The title’s not quite true. I started my journey as a photographer a little earlier than this. In fact, the tiddy little point-and-shoot I was given at about age 10 gave me my first real taste of photographic exploration. That, and growing up with my parents’ slide-shows of Afghanistan and Bangladesh in the 1970s.
And my real foray into photography started when I was 20 and got myself a cheesy little waterproof Minolta APS camera- one of those ones where you could flick a button and the photo went from being Normal to Widescreen to Panoramic. It sounded cool, but in fact it was a horrible gimmick that simply gave instructions to the printer to crop the same negative proportionally- so that a Panoramic image gave the same quality as if you’d taken your regular negative, blown it up, and trimmed off the top and bottom into a wide rectangle. Plus the actual film quality was low, too, so you ended up with poor images across the board.
My adventures with this camera included hiking and scree-skiing in the Canadian Rockies, and subsequently, trips to Turkana district in Kenya, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and the Thailand-Myanmar border region. I saw lots of beautiful things, tried my darnedest to capture them- and failed quite comprehensively.
My father, however, did have the grace to observe that what I was seeing with my eye was far beyond the capacity of the camera to actually capture, so on the back of that, my grandfather dug out his old Canon T-70, a streamlined 35mm SLR from the early 1980s. He hadn’t touched the thing for the better part of 10 years, and we weren’t even that sure how well it would work, but there was a roll of film in the back, and replacing the batteries, I went off and did some shooting around his farm in the Lake District.
With that first roll of film (that had been sitting there since about 1990), I went for a walk around sunset and caught a show of the sun going down behind a tree at the bottom of the property. The sun was just dipping beyond the crag on the horizon. The tree itself had lost a main bough in a windstorm the year before, and had a curious emptiness about it, framing the sun. I took my shots, wound off the film, and dropped it in to get developed.
The image I got back was the one at the top of this post. In fact, I took three shots of that tree and the setting sun. I don’t know whether it was some trick of the old film, or whether the developer had a creative bent, but all three images came back beautifully coloured, with warm hues and thick saturated tones. I was thrilled. In fact, looking back, I wonder if those shots hadn’t worked so well, whether I would have retained the same drive to go and take more, or whether I wouldn’t have seen the camera as just a glorified version of my earlier apparatuses and given up.
Regardless, from then on, I went out of my way to practice my photography whenever I could. The T-70 was light enough that I could cart it around. I had two lenses with it- a wider zoom lens that ran from 35-70mm, and a telephoto zoom lens out to 300mm. I already understood shutter-speed and ISO, and went on to teach myself how to balance them with aperture to make the most of available light, how to shoot contre-jour, how to use filters (I got myself a ream of cokin gels which I would slot over the lens for all manner of kooky effects), and how to match subjects with appropriate lenses. Among much more.
I shot a lot. In hindsight, it’s a wonder anybody got into photography before digital came along. This was in 2002, just as digital cameras were starting to spread across the market, but I had a notion to teach myself photography on an analogue SLR first, to get the skills down, before jumping onto digital. The cost was prohibitive. On a trip to New Zealand at the end of 2002, I shot 25 rolls of film- all of which had to be purchased, and all of which had to be subsequently developed. And needless to say, a goodly chunk of those (as with any photo shoot) weren’t that great. But that’s all part of the learning process. And luckily, a few worked.
Early on in the piece, I was very into contre-jour photography- that is, shooting against the light. I liked the drama of capturing the sun, the contrast of silhouettes, the colours of dusk and dawn. The second shot of this piece I took down on the south coast of England (I was living in the UK at the time). The dramatic rock formations of the coastline made for an interesting foreground shape, while the wisp of cirrus cloud obscured the sun just enough to allow me to shoot against it without annihilating the film. The polarizer added a surreal hue that overall makes the photo look like it was shot at night-time, and the way the sun lights the cloud-wisp makes it look more like a falling star than a sunny afternoon. I enjoyed the effect.
The last photo here I took back on my grandparents’ farm a few months after I first got the camera. It was winter, and the sun was setting early, probably not long past four in the afternoon. They were grazing sheep in the paddock, and standing by the gate at the bottom of the home acre with my 300mm zoom, I caught sight of one woolly wonder atop a rise in the field. A little positioning put her directly between the sun and I, and I shot. The sharp focus (lucky) coupled with the fast shutter speed (courtesy of the streaming light) gave the silhouette such crisp detail- right down to the blades of grass beneath the hooves, and the locks of wool hanging from the beast’s flank. I was well chuffed.
I took loads more photos during this time, but exploring some of my old scanned archives, these are a couple I thought I’d pull out and share.