Why I used one camera, one lens, one film for five months

Nov 6, 2020

Andrew Blowers

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Why I used one camera, one lens, one film for five months

Nov 6, 2020

Andrew Blowers

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Photography is close to impossible to do without a camera, so why do so many of us both love and hate the equipment side of things? For me the hate comes down to distraction – and a little bit of the love as well.

I currently have a paired back collection of cameras and lenses – but anytime I dual-wield, or really carry anything other than one camera with one lens, distraction creeps in.

I start to question what I am going to use for the shot, rather than adapting to the situation. I’ll frame with a 50mm, then maybe try a 35mm, maybe even regret not having a 90mm – by the time I have done that, I’ve missed the shot. 

The equipment in my case is not to blame. It is me. This is why I spend 90% of my time with just my Leica M4-P (despite its lack of popularity with collectors, it is a very fine camera) and a 50mm f2. I find that this pair is my enabler of making photos. I’ve spent enough time with it now that I almost know exactly when to raise the camera and how to focus at 2m without looking. I can also adjust shutter speed and aperture by feeling the clicks meaning I can have a conversation with a subject and maintain that engagement without breaking eye contact.

The M4-P is a fully mechanical meterless M, meaning no batteries to die mid-shoot. I know that when I press that shutter release, a photo will be captured. The 50mm f2 is very small, and the performance is stellar. I really cannot think of any 50 I would rather own on any other system. Perfect for being out with it for 18 hour days and walking 20+ miles on occasion. 

I’m a die-hard Ilford HP5+ user, with a preference to bulk load. I have so far shot around 120m of it this year – literally the only film to have been in my M4-P this year too, aside from one roll of BWXX. Shooting a camera without a meter has given me a few frames where my eye has misjudged the light (coming off the tube and forgetting to adjust the camera), and other times after extended shoots I forget to adjust settings when the lighting changes. However HP5+ has always forgiven me – I’ve had usable results overdeveloped by 5-6 stops, so using this film comes with a large safety net. 

HP5+ also pushes fantastically to 3200 – I actually prefer to shoot HP5+ at 3200 over Delta 3200 or Kodak TMax P3200. I recently gave all my Delta and P3200 to a fellow photographer as I came to the conclusion I simply don’t want to shoot it. As HP5+ emulsion pushes so well, it is ideally suited to my preference for no faster than an f2 lens – although hand-holding a Leica M at half a second is absolutely usable, provided I haven’t consumed too much caffeine prior to shooting… 

Why does all this matter? Well, when embarking on a project, consistency is key. I want my images to have a coherent look, beyond what my eye offers through composition. 

Changing the focal length would result in different compositional techniques. 

Changing the film, or development processes would introduce different looks too, in the contrast and grain. 

Using a different body would offer indecisiveness, and unfamiliarity in time pressured environments resulting in missing shots. 

If I have colour images in a mostly monochromatic project it would be jarring to the viewer, changing format or aspect ratios between 35mm and medium format would further this. 

Combined, choosing to shoot in a consistent way, I am allowed only one thing to focus on – the story. My gear stays the same, it’s literally everything else that changes – what’s in front of me and my lens, changes. 

To me, this is the power of photography: to make a picture that truly describes, it’s what cameras do. They describe a time and a place, and inside those times and places they can describe feelings and emotions. By using one camera, one lens and one film I can simplify my workflow so I can be out in any environment and do one thing – make pictures. This is how I apply myself every day, on the longest-term project any of us can work on: the everyday documentation of our lives. However sometimes chapters of life lend themselves to closer scrutiny, and that’s where I found myself over the summer, and throughout the rest of 2020, as I watched my country England, along with the rest of the world, stagger as it was engulfed by a pandemic, followed by racial and class tensions, political turmoil, and mass social unrest. 

This is the project I have been applying myself to over the last few months, and so far have worked to make my slice of the story as interesting as possible. Along with four other photographers, all working on film, we have collaborated on a story about the most upside-down summer of our lifetimes, and have printed it as a zine, titled BARDO: Summer of ‘20. This contains images shot from April to August 2020, and is sequenced as a flowing series of all four contributors, rather than being broken between our egos. 

When working as a group in this way, my ability to concentrate on what I was doing, and not be distracted by anyone else was a huge asset. My gear was consistent, so the elements of the story I was able to tell contained that consistency as well. The sequenced images did not suffer from any one of us working slightly different from the others because what we all valued was shared: the story. Just because some of the images were made at 300mm or 24mm doesn’t mean they can’t coexist alongside each other, but the consistency within my own images was really helpful when it came to the elements of the story I was able to offer.

About the Author

Andrew Blowers is a 35mm film photographer, a contributor of BARDO zine, and bassist. You can find out more about BARDO on their website, and see more of Andrew’s work on his Instagram.

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14 responses to “Why I used one camera, one lens, one film for five months”

  1. Tim Bailey Avatar
    Tim Bailey

    If you could one camera one lens what would they be

  2. Lars Chr Widsteen Avatar
    Lars Chr Widsteen

    Holy fuck. What a great capture!!!

  3. anthony marsh Avatar
    anthony marsh

    “Photography is close to impossible to do without a camera”? BRILLIANT!

    1. Justin Case Avatar
      Justin Case

      You can take photos without a camera.

      1. Andrew Blowers Avatar
        Andrew Blowers

        To be fair, people have made photographs with shipping containers…

        1. Justin Case Avatar
          Justin Case

          You’ve got me wondering, if you use a shipping container as a camera obscura and record the projected image onto light sensitive paper, does the entire container arrangement classify as a camera?

          1. Andrew Blowers Avatar
            Andrew Blowers

            I guess so?

          2. JP dJ Avatar
            JP dJ

            The Latin word “camera” just means room – as in a space enclosed by walls and ceiling (6 planes). The “camera obscura” (dark room) principle and “pinhole lens” was already known to the old Greek and Romans.
            Landscape painters in North-West Europe have used tents as pinhole camera to create outlines of landscapes on canvas that they would fill in later, in their studio.
            More elaborate “camera obscura” contraptions got used e.g. in the Dutch painting Golden Age of Vermeer, who is said to have used a camera obscura with lens and mirror to draw outlines of his subject, thus working much faster than applying the rules and tools of formal perspective drawing – I got taught these rules and tools of perspective drawing in secondary school and copying an image of a camera onscur is incredibly fast in comparison ;)
            As to size – that does not change the definition. In the 1800s somebody had this railway trailer size camera for landscape and other shots. That is still a “camera”.
            Yes, these comments have a funny side, I recognize that, but the history makes them hysterical.

  4. Justin Case Avatar
    Justin Case

    Good article. Working with just the prime lens that’s on the camera when out doing street photography is liberating and the only way to go. But no built in metering. That’s a bit wild.

  5. Reiner Venegas Avatar
    Reiner Venegas

    Me and my leica, they don’t publish you’re article unless you shoot with one, so detached from the average photographer.

    1. Andrew Blowers Avatar
      Andrew Blowers

      Hi mate, a colleague of mine has written about using a Nikon F4 with a standard AF 50mm for protest work. Link here: https://petapixel.com/2019/09/21/using-a-31-year-old-slr-for-fast-paced-photojournalism/

      Leica cameras are just tools. Mine is dinged as has a reminder with profanity stuck to the back. I’d also seriously consider myself an average photographer, I’m not special at all, however I just really enjoy making images.

  6. Rey Avatar

    Im using one device, one lens almost all the time. My Phone.

    1. Justin Case Avatar
      Justin Case

      We’ve all got one of those. But it’s not the same experience that’s being talked about here. Is it.

  7. JP dJ Avatar
    JP dJ

    This is basically how people used to start in photography, before digital. Using one lens teaches what that one lens can do and teaches how to work with its limitation if it’s the only one you have (with you). It teaches a fundamental understanding of perspective, faster than zoomlenses or a bag full of kit.
    The story also illustrates that an f/2 lens on a mirrorless camera (that is what the Leica M4 is) is not a problem as you have the parallax viewfinder with rangefinder that works well still when an SLR cannot cut it any more. And it illustrates that 3200 ISO is a very good sensitivity – if you need more you have to wonder what you are doing, why.
    As film does not have “sensor problems” the tiny 50mm lens with its Gaussian design is ideal for optical top performance. It not going beyond f/2 keeps generation of chromatic aberration low in the first half of the lens design, so there is little to compensate in the second half (Summicron-M).
    Film can deal with the fan-out at the wide-angle rear end of that lens, but a naked sensor cannot deal with that. This is why Leica started with digital Ms at APS-C format which avoids that issue. Later they interbred the design of sensors’ colour anti-aliasing glass filter layer (colour AA – I call that the “fuzzy layer”) with the design of a Fresnel lens with their average old lens design in mind. That way, each photosite in the sensor has its own little lens looking at the average Leica main lens’s nodal point so as to not suffer from the angle-of-incidence problem.

    I had hoped mirrorless digital to defeat the need for retrofocus lenses, but nothing is farther from the reality and we now see elaborate versions of retrofocus lens designs that deal with chromatic aberration, distortion, focus breathing, good bokeh and excellent consistency of character at the same time (as in the new Nikon Z/S lenses that I use). The addition of that many elements was impossible in the past when glare could not be prevented enough and not enough lens element designs could be made perfectly (e.g. aspherical), plus new “glass” formulations still needed to be invented.
    So the Leica M4 with the Summicron-M 50/2 and Ilford HP5+ pushed to 3200 is absolutely fabulous.

    Us digital shooters with sensors with a Bayer filter layer need to compete that combination with raw processing of monochrome (mono-colour) 14-bit gradation data that is converted into RGB with a colour space or gradation of 26.3 bits max (so from 14+14+14 bits we lost a lot to get to 8.75+8.75+8.75 bits).

    If you scan the black and white film with a scanner you potentially are creating another “Bayerized” raw file that needs to be “deBayerized” in raw processing. Running multipass may prevent that and give incredible gradation (another type of resolution) – and next I hope your raw processing software can deal with that.
    Whatever. It is a great idea for the learning process of learning to see to have a single lens, no zoom.