“Whatcha photographing mate?”
It’s early November and I am standing on Wellington’s spectacular waterfront, close to the Maori-named national museum, Te Papa. The weather is overcast and I’m not sure how to answer this curious local.
“Dunno. I’ll know when I get home and see what they look like then.”
The Kiwi shrugged and wandered off, convinced – if he ever needed convincing – that the poms collectively and specifically me, had lost it.
It turned out to be a great image, one of my favourites, but I had no idea at the time.
It’s always been like this for me. As a student in London, afflicted with most of the student malaises, more specifically a lack of money, my first camera was a Czech invention of some long forgotten brand. I really don’t remember the how and why, but it was soon replaced with a heartbreaker; a Pentax Spotmatic and my love affair with photography was born.
But, it wasn’t a love that consumed; that demanded my every waking moment. In fact, it was quite disappointing, a post-coital melancholy and a poor reward for quite a lot of hard work.
I was hopeless actually. My pictures were over or under exposed and my efforts at the arcane chemistry of developing and printing, risible. I was in too much of a hurry. In your late teens, that’s pretty understandable. But, it hobbles you through your twenties and thirties, becoming more of a problem as one matures.
A handicap that ensures you often miss the goal.
Despite repeated attempts to join photography’s digital revolution, the results I saw all too often turned out to be not quite what I wanted. Poorly imagined. Slightly soft. Not framed very well.
And, whilst I am eternally grateful to have them, I have bad feet. Years of mediocre squash playing means that my ankles are permanently swollen and not very strong. In more recent times, a GP who has insisted on treating me for gout and not diagnosing the fallen arches that have tormented me, has ensured a significant slowing down in my ability to get around.
No matter, I can still walk tens of kilometres in a day, albeit slowly. And finally, that’s what this article is about – taking your time.
I recently started a clean up of my photo library and said farewell to more than 7000 photographs. Most were well intentioned, all slightly less than sharp and definitely poorly framed. The culling continues – it takes time and an attitude of both tolerance and hope.
Tolerance to be able to see what I was trying to achieve in a photograph and understand that I didn’t get close and bin it anyway. Hope, because there are a (very) few gems in there, most forgotten in the rush to move on.
Almost all of them were shot before mid-2011.
That was when I bought my first Sony “E” mount camera, a bottom of the range NEX-C3. Along with it came a Leica M adaptor, purchased to finally get some use from the lenses that had accompanied the M4 body I bought with the best of (subsequently failed) intentions a decade earlier.
A few days later, a wet afternoon wandering the streets of Stellenbosch delivered some of the most captivating and sharp photographs I had ever taken; full of contrast and detail that I’d almost given up on achieving. By then, the NEX-7 was supposed to be imminent and then delayed by the Asian floods. I waited, itched and ached for its viewfinder and 24mp sensor for months, finally finding one in London in May 2012.
By this time, I was learning two things; I could slow down and walk at a comfortable pace and at the same time, use a camera with manual focus lenses to the huge benefit of my photographic output.
Why not a nice new autofocus lens or two, you ask? Easy; I had the Leicas and didn’t see any reason to buy yet more kit and secondly, they forced me to take my time, think and plan what I wanted to do – a no brainer.
The two Sonys live in a pouch not much bigger than half a dozen CD cases. Also inside is a 35mm Summicron, 50mm Summilux and a more recently purchased 25mm Zeiss Biogon. When I get everything right, what extraordinary images they produce.
Any traveller worn down by hauling a bag laden with DSLRs through airports, borders, buses and taxis will know how welcome this svelte 4kg kit can be. It has supplanted 20kg of DSLRs and is now my long distance travel kit.
Mind you, it was only a matter of a few moments thought to return to the photo cupboard and haul out several decades-old Nikkors, to test with modern DSLR bodies. Regular readers have already travelled through my failed need-to-sell angst when it was time to dispose of my D2x. You’ll recall that it got re-purposed and now snuggles alongside the D700 and D800 bodies, travelling everywhere (as long as it is in the car) with me. This is the road trip kit.
Thinking back to my Kiwi conversation, my response should have been “I’m photographing these wooden piles, but I’m not sure if I’ve got it right yet – I need to spend more time, shoot more pictures first. I can hardly pop back* tomorrow and re-shoot it if it’s wrong.”
The big names in photography all sing from the same song sheet in this regard; “Take your time, work the scene.” Good advice even if I had to learn it the hard way.
* According to that nice Mr Google, Cape Town to Wellington is more than 11,000km
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