Back to Basics – Is Retro the New Future?

Maybe it’s a bit of a mid-life crisis, maybe it’s a bit of a subconscious push away from our instant consumer society, but I’ve recently found a new interest…I’ve just bought and started to play with a 1960’s film camera. Maybe slightly influenced by good friends who play in a very successful 1950’s-60’s tribute band and a visit to look at Paul Berriff’s Hidden Gallery of The Beatles (now unhidden and on show at Liverpool’s Mersey Ferry Ticket Office), I decided on a personal project to complement my day-to-day photography.

Hence the newly acquired Bronica S2 – a medium format film camera, which it turns out left the factory in 1968, the year I was born. Forget pixels and zooms, forget modes and frame rates – this is a camera which has only a handful of controls and doesn’t take any batteries. But it is a thing of incredible beauty, of polished chrome and black leather finish in a square format unlike any modern camera.

So the personal project then, was to see if I could produce anything like the work of Mr Berriff and the other ‘celebrity’ photographers of their day, photographing four young lads from Liverpool in what has become arguably the world’s most famous club.

Hence, a couple of weeks ago found me in the Cavern with good friends The ROCKiTS, photographing their Friday night residency. To date, in my professional work, I’ve taken close to 3000 shots of them on stage and in studio conditions, often working behind them on the cramped Cavern stage.

Even so, I was a little self-conscious, even nervous brandishing this throw back to another era, itself created before most of the Friday night crowd were born. As soon as it emerged, one young lady demanded to know “what sort of camera is that?”, followed by “does it take good pictures?” The only sensible answer I could think of was “I hope so!”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried, the camera certainly created a bit of an impression, in a good way and a week or so later I was accused of looking cool whilst using it. (I’m certainly not accustomed to thinking of myself as cool, and don’t imagine that I spend too much of my time looking it either.)

Back to the camera though. Everything is very much manual, so exposure settings must be carefully judged, just like I had to in my school days – fortunately I know exactly how much (or little) light there is on the Cavern stage, so know my settings off by heart and those settings transfer directly from my trusty D3 onto the Bronica. ISO is slightly different though – whereas on my digital cameras I can dial it up and down for fun, on the Bronica it is very much chosen by the film you load. Fortunately there is a little joker card to be played, in that using a particular speed of film and photographing as though it were a higher speed, the film can be processed to suit that higher speed. Medium format film is still available in both colour and black and white – for this project there was only one choice.

Focussing was interesting – far more tricky than it had been during outdoor daylight trials. That said, a fair number of the resulting images are useable. One of the reasons I moved away from film to digital (apart from the convenience) was to improve the yield – a few good frames from a roll of film was frustrating and costly. The Bronnie uses 120 roll film and produces 6cm square negatives, so only 12 frames per roll of film.

Now then, an overall summary. Well, in a word I’m delighted!  From two rolls of film in the extreme conditions of the Cavern, 20 out of 24 images are perfectly usable and of those there are probably about 18 which I’d happily put my professional name to. Of course it’s not about product sales – I already have a business relationship with my Nikon gear, this is more of a romantic affair. A steam-hauled Orient Express of a camera in a world of diesel-electric engines.

I’d forgotten how fantastic film grain looks, and pushing the ISO up has the side effect of increasing the grain slightly and enhancing the contrast. The resulting negatives have been scanned by the processing lab onto CD and then imported into Photoshop to do a minimal adjustment of black and white levels to suit on-screen viewing. There are a few spots of dust on the negatives to be removed before printing, other than that, the images below are just as photographed.

All in all, I slept well last night. My project isn’t complete – I can feel much more romance on the horizon…