An old SLR in a digital-camera world

Oct. 05, 2013 @ 01:06 AM

As the daughter of one photographer and the mother of another, I am steeped in the language of cameras, with words like “aperture” and concepts such as “depth of field.”  These days most of my pictures are taken with my smart phone, but I own an old Minolta 101 Single Lens Reflex (SLR) and know the basics of how to use it.

I remember when my father opened the back of his Yashica to show me how the lens worked.  A waft of stale air emerged, tasting slightly metallic on my lips.  He held the camera body up to the bright windows of the studio and opened the shutter so I could watch the tiny flaps move in concert to narrow or widen the lens, allowing more or less light as needed -- the aperture adjustment. 

The corresponding setting to aperture is shutter speed.  A certain amount of light is required for a decent picture, and photographers controlled that light by adjusting the size of the lens opening and the amount of time that the shutter stayed open.  Photographers made a lot of decisions in those days.

But light isn’t the only medium a photographer works with.  Among the many factors that make a great photograph is focus, or depth of field.  In some pictures every object is in focus, and in others the subject is clear but everything else is blurry.  Aperture controls for that.

When the shutter is wide open, far-away objects appear to be up-close.  Your car’s rear-view mirror tells you, “Objects are closer than they appear.”  A photograph snapped with a more open shutter would need the opposite warning—“objects are further away than they seem.”

All of this is an explanation of how my internal lens gets out-of-whack and stuck wide-open.  My eyes are fine, but my mental depth-of-field is narrow.  I look out onto my day and things I need to do seem captured in an image that appears up-close and urgent.  With this open-aperture it is hard to prioritize.  My entire to-do list looks like a tidal wave about to wash over me.

In this stuck position I sometimes have trouble sleeping.  My body carries the tension like a heavy weight that tends to coil itself into a tender spot on my left side.  I trudge through days like a victim, like someone burdened with duties I didn’t choose.

But then I realize, with a start, that I did choose these things.  I signed on for them and while some can be a bit onerous or at least Sisyphean, there aren’t any, really, that I actively dislike.  Most, in fact, give me great joy except when they congregate into that tidal wave and threaten to wash over me.

The only problem is my perspective.  On my old Minolta, the aperture is controlled by a ring that moves around the lens with a satisfying series of small clicks – each one adjusting the shutter one small, significant notch.  My job, of late, has been to find my own shutter control -- that place, or space, with which I can adjust the view.

Through a variety of practices, things like meditation and pauses, I am learning to correct that internal lens.  Life feels very different with an altered aperture.  Everything is more in-focus, and there is space between the objects -- air to breathe and room to move and play.  I approach the tasks with more energy and creativity and joy.

When the shutter does get stuck I’ve learned look into that wave, and ask, “What is in-focus?”  I am best when I can move from my head to my heart and look out from there.  As Ansel Adams said, "Life is your art.  An open heart is your camera.  A oneness with your world is your film."

I suppose that modern brains operate like digital cameras or computer operating systems.  While they may need upgrades or reboots, I think I am an old SLR, in the vintage of the Minolta 101—mechanical, simple, yet needing the occasional adjustment for a beautiful view.

A CHH columnist since 1998, Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may e-mail her at, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.