Have you read your instruction manual?
After using many
different cameras over far too many years, I have become a little blasť
about instruction manuals. After all, the technical side of photography
involves manipulating shutter speed, aperture of the lens and focusing. It
really should not need much more than a few pages to cover that.
However, with the
digital evolution and the advent of LCD’s and drop down menus and other
electronic trickery, it has become necessary to once more study the
instruction manuals (and I have to admit I have not read my new one from
cover to cover)!
But instruction manuals
are not new. A few years back now, I was given a book by Jan Olav Aamlid
called How to make good pictures - a book for the amateur photographer.
Published by Kodak Limited in London, the book had 170 glossy pages and the
price was one shilling!
was no date in the book, but looking at the photographs printed in it, I
would put the date at around 1920.
Things have changed
photographically too. Before the world developed that wonderful little
pop-up flash on your compact camera, that “knows” it has to come up when the
light levels are low, Kodak were offering the Amateur Flashlight Outfit for
those who would brave the dark. I quote from our one shilling book, “The
procedure is simple. The powder is crushed and mixed as indicated, then the
taper is fixed in position at one end of the tray. When ready to make the
exposure, the taper is lit and the lamp slowly tilted until the powder falls
on the flame.” The book goes on a couple of pages later, “When more than one
flashlight picture is to be taken, the windows should be opened between each
flash to free the room thoroughly from smoke, otherwise all the pictures
after the first few are liable to have a slightly ‘foggy’ appearance.”
Further advice to the
amateur with his flash powder and taper include, “If the room is darkened
the sudden flash of light so strains the eyes of the sitters that it almost
invariably gives them a staring look, but if the room is already illuminated
by gas or electricity, the strain is not so great and the eyes will have a
natural expression.” I would imagine that sitting in a closed room with some
lunatic with crushed flash powder and a lit taper would make anyone stare a
little! Yes, we certainly get it easy these days.
There is one complete
chapter on photographing interiors, with exposure times quoted around the 10
minute mark. They do caution, “If time exposures are made with the camera
held in the hands, the pictures will be blurred.” The mind boggles at a
hand-held 10 minute time exposure!
However, it does have
some very pertinent facts. With portrait photography, the book suggests, “As
an example, take a young man with too prominent ears; it is obvious in this
case that the full face would be displeasing, so turn the face slowly away
from the light until the ear nearest the light disappears from the line of
sight.” The book also says that if this still does not fix the problem, get
the young man to rest his head on his hand and hide the appendages that way!
For me, the best part
of the book was in the first few chapters where the basic principles of
photography were explained in detail, even showing the differences between
different manufacture of lenses. Exposure control is well documented, and
the amateur photographer who followed this book through to the end would
have no longer been a true “amateur”.
In those halcyon days,
the budding photographer was also his own darkroom assistant and much of the
book is devoted to D&P (Developing and Printing) and how to avoid the traps
and pitfalls. For those of you who have dabbled (or rather dipped and
dunked) you will agree that it does give another dimension to picture
taking, one that has all but disappeared these days with the advent of the
The ‘decisive moment’
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the originator
of the phrase in photography, “The Decisive Moment”, died in 2004, aged 95.
However, he will be remembered for his contributions to photography forever.
However, despite his fame and notoriety, he was never one to look for
personal publicity, and in fact hid from it.
He was born in France in 1908 and initially studied
painting, following much of the Surrealist school of thought of the time.
However, by the time he was 22 years old he had dropped art for photography,
but began to apply the art concepts he had been exposed to towards
One of the factors that allowed Cartier-Bresson to do
this was the advent of the small portable cameras, such as the Leica fitted
with a 50 mm lens, which was to become Cartier-Bresson’s favorite
instrument. He believed that the photographer had to become part of what was
going on, and after becoming ‘in tune’ with the subject, it was then
possible to capture the essential moment, the very essence of the event.
This was explained by Cartier-Bresson in the foreword to his book, published
in 1952, Images a la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment). He called it
“The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the
significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which
give that event its proper expression.”
With this concept and the portable lightweight camera,
Cartier-Bresson became one of the principal ‘street’ photographers. A true
journalist with a camera - a photo-journalist. He would record not just a
parade, but also the people watching the event, and their reactions to the
Take a look at the classic photo to illustrate the
decisive moment. The shot was taken in 1932 at the Place de l’Europe, where
the marooned man has finally realized that there is no way out, and having
made the decision, launches himself off the ladder. That split second, that
decisive moment caught by Cartier-Bresson in such a way the viewer can feel
the moment still today, 72 years later. In his words, “There was a plank
fence around some repairs behind the Gare Saint-Lazare train station. I
happened to be peeking through a gap in the fence with my camera at the
moment the man jumped.”
He recorded the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s and
then WW II, but was finally captured and he became a POW. He escaped three
years later, and was there to record the liberation of Paris from the
Of course, he was by that stage becoming an icon, and
in 1947 joined forces with two other ground-breaking photojournalists,
Robert Capa and David Seymour to form the Magnum agency. However, for
Cartier-Bresson, news was much more than the photo-journalists were showing.
It was necessary to get behind the scenes.
Cartier-Bresson and his confreres forged a name for
hard hitting news photography. Cartier-Bresson spent almost 20 years there,
covering Mao Zedong’s victory in China and the death in India of nationalist
movement leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Regarded as one of the pioneers of photojournalism, his
pictures now hang in art galleries around the world, with a retrospective in
Europe to be extended to allow more visitors the chance to view his work.
Friend and fellow photographer Lord Snowdon paid
tribute to him saying, “He was brilliant. I will miss him very much. I don’t
think he’d like his work to be called art, he would like to be remembered as
an anonymous figure. His books record moments that can’t be captured again.”
Again that concept of the ‘decisive moment’.
But by 1975 he gave up photography. “All I care about
these days is painting - photography has never been more than a way into
painting, a sort of instant drawing.”
Ex-French President Jacques Chirac said
Cartier-Bresson’s death was a major loss to his country. “France loses a
genius photographer, a true master, and one of the most gifted artists of
his generation and most respected in the world.”
In 2004, the world lost a photographer who had vision
and the ability to record his vision in a way the world could understand.
The decisive moment will always belong to Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Yesterday afternoon, I
spent an entertaining hour rummaging through one of the drawers in my study
desk, for no other reason that rummaging through a drawer is a pleasing, if
a slightly time-wasting diversion. Drawers are often full of memories.
I found a rusting pair
of scissors which belonged to my grandmother who once told me that she’d had
the scissors since she was a teenager. She was born in 1878. Then I
discovered a letter opener with a stainless steel blade and a wooden handle,
which was made by my cousin at least sixty years ago as a birthday present
for my mother.
Near the bottom of the
drawer I found a white box with the word “Philatoscope” printed on the
front. You may not have come across one of these, but it’s a large convex
lens affixed to a small stand just high enough to slide a postage stamp
underneath. It used to belong to my father who was an enthusiastic stamp
collector. On the back of the box it says “ten shillings and sixpence” which
must have been a lot of money in the 1950s. It’s in pristine condition and I
tried it out on a two baht stamp. It still works perfectly.
But among all these
priceless treasure, one item from the darkest recesses of the drawer
captivated my attention and I’ve added a photograph of it. If you are a
regular reader of this column, you’ll know what it is and you might even
have one. It is of course an exposure meter, and a pretty famous one at
that. It was named after its English inventor Edward Weston. His first
photographic exposure meter appeared in the 1930s and didn’t look much
different to the one in the photo, except that it was black. These meters
have been used for years by professionals and serious amateurs and I bought
mine in the late 1960s.
It looks a complicated
thing but they were actually quite easy to use once you’d grasped the idea.
Without becoming embroiled in too much technical detail the “exposure” is
the amount of light that reaches the photographic film or the image sensor
and it’s determined by the shutter speed, the lens aperture and the
brightness of the image itself. Before the appearance of Mr. Weston’s
exposure meter, it was largely guesswork. Some people became quite skilled
at estimating the exposure but it could be an unreliable method especially
in unfamiliar surroundings. And of course in the days of film, you couldn’t
see your photograph until the film was processed and prints had been made.
If your guess had been wrong, nothing much could be done about it. However,
black-and-white photographic film was much less sensitive back in those days
and rather more forgiving.
I suppose the vast
majority of people who rely on their Smartphone for taking photographs have
any idea of what the word “exposure” means. But their Smartphone does, and
it attempts to work out the correct exposure for every photo they take,
often with surprisingly accurate results. This confirms my lingering
suspicion that Smartphones are often smarter than the people who use them.
Anyway, if you don’t mind, I am going to spend a bit more time with my
ancient Weston Master V and see if I can remember how it works.