Before the summer hiatus on the blog, I posted an article about The Shed That Granddad Built and included a photograph of the shed, taken with an old Sony Cybershot camera in the early 2000s. My recollections of that camera are almost entirely negative, but whilst preparing the image for posting I was pleasantly surprised that with some work on the saturation, the image was actually very usable. Around the time of that post, I was actually in a bit of a low where my photography was concerned. I have discussed my limitations as a photographer before.
I was beginning to feel as though digital photography, particularly with the advent of smartphones, instagram and so on, had become a bit of a millstone. A day trip that once may have resulted in two or three shots on a 24 exposure film can now generate literally hundreds of shots. I cannot speak for others, but my approach to digital images is to review, delete as many as possible to ensure a well curated collection remains and to then process and ‘develop’ them in Lightroom. Sometimes, one cannot be certain what to delete until some processing has taken place. It does not take much to fall behind and all of a sudden, there are several hundred photographs waiting to be reviewed and edited. Getting the mojo up to go through those can be a problem. There was a good article on The Conversation a few years ago on this subject.
I had become quite lazy with my DSLR and taken to using my iPhone. Whilst the images from the DSLR are undoubtedly better and the camera offers more flexibility, it is cumbersome to carry around. The iPhone is always there and means photo-opportunities that would otherwise be missed are captured. On the flip side, my iPhone 6 Plus takes great snapshots but there is often a sense of regret in Lightroom that I had not used the DSLR for a shot that is borderline in terms of detail, noise or low-light exposure. Over Christmas, a colleague from work lent me a Canon 50mm prime lens, which was a new experience for me as I have always used zoom lenses. My EOS 600D has an APS-C sensor, which means the 50mm is actually an 80mm equivalent lens. Additionally, the lens also had a much bigger aperture than I have used, at f1.7, meaning I had to be much more precise with my focal points when doing portraits.
Although such a lens, at 80mm equivalent, is much more narrow angle than I am interested in, something about using a higher quality lens compared to my kit lens and trying something else, stimulated a new line to pursue with photography and I set about actively looking at getting either a new camera, some prime lenses or both. I started to investigate mirrorless and full-frame, but was deterred somewhat by the cost.
Over the past couple of years, I had been contemplating purchasing an old film SLR camera as a way of doing something different with my photography. The appeal was the idea of photographing knowing the capacity to photograph on a given occasion was finite. 24 or 36 shots. The challenge was to see whether I could take what I have learnt about composition and exposure over the years and achieve satisfactory results on film, without knowing instantly whether I had succeeded or not. Recently I had been watching a few adverts on Gumtree or eBay and had almost taken the plunge, when I heard about a local retailer of old cameras and lenses. Samuel was looking at a new project for school and so between us we resolved to make exploring film our new project.
Our first camera was a Minolta XG1. The chap in the shop recommended it as a good entry-level SLR, particularly combined with a Minolta 50mm f1.7 lens. Being a 35mm negative SLR, the 50mm is 50mm. Equipped with the included roll of Kodak ColourPlus film, we set off. I had been thinking about a Canon AE-1, which gets a lot of press, but it was quite pleasing to get a Minolta, for my first SLR, a relatively modern one at the time, was a Minolta 404si. For me, it was a pleasing return to a different process. For Samuel, raised on digital as he has been, it was a voyage of discovery. Working out how the image was recorded, focusing manually, considering every aspect of the exposure as well as the composition and evaluating in advance whether the shot was worth it, or whether a better option lay ahead. It was great to watch and to share that experience with him. For my part, I found it quite liberating to give such consideration to each exposure and then have the suspense of waiting until the whole film was exposed and developed to see the result. I must confess, we did not take an entirely luddite approach to things. We used our iPhones as light metres and on occasions, the Canon DSLR to help metre the shots, but as the Minolta has less flexibility (the ISO is what the film is, the shutter speed does not go faster than 1/1000) it was down to the final choice of parameters we selected, rather than an algorithm. The most rewarding thing was perhaps the way it made us seek out opportunities. For both of us, our photography had become a sense of “shoot that in case it is good”, rather than “that looks great like that, the light is here, this would be an interesting exposure, let’s do it”. I think it might be fair to say that shooting film and contemplating whether to take a shot actually allowed us to see things in more detail, or with more consideration, than if we had randomly photographed with our phones or the Canon.
We spent a day together travelling clockwise around Port Phillip Bay, using the Sorrento to Queenscliff ferry to cross the heads, exploring the Bellarine Peninsula and then Wiliamstown before coming home. Along the way, we expended much of the first film and excitedly took it to developers the next day. This was interesting in itself, because along with our joy at seeing what we had captured, came the slightly bitter sense of failure that was familiar to film-users for decades. Sadly, the Minolta had a light-leak or a shutter fault and so a number of negatives had been spoilt. Nevertheless, we managed to crop and balance a few and came out with a collection we were happy with. We returned the Minolta and came away with an alternative model and another roll of film. I was so enthused with the concept, that I also purchased a 28mm lens. Also manual everything. Samuel was so captivated that he took my cousin up on the loan of a large-format, bellows camera and we are sourcing negatives for it currently. That will be a whole other project.
The images from the Minolta have a tone and grain that make them quite alluring, although perhaps more grain than I recall from an ISO200 film. A well metered and exposed negative has phenomenal dynamic range. They cannot hope to compare to a modern full-frame digital in terms of sharpness, colour and flexibility to edit, but I like them. Shooting film and digital will complement each other nicely and I will buy that full-frame DSLR/Mirrorless within the next couple of years. Digital photography has, after all, allowed me to develop as a photographer via multiple shots and freedom to experiment without concern about the cost of developing and printing. It’s nice to have my mojo back.