My Photographic Gear Evolution – Part I

Recently, talking here about my original motivation, and my admission to being a “gearhead,” got me thinking about my personal “evolution” of photographic tools. I started to write “a” blog about it. Readers here know that I am not known for brevity, and nearly always break a sort of rule of blogging, which is to regularly and continuously post short, punchy material. Mine has always been more like a journal. Which means its long, among other things (and maybe boring and hard to hold the readers’ attention 🙂 ). Anyway, it became apparent that I could not do 40+ years in a single blog. So I broke this up into a 5-part (still very long) series. I hope you find it at least mildly interesting. Some of my older friends might have some parallel experiences.

The early years – 1977 – 1980

I won’t count the Kodak Baby Brownie, and various “Instamatic” cameras I used as a kid. The real attention to “gear” came in 1977, when I was about 20. It did start with a desire to make better images. My earliest inspiration was a college math teacher, who used a Nikon SLR (single lens reflex) camera. I was a broke college student with no budget for cameras – but I did remember that my dad had a couple boxes of gear in the big closet back home. So when I went home for Christmas, I went rummaging around, and ended up taking his “Asahiflex” SLR camera (which he hadn’t used for many years) back to college with me.

Asahiflex SLR Camera

Cameras.        The Asahiflex was my first camera capable of adjusting settings to achieve a desired result, rather than just pointing and shooting. As I have noted in my About Me section here, this was a camera that had absolutely zero “automatic” features. It had no built-in light metering capability, so I carried a handheld light meter. The lenses did not automatically stop down to the aperture selected. Rather, you focused and composed with them wide open, and then when ready to shoot, turned a lens ring down against the selected f-stop (if you forgot, you wasted a frame). And perhaps ultimately importantly to me, the viewfinder was a waist-level finder. This meant the use of the camera was more painstaking, and less convenient (there was an optical viewfinder, but in practice, I did not find it particularly useful)

None of this was a bad thing. In fact, if I ever taught a beginner class, I would like to have one of them for demonstration purposes. Manufactured by Asahi Optical Company, it was, I believe, the predecessor to the relatively famous and innovative Pentax Spotmatic SLR Cameras. Badged as “Asahiflex” in Asia, it was also sold through Sears and Robucks under the “Tower” brand name. My dad bought his in Okinawa. Lacking a lot of the built-ins, it was small, portable and a very well-built camera.

As I talked with and worked with other photographers, and spent times in camera shops (yes, they had those in most decent sized cities in the U.S. back in those days), I developed some envy for a more “automatic” experience. Of course, the meaning of that word would change by light years in just a very few, short, normal years. I liked the idea of having the light meter built into the camera, and the automatic “stop down” of the aperture. And, more than anything, I was drawn to the “through the lens” viewfinder.

Canon TX

Within months of my shooting with the Asahi, I purchased an entry-level Canon TX. Ironically, it was the only Canon SLR I would ever own, and likewise, the Asahi, the only “Pentax” I would ever own. There was really no strong motivation for my brand selection. There seemed to be 4 “players” out there (GM, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors J ). Kidding – but similar: Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Minolta. The biggest influence in my purchase was my local shop. They were a Canon dealer and that is what they pushed. I was pretty new at the gear thing, and we didn’t really have the access to the entire world market we do today. I kept the Asahi for many years, until sometime in the 2000’s my dad gave me permission to sell it to a collector (of course, to “finance” another gear purchase).

58mm Asahi Lens
135mm Asahi Lens

Lenses.            I had two “Takumar” lenses (a 58mm and a 135mm) with the Asahiflex. They were very high quality optics. Screw mount and and beautiful solid stainless steel construction, they were very small, but quite heavy. The 135 still brings in the $200 – 250 range on eBay. I am not certain why dad chose the 58mm as his “normal” lens. They did produce a 50mm, but strangely, it had a maximum aperture of f3.5, as opposed to f2.4 on the 58mm.

The Canon TX “kit” I bought came with a “normal” (50mm) f2.8 lens. Canon and Nikon have always been known for their optics, and the 50mm lens is perhaps one of the easiest to make and the most consistent quality optic. I worked mostly with that 50mm lens. But I immediately missed the 135mm lens. So, I found myself often shooting with both cameras in the early days. When I look at my archives, I am not certain I have a single image made with the Asahi, and a have perhaps a handful made with the Canon. That is a shame, but somehow, over life, they were lost (I didn’t have a very good archiving system in the early years).

Medium.         For anyone who just began photography in the 2000’s, “film” may seem like a whimsical, historical artifact. It was, perhaps cumbersome, having to buy it, load it into the camera, have it developed (which could be perceived as a messy, non-environmentally friendly process), and then sort through it and store. But in 1979, film is what we had. And an added plus, they came in these cool and useful little canisters. In the earliest years, they were aluminum, with a screw top. I wish I had a couple today.

Kodachrome 25 ASA Film

The “personal computer” (“PC”), was still a novelty that few could afford. My experience was with a mainframe computer that had “dumb” terminals (a keyboard and black and white tube monitor), in a different room than the computer (which was the size of a small station-wagon). We “coded” in computer language like “BASIC,” and FORTRAN, and saved our work on cassette tapes. The internet had not yet become available to the general public. There was really no “digital” photography.

In the early years, there was a limited variety. Film could be shot on a “reversal” type medium, designed to expose the “negative” of what would eventually be displayed (ironically, by a second “exposure” process), in print, and could be black and white or color. My earliest memories of color film was pretty drab. And there was one primary vendor – Kodak. Fujifilm, Agfa, and a couple others produced film, but Kodak was the clear market leader.

I learned from my first mentor, that color “positive,” or transparency film, was the preferred medium of outdoor and nature shooters, which was where my interests seemed to lean. Early on, I established an affinity for one of Kodak’s two most popular offerings, (Kodachrome 25 and Kodachrome 64). I shot K-25 almost exclusively in the early years. Kodachrome 25 had an ISO (actually more popularly, ASA – at least stateside) of 25, which meant there was not a huge degree of versatility in shooting and light conditions. There were other transparency films, but Kodachrome seemed to me to have the most pleasing and natural look. So it is what I shot.

Doodads.        When I write, I usually have the online thesaurus open, because I try to find some other words, to keep from being overly repetitive. I found “doodads,” a word I haven’t heard in eons. I like it, so I’ll use it here. The first point, though, is that they really aren’t “doodads” at all. In most cases the accessories we often acquire as a second (or later) thought, are useful necessities – or close. My most common accessory was a polarizing filter – which is something I still value today. I had a kind of rickety old tripod, too. I was too learn, much later, however, that this was perhaps the most important tool, other than the camera, lens and medium, in a photographer’s bag.

Next . . . . . “The Nikon Years”