Sunday, December 9, 2012

My Photographic Journey

I've recently been exchanging some emails with a couple of friends who are enjoying some newly purchased camera gear. I'm jealous of them right now, but am living vicariously through their excitement!  Along the way, our conversations have included some nostalgic comparisons to early cameras that we had "back in the begining". That made me think of my own journey...

I was in ninth grade when my dad told me about a friend of his who offered to give us a ride in a hot air balloon.  I grew up in Albuquerque, the capital of hot air ballooning!  I was excited about this and commented to my parents that I should take pictures from up in the balloon.  I didn't own a camera, but after about a 15 minute absence from the room, my mom returned and handed me a small plastic 35mm camera.  It had only one control--a shutter release.  I was thrilled!!  A camera!! My dad was very interested in photography and had several good cameras including a Leica that he was quite proud of.

My dad suggested that I start out with black and white film because of the less expensive processing costs.  It was good advice considering I knew nothing about photography.  When I turned in that first roll of film and received prints a few days later, I had the bug...bitten hard.  The magic of it all so enthralled me.  I couldn't wait to take more pictures and turn the film in for processing!!

It wasn’t after too many rolls of Tri-X and Pan-X that I went to a pawn shop and bought my first "real" camera…the Pentax Spotmatic F. Wow, a built-in light meter! All I had to do was center a needle and I’d have perfect exposures! Everything was manual...manual shutter speed and aperture selection, manual ASA/ISO, manual focus...  But wow, what a camera!!  Much like today, I’d either wander around the neighborhood, or drive around the city looking for interesting things to take pictures of.  I shot everything...I read everything...studied anything I could get my hands on.  The internet?  right.  We're talking the library.  Books, periodicals.  My dad was a great resource too, patiently explaining the inter-relationship between shutter speed and aperature.  I was a sponge.  All my film processing and printing was at the local Walgreens. The clerk got to know me by name. It became clear to my parents that I was bit with the photography bug.
A few years later, it came to my dad’s attention that another one of his good friends was getting rid of his darkroom equipment because he lost interest (or time) and didn’t want it anymore and saw an opportunity to give it to someone that would enjoy it. It was very exciting to be over in my dad’s friend’s garage where he had built a darkroom and see all the stuff set up. He didn’t demonstrate how to use everything, but he did offer some rudimentary explanations and walked me through the process. He had some supplies of chemicals and papers which I started out using but quickly found were so old that the poor results I was getting were not so much because I was clueless, but because the materials had gone bad (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).

I quickly found a local department store that had a photography supplies section where I could buy chemicals, papers, and other accessories. I quickly learned that I could save even more money if I bought my film in bulk and rolled it myself. Not sure how many 100-ft rolls of film I went through, but I got pretty good at rolling my own cartridges.  In high school, I would take pictures at the basketball games, go home and spend the next couple hours in the darkroom so I could have prints with me to show off at school the next day.  When I went to college, I served a short stint as a photographer for the university newspaper.  Journalism didn't fire me up as much as my freelancing.  The ideas of being told what to shoot, and when to shoot it seems too much like work, and not as much fun as I thought it would be.  It was cool to see a picture of yours in the paper, but I found that it wasn't enough of a charge to keep me going.  I think my engineering school work was also putting some pretty big demands on my time, and I didn't see myself pursuing a career in photography.

Like many people who had their own B&W darkrooms (mine was in a storage room in our basement), I  eventually ventured into color processing. The chemistry and temperature sensitivity for film developing was so exacting that I kept with lab processing of the film and only dabbled with color printing. It was orders of magnitude more complicated. First of all, forget the yellow light in the darkroom. Once you had a negative loaded in the enlarger and had the magnification and focus set, it was lights out…fumble for paper, place paper for exposing, fumble to turn on the timer, fumble to put the exposed paper in the light-tight drum, and then fumble to turn the lights back on. From that point, processing was dumping a series of chemicals into the drum’s pour spout, set the drum in a motor-driven rotating cradle, and just go through the steps. After about 30 minutes, it would be time to open the drum and see what you had… I don’t recall the percentages, but the success rate was pretty low. Getting exposure of the print was tricky, and if you were lazy and didn’t create a test print by exposing revealing bands in order to determine exactly the right exposure time, then it was a matter of trial and error. That turned out to be not only frustratingly time consuming, but costly…the color paper wasn’t cheap, and the chemicals were even worse.

Today, people may harken back to the good ol’ days, but not me…I was there, and I know the difference. We are lucky to have what we have, and the current generation doesn’t have a clue the advantages they have with the current technologies.

Once I got out of college I moved to California to accept a job offer. I took all my equipment, but just never had the room, the time, or the inclination to get it set back up. When we bought our second house, it had a utility room with a sink and I’m pretty sure the previous owner had used it as a darkroom. I was really excited to FINALLY have the opportunity to unpack the boxes and get my darkroom set up once again. No, I never did… Then there were kids, and well, you know the drill.  The only real "photography" I did was take snap shots of the kids doing cute stuff, and group shots at family gatherings.

Welcome the digital age!!  This would be the spark that re-ignited the passion for me much as it has for countless others. Photography had remainted deep down an interest of mine, and now it was accessible again. I didn’t start with a DSLR…I started with a Canon point and shoot that my father-in-law purchased so we could keep him stocked with grandchildran pictures!  My first several camera upgrades were to better and more capable point and shoots. My “post processing” was virtually non-existent until my father-in-law introduced me to Photoshop Elements which is what he had been using. I think that might have been back at version 3 (they are at 11 now). I have since found Photoshop Element to be indispensable and continue to use it along side LR, Photomatix, and Silver Efex Pro 2.
I eventually made the plunge and bought a DSLR...a Nikon D90.  Big camera, big dollars, BIG difference in image quality and image capture flexibility.  Wow, THIS was photography!!  I was not going 100 mph, and have never looked back.  I love taking pictures, processing pictures, sharing pictures, and talking about everything photography.  I'm in a photo club, maintain a website, and as time allows, share my thoughts in this blog.  My journey is far from over...this is just where I am now.
(Metadata for this image taken at the Japanese Gardens in Long Beach is 1/90th sec at f/3.2, ISO 200, focal length 100mm...macro)
If you have comments, questions, suggestions, or feedback, feel free to contact me anytime at  You can also see my last images on my new website

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