Changing Gear is a new series here on EMULSIVE where photographers are invited to talk about equipment or events that have changed the way they approach the world through their lens. You can find details on how to submit your own story at the end of this article but for now, here’s Ted Smith to kick off the series.
Over to you, Ted.
In 2011 I was photographing a charity non-profit event with one of my Nikon F5s and all my lenses. By an unfortunate twist of fate, an opportunistic thief entered the hotel and walked off with my camera gear while I wasn’t looking.
My F5, 60mm Macro lens, 20mm wide prime, 50mm prime, and 80-200mm f/2.8 telephoto were all stolen. I was distraught.
Allow me to rewind a bit.
I started with 35mm cameras when I was about 12 year old. I used an Olympus OM10 as my only camera for about 15 years until 2003 when I got a Nikon F65, then an F80 soon after, and then an F5 about a year after that. I had never had an abundance of camera equipment. When I got the Nikon F5 and decided to get a second body because (circa 2009) of some mild ambitions of perhaps becoming a wedding or some kind of pro photographer.
Back to my unfortunate experience.
I got the 80-200mm for a bargain in 2007 for just £200 and I have never been able to find an affordable replacement for it since. These days, they fetch £500+. Fortunately, CCTV captured the thief walking out of the venue and his fingerprints were obtained from something he conveniently left on a table and he was eventually caught and sent to prison. I didn’t get my gear back though.
I was now left with only my OM10, and my other F5 body with no lenses. I figured that given this barebones situation, this was an opportunity to start a fresh and maybe take that plunge into medium format.
I had always dreamed of owning a Hasselblad ever since I read about them as a youngster but I could never afford one, even once I started working for a living. I was a bit cowardly about using one anyway, with none of the electronic items of 35mm cameras like auto-focus, metering, auto-wind etc. Prices of Hasselblad film cameras were more affordable than 10 or 15 years ago when I last looked at the possibility. So after several weeks of deliberation, I eventually took the plunge and purchased a Hasselblad 501CM with Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8 CF lens for £2,200 (this was in 2011).
I nervously waited for its arrival, and when it did I was amazed by the spectacle of it and treated it like a delicate egg for a while. I eventually started to shoot with it, and suffice to say my start was not smooth. I suffered from out of focus problems, I found it hard to use in rapid response situations like photographing my kids or dogs and I found film loading to be a fiddle.
Adjusting to 12 frames per roll also took some getting used to. I couldn’t use it for the kind of macro photography that I had become used to either that I previously did with my Nikon 60mm prime Macro. So after about a year, I began to feel despondent and that I had made a poor choice. I was wasting money on film that hardly ever came out right, and the Hasselblad was so different from what I had been used to, I seriously considered selling it.
I thought to myself, “these cameras are some of the best in the world, used by professionals the world over. The problem must be me, not the camera”. So I kept using it as often as I could and read up on better techniques and YouTube videos of course.
I bought a 45-degree prism to help with focus eventually, I bought a great little light meter, and I learned the trick of zone focusing and pre-visualisation. I learned the Sunny 16 rule off-by-heart to avoid the need for constant light meter use with my Sekonic. I got better at loading film at pace, and I bought a second A12 back to allow for time-pressured situations.
Gradually I improved and my picture “hit rate” improved. And when they were good, the pictures were AMAZING. So much better than my 35mm shots and the square format was awesome. The 80m Carl Zeiss lens makes such nice images; I have never been able to describe it really but they just seem to give a picture depth – you can almost reach out and touch the subject when you look at a picture taken with them.
I started to invest a little more. Whenever I had some spare money, I would try and buy a little something to expand my options. I bought a Makro Planar CF 120mm f/4 lens first, and then the Sonnar CF 150mm f/4 lens about a year after that. Both of these lenses enabled me greater photographic diversity. Though I left it at that; three lenses were all I needed and still all I need, and they remain all I have for the Hasselblad; the 80mm, the 120mm, and the 150mm.
Another couple of years later (in 2016) I used it to shoot a friends wedding, and then I did so again in the summer of 2018 (the results of it are published on this website. in fact). Both shoots came out great with wonderful pictures for the bride and groom.
By the summer of 2018, I was starting to feel like a “Hasselblad Boss”!
I started to use it more frequently when I had to travel with work, gradually creating a series of London shots taken at night that I called “The London Series”, of which one such photo very recently won one of the two Grand Prize Winner slots of the Kodak Alaris and Analogue Wonderland “Low Light Magic” competition. Neither that nor the wonderful images I have captured of family and friends these past few years would have been done if it were not for that thief walking off with my camera gear back in 2011.
By a strange twist of fate, I now partly thank him for it.
It cost me financially but I benefited from it photographically. I’m a better photographer in all sorts of ways as a result of having to learn new ways of working and working with less equipment – I no longer struggle with lens choice or camera choice, because I have little choices. I just pick one of the few lenses I own for the situation, usually use my Hasselblad and adapt accordingly to the scene. My Hasselblad is my King. I even got it serviced about 3 years ago to ensure it stays working well for years to come.
I have since had my remaining Nikon F5 serviced too and began to rebuild the lens stock a little for that but now I go for the classic manual lenses instead of the modern auto-lenses. I bought a standard 50mm f/1.8 AF-D (a modern lens), the 105mm f/2.5 AI prime and the 135mm f/2.8 (converted to AI) prime for it. This setup serves as my backup when I need it, or just when I want to fire some quick action work or shoot 35mm Kodak EKTACHROME E100 or similar, albeit using manual focus, which I have now pretty much conquered too, thanks to having to do so with the Hasselblad.
I am not really someone who suffers from GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome). In fact, I’ve never really understood why people want X camera and just keep on buying more. Each to their own of course, but if you have a decent 35mm camera, a decent 120 camera, and a handful of quality lenses, I just do not feel the need to get more cameras or more lenses. I have everything I need for pretty much any photographic event and any film stock (bar sheet film) …excusing maybe a photo opportunity of some wildlife half a mile away. I’d much rather buy film – fresh, quality film from Kodak, Fujifilm, or ILFORD.
So to close out, in photography, just as in life, sometimes things can happen to us that appear to be bad and disappointing, but often they just divert us onto a new path of discovery. It did with me.
I wouldn’t be the photographer I am today if it were not for that unfortunate event in 2011.
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If you would like to share your own Changing Gear story, please get in touch. You can talk about a camera, a lens, a situation or change in circumstances, it's entirely up to you.