Basic as a spade

You might know, or at least you should if you’re a regular reader of this blog, that I’ve been taking some time to revisit film photography of late and I have to say I’ve been rather enjoying it.

There’s definitely a different interaction with photography when your camera isn’t buzzing with electronics, utterly reliant on batteries and a whole host of features which are sold to us as benefits, but which on the whole are just technological mitigations for the shortcomings of digital.

That’s what I said, digital has shortcomings. Don’t get me wrong, digital is incredible and of course it’s perfect for my corporate photography. The technical image quality of digital is astounding and under most circumstances far out-performs film, but this isn’t an article for those wishing to watch a punch-up between film and digital.

My point is just this; shooting with film allows you (indeed often forces you) to think differently, approach your subject differently. It sometimes limits what you can do, but if you’re doing it properly then you’ll realise that film isn’t about photographing everything, it’s about considering and carefully choosing not only how we photograph something, but also which things we choose to photograph.

I’m also finding it’s getting me back to basics, and as of Wednesday evening even more back to basics than I have probably been in maybe 30 years. That’s because there was a knock on my door and my neighbour, knowing my interest in getting back into film photography (and him having cupboards crammed with gear he stopped using years ago) gave me, gratis and for free, a Pentax S1a camera with three lenses and a camera-top light meter. I was bowled over and spent the evening cleaning and cooing over it.

To say this camera is in stunning condition would be an understatement. In all likelihood it was manufactured in the 1960s, but apart from the odd mark, scuff and slightest of dents, it’s immaculate. Inside, the film chamber looks like it’s never been accessed; it’s that clean.

For several months now I’ve had an inexplicable craving for a basic, no-frills, fully-mechanical camera. No batteries, no lights, bleepers or anything which could break or fail through old age and lo and behold, my amazing neighbour just gives me this utterly scrumptious camera. It has no instructions, but then it’s got nothing to learn beyond the theory of photography. It’s as basic as a spade.

It’s weighty for sure; it’s solid metal, but everything seems to work. I’ve put a film through it and will get it serviced soon because I suspect the seals around the film door have probably deteriorated, but I bet it’s still light tight. I just want to be sure and I want to have the shutter serviced too. Of course components on this camera could fail, but they’re all almost certainly repairable.

One thing I can say for certain about my current digital cameras is that as fine as they are, I (or more realistically, my descendants) won’t be able to get the batteries for them in 50 years time. They will at best be nostalgic, novelty doorstops, at worst landfill.

At the same time I’m having a look at a medium format kit he’s selling because I also want to have a go with a larger film format. One thing is for sure, my adventures in film have only just begun. Obviously I’ll be keeping you updated here.

It Isn’t All About The Gear – only a little bit

It’s fair to say, I was never your typical “gear head” photographer. Back in the days of film I learned to respect whatever kit I had and got the most out of it, even if it wasn’t top-of-the-range.

My first professional kit consisted of a Nikon FE2 and a Kiron 28-70mm f/2.8 lens, which I bought secondhand and even that needed a repair before I could use it. I don’t think Kiron exist any more. Nikon? well I think they’re still around, but I use Canon…

To me, my cameras and lenses have always been just kit for the job. I don’t rush out and buy the latest equipment whenever a new camera comes out. There always has to be a good reason to do so, especially since the digital camera market “came of age” and digital SLR cameras got to a stage where there wasn’t really a bad one to be had, just different levels of ruggedness or fancier features at different price points.

Ok, I do get a little excited when I buy a new camera body, but mainly it has to prove itself to me and earn my trust and respect over the course of several assignments.

I’d say the Canon 5D MKIII body which I’ve had for well over a year has done that. I had the MKII before it and never liked it. It had too many short-comings for me to warm to it. I usually felt I was getting the shots in spite of the camera, not because of it. Perversely, the 10-year-old 5D original body is a classic and I still own one. I use it in spite of its age because in some circumstances it’s really helpful to use two cameras at once, and it’s always essential to have a backup camera should the main one fail.

In fact I used the MKI body alongside the MKIII on a job last week and it performed exactly as I required. And when I delivered the images, the client didn’t say, “We hate these, they were taken on a 10-year-old camera!” In fact they loved the pictures and will get lots of use from them.

The fact is, a camera built in the days of yore can, in certain circumstances, work better than some of the really high-resolution camera bodies available today. I think the MKIII has more than double the resolution of the MKI, and sometimes this can cause problems. It all comes down to knowing how a particular camera will perform with a particular lens under specific circumstances; something I’m not sure all photographers take note of.

For my assignment this afternoon I’ll probably stick to the MKIII because I know it’ll give me the best results for the circumstances I’m working in. Horses for courses, cameras for… um… well, you get the picture.

Coke, girls and cameras!

Twice a year, Frome Wessex Camera Club hold a camera and photographic fair at The Cheese and Grain in Frome. Twice a year I miss it. In fact I must have missed it about 14 times by now, but I was determined to take a look this time.

Frome Wessex Camera Fair a table of Nikon cameras

Classics from Nikon and Leica to tempt the collector

I’ll confess I expected to find The Cheese and Grain stuffed to the gunwales with old guys in multi-pocketed photographers’ vests nerding over Leica MIIIs and Summicron lenses, or Nikkorflexollamas or whatever. Let’s just say, the gunwales were stuffed, the men were numerous and old and there was the buzz of nerding in the air. I even spotted one or two men wearing multi-pocketed vests, but they may have been anglers who’d wandered in by mistake.

To be fair, my age, gender and nerding tendencies mean I was in excellent company. I took the precaution of bringing my son who was going to have “none of that”. He stayed close and pulled me back from the abyss whenever my eyes glazed at the sight of a classic rangefinder camera. A tough task for any 12-year-old boy, but he did a super job and a coke in the cafe soon revived his superpowers.

Camera fair at The Cheese and Grain, Frome

Dive in, geek out and have fun

Brian Sawyer and Bill Collett try out a camera and lens

Bill Collett of Priston (right) tries his new lens on a camera Brian Sawyer of Melksham considers buying.

The fair itself is a broad mixture of ancient oddities (by which I mean the cameras, not the visitors… mostly) and present-day technology, but the emphasis is geared more to collectibles than modern equipment. I did speak to one chap who’d just acquired a very current and expensive lens at an excellent price. I was a little jealous, I must admit, but my son detected an evil glint in my eye and tugged my arm as he saw me starting to follow the man with the lens. It could have turned nasty.

There were one or two actual women there too and they didn’t appear to be there under duress. They were enjoying the fair too, and I spoke to a young woman from New Zealand who was there to enquire about adapting older lenses to fit her modern digital camera. She was impressed with the level of knowledge available from stallholders and seemed to be having a great time. She hadn’t come all the way from New Zealand just for the fair, but it would be nice to pretend she had.

For me the fair was an opportunity to find something fun to write about this week and to test a (nerd alert) Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM MKII lens which I’m reviewing for Wex Photographic. I know you’ll all be dying to read that review when it’s published, so I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s up.

Vicky Long studies a 500mm mirror lens

Vicky Long came all the way from New Zealand just for the fair! (I’d like to think)

The next fair is in November and I’ll probably pop along if my son will be my nerdguard. It might require two cokes next time.