Very little practical advice to be had in this post I’m afraid, but I’m sure it will be quite amusing all the same. The other week whilst clearing some stuff out, I came across a box of old prints, including, of all things, the first roll I ever put through an SLR, way back in 1991. The camera was a Chinon CE-5 (basically a Dixons own brand version of a Pentax) with a 50mm, a 28mm and a 70-150mm zoom, all manual focus, lent to me by my Father for my annual pilgrimage to Scotland. My best mate at the time (Chris Jones – wonder where he is now?) was coming with us, and 6 months before he’d saved up and bought himself a Ricoh something-or-other, and seemed to be getting very into the whole photography thing. As one does at that age, I wanted to do what he was doing.
I had absolutely no training, other than what Chris had told me, and he had no training other than what he’d read in Practical Photography magazine. We had a couple of copies with us, which we referred to avidly (particularly the section about glamour lighting – not that handy in the wilds of Scotland, but rather interesting to a 14 year old boy)
The camera had an aperture priority mode, a manual mode, K-mount lenses, no motorwind, and erm, I think that’s about it. If there’d been anything more complicated on it I think I’d have given up and been too daunted by it.
The film was almost certainly just standard colour neg (I can’t find the negs to confirm this) which would then have been taken to Boots for printing. It was 2 more years before I learnt to dev and print my own Black and White film. The catch to getting Boots to do the printing was that their machines were always set to even out as many inconsistencies, and so if you deliberately under or over-exposed a shot it would often come out just looking mushy as the machine tried to average it all out. At least, that was my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
The other big drawback in getting Boots to develop the shots was that the feedback loop between trying something out and seeing the results was very long indeed – generally days at a minimum, and often weeks. Nowadays you take it for granted that if you’re trying something out, you can set the camera a certain way, take a shot, review the image on the back, change the settings, and straight away see what effect it’s had. This is a huge boon in learning technical stuff, and without sounding bitter I know that the long feedback loop of getting prints back from the lab, and having to match them to notes I’d made in the field made my technical learning a bit slower. Again, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.
During this trip, and several more to come, I would walk the hills with my big, grey, shoulder camera bag, as well as my rucksack with my day’s food/waterproof in. Every time I wanted to stop and take a picture I would get everything out of the bag, attach various bits, uncap various things, and generally make quite a kerfuffle. This would mean I would get steadily further and further behind everyone else on the walk, and would have to scurry along to catch up, only to fall behind again. If I’d know then that 10-15 years later I’d have upwards of 12KG of camera kit strapped to my back on adventure races and 30-40 miles to cover on a bike, I think I’d have given up there and then and chosen a different career.
Landscapes and wildlife were undoubtedly what I focused on, and on that whole roll I think there are only 3 frames with any people on at all. It took me about another 2 years or so before the magical breakthrough of “oh my god, I can make all my male friends do very stupid things, and all my attractive female friends take their clothes off”, and that of course was partly due to developing more confidence with the camera.
The only piece of kit I still have from this era is a small grey blower brush, and I carried it in my camera bag until a couple of years ago. That is, until I thought I’d lost it. Pathetic though it sounds, I went into a panic, later found it, and now it sits safely on my desk at home. I think the notion of losing my last physical connection with my ancient past was too much to bear, and it had become some sort of talisman. Sad bastard.
Lately I’ve found myself hankering after shooting film again – purely for personal pleasure you understand – not on jobs. I think what I’m trying to recapture is that feeling that each shot had to matter, and therefore I put more thought into pressing the shutter each time. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t “spray and pray” every time I shoot these days, but let’s be honest, it’s a bit easy to rattle through frames with digital isn’t it? Such habits do lend themselves to being a bit more careless with what, how, and why the picture in question is being taken. My last 2 main camera bodies have each had nearly 200,000 frames through them when they were retired – enough said!
Just last week I wandered past a secondhand camera shop, ambled in, and very nearly spent a few hundred quid on a 6×9 Horseman. All that stopped me was the knowledge that I’d probably prefer either a 5×4″ or a 6×6 TLR – both of which I’ve got a fair bit of experience using. I don’t think I’ll be able to resist temptation for too long though.
So beware of digging too deep into your past, it can be revealing, mildly amusing, and even possibly educational, but there’s a decent chance it’ll end up costing you a bit of money sooner or later. Look out for me on the streets of London in the near future, dressed in hipster jeans and specs, and with a leather-bound old Horseman slung round my neck, snapping away and pretending I’m getting in touch with myself…..