Back in the Film Era, taking pictures was expensive.
You’d buy a roll of 24 or 36 exposures, and if you loaded the film really carefully, you might squeeze an extra one or two shots out of each roll.
Then you shot the photos, put the film in a little plastic canister, and sent it out for developing (unless you had a darkroom). Then you waited 1-3 weeks to see how you did.
It was pretty exciting, actually. You’d open the envelope and hope for magic. If you screwed up, you could ruin the whole roll. The lessons were often learned the hard way.
I shot 100 days and dozens of rolls of film in a dozen countries while circumnavigating the globe in college on Semester at Sea. But I couldn’t develop any of them until I returned home. If the camera had been defective, the entire semester’s memories would be lost. I had to wait months to see what was locked inside the little black cans.
But it taught you to be judicious. When every photo is costly, you make each one count. You expected to get 20 good shots out of a roll of 24, because less than that was a waste. You learned patience behind the lens. You looked through that viewfinder and you waited until you saw the precise shot you wanted, then you snapped it urgently, before the moment was gone.
Today, photos are cheap. They’re practically free. They’re digital. Go ahead, shoot 100 pics and hope for a good one or two. Click and delete the rest. Download a Fast Cam app on your iPhone and it’ll shoot ten shots per second, so you can capture absolutely everything until you later hunt around for a good one. It’s so much easier. But it’s also different.
Is it better? Maybe. In some ways.
But the old way was more exciting.
I used to be a purist.
I loved my old Nikon FE. It was a heavy, durable, almost-professional grade camera that I’d gotten as a going-away present when I left in college for Semester at Sea. I was going to Japan, China, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Egypt, Greece, Spain, and other countries. I enjoyed photography generally, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
So I got a heavy duty, durable camera. And I was loyal to that camera for decades. I shot everything Manual. Everything had to be painstakingly adjusted. Film speed/ASA, F stop, aperture, shutter speed, all considering the lighting conditions and the desired mood.
It lasted from 1980 and thousands of photos until 1990 when my first son was born.
Kids move fast!
By the time I got the camera setting adjusted, he wasn’t being cute any more. Frankly, he wasn’t even in the same room.
In 1990, my wife got me a Canon Rebel for my birthday. I initially resisted. Digital? Digital was for amateurs. Automatic settings? For backyard beginners who bought their camera because Andre Agassi was advertising it on TV.
But I had to admit, the pictures came out great. More importantly, you got the shot you wanted, because the camera did all the work. And you can’t argue with results.
Hey, live and learn.
In 1977, I took a photography class at HPHS.
Highland Park High School was known for its arts programs, from theater and music to audio visuals. There was even a full working television studio.
I needed an extra credit senior year and I’d already taken all the drawing classes. I knew I didn’t possess any particular skill in other areas of art, so I signed up for Photography 101.
We learned composition, lighting, lenses, and angles. We took field trips to Chicago to shoot the City. We made stop-action clay-animation movies. Mr. Amberg was a wonderful teacher, and photography seemed to make sense to me.
Mr. Amberg said I had “a good eye.”
It was funny – my father was a terrific artist in every other medium. An industrial design major, he could draw, paint, sculpt, and work with wood. He had a natural eye; his favorite saying was “See what you’re looking at.” In other words, don’t draw what you think something looks like. Avoid your preconceptions and draw what it actually looks like. I never really could.
But boy he took terrible photos. We have hundreds of photos of our childhood, and nearly all of them are awful. I never understood how a skilled artist couldn’t seem to translate that same basic skill in some way to photography. He can compose a balanced, nuanced drawing or painting, but not a shot through a little camera window. Regardless, it was something that I could do. And I learned that I really enjoyed it too.
Who’d have predicted that the high school class I’d end up using most often for the next 30 years was the photography class I signed up for one semester when I was simply one credit short?
Thanks, Mr. Amberg.