The Most Incredible Photograph You Can Make

Shooting film, where you have a finite (and small) number of exposures on a roll, greatly helped me become more effective as a photographer. It encouraged me to take my time more, and make each shot count, as far as possible.

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Now I’m predominantly shooting digital again, I’ve tried to retain some of the best aspects of shooting film.

One major one is the vintage lenses I use.

I can’t see myself using a modern AF lens on my DSLRs anytime soon, I’m so attached to the experience and the resultant images gained when using vintage glass, from Takumars to Pentax-A.

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Arguably the second most significant shooting trait I try to carry over from film to digital can be phrased simply.

At the moment I’m about to take a photograph, I ask myself, “Picture the most incredible photograph you can make, with this subject, with this equipment, in these lighting conditions. Would that ultimate realisation of the scene before you be worth capturing?”

If the answer is no – and it often is – then I either try to adjust some aspect (focus, aperture thus depth of field, my position) to make it better, or just walk away.

Because if the very best possible outcome isn’t going to be that good, then why waste a photograph on it? 

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Yes, I know with digital you can potentially have hundreds or thousands of images on your camera at once, so you could take seven or 77 variations of the same scene and then decide later which to keep.

The technology is there for continuous shooting and exposure bracketing and so on, that mean it’s far more likely that one shot out of a rapid-fire blast of them is going to be ok.

But that’s really not my style. Again this was honed by shooting film. 

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I’m all for frugality and efficiency and would rather get it right with one shot in camera than be sifting through dozens afterwards. (My post processing with digital is very simple and virtually non-existent.)

And by asking this simple question – Would the most incredible photograph you can make in these conditions be worth taking? – it significantly reduces the likelihood of sifting through seven or 77 versions of the same scene, where none of them are any good because the lighting or the composition or the focal length was all wrong anyway.

Or the scene was just too dull to be worth capturing (yep, I’m still getting of this one pretty often!)

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How do you decide in the moment which photographs are worth taking? Does this process and thinking change between shooting film and digital? 

Let us know in the comments below.

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Wandering On The Wide Side

When I predominantly shot 35mm film, my default lens was a 50 or 55mm.

The world just looked right when viewed through them, plus they’re compact, can usually focus down to around half a metre, and perform very well.

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Contax 137MA, Yashica ML 50mm f/1.7 lens, Fuji Superia Reala 100 expired film

Then when I began experimenting more with digital – first with my Sony NEX mirrorless, then a Sony Alpha DSLR, then a couple of Pentax K DSLRS – I became curious about other focal lengths.

My first 135mm was the lovely Carl Zeiss S (Sonnar) 135/3.5, and there soon followed two or three other 135s, and maybe 10 since then.

I loved how with a 135mm I could get a more shallow depth of field with very dreamy backgrounds that almost became more like paintings than photographs.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Sonnar Electric MC 135mm f/3.5 M42 lens

In a word, 135mm lenses say “isolation” to me, as in isolating interesting subjects from everything around them.

What it took a while to get used to though was having to stand around 2m away from my subject every time I composed a photograph, having got so embedded in the much closer distances required for 50/55mm.

I’ve since explored a few focal lengths either side and found 150mm and 200m too long for my tastes (and the lenses too cumbersome and difficult to steady!).

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Super Takumar 150mm f/4 M42 lens

Takumars in 105 and 120mm have delighted me and continue to do so, having most of that reach of a 135 but being slightly less extreme and distant from the subject physically. 

Plus, being typical Takumars, they are both very compact for 105 and 120mm lenses respectively, so don’t feel clumsy or unbalanced at all.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Takumar 105mm f/2.8 preset M42 mount lens
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Pentax K10D, Asahi Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 120mm f/2.8 M42 lens

My latest challenge is at the other end of the scale – wide angles. 

Of course using APS-C sensors, the fields of view are different to that seen when using the same lenses on a 35mm film camera.

The two lenses I’m most interested in exploring currently are, inevitably, both Takumars. An old and amazingly tiny Auto-Takumar 35/3.5 and a somewhat newer Super-Takumar 28/3.5.

On film I dabbled with 28mm and struggled to get my head around it. There were just too many elements in the scene I had to consider and try to balance!

On the DSLRs it’s easier because of the crop factor – 28mm giving an equivalent 42mm (28 x 1.5) field of view, which is said to be pretty much exactly the “normal” view.

What I’m finding challenging is not to default to the same style of photography as I make with 50/55/58 and longer lenses, ie mostly close up, isolated subjects.

Er, like the image below.

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Samsung GX-1S, Asahi Auto-Takumar 35mm f/3.5 M42 preset lens.

The 28mm and to a slightly lesser extent 35mm Takumars (which is equivalent 52.5mm field of view on film, bang in the middle of where I’m most experienced in that medium) encourage seeing wider, more complete scenes than 50/55mm and certainly 105mm and beyond.

In many ways, the longer the lens, the easier it is to make beautiful images, especially close up.

The shallow depths of field possible, plus the magnification of the larger focal length compared with our “normal” view, mean it’s not hard to block out anything distracting and isolate that beautiful petal/leaf/dewdrop.

So I’ve been trying to capture complete scenes as opposed to isolated close ups with the 28 and 35mm, with, so far, quite limited success!

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Super-Takumar 28mm f/3.5 M42 lens
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Pentax K10D, Asahi Super-Takumar 28mm f/3.5 M42 lens

On the plus side, I love using these lenses, especially the 28mm which is divinely smooth to use, is plenty sharp even half a stop down at f/4, and gives very pleasing (to me) colours.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Super-Takumar 28mm f/3.5 M42 lens

I’ll continue to explore in the coming days and weeks and see what I can manage to capture.

Walking around with any camera encourages us to look at the world more closely and discovery beautiful things we might otherwise ignore and pass by. This is a crucial aspect of myself as a photographer, and of 35hunter

Using the 28mm is giving that ethos a jolt and a fresh impetus – still hunting for beauty, but in a different way, and a more challenging, and possibly ultimately a more rewarding one.

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Pentax K10D, Asahi Super-Takumar 28mm f/3.5 M42 lens

I’ve had enough positive results with the 28mm – and certainly enjoyed the new experience enough – to consider maybe selling one or two 50/55 or 135 lenses to fund something even wider – a 24mm or even 20mm lens – down the line, and refreshing and expanding my outlook all over again.

What focal length have you found most challenging, and most rewarding? 

Let us know in the comments below.

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How To Find The Lenses Best For You – Choosing Focal Length

Since discovering film cameras and vintage lenses some five summers ago, I’ve been through a fair bit of glass. 

Enough to become concerned about being a lensoholic.

What I’ve learned from this experience – and I appreciate compared with some people’s lens count this is a tiny drop in the Atlantic – is which lenses I like most and why.

I thought it might be useful to outline how this has evolved.

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Pentax K10D, Pentax-A 35-70mm f/4 lens

Regular readers might have gathered I’m not really a zoom kind of guy, and when I do use them, I treat them as a prime lens.

By using them in this way – in short, setting them at one zoom position, ie one fixed focal length, on any one photowalk – I’ve had access to a whole range of focal lengths in one lens.

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Samsung GX-1S, Tokina SD 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens

This might seem like stating the obvious, but I gather that most people use zooms by simply standing in one position, scanning around until they seem something interesting, zooming the lens until the subject fills the frame how they wish, then releasing the shutter.

Absolutely nothing wrong with this – it’s likely why zooms were originally developed, to be able to capture different shots without switching lenses.

But I’m a simple kind of guy, and just like to concentrate on one focal length at a time, and try to get to know how the world looks through that perspective. 

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Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax-A Zoom 35-70mm f/4 lens

Two zooms that have helped me with this recently are the Pentax-A 35-70mm f/4 and Tokina SD 28-70mm.

There’s little to choose between them in size, weight and performance – both will give very pleasing results.

So, with the Tokina say, using the guide numbers on the barrel I can use it as 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 70mm. 

The Tokina is plenty good enough to give pleasing results at these focal lengths. Plus it has a “macro” mode at 50mm to get really close, down to around 0.2m. This also gives one a taste of the world that close, where most 50mm lenses typically focus down to about 0.5m.

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Samsung GX-1S, Tokina SD 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens

The Pentax is even more useful, in my view. 

It might only go to 35mm wide, but also has handy markings at 40, 50, 60 and 70mm. Plus it focuses pretty close at all focal lengths, from around 0.55m at 35mm, 0.27m at 50mm and 0.25m at 70mm.

Again this gives the user a great sample of a range of focal lengths, and closer focusing than most prime lenses. 

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Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax-A Zoom 35-70mm f/4 lens

So to anyone starting out with vintage lenses, despite my love of beautiful old primes, especially Asahi Takumars, I would recommend picking up something like the Pentax or Tokina zooms featured here (both gave me change from £10) and experiment for at least a few months with one focal length at a time.

Then, when you find which you like best, maybe explore a prime lens at that focal length.

This makes a lot more sense – and will save you a lot of money and lens gathering – than buying a bunch of beautiful expensive lenses at focal lengths you never warm to. 

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Samsung GX-1S, Tokina SD 28-70mm f/3.5-4.5 lens

Affordable compact zooms – even if they don’t establish a permanent place in your photography kit – can be a fantastic step along the way in helping you find the focal lengths you enjoy seeing the world through most.

Which focal lengths do you enjoy most? How did you discover them?

Let us know in the comments below.

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Film Faves #2

A regular series of very short posts that revisit some of my favourite film photographs from the last five years since I’ve been shooting film.

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Chinon CE-4S, Pentax-M f/1.7 50mm lens, Agfa CT Precisa cross processed film, double exposed

I’m fond of this shot for a few reasons.

Mainly because it was the first shot where I figured out how to deliberately layer two compositions so one filled the other.

I’d dabbled with multiple exposures very early on with my first film camera, the Holga 120N, but it had mostly ended up as two random layers of colliding images with no relation.

I started to realise from small sections of the photos from these experiments, that if you had a strong silhouette on one layer and strong colours on the other layer, you could “fill” the silhouette with colour.

This shot is the first where I deliberate shot the two layers with this intention – and largely it worked as I’d hoped. 

I also like it because it’s one of the first times I’d cross processed film, and I was pretty delighted with the hyper real greens and blues the CT Precise gave me.

Strangely, some of the vivid colours I get with my Pentax K10D DSLR and Pentax-A series lenses remind me of cross processing Precisa, especially the greens. Like this one.

Have you ever tried double exposures, or cross processing? Please let us know in the comments below (and share links to your favourite results!)

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When Nature Reclaims

Nature is an essential element in my life. 

Tracing it back, I remember running for what seemed like hours in the woods during cross country running training around maybe 9 or 10 years old and loving it, feeling I could run for hours more, forever into the trees.

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Even earlier I recall roaming the woods behind our house, discovering the remains of pottery, bricks and glass, and wondering what used to exist there – the buildings and the lives – and how the woods had gradually taken whatever kind of dwelling was there back into the ground.

Close to my home now, the woods contain a surprising array of abandoned vehicles – a bicycle, a jeep, half a fairground’s worth of dodgems…

I’ve visited and photographed them often.

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These days, this time in the trees is as important as ever, and if anything, having a camera with me helps narrow my focus and immerse in the experience even more deeply. 

Even without intentionally setting out with specific themes or projects, after a few years or a few tens of thousands of photographs, we notice the common threads emerge organically.

For me an obvious recurring subject matter is not just the plants and trees, but more specifically how they slowly reclaim the man-made objects abandoned amongst them.

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So it feels like a good time to pull a few of these threads together and collate some of my favourite photographs of “When Nature Reclaims”.

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Also, it’s not lost on me that being in nature – especially trees – starts to reclaim me too, returning me to a place of calm and clarity and belonging, one that I can’t connect with in the same way in towns an cities.

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I expect this to be a long running theme for years to come – the need to escape to the woods and the countryside, and photographing what I find along the way.

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What themes and threads have you noticed in your photography? What are the influences behind why you’re drawn to them? 

Let us know in the comments below.

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Lensoholic – Why I Bought 100 Lenses In 50 Months (Then Sold Nearly All Of Them)

Five years into my film photography journey (and probably a decade since I first began photographing with intention, with camera phones), I have less kit than virtually any time since I began.

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I talked about the importance of narrow focus recently, and a part of this for me includes the cameras and lenses I use.

It hasn’t always been this way though.

A few months after discovering film photography via a Holga 120N my father in law gave me as a birthday present, I had started to amass a growing number of 35mm cameras.

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Once I’d sampled SLRs, the options widened vastly. So many lens mounts, so many cameras, so many lenses, so many combinations. So little time.

I pretty much dived in headlong like a kid who’d been starved of chocolate for a year then let loose in Wonka’s factory, gobbling up cameras and lenses in all directions. 

Even once I’d started to find my tastes more and gave up on the 35mm compacts after realising that the Olympus Mju pretty much does all I ever need, and even after I thought that M42 and Minolta SR were the only two mounts I would need, I was still devouring new (old) glass.

Here are some of the reasons why – 

1. Lenses are physically alluring objects. Especially vintage lenses with plenty of metal and glass and delicious smooth operation that’s testament to their fine build and quality.

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2. Each lens model potentially promises something I’ve never known before. So for example I ended up with a 58/1.4, 55/1.7, 50/1.4 and two or three 50/1.7 Minolta Rokkors from different eras that possibly performed ever so slightly differently.

3. Each lens example potentially promises something I’ve never known from other examples of that lens before. Maybe I’d only had a dud one previously, and by buying another one or two I’f eventually find a very good example and bring a whole new level of wonder to my photography.

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4. There are so many different focal lengths, and I need(ed) to find the ones best suited to me. A 45mm, 50mm and 55mm Rokkor would again give me slightly different fields of view to each other.

5. Finding a bargain lens (sometimes for only £5) then having the challenge of creating something memorable and worth sharing after such a tiny investment is a great thrill. And it encouraged me to try lenses that I might otherwise have not looked twice at. Opening another new world of possible lens options.

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6. My Sony NEX is incredibly adaptable. With that one camera I’ve used lenses in Olympus OM, M39, M42, Pentax K, Minolta SR, Konica AR, Contax/Yashica and Rollei QBM mounts. A small outlay on a £10 adapter opens a whole other world of opportunity.

7. I just really like receiving packages in the post. They’ve come from all over the country and sometimes the world – lenses from Japan, Germany and the former Soviet Union for example, each with their own curious local packaging and scent. I’m not sure why, but this is deeply satisfying, like enjoying mini Christmases throughout the year.

You can see how with all these potential reasons it’s easy to get drawn in to buying more lenses than you’ll ever need.

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But ultimately more (and more powerful) reasons to outweigh this endless chase have emerged –

1. I hate knowing I have maybe a couple of hours free time coming up then spending 30, even 15, minutes debating which lens(es) to take. I’d rather just choose and go in 30 seconds and invest the rest of my time in enjoying using the kit.

2. I hate the clutter of too many lenses and cameras, and them spilling all over my space. However beautiful individual objects may be, when there’s too many of them they just become one ugly mass.

3. I hate the cycle of buy, try, sell on eBay. Whilst it’s allow me to try some amazing stuff and ultimately build the core kit I have now, I shudder at the thought of all the time I’ve spent photographing and listing photography kit to sell only weeks after I’ve bought it, and the hours browsing online for a bargain.

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4. Too much choice makes me anxious. This is true in most parts of my life, and as a whole I try to be fairly minimalist. If you need a pair of smart shoes and only have one pair, it becomes an easy and stressless choice!

5. Constantly switching lenses means you never get to really know any one of them. It’s like some kind of speed dating experience when you might get a glint of a smile and an enticing spark, before bundling on to the next one a moment later. You’re rarely in the present moment because you’re half lost in between thinking of the moment that just passed and the potential moments that may be waiting ahead.

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6. In any one focal length – especially the most common ones like 50mm and 135mm – there is very little difference in performance. At least for my level of photography and for my needs. I could (and have) made just as pleasing photographs with a 50mm Pentax, Takumar, Yashica, Minolta, Zeiss or Konica lens. I don’t need one of each, plus all the related cameras and/or adapters.

7. I really don’t need to look much further than Takumars. I recently referred to them as the only lens you’ll ever need, and they remain the most wonderful lenses I’ve used. Why keep looking for others and wasting time I could be spending with a Takumar in my hands?

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I confess, I’m not quite over the lens buying, and there are a couple of lenses still on my wishlist.

But these days I’m down to the essentials – two film bodies, two digital, plus about a dozen lenses, mostly Takumars. The lenses fit neatly in two lens bags that in turn fit snugly and unobtrusively on two small compartments in one of my bookcases. The cameras take up another one, the entire kit all together occupying an almost invisible space in a corner, in stark contrast to spilling in every direction maybe a year ago.

I must also confess, sometimes even this relatively humble amount still at times seems far too much, and I wonder about selling all but, say, one camera and three lenses.

Maybe this would focus me further (or more narrowly) and allow me to reach a new level of satisfaction – both in using the small range of kit I had, and in the results gained from knowing that smaller range even better than I do now.

Or maybe I’ll sell everything and just use my iPhone.

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But for now I’ll rest.

Moving too vehemently in the opposite direction, and shedding possessions with abandon can lead to just as compulsive and obsessive behaviour as the hoarding.

I know some reading this might feel it’s all over analytical and there’s nothing wrong with buying and trying a range of cameras, if it doesn’t cause harm or financial destitution.

And to an extent I completely agree.

It’s just not the path I want to take anymore.

Give me my Pentax K10D and a Takumar or two and I’ll happily go out hunting for beauty for the weeks and months to come…

I’m really positive and excited about this new era in my photographic adventure.

What are your thoughts on lens buying?

Let us know in the comments below.

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The Necessity Of Narrow Focus

When I began this blog some 18 months ago, I had the intention of sharing both photography and writing.

Not just writing reviews about cameras and lenses, but writing that was interesting and thought provoking within itself, regardless of the surrounding images on the page.

I feel I’ve drifted somewhat from that original aim.

So I plan to become more focused in the writing part of 35hunter. Starting now.

A little while back I talked about five reasons I love shooting film and found that using digital cameras with the same lenses offers much of the same appeal.

The top two reasons were irrelevant to the film or digital format and were at a much deeper level – the freedom and the immersive experience.

So I got to thinking about why these two in particular were – and still are – so important to me.

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This also ties in with how I’ve tried to narrow my collection of photography kit.

When I started a Flickr album about five years back to share photos of the cameras I’ve had and used, I remember writing about how my collection would be limited to a dozen cameras and if a new one came in another would have to go out.

The peak of my “failure” in this end came in early 2016 (maybe not coincidentally very soon after starting 35hunter), where I had over 50 cameras, nearly half of which I’d not even run a roll of film through.

I’ve realised I can’t collect in the way that my fellow photographers Paulo or Jim do.

It just makes me anxious – the antithesis of the feelings I seek when I’m out in nature with a camera. (This extends to virtually all of my life – I probably had more cameras at that point than items of clothing.)

Simplifying the equipment (and the quantity of it) then is of significant importance to me.

And in truth, I would estimate that of the last 2000 photographs I’ve shot in recent weeks, about 1900 have been either with my Pentax K10D or Samsung GX-1S with vintage lenses, usually Takumars.

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For better or for worse, shooting film has almost disappeared as part of this simplification too, for now.

Returning to the other aspect of narrowing focus – to heighten that freedom and immersion I seek. 

Why are these important?

Because, as greatly blessed as my life is, I still just need time away from everything. Back amongst the trees, or in a meadow, or a tranquil rural churchyard.

As I’ve grown older (four decades in I’m still waiting for the day I think I can legitimately call myself a “grown up”!), I’ve realised what makes me stressed and anxious in the day to day.

Noise, mess, rushing.

Escaping with a camera gets me away from all of these things. 

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But it also does something more – something that without a camera I might not be able to be so conscious about and aware of.

Again it’s down to narrowing focus.

I could walk into a summer meadow and see a dozen beautiful flowers in touching distance and not know where to look first. So I might instead just walk through not seeing any of them. Not properly up close appreciating them.

But when I have a camera in my hands, I’m constantly seeking out tiny rectangular frames that make me feel joy and awe.

Looking at petals a few centimetres away through a viewfinder – that by definition blocks out everything else that isn’t within its four straight edges – heightens my senses and raises my appreciation of what’s right there in front of me.

Because it’s the only thing in front of me, the only thing in the whole world, at that precise moment. 

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This value of the viewfinder is also the reason my otherwise amazing Sony NEX has been gathering dust on a shelf since I got the two Pentax K DSLRs. I can’t get that immersion and appreciation when I’m holding a device at arms length squinting at a screen.

I’m reminded of a quote from a strange and interesting film, worth watching (well it was for me) for the performance of probably my favourite American actress, Meryl Streep. In Adaptation, Streep’s character is a journalist writing a story on a guy who’s obsessed with orchids.

In wondering why he’s so obsessed she ponders – “The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility”.

I’ve loved this idea from the moment I heard it, and realise it’s a mantra for how and why I photograph, why I need that narrow focus.

Looking through the viewfinder of a camera, focusing the lens and adjusting the aperture gives me such a thrill.

Though the equipment has evolved in the last few years, the process and the final image are much the same. This shot taken from six years ago could have been taken yesterday.

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And if I didn’t practice this approach regularly, I wouldn’t see the detail and the beauty right under my nose.

More crucially, maybe without this kind of narrow focus, I just wouldn’t be able to function day to day at all, there would be just too much chaos and mess and racing and noise, too much world to try to wrap my brain around.

Narrowing focus then, camera in hand, for me, is utterly essential. 

How about you?

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