Blue ocean, black and white film : When photography becomes incidental.

I’ve written a great deal about photography as an art form, and about its place when everyone carries a camera. A few years back I presented a conference paper, in which I argued that there’s always a role for the dedicated photographer. My argument was that the best image comes from the engaged observer – from the person who’s ready, equipped (in whatever fashion) who’s engaged with what’s happening and is ready to press the button at the exact moment for the best image.  

All of it, I think, very true. But where does that leave the photographer (in this case me) when the photography is not the whole object of the exercise, but a small part of it?  

I’ve had a chance to consider this lately, because with the lockdowns hopefully a thing of the past I’ve been able to pick up sea rowing again.  

A little background – when people think about rowing they normally think in terms of the rowing you see at the Olympics, or between Universities. What you see there is river rowing – long, graceful, ultra-light racing hulls on dead-flat rivers. Sea rowing is a little different, for the obvious reason that it takes place on the sea. As a result the boats are heavier, built with an eye toward stability and positive buoyancy. And with waves constantly moving past you, and the elements playing a bigger role, rowing them is a different experience as well – it’s always an interesting moment when you put your oar in the water to begin the stroke, only to discover that the sea is a foot lower than it was on the last stroke as the boat rides over the waves.  

Boats launching for the club’s 2022 Regatta – RNLI providing safety cover.

As a way to keep fit it’s great – the wind, the tides, the currents all ensure that no two sessions will be the same. It’s exercising your heart and lungs, as well as muscles in your legs, arms, back and core. And the view’s nice – summer on the west coast of Wales looks good from this angle.  

Wallog, North of Aberystwyth, on a calm evening.

Which is why I brought the camera along.  

So – let’s talk equipment for a moment here. First part – the boat.  

Celtic Longboat in harbour.

The boat is a Celtic Longboat – see the picture. The club has several, all built to the same design by the same yard. The Celtic Longboat was created around twenty years ago as a one-design racing class, inspired by the traditional longboat. She’s twenty four feet long, and is made out of fiberglass. Crew consists of four rowers, each with one oar, plus the cox, and there’s space in the bow for a passenger if required. They’re pretty, and they’re very seaworthy – they’re used in the Celtic Challenge when crews row them across the Irish Sea from Arklow in County Wicklow on the East Coast of Ireland, to Aberystwyth on the West Coast of Wales.  

The camera – nothing special. Back in 2020, when I started teaching photography for undergrads, I started playing with different kinds of cameras so that I’d be able to advise people using various types. My dad had a charity shop find Pentax ME Super, which he was isolating from his other cameras due to a slight case of fungus in the lens (occupational hazard for camera lenses). This ended up becoming my walking around camera – the one which lives in my non-camera rucksack, for use when I’m not carrying the whole back of tricks. This made it the perfect candidate for use in an open boat on an unpredictable stretch of water – I’ll happy use it where I’d think twice about taking one of my Nikons. I invested in a roll-top waterproof bag for it. 

The challenges of marine photography? 

Well, nothing ever stays still. The moment the boat comes off the launch trolley and into the water, she goes from being 160kg of fiberglass to being a living thing in a constantly changing element. The wind, the waves, the tide, the current going in and out of the harbour, it’s all working on the boat all of the time. Generally there’s not enough movement to effect a brisk shutter speed, but it’s worth bearing in mind.  

It’s wet (funny that).  

Longboat and crew, with view of the approaching weather.

The boats are stable and they’re seaworthy, but they’re not large and every so often waves break around us, and the Cox winds up grabbing the pump handle. It’s part of the fun – row fast enough and you can catch waves like a surfboard, and that’s exhilarating when it’s happening with this much force and mass. A 160kg boat, plus five crew. Let’s say that a men’s rowing team average 85kg each (I’m 82kg and on the small side) and you’ve got a little under 600kg which the ocean has decided to pick up and throw. But cameras don’t appreciate salt water, and they especially don’t like sitting in it at the bottom of the boat. So, the waterproof bag, and the extra time spent unpacking and then securing it.  

It’s bright.  

Strong sunlight on a reflective surface – a potentially challenging environment for photography.

Really bright. On a sunny day (and we’ve had a few lately) the sun is both pouring down from the heavens and then reflecting straight back up from the surface of the water. The camera’s light meter gave me a true reading, but it’s always a high one – somewhere in the region of f16 or 22 and a 500th to a 1000th of a second on a brightish day. This wasn’t helped by my choice of film. By habit, I tend to load my everyday camera with 400 speed film – normally Ilford HP5+, although I’ve used Fomapan 400 recently as well. They both have the advantage of flexibility – they’ll work pretty well under a wide range of conditions, and when a roll of film can often be shot over the course of weeks, then that’s what you’ll get. But in this specific case, the sensitivity of the film coupled with the bright conditions meant that it was always going to be high apertures and shutter speeds – by necessity not choice. Looking ahead, I’ll be revisiting that – Ilford FP4 or similar (which I’ve used with success in my medium format work) will likely be coming into play to give some flexibility in aperture, and therefore in depth of field.  

Regatta Day, July 2022.

And – most crucially – time and opportunity. Because I’m not there to take photographs, I’m there to pull on a six foot carbon fiber oar, and to do it in time with three other people. Every so often there’s a break, and while everyone else is drinking water, shedding layers and etc I unsnap the top of the bag, unroll it, haul out the camera, open the ever-ready case (and why don’t we have those anymore?) and see what I can get. Compose, focus, meter – it’s all got to be done quickly, the cox wants you back underway. No time for a second shot, certainly none to consider changing lenses, even if I was minded to do so with this much salt flying around. I’ve had some practice at this – a lot of my documentary work happens in situations which are fast moving and time critical. But in those situations, I’m there to take pictures – camera in hands, and photographer’s eye fully engaged. It comes back to what I said at the beginning – photography being incidental.  

Crew and Ocean – Harbour Lighthouse visible at centre.

Equipment comes into it – as long as the pictures are an incidental part of this, I’ll stick with a camera that’s of no great value (saltwater and cameras don’t get along terribly well), so I’ve kept using the Pentax ME Super. I’d love to try a Nikonos – a real, built for the job, underwater 35mm camera – but they’re not cheap, and second hand kit that’s often been used for this sort of caper can be an risky proposition. There’s also the issue that the Nikonos remains waterproof through the use of a bewildering number of o-rings, the majority of them not user servicable, and there aren’t too many places left which service them. And if you’re using the camera underwater, then those o-rings need replacing once a year. If that’s not happening – well it’s probably fine to use in the boat, but paying the premium for an underwater camera which can’t be used underwater seems a little odd. If the day ever comes when I can afford to ship my cameras to the far ends of the earth for annual servicing then I’ll get one… 

Longboats launching, seen from my seat in boat three – taken in haste as we shoved off next.

 I wouldn’t mind trying something digital either. Here the options are basic – either a waterproof housing for a DSLR (expensive, very) or an action oriented point and click – Olympus make some good candidates, but I’m leery of them because of the lack of viewfinder. As I’ve noted above, we’re dealing with a bright, high glare environment, and trying to compose pictures on an LCD screen under those circumstances isn’t ideal.  

Returning to harbour from a practice session. Cox is standing in stern of the boat.

Film for the moment then. More fun anyway. I did invest in another lens – the ME Super came with it’s standard 50mm prime, which I like very much as a lens. Unfortunately when you’re trying to capture something that’s happening in a small boat, you need a wider angle. So I bought a 28mm lens – does the job nicely. And then a seal surfaces thirty yards off the bow, secure in the knowledge that you can’t take a decent picture of him….. 

And the pictures? See for yourself. They’re snapshots more than anything, hastily composed on grainy film through a lens that gives away optical performance to newer and more expensive options. But I took them when I might not have, and captured moments that would have gone unrecorded. They’re not artworks, but as with so many things in photography, the immediacy and the mood of what’s recorded can often override the image quality.  

The first boat of three launches in background, while crews prep for a training session.

That’s a statement that came to light some years ago, when I was in one of the seminars of my masters degree course. The question came up of what was important in artwork – was it the intent, the technique, the final quality? Unusually I put quality the last – unusual in that everyone else in the group thought otherwise. I was the only photographer in the room. My reasoning was that some of the best photographs of all time have been technically very average – the important thing is what they’re of (you can tell that’s an argument made by a documentary photographer not a fine art one…). The example I picked was Robert Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings. Capa took these pictures on the day in 1944 that the allies landed in Normandy. They’re grainy, they’re blurry, the focus is all over the place, but none of that matters. The immediacy of the subject matter is so strong that the technical flaws only serve to put you in the mind of the man who took them.  

Another calm evening.

I’d like to be clear that I’m not comparing my images, or the issues in taking them, to Capa’s! But the fact remains that I find a pictures content more effective than its purely technical strengths. I’d like an image to have both, but I’ll settle for one or the other – it’s for this reason that I’ll go many interesting places and take many interesting pictures, but I doubt I’ll ever exhibit at the Tate.  

Rowers waiting to bring the boats ashore.

To sum up –  

  • Taking photos on the fly is often not ideal. 
  • It is the opinion of this photographer that a technically questionable picture of something interesting trumps a technically perfect image of something which isn’t.  
  • The best camera is the one you have with you. 
  • If an incidental picture is the only one that’ll be taken, then it’s better than the alternative.  

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