By Rodinal Jones
Most of us have at some point sensed an itch which simply could not be scratched, a thirst which could not be quenched, a hunger which could not be sufficiently satisfied – that certain sense of something missing. I know that I have. This never more so than in my digital photography.
This nagging feeling, which I could never precisely put my finger on, eventually became self-diagnosed as the RUTS (Reliance Upon Technology Syndrome). This differs greatly from the more prevalent and conventional GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) about which one regularly reads; a syndrome most commonly contracted by those who are newer to photography and often transmitted via YouTube videos, through the power of persuasive bloggers, or even contracted as a consequence of prolonged close contact with carriers of the disease from among the arrogant owners of the most exclusive (and expensive) cameras.
RUTS, however, is usually self-inflicted and routinely results from developing an unhealthy imbalance in the mind. It quite commonly affects those shifting away from film photography into digital photography.
Photographic success is determined by three primary, and fundamental, factors. These involve the skills learned and employed, the equipment, tools, and materials utilised, and that at which the camera had been pointed. Those suffering with the RUTS erroneously ascribe inappropriate weight to the equipment and allocate insufficient weight to the necessary skills; thus, establishing the imbalance.
This debilitating imbalance in our minds can cause confusion; what is genuinely important and necessary with what is not. The fact is, a camera is merely a light-proof box designed to hold some light-sensitive substance such as film (or a sensor) at a certain distance from a hole which can itself occasionally allow light to enter the box. How long that light streams into the box is determined by the photographer and controlled via the uncovering and covering of that hole.
Some cameras incorporate lenses with which the photographer can seize control of the size of the hole as well as how strongly the system can converge that light (ie focal length). Light-sensitive substances can be made either more or less sensitive to light and digital sensors provide the possibility of increasing or decreasing that apparent light-sensitivity deceptively at will. Lenses, on such boxes that utilise them, provide the photographer a means of relative control over exactly which tiny portion of the final image will be in focus, which portions will be in moderately acceptable focus, and which will not at all be in focus. Together the above four elements form all which is both necessary and sufficient for photography. (Combine these with knowing where to point the camera, and you get ‘good’ photography.)
Just these four factors remain requisite and indispensable: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus. Nothing more of which a modern camera may be capable is absolutely vital for photography. Yet, a critically imbalanced mind tends to place an unwarranted high value on inessential accoutrements such as frames per second, crop factor, bracketing stops, dynamic range, megapixel counts, flash sync-speed, twisty-flippy screens, high-resolution optical viewfinders, live-view, shooting modes, histograms, focus peaking, (the list goes on, ad nauseam). As helpful as such may mistakenly seem in some certain situations, they remain entirely unnecessary to producing a photograph.
Furthermore, these aids potentially become obstacles in the way of the four truly important camera controls. Given all but unlimited settings, it can become difficult to decide which settings to select let alone ever get around to actually taking a photo. What these features excel at is leading the perplexed photographer down the garden path towards purchasing one of the camera companies’ latest, greatest, and increasingly more expensive camera offerings.
The manufacturers and retailers are helped by a bevy of sales agent YouTubers, associate bloggers, and many an innocent-yet-proud owner of a premium-grade ‘professional’ camera, all of them proclaiming countless ways in which these highly-advanced new devices will vastly improve our photographs.
I find it odd that, although lens manufacturers constantly tout the enormous apertures accessible on their new lenses and the absolute necessity of obtaining the narrowest depth of field, none seem to be trying to design and offer lenses which would provide a greater depth of field (something we often do need). Although shutter speeds have incrementally accelerated for each passing decade, no company is offering a solution for setting exact slow shutter speeds (such as 14 minutes and 38 seconds). Nor have they created sensors which can capture such long exposures without dissolving into noise (although they seem to double the highest purported ISO numbers every other year).
Autofocus boasting astronomic arrays of focus points are all well and good but that which went before was never really all that good anyway. Besides which, when I use autofocus, I only ever need or want one focus point placed right in the middle of my frame and I have always found f/5.6 and f/8 to be lovely apertures that do not demand such pin-point focusing accuracy.
With the viewfinder to my eye, my neck is fully capable of making the smallest movements needed in order to position that point wherever I choose and to quickly recompose. The multitude of available features can render them more of a hindrance than a help; do I want aperture priority or shutter priority, should I use the focus point third down and fourth from the right or the one fourth down and third from the right, regular AI focus or AI servo, full-stops of bracketing or third-stops, back-button focus or not, .jpeg or RAW, warm or auto white balance …?
Please don’t get me wrong. I own, utilise, and value a variety of Canon’s full-frame and APS-C bodies along with quite a few L-lenses in their elegant grey pouches. I have a couple of Lumix Micro Four-Thirds bodies with a variety of lenses. I own so many 35mm and medium format cameras that I dare not divulge the number here for fear my unsuspecting wife may read this. I cannot, therefore, be deemed a Luddite by any definition of the word.
The fact is I started with 35mm film photography over 40 years ago and eventually my Yashica Mat 124G introduced me to the splendour of medium format. Then digital arrived. I become increasingly infected by the circulating propaganda with a swirling anxiety that could not be relieved by anything except the next purchase. I was slowly seduced into believing that each new camera body would propel me closer to capturing those ever-elusive exceptional images. I was now chest deep and my thinking had become increasingly more imbalanced. It seemed so wonderful… and so horrible, all at the same time. The bright vivid colours, the ability to do virtually anything I could possibly imagine in post, the false economy of not needing to rely upon film, chemicals, or time.
Or so I thought at the time. Actually, digital requires much more time and is much more expensive than film. Actually, I prefer to shoot black and white. And, more importantly, I actually get far greater satisfaction out of getting things right before actuating the shutter rather than after – and that is a lot of actuallys to consider.
It struck me one day out of the blue, whilst processing an image, that I was not enjoying it – at all. I moreover realised that I much preferred my older film photographs over my newer digital images. I did not like the direction in which my photography had drifted. I had gone under. I missed film. I missed simplicity.
Since that eureka moment, I have shot more with my Olympus Trip than with my Panasonics, more with my Pentax ME and Canon FTQL than with my Canon 600D, more with my Yashica TLR and Minolta 9xi than with my Canon 6D. In doing so, proper balance was returning to my mind. Yet, I perceived something still out of kilter. I continued to be hindered by the sometimes subtle interventions of even these cameras. I sought some way of return to the four basic controls exclusively to allow me to concentrate solely on exposure and where I ought to point my camera; some remedy to free me from the RUTS.
Now, I cannot afford a Leica M3 and I sincerely doubt anyone is ever going to offer to give me one (the majority of the film cameras in my arsenal were bought used for a song). So, that left me with my FTQL or 124 G (sans batteries) or my Praktica PL Nova 1b (with its sometimes seemingly dead selenium cell). Or my ME (in 100X mode). Until, that is, whilst wandering the interwebs one fateful morning my eyes fell upon an image of a simple black box which piqued my interest in a way in which no other camera manufactured in the last 20 years ever had. It felt as if I had identified the cure for what ailed me.
The eye-opening image in question was of the RealitySoSubtle 6X6F; a camera which goes much further than taking me back to just the four principal controls – it takes me back to only two. It offers me one, and only one, aperture (f/160) coupled with any shutter speed my finger can manage. It allows me to select and load whichever medium format film I choose and to rate it however I like. Being a pinhole camera, nearly everything within its wide angle of view is in focus (albeit a ’softer’ focus).
It gives me the unlimited opportunity to be the photographer. It places my ability to achieve proper creative exposure equally alongside my deliberate decisions about at what to point the camera into their rightful position within the equation, thus removing the camera itself from the formula. It reduces my choices and concentrates the universe down to pointing the camera at what I want to photograph and determining the shutter speed to use. In that moment it neither offers nor involves any other options.
The following list of fantastic features is nothing short of faultlessly pure (all of which automagically move entirely out of mind during use):
- Very compact pocket design with rounded edges
- CNC machined body from High Impact Polystyrene (H.I.P)
- Flat film plane with pinhole to film distance (focal length) of 24mm.
- 2 x56.2mm square image area – 12 shots per roll on 120 film.
- Angle of view: 99 degrees horizontal, 99 degrees vertical.
- Laser-drilled 150 micron (0.15mm) pinhole (f/160). Pinhole material thickness = 50 microns (.002″).
- Magnetic shutter – magnetic ‘snap to’ both open and closed position
- Accurate CNC engraved aiming lines on top and both sides for accurate framing.
- 1/4-20 tripod mount
- Film winds in both directions (nice for double exposures)
- Brass winding shafts turning in precision bearings
- Top-loader with top panel fixed with captive screws
- Lens cap included
- Sliding cover for red-window (winding-on peep hole) – required for very long exposures when using ND filters
The cameras are built by Irish-born James Guerin near Nantes, France and can be had for the modest sum of 85€. My camera arrived after just five days and was loaded with film and mounted on a tripod by the local lakeshore the day it arrived. The only medium format film in my refrigerator on the day happened to be a few rolls of Kodak Portra 160 and Kodak Ektar 100 – I chose the Ektar. After that first shoot, I placed an online order for a number of rolls each of Ilford Pan F Plus, Ilford Delta 100, and Ilford FP4 Plus.
The experience of shooting that first roll was nothing less than liberating. Sort of. Twisting two captive screws removed the top plate, allowing for quick and straightforward loading of the film. But even after years of honing, my Sunny 11 Rule skills (a much-needed Swedish modification to the more equatorial Sunny 16 Rule) were not able to calculate the f/160 aperture and the Reciprocity Failure factor of the film. Fortunately, whilst awaiting the arrival of my package from France I had downloaded the Pinhole Assist iPhone app which James had recommended on his website. But even with the aid of this tool, the exposure decision-making process remained firmly in my hands.
As regards what I chose to point the camera at and what I chose to include (and omit) from my composition, the handy guidelines engraved into the top and sides of the camera body allowed me to reasonably accurately aim the camera. Despite my awareness that the 99 degree angle of view required me to be closer to my subject, I immediately realised when looking at my images that I will need to be even closer still. An elegant round bubble level atop the camera body helped keep a level horizon and prevented any unwanted tilt (I continue to be unclear concerning James’ choice to leave the level off of the list of features).
The icing on the cake, the cherry on the top, the stroke of pure genius is the sliding magnetic shutter enabling shake and vibration-free operation; simply cover the magnetic shutter-slide with a finger on one hand, slide open the shutter with the other hand, and quickly move that first finger out of the way. Reverse the procedure when the exposure is complete; quickly cover the pinhole with a finger on one hand and slide the magnetic shutter-slide back over the pinhole with the other hand.
There are other pinhole cameras available, but this unique feature of the RealitySoSubtle is a masterstroke. Bravo, James!
And that is it; with this camera I have simple and complete, unhindered control over exposure along all the essential elements needed to compose and create the photograph. I choose between monochrome and colour, the saturation level, the sharpness, the contrast, the white balance, etc. through my choice of film – before taking an image rather than after; and this entirely without electronic assistance or interference from the camera. The second roll of film I eagerly fed into the camera the next day by the seaside was black and white, as I imagine will be most of the film transported through this camera, (Ilford Pan F Plus on this occasion) rather than colour.
I am fully aware that these first humble photographs which I have created will garner nothing in the way of recognition, awards, or income. But, it was I alone who created them without the electronic assistance, or hindrance, of any abstruse algorithms devised by camera company boffins in a laboratory somewhere. They are without doubt my most utterly exciting and satisfying two outings in quite a long time.
I look forward to many additional exhilarating excursions and expeditions in the very near future – and to sampling a few rolls of Kosmo Foto Mono with this camera along the way. Such enthusiasm and eagerness is a substantial part of what I lost and lamented whilst soaked in the tainted depths of modern digital photography.
Does this mean that everyone ought to abandon all of their digital gear or even any feature-rich analogue gear? No, that would be missing the point. What I hope to clearly communicate are the benefits of limitation in remediating and redressing the excruciating effects of RUTS and to candidly convey the enjoyment and gratification to be found in simplicity.
OK, I understand someone suffering from RUTS and acquiring yet another camera to alleviate its symptoms might seem confusing. But there is a method to my madness. The great philosopher Dirty Harry was on the right track when he mumbled “a man’s got to know his limitations”. I think someone who could know (and understand) his limitations, has none.
And limitations placed on the process produce results rather than outcomes – there is a difference; and there is great pleasure to be found in the process of photography. For many, it is precisely that pleasure and enjoyment we first found so enticing about photography.
I only wish that others who have used this camera, or cameras similar to it, would have shouted louder how it might enhance my photography. I do so now. I highly recommend that any who have not tried such a camera do so without hesitation. It is reassuring medicine for the weary, jaded photographer’s soul.