I got my first camera for Christmas, in 1975. I was 11, and point-and-shoot pocket cameras were the rage. It was a Kodak Trimline Instamatic 18: a 110-format camera with clip-in, desposable flash—eight shots and it was done.
My camera came with stickers, which fit into a textured recess on the top, just above the viewfinder. I chose a stylized Canadian flag—a red maple leaf on a white background and a touch of red at one edge.
It was my first foray into photography.
With my Instamatic, I shot family events, like birthdays and holidays. I shot friends at school. In grade 6, I took my camera with me, when I participated in a bilingual exchange in Québec City. I shot up Chateau Frontenac, the Citadel, and Montmorency Falls.
The photos weren't great: the colours were muted, the images weren't sharp, and you could never enlarge a shot to anything bigger than a 4 x 6, lest the grain show. But it was easy to use: insert the cartridge, crank, shoot, crank, shoot... when you were done you opened the back and took the cartrige out. It was foolproof.
But my family had a collection of Time-Life books on photography, and I wanted to take pictures that looked like the ones on those pages. My father had a real camera, a Minolta SR T-101, and I wanted to learn how to use it.
I loved that camera. It had a 55mm f/1.2 lens that produced super-clear images. The split-circle in the viewfinder made for quick focusing. All you had to do was line up the image in the top-half of the circle with the bottom half, and you had a sharp image. For the exposure meter, you had a bar that would move up and down with the amount of light that passed through the lens. An arm with a loop at its end moved up and down when you turned the aperture ring or the shutter-speed dial. When the light bar was inside the loop, the exposure was balanced.
There were no program modes on this camera. It was completely manual.
My father let me borrow it from time to time, when I was in high school. My best friend, Stuart, was also into photography, as was his dad, and we would shoot black-and-white film, and develop it in a makeshift dark room in his family's basement. In the last few years of high school, Stu and I joined the yearbook team as photographers, and we would use the school dark room as well. Many of our senior yearbook photos were shot by us or by another photog, Sandy.
My father's SR T-101 got a lot more use in those years than it had in all the years that he had owned it (he still owns it but I doubt it's seen action in decades).
When I went to college and took the journalism program, my father thought it was time for me to have an SLR of my own, and so we went shopping at our local Black's Cameras. The manager knew me, because I worked in the same shopping mall, and he sold me a great package: it was a Minolta X-700 with a 28-75mm zoom lens. I could still attach my father's lens to it, but this camera was far more advanced than his old body.
My X-700 still had the same focus screen, was still a manual-focus camera, but it also had an aperture-priority setting and a fully automatic exposure mode. Instead of the arm-loop exposure meter, this metering used lights. I didn't find the lights faster than the metering system on the SR T-101, but there were lots more features than the fully manual camera I had used to learn the basics of photography.
My X-700 travelled many places with me. It has been to the United States, Mexico, the UK, Holland, Germany, Italy, South and North Korea, China, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. It has shot weddings, countless birthdays and parties; it has shot the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China.
I used that camera from 1985 to 2008, and pulled it out a couple of times since (it was on my lap as I wrote this post). I loved that camera. I still do.
For Christmas in 2008, I joined the D-SLR club with my D80. Minolta was gone, having lost out on the digital photography market and being swallowed up by Sony. With Canon and Nikon as the top D-SLR manufacturers, it took me many months of reading reviews, comparing specs, and price hunting before I finally went with Nikon. I came so close to going with Canon.
And now, as we finish 2014, I am finding that digital photography, while it has many advantages over 35mm photography, there is one major setback. In the digital age, nothing lasts forever. My camera has had its motherboard replaced, its card reader replaced, and now its sensor seems to be wearing. Night shots produce lots of digital noise. In 2015, I will be looking at replacing my camera, upgrading to a better model.
Or perhaps I'll return to the simpler days, to my X-700, or even further back, looking to borrow my father's SR T-101.
The days of the Kodak Instamatic are long gone, thank goodness, but 35mm lives on.
Thanks to Scott Oakley for giving me the idea for this blog post.