One For The Road

By ralph

No I’m not talking about the big No – No, the last drink at the end of the party, I’m referring to an ever present camera within easy reach in our cars as we roll along life’s highways doing our daily thing. Many enthusiastic photographers, both beginners and pros have embraced the idea of having some kind of camera handy at all times, to catch fleeting moments or scenes of interest, the sorts of things that you can’t find deliberately. We often start out with that idea, keeping our first “real” camera always handy , but then the system grows to fill a large gadget bag and spends more and more time at home.

Then one day, maybe at a flea market, we see a neat, functional rangefinder camera from the 70s going on the cheap and think, “Hey, I could keep that one in the car”. Anyway, that’s the kind of camera that has appealed to me. There are often boxfuls of them at prices from $25 to $50 and they are capable of shooting images every bit as sharp and snappy as your latest “major brand”. They often have fast and short lenses (for example somewhere in the 38 to 45mm range) which facilitate fast shooting. Just check them out carefully. At that price level only half of them are still working . Your taste might lean toward a point-and-shoot type which would make one hand shooting possible. If that’s the case just remember that many of them use “active” focusing (a bounced IR beam) so if you tried to shoot from inside a car they would focus on the surface of the windows. A third possibility is that first camera of yours that now sits on a shelf because you’ve gotten a fancy new one.

So now we’re rolling along all set to catch the next moment of interest. Naturally, we think about being able to grab that one breathless moment of breaking news. Well – don’t hold your breath. I must have driven a million and a half miles and never saw anything more newsworthy than the average fender bender.

Still it’s a good idea to be in the quick shooting – prepared mode. I once had an argument with a fellow who (somewhat playfully) insisted that the old fashion box camera was the absolute best because it was always instantly ready. “If somebody fell out of a high building I could get a shot of them on the way down, with a box camera, while you (meaning me) would still be fiddling with the aperture and stuff”. It was a point well taken and, in fact, working photojournalists tend to set up their cameras like box cameras by setting the focus to hyperfocal distance and leaving them at the ready. They also tend to prefer wide angle lenses which greatly increase that hyperfocal depth, and make “shooting from the hip” more likely to get the subject. (Hyperfocal distance is simply the nearest distance at which infinity is acceptably sharp – so everything from half that setting to infinity will be sharp. It varies with the focal length and the f-stop, so your choice of shutter speed and film speed will also have an effect on it).

I knew a photographer named Odette who typified a photojournalists readiness in the extreme. She had a tough time trying to get into photojournalism in New York and her approach was as a freelance stringer. One day she took a seat on the subway for a routine ride. Suddenly a man across the aisle pulled out a gun and shot and killed a man with whom he had a running argument. Odette got the shots almost without conscious thought. She had reset her 24mm f 2.0 Nikkor to local conditions as she entered the subway, of course, and all it took was cool nerves and a finger on the button. It made a splash in the Daily News and a few other papers and notched up her visibility among her peers.

Okay, I know spot news is a pretty remote likelihood for most of us, or even much of an interest, but that ever ready camera can do so much more. Some time ago, we had a great show of slides of funny, crazy and hugely inept signs in our camera club. Obviously it would never have been possible to go out and actively seek such si
s. The method followed by the photographer was to patiently grab them as he found them over a period of years. He kept his camera handy even when not really on a photo shoot. I also had a thing going for quite a while, taking shots of funny or just plain odd license plates. Well that fizzled out a bit because I didn’t set up a special file for those images at the beginning, and they became very hard to find after a while (buried among thousands of other shots). That’s something to consider if you go off in pursuit of a special topic .

What must have happened to almost every shutterbug is having to watch that “greatest sunset in a century” from inside a car while commuting. That alone is a good reason to keep a camera handy. “Collecting” might be a good general description of the many subjects you might be pursuing with the ever-present camera. You might be a fan of old doorways, historic signs, or make records of locations to revisit. You might even stumble on a situation which awakens a dormant interest in “street photography”. I had that reaction when I found myself in the middle of a “Chili Fiesta” that I didn’t even know was scheduled. It was chock full of colorful people and activities.

Whether to shoot slides or negatives depends pretty much on the intended use. The collection of funny signs seemed destined for a slide show from the start, so slides were the way to go. Many other subjects would have benefited from the latitude and speed of negative film. Would a zoom be useful? If you aren’t bothered by its bulk (and clumsiness to store) and aren’t looking for a super-fast-response-time setup it would cover more situations. Of course you can’t preset hyperfocal distance with it, so for quickest shooting stay with a fixed lens. That old unused 50mm may be useful here.

Don’t overlook the downside of a camera in your car. When you’re not there someone may want to toss a brick through the window to get it. Also you don’t want it sitting on the front seat under broiling summer sun. The life expectancy of film gets down to a few minutes in such conditions. It’s better to store it in the trunk, when not present, and put it in an insulated bag or cooler. But wait, it’s also not a good idea to be seen putting it in storage when leaving the car. There are two ways around that. Either stop a few blocks short of your parking spot, to make the switch – or just take the camera with you. Over a period of time you might find this “one for the road”, camera, to be the source of many off-beat, fascinating images.