Film photography

Since getting back to Jersey I’ve ramped up my commitment to old school film photography. My use of film never entirely went away, but it certainly faded over the last 20 years. Back in the “old days” I used to take around 1000 photographs a year, almost exclusively colour slides. To put that in a modern day digital perspective, I took something north of 25000 photos in the 7 months of our “Big Trip” last year. But even on the “Big Trip”, I took a film camera – a Horizon 202 swing lens panoramic camera. There is no digital equivalent of this camera, and I wanted to have the unique field of view.
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Koh Yao Noi: the beach house from heaven
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Kuala Lumpur from our hotel
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Singapore: view from the Duxton building
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Mount Cook National Park, NZ
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Piha beach, NZ

It’s not an easy camera to use: you need to keep the horizon absolutely in the centre of frame (or else it curves), and level, and you can’t point directly into a bright light source. But respect these rules, and the results can be spectacular.

My first experiments with a camera were with my Dad’s old Kodak Retinette. It needed an external light meter, and it was pretty basic, but I took some half decent photographs with it on early camping holidays in Norway (1978) and Iceland (1980).
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Iceland 1980: Hagavatn lake outflow, taken on Kodak Retinette
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The classic view of Gulfoss, Iceland
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Portrait of a budding photographer

I was in any event hooked, and in 1982 I took my first summer job (working at La Mare Vineyard as a general dogsbody) with the express intention of saving enough money to buy a camera of my own. By the end of that summer I was the proud owner of a Canon AE1. It was a toss up between the Canon and the Olympus OM1. (Ironically, over the last few years I have turned to Olympus cameras as my preferred “vintage” models – the design quality is simply exquisite.)

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One of my first “good” photographs, shot on Kodachrome 64 slide film, with a lovely “smoky” feel to the colours. La Rocco Tower, St Ouen’s, Jersey (1983)

I went through my University years with my AE1, gradually adding lenses, but making the classic beginner’s error of buying the cheapest lenses I could find. (You should always spend good money on the glass – it’s far more important than the camera in determining image quality.) For a while I used a very primitive Photax preset lens, which – when coupled with screw in close up filters – degraded the image so much the results were actually quite interesting.

Heading into the late 1980’s I upgraded my cameras, buying both a Canon T90 and the tank like Canon F1N. These were the cameras I carted around in the 1990’s on my 4 month trip to the Solomon Islands.

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Somehow the sea never looks like this in the UK. Solomon Islands sunset
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Epic tropical skies, Solomon Islands
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Kids in a dugout canoe, Vella Lavella, Solomon Islands
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Dolphins off the prow of our canoe, Kolombangara, Solomon Islands

Then one or other of those two chunky cameras was always with me in Tajikistan on multiple trekking trips with my friend Pete Burgess. My rucsac was always topped off with a camera bag weighing more than 5kgs: a camera, 50mm lens, 24 or 28mm lens, 70-210 zoom lens, various filters, and at least a dozen rolls of film.

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On top of a lorry, hitching down the road to Khorog, Tajikistan. The camera bag is the one I carried on all the treks. Note the waterproof: a pre Goretex number, no breathability

Looking back it seems astonishing that I carried so much gear. Pete wasn’t impressed since the huge amount of camera gear in my rucksack meant he had to carry vast amounts of food, fuel and camping gear. He also spent a lot of time waiting for me to unpack my camera, and then pack it away once a photo had been taken.

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The incomparable Arkzo valley, Pamir mountains, Tajikistan
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Sary Tash checkpost between Kyrgystan and Tajikistan – the wall of the Pamir mountains in the distance
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Sunset over the Murghab “plateau”
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Vrang in the Wakhan corridor in Autumn – Afghanistan on the far side of the river
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Pete Burgess hiking the path around Sarez Lake
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In the mountains near Vanj
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Tajik sunset
At the time I thought I was a pretty good photographer, but examining the photos now it’s clear that they were almost all technically poor (frequently soft and slightly blurred), and not that great creatively either. But the thing about film is that each photograph is in some way a document. It’s relative rarity gives it value beyond the aesthetic.
When autofocus came along in the 1990’s I ignored it, and stuck with the manual focus Canon FD system. Likewise I hung on to film well into the 2000’s, even as digital cameras started to take over. Finally it was the Canon 5D – the first affordable full frame digital camera – that won me over. At that point my old Canon film gear was effectively retired. But I didn’t give up on film entirely. By now I had a Hasselblad xPan – an extraordinary panoramic film camera with some incredible lenses, particularly the 30mm wide angle, which cost over a thousand pounds on its own. I’ve sold it now, but I still have tinges of regret.
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The beauty of a fern in spring
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Sunrise over the Isle of Purbeck and Chesil Beach
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Cliveden Cottages across the Thames from Cookham
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Cliveden boathouse at the end of the summer
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Detail of a fallen oak, Burnham Beeches
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Living room in Cookham – one of the last pictures I took on the xPan before putting it on eBay

Now I’m back in Jersey, and most of my film photography gear is still in storage. But I have managed to bring back an old Zeiss Ikon 6×9 medium format camera. It’s pretty ancient, but I’m loving putting some rolls of film through it. It’s a slow camera to work with, everything is manual, right down to having to cock the shutter before firing, but there’s something about the process that feels like a useful antidote to the immediacy of digital. Gradually, film is seeping back into my consciousness. There’s nothing good enough to share yet from the Zeiss, but there’s a whole batch of films about to be sent away for developing…

At the same time I’ve resurrected one of my Dad’s old Olympus OM1 cameras. It’s a pleasure to hold, and every time I look at it, I want to go out and take photos. I’ve bought a 28mm lens for it on eBay, and I’ve just started playing with that too. One of the great pleasures of both the OM1 and the Zeiss Ikon is that I’ve discovered there are so many interesting film stocks out there. Some are films that have been resurrected, some are entirely new. Analogue Wonderland has a terrific selection. One I was particularly pleased to see was Scala – a black and white slide film. I only ever exposed a couple of rolls of Scala in the 1990’s, but the results were utterly unique.

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Early morning, Amsterdam: Shot on black and white Scala. It may be possible to replicate the luminous quality of the light in post production with digital, but I’m happy to leave it to the film

Newly inspired by the potential of film, I’ve also bought an Olympus 35RC – a tiny, fixed lens rangefinder camera which is another design marvel. The idea is that it’s small enough to carry with me almost anywhere.

But it is the Horizon 202 that is getting the most use. The extreme perspective only works for a very few subjects, but when the subject matches the format, it really is special.

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Horizon 202 with Velvia 50 – nothing to match the reds from Velvia

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