My Long Road to Digital

I was ten years old when I became the proud owner of my first camera, a Brownie Star Flash. It was something just short of love at first sight. Wow! I could take pictures of pretty much anything. Although the Brownie did not allow for flexibility, I still have many pictures of long departed relatives, staring back in black and white. The idea one might take a picture for art’s sake was simply preposterous. That attitude, no doubt, was inherited from my parents. In a good year, they might expose as many as three rolls of film. Mostly pictures of my brothers and I, neatly posed in our Sunday best, with the occasional extended family member thrown in.

In the years that followed, I owned a series of point and shoot camera’s. As my world expanded, these little cameras documented my travels. Everything changed in 1969 when, one day at a PX in Vietnam, I bought a Canon FT, my first thirty-five millimeter SLR. No longer would I be limited to snap shots of my buddies. I was learning about ‘depth of field’, time exposures, and doing my best to talk the talk. The FT was a totally manual camera, which was no rarity in those days. Looking back, it was wonderful thing, as manual operation forced the user to really learn the craft of photography. That old Canon continues to occupy an honored place in my one shelf camera museum.

It was during my time in Vietnam, I was introduced to the darkroom. I was fascinated. I could develop my own film, and print my photos. I could not only print my pictures, I could ‘mask’, ‘burn in’ and otherwise tweak my prints. At any rate, I could do these things in black and white. Quality color print film was still years away. If you wanted to shoot color in those days, the preferred medium was the slide. The downside to shooting slides was the unavailability of local processing. Film had to be sent back to the U.S. for processing. It could easily be three or four weeks between shooting the pictures and seeing the results. Thus, my first artistic attempts were done in black and white. Fortunately few, if any, of these early efforts survive. Unfortunately for me, once the novelty of the darkroom wore off, my attitude began to change. Although I loved taking pictures, darkroom work was becoming drudgery.

I don’t know how many budding photographers fell out of love with the darkroom. I expect there were more than a few. This phenomenon only increases my admiration for artists like Ansel Adams. Lugging a heavy, large format camera into the back country, is not for the feint of heart. In his early days, Adams had the additional task of preparing his own glass negatives. A long day’s effort might yield only half a dozen photos. My digital Nikon can take six photographs in less time than it takes to tell about it. Ultimately, it wasn’t Adams’ physical perseverance that made him great. It was his genius in the darkroom set him head and shoulders above the crowd. His willingness to print pictures again and again until he was completely satisfied turned his photography into art.

Leaving the darkroom behind, I spent the next several years shooting mostly slide film. As family, work responsibilities, and life in general took up more and more of my time, I largely abandoned photography for a number of years. It was in Minneapolis, while waiting for a movie to start, I wandered into a camera store, to kill a little time. I emerged a few hundred dollars poorer, but possessing a Canon F1, and a couple halfway decent zoom lenses. The F1, was about as good as it got for mostly manual camera’s. It had a solid brass body and one camera store owner told me, “You could drive a nail with it”. I’m pretty sure he was right. It had the aperture priority feature, my earlier camera’s lacked. Aperture priority allows the user to set a desired depth of field, and the camera automatically gives the correct exposure time.

By this time, high quality, fine grained color print films had come on the market, and I never looked back. I had recovered my hobby and life was good. I shot roll after roll of film. Although digital cameras were appearing, they were far outside my price range, and the pictures they produced left much to be desired. I had pretty well resolved to stay with film, considering myself to be hopelessly old school. All this changed when one of my best customers stopped by my house with a brand new Nikon D50, still in the box. She said, “I want you to learn how to use this, and then teach me”. She also left her trusty Nikon 8008 35mm, and a bag full of lenses. Who could turn down a deal like that? With manual in hand, I set about entering the world of digital photography. Digital photography was far removed from the, mostly manual, 35mm world I had inhabited so long. I uttered many a, “You’ve got to be kidding”, during those early days. Little by little it began to take hold. I was learning about ‘white balance’ the same way I learned about depth of field so many years earlier. As things worked out, I wound up buying all of her Nikon gear, thus ending a thirty-five year love affair with my Canons. Personally, I don’t think there’s a big difference between Nikon and Canon. Their long competition has made them both great. It’s that bag of lenses that tends to keep a person bound to one brand or the other.

By a fortunate convergence, I had become, more than a little computer literate, having spent ten years writing software. Using Photoshop seemed almost second nature, and what a world it opened. What was drudgery in the darkroom could now be done on my computer. I upgraded my computer, and then upgraded cameras. The D50 was a great entry level digital SLR, and you can do serious photography with it. It was when I traded the D50, for my D200, and moved to Corel Paintshop Pro, the floodgates of creativity burst wide open. The high resolution of the D200 allows for great cropping, with little or no loss of resolution. Paintshop Pro has all the tools needed to tweak a picture all over the map.

Today, I have my own web site, highplainsphotosandframes.com, and I manufacture note cards and postcards, all on my own equipment. I did a short production run of a calendar this year, mostly for family and friends. Everyone seemed to like them, and I plan to do a much larger run, for sale on my web site, next year. What a world digital photography has opened for me. If you haven’t tried it yet, what are you waiting for?