Like many people of my age, my first camera was a Kodak Brownie 127, a present for my 10th or 11th birthday. On leaving school and starting work at the age of 16, I bought a Hanimex 35mm Rangefinder. This was a ‘proper’ camera – metal body, built-in light meter, rangefinder focussing – and introduced me to the world of 35mm and colour transparencies.
I’ve always liked cameras as artefacts – the perfect machine to blend Art and Science; although a hand-built steel framed racing bicycle comes a close second. Below are a list of what I would call ‘game-changers’ – cameras that took my interest in photography in particular directions – not all forwards.
1965. Pentax S1 Single Lens Reflex camera.
This was my first serious camera; and at £55 (second-hand), serious money. My parents were horrified at the cost – this being probably around a month’s wages at the time. I sold my Lambretta scooter to pay for it and my days as a Mod were over.
I converted the (disused) coal-shed in my parents’ house into a darkroom and learned to develop and print black and white photographs. I still have this camera.
1977 Nikkormat FT2 (SLR)
In 1977 I was a member of the Joint Universities Expedition to Iceland. For that trip I bought a Nikkormat FT2 SLR and a few Nikon lenses. At around this time, Nikon was the camera of choice for professionals and the Nikkormat range was developed to give ‘advanced amateurs access to the Nikon system’.
The Nikkormat FT2 was a wonderful camera – comfortable to hold and easy to use. I learned to take different sort of photographs; with extension tubes and bellows I could photograph insects; with a brolly-flash I could take portraits – on a couple of occasions I even got paid (nothing serious – just enough to cover the cost of the film and a beer).
A couple of years later and for reasons I am still unable to fathom, I sold this camera and my collection of Nikon lenses and effectively gave up photography. Perhaps everything after Iceland was simply an anticlimax.
2005 Olympus Mju digital point and shoot
Annie and I were on our bikes in France in the summer of 2005 and I wanted a snapshot camera. This was my first foray into the world of Digital and I was astonished by the quality and ease of picture-taking. I even managed to take a real photograph that was favourably received by an on-line photography forum.
2007 Nikon D80 DSLR (digital single lens reflex)
With time on my hands recovering from surgery and chemotherapy I decided to exercise my need for creativity with a ‘proper camera’. For purely sentimental reasons I went back to Nikon. The D80 was a reassuringly chunky, comfortable camera to hold. Now, I thought, it begins.
But I was unprepared for the work that goes into using a DSLR. The learning curve was steep. Most of the pictures I took were disappointing. There was something clearly wrong because Annie was getting great results from a point and shoot that cost a fraction of the D80.
I knew nothing of shooting RAW, sharpening, histograms, white balance and, most importantly, that a computer and software are as much a part of the final result as the camera itself.
On holidays or trips away, the D80 was increasingly left at home because it was big and (relatively) heavy. And conspicuous. The fun had gone and I eventually sold it (déjà vu?).
The digital medium
I like the idea of digital – the instant feedback on whether ideas have worked or not. In the summer on 1977 I remember shooting a sequence of pictures of insects, handheld with tricky lighting and a depth of field that could be measured in millimetres – and having to wait a couple of weeks while the slides were processed before finding out if I had any pictures or not.
But I do not like digital cameras – or rather I do not like scrolling through menus. Give me buttons. Neither do I like being confined to default shooting programmes. There really are only three parameters that make a picture; sensitivity (ISO or film speed), shutter speed and aperture.
And I do not want to spend hours sitting at a computer in order to make a photograph – although I do recognise that this is not too dissimilar to the hours I spent in the cold of my darkroom making prints. I am not a purist about these things – I do not believe that the picture is made in the camera and that’s it – I’d still be using film if I did. My quarrel is with the complexity of the software – I am simply overwhelmed by too many choices. I guess my dream camera would be digital but with the functionality of a film camera.
It is clear that I am not the only disenchanted DSLR user – a trawl through any on-line photography forum shows many expensive camera systems gathering dust at home. Manufacturers responded by producing ‘advanced P&S’ – small compact cameras that allowed the user to over-ride all the automatic programmes and set aperture, shutter speed and focus manually. This, I decided, would be the way to go.
2009 Leica Dlux4 digital point and shoot
The magazines are full of reviews of advanced P&S cameras – the one that caught my eye had the famous Leica red dot on the front. The Dlux4 is a small point and shoot camera that allows full manual control and produces fabulous colour images, as well as great black and white images, straight out of the camera, with the minimum need for tweaking on a computer. And a couple of nice touches; an adapter that screws on the front of the lens ring to allow the use of proper filters like polarisers – and the icing on the cake – an add-on viewfinder (I hate holding the camera at arm’s length or squinting into the LCD screen on a sunny day).
Although the Dlux4 scored high on quality and ease of use, it scored low on value for money. But value for money is a very subjective thing. Leica is a premium brand and I’ve always wanted one. And Cancer is a great permission-granter. It seems to say “You’ve got this horrible disease so treat yourself while you can”. So I did.
I consider the pictures I’ve taken with this to be the most satisfying I’ve ever managed. I’ve even produced some large prints – 11”x14” from a point and shoot with a tiny sensor. (Tip – I joined Costco on a friend’s recommendation for their photo processing facilities. Large colour and black & white for a couple of £s.)
And there are photographers on the Web who are really pushing the capabilities of this little camera through shooting RAW and post-processing the images. So that has to be my next goal – getting to grips with the software. I can no longer ignore it. I feel quite excited about this – it’s like that long hot summer of 1977 when I sat in my garden learning how to take pictures of ladybirds. Life must be pretty boring if you know it all.