My first recollections of photography are about forty years ago when my father gave me an old 120 format film camera loaded with a film. I cannot remember what make it was, but I think it may have been a voigtländer. I do remember that you opened the front and a set of bellows came out, and on the end of the lens you only had a few settings. It came with a little piece of paper that told you what setting to use for the different light levels.
120 format film is what is known as a ‘medium format’ and this camera took 12 6cm x 6cm photos on a roll of film. The advantage of having negatives this size was that you could very easily make ‘contact prints’ without requiring an enlarger in your darkroom.
The dark room
Our front room was easily converted to a darkroom by putting a set of WWII blackout curtains in the window and installing a red ‘safe light’ on a shelf. My father and I spent many happy weekends in the dark room, exposing small pieces of black and white photographic paper then watching the images appear as if by magic in the tray of developer, before placing them in the fixing solution.
35mm and colour – the evolution!
Soon after I got the photography bug my father realised that colour photography was now much cheaper than it had been before. He purchased a brand new 35mm minolta SLR (single lens reflex) camera with associated lenses, and I inherited his old voigtländer vito 35mm camera which had a built in light meter! We used fuji colour film, and developed the film at home and produced prints with our Durst enlarger.
The dark room improves
With black and white photography you can use a safe light (normally red) which allows you to see what you are doing, but colour photography requires an absolutely pitch black room to get good results. My father made wooden screens that fitted the window, and hung one of the old blackout curtains over the door. By this time we had a masking system to hold the piece of photographic paper we were printing to, a paper safe to hold all the unexposed pieces of paper, and a developing drum that allowed us to play with all the toxic chemicals in the kitchen under regular lighting. This had two advantages – we could see what we were doing, and we had more control over the temperature of the chemicals which is pretty critical for colour photography.
Learning all the time
When you develop and print all your own photographs, time is the most costly item, and you soon realise that taking the photograph right in the first place is a lot easier than having to correct it afterwards. It was during these formative years that I learned about the rule of thirds, and many other important techniques such as backlighting, bracketing, colour correction, darkroom manipulation, playing with focal lengths and apertures, etc…
Ciba Geigy and Cibachrome
One thing that was always hard with colour photography from negatives was getting a good contrast ratio. This is why many photographers took transparency, or positive, photographs instead of negatives. In the 1960s a swiss company called Ciba Geigy developed a processing technique for getting prints from transparency and named it Cibachrome. In the late 1970s this process became available for home use, and we jumped at the opportunity to use it! The chemicals required even more accurate temperatures and the timings became more critical so we acquired a new toy for our darkroom – a jobo drum. This allowed us to load 2 or 4 sheets of exposed 10×8 paper at a time and go through the processing stages in a semi-automated manner.
One of the counter-intuitive things about getting prints from transparency as opposed to negative is that everything is the other way around; for example: unexposed colour negative paper develops to a white colour, whereas unexposed colour cibachrome paper develops to black!
The professional years
Once I got my first full time job at Oxford Instruments, one of my key tasks was management of the photographic library – including keeping a photographic record of all things happening in the factory. When we had a large project getting near to shipping, I would hire in a professional photographer, first from Hedges Wright and in later years a stream of independent photographers. When the photographer arrived, to save money I would operate as their ‘grip’ who is responsible for setting up all the lighting, etc. Over the next 8 to 10 years I learned the art of setting up the shot, and would think nothing of taking 2-3 hours to set up for a shot of one product. Afterall, if you get the picture right when you take it you don’t have to waste any money or time on manipulation at the end.
Going self employed
Towards the end of 2002 I took redundancy from Oxford Instruments and went self employed as a marketing services consultant. I had been taking digital photographs for a few years and soon invested in my first digital SLR camera along with a suite of lenses and some studio flash equipment. All my experience had taught me that I had to have the right ‘glass’ (lenses) to allow myself to get the shot right in the first place. In fact in my opinion the most important piece of kit after your own eyes is the set of lenses that you use. A bright, optically clear, lens with a cheap digital camera body will produce a far superior photograph to the most expensive digital camera body with a cheap lens.
For the last 12 years I have been taking photographs for myself as a hobby, and for my clients on a commercial basis. I tend to specialise in product shots, where I can use my experience to show off the product without having to resort to Photoshop to tidy up the shot afterwards.
What have I learnt?
I have been commissioned for all sorts of shoots, and one of the most important things that I have learned over my 30+ years of taking photographs is that if you aren’t the commissioned photographer, leave your pro kit at home!
A few examples of my photography
Below are a few examples of my photography which hopefully show my varied style. The point being, it isn’t how many shots you take, it is having the flair to capture a single moment in time …