I really enjoy photography. I have done so for as long as I can remember. Here I am at the age of 12 or 13, clutching a truly dreadful Exacta SLR, whose shutter curtain was perforated, so you could only wind on seconds before taking a picture, unless you wanted it the resulting image to have light flares all over it. I also have a memory of getting into serious trouble when I took my father's Minolta range-finder camera onto the roof of the house to take pictures from there, then fell on the way down, landing on the camera. My father was more devastated about the damage to his camera than angry with me. (I was fine - I was always falling off roofs or something in those days...)
My first proper camera was a Pentax Spotmatic 1000. I was at school at the time, and learnt a lot through the photographic society there. In particular, when Ken Findlay won competition after competition with his ancient Yashica twin-lens 6x6, and then continued to win when he went 35mm with an entry-level Praktika L, I learnt that it was not equipment which made you a better photographer. But thinking about it, the camera industry does its job well, and over the years I have been seduced by the promise of equipment having the ability to improve photography, something only partially true. Nowadays one could argue that it is software that holds the promise of improved photography.
After years with a much-loved Olympus OM-2, and then a series of point-and-shoots, Helen bought me my first digital camera in the late 1990s, a Sanyo, which produced images sized just 640x480. I still have that camera, though - and this is an important issue regarding digital photography - the card on which the images were saved can no longer be read as you can't get suitable card readers any more. I then had a Casio, fully 3 megapixels of it, and although it was slow, the electronics were brilliant, and some of the pictures I got from that were very good, such as this simple one to the left, which actually has some pretty tricky lighting. What was interesting in both cases was that neither of these makes are traditional camera companies, but consumer electronics manufacturers. At that stage, the balance of whether digital photography was just more photography or electronics was teetertottering from one side to the other. The Casio, though, taught me that the number of megapixels was not too important, at a time when we were supposed to understand that more meant better, as so often is the case with consumer electronics.
This all changed when Nikon brought out the first "affordable" digital SLR, the D-70. I think it cost around £700 body-only, but that was half the price of other digital SLRs available then. I had a Nikon film SLR at that time, and the change to the digital version was quite straight forward, with the exception that the viewfinder was noticeably smaller, and the camera was a lot, lot heavier. I do recall at that time thinking back wistfully to the pleasure of my OM-2, and wondering why Nikon and Canon seemed to be doing all the running, while Olympus seemed to be floundering in the new digital era.
The D-70 did great service until it was just to heavy and clunky to lug around all the time, and some nasty dirt on the sensor meant it was time for a re-think, as by this time, self-cleaning sensors had it the market. But the experience with the D-70 did start establishing some of the styles and choices for how I find it most comfortable to use digital cameras.
The first of these was not to bother with RAW files, or relying on subsequent computer manipulation or even creation of images. My day job was in IT, and using a computer to get the image you want just did not float my boat. The analogue equivalent, I thought was taking slide photographs rather than producing pictures in the darkroom, and the idea of getting the image right in the camera was the one that has been most important. It was a relief to find confirmation of these thoughts when I found Ken Rockwell's helpful web site, and although he expresses his opinions strongly, he showed that it was possible to produce decent images without resorting to endless and usually, uninformed, manipulation.
The next step was to replace the D-70 with something lighter and more manageable, and so I bought the latest entry-level Nikon, the D-3100. I learnt how to set up the camera, especially the white balance settings, to produce images that I especially liked, and I thought how in the film days, we used to choose film types that produced results most pleasing to us. The Nikon also has a setting called "Active D-Lighting" (where do they get these names from? Just say what it does...) which improves extremes in the photographs, and which can be set to work on all images. The combination meant that I was able to produce consistent images, given lighting and environmental conditions, and it all felt close to the mythical OM-2 days.
I could reliably turn out well saturated images with the colours I was after, and with sufficient dynamism to leave me satisfied.
But for the last few years, I have been trying to be more creative in my photography, and the reliability of the Nikon seemed to be a block on anything spark of change in how I approach things. Thinking back to the truism that it is not the equipment that makes the difference, I tried various things, all leaving me unsatisfied. I began to wonder whether I was too set in my ways, increasingly using the Nikon as a point-and-shoot, to take any further steps.
But then it occurred to me that we are now well into the digital era, and, as has been shown in the thinking that has informed my photography so far, all my thinking is still in the film era. I doubt that I will truly be able to change that. But maybe I could embrace aspects that the digital era makes possible. For example, Helen has a little Olympus point-and-shoot, which has a flip-up screen, meaning the camera can be held at waist level for stability while composing. This is such a useful way to take pictures, and reminds me of the days of 6x6 cameras, which you looked down on. Why, I wondered, have manufacturers not put all their electronics into a small block rather than a thin rectangular slab? Is it possible to think of a digital camera as an entirely new form of imaging device? If so, the answer may not be in SLRs, which it seems to me, are an extension of the film era, and not a photographic re-think wholly in the digital world. I thought, what would the pioneers, such as Adamson and Hill, have done in the modern age? Would they have said, for example, that black and white was the only true art? Or that images must be a certain format? I doubt it. They are more likely to have looked for places where they could push what was possible. And it was a wonderful bit of advice that seemed to offer an answer.
I had bought my D-3100 from Ffordes camera shop, the most wonderful place, near Beauly, which to folk outwith the Highlands must seem like a camera cave in the back of beyond, but to use here in the Highlands is really a rare local wonder. Various other purchases with them for a variety of purposes showed how knowledgeable and trustworthy they were, so when Helen needed a new camera for her business, I phoned for advice. I won't go into Helen's needs here, but a chat on the phone led to the purchase of a second-hand Panasonic Lumix G2 for Helen, at a price I thought good enough that if it turned out to be a mistake, it would not be an expensive one. Helen immediately "got" the camera, while I was uncertain about this odd four-thirds format.
But when I became dissatisfied with what I was doing, I spent a week or so looking at what a camera designed fully around a purely digital concept could do by playing with Helen's Lumix G2, and it was like starting photography pretty close to the beginning. While you could lift the camera and snap, you could also exercise your own judgment and seek to deliver the results your mind pictured, but it was not easy to do this. It meant thought and a more studied approach, and a better understanding of the technical capabilities the designers had chosen. So I did a little more research into the four thirds system, and found it really quite interesting.
This wikipedia entry explains the four-thirds system so it isn't necessary to go into it here, although I thought I had read that it was a collaboration between Olympus and Panasonic, rather than Kodak. A little more research later, and the Panasonic GX-7 was looking an attractive possibility, although on the verge of being superseded by the GX-8. It has a rear view screen that can lift flat, and also an eye level finder that can also swivel up. It is small, but seems solidly and quite reminiscent of a rangefinder camera. Again, Ffordes came to the rescue, as these cameras are very expensive new, but Ffordes range of second hand equipment is excellent. I bought a GX-7 for half its price new, and found a camera with so little wear, the neck strap was still in its plastic bag.
The first step was to set up the camera and learn its characteristics so that I could at least product technically competent, if not good, photographs; in other words, get to the same point I was with my Nikon (which I kept, by the way.) One of the reviews of the GX-7 I found spoke about its low-light capability, something which the four thirds system was criticised about, and so in the spirit of trying to take a different style of photographs, at a trip to Edinburgh, I snapped this image, and started feeling a little more confident.
The GX-7 is a solid camera, and makes the D-3100, which previously I had thought rather svelte, chubby and clunky. It has turned out to be what I had hoped, and although I am still a way off being able to produce more artistic work, I know I have the tool for the job.
The above pic, for example, would have been much more difficult to take with the Nikon, and while it has many flaws, it is closer to something artistic than just endless pictures of bluebells.
The downsides so far are mostly that the GX-7 tears through the battery. I would have to try to lay my hands on the charger for the Nikon on the occasions when I needed to charge the battery, it lasted so long, but the GX-7 really needs you to have a second battery in your pocket. I do miss Nikon's Active D-Lighting system, which covers so many photographic, and especially metering, sins. And my hands have had to learn where controls are on the GX-7, where they somehow just fall correctly on the Nikon. This may just be muscle memory, but the Nikon does seem better laid out.
I think this is the way to go for my future photographic needs. The next few years will give my photography a new zest, I hope, and maybe, just maybe, I will turn out the odd picture that I feel has some creative and artistic merit.
Edit: With some exercise through frequent use, the shorter battery life initially experienced has improved dramatically. I don't think it lasts as long as the Nikon did, but I no longer have "range anxiety" regarding the battery.