About that camera in your pocket

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We’ve all got mobile phones with built in cameras. How do you use yours? Snaps and selfies to upload to facebook?

When they first appeared the phone cameras were pretty poor quality, OK for viewing in the tiny screen of a mobile phone or sending photos by email and posting to facebook, but not really any good for printing.

Since then the boom in social media and progress in technology have really changed the way the ‘snap shooter’ takes and shares photos and it’s impacting on the enthusiast and pro sectors too.

The latest smartphones now have vastly better cameras with sensors giving quality results that are good enough to print reasonably large. There are also lots of photo apps to help you post process images and do cool stuff like add filters, make collages, add frames and other effects.

The improvement in phone cameras has hit the traditional camera market hard. Not the higher end gear but the ‘pocket’ cameras that most people would buy to take on holiday and days out, and most of the camera manufacturers didn’t seem to see this coming! A few have collaborated with phone manufacturer’s to help with lens technology, Zeiss and Leica for example.

The best selling camera in the world is now Apple’s iPhone. I use an iPhone and the camera quality is very good in most circumstances. The iPhone uses a 28mm equivalent focal length lens, which is a ‘wide angle’ lens. It’s wider than I would like as a 35mm lens is my personal choice for a general purpose lens. A 28mm lens though is useful indoors especially for group shots, and photos of buildings/scenery which are probably the most common types of subject matter for the typical user (holiday photos, parties).

The phone camera is being taken more seriously by the photographic enthusiast and imaging ‘market’ and as the features and quality continue to improve it’s a trend that is set to continue. I doubt any camera manufacturers will bother with making small sensor point and shoot cameras in another few years. At the moment the main advantage they offer is with the lenses – medium and longer range zooms which take up too much space to build into a phone.

Even professional photographers have started to use smartphones for their work. Sometimes they can be a useful tool in situations where a ‘proper’ camera might be seen as intrusive or even dangerous. Look at these photos taken in Afghanistan posted on flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/basetrack/with/5778245074/

I was so impressed with these images I was curious about the workflow used so I contacted ‘basetrack’ and the answer was an iPhone 4 and the Hipstagram photo app.

Some pro photographers have shot whole weddings with phones, brave of the couples to risk their memories of the big day to phone snaps, but the results were great, of course that’s really down to the skills of the photographers.

We can expect to see continued improvement in phone cameras, even better sensors, better built in flash, zoom lenses, RAW files and more controls for exposure and effects. Some of these have already appeared in specific products but I expect them to become standard feature sets in every smartphone within the next few phone launches.

The small sensor and lens will still mean that there are limitations to what can be done with a phone camera and it’s not going to replace the enthusiast and pro level still cameras, but for the most ‘non-photographers’ who just want to capture memories it will be plenty enough, and for enthusiasts and professional photographers it is a viable piece of photographic equipment where its limitations can be turned to benefits.

It’s definitely time to take phone cameras seriously.

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Competition winner from a phone cam!

I recently visited the Saatchi Gallery in London to see their Selfie exhibition (Selfie to Self Expression is on until 6th September more info at http://www.saatchigallery.com). The exhibition based around the subject of the ‘selfie’ from self portraits to phone camera photography. The ‘selfie’ isn’t a new phenomenon!

The exhibition reminded me of a competition I entered, about 10 years ago, with an image I made with my phone camera at the time, which was a very basic VGA quality (that’s less than 1MP) camera in a Nokia phone.

The competition was around the theme of Hip Hop music. I’m more an Indie/rock type of man. I liked the Beastie Boys but didn’t really know too much about Hip Hop culture and was struggling to find something to photograph for the competition.

One evening after work I had popped into a bar for a quick drink. It was early evening and the bar was fairly quiet but this young guy walked in dressed in gear that shouted HIP HOP!

I was kicking myself for not being the type of photographer who always carries a camera with them. I thought about my phone but there’s no way I could take a photo on that VGA camera good enough to print and enter the competition (you had to enter a large print for potential exhibition).

The beer must have been inspirational because as I looked at what this guy was wearing I had the idea of making a collage of detail shots instead, which might get around the problem of the low resolution images from the Nokia.

I nervously went over and explained to the guy about the competition and he was really up for ‘modelling’! Then I had to explain that the only camera I had on me was the phone. I took a dozen or so photos of him and his gear and wondered if I could make the idea work.

The resulting images were pretty decent and once I’d edited them the collage idea worked out well, better than I had hoped in fact.

The image was printed to A3 size and dropped off at the gallery organising the competition. I was amazed when I was later invited to an evening for finalists in a club in London, where they would be playing Hip Hop music and the famous Hip Hop DJ Normski would announce the winners. My image was one of 10 finalists and was framed and on display on the night.

The evening was great fun, attended by a mix of photo and Hip Hop enthusiasts. My print had been framed and was on display with the other entries, which were very varied in subject and style. Then the 3 prize-winning photos, chosen by DJ Normski were announced. I was amazed when my name was called out and I had to go up to collect my prize (some Hip Hop type gear, the real prize was the kudos of winning).

DJ Normski said he’d been drawn to my photo because it reminded him of the kind of photos he’d take of his friends with an instamatic type camera. The ‘low-fi’ quality worked in my favour!

It’s somewhat ironic that I’ve got some of the best camera equipment you can buy but I won a competition with a very low quality phone camera. Here’s the photo.

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Processing your own B&W film is easy!

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If you shoot film it’s getting harder to find local processors in some areas, and there’s very few that offer same date processing for anything other than C41 films.

For traditional silver halide B&W film – that’s films like Kodak Tri-X or Ilford FP4 & HP5, you really should try processing it yourself. It’s very simple and it’s a satisfying feeling, being responsible for your images from taking them to presenting them.

Unless you want to make traditional wet prints as well, you don’t need a darkroom to process your own film. You can buy a changing bag to load the film into the processing tank and the rest is then done in normal light.

Here’s a list of the minimum equipment you’ll need to start with;

  • Changing bag
  • Scissors
  • Processing tank and reel
  • Thermometer
  • Measuring jug/beaker or graduates for measuring and mixing chemicals
  • Empty bottles for storing chemicals (you can buy photo chemical bottles or use old water bottles)
  • Timer – you probably have one on your mobile phone
  • Film clips – for hanging film to dry
  • Negative sleeves – for storing your processed negatives

You will also need the chemicals;

  • Developer
  • Stop bath
  • Fixer
  • Wetting agent
  • Large bottle of clean water for washing film

You can get away with just the developer and fixer but I’d recommend buying the others to get the best possible results.

There are other things you can buy such as a film pressure washer, or squeegee tongs to help dry the film but I have some other suggestions later on.

Additionally I would suggest buying 4 graduates so you have one for each of the chemicals you’ll be using, and a washing up bowl to act as a water bath, to help keep all the solutions at the same working temperature (half fill it with water at the required temperature, then stand the graduates full of solution in the water bath). This will help avoid any big changes in temperature between solutions which can have a detrimental effect on the film.

That said, B&W film is very forgiving so don’t worry too much about being spot on with temperatures, a few degrees here or there at first.

Film developing tanks come in two types, plastic and stainless steel. It doesn’t matter which you buy but personally I think that the plastic type (with plastic film reels) are easier to load for beginners. The stainless film reels take a bit of getting used to and you might spoil some films if you don’t load them correctly.

They also come in various sizes so that you can process multiple rolls of film at the same time. To start with I’d suggest you buy a standard 1 or 2 reel tank.

Whichever type you opt for I would suggest getting hold of an outdated roll of film and using it to practice loading the reel with in daylight. Once you can see how it works and are used to doing it you’ll find it much easier then working within the changing bag.

The changing bag is a light tight bag that has a zipped side you put your film, reel and tank and scissors into, zip up then put your arms through the two ‘sleeves’ and you then have to load the reel by feeling where the film should go (so that’s why it’s best to do some practice runs in full sight). Although the changing bag is lightproof I still prefer to use it somewhere that’s not in direct light, just in case any light could get in through the sleeves whilst you’re moving your hands about.

Do remember to make sure you’ve put the reel in the tank and then the lid on the tank before removing your arms from the changing bag or opening it up!!

Rather than go over all steps for processing in detail here, there are many guides already available online – Ilford photo have a particularly good beginners guide on their site, see the link on this page http://www.ilfordphoto.com/applications/page.asp?n=31

The key steps are;

  1. Load film into the tank
  2. Develop (most important step which turns your film into a strip of images)
  3. Stop bath (literally to stop development)
  4. Fixer (fixes the images on the film)
  5. Washing (thorough washing in clean water to remove all traces of chemicals – I prefer to do this using the tank and multiple changes of water)
  6. Final wash with Wetting Agent (added to the final wash this will help avoid water spots as your negatives dry)
  7. Drying film

My advice is to stick to the instructions on the pack of developer/fixer you buy to start with and use the timings suggested on the pack, or better still there’s an excellent website and phone app called The Massive Dev Chart which has times for pretty much every combination of film and developer and working temperature. See the website here http://www.digitaltruth.com/devchart.php

The phone app is particularly good as it includes a timer function which will tell you when to agitate the tank and change the chemicals.

Top Tips!

Most beginners have problems with getting their film onto the reel for processing. Practice with a film in daylight (OK so you have to waste a roll of film to do this but it will save spoiling other films).

The first problem you might face is if you have rewound your film right into the canister. Don’t worry it’s easy to retrieve the film leader. You can buy a special tool or a clever trick is to get another film, with the leader sticking out. Lick the end of the film (yes lick it!) and then slide it into the other canister slowly, then pull it out slowly again and it should pull the other film tip with it. This might take a few attempts but it’s usually successful!

Another option is to use a bottle opener but you’ll have to do this by feel inside the changing bag so it’s less convenient, but if the trick above doesn’t work you might have to resort to doing this.

With the plastic type reels you load the film by feeding the leading edge into the reel then twist the reel back and forth to feed the film into it. They mostly work well but sometimes you might find the film sticks.

A couple of tips to avoid this and make loading easier. Firstly, always make sure the reels are really clean and thoroughly dry. Any moisture will make the film stick.

Before placing the film into the changing bag, cut off the leader so that you have a straight edge, making sure you haven’t cut through the sprocket holes, then cut the very corners of the film edges off so there are two 45 degree edges. This helps with feeding the film on the reel.

Load the tip of the film onto the reel before closing up the changing bag.

Mix up your chemicals with water that’s at room temperature – check the temperature with your thermometer and use this to calculate the development time (according to the instructions or the app I’ve mentioned).

If your ‘room temperature’ is too low or high, then use a water bath to stand your chemicals in, to bring them all to the same temperature. I just use a washing up bowl, half filled with water to the working temperature and then stand the graduates with the correct amount of chemicals in the water bath for 5 or 10 minutes.

As I’ve said, don’t worry about being a little bit out on the temperature, consistency is more important.

Don’t panic! Developing your first film will be a little stressful as you try to remember all the steps and check the timings. Common mistakes include pouring in the wrong chemicals – label the graduates or put them in a row in the order you will use them and don’t put them back into the water bath afterwards. Agitate the tank slowly, you’re not shaking a cocktail, it’s just a matter of picking the tank up (with the lid firmly on!) and turning it upside down a few times in a row, then placing it back on the work surface until the next cycle is due (the app will prompt you to do this).

Once you’ve finished the fixer cycle you can take your film out of the tank but I suggest you don’t. Wash your film first. I just fill the tank with room temperature water, agitate it for about 30 seconds then pour the water out. Repeat this step about 6 times and then do a final wash with a few drops of wetting agent added to the water. This is great stuff and really helps getting nice clean dry negatives.

Once you’re finished the washing cycle remove the reel from the tank and carefully pull the strip of film off the reel. You should now be able to see your negatives for the first time!

Buy proper film clips – one will be weighted and helps stop the film curling up whilst drying. They’re cheap and will be safer to use than clothes pegs! You can hang the upper clip from a clothes hanger.

A good relatively dust free place to hang your film to dry is in the bathroom. Some people say to run the shower for a few minutes first to help keep dust down. Another place is an empty wardrobe or cupboard.

When the film is hung up you can use squeegee tongs to remove the excess water. The problem with tongs is that tiny particles can get stuck on the rubber and it can scratch the film.

A great tip I can share is to use a piece of kitchen paper instead. Fold a square of kitchen paper in half and again etc. until you have a strip about an inch wide. Fold this in half to make a pair of ‘tongs’. Place this around the film at the top end then holding the film gently with the paper tongs (very light touch) run it down the length of film in one smooth quick action.

The kitchen paper will soak up most of the water and you can then leave the film to dry naturally.

One the film is dry cut the negatives into strips and place them in negative sleeves being very careful not to get any fingerprints on them – cotton ‘photo’ gloves or rubber gloves are a good idea.

After that it’s a case of scanning the negatives to process and display or print digitally, or printing traditionally using an enlarger.

Boots to close mini-labs but Film isn’t dead!

Boots chemists chain have just announced that they are closing around 2/3rds of their in-store mini labs http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/boots-to-close-photo-labs-jobs-at-risk-a7606501.html

Whilst I tend to use them as a last resort, I do use them, and apart from one time a few years ago when one of their machines chewed up a strip of my negatives, I have found their quality to be fine.

I used them mainly for C41 processing (colour negative film or chromogenic B&W which is also C41 process). I would have the film processed and scanned to CD which I use as ‘proofs’ then re-scan and print myself.

It seems odd to me that Boots have taken this decision now. There is real growth in the use of film. Kodak recently announced they are reintroducing Ektachrome film and another manufacturer, Ferrania of Italy have started making B&W films with plans to introduce other films down the line  http://www.filmferrania.it

I suspect Boots have a bunch of bean counters who had to deliver some cost cutting measures and job cuts. The common perception by non-enthusiasts, even now, is that film is dead. I doubt they have even stopped to consider the wider opportunity they are going to be missing out on.

I did write to Boots but received the usual kind of bland corporate response that means my letter probably went straight into the bin!

At the same time as Boots announcement, Timpsons, who own the Snappy Snaps chain and Max Spielmann mail order service, have said they are investing more money in their photo product offerings and opening more stores.

Snappy Snaps have long been my preferred choice for colour film processing and printing. I’ve never had any issues with their quality and they offer a good range of services (they also process E6 and traditional B&W films, but not in-store). The Snappy Snaps stores I’ve used seem to be staffed by photographers, and they take care in their work https://www.snappysnaps.co.uk/

Given Boots lack of commitment to the photography market I will now ensure that all of my business goes to Snappy Snaps or elsewhere and I suggest you do the same. Let’s make those who are supporting us stronger!

If you are using traditional silver based B&W film, such as Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5, you really should try processing it yourself. It’s very simple, you don’t need a darkroom and there’s real satisfaction in looking at the freshly processed wet negatives when you pull them from the tank.

I will write a separate article for beginners with my own top tips later.

Film isn’t dead!

water-towersmlPeople have been forecasting the death of film for many years now.

Many newcomers to photography eventually become curious about film and want to give it a try. Some of us have never stopped using film and still see digital as a new medium.

It’s true that film use has declined significantly due to the dominance of digital photography but even at its reduced level, there is still a solid – and growing – user base.

Polaroid was an early casualty of digital photography. Who needed instant film now that you had instant digital? Well clearly enough people still wanted Polaroid for the Impossible Project people to reinvent it and they now offer a number of films and formats for Polaroid users.

Fuji’s instant film products are their biggest sellers and even the iconic Leica brand have recently introduced their own instant camera (which uses the Fuji size films).

Film seemed to appeal to either the professional or ‘advanced’ amateur or to the Lomography users creating lo-fi imagery. Lomography should be acknowledged for their part in keeping the enthusiasm for film photography going at a grass roots level, offering innovative cameras and some unusual types of film with intentional colour casts.

Kodak went through a major reorganisation a few years ago, entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the USA and have emerged as a leaner organisation.

Ironically it wasn’t declining film sales that damaged Kodak, it was their failure to be able to make sufficient revenue from their investments in digital products.

During the declining years Kodak had to drop a number of products including well loved films such as Kodachrome and Ektachrome.

Well, this week, Kodak announced their plans to reintroduce Ektachrome film for still and motion picture users. This is HUGE news! If that weren’t enough, they also mentioned their aim to also bring back Kodachrome.

Ektachrome and Kodachrome are both transparency films – you end up with a positive image which you can either project (remember slide shows?) or make a print from using the necessary paper. Of course you can also scan them and display or print digitally.

With transparency film there’s no post processing. It’s WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). The photographer has to get it right ‘in camera’. Transparency film was the preferred choice of professionals in media and advertising photography, and creative directors preferred it, being able to easily select images on a lightbox.

Whilst transparency film has always been available from other manufacturers such as Agfa and Fuji, part of the problem has been availability of processing with many pro labs having closed down, and most consumer photolabs unable to handle E6 (the process for most transparency films).

Kodachrome used a unique process and when you bought the film it came with an envelope for you to return it to them for processing. A week or two later a little box containing 36 framed slides would drop through your letterbox (apart from in the US where Kodak weren’t allowed to have a monopoly on the processing side!).

I spent a year travelling and used Kodachrome exclusively. I would post each film off when finished and had it returned to my home address, so I didn’t have to worry about lugging my slides around with me and I had boxes and boxed of images to sort through when I returned!

E6 is a simpler process and it’s relatively easy to process at home yourself if you want to try.

Whilst there are commercial labs offering E6 processing – in the UK you can even take E6 film into your local Snappy Snaps – I think that there is a great opportunity for Kodak to offer a film/mailer service again. The convenience of not having to find a lab would surely appeal to many potential users. Presumably, if they do reintroduce Kodachrome, they will have to offer processing anyway.

There’s something quite magical about viewing your photos on a large projection screen, something that newer photographers haven’t yet experienced, but with Kodak’s announcement and the ever increasing number of photographers turning to film I’m sure that many will in the future.

Film isn’t dead!

Street Photography Essentials

one-entryAs I’ve already posted here, the idea of street photography is really daunting for some people. They feel too self-conscious or even – if they’re honest – downright frightened at the prospect of going out with a camera outside of a ‘safe’ environment.

I’ve given some tips on how to help overcome the initial fears, but what are the key techniques to becoming a better street photographer in the wild? I’ll address a few of the most common issues first.

What’s the best camera to use? The camera you own will do for starters! That might be a phone, a compact, a rangefinder, SLR, it really doesn’t matter too much.

Most think a small camera is best as it’s less obvious. Or a black camera instead of a chrome camera. That’s true in a way but then I’ve used medium format cameras for street photography and a very famous New York photographer uses Large format cameras like the old press cameras from the 1950s! The equipment you use is really a minor consideration.

Practice so that you use your camera without thought. So that you don’t need to fiddle with controls all the time. Use program mode or take a light reading and set it on manual. Auto focus will probably work best on a single point mode, or manually focus at a point where a subject is likely to be, and use f8 to give a relatively deep depth of field (the amount of the scene in front of you which will be in an acceptable range of focus).

As for lenses, I suggest using a medium wide lens (or standard zoom at the same setting). On a full frame or 35mm camera I’d suggest a 35mm lens as a great compromise. On a crop sensor SLR that would equate to a 24mm lens. Some prefer wider, some a more standard 50mm. Don’t however think it will be a good idea to use a telephoto lens because you could take photos from far away and not be noticed! You’ll look like a snooper!

I said the type of camera isn’t important. It’s not the camera that draws attention, it’s you! If you’re acting all shifty and nervous people will notice you. Not in a good way either. With the fear of terrorism these days it’s not uncommon for the public to assume that someone with a camera hanging about and sneakily taking photos is up to no good.

Don’t be a sneaky photographer. If you are forthright and confident about what you’re doing people will be less likely to be suspicious of you.

How you dress and look is another factor. If you blend in with a crowd you’re going to find it easier to work as a photographer. If you went to a beach in a suit on a hot summer’s day you will draw attention just as you would wearing shorts and flip flops in the city in winter! Think carefully about where you are going with your camera and dress to blend in.

I’ve heard of some photographers who will wear a high visibility jacket to become invisible. People tend just to accept if someone is in a high visibility jacket that they’re ‘official’ in some way and take no notice of what they’re doing! I’ve not tried this technique myself but I’m assured that it works.

Another technique to blend in is by standing still. Don’t pace about looking for something to photograph. Choose a place to stop and watch the world go by. Lean on a post or fence. Eventually a scene will happen in front of you and you’ll be ready to capture it. Think about ‘target rich environments’.

Although I’ve said choice of camera type is of little importance there is one type of camera which I really like using for street photography, the twin lens reflex or TLR. With this type of camera you mostly hold it at waist level and look down into the viewfinder. These cameras were very common at one time especially with wedding and press photographers. Use one now and people don’t recognise them, and certainly don’t think that you’re taking photos as you’re not holding the camera up at your face! It’s not sneaky photography as one is using the camera as intended, which I think has an impact on behavior and body language.

Most TLR cameras take 120 medium format film and give square negatives. Unfortunately there’s no digital camera equivalent of the TLR but a camera with a flip up LCD can be used in a similar way but at the risk of looking sneaky again!

What about asking permission to take someone’s photo? You can do this and sometimes it’s necessary, but you lose the spontaneity and usually end up with a posed photo. This may be what you want so do what you think is best.

It’s a nice idea to carry some business cards to give to people in return and offer to send them the photo. You can get cards printed over the internet very cheaply. Just something plain giving your name or a ‘business’ name and email address.

Whatever you do, there will be someone who will one day object to you taking their photo. Whilst you may be legally entitled to photograph them, why upset them? As long as the person is polite I’ll just move on. I have made a stand where someone just happened to walk into a scene I was shooting and then irately told me not to photograph them. I blamed them for ruining my photos and they moved on.

There are also sensitive subjects to consider, children and homeless people for example. Some subjects are best avoided to save you and or the subjects grief. I could write several more pages expanding on this, but much also depends the customs and laws of different countries.

If you want to use a photo of someone commercially then you will need to ask them to sign a model release – a legal document that confirms their acceptance of the use of their photo. That’s another whole new article to cover but it’s something I should mention so that you’re at least aware of the requirement.

I hope some of these pointers will help you and encourage you to try and develop your own style of street photography.

Why not set yourself an assignment to start with, maybe document a typical day in your own area, or look out for a local event you can photograph to practice some of the tips in an environment where others will also most likely be using cameras. You could even imagine that you work as a press photographer and if you must return with some usable images!

I hope you found this article helpful. Let me know if any of these methods work for you and have fun out there.