First of all, thank you all very much for your great responses to my previous post! The last couple of weeks have been very busy at work, changing offices and getting orientation classes for a new department running; and so I had only little time to go shooting cherry blossoms or sit down in front of the screen to develop some of my older stuff.
So I would like to invite you to a trip back to my photographic beginnings instead. When I'm out doing photo walks, I tend to bring all kinds of gear with me, and I often get asked how many cameras I own. The easiest response would be “Well, too many” - but I don’t see myself as much of a camera collector. Each of my cameras has taught me something about photography; and each of them has helped me to tell a story or two.
As I wrote a while back, I first decided to pick up photography as a means of communication, and I didn't even consider doing it as an art form at the time. When I came to Tokyo in 2009 the only camera I had was a cheap Ricoh point-and-shoot, which was alright for some quick snaps. But it wasn’t very much fun to shoot with, and it was almost unusable in the dark.
It was around early summer, when the first wave of mirrorless cameras was just getting ready to shake up the DSLR world. Now you probably already know this, but electronics stores in Tokyo are like toy fairs for adults, meaning there is a lot of gear on display to try out and play. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but somehow still ended up in the camera corner, and that’s when I first discovered the Olympus Pen E-P1.
I wanted something better than the Ricoh, but I felt intimidated by the bigger Canikon DSLRs which seemed too big, too heavy, and too professional-looking. The Pen, however, struck a nerve: a system camera that would allow me to adjust shutter speed and aperture (for those professional-looking out-of-focus backgrounds), could use a variety of lenses, and was still small and light enough to carry around.
When it came out, the E-P1 was anything but cheap; I think I left around ¥100,000 at the store, including my first kit of accessories (case, SD cards, etc). I can still recall persuading myself by using an equation along the lines of “retail price” divided by “number of pictures taken”; meaning that the camera would be free if I only took enough pictures. (Besides algebra I also excel at self-delusion, in case you haven’t noticed ;-).
It was a hefty sum amount of money (I had just started work after all), but I didn’t regret my purchase for a moment - the image quality was worlds away from my old P&S; and the 17mm lens in combination with the live display was excellent to see how changing the camera settings affected the outcome of the picture before even pressing the shutter. The Pen also included a number of in-camera effects, which I used extensively at first - back then I didn’t shoot RAW files, so my options to revisit and process these images are very limited, but these filters allowed me to experience a very thorough Instagram phase before I even got my first iPhone :).
A couple of months in, I learned that vintage film camera lenses could be adapted to fit the Pen. It seems as if there’s a used camera store close to almost any major train station in Tokyo, and so I was able to find a couple of standard Canon FD lenses (24mm, 28mm, 50mm) and a matching mount adapter for about ¥8,000. Of course these lenses are fully manual - aperture and focus need to be set via dials and rings on the lens barrel - and so it takes time to set up your shots right. I enjoyed this way of shooting so much that for the following years I hardly used autofocus lenses at all, and eventually got into shooting film for a bit.
The Pen was the first camera that really allowed me to experiment with all kinds of techniques - both while shooting with the camera itself as well as during post-processing. I sometimes spent hours in a single spot to see how shutter speed would affect the movement of water, or what different apertures could do to an urban scene at night. I started out with iPhoto (in my first year I didn’t even own a “real” Mac, using OSX on a Hackintosh notebook instead) to edit my pictures, before I tried my luck with trial versions of Aperture and Lightroom (which confused the heck out of me with their myriads of dials and settings).
Looking back through my photographs from back then, most of them are nothing special, just snapshots from around town. Henri Cartier-Bresson is often quoted saying that “your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”, and that would be a more than adequate title for my old iPhoto library.
But from a learner’s perspective, these pictures are invaluable. I managed to teach myself a good bit of basic techniques for available light situations; I learned about the effects one can achieve with varying focal lengths; and after many weekends spent just exploring Tokyo on foot, I also acquired a decent understanding of the city’s layout. While nowhere as extensive as I’d like it to be, this is where I began to develop my personal map of spots with great light or interesting structures in this metropolis.
In retrospective, most of what I did with the Pen was more technical exercise than anything else, but it also got me many shots I still like, and it allowed me to lay the groundwork for where I am now. I kept shooting it for about two years before gradually switching to other cameras. Still, I feel sentimental about the Pen and I wouldn't want to abandon it - and just in case, I always make sure to keep a battery charged.
And this concludes the very unspectacular story of my “first”. What I created with the Pen is nowhere special, but this camera is what got me on this journey, it's what changed my life for the better. There's no telling where I'll be five or ten years from now; but for better or worse, this is where it all began.
So, that's it for now - and feel free to share your "first"s in the comments, if you like.
Thanks for reading, and see you next time!