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Monday, July 16, 2012

Challenging Yourself...

Taken on film using a Petri rangefinder camera. Hanoi, Vietnam, 2002.
It was ten years ago, but I remember it well. I was at the annual Camberwell Photography Flea Market. It was a Sunday morning and I was there hunting for bargains like everyone else. What Nikon lenses could I get for my F90x and my F801 - the two main Nikon bodies I used at the time? Lovely cameras, both of them. I knew that I would soon be leading my second photo tour through Vietnam and maybe there was an extra lens or accessory I could take along with me to try out. I went from stall to stall and browsed eagerly for that illusive bargain. There were many to be had, but nothing that stood out for me.

Then, something caught my eye. It was a Petri Rangefinder, in mint condition, probably about 50 years old. It was in its original leather case. Curiously, I asked the fellow behind the stall "How much is the Petri?". "Thirty five", he said. Not really knowing why, but strangely drawn to this lovely little thing, I didn't even haggle. It was mine.

It had a fixed 45mm f 2.8 lens, rangefinder focussing and no meter at all. I knew that to take any photograph with it I would have to revert to skills I hadn't used since I first started learning photography in my elective photography class in high school. For instance, it had been a long time since I had 'gut metered', taking a look at a scene and applying the old 'sunny 16' method of metering. Rangefinder focussing was also something I had not had much experience with, but I had learned manual focussing on my Minoltas and Mamiyas long before I went Nikon. 

What drew me to this camera was precisely the things I was concerned about - metering, focussing, setting manual exposures for every image. I was confined to one focal length every time I raised the camera to my eye, and it was relatively wide-angle focal length at that. In other words, I fell in love with the idea of a challenge - again. I had become so used to the automations of my Nikons that I had lost touch with the intricacies and challenges of creating the image. It had all become so much easier. Now, I wanted to return to my younger years and the challenges that had once bamboozled me to see how far I may have come.

I took the camera to Vietnam for the tour, loaded only with black and white film. Every exposure was a guess, using only the 'sunny 16' rule as a guide as the selenium cell meter that came with it and sat perched in the camera's flash shoe was not only broken, it would not have been particularly accurate. I had to focus using the ghostly yellow rangefinder imaging through the viewfinder and remember that when I was close to a subject that I had to compensate for parallax error. Each image required a fair amount of thought - and I loved it. Upon returning from Vietnam I was not only pleased with the overall accuracy of my guesswork, I was very pleased with the quality that the camera itself had produced as light travelled through the lens and aperture/leaf shutter and on to the film. 

These days, I, like almost every other photographer, I shoot digitally. I check the screen with each image I take and use it as a starting reference point for my results. My metering is provided by the camera and I have several modes and settings, tweaks and options for every image produced therein. But there are times I am tempted to see if I still have 'it', that wonderful ability to produce images from the gut like the Petri forced me to do in Vietnam. Such abilities were present as everyday necessities in the working and creative lives of my photography legends from years past - W.Eugene Smith, Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson - among many others. I could never claim to wear their mantles, but I can do my best to replicate their skill and experience. Perhaps one day I will have the courage to put a piece of gaffer tape over the screen of my D700 and go out shooting for fun without the benefits of that instant digital revelation of success or failure. In so doing I would at least be returning to my film shooting days. I don't think I have the courage to push it further back than that....


Bruce Williams said...

Awesome to see you blogging more frequently again, mate!
Looking forward to reading more.

Damon Wood said...

Back to pure basics. Just the thought of it makes me excited. I was lucky enough to learn on an Olympus OM-1N with a zuiko 24mm f2.8. Heaven - and to this day I still miss it. Wish i had kept the glass at least for the new OM-D.

Vietnam sounds a great place to do it too. How raw can it get?

The Life, Times and Images of photographer, Shelton Muller

Images on this blog are copyright Shelton Muller