A Bad Day With A Camera

Spiraling Out of Control

It’s safe to say that most serious photographers go through certain, well-defined phases in their relationship with photography equipment. One of them is the, “this simple camera is good enough for me” phase. Some of us get there because of the expense of collecting and upgrading camera equipment (a heroin habit is cheaper, believe me). Others get there because we’re sick and tired of humping half a tonne of gear 10km just to take three pictures only to decide we hate two of them and we’re only pretending we like the third one because the crisis line is tired of us calling so often.

Boring is as boring does, Irrigation canal walking area, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

The increasing convenience, quality, and versatility of mobile phone cameras have been an absolute Godsend here. A camera with 80% of the quality and 80% the function of most landscape photography kit for about 20% of the cost that takes up 1% of the space everything else does? Hell yes, who doesn’t want that?

Well, me. At least on some days. That missing 20% is pretty vital. I’ve been walking the irrigation canal that runs astride Thomas Drive in Strathmore for years now and I’m starting to feel like I know every inch of it. I can tell you that it’s getting pretty hard to keep working it over with my Samsung mobile phone. I’ll look at a familiar copse of willows and just go, “eh.”

Flame willow bushes, Gray Park, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

I mean, just look at it. There’s not a lot to be done, even with the good macro function on my mobile phone camera, right? This is where that missing 20% comes in. Look closer at the same willow bush through a different lens…

Wisp o’ the willow, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

What was “eh” before has now become “oooooooh.” I have also been ignoring a bush that has gone dormant for the season. It’s half a block south of Tom Sadler Bridge just off where the walking path accesses the crosswalk and I walk past it several times a week without a second glance. I mean, it’s nothing special.

It’s the Red Green Show, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

Use the right lens and it is. The lens in question is a Helios 44m-2 58mm f2.0 manufactured in USSR likely in the seventies or early eighties before Communism did a faceplant. It’s a cheap lens mainly known for its double-gauss front element that produces a mild “swirl” to the bokeh. At some point, a person came along and flipped the front element backwards just for shits and giggles and what was mild swirly bokeh is now wild swirly bokeh.

Check out my twig and berries, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

Word has quietly gotten around since and photographers are buying used copies of this Soviet piece of glass that turns bland into grand. I mean, I’ve never felt this good about showing off my twig and berries before.

That last shot took me a few moments to find. I wandered into the copse of trees at the north end of Gray Park and it was just, well, dispiriting. Some leaves on the ground caught my interest, but the trees weren’t doing it for me until I remembered to look closer.

Leave the bodies where they lie, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

It takes a bit to reframe your thinking about just what it is the Helios lens does. I was about to call it quits and just go with my shot of the leaves when I remembered what that piece of glass can do and I went back into the copse to scan for small subjects that were friendly to the Helios.

It’s important to know that there are certain things the reversed Helios flat-out won’t do a good job on. That doesn’t stop one from trying…

Thomas Drive and Thornbriar Green, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

Backgrounds beyond a certain distance don’t have an attractive-looking bokeh at all if they’re even partway in focus. Just focusing on the subject itself is a real challenge and I’m having to learn how to hit the right part of the subject. I didn’t with the image below, which is a near-miss for me:

Spiraling into despair, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

It just doesn’t work. Neither does my attempt with the leaf below:

Not every puck winds up in the net, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

The parts I’d like to have in focus aren’t, and the background has almost no interest at all. The colour is all screwed up on this last image, but I still think it works, especially since the subject is a bit screwed up as well:

State of confusion, Strathmore, Alberta, 2024-02-02

It has been an exceptionally warm winter so far. We’ve had very little snow and what we have had normally disappears quickly. We did have an ungodly cold snap two weeks ago when a polar vortex moved in and spanked us hard, but now we’re back to 12C in January and the start of February! This poplar tree that lives next to Tom Sadler Bridge has no idea what to do so it has started budding out about four months too early. Whoops.

I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of the reversed Helios and will be ready to hit the ground running when spring finally arrives and things green up and start to blossom. For those who are wondering, it only cost about $70 Canadian shipped from Ukraine and I’m using it with a $25 M42 to RF mount adapter on the body of my Canon EOS R5. I figure it was a great value for such a fun piece of glass that I will definitely get more enjoyment out of, and it’s a nice change from shooting with my phone. It’s neat to realize there are new things to learn even after half a century of being a photographer. The reversed Helios and its funky spiral bokeh are an inexpensive and fun addition to my bag of tricks, allowing me to find new art in areas I have previously worked over.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with going for a walk and taking just a phone camera because any camera is better than none at all, but it’s also okay to collect those special things that put some pep in your photographic step. Just remember that you don’t have to carry everything everywhere all at once.

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© 2024 Sean D. McCormick

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