I have had an interest in photography since my early teens and I suspect my experiences, at least in parts, will be familiar to many. I remember using a Kodak Instamatic to make photographs of industrial dereliction in the Valleys of South Wales for a school project. Small, fuzzy prints with strange colours but I thought they were fabulous. I passed my Environmental Studies exams too.
Like so many of my generation my first SLR was the hefty Zenith E. I’ve claimed many times that you could knock nails in with this beast but never actually tried it if I’m honest. Looking back most of my surviving transparencies and negatives are on the soft side and nowhere near as sharp as I’d remembered. There are exceptions though. I chuckled recently when I saw how sought-after those Helios lenses are especially amongst digital users. I quickly shut up when I realised I had bought several in recent years.
A Canon AE1 was next. Checking on the web I must have bought mine within six months of it being released although mine was definitely bought used. In fact I would be in my fifties before I bought a brand new camera. I acquired a second pre-owned AE1 fairly soon after and a telephoto lens from a chap at the local camera club. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw me photographing a lot of sports with this brace of Canons. I loved photographing motorbike scrambling and in those days with a high-vis jacket and a press pass courtesy of a friend of a friend at the local paper it was access all areas and no health and safety. Looking back it was recklessly stupid but at the time I was in my element. I even bagged a few jobs for the local paper on the back of these images. Not glamorous, mainly photographing school swimming galas but pictures of the kids swimming I was free to sell to parents, all the paper wanted was pictures of the Mayoress handing out the silverware!
In the mid-1980s a work colleague introduced me to a local studio photographer and for the next eighteen months I worked for him on an unpaid, casual basis helping run studio nights for local camera clubs and other organisations. Lots of fetching and carrying but I had great fun. They were mostly model evenings but occasionally he ran still-life workshops and the like. A promotion at work meant I no longer had the time to spare and sadly had to give this up but I’d learnt a lot and had a fabulous time doing so.
I even used the camera as a way to get out of works-organised football matches, obstacle courses, “fun” runs and the like simply by volunteering to be the office photographer. Of course, the downside was I also had to photograph the Christmas dances, presentations etc.
I was well hooked by the time I was in my late teens and whilst my circumstances would force me out of the hobby for periods of time over the years I returned to it with amazing regularity and never lost the interest.
Coinciding with this promotion was the birth of our first daughter. It was also the start of three house moves in six years due to work promotions and by the end of the decade we were living on the south coast with three young daughters and another due. Another move was also imminent, we didn’t know it but we’d be living in Bristol before number four arrived. Photography was very patchy during this period as evidenced by the number of baby pictures. Daughter One was well documented but this gradually reduced and by the time Daughter Four appeared I was taking very few photographs, a fact she still reminds me of regularly. Photography had to fit around the many demands of a young family, large mortgage and a very demanding employer.
It was a Nikon Coolpix 775, my first ever brand new camera, that was the catalyst for me returning to photography in a serious way again. It was 2002 and to acknowledge 25 years with my employer I was sent a corporate catalogue with a rather uninspiring choice of gifts. Nothing much caught my eye so I opted for an electric shaver for the wife (she’d put up with loads over the 25 years) a new electric drill and with the remainder I bought a small digital camera. This 1.9mp wonder machine had got me thinking what had until then been the unthinkable … digital photography?
Long story short, I didn’t enjoy the Coolpix but by 2004 I was the proud owner of a Canon 400D with 10.1mp and two kit lenses. The downward slope into chasing pixels and upgrading cameras before I’d outgrown the previous one had begun. A Canon 40D replaced the 400D within six months (easier to hold with big hands), a 5D MkII arrived (I “needed” the pixels) and a 7D replaced the 40D (better frame rate for wildlife). The 5D MkIII was next on the list (who doesn’t need 22.3 pixels) and my lens collection also grew in direct correlation with promotions, bonuses and pay rises.
The good news however was that I was back in the hobby in a big way and for the first time wasn’t going to be held back by the demands of a young family, although the hefty mortgage and demanding employer were still there. In hindsight though, the bad news was that I’d become obsessed and was constantly chasing perfection, buying ever more powerful software, obsessing over image quality and a paid-up member of the pixel chasers club. Relentless dissatisfaction with my images was starting to become the norm despite winning club competitions on a regular basis. By 2013 however I was starting to realise that this was sucking the fun out of my hobby and that the pixel race was getting ridiculous. I started to question what I was doing. So, it was rather ironic that this was also the year in which I decided to switch systems and moved to Nikon. I’d been a Canon user since the 1970s so this was quite a big deal at the time. I took a huge financial hit by selling a complete Canon digital kit I’d built up over almost ten years and bought a Nikon D800E and the “Holy Trinity” of zoom lenses (14-24, 24-70, 70-200). My pixel chasing had reached its zenith but, although I had no notion of it at the time, my interests were even then moving away from the all-singing, all-dancing digital cameras and back towards the tactile pleasures of my Canon AE1. Yes, it was still in the cupboard.
But there was one more twist in the digital tale. Starting in 2016 or thereabouts I started a three year process that saw me switch systems again, this time from Nikon SLRs to a mirrorless Fuji X system. I’d owned the Fuji X100 since it’s launch so the growing Fujifilm ecosystem and their approach to improving existing cameras through firmware releases really drew me in. It’s the only digital system I use now in 2021 but as my regular reader knows it’s not my first choice system any more.
September 28 2015 was an auspicious day. On my 57th birthday I fulfilled a dream I’d had for most of my adult life and became the owner of a Hasselblad 500CN. I had a lovely Pentax 645 (why oh why did I sell it?) and four or five years earlier I’d also purchased a Mamiya RB67 that was going for a song in the local camera shop, so this wasn’t my first medium format film camera but it was a dream come true. It also was the catalyst for what I am doing now in 2021 as this was the moment I decided to get back into the darkroom. Whilst clearing space for my makeshift darkroom I also rediscovered a box of negatives, dated 2009-2011, and these formed the basis of my return to the dark.
From that moment on I was destined it seems to return to film photography as my principal hobby. Learning from past experiences though I did not trade-in my Fujifilm mirrorless system but have run both film and digital side by side. I’ve even embraced the so-called hybrid approach, using film and then scanning the negatives. I refuse to spend more than a few minutes converting an individual negative though and only use those tools I could employ in the darkroom. From shooting >95% digital in 2015 though I’ve steadily increased my film usage and now in 2021 the situation has reversed and <5% of my photography these days is digital. I must emphasise here though that I enjoy both; each plays it’s part in my enjoyment of the hobby and I have no time for the digital vs film debate – it’s all photography. I even have a drone these days!
Of course, the story goes ever on. Once I’d made the decision to concentrate on film and build a darkroom I also retrieved the Zenith E and Canon AE1 from their exile in the loft, remember them? A Nikon SLR or two (OK, several) followed as did a dalliance with a Pentax ME Super. Then there was the Olympus OM10 and because I liked the form factor of the Fujifilm X100 digital camera I started “needing” a compact film camera, or three, or more. I will draw a veil over some of the other purchases I think just in case the wife reads this. Many of these have however featured in blog posts of course.
Then, the Curse of Image Quality struck again. This time not pixels but film formats. A Mamiya TLR joined the stable, the RB67 was brought out and I started to use less 35mm and more medium format film. For a short period I became obsessed again with image sharpness but this time it was very short lived, it seems that with age does, occasionally, come wisdom. I like film for the aesthetic, the film-dependant grain, the ability to alter the look of negatives through choice of developer or processing method and there are situations where less than clinical sharpness are part of that aesthetic. I also enjoy the tactile nature of preparing to make images with film photography. Loading and rewinding film, putting the film onto reels and into tanks, standing and developing the film and never failing to be awed as the roll of negatives is eased off the reel and hung to dry.
The cameras I use most often are manual, they are also more tactile; removing dark slides, manually setting aperture and shutter speed, winding the film or removing the film back after each squeeze of the shutter. On some winding the film on and cocking the shutter are separate actions too and I enjoy the routines involved in using these cameras.
This Curse was, rather surprisingly, finally lifted when I moved in to large format film photography. I initially bought a dedicated 5×4 pinhole, partly because it was going cheap and partly because through it I could try out the loading and developing of sheet film before parting with a goodly sized lump of cash on a full LF kit. It was a field of photography I’d never really played with before and I loved the pinhole aesthetic at my first use, it helped the also new to me Large Format process had gone smoothly I suspect! I now have 35mm, medium-format and large format pinhole cameras and the Curse of Image Quality has finally lifted.
Unsurprisingly, a full 5×4 kit does also now have a place in my gear cupboard, albeit fairly recently, and I am enjoying slowly getting to grips with this format. A couple of early mistakes in terms of lens purchases means I have only limited options lens-wise but this in a way is helping as I’m needing to really work in a thoughtful manner. By its very nature LF slows you down, I’m not the first to note that of course, but this slow, deliberate, almost calculated approach is helping me to think first and release the shutter second. You can’t “spray n pray” with one of these!
Thankfully, throughout all of this my love of the hobby has never diminished, even during the barren years when I could afford neither film nor time. I use all of the many cameras I own. I never use the word collection to describe them either – they all have a use and are all tools, albeit well cared-for tools. I mainly use an X-Pro1 or an X100T from the Fujifilm stable when I choose to shoot digital despite the X-T3 permanently clamped to a copy stand. I use film cameras for most of my photography though, from 35mm, medium format, large format, instant cameras and several pinholes in various formats. I no longer see image sharpness as the ultimate goal, although that doesn’t mean I accept any old rubbish from my cameras, they still need to perform in accordance with the aesthetic I’m aiming here for. My embracing of the lo-fi as an acceptable sub-genre of the hobby was compounded recently when I picked up a couple of Diana F+ cameras and a bag full of accessories. They don’t get a lot of use but if the project calls for them they are used with as much enthusiasm as my beloved Bronicas. Sorry, didn’t I mention the Bronicas? They first appear in early 2020 but I’m running out of space here – suffice to say I picked up an ETRS pre-pandemic and then sold my Hasselblad to help fund the Bronica SQ-A kit.
So, there you have it. One photographers journey from film to digital and back again. Featuring constant upgrading to get more pixels and sharper images, returning to film and embracing MF, then getting into 5×4 for ultimate image quality … and then buying a complete Lomo kit!