Shooting from the past

Last year after my sister Natalie died, I discovered what I believe was one of my father's old (1970s) cameras – hidden away in his old writing desk which had been at my sister's place since he died in 2007.

Dad was an avid photographer but curiously never ever encouraged me to try it or imparted any advice when I did get into it later in life. So there was something really poignant about this find and I decided to shoot a roll of black & white film to see if it still worked.

Photographers always say there's something intangibly special and authentic about film photography, especially with the imperfections of vintage lenses. I haven't really shot film since 2003, and I do enjoy the precision of my DLSR, but I had to see if this old camera would be a pain or a joy. 

It turned out to be both.

Supposedly the Canonet has an auto mode, but I'll be damned if I can fathom how it's supposed to work, even with an old manual off the internet to help. The focusing is rudimental and quite hit-and-miss depending on the subject. The grubby and blurry viewfinder shows an exposure meter with a needle that waves around seemingly at random (when it's visible at all).

In the end I gave up on that and downloaded a light meter app for my phone, which makes for a two-step process, but is a lot less bewildering. It's certainly not a camera for situations needing a quick reaction.

But after getting my first roll of film developed this week, I've been pleased to feel that it was worth it, and worth continuing. There's only 7 shots of the 24 that are decent, but those show a lovely result. I used to shoot black and white film with my old Pentax MZ50 SLR (until it went for a swim in Wanganui river in 2003, forcing in the digital era for me) but those never had the sort of feel that these Canonet shots do. All these shots are straight from the camera too, no Photoshop involved.

The most obvious specific difference between this and digital photography is when shooting for a shallow depth of field – DSLRs have a noticeable 'band' of sharpness, but with the Canonet a shallow depth of field feels incredibly gradual and organic – compare these two shots…(click them to expand)

So there's film grain, natural vignetting and things like that which add to the character of the photographs,  but beyond all those tangible, specific qualities, that "special something" is really apparent.

At NZ$50 just to develop and scan b&w film, this won't be something I shoot with every day, that's for sure, but there's definitely an active life in store again for my dad's camera, decades after he last used it.