It’s amazing how quickly we humans begin to take for granted the advancements in the tools we have and use every day. Today’s smartphones are a perfect example: as recently as a decade ago, it was fantasy to think of something you could put into your pocket that could call anywhere in the world, jump onto the Internet, send e-mail, and (gasp!) even shoot pictures and movies!
Camera enthusiasts are equally guilty of taking the wonders common in today’s digital SLR cameras for granted. But when I stop and think back to my formative years in SLR photography, where I developed a simultaneous love for image-making and cameras, it’s easy to see how far we’ve come.
The SLR world of my college years in the mid-1970s was dominated by solid, manual-focus and manual-exposure cameras, like the Canon FTb, Minolta SR-T series, and various Nikkormats. Automatic exposure was a rarity and the big debate at the time was if you did go with an auto exposure camera, did you go with one that has shutter-priority (like a Konica, or Canon’s wonderful EF) or aperture-priority (such as a Pentax Spotmatic ES, Nikkormat EL, or a Minolta XE-series model)? For most enthusiasts, though, arguments about automatic exposure were academic. Most “serious” SLR photographers of the day used manual exposure, and were somewhat proud of it.
Automatic film advance (“motor drive,” in the parlance of the day) was limited to a handful of truly top-of-the-line, professional SLRs. They were big, heavy, expensive — and sometimes unreliable — attachments you connected to the bottom of your camera. And even the very best, topped off with specialized rechargeable battery packs, maxed out at about 5 frames per second. They were the stuff of dreams to a college kid like me. Like nearly all SLR enthusiasts, I made do by manually cranking the film advance lever with my right thumb, after each exposure. I remember that it was a selling point worthy of prominent mention when a camera had an advance lever that required a short throw, like 120°.
We learned to love photography with cameras that never showed us what we’d captured, until our film was developed. You learned, gradually, the effects of exposure adjustments and deliberately deviating from what the camera recommended. Our meters offered one pattern only — usually some form of full-area metering, although Canon’s manual-exposure FTb and professional F-1 used a rectangular, almost spot-type metering system. Multi-segment, “smart” metering was still almost a decade away. And virtually no cameras of the day let you switch from a full-area meter to spot metering.
And, of course, we focused manually. We learned to move our eyes beyond the microprism spot in the dead-center of the viewfinder, or the split-image circle (which was loved back in the day, although split-image devices were useless for focusing upon anything moving or subjects that didn’t have pronounced linear detail). The ground-glass, matte outer areas of the focus screen simply went in and out of focus as we turned the focus ring on our lenses. In those simpler times, if you had a “focus issue,” you usually had to look into the mirror to find a solution. And I don’t mean the reflex mirror in our SLRs!
The palette we used to create our images was film. Early on, no doubt motivated by all the boxes of slides taken during my childhood by my dad, I made the decision to work primarily with slide film. It was cheaper to process than color print film and there was that solid feeling that what you shot was what you got… it vividly showed the impact of half-stop exposure variations and was a great learning tool. I used almost every slide film at one time or other, but like many enthusiasts, came to lean on Kodachrome 64 for much of my early work. When I needed a faster film, for low-light shooting, it was common to reach for Kodak’s Ektachrome 200 (believe me — this was considered a fast film for the time, and the sacrifice you made with its added grain and weak color was considered well worth the low-light flexibility it provided). It wasn’t until much later that ISO 400 slide film was commercially available — and that seemed revolutionary at the time, even with its rather flat color rendition and truly pronounced grain (we call that “noise” today).
Let’s put this into perspective: it was pretty much accepted that available-light indoor action shooting in color was near impossible; the only reliable option that the amateur could count on was shooting ISO 400 Tri-X black & white film and push-processing it to ISO 1600, or what seemed like a stratospheric ISO 3200 with Diafine liquid developer. And as nice as Kodachrome 64 was on a good day, it was still ISO 64. With a front-lit subject on a clear sunny day, that meant about 1/250th at f/8 was pretty much the limit of what you could expect, and you’d need to open up from there for any reasonable shadow detail.
Shift the color balance of those slide films? That meant using filters on your lens, either screw-in filters, or getting into delicate and flare-prone color gels. Kodachrome was contrasty on a sunny day; we learned to live with it because there was almost nothing that could be done to modify it, other than a little more or less exposure, to give a bit of emphasis to shadows or highlights, respectively.
It wasn’t until years later that I bought my first flash unit and began taking flash pictures, no doubt motivated by my job at the time, which was taking college and high school yearbook pictures for a large New England-area studio. It’s no surprise why: flashes of the day were relatively awkward units. “Automatic” flash exposure meant using a sensor on the face of the flash and at a limited number of possible lens apertures; broadening the flash’s illumination to cover a wide-angle lens meant remembering to attach a separate diffuser panel (and then remembering to change both your lens aperture to compensate for the reduction in flash exposure and to take it off and re-set the aperture when you went back to a “normal” lens).
Moving the flash off-camera, to avoid the horrible direct-flash look, was an even greater project and beyond what most of us considered a reasonable effort. And, of course, we didn’t have the Speedlite modifiers, compact & portable light stands and adapters, and such that we have today, either. The fastest flash sync speed of many of those manual exposure SLRs from the early 1970s was 1/60th of a second; a few like the Canon EF offered “fast” flash sync at 1/125th and were considered hot items by shooters who had to take lots of flash pictures.
It wouldn’t be until about a decade later that TTL flash became the common method for SLR flash exposure and fully integrated “smart-flash” photography, with automatic balanced fill-flash, would wait until the 1990s. In short, flash was something you used when you had to and it’s no surprise that many shooters of the 1970s and 1980s tried to use available light whenever we could.
Even 40 or 50 years ago, being able to change lenses was one of the biggest reasons to enter the somewhat challenging world of SLR photography — just as it is today. But as was the case with the cameras we used, lenses have come a long way since those times, too.
The idea of a compact, standard zoom lens — like today’s 28-90mm or so lenses (that’s what the ubiquitous 18-55mm zooms on today’s APS-C digital SLRs are equivalent to) — was a gleam in photographers’ eyes back in the mid-1970s. Cameras generally came with a fixed focal length, 50mm “standard” lens, which did have the benefit of a significantly faster lens aperture than today’s zooms. An inexpensive camera might come with a 50mm f/2 or f/1.8; more deluxe cameras often were available with 50mm f/1.4 lenses. That was the starting point for almost anyone who was entering the SLR world in those days.
In fact, zoom lenses of any type were just gaining traction in those days. Telephoto zooms like 80–200mm lenses with modest f/4.5 or so max apertures were fairly common by that time, but you quickly entered the realm of the exotic — and expensive — to put your hands on something like a 100–300mm lens. Nikon had a 50–300mm zoom, huge (at the time) in size, weight and cost. And wide-angle zooms were a genuine challenge to engineers of the day; the entire industry had very few, and it was truly newsworthy when a company introduced something like a 35-70mm f/4 (or thereabouts) zoom. A lens like the 28–90mm we see so often today would have seemed completely exotic at the time.
Today, advanced digital SLR users often use (or long for) f/2.8 zooms, like our current EF 70–200mm f/2.8 or EF 24–70mm f/2.8 lenses. Commonplace among advanced shooters today, there were simply no such options in my formative years. If you wanted to shoot wide-angle or wanted f/2.8 speed, the answer was simple: you used fixed focal length lenses. And, in some ways, that wasn’t always a bad thing. For starters, most fixed focal length lenses of the day were significantly better than typical zooms of the 1970s. And, they were a good learning tool as well… I know I became well-connected with the “character” of lenses like a 24mm, a 35mm, and later an 85mm. Being forced to see the world through an unchanging angle of view made me learn how to effectively compose within those borders and understand its perspective. And, teaching me that sometimes, the best zoom lens was my feet — in other words, learn to move to get the composition right.
Ultra-wide angle lenses? Again, fixed focal lengths only, and choices were pretty slim once you got to 20mm and below. And, of course, the idea of a zoom lens covering an ultra-wide range, like our EF 17–40mm f/4L for full-frame cameras, or an EF 10–22mm f/3.5-4.5 for APS-C digital SLRs, was the stuff of dreams. Frankly, I never dreamed about such lenses in the mid-1970s… I couldn’t even imagine them.
What about the other extreme, telephoto lenses? Fixed focal length telephotos were big, heavy, expensive, and generally slow in terms of maximum aperture (anything 400mm or longer was almost always f/5.6, f/8 and so on). They were rare among photographers, other than to pros working the sidelines at major sporting events and a handful of nature/wildlife enthusiasts. And, perhaps, the worst thing was their handling. Many were front-heavy, on top of simply being large and heavy to begin with. And, their manual focusing often used traditional front-focusing designs, which meant focus rings that were large and stiff often required a hefty degree of rotation to move significantly. Precise focus on fast-moving subjects was all the more difficult just because of this nasty focus action on many of the long telephoto lenses of the day. Internal focusing systems, giving much smoother and lighter manual focus action, was truly in its infancy in the 1970s, although it was an area where more and more newly-developed lenses were finally beginning to change — and it made photography not just easier, but better. Needless to say, there was no autofocus option at this time.
Canon did have a truly exotic 300mm f/2.8 lens available at the time, but it was a special-order item that only a handful of news agency shooters typically used. The idea of the 500mm f/4 lenses we frequently see wildlife and nature shooters using today was yet another dream in those days. And finally, the standard-type optical glass used in most of the tele lenses of the day was a problem, even for non-critical users. Low-dispersion and Fluorite optical elements were just beginning to see the light of day, and only in super expensive lenses used by a very few top professionals. The rest of us came to expect that we’d get lots of color fringing and a general lack of sharpness as a trade-off for using long telephotos “back in the day.”
Certainly, the case can be made that some of today’s advanced cameras and lenses cost more, even factoring in inflation. But the simple act of pressing the shutter button, with a film camera, meant an unavoidable expense. As I said earlier, I usually shot slide film in those days, at least for much of my personal work. But even there, the fairly modest costs of the film plus processing made me (and most other advanced amateurs of the day, and even pros) work carefully and not simply “spray and pray” when it came to how many pictures we shot. At roughly $5.00 for a 36-exposure roll of slide film, and as I recall another $6.00 or so to process it in the mid-1970s (the total is equivalent to about $47.00 today, using the Consumer Price Index), this wasn’t a cheap hobby — you learned quickly to pick your moments, and make the most of them.
And, as I said earlier, most SLRs of the day didn’t have any way to shoot rapid pictures with motorized advance. The 3 frames per second of even an entry-level digital SLR today would have seemed blazingly fast to someone used to winding a film advance lever after each shot. And, we didn’t have memory cards that can hold hundreds of full-resolution images in-camera. We had to stop, rewind the film, and replace it after every 36 shots!
The bottom line is that we take many, many more pictures with today’s digital SLRs than we would have dreamed of shooting a few decades ago — partly because our cameras allow us to do so easily and partly because there’s little tangible cost, aside from the need for digital storage space, attached to taking dozens or even hundreds of images of a scene, subject or event.
If I could have somehow been transported from those early, formative years to the 2nd decade of the 21st century, I’d have been amazed at the tools and media today’s photo enthusiasts have at their fingertips. If we just look at entry-level and mid-range digital SLRs, we see things that I couldn’t have imagined would be commonplace back when I was getting into photography:
- Digital imaging, using high-resolution image sensors: the old argument about film being “superior” has long since fallen by the wayside, in terms of resolution and image quality.
- Large LCD monitors that show us, almost instantly, the picture we just took — making it easy to spot mistakes, and see if and where changes are needed.
- Easily obtainable images at ISOs like 3200, 6400, and even higher… vastly exceeding the quality of what I could have achieved back in the 1970s when shooting available-light pictures. I don’t even have to switch to a different type of film to achieve this!
- Near total ability, in-camera, to change the look, color, white balance, and contrast of the images we shoot.
- Autofocus systems that can focus in the center of the frame or off-center and reliably focus-track even fast-moving subjects.
- Multi-mode exposure systems… no more debate about manual vs. automatic exposure, or shutter- vs. aperture-priority systems. Just pick whatever you want and change it whenever you want.
- Metering systems with full choices, from spot metering to full-area, “smart” metering systems, like the current Canon Evaluative metering, that read from dozens of separate areas of a scene and can make on-the-spot corrections to exposure.
- Drive systems that can shoot at speeds up to 7 fps, in a camera like an EOS 70D; even 5 fps is possible with some of today’s EOS Rebel models — a speed that a top-of-the-line professional camera strained to reach when I started with SLR photography.
- Advanced TTL flash metering and wireless flash technology that has totally transformed the way SLR users look at shooting with flash.
- Lens choices — some at relatively affordable price points — I couldn’t have imagined, along with vastly superior optical quality, and superior handling as well as technologies like Image Stabilization and, of course, autofocus.
- Digital darkrooms (a.k.a. Adobe Photoshop™ and similar image-editing programs) that put image adjustments in our hands that would have required master technicians back in the wet darkroom age.
I wouldn’t trade my formative years for anything; the mid-1970s was not only a great time to come of age as a person, but a great time to fall in love with both cameras and photography. It’s a gift to find something in life that you can carry with you for decades, never lose interest in, and have the great fortune to not only enjoy on a daily basis, but even make a career out of. But when I think back to the tools of the trade that I learned on so many years ago, it’s a vivid reminder of how lucky all of us are today to work the cameras and technologies our industry delivers to us in the 21st century. For me, anyway, these are the good old days.