Camera - - IN FOCUS - Paul Bur­rows, Edi­tor


pub­lished re­cently ex­tolling the longevity of hum­ble pen­cil, which con­tin­ues to be widely used de­spite the nu­mer­ous tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances de­signed to re­place it. In­vented in the 16th cen­tury, ap­par­ently around 14 bil­lion pen­cils are still man­u­fac­tured around the world each year. That’s a lot of pen­cils.

Hav­ing had some build­ing work done re­cently, I no­ticed that the car­pen­ter was never with­out one of those chunky builder’s pen­cils tucked be­hind the ear, and it’s still the tool of choice for ev­ery­body from ar­chi­tects and au­thors to de­sign­ers and pho­tog­ra­phers.

The book fea­tures the favourite pen­cils of David Bai­ley, An­nie Lei­bovitz, Na­dav Kan­der and Cindy Sher­man, but there’s a long list of other cre­atives who use this sim­ple de­vice for writ­ing or draw­ing. Au­thor William Boyd says, “The fun­da­men­tal na­ture of the pen­cil is that it is a bril­liant in­ven­tion and will al­ways be with us”. He then lists the wheel, the but­ton, the comb, the wheel­bar­row, the um­brella, the book, the fork, the nee­dle, the com­pass and the zip as also be­ing “ir­re­place­ably su­per-ef­fi­cient and thereby unim­prov­able”.

I’d add the steer­ing wheel (in its many forms), the bi­cy­cle and the dial. De­spite the many at­tempts to re­place it in cam­era de­sign, the dial re­mains the most ef­fi­cient means of mak­ing a set­ting and then be­ing able to in­stantly see what you’ve done. And it’s al­ways there – on that set­ting – when­ever you need to check it… no scrolling through menus or cy­cling through read-outs. There have been dig­i­tal cam­eras where I haven’t even been able to find the ex­po­sure com­pen­sa­tion func­tion or, when you do, mak­ing a set­ting in­volves quite a num­ber of steps. The com­pen­sa­tion dial is still un­doubt­edly the most ef­fi­cient means of quickly ad­just­ing an ex­po­sure.

Like­wise the shut­ter speed dial and aper­ture col­lar for which Fu­ji­film must be praised for main­tain­ing… pick up the X-Pro2, for ex­am­ple, and it’s im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous what’s what, with the ‘A’ po­si­tions on ei­ther con­trol, in­di­cat­ing the auto set­tings and hence the ex­po­sure mode you’re in. The first multi-mode 35mm SLRs in the late 1970s (pi­o­neered by the Canon A-1) had this sim­ple ar­range­ment and, frankly, it’s never been bet­tered. OK, so main mode di­als are nearly as ef­fec­tive, but if you then have to go off look­ing for the aper­ture and shut­ter speed ad­just­ments, you’re al­ready be­ing dis­tracted from the more im­por­tant task of cre­at­ing a pho­to­graph.

Which brings me to viewfind­ers. Where do I start? I’m (mostly) a con­vert to mir­ror­less cam­eras and elec­tronic find­ers, but I still use D-SLRs when test­ing lenses. I hadn’t used my trusty Nikon D4 for a long time, but Tam­ron’s new 100-400mm tele­zoom ar­rived in per­fect time for a try-out at the Bathurst 12 Hour race for GT cars (you can see one shot in this is­sue’s Light Work spread). Apart from the fact that a 100-400mm zoom is very well-suited to mo­tor­sport, a cou­ple of other things struck me… just how com­fort­able the D4 was with a big lens at­tached and, wait for it, just how well the op­ti­cal viewfinder works, es­pe­cially when it’s dark (the race starts at 5.45 am which is well be­fore sun­rise). Be­ing a gen­er­a­tion old, the D4 isn’t the fastest thing on the planet (al­though 11 fps is still pretty good), but the brief viewfinder black-out be­tween frames just isn’t an is­sue when you’re busy with pre­fo­cus­ing and panning. Clearly see­ing ev­ery frame in ‘real world’ bright­ness, colour and speed is why the SLR viewfinder is still a bril­liant in­ven­tion… and be­yond the tech­ni­cal as­pects, you also feel much more in touch with the sub­ject than with an EVF panel which some­how cre­ates a psy­cho­log­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion. There’s a philo­soph­i­cal el­e­ment at play here and it’s ac­tu­ally quite pow­er­ful.

William Boyd sug­gests the per­sonal con­nec­tion with the pen­cil – de­rived from child­hood, but also be­cause it is the purest im­ple­ment for hand-writ­ing – has con­trib­uted to its en­dur­ing al­lure. “Your pen­cil – in a very real way – is you.”

I still think the re­flex mir­ror is in­evitably be­com­ing an ar­chaic mech­a­nism, but there’s no ques­tion­ing that the ab­so­lute re­al­ity it de­liv­ers to the SLR viewfinder can never be matched by elec­tron­ics, least of all in the ‘be­ing there’ sense of a very di­rect in­volve­ment with what’s hap­pen­ing in front of the cam­era. Did we re­ally need to re-in­vent the SLR? In the end, prob­a­bly, but it’s never go­ing to be the same.

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