A Photographic Journey
Have you ever wondered where a photographer starts his or her journey? What they did and what equipment they used? What motivated them to take up photography as a pastime and turn it — if that’s what they did — into a full time occupation?
Any endeavour — any worthwhile endeavour, that is — is like climbing a mountain. The way to the top always starts at the bottom: unless of course you’re helicoptered in straight at the top; but that’s not the kind of journey we’re thinking about. Along the way we meet many challenges: sometimes the route is straight; often it is not. We each have our own starting point and go as far along the path as we want. Some are lucky to have started with a single lens reflex (SLR) and never looked back. Others had to start from even more humble beginnings — an iPhone or something even more basic. That’s where I began my journey, with probably the most basic of point-and-shoot cameras. Wherever we started, the story is basically the same: a long — and it is usually a long — apprenticeship in the art of taking a photograph.
My First Camera
My first camera — a Kodak ‘Brownie’ 44A — was not technically mine. It belonged to my parents and had been used to record a young family coming into being and growing through childhood. They had no particular interest in photography as an art medium, and it was very much a duty camera to record the passage of life — principally through holiday snaps and days out — much as the iPhone is used today. It was also a period in which the financial pressures of the post-war period were still a prominent factor in their thinking, and there wasn’t the money to indulge in expensive hobbies. The most important priority was our education, and everything else was seen through that perspective.
Being a basic point-and-shoot design, the 44A was not a sophisticated camera by any means. It had a plastic body with an integral plastic cover; and used 12-exposure 127 roll film to produce 44 mm square negatives or transparencies — from whence the “44” designation was derived. Its main claim to fame was the use of a plastic lens in place of the usual glass-based optics. Unlike its more-sophisticated big brother — the 44B — our little 44A had only a fixed-focus lens and a single shutter speed (the 44B had a focusing lens as well as a variable shutter speed and aperture). Exposure control was limited to a choice of two aperture settings. There was also an attachment point for a flash gun, which we never bothered with.
The 44A was well obsolete by the time I was old enough to use it. Even so, it was the means by which I was introduced to the world of photography. Despite its simplicity it was designed to cope with the range of lighting conditions that would typically be expected during the day (heavy overcast to bright sunlight). It could also produce reasonable results in partial moonlight, as long as the moon was high (and bright) enough. As with any other mechanical object, I succumbed to youthful human nature (don’t we all) in pushing it beyond its boundaries and it wasn’t long before I discovered the limitations of this little machine. I remember using it on a school trip to the car museum at Beaulieu and being frustrated at there not being enough light for a decent photograph of Campbell’s Bluebird. Predictably, I wanted a more capable camera: both to take better photographs and keep up with my peers.
The crucial question though was what? My schoolboy horizons were still limited by the point-and-shoot style of camera, and then there was the question of cost. My parents were willing to help me upgrade to a better camera, but the budget was not unlimited. However, by this time I had joined the Photographic Society at school and was becoming absorbed by the intricacies and opportunities of darkroom processing. More particularly, I learned of the various different camera types, including the SLR. Getting an SLR seemed beyond my wildest dreams, but there was one that seemed to be within the acceptable price range: the Zenit-E.
For those for whom the Zenit-E is long-forgotten ancient history, or who have simply never heard of it, it was an uncomplicated and rather angular-looking SLR produced in the Soviet Union over a 20-year period between 1965 and 1986. The Zenit-E was an inexpensive alternative to the more-familiar western brands such as Nikon, Pentax and Canon; and which enabled budding young enthusiasts on limited budgets — such as myself — to explore a world beyond the point-and-shoot genre. It took 35 mm film and incorporated a built-in (selenium) light meter located just above the lens. Its ungainly appearance seemed typical — to western eyes, at least — of a Soviet design philosophy favouring functional utilitarianism over aesthetic appeal. It was probably the most “uncool” SLR on the market: today’s image-conscious photographers would almost certainly not want to be seen with one of these things hanging around their necks.
Compared with modern digital cameras, the Zenit-E offered only the basic minimum in operational capability. It was fitted with a standard screw-mounted 58 mm Helios lens with an aperture range of f2 to f16. The shutter speed settings varied between 1/30th and 1/500th of a second; there was also a “B” setting for long exposures as well as a clockwork self-timer. The exposure meter was calibrated for film speeds between 16 to 500 ASA. There was no “auto” exposure — shutter speed, aperture and focus had all to be set manually; neither was there any vibration compensation mechanism for countering camera shake. The exposure meter had also to be used carefully to avoid getting an erroneous compensation estimate of the ambient lighting conditions. However, important as all these details are, the crucial element in producing photographs to a high standard is the quality of the image projected onto the film; that is: the better the lens, the better the captured image. The Helios was a decent lens in its own right — it was nominally a Russian copy of the Zeiss Jena Biotar 58 mm lens — and was capable of producing some very good results under the right conditions. For all its simplicity, the Zenit-E was perfectly capable of producing decent quality images in skilled hands.
The Zenit-E accompanied me on many a school trip, especially on hill-walking expeditions in both the Lake and Peak District national parks. I was even geeky enough to take photographs of the TV programmes showing the later (i.e. post-Apollo 11) moon landings: there were no video recorders in those days — at least not that we could afford — so what else were we to do to record the history of the occasion?
With the Zenit-E I shot a mixture of transparency and black and white print: the latter because I could process the negatives in the school darkroom. On occasions we experimented also with the processing of transparency film, but it was a fiddly procedure and hard to guarantee consistent results.
The main weakness of the Zenit-E was the cloth shutter, which travelled horizontally across the focal plane. Eventually the spring mechanism failed and the shutter collapsed, thereby signalling an end to my experiment with my first SLR. I was sad: the Zenit’s severe lack of “cool” notwithstanding, it had provided me with a taste for more advanced photography and a desire to continue with the experience.
Having sparked my interest in SLR photography it was soon obvious that the only option worth considering was to find a replacement to the Zenit-E. If possible I wanted also to get a camera that was more reliable and easier to use. With budget limitations still being an important consideration, I turned once again to the east and acquired a Praktica.
The Praktica LTL was an East German SLR that represented a step up in functionality over the Zenit. It had a “stop-down” through-the-lens metering capability that measured more accurately what would be projected onto the film compared with the Zenit-E. More particularly, the shutter mechanism was of a vertical-travel metal leaf design and far more reliable then the Zenit. Programmed shutter speeds varied from 1 to 1/1000th of a second, together with a B setting for long exposures. The Praktica was certainly solidly built, even if it suffered from the similarly boring utilitarian approach to design aesthetics — it was at least marginally less “uncool” than the Zenit. However, East German optics technology came with a good reputation — and that was seen as being more important than visual appeal.
It was with the Praktica that I started to experiment with telephoto photography. Having a telephoto means you can get close-in on a subject without being close to it, and get that gloriously short depth of field with the bokeh effect that makes the subject stand out from the background. It was only a modest telephoto — a 135 mm — but that was enough to begin practising the art of street photography (for example) in which the subject is more likely to have a natural pose because they are not intimidated by the overt presence of a camera.
Sadly, my stewardship of the Praktica came to a premature end when it was stolen along with all the other bits of kit during a break-in at our student digs. At the time I was appropriately upset at the violation of our personal spaces, but then I had to permit myself a wry smile at what our light-fingered intruder had actually got away with. The Praktica was still a budget camera by western standards and so would not have been worth very much to a fencer: it was as if a car thief had hot-wired a car and discovered he’d nabbed a Trabbi instead of a Beamer. Actually, that’s an unfair comparison, since the Praktica was a much better camera than the Trabbi was a car. They say that every cloud has a silver lining and this was one of them, for our uninvited guest had provided me with a golden opportunity for upgrading to a better camera.
By the time I was ready to replace the Praktica I’d finished studying and could afford something rather better than just a budget system; and so it was that my next camera was a Pentax. At the time, owning a Pentax was the aspiration of many an amateur photographer. In this case I chose the P30n as it was the best deal at the time for my needs.
Every camera has its fan club and detractors, and the P30n was no exception; however, it seems to have been generally well-received in the SLR community and I was certainly happy with it. It was equipped with a number of automatic and semi-automatic exposure control modes, even though focusing was still manual: accurate focus was achieved by means of a split-prism in the viewfinder. Moreover, it provided access to a vast array of alternate lenses via the Pentax K-mount. The P30n accompanied me on many a trip around Europe and further afield: perhaps the most enduring memory of that period is photographing the total solar eclipse that passed over Western Europe in 1999.
Thus was my introduction to the world of photography. I’d started with the simplest of point-and-shoot cameras, and worked my way up to a competent SLR from a mainstream manufacturer — taking advantage of every little set-back along the way. I’m sure every other photographer you ask will have a similar story, although their particular journey will be uniquely their own. They’ll probably also delight in telling you that story: there is, after all, a certain pride in overcoming humble beginnings.
I had no pretensions of becoming a full-time or even a semi-professional photographer while building a career, so I couldn’t justify the expense of a high-spec system; but the attraction of photography is in the opportunities it provides for the amateur to thrive and achieve a high standard of the art. That said, a significant barrier to the aspiring photographer at that time was the then reliance on film technology for the captured image. The high achieving photographer needs to have control over the whole process, all the way from the viewfinder to the finished photograph: with film, that meant controlling the image development in the darkroom. With my career priorities elsewhere I had neither the time nor the opportunity to establish a personal home-based darkroom. The significance of this first stage in my photographic development was the valuable experience gained in handling SLR-type cameras: in particular, all those that I’d owned came without image stabilisation, and — with the exception of the Pentax — exposure control was exclusively manual.
Into the Digital Age
It is of course the intention of every manufacturer to encourage brand loyalty, and the big camera brands are no different. The P30n was my final camera of the film era, and it was with another Pentax – the K200D – that I transitioned into the digital age. The K200D was also well-regarded in its day, and went on to carry me through my “L”. It is still in use today, although its older sensor means that it is no longer the first choice camera when venturing out into the field. I’ve since acquired more up-to-date Pentax models (e.g. the K1) that now cover the majority of my photography requirements.
The transition to digital transformed the art of photography from the preserve of a few to the many: basically anyone with a digital camera and a computer could become a high-achieving photographer. Moreover, the restrictions of film no longer applied: images could be created and deleted in an instant. However, there are skills to be learned even in the digital age, and it was with that aim in mind that I enrolled on the Open University’s TG089 Digital Photography course. The TG089 course proved to be the gateway to the next stage of my photographic journey in mastering the art of photography.
The Featured Image
Winter snap. The image featured at the head of this post was taken during a period of hard frosts in Germany at the end of 2016.
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