On our obsession with better

Many years ago, long before digital photography was even a serious possibility, I (and everyone else) used film. I had a routine of buying 2 rolls of film each week, exposing them as able and either processing them myself in my darkroom or waiting (impatiently) for the post to deliver my mounted slides. Sometimes I would even get a roll of lab printed colour or mono film done, but usually not. I was obsessed by quality, always testing and trying new lenses, film and processes. I was a rarity. In those days people were usually obsessed with their subject matter, or nothing at all.

One of my early photographic mentors, Mr Peter Motton was an artist first, winning several international print salons (more than some countries on his own), but he was also a refined technician. His work was distinctive and importantly, repeatable. What I should have learned was to put my artistry first, grounded by good technique. I thought I did, but actually I just became focussed on the technique at the expense of the art.

The thing I was missing was the emphasis on the word quality. It is not the quantity of the quality, but the quality of the quality that matters.

This I am re discovering as I write it. The real beginning to the post starts now.

Whilst cleaning up, making some room and reorganising for the new year, I decided to move my Camera and Darkroom magazines to the garage. This is a wrench. C and D (and later Darkroom and Creative Camera Techniques where we first learned about Bokeh) formed the bedrock of a staple of magazines that were religiously acquired on a monthly or bi monthly basis. C & D stood out in both content and presentation.

An assortment of C & D mags with one open to one of my favourite articles about David Wells and travelling journalism using Tri-X and a simple 4 prime lens kit. A little aside. the price ticket for Birchalls belongs to Australia's longest continuously running book sellers, closing next month after 170+ years. 

An assortment of C & D mags with one open to one of my favourite articles about David Wells and travelling journalism using Tri-X and a simple 4 prime lens kit. A little aside. the price ticket for Birchalls belongs to Australia's longest continuously running book sellers, closing next month after 170+ years. 

Wistfully I perused a couple of issues, reminded of feelings long forgotten, stirrings of things neglected. Then something struck me. A realisation that I was often unsatisfied with the lack of technical articles available at the time, hungrily waiting for the next, rare morsel. Where were all of the test charts, comparisons, analytics? After flipping through half a dozen or so I only found a few truly technical articles (one each on resolution measuring, lens choices, enlarger head light source differences and Pyro developing/printing). How did  the art form continue on such meagre pickings, or for that matter the world continue to spin? The fact is, these were enough as technical considerations were only a small part of the whole.

A rare camera tech article about some of the better glass around at the time. Even though the topic could be fairly sterile, the delivery is gentle and conversational. There were more often darkroom technical articles as darkroom work was/is mostly technical, but pure camera or lens articles were thinner on the ground. I savoured each.

A rare camera tech article about some of the better glass around at the time. Even though the topic could be fairly sterile, the delivery is gentle and conversational. There were more often darkroom technical articles as darkroom work was/is mostly technical, but pure camera or lens articles were thinner on the ground. I savoured each.

For me back then, hard technical information was thin on the ground. The focus was much more on content, much less on how to, more about who, why and when.

I was clearly ahead of my time (sarcastic emphasis), for the age of analysis is upon us! I now feel normal, surrounded by many like me. Comparing, rating, discarding...going...slowly..numb.

What a time waster.

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Ironically digital did a few things for me that have settled me down and made me more productive despite myself.

Measuring "quality" is now much easier so it has become just a thing that is done during the process. I advocate eye ball measuring, not micro analysis, as an image should be viewed with all criteria present, not just the tunnel vision of technical perfection. The variables available in analogue photography were often harder to control than digital. Getting a firm conclusion when testing was difficult and often frustrating. Actually measuring the results in a meaningful way was even tougher, allowing the photographer to simply take an image at face value. One of the articles I found penned by A D Coleman went into great detail on the subject of "line pair per millimetre" (LPM) measuring, but mostly pointing out how hard it is and how pointless

I am more productive simply because I can have my cake and eat it. Lots of useless "test" images, but always plenty of virtual film at the ready for actual image making. It's made me a better photographer by allowing me to be wasteful.

Limitations placed on us by digital have forced an acceptance. Digital anything is never good enough. The digital era uses it's lack of a tactile and empathic nature as an excuse to sell dreams of the future, to both cover up it's big fail of connecting with the user and to fuel it's necessary desire to keep the advancement ball rolling. Nothing feels like a long term investment, like it is real and loveable and without a catch. This applies to hardware, software and image files. We all know nothing lasts forever, but in the analogue days, you controlled the life span of things, these days that is out of our hands. Every bit of gear I have at the moment (except lenses?) may have a life span of five years or less and it is pretty much not up to me. The whole 4/3 format came and went in 10 years and Sony SLR's lasted about the same. The magazine image above shows a lens "favourites" article. Every lens is still usable on a modern camera in some way, can we say the same in 20 years or so?

Why do I like Olympus? Apart from the lenses and image quality, it's because they came the closest to the "keeper" camera, with their modest little OMD, unlike all of the other brands I had regular access to, that I felt walked a delicate line between "same as last time" and "inevitably improvable". Sony is the worst culprit, actually replacing expensive camera models only a year after release. I went through five Canon SLR's in the same length of time that the EM5's have lasted and they have launched 2-4 models in each price bracket during it's life, Sony even more. It's not just retro looks, it is a feeling of semi permanence that's hard to put a finger on, I actually want to wear them out, they have character, they are loveable and the Pen F has that same feel.

I am printing more. This is my tactile connection. A print made in a darkroom is a form of magic, but a colour print from a large roll printer has the same dynamic as a digital one. Is this why I have embraced digital colour printing, but have not found my feet with black and white? maybe mono prints are lacking the darkroom mojo that made them special to me, the feeling that anything is possible and every mis step could reveal a wonderful secret (Peter used to use paper developer on his film to create refined and super sharp grain, a secret he guarded for years and never revealed how he discovered it). Digital black and white still feels like just tones on paper, it does not have that chemical mystery.

Finally of course blogging etc. Sharing my thoughts and images helps me to work towards a goal and makes me careful to aim for quality in presentation. After all, the whole world could be watching!?!

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Memories and experience are valuable tools, but are also a curse if they stop you growing and you let them fuel regrets. My personal focus this year is to embrace my past to form a stronger foundation for the future. It is my legacy, for better or worse, part of my creation story. The things I feel I am missing are hidden there, I have felt it often, but not chased the scent. they are not the next camera or software programme, but the next thing discovered with what I have. 

A magazine gifted to me in hospital had more of an lasting effect than months of searching the internet. Many of my most regularly accessed memories are from articles read 20 years ago in those periodicals. There must be something in that. Information is information, but maybe it is the process of reading something permanent, gentle and quiet or just actually owning it, or maybe care taken by the author and the anticipation forced on us by the monthly release schedule?

Will I use the many film cameras I have lying around (most loaded)? Probably not, as the process, especially without a darkroom, leaves me cold these days (The OMD/Pen cameras produce images similar to Fuji Velvia slides, or Kodachrome if desired, without their ISO or exposure accuracy limitations and can do a good job of Tri X, XP 2 and FP4 also so creatively I am covered). Film feels thin where I live, expensive, unsupported and time sensitive. Maybe if I lived in a big city or still had a darkroom there would be some future for me in analogue, but not as things stand now. A bit like flies in summer, there are also negatives to remember while reminiscing the good. Regardless, good memories from the film era are worth holding on to. 

Your tools will be different, but use them all and travel well.