August 3rd, 2014

Photo Challenge: Time Warp

Over a year ago, I “reviewed” my Canon 6D. I love that camera, and it can take beautiful photos. However, it’s big, especially with the battery grip attached.

This means that I only take it with my when I actively want to take photos, which doesn’t include, well, 95% of my life. Sure, I always have my iPhone with me, which has a great camera for a phone… and until that suffix — for a phone — is gone, it’s not going to cut it as something to record photos that need to last a lifetime. It’s great at photos of landscapes or people where everything is roughly the same brightness, but as soon as you show it something challenging such as a scene with bright areas and dark shadows, the poor dynamic range sticks out like a sore thumb. As a friend put it: “So, let’s summarise: Your device which has no other purpose than to be a camera, is better at being a camera than your phone which is many devices. Who knew?!”

Anyway, my search for a small but high-quality camera led me to Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) cameras, and on to the snappily-titled Olympus OM-D E-M10. I’ve always had a soft spot for Olympus cameras (I still have an Olympus OM-1 which was given to me as a child by my father), and after a bit of deliberation I picked one up.

Once I got it home, I realised just how similar it was to my 1970’s-era OM-1!

Occasionally I pick up that camera and wish I could take pictures with it again. I have fond memories of using that OM-1 when I was younger and the excitement of dropping off my roll of film at the local chemist (followed often by the disappointment of all my photos being terrible). Perhaps it’s all nostalgia, but it’d be fun to take photos like that again.

So, I present to you…

The “Time Warp” Photo Challenge

The idea is to take photos using only the features available to you on a 70’s era SLR like my OM-1. Here’s the OM-1’s feature list:

  • Manually adjustable shutter speed (dial on camera)
  • Manually adjustable aperture (dial on lens)
  • Manually adjustable focus (ring on lens)
  • Adjustable ISO (replace film with film of the desired ISO)
  • Clockwork self-timer
  • Photo capacity of 36 shots with the right film
  • Light meter (literally the only electrically powered thing on the camera)

So, here are the rules of the challenge:

  1. You’re only allowed to take 36 shots.
  2. Your first viewing of the photos must be back at home after you’re done. You’re not allowed to look at them on the camera screen, or delete them.
  3. You have to choose your ISO value at the beginning of each set of 36 photos.
  4. Manual focus only.
  5. Manual exposure controls (shutter speed, aperture value) only.

If you really want to commit, you can modify #2 to be “Your first viewing of the photos must be after getting them printed at a photo store”, but I want this to be fun rather than a complete loss of modern technology.

With some setup, it’s actually pretty easy to simulate these limitations on a modern camera — otherwise it’d be way too easy to “accidentally” steal a glance at the screen after taking a photo, or to go over the photo limit:

  • For #1 I found the smallest memory card I could (2Gb) and filled it up with a big empty file to enforce the 36 photo limit.

  • For #2 I disabled “Photo Review” on my camera, so it doesn’t automatically display the photo on the screen just after it’s taken.

  • #4 was enforced for me by virtue of my old lens.

  • #5 was partly enforced by my old lens, but keeping my camera in M mode isn’t too hard.

The equipment I ended up using:

  • My Olympus OM-D E-M10
  • My old Olympus F-Zuiko 50mm f/1.8 lens
  • A Novoflex MFT-OM lens adapter
  • A 2Gb SD card I found in an old point-and-shoot camera, filled up with an empty 1.4Gb file to only allow 36 photos to be taken

My Results

Note: All photos after this point were taken under the constraints of the challenge, using the equipment mentioned above. Only minimal editing has been done (cropping, slight contrast boost, etc).

I have to admit, I wasn’t optimistic at first. I tried manually focusing with the new lens that came with my OM-D and had a really hard time. The lens is focus-by-wire and very sensitive — I had trouble finely adjusting focus at wider apertures. I tried with some of the lenses on my Canon 6D which weren’t focus-by-wire, but the manual focus ring was still too sensitive for my liking.

Then, I remembered about my old manual lenses for the OM-1 I had in a bag somewhere in the basement. Maybe they’d be better! A decent adapter to put them on my OM-D is an incredibly expensive item considering “it’s just a lump of metal” but I gritted my teeth and made the purchase…

…and what a transformation occurred!

It’s an incredible cliché to say “They don’t make them like they used to!” by holy crap, this… thing, this thirty year old, dusty, dented thing absolutely transformed my dinky little camera into something that felt meaningful. The hyper-sensitive and lifeless manual focus on my modern lens was replaced with a mechanical focus ring that feels beautiful to the touch, gliding purposefully but smoothly under my fingers. Suddenly, focusing manually was a wonderful experience again.

Suddenly, I was excited about this challenge. Time to go take some pictures!

Now, I’ve never been “that guy” — you know, the one that has his camera on high-speed continuous shooting and takes at least six shots of everything he wants to take a picture of, but I’m completely used to having a 32Gb memory card in my camera, allowing for over 1,000 shots before I need to start worrying about free space.

However, having a limitation of 36 photos transforms the experience, especially when combined with the fact I can’t delete or look at the photos I take. Suddenly, the shutter click of the camera becomes the solid thunk of a letterpress machine, a mechanical and meaningful action that you’re acutely aware of. Every photo becomes important.

In the few hours I spent doing this challenge the other day, during an afternoon out driving through a nature reserve to Nyköping, I ended up skipping a ton of photos that I’d normally have taken because they just didn’t feel right.

And you know what? I was loving every minute of it. “I can’t wait to get back home and look at these pictures,” my wife said after I took a photo of her and our dog, Chester. “Don’t look at them before I’m ready!”

Back Home

When getting back home, my wife and I excitedly loaded up Lightroom and imported the pictures. Every single one got a response from at least one of us. Not a single photo was wasted, and apart from a couple where the focus was so bad it ruined the photo, not a single one was deleted.

My computer has over 6Tb of local storage available to it right now, with infinitely more available in “The Cloud”. My $20 memory card allows my camera to take over 1,000 photos at once. And you know what? It’s too much. I have many albums in my digital photo library of trips and holidays I’ve been on that contain hundreds upon hundreds of photos. 99% of them are useless, drowned in a sea of pictures of crap I no longer care about. Sure, that lamppost might’ve looked cool at the time, but three years down the line? Its meaning is completely lost by all the other lampposts and trees and street corners in that album.

I then noticed that all of my favourite photo albums only have a few photos in them due to constraints at the time. The WWDC Photo Walk album, for instance, or the time I went to San Francisco for two days and had a couple of hours to kill before the event started.


I absolutely adored this challenge and will be doing it again, repeatedly, in the future. The combination of a good manual lens and the rest of the constraints added really reconnected me with photography, and by extension the world around me and how I look at it through a viewfinder.

A more startling realisation though, is that even when not doing this challenge I should be taking less photos, not more. This is going to be a hard balance to achieve, I think, since the proliferation of cheap storage and the desire not to miss a potentially good photo go really well together.

With this in mind, I went to a photo store in Stockholm yesterday and asked if they had any SD cards that were one gigabyte or smaller. I may as well have asked for a floppy disk.

You can follow along with my Time Warp challenge over in my Time Warp set on 500px.