Today, Zoe and I visited the Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech, a great collection of vintage black-and-white and autochrome photos from Morocco. Looking at these historical pictures got me feeling nostalgic, and I started thinking about my own experiments in photography. I’ve always enjoyed taking photos, especially when I’m travelling. It’s a great way to experience and interpret a new place, and my memories of every trip are framed by the camera I was using at the time....<insert Wayne's World Flashback sound effects>
Kitchener 1981 -1989
My early forays into photography were with my Dad’s ancient Voigtlander – a classic Deutsch Kamera with a standalone light-meter, a rather good, fixed 35 mm lens, and a old-school, leather strap that I still use. (*No, you can’t have it, Brent).
Because of the technical limitations and the costs of processing the film, I was very methodical in taking each picture: read the light meter, adjust the shutter speed and/or aperture, compose the shot, focus, click! and advance the film to the next frame.
Once you finished the film, you then had to rewind the exposed roll, take the canister to the lab, and wait for a week to see what you had captured. Often I couldn’t wait until I got home and I opened up the envelope before I left the mall.
Of course, half of the pics I got back were junk, but I organized the the rest chronologically in 3-ring photo albums. How retro.
Canon AE-1 / Elmira 1990
When I was around 20, my parents gave me a re-furbished Canon AE-1, a semi-serious / semi-automatic, single-lens-reflection (SLR), film camera. You still had to focus the image manually, select the aperture OR the exposure, and advance the film yourself, but the picture quality was often excellent.
That camera also helped me land a great summer job.
“And bring your portfolio,” said Bob the Editor, hanging up with a bang. Editors always hang up with a bang. Just like in the movies.
“Oh, no,” I said as I listened to the dial tone. I had just landed an interview for a summer job as a reporter-photographer with the Elmira Independent – a quirky local weekly just north of my hometown of Waterloo that once a month included a “national edition” on social justice and environmental issues.
I had written out of the blue to ask for a job, starting with what I had hoped was a killer lead: “Spring has come, and a young man’s mind turns to thoughts of summer employment….”
Apparently, it worked. But now I had just one day to create a portfolio of writing and photos ex nilo to clinch the position. I scoured my photo albums and dredged my floppies, and hastily compiled my best “work” into a 3-ring binder.
I started the next week.
Working at a small-town paper means that you do everything: interviews, writing, taking photos, dark-room, story editing, proof reading, and in those days, pasting up your stories on to page-sized proofs that were re-photographed and then printed on a press.
And at the Independent, we all had to work a week when we'd take the police-radio scanner home. It could squelch at any hour of the night, and I'd have to groggily turn up the volume and figure out if the emergency was within our readership’s area. If so, I’d pull on my clothes and race out to the scene, Peter-Parker like, with my trusty AE-1.
One day after driving the paste-ups to the printer in Bloomingdale, I heard an alert about a barn-fire near Breslau. Big news for a small-town paper! I checked the map, turned the mighty Chevette around and like a streak of light, I arrived just in time. I flashed my press card to the firefighters, got as close as I dared and snapped what turned out to be a multi-photo feature.
It was a great, if sometimes stressful summer job, and I learned a tonne about writing, photography and rural Wellington County. And it was certainly sweet taking pictures with someone else’s film.
Canon AE-1 / Vilnius 1992
Before going through security in Vilnius, Lithuania, I handed over a bag of colour slide film to Steve to take back to Canada while I went hitch-hiking in Ireland.
When Steve saw me again on the plane, he blanched. “Oh, no, I left the bag on the X-ray machine!”
It was an honest mistake; he had asked them to hand-inspect the film to save it from being zapped by Soviet-era technology. But the flight attendant wouldn’t let us go back for the bag or send someone to retrieve it.
Three-weeks and 20 rolls of pictures: gone.
I remember putting on my sunglasses so that Steve couldn’t see how angry I was. And funny enough, I barely remember that trip -- probably because I didn’t have any pictures to remind me. Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away indeed. Sigh.
Canon AE-1 / Hamilton 1993
I finally took a formal photography course at Mohawk College. It was a nice diversion from the joe-jobs I was doing to pay for grad school.
Working in a dark-room affords a second chance to take the photos . With just a wave of your hand, you can dodge and burn the light before it hits the photosensitive paper, changing the exposure, highlights and shadows.
But real magic was dipping the exposed paper into the trays and watching the image emerge ghost-like before your eyes. I still remember the sharp smell, the red-light and the focused silence of the dark room.
Canon EOS /
Eastern & Southern Africa 2002
The AE-1 served me well until it succumbed to the humidity and salt air of Dar es Salaam. I made do with a stand-in point-and-shoot for a while, but then it also broke during a trip to South Africa.
Trish and I did the math and realized that the dollar-to-rand exchange rate plus the VAT refund made it a great deal to just buy a new camera in Capetown. We flew back to Dar with a new, auto-focus (!) Canon EOS with a telephoto lens. Sweet.
We later took that kit on a 3-month sojourned in Southern Africa before Tricia and I and our proto-mtoto, Zoe, returned to Canada in 2002. This time, I also managed to personally carry all 30 rolls of colour, print film back to Ottawa.
Several days and a small fortune later, we picked up a pile of envelopes from Black’s and sat down in the food court to review our last pre-kid trip: Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, Swaziland and Namibia. Very sweet..
But something was wrong. The sand dunes from Souslesvei were just not orange enough. Not at all like we remembered them.
We went straight back to the store to speak with the technician.
“Oh”, he said, “that’s quite possible. The machine sets the colours automatically. Let me take out two degrees of cyan and we’ll see how it looks”.
He reprinted 20 pictures, no charge. The orange was now perfect.
Canon EOS (Rebel) Digital /
Our first child turned out to be very photogenic, so I switched to a digital version of the Canon EOS that would still work with my old analogue lenses.
Taking digital pictures was so much easier:
- you could immediately see the results on the back screen,
- adjust your composition and exposure,
- re-take the shot,
- delete your mistakes, and
- save the photos on your computer.
Printing still required trips to the pharmacy, but at a fraction of the cost and time.
This camera, unfortunately, did not fare better than its predecessors:
- It short-circuited (under warranty, thankfully) in a light drizzle while hiking in Kejamakujik National Park,
- The re-purposed telephoto lens then suffered a nasty mac-and-cheese-in-a-backpack encounter (it could happen to anyone….); and
- The camera body ultimately died an untimely death when our second very photogenic child demonstrated his growing interest in photography....
Sigh. At least my sister-in-law later would be able to use the telephoto lens (after they got the cheese sauce off….).
Olympus Stylus Tough 3000 /
When Zoe was nearly 10, I figured that she was now old enough for her own camera, so I tracked-down a great deal on a water-proof, extra-tough, child/me-proof camera. It was her one present that Christmas, and I was hopeful that I’d finally found a camera that would stand up to the wear and tear of travelling during our upcoming sabbatical year.
How wrong I was.
“Daddy! Daddy!”, said Zoe, waking me up one morning at my parents' place. “Is it bad if the door-thingy is open?”
“What?” I asked groggily.
“I mean, if for example, you were putting the camera in the pond?”
Apparently open-cardslot-underwater-photography doesn’t work. Who knew? Certainly not my budding Jacques Cousteau.
And despite some emergency dry-rice-in-a-jar treatments and Frankensteinian surgery, the now-wet-inside-algae-laden-camera never completely came back to life.
Sigh. My apple hadn’t fallen far enough from the tree.
Nikon 1 v2 / Colorado Springs 2013
Due to our two-children-too-tight budget, I got by for a few years with a VISA-award-points-and-shoot Canon. It was fine for outside shots, but I was always hankering for a better kit.
After researching the different options, I cross-border-clicked-and-shipped a second-generation Nikon camera to Trish’s brother in Colorado Springs. The duty-free sticker price, with telephoto lens, tripod, remote, and other accessories, was the same as just the camera in Canada, and that was before adding the HST. And since we were going to be in the US for close to a month, the cost would fit within my duty-free allowance.
But this time, I almost didn’t get a chance to break the camera myself.
“Have you got it yet?” I asked my sister-in-law, Amy, on the day I received the delivery confirmation. “No?! Uh oh.”
I double-checked the order form. Doh! I had somehow entered the address of the car-rental company. Sigh.
A few panicked calls and a five-kids-in-the-minivan-emergency-trip-by-my-very-gracious-sister-in-law later, the rogue camera was secured and waiting for our arrival the next month.
It was fun to break-in this new Nikon 1 v2 on the multi-hued rocks of Colorado and Utah. It’s a compact or 4/3rds camera that unlike a traditional Single-Lens-Reflex (SLR) camera it doesn’t have a physical mirror. Instead, it exposes directly on the sensor. The smaller size makes it great for travelling, and for most situations, it has worked really well. It even shoots decent video. So far….
Nikon 1 v2 & iPhone 4S /
This year-long trip has provided many great photo-opps. Turkey, Tanzania, Spain and now, Morocco have been great settings for taking pictures. I’m forever hanging back while Tricia, Zoe and Isaac wait patiently for me to take yet another picture of them walking through an archway. And it's gotten to the point that whenever I call their names, the kids turn around, pose and smile, even when I don't have a camera in my hands.
And apart from having to replace the 10-30 mm lens in Istanbul (long story), the Nikon has worked out really well. Given my track-record, however, I wonder if it will make it until the end of our trip…
The best camera, as they say, is the one that you have with you. And I’ve been surprised how well my old iPhone 4S has worked for panoramas and discrete street photography. And since it is protected in a water-dust-and-apparently-red wine-proof cover (phew!), it has so far evaded the murky fate of my last iPhone …..(Don’t even ask).
Longer-term travel photography has presented some new challenges, however. Shooting digital is certainly better than schlepping umpteen rolls of exposed film. But downloading, editing, uploading and backing-up ....uh, currently, um, 10,000+ photos ….takes a lot of time. It is also using up most of the memory that I have along with me, and we’ve still got 4+ months to go.
Looking back at my personal chronicle of photography, I realize that:
- 1. I’m really hard on cameras. I mean, seriously. This is embarrassing. You never want to lend me your camera. **
- The technology and process of taking and making pictures has completely changed since I started 34 years ago. Now anybody with a phone can often take a great picture.
- It is now super easy to control the post-production of your photo on a computer, or right away via Instagram. With this tech, you can often make even lousy shots look retro-cool.
- Sharing photos is now so simple that we barely pay any attention to them anymore. Even a great shot is just another image among hundreds that we see online each day.
But does the ease of taking, making and sharing photos now make them less important? Is a picture still worth a thousand words? Or even worth a few Likes?
And what happens when the sunspots, the Toryists, and/or the aliens shut down the Internet and we lose all of our photos? Then what? Will I be able to remember anything?
Perhaps not, but that won’t stop me from taking more photos tomorrow. Provided that I don’t break my camera.
**And this list didn’t even include what happened when Mike dropped my Dad’s telephoto lens in Ireland or how Trish and I helpfully put Stu’s camera in a water-proof bag ….with a leaky waterbottle….