I remember exactly where I was. Rome, 1996, I think, on a via leading up to the Colloseo, overlooking Palatine Hill. (Am I being pretentious enough for you here? Well, in the words of the late great Billy Mays, ‘BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!!)
I saw a somewhat portly, late middle-age man with glasses, and silver hair, walking around snapping pictures. I like to imagine him as German, because he had an old Leica M4 slung around his neck, with a tanned Leica strap, and matching flip case.
That’s what I thought I’d eventually be.
I imagined a whole back story about the fellow. That he had a family, worked as some company stiff his entire life; that the camera he was wearing was something he bought as a young man when he started his family; that he was now retired and had gotten away from the wife on holiday, so he could spend time taking pictures…
Now, I never knew if I’d ever be married, and I never wanted to have kids, so there’s that, and for all I know, I could have been way off the mark with this fellow.
He could have stolen the camera, was on the run for not paying child support, and taxes… Who knows?
But it’s my fantasy, so I’m gonna stick with my version.
That’s the camera I wanted. I wanted a little camera that you had to hand crank Ilford HP5 through, that slowed you down as you were taking your pictures, so that hopefully, you put more effort and thought into composition. Limit myself to two, maybe three lenses, max.
At the time, I was shooting through my Nikon F3. Fantastic camera, yes, but the Leica, to me, represented minimalism, slower shooting, and just as important, classic styling!
I sort of got there, but not.
If you know a bit about cameras, you probably know that Leicas are almost prohibitively expensive. Yes, they’re that good, but only if you are happy to shoot to their strengths.
I’m not a rich man -probably what you would call lower middle class, and although I probably could have saved up the ‘dough-re-mi’ over a couple of years, my photographic path never really intersected with Leica. When I went digital, there wasn’t any offerings from them, and a few years later, when they released their first full frame digital, it was nowhere near as good as the Nikon D700 that I already owned. They were pretty ‘slow getting out of the gate’, as far as digital was concerned.
In 2010, Fuji released the retro styled, and retro designed X100.
To me, and plenty of others like me, it was a huge eye opener.
Here was a camera that looked and felt like an old rangefinder, had most of the important controls outside of the camera in the manner of old film cameras, and produced very good images, as well.
You can bet I was interested.
It received very good reviews. But, for the first and only time that I know of, those reviews came with a warning: The autofocus was slow; the menu was a pain in the ass… Which was strange. The reviewers seemed to insinuate that the greatness of the other features of the camera, somehow made up for it’s shortcomings.
Now I HAD to try it.
They were right. I bought one.
It was a fabulous little camera. Sure, it wasn’t the greatest for certain things, but what it did do, it did exceptionally well. Besides, I still had my DSLR for more extreme shooting.
Since it’s initial release, there have been three other upgraded iterations of it; X100S, X100T, and the current X100F. I’ve owned the 100, ‘T,’ and currently, the ‘F.’ Apparently, there’s a new model coming out soon, but I really don’t see how they could improve much on the current X100F -pictured above. We’ll see.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of mine. It’s by far, my most used camera for street photography, and it’s the camera that I can just ‘grab and go’ with. It’s small, inconspicuous, and dead silent, if you set it up to be.
A while back, I picked up an attachment that converts the native 35mm (in full frame terms) down to 28mm. There’s also an adapter that will bring it up to 50mm. Who knows, maybe I’ll get that some day as well.
Leica owners are quick to point out the quality, and durability of their cameras, and lenses, and they are right to do so. It’s a fantastic system, and there’s a reason why they’re still around after all these years.
But, my little X100F beats the current Leica offerings in just about every way that’s important to me, at about a quarter of the price.
So, I don’t know if I’ll ever fully realize the dream that I had all those years ago, but maybe, I’m fine with a modified version of it.
If you do it enough, eventually people start thinking of you as the guy/gal with the camera. Occasionally, people come up to you saying something along the lines of, “I’ve always wanted to get into photography, but…” And then they’ll talk about a wistful desire to progress beyond their phone cameras.
My response? Don’t.
Stick with your phone -for now.
A beginner can learn so, so much from a phone camera; much more than I think most of them know.
These days, the cameras everyone already owns -cellphone cam, are capable of truly amazing things. Compared to what was available 30 years ago, when I was starting out, (not really that long ago, in the grand scheme of things) these things seem like some kind of voodoo, black magic. Back then, if someone had described what we all take for granted today, I would have thought they were out of their mind, or at the very least, a fanciful dreamer.
Obviously, I would have been wrong.
As I just mentioned, you can learn an incredible amount about taking pictures, just from your phone cam.
-Framing. What’s in the picture? How do the objects look/influence the over-all image? Are you looking at everything (and this was a biggie for me, at first) that’s in the frame when you take the picture?
-Composition. Where is the main subject(s) in your picture? Why? Is the horizon straight? Do you want it to be?
-Light. Where is your light source? How much light is there?
-Exposure, colour balance, contrast, sharpness, etc. How do they look?
-How’s the depth of field? Is enough of what I want to be in, or out of focus, the way I want it?
-Flash, or no?
And there are probably plenty of others that I’m forgetting right now.
As far as I know, just about every modern smart phone has a manual mode. We’re able to adjust the processing parameters of them, just like the big kids do with their real cameras.’ (Make no mistake about it, phone cameras ARE real cameras. Any time I hear someone with a DSLR, or traditional camera, talking shit about phone cams, I think that they’re either insecure, or they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.)
And that’s the divide.
I think that most people who dream of one day perhaps getting a dedicated camera, and pursuing photography as a hobby, don’t realize that they’re going to have to put in the effort to learn how the camera works, just like the effort you’d have to put into wringing out the full potential from a phone cam.
When I mention this to people who express a mild interest in pursuing photography farther, that’s the point where the conversation usually fades off…
Sure, even the highest of high end cameras can be set up to shoot ‘auto everything’, and to function as a really expensive point-and-shoot, but why would you do that?
Probably because the brand name on the front of your camera is more important to you than the images you are getting with it.
Think of a flat linear graph. At the beginning is a point marked ‘the camera did it.’ At the end, is a point marked ‘I did it.’
Where are you?
I’m not saying that you can’t get good images from shooting with your camera set up fully auto, -occasionally, I do it myself, but putting in the effort to fully understand, and use all of the options that your camera offers, is not only extremely satisfying, but ultimately, broadens your horizons, and increases the amount of shots that you like.
The above shot was taken with my Samsung Galaxy s10e. Perfectly fine. I would have liked a shallower depth of field, and the mid-day light is kinda harsh, but had I waited till later that afternoon, it probably would have been long gone.
I did a B&W conversion in Silver Efex Pro, which took about 20 seconds. It’s nothing special, I took it just after getting the phone, but at that size, it’s sharp, and crisp, and does everything it’s supposed to do.
My father, who quietly shuffled off this mortal coil last August, was a professional photographer his entire life.
I remember when I was a little boy, smelling the lab chemicals on his hands when he came home from work every day, as he’d take the time to play with us kids for a bit before dinner. His hands were textured with a medium fine sandpaper grit from constant immersion in those same chemicals. I recall one time in the late 70s I pointed out an obvious smudge on his glasses, to which he chuckled and replied, ‘Oh that. That’s just some chemical I splashed on myself at work.’
I thought, ‘Holy shit. What kind of chemical that will melt plastic, is a photographer using?’
That was my dad.
That’s just how he was.
Gloves, tongs, even safety glasses, to him, were just things that ‘got in the way.’ He wasn’t the only one.
(Where he came from, a small town in New Brunswick, a large percentage of the men made their living working in saw mills. More than a few were missing fingers and thumbs, so I suppose, to my Dad, the slight discomfort of having a layer or two of the skin on your hands burned off, was nothing, compared to losing part of an appendage. I just remembered how I used to marvel at my great uncle Wilfred, who was able to roll a cigarette with one hand, -he was missing three and a half fingers on the other one! He never tired of extending that hand to shake, upon meeting someone new, and cracking up when they recoiled in horror at feeling the weird stump they were grasping. He got me a couple of times as well.)
I don’t really think photography was really his true passion. Not in the way that it is for a musician, or a writer, who just happens to have a family as well. He was the other way around. A family man first, who was a photographer by trade.
Don’t get me wrong though, he was very good when he wanted to be.
Because of him, my family has tons of photos of every type of family function, and event; probably more than most.
About twenty-five years ago, a little bit after my mother died, he gave each of us kids a scrap book for Christmas, after painstakingly sorting through reams of photos, that told the chronological story of us growing up.
It’s still the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received -even though I still wince at some of the pictures of my younger self!
The above picture is from that photo book. It’s me, circa 1971.
Think about it: He thought nothing of wading out into the water with his camera; he knew he was going to get splashed because he was reasonably close, (I can imagine his voice, with his plain New Brunswick drawl, saying “Nah, a little water never hurt anything”) and he’d have to set the shutter speed just fast enough to minimize the motion blur on my face, but still capture the explosiveness of the water spray. All with a fully manual, and that includes focus, camera!
Not bad, eh?
Unfortunately, he was a lousy teacher. I still laugh a little when I think about the time I was just starting out, and was asking him about all the functions on his camera. He said something like, ”Well, you just turn this to that, set this like so, and twist this until it looks good.” It was all in his head. After decades of shooting manually, it just seemed obvious to him. He instinctively knew what shutter speed to use, and what aperture that was required to get the best possible results that he wanted, in any given light!
Hmmm. I went out and bought a book, heh…
He was, however, a great wealth of information later, when it came to choosing film, and paper types, composition rules, and techniques, pointing out things that I had never thought of, etc.
Dad worked right up until his seventieth birthday, and probably would have kept on going, but his eyes just weren’t what they once were. His timing was actually somewhat serendipitous though, because within a year or so of his retirement, the entire studio where he was working was switching to digital, and with the new digital equipment that they’d soon be using, you couldn’t just ‘turn this to that, set this like so, and twist this until it looks good.’ Although he had a couple of little digital point and shoot cameras later in life, he never really took to them. His hard drive was nearly full.
The reason I never tried to become a professional, doesn’t really have much to do with him. Well, not that much.
I just like it. A lot.
Being a professional musician for many years pretty much guaranteed that I’d never try to become a pro photographer. Near the end of my playing days, I woke up one morning, and came to the horrible realization that it wasn’t fun anymore. The music was, and still is, a thrill to me, but all the other bullshit relating to being in a working band, as Ignatz Mouse used to say, was ’very un-fun.‘
I didn’t want that to happen with photography.
My passion for taking pictures might be higher than my Dad’s, but he did it for every working day of his entire adult life. Something I could never do.
And for that, I’m very grateful. Thanks Dad!