Dream of the amateur photographer

I had hoped I would have had the chance to go on a photography adventure today, before posting this, but I just haven’t had the energy. Work has been wonderfully chaotic lately, lots of multi-tasking and new responsibilities, and by the time I get home each night, I’m dead tired and just want to lounge on the couch and watch something mindless on TV. But now I have a much-needed weekend (today and most of tomorrow), so before I head into work tomorrow night, I’m planning a little trip out to Fish Creek Park to try out my new toy. My new toy is an old Olympus camera, the sort of camera I have always wanted.

I’ve written before about my photography love, how seeing everything through a lens helps me make sense of the world around me and gives me a different perspective. I used to carry my camera everywhere. My first-ever camera was just a small 35mm automatic, no zoom, no LCD screen. We’re talking late ‘90s here, so no bells and whistles on this baby. Just point and shoot, basically. So in order to take a good photo, you really needed to have a good eye. There was no way for me to Photoshop later on, no way to change the colour contrast or remove shadows or film blemishes. It was all about the moment because there was no re-doing if you captured a piece of something you didn’t want. I don’t know that I had a great eye, but I think I had a pretty good one, all things considered. I was about 14, I had no photography training to speak of and very little education in art. Grade school art was pretty limited to tempera paints and macaroni glued on flimsy paper. But I wanted to be a photographer, so I practiced and took photos of everything. Ok, I wanted to be a lot of things – a writer, a police officer, a journalist, a teacher – but around grade 8, when I discovered my teacher’s stack of National Geographic back issues, I decided I wanted to be a photographer. I took so many photos, and most of them turned out horribly wrong, but there are a few that I still think were pretty amazing. Some I like just because of the memories they bring back – like the photo I took of the setting sun over Lake Huron while camping one summer, or the photo taken from the highest point in Ontario, up near where my aunt moved when I was 17 – and others I like because of the natural colour contrast, the perfect framing, the simplicity. When I was 14, I snapped a photo of a yellow vine snaking over the top of a tall white privacy fence, and the direction of the setting sun at my back coupled with my short height made that one of my best shots to date. And then there are all the water shots… The crashing waves of Georgian Bay, the beach that stretched on forever at Singing Sands, the lighthouse looking over the bay at Cape Croker, the lake stretched out beyond my aunt’s house in northern Ontario. All of these taken with a 35mm camera, and all of them planned and precise. When my niece was born in July 2010, not long before I moved to Alberta, she became the centre of my photographic universe. Because I knew I was leaving, there was an urgency to these photos. Knowing I would miss so much of her early life, I needed to capture every possible moment. So I have a tonne of the usual baby photos, but I also have photos that were carefully planned. The one I like most is from her first Christmas. My brother-in-law had strapped her into her car seat, ready to head home, and I snapped a few quick shots of her, in black and white, with the flash off (this kid detests having her photo taken, but when she was really little, I could get away with it if I turned the flash off). This one, of her hand stretched out of her car seat, is one of my favourites:

hand 2010

Now photography is mostly a lost art. It’s all digital now, and with the help of Photoshop, anyone can be a good photographer. I include myself in this group, too. I’m not as careful as I used to be, I don’t line my shots up perfectly because I can go back and crop later on, I can adjust the colour saturation or the lighting, I can add artistic effects, make the grass purple if I want to. I love my digital camera, and I use it constantly, but it’s not the same as taking an organic photo, it doesn’t require the same amount of precision or care.

Recently, I worked an event with my boss, an off-site gallery showing of photographs from one of Calgary’s best photographers. He’s a friend of the store, and we actually had a couple of his prints mounted on the wall for over a month. We sell all of his books, we host book launches for him. Sometimes I talk to him when he comes in, and he gives me little photography tips. Our styles are as different as our tools, but even so, he’s never made me feel like less of a photographer for using a commercial camera rather than a professional one. I have a little Cannon Elph, in neon pink, that I’ve been using for about 5 years, and even though I sometimes drool over the bigger, more professional cameras, mine does what I need, it’s compact and easy to carry, and I’ve learned to use all of its unique little quirks to my advantage. Until it dies, I see no need to invest money in something new. Sometimes I actually long for my old Cannon 35mm, my second camera (a replacement for the first 35mm, which jammed and died mid-vacation one year). That second 35mm, that was a great little camera. That was when I learned to love the Cannon brand. It had some zoom and a few different settings, and saw me through several years of high school and most of university. And the it was replaced by the digital Elph, even though it still worked. I kind of miss that 35mm. I took a lot of really great photos with that thing.

Anyway. After the gallery event, and after loading all the heavy boxes of books into my boss’ car, we arranged to return the prints that had been hanging in the store to the photographer. On our way down to the parking garage, my boss commented on the bulky bag the photographer was carrying – a heavy-duty little backpack sealed in a giant Ziploc bag. It was a donation of sorts from another photographer, an old Olympus OM-1, to be passed along to a student in one of this photographer’s classes at the tech college. My jaw likely hit the floor of the elevator, and I commented that that was one lucky student. The photographer asked if I knew about the Olympus camera, which of course I do (the history, anyway; I’m not that knowledgeable about its actual use). “Do you want it? Here,” he said, handing me the bag. I thought he was kidding, but I wrapped my fingers around the handle and tried to wipe the stunned look off my face. He made me promise to use it, to really use it, and to show him my photos some day. He was serious, and that stupid grin was plastered across my face for the next several hours. I always wanted to be a photographer.

My new toy: an Olympus OM-1
My new toy: an Olympus OM-1

When I got home that night, I spent a long time studying the user’s manual, opening up all the little cases stored in that compartmented camera bag, learning how to change the lenses. There were 4 different lenses, several spare glass lens pieces, cleaning cloths and brushes, several rolls of unopened film, an external flash, pretty much everything an actual photographer would need on an extended photography tour. I have never owned a camera like this. I don’t even think I would ever be able to justify the expense in order to buy a camera like this, since I am not a professional photographer. The closest I’ve ever come to studying photography was joining the photography club for about 3 weeks in grade 9. The art teacher who led the club talked ad nauseum the entire time about f-stops and apertures without ever letting us near her camera, and I was too bored to stick with it. I wanted to take some pictures, dammit, not learn all the ins and outs of a camera I could never afford! I wanted to learn how to use the dark room, how to develop my own photos, but I abandoned the club long before we got to that point. By the following year, there were too many funding cut-backs and the only after-school activities that survived were sports. So I know very little about how to operate this camera, but I think now I ought to learn. In the meantime, I think I should re-learn how to line up my shots, how to use the sun to my advantage so I’m not relying so much on Photoshop. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be more than an amateur photographer.

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