Back To Basics

February 08, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

24 years ago, as a treat my dad would take me to my local camera store to get a filter for my SLR. I was 12, and very proud of my camera kit.


I had a flash and one lens. My camera was manual but had a little LCD screen.

I used to used Cokin filters on my new Chinon 35mm camera. (for the photo geeks out there.) These filters were basically little squares of plastic that were held in front of the lens and you could add 2 or 3 at a time. There were loads to chose from. This store used to sell them second hand for a few quid each.

It was a typical old style photo store. Lots of vintage cameras adorned the walls on shelves and a few glass cabinets held the more valuable stuff. It was an Aladdin’s cave of optical things – projectors, darkroom kit and all manner of salvaged parts. I can still remember the smell too, musty combined with the unmistakable aroma of stop bath and fixer chemicals.

The owner would pull out this wooden drawer and reveal a collection of filters all wrapped in little plastic bags and priced with a small white sticker in the corner. I would spend a few minutes thumbing through them.

I ended up with quite a collection over the years. Of course computers were not really able to do what they do today, all effects had to be done ‘on the camera’ rather than relying on a photo editing software. You had to get it right, at the start, the moment you pushed the shutter it all had to be just right.. exposure, aperture and focus.

I remember I had a orange vignette – which gave a clear centre and a blurry orange surround – not sure why I ever thought I would want an orange vignette. It was always exciting though to get the film back from the processors and see what you’ve shot and how the filters worked.

That was 20 odd years ago – and the reason for the little bit of potted history was I think I have finally found a love for photography in its most raw form again.

I have invested a lot of money over the last few years in the top of the line Digital cameras – I have several expensive lenses and I shoot with them almost daily. I love photography, but I found I was shooting for paid work lots, and then not really enjoying it as a hobby.

I took my trusty first SLR everywhere with me. I dragged it up mountains, on treks and around the world on every holiday. I took a big camera bag and a folding tripod. I shot rolls of film and put them all in an album with little notes about each photo. I actually started to miss those days.

I found it was a pain int the butt to drag out my DSLR cameras – and which lens to take – I mean – I cant just take one, and then I need a bag to carry the kit. It all seemed too much like work, so I was missing the joy of photography, and missing some shots too. I always carry a nice little compact camera but the image quality just can’t compare.

So I started to look at going back to basics – to look at a system that would offer me amazing image quality, in a portable size but will get me thinking about the images and how I am taking them rather than twiddling dials and pressing buttons, almost like you drive a car or ride a bike – you just know how to do it, almost without thinking. I wanted to strip it right down, take away the hundreds of pages of menu items, of almost infinite customisation and almost infinite complication.

So – I was hooked into researching and one name always came up tops – Leica. A company with an illustrious history of making amazing cameras, used by reportage photographers for years, documenting street life, showing us life through the lens, and capturing moments in time that are real. Their cameras are small, discreet and almost silent. Their lenses are touted to be the best in the world – and the prices reflect this!

Buying into this system also lets you into the community of Leica users, young and old who know lots about the kit and system. Its like folks who know their cigars or whiskey. Their latest model is a digital version of their still made film camera – it shoots like a film camera but on a digital sensor – but it can take lenses made from 1955 to the present day.

I decided to invest and bought a couple of lenses – and a digital version of their traditional rangefinder camera. Most Leica users don’t have loads of lenses – 2 or 3. Kits are small – portable and powerful. The camera looks like a ‘retro’ camera, and for those who are not photographers, it looks like an old camera so you can shoot and be discreet. No more everyone turning around as you pick up a massive lens and camera and point it in someones face -causing them to freeze and usually look a little more nervous.

After just one week with this kit I have found my passion again – I can leave the house with a small bag (or no bag) keep one lens on and shoot with my mind open, and not rely on a computer to take the thinking from my making a good photo. It feels rewarding again – when I get the exposure just right – or the composition like I want it. I want to go out every day and take photos knowing I can shoot away and be almost invisible. No one will look at me and stop me shooting because I have a ‘professional’ camera- I need to re learn the rules a little and not be scared of shooting things when I see them.

I hope I can bring these new tools and my new outlook back into my commercial work too. I know my work will benefit and as I learn the new system it will show in my images.

The journey has just begun for me again – over 20 years after it first started.


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