned page 2 of Bert Weedon’s Play In Day book.

So why don’t Panasonic make a special metal bodied Relic edition 14-140? Add Scratches, dents and dings so that it looks like an old 200mm Nikkor that Don McCullin binned when he came back from Viet Nam? Now that would be a real gentleman’s lens. Imagine the other photographer’s faces when they see it and ask you where you got it. “Oh, this old thing! It fell out of Don’s recycle bin when a fox knocked it over. Seemed a shame to waste it and frankly, Geographic, Match and Stern simply don’t care what equipment I use”.

Until Panasonic do make the Relic Edition, I will still use my normal one. There’s something about a lens that is sharp enough, small enough, well stabilized, avoids lens changing out in the field and focuses closely enough for flowers and even insects at a pinch. Today, out on a stroll though the vineyards, I only shot three frames, a closeup, a landscape and the heavily backlit hay stack and vines.
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All on the 14-140 at 140, 80 and 14mm. No lens changing, clicking or clacking, no fiddling with focus ring. Just bring the camera to the eye and point the lens in the right direction and idly press the button. Leisurely, with style and insouciance, the image is made. I do not review it on the monitor because to do so would betray a lack of confidence in the lens and myself.
(joke) The 14-140 simply and without fuss renders my vision to my art (/joke). That is why it is my most used lens. And that is why it is a gentleman’s lens.

Grease And Grunge and Cotton Buds. A Morality Tale For Our Times

 

When I went over to Micro Four Thirds around 5 years ago, there was one unexpected bonus. Dust and dirt on the digital sensor ceased to be a problem. I was very happy about that.  It had always irked me a bit with my DSLR, that dark blobs would appear on my pix, particularly noticeable on large plain areas such as a clear blue sky. I had the sensor professionally cleaned now and again but it annoyed me forking out £40 or more each time.

With film, of course, every frame is a new sensor and freshly installed in position from the cassette, so dirt and dust isn’t a visual problem at all.

On a DSLR there’s a mirror and shutter between the sensor and the  world so I reckoned that muck would be a headache  with my new Micro Four Thirds bodies, given that the sensor faces the elements directly when the lens is changed. Plus, any particles on the rear of a lens when fitted on the body can just fall straight on to it .

I was pleased to find I was wrong and that a dirty sensor was, judging by my results,  a thing of the past.  I didn’t know why and put it down to the automatic sensor cleaning routine operating on start-up and the extra care I took when changing lenses. In particular air dusting the lenses frequently and holding the camera maw facing downwards during the un-bayonet/ bayonet routine.

But then I bought an Olympus macro lens, of necessity stopping it down to f/22 for depth of field sometimes –  and hang the diffraction. And suddenly there they were, the little bas****s, the devil’s blobs.  I was about as pleased to see them as I was a scratch on a  new Steely Dan album in the 70s.

I bought some very expensive swabs and paddle things but was loath to use them because of all the dire warnings of terrible damage to the sensor. Then I read that that the sensor itself was covered with glass for several reasons, among them presumably, protection

It all seemed a little less dangerous so I used a blower, swabs and paddle thingies now and again to budge the stuff the built in high frequency sensor cleaning routine didn’t shift. It never got rid of everything but it made a reasonable job of it. I’m not a fussy person and I rarely open up a lens beyond f/4 anyway. Nonetheless, it niggled me that I couldn’t clean it properly. Having seen cleaning being done in a camera shop, there’s nothing magic to it. They didn’t have any special equipment that I didn’t, apart from a loupe with LEDs built in.

Then, while fitting the 12-40mm Olympus Pro lens to my little GM1, I lost my grip on the camera and it slipped out of my hands – with no lens on it, of course. I caught the GM1 one handed as it dropped. Being one handed, I clawed at it to stop its fall. My thumb went to the back and one finger finished my pincer movement neatly and luckily gently. Excellent! I had caught it. Less excellent, I had caught it by the back and…..sensor.

I could see my paw mark with my naked eye. A beautiful clearly delineated 3rd finger print worthy of Scotland Yard itself.  Smack bang on the GM1’s delicate little sensor. Great! Now I would be shooting pictures with an £800 piece of state of the art optical design – but focused onto what looked like the greasy bottom of an unwashed frying pan.

I tried to clean it with those paddle things and a drop of cleaning fluid.  It worked ok but still didn’t look right, certainly not perfectly clean. And I’d run out of paddle swabs and cleaning fluid. So I put a cap on the camera body and sent for an LED equipped loupe like the big boys have. I was a bit shocked by what it revealed. There were a few little dots of dust or pollen or whatever, nothing to particularly worry about.  But there were also smears to be seen. The beauty of the loupe is that you can clearly see all the grease and grunge on the sensor. It’s not a pretty sight.

So , another professional clean then? After all, the swabs and paddles hadn’t done the job and I wanted the sensor spotless. Then, trawling around the net for ideas, I saw someone who swore by Q Tips,  generically, cotton tips or buds and isopropyl, which I use for cleaning lenses and electrical contacts. Since I was going to send the camera away anyway, if I didn’t use violence on the sensor, I wasn’t going to do anything that couldn’t be undone by the professionals. So I gave it a try.

I put a tiny amount of the isopropyl cleaning fluid on a cotton bud and went for it. Using the loupe, seeing what I was doing was easy and light rubbing removed the grease and the spots very effectively. I was very pleased to see the spots go, because I think they were probably sticky pollen and the camera’s sensor cleaning routine has no effect on that at all.

My cotton bud did, however, leave a few streaks. A light to and fro with a fresh dry cotton bud got rid of those without trouble leaving one tiny fibre which a quick blow from my Giottos Rocket Blower made short work of, leaving me with a sensor with two tiny spots visible only lightly at f22 on a white surface. I contemplated running the GM1 through the dishwasher to be certain of eradicating them but it seemed a bit extreme. Maybe the Karcher pressure washer? A new GM1? That’s a it like changing your car because the tyres need pumping up. Maybe just live with it?

I wonder if it is possible to get a completely and utterly clean sensor? Maybe there’s a point at which you have to say that good enough is good enough? Certainly, a sensor which looks pristine to the naked eye is less so when looked at through a loupe(UK)/(USA).

It’s like pixel peeping. You have a razor sharp lens, you’re delighted with it and then you look at 100%. Or even 200%. OMG!  If I make a print  6 feet across it won’t be razor sharp viewed from 6 inches! I’m reminded of an old Tommy Cooper joke where he goes to the doctor and tells the doctor “doc, it hurts when i do this”. And the doctor replies, “well, don’t do that!”.

If you stop a lens down to f/22 and then photograph a sheet of out of focus white paper and g and there are a few dust bunnies to be seen, maybe the answer is, as the doc says, “well, don’t do that”. Certainly, the spots I’m talking about aren’t visible in normal use. Do they matter? I suppose not. Trouble is, thanks to the loupe, I know they’re there.

The funny thing is that film negatives regularly got scratched in handling and filing. The answer to that was the pole opposite to cleaning a sensor. You’d rub your finger over the top of your nose and then rub it over the scratches. Hid them beautifully. Don’t try that on your E-M1, though.

Like all good stories (and this one), there is a moral point to it. As happens so often, Confucius put it well – “Wise photographer never look at sensor through loupe”.

And please, please note – I am not recommending my method. Using cotton buds and isopropanol comes in at about 1/1000th the cost of professional cleaning. It is only for cheapskates and chancers like me. 

But Is It Art?

I had an angry comment on my YouTube channel  recently. I shouldn’t be too worried, because out of over 3m million hits, one testy one isn’t too bad. Nonetheless, for some reason, in my mind one criticism needs 1,000 pats on the back to balance it. Plus, as with many arguments, if expressed with more thought and less emotion it would actually merit some consideration.

I had published a tutorial on how to use new function on a Panasonic Micro four Thirds camera. Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that all new technology should sound like magic and this does.  It is called 4K Photo and it is a blend of video and stills. Essentially, you shoot a video at 30 frames per second but unlike movies, you can extract stills from those 30 frames per second with still picture quality. Its cleverest implementation is called 4k Pre-Burst.

When you press the shutter, it saves the 30 frames from the second before you press the shutter as well as the 30 frames after.  It sounds like Clarke’s magic but actually it is straightforward. When you first press the shutter release, the camera shoots 30 frames per second continuously until you press it again. On pressing the shutter the second time, it continues at 30 frames per second for one second and then stops, discards all the frames except the 30 shot immediately before and after you press the shutter button and saves them all.

What it means is that Cartier-Bresson’s iconic decisive moment, the moment in time that sums up the situation, the holy grail of decades of  photographers’ efforts becomes not The Decisive Moment (note the caps, denoting importance, gravity, artistry, perception) but the decisive couple of seconds (note the  lower case, meaning, yeah, ok, wa’ever, I’ll choose it later, a’wight?).

And that’s what had made my correspondent angry. By showing someone how to do it, I was somehow advocating it. That was why he was unsubscribing angrily from my channel. I was traducing his art. Every real photographer’s art. I was teaching ordinary photographers a way  to bypass the years of love, care, experience, learning, the honing of perception and reaction that he had undergone.Was I? I’m a simple soul. I just thought this was a clever bit of technology that might be useful in some areas of photography. Period.

Which begs an interesting question. If I show you an interesting or artistic picture, basically a good photograph, does it matter how I got it? Does it have a warmer glow because I had to slave for it? If I extracted it from a video but told you I captured the moment by instinct, would it look any different to you? Those are the anarchic and unanswerable questions that Andy Warhol was asking when he would have other people make his art in a factory. He’d even stamp it ‘This is not a genuine Warhol’.

As a professional freelance photographer living by selling his work for many years, I can genuinely say that I would co-opt any new technology as soon as it came out. The object is to get a picture and sell it. I have yet to meet a picture editor who gave a damn how a picture was made (so long as it was legal!) When Nikon came out with their motor drive back for the Nikon F  in the 60s, photographing sport changed. When a racing car left the track before, you had one chance of a picture. After the motor drive,  you pressed the button as soon as you saw the car going off and followed it to the impact, capturing it all.

It is de-skilling, really. In those days, though, only the professionals could afford such things so there wasn’t an outcry about de-skilling, that this was not real photography. Now, in the digital world, a camera that can be bought for half the cost of a good mobile phone can shoot as fast those motor driven Nikons, And a modern Panasonic can shoot 6 times faster, for tens of minutes. Just record it all and if there is a decisive moment, find it later. Warhol, of course would have had an assistant find it and then scribbled on the back of the print that ‘this was not the decisive moment’.

I sense that part of the anger of my correspondent was that 4k Photo meant anyone could do what he had spent years learning to do. His unsubscribing from me because I had explained how you did it was a bit like the church’s objection to the Latin bible being translated into English in the early 15th century.  His bible, his photography, was for initiates who knew how to appreciate it. Not for the great unwashed.

I don’t think he need have worried. I have always thought that the art of the photographer had more in common with the art of a novelist than a painter. It is about observation, understanding and interpretation. The fast sequence camera records the images but it doesn’t provide the understanding or interpretation.

In essence, watching a scene unfold and selecting a decisive moment from it to photograph is little different from watching a video of it and picking out the decisive moment from that. What is rare is the sensitivity to watch something and see its significance and the moment that encapsulates it. A 4k Photo Setting can’t do that. That is what the photographer, my angry friend does.

He’s not threatened and angered by the technology. He feels threatened because the technical skill is being taken (has been taken) out of photography and more people might be good at it then he would like. Now Mr and Ms Everyone has access to his altar of photography.

Maybe we are approaching a new era of still photography where it starts to meld with its movie counterpart. The movie editor is a crucial part of the video/ cine process. Hours and hours of footage are shot. The salient parts are taken out and made into the movie. The cameraman and the editor are on equal footing in this process.

Soon we will have a generation who have only ever owned a camera where a press of one button produces a still and another a movie. The two image making disciplines will start to coalesce under the umbrella name of – yes  photography.  Stills will become movies that don’t move and movies stills that do. I can’t say I feel entirely comfortable with the idea but I will embrace it. What’s the choice? Actually, I’ll enjoy it. New ideas, new techniques, bring ’em on!

At that point my angry friend will become very angry with me indeed. I will have sold out unconditionally to the uninitiated and the  unskilled. He does though, have one great advantage over me.

Because while he can unsubscribe from me, I can’t.

 

Working A Camera

 

Steely Dan (the Soundtrack to my life but don’t let me get started on that….), Walter Becker and Donald Fagin, had a faintly damning phrase for a certain kind of musician. They said “he can work the saxophone”. It was as opposed to “he can play the saxophone”. It came into my head as I finished a book on the menu system of the new Olympus Pen F.

The modern digital camera has a  labyrinthine menu system that can help you work the camera but can’t help you ‘play’ it. As with a musical instrument, though,  until you can work it, you can’t play it.  The difference with a saxophone or guitar or piano is that  you know what will happen when you work it. You will get a note.

With a camera menu, you need to know quite a lot before you can understand what a menu setting will do. Not only that, knowing what it does won’t necessarily tell you why you might want to do it. When I started writing my books, I thought that I would just rewrite the manual from a photographer’s point of view rather than a camera maker’s. As I did it, I realized that that didn’t cut it with a digital camera, essentially a dedicated imaging computer..

Take something straightforward like Exposure Bracketing. “Set this and the camera will take a picture one stop over and one stop under plus the regular meter reading”. An old timer film camera user will understand that right away. You set the exposure yourself via shutter speed and aperture. Sometimes the meter is wrong and bracketing allows for this, You can’t know which is the correct exposure until you see the results, maybe weeks later so bracketing is a safeguard.

But what if you’ve only ever before used a fully automatic digital camera? That’s the case with many people buying their first ‘proper’ camera. What does ‘a stop over’ and a stop under’ mean? All you know is that you point the camera and press the button and it’s 90% that the picture will be fine.  You are used to accepting a ‘good enough’ picture on a compact but having paid out maybe £750 for a your proper camera, good enough isn’t good enough. So, in my book a brief explanation of exposure itself is necessary so that you can understand why you might need exposure bracketing. Which beggars the question, why not use it all  then time then? Having answered that, the question becomes “then when do I need it”. So you need to learn and recognise the circumstances under which metering is fooled. And Post Focus. And Anti-Shock Silent. And so on.

At which point, my simple rewrite of the manual ‘for the rest of us’ as Apple used to put it, starts to look even more complicated than the manual I was trying to simplify. I find the best technique is to use the function until I it is utterly clear in my head. Then write it. Leave it and re-read it. Start again. Repeat several, sometimes many times. Eventually it seems about as clear as I can make it  . Why does it take so much longer to express something in 100 words than it does in 1000. I remember reading once about a writer who, having written a long letter to a friend finished it by apologising for how long it was and explaining that he didn’t have time to write a short one! I now know what he meant.

Even having simplified the menu, you find that it isn’t enough for total clarity because some menu settings are interdependent. On Olympus, if you want the level gauge to show in the viewfinder, you can set it, very handily, to show when you half press the shutter button. But only if the EVF is set to a certain mode which makes the image view smaller. With my day to day handling of Micro Four Thirds cameras, I know that and make my settings accordingly. I know from experience what store I set to a big EVF image and what i set to seeing the level gauge before every shot. Without that experience you just have to decide which it’ll be and go with that until it annoys you enough to want to change. If that is three months after setting it, what chance you’ll remember how to get back to it?

I finally decided that there is a point at which trying to simplify something starts to make it more complicated. It would be hard to sell a book on the basis that it was ‘differently complicated’ . I call my books, for example the Pen F one,  ‘The Olympus Pen F Menu System Simplified’. It would be a hard sell as ‘The Olympus Pen F Menu System Differently Complicated’. Some things are inherently complex and can only be simplified up to a point. You have to know when to stop.

There’s a paradox in modern cameras. They offer you stunning ease of use. So much is done automatically that only the keenest of keen enthusiast photographers need learn what were once the foundations of the craft. How would a person with a 1960 Rolleiflex fare if he didn’t know the nuts and bolts of film speed, aperture and shutter speed? There was no sports or landscape setting, all the technical elements had to be assessed and the camera set accordingly.

Now even assessment of the subject can be done by the chip in the camera and settings made accordingly with no input from the user. No insight necessary. However, that same pussy cat of a camera then offers Multiple Exposure with optional Gain and Overlay settings. Or 4k Post Focus Pre Burst. What? The pussy cat turned into a tiger.

It seems that that is what modern technology does. It sucks out the middle ground, serving the rookie and the wizard well but not the regular photographer with his hard-earned skills. At the bottom end they are rendered obsolete and at the top end they are the wrong kind of skills and of no value.

It’s those ordinary photographers, though, who are the backbone of photography. They want more control and quality than a smartphone can give and but probably won’t get much use out of the top end facilities. I think they tend to get tried and then left. The main part of even the highest tech cameras such as Micro Four Thirds still caters happily to us ordinary photographers. We can still make choices that the chip wouldn’t approve.

I hope that never changes.

 

 

 

 

 

The Easier It Gets The Harder It Becomes

The writer Arthur Koestler observed that  you could take a cable car to the top of a mountain or you could slog your way up, battling the steepness and the snow. Either way  you got to the summit  – but the view would not be the same.

I thought about that the other day, when I was cycling home. It was freezing cold and dusk. I saw a scene that just screamed ‘winter, cold’. I had my Panasonic GX8 in my bag and not wanting to freeze, put it on iA, (Intelligent Auto) made a quick shot and cycled on. After 5 minutes, I realized that I hadn’t made the best of the scene and cycled back and spent a bit more time on the pic. And froze.

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This was pic one, whip it out, point and shoot.

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This was on the second go. I don’t make any pictorial claims for these but this one has a much bleaker feel to it and reflects what was in my mind’s eye much better.

How does that relate to Koestler? Because I could and did, at first, just take my camera out of my bag, point it in the right direction and know that the pic would be technically good. That was the cable car pic.

With a film camera of yesterday, I’d have to have selected the best angle of view lens. metered the scene, made a  decision over where to base my exposure and having done all that move around looking for the best angle. Having no camera stabilization, I’d probably have needed to set up a tripod.

I would want to get the best shot I could because I was already frozen and only the best pic I could get would justify my effort and frosted fingers . I’d have taken plenty of variations too, because when you can’t view the pic right after taking it, you don’t know when you have taken the pic you were looking for. So you don’t stop until you are certain you have done everything you could.

And that’s why I went back. Same location, same scene, same camera but the view would be different. The result of all that effort would be the hard slog up the mountain pic.

When no-one is telling you what pictures to take, you only have to please yourself. If you do something for pleasure but don’t please yourself, what is the point? The best photographers I have known have always been their own harshest critics. And the hardest workers. They have also been people who were trained in photographic techniques, who knew what it was to climb the mountain on foot. Their approach to a picture, even using the digital wonders of today is informed by that.

It makes me feel sad for young photographers who want a career in the business.  They are working with photographic tools that have taken away the need for classic photo techniques. The once mocked fully automated point ‘n’ shoot camera is now available in the guise of professional quality cameras.

It started in the late 80’s with the ‘P’ for Program setting on (universally known in Fleet Street as ‘P’ for Pissed) setting on the Nikon F4.  Now, with auto ISO, auto focus, auto exposure and 30 fps stills from video, Mr Silicon Chip has taken over. Why would you learn the techniques of yesterday when Mr Chip does it just a well with no effort required?

Here’s why. The day of the camera operator is over. That job, being done by the camera itself. has devalued the currency. There has always been a distinction between a camera operator and a photographer, just as there is between a journalist and a writer. They are related but one is a learned technique and the other is that technique used expressively.

Where once people were delighted if a photo simply ‘came out’ or was ‘nice and clear’, they now expect lots of razor sharp well exposed colourful images. The digital camera delivers that with consistency. Now, everyone is a good photographer.

The trouble is, when everyone is a good photographer, no-one is a good photographer. How does a young photographer distinguish himself from the rest, the ordinary nowadays? How does he succeed and make a good living in a world where once knowing how to work a camera was enough for a reasonable career and now is not?

The young photographer today has to be outstanding, he has to be head and shoulders above the rest. He (or she)  must have an attractive personality, be a hard worker and have artistic flair. He must not only shoot the image, he must either originate or help an art editor develop the image. He must know enough old fashioned photographic technique to understand when he can get a better, more personal, more tailored result than Mr Chip.

He must care about what he does and be prepared to work day and night, in these days of ‘interns’ (actually unpaid labour, of course),  for little or no reward. It’s a big ask. Where once the ability to take an in focus correctly exposed picture could be turned into a successful and reasonably rewarding photographic career, you now need a super CV like the one above. The best prevail. The rest fall by the wayside. That’s what digital has done,

And that’s why I say, the easier it gets, the harder it becomes.

 

 

 

 

 

The Reality Gap

Chatting to a camera dealer recently, I remarked that it was very important to my business as a freelance to always have the best equipment money could buy. I worked with a lot of very successful and well known people and a surprising number of them were interested in cameras and photography. Everyone knew the names Hasselblad and Nikon, that they were the best and the most expensive. When you opened a silver case with a pair of Hasselblad bodies, 4 lenses, half a dozen backs in there, the cognoscenti among them would ask if they could hold them. It was almost reverential. Hasselblad…they were the best. And if you could afford the best cameras, you must be a pretty damn successful photographer.

Well, up to a point. I used to buy my Hasselblad equipment from a camera shop near Chelsea Town Hall. I happened to see Hasselblad gear in the window one day as I was passing and went in. It turned out that the shop had quite a turnover with the Swedish camera which seemed odd for what was essentially a non-pro dealership. The reason was that the manager had a number of very rich customers, some Saudis amongst them who had the money to buy such cameras on a whim and then, finding them rather awkward and demanding to use, just bring them back and chop them in on something else. One of the main buyers and sellers, though, was Peter Sellers. He was a keen photographer and loved photographic gear. As I, unashamedly, do. He’d buy anything new Hasselblad did, use it for a month or two, get bored and sell it back to the shop.

The manager would call me up when anything tasty came back. For him it was a quick turnaround so the prices were exceptional. So exceptional in fact that after using the Hasselblads for 15 years, I sold them for what I paid for them. What struck me at the time, though, was that anyone who thought I was able to afford such equipment and assumed I must be making lot of money was being misled. I didn’t mind, harmless enough. Impressions do count in business.

So, I wonder what I’d do now? My personal choice of camera would be Micro Four Thirds. There’s nothing that I would be doing that would require more than a G7 Panasonic or an E-M5ll Olympus would do. But I know that I wouldn’t be happy with the impression that such small cameras give. You are being commissioned for a big daily rate and you turn up with small cameras that looks to the client like the sort of thing they might buy for themselves. It wouldn’t work. Either camera in the right hands could produce the required results but that’s only half the point. What about the impact on the client?

Digressing a bit, I once had a very important job for a drinks company. The shoot was in Sussex. I, very greedily went on a freebie to New York for a newspaper 2 days before which would get me back to Gatwick Airport with 2 hours to spare to get to the shoot after going to my office to pick up my cameras. The inevitable happened. The flight was delayed by bad weather. It would arrive at a time that meant I would be an hour late for the shoot. What to do? I could phone the client and say I was ill but then no fee. My brainwave was to phone a friend who owed me a favour. Would he pick up my lights and Hasselblad and bring them down to the airport and meet me? He couldn’t do that but what he could do was put them in the boot of his car, a very handsome Mercedes convertible and leave it in the short term car park. Perfect! I picked it up and it being a warm day, put the hood down.

I arrived at my shoot and they were waiting for me at the door. I stopped the Mercedes, apologised profusely for being late, I had had a quick job in New York but my flight had been delayed. I picked up my case and went inside and unpacked my gear and put it out, ready to use, on the floor. Such an impression had all this made that they seemed almost grateful I had got there at all. New York! The Mercedes! The expensive equipment! (And yes, I did work for them again.)

But the reality was less impressive. The trip was a freebie, the car wasn’t mine and the equipment had all been bought at rock bottom prices. But they didn’t know that. It’s all perception.

So, coming back to my point about Micro Four Thirds cameras, if I was going to use them professionally it would have to be Olympus E-M1, Panasonic GH4 or GX8. They are the biggest, after all. For what I need, the results would be just as good technically with a Panasonic GM5 or an Olympus E-M10 but they are too small. The reality is that I wouldn’t use an MFT at all. I’d use a great big noisy professional Nikon or Canon DSLR with some absurdly big, fast and absurdly expensive lenses. Not for me and not for my client’s work. Jut for his peace of mind.

If the photographer is expensive, his car big and his camera impressive – well you just know he must be good, don’t you?

Are You A Black Man?

I am. I didn’t become a black man until 1969 when I joined the London Evening News as a staffer.  Having become one, I stayed that way until August this year. It wasn’t a choice to concede my black status, it was forced on me by an aesthetic imperative. They happen a lot to photographers, aesthetic imperatives. Part of the job almost.

It only lasted for six months before I felt uneasy and started longing to re-instate my old black self. No question about it, it was self-indulgent and to someone colour blind a totally unnecessary expense. But did it anyway. It’s my money and while it may seem effete to you, to me its a visceral thing.

Now look at this picture and tell me it wasn’t worth it. I’m black and I’m proud. Silver is for sissies.

gx8

 

 

 

 

 

Real photographers tote hard black pitiless cameras. They shelter in bullet pocked doorways in bombed out areas of war torn towns in Wheretheactionisistan, oozing charisma and audacity. They video themselves bungee jumping from the Eiffel Tower. They wash in cold streams in the foothills of the Himalayas, their black camera thrown carelessly around the neck of a nearby Yeti.

The silver camera people, they worry that their man bag’s mohair hair lining might scratch the nice shiny swivelling monitor.  The women that their lipstick might make the shiny, pretty silver finish look greasy and smear on the monitor. Worse, that they don’t have their microfibre ‘Clean’n’Shiny Camera’ cloth with them and other photographers will think they are, well, not concerned with hygiene.

Now, I wouldn’t want you to think that I am in any way prejudiced. There are red cameras, white cameras, even blue cameras. They all have their place. I’m not sure where it is but I am sure where it is not. Nowhere near a black camera. People tell me that some photographers who use coloured cameras can take quite nice pictures. And I believe them, just as I believe people who tell me that fairies really exist. I’ve never seen one myself but I’ve read many articles by Victorian fantasists, frauds and lunatics who assure me they do and who I am I to argue with that?

When I started out in photography, this colour discrimination didn’t exist since the cameras were mostly made of wood. Then I had a various Japanese 6x6s that came in silver with a leather finish. Then various Pentax SLRs and Canon rangefinders that came in silver. It was only in Fleet Street in 1969 that I came across black cameras, The Nikon F!

From the moment that I realized what a great scam – this was work? – sorry, career, press photography was, I had visualised myself walking up Fleet Street, a brace of Nikons slung nonchalantly lens facing in over my right shoulder. I would greet my heroes, the people whose work  I had seen in the papers, Arthur Steel, Terry Fincher. Hi, Arthur! All right, Terry? And they would smile back, raise a hand in acknowledgement. They were decent sorts and even if they didn’t have a clue who I was they’d raise a hand just so as not to be rude.

When the Evening news handed me my camera kit, Nikon bodies, lenses, flash, bag, all the bits and bobs fresh, brand spanking new from the buying department, it was the first time I’d really noticed black cameras. And I realized that all my heroes used black cameras. I imagined the humiliation if Nikon had supplied silver Nikons instead of black. Backs turned all over Fleet Street. Who would deign to be seen acknowledging me, let alone talking to me or treating me as an equal? I would have been that new guy with the funny cameras, you know, the wimp.

But I wasn’t. I was a black man like all the others. One of the crowd. The in crowd. Which brings me up to August this year and my excursion into silver cameras. I thought the the Panasonic GX8 I was buying had a lot of spare space on its body. I thought it would look prettier in silver. It did, actually.

But pretty? A hardened old ex news hound, cynical, the kind of guy who nonchalantly slings his cameras on the sawdust floors of dangerous dive bars in African hell holes, has a pretty camera? Not this one. It taught me a lesson. I’m a black man through and through. So I swapped the silver body for a black one.

And you know, it feels good. I feel manly. I feel virile. I notice beautiful women looking at me again and fear in the eyes of other photographers. I walk tall. As I put on my slippers, do up my cardigan and make my cocoa, I can hear the voice of Mae West , summing it up for me.

“I’ve had silver cameras and I’ve had black cameras. Black is better”

 

Luck and Opportunity

What are the attributes of a good photographer? What is it that makes one person with a camera different or better than another?  The cliché answer, the one that drives photographers crazy but is still believed , if not voiced by many people – it’s the camera. I don’t subscribe to that fully but it would be naive to say that the camera doesn’t matter. Anyone who has tried to photograph soccer action with their mobile phone’s camera will know that the camera does matter. But given a reasonable camera, an entry level DSLR or Micro Four Thirds cameras, most of us can photograph most things.

So what makes some better others? Is it simply artistry, innate  ability and so the preserve of the few? I don’t think so. Too many of the very best photographers took it up by accident or force of circumstance rather than hunger to be a lensman. They learned to be good photographers. 

In the days before digital it was easier to be regarded as a good photographer. Photography required much more technique and knowledge. Mastering manual focusing for still life or landscape is straightforward  enough. For portraiture it is more difficult. You can’t put a sitter’s head in a clamp to keep them still any more! For fast moving children and sport it is a true hard won skill. If you knew how to do that and how to arrive at the correct exposure  setting you were a good photographer already. Never mind the picture. Anyone my age will remember the remark ‘did your pictures come out’? And the very height of praise, ‘ooh, they’re lovely and clear, aren’t they”? Back then, knowing how to work a camera could earn you a living because it was technical and  difficult and not everyone could do it. 

Nowadays pictures ‘coming  out’ and being ‘clear’ are a given. The camera sees to that. Paradoxically, being a good photographer is much more difficult. If a good camera makes a good photographer then everyone  is a good photographer. Trouble is, if everyone is a good photographer, no-one is a good photographer. To be good, you need to have something that others don’t. To be different. That is much more difficult than working a camera.

So back to my original question, what makes a good photographer? How do you do it? There’s no one answer but there is one thing that looms above the others. Just keep doing it. Just keep taking pictures and looking at pictures. Take pictures of anything and everything. It’s free! Cull your pictures ruthlessly. Look at advertising pictures and sports pictures, press pictures and exhibition pictures. Look at other people’s work on your favourite online photo mag. I mean look at. Study them. Think about them. Because it will be your brain that makes you the photographer you want to be. What do you like about a picture? Why do you like that? How would you have done that picture? Would you have done it as well?

Paul McCartney said of songwriting that what made him want to write songs was listening to his hero Buddy Holly. When he first started writing, all his songs sounded like Buddy Holly. But by just keeping doing it, gradually they became less like Buddy Holly and more like the McCartney and Lennon/ McCartney songs so much admired today. That’s true of photography too. Although he modern camera has de-skilled the photographic process, it cannot automate the ability to see and understand a situation and the instinct to find the best way to express it.

But then there is always luck! The great leveler of photographers. Some of my own favourite pictures are a product of serendipity. I just came across something. It just happened in front of me. It just appeared. You have to take advantage of it though and that’s why I think the character trait of opportunism  is so useful for a photographer. In politicians it is deprecated but for a photographer it is an asset. You see something you want, you grab it with your camera and it exists forever. It is something that no other medium can do so directly. See it, take it. 

I have so many examples of opportunism in my own favourite pictures that someone could reasonably say that I am unusually lucky. But years of experience  have taught me that to always have a camera with me (thank you MFT for making that painless!), to always be looking and to not often be too lazy to pick up the camera.Tab157

The pic here is one of my favourite opportunistic ones. I was in Jordan just before the first Gulf War getting stories of the refugees from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. On a spare day, I travelled the 150 miles from Amman to Petra with a colleague, journalist Jeff Edwards. Because of the imminent war there were no visitors. Our guide was a Jordanian Professor of History and we had him to ourselves one to one. There were just the three of us  and the professor wanted to ask us our thoughts on America’s intentions in Iraq. We sat down talking in the utter silence of the stone city when I heard a horse’s hooves drumming on the ground. I had a little Olympus Muji with me, picked it up and just loosed off one frame as the rider came thundering past. I didn’t have any great hopes for it, the scene arrived and unfolded so fast, the rider vanishing  into to the distance in a plume of red dust. Only back in London and with a processed film did I realize I could never have planned it so well.This must be a rare sight because Petra is normally packed with tourists. 

I think anyone seeing this picture would say I was a good photographer. Actually it was all down to luck and opportunism!

Still Powerful

I saw a picture today that I’d prefer not to have seen. It was the shot of a three year old child on a beach in Turkey. Nothing remarkable in that – except that this child was in the arms of a Turkish policeman and was dead, drowned on his family’s flight across the Mediterranean from Syria.

It made me think because once again the still photograph demonstrated its power to move people more powerfully than other media. Think of Don McCullin’s pic of the mother trying to breast feed her starving baby during the Biafran war. Think of Nic Ut’s shot of the little Vietnamese girl running, terrified, from the inferno of a napalm bomb. The emaciated Bosnian prisoners who sparked memories of the second world war concentration camps.  These pictures are among the many that have sparked a sea-change in the public perception of the events from which they arose. All stills.

I can think of no movie  sequence which has had the same effect, nor news report. Interestingly, movie sequences were shot of some of the events I mention. Yet it is the stills which we remember and which have become emblematic. Even more telling, the Bosnian image I mentioned was in fact a frame extracted from an ITN video. Yet who now remembers the video image from which it came?

What is it about the still photograph that gives it its unique power to access our emotions directly ? It isn’t novelty value that is for sure. Probably the first photograph that could be considered a news photograph was taken getting on for two centuries ago, the great fire of Hamburg, By the end of the 19th century half-tone printing had developed such that a photograph could be printed in a newspaper at the full speed of the run. And so news photography, the mass reproduced still photograph was born. It has changed little since then, other than colour becoming the norm. You might have though that as the novelty wore off, so would the impact. But it hasn’t. Why?

I think that the old phrase “the camera cannot lie” is buried deep in our psyche. The camera is still seen as an objective, cold recording instrument. Point it at a scene and it captures it. It is ironic that the earliest found use of the phrase  (in the Evening News, Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1897) goes on to say that “it can [lie], as badly as the canvas on occasion”. Even in these days of image manipulation software, when ‘photoshopping’ has become a byword for falsification, people still see the still photo as truth. The photographer was there, he pressed the shutter release, the camera recorded it, now I can see it.

But doesn’t that apply to words, a report, too? The reporter was there, he saw it, he reports it, we read it. I don’t think it does. We all know how subjective we are. We know how colleagues embellish stories and we know we do too. We know how easy it is to do and we know that a reporter works for an organisation with a viewpoint. In our age of communication we are aware of being manipulated, that the same story can be angled and bent, that the same information can form a dozen different stories by the time it reaches us.

But not the photograph! The photograph of a triumphant jihadist standing over a dead enemy is the same photograph in all those dozen different media outlets. It may be bigger or smaller or cropped but it is demonstrably the same image. If it is published on an ISIS recruiting web site it will portray a hero. If it is published in a western newspaper, it will portray a wanton murderer. But the interpretation is in the viewer’s mind, not the editor’s or the business interests of the proprietor. The photograph just gives you the facts.

Surely that applies to video, too? Video is just as native to web and new media use as stills and words are. An event unfolds and the camera records 24 or more stills a second which are simply strung together to give the impression of movement. Isn’t that just the facts? It obviously is but I think the difference here is not in believability but presentation.  A video starts, things build up and the video reaches its headline event. That passes and the video winds down. The whole thing might take 30 seconds or more.  Video leads us in to the main event, shows it and then leads us out. It softens the impact.

In a commercial movie or even a documentary you can shoot and edit for impact. In straight news reportage you can’t. There often isn’t time and anyway, in a violent or upsetting event, just to show the ‘good bit’ over and over leads to accusations of sensationalism and possible censure. That’s the heart of my point. The still photograph is unmatched for the portrayal of dramatic real life events precisely because its very creation represents an editing of reality to an irreducible minimum. Here is an event. Here is the salient fraction of a second of that event. You don’t have to show it over and over because if the reader wants to see it over and over, he can look at it over and over.

Sometimes the picture captures not only the immediate drama but something longer lasting. The photograph of little Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, naked because the clothes were burned from her body by the napalm will live on forever because it speaks of the plight not of just her or the Vietnam war but of the thousands of innocent, helpless children suffering in any war, any time, anywhere. In the picture are soldiers and two children holding hands as they run from the fire in the background. You can stare at the horror and fear of these children and see it all and understand it all.

Do you remember the video? It is shocking but it is but it is footage of an awful event. It doesn’t imprint itself on your mind or make you think much beyond the incident itself. It unfolds whereas the still just smacks you in the face. Every time you see it.

As does Joe Rosenthal’s  Iwo Jima image as the U.S. flag is raised on Mount Suribachi. The drama! The triumph! Was the winning of a battle ever better portrayed? Or Robert Capa’s loyalist soldier at the moment of death. The sheer sudden, random violence of it!

But it’s not all strife. In spite of all the movies that Marilyn Monroe made, the image everyone remembers is of her standing over a ventilation grill with her skirt blowing up. It doesn’t have to be war or violence. The early photographers tried to emulate painters but that was a blind alley. The real art of photography is the more art of the novelist. The ability to observe an event and recognise its meaning, draw it out and show it to other people.

Where the photographer is lucky is that people still haven’t lost their intrinsic trust in the mechanical nature of image making and therefore its plain truth. “I f I had been there with a camera”, they think, “I’d have taken that picture”.  It’s true that some of the greatest pictures were made by just by being at in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t alter the image or its worth but being in the right place at the right time once isn’t much of a qualification for a career.

Modern cameras have removed much of the need for raw photographic technique but what they cannot remove is the necessity for sensitivity to the world around you and the ability to recognize and portray the telling moment from it. If you can do that for current events , you can become a journalist, a movie maker, a script writer, a director, many things.

If you can do that and you want to express it directly to your fellow humans with maximum effect in minimum time, you need to be a photographer.

The Art of Noise

One of the things I like about making my YouTube MFT-centric videos is that they make me think hard about everything I say in them. Actually, that’s a what I don’t like about making them too. I recently made one on the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 ‘Pro’ zoom and included some shots of a band called Girls With Guitars taken at my local blues club. The shot here of Sadie Johnson is representative of the quality and a number of people contacted me, including one saying that the video had persuaded him to make the jump from a Canon DSLR to Micro Four Thirds.

My immediate reaction to something like that is always the same. I hadn’t intended to sell anything to anyone. Did I over-egg things? I took a look at the EXIF to make sure that when I said it was shot at ISO 6400, I had the right shot and the one I’d used wasn’t at ISO 400. Had I used massive noise reduction on it which was disguised by the video process? The answer was no, no and no. If the quality they had seen from an MFT camera/ lens in the (vestigial) light of the club surprised them….I can honestly say it surprised me too. This is 100th @f/2.8, with the zoom hosed right out to 150mm on the E-M5II. And sharpening off.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In fact when I first imported my RAWs into Lightroom and checked the results, I did a double take myself. These were at 6400? The RAWs have more noise than shows on this size repro, so I’ve included a 100% pull up but these are with no noise reduction applied. The only difference with the video frames is that they have been downsampled to 1920×1080 which is perhaps the most effective noise reduction of all. Nonetheless, even without the downsampling the 6400 is completely usable. I used to specialise in live shots for record companies, newspapers and magazines of bands like Abba, The Who, Wings and AC/DC  and the quality I could get in those days from the best fully professional Nikon gear didn’t approach this.

So why did I feel uneasy that someone was persuaded by my video to move to MFT equipment. That’s easy. If MFT is so capable, imagine how much more so is a 36x24mm sensor with 4 times the image area and consequently bigger light storage ‘buckets’. On the other hand, my correspondent already had DSLR equipment so what he had alighted on was that smaller, lighter cameras could now do the job that he wanted. It wasn’t that I had hoodwinked anyone into thinking that MFT quality was better. Just that it was good enough for his requirements. I’m comfortable with that because he’s buying MFT for the same reasons I did.

Which led me to wonder whether, if I were a working pro in the media still, would I now be using Micro Four Thirds equipment? I think after the introduction of the Panasonic GH4 and Olympus E-M1 and the f/2.8 zooms for both systems, I probably would. The Achilles heel of the system, the continuous autofocus has improved by leaps and bounds, more in my view from greater and thus faster computing power than Panasonic’s Depth from Defocus or Olympus’s on chip phase detection. I only ever covered sport under protest anyway and back then it was manual focus so I can say in all honesty that even MFT continuous focus is a lot better than a bored photographer willing himself to keep focus on some £250,000 a week Chelsea footballer kicking a ball around apparently at random. I did say I didn’t like sport!

Leaving aside the system’s weakest (but not weak) point, what else would stop me using it? One thing would be if the cameras looked amateur, looked like consumer products. With the GH4 and E-M1, especially with battery grips, that just  isn’t so. Client perception does matter, even if it shouldn’t. My Hasselblad equipment got me studio work in a way that no 35mm ever would. Once, when I was shooting a book cover portrait of a young, lively author for a new publishing client, I elected to use my Nikon and 105mm. The art director came in to the studio and remarked, ‘oh, we’ve hired a busker, then’ when he saw my handheld Nikon plugged into the Elinchroms. I went to the car and brought in my Hasselblad, bunged it on a tripod and shot away. The fact that the shot they used was taken on my Nikon gave me satisfaction but an art director is an art director, he’s in charge and he signs the cheques so there was no percentage in me labouring the point.

I think under modern conditions, I’d probably keep a Sony A7 with a standard lens plus short and medium telephone for studio in place of the Hasselblad. Maybe clients would still expect to see a medium format or a camera from Nikon or Canon, I don’t know. Whatever, I’d obtain one if it would bring in business.

In terms of my general work, though, stills on movie sets, features for magazines and women’s pages for newspapers, live music, occasional fashion, I can’t see any impediment now to the use of an MFT camera. The single shot auto-focus is impeccable and I cannot overestimate the usefulness of the electronic shutter on a movie set instead of the hideous sound blimps for DSLRs. And imagine being able to hear what people had to say at  press conferences on TV without the chatter-clatter of those infernal mirrors! And single AF is more than fast enough for cat-walk model gait.

The only long term worry I’d have about the system professionally is if it went the direction of the GX8 and started to compete for pixel count. For professional purposes 16Mp is quite enough and any development energy should be in the direction of less noise on the present count. It is obviously necessary to keep the enthusiast market on board – more important than the professional one in terms of sales – but I’m not convinced that any serious photographer feels the need for more pixels over even less noise. I’m even less convinced that MFT with its interchangeable lenses and sophisticated – and complex- electronics is suitable for a beginner. That seems to me to be a market that MFT shouldn’t and probably couldn’t address.

A camera like the GM5 may be tiny and look like a compact but it most certainly isn’t, in reality having more in common with the GH4 than a £100 Fuji.

I’ll finish by saying a quick word of thanks to Sadie Johnson. Not only did she (and her fellow band members Heather Crosse, Eliana Cargnelutti and drummer Jamie Little) provide a fine evening of foot stomping full blooded blues for me, she’s probably sold a good few MFT cameras for Olympus and Panasonic.
Which means that I needn’t fret over whether I’ve misled anyone. If you bought one and feel let down, blame Sadie, not me. It’s all her fault.