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Get a grip: the 107-year debacle of small-camera ergonomics

er·​go·​nom·​ics |  \ ˌər-gə-ˈnä-miksan applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely (Merriam-Webster, 2021).

In the industrial setting, ergonomics is a matter of avoiding unnecessary fatigue, injuries, and discomfort. It is intended to promote both safety and efficiency. Ergonomics was first invented in 1949, after Barnack before the Leica M camera. There does not seem to be any suggestion that any camera made before about 1970 cared much about this science. Certainly, the Leica M camera – and most other small cameras – ignored this important principle of design.

Did you know that having an opposable thumb is not necessary to grip a camera the way Leica intended? It should not be a surprise that primates and even lower animals like raccoons have the right types of hands to grab cameras. Because small cameras are not actually designed for human hands. Let’s discuss small (6×9 and smaller) camera ergonomics in six rubrics.

1. How do you hold this?

Even before ergonomics had a name, small camera design went off the rails when small cameras were invented in 1914. Oskar Barnack – who being born in 1879 undoubtedly had shorter fingers than 21st-century camera users – designed the Ur-Leica with slippery round ends encased in a textured surface. This leicapithicus wetlzarensis was designed around a focal-plane shutter that did not cap and an arrangement that required a separate viewfinder. It was light, compact (65mm top to bottom), and for its weight and intended function, workable. Because you had to put the lens cap on between shots, it was not a speed demon; you were going to take the camera down from your eye to reset for the next shot costing a king’s ransom on rare double-frames of 35mm movie film. You could almost call it the mini 4×5 of its day.

There is a trope about the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle ultimately tracking back to the width of a Roman horse’s haunches. Whether or not that is true is a much more difficult question than tracing our conception of how a “small” camera should appear. The Platonic form of a camera is, after all, a Leica M3, which for dimensional purposes is a taller and heavier Ur-Leica, matching dimensions to the single millimeters. The Leica inspired many also-rans from Europe and Japan, some of which turned out to be better, but all of them have the same formula: small squarish body, lever wind, viewfinder on the left. Most fixed-lens rangefinders were actually smaller than the Leica; once you substitute a leaf shutter in the lens for a focal-plane type, the body can be even tinier.

What’s wrong with this design? If the correct method of holding it it requires a paragraph-long written description, it is not a tool that is ergonomic. Leica’s own user manuals illustrate the poor hand-fit in pictures, but the written camera-holding instructions call into question whether it is the human who is being forced to conform to a tool.

Look at a Leica III or Leica M manual. Actually, look at a bunch of them. Needless to say, the right way to hold a Leica has evolved since the days of Barnack. The first suggested M grip, which tracked how the III was supposed to be grasped, completely disengaged your left hand from the focusing ring, meaning you would never be able to refocus and re-shoot quickly. The III series has you cupping the bottom corners of the camera in the fleshy parts of your palms. At least one version of the M3 manual says nothing about how to hold the camera; the more detailed one has the corner-to-palms technique again. If you look at other brands’ camera manuals from the 1940s to the 1980s, you will see a dizzying array of hand-cramping contortions.

The right hand position has stayed mostly the same. What you are supposed to do with your left has changed over time. Here is the end point of Leica’s evolution of descriptions with the M7 and M8/M9 (the M8 is shown; the M9 has the same description with the little Ikea Man holding the camera):

Leica M7

“As a practical accessory, we recommend the Mx hand grip which allows you to hold the Leica M[x] extremely steadily and to carry it with one hand/while keeping your hands free.” This begs the question – why can’t you hold an M extremely steadily without another $400 doodad? And how was it a hands-free device for the M[x]?

The record – at least as expressed in successive generations of Leica manuals – reflects a variety of “right” ways to hold a camera, then “suggested” ways (M6), then “correct” (M7/M8/M9) and with the M240 and onward, no guidance. The M240, in fact, moves the discussion of the optional M hand grip to the “accessories” section at the end. I guess given the number of Leica owners with postgraduate degrees, it’s part of the 400-level course you were supposed to take before you started at this school.

What you are even supposed to do with your right thumb seems to be a matter of interpretation, some manuals showing it, some not. The M6 manual references resting your thumb on the lever “in the standoff” position. The M240 and M10 have a nub on which to rest your thumb. The M10-D has an ersatz M2/M3 focusing lever/thumbrest whose position does not quite match an original lever kicked out. The new $300 Leica thumb-rest looks puts your thumb in the same position as the M10-D. As noted at the beginning of this article, the user of one of these cameras does not need an opposable thumb. This camera might require a totally different type of hand.

Hint: if you have long fingers, a good one-handed grip on an M240 is to put your index finger on the trigger, your middle finger on the function button, and your ring finger on the front of the camera. The camera can sit on your curled little finger (imagine a C parallel to the bottom of the camera). Your thumb rests vertically against the grip nub/control wheel. See? You can control everything, and your ring finger is still available to accidentally press the lens release.

They say if you injure your leg and then limp enough, you don’t notice it any more. This is probably the only reason that Leicas (or similarly-configured rangefinders) are thought to be “ergonomic” – it’s just the way it’s been for 100 years. Were “ever ready” cases really useful for protection – or were they makeshift “fat grips” around ill-shaped cameras?

As much as things like the Argus “Brick” are lambasted for their funny shapes and palm-poking corners, something that fills the hand is not all bad. Ask anyone who shoots Olympic pistol. But you can also ask Nikon and Canon, who figured out in the late 1980s that a fat right grip is advantageous, even if your winding motor is so small it fits inside the takeup spool. In fact, Leica uses that “fat grip” design on most of its non-M digital cameras.

3. The pocketability conceit*

“But wait, the Leica [or insert camera name here] is pocketable.”

Baloney. This might be true of a tiny minority of camera/lens combinations, or 1980s-style pleated trousers, but Leicas generally have not been “pocketable” since the advent of the long aspherical lenses if not since the M3. And grip-ability does not necessarily change the dimensions that would make something “pocketable.” Is a Hexar AF less pocketable with its front grip ridge than a Leica M3 with its flat front? Hardly. Even among other manufacturers of M-mount cameras, the ergonomics have been better, whether it is a palm swell on the back door, a grip ridge on the front of the right grip, or even something like a rubber covering. I suspect it is more Leica’s user base than the company that drives the need to keep things the same. Witness the fate of the CL and the M5.

Interestingly, what encouraged (and maybe forced) small cameras to become more ergonomic was the incorporation of batteries and motors into the right side of the camera, something that came in with cameras like the Konica FS-1, Canon T-50, and Nikon F4. Even in non-motorized SLR cameras, grip nubs began appearing on the right front of the camera (as on the Nikon FA). When you think about putting coreless motors and electronics largely on one side of the camera, and motor-driven shutters in the middle, the mechanisms in the bottom become considerably less complicated (open a manual-wind, mechanical SLR’s bottom plate to see the assemblage of shutter-cocking levers, pinions, and gears). And by a weird twist of fate, the lithium cells best-suited to powering cameras (like the 2CR5) had a chonk factor that made them better candidates for placement in a fat grip.

This brings us to a cruel irony: point-and-shoot cameras in the late 1970s and 1980s frequently had better ergonomics than what we would call “prosumer” cameras today. In fact, many of them have better ergonomics than the Leica, long-vaunted as the enthusiast’s camera. And I write that as a Leica user.

On the other end of the “small” camera spectrum are the ultracompact 35mm cameras (Rollei 35, Contax T*, Nikon 35ti, etc.). In a sense, you can cut them some slack because their major purpose is to be pocketable most of the time – at the expense of handling and durability. These were designed to fit in a sport coat at the racquets club or the horse track, to be shot for fifty or so exposures, forgotten by the owner, sold at his estate sale, rediscovered by some internet influencer, and then driven to stratospheric resale prices that hold up until someone discovers one of the following things: (1) despite often brilliant optics, they are miserable to use; (2) they are not as durable as once thought. Weight versus size is also a factor in ergonomics – and many of these cameras are lightweight and despite their shortcomings, not impossible to use.

*Ok, I only wrote this heading because the Pocketability Conceit either sounds like an old-series Star Trek episode name or a Robert Ludlum novel title.

4. O Camcorder, where art thou?

My maternal grandfather, being a doctor, retired at age 55 – assuming that like most men of his generation, he would be dead at 60. This did not come to pass (he was “retired” for 25 more years…), and after a couple of years of golf got bored and moved into TV production at his local station. Being an early adopter of almost every technology that existed, he would get the latest and greatest video equipment every year. This meant at every Christmas, he would open the trunk of his Lincoln Continental and among other gifts, pull out last year’s latest and greatest video equipment and leave it to the good offices of my parents.

One thing that was always striking about video cameras (and later camcorders) – especially by contrast to still cameras – was the amount of effort put into making them comfortable to use. This was important because the early cameras were really heavy. Pistol grips and shoulder rests for the “camera” were de rigueur when the “recorder” part was a huge heavy hard square silver purse, and even when recording decks merged with cameras in the mid-1980s, the emphasis was on one-hand control operation and anything that made it easier to hold a unit steady for a prolonged period. Zoom controls have always been able to be operated by the same hand that “presses the button.”

The “camcorder” design ethos bled over into consumer “bridge” cameras – the ones designed to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot and full-blown SLR. The Canon Photura, Ricoh Mirai, and Yashica Samurai – variously 35mm SLR and viewfinder AF cameras – acquired camcorder-like morphology, particularly pistol grips that were either parallel to the lens or adjustable. They did not experience some Chicxulub-level event; rather, they just didn’t catch on. In retrospect, it is not terribly surprising; they were expensive, didn’t look like “cameras,” and tended to be bulkier than their blocky cousins.

In an ironic twist, the replacement for camcorders was an atavism. But it was also a reversion to something else. When DSLRs, particularly Canons, became popular for video, they retained their DSLR shape – which was in turn based on a film camera shape dictated by a 35mm frame and the necessary film drive. This spawned an industry of workarounds – cages, grips, handles, and all kinds of other accessories that serve as indictments of functional design. Sony’s selection of a “quasi SLR” design for the A7 series is baffling; the a6x00 series is both more comfortable and (lacking a silly fake pentaprism bulge) true-to-function (as is the new A7C), especially when misused for video.

5. Left eye, right eye, leave me alone

About 25-30% of the human race is left-eye dominant, being made up of about 1/3 left-handers and 2/3 people who are right-handed but use their left eye for tasks involving critical focus or alignment. Eye dominance cannot be changed; this is a matter of hard-wiring from an early age. It is not a matter of visual acuity; it is a how efficiently one eye communicates with the brain.

For people who are left-eyed, cameras with left-side viewfinders automatically cause ergonomic problems with the use of top-mounted winding levers and cutesy “thumb grips.” On most such cameras, winding the camera requires you to move your eye from the viewfinder so you do not poke yourself in the right eye with a winding lever. This is disruptive. The Retina IIc and IIIc, as well as the Canon VI-T avoided this by moving the winding actuator to the bottom – and the Konica IIIA and IIIM avoided this by moving the winder to the front. Although the original Leicavit trigger winder was designed to speed up the knob-wind of the III series, the Leicavit M:

allows experienced photographers to shoot up to two frames per second without taking the camera from their eye

The only reason you would need a bottom trigger winder to take two frames per second without taking the camera from your eye… is that you are left-eyed. This is likely the same reason that people tolerated Leica’s relatively sluggish motor winders.

Perhaps the most befuddling thing about left-viewfinder cameras is why users are in manuals are shown with both eyes open (left eye just hanging out there; right jammed against the viewfinder glass). For a right-eyed person, this means that your mind will be trying to reconcile a reduced viewfinder picture with an unaided non-dominant eye while supporting the camera against half your face. Consider also that the center point between your two eyes is now even further from the lens axis. If anything, the left eye should be closed.

If you look through the viewfinder with your left eye, conversely, you can jam the camera in a 3-point brace between your nose and eyebrows and block your other eye with the camera body. And it is here that people of Neanderthal ancestry have a secret weapon: brow ridges.

Blessed are those, I guess, who are left-eyed and have access to left-viewfinder cameras without winding levers. For they shall inherit the stable hand-hold.

SLRs are more egalitarian: with their center viewfinders, they exist to oppress everyone. And we shall know their users by the leatherette and film-minder-window patterns impressed into their noses.

6. TLR/MF/UC – WTF?

There is only one reasonably ergonomic twin-lens reflex: the Minolta Autocord, which allows you to hold the camera and focus without shifting your left-hand grip — and to fire and advance with your right hand. This is a massive improvement over the Rolleiflex’s insatiable need for constant hand-shifts (or having three hands if you use the pistol grip). Even in the Rollei’s end-state – the 2.8GX with its huge focusing knob – the operation is barely comfortable. The persistence of TLRs after the war is a strange thing. Germany always wanted to make medium-format SLRs, and a twin-lens was a way of approximating that before the mechanical engineering caught up. But the TLR, especially when used at waist-level, causes strange camera-to-subject angles for humans and is not the easiest thing to focus (at least Rolleis are not – an Autocord ground glass is slightly easier). Rollei stopped developing twin-lens cameras in the early 1960s, eliminated serial production of the F in 1976, and moved on to its own SLRs. Note that the user of the Rollei in the diagram below is not wearing a tie. This is an important safety tip. Neckties had a tendency to get ingested by the Automat’s film-detection roller, leading to asphyxiations. That is why seasoned Rollei shooters only wore ascots or bowties.

Does anything look comfortable here?

But more seriously, medium format has always struggled with how its cameras should be configured, starting with the Brownie that kicked off the 120 format. Some are boxes (like Hasselblads), some are oversized 35mm cameras (Fuji 6×9, Pentax 6×7). The earlier Pentax can be fitted with a bulky, heavy, and still somehow uncomfortable wooden grip. The 67ii finally got the message about having something of a right-side grip.

Other medium format cameras are standardized around Graflex-style film backs that were designed just after the war and make what would otherwise be slim cameras extra thicc. If a Horseman SW612 had a body with integrated film transport, it would probably be slightly wider but a lot thinner front-to-back. The Graflex-style roll back almost always requires an extended or set-back viewfinder so that you can actually put your eye to the eyepiece. Its principal virtue is that it is narrow, but it also sports a complex film path that brings you to this: if you have interchangeable backs, they are sufficiently slow to load that you probably need more than one.

Conclusion

There have been a few scattered ergonomic successes, like the Vivitar flash grip, the Linhof 220, and those camcorder-like SLRs and point-and-shoots from the 1980s. But those are exceptions to the apparent rules of camera-making: (1) all cameras must be boxes or cubes that don’t fit in the hand and failing that, larger versions of smaller un-ergonomic cameras; (2) all winding must require a hand off the camera or disrupted framing; (3) thou shalt never use the [left] side eye; and (4) if you don’t like what we’re offering, stuff it.

I think I see the light (meter): how to buy one

The Sekonic L-358: not a white whale, perhaps a grey one.

With the stumbling self-taught revival of film photography, there does not seem to be any really simple, practical treatment of how light meters are supposed to work or why you might want one type over another. This article will probably not be that treatment, but why not try? It will definitely have information density; you can read this in 12 minutes and save yourself the trouble of watching 200 Youtube videos. And hopefully minimize the number of missteps in selecting a meter.

Do I need a light meter? Maybe not.

If a light meter is to serve any purpose other than being neck jewelry, there must be a use case. If your camera has a working internal meter, there is probably no situation, for hand-holdable light levels, in which a handheld meter is going to add a lot. Well, as against a well-tuned, in-camera meter and experience in using it, using a handheld may add a lot of delay and inconvenience.

If your camera lacks a light meter, you need (i) a meter or (ii) enough practice not to need one. Film is not free, and making pictures takes a lot of time.

In the ancient days of rollfilm, people used very rudimentary methods to measure light: experimentation and extinction meters. An extinction meter was a piece of developed film (or printed acetate) a black background and numbers of progressively decreasing transparency. As the numbers got higher numerically, the density of the film was higher. So when you looked at it, you would see that say “7” was the highest number you could see (i.e., light would pass through the number), you would use that to compute the exposure. This was still inaccurate because the effectiveness of extinction meters depends on the type of scene and human eyesight. So people experimented. All of this was totally ok because black and white film was insensitive to red light – so you could “develop by inspection,” in other words, watch for the highlights (darkest parts of the negative) to become visible. So an extinction meter might be good enough.

That was if you were a professional. Mainstream amateur cameras lacked the exposure control to make metering useful. The No. 2 Brownie camera – the first thing to use 120 film – had a fixed aperture and shutter speed, exposure control basically demanded only that the camera be used outside in bright sun, with the sun shining on the subject. So developing by inspection (and printing as best you could) was the only way to go. You can still do this with ortho film. Pictures were remarkably good.

With progressively more sophisticated folding cameras came variable apertures (like f/6.3-16) and some need to tell one lighting condition from the next. This could still be done with extinction meters or settings based on general light conditions (see the “Sunny-16” rule below).

Two things put more pressure on the development of light meters. One was panchromatic black-and-white film, which has to be developed blind because it can see any color of visible light. The other was color transparency film that in comparison to b/w negative was fantastically intolerant of exposure errors.

Light meters were not always common for amateurs, who often read suggested exposure setting off the inside of a film box. The instructions expressed the “Sunny-16” rule. It seems simplistic, but you realize, after metering thousands of different situations and noting the results, that the “Sunny-16” rule is right almost all of the time in outdoor situations. The Sunny-16 rule looks at the lighting condition and suggests an exposure:

  1. Bright sun, distinct shadows – 1/ISO shutter speed + f/16 (so with 100-speed film, 1/125 and f/16)
  2. Bright sun, soft shadows/partly sunny – f/11
  3. Bright overcast – f/8
  4. Medium overcast – f/5.6
  5. Sun setting – f/4

…And outdoors, there may be little point beyond that unless you have a camera on a tripod.

There is a reason why the Sunny-16 rule was printed inside Kodachrome boxes: it works. So the box says that these are “starting points,” but depending on your needs, they may also become “ending points.”

What about my phone?

No matter how cute a phone app is for light metering, it combines the elements of using a second camera, taking a spot reading and not an average, being a handheld device with poor haptic feedback, having a tendency to lock itself when least convenient, and exhibiting a tendency to be hard to read in bright light. By contrast, the Sekonic shown at the top of this article has no pretty graphics, no A13 processor, and no color. You press the button to take a reading, and you simply spin the thumb wheel to see all of the equivalent exposure combinations. It is ergonomically simple and supremely functional. Of course, Sekonic had to get rid of it in favor of an L-478 that looks and works like an iPhone. Because some executive decided that it was what the “kids” wanted.

Cell technology

There are essentially three meter cell technologies.

Selenium. Meter cells made of this bioaccumulating metalloid emit electricity when exposed to light. Meters with these cells need no batteries. Selenium cells degrade over time with exposure to light (and more commonly, moisture), but when they are in their prime, they are bulletproof. Selenium cells have poor low-light accuracy but have very good accuracy across different color temperatures. Selenium cells are sensitive to EV +4. Don’t worry. That’s fairly low light.

Cadmium Sulfide (CdS). These cells were used in most electronic cameras well into the 1980s. CdS cells require a 1.35v input voltage, which previously was supplied by long-lasting mercury cells that kept the same voltage until they died. Many CdS meters lack voltage regulation, and sticking a 1.5 alkaline or 1.55v silver battery in one is a great way to experience underexposure. Most CdS cells have experienced significant degradation due to chemical breakdown. They lose their resistance, pass more current, and make the meter think there is more light than there actually is. Many CdS meters will need calibration, no matter what the eBay seller/photo pimp says. CdS cells do not do as well as selenium in incandescent light. CdS and other modern cells can meter to EV 0 or even lower.

Silicon blue cell or silicon photo diode (SBC or SPD). These operate like CdS cells, except that almost every meter or camera that has these takes modern batteries and has voltage regulation. This is the current state of the art in handheld meters. These also have issues with incandescent light, so bracket.

Types of electric/electronic meters

There are three types of electric/electronic meters for ambient light. This guide will ignore flash metering, which is simply using any of these types of meters to measure an instantaneous light impulse rather than a continuous one. Flash metering is important for studios, but for most handheld uses, people most commonly rely on a flash’s internal metering or TTL flash provided by the camera.

Reflected light meters. Most handheld meters are this type. They generally accept light from 10 to 30-degree angle, average some or all of a scene, and try to expose that scene for middle grey. For example, if you pointed a reflected meter at an all-black scene, it would attempt to make the whole scene 18% grey. Same thing if you pointed it at a white wall.

If your scene is perfectly average mix of light and dark, or all concrete or limestone, this type of meter works without any thought at all. If not, you need to practice to understand how much brighter or darker than middle grey various objects might be.

Reflected light meters were used by Ansel Adams and pretty much anyone who needed to measure the brightness range of a scene. Point the meter at the dark parts. Take a reading. Point it at the high. Take a reading. Average or compute the scale. This type of meter (and preferably a spot meter, below) is absolutely essential for the Zone System.

Spot meters. These are a species of reflected light meter that typically accepts from 1 to 5 degrees. 1 degree sounds small, but on a distant subject, it can be quite big. Spot meters help you sort out the various tones in a scene so that you can spend 1000x the effort to get a picture that is 10% better than an averaging reflective meter used correctly. This is being cynical, but spot meters, like communism, seem like a great idea until you try to use them on an everyday basis. You pretty much always have to take more than one reading of a scene, unless you use a grey card to cheat (and at that point, you might as well use a cheaper reflected or incident meter). For landscapes or slow-moving subjects, careful spot metering is workable and with appropriate finishing can result in brilliant output. For everything else, it can seem punishing.

Incident meters. Incident meters are used by people with many skill levels and personal creeds, but they are especially popular with three groups of people: (1) cinematographers who cannot afford to make exposure mistakes; (2) people who think that incident light measurement is somehow a universal shortcut and are willing to clean up any unexpected consequences in post; and (3) people who deal with complex flash or studio lighting situations. Incident meters are very helpful, but read on to understand why you may not want to buy a meter that does only incident. One important thing to understand about incident metering is that the Sunny-16 rule is essentially a rough-cut system of incident metering: it cares about what the light is, not what the subject is.

Incident vs. reflected

The choice of incident versus reflected metering seems to be the subject of much ignorance confusion. You might have noticed that most older meters regard incident metering as an afterthought; the sliding white domes are tiny. Incident light measurement is not something most people needed with negative film. It has its ups and downs.

You’re not fooling me with that sheepskin! Incident measurements care about the light source and assume a normal range of reflectivity for a scene: no Vantablack and no white phosphorous. Dark objects look dark; light objects look light. Exposure is based on the expected reflection by the subject of a particular quantity of light. The meter is not fooled by the color of the object or the reflectivity of any particular object.

Reflected metering measures light falling on a scene (meter pointed at the subject) and assumes that it is an “average” scene, which is one where the actual reading is normalized to that 18% brightness.

What’s the difference? Consider backlighting.

  • The incident meter will not be fooled by the bright backlight because it is pointed toward the camera position.
  • The reflected meter may read two stops low if it averages the entire scene.

Or consider bright overcast where you expect an exposure of f/8.

  • The incident meter will not be fooled because the huge bright sky is out of its field of view – and it is the light source.
  • The reflected meter will underexpose if there too much sky in the measurement (reading f/16, for example) and will overexpose the sky if the meter is pointed toward the ground (reading f/4).

Tonal range. But that ability to read (or misread) parts of the scene is what makes the reflected meter useful. Incident meters are blind to what the subject actually is. This is the flip side of not being fooled by subject reflectivity. Incident metering tells you nothing about how you might need to push or pull developing. Pushing and pulling is not such a big part of color film photography, and here, an incident meter and a reflected meter are very similarly capable.

Sightlines. One requirement of successful incident metering is that if you cannot stand at the subject, you at least need to be able to replicate the subject’s sight line to the light source. For example, if you are standing inside a dark structure taking a picture out a window, an incident reading is going to see a dark “sky” and force a very bright exposure. If, on the other hand, you can walk up to a subject, it tends to work better. You can approximate an incident reading at the subject by standing somewhere in which the meter cell can receive approximately the same light that the subject is, for example, on the roof of said building.

The approximation works well outside because the difference between your position and the subject’s position, given the brightness and distance of the sun, is insignificant. With the sun 150 million kilometers away, what’s another 100 meters between you and the subject? Nothing for purposes of light metering. For artificial light, which is far weaker and less uniform, you have to be at the subject for incident metering to work correctly. This is due to the inverse square law: doubling the distance from the light quarters its brightness. This is a factor when the difference is 3m or 6m from a 60w light; it is not a factor for natural light, which is literally a hundred million miles away.

Reflected metering can be done anytime you can see the subject with your eyes.

Splitting the difference. So why weren’t incident meters more popular over history? Because taking a reflected reading of an 18% grey card lit the same way as the subject gives you the same reading as an incident meter. This trick can be used even with spot meters that have no incident capability at all. One of these cards can fit in your pocket.

Another trick. But wait! You don’t actually need a grey card if you know the reflectivity of your own skin. For example, if you meter a grey card at f/8 and your skin at 11, then you can assume for the future that reading a reflected meter off your hand and adding a stop (or reading your skin with half the ISO) gets you to middle grey. This works for every skin tone, so long as you know the offset. Measure off the palm of your hand. Unless you spray-tan your palms, this is a very stable reference point. This trick also works if your reflected meter is the one in your camera. Fill the meter’s field of view with your hand, maintaining the same lighting as the subject, i.e., don’t shadow your hand with the camera.

Reading your meter

Meters have various ways of displaying the exposure.

Direct read (shutter/aperture – digital): a digital display shows a shutter/aperture pairing. This is best if you shoot predominantly with one shutter speed or aperture and let the other variable float. Otherwise, direct-read meter displays fail the human-machine interface test for the same reason digital watches do – humans for some reason are much better at reading graphic displays than numerical ones. That’s also why digital speedometers are disfavored. A direct-read digital display also requires you to scroll through the combinations if you switch up apertures, for example, between shots. Direct-read does have the advantage of being able to display an averaged reading instantly if your meter supports that. Some also can show you what percentage of an exposure is ambient and what percentage is coming from flash.

Some of these meters have an analog-looking scale at the bottom that can be used to show the spread of multiple readings and their average. Not all of these things show on the dial at once; this illustration just shows how many things a Sekonic digital would tell you, depending on mode.

Many of these meters will also show exposure value (EVs), which correspond to pairs of shutter speeds/aperture settings.

Direct Read (f/stop, analog): a few older meters do this, like the Weston 853 and one new one (the Sekonic L-398). These involve setting your shutter speed and having the needle swing to the right f/stop for the light level. This is very similar to how shutter-priority autoexposure works in SLRs. This type of reading requires something to moderate the light compared to account for different shutter speeds; the 853, for example, has a rotating mask that covers part of the photocell to simulate faster shutter speeds.

Light intensity (exposure value/footcandles): here, a needle points to a number (EVs, footcandles, etc., sometimes both!), or an LED shows a number, and you rotate the calculator dial to that number (having previously rotated a pointer to your ISO value), and you see the shutter/aperture pairings on a ring or a slide-rule. Most selenium meters work this way; few selenium meters lock the needle. Below is the Sekonic L-398 (selenium); the other all-time greats for light-intensity meters were the Gossen Luna Pro S (or Lunasix) (CdS) and the Weston Master series (selenium). They require computation using a calculator wheel to get to a camera setting. The L-398 below includes both direct read for f/stops and light intensity (footcandle) readings:

For reference, this is a table of EVs (Exposure Values) from Wikipedia.

As you can see, EV +4, where selenium meters mostly peter out, is not even remotely hand-holdable. And this version of the chart is helpful because it goes down to -6; your AF SLR maker may claim the ability to AF down to EV -4 (minus 4), but you would not be able to see much yourself in that kind of light. EV +15 is about the highest light level most people would encounter in everyday life, and EV +9 would be the darkest that most people would take pictures. EV +21 might be expressing a nuclear explosion; most tables don’t go this high. Like a lot of things, there is quite a bit of math behind how this works but for operational purposes, it’s not important. EVs are just one of the ways that meters read.

One thing that is fantastically confusing about EVs is that EV is typically expressed for ISO 100 when cited in camera specs. This is just like Guide Numbers for flash, which are also always expressed at their ISO 100 values. EV +15 for 100-speed film is actually EV +17 for 400-speed film. This is why most handheld meters show the ISO-corrected EV on a calculator dial – so it can change with ISO. Some meters don’t show the actual EV corrected for the ISO – for example, the Pentax Digital Spotmeter’s viewfinder display only shows the EV for ISO 100, and that number, combined with the ISO setting gives you all the pairs of camera settings, not the actual EV.

Match needle: meter needle moves (no scale), and you turn the calculator dial so that the two pointers match (the pointer moves when you turn the calculator dial). Then you read the same type of scale as on an light-intensity meter. This is far, far, faster to operate than a light-intensity meter. All you do is match the Meßwerkzeiger (German for “meter needle”) with the Nachführzeiger (German for “ring thingy…” actually, “tracking pointer”) by turning the calculator dial (the thing with shutter speed/aperture combinations). Below is a Gossen Super Pilot (or “Sixtar” as they called it in Europe and “Systar” as they call it in Lego) (ok, bad joke…). Match needle probably gets the highest score for human-machine interface because you don’t have to read and comprehend a number, remember it, and then transfer it to the calculator dial.

Null: basically a variation of match needle (and on a camera, you would actually call it “match needle”), but the thing you are doing is making the needle hit a fixed zero mark by turning the calculator dial. In practice, this is simpler. This is better than a match-needle for measuring brightness range. The Luna-Pro SBC is one of the few good meters that have this.

Filters

Few things are more complicated exposure-wise than dealing with the use of filters in metering. There is no use in reinventing this wheel. Go to this article on the old site, and it will tell you what you need to know about exposure compensation. Maybe not everything, but there is a lot of data.

Good and bad meters

Well, you were going to ask for recommendations, right? How about some snarky short-takes? This does not cover every possible meter, but it will cover the ones you commonly see.

Note: this does not cover any of the many types of electronic meters designed solely to fit in a flash shoe; those have too much interaction with the ergonomics of a particular camera to make even somewhat accurate snap judgments.

  1. General Electric DW-58: a perennial Bakelite favorite at yard sales and one of the most popular meters ever made, this 1940s dual-range light-intensity-style meter (reads in foot-candles) has a grille to change from low to high range. It has a calculator dial from which to compute exposure combinations. You can also take the snout off for incident readings – though it is not a dome – it’s just a flat cell.
  2. Gossen Digi-Six: tiny lightweight digital light intensity meter that also fits in a flash shoe. Has a thumb wheel to compute aperture. Crude but tough and effective. Competitor to the Sekonic Twinmate.
  3. Gossen Luna-Pro S (CdS): the king of the old school, this meter is awesome, assuming yours is calibrated correctly and you use the right batteries. You read a numerical value from a low or high range and set that into the calculator dial (which in turn will compute actual EV). The meters are cheap used; factory calibration costs megabucks; some independents will do it too, but you know it’s been done right if the top of the low range matches the bottom of the high range. Most (maybe all) use 1.35v cells unless they have adapters or have been converted. This can be kludged with attachments into measuring anything but flash. There are probes, domes, waist-level finders, you name it.
  4. Gossen Luna-Pro SBC (silicon): This Luna-Pro variant is larger and uses a null dial instead of starting with an arbitrary light value (you can read the EV off the calculator dial). It also fixes the one thing that challenges the Luna-Pro S: it uses a modern photocell. The Luna Pro SBC can take a flash measuring attachment that is best ignored in an era when flash meters are made much better.
  5. Gossen Super-Pilot (CdS): this is basically a baby Luna-Pro with a match-needle.
  6. Gossen Scout 2: Cheap, functional, selenium.
  7. Gossen digital meters (silicon): all of them are good. User interface is about as good as Minolta digital, which is not that good. Dieter Rams and the Braun design philosophy do not translate well to light meters.
  8. Metered Light Pocket Spot (silicon): interesting little handheld meter that uses a hole through the meter as an aiming reticle. Built of anodized aluminum and tough!
  9. Metrawatt Metrastar (CdS): The coolest-looking CdS meter ever made, this one has a tiny waist-level viewfinder built into the dial.
  10. Minolta digital meters (silicon): all of them are good. User interface is about as good as Gossen digital, which is not that good.
  11. Pentax Digital Spotmeter (silicon): many of these are not actually Zone VI modified (even if they have the sticker with the grey squares – you need the main label). The holster-like Zone VI case could get you shot at a traffic stop. It takes 40.5mm filters. It is accurate, durable, and expensive. Unless you become a Zone System afficionado, you will use it twice, stick it in a drawer, think you need it for about two years, and then sell it to the next guy on eBay.
  12. Sekonic L-208 Twinmate (silicon): what a cute widdle Luna Pwo! Tiny match needle meter that also fits in a flash shoe and runs on a lithium coin cell.
  13. Sekonic L-308: basic incident and reflected meter. Classic functionality. Runs on one AA. The only inconvenient thing is that it has up/down buttons instead of a thumb wheel. Electronically, it’s a baby L-358 that is more versatile out of the box. But its one big vice for reflected metering is that the meter cell is on the same side as the display.
  14. Sekonic L-358 (silicon): with a reflected or spot attachment, it’s great. With an incident dome, it’s a great studio tool, but I suspect that most people buy this configuration by accident. The L-358 with the Lumigrid reflected meter lens is ace.
  15. Sekonic L-398 (selenium): the king of selenium meters by default, this studio favorite has been in production longer than most readers here have been alive.
  16. Sekonic L-438 (silicon): a cross between Luke Skywalker’s binoculars and a 110 camera, this pocket spotmeter runs on a single AA cell and works like a baby camera. The novelty wears off quickly. No incident or reflected capability, so it’s a one-trick pony.
  17. Sekonic L-478D (silicon): the supposed replacement for the L-358, this is extremely competent but ergonomically poor.
  18. Sekonic L-558 (silicon): imagine an L-358 that also includes a viewfinder for taking reflected measurements. Replaced by the L-858D, which is the touchscreen version.
  19. Shepherd/Smith Victor DM-170 Light Meter (silicon): solid and serviceable, it has a bright 80s-style LED light-intensity display (some displays are red, some are a cool green). Runs on a 9v battery. Dependable.
  20. Soligor digital spot meter (CdS): this will not get you killed at a traffic stop, but it will get you killed if Kirk and Spock have already drawn down with phasers.
  21. Vivitar 45 CdS meter (CdS, of course!): cheap, small, match needle.
  22. Weston Master series (selenium). These used to be the top dog before the Luna-Pro displaced them. These measure light intensity.

Conclusion

Meters are subject that is both simple and complex. The best way to choose a meter is to borrow one and see if you can get into the rhythm of using it the way it is designed. I am a big fan of match-needle meters, but having used them all, there is no truly bad design. The bigger question is how you will meter (incident? reflected? spot?), and you may not learn what works best for you on the first try. So take your best guess, try it, and if it doesn’t work, try again!

Vapid vainglorious video

You probably know this product by its 1990s trade name, but it is an apt metaphor for a lot of video content about photography.

This site would have no pictures if I could get away with it. The predecessor site had few. Still photography is a visual art whose technical aspects generally can expressed with words or static pictures and diagrams. Unless you are illiterate or incapable of abstract thought, you do not need a video to show you how to turn a shutter speed dial, how to take a meter reading, or how to agitate film in a developing tank.

One beauty of the human mind is learning by theory, maintaining knowledge in the abstract, and then executing it in practice. You can see the words “invert three times every 30 seconds” and figure out what they mean in seconds, not minutes. When you think about the technical side, there is little (if anything) that calls for video. In fact, unless you have a video-graphic memory, you may have to take notes on what you see — which means you could have started with a written description in the first place.

By the way, the answer is 7 minutes at 20º C for almost any normal black-and-white film, in any normal developer.

The artistic or expressive element, likewise, can be expressed or exemplified with still photos. When you think about it, the power of images is such that when you pick up a coffee table book or look at a photo site, you might never read the words. There is a maxim in literature that poets should not interpret their own work. That probably goes double for photographers describing or even creatively titling their own images. We’ve all seen it, the photo of a pasty-skinned, depilated nude model (male, female, take your pick) in the middle of Death Valley, or among prickly pears, with a title like Natural Beauty. Bill Mortensen did a great job skewering this and every other trite figurative subject, back in the 1940s. In books.

Everyone seemed to get along fine with websites (and before that, magazines) that summed up photo products in one page. Here’s that super dorky Pentax, here is what its lens does, here is a non-damning conclusion from a site/magazine that needs Pentax advertising.

Something that never ceases to amaze (or horrify) is number of Youtube videos about still photography and its apparatus, particularly film photography. This might prove that there is something worse than the Hollywood-movie-about-making-Hollywood-movies. Maybe video-about-film-photography doesn’t have the same potential for creating a navel-gazing singularity. Not quite the same potential. But close.

Overestimating how cool you are

Many people who make Youtube videos about still photography and still photography equipment vastly overestimate how much people want to see them (and by “them,” I would include myself).

Or see their monster jellybean Golden Sherpa® table microphones. This was not a good look on Larry King, and was not a good look on anyone. Also, Larry King was not a good look on anyone. Not even on Larry King.

Or check out their stylish walking around, contemplating… stuff while wearing messenger bags. Sir, we all know that’s a camera bag and that it will crush the life out of even the most carefully basted sportcoat shoulders. A gentleman would never carry anything larger and cruder than a Contax T, which slips handily into the pocket of any pocket of any piece of clothing.

Or endure the name-checks. Many of these videos look like unpaid promotions for purveyors of peripheral photographic gear. On some videos, you can ascertain that every manufactured good in the scene has a name and a manufacturer. Please, do tell where I can buy another $70 nylon strap that looks like something cut out of the restraint system of a passenger car.

Or to listen to weird smooth jazz music in videos that have no words. Somewhere it’s popular to unbox cameras wearing white cotton gloves while something approximating Kenny G plays in the background. Well, at least it’s not as creepy as the videos with synthesized robot voices.

Some presenters are attractive and well-spoken. Some are not. This is not to say that having super-attractive people do these videos would be much better (pointing away from their faces and perfect hair/makeup: “the camera is down there”).

You have to calibrate the aesthetics-to-content correctly. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when they made color books about doing photography, you got 90 pages of correct but basic instructions and 10 pages of photographs, of which one or two images usually was (were) soft-focus semi-nude shots that revealed some previously-undiscovered British paraphilia. The one that springs to mind was the topless woman wearing a construction helmet and safety vest, holding a stop sign. I think it was hidden in a book about light meters. Not even years of therapy can counteract seeing that. Fortunately, Youtube has age/content gates that prevent equivalent video education from propagating the Road Repair Crew fetish/lifestyle.

Also, it is very selfish to ask others to judge you by posting videos of yourself all the time. People have things to do! It is not your audience’s privilege to have to slavishly critique you every time you spam a Facebook photography group with your latest and greatest. Many in your audience accept keeping people away from deficient videos as their duty to society. It’s a form of noblesse oblige exercised by those who have free time (or at least pretend to while not stuffing Amazon trucks). And do you know what happens to the nasal passages when someone laughs and snorts while drinking tea? Man, think of the innocent viewers!

Is your video a Wonderbra?

A lot of videos suffer the vice of promising a lot while hiding disappointing content. Many things in the clothing world do this for women’s and men’s bodies, pushing, pulling, compressing, or expanding the body in various ways for the purpose of selling. Car makers in Detroit got busted by the Federal Trade Commission for building 8×10 cameras with curved backs that made huge 1960s and 1970s cars look even huger. Food manufacturers had to explain that the graham cracker was not really six inches square like on the front of the box.

The lack of information density is not just a feature of photography videos; it is also feature of almost any technical video about anything. If the solution for cleaning something is vinegar or ammonia or something else, there is no need to package a very simple idea in a very elaborate video. If the key thing in touching up car paint is selective 3000-grit sanding and progressive application of thin layers of paint with more wet sanding, well, that’s easy to say. Omegas are almost as good as Rolexes. An Acura is not as fly as a Bentley. Follow me for more recipes.

Did you ever wonder why people take at least eight minutes to convey only the smallest piece of information? It’s because the shortest video on Youtube that supports ‘midroll’ advertising. Padding is also encouraged by the Youtube minima for watch hours (4,000) and number of subscribers (1,000). This should tell you everything you need to know about why most videos come with click-baity titles but are then letdowns – and you rarely come out of watching one feeling like you’ve learned something. It might also explain why people plaster social media with links to their videos. You are a means to an end. Just not yours. Like this video I was watching the other night, “Ten things you didn’t know about sprocket layout on Kodak 135 films. The last one will break your heart.”

Curation, curation, curation

But isn’t the real issue here curation, or the concept that something should filter out the fluff? One of the biggest differences between the pre-internet media and now is that there was a considerable cost to creating and propagating content. And particularly for print, editors (note, not Redditors) and publishers made decisions about what would be salable. They bore the risk of failure. It was not easy to expose the public to unadulterated garbage; works had to pass some basic test of economic viability. Self-publishing was seen as sleazy.

Not so much is it so in the Youtube model. There, uncompensated individuals use personally-funded (and cheap by historic standards) video equipment to produce their own videos, where they are allowed to post them, with no advances and in many cases zero long-term compensation. And no filters.

The video site uses to the content to earn advertising money – and then kicks a percentage of that down to users. The per-click and per-engagement pay is small – and it is difficult to justify the time investment in terms of money. This causes many content purveyors to turn to prostitution affiliate relationships and accepting free loans of equipment. How long do you think a manufacturer would keep sending you things to review if you kept trashing them?

This creates a morass of content of varying quality that is difficult to filter. People are trying like crazy to be seen because being seen might mean making money. People are trying like crazy to see something useful. Guess who wins? Neither of these two groups. Someone else, though.

Some video content on photography is really, really good.* If you read all the way through this, you know this had to be said. But if a diamond is mixed in with too much debris, it creates a certain fatigue. And that is the point, in too many words, of the twenty-five minutes lost in writing all of this (ok, plus another 7 minutes on a patent site and then 5 minutes deciding that even the 1940s patent description of squeeze-and-lift was unsuitable for this site).

*Steve Meltzer’s (lkanagas) video parody review of the Leica Monochrom is hilarious, including a camera slip that reveals that a revolver was one of the things he unpacked from the factory box.

A brief note on underexposure

So you’ve just gotten back a roll of color negative film that is muddy, grainy, and dark. You did everything right, or you think you did.

Although camera shutters never speed up with age, the photocells in older cameras age badly. Old cameras and handheld meters, pre-1980, often have meter cell decay. Cadmium-sulphide (CdS) photocells pass more current when more light is hitting them. And when there is no light hitting them, they are essentially “off” switches. Unfortunately, over time, the material breaks down and loses its resistance to electricity. This may manifest first as battery drains – and eventually will manifest itself as underexposed pictures. This really hit Polaroid auto pack cameras hardest, but you will see it in anything with a CdS cell, from old Luna-Pro meters to 35mm SLRs. Some lower-end point-and-shoots have CdS cells as well (by the 1980s, most good meters had gone to silicon cells).

An oft-overlooked second cause of underexposure is the wrong batteries. Millennials and GenZers who grew up in an era where there were only alkaline and silver batteries might not know that most SLRs using button cells were designed to run off 1.35v mercury cells (say a PX625). Mercury cells have extremely flat voltage until they die, which means that a meter need not have further voltage regulation (or much of it). They also have an almost infinite shelf life. Unfortunately, producing and disposing of them were not good for human health or the environment, and they went away.

Putting a 1.5v alkaline of identical size, like an A76 (or 1.55v S76 silver) cell in one of these mercury-cell cameras – even if it is the same physical size – will overwhelm the meter and lead to a stop or more of underexposure until the battery drops to 1.35v. But over time, the alkaline battery will drop below 1.35v and start to overexpose. So unless you catch the battery at just the right moment in its life, it won’t work too well.

Ironically, this same thing would not happen when you stick an old mercury cell in a modern camera – because there is more resiliency in the circuits of a modern camera to account for battery voltage fluctuation (alkalines start high, stabilize at a lower voltage, and eventually die).

I blame this battery-voltage problem a bit on battery manufacturers, who glibly published guides showing that their alkaline button cells fit into all manner of older cameras. They do fit, but they don’t work well. Of course, it’s a moot issue because you can’t buy 1.35v batteries except as highly corrosive zinc-air hearing aid batteries. You don’t want those in your camera. The second they run out of power, they begin to ooze nasty goo.

In terms of countermeasures, you can counter the CdS cell aging by recalibrating the meter. This will give you some more years, but it won’t last forever. If you don’t want to recalibrate, just try cutting the ASA in half on the meter.

Recalibration can also work for incorrect battery voltage, provided that the meter has enough adjustability, but the easier solution is to have a zener diode installed in line with the battery. This drops 1.5v to 1.35v. There are some adapters that incorporate these – you would use a slightly smaller silver cell in the adapter.

Anyway, I hope this helps you understand those muddy negatives were not (entirely) your fault.

DX labels: you’ll thank me on your wedding night!

Every man with a hobby or particular skill likes to publish a self-serving, single-criteria test of manhood: whittling, hunting, tiling a bathroom, fishing, purifying rain water, rebuilding a Cleveland V8, growing hydrangeas, surviving a Turkish prison after a bad rap for hashish, brewing beer, operating a sailboat, bedding a strumpet, making an adequate gin & tonic, constructing your own lightsaber, &c.

Now I say unto you that you will not truly be a man mature adult unless you can generate your own DX coding stickers decals so that you can use underwhelming offbeat slow-speed film in your way-too-expensive point-and-shoot compact camera. Or get your camera to read your Tri-X as 320 because your technique is that good, your meter is that accurate, and that 1/3 stop makes a huge difference. And because you’re too lazy to turn that ISO dial!

I was actually doing the former – trying to use 50-speed film in a Canon Sure Shot (Prima) 120 Caption, a phenomenal camera that oddly defaults to ISO 25 when it can’t read a DX code (the reliable plastic bulk loading cassettes are uncoded…). You just can’t overexpose Pan F Plus… and try using a P/S zoom at EI 25… and what better excuse to trash my home office with bits of paper and foil? And naturally, a child in the household had stolen the only X-acto knife with a good blade, so I wasn’t going to do it by hand.

Commercially-available DX labels are limited in ISO choices, and they are also surprisingly expensive. Also, film photography these days is about reinventing the wheel. You can make decals, in a completely overwrought and overly-technological way using a machine that might already be in your household: the pattern cutter (Cricut, Brother Scan ‘n’ Cut, etc.).* We have the Brother,** so you may need to adjust your technique slightly for the Cricut. A Brother has two funtions: drawing with a marker and cutting with a blade. We will use both techniques.

*I am fully aware that this is most likely to be in your household if you already have a spouse, and that the only way to get a spouse might be to perfect your DX decal skills, which is hard to do without a pattern cutter. Such a conundrum! Better brush up on your beer-brewing.

** The Brother is way more goth than the Cricut.

You will need: your cutter, its pen and knife attachments, a roll of commercial film for reference, a DX decoding chart (available online), some half-page (Ebay) labels, and a roll of self-adhesive metal foil (0.05mm / 0.002 inches or thicker). It can be any metal you want (aluminum, stainless, brass, copper), as long as it is conductive.

The drawn outer box. On your design software, make a box that is 33x15mm. Designate that “draw.” This will contain two rows of six boxes, each 5.5mm wide and 7.5mm high. Make these 12 boxes and position them in a grid. Looking at your DX chart, color the boxes you want to be insulators (i.e., black and not silver). Fill color doesn’t matter. These should be “draw” shapes.

Your DX code. Look at the decoder and figure out what film speed you want. That’s the first row. For the second, row, number of exposures, I would recommend 36 (so the 2nd and 3rd spots insulated). If your camera reads exposure count, it will then rewind neatly so you have 6 strips of 6.

Negative space (conductors). Now change all of the little white boxes (the ones you did not color in) to “cut.” Where they are touching, merge them. In the ISO 50 example in the pictures up top, these will result in one L shape and one T shape.

Optionally, you can also delete the color-filled boxes because they were only there for reference. Your finished label can use white paper as an insulator. But it also looks cool if you leave the solid boxes. That’s what I did for the pictures.

You can also add something to the top or bottom of your big box to remind you which direction the decal points. I make an extra 3mm box that I point at the 35mm cartridge opening. I suppose you could make a really long one if you wanted to.

Clone your decals. Now draw a selection box around your DX decal design and “group” it using the design software. This will allow you to clone and arrange copies without having any of the elements get out of place. I made two rows of 5, spaced 30mm top of one to top of the next, 50mm from left edge to left edge.

Draw the decals. Move the design file to your cutter. Insert a sheet of label paper. Run a “draw” pass. This will sketch the outline of the DX decal, and if you left them in place, draw in and fill the insulator squares. If not, you will just see the outer 33 x 15mm rectangles.

Cut the codes. Now run the “cut” pass. This is where the magic happens. Do it with a “kiss cut,” or the type that does not cut through the lining of adhesive material. When the cut pass is done, you can pull out (I think they call it “weed”) = the shapes corresponding to the “conductors” – so I pulled a T and an L. You will see the shiny label backing through the holes.

Cut out all the decals as a group. Now cut around all of your labels as a group (I recommend scissors, but you could automate this). This will give things structural integrity because you will next peel them all off in one piece and set them on the top side of your metal foil (your “insulators” should all be attached at a minimum of one edge to the “frame”). From there, you can cut your individual labels as closely as you want.

Trim and apply. Now your metal foil holds everything together. Peel off its backing, position the decals on your cassettes using a commercial cassette for reference, and validate using a DX camera, preferably one that shows you the selected ISO. On a Nikon, for example, you can put the cassette in, close the back door, and if your ISO is on DX, all you need to do to read the cartridge is hold down the ISO button. Do this for each cassette.

You can obviously re-use your design file to make more – and it’s pretty easy to change ISOs in your design file. Just keep a master file in which all 12 of the little boxes are still separate.

You’ve made it! Years from now, when you have 2.5 children, a happy domestic situation, a great job, and a really cool electric car or carbon fiber bike, you’ll know that all this work paid off. If we don’t get to talk then, you’re welcome.

Fadeout: Ilford Pan F Plus

If you’ve never wondered what it’s like to be at a stage of your life where you feel like you are just waiting to die, I recommend bulk-loading Ilford Pan F Plus and not using all of it before the end of summer. When the light gets poor, using up a roll of film this slow can be as excruciating as watching your grandmother shooting a single roll of 110 film over three Christmases.

Pan F Plus is described as “35mm, ISO 50, high contrast, super sharp black & white film with very fine grain. Ideal for studio photography and bright, natural light.” It has considerable charm and makes great pictures:

  • It includes fine grain and a ton of contrast, no matter what you use to develop it (HC-110 dilution B, however, has a very, very short development time).
  • It also makes it easy to shoot outdoor pictures with phenomenally shallow depth of field (witness above, a 50/1.4D AF Nikkor).
  • It holds overcast skies reasonably well.

It’s a classic b/w film, with a classic film speed. It is not a specialist film, as some might claim. It’s actually what a normal film would have been 50 to 70 years ago. It’s no Tech Pan. As a historical note, the Kodak closest product would have been Panatomic-X at a blistering 32 ASA, discontinued in 1987. Panatomic-X was also a general purpose film.

If you shoot medium format, an ISO 50 film can be something of a hair shirt, since it is difficult to get hand-holdable exposure with lenses that often have f/3.5, 4.5, or smaller apertures unless it’s a bright, sunny day. And sadly, most medium- and large-format lenses perform poorly wide-open. Shooting this with a medium-format SLR? Hope you have a sturdy tripod. Thirty-five millimeter, though, gives you fast lenses – which makes things more fun.

That said, the most curious – and soul-crushing – feature of Pan F Plus is its tendency to disappear. The impact of this image fragility is that you pretty much have to develop what you shoot, as soon as possible after you shoot it.

Although this keeps your photos current (by force!), you also find that it’s just as much work to develop one roll of film as eight. I asked Ilford for an explanation of why latent images fade so much faster than with any other film. My smartarse best-guess hypotheses were:

  • Somebody made a bad bet with the panchromatic doping back in 1992, and nobody bothered to change the formula to keep the image longer.
  • Kodak fans like to joke that Ilford makes the second-best product for any application, and Panatomic-X has left the room. Of course, the same Kodak fans like to needle poor old Tri-X, too.
  • Being owned by a pension fund (or venture capital company) means never having to say you’re sorry. Unfortunately, the income-generating pressures on both Kodak and Ilford have borne this out: some product has disappeared, and everything has become more expensive. Because shareholders.

The actual answer is (direct from Ilford staff – hooray for answering!):

a compromise with some other desirable characteristics. The basic formulation is probably the closest to the original of all our film emulsions even though it was updated several years ago. We have customers who are very attached to its particular curve shape and any emulsion redesign would inevitably change that so we are reluctant to touch it at the moment. However, we do review all our products and it is likely that at sometime in the future we will probably either update Pan F+ or replace it.

The note went on to explain that you should refrigerate the film after exposure to forestall this. Some of these points are expected (people liked the look…. refrigeration slows down chemical activity), and some are puzzling (it sounds like some Ilford formulas changed a lot). I like this answer. It means that one day, forgetting a roll or two of shot film will not spell disaster.

But you have to wonder: if I waited long enough, could I keep shooting the same roll of film over and over and over again, and only develop it when I had shot 36 frames I liked?

Of course, during a quarantine, anything passes the time.

 

 

 

Archivism: immortalitas vel non

Everyone in this picture is dead. The man on the left could not beat actuarial tables. The next man over, in the yellow, had a stroke. The teenage girl died of breast cancer. The boy met an industrial accident. The lady in blue was hit by a car. And the guy on the right was killed when his girlfriend’s husband came home unexpectedly.

One. Ok, so I made that all up. What I do know is that this picture is from Rio de Janiero in the spring of 1979. I know my grandfather took it. I know it’s on Ektachrome, in a Bell & Howell slide cube, in a tray of slide cubes, in a box, in my basement. And that is all I know about it.

Two. For fun, I put to a Facebook film group the question of how to deal with this — and thousands of other slides that contained no people that I (or any other living person) could identify, with little artistic or editorial merit (I could easily pull out the ones with family members, which is a small fraction). This was due to being lazy; I could have just fed these into a Nikon LS over a few weeks. I asked what lab could scan pictures like these so that I would be “done” with them, throw them out, and free up some physical space. The reaction was as expected. What? Discard originals? They are more archival than digital, so why downgrade? The reactions ranged from puzzlement to indignation.

Three. Part of the difficulty in dealing with modern photographers is the idea that every sperm is sacred (apologies to Monty Python…) and that you can never, ever dispose of a physical piece of media, no matter how worthless. I chalk this up to being an artifact of digital – people don’t edit their digital work because storage is cheap. That carries over into a feeling that one can’t dispose of any piece of film, ever, never, not ever. Also, when film is expensive, you’re throwing money away, right?!

Do these guys know that in ye olden days (meaning just 25 years ago), people tossed slides all the time? I mean, there is no rotary slide magazine that is a whole number multiple of any length of film, unless you were shooting old rolls of 20 and hit 100% of the time… and not even the Almighty shoots that many keepers. Before matrix metering, it was hard as hell to shoot slides. Ok, shoot them well.

Do they know that when you’d pick up prints from a minilab, you would put the rejects right in the trash? How about leaving those neatly scalloped four-frame strips of badly stabilized C-41 negative in an acidic paper envelope for fifteen or so years?

Do they know that when you only get one frame to come out on a roll of film, you don’t have to save all six strips of negatives? Or, if you don’t like that one frame, any of them?

Do they know people threw away test rolls all the time? Today, I was adding up some numbers and figured out that I had shot about 1,900 rolls of film in 25 years – and that I had probably pitched fifty whole rolls of test pictures.

Four. The archival film protection business had a boom in the 2000s. Granted, old vinyl photo pages were a train wreck. “Try our new polyethylene ones. They last for centuries!” There was always something new: non-acidic fixer, paper, binders, sleeves, chemicals. Your pictures will live forever. Forever, of course, was a lot shorter time when everyone smoked.

With digital imaging came “archival” inkjet paper and the thousand-year, erm, hundred-year archival, pigment-based inks. Pushed partly as a way to justify charging big money for inkjet prints perceived as less valuable than chemical prints, these new materials turned out to be a way to perpetuate prints of bad pay-to-play nudes, early Photoshop compositing abominations, and anodyne and provincial landscapes. Had this work faded faster, it would have been immolated in trash-to-energy plants before that method of waste disposal was outlawed. Now they just stuff landfills, visual interest improved occasionally by the overturned bottle of Palmolive thrown in on top of them.

Today, we worry about the longevity of digital. You could record things on Mitsui gold DVDs. Or M-Discs. Or asynchronous offsite backups. Or in the cloud. Or in a holographic data storage array in a quartz crystal when that day comes. The possibilities are endless because we are constantly coming up with new ways to hoard and new ways to pack bits into smaller spaces using more permanent materials.

Five. As John Chrysostom would have said in the 400s (or actually did say…) “all is vanity.” Somebody once said that you don’t die until the last person forgets you. Many cultures and people have taken credit for this line (I first heard it on Westworld), but like all good retransmissions (or appropriations) of someone’s culture, it gets recycled because it actually is useful.

When we think about photography and archivism, we might be solving for the wrong variable. We try to make everything last forever using blunt force. The actual problem is motivating preservation in others, not in achieving it ourselves. You might think that color film will fade in 20 years. Or black and white in 100. Or that your prints will discolor and fade. Or that JPGs will somehow be obsolete in the future and unreadable.

The real danger is not time, or technology, or the elements, or phlogiston. The real danger is that the work will fall into the hands of someone with no interest in it – or for whom the effort of understanding the work is overwhelming compared to any potential benefit. When you’re at a secondhand store looking in that shoebox at the counter (or were, in the Before Times), you always wonder what kind of philistine gets rid of family pictures. Well, it could be you. Or me (see above). Or our children. All it takes is for someone to be looking at a collection of random pictures of strangers and to give a shrug of the shoulders. Someone to decide that there is no room for one more photo album. Or no point in renewing a cloud storage subscription. Or that they need that 12tb hard drive for something else. Or they lack the decryption key to open the drive with the files (nota bene: this is coming).

Six. Things become valuable for a couple of reasons: intrinsic value and attrition. An Ansel Adams print would be valuable even if the supply was less finite. By the same token, we preserve a lot of historic buildings and cars that were poorly designed or poorly made — but are the last exponents of their age. The average person has no ability to influence this aspect of his or her photography except (a) to be brilliantly good (bonus points for the back story that includes dying young of consumption) or (b) have his or her output survive some extinction event that wipes out trillions of other images. Let’s all shoot for “brilliantly good.” Dum spiro spero.

Seven. Maybe what we should do is not fixate so much on the hoarding so much as encouraging future preservation. Is it an uncomfortable subject because it’s not something you can buy?

  • Things that are accessible are more likely to be enjoyed. That might be a printed photo album. It might be one that is shared online.
  • Label, organize, and give people a reason to save your stuff, long enough for it to become valuable (enough) to strangers. Why does this picture matter? Even banalities of everyday life can matter later. What may be an unimpressive picture of a hotel today might be the only visual representation in a future in which it has been knocked down.
  • Follow directions when processing your materials. You might be surprised at how long “non-archival” material lasts. In fact, the pictures in that shoebox in the antique store – printed on acid-containing paper and probably not properly fixed by today’s standards – are a hundred years old and have outlived the use anyone had for them.

You might find in the end that your time and money is better spent on life experiences than making the record of it last just a couple more years longer. If you do good work and give it meaning, people will find a way to preserve it.

 

Did we ever really understand film?

One of the coolest developments ever. But do we know what to do with it?

The word Columbusing has become a thing for describing the phenomenon by which a person believes that he is discovering something that in reality had always existed. It certainly seems possible that this is happening when people try to write reviews of cameras or films. I have now read hundreds of the film reviews in particular, and as an old-time Gen Xer, I realize that these writers are in a position to do one thing: demonstrate whether they as photographers can get a good image out of the material. The rest is of limited use.

Cachet qua cachet

Often, but not always a film review article will take this rough agenda. I think if you go back on my old site via the Wayback Machine, you may even find me doing this (though at the time I was writing about film, the cachet step wasn’t there, since almost all of today’s discontinued films were still sold then… In the early 2000s, when most of those pages were being written, film was just starting its tailspin.

Cachet signaling. This is the prelude. Usually consists of a description discussing how “those in the know” understand Film X (likely discontinued before the author ever picked up a camera, or in some cases was born), some information cobbled together from Google searches, and how the author came into possession of the now-expired film of unknown history, storage conditions, etc.

The low-sample test. Film X is frequently shot with a camera of significant vintage and unknown meter accuracy, sometimes used in conjunction with a meter of a certain age. Film is either commercially processed or done once, whether by the book, by guess, or by the Massive Film Development Chart (which can also be a crapshoot). Bonus points are awarded for random-guess compensations for the film’s age. Double secret bonus points if a restrainer is involved.

Abstraction to what the film is “about.” Author concludes that Film X is magical for xyz reason and that you should pay some scalper (or re-labeler) big time to get it.

Just stop here for a second. I am impressed at how good some of these writers are at photography. They have an eye. They can take a good picture and make a pleasing output. But nothing else they are doing is very instructive because their experience is not accurate or repeatable.

Call it a generational thing (or maybe half-generational) thing. As a group, Baby Boomers walked away from film photography and neither preserved nor transmitted decades of institutional knowledge on the subject. Most Gen X people know film as something you would shoot and take in to be processed. Even for them, unless they made pictures professionally or for a hobby, film photography became disposable as soon as digital became cheap. Which brings us to the millennial children of boomers: a knowledge discontinuity leads to satisfying feelings of discovery. But just as Columbus’ setting foot on Hispaniola did not mean a “new world” for peoples who were already there, superficial film reviews provide little (and really no) novel information.

Do b/w films really have looks?

But let’s back up to something in the cold light of day: with a few exceptions that came really late in the day, film was never really designed to have an aesthetic “look.” It was always designed to have a function. That drove aesthetics. To a point.

Almost 20 years into the 21st century, conventional black-and-white film has no real mysteries. For most of recorded history, film followed a pretty regimented set of tradeoffs: slower film had finer grain and finer tonal rendition. Things got grainier and lost dynamic range as film increased in speed. Although tablet grained b/w films helped increase performance, most of what you see in black and white films is the product of design tradeoffs rather than some deliberate aesthetic proposition.

Recall that the basis of film photography was science. I would suggest that, after a lot of time developing film, the differences between films of a given type and speed are actually relatively minor compared to the effects of varying developer, time, temperature, and agitation. Let’s take an example: Tri-X and TMY are different films, right, Tri-X with an S curve and TMY straight? Here is that classic Tri-X characteristic curve.

Ok, and here is your philistinic, “robot,” “soulless,” TMY, also developed in D-76:

Now develop both in T-Max developer and overlay the curves (black is TX, red is TMY). Don’t have a heart attack, but there are far more similarities than differences in response. Maybe a minute’s difference in developing time. Oh no…

But wow, this was like the holy of holy in differences in “look,” right?Nothing should be very surprising here; tablet-shaped film grains aside, the reaction of silver halide molecules to photons has not changed at all in 150 years of film photography.

So today, some films are grainier than others, some are contrastier than others, some are faster than others, normalized for a developer. But the choice and deployment of developer (if not also every other step of the output chain) can hugely influence or obliterate the “curve” which is the seat of the “look.” In other words, film is just a variable, and from a tone and grain standpoint, perhaps it’s far less of one than we thought.

Did consumers ever actually understand color film?

When you get to color film, things get more complicated because these start with silver halide, which is bleached out and functionally replaced with organic dyes. Color dyes are fickle.

When it was still made in a bunch of varieties, color negative film itself was somewhat inscrutable to anyone but pros and the very serious amateur. Moderately skilled (or more accurately, moderately informed) photographers knew that some types of film were better at skin tones than others (such as Kodak Vericolor III), but for the Joe Average, who had a skill level equivalent to most people writing about film, pretty much every C-41 negative film went through a minilab/printer, which was a highly automated way for drugstore personnel to make magic from your little canister and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process. If you were a pro, you would send your film out to a pro lab where professionals would make magic from your little canisters of film and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process.

Although competing brands of film within a certain type (color negative, color slide) used different methods of getting to the “right” color, skin tones were the pivot. Color, oddly, never really got more differentiated than high-contrast/saturation (Velvia, Portra VC, etc.) and regular (Provia, Ektachrome, Portra NC…).

Did you ever notice how much people hate on Kodak ProImage 100 for being excessively grainy and undersaturated? Aside from slight desaturation, it’s essentially where 100-speed film was when people stopped putting money into developing 100-speed consumer color film. The point-and-shoot camera – typically with a slow lens – put a high premium on 400-speed performance, and that’s where manufacturers went. The faster film got to the point where Kodak HD200 and 400 were far smoother than good old GA-135. Here is an easy conversion from consumer to prosumer to pro:

  • Gold 100 gen 4 » Extinct » ProImage 100 (rebalanced)
  • Gold 200 gen X » ColorPlus
  • Gold 400 gen 6 » some other steps » Gold Max 400
  • Ektar 125 » Ektar 100 » Royal Gold 100 » Extinct » Ektar 100
  • Royal Gold 200 » Kodak HD200 » Extinct
  • Ektar 400 » Royal Gold 400 » Kodak HD400 » Extinct
  • Vericolor III » Portra 160NC » New Portra 160
  • Portra 160VC » Replaced by New Portra 160
  • Portra 400NC » New Portra 400
  • Portra 400VC » Replaced by New Portra 400
  • Portra 400UC » Extinct

Slide film might have been even more mysterious — and represented a medium that spanned the absolute best professional photography and the worst amateur work feared by man. And nothing in between. You either had it or you didn’t. Transparency film was sold in large quantities to tourists and people wanting to shoot color in the really old days. Which made a lot of sense when a goddamn color photograph was a big deal, even if it took 6/12/36 exposures to get one good one. Kodachrome was a tri-layer black and white film that got an infusion of dye during processing. Slow, sharp, permanent, and capable of delivering a nice looking picture assuming the constellations were lined up. And if they weren’t, blown highlights, blocked shadows, and blue. Slides were the ultimate measure-twice, cut-once medium — but few people bothered to measure. Ektachrome and Fujichrome made it cheaper and easier to generate huge boxes of vacation slides that no one wanted to see — and ultimately faded out transparencies that no one could see.

Today, unless you plan to look at tiny positives backlit by homemade ground glass after the Zombie Apocalypse, or have brought some friends over, Buffalo Bill style, to watch vacation pictures projected on a screen (“it puts the slides in the carousel”), digital photography does everything slide film did – but better. Where you can vary the ISO, get more dynamic range, infinitely adjust contrast and saturation, and crop at will, it’s hard to make the argument that Ektachrome came back for anything but nostalgia and motion pictures. Which is a worthy reason. Let’s just not pretend it’s scientific.

In addition to allowing things to happen that could never happen with a filter-based minilab, the rise of the Fuji Frontier in the late 1990s was really the nail in the coffin of film-awareness. With hyper-sharpening, dynamic range compression, and ultimately, smart automatic operation, the Frontier made every photo look perfect. The technology is not unlike how people deal with negatives today: develop, scan, print (in the case of the Frontier, onto photo paper, using a laser). Today, the Frontier’s weirdly regimented view of the world lives on in the hackneyed wedding presets used on Lightroom by an army of semiprofessional shooters using Canon 5Ds.

And if you remember old film packaging, there is the warning that “color dyes in time may fade” (Gospel of Eastman Kodak, K41:1). Everything on earth is capable of influencing the colors and balance of color films: lot, storage temperature, age, exposure, environmental radiation, magnetic fluids, and phlogiston. The same goes for the output media, which if you’ve seen old Fujichrome slides, can be interesting.

That’s part of why the support infrastructure was so complicated, whether it was a minilab computer or CC10, 20, and 30 filters in cyan, magenta, and yellow. And why pros – once they had a particular lot of film dialed in – like a particular lot of Ektachrome – they stayed with it as much as possible. And even pros sometimes had to lean on color correction experts at labs to make every one of those Glamour Shots® perfect.

Conclusion

Hopefully you have not found this discussion offensive, but as an almost old person, I am not at all hesitant to tell you that everyone in their 20s has a Dunning-Kruger delusion when it comes to the technical aspects of photography. As someone who was there for the twilight of mainstream film photography, I would mostly observe that until the bitter end, film R&D was aimed at making the medium a neutral one that could be manipulated via development, printing, or even scanning – and that today, you can easily mistake random errors for some intentional aesthetic balance.

Browniegate: In hoc signo vinces

20190103_204435.jpgWell, you have that day where you feel like you want to step off the film train. Oddly enough, it was not because some digital sensor came along with massive resolution, or film hit $8 a roll, or the EU outlawed developing chemicals. Or you name the calamity.

Here, it was the product of well-meaning backward-compatibility. I had this thought as I was looking at a roll of TMY shot with a Silvestri H that probably cost $10,000 new. It uses standard-style roll backs made by Mamiya that are bulletproof and have nicely spaced frames. The pictures themselves were sharp, undistorted, and perspective-corrected. But they were ruined for optical printing because backing paper numbers – useful only to people with red-window cameras – transferred onto the emulsion. I felt like Constantine the Great, kinda. I looked in the sky, and the sign of “Kodak 14” was shining down on me. In this sign you will [be] conquere[d].

Browniegate (let’s give it a good name, at least) occurred because Kodak had an issue with backing paper on 120 film (this affected some lots made between 2-4 years ago). Environmental conditions could cause backing paper frame numbers to transfer onto the emulsion of the film and show up in low-density areas, especially the sky. Lomographers probably loved this. Everyone else, not so much.

Kodak handled this reasonably well (but not optimally),* and it has been very good about replacing defective film. Given that they had few choices for backing paper (1-2 suppliers of this worldwide) and that they probably couldn’t anticipate the full range of environmental abuse film might experience in storage, I cut them some slack. We all accept that any time we use film, we could end up with no pictures. Grab the fix instead of the developer. Leave a rear lens cap on. We’ve all been there. But the backing paper thing is not within user control. Unlike the bad roll of film that comes up every hundred thousand rolls of film, the frame number thing hits more often. It’s not like lightning. It’s more like a tornado ripping through farm country.

The what is one thing. But the why is another. Laying aside bad material choices by the backing paper manufacturer, the underlying issue is that frame numbers on paper backing were last needed for serious cameras in the 1950s (the Super Ikonta C may be the last one), and the ruby-window method of seeing what frame you are on persists mainly in (1) Brownie cameras whose design goes back to 1895; (2) Lomography-oriented products; and (3) current large-format roll holders that should know better. There is actually no excuse for this last category, since there is no patent for frame counters that is still valid, and roll backs are only made in LCCs now. It’s the support of these older and cheaper cameras that requires frame numbers past #1 – and in a weird way, the shadow of the 19th century is still causing problems in the 21st.

The bigger question this begs is this: if backward compatibility is a significant part of the business case for 120, does that mean that when the ruby-window market fizzles out, it will take serious medium-format photography with it? Best not to think about that.

*By not optimally, it would be nice to have a new catalogue number for new backing paper, so that people trying to buy film from B&H for critical use would not get stuck with old product – like I did when I was going to Singapore, bought 20 rolls of TMY in March 2019, got 158xxx TMY, and had backing number transfers on every roll of film, with up to 75% of 6×4.5 frames being affected on any given roll. Or maybe use a laminated paper that has punched-out numbers and not printed ones. 

 

Digital photography – really photography?

Can you believe that Pullman is used for “bus” in parts of Europe? Jeez, I thought that a pullman was inherently a rail vehicle. How dare usages change! Somebody get on the Rail Transport User’s Group (RTUG) and post a philosophy question. We need to take the name Pullman back!

But really, how many hours of the waning days of old men’s lives have been wasted arguing about whether newfangled cameras grabbing electrons can be “photography” as an art or a craft? How many should? Would that time be better spent arguing about cars, finishing, guns, boats, or wristwatches?

You can spin off into the etymological argument: electrons aren’t photo + graphy because the light is not making the image directly. Or there is transformation. Or something. Reliance on ancient Greek is misguided. Photography was a neologism invented in the 19th century. It was not true to the ancient Greek then (no thing was – or is – drawing or scratching in the sense of γραφή); the 19th-century term was just an arbitrary description for what happens when light was the prime mover in the imaging process. And we have legions of words whose meanings have deviated far from what they would have meant to Greeks or Romans – or even what they meant the first time the terms were coined. Hence the weird crossover between autobuses and rail cars.

Is photography art? If you believe that, look at what the art world says. It’s all photography. That’s what museums call anything that is an image captured by a machine (film or digital) where the substantive content originates in the original image recording process. The only distinction made (and only sometimes) is for pre-silver-halide work, and even then only if it is one of the more obviously exotic (Daguerrotypes, Cyanotypes, and other things that deviate from the look of optical or inkjet paper). Odd that they don’t care what system originated the image; they only care about the medium it is ultimately expressed. Just like other things you see on the walls are “oil,” “watercolor,” “pastel,” “drawing,” etc. A “dye diffusion print” does not differentiate between originating on negatives or a Handycam.

Or maybe it’s not odd. Art requires a visible or tangible expression, and in the end, that is all that counts.