If you’re British, and of a certain age, you’ll remember the commercials for the Olympus Trip with Brian Pringle as the wedding photographer and David Bailey as, well, himself. If you don’t remember them, or just want a rip down nostalgia lane, you can see it on here on youtube. I never owned one in the 70s mind you, way out of my price range.
But a while back I found myself thinking of getting a nice film compact camera, something I could put in my pocket. There was also an element of the fact that we’re going to Berlin later this year and I rather liked the idea of shooting film in that most creative of cities, on a vintage camera. Sort of get in touch with Bowie changing popular music, that sort of thing. So when I found myself thinking ‘vintage point and shoot’, well there really was only one camera springing to mind. An Olympus Trip. I checked on eBay and they were consistently available, and I read some online reviews by people who said that a good one really held up well and produced some great photos, almost certainly due to that bit of Zuiko glass at the front. So I started following them and set myself a ceiling price of forty quid and it had to be a decent one. I missed several as they were going for forty plus, and I’m in no time pressure, when somebody advertised one going with a Yashica 35 (for which I also found postive stuff online), so I set a celing of fifty five on the grounds there were two of them and got them for fifty one. The whole thing being made even better by the fact that while they weren’t tested the seller said if they didn’t work he’d take them back for a refund.
Well the box arrived, and the trip wasn’t in good condition, it was pretty much factory new! Not a mark on it, no scuffs, dents, none of that stuff cameras pick up in the process of being used. It felt mechanically okay so I stuck a roll of hp5 in it and saw what it could do. I was blown away, the results were great. The selenium light meter coped admirably with snow, which is a challenge for anything and I got crisp and clean images well on a par with those I get from film SLRs. There wasn’t any flaring, but I checked and the light seals are shot and will need to be replaced. I even went out and got a genunine original skylight filter and a lens cap for it to protect the glass.
Okay, so Bailey really used a Rolleiflex for most of his stuff, but he didn’t really care much about the hardware so I can believe he might well have shot with one…well I want to believe he did anyway.
I’ve made my mind up, 2019 is the year I finally get to grips with the flashgun.
In my decades long experiment with being a photographer I’ve had a mixed relationship with the flashgun; ok, look, ‘_speedlight_’ wasn’t a thing in 1977 and it’s not going to be a thing now, it’s a flashgun. I mean I’ve owned one since the first camera I owned which didn’t have one built in, but I’ve never really felt like I wanted to use it. The first thing was a little two AA thing, can’t remember the make, certainly I couldn’t afford a Vivitar. Anyway we’re talking your classic early, one step up from the bulb, flashgun. Camera to 1/60, guess how far away the subject was, set the aperture from the table on the back and bob’s your uncle. So long as you got the steps right it didn’t turn in a bad job really. But I didn’t really use it much, mainly because I didn’t really think I needed to as most of what I photographed was outdoors. A couple of years later I traded up to one which took 4 AAs, and had a cable so it didn’t have to sit on top of the prism; still got it. Okay, sidebar, a year or so back my mother in law gave me all her old camera stuff she no longer had use for, in it was a Vivitar flashgun! Yep, at long last I have one, you know, when it’s obsolete..
Well I did use that one more, I’d graduated to taking photographs indoors a lot by that stage; museum exhibits and so forth that being the days when you could detonate an old fashioned flash gun in a museum gallery and nobody cared. I’d also begun to use it to photograph people, with the aid of an impressive bit of engineering called a flash bracket which moved the flashgun off to the side, think press photographer in the 50s and you’re there. Again, it was all down to remembering to set the flash sync speed of 1/60, distance, aperture off the table, job’s a good-un. Or more often than not, it wasn’t. I blame the lack of comprehensible instructions as we didn’t have ‘online’ then, just the occasionally helpful article in Amateur Photographer (or Amateur Pornographer as it was widely known then). Or I blame the fact that in the days of film it was too expensive to practice systematically. Actually I think I need to blame the fact that I didn’t put in the effort. It wasn’t something I thought you needed to ‘learn’, it just happened.
So fast forward to today and, as a result of a lot of Youtube one thing is clear. Flash photography bloody well is something you need to learn, you can’t just pick it up and go for it. There’s a whole world of modifiers, light stands, C stands, reflectors, ttl, ettl, manual triggers, etc out there. Compared to my old ‘not a vivitar’ flashgun it’s like commanding The Enterprise. Last year I decided to at least make the investment in a decent modern flashgun, based on advice on the Interwebs I opted for a Yongnuo as a budget beast. But still I wasn’t actually using flash, it was all about ‘natural light’, what the hell would be ‘unnatural light’, does it mean you’ve summoned Cthulhu or something? Essentially though, I just don’t believe that I can get a decent photo with a flashgun because in all this technology I’m going to stuff it up. At least with available light I know what I’m doing. But this year, in 2019 CE, 1440 if you’re a muslim, 227 if you’re a lingering French Revolutionary and 2772 if you’re holding out for the return of the legions, _I’m going to learn to shoot with flash_.
It’s occurred to me you see that, actually, I’m ducking this bit of kit for no good reason and potentially I’m just not taking the best photos I could. So many great photographers use flash because they need to in order to get the results they want. Also this year I want to do more people photography and I don’t want to limit my options to only being able to shoot outdoors during the day when it’s not raining. I short enough of subjects as it is, I don’t want to miss out on any opportunities. Also, there are creative options I’m not able to explore at the moment to use light in an imaginative way. So I’ve decided to get out the Yongnuo, work through the tutorials on Lynda on using Flash (no they don’t sponsor my blog), and take loads of flash photos. I finished the first part of the beginner’s flash course on flash as fill light. Simply this involves sticking it on the top of the camera and using the flash compensation to get the right degree of light. And took this rather nice photo of Suki the cat, which I couldn’t have done with the available room light.
So it’s opening up new creative opportunities already, right now I’m just working with the flash on top of the camera with a small softbox attached to the front. The Lynda course I did was pretty much all about that method so I’m going with that; given that almost all the tutorials you find on Youtube are about off camera flash with a radio trigger and stands it’s a relief. I suspect that having to get out ‘the stuff’ before I could practice was one of the barriers, while now I keep the camera with the flash attached on the desk and periodically I just get up and photograph the cats, or something inanimate around the house, or anything just to get used to the idea of using the flash. I’m just working with the TTL mode on the Flash and using the inbuilt compensation on it rather than moving on to manual flash adjustment straight away.
Don’t know what flashgun phobia is…but I think I’m cured of it.
I’m a fairly regular, though by no means exclusive, film shooter; of course coming from the pre-digital days what all the hipster types are calling retro I’m just treating as normal. I’m not especially brand loyal, but I do tend to buy HP5 like I did back in the 70s. Side note of course, back in the 70s I mainly bought Kodachrome….all hail Kodachrome….bring it back….pause for nostalgia.
Okay, nostalgia break over and back to the post. I was looking on the Lomography site and found they were offering a film called Berlin Kino 400. Now I’m self-knowing enough to realise that this is buying right into the whole aesthetic of an arty, edgy middle europe, the one in which Bowie re-invented himself and wrote Heroes, in which people created art communes in the shadow of the wall, of students sitting around talking about important things, etc. Heck I know what’s going on here! On top of that the reviews and sample images from people who’ve tried it were positive, and now I can do my own monochrome processing (you did read my blog post on that didn’t you?) it’s more economical and fun. Also, got to admit the packaging is gorgeous (it’s actually a colour pack, but hey, it’s a mono film)!
So I bit the bullet and ordered 5 rolls of it, I’ve never actually bought film by more than a single before so this was a bit of a first; I have ‘stock’. My wife is very good about not commenting on the erosion of the top shelf in the fridge door to film too..
Well, the thing is of course, I want to use it for, well, photos which have the air of something Bowie might have appeared in while heading to the studio, photos with an edge, perhaps a bit of somewhat run down industrial (I do like a bit of run down industrial). I want to consider the images I want to make, and then go out and make them. I want to look at them and be pleased with them and how they fit in with my vision. But, and there’s a but.
What I really need now is somebody with the right sort of 70s or 80s continental art student edgy look: the Cotswolds is a bit from the Brandenburg Gate for that.
I’ve just been watching a great video by Erik Wahlstrom, a man who produces consistently good, if occasional, Youtube content on photography. In it he’s posing the question of what a photograph is worth, both in monetary terms and personally. I’m not going to recap, go and watch it, then come back…
…okay, so now you’ve seen it. I don’t know about you (feel free to comment) but I think he’s spot on, especially in his comment about ‘country club bragging rights bidding wars’, not just photography but what you might call significant art sells for sums of money which are ludicrous. The effect of which is frequently to put art in the hands of collectors from where it never sees the light of day at prices public galleries can’t afford. The prices don’t reflect the art, they reflect the identity of the artist; prove it’s not ‘school of xxxx’ but ‘by xxxx’ and the price rockets. It’s the same art, it looks the same as it did when it was ‘school of’ but somehow it’s worth a whole load more. I always in a way think it’s sad on programs like Antiques Roadshow when somebody finds the photo auntie Dot bought at a jumble sale in the 70s for 25p is a lost masterwork valued in the hundreds of thousands..because now they’ll never be able to risk leaving it on the wall of the living room because it’s going to be a theft magnet and they can’t manage the insurance, so it’s going to be sold and they can’t enjoy it any more. If I had a painting I thought might be valuable which I enjoyed there is no way on earth I’d get it assessed and appraised, I just enjoy it.
So, you’re reading my _photography_ blog, and Eric was talking about _photography_, so where am I going with all this talk about great art and school of somebody or other? Well, I think super-value photography is a particularly ridiculous idea, far more so than a painting really. Because, at the end of the day, the huge difference is that there is only one Mona Lisa, or Bar at the Folies-Bergere, or Seagram Murals; the one the artist created. Okay, so they might have returned to the subject multiple times but the results are all that bit different. With photography, as Fox Talbot rather intended, multiple reproductions are not only possible, but desirable. With a photograph you’re not seeing the unique hand of the artist in the finished work. Okay so Ansel Adams printed his own negatives, and the Weston family are a dynasty of printers, and there are others, but generally for a photograph the act of creating the image in the camera is the ‘thing’, not creating the finished product. I’m not saying that’s not an amazing skill, it really is, but when you look at a photo on a gallery wall generally it’s not the name of the printer you’re celebrating.
So, where does the worth of a photo derive? I’d say from two places. The first is the creative mind behind it and the second is the actual work taken to secure it; we can marvel at the sure eye of Bailey photographing Shrimpton, or marvel at the nerve of Capa on bloody Omaha. Both of these photos have ‘worth’ for that…but I’d also say the worth should go to Bailey and Capa because they were the people who put their minds or well being into the images. A print of one of the photos should, I’d say, be worth far less even if it’s done in a real darkroom from the original negatives. Not worth-less, worth far less, you’ll notice, a skilled professional went into a darkroom and used all that skill to produce the print but the worth again should derive from the labour power of the artisan, not because of the original photographer or subject. Obviously, if you could find a print of one of Capa’s D-Day series, which you could guarantee was actually printed by Capa, then I’m not dumb enough to argue that wouldn’t be worth more!
I’m a big fan of the ‘thrift store challenge’ YouTube channel, where they go into ValueVillage (or somewhere of that ilk), buy a camera for less than $5 and see what they get from it. Always watchable and good fun – and if the photographer in question is good enough, the results are somehow comforting inspiring in among the latest gear videos. Mind you they can also be deeply depressing when they do better than I can with a camera which cost me a metric shit tonne more than $5. This example is working at a higher budget, but it gives you an idea and Joey from Awesome Cameras is always worth watching.
The thing I have noticed however, is that in the US and Canada thrift stores seem to generally have a reasonable selection of cameras. Go into a UK charity shop and at most they might have one strange and unbranded digital camera, generally they don’t have any. Said camera might also be significantly overpriced by the way; I saw a digital camera in one yesterday for which they wanted fifty quid, when something at least as good is available from leading online retailers for not a whole lot more. I shop in a town which is both a well heeled area and has a plethora of charity shops, so I’m working off a decent sample here.
I’d love to say I’ve got an insight into this, but I really don’t. I’m not sure if they won’t accept them, and UK charity shops are very picky about what they’ll accept and try to sell. I once asked in a charity shop if they had a pair of jeans they couldn’t sell as I needed a bit of denim for a repair, and the pair they gave me were in better nick than the ones I was wearing every day; there is a bit of a pulled thread in one of the legs which is why they felt it wasn’t saleable. So maybe it’s because they don’t want to take the risk of being saddled with something which they’ll need to dispose of as ‘faulty small applience’ rather than just chuck in the skip? Maybe they’ve got a deal with somebody who pays a flat fee for any they have and resells them through a well known online auction house? Maybe the good people of the UK just don’t ever think that anybody might want them? If anybody works in a charity shop and can shed any light on this then I’d love to know the reason.
I’ve got a snapchat account, I don’t use it but I’ve got one because I like to experiment with all these things; I’ve got accounts on pretty much everything (apart from the Chinese social media platform WeChat which my son has so he’s beating me there). But I like to find out how these things work, some like the twin pillars of Empire Zuck I use a lot, some like Flickr I want to use more and some like Tumblr and Snapchat I hardly use at all. Putting this out there now before I get deluged with irate hate mail from Snapchat users, which actually would be nice because it suggests that real people rather than just bots read my blog, for what it’s for then I get snapchat. Somebody and their friends, at a party, quick photo, few filters, bit of text, all their mates see it. Job done. With the added bonus that the photo then disappears unless somebody screenshots it, and I understand it lets you know if somebody has? That last one is one of the great strengths of Snapchat for what it is…and the great curse for photographers.
Let’s face it, teenagers do things they really, really, really don’t want to come back and appear later in life, perhaps at a job interview. I know of one very successful woman with a great career who dimly remembers being patched up aged 18 by St John’s somebody later on than being in Trafalgar Square and new year and possibly before the copper explained she couldn’t sleep in the phone box. But at least there aren’t photos of this, genuine tangible evidence isn’t going to rear it’s ugly head now on somebody’s social networking. For things like passing out in Trafalgar Square Snapchat is definitely the way to go. Totes (down with the kids, me).
But that’s where I think it loses out in so many other situations, because you don’t have the photo. With all the others you take the photo, it’s saved on your phone, then you process and post it. If it’s no good then sure you can delete it from your phone afterwards, I’ve done post and delete loads of times, but the option is there. You take that photo with Snapchat and you can’t revisit it, you can’t look at it the following morning and say “hey, without the rabbit ears Auntie Flo would like a copy of that”, or “I don’t have any photos of me and friend x at event y”, or the organiser of the party realises they don’t have photos of something. With snapchat you’re condemned to the death of that image; it’s taken away choice and actually I think, no app should do that.
I know that it’s possible to take the photo, then put it via Snapchat later on, which would seem to me to be the best way to go as it gives you the best of both worlds. But in what I’m going to term ‘the snapchat moment’ who thinks that far ahead?
Back in the olden days, before the advent of the mobile phone camera and the invasion from planet Zuckerberg, if you wanted to share your photos online the game was Flickr. For me, somehow, despite all the things which have happened since, it still is. Before we go any further, I’d like to say two things clearly. The first is that I’m in no way sponsored or otherwise rewarded by Flickr and/or SmugMug, the other is that while I’m joking about Instagram/Facebook a lot here, they’re both platforms which do what they do well, and I’m happy to use them. The sci-fi imperial comments are just for rhetorical effect…
I’ve got Instagram, and Facebook and enjoy them both hugely, especially Instagram (yes, the invasion of the pods from the Zuckerberg Galaxy has got me to). I’ve experimented with 500px and even something called ClickaSnap, which somehow left me totally cold despite it’s frequent claims that somehow people were going to pay me. I know people use it and love it, but it’s just not for me. Images uploaded to my instagram also go automatically onto 500px and when I remember to check occasionally people like them. Nothing gives a snapper a warm glow like some random stranger feeling motivated to double-tap one of my photos in a vague form of quality acknowledgement. As Flickr lurched from one crisis to another and users haemorrhaged from it faster than body fluids in an Ebola outbreak, I hung in there despite a vague feeling that maybe I ought to cancel my Pro subscription and just go with the gram, but I never quite did. Right now, I’m feeling more Flicker-Positive than I have for years. Because the new owners SmugMug decided to make it less attractive for free users and the roadmap shows they’re thinking about new features for Pro users.
So why does somebody deciding to risk losing further shitloads of their user base (i.e. the ones who aren’t paying) on top of all the ones who’ve just given up over the Yahoo Years make me feel positive? Because it suggests that they believe that there are enough photographers out there prepared to stump up their pennies for a decent online platform, and making the revenue to fund that independent of advertiser revenue might give them the security to deliver. If you think about it, in the world of free hosting funded by the adverts the folks from Planet Zuck have nailed it, they’re like the empire in the original Foundation Novels, they’re everywhere, if they could have offices which covered a planet to the point that nobody could see the sky like Trantor then they’d get there. People rave about ‘The Algorithm’ affecting their viewers (and do I hate the algorithm ranting), they express concerns about their personal data, but they stick with it because for free it’s a bloody good service. Pretty much unlimited storage and sharing options in exchange for your personal data; a devil’s bargain perhaps, but one loads of people are happy to strike.
SmugMug clearly believe that there are enough people who are prepared to go down the route of just paying for a service with money rather than with data, and I think they’re going to be right. After all despite the outcry over the Adobe subscription model there are still hundreds of thousands of people every month who pay up because, well, they get a quality product in exchange. Interestingly, I don’t remember quite so much furore when The Beast of Redmond quietly slipped into a subscription model for Office, but again it’s about a company taking a pretty much guaranteed monthly revenue stream to deliver a quality product. That’s what I think, or at least I hope, SmugMug is doing here with Flickr. To be fair, offering free users space for a 1000 images isn’t exactly mean either – and to my mind anybody who has over 1000 quality images to share is probably going to be a keen enough Flickr user to want to pay for the features it offers.
And that brings me to the final reason I stick with Flickr, because actually the quality of the images is overall better, because it’s always been a platform entirely for photographers, while Instagram is a platform for anybody who wants to share some photographs. When I surf on Insta I find a lot of images I like, and often new people to follow, but there are also a lot of photos where frankly I find myself thinking ‘seriously, why did you bother?’ – well they bothered because it was fun, and their friends will find it fun too, and it will help people remember the experience of that birthday party / wedding / stag do / weekend in Benidorm / whatever. Those are all great things, and most of us do them, but that’s not the user base who are going to go for Flickr – that’s what I think Yahoo etc missed, they thought they could compete with The Zuck Empire on it’s own turf, and they couldn’t – not with a user base into Sagan numbers, quick easy upload from the phone and immediacy of sharing. I think SmugMug have realised this and refocussed onto photographers, who care about the quality of the image itself as much as the context.
The thing which I think would be a good add-on to the Pro Flickr roadmap would, oddly, be a quality print on demand service. If they partnered with print labs in various countries and you could order a print from inside Flickr, billed to the same card which pays your subscription, with all the options for size and quality built into the platform. There’s a lot more interest in printing our work now among photographers. If you’re listening SmugMug? That would be nice.
If you want to give Flickr a go, then the free option is worth trying out. This is mine, and if (or when) you have an account I’d love you to let me know so I can see yours.