I had a basic SLR camera when I was 16. I had saved money from my babysitting jobs and birthday money, I remember going to a department store and choosing the best one that I could afford – Canon Tlb with a 50mm prime lens. I loved that camera and used it all the time. I didn’t take any courses, I was self-taught from books and magazines. I bought a set of Time Life Photography books, one per month for a year and subscribed to both “Modern Photography” and “Popular Photography” magazines. These were my main sources of information on how to use the camera.
A couple years later, Canon introduced the AE1 and along with it a flashing advertising campaign about how this camera was faster and more advanced than other cameras. I’d been setting my exposure settings manually for years, my camera didn’t have a hot-shoe or a self-timer nor the ability to use a motorized film advance option. Mostly, though I felt that having the camera automatically set the exposure was something I really needed. It didn’t take too long before I began not to enjoy my own camera as much. It was inferior and worse limited my own potential – I was 18, what the heck did I know?
Fast-forward almost 45 years. I have a Digital SLR does it all. It’s fast, auto everything if I want to use that but I don’t, and feeds the need for instant gratification with its LCD screen and freedom to shoot as many shots of the same scene as I want. Maybe its nostalgia, maybe its part of being aging I don’t know but recently I felt the need to go back to the basics, get away from the automation and shoot film. I still have my first SLR but finding a battery for the light meter is nigh impossible. At the local camera store, however, I did fine a suitable replacement – an AE1 Program in primo condition, and a 28 mm wide-angle lens in good shape (tick off two long-time goals). This weekend was the first time using the new gear and I had a few surprises.
1. Auto exposure is not the be all to end all. Well, I already knew this from my digital camera, I never shoot fully automatic. Instead I shoot Aperture Priority probably 90% of the time. The AE1 doesn’t have that feature, at least not directly. It’s designed to rely on Shutter Priority instead.
2. I can adjust the ISO for exposure compensation. I always assumed with film you set the ISO once and left it that way for the entire roll. No, the AE1 (and probably the other film cameras) will permit changing the ISO for individual frames effectively allowing you to compensate for backlighting.
3. Shooting the scene once and getting it right that first time is both a challenge and a rush. I had forgotten what that was like. Looking at a scene I’m forced to pay more attention to the composition, what aperture setting I want, and where to focus. I don’t know yet if I got those things right – I have to process the film first, but it was a reminder how back in the day I worked more slowly and in a sense got lost in the moment.
4. The view-finder on the AE1 blows the viewfinder on my XSi away. I had no idea there would be such a difference. Looking through the AE1 the entire scene fills just about all my vision, there’s a minimal black border around the edges. Looking at the same scene with my digital camera is like looking down a black tunnel. Is this a feature of the full-frame cameras? I hope so. Will I get a similar effect by upgrading to the 5D Mark 1? Maybe. I’m going to try and get a look the 5D soon to verify this. If the difference is that significant, my next upgrade will be to that camera body.
I did take both film and digital shots of the same scene. The one above is a digital copy. The version taken on film will be posted later and will be black and white. I’ll write about it then. I haven’t changed my mind about digital; I will try to apply some of what I learned on Sunday to my digital shooting though.