REINVENTING THE WHEEL?
AN INTERESTING LITTLE BOOK WAS
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.