Tuesday, 26 November 2019

The Dark Wood

Taken with Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

Camera design is a curious business. In the heyday of film, "form follows function" was self-evidently the driver of the way most cameras looked. Setting aside view cameras, which are hilariously functional – got a picture problem? Hey, there's an app a knurled knob for that! – a roll-film camera has quite strict requirements that must be accommodated before the design team is let loose. Film of a certain fixed dimension must spool across the camera back in evenly-spaced increments, and be kept flat at a rigidly-fixed distance from the lens and shutter assembly, and the mechanisms to achieve this must be resilient, easy to use, and lightproof. However, the whole box also needs to be opened regularly so that film can be removed and replaced – quickly, and without mishap – under conditions of excitement and even mortal danger. Some kind of viewfinder is pretty much essential, too, whether it be a sophisticated arrangement of prisms and mirrors, or a wire rectangle on a stick. Add into that the shape and size of the human hand, and the position of the human eye in the human head, and a certain optimal size and shape more or less determines itself.

Of course, good function and optimal shape don't, in themselves, produce attractive cameras. I think most of us would agree that an Olympus OM SLR is a thing of beauty, whereas a Zenit EM SLR is not, and yet the differences between the two devices are really quite small; not unlike the differences between two people, both in possession of the full, functioning complement of anatomical features, and yet of radically different attractiveness. It's a moot point whether to blame the instinct of engineers to play safe or the urge of designers to create marketable novelty for the most breathtakingly butt-ugly cameras: perhaps this is more often than not the result of one team temporarily gaining the upper hand over the other. Odd, isn't it, for example, how everyone still cites the well-engineered but fairly conventional Olympus SLRs, XAs, and even Trips as design classics, but the design-heavy, all-in-one Olympus IS family or (if you can even bear to look at one) the egregious AZ-330 Superzoom have vanished without trace? Although my personal favourite Olympus film camera, the Mju (Stylus, in the USA) – a perfectly elegant and functional compromise between engineering and design – is apparently enjoying a well-deserved cult moment.

Then along came digital. Tiny sensors meant tiny focal lengths, and that, along with no film to advance or replace meant, shape-wise, pretty much anything was possible, not least because much of the engineering had become sophisticated miniaturised electronics, tucked away in corners on printed circuits. There were limits, of course – human hands and eyes remained incorrigibly analogue, as they do to this day – but there was something of a Cambrian Explosion of camera-forms, most of which were doomed to die out in the ensuing Darwinian struggles. But, as was probably predictable, it was the most conventional-looking cameras that made it through the mass extinction of the early 2000s, reconverging on the very same designs as the film SLRs and compacts they had all but extinguished.

Personally, I have rarely been a pioneer in anything, but have often been an early adopter. It's an important distinction, and something you generally learn the hard way if you've ever worked for a living with computers and software. I bought my first digital camera around 2001, a flat, slab-like Fujifilm Finepix 1300 with a mighty 1.3 (one point three) megapixel sensor, which produced images 1280 x 960 pixels in size. It had a tiny 1.6" rear screen, and used four AA batteries: I remember thinking for ages that the ability to use rechargeable AA batteries was an essential feature in any digital camera. I was impressed, however. I had spent quite a few years working with the colour negative film-processing cycle: buy film; expose film; drop exposed film off at camera shop for "dev & contact"; wait a week; pay for and collect negatives and contact sheet; examine contact sheet; drop off negatives at commercial darkroom for selected proof prints; wait a week; pay for proof prints; order a fine print or two; etc. So the speedy turnaround time of digital came as a revelation. It was also effectively cost-free, even given the extortionate price of printer ink. The quality was pretty good, too, provided you wanted nothing bigger than a 6" x 4" print. I did, however, so I was not going to be giving up my medium-format film workhorse, a Fuji GS645S, any time soon.

all Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

Over the next few years, nonetheless, I kept upgrading until around 2005 I arrived at a Canon EOS 350D DSLR, with its awe-inspiring eight megapixel sensor [1], and I never again bought a roll of film, or paid for "dev & contact". Sorry, camera shop! In the hybrid middle period there, though, between the Fuji and the Canon, I had an extended creative relationship with Olympus, in the form of a Camedia C3000z (3 megapixels) and then a C5050z (5 megapixels). [Apologies if this is about as interesting as a list of my old cars: I'll get to the point, eventually]. It is a curious and marvellous thing, and something I only fully recognised recently, that my single Greatest Hit to date (in terms of sales, exhibitions, and noises of approval), the series I self-published as The Revenants, was developed exclusively out of photographs made at that time using these two cameras. In fact, more than half of those pictures were taken with the three megapixel Camedia, which is pretty astonishing.

You are invited!

Also around that time, in 2004, I was stopped in my tracks by something in a camera shop window. On display were six eye-catching little cameras, all in a row, each in a different-coloured, metallic, asymmetrical casing, set out like high-end watches, or an array of rather fancy cigarette lighters. Amazing! It was the Olympus Mju-Mini Digital. Only four megapixels, but as smooth and rounded (and about the same size) as a bar of soap, as featureless and streamlined as an alien spacecraft, weatherproof, and a rather wacky triumph of curvy design over the nerdy knurled-knobbliness of the typical camera. Now, this was clearly intended as a "gendered" product, but I am very susceptible to compact, jewel-like objects (I blame my inner crow), and was smitten. Until I discovered that the design team had actually gone completely mad: there was no viewfinder at all, FFS, just a 1.8" LCD! What were they thinking?! [2]  For me, anyway, that was a thought too far outside the box for comfort and, as they say on the forums: deal-killer. But, like catching a glimpse of some unattainable beauty in the street, the impression stayed with me, and no other camera has ever quite captured that same, ungadgety allure. I mean, six colours! Those curves!

Some years later, in 2009, I came across a used Mju-Mini in red on Ebay, and put in a low, but winning bid. To justify this ridiculous gear-lust – at the time I was going steady with a Canon 450D – I had some half-baked idea about a lo-fi project using an ultra-portable, weatherproof camera, the sort of thing you'd do with a smartphone today, but then promptly forgot all about it. It was, I'm ashamed to say, a bit of a one-night stand. Then, this week, looking for something completely different, I found it again in the back of a cupboard, and the half-baked idea reignited: not least because I'd been looking at those old three-megapixel Olympus images from 2002-3 – many of which, despite various backup disasters, have survived – and wondering what it was that had given them whatever quality it was that they clearly had. One thing was certain, though: it was not an overabundance of pixels.

Trying to think back 15 years or so, two things did immediately come to mind. First, at that time, all of what I took to be my "serious" work was still being done on film. Even the family snaps were continuing to accumulate as 6" x 4" prints in paper wallets [3]. The digital camera was pretty much a toy, something to have fun with, to experiment with. It was relatively cost-free, after all, and would never amount to anything serious, anyway, or so I thought, so I ended up snapping away in all sorts of unlikely places. Second, through those casual experiments, I was finding out what a digital camera was good at, and what it was bad at (and that when it was good, it was very, very good, and when it was bad, it was hopeless). So I then started snapping away consistently in the most likely unlikely places, with results that trumped pretty much anything I'd ever done on film. I imagine this is something like what is meant by shoshin, or "beginner's mind" in Zen.

all Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

But there was a third thing, too. Fifteen years ago I was 50, the father of two young, school-age children, with both my own and my partner's parents in terminal decline, working part-time in a stalled professional career, and assailed on all sides by the routine tribulations of responsible middle age. I found myself to be some considerable distance from the person I had imagined I was destined to become:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita... [4] 
In short, I was in mid-life crisis territory, and it was photography that seemed to be holding open a last door onto a more interesting future. True, by then I'd had two modest exhibitions of my film-based work, but this was proving too expensive in time, money, and attention to sustain. It seemed digital photography might yet prove to be just the thing to keep that door open; which it did.

Motivation like that – urgency combined with means and clarity of purpose – comes only rarely in a lifetime. When it does, good things can happen, and any limitations merely serve to stimulate creativity. Without it, no amount of megapixels or seductive design will help: you're just wandering aimlessly in the dark, hoping to find an exit. Now, at 65, I've been sensing its return. I may have slipped through that one door, but it's clear there are many more doors beyond, which is an exhausting and daunting prospect. But I'm not yet ready to let those doors shut on me, either, if I can help it. Beginner's mind may be the answer: if I'm lucky, perhaps the time has come to see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers. [5]

Who knows? But maybe a little red camera from 2004 can help, if only by reminding me of some of the choices I made along the way, and how I once found a path out of the dark wood.

all Olympus Camedia 3000z (3 megapixels), 2002

1. Early on, I remember working out how many megapixels would be needed to make an 8" x 10" print at 300 dpi, the answer being eight, occupying between 15 and 20 MB of storage as a TIF file. This seemed an improbable figure, especially in the days when 32 GB was a perfectly respectable capacity for a hard drive.
2. Unheard of, then; standard, now.
3. Something I am now profoundly grateful for. In the future, a Digital Dark Age will be uncovered, a black hole in the communal memory, as various convenient "clouds" dissipate into thin air, taking with them an entire generation of family snaps and personal souvenirs.
4. Opening words of Dante's Inferno: "Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, the straight way lost".
5. "Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers." Qingyuan Weixin, quoted in Alan Watts, The Way of Zen.


Huw said...


What an excellent and thoughtful post. Not sure I can articulate what I would like to say about the dark woods of middle age (although a 365 project in 2014 was an achievement, photographically and personally), so allow me to say that my first digital camera was a Fujifilm Finepix 1500 (1.5mp!) and I took one of my favourite pictures with it - http://www.huwhitchin.com/newyear2001/jenbig.jpg - which I don't think would have worked at all with more resolution.


PS Hated my various Nikon digicams, and my 350D, now quite content with a Canon G9x and 6dii.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Huw. The quality of some of those early digicams is a mystery: I suspect the engineers worked miracles, trying to get the picture quality to rival 35mm. I always liked the look of those Porsche-designed Fujis, with the vertical body plan. The fact that that line went extinct after just a couple of years suggests it wasn't really terribly useful as a picture-taking machine, however...


old_bloke said...


With regard to your comments to the previous poster, Kirk Tuck wrote some time ago about his theory that some early sensors had a special quality because the photosites were physically larger than they are now - no idea if this has any scientific credibility. I bought a Fuji MX-1700 when they came out in 1999 and thought it was just the coolest-looking thing. Unfortunately it was pretty hopeless in the real world - there was at least a one second delay between pressing the button and the shutter being activated, and getting the files onto an old Windows computer wasn't always straightforward.

Completely agree with the idea that it's all about the mind and the eye, rather than the camera, although with Black Friday coming up . . .

Mike C. said...


There has to be something -- after all, you would imagine these would have to be less good than phone cameras, which they clearly aren't. OTOH what they are bad at (e.g. landscapes, bright highlights) they are really bad at.

Yes, I'd forgotten about shutter delay -- a problem with all early digicams.

Black Friday... I wonder if there is a Japanese Zen word for "window-shopper's mind"? (they, of all people, must have such a word).