In my ‘About’ page, I list photography as one of my interests. This is really only a half truth. It is over 9 months since I actually took some photographs, so I cannot call myself a photographer by any real understanding of the name. I became interested in cameras quite late in life. I did not purchase my first SLR until 1983. Before that, I had been happy to use the ‘Instamatic’ type of camera. Cassette film, point and shoot, flashcube if needed. I then began to realise that better results could be achieved using lenses of different focal lengths. So, still knowing little or nothing about the way it worked, I bought a fully automatic Canon SLR, with a short zoom lens. I still remember the thrill of auto load, and the power winder, with its distinctive whirr.. I could actually see 98% of what was going to be in the finished photo, so no more chopped off heads or feet. Having this hanging around my neck, with the large Canon logo, and attached to a thick, padded strap, made me feel as if I knew what I was doing, and that I had finally arrived as a photographer.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The results came back from the processor. Under and over exposed, out of focus, and no better than the previous efforts on the Instamatic. I had made the usual mistake of expecting the camera equipment to compensate for my shortcomings in skill and artistry. I needed to learn, and of course, I needed better equipment, and more lenses! I turned to the pages of the glossy camera magazines. Monthlies, weeklies, I bought them all. I then bought ‘how to’ books, such as Photography for Beginners, Exposure Explained, and other thrilling titles. After reading everything, I was beginning to understand. Larger apertures blur the background, small ones sharpen it. The f-stop numbers are essentially the wrong way round, as the higher numbers represent the smaller apertures, so that’s one confusion you have to tackle straight away. I then decided to invest in a better camera, with which to implement these newly comprehended theories. With more disposable income than before, I went straight for the Ferrari of the Camera World at that time, the Canon T90. This was the sexiest camera ever. It was partly designed by Porsche, and it looked it. Sleek, stylish, and packed full of the latest technical innovations. Integral motor drive, multi-spot metering, auto bracketing, light and dark shade control, it had the bloody lot. I couldn’t afford the best car in the World, or the nicest house in London, but I could own the best camera on the Planet. I was very happy.
Time to buy some film. Real film, not microchip cards. Film that smelt of chemicals, and came in small plastic pots. There was a bewildering choice, as I had previously discovered. Fuji film for deep colour saturation. Slide film for breathtakingly lifelike images. Kodak T Max black and white film, at various speeds, giving a lovely grainy effect when desired. Film was just great. You had to ease out the leader, place it over the guide rails in the back of the camera, shut the rear latch, and it loaded automatically, with a satisfying whizzing sound. The small pot was saved for later, and a piece of the carton, displaying the film speed, could be placed at the back of the camera to remind you of the chosen ASA. Not that you needed reminding, as the wonderful T90 automatically sensed the speed, and then displayed it in an information window on the top plate of the camera. With the film bought, it was time to invest in a good tripod. Read any book or magazine, and they will tell you that all ‘serious’ photographers always use a tripod. Then you need something to release the shutter, so you don’t touch the camera during exposure. Oh, and the tripod needs a spirit level, to make sure the horizon is straight, on any uneven ground.
Now that I had all this, it was essential to get better lenses. After all, with a camera this good, you need to have glass optics up to the same standard. I decided that I would need wide angle landscape lenses of 24mm and 28mm, as well as a fast standard lens, a 50mm 1.4. In case the opportunity arose for long distance shots of wildlife, or interesting un-posed candids, I had better get a long lens too, a 400mm f5.6. Just in case all the technology failed me, I would get a retro light meter too, and let’s not forget lots of batteries, as it takes 4AA batteries in the holder under the base. Once I had accumulated all this kit, I had to have a bag big enough, and one that looked good enough of course, to hold it all. The top of the range canvas Billingham was the obvious choice. Waterproof, burn-proof, with leather straps and brass stud fittings, this was the bag of the serious amateur photographer. Hang on though. What if I needed to suddenly switch to faster, slower, or monochrome film? I had better also use my original camera, and get a decent back up camera body as well, one that was compatible with all my new lenses. Time to pack the bag. Five lenses, three camera bodies, a basic flashgun, some filters to protect the lenses, lens hoods for flare, the light meter, spirit level, cleaning cloths, blower brush, and lots of canisters of film. Then the tripod, carefully attached to the bottom of the bag with lovely leather straps, sold as an extra, of course. It was all I could do to lift it all, but I was sure that I would never need anything else, as long as I lived. The camera industry had just launched auto focus cameras and lenses, and they were all the rage. I would stick with my manual focus, thank you very much. None of the new-fangled stuff for me!
Some time later, I was halfway up a section of The Great Wall of China, about two hours journey from Beijing, in the 35 degree heat of a summer afternoon. After dragging the bag from the other side of the World, just squeezing it into the overhead locker in the aircraft, and keeping a tight grip on it at all times, in case it was stolen, I suddenly thought, ‘what am I doing?’ I had already become aware that I almost only ever used the wide angle lenses. This was confirmed on my return to England, when the developed films showed that 99% of the photographs were taken with the 24mm wide lens. The telephoto, short zoom, and standard lens, had not even seen the light of day outside the bag. I had never felt the sudden urge to change film speed, or to record the scenic landscape of China in black and white, so the two spare bodies had remained unused also. And the tripod? left at home as it was just too long and unwieldy for travel in economy class. What about the end result, the photos from this trip of a lifetime? To be truthful, they were not at all bad. I had learned something, after all. But were they great photos? No. Perhaps better than the average person would have taken, tremendously expensive to have developed and printed to 8 X 6, and a nice personal reminder of my trip. However, I concluded that it had all been a case of ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’. I had been beguiled by the kit and forgot the first rule of Photography. It is the person using a camera, and not the equipment, that takes a great photo. I had all the gear but I didn’t have the eye, or the artistry. I had to face the awful truth. I was average. No amount of stuff was going to elevate me to my desired goal, the photo that is world renowned, the one that everyone else wished that they had taken. It just wasn’t going to happen.
So, back in London, and it all has to go. I can’t quite say goodbye to film and the SLR just yet though. I was still a purist. Auto focus might help with diminishing eyesight, and advancing years. Just the one lens this time, the all-encompassing 24-105. Body, lens, built in flash, smaller bag, that’s it. I won’t buy anything else, I promised myself. Canon had had my cash and loyalty for many years. Then they decided to change the lens mount, so that my expensive range of FD lenses would be as much use as scrap, and incompatible with all the new bodies. To hell with you Canon, I will go completely sideways, and jump to Minolta. The well-received and highly reviewed Dynax 7, with the above mentioned lens, that’s the one for me. Almost as sexy as the T90, but not quite. And there I was. Only one lens, still with a semi-professional, metal reinforced polycarbonate body. Dials, LCD screens and windows, all much as before. But the heart had gone, along with with the part-exchanged equipment. I hardly ever took the camera out anymore. Film was becoming more and more expensive to get processed, as digital cameras became the norm. I vowed that I would never get one. After all, ‘real’ photographers will only ever use film, won’t they? Besides, early digital cameras produced crappy results. The pictures also had to be viewed on a computer, and I didn’t have one at the time. Then there was the issue of manipulation. With software becoming better every year, digital effects could replicate any desired conditions, even display locations that you hadn’t even been to. What was the point anymore? I was disenchanted with everything to do with Photography. My camera went back in its bag, and only came out for holidays, family occasions, and all the usual reasons that uninterested amateurs usually use a camera for.
Then I discovered E bay. Here was my chance to catch up on all the good stuff that I couldn’t afford before. Not to use, you understand, just to collect, and admire. Post-War cameras from East Germany and Russia. Huge blocks of metal, with engine turned, knurled knobs, and dials that moved with definite, satisfying clicks. Lenses that screwed in, using the once universal M42 mount. Glass in those lenses that was hand ground, by qualified optical engineers. Then there was the Olympus clam shell series. The XA, XA-2, and so on. As cameras, they were little more than point and shoot 35mm film compacts, little different to those from the 1960’s. But the design and engineering. Heart-breakingly good. The way the front of the camera slid open to activate it. The use of small button batteries to save on space. The tiny levers and switches, the whole thing designed to wrap around a roll of film, and be able to be secreted in a suit pocket. The Pentax Auto 110; using an already defunct cassette film system, this miniature SLR was a joy. Tiny interchangeable lenses, an add-on flash bigger than the actual camera, and even an optional power winder. It all fitted in the palm of your hand, and it took photos too, if you really wanted to. Pretty soon, I had a large collection. Everything from Eastman Kodak box cameras, to strange plastic fish-eye lens cameras from Russia. I could buy a camera that once cost a month’s salary, for less than an hour’s pay. But I still didn’t take any photos.
I eventually succumbed, and bought a digital camera. I felt that I might still need to occasionally take some photos, and I was not going to pay the outrageous price for film processing. I still had to have a good one though, I just couldn’t resist it. I bought second hand, finally deserting Canon and Minolta (now defunct anyway) for a Nikon based body, the Fuji S5 Pro. I was won over by the technology, yet again. The Nikon 3D matrix metering system, and the ability to choose ‘film simulation’ modes in the extensive menu. A simple small standard zoom completed the purchase, and I was back to my one camera, one lens promise of years before. I still read camera magazines. Nowadays, I also read camera blogs, and Internet reviews by ‘experts’. I hold strong opinions about what is, and is not, a good camera, and I firmly assert that no digital image will ever surpass the best ones taken on film. The collection of cameras now rests in a box in the loft, to be put on display ‘one of these days’. I still haven’t taken a photo since last year though.
Perhaps I should change my stated interest. Delete ‘ Photography’, and insert ‘Collecting Cameras’. What do you think?