It was about October of 2016, and my wife and I were wandering around Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. It’s one of our favourite places to go – there’s a lovely Greek cafe that we visit every single time (for me the main attraction is Rum Baba!), my wife enjoys browsing round the shops, and I normally pop into Model Junction, which is just as geeky as it sounds but it still amazing. Anyway, on this occasion we were trawling round the charity shops when I spotted something in a box of junk. Even though it was submerged beneath layers of crap, and half of the case was missing, there was still something special about it that drew me over.
I later found out it was a Voightlander Vito B, a West German camera from the late 1950s, but all I knew at the time was that it looked cool and I wanted it! I paid about £20 for it and got very excited about the prospect of taking pictures with it, even though I hadn’t used a manual camera for something approaching 20 years, and then only ones that required the user to do nothing more than demanding than to point and shoot.
Little did I know that this little camera lurking underneath the crap in a Suffolk charity shop was going to start a bit of an obsession that has cost me quite a lot of money, driven my wife quite mad and led me to start this blog!
Anyway, I was full of all kind of ideas about this camera. I bought some film, downloaded a manual from a website, and loaded it. I then took it around everywhere with me for a while, taking pictures while walking my dog, taking pictures in the house. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing – I paid no attention whatsoever to lighting conditions, at a push I might’ve known what a shutter speed was, but I had no conception of any terms such as aperture/depth of field/ISO etc, and had absolutely no idea what any of the confusing numbers or dials on the front of the camera meant. Why should I? My knowledge of photography was non-existent. As an example, I used to own a camera when I was a child and its main feature was stamping a picture of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in the corner of each picture (no idea why..). I’d got a digital camera in about 1998 – it seemed amazing at the time, being able to hook it up to a TV and looking at pictures instantaneously, although again the user had no control over it whatsoever other than pressing the shutter, which then took about 3/4 seconds before it actually took a picture.
So anyway, I finished my first roll of film, and excitedly looked into getting it developed. Unfortunately I hit the first brick wall here – I hadn’t realised how quickly film processing had become a niche activity. Nowhere offered it in our local area, apart from a shop a few streets away from us but they didn’t have any facilities to develop it themselves so they just sent it off to a lab anyway, so I thought I might as well just cut out the middle man (also, my wife had taken some tentative pictures with a Diana camera only to be told by the owner upon getting them processed that they weren’t worth looking at as they were ‘crap!’). So I sent it off to a lab in Birmingham, waited a few days, and then whilst I was at school received a phone call from the lab…
..the entire roll of film was blank. The camera was faulty.
I had suspected as much – there was no satisfying ‘click’ sound upon pressing the shutter, but I knew so little about cameras I assumed that this might just be normal. Anyway, I was learning another important lesson about analogue photography – expect stuff to go wrong, expect to make mistakes, and above all, when using an old camera, you don’t really know what you’re going to get until you get the first roll of usable prints back.
Anyway, as you can imagine, I was very disappointed. So I did what any sane person would do, having sunk 30-40 odd quid into a totally fruitless project, with many seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
I went onto Ebay and immediately bought another Voightlander! Hooray!
Again, this camera was 60 years old, and by now I had learned that things go wrong. However, I loaded the first roll of film in, pressed the shutter, and it made a satisfying CLICK noise – a sound that I realised I had missed so much when using crap digital cameras and mobile phones.
So we went away on holiday to Sussex and I took the camera with me. I still had no real idea what I was doing, but I snapped away and hoped for the best. Soon I had finished the first and loaded a second roll of film – brave considering I didn’t even know if the camera worked and if I was just wasting money again.
On one of the last days of the holiday, we visited Brighton, and I finished the second roll off. It was a gloriously sunny day, and I was eager to see if I could get my film developed. Coincidentally (ahem), there was a film processing shop just a few minutes walk from the pier, so I eagerly dropped my two rolls of film off, again having no knowledge whatsoever of what to ask for in terms of development other than ‘please show me some pictures’.
An hour later, with a belly full of fish and chips, I returned, fully expecting to again be told that none of the pictures had came out, which would probably have made me admit defeat. Instead…
success! (not in terms of any artistic achievement you understand, but in terms of getting an actual image!)
I had my first experience of thumbing through a set of prints developed from film in at least 25 years, and it was very exciting.
My pictures from my first roll showed that I had no real idea what I was doing. They were completely overexposed – it was a very bright, sunny day (we were in Rye) and as I had no idea about aperture/ISO or shutter speed, I had simply snapped away and the results were predictable. Although I still do quite like the impressionistic blobs of colour (my wife was wearing a bright red coat on the day which helped!)
However, about half way through the holiday I did start reading through the 1957 instruction manual, set the aperture and shutter speed to a recommended combo, and the results were quite different!
Here’s Bodiam castle. Again, not exactly the most artistic images, but I was quite impressed with the sharpness of the image, and the ability to control things like what was in focus and depth of field – something I had never even thought about before and which I still didn’t really understand.
The first picture I was really quite pleased with was this one I took from the pier in Brighton. There’s nothing particularly artistic or technical about it, but it was such a beautiful day, and I really liked the colours. The Voightlander seems to capture these particularly well.
So – by the end of October 2016, I was pretty much obsessed. I couldn’t wait to get out and start shooting some film with my camera. I loved everything about it – the quality of the camera, the sound of the shutter, the process of loading the film, having to manually set the focus/aperture/shutter speed, but most of all, not knowing what you would get back until you were able to get it back from the lab weeks or months later, and so my interest in film started. That’s led me to this point, and to this blog. This is for me more than anything else – I really like to muse on the pictures I’ve taken and what I’ve learned, so it’s probably pretty boring for anyone else reading, but maybe someone else might feel inspired to have a go too, and maybe won’t feel bad for failing at first too!
In the next few posts, I want to talk about what I’ve learned since that point (it feels like an awful lot, considering I’ve only been using ‘proper’ cameras and film for about 6 months), and then would like to look at different cameras (I really want to use my 1916 Box Brownie), different techniques/projects, and see what happens.
Thanks for reading!