Back to the past

Like many, I learned the basics of photography before the digital age. Pause while I put on the sunglasses of nostalgia. With the glasses on, I remember the thrill of unpacking the film from its cardboard and plastic containers, fiddling to load the film without exposing too much leader, and hoping to squeeze an extra frame if I was using black and white, which I would later develop myself.

Only 36 shots on a roll, so I had to make every one count. Even so, with slide film I’d bracket either side of the measured exposure which would often result in only 12 unique photos from every roll. The film speed was given but we all had our favourite adjustments to get the results we wanted. Professionals would buy batches of film manufactured at the same time and expose one roll to test the proper settings for that batch. Colour print film had a wide exposure latitude, forgiving any minor errors in exposure (which is why wedding photographers used it). Slide film, and to a lesser extend black and white film, had to be accurately exposed or compensation applied at the processing stage. It had to be a consistent exposure variation for the whole film so we had to decide in advance. Many, including me, had two camera bodies loaded with different films just in case. My preference was for slide and black and white.

When I started, lenses were all manual focus. Film cameras had a great focusing screen with a split prism that made focusing easy in most situations. As my main interest was landscape, there was no need for lightning fast focusing. Part of the appeal for me was the slow, methodical approach and the actual taking of the photograph was almost secondary.

Then, once the snaps had been taken, there was the delay in seeing the results while the films went off for processing. Sometimes, if I was on holiday, I might have to wait up to two weeks to see the final prints or slides. Black and white film was slightly better as I’d process it myself and this could be done overnight. But then, all I’d have was tiny negatives until I printed off the images I wanted. I got good at assessing photographic potential from these tiny reversed images.

And here is where the nostalgia goggles start to leak reality.

I didn’t always develop the black and white films immediately after taking the photographs. Once I left college and the convenience of darkrooms set up and ready to go, I sometimes waited until I had two or three films to do. And then, I sometimes waited until I had more. It was all about the darkroom. At first, it was in my bedroom and had to be set up and put away every time I wanted to use it. And then I set it up in the garden shed and it was cold, damp and uncomfortable. So I started using less and less black and white, which was actually my favourite medium.

Slides came back from the processor in boxes and to view them properly I had to set up the projector. Which meant loading up the magazine in just the right way so that the projected images were the right way up and the right way around. It took time and was fiddly, so I got a smaller viewer for checking the results. And it was more convenient but no one else saw them.

The prints from print film stayed in their wallets and only occasionally got put in albums. I have some of those albums still on my bookshelf. They look impressive but I can’t remember what’s in them. I have sent for recycling more photos that I can remember.

One day, I bought a digital camera. The quality of the results weren’t the best but they were instant and that appealed to me. This meant I could retake the photo straight away rather than wait until I was next in the area. I could see the pictures on my computer and I could edit them without having to go out to the shed dressing in several layers of warm clothing. I didn’t have to breathe in chemicals and wait for the negatives to dry, all the while hoping no dust got on the wet film.

With the nostalgia goggles fully removed, I confess that I sold up all my film gear and went digital and never looked back. I have no regrets in doing this and I think it rekindled my interest in photography. I made the decision when I saw the results from a 6mp Fuji DSLR and for me, the moment when digital quality surpassed analogue quality was when I got my Nikon D300. Not only can I check the results (and for those who would never stoop to such crass activity are missing one of the main advantages of digital technology), but I can change film type and sensitivity without having to worry about rewinding a partially exposed film (and remembering where to wind it back on to afterwards). A modest memory card costs less than a roll of film plus processing and can be reused. Digital is just better.

So today, I picked up a CD with 36 images scanned onto it by the people that processed the film I dropped off to them about an hour earlier. I’d taken the photos on film that was at least four years out of date, on a camera made in the mid 70s using manual focus lenses probably made in the late 60s. And despite all I’ve said above, I enjoyed using the camera. I’d forgotten about the satisfying clunk as the mechanical shutter thumps down on it’s mounting and I’d forgotten about the big, bright viewfinder than made focusing a pleasure. The camera required me to translate the meter reading into aperture and shutter settings by interpreting three little red LEDs. I had to trust it was accurate but I also had to know roughly what to expect. And I found I did.

The images below are from that film. Some of the colours are odd and there’s a lot of grain. I suspect that’s a combination of out dated film and poor scanning from the shop. They were just test shots I took while out and about so they’re not masterpieces. But I have more film, some of which is new, and I’m sure there’ll be more posts about the old fashioned way of doing photography.

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Life changes

If you think back over the last thirty years, you’d have to agree things have changed. In 1986, plans were announced to build the Channel Tunnel, which wouldn’t be completed for another 8 years. There was still a big concrete wall and minefield separating East and West Germany. People were being killed trying to cross from East to West. The Simpsons were created in 1986. Commercially available digital cameras were unknown. Although the initial theoretical work that led to the MP3 audio format was done in the 1890s, a standard wasn’t agreed on until 100 years later.

30 years ago this year, I started my adventures in the world of work. I had left college wanting to be a musician but knowing that I’d need proper work to see me through and pay the bills (at least until we hit the big time). So off I went into the job market to see what was about. I was fortunate, I walked into my first job mainly because (on paper) I was more highly qualified for the role than the hiring manager. I became the technician in the photography department of the local college and held the job for 7 months until they gained their BTEC accreditation (for which they needed a dedicated technician) and no longer needed me.

I spent some time between careers, doing voluntary work and attending a number of job interviews. I learnt a lot about the interview process and, most importantly, that not all the interviewers were capable of carrying out a proper selection. I also learnt not to point that out to them! One occasion ended up with a discussion on the reliability of various cars as the hiring manager had run out of things to ask. I was in no position to refuse any job offer but ironically, the next job I had came about when I gave the band’s bass player a lift to a job interview. As I was there, they interviewed me too. The word interview makes it sound structured – it wasn’t and the reason I got the job and the bassist didn’t was simply because I could drive and he couldn’t, and they needed someone there and then. I spent two years driving security vans for a well known company (not the ones that got the Olympics wrong), rising to the position of crew commander. Unfortunately, that was where it would end as the next level of promotion was into the admin office, and those jobs were reserved for the boss’s favourites (of which I was not one).

Next came the move into what I thought might be a career and once again, I got the job because I accompanied someone. We went to get the application forms for her, and I picked up a set at the same time. I got an interview at which was able to tell the interviewers things about the organisation that they didn’t know. By now I’d learnt to do that tactfully and in a way that was informative rather than challenging. As a result, I not only got a job offer, but a choice of jobs in the same place. I think I chose wisely.

27 years and ten different roles later, there has been no sign of a career but it’s mostly been a good experience. But now I am about to take another big step in the adventure of work. Tomorrow is my first official day of partial retirement. It was a relatively easy decision to make but as the actual date has been getting closer, it’s been hard to really prepare for it as so much remains unknown at the moment. It’s a big step and some of the decisions I’ve had to make will continue to impact me for many years. But none were taken lightly and I have no regrets. My only real concern is that I make the most of the new time I have as a result of reducing my hours.

In the last couple of years I have seen friends and peers suffer life changing illnesses and in some cases, die. I read somewhere that in a study done in America, a number of people interviewed at the end of their lives only ever expressed regret at things they didn’t do. They never regretted mistakes made as a result of trying new things. That’s how I want to be looking back over my life when that time comes.