Little Skills

In the darkroom era you could purchase dodging kits made of wire and precut cardboard shapes, but I made my own by epoxying a quarter to the end of a piece of wire coat hanger, and a dime to the other end. A facsimile of the dodging tool is still available today in programs like Adobe Photoshop.
In the darkroom era you could purchase dodging kits made of wire and precut cardboard shapes, but I made my own by epoxying a quarter to the end of a piece of wire coat hanger, and a dime to the other end. A facsimile of the dodging tool is still available today in programs like Adobe Photoshop.

When I was first coming up through the ranks of photographers in the early 1980s, the technology of imaging was quite different than it is today. For example, the dominant professional camera of the time was the Nikon F3, a machine that was very much like a photographic sports car. I didn’t have an F3 in the 1980s, largely because it was out of my price range, particularly in college. (Eventually I got a used one in 1998.) But I did watch a lot of professional photographers use them. Since I was a student at Oklahoma University during the 1985 football season, during which OU won a national championship, I saw photographers from from The Dallas Morning News, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, and even Sports Illustrated, and watched with awe and fascination as they handled cameras like the F3.

Digging through Dorothy Milligan's house the other day (in advance of having a big garage sale for her), I found this roll of Kodak T-Max 400 film I hand loaded for her about 15 years ago for her to use to illustrate her "Byng News" column. That was long before I became her de facto son-in-law.
Digging through Dorothy Milligan’s house the other day (in advance of having a big garage sale for her), I found this roll of Kodak T-Max 400 film I hand loaded for her about 15 years ago for her to use to illustrate her “Byng News” column. That was long before I became her de facto son-in-law.

As I grew into a career as a professional photographer, I honed all kinds of little skills, such as being able to…

  • Load a roll of film into my camera in about eight seconds.
  • Load a camera in the dark.
  • Load a camera in the rain and keep the rain out of the camera’s interior.
  • Guess exposure to within about one f-stop.
  • Shoot while walking backwards.
  • Load film onto a stainless steel reel.
  • Process a roll of black-and-white film in just ten minutes.
  • “Push process” ordinary Kodak Tri-X film to stratospheric ISO values.
  • Dodge and burn my prints, and print quickly.
  • Hand roll 36-exposure film cassettes in about ten seconds.
  • And the big one: manually focus.

Okay, in today’s autofocus-saturated world, the last skill is particularly hard for younger photographers to appreciate. The truth is that for the first 20 years of my career, I neither had autofocus, nor did I need it. And to this day, I have a couple of extraordinary manual focus lenses (a 400mm f/3.5, and a 200mm f/2.0) that I can manually focus swiftly and precisely. Realistically, I could never afford to replace them with modern autofocus versions (about $8000 and $5000 respectively), nor would I really have any need to replace them. But I have them, and bring them out once in a while to keep my game and my eye fresh.

Many of my little skills became obsolete in the digital era, but some translated well. This evolutionary process has been a happy journey of learning for me, and I am excited to see what’s next.

Yes, walking backwards while shooting is an acquired skill. It takes more common sense than hand/eye coordination, in the form of actually looking behind you once in a while. (Photo by Robert Stinson)
Yes, walking backwards while shooting is an acquired skill. It takes more common sense than hand/eye coordination, in the form of actually looking behind you once in a while. (Photo by Robert Stinson)
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1 Comment

  1. “It takes more common sense than hand/eye coordination, in the form of actually looking behind you once in a while”

    Common sense: another little skill that’s becoming obsolete in the digital era.

    While shooting a baseball game, someone approached me and asked: “How do you get shots without the sun in the background? Everyone’s faces are shadowed in my shots.”

    Afraid I they would feel insulted, I still answered: “Move to the other side of the field, so the sun is behind you.”

    “Oh, good idea!” they responded, truly impressed by my photographic skill.

    **

    I’ll admit I never truly mastered the walking backward thing, but I did learn to sidestep quickly at the last second to avoid being smashed by husky fast-moving youths in full football pads.

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