My newest addition to a growing collection of nostalgic photography items is this beautiful Canon A-1 with a 75-200 lens. I found it at a thrift shop and it appears to be fully functional, complete with an exposure compensation dial, shutter and aperture priority and a working LED light meter in the viewfinder. I can’t wait to get out and try this thing! I recently completed a roll of Ilford HP5 black and white film with my old Canon AE-1, so maybe I can turn a new one in when I pick the other one up!
You may wonder why in this age of high tech digital why I would be messing around with film… I still remember when I acquired my first real camera. It was the Minolta X-700, a pretty formidable piece of equipment in it’s day. I remember sitting on the floor poring over the manual, learning about f stops and shutter speeds, and marveling at the little red LED information lights inside the viewfinder. A whole new world was opening up as a result of those new camera controls.
Now that wasn’t my first camera. My interest in photography began at a very young age with an old Brownie box camera. It wasn’t really mine but my parents would buy me one roll of 12 exposures per year to shoot on our summer camping trips to the mountains. To put that in perspective, I shoot that many frames in one second when I’m out doing bird photography with my Canon 90D. When I got a little older I purchased one of those instamatic models at the drug store, the kind that would take those handy film cartridges… It had those disposable flash bars you could attach, also a pretty high tech item for the day! Of course the negatives were so small you couldn’t really make an enlargement but at the time it had never occurred to me to make an enlargement. When you are making $1.90 per hour at a grocery store things like picture enlargements aren’t really in the cards anyway.
Time marches on and I soon found myself in the Air Force. But for some reason when I was going to weather school it didn’t occur to me to get a real camera to photograph the awesome weather that would blow through Omaha, Nebraska, the home of Air Force Global Weather Central, where I worked as a weather observer and computer programmer for four years. It didn’t occur to me to take pictures of the weather and I didn’t have a camera capable of quality captures, nobody did. I guess storm chasing wasn’t a thing yet.
When I moved out to Silicon Valley to begin a career in computer software the scenery was too much to leave undocumented, so I began the search for a better camera… Disk cameras were all the rage then, and as a computer guy a disk camera sounded like the thing to have. Unfortunately as I would discover, those stupid cameras were far from that. The tiny little negatives on those tiny little disks were barely capable of a 4×6 print. In all my travels around northern California I don’t recall ever seeing a camera store, I’m sure there must have been one somewhere but I never saw one. There were no 35mm or medium format cameras in the malls, I knew they existed but had no idea where you would find one and nobody I knew had one. Kind of like surveying equipment I thought, you knew it existed because you saw people taking surveys, but somehow surveyors were the only people who knew where to get it. I’m actually kind of amazed at how well this old print has fared over the last 40 years!
But when I got to Denver in the 80’s suddenly there were camera stores everywhere. Waxman’s Camera was big at the time and when my best friend showed up at a camping trip with a shiny Minolta X-370 I knew I had to have one. He told me about the camera store, how they would sell you the camera, show you how to use it and even provide free photography classes. I was amazed to see the all of the equipment that was available to anyone who wanted it, lighting, developing, enlarging, and I was fascinated with the whole process, loading the film, setting the apertures and shutter speeds, taking the film to the lab and hanging around talking to the technicians and other photographers about new film and developing technology. It was all a very special and rewarding experience and it was amazing to be part of it.
That aspect of photography is absent from the digital age. Everything is accomplished alone in front of a computer. The developing and the printing all done with Photoshop can be accomplished without ever having to talk to another person. I love my digital camera and the software but the equipment seems more like a computer with a lens that it does a camera. Of course there is social media but there is a remote anonymity about it that is just not the same.
I tried my hand at a portrait business during the film era and actually did pretty well with it for quite a few years. I lived in the Parker, Colorado area which at the time was way “out in the country”. Somehow I became the guy who shot the country weddings and senior pictures and I had a great time doing it. Eventually I did upgrade to an auto focus model which I was quite fond of but the weddings burned me out and I put down the camera and didn’t pick one up until Canon introduced the first pro digital model in 2002. Of course if you want to know about that story you can read my book “Two Decades of Digital Photography“, it is available on eBook and paperback on Kindle and Amazon and is a fascinating photographic adventure in it’s own right!
I have a collection of old cameras and when I spotted an old Canon AE-1 at the Goodwill store. I grabbed it to add to the other relics displayed on a shelf for me to nostalgically enjoy. As I took it out to the truck I glanced across the street at the Walgreens… is it possible that they would have a battery for this thing, is it possible that it might actually still work after all these years? The camera was in excellent shape complete with lenses and a flash in the bag and it was obvious that whoever had it took care of it and didn’t use it much. My phone told me what kind of battery to use and how to put it in. I was pleasantly surprised when the meter needle snapped into place to display f/8 as I pointed the lens out the truck window. The film advance lever appeared to work and the shutter and mirror made a satisfying snap when I pushed the button!
So back into the store I went to buy a roll of 35mm film. There was no film there but I was eventually able to get a roll of crappy color film at Walmart so I loaded it up to test it out. The Walgreen’s had a film developing department so I dropped it off for them to send off to their lab. It took a month but I eventually got a call from them telling me that my CD and prints were ready. Amazingly, the camera worked. The film was crap but there were pictures… I am kind of intrigued by the postcard look of these prints though!
Then I began to get ideas for little projects that I could do with film, just for fun. I fished my old Sekonic incident meter out of the box of relics that I’ve been holding on to all these years and ordered some Ilford HP5 black and white film. This time I decided not to entrust my project to Walgreen’s and called around to see if there was still anyone who actually still has film developing equipment, and much to my surprise, Mike’s Camera still considers film to be an important medium and has a complete lab onsite at their Colorado Springs store! The original Waxman’s became Wolf Camera and then I believe those all became Mike’s Camera where I was a regular customer for many years. It had been so long though that upon arrival I had to set up a new account and decided to join the film discount club for $5 off of developing each roll of film.
While I was there talking to the technicians about film and processing I felt the old fire that I used to feel in the early days, the camaraderie and the appreciation for a special process. The feeling of being part of something exceptional and exclusive. So I bought some more Ilford HP5 and later picked up the Canon A1. Not sure if anyone will be interested but I plan to put out some YouTube videos about film photography. Now don’t get me wrong, I still appreciate the convenience of the digital era. I did some calculating and figure if I were trying to do what I do now with the birds and wildlife I would be burning through $1500 per month in film and processing! But I think it is going to be fun to do a few small projects with the old cameras and film. Stay tuned!