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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”


Kodachrome and my Nikon Camera – 1996

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

Paul Simon; 1973

Pink Rose Nikon N6006 Kodachrome 25 Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Kodachrome 25
Nikon N6006
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

I started shooting again in 1996.  In earlier years, I fell in love with the realism produced by color slide films, and Kodachrome 25 quickly became my film of choice.  When I started serious shooting in the late 70’s, there were really only two or three choices: Kodachrome 25, Kodachrome 64, some Kodak Ektachromes and a couple of Agfa emulsions (I am sure there were others, but these were what I seemed to find in the camera stores).  There was something about K25 that just hooked me.  Ektachrome was a slide film that could be “home” developed and often local shops had the processing equipment to do so.  But to me it seemed washed out and kind of “bluish.”  The Kodachrome films involved a complex development process that required expensive equipment.  It ensured that rolls of film were going to be sent in and you were going to generally wait a week or so for the results.  It took me a while to work up to the Nikon camera :-), but by the time we reached the ’90’s I was a confirmed “Black Hatter.”  And in my closet, I had an old, cracked, brown leatherette bag stashed with 2 Nikkormat bodies and an assortment of “eh” third party glass.  My only Nikkor lens was the 50mm lens.

By 1996, a lot had changed in the industry.  And yet nothing had really changed

Nikon N6006 Kodak Elitechrome II (50) Copyright 1996 f4.5; 1/60 sec Flowers Vol. 1, #3

Nikon N6006
Kodak Elitechrome II (50)
Copyright 1996
f4.5; 1/60 sec
Flowers Vol. 1, #3

By 1996, a lot had changed in the industry.  And yet nothing had really changed (the real change came in the late 1990s – early 2000s with the advent of the consumer-affordable digital capture DSLR).  My first Asahiflex SLR camera had a focal plane, horizontal, fabric shutter.  The lenses screwed into the body and there were no mechanical linkages.  “Stopping the lens down” to the selected aperture (in all but one case — wide-open) was done manually with a ring on the lens barrel.  Focusing and composing was done by using a waist-level viewfinder.  My second SLR, a Canon TX, incorporated radical changes :-).  It had a pentaprism viewfinder, bayonet mounting lenses, and on the mount, a little lever that “automatically” stopped down the lens, when the shutter was tripped (that was first meaning of “automatic” with reference to SLR cameras).  While those were hugely convenient new touches for me, I was mildly surprised to realize they did not improve the quality of my images :-).  This was my first inkling of the idea that “its all just gear.”  My third SLR was my first Nikon.  There were really only minor differences and I quickly assimilated to it.  All of those cameras had to be fed film and mine were nurtured with virtually 100% Kodachrome 25 when shooting for myself (the Nikon ran through a fair amount of B&W Tri-X as a college student staff shooter).  But in the end, the cameras were all functionally identical; a light-tight box that accepted various lenses and allowed us to adjust shutter speed and aperture, and to variably focus the lenses.

The one constant was the most important one; film

Nikon N6006 Kodachrome 25 f5.6; 1/8 sec. Flowers, Vol. 1, #34

Nikon N6006
Kodachrome 25
f5.6; 1/8 sec.
Flowers, Vol. 1, #34

There was also a “new automatic.”  While I was “sleeping” during the 1980’s, Nikon, Pentax led the charge, first with integrated motor drives and then with “autofocus.”  In 1985, along came Minolta and put what was perhaps the first programming function into their Maxxum line of cameras.  I remember keeping up and reading from time to time and was very enamored with the idea.  I have always been a “gadget-guy” and I think that intrigued me.  Today, I yearn for a simpler body that has just the features I find useful.  Every camera I have owned since I moved up to modern SLR cameras have had “program” functions.  I have never used one of them and consider them bloatware on the cameras.  Anyway, the newer bodies all had auto-focus, integrated motor-drives, and in Nikon’s case, some pretty impressive flash technology.  But as I said.  Nothing had really changed.  Don’t get me wrong.  These were often fun and convenient features.  But they really did nothing to change the essence of the camera (again, a light-tight, interchangeable lens camera).  Getting caught up in the “gear” thing, I traded that cracked brown bag, and the gear in it, for my first “all-automatic” Nikon; a N6006.  I eventually acquired an old manual F2 as a backup and moved my main body up to an N90s.  The N90s was probably my favorite camera body if all time and was the last SLR I owned before moving to digital.

Rose Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Copyright Andy Richards 1996

But the one constant was the most important one; film.  And because of its nature, you either had to shoot the entire roll, figure out how to wind it up into the canister and then fish it back out again, or use multiple camera bodies (something many of us ultimately did do).  I carried 2 bodies in the field most of the time, usually loaded with different films.  Film really changed a lot during that periodFuji began making its Velvia emulsion which was vibrant and contrasty and especially favored by nature photographers.  Kodak eventually caught up with some of its Elite Chrome (Ektachrome) emulsions and it was a time for experimentation on my part.  As the Fuji and Kodak (all new development for them was in Ektachrome films) films got better and better, I essentially would leave K25 behind.  Newer films were rated at much higher ISO ratings (Kodak Elite Chrome II for example, was 100 compared to Kodachrome’s 25 or 64 — isn’t there a Chicago song in there somewhere 🙂 ?–and could be push processed to 200).

Nikon N6006 Kodak Elite chrome II 50 Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Nikon N6006
Kodak Elite chrome II 50
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

My primary interest in those days was so-called “nature photography.”  By this time I was a little older and a little smarter, and realized that what I did not know about photography was an awful lot more than what I did know.  I began to read.  The best book I have ever read on the subject was (still available) a book by pro, Bryan Peterson, called “Understanding Exposure.”  It was, for me, an eye opener.  I followed up by reading other books he has written.  His were the best resources I had (and still have).   I also read wildlife shooters Moose Peterson, John Shaw,  and the late Larry West (a premiere birding photographer, whose “How To Photograph Birds” remains, in my view, the best succinct handbook on this subject), and many others as well.

Day Lily Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Day Lily
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Flower shots are often one of the first love’s of new shooters.  They are cooperative.  They are colorful.  They are easy to find and can be shot in a variety of conditions and setups (natural and man-made).  I was no exception and began photographing flowers.  Lots of them.  Too many of them.  But I did learn a lot about lighting and depth of field.  As you can see from some of the images here, soft lighting and harsh lighting can have very different effects on a subject.  I also began experimenting with flash to control the image background and/or to fill shadows in contrasty image conditions.  These images are also illustrative of the need for critical focus.   They are often shot with very shallow depth of field and critical focus on some part of the image is pretty important.  It is ok (even desirable in many cases) to have parts of an image out of focus, but the shooter needs to be able to see and control that (unfortunately there is sometimes a certain softness introduced by the film to digital scanning process).

Nikon N6006 Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter Fuji Sensia 100 (200) f5.6; Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Nikon N6006
Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter
Fuji Sensia 100 (200)
Copyright Andy Richards 1996

I also began shooting wildlife shots.  I immediately learned that there really are some areas where “gear” matters.  And this is especially true with birds.  Unless your name is Grizzly Adams, it is pretty unlikely that you will get close enough to make wildlife portraits with a 50mm (or even a 135mm) lens.  Many of the “consumer” zoom lenses of that day has some serious shortcomings.  In addition to the fact that the best light occurs most often in early morning or evening, those also tend to be the times when certain wildlife are most active.  Most consumer zooms were variable aperture, with f5.6 often being the best you could hope for at the long end.  This makes capturing wildlife, who are rarely still, a challenge.  I purchased a Tokina “prosumer” 80-400 zoom lens.  While Tokina produced some very fine glass at prices roughly 1/2 the cost of good Nikon or Canon glass, this particular model was a bit on the soft side, as the wildlife images here demonstrate.  In later years, for a time, I owned a 300mm f2.8 prime lens, which was great for wildlife and sports, but also required a virtual caisson to move around and to mount.  The image of the deer was one my most frustrating and disappointing moments.  It highlights the limits of f5.6and really not very good quality glass, as well as the further negative of a teleconverter (only in the late 2000’s did Nikon finally produce a sharp teleconverter – up to that time, all the commentators agreed that all teleconverters were going to produce some image degradation on long glass).  At a distance, a significant crop with those variables was — as can be seen — hopeless.  Yet the setting and the pose was really nice.  I wasn’t going to get any closer to this guy who was all the way across a cornfield.  While slightly better, you can also see that the Great Blue Heron shot lacks the nice detail (partly due to harsh lighting) we would like to see on bird feathers, and lacks the “razor-sharpness” bird photographers demand from their best work.  But heck, I was shooting.  And I was having fun!

Nikon N6006 Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter Fuji Sensia 100 (200) Copyright Andy Richards 1996

Nikon N6006
Tokina 80-400 (400); 1.7x converter
Fuji Sensia 100 (200)
Copyright Andy Richards 1996