Gear Theory

The Kit Before the Horse – By David Allen

May 19, 2019

We used to live on one of the oldest streets in the dead-center of Toulouse, a city in southwest France. In case you were unaware, the coffee in France generally sucks. Seriously, it’s not very good. But, in Toulouse, we were fortunate to have the city’s best espresso just a 5-minute walk from our front door. (If you’re ever there, go to Square Charles-de-Gaulle. You’ll find an espresso machine on a bike. Ask for “Figgy”—tell him I sent you.)

One morning I was in desperate need for coffee that didn’t suck. And, as it looked quite nice outside, I figured I’d grab a camera and take some shots on my way to see Figgy. The intention was to make some more photos for my “Forgotten” series—my splitter, double-exposure, in-desperate-need-of-a-shorter-description, street photo series.

So, I grabbed one of my 35mm cameras. It was an SLR that has a built-in double exposure mechanism. It also happens to be a very highly regarded model in the world of 35mm film cameras. Its center-weighted metering and exposure compensation make it good for splitter photography. But, a lot of my SLR’s are good for splitter photography. So, let’s be honest, it already had film in it, making it preferable. When using splitters, you control the fade between the two exposures using aperture (think DoF and CoC). Wide-angle lenses often give too little fade, and telephotos give too much; so, I grabbed one with a “normal” focal length for maximum control.

When I got to the coffee bike, I was immediately asked if I wanted a double-shot; because Figgy gets me. He really does. Then, while enjoying my coffee, he introduced me to Mathilde—at least, that’s what we’ll call her as I don’t remember her actual name. As it turns out Mathilde is also a photographer who likes Figgy’s coffee. As it also turns out, Mathilde’s camera brand of choice matched the brand I happened to grab that day.

I should mention that I’m brand agnostic, and that in 35mm I’ve used, owned, and been happy with most major brands. Hell, I’m digital-film agnostic. While I choose to work with film, what matters to me is the final image. Derrida be praised.

At any rate, Mathilde approved of my camera body, for what it’s worth; as if the same engineers who made her full-frame digital were the same ones who designed my 70’s reflex. I thought I had escaped the camera-gear-brand debate. I was going to ask her what kind of photos she made; but, apparently, she hadn’t completely signed-off on my kit.

“Wait, what lens do you have on there?” (Splitters in Cokin filter holders don’t make it easy to eye one’s optic’s specs.)

“Oh it’s a [normal focal length lens, with a modest aperture].”

She, then, sipped her coffee and let slip a tiny noise of photographic Bourgeoisie. It was clear that she did not approve and that my work was clearly no threat to her photographic oeuvre.

“I take it you typically shoot with faster lenses?”

“Yes, I only use fast glass. But, I do this professionally.”

The lens in question (with a splitter, of course)

As mentioned, with splitter work, one controls the fade between the two exposures using aperture. For my street photos with a normal focal length I don’t open wider than f/4, else there’s too much blur between the two sides. Opening wider than f/2 results in images almost identical to using no splitter at all. Typically, I shoot this series at f/5.6. The lens I had chosen to shoot with that day opens (slightly) more than f/4, making it fine for the photos I was making. One of these photos may have been taken on that walk, I don’t remember. I can tell you that different brand-model-lens combinations are represented.

It’s insane that sometimes we talk about gear before first discussing the images we want to create. Gear should serve the image, but all too often we shoot photos to show off the gear. I love my cameras, and their quirks. But, in the end, capital “P” Photography is about the images. Whether they are made with a wide aperture, a small one, plastic optics, or a sonnar who’s elements were molded in the sun by Ra himself; we mustn’t lose focus on the image.

By the way, here’s a splitter photo created with a plastic camera with plastic optics. For this photo, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But, perhaps, that’s because I don’t do this professionally.

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  • Reply
    Tom Sheppard
    May 19, 2019 at 10:19 am

    Beautifully written!
    Thank you for your wit and insight.

    • Reply
      David Allen
      May 19, 2019 at 3:11 pm

      Thank you! You’re very welcome. The thanks goes to Hamish for having me!

  • Reply
    Tobias Eriksson
    May 19, 2019 at 10:59 am

    I also prefer non-sucky coffee. There’s no Figgy in my town, though.

    • Reply
      David Allen
      May 19, 2019 at 3:10 pm

      I’m so sorry to hear that. If only we all had a Figgy, the world would be a better place.

  • Reply
    May 19, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    Its first time that I hear about such photographic technique and I do like what You presented here! Very story oriented photos and exiting read.

    • Reply
      David Allen
      May 19, 2019 at 3:09 pm

      Thank you! Yes, it’s a technique that I use quite often and quite enjoy… If you ever have any questions, let me know!

      • Reply
        May 19, 2019 at 4:03 pm

        Thanks! Will keep that! 😉

  • Reply
    Sien Hong
    May 19, 2019 at 1:43 pm

    Beautiful storytelling through the images. Stunning.

  • Reply
    May 19, 2019 at 1:47 pm

    Entertaining piece. Lively style, thank you.
    Now for a brand-agnostic (“Hell, I’m digital-film agnostic. While I choose to work with film, what matters to me is the final image. Derrida be praised.’), there is a lot of space dedicated to a “highly-regarded model” equipped with a micro-nikkor (rough guess ;o) and a Cokin filter-holder. Metonimy be praised. By the way if Mathilde has a tint of “bourgeoisie”, what do you call dropping Derrida in this conversation? Anyway really entertaining, thanks again.

    • Reply
      David Allen
      May 19, 2019 at 3:06 pm

      The goal was to explain that I think about my kit when I shoot. I don’t think the time spent on that has anything to do with my brand agnosticism. The photos shared in this article were shot on at least 5 different camera bodies, representing three different brands—not all “highly” regarded 😉 Also, I wanted to give some context without sharing brand specifics. I would also say that judging someone based on their lens’ speed is different than a joking nod to a specific philosophy. Now, if someone mentioned their love of Searle, and I gave a little laugh and said “I only read Derrida;” I would, indeed, be calling the kettle black.

  • Reply
    May 19, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    I have a lot of Cokin filters, which I bought in a lot a few years ago. But I also inherited a few from my Dad MANY years ago. The splitter had been a mystery to me until I read this article. I never tried to hard to figure it out, and I’ve only seen one photo where he obviously used it (and NOW I know how he made that pic!). I feel foolish at the moment that it never occurred to me that I might be able to do something with that. So just thank you, I now have a new project in mind! Loved your examples!!

    • Reply
      David Allen
      May 19, 2019 at 3:57 pm

      That’s so awesome! Glad I could help. Please find me online when you have something from said project—I look forward to seeing what you do!

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    May 20, 2019 at 12:42 am

    You certainly do n’importe quoi but surely you didn’t need to spend all that money on a university education to do so.

    Not only a waste of money but also a waste of film.

    • Reply
      David Allen
      May 20, 2019 at 8:34 am

      The fact that *you* don’t like the images does not make them a waste of film. Film would be wasted, however, if all images were all made to fit to one man’s taste.
      Also, can you believe those fools at the University actually paid *me* for my degree?! They should have consulted you first!

  • Reply
    Sean Laughlin
    May 20, 2019 at 6:56 pm

    Good stuff. The writing and the photography. Is that splitter still manufactured? I can’t seem to find it on the Cokin website.

    • Reply
      David Allen
      May 20, 2019 at 7:23 pm

      Thanks on both accounts! I don’t believe they make splitters anymore. Alas, more physical tools killed by Photoshop. I know they used to make them for both the P and A systems (I have them for both).

  • Reply
    May 26, 2019 at 11:58 pm

    Thank you for the post. Albeit for a different reason.

    I love stumbling across gifted individuals in the wild. The intensity, curiosity and unique life trajectory always give them away. And for me it’s comforting to see them in action. Oh there goes another one. Good for him!

    Also, I’m dusting off my Diana splitter!

    • Reply
      David Allen
      May 27, 2019 at 8:14 am

      You’re welcome! Do it—dust it off, split away!

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