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Howie's gear

Attitudes to photography gear can vary enormously, from the 'must have the latest of everything' total gear head, to the laid back mobile phone snapper who only ever looks at photos on a low resolution screen. My position lies somewhere in the middle. I don't have the latest and greatest kit available, but what I do currently have gives me the level of picture quality and enjoyment that suits me as an amateur photographer. I guess if I were to turn pro at some point in the future my attitude would become somewhat different!

So what about my photographic pedigree? How did I get to where I am now, and how has the kit I've used over the years (many, many years!) influenced my photography? Let's find out shall we...

The early years

Hanimex 110

My interest in photography started during my late teens, when I was given a Hanimex 110 (remember 110 format?) as a birthday present. I took the Hanimex, together with a few cartidges of ISO100 film, on a beach mission and made a real nuisance of myself snapping my friends doing crazy stunts. I didn't have a clue what I was doing, but I loved doing it! The Hanimex had no controls whatsoever. You just loaded the film and pressed the button, wind the film and press the button again until your 24 shots were used up. However, I soon got frustrated with this approach, as I couldn't seem to get good pictures in anything less than bright sunlight. Indoor shots were just a soupy murk and I didn't know why!

Olympus OM10

On starting university a friend of mine introduced me to his recently aquired SLR, an Olympus OM1. What a revelation! I had to have one, but couldn't afford such a beaut on my student grant so I got the next best thing, a secondhand Olympus OM10 with 50mm fixed lens and a manual adapter for the shutter speed. What a beautiful little camera! I saved up from my grant and the odd bit of money I earned during the holidays and added a Hanimex flash, a Vivitar 70-200 Series 1 zoom, a Vivitar 28mm wide angle, a few cheesy Cokin 'A' series filters and a wobbly tripod to my kit. I had arrived! That Olympus kit is still going strong and is currently on loan to a photography student friend of my daughter's. I hope I get it back one day!

Using the Olympus taught me all about manual focusing, depth of field control, shutter speed, film speed effects, exposure compensation and more. I still use this knowledge today, preferring to set everything on my digital camera manually, rather than use the program modes and let the camera do the creative thinking for me. Thank you Olympus!

The Velvia moment

From my late teens and early twenties up until only a few years ago I only ever used negative film, and the cheapest I could find at that! Developing and printing were courtesy of Tesco or Boots and my photography had stagnated into the occasional shots of family and friends. Then, one day, I saw a copy of Amateur Photographer magazine with a free roll of black and white film on the front and I thought - why not have a go with monochrome just for fun.

Fuji Velvia

Well, my efforts with monochrome were no better than those with colour negative had been. The prints just seemed flat and lifeless. However, I read the magazine and kept coming across the words 'Fuji Velvia', which seemed to be the film everyone was using now. My interest was piqued and so I went to Jessops and bought a roll. (Steady now - it cost about four times what I was used to paying for film!) I'd never shot on positive film before, so I didn't know what to expect. I sent my roll away to a lab advertised in the magazine and waited. I don't think today's digital only youngsters know the sweet anticipation of waiting for your pictures to come back. It's like Christmas for grown-ups! When the box of chromes arrived and I took my first look at them I nearly cried. This was what I'd been waiting for all my photographic life. Rich, saturated colours, deep blacks, pin sharp details. This was a revelation and a turning point for me. I never went back to print film but from then on shot as much Velvia as I could afford - about two rolls a month! I was back on track photographically speaking, re-enthused and re-motivated to go out and shoot the beautiful stuff all around me.

However, I soon found out that shooting Velvia was not the same as shooting out of date print film. Exposure settings couldn't just be 'OK', they had to be perfect or the highlights would blow out and the shadows block up. Contrast range in a scene had to be carefully controlled as well, so I had to learn about using ND grad filters and polarisers to try and balance contrast over the frame. I gradually got better at this through practise, and my photography improved both technically and aesthetically. I started reading photography mags regularly as well and picked up a lot of helpful techinque there also.

Canon A1

Shortly after switching to Velvia my son-in-law gave me a long term loan of his Canon A1 which I started to use instead of my old Olympus. I was impressed with the solidity and quality of the Canon build, but even more impressed with the quality of the Canon FD lenses. I've stuck with Canon ever since due to my experience with that camera!

So, my photography skills were developing, but only slowly due to the high cost of film and developing. I could only afford to shoot a couple of rolls a month and, once I'd got my chromes back from the lab, what could I do with them other than look at them? I bought a relatively cheap flat bed film scanner and tried scanning them, but the Dmax of Velvia was far higher than my cheap scanner could cope with, and I certainly couldn't afford high quality drum scans and the like. Frustration and dissolusionment were starting to set in again and I looked with unfulfilled longing at the wonderful, but prohibitively expensive, new world of digital photography.

Digital at last!

I work for a company that designs and makes specialist riveting equipment, (find out more ..here..) and every now and then we would commission a professional photographer to come in and photograph our products and factory so we could update our brochures and website with the latest stuff. Well, the price of hiring the pro was, as you would expect, expensive. My boss did some sums and worked out it would be cheaper and more convenient to have me take the photos instead, spending the money we'd save on a new digital camera system for the company. Canon EOS 350D I was given a budget and told to go and buy something suitable! I came back with a Canon EOS350D, Sigma 18-55 and 50-200 zooms, a Manfrotto tripod plus 3 way head and a couple of Interfit lights on stands. Not bad eh! My boss then told me to take the stuff home with me and learn how to use it properly. Wow!

To cut a long story short, that camera set up went everywhere with me for about a year, and I still use it for work related photography today. The film cameras were relegated to the loft, or loaned to poor art students and I haven't shot a roll of film since. However, because the gear wasn't mine I was very cautious about how and where I would use it. Rain, seaspray, difficult mountain climbing all meant that the EOS stayed in the bag - not good. I needed my own kit if I was to fully realise the digital potential.

The big spend

Around the time I had started to use the EOS350D, both my parents died from smoking related illnesses within a short time of each other. One side result of that was that I had, for the first time in my life, access to a relatively (for me anyway) large amount of money. I decided to set aside an amount to invest in my own digital photography set up, and studied the market to see what was the best way to spend the money. I started by putting together a list of features that I required, and then set about matching the equipment to the features while staying within my budget.

For someone who is predominantly a landscape photographer, my list of required features was easy to put together. I needed to use wide angle lenses, so that meant a camera with a full frame sensor. The only choices available to me at the time were the Canon 5D or the pro-spec Canon 1DsMKII. The 1DsMKII was way outside my budget so the 5D was chosen. I was happy to carry on using Canon following my good experiences with the A1 and the 350D, so that was a no-brainer really.

Next came the choice of lenses. I'd learnt from my film days that lens quality is paramount in getting a sharp image, and simply stuffing more megapixels into a camera is pointless if the lens can't resolve the necessary level of detail. Therefore I decided to push the boat out on lens choice, and spend most of my budget on top quality glass. I chose the following from Canon's lens line-up - 17-40mm 'L' series zoom, 24-105mm 'L' series zoom, 100-400mm 'L' series zoom, 50mm F1.4 prime and the 100mm F2.8 macro. That's a lot of glass in one go, but I've found my choices to be well made, and the quality of my media/images has benefitted as a result. At least I can't blame my equipment if I take an unsharp photo! My most used lens is the 24-105 and if I could have only one lens this would be the one.

Of course, a camera and lenses aren't the full story. There's plenty of other stuff required for digital photography, both in the field and back at home. I invested in a Lowepro AW Trekker backpack to put all my stuff in. This is a great backpack and is still going strong after a few years of use now. Having used an aluminium Manfrotto tripod at work I got the carbon fibre equivalent for toting up and down mountains. This tripod has suffered some serious abuse, banged off rocks and dunked in the sea but it keeps on working.

Howie's kit

I knew I needed filters from my days shooting Velvia, but my old 'A' series Cokin set was way too small and optically poor to use on my new set up so, again, I went for top quality and got a set of Lee ND grads 1 stop, 2 stop, 3 stop in hard and soft versions, together with the filter holder and polariser. My philopsophy is that anything that the light goes through to reach the digital sensor has to be the best quality possible and the Lee filters are unmatched in that respect. To finish things off I also got a Canon 430EX flashgun, which I really only use for people and wedding photos. Data storage on extended trips is taken care of with a 40MB battery powered hard drive and card copying gizmo which is very useful as I only have two memory cards!

Back at home I invested in a powerful quad core PC to handle the data crunching invovled in processing large files. This was loaded with Photoshop CS2, Bridge, Photomatix Pro and Adobe's DNG Converter which are the four programs I use for most of my post-processing work. I use twin screens to keep the photo I'm working on clear from all the Photoshop menus, and the screens are hardware calibrated using a Sypder 2. Printing is done on an A3 Epson R1800 printer with the Epson K3 inkset, and I normally use Ilford papers with Ilford's specific icc downloadable printer profiles.

Update - 2015

After six years of continuous use my good old Canon 5D has been semi-retired in favour of the newer 6D model.

I owe a lot to that 5D, as I've pretty much learnt my digital photography trade on it.

I've had the reflex mirror fall off - easily fixed with a couple of blobs of super glue, and there's a hole in the outer casing, filled with epoxy glue, where I let it get blown over in a gale while fixed to my tripod.

The new model can expect no less harsh treatment, and I hope it proves as robust as my old friend the 5D has.

In addition I've invested in a new filter, the Lee 'Little Stopper' six stop ND, to allow me to use slower shutter speeds in bright light, and I've got a new 64 bit computer with new Adobe Lightroom and PhotoShop CC installed to help me make the most of the lovely 14 bit RAW files my new camera produces.

In summary

I've found that my previous experience with manual film cameras has stood me in good stead to get the best out of my current digital set up, and I'm loving the freedom to shoot as much as I like without counting the cost. (In terms of paying for film processing that is - time spent in front of the computer is something else!) My choice of equipment and software allows me to take pictures that I can print up to A3, that are sharp, well exposed and technically fine. Choosing the most suitable equipment for what I want to do means that I'm now free to concentrate on the artistic side of my hobby without worrying about the technical. Thus the quality of my work, and more importantly, the enjoyment I'm getting from my hobby, is better than it ever has been!