The art of manual photography: Beauty in imperfection

The art of manual photography: Beauty in imperfection

Playing with color negatives, light leaks and melted lenses -- four photographers discuss the "organic answer to the cold perfection of digital photography"
Capture your memories of Singapore differently.

These days it seems difficult to take a picture that doesn't look good.

Whether you're at home or traveling abroad, you simply point and you shoot -- and in less than a second, out comes a perfectly exposed image of your local neighborhood or the River Seine at sunset.

Indeed, with digital equipment, one might think that photography is an easy art to master.

However, it wasn't always like this.

Not too long ago, the act of taking a picture entailed as much guesswork and technical know-how as it required artistry. And it was a lot more fun -- just ask a growing number of retro photography enthusiasts who shun the latest black boxes in exchange for old-school film cameras.

Call it a “back-to-basics” approach to shooting that often results in unique imagery that blazes with personality, if not technology.

Read on and see a selection of images taken by a handful of local alternative photographers.

Zann Tiang: Shoots with a Minolta 110 Zoom

These photos were taken in 2005, right before construction began to convert the St. James Power Station -- a 1920s coal-fired power plant -- into one of  Singapore's favorite nightspots.

I used a Minolta 110 Zoom SLR camera loaded with expired color-negative film for these shots.

The Minolta 110 Zoom was launched back in 1976 as a submini SLR. It used the then-popular 110 film cartridges, and was targeted at amateur users who wanted additional features in their cameras.

It had versatile controls for a 110 camera of its day -- like manual focus ring, aperture control, x-sync hotshoe and, obviously, a zoom lens.

I got this camera off eBay. The 110 format cameras are really affordable. It's the film that's a killer to find because its no longer made. Besides, most film labs will give you a blank stare if you tell them to develop 110 film -- they just don’t know how to process it anymore.

But there's a shop at Sunshine Plaza called Thirty Six (Sunshine Plaza, 91 Bencoolen Street, tel +65
6337 6916) that still stocks 110 film.

What I like about this camera is the fact that you never know for sure if the photos will come out right. Digital cameras don't even come close to matching the sense of anticipation you get from using it.

This is what alternative photography is about: the process and the experience.

An alternative photographer goes for the experience and finds joy in the full process, awaiting for the surprises that might sit waiting at the end.

Nestor Lacle: Shoots with Sprocket Rocket and Golden Half cameras

I once saw a photo made by the Sprocket Rocket online, showing the edges and sprockets in the frame and I was completely fascinated by it.

I bought the Sprocket Rocket at Thirty Six (Sunshine Plaza, 91 Bencoolen Street, tel +65
6337 6916), which is a local toy camera shop that has a wide selection of cameras and films.

The photos were taken in Chinatown, Arab Street and near Boat Quay, places that I always find interesting. I was photographing places that are unique to Singapore and fit the panorama like composition of this particular camera.

The sprocket rocket is very easy to use from a technical perspective, but harder when it comes to composition due to its wide format and wide-angle view.The toy cameras I have are very basic, without focusing or exposure possibilities, which leaves me with only composition to focus on.

The other aspect of shooting with film in general is the lack of instant feedback. This helps me slow down and make sure everything is right and perfect when taking a picture, whereas with digital I can get lazy and make adjustments after reviewing every shot.

Unpredictability is key in shooting with toy cameras. There might be light leaks or focus issues or the entire roll of film could have a green tint or amazing rich contrast-y colors.

Part of the enjoyment is picking up your developed pictures and not knowing what you will get. Often what you see in the viewfinder will come out very different than the final picture.

I got the Golden Half camera as a Christmas gift. This camera is small and light and one of those that fits in your pocket.

I have always been fascinated with Half Frame Camera’s (cameras that give two vertical images on one frame of film). I always appreciated the increased efficiency of turning a 36-exposure roll of film into one with 72 exposures.

But even more than that is the new perspective of framing and composition of taking two images and creating one new complete image.

I have about nine toy cameras and a DSLR. I would say I shoot 50 percent digital and 50 percent film, I almost always carry my DSLR and one or two film cameras with me.

In the end I think my best images come from my DSLR, but I have the most fun when shooting with film.

Check out Nestor Lacle’s blog at

Click on to page 2 for more photography tips

Lester Ledesma: Shoots with a Holga 120FN

These photos were taken about two years ago with the Holga -- a cheap, plastic, Chinese-made camera that uses 120mm film.

I’ve been shooting for years with high-end digital cameras, and found that I was getting rather boring and predictable results with them, especially when shooting a “clean” city like Singapore.

The Holga, with its plastic lens and shoddy construction, is a legendary camera because of its unpredictable results -– these range from badly focused images, negatives with uneven light or even shots where light somehow leaks into the film and “smears” the resulting negative.

Technically you’d call these “bad” images -- the challenge is to use this unpredictability to get beautiful shots.

I shot the above pictures at Kampong Glam.

These photos would probably look mediocre if you took them with a regular camera, but the Holga’s imperfect lens gave it a weird quality. You can see the “leaking” light at the edges of the frame. These are two frames that I scanned together and just never bothered to separate.

I actually wanted the camera to give me more unpredictable results, so I slightly melted the lens with a lighter after this shoot. What the heck -- this Holga only cost me S$50 anyway.

Sometime later I shot this portrait of a traditional Chinese puppeteer. You can see that the image quality had gotten much worse (in a good way).

The image is underexposed and there’s some light leaking into the picture. This is what I like about alternative photography -- the fact that it’s so imperfect and unpredictable.

To me it’s an organic answer to the cold perfection of digital photography.

Check out Lester Ledesma’s blog at

James Koh: Shoots with Canon Canonet QL17 and Yashicamat 124

These photos were taken sometime in mid-late January 2011, in Chinatown during the Chinese New Year bazaar.

I found both the Canonet QL17 and the Yashicamat 124 online.

What I like about them is how different they are compared to a DSLR. Different in terms of operation and how shooting film slows you down dramatically, forcing you to think before you shoot.

I got the Canonet for about S$180 and the Yashicamat for about S$350. I mostly shoot street scenes with these two cameras, but sometimes I would shoot other interesting things I see.

The Yashicamat shoots a 6x6 picture, resulting in a square format. I feel that the square format is easier to compose compared to a regular 4:3 format.

Also, its unconventional looks make people think that it is not a camera at all. As for the shooting style for the Yashicamat, you look down into the waist-level finder to compose a shot. No eye contact is required throughout and this can make for discreet shooting.

Compared to a DSLR, I feel more satisfaction shooting with manual cameras as I have control over everything.

It is also simpler, you just have to compose, focus and make sure the exposure is correct and then you press the shutter. No fiddling around with menus and buttons are needed.

The lack of visual feedback of a usual LCD screen also makes you to move on after each shot, providing more chances of having potential shots instead of having your face glued to the LCD screen and staring at the picture.

This guy (below) was the owner of the stall selling clocks. His back was facing me when I was focusing on him, but then he turned back and look straight into the camera and that was when I pressed the shutter.

The whole process took about five seconds and it was over. I did not ask for his permission. I moved on after taking his photo. Being a small, 35mm rangefinder camera, the Canonet is smaller and quieter.

Some subjects know that they were photographed while some do not. My shooting style changes according to what camera I use. When I use the Canonet, I tend to shoot faster, and capture more fleeting moments.

The reason I like old cameras is that they are simple to use. The lack of automation makes it satisfying to use, from composing, focusing, shooting to developing.

Everything is done by me. I use them so as to relive how the people of the past used to shoot, and how people are starting to take things for granted, such as expecting a DSLR to take perfect pictures out of the box. I wish to explore the roots of photography.

I feel that what sets an alternative photographer apart from a digital photographer is only the difference between how one attains a final image.

There are some things in which a digital photographer cannot emulate, such as pictures created through wet plate process. But this does not mean a digital photographer is "inferior" compared to an alternative photographer.

What matters is the picture, whether it is able to convey its message to the audience.

Check out James Koh’s photos at

Photojournalist Lester V. Ledesma is based in Singapore and a two-time winner of the PATA Gold Award for Photography.

Read more about Lester V. Ledesma