My Cameras and Interest In Photography

I first got into photography at the age of 12 in 1962 when I was introduced to the subject by a teacher at school who ran a photographic society. I can't remember receiving too much instruction but a group of us got together and tried B&W development in the school's dark room. I was hooked from the word go, what a magical process!

I can't now recall the first camera that I used but I guess that it was a Kodak Brownie 127 borrowed from my parents, as I still have some dreadful 127 negatives and remember the name Brownie.

Clearly I needed to buy a better camera. A friend's uncle was a keen amateur photographer and he passed on the intelligence that the Halina Paulette 35mm camera was a good starting point for people on a very limited budget, so one came my way.  I don't recall if this was a Xmas present, or if I saved up my pocket money, but it provided me with a real, if rather poor, camera with adjustable shutter speeds and apertures. With the benefit of hindsight I might have been better off with a second hand camera of a different type, for example a folding Agfa.

Later, while still at school, I started work as a barman at a local working man's club and that enabled me to save up for a single lens reflex (SLR) camera. At that time there were three main contenders at the economy end of the scale, the Praktica, the Zenith and the Exa, all from the former Eastern block soviet countries. Looking back, the Zenith probably had the best lens (6 element, a  copy of the Zeiss planar) but I went for the f2.8 Zeiss Tessar on the Exa 500, later supplemented by a Meyer Lydith 30 mm and a Hanimex 135 mm telephoto. The Exa was not a great camera but the Tessar was a reasonable lens. Well stopped down it delivered the goods. In cold weather, and I always seemed to be taking photos in cold conditions, the mirror would jam in the up position. The cure was to give the camera a good smack across the pentaprism! Despite its shortcomings, the camera served me well for a number of years.

Exa 500

My next purchase was perhaps a  more sensible one, a 1957 vintage Rolleicord 120 roll film camera for £25. This provided a quantum leap in photo quality. The lens, a Schneider Xenar, was a four element Tessar type similar to the standard lens on my Exa, but the greater acreage of negative made all the difference.

Rolleicord

At about this time I bought sufficient second hand kit to set up a temporary  darkroom in my parents' bathroom. I still have the MPP enlarger etc., but it has not seen any use these past 25 years.

After getting a degree, a proper job, and married, I found myself in the unprecedented position of having money in my pocket, when I was able to indulge in my first decent quality new camera, a Pentax ME. SLR. The first task it was given was an important one, my brother in law's wedding! It was of course a mistake to use a new camera for such an occasion, but I was but young and foolish! The day started very badly when I found that the camera would not focus properly as people walked towards me approaching the church. It took a few missed shots before I realised that the camera focused in the opposite direction to the Exa! Undeterred, I pressed on, and, using both the Pentax and the Rollei, recorded my first wedding. Given the family connections, I decided "dam the expense" and went to a local professional lab to have the colour films processed. They came out fine, but the person handing them over commented that the 120 shots were a lot better than the 35 mm.  This can't be true I thought, a brand new Pentax against an ancient Rollei, but he was right. A good big-un will always beat a good little-un, even though the Pentax lens was intrinsically superior. (Having conducted loads of tests on lots of lenses,  that 50 mm f1.7 SMC M remains one of the sharpest in my collection).

At that time we were heavily into dinghy sailing and raced regularly at South Shields. Once day I was on rescue boat duty and decided to take the camera to get some action shots. Sadly, on first stepping onto the inflatable, a wave washed over myself and the camera and that was that! Every cloud, however, and the insurance paid for a replacement, the improved Pentax ME Super. I loved that camera, and I still do. It recorded all of the important events in our early married life and of course the kids growing up. Considering the amount of work it got through it served me very well indeed, I can forgive a couple of visits to the repair man to cure stuck magnets etc.

Pentax ME Super

In  more recent years I decided to upgrade my camera and, taking advantage of a work trip to the far east, bought myself a brand new auto focus Pentax MZ-50. I did this without carrying out the research that I would normally do and paid the price for my haste and idleness. This is the least reliable camera that I have ever owned and the least robust. It took decent enough photos when it was working,  but it soon became apparent that I would be spending much more on repairs than the camera cost, so it was allowed to die. Do not be tempted to buy a Pentax camera from that particular era! Pentax does appear to have got its act back into gear of late and they are now producing rather nice DSLRs, which has had the effect of pushing up the price of second hand lenses.

When digital photography became available at sensible prices I bought a cheap Fuji point and shoot camera to try the new technology, and the film cameras were retired. This re-awakened my interest in photography to some extent and I did begin to get back into reading about the subject. A few years later a Canon A80 was acquired. This is a smart little camera that does offer some manual override, and produces quite nice images. While the camera does offer some manual adjustment, it is limited and in time I found that frustrating. In particular I really missed the opportunity to manually focus the camera and to look through a clear viewfinder, while the delay between pressing the shutter release and the shot being taken meant that it was not very satisfactory for any kind of action photography. This came to a head when I was present at a close friend's 50th birthday and tried to take some shots of him making a speech - I did not manage to capture a single good  expression. In addition, there were a number of important shots that were messed up because the camera chose to focus on the wrong part of the scene. You have to use a camera to realise its limitations! However I do have A4 sized photos on the wall taken with the little Canon, it is an excellent example of its type.

Further research led me to acquire a Canon 20D digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera and that has been my main photographic tool over the last few years. I use it in connection with my work and take all of the important family snaps with it. All of the photographs on this page were taken using the 20D, a small light tent and two, radio controlled, but ancient, Vivitar flash guns.

Unfortunately digital cameras depend heavily upon sensor technology and that technology moves on at a frantic pace. Not only can they cram more pixels on to the sensor, but, perhaps more importantly, the image quality is also increasing significantly. Whereas with a film camera you can always use the latest emulsions and so keep pace with technology, this is not the case with digital, as, to date, no-one has marketed a camera with an upgradable sensor. At some point I will need to bite the bullet and buy a new camera body. At the time of writing the Canon 50D (three iterations on from my 20D) and the more expensive Canon 5D MkII have both been announced and they are both possible candidates for purchase - but not until the price subsides significantly!

At this stage I had better mention the alternatives workflows that are available to the digital camera user. All DSLR cameras and some top of the range non reflex digital cameras can capture images either as standard JPG files or as RAW files. JPG is the photography industry standard and JPGs are usable straight out of the camera. RAW files comprise the basic digital information that the sensor has produced and are peculiar to the camera involved. They need to be processed to a different format for printing or viewing on standard systems, e.g they need to be converted to JPG or TIFF format.  Shooting RAW rather than JPG allows the photographer to take control over the conversion process, modifying the exposure, the white balance or contrast, or taking control over the noise supression  that is being employed. This does introduce another step into the process of producing images, but it provides more flexibility and in most cases can produce results that are technically slightly better. For this reason I shoot the great majority of my digital photos in the RAW format, and only use JPG when the images are not too important, or when speed is of the essence. In camera clubs throughout the length and breadth of the country there will be people debating the relative merits of shooting  JPG versus RAW.  My advice would be to try both and then use the system that is best for your circumstances.

How do I find the 20D? There is no perceptible lag between releasing the shutter and taking the photo, the exposure meter gets it right most of the time, and the images can be very good indeed. However, the viewfinder is nothing like as good as that fitted to my now antique Pentax ME Super. Fitted with an expensive L zoom lens it's incredibly heavy and bulky, while the images, although technically good, just don't have the same look as those that are obtainable from film. Further, I don't get the same pleasure from processing digital images as I do from developing film. If you have never developed a film you might find this hard to understand, but even after processing hundreds of them, I always get a tingle of excitement when the film first comes out the tank. In almost 50 years of processing film this magic has never left me.

Therefore, in addition to using the 20D, I have now returned to using film cameras. I tried to have my trusty ME Super fixed but it has had a long and hard life and I eventually concluded that it was beyond economic repair. A new, to me, Pentax ME Super and Pentax MX were bought from Ebay very cheaply, and, following a professional clean, lubrication and adjustment (CLA) are now working cameras. The Rolleicord has been rejuvenated, and is almost as good as new. Liking the superior quality obtainable from the larger 120 film negatives, but missing the convenience of a SLR and interchangeable lenses, I have bought a second hand Bronica set up. The Bronica has been described as "the poor man's Hasselblad" and is a very good Japanese copy of the Swedish Hasselblad modular camera concept. Bronicas were the preferred tool of many a professional and semi professional photographer for wedding and studio work, and, when new,  were expensive cameras. The digital revolution has floored the market for film cameras so it is possible to buy this first class equipment for a fraction of its original price, while the results it is capable of producing are outstanding. The lenses give the same quality at f4 as that fitted to the Rolleicord at f11, i.e. they are a good deal better, and the focusing screen is much brighter and easier to use.

I believe that many professionals deserted film for digital because the running costs were so much lower, and of course the results were immediately available. It was not driven by image quality. Professionals would take quick and dirty Polaroid images to verify the exposures in the days of film, but now you just take a glance at the histogram on the digital camera's LCD screen. Things move on of course and the images from top of the range digital cameras now compete successfully with all but the largest format film cameras.

Pentax MX

The Pentax MX with one of my favourite lenses, the K 28mm f3.5 - I have provided some comments on the relative merits of my collection of Pentax lenses here.

The Bronica ETRSi with AE-II metering prism view finder, and 50mm, 75mm and 150mm Zenzanon lenses.

Bronica kit

Why have such an assortment of cameras? Well I enjoy handling these precision instruments, they are beautifully engineered. The Pentax M series approach ergonomic perfection with regard to the fit in the hand and the bright clear viewfinder. It is very useful to have two camera bodies available, each capable of using the same assortment of lenses, but with a different film, or lens, in each. The 35 mm cameras are by far the most convenient to use, being relatively small and light, and are the best choice for reportage or action shots. But there is a satisfaction to be had from the more considered approach that is required using the 120 film cameras. I have taken some of my best photographs using the Bronica mounted on a heavy tripod. Rather than machine gun the scene with the camera, you carefully consider what is the best viewpoint, decide, what, if any, filter to use, think carefully about the exposure and camera settings and then wait for the perfect light or cloud formation before gently squeezing the cable release. You then have to wait until that film emerges from the tank to see if your masterpiece is as good as you hope it might be.

For exposure metering I use the built in meters most of the time, but I also have a Gossen Digisix reflected and incident light meter for use with the Rolleicord and in difficult cirumstances. There are occasions when even the sophisticated evaluative metering mode on the 20D gets it wrong and a manual exposure setting gives a much better result.

I tend to use Ilford films and developers, my current favourites being FP4+ rated at 125 and developed in DD-X and HP5+  in Perceptol (rated at 320 for the finest grain) and DD-X when it is necessary to push the speed. PanF I find too contrasty, while the Delta series, although finer grained, don't produce the look that I like from photographs. I have a bottle of Rodinal but cannot live with the grainy results that it gives. At some point in the future I may try mixing my own chemicals.

I continue to use the DSLR camera for work and for recording important family events, the progress of our grandchild for example, but I use the film cameras for pleasure and I am taking more photographs now than I ever have done.  It's a fascinating hobby!

Update - reasoning that I don't need all of those megapixels, but that full frame digital is the way to go for improved quality, I have bought myself a nearly new Canon 5D DSLR camera. This camera does not have the bells and whistles of the new 50D or 5D mark II, but it produces superb image quality, ideal for the stock photography libraries. One bonus, the camera comes with the Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP) RAW converter software and Canon does allow users to update to the latest version free of charge. In effect you are getting the latest technology RAW converter to use with an older camera. I have compared this to Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) and, in my opinion, DPP gives better results. At some stage I will carry out comparative tests between my Bronica and the Canon 5D.

Bryan Attewell
12-01-2009
 


All photographs (c) B. Attewell

Web site under construction September 2008