Camera Obscura


While I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago, my digital SLR stopped working. One minute it was fine, the next the digital display was nothing but a pattern of black jagged lines on a white background. Sort of like an Apple ad. The camera still worked in a way, it would click and record data but I couldn’t see what I was taking right away. It was just like the old days, when you couldn’t see your pictures until after they were developed.

How retro. Of course the real problem was that I couldn’t meaningfully change the settings, turn the flash on or off, change the film speed and so on. Most frustrating. I was left with a couple of android smart phones (more useful sometimes as cameras than as actual talking devices) and a point and shoot digital. They did an okay job for some things — basically anything more than two feet and less than ten feet away. After that, the resolution and focusing is a bit off.

I also happened to have my forty year old Olympus OM-1 and a couple of rolls of film. I’ve been hauling this baby around for years. It was the first of the real light weight SLRs brought out in the seventies. Very low shutter vibration, easy to change lenses (actually easier than my brand-new Sony). Very nice lens resolution as well. But of course, it costs a lot of money to operate — about 50 cents a picture — so you have to approach picture taking in an entirely different way.

No more of just hold it up and shoot and shoot and shoot. Never mind if the picture is properly framed or composed, never mind if the light or exposure are right. If this one doesn’t work, I can always take another. And with instant feedback, I know right away whether I have to.

As a result, you spend your whole life looking at the world through the lens or on the screen of a camera. With film, you have to look at the world, really stare at it; you have to discern the patterns of surprise or beauty. You have to know the world before you can film it.

A lesson learned — the high tech digital camera is the real camera obscura, hiding the truth of things behind instant gratification. Am I now determined to give up my digital life for a more analog one, revert to film instead of pixels? Not bloody likely. Digital is too convenient, it is too cheap. But that doesn’t mean it has to cheapen my experience.

What I’ve actually decided to do — after I get that expensive display replaced or, just as likely, buy a brand new digital (that’s right it is almost as cheap to buy a new one as fix an old one) — I’ll treat the world as it deserves to be treated. With observation and thought and consideration of what it is I’m actually seeing.

And that’s ten minutes.


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