It’s about the photograph

One of the reasons I took a few months off from writing was that I wanted to concentrate a bit more on the photos and less on the gear used to make them. This was not readily apparent when the hiatus struck, but it became increasingly clear as time passed. Time spent looking at photographs is far more useful for improving one’s own work than time spent looking at cameras. With so many photographs being produced and thrown haphazardly into the public eye, the real problems are first what photographs to look at, and second how to look at them.

Perusing the internet might seem like a good first step. It isn’t. The problem is not the photographs, but the editing, or more accurately the lack thereof. It’s far too easy to become overwhelmed by sheer volume and lose any sense of perspective. With so many photographs, the tendency is to just plow through them, not giving any enough time for proper consideration. It becomes a non-discriminatory blur that does nothing to make your own photography any better.

Another issue with relying on the internet for photography is the fact that you are seeing photographs on a bright screen. If a photographer is specifically producing work for that medium, fine, but most photographs (at least those made prior to the digital era) were intended as prints. Changing the medium changes the viewing experience, often fundamentally. It’s like seeing a Monet on television or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in IMAX. If you’re going to look at photographs that were intended to be seen as prints, look at them as prints.

So where to start? While exhibitions are great, photo books are a good and usually more practical option. You get a selection of printed photographs in a compact package to peruse at your leisure. More importantly, you get a set of photographs that are the result of an editorial process designed to produce a cohesive set of images. Presumably this allows not only a clearer understanding of what the photographer seeks to convey through the images, but also provides them in the original printed format. Knowing that the book is finite, the reader can linger over any given image for as long as they like, unconcerned that they’re falling behind in an endless stream of ever-accumulating material.

This brings us to the second, and far more problematic, issue: how to look at photographs. Instinct suggests a simply visceral reaction, liking or disliking an image based on its superficial qualities. This does exactly nothing for improving one’s own skills. More important is to analyze the photograph on several levels: how was it shot? why was it shot that way? what are the keys to the image being what it is? what was the photographer trying to do? did he achieve it? what does it say to me? why does it say that? how does it fit within the collected images? how could it be improved? Put simply, does it work? There’s likely no right answer to many of these questions, but that shouldn’t stop the viewer from asking them.

Understanding what you’re looking at is very different from the act of looking. The latter is passive, while the former is active engagement with the image. Does this mean you have to, or even can, fully understand every photograph you see? Of course not. Does it mean you won’t see bad photographs or collections of photographs? Absolutely not. But you will develop a better appreciation of and a more critical eye toward photography. For anyone dedicated to improving their own work, this is necessary. It’s far too easy to fall in love with your own photographs, especially in the current positive reinforcement culture of the internet and beyond.

Question everything. The truth is out there.

Camera Followup: Hexar AF

It’s been the better part of a year since I got my Hexar AF Rhodium, and as it is so different from the sort of equipment I normally favor, it seemed appropriate to offer a bit of a followup. Readers of the initial piece will note that I was rather uncertain about how I would get on with the Hexar, openly speculating that its time with me might well be short. Well, it’s still here – time to address why.

Put simply, I’m really enjoying using the camera. I don’t really know why, but I am. It fits my hand well, it’s very easy to use, and the results are very, very good. I took it on vacation last summer, shot a friend’s band’s gig in a dark bar, and used it extensively this past fall as I burned up some of my old expired color film stockpile. I’ve shot maybe a dozen rolls of film with it – B&W (some of it pushed to 1600), color print, and slide – and it’s handled everything nicely. The metering spot-on. The autofocus is startlingly competent. There’s really been nothing to dislike.

Konica Hexar AF, Kodak Gold 200 (expired)

I’m growing more accustomed to the 35mm lens. In spite of having a few lenses in this focal length, I haven’t tended to use them a lot. It’s proven a useful in-between for when I’m only carrying one camera (I’m finding myself tending more toward the 50/28 two lens kit when I travel, so 35 splits the difference). It stills requires more conscious attention than when I shoot 50, but that’s just me. The speed of the camera itself helps to offset my own slowness in framing and composition.

The quality of the lens is well-documented, but I feel a few words are necessary nonetheless. The rendering is somewhere between modern and classic. It captures fine textures very well without feeling overly sharp, and the fall-off into the out-of-focus areas is gloriously creamy. Contrast is again more than you would see with lenses from the 1950s and 60s (let alone uncoated ones), but not the biting contrast of truly modern glass. While it definitely produces more modern-looking results than most of the lenses in my collection, it strikes a nice balance that makes it clear it is not something calculated by unfeeling machines and churned out in the last decade.

Konica Hexar AF, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

In spite of all this, there’s still some cognitive dissonance. Relying on a partially automated, battery-dependent camera partially made of plastic sticks in my craw. The whirring noises bug me. Where’s the damn advance lever? Even though it’s given me exactly zero reasons to doubt it, my own predilections leave me feeling every-so-slightly suspicious that it’s going to melt or explode or whatever modern cameras do when they fail.

What I plan to try next is to use it for some street photography. Rather than allow the camera to just do its thing, I’m going to lock the focus at 3m, the aperture at f/8 (or f/5.6, depending on the light), and go from there. I may even set the shutter to 1/125, but chances are I’ll at least let the Hexar control the speed via its Program mode (which is a sort of smart Aperture Priority), in part because I don’t want the little electronic elves to feel spurned and go off pouting and letting the smoke out. When I shoot manual cameras in the street I use the settings above in most cases, so it will be interesting to see how the Hexar AF compares in similar circumstances. I have a feeling it will be fine.

So what’s the verdict? Well, I’ve been happier with the Hexar AF than I expected to be. In spite of knowing that I could probably sell it easily and for a fair sum (certainly more than what most of my cameras would fetch), I’m keeping it for now. Will it continue to impress me favorably, or will it crap out and leave me annoyed at my misbegotten faith in it? Who knows. I like it enough that I think I’d be genuinely saddened if it failed in a way I couldn’t fix, and that’s not something I would have expected to find myself writing when I first laid hands on it.

Postscript: I followed through with my plan a few days ago. As intended, I set the aperture at f/5.6 (it was mostly cloudy) and let the camera settle on a shutter speed, but I left the autofocus on for the most part. I’m not sure why – I think the idea of setting the focus manually seemed contrary to the nature of the Hexar AF. I mean, it’s got AutoFocus in the name, for crying out loud! (Before you nitpickers get all wound up, I know the official name is “Hexar,” not “Hexar AF,” but what does everyone call it? So there.)

So how did it do? Fine, in that it didn’t cause me any problems, and was as compliant as I expected it to be. As for the photos, well, they’re what I expected from the lens in technical terms, but they also confirm that I am more a natural 50mm shooter, especially in the street. Several times I felt like I wished I had the longer focal length, and the photos reflect that my framing with the wider lens is looser, and in my eyes less refined. It just feels sloppy, or perhaps uncontrolled. I know a lot of people prefer wider lenses for street shooting, and I definitely found it useful in certain circumstances, but it never felt as instinctive as a 50mm.

So the Hexar is not likely to supplant the Leicas for street work, but that doesn’t change my feelings about it. It’s still a very good general purpose and travel camera; like every camera, you have to learn and work within its limitations, but first you have to find them.

 

The Forgotten, Part One

Like many of you, I have more cameras than I could possibly need. Between purchases and gifts, they have piled up to the point of absurdity. I can’t use them all, and of course the ones that see the most use are those that fit my needs best. The others languish, collecting a delicate layer of dust like Victorian antiques and somehow managing to look vaguely forlorn.

I decided to start off the year by putting some of them to use. It’s hard to say why some of these don’t see more activity, while others have some clear flaw or limitation that makes the reason for their presence on the shelf all too obvious. Regardless, I determined to overlook these and pull them back into useful service, if only briefly.

Defying all alphabetical logic (you’re not the boss of me, alphabet!), I started in the Ks with the oddball German/Yugoslav hybrid King Regula IIb and the 1950s sci-fi styled Konica III. Both are remarkably solid cameras, and both worked flawlessly in spite of their lack of recent use (in fairness, I had overhauled both when I got them, and I did exercise the shutters before loading film).

The Regula is easy to use, has a very nice viewfinder, and seems to have the strongest advance lever return spring ever fitted to a camera. You could use the lever as a miniature catapult if so inclined. It has limitations – the lens is slowish (maximum aperture f/3.5) and the Pronto shutter only offers four speed plus Bulb – but within those it’s perfectly competent. The triplet lens isn’t going to win any sharpness or contrast prizes, but it produces some interesting images. I shot it with a slip-on yellow filter to build a little more contrast, as the day I had it out was overcast and dull, plus the fact that I like to shoot it wide open (why make scale focusing easy?) also lowers overall contrast.

King Regula IIb (w/ Getaldus Ghenar 45/3.5), Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

You can see the glowy, soft look the lens gives. Bear in mind that is under very diffused light; get a bright light source in there and veiling flare is omnipresent. Using a hood a tricky too, as there are no threads on the lens, and I don’t trust slip-on hoods to stay on very far at all. Nonetheless, it’s interesting rendering and quite different from most of my cameras.

By contrast to the relative simplicity of the King, the Konica is full-featured by 1950s standards. The lens is a fast 48/2, and the shutter provides the full range of typical leaf shutter speeds (1/500 to 1 sec, plus Bulb), flash sync, and a self-timer. And what a lens it is: nicely sharp even wide open and with a lovely fall-off into the out of focus areas. Between this camera and my Hexar AF I’ve come to have high regard for Konica’s lenses. The camera is a brick, and an angular one at that. The viewfinder is decidedly smaller than the one on the Regula, and probably the weakest point in the camera’s design (the later IIIA and IIIM improved it considerably).

Konica III, Ilford HP5+ in Caffenol C-H(RS)

Moderate contrast, sharp across the frame, and oh-so-creamy. Every time I use this camera I wonder why I don’t use it more often. The answer, of course, is that it’s less flexible than my interchangeable lens cameras, it weighs a ton, and the ergonomics aren’t exactly ideal for me (the double-stroke vertical advance lever is different, but to what end?). It’s really a shame it doesn’t see more action, because the lens is just spectacular.

What’s the purpose of this exercise? Well, aside from giving myself an excuse to maintain an unreasonably large camera collection (tenuous though that excuse may be), there’s something to be said for breaking up the routine.. It’s all too easy to keep using the same exact equipment day in and day out, and while this has its obvious advantages, mixing it up does too. Neither of these cameras is a radical departure from my usual stuff, but still offer a bit of a change, the Regula forcing me to practice scale focusing, for example. I’ve grown so accustomed to the look of my regularly-used Leica lenses than it was nice to be reminded of the quality of the Konica’s.

There is value in disruption.