Friday, 31 May 2019

'Uboot' Action Sampler

Uboot Action Sampler
With another #ShittyCameraChallenge announced for this May, having recently been given an Action Sampler, this seemed serendipitous, and it felt a good choice: the Action Sampler is a 35mm point and shoot camera, almost entirely plastic in construction, including lenses, bar the odd metal screw holding it together and the clip for the handstrap. Its unique design, however, features four lenses that take four shots in quick succession in the space of a standard 35mm frame, with a shutter that rotates behind the lenses to achieve this. Apart from this, in keeping with the #ShittyCameraChallenge aspirations, the Action Sampler's specifications are very basic: the 28mm plastic meniscus lenses are fixed focus, fixed aperture at f11, and the shutter fires at a single speed, 1/100th, with a delay of 0.22 seconds between each lens, with the result that the four images are separated by less than a second. There is a simple, flip-up frame as a viewfinder, with a manual advance that cocks the shutter: internally there are two toothed wheels, one for setting the shutter, the other simply to turn the frame counter on the base of the camera; without a film loaded inside the camera it is possible to check the shutter operation by turning the first of these wheels manually. There is a manual rewind knob on top of the camera with a button on the base of the camera to depress for rewinding; this does not pull-up like many a manual rewind: when loading the camera, there is a cut-out section of the base, completed by a corresponding section in the camera back, so that on loading the camera, the 35mm film cartridge simply slides onto the rewind spool.

My example of the camera has 'uboot' printed on the back (the downwards pointing arrow on the front appears to be the uboot logo and is also printed on the back); in smaller type it has 'powered by'; as with a number of cheap plastic novelty cameras, including the similar Action Tracker, the Action Sampler is s typical example of Lomography's modus operandi: take a cheap plastic novelty camera, rebrand it, market it, and sell it for many times its value. This 'uboot edition' was apparently given away free in the early 2000s to promote a social networking website (see this discussion on Flickr); there were a number of variations of the camera, in different colours, some with different coloured filters over the lenses, a flash version, and so on: the Lomography website is currently selling a clear version for £29.

My initial thought was to use the four sequential frames to make short animated loops as GIF files, in part inspired by recent research into early moving images, by the work of Muybridge and Marey, and by reading Rudolf Arnheim (notably, 'The Thoughts that Made the Picture Move’, from Film as Art). Given the very limited parameters of what the camera was capable of, the limit of four frames, I began to think of simple, repetitious cycles of motion that the camera could represent, and might work as a short animated loop. The sequences would have to be circular, not linear, to work as loops, and I thought of some of the ideas behind my piece 'Paper Cinema' and the descriptions of how the movement of the inanimate had fascinated early viewers of cinema at its inception, epitomised in the motion of leaves in the wind. A further example of the movement of the inanimate which is present in many of the Lumiere's early films is water in its various forms: the water from a hose, waves on the surface of the sea, steam rising. In addition, I then thought of visible states which represented binaries, on/off states; all of these subjects would have to be comprehended in less than a second.

As I hadn't shot with the Action Sampler before the start of the #ShittyCameraChallenge, I looked for these subjects with the first roll through this camera, without knowing what to expect in terms of the results other than conceptually what the camera does (I had, of course, seen examples online).

Action Sampler with Ilford Pan 100
Developing the first roll through the camera suggested that I may have been too ambitious in regards of what I thought the Action Sampler capable of: to begin with, the quality of the images is rather poor, perhaps what one might expect with a plastic meniscus lens and one quarter of the resolution of a normal 35mm frame; in addition, one lens on the bottom right doesn't seem to be properly aligned and this frame in all the photographs has worse definition that the others, the upper right frame being little better. The lenses are prone to flare, and pronounced aberrations (coma, showing up in the highlights, seems to be particularly bad), and despite the stepped recesses behind each lens, the plastic interior frequently resulted in internal reflections. The shutter also is not very consistent: the exposure varies across all four frames, sometimes starting very dark, and getting brighter, suggesting that it slows as it completes its cycle.

Action Sampler with Ilford Pan 100
The shutter slowing as it rotates also overexposed the film: I used Ilford Pan 100, but this was too fast for many scenes with bright sunlight, suggesting that the shutter was slower than 1/100th (the density of the negatives did also make scanning difficult and did not improve the resolution of the images). However, when I began to create animated GIFs from some of the frames, something of my original intentions had survived despite all the technical compromises.

The best of these images were generally the simplest: it hadn't always been easy to find subjects which fitted with the limitations of the four frames in less than a second, and in addition, the parallax caused by the separate positioning of the four lenses I hadn't really taken into account. This meant that it was not a simple matter of literally stacking the four frames one after the other, but it made more sense to find a focal point to each sequence and align this in each four frames, then crop to a consistent whole, clearly seen in the image below.

This parallax effect is essentially 'wiggle stereoscopy', and, even while I was still shooting the first roll, I thought that it would be possible to make stereo pairs from static scenes. Given the design of the four lenses, to shoot on a single standard 24x36mm frame of 35mm film, there isn't much lens separation, but the parallax is clear when put together as an animated GIF from the shifting position, both horizontal and vertical, as above. I chose some scenes with close subjects contrasting with some form of recession that could give relatively good separation despite the close stereo baseline, and the first image below is perhaps the best demonstration of this; the second image I had intended to make into an animated GIF, but the breeze which had been animating the tape did not sufficiently do so at the point at which I took the photographs, but the tape itself stands out well enough from the background as a stereo anaglyph.

Stereo anaglyph from two Action Sampler frames
Stereo anaglyph from two Action Sampler frames
Having shot and developed one roll of film during the first week of May, aware of the results, the camera's limitations and what to expect from it, I loaded a second roll of film into the Action Sampler, only to find that the camera stopped working. Initially, I did think that the shutter was simply jammed - I could advance the film, but pressing the shutter release did nothing; on closer inspection, the film advance was cocking and tripping the shutter all in one action - which I only realised once I'd taken the film out of the camera; evidently, the mechanism which is supposed to 'catch' the cocked shutter and prevent further film advance was somehow slipping: at some future point I may attempt to disassemble the camera and investigate, but, as far as May's #ShittyCameraChallenge, I decided to content myself with just the one roll of photographs, rather than pick another camera that could fulfil its conditions.

Sources/further reading:
Lomography Acton Sampler microsite
Action Sampler on Camera-Wiki
Alfred Klomp's review of the Action Sampler - includes scans of the (2-page) manual


  1. These are great. So glad you got something useable from that piece of plastic! My fav is the plants, but the shimmery water is great too.