Tools of the Trade

After a long time, I’ve encountered a post on Photography that I just had to share with you. 

Now, I fully realize that the world is divided among those who love Ken Rockwell and those who think  he’s simply over-the-top and downright crazy.  I’ve always found that, just like with any other writing, if you’re willing to make up your own mind on the subject, after weighing in all the info, you will find that Ken makes a lot of sense on the things he writes about. 

This recent post entitled ‘The Pen and the Signature‘ is just one example.  Plus, it concerns a subject that always comes up in conversation when a newbie photographer encounters a more experienced one : “So, what camera do you use?”

If I gave you my pen, would you have my signature? Of course not.  So if I gave you my camera, would you take pictures that look like mine? Of course not.  Why would anyone think otherwise?

Camera makers don’t want you to know is that it’s you that makes a picture, not the camera. A picture is as unique to the taker of that picture as is his signature…

All images are reflections of the photographer who created them. Good photographers are artists who have their own style. Crappy photographers are crappy precisely because they show no style of their own, or spend their time trying to copy the style of others, or simply shoot away without thinking…

Purchasing the world’s finest camera and carefully leveling it on the world’s most stable tripod and carefully color profiling everything and working everything over in raw in Photoshop for six hours afterwards is the best way to make completely forgettable images. Being yourself and showing us your own way of seeing things is the way to make remarkable images.

No one else sees with your eyes. Vision is not a team sport. You have to see for yourself, and show us yourself in your images.

Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?!

Going Classic

The first photograph I ever shot was on my father’s twin-lens-reflex Ross Ensign Ful-Vue Super.  The camera was from the 1950s, the roll was a black & white 120 format, and I was hooked for life!  I’m not sure if the prohibitive cost of photography at the time played any role in making it inaccessible, and therefore, more desirable.  All I knew is that it was magic to be able to press a button and get a detailed image of that memory, once you came home and got the roll developed and printed.

Many years later, through most of my school and college days, all I could afford was to read up on photography.  So read, I did.  I would borrow books from friends and from the library, and would read up every thing about mastering the skill, even though I couldn’t really afford a serious camera to practise with!  It was only through the generosity of friends that I began experiencing the joys of using a real SLR, first with the K1000 and then with the Zenit XP12.

As so often happens in Life, over the years my disposable income increased but the time available to spend it kept decreasing… I could now afford to buy all the “gear” I wanted, but could not make the time for a passion that had gripped my interest as a young boy.  Sure, I kept upgrading the aim-and-shoot cameras in the house, and embraced the digital format, and shot a thousand family photos.  But, it wasn’t quite the same.

So, in 2008, when I got back in touch with Photography, it was with a vengeance.  I started reading extensively on it, and participating actively in forums, and shooting as much as I could to focus on improving my skills.  I also managed to upgrade some of my hardware, by taking a long, hard look at what was really relevant to my interests.  Finally, I launched a photoblog to save and share some of my favourite photographs.

All through this time, I longed to go back to my roots in old-school Photography.  The first step was to get a modern-day film-based SLR, and having a bag of Nikon lenses by then, I settled on the excellent Nikon F75.  But, I also wanted a completely manual, mechanical and metal kit (MMM).  Many months of searching yielded an excellent Super Takumar 35mm lens, and then weeks later, the legendary Pentax Spotmatic.

The Pentax Spotmatic comprises a range of 35mm single-lens reflex cameras manufactured by the Asahi Optical Co. Ltd., later known as Pentax Corporation, between 1964 and 1976. The original 1964 Spotmatic was one of the first SLRs to offer a through-the-lens (TTL) exposure metering system, initially using average metering and later center-weighting. Despite the name, the camera did not use spot metering, although it had this feature in an early prototype.

Now, only a rangefinder was needed to complete my quest.  I’m happy to write that, as of last week, I was able to acquire a classic Petri 7s rangefinder from an enthusiast who had lovingly maintained it all these years.

The Petri 7s was introduced by Petri in 1963 as a variant of the Petri 7 which was introduced in 1961. The main difference being an improved film advance lever and frame counter. It took 35mm film, had a coupled rangefinder, and an around-the-lens selenium cell light meter. Production ended in 1973. The 7s was available with either a 45mm f1.8 or f2.8 lens. The shutter had speeds up to 1/500, and the viewfinder used Petri’s Green-o-Matic system.

I’ve shot many a film roll on the F75 as well as on the Spottie;  The joy of handling a machine that was built to perfection decades ago, and still runs without a whimper, is not comparable to most things in Life.  Not to mention the fact that there’s no better way to learn the ropes than going back to the basics when you had to know something about the Art to make a photograph happen!

I’m just glad I now have a piece of history in my camera bag!

Read More:
Massive Guide to TLR Cameras
Wikipedia : Rangefinder Cameras
Butkus: Vintage Camera Manuals

It’s Not About The Gear

Many a times, I have offered helpful advice to friends on how to improve their photography skills.  While some of them are absolute beginners, others have had some experience with basic cameras and typically think of “upgrading their equipment” the moment they contemplate taking the hobby seriously.

Sadly, more often than not, expensive gear is not the answer.

If it’s “photography gear” you’re seeking to upgrade, I’ve covered it in Guide to Photography Gear.  However, if it’s your skills that really need the upgrade, read on…

It goes without saying that there is no “rule” as to what makes a great photograph; It is, after all, subjective.  That said, when people typically evaluate a photograph, they usually do it on two parameters:

1. Technicals
2. Aesthetics

Technicals refers to aspects about Aperture, Shutter Speed & ISO – the triad that makes for the right “exposure”.

The Digital Photography School is a great website to get started on the basics of any thing remotely related to Photography.  DPS1, DPS2 are two writeups that will explain the concepts of exposure more than adequately.

This should give you a decent understanding of the basics of Exposure, but feel free to dig deeper.  Highly recommended is Fred Parker’s Ultimate Exposure Guide.  Also highly recommended is the book Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, and this writeup on Understanding Histograms.

But, if you’d really like to take this to the next level, I suggest you pick up an old (I mean decades old), manual film-based SLR and get your hands dirty with a few rolls of film.  Ask any of us who learned photography the old-school “manual” way, and you’ll see what I mean…

Aesthetics is obviously a matter of personal opinion, but includes that most critical aspect of good photography – “composition”.

In my experience, a good sense of composition can be developed over time, irrespective of the gear you use.  That’s the reason great photographers can make great pictures even with a crummy camera.  In fact, it may be argued that no matter how “advanced” your gear is, it will only help control (manipulate?) the light that enters the frame.  The rest is just composition.  In other words, as long as the available light is adequate, the kind of camera or lens you use does not really matter all that much in the end.

The most important piece of advice I have seen on improving your composition is in this article.  It’s written by Ian Bramham – an architect from UK who does wonders with the most basic, entry-level DSLR from the Nikon family.

FoldedSpace offers an explanation of why Photography can be such a challenge to many:

Photography is a subtractive art… during composition, the photographer works (yes, works) to subtract elements from the image until all that remains is that which he wishes to capture on film. Angles shift, focal points change, light alters until all that is left is that which the photographer sees in his mind’s eye.

Yes, modern technology has made it extremely easy for any one to try their hands on an art form that was barely accessible to the common man, just a few years ago.  But, no matter how easy (or affordable) digital photography has become, it is a daunting task to reduce the beauty of all that you see around you to a two-dimensional paper and make it convey what you felt when you were there.

That’s why, when you get it right, it can also be its own reward!