Recording photo details with an Olympus VN-510

I have problems with film cameras. For a start, I don’t know when I’ve taken each picture, and I have to guess in order to set the date properly after I scan them, which works sometimes if there is a short gap between taking and scanning and my memory holds up, but often one or other of these isn’t the case.

I also don’t know where I’ve taken them, which isn’t as much of a problem, since you can see things in pictures and work it out that way. But just some random church or gas meter or generic shopping street or bridge, how am I meant to tell? And I often don’t remember.

Finally, I can’t tell what I set the aperture and exposure to, and that is perhaps most important, because without it, it is hard to learn from my mistakes. I am slowly learning how these things work but if, when I am later looking at the scans, I think “this one is a bit overexposed” or “I like how the depth of field worked there”, it makes the learning process so much simpler if I can say “ah yes that was at f55 with a 1/33 exposure”. Also, if I try some sort of trick, I need to remember what trick I’ve tried between trickery and trick results. All this will get much worse when I start using filters, too.

I do try to write details down in my pocket pad (a Rhodia No. 12, incidentally – pen varies) but I end up not doing so because it’s a pain.

  1. Fumble in pocket or bag for pad and pen. Realise that I am looking in the wrong pocket or bag. Look in other pockets and bags until pad and pen are found.
  2. (optional) Swear at pen because cap has come off it. Locate cap. Get ink on hands.
  3. Realise that I will have to put camera down or away somehow, as I will need two hands. Wonder where lens cap is.
  4. Awkwardly scribble a few illegible words and numbers in pad.
  5. Fumble to cap pen and put pad and pen away in pocket or bag – usually in a different and more “logical”/”convenient” place.
  6. Take camera out again and wonder where lens cap has gone.

I like pens and paper but they aren’t great everywhere. I could theoretically take notes directly into the database that I use to store details of each film roll on my iPhone, but the process for that would similar to the above with added “unlock phone” and “wait for app to launch” elements.

Then I saw a post by somebody on the Filmwasters forum where they mentioned using a voice recorder, and thought “that’s an excellent idea, why don’t I try that?” I considered using the voice memo app on my phone, but realised that that would be almost as annoying as typing on it, so I looked for a cheap voice recorder that I could easily talk into and operate easily with one hand.

The above, the Olympus VN-510, is the cheapest one that Argos have in stock, at £30. It takes 2xAAA batteries, and has a recording memory of over 53 hours – I suspect that will be enough. It’s about the size of one of those remote controls you use to advance Powerpoint slides, and very light, and extremely quick and simple to use. It doesn’t have voice activation (the latter despite what Argos claim) or sync with a computer – I considered getting a more expensive one which did do the latter, but realised that I wasn’t going to use this to make audio recordings that I wanted to keep, and if for some reason I ever did I could just plug it into the mic socket on my machine, set it playing and record directly, as I’ve done with Minidiscs in the past. I could get ten rolls of film for the extra price of the syncing ones.

There’s a little slider on the left side to lock and unlock it, and once it’s unlocked, all you do to take a note is press REC, talk into the top, press REC again to pause it, and when you’re done press STOP, and it’s saved as a new file. Importantly, it timestamps the recordings, so no looking at a watch required. (No GPS though. That would be unlikely for £30.) You can then move between the individual files, listen to them – at slow, normal or fast speed – and delete them when you’re done. I’m not sure how many individual files it will store, but given that there are only two digits on the file number indicator, I’d guess 99. As with the 53 hour recording time, I doubt I’ll ever need anywhere close to that.

I haven’t used it extensively, but taking a walk around the area with a camera this evening, I found it very convenient for not only taking notes of where I was and what I was thinking when taking shots, but also for just taking notes of random things that were happening (odd statements made by drunk man at cashpoint, processions of young drunk people in Guinness hats and so on). You can’t easily stop in the street and write this stuff down.

So now I have another “inbox” in the GTD sense, to fill up with crap that I have to transcribe and turn into actions and so on. Great. But it does fill a gap that I had, and hopefully it will accelerate the learning process and pay for itself from less wasted film and better results.

Olympus XA1 samples

I have three examples from the Olympus XA(n) series – an XA, an XA1 and an XA2. The XA1 is pretty much ignored by “serious photographers” apparently – it doesn’t have the nice electronic shutter (being completely battery-free) and has absolutely no focussing controls at all, just automatic exposure.

There is something about this that makes it an excellent street photo camera. Here are some pictures from a recent roll that I took, using Fomapan 100 (I’m now very fond of Fomapan film but that’s a separate issue). Yes, it has fixed focus, but at just the distance that you would actually want to focus when taking snapshots on the street. These Olympus people weren’t stupid. Plus, do note that you can get an XA1 for about a fiver on eBay.