In November, I got a new digital camera.

The sad thing is, I don’t know how to use it yet.

I need to throw away most of my knowledge and think differently. I’m only 32 years old - not old enough to get completely jaded (because everyone needs a little bit of jadedness every now and then, but no more), and certainly not old enough to be too hidebound how to learn how to work these newfangled thingies (because, hey, I’ve seen old people learn new stuff).

So I decided to learn. Photography is not that hard.

I think it’s a good idea to just ramble a bit on how I got here, because this is also a good opportunity to dig through a pile of photos.

So: Cameras! Photo management! Other epic stuff!

A Brief History of Cameras

My new camera is an Olympus T-100.

Olympus T-100

I had a very simple criterion for buying the new camera: Less than 100€. Actual methodology: Look at the Sony 200€ range, note the features, pick a competitor with the exact same features for 80€ and I can probably get a camera that takes better pictures, lasts twice as long in heavy use, won’t send my credit card data straight to hell and call my sister names. The camera also seems to output respectable 3968x2976 images (or 11.8 megapixels, as the stupid expression goes these days), which is obviously more than what my previous cameras could do.

But I picked an Olympus because I had used an Olympus before. In fact, my first very own 35mm camera was an Olympus Trip Junior. Couldn’t find it (probably borrowed it to my mother a grand number of years back and I have no idea where she put it and didn’t remember to ask), so here’s a blurry old archive photo on a gaudy carpet:

Olympus Trip Junior

It was nice to see that the new camera still has a nice white-text-on-black look.

And that photo was obviously taken with another camera – my mother’s Edixa Prismat, which I borrowed.

Edixa Prismat (1)

It’s a full frigging SLR. This thing definitely set my standards on cameras.

This camera wasn’t made in just any Germany. It was made in West Germany. Now, when West Germans (and, indeed, present-day Germans) do something, they just do stuff badassily. They don’t fuck around. Hence, they named the camera factory “Wirgin”.

Wirgin, West Germany

…okay, bad pun. *ahem* While going through my camera stuff to take pictures of this wonderful gear, I ran across a stark reminder of just how little I’ve been doing film photography. I found an actual unexposed roll of film - with an expiration date of 12/2008. Being a hopeless geek, I think I have unused condoms with expiration dates older than that somewhere…

(…okay, maybe it’s not such a good idea to try to enhance the edginess of the blog. Back to my regularly scheduled humour.)

My previous digital camera was my father’s old Canon PowerShot A20. It has some good features, such as 7.5x zoom instead of the T-100’s 3x, but it has a relatively small 1600x1200 picture size. Or, as the feebles say, 2.1 megapixels. Also, it ran on batteries. Also, it used CompactFlash cards, which aren’t as easy to come by these days as SD cards, which are used by just about everything.

Canon PowerShot a20

Automatics and Ease

The first problem I ran into with the T-100 was… well… I suppose a picture is worth a thousand words:

Goddamn Jerk!

I was intrigued by the T-100 because it seemed like it could take pictures in low-light conditions, and the Canon was not very good at that. Actually, the Canon never told me how long exposures it was even using. However, in normal lighting conditions, if I told it to just snap a picture with no flash, it would actually do what I asked it to do.

Snap. A grand piano fed through a CCD array. Results.

Grrrrrrrrrand Piano

On the Edixa Prismat, the flash didn’t always work properly, so I got used to taking good enough pictures in low-light conditions. It was just a matter of cranking open the aperture. Here’s what Finland looked like before we had to worry about global warming, about ten years ago:

Iciclated

(…nowadays, we get really weird winters that are either super severe or super lame. We get no icicles. Icicles are cool. Can we get icicles again?)

The problem lies in the automatics.

Like all modern complicated systems, cameras have to be simplified to meet the needs of average users. Which is to say, if I press a button without much thinking of what I want, I get decent enough results.

Being a programmer, this is the sort of usability issues that I can relate to. You want to make things easy enough for the users so that the software usually does the least surprising thing when the user has no idea what specific things they’re supposed to be doing.

The Canon had sensible automatics - it didn’t tell me a thing, it just did its magic. The Trip Junior had sensible automatics - to wit, it only had a few modes in which to operate, and everything was pretty much fixed. The main point is that the designers had made some decisions for the user, much like how you need to make some decisions for inexperienced users of computer software.

I’m not sure what exactly is throwing off the T-100’s automatics. I’m pretty sure its automatics are going haywire because I disabled flash. I made an expert choice - well, it’s not really even an expert choice, is it? - and unfortunately the automatics aren’t coping.

This camera is weird

Here’s a small photography tip: All you need is enough light, not more. Flash can cause excess shadowing and it can overexpose the foreground. It’s pretty easy to see when flash is needed and when it is not, and sometimes when the camera light sensors tell it’s too dark and engage automatic flash, they’re sometimes wrong. Plenty enough light.

It’s weird. If I had pointed the Canon at the bench, I’d have seen droplets. The Olympus decides to use a ridiculously long exposure of 1/4 seconds, and the end result is a bit jittery and blurry. It’s quite hard to keep the camera perfectly still when my hands are freezing.

Not quite moody, eh?

Not very moody, is it? You can, however, take quite moody photos without flash in semi-crappy lighting conditions. Behold! In the wise and ancient results from Edixa Prismat, from years gone by:

Properly moody

Still, I don’t mind ridiculously long exposures on principle. The Canon certainly couldn’t do long exposures worth a damn.

The camera has two major controls to tell what it should do: exposure control and ISO setting. I noticed that if I tweak the exposure control upward, I can actually get awesome photos in very low light. Heck, sometimes I just took a snap and the thing completely surprised me.

Night wraps light in its loom...

The above had minor colour adjustments and sharpening in GIMP, but otherwise that thing is straight off the camera. Holy damn.

A less patient person might be fed up with automatics that don’t work too easily. Still, I didn’t give any serious consideration to taking the camera back to shop. I obviously figured that most of this is just my own dumbness. And, of course, I had gotten some rare luck-outs that totally proved to me the camera does work, like the night photo above.

With a bit of tweaking, I can now get pretty good photos without messing with the flash.

Awesome sunset

If you want an easy comparison, take a look at a sunset in winter 2000-2001, from the Edixa…

Sunset, winter 2001

…and another sunset in winter 2011-2012, from the T-100.

Sunset, winter 2011

Don’t know about you, but to me, it looks pretty much just as awesome.

But not quite awesome enough for a final proof. I got my final proof that this camera is worth fighting against while writing this article.

When sifting through the stuff I had photographed in the past few months, I ran across an interesting photo that depicted my GNOME 3 install process. (Warning: I already said “cheese”. You may not have done so.)

What.

I zoomed in. My mind was blown.

Seriously. What.

The T-100 had captured something I had not noticed or seen. Specifically, the fact that the IBM character set is drawn this way. The fact that the text mode still looks like this in a computer built ca. 2005.

Holy damn.

Resolution. We have it. Ye olde Canon didn’t.

Resolutions

As said, I like the 3968x2976 output from the T-100, which is more than the 1600x1200 from the Canon. Canon’s photos, even at the highest quality setting, looked significantly more blurry than film photography.

But the strange thing is, the T-100 is really giving me a huge shake on my digital photography scepticism. I was always under impression that digital photography is rarely as good as film photography - but it seems that the digital cameras do produce better pics than 35mm. This is pretty loopy.

One of the big reasons I wanted to move away from Edixa Prismat was that it produced somewhat uneven results.

Uneven light

The picture seems darker on the edges. It’s easier seen if you look at the combined panorama.

Lake panorama, 2003

This was taken in summer 2003 in Pudasjärvi (…if my vague recollections of the locales is correct). Now take a look at my summer 2011 panorama, taken with the Canon. There is no unevenness in the edges. (Click for a full version.)

Lake panorama, 2011

But the funny thing is, I scanned the Edixa Prismat photos at the resulution that approaches the Canon resolution, and the end results are actually blurrier than the Canon shots. Of course, since 35mm doesn’t have grid-based granularity, it’s difficult to say what resolution it has, but based on these random anecdotal tests, I think the T-100 exceeds the 35mm film resolution.

Controls

As I mentioned, my T-100 has a few controls: exposure control and ISO rating.

My problems tend to stem from the fact that I’m going from one set of controls to another set of controls. This is a surprisingly big problem. I’m a computer geek, so I’m already gotten used to getting grips of yet another weird interface - but I’ve rarely had to face the problem in other fields. Especially not in photography. I always figured photography was just an old hat that didn’t need changing, because everyone can learn the peculiarities over time.

Edixa Prismat parts

The old controls were intuitive enough. We have (1) the lens which is used for focusing. You peer through the viewfinder and turn the outermost lens ring around until whatever you want in focus is in focus. The gauge shows how far the object is, in case you care about such things, or you can crank it all the way to the other end until it’s focused on infinity (tech speak for “the lensmaker ran out of fingers and everything farther than the maximum indicated is in focus”). The second ring is the f-stops or aperture: Basically, how much light you let on the film. It can be locked so that it always has some minimum level that is appropriate for the film type and what is required for flash photography: for that, you can just look at the (2) handy reference in the top of the flash. Finally, you need to choose the (3) length of exposure. 1/30 or 1/60 is good for normal shots, and higher values (1/125, 1/500, 1/1000) should be used depending on how much you want to freeze the movement. There’s also a lever for longer exposures: 2 seconds, 4 seconds, 8 seconds. And, of course, there’s the “B” setting that leaves the shutter open as long as you keep the button down. Finally, (4) there’s a reminder of what type of film you’ve loaded. Note the lack of automatic deduction. You actually have to crank that yourself, and it has zero effect on anything.

It’s kind of annoying that the B mode is considered an advanced feature. Some digital cameras have it, too. Not this. Damn. But at least the T-100 is capable of 2 second exposures which, as said, gives pretty cool results in low light.

I never quite got hang of some of the little details, though. I think you’re supposed to hook up the flash to the lower socket and set the exposure to 1/30 seconds.

Edixa Prismat (2)

You may have noticed something: The controls for this highly professional (and probably expensive for the time) setup aren’t that complicated. There’s a few more fine points I didn’t explain how to load the film to the camera, how to wind it back, and, of course, that there’s a lock switch on the shutter button… Oh, and that there is a shutter button in the first place. You know, the one that you press to take a picture.

…come to think of it, I’ve been photographing all my life and I have no idea what’s the official English term for the shutter button. I just looked at the T-100’s manual and it says “shutter button”. Guess I’m in proper mood for guessing terms correctly! Wikipedia says “shutter release button” is an older term from the era when shutters were actually released. …it fascinates me that photography has this intricate jargon for even the most mundate things. …*ahem* much unlike we in the computer world.

The main point is that you need to make five major choices when you take a picture on a full-mechanical SLR: focus, aperture, and shutter speed. In layman terms: pick the object that you don’t want to be blurry. Take a good guess on how bright the day is and how bright you want the resulting picture to be. Finally, choose how blurry you want the moving objects to be, or if you want ridiculously long exposures because there’s no good light sources.

The fourth choice is what film to load. It’s either ISO 100 or 400, and around these parts, it’s chosen based on what time of the year it is. 400 for winter, 100 for summer. 400 lets you take photos in a bit less light, but that’s about all it offers. Of course, you can’t change the film type on willy-nilly, for all intents and purposes you shoot your 24-and-some photos and then you can load another one. The fifth choice is flash - which will affect the first three.

That’s all you need to choose.

And since the T-100 only has auto-focus, you’re presented the same choices here, save the focusing bit. In a whole different way.

You have to choose whether to use flash, and what apeture and shutter speed you get. But the confusing thing is that you’re given only one “exposure control” choice… and a choice of “equivalent” film speed.

That’s the counterintuitive part. In order to make the camera pick a shutter speed, I need to change the film speed and exposure setting. Speedier film translates to shorter shutter speeds. And here I had coddled myself to thinking that I can only shoot a rollful of film at a time.

But that’s not true anymore, is it?

...he said.

(…I thought I wanted to add a photograph of a thoughtful pause.)

I guess the only failure of this camera is that it doesn’t always guess the film speed correctly for me and arrives at too low shutter speed.

I need to take one final jab at Sony, though. One of the recent TV commercials said that in one of the new models, “automated background blurring” was a feature.

Oooh! Focal blurring! Because, you know, most digital cameras can’t do focal blurring. Here’s what the fully mechanical ye olde film SLR can do:

Some flowers, or something like that

Looks pretty cool, doesn’t it? Um, except the T-100 can almost do the same. Except it’s the middle of the winter, and in the middle of the night to boot, so I can’t find any flowers. Instead, I decided to take a picture of some manly objects.

Manly objects of utter manliness

Foreground blurry, background blurry, pencil sharpener in sharp focus. …I should quit taking photos in the wee hours, probably…

The T-100 also has presets, but they’re not particularly informative, at least until I can actually figure out what situations they work in. For example, here’s the “Fireworks” setting. Can’t do damn about the trees that get in the way. (Yeah, yeah, I’m getting jaded about holidays. To hell with New Years!)

Overrated 2012 fireworks

Yet, there’s some strange mushiness in my brain that tells me that since the presets are there, they bloody well ought to be used. Maybe I’m just a sucker for this kind of things. I don’t know - maybe I’m just weird.

Metadata and Management

If there’s one thing digital photography is much better at than film, it’s metadata. I’m a metadata geek. When stuff is filed properly, I’m a happy man.

And SLRs from 1970s don’t add dates to photos, dammit.

And, of course, there are moments when even I get confused. Here’s what I could add to one of the rolls:

I kept adding metadata to photos before it was cool

“P00014. Damn awesome landscapes. Winter 2000-2001? Or 2001-2002? No idea. Edixa.”

(I just added a note saying I believe the former to be correct.)

The code is used to find the bag of positives in the big old cardboard box. And no, I have no idea what the “P” stood for. “Positives”, maybe? …why I would be using that for negatives is not clear.

The same film numbers are then used in photo envelopes, which are neatly stacked in a cardboard box - the epic prosumer choice of photography management of yesteryear, or some other rubbish like that.

Filing system, maybe?

The annoying thing, my image description qualities are a bit weak. I really should have gone and made meticulous notes on what the hell I was doing when I took the photos - now all I have are random memories.

Nowadays, if I want to take photos, I usually just look at the picture metadata to see when it was taken. Then I look at what I babbled in identi.ca or twitter or whatever to see if there was some kind of a correlation of where the hell I was or what the hell I was doing. Of course, I’m not much into social media in travels anyway and tend to only ramble about the events I attend long after the fact, so that may not be that much of a use.

But the metadata in the film doesn’t afford that. The film itself can only tell the brand, oftentimes ISO rating, frame numbers, and obviously whether it’s colour or black-and-white. Not camera brand, not the time frame, and no other filing information.

Modern digital cameras store all this in Exif tags, which makes life a lot easier. It allows me to use awesome photo management software like Shotwell, which is like the cardboard box, only cheaper. It can easily store all of the photographs of mine that should never, ever be published, and store all sorts of pertinent metadata that should also never be consulted, because it’s totally irrelevant.

Shotwell

Wishes of the future

Shotwell isn’t terribly good at organising scanned photos, however. Heck, it isn’t terribly good at organising digital photos from pre-Exif era, but a little bit of tweaking with exiftool took care of that. Now I have quite a few digital photos in proper order - including some photos that prove that I have done terrible things in my day.

For I have done terrible things, and my soul is black as the night

The big problem with pre-digital era is the lack of accurate dates, as the metadata example shows. Years ago I wrote a proposal for specifying “vague dates” in F-Spot, though the same thing should probably be applicable in other pieces of software.

Currently, Shotwell (and F-Spot) require image date and time stamps to be specified precisely. However, most of the couple of centuries we’ve been able to photograph things, we haven’t usually stored the exact dates and times the photographs were taken.

Heck, my sister had an APS camera that added time to the photos (and, with a bit of fiddling, she could add the text “Congratulations!” to the photos too. Very inexplicable.) As I recall, the timestamp was up to the precision of minutes. This was in the early 2000s, for crying out loud.

So how do you specify the date if, say, you took a photo in (a completely random example) 2002-12-25 12:34? You can’t store that date. You probably end up storing the date as “2002-12-25 12:34:00”.

If the software would support fuzzy dates, it would be saved as “2002-12-25 12:34”. The sofware would just accept it would have been taken at some time that minute (between 12:34:00 and 12:34:59). Whereas specifying the time as 12:34:00 is ambiguous: To computers and humans, it tells that the photo was taken that very instant, or to humans, it could mean it was taken sometime that minute, depending if they can read the minds of the people who filed the photographs correctly.

The proposal wasn’t implemented in F-Spot, because the developers said it’s not expressable in common metadata formats. This is true, and this is also kind of annoying; the metadata formats we currently use were built to handle very specific and very accurate cases that unfortunately seem to cover just enough use cases that people don’t bother demanding for things that actually work. Perhaps there should be a metadata format and a way of specifying the dates that accomodated this sort of date stamps.

Perhaps that rant would be better handled some other day, though.