Monday, September 11, 2023

Back where we started

Image - Newshub
Here, in New Zealand, we are deep into election season and a torrent of political posturing is sweeping the country like a river in flood. With this in mind, as I was browsing "Papers Past" the other day, my attention was caught by this letter to the editor of the Oxford Observer, from September 1889:

To the Editor of The Observer.  

Sir, Allow me to express my pleasure with the capital article in your issue of the 7th Sept., on the great struggle now pending between Labor and Capital. How grievous to anyone with a heart to feel for another is the knowledge that in this fair land of ours hundreds of our fellow-creatures toil almost day and night for a bare existence, all their labor bringing to them no more than sufficient to keep body and soul together. How sad to think of poor young girls deprived of all which makes life pleasant by the cruel "sweating" system; and, oh, sad beyond words, is the fact that many beg for work (which to them means bread) in vain.  

This is a subject on which I feel very strongly; it seems to me so cruelly unjust that one should give up all their strength. all their energy and time, and only receive in return just enough to support life in the most miserable fashion. Stick to your colors, Mr Editor, and write boldly as a friend of labor.  

Nowadays if a man is poor he is treated by many as if he were an intruder on the Earth, who ought to be thankful that he is allowed to live at all.  

I am, Sir, your sincere well-wisher,  


The letter is 130 years old but, aside from one or two details (and some archaic language), it could have been written today. I'm tempted to say that 'nothing changes' but that's not true. New Zealand had changed from the situation described in this letter and, by the middle of the 20th century, we had a much-improved situation for the majority of New Zealand's citizens. I know, I was there and experienced it. Then came the "Rogernomics" of the 1980s. In many ways, New Zealand did need to change but it seems, in hindsight, that we threw out the baby with the bathwater. New Zealand embraced the free market with a zealous disregard for the consequences of deregulated greed. 

What followed, was a steady decline in the living standards of ordinary New Zealanders, until we find ourselves in the present parlous position of unaffordable housing, homeless living on the streets, a healthcare system that seems broken beyond repair, and food so expensive that some people are forced to routinely rely on food banks. 

Image - Stuff

While this goes on, many businesses are returning stellar profits on the back of an increasing number of workers who don't receive a living wage*. Effectively, business relies on taxpayer-funded handouts to supplement poor pay with income support schemes like Working For Families. Letting business off the living wage hook in this back-handed way needs to stop. 

As Ajax wrote in 1889, "it seems to me so cruelly unjust that one should give up all their strength. all their energy and time, and only receive in return just enough to support life in the most miserable fashion." We simply have too many New Zealanders today earning less than is required to live adequately. Do any of our political parties have a plan to fix that? 

When it comes time to cast your vote next month, have a think about where our country is going. Do we continue downward as we have for the last thirty years or has someone got a better plan than that?

* By "living wage" I don't mean any official "Living Wage" figure, I simply mean wages that allow a person to live an adequate life. 

Thursday, June 8, 2023

TTArtisan's cunning little light meter

It's small, it looks good, it fits on my old film cameras and it doesn't break the bank. What's not to like?

Well, according to some reviews, these meters just aren't very accurate. For the first few weeks, I thought I had one of those inaccurate meters - until I realised that I wasn't using it correctly. Turns out I had a bad case of RTFM. Now that I've read the manual, I'm happy with the meter and the results agree with the old hand-held meter that I brought from Boots The Chemist sometime in the 1960s (yes, that one still works).

The TTArtisan light meter and its packaging.

Somehow, I had got confused by the little button on the back of the TTArtisan light meter, thinking that it was the "On" switch; turn it on, point the meter at the light, adjust the dials and get your settings. Simple. No, no, no! The manual (which I had only skimmed) makes it clear that this is the "Metering button". First, you point the meter at the scene, THEN you press the button and adjust the dials appropriately. The meter is NOT constantly metering the scene; only when the button is pressed. 

What I had been doing was turning it on (actually taking a reading), then pointing it at the scene and adjusting the dials. No wonder the readings were all over the place - it could have been pointing anywhere when I 'turned it on'. I wonder how many experienced 'geniuses' (like me) relied on their old knowledge of light meters, got bad readings and blamed this little light meter?

The light meter attached to the Kiev 4a

There really isn't anything not to like here; the TTArtisan light meter is everything it appears to be AND it does the job well. Oh, and it comes in a nice little box with a screwdriver to change the position of the foot if needed. Just a pity a battery wasn't included and that I didn't heed the instruction to "Please read the manual carefully before use."

About $78 (if you can find one) from TTArtisan.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

This camera is a mutt

... and I love it. It's also a camera with history.

As a user of vintage cameras, there was a time when I wanted an older Leica. The Leica name is synonymous with excellent build quality (and stratospheric prices). But, as time went on, I became aware that all was not necessarily perfect in Leica land. Those prized, early, Barnack Leicas, had issues that made them less than perfect working cameras. Nice to keep on the shelf perhaps, but not so nice to be taking photos with. (See here for a rundown of the issues:

In 1930s  Germany though, there was a camera specifically designed by Zeiss Ikon to out-Leica the Leicas of the time. The Contax was designed to be everything a Leica was and then some. While the first Contax suffered from being somewhat rushed to market, it was the Contax II from 1936 that delivered the goods, beating Leica with an integrated viewfinder/rangefinder, better shutter mechanism, faster shutter speeds, better film loading, and a significantly more accurate rangefinder. 

The original Contax II from 1936

The Contax II became a much sought-after camera for working professionals, especially press photographers, who needed a small camera which delivered great image quality and was able to take the punishment dished out in daily use. Production of the Contax in Dresden survived the war years and continued post-war until the Russians dismantled the factory and moved the manufacturing plant and most of the German engineers to Kiev in Ukraine.

Production of the Contax continued in Kiev using the same machine tools and technicians as in the Dresden factory. Nothing changed except for the name - Contax was dropped in favour of the name "Kiev" after the city in which it was now produced. Some of the early Kiev cameras still had "Contax" embossed on the inside of the front plate.

My copy of the Kiev 4a - the flash sync port was a later addition.

Production of Kiev cameras continued largely unchanged for the next 40 years. They progressed from Kiev to Kiev2, Kiev3 and Kiev 4 with only minor changes until production was finally terminated in 1987. During the 1980s, the quality of the Keiv cameras started to suffer as a result of ageing machine tools and the loss of all the original Contax staff. It is rumoured that, in the 1980s, whole batches of Kiev cameras were dumped because they didn't pass quality control. 

The Kiev 4a - opened for loading film

As a camera from 1977, the Kiev is not very impressive - most cameras of the era were much more sophisticated. But, as a camera designed in 1936, it was already streets ahead of its Leica contemporaries and makes a very useable camera for anyone who knows their 'f' stops from their shutter speeds. I took it for a walk around our local school to test it out and came away impressed.

Kiev 4a, f8 @ 1/125, Ilford FP4

So, my replacement for the Leica which I can't afford is a Kiev 4a. Basically, a 1936  camera designed by Contax in Germany but built in Kiev in 1977. If this camera were a dog, it would be a mutt.

(Support Ukraine; buy an old Russian camera.)

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Sticky shutters and Fairy houses

One of the enduring problems with many older cameras is the 'sticky shutter'. Many cameras with older leaf shutters, start seizing up at slower speeds. Sometimes they stop altogether.  I've had my share of those and they usually get consigned to the 'dead camera' box, as a repair usually exceeds its value. 

Agfa Isolette III, f3.5 Solinar lens.

One such camera was an Agfa Isolette, a 6x6 folder from the 1950s. I acquired it about two years ago in excellent cosmetic condition and with one of Agfa's higher-spec lenses, but ... sticky shutter. I dug it out of the dead box while cyclone Gabrielle was making it unpleasant outside and spent an hour or two dribbling lighter fluid into the shutter and exercising it. Surprisingly, it started to work, and eventually, the shutter was doing a nicely timed cerrrrrrrrclunk at the one-second setting. The following day, it was still cerrrrrrrrclunking nicely and so I loaded up some Ilford FP4 and went for a walk under dull but dry skies. 

Ashly Gorge, track through the forest - 1 second at f8; colourised black and white.

I might be getting old, but not too old to smile whenever I find one of the 'fairy houses' scattered throughout the forest. I came across this one in a rather dark place.

'Fairy house' fixed to a Redwood Tree. 8 seconds at f8

Inside each house, there is usually a pithy little saying. This one says "Be awesome ... be a book nut." Thank you, I am. 

'Fairy house' - 1/2 second at f8.

There's something very satisfying about using a seventy-year-old camera, to take black-and-white photos and ending up with coloured pictures. Not quick mind you, but satisfying; digital has just become far too easy. (There's a time and place for 'easy'.)

Thursday, January 12, 2023

OlyPen II

 It was just before Christmas 2021 that I got my first Olympus Pen half-frame camera, an Olympus Pen D3 ( I ran several rolls of film through that camera and, at the time, loved using it more than any of my other cameras (film or digital). The 32mm f1.7 lens was remarkably sharp and I got amazingly crisp and clear pictures from such a small frame size. Then, one day, the ‘click’ didn’t, and on investigation I found the shutter blades lying in a heap in the middle of the lens. The OlyPen had died.

Christmas 2022, bought OlyPen II to my door. It is a Pen EED model with fully automated exposure and that same 32mm f1.7 lens that I loved on the Pen D3. The Pen EED was manufactured between 1967 and 1972, though you wouldn’t know it to look at my copy. It has a much more modern design than the Pen D3 and I was fortunate to find one in immaculate condition.

Olympus Pen EED (1967-1972)

Aside from being small and portable, all the OlyPens, and most half-frame film cameras in general, have one unusual feature - when you hold them naturally, they take pictures in the portrait orientation, rather than the more common landscape. If you want landscape on an OlyPen, you must turn it sideways. 

This portrait orientation is no minor detail. It wasn't until I first used the OlyPen D3 that I realised that I naturally preferred portrait orientation. This natural preference, however, had always been suppressed by the poor ergonomics of holding my other cameras sideways. Once I used the OlyPen, I went from 80% landscape to shooting 95% portrait. The portrait orientation also lends itself to a diptych or triptych series in a way that landscape pictures don't. 
At the skate-park

Being half-frame images, the negatives from the OlyPen are never going to hit the heights of medium format for quality, nor even a good full-frame 35mm camera, but that isn't the OlyPen's purpose. The OlyPen is a carry-everywhere snapper - if artists carry a sketchbook, then the OlyPen is the photographer's sketchbook. Having said that, the OlyPen produces 20Mp scanned images that easily hold their own on social media and anything up to an 8"x10" print; thanks largely to that wonderful Olympus lens.
Mexican dominoes

I expect to have a lot more fun playing with the little OlyPen II. Hopefully, it will last a lot longer than my broken D3 before it gets taken to camera heaven.
Playing in the playground with the OlyPen

OlyPen photos were taken on either Fomopan 100 or Ilford FP4, developed in Rodinal, semi-stand for 1hr.