Writings, manifests and general rants

Something I once wrote for the F blog, slightly edited:

Photography is for me a way of approaching the world around me. Or rather, a way of keeping it at arms length. I watch, I wait, and I seldom direct people, even in the studio. Yes, people are my main subjects. I'm not too hot about scenery or nature. I believe that the strength and the beauty of still photography lies in its ability of accurately capturing the moment, freezing a bit of time for a while, in all its futility.

For me, the perfect photo consists to equal parts of factors that we may call composition, subjective content, and presentation. A well executed composition hits the onlooker like a kick in the stomach, a composition where the geometric elements come together in perfect unity. I use a camera that shows 100% of the image in the viewfinder, and I never crop afterwards (therefore I also have a 95% reject rate). However, composition is still second to the actual expression or content. If an image has been badly composed, but shows something important or interesting, the content wins every time. Sadly the reverse is never true. Every photographer has a different opinion on what makes an interesting image. I once knew a photographer who without exception, every time, always picked the frame next to the good one.

People are constantly changing creatures, they are the victims of their culture, their family context or their work life, and they are very busy with trying to show a proper facade towards everyone else. Sometimes they forget, though, but only for a moment. And that is when it is the right time to press that button and fire the shutter. Because of this the photographer is in some ways a thief, a vampire that lives off other people's energy. But it's all part of the game.

And then there is the third factor, presentation. It is crucial to catch the viewer's attention and nobody looks twice at a sloppy photo. Craftsmanship is important, and a lot of fun, and you are never fully learned. However, technical virtuosity is still a bad excuse for a boring picture.

The fact that digital imaging is dominating the current market for utility photography is no surprise. Especially for color darkroom people the digital age is a blessing. But I do get annoyed when people see my work and ask when am I going digital. I admit, my favourite cameras are as old as I am, but still. You'd never ask a wood sculpturer when he is going plastic, would you. Chemical photography is a tool, a medium, with its quirks and advantages, just like oil painting, knitting and digital photography is.

A few words about cameras and equipment that I use. (Updated 2014)

Digital is tremendous fun, but it is a totally different animal than analog film. Nowadays some full frame digicams give acceptable quality, like my Canon 5D. But being a retro freak, I prefer ancient film cameras. My favourite is the Nikon F, made from 1959 until the early seventies. My other favourite is the Nikon F2, almost the same camera but somewhat modernized. For travelling light I use an old Leica (not the digital kind) with a 35mm lens only. None of these cameras require batteries for the actual picture taking. They use little wheels, springs and cogs instead, which I find really cool. The centerweighted metering on the Nikons is done inside the bulky optional finders called "photomic", put on a slimline prism finder instead and you have to use your eyes or a handheld meter to find out how strong the light is.

So why bother with old stuff? Well, for one thing old pro gear is incredibly reliable. It was made for manual focusing, and has the biggest and clearest finders ever made. And being mechanical, it is fixable. New parts can (in theory) always be made by a skilled technician. When I once stood in the pouring rain in Ístersund taking roll after roll of Siouxie, I was glad I had a non-electric camera that would not shortcut and zap out. If you drop it, there is no plastic that can break. The bright finder screen shows 100 percent of the final image, unlike most other cameras both now and then. Cool, huh? Of course what I don't have is matrix metering, autofocus and the other funny computer stuff that camera companies are pushing for. Who cares. In the golden age of photojournalism there were three choices: the Contax II, the Leica M2 - and the Nikon F. Some put a motor on it, the "F36", still heard in many movie effects (I have one. It is not a motor drive; it is a statement.). And yeah, if you have any old Nikon gear for sale, drop me a mail and maybe I'll buy it.*

Lenses: I am a speed freak. For me there simply is no alternative to the Nikkor 35mm 1.4. I love the 64 degree angle of a 35mm on 24x36, and I was lucky to find out about this lens early on. It has been my companion for many years and has helped to define my style. Another nice lens is the 28mm 2.0 with its wide view and extreme sharpness. For concerts (or cats) I use the 105mm 2.5 or the 85mm 2.0, both great lenses when you cannot get as near as you want. Uh, that is about it I guess. No zooms, because they are either big, unsharp or slow (and they mess up your inner preview - like in "I wonder how much of the scenery I'll get in the frame this time?"). I always use a metal hood because of protection and because Flare Is Ugly. Yes I have a couple of 50mm, but those are just for boring stuff like accurately reproducing paintings and such. Nikkor lenses have been around for many decades now, and they are easy to get cheap if they are non-AF, non-AI. The glass quality is just as good in a lens from 1976 as in a new one, and it is the glass that matters. The build quality of manual NIkon lenses is heavy duty, quick-action - it never breaks and with a bit of practice it takes just under 0.01 seconds to focus by hand, in opposite to some Zeiss and Leica R lenses that have very precise but unusably slow focusing action. And with lenses faster than 2.8 and a reasonably fast film you can photograph everything that your eyes can see.

I used to do medium format with my pretty Bronica S2 and its Nikkor lenses. However, it developed an interesting jam and in the end I passed it on to someone who will repair it and give it a better home. On the other hand, the last years old Hasselblad bodies have dropped incredibly in price (why is nobody collecting them?) so I use those now (and an old Flexaret for, you guessed it, travelling light and cheap). Hasselblad Zeiss lenses were never bad, not even the old silver ones from the sixties. (But watch out for flare with those. Flare Is Not Cool. Did I say that?)

Lab gear: True to the retro concept, my enlargers are Leitz Focomats: Ic, V35 and a IIc for medium format. Not only retro though - these machines were the absolute top of the line in their day, and still are. My condenser-equipped Ic was probably made in the sixties, still a great tool for making ultra sharp photos. The V35 is more modern and uses a diffuser-condenser hybrid light source. The only drawback is when you work with both diffuser and condenser enlargers - you need to calibrate your workflow to the machines to get everything right, and the V35 prints about 1 grade softer than the Ic, so... but but it is nice to be able to pick the best machine for a certain negative. Leitz enlargers are in their own way the best ones ever made. Today they are inexpensive, so grab one before they hit the landfill.

Films: Fuji Neopan 1600 was my film of choice for years. (Fuji, do you read this? PLEASE bring it back!) For some reason I was never a big fan of Tri-X but prefer Ilford HP5 instead. I hope it stays in production. Favourite developer is D-76 stock, not too grainy like Rodinal, great shelf life, reusable. For analog color work (cross processed) I also like Fuji films. Best weird unobtainable film that has passed through my camera: Russian Svema 100 ASA (or was it 64?), curls like crazy, thin base, but very creamy and soft grain structure. Probably out of production nowadays.

* It took me years to locate the Nikon F service manual. That is why I will mail everyone who asks a PDF copy of it. For free. But you have to ask, there is no direct download link.

(c) Martin Norberg 2014  Unauthorized use of my images is just peachy unless it is for commercial use, because then I want money. Click the red home button to return to the main menu.