Thursday, November 18, 2010

My latest camera is the Hipstamatic for the iPhone. My first was an Ansco Shur Shot Box Camera.

My Latest Camera Has a Tiny Viewfinder. So Did My First.
Both have tiny viewfinders. I'm starting to think that's part of their appeal, both in the remembered past and in the present as well -- and that the finder that you have to squint to use is less of a bug than a feature.

I loved that simple old Ansco Shur Shot with the black stripes and the two "eyes" on the front, one for each finder -- one for taking vertical pictures, the default option, and the other for taking horizontal ones. And the only spot of color on the whole camera, the bright red shutter button, which triggered the camera's magic with a satisfying "clack." Oddly enough, the lens was behind the shutter, basically a spring-loaded metal disk with an aperture that was pulled in front of the lens to give a 1/60-sec exposure.

If you took the back off and held the camera up to the light without film and tripped the shutter, you could see the dark mysteries of photography briefly illuminated by that quick flash of light. The viewfinders, while small, were the most magical of all. Partly it was the magic of the internal mirrors reflecting the image from the "eyes" in front, which allowed you to look down to see straight ahead. But there was also the magic of the tiny, crystalline image itself, the reverse magnifying glass effect that recreated the world in miniature. An optical version of the kick we get out of looking at individual frames of movie film.

As a kid, I took my first picture with the Shur Shot. I pushed it right in the face of a goat standing at a fence waiting to be fed. I got a completely blurry image as a result, memorably teaching me that my fixed-focus lens wasn't very sharp at less than six feet. The second photo I remember was of an ice boat regatta on Lake Monona, thrilling to watch in person, reduced to a series of nearly invisible specks on the print. From that I learned about photographic scale, about how the camera sees differently from the human eye, and how it takes a telephoto lens to photograph action at a distance the way we can clearly see it with our eyes. Step by step, my trusty box camera and I taught ourselves about photography.

Paradoxically, the tiny size of the finder windows had a lot to do with how I learned photography. With modern cameras, we tend to compose our pictures in the finder -- whether in the brightline viewfinder of a rangefinder film camera, the through-the-lens image of a single lens reflex, film or digital, or more often, the LCD screen of a digital-point-and-shoot. The camera does a lot of the work, and what we see is (usually) what we get.

It was different with the Ansco. You couldn't compose the image in the viewfinder; it was too small. It was merely an approximate pointing device. You had to imagine the picture. You had to see it in your mind's eye. And that's an intensive process that creates fun and emotionally involving.

I've had more sheer fun with the Hipstamatic app than with any camera in years, which is strange, when you think about it. After all, the "Hipsta" is just a series of filters -- cutely named different "lenses" and "films" -- overlaid on the IPhone's camera system. And it takes away the iPhone's excellent full-screen finder and replaces it with a little window that's only slightly bigger than those tiny finders on the Ansco. Matter of fact it's about the size of the finder on the Brownie Hawkeye, that Populuxe design classic of the Fifties that was probably the single best selling model of the box camera era.

The Hipstamatic's filters create a variety of effects that can add graphic oomph to almost any photo. But that speaks to the results. What makes it so fun and almost addictive to actually use? I think it has a lot to do with what it shares with my old Ansco. The limitations of the finder mean you have to previsualize your image, or at least have a rough idea in your mind's eye of what you're going for. You're sure not going to find it staring back at you from the finder.

The lack of a zoom forces you to move around and approach your subject physically in a way that's started to disappear from modern photography (DSLR shooters get a similar pleasure from shooting with a prime lens).

Finally, learning to work within the limits of your equipment boosts creativity, as I found with the Ansco and the ice boats. If you want to shoot ice boats with a Hipstamatic, you'll have to get close. And if you do get close, you just might decide to shoot a detail of sunlight flashing on a boat's blade instead, or perhaps just the texture of the ice in the winter sun, and forget all about the race, and that's OK too.

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