Buying Equipment and What I've Learned Along the Way_Part 1

Your Author, Glenn and friend Sue in Leh_Ladakh, India_Camera: Canon New F1 camera and Agfachrome 100 transparency film.

I purchased my first camera when I was 17 years of age. It was 1979 and my first full time job in a camera store with Ernest C. Cameron a 67 year old photographer who, after retiring from professional photography, had to re-enter the workforce (I believe) after the guy who had taken over his studio business had gone broke without paying the agreed amount. As a consequence of this debacle, and in addition to working full time in the camera store, Ern went back to doing weddings on weekends.

He was a lovely old bloke and it was a privilege to work with him. He taught me a little bit about photography, camera and darkroom basics, and a lot about people. I think Ern was rushed off his feet pretty much all his life. He died aged 69 and, far from ready, I took on the management of the camera department and a lot of his upcoming wedding photography. I remember how mortified my boss, Peter Milburn, and I were after Ern’s sudden passing. But it was with and largely because of Ern and Peter that my life in photography began. I owe them both a great deal.

My first camera was a Nikkormat FT-3 with a 50mm f1.8 lens. It was a very solid, high quality camera and ideal for a beginner. I was earning $79 a week and the camera, even after a good deal, must have cost at least $300.

Only 3 weeks after starting the job I contracted glandular fever, incidentally on the night I returned to my old school for the annual school social (dance). Apparently I kissed too many girls that night.

After a few weeks off, I returned to work, on reduced hours and pay. It took me 5 years before I fully recovered. I can’t remember what my pay was reduced to, probably to around $60 a week. I was paying $25 a week in board (I think I’m the only one of 5 kids who ever did, at least on a regular basis) but, somehow managed to pay that camera off. I started shooting weddings and portraits with that camera. I really loved it, though like the Olympus OM series, it seemed strange to have both the Shutter Speed and Aperture changed by rotating 1 of 2 rings around the lens.

Sometime before my 18th birthday I joined my first rock band, Taxi, with my old school friend, Tony (Bert) Lambert, and new friends Rod Knights, Darryl Smith and Russell Bateman. I guess it was somewhere in the middle of buying guitars, amps, a car and having a girlfriend that money became tight. I sold my FT3 but, to my horror, had to wait several years before I was paid. In the meantime I took a step downwards and purchased a Pentax K-1000 camera with 50mm f2 lens. It retailed for $249 though, working in the camera store, I would have got it cheaper than that.

Sometime after Ern’s death I was offered the opportunity to purchase some of his camera equipment. I decided on a Canon F1 camera body. I can’t remember what lens I got, may a 50mm f1.8, though I do remember having to borrow a 35-70mm f3.5-4.5 (I think) zoom from my boss Peter’s best friend, Jack, for weddings. There was also an almost brand new Canon ring flash, pretty fancy stuff in those days, which I used once. Stupidly I also acquired a Polaroid 600SE (how could I possibly have remembered that) camera and a Durst 5”x7” enlarger from the estate. I probably should have tried to acquire Ern’s Mamiya 645 medium format camera kit. Maybe it was too expensive.

After the Pentax I bought a Minolta X-300 with a 35-70mm zoom lens. It was a good camera for its time, marginally better than the Pentax, but not as good as the Nikkormat.

The next step was into medium format photography. I purchased a Mamiya RB67 camera with a 90mm standard and 180mm portrait lens. The RB67 made images that were 6x7cm in size and you got 10 images on a roll of film. I can’t remember what I paid for the kit, AUS $3,000-$3,500 I think. It was a fortune, particularly as I was only on about $120 a week at that stage. But I was doing a lot of weddings and portraits and the band was busy, although I was also spending a lot on guitars and amps. My boss Peter bought the camera for me and let me pay it off. Outstanding!

The next camera I bought was a Nikon FE. I used it for several years, including two years in my own studio photography business and a 6-month stint as a newspaper photographer. I predominantly used the camera with a 35mm f2 (great for environmental portraits) and a 85mm f1.4 (traditional portrait) lens.

In late February1986 I moved to Melbourne to begin formal studies in photography. I continued to use both the RB67 and Nikon FE for the first 2 years of my studies. After being kicked out at the beginning of the final year (actually its not what you think, I was a pretty good student) of the course I decided to travel. 4 months later I was off on my first overseas trip. The trouble was I had to fund it. I sold my car, a Nissan Bluebird, the RB67 kit and the Nikon FE camera and lenses. I was about to embark on a 3 1/2 month overseas photography trip without any camera equipment. Enter our good friends at Canon, Australia.

Since moving to Melbourne in 1986 to formally study photography I was supporting myself through some commercial jobs and by working in a camera store. My boss, John Noyes, arranged for Canon (Australia) to provide me with camera equipment for the duration of my overseas trip. I found out, quite late in the piece, that the gear would be second hand. It was a bit of a concern, but beggars can’t be choosers, and I was very grateful for Canon’s assistance.

I began to worry, come the week of my departure, with the gear still undelivered. I put the hard word on John, probably after buying him a chocolate éclair, and he in turn put the hard word on his contact at Canon. The gear arrived late on the day before my departure. With no time to test it I left Australia, with the mother of all flu’s, as discussed in a previous article.

The kit comprised of two bodies, an old and battered Canon F1 and a Canon New F1, which appeared to be in better shape and a couple of lenses. I can’t be sure but I think I had a 35-70mm zoom and a 200mm telephoto lens. I may even have had a 24mm wide angle. Being film-based cameras the concern about introducing dust through changing lenses just wasn’t the issue it is with today’s DSLR cameras. So, instead of having one camera over each shoulder, like you’d see in the movies, I opted for a less conspicuous approach my using one of the cameras (I think it was the New Canon F1) and changing lenses where required. The other body was packed away, as a spare in case the primary one broke down.

I decided on slide film for the trip and, as I’d had some experience with Agfa slide film at the college where I began my studies, allowed my other boss, Rob Kirby, a former Agfa employee to talk me into using Agfachrome 100 slide film.

Sadly, on my return 3 ½ months later, devastating news awaited. I was in the practice, at that time, of engaging the camera’s Depth of Field (DOF) preview button to check how much of the scene was going to be recorded with the range of acceptable sharpness both in front and behind the point at which the lens was focused (e.g. the subject). I was also in the practice, prior to loading every roll of film, of visually checking that the camera’s aperture and shutter speed seemed to be working correctly. This is a simply matter, with a film-based camera, of opening the camera back, putting your eye up close to the shutter and firing the camera. By changing the cameras shutter speed from say 1/15 second to 1/30 second you could tell that roughly twice as much light was let in at 1/15 compared to 1/30. You could continue this practice, quite accurately, from around 1 second up to about 1/1000 second. Similarly by setting the camera to a slow shutter speed, say 1 second, you could check that an f2 lens, when set to an aperture of f2, let a full circle of light onto the film. Closing down one stop to f2.8 would result in half as much light coming through, and f4 half as much again. I would continue this test right down to the narrowest aperture (e.g. f22).

The problem was that when the depth of field preview button was engaged, which back then I used almost every time I made a photo, the camera was no longer able to close the lens down. As a consequence, even though I may have set the aperture to f8, f11 or f22 I was shooting wide open with the lens at its widest aperture. So, the vast majority of my shots were severely overexposed. On transparency film that spells death. To make matters worse most of my films were severely scratched by the lab during the mounting process. I did the maths (math for readers from the US) and only 13% of my images survived, and many of them were a good stop overexposed. Once I culled out the least interesting slides, there were not many left worth keeping. To save the image at the top of this article I had to weave a little bit of Photoshop magic. Converting into a warm tone black-and-white also helped.

In case you’re wondering there were a few tear drops and I remember my boss, Rob, making a joke at the time that I would have been better staying at home after all. I’d say that I experienced significant shock and deep grief.

About a minute later (probably less) I determined to return and do it properly the next time around. I travelled back to some of the sites from that first trip the following year. It wasn’t the same, and I had other camera-related problems, but things got better and I was on my way to building a more meaningful and significant life through travel and photography. This continues today through my teaching and the content on this site. What this and so many hardships have taught me over the years is the need to turn adversity into opportunity. We can’t be afraid of failure, but we need to learn from our mistakes and misfortunes so that we will, eventually succeed. And by then we would certainly have earned it.

I’II continue this article with the final installment tomorrow. I hope you found it interesting.

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Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography
Glenn Guy