A life less sharp

Tokyo Train Guard (detail)

Like many designers of a certain age, I did once struggle with a manual camera. I stumbled through college with an awful eastern SLR called a Zenit, on which the nuances of light and shade were completely lost. Any attempts on my part to replicate my early heroes such as Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson were, frankly, hopeless.

Next I entered a digital age, populated by a succession of point-and-shoot cameras. As these cameras got better, the focus sharper, the pixels more mega, I forgot what ‘manual’ really meant, as these became just reliable ‘life-recording’ devices.

Late last year, I bought a very old-fashioned model called a range-finder camera, famously used by all my heroes. Using these cameras is quite a stretch: they will do some vague light-reading, at a push, but really it’s up to you. Focussing is very much a matter of guesswork, involving a tricky ‘split-screen’ and a viewfinder which doesn’t really work, especially if you’re semi-blind and wear glasses as thick as mine. Fully manual, and, sadly, fully to blame.

Golden Gai Bar

Most photographers’ deal with this by choosing settings that allow for a wide range of results and don’t get too stressed about the precise technicalities. But the revelation for me has been using it 'wide open'.

This means setting the lens as open as possible and choosing the smallest possible aperture. This, I’ve discovered, is a kind of badge of honour for certain photographers – whilst the camera becomes impossibly ‘fast’, it also means that the amount of any scene that falls into focus can be impossibly small.

Bamboo Forest, Kyoto

In plain English? A fancy-yet-very-old-fashioned camera of this type means a LOT of out of focus pictures. And I mean a lot. If you share my love of candid, unpredictable, ‘street’ photography, then you quickly amass a huge selection of beautiful yet blurry smudges.

The initial reaction was ‘oh bugger’, and a surreptitious check of second hand camera sites to see if I should just cut and run. Next, a determination to work out how to really use it. Finally, the realisation that a life less sharp was far more interesting.

Tokyo backstreet

The world around me has taken on a much more filmic quality, in a metaphorical and literal sense.

I’ve become a keen student of softness, depth of field and those beautiful light effects called bokeh. I study cinematography with a renewed interest and a whole world of visual effects has opened up to me.

Tokyo Train Guard

I even started to think I’d begun to get the hang of it. I was so proud of a recent shot (above) that I made a huge print and stuck it on the wall for what I hoped would be universal admiration. Maybe the odd commission. Perhaps a new career in photo-journalism?

Recently though my son, after carefully examining it, said ‘nice picture Dad… …but did you know that the only bit of this picture that’s actually in focus is the telephone cable?’

I think that new career will have to wait a little longer.

By Michael Johnson

A version of this piece appears in the July issue of Computer Arts magazine

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