It is often said that the best way to improve something, anything that you do creatively is to give yourself a project. A self set goal that focuses your creative energies onto an end target. This allows you to break the goal down into steps, a plan, a strategy. I can honestly say that none of that applied to how I started my own long term photography project.
I had recently got back into taking pictures, mainly on my iPhone and posting them to either Instagram or EyeEm. It seemed I was just snapping aimlessly really. My interest in film cameras had returned after a chance encounter with an Olympus Trip 35. Then quite by chance, I was asked to visit a factory in West London to discuss an engineering contract with a new client as part of my day job.
The client in question was a vinyl record pressing plant now known as The Vinyl Factory. Born from the ashes of the EMI press works when it ceased vinyl record manufacture in the early 2000’s.
On entering the plant, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for my youth. My record collection and music taste literally defined who I was back then. Standing in the very place responsible for some of the most iconic records ever, I felt compelled to go and get a camera and start photographing everything in sight. But it’s not as easy as that.
After my day job work was done for that visit, I plucked up the courage to ask the MD if it would be OK to come in and shoot some pictures in the factory. That took a little time to get agreement, but after looking at my slowly growing portfolio, was granted permission. Could it be that simple to get access? It seemed so but I think timing and approach had a lot to do with it.
With such an analogue legacy before me, it seems the only option was that this project had to be done on analogue cameras, the tools used to record this project had to be authentic, and contemporary with the subject matter.
It wasn’t long since I purchased a classic fixed lens rangefinder. A near mint Olympus 35SP, you can read about that here, so was on the lookout for a small project, an essay subject. Something to give me a reason to shoot. Serendipity?
Now what? I was in way over my head, having never done anything like this before. Looking at essays online, to get some ideas, I started shooting, some colour film some black and white, to see what worked and go from there.
The first rolls showed lots of promise. Both the color and black and white had potential. Every frame seemed to scream vintage character, and history. However, after some consideration, discussion with friends, and the client (I use the word loosely as it was self commissioned project!) I settled on Ilford excellent HP5+ Black & White, for a number of reasons, speed being one, but mainly I just thought the aesthetic gave the right look. Black vinyl, white labels.
Now this is where the hard work set in. With maybe 70-100 frames after the first visit or two, the gestation and editing begun. Killing your own babies is a very difficult process. Extracting just the images that really connected with the slowly unfolding narrative was really difficult. Particularly as I didn’t have a clear brief in the first place! I needed space between the shoot, first view of the shots and eventual selection to get the objectivity needed. They say this is what Garry Winogrand did with his rolls. One reason why so many undeveloped rolls were found after he died. He needed to look at the images without the memory of taking them, seeing them with fresh eyes.
Clearly I couldn’t do that. But I could put some space between me and the images to get some perspective on them. This of course extends the duration of any project timeline. A typical photo project I read somewhere was between 2 – 5 years. I wasn’t sure I would be able to sustain that level of commitment, especially with an art director friend saying I just needed to finish it and move on.
The largest challenge I found was the edit. Not editing or retouching of the images themselves, but the selection of images. With about 400 plus images to choose from, some very similar but with a slightly different angle or lighting, it seemed never ending. Pulling all my favorites into a book template really helped. What would have been even better in hindsight would be to use prints to select and order the sequence. This is how I feel it would go in future. Taking the time to note image numbers and roll numbers with greater diligence would make this stage much easier.
The real sticking point for me was coming up with the words needed to tie it all together. It needed a story, more than just the pictures. There was a lot going on in some of the images and without some explanation, the relevance of the image in would be lost. Running the commentary through every page detracted from the idea of a photo book. It broke the flow of the images. So after a couple of re-writes the images and words were divided into three sections. Process, People and Place. This I felt was a natural grouping of subject matter.
Finally after two proof prints, and nearly two years of shooting, consideration, writing and thought process a complete book emerged. A long way from the initial concept of a brief photo essay of say 10-15 images and a short article, but it is something I am proud of. It’s also the most expensive book I own. Adding up the film, processing, proof prints and days of holiday taken to shoot I don’t want to think what this project has actually cost directly. Not to mention the gear acquisition that occurred during the process. Starting with a single rangefinder and ending up with two Olympus OM SLR bodies and a collection of lenses, continuous soft box lights and bags etc.
Giving myself a project has been a great learning experience and one I plan to repeat. But only once I’ve managed to do something with the product of all this effort. Maybe before? I have a few ideas for the next one, but with the wisdom of hindsight it will be based around smaller “projectettes” that could build in to a larger body of work. I have definitely been bitten by the documentary bug, recording for the future what is today seen as ordinary.
So, go on, give yourself a project this year and see where it takes you. You may surprise yourself.
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After my dalliances with compact Rangefinder cameras, a very good friend of mine who is also an amateur photographer presented me with a thin strip of brown leather from a certain period in camera history, hung with a larger case and various brown pouches. Investigating further I found a Zeiss Ikon Nettar 517/16, supplied complete with clip on rangefinder, yellow filter with lens hood and an Agfa fan out flashgun, all in separate little cases. Cute!
“What’s this?” I enquired. “It’s my dads old camera from his time in Germany in the ‘50’s on National Service, I thought you would like to have a play with it as I know you like old odd cameras.”
Given its simplicity, and limited settings I wondered how I even shoot this camera with modern film? I knew it should work because I had seen others online get good results, however the cameras shutter speeds didn’t get anywhere near my understanding of Sunny 16 using the ISO 400 Ilford HP5+ I had in stock. So I loaded one in and set out on a short photo walk along Whitstable High Street with no meter or rangefinder, just with my eyes for exposure and my best estimation of focus distance. Thank goodness for the exposure latitude of film.
Below are a selection of the results. It’s been a great pleasure to shoot this camera with a personal connection. I plan a family portrait session with the owner at some point. A fitting use I think for a family heirloom.
Because these images were grabbed in less than an hour, with little time to think about what I was actually doing, I didn’t note the settings, something I need to get better at. Intuition and guesstimation were my meter, fortunately, all 12 frames captured something. No retouching or post production, just straight from the scanner. Developed at home in Ifotec LC29 and scanned at Truecolour Imaging in Luton (I can’t wait to receive my pixl-latr, Hamish). Overall I feel very pleased with the results. Is there room for improvement? Of course! But it’s not a bad start. Always learning.
“I think you’re getting obsessed” my wife said when I told her about my latest impulse purchase, an Olympus OM2n. It was to good of a deal to pass up! She’s right though.
I had fallen in love with my bequeathed OM2 SP, but wanted to have the manual interface and functionality of the OM1 as well as some of the auto exposure electronics that the SP has. The OM2n seemed to deliver it all.
A kit had come up on a well known auction site with a best offer option and a buy it now price of £100.00 including a couple of Vivitar third party lenses (28mm and a 70-200 zoom) as well as the standard 50mm f1.8, an Olympus flash, all in a retro semi hard case and with a brown leather “ever-ready” case. It looked lovely, caught up in the moment I offered, first bid refused, second accepted. Oops!
It all arrived safely, but with the potential for light seals needing replacement (I haven’t had this done as yet, and probably won’t till it’s absolutely necessary) and a sticky aperture on the 50mm all was well. After a full service on just the lens at Luton Camera Repair Service, all is now working beautifully. I’ve run a few rolls through this one so far, mostly colour, mostly Portra 400, making me even more impressed by the OM series generally. Since this addition to the family, I’ve picked up a bargain 50mm f1.4 as my standard lens, great for street portraits that I love doing when I get the opportunity. A couple are below.
The OM2n also has a few tricks up its sleeve too. Automatic slower shutter speeds up to 120 seconds for use in low light that you can’t get manually, for example. I’ve benefitted from the slow speeds on a dark workshop shoot in particularly low light that’s provided, in my opinion, satisfying results.
I have completely fallen for the OM range now. It is small enough to carry all day and a joy to operate, has one of the biggest, brightest viewfinders I’ve used, a smooth film advance and a most satisfying shutter sound. For the price these go for even fully serviced, I am smitten.
Now, how about looking for a nice OM1 to extend the line up…..
Antique and Collectable shops have until recently not been places I have frequented, however, I have noticed a few old cameras in some so in a quest to find a gem or two I have started to pop in on the off chance to see what I find.
In one I found a Rollie LED, but they wanted too much for it, the FED4 I shot and sold came from a charity shop for £10.00, so I knew they were out there.
Then one day on the way back from dropping off my wife’s car for a service, we wandered into to Mannuccis Antiques Emporium in Dunstable. I didn’t hold out any hope of finding a classic Leica but I may find something interesting?
I struck lucky.
Not only was there a couple of cameras there, but they had what has turned out to be a lovely Voightlnder CLR rangefinder. A quick barter on the marked price bought me the camera for £20.00! bargain! With it’s match needle meter and 50 mm f2.8 Color-Skopar lens, it looked beautiful in the glass case. On inspection, I found the rangefinder patch a little dim and the shutter release is in the wrong place for me but I thought it was worth a go, even if only for the Voightlander name alone.
For its first outing I loaded it with Fuji Superia 200 colour film I took it to a local classic car rally where my band was playing, and in between sets I went wandering with the camera.
The resulting images were truly amazing in my eyes, sharp, well exposed, and such beautiful colours.
I loved the images so much I felt I needed to shoot some more of this, so the next post will be from this little camera too, but with Lomo 400 film, my go to film for colour, low cost and easy to source almost anywhere.
Have a look at the attached images and let me know if you agree.
So having found a great shooting camera in the 35SP I needed a project. A new customer of mine for my day job was a very interesting factory. Based in the former EMI record pressing works, The Vinyl Factory is an independent vinyl record pressing plant, record label and all round creative hub.
I showed the MD my growing portfolio, and was granted access to start shooting. To begin with just the machines, but this soon started to grow into a major project. What started as an essay, had morphed into a book project and has continued to dominate my photography equipment purchases and thinking since, and still does till publish date.
For now, here are a few samples from the first roll of Ilford HP5 through the 35SP at the factory.
Since these pictures were taken in March 2017, I have returned at least four more times for whole days, building trust with the workers to shoot more documentary style work, that hopefully with build into a solid portfolio and printed book.
By this time I am almost completely I love with the rangefinder camera concept. They are small, light (ish) fast to shoot and seem to have very good lenses.
The 35RC is a great little camera, but I thought I needed more!
A Leica was out of the question, so digging around on the internet (there’s another hour gone) I settled on the 35 SP (Spot Program) Apparently the only rangefinder camera of the era to include Spot Metering, and has a seven element 42 mm f1.7 lens!
All this technical prowess really is worth the hype, its a great camera, takes sharp images and works in lower light, either fully automatic or manual mode using EV numbers, a little fiddly, but it does work.
Most of the shooting I have done has been in Auto.
Here is a few from the first roll of Ilford FP4. I went on to use this camera to start my Vinyl Factory project and a holiday trip to Teneriefe. More on both of those later.
I suppose at this point I have to do a ‘gear’ post. As this was the camera that started my film renaissance it seems right to share this.
Olympus Trip 35
The Olympus Trip is a simple fully automatic camera, no batteries required. Which is great. It has a hot shoe for a flash which I have never used. It has a great 40mm D Zuiko lens, a simple focus system (four distances, no rangefinder) and two shutter speeds, of which you have no control. All you can do is set the film speed, advance the film, set the focus distance and shoot. This is ‘zone focus’ at its simplest. If the light is too low or two high it will lock the shutter. Simple. Quite liberating really. My example must be nearly 40 years old, and still works perfectly. They are still cheap to buy. Last time I looked they were going for about £10.00 more if you want a fancy custom one with coloured vinyl covering. If you want to see what film can do for your photography, try one of these. Great fun.