Friday, 26 February 2010

The Linen Test

I have always rather enjoyed closeup photography, I like the fact that you see things that you might otherwise not see and I especially like the shallow depth of focus. Well, our garden is just coming to life and as ever the first sentinel is a fine crop of snowdrops. Could a Holga 120 be used for this kind of challenge? I set out yesterday to find out and I discovered that it can!

The two big problems that arise are how do you get close enough to take a meaningful picture and how do you know that it is going to be in focus? For the first, essentially all you need to do is find a magnifying glass that will get your eyes to about the magnification that you are hoping to get - and then figure out a way of attaching it to the front of your Holga. In my case the answer was a linen tester, one of those natty little folding magnifiers, it is slightly too small but unless you know that you wouldn't notice in the pictures. Attachment was a very technical affair, consisting of two small squares of masking tape - the professional photographer's solution to fixing anything - unless its weight requires Gaffa tape.

So now I have a functioning closeup camera capable of focussing - close... just how close though was a mystery. In order to see how close I could have resorted to mathematics, or trial and error but I suspect that I would have given up long before I had worked it out either way. No, what I needed was a focussing screen. Holga, in their wisdom actually supply the main component of the focussing screen with the 120 camera, they supply a 6x6 mask and a 6x4.5 mask. The application of a sheet of tracing paper to the back of the spare frame completes the screen. Fitting it and opening the shutter on 'B' gives you a dim but useable view of the scene and you are ready to get measuring.

I am not going to pretend that this is an accurate closeup camera but for a Holga enthusiast this will not be either news - or a problem, it is the essence of the challenge and great fun.

The linen tester gave me a focus point at about 3cm in front of the lens. It was a good job that my intention was 'arty' rather than super sharp, at these sort of distances a movement of a couple of millimeters equates to sharp or soft, however sharp was not the plan so I thought I'd just have a go and see what I got.

I did use a tripod, exposures metered at about half a second which I did by guesswork on 'B' setting. I shot off a roll of Lucky 100 120 and processed it as I did last time, using my fleece changing bag and one of the resulting pictures is above. I did clean the pictures in Photoshop, the inevitable scratches did nothing for this subject but otherwise they are pretty much as scanned.

This Polaroid shows the linen tester taped to the camera and also the focussing screen.

There are 4 other pictures in the Gallery at along with other pictures, both Polaroid and Holga.

They are also on my Facebook pages

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Cutting Edge

Technology is a wonderful thing, I have always thought so, but it does not always need to be new. I was amused to see on the side of a roll of cling film that it had cutting edge technology, here though they meant that they had applied technology to the business of attaching a cutting edge to the box. My lovely and accomplished wife (pictured here, photographed with a Holga 120), who is an artist, working in linocut and woodblock printing has an entirely different take of 'cutting edge' technology that mainly revolves around beautifully made, razor sharp steel cutting tools.

I started thinking about this though because it seems to me that we are constantly told that things are better because of technology and often this is true, however sometimes technology merely makes things easier and easier does not necessarily equate to better.

I could pick up a modern camera and pretty much guarantee that I would be able to get sharp and correctly exposed images with a fairly accurate colour balance. What I might find harder would be to make the images reflect my own personality. Shooting without the technology is more challenging but the effort you put in is repaid because the pictures reflect what you have had to do.

I'm not a technophobe though; I just like to be involved with the process. I find that much of the technology we are presented with removes our involvement because it does the 'work' for us. We should think about the motives of high-tech companies and see who really benefits from their 'cutting edge technology' because I don't necessarily think it is the aesthetic quality of the pictures.

Just to prove that I do use technology, this picture was taken with an iPhone, I love my iPhone, I use it as a weather-man, as a web browser, for e-mail, as a spirit level, a calendar, a notebook and a sat-nav, an address book, an alarm clock, a store for music and photos, and a currency converter. I have even been known to use it as a telephone! Having a camera in your pocket all the time though is one of the most interesting things about modern mobile phones. I don't think that for the majority of people is is an alternative to a camera, certainly not me, because the 'phone is with you when you would probably not have taken a camera. What it enables though is that when you see something you are not necessarily kicking yourself for not having taken a camera with you that day.

This picture is invisible to the human eye, I knew it was there - through experience - but the eye sees both the foreground, the rainy window - and the background traffic, quite distinctly. Neither does the eye register the movement, generated by the joggling of the bus. I am delighted with this picture because it celebrates photography - it could have been taken digitally or analogue but it could not be anything other than a photograph.

What I am really saying here is that photography is not as dependent on technology half as much as it depends on the ability of the photographer to see. The cutting edge in photography is in the photographer.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Mother of Invention

It must be 15 years since I last processed any film, I used to do quite a bit and had favorite ways to get what I liked. In particular Tri X developed with Rodinal which gives a grainy but very sharp result. However in the past I had the use of a well equipped darkroom courtesy of my long suffering father who made his living as a photographer and is still involved in a picture library. The darkroom though has long since morphed into a computer room, housing scanners, servers, printers and all the paraphernalia of a modern picture library.

Selling Holga cameras gave me a reason to want to have another go. To see how easy it would be to get results without having to resort to a commercial lab (I did ask in a supermarket minilab if they processed black and white film only to be asked in return "is that digital").

So first, I needed a tank and spirals - second hand from Mr Cad for less than £16, the same sort I used to use - Patterson. Chemistry? I asked Mr Cad since they were shipping me the tank and
about 3rd in the list they reeled off was my old favorite Rodinal! I had no idea it was still available. Plus some Fix and I was all set. I had a roll of film ready to dev and no further excuse not to give it a go.

The darkest place I had to work was my office and I thought it was pretty damn dark but just to be sure I sat there for a minute or two and gradually realised that actually there was plenty of light! Even after switching off at the mains all the computers and peripherals with little LEDs on them. So dredging my memory for a solution I came up with the 'Fleece Changing Bag' A thick Fleece and a load of pegs, it worked a treat!

Now I have a roll of film, loaded on a spiral, in a tank and its time to get wet! I had found all the times for the development in the internet but suddenly realised that I had no way of checking the temperature. I am rather impatient and by this time couldn't wait another day to go and get a thermometer. The medical thermometer we have only goes down to 36° - way too hot for b+w so I had to guess. I worked on the basis that a swimming pool is usually just a little over 20° and as an enthusiastic swimmer I prefer to swim in coolish water so I stuck my finger in and asked myself "would I like to swim in this?" When I felt that I would I took the plunge, metaphorically and poured the dev into the tank... Much agitation later (timed on my iPhone) and after the fixing and rinsing I removed the lid and had a look.

Well, I don't think I will win any major prizes but I was pretty chuffed. With very minimal outlay and a little improvisation I now feel that I can produce photographs that I can be proud of. More importantly though, anyone could do this - nothing I did required expensive equipment or any special skills - if you discount the swimming!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Becca's Polaroids

These two pictures were taken by Becca Chapman, she is an art student, like my son Jim (who is hiding behind his cat), though they are at different universities, they were at school together. Becca, like many of my friends and family, is very visually aware, and pictures of whatever sort are important to her, she loves Polaroid and was delighted to find that it was not going to disappear after all.

Photography can be so many things, a record, a memory, an aspiration. It can be art and or craft, it can be exciting or calming but it nearly always means something to someone. Having a physical entity, a print makes that meaning so much more enduring.

I have looked afresh at my attitude towards photography, it had become a part of 'work' for me, a part of the life I led but not something I really felt passionate about. Developing this business has made me look at it with different eyes though. Photographs exist as a part of our cultural history, a record of what makes us what we are. Not only in the sense that they record those events in our lives when traditionally the cameras come out but - to me at least as importantly - they are a record of what stimulates us visually and a snapshot of the way we interpret our surroundings.

Personally I love movement in images, a blurring that cannot be seen with the eye but is captured so excitingly with a camera and I love grain, I guess it brings me back to my favorite theme, they both have a really 'photographic' look to them.

Becca's Polaroids are equally 'photographic', moments seen and captured, recorded in a way that is not reality but is an extraordinarily pleasing representation of it.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Success and Failure

Enjoying what you are doing is not always dependent on succeeding, though when you do it is great too. I had a great time last week shooting some pictures with a 35mm Holga Pinhole camera. I'd not used one before but I was delighted with the results, here is one of the pictures, there will be others on the 'Gallery' page of over the next few days.

Not all I have been doing has been quite so successful, you may have seen the adverts for HSBC featuring the 'good luck' hot air balloons... Laura, my wife, and I decided that it would be great fun to try this out and with the assistance of her brother Mark and his wife Denise and our collective nice Alexa we set about building tissue paper balloons to fly from the garden.

Before long the kitchen table looked like the set of Blue Peter, double sided tape, tissue paper, improvised fuel cells, coat-hanger wire and a dusting of rather exotic language (that's what I remember most about Blue Peter - the language) spread out everywhere, until, by degrees a pair of balloons emerged which we were quite proud of.

The first balloon failed to get off the ground, the envelope was too small and the wire was too heavy (with some modification we may be able to salvage something from this though). The second balloon, which was larger and equipped with lighter wire looked just the part and we got it well inflated and ready to launch.
It just lacked sufficient lift though and sank gracefully to the ground if released. We did have fun though when it tipped slightly and the edge caught light! Self fuelling it flew like a dream; for about 30 feet where it lodged in a tree and burned out in a few seconds, leaving not a trace...

I felt that there was a distinct parallel between the two experiences. In neither case did I really know what the end result would be, sure I knew what I wanted; beautiful pictures and unmanned flight - but what you get has much to do with your experience. I know about photography and am able to predict to a degree what is going to happen. I don't know about ballooning so I have to try things until they work.

If you try to use a Holga, or some other camera and you don't get what you expect you will still have learned something and you could then ask for help in correcting the problems to have a better chance of succeeding next time. I will of course be off to my local branch of HSBC in the morning to ask where I went wrong in my Ballooning...

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

This is what I am talking about...

Modern Digital photography is really good. almost any digital camera will produce images so lifelike and so 'accurate' that one might just as well be looking at the subject itself right in front of you. As long as you remain within the size that the image file can be enlarged to you are unlikely ever to see any trace of the technology that went into the creation of the image.

Well, I am not sure that it always a good thing. even in the past when the choices were fewer I would often choose to use a grainy fast film, or a particularly saturated one and I did it because it produced for me a connection between the process and the end result.

It is like looking at the brush strokes in a painting, or the ridges left by a potter in the clay of a pot on the wheel. It does not reflect badly on the photographer that the process is evident, rather it shows that they are confident of their ability to use processes that have something to add to the whole.

This image was taken by John Custer - he's a good friend of Frank, a friend of mine and on his website there are some fascinating images taken using Polaroid. Frank is in advertising and he put together a great ad for me illustrated with two of John's pictures.

I cannot quite explain why but hopefully this will strike a chord: You could do this digitally but if you did it would have no integrity, it would be a fabrication rather than the interesting amalgamation of the photographer's vision and the material's limitations.